~ And A Nightingale... ~
by the Fallen
DISCLAIMER (SERIOUS): This story is intended for mature readers only. Don't worry, there is no violence and only 'off-stage' sex, but it is so incredibly depressing only mature adults should read it. The following story is © 1997 and is written purely for entertainment purposes. It cannot be reproduced in any shape or form without the author's prior consent. The Xena: Warrior Princess series, and the characters of Melinda Pappas/Xena and Janice Covington/Gabrielle are the copyrighted property of MCA/Universal/Renaissance Pictures.
DISCLAIMER (HUMOROUS): No bed sheets were stained during the production of this story. However, the 'do-not-disturb' door tag the hotel provided was damaged beyond repair.
AUTHOR'S NOTES: This is a short story featuring the two main characters from the Xena: Warrior Princess second season episode The Xena Scrolls. It is meant to follow on (almost) directly from that episode. However, as it is some time since I saw The Xena Scrolls, there may be some mistakes. Many apologies in advance. For those among you who don't know, the title of this story comes from a British song which was popular during World War II. Berkeley Square was a heavily congested area of London, which is why a nightingale singing there would be rare. A verse or two from the song is included at the end of this story, and you should be able to see its relevance.
AND A NIGHTINGALE...
A Xena: Warrior Princess
[The Xena Scrolls
by the Fallen [e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
London, England: January 1943
Blue and gold.
For a moment, those were the only colors Melinda Pappas could see. She stood in front of what the map on the wall had told her was Exhibit 14(d). It was ironic, she supposed, that in places that were dedicated to art and history the curators reduced the beauty of a subject by giving it such a soulless designation.
She pushed her thick black-framed glasses up on her nose with an extended forefinger and peered forward at the plaque on the wall. The basic text told her the display contained items from the 4th-6th Dynasties and all originated from Saqqara. She looked up again, removing her spectacles and cleaning them with a lace handkerchief she took from her purse. The central item of the display was a sarcophagi, decorated in the common blue and gold designs. Around it were smaller statues of various Egyptian Gods, two columns and a false door from a pyramid and a large tomb relief as a backdrop.
"Beautiful, isn't it?"
Mel quickly shoved her spectacles back on and turned to see the speaker. He was an elderly man, in his early sixties at best, and was dressed in a dark blue suit.
"Yes," she answered him. "Yes, it is quite beautiful."
The old man smiled and stepped closer. The pair now stood side by side, not looking at each other, their eyes entranced by the glistening display. "Are you a student of Egyptian history, Mrs...?"
"It's Miss, actually," Mel said, hoping the man didn't assume too much from the correction. "Miss Pappas. And no, not really. I know a little but my speciality is Greece."
"Greek history?" The man raised an eyebrow in surprise.
Mel nodded. "But I'm more of a specialist in ancient languages than a historian. Like I said, Greek is my area of expertise."
"But you can read Egyptian?"
"A little," Mel replied.
"To be honest," the old man said, "you didn't seem too interested in the other exhibits."
Mel's eyes widened and she suddenly took a single step away. How long had this man been watching her? She'd been here since five o'clock and it was now nearer half-past. Had he been following her all that time?
The man offered a hand. "Peter Williamson," he said, smiling. "I'm in charge of the museum."
Blushing, Mel tried to recover her composure, knowing full well that Mr. Williamson had seen her apprehensive withdrawal. She took his hand and shook it. "You're the director?"
Williamson grinned again. "For my sins. I'm also the curator, security guard and cleaner. You name it, I do it. Either that or this place would close for the duration."
Mel nodded in sympathy. The war seemed to be screwing everything up here in England. Including her life.
"We don't get too many visitors at this time of day," Williamson said. "The museum closes at six, you know."
Spying a sudden blur of movement at the corner of her eye, Mel turned and saw a mangy-looking tabby cat stroll casually across the floor. The feline wandered up to the pair of humans and, settling down at the foot of the sarcophagus, began to lick itself clean. Like most cats, it had an air of unmistakable arrogance. Mel crouched down and reached out to stroke the cat behind one tatty ear. She was rewarded with a soft purr.
