Autumn's vibrant colors had finally arrived; the college campus was alive with the start of the fall semester. The air was warm, but with a hint of the approaching cooler weather. It was invigorating, and Jan Covington breathed deeply of the clean air as she entered the ivy-covered brick building housing the Department of History and Archaeology. As she passed the department secretary's desk, the young woman glanced up, revealing the mischievous twinkle ever-present in her eyes.
"Hey, Doc. You back from lunch already?"
"Didn't take one, Virginia. No time. I'm gonna be up to my keester in students in about five minutes, I think."
"And a cute little keester it is," Virginia said as she snapped the wad of chewing gum in her mouth. "A few of your admiring students have already been around looking for you."
"Rats." Jan sniffed at the door of the little pantry. "Oh, boy. Fresh coffee?"
"Just for you, Doc. Knock yourself out."
Jan entered the pantry and filled her coffee mug. "Oh, yeah. There's a place in paradise for you, Ginnie."
The secretary giggled. "That's not what my priest says."
"What does he know? He hasn't tasted your coffee."
"No, but he's heard my confession."
"Lucky bum." With that, Jan lifted her mug and walked to her office door. She unlocked it, clicked on the lights, and set her coffee down on her worn, cluttered desk. "Rats. Now I gotta visit the cat-box," she said, then left and wandered down the hall.
A few minutes later, as she neared her office, she was addressed by a voice exuding a cultured southern accent. "Pardon me, ma'am." Jan looked up. A student, an air of hesitant question about her, stood near her. Jan raised an eyebrow in question, and the student spoke again. "I'm looking for a Doctor J. Covington. Might you know her?"
Jan smiled. Yes, it was fall again, and new students always arrived with the fall. "Sure," Jan said. "You've found her. I'm Jan Covington."
The student's eyes widened. "Oh, dear. I'm so sorry. I hope that I didn't offend you."
Jan grinned, then waved a hand in a gesture of dismissal. "Naw." She pointed toward her office. "You need to see me? Come in and take a load off." In a moment, she was leaning back in her worn office chair as the student settled onto a chair in front of her desk. "So," Jan asked, "what can I do ya for?"
"Well," the student said, "You're my faculty advisor, it seems."
"Ah. Is this your first semester here?"
"I'm afraid so."
"It happens to the best of us," Jan said. "What's your name?"
"I'm Anastasia McAdams."
Jan took a second to size her up. She was obviously from a well-to-do background, judging from her cultured southern accent, her tasteful sweater, and her grooming. Her black hair was cut rather short, but stylishly, and her eyes reflected a watery, light blue color. All in all, Jan decided, she was a most impressive young woman. She sipped at her coffee, then nodded. "Welcome aboard, Anastasia. Let's dig out your file." Jan thumbed through a stack of manila folders on one corner of her desk, then pulled one out. She opened it, leaned back in her chair, and quickly perused it. Then, she sat forward and rested her elbows on her desk.
"You're starting your third year, transferring in from Atlanta? That's a great college down there. You were doing well there, and I see that you were captain of the fencing team. What made you transfer here, if you don't mind my asking?"
"Oh, not at all, Doctor Covington. I actually came here to study with you." At Jan's expression of surprise, she hurried to explain further. "I've read your work on the Xena legends and Sappho, and it fascinates me. Also, you have a reputation for being rather, ah, unorthodox, and I appreciate that very much."
Jan chuckled. "Unorthodox? Yeah, that's me, all right. The board of trustees say that I'm just a pain in their butts." She raised an apologetic eyebrow. "Sorry. I tend to be blunt sometimes."
Anastasia was having difficulty restraining a broad grin. "It's actually quite refreshing. Now, Doctor Covington, how would you recommend that I proceed with my studies for the next few years?"
Jan and Anastasia huddled in her office for the next thirty minutes, in deep conversation about Anastasia's academic future. As they spoke, Jan watched the student's formal demeanor melt away, replaced by a warm, amicable manner. She found the young woman intelligent, inquisitive, and quite insightful. When her courses over the next two years were finally plotted out, Jan handed a paper to Anastasia. "If you find any of my classes full, just come back. I'll get you in."
"Thank you so much, Doctor Covington," she said, then collected her bag as if to rise. "Oh, there's something else which I wish to ask of you, if you can oblige me."
Jan shrugged. "Yeah, sure. What's that?"
"Well, I notice in your work that you use extensively the translations of one M. Pappas. Might I ask if you know him personally?"
"I do," Jan said. "She's my closest friend."
"I see. Does she, by chance, come from Charleston?"
"Yeah. She lives here now, though."
At that, Anastasia's eyes widened. She sat forward, then spoke hesitantly. "Oh! I, ah, was wondering, well-" She fell silent.
"What's on your mind, Anastasia?"
"Well, I-" She took a deep breath, then began again. "Let me explain something about myself, Doctor Covington. I was adopted at birth. I never knew my natural parents, but I have always wondered about them. I recently got a copy of my birth certificate, and my natural mother's name is listed on it." Anastasia pulled a folded paper from her bag and opened it. "She's a Pappas, too. I thought, maybe, that your friend M. Pappas might know of her, being from Charleston and all."
Jan gestured toward the paper. "May I?"
Anastasia passed the document across the desk, and Jan perused the certificate. Anastasia was twenty years old and had been born in Charleston, South Carolina. The next bit of information caused Jan to turn pale. Below Anastasia's name, in the space for 'mother', the name 'Melinda Pappas' was neatly inscribed. Her eyes traveled across the document. In the blank for 'father', the simple word 'unknown' appeared. Jan fought to steady her hand as she glanced below the mother's name. The mother's date of birth matched Mel's. For a long, silent moment, Jan stared at the document, then handed it back to Anastasia. She took a deep breath to calm herself, then glanced up once again at the young woman sitting across the desk from her. The dark hair, the light eyes, the oval face; it all fit. Jan felt as if she had been struck in the gut with a fist. She collected herself, then spoke carefully. "Seeking one's natural parents is a touchy thing, Anastasia. Are you sure they want to be found?"
"I'll understand, of course, if they don't want to see me, but I can't help but try. I don't know if you can understand, but-"
Jan's thoughts flashed back to her own parents. Her mother had abandoned her and her father when Jan was quite young, and she had always wondered about her, sometimes in bitterness and sometimes in sympathy. Her own father, whom she adored, she thought dead for many years and had only recently discovered him alive. The reunion had been an emotional one. "Yeah, I do," Jan said. "I do."
"If you could ask your friend for me-I mean, if she can tell me anything at all about my natural mother-"
Jan fought to keep her voice even. "I'll speak with her for you. Maybe she'll know something."
"Thank you, Doctor Covington. I hope I haven't upset you with my request."
Jan smiled painfully. "No, dear. You haven't, and I understand more than you might think. I'll, ah, mention it to her tonight. Catch me again tomorrow, and I'll tell you her answer." She quickly changed the subject. "And register for those classes as soon as you can. They fill up quickly."
"I will. Thank you again, Doctor Covington." Jan smiled and nodded, and Anastasia rose and hurried from her office. When she disappeared, Jan collapsed back in her office chair, stunned.
"Holy crap. This is unbelievable. Mel never said a thing about this."
A knock on her door roused her from her thoughts. She looked up. Another student was standing in the doorway. Jan emitted a deep, ragged sigh, regained control of her thoughts, and waved the student into her office. It was going to be a long afternoon.
* * *
Melinda Pappas watched Jan guide her motorcycle into the garage, then emerge and walk toward the kitchen door of the cottage which they shared on a shady, wide street a few blocks from the university's campus. When Jan clumped into the kitchen, Mel greeted her with a hug, a kiss, and a smile. "Hard day?" she asked.
"Bizarre," Jan said. Her gaze traveled up to Mel's face, and the gaze was deep, searching. "I don't know where to begin."
"What's wrong, Jan?" Mel's smile fell, and an expression of deep alarm replaced it. "Something's horribly wrong, I can tell. You didn't get fired, did you?"
"No. But you and I need to have a serious talk."
Mel's response was one of caution. "All right. Do you want a drink first?"
"Make two, and make 'em stiff. We're gonna need 'em, I think."
With that, she walked into the living room, plopped down on the sofa, and pulled her shoes off, letting them thump on the hardwood floor. Mel watched her, then poured two drinks and carried them into the living room. She handed one to Jan, then sat on the couch next to her, watching her intently. For a few moments, neither spoke. Then, Jan gulped her drink, cleared her throat, and began describing her meeting with Anastasia. As she did, Mel's complexion paled visibly, but she said nothing. She allowed Jan to talk. When Jan quieted, Mel rose and walked to the window. For a long, silent moment, she said nothing, but stared out at the yard and kept her back to Jan. Then, she broke the awkward silence in the room with a whispered reply.
"I was not quite sixteen then. He was a beautiful boy, Jan, like a Greek god. It was my first romance, and I fell hard for him. He left Charleston quite suddenly, and I never saw him again. I realized soon after he left that I was pregnant."
"Jeez. What happened then?"
"Our family was scandalized. My mother was furious. She demanded to know who the boy was. I never told her. She sent me away to have the baby, and it was given for adoption at birth. I never saw the child, never knew where it went. I stayed in a boarding school for the rest of my high school, then went away for college." She sniffed, then resumed talking. "I thought that would be the end of it." She sniffed again as she wiped at her eyes. "Momma sent me to that boarding school to keep me away from boys. She said that she couldn't trust me, that I had proven myself nothing but a tramp. Ironic, isn't it? That boarding school was where I realized my preference for girls. Never cared for men since then." Mel looked at Jan for the first time since she had begun speaking. A tight smile formed on her face. "I guess she succeeded better than she knew, huh?"
Jan said nothing. In the silence, Mel turned back to the window. "It must have been a horrible shock for you, to find out this way."
"It was a kick in the gut, I'll say that."
"I'm so sorry for that, Jan. Can you ever forgive me for keeping this from you?"
In answer, Jan stood. "Forgive you?" She approached the window, then pressed her body against Mel's back. Her arms snaked around Mel's waist, and her forehead pressed against her mate's back. "For what? There's nothing to forgive."
"But I should have told you," Mel said. "It wasn't right that you found out like this." Her next thought was spoken in a whisper. "Are you terribly disappointed with me? Do you still love me, Jan, or do you think me a horrible person?"
"Do you remember," Jan asked, "our first night together?"
"I'll never forget it. It was the most beautiful night of my life. How intense it was, how heartfelt. It seemed as if we were exploring not just each other's bodies, but each other's souls. Neither of us slept much, as I recall; we talked as much as we made love. The sun came up all too soon."
"Yeah. That night, I knew that I'd finally found somebody who loved me for who I was, warts and all."
"Oh, Jan. You don't have any warts."
"That's the point. I do." She laughed. "A regular toad, that's me. Anyhow, sometime during that night, we agreed on something. Do you remember what that was?"
"Yes, I do. We agreed that it's best not to know everything about each other's pasts."
"I still feel that way. Whatever's in your past, it doesn't need apology or explanation. I know you, Mel, and I love you for who you are. You're the most perfect person in the world to me. Nothing in your past will ever change that."
Mel's hands gripped Jan's, resting over her stomach. "Thank you."
"So what do you want me to tell her? She needs to have an answer."
Mel turned and faced Jan. "Let me think about it, please? Right now, I need to be alone."
"Can I feed you dinner first?"
"I'm not hungry. Eat without me, dear." With that, Mel kissed Jan on the forehead, then pulled away and walked toward the bedroom.
"I'll be here if you need me," Jan said.
Mel's eyes reflected gratitude at that. "I know. You always are, and I love you for it." Then, she entered the bedroom and shut the door softly behind her.
Later that evening, Jan sat, curled up on her favorite end of the sofa, attempting to concentrate on a novel. She had just realized that she'd read the same page for the second time when a hand touched her shoulder. She looked up. Mel had emerged from their bedroom. Jan leaned her cheek against the hand, and Mel smiled painfully.
"What's the verdict?" Jan asked.
Mel walked around the couch, then sat. "Her name is Anastasia?" Jan nodded. "Is she sweet?"
"She's a livin' doll."
"Does she resemble me at all?"
"Yeah. Spittin' image, Mel. You're written all over her."
Mel turned away and gazed toward the window. She remained so for some time. Finally, she looked back at Jan. "If she really wants to meet me, bring her for dinner tomorrow night."
Jan smiled. "Good decision, love. You won't regret it."
"I sincerely hope that she doesn't hate me for giving her up like that. I know that I'll have some explaining to do." Mel sighed, then rested her head on Jan's shoulder. "Tell me, Jan, do you ever want to see your mother?"
"I don't know. Sometimes I think about it. I don't think I'll ever look for her, though. She caused Dad and me a lot of pain when she left us. Still, it's hard to judge her too harshly. She must have had her reasons for going."
"As I had mine for giving up my child? Tell me honestly, did I do her wrong?"
"Naw, Mel. You were just a kid yourself, for cryin' out loud. You did what you had to do, what your family insisted that you do. You had no choice."
"I should have had more courage."
"Don't beat yourself up. Anastasia was obviously adopted by a good family. She's smart, well-educated, and classy. I'm sure she's had a good life. You've got nothing to blame yourself for."
"I wish I could feel that way."
"You will when you meet her." Jan tucked a hand under Mel's chin and lifted it. The blue eyes, normally sparkling, were pained and wet. "It'll be okay. Trust me." Mel nodded, but said nothing. "You look tired. Why don't we go to bed?" Again, Mel silently nodded consent, and they rose together.
That night, in their bed, Mel clung closely to Jan in the darkness, as if seeking reassurance in her lover's touch.
* * *
The next day, Jan finished lecturing her first class of the new semester. In the auditorium, she noted many familiar faces and many new ones. Near the front, she saw Anastasia seated, listening attentively. At the end of the hour, Jan checked her wrist-watch. "It's almost that time," she said. "Remember, read the first chapter of your Burton text for next meeting. My office hours are posted on my door if you need to see me." She picked up her worn green fedora from the lectern and clapped it on the back of her head. "Oh, and Miss McAdams, please see me after class. That's all."
With that, a rustle and thump of books being gathered filled the room, and a chatter of voices arose as the students poured through the door. One lingered behind. As Jan gathered her notes and textbook, she looked over at Anastasia. "I've got some news for you."
Anastasia met her at the door. "Then your friend knows something, Doctor Covington?"
Jan nodded. "Yeah, she does. Let's talk privately. Do you have time now?" At her nod, Jan led her to her office, unlocked the door, and motioned her in. When she entered, Jan closed the door, then turned toward her. "Ah, look. I have to ask you something, Anastasia. I'm afraid it's kind of personal."
The young woman stood expectantly, an aura of barely-suppressed excitement about her. "Yes, ma'am?" she said.
"How do you feel about being given up for adoption? I mean, my mom left me and my dad when I was small, and I've never seen her since. Sometimes I resent the hell out of her for it, and sometimes I think I understand. I sure don't know how I'd react if I ever saw her again, though."
