Out of India

By Enginerd


Prologue

India!

Melinda Pappas stared at her translation with amazement. Pushing up her glasses, she glanced over the old parchment again. India. Janice had never mentioned their ancestors had traveled to India, she thought with excitement then looked around their empty tent with a disappointed frown. She would have to wait to share this revelation. But Mel's frown was quickly replaced with a satisfied grin, knowing the archeologist's eyes were going to sparkle with joy, like they did whenever they discovered something about the Warrior Princess and the Bard from Poteidaia.

The translator took great pleasure in helping to bring that joy to her friend. She wished she could do that more often. But Dr. Covington had the worst luck when it came to the scrolls, Mel thought sadly, reverently rolling up the ancient parchment Janice's ancestor wrote upon. It was sadly only one of the two scrolls they were recently able to recover after that man, Lt. Jacques S'Er, A.K.A., Jack Klienman, the brush salesman from New Jersey, walked off with them after everything they had gone through.

Mel had wanted to cry. . . and did.

She had only been part of the search for the scrolls for less than a day - and they found them! One might have considered that not enough time to be that emotionally invested as to cry at their loss. But Mel knew how much they meant to Janice, whose passion and enthusiasm drew her in, making her care so much that she wanted to cry. Well, that and all that yelling. She shook her head with a wince, vividly recalling how that passion erupted when Janice realized the scrolls were gone.

The Southerner thought the angry young woman would have a stroke with the way she carried on and on. It wasn't surprising, considering how much of their lives Janice and her father had invested in the search. But what did surprise her was how quickly Janice blamed her for the mix-up. Even after having helped Janice find them, Janice had the nerve to accuse her of planning their "accidental" disappearance with her "idiot brush salesman boyfriend" !!

Never had Mel felt so hurt, guilty, and so darned infuriated - all at the same time!

Provoking so many strong and conflicting emotions seemed to be a talent uniquely Janice's, Mel considered with a weary sigh. Nearly a year later and Janice was still frustrating the Southerner with their uneasy friendship. The Southern lady thought things would be much easier once she had proven herself serious, competent, and willing to work hard. In some ways, they were. Janice's attitude had definitely improved. She was no longer completely obnoxious and had fewer eruptions, which had to be healthier for her, Mel considered. And Janice even sought her opinion now, giving the Southern lady an incredible sense of pride in her professional accomplishment as well as happiness with a significant personal one . . . the archeologist trusted a rare few, which at times, included her.

Yet, at times, like now, all the hard-fought advances in their friendship seemed to disappear. Janice would, at unpredictable times, completely withdraw. Not just physically, like when she would occasionally disappear during the day or even all night. But even when she was standing right next to her, the archeologist would seem miles away. And not knowing why really hurt, Melinda admitted to herself, desperately wanting to help her friend with whatever was obviously troubling her.

But there was hope, Melinda thought, firmly believing if they could get through the brush-salesman incident, they could get through anything. Melinda recalled that difficult test of both of them . . . .

After bearing the brunt of Janice's tantrum, without crying . . . much, she finally told the archeologist in the calmest voice she could possibly muster that the only thing she had ever wanted to do was to help and she was very sorry that Janice couldn't see the truth through her anger because they would have made a great team . . . just like their ancestors.

After wishing Janice well, the distraught Southerner returned to her tent and packed for her trip home. Her misery transformed into anger as she thought how the insensitive and downright mean woman had misjudged her terribly. Admittedly, she was incredibly embarrassed she had acted like a silly schoolgirl with that brush salesman. But the confident and worldly Dr. Covington would never understand. Growing up as a tall, gangly girl with glasses, bookish and clumsy, she never felt she fit in - even with her familyís money that opened many social doors. She couldnít help but be flattered when someone really interesting actually made a fuss, not because of her family, or her money . . . but over just her, even if he only was from New Jersey, she thought angrily.

"How dare she accuse me of PLOTTING against her!" Mel thought with a growl. She had just met her and even helped her find those blasted scrolls!

Taking a deep, calming breath, Mel attempted to look on the bright side of this whole ordeal. It was fortunate for her to quickly find out what kind of woman Janice Covington really was, before she had her feelings hurt any more or wasted anymore time with that . . . that . . . woman!

"Mel?"

She jumped with surprise when that woman entered her tent

"Polite people knock, Dr. Covington," Mel snapped, returned to her packing, and winced, trying to ignore the fact that one couldnít actually knock on a tent flap and the jumble of emotions provoked by that . . . that woman.

"I . . . ," Janice said, looking back at the tent flap with confusion.

"Are you here to continue yelling at me about the scrolls, Dr. Covington? If so, please know that it is entirely unnecessary. You have already made your opinion on the subject loud and clear, even to this simple-minded, spoiled Southern child," Mel said briskly, focusing on her luggage.

Janice winced, her eyes dropping guiltily to the ground.

"You are wrong, Mel. My anger didn't blind me . . . ," Janice said softly, causing Mel to swiftly turn, unable to ignore that incredibly wrong woman.

Mel's sharp response was forgotten when she looked at Janice. With her hat literally in hand, the archeologist stood with her shoulders and head drooped, as one might expect if she were apologizing. But the words were still antagonistic, Mel thought with frustration.

"It was pride. My pride made me want to blame you for my stupid mistake. The bags were mixed up because, I . . . I wasn't paying attention," Janice admitted with difficulty, staring at the ground as Mel stared at her, stunned.

Mel strongly suspected Janice didn't apologize often.

"After all the work Harry and I did, after all those years of looking, I actually let a goddamn brush salesman walk off with the most import . . !!" Janice said with growing anger that was nearly forgotten when she looked up, into sympathetic blue eyes. After an unsettling moment, the archeologist's gaze fell as she sighed. "I shouldn't have blamed you. Iím s . . . sorry. I fucked up."

