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.



Disclaimer #2: The following story contains adult language.



Forced to face the possibility of early retirement, Colonel Gina Ryan, USMC, and Captain Gabriella Duncan, MD, USN, try desperately to fit in with the rest of their new community. The question is, will an ass-kicking warrior and a mouthy Navy doctor find acceptance?





"The New Adventures of XENA: Warrior Princess"

"Welcome To The Neighborhood"

by Ernie Whiting

erniewhiting@centurylink.net

1. Hangin'

"Did you know," said Gabriella Duncan, with her light and velvety east-Texas drawl, "that the blue whale produces more than four hundred gallons of sperm when it ejaculates, but only somethin' like ten percent of that wad ever makes it into its mate?" Dressed in faded blue jeans, dark-brown cowboy boots and an urban camouflage T-shirt--and now sporting a recent haircut that left her golden tresses collar-length in back, mid-ear length on the sides, and with shimmering bangs sweeping across her brow--she was sitting cross-legged on a bale of hay, with her fingers laced together and her hands resting in her lap, as she watched her friend with attentive, blue-green eyes.

Smiling uncertainly, Gina Ryan replied, "I'll be sure to make a mental note of that." Dressed in her own faded blue jeans, a black Harley Davidson T-shirt that had seen better days, and black Western boots, and with her long, black hair tied back into a single braid while her bangs brushed across her own brow, she was crouching next to her motorcycle. "Did the Navy teach you that fun fact in med school or boot camp?" The ratchet in her hand sounded like a big steel cricket on speed as she continued to rapidly tighten down a spark plug.

"So that means," Brie went on, undaunted, "that about three hundred and sixty gallons are spilled into the ocean every time a whale unloads."

It was a cool afternoon, with Halloween still about a week away, and with a few high, gauzy clouds that gently rippled across the blue skies over the Sierra Nevada mountains. A gentle yet chilling eastern breeze came down from the higher mountains, and occasionally hissed its way through the lush, green foothill forest, which served as a backdrop for the antique barn that stood maybe a hundred feet from the Victorian house. Between the two buildings were the remains of an ample garden, which were surrounded by a rough, wooden fence and which had been partially harvested. The tomatoes, green beans, zucchini, eggplant and bell peppers were gone; now all that remained were a straw scarecrow dressed in old bib overalls, a checked, long-sleeved shirt and a battered and sweat-stained, jungle camouflage military fatigue cap and sunglasses, a scattering of hay bales, several rows of tall, drying corn stalks whose leaves rustled and whispered in the wind at night with ghostly voices, and the large, ripening pumpkins that sat in neat rows and which awaited the crowds of children who would soon come to claim their bounty.

She finally pulled her attention away from her bike as she slipped the black, rubber-insulated lead on top of the spark plug, and regarded her with mildly curious and expectant sapphire eyes. "And your point is...?"

Brie smiled at her with that sweet and familiar Gabrielle Smile as she replied, "Now you know why ocean water tastes so salty."

"Oh, God." Ryan twisted her face in outright revulsion. "Jesus! Yuck! Thank you!" she groaned sarcastically. "Thank you so very much for sharing that!" She shook her head in disgust...and then couldn't help grinning sardonically as she returned her attention to her Harley. Leave it to her sweet and innocent-looking soul mate to come up with something as repulsive as that. "I may never go swimming in the ocean again!"

Brie smiled wryly with her. "Hey, there's worse stuff than whale cum floatin' around out there; try to remember that the next time you're divin' off the coast of San Diego with your trainees. You have any idea of how much a blue whale shits?"

Gina was suddenly quite certain--and very much afraid--that Brie had the numbers on this, too, and was about to relate them to her. Never before had she thought of the world's oceans as one great big aquatic toilet. "That does it," she said decisively, "I'm sellin' my scuba gear."

"That isn't your scuba gear to sell, darlin', it's the Navy's," Brie said. "Remember? You stole it from them."

She looked thoughtful for a moment or two as she cast her memory back. "I didn't steal it," she finally said, mildly defensively, "I just...kinda borrowed it."

"Yeah, right," she drawled skeptically. "And forgot to return it for how long now?"

Now she smiled a little self-consciously, then shrugged one shoulder slightly, and said nothing as she began wiping off dust and grease from the motorcycle with a scrap of an old white T-shirt.

"Oh, speakin' of which--how're things goin' with the BUD/S class of oh-five?"

"Doing good," Ryan replied, relieved that the subject had been changed as she began polishing the handlebars. "I've got the best damned teaching staff in the entire Armed Forces. Every once in a while I'll go out in the field and try to tweak 'em a little, but I don't think they like my kibitzing; I've been told that they appreciate my input, but would I please get the hell out of their way and let them do their job."

Brie arched a mildly amused, surprised and questioning eyebrow. "You let your instructors get away with that kind of insubordinate horse shit?"

"Aw, it's my own fault," Gina acknowledged as she continued to wipe down the bike. "After all, I chose 'em, didn't I? But they're not being insubordinate; they're just confident that they know what they're doing. They're a lot like me, if you think about it. And I wouldn't have anyone in my command who doesn't exhibit that kind of confidence. Besides," she added a moment later, "didn't you once say something similar to a Navy captain a few years ago? When you were treating a Marine who got shot trying to prevent a bank robbery?"

Brie looked thoughtful for a moment as she remembered that day, and then slowly grinned. She'd quite forgotten about that. Of course, that had been during a medical emergency, and she had been under just a wee bit of stress. . .

"It's just that..." She stopped with her activities, and looked at Brie. "The manual's done. It's been reviewed by the Department of the Navy, and it has been formally adopted and implemented. Everything I know is now being taught by fully qualified personnel. Navy SEALs and Force Recon Marines are using it, Army Delta is using it, Air Force spec war is using it...Hell, even the British SAS is using it now. There really isn't a hell of a lot for me to do around there anymore, except to put on my eagles and wander around, and try to look important. And I guess to maybe provide a little encouragement every now and then. Sometimes it makes me feel a little..." She paused for a moment as she searched for the right words. "...cast aside, y'know? They really don't need me anymore."

"I know how you feel," Brie said. "You should see my hospital staff. Those kids..." She sighed ambivalently, and shook her head. "They're more than I could have ever hoped for. They know their jobs, and they excel at them. On the other hand, I feel like an old Studebaker on a freeway full of Mustangs. I can't even finish askin' anyone a question without them givin' me the answer and handin' me the file. I swear to God, they're all fuckin' psychic or something." She snorted softly. "That place runs so smoothly, all I do is hang out and say 'Hey, hi! How are ya?', review the day's business, write up some personnel files, and then send my reports along to DC. I know I should be glad that things run so easily, and I really am; but it leaves me with so very little else to do. If I try to actively take part in anything around there--and especially if I try to get into an OR--I feel like I'm just gettin' in the way." One Friday afternoon last August had been a perfect example. Out of sheer desperation to alleviate her boredom, and quietly commanding in her non-dress Navy whites, Captain Duncan had mentioned to her yeoman, Petty Officer Second Class Rebecca Cates, "Well Jesus, Cates, there's gotta be somethin' I can do around here!"

"Well, ma'am, there's--" Cates had begun, but had abruptly stopped herself as a massive stone of impending terror suddenly plunged into the pit of her stomach. What the hell am I thinking? she had quietly asked herself.

Rocking backward and forward on her heels and toes, and smiling pleasantly with her hands clasped behind her back, Captain Duncan watched her expectantly. "There's what?"

"Nothing, ma'am."

With a sudden and mild curiosity that was piqued by her assistant's rather quick response, she gave her a nod of reassurance. "No, go ahead."

"Well, ma'am...um...uh..." She really hadn't wanted to answer; what she really wanted to do at that moment was to just fall right through the floor and disappear forever as her terror mounted.

"Well c'mon, Cates," Duncan had said encouragingly, "spit it out."

"Well, ma'am...the...uhh...coffee maker's... ...empty." She cringed inwardly in anticipation of what was about to come.

