"Always, Gabrielle. We'll always be best friends, no matter what."
In the warm green darkness of the small grove, two little girls knelt amongst pine-needles, their faces flushed from struggling through the brush, their knees bruised and scraped from their effort to reach this secluded little place in the woods out back.
The candle burning between them cast flickering shadows on their faces as they looked gravely at each other, clasping one another's hands tightly as they made the sacred promise.
Smiling fondly, the young woman recalled the childhood memory, only to dismiss it with a sigh as she leaned forward to take another cigarette out of her pack. Keeping that promise was not all that easy just now. If Sina had been in the room at this moment, Lana would not have known whether to hug, or strangle her friend.
With a trembling hand, she brought the cigarette to her mouth, and had to try three times before she managed to make the lighter work.
A long, desperate draw, while she tossed the lighter onto the table of the small waiting room, then she made an impatient noise deep in her throat, and angrily stabbed the glowing stick into the ashtray. She was quitting this idiotic habit, after all. Blast Sina for making her forget herself in this way!
She gave a start when the door suddenly opened, and a police officer walked in. Jumping to her feet, she looked at the man expectantly.
He cleared his throat before he spoke. "Well, Miss, the good news is that there have been no deaths reported that match your description." Clearing his throat again, he scratched his neck. "But I'm afraid that's all I can tell you. We put out a search for your friend. It would be best if you went home now and tried to get some rest. We've done all we can for now."
Swallowing hard against the thickening lump in her throat, Lana nodded. She hadn't really had much hope of success in coming here, but she was getting desperate. She thanked the officer, before gathering up her coat and slinking down to the parking lot.
There had been no word from Sina since she had left the house they shared, over a week ago. No word, except for an email Lana had received a few days later, stating Sina had to "take care of something", and not to worry, she'd be all right. She'd taken her motorcycle - a 20 year old BMW named "Argo II" after her first bicycle - some clothes, and her black leather backpack.
Fingering the email printout again, Lana was pacing in front of the fireplace, as she'd done the nights before. Back, and forth, until her eyes were swimming, then dropping onto the couch to stare at the dark TV screen until fatigue pulled her into a restless sleep. Such had been her ritual for the last few days, and it might well be again today.
It wasn't like the tall, somber woman had never done anything like it before; life had not been good to Sina in the years after they had lost sight of each other, as Lana knew well. There were still times when dark moods and brooding drove her out of their home to be by herself for a while, and Lana let her, even though she ached to reach out and comfort her.
However, Sina had never been gone for more than one night. By silent consent, they never spoke of where she went or what she did. She always came back, and Lana grudgingly agreed that that was good enough for her.
They had come a long way since the freak chance encounter on that rainy road over a year ago, and had been virtually inseparable, just like in the old days.
Lana was making a living on freelance writing, and Sina had found a position as a bouncer in a women's only bar down town.
Sina had been enthusiastic enough about this new position to move here two months ago, and since Lana herself did not have many ties to their previous home, other than her best friend, she'd agreed to make the move with her. She had not regretted that decision. It had actually put her a few hundred miles closer to her childhood home, and her family.
The bar was not a place either woman would consider frequenting, but her friend seemed content there. With her background as a former police officer, a solid knowledge of martial arts and years of experience in the streets, Sina was well-suited for the task. Carrying herself with the grace and ease of a cat ready to pounce, she made most troublemakers think twice.
But then, she'd never taken any nonsense from anybody, and not a few of the kids at school had stepped lightly around her out of respect for her prowess and quick temper. In fact, Sina had been a regular terror when she had turned up in gym class one day, a stranger, and an angry child. A day that would change Lana's life, had she but known.
Still pacing relentlessly, the young woman's thoughts went back to that first meeting, oh so long ago, and she had to smile again. No, their acquaintance hadn't exactly been off to a good start....
"Ow! Watchit, willya?"
"You were in the way," came the hissed reply. The steel blue eyes of the strange new girl where so intense, they almost made little Lana take a step back.
She bit her lip and pressed her hand against her ribs where the handle of the other girl's bicycle had cuffed her painfully.
