Legal 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.

Author’s Disclaimer: The following story contains adult language.

Lyrics from “Small Town,” by John Mellencamp; copyright Mercury Records 1985. All rights reserved.

Lyrics from “Boondocks” and “Welcome To The Family,” by Little Big Town; copyright 2004, 2005 Warner/Tamerlane Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Lyrics from “Wanted: Dead or Alive” by Jon Bon Jovi; copyright Polygram Records, 1986. All rights reserved.

Lyrics from “You’ll Accomp’ny Me,” by Bob Seeger; copyright 1979 Gear Publishing Co.

Answers and questions depicted on the following episode of “Jeopardy” are actual answers and questions from an airing of this show, which I videotaped specifically for this story. I couldn’t have made that stuff up if you’d put a gun to my head.

 

Colonel Gina Ryan, USMC, is called away from home for a lecture tour back east, while Captain Gabriella Duncan, MD, USN, has to stay behind to recuperate from a battle with influenza. What does the bored and cantankerous doctor do to keep herself occupied?

 

“The New Adventures of XENA: Warrior Princess”

“Home Alone”

By Ernie Whiting

mailto:erniewhiting@centurylink.net

Day One

With a troubled look in her sapphire eyes, Gina Ryan said, “Look, they really don't need me there. It's just a couple of lectures and a lot of classroom stuff, and a couple of tours and–”

“Geeda, please. I’ll be fide,” Gabriella Duncan said, cutting her off. “I cad get by perfectly well odd by owed for a couple of days.” With glassy, red-rimmed green eyes and a soft yet hoarse voice, and with sinuses that felt as though they were packed solidly with concrete–and with a small wad of tissue protruding from one red-rimmed and slightly inflamed nostril to stem the flow–she was dressed in Gina’s flannel pajamas and a soft and warm fleece robe, all the colors of a night-shrouded forest, and semi-reclining against one corner of the living room sofa with her legs curled up behind her and one elbow against one armrest, her head against her hand.

Dressed in her service uniform, and with her driver standing at ease by the front door, Ryan was kneeling in front of her and gently holding the doctor’s free hand in her own. God, she looks so sick and frail, and so precious, she thought with a worried heart. “I don’t like leaving you here sick and alone for so long,” she said again, her voice soft and her eyes mildly pained, while giving that hand a gentle squeeze. With her other hand, she brushed a few stray hairs from Brie’s forehead (after months of letting her hair grow longer, the bard had recently gone back to her “short” look). “Let me stay here for a few more days. You look like shit, sweetheart, and you sound terrible.”

“Yeah, well...” the doctor began. “I feel a lot better thad I did a few days ago.”

That was certainly true enough. A few days ago, the Marine had awakened to the sounds of the bathroom fan and Brie’s retching. She had quickly tossed back her covers, bolted from the bed, and had rushed into the bathroom, where she had found her partner on her knees, slumped in front of the toilet with her forearms resting on the front of the bowl and with her forehead resting on her arms. Her entire body had been bathed in sweat.

She could remember it all in every frightening detail, as though it had just happened just yesterday...

“Jesus!” she said quietly. “Oh, my God...” She hurried into the bathroom and quickly knelt next to her to gently place one hand on her shoulder and the other on her forehead as Brie leaned forward once more to heave into the toilet.

“Ohh, gods,” Brie groaned. “Ohh, shit... You know what it’s like when your joints feel like they’re full of ground glass, your muscles ache like you’ve been beaten with a staff, and you’re head’s throbbin’ like a sonofabitch? Try to imagine the absolute worst hangover of your entire life...”

“Yeah?..” She looked at her carefully, noticing how pale and drawn she appeared, and taking note of the dark circles around her eyes that stood out in such stark contrast to her pallor.

Weakly, the bard finished with, “I wish I felt that good right now.” She suddenly lunged forward again, and heaved dryly.

Wincing painfully in her eyes and in her heart, Gina held her as comfortingly as possible.

“You feeling a little better now?” she asked, when Brie’s dry heaves finally seemed to have relented. “You feeling up to going back to bed?”

“Yeah... Yeah, I think so...” She rose slowly with Gina’s help, and filled a glass with water to rinse out her mouth before heading back to the bedroom. “Cold,” the bard said softly as she shivered uncontrollably while slipping into bed once more. “God, I’m so cold...”

“Here.” She pulled a pillow up and placed it in front of Brie so she could embrace it for warmth, and curled up behind her to supply her with her own body heat. Suddenly, she was reminded of that day when she and a feverish and wounded Gabrielle had been hiding from cannibals in that cave with the rising tide. “You take it easy,” she whispered. “Rest now.”

Eventually, the doctor’s shivering slowed and then stopped as sleep finally claimed her.

Gina was still curled up behind her when the doctor awoke, but she roused as soon as she felt movement in her arms. She forced an encouraging smile when she saw those beautiful but thoroughly exhausted green eyes. “Hey,” she said softly, her voice dry. “How’re you feelin’?”

“Hot,” she whispered weakly as she languidly pulled back the covers. “It’s so hot in here...” She was burning with fever, and her skin was damp with sweat, and the dark circles around her eyes stood out in even more stark contrast against her pallid skin. And then she suddenly began to cough uncontrollably, with her chest rattling with a thick fluid that had accumulated in her lungs. It took several moments before she finally settled down again. Gina went into the kitchen to get her something cold to drink–to soothe her irritated throat, and maybe to even bring her fever down a little bit–and by the time she returned to the bedroom with a tumbler of orange juice, the doctor had fallen back to sleep.

She set the glass down on the night stand next to Brie’s side of the bed, settled down on the floor, and rested one arm on the edge of the bed as she gently took her hand and sat with her.

When Brie finally awoke, she regarded the slumped and sleeping Gina with puzzled eyes. She squeezed her hand, and shook it gently. “Geeda?”

She awoke with a mild start at the sound of her partner’s voice, and passed a hand over her face while taking a deep breath. “Hey,” she said, letting that breath out in a deep and fatigued sigh. “How’re you doing?” She saw that some of the bard’s color had returned, and the darkness around her eyes wasn’t as prominent as before.

“Cold,” the blonde replied softly, and with a mild shiver. “Exhausted, wrug out, add thoroughly purged at both edds. I cad’t breathe through by goddabb doze, add by edtire body feels like it’s beed used as a fuckid pidyata.” And then, with a dry sarcasm that wasn’t directed at anyone in particular, she added with a grumble, “Other thad that, I feel like a billiod fuckid bucks.” And the more she groused, the more she sounded once again like her irascible old self; and to the warrior it had been the most beautiful sound in all the world.

She’s okay, she thought with an inward smile and a sigh of relief. She’s gonna be okay.

Then the doctor glanced at the clock, and took note of the time. She looked back at Gina. “Have you bid here all day?”

Gina shrugged nonchalantly. “I’ve been in and out,” she lied...

The truth was, she had not budged once from that spot. If Brie had needed her, she was going to be right there for her, no matter what.

Which was why she now hated so much to leave her alone.

“Look,” the Marine said, “I can reschedule those inspections for another–”

Doh, you cad’t,” Brie responded firmly. “Your itiderary is already set; they’re waitig odd you, so you deed to get back to Addapolis to give those lectures. I’b feelig a lot better, I’b well beyod ady chadce of a relapse, add you’ve got a lot of staff add studedts waitid for you to show up–add what you have to teach theb I’b sure is godda save their lives subday. Besides,” she added, “you’re odely godda be god a few days, add I cad take care of byself. I’ve got shitloads of adalgesics add adtihistabeeds, there’s a fridge full of fruit juice add a padtry full of chickedd soup, I’ve got expectoradts add cough suppressadts, add a cell phode add a list of dubbers that’s logger thad by arb.” She smiled reassuringly at her partner as she gave her hand a little shake. “I’b a doctor, rebebber? Who would doe better how to take care of be thad be?”

Gina smiled at her. “I do, y’stubborn little squid,” she replied, her voice soft and still unconvinced. “And I know how you doctors always make the worst damn patients, too, because you all think you don’t have to listen to anyone else because no one else knows better than you doctors do.”

Brie gave her The Look–that dry, dour, cynical and mildly warning Look that said so much without making a sound. “Oh, please,” she groaned softly. “Where the hell did you hear that steabid pile o’ bullshit?”

She gently brushed a few stray strands of blonde hair away from her partner’s brow and a few more behind one ear, and with a soft voice and a partially suppressed smile she said, “From you.”

That seemed to shut her up, at least for a few seconds. She narrowed her eyes in mild vexation, and growled softly as she thought back...and then concluded that Gina was right. Yet she still refused to concede. Finally, she smiled reluctantly as she softly asked, “What, you actually believe everythig I tell you?”

Gina’s smile expanded into an affectionate grin. “Just the important stuff.”

