Disclaimer: "XENA: Warrior Princess" is owned and copyrighted by Pacific Renaissance Pictures, Studios USA Television Distribution LLC, and licensed by Universal Studios Licensing, LLLP. All rights are reserved by them. The following story is strictly nonprofit fan-fiction, and absolutely no copyright infringement is intended.

Warning! The following story contains adult language. A lot of it. After all, a Marine and a Sailor are sitting around at home by themselves, drinking and talking, and these two old friends aren't in the least bit worried about offending anyone with their salty language. If you find this kind of language offensive, I suggest you read no further.

When heroes aren't saving schools full of children from jihad terrorist bombers or pulling SEAL teams out of hostile territory, or saving the world from either nuclear or biological annihilation or rescuing stranded skiers with a fully armed and state-of-the-art military aircraft, they're really just like everyone else as they wind down and try to spend a little quality time together without interruption, and engage in the nearly lost art form known as conversation. If only it weren't for those pesky telemarketers, and a couple of acquaintances from long, long ago . . .

"The New Adventures of XENA: Warrior Princess"

"A Quiet Evening at Home"

by Ernie Whiting

erniewhiting@centurylink.net

The deafening chatter of automatic weapons fire almost drowned out the screams of the wounded and the dying, and the thundering explosions of bombs and artillery shells rattled the very sky and furiously shook the ground. Flames burst in massive, roiling balls of yellow and orange fire and black smoke, and leapt high into the sky to illuminate the darkness of the moonless night into full, noon time brilliance, as though someone had kicked open the gates of Hell itself. Jet fighters raced low across the sky, strafing the battlefield with machine guns and rockets to destroy everything in sight. All of the horror, all of the sound, all of the wrath and rage of war had been unleashed in their full, malevolent fury.

"Medic!" a voice screamed and sobbed in agony. "Medic! God damn it, I need a medic!"

"The doc is dead!" another voice screamed from nearby. "Doc's dead! We got no fuckin' medic!"

Clumps of bloodied soil and pieces of shredded bodies, some still clad in remains of fatigues and some bare, fell to the earth like rain as the mortar shells went off with deafening explosions. And then, amidst the screaming and the shooting, and the explosions and the burning, everything suddenly stopped. It just simply froze in place, as though the battle was being interrupted by Ares himself, who had decided to pop in with a flash of blue-white light to make some laconic observations with his inimitable and heartless Ares style. There was no action and no movement, and the silence was so sudden and profound that it was almost startling.

"I gotta hit the head," Brie Duncan said as she dropped the remote control onto the sofa cushion next to her. "I'll be right back." Then she faced Gina Ryan directly. "Do not move from this spot."

"Yes ma'am," Ryan replied, with a mildly amused little smile. Barefoot and dressed in brown-and-black plaid flannel lounge pants and a black pocket T-shirt, and snuggled comfortably beneath one half of a fleece throw blanket of dark brown while semi-reclining on the thickly cushioned sofa, the recon-force Marine watched her partner fondly as the Navy doctor rose from beneath the other half of that blanket, and headed for the stairs. She waited a moment or two longer, and then slowly leaned on one elbow to crane her neck around in order to make certain that Brie had indeed gone upstairs; then, with a tiny wince and a slight groan, she eased herself upright once more and slipped her bare feet into a pair of big, fuzzy brown bear paw slippers (with woolly little black claws), and slowly rose to gingerly make her way for the kitchen. Her ribs weren't too painful, as long as she remembered to move slowly and cautiously; the fractures were healing well, as were the bruises and the superficial lacerations on her back. But she figured that her continuing recovery was still good enough for a little more sympathy, so she decided to play an innocent little game of "Let's Manipulate Brie." (After the way Brie always seemed to playfully manipulate the Marine, Ryan felt that a little bit of sportive payback was justified.) The only real downside of this delicate little game was that it had a tendency to backfire; sometimes, she received a little too much sympathy and attention from the irascible and insistent young doctor, which occasionally resulted in Ryan being watched a little more closely than she really liked.

She knew full well that it was a childish and immature little game, but so what? It was also so darned fun.

At the moment, she figured that if she was quick enough and quiet enough, she might be able to sneak herself another helping of that left over chicken cacciatore that was drenched in rich, red tomato sauce and covered in parmigiano romano cheese, and get it wolfed down before Brie returned. ("I'll never understand it," Brie had once commented about the cheese. "If the senses of smell and taste are so closely linked, then how is it that something that smells so much like feet makes food taste so good?") She'd been instructed to watch her calorie intake, now that her activity was restricted; with her daily workouts absolutely out of the question for the time being, she had to be careful not to put on too many pounds while she recuperated. Brie wouldn't allow her to have the same portions of dinner as before, so whenever the doctor wasn't watching, Gina would sneak into the kitchen for a little extra helping.

Standing before the dazzling white refrigerator with its side-by-side doors and simulated cherry wood handles, she paused and thought. Do I really want chicken? she asked herself. Or maybe do I want something else . . . She pulled open the freezer door on the left, and narrowed her sapphire eyes a bit against the brightness of the interior light as she surveyed the contents. And then she grinned. There you are, my delectable little friend! she thought as she reached for the half-gallon of chocolate mousse/raspberry truffle ice cream. Come to mamma!

And then she thought, Wait a minute . . . It was December, it was well after dark, and even though it was only 6:30 PM it was thirty-six degrees outside, with a gentle shower and mild winds. The fire was blazing merrily in the fireplace, and helping to ward off the chill that had stealthily crept into the house like a thief that had come to rob them of their warmth. Did it really make sense to be eating ice cream when trying to keep warm?

She sighed, and put the ice cream back. And then she saw the cheese. Smoked gouda. Yum! she thought. And there was that box of those round butter crackers sitting in the cupboard, all by its lonesome self and just pleading to be opened, and the remains of that roll of Italian dry salame that silently called to her with that sweet Sirens' song as it rested on the shelf in the fridge . . .

Feeling better than she had all week, and merrily humming a little tune to herself, she reached for the salame and then spun delicately to bump the door shut with one hip as she turned to face the oaken kitchen island. Leaving the salame on the cutting board, she then slid and spun around the square island with the grace of a professional ballroom dancer, and went to open a cupboard door. Out came the crackers and a bottle of wine (What better to cut through that high-fat cheese than a good glass of deep, dark, red cholesterol medicine? she asked herself with a wry and inward smile. Besides, it was a Friday night, and they'd had about as busy a week as Gina's healing ribs would allow; so why not just kick back and relax, and open second bottle?), and then she pulled open a drawer to reach for a knife and the corkscrew. Smiling to herself and still humming a little tune, she swung her hips around once, twice, and then a third time, and then pushed the drawer shut with a hip, swung the cupboard door shut, smoothly spun around—

—and found a scowling Gabriella standing not two feet away, with her arms folded authoritatively across her chest.

With a sharp yelp and a violent start, she nearly jumped out of her skin. "GodJesus!"

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Her question was soft and quiet, but her sudden appearance had caught the Marine completely by surprise. As a result, a very busted Gina froze, and looked positively sheepish as she stood before her partner with a bottle of Beaujolais in one hand and a corkscrew in the other. How long had the doctor been standing there watching her? Oh God, how the hell was she going to explain . . .

"I . . ." she began weakly. Would Brie believe her if she told her that some man had broken in through the back door, and she had to chase him out? And that as long as she was here in the kitchen, she might as well . . .

With wide, blue eyes, and midnight bangs sweeping across her brow, she suddenly pointed somewhere behind Brie with the hand that held the wine bottle. "Hey, look!" she said. "It's Medusa!"

Dressed in black sweat pants and a crisp, new, midnight blue T-shirt with NAVY emblazoned across the front in gold, and with her arms still folded across her chest in quiet yet no less unmistakable determination, the resolute, no-bullshit Navy doctor continued to regard her disobedient patient with a cold, dark scowl. Only now, she was also angrily tap-tap-tapping one fuzzy, white, bunny slipper-clad foot—complete with sparkling black eyes, a pink little nose, and upright ears and black whiskers that bounced with every annoyed tap—against the polished, hardwood floor. It was a sure sign that the recon-force Marine was truly in deep, deep doo-doo.