"Argo don't like strangers," the dark-haired girl snapped as she rested the bike carefully against the wall. She gave it a pat, before straightening her shoulders and adjusting the satchel on her back.
"Good, 'cause I don't like bikes," Lana mumbled sullenly. But the newcomer already had her back turned and was ignoring her. Resisting the urge to give the offending bike a solid kick and send it tumbling to the ground - she knew better than to add a bruised foot to her aching rib - Lana went to join her classmates, who were crowded around the PE teacher at the edge of the soccer field.
To get there, she had to walk past the stranger, who made a nasty grimace at her. Lana stuck out her tongue.
"Lana G. Bachmann! Don't be so rude to your new classmate!"
The blonde girl jumped at hearing the teacher call her by her full name. "Sorry, Mr. Walsh," she said in a small voice.
"I would have expected you to be more considerate," he told her sternly, before turning to the class. "Kids, this is Sina. She will be with us from now on. Maybe you'll want to show her around after class?" Smiling, he addressed the new girl. "Don't worry, Sina, you're going to feel right at home here."
Sina just looked at him.
As class went on, Lana's gaze went to the silent stranger several times, to find her looking her way with a now hostile, now thoughtful expression. It turned out that Sina was an outstanding athlete, but she shrugged off any praise from the teacher or admiring comments from the other children with a sniff and a flat stare. It was with relief that Lana heard the bell ring. At last, she'd be able to get away from those piercing eyes.
However, when she went to stow her things in her locker and retrieve her lunch box, she found Sina standing there, an unreadable look on her face.
"Why didn't you tell on me when you got yelled at?"
"'Cause it's not nice to tell on people."
"But you almost got in trouble."
Lana just shrugged.
Sina was silent for a while. "Just don't expect me to be nice to you in return." And she turned and stalked away, shouldering her satchel. Lana noticed the hilt of a wooden toy sword sticking out from under the flap.
So grouchy, and so tough... Still grinning, Lana returned to the present to find she had wandered into Sina's room. Her friend's bed was sloppily made, and a single sock was lying on the cover.
Lana shook her head as she picked up the sock absently. Some things just never changed. One of them was the fact that one piece of clothing would steadfastly resist all of her friend's questionable efforts to clean up her room.
In contrast, Sina's computer desk was meticulously tidy. She spent a lot of time there these days, when she wasn't working. Too much time, in Lana's opinion, but she'd been holding her peace. She did understand, in a way.
While Sina was certainly on the road to recovery from the various pitfalls and obstacles life had been hurling at her after she'd left home, she was still struggling with a few things, not the least of which being an almost irrational obsession with finding her father again. He'd left home when she was a little child, and neither her mother nor her older brother Tom had had word from him since. A lot of her spare time went into scouting the Internet for something, anything, that might point to his whereabouts. So far, she'd found nothing of interest, not even when Lana had tapped her own considerable resources with the newspaper she used to work for.
For as long as Lana could remember, Sina had been thinking of him, wondering, missing him. She had never fully understood it, having grown up sheltered by a complete, intact family. She could not see why her friend could care so much about a man who had just left his family without looking back, never to be seen again.
"How come your folks let you bring that thing to school?"
"They don't," Sina said flatly.
It was lunch break. The dark-haired girl was mostly hidden from view by the large tree Lana always liked to sit behind during this time. Here she could draw pictures in peace and not be harassed by the bigger kids. Sina was wielding the wooden sword Lana had glimpsed before, hacking away methodically at the tree's bark. Blunt though the blade was, it had already left angry marks upon the rough surface, the pale, live wood shining through in bright patches where strings of bark splintered away.
"My dad made it for me," she grated upon seeing the smaller girl's half curious, half appalled glances at her weapon. "He said I'm his Warrior Princess, so I'd need a good sword." She paused, casually shouldering the toy sword, and shot Lana a dark look, as if daring her to comment.
All Lana could think of, however, was the poor tree. Didn't Sina know that trees hurt, too? She hoped Sina would stop attacking it. But, what was she going to say to a kid who looked more than ready to try out her warrior skills on a more mobile target? Thinking quickly, she decided to drop the matter.
"Your dad must be a nice guy," she offered.
Sina grunted something unintelligible, and viciously attacked the tree once more.
