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

Warning: the following story contains adult language.

Captain Gabriella Duncan, MD, USN, has to fly back east to the Bethesda Medical Center, Maryland, to face the Board of Examiners in order to obtain her psychiatrist's certification, while Colonel Gina Ryan, USMC Force Recon (almost retired) stays home to look after Sam and their house. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, since you asked. . .

 

“The New Adventures of XENA: Warrior Princess”

“Home Alone 2 - Gina's Turn ”

By Ernie Whiting

bloodyvisigoths@charter.net

Home Alone


It was one of those sticky, cloudy, summer days in the South; the kind of day where all you want to do is lie naked in bed with the fan blowing on full blast as you try in vain to find some modicum of relief from the heat and the humidity. So why was it, on this sticky, sweltering, muggy day, that some eighty thousand people had come out to the Dallas Cowboys Stadium in downtown Arlington, Texas? Because they wanted to hear some high-energy, Southern-fried, kick-ass biker-bar rock and roll; and in this universe, there was undisputedly no one better at it than...

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the announcer said, his voice blaring over the crowds from the PA system, “and now for the band you've all been waiting to see… I give you… MOLLY HATCHET !” And the energy level of the audience shot up about a thousand percent, almost drowning out the announcer. And when one thought that the cheering couldn't possibly get any louder, he continued to extol over the PA system, “Featuring their special guest lead guitarist... GABRIELLA ‘WILDCAT' DUNCAN !!”

And the crowd went completely and totally, over-the-top NUTS , screaming and roaring hysterically as they immediately recognized Brie's effortless yet rapid-fire opening guitar riff as the lead-in to one of the band's classics. . .

 

“Well she grabbed me and asked me,
If I had a name,
She told me she was interested to see,
If I could play the game,
She said her name was Victory,
She didn't want to know the rules,
That's just the way I wanted to play,
In a game designed for fools...”


With her golden hair tied into a single braid and her bangs brushing across her brow, and displaying a wry and playful smile from behind her dark-gold aviator's shades while dressed in her trademark cowboy boots, hip-hugging, rust-colored jeans and an olive-green knit sport bra that revealed strong arms and a tanned and sculpted six-pack set of rock-hard abs, she knew she had them all eating out of her hand as she wore her blonde, maple-necked Fender Stratocaster guitar, with its strap diagonally across her shoulder like the arm of an old friend and its body against her right hip like that of a lover, while she continued to play to the crowd:

 

Chorus:
“We were beatin' the odds, we were beatin' the odds,
We were beatin' the odds again,
We were gambling with our souls,
We were playing to win,
We were beatin' the odds again...”

 

The cheering was as loud as the music; and as Brie casually strode toward the front of the stage, she could see her number one, all-time fan standing at front-row center. With midnight bangs sweeping across her brow, her striking sapphire eyes were red-rimmed as she reached out in tearful adoration for her Southern Rock Star Goddess. She was saying something to her; but Brie couldn't hear her, on account of the ultra-loud music. Standing at the edge of the stage and trying to catch her words, she leaned forward slightly and to one side, tilting her head slightly with one ear toward the dark-haired woman.

The adoring fan with the midnight hair and the imploring, tearful blue eyes, reached out to her with both hands, begging for her attention as she cried out, “Would you like some waffles?”

Momentarily baffled, Brie froze. Then, while never missing a note, she straightened and regarded her with a puzzled look. Huh? she wondered.

She placed a soft, warm hand on her bare, tanned shoulder, and shook her gently. “Brie? C'mon, babe, wakey-wakey. You want some waffles for breakfast? Don't forget, you've got a plane to catch.”

Dressed in a black tank top and powder blue, satin pajama shorts, the blonde shifted lazily beneath the warm covers as she took a deep breath, and stretched languidly as she sighed a long, soft, groaning sigh. “Oh, man,” she said, her voice dry from hours of sleep, as she suddenly remembered her appointment with the board of examiners at the Bethesda Naval Hospital in Washington, D.C.

Without opening her eyes, she rose and leaned back on her elbows. “What time is it?” she asked, with a hollow, cavernous yawn.

“Zero-four thirty-two,” replied Colonel Gina Ryan, USMC, without having to look at the bedside alarm clock. Kneeling next to their king-sized bed, and dressed in jungle camouflage t-shirt and boxers, she watched her partner for a moment with an amused little smile. “C'mon, babe. Up and at ‘em.”

Finally, she cracked open her tired, green eyes in the darkness. “Zero-four…” she began drowsily.

And then, with rapidly increasing alertness, she said, “ Zero-four thirty-two ?” Leaning on one elbow now, she ran a hand through her regulation-cut golden hair, scratching gently at her scalp and brushing her bangs up and away from her forehead, only to have them flop back into place once more. “Wh't the hell did you wake me up s'damn early for?”

“You need a good breakfast,” the Marine replied as she reached for and turned on, with a gentle tap of one finger on its base, the stained-glass touch lamp next to her side of the bed. Cool, fluorescent, artificial sunlight illuminated the both of them in the near pitch-darkness. “Plus it'll probably take an hour or more to get to Sac International out near Woodland , and then there's security to get through...” she continued as she watched her, with her elbows resting on the edge of the mattress and her chin in her hands. “You'll have to take off your shoes and let TSA nerds go through all your luggage to make sure you're not sneakin' any weapons or any other contraband on board…”

“What the hell for?” she asked, squinting against the light and reclining on both elbows once more. “They don't need to do all that; I'm gonna be in uniform.”

“Doesn't matter,” the Marine replied with a little smile as she slowly shook her head back and forth, “you could still be a terrorist... in disguise !” she added dramatically.

The irascible Navy doctor snorted in mild derision, and with that east Texas drawl of hers she softly muttered, “Oh, fuck bullshit...”

“And if you're really, really lucky,” Gina continued brightly, “one of ‘em might even cop a feel.”

Brie's silent response was a cold, warning look.

“C'mon, babe,” she said, with an expanding grin and a soft chuckle, as she rose from her knees. Placing her hands on the mattress now, she suddenly gave it a good, hard and vigorous shaking to further stimulate the cranky blonde Texan into full wakefulness. “Earthquake!” she cried out, her voice loud and playful. “ Earthquake ! Oh, my God, it's the big one ! Run away! Run away ! We're all gonna diiiieeee !”

Brie lashed out at her with one hand to smack her hands away, and missed. “Goddamn it, Gina, cut it out!”

“Off your ass and into the shower,” she said, with another soft laugh as she straightened, “otherwise breakfast is going to be mighty cold.” She turned, and headed toward the door.

“Aw, man…” Brie groaned, just before she collapsed back onto the bed. She didn't want to get up. It was so nice and warm here, with the side of her face against the pillow; all she wanted was just another ten minutes of sleep. Just another... ten… minutes…sss...

And then Gina's voice came bellowing from the hallway like a boot camp drill instructor: “ OFF YOUR ASS AND ON YOUR FEET, SAILOR!!

With a yelp of surprise and a flailing of limbs—and inadvertently pulling the covers with her—Brie started so violently she rolled off of the bed and onto the hardwood floor, with a loud and heavy thud.

***

“Any regrets?”

“Regrets?” Gina asked, her fork paused half way between her plate and her lips, and with one dark eyebrow raised slightly in puzzlement. “About what?”

“About retiring,” Brie replied, before popping another bite of breakfast into her own mouth with her fork. Sam, their tri-colored and tuxedo-patterned Queensland Heeler, was sitting next to her and watching her with raised ears and pleading brown eyes. “Sam, don't look at me like that,” she told the dog as she chewed, “you have your breakfast over there.” She indicated the dark blue plastic bowl that bore his name in black, hand-written and upper-case letters, which rested nearby. “So don't even try to make me feel guilty about not sharing.”

Smiling at the two of them, and chewing slowly and thoughtfully, Gina considered her question for a moment. At last, she said, “It's not quite a done deal just yet, but in anticipation I'd say… It's more like ambivalence. On the one hand, I'm gonna have a lot of free time on my hands, and there's all kinds of stuff to do around here to keep me busy. But on the other hand...” With the fork still in her hand, she toyed with her food thoughtfully. “...I think I'm gonna kind of miss the military life. The command, the structure, the scheduling, the running around and the supervising, and the occasional participation...” She rested her chin in one hand, and settled her eyes on Brie's. “I mean, it's fun to get out there and show those new recruits how to shoot, how to fight, and how to blow shit up.” She sighed heavily. “But I won't miss the mountains of paperwork.” She reached for her orange juice and sipped at it. And then, addressing the dog, she said, “Sam, quit pestering Brie. Here, have this.” She reached down and toward him, and between her thumb and forefinger she held a strip of bacon as a bribe to lure him away from her.

He rose quickly, and with a clicking of his toenails against the polished hardwood floor he made his way around Brie's chair and over to Gina. He hastily yet carefully took the morsel, and chewed it maybe half a dozen times before gulping it down. He then settled down on one haunch, with one hind foot sticking out sideways, to patiently await another bite.