"I'm supposed to be meeting someone," Mel told Williamson, looking up but not stopping her caresses of the cat's ear. "She's over twenty minutes late, though."
"Sorry about her," Williamson said.
"My friend?" said Mel, looking puzzled.
Williamson laughed. "No, the cat! She's a stray who seems to have adopted the place as her own. I can remove her if she's bothering you."
"Not at all," Mel answered, still petting the purring tabby cat. "I like cats."
"Yes," murmured the museum's director, "you strike me as the sort of lady who would."
There was a cough behind them and both turned. Standing in the arched doorway was a short young lady. She could have been younger than Mel but it was difficult to say for sure. She was tanned, her skin a healthy light brown and complimented by the fiery red hair that fell behind her in an untidy ponytail from under a battered hat. She wore a leather jacket that was patched in many places, a pair of dark knee-high boots and jodhpurs that had obviously seen better days.
Mel wasn't particularly surprised. Doctor Janice Covington could get an invitation from the Brits' King and would still turn up in the same old clothes. Her only compromise to the safer environment of central London was the lack of both her pistol and whip.
"Well, I'll leave you both to it," Williamson said, looking decidedly sheepish as he left the room. "Please remember that the museum closes at six."
Much to the cat's annoyance, Mel straightened up, smoothing out the creases in her plum-colored skirt as she did so. "I got your message," was all she could think of to say.
"Obviously," Janice replied through thin lips.
"Well, we can't talk here," Mel said. "Are you staying somewhere?"
Janice folded her arms and looked directly at the dark-haired woman. "Nowhere you could bear to be seen," she said. Mel looked away, although whether in anger or shame, Janice could not tell. "What about you?"
"Oh, I'm staying at the Millevere Hotel."
"Very nice," Janice muttered sarcastically.
"The university pays for..." Mel began, stopping as she suddenly remembered how Janice had lost out for the very teaching job she now held. "Have you eaten?"
"Ever since I was born," Janice said with a scowl.
"If you're hungry, we could have dinner together," Mel suggested, trying not to think what the restaurant staff would say about Janice's appearance.
"Why not?" Janice said, her face still impassive. "That is, if you're paying."
* * * * *
Dinner was a subdued affair, to say the least.
With the strict regime of rationing that still continued in Britain, even the best hotels in London were limited in what food they could provide. And with Millevere Hotel not being one of the best, their menus were very short indeed. But the food was somewhat hot and somewhat fresh (apart from the powdered eggs) and either was more than Janice's meals had experienced recently. So while Mel picked and fussed over her plate, Janice wolfed down course after course.
The two women sat in virtual silence as they ate. Neither really looked at each other, their eyes falling everywhere but upon each other. The same could not be said of the other guests and the hotel's staff, who could barely take their incredulous eyes off Janice. Mel seemed embarrassed, especially when the head waiter had cringed when Janice had handed him her jacket, but the younger woman seemed oblivious.
Eventually, Janice pushed away her third plate and sat back in her chair. She reached into the breast pocket of the men's shirt she was wearing and plucked out a half-smoked cigar which she lit slowly and deliberately.
Mel sipped nervously at her coffee. It was weak and tasted horrible without any cream but she still preferred it to the watery tea most English people drank. "Considering your telegram said you wanted to talk, I thought you would have said something by now," she said.
A billow of smoke flowed across the table as Janice was finally successful in lighting the cigar. "Yeah, well... the movies have killed the art of conservation."
Frowning at the poor joke, Mel drained her cup. She knew the joke was one of Janice's favorites, a pun and a political comment about the difference in funding between the worlds of cinema and archaeology. "I take it," Mel began to say somewhat tentatively, "that you wanted to talk in private."