Captain Gabriella Duncan--the irascible Navy doctor, Chief of Trauma Surgery and Supervising Administrator of the North Island Naval Air Station hospital, the one-time Battling Bard of Poteidaia, Amazon Queen, and second in a long and illustrious line of Warrior Princesses--abruptly froze in mid-rock. Her expression was completely blank, at first, with no change whatsoever in her posture. There was no shifting of her stance, no tensing of her overall bearing...it was all reflected in her blue-green eyes that quickly expanded into a threatening glare that could have frozen Hell itself, several times over. She was utterly silent for several long and agonizing moments (agonizing for Cates, that is, who had snapped to attention--quite pointlessly, one might add--as she found herself standing without an umbrella before a rapidly approaching category five shit storm) as she searched for just the right words with which to chew her yeoman a new one. Surprisingly, nothing really adequate came to mind. She was a writer, after all; a bard, a wordsmith...she ought to have been able to come up with something! But thanks to stunning disbelief and astonishment at the idea of... Well, there was just nothing there.

With her hands still behind her back, she tilted her face upward and brought it to within an inch of Cates's. With a cold, green, deadly fire in her eyes and a tensing of her jaw, and with the deep and sudden rumbling in her chest of a 600 pound Bengal tiger, she finally snarled, "You have two choices, Cates. You can either start scrubbing every head in this building with your own personal toothbrush, or you can go find something to do on your own. Don't waste a lot of time thinkin' 'er over."

"Aye aye, ma'am!" One could almost have smelled the scorched rubber as she took off.

She regarded her with a little smile that was tinged with a bit of sadness. "It's not like the old days in Greece, is it?" Xena asked.

"You got that right," Gabrielle replied. "Things may have been tougher then, but they sure were simpler times."

They were both silent for a few long moments, each lost in her own thoughts. It was hard, sometimes, to keep comparing those days to the early 21st century. Sometimes they longed for those simpler days, while at other times they were horrified by them. But then, they also felt the same about the right here and now. Frequently, they both found themselves wishing that those memories of the old days would stop intruding on their present lives, once and for all. It was hard enough to cope with just one life, let alone two.

"We need to look at the bright side," Gina said at last. "We get more down time, and we're still getting paid the same."

Brie looked thoughtful. "True," she said at last, with a tiny smile that quickly faded. "But I still feel...unneeded, y'know? It's like our time is over."

Gina winced slightly in sympathy. She knew precisely how the bard felt, because she frequently felt it, too. "Yeah. We're a couple of old warriors whose time has come and gone...again."

"Passin' the torch on to the next generation seemed like a pretty good idea at the time, y'know? But now..." The doctor sighed heavily. "They're a damned fine crew, they really are. They know what to do, and they know how to do it. Most of what I do now is through FAX, phone and email. I feel like I'm bein' put out to pasture."

"Think of the money, babe," she said with a sympathetic little smile as she buffed a fingerprint from the Harley's gas tank. "Just think of the money, and the free time. And we're still relatively young enough to really enjoy it."

"'Relatively' young enough?" Brie asked, with wide, incredulous eyes. "Relatively? Have you looked in a mirror lately? You're only thirty-seven, Gina! Thirty-seven, and a full bird colonel."

"Yeah, I know. But I'm not twenty-seven. Y'know what I mean?"

"Y'ain't forty-seven, either, darlin', so quitcher complainin'. And when it comes to competin' with your staff and students out in the field, you still kick everyone's ass--so I think y'all can put off buyin' that rockin' chair for at least another year."

Gina chuckled softly, and then smiled affectionately at her. "And look at you," she said, softly and fondly. "Thirty-four, and a Navy captain--and in command of the base hospital in San Diego. Now that's an accomplishment."

Brie smiled shyly at the compliment, and then decided that a change of subject was in order. "At least all this spare time will give us a chance to settle into the neighborhood, and to really prep this place for Halloween." She enjoyed this delightfully spooky holiday because it brought out the kid in everyone--including the recon force Marine. The more time they had spent together, the more they had realized that they had both picked up a few new idiosyncracies; so after having moved from their San Francisco condo to this Victorian house in the Sierra foothills, it had become such an absolute joy to watch the Marine planting corn and pumpkins, with the intention of gleefully giving away both to smiling and eager young children in the spirit of the holiday. Not only did Ryan feel like a big kid this time of year, but she had also revealed an unmistakable soft spot in her heart for children that she had seldom--if ever--exhibited back in ancient Greece.

"That body with the noose around its neck and hanging from that oak tree by the front porch is a nice touch," she added.

"Yeah, I kinda thought so, too," Gina agreed. Of course, the "body" that they were discussing was a life-sized and very realistic-looking rag doll, dressed in old rubber boots, battered jeans, an old, white shirt with long sleeves, gardener's gloves, and a mannequin's head. "I'm also thinking about doing a second annual reading of Edgar Allen Poe."

"I'm not so sure that's such a good idea," Brie said uneasily. "Remember what happened last year?"

They'd thrown a Halloween party in their San Francisco condominium last year. With Brie dressed and professionally made up as a decaying zombie from a George Romero film and Gina as a vampire, with a flowing black gown, a long black wig, deathly pale face, blood-red lips, sharp fangs and red contact lenses, the Marine thought it would be a good idea to do a reading of Poe's "Tell-Tale Heart"--complete with props and sound effects. As the small crowd sat with just a single oil lamp for light by which to read, the story had progressed; and as her demeanor had become more intense as the heartbeat playing over the stereo somewhere in the darkness behind them grew louder and louder, at the climax of the story she had pulled from a reinforced shoe box the very heart itself!--a round chunk of raw pot roast, drenched with ketchup that dripped and oozed through her fingers as she made the thing pulsate in her hands. With piercing shrieks of terrified glee, most of the kids thought it was great, but...

"That one poor little guy was reduced to tears," Brie finished at last, "and you had to sit with him the rest of the night, tryin' to convince him it was just a story. He might still be sleepin' with a night-light."

With a bubbly laugh, Gina explained, "Nah, kid's are tough... Besides, you were standing by and ready to give him a shot of Valium, weren't you?"

Brie chuckled with her. "Hell, I was standin' by and ready to give 'im a couple of shots of ol' Jack Daniels." She sighed, shook her head, and chuckled again. "I'll bet he's emotionally scarred for life...poor li'l goober...."

She finally straightened to her full height of six feet--the solid heels of her boots added an extra inch and a half--and tossed the rag away, and reached for the handlebars as she swung a leg across to straddle the bike. Settling comfortably on the padded seat, she pressed a button with her thumb, and the electronic starter turned over for only a split second before the engine purred to life with throaty, muted thunder. She gave the throttle a couple of twists with a smile of satisfaction. "Listen to that, willya?" she said with a grin. "Music to my ears."

There is nothing quite like the sound of a Harley, Brie admitted. Like the Ford Mustang GT, there is a very distinctive sound to the engine, a certain quality, that just isn't heard in other motorcycles, such as the Triumph or the BMW, or especially those whiny little Japanese motorized bicycles. When you hear the rumble of a well-tuned and properly muffled Harley Davidson, you know you are in the presence of elegance and power.

With sparkling blue eyes and a dazzling white grin, she gunned the engine again. "What do you say, babe? Care to go for a ride?"

Brie grinned back at her. "Sure!" She leaned back on her hands, quickly uncrossed her legs, and hopped to her feet. "I'll get the helmets."

"Helmets?" Gina asked. "Helmets?" she repeated. And then she affected a thick Spanish accent. "We don't need no stinkin' helmets. Besides, we're not going that far."

"Better wear a helmet and protect the ol' brain pan."

"I don't want to wear a helmet. Helmets fuck up my hair."

Brie couldn't help smiling at the idea of the former Warrior Princess and Recon Force Marine now being worried about, of all things, the appearance of her hair. "Yeah, well, smearin' your brains along a hundred yards of asphalt will fuck up your hair, too," the Texan drawled at last. "Besides, this is California, remember? Land of the health and safety Nazis? You don't wear a helmet, you're gonna get a ticket for sure."

