Continuity Disclaimer: I don't pretend to know where exactly this falls in the Mel/Janice saga since I have yet to write more than an opening and this scene. Just pretend you know the story and go with the flow.
Sex Disclaimer: Yup? Southern Comfort has a whole different meaning around Mel Pappas.
Historical Note: The Dead Sea Scrolls weren't actually disclosed to the Western media until 1948.
The University of Kentucky's stately, red-brick-and-ivy Memorial Hall was full on the hot, humid evening of May 3, 1946. An up-and-coming young scholar from the University of South Carolina's Department of Linguistics was making the guest lecture circuit, speaking on the newly released translations of the Xena Scrolls. All of Lexington's elite had turned out to hear of the historic scrolls, found in Macedonia just prior to America's entry into World War II and lost for nearly 3 years during the turmoil in Europe. Like the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered only last year by desert Bedouin, the Xena Scrolls promised to change the way modern people looked at ancient history.
The single spot, directed from the packed balcony, gleamed on the immaculate white silk and navy linen of the speakers' carefully chosen Dior suit and brought out rich, blue-black highlights in the dark hair demurely upswept in a French twist. Despite the dark framed, scholar's glasses, people as far back as the fourth row were treated to flashes of cerulean from the woman's startlingly blue eyes. In a field usually tenanted by stuffy older men in poorly fitted tweed, the speaker's dress and beauty was a style revolution to the newly arrived co-eds at the University. Many of the skeptics in the audience, however, found themselves wooed not by her stunning good looks, but by the speaker's lucid, passionate arguments about her topic.
"...seems to indicate that the bard was an eyewitness to most, if not all, of the Warrior Princess's greatest deeds," Melinda Pappas's soft Southern accent flowed through the auditorium, underscored by the soft rustle of paper fans audience members used to cool themselves. "For instance, the fifth scroll, called by the bard 'The Settlement' or 'The Tally,' tells the tale of Xena being arrested for a crime she didn't commit, but willing to pay through her punishment for all those she had. Gabrielle minimizes the fact that Xena, fighting off a lynch mob and overcome by battle rage, actually struck her, but from this we learn that the younger woman was present and actively involved in all the adventures she relates."
A slightly disconcerted murmur spread through the genteel, educated crowd.
"Yes, I know," Melinda's melodious voice throbbed with empathy. "How awful it must have been for poor li'l Gabrielle! But," Melinda hurried to reassure them, "we can only imagine the danger of the circumstances that would have led the Warrior Princess to such an extreme act..."
At the back of the huge, cathedral-like building, in a dark corner well beyond the reach of the speaker's gaze, stood a figure that the ushers took to be a young man dressed in a brown leather jacket and battered fedora. He was standing under a "No Smoking" sign, but in the darkness, the tip of a cheroot glowed cherry red. The eyes in the shadow under the hat brim gleamed as the spotlight played over Melinda Pappas, but otherwise the figure never moved.
"Excuse me, sir," the head usher moved over to hiss into the shadowed face under the hat. "There's no smoking here."
"Buzz off, pal-sy," came a husky, decidedly female voice. "You're making me miss her conclusion."
Thunderous applause interrupted whatever the usher would have said in response, and the slender figure in the dark jacket pushed by him into the foyer of the hall.
The crowd ebbed and flowed in the muraled foyer, everyone waiting for Miss Pappas to make her way to the table set up along one wall where she would be signing copies of the translation, newly published by Yale University Press, and answering questions. The usher forgot all about the woman in male attire as the lovely, leggy Miss Pappas emerged into the crowd and another delighted ovation greeted her.
"So very interesting..."
"... made my heart go pitter pat..."
"Such a beautiful story of friendship..."
Melinda smiled her debutante ball smile, her blue eyes faintly panic-stricken, as she glided through the crowd and the comments, and hoped desperately that she didn't trip, or faint from all the attention. With great relief, she dropped into the chair Justin Haggerty, UK's Dean of Arts and Sciences, held out for her.
"Thank you, Justin," she smiled up at the handsome blonde academic whose dissertation on Chomsky her father had directed.
"Think nothin' of it, Melinda," Justin said gallantly, scooting her closer to the table and seating himself to her right and slightly behind her.
The first book to be signed appeared, clutched in the hand of a starry-eyed undergraduate.
"Oh, Miss Pappas, I want to be just like you when I get out of school," the young woman gushed. "I read in Life magazine about your adventures in Macedonia. Please sign it to Mary Ellen."