Anastasia considered the question. "I read my birth certificate. I know that she was only sixteen when she had me. It must have been dreadful for her to have been so young, pregnant, and unmarried. That's unpardonable in a good southern family, you know."
"Please rest assured that I do not resent my natural mother, and that I could never be harsh with her. I understand and sympathize, I truly do. Was that what you were concerned about?"
"Yeah, it was. Thanks for setting my mind at ease. If you want to meet your mother, come to my house tonight for dinner. She'll be there, and she's expecting you."
Anastasia's eyes widened in surprise. For a moment, she held her breath, then hugged Jan with surprising strength. "Oh, I would love to. Thank you so much, Doctor Covington. Thank you."
As Jan extracted herself from Anastasia's embrace, she chuckled. "Be here at my office, four-thirty. I'll take you home and bring you back to your dorm tonight."
"Oh, I'll be here! I wouldn't miss it for all the world!" The young woman scurried toward the door and opened it, then paused before she left. "Thank you again!"
"See you then," Jan said as Anastasia bounced out of her office. She returned to her desk, picked up the receiver of the heavy black telephone, dialed a number, and listened. After a moment, she spoke. "Hey, gorgeous, it's Jan. Guess who's coming to dinner tonight?"
* * *
At the appointed time, Anastasia knocked on the open door of Jan's office. Jan looked up, waved her in, and rose. "Are you ready?" she asked. Anastasia nodded. "Are you nervous?"
"Bursting," she said. "I'm tied in knots. What's she like, my mother?"
Jan smiled at that. "She's the most gentle soul I've ever known. You'll love her, trust me." She slipped on her leather jacket, picked up her bag, and locked the door behind them. They descended the steps of the building, and Jan stopped at her motorcycle. "Here's our ride," she said.
"Oh, my! A motorcycle?" She looked down at herself. "But I'm wearing a dress."
Jan snickered. "So sit sidesaddle. It's not far, just a few blocks."
Jan slipped the strap of her bag over her head, then sat astride the bike and kicked it into life. As the motor settled into a deep purr, Anastasia perched on the seat behind Jan, both legs hanging over one side of the bike. "Hang on tight," Jan said. When the girl's arms were clasped around her waist, Jan nudged the bike forward. The kick-stand snapped up, and they were on their way, weaving down the university's wide sidewalks and finally bumping onto the street, where she accelerated and cruised away from the campus. In about five minutes, they slowed and pulled into the driveway of a pretty, well-tended little cottage, coming to a stop inside a garage next to a nondescript convertible car. Jan silenced the motor, then looked over her shoulder. "We're here."
Mel stood at the window, peeking out toward the garage. After a moment, she retreated into the bathroom to fuss with her appearance, her hands shaking nervously and her heart pounding in her ears. The kitchen door opened, and footsteps echoed on the polished wood floor.
"Looks like Mel's got dinner about ready," Jan said. "I'll go and let her know you're here. Do you want something to drink? Not yet? Okay. Be right back. Make yourself at home." A moment later, Jan appeared at the bathroom door. "Mel, we've got company."
Mel stood in the bathroom, nervously twisting her hands together. "Do I look all right?"
"You look gorgeous, as always." Jan grasped a hand and squeezed it in reassurance. "Come on," she said. "It's time to meet your daughter."
Mel nodded, then summoned her courage and walked into the living room. Anastasia was standing by the window, admiring the flower garden just beyond it. Mel halted in the entrance to the living room, and her voice cracked as she spoke.
Anastasia turned at the voice, then froze when she saw Mel. For a moment, the two women considered each other in silence, their faces registering deep, barely-suppressed emotion. Slowly, Anastasia tilted her head to one side in an unconscious gesture of question as she considered Mel. When she finally spoke, it was with a quiet, almost reverent tone of voice.
"Are you my natural mother?"
Mel slowly nodded. "I'm sure of it, now that we've met."
"Oh, me, too!" Impulsively, she took several steps toward Mel, but caught herself and resumed her polite, restrained persona. Mel opened her arms to her; Anastasia fell into them, and they embraced for a long, silent moment. Jan felt awkwardly out-of-place at the scene and quietly tiptoed into the kitchen to open a bottle of wine, seeking some excuse to accord the reunion the privacy it deserved.
Anastasia looked up at Mel. "I'm glad that you wanted to meet me."
At that, Mel felt her eyes cloud with tears. "Oh, honey, I'm so glad you looked for me. I-" She hesitated, then voiced her worry. "I do hope that you don't resent me too much for not being a proper mother to you."
"I could never bring myself to resent you," Anastasia said. "You gave me the greatest gift anyone could ever give. You gave me life."
Mel looked into the face peering up at her. The black hair, the blue eyes, the lop-sided smile; it was hers, and it was Anastasia's. This was her daughter, there was no doubt about it. Even more than the features of the young face, the immediate, overwhelming feeling of closeness, of rapport, of-yes, love, confirmed it for her. Anastasia. The name suddenly carried a music all its own. Mel hugged her again, then held her at arm's length. "Let's sit and talk before dinner, dear. I want to know all about you."
They seated themselves on the sofa, and Anastasia glanced around the room. "Where's Doctor Covington?" she asked.
"Jan probably wanted to give us some privacy. She's very shy when it comes to emotional scenes." She looked toward the kitchen. "Jan? Come and join us, won't you?"
At that cue, Jan emerged from the kitchen, an open bottle of wine and three glasses in her hands. As she poured the wine and offered glasses around, Mel smiled her thanks, then turned her attention back to Anastasia. "So, tell me all about yourself. Where were you raised?" Suddenly reconsidering, she placed a hand to her mouth. "I can ask that, can't I?"
Anastasia laughed, then nodded. "Of course. I was raised in Atlanta. McAdams is my last name, the name of my adoptive parents. Do you know the family?"
"I'm afraid not," Mel said. "But I'm sure they're wonderful people."
"They are. I love them dearly. My father is a professor of English literature there. My mother is an artist, a painter. They're delightfully quaint and artsy, the talk of the neighborhood. They wanted me to major in music, but I always found the past to be irresistible to me. So, I insisted on archaeology." At that, Anastasia looked over at Jan. "My father objected at first. He said that archaeology was a man's profession." She smiled. "I showed him your book, Doctor Covington. He delighted in it, and after he read it, he agreed with my choice. You proved that a woman could shine in a man's world."
"I've managed to survive in it," Jan said. "Any success I've had is really due to Mel, though."
"Oh, Jan. That's not true," Mel said.
"But I've read the acknowledgments in Doctor Covington's book," Anastasia said. "She mentions you prominently. I never realized that the Melinda that she mentioned and the M. Pappas whose translations she used were the same person." Her eyes seemed to twinkle at the next thought. "Until now, that is."
"We keep it quiet," Jan said. "It's better that way. Say, are you two hungry? We can talk over dinner."
Mel giggled. "Jan must be starving. Come, dear. Let's eat."
The dinner was wonderful, not only from Mel's cooking, but from the company. Both Jan and Mel were delighted to get to know Anastasia, and by the end of the evening, they had invited her to visit any time she had the opportunity. Finally, Jan reluctantly insisted that Anastasia needed to be returned to the dormitory, as the curfew for students would commence soon. Mel and Anastasia embraced warmly at the kitchen door as Jan donned her leather jacket.
"Jan, you're not taking her back on that motorcycle, are you?" Mel said.
"Sure, Mel. Why not?"
"She's wearing a dress. She'll catch her death of cold on that thing, too. It's autumn, after all."
Jan looked over at Anastasia. "We can go in the car, if you want."
"Oh, I love the motorcycle, really." She looked at Mel. "It'll be okay, I promise. It's fun, and Doctor Covington is careful."
Mel's expression was one of skepticism. Finally, she relented. "Well, all right, but let me lend you a sweater, dear. I don't want you getting sick."
As Mel hurried from the room, Jan snickered, then winked at Anastasia. "Mothers, huh? They're always wanting to put a sweater on you."
Anastasia giggled mischievously, and Jan responded with a conspiratorial laugh. Mel emerged from the bedroom at that moment, sweater in hand, and eyed the two girls with bemused indulgence. "What now?" she asked. "Jan, are you corrupting her already?" Jan merely adopted her 'innocent' persona, smiling sweetly, as Anastasia slipped on the sweater. Just before they exited the house, Mel hugged them both to her and kissed Anastasia's forehead. "Don't be a stranger, dear. Visit me soon?"
"Oh, I will! Good-night. Thanks for everything."
Mel hugged her again, then saw them out. She waited in the open doorway and peered through the screen door as they mounted Jan's motorcycle, coasted down the driveway, and purred into the night. The day had been an eventful one for Mel, and she felt suddenly drained of energy. It was a good exhaustion, though, as if she had been purged of years of sorrow and doubt, purged as the summer rain cleans the air and renews life.
Anastasia. The name, Mel quickly decided, would from now on be a treasure to her. So this, she wondered, is what it's like to have a daughter? She recalled the days of her youthful pregnancy, of her family's condemnation, her anguish, her heartbreak at the father's sudden, silent departure, and the vague, half-anesthetized memory of the childbirth. And she recalled the moods which followed the birth: the guilt, the self-condemnation, the loss. It had been a horrid time for her. For the first time in her life, Mel was assured that it had been worth every second of it.
* * *
Jan pulled the motorcycle up to a women's dormitory, turned it off, and walked Anastasia to the door. She looked at her watch; they had four minutes before curfew set in. Anastasia bid her good-bye, then attempted to open the door. It was locked. She groaned. "Oh, no," she said. "'Sergeant Stalag' locked the door. I'm in trouble."
"That's the dorm-mother. She's a terror. We call her-"
"Yeah, I heard. Don't worry about it." Jan rang the bell by the door and waited. The women's dormitories had 'dorm-mothers' living in them, often matronly women whose responsibility it was to insure order and propriety in the female dorms. Jan had heard of this one's reputation. This was going to be fun. In a minute, the lock clicked, and the door cracked open. A sour face surmounted by a bun of gray hair peered through the crack.
"You're late, young lady."
Jan stepped forward. "No, she's not. The curfew begins at nine o'clock, right? My watch says it's three minutes to nine." Jan held up her wrist and tapped the watch's face.
Slowly, the dour face considered Jan. "And you are?" she asked, her voice dripping disapproval.
Jan grinned. "Professor Covington," she said, emphasizing the title. "Anastasia was a guest at my house for dinner tonight."
"She's still late," Sergeant Stalag said.
"No, she's not," Jan said, "but she will be if you don't get your butt out of the way and let her in."
Anastasia clapped a hand over her mouth to hide her amusement as Sergeant Stalag's expression sagged into one of chagrin. Slowly, the dorm-mother stepped aside, and Anastasia walked through the door. She turned, attempting to keep from laughing. "Good-night, Doctor Covington," she said. "Thanks for everything."
Jan nodded. "You bet, Anastasia." As she turned to leave, she waved a hand and spoke over her shoulder.
She heard the door slam behind her and the lock turn, and Jan snickered. She mounted her motorcycle and kicked it into life. "Man," she said, "Sergeant Stalag needs to get laid."
Inside the dorm, Anastasia smiled sweetly at the dorm-mother. "Thanks, ma'am. Good-night." When she turned to seek out her room, the older woman stopped her and considered her severely.
"Young lady, you should be careful about the company you keep."
"I beg your pardon, ma'am?" Anastasia said.
"I've heard about that Doctor Covington's reputation," Sarge said, "and it's not a good one." She lowered her voice and glanced around. "I hear that she's never been married, and that she lives with another woman."
Anastasia tilted her head in question as she pointed at her room door. "But ma'am, I've never been married, and I live with another woman."
Sergeant Stalag looked down her nose at Anastasia. "You know what I mean. Just you be cautious, young lady." With that, she watched Anastasia enter her room, then turned and paced down the hall.
When Anastasia entered her room, her room-mate looked up from her book. "How was dinner at Doc Covington's house?" she asked.
In reply, Anastasia sat down, kicked her shoes off, and sighed. "I had a wonderful time, Kit."
Kit closed her book and sat up on her bed, suddenly interested. "Did you meet her girlfriend?" At Anastasia's puzzled look, Kit pressed her question. "You know, that woman she lives with? Her girlfriend? I hear that she's really something."
"Oh, I'm quite sure it's not like that at all," Anastasia said, shrugging off the statement. "They're just the best of friends."
Kit showed an amused little grin, then patted Anastasia on the head. "Okay, Annie. If you say so."
As Anastasia turned to gaze out of the room's window, she detected a hint of perfume on the borrowed sweater. She held it to her nose, inhaled, and decided that it was delightful. "And yes, she's beautiful, heart and soul."
* * *
The semester progressed at a fast pace as the autumn colored the leaves and lent a refreshing nip to the air. Anastasia's first papers and tests proved her to be a talented student, and Jan breathed a sigh of relief at that. She had harbored a secret worry that the girl would have difficulty in her studies, and that would have put Jan in an awkward situation.
Mel, for her part, immersed herself in the occasional free-lance translation sent to her by colleagues in both England and America, and lectured a class or two at the Ancient Languages department, a guest of the professors there. All during those weeks, Anastasia, or simply 'Annie', as she preferred to be called, became a familiar face at Mel and Jan's little home, visiting whenever she had the opportunity. She had also been accepted onto the university's fencing team, one of only a few women so honored. Life was very good.
One Saturday, as she walked up the driveway to Mel and Jan's house, she heard some metallic clinking coming from the open garage. When she poked her head into the door, she could see Jan's back as she leaned over her motorcycle. A loud clank sounded, followed by an irritated voice.
"Ouch! Goddamned son-of-a-"
"Hi, Doctor Covington!"
Jan turned around, saw Anastasia, and allowed a sheepish look to cross her face. "Hey, Annie. C'mon in. You know anything about motors?"
"I'm afraid not," she said as she knelt by Jan's side.
"Well, here. See that spark plug? Take this wrench and put it over the plug, like so, then turn it counter-clockwise. Watch your knuckles."
"Like this?" she asked, then turned the wrench. It slipped off the plug, and her wrist struck a bolt. She winced in pain and looked down. A nasty scrape began to ooze blood.
"Damn," Jan said. "Sorry. Come in, and we'll doctor that for you." She rose and led Anastasia into the kitchen, where she called for Mel. In a moment, Mel appeared, smiled a greeting to her daughter, then paled when she saw the cut.
"Oh, Annie! What did you do? Sit down this instant, and let me see that." As Mel fussed over the cut, Jan pulled the little first-aid box down from the kitchen cabinet and placed it next to Mel's elbow.
"It's nothing, really," Anastasia said. "I heal quickly. I'm sure it will be fine."
"Fine?" Mel said. "It's awful." She patted it with a square bandage, then applied antiseptic and wrapped the girl's wrist in a clean, white gauze. Finally, with Mel assured that Anastasia wouldn't die from shock or sepsis on the spot, she relaxed, resumed her usual good-natured manner, and poured coffee for the two of them as Jan excused herself and returned to the garage. As they chatted, Anastasia grew suddenly solemn and asked the question that Mel had been anticipating would eventually arise.
