Disclaimer: "XENA: Warrior Princess," and all characters are owned and copyrighted by Pacific Renaissance Pictures, Studios USA and Universal MCA. The following story is strictly non-profit fan-fiction, and absolutely no copyright infringement is intended.
Disclaimer: The following story contains adult language.
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In ancient Greece, they battled the Gods of Olympus, barbarian warlords, mad kings, and a myriad of mythological monsters. Reincarnated in the early 21st century as Gina Ryan, USMC, and Gabriella Duncan, USN, their battles continued against power-mad politicians and terrorists until, weary from the wars and emotionally scarred, they finally retired from the battlefield in an attempt to find a richly deserved peace for themselves. But these gods, monsters and politicians were absolutely nothing compared to the deadliest and most horrifying creatures in all the world...
By Ernie Whiting
"Oh, man, you shoulda seen it!" Katie the neighbor girl and part-time dispatcher for the Nevada City police department said excitedly. "You really missed out on all the excitement the other day! There were these three skiers, see, and they got caught up in the mountains with a blizzard moving in, yknow? Everybody told them it was gonna happen, but did they listen? Hell no! They went on up anyway, and when they didnt come back down again when the snow started to really fall and the winds started to pick up, county search an rescue wanted to send out a helicopter to look for them but couldnt cause the weather was turning real bad real fast, and they didnt want to risk losing the rescue teamnot to mention a really, really expensive Huey 204 rescue helicopter. So heres all these guys, wondering how theyre going to get these people down from the mountain, yknow? So guess what happened next?"
"Havent the faintest idea," Lieutenant Colonel Gina Ryan, USMC, replied. Dressed in white jeans and running shoes, and a black sweatshirt with the sleeves pulled up past her elbows, and with her long, brown/black hair held back in a silver-and-obsidian clip, she was twisting down a corkscrew.
"So heres all these people standing around and wondering what to do, when out of the sky comes this... Picture this," she said, and then began to gesture like the director of a television series as she continued with her narration. "Cold, gray clouds, right? The skys looking like one big sheet of slate. And these winds are whipping through the trees and the streets, blowin snow like a sonofagun to almost whiteout conditions; youd think you were at Donner Summit instead of in the foothills. And then theres this faint, faraway sound thats quickly getting closer and louder, like...like some machine from Hell or something. And then emerging from the snow and the black skies, this...this massive thing descends from the sky; it was big and sleek and black, and looking like a cross between a Black Hawk helicopter and a Stealth Fighter, with these roaring jet engines and these big ol rotors chopping and thundering against the sky. I mean, this thing was humongous! And loud! Jesus God, it was loud! And it had all these weapons on it! I mean, were talkin missiles and...and machine guns, and all kinds of rockets and...and like that!"
"Really?" Commander Gabriella Duncan, MD, USN, asked with mild curiosity. Dressed in black denim jeans, white sneakers and a clingy, short-sleeved and wide-necked pullover blouse of shimmering red satin, and with her shoulder-length golden hair tied back with a simple strip of black velvet, she was standing behind an oaken kitchen island with a razor-sharp chefs knife in one hand, slicing dry salami and smoked cheese on a wide, wooden cutting board. Standing next to her, Gina tucked the wine bottle securely between her knees and pulled the cork with a sharp pop!
"God, you shoulda seen it!" Katie went on. "The thing looked like it was ready to take on the whole world, yknow? With all those guns and stuff? And then this voice like thunder comes from it, and says, Set your transmitters to blah-blah-blah- kilowatzits ("or something like that," she added parenthetically) so we can talk. And the thing just hovers there for a couple of minutes, floating and bobbing a couple of feet off the ground, like some kind of hostile alien UFO or something thats about to just totally destroy the whole town with just the down blast from its rotors! And then the thing turned around just as casually as you pleasealmost arrogantly, yknow?and it just lifts up and heads off into the mountains, and disappears into the snow. Theres nothin left of it but this howling and roaring, and then even that fades out and gets lost in the wind."
With a chunk of smoked cheddar cheese on the end of the knife, Brie reached across the island. "Here, try this."
The younger woman plucked the morsel from the knifes tip, popped it into her mouth, and chewed. "Hey, thats good," she said approvingly. "So its gone for about an hour, maybe less, and then it comes back again, still screamin and roarin. But you know what? When the thing settled down again, it lowered its landing gear and settled down in the parking lot of the hospital, and then one of the doors on the side slid open and these two guys dressed in black flight suits get out, and help out the three skiers! Couldnt see the flight crews faces; they were wearing these black helmets with the visors down. They just helped those people out and down and into waiting stretchers, and without saying a word they left them with some kind of medical reports stating their conditions and all, and then they climbed back in without waiting for another word, and the damn thing lifted off again without even waiting for any thanks or anything! It just disappeared into the storm, and was gone! Gone! Damn, it was incredible!"
"Wow. Sounds exciting," Gina said with mild enthusiasm as she poured a glass of rich, red Zinfandel for their guest. Two more empty glasses stood before her on the oaken island. "Here, try this."
"Damn right it was," Katie said as she accepted the glass. "Man, you really missed something." She stopped for a moment and sipped. "Ohmigod, this is so good," she said as she eyed the glass. Then she looked at them for a moment. "Where were you two, anyway?" she asked, suddenly curious. "Damn near the whole town turned out to see that thing, but you guys were nowhere in sight."
Gina and Brie paused briefly in their activities, and shared a quick and puzzled glance before regarding Katie once more.
"We were..." Gabrielle began, and then glanced back toward her partner once more with a raised eyebrow, open to suggestion.
"We were..." Xena thought for a moment, then raised the tall, green, 750-ml bottle shed just opened. "...out buying wine," she finished with a smile. She began pouring a second glass.
"Yeah," Brie quickly agreed. "We were on a week-long wine tasting tour up and down the Sierra foothills and along the coast, and scoring all the essential suppliesgreat wine, good food." Suddenly, she glanced toward their office as a sound coming from it caught her attention. Someones electronically altered voice was coming over a radio. She set the knife down. "Excuse me; I need to turn on the filter for the stereo. Were always picking up random CB transmissions." She headed for the other room.
Katie scowled. "More wine?" she asked in mild disapproval as Gina poured a third glass. "You guys drink way too much, yknow? Have you seen all the empties youve been leaving in your recycling bins?"
Brie smiled. "A little red wine now and then is good for the heart," she said from the other room as she turned down the volume on the police scanner. Leaning on the desk with both hands, she listened intently to the muted voice for a moment. "Im a doctor; I know these things."
"Listen," Katie said. "You guys hardly ever come into town; why dont you stop on by, and well get some of the gang together and go take in a movie or something? I know youre still fairly new to the neighborhood and all, but you guys really do need to socialize more."
Gina watched her partner carefully as the latter returned from the office, and raised a questioning eyebrow. The blonde silently and surreptitiously responded by showing her four fingers. They were code four; no calls. The statuesque brunette relaxed.
"She does have a point, Gina. Whens the last time we actually went into town to see a movie?"
Ryan thought it over for a moment, and then gave in with a shrug. "Yeah, sure," she said at last, "why not?" She turned to Katie. "Ill tell you what: you get hold of your boyfriend Roger and bring him on over tonight at around seven for an authentic Greek dinner, then well hit a movie. My treat. What dyou say?"