Mel was certain Janice didn't apologize often, making her more confused.

Janice glanced over to Melinda's bags, then returned her eyes sadly to the floor. "For what itís worth, I think you have what it takes. In a day, youíve managed to help find the scrolls, face Nazis, fight the God of War, and survive the most horrible of all . . . me," Janice said with an attempted smile that almost appeared on her face. "I'd give you a letter of recommendation," Janice said. "But that would do you more harm than good," she continued honestly. "All I can do is wish you luck. But I donít think youíll need it. Goodbye, Mel."

With a defeated sigh, Janice placed her hat on her head and left the tent.

As Mel carefully placed the scroll in its pouch and returned it to the foot locker by the small table in their tent, she shook her head with a frown, recalling how disconcerting it was to hear Janice Covington say goodbye and watch her walk away.

"You're wrong, Dr. Covington!" Melinda blurted when she regained her wits and scrambled to the tent opening. The archeologist stopped in her tracks with a grimace and turned to face whatever the tall woman had to say. She at least owed Mel that much.

Mel pushed up her glasses.

"I think weíll need all the luck we can get . . . especially if weíre going to recover those scrolls," Mel said with forced confidence and held her breath. She waited nervously for the surprised archeologist to decide their fate. If Janice told her to go home right then and there, she would have been crushed . . . and she would have gone home.

It felt like an eternity before the conflicted archeologist responded.

"You still want to help?" Janice finally asked with amazement.

"Well, you need my help, d -donít you . . . partner??" Mel asked, struggling to maintain an air of confidence as she awkwardly put her hands on her hips and raised her eyebrow to help accentuate that confidence, which crumbled each second Janice failed to respond and just blinked at her.

"Yeah," Janice finally came to that uncomfortable conclusion, her eyes dropping to the ground thoughtfully. "I need your help," she offered honestly, looking up into Melís broad and relieved smile.

". . . and a really stiff drink," Janice grumbled, diverting her gaze from the unsettling smile that faded.

"But we can't stand here wasting any more time chit-chatting. We need to get moving if we're going to catch that idiot," Janice announced and marched off with purpose. Noticing the uncertain Southerner wasn't following, she stopped and impatiently asked.

"Well? What are you waiting for? An engraved invitation??"

Mel shook her head and chuckled softly, waiting.


Chapter 1 - Mail Call

The old truck returned to camp, bouncing violently as it kicked up a large cloud of dust from the dry, rocky road. The young man held on desperately and wondered which part of the truck would fall off this time. He straightened himself and his turban and glanced at Dr. Covington, who didn't seem to notice the bumps.

As soon as the truck stopped, Raj eagerly jumped out. Looking at the letter in his hand then the recipient's tent, he smiled.

"Miss Pappas! Miss Pappas!!" He called out, waving the letter.

"Raj, what on Earth?" Melinda said with alarm as she emerged from the tent. She pushed her glasses up and immediately spotted Janice Covington, who was getting out of the truck. They looked at each other a moment before Janice curtly nodded to the Southern lady, who awkwardly responded with a hesitant wave as the archeologist turned. As Janice walked to the back to unload the recently purchased supplies, Melinda eyed the guarded woman with a furrowed brow.

She was acting like a stranger and the Southerner didn't like that one bit!

"Miss Pappas," Raj said, standing in front of her, slightly winded. "There's another letter for you!!" He blurted eagerly and held out the envelope.

"Good Lord, Raj. You gave me a fright with all that yelling," she complained, then felt bad seeing his frown. "Though, I do appreciate you taking such good care of my mail for me," she said in consolation as she took the letter. "Thank you," she said with a smile.

The young man beamed. "It is my honor, Miss Pappas. I'll take great care not to scare you next time," he vowed.

"I would appreciate that, thank you," she said, shaking her head with amusement as she finally looked down at the envelope and noted the return address. She winced.

It was the thirteenth letter in the past four months from Mr. Frank Coleman, Esquire. She wished the successful Southern lawyer would actually read the letters she wrote back to him. Surely, if he had read even one, he'd know she was not interested in returning to South Carolina to get married and start a family, as he had begun to suggest in his letters.

"Raj! Get your ass over here and earn your pay! The Goddamn supplies aren't going to unload themselves!" Janice barked, startling the young man, who ran back to the truck and picked up a box.

"Janice Covington!! Would you PLEASE watch your language!" Melinda scolded her loudly, getting snickers from a few workers, who wisely scattered when they saw their boss's unamused green eyes boring into them.

Electing not to respond to the tall woman, Janice muttered to herself as she pulled a small crate off the back of the truck. "Ah fuck," she wearily groaned under her breath when she heard purposeful footsteps approach. Melinda Pappas was THE most tenacious person she had ever met.

"What is with you?!?" Mel asked with annoyance, following behind the foul mood wearing a dusty fedora.

"I guess I just got up on the wrong side of the cot this morning, Mel," Janice said as she entered the supply tent and put the crate of canned goods down heavily on top of another.

"Well then, perhaps you should sleep in my cot from now on, Dr. Covington," Mel snapped, following behind the archeologist, whose gait hesitated briefly as she glanced at Mel, truly amazed by what came out of that woman's mouth at times. "Then you could get up on the other side and spare us all from this horrible FUNK you've been subjecting us to!" Mel continued.

"Funk?!? Why, Miss Pappas, such language!" Janice responded with feigned shock, making Mel groan.

Returning to the truck, Janice eyed Raj, who quickly hauled another box to the supply tent. As she reached for a box, Mel gently stopped her. Janice looked at the hand on her forearm, then slowly up into suddenly uncertain eyes. When Janice's brow furrowed, the Southerner awkwardly retracted her hand.