"Mel, do you remember anything about my natural father?"
Mel placed her coffee cup on its saucer. "I do, of course. What would you like to know about him?"
"Where is he? Whatever happened to him?"
"I don't know, dear. I haven't seen him since before you were born."
"He never wrote or visited or anything?"
"No. He left Charleston quite suddenly at the end of our time together, and I never heard from him again. I wrote him, but my letter came back marked 'unknown'."
"How odd," she said.
Mel shook her head. "It's not very odd, really, when one thinks about it." She noticed Anastasia's expression of question. "How much do you know about men, Annie?"
She shrugged. "Not much, I suppose. I mean, I've dated a little, but they don't really interest me, I find." She looked up from her coffee cup. "Is that weird?"
"Not weird at all, dear. Well, I've found that, in matters of love, men can be rather untrustworthy. They'll say that they love you, and they'll fawn over you, but once you sleep with them, they'll often disappear on you."
Anastasia's eyes widened at that. "Why?"
Mel shrugged. "I don't know, really. I suppose it's just the way they're built. It's said that men crave sex, while women crave romance, love."
"Did you love my father?" Anastasia asked.
Mel placed an elbow on the table, leaned her chin on her hand, and gazed out the window. "I was terribly in love with him back then."
"But not now?"
"Are you and Doctor Covington in love?"
Mel's head jerked around. She blinked in surprise at Anastasia's question, then studied the girl's face. The expression was one of curiosity, of question, and not of accusation. How should she answer? Would the truth alienate her from her new-found daughter? Melinda felt suddenly petrified with fear, unable to answer. Anastasia leaned across the table and took Mel's hand in her own. "It's all right. I understand, really. I understand more than you might think."
Their eyes locked, blue upon blue. At that moment, Melinda understood Anastasia's meaning. "You do?" was all that she could ask.
"I do," Anastasia said. "And I'm so glad to finally know that I'm not alone."
Mel slowly released her breath, only then realizing that she was holding it. "The most frightening thing I've ever done is to follow my heart where Jan is concerned."
"Was it worth it?" Annie asked.
"Yes," Mel said. "Oh, yes. Don't ever be afraid to follow your heart where it leads you."
The answer seemed to satisfy the girl. She smiled at the words, then squeezed Mel's hand again, a gesture of gratitude. "I'm glad we had this talk," she said.
"Me, too. Don't ever be afraid to ask me anything, Annie."
"I'm not," she said, then giggled delightfully. "You can see that."
"Yes, I can. Now, I have to run some errands. Would you like to join me? We can have lunch downtown."
* * *
Two days later, Anastasia stopped by Jan's office to discuss research for a term paper. As she and Jan were talking, Jan glanced down at the girl's wrist. The bandage was gone. Where the deep scrape had been two days before, there was an almost-healed scar, barely visible. Jan stared at it in wonder.
"Doctor Covington, is anything wrong?" Anastasia asked.
"Huh? What?" Jan's head jerked up. Anastasia was regarding her with a curious expression. "Sorry." She pointed to the girl's wrist. "That's almost healed. It's only been two days. That's incredible."
"Yes," she said. "I've always healed very quickly. It's odd, I know, but it's just me, I suppose."
"Hm." Jan considered the statement, then nodded. "Yeah, guess so." They returned to their discussion of research, but Jan mentally filed the information away in the back of her mind.
That afternoon, after her office hours were over and before she left campus for the day, Jan went to the gymnasium for her thrice-weekly workout. Soon, dressed in her gray sweat-pants, black, high-topped tennis shoes, and a tee-shirt, she was concentrating on curling twenty-pound dumbbells when a coach's voice attracted her attention.
"Those biceps of yours are lookin' good, Jan."
Jan grunted, then relaxed her arms. "Thanks, Pete. Hey, you coach the fencing team, don't you?"
He nodded. "Yeah. Why?"
"One of my best students just made your team," she said. "Anastasia."
"Annie? Oh, sure," Pete said. "She's really something. You ought to come and watch her fence." He pointed across the gym. "They're at it now."
"Oh?" Jan rested the dumbbells on their rack, then joined him. "I think I will, at that." She crossed the gym's floor with Pete, then walked down a hall and opened the door to a practice room. In it, members of the fencing team, dressed in the white uniforms traditional to fencing, were in practice, faces and hands covered, foils clicking and flashing. "Which one is she?" Jan asked.
"That one, there." Pete pointed. "Look at that form. She's incredibly fast and responsive. No one can beat her. She seldom takes a hit. You mark my words, she'll get us the championship this year."
Jan leaned against the wall as she watched her, deeply impressed with her skill and speed, and her mind began pondering a troubling question. Mel was the last known descendant of Xena. If Anastasia was Mel's daughter, then she was also Xena's descendant. Could that account for-? No, she decided, that was crazy. Or was it? She decided to broach the subject with Mel that evening, after dinner.
"Jan," Mel said that evening, "that doesn't make sense. Why, I'm Xena's descendant, but I don't heal like that, and I'm not gifted with speed and agility. I'm rather clumsy, as you know."
"It got me wondering, that's all. How come she's like that, but you aren't?"
"I don't know. Perhaps it only shows up in certain generations."
Jan puzzled over that for a moment, then looked over at Mel. "Or perhaps," she said, "it has more to do with who her father was."
Mel blinked in surprise. "What do you mean?"
Jan turned on the sofa and drew her legs underneath her, Indian-fashion, so that she was facing Mel. "Think about it. According to Gabrielle's scrolls, Xena had those qualities, the abnormally fast healing and an incredible physical ability. Who was Xena's father?"
"A soldier," Mel said. "And a drunken bully, from Gabrielle's description."
"No, Mel. That was Xena's mother's husband. Who was Xena's father?"
Mel's expression fell. "According to Gabrielle, there was some question about Xena's father being-"
"Right. An immortal. Ares, to be exact."
"Oh, Jan. Are you suggesting that-that Annie's father is an immortal? That's ridiculous."
"Is it, Mel? I mean, you described him as beautiful. 'Like a Greek god', I think you said. He disappeared without a trace at the end of the summer. And now your daughter shows up, an adult, and she shows those same qualities that Xena showed." Mel remained silent, and Jan took Mel's hand in her own. "Mel, I have to ask you something."
"All right, Jan. Ask."
"What was her father like? Describe him. Did you notice anything, ah, unusual about him?"
"Well, he was not tall, but had an incredible beauty about him. Dark hair, curly, and dark eyes. He had a prominent nose. He seemed very sophisticated for his age, with a wisdom unusual in a teen-age boy." She thought a little more. "And he had two unusual scars on his body."
Mel lifted a foot and tapped her ankle. "Here, one on each ankle. He said it was from an automobile accident."
"What was his name, Mel? What do you know of his family?"
She hesitated. "Is this necessary?" she asked.
Jan nodded, an apologetic look about her. "It's necessary, or you know I wouldn't ask."
"I know. You have always been very protective of my feelings. All right," she said. "His name was Jonathan Maia. He never spoke of his family, really. He didn't stay with them much. He attended a boarding school, a military school in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, he told me. He'd been going there since he was in the seventh grade, and he was in his senior year."
"What school, Mel?"
She thought. "It was Valley Military Academy, I think he said. Yes, that's it."
"So," Jan said, "Annie's twenty. That makes her birth year nineteen thirty-one. He would have graduated there the following year."
"We're not going to look him up, are we, Jan?" Mel asked, her voice tinged with uncertainty.
"I just want to find out if this guy ever existed. If he did, then my theory is wrong and I'm out in left field. My guess, though, is that he'll never have been heard of at this school, and there'll be no trace of him anywhere."
"And that will mean that Annie's father is an immortal, won't it?"
"Right. And we've dealt with immortals before, Mel. You know them; they've always got something up their sleeves. If this guy is an immortal, my guess is that he looked you up and romanced you for a reason. It wasn't just an accident."
"What reason could he have had?"
Jan sighed, then scratched her head. "Maybe it's got something to do with the fact that you were Xena's last known descendant."
Mel shook her head. "This is ridiculous, Jan. He was just a boy, and I was a silly girl in my first romance. That's all it was."
Jan studied Mel's reaction, then nodded. "Okay, Mel. Sit tight. I'll be back in a second." With that, she rose from the sofa and went into their little study. In about five minutes, she came back holding a large book. She opened the book and flipped a few pages over. Then she dropped the book on the sofa next to Mel and pointed at a photograph. "Did he look like that?"
Mel glanced down at the book, then froze. Her complexion paled, and she gasped. "Good God," she said. "That's him, the face, the nose, the hair, the body, everything. How- how can that be, Jan? No one knew what the gods looked like. We have no record."
"We don't? This is a Roman copy of a Greek sculpture which dates from the fourth century B.C. The Romans were excellent at copying Greek art, down to the finest details. The Greek gods were in their heyday when the original sculpture was done; it's logical to suppose that some of the Greeks actually saw them. Therefore, it's also logical to assume that this is what that particular god actually looked like."
"Who-who is it?"
"Hermes," Jan said. "Something clicked when you described the scars on the ankles. You remember Hermes, right? Wings on the ankles? Messenger of the gods, and all that? Patron god of con artists and thieves? Son of Zeus and-" Jan paused. "Maia."
Mel repeated the name. "Maia. That was his family name, he told me." She studied the picture for a long time, then looked up at Jan. "But didn't Xena kill most of the Greek gods?"
"She didn't kill Hermes," Jan said.
For a long moment, Mel sat quite still, gazing at the picture in the book. Then, she looked up, her eyes hollow. "I need a drink."
"I'll get two," Jan said, then rose and disappeared into the kitchen. When she returned, two glasses of sherry in hand, she sat and began speaking again. "Mel, what was this guy like? I mean, his personality?"
"Why?" she asked after she gulped about half her drink.
"Hermes was reputed to be a clever trickster, a thief, a sly talker. Does that sound familiar?"
Mel nodded. "He was that, Jan. Smooth, devious, and charming. He could sell shoes to snakes, I'll bet. He surely did charm me." She thought about it, then added another thought. "And I did notice after he left that a favorite locket of mine was missing."
"There you go," Jan said. "Now, we need to figure out why he chose you to romance."
"If your theory is right-and I'm still not convinced, by the way-his only purpose could have been to make me pregnant. Once he did that, he disappeared."
"An easy matter for an immortal. They've been living among mortals and hiding their pasts for centuries." Jan sipped her sherry, sinking into deep thought as her forehead furrowed into lines and her eyes narrowed into slits. "The only reason I can come up with is Annie. Somehow, this all has to do with her. He's got some purpose planned for her."
Mel gasped. "Is she in danger, Jan?"
"I don't know. We need to keep an eye on her, though. If he's actually Hermes, my bet is that he'll show up in her life eventually."
Mel shook her head. "This is all speculation. We need some proof. I just can't buy it." She sipped her sherry, then studied her friend. "Still, every time you come up with what I think at first is a hair-brained theory, it inevitably turns out to be true."
"Thanks, I think, and you're right. We do need proof. I'll start on it tomorrow."
* * *
The next day, Jan handed a hand-written letter to Virginia. The secretary snapped her chewing gum as she scanned it. "Valley Military Academy? Yeah, sure. I'll have it on your desk in a jiffy, Doc."
"Thanks, Ginnie. You're a doll."
"Not a problem. At least you've got handwriting that I can read."
As Jan returned to her office, she heard Virginia slip a couple of sheets of paper into her typewriter and begin clacking the keys. Jan sat at her desk and opened a book, but did not get far into it before Virginia sauntered into her office and handed her the letter. Quickly, she opened her fountain pen, signed it, and handed it back. "Mail it today, right?"
"You got it, Doc," the secretary said, then waggled through the office door.
Jan eyed the tight skirt as she left, then coughed and returned her attention to the book. "Jeez, Ginnie, your skirts are killin' me," she said under her breath.
Virginia's head popped back around the door-jamb. "Golly, I'm glad they're having an effect on somebody around here." With that, she disappeared again.
Sheepishly, Jan lowered her head, slunk down a little into her office chair, and stuck her nose farther into the book. "Me and my big mouth," she said. The heat of a blush colored her face as she heard the tinkle of Virginia's laughter echo down the hall.
A week later, Jan received a reply to her letter. She quickly perused it, then sighed. It read:
Dear Doctor Covington:
The Valley Military Academy alumnus about whom you inquired, Jonathan Gaia, class of 1932, did attend our school from the dates 1925 to 1932. He is listed on our rolls as John Goiea. We regret to inform you that he was reported killed in action during the last war. Therefore, no current address exists for this alumnus.
If we can be of any further assistance to you, please do not hesitate to write.
Office of the Registrar
Valley Military Academy
"I guess that tears it. I was wrong this time," Jan said. After a moment, another thought struck her. "Jeez, I wonder how Mel is going to take this? Well, I suppose she needs to know." Then, she thought of Anastasia. "Damn. Guess she needs to know, too. It's her right. Poor kid. She might take this hard." Jan sighed again, then returned her attention to her work. She was not looking forward to delivering the news to either one of them.
* * *
That night, Mel was quiet after reading the letter. "Does Annie know?" she asked.
"Let me tell her?" Mel asked, a plea to which Jan was grateful to agree. Then, Mel folded the letter, stuck it into her pocket, and delivered brighter news. "Next week is Annie's twenty-first birthday, Jan. What shall we do for her?"
* * *
At Anastasia's next visit, she took the news of her natural father's death very stoically. She thought about it, then sighed. "Well, at least my questions have all been answered. My search has ended." She glanced at Jan. "Thank you for seeking word of him. I do appreciate it."
` * * *
Anastasia's twenty-first birthday was duly celebrated at Mel and Jan's favorite Italian restaurant, and never had the girl seemed more happy or radiant. It was as if the magical date had caused her to blossom, and both Mel and Jan noted it. Jan secured permission for Anastasia to stay the weekend away from the women's dorm on campus, and having her in their little house for the weekend was a delight. When she had to return to campus on Sunday evening, Mel actually shed a few tears after she left, feeling both silly at the display and the luckiest woman in the world to be surrounded by both Anastasia and Janice. Life had an odd way of turning out better than she'd ever planned, she decided, even though she felt a tug of painful regret every time she recalled the beautiful lad whom she had once loved, and his untimely, undoubtedly horrid death in the tragic war so recently ended.
On the Monday afternoon following, she was at work on a translation at the table in their sun-lit kitchen when the doorbell rang. She rose, opened the door, and saw a man standing on the step, his fedora's brim shading his face. His suit was an impeccable double-breasted one, she quickly noted, tailored with taste. "Yes?" she said.
He lifted the fedora from his head, and Mel gasped. The color drained from her face, and she had to grip the door-jamb to maintain her balance. In the awkward silence which reigned, the man's voice reached her ears, tinged with an undefinable accent. She had heard the voice before, and she would never forget it.
