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

Disclaimer #2: The following story contains adult language.

Comments can be sent to

Mini-glossary of terms: BUDS—Basic Underwater Demolitions/SEAL

SERE— Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape

"The New Adventures of XENA: Warrior Princess"

"The Simple Pleasures of Life"

By Ernie Whiting

<erniewhiting@centurylink.net>

1. Waking Up

The sylvan air was crisp and clear, and the sun was almost painfully brilliant against the stark, azure sky. Occasional gusts of cold autumn wind teased at the dry, dead leaves and pine needles, scattering them across the ground and hissing through the tall Ponderosa pines, Douglas firs, the cedars and sturdy oaks, and even the occasional redwood. It was late October in the Sierra foothills, and all of Nevada City was preparing for what promised to be an exceptionally cold winter. There was no real snow—not yet, anyway—but the nights did leave behind a lot of icy puddles, and frosty plants and windows.

The two-story Victorian house (four, actually, if you counted the gabled attic that served as a storage room for stuff that they didn't know what to do with but didn't want to get rid of, and the basement that served as a wine cellar), with its siding painted in pastels of soft gray and its trim and window frames in pale blue, was a little farther up the main road and into the hills, and was surrounded on three sides by forest. A fiercely scowling trio of jack 'o' lanterns stood guard atop the wooden porch rail, and more stood at each end of the bottom and top wooden steps that led to the front door. Black rubber bats bobbed up and down, their wings flapping gently, as they hung from nearly invisible strands of elastic, while gauzy, billowy white ghosts swayed eerily as they hung from the eaves of the porch, dancing with the wind. Strings of purple and orange lights hung from the top of the porch, wound around the posts and outlined the front door, and a goblin's face peered out through the round window of the door. Little rat-faced imps peered onto the porch from the living room windows while, sitting near the front door in an old wicker rocking chair, there was a faceless figure dressed in black robes with its head tilted downward, and clutching a scythe in one black-gloved hand. In a few more days, there would be a bowl of candy resting between its feet for those young ones who were brave enough to reach forward and help themselves.

Inside the house, all was calm, peaceful and quiet. Two uniforms—one a set of US Navy officer's shipboard khakis, and the other a green-and-khaki US Marine Corps officer's service uniform, both recently redecorated with silver eagles on the collars and both wrapped in transparent plastic garment bags to keep them dust-free—hung neatly inside the mirrored, walk-in closet of the master bedroom. Both women had been recently assigned to new duties on account of the Marine's stay in the Alameda Naval Station psychiatric hospital; now officially designated by the Secretary of the Navy as the lead supervisor for BUDS and SERE training ("Your combat days are over, darlin'," the doctor had told her patient while the bard inside of her had struggled not to show her relief.), Colonel Gina Ryan now spent six months a year at the Coronado Naval Air Station, near San Diego, California, teaching squids how to be SEALs and jarheads how to be Reconnaissance Force Marines. Another three months each year were spent on the lecture tour and in classroom instruction, and in editing various training manuals; Ryan was literally writing the definitive book on Special Warfare. And assigned alongside the most valuable combat training asset in the entire United States Marine Corps, Captain Gabriella Duncan, MD, USN—indisputably the best damned trauma surgeon in the entire U.S. Navy—was the new chief administrator of the North Island U.S. Naval Air Station Hospital; coincidentally, it also allowed her not only as Ryan's personal physician, but also as her partner and soul mate, to keep a close eye on the colonel during those temporary assignments.

The downside of this new arrangement was that, until recently, neither of them had ever had any true idea of just how much paperwork was involved in their new positions; voluminous, mountainous stacks and piles of dreary, cheerless, absolutely hopeless paperwork that would send them, whenever possible, to the comparatively quiet and stress-free environs of live-fire combat training. Occasionally, the doctor managed to get away from the office for a few hours, and would go to the locker room, change out of her uniform and into either fatigues or shorts and T-shirt, and then snag a Humvee and a driver, and head on down to the beach, ostensibly to provide a little medical supervision for the trainees. In reality, she would use this very convenient and convincing excuse to get out of doors and get in a good workout alongside them. And then she would have to remind herself that she didn't need any excuses; she was a captain now, equal in rank to the base commander and in charge of the base hospital. And if she was caught up with her work and her obligations were fulfilled, then she could go ahead and do whatever the hell she wanted. Occasionally, she would find that Gina had beaten her to the beach in her own quest for relief from office work.

And if the doctor was going to visit and possibly distract those trainees from their routines, then Ryan saw absolutely no reason why she shouldn't put her to work.

It had been cold, windy and cloudy one day. Eight squads, each consisting of ten men, had been standing along the water's edge as the waves came crashing in. They had been dressed in jungle camouflage fatigues, without caps, and soaked through to the skin and covered with sand, and shivering uncontrollably. In a rare act of actually participating in the training rather than merely presiding over it, Ryan had raised the bullhorn to her lips.

"Doc's down! Doc is DOWN!" she roared. "The doc's been injured! You see how she's been injured? My God, you see that?" She pointed to Doc as Doc slowly and exaggeratedly limped around in a small circle next to Ryan, playing it up for as much sympathy as she could get. "She needs immediate medical evac!" Ryan continued to bark. "Now the job of squad one is to transport Doc to safety! You will transport her one hundred yards, down to that outcropping of rocks, and then transport her back here to the warm and loving bosom of her family and friends, where she will receive the finest in medical attention! And then it'll be squad two's turn to transport! And then three, and four, and on down the line! And don't you even think of dropping Doc, goddamnit, because Doc is your lifeline! If anything happens to Doc, you will be royally and excruciatingly fucked! You will be fucked because there will be no Doc around to treat you for your wounds and injuries! And if you drop her I can guaranfuckin'tee you that you will be injured, because you'll have to answer to me! Now, we're going for time on this, girls, so lets move it out! C'mon, let's move it out! Move it out! MOVE IT OUT!!"

Dressed in jungle camouflage fatigue pants, a dark-blue Navy T-shirt, combat boots and a jungle camouflage fatigue cap that bore her Navy rank on its front, and grinning from behind a pair of dark gold aviator's sunglasses, a sportive Gabrielle had knelt inside of a massive, black rubber raft that ten men held high above their heads while running up and down the beach, bouncing her up and down and jostling her from side to side as she held onto the ropes inside, with the men roaring like an invading army of barbarians, relentlessly determined to annihilate any and every single thing that dared to stand in their way.

An amused and grinning Gina and her team of instructors had laughed as they watched, and listened to Brie's shrieking laughter of, "C'mon, let's kick 'er in the ass! Let's go! Let's go! Is this the best you pussies can do?"

They were currently taking advantage of the down time, which meant catching up on some much needed sleep. And which also meant that the young blonde was understandably reluctant to awaken her partner on this peaceful and quiet Sunday morning. "Gina?" she finally asked, softly, her voice an almost musical near-whisper. "Geee-naaa..."

With a soft sigh and a gentle moan, Ryan rolled onto her side, and finally cracked open her sapphire eyes. As her deep sleep and the dream of that day on the beach finally gave up their last tenuous holds on her, she stretched drowsily as she gazed fondly at the blonde young doctor. It was easy to see why everyone loved her. She was Doc; with the gentle hands, the golden bangs, and the compassionate, jade green eyes. She was Doc, with the gift of healing and of storytelling, and with the heart-warming smile of an angel. And, lastly, she was Doc—the grand repository of the funniest and filthiest stories in the entire United States Navy. Taking note of the way she stood there in the doorway, with her arms folded beneath her breasts and dressed in her red, low-rise satin pajama bottoms and white, high-rise cotton tank top, and with her sleep-tousled hair surrounding her face and falling beyond her shoulders, she noticed how the sunlight sparkled in her eyes and from the small, silver pair of crossed sai that hung on a black leather lace at the base of her throat, and the absolutely cute and adorable little way her mouth worked when she said...

"The goddamn toilet's leakin'."

Rolling onto her other side with a bounce and a grunt, and with another sigh as she rested the side of her face against her pillow once more, Ryan closed her eyes as she mumbled, "Just pretend it's the soothing sounds of one of those little tabletop fountains..."

"I didn't say it was 'runnin''," said the irascible young Navy doctor, with her mild, east-Texas drawl. "I said it's leakin'. It's leakin' around the base. We're lookin' at the possibility of some serious water damage bein' done to that hardwood floor."

The Spec Warfare instructor finally sat up, and crossed her legs under the down comforter. With her elbows on her knees and the small chakram that dangled at the base of her throat from a short, silver chain, she rested her head in her hands. "Aw, man..." she groaned as the throbbing in her temples already began, even this early in the morning. It seemed that there was no escaping it, but she refused to worry Brie with it. Forcing down the pain, she rubbed her eyes, blinked blearily at her, and then asked, "When did this start?"

"I noticed it just now. There's not a lot of water; it must have just recently started."

Slowly tossing back the covers, and dressed in her own pale blue pajama bottoms and a worn, black T-shirt on which was emblazoned across the back, "I am a bomb technician. If you see me running, try to keep up," Gina rose from the warmth of their bed and shuffled into the bathroom. She gave the base of the toilet a quick glance. Yeah, the damn thing was leakin', all right. She knelt between the toilet and the wide, customized shower stall, and twisted the chrome valve of the line that led from the wall to the bottom of the tank. Then she flushed the toilet to empty both the tank and the bowl. "It probably needs a new wax ring," she said, groaning slightly as she straightened with the popping of one knee. "I'll head over to the hardware store later and pick one up."

