Disclaimer: "XENA: Warrior Princess" and all characters are owned and copyrighted by Pacific Renaissance Pictures, Studios USA, and/or Universal Studios. The following story is strictly nonprofit fan-fiction, and absolutely no copyright infringement is intended.

Disclaimer #2: The following story contains adult language.

 

Major Gina Ryan, USMC, and Lieutenant Commander Gabriella Duncan, MD, USN--the 21st century reincarnations of the Warrior Princess and the Battling Bard--have been called back into service to destroy a biological weapons factory run by Middle Eastern terrorists, and are forced to deal with one of the results of their actions.

 

"The New Adventures of XENA: Warrior Princess"

"What Friends Are For"

By Ernie Whiting

"Okay," Dr. Gabriella Duncan told the mother of her eight-year-old patient as she finished writing up the file, "you’re good to go. I’ll want to see her again in about ten days to check that wound, and probably remove those stitches. Just change the dressing when necessary, keep the wound clean, and make sure she takes the antibiotics." Dressed professionally in dark slacks, a blue blouse and a white doctor’s coat, and with her long, golden hair tied into a single thick braid, she quickly wrote up a prescription for some broad-spectrum antibiotics, then took off her gold-rimmed reading glasses, folded them carefully, and slipped them into a brown case in her breast pocket. Then she went down on one knee to address her patient directly. "And as for you, slugger," she said with an easy smile and a breezy drawl, "the next time y’all go thinkin’ about slidin’ into home plate, do me a favor and look out for broken glass, okay?"

"Okay," the little brunette replied with a grin of her own. "At least I scored the winning run, though."

The former Navy doctor’s eyes widened in surprise. "You did?" she asked, clearly impressed. "Hoo-ya! Gimme five!" Grinning in delight, the two of them shared a hearty slapping of palms. And not one of those weak and lifeless, politically correct "high-five" bumping of palms, either; this was a lively and spirited double smack, as practiced in the old days, that had some guts behind it.

"Doctor?" the young girl asked.

"Yes?"

"Is ice cream good for infections?"

Dr. Duncan couldn’t help grinning. "Well..." She paused thoughtfully, just for effect. "Not really," she finally admitted, "but y’know what? Antibiotics really shouldn’t be taken on an empty stomach, so..." Here, she leaned toward her patient slightly, and conferred with her conspiratorially, "if you look really, really sad, maybe you could talk your mom into letting you pack ‘em down with some ice cream instead of with broccoli." And then, looking very sad indeed, they both looked up at the girl’s mother, who was looking down at them and chuckling softly.

With a grin, Duncan straightened and peeled off the script, and handed it to the mother. "Don’t forget," she told the adult. "Ten days."

"Thank you, Doctor," the young mother replied, still grinning. She took her daughter’s hand and looked down at her. After what the little girl had been through, what with the shots and stitches and all, she thought the girl’s bravery deserved a reward. "Ready for that ice cream?"

"Sure!"

She watched them leave, and smiled. Gods, how she loved being a doctor. She handed the record to a middle-aged black nurse for processing, and quickly stifled a sneeze.

"Allergies kickin’ up again, Brie?" she asked with an accent that attested to her roots in Montgomery, Alabama.

The doctor fixed her with a mildly warning look.

"Sorry," Lauren Matthews, LVN, said quickly with a slow smile. "I mean, Gabriella." She held out a bunch of long-stemmed roses. "Maybe it’s on account of these; they came in for you a little while ago."

The young doctor smiled in surprise as she accepted the flowers. "Really?" she asked as her pulse quickened slightly. She inhaled their scent deeply into her lungs, and then read the accompanying card, which confirmed her assumption. I’m home. Can’t wait to see you. Love...

Her smile expanded into a sweet and dazzling grin. "Hoo-ya!" she said softly.

Lauren glanced over her shoulder at the card and noticed the signature. "Who’s ‘X?’" she asked, sounding like a very suspicious and concerned mother. The doctor may have been in her late twenties, but Lauren still thought of her as a surrogate daughter who needed to be looked after.

"Secret admirer," Gabriella replied as she closed her eyes and savored the scent of the flowers again.

Lauren arched an eyebrow. "Oh, yeah? Does Gina know about this ‘secret admirer?’"

"Of course," Brie replied truthfully. "That’s what makes life so interesting."

"‘Interestin’,’ huh?" Lauren said, watching her disapprovingly. "I guess that’s one way of describin’ it."

Lauren Matthews had met Gina Ryan when Brie had first started working here, and it had been an eye-opening experience. Ryan was supposed to have met Duncan in the lobby when she came to pick her up after work; instead, she had come in an hour early through the emergency room entrance. Bursting from the rear doors of an ambulance and illuminated by its strobing blue and red lights, she had been shouting orders like a military commander while accompanying a stretcher-bound woman and holding an IV fluid bag in one blood-streaked hand as a second stretcher was being lowered to the ground and wheeled up to the ER doors. "Patient number one is a forty-eight-year-old woman, the victim of a mugging. She’s got a deep, penetrating knife wound to her lower right belly," she had informed Lauren that night. "Patient number two can wait; this woman is more important."

"Jesus Christ," one of the ER techs had said when he had gone to take a look at the second patient. "Good Lord, he looks like he’s been run over by a tank. What the hell happened to him?"

Gina regarded him with a cool look. "I did," she had told him. "He’s the mugger."

Having heard that her partner had come in through the ER entrance, a terrified Gabriella Duncan had burst in to find Ryan streaked and stained with blood. She’d rushed to her side. "Oh God, Gina," Lauren had overheard her saying with a quavering and terrified voice. "Oh God, oh my God..."

"I’m okay, Brie," she replied, her voice soft and reassuring. "I’m okay. I’m fine. It’s not my blood." She indicated the mugger with a slight movement of her head.

"Christ," the young blonde had finally said, in both relief and admonition, as she fiercely hugged her. She hadn’t cared that blood was being smeared on her white coat and her scrubs. Taking advantage of their present closeness, they had been able to keep their voices carefully muted, yet Lauren had been able to hear them nonetheless. "This isn’t ancient Greece, you know; you can’t go running around acting like these were the old days."

"Hey, you know what I think of muggers," Ryan had said with a tiny smile.

"Yes, I know, but they have laws now--laws that protect criminals."

"So I’ve heard," Ryan had said as her smile slipped into a scornful look of contempt. "So much for the advantages of life in the twenty-first century, huh? Can you imagine how Draco would take advantage of today’s legal system?" She shook her head slightly, and snorted mildly in disgust. "Give me the old days any time."

Duncan had growled, and then sighed, in exasperation. And then she had slowly smiled, because--and unknown to Lauren--deep down inside she had agreed with her. "Come on, let’s get you cleaned up," she had said at last, with a deep and calming breath. "You want to look nice and pretty for your interview with the police, don’t you?"

The dark-haired woman had grinned at her sardonically. "Yeah, right..."

When the police had come, two uniformed officers had spoken for only a few moments with Ryan. The three of them had gone off to a glass-walled office some short distance away, where they couldn’t be overheard, but Lauren had observed them carefully; there had been something about the Ryan woman that was just so captivating that it wouldn’t let her go. At first, the police had been very much in charge of the interrogation; one had stood with his arms folded across his chest while the other had hitched his thumbs in his gun belt, and they both wore skeptical expressions. Ryan, on the other hand, sat calmly on the edge of a desk with her own arms folded and her legs stretched before her, her feet crossed, as she had recounted her version of what had happened. Lauren had been convinced that they had been about to arrest the tall and striking brunette for damn near killing the suspected mugger. Then Ryan had showed them her identification, and one of the officers reached for his radio’s microphone clipped at his shoulder, and spoke with someone at headquarters to verify it. A few minutes later, and after a little more conversation, the same officer had tilted the mike/speaker toward his hear, listened intently to someone’s response, and then--very quickly--returned Ryan’s ID to her, and with a polite and silent nod they had left. Lauren had absolutely no idea of who Gina Ryan was--other than being Gabriella Duncan’s partner, of course--but she had concluded that she was not someone you wanted to mess with.

Now, as she moved off to put the file away and to leave Brie alone with the roses from her "secret admirer," Lauren added under her breath, "I hope your life insurance is paid up."

She smiled at the flowers and read the card again. "Can’t wait to see you, either," she said softly. Then she checked her black sports watch; three more hours until her shift was over. She sighed heavily. It had been two weeks; she figured she could wait another three hours. But they were going to be a long three hours...

With a slight bounce in her step that hadn’t been there all day, she headed off to her office to put the roses in some water.

************

The more time they spent together, the more they remembered of their lives in ancient Greece. But in this new life, the two soul mates had both picked up a few new idiosyncracies. They were two old friends who had been apart for far too long; but now they were together again, and they were filled with new surprises as they got to know one another once more. So it was with some considerable wonder when Brie approached the front door of their San Francisco condominium and smelled something incredibly delicious wafting from it. Her stomach rumbled with both hunger and anticipation as she unlocked the door with a jingling of keys, and stepped inside.

The entire condo was filled with the aroma of bell peppers, garlic and herbs, Italian sausage and rich tomato sauce, and the sounds of Van Morrison’s "Moondance" cd. Expensive chinaware and glittering silverware were already laid out with blue linen napkins on the oaken dining table that was surrounded by four low-backed oaken chairs and standing in front of one of two wide picture windows that provided them with a wide-screen view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Two tall, slim tapers burned in small crystal candle holders, their flames nearly immobile. "Gina!" she called out merrily as she slipped out of her black sport coat and tossed it onto the sofa.

"Kitchen!" came the equally merry reply.

She approached the counter that separated the kitchen from the living room to find Gina Ryan, dressed in faded blue jeans and a loose-fitting black sweatshirt with the sleeves pulled up past her elbows, stirring a large, blue enameled pot of home-made spaghetti sauce. A matching one stood on a flaming burner next to it, from which clouds of steam were rising. A pound of linguini was boiling vigorously, and two glasses of rich red wine stood nearby. With her hair tied back and rich, brown/black bangs sweeping across her forehead, and with her ice-blue eyes sparkling under the fluorescent lights, she grinned a beautiful, breathtaking grin.

"Wow," Brie said with a surprised grin of her own. "She cooks, too." And then, half a heartbeat later, she saw it coming. Or rather, heard it coming. With a wry smile, she said, "Don’t say it--" But she was too late.

Still grinning that old, familiar grin that the young blonde knew and loved so well, the statuesque brunette said, "I have many skills."

They met half-way, at the end of the counter and laughing softly, and shared a tight, warm embrace. With a soft moan, they held each other for a long moment, with the side of the bard’s face against the warrior’s chest as she listened to her heartbeat, and the warrior’s head gently leaning against the bard’s as she savored the moment. Every embrace they shared felt like a homecoming.

"Thank you for the flowers," Gabrielle finally said, her voice soft.

"You’re welcome," Xena whispered back. She kissed her soft, warm lips before handing the young blonde one of the two wine glasses. As the doctor leaned against the counter with one hip, they gently clinked their glasses together in a silent toast to each other, and sipped.