“It'll take some time to adjust,” Brie said with a little smile, “but you'll do okay.”

One corner of Gina's mouth curled upward in a wry grin as she returned her gaze to her plate. “Yeah, I know,” she said, and then bit at her toast. Chewing, she looked down at the dog again. “Sam, I just gave you some; now, go away. Do I ever ask you to share? Huh? Do I?”

Brie grinned at the two of them, and then held out a corner of her own toast in offering to the dog. “Sam, c'mere. Have this, and quit bothering Gina.”

Sam's head whipped around toward her direction; he saw the offer, and quickly rose to go get it. He knew just how to play them; and if he wanted to, he could probably keep this up as long as the food supply lasted…and assuming, of course, that the two women didn't catch on to his clever little plan.

“What time did you say your flight was?” Gina suddenly asked.

The Navy doctor quickly checked the time on her black sports watch. “Oh, shoot,” she said softly. Then she began to rise. “We'd better get movin'. Continuing medical education waits for no one, not even the military. I'll help clear the ta–”

“Never mind that,” Gina told her as she wiped her lips with a paper napkin while rising from the table, “I'll take care of that when I get back. C'mon, let's get you to the airport.”

***

“Y'know, I keep telling you,” Gina said as they retrieved Brie's traveling gear from the cargo space in the back of the Jeep Cherokee, which was parked with its engine running in front of the American Airlines terminal at the Sacramento International Airport, “if you'd take a military transport, you wouldn't have to wait in all these lines. And, you wouldn't have to buy a ticket.”

“An' I keep tellin' you ,” Brie countered as other travelers, loaded down with their own luggage, hustled and bustled around them, “I'm tired of sittin' in canvas seats inside the cargo hold of a C130.” Dressed in her set of “peanut butters”–her short-sleeved, Navy khakis “working” uniform, which bore her golden caduceus above her left breast along with two horizontal rows of multi-colored little ribbons, and with the brilliant sunlight glinting from the silver eagles of a captain that decorated each side of her open collar and one side of the rectangular flat cap atop her head, and the Navy insignia on the other–she accepted the duffel bag that Gina handed her.

Gina was dressed in a soft pair of Italian-made slouchy boots of dark brown suede, with a single strap and buckle across each instep, along with faded blue jeans and a black Arrow button-down shirt with the collar open, the sleeves rolled to her elbows, and with the tails out. It was mid-October; the days were still warm, but the nights now contained a hint of the chill that would quickly increase as they continued to plunge deeper and deeper into autumn.

“What's wrong with canvas seats?” she wanted to know as she reached into the Cherokee's cargo hold once more.

“What are you, kiddin' me?” Brie countered as she slung the bag's strap over her shoulder, and then adjusted it to hang more comfortably. “It gets fuckin' cold back there, man.”

“I happen to like canvas seats,” Gina told her as she handed the doctor her black laptop computer. “They make me feel like I'm back on full active duty.”

“That's because you're an uncouth Devil Dog,” Brie responded, the tone in her voice teasing, “and I'm a civilized sailor.”

“Yeah, bullshit,” Gina muttered with a grin. “Okay, you got your gear. You're sure you got your ticket?”

“Right here.” She produced it from somewhere, making it suddenly appear as if by magic. She took a deep breath to calm herself. “With any luck, I'll pass all my exams,” she said, “get my certification, and then I gotta renew my contract with the Navy for another six years, and I'll be coming back as a full-fledged Navy psychiatrist.”

“And may God help us all,” Gina said with a playful grin.

Chucking back at her with equally high spirits, Brie cheerfully said, “Fuck you.”

With his head poked through the open window of the right rear door, Sam whined worriedly.

“Oh, don't worry, Sammy,” Brie told him. “I'll just be gone for a few days; I'll be back before you know it. Now, you be a good boy while I'm gone, and take care of Gina for me.” She leaned forward, and gave him a kiss on top of his head. Then she turned to Gina. “And you be a good girl.” She slipped a hand behind the Marine's head, drew her forward while rising on her toes, and kissed the top of her head.

Gina grinned wryly. “Yes, Mother,” she said as she gave her a tight hug and a quick kiss on one cheek. “I'll give you a call tonight.”

With a grin of her own, Brie returned her hug and kiss, and then turned and hurried off inside to approach the check-in counter.

As he watched her make her way inside the terminal, Sam whined again, this time more urgently. Why was she leaving? he wanted to know.

Gina reached toward him and stroked his head affectionately, and then scratched him gently behind one ear. “I know, Sam, I know,” she said sympathetically, her voice soft. “I know the feeling.”

***

Except for the soft ticking of the clock on the mantle, it was utterly silent throughout the entire house. Lying by the front door, with his chin on his paws and his eyes closed, and feeling very much alone while various dog thoughts ran through his mind, Sam sighed gently with a soft whine as he continued to wait patiently for Gina's return. He had no idea of how long she had been gone; to him, every moment seemed like an eternity. The words that she had spoken in departure and that he had recognized were “stay” and “be good,” and he had howled miserably when she had shut the door, leaving him here all by himself. He could hear her footsteps retreating down the porch to the driveway, thudding hollowly against the wood and then crunching on the gravel, and the only thing he understood was that he was being left alone; that, and that he had so desperately wanted to go with her. It was fun to get out and see the sights, and to smell all those thousands of different smells... But there had been nothing that he could have done about that, so here he lay–without having budged even once since she had left–with his chin on his paws as he loyally waited for her eventual return.

He raised his head and pricked up his ears in sudden hope as he heard the familiar sounds of the Cherokee pulling up in front of the house with a crunching of its tires against the loose gravel driveway. Then his heart raced with excitement at the equally familiar sound of the door being shut, and the footsteps approaching the house. Still lying by the front door, he regarded it with hopeful eyes when he next heard the hollow, thudding footsteps crossing the wooden porch. He knew that footstep; it was the tall one, with the dark hair. Next came the jingling of the keys in the lock, and a moment later the door swung inward with a mild creak of its hinges.

With her keys in one hand and a double-serving carton of broccoli beef from the Shangri-La Chinese restaurant from town in the other, and with an assortment of newly purchased DVDs under one arm, Gina smiled down at him. “You've been waiting here all this time, haven't you?” she asked him.

Happy to see her again and wagging his tail merrily, Sam quickly rose to his feet and immediately went to jump up on her.

“No! Don't! No jumping !” she quickly chastised him. “If you make me drop this, I swear to God we're both going without dinner tonight!”

He quickly backed off, but he was still too excited to settle down. Trembling with enthusiastic energy, and with his nose suddenly filled with the delectable scent of the broccoli beef, he was glad not to be alone anymore, and curious to see what else she had brought him.

She placed the white cardboard carton on the white tile-topped, oaken counter that separated the kitchen from the living room as he joined her at her side, snapped on the overhead kitchen fluorescent lights, and turned to show him the collection of DVDs. “So, you in the mood for some classic sci-fi movies?” she asked. “I used to watch these as a kid; I hope they're as good as I remember them.”

She slipped out of her Marine Corps leather jacket and went to hang it in the closet by the front door, then pulled off her suede boots and tossed them inside. Next, she headed back into the kitchen once more to prepare Sam's dinner, and to give him a peanut butter flavored dog biscuit to keep him busy while she worked. As always, once he got his biscuit he would briskly head into the living room with it and then circle the coffee table three times–never two, or four, but always three times–before settling down between the table and the sofa to hold the treat between his front paws, and munch away. It was a ritual of his that he always performed, without fail. (And, as always, once he was taken care of, Gina no longer felt guilty about eating in front of him without sharing.) Once he was taken care of, she turned on the TV system and opened the tray in the DVD player, then with slightly narrowed eyes she proceeded to tear open the cellophane on one of the DVDs (“Earth vs The Flying Saucers,” starring Hugh Marlowe, Joan Taylor and Donald Curtis; Columbia Pictures, 1956; special effects supervised by the incomparable Ray Harryhausen, and shot in glorious black-and-white!), opened the plastic case, and extracted the disc. Gingerly holding it by its edges, she placed it in the open tray, then pushed the tray shut. As the information loaded into the player with a soft whirring of the disc, she went back to the kitchen (where Sam was now pushing his bowl across the floor with his nose as he continued to lick it clean), pulled open the refrigerator, and extracted a bottle of Bass Ale. Out came the bottle opener from the silverware drawer; she popped the bottle open, left it on the counter, and then opened the carton of broccoli beef and attacked it with a fork. “Brie hates it when I eat this stuff, 'cause it always gives me gas,” she told Sam, “but since she isn't here...” With her free hand, she fished out her cell phone, squinted a little bit at it, and hit the speed dial for Brie's number. “Hey, babe,” she said, “how's the ‘continuing education' coming along?” She took a bite of broccoli that was drenched in a rich, dark brown beef gravy, and chewed vigorously.