She finally lost the battle to suppress her grin, and let it come. And then she slipped her arms around her in a warm and fond embrace. “Go odd,” she said at last, softly and affectionately and emphatically, as she finally released her. “Get outta here. I probbise you I’ll be fide. Besides, the sooder you get out of here, the sballer your chadces will be of catchid by bug.” Then she turned to Ryan’s driver, Master Gunnery Sergeant James Dalton, who was still by the front door and still standing with his feet comfortably apart and his hands flat and behind his back, and with his shoulders squared and his spine straight. “Get her outta here, willya please?”

James Dalton had been a Private First Class when he had first met Gina. Disadvantaged by a mild learning disability, he had been working as a hospital orderly for the previous two years, doing the most menial of jobs, and had been pretty much without hope of ever being promoted. With Ryan’s help, however, during her stay in the Alameda NAS hospital, and with her encouragement and support, he had overcome this obstacle and had obtained his GED; from there, and with a new sense of self confidence that he always claimed the colonel had given him (“Hell, I didn’t ‘give’ him anything that wasn’t already there,” Gina would always counter with a wry voice and a fond smile. “I just took a little extra time to draw it out of him.”), he had quickly made his way up through the enlisted ranks, and was now–in Ryan’s opinion–not that far from becoming a commissioned officer. Frequently in charge of his own squad, he was currently between assignments–and therefore on temporary duty, at Ryan’s request, as Ryan’s driver and personal assistant.

“If I may, Colonel,” he said as he checked his watch, “we are on kind of a tight schedule.”

Brie returned her eyes to the tall brunette. “There, y’see that?” she said. “Go.”

Gina still wasn’t convinced. She sighed heavily, and said, “At least let me leave Jimmy here to look after you. After all, he did a great job looking after me.”

Brie’s eyes narrowed. “Doh,” she said emphatically. “I dod’t wadt hib gettig sick, either.” And then she turned her sharpened eyes on the master gunnery sergeant. “Jibby, get her the hell out of here. That’s add order.”

Ryan turned to face him so there would be absolutely no chance of her being misunderstood, and pointed a finger at him in mild warning. “You can just belay that last, Master Guns,” she commanded him, countermanding her partner’s order. “She’s delirious.” She then returned her gaze to her partner, where her sapphire orbs once more took on an expression of concern. With a soft voice, and uncertain if she was speaking for Dalton’s benefit or Brie’s, or even for her own, she added, “She’s sick and feverish, and she doesn’t know what she’s saying.”

“You cad just belay that belay, Baster Guds,” Captain Duncan firmly ordered him. “She bight bust you dowd to PFC add have you scrubbig trash cads for the rest of your days, but I’b your doctor.” And here her green eyes chilled dangerously as she added with a threatening snarl, “So I suggest you ask yourself if you really edjoy colodoscopies, ‘cause I cad arraydge for you to have a whole budch of ‘eb.”

The master gunnery sergeant weighed his options for a long moment. Acutely aware of the fact that he was royally screwed either way, when he finally replied he chose his words very carefully. “No more so than a bullet between my eyes fired from a thousand meters out, ma’am,” he finally responded.

Gina managed to keep the smile off her lips, but it took quite an effort. She knew full well that Dalton was referring to her unquestionable marksman skills rather than taking sides; nor was he being insubordinate. He was just being honest. And he knew just how far he could go without crossing over the line of insubordination, so while he sounded as though he was standing at the edge of presumptuousness, in this situation the colonel knew she really couldn’t fault him for his frankness.

Nor could Brie. Suddenly realizing what an uncomfortable bind she had just put him in–caught between not only the orders of two superior officers, but also between the needs of his two personal friends–she pulled a sheet of tissue from the box near her, wadded it into a ball, and threw it in the master guns’ general direction, where it dropped silently to the floor after a flight of about two feet. “Will you two clowds please get the fuck outta here?”

Laughing softly, Gina rose to her feet. “Okay, all right, we’re going,” she said. And then she pointed a mildly admonishing finger at her. “But you make sure you keep warm, all right? And there’s plenty of Jewish penicillin in the fridge. I’ll call you tonight.”

Brie smiled wryly at her. “Yes, Buther.”

She folded her arms across her chest, and scowled at her with pretty much the same stern look that she usually reserved for subordinates. “And y’all can just watch that smart little mug of yours, too, Captain,” she said as she mimicked Gabriella's soft and breezy, east-Texas drawl, “or I will call your mom and have her come over here to henpeck you to death.”

Brie narrowed her eyes dangerously, but she still smiled with amusement. “You wouldd’t dare,” she said with a playful growl.

With an identical expression in her own eyes and a playful little growl of her own, Gina replied, “Try me.”

Later That Evening

With her robe wide open to reveal a white t-shirt and white, flower-print panties, and with her eyes squeezed shut and her head thrown back, whipping back and forth and with her short hair flying about in wild abandon, Brie was grinning in pure joy as she enthusiastically pumped her fists in the air, alternating left-right-left-right-left-right in time to the music, while energetically rocking her hips and dancing her way in white-stockinged feet across the living room’s hardwood floor as the Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin’” blasted from the stereo, rattling the walls, the windows, and every picture, vase and knick-knack in the room. The wide screen satellite television was tuned in to a classic rock station, with the screen black except for the title of the song and the artist’s name in white, along with other pertinent album information, that bounced and flickered randomly, like a computer’s screen saver; and as the song ended she finally collapsed on the sofa, panting for breath. “Yeah,” she breathed softly, and with a satisfied smile while she brushed her hair back with her hands. Get that heart workin’, get that blood pumpin’... She knew not to exert herself too much, but she did need to work out some kinks and to get her blood flowing.

There was a short, silent pause between songs, and then the next song up–much to Brie’s delight–was John Mellencamp’s “Small Town,” from some album she couldn’t remember, back in 1985. Alright! she thought. She settled down with another deep breath and relaxed, and drew her feet up to sit cross legged on the sofa, and her smile widened just a bit more as she hugged a pillow to her chest and closed her eyes, and listened while she quietly reminisced.

Well I was born in a small town

And I live in a small town

Prob'ly die in a small town

Oh, those small communities

This song always brought to her mind so many fond memories of growing up in that small, east-Texas suburb just outside of Dallas; memories of dressing up in her Sunday finest and going to church when she and her sisters were just kids, and then stopping at the local drug store or the A&W drive-in on the way home, where Mom and Dad would buy them root beer floats and ice cream sundaes...

Educated in a small town

Taught the fear of Jesus in a small town

Used to daydream in that small town

Another boring romantic that's me

...of jeans rolled up to the calf and white sneakers, and white cotton blouses and pony tails; of going as a young teen with her sisters and a gaggle of friends to the movies on Saturday afternoons in their hometown’s only movie theater, which had its box office facing right out there on the sidewalk and beneath the wide, wedge-shaped marquee that provided shade in the summer and shelter in the rain of winter; of driving with a caravan of friends down to visit the beaches of Galveston, with trunks full of firewood and beer (the latter of which having been illegally obtained, of course; otherwise, what was the point?), to party long into the summer nights around a roaring campfire while listening to Don McClean’s “American Pie,” Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s In The Cradle,” and the Guess Who’s “No Sugar”; to the Charlie Daniels Band’s “Uneasy Rider,” the Allman Brothers Band’s “Jessica,” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Gimme Three Steps”; to the Outlaws’ indisputable classic “Green Grass And High Tides” (God, I love those blazin’ guitars! she thought), the Marshall Tucker Band’s “Can’t You See,” Bob Seger’s “Roll Me Away,” and anything by Stevie Ray Vaughn; of drive-in burger joints and high school football games on Friday nights, and of losing her virginity at age seventeen to Tommy Ray Boyette–her high school’s football team captain and “The boy I’m gonna marry some day!” she’d silently declared, with sparkling green eyes and a dazzling white grin–on a warm, honeysuckle-scented June night in the back of his light-blue and faultlessly restored, 1973 Chevrolet El Camino, while the Eagles softly sang “Peaceful Easy Feeling” somewhere in the distance...

She sighed again, and smiled a little more. She was back in the moment, and for now all those intervening years simply did not exist. She was seventeen again, a senior in high school; and she could hear the music and the crackling of the fire, she could smell the wood smoke, she could feel the warm sand beneath her, and the heat of the fire and the chilly breeze that came in from the Gulf of Mexico... And suddenly she could even feel the spirit of Tommy Ray, sitting right there next to her on the sofa as he had at that beach party so many years ago, with his arm comfortably around her shoulders as she leaned into him...some six months before he died out on that Gulf coast oil rig, when he had been swept into the icy and choppy sea by the gale-force winds and the massive waves of a raging storm while trying to save the life of a fellow oil worker...