Gina sighed in dismay and defeat. "I came looking . . . for . . . " She winced slightly, and let the rest of her response trail off. She knew she wasn't supposed to be here, and she had absolutely no excuse for disobeying her doctor's orders. She let her head hang in exaggerated chagrin, hoping to elicit a smile from her doctor.

It didn't work.

Regarding her with a scowl and a growl, the displeased bard gently took the bottle and corkscrew from her. "I told you I don't want you aggravating those injuries," she softly yet sternly told the Marine. "Y'see? Y'all right?" she added, having noticed the grimace. "D'you need something for pain?"

She hadn't seen her dancing around the kitchen after all, Ryan thought. At least, she hoped not. "The only reason why it hurts now is because you scared the livin' bejeesus out of me," she grumbled in reply. "How many times have I asked you not to sneak up on me like that?" In spite of all of her extensive training . . . in spite of all of her years of battle-honed and hardened experience . . . and even in spite of her unquestionable Warrior Princess's instincts, the only person who could ever successfully sneak up on her was Gabriella Duncan—Navy doctor, bard, soul mate. Not even Ares, the very God of War himself, could accomplish that feat.

Brie ignored the question. Instead, she said, "Y'know, I had a feeling you were gonna be here. Now, you promised me you were going to behave yourself so you could stay out of that body cast I threatened you with. I turned my back for five minutes, Gina. For five little minutes, and what do you do? You break your word." She sighed heavily, and shook her head in almost motherly admonishment. "I'm disappointed in you. Really disappointed."

"Well, I . . ." Gina said lamely as she fought without success to defend her actions. "You were in the bathroom, and . . . "

"I was in the bathroom?" she repeated, with mild scorn and skepticism, and an arched, golden eyebrow. "That's your excuse—I was in the bathroom? And what, you couldn't have waited a couple of minutes?"

Suddenly, Gina just couldn't help grinning at her with sardonic amusement. "'A couple of minutes,' huh?" she grumbled dubiously. "What are you, kidding me? It's more like half an—Oww!"

With one rigid index finger, Brie had poked her sharply yet harmlessly in her chest to cut her off—and to illicit a rubbery squeak from the point of poking, much like the sound of a dog's chew toy that's been stepped on. "It's bad enough I let you cook dinner," she said. "I know you're bored. I know you're antsy, and you want to move around and work out, and go running. And that's a good sign, too. But I do not want you pushing your luck. Now, I feel for you, darlin', I truly do. But you need to take it easy for a while, all right?"

Screwing up her mouth in a failing effort to suppress a smile, and then wincing again at a slight pain in her ribs, she said, "Yes, Mother."

Her scowl deepened, and so did her east-Texas drawl. "And y'all can just watch your smart little mug there, too, Colonel, or I will call your mom and have her come over here to henpeck you to death."

Gina regarded her with combined expressions of outrage and dread. The last thing she needed was a visit from her mother; to have her crying over her injured daughter and scolding her for not having been more careful, and incessantly fussing over her like the very Italian mother that she was.

With a mixture of defiance and dread, the Defense Department's Director of Special Warfare Training glared at her dangerously, and growled, "You wouldn't dare!"

With a cold and daunting little smile on her lips, the chief administrator of the North Island U.S. Naval Air Station Hospital narrowed her own blue-green eyes dangerously, and growled back, "Try me."

Gina's own sapphire eyes narrowed threateningly in response . . . and then she finally conceded. Muttering something under her breath, she started back toward the living room, with a thin, soft, vinyl scraping of her slippers' heels against the floor.

Brie watched her silently as Ryan turned and retreated. "Where're you going?" she asked.

Half way back to the sofa, the scrape-scrape-scraping stopped as Gina halted and turned again. "I'm going to go sit down, like you wanted."

"What, now?" Brie asked. "I mean, shit, girl, as long as you're here, can't you at least open the wine first?"

Gina regarded her with distrustful azure eyes as she slowly and suspiciously started back toward the kitchen. (Scrape. Scrape. Scrape.) She had seen her dancing around the kitchen after all! Or had she? Goddamnit, she still couldn't be sure. "Why do I get the feeling I'm being manipulated here?" she asked.

"That's just in your head," Brie replied, with what may or may not have been a hint of a playful little smile.

Gina was about to respond when the telephone rang.

"I'll get it," Brie said. She set the knife down and reached for the phone. "Hello? Mom! Hey, hi! How're y'doin'?"

"Hey, Mom!" Gina called out to Brie's mother.

"Gina says 'Hey!'" Brie said into the phone. Then she swung the mouthpiece under her chin and away from her lips. "Mom says 'Hey!'" She swung the phone back up. "So what's up? . . . Yeah? . . . Really?" she asked, with a voice that was laced more with surprise than enthusiasm. "No kidding?"

"What?" Gina asked as she twisted down on the corkscrew.

She swung the mouthpiece down and away again. "Mom says Veronica's gonna be a fed; she left the Texas Rangers, and landed a job with the U.S. Marshal's office. She'll be working out of Sacramento but doesn't want to live in the city itself, so she'll be moving here to Nevada City in a couple of months." She listened some more. "And Evie's transferring from the Dallas DA's office to work as a federal prosecutor out of Sacramento, so she's getting a place right here, too—so Mom and Dad are going pull up stakes from Dallas and move just down the road to Grass Valley."

"No kidding?" Gina said, with far more enthusiasm than Brie had shown. "Cool! Everyone's gonna be a lot closer." (Gina's folks had recently moved from New York to Nevada City. And while they could be downright irritante at times, the family-oriented Marine was not in the least bit dismayed by their close proximity.)

She pointed to her ribs as Brie continued to talk on the phone, made a pained expression, and offered the wine bottle and corkscrew in trade for the telephone. Brie made the swap, and went to work opening the wine while Gina spoke. "So let us know when you get settled in so we can come and see the place . . . Yeah, we can have a huge blowout party . . . Yeah, it's gonna be great . . . "

Brie pulled the cork with a sharp pop! and handed her the open wine bottle and the corkscrew.

"Here's Brie back." They traded again.

"Yeah, it'll be great!" she said with feigned excitement as Gina headed back for the sofa with the wine. "Yeah, we're gonna need addresses and phone numbers . . . Yeah . . . Yeah, okay, you got it. Say 'Hey!' to Dad 'n' Ronnie 'n' Evie . . . Right. I love you too. Bye." She punched the disconnect button with her thumb and carried the phone with her as she followed Gina, who scrape-scrape-scraped her way back to the sofa. "Oh dear God," she groaned miserably.

Gina gave her a sympathetic little smile. "Suck it up, sailor. You will get through this."

"Yeah, I know," she said as they settled into the sofa. "It's just . . . I like my privacy and independence. And the last thing we need is to have Mom dropping in on us when we're upstairs."

"No one's gonna lose their privacy or independence," Gina gently stressed with a little smile. "Besides, look at the bright side; we can unexpectedly pop in on them, too. Payback."

Brie looked at her uncertainly. "Pop in on my folks when they're upstairs?" Then her face screwed up as though she had just bitten into a lemon. "Jesus, Ryan! That's just plain sick!"

Gina dropped the smile, and gave her the "You-Know-What-I-Mean" look. "Also," she added a moment later, "if we were more criminally minded, having your folks move into town would make it a lot easier for the Duncan & Ryan Family to really take over Nevada City. I mean, you've got one sister who's a cop and one who's a lawyer; and with my grandfather's family business contacts and my brother Mike's friends in low places, and between my military contacts and Travis's . . ." She thought it over for a quick moment as ancient visions of her brothers Lyceus and Toris, and of her fiancé Mephias, abruptly began to swirl through her mind . . . her brothers, her fiancé, and their battle against the warlord Cortese . . . her ensuing expansion of her territory, and subsequent conscription of additional troops to fight off other perceived invaders of her home village of Amphipolis . . . her alliances with people like Darphus and Draco, which had eventually resulted in her transformation into the feared and then hated Warrior Princess . . .