Her breath coming in gasps, Sina finally stood still, looking at the ground. "He's not nice, and he doesn't love us."
Lana bit her lip. "Why d'you say that?"
The girl hesitated. Her lower lip trembled a little. "He went away."
"Dunno. He just went." Her chin went up, and she cleared her throat. "I don't wanna talk about it." The look she gave Lana warned her not to press the matter.
Lana sighed softly. Well, wasn't this just wonderful? She'd put her foot in it, hadn't she? But then, why did it matter? It wasn't like Sina was all that nice anyway. Maybe now she'd not want to talk to Lana anymore, and not give her those looks, and most importantly, keep that beastly bicycle away from her. And yet... somehow... her heart went out to that wild, unruly girl, so different from herself. She rubbed her nose, thinking.
"I always come here at lunch," she said finally, and cleared her throat. "D'you wanna sit with me?"
For a moment, it looked like Sina was going to run away. Then, abruptly, she sat in the dust and folded her arms around knees that peeked out dirtily from under her worn black dress, staring at the ground with her lower lip firmly between her teeth.
Funny, thought Lana, they had just sat there without speaking that day. From that day on, Sina would be waiting for her, to sit beside her during lunch, just as silently as the first time. But apart from those moments of peace, the girl had hardly been pleasant company.
She'd had a quick temper, preferring physical violence to wit, even though Lana had suspected even then that her strange friend was far from stupid. Lana chuckled. Sina still had a bit of a temper these days!
In fact, her friend's disappearance did sound just like the thing she would do, if something sufficiently important had come up... And most likely, it was not something Lana would have liked the sound of, not in the least.
Clenching and unclenching her fists uselessly, she made a frustrated sound. If only she had a clue!
Dejected, she sank down on her friend's bed and curled up miserably, her mind whirling.
"What kind of a name is 'Lana', anyway?" Sina asked her one day, as they were sitting in their by now customary spot during lunch.
Lana had her sketchpad and a box of crayons by her side, her lunchbox sitting on her knees as she munched on a nice, squishy peanut butter sandwich. She paused in mid-chew, her jaw going slack with the shock of Sina actually striking up a conversation.
Then she shrugged. "It's just a name," she said thickly around a sticky mouthful. "Why? What's wrong with it?"
"Dunno. Sounds..." Sina paused, groping for words. "Doesn't fit you. It'sold, somehow"
Lana rubbed her nose. "Doesn't bother me, really. Anyway, my mom says when I'm old enough, I get to say if I want my first name, or my middle name to be my real name."
"Oh? And what's that?"
"Gabrielle," Lana mumbled. She'd always felt it was a terribly embarrassing middle name to have.
"Cool," said Sina. "WishI had two names."
Lana smiled a little. And all of a sudden, 'Gabrielle' didn't seem like such a terrible middle name anymore. "Sina's a good name," she said.
"You think?" Her new friend flashed her a quick, gap-toothed grin when she nodded.
"What's that you got there?" Sina motioned to the notepad and crayons lying by Lana's side, curious.
Lana hastily snatched up the pad and clutched it to her chest. "Just... stuff."
"What stuff? Can I see?"
"Aw, why not?"
"It's personal stuff," Lana said importantly.
Sina tilted her head. "Pleeeze?"
Reluctantly, Lana released her hold on the pad and allowed the other girl to take it from her. Then she sat, biting her lip, as Sina leafed through the pages.
"Oh, they're pictures! What are they?"
"It's... well, they're a story," Lana said, slightly embarrassed.
"Ooh, a story! What's it about? Tell me..."
Taken aback by the girl's interest, Lana hesitated before replying. She hadn't really meant for Sina, of all people, to see this particular story...
"Well, it's a story about Hercules, who's the son of Zeus, who's the old Greek father of the Gods. He was the strongest man who ever lived.
"Stronger than Superman?" Sina asked.
Lana nodded seriously. "He couldn't fly, though. Anyway, here he's fighting this army of bad guys, led by..." she hesitated, as Sina turned a page to look at the next picture.