"Great," Brie grumbled under her breath as she slipped one hand beneath the elastic waistband of her jammies, and scratched sluggishly at an itch on her bottom. "Terrific. Now I'm gonna start leakin'." Folding her arms once more, and with a louder voice, she added, "So what the hell am I supposed to do 'til then? I still gotta pee."

"There's a perfectly good sink," the pragmatic Marine replied as she headed back for the bed.

Brie glared at her.

"Or you can use the shower, or go out behind the barn..."

Her glare deepened into a dark and dangerous scowl. "Oh, you're just full of brilliant suggestions this mornin', aren't you?"

"Or you can use the downstairs ba—"

"No."

Gina sat on the edge of the bed, and sighed with strained patience as the migraine continued to throb behind her eyes. "Brie," she began. "I—"

"No. We've had this discussion before, and I'm still sayin' no. That was a stupid, dumbass place for the architect to put a window. Especially a window that big."

"Maybe he liked the view," Gina said as she forced a wry little smile. "It is kind of scenic."

"Oh, you're a big fuckin' help," the cantankerous doctor muttered sourly under her breath.

Gina sighed again in mild exasperation...and then had to remind herself that Duncan had not yet had her morning coffee. With coffee, anything was bearable, anything could be handled. Coffee straightened out the world, and made everything okay. Gina knew how her partner believed that coffee could very well be the savior of the world and all of mankind. All she needed was that first morning sip. But as things were, there was no coffee. No coffee, no breakfast, no working bathroom...well, no working upstairs bathroom...all of which accounted for her current mood.

"Brie," she said at last, calmly and patiently, yet still emphatically, "it's a forest, for God's sake. It's wilderness. There isn't going to be anyone out there watching you."

"Except for the cougars and the bears," Brie grumbled. "The last thing I need is to have a goddamn four-hundred-pound black bear starin' at me while I'm takin' a—"

"Oh, good God," Ryan groaned, her own patience now growing thin as she got up once more. This shyness of Brie's was unbelievable. She'd never been like this in the old days... She headed out to the hall and over to the linen closet. She took out a fluffy white terry cloth towel and, holding it by two diagonal corners, she twirled it into a sort of rope. Back in the bathroom, she began to wrap it around the base of the toilet—

Brie's eyes widened in horror. "Don't use a good towel for THAT!"

—and then turned the water back on. "There y'go," she said as she straightened, and then she turned and shuffled off once more toward the bed. "Just shut the water off again after you flush."

Brie stared at her with a combination of outrage and disbelief as the Marine, with a groan and a grunt, collapsed once more on the bed and crawled back under the covers. Under her breath, she finally muttered, "Jesus, she's such a...goddamned jarhead!"

2. Getting Wired

Dressed in a dark brown Aussie outback hat, a matching cargo jacket and dark jeans, and with her nose and cheeks rosy from the cold, Gina came in through the front door with a large package in her arms. "Get the door, willya?" she asked as she approached what she proudly called her "big-ass" wide screen television.

Outfitted in faded blue jeans, black cotton socks and a black pullover sweatshirt, and with her golden hair held back with a small, dark brown plastic jaw clip, Brie raised an eyebrow in surprise and mild suspicion. "What's that?" she wanted to know.

"Home theater system," Gina replied as she set the package down, and then took off her hat. As though it were a Frisbee, she sent it sailing off to the sofa, and then peeled off her jacket and sent it after the hat.

"A home theater system?" Brie asked. "I thought you were going to the hardware store for a new wax ring for the toilet. Where'd a damn home theater system come from?"

"Circus City. They had a sale." She took out her folding knife, and with a flick of her wrist she flipped out its razor-sharp, four-inch, katana-like blade. Then she cast her eyes toward Brie. "C'mon, man, close the door; it's freezing out there." Returning her attention to the box once more, she began to slice through the sealing tape.

Brie pushed the door shut, and then approached her. "How'd you pay for this thing?" she wanted to know. She knew Ryan didn't have that kind of cash on hand.

Gina began removing Styrofoam packing blocks, and then pulled the unit from the cardboard box. And as she did, a playfully mischievous idea suddenly occurred to her. With a slow and inward smile, she replied, "I put it on your credit card."

Brie's eyes widened in mild horror. "On my... on my credit card??"

"Well, I had to," she replied as she struggled not to let the smile blossom further. "You won't let me have one."

"And there's a good reason for that, too! Gina, I—"

She looked at her partner. "Hey, you told me yourself that I need something to keep myself occupied, and to maybe even keep the headaches away. Right?"

Brie thought it over for a moment. "Well...yeah..." she reluctantly admitted.

"Well, okay. Here's my new hobby." She pulled the receiver from the box, and gently ran a hand over it. "Nice, huh?" she asked with a dazzling and deliberately childish grin. "Preeetty silver..."

Brie took a deep breath, and told herself to remain calm and patient. "Okay," she said, exhaling slowly in a deep sigh as she brushed her golden bangs up and away from her forehead. "All right. So how much did this thing cost me?"

Gina went back to searching inside the box, and began pulling out speakers and wire. "Hell, I don't know," she mumbled.

With her hand at her forehead and her bangs between her fingers, Brie froze. She glared at her again, her green eyes even bigger than before. "You don't know?"

"The receipt's in the bag." Now she had to really fight down the urge to laugh.

She snatched for it, and with a frantic rustling of plastic she thrust her arm inside to fish around for the scrap of paper, as though the cost might actually be constantly increasing the longer it remained out of sight. When she found it, her eyes nearly exploded from her skull, and her strident voice almost failed her. "Eight hundred and seventy-nine dollars?" she squeaked.

Gina looked at her thoughtfully. "Yeah, that sounds about right."

"Eight hundred and seventy-nine dollars?" she gurgled.

"I heard you the first time." Even at this distance, she could see a vein pulsating at one temple.

For a moment, she was speechless. "Gina, that's eight hundred and seventy-nine dollars!"

She turned her attention to the electronic gear. "Yeah, I know," she muttered under her breath with a throbbing head. "You keep repeating it, like some kind of a weird mantra or a scratched record..."

"Gina, it's eight hun—"

"I know how much it was," she said with forced patience as she looked back up at her once more. "Look, it's not like we can't afford it or anything. Besides," she added, "if you knew ahead of time how much the thing cost, would you have said no?"

"Well..." At least some of the wind finally drained from her sails. "...no..." she said at last. At the same time, she finally noticed the brand name. At least she got a really good one, she thought with an inward and finally accepting shrug.

Gina managed to work up a smile. "Okay then," she said. "Well, there y'go. Besides," she added as she began to feel a little guilty about the hell she was putting her through, and finally decided it was enough, "I didn't put it on your Visa; I cut 'em a check."

Brie sighed with both relief and aggravation. "God damn it," she said. "You're gonna give me a heart attack one of these days, y'know that? A big fuckin' heart attack, this fuckin' big." She held her arms out at full width. "At least a seven-point-niner on the Richter scale. Then I'll be in a hospital with IVs in my arms, and tubes up my ass and down my throat..."

"Ohh, poor baby," she chuckled with exaggerated sympathy. She reached into the box once more and found the owner's manual, then rose to give her a smacking kiss on one temple. "Here," she said as she handed the manual to her. "Familiarize yourself with this while I go fix that toilet."

***

"So, are we good to go?" Brie asked with mild hope and expectation as she fiddled with a copy of "Austin Powers—The Spy Who Shagged Me."

Once again, Gina's scowling face slowly and ominously rose from behind the entertainment center, which was surrounded by Styrofoam, cardboard, tools, and numerous bits and pieces of wire insulation of a wide variety of colors. "If you think you can do this any more quickly," she growled softly, "then be my guest." Slowly sinking behind the wide screen HDTV once more, and now regretting that she had purchased this damn thing, she silently added, I can't believe I'm missing Drew Carey for this... She stripped another piece of colored wire.

Sitting in front of the television set with her legs tucked beneath her, Brie asked with a sigh of mild exasperation, "Well, what's taking so long? You're a demolitions expert, aren't you? You do know electronics, don't you?"

Her head popped up from behind the TV. "Hey!" she snapped back. "I"m not trying to blow up a fuckin' dam here, okay? These things are a little more complicated than that!"

Brie settled back down a little. "Okay, all right. Jesus, take it easy..." she said, and then under her breath she added a moment later, "...fuckin' grouch..."

Still scowling, and grumbling something under her breath about goddamn impatient Navy squids, the Marine sank behind the television set once more. DVD audio out to VCR audio in, right? she asked herself. Follow the signal, just follow the signal...

"Hey, I know what'll make this go more easily..."

"Yeah, what..." Gina's voice rumbled like distant, muted thunder as she picked up another wire, and scowled at it. What the hell's this for? She looked around for a moment, and saw no matching plug, or any other kind of receptacle for it.

"How about a nice glass of wine?"

Her face rose from behind the TV once more...but this time she was smiling. "Hey, now there y'go," she said agreeably. "But not the Bordeaux; we're having that with dinner tonight."

One corner of her mouth curled upward in a wry and hopeful smile. "Does that mean you're making your killer Beef Wellington?"

