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

Additional Disclaimer: The following story contains adult language.

Comments to the author can be e-mailed to: erniewhiting@centurylink.net



From "Meet The In-Laws"

Gabriella stared at her, her eyes reflecting a blend of astonishment and disbelief as this information about tax evasion, smuggling, and illegal gun possession sank in. "You come from a Mafia family?" she finally asked.

Gina winced at her. "'Mafia' is such an unpleasant word," she said. "We just call it..."



"The New Adventures of XENA: Warrior Princess"

"The Family Business"

by Ernie Whiting

Just outside of the former gold-mining town of Nevada City, California, and a little farther up the road and into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, their house stood surrounded on three sides by Douglas fir trees, Ponderosa and sugar pines, bushy manzanita, twisted, ancient scrub oaks, and even an occasional cedar tree. A wide dirt-and-gravel driveway led from the winding mountain road to their wide, raised wooden porch, providing them not only with easy access to and from their home but also with ample parking space for their frequent and numerous visitors. A dark-green Jeep Cherokee, with a red-and-gold Marine Corps decal in the lower left corner of the rear windshield, was parked in it next to a black 1966 Mustang GT fastback that had a blue-and-white US Navy sticker in the lower left corner of its rear window. The windshields of both vehicles reflected a sky that was only mildly overcast, but was gradually growing darker and heavier with clouds, bringing with them a promise of rain within perhaps the next twenty-four hours. A fresh breeze, smelling of pine and fir and cedar, and untainted by smog, hissed through the trees, reinforcing that promise of rain.

Looking inside this late 19th century house from the wooden porch through a wide, living room bay window, one could see, standing neatly across the mantle of the gray stone fireplace, a collection of pictures and other personal and sentimental memorabilia. They consisted of a side-by-side pair of glassed-in wooden frames that contained an accumulation of various military ribbons and medals, and a small number of framed pictures of various sizes and shapes. There was one of a young, green-eyed blonde doctor in formal Naval officer whites standing before an American flag, and another of a striking and statuesque brunette with sapphire eyes and dressed in Marine Corps dress blues, similarly posed; the same uniformed doctor, with a dazzling grin and surrounded by family in the living room of their Dallas, Texas, cattle ranch, and the smiling and uniformed Marine, surrounded by her family and in front of their ranch house in Cheyenne, Wyoming; and again, with the grinning young doctor dressed in clean desert camouflage fatigues with the sleeves rolled past her elbows and a French braid, and with a stethoscope draped around her neck and surrounded by the nearly towering staff of a small field hospital in a classified location in some Middle Eastern desert; and one of the tall, short haired Marine, down on one knee and dressed in jungle camouflage fatigues and floppy boonie hat that were splattered with the mud and gunk of some equatorial swamp, and cradling an M-16A2 assault rifle in her arms and grinning a gleeful and camouflage grease-painted grin while surrounded by her similarly grinning, mud-splattered and heavily armed squad members. And one more, this time with the warrior and the doctor together, both with loose, shoulder-length hair and laughing at the camera, and dressed in shorts, sandals and tank tops, and sitting on the wooden steps that led to the porch of this house, each with an arm around the other's shoulders.

With a dreamy smile and a soft moan, she rolled onto her stomach, let her arm flop down on the other side of the massive, wooden four-poster bed, and slid her hand up and down against the cool, pale-blue sheet. Finding nothing there, she slowly cracked open her eyes to find that the other side of the bed was empty. Frowning in bewilderment, she slowly rose on one elbow and stared at the cold, empty pillow for a moment. Then, squinting sleepily, she rolled back to look around the room. She was alone. "Gina?" Supporting herself on both elbows, she glanced at the digital alarm clock that rested on the night stand on Gina Ryan's side of the bed; six-fifteen showed in soft, yellow numerals. Six-fifteen on a Sunday morning, Commander Gabriella Duncan thought curiously, and already she's up? What's she--

And then she heard the chainsaw try to fire up outside. With each pull of the cord, the thing would just fart and die; and accompanying each dying fart was a string of muttered and colorful Marine Corps expletives.

Oh, for the love of Zeus! she thought with a mild groan. And then she vaguely remembered their earlier conversation. Something about a lot of work to do before...before...well, she'd drifted off again before hearing the rest.

She lethargically tossed back the covers and rose from the warmth of their king-sized bed, and shuffled toward the nearest window. With long, sleep tousled golden hair and dressed in red satin shorts and a snug matching tank top, she tried to stifle a cavernous yawn with the back of one fist as, with the other hand, she pulled on the draw cord to raise the vinyl mini-blinds with a rattle. Flooding the room with sunlight and narrowing her jade-green eyes against its sudden brightness, she peered outside. I don't believe it, she thought with another inward groan as she found the recently retired lieutenant colonel now armed with a long-handled axe, approaching a nearby tree. Typical Marine; she just can't get used to civilian life.

And then she smiled. What the hell, she thought, let her make all the noise she wants on a Sunday morning. Brie didn't care. They were together, and nothing else mattered. The former Navy doctor had her back, healthy and safe, and remembering nothing of Kaffir or the near suicide attempt that the young doctor had prevented through sheer luck. Thanks to a secret bargain that she had struck, that soul-wrenching day, the Marine's emotional breakdown, and her incarceration in a psychiatric hospital had all been reversed, overturned, completely erased. Brie had lost her partner once in Higuchi, and that loss had nearly destroyed her spirit; and she had nearly lost her a second time as a result of their mission in Turakistan and the nuclear destruction of the city of Kaffir--and she was damned determined that she would never lose her again. So to make absolutely certain that they could never possibly be drafted into another mission such as the one that would have cost Gina either her life or her sanity, and Gabriella her soul mate, the young doctor had convinced their CIA computer-hacker friend Jack Sawyer to make one more significant change in the Marine's file...

"A psychological discharge?" he had asked, his heart suddenly pounding in terror. "Are you kiddin' me? Holy shit, Brie! Gina's gonna be pissed when she finds out! She's gonna be pissed at me! How come I gotta spend the rest of my life with a pissed-off Marine on my ass?"

"The rest of your life?" Brie had countered with an incredulous east-Texas drawl. "I'm the one who's gonna have to listen to 'er twenty-four/seven! Y'all think I want to listen to that shit?"

"Hey--it's your idea! I don't see why she should be pissed off at me!!"

And then quite abruptly, and without really meaning to, she told him everything. She had tried to stop the flow of words, but the dam had burst and the flood waters would not be stopped. She told him all about the late-night phone call, the bio-weapons laboratory, and the terrorist plans for a world wide plague; and she told him about the nuclear destruction of Kaffir, and its sixty thousand inhabitants that the warrior had been forced to annihilate in order to stop the release of that ravaging, deadly plague... And the more she told him, the more her anger dissipated into relief, now that she had the opportunity to tell someone about those events; to confess, and to share that secret with someone and finally get it off of her chest. She told him about Ryan's soul-searing guilt over those sixty thousand innocent deaths, about her resultant near suicide attempt, and about the warrior's ensuing emotional breakdown...and then she had told him about her own bargain with the Fates.

"My God," Sawyer had replied, with a soft and stunned whisper. After listening to Brie's accounts, he had nodded slightly with misty eyes in unquestioning acceptance. He loved Gina as much as Gabriella did, in his own way; and he also remembered the Fates as well as the Navy doctor did. And he remembered enough of his own experiences in ancient Greece to know what kind of power they had, although he was surprised to hear that, unlike most of the Olympian gods, they still continued to exist. "Why don't you just tell her, Brie?" he asked sympathetically.

"I..." She thought it over for a moment or two. "I can't."

"Why not?"

"I don't know, I... I just..." She sighed heavily. "I don't want her thinkin' she owes me, or anything... And I especially don't want to listen to any of her lectures about how we have to serve the 'greater good.'" And even as she had spoken those words, she remembered the day she had been shot by a Persian soldier's poisoned arrow. While lying on what had almost become her death bed, and with Xena preparing to abandon their battle against Persia's imminent invasion of Greece in order to save Gabrielle's life, it had been the selfless young bard who had lectured the warrior about the greater good. But that had been different, she now told herself, and she absolutely refused go into any detail as to why or how it had been different. It just was. Period. End of discussion.

"She has sacrificed herself enough. And if she never knows what happened or what could have happened, and if she's branded as a psycho in order for me to keep her alive and healthy, then so be it. The Pentagon and the Defense Department won't try to draft her into any more covert missions if they think she's gone totally nuts." Wondering then if her partner's integrity and their lives together--and the eternal bonding of their souls, for that matter--was a blessing or a curse, she had suddenly found herself struggling to control her emotions. "God damn it!" the Texan had continued angrily. "We've spent too much of our life's fightin' for the greater good! She died for it in Jappa! What the hell does it take to get a fuckin' BREAK?"

Sawyer had flinched at her sudden outburst.

And then her shoulders had slumped, and with a ragged breath her voice had tightened with emotion. "I am just...so...weary of it all," she went on, softly and in near defeat as, with both palms, she angrily wiped tears of agony and frustration from her suddenly stinging eyes. "The warlords and the terrorists...the fighting and the killing...all the death..." She sighed heavily, and regarded him with damp, exhausted eyes. "I am empty, Joxer. I'm drained. They've taken it all from me, and I just have nothin' left to give. I..." She sniffled once, and struggled to rein in her emotions. "All I have left is Xena. Now that I've finally got her back, I can't let her go again, I..." She shook her head slowly in despair, letting the thought go unfinished. "Am I bein' selfish? Is it really askin' too much for just a little bit of peace and happiness?" she had asked him, her eyes imploring and welling with tears once more, and her soft and pleading voice choking with emotion. "Just for ourselves?"

With stinging eyes, Sawyer had sighed heavily, and nodded in concession. There was no arguing the fact that the Warrior Princess and the Battling Bard had done enough for the world in their lifetimes; it was time to pass the torch. "Okay," he had said softly as he gently put his arms around her to comfort her, holding her close. "All right." He was silent for a long moment, just holding her.

And then, in typical Joxer fashion, he had added with playfully embellished doom-and-gloom, "I just hope to God you'll clear up the fact someday that the psycho discharge was your idea and not mine. I mean, have you ever seen her on a rifle range?"

A little bit of that sweet and familiar Gabrielle Smile began to shine through her tears.

"Now I'm gonna have to spend the rest of my life wondering if there's a cross hairs on the back of my head, or...or making sure there isn't fifty pounds of Semtex wired to my toilet every time I drop my pants to take a dump..."

Brie suddenly bubbled over in uncontrollable laughter. They both knew full well that Ryan was not only an expert on the rifle range and in the cockpit of a fighter jet; they also knew that the Marine was an expert with high explosives. And Brie could actually see her partner going so far as to wire Sawyer's toilet for revenge, if not just for the pure entertainment value. With visions of Joxer sitting atop his toilet, with his trousers around his ankles as he launched off into the stratosphere like a SAM missile, she had hugged him tightly in silent thanks for pulling her out of her despondency. "I'll explain everything to her, I promise," she'd said at last with a smile as she wiped more tears from her face. "Trust me, Jack, I'll tell her. Have I ever lied to you?"

In response, he had smiled at her fondly and had asked in mild surprise, "What, you want a list?"

Wellll...those had just been little white lies, she told herself. Even now, gazing out the window and watching Ryan's activities, she cringed inwardly. Even though Ryan was fully aware of the nature of her discharge, she was still under the impression that it had been Sawyer's idea because while Brie had promised to explain it all to her partner she had never told Sawyer when she would explain it all.

And then she remembered how he had arranged for their families to come and visit, and smiled. Although Sawyer could be unbelievably whiny and incredibly annoying at times, and although not all of his plans and efforts turned out the way he wanted (as a matter of fact, most of them resulted in near-disaster), she knew that his heart was always in the right place. Between him and Ryan, Brie Duncan felt honored to have two such good, close and loyal friends. The three of them may have had their occasional quibbles and quarrels, and while they could also get on each other's nerves at times like fingernails raking slowly across a blackboard, she would freely give her own life for either of them in a heartbeat.

With a deep sigh that was more of fondness rather than exasperation, she turned from the window and went to the foot of their bed, slipped into a dark-blue velour robe and a black pair of rubber flip-flops, and then headed for the door.

***

Dressed in a pair of dusty brown hiking boots, faded and ragged cut off blue jeans, and a black knit sport bra, and with her rich, dark hair tucked under a forest-camouflage Marine Corps fatigue cap and wearing a dark gray pair of safety glasses that looked more like a bandit's mask, Gina Ryan was a picture of quiet and total inner peace as, with sleek and powerful muscles rippling beneath tanned and glistening skin, she swung and sank the blade of her axe into a nearby, dried-out oak. She had liked her chainsaw because it was something new, a fun toy; but ultimately, she preferred the axe. It was cleaner and quieter, it cost nothing to operate, it was unquestionably reliable, and it was a good source of exercise.

She stopped for a moment to admire her handiwork with a satisfied smile. And then she felt a sudden tap-tap-tap on her shoulder that nearly made her jump out of her skin. With a startled yelp, she spun abruptly and half-raised the axe.