Drawn in spidery lines, colored awkwardly, a smiling Hercules looked out at her, pointing his Sword at a frowny-faced woman with black hair and blue eyes. She was wearing a black dress and sat atop a yellow horse that was frowning just like its rider.
"Led by who?" asked Sina sharply.
"By a Warrior Pr... by a beastly, evil warlord," Lana mumbled.
Sina squinted, having caught the slip. "Who wins?" she asked curtly.
"Well, see for yourself." And Sina did, turning another page.
There was another smiling Hercules, although this time his rump was colored in a different brown - the original crayon had given out. Kneeling at his feet was the warrior woman, frowning even worse than before. There was a chain around her neck; her hands were tied. Her army was gone, but the horse was still there, tied to a tree behind the two figures, one wire-thin foot raised as if stamping the ground impatiently.
"I see," said Sina tonelessly. Her face was a mask.
"So, whaddya think?" Lana asked hopefully.
Just then, the bell rang.
"It's dumb," said Sina, before turning and walking back to class.
She must have slept, for when she opened her eyes, sunlight was streaming into her eyes, painfully obscuring her vision. Blinking, she looked around, momentarily disoriented. Sina's room. Fell asleep on her bed. Must've been wiped. Sheesh
The bitter taste of that memory still clung to her mind. She had come to class puffy-eyed and devastated that day, vowing to never touch her crayons again.
But, looking back, she realized that Sina had probably been quite stricken as well, since it was obvious that the "evil warlord" had been modeled after her. The horse had even had the same color as that infernal bike! She must have felt awful!
At the same time, little Lana had asked herself why Sina's harsh judgment had cut so much deeper than the quips of all the other kids. Most had thought her a bit quaint, to say the least, for her dreamy-eyed obsession with her stories.
Lana shifted her position to shield her eyes from the bright light, wincing at a nasty kink in her neck. As she turned, her eye caught something under Sina's computer desk, a piece of paper that had apparently slipped down the back end and now lay against the wall.
Curious, she heaved herself up to get a closer look. Her still sleepy limbs protested, but she ignored them as she crawled under the table to pick up the note.
Sneezing at the dustballs gathered there, she edged forward until her fingers closed around the crumpled paper, feeling slightly guilty for snooping. However, worry made her push her misgivings aside. Besides, who knew, it might not even be relevant.
It was a brief message scrawled untidily in no handwriting Lana had seen before.
Meet me in Central Park, at the entrance to the children's zoo, 6pm. Be on time, and please don't tell anyone. Not anyone, you hear?
It was not signed or dated. But Lana strongly suspected that it had been lying there approximately from the time of Sina's disappearance.
"Well, whaddya know," Lana told the black computer screen. "I think I'm going for a walk."
The park was quiet at this time of day, with most people at work. Once again Lana was glad of her freelance job that allowed her to work on her own time, more or less.
She strolled casually along the paths, watching flabby ladies huff and puff along doing their exercises. Sleek, muscular joggers were passing them looking oddly smug. A few people were walking their dogs, and the odd child was tugging on the hand of a parent, eager to get to the children's zoo.
Lana did not really expect to find anything or anyone here; after all, that note was days old. But, it was the only clue she had.
After a while, she reached the entrance to the small enclosure that was the petting zoo, housing an assortment of sheep, goats, tame deer, and a handful of Galloway cattle. There was also Moses, a rather clever pig that somehow always managed to find a way to the other side of the fence, to the delight of the children, but the chagrin of Otis, the park's caretaker. The dark-skinned old man gave her a friendly nod as she passed him. She and Sina came here from time to time to exercise.
For a while, she stood, fists balled in the pockets of her jeans, looking over the fence at the m�lange of muddy children and animals, grubby fingers reaching out more or less gently to pet a shaggy head or flank, a parent cautioning here or there. Closing her eyes, she allowed the morning sun to caress her face, and just let the soft laughter and the jumble of voices wash over her.
Another lunch break found Lana leaning back against her tree, voices from the playground drifting towards her. A soft breeze came to tickle her cheeks, carrying a smell of freshly cut grass. She loved that smell, and the tingling sensation on her skin, both of which was somehow much more intense when you closed your eyes. And so she did, letting the flickering shadows of moving leaves through the orange veil of her eyelids mesmerize her.