Gina grinned, winked at her, and then went back to work. "Absolutely," she replied from behind the TV, her voice echoing just slightly between it and the wall. "We just need to swing by Cost Savers' after finishing here for a few essentials."

Brie's own smile expanded into an excited grin as she grabbed a fistful of air, and pulled it in. "Yes!!" She rose quickly to her feet with fluid grace, and headed off to the wine cellar.

Gina continued to work in silence until Brie finally returned with two glasses of Merlot. At last, she sighed heavily. "Well, I think that ought to do it," she said as she accepted one of the glasses. "Let's give 'er a shot."

She set her own glass down nearby after taking a sip, and with the remote in hand Brie switched on the TV and set it to LINE. With a second remote in her other hand, she switched on the DVD player and opened the tray. In went the disc, in went the tray, and then she hit PLAY. The picture was blank for a moment, and then the manufacturer's logo of the DVD player faded up.

"We have picture," she said.

"So far, so good." They sat in silence for several long moments as they stared expectantly at the screen. A moment later, the disc's main menu appeared. They continued to stare hopefully at the screen. They did, indeed, have a great, great picture.

However...

"We got no sound," Brie said.

"I kind of noticed that," Gina replied. "Turn up the volume."

Brie pointed the remote control at the unit, and thumbed the volume button.

Nothing.

"Try doing it manually," Gina suggested.

Brie set the remote down, reached forward, and gingerly twisted the volume control knob. Again, nothing happened.

"Try fast forwarding." Maybe they had a defective disc...

She did, and still there was nothing. "What the fuck's goin' on?" the Texan softly drawled. "Are the speakers hooked up?"

"All six of them." Gina double checked all of the connections, and continued to scowl in frustration. "I don't know what in the hell's going on here."

Brie's eyes scanned the front of the DVD/receiver, and in a moment they fell on the speaker button, which was next to the headphone jack. It was currently in the "out" position. "Hmmm..." she said thoughtfully. She reached forward, and gingerly punched it with one rigid forefinger—

"I'M DEAD SEXY, AND YEW ARE CRRRAAAPPP!!!"

With a flailing of arms—and nearly knocking over her wine onto an extremely expensive Oriental rug—Brie fell backward with a sharp scream. She recovered quickly, though, and as Fat Bastard's bellowing voice continued to rattle the walls and nearly shatter the windows, and which also threatened to blow out those brand-new speakers, she frantically lunged for the volume control.

All was quiet for a long, long moment. And then, in the ensuing silence, Ryan's head slowly came up once more from behind the TV set, as though she were out in the battlefield once more and checking to see if the shelling had stopped. Shaking her head slightly to clear the ringing from her ears, the demolitions expert finally said, "And we have sound."

3. The Thrill Of The Hunt

She scanned the landscape ahead of her with sharp, sapphire eyes. In the old days, she would have stalked her quarry in the early morning light, silently strung her bow, and cautiously notched an arrow before taking careful aim at her intended victim. Or even when she was in the bush with her squad members, hunting for breakfast while avoiding the attention of enemy troops that could very easily be nearby, she would have been carrying her trusty M-16 at the ready, with its sound suppressor screwed securely onto the end of the muzzle, while trudging cautiously through the jungle's muck and mire. Things have changed a wee bit since those simpler yet more dangerous days, she thought as she pushed the huge red shopping cart before her while her eyes continued to scan the aisle ahead of her. Rather than reaching for her choice of weapons, which had once hung either ninja-like at her back or, more recently, dangled at her hip from her web belt to bring down her game, she was now reduced to fishing around inside of her coat pocket before withdrawing her shopping list.

Well, perhaps "reduced" is the wrong word. That implies a reduction of status in the eyes of one's peers. In truth, Gina wouldn't have it any other way—even if the cart she was pushing did have a severe case of the wobblies, thanks to an intermittently jamming front wheel that made it rattle and skid, and pull to one side. She'd had quite enough of getting shot at and hunger, and sleeping on the ground, and waiting out rainstorms while sitting wet and cold and shivering under a makeshift tent; she'd had enough of death and blood, and of uncertainty. Compared to all of that, she found the whole shopping experience—including driving to and from the store, and even standing in those seemingly endless lines at the checkout stands—to be pretty damned relaxing.

"Hey, Gina, check these out," the blonde said as she showed her a clear, plastic box that was about a square foot in size and about six inches high, and which contained... "Freshly baked chocolate-chocolate chunk cookies. Yeah?"

She eyed the box, and then the price tag. "At six bucks a box? Are you out of your mind?"

Brie arched one golden eyebrow in mild reproach, and then folded her arms beneath her breasts in open challenge. "Oh, this from someone who just spent eight hundred and—"

She snatched the package from her hands with a rattling of its contents, and dropped it into the cart, on top of the bread where they wouldn't shatter on impact. "I'm just messing with your head," she said playfully.

"Uh huh," Brie responded skeptically. "Listen, I'm gonna go have another look around. Don't wander off." She turned and quickly disappeared into the noisy, bustling crowd.

With a wistful little smile and a soft sigh, Gina pushed the noisy and wobbling cart ahead of her, and went around the end of the aisle. She paused in front of the pasta. Hey, this looks good, she thought. Three different kinds of pasta (butterfly, rotini and penne), two bags of each, wrapped up in a single, six-pound bundle. Not a bad price, either. She tossed three bundles into the cart, and nonchalantly moved on. Up one aisle and down the next, and taking her own sweet time, she checked out numerous items with varying degrees of interest. Eventually, she wound up near the refrigerated and frozen food section.

"Hey, Gina, check these out," Brie said, suddenly appearing next to her as she showed her two long, thick packages. "Dry salami, imported from Naples. Yeah?"

Gina studied them for a moment. "Sure," she said agreeably as several ideas for their use popped into her head. "I just got an idea. Instead of the Wellington tonight, why don't we have Katie and Jaime over? After all, it's Saturday; we'll make it a movie night. We'll crack open some wine, and I'll build a couple of pizzas, and top them with some of this salami."

Brie grinned that classic and dazzling Gabrielle Grin that always gave Gina's heart a gentle squeeze. "I know how much they love your pizzas," she said.

"Yeah, and I know how much you love 'em, too," the former Warrior Princess said with her own dazzling grin. "We got enough Italian sausage? Pepperoni?"

"Yeah." And then one corner of Brie's mouth screwed up in thought. "I'm thinkin' we probably need more mozzarella and provolone, though. Should I look for more ricotta, or not?"

Gina thought it over for a quick moment. "I think not," she replied at last as they began to slowly move on. "It's great in lasagna, but I don't think I'll be putting it on pizza again; it just didn't turn out that well. But I will be needing flour and yeast, and some more tomato paste..."

Gazing over Ryan's shoulder, Brie's eyes suddenly widened in mild shock. "Oh, my God."

"What? What's wrong?"

"Do you see that? Over there?" She pointed toward the wine section. "Can you believe that?"

Ryan turned, and her then eyes widened as much as Duncan's did as they followed her pointing finger. "Oh, my God!" she said at last. "I don't believe it!" She approached slowly, almost cautiously, and then she gingerly reached forward to pick up the wine bottle. "Eighteen dollars for a bottle of Chardonnay? Are they kidding??" She examined the label. "I thought people were supposed to save money in this place! What the hell good is a membership fee when they charge these kinds of prices?"

"Jesus," Brie said softly. "Well...maybe it's a really good Chardonnay..."

"At eighteen bucks a bottle, it had fuckin' well better be," the Spec Warfare instructor grumbled under her breath.

Brie looked at her. "You want to try one?"

She shook her head with a snort of disgust as she put the bottle back. "I'll pick one up at Trader Dude's for six...fuckin' outrageous..."

With mild apprehension, Brie glanced around to see if they were being observed. Noticing that they were, she then moved in a little closer. "Uh, listen, darlin'," she said softly, "y'all are startin' to sound a little like some of your drill instructors. Can you ratchet down the colorful talk just a tetch?"

Gina glanced around for a moment, and noticed the nearby family that Brie had detected—husband, wife, and three kids, all evidently dressed for church (and with Mother covering the ears of the youngest with lacy, white-gloved hands)—that was staring at her. None of them seemed to be condoning her choice of adjectives. But then, did they really have any business listening in on a private conversation?

"What the fuck are you starin' at?" the pissed-off Marine quietly demanded of them. "Would you pay eighteen fuckin' dollars for a fuckin' bottle of wine at a fuckin' discount warehouse store?"

The mother gasped, and tsk!ed sharply in disapproval. "Well, I never!" she said at last.

"Yeah? Well, after looking at you, lady, I'm not that fuckin' surprised. Have you ever tried a vibrator?" She took a threatening step forward, and growled at her again. "Why the fuck don't you mind your own goddamn b—"

Brie hastily clamped a hand over her partner's mouth, and smiled an embarrassed smile at the family. "My apologies," she said in an effort assuage their offended sensibilities. "It's the Tourette's Syndrome. We try to drug her up when were away from the hospital and out on these little field trips, but..." She shrugged apologetically.

The light of understanding seemed to go on behind the husband's eyes...and then the look of suspicion returned. And then he seemed to vacillate uncertainly between the two. Ultimately, he just didn't like having his family being exposed to such behavior. In a lame effort to lash back at the two of them, he snidely muttered, "You need to give her more drugs..."