"Whoa!" With sudden terror in her eyes, Brie quickly ducked and frantically lurched backward as she instinctively raised her arms in futile defense. "Jesus!"

"God!" Ryan exclaimed as she quickly lowered the axe. "Don't sneak up on me like that!" She placed one hand over her heart in an attempt to quiet its pounding. "Jesus Christ, you gave me a scare!"

"I gave you a scare?" the sailor asked incredulously as she straightened. "You're the one with the fuckin' axe!"

Ryan looked at the axe in her hands, then chuckled softly. She could see her point. Letting it drop to the ground, she stepped forward and slipped an arm around Duncan's neck to gently draw her close. "Sorry, babe," she said with a dazzling grin before giving her forehead a smacking kiss. "You okay?"

Slipping her own arms around Ryan, she laughed softly in relief. "Yeah, I'm all right," she said as her own heart began to slow. Then she glanced around at their surroundings. "What're y'all doin' out here, anyway? It's not even seven o'clock yet."

"I told you we had work to do this morning," she replied. "I thought we'd get up early and get started on--"

"I mean, I understand that you're havin' kind of a tough time dealin' with such an early retirement and all, and that military habits are tough to break," Duncan said, cutting her off as she continued to survey their surroundings. "And I fully understand--and support!--your desire for greater security. But we're not under the threat of any warlords or terrorists, darlin'; you don't have to be a warrior or Marine, and you don't have to be gettin' up at oh-dark-thirty to come out here and start makin' a kill zone--"

She took off her safety glasses to reveal a pair of lively sapphire eyes, and slipped them onto her fatigue cap, above the visor. "Brie, I--"

"I mean, d' y'all really expect any terrorists or any other kinds of bad guys to come chargin' up here, wavin' rifles an' swords in the middle of a wilderness, to storm the house an'--"

"Gab--"

"And then what? I suppose I'll have to go out and move all those dead bodies out of the way so no one'll trip over 'em and sue our asses? And then I suppose I'll have to explain it all to the Nevada County Sheriff's Department how--"

With a mild sigh of exasperation, she quickly yet gently clamped one hand over her mouth so she would get a word in edgewise. "It's not a 'kill zone,'" she said patiently, "it's a fire break."

She looked at her with sleepy yet puzzled eyes. "Mmpph?"

"We need to clear out all this dry underbrush," she explained softly as she removed her hand. "We've worked too hard to fix up this house, and I'll be damned if we're gonna lose it all to a nearby lightning strike or an arsonist, or a careless camper's fire. Besides," she added, "a lot of this will come in handy this winter as firewood."

Brie continued to stare at her. "Fire break," she said at last. "Oh." Then she smiled weakly. "Yeah... Sure... I knew that..."

Ryan regarded her with a wry little smile. "Uh huh," she replied. "Haven't had your morning coffee yet, have you?" She playfully ruffled her hair. "Cobwebs still billowing around in the brain?"

The young blonde smiled sheepishly. "Who needs coffee in the mornin' when I've got you and your axe around to give my ticker a jump-start?"

Chuckling again, the tall brunette gently hugged her once more, and kissed her forehead again. "Listen, we've got to get this shit out of the way. Katie and Jaime are comin' over for breakfast at nine, and I want to get this done and get a shower before they show up." Then she gave her a quick once-over. "Or would you rather just stand there watching me in your robe? Because the way your robe is starting to fall open is--"

She tugged her robe more tightly around her as she wryly smiled back at her friend, buoyed more by the prospect of one of Ryan's killer country breakfasts than by her observations of her robe. "What I can't figure out," she said as she retied the sash, "is why you're using an axe instead of the chainsaw if you're in such a rush."

She glanced irritably at the power tool that lay on the ground near a stump. "Ah, the goddamn thing won't start..."

"No?" Brie asked, puzzled. "You put gas in it?"

Ryan gave her The Look.

"Did you set the switch to 'on'?"

That dry and mildly warning Look that they had used on each other so many times over their years together in ancient Greece deepened into a scowl.

"Did you set the choke?"

"Gabrielle..." A warning growl.

"Did you at least prime it first?"

There was a very subtle shift in the expression in her eyes, from annoyance to...

Duncan noticed the shift, and smiled knowingly. "You didn't prime it, did you?" Before Ryan had a chance to respond, she went over to the tree stump and picked up the chainsaw. Turning it on its side, she checked the little plastic bubble on the left. It was empty. She pushed it a couple or three times with her thumb to fill it with gas, then pulled the starter cord. The first two times, the motor farted and died; but on the third, the machine roared to life. She looked at Ryan with a smug smile.

Ryan gazed back at her. "This is faster," she said, nearly shouting to be heard over the roaring, buzz-whine.

"It is, huh?" Duncan said with a skeptical smile. "Gimme your glasses, and set us up a couple of logs." She did, and Duncan slipped the glasses on before positioning the chainsaw over her own log. Muttering to herself, she said, "I'll show you which is fa--"

CRACK!!

She looked up with a mild start, and found Ryan leaning on her axe with a smug and satisfied Warrior Princess smile, her own log having been split neatly in two by a single, powerful blow. The look in the young blonde's eyes quickly shifted from surprise to thoughtful admission, and then to mild annoyance. At last, she raised them from the split log to her smugly smiling friend, and softly muttered, "Showoff."

***

Another sudden gust of wind blew through the night, rustling through the forest and causing a loose shutter upstairs to bang against its casing. Dressed in gray fleece sweat pants and a worn and faded "Eagles--Hotel California" t-shirt, the doctor turned her eyes from the window of her office and back to her computer, then clicked on "Save Document" with the mouse before shutting it down. She leaned back into the thickly padded, executive-style swivel chair with a sigh, then took off her gold-rimmed, aviator-style reading glasses and rubbed her exhausted eyes before checking the time on the black digital desk clock. It was already 11:15 P.M.. Man, she thought as she ran her fingers through her golden hair, I've been here for more than four hours! Whenever she got into one of her creative literary moods, the time just seemed to zip by. She folded her glasses, slipped them into their case, and then rose from behind the desk and headed barefooted out of the office and toward the living room.

She found Gina sitting forward in one of the recliner chairs and staring at the television set as she channel surfed with the remote. Dressed in faded blue jeans, white gym socks and a black and hydra-headed "Hercules" t-shirt, she was scanning through CNN, C-SPAN, FOX News, the local stations, quickly flipping from one channel to the next.

"...as UN weapons inspectors were once again turned away from Baghdad..."

"...six people were killed in today's blast in a Tel Aviv coffee house, along with the suicide bomber, who was believed to have been an al-Qaeda terrorist..."

"...Turakistani terrorists possibly linked with the Taliban detonated a bomb on board the 747 while it was en route to..."

"...the body of five-year-old Jennifer Ann Miller was found in a drainage ditch this morning outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico. There were signs that she had been sexually assaulted..." They displayed a smiling picture of the little brunette that had been taken at a recent birthday party.

Oh, God! Ryan thought, her eyes suddenly stinging as though someone had just thrown chlorine bleach in them, while a fist clenched viciously at her heart. Oh, dear God! How could anyone do that to such a sweet and innocent young child? What kind of a bastard would-- The emotion came on so hard and so unexpectedly, seemingly from nowhere and without warning, and it hit her with such a surprising and unimaginable force that all she could do was lower her head as she covered her eyes with one hand...

Duncan approached her. With a concerned look in her eyes, she asked, "Are you okay?"

She sniffled once, and wiped the tears from her face by pretending to rub fatigued eyes. "Yeah," she croaked, and then cleared her throat. "Yeah, I'm fine..."

She knelt next to her, placed a soft, warm hand on her shoulder, and watched her some more. "Headache again?"

She nodded slightly as her hand went from her forehead to massage one temple.

Brie glanced at the TV screen, and winced. On it, there were now covered bodies that were being carried out of a bombed-out Israeli restaurant. All the networks were flooding the airwaves with the same stories, but in different order.

And at the same time she thought, Damn it. That bargain with the Fates was supposed to have put an end to Gina's blinding, guilt-induced migraines; apparently, something else had provided them with a new cause.

God damn it, she thought again in helpless frustration as she returned her troubled gaze to her partner. "You want me to get you somethin'?"

Gina shook her head slightly. "It'll pass..."

Brie watched her friend for another moment, then rose and went into the office. She returned a moment later with her medical bag. Not the black satchel that had once been so popular so many years ago; this kit consisted of a canvas military shoulder bag, with a red cross emblazoned on a white circle on the flap. She preferred this bag because she could carry more supplies in it. From it, she drew her sphygmomanometer, and then she took the remote control from Gina's hand and shut off the TV.

"Hey!" Ryan said as she looked up at her with damp, red-rimmed and scowling eyes. "I was watching that!"

She set the remote down. "Yeah, I know," she drawled softly as she settled down next to her. "I'm thinkin' that's the problem." She reached into the bag once more, and took out a stethoscope. "Gimme your arm."

"Oh, good Christ. What, you think my blood pressure's too high or something?" She managed to force a laugh that she hoped would convey the absurdity of the idea.

She regarded her seriously from behind her reading glasses. "You've been gettin' these headaches pretty frequently," she said, her voice soft yet determined, "and I've noticed that every time you get one, you've been watchin' the news. Yeah, I'm worried about your blood pressure; and not just as your friend, either. Right now, I'm tellin' you as your doctor that y'all could have a serious problem here." Suddenly, she was once again the irascible young Navy doctor who was very much accustomed to having her medical orders obeyed. "So gimme me your fuckin' arm."

With a dark and deepening scowl, and with muttered imprecations under her breath about Navy squids, the Marine sighed and growled in aggravation. Then she thrust out her arm. "Here," she said, "knock yourself out."

"Thank you." Brie wrapped the cuff around her arm, and quickly squeeze-pumped the little black bulb, tightening the cuff around Gina's upper arm. Donning the stethoscope, she placed the cool, round end against the inside of her elbow and listened and observed for a long moment. There was a slight twitch of one dark, golden eyebrow; the movement was so quick and subtle, though, that Ryan couldn't be sure if it had been real or not. The doctor pumped the little rubber bulb again, tightening the cuff around Ryan's arm once more, and listened again for a long moment, her face impassive. Finally, she removed the stethoscope from her ears and tore open the Velcro cuff. Without saying a word, she reached into the bag once more and withdrew a small pump jar of alcohol and a container of cotton balls, and a small but heavy-duty metal lock box. She quickly punched in the security code on the small electronic keypad, popped the lid open, and withdrew one of several small glass vials and a plastic, 1cc syringe.

She could take a bullet through her side or an arrow in her shoulder, and even a gash across her arm or leg, and could watch without concern as the wounds were stitched shut. But for some inexplicable reason, whenever it came to hypodermics...

Ryan eyed the syringe uneasily. "What...what's that?" she asked. "What the hell's that?"

She stuck the needle through the rubber stopper and drew back just a little bit on the plunger. "Just a li'l touch of diazepam," she replied calmly.

"Layman's terms, please, Doc," she said.

She peered at her over the tops of her glasses. "That's 'Valium' to you jar-heads," she replied, and then went back to preparing the injection.

Ryan's apprehension suddenly turned to indignation. "What?! Are you kidding me?" She didn't believe her. "You gotta be kidding me!"

"I'm surprised y'all haven't already popped your head off and painted the ceilin' red," Duncan said forthrightly, her voice soft and clear as she placed the plastic cap over the needle. "Your about to gush like a geyser in Yellowstone. This is just enough to take the edge off." She dampened a cotton ball with some alcohol.

"Oh, come on, Brie," she began, with both her voice and her frown mildly cranky. "I'm--"

"I'm serious, Gina!" Duncan said. "I told you I'm speakin' as your doctor; this is my professional, medical opinion. You have seriously high blood pressure. You ever hear of the word 'aneurism'? Are you familiar with the phrase 'cerebral hemorrhage'? Y'all could be on your way to a goddamn stroke!"

Gina stared at her in stunned silence as a startling chill suddenly raced through her every nerve.

"We need to get you calmed down right now," her doctor told her soberly, "and I would strongly advise you to let me get you started on some mild tranquilizers until I can do some blood work on you and find out what all else you might need. But I know how much you hate drugs, and even if I could I wouldn't force 'em on you." Then she leaned forward to rest her elbows on her knees, and softly and fondly she added with quiet yet even greater emphasis, "But what I can do, y'stubborn Marine, is cut you off from your CNN. If y'all want to keep watchin' your news and drivin' yourself batshit over it, then I swear to God I will give you no peace by constantly advisin' you as your doctor that you take the tranqs--but then I'll also have to cut you off from your wine."

Ryan glared at her. Again, and even more forcefully, she said, "What!?"

"No wine with tranquilizers; that's a deadly combination. And I am absolutely convinced that all of your news-watchin' is drivin' up your BP." She turned to put her medical equipment down on the small table next to her, and then slipped off her glasses before gently taking her soul mate's warm hand in her own. "Look," the young Texan said, her voice soft but earnest as she gazed into her partner's eyes. "Ever since we left the service and gave up those rescue missions with Ares, you've had no outlet for your news-induced frustrations. Have you heard the way you've been swearin' at those talkin' heads lately? Jesus, girl, it even makes me blush--and normally, I can out-cuss you any day of the week!"