Her notepad lay beside her, crayons nicely pointed, untouched for days, yet she could not imaginenot carrying it with her.
Sina had not come back since the picture incident, and Lana was surprised to find herself actually missing the strangely rebellious girl.
The noise close by startled her, but she had no chance to react before a quick hand had snatched up her precious sketchpad. The hand belonged to Daryl, school bully, who was now leafing through the pages with an ugly sneer on his face.
Lana was not one of his favorite targets, being well-liked enough by some, and not quite to be considered a nerd. But seeing her alone and inattentive was too much of an opportunity to pass up.
Behind him, Sarah and Dwayne, his two cronies, were wearing identical leers. "Awww look what we got 'ere," said Daryl.
"Hey, that's mine, gimme it!"
Grinning evilly, the tall boy lifted the notepad high above his head, and all three laughed at the much shorter girl jumping frantically trying to reach it.
"Hey, you're crumpling it," Lana was close to tears, "give it back!"
"Fat chance, twerp," said Sarah. "I think we'll hang it up way high on the wall, for all to see."
Daryl cackled. "And who's going to stop u- OW!!" A flying white object connected solidly with the arm that held the notebook, knocking it out of the boys hand. It was a tennis shoe.
"That's my friend," came Sina's voice from several paces away. Menacingly, she was brandishing the missile shoe's mate.
Lana made a grab for her sketches and retreated a few steps.
"So, you're not going to mess with her, or else." Never in her life would Lana forget the expression in Sina's eyes at that moment. The boys must have noticed it, too, because suddenly, they seemed to decide that Lana was not so much fun to tease after all. Sarah, on the other hand, had started to edge around the tree to get at Sina from behind.
She did not get very far, though, for Lana quickly stuck out her foot and tripped her, earning a quick grin from the shoe wielding little Warrior Princess.
Sarah, using words that a girl her age really shouldn't know at all, got up, dusted herself off, and after shooting both Sina and Lana a dirty look, joined the two boys in their search for mischief elsewhere.
"Thanks," Lana said when they were out of earshot.
"'Sokay," Sina said gruffly, shuffling in the dust with a dirty shoe.
"They usually leave me alone. Must've been bored."
"They shouldn't pick on people like that. It's mean."
Lana had to agree. "Some kids are like that, though."
Sina looked at the notepad clutched in Lana's arms. By a freak chance, it had opened to the page that showed Hercules taking the evil warlord prisoner.
"That's me, isn't it?" she asked quietly. "And not just a warlord."
Lana took a deep breath. "Yeah. Sina, the Warrior Princess." She grinned weakly. "I kind of thought you might have made a cool warlord."
She was utterly relieved when Sina returned the grin. "Yeah, I guess. Sina: Warrior Princess... Hey, not bad! Although... I dunno..."
Sina shrugged. "Don't like my name much, I guess. Sounds a little rough."
Lana rubbed her nose. She always did that when she was thinking really hard. "Maybe pronounce it so it sounds softer... Zee-nah... Xena."
The other girl's face lit up. "Xena: Warrior Princess" There ya go, that's so cool! I'm Xena! Nothing can stop me!" And she drew her sword and whirled it over her head. "Ayiyiyiyiyiyi!"
"Ow! Not in my ear! Where'dthat come from, anyway?"
"Sorry. That's the battle cry of the Warrior Princess." Sina giggled. It was a strange sound, stranger even than that awful cry, considering Lana had never heard the other girl giggle before.
But then, the dark-haired girl paused, stepping from one foot to the other.
"But, can't Xena be good? I don't want her to be bad."
Lana looked at the picture, rubbing her nose again. "I suppose Xena could be a bad one turned good."
"Do you think that can happen?"
"I guess you'd need a real good friend to help you with it," Lana mused. She grabbed her notebook, and, sticking out her tongue in concentration, opened the notebook to the very first picture of the story and picked up a golden crayon.
Sina looked doubtful. "I guess. Whatcha doing?"
"You'll see." Lana was carefully shielding the page from Sina's view as she added something. Crane her neck as she might, curious Sina could only catch quick glimpses that raised a lot more questions than they answered.
