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.

 

This is just a short little story whose idea struck me while I was watching the California International Marathon. It got me wondering what might happen if poor Gina had made a really, really bad bet...

 

"The New Adventures of XENA: Warrior Princess"

"Marathon"

By Ernie Whiting

mailto:erniewhiting@centurylink.net

"It's a beautiful autumn day here in Sacramento, California, for the tenth annual Sacramento International Marathon. I'm your host, Richard Fitzwell—"

"And I'm Sandi Beavers!" chimed in the female reporter sitting next to him.

"—and we're here at the finish line with our banks of video monitors to bring you the latest updates on this yearly event..."

Both reporters were blonde, both had wide, glaring white idiot grins that could render an Eskimo snowblind, and both were dressed in heavy coats, woolen gloves, and knitted scarves to ward off the cold, and were sporting red noses and rosy cheeks. It was sunny, without a single cloud in the sky, and a bone-chilling thirty-five degrees on this early December Sunday morning.

"And we have such a diverse group of runners here today, too! Don't we, Rich?" Sandi asked, her breath wafting away in puffy white clouds of vapor on the cold, gentle breeze as she spoke with the practiced and overly enthusiastic good cheer that was so typical of local, air-headed television reporters.

"We sure do, Sandi!" Fitzwell replied, with equally buoyant cheer. "We have about a thousand people here today from all over the world, all taking part in this annual event. We have runners from Kenya and Nairobi, from the Philippines, from Brazil and Argentina, from Italy and France, and Russia, and from the Far East!"

"And we even have a few from—" And here, Sandi and Rich leaned in together, shoulder-to-shoulder, to regard each other with huge, moronic grins as they chorused together with unpracticed and therefore absolutely deplorable Aussie accents. "—the land of wundah, the land down undah—Austria!"

"And look at the running outfits some of these people are wearing!" Richard said as he pointed toward the runners. "How could anyone actually wear shorts and tank tops on a frozen morning like this?"

"Well, Rich, from what I've heard," Sandi said thoughtfully, and with a serious nod for emphasis, "you can get pretty warm if you run non-stop for twenty six miles."

"I guess so," Richard said as he nodded in agreement. "Some are dressed in shorts and t-shirts, some are in Spandex, some are in what look like leotards..." He paused for a moment as he squinted at his monitor. "And we have one woman who's wearing..." He looked at Sandi with puzzlement in his eyes. "Are those combat boots?"

Sandi gazed at the monitor with narrowed eyes. "They sure are, Rich!" she said. "Do you suppose she's someone's mother? As in..."

They faced the camera and laughed into it as they chorused, "Your mother wears combat boots! Har! Har! Har!"

"And she's also carrying what appears to be a book bag on her back," Sandi added speculatively a moment later.

"I don't know," Richard said. "That looks a little too big to be a book bag..."

"Check out the number she's wearing, Rich, and let's see what else we can find out about her."

"That'll give us something to do while we pause in our coverage of the Tenth Annual Sacramento International Marathon for this short message from our advertisers."

***

They were, indeed, combat boots. She also wore desert camouflage fatigue shorts, a matching t-shirt and a matching fatigue cap. With the exception of the long, black ponytail sprouting from the back of the cap and swaying to and fro with each footstep, every Marine dressed like this for long-distance running. And the aluminum-framed, desert camouflage backpack she wore certainly was larger than a simple book bag as it bounced on her back and shoulders. She winced slightly as she once again readjusted a padded strap on one shoulder.

Me and my big mouth, she reprimanded herself again as she kept pace with the rest of the runners, while clenching her teeth and scowling at herself from behind her smoky gray sunglasses. Me and my big stupid mouth...

***

"We've managed to come up with some information on this runner," Rich said, and then began to read from the notes placed before him. "Her name is Gina Ryan, and she's from Nevada City, California. She's thirty eight years old, and get this: she is a colonel in the United States Marine Corps!"

"Not only that," Sandi chimed in as she read from her own notes (apparently, she had her own source of information), "but she is Marine Force Recon!"

Rich checked his own notes. How come he didn't have that same information? He was supposed to be the lead anchor at this event. Man, someone's ass was gonna fry when he got done with them...

He gave her a puzzled look. "What's that mean?" he finally muttered, hoping that his microphone wasn't picking him up. It was.