“I'm down about eighty bucks, but the cards are still hot,” she replied.

She chuckled softly. “Who've you got there with you?”

“The usual gang; ‘T-Bone,' ‘Dakota Slim,' ‘Fast Eddie,' ‘Mad Max', and ‘Elf Lord.' They all say hi.” She set her phone down on the table and set it on speaker so they could all chorus their greetings.

“Gentlemen,” she said, addressing them all, “you are gonna let her win some of her money back, right?”

“Hey, Colonel!” said Marine Corps Major Maxwell “Mad Max” Gordon, Gina's chief helicopter flight instructor. “How's the thought of imminent retirement treating you?”

“Can't complain about the free money I'll be getting,” she replied before taking another bite of broccoli. She chewed silently for a moment, and then asked around it, “How's Colonel Clay treating you guys?” She was referring to the recently promoted Colonel Robert Clay–Gina's long-time friend and Marine Corps comrade-in-arms, who would be given her command once she was officially retired.

“So far, so good,” Max replied. “He hasn't changed much of a damned thing. I guess he knows a good thing when he sees it.”

“But the captain here keeps blowing cigar smoke all over the place,” said Navy Commander Theodore “T-Bone” Bonnewitz, Brie's second in command at the Coronado hospital, with a playful tone in his voice. Brie may have been the ranking officer here, but since they were all off-duty, military protocol was pretty relaxed. “It's so smoky in here we can barely even see our cards.”

“You'd better not be smoking,” Gina teasingly admonished her partner, with her fork paused before her lips. “I can tell, y'know.”

“Yes, I know you can tell, and of course I'm not,” she replied.

“You'd better not be,” she repeated, her voice softer now but still containing a hint of threat. Chewing around another mouthful of beef and broccoli, she added, “Listen; I'll let you get back to your game. Guys, please leave her enough money so she can come back home, okay?”

“We'll do our best, Colonel,” T-Bone replied.

Brie picked up her phone, snapped it shut, and put it away. Next, she reached for the ashtray next to her and picked up the smoldering cigar that lay there, and stuck it between her teeth to puff back to life. Then she regarded the curious and mildly disapproving scowls around her. With a merry little twinkle in her green eyes and that wry and dazzling Gabrielle grin that Xena loved so much, and with a slight shake of her blonde head, she said around the cigar, “She can't tell.”

***

With the dishes done and most of the lights off, she settled back comfortably with Sam by her side to watch the first of her movies, and then frowned a little bit; something was poking her in her lower back. What the hell? she wondered, as she reached behind herself and under a brown, 14"x14" velvet-covered pillow...and extracted Brie's rubber chicken. Holding it upside down by one floppy leg, she scowled at it. What the hell is this doing here? she wondered. I thought I hid it in Brie's underwear drawer. She tossed it over her shoulder, settled back, and then read the video warnings to Sam as they got ready to watch a DVD.

“WARNING: The motion picture contained in this videodisc is protected under the copyright laws of the United States and other countries. This disc is sold for home use only, and all other rights are expressly reserved by the copyright owner of such motion pictures. Any copying or public performance of such motion picture is strictly prohibited and may subject the offender to civil liability and severe criminal penalties. (Title 17, United States Code. Section 501 and 506.)”

She turned to look at him and said, “That's certainly good to know. If you try to copy this disc, the feds'll bust your furry butt.” She picked up the remote and hit the “skip” button, hoping to zip through these little announcements and to get to the movie. Instead of skipping ahead, though, the player showed a prompt, superimposed across the screen and on top of the copyright warning, that stated:

“You cannot do that with this disc at this time.”

She stared at the screen. What the...

“Oh, yeah?” she said softly as she raised her wine glass to her lips. “Y'wanna bet?” She pressed the button again, figuring that this time it would work.

The prompt repeated itself.

She lowered her glass, and stared at the TV with a frown. “Fuck this,” she thought. She raised her other hand and pressed the button again, figuring it would have to work, sooner or later.

“You cannot do that with this disc at this time.”

Her frown deepened into a scowl. “Don't tell me what I can and can't do, damnit.” She pointed the remote at the screen again, and out of sheer frustration she hit the “skip ahead” button five more times, in rapid succession.

“You cannot do that with this disc at this time.”

“You cannot do that with this disc at this time.”

“You cannot do that with this disc at this time.”

“You cannot do that with this disc at this time.”

“You cannot do that with this disc at this time.”

She continued to stare at the message, with a deepening scowl and rising wrath. “God damn it!” she said. She was tempted to hit the button again, but–well, she knew what would happen. “Patience, Gina,” she told herself, after taking a deep and calming breath as she finally lowered her hand with the remote in it, while raising her wine glass to her lips again. With her voice soft and hollow inside of the glass, she said, “Just be patient...”

After a moment or two more, the copyright warning–written in white against a red background–faded from few, and into darkness.

“Finally,” she said softly. She settled back into the sofa with her wine glass resting on the small end table next to her elbow, ready for the movie to begin.

“WARNING: International Agreement and national laws protect copyrighted motion pictures, videotapes and sound recordings...”

“Oh, for fuck's sake,” Gina muttered. Without thinking, she raised the remote and pointed it at the TV...

“You cannot do that with this disc at this time.”

She sighed in exasperation. “We got the message, already. Get on with the damn movie.”

Almost as if in response to her, the screen faded to black again.

“Finally,” Gina whispered. “It's about fuckin' time. ”

“Criminal Copyright Infringement is investigated by the FBI and Interpol, and may constitute a felony with a maximum penalty of up to 5 years in prison and/or $250,000 fine.”

Alright already !!” she shouted at the TV set. “ Message received !” Out of sheer and nearly incoherent frustration, she pointed the remote at the TV again and hit “skip ahead.”

“You cannot do that with this disc at this time.”

She rolled her eyes, and sighed in exasperation. “I give up,” she told herself. “They've got to be done with their warnings by now, right?” Then she looked at Sam. “ Right ? I mean, what're they gonna do next–run ‘em in goddamn French or some damn thing? Jesus H. Christ...” She returned her attention to the screen one more time, to find–

“AVERTISSEMENT: Les images animées contenues dans ce vidéodisque est protégé par les lois du copyright des États-Unis et dans d'autres pays...”

“Aw, come on , man!” she cried out. “What the hell??

“Ce disque est vendu pour un usage domestique, et tous les autres droits sont expressément réservés par le propriétaire du droit d'auteur de films tels...”

Finally deciding to put this spare time to good use, she rose from her seat and headed around the counter and into the kitchen, where the open wine bottle stood. “No sense in letting you sit over here whenever I need a refill...”

By the time she returned to her seat, the studio's logo was showing, and then at long last, the movie began...

She turned to Sam, and softly said, “If that phone rings, I'm gonna fuckin' kill it.”

***

Sitting on the floor with her arms folded across her chest and using the sofa as her back rest (when sitting on the sofa, Sam had kept trying to join her there; in turn, she had to keep pushing him gently down to the floor with the admonition, “Sofas are for people, not for doggies; Brie doesn't like dog hair up here”), and with an empty wine glass resting on the coffee table next to her, she stretched her legs before her with a soft groan before crossing them at the ankles. “Well, Sam, were you impressed?” she asked, in reference to the movies they had been watching. Well, actually, she had been watching them; Sam had snoozed through them, with his chin resting on her thigh. “What do you think?” She gently scratched him behind his ears. “Was Harryhausen a genius of his day, or what?”

Sam raised his head and looked at her for a moment, and then laid his head back down again.

She regarded him with a tiny smile. “Not a movie fan, huh?” she said softly as she gently scratched him behind one ear. Then she glanced at her black diver's/sports watch. Scowling a little bit, she adjusted the distance of her wrist to her eyes, but she still couldn't read it very well. Even when she tilted her wrist toward the glow of the TV, she still couldn't tell the time. She leaned her head back, cast her eyes downward and squinted...and still couldn't see clearly.

Damnit, she thought, with just a little bit of dread growing within her heart. She knew there was more to this than the mere lack of ambient light. She rose to her feet, and headed toward Brie's office. After snapping on the overhead light and bathing the entire room in fluorescent, artificial sunlight, she went behind the desk, settled into the leather padded swivel chair, and hesitatingly pulled open a drawer to... (C'mon, girl, she told herself with a reluctant sigh of acceptance, stop trying to put off the inevitable...) ...to fish out a spare pair of Brie's reading glasses. Reluctantly facing the specter of approaching middle age, and with increasing trepidation as she removed them from the black leather case, she unfolded the stems, hesitated for another moment, and then finally slipped on the gold-framed, aviator-styled glasses. She looked at her watch again...and smiled in mild surprise at how clear the black-faced, radium analog dial suddenly was. It's late, she told herself. Late, but maybe there was still time enough for another movie. What the hell did it matter, really, if she fell asleep on the sofa or in bed? She had the entire house to herself.