A part of her really did want to smooth down everyone's ruffled feathers. But after having tried to amicably weasel their way out of this minor confrontation, there was another part of her that suddenly wanted to put the toe of her dark brown, Western-styled boot up his ass.

Instead, she turned her attention to Gina. "Be nice, and stop scaring the nice people, alright? If you behave yourself, I'll let you have a cookie." After enduring a long moment of Gina's silent and menacing glare, she slowly and cautiously removed her hand from her mouth.

Gina was silent for another long, long moment. She didn't need to say anything; the cold and dangerous scowl in her sapphire eyes said it all for her.

Brie regarded her with almost infinite patience. "Y'all want that cookie, 'r not?"

Ryan continued to watch her...and then she found herself fighting down the urge to smile. The frown was still there, but there was an unmistakable glimmer of amusement in her eyes.

Brie picked up on the look, and ran with it. She picked up the box of chocolate-chocolate chunk cookies, and cautiously showed them to her partner. "Cookie?" she said again, trying to get Ryan to crack up while still showing admirable control over her own urge to burst out in laughter. "See? See the nice cookies? Mmmm, chocolate!"

You little wackbat, she thought fondly while biting into her upper lip even harder, almost hard enough to draw blood, as she continued to regard her in profound, stony silence. The worst part of it was that Brie could now tell that the Marine was fighting down the grin, and that Ryan knew the bard could tell she was about to lose it. She waited several moments...and then she quietly asked, "Are they gone yet?"

Brie stole a quick glance over Ryan's shoulder in search of the family. "Nothin' left of 'em but their dust floatin' in the air," she replied.

Ryan finally grinned that dazzling, dark-haired and blue-eyed grin, and then let the chuckles come bubbling up. Duncan threw an arm around her waist, and joined her.

"Jesus, Gina, you're gonna get us thrown out of here again..."

Ryan shrugged one shoulder. "Where's the harm in having a little fun while shopping?" she asked as she slipped an arm around Brie's shoulders. With her other hand, she gently massaged one temple. "Besides, with all your bard-like embellishments, it'll make for a fun story to tell Katie and Jaime tonight."

Still grinning wryly, Brie shook her head as she slipped her arm through the Marine's. "Come on, y'lunatic," she said, "let's go find that mozzarella."

4. Having A Friend (Or Two) For Dinner

Working in the open kitchen, across from the living room and smiling with amusement, Gina was listening to Brie's account of the day's activities at the store as the Navy doctor recounted them to their guests in her relaxed, Southern drawl. There was a lively and crackling fire in the gray, stone fireplace, the satellite television channel was set to an easy listening music station, and everyone was packing a relaxed and mellow wine buzz.

The oven was already heated, and two round, 18-inch pizza pans lay on the counter near her, which had been coated with cooking spray and covered with fresh dough. Preparation of the dough had been a snap; all she'd had to do was use the bread maker, and follow the recipe in the instruction book that had come with it. Next came the sauce: a six-ounce can of tomato paste, thinned out with good, red wine. She usually went with Chianti in her sauces, but a nice San Giovese was just as good for that authentic, old-style Italian restaurant taste, as was a red Zinfandel—and even a Cabernet Sauvignon would do, if there was nothing else available. She never measured anything; it was easier just to eyeball the amounts. So in went some Zin, enough to get the flavor of the wine without thinning the sauce too much. She checked the texture with her spoon, and then added a little more. And, as always, a glass of whichever wine she was cooking with stood nearby. This was the third bottle she had opened; the first two, which were already empty, were in the living room with Brie, Katie and Jaime.

That looks about right, she thought as she checked the sauce once more. After spreading it over both pans of dough, she added chunks of browned Italian sausage, and then covered them over with plenty of chopped mozzarella and provolone. On top of that went a fairly generous sprinkling of Italian seasoning, and then on went the pepperoni and thinly sliced dry salami, and some chopped green onions. Into the oven they went, at 400Eand on the second rack from the bottom, and she set the timer at eighteen minutes. She was a little leery of setting it at the recommended 20; on a previous occasion, the cheese and a lot of the toppings had started to blacken and burn. Having learned from that mistake, she chose to set the timer for eighteen, which would give her ample opportunity to check on the pizzas, and see for herself how they were progressing.

"Gina is a major Drew Carey fan," Brie was saying to their two guests. "Which is okay. Personally, I'm more into Jeff Foxworthy, and the whole Blue Collar comedy thing..."

"That's because she's such a redneck," Gina announced from the kitchen, just before licking a trace of sauce from one thumb.

"I am not a 'redneck,'" Brie said, responding over her shoulder to Ryan's allegation, "I'm a Southern Belle."

"Yeah, right. Like there's a difference."

"Of course there's a difference," Brie said. With that heart-warming smile of hers, and pouring on all the charm she could muster up, she added, "We Southern Belles are sweet and kind, and proper and polite, and oh-so-dainty and dignified, and delicate..." She fanned herself gently with one hand.

"Yeah, right," Ryan said again with a grin, as she remembered the would-be mugger that Brie had beaten up one night, about a month and a half ago, down in Sacramento.

And with her soft, sweet, and velvety Southern drawl, she added, "And I will personally kick the motherfuckin' shit out of any syphilitic, drippy-dicked, inbred, rat-bastard sonofabitch who says differently." Still smiling, and still fanning herself like a true Southern Belle, she raised her wine glass to her lips, and sipped delicately. "Hey!" she suddenly barked out like a fishmonger. "Are those fuckin' pizzas ready yet?"

"Hey!" Ryan shot back with a grin of her own as she wiped her hands on a towel. "If you think you can do this any more quickly, then be my fuckin' guest!"

"Well, what's takin' so fuckin' long?"

She picked up her wine glass and the other bottle, and headed into the living room. "Hey, you want it done fast, or you want it done right, you fuckin' impatient little squid?" she asked with a smile as she leaned over her, and then gave her a quick peck on top of her head.

"Yes," Brie replied calmly as the Marine began to refill everyone's glasses.

"Oh, man," Jaime said with a chuckle as she watched Ryan fill her glass nearly to the top. "If you keep pouring me this much wine, I'm not gonna be in any shape to drive home." She hadn't been here too many times, but on those occasions when she had visited, her two hosts had never failed to be entertaining, whether it was with good food and good wine, or with conversation, or with their antics.

"Hey, I'm not letting you drive home," Gina said, quite decisively, as she turned to top off Katie's glass. "It's thundering and raining like a sonofabitch out there, and there's not a chance in hell I'm letting the two of you go out in that kind of weather. I wouldn't be a damn bit surprised if the driveway was washed out. Besides," she added, "it's a Saturday night, we got movies, and a guest bedroom. So kick off your shoes, relax, and have another drink."

With a mildly sloppy little grin of willing and drunken acceptance, Jaime glanced around the living room again, and took note of the decorations. "So you guys are really into the holidays, huh?" she asked before taking a sip.

"Yeah," Brie replied. "Personally, I kinda like Christmas, and the whole solstice thing. Gina and I come from fairly sizeable families, so the upside is we get presents." Her smile expanded into that sweet and dazzling Gabrielle Grin. "Lots and lots of presents." And then the grin faded. "But the downside is...Gina and I come from fairly sizeable families—so we have to buy presents." She raised her glass to her lips, and dismally muttered into it with a soft and hollow voice, "Lots and lots of presents..." She sipped at her wine. "As you've probably noticed, Gina, on the other hand, is more into Halloween."

"Because I so dearly love to scare the shit out of the little ones," Gina finished for her, with her own dazzling grin and sparkling eyes, as she drained the rest of the bottle into her own glass.

"Jarhead," Brie muttered good-naturedly into her glass.

"Squid."

Jaime's brown eyes darted from Ryan to Duncan, and then back again. "What is with all this 'squid' and 'jarhead' stuff, anyway?"

"Just terms of endearment," Gina replied, "because the Navy and the Marines love each other so much. I'll be right back; I gotta go change, and find another bottle." She headed off for the stairs.

Having known them longer, Katie explained. "Gina's a Marine, and Brie's Navy. The Marine Corps is part of the Navy, so they've always got this constant, on-going rivalry."

"The Marines do some of the fighting," Brie said, with a deliberate dig at the Corps, "but if it wasn't for the Navy to get them to where they're supposed to be, they'd all be sittin' around with their dicks in their hands and wonderin' what to do."

"I heard that," Ryan's voice said in the distance, with a hint of warning. Addressing the others, she continued, "But she is right about the Marine Corps being a department of the Navy; it's the men's department." Her voice grew louder as she came back down the stairs, but the steps of her bare feet were utterly silent. Old combat habits died hard.

Brie sipped at her wine. "You got that off of a T-shirt, didn't you?" she called out.

Ignoring her, Ryan silently rounded a corner and continued toward the cellar. "It's the Marines who have to hit the beach and clear the field," her voice declared, "and make things all nice and safe for those dear little squidlings who get to stay behind, all comfy and warm, and out of harm's way, on board their great big boats. The one point I will happily concede, though," she added, her voice fading in the distance, "is that the Marines don't have their own medical corps; if a Marine is wounded or injured, it's a Navy doctor who patches 'em up—and the Navy does provide excellent medical care. As a result, the Marines are very, very protective of their Doc."

"Which is very true," Brie added. "On several occasions, when I was on shore leave with some friends and goin' out for drinks, we were surrounded by a contingent of Marines. Even in the seediest of bars, I never felt safer."