"It means, Rich, that Marine force recon is the equivalent of the Navy SEALs," Sandi explained. "Marine force recon are the top of the line of the entire Marine Corps. Some would even say they're even tougher than the SEALs. And get this," she added. "She is also the Director of Special Warfare Training for the entire Department of Defense!"

Richard stared at her in mute, slack-jawed bewilderment.

"Which means she has rewritten the training manual for Force Recon Marines and Marine Corps Mountain Warfare, Navy SEALs, Army Rangers and Delta Force, Air Force Spec War...and even the British SAS consults with her!" She dropped her notes from fingers that had suddenly gone numb with shock, and with an awestruck expression in her eyes she gazed directly into the camera. "Holy Jes(bleep, went the censors) Chr(bleep)st, when it comes to kick-a(bleep)s warriors, this woman is at the top of the god(bleep)ed food chain!"

Stunned by her use of such language on the air, he didn't really know what to say. Worrying first about getting shut down by the FCC, and then hoping to save the situation, he suddenly grinned his empty-headed grin again. "Well, I guess that's just one more perk to enjoy from affirmative action!"

Sandi gave him a cold, sideways glance that he didn't notice. You don't get there through "affirmative action," you stupid worm, she silently told him as she began once again to check through the extensive notes that her assistant had provided her. And then she saw, along with Ryan's qualifications, a list of her medals and awards...

Affirmative action, my ass! she thought again, with a shiver that wasn't caused by the cold. This woman is a goddamned war hero!

***

Me and my big, stupid, fuckin' mouth, Gina berated herself again.

It had all started out so innocently. Gina had recently concluded an inspection tour at the Marine Corps training center down in Twentynine Palms—known as "The Stumps"—and had even taken part in some of the war game exercises because it was so damned much fun to get out there and get all dirty and sweaty with the rest of the gang. ("It's a great big sandbox where Marines get to have fun by blowing shit up, all year 'round," Gina had gleefully explained.) Captain Gabriella Duncan, on the other hand, had flown down to the North Island Naval Air Station hospital, down by San Diego, to do what she called some real work; to coordinate some new surgical teams and work out schedules, to make certain that the new software for the hospital computers had arrived, and to check inventory reports and to make certain that the new and improved MRI machine and other assorted pieces of lab equipment that she had ordered had been delivered on time and to the proper departments. ("Gotta have a smoothly runnin' hospital and plenty of Band-aids for when all those Marines at the Stumps show up with their splinters, scraped knees, and other assorted li'l boo-boos," she'd told her partner with a wry and playful little grin, when Gina had shown up in the Navy doctor's tastefully decorated yet utilitarian, wood-paneled office. "Gotta make sure the MRI unit doesn't wind up in Hematology. And speakin' of boo-boos," she had added with a tiny frown while eyeing the small white bandage on Ryan's forehead, "what's that?" "It's nothing," the Marine had replied, with a small, dismissive wave, as she relaxed in one of two padded leather chairs before Brie's expensive and paper-cluttered, oaken desk. "I guess I zigged when I shoulda zagged. Hell, if you don't get hurt while you're playing down at the Stumps," she added with a wry little Warrior Princess grin, "then you're just not havin' any fun." "Well, just be careful out there, will you, please?" the doctor had mildly admonished her as she filed away some forms in a bottom drawer. "Yes, Mother.") Once they had finished with their separate duties, it was time to head back up to Nevada City; to unwind, and enjoy some down time. Brie's sisters—Veronica and Evelyn—had shown up a day or two later, as had Major Robert Clay, USMC, and Gina's older brother, Major Travis Ryan, US Army Rangers, once they had heard that Brie and Gina were now off duty until further notice; and, of course, that night had turned into an evening of dinner, loud music, and beer. Lots and lots of beer. And bragging. Lots and lots of bragging.

Pleasantly buzzed, they were all sitting in the living room of the Ryan/Duncan house. Plates and silverware, and the remains of Veronica's Mexican cooking were strewn across the coffee table in front of the sofa and across the counter that separated the living room from the kitchen, as were a number of empty bottles of good Mexican beer that stood at attention. An advertisement for the Sacramento International Marathon had just been played over the local radio station they were listening to.