"Please. Tell me what's wrong, Janice. Maybe I can help," she offered sincerely.

"You want to help?!?" Janice snapped incredulously, surprising Mel.

"Of course, Janice. I'm your friend!" As Mel's eyes earnestly searched hers for understanding, Janice's anger melted into weary frustration.

"Then keep translating," Janice said softly to her friend, dropping her gaze. "That is a big help," she said and took another box to the tent.

Mel watched Janice disappear into the supply tent with mixed emotions. Not long ago, the Southerner would have been very pleased to receive Janice's casual complement and professional respect. Now, it wasn't nearly enough.

She wanted more.

***

"Ah, Dr. Covington!" Raj said, sitting down next to his friend by her fire after dinner and a long, unfortunately unproductive day digging in the dirt. "I wish to speak with you."

"And may I grant your wish, Raj," Janice said with amusement, always enjoying his polite manor and his melodic voice. She used to think an Indian's accent was the warmest she had ever heard. That was until she had heard Mel's Southern lilt, which could also be, depending on Mel's mood, as grating as nails on a chalkboard. She glanced over to the Southerner, who now quietly stared into their fire and sipped her coffee. The normally chatty translator became quiet and thoughtful every time she got a letter from home, the archeologist noted.

"I . . . I wanted to apologize for upsetting you today, for my delay in helping you unload the truck like I had promised."

"Raj," Janice said with a sigh. "I shouldn't have snapped at you," she said and added dryly "besides, the boxes weren't going anywhere."

"No, indeed," Raj said, chuckling.

Mel listened with an odd detachment as she sipped her coffee. She knew Janice considered Raj a good friend. Janice was usually brisk with the workers, keeping her distance, even when she joined them in a card game. Raj and Peter were treated a bit differently. Occasionally, Mel had seen Janice lower her guard around them. But even then, it was always there, at the ready, she thought with a sigh.

Eyeing the two, who fell into comfortable small talk, she wondered if she could coax a story from them on how they met. When Raj just showed up at their camp a month ago, Janice welcomed him, almost like family. He was a pleasant man, though hard to chat with, she thought, like most of the workers in this latest group. Though when she first got there, the men would chat up a storm with her. All that attention was a little overwhelming, and in a few disturbing cases, unwanted. But that had changed as people moved on and new people came to work for Janice. This group seemed very shy around her, which she didn't mind too much. On the whole, the workers were surprisingly polite.

"Janice?"

Janice looked at Mel questioningly.

"Hey Doc, you interested in losing some money?" Simon interrupted with a sly grin, walking up to her fire, shaking the dice in his hand, making them click together invitingly. He felt lucky tonight and craps was his game.

Seeing Janice's interest obviously piqued but her attention torn between the two of them, Mel smiled in understanding.

"Never mind. Go have fun," Mel said, shooing her with a friendly wave before Janice could ask if she was sure.

While the Southern Baptist didn't condone gambling, she knew it would be pointless to mention it to anyone in the camp. It was what they did for fun. And it was another thing she and Janice would never share, she considered with a sigh.

Janice smirked and focused on her prey with a gaze and smile that told Mel he didn't stand a chance.

"The question is, are you?" Janice asked Simon as she got up. He snorted, dismissing her confidence that she could also beat him at craps as thoroughly as she had in poker.

Simon and Janice joined the group by the side of the supply tent, which conveniently served as the back drop to their game. As she was given the dice, Janice glanced towards the Southerner, who got up with a heavy sigh and returned to their tent.

She must really miss him, Janice concluded, then noticed she wasn't the only one watching Mel. Simon was openly leering at Mel's shapely backside as she ducked through the tent opening. The dice hit him squarely on the forehead.

"Hey!" He looked angrily at the archeologist as he absently rubbed over the small sting.

"Snake eyes!" One worker called out, glancing at the dice on the ground. He cringed at the tension in the air, then glared at the man next to him whose elbow suddenly jabbed him in the ribs.

"You know the rules, Simon," she said.

"I was just. . . "

"Son," the oldest worker, Peter, cautioned him as he picked up the dice from the ground.

". . . breaking the rules," Janice finished with a deadly serious gaze.

"Come on, Doc. I was just looking at her ass," Simon said with an uneasy chuckle, trying to diffuse the tension.

The other workers grew more uncomfortable, noticing her eyes narrow. All were well aware of Dr. Covington's protective streak when it came to the tall translator and her swift firing of workers who disregarded her rules.

The elderly Greek rolled his eyes, knowing this fool just sealed his fate and became one of a dozen to lose their job. Peter was the only worker who had been there from the beginning and was cooking in camp when that unfortunate incident happened prompting Janice to establish her "rules."

It was only a month after Miss Pappas had joined Dr. Covington when Janice hired a vagrant who had wandered into camp. Peter knew Janice had hired him out of sympathy, though she had told everyone she just needed an extra pair of hands to move dirt. Unfortunately, when he wasn't working, the man followed the tall Southerner around camp, stealing glances. He also sat close to her during meals, though he wasn't one for conversation - in spite of the Southerner's inherent skill at small talk. Mel quickly grew uncomfortable but never complained.

However, the archeologist's discomfort prompted her to take Ralph for a long walk. Janice bluntly explained a few things to him, like to "cut that crap out or you'll be tossed out on your jobless ass." However, he didn't take her warnings seriously, or just didn't care.

The next day, Ralph didn't show up with the rest of the workers at the ruin. Instead, he had followed the unsuspecting Southerner to a stream, which she had thought was perfect for bathing - one of the few luxuries she had sorely missed and snuck out to indulge in.