Melinda, a becoming flush running under her magnolia blossom complexion, signed the book and replied shyly, "Well, y'all jest keep studyin', Mary Ellen."
It became a blur after that: pale-faced serious young men in dark suits, white haired Southern matrons with their Daughters of the Confederacy and Women's Christian Temperance Union lapel pins, and-- by far the most-- young women like the first, eager to see the woman who'd become their heroine in introducing them to another heroine, some two millennia old.
"...but Miss Pappas," just such a one was asking when the crush had eased somewhat and Melinda could finally catch her breath, "didn't Gabrielle and Xena worry about what their boyfriends or husbands would think of their having all these adventures?"
"Yeah, Miss Pappas," came a familiar, whiskey-raked voice, "tell us what Xena's and Gabrielle's boyfriends thought of their adventures."
Melinda's cobalt eyes lifted to meet the shadowed green ones beneath the bullet-riddled fedora. "Janice," she exhaled the name like a prayer.
"You got it, sweetheart," Janice Covington grinned her devil's cherub grin and stuck her cigar in the corner of her mouth.
"I never thought I'd see you again," Melinda whispered, tears threatening to overspill raven dark lashes.
"Well, here I am, in the flesh," Covington covered the instantaneous jolt those eyes gave her with an arch, sarcastic smile, "So, you gonna answer the kid's question or not?"
Melinda had forgotten there was a kid, let alone her question. "I-- uh, I don't know what..."
"They didn't have no boyfriends," Janice told the young woman bluntly and with stunning lack of concern for grammar. "Well, Gabrielle did have a husband, but one of Xena's old enemies killed him the morning after the wedding. Stuck a sword in him and left Gabrielle cryin' in the Warrior Princess's arms."
"Janice," Melinda objected sharply as she saw the young woman-- and several behind her also waiting for Melinda's autograph-- blanche. "You stop scaring these children."
Covington flushed. "Aw, hell, Mel..."
"Melinda, who is this-- this disreputable woman," Justin Haggerty broke in, moving to stand behind Melinda's chair, his stance both protective and proprietary.
Janice bristled at the tone and his proximity to Melinda. "Who died and made you hall monitor, buster?"
"I'm Justin Haggerty, Dean of Arts and Sciences here at UK, and an old and, dare I say, very close friend of Miss Pappas. Now, who exactly are you?"
"That's none of yer damn'..."
"Justin," Melinda's slightly hysterical tone silenced them both, "this... this is Dr. Janice Covington, the discoverer of the Xena Scrolls."
The man's face was a study in disbelief. He'd heard Melinda speak with such awe and respect for the absent Dr. Covington, and this blonde ruffian in men's clothing fit none of his mental images of the brilliant, hard-working archaeologist who Melinda so obviously idolized.
"You're Janice Covington?"
"Yeah, I am," Janice sneered. "But my friends call me Mad Dog."
"Janice," Melinda squeaked, "please..."
Haggerty abruptly noticed the gape-mouthed group of lecture attendees who were avidly watching the face-off between himself and Dr. Covington. "I think Miss Pappas has signed all the copies she can for this evening," he announced, his tone struggling for equanimity and savoir-faire. With a disgusted snort, Janice swung on her heel and strode over to the mural where she pretended a vast interest in the mythological portrayal of Kentucky's heritage. She lit her another cigar automatically and the ushers, hanging around to lock the doors after the lecture and book signing, immediately pounced on her.
A few of the goggle-eyed youngsters in line protested the ending of autographing, so Melinda did manage a few more signatures, but her eyes hardly left the booted, be-jacketed figure on the other side of the foyer. At last, they were all taken care of, and Justin helped a weary, almost dazed Melinda to her feet.
"I'll drive you to your hotel," Justin made the offer sound more like an order.
"That-- that'd be real nice of you," Melinda agreed, her eyes seeking the now missing silhouette of the archaeologist.
"I'll fetch the car while you tell Dr. Covington goodbye."
Covington had moved outside to lean against one of the rounded columns supporting the front portico and smoke in peace. She turned as she felt more than heard Melinda's approach across the marble floor. Melinda's walk was something Covington had memorized early on, and she'd sworn she'd caught glimpses of it on streets in London, Athens, Istanbul, but she knew now as she watched the long, slinky, feline swing of it coming toward her that she'd been deceiving herself. There was only one person in the world who walked like that. At least, only one in this present world.
"Justin's gone for the car," the tall Southerner glanced back over her shoulder then focused her myopic gaze at the middle of the rather deserted street which ran in front of Memorial Hall.