"So you have not forgotten me?" he asked.
She breathed deeply, then answered in a tight, emotional voice. "I never could. What are you doing here, Jonathan? I heard that you had died in the war."
He smiled at that. "So you asked about me?"
"I didn't," Mel said. "A-a friend did."
His eyebrow raised in question. "Weren't you the least bit curious about me, though?"
"No. You hurt me terribly, twenty years ago. Did you think I hadn't forgotten how you'd used me?"
"It was a mutual attraction, as I remember it."
"Your actions didn't show it," Mel said, the disapproval evident in her voice. "It was as if you had dropped off the face of the earth. I never heard from you again. That is not the conduct of a gentleman."
He bowed graciously. "And for that, I am deeply sorry. There were, ah, circumstances at work about which you had no inkling. Please, I would appreciate the chance to explain."
"That's really not necessary," she said. "I don't think we have anything more to talk about, Jonathan. It would be best for us both if you left now and did not return. I'm sorry to be so inhospitable, but-"
"But," he said, "we do have something to talk about." He leaned forward and whispered a name. "Anastasia."
Mel's jaw dropped. "You-you know about her?"
"Please, Melinda. We must talk. I won't take much of your time, I promise." When she hesitated, he added an incentive. "After today, you'll never again have to speak with me, if that is your wish."
She studied the face; it was him. The perfect features, the winning smile, the clear, dark eyes; the years flooded past her, took her back to her memory of a teen romance, and she felt her resolve weaken at the sight of him. After a moment, she nodded. "All right, Jonathan. You may come in, if you promise not to stay long."
"I promise, Melinda." He tread the steps into her house with a light, almost silent tread, and entered. As the door shut behind him, he looked around. "You have a lovely, quaint home here. It truly reflects all that I admire in you."
She ignored the comment and retained a formal demeanor tinged with caution. "Would you care for some coffee? I have some made."
"No, thank you," he said pleasantly, then seated himself at the kitchen table and placed his hat on a free chair. "Please indulge yourself, though."
Mel refreshed her coffee, then sat at her place. "Now, Jonathan, what's this all about? Why, after twenty-one years, have you suddenly looked me up?"
He crossed one leg over the other and folded his hands in his lap. "As I said, it's about our daughter. I'd like to make her acquaintance, get to know her."
"She thinks you're dead. Leave it there."
"But wouldn't you agree," he said, "that, as her father, I have a right to make her acquaintance?"
"No." Mel bristled. "You gave up that right twenty-one years ago. You abandoned me. I was pregnant by you, and you deserted me."
"And I am here to make amends. I have and will continue to apologize deeply for that. It was beyond my control. Please allow me to explain and to attempt to make it up to both you and her."
Slowly, Mel voiced her next thought. "I don't think that there's anything you can do or say to atone for that type of behavior, Jonathan. And as far as meeting Anastasia goes, forget it. She thinks you're dead. Leave it that way for her sake, I beg of you."
He leaned forward in his seat, studying Mel intently. After a long silence, he smiled. "You are still the most beautiful woman that I have ever known."
Mel's eyes narrowed. "Forget that road. It won't get you anywhere with me."
"The years have made you hard," he said, sadness tinging his voice and manner.
"No kidding. Life is a bitter teacher, Jonathan."
"Do you really hate me so, Melinda? Once, we were lovers."
She perused his face, and her manner softened a little. "I don't hate you. I just don't trust you." Her eyes narrowed in suspicion. "And just how did you know that I was even pregnant? You disappeared before I realized it."
He did not flinch from the question. Keeping his eyes fixed upon hers, he offered an explanation. "Your family told me when I inquired of them about you, after I returned to school. They did not approve of me, it seems. They insisted that I never see you again."
Mel leaned forward. "That's a lie. I never revealed your name to them. I should remember that little part of the affair; they certainly grilled me enough about your identity. I remained true to you. I protected you from them. And in return, you abandoned me and our daughter." Her expression darkened in contained anger, and Jonathan's face reflected only hurt. He sighed, then nodded, lifted his hat from the chair, and rose.
"I am deeply sorry to have troubled you," he said, bowing formally. "I will leave, and I will not return, as you wish."
"Thank you," Mel replied formally. "And don't you dare ever seek out Anastasia, or I'll-"
He raised an eyebrow. "Or you'll what?" he asked.
Mel huffed. "Just leave, please. Go away and stay away. If there's any gentleman at all underneath that expensive suit of yours, then prove it now and leave us alone."
He smiled quizzically at that, then turned and stepped through the door, donning his hat. When he reached the bottom step, he halted, turned, and looked back at Mel. After a moment, he nodded. The look in his eyes was one of sly amusement. It infuriated Mel. She slammed the door, then cursed. After a second, she ran to the kitchen window and peered out. He was not to be seen. Slowly, a feeling of dread building in her heart, she opened the door and peered out. He was gone; there was not a trace of him on the street anywhere. She wondered at that, then grew panicked, hurried to the kitchen, and picked up the telephone. After she dialed a number, she spoke in urgency.
"Jan, it's Mel. I'm sorry to bother you at work, but can you come home right now?"
There was a pause on the other end of the phone, and Jan's voice sounded alarmed. "Um, yeah, sure, Mel. I've finished my classes for today. What's wrong?"
"Just please come home."
"I'll be there in ten minutes," she said. "Are you okay?"
"No," she said. "I need you, Jan."
"I'm there. 'Bye." With that, the connection broke. Mel placed the receiver down on the phone, then sat at her table and began weeping. She wasn't sure whether it was anger or fear which drove her to tears; perhaps it was both.
Several minutes later, Jan drove into the driveway. She cut the motorcycle off, left it outside, and bounded up the stairs to the kitchen. When she entered, she saw Mel sitting at the table, sniffling.
"What the blue hell's wrong, Mel?"
"I..." She sniffed, then began again. "I just had a visit from someone," she said, then looked up from the table. "Anastasia's father."
"What? That's impossible. He's dead."
"No, he's not. He was in this kitchen ten minutes ago."
Jan paled, then bristled. "Where is the son-of-a-bitch now?" she asked.
"He's gone. I threw him out and told him never to come here again."
Jan nodded, then dropped her hat on the table and sat down. "Start at the beginning and tell me everything."
Slowly, Mel unfolded the story of the visit. At the end of it, she added her own thoughts. "Oh, Jan. I should know by now not to doubt your crazy theories. You were right, more right than you know."
"What do you mean?"
"He's an immortal, I know it. I can feel it from him," she said. "After being around Ares and Odin and Aphrodite, I can tell an immortal. When he arrived here, there was no car parked out front, and when he left, he disappeared in a moment. I mean, one second, he was at the front steps, and two seconds later, he was completely gone."
Jan slammed her fist down on the table, then huffed in anger. "He's after Anastasia. I knew it. He's got some purpose for her. We've got to figure it out before he gets to her."
"Oh, Jan. What shall we do?" Mel asked. "How can we stop an immortal?"
"We've done it before," Jan said. "But I think we need some advice. Where's our address book?"
"By the telephone," Mel said. "Who-?"
"Alais," Jan answered. "To stop an immortal, it might take an immortal. I wonder if Aphrodite is free today?"
Mel smiled. Jan always knew just what to do. "And," Mel said, "I wonder if she feels up to visiting us?"
An hour later, an elegant woman with a timeless beauty about her, sad, deep eyes, and a gentle manner sat at their kitchen table. She was dressed in twentieth-century clothing, but the luxurious head of blonde hair, tendrils of it cascading about the sides of her face and resting on her shoulders, heralded back to a long-ago time. She sipped her tea, then spoke, her accent undefinable, but musical. "I'm disturbed to hear of this turn of events," she said. "We immortals will never find the peace among mortals that we crave, and I fear that it is always due to our own machinations. We have brought our destiny upon ourselves, it seems. Will we never learn?"
"You were always good to humanity," Jan said. "Of the immortals still alive, only you reflect the best of the Olympian gods."
Unspoken thanks reflected in Alais' timeless eyes, and she smiled painfully. "I, too, have made many mistakes. How can I help you now?" she asked gently.
"Do you have any idea what Hermes is up to?" Jan asked.
"No. I have not seen him in perhaps three centuries." She puzzled over it. "He is wily, manipulative, charming, and a clever thief. One cannot trust him; it is his nature from the dawn of time. You must be cautious around him."
"I threw him out and told him never to come again," Mel said. "But when I warned him about Anastasia, his eyes mocked me. I think he'll seek her out."
"It is important that Anastasia know of the danger that approaches her," Alais said. "You must tell her the whole story, so that she can be on guard against him."
"What, tell her that an immortal fathered her?" Jan said. "Yeah, right. Nobody believes that some of the ancient gods still exist. She'll think we're nuts. No, there's got to be another way."
Alais smiled. "Perhaps there is." Softly, she began speaking, and the three women huddled together over their tea, forming a plan.
* * *
The next day, Alais waited at a table in a Paris coffee-shop. She sipped her coffee and waited patiently, perusing a magazine. After a while, she placed it aside and listened, or rather, felt about her with the reach of her immortal senses. Another immortal was near; she could feel it. She smiled, then refilled her cup from the little coffeepot on the table and waited. In a few minutes, a man seated himself at her table, studied her silently for a minute, then nodded a greeting.
"Good afternoon, brother," Alais said. "It's been a while."
"About a century and a half," he noted as he stroked his goatee beard. "You wanted to meet. What's up?"
She considered her brother; he had not changed in three millennia. The cruelly handsome face, the black, piercing eyes, the massive, muscular build which was evident beneath his loose, open-collared white shirt; how familiar a sight it was, even after a hundred and fifty years. She began with polite conversation. "You still look magnificent. The centuries have been treating you well, Ares."
"Palo. It's Stavros Palo now. And thanks. You know I love flattery."
"I know," she said. "Your ego is as vast as the Aegean Sea."
"One of my more endearing qualities. But you look different, sis. You look-" He studied her intently for a moment, then finished his thought. "Sad. Yeah, that's it. What's the matter? Is the goddess of love all loved out?"
"I ache for the mortal world," she said, lifting her coffee cup. "Had we Olympians done our jobs so long ago, this world would not be as it is now."
"That's the difference between you and me, Aphrodite. You grew a conscience."
"And you, brother? What have you grown since we last met?"
He grinned. "Filthy rich," he said. "I'm out of the war business. I sell old junk to museums and private collectors. Artifacts, the mortals call it." He laughed. "It was crap two thousand years ago. Now, it's priceless. That's ironic, no?" He shifted in his chair. "But you didn't ask me here to chit-chat. Something's on your mind, sis. What is it?"
She sipped her coffee, then looked across the table at him. "When was the last time you saw Hermes?"
"Him?" Palo scoffed at the mention of the name. "The god of thieves and con artists? Not for twenty years or more. Why?"
"He is up to something," Alais said. "I wish to find out what."
"He's always up to something. Big deal."
"It is, I fear. He's plotting something diabolical. I must learn his plans. Please, brother."
"So who can he hurt? We fell from power two thousand years ago. Let him plot."
"He can hurt dear friends of mine," Alais said. "Please help me."
Palo studied Alais for a moment, then smiled slyly. "What the Hades," he said. "Just for old times' sake, sis. Talk to me. I'm listening."
Quickly, Alais unfolded the story to her brother. He listened intently, and at the end, snickered. "So Mel Pappas has a daughter by Hermes? Interesting." A faraway look clouded his eyes as he thought back in time. "And Xena has another descendant now. I'll be damned. The possibilities for that girl are endless, aren't they?"
"What do you mean?" Alais asked.
"I mean," he said as he leaned across the table, "that any gal who's half god and half Xena's descendant would be possessed of incredible power. Look, she'd have remarkable healing skills, magnificent physical prowess, and a profound intelligence. She'd be perfect to lead an army in war."
"But that can't be his goal," Alais said. "Hermes doesn't deal in war. He never has."
"Nope, he doesn't." Palo smiled evilly. "But I did."
"You don't any more, either."
"What's a couple of millennia to us immortals? We can travel time. Like that egghead Einstein said, time is relative. Look, sis, with a snap of the fingers and a little thought, you or I-or Hermes, for that matter-could find ourselves back in our heyday. A gal like Pappas' daughter would be priceless in those times."
Alais gasped. "Are you saying that he intends to-?"
"Look, sis. I have no idea what he intends to do with that kid. I sure do know what I could do with her, though."
"Ares, stop this. You're intolerable."
"Palo, remember? Hey, you brought the subject up. Look, I have no idea what Hermes wants with her. I'm just telling you what I could do with her."
Alais leaned forward, as if to emphasize her next thought. "Toying with history is dangerous. You know that. If an immortal traveled back in time and changed something, the whole course of the world's history could be altered beyond even our imaginations."
Palo stroked his goatee as he considered Alais' words, then nodded. "Yeah, you're right. He could really bugger things up for me. I've got a great business going now; I don't need that little twirp messing with history." He studied his sister's face, then smiled. "Okay, sis. I'm with you. You got a plan?"
Alais nodded. Palo leaned forward and listened as she began speaking.
* * *
Jan Covington unlocked the door to her office, stepped in, and closed it behind her. Her foot hit her trash can, and it clattered across the floor. She cursed quite crudely, then clicked on the light. As she did, a voice greeted her.
"Touchy, aren't we? That's what you get for quitting smoking, blondie. I keep tellin' ya, no good deed goes unpunished."
Jan's jaw dropped in shock as she glanced toward her desk. Behind it, his feet propped up, sat a muscular, goateed man in an open-collared white shirt. Her eyes narrowed in recognition.
"Ares," she said. "What the hell are you doing in my office?"
"Stavros Palo, remember? It's nice to see you again, too." He held up a hand. "Relax. I just want to talk."
"Yeah? What's the matter? Business bad these days?"
"Business," he said, "is booming. Now that you're not selling artifacts on the black market anymore, there's that much more profit for me." He gestured toward a chair in front of Jan's desk. "Have a seat. You'll be interested in this, I guarantee it."
"I doubt that. And get the hell out of my chair, Ares."
"It's Palo, damn it. And I like this chair, so sit your ass someplace else."
Jan approached him, then seated herself on the edge of her desk and crossed her legs beneath her. "Okay. Have your fun, Ares, or Palo, or whatever. What's on your mind?"
Ares glanced up at her. "Your girlfriend's daughter," he said.
Jan froze. Her expression grew cautious. "I'm listening."
"Good." Palo collected his thoughts, then began unfolding them to Jan. "Now, I know that we've had our little disagreements in the past-"
"Disagreements? You friggin' tried to kill me. More than once."
"Hey, relax. I'm on your side this time. That pipsqueak Hermes is up to something, and I don't like the smell of it."
"So what's he up to?" Jan asked.
"I don't know. Not yet, anyway. Neither does Aphrodite, and neither do you, right?" Jan said nothing. "Oh, come on. Sis told me the whole story. She seemed to think that I could be of help."