"Id say that sounds great!" Katie replied. "Ive never tasted Greek food."
"Then you are in for a true delight," Brie said with a dazzling smile. "Ginas got this roasted lamb dish thats just this side of the Elysian Fields."
"All right!" Katie said brightly. "Seven tonight!" And then she looked puzzled. Elysian Fields? She shrugged it off, and then headed out the door.
Gabriella looked at her partner. "She might have a point, yknow."
"About all the wine bottles that wind up outside. You think maybe we do drink a little too much?"
"What, a couple of glasses with dinner each night?" Gina asked. "A bottle or two on Saturday nights? Nah." The warrior popped a chunk of salami into her mouth, chewed, and spoke around it. "When we start taking a mayonnaise jar fulla hootch with us everywhere we go, then Ill start to worry about alcoholism."
Brie thought it over for a moment. Their fondness for the grape, she finally concluded, really was no different from that of the Italians or the French. Besides, when one considered how many years they had put into the service of keeping the world a safer placeboth in this life and in ancient Greecethey had earned the right to unwind a little. "Yeah, youre right," she said at last. And then she smiled. "Thank the gods for the French Paradox." (The phenomenon to which she was referring was a curious effect concerning the French diet. With all of the creamy, rich and high-fat cheeses and buttery foods they consumed, they apparently had little or no adverse cholesterol problems. The current scientific evidence, after years of research, strongly suggested that the reason why these problems were averted was because of their rather ample consumption of red wine. Of course, more research was deemed necessary...and there never seemed to be any shortage of volunteers.)
With a smile, Gina raised her glass in a toast. "God bless the French."
Brie raised her own wine glass. "To the Gauls. Hoo-ya." They gently clinked them together.
"This is pathetic," said a smooth and masculine voice. "All this domesticity is truly heart-breaking. Heart-breaking!"
Without bothering to look at him, the two women chorused, "Go away, Ares."
"I thought I smelled burning sulphur," Brie muttered as she finally glanced his way.
"I thought it was that three-bean burrito that finally caught up with you," Gina added.
He had suddenly appeared from a nearly blinding flash of blue-white light, and was sitting on the kitchen counter, next to the coffee maker. Still exuding that same casual and sinister elegance that he did two thousand years ago, he still wore blackbut instead of leather battle gear, it was now a modern Italian-made sport coat, an expensive black silk shirt open at the throat, custom-tailored black jeans, and shiny, expensive black boots. The black hair and goatee, and the silver medallion hanging from a matching chain, however, were still the same. Some things never changed.
"Ares," Gina said, "get your ass off of that counter, right now. If you want to sit down somewhere, theres plenty of floor."
He slipped to the floor, his boot heels thudding resoundingly on the hardwood surface, and folded his arms across his chest as he leaned back against the counter and crossed his legs. "I cant believe it," he said. "The Warrior Princess and the Battling Bard have become a domestic couple."
The two women grinned at each other as they continued slicing cheese and cold cuts. "Yeah," Gabrielle said as she slipped her arm through the Marines. In return, Xena stroked her hand affectionately. With a hint of a Texas accent, the blonde added, "Aint it great?"
"Un-freakin-believable! Its enough to make me want to cry," he added with a catch in his voice as, with one finger, he wiped away an imaginary tear.
Gina gave him an exaggerated look of sympathy. "Oh, youre breaking our hearts..."
"Oh, come on," he said. "With the obvious exception that you two like to occasionally fly around in my namesake and go helping peoplewho the hell do you two think you are, anyway, Batman and Robin?youve gotten positively sedentary. Wheres the old spirit? Wheres the spunk? Whatever happened to the focus and the determination?"
"Nowadays, I channel it in other directions," Gina said as she sliced more dry salami. Glancing his way for a moment with a cold smile, she suddenly envisioned it as something else, and gave it an especially savage cut. "Deal with it."
"Channel it into what? Pushing a shopping cart around at Costco or Sams Club? Clipping coupons? What are you going to do nextbuy a mini-van and start driving all the neighbors little ankle biters to soccer practice? Damn it, woman! Youre a warrior!" He paused for a moment, and then his voice suddenly turned to silky venom. "Come on, Xena," he went on, "dont you miss the fire? Not even just a little bit?"
She put down the knife, and then slowly approached him.
"Xena," the doctor gently warned her, "watch your blood pressure..." Unsure of whether or not that small amount of Ambrosia they had consumed after escaping from Iraq had worn off, they had decided it would be safer to go back to living like regular, every day mortals.
She approached him slowly, and stood before him. "Listen to me carefully," she told him, her voice low and soft. "I have done my time on the field of battle, both in Greece and here. My warrior days are over and done with. I have retired from the game." She gazed steadily into his eyes. "I like this life, Ares, even if I do occasionally shop at discount warehouse stores and stand in interminable lines at the check-out stands. It beats the living hell out of spending my remaining days killing untold numbers of people who are trying their damned best to kill me! Does it really drive you so nuts that Ive finally found peace without having to die for it? Does it really make you so crazy that Ive finally settled down with someone I love? Cant you just accept that?"
Ares regarded her with mixed emotions. Part of him wanted to acquiesce to her wishes, just for old times sake; he did have a soft spot for her, after all, and out of that fondness for her he could easily give in to her wishes. Yet there was also a part of him that wanted her to fight on in bloody glory for him for a greater goal; so that they could both rule the world. He still wanted her as his Warrior Queen.
"Youll soon be receiving a message of some importance," he finally told her. "If I told you any more than that, Id spoil the surprise. And I cant wait to see the looks on your faces when you try to handle whats coming your way." He grinned malignantly. "Well see if your warrior days are really over and done with." With that, he vanished in a burst of blue-white light.
"What was that all about?" Brie asked curiously as Gina returned to the counter.
"I just tried appealing to his better side," the former warrior replied. She glanced at Brie, and a tiny smile came easily. "I dont think he has one."
The telephone rang. Gabriella stepped across the kitchen and reached for the cordless phone that hung on the wall. "Yo."
Still keeping the phone to her ear, she sighed as she leaned one shoulder against the wall, and turned the mouthpiece away from her lips. "Its Joxer," she said softly.
Gina rolled her eyes.
"Thats Jack Sawyer!" he corrected her indignantly.
She swung the mouthpiece back. "Hey, Jack," she said with a smile. "Listen, Gina and I both want to thank you again for the assist the other day."
"Aw, it was nothing," Sawyer replied with false bravado as he shuddered at the memory. If hed had his preferences, he would have stayed at home that day with a bottle of twenty-year-old Scotch and a couple of redheaded sisters about the same age. But they had needed his help, and he couldnt refuse them. He hadnt been quite sure of how he could help them; he didnt know how to fly Ares, and he didnt know anything about medical triage, but to refuse the mission would have meant disappointing his friends. So with Xena at the stick, searching for heat signatures with the infra red scanners while struggling to keep Ares stable in the high, buffeting winds, and with Gabrielle riding down the steel cable and swaying back and forth in those violent winds to assess the conditions of the skiers and provide emergency treatment, and then send them up one at a time, it had been up to Joxer the Mightyquaking in his boots from sheer terror and hardly noticing the biting coldto operate the winch in the cargo bay. Wearing a safety harness that was secured to both sides of the open hatch, and scared to death but refusing to wuss out in front of his friends, he had leaned out into the whipping winds and stinging ice, and had suffered under the pitch and yaw of the icy and slippery deck beneath his feet, to lower and raise not only Gabrielle, but also the three stranded skiers.