The statuesque brunette regarded her with a swift, sharp and indignant look. "Oh, bullshit!" she snapped. "You think you can out-cuss me?" Even though her azure eyes were narrowed in a defiant challenge, she still began to smile just a little bit. "You want to have a contest, squid? I got twenty bucks that says--"

"No, Ah don't want to have a contest, y'jar-head," the shorter and athletic young blonde replied emphatically, with a sweet Southern drawl and that classic Gabrielle grin of hers that never failed to give the warrior's heart a gentle squeeze. "It wouldn't be fair, darlin'; I'd bury you so deep you'd never see daylight again."

With a surprised and wry grin of her own, Ryan was about to respond with even more Marines-versus-Navy indignation, but the young doctor quickly cut her off. "Look," she went on, a little more seriously. "Back in the old days, you used to swing your li'l sword, throw your li'l chakram around, and punch faces. It was incredibly violent an' thoroughly unacceptable by today's standards, but it was undeniably therapeutic. And these days, when you couldn't punch faces, you'd go to the firin' range and pop off a couple hundred rounds, or we'd go on rescue missions with Ares, or you'd talk Buzz Owen into lettin' you take one of his Tomcats or Hornets out for a li'l spin around the block."

Ryan smiled fondly as she remembered their old Navy buddy, Captain Jackson P. Owen. She had been returning from a reconnaissance flight over Iraq one day at the stick of an F-14 Tomcat jet fighter, and had buzzed the flight deck of her then commanding officer's Nimitz-class, nuclear-powered aircraft carrier at mach two and at an altitude of maybe thirty feet after having splashed a pair of Iraqi-flown old Soviet MiG-23s. While performing this victory flight to the wild cheers of the flight crew out on deck, she had come close to shattering every window on the bridge that day, and had caught some serious shit over it. Eventually, though, she had weaseled her way out of an official reprimand that would have gone on her record ("It was a morale-booster for the crew, I swear!" she'd explained, and Owen only half-believed it...but he had admired her gutsiness), and then later they had knocked back a couple of drinks over it. ("Don't do that shit anymore, Ryan," he'd ordered her. "I'm an old man, and my heart can't take it...")

"But y'can't do that anymore," Brie continued as she put away her blood-pressure gear. "You're a civilian. The only outlet you have these days--as pleasant but inadequate as it is--is cookin'. And while I dearly love your cookin', darlin'," she added with a smile, "I'm startin' to pack on the pounds. So please," and here the smile shifted to a look of utmost sincerity as she gave her hand a gentle squeeze, "do this for me, too, okay? If y'all want to keep enjoyin' your wine on the weekends and avoid the Valium--and if you don't want me windin' up lookin' like Anna Nicole Smith--you're gonna have to give up the news. It's your choice, Gina."

She gazed into those beautiful, jade-green eyes for a few moments as the worried expression in them gave her heart another tender squeeze, and then finally gave in with a soft sigh and a slight nodding of her head. Then she began to smile wryly. "Now that you mention it," she said gently as her sapphire eyes gave her a quick once over, "there does seem to be a little more of you to love..."

Fighting the urge to smile, Brie playfully gave her a back-handed swat across one shoulder.

Gina raised one hand in grinning defense. "Okay, okay! No more news. It's just that..." She shook her head with a sigh of exasperation. "God damn it, Brie, there's so much shit going on in the world, y'know? Seeing it all just plain hurts! I mean, how in God's name could anyone kidnap, murder, rape and mutilate an innocent little child? A sweet little five-year-old girl?" She took a deep breath and tried to calm herself, but she gnashed her teeth anyway. "I want to find the fucker and cut his fuckin' throat," the Warrior Princess snarled as her Marine Corps fury began to rise once more. "I wanna pull his fuckin' HEART out!" She shook her head despondently as she fought to keep the sudden mist in her eyes from condensing into tears once more, even as Duncan reached forward to give one hand a comforting squeeze. She could see her partner's blood pressure rising even higher. "Jesus, just when I thought there weren't any more monsters in the world..." she muttered softly as that silvery, steel spike of torment drove itself through her head and behind her eyes once more. "So on the one hand, I feel like I ought to keep current so I can maybe do something about it, y'know? But on the other, I... I just don't know what to do anymore." She sighed heavily. "As you said, my old outlets are thoroughly unacceptable by today's standards." Still with that image of a mutilated little girl in her mind, she wiped tears of frustration and emotional pain from her eyes. "God, I just feel so damned powerless these days..."

"I know, Gina," she said softy. Seeing her partner in so much emotional agony brought a mist to the doctor's own eyes. "I hear you. The problem is, we aren't in ancient Greece anymore; we can't go wanderin' the countryside like we used to, helpin' people by beatin' the shit out of the bad guys. They've got laws protectin' criminals these days, remember? As you once so rightly asked, can you imagine how Draco would take advantage of today's legal system?"

"Oh, Jesus, I shudder to think..."

"So my advice to you," she added as she slipped her glasses on once more and went back to preparing the injection, "is to let me give you the shot, and then you go to bed and you put all this out of your mind. You'll feel a lot better after a good night's sleep."

Gina sighed again, and then nodded slightly as she finally accepted her doctor's advice.

"Hey, wait a minute," she said as another thought suddenly struck her. She leaned back, just out of Brie's range, as the doctor reached toward her with the cotton ball. "What about that Ambrosia we had? I mean, we've both survived gunshot wounds, stabbings, blunt force trauma... While it all hurt like a sonofabitch, it never caused us any damage."

"Yeah," Brie replied thoughtfully, "but that was all quite a while ago. And all those physical injuries came from without. I don't know if Ambrosia can protect us from damages from within. Remember the old gods?"

Gina snorted in mild derision at the mention of those bygone deities. "Who could forget?" she muttered as Zeus and Hera, and a multitude of other gods suddenly came to mind. More loudly, she asked, "What about them?"

"They ate that stuff every day, and some of them were pretty nuts. Some of them went totally off the deep end. Remember Strife and Discord?"

She had a sudden mental image of Strife's maniacal grin and his supremely annoying prancing about, and that cackling laugh of his that rasped on the eardrums like sandpaper. Jesus, what a fuckin' idiot, she thought. Nobody on Mount Olympus could stand him. Not Zeus or Hera, or Athena or Ares...and they were all family!

And thinking of Ares suddenly made her think of his sister. "I do miss Aphrodite, though," she said with a tiny smile. "Even if she was kind of a ditz."

"Yeah, so do I," Brie said as she fondly reminisced for a quick moment. Then she quickly sobered and went on: "But the point is, we had only a small taste of Ambrosia. I don't know if it's worn off by now or not. So d'you want to take that chance? I know I don't."

Ryan frowned at her for a long, long moment. In return, the young blonde watched her patiently, as though she were perfectly willing and able to sit here all night and return her partner's steady gaze. She took a deep, deep breath, and let it out slowly, and then she gritted her teeth as she finally offered the doctor her arm. "God, I hate needles," she growled.

"Suck it up, Marine," Duncan told her with a sympathetic little smile as she began to swab the injection site on her upper arm. "It'll only last a second." The statuesque brunette watched with mild dread as the doctor approached her with the syringe, and then grimaced only slightly as the young blonde gave her the nearly painless shot. Gina Ryan may have hated cold and deliberately invasive needles and unpleasant, mind-clouding drugs, but she trusted Gabriella Duncan with her very soul.

"You coming to bed?" she asked her as she tugged the short sleeve of her t-shirt back down.

"In a few minutes," she replied as she began to put away her gear. "I just need to update your medical record."

She regarded her silently and fondly. "Still watching out for me, aren't you?" she asked softly. "It's been over two thousand years, and you're still watching out for me."

She thought about waving her off with a bashful little smile and a shy, tiny shrug...but those sapphire eyes held hers in warm and welcome captivity. At last, she whispered, "Always."

As she gazed into her eyes--those incredible, beautiful eyes that sometimes looked jade-green and at other times looked almost as blue as the warrior's, depending upon how they caught the light--Ryan thought once again that leaving her in Higuchi had been the stupidest goddamned thing that she had ever done; and once more she silently swore to herself that she would never leave this woman again.

She cupped one soft, warm cheek against her palm. "Tesoro mio," she said softly, and then she briefly yet lovingly kissed her lips. "Ti amo, e non ti lascerò mai."

Brie wasn't quite sure of what her partner was saying, but it did sound nice. And the expression in those captivating eyes was just...so... She slipped one hand behind her head, and returned her kiss.

"Don't be long, okay? It's going to be a chilly night," the Marine finally said. And then with a wry and playful little smile she added, "And I just need a warm bod to curl up with."

The young blonde removed her glasses. "If I'm not there in ten minutes," she whispered back tenderly, "call Joxer."

The former Warrior Princess grinned, and then chuckled softly. "I just might do that," she said in mocking threat.

"Yeah, right," the bard said with a skeptical grin. "I'd pay good money to see that."

With another soft laugh, the tall brunette slowly headed up the stairs.

***

Dressed the next day in faded blue jeans, a white button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled to her elbows, and dark brown Western-styled boots, Brie crossed the sun-washed kitchen floor to reach for the ringing cordless phone, which hung in its cradle on the wall near the refrigerator. "Hello?"

"Gabriella!" said a cheery, familiar voice. "Come stai, mi nipotina?"

Brie grinned that heart-warming grin of hers. "Mamma Ryan!" she said. "I'm fine! E tu?"

"Molto bene, grazie," replied her mother-in-law, Antonia Di Falcone Ryan. "Dov'è nostra Angelina?"

Her grin grew even wider at the idea of the former Spec-Ops Marine and demolitions expert now being referred to as "our little angel." She turned to the window above the gleaming porcelain double sink and parted the vinyl mini-blinds with two fingers to squint outside. "I think she's still out in the barn, working on her motorcycle," she replied. "Hold on; I'll check." She punched the "hold" button with her thumb just in time to avoid a long, stern, yet loving lecture about the dangers of motorcycles and what Mamma Ryan believed to be their accompanying tattoos, drugs, gangs, guns, rough men and loose women--all in Italian. She raised the blinds with the pull cord and slid open the dual-pane vinyl window. Immediately, she could hear ZZ Top's "Sharp Dressed Man" blasting from the barn. She took a deep breath of fresh, sylvan foothills air, and yelled at the top of her lungs: "Geee-naaa!!"

No answer.

Squeezing her eyes shut, as though to gain a little more power and volume, she tried again. "XEEE-NAAA!!"

The sharp dressed man came to an abrupt stop in mid stride. "WHADDAYA WANT?" came an equally forceful reply through one open door of the weather-worn barn. Not out of anger, just out of necessity, considering the distance.

"YOUR MOM'S ON THE PHONE!!"

"WHAT??" the barn asked.

She rolled her eyes and grumbled something under her breath. Red-faced now, and with the cords standing out on her neck, she screamed, "I SAID YOUR-MOM'S-ON-THE-PHONE!!"

For a moment, there was only silence. And then the reply came back, "TELL HER I'LL CALL HER BACK!!"

She punched the hold button again. "Yeah, she's working on her bike," she told Mamma Ryan with a hoarse voice. Holding the phone between her shoulder and her ear, she filled a glass with cold, refreshing well-water from the tap. "Can I have her call you back? She must be up to her a--er, elbows--in grease." She gulped it down to soothe her throat.

"It's-a kind of important," Mamma Ryan replied. "It's aboutta her grandfather."

"Nonno Vincenzo?" the Navy doctor asked as apprehension began to creep into her voice. Why hadn't they called her if they needed medical help? "Is he alright?"

"Oh, si, si," Mamma Ryan quickly replied reassuringly, "he's-a fine. He just wants-a to speak with Angelina. It's aboutta the family business. It's-a nothing to worry."

Family business? she thought. Nothing to worry? Brie couldn't think of two concepts that were more diametrically opposed. Ever since she found out that her partner came from a Mafia family...

"I'll tell you what: if Mohammed won't come to the mountain, then we'll just bring the mountain to Mohammed."

"Come?" she asked. "Che cosa, 'Mohammed'?"

"It's just an old saying," Brie said. "If you can't get someone or something to come to you, then you have to go to them." Or was it the other way around? Damn, she could never keep that straight...

"Pazzo inglese," Mamma Ryan muttered. "Whatta crazy language, this-a English..."

"I'll take you out to her," she said with a soft laugh. Chatting merrily with her, she crossed the hardwood kitchen floor and went down the rough and unpainted steps outside, with the solid heels of her boots thudding hollowly against the wood. She crunched her way across the minor expanse of dry dust, gravel, pine needles and the occasional weed of their backyard to the barn where, inside, she found Gina. Dressed in battered jeans, sneakers, a black and faded Harley-Davidson t-shirt and a black and backward San Francisco Giants baseball cap, the Marine was currently working on her Harley Davidson FXSTSB "Bad Boy." She had just finished replacing the spark plugs and changing the oil. "Hey Ryan," she drawled, tossing her the phone, "say hi to your mom."