Not only could she move in utter silence as a result of her warrior days, but also nothing ever escaped her hearing. "'Cause nobody touches Doc," her distant, muffled and disembodied voice declared from below, wafting softly and almost ghostlike through the floor. "Nobody."

"Which means Doc gets to be as rowdy as she wants to be," Doc said, with a tipsy little glimmer in her eyes.

"With all this contentiousness between the Marines and the Navy, it's a wonder anything ever gets done," Jaime observed.

"Damn near miraculous, ain't it?" Brie drawled before taking another sip.

A faint draft came in from the kitchen, delicately scented with a blend of oregano, sage and basil, tomato sauce and wine, and baking bread. "Oh, man, that pizza smells good," Jaime said. "So what do you guys do in the service, anyway?"

"I run the base hospital down in Coronado," Brie replied, "and Gina heads up their Spec Warfare training programs."

"Go check out the collection on the mantle," Katie told her friend.

Jaime rose from her seat. Spec warfare, huh? she thought skeptically as she approached the fireplace. With a kitchen like that, and cooking the way she does? Judging by the well-equipped kitchen and the delicious smell of the pizza, and by the and stature of the blonde young bard, she had originally figured that Ryan must be some kind of a Marine embassy chef or something, who prepared various dishes for a variety of ambassadors or other dignitaries; and Brie obviously had to serve in one of many stateside hospitals...

On one side of the fireplace was a series of shelves that contained Ryan's massive music CD collection, and on the other was a solid wall of hardcover and trade paperback books, magazines, and medical journals. And what she found scattered across the top of the mantle left her momentarily stunned. The pictures, the ribbons, the medals...a picture of Brie in desert camouflage fatigues, and surrounded by the staff of a Forward Surgical Team (FAST units are what they are now called, which replaced the old MASH units of the Korean and Vietnam wars)...a picture of Gina in jungle cammos, and clutching an M-16... A picture of the two women, with wide and dazzling grins, French braids, aviator's shades and olive green flight suits, and leaning with folded arms and their backs against the side of a black, stealth-configured combat helicopter that had an odd-looking, circular weapon painted on the hatch between them...

She turned to look at Duncan. "You guys were in combat?"

The blonde shrugged one shoulder slightly. "Just a couple of times, I reckon," she deliberately understated before taking a sip of her wine. "Gina's the real warrior."

"It's hard to imagine someone who's been in combat now puttering around in a kitchen," Jaime said. "I mean, somehow the two just don't seem to go together."

"I like to cook," the Marine said, with her voice growing louder as she drew nearer. "It relaxes me." Now dressed in black sweat pants and a black sport bra, Ryan came back up the stairs and appeared in the doorway with a bottle of wine in each hand.

Jamie's eyes widened in mild shock. "Oh my God," she said, when she saw the scars.

"Hm?" Gina regarded her with a puzzled little look. Then she took note of where her eyes had fallen. "Oh, this?" she asked, indicating the scar near her collarbone. "That's a souvenir of Colombia. Nine millimeter, if I remember right; went in here, and came out here. I went in on a solo covert op to shut down a coke dealer, and the reception I got after I blew the place up was something less than amicable. Put the motherfucker out of business permanently. I'm not sure they ever did find all the pieces of him... I was lucky the slug didn't shatter my shoulder blade." She smiled fondly in memory of the fireworks show. "God that was such a big bunch of booms..." After a moment, she snapped out of her reverie. "This one here"—she pointed to another faint scar, this one long and thin, and just under her rib cage on the left side—"is from a bayonet back in Kabul; just missed my lung. Can't say the same for the guy who gave it to me, though... the son of a bitch..." she added with a mutter. "And this one here"—she indicated the scar at the right side of her waist—"is from a Kalashnakov three-oh-eight in Iraq." She looked at Jaime, and indicated Brie with a sideways nod of her head. "She patched this one up. It was on the mission where we first met."

Brie gazed at it with a critical eye. "Yeah, that's my handiwork, all right. Healed up really nicely, too. God damn, I do good work..."

"Damn," Jaime said. "Wow." She made her way back to her seat, and settled down on the short sofa next to Katie. "What was the scariest combat situation you were ever in?"

"Oh, holy fuck, they were all scary," Ryan replied. "But I guess the one that sticks in my mind the most is my first. I was a green Marine, out in the battlefield for the first time. Firefight in Yemen; automatic weapons fire all over the damn place, tracers lighting up the night sky like something out of 'Star Wars'..." She sighed deeply, and then went back to the open kitchen. "I was just barely eighteen at the time," she added as she reached up and opened a cupboard door above her head, and took down a heavy tumbler and a bottle of twelve year-old Scotch; she felt as though she needed something a little stronger than the wine if she was going to tell this story. Maybe if she got drunk enough, it would also dull the nearly constant pounding in her head. She twisted off the cap, and began to pour. Leaving the open bottle on the counter, she returned to her seat in the living room and took a gulp—straight, no ice—and welcomed its burn, all the way down to her stomach, before she continued with her narration. "The enemy had the high ground, and had us pinned down in a foxhole and behind a pile of sandbags," she went on, her voice now soft and somber. "We're trying to get our fifty caliber machine gun set up, and there's bullets whizzin' over our heads like bees after a bear with a snoot full of stolen honey. I'm laying there, shoulder down and clutching my M-16, waiting for an opportunity to stick my head up and return some fire, when...when all of a sudden, this grenade comes flying overhead, and lands right next to the guys with the fifty cal."

"Oh, my God," Jaime said.

Brie reached forward, pointed the remote control at the TV, and turned the volume down. Nothing could be heard for a moment, except for the ticking of the timer in the kitchen.

"The fucker's pouring smoke and ready to blow, and it's right next to those poor guys...and they didn't even see it." She sipped at her Scotch. "It's true, what they say, about everything seeming to slow down; you can see it all in every rich, unpleasant little detail. The only thing I could think of was to save my team. I lunged for the thing, and threw myself on top of it—just like in the movies," she said with a forced and tiny smile that quickly disappeared as she went on—"scared shitless, and knowing I'm about to die. I mean, I'm firing off prayers to every Catholic saint I can think of as I'm watching my entire life pass before my eyes—and I hadn't been to church in years. I'm saying good-bye to everyone I've ever known and loved, and I'm telling my folks I'm so sorry that I'll never see them again, and for the misery and pain that I'm about to put them through when they see my flag-draped coffin comin' off the plane..." She sipped her Scotch again, and massaged one temple. "All of this shit is going through my mind, and the guys are still setting up the machine gun...and I'm suddenly thinkin', how long is it gonna take for this fucker to go off?

"So now the guys are returning fire with the fifty cal, and I'm still laying there on top of this grenade. And my CO's looking down at me and yelling, 'Jesus fuckin' Christ, Ryan, what the hell are you doin' down there?'

"So I get up, and..." And then, suddenly, she began to actually chuckle at the memory. "...and like a dummy, I show him this live grenade that's sitting in the palm of my hand and pouring smoke, like it's some kind of weird bug or something that I'd just found. His eyes about busted out of his head when he saw it; his jaw dropped down about to his belt buckle, and his face went about fourteen shades of pale. And then he yells, 'Well, THROW it, goddamnit!'

"But I'm too pissed to throw it. Pissed and humiliated." Drunker than she had intended to be, she found herself discussing a history that she never discussed with anyone outside of the military, because non-veterans just didn't get it. "There I was," she went on, in spite of herself, "trying to do the heroic thing to save my squad, I was staring death right in the face, I'm about to consign my soul to God or Zeus, or whoever was out there...and the goddamned thing was a fucking dud!" And then she spoke a little more slowly, and a little more deliberately as she stated: "That motherfucker who had thrown it had just stripped me of every bit of my dignity." Both Katie and Jaime noticed the tension in her jaw, and the absolute hatred in her eyes. "Without even thinking, I got up with my weapon in one hand and the grenade in the other, and suddenly I'm on my feet and leaping over the sandbags. I am fucking furious, man, and charging up this hill and firing with my M-16, just sprayin' it left and right and not even giving a goddamn anymore if I get killed, and the enemy is going down in one wave after another. All except for one guy, who's watching me from behind a ridge with this bug-eyed 'What the fuck?' look on his face. And then he starts shooting back at me. We both run dry on ammo at the same time, and the next thing I know I'm beating on his head with the grenade. I'm screaming at him, 'You motherfucker! You motherfucker! You think it's funny to humiliate me this way? Huh?' And I'm just beating the shit out of him, and turning his head into a bloody, pulpy mess. And at the same time I'm crying, and the tears are blurring my vision and blinding me, and I'm—and I'm beating on him and beating on him and—" She stopped for a moment, and took another sip of Scotch. Her hand was steady, but there was a blend of rage and terror in her eyes as she remembered that night. She took a deep, calming breath before she went on, as her two guests sat forward in absolutely silent and wide-eyed fascination. "And then I tell this guy, 'Here's your fucking grenade back.' I pulled his pants down, and shoved the thing between his ass cheeks. And then I started stomping on it with the sole of my combat boot, and I'm screaming, 'You're not laughing at me now, are you?' And then I started kicking at this thing with my toe, trying to shove it up his ass, until I am fucking exhausted. I just collapsed on the ground, and I'm sitting there with my elbows on my knees, and my face in my hands... And that was when I noticed that the gunfire had stopped. I looked around, and I'm surrounded by bodies of bad guys. They are everywhere, like wheat that's just been cut down. And then the silence hit me. I mean, it was so goddamned quiet, compared to just a minute before when there was all that gunfire going off; it was almost stunning. And I'm just sitting there, sobbing. Sobbing with relief, and rage, and terror and humiliation, and wondering how in the hell did I ever get myself into such a goat fuck of a mess.