"Why don't you sign up for it, Gina?" Bobby had asked her. Once they had gotten off base and out of their uniforms and into civilian clothes, all military formality had been dropped. Also, Bobby and Gina were old friends, so it was rare indeed when they were not on a first-name basis. Sitting on a barstool at the counter between the living room and the kitchen, he reached for the beer bottle that rested next to his elbow. "Show 'em all how it's done."

Sitting in one of the two recliner chairs, Gina sipped at her glass of Corona. "What the hell for? I had to do that shit for a living. God knows I'm not gonna do it for recreation!"

"Oh, since when did we have to do it for a living?" Bobby asked. "You don't do marathons in the Corps for a living."

"Yeah, well, no. Not 'marathons,'" Gina replied. "But we've both done enough long distance running in our time—and I don't see why I should subject myself to any more of it if I don't have to." And then, with a relaxed, smartass little grin, she added, "On the other hand, you still haven't beaten my time."

"A couple of guys from my unit are coming damned close," Travis said. He was sitting near the middle of the sofa, leaning back comfortably with his legs stretched before him and with his arms folded across his chest, facing his sister. "You had better start looking over your shoulder, Sis, 'cause I got some highly motivated people who are in hot pursuit of breaking that record."

"Yeah, well, we'll see about that," Gina replied with a wry grin.

"The day you set that record was just sheer, blind luck," Bobby said as he hoisted his bottle to his lips. "Dumb luck. And you'd never be able to do it again."

"I don't need to."

"Understandable that you'd say so," Bobby said, with a smug smile. "I mean, after all, you're starting to get a little up there in years..."

With open defiance in her wide, sapphire eyes, Gina set her glass down on the table with a loud thunk! "Oh, bite me!" she had declared. "Bite! Me! Right here!" She shifted in her seat, and indicated a spot on one denim-covered buttock with an index finger. "Too old, my ass," she stated once more as she settled down once again.

"I got fifty bucks that says you can't do it."

Gina bristled even more as she rose to the challenge. Leaning forward in her recliner, she declared, "I got a hundred bucks that says I can!"

"Gina..." Travis began in mild warning.

She sipped at her beer again. "Hell, I could even run it with a forty pound pack!"

"Gina!" he tried again—but he was too late.

"You're on, Gina!" Bobby responded with a grin as he suddenly pounced on the opportunity that had just presented itself. "You are on, my friend!" His cell phone was out, and he was already dialing up some of their Marine buddies to see if they wanted to get in on a piece of the action, or just come out and cheer on one of their own. "Oh, my God, I'm gonna be rich..."

"A hundred says she drops out!" Ronnie declared, sitting next to Bobby and with a boot heel hooked on the bottom of her own barstool. "My hundred says she farts out!"

Gina turned on her. "Traditore!" she declared, her eyes sharp with a combination of astonishment and playful betrayal. "You traitor! You're betting against family?!"

"I'm sorry, sugar puss," she laughed, mildly buzzed and with that dazzling Duncan grin, "but I gotta go where the money is!"

"I'm betting a hundred on Gina!" Evie declared. Sitting next to Travis, she, too, was leaning back comfortably, with her own legs stretched before her and with her own arms folded across her chest, and leaning against his shoulder with her own. (Evelyn and Travis seemed to be spending a little more time together lately, Brie and Gina had noticed; and the latter couple suspected with mild hope that there might be something more between them besides platonic friendship. It was apparent that they were unwilling to tear themselves away from each other, and Evie had even once asked Brie with a slightly dreamy little smile, "Don't you think he looks a little like Brad Pitt?")

She turned to Gina. "Don't you worry, big sister, I got your back!"

"Now, that's family loyalty!" Gina told Ronnie. "You should listen to Evie; learn something."

"All sibling rivalry aside—or even service branch rivalry, for that matter," Travis added as he spoke to Bobby now, "I've seen her on the track. She's always been damned determined, ever since she was a kid." And then he sprouted a grin that was remarkably similar to Gina's. "And I can always use an extra hundred bucks."

"What about you, Brie?" she asked her partner. "What's it gonna be? Huh? C'mon, man—spill."