She scanned the terrain of Brie's desk for another moment or two. Wow, she thought with mild and pleasant surprise, and a little smile, as everything before her leapt out at her in stark, focused clarity. This ain't half-bad!

After returning the glasses to their case and placing the case inside the desk drawer once more–and after telling herself that she was going to have to make an appointment to see an optometrist tomorrow–she returned to the living room. She stuck another DVD into the player, and returned to her spot on the floor in front of the sofa while the information loaded into the player. And then, with her arms folded across her chest once more, she abruptly shifted to one haunch and let rip with a thunderous floor-shaker. The broccoli beef was kicking in. “Oh, man,” she said softly, “all of a sudden my pants fit better.” She chuckled softly as she imagined what her cantankerous partner's reaction would have been.

Sam raised his chin from his paws, and looked at her for a moment. Then he rose to his feet, and walked slowly toward the counter between the living room and kitchen. He flopped down once more, sighed heavily, and closed his eyes.

Gina regarded him for a long moment. With a slight scowl and a soft voice, she said, “What? I suppose you think yours smell like roses ?”

***

Desert camouflage fatigues and a matching flak jacket, tightly laced boots, tan gloves and her kevlar helmet, all topped off with a pair of dusty, smoky gray goggles protecting her eyes and her weapon slung across her back, were not ideal desert fashions, but they did keep her alive–at least, against small arms fire. That was the least of her problems at the moment; even the oppressive, overbearing desert heat of some 120 degrees that drew moisture from her skin by the liter was of only little concern to her right now. No, her fear right now was for the young boy and his even younger sister; the two children who were squatting and crouching in the hot, dry Afghani dust as they excitedly stroked and petted the stray dog that had wandered up to them, looking for food. It was unusual to see children laughing and playing here, as they were now, as they continued to focus their attention on the medium-sized dog of mixed and unknown breed.

But as she ran toward them, it felt as though her feet had become mired in glue, or perhaps her boots had been filled with lead weights. Either way, she could not run fast enough toward them. She tried to shout at them in warning, but she couldn't speak; the hot, dry air and the even dryer desert sand had conspired to choke her off. As a result, she could not warn them in time of the RPG that had been fired at them from a Taliban terrorist. Even as she continued to run toward them, she screamed silently and watched in mute horror as the device detonated; the force of the blast had picked her up and thrown her back some ten feet, to land painfully on the M-4 rifle slung across her back.

Slowly, with her ears ringing and the dust slowly settling from the blast, she rose to a sitting position. She removed the dust-covered eye guards in an attempt to see through the cloud of sand; and when the dust had settled sufficiently, she could see that the children and the dog were gone. There was nothing there but a crater in the ground that was stained with blood, and strewn with human and canine body parts.

Lying on her side, she gazed ahead at nothing for a moment. At last, she rose and sat quietly on the edge of the king-sized bed, and rested her head in her hands as the tears trailed down her cheeks and fell to the floor. How much longer, she asked silently, with a shuddering breath and a single, soft sob; how much longer will I have to remember that day? How much longer, God?

She sniffled once, and wiped away the tears to pull herself together. Then she gazed at Sam, who was lying on his own bed near the door, with his head raised, his ears up, and his worried brown eyes focused on her. Without saying a word, she got up and made her way over to him; dressed in a t-shirt and cotton Jockey shorts, she knelt in front of him on the hardwood floor, took his face in both hands, and softly kissed the top of his head.

“C'mon, bud,” she said, and then cleared her throat softly, “let's go face another day.”

***

Sam !” she roared. “God damnit, come back here with that!”

Thundering, unshod footsteps raced across the upper floor of the house and then down the stairs. Sam was the first one out the back door, diving full length and head first through his doggy door and playfully dashing down the wooden steps with a black lace brassiere in his teeth. He started for the barn, at first; and then, as another idea suddenly came to him, he abruptly changed course and dashed for the side of the house.

Gina burst through the back door a moment later, dressed only in a pair of olive green boxer shorts and a dark and dangerous scowl. “Sam!” she bellowed again. “You little monster , come back here, right fuckin' now!” She quickly made her way with bare feet down the rough wooden steps to the dry, dusty ground that was scattered with bits and pieces of loose gravel, twigs and dried pine needles. Once she hit the ground, she started off after him in earnest. “Sam!” she roared again. “Sam, get your fuzzy butt back here, right– oww ! God damn it!” She stumbled abruptly, quickly regained her footing, and then brought up one foot to hold in both hands while she hopped about on the other, swearing vehemently at the pine cone that had escaped her notice. “Son of a bitch mother fuck !!” she roared as she hopped forward a few steps, and then gingerly placed her foot back on the ground just in time to avoid losing her balance.

Sam peered at her from around the corner of the house to watch her with bright eyes and a playful grin, and with the brassiere still clenched in his teeth–one cup hanging from each side–while panting softly.

She saw him watching her. “This is not funny, god damn it!” she shouted.

Sam apparently thought it was.

Limping noticeably now, she quickly continued after him as his bushy black tail with its white tip promptly disappeared around the corner of the house. “When I get my hands on you, you little shitmeister...” She let the growled threat go unfinished.

She came around the next corner of the house, and was now in the front yard–and she abruptly stopped.

There was Sam, sitting complacently next to the mailman, who had stopped frozen in his tracks. He had been surprised enough to find the dog dashing about the yard with a black lace brassiere in his teeth, but he was even more surprised to find a tanned and topless Gina Ryan rushing up on him with dark and dangerous intent smoldering in her dangerously narrowed, sapphire eyes.

Striding toward them without a moment's hesitation, Gina took hold of the bra in Sam's teeth, and pulled.

He refused to let go.

Instead, he playfully growled at her, dug in his back feet as he lowered his front half, and began to pull back with sharp jerks of his head.

“Sam, no !” she told him, sharply and authoritatively. “Leggo, damnit. I am not playing with you.”

Growl, tug...growl, tug...growl, tug...

“Sam,” she growled threateningly.

Sensing that she was no longer having fun, he finally stood down from his playful stance, released his hold, and let Gina have her bra back.

Straightening, she then dangerously regarded the mailman, who was still staring at her...assets. “What's the matter with you ?” she asked. “Haven't you ever seen a shirtless Marine before?” She then turned to Sam, pointed at the house with one hand, and commanded in Italian, “Nella casa, Sam. Ora,” and followed him back around the corner and into the house via the back yard.

Standing wordlessly and motionlessly in the front yard, the postman watched them leave. Then he silently said to himself, They're never gonna believe this back at the office.

***

Gina was what one could call a clothes horse. No matter what she wore–whether it was a $5,000 black evening gown with a plunging neckline and a slit up the side nearly to the hip, or her Marine Corps dress blues; or whether it was a black tuxedo, or an old white t-shirt, battered and faded blue jeans and battered sneakers, and no make up–as she was now–she always wore her clothes and carried herself with style and elegance. Of course, being six feet tall in her bare feet was a bit of an attention-getter, too; there were not that many women of her height, outside of a women's basketball team. Being both tall and stylish, she always drew attention and admiration wherever she went; but it was an attention that she preferred not to attract. She wasn't self-conscious about her height, not at all; she just liked being able to blend in with her surroundings. Being able to easily blend in with her environment was a habit she had picked up in sniper school.

Standing next to the barn and near the woodpile, she slammed the end of the posthole digger into the ground, pulled the long wooden handles apart, and then pulled upward to extract yet another load of soil. She turned to one side, pressed the handles together again, and dumped said load next to her. It was a horribly inefficient way to dig post holes, she thought, but this was the only tool that did the job properly.

She rested the digger on the ground and leaned on it for a moment's rest, and wiped the sweat from her brow with one forearm–and winced at the pain in her left shoulder. Arthritis. Goddamn arthritis, she swore silently. That was Brie's diagnosis, and the Marine had even seen the x-rays. Arthritis, brought on by a series of injuries during her career in the Corps. Slowly and gingerly massaging her shoulder, she thought, Damn, that hurts, as she slowly rotated her shoulder, and winced sharply again. She considered going in for some pain killers, and then quickly dismissed the idea. The only thing that really helped her was codeine, and she hated that stuff; it always made her loopy. And loopy was the last thing she needed while in front of her troops.

But then, there were no troops here, were there?

She glanced around, and saw just how much more work she was in for. Maybe she ought to give it a rest, call it a day, and wait until Brie returned so she could help. After all, many hands made for lighter work.

She and Brie had both agreed that they needed a fence around the edge of their property; the only real debate was whether it would be wood or chain link. Brie favored the chain link; it was easy to see through, less expensive, and would last for damn near forever. Gina leaned more toward the wood; redwood, to be more precise, because she wanted the fence to blend in with nature as much as possible, and to give them more privacy. Either way, they needed something to keep the deer, rabbits, racoons, skunks and other undesirables out of their yard (and especially out of their vegetable garden), and to keep Sam from taking off into the woods. Bears and cougars were occasionally seen around here.

