Janice cursed herself for the dozenth time as she unlocked the door and hurriedly climbed the stairs to the apartment. ‘Almost 11:00 and I told Mel I'd be home by 9:30.' She reached the second floor landing and paused. True the traffic had been bad, there'd been a wreck. But still . . . she should have left the restaurant earlier. Saying good night to Louise, however, had been harder than she thought. And Louise's invitation to not say good-night at all hadn't helped. Still it was Christmas Eve and Mel had called the Museum earlier to make sure Janice would be home that evening.
The holidays didn't mean much to Janice. She'd learned long ago that it was much less painful to just treat them as any other day. As a child, before her mother had left, Christmas had been fun. There had never been much in the way of religious observation and almost all of the money was spent on supplies and financing the dig they were invariably on, so presents did not play a big part either. But they had always spent that day together, just the three of them. Sometimes they would go for a day long picnic, or, if a city were near by, Harry Covington would drive them there, always finding something to entertain and delight his young daughter.
Janice stood staring at the closed door to her and Melinda's apartment, unable to stop the flow of memories. For a while, as she had grown older, Janice had wondered why she and her father had never spent that day together after her mother had left them. Was it because it would have reminded him of something he'd lost? Something he couldn't bear to think about? Or was it simply that those days had been her mother's doing, that without her to force him into it, he'd had no interest in making that day special for his daughter, no interest in anything except another day to search for the scrolls. Realizing she was making herself even later, she swallowed the memories and quietly opened the door.
There were no lights on but the hallway was filled with a soft glow. Janice stepped to the doorway leading to the living room and looked in. The fire was burning in the fireplace, Melinda was lying on the sofa, apparently asleep. Janice cursed herself again as she took in the rest of the room. When she'd left for work that morning it had been the same as always. But it seemed celebrating this holiday was more important to Melinda than to herself. The fireplace mantle was decorated with pine boughs and ribbons and a small tree with simple ornaments stood on a table nearby. Feeling more like a heel by the moment Janice looked at the candles placed around the room, each waiting patiently to be lit, and the bottle of champagne resting in a pool of water that had assuredly been ice an hour and a half earlier.
She moved to stand beside the sofa. Looking down at Melinda she felt her heart contract. It had taken some getting used to, having this woman around all the time. But now she could not imagine how it how it would be without her.
‘Well,' she thought with a smile, ‘there's still a little of Christmas Eve left to salvage.' She tip-toed over to where the champagne stood in the ice bucket and gingerly carried them down the hall to the kitchen. She hung her jacket on the back of a chair and as quietly as possible emptied the water and refilled the bucket with ice. Then she made for the bathroom for a quick clean up and change of clothes. She returned to the kitchen, picked up the ice bucket and champagne and grabbed the platter of food that she had found in the fridge. A smile spread across her lips as she found Melinda still sleeping. Quietly she got everything settled then went about the room lighting the candles. One last check to make sure the small box was in her pocket then she stepped to the sofa.
"Hey sleepyhead, wake up."
Melinda opened her eyes to find Janice smiling down at her. That smile, which came all too seldom, never failed to warm her. "Hi," she said sleepily, her own face breaking into an answering grin.
"Sorry I'm so late. We left the restaurant a little late and there was a wreck that tied up the traffic. I hope I didn't spoil everything."
Melinda sat up quickly and reassured her friend that all was well. "You don't mind that I put up some decorations do you? I mean you never said anything about celebrating...or anything...so..."
"Well, usually I don't pay much attention to it. But it looks nice, wish I'd thought of it myself."
"Really? Oh, you lit the candles!"
"And got more ice for the champagne. I'm afraid it was all melted, it's after 11:00."
Melinda reached up and briefly took Janice's hand. She was just happy they were both here together. Partly because it was her first Christmas away from her family and partly because of how much she enjoyed being with Janice. "So how about opening the champagne?"
Soon they were both sitting on the floor in front of the fire, sipping the bubbly and munching on olives, pate`, baby shrimp and miscellaneous other goodies. Janice talked about her day at work and Melinda told funny stories about her childhood that had Janice in tears of laughter.