"And why," Jan asked, "would you want to help us?"
Palo sighed. "Look, this is the twentieth century. I'm done with the god of war gig. I'm a businessman now, and I like it that way. I don't want anything screwing with my profit margin. Got me so far?"
"So far. What's that-?"
"Think about it, Covington. Hermes goes back in time, catches your good-lookin' girlfriend when she's young and impressionable, and knocks her up. She has a kid who's half god and half Xena's descendant. Now, I figure that kid is possessed of some pretty impressive qualities, right?" Jan said nothing, but nodded. "Okay. Where would a gal like that really shine?"
Jan's face fell. "In the past," she said.
Palo grinned. "Hey, for a mortal, you catch on quick. Now, you know that we immortals can travel around in time. Have you ever wondered why we don't go back in this planet's history and mess with it to fine-tune it to our present needs?"
"Yeah, I have. I figure it's so you don't screw it up even worse than you did."
Palo glowered at her. "You're right. Irritating, but right. Can you imagine what this crazy world would be like with a handful of dispossessed gods bouncing around and messing with history all the time? That's why we don't. We're bound by a mutual oath not to do that."
"But Hermes will?"
"Hermes already has. He went back in time twenty-one years and got your honey pregnant. He's proved that he's capable of messing with history. That's why Aphrodite and I want to stop him."
"So you think that whatever Hermes wants with Anastasia has to do with the past, and in a big way."
"Bingo." He pointed a finger at Jan. "Man, a chick like Anastasia could rule. She'd be unbeatable. Why, I'll bet that she could even take out Xena, once she learns to handle a sword."
Jan paled. "She's captain of the fencing team."
Palo sighed. "Point made."
"All right," Jan said. "What do we do?"
"So you believe me? That's a switch."
Jan snorted. "Like you said, you're a businessman. The illegal artifact business would be a disaster with history changing all the time. You want to insure that it doesn't change. I believe that." She smiled, a tight, ironic smile. "Like you said, it looks like we're on the same team, huh?"
"Now we're getting someplace. Look, here's the way we'll play this. Aphrodite and I will sniff around some more and see what we can find out. You and Pappas keep that girl in sight, and warn her off about her daddy." Palo thought for a moment. "When does she reach her twenty-first year?"
"She just did."
"Oh, man. Whatever is going to happen will happen soon. Twenty-one is the magic year for her power to blossom. Look, you keep an eye on her, do you hear? If she goes missing, you holler out, because whatever's going to happen is happening."
"Got you. Now get outta my chair."
Palo laughed. "Y'know, Covington, you're pretty okay for an irritating little blonde. See you around, kiddo." With those words, he disappeared in a flash of ozone. Jan watched the now-empty chair slowly turn, then climbed down from her desk and took her seat. She dialed a number on the telephone, listened, and spoke.
"Hey, Mel. Jan here. You'll never guess who just paid me a visit."
* * *
The next day, while Anastasia was studying in her dorm room, a knock sounded on the door. She opened it, and blinked in surprise as she stood face-to-face with 'Sarge'. The woman cast her a cautious look, then spoke to her.
"Miss McAdams, you have a visitor. He's waiting in the lobby. You may visit him there."
"He? A man? Who is he?"
"He says that he's a relative of yours." She consulted her note-pad. "Mister Maia."
"I don't know any Mister Maia."
'Sarge' raised an eyebrow at that. "Do you want me to chase him off?"
"No, ma'am. I suppose I'd best see what this is about." She shoved her feet into some slippers, slung Mel's sweater around her shoulders, and stepped into the hallway. In a few moments, they entered the dorm's lobby. 'Sarge' pointed.
"That's him, the fellow in the suit, sitting on the couch."
"Thank you," Anastasia said. She approached him, then spoke with caution. "Were you looking for me?"
He looked up, then flashed a charming smile. "Anastasia McAdams?"
He rose, then nodded his head in a gracious bow. "How like your natural mother you look. I should have recognized you anywhere." She considered him with a puzzled expression, and he hastened to apologize. "Forgive me, but I have not introduced myself. My name is Jonathan Maia."
"Mister Maia, forgive my rudeness, but exactly how are we related?"
He fixed her with his deep, black eyes. "I am your natural father."
Anastasia gasped. She tried to speak, but all she could accomplish was, "Oh!"
* * *
A half-hour later, Anastasia returned to her room. Kit was there, and she plopped down on Anastasia's bed. "Wow, Annie," she said. "Who was that dreamboat you were talking to? He about made my knees knock, he was so good looking."
Anastasia couldn't help but smile. "You'll never believe it," she said.
"Try me. Oh, my God! Is he single?"
"It seems so." She sat on her bed next to Kit.
"Way to go, Annie." Kit perched on the bed next to her. "You've been holding out on me. So, who's this guy? Give me all the naughty details."
"Oh, it's not like that," she said, then looked up at Kit. "It seems that he's my natural father."
"Your father?" Kit sputtered for a moment. "He's your father? Gee. No wonder you're so incredibly cute."
"Oh, cut it out."
"No, really. He's your father? He hardly looks old enough." Kit elbowed her. "Well, if you can't date him, can I?"
Anastasia laughed. "Somehow, I can't imagine you as my stepmother."
"Honey, I didn't say I wanted to marry him. I just want to rip off his clothes and-"
"Go take your shower," Anastasia teased. "And you'd better make it a cold one."
* * *
That evening, Jan was drying the last dinner dish when a knock sounded at their door. She put the plate aside, padded across the floor in sock feet, and opened the door. "Hey, Annie. This is a surprise. C'mon in." As Anastasia entered, Jan shuffled to the hall door. "Hey, Mel. Annie's here."
A voice replied from the back room. "Oh, good. I'll be right there."
Anastasia seated herself at the kitchen table and watched Jan finish her kitchen duties. As Jan hung the dish towel up, she studied the girl. Finally, she leaned against the counter and folded her arms across her chest. "What's the matter, Annie?"
"Huh?" Anastasia shook her head as if to bring herself back to her present surroundings. "Sorry. I just-"
Mel entered the kitchen. "Oh, hello, Annie. Do you want some tea?"
"I could use a stiff drink more," she said.
"Oh, oh. Hard day?" Mel asked.
"Strange, is more like it."
"I'll pour three," Jan said, then began rummaging in the cabinet for a bottle and three glasses.
"What happened?" Mel asked as she sat at the table. She perused Anastasia's face, then allowed her eyes to travel down to her chest. They stopped there, and Mel's blood went cold. "Annie," she said, "where did you get that locket?"
"So it's true?" she asked. "He is my natural father?"
Jan sat between them and poured out three glasses of sherry. "I think," she said, "that you'd better start at the beginning and tell us everything."
They listened as Anastasia recounted her meeting with Jonathan Gaia that day, ending the story by showing the locket which he had given her as proof that he was, indeed, who he claimed to be. She slipped it from her neck and placed it on the table in front of Mel. "The pictures inside-they're of you and him, aren't they?"
Mel snapped it open, then stared at the pictures. "Yes. That was us." She glanced over at Jan. "She needs to know, Jan. We have to tell her."
"Tell me what?" She looked from face to face. "What's going on here? I thought my father was dead. Now he shows up and looks me up? Why?"
Jan was cautious. "What reason did he give?"
"He wanted to meet me. That's all."
Mel shook her head. "That's not all. Annie, you need to be very careful around him. He's not a nice man."
"But he seemed very nice," she said. "He's just in a terrible position because of his profession, traveling all the time and such."
Jan leaned forward. "Look, do you believe his story?"
Anastasia hesitated, then shrugged. "I really want to. I mean, he's so charming and seemed sincere."
"But?" Mel asked.
"But I felt myself wondering if he was really telling me the truth, or if I'd just met the best con artist I'd ever seen."
"It's the latter. Don't trust him, and don't be alone with him."
"What's going on here? What do I need to know? What haven't you told me about my past?"
Mel and Jan locked glances, then sighed, almost in unison. "Do you want to tell her?" Jan asked.
"It's my place," Mel said. "Look, Annie, what I'm about to tell you will sound fantastic, unbelievable, but it's all true, I swear it is. Every word. Just promise me that you'll hear me out and not pass judgement on me as some kind of nut before you learn everything."
At Anastasia's slow nod of consent, Mel began outlining the story of Jonathan Gaia to her daughter. As the story progressed, Anastasia's expression became increasing disbelieving. When Mel finally fell silent, Jan interjected a thought of her own.
"I know this all sounds crazy, but believe me, I've been around the world and seen a lot of crazy stuff. The only reason I believe it myself is because I've seen it first-hand."
Anastasia was quiet for a moment, then considered each of them in turn. "Are you telling me that my father is some sort of fallen Greek god?" They both nodded. "That's ridiculous. They don't exist."
"They do," Mel said. "There's just a handful left, but they're out there. We've met some."
"You've met some? Oh, now this has gone too far."
"Annie, please. Jan, show her the picture of Hermes."
Jan rose from the table, and returned in a moment with the book. She opened it to the picture of Hermes' statue. Anastasia considered the picture for a moment, then looked up, her face a mask of question. "This-I mean, yes, it looks just like him, but it could be coincidence. This doesn't prove anything."
Jan sat down. "Haven't you ever wondered why you heal so fast? Why your ability at fencing and track is so beyond anybody else's? Annie, have you ever been sick?"
Her face fell. "Not a day in my life," she said. "I don't even get headaches."
"Bingo," Jan said. "It's because you're half god. Xena had those same qualities, and she was half god. But you've got one thing up on her: your mother is Xena's descendant. You've got some of Xena in you, too."
Anastasia stood and began pacing the kitchen. "This is insane," she said. "I can't believe this." She stopped and faced them. "But there's only one God. There can't be others."
"No?" Jan raised an eyebrow. "What's the First Commandment say? Exactly, word for word?"
Anastasia thought. "Thou shall have no other gods-" She paused. Her mouth fell open in astonishment, then she finished the sentence. "Before me."
"Exactly. Before me. The meaning's clear to me. There's other gods out there."
"This is insane," Anastasia repeated. "This is insane, this is-"
Jan looked over at Mel. "She needs more proof, I think."
"Whatever will we do?" Mel asked.
"I'll make a phone call. You two chat." With that, she left the kitchen.
"Annie, dear, do you need another drink?" Mel lifted the sherry bottle. "Lord knows that I do."
"Yeah." She returned to her seat. "Please." She watched Mel refill their glasses. "Mel, please tell me that I'm dreaming all this."
"You're not, dear. It's all true."
Jan walked into the kitchen, opened a cabinet, and sat a fourth sherry glass on the table. "What's that for?" Mel asked.
"Our company," Jan said. "She ought to be here right about-" She glanced at her wrist-watch, then smiled. At that moment, a bright flash lit the room. "Now."
Anastasia gasped at the sight before her. An elegant woman had materialized, seemingly out of thin air, in the kitchen very near Jan. Tendrils of blonde hair framed a face of timeless beauty, and she was dressed in ancient Greek chiton and himation, clothing which draped her body to perfection. She hugged Jan warmly, then offered the same greeting to Mel. When she sat in a chair, she held out a hand in greeting. "You must be Anastasia," she said. "I am presently called Alais, the Countess d'Agee."
Jan snickered. "Annie, meet Aphrodite."
Anastasia's glass thumped down on the table. "Oh, my God."
"No," Alais said. "Merely a dispossessed, minor Greek one whose time has passed. Now, what would you like to talk about, Annie?"
* * *
At about a quarter to nine that evening, Jan drove Anastasia back to her dorm in Mel's little convertible car. On the ride, the young woman chattered non-stop. "Oh, my God, Doctor Covington. I still can't believe this evening. It's incredible. I never thought that the Greek gods could actually exist. And then I find out that not only are they real, but I meet one. And you and my mother are friends with her. And my natural father's one, too, and I'm half-god." She suddenly halted and placed a hand to her cheek. "I'm sorry. I'm blathering like a schoolgirl."
"That's okay. I was pretty shocked when I first found out about them, too."
"Um, how many people know about these gods existing?"
"Besides them? You, me, Mel, the Doctors MacKenzie, and my father." Jan squinted as she thought. "That's about it, I think."
"Can I ever say anything about this?"
"Nope. Not if you ever want to be taken seriously as a scholar."
Anastasia fell silent at that. She thought for a minute, then looked over at Jan. "I understand." After another pause, she spoke again. "Aphrodite-I mean, Alais-is as beautiful as the legends say, isn't she?"
"She's a looker, all right. Real sweetheart, too."
"Um-is she married, do you know?"
Jan smiled. "I'm afraid so."
Jan snickered. "There's other fish in the sea."
"Yeah, well, it's rather hard to catch them when I'm not allowed to throw out a net in public." She considered Jan for a moment. "Guess I'd better get inside, huh?"
"Yeah. I'll stay here until you're through the door. Wave if you have trouble with 'Sarge'."
Anastasia giggled. "Oh, she's okay, really. I think she's very protective of me."
"Glad to hear it." Jan placed a hand on Anastasia's arm. "If your natural father tries to contact you again, you call us, right? And don't go anywhere with him alone."
"I-I understand, Doctor Covington."
Jan smiled. "Okay, kiddo. Get in there before 'Sarge' locks you out."
"Good-night, Doctor Covington." Anastasia beamed excitement, then leaned forward and kissed her cheek. "Thanks for everything."
* * *
Strangely, the warning proved unnecessary. Jonathan Gaia did not contact Anastasia again as the semester progressed, and the incident receded to the backs of everyone's minds. Tests, papers, and fall activities consumed everyone, and the competition schedule of the fencing team kept Anastasia busy.
In November, Jan got a call from an old friend who was currently working on an archaeological dig in Crete. He had, it seemed, unearthed some scrolls, and felt that Gabrielle's writings were among them. He wanted Jan and Mel to come out during the Christmas break, and Jan enthusiastically agreed. When she hung up the phone, she immediately called Mel and told her the news.
"Oh, Jan! That sounds exciting," Mel said. "But what about Annie?"
"She's a big girl, Mel. She'll probably visit her adoptive parents in Atlanta."
"What if Hermes-ah, Gaia-should try something?"
Jan thought about it, then brightened. "Has she got a passport? Why don't we invite her to come with us? She's an archaeology major, after all."
"That's a wonderful idea. She'd love it, and so would I. You're brilliant, as usual."
"Yep. That's me, but don't spread it around, will ya? I'll see her this afternoon in class, and I'll ask her."
Of course, Anastasia agreed, delighted to be asked along to the dig in Crete. She completed the semester with honors, and two days later, found herself tagging along with Mel and Jan as they made the exhaustive airlines trip from the east coast of The United States to the island of Crete, in the Mediterranean Sea.
The island enchanted her from the first moment she was able to get a good look at it. Surrounded by the blue sea, dotted with fishing boats, whitewashed, square houses, flocks of animals, olive groves, and quaint villages spread among the mountainous country, she felt as if she'd been dropped into a picture taken from a travel brochure. A picturesque village was very near the dig site, and they got rooms in the little hotel there.