At last, Lana straightened, and let Sina see her work. A new figure had been added to the picture, smaller than the warrior, blonde, green-eyed, smiling.
Sina raised a questioning eyebrow.
"This is the friend," Lana clarified. "She travels at the Warrior Princess' side, and writes down stories of all the adventures they're having together."
"Cool. What's her name? Is it Lana?"
Lana grinned impishly. "She's Gabrielle, the Bard."
Lana chuckled softly. From that day on, to Sina she'd been Gabrielle, or Gabby for short, and they'd had plenty of wonderful adventures to write about since. She opened her eyes again reluctantly, slightly dazed; coming back to the present was a chore.
When she did, though, she had to squeeze them shut again and shake her head, for what she saw before her could only be a dream.
A few yards away from her stood a girl, perhaps seven or eight years old, with long, unruly jet black hair and a set of intense blue eyes that she had only ever seen in one person.
"S... Sina?" That was impossible, of course, but...
The girl, noticing Lana's sudden attention, stared at her wide-eyed for a split-second, then she took off across the lawn at a dead run.
Self-conscious, Lana desisted from sprinting after the strange girl. She doubted anyone here would understand the nuances of her action if she did, especially since the child quite obviously was a stranger to her. Instead, she just stood there for a few moments, shaken at the eerie resemblance.
Taking a few calming breaths, she started strolling leisurely to where she had seen the child disappear, her heart thudding so loudly she almost wondered why no-one else seemed to hear it. Had she still been dreaming? How likely was the appearance of someone who looked exactly like her friend had almost twenty years ago?
"Not likely, you idiot," she murmured to herself. "You've probably just been daydreaming, and scared that poor kid out of her mind by staring so hard."
Rounding a hedge, she found herself in another section of the park, where most of the space was overgrown with all types of large trees and dense bushes, a striking contrast to the flower beds and carefully groomed lawns she had just left behind. Incidentally, this was her and Sina's favorite part of the park; they both shared a deep love for rich forests. Sometimes, even now, just for a few moments, they pretended to be back in old Greece, traveling the dusty roads and fighting bad guys.
Lana grinned. Hopefully, nobody actually listened to their conversations at those times.
Apart from the magic of the rich vegetation, this place also provided ample cover for someone trying to hide, especially if that someone was less than full-grown. Extremely weary all of a sudden, Lana sank down on a nearby park bench. It looked like this was another dead end.
Feeling the sudden urge to write, she pulled out the notepad she carried with her at all times - some things never changed - and wrote.
The soft scratching of her pen on paper and the peace of this place were balm for her frayed nerves. Reality receded.
"She said you'd show up here."
Lana gave a start. For a time, she'd managed to lose herself completely in her writing, so being caught this completely off guard was no big surprise. Staring into a set of curious blue eyes framed by long, tousled dark hair, however, was!
"Huh?" Lana said intelligently.
"She said you tell good stories. Do you?"
"Sina, is that you?"
"Geez, Lady, you can't be very bright," the girl said. "I can't be Sina, Sina's big."
Lana blinked, "But you..."
"Melanie." It was more surreal than a Dal� painting, this girl, the spitting image of a childhood memory standing there before her. The resemblance was uncanny, right down to that slightly rebellious, slightly aloof look and the faded black T-shirt, blue jeans and sneakers, that backpack with - Lana gasped.
The handle of a wooden toy sword. It was the same sword little Gabby had seen in use so many, many times, so long ago. The sword of the Warrior Princess, even though the wood had aged since Lana had last seen it, all those years ago. It even had that little notch on the pommel that it had received during one fateful bike ride through a giant-infested quarry. There could be no two like it.
"Like my sword?" Melanie said, noticing the woman's stare.
"Why, yes, it's... it's a nice sword. Where did you get it?"
"My real mom gave it to me," she said, and Lana experienced a strange sense of dej� vu, as Melanie pulled it out and hefted it thoughtfully.
Thoughts were spinning in Lana's head. "And where is your mom now?"
"She went away when I was very little. Dad says she wanted for me to have the sword, because she loved me so much." The sneer as she said the word 'loved' seemed completely out of place in a child her age.