"So how was Italy?"

"Italy was fantastic," Gina replied. "I finished up as Sam Raimi’s military consultant. He’s finally wrapped up filming in Florence, I wired the check stateside, and then I took a quick side-trip to Greece. And," she added with a conspiratorial glint in her eyes as she raised her wine glass to her lips, "I brought Ares back with me."

She nearly choked on her wine. "Ares?? " the Texan spluttered, her light and breezy drawl taking on the ominous tones of an oncoming tornado. "What the hell does that butt-scratchin’ sonofab--"

Gods, how Ryan loved that accent. "Easy there, sailor," she said, cutting her off with a wry grin, as she put her glass down and returned her attention to the stove. "I’m not talking about that Ares."

She raised one eyebrow in astonishment, and then the other. Lowering her voice, as though she thought someone might be listening in on their conversation, she said, "You flew back in Ares?"

The subject in question was a sleek, black, top-secret hybrid of the US Army’s UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter, the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter (nicknamed the "Tank Killer" because it did it so well), and the US Air Force’s F-117 Stealth jet fighter. Modified from the original designs and merged into a single, streamlined fighting machine, this piece of military ordnance was armor plated, capable of mach speed (once the main rotor was disengaged and the additional jet turbine afterburners were ignited), equipped with state-of-the-art scanners and stealth technology, and armed with over a dozen different forms of firepower that ranged from eight fifty-caliber machine guns to nuclear-tipped Shrike missiles. ("Agile, mobile, and openly hostile," was how Gina described it, with a dark and dangerous grin.)

Gabriella wondered where one could hide such a conspicuous piece of military hardware in the middle of San Francisco. "I didn’t see it in the parking garage," she said.

Gina smiled at her partner’s subtle and dry sense of humor. "I was going to hide it back home in Wyoming, inside a cave in the Rockies," she replied. "Instead, I found an even better--and closer--hiding place in the Sierra Nevada mountains. And since ol’ Joxer--I mean, Jack Sawyer--is still working the sensitive ops unit with the CIA, we can equip it with whatever we want, whenever we want--and with no questions asked."

"Wow." She sipped at her wine. "I wish I could have gone with you to Europe; I’d like to see Greece again."

"Next time you will," Gina told her, forthrightly and smiling with her eyes. "No excuses."

She knew better than to argue with her. Besides, she was due for a short vacation anyway.

"Oh, and guess what else?"

Brie smiled a tired little smile as she swirled her wine around inside its glass. "It’s been a long day, Xena. Don’t make me strain my brain."

Ryan grinned. "Jack’s informed me that our little hiccup in Iraq was officially condemned by the Pentagon and the Defense Department."

"No surprise there," Brie muttered, her voice hollow as she raised her glass to her lips.

"More quietly, we got rewarded with silver oak-leaf clusters."

Brie’s eyes widened in surprise as she suddenly lowered her glass. "Are you kiddin’ me?" she asked with a growing smile. "We got promoted?"

Her grin widened as she raised her wine glass in a toast. "Here’s to you, Commander Duncan."

Brie grinned as she raised her own glass once more. "Back at ya, Lieutenant Colonel Ryan." They gently clinked their glasses together and sipped.

She glanced around the small kitchen. "Is there anything I can do?"

"Yeah," Gina replied. "You can go have a shower and get comfortable. I think your day’s been a little busier than mine."

She shrugged thoughtfully. "I stitched up a kid’s leg, saw a bunch of flu cases..." She took another sip of wine, then studied the glass for a moment as she swirled her wine around in it. "I love being a doctor, I really do," she told her partner. "But I have to admit, some of my patients haven’t got the brains or the manners that Zeus gave a dung beetle. I get coughed on, sneezed on... yucchh." She shuddered, drained the glass in a single gulp, then headed off for the shower.

By the time she returned--barefooted, her shoulder-length hair loose and damp, and dressed in gray flannel lounge pants and a midnight-blue t-shirt with "US Navy" emblazoned across the front in gold lettering--Sade had replaced Van Morrison on the cd player, and dinner had been laid out. Salad with Italian dressing, plenty of garlic bread, steaming linguini and rich, red tomato sauce, freshly grated Parmesan cheese and another bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, all topped off with pineapple sorbet, had all gradually disappeared as they talked about work and play, laughed, and relished in being together again after two weeks of separation. At one point, Gina had leaned forward to wipe a bit of tomato sauce from one corner of Gabriella’s mouth with her thumb and sucked it clean; Brie had quickly snatched that hand from its owner, with their palms together, to give it a quick kiss before releasing it.

It was so great to be together again.

"Are you sure I can’t do anything to help?" she asked later as Gina began clearing the table.

"Yeah. You can march yourself over to that sofa, plunk yourself down, and relax. Here," she added, handing her the remains of their dinner wine and a fresh pair of glasses. "Take these with you."

"You really are beginning to spoil me, y’know."

Gina grinned at her. "You’re very easy to spoil. Switch on the news, and let’s see if there’s anything worthwhile going on." She went off to rinse the plates before putting them in the dishwasher.

With remote in hand, Brie switched off the stereo and switched on the tv set, and searched for the channel seven news. A strikingly attractive Asian woman was reading a story about what seemed to be an outbreak of influenza in the San Francisco Bay area, and reminded everyone that they needed to get their flu shots, since this looked like it was starting off to be a bad flu year.

Then there was an outside shot of the clinic where Brie worked, and the word "flu" was displayed in big, bold, golden letters. The doctor picked up the remote and turned up the volume. "Damn," she softly said. "Fifty cases throughout the city." She quickly rose and started for the phone. "I’m calling the clinic."

"Gabrielle..." She sighed heavily. She knew how dedicated the young blonde was to her profession, but still... "You’ve already put in a full day. C’mon back here."

"In a sec." She dialed the phone, and got put on hold before she had a chance to identify herself. "Lauren Matthews, please," she said when someone finally answered her. "This is Doctor Duncan calling. Yeah, I’ll hold... Yeah, Lauren? How’re things going down there? I just heard on the news that... Yeah... You’re sure?... Okay. But if you get swamped, gimme a call, okay? Okay." She hung up.

Gina regarded her with a raised and questioning eyebrow. "Well?"

"They’re okay for now, but if things get hot they’ll give me a call." She came back to the sofa and flopped down on it.

"Good. In that case, you want to watch ‘Casablanca?’"

"Uhh...not so much. I feel more like an action/adventure movie."

"‘Jurassic Park?’ ‘Thunderheart?’‘Die Hard Sixteen?’ ‘Lethal Weapon Twenty-Seven?’"

"They only made twenty-six ‘Lethal Weapons.’ Poor Mel," she added softly, "he’s gettin’ so old..." She gazed thoughtfully at the wooden rack that contained their small collection of DVDs. "How about... ‘Volcano,’ with Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche?"

Gina regarded her in disbelief. "What, again?"

"Hey," the doctor replied with a smile. "I like to watch L.A. get buried under ten feet of lava."

One corner of her mouth curled upward into that wry grin again. "Where’d you pick up such a mean streak?" she asked as she got up and plugged the movie in. "Whatever happened to that sweet little girl from Poteidaia?"

"She’s still here," she replied as she tapped her chest. When Gina returned to the sofa, the blonde added, "As a matter of fact..." Curling her legs behind her, she leaned comfortably against Ryan to cup one hand around the Marine’s ear before whispering something into it.

The statuesque brunette listened closely, then slowly grinned as she looked at her. "Yeah, that’s my bard, all right," she said. "C’mere, you." Stretching her legs out and crossing them, and resting her feet on the coffee table, she slipped an arm around Brie’s neck to pull her close before kissing her forehead. Comfortably snuggled together, they finally relaxed and watched the movie.

************

The phone rang at 2:17 AM. Bleary-eyed and groping with one hand, having just been pulled out of a dream about burning villages, Japanese soul-eaters, sacred katanas and Akemi, a half-conscious Gina caught it in the middle of the third ring. "Huhhh..."

On the other end of the line, Jack Sawyer’s voice spoke only one word: "Chakram."

The use of their emergency code-word shocked her into full wakefulness. It also let Gina know that the line was secure, so there was no possibility that anyone else could be listening in.

She sat up on the edge of their bed. "What’s going on, Jack?"

"Something in Turakistan," Sawyer replied. "Something big. GPS reconnaissance satellites and radio interceptions have been picking up some heavy movements in and around the city of Kaffir."

"What kind of movements?"

"A lot of heavy equipment for such a relatively small city. Trucks, missile defense systems, shit like that. And according to intelligence reports from a SEAL team we sent in, there’s also a meeting of their experts from their nuclear and biological warfare fields; it sounds like they’re having a goddamned convention there."

Lying next to her, Gabriella sighed heavily and awoke. She rose up on one elbow and brushed blonde hair back behind her ears. "What’s the matter?" she asked softly, squinting sleepily at her. "Who is it?"

"It’s Jack."

"Aw, shit..." She fell back, turned onto her side and away from her partner, and pulled her pillow over her head.

"We’ve got more reports coming in, even as we speak," Sawyer said. "Those SEALs are sending us everything they can, and I’m relaying and downloading everything we’re getting into Ares’s computers, so you’ll be up-to-speed by the time you get there. And whatever is happening, it’s happening fast."

"Why are you bothering me with this?"

"Because their ride out has been sunk," Sawyer replied. "They were delivered by an unmarked sub; that sub was later detected and destroyed. Their capitol, Bakkar, is claiming that it’s an American sub, and rightly so; but they can’t prove it. They know nothing about the SEALs. We can’t send in any military transport without blowing our cover, so that means Ares is the only way of getting in there--fast and undetected--without any American connection. Since no one in the international community knows about it, it can give us plausible deniability when it comes to questions about our involvement."

"You’re saying that without Ares, those men are going to be left behind?"

His silence would neither confirm nor deny her suspicions.

She snorted contemptuously. "Politics..."

"We really need you on this, Gina. The National Security Agency put in the request for Ares; and you know how much the NSA hates to bring in anyone from outside, so they must be scared."

Yeah, they’re scared all right, she thought. So let’s make ‘em squirm a little more if they want my help. "It’s their fuckin’ mess; let them clean it up."

"Goddamn it, Gina!" he snapped. He sighed heavily, angrily. "I was hoping I wouldn’t have to play this card..."

She waited for him to continue. "What card?" she finally asked.

"The leader of the SEAL team...his name’s Robert Clay."

She was stunned into silence. She slowly sat up, and her grip tightened on the phone. "Bobby Clay?"

"Yeah."

Oh, shit, she thought. Aw, God, no. Not Bobby... She cleared her throat. "Okay," she said, without another moment’s hesitation. "All right. We’ll pick up Ares and head in."

"I’ve already arranged for several mid-air refueling planes to meet you along the way."

"If you’re lying to me, Jack," she said, her voice soft yet threatening. "If you’re lying to me about Bobby just to get me out there..." She let the threat go unfinished.