With a small and sudden jolt of realization, she softly said, "My God, we really could take over."

Brie gave her an amused and sardonic look. "Dream on, darlin'," she said. Then she leaned in, cupped her hand around the side of Gina's face, and gave one soft cheek a gently smacking kiss. "That's from Mom."

Gina grinned as she filled their wine glasses. "She really is a sweetheart."

"And it's nice to see you're feelin' better," she added with a little smile as she slipped off her slippers and drew her legs up behind her.

Gina regarded her with outward calm as her heart plummeted into her stomach with the realization that she just might be . . .

"I mean, the way you were dancin' around the kitchen and all just now . . ." she added as she pulled the blanket over her bare feet.

. . . most definitely busted, she concluded with an inward cringe. "I was just looking for a little sympathy," she reluctantly confessed with a little smile as she handed Brie a glass.

"Mission accomplished, darlin'," she drawled lightly, with a tiny smile of her own as she accepted that glass. "You'll get little sympathy from me."

"Swine," she chuckled ruefully as she leaned comfortably into her corner once more. They gently clinked their glasses together in a silent toast. "It's just a tiny twinge every once in a while," she admitted at last. "The wine actually does help to dull the pain better than the pills do; those things just make me feel dizzy and tired."

"What, and the wine doesn't?"

"Yeah, well . . . that's a good kind of dizzy and tired."

"But the pills aren't fattening," she informed her. "You're still gonna be out of action for a little while, so like I said—watch that calorie intake."

"Will do." She sipped her wine again with a smile. "Let the movie resume."

Snuggled together once more under the blanket, and with the bottle of wine and their glasses sitting on the coffee table before them, Brie picked up the remote, pointed it at the TV, and then hesitated. Then she let her arm drop. "You sure you want to watch the rest of this?" she asked as she gazed despondently at the screen. It still showed a Soviet Army T-80 tank, frozen in mid-explosion with its turret flying upward and its treads blowing outward, and with flames flying everywhere else.

"Why not?"

"I don't know, it's just . . . Isn't there somethin' better than a war movie? Maybe it's the wine, but . . . but suddenly I'm just not in the mood for a war movie. Too damn much killin'."

Gina thought it over for a moment, and then decided that Brie was right. They'd seen enough of death and destruction in their years of combat; why watch more of it, even if it was merely simulated on a wide-screen television? The more she thought about it, the more she considered the idea of taking a few of their DVDs to that little shop in town near the post office, and see if they could trade off some of their war movies for some comedies, or maybe some documentaries. "Y'know, you're right," she said at last. "I'll go find something else." She started to slide out from under her to get up, and the room began to whirl around her just a little bit.

"Stay put. I'll find a movie." With her wine glass in hand, she rose with a relaxed and fluid grace, and headed over to the small video disc library. Kneeling before the shelves, and then sitting back on her bare feet, she eyed the titles. "'Saving Private Ryan'," she softly said to herself. "'Platoon' . . . 'Apocalypse Now' . . . 'Hamburger Hill'. . . 'We Were Soldiers'. . . 'Band of Brothers' . . ." She looked back over her shoulder at her partner. "Gina, why did we buy all these war movies?"

"Seemed like a good idea at the time, I guess," she replied before sipping at her wine.

She returned her attention to the video library. "Hmmm . . ." She squinted thoughtfully as she examined more titles. "'Aliens?'"

Gina screwed up her mouth slightly as she swallowed. "Naw . . . "

"How about the unrated 'Eurotrip'?'"

"Naw. The woman playing the madam in the Dutch brothel is a dork."

Brie looked at her over her shoulder. "Creepy Italian Guy is funny . . . "

"Keep searching." She sipped at her wine again, and set her glass down on the table next to her elbow.

"How about 'Practical Magic,' with Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman?"

"We just watched that last Saturday."

Sipping at her own wine with a slowly yet steadily growing buzz, Brie continued to search the titles. "Okay, what about . . . what about . . . 'Patriot Games?' 'Clear And Present Danger?' 'The Sum Of All Fears?' 'The Devil's Own?' 'The Last Samurai?' 'Thunderheart?' 'The Peacemaker?'"

"'Peacemaker'?" Gina said. "That the one with Nicole Kidman and George Clooney?"

"Yeah; it's the one about terrorists smuggling a backpack nuke into the US to blow up the UN and a good portion of New York City. It's a good movie. Lots of action and adventure." She thoughtfully examined the cover a moment longer. "That could have been us, y'know."

"What do you mean?"

"You know . . . Me as the nuclear emergency expert, and you as the kick-ass military officer flyin' around in that helicopter gun ship and beatin' the shit out of that Russian arms dealer. . ."

Ryan glared at her in mild shock. "What are you, kidding me?" she asked. "The guy's an Army pogue, for God's sake!"

"He's an Army Ranger," Brie said with soft emphasis to make her point, "like your brother Travis. He's even got the patches on his shoulders to prove it. Jumps out of airplanes and everything."

"Yeah, okay, so he's a Ranger. Bee eff dee. Any dumbass can jump out of a perfectly good airplane. Look at me," she added with a self-deprecating smile. "I've done it plenty of times." She reached for her wine and sipped again. "Bein' a Ranger makes him almost as good as a regular Marine." (This was a sentiment that, in the spirit of playful rivalry, she never failed to voice to her brother.)

Brie watched her for a moment, and then grinned at her with that dazzling Gabrielle Grin. "No one's as good as you ol' Devil Dogs, are they?" she asked sardonically.

"Nope." Then she smiled thoughtfully as she gazed at her partner. "Welllll . . . maybe a Navy SEAL."

Brie laughed. "Oh, give me a fuckin' break!"

With a soft laugh of her own, the unrepentantly biased Marine raised her wineglass to her lips. She was well aware of just how highly trained the Navy SEALs, the recon-force Marines, Army Rangers and Delta Force were; after all, she trained them now. Not only had she rewritten the special warfare training manual, but also on those occasions when she felt as though she needed to go through a little PT herself to work out a few kinks, she would even head out into the field to provide some first-hand instruction. As a matter of fact, in a symbolic act of shedding her rank one day (but not her service branch—never her service branch!), she had left her fatigue blouse with its colonel's eagles on the collars in the hands of one of the instructors, and had gone to stand before the trainees in combat boots, jungle camouflage fatigue pants, an unadorned brown t-shirt and a Marine Corps fatigue cap. With her hands behind her back and a cool little smile on her lips, she had proceeded to challenge them with, "All right, girls. Show me what you've got." And when they were done, with Ryan standing over the assortment of moaning and groaning trainees who were all gingerly cradling their various injuries, she had addressed them again: "So . . . did we learn anything today?" One of them had made the mistake of being overheard by their instructor when he had muttered under his breath, "Yeah—don't mess with this bitch." Ryan had stepped forward and seized him by his shirt front in one vice-like fist, and had hauled him to his feet to get right in his face; to actually press her nose right into his. And with steely blue eyes and a lion's snarl, she'd said, "Oo-rah." And then, with a blur of movements, she had swept his feet from beneath him and dropped him face-down in the sand, and had commanded, "Now give me thirty, squid."

Still grinning, Brie returned her attention once again to the video library, and scanned some more titles. And then she stopped, and scowled in puzzlement at another title. Very softly, she asked herself, "'Shaun Of The Dead?' Where the hell did this come from?"

Gina looked equally perplexed. "'Shaun Of The Dead?'" she repeated, her words a little slow. She didn't recognize the title. "Izzat even ours?"

"Muss be," she said as she examined the front of the cover with slightly bleary eyes. "It's in our libr . . . rary."

"Where'd you pick that up at?"

She looked up at her. "Me?" She sipped her wine. "I thought you bought it."

Gina shook her head. "Whuss it about?"