She glanced around again. Speaking of Sam, she thought, where the hell is he? Don't tell me he's wandered off again...

“Sam?” she called out. “Where're you at, bud? Let's go inside.”

No answer. Not that she was really expecting one.

“Sam?” she called out, more loudly this time, her voice echoing through the woods. She sharply clapped her hands together a couple of times. “C'mon, Sammy, it's time to go inside.”

Still, no response.

From some twenty feet away, however, and from behind the barn, Sam poked his head around the corner and peered curiously at her.

“Sam?” she called out again, even more loudly this time, as she felt the first twinges of worry. Taking a couple of steps backward, she scanned the terrain. She couldn't see him anywhere. Aw, God, she thought, I hope he hasn't gotten into something... “Sam! Andiamo, ragazzo . C'mon, let's go !!”

He slowly came around the corner of the barn, and reluctantly began to approach her.

Still with her back to him, she continued to slowly pace backward. “ Sam !!” she roared again. “C'mon, buddy, let's go–”

Not watching where she was going, she suddenly stumbled backward over the wood pile. In mid-fall, she turned to one side to cushion her abrupt landing with one hand, and fell with a grunt and a loud curse onto her left side. “ Fuck !” she roared as her long hair fell in front of her face, and as pain shot up her left wrist and forearm. “Dumbass!” she called herself. “Watch where the fuck you're g–”

She was cut off in mid-swear by a loud, ominous, and uncomfortably nearby rattling.

***

Sam saw her fall to the ground, and with worry in his eyes he immediately charged forward.

***

Oh shit, she thought. She couldn't see where the rattlesnake was, but she knew it was close–with her luck, probably within striking distance. She wasn't even sure if it was safe for her to try to brush her hair away from her eyes so she could determine where the damn thing was. Any movement, sudden or slow, might set it off. Maybe if she remained motionless long enough, the thing would relax and move on...

Then again, it probably wouldn't. Not with her luck.

Slowly and cautiously, she turned her head and peered through the curtain of midnight hair that hung before her eyes...and found the snake that had emerged from beneath the wood pile lying about four feet away, coiled and ready to strike.

Oh, shit, she thought again, as the snake lunged forward.

A blurry black shape–lightning quick and snarling with rage–suddenly appeared from nowhere to place itself between Gina and the rattler. As the reptile shot forward with its jaws open and its fangs bared, and with another loud and dangerous snarl, Sam seized the snake in his jaws, clamping them down on the serpent just behind its head to prevent it from suddenly turning on him. Snarling and growling viciously, he ground his teeth together and crushed its neck, and then furiously shook his head like a terrier with a rat to finish the job. Planting one paw on its body now, he continued to tug and pull with his teeth until the snake's head tore completely off from its body, where the remains now coiled in harmless reflex.

He dropped the head and sprang backward to avoid getting bitten, and continued to bark in rage at the now harmless viper's head.

Finally brushing her hair from her eyes, Gina stared in wide-eyed amazement. Holy shit! she thought. Holy shit !

Sam continued to bark furiously at the decapitated snake.

“Sam! Sammy !”

He glanced at her over his shoulder for a moment, then stubbornly went back to barking furiously at the snake.

Sammy ! It's okay! C'mere, you got him! Come on over here!”

At last, and with a final bark, he turned away from the snake and gave Gina his full attention.

She leaned forward, and threw both arms around him in a tight hug. He squirmed in her arms like a four-year-old with a sugar rush until she finally released him, and then with a merrily wagging tail he began to slobber all over her face with a warm, wet tongue.

She gently took his face in both hands. “You saved my life, Sam!” she softly told him. “Lemme have a look at you. He didn't tag you, did he?” She thoroughly checked him over for any bite marks–as thoroughly as she could, anyway, as he continued to squirm excitedly–and found no blood, no bite marks, no wounds of any kind. With a sigh of relief, she hugged him again. “You saved my life , Sammy,” she told him again. “I owe you one, big time.” She thankfully hugged him again...and this time, he didn't mind.

***

Late the next day they were back at it. The two differences, however, were that Sam was now wearing a forest camouflage harness with a matching leash tied to one of the back porch rail's wooden slats so he couldn't wander off, and Gina was now sporting a new haircut. It was styled similarly to Brie's, only a little shorter and parted to the left; all she had to do now was to run her fingers with a small dab of mousse or a quick wet comb through it to brush it back behind her ears, and she was good to go.

Lying by the porch with his chin on his paws, Sam whined pitifully.

Gina grinned at him in sympathy. “Sorry, pal,” she said. “I just don't want you wandering off again.”

By the time she was finished digging this latest post hole, her left shoulder was acting up again. She tried to slowly rotate it, and a bolt of pain shot through it that made her clench her teeth, and nearly provoked a short cry.

That does it, she told herself, I'm done for the day. Actually, it was just as well; the sun was low in the west, and the light was fading quickly.

Leaving the post hole digger where it was, she approached Sam and untied his leash from the porch rail, and together they headed up the steps and inside.

After a hot shower that had cleaned her of sweat and dirt, but which had done nothing for the pain in her shoulder, she had combed her short dark hair back from her forehead and behind her ears, and had dressed in a red t-shirt with “ Marines ” stenciled across the front in gold, black sweat pants, and a deliberately mis-matching pair of Halloween socks to keep her feet warm–the orange one was decorated with black bats and flying witches on broomsticks, and the black one with orange jack o' lanterns and white ghosts. She also thought about raising the temperature on the thermostat, but instead she had opted for building a fire in the fireplace; while it was starting to get chilly in here, she also wanted to keep the gas bill down. Now that the fire was burning merrily, she headed for Brie's office once again, this time to search her controlled drugs safe for something that would finally knock down this blazing, grinding agony in her shoulder.

Sitting on the floor with her feet tucked beneath her and wearing Brie's glasses once more, and with Sam sitting by her side, she punched in Brie's security code on the number pad, twisted the handle downward and pulled open the solid steel door, and proceeded to examine the labels of the various plastic vials of amber and green, all topped with white caps. “Percocet, three hundred and twenty-five milligrams,” she read from one label. “Vicodin, five hundred migs,” she read from another. She cast her eyes back and forth between the two. “What's the difference? They've both got codeine in ‘em.” She shrugged slightly. “Oh well...” She opened both vials, and shook out one tablet from each. “That oughtta do it,” she said softly as she replaced the caps. “I really shouldn't be taking this stuff without Brie here,” she said softly, both for Sam's benefit and her own, as she put them back. “Codeine always makes me goofy. But damnit, my shoulder is killin ' me.”

She looked around inside some more, and found more vials. “Diazepam,” she read, “generic for Valium... What the hell.” She added a small, round, orange tablet to the two white capsule-shaped tabs. She replaced the cap, and examined another vial. “Clonazepam... hmm...” She added the little green tab to the collection. Replacing the cap, she looked thoughtful for a moment, and then looked at Sam. “D'you suppose she counted these things?”

Sam gazed back at her with curious brown eyes, and said nothing.

Peering inside of the safe once more, she discovered a small notebook with “Drug Log” written across the front. “Yep, she does. I imagine the DEA keeps a pretty strict eye on people who dispense this stuff...” With the clear plastic pen that was stuck through the binder's rings, she wrote in neat, black, cursive letters, “Dear Doctor Brie; I found and raided your drug stash. I took one Perc, one Vic, one Val, one Clone. Love, your Warrior Princess.”

She smiled at that. “Warrior Princess,” she thought.

She'd been given that title by her old Marine Corps drill instructor. He had always called her “little princess” with such a disdainful and sarcastic tone. He didn't particularly want her in his squad; but he'd been stuck with her–and she with him–so the two of them had made the best of it. “Off your ass and on your feet, little princess!” he had roared, like R. Lee Ermey's DI character in “Full Metal Jacket.” “Don't you goddamn fall back and make the rest of us wait on you, little princess!” he had bellowed, with his gravelly voice and thick Louisiana accent. “Would you like breakfast in bed, little princess?” “You want someone to clean your weapon for you, little princess?” “I suppose you want your dinner served to you on a silver plate, don't you, little princess?” “Would you like someone to prepare your bath for you, little princess? With your little bath salts ‘n' shit? Get your ass in gear , little princess! Move it out! Move it out ! MOVE IT OUT !!”

God , he'd pissed her off!

And she had to take every last little bit of his shit, standing at unmoving and rock steady attention, and in stone cold silence.