But I've seen it all in a small town

Had myself a ball in a small town

Married an L.A. doll and brought her to this small town

Now she's small town just like me

And then she wondered... She wondered if, after she and Gina finally retired from the military, if she might be able to convince her partner to move to Texas. (Her own parents’ plans to move to northern California had fallen apart–at least, for the time being–after the selling party decided they didn’t really want to sell after all.) Sure, life here in Nevada City was nice, with the foothills and the forest and the wildlife; it was quiet and very scenic, and was rich with that small town atmosphere. And the people seemed nice enough; especially after she and Gina had saved a school full of children from a terrorist bomber. People on the street would pass her by with a smiling and friendly, “Hi, Doc! How’re you?” “Morning, Brie! Cold enough for you?” “Hey, Doc! There’s a sale at...” “Be sure and say hi to Gina for me...” And she could easily get wrapped up in half-hour conversations at the drug store. There were still enough of its older inhabitants that still clung to those small-town values. But the ever growing number of San Francisco transplants who now outnumbered those older original inhabitants–and who seemed to be in the process of completely replacing them–always seemed so preoccupied with their cell phones and their Volvos (“Vulvas,” Brie always called them, because she thought they were pussy cars) and BMWs (which the irascible Navy doctor always called laxatives, or “Bowel Movin’ Wonders”). “Yeah, hi, how are you?” this latter group would ask hurriedly; and before she could answer, they would return to their cell phone conversations. They always seemed more concerned with their work and their stock reports, their investments and their portfolios. Apparently, their idea of getting out of the city’s rat race was to move to a small town and bring the rat race with them.

Or was it Brie herself that they had no time for? Was there something about her that put them off? Her east-Texas drawl, maybe? Which, though mild, still stuck out in this growing crowd of cosmopolitan yuppies like a bale of hay in the middle of a sushi bar? (But when they found out she was a doctor, they suddenly couldn’t tear themselves away from her!) There were times when this honest and sincere and proud young Texan missed her old hometown. After all, it was Home; it was where her roots were, it was where she came from, where she was born and where she grew up...

No I cannot forget where it is that I come from

I cannot forget the people who love me

Yeah, I can be myself here in this small town

And people let me be just what I want to be

When the song finally ended, she wondered again if she might be able to convince Gina to leave these northern California environs to take up a simple and slow-paced life in a small heartland town.

She sighed heavily. Probably not, she concluded with a leaden heart and a pang of longing for her old hometown. Probably not. After all, this was their home. After all they’d been through, with hauntings and attempted terrorist bombings and their various contributions to this community, they had earned the right to plant their roots here and call this home now.

But it just wasn’t Texas.

You’re just gonna have to deal with it, amiga, she told herself with a little sigh. This ain’t Texas, and it sure as hail ain’t 1988 anymore, either.

Unsure of whether all this was brought on by nostalgia or homesickness, and with misty eyes and another sigh, she shook off the sentimental thoughts of days gone by as she reached for the remote control, and switched the television over to ESPN. Maybe what all those San Fran yuppies need is a little bit of attitude adjustment–Texas style, she told herself, and actually began to smile a little bit. She was sure she could just charm them to bits with a friendly smile and an easy drawl; but if necessary, she also had two very hard fists.

And then something suddenly occurred to her. She quickly rose from the sofa and headed upstairs to the master bedroom, and approached the dresser. She picked up the small, black, Japanese-made wooden jewelry box that rested there, and opened it. “Let it be here,” she muttered as she poked around inside with one finger, shoving various bits and pieces of jewelry around. “Let it be here, let it be here... Please, let it b–” Gazing into its green velvet interior, she suddenly grinned as she reached for her old high school ring, which must have sat in this box, untouched, for nearly twenty years. She put the box down and slipped the ring onto the ring finger of her right hand, and grinned a dazzling, misty-eyed grin as the gold ring, with its dark blue gemstone, her initials and graduation year, and the tiny reproduction of her high schools’ crest, sparkled brilliantly in the sunlight. “Wow,” she softly whispered with surprise and delight as she gazed at this connection to her old hometown, and felt those unbreakable roots take hold once more. “Wow...it still fits.”

Day Two

The basement served not only as a wine cellar, which kept their collection chilled at a perfect fifty-eight degrees all year round, but it also served as an exercise room. They could exercise down here in the winter, and still manage to not only ward off any unwelcome chill, but also to work up a good sweat; and during the summer, it prevented them from getting overheated. And it provided an excellent place to store Gina’s substantial collection of firearms. The solid steel, walk-in vault, with its electronic key pad entry system, stood concealed in the shadows beneath the stairs, while the voluminous wine rack stood against the opposite wall; and scattered haphazardly throughout the rest of the room were a set of barbells, a weight bench, and a collection of free weights, with a Stairmaster that was a gift from Gina’s grandfather and which was shoved near another wall, and was seldom used (for aerobic exercise, they both preferred a good long run in the woods; but the high-priced exercise machine did come in handy when the weather turned foul).

Restless and bored, and feeling a little in need of working out a few kinks in her joints and a little stiffness in her muscles, Brie headed downstairs to get in a little bit of a workout. After a few curls with some ten-pound dumb bells, and then a few overhead presses, she headed over to the stair machine; and within five minutes, she had already built up a fairly good sweat. Careful not to over-exert herself so soon after her bout with the flu (Start out light, she reminded herself; start out light, and slowly build up.), she soon headed upstairs for a hot, steamy shower. Standing beneath the hot, heavy spray with the water sluicing down her body, she could feel her muscles relaxing and her sinuses opening. Slowly and cautiously, she tried taking a long, deep breath through her nose, and let it out in a long, grateful sigh. Why didn’t I think of this before? she asked herself, with a smile of relief and just a little bit of self-admonition. Smart of you, Doc, real smart of you.

After luxuriating in the heat, the moisture and the steam until the water heater finally began to run out, she shut off the shower with a twist of the taps, then stepped out through the swinging, frosted glass door and reached for the big, soft, burgundy bath towel to dry off. Into the bedroom she went once more, and slipped into a pair of pale blue cotton panties and a dark blue sweat suit, heavy cotton socks, and her bunny slippers. She also remembered to stuff the pockets of her zippered sweatshirt with more tissues for catching those infrequent but persevering sneezes. Properly dressed, dried and supplied, she then headed downstairs to see what was in the fridge.

Chicken soup; that’s what she really needed, some of Gina’s homemade “Jewish penicillin.” Gina’s was the best in the world because it was thick and creamy, and had those big chunks of chicken and extra-wide egg noodles, those big pieces of carrot and celery, and had just the right touches of rosemary and sage.

On the other hand, maybe she ought to start taking in a little more solid food. Maybe she ought to try her luck with a ham sandwich or something. Her gastrointestinal tract could probably handle it by now, after the workout it’d had.

With a ham and cheese sandwich , a bowl of soup and a glass of red wine on the coffee table before her, and with a movie plugged into the DVD player, she prepared to settle down to watch “The Mummy.” Not that special effects flick, with Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weiz and Arnold Vosloo; ooohhh, no. No, this was the original–the old black-and-white classic, starring Boris Karloff and Edward Van Sloan, and all those time-honored actors from the old days. She flopped into her favorite corner of the sofa, leaned back against a pile of throw pillows, and then she suddenly frowned a puzzled little frown. She shifted forward and to one side as she reached behind herself, felt around for a moment, and then pulled out Gina’s rubber chicken. She regarded it for a moment with a puzzled scowl. So that’s where it got to, she thought. She tossed it over her shoulder, and with a little smile she nestled back comfortably to enjoy an evening of good wine, good food, and good movies.

What was it about these old black-and-white movies, anyway? she wondered, as she picked up the remote control in one hand and her sandwich with the other. Gina was always waxing ecstatic over how much better these old classics were than the color special effects shows that she claimed relied so much more on computer animation, and less on writing. (Oddly enough, the one thing that Gina and Ares actually had in common was a love of old, classic horror movies.) And since Gina wasn’t here and she really had nothing else to do, she decided to start working her way through Ryan’s entire collection of classic Universal Picture horror movies, and to see what her partner’s fuss was all about. After all, it was a cold night, and the winds were gusting and whistling around the house, and that attic window shutter had managed to work itself loose again somehow...it was a perfect night for watching classic old horror movies. With a little smile of anticipation, she started the movie with a click of the remote. As the studio’s black-and-white logo faded up on the plasma screen, and with her bunny slippers resting nearby as the music poured out through the surround sound speakers, she drew her feet up behind her as she nestled comfortably into her cozy, deep corner, raised her sandwich to her lips with mild expectation, and–

–and the telephone rang.

She lowered the sandwich with a growl of aggravation, and cast a sharp glance over her shoulder at the offending instrument. God damnit, she thought. She started to set her plate down, and then thought, Screw it. Let the answering machine pick up.

On the other hand, it might be Gina, she suddenly thought. Half turned on the sofa, and ready to dash to answer at the moment she heard Gina’s voice, she watched the answering machine as it continued to play its recording

“Hello,” said her voice, electronically altered by the small speaker. “You have reached the Ryan and Duncan residence. No one is home right now, so please leave your name and phone number after the beep, and one of us will call you back as soon as we can. Thank you, and have a nice day.”

Beeeep.

No message. Gina would have identified herself and left a message, or perhaps would have waited for her to answer; and anyone else who was important would have simply left a message. It was either a wrong number, or a telemarketer. Either way, it was no one Brie needed or even wanted to talk to.