Hiding behind bushes down wind, like an animal on the prowl, he hungrily watched the tall woman undress. When the last article of clothing was removed, he could no longer just watch. Quietly, he emerged, focusing on the nude, happily humming woman, who removed her almost forgotten glasses and knelt down to place them on the pile of neatly folded clothes.

Hearing Janice urgently calling for her, the startled Southerner quickly turned and spotted the man lunging for her. Before she could register what was happening, a khaki blur tackled the man. During the short, explosive altercation that landed the stalker in the stream, the very frightened Southerner, nervously scrambled for her clothes and slipped, hitting her head on a rock.

Peter remembered Ralph being escorted from camp with drenched clothing, walking hunched over with a pronounced limp, cradling his battered face with the hand that wasn't broken. The old Greek knew the man was lucky Dr. Covington was busy tending to Miss Pappas or her workers would have also had experience in burying remains, in addition to excavating them.

Since that day, the "rules" were created and workers could either follow them or lose their jobs.

"You of all people gotta admit, Doc, that's a mighty fine ass . . . Ugh." Simon's smirk disappeared when his back suddenly crashed against the ground and the wind was knocked out of him. Janice had pinned him with a knife at his throat.

"I've told you the rules, Simon. But they apparently didn't get through that thick skull of yours," Janice growled. No one ever questioned whether the temperamental Dr. Covington could use a knife on a man. Simon swallowed uneasily.

"I told you - don't touch, don't gawk, and don't talk about her like she's a piece of meat. It was that simple . . . Simon," she sneered, standing up, glancing at the other workers who stared at the ground. Simon rubbed his throat as she tossed him a few coins, that hit his chest and fell to the ground. "What I owe you for the week. Now get the fuck out of my camp," she said with disgust.

"But . . . " he said with disbelief.

"Son, don't argue. Take the money and go," Peter said. Simon scrambled to collect the money then glared at the archeologist.

"Go, before you're unable to," Janice said coldly. The other workers uncomfortably glanced at each other.

"Just like a dog with a bone. Only you're never going to be able to enjoy it, are you?" Simon spat with venom and marched to his tent. The workers cringed, expecting the archeologist to launch herself at the stupid man, then looked at each other with surprise when she didn't.

"Raj?" She said calmly, still eyeing the fired worker, who entered his tent but not before shooting another deadly glare at her.

"Yes?" He asked his angry friend.

"Would you please keep an eye on him? I don't want him to get lost on the way out of camp."

"It would be my pleasure, Doctor Covington," he said tightly as he walked towards Simon's tent.

The men quickly scattered and retired to their tents, knowing the archeologist was not someone they wanted to be around at the moment. Peter watched Janice, who still radiated anger as she quietly returned to the smoldering campfire and knelt down to toss a few handfuls of dirt on the embers to smother them.

"I'm making progress with my "frustratin' Yankee temper," don't you think?" Janice suddenly asked the older man, who chuckled a bit before sighing.

"You know, this isn't a good situation," he said cautiously.

"Yeah," she said as she stood and brushing off her dirty hands on her khaki trousers. "It will take longer to finish up without him. Good thing we're almost done with this lousy site." She sighed and rubbed the back of her neck which was very tense.

The older man opened his mouth to clarify what he meant, but she quicky stopped him. "Good night, old man."

"Good night, little one," he said softly.


Chapter 2 - Dear John

Janice stood outside her tent a moment, praying Mel wasn't going to want to chat. Whose brilliant idea was it to share a goddamn tent? She silently grumbled to herself, knowing damn-well it was hers. Damn it.

Mel looked up from her small desk with surprise, stopping her writing. "Hey," Mel said, pushing up her glasses as Janice entered. "Beat him already?"

"Yeah," Janice said absently, automatically tossing her hat on her cot. When she heard it hit the ground, she eyed her cot with surprise. It had been turned so the foot stuck out into the center of the tent. It was in the way of everything, but now she could get out on either side. A fifty-fifty chance of it being the "right" side, Janice thought with a soft chuckle at the Southerner's subtle jab.

"Odd, odd woman," Janice mumbled with amusement as she retrieved her hat.

Mel smiled with relief, not sure her joke would be well received by the unpredictable archeologist. "Oh don't be so hard on yourself, Janice. I find your oddness rather endearing," Mel countered with satisfaction and returned to her writing.

Janice shook her head with a smirk. Eyeing the Southerner busy at her task, she awkwardly asked "Are you translating the scroll?"

"No, I'm writing a letter. I've finished the translation," Mel said with a smile, knowing Janice would be eager to read it.

"Oh," Janice said weakly and fell silent as she took her boots off. Mel frowned.

"Janice?"

"Hmm?"

"Are you all right?"

"Sure, why?"

"Oh . . . I guess you just seem . . . tired," Mel said, knowing the direct approach didn't usually work well with the defensive archeologist, who was obviously bothered by something.

"Well it is bedtime," Janice said, thinking that an odd comment. But then, Mel made lots of odd comments. That's what made her interesting, Janice considered.

"Uh, may I ask you something personal?" Mel said uneasily, wanting desperately for Janice to say more than two sentences. She had missed the evenings they had started to share when the two of them would work and talk late into the night, or just talk before they fell asleep. But over the past few months, those evenings were just fond memories.

Janice looked at her warily. "What?"

"Actually, it's more like . . . personal advice," Mel said cautiously, planning to tread on personally uncomfortable ground. But she had to. Besides wanting conversation, she really wanted to know what Janice thought . . . .

Janice snorted, shaking her head.

"What??"

"I know about archeology, Mel. Just remember that when you ask your question. Go ahead, shoot," Janice said, laying back in the cot which creaked under the shifting weight.