"You really helped out a lot, Jack. We couldnt have done it without you." The young doctor switched the phone to her other ear. "So whats up?"
"Oh, nothing much," he replied petulantly, "if you think nothing of doing you two guys a great huge favor."
"What favor is that?"
Gina arched a silent eyebrow at her, and the blonde shrugged in bafflement in return. The tall brunette crossed the floor silently to stand next to her partner, and listened as the doctor held the earpiece out slightly so they could both hear.
"Well, you guys have been through some pretty rough times lately, so I thought Id do something to pick up your spirits."
They exchanged a quick look that said, That might be nice.
"What have you got in mind?" Brie asked.
"Well, your families believed you guys were killed in action in Iraq," Sawyer said. "Ive been able to arrange to let them know youre still alive and well. You would not believe"
"Are you kidding me?!" they asked together, their hearts pounding in sudden excitement. The two women looked at each other, their eyes wide, and grinned. Growing misty-eyed and almost ecstatic, they both felt as though an unimaginably huge burden had suddenly been lifted from their shoulders. They each slung an arm around the others shoulders, and they held each other close.
"Jack, howd you arrange this?" Gina asked. "Isnt this a serious breach of security?"
"Not any more. Ive done some rewriting on your files to fit in with the retirement you asked for. The official story now is, Ryans got a psycho discharge and has been released from the Corps, and Duncanbeing personally involved with the colonel in a not exactly platonic kind of waychose not to re-enlist, and has dedicated herself to being Ryans personal physician. The files on you guys are closed and sealed. You can do whatever the hell you want, and no one will care. Hell, you could probably machine gun a flock of nuns from the back of a speeding Humvee in the middle of downtown San Francisco at high noon, and no one could do anything about it."
"Psycho discharge?" Xena asked in puzzlement that quickly transformed itself into suspicion. And then with sudden and increasing indignation, she repeated, "Psycho discharge? What thewhy a psycho discharge? What the hells wrong with an expiration of current enlistment? Why couldnt I have been wounded in combat? How come I didnt get a medical dis" She stopped abruptly, and her eyes narrowed dangerously. "This your way of getting even with me for how I drafted you into that rescue mission, isnt it?"
"Hey, I did the best I could, okay?" Joxer responded defensively. "You think its easy hacking into restricted Pentagon records and altering them? Besides," he added, "theyre less likely to come after some crazy psycho nut-job person if they ever decide they want you back as a retread. All you have to do is remember to act crazy every now and then in case they send someone around to check up on you." Under his breath, he added with mild sarcasm, "That shouldnt be too hard..."
Gina snarled in silent rage, but she had to admit that his solution was, as near as she could tell, foolproof. But she was still suspicious of him.
Gabriella yanked the phone away from her. "Never mind her," she told him. With a scowl, Gina snatched the phone back once more and held it so they could both listen. "Jack, this is wonderful. Im not sure of how well ever be able to thank you."
The line was silent for a moment, as though Sawyer might have been trying to think of a way. Finally, and with greatly embellished magnanimity, he said, "Your happiness is all the thanks I need."
Neither of them believed him for an instant.
"Jack," Gina finally said, with reluctant acceptance, "I definitely owe you for this."
"Same here," Brie added.
"Aww, thats okay," he said. "Oh, by the waywhile sealing your files, I also managed to arrange for the both of you to collect full military pensions."
Well, that takes some of the sting out of the psycho discharge, Gina thought with a reluctant smile. "Cool!"
"So its no more covert ops for you guys. No more midnight calls, no more secret missions half a world away, no more adventure, and..." And then his voice took on a somewhat sad note. "...and no more flying around in Ares for rescue missions. You guys are civilians; enjoy your retirement." And then, more brightly, he added, "And because you guys are retired, it was safe to let your families know youre alive and kicking. Oh! And theres one other thing..."
And then her smile vanished. Here it comes, she thought. "Whats that?"
"Your families? Theyll be there in a week."
"Jack?" Gina said.
"Joxer?" Gabrielle asked.
The line went from silence to a dial tone. Hed hung up.
"Theyll be here in a week?" Brie asked, puzzled. Then, with a smile of anticipation that lit up her entire face, she added as she hung up the phone, "Theyll be here in a week! Yes!" She grabbed a fistful of air and pulled it down. It had been so long since shed seen her parents and her sisters; just when she had finally and sadly resigned herself to the fact that she would never be able to see them again... God, she couldnt wait to see them! She did a happy little dance around the kitchen.
"Theyll be here in a week?" Gina asked with an ambivalent smile. She, too, was excited about seeing Mom and Dad and her two brothersbut there was also an undercurrent of mild uneasiness in her voice.
"Do you know what this means?" Gabriella asked as she turned to her partner. "They know about us! They know about us!" She grinned a huge, beaming, and heart-warming grin, and grabbed the Marine in a tight embrace. Pinning the statuesque brunettes arms to her sides, she danced about merrily, bouncing up and down on her toes. "No more hiding!" she declared, her voice muffled against Ryans breasts. "No more worryin about blowin our cover! No more covert ops! No more gun battles and getting shot at! No more"
And then it struck Gina. "They know about us," she said, looking down at her and cutting her off, "but they dont know about us!"
Brie stopped with her dance and looked up at her, the golden bangs across her forehead slightly askew. "What? What do you mean?"
With her arms pinned to her sides, she tried to convey the idea with her eyes. "You know..." With a twitching of one eyebrow and a slight but meaningful movement of her head, she indicated their upstairs bedroom. "...us!"
Brie stared at her in puzzlement for a moment...and then her green eyes went wide in sudden realization. "Oh, my dear God!" A hand flew to her mouth to stifle a gasp of horror. "They dont know about us! Oh shit, Xena, what are we gonna do?"
"I dont know," she replied. "Oh, Jesus, how am I gonna explain it to my folks? Theyre Catholics!" A cold fist of terror clutched at her heart as the Warrior Princess and Reconnaissance-Force Marine added with a horrified whisper, "My moms gonna kill me..."
"Tell me about it," Gabrielle said, her voice filled with as much dread as her partners. She ran a nervous hand through her bangs, which flopped back across her forehead. "My folks are Baptists!"
Xena winced sympathetically at her. "My condolences," she said.
"Thank you. Same here... God, Xena, what are we gonna do? Im going to have to get rid of all those back issues of Girlfriends magazine, and then theres your Melissa Etheridge cd collection... "
The Marine sighed nervously. "I wonder if its too late to get into Witness Relocation..."
Seeking solace and comfort, the young bard stepped forward again and hugged her once more. "Xena," she said, her eyes troubled and her voice quavering, "Im scared."
She slipped her own arms around her and held her close, trying to comfort her. "Me too, babe. Me too."
From some invisible, echoing and faraway place, Ares laughed malignantly.