"Aw, man," the cantankerous Navy doctor drawled softly. Slowly and deliberately, she set down her own beer bottle. "I'm bettin' that either way, win or lose, I'm gonna be out there waitin' for you with bags of IV fluids and a tank of O2. And I'm gonna have to listen to you moan an' groan, an' bitch an' whine all the way home and for an entire week, 'Oh, my feet, oh, my legs, oh, my back, oh, my ass...'" She sighed heavily. "Oh, my Christ," she grumbled softly as she rose from the other recliner, "I need another beer..."

And now here Gina was, a week later and running in the tenth annual Sacramento International Marathon, struggling just to stay in this twenty-six mile race, with a Marine Corps backpack loaded down with forty pounds of weights, all secured together with white plastic zip ties so they wouldn't bounce and rattle and shift as she ran.

Me and my big, stupid, fuckin' mouth, she grumbled again.

***

Why the hell did I agree to this? she asked herself with burning lungs, aching muscles, and an inward groan. Having come down from Folsom with the rest of the crowd, she was now making her way through eastern Sacramento and heading for the finish line at the state capitol. The runners had to make their way all the way down J Street first; from where they now were, at Fifty Second and J, they had to continue westward down to Third Street, where they would turn left and cut over to Capitol Mall, and run back up to the western steps of the capitol building itself at Capitol Mall and Tenth.

What the hell was I thinkin'? she asked herself again. Am I having some kind of a mid-life crisis or something? Jesus, I can't believe I'm doing this. If I drop out of this or collapse, I'm gonna be the laughing stock of the entire Corps. Not to mention that Travis is gonna rub my nose in it at every family get-together for the rest of my life; it'll be enough of a personal victory if I just complete this damn thing. But if I fart out, as Ronnie so eloquently put it, I'll never hear the end of it.

But wouldn't it be nice to actually win it? asked a little voice in the back of her mind. That'd certainly shut 'em all up.

Yeah, sure, she replied. That'd be pretty sweet. Unlikely, but sweet.

Sounds defeatist to me, said that little voice. And then she recognized it as that of her old drill instructor, First Sergeant Benjamin Greene, from her days in boot camp. I musta been right about you after all, Ryan. Women shouldn't be in the Corps.

Bullshit, First Sergeant! she replied.

Oh, yeah? Greene's voice asked. If it's bullshit, then why don't you want to win this race?

She had to think that over for a second. Who said I didn't want to win it? Huh? Who said I didn't... Y'know what? she asked herself after a brief moment of reflection. I do want to win this thing.

Do you want to win this? Greene's voice barked in her ear, uncertain if he'd heard right.

Yeah! Gina replied.

What's that? I can't heeeaaarrr yooouuu!

YES, GODDAMNITT! I DO WANT TO WIN THIS!

THEN GET YOUR GODDAMN ASS IN GEAR AND DO IT!

OO-RAH, FIRST SERGEANT!!

Even though her legs and lungs were burning hellishly, that burn was nothing compared to the all-consuming blaze of sudden determination. And with a renewed sense of Warrior Princess resolve, she suddenly found from somewhere deep within her a new and untapped reservoir of energy, and began to pour on the power and the speed.

***

People in the crowd around the reporters had heard them talking about the Marine in the race, and the rumors began to spread quickly. Some thought she was running for someone who was fighting overseas, and others thought she was running for the pride of the Corps; still others thought they had heard the reporters mention something about how she was running for a sick little child in the hospital. No one really knew for certain. But as previously mentioned, the stories spread quickly throughout the thousands of fans and observers who were lining both sides of the runners' route, like a wildfire raging across Ventura County in the height of summer. What they did know was that a camera crew was now pacing alongside her as she suddenly began to pull out of the center of the crowd and make her way toward the edge, where she could get around them and pass them by.

Okay, Marine, she told herself as she approached a runner ahead of her. You want to win this? Then it's time for a little psychological warfare.

She pulled up alongside a tall, pale, redheaded woman. "Hey," she said.

The woman glanced at her, said "Hey," in return, and then did a double take when she saw the pack. Suddenly, there was a little chip in her brick wall of confidence; she didn't feel quite so secure in her own sense of athleticism as the stranger with the weighted pack paced her so effortlessly.

"How're you doin'?" Gina asked casually.

"So far...so good," the redhead replied, speaking between pants of breath, before returning her attention to the road and the runners ahead.