Gina turned to face her full on, and then smiled her cool, dark and dangerous smile. Gunning the rumbling and throaty engine of her sleek, powerful, and gleaming black-and-chrome Harley Davidson with another twist of her wrist, the Warrior Princess said, "They wouldn't dare give me a ticket."

***

She slammed the front door to their house shut with enough force to rattle the walls and windows. "I don't believe I got a fuckin' ticket," growled the Warrior Princess. "Goddamn sonofabitch motherfucker..."

"Gina," Brie said, "I tried to warn you--"

She whirled around abruptly, and impaled her with a cold, dark and dangerous version of The Look--pretty much the same Look that Captain Duncan had given Cates that August day.

Brie raised her open hands to chest level in concession as she took a step back. "Okay," she said, "all right..." She didn't really need to say anything further anyway; she'd made her point.

"Did you hear what that sarcastic son of a bitch said when I told him we were new to the neighborhood? When he saw my Marine Corps ID?" Ryan complained. "You see that shit-eating grin of his when he handed me that ticket? 'Welcome to the neighborhood, fuckin' jarhead.' I'll be he's a fuckin' ex-Army pussy."

"I'll tell you what," Brie said as she gave her friend's shoulders a little massage, in an effort to get her to relax. "After we do that radio thing this afternoon, I'll take you out to dinner, and make you feel all better, okay? I hear there's this new place in town..."



2. Radio Daze

The whole point of appearing as guests on "Waldo Redwood's Live!" radio show had been to introduce themselves to the community which they hoped very much to join. So far, about the only people with whom they had become familiar were Katie and Jaime, and they really wanted to expand their circle of friends. Had they known more about Waldo Redwood's show and his political leanings, they would probably have passed and tried a different course. Initially expecting thirty minutes of pleasant conversation and a free exchange of ideas, including a short discussion of their military careers, it quickly became evident to them that old Waldo Redwood was a screaming Leftist who had decided that he wanted to go on the attack; to go after these two "militaristic, right-wing conservatives," as he called them, who were overrunning his town; and it was up to him as an activist for Truth and Democracy to inform them in no uncertain terms that the People's civil rights and the First Amendment reigned supreme on his show and throughout the land. ("How many women and children did you kill while you were on your tour of duty, war pig?" he'd snidely asked the Marine, and her first thought was of Kaffir; and then she thought of the millions more she had saved because of what she had done in Kaffir.) After his attacking them both professionally and then personally, and then after becoming even more vehement in his absolute, unquestioning defense of his rights and the People's rights (while denigrating and then denying them theirs when they had tried to respond to his charges by screaming into his microphone, "It's my show, my rules, my station, my airwaves, my free speech! Free speech! Free speech! FREE SPEECH!!" "HEY! IF IT WASN'T FOR WARRIORS LIKE US, YOU WOULDN'T HAVE YOUR GODDAMN FREE SPEECH!" Gina had screamed as she finally lost control), the Marine had decided that she'd had enough of his hypocrisy. She had lunged across the console between them in what Redwood thought was an effort to either shut him up or kill him; instead, she had put The Pinch on him so she could get a word in edgewise. Leaning on the console with both hands, she finally stated her case with irrefutable eloquence and soundness, and with complete disregard for the open mike as he stared at her with a reddening face, wide, terrified eyes, and a bleeding nose.

"I'm only going to say this once, you leaky sphincter, so I suggest you pay close attention," she had told him quietly, yet no less emphatically. "War is a filthy fucking business that I absolutely hate with a blinding passion that only another combat veteran can ever understand." And here she drew her face nearer to his, their noses almost touching, as she continued to softly and dangerously growl at him as she seized the front of his shirt in one tight, iron-like fist. "But you know what? Anytime someone attacks my family and friends, or my country...my community...my home--and especially my country's children, as al-Qaeda did on nine-eleven and the Persians tried to do to Athens two thousand years ago..." Sudden memories of an invading swarm of Persian soldiers and a critically wounded and dying Gabrielle, lying on a litter of animal skins, swirled through her mind. Without realizing it, she clenched her teeth as the one-time Destroyer of Nations continued to growl, "...you bet your God damned ass I will gear up for war! I will lock and load, and I will hunt the motherfuckers down...and I will fucking annihilate them." She had held his shirt front in her vice-like grip for a moment longer as her sapphire eyes burned into his brown orbs, to make absolutely certain that her message had sunk in. And then, contemptuously, she had shoved him back into his comfortable padded chair and sent him rolling on squeaking casters across the room into a distant corner before leaving the studio.

Gasping for air and snuffling blood, he had heard their muffled voices arguing through the closed door of the broadcast studio; and then, a moment later, the Marine had stepped back inside. With the door left open behind her, he could see the blonde Navy doctor framed in the doorway, scowling at her with her arms folded across her chest. He watched in helpless, ever rising terror as Ryan swiftly approached him with disgust in her eyes and determination in her stride, and with the speed of a striking cobra she lashed out at him with both hands to release her pinch. She then turned abruptly and contemptuously as he took a deep and desperate breath, and with stormy eyes she faced the doctor with a look that plainly said, "You happy now?"

Scowling back at her, the doctor had responded with a single nod.

Now, as they headed for the front door, the voice of the studio engineer, Leonardo Antanucci, hailed them from behind. "Ladies! Excuse me, ladies? Can you hang on a second?"

They stopped, turned, and regarded him with a visible chill. Not that he could really blame them, after the treatment they'd received from the show's host.

"Listen, guys, I want to apologize for that asshole back there," he said. "This guy's been treating people like crap for years. Every time he gets someone on the air, he tries to ream them and then cut them off--you two are about the only people I can remember who ever stood up to him. And for that, I want to thank you."

After getting over their initial surprise, Gina asked, "How does he get away with shit like that?"

"I don't know how he did it before, but he's not doing it anymore," Leonardo replied, "'cause the rest of the station and I have had it with him--today just turned out to be his last day. So is there any way I can convince you to come back?"

"Not a chance in hell," Gina replied as she started once more for the door.

He dashed around frantically to block their way. "You sure?" Leonardo asked, almost pleading. "He's in the can right now, waiting for someone to bring him a clean pair of pants. When he comes out, he's gone. He's history. And the phones in there are lighting up like a Christmas tree, and I can't handle it all." He looked from one to the other, with ever-growing desperation. "C'mon, man, what do you say? I'm beggin' you here."

Willing to chance it again, Brie glanced at her partner. "Y'all think you can control your mouth, Marine?" she asked.

Gina glared at her in astonishment. "Can I control my m-- Look who the hell's talkin', Ms. Potty Mouth Squid!"

Unperturbed, Brie said, "Look. You said you wanted to introduce yourself to the community, didn't you?"

"Yeah, I think we just did that!" the Marine snapped, towering over her with her hands on her hips. "And we're gonna be about as popular in this neighborhood as gonorrhea!"

"We will have a chance to correct the record..."

Still towering over her, and still filled with wrath, Gina watched her unruffled partner for a long moment. Brie really did want to do this; and Gina always had a tough time saying no to her. It was the look in those blue-green eyes that always got to her, that combination of innocence and pleading... The puppy dog look, she called it. Actually, it was more of a borderline puppy-dog look, where Gina couldn't quite tell if she was being played or not. Brie always did this to her, and the Marine never quite knew if her soul mate was being sincere or just yanking her chain. Either way, it always worked. It was the expression in her eyes--just the right amount of innocence, without overplaying it--and the way her golden bangs swept across her brow, and the way the sun shined on her hair, that faint little hint of a hopeful smile at one corner of her mouth, and that absolutely cute little freckle...

No. She would not be swayed. No, the Marine thought, no way. Huh-uh, it isn't going to work this time. Not a chance. It ain't gonna happen. I am not backing down, so you can just forget about giving me that "Little Miss Innocent Lost Puppy" look!

She continued to lean over her, with her hands still on her hips, and frowned at her some more. And then she sighed heavily. "I don't imagine we can do much worse," she said as she caved in once again, and allowed her soul mate to drag her back inside.