Janice leaned forward an exhaled a lungful of smoke. "Don't you feel comfortable with me in public anymore, Mel?"
I don't feel comfortable with you at all, Mel thought. Not anymore.
"You said you have a room here, didn't you?" Janice asked, a little too loudly for Mel's sensitive tastes.
"Yes," Mel said, looking at the floor as she blushed. "Yes, of course."
Janice stood up and glanced over to the cloakroom where the head waiter had distastefully deposited her hat and jacket. She turned her head to look at Mel, who was nervously playing with the empty coffee cup. Janice rapped her knuckles on the tabletop to get her attention. "After you..." she said, motioning with a wave of her hand.
* * * * *
Mel leant back against the door, pushing it closed with a soft click.
She hadn't bothered to turn the light on, as the curtains were still open and blackout regulations meant she would have to close them first. She remained by the door as she watched Janice look around the small room. The young archaeologist wandered around the bed, picking up a small bronze statue of Aphrodite from the bedside cabinet. Weighing the statuette in her right hand, Janice looked over at Mel.
"Real?" she asked, drawing heavily on the cigar as she replaced the figurine.
"A gift from a friend at the university," Mel replied as she nodded. She crossed to the drinks cabinet and after pouring herself a gin and tonic, she turned and asked if the redhead wanted anything.
"Do you have any scotch?" Janice asked, stubbing out the tiny remains of the blackened cigar in the previously untouched ashtray.
"No, only gin."
Janice's anger flared suddenly. "Then why ask?" she snapped.
"I thought you might not have wanted anything..." Mel said apologetically.
"Okay, okay..." Janice held up her hands. The last thing she wanted was another argument like the one that had made them go their separate ways six months or so ago. Losing the Xena Scrolls was something for which each of them would always blame the other. "I'm sorry..."
Mel turned away. "Well?"
Janice pulled out the room's only chair from under the dresser and turning it so she could rest her arms on the back, she sat down. "There's something I've been meaning to ask you."
Throwing back her head, Mel drained her glass. She refilled it and then sat on the edge of the bed, tucking her legs to one side so she could face the younger woman. "Oh?" she said with a confidence she did not feel. "And what would that be?"
Janice shivered but not from cold. "Back in Macedonia..." she began hesitantly. "When you were her..."
"Yes, Xena..." Janice said wistfully.
Mel frowned. "What do you want to know?"
Janice paused, thinking carefully about how to phrase what she had in her mind. "What it was like?" she asked. "I want you to tell me what you felt... what you saw, smelt, tasted, every little thing... what you experienced..." Janice's voice dried up and she suddenly found herself wishing she had taken the gin Mel had offered.
Mel's voice was so quiet Janice had to strain to hear the reply. "I can't."
"Please..." Janice said, just as quietly.
"No," Mel said, turning away and taking another hefty swig of gin.
Janice could feel her eyes begin to water. "Please, Melinda, I need to know. I'm begging you..."
Mel turned slowly to look at the redhead. "God..." she muttered quietly. "This is really important to you, isn't it?"
Janice wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "Yeah, something like that," she said. "Ever since my father died I've searched for something to follow... something to believe in, you know? I was always drifting from one thing to another, even as a kid. Always getting bored, real quick..."
"Sign of an intelligent mind, my daddy always said," Mel interrupted.
Janice chuckled, her grin displaying white teeth that contrasted with her darkened skin and red eyes. "He never met me," she said, to which Mel responded with a smile. "But I wanted something else, something more than life was giving me. Archaeology seemed to be it, for a while at least. And then I learnt about the Xena Scrolls and it gave me something else to latch on to. Another dream to pin all my hopes on. When I found out it was all true..."
Kicking her shoes off, Mel rose to her feet and walked over to Janice. She placed a comforting hand on the young woman's shoulder, feeling the tense muscles beneath the dirty shirt. "I understand."
The redhead didn't look up... didn't want to. She stared disconsolately at the threadbare carpet. "It gave me a reason for... just being. Knowing that in another time I might have been someone special..."