She quickly flipped it over as though it was one of her sais, caught it again, and squinted at the back of the cover. She didn't have her reading glasses, and in her mild state of intoxication it was difficult to see in the dim light. Tilting her head back and casting her eyes downward seemed to help a little. "Dead people comin' back to life and goin' on a mass murder spree . . . cannibalism . . . killin' loved ones . . ." The movie sounded vaguely familiar, and she cast her memory back. "I think it also involves some brain-eatin' . . ." She looked back at Ryan with a mildly cynical expression. "It's a comedy."

Gina smiled wryly into her wine glass. "Yeah, right. Sounds like a real laugh fest."

Brie was still watching her. "You want to give 'er a whirl?"

Gina shrugged. "Sure, why not?" she said. "I'm intrigued by the brain-eating."

With a slight popping of one knee and a tiny groan, Brie rose to her feet, headed over to the entertainment center, and had just a little bit of trouble as she took out the war movie disc and replaced it with the new one. She pushed the tray in, and headed for her seat on the sofa once more.

"Y'know what pizzes me off?" Gina asked with a deep sigh as the blonde straightened the blanket and comfortably settled in against her once more with a little sigh of her own. "All these stupid little announcements that the makers of these things force us to watch. The copyright agreements, and the punishments for infringement, and the threats from Interpol, and all that. I mean, we know copyright violation is illegal; anyone who doesn't probably lives in a fuckin' cave somewhere, and doesn't even own a DVD player. It's bad enough to have to see the stupid things in English and they won't let you fast-forward through them. But having them also in French? Why do they do that?"

"For their French-speakin' viewers, I reckon," Brie replied, with her relaxed, east-Texas drawl, as she raised her glass to her lips. "All six of 'em . . ."

So there they rested, in each other's warmth and with their mild little wine buzz, and waited obediently, and read the little announcements and warnings through which they could not fast forward. And then the studio's logo and music came up and then faded out, and then as the movie began the telephone rang again.

"Your mom's called already," Gina said. "Must be mine. Gimme that."

Brie handed her the ringing cordless phone.

"Hello?"

The line was obviously open; however, the caller was saying nothing. Instead, they were shuffling papers and moving things around. Obviously, it was not a friend or relative, because a friend or a relative would have spoken without delay; immediately, Gina had her suspicions as to who the caller was. "Hallo?" she repeated, a little more loudly.

"Good evening!" said a cheery, male voice. "How are you this evening?"

Gina glanced at the flat, gray satellite clock, with its digital readout, that stood on top of the wide-screen television set. It was getting on toward seven PM. Why the hell do these people call at this time of night? Why the hell do they pause silently, and listen to you before saying anything? Are they just making certain that they've got your attention, or are they just screwing around, or do they just not care, or . . . God, Gina thought, that is so goddamned annoying . . .

"Jess?" she asked.

"My name's Sean, and I'm calling for NBI long distance service. If you subscribe now—"

Son of a b . . . she growled silently. It was time to annoy him right back. "Come?" Gina asked.

Brie looked at her curiously with one eyebrow raised. "Who's zat?"

She covered the mouthpiece with one hand, and quietly replied, "Some dude named Sean."

Her other eyebrow went up. "The dead guy?"

Mouthing the words silently, Gina said, "Telemarketer."

Brie scowled. "Hang up on the fucker."

"—we can offer you a savings that's far superior to—"

"Parli più lentamente, per favore," Gina said, requesting him to speak more slowly.

The other end of the line was silent for a moment. At last, Sean said, "Excuse me?"

"Che cazzo vai?" she demanded. "Può passarmi un centralinista che parla italiano?"

With a sudden grin, Brie threw off her share of the blanket, got to her feet, and wove her way to her office and to the computer, and the cordless extension that rested next to it. She lifted the receiver, thumbed the "talk" button, and listened quietly.

"Quanto verrà a costare?" Gina asked.

"Um, could you excuse me for one moment?" Sean asked. "I'll go find someone who speaks Spanish."

"Hello?" said Brie.

Momentary silence. "Hello?" said Sean.

"Hello?" Brie said again.

"Hello?" said Gina.

Short pause. "Hello?" said Sean, a little louder.

"Yeah, hi," Brie said. "I speak Spanish. What do you want?"

"Yes, hello," Sean said, growing more flustered by the moment. "I was trying to explain—"

"Boy, my Spanish has gotten really good, y'know?" Brie asked. "I can understand every word you're sayin'."

"Vaffanculo!" a grinning Gina exclaimed.

"Hey!" Brie said. "Who the fuck're you tellin' to 'vaffanculo,' goddamn it?"

"Va cazzo!"

"Hey, Sean!" Brie snapped with forced anger while she hoped that her grin couldn't be noticed in her voice. "You got yourself one mouthy little woman there, y'know that?"

"What?" a flustered Sean asked. "I have a— What the— Hey, I—"

"Testa di merde!"

"Oh, yeah?" said the mouthy Navy doctor. "Awright, Sean's woman, try comin' over here and sayin' that, you fat Irish pig! Ah'm gonna beat your ass with a stick, man! Beat it t'il it bleeds! B—Hello?" She stopped abruptly, and listened. "Hello?"

"Hello?" Gina asked.

"Hello?" Brie said again.

No Sean.

"Hello?" they asked together.

Absolute, total silence. He'd hung up.

"Damn," Gina said with mild disappointment as she regarded the phone, and then punched the disconnect with her thumb. "Just when it was getting good . . . "

Brie hung up her own phone, and returned to the sofa. Once again, she got comfortable beneath the blanket and against Gina's warmth.

Gina looked at her. "With a stick?" she asked.

***

He screamed hideously as the mob of zombies reached for him and began pulling him apart, tearing open his belly with savage abandon and pulling out bright, crimson intestines that stretched and tore like red, molten strands of mozzarella. He screamed again and again—

"Oh, my God!" Brie exclaimed with shocked, wide eyes. "They've killed Kenny! Those bastards!"

Gina reached for the remote control on the coffee table before them, and when she thumbed the stop button the black-and-blue logo of the DVD player's manufacturer appeared on the screen. "Mother of God, this movie's dark," she said softly in the ensuing silence as she lowered her arm. "I mean, there are dark comedies and dark comedies, but this is . . . my God, this is beyond gruesome!"

"Aw, come on," Brie drawled softly, with a little smile, a mild and playful little nudge as she lay comfortably against her partner, and with her mild, east-Texas accent which seemed to become just a little more pronounced with each glass of wine she had. "C'mon, it's just a movie."

"'Just a movie,' my ass," Gina muttered under her breath. "Blecchh. What else have we got?"

Brie rose slightly, pushing herself semi-upright on one hand, and turned to regard her with a wry, tipsy and mildly surprised little smile. "Since when did you get to be so squeamish? I mean, other than bein' around syringes?"

"It's not a question of being 'squeamish,'" Gina replied. "This is just gratuitous gore. Gore for the sake of gore. I mean, think about it. It doesn't advance the plot, it doesn't explain any of the characters' motivation—"

"Ooohhh, I dis-a-gree!" Brie countered with grand enthusiasm. "It motivates the characters to get offa their fat, white, pommy asses and to run like hell!"

"—it's just throwing buckets of blood around for the sake of throwing buckets of blood around. They make up for their lack of imagination with this," she finished with mild derision.

"Naww," Brie disagreed. She sat up straight and laid an arm across the back of the sofa. "I think a lot of their swearin' is pretty imaginative."

Still lying on her side, with her elbow on the arm rest and with her head now supported in her hand, Gina shook her head slightly and snorted gently in mild disagreement. "Excessive swearing is a crutch for the intellectually impaired."

"I dunno . . . There's somethin' about British swearin' that makes American swearin' sound kind of pale by comparison, y'know? Maybe it's the accent. And when it comes to character motivation, I think bein' chased by a gang of brain-eatin' zombies would pretty well motivate me to run like a motherfuck."

Gina shifted in her corner, and regarded her with mildly sharpened sapphire eyes. "Y'see?"

Brie watched her for an unsettled moment or two. With all thoughts of television and movies completely forgotten now, and with a bit of mild caution, she finally asked, "What?"