Jack Sawyer drove up to the house in his silver BMW 528i with Mrs. Antonia Ryan. She was sixty years old with shoulder-length, graying black hair that she wore tied back with a silver clasp. She was closer to Bries height than to Ginas, and as sturdyand as spiritedas the young blonde. Born and raised in Naples, Italy, she still retained a strong accent, an olive complexion, and had clear, young and striking blue eyes.
Gina was standing out on the porch when the car pulled up; Brie had taken off for the store to pick up a few extra groceries, and had sworn she would be back in time to offer moral support...but unfortunately she was currently detained in the parking lot of "Jays Food Joint" by a flat tire on their Jeep Cherokee.
"Angelina! Angelina!!" she cried when she saw her daughter. "Bambina! Dio mio, its-a my little bambina!" Crying openly, she rushed forward, and was met halfway to the door by tearfully happy Gina. They shared a tight embrace that neither of them wanted to release.
Sawyer was bringing up her luggage. "Hey, Gina," he said.
"Jack," she said. "You..." Words failed her. Instead, she threw her arms around him and hugged him, then kissed one cheek. "I cant thank you enough. Come on inside."
He brought in Mrs. Ryans luggage. "Id like to stick around," he said, "but I cant; Ive only got a few minutes. Ive got to get back to Langley, and you two have a lot of catching up to do. Ill call you in a few days." He turned to Ginas mother. "Mrs. Ryan, it was an honor to have met you." They shared a hug, and then he got back into his BMW and took off.
"Such a nice-a boy," Mrs. Ryan said. She turned back to her daughter. "So whatta happened?" she asked as they went inside. "Why-a you didnt call?"
She held up one hand. "There are still a lot of things that Im not at liberty to discuss," Gina said. "I mean, its all a lot of classified government stuff. But I can tell you its been quite a ride. Wheres dad?" she asked, keenly aware of Thomas Ryans absence. "Where are Mikey and Travis?"
"Your father, hes inna the hospital; when-a he heard you were alive, he had a heart attack. But hes okay," she was quick to add when she saw her daughters shocked look. "Were-a gonna go see him, si?"
"Si, mamma," Gina replied. "As soon as we can."
"Mikey, hes inna jail"
Her eyes widened in shock. "Still?"
She shrugged in mild exasperation at her younger son. "Again!!"
"Michelino," Gina muttered under her breath in exasperation. "Che pezzo di stupido. Whens he gonna learn not to get caught?"
"And Travis, he hear about-a you; hes onna his way from Germany."
Gina smiled. "Hes still with the 101st Airborne?"
"Si. He followed you inna the militare, and Mikey followed your nonno into... well... hes inna the family business. Capisce?"
Gina sighed, and forced a smile. "Si, capisco." One of these days, she was going to have to have a long talk with her nonnoher dear old grandpa Vincenzo Di Falconeand convince him to retire and turn the family business over to her. She had her own ideas on how to run it.
"So whatta happened with you?" Mamma Ryan asked. "Why you not write, or call?"
Oh, man, Xena thought nervously. How was she going to tell her about Iraq? How was she going to tell her about her dangerous and covert jobs for the military, the Pentagon, and the CIA? Dear gods, how was she going to tell her about Gabrielle? "Listen... Umm..." She put on a weak smile. "You want some wine?"
"...and I fell in love," she added quickly as she finished her storyand her wine, in one large, anxious gulp.
Mamma Ryans face positively beamed with joy. "In love?! Glorioso! Fantastico! Molto magnifico! Whats-a his name? Where you meet him?"
"We met in the military...actually, we met while on duty in Iraq... shes a doctor... we"
"Un dottore?" she asked excitedly. "Magnifi" She stopped suddenly, and her blue eyes went wide. "Shes a doctor?"
"She?!" she said, glaring in disbelief. "Whadda you mean, SHE?!"
"Mom, please. Will you let me explain?"
"Whadda you saying?" she asked in shock. "No, no, no!" she declared as sudden realization dawned on her. She rapidly crossed herself. "This is not-a possible! How this a-happen? She-a corrupt my little Angelina!" Suddenly, her voice turned cold, low and dangerous. "Who is-a she?" she asked. "I cutta her throat! Where-a you meet her?"
She sighed heavily. "We met in an Iraqi prison."
Mamma Ryans eyes bulged in horror, and a hand flew to her mouth as she gasped like a desperate diver who had just come up for air. "INNA PRISON?? Santa Maria! Whatta you were doing inna prison? A womens a-prison? Madonna!" she wailed, almost ready to faint. Then she changed her mind. "Is that how you-a become"
"No, Mom, it wasnt a womens prison, it was a military prison."
"What were you-a doing inna prison? What did you do? Who-a you rob? Did this-a trollop"
"Mom, please! Will you let me explain?"
"I need-a more wine..."
Sitting across the massive table from her, she lifted the bottle, filled her glass to the brim, and set it down again. "Will you please calm down?"
"How Im-a supposed to be calm?" she muttered. "My daughter has-a been-a corrupted! Infame!" She drained the wine glass in three swallows. "Did the Marine Corps do this-a to you? I shoulda known!" She put her glass down and reached for the bottle again. "You hang around alla those-a rough-a men, you start to act like-a them..."
Gina felt a huge headache coming on. With one elbow on the table, she rested her forehead in her hand and slowly shook her head. "Gesu Cristo," she muttered.
"Hey!" Mrs. Ryan said sharply. She pointed a finger at her in warning. "You watch-a you mouth! You no take-a the Lords name inna vain! You may be some big-a shot tough-a Marine, but Im-a still you mother, and I can still smack-a you cross the back adda head!"
Xena gritted her teeth. "Mom," she growled. "Will. You. Please. Calm. Down."
"Okay, okay. Im-a calm. See? Im a-calm." She was silent for a moment, just to prove it. "So," she went on, "who is this-a Devils daughter?"
Oh, Christ! Gina thought, shaking her head gently as she rested her forehead in her hand and her elbow on the table. "Her name is Gabriella Duncan," she began quietly. "Shes a doctor. She"
"Gabriella. Such a pretty name, for such a"
With a soft groanand perhaps even with a stifled sobGina slumped forward and smacked her forehead solidly against the oaken dining table, causing the wine bottle and glasses to jump. She covered her head with her arms. "Per che mio, Dio?" she asked faintly as she raised her head and thumped it against the table a second time. "Why me, God?" Thud. "Why me?"
"Whats-a the matter with you?" Mamma Ryan asked in bewilderment. "Are a-you okay?"
Apparently not having heard her, she continued softly: "Ive been a good girl, havent I, God?" Thud. "I try to be good..." Thud. Thud.
Mamma Ryan gently stroked her daughters head as she softly and calmly asked, "Are a-you gonna to have a seizure? You wanna to talk to Father Mike? I can getta him onna the phone for you. Hes Irish, but..."
She slowly turned her head, and rested the side of her face against the cool, cool surface of the table. She looked at her with one sad eye. "Can I please finish?" she softly asked, her voice high and thin, and slightly muted. "Please?"
"Sure. Why not?"
"Thank you." She took a deep breath and let it out slowly as she lethargically straightened.
And so it began; the entire tale. Their life in the military, the circumstances under which they had first met, when they escaped from Iraq, when they killed the pursuing enemy soldiers and blew away the breeder reactor, how the young doctor had treated her gunshot wound, their shared and life-threatening adventures outside of the military, their camping trip, and even a few modified stories that had taken place not in this life time but in ancient Greece...