She turned once more to face the television set, started the movie again, and raised her sandwich to her lips...and then a thought occurred to her. She lowered the sandwich once more. That outgoing message... Was it really wise to inform the caller of their names, and that no one was home? What if it was a burglar casing the place? Such things did happen, even here on the outskirts of Nevada City. (The upside of living way out here among the trees and the wildlife, Brie thought, was that it was too far out of the way for the average burglar to bother with; the downside, however, was that those infrequent miscreants who did come out this far could operate unobserved.) (But then, she thought a moment later–and with a devious little smile–so could the homeowner!) And if it was one of those damned telemarketers, didn’t she owe it to herself to pay them back for all the times they had dragged her and Gina away from the dinner table?

She set her plate down on the coffee table before her and paused the movie, and then rose to approach the answering machine. It was definitely time to change that outgoing message.

She picked up the answering machine, pressed the “record” button, and with her best John Cleese imitation she changed the message. Then she pressed “play,” and listened to her voice as it came out of the tiny speaker.

“Good evening,” she said, with a clipped and upper-classed British accent. “You have reached five-five-five, nineteen ninety-four. Please leave your name, your telephone number, and a brief message after the beep, and we absolutely promise to do our utmost best to return your telephone call just as soon as we... feel... like it. Cheerio!” Beeeep.

Brie smiled. Not bad, she thought; a little bit of wry humor is always good. And then, on second thought, she decided that it might be just a little too belittling to those uptight few who had no appreciation for wry humor. The buzzkills, she grumbled silently. And then a better idea occurred to her, so she pressed the record button again, redid her message, and played it back.

“Hi. You have reached five-five-five, nineteen ninety-four. I can’t answer the phone right now; I’m down in the basement, dissolving Gina’s body in a vat of hydrochloric acid. Please leave a message after the beep, and I’ll get back to you when I can. Thanks.” Beeeep.

Brie laughed softly. “Gina’s gonna love that one!”

And then she thought, I oughtta leave one for our friends. She recorded another message, and then played it back so she could listen to herself coming from the speaker.

“Hi. And thank you for calling Doctor Gabriella Duncan’s Mental Health Hotline. If you are obsessive-compulsive, please press ‘one’ repeatedly. If you are co-dependent, please ask someone to press ‘two’ for you. If you have multiple personalities, please press ‘three,’ ‘four,’ ‘five’ and ‘six.’ If you are paranoid, we know who you are and what you want. Stay on the line and wait for the beep so we can trace your call. If you are delusional, press ‘seven,’ and your call will be transferred to the mother ship. If you are schizophrenic, listen carefully and a small voice will tell you which number to press. If you are a manic-depressive, it doesn't matter which number you press, ‘cause no one’s gonna answer anyway. Thanks.” Beeeep.

She was ready to leave it at that...but then she decided to leave one for what she called “those pesky, annoying, ass-bite telemarketers.” She knew that they were just doing a job, but damnit–did they really have to call when they’re trying to relax after a long, hard day, and watch a movie? Or when they were trying to catch up on a little physical lovin’? Or especially at dinner time, and drag one of them away from the table? If that was deliberate on their part, just to make certain that they would catch their potential customers at home, then the hell with them! The motherfuckers deserved to get an earful!

With the movie completely forgotten now, and suddenly consumed by a new spirit of playful pugnacity and sheer self-entertainment that was far more amusing than any movie, she changed the message again, just for the sake of hearing her own contentious voice coming out of this little box.

“Hi. You’ve reached five-five-five, nineteen ninety-four. If you’re a telemarketer tryin’ to sell us some kind of shit we don’t want, no one here wants to talk to you. Go away.” Beeeep.

She chuckled to herself. “Yeah, that’s better. No, wait!” she quickly amended as her enthusiasm mounted. “I can do better, I can do better...” She changed the message once again, and played it back.

“Hi. You’ve reached five-five-five, nineteen ninety-four. No one here wants to talk to you festerin’, leaky assholes. Go fuck yourselves!” Beeeep.

“There we go!” she laughed, thoroughly delighted with herself. “There’s a keeper! That’ll take care of those telemar–Oh God!” Her lower belly suddenly rumbled dangerously. And this time, there was no waiting for it to settle down. “Oh God! Oh God, oh God, oh God...” There was no time for an internal debate as she quickly set down the answering machine and then bolted toward the bathroom, hoping to make it in time. Forget about trying for the upstairs bathroom; this was a dire emergency, and the massive window in the downstairs bathroom meant nothing to her right now. To hell with modesty, to hell with the cougars and the bears that might pause in their activities to watch her, to hell with everything. This was a crisis that could very easily escalate into a full blown, outright disaster!

She barely made it in time. “Ohh, God,” she muttered in silent relief as she settled down. “Ohh, man, that was close...”

And then another thought occurred to her. Is there any toilet paper in here? she wondered. Even a piece of an old scroll? This bathroom was seldom used, and neither she nor Gina ever remembered to restock on a regular basis. Aww, man... With a sinking feeling in her heart, she reached for the two small cabinet doors under the sink next to her–and found a single roll. She sighed with relief. “Oh, man,” she whispered. “Thank you, God. Thank–”

The telephone rang.

She groaned miserably when she heard the answering machine pick up, and her heart plunged into her belly. “Oh, no,” she muttered in dismay.

“Hi. You’ve reached five-five-five, nineteen ninety-four...”

She hung her head in distress, and groaned even more loudly, “Oh, no, no no no no no no...” as the machine continued to play its message.

“No one here wants to talk to you festerin’, leaky assholes. Go fuck yourselves!”

Beeeep.

***

At the other end of the line, and as she sat in the living room of an expansive ranch house just outside of Dallas, Texas, Gloria Duncan nearly choked to death on her coffee.

***

The phone rang again just as she exited the bathroom, and she dashed across the living room to answer before the machine picked up again. “Hello?”

“Hey, darlin’, it’s Mom.”

“Hey, Mom! How’re you doin’?”

“I’m doin’ okay,” Gloria replied. “How’re you?”

“I’m okay. Well, I’ve been better; I’m just gettin’ over a case of the flu.”

“Oh, my,” she said with growing distress. “I’ve heard there’s a nasty case of that goin’ around. You sure you’re doin’ okay, Sugar?”

She grinned a wry grin. “Yeah, I’ll live,” she drawled.

Brie’s mom was quiet for a moment...and then she asked, “Uhh, listen, Brie... Did you or Gina change the message on your answerin’ machine?”

There was a very brief moment of thoughtful silence at Brie’s end of the line. “No. Why?”

There was another brief moment of thoughtful silence, this time at the Dallas end. “Oh, nothin’, I guess,” Gloria replied at last, with what might have been just a hint of relief in her voice. “I guess I just must’ve misdialed. So what’s goin’ on?”

“Nothin’ much,” Brie replied. “Gina had to fly back east for a few days, and I’m just hangin’ out here. What’s goin’ on back home?”

“It’s rainin’ like mad,” Gloria replied, “a typical Texas toad-choker...”

“Yeah, I remember those,” Brie drawled with a crooked little grin.

After they hung up maybe half an hour later, Brie asked herself, What message would the always pragmatic Gina leave on this machine? And the answer came to her almost immediately. So she made another change–the final change–and played it back: “You have reached five-five-five, nineteen ninety-four. You know the drill.”

Beeeep.

***

There was nothing left of her sandwich but a few crumbs scattered across the plate, and her soup bowl and wine glass were empty. Curled up on the sofa and half-covered with a forest-green fleece blanket, Brie pointed the remote at the DVD player and stopped the disc. “Huh!” she said to herself. For a movie that was made back in 1932, this was pretty darned good. It was moody and atmospheric, with a good use of light and shadow that would have been absolutely ruined by color; the acting was pretty good (“Zita Johann has a freakishly big head,” Brie had observed), and the writing was even better, and the sets were incredibly detailed... She’d always thought this was supposed to be a horror movie; she had never thought of it as also a story of a love that had crossed three millennia.

“Wow,” she said softly, in mild amazement.

She glanced at the gently ticking, counterfeit antique clock that rested on the mantle, and checked the time. (The clock–a house warming gift from one of their techie friends–looked like one of those old, turn-of-the-century-styled timepieces that blended perfectly with the house’s Victorian ambience. It had an analog face, with intricately designed hour and minute hands and black Roman numerals against a white background, and it would tick the seconds away and chime every hour; but it ran on a lithium battery, and was equipped with a small, self-correcting satellite receiver that kept it perfectly accurate.) Not too terribly late, she thought. I gotta see the rest of these. And as long as she was going to be up for a while, she may as well go ahead and pour herself a second glass of wine... She tossed back her fleece blanket and went to refill it. Nothin’ much else to do, she thought, so I may as well make a night of it.

***

By the time the last movie in the series was over, she had taken note of just how much this character had changed during the 1940s; changed from Imhotep, the seeker of his lost love, to a brutal, mindless murderer called Kharis. After shutting off the tv set and the DVD player, she went off to triple-check both doors and every window in the house. She also left all the lights on downstairs, and then she made her way up to the bedroom and settled into bed–and made certain that her fully loaded Glock 19 was within easy reach.