"So I got up"—she cleared her throat gently—"and I started to make my way back down the hill, wiping my eyes and my nose, and staggering in exhaustion..." She paused for a long moment, and noticed that even Brie was watching her intently. It suddenly dawned on her that she'd never told her this story before. "And then...and then the grenade went off."

Jaime softly gasped in horror.

"Jesus!" Katie whispered.

"The concussion knocked me clean off my feet and flat on my face," Ryan said. And then she actually began to smile a little bit. It was a grim little smile, but better than none at all. "It was either that, or," she went on, "or maybe one of his flyin' butt cheeks smacked me in the back of the head. I'm not sure which..." With a slightly diminished throbbing behind her eyes—maybe the Scotch was working after all—she sipped at her drink again.

Brie shook her head with a wry and tiny smile at the Marine's attempt at disarming this grim situation with a touch of humor, but their two guests sat in mild, quiet horror. They sat in silence for many long moments with a new kind of awe and understanding of their host as they regarded this highly trained killer and motivated combat veteran. And then, suddenly, a sharp ping! came from the kitchen, causing them both to jump in their seats and almost out of their skins.

Ryan casually glanced over her shoulder toward the kitchen, and then returned her gaze to her guests. With a little smile, she said, "Pizza's done."

5. Talking To The Big Guy

Hung over and wrung out, and feeling like she'd had her brains sucked out through her ears and then been run over by a school bus, she answered the phone the next morning in the middle of about the sixth or seventh ring. "H'llo?" she croaked.

"Ciao, Gina!" announced a cheery and familiar voice. "Buon giorno! Come va?"

In spite of the hangover, the smile came fairly easily. "Grandma! How are you?"

"I'm a fine," replied Sophia Di Falcone. "How's-a my granddaughter? My little nipote?"

"I'm fine, Nonna, just fine. What's up?"

"You know whatta today is?"

That was a little bit of a puzzler for this early hour. And then she suddenly found herself in the first stages of panic, which did nothing for the pounding in her head. Oh, shit, she thought. Had she forgotten someone's birthday, or anniversary? Or maybe someone's wedding, or Confirmation? Oh, God, she thought as she scratched her head, and tried furiously to remember. Oh shit, oh God, oh shit... Cautiously, almost fearfully, she gently asked, "Is it Sunday?"

"Si!" Nonna Di Falcone replied buoyantly, and it was like a dagger in Ryan's eardrum. She yanked the phone away from her head, and could clearly hear her grandmother as she continued, "Domenica. So guess who wants-a to talk with you."

Warily putting the phone back to her ear, it took her another moment to fight her way through the mental cobwebs...and then she closed her grating eyes and groaned softly. "Oh, no."

"Oh, si. I putta her on for you."

"Nonna, please! No, wait!" But it was too late.

"Buon giorno, Angelina."

She groaned again, silently. The only person who ever called her Angelina was... "Hi, Mom. What's up?" She ran a hand through her dark hair and then wiped the sleep from her eyes. The throbbing at her temples increased.

"You know whatta today is?" Antonia Di Falcone Ryan asked.

"Yeah, I know. Grandma already quizzed me. It's Sunday."

"Si! Domenica. So whatta you doing, lying inna the bed? How come-a you not getting ready for church?"

She stared blankly at the opposite wall of the living room. I never made it to bed last night? she asked herself. Then she regarded the receiver with a puzzled scowl. She put it back to her ear. "Church?" she asked. "What the hell for? I haven't been to church in... Jesus, about twenty years."

"So don' you think it's aboutta time-a you went? You wanna to go to Hell wenna you die? Spend all of eternity roasting with that Il Duce bastardo Mussolini?"

With one hand on her forehead and her temples throbbing even more, she closed her eyes and shook her head slowly. "Mom, please. I'm really not up for this right now."

"You said itta youself—it's-a beenna twenny years since-a you last-a went."

With increasing exasperation, Gina said, "So what? It's been more than twice that for Nonna. How come you don't bug her?" Suddenly, she began to smile in spite of her hangover. "Is it because you can't tell your own mother what to do? So you take it out on me instead?"

"Your Nonna," she groused softly. "You grandmother, she's a strega. She never-a go to church."

Yeah, lucky her, Gina thought. No one can twist her arm. "That's because she says the entire world is her church," she said.

"Bah! Pazzo strega! She's a crazy-a pagan. 'Oh, the forest, she's-a sacred!'" she suddenly said, mildly mocking her mother. "'Oh, the ocean, she's-a sacred! Oh, the little fishies anna the little bonnies, they're all a-sacred! Oh, the whole-a world, she's-a sacred!' Bah. You wanna to see sacred? Go to church."

She rubbed her forehead. "Mom, please! I'm hungry, I'm tired, I'm hung over... Can we please talk about this later?"

"'Oh, I'm-a hungry!'" Mamma Ryan whined, now mocking her daughter. "'I'm-a tired! I'm-a hung over!'" Then her tone turned reproachful. "You wouldn't-a be alla hung over iffa you go to church. How come-a you no believe inna God? Alla these-a times you been inna the combat, and getting-a shot at...didn't you ever feel that there was a-someone looking outta for you? Eh?"

She suddenly thought of his black leather, his bulging biceps, his long hair, his neatly trimmed goatee, and the rich, mellifluous, and venomously silky voice... Yeah, Mom, she thought in retrospect, and couldn't help grinning wryly. But not the god you're thinking of.

"Mom, please," she said. "Put Grandma back on."

"All right, all right, I putta you Nonna back on. Un momento."

"Grazie."

There was a shuffling of movement on the other end, and then her grandmother came back on. "Si?"

"Nonna, can't you talk some sense into her? I've tried and tried, and she's such a testa dura."

"Gina," she said softly. She was about the only person in her family who called her Gina; almost everyone else called her Angela. Her brother, of course, liked to call her "Angie" because he knew how much she hated it, and how much it drove her so totally nuts ("A Marine called Angie!" the Army pogue would dramatically call her); and her mother, of course always called her "Angelina"—Little Angel. Which, to her, was almost as bad as "Angie." "Gina, you need-a to be patient with her. She means-a well."

"I know, I know," she conceded as she massaged one temple. "It's just that...Jesus, God, at times she just drives me so fucking crazy!" Nonna Sophia was also the only person who didn't always comment on the Marine's language. Perhaps it was because she was a lone pagan born into a Catholic family; but she always seemed to be less judgmental, and more easy-going. There were many things that Ryan either could not or would not discuss with other people, but her Nonna Sophia was always there for her with an open ear and an open mind. There was nothing that the two of them wouldn't talk about, except...except for the one secret that Gina withheld from everyone, and would take with her to her grave.

"I know," she agreed. "Wenna she was a kid, she drove-a me crazy, too. And now she drive-a you crazy." She shrugged helplessly. "It's inna her blood. But you know what? Maybe you should go to church with her. Make-a her happy, eh?"

"Nonna, you know I don't have any use for any gods. I don't need Jehovah or Jesus, or even Allah, any more than a Christian needs Zeus or Poseidon, or Hera or Athena, or even Krishna, for that matter."

"I know, I know. You no have-a to buy into alla that-a stuff." And then it seemed as though she was speaking a little closer to the mouthpiece, and a little more cautiously. "But I letta you in on a little-a secret."

"What's that?"

"The Catholic Church? She's-a Pagan!"

Gina grinned skeptically, but she was interested in hearing how her grandmother could explain that one. "How do you figure that?"

"She's-a Mother Church, notta the Father. You see-a the Virgin Mary all over the place, si? Pictures and-a statues, and always holding a little-a baby Jesus, like Isis anna her baby Horus. You know why she's-a so important?"

"Because she's Christ's mother?" Gina ventured.

"More than that; She is-a the Goddess! She is-a the goddess of-a the Strega and of-a the Wicca, and of-a the Hindu, and alla the other-a pagan groups. She is-a Shiva and Diana, and-a Bast and Isis...and-a the Virgin Mary. You know where the name 'Mary' comes-a from, eh? From Mare—Latin for-a 'the sea.' You know of a goddess who comes from-a the sea?"

Gina suddenly had a vision of one particular goddess, riding a giant clamshell and waxing ecstatic over the "bodacious waves, dude!" She couldn't help grinning.

"So go with-a you mother to church this-a one-a time, eh? It would make-a her so happy. Okay?" And then Gina could hear the wry grin in her voice as her Nonna continued, "Maybe you even shutta her up; make-a you both happy."

Gina couldn't help laughing into the phone. "Nonna, you talked me into it."

"Bene! Put onna nice-a dress. Maybe I even-a show uppa myself, eh?"

"That would surprise the hell out of everyone!" Gina replied as she tried to remember if she even owned a dress. "I think they're all convinced that you and I are both goin' to Hell in a hand basket."

"Okay! So we pick-a you up at-a...what time?"

She checked the stainless steel aviator's chronometer at her left wrist. It was a quarter past ten. "They have a noon mass?"