By the time she finished, Mrs. Ryan was silently watching her with teary and sympathetic eyes.
"Yes, I love her. And its more than being in love... You have got to understand, shes the other half of my very soul. Where I had so much darkness and rage, she is my light and my solace. She is the sweetest, the kindest, the most gentle and generous spirit I have ever known..." Words failed her as her voice began to tighten with emotion.
Mamma Ryan rose from her seat and moved to sit next to her, then put her arms around her daughter and held her close. "Bambina mia," she said softly, then kissed the side of her face.
On the brink of open sobs, Gina gently squeezed her in return.
"So when am I going to meet this-a girl?" she asked as the sounds of a car pulling up to the house suddenly reached their ears.
She sniffled once and wiped the tears from her eyes. "In about ten seconds, I imagine," she replied as she heard the car door slam shut. Angrily.
And then they both heard the sweetest, kindest, and most gentle and generous spirit Xena had ever known muttering, "Goddamned miserable son of a fuckin bitch Jeep shitty Chrysler... Xeeenaaa!! Gitcher ass out here and get these fuckin groceries! I gotta get this fuckin shit offa my hands..."
Xena squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head dismally. She wanted to dig a deep, deep hole, jump in, and then pull it in after her. She wanted to just cease to exist. For a fleeting moment, she even considered calling on Ares to get her the hell out of here. Hed like that, wouldnt he? she thought. "Great," she muttered to herself. "Terrific. The only thing missing now is me showing up for school naked and without my homework..."
Mamma Ryan was giving her a cool, sardonic look. "Sweet and-a kind and-a gentle, eh?" she asked in mild mockery. "She sounds more like-a you father."
"Yeah." Then she looked at her. "Didnt you marry him?"
Gabrielle came storming in through the front door, her face and hands smudged with black dirt and grease, and swearing like a sailor. "I ran over a godfuckindamn nail in the godfuckindamn parking lot of Jays Godfuckindamn Food Joint, and the fuckindamn spare was flatwhat the fuck did you do to it, anyway?and the fuckindamn jack is another fine godfuckindamn Chrysler product"
She stopped suddenly.
Then her eyes widened in absolute, exquisite horror.
There was the elder woman, looking at her with keen interest. There was Gina, standing behind the older woman, with one hand over her eyes and slowly shaking her head, wondering if things could possibly get any worse. Feeling as though she had just been shoved out onto center stage in Carnegie Hall with a broken violin and no pants, the young blonde said, "Oh." She quickly plastered on a weak smile in a miserable attempt to hide her surprise and embarrassment. "Hello."
"Gabrielle," Xena said, the tone of her voice encouraging calmness, "this is my mom, Antonia Ryan. Mom, this is"
"Gabriella!" she said with a wide and loving grin as she gazed at the woman who had brought so much love and joy to her little Ginas life. "Nipotina! Ginas been-a telling me all about you!" She quickly stepped forward and caught the young blonde in a tight embrace that squeezed the air out of her lungs.
"Hi," she said, still struggling to hide her embarrassment as she tried to get her breath back. "CarefulI dont want to get grease all over you..."
"Ah, dont-a you worry... Come on, you getta cleaned up and Ill make us a nice-a lunch while we getta to know each other, eh?" With one arm around the young blondes shoulders, she turned to the brunette. "Gina, dont just stand there like a bump onna the log; go getta the fuckin groceries!"
Momentarily stunned, and at a sudden and total loss for words at her mothers use of the eff-word, she just stood there for a second or twoor threebefore she finally snapped out of it and started for the car. Passing by them, she suddenly smiled as she quickly and softly whispered into Bries ear, "Youve just been adopted."
"Hey, Gina," her mother said. "You didnt tell me she was a-such a cutie!"
Gina grinned, and Brie smiled shyly. "Yeah, shes a cutie, all right."
With an enthusiastic grin, Mamma Ryan gave the blonde another warm and heartfelt squeeze. "And shes a doctor!" She took the young blonde aside to get her cleaned up, and left the tall warrior to get the groceries.
Nipotina, Gina thought to herself with a grin; little daughter-in-law.
"Maybe you can explain something to me," Gabrielle said while Mrs. Ryan was upstairs. "Your mom is obviously Italian, but you..." She paused, and spread her arms slightly in puzzlement as she waited briefly for an explanation.
"My dad was an orphan, so when he married my mom he was kind of assimilated into the Di Falcone family of New York. The Di Falcones have...well, over the years theyve had some..." She tried to think of a way to downplay her familys activities. "...minor legal skirmishes with the Treasury Department over something about unpaid taxes..." She took a deep breath. "...some questionable interstate transportation practices..." She sighed heavily. "...a couple or so minor weapons violations... so they moved to Wyomingwhere I grew upto kind of get away from it all," she finished quickly. "Unfortunately, the family business kind of caught up with them, even way the hell out there. So they kind of split their time between Cheyenne and New Yorks Lower East Side."
Gabrielle stared at her, her eyes reflecting a blend of astonishment and disbelief as this information about tax evasion, smuggling, and illegal gun possession sank in. "You come from a Mafia family?" she finally asked. "I guess that explains your inability to stay out of trouble."
Xena winced at her. "Mafia is such an unpleasant word," she said. "We just call it the family business."
"Uh-huh," Gabrielle said as her disbelief quickly transformed itself into amusement. She struggled unsuccessfully to conceal a half-smile. "Great. Im shacking up with a Mob girl."
Gina slowly approached her, and gently took one hand in both of hers. "Listen," she said, softly but no less seriously. "If youre really uncomfortable with the idea, Ill understand"
"What, and leave you guys without a doctor? Forget it! Runnin that kind of business, yall are probably gonna need one." Then she let the impish smile come. "Youre not gettin rid of me that easily, warrior princess."
Gina grinned fondly at her. God, how she loved this woman. "Guerriero principessa," she said softly. "If youre not gonna escape, then youll need to learn the language."
"I think I still remember enough of my ancient Latin to fake it," she said. "But if you think coming from a Mob family is tough, wait til you meet my folks." She lowered her voice to an ominous near-whisper. "Not only are they Baptists, theyre Republicans!"
Frank and Gloria Duncan, and their other two daughtersEvelyn and Veronicaarrived two days later. Although Frank was a cattleman and Gloria was a cattlemans wife, the two girls had grown up to become state employees. The middle daughter, Evelyn (usually called Evie), had a fondness for fashionable clothes, fine restaurants, and high society, and had become a successful young prosecuting attorney for the Texas Department of Justice; the eldest daughter, Veronica (Ronnie for short), was a burgers-and-beer kind of gal who liked jeans and boots, and new country music, and had worked her way up through the ranks to become a lieutenant with the Texas Rangers. Gina and Mrs. Ryan were on their way back from the hospital with her father Thomas and her brother Travis, so they missed their arrivalwhich was okay, as far as Gabrielle was concerned, because she needed to talk to her family first anyway. How she was going to explain everything to them was still a dilemma that hung over her head like an executioners axe, but she was working on it. As a matter of fact, she had been pacing up and down and working on it when she heard the car pull up outside.
She had absolutely no idea of what she was going to tell them.
Dear Zeus, she thought silently as she went to the window, I really am truly sorry that youre not around anymore, because I really need your help right now.