"Yeah?" Gina asked as she remembered to carefully control her own breathing. "You don't look too good." She tried to draw the redhead's attention to her pack by deliberately adjusting the straps on her shoulders. You think you're having a tough time, girly-girl? her actions clearly asked, silently intimidating her. Try running with one of these on your back.

It worked. The redhead was now unable to hide her worried scowl. Without realizing it, she began to slow down just a bit, just barely, as that little chip in her wall of confidence began to expand into a fracture. "No?"

"Yeah," Gina lied. "You checkin' your pulse?"

"What (pant, pant) what for?"

"If your pulse is too high, it could be a sign of early exhaustion."

The woman continued to stare at Gina rather than at the runners ahead. And as she did, that crack in her wall of determination continued to quickly expand into a crevasse. "You...you a...a doctor?" she panted.

"My girlfriend is," Gina replied easily.

"Your...girlfriend?" she asked cautiously. Rather than concentrating on her rhythm and her own breathing, she was now growing more concerned with putting some lateral distance between herself and the mysterious brunette.

Gina flashed her a dazzling, breathtaking grin. "Yeah."

The redhead watched her dubiously as she tried to edge away from Gina. At the same time, she began checking her carotid pulse with two fingers.

Gina was still grinning at her. "Meet me after the race," she said, her voice all honey and silk. Arching one dark eyebrow suggestively, she asked, "Maybe we can arrange a three-way?"

The redhead stumbled and nearly fell, regained her footing, and then dropped back, just to get away from her.

And with an evil grin and a little chuckle, Gina pulled ahead.

***

"That is one determined soldier we've got out there!" Fitzwell declared as he watched his monitor. "She's just pulled ahead of another runner!"

"She is definitely moving up to the front of this pack, Rich!" Sandi said, in open admiration. "Holy crap, look at her go!"

Standing with Ronnie and Evie, and Travis and Bobby—and with nearly a platoon's worth of Marines, all of whom were wearing a variety of colors and styles of clothing, but all sporting Marine Corps logos—Brie wanted to walk up to the reporter and smack him across the head with her medical bag. Marines didn't like being called "soldiers"; they didn't go through all that intensive training just so they could be lumped together with everyone else. Fighting down the urge to commit felony battery, and reminding herself that she was here as a doctor—not only in case Gina needed her, but for anyone else who might be in need of medical attention—she instead turned to one of the Marines standing with her. "Would you be so kind as to...educate...that reporter?" she asked him.

"It'd be my pleasure, Doc," the Marine replied, with a determined and mischievous little smile, as he headed off toward the broadcast booth.

***

"How're you doin'?" she asked the tall blonde as she drew up alongside her.

She cast a quick look at Gina, and flashed her a friendly grin. "Pretty good. You?"

"Fine." Ryan cast a quick glance around at their surroundings. Then she said, "Hope everyone went...to the bathroom...before starting the race."

The tall blonde hadn't thought about that before, and she started to bubble over in laughter. "Yeah, really," she said—

—and then there was a sudden look of despair in her eyes as she was seized by an unexpected urge. Oh, dear God! she groaned silently. Suddenly clenching tightly, and with an overwhelming dread of embarrassing herself etched into her face, she headed off for the nearest Port-A-Potty.

Gina watched her depart with a soft and diabolical little cackle.

***

"She's pulling ahead again!" Sandi Beavers shrieked enthusiastically. Forget about a reporter's objectivity; she wanted the Marine to win, and she didn't care who knew it. "Holy crap, if she keeps up at this rate, she's gonna come in first and win this race!"

"And here they are, coming around the corner of Third and Capitol Mall for the last leg," Rich said. "It looks like it's gonna be tight, it looks like it's gonna be close..."

Suddenly, Sandi was on her feet and throwing a fist in the air. "Go, Gina!" she yelled. "Go, Gina!"

Watching his partner, Rich wasn't sure of how to react to this blatant display of favoritism. "That's what I really admire about you, Sandi," he said at last, "your reporter's sense of objectiv—"

She suddenly whirled on him with seething venom. "Aw, shuddup, Dick!" She grabbed his microphone and shoved him away. And then, into the camera, she said, "Never mind this putz sitting next to me. The real story here is Gina Ryan, this remarkable woman and Marine Corps colonel who had started out this race somewhere near the back—and wearing a forty-pound pack!—and how she has made her way all the way to the front, where it looks as though she just might actually win this race! We don't know why she's in it or who she's running for, but you've got to admire this woman's strength and determination!" She threw her fist in the air again. "Go, Gina! Go, Gina!"