"That right there," Ryan replied, now sitting up straight. "That's exactly what I mean. 'Run like a motherfuck.' 'Motherfuck' isn't even a real word. You're a writer; you know that. Why say 'run like a motherfuck'? Isn't there a better adjective?"

"Simile," the bard automatically corrected her. "Adjectives modify a noun; similes are two dissimilar things that are likened to each other through the use of 'like' or 'as'—"

"Whatever!" Gina waved her off with increasing exasperation. "Isn't there a better description?"

With her elbow now atop the back rest and her head resting against her hand, and with the flickering orange firelight illuminating her face in the darkness and shining in her eyes and against her shimmering, blonde hair, Brie thought it over for a quiet moment with a reflective expression in her eyes that Gina thought was positively angelic. After all the years that they had known each other, both here and in Greece, Brie continued to possess a combined quality of innocence, warmth and compassion that exhibited itself through her clear, blue-green eyes, and which never failed to give the warrior's heart a gentle squeeze.

The fire popped and crackled in the fireplace, and filled the room with the pleasing scents of burning pine and cedar. And then, at last, Gina's innocent, compassionate, and angelic-looking soul mate jarringly shattered that image by distantly and somewhat drunkenly mumbling with a tiny shrug of one shoulder, "Fuck, man, I dunno . . . F'rinstance?"

Gina sighed in continued, mild aggravation as she leaned back into her corner and folded her arms across her chest. "I don't know," she said, somewhat frustrated by a momentary loss for words that was a result of her mild intoxication. "I . . ." She thought for a moment. "What about 'run like a jackrabbit on fire?'"

Brie's mildly curious look expanded into a glare of muted horror. "Oh, my God!" she said as she raised her head from her hand. "'Like a jackrabbit on fire?'" She shuddered at the idea. "Poor li'l bunny!" She shook her head. "Man, are you gonna get letters from PETA!"

"It's juss an expression," Gina said with mild emphasis. "I mean . . . well . . . shit, babe, you know what I mean."

"Yeah, yeah, I know . . ." She leaned back into her own corner, and folded her own arms across her chest. "Like, 'He ran across the tarmac as though his ass was in flames,' or somethin' like that." She laughed softly as she crossed her legs at the ankles, and rested them on top of Gina's. "It does paint a more entertainin' mental image. Screamin' like a banshee an' clutchin' at his butt with both hands while runnin' hell bent for leather . . ."

Even Gina couldn't help laughing at the image. A moment later, she went on with a soft voice: "I mean, have we as a society really become that dependent on our use of obscenities? Can't we come up with somethin' better to express ourselves?" She shifted slightly on the couch, and had to mildly force herself to enunciate more clearly. "Remember 'Gone With The Wind,' and how shocked audiences were back in 1939 when Clark Gable said, 'Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn'? I mean, that was unheard of in the movies! It really impacted the viewer with Rhett Butler's absolute disregard for Scarlett O'Hara. It really drove home an emotional point. It said something, with meaning, and heart, and guts! In today's movies and rap lyrics, though, it's 'motherfucker' this and 'motherfucker' that . . . and to paraphrase ol' Clark again, no one gives a damn! What have we become as a society that this kind of unquestionably rude behavior doesn't even warrant a raised eyebrow anymore?"

Brie couldn't help being entertained by the idea that the recon-force Marine, battle-hardened warrior and spec warfare instructor—who was widely known throughout the entire Armed Forces for her use of imaginative and colorful language—was now decrying the use of obscenities in popular culture. After all, the use of such obscenities was a pretty popular part of Marine Corps culture, and was even considered to be a valid, effective and motivational training tool. As a matter of fact, some in the military even looked upon the use of such language with a bit of pride, what with everyone always trying to out-cuss everyone else.

But to be used in polite society . . . well . . .

"Yeah, I know what you mean," she admitted at last as she nodded slightly. "But what about that ol' Jefferson Airplane song, 'We Can Be Together?' One line of that says, 'Up against the wall, motherfucker,' and that was as far back as 1969."

"The whole line of lyrics was, 'Up against the wall, motherfucker; tear down the wall . . .' That was a political statement," Gina countered as she finally gave up, and let the wine buzz take her over. But even so, she found herself consumed by a new level of intensity as she continued to make her point. "And it wasn't chanted over and over again, like some kind of obscene mantra; it was only said once, and used to make a point. A lot of the Airplane's songs—at least, in their later years—were highly political, and concerned with social change and outright revolution. I mean, considering the president who was in power at the time, you could hardly blame them. Back then, obscenities in music were used sparingly, and to make a specific point. Steppenwolf's 'God damn the pusher man,' for example, in their condemnation of drug dealers; or the Who's 'Her boyfriend's gonna kill me; oh, fuckin' will he,' from 'Quadrophenia'; or even from Paul Kantner's 'I am alive, I am human, I will be alive again—so drop your fuckin' bombs, burn your demon babies, I will be again,' from his 'Blows Against The Empire' album?"

The fire crackled and popped in the fireplace as Brie silently gazed at her in mild awe. How does she remember all these lyrics? she silently asked herself. And then she had to remind herself that Ryan was quite the music aficionado; all one had to do was to take a quick look at the baby grand piano that stood near the big bay window, and at her expansive CD collection, which included just about every musical genre but rap, polka and mariachi.

"But with today's rap lyrics and popular movies, though, they curse an' swear just so they can shock people," Ryan continued. "They're like spoiled and insolent little punk-ass kids who think it's funny to fart as loudly as they can at the dinner table."

There was a moment of contemplative silence in which they both sipped at their wine as each continued to semi-recline at her end of the sofa.

"When my sisters and I were kids," Brie softly said, "when we were six, we had an eight-year-old cousin who used to do that all the time. Li'l cousin Billy Bob. Every time he and his folks came to visit for, like, Easter dinner or somethin', he'd do the same thing—just strain and fart as loud as he could, just to gross out us girls. He thought it was a riot."

"Didn't that just piss you off?"

"It did . . . " And here she began to laugh. ". . . until one day, when what he thought was a blank turned out to be a live round."

"Oh, God," Gina chuckled as she tried to imagine the look of surprise and then sheer horror on Billy Bob's face.

"An' it was a big'n, too!" she laughed. "Just his luck that he'd been wearin' shorts that day!"

"Oh, my God!" Gina laughed with wide and incredulous eyes as she let her imagination run wild.

"And the smell!" she laughed. "Oh, God, the smell! Dear Jesus! I don't know how somethin' so pasty and foul could reside inside such a little kid!"

"Oh, Jesus!" Gina laughed again. She knew she ought to feel sorry for the poor little bastard, but she couldn't help herself; after all, he had brought it upon himself. With her eyes squeezed shut, she drew her knees up and hugged herself tightly in an effort to stabilize her ribs and not laugh too hard because of the pain, but she couldn't help herself; the more she laughed, the more her ribs hurt. And in a mad and vicious cycle, the more her ribs hurt, the more she laughed.

Thoroughly drunk and completely out of control, both women were gasping for air now, and shrieking with laughter.

"That's how we found out that he really likes to eat walnuts!" Brie laughed.

"Shut up!" Gina pleaded in a new wave of breathless hysterics as she pounded a fist against one leg. "Shut up! Shut up! Oh, dear God, please—shut up!"

"Boy, I'll tell ya," Brie said as she finally began to settle down. "That was the last we saw of ol' Cousin Billy Bob for a long damn time!"

"I can imagine," Gina said as she wiped tears of laughter from her eyes. "I'll bet he never did that shit again!" She started to laugh again at the unintentional pun.

"No lie," Brie said as she managed to compose herself once more. "Not quite like that, anyway. We had to send him home in the only clean underwear we could find . . . in a household full of girls . . ." And then she lost it again, and barely managed to finish with a breathless and shuddering wheeze, ". . . a pair of Evie's panties . . ."

Gina melted down into another quivering puddle of crying laughter.

". . . and his mom's sweater . . . wrapped around him . . . like a skirt . . ."

"Hel-lo Dr. Freud! I'll bet he's . . . emotionally scarred for life . . ." she finished with a wheeze.