And that was when it struck her. This whole reunion thing... It wasnt merely a sincere attempt made by Joxer to get their families together; this whole thing had been orchestrated by Ares and planted in Sawyers mind to divert suspicion away from himself! Ronnie arrested people like Ginas family members, and Evie prosecuted them; this had to be the war gods attempt at starting a war between the two families! It was his attempt at driving a wedge between Xena and Gabrielle through family loyalties and in-law conflicts, and his way of convincing Xena that she needed him now more than ever before.
Damn you, Ares, the bard thought, you no-good, butt-scratchin son of a bitch...
She decided she would worry about him later. Right now, there were happier and more important things to contend with. With her heart suddenly pounding in both nervousness and delightful anticipation, she threw open the screen door and dashed out onto the porch and down the steps. She didnt really know who to run to first; nearly blinded by tears of utter joy, she ran to the nearest blurry figure, who just happened to be her mother. In the middle of sobbing laughter and tight embraces, she blurted out, "Im so sorry I couldnt contact you sooner, Im sorry, Im so sorry..."
"Its okay, sweetheart, its okay..." Gloria said, crying openly as she kissed her daughters face again and again, afraid that this was all a dream and praying that it was real.
She finally managed to turn from her to her father, and regarded his grinning and teary face. "Hi, Daddy," she sobbed at last, and threw her arms around his neck.
He really couldnt think of anything to say, so he simply held his youngest daughter in a tight embrace that he didnt want to let go, and shook with silent sobs of relief and joy.
"Hey, Brie," Ronnie said, grinning through her tears. "Whats shakin?"
"Hi ya, Doc," Evie said. Embracing her tightly, and barely controlling her emotions to speak, she added with a muffled voice, "Welcome back to the land of the living."
"I am so sorry I hurt you guys," she softly cried, hugging them both. "I am so sorry for the hell I put all of you through, Im sorry, Im sorry, Im"
"Its okay," Ronnie whispered. "Its okay, we understand..."
"We just never thought that the baby of the family would grow up to become a spy," Evie said. That was what they had always called her"the baby"because Veronica had been the first born, and Evelyn had been delivered half an hour later, with Gabriella bringing up the rear another thirty minutes later. And while the immediate family could always easily tell the difference between these three identical sisters, no one else could.
Amid all the tears of happiness and the sobbing laughter, it suddenly occurred to Brie that she really could not remember if she had ever mentioned her identical siblings to Gina.
"Come on, you guys," she finally said with a chuckle as she wiped fresh tears of joy from her eyes, "lets go inside; weve got a lot of catchin up to do."
Theyd dragged the sofa from the fireplace to face the two recliner chairs, so they could all see each other, with Brie sitting between her parents.
"...Moms been on tranquilizers ever since she got the notice from the Department of Defense that you were missing in action, and presumed dead," Evie was saying as she lounged in one of the recliners.
"Yeah, but something tells me she isnt going to be needing them any more," Ronnie added with a grin as she relaxed in the other. She winked at Brie. "Now that were all together again."
"And you have spent far too much time hiding out alone," Gloria said as she gently squeezed her hand. "We need to get someone in your life; you need a boyfriend. Living here all alone and by yourself isnt a good idea..."
Gabriella sat silently for a moment or two as her mother went on, wondering exactly how she was going to break the news. Ultimately, she saw no alternative but to be honest. Holding both of her mothers hands in hers, and with her fathers arm around her shoulders, she slowly and carefully interrupted her. "Actually," she said, "there is someone in my life..."
Her mother beamed at her. "There is? Thats wonderful, darlin! Whats his name? Who is he? How long have"
She held up a silencing hand. "Actually," she said, glancing around quickly, "howd yall like a nice glass of wine?" Maybe if she got them all good and drunk first...
"Oh, honey, Im not at all sure I should have any," Gloria said, "not with these pills Ive been takin. Frank, honey," she said as she turned to her husband, "would yall mind gettin me my pills?"
"Sure." He got up, retrieved her purse from the closet, and handed it to her. She reached in, fished around for a moment with a rattling of gel caps inside a plastic container, and withdrew an amber vial that she handed to the doctor.
"Lemme see those things," the young doctor said, reaching for them. She reached for her breast pocket and took out her gold-rimmed, aviator-styled reading glasses, and slipped them on to read the label. "Jesus," she said. "These are some pretty heavy-duty barbiturates. No booze for you." She handed the vial back slipped off her glasses, and put them away. "How long did you say youve been taking these?"
"Since the day you disappeared," Frank replied.
She fought down the tears that threatened to well in her eyes as her chest began to tighten. She took a deep, steadying breath. "Im giving you a complete physical whenever you can make the time for it," she said, "and if everything checks out, Im taking you off of those things."
"Oh, never mind all that for now," Gloria said as she smiled at her daughter. "Just seein you alive and well is all the medicine I need." She squeezed her hand comfortingly.
"So whos the guy?" Ronnie wanted to know, quickly changing subjects.
"Yeah," Evie added, also eager to pursue more pleasant matters. "Spill your guts."
Sweet mother of Zeus! Gabrielle thought in near panic. She thought about making a run for it; just jump up and bolt for the door, and run down the gravel driveway to the road, and just keep on running and running and running through the forest of pines and firs until she got pounced on by a cougar or until a speeding logging truck squished her into roadkill...
With a nervous gulp and a forced smile, she said, "Why dont I get that wine first?"
"Well, we met in the military," she began. "It all kind of happened unintentionally, really. Actually," she added with a soft, forced laugh, and uncertain of who she was really trying to put at easethem or herself, "actually, the whole thing is really kind of funny..."
Mom and Dad, and her two sisters, watched her intently. The expectant silence was so thick you could cut it with a chainsaw.
She cleared her throat softly and nervously. "We were in this Iraqi prison," she began gently, "and"
Ronnie raised one eyebrow. "In prison?" she asked, incredulously.
"You mean, like in one of those military prison camps?" Evie asked.
"Uh... no, it was more like a dungeon," Brie replied, just before taking another healthy gulp of Merlot.
"What the hell were you doin in a dungeon?" Ronnie asked, fascinated.
"Well, thats another story all on its own," Brie replied. "But anyway, heres this tall, dark-haired, and thoroughly bad ass Marinewith these gorgeous blue eyes," she added, "whos hanging in this dungeon with me, who took out our jailer and flew us out of there in this absolutely fantastic hybrid combat helicopter..."
"A tall, dark-haired Marine with blue eyes, and hes a chopper pilot?" Evie asked, her eyes and grin wide as she squirmed in her seat. "This is starting to sound like one of those paperback romance adventures!"
"Oh, man!" Ronnie chimed in, rapidly fanning the sudden heat from her face with a nearby magazine. "I have got to meet this guy!"
"So were inside this combat helicopter, and we had to go in to blow up this breeder reactor that the Iraqis were building." She took another healthy belt of wine to steady herself before continuing like a long burst of machine gun fire, hoping to sneak it by them if she spoke fast enough. "So she just opens fire with every weapon weve got and blows the sumbitch to hell and" With her jade-green eyes anxiously darting from one family member to another, she quickly and nervously slurped at her wine again.