Mel's brow furrowed. At least Janice didn't say "no," she considered with cautious optimism.

"Well, I've been getting a number of letters from Frank," Mel said, looking at the latest one on the desk.

Why couldn't Mel just ask about archeology? Or sports, Janice wondered. Sports were always good. Well, except that Mel didn't care much about them.

"And, well, he continues to write . . . ," she proceeded uncomfortably.

"Well you do keep writing him back," Janice responded sarcastically, shifting in her cot and fluffing the flat pillow beneath her head.

"If someone writes you, Janice, you owe them a response," Melinda said incredulously.

"Who says?!?"

"It's simply good manners," Mel explained firmly.

"It seems like a vicious cycle to me," Janice said and propped her head on her arm tucked behind her head. "First he writes, then you write, then he writes, then you write, then he . . . . "

"Fine! If you didn't want to help, you could have just said so!" Mel snapped and turned to the table with irritation.

"Mel . . . What's your question?" Janice asked, sitting up. When Mel didn't respond, Janice sighed and got out of her cot. Joining Mel at the table, she eyed the Southerner who attempted to ignore her.

"Look . . . I'll try not to be such an ass," Janice offered, drawing a suspicious gaze. "But you of all people know - it comes naturally," Janice explained with an innocent shrug, causing Mel to roll her eyes and fight the small smile that wanted to emerge. Mel had missed this playful side of her friend.

"Well, if you promise," Mel said with a deliberately dramatic sigh.

"Cross my heart, hope . . . " Janice said, starting to cross herself but her hand was suddenly intercepted.

"Don't. Please," Mel interrupted, looking at her uncomfortably as she awkwardly let go of the archeologist's hand and pushed her glasses up.

"OK," Janice said softly with an accepting nod. "So what kind of advice do you want about Frankie boy?"

Mel's brow rose at the nickname, trying to envision the stuffy Harvard graduate being referred to by his colleagues as "Frankie." She couldn't.

"Well, he's been writing . . . a lot," Mel said uncomfortably.

"So?"

"He wants . . . ," Mel said nervously and paused, thinking out how best to put it.

"You," Janice said bluntly.

"Uh . . . yes," Mel said, surprised at her friend's quick deduction.

"And?" Janice said reluctantly, strongly suspecting there was little hope now that the conversation would suddenly veer towards a much more pleasant topic, like baseball.

Mel picked the three sheets up and handed them to Janice, whose brow furrowed with incredible displeasure. She did not want to read his letter. She did not want to touch his letter.

"He has suggested marriage and children . . . repeatedly."

Suggested?!? How fucking romantic, Janice thought with a frown. She gingerly placed the letter back on the table, trusting Mel's ability to summarize. She was an incredibly accurate linguist . . . who would eventually leave, Janice reminded herself, as an unwanted ache welled up.

"How do I get him to understand I'm just not interested?" Mel asked wearily, shaking her head.

Janice blinked with surprise. "Ah . . . are you sure you're not interested?"

"I should know whether I'm interested or not, Janice."

"Maybe not right at this moment. I know there are things you want to do first and you should. But don't you think you'll want to settle down and have a family someday?"

"I would like to have children someday," Mel acknowledged with a small smile, getting an understanding nod from Janice, who wasn't surprised. Mel would be a good mom.

"Well, you could do worse than a lawyer," Janice offered as she got up and walked to her cot.

"He's not the one," Mel said with complete certainty, watching Janice, who sat on the cot, unable to look into the intense blue eyes.

"Oh. Then what's the problem? Tell him," she said simply as she started to unbutton her shirt and get ready for bed.

Mel averted her gaze. "I've tried," Mel complained, eyeing his letter. "But he doesn't seem to take the hint."

"Hint?? For God's sake, you can't hint. You've gotta be blunt," Janice said sternly, causing Mel to turn back to the archeologist, who clearly didn't understand.

"We were raised in Southern society, Janice. We are not use to being . . . ," Mel said, hesitating as she watched Janice as she removed her pants. The archeologist revealed amazingly defined leg muscles - as defined as those on the rest of her body, including her impressive back that now faced the translator after Janice removed her work shirt. Yet, among those muscles were the alluring curves of a woman. Janice was a captivating contradiction. Hard and soft. In both manner and body, Mel thought, pushing her glasses up and continuing absently with an exhale.

" . . . blunt."

Janice slipped on a large shirt, which she normally slept in. "You're in luck. I actually know about archeology and being blunt. I can help," Janice offered confidently, returning to the table and sitting across from Mel, who pushed up her glasses and eyed her curiously.

"Take dictation," Janice ordered as she crossed her arms over her chest and sat back in the chair. As she stroked her chin while feigning great concentration, Mel's eyebrow rose with amusement. Pulling out a fresh piece of paper, Mel readied her pen to record Janice's sage yet blunt words. With a nod from Mel, Janice began.

"Dear John," Janice said melodically.

"It's Frank," Melinda mentioned helpfully.

"It's supposed to be," Janice offered.

"No, his name is Frank," Mel countered with amusement.

"What the hell kind of "Dear John" letter starts with "Dear Frank"?!?"

Mel shook her head and chuckled, gazing fondly at her friend as she explained "He might not realize the letter was for him?"

"Fine, if you insist . . . Dear Frank," Janice said his name with obvious distaste. "If you are truly serious about me as you suggest, then I suggest you get off your goddamned lazy ass and provide some tangible proof," Janice said with annoyance.

"You know, he might suspect I had help with this," Mel noted thoughtfully, pushing up her glasses.

"Paraphrase," Janice countered with a dismissive wave and continued. "Sure, thirteen letters may seem like proof, but it isn't. It's just goddamn annoying," she said, surprising the Southerner with the correct number. But then, the doctor of archeology remembered lots of details, including the names of wives and children, in addition to the particulars of historical events.