A tire commercial was just coming to an end as they settled behind their microphones once more. Leonardo reached over, and flipped a switch to bring the mikes back on-line. "We are back with our guests," he said. "I'm Leonardo Antanucci, sitting in for Waldo Redwood, and we are trying to clean up the carnage of the previous exchange."

"First of all, I'd like to apologize to the listeners for that outburst," Gina said. "At least, to whatever few listeners we may have left. It was completely uncalled for, and I have no excuse. As a Marine, I should have exercised more self control and discipline than that; I didn't, and I apologize."

"Do you feel up to taking a phone call or two?" Leonardo asked.

"Do I get a blindfold and a cigarette first?" Brie countered.

Leonardo punched a key on his computer's keyboard. "Ken, on line three, what's up?"

"Hi, hi, hi.... My name's Ken...nen...nen..."

"Hi, Ken...nen...nen...," Gina said.

"How y'all doin', Ken...nen...nen..?" Brie said.

"Uhh...fine...nine...nine..."

"Ken, can you turn down your radio, please...ease...ease?" Leonardo asked.

"Huh...uh...uh..? Oh, yeah...ah...ah..." There were some noises in the background for a moment, and then he was back. "Listen, I'm glad you guys let loose on Waldo, man; that guy was getting to be a pain. It was always the same old stuff with him..."

And so the phone calls went. Some were negative, most were positive, some were ambivalent. "Where's Waldo?" asked one caller; another said, "I'm really glad that commie bastard is gone..." "Here's another fine example of the right-wing, military industrial complex taking over the media..." "Waldo's a jerk! Screw 'im!" "You guys are a breath of fresh air!" "You guys rock, man!" "You suck!" "I think all you conservatives are sick and disgusting..."

"Sick and disgusting! Our original air names!" Gina said with a laugh. "I'm Sick, she's Disgusting..."

"No, it's your turn to be disgusting," Brie said with a grin.

"No--you're the one who's disgusting. Remember the whale stats?"

She looked thoughtful. "Oh yeah..." she said distantly.

They took a call from someone who was interested in their sexuality, for some odd reason. "I mean, are you guys, like, lesbians, or are you, like, bi, or what?"

The two women regarded each other with puzzled expressions for several long and silent moments. "I haven't the faintest idea," Brie said at last. "So what about it, Ryan? Are you? Y'all been keepin' secrets from me? Huh? Huh? C'mon, man, spill your guts--America needs to know!"

"We're soul mates," Gina told the caller. "Make of it what you will."

"Oh... So, are you guys, like, into the Indigo Girls, 'r wutt?"

Gina silently reacted as though she had just been shown a picture of a maniacally grinning circus clown with an abscessed eye, complete with pea-soup green pus streaked with threads of tomato red that oozed toward one upturned corner of his garishly painted mouth.

Barely controlling herself, Brie replied, "I'm not really interested in them. What about you, Gina? You like the Indigo Girls?"

"Hell no."

"But I thought all you guys liked the Indigo Girls," the caller said, almost crestfallen.

Gina shrugged slightly. "Sorry to disappoint, man. I like Melissa Etheridge; does that make you happy?"

The caller's voice brightened. "Oh, yeah!"

"I like Sade," Brie said.

"But she's not...y'know..."

"I like Grace Slick," Gina said.

"Who?" asked the caller.

"And then there's Shania Twain, and Faith Hill..."

"But they're definitely not--" the caller began.

Gina and Brie looked at each other, and with almost girlish screams like two teenagers at a rock concert, they chorused, "PAAAT BENATAAARRR!!"

"If you really want to rock your house down," Gina said, "get a copy of her CD..." She snapped her fingers a couple of times as she tried to remember the name. "'True Love.' It's an older disc, so it might be hard to find. It's like rock and jazz, and big band and blues, all rolled together. Imagine a jam session in this smoke-filled nightclub, with Pat Benatar, B.B. King, and the Blues Brothers' band. That's gotta be just about my all-time favorite disc."

"Did you know she originally trained in opera?" Brie asked.

"Yes, I did. That's how she gets all that power and volume out of being such a little bitty critter."

Leonardo punched another button on his console. "Line two, you're on the air."

"God hates homosexuals!" he screamed. "God hates--"

Brie and Gina looked at each other, and shrugged without comment. And then the latter asked, "Which god?"

The caller was silent for a moment. "What?" he finally asked.

"Which 'god' are you talking about?" Gina asked again. "Are you talking about the god of Christianity, or of Islam, or of Buddhism, or--"

"The one and only true God," the caller replied. "Mine."

Gina snorted in mild contempt. "'Nuff said."

Next, they took a call from someone who was interested in the most efficient form of hand-to-hand combat.

"They teach a lot of different forms in the Corps," Ryan said. "Of course, it's always best not to let your enemy get that close; personally, I prefer to pick 'em off with my rifle from a hundred yards out. But if you don't have a firearm or haven't got that kind of physical training, and when it can't be avoided, as in a street-fight situation...well, there's always the good old kick to the nards, and then run like hell."

"Shattering the shins is good, too," Brie added. "Especially if you're wearin' steel-toed work boots. Y'all can't carry a weapon in this state unless you're one of the bad guys, 'cause the bad guys don't care about the law--but there's no laws against steel-toed work boots. At least, not yet."

"And then there's eye-gouging," Ryan threw in just for fun.

"And hair-pulling!" Brie said with a laugh. "Hair-pullin' and scratchin' their eyes out! All those fine forms of unarmed combat perfected by the Corps!"

Gina gave her a sharp look. "Hey, bite me, squid!"

Brie waved her off with a dismissive grin. "Ahh, you're a hair-pullin' jarhead..."

Another call. "Hi, who's this?"

"This here's Gunnery Sergeant William Boone, originally of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force out of Camp Pendleton, California, oo-rah!"

"Oo-rah!" Gina replied with a big grin. "How the hell are you, Gunnery Sergeant?"

"Right fine, Colonel," he replied. "And I want the both of you to know that right now I am standing at attention in my living room, and saluting you both."

The Colonel and the Captain both laughed. "Yeah, I'll bet!" "Bullshit, Gunny!"

Leonardo cringed. Great, he thought with a silent groan, there goes our FCC license.

"You sound a little familiar there, Gunny," Brie said. "Have we met before?"

"Yes ma'am, we sure did," he replied. "You took a bullet out of me a couple or so years ago. We met at the First National Bank down in San Diego."

"Oh, my God!" Brie said with wide, green eyes as she suddenly remembered. "Gina, this is the guy we were talkin' about earlier!" She turned back to her mike. "How the hell are you, son?"

"Still walkin' and talkin', and full of piss, thanks to you, Doc," he said with an obvious grin in his voice.

"So what are you doin' with yourself these days?"

"Hangin' out up here in norCal," Boone replied. "I'm due to rotate out in about another two months; after that, I'll be a free man. I couldn't believe it when I heard you on the radio. I've been listening to that Redwood jerk off and on, just waiting for the day when someone would dump him on his soft and comfy ass. Sounds like that day has finally arrived."

"What are you gonna do with all your free time?" Gina asked.

"After sobering up from my discharge party, I'm gonna explore some other possibilities," Boone replied. "I'm thinking about starting my own private security firm. And I've got family up in these parts; I expect I'll help 'em out a bit, fix up their house... My dad just died about six months ago, and my mom's in need of some help around here, so I'm gonna be around for a while."

"Gunny, we're both sorry about your dad. And I'm gonna give you our address and phone number off the air," Gina said. "If you need anything at all, please call us."

There was a moment or two of dead air before Boone said, "Semper Fi, Colonel."

"Oo-rah."

Another call. "Hi. Yeah, my name's Stella, and I got a question."

"G'head, Stella," Gina said.

"I was wondering, like, how you guys are...are military and all, and...and, um... How do you guys feel about gun control?"

"All in favor of it!" said the Marine.

"Same here!" said the sailor. She looked at Gina. "I find that a two-handed grip gives me the best control..."

"Oh, yeah, always," Gina agreed. "Especially since you have smaller hands than I do. I worry about you firing off my Beretta at times; but you've gotten really, really good with that Glock 19 of yours."