"Xena," Janice nodded. "When I thought I might have been her, it all seemed to mean something. I was here for a purpose. But then, of course, we found out you were Xena all along and I..." She paused and gulped noisily. "I was just the same old loser I'd always been."
"You're not a loser, Janice."
"No?" Janice said, looking up through watery eyes at the dark-haired woman. "Drifting aimlessly through life, trying to avoid all the problems people throw in my way... you wouldn't call that the life of a loser? I have great ideas, but never seem to fulfill any of them. I've stolen... I've lied... I've cheated, betrayed, hurt and scared other people. And I've broken more promises than I can recall."
"Not to me," Mel told her.
Janice didn't seem to hear. "I've never achieved anything worthwhile... never done anything anyone will ever remember..."
Mel turned away and looked out of the window, gazing down on the darkened city of London. In the distance the sky was a dull red as fires from incendiary bombs raged. Neither woman spoke. A minute passed, then another.
Finally, Mel broke the silence. "You really want to know?" she asked, finishing the last of the gin. "You'll tell me?"
Mel looked back at the redhead and smiled. "I never said I wouldn't, just that I don't think I can."
Crossing back to the bed, Mel sat down on the edge once more, facing the younger woman. "Okay, where to start? Look, it's like... I mean, you feel... when she takes..." Her voice faltered and she closed her eyes as she felt her cheeks color. It was like telling someone your most intimate details... "Oh God, I can't do this..."
"It's okay," Janice said, easing herself off her chair and leaning against the dresser. "You don't have to," she told Mel, trying to keep the disappointment out of her voice. "I'm sorry."
"No. No, I'll try," said Mel, a determined look coming over her beautiful features. She took a deep breath before speaking. "Okay, when Xena took over she only controlled my body, right? But I was still there."
Janice was puzzled. "How do you mean?"
"Well, it was like I was behind her. I wasn't a participant only a witness."
"A passenger..." said Janice thoughtfully.
"That's it!" Mel exclaimed, snapping her fingers. "I was a passenger! But all the same, she and I, we shared things."
"What sort of things?"
Mel shrugged. "Everything. Who we were and what we knew. I knew her friends and her enemies, her hates and her loves, her thoughts and her fears."
She said nothing more, staring at the empty glass she was still holding.
"And that's it?" said the impatient Janice.
Mel remained silent for a minute or two. "No," she said eventually.
"There was also the transition period."
"I don't know what to say... how to describe it," Mel told her. "I guess you could call it the moment when I left and Xena took over. And it was only a moment. It seemed like forever but it could have only been a second... less, perhaps. What I do know is that out of the entire experience that single second affected me the most."
"Go on," Janice encouraged.
"It's difficult to describe," Mel said with another shrug of her shoulders. "In that instant, I knew..." She stopped suddenly.
Mel flopped on to her back, causing the bed to creak alarmingly. Her head hung back over the edge, causing her black hair to fall from its tidy bun and her spectacles to drop to the floor. She stretched out, trying to reached the almost empty gin bottle, but her fingers were an inch or two away. Giving up, she pulled herself upright once more. She looked up at Janice, who was watching her intently. "When I was three years old, my father bought me a little golliwog home from one of his trips. He'd been lecturing over here, actually. I christened him Golly."
Janice's eyes narrowed in confusion. "So?"
"I lost him when I was five."
Janice's impatience got the better of her. "I don't understand what this has to do with..."
"Don't you see?" Mel said, trying to tidy up her hair. However, seeing as she only had one free hand and as she was slightly drunk, her dark hair ended up worse. "I never knew that," she continued. "I mean, I did know that but I'd forgotten. Modesty forbids a woman to disclose her age, but suffice to say it was many years ago. I couldn't remember having a toy called Golly or losing it."
"What are you saying?" Janice said, completely bewildered.