"It’s no lie, Gina. I’m sorry I had to pull this on you." He hung up.

"Jesus," she whispered to herself as she hung up the phone. "Oh, Jesus."

"What was that all about?" the blonde asked, her muffled voice coming from somewhere under the pillow.

"We got trouble," Xena replied, her voice deadly serious. "A whole shitload of it." She glanced over her shoulder at her partner. "Get your pants on, girl, we gotta go save the world."

Gabrielle pulled the pillow from her face and squinted sleepily at her, clearly annoyed. "What, again?"

************

"So this Bobby Clay’s a friend of yours, huh?" Duncan asked. Ryan had been filling her in on the details of their mission during the ride out.

"Yeah," Gina replied. "The guy saved my life once, when we were stationed as ‘peace keepers’ in Bosnia. We were confiscating weapons from some Albanian nationals when one of them decided he wasn’t going to be disarmed. He pulled a weapon on me. I was wearing my flak jacket and helmet at the time, which would have stopped a pistol round, but the problem was the guy was pointing a Kalashnakov at me. Bullet-proof vests aren’t exactly bullet-proof against an AK-47. He was one quick sonofabitch, too; there was no way in hell I’d’ve had enough time to counter him or get out of the way. I found myself staring down the muzzle of this guy’s weapon, thinkin’ it’s lights out for me, when Bobby blew the guy’s brains out."

She closed her eyes in muted horror, and shook her head slightly. "God," she whispered.

"Yeah. He’s gonna be surprised to see me."

"I imagine he’ll be glad to see you."

"That’s one way of putting it. From what I heard, he gave the eulogy at my memorial service after we were reported KIA."

It was almost 6:00 AM by the time the rented jeep disappeared inside of an old abandoned gold mine deep inside the northern range of the Sierra Nevada mountains. After about a minute straight down the darkened tunnel, its headlights flashed against a huge, sleek and black object that sat motionless in the darkness.

"Damn," Gabriella said, clearly disturbed by the presence of this man-made predator of the skies. "Every time I look at that thing, it gives me a chill."

"Yeah," Gina agreed, struck with a mild sense of longing. "I know the feeling..."

Brie glanced at her. "I get the feeling that we’re not feeling the same feelings here."

The pre-flight check turned up nothing out of the ordinary. They slipped into their black flight suits, climbed inside, and donned their helmets.

The cabin lights came on automatically when they settled into their seats. Different systems came to life as they flicked switches, and a moment later the massive rotor above their heads began to spin and pick up speed. In a few moments it was roaring like an enraged hydra, demanding release from its cage. It rose a couple of feet from the ground and its landing gear retracted into its belly, and it began to slowly glide forward and out through the cave’s entrance into bright sunlight.

"What do you say we kick the tires and light the fires?" Gina said through the communications system that was built into their helmets.

"Hoo-ya," Brie replied as she began thumbing more switches. "Afterburners are on the line and standing by."

"Roger that. Let’s do it."

She grasped the handles in one hand and pushed them forward. "Turbos!"

Gina squeezed the red trigger on the stick, and they were off like a shot. She took Ares into a steep power climb, pulling about six g’s, before finally leveling off at fifty thousand feet as Gabriella equalized the air pressure inside the cabin.

"It’s gonna be a while before we get there," Gina said. "Any ideas on how to pass the time?"

Brie shrugged indifferently. "Twenty questions?"

************

The chattering of automatic weapons fire shattered the night, and bullets tore chips of stone from the boulders where the SEAL team had found shelter on this otherwise deserted stretch of beach.

"Where the hell is that damn sub?" one of the men shouted as an explosive round went off in the water near them, spraying them with wet brine. "Why the hell aren’t they answering?"

"I don’t know! I don’t know!" Bobby Clay replied, trying to be heard over the gunfire. He shouted into the microphone again, trying to reach the submarine that was now shattered and lying on the bottom of the Arabian Sea. "Green Lantern, this is Spiderman! Green Lantern, this is Spiderman! Do you copy? Over!"

Only static and more enemy fire answered him. And as if things weren’t bad enough, the tide was quickly rising. The water was lapping at their ankles right now; it wouldn’t be long before they were in it up to their hips.

Six enemy soldiers came around their right flank, sweeping the way before them with AK-47s. Bobby and two other SEALs returned fire, cutting them down and exhausting the magazines in their weapons. "I need a mag!" Bobby shouted.

"Last one!" Alan Eberhart shouted as he tossed it to him. "Try to make it last!"

"Yeah, right..." Bobby muttered as he slapped it into place and ran the bolt home, chambering the first round.

Four more enemy soldiers came around their left flank. One of them had a fragmentation grenade in his hand, the pin already pulled. Bobby snapped off a single round, hitting him in the head by sheer luck. The soldier went down, and a moment later his grenade went off, taking out two of the three other men who had been with him. Harry Liebengood took out the last man with a short burst from his M-16 that drained his magazine. "Damn," he said, pulling back behind the massive boulder. "There’s still about a hundred men out there. They’ve got jeeps, trucks, half a dozen tanks..."

"Shit," Alan said, "we’re screwed."

Bobby yelled into the mike again. "Green Lantern, this is Spiderman! Where the hell are you? Over!"

"Spiderman, this is Big Mamma," came a sudden and chillingly familiar reply. "Tell your boys to keep their heads down; it’s gonna get real hot around there!"

Big Mamma? he thought. He hadn’t heard that tag since... No, it couldn’t be her. She was dead. That’s what he had been told, and he had even given the eulogy at her memorial service. There could be no mistake about it; she was dead. "Gina?" he shouted into the mike over the gunfire, wanting to believe it was her yet almost afraid to. "Is that you?"

"Hang in there, Bobby!" the reply came. "I’m comin’ to getcha!"

That was when he heard the approach of the helicopter. He looked back over his shoulder, toward the water, and saw the sleek black helicopter coming in over the waves, low and fast and with weapons deployed. Almost immediately, he recognized Ares. But it couldn’t be Ares, because that had been downed over Iraq. So what the hell was going on? Who the hell was that at the stick?

He barely had time to yell to his men, "Hit the deck and cover your ears!"

Alan and Harry, and then the rest of the team, saw the chopper, too. Harry had barely had the time to utter a loud and unbelieving, "Holy shit!!" before Ares opened fire with all eight chain guns. One of the tanks began to turn its turret to face the aerial attacker, and went up in an explosion of flames, smoke and debris when it was struck by a pair of Ares’s sidewinder missiles. Another pair of sidewinders took out a second, and one more sank the truck from whose canvas-covered bed a soldier was preparing to fire a stinger missile.

Bobby raised his head once and cracked his eyes open to see what was happening. There was a lot of stinging, wet sand being blown around by the helicopter’s rotors, but he could definitely see the craft floating just a few feet from the ground and firing with all weapons--chain guns, rockets, cannons and missiles--and unleashing Hell on the enemy.

By the time the weapons fire stopped, there was nothing left on the beach but flaming wreckage and steel confetti. As Ares hovered only a few feet above the sand, with its rotors beating and chopping at the air, nothing moved but smoke and flames.

The SEALs ran for the helicopter. A hatch slid open, admitting them to the cargo bay. It slid shut once more, and then Ares rose gracefully into the air.

Bobby pulled off his helmet. "Gina?" he said at last. "Is that you?"

"Hey, Bobby," she replied. "I see you still haven’t learned how to stay out of trouble."

"Jesus, it is you! I thought you were dead!" He turned to his men. "Guys, I want you to meet an old friend of mine. This is Major Gina--"

"Lieutenant Colonel," she corrected him, "Gina Ryan."

It didn’t take him long to put two and two together. New rank, and flying a piece of military hardware that officially didn’t exist. She’d gone into covert ops.

"Anything you say, colonel," he said with a grin. "I’m just glad you were in the neighborhood."

"Damn straight, anything I say," Gina replied with a grin of her own. "I outrank you now. You about ready to go home?"

"We can’t do that just yet, Gina," he said. "This mission isn’t over yet."

"Great," she growled in mild exasperation. Well, it wasn’t really as if she couldn’t see it coming. "What else have you got to do?"

"They’ve got a bio-weapons lab in Kaffir where they’re turning out hemorrhagic fever virus."

"Jesus!" Gabriella said, staring at him in wide-eyed horror. "Hemorrhagic fever?! Y’all know what that shit can do to the human body? There’s no known treatment for it! Anyone who uses that as a weapon is just plain suicidal! Are they fuckin’ crazy?"

"They must be. They’re prepping to turn it loose in Tel Aviv. And from there, no one knows how far it’s going to spread."

"Oh, my God," the doctor whispered in terror.

Gina sighed heavily. "Fine," she said with grim determination. "Plot me a course, Brie, and bring it up on my computer. Let’s find the fucker and sink it."

"Roger that," Gabriella said, and went to work with the navigation computer.

"It ain’t gonna be that simple, Gina," Bobby said.

She sat in silence for a moment. "Bobby," she growled at last, "you know how much I hate surprises..."

"Oh, shit, Gina. He’s right," Brie said as she checked the statistics of their target. She had keyed the city into her computer, and in almost immediate response it had filled her screen with information. "Kaffir is a civilian center, with a population of about sixty thousand. Stats are comin’ up on your screen now."

Oh, Jesus! she thought as she checked her own screen with a sinking heart. Oh Christ, you’ve got to be kidding me! They were coming up on their target fast. "Okay, so just point out the right building and I’ll--"

"We don’t know which building it is, Gina," Bobby replied. "We couldn’t find out."

Oh God, she thought. There was no way of telling how many millions of people would die if that bug got out; she knew full well what she would have to do. But behind her eyelids, she saw small wooden houses and flickering paper lanterns that danced in the wind and snow, and the forty thousand dead innocents of Higuchi. Oh God, oh God, oh dear God... I can’t do this again, she thought as she felt a single tear trickle down her cheek. Oh God, please, no... I can’t...

With a deep breath, she eased the stick to port, taking Ares away from the city so she would have more room to work in. God forgive me, she thought. "Bring a Shrike on the line," she said quietly.

With a sick feeling in her own heart, Gabriella readied the nuclear tipped missile. "One shrike, on the line," she replied somberly. Her heart ached not only for those who were about to die, but also for Gina; she remembered how the warrior had been through this once before, and she knew what she was going to have to do. It was so goddamned unfair that she would have to go through it again...

Five kilometers out, she brought Ares about one hundred and eighty degrees. She squeezed her eyes shut one more time, and then squeezed the red trigger on the stick. May God take pity on my wretched soul, she thought, unable to bear watching the missile as it took off. She brought Ares around once more, hit the afterburners, and headed for home at mach speed as Higuchi burned again.

************

"Gina?" she asked softly. She leaned forward and gently squeezed her shoulder. "Are you okay?"

"I am retiring from the stage," was all she would say, very quietly. "We’ll drop off our passengers, and then I am retiring from the stage."

Gabriella couldn’t blame her; she’d had enough of war and misery, too. Leaving the military would be the best thing for the both of them.