"You might want to replace "goddamn" with"down right," that sounds more like you," Janice added helpfully and continued. "However, John . . . ,"

"Frank."

". . . a five-pound box of chocolate would go a long way to help you get back into my good graces. You may send it care of Dr. J. Covington," Janice said, looking at Mel who stared at her. "Mel, you're not writing. . . . " Janice noted helpfully and motioned for her to write.

"This sounds like . . . extortion," Mel said with a furrowed brow and looked at her friend.

Janice blinked innocently at her.

"And though I do love chocolate, my love cannot be bought with it," Mel added sternly.

"I know that," Janice responded with exasperation. "Chocolate was just the beginning!"

"Uh huh"

"The way I see it . . ." Janice quickly explained with enthusiasm.

"I think I can handle it from here," Mel interjected.

"You sure? I've got lots of ideas. . . ."

"No doubt. But I think I manage."

"Well, OK" Janice said with a disappointed sigh, getting up from her chair. "Just let me know if I can be of any more help," she added magnanimously, unthinkingly squeezing Mel's shoulder before returning to her cot.

The surprised Southerner glanced at her shoulder, then to Janice a moment, before attempting to focus on her letter.

Two smiles emerged.


Chapter 3 - The Translation

Just before dawn, Mel bolted upright in her cot and blurted "OH!"

"What!?!" Janice said, jumping out of her cot. Narrowly avoiding collision with the surprisingly close tent pole, which few could have accomplished in her sleepy state, she stubbed her big toe on the trunk by the table. "FUCK!" She was wide awake now.

"Oh my, are you all right?!?" Mel said anxiously, slipping on her glasses and turning on the lantern. Finding Janice hobbling around, rapidly repeating what Mel truly believed was Janice's favorite word, Mel attempted to stifle the laughter that suddenly welled up.

"I'm FINE. What the hell made you say "OH" ?" Janice barked, sitting back down on her cot gingerly massaging her stubbed toe, casting an annoyed glance at the woman who had an unusual knack for keeping her off balance.

"I finished translating the scroll!" Mel said excitedly, getting up from her cot, and opened the trunk.

"Really?!?" Janice said, smiling like a kid on Christmas. Her smile quickly disappeared. "Why didn't you say so before!" Janice added with irritation as she got up and hobbled over to her.

"I did!" Mel said, pulling out her book and presenting it to Janice, who eagerly took it.

"Did not," Janice countered as she hastily flipped through the pages with frustration, not finding the beginning of the new translation.

Mel rolled her eyes, stopped Janice's hand, and helpfully opened to the first page and pointed. "Did too."

Janice sat at the table and dove into the passage, completely forgetting their discussion. Mel shook her head. Janice could get so absorbed at times.

To Mel's surprise, Janice's excitement drained away as she read. "India," she exhaled absently and continued to read. When finished, she laughed without humor and placed the translation down on the table. After a long, thoughtful moment, Janice looked up and asked "What do you make of this?"

"Well," Mel said, curiously eyeing Janice, who was now staring at the translation. It was clear that something weighed heavily on the archeologist's mind. "Most academics would likely treat the meeting with Krishna and battle with Indrajit as simple heroic fiction. More literary-minded scholars might consider it a metaphor for the struggle between good and evil as they search for their path in. . . ."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Janice said wearily and added more firmly "What do you think about it?"

Mel smiled happily at Janice's question. "Well, we don't have much evidence to determine whether Gabrielle was prone to fictional encounters. We only have bits and pieces of Gabrielle's writings. Even this scroll wasn't complete. From what we do have, one could make a compelling case she was. . . ."

"You know, I was hoping for an answer sometime today," Janice said flatly, glancing at her watch.

"I was getting there," Mel responded with mild irritation.

"Will you be hinting at it, or will I have a shot at actually knowing you've answered?" Janice asked with amusement in her eyes.

Mel's brow rose as she eyed the archeologist. "Janice?" Mel asked patiently.

"Hmm?"

"Just so you don't get confused, I'll be blunt - I don't think it was a fictional encounter."

Janice chuckled, then nodded. "After our little encounter with Ares, I'm inclined to think almost anything is possible."

"I wish I could remember more of that . . . " Mel said sadly, having missed out on meeting her ancestor and the memory of being her battling with the God of War.

"I know," Janice said softly. "Good work, Mel."

She beamed then suddenly asked "So . . . when do we go?"

"Go?" Janice asked, startled.

"Yes. To India," Mel said enthusiastically.

"Now hold on, Mel. We have a one reference about India. One. And you want to go, because . . . ?"

"Because they were there! And because we should find out if there are any scrolls there. Maybe there's even folklore that's been recorded," Mel blurted with excitement. "Oooh, I just know there's something to be found there. I can feel it!"

Janice eyed her an uneasy moment. "Perhaps it's a fever, Mel. You have been acting odd lately," Janice said, reaching out to feel her forehead.

"I do not have a fever, Janice!" Mel said, pushing the archeologist's hand away. "And if anyone has been acting odd lately, it's been you."

"I'm not the one wanting to go to India just because of one story. One! If we go chasing every single lead, we'll be digging in a hell of a lot of dirt for nothing," Janice lectured, starting to get dressed. "Kinda like this site," she muttered with irritation.

"Your father had less than this when he started searching for evidence of Xena," Mel countered.

"And you know something? He wasted his whole goddamn life chasing hunches," Janice said tersely, surprising the Southerner, who watched Janice finish buttoning her shirt. "Do you know what he had to show for his life's work? A fucking scrap of parchment and a broken . . . !" Janice hissed, then took an uneasy breath before forcing herself to continue in a calmer voice. "Even if we knew where to start, which we don't, packing up and going to India takes money, Mel."