"Onna Sunday?" she asked incredulously. "You are-a kidding, si? We see you at eleven-thirty."

"Roger that. Eleven-thirty." Grinning and shaking her head, Ryan looked at the receiver for a moment before hanging it up. She had seventy-five minutes to get ready. Aspirin, coffee, clothes—all in that order.

"What was that all about?" Brie asked as she sluggishly came down the stairs, apparently a victim of her own drinking and heading for the kitchen.

Gina was quietly thoughtful for a moment. "I'm going to church," she said, more to herself than to Brie. She could hardly believe it.

Brie froze in her tracks, and stared at her in stunned silence. "Say again?"

Gina chuckled softly. Looking at Brie, she said again, "I'm going to church." Maybe if she repeated it a few more times, she would convince herself that it was true.

Brie stared at her for a moment...and then laughed like a short, chattering burst of machine gun fire. "Yeah, right," she said skeptically. "You in a church? I gotta see that for myself!"

Gina folded her arms beneath her breasts in mild defiance. "Fine," she said, with her challenging, Warrior Princess smile. "You're invited."

***

Even though she had no use for Christian or Pagan deities, there was something about the atmosphere of the Catholic Church that she had long ago forgotten that she had liked. The gothic-styled arches, for example, and the cavernous interior, and the multi-colored, stained-glass windows; the sense of ritual, with the altar and candles, the chalice and the incense, and all of the portraits and statues of the Virgin Mary that seemed to outnumber the Christ figures by a ratio of about eight to one; the robes, and the sonorous recitations of prayers in Latin (and the more she focused on these, the more she thought, Damn, maybe Nonna's right!)...they all seemed so pagan. If only that damn priest would shut up with his sermonizing, and just let the congregation sit here in silent contemplation of the works of the original Creator or Creators, those forces even older than the Titans...they might actually gain some insight. And while she was fully aware of the multitude of scandals in which the Church was involved, she also recognized that it did a lot of good. Mother Theresa came immediately to mind, and the charitable works that the church had done over the last couple of centuries, and all over the world; and she had always kind of liked John Paul II, not necessarily because he had been Pope, but because he just seemed to be a genuinely nice guy. So for this one time—she did not plan on making a habit of this—she really didn't mind being here.

She did have a couple of dresses at home, but they were moth-eaten because she never wore them, and severely out-of-date. And she had drawn disapproving glances from her mother when she had opted for a very tasteful gray pants suit ("Women no wear-a pants inna the church," the Italian Catholic traditionalist had said with mild scorn, and then had launched off into a tirade about these modern times, dress codes and morals), so she finally elected to wear her Marine Corps service uniform—which actually brought a mist of pride and joy to Mamma Ryan's eyes, even though the Marine was still wearing trousers. As a matter of fact, Mamma Ryan was gently clutching her hand, their fingers laced together, as she sat next to her. And she had even smiled lightheartedly at Brie, who was sitting at Gina's other side and dressed in her Navy blues. ("Okay, all a-right, some-a pants are okay inna the church.")

"I don't believe it," Gabrielle had said in disbelief, with wide, green eyes, before Mass had begun. "You're in a church!"

Xena nudged her playfully and gently with one elbow, and smiled as she continued to gaze ahead of her, admiring the paintings and drinking in the atmosphere. The Virgin Mary, she thought. Mary. Mare. Goddess of the Sea. And once again, she thought of the clamshell, and the cheerful cry over the bodacious waves, and...

...and then there she was. Reclining shamelessly on one elbow on the edge of the altar, dressed in diaphanous pink, grinning that dazzling grin of hers, and...and waving to Gina with a waggling of fingers.

Ryan's eyes went wide in shock.

With a squeal of delight, Aphrodite hopped lightly from the altar, then turned and lifted the priest's chalice to help herself to a sip of wine. She winced sharply, turned to Gina, and with a sour expression on her face she said, "With all the money they have, you'd think they could afford to buy some better wine." She replaced the chalice, and then began to sashay her way down the aisle to where Gina sat.

Way beyond mortified, Ryan glanced around frantically to see what the congregation's response was. And their response was...well...nothing.

Aphrodite settled next to the Marine, and rested one arm across the backrest of the pew as she turned to face her. "So what's shakin', babe? How're ya doin'?" She threw an arm around her neck and hugged her enthusiastically. "Long time!"

She returned her hug. "Aphrodite, keep it down!" she whispered. "What the hell are you doing here? You can't dress like that in here!"

"Oh, relax. They don't even know we're here. Besides, this is one of my temples, and I can dress any damn way I like."

Stunned into momentary silence, Gina gave her a puzzled and disbelieving look. "One of your temples?" she asked dubiously.

Aphrodite rolled her eyes. "Well, duh! Have you checked out the pictures?"

"What do you mean? What pictures?"

"Those up there." She pointed. "Those over there." She pointed in the opposite direction. "Those back there." She pointed toward the main entrance with a thumb over her shoulder. "I mean, I know they've been cleaned up for a G-rated audience, but you know who they are?"

"I get the feeling you're about to tell me that they aren't Mary and Jesus."

She grinned that dazzling and sparkling-eyed Aphrodite grin. "They're of me and Cupid!"

Fighting down the urge to grin, she gave her The Look. "Oh, come on. You can't really expect me to believe that!"

The goddess shrugged one shoulder. "Hey, your nonna got it right when she mentioned Isis and Horus. It's all the same story told by different cultures, at different times, and in different languages."

Gina watched her a moment or so longer as she mulled it over. At last, she shrugged. "It's something to think about."

"Listen, warrior babe, I want to ask you a question," the goddess of love said, and suddenly her tone sounded more weighty than usual. "How're the headaches?"

Gina smiled at her a little bit, appreciative of her concern, but she didn't want to complain.

"Still gettin' to ya, huh?"

She shook her head mildly. "I...I don't want to..."

"Listen, I know what's causin' 'em, and I want you to do me a favor, okay?" She turned, and indicated the confessionals. "Y'see those phone booths over there? There's someone over there I'd like you to talk to."

How could she know? Ryan wondered, and then almost immediately answered herself, Well, she is a goddess... "What, you're suggesting I go to confession?" she asked in mild disbelief. "Talk to a priest?" She looked at her a little more closely, and then suspiciously, first in one eye and then the other. "Are you sure you're Aphrodite?"

She could certainly understand her skepticism, and the thought made the goddess grin that unmistakably and typically Aphrodite Grin. "I am suggesting, you stubborn jarhead, that you go have a talk with a buddy of mine. You won't listen to Gabrielle, you won't listen to me—"

"Gabrielle doesn't need to know," she said, gently but quickly. "I don't want to burden her with—"

"You won't listen to us, maybe you'll listen to him." She indicated one of the confessionals with a gentle movement of her head and a slight bouncing of blonde curls. "Go on, and get it offa your chest, fer Pete's sake. It won't cost you anything, except a little bit of time."

She felt as though she had just snapped awake, even though she had never fallen asleep. She glanced quickly around, and saw nothing out of the ordinary. Aphrodite was gone, the priest was delivering his sermon, and everyone seemed to be paying attention to him and completely unaware of Gina's conversation with the goddess. She remained still for a moment as she debated with herself as to whether or not she should really take the advice of a well-known and quintessential blonde ditz. She almost rejected it. But there was something else in the back of her mind, something that whispered to her, encouraging her to take that step. In her heart, she knew that Aphrodite would never intentionally steer her wrong. So, with a nervous sigh of resignation, she rose and softly whispered to Brie, "Excuse me; I'll be right back." She edged her way past her, and with an anxiously racing heart she started toward the confessionals.

It was cool, dark and comfortable as she settled down, and she tried to remember just how long it had been since she'd last been to confession. She took a few moments to collect her thoughts, and then decided, Maybe this isn't such a good idea after all. Aphrodite was a great friend, and she may have been a goddess, but she was also a major-league ditz. She had a huge heart—which was probably why she was the goddess of love—but she never seemed to think too far ahead.

She began to rise when the panel next to her slid open. "Hello," said a soft, low and mellifluous voice that would have been perfect for a jazz radio station. There also seemed to be a hint of a smile to it. "You're not leaving already, are you?"

As she settled back down, she hoped she remembered the proper procedure. It had been so long... "Forgive—um, bless me, Father, for I have sinned," she said, and figured it wouldn't be a bad idea to cross herself just out of politeness, and to make certain she was following the correct formality; she didn't want to be thought of as a dunce in religious matters. Especially with all the indoctrination that her mother had tried to heap on her. "It's been...over twenty years since my last confession."

"Please continue."

The pounding of her nervous heart increased with the thudding between her temples. Did she really want to go through with this? To give up the one secret, the one self-punishment that, in her mind, she felt she so profoundly deserved, and which she had withheld from everyone—even from Gabrielle—and that she had sworn she would take with her to her grave?

"About three or four years ago," she began, "I..." She stopped, and fought for control of herself. She took a deep breath...and then she bowed her head as she lost the battle, and broke into quiet, soul wrenching sobs that shook her entire body. "I killed sixty thousand people, and...and then I tried to take my own life."