And as the wind howled around the house and played noisily in the darkness with that loose attic shutter, and with visions of ancient, dusty and bandaged murderous corpses in her mind, sleep was a long time coming.

Day Three

In the middle of briskly running a feather duster between the picture frames and across the mantle over the fireplace, she slowed and then stopped as she gazed at the two wood-and-glass cases that contained their assortment of medals and ribbons. We’ve really been through some serious shit, she thought, remembering those old days as her eyes wandered over them. I’m surprised that we made it together as far as we have.

And then, quite abruptly, she remembered one operation for which there had been no recognition; no rewards, no medals, and no real thanks, except for that which had come from the family of the little girl that they had rescued. Since it involved crossing the border into Mexico with a pair of military aircraft–and without the permission of the Mexican government–it had not been an official mission authorized by the military; it had been purely personal. With her hands on the edge of the mantle, she cast her memory back to that day when she thought she might lose her partner...

With the kidnapper’s bullet-riddled car trapped between a UH-60 Seahawk behind and Ares in front, she stepped up onto the bumper with one foot, then up onto the hood with the other; and with a hollow, metallic boom-bang!, the remainder of the hood dented and partially collapsed under her weight. She dropped to one knee, hauled back a fist, and with a roar of unspeakable rage she sent it slamming like a battering ram right through the windshield. Glass exploded like a single clap of thunder, and glittering, razor shards sprinkled all over the kidnaper, all over the seat, and all over the floor, lacerating his face and the upholstery. She seized his jacket in one vicelike fist and hauled him out through the shattered remains of the windshield, breaking out the rest of the glass and tearing the seatbelt from its bolts on the floor and body frame. She dragged him across the hood, and then slammed him bodily to the asphalt where she proceeded to pummel the jihad terrorist to death.

“You motherfucker!” she screamed in indescribable rage as she hit him again and again, with that same battering ram of a fist. “You mother fucker! You think you can come into my country, and attack our children? I’m gonna fuckin’ kill you, man! I’m gonna FUCKIN’–KILL–YOU!!” She slammed her fist into his face again and again, emphasizing each word with another violent blow to shatter his nose, his cheekbones, his teeth, his jaw.

The rest of the hostage rescue team–a blend of recon-force Marines and Navy SEALs that had arrived behind her via the Seahawk–stood about uncertainly, wondering if they should intervene to save the man, and wondering if they really wanted to incur the wrath of their commanding officer if they did intervene.

After seeing to her young patient and judging her to be more frightened than injured, Brie rushed forward. “Restrain her!” she shouted to the contingent of warriors, even as three Marines had already begun to move in. “Restrain her, goddamnit, restrain her!

Ryan could feel herself being forcibly pulled off of the terrorist. She tried to whirl on them, but restraining arms kept her in check. “Get offa me, goddamnit! Get the fuck offa me!”

“Restrain her! Get her the fuck outta here!

“Get the fuckoffa me, goddamnit!” she roared, struggling against her men as they started to drag her backward. “That’s a fuckin’ order! Get offa–”

Stand down, Colonel!” Brie shouted. Standing in front of her partner, she grabbed the front of her fatigue shirt in one tight fist. “God damn it, stand down!”

“You get the fuck outta my face!” She tried to whirl around to search for an obliging ally. “Somebody kill that motherfucker! That’s a goddamn order–you kill that motherfucker, right fuckin’ now!”

“Belay that!” Commander Duncan shouted to the troops. And then she turned back on Gina. “You fuckin’ stand down, Colonel, or I swear to God I’ll relieve you of this command and have you in chains!”

The ensuing silence and stillness were so sudden and profound that they were nothing less than stunning.

Ryan stared in surprise and rage into the green eyes of the Navy doctor, and the doctor stared right back at her with a blend of heart-pounding apprehension and unswerving determination. Was it a trick of the light, the latter wondered, or were Gina’s eyes really blazing as red as those of a raging demon?

“Don’t you fuckin’ threaten me!” Gina roared. “This is my goddamn command! And I–”

“And I’m chief medical officer of this command!” Brie roared back. “And if I think you’re posin’ a threat to either yourself or to your team ‘cause you’ve gone ‘round the bend, then by God it is my duty to relieve you of this command–to guarantee not only the health and safety of this team, but also your own!” She paused for a moment to get her breath back. “Now you just fuckin’ stand down, Colonel. You got that?”

Furiously panting and sweating, the lieutenant colonel stared at her in seething rage as the rest of the troops wondered just what the hell they were supposed to do. Follow the orders of a Navy commander, or a Marine Corps lieutenant colonel? After all, the two were of equal rank; and they knew they were not obliged to follow an order that they knew was illegal. Yet the Marines were also loyal to their own, as the sailors were to theirs. There was always a sense of rivalry between the two, but...well, it was unlikely that this would result in a turf war; a battle between Navy SEALs and recon-force Marines.

But then, the key word was unlikely, not impossible.

And if such a battle should break out among these highly-trained Special Warfare experts, who would win?

It was up to the fast-talking bard to defuse a possible war between the two factions. Not only did she need to stop Gina, but she also needed to preserve the unity of these forces.

Filled with terror, but refusing to back down, Brie softly said, “Please, Gina. Stand down.” With terrified eyes and heaving breath, she softly asked, “Do you really want to spend the rest of your life in a federal prison for murdering that bastard piece of shit?”

Ryan continued to stare at her in rage, but the blazing red of fire gradually faded, to be replaced with those familiar orbs of cool blue as she slowly relaxed.

“For the love of God, Xena, please,” Gabrielle implored. “Stand down. He’s not worth it. I hate his fuckin’ guts too, but it’s not worth your career–or your freedom–to take matters into your own hands. So please...stand down.”

The coolness of those sapphire eyes turned to Arctic iciness. With a slowing breath, she finally turned to one of her Marines. “Captain Miller,” she said at last, her voice soft yet unmistakably snarling, “you have someone find a shovel, and you have them pick up that worthless piece of dog shit over there, and you get him the fuck out of my sight, right fuckin’ now!”

“Aye aye, ma’am!” He hurried off to carry out his orders.

Brie took a deep breath, and let it out in a heavy sigh of relief. “Whew!” she said, with a forced little smile as she gently grasped Gina’s arm. “That was–”

With cold eyes, Gina yanked her arm out of Brie’s grasp as she abruptly turned her back on her, and stormed off with a roaring, “FUCK! GOD DAMN IT!!

Wanting to pursue her, yet also afraid to, she finally decided that her time could be better spent seeing to her young patient for a little follow-up care–and it would also give her a chance to get this confrontation out of her mind, at least for a little while. She turned, and headed back for the helo where the young girl was sitting.

With a reassuring smile, she gently asked, “So how’re you doin’, sugar? Are you feelin’ better? Lemme take a look at those wrists again...”

She was in the middle of applying a little more anesthetic cream and some protective bandages to the child’s rope burns when the Marine approached them. She settled down on the edge of the deck next to the girl, and smiled at her. “Hi,” she said softly. “My name’s Gina. Are you okay?”

The little girl nodded.

“You’re in very good hands here,” she told her. “The doc here is the best in the business.”

Brie tried to resist smiling at the compliment, and only partially succeeded.

“You’re really one brave little girl, y’know that?” Ryan asked the child. “And I want you to have something.” She reached for one side of her collar, and removed the small, black, eagle-globe-and-anchor pin that decorated it, and pinned it to the left breast of the girl’s tee-shirt. “This makes you an honorary member of the US Marine Corps,” she told her. “So if you ever need our help, you just let us know–and we’ll be there for you. Okay?”

The girl looked at the pin, and then at Gina–and grinned a huge, dazzling grin.

Gina grinned back at her, and gave her a playful wink. “Semper Fi,” she told her.

Still grinning, the little girl looked at the pin once more, and then at Gina again. “Semper Fi!” she replied.

Gina gave her a heartfelt and one-armed hug, and kissed the top of her head. “You take care, okay?” she said as she rose from her seat on the chopper’s deck. And as she walked off, Brie was acutely aware of the fact that Gina hadn’t spoken a single word to her. She hadn’t even looked at her.

She found her a few minutes later, sitting sideways in the pilot’s seat of Ares, with her forehead resting in the palms of her hands. She approached the co-pilot’s hatch, pulled it open, and climbed in to sit next to her partner. “Hey,” she said, softly and apprehensively. “Are you okay?”

Gina quickly straightened, and turned in her seat to look at her. “Yeah,” she said, maybe a little too brusquely. No doubt she was still seething. Sometimes, it took her a little while to cool down. “Yeah,” she said again, “yeah, I’m fine.”

Brie nodded, very slightly, to herself. And then, after a moment or two of uncomfortable silence, she timidly asked, “Are we okay?”

Gina’s sapphire eyes narrowed slightly, and a little crease appeared between them as she scowled a tiny, puzzled little scowl...and then they softened as realization dawned on her. “Hey,” she said softly as she reached for her. “Hey, c’mere...” She slipped her arms around her, and captured her in a warm and affectionate embrace. “I’m sorry I acted like such a bitch toward you out there.”