And then she had gone into combat. At age nineteen, and with her ambushed squad members falling all around her under heavy enemy fire, she had thrown herself on top of a grenade that had landed in the middle of them. She'd been the only one to see the smoking explosive device, and in an endeavor to save the rest of her squad–and with a prayer to the Virgin Mary, like the Catholic she was–she had shielded them from its deadly blast with her body. When it had failed to go off, she had felt like a fool because the damn thing had been a dud. Angry and humiliated at her squad leader's chewing her out for “cowering” in their fighting hole, she had shown him the grenade; and then she had climbed out of the hole with the grenade in one hand and her M-16 in the other, yelling wildly and laying down burst after burst of suppression fire as she boldly advanced on the enemy, cutting them down left and right, while ignoring the stinging heat of the bullets that plucked at her jungle camouflage fatigues. No longer giving a god damn about her own safety or even her own death, and after exhausting her rifle's magazine, she had continued to advance–firing with her sidearm and cutting down more enemy fighters as their return fire continued to whiz and buzz around her like angry wasps, and picking up their weapons to continue the battle–all the time with that smoking grenade in her hand, and with the intent of marching into that machine gunner's nest and personally returning it to the enemy bastard who had thrown it at her squad. After stitching him across his belly with a fallen AK-47, she had shoved the grenade down the back of his pants, shot him again, and then picked up his .40 caliber, belt-fed machine gun. Holding the weapon by it's pistol grip in one hand and with the ammunition belt draped over her other arm, and with its bipod dangling from the end of its barrel, she let loose with a sudden and wild, ululating war cry as she opened fire with one long, deafening and unending spray of fire and lead. With spent casings pouring like water from the weapon's ejection port, she swept the weapon from side to side, ruthlessly mowing down and slaughtering two entire platoons of enemy fighters.

By the time the shooting was over, the abrupt and profound silence was broken only by the ringing in her own ears; and in the swirling white fog of gun smoke, there was no one left standing–no one left moving !–but the lone Marine.

And then...the grenade went off, and the blast had pitched her forward to land face-first in the mud and the blood.

For bravery in combat far above and beyond the call of duty–for both gallantly placing herself in severe danger at the possible cost of her own life in order to save the lives of her entire squad, and for being single-handedly responsible for a confirmed sixty-two enemy dead–she had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

And her old drill instructor had been at the awards ceremony, when the President of the United States had personally hung her medal around her neck, and then had pinned her first Purple Heart, for wounds sustained in battle, to the blouse of her dress blues uniform. (She hadn't even known she'd been wounded during all that shooting, until her squad's medic had treated her for two bullet wounds.) He had been the first to approach her after the formal ceremony, and with a smile and a salute, and a quick wink, he had said to her, “Semper Fi ... Warrior Princess.”

That distinctive name had stuck with her ever since.

Gina grinned. Not bad, she told herself as she continued to sit in front of Brie's safe. Not bad, for a green Marine's first time in combat.

From that point on, there wasn't one assignment that the CMH recipient had been refused. Rising through the ranks to make Commissioned Officer with an unprecedented speed, she had gone on to earn her aviator's wings at the Navy's Fighter Weapons School in Miramar (also known as “Top Gun”) (Screw Kenny Loggins, and his crappy little “Danger Zone,” she'd thought; nothing beats scorching the runway with an F/A 18, pulling seven g's and going airborne to scream across the sky at mach speed while annihilating air and ground targets with rockets and machine gun fire as she enthusiastically lip-synced to “Welcome To The Jungle” by Guns & Roses as it blasted throughout the cockpit), she had graduated at the top of her class from BUDS/SERE, and was awarded her Force Recon pin (and then had later become a BUDS/SERE instructor); and she had graduated again at the top of her class in Sniper's School at Camp Le Jeune, and had gone on to specialize in infiltration and elimination in Covert/Spec Warfare–and, under the codename of “Warrior Princess,” she had conducted such operations all over the world in kidnaping terrorist leaders for interrogation, assassination of terrorist leaders, and assassination of drug lords. Based on her accumulated experiences, she had from that point on become the final authority in covert special warfare, and had literally rewritten the training manual.

Placing the drug log back inside the safe, she spotted another tall, plastic, green pill vial that had a green cross on it and a familiar looking leaf. She grinned again. “You gotta be kidding me,” she said. “No way!” But the wording on the label confirmed it. “Cannabis sativa.” She turned her eyes toward Sam once more, and with a smile she said, “Medical marijuana. Oo -rah!” She chuckled softly. “It's supposed to be a pain-killer, right? Well, we'll just have to see about that, won't we? After all,” she added with exaggerated selflessness, “it's for medical science ! Who am I to deny them such valuable research?”

Sam brushed his tail across the floor a couple of times, and again said nothing.

She opened the vial, removed a healthy-looking green bud, and replaced the cap. After making another note in the drug log, she looked at Sam again, this time with a sly grin. “Y'know how Marines like to pride themselves on their unique ability to improvise, adapt and overcome, don't you?” she asked him. “Y'wanna learn how to make a carburetor out of tinfoil and a toilet paper roll?”

***

Red-eyed and relaxed, and leaning back into the sofa with a grin on her face and her Halloween-stockinged feet resting on the coffee table, she took one final hit of “pain medication” before putting down her improvised carburetor and reaching for her wine glass. Wine, she thought, with the word reverse-echoing silently through her mind. Wwwwiiiinnnne, co-deeeiiinnne, valll-leee-yummm, weeeed... The drugs were definitely kicking in, and she was feeling nooooo pain whatsoever as she blew smoke toward the ceiling. Holy fuck, that's good weed, she thought.

The original “Pirates of the Carribean” was in the DVD player, but rather than watching the movie itself she was in the middle of watching the special features.

“Walt Disney,” she said with a dry voice, “the man who started it all. What a wonderful, imaginative man.” She glanced around the living room for a moment, wondering where that echo had come from; shrugging it off, she then allowed her hand and arm to float upward on an invisible cloud as she reached for and raised her glass in a toast. “Here's to you, my friend. Thank you so much for what you've done for the kid in all of us.” She took a long, deep sip, and the flavor of the San Giovese exploded pleasantly in her mouth and bathed her throat with refreshing, liquid coolness.

She continued to sit and watch, and massage Sam behind his ears while he lay next to her with his chin on her thigh, and occasionally she would point to the screen and tell him something about the scene before her.

“This was shot at the original Disneyland ,” she told him, with a velvety voice, “where Mom and Dad took us kids so many times...ohmygod, look! Look !!” she exclaimed with sudden excitement as she pointed at the screen. “Tom Sawyer's Island ! I was there , man! I was there ! I remember this!! Oh, my God...” Sitting forward now, she continued to watch in wide-eyed and child-like wonder. “See that, Sammy? Sleeping Beauty's Castle! Dad took my picture in front of it when I was...” With a soft sigh, she fell back into the sofa once more. “...oh god, how old was I? Seven? Eight? Nine years old? And there's the African Jungle Ride, and Space Mountain ...We wandered all over Frontier Land , and Tomorrow Land , and... Oh, man...” She sniffled and wiped away sudden tears of sheer joy as she continued to indulge in fond and long-dormant, childhood memories. “I remember one time when we went on that Mad Tea Party ride,” she said softly. “You know, the one with the giant spinning tea cups and saucers? It was me, Travis and Michael.” She suddenly chuckled. “Poor Mike,” she said, “Travis and I got that thing spinning so fast, his arms were plastered against the side. He was completely helpless against the centrifugal force. It's the price you pay for being the youngest sibling, y'know? By the time we got off that ride, Mike had ruptured a blood vessel in one eye and had barfed all over himself.” She sighed, and laughed softly. “Oh, man...memories of Disneyland . It'd be so nice to go back to those innocent times, even for just a day...” She reflected silently for a moment. “No cell phones, no bills, no responsibilities...” There was yet another wide shot of Sleeping Beauty's Castle, and Gina suddenly remembered the music and lyrics that were Disneyland 's trademark:

“‘When you wish upon a star,'” she sang softly, “‘makes no difference who you are; ‘cause when you wish upon a star, your dreams...come... true! '” With misty eyes, she regarded Sam once more as she gently scratched him behind his ears. “I wonder what you would say if you could talk. Sometimes, I really do wish you could talk–”

And then she had an idea. With fluid grace, she rose from her seat and drifted toward the big bay window, with Sam rising to follow her like a shadow. Standing between the window and the baby grand piano, she folded her arms beneath her breasts and gazed at the dark sky for a moment–clouds were moving in from the northwest–and then she spotted a large, lone star. “Star light, star bright,” she said, feeling like a hopeful six-year-old again, “first star I see tonight. I wish I may, I wish I might...” She couldn't remember the rest of it, she couldn't remember how it went. It had been too long... “I wish,” she said, after a moment, “I wish that my bud Sammy could talk.” She turned to look at him. “What would you say?”

Standing next to her, Sam looked up at her for a moment. Then he gazed out through the window at the cloudy night sky, and then he turned back to her. “I don't know,” he said at last, with a voice that sounded remarkably like that of the actor Bruce Willis. “I never really gave it much thought.”

***

She stared at him for a long, long moment. At last, she said, “‘Scuse me?”

Sam gazed back at her. “I said, I never really gave it much thought.”

She stared at him some more. Patiently, Sam gazed back at her.