Gina caught the phone in mid-flight in one grease-stained hand, and winced at the mess she was making of the instrument. But even though the glistening black grease stood out in stark contrast against the white plastic, she knew it would clean easily. She indicated her thanks.

"We have got to get an extension out here," Brie said.

"Uh-uh, no way," Gina said. "You told me yourself that I need to occasionally get away from the outside world; this is my refuge."

"Then turn the ringer off. And while we're at it, can we also get an intercom system installed out here? I haven't done this much screamin' since boot camp."

Ryan looked thoughtful for a moment. "That'll work." She took the phone off of "hold" and put it to her ear. "Ciao, mamma. Come va?"

Brie turned and started back for the kitchen. While she was slowly learning Italian, this kind of rapid-fire speech was still beyond her. And she knew that Gina would eventually bring her up-to-speed on all the news, so she figured she might as well go back inside and get started on lunch. She was dying to get into all that thinly sliced mortadella, cotto salami, and prosciutto that they had recently picked up from an Italian delicatessen that had just opened up in town. She could see it now, all sandwiched inside a freshly baked Italian roll with a couple of slices of smoked provolone cheese, some crisp iceberg lettuce and fresh tomato wedges, and homemade Italian salad dressing made with imported olive oil, and with a couple of mild peperoncini stuffed into the middle, all to be washed down with a good, cold pale ale...

With a stomach that suddenly rumbled with desire, she quickened her pace.

***

She came into the kitchen with a grease-stained cordless phone in one hand. "Well, he's finally gone and done it," she said as she reached for a paper towel.

"Grandpa Vincenzo?" Brie asked. "What? What's he done?"

"Don Vincenzo Di Falcone has stepped down," Gina replied as she began cleaning the phone. "He's retired as head of the family business."

"So what's wrong with that?" the young doctor asked. "Getting all that stress out of his life is a good thing. Especially at his age. Besides, didn't you want him to retire?"

She hung the phone in its cradle and gave her The Look.

Brie's eyes widened in surprise. "He left it to you?"

Gina stepped over to the sink to wash up. "When he asked Travis if he wanted to take it over, Travis told him he wasn't interested; he said he felt safer jumping out of airplanes at ten thousand feet. And Mikey... Jesus, Mikey can barely keep himself out of jail. So..." She shut off the water and shrugged in mild annoyance as she reached for a towel to dry her hands.

"Not on the dish towel!" Brie suddenly exclaimed, startling the Marine. "Use the hand towel!"

Her eyes shifted back and forth between the two terrycloth towels, puzzled. What the hell difference does it make? she asked herself. A towel's a towel, isn't it? And my hands are clean... Not that she'd ever actually say such a blasphemous thing to Gabriella Duncan, she concluded as an afterthought; she wasn't about to get verbally reamed by the Battling Bard of Poteidaia, the Queen of the Amazons, irascible Navy doctor and pugnacious Domestic Goddess. For the sake of family peace, she reached for the other towel. "We've put too much work into this house," she said. "I don't want to give it all up and relocate to New York."

Brie looked thoughtful, and nodded in agreement. She loved this old house, too, even with all of its creaks and pops whenever the winds howled mercilessly in the dead of night. "Yeah, I know what you mean. But look on the bright side."

"What bright side?" Ryan asked despondently. She put the towel back in its proper place, next to the identical dish towel, then approached the table and sat heavily next to her partner. Slumping back in her seat, and still wearing her backward Giants cap, she gazed at Brie's lunch. "You gonna finish that sandwich?"

"The power, the prestige, the wealth...and yes, I'm going to finish this sandwich. Yours is in the fridge, in its separate components."

She pulled her eyes from the sandwich and fixed them on her partner. "What, you didn't make me one?"

Brie shrugged with an "I-didn't-know-what-you-wanted-on-it" look.

Gina rose from the table with a growl of exasperation, and approached the refrigerator. "'Power and prestige,'" she said, with a little bit of her father's Kiwi accent suddenly creeping into her voice, as she pulled open the door and found, much to her surprise and delight, a sandwich already made for her, complete with little colored cellophane-topped toothpicks stuck through each half. She took it out, turned, and smiled her thanks. With one elbow resting on the table, her palm beneath her chin, Brie smiled back playfully. Even though Gina was the primary cook in the family, her favorite Italian-style sandwiches always seemed to taste just a little bit better whenever Brie made them for her. "'Power and prestige' are more like migraines, ulcers and chronic diarrhea." She reached for a bottle of imported pale ale, took the magnetic bottle opener from the outside of the door, then went and sat next to her partner. "I've now got three illegal gambling casinos to look after"--she popped the top from the beer bottle and began to pour it into a glass--"and a bunch of Grandpa's ragazzi who are happier 'n hell to go out and pound heads to collect outstanding debts. I've also got three restaurants that launder all that gambling money." She took a healthy bite from the sandwich and chewed thoughtfully. "Gesu Cristo," she sighed. "Christ, I can't run that business from out here; I'm gonna have to shut everything down, sell the restaurants... Aw, shit," she finished with a groan.

"At least it'll keep you occupied and away from the news." She thought in silence for some time while Gina ate. "Wouldn't it be cool," she asked at last as she slumped a little farther across the table with her fist now against one temple, "if you sold the restaurants back east, got those people to relocate out here, and then opened up a new restaurant? We could do Greek and Italian, and Texas barbeque, and put a bar in the back..."

With her own elbows on the table, she took a bite from her sandwich and chewed thoughtfully. "Y'know," she said at last, lowering her sandwich and speaking around a mouthful of food, "that's not a bad idea."

"Yeah!" Brie said, suddenly excited as she warmed up to the idea. She straightened quickly. "Let's do it, Gina! You could call it..." She thought for a moment. "How about, 'The Sword and Chakram?'"

She sipped at her beer. "Naw, nobody knows what a 'chakram' is. Besides, I've got an even better idea: How about we call it 'The Sword and Staff?'"

Brie smiled fondly at the inclusive reference...and then looked dubious. "It sounds great, but... Isn't somebody else already using that name?"

"Okay, what about..." She thought some more. "What about...what about..." Dry for ideas, she finally said, "Aw, fuck it."

Brie looked at her uncertainly. "You want to put up a big, flashing neon sign outside of your restaurant that says 'Aw, Fuck It'? Don't you think it'll drive customers a--"

Ryan gave her The Look again. "I'll think of something later," she finally explained, unnecessarily, "for our restaurant." And then something unpleasant occurred to her. "The only problem is that the other families might think I'm branching out, tapping a new source of income. And they might want a piece of the action. The last thing I want to do is bring in outside agitators and start a turf war in Nevada City. The police department here isn't nearly big enough to handle something like that." She took a sip of beer, and attacked her sandwich once more.

Gabriella grunted softly. That could be a problem, she thought. Facetiously, she said, "Maybe you could contact some of your Marine Corps buddies, or I could call some of my SEAL buddies to act as a deterrent."

Gina continued to chew for a moment or two, and then her mouth slowed, and then stopped. She looked at Brie.

Brie looked back at her. "What?" she asked. "What'd I say?"

She washed it down with another sip of her beer, then smiled. "You've just given me a great idea."

Brie began to smile, too. "Yeah?" she asked. She watched Gina expectantly.

Gina took another healthy bite, chewed, and chuckled softly.

"What?" Brie repeated. "What'd I say?"

"And if things work out just right," Ryan continued, speaking once more around a mouthful of sandwich, "we might even have a little fun and excitement along the way..."

Brie looked at her with an expression that was suspicious yet intrigued. "What've you got in mind?"

She washed it down with another swallow of beer. "I'll tell you all about it," Gina promised, "after lunch."

***

Nearly two weeks later, Paolo ("Paulie" to his acquaintances) Ravenna was the last of the other Family dons to meet with her. He was disliked by the cappos of the other Families as a hot-head and as being completely without honor; it was people like him, they had agreed among themselves, that had given the Mafia a bad name. Out of consideration for her grandfather's more traditional business partners, some of whom were actually friends of his (although personally she had little regard for them, but they might make for valuable allies in the future, so she reminded herself to be careful and not to offend them...too much), she had given them advance warning and ample opportunity for them to make other arrangements; but she had provided no such opportunity to Ravenna. She'd heard of him before, and she knew how Ravenna used and abused people for his own personal gain and sick entertainment, how he created public relations messes that he had left to others to clean for him, and how he had openly boasted that he answered to no one and that he could do whatever the hell he wanted. As a result, he had been regarded by the other Families as a cheap, repulsive, second-rate hood, and it was because of his reputation that she had chosen to inform him last. He had finally received her phone call maybe three days ago, inviting him out to this old mansion just outside of Nevada City, up in the hills and nearly surrounded by wilderness, to discuss the restaurant and the gambling business.

He'd heard on the streets that Gina Ryan, the granddaughter of Vincenzo Di Falcone, was closing down operations back east. And he needed at least one of those restaurants to stay open as a front for his gambling casino, drug den and brothel. He had also heard that she was starting a new business here in town, and he thought he might be able to use it to his advantage; a new legitimate operation through which he could launder his illegal profits. So he had accepted her invitation to come out here and talk business, mostly so he could find out just what in the hell was going on and to make his own demands.

He wanted a piece of the action, and certainly no mere woman was going to stop him.

She met him at the front door, dressed in a dark power suit and vest, a white shirt open at the throat with no tie, and black Western-style boots. Hanging just below the base of her throat, on a short silver chain and catching the faint light, was the small, original-style chakram that Brie had given her when they had first moved into this house. "Buona sera, Don Paolo," she said, her voice all honey and silk as she held the door open for him and his two body guards. "Come sta?"

"Forget all the tradizionale cagare, Ryan," he said sourly as he stepped inside. He took note of the young blonde woman, who was sitting nearby in one of the reclining chairs, thumbing through a magazine and apparently unconcerned with him or his two bodyguards. She looked up at him for a moment with an unreadable expression in her eyes, checked out the two walking walls of beef, and then went back to her magazine. Not bad, he thought. I could probably use her.

He returned his attention to Ryan. "What the hell do you think you're doing, talking about shutting down the Ristorante Roma?"

She regarded him silently for a moment. Boy, the other dons weren't kidding, she thought. This guy's a real putz. "Forget the polite amenities and cut straight to the chase, huh?" Gina said. "Fine, have it your own way. We'll talk in my office. Bring your boys along, if you want."

He turned to the two massive bodyguards. "You guys stay out here," he told them, "we'll be fine." He grinned a sick and sickening grin. "Keep the blonde company."

She led the way. Once they were seated alone--Gina behind the expensive mahogany desk and Ravenna in one of the two plush, brown suede chairs facing her--they got down to business.

"Okay," she said. She looked at the stainless steel pilot's chronometer on her left wrist, and noted the time. "I am not 'talking' about shutting down the Ristorante Roma; as of half an hour ago, it has been shut down. It is gone. It is nothing but an empty building."

"Well, thanks for the warning, Ryan!" he said sarcastically. "What the hell am I supposed to do now? How the hell am I gonna launder all that money and make it all look legitimate for the feds? Your grandfather and I had a deal! Now I'm gonna have the Treasury Department breathin' down my neck--"

"That's not my problem," Gina said as she leaned forward and laced her fingers together. "My grandfather retired from the business. You don't deal with him anymore; now you deal with me. Besides, Don Vincenzo never liked you anyway." And then she smiled a cold smile. "And you know what? I don't like you, either."

"Not your problem, huh?" Ravenna said. "How about I make it your problem? Your family--"

She leaned forward dangerously. "My family is no longer in New York," she said, knowing exactly where he was going with that line of discussion and cutting him off. "And I do not take kindly to people coming into my home and making veiled threats against them. That kind of thing really pisses me off."

"Oh, yeah?" Ravenna said. "Well, I don't take kindly to people trying to put me out of business!" He rose from his chair, and suddenly pulled a .45 automatic from the small of his back. "So now maybe it is your problem."

He didn't even have time to point the weapon at her. Before he could raise it, two dark and silent figures emerged from the shadows of the corners behind him. One grabbed his hand and twisted the gun from it while the other stuck the muzzle of a Heckler & Koch MP-5 submachine gun against the back of his head. Then his arm was forcefully twisted behind his back, almost to the breaking point, and before he could gasp and cry out to his bodyguards his face was slammed against the desk, smashing his nose into a flat, bloody rose.

Four more shadowy figures emerged from the darkness behind her like guardian demons, two on the left and two on the right. Don Paolo could have sworn that this office had been empty; now he found himself face down against cold mahogany and confronted by half a dozen men, all dressed in black combat fatigues and with faces greased black, and pointing military-issue automatic weapons in his face.

The silk and honey drained from her soft voice, and were replaced with an Arctic iciness that nearly left puffs of vapor hanging in the air. "That was a stupid thing to do, Paulie," Gina said as she casually leaned back in her chair and lit up a thin and elegant Cuban cigar. She gazed at him for a few moments, and for a second or two Paulie reminded her very much of Darphus; he had the same eyes, and the same sick smile...and he needed to be dealt with similarly.