The archaeological dig proved fascinating to her. She stuck close by Jan's elbow as they trekked around the site and knelt in the rocky dirt to examine the treasures that Jan's old friend, Paul, had unearthed. When the scrolls were shown to them, unrolled on a table in the sorting tent, she gasped in excitement and wonder. Jan smiled when she saw what she termed 'Dig Fever' strike her young protégée. That was a good sign. It meant that Anastasia was meant for archaeology.
Mel's initial perusal of the scrolls revealed that most were not of Gabrielle's pen; however, she found two that were, and she immediately began work on a cursory translation of those, at Paul's request. She and Anastasia huddled in the tent shoulder-to-shoulder, cups of tea at their elbows, reference books open about them. Jan left them to their work and each other's company as she followed Paul about the dig and offered what help she could.
That evening, they returned to their hotel rooms, ate, and took turns in the bathroom at the end of the hall. Jan was standing in the hall wrapped in her robe, her towel over her shoulder and her toilet kit under her arm, when Anastasia emerged from the bathroom, her hair damp from her shower. Jan raised an eyebrow. "Still got hot water?"
Anastasia shrugged. "Gee, I'm not sure that there's that much left," she said. "You and my mom might have to shower together, mightn't you?" She watched a bright red line of blush creep up Jan's face, then laughed in delight as she entered her room.
Jan watched her door close and shook her head. "Kids today," she said. She opened the bathroom door. After a moment, she closed it again, walked down the hall to the room she shared with Mel, and opened the door. "Hey, doll. There's enough hot water left for one more good shower. Wanna share?"
The next morning, Jan was dividing her energy between worming into her clothes and sipping a cup of thick, dark coffee when Mel entered the room. "Annie doesn't answer her door," she said.
"She's probably in the can, Mel."
"I just came from there. She's not."
"Well, try again."
Mel huffed, then walked down the hall and knocked at Anastasia's door. There was no answer. She knocked again, then tried the doorknob. It was unlocked. When she entered the room, she gasped, then hurried down the hall. "Jan," she said, "She's not there, and her room's a mess. I'm worried."
"I'm sure it's nothing, Mel." One glance at Mel's expression, though, sent a shock of alarm through her. A cold fear swept her, and she put down her cup. "Show me her room." In a moment, they had stepped across the hall and opened the door. Jan stuck her head inside and looked around. "Man, she's messy."
"No, she's not, Jan. She's immaculate. I noticed that when she stayed with us. This is not like her." Mel bent down, lifted the girl's suitcase from the floor, and plopped it on the bed. Her clothes were jumbled around, and a teacup was broken on the floor. "Something's happened to her, I just know it."
Jan caught Mel's gaze, and for a moment, they considered each other. Then, Jan nodded. "Gaia's happened to her. I'm gonna go downstairs and call Alais. I'll meet you back here in a minute."
Ten minutes later, they were in their room when two flashes of light caused their eyes to squint. When the light dissipated, Alais and Palo stood before them. Alais was first to speak.
"We came as quickly as we could. What's happened?"
Mel was frantic. "Annie's disappeared. We're afraid it's Hermes. Can you help us find her?"
Palo scratched his chin thoughtfully. "If that squirt Hermes did get her, there's no telling where he could have her. Man, she might be in the past already."
Alais huffed in frustration. "Ares, the least we can do is look."
"Yeah, right. Look where?"
"Here, on the island. Crete has always had some very, ah, interesting properties about it."
"Yeah," Palo said. "Two, three thousand years ago, the gods favored this island as a place where they could get away with just about anything." He grinned as he thought about those days. "I used to come here myself. Man, what a vacation from being a god!"
"Okay, okay," Palo said. "So she might still be on the island. It'll be almost impossible to track her down, though."
"We shouldn't track her," Alais said. "We should track Hermes. If he's here, then she's with him." She turned to Mel and Jan. "We immortals can feel each other's presence at some distance."
Jan grasped Alais' idea. "Right. So, we cruise around the island. You two should be able to feel him out."
Palo grimaced. "Oh, man. That'll take forever. Do you know how big this island is?"
"So we split up," Jan said. "Two of us go in one direction, two in the other. We each get half the island. Let's get started."
Palo held out an arm to Mel. "You can tag with me, good-lookin'."
Jan's hand snaked through Palo's crooked arm. "Not on your life, Ares. It's you and me. Mel, you go with Alais."
Palo sighed. "Well, crap. Covington, you spoil all my fun."
"Yeah. I'm good that way. Now let's get to work."
Alais added a final thought. "If you find her, Jan, call the name of Aphrodite. I shall hear."
Palo considered Jan with a clouded expression for a moment, then nodded. "Okay, runt. Hang on for all you're worth. Here we go." With that, they disappeared in a flash of light.
Mel held tightly to Alais' arm. "I don't trust Ares," she said. "Will Jan be all right with him? He's tried to kill her before, when she crossed his plans."
"Yes, she will be fine," she said. "He is only interested in stopping Hermes." Alais closed her eyes, and a bright light consumed them. When it dissipated, they were gone.
* * *
Anastasia opened her eyes, blinked a couple of times, and looked around her. She was lying on a couch. She did not recognize her surroundings, but the place in which she found herself was well-appointed. The walls were in fine repair, the furnishings were tasteful and appeared quite old, and the window looked out upon hills dotted with stone and grass. Slowly, she rose and made her way to the window. As she gazed at the distant flocks of sheep, she wondered where she was. She didn't remember this place; it was not her cramped little hotel room. An intense curiosity mixed with fear filled her, and she determined to make sense of the puzzle. Slowly, she paced the room and studied everything around her. She recognized nothing as being familiar.
She found herself before the room's door. Slowly, cautiously, she placed a hand on the knob and turned it. It was not locked, and the door squeaked open. She tiptoed into a hall, and again looked around. Stairs were before her, and the building exuded an ancient quality, in spite of the modern amenities within it of light switches on the wall and a bathroom near her which boasted indoor plumbing. It was a strange mix of ancient and modern.
She quietly paced the length of the hall. The other rooms were empty of humanity, although they were well-kept and showed the same tasteful, but sparse, appointment as the one she had left. Fear began to overpower the curiosity within her, and she fought to control the pounding of her heart, loud in her ears. One step at a time, she descended the stairway, stopping and listening several times on the way downstairs. When she reached the bottom step, she peered around a corner. The main room of the house was before her, and it demonstrated the same mix of ancient and modern that the upstairs had shown. She saw no one, though.
As she walked through the main room, she constantly studied her surroundings. Her feet were muffled by a Persian carpet; the furnishings, although minimal, were beautiful, and objects of old Greek art populated the occasional table and the fireplace mantle. On the walls, in several places, hung reproductions of ancient weapons. She recognized several, but could not date some of the others. On one wall, she was astonished to find a wooden plaque holding crossed fencing foils. She drew close to it and studied the weapons; their tips were not blunted, but were pinpoint sharp. Slowly, she read the plaque beneath them, then gasped. As if reading her mind, a voice broke the silence in the room.
"That's right, Annie. You inherited your talent for combat from me."
She turned around and stared. From across the room, Jonathan Gaia was watching her. He was leaning against the stair bannister, a teacup in one hand, the saucer in the other. He smiled as if in amusement, then spoke again. "Yes, you're still in Crete. Yes, you are at my home. No, your natural mother is not here. We are alone, you and I. And yes, I am looking forward to speaking with you at length and getting acquainted with you."
"What am I doing here?" Anastasia asked. "How did I get here? What do you want with me?"
"You are my guest, for the time being. I have some deeply important matters to discuss with you, and I wished for us to remain undisturbed." He walked across the room and placed his teacup and saucer on a tray. "Would you like some tea?" She did not move. "Come, come," he said. "Sit, and all your questions will be answered." He motioned to a chair by the table. "Have some tea, and we'll talk."
She looked around the room once more. There seemed nothing overtly sinister about the place or him, but she did not trust him. Again, her eyes flashed over to her father. He stood by the table, his hand still indicating an empty chair, his expression one of patient indulgence. With a sigh, she nodded in resignation, then took her seat. He smiled at this, poured her a cup of tea, and sat in an identical armchair on the other side of the little tea table. Then, he studied her for a moment, and lifted his teacup. "Now, Annie, where shall we begin?"
* * *
Ares and Jan materialized atop a hill overlooking the fields of Crete. She watched him study their surroundings, then breathe deeply, as if he was enjoying the morning's air. After a moment, he closed his eyes as if in deep concentration. Jan huffed, then elbowed him.
"Come on, Ares. We're not out for a morning stroll here."
"Shaddup. I'm concentrating."
Jan fell silent, then sighed. "Feel any immortals around here?"
"Not yet. Shaddup, will you? I'm working."
"Yeah, yeah. Hurry it up. She could be in big trouble."
"You're going to be in big trouble in a minute." He opened his eyes and glowered at her. "How'd you like to be turned into a Centaur?"
"No, thanks. They're all male."
He smirked. "Oh, yeah. I forgot. You don't do male, do you?"
"Too bad for you. Now hurry up, will ya?"
"You want me to find them? Then be quiet and let me work."
Jan huffed again, then jammed her hands into her pockets and fumed. This was going to be a long day, she could tell already. After several minutes, Ares held out his arm to Jan. "Hang on, blondie. I think I'm sensing immortal." He pointed. "That direction."
Jan grasped his arm with both hands. "Good boy," she said. "There's a doggy treat in this for you if you find 'em."
"Kiss my ass, Covington."
"You wish, Ares."
Ares shot Jan an icy glance, then closed his eyes. They both disappeared in a flash of light.
* * *
Aphrodite and Mel walked along the street of quaint, nondescript Cretan village. Whitewashed, blocky houses lined the street, and the scent of baked goods hovered in the air. Mel smiled at the scene; in a different situation, it would have been delightful. Now, she was consumed with panic over her daughter's disappearance, and it must have shown. Alais grasped her hand and attempted a reassuring smile.
"We will find her, Melinda. You must not give in to worry so much."
"But she's my daughter."
"I know. I am a mother, too." They stopped near the edge of the village, and Alais closed her eyes in concentration.
"Do you sense something?" Mel asked.
Alais pointed. "There, in that direction. It is an immortal." She squeezed Mel's hand, and they vanished in a blink of light.
* * *
Jonathan Gaia considered Anastasia over the rim of his teacup, then spoke. "You really have inherited your mother's innate charm and beauty."
Anastasia responded in a quiet voice. "Did you ever love her?"
He sighed, then placed his teacup into the saucer. "Does it matter, really?" he asked.
"Yes. It matters to me, and it matters to her."
He shook his head. "You mortals. Such hopeless romantics. I rather envy that in you."
"So did you love her?" Anastasia asked.
He smiled. "Memory fails. Perhaps I did. Such a beautiful creature, she was, and so passionate in her affection for me. I really was touched by that quality in her."
"But not enough to not take advantage of her innocence."
"She knew what she was doing." He studied Anastasia. "Do you really hate me so?"
Anastasia's eyes flickered away from his face and fixed themselves upon the far wall. "I don't hate you. I just don't trust you."
He smiled. "Well said." He shrugged. "I am devious, I know. It is my nature. It always has been." He leaned forward, his gaze fixed upon her face. "Do you know who I really am?"
She glanced up. "Yes. You're an immortal. Hermes, to be exact."
"My, my. Your mother must have told you all about me. And do you believe this?"
"Good. Most modern mortals would have dismissed the possibility of the Olympians ever really existing as insanity. Once, though, we were worshiped, exalted, paid homage to with sacrifices and prayer. Priests existed to tend our temples, and the poets sang of our deeds." He sighed. "Such days are over, I fear."
"So, how does a fallen god spend his days?" she asked. "Besides kidnapping his daughter, that is."
"I brought you here to speak of your potential, of your future, of the possibilities you contain. You are a most remarkable creature, you know."
"Half god?" she asked.
"So you understand? That is good. Then I'll get right to the point." He sipped his tea, collecting his thoughts, then began. "A person's greatness depends, in large portion, upon the century in which they find themselves. Would Alexander have triumphed as he did, were he born today? Would Caesar's name have been written into history, were he to live a century later or earlier than he did? I think not. You were born now, but your greatness does not exist in this century. I would like to remedy that."
"I-I don't understand," she said.
"You will. You have greatness cast about you, but it is a greatness that has no place in the mortal world today. What will you do in the years to come? Slave away in obscurity, a little cog in the massive machine of a modern industrial society? Marry, have children? Allow your days to be consumed in servitude to a boss at work and a husband at home? Is this to be your future?"
For the first time, Anastasia smiled. "You really don't know me very well, do you? That has never been my ambition. I've always felt-" She paused, considering her words, then continued. "That there was more to life than a mundane existence. My girl friends at college want that; it holds no interest for me. I want to live, and not just exist. I want to see things, experience all that life has to offer."
Maia beamed at the confession. "Excellent. Now tell me, what do you know about your mother? What of her past, her heritage?"
Anastasia shrugged. "She came from a good southern family. Her father was a noted archaeologist. That's all."
"No, no. I mean, what of her distant ancestry? Nothing?" Anastasia again shrugged, and Gaia took the opportunity to get to the essence of his concerns. "Did you know, for instance, that she is the last surviving descendant of Xena?" He quickly added, "Until you, of course."
"She is? But what's that got to do with-?"
"Just this. Xena was half god. Some of her qualities still shine in her mother, and they show in you. I am a full god. Together, we have brought into the world a most remarkable young woman. You."
"Why? For what purpose?"
Gaia's eyes drilled into her. "To conquer and rule ancient Greece."
"To what?" Anastasia's mouth dropped open. "You're joking, right? You can't be serious."
"Oh, I am serious. Your power surpasses even Xena's strength and wit. Your physical prowess and competitive nature would serve you well, twenty-five centuries past. Even your penchant for neatness, orderliness, would allow you to organize and rule an empire with efficiency. And your skill at physical combat is already legendary among your fencing peers."
"You're crazy. This is the twentieth century. I can't go back in time, even if I wanted to do such a thing."
"We gods have the ability to traverse time. I can take you there. With my patronage, you could overcome and unite the hundred warring tyrants which ruled Greece in those days. You could lead them, lead Greece, to the glory which eluded it, and avoid the ruinous wars which the Greeks fought among themselves, wars which sent them into poverty and decay. Imagine! The Athenians, the Spartans, the Thessalonians, the Macedonians, the hundred diverse city-states all united under your rule. It would rewrite the history of western civilization." He leaned closer to her. "And it would write your name into the history books for all time. You would achieve an eternal fame beyond even your imagination." He lifted a book from the table and handed it to her. "Look up your name."
Cautiously, Anastasia accepted the book, then glanced down at it. Ward's Encyclopedia, the title read. She flipped it open, then paged through it. She stopped when she found an entry of interest. After perusing it, she looked up. "This can't be true. This is a trick."