Thankful for the relative privacy of the helicopter’s cockpit, and with her heart blossoming with relief, Brie slipped her own arms around Gina, and hugged her tightly. When they finally released each other, the doctor said, “I thought you were gonna kill that guy.”

“For what he put that little girl through?” Gina asked, her eyes and voice still a little sharp. “For coming into our country and stealing one of our children, and for terrorizing an innocent little six-year-old? You’re goddamn right I was gonna kill him.” She felt her rage rising once more, and she fought it down as she turned her eyes to gaze out through the chopper’s plexiglass windscreen. Staring at nothing in particular, she sighed heavily. “The idea of it all just...” She shook her head slightly. “...pissed me off, y’know? I mean, you know how I feel about kids...”

Brie smiled a little bit. “Oh yeah,” she said, with both mild emphasis and a little empathy. She was well aware of how much Gina loved children. They might even have one or two of their own, once one of them retired...

She returned her gaze to Brie, and with complete honesty she added, “Fuck yeah, I was gonna kill him...until my little blonde conscience here got my attention by stepping up to give me a well-deserved smack across the back of my head.”

With misty eyes, Doc grinned that classic, heart-warming Gabrielle Grin. “I know how passionate you can get at times,” she said softly, “and God knows I don’t want to countermand your orders in front of your troops. I...I was afraid I might have crossed a line out there, though; a line that I might not have been able to step back across.” She sighed heavily. “I was just–”

“Hey,” Gina said softly as she gently stroked the bard’s cheek. “I know my passion clouds my thinking at times, and how I can get a little out of control.”

Brie raised her eyebrows in mild astonishment. “A little out of control?” she asked as she gently took Gina’s hand, and began to check it for fractures. “You sure you didn’t break your hand on that guy’s face?”

Gina finally began to smile a little bit, and then she chuckled softly as she flexed her fingers. “Everything works,” she said. “Hurts like hell, but fully functional.” And then she turned serious again: “And you have no idea how truly grateful I am to you for keeping me on the straight and narrow. So please believe me when I tell you this.” She gazed meaningfully into her eyes. “Nothing is ever going to come between us, okay?” She gently squeezed her hand, and gave it a reassuring little shake. “So you just keep giving me those head smacks whenever you think I need one, okay? ‘Cause nothing is ever gonna split us up. Ever.”

Several years and a promotion later, and standing in the living room of their Victorian house in Nevada City with her hands still resting on the edge of the fireplace’s mantle as she continued to gaze at their collection of medals, Brie smiled again as those words echoed in her mind. “Nothing is ever gonna split us up.”

Later That Afternoon

“Hi, babe,” she said softly into her cell phone. “How’re you feeling?”

“Better,” Brie replied as she smiled into the receiver. “A lot better.”

“Yeah, you sound better,” Gina’s electronically altered voice said with an audible smile. “You keeping warm? You need me to come home and make you some more chicken soup?”

“Naw, I’m fine. How’re the tours comin’?”

“Typical inspections,” Gina replied with a soft sigh. “Punch this, poke that, tweak the other, then get out in the field and show my eagles, kick some asses, and stomp around a little...” She sighed heavily. “Exhausting and brutal,” she added in mild yet no less deliberate exaggeration.

A voice in the background, belonging to a member of her teaching staff, suddenly said, “Hey, c’mon, Colonel–the cards are getting cold!”

Brie could actually see her partner as the latter cringed at having just been busted. “‘Exhausting and brutal,’ huh?” she asked wryly, and then silently laughed it off. She knew full well from her own personal experiences that no matter what the occasion, no matter what the assignment, or even no matter what the inspection tour, there was always time for poker. “How’s this ‘inspection tour’ comin’?”

“I’m losing my shirt,” Gina confessed. “I must be having a run of bad luck or something. Either that, or–” And then she raised her voice for the benefit of the other players as she turned to face them. “–or these old boys are cheating.”

“Bullshit, Colonel!” another of her instructors called out.

“Sore loser!” called out a third.

“Be nice, Colonel,” a fourth voice called out for Brie’s benefit, “or we’ll tell Doc about all the cigars you’ve been smoking.”

“Yeah!” said the first voice. “There’s so much smoke, in here we can’t see shit!”

I can’t even see my cards!”

Cards? We got cards? Where? I can’t see...”

There was a long, uncomfortable and profound silence from Brie’s end of the line. “You’ve been smoking?” the Navy doctor finally demanded to know.

“No, of course I haven’t been smoking,” Gina replied, almost sheepishly. “You know me better than that.”

“You better not have been,” Brie said, her voice more playful now, but still warning. “I can tell, y’know.”

“Yes, I know you can tell. That’s just one of the reasons why I don’t smoke.” She lowered the mouthpiece away from her lips as she turned to address the other players. “You guys happy now?” she asked with only partially pretended anger. “You see what kind of shit you bastards have gotten me into? You pricks! You fuckers!”

The other five players laughed.

“You gonna take that shit from those guys?” Brie asked with a grin. “You outrank ‘em, don’t you? Go make ‘em run laps or somethin’.”

Gina swung the phone away from her lips and addressed the others again. “Captain Duncan suggests that, due to your current behavior and lack of respect for your commanding officer, I make you gentlemen run laps,” she stated authoritatively. “I’m inclined to agree with her. What do you say to that?”

Silence. Like a group of fifth-graders caught passing cigarettes around in class, no one wanted to step up and turn over the full pack.

Finally, one lone and apologetic voice very timidly said, “We’re sorry.”

“We’ll be good,” offered another.

“You’d better be,” their CO told them, with just the right blend of military authority and parental indulgence in her voice.

“Well, hell,” Brie told her with a soft little chuckle, “maybe your luck will change for the better.” And then, with a suggestive expression in her smile and voice, she added, “I know you’re gonna get lucky when you get home.”

There was a brief moment of thoughtful silence. Not wanting to say anything too obvious with five of the guys sitting nearby at the poker table, all Gina could say was, “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Cool. So finish up quick with the rest of your ‘inspections,’ and hurry your ass on home.”

Gina grinned into the phone. “See you day after tomorrow.”

Later That Evening

“Hey, Ronnie. It’s Brie. What’s goin’ on?”

“Hey, runt!” Veronica Duncan replied merrily. (Out of the three identical triplets, Brie had been the last one out of the chute; and her two siblings–older than her by mere minutes–never failed to remind her of this fact with playful jeer.) “Nothin’ much; I’m just hangin’ out. What’s up?”

“I just need to pick your old and senile brain for a second or two,” Brie replied. “You remember the name of that store where you got your Stetson?”

“Jackson’s Western Wear, in Austin,” her sister replied, without a moment’s hesitation. “You lookin’ to buy one?”

“Maybe. I’m gonna check their on-line catalog–if they have one–and see what I can find.”

“Oh, yeah?” Ronnie asked. “You turnin’ country at last? It’s about time! I always thought you’ve been livin’ in California with all those yuppies for too dang long...”

“It’s more like gettin’ back to my roots,” Brie replied. “I’ve been down with the flu for the last few days, and bein’ stuck inside these walls for nearly a week has given me a lot of time to reflect...”

They chatted pleasantly for another thirty or forty minutes, just playing catch up and talking over old times, before Brie’s overworked gastrointestinal tract persuaded her to hang up. “I’ll talk to you again soon.”

“Hey, Brie?”

“Yeah?”

“Texas forever!” Ronnie declared, and one could hear the big, proud, Texas grin in her voice.

“Texas forever!” Brie agreed, with an identical grin, before hanging up.

***

The only light in the darkened living room came from the fireplace and from the wide-screen, HD television. Dressed again in her dark blue sweats and white bunny slippers, Brie was comfortably curled up once more in her favorite corner of the sofa, lying on one side with her arm atop the armrest and her hand supporting her head, while a cup of hot chocolate rested on the coffee table before her. She had spent the last few minutes logged into the Jackson’s Western Wear website, and had ordered a chocolate brown, wool felt, Wrangler Riata cowboy hat, with a pinched front and silver conchos around the crown, that would be shipped to her via express delivery, and was guaranteed to be in her hands within the next 48 hours. With that project now accomplished, she spent the last several moments channel surfing before finally settling on “Jeopardy.”

“And the categories for tonight’s first round are ‘Defending The U.S.,’ ‘Bond Movies By Initials,’ ‘Colorful Characters,’ ‘Seafood,’ ‘State Song Lyrics,’ and finally, ‘Good Sense.’ And remember–in the latter category, each correct response will be one of the five senses. Brad–start us off.”

“Defending the U.S.!” Brie said. That was a category that she knew something about. “C’mon, man, that’s an easy one!”

“I’ll pick ‘Bond Movies By Initials’ for two hundred, Alex,” Brad said.

“Aw, man!” Brie bawled. “You shmuck! You pussy!”

Another contestant, another question. “‘Good Sense’ for four hundred, Alex,” Stacie selected.