************

She had been silent all during the jeep ride back to San Francisco. Once there, Gina started for the bedroom.

"Are you okay?" Brie asked as the door slowly swung shut. She stood staring at it, disconcerted. If she wants to talk about it, she thought, she’ll let me know. Maybe what she wanted right now was just a hot, relaxing shower.

She went over to the television set and switched it on to see if the destruction of the bio-weapons plant--and the rest of Kaffir, for that matter--had made the news yet. It had. Accusations had gone flying out of Bakkar, claiming that someone--probably American terrorists--had planted a nuclear device in one of their medical research facilities and set it off. The Americans had replied by stating that this particular "medical" facility had come to the attention of the international community as a recently discovered factory for biological and nuclear weapons, and that apparently through their own incompetence one of their own nukes had gone off. Even the Russians, who normally sided with the Turakistan government, were inclined to believe that the Pentagon was right this time.

"Hey Gina," Brie said. "You’ve got to see this." She turned to look over the sofa, and saw that the door to their bedroom was still closed. "Gina?" She got up and approached the door. She listened carefully. She couldn’t hear anything. She tapped lightly. "Gina?" she asked again. She twisted the knob and eased the door open, and found her sitting in the darkness and on the edge of the bed, her back to her and her shoulders slumped as she gazed out the window. She was wearing her dress-blues uniform, complete with the black-visored white cap.

"Gina?" she asked softly as she approached her, puzzled by the uniform and softly illuminated by the ambient light coming from outside. "Are you okay?" She gently sat next to her, and noticed the glistening trails of tears on her partner’s cheeks. Suddenly worried, she asked, "What’s wrong?"

She sniffled once. "I don’t know what to do anymore," she softly replied. "Higuchi... Kaffir... I..." She shook head slowly. "I just don’t know what to do anymore."

She was about to ask her what she meant when she saw the gun in her white-gloved hand. Her heart began to pound hard in her chest. "Gina," she said softly, "what are you doing with...?" And then she saw the note, pinned to the dark blue material of her blouse. On it was written a single word: "Guilty."

Oh, my God! she thought as realization slammed into her heart like an icy dagger. The uniform, the saber... Oh God, oh God, oh dear God...

"Gina," she said softly, trying hard to remain calm, "that gun’s making me really nervous. Why don’t you let me have that?"

She stared somberly at the weapon for a long moment, thinking, trying to decide what to do. At last, she softly said, "Yeah, sure," as she slowly--and perhaps even reluctantly--handed it over. She wiped the tears from her face.

Gabriella sighed a soft sigh of relief as she took the weapon. She removed its ammo clip from the butt, and then with her finger lying alongside the trigger guard, she cleared the chamber with a rack! and snap! of the slide. A single hollow-point bullet popped from the chamber and spun end-over-end, and thumped onto the carpet. She pulled the slide back again, locked it open, and laid the now harmless weapon aside.

"I just can’t seem to get it right anymore. The ‘Warrior Princess’ has become quite a fuck-up, hasn’t she?" She forced a sad smile as she stared at the floor, with fresh tears glistening on her cheeks. "I wanted to save people’s lives, not lay waste to thousands of..." She stopped for a moment. "I almost did it right in Greece, y’know?" She took Gabriella’s hand in her own, and squeezed it gently. "With you there, helping me along? There was a time when we were actually doing some good. But before I knew you...when I caused that fire in Higuchi and burned it down..." She looked at her with tearful, pleading eyes. "I paid for that later, didn’t I? When I asked you to let me go?" In shame, she cast her eyes back to the floor. "And now this..."

She squeezed her hand in return. "Gina, you did save lives," she replied. "You--"

"I killed sixty thousand people today!" Her face twisted in emotional anguish, and she began to shake with silent sobs. "I... can’t... handle it... anymore..." she said slowly, her voice choked. "My soul can’t handle it..." Her voice gave way to a high-pitched whimper of agony as she buried her face in her hands. "Please..." she begged, "please, Gabrielle...let me die."

Brie’s eyes filled with tears and her heart pounded in terror. "Oh dear God," she whispered in anguish and horror as she watched her best and truest friend slide into an emotional breakdown. She slipped her arms around her and held her close. "No, sweetheart, no... Please..."

"I k-killed them all..." she sobbed, and began to rock back and forth as she rubbed her hands against her thighs. She could feel her mind caving in.

She gently turned Gina’s face toward her own with one hand. "Kaffir was not your fault!" she said in quiet desperation. "And neither was Higuchi!" She gently stroked her partner’s cheek. "Please, Gina, you’ve got to believe me. You didn’t kill those people in Kaffir; their own government did it! They used those poor people as human shields, and they killed them. Those zealots tried to hide behind them so they could kill millions more. Those bastards are responsible, not you." She sniffled once, and softly caressed her partner’s cheek again. "Please, sweetheart, you’ve got to believe me... You saved millions of lives!"

She rubbed harder at her legs, still rocking forward and backward. "It won’t come off," she muttered to herself as she looked at her hands. "The b-blood...it won’t come off...it--"

"Oh God, Xena, please," she begged, her voice strained and her own tear-streaked face twisting in agony. She held her once more in a fierce embrace. "Please, sweetheart...don’t do this to yourself. I lost you once in Higuchi; I can’t lose you again..." She gently seized the material of her midnight-blue jacket in one fist and stroked the back of her head with the other. "You said you’d never leave me again," she cried, her voice suddenly loud and determined, as teary, jade-green eyes bored into red-rimmed, sapphire blue. "Remember? After I had that nightmare of Higuchi again, and you took me on that camping trip? You promised me, Xena! You promised me!" She held her close once more, and then reached desperately for the phone with one hand. She pulled it off from the night stand, where it hit the floor with a thud and a ring, and with a trembling hand she punched in the number of the Alameda Naval Air Base, which was located just across the San Francisco Bay. They could have help here for one of their own in no time. "I need help," she said desperately as soon as there was an answer. "My friend... She’s Lieutenant Colonel Gina Ryan. She needs help. Please, she needs help..." Unable to control herself anymore, the phone fell from her fingers as she finally broke down into open, racking sobs of anguish. She held her with both arms, and would not let her go. "Plea-hease help her... Oh God, please... please help her... God...please..."

"...it won’t come off...it won’t come off...it won’t come off..."

************

One Month Later

The red convertible Mustang pulled up to a stop at the guard’s shack at the main entrance to the Alameda Naval Air Station. A Marine Corps corporal, wearing an MP band around one arm, approached the car.

"Good afternoon, Lance Corporal," the driver said. She was dressed in the casual whites of a Naval officer--she had opted for trousers rather than a skirt--and a pair of dark gold, aviator-styled sunglasses, and wore her golden blonde hair in a single, thick braid beneath the white cap with the black visor. Sunlight shone brilliantly from the insignia on her cap and the three golden stripes of a full commander on each black shoulder board. She took the glasses off so he could see her eyes, and handed her identification to him. "Doctor Gabriella Duncan," she said by way of self-introduction. "I have an appointment with Dr. Cavanaugh at the base infirmary."

"One moment please, Commander." He went back inside as another guard stood close by at parade rest. He got on the phone, made a quick call, then came back out a moment later. "Doctor Cavanaugh is expecting you, ma’am. Go down to the end of the road, make a left--"

"Thank you, Lance Corporal," she said, smiling. "I know where it is."

"Yes ma’am." He and the other guard snapped to attention, and saluted her.

She returned their salutes, donned her sunglasses once more, then put the car in gear. With a low rumble from the high-powered V-8 engine, she drove on to the psychiatric hospital.

************

She sat before the large oaken desk, with one leg crossed on top of the other and her hands folded in her lap, her cap resting on one knee. "So how’s our patient doing?" she asked.

"No improvement," Lieutenant Commander Douglas Cavanaugh replied with a heavy sigh as he slowly shook his head. He was sitting behind his desk with Gina Ryan’s medical record open before him. Behind the desk was a wide picture window that displayed an open, grassy yard. There were several white wooden benches scattered haphazardly across it, and in one of them, some distance away, was an immobile, dark-haired figure dressed in a lightweight white robe and white pajamas. Her back was to them, and she seemed to be gazing off into the distance as a gentle breeze came in from the east bay and gently teased at her hair. "I’m still concerned," he said gravely, with his padded swivel chair turned and tilted so that he could easily observe both his patient and his colleague with a minimum of movement. He handed her Ryan’s medical record. "On those rare occasions when I can get her to talking, she doesn’t make sense."

Listed among the notes was a variety of sedatives that had been administered to her; some of them were anti-depressants and some were mild mood-altering drugs, and many of them were heavy-duty barbiturates and opiates. Duncan scowled as she noticed not only the variety of drugs, but also the high doses. "You guys have been pumping her so full of drugs, I’m not surprised," she said, her tone mildly reproachful.

"When she first came here, we had to keep her heavily sedated, Commander," Cavanaugh said. "Not only did she hospitalize six of my orderlies, that woman was in a lot of emotional pain; and I’m not so sure she’s out of it just yet. She doesn’t know where she is, and on those rare occasions when I get her to talking, she starts going off on stuff that makes absolutely no sense. She keeps confusing her current surroundings with stuff that..." He shrugged. "...that happened in a ‘previous life,’" he finished skeptically.

Gabriella looked up from the file with a raised eyebrow. "Previous life?" she asked with keen but controlled interest.

He nodded. "She seems to think she’s this reincarnated warrior-woman from ancient Greece, or some damn thing. She keeps demanding to see some ‘bard’ named Gabrielle."

The young doctor’s outward appearance was calm and detached, but inside her heart was pounding with a sudden, desperate longing. Her friend, her partner, and her soul mate needed her... Hang in there, Xena! she silently told her. I’m comin’ to getcha!

"She’s not violent--at least, not anymore--but she is damned insistent," Cavanaugh went on. "I’ve had to increase her thorazine."

"Indeed," she said, her face impassive. Inside, however, she was seething with rage. No more violent outbursts, but they’re still doping her. "You think that’s abnormal, Doctor?"

"What, the reincarnation thing?" Cavanaugh countered with a smile as he gazed back at her. He snorted mildly and skeptically. "What are you, kidding me? She starts going off on Greek mythology and ancient legends, and even talks about battling Ares, their god of war. She even says she knew Hercules, for god’s sakes; you tell me if that’s abnormal." He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "She certainly does seem to know her subject, though; I’ve got to give her that much credit," he conceded as he thoughtfully gazed out through the window at his patient. "Sometimes, she even makes me kind of wonder if it might be true. She sounds as though she’s actually been there." He turned back to face Gabriella. "And the details of her accounts; I mean, Jesus!" Suddenly, even he was mildly excited. "It’s almost like talking to a piece of living history; she keeps driving me back to Edith Hamilton’s books to check up on her and try to find mistakes in her story. And you know what? So far, I haven’t been able to find any. Not a single damned one. If I didn’t know better, I’d say that she’s even filled in some of the gaps that Hamilton and even Homer left behind." He sighed. "What a great psychosis. I mean, this is just...the details of her fantasies are just fantastic. Fantastic! And in her mind, there is absolutely no way of disproving any of it--so she clings to it." He turned in his chair to look out the window once more to observe his patient, and shook his head sadly. "That’s the only thing that keeps me from signing her release orders; the fact that she’s trying to escape reality by losing herself in the myths of the Greek gods."