"And that's . . . that's how he got . . . his nickname," Brie said, wiping at her eyes as she continued to chuckle.

Gina was shaking so hard, she was barely able to speak. As she continued to wipe the tears from her own eyes with both palms, and with a voice that was high and tight, she barely managed to squeeze out, "What's that?"

"Fudge."

Gina threw her head back as the rest of her curled up like a dead spider, and screamed with renewed laughter. "Oh God, my ribs!"

It took another half minute or so before either of them could settle down enough to speak again. "Did Evie . . . ever get her . . . underwear back?" the Marine asked at last.

"Naw, we . . . we let 'im keep 'em." Chuckling again, she reached for her wine glass. "Evie didn't even want 'em back after Billy Bob'd had his junk in 'em." She took a deep breath and let it out in a long, relaxing sigh. "Man . . . Easter Dinner of '77; the most memorable event in our family's entire history." She sipped at her wine. "That poor chair never did come clean; we had to throw it out."

"Oh, man . . ." Gina chuckled again, and reached for her own glass. She took a sip, and finally settled down. "My train of thought's been totally derailed," she said as she wiped her eyes dry. "What the hell was I talking about?"

Brie thought back for a moment. "Rap lyrics," she said at last.

"Oh yeah . . ." She had to think for a moment more to pick up the fallen thread. "I was thinking that with today's rap lyrics, referring to women as 'bitches' and 'hoes' and all . . . Here's a perfect example: That song 'It's Hard Out Here For a Pimp,' from that movie 'Hustle & Flow.' Forget about songs like 'As Time Goes By,' or that music from 'The Sting,' or from 'Raiders Of The Lost Ark,' or 'Doctor Zhivago.' Forget about the soundtracks from 'Fantasia,' or '2001—A Space Odyssey.' They just gave an Oscar award to a song about some asshole lamenting about how tough it is to be out there selling women for sex and taking their money, and making his rent. A fucking Academy Award, Brie! For best original song!? About a sex-slave-trafficker? What the hell does that say about the downfall of American society?" She sighed heavily, and shook her head in disgust. "Jesus, God, those people are such a bunch of fucking losers."

Her language could be pretty rough around the edges, but Brie knew that her partner's sense of ethics and morality were unquestionable. She took all of this into consideration when finally, and softly, she said, "You're soap boxin', babe."

"Where the hell is NOW when it comes to popularizing that kind of attitude toward women?" Gina grumbled to herself. "That kind of unmitigated bullshit? They think pornography degrades women? They oughtta listen to some gangsta rap!"

Brie watched her for a moment as she considered everything the Marine had mentioned. Finally, she declared, "You're drunk. You're drunk, and you're ramblin', and you're pontificatin'."

"I may be drunk, and I may be pon. . . toon . . . defecating . . . but does zat mean I'm wrong?"

"Yeah, well . . ." Brie conceded with a silent and thoughtful nod. "But a year from now, do you think anyone'll care?"

"Prob'ly not," Gina replied softly. And then she gazed meaningfully into her partner's eyes. "And that's the real cryin' shame."

Brie said nothing for a long moment. Finally, and in an effort to sort of change the subject, she said, "But y'know what? Swearin' a lot can actually be good for you." She reached for her wine glass. "Research has shown that the use of obscenities actually causes a reduction in blood pressure."

Gina stared at her for a silent moment. "What are you, kiddin' me?"

"Not at all," the doctor replied, and then sipped at her wine. "They've actually recorded physiological changes resulting in lowered BP and stress levels while usin' obscenities. Well, lemme rephrase that: as a result of usin' obscenities as an emotional outlet. You'd think it would be just the opposite, y'know? But it's not just psychological, it's also physical. I mean, after wallopin' your thumb with a hammer, screamin' 'goddamned motherfucker sonofabitch!' actually does more to lower your BP than does a simple declaration of, 'Oh, darn.'"

Holding her own wine glass, Gina regarded her with a mildly drunken and skeptical little smile. "Nice example," she muttered to herself with mild irony. "If you're gonna accept that logic," she said as she raised it to her lips, "then my old drill instructor has gotta be the mellowest dude in the world."

Brie grinned that wry, Gabrielle grin as she chuckled softly. "In his off-hours, he probably is. But I see your point." She sipped at her wine. "Swearin' a lot can also keep you out of legal trouble, too."

Gina's mildly skeptical little smile broadened. "Now I know you're pulling my leg."

"Nope," Brie said. "And you want to know who'll back me up on this?"

She waited silently and expectantly for an answer.

"Evie will."

"Oh, come on!" she said in utter disbelief. "No way!"

Brie couldn't help being entertained by her partner's doubt. "It's the God's-honest truth!"

Gina put her wine glass down on the coffee table, settled a little deeper and a little more comfortably into her corner, and folded her arms across her chest. "All right, doctor," she said with an expectant grin, "enlighten me."

Brie put down her own glass next to Gina's, nestled back into her own corner with a grin of her own, and folded her own arms across her chest. "Okay," she said as she slipped her feet beneath Gina's for a little extra warmth. "There's this psychic guy on TV who says he can talk to the dead. No, wait; better yet, let's make him a faith healer. I know how much you love those guys."

"Okay," Gina said with a single nod. Everyone knew how much she absolutely hated those fraudulent bastards. "Go on."

"The Right Reverend Peter Poontang the Faith Healer is workin' with people he plants in his audiences and fakin' all these cures, and takin' people's money left and right in 'church donations' to pay for his Lear jets and limousines and air-conditioned dog houses, and his wife's breast implants and nose jobs. A faithful follower with leukemia goes to him, makes a big donation to the church, and in return is given a dramatic smack in the forehead and a promise that God's cured him . . . and is dead within six months. His distraught wife, who's just absolutely devastated with grief, gets on TV with the press, and blasts Reverend Poontang in public by callin' him a fake, a liar, and a thief. What does the good reverend do?"

Gina watched her carefully as she thought it over. Finally, she slowly and cautiously said, "Well, when you consider that the U.S. is about the most litigious country in the world, and that some people actually make a livin' out of suin' other people, I imagine he sues her ass off for slander."

Brie jabbed a finger at her to emphasize her point. "Exactly. He sues her for slander, because she cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the right Reverend Poontang really is a fake and a liar."

"Okay," Gina conceded. "So what's your point?"

"Same faith healer, same guy with leukemia, same widow," she continued, with that relaxed, east-Texas drawl that Gina loved so much, and would happily listen to hour after hour after hour. "Only this time, she gets on TV and blasts ol' Reverend Poontang by callin' him a rancid, no-good, bullshit motherfucker. What does the good reverend do now?"

She thought it over for a moment . . . and slowly began to grin. "'Your Honor, your Honor, she called me a no-good, bullshit motherfucker!'" she cried softly. "'Make her stop it!'"

Brie grinned also. "First, his Honor says, 'Grow some thicker skin, son.' And second, he says, 'The next time you use that kinda language in my courtroom, I'm tossin' your ass in jail for contempt.' If you call someone a liar in public, that's actionable. It doesn't matter if they really are a liar; you're makin' an accusation, and you gotta either prove it or pay up. But if you call 'em a bullshit motherfucker—"

"—that isn't an accusation," Gina said with a dawning of realization, "and therefore it isn't actionable, 'cause by its very nature such an obscenity is clearly an opinion."

"Which is protected by the First Amendment's freedom of speech clause," Brie finished for her as she reached once more for her wine glass. "You're still gettin' your message of rage and contempt for him across in public, you're lashin' out at the son of a bitch, and you're lettin' the whole world know you believe him to be a liar . . . and there ain't a goddamn thing the lyin' motherfucker can do about it."

"Just don't call 'im a lying motherfucker." Gina laughed softly. "Oh, man . . . Just when I was thinkin' I was gonna quit swearing so much," she said.

"Yeah, right," Brie said with smiling skepticism and a soft chuckle as she raised her glass to her lips. "That'd be the longest eighty-seven seconds of your life, sweet cheeks."