"I can hel . . . " Mel quickly offered, amazed at Janice's reaction.

"No!! Damn it, Mel. I am not going to make that mistake too," Janice said vehemently, putting her boots on.

"But how can that be a mistake if I . . . ?" Mel tried to reason with her partner.

"Evidence, Mel," Janice cut her off. "That's the name of the game. Without it, India's just another goddamn country," Janice said and grabbed her hat as she stormed out of the tent.

The stunned Southerner exhaled, not sure what just happened.

***

After quickly getting dressed, Mel left their tent intending to find the angry young woman and find out what was upsetting her. She immediately found the archeologist, driving away.

"She's going into town," Peter answered Mel's questioning look as he started to prepare the morning meal for the workers.

"But she had already gotten supplies . . . ," Mel said absently, looking worriedly at the dust cloud kicked up by the hasty departure. "She was upset," she said uneasily to Peter.

"I guessed as much," Peter said wryly, putting a kettle over a fire.

Yawning, Raj joined them, curious about Dr. Covington's the unexpected departure from camp.

"I don't know why. I had finished a translation that was about India," she said, seeing his gaze dart to Raj, whose interest was further piqued hearing his homeland mentioned. "And I suggested we go. For some reason, she got . . . upset," Mel said, at a loss.

"She asked me what I thought. I know she hasn't settled on the next site yet, so I told her India would be a good choice. Why would she get so upset?" Mel asked, helplessly staring at the road then at the two men, who looked at each other uneasily.

***

In the back corner of a smokey bar, Janice puffed on a cigar. Daylight never reached inside the dimly lit establishment, which was fine with her. She didn't need to see the faces of those who also sought a drink - or twelve - at that afternoon hour. Putting down her stogie in the ashtray, she poured herself another drink from the half-empty bottle. After staring at the caramel-colored liquid a moment, she downed it in a swift gulp. Wiping her lips with the back of her hand, she exhaled as the liquid caused a pleasantly painful burn. Still not as numb as she wanted, she placed the empty glass down on the map she had just bought and poured another drink, over Delhi.

Here she was, a Doctor of Archeology, who had traveled around the world and taken shit from no one, drowning herself in a cheap bottle of whiskey because of some particularly bad memories. Pathetic. Probably scared Mel with her temper too, Janice guessed guiltily. Mel really doesn't deserve that crap, Janice thought, slamming back another drink. But I got that wonderful temper from you, Mom, didn't I? She thought, absently touching the small scar on her brow. It was caused when her loving mother backhanded her all those years ago. Diamond rings were dangerous, she had quickly concluded.

Her mother had never ever hit her before and never touched her after. Funny how her own adultery with a British officer, which her husband attempted to ignore, was apparently OK. Yet two teenage girls loving each other. . . .

Rotating the empty glass between her fingers, she sighed and thought of her father, who frequently sought his escape through the bottle, especially after her mother left them. Swell, she thought, wondering why she couldn't have just gotten her Mom's singing voice and Dad's height.

So much for burying the memories of what she lost in India - her mother, her lover, and not surprisingly, her belief in love. She had always wondered how her mother could have so quickly discarded her, like contagious trash, after finding her with Najihma. She was never given the chance to explain how much she loved the beautiful Indian, how it was a blessing, not a curse, how it was an honest, enduring love.

Well . . . up until Najihma left, Janice considered, gulping another shot.

Though her English was impeccable, apparently Najihma never learned what the words "I love you" were supposed to mean, Janice thought as she poured another. Turned out, she was the one who had to learn what those words really meant. They were a means to an end. No more, no less. Only fools would think otherwise, she thought bitterly and drank another shot, which brought her closer to the numb state she sought.

"Well, well, I haven't seen you around in a while, honey," the red-headed woman said happily as she joined Janice at her table. "I thought you dropped off the face of the Earth or something," she said, sitting down and motioning to the waitress. "Start my tab with a beer, honey, and keep them coming," she told the waitress, who eyed her warily, which Janice thought ridiculous. If anyone had money, it was Sophia. She could buy the whole stinking bar.

"It's on me, Sweetheart," Janice said, pulling out a bill and giving it to the woman, who nodded with a smile and left to get the order. "Sorry about that," Janice grumbled to the prostitute.

"You can't get along in my business without thick skin," she said with a shrug and leaned towards Janice. "But thanks anyway, honey. You always have treated me like a real lady," she said with a smile and briefly squeezed Janice's forearm. As Janice patted Sophia's hand, the waitress returned with a lukewarm bottle. Setting it on the table, she frowned with disappointment before she left for her break.

"She's cute. Looks like I just ruined your prospects," Sophia said with amusement, sipping her beer. "Sorry about that," she said without remorse.

"I'll survive," Janice said and downed another pleasantly painful shot.

"So, what brings you here?" The redhead asked, eyeing the rapidly emptying bottle before adjusting her blouse that, to everyone except her customers, was a little too tight.

Janice eyed her, sighed, then silently poured herself another drink.

"Janice! Would you please keep quiet? Sheesh! I can hardly hear myself think," she complained and sipped her beer, getting a reluctant chuckle from the archeologist.

"So how's business, Sophia?" Janice asked, sipping her shot glass.

"Well, business is pretty good, but not as interesting since my favorite customer stopped coming around," she said, prompting Janice to look down and sigh. "Looks like you could use some company right now. My treat," Sophia offered softly. "How about it? For old times sake?"

Janice stiffened. "Sophia, I . . ."

"Look, honey. We've been friends for how long?"