"Maybe she’s subconsciously looking for some kind of spiritual comfort," Brie offered in what she hoped didn’t sound too much like outright defense of her friend; that would make her sound as though she was personally involved. And if she was going to help her friend, she would have to appear as objective as possible. Resting her elbows on her chair’s armrests, she laced her fingers together and rested her chin on her clasped hands. "Did you ever stop to consider that maybe those ancient gods were real?" she asked thoughtfully. "Did you ever stop to think that maybe--just maybe--she was actually there?"

Cavanaugh grinned wryly. "Yeah, right," he said, with good-natured skepticism as he turned back to regard his patient.

She couldn’t believe his arrogance! She paused for a long moment, feeling her anger rise as she prepared to torpedo his little rubber raft of smug superiority. She took a deep, calming breath before she finally asked, "Do you believe in God, Doug?"

Cavanaugh turned around and regarded her with a raised eyebrow. "Excuse me?"

She watched him carefully. Fighting hard to keep the challenging tone out of her voice, she calmly asked again, "Do you believe in God?"

He shrugged slightly, as though he had never really given it that much thought. "I suppose," he said. "I’m not a particularly religious man. I mean, I’m not really a church-goer or anything like that, but...well, yeah, I suppose I do."

She spread her hands slightly, indicating their surroundings. "This base has a chapel, doesn’t it?" she asked. "And a chaplain?"

"Yes...?"

"Do you believe the Bible?"

He watched her suspiciously. Finally casting off all military and medical protocol, they were now just two people sitting here, engaged in a common interest and shooting the breeze. "Where are you going with all this, Brie?"

God, how she hated it when anyone other than Gina called her that! She forced herself to smile pleasantly. "Just...bear with me."

With a thoughtful look, he leaned back in his chair, re-crossed his legs, and laced his fingers together as he rested his hands in his lap. "Generally speaking...yeah, I suppose so," he replied. "I haven’t read the whole thing, but... Well, have you?"

"Yes, actually," she replied, surprising him. "Cover to cover." She shifted slightly in her seat. "While I was in college, I minored in philosophy," she explained. "I’ve also read the Qur’an and the Talmud, and I’ve spoken at length with many Buddhists, Hindus, Shamans, and Neo-Pagans." She sighed deeply. "Look," she went on as she sat forward. "As to whether or not either of us believes what’s in the Bible, that’s irrelevant; the point I’m trying to make is, there are millions of people who do believe it, with varying degrees. While some see it as metaphor, others take it as the literal word of God. Does that make the latter group abnormal?"

"I guess it depends on whether they use it to get some peace of mind or to justify going to war, or for burning people at the stake for witchcraft--or for shooting abortion providers in the back. Generally speaking, I would say no, it does not make them abnormal."

She leaned back and rested her hands comfortably before her once more. "While there are thousands of people on this base who do believe it--and as I’ve pointed out, accommodations have been made for them by the government--there are hundreds of millions more people throughout the entire world who believe just as strongly in other religions and spiritual philosophies. Many of which include, if are not actually based on, a strong belief in reincarnation. Buddhists and Hindus, for example. They aren’t considered crazy, are they?"

"No, no, of course not," he said, without a moment’s hesitation. "They are very well-known and well-respected religions."

"And accommodations have been made on this base for them, too."

"Yeah, but...but Greek mythology? Polytheism? C’mon, Brie, that’s just superstition!"

Now she was getting really pissed off. Yet still, she controlled her anger. Barely. With her Texas temper and her Texas drawl demanding release, she leaned forward again to quietly emphasize her point. "Two thousand years ago, Doug, people used to say, ‘Monotheism? C’mon, that’s just superstition!’ with that very same attitude. Those ancient gods were as real to them as yours is to you. How could anyone believe that one Jewish or Christian or Moslem god, standin’ alone, could be more powerful than an entire pantheon of Greek or Roman gods? From a polytheist’s point of view, that’s utterly ludicrous." She wanted very much to tell him that she spoke from personal experience; and for a brief moment, she was even half-tempted to do just that. And then she thought better of it. After all, she didn’t want to be shot full of thorazine, either. "The point I’m tryin’ to make is, what makes the religion of one country or society--or era, for that matter--more valid than another’s?" She leaned back into the padded chair and paused for a moment to let the question sink in. "Why is the belief in the Bible or the Qur’an or Talmud deemed perfectly acceptable, but a belief in reincarnation or polytheism isn’t? Why is it that Jesus the son o’ God is accepted as an unquestioned fact by so many, yet an even older belief in Hercules the son of Zeus is derided as mere mythology? Not only do I think such an attitude is arrogant, it’s plain damn hypocritical--and I certainly can’t see such a belief as bein’ a legitimate basis for confinin’ someone to a psychiatric hospital. After all," she added with a smile as she rested her hands in her lap--and as Cavanaugh suddenly scowled at her when he realized where she was headed with all of this--"General George S. Patton--who I’m sure y’all will agree was one of the greatest American generals ever to come out of World War II--believed he had been reincarnated many times, and nobody ever tried to throw him into a nut hatch." She sat forward slightly as Cavanaugh’s scowl deepened, and her smile slipped away to be replaced by a dangerous, wolf-like stare. "So if Colonel Ryan is bein’ kept here for what might very possibly be her spiritual beliefs, Doctor, we could be lookin’ at a very serious issue here."

He quickly straightened in his chair. "Hey, now wait just a goddamned second!" he said, forgetting that he was speaking to a superior officer. He sat forward and stared at her. "I--" He stopped short, and thought furiously. "She--" he began again, and stopped again. Trying to find a hole--any hole--in her argument, he suddenly realized that any response he might offer in defense of his own position could easily be interpreted as a denigration of the colonel’s spiritual beliefs; if, indeed, that was what these fantasies really were. And while he was thoroughly convinced that they really were nothing but fantasies, how could he possibly prove otherwise, thanks to the arguments that this young doctor had just presented? With an inward groan, he concluded that the last thing he needed was to be dragged in front of a Judge Advocate General on freedom of religion grounds.

He sighed heavily. "Y’know something?" he asked at last. "For a doctor, you’d make a damn fine JAG lawyer."

She smiled a cool, satisfied little smile. "I want to talk to her."

"I’m afraid that’s still not possible," Cavanaugh said. "She’s still too--"

"It wasn’t a request, lieutenant commander."

Cavanaugh noted the chilled expression in her jade-green eyes, and immediately backed off. She may have been shorter than him and she may have been younger than him, but she still outranked him. And even without the rank, she suddenly struck him as someone who could cause a lot of trouble. "Yes ma’am," he said.

************

She slowly approached the wooden bench where Gina sat, and deliberately moved into her line of vision. "Good afternoon, Colonel," she said, her voice soft yet cheerful.

The tall brunette looked up at her when she heard her voice. Her face was pale and drawn, and her eyes were surrounded by dark circles. All she could see was a white fog. But the voice; she knew that voice... She watched as the body of fog--incredibly bright and white, yet it did not hurt her eyes--slowly approached her and settled down in front of her, and coalesced into a solid form with white wings and white robes. A sweet and curiously familiar face, with golden blonde hair and an incongruous pair of dark gold, aviator-styled sunglasses suddenly appeared. The angel in white settled down next to her, crossed one leg over the other, and settled a slim, black briefcase down next to her feet before slipping off her sunglasses to reveal a pair of jade-green eyes. "How are they treating you?" she asked softly as she hung the glasses by one stem on her left breast pocket.

She stared at this apparition with the out-of-place briefcase and dark glasses for a long moment, and watched as the white robes and wings transformed themselves into the casual, summer white uniform of a United States Naval officer. "Gab..." she whispered, uncertainly yet hopefully, with a voice that was dry and weak. She took note of the cap with the Navy insignia, the black visor and the gold braids on it, the three golden stripes of a full commander on each black shoulder board, the small and brightly colored ribbons on the left breast of the uniform blouse, and the small, golden caduceus that identified her as a medical doctor.

The young blonde took off her cap and smiled again, and the pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place. "Yeah, it’s me," she whispered. Her smile expanded into the sweet, dazzling and familiar grin that brought tears to the brunette’s eyes.

In spite of the drugs, she quickly lurched away from the backrest of the bench, and threw her arms around her and hugged her fervently. "Sweetheart..."

She embraced her warmly. "How are you doing?" She leaned back to hold her hands and to gaze into those haggard yet still beautiful sapphire eyes. "Are you okay?"

"I don’t know," she replied as she examined and felt the strange material of the unfamiliar uniform blouse with a puzzled expression in her eyes. Jagged, jumbled and confused fragments of memories kept slogging through her mind, and she thought that if she tried hard enough, she could actually grab on to one here and there. But she couldn’t keep the damn things straight. "I keep having nightmares I can’t remember, and blinding headaches, and during the day I feel so doped up... Who are these people? What do they want?"

"You’re in a hospital," Brie replied.

"A hospital?" She still looked drugged and confused.

"They’re trying to help you."

"They got a funny way of showing it," Gina replied listlessly. "The food tastes like shit, and they keep sticking me with needles, and...and then I feel so..." Her voice trailed off. "Zeus, I feel so..." With a groan, her head fell into her hands and she shook it lethargically. "I’ve never felt so sluggish before..."

"Don’t worry," Brie said as she reached forward and gently took one hand in her own, which forced the Marine to look into her eyes. She squeezed it reassuringly. "I’m gonna get you out of here."

She began to smile a tired, crooked smile. "Gonna bust me out, huh?" she asked. Well, that explained the uniform; it was a disguise. "What’s the plan? You distract ‘em while I take ‘em out from behind? Like that time on...where the hell was it?" She thought for a moment. "On Kithnos. Remember?"

The young blonde watched her with an expression of mild puzzlement in her eyes as she thought back, and then a smile crept across her lips as she suddenly remembered. That hadn’t been on any recent mission; the Marine was referring to something that had happened two thousand years ago. And what caught the young doctor off-guard was that, by Zeus, she actually remembered the past-life experience that the Marine was referring to.

Her smile quickly became a wry and dazzling grin. "Xena, darlin’," she drawled, "I am not flashin’ anyone again..."

The Marine also grinned, and as she did a familiar spark of the Warrior Princess rose in her eyes. "Yeah, well, it worked, didn’t it?"

Brie chuckled. "Yeah, it sure did. But this time, it isn’t necessary. You’re not in a dungeon or a jail, Marine; you’re in a hospital. But we’re goin’ home."

She looked at her with growing hope. "Home?" she asked. "To Amphipolis?"