She motioned to two of the silent figures. "Settle him back down, please."

The two men behind him suddenly pulled him up from the desk and slammed him back into the chair. Silently, Major Bobby Clay, USMC, quickly stepped forward and gently placed the lugged sole of his combat boot against Ravenna's crotch while Master Chief Billy Austin, of the Navy SEALs, trained the muzzle of his MP-5 on Paulie's chest. Two more SEALs, all well out of each other's line of fire, trained their weapons on him, the muzzles gently resting against his temples.

Gina lay her cigar in a small, nearby candy dish as she swivelled slightly in her own chair, then leaned forward once more and opened Brie's laptop computer. She began keying in commands. "Y'know, Paulie, I've been doing a little digging around in your background, and I've learned a couple of new things about you--stuff that even my grandfather didn't know about. And I don't like what I've found. So now I have two options left to me." She leaned back in her chair and puffed on her cigar a couple of times, sending clouds of smoke toward the ceiling. "The obvious one, of course--and happily the least complicated one--is that I can have you killed. I could leave your stinking, worthless corpse in the woods for the cougars and the bears, and no one would ever know what happened to you." She paused for a long moment, watching him with dangerously narrowed eyes as she let the idea sink in. "But eventually I would have to explain your disappearance to my family, and that would make them very upset. So as a favor to them, I think I'll exercise option number two." She leaned forward, laid the cigar in the candy dish once more, and began to work with the mouse; she clicked it a couple of times, and then she turned the computer so Ravenna could see the screen. "Look familiar?" she asked.

He found himself staring at a picture of himself. More accurately, he was staring at a copy of his arrest record. She had gotten on-line, and had infiltrated the Department of Corrections for the city, county, and state of New York to show him a mug shot accompanied by a list of criminal charges. Extortion, assault, mayhem, and rape were the latest charges that had been levied against him; but because in the heated moment of his arrest, someone hadn't read him his Miranda rights soon enough--and the case, with all charges, had been thrown out of court.

"So what's your point?" he asked, still defiant in spite of the blood on his face. She'd already told him that she wasn't going to have him killed; so once he was out of here he'd have this entire house burned down, along with its occupants. Nobody treated Paolo Ravenna this way and lived to talk about it; no one. "They got nothing on me. Those flatfoot, piss-ant motherfuckers can't touch me."

"The Internet is a wonderful thing," Gina told him with a smile as she turned the computer back to face her. "You can do all kinds of things, if you have the right resources." One of whom was Jack Sawyer, computer-hacker extra ordinaire for the CIA. "Come on over here, and take a look."

He was suddenly yanked to his feet and dragged around the end of the desk. Gina rose, and let two of the SEALs thrust him into her chair. They held both of his arms twisted behind his back.

Kneeling next to him, her face near his and smiling pleasantly, she punched a couple more keys and played with the mouse. "I can make you disappear," she continued as, with the click of the mouse, all of his personal information accompanying his photograph and fingerprints was suddenly erased, "and then I can make you reappear," she finished as she pointed and clicked again, replacing that deleted information with an entirely new set of charges against him.

His eyes suddenly widened with the first traces of real fear.

"Paolo Ravenna the accused rapist and extortionist is suddenly gone, while Bertram Ingram, the convicted sex offender and child molester, is alive and well, and... Ooooh, and look at this!" she said with almost girlish enthusiasm, along with that dazzling, dark-haired and blue-eyed grin. "He's currently in violation of the terms of his parole!"

His fear quickly transformed into absolute terror. His name, address, Social Security and drivers' license numbers were all different now, as were the charges against him--which now consisted of kidnaping, possession of child porn, interstate transportation of a minor for lewd purposes, child abuse, rape and sodomy--but his photograph, fingerprints and DNA record were the same.

Her dazzling grin widened. "And guess who's going to be looking for him?" she asked merrily.

The New York City Police Department had a keen interest in him, as did the New York State Police, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the United States Marshal's Office, and a variety of other law enforcement agencies ranging from the East Coast to the West...

The last of his color drained from Ravenna's face. He knew what average, run-of-the-mill, everyday prison inmates thought of child molesters; and he knew what was going to happen to him in prison if he were left in the general population. Desperately, he whined, "No, Gina! C'mon, you... For the love of God! You can't do this to m...me!"

The pleasant grin suddenly disappeared. Ravenna couldn't help noticing just how incredibly stunning she was, especially from this close, with that long, dark hair, those incredible blue eyes and those even, white teeth, and those lovingly sculpted cheek bones and nose; but suddenly, she was as cold and as deadly as she was beautiful.

She grabbed a handful of his hair and viciously yanked his head backward. "Can't I?" she snarled softly, her face only an inch from his. Suddenly, she found herself possessed by the rage of the Scourge of Corinth. "Does the name Pamela Curtis mean anything to you?" She could tell by the sudden look in his eyes that he remembered her; oh yeah, he remembered... "She was sixteen years old when you and your two goons out there gang-raped her and then blinded her. A sixteen-year-old girl!" She held out her other hand, and someone placed a double-edged combat dagger in it, hilt first. She slowly and deliberately curled her fingers around its camouflage hilt, and then gently rested one black, razor edge against his exposed throat. "You stole her innocence and then her eyesight, and then you threatened her family if they dared to testify against you...and you laughed in their faces over a loophole in the law. You've robbed people, you've terrorized them, you've mutilated them..." She slowly drew the edge of the blade up his throat and then rested the point against the underside of his chin. "You've done worse than shatter their lives; you destroyed their dreams!" The more she thought about those dismissed charges against him, the hotter her blood boiled.

She began to press the point of the knife harder against the sensitive, exposed skin, and drew little satisfaction from his high, thin, terrified whine. "I ought to kill you right here, you pig." She paused for a long moment as she seriously contemplated the idea. Instead, she finally put the knife down and placed her hand on top of the mouse once more. "But I don't want to dirty my hands or my partner's desk with your blood. Besides," she added with a blood-chilling smile, "I think I'd much rather watch you try to weasel your way out of this...you worthless little stronzo." With a slight and single movement of her index finger, she clicked on "save file" to make her changes official and permanent. The sound was just a soft and tiny click!, but Paolo Ravenna jumped as though it had been the explosion of a gunshot to his temple.

She slowly straightened. "Get rid of him," she said coldly.

"On your feet, asshole," Bobby told him as he motioned with the machine gun. The contingent of SEALs escorted him from the office to the living room, where Paulie discovered that the young blonde was now preparing an injection. He also saw that there were three more men, all dressed for war in black fatigues and grease paint, and carrying automatic weapons. One of them was attempting to remove a red stain--it looked like blood, from where Paulie stood--from the carpet with a white rag and a bottle of hydrogen peroxide.

His two bodyguards were gone.

The blonde woman regarded him with cold green eyes. For just one brief moment, she was reminded of Crassus, the general of Rome who had been personally responsible for the crucifixion and murder of the family of Vircinix of Gaul; he had the same eyes. And she also remembered how he had been dealt with. A part of her had been sickened by the role she had played on that fateful day, because out of her reverence for life the young bard had felt that she had acted as judge, jury and executioner by not preventing his death. But now, with Ravenna before her and knowing what kinds of crimes he had committed against innocent victims, the young Navy doctor had no similar qualms.

"Hold his arm steady," she said, and two men quickly pinned him to the sofa and bared his arm while the third temporarily abandoned his cleaning project. As he approached, he ominously screwed a silencer onto the muzzle of his Beretta and gently pressed it against the side of Ravenna's knee. The message was clear: You twitch, you lose it.

Brie swabbed an injection site inside his elbow, then held off a vein with her thumb and hit the vein on the first try to give him a dose of phenobarbital. "Say g'night, you asshole," she told him just before he passed out. For a brief moment, she thought about asking what they were going to do with him...and then she decided that she would rather not know. It was enough to know that they would handle his disposal in an appropriate manner.

"Next stop is New York," Bobby said. "Gina's already on the phone and making arrangements for the Curtis family to find him and call the cops on him--and for them to collect a very hefty reward for turning him in. It won't bring their daughter's eyesight back, but at least this time he'll pay for what he did."

Brie nodded slightly in cold, mute satisfaction. "Hoo-ya," she said softly.

Gina came up from behind her and slipped an arm around her shoulders. "I told you everything would work out okay."

"I had a feeling it would," Brie said. She looked up at her and asked, "Is this what you meant by having some fun and excitement--"

She stopped suddenly. Then her jade-green eyes chilled in a deep, dark, dangerous scowl as she regarded her partner. She sniffed the air near her, and her scowl deepened. "Is that a cigar I smell?"

Gina's heart began to pound hard in her chest as adrenalin suddenly poured into her bloodstream. The idea of inviting known criminals into their home and conducting highly illegal Family business in Brie's office was one thing; but the thought of someone actually smoking in there was...

"Hey, I told Paulie not to light up in here," she said quickly, her voice cool and silky.

Brie leaned toward her partner, and sniffed again. She wasn't sure, but she thought that cigar smell might be coming from her.

Gina's forced smile of false hope began to slip just slightly as her apprehension increased. Hastily, she plastered it back on. "Hey, you know how those fumes spread everywhere and...and cling to everything," she said as she backed even farther away (subtly, she hoped), while forcing her voice to remain calm.

Brie continued to watch her suspiciously. She was dead certain that the tobacco smell was on Ryan's breath.

"Look, I have to keep a few Cubans around for talking business, okay?" Gina continued patiently. "Some of these guys feel very uncomfortable without a cigar in one hand and a Scotch in the other." Was Brie buying any of this?

The Warrior Princess shifted nervously under the cold, unrelenting gaze of the Battling Bard. "Look, it's a tradition, okay?" she said at last with a nervous sigh, as her feigned composure began to crumble. "Expensive booze, contraband cigars...it's...it's tradizione!"

The suspicious bard continued to watch her with dangerous green eyes. "'Tradizione,' my ass," she grumbled at last. "It's gonna take a week to get that stink out of my office."

***

Opening night of the "Sword and Sai" had been a surprising success, and far busier than anyone had anticipated. Emblazoned on each of the oaken double doors was a copy of Xena's double-edged sword, with the point up, and superimposed on it was Gabrielle's pair of crossed sai, also with the points up. Across the expansive dining area, and above the bar at the back wall, there were several pictures of Gina and Brie wearing various forms of military regalia, from combat fatigues to formal dress uniforms. Both families had come out to take part in the restaurant's grand opening, along with Gina's and Brie's friends from the Navy and the Corps--many of whom wound up getting drafted into service, once the owners realized just how short they really were on hired help. Evelyn and Veronica Duncan, in from Dallas, Texas, had wound up taking turns as maitre d', greeting customers, seating them and handing them menus; Brie frequently wound up working alongside the hired help, waiting on tables and taking orders, and even bussing tables, while Gina served in the kitchen along with the two chefs. Whenever someone wanted to meet and compliment the owners, those customers were frequently surprised to find the owners hustling from table to table with a damp towel slung over one shoulder and an order pad in her back pocket.

By 1:00AM, the final customer had left, and the expensive, double doors were finally shut and locked for the night. After the hired help had gone home--with bonuses!--family members and friends finally managed to settle back and relax with a glass of good red wine or a cold beer, and some extra garlic bread. Gina had also thrown a couple of extra-large pizzas into the ovens. These people had worked hard, and they were hungry and exhausted. Above and behind the bar, the television set was on with the news, but no one was paying attention to it.

"Man, can you believe it?" Gina said as she relaxed behind the bar. "I'm thinking we paid the bills and the staff for the month, and still made some profit." She raised her wine glass in a toast to family and friends. "And we couldn't have done it without you guys. Thank you."

"Hell, we probably made enough to even invest in that little deli down the street," Brie added as she massaged one aching foot. "Jesus, I haven't done this much runnin' around--"

"--since boot camp," Gina and Bobby finished for her.

"Man," Evie Duncan, the second-oldest sibling and Texas prosecuting attorney said, "I thought law school was tough."

"You guys have gotten soft," Ronnie Duncan, the oldest identical sibling and Texas Ranger said. "Y'all should try workin' my turf for a spell; that'll keep y'all in shape, runnin' around an' chasin' down bad guys..."

"No thanks," Brie said. "I think we've all done enough of that...for a while..." Her voice trailed off when she noticed that Gina wasn't paying attention to any of them. She was watching the TV set. She picked up the remote control from the bar and turned up the volume. "Gina, you said you weren't gonna watch the news anymore..."

"Hang on. It's an Amber Alert." This was the state's new emergency alert system. It used the Emergency Broadcast System to alert citizens of child abductions, and they also provided all pertinent information, such as descriptions of the victims, the suspect, the suspect's vehicle, etc.

"... kidnaping of six-year-old Megan Donnelly by a suspected al-Qaeda terrorist. The suspect's vehicle is a brown 1993 Ford Taurus, license plate number 2 QJW 945, and was last seen heading south on Interstate 5 from San Diego toward the border. Anyone seeing this vehicle is encouraged to contact their local police department or the FBI..."