"Well, it's that smaller, polymer frame," Brie said. "It's light, and easy to grip."

"Uuuhh, no, man," said the caller. "I mean, like, how do you feel about gun control?"

"Didn't we just answer that?" Brie asked with feigned puzzlement.

"I think what the caller means," Gina said, "is how do we feel about the current laws and the suggested laws that pertain to the ownership and use of firearms. Yeah?"

"Umm...yeah, man..." said the caller.

Gina sighed. "With all kidding aside, I'd have to say that I'm extremely ambivalent. I mean, people have a basic human right to self-defense. Wouldn't you agree, Stella?"

"Uhh...yeah, man..."

"Which means, in order to defend one's self effectively, one must have the current and most efficient means of self-defense. Correct?"

"Yeah..."

"Brie and I both have concealed-carry permits; since we're both active military personnel, I guess even California's timid little Attorney General trusts us. As a private citizen, personally, I'd have to say that on the one hand I oppose further gun control laws that stop honest people from obtaining the means of self-defense. I think they should have the same rights and abilities--and responsibilities--that we have, whether they're at home or away from home."

"And for the most part, I would agree," Brie said. "But on the flip side... And this is a major 'but...'"

"I knew a Major Butt back in boot camp," Gina muttered. "Short guy, round face, big cheeks...funny walk...""

Irritated, she gave her a backhanded swat across one shoulder. Not terribly hard, but it did get her attention quite effectively. "Shush! I'm talkin' here."

Gina shot her a quick dagger with her eyes.

To the caller, Brie said, "Writing is a hobby of mine, so I'm a bit of a people-watcher. Hell, I'm a major people-watcher, okay? So when I go driving through Sacramento, I'll see how drivers behave, and how pedestrians behave, and how bicyclists behave... I see people first-hand who will not use their turn indicator 'cause they've got their damn cell phone in one hand, their dick or a sandwich in the other, and they're steerin' with their knee. I'll see bike riders cuttin' people off without botherin' to look around and see if there's a car comin', or ridin' on the sidewalk across the Tower Bridge and sayin' 'Excuse me! Excuse me! Comin' through!' and damn near runnin' people down because they're deathly afraid of soiling the bottoms of their shoes, and they don't dare get off the damn bike to walk it across like they're legally supposed to! I'll see pedestrians crossin' against the light and not givin' a damn, and no doubt tellin' themselves how they've got the right-of-way no matter what 'cause they're on foot--even when they know deep down inside that they're in the wrong. They just don't care. And then they go screamin' epithets at the innocent drivers who nearly hit 'em; and I'm talkin' a level of profanity that makes even me blush, alright? Gina can tell you that I am not unfamiliar with turnin' a colorful phrase every now and then--"

"Every now and then??" Gina said incredulously, her blue eyes wide as she glared at her partner in disbelief. "Are you kidding me?" To the caller, she said, "You ought to hear her at home! God, she's non-st--"

Sharply waving her off and motioning for silence, Brie continued: "--and some of the stuff I hear out there is truly original, and unbelievably detailed. And shrill. So I have to ask myself: Do I really want those short-tempered, self-centered dingbats and howlin' lunatics to own firearms? Hell, I don't want 'em to have cars, for God's sake! I don't want 'em to have bikes, I don't want 'em to have shoes, and I especially don't want 'em to have kids!"

"I am convinced," Gina said, "that if people really want to own a firearm, what they ought to do is a three-year stint in the armed forces. You want a gun? Earn it. Get professional training by joining the Corps, or the Navy, or the Coast Guard, or even the Air Force, or even--may God forgive me--those weenie Army pogues. Three years active duty, and three years reserves.

"Let me sum up my own view on the matter this way," the Warrior Princess said in closing. "You'll get my sword and my chakram when you can pry them from my cold, dead fingers."



3. In the Restaurant

"I still think you should have let me leave that pinch on him," Gina said dispassionately as she expertly twirled her spaghetti around the end of her fork.

"I could have been a little tempted myself," Brie told her as she dug into her own dinner, "but it wouldn't have been right."

"Yeah, I know," Ryan conceded. "But still..." She smiled at the thought. "Maybe I should have just shot the fucker."

She sighed heavily. "Gina, you wouldn't have solved anything by killing him."

"I didn't say I wanted to kill him, I just want to shoot him."

She smiled slightly, in spite of herself. "I think the Catholic Church would have kinda frowned on that, too. I mean, now that you've become a member in good standing and all..." She focused on her more intently. "And come to think of it, I'm still not entirely sure of why you went back."

"'Cause I'm a Catholic at heart, and my family is Catholic," Gina replied with a slight shrug. "Although I guess I'm more of a backslided Catholic. I hadn't been to church in years, even though I've always liked the sense of ritual, the candles and the incense... I've always believed in the Church." Then she put her fork down on her plate, and rested her forearms before her on the table as she gazed into Brie's eyes. "And then we met. Suddenly, I was flooded with all these memories of you and me, and of Greece, and...and it was like having the rug yanked out from under me. I've never met God or Jesus, or Satan, yet I had accepted it all on faith alone--but now I realize I have met the Greek gods, face to face. And now, with who we used to be always intruding on who we are now, and with Ares and Aphrodite popping in every now and then, I don't know what the hell to think." She sighed. "Maybe I'm doing it in an effort to get Ares the fuck out of our lives once and for all. Maybe it's because the idea of a real god of war being out there scares the hell out of me, and just kinda pushes me more the other way. But most of all..." She paused for a moment as her gaze intensified. "Most of all...it just gives me a sense of peace."

Brie smiled at her. "I reckon that alone is a good enough reason," she drawled. As a deist, she had always been convinced through reason alone that there was a Creator, or at least a creative force, whose existence was proved to her satisfaction by the physical evidence of all of creation. "I know I exist, and I know that all I perceive exists, whether it's physical or abstract," Brie had once said as she explained her position, "and I know something caused it all to exist." And as a medical doctor and a biologist, she could see how it worked. ("If y'all want to know about miracles, forget about those stories of the parting of the Red Sea--go read a simple book on botany, or check out the night sky with a telescope, or even just look into a mirror, fer chrissakes," she had once told a pair of Jehovah's Witnesses who had been standing out on the front porch one day.) And as a romantic, she could see its benevolence and its occasional malevolence--in other words, its balance--and that had always been good enough for her. One of her favorite books was Thomas Paine's "Age of Reason." However, she had absolutely no interest in joining any of the world's organized religions (much to the dismay of her family, who were all Baptists, to varying degrees). After having read the Bible and the Koran, she rejected them both as hypocritical and self-contradictory fiction and hearsay, written by those who sought power over others entirely for its own sake.

Of course, she had developed these beliefs before her memories of Greece and its ancient gods had been awakened by her reunion with Xena; and now, with the God of War and the Goddess of Love occasionally dropping in on her life unannounced, and with her memories of Zeus and Hera, and Hades and Poseidon, she, too, found herself reexamining her own beliefs. Life had been considerably simpler when she had been blissfully ignorant of her previous life in Greece; now she felt as though she'd had her once rock-solid foundations kicked from beneath her.

But she did continue to retain a soft spot in her own heart for her friend Aphrodite.

"And as Aphrodite mentioned," Ryan added, "it's also one of her temples--and I like Aphrodite. But the biggest driving force behind my decision..."

Brie watched her and waited expectantly.

"...was the fact that Mom keeps giving me shit about not going to church," she concluded with a visible shudder. "I think I'd rather crawl naked across a hundred miles of broken glass in the middle of a scorching Iraqi desert in midsummer than listen to that every week."

"Hoo-yah," Brie said empathetically. She'd had her own battles with her own mother about that. Then she grinned. "I like the way you wrangled your way through your Confirmation, though," she said. "That was creative."