“‘Many rifles have a front and a rear one.’ Brad.”

“‘Sight,’” Brie said immediately. “What’s a ‘sight’. C’mon, man, everybody knows that–a front sight, and a rear sight! Elevation and windage. What is a sight,” she added, more loudly now, and with increasing speed and emphasis as she actually began to rise from her corner, almost as though her urgency might actually influence him in some psychic way. “What is a sight, whatisasight, whatisasightwhatisasightWHATISASIGHT!!”

Brad responded with, “Uhh... What is a...uhh...” He finally shrugged in defeat. “...‘barrel’?”

What?!” Brie shrieked at the TV set. “What’s a barrel? Are you outta your mind?”

“No. Stacie?” Alex asked.

Stacie smiled uncertainly, and sheepishly asked, “What is a ‘nose’?”

Brie’s eyes widened even more, and her jaw dropped in utter disbelief. “WHAT?!” she shrieked again. “A nose? What the f...” She fell back into her corner, and then started to laugh. “A ‘nose’ at each end! Yeah, right. What a weenie. Where the hell do they find these people?” She rose from her elbow and leaned back into the couch, and folded her arms across her chest; and with a shake of her head as she placed her feet on the edge of the coffee table, she snorted and sneered in mild contempt. “My God, if I was on this show I’d be a rich woman.”

“Beverly,” Alex said. “Your pick.”

“Good Sense for six hundred.”

“Petronius, author of the ‘Satyricon’, was known as ‘Elegantiae arbiter’ or ‘arbiter of’ this.”

Silence. Abruptly taken aback for a moment, and with her arms still folded across her chest and with the soles of her bunny-slipper-clad feet still resting against the edge of the coffee table before her, with their ears reaching like antennae beyond her toes, Brie sat in the darkness, her face illuminated only by the soft light from the television set, as she stared at the screen in absolute, motionless, stunned silence. The only movement in the entire house was when she finally blinked a couple of times before asking, “What?”

“Beverly?” Alex asked.

“What is ‘taste’?” she asked.

“Correct!” Alex declared.

She continued to stare silently at the television set for yet another moment. “How the hell is anyone supposed to know that?” she finally asked herself. “This game is rigged.” And then, cupping her hands around her mouth, she said loudly and dramatically, “You’re rigged, Alex! Y’hear me? Rigged, I say! Rigged!” She reached for the remote control by her side, and muttered, “This bites.” She pointed the remote at the TV set, changed the channel, and found “Family Guy.” She watched it for only a moment. “Why does their father have his testicles on his chin?” she asked herself curiously. “His name is ‘Peter,’ and he has his balls on his chin, fer God’s sakes. What, is there supposed to be some subliminal message in there or somethin’? Like the guy’s a dickhead or somethin’?”

She sighed heavily. As she rose from the sofa, she reached into one pocket of her sweatshirt, and took out the hard case that contained her gold-rimmed reading glasses; slipping them on, she then approached the DVD library to find another movie to watch. The rest of Gina’s classic horror collection was there, but she decided she’d had enough of that for a while; one sleepless night this week was enough. “What else have we got?” she softly asked herself as she scanned the titles. “Hmm... ‘Casablanca’?” That was one of her all-time favorite movies, but... “Just watched that a couple of days ago...” She continued scanning. “‘South Park?’” She smiled wryly to herself. “Gina surely does love her ‘South Park.’” She sighed. “Maybe next time...” She put the box back, and continued her search. “‘Jaws’? Noooo thanks... ‘House On Haunted Hill?’ (The original, of course) I don’t think so...” She ran through her collection of particular favorites (what Gina called “chick-flicks,” with mild derision)–“The English Patient,” “The Hours,” with Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Meryl Streep; “Thelma and Louise,” with Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, and “Ghost,” with Demi Moore, Patrick Swayze, and Whoopi Goldberg... The final scene of this movie always got her teary-eyed, because it reminded her so much of that final day with Xena in Higuchi, as the sun slowly settled behind Mount Fuji. And as to why she would watch this movie (alone; always alone) and put herself through that kind of torture... Maybe if she saw it enough times, maybe...just maybe she could finally dull that pain of loss, and it wouldn’t hurt so much... So far, she had not succeeded.

To shake off this sudden onset of melancholy, she quickly began poking through Gina’s favorite movies: “Dirty Harry,” “Magnum Force,” and “The Enforcer”; “The Dirty Dozen,” “Bullitt” (“With Hollywood’s greatest car chase scene of all time,” Gina enthusiastically called it), and “The Maltese Falcon”; “The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly,” and the director’s cut of the first “Lethal Weapon,” and “Commando,” with Arnold Schwartzenegger...

Nope, nope, nope. She continued scanning titles...and then paused for a moment. “Hmm... ‘Woodstock,’” she said. She pulled out the disc and read the back cover, then nodded to herself. “What the hell, why not?” she quietly asked herself with a little smile. “Let’s check out all the naked hippies...”

“Conservative” was not a label that one could apply to Gabriella Duncan; but then, neither was “liberal.” No doubt the pastor of the Baptist church she used to attend back home would now describe her as “liberal,” because of her views on organized religion and women’s reproductive rights; and the majority of their former San Francisco neighbors and other residents would automatically assume, upon seeing her in her Navy uniform, that she was a traditional conservative. Brie, however, liked to think she was completely outside of the political spectrum, because she held views that were likely to offend both camps. Not that she particularly cared about offending them; she thought of herself as a free-thinker, and if they couldn’t handle that, well, that was their problem.

“Good God,” she said softly to herself, “look at all the nekkid people!” It wasn’t offensive to her, it was just a little surprising. After all, she was a medical doctor; she had seen and handled every part of the human body there was. If she had believed that there was anything immoral, indecent or obscene about the naked human body, then she was in the wrong line of work. But she had also been brought up a Baptist, and a lot of that upbringing had stuck with her in spite of her efforts to shed most of it. Her parents–who were very conservative–still went to church every Sunday, and never failed to voice their disappointment over Brie’s refusal to attend; and Ronnie occasionally went, whenever she was feeling particularly guilty over some transgression, whether real or imagined. And when these triplets had been younger, their other sister, Evelyn, had sung in the church choir–and still attended on a semi-regular basis. So it was still with some considerable wonder that Brie watched all these young people, grooving to the music and dancing, and smoking incredible amounts of weed and dropping incredible amounts of acid, and bathing in communal groups in the lake...

“Jesus,” she said, with a mildly amused little chuckle. She liked to think of herself as open-minded, but she still didn’t think she would ever be able to doff all of her clothes and then jump naked with dozens of people into a pond to go skinny-dipping, or into a mud hole to just go crazy with glee. With the values–or guilt trips, depending upon one’s point of view–that had been instilled in her by her parents, aunts, uncles and community leaders, and in spite of her medical training and experience, she would just be too embarrassed.

She gazed at the screen a few more moments...and then, suddenly, her eyes widened in shock as her jaw nearly dropped to her lap. “Oh, my God,” she said. “Oh, my God!” she repeated, only more urgently this time. She sat up straight, her eyes glued to the screen. “Oh, my God!” she said again, in wide-eyed shock and disbelief, as she leaned forward to stare in horror at the TV screen. “MOM?!?”

Day Four

Their attic was essentially a storage room, filled with possessions deemed too dear to part with yet not dear enough to use or display on a regular basis. She had originally come up here to search for an old photo album that she wanted to show to Gina; all those old pictures from home that she thought her partner might enjoy. While moving their two footlockers and a variety of cardboard boxes from place to place, she had worked up a bit of a sweat; so she went to the wide, dual-pane window and slid it open to let in a soft breeze. When she turned around once more to continue her search, her eyes fell on the black, dust-covered guitar case. She gazed thoughtfully at it for a moment, and then abandoned her search plans as she approached it. She knelt in front of it and then sat back on her feet, flipped up the little chrome catches, and lifted the lid to expose her old Gibson twelve-string acoustic. Just seeing the instrument made her smile as it awakened so many dormant memories; and as she lifted it from the golden, crushed velvet lining of the case, she remembered how good it had always felt in her hands. Why had she stopped playing? she wondered as she gazed fondly at it. Maybe, over the years of her Navy and medical careers and all of her moving from one corner of the world to another, she simply hadn’t found the time to continue. Well, she certainly had the time now. Dressed in faded blue jeans, a black pocket t-shirt and white cotton socks, she shifted on the floor so that she was now sitting cross-legged, and settled the guitar comfortably in her lap. A single, triangular white pick had been slipped over and under the strings just below the head, and a set of finger picks and a steel finger slide rested in the bottom of the case. She removed the white pick, grasped the neck gently in her left hand with her fingertips against the cool, familiar steel strings, and with her right hand she strummed a couple of cords with the backs of bare fingers. And then she winced at how badly out of tune the instrument was. With a twist of a couple of keys here and there, and with an experimental pick at the strings, she tuned it by ear and strummed again, and smiled at the rich, full sound. That’s better, she thought with a smile. Oh, yeah...