Mel's eyes were glazing over. "I could see my life and everything in it. Every event that ever happened to me, whether I remembered it or not. I even remembered where I lost Golly." She giggled merrily as she thought of the poor doll. "He's probably still there."
"You saw... everything?"
"Everything," Mel said, nodding. "It was like my life was a film, except in colour of course, and my eyes were the camera."
"And all this during one second?"
"Yes, all... and Xena, too."
"Xena?" Janice said, not sure she was following the older woman's explanation.
"I remembered every aspect of her life too. Her birth, her childhood..." Mel paused and looked into the distance. She giggled suddenly. "I remember how the villagers were trying to catch an escaped piglet. Xena insisted on joining in, even though she was only six years old. She fell and cut her knee," Mel explained, rubbing her left knee through her nylon stocking. "Eventually Lyceus caught the piglet and I cried the rest of the day. Whether it was because I fell or because I didn't catch the piglet, I don't know."
"Xena cried," Janice said softly.
Mel looked up. "What?"
"You mean she cried."
"That's what I said, isn't it?"
Janice shook her head. "No, you said 'I'."
Mel staggered to her feet and made her way around the bed to the drinks cabinet. "I think you should leave now."
Janice took a step forward. "No, listen to me," she began. "Melinda, I need to know..."
In a burst of anger, Mel spun around and hurled the still empty glass across the room. Janice ducked as the glass shattered against the wall behind her. "Do you think I care what you want?!" Mel screamed, her face a dark red.
Janice stared in astonishment at the older woman. "Yes," she said quietly. "I thought you did."
Mel picked up the gin bottle and raised it. "Get out!"
Janice turned to leave. "Melinda, I'm sorry..." she began, her voice choking from the tears that began to run down her cheeks. "I didn't mean..."
Mel was at her side in an instant, all trace of her anger gone. "It's okay..." she said, taking the younger girl in her arms and pulling her into a tight embrace. "Hush... it's okay..." she murmured, holding the sobbing woman tightly and stroking her strawberry-blonde hair.
They stayed that way for a long while. It was Melinda who eventually broke the embrace, taking hold of Janice by the upper arms. "You know, maybe it's just different for you..."
"Different?" Janice managed to gasp between involuntary sobs.
"Well, I became Xena due to the presence of the chakram," Mel explained. "But there was another reason... it was the adrenalin, the sudden surge of excitement at the prospect of danger..."
"From what I know of Gabrielle," Mel said, her eyes becoming a little distant, "she wasn't the fighting type. Maybe danger isn't the trigger for you. Maybe it's something more peaceful."
Janice snorted in derision. "Yeah, right," she muttered, "and that's really going to happen in the middle of a war..."
Smiling, Melinda took hold of Janice's chin with one hand and wiped her tears away with the other. "Hey," she murmured softly, "you're not getting all maudlin on me again, are you?"
Their eyes met and held.
Their lips followed suit.
And their bodies refused to be any different.
* * * * *
They made love that night. Looking back, neither would say it was an earth-shattering experience. Neither woman heard music or saw angels or heard heavenly choirs or even felt the earth move beneath them.
The couple had little regard for each other, both using the other's body as nothing more than a momentary escape. A diversion from the terrors that bombarded them day after day and night after night.
It was a tangled affair, a cacophony of caresses. Fumbles rather than fondles. Clumsy clashes of teeth upon teeth, of elbows in ribs and of scratches and bites.
They were a sordid pair, indulging in the brief excesses of desire while hundreds of miles away human beings were being transformed into lampshades, soap and cushion stuffing.
And it was almost all for nothing.
Yet at the height of the most powerful pleasure...
Yet in that instant of overwhelming bliss, Janice knew... everything.
That certain night, the night we met,
There was magic abroad in the air,
There were angels dining at the Ritz,
And a nightingale sang at Berkeley Square.
I may be right, I may be wrong,
But I'm perfectly willing to swear,
That when you turned and smiled at me,
A nightingale sang at Berkeley Square.
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