She glanced down. "Anastasia the Great, circa 6th century B.C. Warring queen of Greece, who united the fractious Greek city-states under one rule and oversaw the rise to power of Greece as the principal military and economic power in the pre-Christian Mediterranean world." Anastasia placed the book aside. "That's a clever trick, Hermes, but I don't buy it."
"It's all possible."
"And you want to help me get it? Why? What's in it for you?"
He smiled. "With me as your patron god, you would establish the Cult of Hermes. As Greece came under your influence, mine would become the preeminent cult. I would be worshipped, adored by tens of thousands, by hundreds of thousands. My influence would grow along with yours, until my place among the Olympian gods would surpass even Athena. I would get that."
"I thought so. This is really all about you, isn't it? You-you romanced my mother and bred me just to feed your ego?"
"To achieve your destiny, my dear."
Anastasia fell silent. She studied Gaia for some time, then shook her head. "I won't be your puppet in changing the Earth's history. It isn't right. What was, was. If the past is changed, then the present will be changed. I won't have a part in this."
He rose and approached her. "Let me show you a glimpse of what could be." Before she could object, he touched her forehead. She gasped, and her body stiffened. Through closed eyes, she witnessed a vision of Greece's past, a vision whirling with conquest, with power, with worldly delight. She was immersed in it; she tasted it, smelled it, felt it. For a moment, she was Greece's past. He removed his hand and backed away. Slowly, she opened her eyes and focused them on him.
He tilted his head in question. "Now do you see?" he asked.
"Yes, I do. What I saw was sick. Power of that magnitude always corrupts. You would make of me a Greek Hitler."
"No!" His sudden vehemence frightened her. "Hitler was a sick, twisted invention of my half-brother Ares. There is no comparison." He snorted in contempt. "God of war. What a laugh. And I, Hermes, was resigned to be the least of the Olympians by Zeus. I was more clever than all of them, and I was reduced to delivering messages for them. With what contempt they treated me. Me, Hermes! And the mortals were little better; they ignored me. Where were my adoring priestesses, my cult, my statues? Where, I ask?"
A voice, edged with timeless accent, filled the room. "Why should the mortal world adore you, Hermes? What have you ever done for them?"
They both turned and looked toward the stairs. Alais gazed back at them. Mel stood just beside her. Gaia faced her and unleashed his torrent of antipathy on Alais. "And what did you do, Aphrodite? Goddess of love? You broke hearts, you twisted lives, you destroyed a city, you sent anguished mortals to suicide with unrequited passion for some scorning lover. Do the names of Helen of Troy, of Oedipus, of Sappho bring back memories? Certainly, it is a legacy of which you should be proud."
"Yes, I am not proud of my past. Aphrodite made many mistakes, consumed as she was with her own power and beauty. And I have wept for those mistakes for centuries." She approached Gaia. "I played with mortals as does a little girl with her dolls. Now, I ache to atone for that."
"So pious, now?"
"Centuries of suffering over the mortal condition has made me so, I fear."
"You were always ruled by your passion. You weren't clever, like me." He walked across the room, halted in front of a large, wooden cabinet, and flung open the doors. Triumphantly, he turned back to her. "Do you remember this?"
Alais gasped. Anastasia rose from her chair and slowly approached the open doors. Mel stepped to her side and placed her hands on her daughter's shoulders, stopping her. Together, they beheld the treasure in the cabinet.
It was a net of gold, forged of fine chains of the gleaming metal. The craftsmanship was astounding, and the net sparkled from its place in the cabinet. Gaia looked at Alais. "Why don't you tell us how you remember it, Aphrodite?"
"It matters none," she said. "It is long past."
"But not forgotten." He turned to Anastasia. "Shall I tell you the story? This net, forged of gold, was rendered and given enchantment by the hand of the god of metalworking and crafts, Hephaestus. Do you know why?"
"Please, Hermes," Alais said. "It is of no consequence."
"Ah, but it is. You hold me in contempt? How dare you. What hypocrisy." He returned his attention to Anastasia. "Let me show you what the real Aphrodite is like. My father, Zeus, gave Aphrodite in marriage to Hephaestus. She found him ugly, repulsive. So, she preferred dalliance with my arrogant half-brother, Ares." He cast a glance toward Alais. "Why him? It was I who loved you, did you not know that?" He snorted. "Of course you did. You spurned me for the god of war." He pointed an accusatory finger at Alais as he spoke to Anastasia. "Hephaestus knew of her constant, flagrant betrayals. He forged and enchanted this net, then caught them in the very act of love and threw the net over them. It captured them, held them frozen in their act of illicit lust for all the Olympians to mock and jeer."
"It was you who told Hephaestus about us?" Alais asked.
"Yes." His next movement happened in a flash, almost too fast for Mel's eyes to register. Anastasia watched it happen, but could not react before the act was done. Gaia slipped his hand into an ornate glove, snatched the net from its place, whirled, and pitched it across the room. As it flew from his hand, it spread out, floating through the air like some diaphanous cloth borne by rushing water. It covered Alais, and she froze in a position of startled alarm, unable to move.
Mel cried out in panic, then rushed to Alais' side. "Alais, are you all right?" she asked. Alais did not answer; Mel, though, witnessed a single tear make its way down Alais' cheek. She turned on Gaia. "What did you do to her?"
"She is well, just unable to interfere."
"You son of a-let her go." Mel pulled at the chain net, and it began moving. Before another instant passed, a glowing ball of light flashed across the room and knocked Mel to the ground. Anastasia was by her side in an instant, and knelt over her.
"Momma? Are you hurt?"
Mel coughed, then struggled to sit erect. "I'm all right, honey." Her eyes flashed a warning toward Gaia. "You just watch out for him."
Anastasia rose from her crouch, her eyes fixed on Gaia. Her head lowered; her expression exuded barely-suppressed anger, and her posture became one of hostility. "I reject you. You're not my father."
"But I am," he said. "And your place is by me, twenty-five centuries ago."
"You're sick. There's no way in hell that I would have anything to do with you."
"Not even for your mother's well-being?" Anastasia's jaw dropped at that. Gaia smirked. "Yes, I shall consider your mother a good-faith hostage against your willingness to help me achieve Greece's eluded glory. Perhaps that would induce you to strive for your place in history? If you rise to the occasion for which you were created, she lives in peace with her lover, here in the twentieth century. If you betray me, though..." The rest of the threat did not need to be spoken. It was evident in Gaia's eyes.
Anastasia bounded across the room in an instant, and her hand grasped the net restraining Alais. She froze, then fell to her knees, gasping in surprise. Her hand was frozen to the net; her strength was leaving her. Gaia's laughter filled the room.
"You forget that you are half god. Yes, the net only restrains immortals; it has no effect upon mortals. As a half-god, though, your touch upon it will sap your strength." He walked toward her, stopped in front of her, and looked down at her as she knelt by Alais. "You thought to use it on me, then escape with your mother? Clever, but not clever enough." He considered her as she grimaced in her effort to remove her hand. "Such a defiant daughter. You will learn."
Mel pulled Anastasia's hand away, and the girl fell to the floor. After a moment, she slowly rose, then faced her father. "I'll never help you."
"But you will." He swept a hand toward Anastasia, and a fireball flashed toward her chest. She ducked, and it dissipated harmlessly against the wall behind her. Gaia raised an eyebrow in surprise. "Very good," he said. "But your mother is not so fast." Again, he swept his hand out, and Mel was enveloped in a cascade of bluish, sparking electricity. She screamed in pain and collapsed on the floor, then tried to crawl away from him. The stream of electricity followed her, surrounded her, and she curled into a ball at the foot of the stairs. "Now," Gaia said, "remember well that your mother's happiness is in your hands." He reached out to her with his free hand, imploring her. "Stop her suffering. Help me to achieve our rightful destinies."
Anastasia was in a panic as she watched Mel convulse at the blue light sparking around her. Thin wisps of smoke were rising from her; she would not last long under such an attack. In a moment, Anastasia made her decision. She darted across the room, pulled a foil from its plaque on the wall, and hurled it toward Gaia's chest. He caught it with his free hand, but the distraction caused him to cease Mel's torture. He perused the foil, then grasped it by its handle. "You are impressive," he said, "but still defiant. A daughter should mind her father. This will be your first lesson in humility and obedience."
Again, her hand flashed up to the plaque. In an instant, the other foil was in her right hand, its tip tracing a figure-eight in the air before her. "Yeah?" she said. "Let's see what you've got, daddy."
Gaia smiled, then nodded agreement to the challenge. He stepped into the center of the spacious room and assumed a fencing stance. "You can't win, you know," he said. "I am a god."
"And I'm half god. This should be an interesting match, right?"
"As you wish." As they both assumed their fencer's stance, he spoke again. "Now we will see which part of you is god."
"Knowing you, probably the part I sit on," she said. "En garde."
* * *
Ares and Jan materialized in a grassy meadow at the edge of a village. Jan glanced around, then looked up at Ares. "So what's up?"
He sniffed the air. "I smell gods. A couple of them, to be exact."
Jan snickered. "Fee, fi, fo, fum, I smell the blood of a-"
Ares glowered at her. "You're a laugh riot, Covington." He pointed toward a large house nearby. "There."
"What are we waitin' for? Let's go."
Together, they walked toward the house and the large French doors which stood open at the far end of a spacious patio.
* * *
In the central room, Anastasia concentrated on the opponent before her. Her heart pounded ever more loudly, though, as she considered the uncovered, deadly point on Gaia's foil. This match would be unlike anything she had ever fought before. This match would be for real, and this match could result in her death if she were not careful. Would he actually kill her, though? She doubted it, but again, as she studied his face, she was suddenly not so sure.
He feinted, then attacked. He was fast, but not fast enough. She parried his attack and responded with one of her own. He backed away, defending himself, countering each probe and thrust of her foil's blade with a strike of his own. She felt that he was merely feeling out her ability. That was a common tactic, and she did not display her full skill in response to it. She backed away, and they faced each other again, their blades hovering, cutting the air between them.
Again, he attacked. She parried his attack, concentrating on defense, watching his patterns of movement. He must have a weakness; everyone did. She would detect it, and then she would take advantage of it at the proper moment. She attempted a couple of attacks, and he deftly countered with a standard defense. Again, they backed away from each other; and again, they closed and renewed their combat.
She parried a thrust, then flashed the tip of her foil upward. It caught him across the face, and he uttered a cry of surprise. She backed away and looked at him. He was smiling. His face showed no evidence of a cut.
"I am a god," he said, as if offering explanation to her unspoken thoughts, "but you are merely half god."
He attacked again, and their foils clanked and flashed between them. She felt a streak of pain against her ribs, and backed away. A glance down at her side told her what she already knew; he had scored a hit. Her shirt was torn, and the edges of the rip were already becoming sticky with dark blood. A virulent, dark anger swelled in her, and she approached again, resuming combat. For what seemed an eternity to her, they attacked, retreated, thrust, parried, and feinted, neither able to get a clear advantage over the other or score the winning hit. They were holding each other at bay.
Then, she noted the opening she had been waiting for. He feinted, and she stepped in and thrust. Her foil's point stabbed against his neck, and the blade bent into a curve. At that, he froze.
"Nicely done, daughter," he said. "To a mortal, that would have been a killing blow." His blade whizzed in front of her face, and she felt a streak of pain across her cheek. She staggered away, then touched her fingers to her face. They drew away covered in blood. "You can't win against me. I'm a god. Submit to me, and let me lead you to glory."
"Let my mother and Alais go in peace first," she said.
"How can I insure that you'll keep your word?"
She grinned at that. "You'll just have to trust me, won't you? You can trust me; I'm daddy's little girl, the daughter of the second-rate god of con artists and thieves."
That infuriated him. He attacked with fury, and it was all she could do to counter his attack. She backed away as he forced her across the room, their foils cutting whispers through the air and clinking against each other faster than the mortal eye could follow. Behind her, Anastasia could feel, with her free hand, a wall just behind her. She was in a desperate position. She had to reverse his attack, put him on the defensive and drive him back to the center of the room. She needed space. She summoned all her courage and skill, and launched into a ferocious attack.
He backed away from her, and she followed, frantically pounding down attack after attack upon him. Slowly, the combat moved into the center of the room, then just as slowly, back toward the wall. Mel, in her exhaustion and pain, watched the spectacle, horrified; the action of the foils was a blur to her, and she was having difficulty keeping up with it. Then, before her eyes, both combatants suddenly froze, their arms extended, their foils' tips each touching the other's body. The point of Anastasia's foil was pressed against his chest, the blade bowed. The front of his shirt showed several rends in it where her foil had slashed the material, but he showed no injury beneath the fabric.
Anastasia, though, was bloodied from her match. A cut across her cheek dripped blood, and her side showed an ever-widening patch of darkness beneath the rip in her shirt. Gaia's foil was touching her shoulder, pricking into the material of her shirt.
For a moment, neither moved, neither spoke. Slowly, Anastasia grinned in dark satisfaction. "Touche," she said. "I've bested you. The match is over."
In reply, Gaia shook his head. "Not quite. You forget; I am a god." With that, he rammed the tip of his foil into her shoulder. She screamed as she watched the foil's blade bury itself into her body, felt the white-hot streak of pain it caused. She staggered back from him and leaned against the wall, then looked down. A circle of red was forming around the hole in her shirt, and when she attempted to raise her hand, the pain of the wound prevented her from doing so.
Gaia approached her, his blade's sharpened tip hovering in front of her face. "You are of me, from me. You are half god. You have greatness throughout you. Let me help you achieve your place in history. Let me into your heart, Anastasia."
"You're going to have to kill me."
He sighed. "If it must be so. I'll merely go back in time twenty-one years, romance your mother, and make another just as powerful as you."
"It'll be me," she said. "You'll make me all over again, and it'll just come to this again."
He shook his head. "Probably not. How little you mortals understand the complexity of the universe." He raised his foil. Its tip grazed Anastasia's neck, then rested against it. "This is your last chance. Submit; join me."
Anastasia gritted her teeth in frustration and anger. She glanced aside, and saw Mel kneeling on the floor near the stairs, watching in horror, her eyes wide, her hands clasped over her mouth. "Get out of here, Mel," she said. "Don't watch this, please."
She saw Mel's eyes travel between Gaia and the golden net which covered Alais, and she instantly understood. She had to keep his attention for a moment longer, keep his eyes fixed upon her and away from her mother. As she watched Mel struggle to rise from the floor and grasp the net, she spoke again. "Look, this is crazy. Let my mother live in peace, and I'll do whatever you want. Conquer Greece, you've got it. Make a cult to you, you've got it. Just let her go."
"But she is my insurance. No. I can't trust you without her."