Gina grinned, too. When her priest, Father Michael O'Roarke, had stood before the group of perhaps a dozen kids and teenagers who were seeking Confirmation (Gina was not only the tallest person walking down the central aisle toward the altar, but also the oldest, and she had been keenly aware of how many pairs of eyes had been on her) and asked if they renounced Satan, all of his earthly works, and his empty promises, she had to think it over for a moment or two before responding. She wanted to give an honest answer, but the plain fact of the matter was that she no longer believed in Satan. But on further reflection, there was someone else who fit the bill closely enough--namely, Ares. And then she had thought, Naw, he's really not that bad of a guy, once you really got to know him. She couldn't help smiling when she remembered the day she and Gabrielle had managed to hide him at her grandparents abandoned and dilapidated house, when he had lost his powers and a band of thugs had been looking to kill him. Upon further thought, the only deity she'd ever met that really came close to the idea of a Satan was that putz Lucifer. Yeah, she had thought, he'll do. She'd never liked him, so it wasn't really a question of renouncing him; it was more like holding the ugly dumb fucker in supreme contempt. So she had no problem whatsoever by responding with an irrefutable "I do." She could honestly tell herself that she had not lied with her response, because if she and the Church weren't in agreement with who or what "Satan" was, well, as far as she was concerned that was the Church's fault. And then she had been asked, "Do you believe in the Holy Catholic Church ("Well, yeah," she thought; she believed in its existence--if no longer in its doctrines, because of her memories of Aphrodite and Ares, Zeus and Hades, Poseidon and Discord, and the rest... although she did want to), the communion of saints (Again, she wanted to, but could she? Her unquestionable knowledge of the Greek gods kept interfering), the resurrection of the body ("Been there, done that--a couple of times," she thought with a wry and inward smile), and in life everlasting?" ("You mean in the eternity of the immortal spirit that keeps getting reincarnated? You betcha!" she told herself. She was living proof of that.)

She could and did honestly reply "Yes" to three out of four--and that had been good enough for her. "Amen," she'd finally concluded faithfully.

But had she been asked if she accepted Christ as her savior, well, that would have been a little trickier. Having met face-to-face with gods who had been around long before this god of Christianity that had never shown itself to her in this life, she could not honestly have said yes; on the other hand, she thought, what's one more god? Should she just add him to the list? Cram him in there somewhere between Iris and Nemesis of Greece, or between Janus and Juno of Rome? Or between Indra and Kali of India? As Xena, she'd met them all; but as Gina, she'd never had a face-to-face with Jesus... Come to think of it, he was probably just a hugely embellished myth anyway, loosely based on the ancient teachings of Eli.

Aww, man, she'd thought. Too many gods, just too damned many... What a fuckin' headache.

Fortunately for Gina, she hadn't been asked.

She indicated Brie's dinner with a slight movement of her head. "So how's the chicken parmigiana?"

"It's good," Brie replied. "Almost as good as yours. And these guys have really good wine, too. You could still teach these guys a few...culinary...lessons... Gina?"

Ryan was watching a husband and wife, and their two kids, at another table not far away, and listening. "I know it's not much of a birthday present," the husband was muttering to his wife, "but--"

"Sweetheart, it's lovely. Really," the wife replied.

Gina glanced around for a moment, and spotted their waiter. As he passed by their table, she said, "Excuse me, waiter..."

He stopped, turned, and approached her table. "Ma'am?"

"Listen, I was wondering if you could do me a favor..."

"Sure."

"Y'see that family over there?"

He glanced quickly over his shoulder. "Yes ma'am."

"Could you bring me their check, please?"

He gave her a puzzled look. "Ma'am?"

"Their check," Ryan said again. "I'd like to take care of it. Don't let them know, though, okay?" she was quick to add.

He thought it over for a moment, saw no reason why not, and then grinned at her. "Yes ma'am." He started to move off.

"Oh, and can you get them something for dessert? Something big and chocolaty, with 'Happy Birthday' on it?"

His grin expanded as he became a willing co-conspirator. "Yes ma'am," he said again.

"Great. Thanks."

Brie regarded her with a twisted little smile. "You're just full of surprises, aren't you?" she asked. "That's a nice thing."

Gina waved her off. "I just want to see the looks on their faces," she said.

"Sure," Brie said, both fondly and skeptically.

Unnoticed by either of them, the waiter headed over to the maitre 'd's station near the front door. "Hey," he said to the young woman there, with the long, blonde hair. "Y'see those two over there? Those two women? The blonde and the brunette?"

She gazed across the dimly lit room. "Yeah?"

"They just paid for that family over there. Just for the hell of it."

"Really?" She glanced down at the reservation chart before her, and found their names. "Ryan and Duncan..." She thought it over for a moment, and wondered why the names sounded familiar. "Hey, those are those two women who were on the radio this morning!"

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. One of 'em is a colonel in the Marine Corps, and the other is a Navy doctor. I hear they just moved into town..."

"No kidding? Wow..."

"I also heard that they're..." She leaned forward and whispered something into his ear.

Being the proper Evangelical that he was, he suddenly frowned with disapproval. "Oh well," he said without much conviction, "to each their own, I guess."

"Actually," the blonde woman said, "she described them as 'soul mates.'" She sighed, and smiled a little. "I think that sounds kind of romantic."

"It's ungodly, if you ask me," he muttered. "And I'd rather not go back to their table."

Gina and Brie were just finishing their coffee when the blonde woman from the maitre 'd's station approached them, bearing a small dish with their credit card and a receipt. When Gina glanced at the small, flimsy voucher, the woman told them, "Ms. Ryan, Ms. Duncan, I'm Stephanie Brown, the assistant manager. I'm afraid we have a little problem here..."

Gina looked up at her, mildly apprehensive. "Oh?"

"I'm afraid your credit card isn't being accepted."

Gina and Brie glanced at each other as both their hearts began to race with mild anxiety. "It isn't? Oh, shit..." Wondering what was wrong with the card, and in a mild panic, they both reached for their wallets to see if they had cash.

"Ma'am?" Stephanie said again. "I'm afraid your cash is no good here, either."

They both regarded her with puzzled scowls, and then Gina looked at the receipt. Written diagonally across the front, from corner to corner in big letters, was "No Charge."

The Marine and the sailor looked at each other, and then at Stephanie. She was grinning at them from ear to ear. "You ladies have a nice evening."



4. Making A Big Impression

"Did I ever tell you about ol' Ed?"

"Who?"

"Redneck Ed," Brie replied as they descended the concrete steps of the local, one hundred and ten-year-old post office. It was an overcast day, with a wind that blew in from the west and up the slopes of the hills. Rain wasn't far off, and most were dressed accordingly, in jackets, sweaters, hats and scarves. "He used to work in this small Southern wild animal park which had acquired a very rare species of gorilla one day. Within a few weeks, however, this female gorilla became more and more difficult to handle, and after an examination the zoo vet decided that she was in heat."

"Is this another one of your jokes?" Ryan asked with amused suspicion as they reached the bottom of the steps. Their Jeep Cherokee was parked just up the street east of here, near the local library; the other way, and across the street, were City Hall, the city police department, the fire department, and the county courthouse. On the far side of the city park, which was directly across the street from them, was the local elementary school.

"And to make matters worse," Brie went on without breaking her stride, "there were no male gorillas of the species available. So while reflectin' on their problem, the park administrators noticed Ed, this part-time redneck intern who was responsible for cleaning the animals' cages."

"Oh God, here we go..." Chuckling softly, and dressed in jeans, boots and a tan corduroy jacket, Gina slung an arm around Brie's neck, and pulled her close.

"Like most rednecks, ol' Ed had little sense," Brie continued as she slid one hand into the pocket of her black leather blazer and her other arm around Ryan's waist, "but he was hung like somethin' damn near unnatural. So the park administrators thought they might have a solution. Ed was approached with a proposition. Would he be willin' to have sex with the gorilla for $500? Ed showed some interest, but said he'd have to think it over." They stopped at the corner, and waited for the light. "The followin' day, Ed announced that he would accept their offer, but only under three conditions. 'First,' he says, 'I don't want to have to kiss her. Second, you can't ever tell anyone about this.' The park administration quickly agreed to these conditions, and then they ask what's his third condition. 'Well,' says Ed, 'Y'all gotta give me another week to come up with that $500.'"