***

Now eastbound on Capitol Mall, she drew up alongside the tall Kenyan man who had been leading this pack since westbound Sixth and J, and turned her head to stare at him. At first, he wasn't even aware of her presence; but something had told him to cast a quick look to his left, and there she was—in desert camouflage, a backpack, and smoky gray sunglasses that resembled a bandit's mask. Staring at him. Not saying anything, just staring at him. Her eyes were unreadable behind the shades, and the rest of her face was completely blank.

He stared back at her. "What?" he finally asked.

Nothing. She said absolutely nothing. She just continued to watch him with that steady and increasingly unnerving gaze.

"What is it?" he asked again.

Still, she said nothing. She just continued to regard him with that same unreadable stare. She might be defiantly challenging him or working on an old chess problem, or planning dinner, or contemplating his brutal and gory demise, for all he knew. Or maybe she was putting some kind of a hex on him.

He watched her some more in uncomfortable silence. "What is it?" he demanded.

No reaction. Matching his rhythm stride for stride, and still carefully controlling her breathing, she continued to keep pace with him...and continued to stare at him in utter, deathly silence.

Feeling extremely uncomfortable now, and with his confidence shaken just enough, the lead runner began to fall back in his own desire to separate himself from this...this...this weird woman who kept staring at him. He didn't drop back by much, but it was just enough.

Slowly and deliberately, she turned her head once more to face forward...and permitted herself a sly, one-sided little smile as she took the lead.

***

The massive crowds along both sides of Capitol Mall were all shouting, "Gi-na! Gi-na! Gi-na! GI-NA!" in a hauntingly familiar chant that echoed back some two thousand years. Dredging up that last little bit of energy from somewhere deep within her soul, she rolled on the power once more, as though she were riding her Harley along the Pacific Coast Highway through Big Sur. Suddenly, she pulled away from the rest of the runners again. She was ten feet ahead of the leader now...now twenty...now thirty...and the crowd was going wild. They were absolutely, completely nuts! Even Sandi Beavers was on top of her desk now, clutching her microphone in one fist and jumping up and down, and still throwing her other fist in the air, with a sullen Rich Fitzwell sitting next to her with his chin in his hand. "Oh, give it a rest, will you?" he asked, but she hadn't heard him. And then, he thought that this might be the perfect vantage point to take a quick peek up her dress. He raised his head, and then his eyes—

—and Sandi kicked him under the chin to send him flying backward against a broadcast booth from a rival television station.

***

"C'mon, Gina!" Brie shouted. Dressed in jeans, dark brown cowboy boots and a heavy, midnight blue coat, and sporting a black ball cap with the words "Combat Medic" stenciled across the front in gold, she stood with her hands cupped around her mouth. "C'mon, Marine! You can do it!"

She spotted her in the crowd, straight ahead and with her sisters and Travis and Bobby, and surrounded by a contingent of Marines. With a sudden and dazzling Warrior Princess grin, Ryan broke into a full on sprint, and pulled ahead even farther—and leading the rest of the runners by a good one hundred feet, she finally tore through the tape at the finish line. A wild cheer went up from the crowd, and Brie was the first to throw her arms around her in a congratulatory hug. Ronnie and Evie were next in a massive group hug, with grinning and cheering Marines ruffling her head and patting her on the back.

Sweating like a racehorse and panting like a dog, Gina finally let the pack slide from her shoulders to hit the ground with a loud clunk! She stripped off her sunglasses and stood hunched over, with her hands on her knees, fighting for breath. Someone threw a silvery sheet of Mylar around her to ward off the cold.

"You okay?" Brie shouted over the screaming cheers of the crowd. With her hands on her partner's shoulders, she gazed into her eyes. "Gina? You alright?"

The Marine nodded, and gave her a thumbs up. "Just gotta...get my breath," she managed to get out.