“It's the drugs,” she said softly, now gazing past him in mild horror and in doubt of her own sanity. “It's the drugs,” she repeated. “The drugs, the drugs, it's the goddamn drugs... Ooohhhh, shit ...” She took a deep, deep breath and let it out slowly in a long, sighing groan as she shook her head to clear it before dropping it into her hands. “I swear to God, I'm never doing this shit again...never, never, never...”

Sam continued to watch her. “Good idea.” He returned to the sofa, hopped lightly onto it, and circled about two or three times before settling comfortably into one corner. “Can we watch ‘Die Hard?'”

***

Reclining on one elbow on a soft, full-length pillow of red and gold satin in her private chamber atop Mount Olympus , and gazing into the rippling depths of her polished marble viewing pool, Aphrodite rolled onto her back and roared with delighted laughter. “Careful what you ask for, Warrior Babe!” she said at last. “You just might get it!” She rolled back onto her side to gaze into the pool once more and laughed again, and then added, “This is gonna be so fun...”

***

“Ooohhh God,” Gina groaned again. She slowly made her way over to the sofa, sat heavily, and leaned back. She rested one elbow on the arm rest, and rested her head in her hand with her eyes closed.

Sam gazed at her attentively. “Are you okay?” he asked.

She raised her other hand slightly, and held it toward him in a soundless request for silence. She needed to get her thoughts together. “I...” she began softly, “I...just need a... a couple...”

“Okay,” Sam said. “You just relax and take it easy... If you could start the DVD player, that'd be great. You could relax, I could watch a movie, I'm here if you need anything...”

Without opening her eyes, Gina reached for and found the remote control, and hit the play button, and then placed the remote on the armrest. After all the copyright warnings and other announcements, the original “Die Hard” began to play.

“All right !” the dog said, with quiet enthusiasm. He rose from his corner of the sofa and pulled himself over to lean warmly and comfortably against Gina's thigh, and in return Gina laid her arm on top of him.

“It's weird,” she said, as she, too, finally began to watch the movie.

“What is?” Sam asked distantly, with his eyes glued to the screen.

“I have a talking dog,” she replied. “I have a talking dog ! And there's, like, a million things I'd like to know, yet... I can't think of one single thing to ask you about, except...”

He looked up at her and waited patiently for her to continue.

“...except... Would you like some cheese and crackers? I don't know about you, but suddenly I've got a raging case of the munchies...”

***

Later, with the TV off and all the lights out except for the bedroom light, they made their way upstairs. Gina stripped out of her sweat pants and socks, and crawled into bed as Sam headed for his own bed near the door. Leaning on one elbow, she watched him for a moment. “Hey, Sammy,” she said softly.

The dog raised his head and looked at her with curious eyes.

She patted the mattress. “Come on up here, pal.”

Eagerly, he approached the bed and lightly leaped up to flop against her. Gina reached for the bedside lamp, and turned it off. “You saved my life yesterday, Sam,” she said softly as she turned onto one side, closed her eyes, and draped her arm over him. “I owe you. The least I can do is to let you come up here. If Brie wants to complain about dog hair, let her.”

Sam sighed contentedly. “Hey, what are friends for? Don't mention it,” he said. “After all, you would have done the same for me.”

Gina smiled at that.

And then–quite abruptly–she tossed back the covers, rose quickly from the bed, and headed over to the wide closet and slid open one of the two mirrored doors. She removed something from the collar of one of her uniforms, and returned to the bed.

“Whatcha got?” Sam asked curiously as she sat next to him. Trying to both see and smell the object she had retrieved, he continued to ask, “What's that? What's that? What's that?”

She removed his collar, and attached the black, eagle-globe-and-anchor pin to it. “There y'go,” she said with a smile, as she slipped his collar back around his neck. “ Now you're dressed like a proper Marine.”

Sam regarded her with merry brown eyes and a thumping tail. “Hey, cool–thanks!” He reached up and gave her a big, wet lick on one side of her face.

She switched off the bedside lamp once more, settled herself under the covers as she drew them up, and lay against her pillow with closed eyes as Sam settled once more against her, warmly and comfortably. “Semper Fi, Sam.” With her arm draped over him once more, in a little while they both drifted off to sleep.

And for the first time since Brie had taken off back east, she did not dream of war.

***

After a good night's sleep, plenty of time for the drugs to wear off, and a hot cup of good, strong Marine Corps-styled coffee, Gina was feeling wide awake and alert, unusually spirited, and with no pain whatsoever in her shoulder. The drugs had obviously done their job, but she swore she was never going to indulge in that combination again. I mean, after all, she told herself, imagine that Sam could actually talk , for god's sakes... It was a cute little fantasy, to be sure, but...well, come on. A talking dog? She shook her head, and silently laughed at herself. Yeah, right.

Carefully stepping around Sam, who had somehow and long ago developed this annoying habit of lying right in front of the stove whenever Gina was cooking, she answered the kitchen phone in the middle of the third ring, and saw on the caller ID that it was Brie. “Hey babe,” she said. Warm, early morning sunlight was streaming in through the window above the sink, and an iron skillet with two links of Italian sausage and two eggs was cooking on the stove. “How's it going?”

“I'm at the airport,” she replied. “Come and get me.”

Gina frowned in puzzlement, and at the rather ill-humored tone in her partner's voice. “The airport?” she asked. “What the hell are you doin' there? You're not due to fly back ‘til tomorrow. What's the matter?”

“I...” She sighed, reluctant to go into any detail over the phone. “I had a change of plans,” she replied at last. “Listen, my battery's about to crap out on me, I'll fill you in when you get here.”

“All right,” Gina said, a little perplexed. Something was obviously bothering her. “Okay. I'll see you soon.” She hung up the phone. “Change in plans?” she asked herself softly. “What kind of ‘change in plans?'

“Hey, Sam!” she called out. “Y'wanna go for a ride? Brie's comin' home!”

***

Gina could tell just by her body language that something was bothering the Navy doctor, as she seemed tired and almost dejected as she approached the white-curbed “loading and unloading only” zone to scan for her ride home. Dressed in dark sunglasses, stylish black leather ankle boots, snug-fitting, olive green cargo pants, and a black t-shirt with her dog tags hanging out, the Marine immediately got out of the car, beeped the horn once, and waved to get her attention.

Even though the young blonde was wearing her customary sunglasses, along with her peanut butters once more, Ryan could tell her spirits brightened somewhat when she saw her.

“Hey,” she said, approaching her with a slow grin. She indicated her haircut with a slight movement of her head. “I like the new do.”

“Yeah?” Gina asked with a grin as she ran one hand through her hair to brush it back behind one ear. She reached for and took Brie's duffle bag. “So, what's the news? Did you pass the board?” She went around to the rear of the Jeep to toss the bag into the cargo hold.

“Funny thing, about that,” Brie replied as she slipped into the passenger's seat, where she was immediately greeted by an overly exuberant Sam. She slung one arm gently around his neck, ruffled his head with her other hand, and kissed the side of his muzzle. “How's my goo'boy?” she asked softly. “Huh? How's my goo'boy?”

Sam's tail wagged hard enough to almost fly off as he continued to slobber her face.

Gina got behind the wheel, but made no motions toward driving them home just yet. Something was bothering Brie; it was obvious that she needed to get something off of her chest.

“Sweetheart, what's wrong?”

Brie swept off her cover and dropped it onto her lap, and ran a hand through her golden hair. Then she took off her shades and regarded the Marine with troubled, green eyes. She took a deep breath, and let it out quickly. “The good news,” she said with a small, forced smile, “ is that I passed the board, and I'm fully qualified to practice psychiatry, but...but not certified .”

Gina removed her own shades and regarded her partner with a puzzled scowl. “Why the hell not?”

“Which brings us to the bad news, which is...” Breaking eye contact with her, she was reluctant to go on, but she needed to tell her what had happened. “...in order for me to get my certification...” She gazed into Ryan's eyes once more. “...those arrhythmic, meat-slappin' sons o' bitches are gonna assign me to a new billet.”

Ryan's heart suddenly sank into her stomach. “Where?”

Brie gazed ahead at the bustling scenery before them, and then back at Gina. “ Okinawa .”

Gina gazed at her with scowling disbelief and trepidation. “ Okinawa ?”

“Yup. We have a US Naval hospital there; they want a brand new psychiatrist there as their new CO. Guess who got volunteered for the job?”

This time, Gina sighed deeply. She swore softly under her breath. “Great,” she muttered. She gritted her teeth and shook her head. Looking at her once more, she asked, “For how long?”

Brie snorted softly. “Good question,” she replied. “I'm figurin' it's probably ‘til when my next contract runs out, in about another six years.”

Gina gritted her teeth and wanted to slam a fist in frustration against the steering wheel, but she controlled the urge. “Okay,” she finally said. “I guess the good news is I don't have to worry about finishing that damn fence, if we're going to move to Japan . It's going to be a pain in the ass, though.”