It had been almost a year since they'd met in Greece. Soon they would be returning to work on another site where Janice believed more scrolls might be found. Melinda had been a little uncomfortable in the early days of their partnership. While she liked and admired Janice, at times she had been a little intimidated by her, though she had always held her own when they disagreed. But their friendship had quickly flourished and she had come to know, and care for, the kind, gentle, caring side of Janice Covington as well as the determined, gruff, no-nonsense archaeologist.
The clock on the mantle chimed midnight. "Janice may I give you your present now? Or would you rather wait until tomorrow?"
"Now is fine, but let's have a toast first." Janice filled their glasses then looked into Melinda's eyes. "I'm glad we met. I'm glad you were obstinate enough to ignore my bad attitude and worse manners. I'm glad we're partners . . . and I'm very glad we're friends."
Melinda looked a little wide-eyed at her companion. Janice didn't usually express herself so freely. Her heart began to pound. "Me too," she whispered, her gaze never leaving Janice's. "Here's to . . . " But here her courage failed and she could not finish.
"To us," Janice offered. Melinda smiled and nodded and felt much warmer than either the fire or the champagne accounted for.
Janice finally tore her glance away from Melinda's eyes and reached into her pocket. "Here, this is for you. Merry Christmas."
Melinda took the small package as if it were the most precious treasure in the world. She gently untied the small ribbon and removed the paper. She found a small wooden box. The wood was dark and rich, it's sides and top carved in delicate swirling patterns.
"There's something inside it, " Janice told her.
Melinda held her breath and slowly lifted the top. Inside was a scarab ring in gold and lapis. She lifted it out and held it to the firelight. "Oh Janice this is exquisite!"
"It was the first piece I ever found on my own. Dad's reputation was still somewhat in tact at the time and he was on good terms with the antiquities agent, so they let him buy it."
"Janice I can't take this! Not your first piece."
Melinda held out the ring but Janice wrapped her fingers around Melinda's hand, pushing the ring back into her palm. She looked at Melinda but didn't know how to say what she felt. She'd never had a friend before. Never been so close to someone that she wanted to share something this special with them. Janice wanted Melinda to understand this, to know how important she was in Janice's life. For a moment she wished Gabrielle could take over, knowing the bard would find the right words.
Melinda felt the strength of Janice's grip and saw the emotions moving behind her eyes. Slowly she smiled, understanding that this wasn't just an "I have to give you something" present, that this was what Janice truly wanted her to have. And it spoke more about Janice's feelings than any words could have conveyed. "Thank you," she whispered.
Janice released her hold and Melinda sat for a moment longer smiling at the ring. Finally she reached over and took a package from beneath the tree. Janice sat before her, cross legged, forearms resting on her legs, smiling. Melinda stretched out in front of her and lay the gift in Janice's lap.
"I hope you like it. I got the idea a long time ago and it's been really hard to wait until Christmas."
Janice's smiled deepend. She envied Melinda's ability to take such great joy from even the simplist things in life. The brightly colored paper shone in the firelight as Janice began to tear it off. She opend the cardboard box and dug through the tissue paper that was packed inside. Finally her fingers folded around something cool and hard. She withdrew her hand to see a silver and gold money clip.
"Look at the other side," Melinda prompted, unable to wait for Janice to see what it was.
Janice flipped it over and held it to the firelight. She couldn't contain a grin as she ran her thumb over the surface, noting the craftsmanship and fine detail of the miniature chakram.
"And you see this part?" Melinda asked as she propped herself up on an elbow and lay her arm across Janice's leg. She lightly rested her hand in Janice's, caressing the surface of the clip with her fintertips. "This part beneath the chakram is in the design of a scroll."
Leaving her hand in Janice's palm, she looked up into those sea-green eyes just inches from her own. "I . . . I thought it would be nice to have something . . . for both of them. I know all the stories are about Xena and all . . . but without Gabrielle there wouldn't be any scrolls." She looked down, momentarily nervous and shy. "Do you like it?" she whispered.
Janice waited for her to look up again, then answered with a tender smile, "I love it. It's perfect, absolutely perfect."
Melinda beamed with joy then slowly, softly, leaned forward and kissed the corner of Janice's mouth.
"Merry Christmas Janice Covington."
"Merry Christmas Mel Pappas."