It was out; it was finally out. The secret that she did remember that night, and that was why she was still haunted by cold sweats, screams in the middle of the night, and blinding migraines. She had convinced her soul mate that she could never remember those nightmares, and that they always receded into some dank, dark corner of her subconscious, but the truth was she still remembered, and still carried with her the guilt of killing sixty thousand innocent civilians in Kaffir, and forty thousand in Higuchi. A hundred thousand lives! Brie had no idea that Ryan still felt she had no right to continue living, yet did continue because she couldn't hurt Brie by leaving her again. If it hadn't been for Gabriella Duncan, the one true love of her life, she would have put that bullet through her temple. And it had been because of the one true love of her life that she had remained alive, and suffered for so long. Had it not been for the blonde young doctor, Gina would have put that bullet through her temple a hundred times over, if she could. She felt she had deserved far worse for having killed so many. What had torn her soul apart for so long was her love for Brie and her need to pay for her crimes.

She gasped softly, and wept. Quietly, bitterly. She struggled desperately for control of herself, and failed. "I don't know what to do anymore, Father," she said, her voice tight with emotion. "I can't live with this pain and guilt. I don't deserve to live. But..." She raised her head, and with tearful eyes looked at the screen that separated the anonymous priest from the anonymous confessor. "But I can't hurt Brie again by leaving her, I can't! The things I did, Father, the...dear God, the things I did... I just don't know what to anymore..."

"You trust your family and friends, don't you?" the priest asked. His hand— strong, tanned, well proportioned—and somehow oddly familiar—came through an opening in the panel, and gave her a handkerchief.

"Of course I do," she replied, without hesitation, as she accepted the white cloth kerchief.

"And you trust Gabrielle, don't you?"

"I'd trust her with my very soul." She wiped at her eyes.

"Then listen to them. And listen to me. You did the right thing in Turakistan. It's tough to follow your conscience, I know; I've been there myself. But that's exactly what you did that night. Yes, it was a horrific act; but you know you did the right thing. You not only saved millions of lives, Xena, but quite possibly every human life on this planet. You saved a world that should be in your debt. And what you need to do now is to forgive yourself, and move on."

Sitting in the darkness of the confessional, it was like she was suddenly being bathed in a bright, golden light. And in that instant, Gina suddenly knew that the man was right. That was exactly what she had been doing all of these years; beating herself up over committing a deliberate and undeniably and horribly destructive act—but it had been committed in order to prevent a far, far greater one. And she had still been beating herself up over Higuchi, too—which she also now concluded had not been her fault.

"Will you give me your word that you will?"

With tears of relief streaming down her face, and feeling as though a massive burden had just been lifted from her shoulders—and as the throbbing in her temples quickly diminished and then altogether vanished, never to return—she said with a smile, "You've got it."

"Your word as a Marine?"

She actually began to chuckle softly as she wiped at her eyes again with the white handkerchief. "Ooo-rah," she said, with unswerving determination.

"Good," the priest said, and Gina could hear the relief and the happiness in his own voice. "Go in peace, old friend. Be happy, and enjoy those simple pleasures of life that you have earned, and which you so richly deserve."

"Thank you, Father," she said, nodding to herself in assent. "You have no idea... Father?"

But he had already left.

Stepping out of the confessional, wiping her eyes and blinking at the sudden brightness, she saw that the mass was over and that the congregation was leaving. She spotted Brie and the others easily, and went to approach them.

With sudden concern in her jade-green eyes, Brie took note of the dampness of Gina's sapphire orbs. "Are you okay?"

Gina grinned at her. "I'm fine," she replied. "I'm okay. I'm really..." Her grin widened. "I'm really okay."

Outside in the brilliant sunshine, and coming down the wide, concrete steps of the church, Gina turned her face to the sun and let it warm her. Thank you, Apollo, she thought, for providing us with such a beautiful day. She took a deep breath, and relished in the scents of the surrounding woods.

Why had that priest seemed so familiar? she kept asking herself as they continued down the steps. The voice, and his hand... She could have sworn she knew them from somewhere. She racked her brain, searching all of those memory banks, but she kept coming up empty.

They reached the bottom of the steps, and they started for the Jeep Cherokee, which waited for them in the crowded parking lot nearby. Then Gina stopped as something occurred to her. She turned around, and gazed back at the entrance of the church. Aphrodite was there, grinning knowingly and waving at her with one hand while her other arm was linked through that of the priest. She still couldn't see the man's face, though; he had turned away, and was on his way inside. But she did notice that he was tall—about six-foot-four, or perhaps more—with brown hair that was long for a priest, and he was strongly built, with wide shoulders that could possibly lift an entire world. And then he, along with the Goddess of Love, vanished in a burst of pink and gold light as she was suddenly reminded of the man...the demigod...who had helped her to turn her life around some two thousand years ago, and to help serve the greater good.

"Brie..." she began, as she remembered how the priest had referred to her partner as "Gabrielle." Not Brie or Gabriella, but as Gabrielle. And was it the Marine's imagination, or had the priest actually referred to her once as Xena?

Brie looked up at her. "Yeah?"

Thoughtfully, she continued to gaze at the church's entrance. "What do you suppose ever happened to Hercules?"

She thought it over for a second or two. "Hell, I don't know," she replied at last. "He's half-god... I imagine the big guy is still around somewhere. Maybe he's living in Hollywood, and pretending to be an actor or something." She studied her face. "What makes you ask?"

"I don't know, I just..." She sighed heavily, and then pulled her gaze away from the church to look at her partner. Dressed in winter Navy blues, with the ribbons and pins, and golden caduceus at her left breast, and with four gold rings around the cuff of each sleeve and her white cap with it's black visor and gold Navy insignia, she was Captain Gabriella Duncan, the irascible young Navy doctor and Gina's best friend. And she was Gabrielle, the Bard of Poteidaia, Queen of the Amazons, and second in a long, long line of Warrior Princesses. The two were eternal, and inseparable.

Xena could not help smiling at that lovely face. "Have I told you lately I love you?"

One corner of Brie's mouth curled upward in a half-smile as one eyebrow arched, partly in delight and partly in suspicion. Then the other corner curled upward, but she said nothing. She just wanted to stand there and gaze at her soul mate, who now seemed...different, somehow. The warrior's smile seemed to come a lot more easily now, and there was a new liveliness in her sapphire eyes that the bard hadn't seen in a long, long time.

"I love you," Ryan told her partner. "And if we weren't in uniform, I'd plant a huge kiss on those soft, warm lips of yours right now."

Brie's grin widened, shifting from mild amusement and suspicion to absolute delight. "Hoo-ya," she said softly, with a suggestive little gleam in her eyes. "Then we'd better hurry up and get home, and get out of these uniforms." And then a little bit of the suspicion returned, blended with a trace of concern. "What went on in there? Are you sure you're okay?"

"I'm fine, babe, I couldn't be better. And as to what went on in there...I'll tell you all about it on the way home." Even though they were in uniform, that didn't stop the Warrior Princess from giving her Bard a warm, firm and heartfelt embrace. "Y'know what?" she suddenly asked. "I feel like celebrating. What do y'all say to lunch? Mom? Nonna?" She turned back to Brie. "After all," she said with a dazzling grin, "I've got your credit card."

Brie growled at her in vexation, but couldn't stop the grin.

"Lemme go get Father Mike. Suddenly, I feel like talking philosophy."

Inside the cool interior of the church once more, and on her way to the rectory, she stopped by the massive collection of votive candles, whose delicate flames danced in the gentle breeze. She paused for a moment, and then approached them. One at a time, she lit more candles. She couldn't quite remember if this ceremony was for those who had passed on or not, but ultimately it didn't matter; the lighting of a candle served pretty much the same function as the lighting of incense in a Buddhist temple—it was to carry one's prayers and thoughts to the Divine, and to remember loved ones, both living and dead.

This one's for you, Gabrielle, she thought as she lit the first candle. The next several were for each member of Brie's family, then she lit more for each of her own relatives...and then she lit one for Aphrodite, and another for Hercules. "Thank you, guys," she said. She shook out the match, dropped it into the tray, and then went in search of Father Mike.

6. The End Of The Day

After everyone had gone home, they had the entire house to themselves. And the sex had been great. The sex in the living room, the sex in the bedroom, the sex in the shower, and the sex in the bedroom again...it had all been great. Spectacular. Fourth of July. It was late in the evening now, and the lights were off, with a cold wind whipping around the corners of the house and playing with a loose, upstairs shutter to which no one paid any attention. Instead, they lay snuggled together in each other's warmth on the sofa, and dressed in flannel pajamas to ward off the chill of the night. Another lively fire crackled and danced in the fireplace, an empty bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon and two empty glasses rested on a nearby table, and a copy of Ray Harryhausen's "Jason And The Argonauts" was playing on the DVD player with the sound turned down low.

With a soft sigh and a gentle moan, Brie shifted slightly in Gina's arms. She tilted her head up and cracked open her jade-green eyes to gaze into Gina's sapphire eyes—and found them to be closed. The Marine's breathing was slow and regular, and as the firelight danced on their faces she could see that there was the faintest little smile on her lips.

Brie smiled, too. She must be having a good dream, she thought. At long last, there were no more headaches, and no more nightmares. "Sweet dreams, Xena," she whispered. With another soft moan, she closed her eyes once more and sighed again in complete contentment, and rested her head against the Warrior Princess's breast to listen to her heartbeat. And within a minute, she was fast asleep.

The End

No churchgoing and overly conservative and religious Cost Savers' customers were harmed during the production of this story.

Return to the Academy