Every part of Mel's body ached from the pounding to which Gaia had subjected her. She summoned her strength, rose on shaky legs, and grasped the net which covered Alais. As she pulled it, Gaia glanced aside and saw her. He swept his free hand through the air, and a ball of light left it. At the same moment, Anastasia gripped his blade with her left hand, pulled it aside, and kicked him. It was enough to jar his aim; the ball of light burst harmlessly against the wall above Mel's head. He cursed, then faced her and raised his foil. She struggled to lift her own, but the pain in her shoulder was too great. She could not defend herself against the slash which was descending upon her.
A brilliant flash of light blinded her, and her legs gave way. She slid down the wall and squatted on the floor, then opened her eyes. When she looked down at herself, expecting to see her shirt and her chest opened by his foil's unabated tip, she saw no new injury. She blinked in disbelief, then looked up. Gaia no longer stood before her. He was crumpled on the floor in a corner of the room, groaning. His clothing was smouldering, and a large hole was burned into one side of his shirt.
Ares strode into the room, then stood over Gaia. "Little twirp," he said. "You always had delusions of grandeur, didn't you?"
Gaia coughed a few times, then stirred. "Ares. This is no concern of yours."
"Oh, no?" He bent down, grasped the front of Gaia's shirt, and held him up. "Immortals don't play with history. That's the rule. Learn to love it." He opened his hand, and Gaia fell to the floor with a thump, then slowly attempted to rise, wincing in pain.
Anastasia's vision became spotted, and she felt herself slide into blackness. She had no idea how long she remained so; it seemed a restful state, free of pain, gentle. Gradually, she heard voices speaking to her, and felt hands lifting her. When she found the strength to open her eyes, she was staring up at Mel's face. Her head was resting in Mel's lap. Jan's hands were on her, opening the rends in her shirt, examining her.
"Man, these wounds are nasty," Jan said. "She's bleeding like a stuck pig." Anastasia giggled drunkenly at the remark, and Jan glanced up at her face. "Sorry," she said. "But we need to get you to a doctor, pronto." She glanced around the room, then saw Ares standing near Alais, contemplating the immortal trapped beneath the golden net. "Oh, shit. Alais is in trouble. Stay with Annie, will ya, Mel?" Jan rose and approached Ares.
"Admiring the view, Ares?"
"Huh?" Ares tore his eyes away from Alais and looked at Jan. "Oh. Just remembering when I last saw this thing."
"Yeah, I've read the story. Come on, let's get this thing off her."
Ares' expression fell. "Does everybody know about that? It's embarrassing."
"It's legend, assigned reading in one of my classes." She grasped the net and attempted to lift it. "Man, this thing is heavy. Help me out, Ares."
"I can't touch it. It'll freeze me like it did her."
Jan huffed. "And that's a bad thing?" She grunted and pulled, and the net slowly slid away from Alais. When it dropped to the floor, Alais blinked, straightened up, and staggered to the stairs, where she sat down.
"Thank you, Jan," she said. "That was horrid."
"Are you okay, sis?" Ares asked.
"Yes, merely tired." She glanced across the room and saw Anastasia lying on the floor, her head in Mel's lap. "Oh! She is injured."
Mel looked up. "Yes, she's bad. Can you do anything for her?"
Alais hurried across the room and knelt at her side. She examined Anastasia's wounds, then nodded. "I can heal her." She reached into an inner pocket of her jacket and produced an ornate, tiny pill-box, which she flipped open. From it, she extracted a piece of unidentifiable material, much resembling jelly, and held it in front of Anastasia's mouth. "Eat this, quickly. It will heal your wounds."
Mel glanced at it, then looked across the room. "Jan, it's ambrosia," Mel said. Mel returned her attention to her daughter; Anastasia's eyes were closing, and she was groggy.
"Please, Annie. Open your mouth. Eat this. It will heal you."
"Please, just do it."
Slowly, Anastasia's lips parted. Aphrodite popped the piece of ambrosia into the girl's mouth, and she swallowed. Immediately, a diffuse aura of light surrounded her. When it dissipated, she opened her eyes and blinked in surprise. "What happened to me? I just had the most wonderful feeling, as if I were floating."
"You're healed," Alais said. "Look."
Anastasia sat erect, then looked down at her body. Beneath the rend in the side of her shirt, there was no injury. Her shoulder no longer ached; and when she touched her cheek, she felt only residual blood. There was no cut. "That's incredible," she said. "What-?"
"Ambrosia, food of the gods," Alais said. "Later, I will explain it all. Now, we must get you home."
Ares joined the group and stood next to Alais. "Damn, Covington," he said. "I just love happy endings. Covington? Where are you?"
In answer, he heard Jan shout his name. When he turned, he saw Gaia kneeling, his arm outstretched, a ball of light glowing in his hand. It was aimed directly at his chest; a moment ago, it had been aimed at his back. Before he could react, the net sailed through the air and settled over Gaia, freezing him in mid-act. The ball of light fizzled, then extinguished itself. Jan staggered, then leaned against the wall.
"Man, that was heavy," she said. She twisted, placed a hand on her side, and winced. "I think I just pulled something."
Ares stared at her for a moment, then approached her and stood in front of her. His imposing bulk hovered over her as he considered her. "You actually saved my butt, Covington."
Jan was grimacing in pain and rubbing her side. "You're welcome," she said, then looked up at him and grinned. "Does this mean that you owe me one?"
Ares studied Gaia, frozen beneath the net, and then nodded toward Jan. "I guess it does, damn it. I've got to hand it to you, shrimp. That's a heavy net, but you handled it."
"I'm a tough little bugger," Jan said.
"Yeah, you are." Ares grinned at her, then slapped her on the back. "That's what I like about you. You're okay, Covington." He shrugged. "For an irritating little blonde, that is."
"Thanks, I think." She motioned toward Gaia. "What are we going to do with him?"
Ares waved a hand in dismissal, then pointed toward Alais. "This is a mess that Aphrodite and I need to clean up. God stuff, you know."
"You can't let him go," Jan said. "He'll just be back."
"Yeah. I know." Ares' expression clouded in thought as he considered the situation. Then, he turned to Alais. "Sis, why don't you take them home, then come back here? I've got an idea."
Alais' expression was one of anguish. "Brother, we can't kill him."
"Right." He offered an apologetic glance to the others in the room. "Bad form among gods, you know."
As Alais herded her three charges together and prepared to take them away, Ares strolled around the room, admiring the objects of art. "Man, Covington," he said, "there's some stuff in here that would sell nicely on the antiquities black market."
"Yeah," Jan said. "It's too bad I don't do that anymore."
Ares winked. "But I do." He lifted a two-handled cup from a table and tossed it to Jan. She caught it, then glanced down at it.
"Drinking cup," Jan said. "The art is Attic. Whoa, this has got to be-what? Fifth century, B.C.?"
"Yeah. Good eyes, Covington. Sixth century, actually. Keep it. After what he's done to you guys, I figure Hermes owes you."
Jan grinned. "There's a little larceny in every heart, right?"
Ares nodded. His eyes twinkled with humor, a look that Jan hadn't seen before. "And that," he said, "is another thing that I like about you. See you around, twirp."
"Palo, remember? I'm a respectable businessman now." He noted the expressions on the gathered faces, then shrugged. "What? Okay, maybe not quite respectable."
Alais whispered a warning to her three companions, then closed her eyes as they all clasped hands. A brilliant light enveloped them, and when it dissipated, they were no longer to be seen. Ares considered the figure crouched in one corner of the room, held in silent stillness by the golden net, and smiled in dark satisfaction. He eased himself into a chair, crossed one leg over the other, and sighed. "Well, little half-brother, what do you want to talk about until Aphrodite gets back?"
Beneath the net, burning from the frozen figure's face, Ares could see two eyes filled with loathing. He smiled at that, then spoke. "Hey, don't look at me like that. You got yourself into this mess. An immortal doesn't screw around with history. It just ain't right." As he poured himself a cup of tea, he added one more thought. "Besides, it's bad for my business, and nobody, but nobody, messes with my business and gets away with it." He sipped his tea, then added a thought. "Except Covington, maybe."
* * *
A week later.
Jan clumped into the kitchen, shook off the cold, and shed her coat and muffler. She received her customary hug and kiss from Mel, then sniffed. "Oh, yeah. You're making lasagna? What's the occasion?"
"Annie will be over for dinner," Mel said. "And she's bringing a friend."
"No kidding? Who?"
"It's a surprise. Now go wash up for dinner. They'll be here soon."
Jan dutifully headed toward the bathroom, where she refreshed herself. In a while, she emerged, freshly scrubbed and her hair brushed. Mel glanced up, then smiled.
"I love your hair loose like that, Jan. You look so-I don't know-sultry. You should wear it that way all the time. Your pony-tail is so plain."
"I'm a pony-tail girl at heart, but I do 'sultry' just for you."
"And for our dinner guests. I think that's them now. Will you get that?"
"Get what?" A knock sounded at the front door, and Jan raised an eyebrow. "How do you do that, Mel?" she asked, then opened the front door. Annie stepped inside, muffled against the cold.
"Hi, Doctor Covington. Hi, Mel. Thanks for having me over tonight." Then she pointed toward the door. "This is my friend. I think you already know each other, right?"
Jan blinked in surprise. The eyes peeking out above the coat's collar and the thick scarf were very familiar. She grinned in recognition, then nodded. "Well, I'll be a--how's things, Ginnie?"
"I'm freezin' my butt off, Doc. My car heater's broken. Damned piece of junk De Soto." Virginia held up a bottle of wine. "At least we don't have to wait for it to chill, right?"
"Right." She accepted the bottle and placed it on the kitchen counter, then turned back to her two guests. "Let me take your coats and things. There's a fire in the fireplace and sherry on the table. That ought to warm you two up."
* * *
Late that night, Mel pulled the quilt up to her chin and watched Jan shed her robe. "Come to bed, darlin'. You must be exhausted."
"It was a long day," Jan said. She wiggled underneath the covers, then snuggled against Mel's side. "New semester starting, and all that."
"Get some sleep then. C'mere, cutie." She pulled Jan against her side and kissed her, then waited as Jan squirmed around, seeking a comfortable position. "Good night, Jan. I love you."
"'Night, gorgeous. I love you, too."
Mel could feel a deep sigh come from Jan; that was an indication that she was settling in to sleep.
"I forgot to tell you, we got a letter from Alais today."
"Um. That's nice. Everything okay?"
"You'll never guess what she and Ares finally did with Hermes."
There was a moment's silence in the bedroom, then Jan spoke, her voice suddenly more alive as her curiosity was aroused. "What?"
"She said that they secreted him in a tomb beneath his house, still wrapped in the golden net."
"Oh, man." Jan lifted her head from the pillow and looked at Mel. "He's slick. He'll figure a way out of that, eventually."
"I don't think so. You know Ares; he's nothing if not efficient."
"He's arrogant, though. He'll be overconfident of his own work. Trust me, Hermes will get out."
"I hope not, for Annie's sake."
Jan thought about it, then attempted to set Mel's worry at ease. "Aah, it'll probably take him a couple of centuries. Don't worry about it."
"If he does get out," Mel said, "he'll go after Ares first. Alais said that he cleaned out Hermes' house. All that wonderful old Greek art is heading to the black market, I suppose."
Jan snickered. "Yeah. Ares is a businessman."
"And you, Jan? Whatever did you do with that cup that Ares gave you?"
"I donated it to the museum."
"That's my Jan." Again, silence fell in the room as they both wiggled down further into the quilts and pillows. After a moment, Jan's giggle broke the silence.
"Mel, you must have been a Caesar in a previous life."
"I was a salad in a previous life?"
"No, goofy. An emperor."
"Umm. Why do you say that, cutie?"
"Because you've got roamin' hands."
"Shall I stop?"
"Naw, Mel. Rub right there, on my back. That's where I pulled a muscle throwing that damned net."
"Yeah, that's it."
"And there, too?"
"Mmm. Oh, yeah."
"Right there, too?"
"Um, Mel, that ain't my back. If I pulled a muscle there, it wasn't from the net."
Mel giggled again. "Do tell. Do you want me to stop?"
"Don't you dare."
A little while later, Jan sat up in bed and pushed the hair from her eyes. "Wow, that's a new move. Where did you learn that one?" She leaned forward and kissed Mel's mouth, then placed a fingertip on the end of Mel's nose. "Have you been cheatin' on me?"
"Never," Mel said. "In Crete, Alais and I had a little chat, that's all. She's very knowledgeable about, ah, certain subjects."
"Once the goddess of love, always the goddess of love, huh?"
"You bet." Mel sighed, then pulled Jan down into the covers. "Now come here and keep me warm."
They pulled the quilt up to their chins and settled in to sleep. After a moment, Mel nudged Jan.
"Did you and Ares have any heart-to-heart talks in Crete? I noticed that you two were actually nice to each other."
"Yeah," Jan said. "I told him that he was a jackass, and he told me that I was a twirp and an irritating little blonde."
Mel giggled. "My, my. Friends at last. If I didn't know better, I'd think that you two were married to each other."
Jan snorted in laughter, then tensed. "Ouch. That would be a match made in hell, wouldn't it?"
"Speaking of matches, Jan..."
"Let me guess. You think something's going on between Annie and Ginnie, don't you?"
"I most certainly do. Didn't you catch all the little flirtations between them?"
Jan yawned. "Guess I missed that."
"Ah, Ginnie's a pretty okay kid. Don't worry about it, Mel."
"But is she right for Annie, though?"
"Sure. Why not?"
"Well, she's just-just not the type of girl I envisioned for Annie. I mean, Ginnie can curse a blue streak sometimes, and she has a very impetuous nature. Annie could get into mischief being involved with her, or get her heart broken."
"Yeah. Ginnie sounds a lot like the gal you ended up with."
Mel fell silent for a while, then giggled as she hugged Jan against her side. "She sounds exactly like the gal I ended up with. G'night, cutie. I love you."
"G'night, gorgeous. I love you, too. See you in the morning."
"And as grumpy as you are in the mornings, I still always look forward to it."
"Now that," Jan said, "is what I call true love."
Author's notes: If you want to read more about previous encounters between Ares and Jan, A Bad Day in Algiers is a good story to read. They also went nose-to-nose in The Treasure of the Amazons. Mel even took a few swings at him in The Legend of Ambrosia. So, yeah, they're 'old buddies' from way back.
If you're curious about how Aphrodite (Alais) got to be who she is today and so friendly with our two girls, check out the stories The Tears of a Goddess and The Legend of Ambrosia.
The flirtatious repartee between Jan and her secretary, Virginia (Ginnie) shows up in, I think, all the stories except the first one, and has become a staple of humor in them. I can't imagine these stories without at least one of those scenes in there. She's a hoot to write.
And finally, according to Greek myth and legend, the siblings Ares and Aphrodite did have a fling. It seems that big daddy Zeus gave 'Dite in marriage to the god Hephaestus (also her brother), who was rather ugly. So, she began a torrid affair with that 'hunk o' burnin' love', Ares, until Hep busted them in the act, captured them with the golden net, and displayed them for the other Olympians' amusement. Not one of their finer moments, I guess.
Until next time, dear readers.