The magazine stopped, and the ensuing silence was almost deafening as they all sat frozen to the spot. "She?!" the three women said, their eyes wide.
With her heart pounding in terror, Gabrielle put on a weak smile and said, "Uhh...did I ever tell you about the time when I was pinned down under enemy fire and...and..." Her voice trailed off.
Gloria sat there in stunned silence with wide eyes. So did Ronnie and Evie.
Frank looked a little puzzled. He was a dear, sweet man who loved nothing more than his family, and he was incredibly sharp when it came to the cattle business; but there were times when the best word to describe him was "befuddled." He looked at his youngest for a moment, then said, "Duh?"
Ronnie and Evie looked at each other. Evie the prosecutor looked dismayed, but Ronnie the detective was smiling as she held an open hand toward her, palm up. With a growl of exasperation, Evie reached into an inside pocket of her tan sport coat and withdrew a wallet, and from that she withdrew a crisp 20 dollar bill. She handed it to Ronnie, who accepted it as her smile expanded into a grin, and stuffed it into her own wallet.
Gloria seemed to sink a little into her seat, and she sighed heavily. "Frank, darlin," she said, "would yall mind gettin me my pills?"
She had been telling them about their adventures together, combining their recent escapades with those of ancient Greece. "Yes, I love her," she said in conclusion. "And its more than being in love... You have got to understand, she brings out things in me that I never ever thought were there. She has shown me the world. She is the bravest, most selfless and self-sacrificing person Ive ever met. If only you knew her as well as I do... She has done things in the name of the greater good that I dont think I could ever do. She is my inspiration and my strength. Shes my best friend, my partner...shes the other half of my very soul."
"Yknow," Frank said after a moments silence, "when I was in the Navy, I felt the same way. I thought the woman of my dreams was out there, somewhere. Turns out that in my case, my soul mate was right there in Dallas."
Gloria took his hand in hers, and squeezed it gently. "I can understand your concept of soul mates," she told Gabriella. "Sometimes you find em in the most unexpected places."
"Damn right," Evie agreed.
"If you really love her, Brie," Ronnie said, "I think I can safely speak for the rest of us when I say, Good on ya, girl."
She had been so afraid that they wouldnt understand; and once again, she felt as though a massive weight had been lifted from her shoulders. "Let me show you something," she said. She got up from the sofa and took down the two of the many glassed-in frames from the fireplaces mantel, then returned to her spot on the couch to show them off. "These are mine," she said, indicating the medals inside, "and these are Ginas."
Eagerly, with Ronnie and Evie rising from their seats to lean over the back of the sofa for a better look, they examined the case that held Bries medals. Among her medical insignia and the variety of colored ribbons, there were also a Distinguished Service medal and a golden SEAL pin. But the one pin that really grabbed Franks attention was...
"Oh, my dear God," he said, struck with both awe and pride.
It was a Silver Star, which had been awarded to her for bravery in combat. The awards didnt come much higher than that.
"Holy shit," Ronnie said. She looked over the trio of pins, and then she looked at her baby sister. To say that she was impressed was a vast understatement. "Youve really done it all, havent you?"
She shrugged and shook her head shyly. "Who, me?" she said modestly. "Naw... The SEAL pins more of an honorary thing than a formal one that I got from some of the guys. I just went out on a mission with a SEAL team one time and helped em out a little."
"Just helped em out a little, huh?" Evie said with a wry smile and a new sense of pride in her baby sister.
Brie grinned back at her. "Here," she said as she gently laid Ryans case on top of hers. "If you really want to see someone whos done it all, lemme show you these." Inside it were Ginas gold aviator wings, the same Distinguished Service medal that Gabrielle had earned, a Silver Star, a Bronze star, two Medals of Valor, a Flying Cross that had been awarded to her by the Air Forceshe was qualified to fly both rotary and fixed-wing aircraft, and could fly anything from a bubble-topped egg-beater to an F-117 Stealth fighterher Top Gun wings, which were usually reserved for top-of-the-line Navy fighter pilots, her Expert Marksman pin from the Marine Corps infantry, her pin from the USMCs Sniper School ("She graduated at the top of her class," Gabrielle told them), three Purple Hearts for wounds sustained in combat...
"Jesus Christ," Frank said in awe. "She really is a warriorin the truest sense of the word."
"Yeah," she said, her voice barely audible under her breath. "Yeah, thats my Xena." She pointed to one of the medals. "Thats the one that shes the most proud of." She indicated her partners Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest award in the entire United States military. "She was awarded this one for arranging a peace treaty between some Albanian and Bosnian factions who were about to go at each other with everything they had. She saved the lives of over two thousand local soldiers that day, along with maybe ten thousand civilians and at least a thousand Marines who almost got called into actionand she did it without firing a single shot." Brie was the only person outside of Ryans team who knew the details of how that arrangement had been accomplished, and she was reluctant to discuss them here. Maybe someday she would tell her folks about how Gina and a small team of recon-force Marinesthe Marine Corps version of the Navy SEALshad kidnaped those two Bosnian and Albanian leaders, taken them to a remote forest cabin up in the mountains, and then had blindfolded them and had forced them to kneel on the hard wooden floor, and then had pointed guns to the backs of their heads. "You two will sign a peace treaty if its the last fucking thing you ever do," she had told them, her voice as soft as silk and as cool as ice. "And if you even think about reporting this incident to anyone... you can run, but you cannot hide. You will be found, and you will be killed."
Brie wasnt in total agreement with Ginas approach in that particular incident, but she had to admit that it had been extremely effective. "She can be very persuasive," she told them at last.
Gloria looked up from the medals to regard her daughter fondly. "You really do love her, dont you?"
Gabrielle looked back at her with shimmering eyes. "With all my heart," she replied softly.
Misty-eyed, Gloria softly said with her Texas accent, "Well, ah dont care what the Baptist churchll say, and ah dont give a big damn rats ass what the Republican Party or the Daughters of the Southll say; youve certainly got my blessin, darlin."
"Same here," the rest of them chorused.
Unable to think of anything to say as the tears of relief began to spill from her eyes, Brie slipped an arm around her and lay her head on her mothers shoulder. In return, Gloria hugged her youngest again. "Im happy for you, darlin," she whispered, and kissed her forehead.
There was the familiar sound of their Cherokee pulling up to the house. "That should be her," Brie said, and a moment later the warrior came in with her familyminus Mikey, who was still inna the jail, but she had managed to get hold of Jack Sawyer and had brought him along. The introductions were quick, and Gina was suddenly quite surprised and delighted to find her attention split between the two sisters. "You never told me there were two more just like you," she whispered to her partner.
"It musta slipped my mind," she said with a playful grin.
"Yeah, right. Youve been holding out on me."
"Think of how much fun youll have trying to tell us apart."
It wasnt long before the wine was flowing and the house was filled with the sounds of talk, laughter and music, and soon after that there were the incredibly delicious smells of something cooking in the kitchen. Thomas and Frank found themselves talking business, and discovered that they had much in common; Thomas ran his own dude ranch in Wyoming, and Frank was a cattleman from Texas who needed to sell off a few extra head of cattleand the Di Falcones ran a number of Italian restaurants throughout the country that needed the extra beef. Gloria and Antonia couldnt help speaking so warmly and glowingly about each others daughter ("Shes a-such a cutie!" "My Gawd, shes a gorgeous an strappin young thang!"), Travis the paratrooper found himself sitting with a prosecuting attorney who was fascinated by men in uniform, and Ronnie found herself practically sitting in the lap of, and engaged in deep conversation with, a CIA computer expert.