The Navy doctor finally grinned at her. "Way to go, Marine!" she said, her voice soft but the emotion in her eyes heartfelt. "Hoo-ya!"

She finally managed to straighten as she accepted a Styrofoam cup of water from one of the surrounding Marines. After gulping it down, she said to Brie, "If I ever...agree to anything...so stupid again...I want you...to do me a favor."

"What's that?"

She gazed steadily into her green eyes without a trace of humor or playfulness. "Put a bullet through my shoulder."

Brie watched her for a moment, and then grinned slowly, and chuckled softly. "Little drastic, don't you think?" she asked. "How 'bout I just swat you one across the back of the head? Like your mom always does whenever she catches you cussin'?"

Gina nodded. "That'll work."

***

"Ms. Ryan? Ms. Ryan!"

Gina raised her eyes, and saw the approaching reporter.

"Excuse me!" she said to the surrounding crowd. "Excuse me! Media coming through!" Sandi Beavers called out, with her microphone thrust before her like a lance. "Media coming through! Look out—look out! Comin'—hey, get the fuck outta my way, goddamnit!" Roughly shoving everyone else aside with her shoulders, she finally managed to place herself in front of Gina. "Ms. Ryan! I'm Sandi Beavers—"

Gina grinned wryly from beneath her fatigue cap. "My condolences," she said.

"—from K-ROT Television News Eight! Can I ask you a question?" She thrust her mike in front of Gina's face.

Still wrapped in Mylar, and sitting on the steps of the Capitol Building, Gina shrugged one shoulder. "G'head."

Speaking into her mike, she asked, "How do you feel about winning this race?" She shoved the mike back in front of Gina.

"Not too shabby," Ryan replied.

Into her mike: "You don't look all that tired right now. Do you credit that with your Marine Corps training? Some say you're part of an elite group of Marines. Was this race a part of your eliteness?" She stuck the mike back in front of Gina.

Eliteness? Gina wondered as she stared in puzzlement at the reporter. Is that even a word? "Aw, hell no," she finally said. "We all do this."

Travis gave her a gentle shove and a good-natured scowl. Bullshit, he silently told her.

Of course it was bullshit, Gina knew; but she didn't have to let the reporter know that.

Sandi was momentarily stunned into silence. She held the mike in front of Gina for a second or two more, in case the Marine had something else to say, and then she brought the mike to her own lips. And then she held it in front of Gina again, and then in front of her own once more. "E...Everyone?" she asked.

"Hell yeah," Gina lied easily. She turned to the Marines behind her and shouted out, "Ain't that right, guys? RE-CON!" she suddenly bellowed.

"OO-RAH!" they roared.

"So what are your plans now?" Sandi asked. "Now that you've won this race? What's next for you?"

Gina raised a plastic, one-liter bottle of water to her lips, and polished off its remains in three gulps. She smacked her lips, and handed it to the reporter. "Well, now that I'm done with this, maybe I'll slip that pack back on and run back to Folsom."

Sandi regarded her in stunned silence. "Back?" she asked. "Back to...to Folsom? That's another twenty-six miles!"

Gina smiled easily, and answered lightly, "Yeah, I know."

Sandi stared at her for another moment in mute shock. "Are you serious?"

Gina's easy smile expanded into a wry and dazzling grin. "What, you don't think I can do it?"

"Gina?" Brie asked, sitting next to her and smiling sweetly, and taking one of Gina's hands into her own.

She turned to look at her, and noticed the way she was smiling at her. God, she thought, she has such an adorable smile. After some two thousand years, she still had that sweet and familiar Gabrielle Smile. Sitting here next to her, bundled warmly and with her golden pony tail sticking out through the hole above the adjusting strap of her Combat Medic cap, she looked cute and sexy, naive and wise, and innocent and worldly, all rolled into one sweet, delectable, golden package.

Gina gently squeezed one hand. "Yeah?" she asked fondly, her heart swelling with affection.

Brie gazed fondly at her...and then went Whap! across the back of the head.

Gina flinched sharply, and then narrowed her ice-blue eyes dangerously as she gazed at her partner.

"You readin' me, darlin'?" asked the irascible Navy doctor.

Still scowling at her, she nodded with reluctant acceptance. "Loud and clear," she grumbled.

"Good. Now let's go home."

"Yes, Mother."

The End

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