"Good for him," Covington muttered.
Melinda clasped her hands in front of her in a prim, nervous gesture. Her heart pounded at Janice's nearness, but she was determined she wouldn't show it. "What are you doing here, Janice?" she asked as casually as if she'd been inquiring about the weather.
Covington took a last, long drag off her cigar and flicked it into the azaleas below the portico, exhaling a ribbon of smoke into the sticky spring night. "I just got back to the States. I heard you'd gotten the translation finished and that you were touring the country with the book," she shrugged. "I guess I wanted to hear what you had to say."
"Have you read the book?" Melinda felt compelled to ask, her eyes moving to Janice's remote profile.
The archaeologist thrust out her bottom lip, then sucked it back in. "Yep."
"And what did you think?"
Green eyes flashed at blue for split second then slipped away. "I think you bent over backwards to make Gabrielle as much a hero as Xena."
"She was a hero," Melinda's backbone stiffened instantly. "She stuck with Xena through all those terrible times..."
"She tagged along where she wasn't wanted," Janice interrupted. "She attached herself to Xena like a limpet and dragged the Warrior Princess into all sorts of feather-brained..."
"She loved her," Melinda growled, tone low, unaccented, and truly angry. "When no one else in the world-- not even her own mother-- could muster an ounce of sympathy, or belief, or compassion, Gabrielle loved her."
"That doesn't make her a hero, Mel," Janice objected. "It might even have been a mistake-- mistaking hero-worship for love."
"There was no mistake." Janice heard the note of near contempt in Melinda's voice. "She knew Xena better than anyone. She understood the darkness and the rage in Xena. The latter scrolls aren't those of some village girl hero-worshipping the warrior..."
"Oh, I grant Gabrielle grew up during her time with Xena. In fact, I don't think she was all that dumb to begin with. It made a good scam."
Melinda's expression held dazed confusion. "What on earth are you talkin' about?"
Covington shrugged. "I'm saying Gabrielle was no stupid farm girl. She was more of an... opportunist."
"What do you mean by that?!"
"She loved Xena because Xena offered her a way outa Podunk Poteidaea."
Melinda felt the tears at the back of her throat. "That's not true, Janice. You know it's not true," her voice thickened. "She told you Gabrielle was the best friend anyone could ever have."
That Covington couldn't argue with. Xena had said exactly that in the corridor outside Ares' tomb. The blonde felt again the strong grip on her elbow-- Mel's hand guided by Xena's spirit-- the slight shake to emphasize the point, and the almost physical touch of those extraordinarily blue eyes. Green eyes unwillingly lifted to those same blue orbs and found them full of tears.
"Oh, geez," Covington groaned and turned away, then all the way around to face Melinda again. "Don't cry, Mel" she pleaded, sounding younger than her years. "Look, you asked me what I thought and I'm tellin' ya. You know I can't stand it when you cry."
Melinda sniffled, trying to hold back the tears and failing miserably. Small, calloused hands moved into her peripheral vision and gently lifted away her glasses. One of the same hands pressed a smooth white handkerchief into her palm, then lifted her hand to her face.
"Please don't cry," Janice asked again, her voice low and gentle, her hand dropping to cradle Melinda's cheek.
"Janice," Melinda suddenly sobbed out, "why did you leave me? And why have you come back now, now of all times?"
The question was one that throbbed in Janice's blood day and night, but hearing it from this woman made any answers she'd composed on the long flight home from Europe and the longer drive to Lexington disappear. The silence stretched to the breaking point and Janice actually drew breath to answer, when, in a perfect example of horrible timing, Justin Haggerty pulled up to the curb at the end of the long walk before them and swung out of the car.
"Melinda?" he called, moving around the vehicle.
Janice fixed a murderous stare on the academic. "I'm gonna..."
Melinda turned and fled, down the azalea lined walk and into the opened car door Justin held.
"Mel!" Covington called after her, but it was too late. Haggerty had closed the car door and, with a triumphant look at the archaeologist, got in himself and drove off into the Southern night.
"Damn it to hell!" cursed Covington, jerking off her battered hat and slamming it to the ground. "Why can't I just tell her?"
Melinda had obviously been preparing for bed before she answered the knock. She wore a powder blue satin robe, which she held tightly closed as she opened the hotel room door, and her long, dark hair spilled loose over her shoulders. Swept with vivid memories at the sight, Covington wondered somewhat hysterically why she hadn't waited til morning.