Gina just started to laugh as the light changed, and they prepared to step off from the curb. Suddenly speeding out seemingly from nowhere, a white van blew past them. There was no blaring of a horn to warn them off or any screeching of tires in an effort to stop; it just went racing by, the driver apparently completely oblivious of them or just plain not giving a damn. The two leaped backward just in time to avoid being hit.

"You asshole!" Brie yelled at him. She gave him the European upthrust arm and fist, with her other hand at the inside of her elbow, and then the American bird. "Fuckin' moron! It's a school zone, y'dick head--slow down!"

"Jesus," Gina muttered as they watched the van speed off and shrink in the distance, "I thought we left those kinds of idiots back in San Francisco."

With a screeching of tires, the van rounded the corner at the next light, clipping a parked Dodge pickup in the process. It continued on down the road without even slowing down.

"Holy shit!" Brie said. "Did you see that? Is that guy drunk, or what?"

Gina continued to watch him. "I don't know," she said distantly. "He's not weaving..."

And then something disturbing occurred to her. She checked her watch. It was just a minute or so after three PM. Wasn't school letting out right now? And it seemed that the van was headed in that direction...

"Oh, my God," Gina said. "Oh, God!"

"What's the matter?"

She grabbed her by the front of her jacket. "Come on!" she shouted, pulling her along. "He's headed for the school!"

The two of them took off at a dead run. The one advantage they had, even though they were on foot and the van was doing nearly sixty, was that they could cut across the street and between the parked cars, and through the park, making a straight beeline. Brie split off, heading for the school itself, while Gina dashed toward the sidewalk out front. With visions of 9-11 in her head, she desperately roared, "Clear out! Clear out!" as she pointed toward the racing van with the screaming engine. "Get 'em outta here, Brie!"

Parents had just arrived to pick up their children; other kids, somewhat older and on foot, and ranging in ages from maybe ten to twelve years, were heading away from the main entrance of the administration building. All of them heard and then saw the rapidly approaching van. Children and parents alike began to scream in panic.

"That way! That way!" Brie yelled at them as she approached the front steps, motioning and then herding them away from the front doors and toward relative safety.

The van was now bearing down directly on the front of the school. With its engine roaring, it quickly drew closer and closer to its target as it gained more and more momentum.

Ryan nearly skidded to a stop in the middle of the street to place herself directly in the path of the oncoming van. She reached for the small of her back and drew her Beretta 92F, and racked the slide to chamber a round. Still, somewhere behind her, she could hear Brie shouting at parents and children alike to run for cover.

The van was still maybe a hundred yards away, but it was gaining speed and relentlessly closing in.

***

The young girl's scream came from nearby. Glancing frantically over her shoulder, Brie saw the seven-year-old, red-headed girl, dressed in faded blue denim and chocolate-brown corduroy, who was crying and sitting on one side, and clutching at her ankle. She had been nearly stampeded by the rush of the crowd as they had cleared the front portico, and had taken a bad tumble down the steps--and was now unable to rise to her feet and flee.

Brie took off toward her at a dead run.

***

With the Beretta in both hands, Ryan fired at the van. Ten gunshots echoed across the landscape, loud and sharp. In reaction, and believing they were under fire, the civilians screamed even more loudly as they were suddenly consumed by a new wave of panic.

***

Fighting her way through the human tide, Brie continued to make her way toward the fallen girl as the van continued to approach the school, its screaming engine even louder now as the distance between them shrank rapidly.

***

The slide locked back on Gina's weapon, the magazine empty.

Shit! Goddamn civilian mag! Ryan thought. Lousy fuckin' Brady ten-rounder... She popped the empty mag out of the weapon's butt, reached into a pocket, and slammed in a military-issue, fifteen round magazine. She hit the slide release, letting it slam forward to chamber a new round. Motherfucker, she growled silently as she stood her ground and aimed the weapon once more, while her sapphire eyes narrowed into cold, deadly slits of unspeakable rage and unswerving determination. You are not getting past me.

***

Brie reached the fallen girl. She scooped her up into her arms, and then anxiously glanced around herself with a pounding heart, wondering where she could carry her to safety. As she did, the hurtling white juggernaut continued to bear down on its intended victim, now with nothing to stand in its way except for the lone Marine.

***

Ryan stood with her feet apart, her left side slightly forward, and with both hands around the weapon, as though she were back on the firing range. With the wind teasing at her dark hair and her tan coat, she fired off all fifteen rounds so quickly that the pistol sounded like a fully automatic weapon. The gun jumped in her hands with each shot, but the warrior never flinched.

Less than fifty feet away, and with a pock-marked grill, shattered headlights and a bullet-riddled hood and windshield, the van suddenly swerved to her left and slammed into a parked Volvo with a nearly deafening crash of metal on metal and a shattering and tinkling of glass. The driver's body slammed against his steering wheel to set off the horn.

Out of ammunition, Ryan popped the mag out of the pistol, hit the slide release once more, and set the weapon's safety before tucking it back in its holster at her back. She took a quick glance around to see if anyone had been injured; with considerable gratification and a deep sigh of relief, she saw that everyone was well away from the scene.

She began to approach the van.

***

Brie regarded the child with a reassuring smile. "Whew!" she said as she sighed in relief. "That was a close one, wasn't it?"

The horn abruptly silenced itself as the driver slowly leaned back. Even from a distance, Gina could see the bullet holes in his upper chest and the gash in his forehead, and the blood running down the side of his face...and then she saw his hand, and the electronic detonator he was clutching in his final act of defiance. Her eyes widened with a new surge of horror.

"EVERYBODY DOWN!!" she screamed. She turned, and took off at a dead run.

***

With horror-stricken blue-green eyes, and suddenly knowing what was going to happen next--and that there was nowhere to run and nowhere to hide--Brie dropped to the ground in a crouch, and shielded the girl with her body.

"EVERYBODY DOWN! GET DOWN! HE'S GOT A B--"

The explosion cut her off. With a thundering shock wave that rattled the ground and the air, she suddenly found herself flying through the air with a blinding, incredible pain in her back, and sailing over a line of parked cars. She could even see the van, upside down from her point of view, as it blew apart with pieces of shattered glass and jagged metal flying everywhere, as though someone had kicked it in the belly and split it in two as flaming fuel spewed everywhere. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death, she pleaded as she prepared to die. Holy Mary, Mother of--

And then the ground rushed up and slammed into her, and everything went black.

***

Twisted, jagged metal rained down around them. A moment or so later, in the ensuing silence, Brie cautiously raised her head to look around, and was both surprised and relieved to find herself and the little girl uninjured. And then she saw her partner lying immobile on the ground.

"XEEENAAA!!" With terror in her eyes and an icy dagger in her heart, Brie rose from her protective crouch over the child and ran to where the warrior had fallen. "Gina!" she screamed again as she fell to her knees next to her crumpled and unmoving partner. Cautiously, she took Ryan's face in both of her hands. "Gina!" she screamed again, her voice shrill. "Oh, God! Gina!"

***

She cracked her eyes open to find Brie staring at her with a terrified expression. With her ears ringing from the explosion, it sounded as though the young blonde was desperately shouting at her through a yard of tightly packed cotton. She could barely hear her, and she tried to speak...but her mouth wasn't working. She tried to reach for her, but her arms wouldn't move. She couldn't move her legs. Oh, God, she thought as a tear began to slowly trickle from the corner of one eye. Oh, dear God, please... Don't let my neck be broken...

***

"Gina! Can you hear me? Gina!"

***

Her eyes closed, and she was enveloped in warm darkness and comforting silence.

***

The darkness seemed to retreat just a bit, and as it did she took a deep breath. Or tried to; a sharp, stabbing pain in her ribs stopped her. She exhaled with a soft moan.

"Gina?" Her voice was soft.

She forced her eyes to crack open. Everything was fuzzy, and it took a moment or two for her to focus; and the first thing she recognized was Brie's worried, blue-green eyes. She could feel her sitting on the edge of her hospital bed and gently stroking the side of her face, and she could actually feel as she worked her mouth a couple of times to clear it of what felt like cotton.