Gina slammed her fist against the bar. "That does it!" she shouted as bottles and glasses jumped from the polished mahogany surface. Two of them nearly wound up on the floor in fragments. "That fuckin' tears it!" She reached for the phone and punched in a number.

"What?" Brie asked as everyone turned nervous eyes on the Marine. "What do you mean?" She could see Gina's blood pressure rising from where she sat, at a nearby table with her sisters.

"Fuckin' al-Qaeda...fuckin' terrorists...fuckin' goddamn kidnapers! Goddamn child predators! Too damn many kids are being abducted, injured and killed; I have fuckin' had enough of it, godammit! I'm gonna do something about it!"

"Gina," Brie said, suddenly concerned about her partner's health once more, "what are you--"

She held up one hand in a request for silence as she waited for the other end to pick up. At last, Xena snarled into the phone, "Chakram!"

Gabrielle's flesh crawled. That used to be their call to action; their code word indicating a dire emergency, and a need for Jack Sawyer's help in readying the supersonic stealth helicopter Ares for combat.

Into the phone, Gina suddenly shouted, "What?"

The others watched her with sudden apprehension. Being able to hear only Gina's half of the conversation, they had to supply the other side with only guesses at what Sawyer might be telling her.

"What the hell are you talking about?" she roared, her face turning red with rage. "Look, I don't give a goddamn rat's ass about any of that shit! You just fuckin' make it happen, Jack! God damn it! I have fuckin' had it with all the bureaucratic bullshit--"

A hand reached out to gently take the phone from her hand. She abruptly whirled around with murder in her eyes to find Bobby Clay standing next to her. "May I?" he gently asked her.

The lethal rage in her sapphire eyes began to show the first, faintest tinge of puzzlement. "What the--"

"Allow me, Colonel," he said. He gently took the phone from her and put it to his ear. "Sawyer? Clay." He listened for a moment. "Yeah, I know." Then he turned his back to Ryan as his voice became a hushed yet dire warning. He cupped his hand around the mouth piece. "Shut up, Jack, she's standing right here." He looked over his shoulder, gave the scowling lieutenant colonel a reassuring smile, and then turned away from her again. "Yeah, I know; I'll explain later. Yes, I'm going to talk to her about that. Yes, right now." He glanced Gina's way, and saw the rage and frustration in her sapphire eyes. He sighed deeply in resignation. "Look, I'll call you back, okay? Later." He hung up.

"What the hell was that all about?" Gina demanded.

"Colonel..." He sighed and shook his head. "Gina, you're retired. No matter how remote the possibility may be, if Jack gets caught releasing Ares to you and Doc--to civilians--not only will he be up to his ass in big fuckin' hungry sharks for the rest of his life, as will you two, but Ares will be seized and returned to the DoD. The three of you took a huge enough chance in running your little rescue operations even as semi-active military; I mean, if you got caught then, you could always claim you were on a Spec Ops mission and no one could prove otherwise. But can you imagine what would happen if you got caught now? You two would be in jail for life, Jack would be brought before a modern-day Inquisition, and Ares would be locked away by the Department of Defense in a secret hangar out in a desert somewhere, never to be used again."

Brie approached them and sat on one of the bar stools. She took Gina's hand and squeezed it gently. "He's right, Gina," she said.

"But--" Suddenly at a loss for words, she stopped short. She wanted so badly, so desperately to help the kidnaped child; and instead of cooperating with her, these people--people who were supposed to be her friends and family!--were throwing more obstacles in her way! In sheer frustration, her temples began to pound once more.

"No buts. You two got a business to run, and other people's lives and paychecks depend on it. Face it, Colonel; you and Doc can no longer fly secret missions for anyone anymore."

She gnashed her teeth in a silent, frustrated snarl.

And then she suddenly turned on him with eyes that blazed with new life. "Yeah, but you can!"

This time, it was Bobby who stopped short. He looked at her uncertainly. Finally, he asked, "'Scuse me?"

She watched him with an increasing intensity that was almost frightening as a vortex of ideas suddenly swirled through her mind. "You don't have a psych discharge written up in your record. You're active military personnel flying around in military hardware; you don't have to worry nearly as much about getting caught. And you're as good a pilot as I ever was; and with Jack at the helm of his computers, covertly rewriting orders and assignments..." She deliberately left the thought unfinished as her intensity began to transform itself into a new surge of excitement.

Bobby watched her carefully. "Wait a second," he said. "You're not really suggesting..."

"Well, why not?" Ryan asked him. "The last time the DoD heard anything about Ares, I was flying it. If they hear about their stealth chopper flying unsanctioned missions, they can go right ahead and come looking for me; I'll be right here--" she vigorously tapped the bar a couple of times with the tip of one index finger "--with my sister-in-law who's a cop and my other sister-in-law who's a prosecutor for the Dallas DA. I'll be surrounded by witnesses to swear that Brie and I had nothing to do with it...while I'm feeding them just enough bullshit to keep them concentrating on me and not on you."

He watched her for another long moment. He knew how important it was to Gina to keep fighting for the greater good, and he knew how much she hated like hell to be unable to continue that fight directly. But damn it, he didn't have the time for that kind of reconnaissance; the Corps had its own schedule to which he was tied, and he had his own duties and his own chain of command to which he had to answer.

On the other hand, he did owe her a favor or two...

"C'mon," she said, her voice soft and encouraging. "I'm not asking for your full-time commitment; just an occasional mission, and only in extreme cases."

He watched her dubiously as he thought it over. Gradually, his doubtful look turned into a thoughtful one.

She could tell by the look in his eyes that the hook was in; all she had to do now was gently draw him in."C'mon," she said again, her voice almost a whisper. And then her eyes sparkled with constrained delight. "Remember the look on that punk-ass Paulie's face when he found himself staring down the machine gun barrels of half a dozen bad-ass Navy SEALs? Was that priceless, or what?"

He watched her some more...and then began to smile a little bit. "Well, now that you mention it...that helicopter is a hell of a lot of fun to fly..."

She glanced toward her two sisters-in-law. "Could you two come over here? I need a little bit of...hypothetical legal counsel here..."

They gathered around, and settled down comfortably.

"Just for the sake of discussion," Gina began. "If someone working in the justice department or the law enforcement field had information about military personnel using military equipment in...oh, for example, a non-military capacity involving civilian activities, where do you suppose civilian authorities would stand?"

Two copies of Brie--one with a long, single golden braid and bangs, and dressed in a tan suit and high-heels, and the other with collar-length hair and dressed in pale blue denim and Western boots, but with identical faces and jade-green eyes--regarded each other for a moment. "Well..." said Evie Duncan, the refined and sophisticated assistant district attorney of Dallas, Texas. "I suppose we would probably have to report it to NCIS...eventually," she was careful to emphasize, "...and let them handle it." Her smile hinted at perhaps just a little too much innocence.

"I'm afraid I'd have to agree," said Veronica Duncan, the breezy and easy-going Texas Ranger, with an identical smile. "But y'know what? My office gets a lot of phone calls from people who are always reportin' black helicopters--the same people who are always reportin' UFO sightin's and crop circles, and chupacabras and men-in-black, and mysterious lights out in the desert, and all that weird secret military conspiracy horse shit... I'm talkin' about people who take Art Bell and the 'X-Files' seriously. And as time consumin' as all that is," she, too, was careful to emphasize, "we have to investigate each and every one of 'em thoroughly before goin' to the DA."

"And when the DA wants something done thoroughly, they mean thoroughly," Evie said. "We don't want our time wasted with sloppy investigations."

"So with that kind of volume to deal with, it all boils down to 'Take a number an' get in line.'"

"It's such a damn shame that there aren't more hours in a day," Evie said with a little smile of exaggerated sadness and fatigue, "because I really, really, really love to work my ass off."

"Yeah...me too," Ronnie agreed with an identical little smile.

Gina and Bobby regarded them silently for a moment or two, and then began to smile with exaggerated innocence. "Y'know what?" the latter said at last. "With this sudden hypothetical mission being on such short notice and all, the team involved suddenly does find itself in need of an experienced combat pilot." He flicked his eyes toward Brie. "And a combat medic," he added.

Brie smiled a tiny, knowing smile. We are back in business, she thought.

"Mission?" Evie asked.

"Must be some kinda hypothetical, covert military horse shit, in which I am not the least bit interested," Ronnie said, hinting that they might be better off not knowing. "Listen, y'all wanna help me find that extra case o' beer that I heard about? I'm thinkin' it's gotta be downstairs in the basement."

"Sure," Evie quickly replied. "We should be back in..." She checked her ladies' Rolex. "...about five minutes?"

"Better make it ten," Ronnie countered as she checked her black sports watch. "We need to do a really thorough search..."

With the cop and the prosecutor now out of the room, Bobby turned his attention back on Gina. "So what do you say, Colonel? You up for one last mission?"

As the pounding in her temples continued to diminish, a wolf-like grin quickly spread across the Warrior Princess's face. She enthusiastically cuffed him across one shoulder. "Hoo-ah," she replied.

Bobby grinned back at her with his own dangerous, wolf-like grin, and gave her an equally zealous swat across her own shoulder. "Hoo-ah."

***

His plan to contaminate the local water treatment plant with bubonic plague bacteria had fallen apart. The authorities had intercepted his latest message to his al-Qaeda superiors, and they were hot on his trail--so now his only chance was to take a hostage and run. And that had been simple enough; as a sleeper agent, he had lived next door to the Donnellys for over a year. He had made friends with them, he'd had dinner with them on numerous occasions, he had gotten to know their schedules and their habits, he had taken part in their various celebrations...so it had been a simple task to grab the child and run.

It was only one more mile to the border, and he'd be home free. At this speed, it was less than a minute, and there was no one in pursuit. With a trembling hand, he wiped the sweat from his face before grasping the steering wheel once more in tight fists. The girl was tied into a secure bundle in the back seat, the duct tape across her mouth keeping her silent except for the tiny whimpers of tearful and wide-eyed terror that came from beneath the concealing blanket. Once he got her across the border...correction, he told himself, now that he had just crossed the border, he could do anything he wanted. He could kill the infidel now as a final, in-your-face act of defiance, and no one could touch him. No one.

He grinned with malignant delight.

One hundred meters ahead of him, the ground blew up. Brilliant red flames and a deafening explosion assaulted his senses, causing him to slam on the brakes in sudden panic and bring the car to an abrupt, jarring halt that nearly drove his forehead against the top of the steering wheel. As steaming, molten chunks of rock suddenly pelted and dented the hood and roof of the car, he straightened in his seat, and with wide and terrified eyes and a pounding heart he thought, What in the name of Allah? He waited a moment for the dust to clear, and when it did it revealed a gaping black crater just ahead of him, some ten meters wide and perhaps fifteen deep.

By the beard of Mohammed!! he thought in shock and terror.

A sharp, staccato burst of thunder suddenly erupted from the clear blue sky, and with surgical precision a row of silver-dollar-sized bullet holes suddenly appeared before him, thudding into the metal and stitching across the hood as a burst of armor-piercing automatic weapons fire literally shredded the engine block into glittering confetti. Instinctively, he threw his arms in front of his face to protect himself.

And then the thunder came from the skies. A loud, unending thunder that sounded more like an 8.5 earthquake shook the entire station wagon so violently that the thing almost bounced from its tires to flip over. He saw nothing in front of him, but when he glanced out through his rear window again he saw the massive, gray UH-60 Seahawk helicopter as it settled behind him. Fully armed with chain guns and rockets, it slowly turned to face him as it hovered just a few feet above the ground, blowing dust and debris with the down blast of the massive rotors. And on the fuselage near the tail rotor he saw, stenciled in black, the words...

Allah, help me! he silently whined to himself as he was suddenly consumed with sheer, absolute terror. They have called out the fucking MARINES!

He glanced at his hostage with fear-stricken eyes. Who the hell was this infidel, he suddenly wondered? The way these people had responded, one would think she was the President's daughter or something! It never occurred to this low-life terrorist that she was just a little girl, with all sense of nationality, religion or politics aside, who didn't deserve to be treated like this. She was just a little girl who had been innocently playing in her own front yard...and on whom he had maliciously forced his jihad of terror.

And then he wondered what American Marines were doing in Mexico. How was it possible that they had pursued him across the border? How typical of the American imperialists, he thought as he glanced once more at his young hostage. They have such disregard for borders and international laws...

Something much darker and far more sinister than the shadow of God slowly and ominously passed over him, blocking out the sun and roaring with a screaming, thundering roar. When he turned to face front once more, he found a sleek, black, and unmarked jet helicopter that looked like a cross between a Black Hawk helicopter and an F-117 Stealth jet fighter slowly descending before him, filling the entire windshield. It settled down to hover almost motionlessly in front of him, armed with eight .50 caliber chain guns and an untold number of rocket launchers port and starboard, and fully loaded with air-to-air heat-seeking missiles, air-to-ground Mavericks, Sidewinders, nuclear-tipped Shrikes, and only God knew how many Hellfires. A team of Navy SEALs and recon-force Marines was deploying from the Seahawk, and in under fifteen seconds they had surrounded the suspect vehicle. Before he knew it, the kidnaper found himself staring down the muzzles of a platoon of well-armed and royally pissed-off Special Ops warriors.