"Janice," Melinda made a small, helpless gesture that revealed the hairbrush in her other hand.
"May I come in?"
"Yes, yes, of course." The tall brunette stepped back, allowing the archaeologist to enter, then, locking the door behind her, followed Janice into the suite.
Though only one room, the designers had laid out two very distinct areas: a sitting room with a davenport and wing back chair and a boudoir with vanity, dresser, and bed. It was all decorated in French Louis XIV style.
"Nice digs," Covington tossed off, rolling her eyes at Melinda.
"Please sit down," Melinda's etiquette didn't fail her. "I was just..." Again the ineffectual gesture with the hairbrush.
"Don't let me interrupt," Janice shrugged and flopped down on the sofa, eyeing the lovely, midnight dark tendrils clinging to the robe. She recalled with almost painful clarity how much she'd always enjoyed watching Melinda brush out her hair. The rhythmic strokes and the soothing sound of it had fueled many fantasies, but had also lulled her to peaceful sleep many nights in Greece.
Melinda set the brush carefully on the vanity and turned, twining her fingers before her in a gesture Covington recognized as severe agitation.
"Can I get you a drink or something?" Melinda asked, her eyes skimming across Janice's composed, neutral expression before retreating.
"Sit down," Covington requested evenly, "and stop with the cotillion manners."
"I can't help having manners," Mel retorted, seating herself primly on the vanity stool, the farthest seat, other than the bed, from Janice.
Silence spooled out between them as Melinda looked hard at nothing and Janice looked hard at Melinda.
"Why are you here, Janice?" Melinda finally broke the tension as Covington had known or at least hoped she would.
Covington reached into the breast pocket of her jacket and retrieved the black-framed glasses she had lifted from Melinda's face two hours before.
"You ran off without your glasses," she explained in that same non-committal tone she had used earlier.
Melinda made no move to take them, for once enjoying the nearsightedness that usually made her feel so incompetent. This way Janice was a blur of brown and khaki and those piercing green eyes didn't reach her at all.
"That doesn't explain what you're doin' in Lexington," she said, shooting for an offhanded voice. "Unless you've had those in your pocket since you dumped me onto that boat in Corinth and disappeared."
"I was never good at morning-afters, sweetheart," Covington commented flippantly.
Melinda's expression tightened. "I guess there are a lot of things you're not good at, Dr. Covington. Like keeping promises and honoring commitments."
Covington bent her head, accepting the barbs, but reached up and removed her fedora, revealing close-cropped red-blonde curls. From the inner hatband, she extracted an envelope and stood to walk it over to Melinda. With a steady hand, Janice offered Mel the envelope and the glasses.
Glasses firmly in place, Melinda shot her a questioning look, but opened the stained, tattered envelope. Inside a folded scrap of notebook paper held a small cache of rose petals and a lock of ebony hair tied with a scrap of pink ribbon. Written across the paper in a hand Melinda recognized as her own was a single sentence: "There's real coffee in the cupboard, and the latest set of translations is on the top of the tallest pile on that disaster you call a desk." It was signed, "Yours, Melinda."
"I found myself looking at that a lot, the last year," the red-head's voice held none of its usual bravado, "and praying that those last two words could be true."
Covington caught the fragile paper as it began to shake and fitted it carefully back into the envelope. Melinda's lovely face contorted with the emotion she struggled to hold inside, but one long hand came up to press against her mouth and, with a sob, her facade crumbled. Janice was on her knees before her immediately, pulling the taller woman into the safe, leather-clad haven of her arms.
"It's okay," a voice choked with its own burden of tears husked. "I got ya."
"Why?" Melinda demanded, balling her fists and pounding Janice's shoulders. "Why?" she asked more loudly, her blows harder. "Why did you leave me?"
Janice caught the clenched hands and brought them to her own tearstained face. "Because I couldn't risk it. I couldn't risk you in what I knew was going to happen."
"You didn't trust me."
"I did, Meli," Janice kissed the milky-smooth back of one fist. "I swear I did. I gave you the scrolls. They were so important to me, more important than my own life. But you-- you were the most important thing, and I didn't trust myself. I wasn't sure I could protect you, and I," Covington bit back a deep sob, "I wasn't sure I could keep going if anything happened to you."
Melinda answered that sob with her own and the two clung together, both feeling the same deep love that bound them and the same deep fear that had driven them apart. Janice cried along with Melinda, silent tears that tracked down her face and splashed onto the leather of her jacket. Her hands rested on Melinda's bent head, stroking the dark hair that teased her nose with its familiar fragrance.