She gazed thoughtfully into her lap. “Yeah, tell me about it...”

“We'll have to sell the house, we'll either have to look at new housing–shit, do you know how expensive real estate is in Japan?–or maybe something on base, we'll have to quarantine Sam for God knows how long before the Japanese authorities let him into the country–”

“I told ‘em no.”

Gina raised her eyebrows. Had she heard her correctly? She dipped her head slightly, silently trying to capture Brie's eyes with her own.

She raised her eyes to look into Gina's. “I ain't goin'.”

What ?? Brie, it's an order! Y'can't just say ‘no' when the Navy gives you an order! You know as well as I do that when given a direct order, you've got only two choices; obey it or–” She stopped abruptly as the expression in her eyes changed with sudden realization. “Oh, no. You didn't.”

She turned in her seat to face her directly. “My current tour of duty–my current contract with the Navy–runs out in two weeks; I told those inbred, pole-smokin' pendejos that if they're gonna treat me that way, then I'm not gonna renew it.”

Gazing silently at her partner, there was no doubt whatsoever in her mind that the irascible Navy doctor had indeed used those exact words. “Oh, Brie,” she finally said, “I'm so sorry.” She took her hand and squeezed it gently. “I know how much you love being a Navy doctor...”

“I don't ‘love' it, I like it,” she quickly corrected her, and then added quite honestly–more to herself, actually, than to her partner–“I like it a lot .” Emerald eyes gazed intensely into sapphire eyes. “But I love you ,” she went on, “I love you , and I love Sam , and I love our house and our life together, and that crazy town fulla crazy people... I'm not givin' that up, no way. Besides,” she added with a little bit of her old smile and her east-Texas drawl, “can you imagine me tryin' to learn Japanese? I mean, fer shit's sake, girl! They don't even have any good swear words !”

Watching her carefully, Gina slowly grinned. And then she began to chuckle softly. “Yeah,” she said as she faced forward and put the Cherokee in gear, and began to pull away from the curb, “I guess you would be pretty lost, if you couldn't swear at anyone.”

“Goddamn right,” she drawled with a grin. “And besides, I don't want all that extra studyin' to go to waste. I became a doctor to practice medicine , not to be a pencil-pushin' administrator.” With the tone in her voice suddenly becoming more serious, she went on: “Too many returnin' vets need more than just to have their physical wounds healed; we also need to heal their psychological and emotional injuries.” An old memory suddenly flashed before her eyes; that of a certain Marine, wearing her dress blues and sitting alone on the edge of a bed in a darkened bedroom in San Francisco , gazing resignedly out the window with tears of emotional agony in her eyes and a loaded gun in her hand...

“Ah can't do that from behind a desk, buried under a mountain of request forms, schedules, and other assorted kinds of bullshit paperwork.”

Gina glanced at her with a growing mist in her eyes, and with a warm and admiring smile. That's my Gabrielle, she thought.

Feeling lighter and more carefree than she could ever remember, she was relieved to finally get that burden off of her shoulders. “Sorry, darlin'; looks like you'll have to finish that damn fence after all.” And then, with that classic, winning grin of hers, she added, “And ah'm just gonna kick back and watch you sweat an' swear, with a drink in my hand and my toes in the sand.” She motioned forward with one hand. “ Andiamo, ragazza !”

The Warrior Princess laughed heartily. “ Andiamo !” she chimed in.

Andiamo !” came from the back seat.

Both women turned to look over their shoulders, where Sam was sitting up straight and panting softly, with one hind foot sticking out sideways and a merry little twinkle in his warm, dark eyes.

The two women slowly turned their heads to face each other...and then Brie grinned knowingly. “Been practicin' a little ventriloquism while I've been gone, have we?”

Gazing forward, and with a disturbed look in her own eyes that was hidden behind her shades, Gina said nothing.

***

It was so good to be home again. With a smile on her lips and her uniform hanging in the closet and covered with a thin plastic bag to keep the dust off, she was now dressed in faded blue jeans and a brown t-shirt. Barefooted, she headed downstairs to the kitchen and got herself a 12oz crystal tumbler from one of the cupboards, and proceeded to pour in two... Ah hell, she thought, three fingers of Jack Daniels. She capped the bottle and put it away, took a satisfying sip, and then headed for the wide, sliding glass door and the redwood deck out back where Gina was waiting.

Also barefooted, and still in her cargo pants and black t-shirt, Gina was relaxing in one of the full-length recliners, gazing toward the setting sun with a drink in one hand and...

“What's that?” Brie wanted to know as she approached her own chair. “What the hell is that ?”

Gina grinned up at her. “It's a cigar,” she replied.

Brie cautiously settled into her own chair, careful not to spill her drink. “Yeah, I can see that.”

“Then why'd you ask?”

“When the hell did you take up cigar smokin' ?”

She stuck the cigar between her teeth and grinned around it. “Remember the night I called you during the poker game, and you put me on speaker to talk to the rest of the gang?”

With golden bangs brushing against her brow, she regarded her with a blend of forced innocence and mild suspicion in those green eyes of hers. Cautiously, she asked, “What about it?”

She puffed at her cigar, and smiled. “You forgot to shut off the video.”

Her heart plummeted into her stomach as she stared at her partner for a moment with an “oh fuck” look in her eyes.

“Oh, fuck,” she said softly.

Gina chuckled mellowly. With a tumbler of single malt scotch in one hand and the cigar in her teeth, she said around it, “Don't worry, I saved you one,” as she produced another cigar from somewhere, and held it toward her partner.

Oh God, I'm so busted, the blonde thought...

...and then she grinned, said to herself, “Aw, fuck it!” and snatched the cigar from Gina's hand. The Marine next held a Zippo lighter toward her–a steel lighter with the familiar insignia of the Marine Corps stamped onto one side–but the Navy doctor waved it off. Reaching into a pocket of her jeans, she said, “Thanks; I got my own,” and extracted her own lighter, which was decorated on one side with the equally familiar insignia of the US Navy. With a metallic clink of its lid, she struck the wheel and lit up, puffed fragrant smoke as she snapped it shut once more, and then leaned back into her lounge and sighed contentedly. “I've been thinkin'...” she said at last.

“Uh oh; that doesn't sound good,” the tall brunette said with a smile. “Thinkin' about what?”

“I don't want to give up medicine. Not to pat myself on the back or anything, but I know I'm damn good at it, and I don't want to give it up. Besides, I'm too young to retire.”

“Watch it, blondie,” the Marine said with a mild warning in her voice, “you aren't that much younger than me.”

She smiled, and gently dismissed her with a small motion of one hand. “I can get my psychiatrist's certification from the state of California –I'm already qualified, as the Navy can attest–and then I think maybe I'll check out some of the hospitals and clinics around the area.”

“How about you start your own practice?”

She puffed at her cigar, and gently shook her head. “Nah. I've had enough of bein' a commanding officer, manager, scheduler, purchase agent an' all that rolled into one; I'd rather just practice medicine, and let someone else deal with the headaches of runnin' the ship.” She sipped at her drink. “I hear that the VA is opening a brand new branch clinic right here in Nevada City , to serve military personnel and their families; I think they can use one more civilian doctor with a strong military background...” She sighed softly, and fell silent to lose herself in thought.

And as the sun slowly sank into the distant Pacific Ocean , the Warrior and the Doctor continued to recline, each in her own lounge, each lost in her own thoughts, each with a drink on the table, a cigar in one hand, and her partner's free hand in the other.

Life just didn't get any better than this.

***

“So, waddaya say, amigo?” Aphrodite asked as she gently scratched him behind his ears. “Y'wanna freak ‘em out every once in a while?”

“It hardly seems fair,” Sam replied with that Bruce Willis voice, as they watched the two women through the bay window. “Humans have such a delicate little psyche, y'know? It does sound fun, though.” He looked up at her. “ But ...”

The blonde goddess looked down at him. “But what?”

“Let's give ‘em a little bit of a break first, okay?” He returned his gaze to his two humans; his friends, his benefactors, his companions... He was their guardian; their defender, and their protector. He was their first line of defense against anyone of ill-will approaching their home. They were his responsibility, and he was determined to look after them to the best of his ability. After all, that's what friends are for; especially the canine ones. In spite of their widely divergent differences in breed, size, strength and stature, there was one thing that all dogs had in common: they all had the heart of a lion, and they thought nothing of it. Quite simply, it was just who they were.

But that didn't mean he wouldn't have a little fun with them every now and then. Just to keep them alert, and on their toes. “I think they deserve a little break.”

The playful and effervescent Goddess of Love thought it over for a moment or two. “Okay,” she conceded at last. “Besides, I have it on good authority that the three of you are going to be together for a long, long time–hey, I'm a friggin' goddess , I know these things!–so we've got plenty of time to make plans...”

Sam smiled at this bit of good news as he panted softly, and merrily wagged his tail.

The End

 

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