Such a simple and innocent question; yet it was such a glaring demonstration of how seriously her dearest friend in all the world--her partner through life, her very soul mate--had been emotionally and psychologically damaged. How extensive that damage was, she couldn’t tell.

She could feel the tears as they began to well in her eyes. "San Francisco," she replied gently, forcing her voice to remain calm. "We live in San Francisco now. Remember?"

She thought sluggishly. Somehow, the name sounded vaguely familiar.

"There’s nothing anyone here can do for you. I can’t sign your release orders--rank has some privileges, but sometimes not enough--but I am working on a way of getting you out of here."

An exhausted yet wry and knowing little smile crept across her lips. "Yeah? What’s the plan?"

Even with misty eyes, she couldn’t help grinning as she wondered just how many times she had asked the warrior that very same question so many centuries ago. "I’m still working on that," she replied. "One thing I can tell you is that I’m going to need your help."

"You got it," she said, without hesitation.

"I can’t take you out of here just yet, so I’m going to need you to be a model citizen while you’re still here; which means going to bed when they tell you to, taking your meds on time--palm the damn things and toss ‘em, if you want--and no more throwing your meals at the orderlies. You cooperate with them, and they’ll cut back on the tranqs."

"Damn," the statuesque brunette said with a wry little smile. "You’re just taking all the fun out of this experience, aren’t you?"

She grinned at her partner again. At least the warrior hadn’t lost her sense of humor. "In the meantime," she went on, "I’ve got a couple of friends in the JAG corps who might be able to get you out of here on First Amendment grounds--freedom of religion. As soon as I can, I’m going to get you away from these goddamned drug pushers and into a clean and sober environment."

Her eyes sparkled merrily, and there was a moment of clarity. "That’ll be nice. I’ve been feeling like one stoned pincushion lately..."

The two old friends were companionably silent for a time as they sat in the warm sun together, gazing across the bay at San Francisco.

"Gabrielle?"

"Yes?"

She regarded her with sapphire eyes that suddenly turned dark and haunted. "Why am I here? What happened to me? I feel as though the Furies have come back and are screwing with my mind."

The young doctor carefully watched her for a moment. "Do you remember our mission in Kaffir?" she asked at last.

She gazed into her eyes, and then winced slightly. She began to slowly massage one temple, and shook her head slightly, trying to shake something off. At last, she said, "Where?"

She watched her silently, and then gently tried another track. Struggling to control her voice, she asked, "What can you tell me about Gina Ryan?"

She thought for a moment, searching her memory, and then winced again--a little more strongly this time--as a needle of pain lanced behind her eyes. "That’s me...isn’t it? I think that’s me... That’s what these people keep calling me," she said at last. "I...aw, shit. I don’t know if it’s the drugs that are affecting my memory or..." Again, she shook her head in an attempt to clear it and to shake off the pain. "I just can’t remember."

"Not even your customized kitchen?" Brie asked, hoping that something more pleasant would stimulate her memory.

She regarded her for a moment with an exhausted yet skeptical look. "Me in a kitchen?" Her sudden, soft laughter sounded like a short, muted burst of machine gun fire. "Yeah, right..."

My God, she’s blocked it out! she thought. The guilt has hit her so hard... A part of her wants to punish herself for what she did, while another part wants to avoid that pain by just forgetting it all. This was worse than Higuchi, she concluded; while the fire and utter destruction of that Japanese village and the forty thousand deaths had been completely accidental--and as far as Gabrielle was concerned, her friend had not been in the least bit responsible for what had happened then--the devastation of Kaffir had been a conscious, deliberate, and thoroughly revolting act, one that had forced the warrior to violate her deepest core beliefs. Even though she knew deep down inside that she had saved literally millions of lives, the idea that she had deliberately killed so many other innocent people in the process still had torn her very soul apart.

Dear Gods, Gabrielle thought. Oh God, the Hell she’s gone through... Suddenly realizing just how deeply wounded her partner truly was, she forced down the emotion that threatened to well up from her soul and into her eyes.

The tall brunette ran a hand through her rich, dark hair as she sighed heavily, and then decided to change the subject. "So what have you been up to lately? I mean, other than not flashing anyone?"

She sniffled once as she forced the tears down, and at the same time she smiled at that ancient memory. "Welllll..." she began reluctantly, and then decided that it was best to be truthful. "I sold our condo."

She sat there, staring at her in confused silence. "Our condo?" She thought for a moment, and then remembered their San Francisco home. "Our condo. You sold our... You what?" Her hackles began to rise as a few more memories slowly came to life in spite of the residual effects of the tranquilizers. "What the hell did you do that for?"

"Gina--"

"Where the hell is my chakram when I need it? Where are we gonna stay? Zeus, Gab--"

She held up one hand to stop her. "I sold the condo," she said calmly, "and I bought us a house in Nevada City."

"Nevada City?" She stopped and thought for a moment. "I know that place, don’t I?" She thought some more. "Yeah, I think I know that place..."

"Actually, the place is just outside of Nevada City," Brie explained. "A little further up into the foothills, a little less people, a little more wildlife..."

"Yeah..." She smiled, pleased with herself that some more memories were coming back. "Yeah, we went through there on our camping trip, didn’t we?"

"Yeah," the young doctor replied with an encouraging smile. They were slowly making progress. "It’s very calm, very peaceful, and very relaxing. That’s why I chose it for your recovery."

"Yeah, I remember that place..." She smiled fondly at her and at the memory, and then her animated mood suddenly darkened, as though someone had flipped off a light switch. "These people...them and their needles...they’ve done a pretty good job of rearranging the furniture in my head..." She slowly rubbed at her eyes with a mild groan.

"Don’t worry, we’ll get it all straightened out," Brie said with an encouraging little smile. "With a little exercise and a little rest, and a whole lot of fresh air, the drugs will wear off. The question is," she added cautiously as she looked into her eyes, "are you going to be okay without them?"

She gave her a puzzled look. "Why wouldn’t I be?"

She watched her carefully. "Do you remember anything about after we got home from Kaffir?" she asked gently. "Do you remember what happened, and what we talked about?"

She thought back, trying hard to remember...and then a blinding, silvery steel spike suddenly drove itself into her head, entering through one temple, passing behind her eyes, and exiting through the other. With a sharp gasp and a loud cry, she squeezed her eyes shut and quickly pressed her hands against the sides of her head as she tried to keep it from exploding. "God!" she cried out. "Oh, God, it hurts!"

Brie quickly put an arm around her shoulders and held her comfortingly. "Shh...shh... It’s okay," she whispered. "Take it easy, it’s okay. You don’t have to remember now."

"Make it stop, Gabrielle!" she cried, her sobbing voice almost a scream. "God, please, make it stop!"

Caught completely off-guard, and suddenly not sure of what to do, she held her close and gently stroked the side of her face. "Do you want me to get you something?"

"No!" she said, her voice suddenly a terrified whisper. "No, drugs don’t help. I hate the drugs, I hate them, they...they don’t kill the pain, they just stop me from reacting to it, and it hurts more. I..." She took a deep, shuddering breath, and slowly let it out as the almost debilitating pain slowly ebbed.

With tears in her own eyes, and struggling furiously to fight down the sobs, Brie held her wounded partner close. "Okay, it’s all right," she whispered reassuringly. She could only guess at what dark terrors must be running loose inside of her subconscious, torturing her viciously with these blinding and debilitating migraines if she dared to try to remember too much. But with the drugs that helped to suppress those agonizing memories, she was slow and sluggish, and unable to function normally. She couldn’t help thinking that once again the Warrior Princess, in a heroic effort to set right a despicable wrong, was punishing herself over something for which she truly had no responsibility.

Why did I have to fall in love with someone with so much integrity? the young doctor asked herself. Trying to comfort her in her arms, she asked, "How about I tell you about our house instead?"

She nodded silently, her head against the doctor’s breast.

She kissed the top of her head, and let the tears spill from her own eyes once more. "Well," she began softly. She kept her arms around her partner and drew her in a little closer as she warmed up to the subject. "It needs some work, but I got a good price on it. And it’ll keep us from gettin’ too bored with all that peace and quiet." She smiled a playful little smile that she hoped could be heard in her voice. "It’s about a twenty minute walk outside of town, up against the edge of a forest. It’s surrounded by pines, firs, a few redwoods, and our next-door-neighbor lives about a quarter of a mile down the road." And the more she spoke, the more she could feel Gina relax in her arms, as though the soothing sound of the doctor’s voice was the only calmative that the Marine needed. "There’s a river nearby," she added, "and--"

She slowly straightened and looked at her. "A river?" she asked with sudden and growing excitement, her headache ebbing. "Any fish in it?"

The doctor held her hands about three feet apart, and with that dazzling Gabrielle smile and a playfully wrinkled nose, she silently mouthed the words, "Salmon. This big."

With an enthusiastic grin of her own, Ryan grabbed a fistful of air and pulled it down. "Yes!!" she said softly.

Brie grinned at her. "We can rent kayaks in the summer, there’s skiing in the winter, hunting... There’s clean air, and most of all, it’s about as peaceful as life can get."

"Wow," she said softly as she watched the bard in rapt fascination. And the more she listened to her, the more the pain diminished... She rested her right arm on the bench’s backrest and leaned her head against her hand while the doctor rested her own arm on the back rest and let her hand hang. From the building that stood some distance behind them, no one could see their free hands holding each other, their fingers laced together.

"The place has a barn, too, and a corral, with more than enough room for a couple of horses."

She smiled. "That would be nice. Argo needs a barn."

"Yeah," she said, and suddenly she had to fight once more to control her emotions as she gazed fondly at her partner. "Yeah, Argo’s gonna need a barn. As soon as we can get her up here."

She turned her gaze toward the distant bay. Softly, she added, "I think I’ll plant a garden, too."

"A garden?" She looked a little surprised by this as she wiped her eyes dry. She would have expected her to want to build a gymnasium or a weights room, or an archery range, or even a small martial arts studio. But a peaceful garden? She found the idea not only intriguing and refreshing, but also therapeutic. "What do you want to grow?"

She turned to gaze at the little golden caduceus on Brie’s uniform as it sparkled in the brilliant sunlight. "Pumpkins," she replied, somewhat distantly, almost as though the little insignia was putting her under a hypnotic spell.

"Pumpkins?"

"Yeah." She looked up into her eyes once more and grinned as she returned to the here-and-now. "If I get them planted soon enough, they’ll be ready for Halloween. Then we can carve jack o’ lanterns, stick candles in them and put them out on the porch, and hand out candy..."

"Yeah," she said with a grin. And then the realization suddenly hit her; the Warrior Princess was hanging up the sword. She had done her time as a warrior, and now it was time for her to retire from the battlefield as one of the lucky survivors, and settle down to enjoy the simple pleasures of life.

"Yeah..." She was silent for a moment. "And corn."

"Corn?" She wiped at her eyes again.

"Yeah." Her dazzling smile came back. "Yeah, we can have fresh corn with dinner. And when the corn’s gone, instead of cutting down the stalks, we leave them standing. That way, when they dry out in the middle of Fall, you can hear them whispering in the wind at night."