"I thought I'd go crazy without you," Melinda wept aloud, against Janice's shoulder.
"I'm here, Baby," Janice whispered, kissing the part dividing the raven head. "I'm right here now."
Melinda turned her face up blindly, seeking Janice's lips and they melded to hers with the searing heat that had drawn them together in the first place and had tracked its way through their parallel dreams during their entire lives. The tinder of their mutual passion took light in the blink of an eye and they were entwined in a crushing embrace, hands clutching, mouths battling, hearts striving for the same rhythm. The bed seemed suddenly very far away.
Forcing them both awkwardly upright, Covington began to back toward the bed, never breaking the kiss. In a few steps, they stood beside the huge hotel mattress. Janice's hands made short work of the knot holding Melinda's robe closed and the outer garment slid off broad shoulders, becoming a puddle of sky at her feet. Janice drew back a moment, looking at Melinda. Disheveled raven hair, bruised ruby lips, the straight fall of white silk that was her gown, and eyes that held the secrets of all womankind, she was a goddess, and she made the rough-mannered archaeologist a willing suppliant at her altar.
"Melinda," Janice whispered the name like a vow. "Baby.... I love you. I never stopped loving you for one minute we were apart."
"I love you, too," Melinda answered, her voice that low, husky purr that made Janice's bones turn to water. "I always have and I always will."
Covington reached out one hand and touched the thin silk strap that lay along Melinda's shoulder, her eyes holding the blue ones facing her.
"May I?" she asked, as she had asked the first time.
Melinda felt her breath leave her just as it had then. "Yesss," she breathed, head dropping back already, leaving the long, bare expanse of her neck exposed. She swallowed hard and Janice's mouth was there to ride the movement under the skin, sucking lightly, breathing goosebumps onto the hollows left by collarbones. "Please," Melinda asked, her body arching against the hands that had met in the small of her back and held her still for that questing mouth.
"Please what?" Janice whispered back, teasing the lace décolletage of the white silk nightgown with her mouth. Like a bride, my bride, Covington's mind decided.
"You know," Melinda protested, her voice raspy with arousal. She raised her head, dark hair spilling around her throat, tickling her lover's face.
Covington's chuckle was wicked and low. "Yes, I do know."
She pulled the lacy stuff of the nightgown away, revealing the deep pink nipple below it and looked up into Melinda's softened face. Locking her eyes on those deep sapphire ones before her, Janice bent to lave the aureole with her hot tongue. A sound, somewhere between a cry and a moan, wrung itself from Melinda's throat and her knees gave way. Covington caught them both and lowered them more slowly to the mattress.
"Jan..." Melinda choked, pulling her lover on top of her, into her.
"Just a sec, Baby," Janice was struggling to remove her jacket. Melinda's hands beat hers to the buttons of the khaki shirt, but the dark haired beauty didn't waste time unbuttoning them. She ripped the shirt open with one twisting jerk and covered Janice's aching breasts with her palms. Covington was much too busy to grieve for the shirt, but she felt a decided jolt in her loins at the thought of Melinda's unconscious strength. Bet Gabrielle lost a lot of shirts, came the vagrant thought through the passion-clouded passages of the archaeologist's mind. Then Melinda captured one stiffened nipple between thumb and finger and all rational thought fled.
"Melinda," Covington groaned. "Wait..."
"I have," Melinda whispered, leveraging them both over, so that Covington was suddenly flat on her back. A wicked smile bloomed on Melinda's dark-angel visage. "I've waited for far, far too long..."
Janice's mouth went dry as she saw her innocent, inexperienced lover toss away all caution and come to her like a fantasy made reality. Now Melinda's mouth sought and devoured, teased and tasted; now Melinda's hands found trembling muscles and smoothed them with slow caresses; now Melinda kissed and touched and explored the compact, athletic body in which Janice took such pride. And every movement, every brush of fingers along satiny skin, told Janice that Melinda loved her with a depth neither had ever thought themselves capable of. It frightened Covington for a moment, when Melinda lifted herself away, moved lower in the bed between slim, spread legs, but the blue eyes lifted and a loving smile answered the fear.
"I love you, Janice," Melinda promised, and she pressed a kiss to the golden curls at the apex of Janice's thighs.
A sigh, a stretch, and Janice surrendered to the hot, wet velvet of Melinda's tongue entering her with tender skill.
Later, much, much later, Melinda's husky voice, drenched in Southern indolence and Carolina twang, asked, "What on earth happened to your hair?"