"Jesus, you're not going to make me to do math now, are you?" Janice said with a grimace and poured herself another, spilling a little on the map. "Shit..."

Sophia chuckled. "No. I wouldn't want to cause you any injuries."

Janice eyed her skeptically.

"That broken foot wasn't my fault!" She said defensively.

"Uh huh."

"So what brings you here?" Sophia asked again.

"You know, you could be an interrogator," Janice said gruffly, sipping her drink.

"A lousy one. You're not answering my question."

"Look, I'm not in the mood to talk, OK?"

"Fine with me, Honey. But surely you must be in the mood for . . . something?" She asked invitingly, stroking Janice's forearm slowly.

The familiar and promising touch made Janice swallow hard. Her libido, which she had struggled to control for many, many . . . many months, flared up uncomfortably. "I . . . I can't, Sophia."

Sophia looked at her with surprise. She never had to work to get Janice interested before. But she hadn't seen her in a while and people do change, Sophia considered and eyed the archeologist. "You haven't suddenly decided you like men after all these years, have you?" Sophia asked bluntly.

Janice laughed. "You're too much."

"I've already told you, honey. For you, free."

Janice reached out tenderly caressed her friend's cheek. Sophia smiled with anticipation, rewarded with a tender kiss that ended too quickly. The redhead leaned in for more but was gently stopped.

"Sweetheart, the offer is tempting, very tempting, but no," Janice said softly, caressing her cheek once more before retracting her hand.

Sophia blinked with surprise. "Wow," she exhaled thoughtfully and sipped her beer. "You know, if I hadn't heard you tell me a thousand times it would never happen, I'd say you've gone and. . . ."

"Jesus, Sophia," Janice interrupted with irritation. "I'll tell you a thousand and one times. I am never going to make that mistake. . . ."

"Hey DOC!"

Janice's head snapped towards the familiar, grating voice. Sophia rolled her eyes, knowing this jerk was trouble.

"So you couldn't take it any longer and had to get a whore, huh?" Simon taunted with a chuckle, eyeing his friends who snickered. "Do you pretend she's . . . ?"

"Janice! " Sophia blurted with concern as Janice launched out of her chair. She quickly yanked the jerk off his barstool, throwing him to the ground.

"Fucking bastard!" Janice barked and started hitting him. Things quickly went downhill. His two friends pulled Janice up and off of Simon and slammed her into a table.

Sophia squeaked with concern, jumped up, and looked pleadingly at the bartender for help. "Well?!? Aren't you going to do something?"

He just shook his head as he dried a glass with a rag, not wanting to get involved. "Bastard," she hissed.

When they pulled the dazed archeologist up off the table, Simon punched her in the stomach. Janice exhaled in pain as her legs buckled. Letting her collapse to the floor, they laughed at the small woman's audacity to fight.

"I have to admit, the Doc has good taste," Simon leered at Sophia, who nervously stepped backwards as the three approached. "But I bet she'd be happier to have a real man between her legs, instead of a woman who pretends to be one," he said, grabbing his groin rudely as he and the others laughed.

Sophia frowned. "Trust me, Janice has more talent in her little pinky . . . ," Sophia responded and pointedly glared at his manhood.

"Whore!" Simon spat and grabbed for her.

"Get the fuck away from her, Simon!" Janice blurted, startling the men, who turned to see Simon get whacked with a chair. Wooden debris flew as he fell. Before the next goon could move, Janice spun around and kicked him in the chest, propelling him against the wall. Hitting it hard, he slid down into an unconscious heap.

"Jesus," Janice moaned. Her hand went to her upset stomach, which didn't appreciate the sudden movement. Unfortunately for her stomach, she quickly moved again to dodge a fist coming at her from the remaining attacker.

With a clear opening, she punched him in the stomach, which apparently was made of something akin to metal. "Fuck," she hissed, shaking her sore hand. When he lunged at her, she jumped aside but stumbled over a couple chairs. Then next thing she knew, he had her in a tight choke hold.

"Goddamn it," she ground out as she struggled, unsure if her lightheadedness was the alcohol or lack of blood to her head. One way or another, she was concerned she'd pass out soon.

Sophia hesitantly approached not sure how to help. "Stop it!" She commanded as she stamped her foot forcefully, getting an amused snicker from the goon.

"I'm gonna throw up," Janice gurgled. The man hesitated and loosened his hold, allowing Janice to reach back and clamp down on his family jewels, squeezing for all her worth. With a curdling cry of pain, he eased the grip around her neck. With a growl, she viciously chomped down on his forearm, provoking another cry and drawing blood.

When she freed herself from his grip, he back-handed her in the face. "You bitch!"

She stumbled back, crashing into the bar. Grabbing onto the railing to steady herself, she blinked back tears that blinded her eyes as blood gushed from her nose and brow.

"Wow. This is really going to hurt when the alcohol wears off," she silently considered, gingerly touching her nose with amazement.

"JANICE!!"

The archeologist moved just in time to miss the chair that crashed on the bar. Feeling a bottle by her hand, she grabbed it and blindly swung, hitting the last attacker in the head. It shattered as he fell to the ground, joining the other two.

Janice struggled to stand on her wobbly legs.

Sophia grabbed and held her as Janice expelled the contents of her stomach onto the floor. "Eeeewww !!" Sophia said with a grimace. "You couldn't have a normal breakfast. You just had to have calamari, didn't you?" she complained, then eyed the three unconscious men warily. "Come on, let's get out of here."

"Hey! What about the damage?!?" The bartender asked the women, who ignored him as they retreated out the back.

"And the mess!?!" he muttered, staring at the three men on the ground as his waitress came back in. She saw the mess that awaited her, promptly did an about-face, and left on an extended break.


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