And then she smiled a little bit.

Brie smiled back at her hopefully. "Babe? Can you hear me?"

She took another breath and raised one hand toward her throbbing head, and felt the bandage there. Softly, she croaked, "How...how many...casualties?"

Tears rose in the doctor's eyes, and she managed to stifle a sob of relief. Leave it to the Warrior Princess and Recon Force Marine to be more concerned with the safety of the innocent rather than with her own injuries. "None," she replied. "Gina, you saved all those school kids. You saved them all..."

One corner of her mouth curled upward in a tiny smile...and then she sighed again, and let the warmth and the darkness take her once more.

***

The second time she awoke, she felt a little stronger and a little more coherent. And again, the first thing she saw was Gabrielle's face. "Hey, sweetie," she said, her voice a little stronger. She shifted slightly under the covers of her hospital bed, and winced again. She could move, and she could feel pain. Pain is your friend, she had been taught; it let's you know you're alive, and that your nervous system is working.

"Hey, not too much movin' around, okay?" Brie gently said.

"How bad's the damage?" Her voice was dry from long hours of sleep.

Brie held a glass of water for her, and positioned the straw in front of Gina's lips. The latter reached for it with one hand, and took a sip. "You've got a couple of fractured ribs, a sprained wrist, a laceration along the left side of your forehead, and a concussion. You have massive bruising, and they had to take about half a pound of windshield glass out of your back--luckily, the bruises and the lacerations are just superficial wounds, and they're gonna heal up just fine in no time. You are one lucky Marine...and I'm one lucky squid," she added softly. "I thought I'd lost you out there, babe." With their palms clasped, and with misty eyes, she kissed the back of her hand. "Don't scare me like that again, okay?"

"I'm sorry, sweetheart," she said. "But I had to stop that guy..."

Brie gently shushed her. "I know, I know," she said softly. "We do what we need to do, and I wouldn't have it any other way. It's just that..." She sighed, and let the thought go unfinished. "But what I need you to do now is to restrict your activities, okay? If you do, we can just keep your ribs taped up. But if you move around too much, y'stubborn jarhead," she said as she became the (mildly, for now) irascible young Navy doctor once more, "I'm gonna put you in a full body cast--which y'all are not gonna like. Capisce?"

Gina grinned sleepily at her. Brie was the only person she knew who could speak Italian with a Texas drawl. "Si, capisco," she replied. She shifted again, and winced in pain. "Oh, man... Feels like I broke my ass, too."

"Nah," Brie said after a thoughtful moment, and then grinned at her with that sweet and heart-warming Gabrielle Grin. "Naw, you just got a big crack in it."

They both started to laugh, and then Gina grimaced again. "Ow! Oh, God, don't make me laugh--please! It hurts!"

"Here, lemme give you a little more of something for that." A small-gauge butterfly catheter was already in place on the inside of Gina's left elbow, and feeding a slow and steady IV drip. Brie drew up an injection of Demerol, and infused it into the line. "I'll tell you something; you've really made a big impression on this town. You're on the front page of every paper in the state, and a couple of network news people have been by."

"Wow," Gina whispered as she felt the drugs kick in. It was only a few seconds before the pain diminished, and then disappeared. "Good stuff..." She closed her eyes, and then gently shook off the urge to sleep. "How long have I been here?"

"Couple of days."

She continued to gaze at her soul mate in silence. "You look exhausted," she said at last.

Even with red-rimmed and overtired eyes, she gave her a reassuring smile. "Naw, I'm okay."

And then the tears rose in Ryan's eyes. "I'm sorry I scared you," she said with a gentle sob. "I'm sorry, babe..."

"Ssshhh," she said softly as the mist rose in her own eyes. "You need your rest."

"I'm sorry, Gabrielle," she whispered, her voice growing more and more faint. "I'm sorry..." With a soft sigh, she let the warmth and the darkness envelope her once again.

***

Over the next few days, Gina and Brie were given a taste of small town life. When the Marine had sufficiently recovered to be discharged from the hospital, her doctor had instructed her nurse to instigate the proceedings. The nurse had, in turn, slipped this information to a neighbor of hers who was one of the teachers at the elementary school; the teacher had informed the principal, the principal informed the other teachers, the teachers had informed the parents of their students... By the time Ryan was being transported via a wheelchair from the front door of the hospital to the waiting Cherokee at the curb, just about the entire town had turned out to cheer her, to present her with home-made get well cards, balloons, flowers...the works. The chief of police was there, the mayor was there to present the both of them with a special city award for heroism and for saving their children, the fire chief was there...even the cop who had given Gina her traffic ticket was there. (Grinning at her, and taking note of the white bandage at her forehead, he had said, "Damn it, jarhead, didn't I tell you to wear a helmet?!" He had also seen to it that her traffic citation had been stricken from her record.) And the little red-haired girl from the school steps was there to present to her a carton full of hand-made get-well cards from Mrs. Klein's second grade class. Standing behind her and smiling was her father, the waiter from the restaurant. Kneeling next to the wheelchair, he said, "You saved my little girl's life. If there's anything I can ever do for you, just ask."

"And for myself," the girl added, "I want to say welcome to the neighborhood."

She suddenly realized that was the first time anyone in this town had said that, either to Gina or to Brie. And with a misty-eyed grin, she gave the little girl a warm hug. "Thank you!" she said. "It's nice to be here."



5. Finally Get To Party Down

The flickering strobe lights that simulated lightning flashes against the house were another nice touch, as was the thunderstorm that played on the stereo and out over a PA system that had been rigged up by a sound technician from the local high school. Kids in costumes and carrying sacks of candy were running from the barn and toward the house as word quickly spread that Gina Ryan was about to begin reading ghost stories, and everyone wanted a front-row seat. The first annual R&D Halloween Party--the first one for this town, that is--was in full swing, providing entertainment and chills for children and adults alike.

Sitting in the middle of the sofa with kids snuggled in on each side, and with another contingent of eager children sitting on the floor before and around her, Gina was dressed again as a vampire. (She wore a high-necked gown this time, so the tape around her ribs wouldn't show.) Rather than repeating her role as a zombie, Brie decided to dress up as one of the vampire's victims, with a pale face, a white gown, dark circles around her eyes, and a vampire's bite at her throat.

"Okay, all right," Gina said, "let's settle down now. Everybody scootch in close. Brie, can you hit the lights, please?"

"I vould be happy to," she replied, affecting a thick Transylvanian accent. She glided wraith-like across the living room with her arms out to trail billowing white cotton wings from her sleeves, snapped off the lights so that the only light now came from the crackling fireplace, and then turned dramatically to come back to her seat behind Gina. Resting her forearms across the sofa's back, she settled in to listen to the first annual Halloween reading of "The Tell-Tale Heart." Unknown to all except Gina, she was also prepared with a cleverly hidden box that contained the very heart itself--another pot roast drenched in ketchup.

Feeling quite comfortable in the warmth of the surrounding children, and exuding all the horror and drama she could without going too far overboard, she began to read. "'True!--nervous, very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mmmmaaaadddd?'" She drew it out, long and deep and shuddering, and the kids ate it up with shrieks of delight. "'The disease had sharpened my senses--not destroyed--not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth.'" And then her smile disappeared as her narrowed eyes roamed over the young, painted and adorned faces that gazed up at her with wide, attentive eyes. "'I heard many things in hell,'" she continued, her voice now low and ominous. There were gasps and ooh's and aah's as the kids began to get into it. "'How, then, am I mad? Hearken!'" she nearly barked, getting a satisfying jump and a shriek out of all of them. "'And observe how healthily--how calmly I can tell you the whole story...'"

Grinning with delight, Brie slipped her arms around Gina's neck, rested her chin on the Marine's shoulder, and settled in cheek-to-cheek to listen along with the rest of the audience.

God, how she loved Halloween.



The End



In keeping with the tradition of the television series and its wide variety of YAXIs, the time line was seriously harmed during the production of this series.





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