Her mom? Her dad? But she'd mentioned Sina, and used her first name. So who...? And how...?
"I'm sure she did," said Lana.
"Oh yeah? Then why'd she go?"
Lana drew a breath. "I don't know. People do strange things sometimes."
"Sina says you never did bad things."
"So, you know Sina, do you?" Lana asked cautiously.
The girl nodded. "She's my friend."
Yeah, I'm sure, Lana thought wryly. Just a friend? Not bloody likely, kid. God, look at you! "Really?" she said out loud. "That's good, she's my friend, too."
Melanie looked at her as if she had just stated that water was wet. "I know that."
"Do you know where she is? Did she send you?"
Melanie kicked the dirt with a toe. "She said not to talk to you. But I did anyway," she mumbled.
"Oh? And why would she say that?"
"Not sure, but I think she thought you'd be upset or something." She looked at Lana. "Are you? I mean, I don't really know what she was talking about. She said you tell these good stories..."
"You did nothing wrong, Melanie," Lana assured her. Didn't want to upset her? A bit late for that, surely. "Now, will you take me to Sina? I haven't seen her for so long, I was getting worried about her."
Melanie bit her lip. Then, pretending not to hear the question, she said. "Will you tell me a story?"
Lana had to chuckle. "You are soo like her. She always had a way of ignoring what she doesn't want to deal with."
Melanie gave her a look, pointing the sword in her direction. "Will you? I'm a warrior, and I can beat you up if you don't."
"Well, if you do that, I won't be fit to tell stories, will I?"
"S'pose so." Putting the sword down, she tilted her head. "Pleeeze?"
Lana realized she had something to bargain with."Only if you take me to Sina."
Melanie looked cornered. She wanted that story! But... "I can't do that."
"I promised. Warrior's word of honor."
This was getting more and more confusing and frustrating!
"Look... um... Melanie, I... this is really important, I have to know she's okay."
"Warrior's word of honor," Melanie's lower lip trembled.
Just as Lana opened her mouth to reply, she saw a familiar figure walk around a bush. Hands buried deeply in her denim pockets, leather jacket with the collar turned up, she stood, eyes hidden behind mirror sunglasses, her mouth a thin line. As usual, her black hair was pulled back into an untidy ponytail with several strands hanging loose around her chiseled face.
Lana stood petrified at the unexpected reunion. She raised a hand, and let it sink again.
Melanie looked mortified at being caught where she was not supposed to be. "Hi, Sina," she said in a small voice.
"Hey, Mel," Sina said. Pushing her glasses up onto her forehead, she glanced at Lana. "Hey."
Lana found herself unable to speak, torn between profound relief at seeing her friend sound and safe, and pure, red-hot anger. Not to forget the million questions that the appearance of little Melanie had raised.
The girl, meanwhile, had skipped over to the tall woman, and seeing the two of there side by side, virtually identical in the was they carried themselves if you allowed for the difference in years, was almost more than Lana could take.
Sina smiled at her warmly, and patted her shoulder. "Hey, kiddo, why don't you run back over to the zoo for a bit? We'll be right over."
Melanie's face lit up. "Sure. Will you hold my sword for me?" She thrust the wooden weapon at Sina and took off, leaving the two women in awkward silence.
"What have you got there, Sina?"
Gabby watched as Sina latched a linen bag to Argo's handlebar, securing it with an old leather belt. Then she strapped on her backpack and adjusted the sword on her back. "A secret," she said impishly.
"A secret? What kind?"
"What about? Where are we going?"
"For a ride," said Sina, getting into the saddle and straightening the bike out.
Gabby grimaced. She hated that bike! "Do I have to?"
"Oh, all right." She scrambled on behind her friend. "But no dirt roads this time, okay?"
Sina just grunted and started pedalling. Gabby flung her arms around the other girl's waist with an outraged squeal.
"Are we nearly there?" Gabby said a while later during a bumpy ride through what must have been the entire width of the forest twice over. Her rear hurt something awful from being tossed up and down on her uncushioned seat behind Argo's saddle.
"Getting close," Sina grunted, and barely righted the bicycle when it skidded over a patch of loose gravel. "Damn, that was close. Giddiyup, Argo! Ayiyiyiyiyi!"