"So now I'm going to have to start swearing even more," she said jokingly. "Thanks for the encouragement, babe." She was quiet for a moment. "But don't you think the overuse of obscenities will cause them to lose their impact? An' if that happens, then what'll you do next to lower blood pressure?"

Brie shrugged. "Go to the gun range, like you do, an' blow off a couple hundred rounds. Assumin' they don't blow off a couple of hundred rounds in traffic on their way to the gun range."

Gina made a face of mild horror. "Yeah, really. Driving around here isn't bad; but dear God, how I hate driving through Sacramento." She reached for the wine bottle, and tipped it into her glass. Nothing came out. She examined it with one squinted eye. "Bottle's empty." She looked at Brie. "You want to open another?"

"I dunno . . ." With a little bit of effort, she managed to focus on her face. "Are you gonna lecture me some more about popular music?"

Gina sighed softly, and smiled a little self-consciously. "I'm sorry about that," she said. "I guess I am drunker than I thought." According to the satellite clock, it was just past nine o'clock. It was too early to call it a night, but maybe a little too late to open another bottle. And she was feeling pretty drunk . . .

She yawned. "Aw, the hell with it. I'm calling it a night."

"Works for me," Brie said agreeably. "You check the back door; I'll get the front."

"Gotcha." She headed off to the kitchen and checked the back door, which indeed was locked. Turning back, she stopped for a moment by the refrigerator, and gazed at it thoughtfully. There was still some of that chicken cacciatore left. Maybe . . . just maybe she could . . .

And then Brie's voice came from the stairs: "And stay outta that fridge."

***

She awoke when she felt movement on the bed. She cracked open puzzled and bleary, blue-green eyes, and regarded Gina, who was sitting up attentively. "What's—"

"Shh. We've got an intruder." She looked at her partner. "Didn't you lock the front door and set the alarm?"

"Of course I did!" she whispered back. She took a quick look at her bedside clock; it was 11:45 PM.

"Okay, alright, don't bite my head off . . ."

They each reached under the small table at her side of the bed, and they withdrew weapons; Gina raised her Beretta 92 F, and Brie hefted her compact, Glock 19. Gently and quietly, they rose from their bed and racked back the slides on their weapons to chamber a round, and then they cautiously proceeded toward the stairs.

Flickering light came from the living room, and so did a soft voice: "'Even a man who's pure in heart, and says his prayers at night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms, and the autumn moon is bright.'"

Gina was the first one down the stairs, her weapon in both hands and pointed toward the source of the voices, with Brie closely backing her up. And when they saw the two figures sitting on the sofa, one with dark hair and a goatee, and dressed in black leather, and the other one blonde and buxom, and outfitted in translucent pink silk . . .

Gina lowered her weapon. "Aphrodite?" she asked. "Ares?"

She turned from the wide screen television and grinned that typical Aphrodite grin. "Hi, guys!" she replied with her usual cheery style. "What's shakin'?"

Standing behind Gina, Brie lowered her own weapon. "What the hell are you two doing here?" she wanted to know.

"Watching 'The Wolf Man' on DVD," Ares replied, his voice somewhat distant and his attention obviously wrapped up in the story, with his eyes glued to the screen and with his feet on the coffee table. He hadn't bothered to take his boots off. "Lon Chaney Junior, Claude Rains, and Evelyn Ankers. Universal Pictures, 1941. Now shut up."

Brie and Gina both reacted as though they'd been slapped in the face. Not a hard slap, but most definitely a noticeable one. They looked at each other, and then at their uninvited guests.

With a scowl and a growl, and still clutching her Glock in both hands, Brie asked rhetorically, "I don't suppose it would do any good for me to put one between his eyes, would it?"

"I doubt he'd even flinch," Gina replied as she eased the hammer down with her thumb, and then engaged the safety on her weapon. "All you'd do is put a bullet hole in the wall, and then I'd have to fix it." And then she quickly added, "Ares, get your goddamned feet off of that coffee table."

Brie sighed dejectedly, then reached for Gina's Beretta. "I'll put the weapons away," she said softly, as Ares slowly put his feet on the floor. With both guns, she turned and headed back up the stairs.

"I guess you kinda have to forgive him," Aphrodite said apologetically as Gina descended the stairs. "He's really into these old movies. Me? I think they suck. I mean, look at the cheesy special effects! Listen to the dialogue! And their acting styles—I mean, really! If what's-his-name is in so much emotional agony over being a werewolf, why the hell does he wring his hands and keep looking up at a corner of the ceiling? That's what it looks like he's doing."

"Hey!" Ares said defensively as he scowled at his sister. "These effects are pretty damned good for their day! I mean, after all—this was made in '41! And acting styles weren't as sophisticated back then as they are today, either; and they certainly didn't have computers to rely on then for their effects."

Aphrodite rolled her eyes. "Oh, brother," she muttered. "Here we go again, with another one of his lectures about man's ever-increasing dependence on technology."

Ares shot her a sharp look. "Well, it's true! And not just in making movies, either. When's the last time anybody went into battle with a sword and a shield, or with a spear? Nowadays, everybody needs laser-guided missiles, and laser sights on their rifles." Then he turned on the Marine. "What the hell are you teaching these people, Xena? You're the head honcho of spec warfare training, aren't you? Everything these days is computers, computers, comp—"

"Yadda yadda yadda . . ." Aphrodite waved him off before he could build up a larger head of steam.

He refolded his muscular arms across his chest, and scowled with a dark expression at the television set. "No fuckin' brains or skill or strength anymore," he mumbled, "everything is 'technology.'" He made a small sound of contempt. "Like that's gonna save you . . ." He noticed that his sister was no longer interested in the subject. "So just hold it down, will you please?" he asked at last. "I'm trying to watch the damn movie."

She regarded Gina with a "See-what-I-mean?" look, and then made a silent "yap-yap-yap" motion behind his back with one hand. Then she regarded her brother again. "And who the hell was in charge of the continuity in this turkey?" she added as she folded her arms beneath her breasts. She turned to Gina again. "The first time the Lawrence Talbot character changes into the Wolf Man, he's sitting there in his bedroom and dressed in light-colored pants and one of those forties-style undershirts that shows off his flabby white arms, alright? But after the camera's closeup of his feet changing, he goes outside—and he's suddenly wearing a black shirt, buttoned all the way up to his collar and all the way down to his wrists! What, did he slip into it after he already changed? How'd he fasten those buttons with those long frickin' claws of his? Huh? And then when the sun comes up and he's back in his bedroom and human again, he's still wearing that shirt! Where did it come from? Huh?" She turned to face her brother again. "Huh? Can you explain that one to me, please, 'Mr. Movie Expert'?"

"Oh, Christ," Ares groaned, his voice almost pleading as he rolled his eyes. "I just wanna watch the movie . . ."

Watching the movie wasn't all they had been doing, the Marine discovered as she headed for one of the recliner chairs. Apparently, one of them had also discovered their special reserve of wine down in the cellar. Two very expensive and very empty bottles of imported 1973 Bordeaux rested on the coffee table. Gina had been saving them for a special occasion. "So how was my Bordeaux?" she asked as she settled down. She'd never get to know by tasting it . . .

"It was good," Ares replied. "You mortals may not be good for much, but you sure know how to make good wine. Dionysus taught you people well."

"I'll be sure to pass your compliments on to him the next time I see him," Brie grumbled sarcastically she descended the stairs. She had thrown her blue velour robe on over her Navy t-shirt and black sweat pants, because the fire had gone out and she was cold. "Anybody mind if I build another fire?"

"Here," Ares said, "I'll save you the trouble." Still without turning away from the TV set, and without really thinking that much about what he was doing, he excavated something from one nostril, and rolled it into a tiny, blue-white ball of light between his thumb and index finger, and flicked it across the room into the fireplace where it burst into flames.

Brie stared at the results first in disbelief, and then with absolute revulsion. She turned back to him with wide, unbelieving eyes. "You pig!" she said. "You absolute swine! Jesus, you're disgusting!"