But they couldn't shoot. They had all of that unbelievably massive and deadly firepower, and they couldn't touch him; not as long as he had the little girl to crouch and hide behind. She was his insurance. His shield!

They wouldn't dare open fire on him...

***

"Okay," Duncan said. Dressed in forest-camouflage battle gear, she had to shout to be heard as they crouched beneath the down blast of the Seahawk's rotors. "As soon as this asshole is distracted by Gina's attack force, we go in quick like bunnies and grab the kid."

Bobby Clay stared at her dubiously. "That's your plan?" he asked. "That's your great plan?" He stared at her some more, and took note of the somewhat uncertain look in her eyes. When nothing else was forthcoming, he added, "You been hangin' around Sawyer again? All due respect, Doc, that plan stinks on ice!"

Brie stared back at him with expressive green eyes whose demeanor quickly shifted from uncertain to stung, and then from stung to offended. "Hey--you got a better one?"

"Yeah!" Clay replied. "For starters, you get to stay here and out of danger! The rest of us will handle this; that's what we get paid the big bucks for."

"Hey!" she said again, with a sharp scowl. "I'm not missin' out on--"

"Like I said, Brie," Bobby replied, speaking as her friend now. "You're Doc. Doc does not put herself in danger, if it can be avoided. If Doc gets hurt, the rest of us are fucked because there won't be anyone else around to treat us if we get hurt. Me and my guys are here; this is what we train for--special ops. Which includes hostage rescue. We will take care of the risky stuff."

She fully understood that he had been speaking as a friend, and she appreciated it; but this was still a military operation, and the mission had to come first. "Are you in the habit of countermanding the orders of a superior officer, Major?" she asked.

"Not at all, ma'am," Bobby replied with a smile. He would remind her later that she was retired, and that he was no longer subject to her orders; but it wouldn't hurt him to be infuriatingly polite to her just for the fun of it. "It's just that Colonel Ryan's asked us to make sure that nothing happens to you. And to be quite honest, Commander," he added with utmost candor, "I'm a lot more scared of the Colonel than I am of you. No offense, ma'am."

Brie fought the urge to smile with only partial success. "None taken," she replied at last. "Actually, that's the first smart thing I've heard you say all day, Bobby. But I'm still goin' with you. Y'all just let me handle Gina."

Bobby sighed heavily, and slowly shook his head in resignation. Why did they always do this to him? Dear God... "Just so long as you promise to make sure she doesn't chew me a new one."

***

He picked up the .38 revolver that had been resting on the passenger seat, and then saw the lone Marine approaching him from the front. The pilot of the black helicopter had stepped down from the open hatch, and had removed her helmet and tossed it onto the seat before donning a fatigue cap. She wore no flak jacket, the kidnaper noticed; just forest camouflage fatigues and cap, and a wide gun belt on which there hung at her hip a... And then it suddenly struck this Middle Eastern terrorist: a mere woman had been flying this sleek, massive and deadly machine! In his country, a woman would be beaten to within half an inch of her death for not wearing her burka; a woman such as this one would certainly be stoned to death.

With its rotors still spinning and its turbines roaring like the voice of the God of War, Ares sat behind her like a chained beast, demanding release as she approached steadily, relentlessly, her eyes unreadable behind the dark gold aviator's shades.

***

"Okay!" Brie shouted to her team. "Now!" Weaponless, she rose quickly and started forward, leading the way.

***

What in the name of Allah? the kidnaper thought. With the revolver in his left hand, he stuck it out the driver's window, and without warning he fired off all six rounds.

Unflinching, the tall Marine continued her relentless approach.

And then he heard the scuffle in the back seat. When he turned to look, he saw that the right rear door was open--he hadn't bothered to lock it, since the child was bound and gagged--and he barely had time to notice that the child was quickly being snatched away by Brie Duncan before three M-16 muzzles were shoved into his face. "Do not move!" Bobby Clay told him.

There was that look again; just like the one that had been on Paulie's face...

Not being very bright, the kidnaper turned forward anyway, and discovered that the tall Marine was right in front of his car. She stepped up onto the bumper with one foot, then up onto the hood with the other, and with a hollow, metallic boom-bang!, the remainder of the hood dented and partially collapsed under her weight. She dropped to one knee, hauled back a fist, and with a roar of unspeakable rage she sent it slamming like a battering ram right through the windshield. Glass exploded like a single clap of thunder, and glittering, razor shards sprinkled all over the kidnaper, all over the seat, and all over the floor, lacerating his face and the upholstery.

She seized his jacket in one vicelike fist and hauled him out through the remains of the windshield, breaking out the rest of the glass and tearing the seatbelt from its bolts on the floor and body frame. She dragged him across the hood, and then slammed him bodily to the asphalt. She could have dropped down on him with one knee in his gut, to drive the air out of him and then pummel his face, but instead she stood back a few paces. She slipped off her sunglasses and tossed them aside, and with a cold voice she said, "On your feet, asshole."

He watched her warily. As still as a statue, she gazed back at him with ice-blue and ice-cold eyes. He quickly got to his feet and assumed a fighting stance.

She removed the M-9 Beretta from its holster at her right hip and handed it to one of the surrounding Marines. Then she slipped her double-edged combat dagger from its sheath just behind the holster and threw it at the kidnaper's feet, where it stuck blade first in the dusty ground. "Pick it up," she told him.

Still watching her cautiously, he waited for a moment before snatching the knife from the ground. Clutching it in one fist, he suddenly raised it high with a roar, and rushed at her.

It seemed to happen almost in slow-motion as Brie watched. Ryan side-stepped him easily, and spun as she dropped into a crouch. She threw out one leg, catching him from behind, and swept his legs from beneath him. His feet suddenly flew up in front of him and he landed painfully, flat on his back, with a loud grunt. His hand opened in reflex, and he lost the knife.

She quickly snatched it up and stepped back, and tossed it back to him. Again, she said, "On your feet, asshole."

He didn't hesitate this time; clutching the knife in one fist and consumed with rage, he scrambled to his feet. "You do not speak to me in such an insolent manner, you infidel!" he roared. "You bitch!" He rushed at her again.

She sidestepped again, ducked under his swinging fist, then grabbed his wrist and twisted his arm behind his back before planting her combat boot in his ass and shoving him away. When he turned to face her again, he saw that she was smiling at him. This worthless, subhuman, infidel female was smiling at him. Laughing at him. Mocking him. "God damn you!" he roared as he rushed her again. "I'll kill you, you BITCH!"

Brie noticed the smile, too, and it sent a chill through her. It wasn't the smile of Lt. Col. Gina Ryan, of the US Marines; nor was it the smile of Xena, the Warrior Princess; the woman out there was the Destroyer of Nations, callously toying with her prey before...

She blocked his overhead blow and relieved him of his knife once more. This time, she slammed her fist into his abdomen like a battering ram to double him over. Her knee came up and slammed into his face, and then three right jabs--thrown straight from the shoulder in rapid succession and into his face--snapped his head back before he finally fell to the ground. But she didn't stop there. Each time the kidnaper struggled to his hands and knees, the Destroyer would send a kick to his ribs or to his face, sending his blood flying from his mouth and dropping him to the ground once more in a cloud of dust. The surrounding contingent of warriors stood by, watching uneasily and wondering if they ought to intervene. They had no fondness for the terrorist, but as fellow humans they began to think that maybe they ought to step in and call an end to this brutality.

Finally tiring of playing with him, she dropped to one knee, and with the speed of a cobra she hit him on both sides of his neck with rigid first and second fingers of each hand.

He suddenly found himself in paralyzed agony.

"I've just shut off the flow of blood to your brain," she whispered. "You're gonna be dead in about thirty seconds."

The surrounding group of Marines watched in puzzlement. What had she just done to him?

"How does it feel, you bastard?" she snarled softly. "Are you scared?"

He stared up at her with swollen, bruised, and terrified eyes.

"Now you know what you put that little girl through. How do you like it?"

He felt his bladder suddenly let go in spite of himself, and warm urine soaked his trousers.

Her sapphire eyes blazed with pure hatred as they bored into his. "Are you enjoying yourself now, big bad tough guy? Bad ass al-Qaeda, who has to terrorize and hide behind little children?"

He finally managed to whimper, "Please... I... I do not want to die, I..."

"Aww, you don't want to die," she said, her voice a mocking whine. And then, with a deadly growl, she asked, "You didn't give a goddamn about what that little girl wanted, though, did you?"

It would be so easy to just let him die, Gods, so easy... His face was a mess and his body was bruised, but none of his injuries were severe enough to be life-threatening. And there were no injuries to exhibit his collapsed jugular veins and carotid arteries. She could let him die, and no one would be the wiser...

She watched him for a long moment with cold fury in her eyes...and then it faded away to be replaced with absolute disgust. With rigid fingers, she suddenly hit him again to release his flow of blood.

He gasped desperately, and began to breathe once more.

And then she slammed her fist into his face with a single, pile-driving blow that smashed his nose into a bloody mess and shattered one cheek bone. She seized his jacket once more in one fist, and brought his face to within an inch of hers. "You listen to me, you fucking, useless waste of human skin, and you listen well," she growled softly as her Arctic blue eyes burned into his terrified brown orbs. "Any time you or your spineless, chicken shit al-Qaeda buddies fuck with my country--and especially with my country's children!--you fuck with me." She shook her head just a tiny bit in warning. "You do not want to fuck with me. Because unlike those men and women in uniform over there, I don't answer to anyone's laws." With utter contempt and a muttered oath, she shoved him back against the desert floor, smacking the back of his head painfully against the ground, as she finally rose to her feet. Turning her back on him in utter contempt, she said, "Somebody get a shovel and pick up this worthless piece of dog shit." She stalked off without bothering to look at him again.

Three Marines hauled him to his feet and hustled him off to the Seahawk.

Gina watched as a pale gray Huey 204 helo came in and made a gentle landing. Jesus, she thought with a smile, Jack's really pulled out all the stops. She went over to Ares, where Duncan was sitting on the edge of its deck and in the open hatch of the cargo bay, treating the girl. The doctor had gently removed the tape from her mouth, and with her stethoscope hanging from her neck she was spreading an anesthetizing cream on the rope burns that marred the child's wrists.

"How's your patient?"

"She's okay," Brie replied with a grateful smile. "Poor little darlin's scared half to death and shakin' like a leaf, but she's okay." She regarded her partner seriously. "For a second there, I thought you were really gonna kill that guy."

Ryan regarded her solemnly. "I thought about it," she confessed. "God knows I wanted to." Then she regarded the young girl as she finally settled down next to her. "Hi," she said, smiling as she slipped an arm around her shoulders. "My name's Gina; you must be Megan."

The hatch of the Huey's cargo bay slid open, and the child's parents--wearing flight helmets with microphones so they could communicate with the flight crew--were helped down onto the ground. They looked around in bewilderment for a moment as the roaring down blast of the chopper's rotors snapped at their clothes, and then the helo's pilot--dressed in an olive green flight suit and a helmet with its dark visor down--pointed toward Ryan and Duncan with one gloved hand.

The young girl was intently studying the Marine's face.

"You okay?" the Marine asked her.

Megan looked thoughtfully at her for another moment or two, then finally said, "No more headaches."

Her smile faltered slightly as the look in her sapphire eyes took on a puzzled expression. She looked at Brie with questioning eyes, and Brie shrugged back slightly, equally puzzled. Gina returned her attention to the girl. "'Scuse me?" she asked.

And then Megan's parents were quickly approaching. "Megan!" her mother called out over the din of the aircraft. "Megan!"

The former Navy doctor took note of their rapid approach. "I guess we'd better hand her over to her folks," she said.

"That would be a good idea," Gina agreed with a smile. As Duncan straightened with Megan in her arms, the former Marine suddenly took off her fatigue cap to plop it onto the child's head. She was rewarded with the little girl's smile. "You ready to go home?" she asked as she playfully tugged the visor down over her eyes.

Megan straightened the fatigue cap. And after watching what this modern-day warrior had done to her kidnaper--after witnessing first-hand the dark-haired and statuesque warrior's power...her passion...her courage and her unswerving determination--she decided in that instant that when she grew up, she wanted to be just like her. Finally getting over her shakes, her shy smile blossomed into a full-sized grin that shone from beneath the cap.

Brie started toward the parents, who were running forward with open sobs of relief to embrace their daughter.

Sitting in the pilot's seat and monitoring radio traffic, Bobby was watching with a misty-eyed smile. Suddenly, he focused his full attention on the radio. "Gina!" he called out. "You'd better get Doc; we've got to get you two out of here! We've got Mexican federal authorities on the way! I'm thinking since the Seahawk's here for cover we ought to let them take credit for the save and catch the shit for crossing the border!"

"Roger that!" She turned to shout to her partner. "Brie! Move those little legs, babe, we gotta go now!"