She donned the finger picks, and slowly began to play the opening riffs of Heart’s “Crazy On You.” And again, she would wince slightly with an inward “Yikes!” when she hit a sour note, and would have to tune another pair of strings. But the more she played, the more she remembered; and the more she remembered, the more effortless her picking became. And now that the guitar was properly tuned, she searched her memory banks for more songs.

“Let’s see...” she softly said to herself as she slipped the steel slide over her middle finger, and as she gently tapped one foot in a steady rhythm she began to sing softly while playing the opening of Little Big Town’s “Boondocks,” from their “Road To Here” CD :

I feel no shame

I’m proud of where I came from

I was born and raised in the boondocks

One thing I know

No matter where I go

I keep my heart and soul

In the boondocks

I can feel that muddy water

runnin’ through my veins

I can hear that lullaby

of the midnight rain...

She paused in her playing for a moment, and smiled at the memories that this song stirred. And then she began picking out “Welcome To The Family,” from the same group and album, and sang with a loud voice:

Welcome to the family

Hope you have a real good time

With my little sister

Yeah, she’ll make a real good wife...

There were a lot of lyrics she couldn’t remember, so she simply picked and chose as she went:

Hope you get a real good job

Hope you don’t mind company

‘Cause we’ll be here a lot...

She started to grin, because she knew where this song was going. More lyrics eluded her recollection, however, so she skipped ahead a little, and continued with:

If you know what’s good for you

You’ll treat her right, ‘cause

‘Cause grandpa’s the local sheriff

Yeah he’s the judge and the jury too

Uncle Bill’s the undertaker, son

He’ll dig a hole for you

Cousin Jesse, he’s just crazy

He’ll fight you just for fun

Mama’s got a real bad temper

and Daddy’s got a shotgun...

She stopped for a moment, and chuckled softly. “Colorful family,” she murmured.

She’d forgotten just how much fun it had been to play. She had taken lessons as a child, but had learned more on her own; she was just a natural player. Like Veronica, she had the uncanny ability to replicate a song after hearing it only once, and no one could figure out how either of them did it; but to them, it was just second nature. They used to strap on their “axes” and run through their repertoire of Allman Brothers songs, Charlie Daniels, Molly Hatchet, .38 Special, and a couple dozen or more other southern rock and new country artists and songs.

“What else is in here?” she asked herself as she strummed the instrument a couple of times. And then she remembered another song:

It’s all the same, only the names have changed

Every day it seems we’re wasting away

Another place where the faces are so cold

I drive all night just to get back home

It was from Jon Bon Jovi’s “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” from an album he’d done back in 1986.

I’m a cowboy

On a steel horse I ride

I’m wanted dead or alive

Wanted: Dead or Alive

 

She continued picking effortlessly, with increasing volume, the steel slide on her middle finger gliding up and down the neck, never missing a note. Skipping a stanza here and there, she went on:

Sometimes you tell the day

By the bottle that you drink

Some times you’re all alone

And all you do is think

I’m a cowboy...

She stopped, and smiled to herself. “What else?” she asked herself, her voice a soft whisper in the dusty, sunlit attic. “What else, what else...”

Golden sunlight and a soft breath of wind came in through the open attic window to gently caress her face. Turning toward the window to bask for a moment in the comforting warmth, and slipping the steel slide from her finger as visions of Gina suddenly came to mind, she positioned her fingers on the neck once more as she smiled for a moment; and then she nodded very slightly to herself, and tapped one foot gently to keep time, as she began to play and softly sing an old Bob Seeger song with her warm, velvety, Southern drawl:

A gypsy wind is blowin’ warm tonight

The sky is starlit and the time is right

And still you’re tellin’ me you have to go

Before you leave there’s somethin’ you should know.

I’ve seen you smilin’ in the summer sun

I’ve seen your long hair flyin’ when you run

I’ve made my mind up that it’s meant to be

Someday lady you’ll accomp’ny me.

She skipped ahead a stanza, and continued, and suddenly her smile began to falter as she was suddenly flooded with ancient memories...

Some people say that love’s a losin’ game

You start with fire but you lose the flame

The ashes smolder but the warmth’s soon gone

Visions of that final day at Mt. Fuji suddenly came to mind, and she could feel the cold, black clay urn in her hands as she sat alone on that Japanese hilltop with the sun sinking in the distance...

You end up cold and lonely on your own

She shook off the memories with a physical effort, and wiped at the sudden tears with first one shoulder and then the other, but she never missed a note or a beat:

I’ll take my chances babe I’ll risk it all

I’ll win your love or I’ll take the fall

I’ve made my mind up girl it’s meant to be

Someday lady you’ll accomp’ny me

Someday lady you’ll accomp’ny me...

She stopped for a moment, and gazed fondly at the guitar. Smiling to herself now with quiet joy, because she and Xena were together again and that nothing would ever split them again, she picked up where she had left off, and continued to play:

It’s written down somewhere, it’s got to be

You’re high above me flyin’ wild and free

Oh but someday lady you’ll accomp’ny me

Someday lady you’ll accomp’ny me

Still smiling that beatific smile, and with her trusty old twelve-string in her hands and resting comfortably in her lap, she continued to play and play...and play...

Someday lady you’ll accomp’ny me

Out where the rivers meet the sounding sea

I feel it in my soul, it’s meant to be

Oh someday lady you’ll accomp’ny me

Someday lady you’ll accomp’ny me

Day Five

Homecoming

She watched the scene outside from their bedroom window, and smiled. There was no military car this time, no Marine Corps driver to hastily dismiss; just a red and white taxi. The tall Marine got out from the back seat, hauled out her olive green duffel bag, and then slammed the door shut and paid the driver before turning to approach the house.

Brie’s smile expanded into a grin. It was time to put her plan into motion.

“Brie?” Ryan called out as she entered through the front door. “Where’re you at, babe?”

“Upstairs!” she merrily called out in reply. “I’ll be down in a second!”

With a grin, Gina swept off her flat, rectangular cap as she dropped her bag next to the closet by the front door, and then started toward the kitchen. For the last eight or nine hours, she’d been running on nothing but Navy coffee, and her stomach rumbled with hunger, demanding attention and appeasement.

And that was when, from across the room, she saw the guitar as it stood upright in a chrome stand next to the piano. She regarded it with mild puzzlement. In all the years they had been together, she had only seen it once before, nestled inside of its case; why was it out now?

Her stomach rumbled again, reminding her that it was time to feed the beast. She turned, and headed toward the kitchen.

The first thing she saw when she opened the refrigerator door was the pineapple juice. She could use that to silence the beast’s immediate demands, and give herself enough time to heat something up or build a sandwich. Out came the juice, and then she turned and headed toward one of the cupboards. She took out her favorite drinking glass–an orange, plastic, 16 oz picnic tumbler that stood out in contrast against the expensive glassware that surrounded it–and filled it to the brim. She was just raising it to her lips when she heard...

“Hey there, Marine,” said Brie’s voice from behind her. “Lookin’ for a good time?”

With a smile, she turned–

–and the tumbler slipped from her fingers, and hit the wooden floor with a hollow thunk! to splash pineapple juice across her polished, black shoes. Her sapphire eyes widened and her mouth hung open in surprise.

It was difficult to say which was more surprising; the very stylish Western hat the blonde was wearing as she stood with her weight shifted to one foot, and leaning with one hand high against the door frame and the other on her jutting hip, or the open, black leather vest, or the red thong, or...or all that soft, smooth, tanned skin.

She continued to stare at her for another moment or two, totally gobsmacked.

And then one corner of her mouth curled upward as the Marine started to grin. “Oo-rah!” she said softly.

With a decidedly lascivious grin of her own, Brie approached her. Standing before her at last, she slid her hands over Gina’s shoulders, up the sides of her neck, and finally she cupped her face in her hands. “Get ready to have your world rocked like it ain’t never been rocked before,” she softly drawled as she gently ran her fingertips behind the brunette’s ears and down along the lines of her jaw in a long, feathery caress. With her face tilted upward, she brought her lips closer and closer to Gina’s smile...

Grinning back at her, with her heart now pounding with excitement, Gina wanted so desperately to eagerly move in and get lost in a soft, warm kiss. Instead, she abruptly turned her face aside, and sneezed explosively.

Brie froze. She stared at her. “Gina?” she asked at last.

Ryan slowly recovered from her sneeze as she reached into a pocket for a tissue, and then slowly wiped her nose.

“Darlin’?” Brie asked, the lust in her green eyes now replaced with concern. “You okay?”

Slowly, Gina turned to face her partner once more, and sighed heavily as she gazed into those disappointed green eyes with her own glassy, red-rimmed sapphire orbs. “I’b sorry, babe,” she said at last, her voice hoarse and apologetic, “but I’b afraid I’ve got sub baaad dews...”

Crestfallen, Brie gazed at her as both her face and her heart fell as she softly moaned, “Aww, man...”

The End

Lots of telemarketers, calling at dinnertime to sell some crap that no one wanted, were verbally abused during the production of this story.

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