His wounded eyes went from the warming and comforting fire in the fireplace to Brie's look of unbridled revulsion, and then back to the fire again. Well, damn it, he made a fire for her, didn't he? She was cold, so purely out of the kindness of his heart, he did her a favor. Right?

He shook his head in disdain. "You're welcome," he muttered sarcastically.

Her eyes narrowed dangerously. And then, with her hands in her pockets as she grumbled something under her breath about a fireplace full of flaming god-snot, she headed for the other recliner.

"So what brings you two here, anyway?" Gina asked.

"We haven't seen you guys in a while," Aphrodite replied. "Ares was bored, and wanted to come by to annoy you, and I wanted to catch up with my two favorite mortals—so I guess we both got what we wanted. I heard about what happened at the school the other day, and I wanted to make sure you were okay. And then he discovered your movie collection."

Ares paused the movie without using the remote. He didn't even bat an eye; all he used was a soft sigh. "I love the titles you've got," he said, and for the first time this evening his smile was actually charming. "'Saving Private Ryan,' 'Platoon,' 'Apocalypse Now,' 'Patton,' 'Battle of the Bulge,' 'D-Day,' 'Hamburger Hill'. . . I gotta hand it to you, Xena, you have impeccable taste in movies." He turned his attention toward Brie. "Have you seen the opening of 'Private Ryan'?" he asked with mild enthusiasm. "Have you seen it? All those people getting slaughtered on the beach? The blood? The bodies? The pieces of bodies? Aw, man . . ." He smiled wistfully. "Now that's movie-making at its finest!"

Brie was about to tear into him about the horrors of war when the doorbell suddenly rang. She turned toward the door with a puzzled scowl. "Who the hell is that?" she wondered. "You guys expecting company or something? It's damn near midnight."

"That'll be the pizza," Ares replied. He rose from his seat, and went to answer the door.

"Pizza?" Gina said. "A pizza? You ordered a pizza? At this hour?

Outside, a very nervous young man was standing on the wide, wooden porch. And suddenly finding himself standing face to face with the God of War didn't do much for his confidence. "Uhhh . . . Pizza for the Ryan and Duncan residence?" he asked, his voice cracking. "Extra-large sausage, pepperoni and dry salame?"

Ares took the box from him, opened the lid, and then took out a slice as he turned his back on the driver without care. "Pay the man." He took a bite as he headed back for his seat.

Brie stared at him in astonishment, outrage, and utter disbelief. "You come into our home with no invitation, you drink our wine, you order a pizza and have it delivered here, and you expect us to pay for it?"

"No, I do not expect you to pay for it," Ares replied as he sat down. He indicated the delivery driver with a thumb. "He does."

Dressed in her t-shirt and flannel lounge pants, Gina growled at him, "Do I look like I've got any money on me?"

Brie sighed heavily in frustration and resignation. "I'll go upstairs and get my purse," she said.

Ares grinned at her in amusement. "Your purse?" he asked, affecting an overly effeminate voice with just a hint of a lisp. "Your purse? Is it pink with little sparkles?" With a mouthful of pizza, he laughed with both amusement and mild derision.

Clenching first her teeth and then a fist, and with malevolent, homicidal intent in her eyes, Brie prepared to lunge for him.

"Relax," Aphrodite told her, "I got it." She rose from her seat and approached the front door. With a dimpled and beguiling smile, she addressed the driver. "Hi there, big boy," she said, her voice soft and breathy, and sounding more like Marilyn Monroe than the actress herself ever did.

"Uuuhhh . . . hi . . ." He cleared his throat, and then his knees began to quake as his eyes devoured this bounteous, visual banquet. "Um . . . uh . . . that'll be . . . uh . . ."

Still smiling that alluring and ultra-sexy Aphrodite smile, her hands went to untie the little bow that barely held her diaphanous brassiere together. She slowly tugged the delicate laces apart, and seductively pulled it open to reveal the most succulent and perfect pair of breasts that the young delivery driver had ever seen in all of his seventeen-and-a-half years of life.

First his eyes, and then his smile, widened with surprise, lust, and inexpressible joy, all rolled into one.

She reached forward and gently brushed his hair behind his ears, caressing him lightly. Her soft fingertips then gently followed the lines of his jaw and went under his chin, and lifted his face. "How much did you say that was?" she asked softly, with those blonde curls framing her face and cascading about her shoulders, and with curious blue eyes as her hands slipped behind his head to draw him forward, until his smiling face was nestled comfortably between two full, round, and delicately perfumed globes of warm and willing flesh.

With a deep breath and a long, loud groan, his eyes rolled skyward in ecstasy . . . and then he passed out, and crumpled to a heap on the wooden porch.

She gazed down at him with a smile, and took note of the tent pole that strained against the crotch of his jeans. She turned with a dimpled and dazzling grin, and a soft, Aphrodite squeal. "I still got it," she said by way of self congratulations as, without concern, she bumped the door shut with a hip.

"Aphrodite, you can't leave him out there like that!" the Navy doctor said as she started for the door. It had to be below freezing out there now, and it was well after midnight, and . . .

"Hey, don't sweat it," the goddess said as she headed back for the sofa. "He's just about to wake up out in his car with a warm memory, a sticky mess in his jeans, and an extra fifty bucks in his shirt pocket."

"Oh, great," the irascible bard growled as she watched the goddess take her seat next to Ares and reach for a slice of pizza. "Terrific. That's just . . . fuckin' dandy! The next time we order a pizza, the delivery boy's gonna be expecting another peep-show!"

Gina couldn't help grinning wryly. "I'm wondering if the pool of drivers is going to draw straws to see who gets to come out, or if they're gonna duke it out and it'll be last one standing who makes the trip."

Brie gazed coldly at her partner. "Oh, go on, encourage her. That's real helpful . . . goddamn jarhead," she added with a mumble. And then, all of a sudden, she had this image in her mind of a beaten, bruised, and bloody-nosed young delivery driver standing on their porch with a toothless and hopeful grin on his face, and asking, "Did someone here order a pizza?"

In spite of herself, she, too, began to smile a little.

"Y'know what?" Gina asked. "There isn't a chance in hell of getting back to sleep tonight. So we may as well go ahead and open another bottle."

"Yeah, what the hell. Why not?" Brie asked. "It's a Friday night."

"Ares," Gina said, "why don't you head down to the wine cellar and find another bottle or two? Use your own discretion. Aphrodite, why don't you and Brie cut up some cheese—"

"Um, excuse me, Warrior Babe," Aphrodite said with a droll smile, "but I never cut the cheese."

She gave her a dry and mildly warning look. Aphrodite smiled back, weakly. "Would you mind helping to slice up some of that smoked gouda?" the Marine asked. "I'm gonna heat up that chicken cacciatore. Let's make a night of it."

"You made chicken cacciatore?" Aphrodite asked in mild astonishment.

Gina countered with mild suspicion. "What, is that so unbelievable?"

"Is that your mom's recipe?"

"Yeah . . ." Now, she seemed more uncertain than suspicious.

Aphrodite grinned. "Cool! Y'know, your mom is one hell of a fantastic cook."

Now the Marine seemed to be more pleasantly puzzled than anything else. "You like chicken cacciatore?"

With her hands on her hips, she continued to grin that wry grin of hers. "Hey, I may be immortal, but that doesn't mean I can't appreciate good food. Now run along," she said as she motioned her off, "I'm gonna go give Gabrielle a hand."

"Hey, Xena!" came Ares' voice from the cellar. "How does an '87 San Giovese sound?"

"Bring it on up!" she replied.

As she began to reheat the leftover dinner, Gina couldn't help stopping for a moment to listen to the distant, muted rumbling of thunder and the soft pelting of rain on the porch roof. Although neither she nor Brie had planned on having any company over—especially with that company being the likes of Ares and Aphrodite—they still had good food and good wine, and they had wind and rain and darkness, and the occasional flash of lightning and the rumbling of distant thunder, and they had classic old black-and-white horror movies . . . When one thought about it, even with these two old acquaintances, it really wasn't such a bad way to spend a nice, quiet evening at home.

The End

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