"And we can make popcorn."

The warrior laughed with delight. "Yeah! Popcorn!" She draped one leg over the other and laced her fingers together to let her arms dangle from the bench’s back rest. "We can pop corn at night, and watch old black-and-white horror movies, and listen to the wind whispering through the corn and howling through the trees!"

Brie laughed with her. "Yeah!" she said. "Sounds like paradise."

After their laughter finally settled down, she regarded her silently and fondly. "Thank you, Gabrielle."

She raised an eyebrow and smiled. "For what?" she asked, truly puzzled.

She shifted slightly in her seat. "Remember in Higuchi, when I stopped you from pouring my ashes into the Fountain of Strength, and from bringing me back?"

She nodded once, watching her carefully.

"You are my fountain of strength; this time, you ignored my wishes and you brought me back." She reached forward and took her hand in her own, and squeezed it gently. "Somehow, I think you saved my life and gave me another chance--and, by God, I am determined to spend the rest of this life with you."

The doctor/bard smiled modestly at her, but her eyes were misty nonetheless. A part of her wondered just how much Ryan remembered of that night, and another part of her didn’t want to press the matter and possibly bring on another attack of blinding pain. Instead, she simply continued to smile at her. "Hey," she said with a shy and modest shrug. "What are friends for?" The smile then expanded into a dazzling grin, and she quickly leaned forward and hugged her.

She buried her face for a moment in the hollow of the bard’s neck, and shook with silent sobs. "I love you, Gabrielle," she said, her voice muffled against her, when she could finally control herself. She kissed her cheek and leaned back, and with a teary smile she took her hand in her own again, clasping their palms and lacing their fingers together.

Smiling through her tears, Gabrielle said, "I love you too, Xena."

They just sat and watched the squirrels playing on the grass, and enjoyed each other’s company for a little while. Finally, the bard stole a quick glance around them before she leaned toward her and softly whispered, "You have no idea of how much I want to kiss you right now. You think anybody’s watching?"

Gina smiled wryly. "Do you really care if anyone’s watching?" she asked.

The bard grinned, then moved in, and they shared a short, soft and heartfelt kiss. "C’mon," she said a moment later, "let’s take you back to your room. The sooner you become a model citizen, the sooner we can get you the hell out of here."

"Hoo-ya," Xena agreed.

Observing proper military protocol--the bard carrying her briefcase and the warrior tucking her hands behind her back--they strolled toward the infirmary.

************

Both of her friends in the JAG corps in Falls Church, Virginia, had advised her that the First Amendment issue would probably not be successful in getting Gina out of the hospital. "Right or wrong, ancient Greek polytheism is not viewed as an accepted religion," it was explained to her. "Sounds like religious bigotry to me," was how Brie responded, and neither of her friends disagreed. Unfortunately, the lawsuit was not an option.

Okay, Gabriella told herself, so much for that idea. But she still had one more option. It was a long shot, and it might very possibly put an end to her Naval career--falsifying orders and forgery could do that--but she didn’t have any choice, because she had to help her friend. Besides, if things worked out the way she hoped they would, it wouldn’t matter anyway. All she needed now was access to a computer.

************

The massive, olive-green C-130 cargo plane touched down at the US Army air base just outside of Athens, Greece, on a warm and sunny day. Dressed in Navy khakis--a ship-board "working" uniform, as opposed to the casual whites or the more formal Navy blues--and with phony, computer-printed orders bearing the forged signature of Admiral Hastings folded neatly in one pocket, Brie signed out for a car and then drove north for about 150 miles to her destination at Mt. Olympus, the former home of the gods that she had known so well. The countryside had changed a lot in over two thousand years, but there were still a few familiar signs. Off the beaten path, she headed west for another twenty miles, and eventually stopped the car at the end of a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. From there, surrounded by a forest and as the sun quickly sank in the western sky, she had to walk another mile or so. And all the time, as though she were chanting a silent mantra, she kept repeating to herself, Let it still be here, let it still be here, let still it be here...

Brushing aside branches and shrubs with one hand, while carrying a plain brown paper bag which contained a fragile glass bottle in the other, and slipping several times on the loose, dry and rocky soil to smudge the knees of her uniform as she went up a gently sloping hill, she eventually found the ancient doorway. Not to the home of the Olympian gods--most of whom Xena had destroyed so long ago--but to the massive entrance that opened in on the Temple of the Fates.

The heavy wooden door, once ornate and elegant but now stained and warped by centuries of sun and rain, opened reluctantly under the assault of Gabriella’s shoulder, only an inch or two at a time, before she finally managed to force open a space that she could squeeze through. Once inside, she fished inside a trouser pocket and withdrew a stainless steel cigarette lighter. She flipped it open, spun the wheel with her thumb, and struck a flame. Holding it high and straining her eyes in the darkness, and negotiating her way by it’s small dancing fire, she found a nearby torch, and set it alight. She closed the lighter with a soft and metallic snap! and clink!, and dropped it into her pocket. She held the torch high to illuminate the once elegant temple, and looked around to survey the dust, webs and mildew, and utter silence.

It’s gotten so old, she thought sadly as she gazed about the temple. This had once been her country, her home; and to see one of its greatest landmarks so drastically changed after so long, so neglected and ravaged by time, it tugged painfully at her heart. So old... she thought again.

"Clotho?" she called out softly. Her voice echoed from the walls. "Lachesis? Atropos?" She was silent for a moment. "Are you still here? I need to talk to you."

There was no answer.

"Please," Gabrielle said. "I really need to talk to you."

Nothing.

She sighed heavily, dejected. They were gone. She really wasn’t surprised; after all, no one believed in them anymore. There was nothing left of them, and of those wondrous and magical days of so long ago. Her final shot at saving Xena had failed, and once she returned home she would undoubtedly be facing criminal charges of forgery that would probably get her dishonorably discharged from the Navy, if not imprisoned in a federal penitentiary for five years. But her mission here had been to help her partner and best friend, regardless of her own well-being, and she had given it her best effort; if she hadn’t, she wouldn’t be able to look into a mirror anymore. Slowly and sadly, and realizing that Xena would probably remain imprisoned in some military or VA psycho-ward for the rest of her life, she turned and started for the door.

"Gabrielle."

She stopped and spun around.

Three women stood in the center of the temple on a raised stone dias; one young, who sat at an elaborate loom with billions of different colored threads; one middle-aged, who stood behind it to allocate each man, woman and child their destiny; and one elderly, who held the shears to cut each thread at the end of that person’s life--the Fates.

"It has been a long time, Gabrielle," Clotho said.

Cut to the chase, girl, she told herself. "I’m here because I need a favor," Gabrielle told them bluntly.

The Fates looked at each other with dark scowls. "Figures," they grumbled.

"A favor?" Clotho said, turning back to the bard.

"What are you asking us for?" Lachesis asked.

"Because you owe me," Gabrielle replied.

"Owe you?" Atropos said in disbelief. "We owe you a favor? The last time you were here, you burned down our loom! Where the hell do you get off telling us we owe you a favor?"

Gabrielle smiled at the memory. "Yeah," she said. "And chained as you were by Caesar, I could have burned you along with it. Instead, I spared you."

"Spared us?" Clotho asked in mild disbelief.

"Yeah," Gabrielle replied. "Remember what Xena did to the gods? I could have done the same number on you. I still can."

"Oh, yeah?" Lachesis asked defiantly. She put her fists on her hips and thrust her chin forward. "What are you gonna do? Huh? Breathe fire on us, like some dragon from Briton?"

The young Navy doctor took off her cap and dropped it onto the ground, then reached into the plain brown paper bag and removed the bottle of ouzo. "As a matter of fact," she said as she unscrewed the cap of the liquor bottle, "have you ever seen this trick? Xena showed me this." She took a healthy swig and held the liquid fire in her mouth, then held the torch in front of her. Turning away from them slightly, and as hard as she could, she blew the 80-proof liquor through the flame.

The effect was quite impressive.

"Hey!" they all shouted angrily.

"Watch it!" Clotho exclaimed in alarm.

"What the hell are you doing?" Lachesis shouted.

"You trying to burn the place down?" Atropos demanded.

"I’m just tryin’ to prove a point," Brie explained as she wiped the liquor from her chin. "You owe me a favor, and I’ve come to collect it."

All three of them did nothing more than growl menacingly at her.

"So what’s it gonna be, ladies?"

They conferred with each other in whispers for a moment. Then they turned back to Gabrielle. "Very--" Clotho began.

"--well," Lachesis finished.

"Name it," said Atropos.

"I want Xena back," she said. "I want her back the way she was before we went to Kaffir. I want her back the way she was before she almost killed herself. I want her back healthy and safe, and remembering nothing of Kaffir and her suicide attempt."

"No--"

"--can--"

"--do."

Gabrielle’s eyes widened in surprise and dismay. "An’ why the hell not?" she demanded.

"We’ve already granted Xena a favor once," Clotho said.

"When she killed that young lad," Lachesis said.

"And she wanted a different life," Atropos finished.

"A life of peace," the three of them said together.

"She is entitled to no more favors from us."

She folded her arms defiantly across her chest. "She isn’t asking," Gabrielle informed them. "I am. She doesn’t even know I’m here."

The three of them considered each other thoughtfully, then huddled and spoke in whispers once more. Gabriella strained her ears to listen.

"Well, she did spare us..." Clotho muttered.

"Yeah, but..." Lachesis began.

"Well, would it really hurt?" Atropos asked.

"Then everyone will want favors!" Lachesis whined. "They’ll be lining up outside, and we’ll never have any peace or privacy..."

"But no one else knows we’re still here," Clotho reminded her.

"Come on, ladies," Brie said, her patience running out. "What’s it gonna be? You grant me this single favor, and I’ll never bother you again. You don’t..." She regarded them with cold and determined green eyes. "..and I’ll burn down your fuckin’ loom again."

The three of them turned to face her once more with angry scowls.

"Oh--"

"--all--"

"--right."

Brie smiled in satisfaction. "Cool," she said. "Thanks." She bent over and retrieved her cap, settled it properly on her head, and started for the door.

"It’s customary," Clotho began.

"...to leave..." Lachesis added.

"...an offering," Atropos finished. All three of them were eying the liquor bottle.

Gabrielle looked thoughtfully at it. She shrugged, turned again and approached them, and handed them the ouzo. With a smile, she said, "It’s actually quite good. Nice and smooth." Turning once more, she headed for the door. Great, she thought. This world is crazy enough; the last thing we need are three liquored-up Fates.

She squeezed through the door once more, and outside she found herself lying comfortably in bed and staring at the ceiling of her bedroom. No ethereal fog or mist, no dizziness, no sensation of flying or floating transportation, just a sudden realization that she was back in her San Francisco condo, lying in bed next to a gently snoring Gina. She was just wondering what time it was when--

The phone rang at 2:17 AM. Bleary-eyed and groping with one hand, having just been pulled out of a dream about burning villages, Japanese soul-eaters, sacred katanas and Akemi, a half-conscious Gina caught it in the middle of the third ring. "Huhhh..."