Extricating herself from the embrace of Megan's parents, she gave Gina a thumbs-up and then hurried toward Ares. Once inside, she slid the hatch of the cargo bay shut and locked it in place. And when she turned to face front, she saw that the pilot was dressed in black, knee-high boots with stiletto heels, skin-tight jungle camouflage short-shorts with a wide gun belt slung low on her hips, and an almost see-through sport top of sheer, jungle camouflage silk that displayed a lot of bare midriff and even more buxom cleavage. The entire ensemble was topped off with a camouflage fatigue cap and dark gold aviator-style glasses, long blonde curls, and a dazzling, dimpled grin. She looked like a high-priced Hollywood hooker who had just been on a shopping spree at Frederick's of Camp Le Jeune. "Hey, guys!" she said brightly. "What's shakin'?"

They regarded the pilot with wide eyes and open mouths. At last, Gina managed to get out, "Aphrodite?! What in Tartarus are you doing here?"

She slipped off the glasses to reveal green eyes that sparkled merrily. "Keepin' an eye on my two favorite gal-pals, of course," she replied cheerfully.

They glanced around quickly to make certain that they were unobserved, and they found themselves to be alone with the Goddess of Love.

"It's the least I can do, since I arranged for this little get-together." And then she regarded her absolute, most favorite mortal in the entire universe. "So how're you doin', Commander Sweet Pea?" she asked, still grinning.

For a moment, Gabrielle was at a complete loss for words. Finally, she managed to get out, "You arranged for us to..."

"Well, duh!" she said, as though explaining the obvious. She shifted in her seat slightly and drew up one knee, exposing herself just a little bit more in the process (as if that were possible), and with her elbow resting on her knee she rested her head against her fist as her amused grin grew even wider. "Not bad for a ditz, huh?" she asked the warrior.

They stared at her in speechless, wide-eyed surprise. A moment later, Ryan cringed uncomfortably as she remembered how she had described their immortal friend; she'd had no idea that the goddess had been listening that night.

"Hey, don't look so surprised," she said, straightening slightly and waving her off with the sunglasses. "Originally, I was just gonna let the kid be my messenger about your headaches and all, but then I thought, 'What the hey,' and decided to drop in personally. I mean, I just never get a chance to talk to you guys anymore." More seriously, she added, "I'm sorry I wasn't there for you guys in Higuchi and...and that Turkeystand, or whatever. But I am here for you now; that's a promise."

Brie stiffened slightly and gasped softly in reaction to Aphrodite's mention of that mission.

The goddess noticed the bard's reaction. "You didn't tell her yet?"

Ryan looked at the young bard, her eyes unreadable.

Brie stared back at her partner with overly innocent eyes at first, and then she plastered on a weak smile. "We'll talk about it later."

"What, you mean about me nuking Kaffir to destroy that virus and then almost blowing my brains out in a moment of doubt and weakness, my breakdown, the psychiatric hospital, your deal with the Fates, and you telling Jack to hack into my record and write me up a psych discharge so we wouldn't get drafted into doing that kind of shit anymore?" she rattled off as an amused grin spread across her features. "It's been over two thousand years now, and not only are you still looking out for me but..." And then her amused grin transformed into a fond and warm smile. "...you also still talk in your sleep."

Brie stared at her in dumfounded surprise. "You knew? All this time, and you knew? Is that why you've still been havin' those headaches?" Her eyes and voice were suddenly filled with concern. "Damn it, Xena, why didn't y'all tell me? I could've--"

Ryan gently captured her face in both hands. "I didn't want you to worry," she replied. And then more playfully, she added, "And I especially didn't want you swearing at me like a sailor while you were chasin' after me with syringes full of Valium. You know how much I hate needles."

One corner of Brie's mouth began to screw up into a half-smile.

"With Higuchi still kind of fresh in my mind that night when we had to sterilize Kaffir...that whole thing really rocked me," she said softly. "But I've had a long time to think about things, and it's taken me this long to learn that we have earned the right to take a fuckin' break." She kissed her forehead, and they shared a warm embrace.

And then, with another inward cringe, Gina turned to the goddess and said, "Listen, Aphrodite...you've got to know that I was just...you know...kidding around with...with that 'ditz' remark..."

The goddess tried to look stern. She really did. But the wry and amused Aphrodite grin came anyway. "Uh huh," she said at last. And then she shrugged it off. "Hey, don't sweat it; it's just an act I have to put on. I mean, d'you really think anyone would take me seriously as a love goddess if they knew I could explain cellular mitosis, quantum physics, the extinction of Neanderthal Man, virology, the space-time continuum, gene linkage and quantitative inheritance, the inverse square law for light propagation, or the origin of the universe? I mean, really!"

The warrior and the bard stared at her for a moment in mute stupefaction. Inverse square what?

"Oh, by the way," she added, "the origin of the universe? It really did start with a 'big bang.'" She circled her index finger and thumb with one hand, and thrust her other forefinger through it a couple of times. "There were randier gods before Zeus and Hera, and even before the Titans came along.

"Anyway, I just wanted to drop in and say hi, and to suggest to you guys that while you're out there running around and fighting the good fight, why not take more time to slow down and smell the roses, and to just enjoy the simple pleasures of life? Get drunk more often, and have more sex. And if you ever need any help--not that you need help gettin' drunk or having sex!" she amended quickly. "--but y'know what I mean. I mean, if you ever need a favor or if you just want to kick back and shoot the breeze, you know where to find me."

Gabrielle smiled at her. "Thank you, Aphrodite," she said with a soft voice. "It seems so inadequate, but--"

"It's nice to know that we're in your thoughts," Gina said with a smile of her own, "and we want you to know that we do treasure that."

She shyly waved her off. "Hey, what're friends for?" she asked. Then she quickly changed subjects. "Listen, I gotta jet. You guys are about to get some major company, and I got a hot date at the Cannes Film Festival with George Clooney and Demi Moore." She grinned again, and then squealed in delight, "You guys look so cute in your adorable little uniforms!" She merrily waggled her fingers in farewell. "Toodles!"

The two women lunged for her and caught her in a tight embrace. "Don't be a stranger, okay?" Gina said. "You know where the place is, and the door's always open for you."

"Hey, anything you say, Colonel," Bobby replied. "But would you mind gettin' offa me? I gotta fly this goddamned helicopter."

Gina and Brie were somewhat taken aback to suddenly find themselves with their arms around Bobby's neck.

"I mean, I didn't know you guys felt this strongly about me and all. Not that I can blame you," he added with a sportive, smart ass grin.

Good ol' Aphrodite, Xena thought with a fond smile, always up to her little tricks.

Gabrielle grinned at him as she leaned back in her seat. "Just fly the goddamned helicopter."

***

It was good to be home again. They had been dropped off at Ares' former hiding place--a played-out and long-abandoned gold mine somewhere in the vicinity of Donner Pass where they had left their Cherokee--and then they had driven back to the house and had arrived in time for a late Saturday night dinner. Once the table had been cleared and with the dishwasher now humming softly, they could finally relax and finish off that bottle of rich, red Bordeaux that they had opened earlier.

Barefooted and dressed in olive-green cargo pants and a dark-green Marine Corps t-shirt with the famous eagle-globe-and-anchor insignia emblazoned across the front in gold, and semi-reclining in her chair and gazing at the wide-screen television with a wine glass in her hand, Ryan was thinking about the events of the last few days. It was clear to both of them that the rescue of Megan Donnelly had been their final mission, and Ryan reviewed that decision with no regret. She and Duncan now had a business to take care of, which meant they could no longer go taking off in the dead of night to fly secret missions in mach speed. But that didn't mean the Marine couldn't coordinate such missions. Instead of actively taking part in them, she would now use her Family's contacts in the criminal underworld to obtain information about various racketeer dealings that the authorities were not yet aware of, and her hand-picked reconnaissance force Marine units and Navy SEALs as enforcers in her own personal war on injustice. And she still had occasional access to Ares. With the same focus, stealth, cunning and relentless determination that she had possessed back in the days of ancient Greece, and with the combined resources of the criminal underworld and the covert intelligence community, and with the technology and equipment of the Marine Corps and the Navy SEALs, she would slash and burn her way through every bit of useless, bureaucratic red tape she could find, and she would confound, bypass and--if necessary--undermine the entire legal system. Like the Warrior Princess she had been and the determined Recon-Force Marine that she still was, she would continue to battle on for the greater good; and God help anyone who dared to stand in her way.

And under her doctor's orders, she had also finally learned to delegate.

"In Texas today, reputed smuggler, drug dealer and pimp Paco Ortiz, of Juarez, Mexico, was arrested in El Paso this morning," the reporter was saying. "Acting on an anonymous tip, a team of Texas Rangers found the suspect sitting bound and gagged in the middle of a warehouse, and literally gift-wrapped with a pink ribbon around his neck. There was also a Hallmark greeting card stapled to his earlobe, and he was sitting atop three tons of crack cocaine! In a statement that thoroughly dismayed his attorney, Ortiz blurted out in sheer rage that government agents dressed in black fatigues and trying to frame him as a drug dealer had kidnaped him from his Juarez home and had taken him to Texas, and then had electronically stolen ten million dollars from him hours before his arrest. On temporary duty with the city of El Paso, the lead arresting officer had this to say about today's developments."

The picture suddenly cut to a very familiar face with blue-green eyes and collar-length blonde hair beneath a dark brown Stetson. Below the young woman's face was a marker that identified her as Lieutenant Veronica Duncan, of the Texas Rangers. "Looks to me like he was ripped off and turned in by his competition," she said with an amused little smile. "It would have been nice to seize that ten million dollars, but we didn't have the authority to go into Mexico to secure his accounts. We got a known drug dealer and pimp off the streets, though, and that by itself is a major victory..."

Gina watched the TV set with amused blue eyes as she drained her wine glass. I've got to call Mikey, and see if he's had any trouble opening those Geneva accounts and setting up those automatic distributions to the Metro Children's Hospital. Ten million dollars can go a long way...

"In other news..." was all Brie heard when she entered the room. "Watchin' the news again, huh?" she asked, her tone mildly admonishing. "What did we agree on about that?"

"That I wasn't going to anymore." She took one more sip at her wine before she put her glass down. "But it's so damned entertaining at times."

She went back to her office to retrieve her sphygmomanometer and her stethoscope. "Alright, Marine," she drawled without a smile when she returned to the living room. "Gimme your arm."

She was about to tell her to quit pestering her about her goddamned blood pressure, but the sudden recollection of Aphrodite's advice about enjoying the simple pleasures of life stopped her. Instead, she began to smile a little bit as she said, "Yes, dear." She settled a little more comfortably into the recliner, and obediently extended her arm toward Brie. The doctor, suddenly suspicious about this uncharacteristic display of cooperation, wrapped the cuff around it, pumped up the pressure, and carefully listened with the stethoscope. There was a slight twitch of one dark, golden eyebrow, and she pumped up the pressure on the cuff again, and listened intently.

"And finally, tonight, here's one for all those government conspiracy theorists," the newscaster was saying with an amused and disbelieving expression in his voice. "Surviving members of the 'Black Dragons' street gang claimed that a government black helicopter armed with missiles and machine guns destroyed their headquarters..."

Gina tilted her head back and laughed. It seemed that secret government agents, paramilitary forces dressed in black, and mysterious black helicopters were popping up all over the place, like mushrooms in a front lawn after a heavy rain.

"The Black Dragons have been suspected in the commission of some twenty home-invasion robberies in the past month, victimizing mostly the elderly in this Cambodian-American community, but there has never been sufficient evidence against them to file criminal charges, due to the fear and unwillingness of their alleged victims to testify against them..."

Brie finally removed the stethoscope from her ears, then deflated the cuff and tore it open. This time, she did smile. "If you were any mellower, you'd be comatose," she said as she took off her glasses. "How're the headaches?"

"Gone. I haven't had a single one since our last mission."

"So I guess you finally found a new outlet, huh 'Godmother?'" Even as she had been checking her partner's blood pressure, she had been listening to the news reports in the background, muffled by the stethoscope.

Ryan grinned. "And it doesn't even involve stuffing you full of my cooking."

Brie Duncan grinned that classic grin of hers. "Just don't stuff cotton balls in your cheeks and start talkin' like Marlon Brando, okay?" Chuckling softly, she cupped one hand against her cheek, and gave the tall Marine a quick kiss on her forehead. "There any wine left in that bottle?"

"There might be half a glass."

"Then I guess I'd better go find another. Do not move from this spot, Marine; doctor's orders."

Gina Ryan grinned at her. "Yes ma'am."

Laughing softly, Brie Duncan rose and headed for the cellar. At the door, she stopped and turned to silently observe her soul mate for a moment and think about the recent events in their latest life together. There the barefoot warrior reclined, with her dark hair pinned up away from the back of her neck and her fingers laced together behind her head. And for just a quick moment, she saw her dressed in her leathers, bracers and gauntlets, and with her sword, chakram and breast plate lying nearby as she reclined similarly, resting against a log and gazing into a comforting camp fire. It's nice to know that some things never change, she thought.

Still smiling, the young bard turned once more and headed down the stairs to find that Bordeaux.

The End

Matthew Chamberlain, who played Darphus in the Hercules/Xena trilogy and Crassus in "When In Rome..." was not harmed during the writing of this story.


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