All in all, things were good.
"So," Ronnie was saying to Joxer with a gleam in her eyes, "just from a strictly law enforcement perspective, how would I hack into..."
Sawyer smiled almost but not quite lasciviously at this mirror image of Gabrielle. "Strictly from a law enforcement...?"
She smiled that oh-so-familiar smile, sipped her wine, and said with exaggerated innocence, "Of course..."
At the other chair, Evie was saying, "...weve been trying to nail this Ortiz character out of Juarez, Mexico, but we can never get enough evidence against him for an indictment..."
"Ortiz? In Juarez?" Travis asked. "You mean, Paco Ortiz?"
Evie looked at him with raised eyebrows. "You know him?"
"Not very well. I dont really get involved with the family business, but my brother Mikey sure knows him. Hes got all kinds of dirt on Ortiz, and could really help you out a lot. Problem is, hes in jail right now, and..."
Evie sipped at her wine. "Well, maybe my D.A.s office can contact New Yorks D.A.s office and work out some kind of a deal to get him out early. I mean, if he really wants to help..."
"With me and Gina prodding him? I can guarantee you hell help..."
Brie managed to pull Gina off to one side for a soft conversation. "Xena," she said, "this whole get-together wasnt really Joxers idea; it was Aress, trying to start a war between our families"
"I know," she replied. "When you came home from the store the other day and surprised my mom with all that colorful Navy talk, I was seriously tempted to ask him to get me the hell out of all thisand thats when it struck me."
They watched their families in silence for a few moments.
"They certainly do seem to like each other, though, dont they?" Gabrielle asked.
There was a sudden burst of raucous laughter.
Xena grinned. "Yeah, they sure do. Especially Joxer." She indicated him with a slight movement of her head.
Gabriella turned her eyes toward him and saw him whispering something into a grinning Ronnies ear. Part of her was glad for him, and a part of her actually felt a little jealous.
And then, speaking louder and with a wineglass in her hand, Gina wandered back into the party. "Hey, did Brie show you guys her SEAL pin?"
"Yeah," a tipsy Evieor was it Ronnie?said. "She cheated to get it."
"Bull-shit!" Gina said in defense of her partner. "She earned that pin! But the Navy wouldnt give it to her because she didnt go through the proper channels. Instead, she got it from the two guys whose lives she saved."
"What two guys?" a tipsy Ronnieor was it Evie?asked.
"Oh, please, Gina," Brie said bashfully, "dont"
But she was on a roll, and wouldnt be stopped. Draping an arm around her partners shoulders and pulling her close, she said, "This little Texas twister crawled out, belly down and under heavy enemy automatic weapons fire, to drag two wounded men to safety. She got a Silver Star for that. If that isnt SEAL training, I dont know what is." She gave Gabrielle a kiss on the side of her head, and Gabrielle turned about three shades of crimson.
"Hey Angie," Travis said, "tell em about that time when..." He never got to finish that sentence; his voice was drowned out by louder conversations and more laughter from nearby.
Angie? Gabrielle thought. She looked at Xena in mild surprise. "Angie?" she said. "Youre names Angie?"
"Angela, actually," she replied. "Mom always calls me Angelina, and I shortened it to Gina." She looked at her, a little surprised to see mild puzzlement in her eyes. "What, Ive never told you that?" She shrugged it off. "Travis calls me Angie just to bait me because he knows how much I hate it..."
Gabriella looked thoughtful. "Angie." She began to smile a little bit.
Gina gave her a warning look. "Hey, now dont you start..."
"Ahm not startin anything," she said with a mild drawl, shaking her head gently as she fought to suppress a smile. "Ahm just havin a little trouble picturin you as Angie, thats all." She silently thought about it some more. "Angie," she muttered again. "Angie, Warrior Princess."
"Im warning you, dont go there..."
"Angie of the Marines!" she suddenly said gleefully, her eyes sparkling from the wine. And then, even louder, "Angie, Destroyer of Na Ow! Okay, okay! I give!"
She released her vice-like pinch on Gabrielles earlobe. And then she just couldnt help herself; with a wry smile of her own, she slipped a hand behind her head, gently pulled her close, and kissed one temple. "Listen, can you keep an eye on things here? Ive got to step outside and talk to someone for a second."
"Is that what you Marines call it?" With half a glass of white wine in one hand, Gabrielle pointed with it. "The bathrooms that way."
"No, I mean Ive got to talk to Ares."
"Oh. Yeah, okay..." Sipping at her wine and weaving just a tiny bit, she made her way toward the kitchen.
Xena stepped outside onto the porch. "Time to talk, Ares," she said as she leaned against the wooden rail.
There was a flash of blue-white light and Ares appeared, with his arms folded once more across his chest and leaning with his back against one of the porchs heavy wooden posts.
"Looks like you shot yourself in the foot," she told him.
"Did you call me here just so you could gloat?" Ares asked, his expression dark and his voice cool and annoyed.
She sipped at her wine. "Actually, I called you here to thank you for bringing our families together," she said with a smile. "I dont think we could have done it without you."
"You really know how to hurt a guy when hes down, dont you?" he asked with a scowl. "Youve always been above that kind of thing before."
"Oh, relax, will you? You really need to unwind. Why dont you come inside and have some wine? My mom makes this lasagne thats just"
"What, the God of War should sit down to a lasagne dinner and talk about cattle ranching? I dont think so."
Xena shrugged. "Suit yourself. Im going back inside." She started for the door, and then stopped. "By the way," she added with a wry smile as she turned around. "You asked me a couple of days ago if I was going to buy a mini-van and go driving all the neighborhood kids around to soccer practice. The answer, of course, is no. But you gave me an idea. I think this retired warrior princess will start a martial arts class for them; teach them how avoid fights when they can, and how to defend themselves when they cant." She slowly approached Ares once more, and leaned forward to kiss one cheek. "Thanks for the inspiration," she said with a delighted grin that Ares found to be absolutely infuriating.
Scowling and swearing in frustration, the God of War turned and stalked away, and disappeared in one more burst of blue-white light.
Still smiling, she turned toward the door and stopped for a moment to observe the activities inside. A grinning Gabriella was filling everyones wine glasses again, a laughing Gloria was setting out dishes and silverware, and an incredibly pleased Antonia was dishing out hot, steaming lasagne. The conversation was loud, the music was livelya Joseph Lo Duca soundtrack had replaced Frank Sinatra on the cd player-there was laughter and celebration, and there was love everywhere.
It just doesnt get any better than this, she thought with a deep and contented sigh. She stepped inside once more and approached Gabrielle from the rear, and slipped her arms around her waist to gently hug her from behind. With their folks merrily looking on, she gently captured the bards face in one hand and turned it toward her, kissed her on the lips, and then embraced her warmly once more as they grinned together at what had at last become one big happy family.
Gabrielle was not ostracized, shunned, spanked, sent to her room without dinner, deported, or otherwise punished for the use of her colorful Navy talk. Young children, however, could be. Kids, please dont try this at home without proper safety gear.
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