NO! Gabriella screamed silently. Lying on her side and behind Gina, and rising up on one elbow as her heart began to pound apprehensively, she realized it was all happening all over again! It was supposed to be different this time, but the Fates had lied to her! They’d lied, they’d lied, the bitches had–

She scowled at the cordless receiver for a moment, then reached across her shoulder and poked Brie with the plastic antenna. "It’s for you," she mumbled sleepily as she gave her the phone.

Huh? Gabrielle thought. "For me?" she asked, puzzled. She slowly accepted the phone and put it to her ear as Gina closed her eyes, slipped her hand under the pillow once more, and then sighed sleepily with a dreamy smile. Suddenly, Gabrielle wondered if it might be one of the Fates with a message, an additional reminder of their bargain. Or maybe it was the hospital, getting swamped with emergency flu cases. Cautiously, she said, "Hello?"

On the other end of the line, a breathy whisper of a male voice, shuddering with lust, suggestively said, "I’ll bet you can’t guess what I’m doing..."

Brie’s face twisted in disgust, as though she had just squished some large and vile tarantula in her hand, with its broken brown legs twisting and sticky guts oozing through her bare fingers. "Pervert!" she called him. "You sick-o motherf--" Angrily, she punched the disconnect button before finishing her thought. That was the problem with these damn cordless phones; you couldn’t slam them into their cradle in satisfaction and shatter the caller’s eardrum. You had to settle for punching a little button instead. Somehow, it just wasn’t the same.

Then she glared at her friend. "‘It’s for you’?" she growled scornfully, and then noticed how the Marine was shaking in silent laughter. "You swine." And then she found herself grinning, partially in spite of herself and mostly in relief; the Fates had kept their word after all, and her friend was back--healthy and safe.

She picked up her pillow and swatted Gina across one bare shoulder with it, eliciting a tiny yelp from the warrior as the latter defensively covered her head against any further attacks. The next thing she knew, she was straddling the statuesque brunette and frantically tickling her ribs, evoking screaming laughter from her. "And this is for you, ‘Warrior Princess!’" she told her as the warrior princess gasped and screamed again in uncontrollable laughter.

Their next-door-neighbor pounded on his side of the bedroom wall, demanding silence.

"Yikes!" Brie said softly, still straddling her partner.

"Uh-oh," Gina said, catching her breath. "Sounds like we pissed somebody off." Still lying on her back, she looked up at Brie and noticed the way the young blonde was looking at her. "What?" she asked.

With misty eyes, Gabriella gently seized Gina’s face in both hands, and quickly leaned down to give her a long, soft, and grateful kiss.

Gina grinned at her. "Wow," she said breathlessly. "What was that for?"

Brie smiled at her. "Just because," she replied as she lay next to her.

Gina watched her for a moment. "Are you okay?" she asked at last.

"Oh yeah," Brie replied. "Everything’s perfect."

The Marine watched her for a moment longer, then smiled and sighed as she got comfortable alongside her. "Y’know," she said, "that’s the problem with this place; no real privacy. We ought to sell it."

Gabriella looked at her in mild surprise. "Y’think?"

"Yeah. We ought to buy a real house somewhere." She gazed fondly into those jade-green eyes. "I was thinking up in the foothills east of Nevada City, where there’s a little less people, a little more wildlife... Get a house with a little barn, and a couple of horses... Plant a garden and do some fishing, and just retire from the whole rat-race. What do you say?"

The young Bard smiled fondly at her, and the Warrior Princess couldn’t help noticing how lovely she was in this moonlight. "Yeah, that sounds like a good idea. But what are we gonna do about Ares?"

"He can get his own damn place."

Brie chuckled softly. "No, I mean the helicopter..."

"I dunno... I’ll worry about that some other time." She smiled at her as she sighed and snuggled in a little more closely, and then kissed her forehead. "Y’know," she said, "for a sweet little bard of Poteidaia, your language has gotten really..." She thought for a moment, searching for the right word. "...colorful."

She slowly reached toward her face and gently brushed dark hair behind one ear. "Hey," she replied fondly, and with a wide grin, "you think medicine is the only thing I learned in the Navy?"

************

The hardwood floor of their Nevada City home was newly refinished, and expensive Oriental rugs had been thrown everywhere. Two recliner chairs, pushed against each other with a small oaken table on either side of them, faced the entertainment center which stood near the stone-and-mortar fireplace, and a glider/rocker sat off to one side while a love seat rested near the other. A Tony Bennet cd was playing softly on the cd player while a crackling fire burned cheerfully, filling the house with the scent of cedar and pine, and the winds outside rose and fell and played with a loose shutter that banged intermittently at the wide picture window of their upstairs loft bedroom. Wide sky lights let in bright sunlight during the day and allowed them to star gaze at night, and the full moon flooding their house each month was absolutely spectacular.

At Gina’s insistence, there was a small shrine beneath the picture window of the spare bedroom that served as a library. It consisted of a low, wide table, a small tabletop fountain flanked by two tall white candles in small glass holders, and a small brass incense burner that could hold either sticks or cones. Next to the burner was a packet of lavender incense sticks. In her new-found spiritual quest, the retired warrior had taken up meditation and had begun reading everything she could get her hands on concerning mythology and philosophy, spirituality, and nature religions. Most prominent in her substantial private library was a very old hardcover edition of Lao Tzu’s "Tao Te Ching." ("Lao Ma’s ‘Tao,’" Gina had corrected. Reading through that book still brought tears to her eyes, because she could remember when Lao Ma had written so many of those entries, and had deliberately let her husband have credit for them.)

"It’s kind of funny, in a way," Brie said as they relaxed in their recliners, with their feet propped up and their eyes closed, as they listened to the music. Both were dressed in comfortably loose, flannel lounge pants, pull-over sweatshirts, and slippers--big, fuzzy brown bear-paw slippers with soft black claws for Gina (a gift from Gabriella), and fuzzy white bunny slippers, complete with semi-upright ears, pink noses, little black eyes and whiskers, for Brie (a gift from Gina).

"Funny?" Gina asked.

"Not so much funny ‘ha-ha,’ but funny ‘peculiar,’" she explained before taking a sip of rich, red wine. "Back in Greece, you never seemed to have any use for the gods; now you’ve got a shrine dedicated to..." She rolled her head to look at her. "Who is it dedicated to, anyway?"

With her eyes closed and her head leaning against the headrest, Gina shrugged, unsure. True, she’d never had any use for any of the old gods; yet on the other hand, she remembered the time she had been worried about Gabrielle losing her light during one of their dealings with Callisto. And then there had been that time after they had been resurrected from the dead, after their crucifixions, and she had lost her dark side and they had been about to go into battle. She had appealed to someone or something--some greater presence--to show her a sign that she was doing the right thing...and that was when Gabrielle had come up behind her. Perhaps it was to that nameless spirit she had dedicated her shrine. Every once in a while, Gina had noticed, even Brie would walk by it, pause for a moment, and then kneel and light a small candle and some incense.

She lifted her head, and sipped at her wine. "It’s just a place where I can meditate and mellow out," she replied, leaning back. "It helps me to remember Lao Ma, and what she tried to teach me." She opened her eyes and turned to regard Brie. "God, how I wish you could have met her; she was an amazing woman. You would have loved her. The two of you would have spent many a sleepless night discussing philosophy."

Fondly gazing back at her, Brie smiled inwardly. Then she noticed how the light from the fireplace shone on the small chakram that her partner now wore--the original chakram, not the combined yin-yang weapon--hanging from a short silver chain around her neck. Xena had never been one for jewelry, neither back in ancient Greece or today, since it tended to get in the way when fighting; but after having received this small, custom-made charm as a gift from Gabrielle shortly after they had moved into their new home, it had never left her, not even when she slept. And as she watched it, the bard fingered the small pair of crossed silver sai--a gift she had received from the retired Warrior Princess, and custom-made at the same jewelry shop in town--that hung from a fine, black leather lace just below the base of her own throat.

Gina glanced around the living room. "I know you said this place was a fixer-upper, Gabrielle," she said as she noticed how much more work they were going to have to put in, "but Zeus!"

"Kvetch, kvetch, kvetch," Brie said, smiling and unruffled, as she rolled her head back and closed her eyes once more to listen to the music. "C’mon, Xena," she said quietly, "you were having fun up there, putting in that new sky light; admit it. I haven’t seen you having that much fun since that time we fixed up your grandparents’ place for Ares to hide out in."

The former warrior remembered that time with perfect clarity. With her own eyes closed, she grinned as she shrugged in concession and raised her glass to her lips. Muted thunder rumbled again in the distance. "Sounds like we got it in just in time, too," she said.

The doctor belched gently against the back of her hand. "Gods, that dinner was good," she said softly. "You’ve become a true artist with that gas grill." She turned her head again to look at her. "What was that, anyway?" It hadn’t been beef, she knew that; and it hadn’t been pork, and she was pretty sure it hadn’t been venison.

"Must’ve been; you packed it away like there’s no tomorrow." One thing she really enjoyed was watching her friend enjoy a good meal.

"Yeah, but what were you feeding me?"

Xena smiled in mischief, kept her eyes closed, and said nothing.

Gabrielle watched her. "Oh, dear gods," she said at last, as her heart plummeted into the pit of her stomach. "That wasn’t possum, was it?"

Xena’s smile widened into that dazzling and breathtaking grin of hers, but she wouldn’t answer.

"What was it...badger? Racoon?" Her eyes suddenly widened in horror. "Aw, Zeus!" she wailed as she began to sit up. "It wasn’t skunk, was it?"

Gina chuckled softly, and still wouldn’t answer.

Brie regarded her dangerously.

Gina opened her eyes, turned toward her partner, and noticed the look. "Oh, well, it was good, wasn’t it?" she asked placatingly.

"Yeah, but..." She knew she wouldn’t have served her anything gross, so she relaxed once more and listened to the stereo--but she would still like to know what she had been eating, just the same. Oh, well... She sighed deeply, and took another sip of wine. For a short while, they just listened to the music.

"Remember those two ‘cute little bunnies,’ as you called them, that kept trashing my garden?" Gina asked at last. "You haven’t seen them lately, have you?"

She stared at her for a short moment in wide-eyed disbelief. "You’re kidding me!" she said. "Right?"

Gina grinned again, and said nothing.

She continued to stare uncertainly at her recumbent friend for a long moment. She slowly relaxed, and then finally shrugged it off with a slight movement. "Could have used a little less garlic," she muttered to herself. She reached for the bottle. "More wine?" she asked.

Xena lifted her glass and held it toward her. "Sure," she said.

Gabrielle drained the last of it into her friend’s glass, then set the bottle down on the table next to her. With a deep sigh, they lay back once more as each sought out and found the other’s free hand and laced their fingers together, and smiled in contentment as they listened to the music.

The End

No heroic soul mates were tragically separated during the writing of this story.


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