Gabby groaned. Shehated bikes!
But eventually, thankfully, the little Warrior Princess slowed down at a crossing of two forest paths, where a small trough was set up a way into the woods to provide food for the wildlife during hard winters.
After Gabby had gratefully put both her feet back on the ground, Sina dragged the bike through ferns and low bushes to lean it against that trough, and started unlashing the bag.
"Argo will be okay here, Gabrielle," she intoned in her Xena voice, patting the bike on its saddle. "Come on, we don't want to waste any time."
"Xena, would you mind telling me what we're doing here," Gabrielle the Bard - for that was what little Gabby the girl had suddenly become - said indignantly. "And why did you make me leave my scrolls behind?"
"This is not for the scrolls, Gabrielle," Xena said mysteriously. "It's for you, and for me. It's going to be our special secret."
"Well, right now, it'syour stupid secret," a slightly pouty bard told her grumpily. But she scrambled after the warrior, who was fighting her way through dense vegetation, heading in a straight line for - well, that remained to be seen.
"Amazon ritual," was all her stolid friend would say, and Gabrielle was forced to subside until, winded, they had climbed up a short bit of rocky slope, and Xena came to a halt in a secluded grove surrounded by tall rocks and pine trees.
The smell of fallen needles, earth and wild herbs was strong here, but the only sounds to be heard were those of the forest - a rustle of leaves, scrabbling of little feet on the ground, the twitter of a birds. No sound of civilization marred the magic of this spot.
"It's beautiful," Gabrielle breathed, and watched a rare smile flash across her friend's features.
"It's a good place," Xena agreed quietly, while she started unpacking what she had brought. Two sandwiches, or rather, two choice pieces of roast boar, a can of soda pop, oops, a bottle of the best Greek wine, and a loaf of cheese, which was actually the remainder of a chocolate cake Sina's mother had baked the day before. And, last but not least, a candle as thick as the bard's arm and about a handspan tall, off the McRunnel's living room table, by the look of it.
"A sacred ritual to celebrate our friendship." Xena said in explanation. It will bind us by oath, for all times. We'll be Oath-Sisters."
Gabrielle's face lit up. "Xena! Why, I never thought you..."
"Never thought I'd think of doing that, did you?" Xena grinned and shrugged apologetically. "Well, what can I say, I have my moments."
"And there I thought you were going to say you had many skills," Gabrielle quipped.
"That, too," Xena agreed. Then she was serious. "Well? Do you wanna do it?"
"Cool." She lit the candle - having borrowed her mother's lighter - and explained. "The food is to celebrate afterwards. The candle is the conduit. Its wax will mark us and tell the gods of our oath, so they know they need to watch us speak it. You know how gods are sometimes. Got to try and grab their interest when you need them to pay attention. Anyway, here goes, you'll have to speak after me..."
It was the longest speech Gabrielle had ever heard her taciturn friend make.
Soon two children's subdued voices sounded through the woods, intoning their oath to each other.
Just how long Sina and Lana had stood there unmoving and silent, neither of them was able to tell.
Finally, Lana spoke. "Where have you been? And what in heaven's name is that about?" She gestured in the general direction of the petting zoo. "You realize I was worried out of my mind, don't you?"
"But... I wrote an email so you wouldn't worry..."
"Yeah right, but ten bloody days! You've never been gone for that long!"
"Well, something came up. I'm sorry, Gabby."
"Something indeed! Why didn't you tell me?" Lana said quietly. She never had much to counter with when Sina started calling her Gabby.
"Sina drew a long breath. "Maybe I should have. But... dammit Gabby, it's not something I'm too proud of."
"So, what's with Melanie? If all you are to her is a 'friend', I'll eat my notepad."
"Shh, I don't want her to hear. Please? I'll tell you as much as I can. Walk with me?"
They strolled along the path that led away from the zoo, and Sina started talking, twirling the sword in her hands so she didn't have to look at Lana. Haltingly at first, because Lana's icy silence was somehow worse than angry words could have been.
"When I left the academy, things started out really well. I was a good cop. Somehow I seemed to have a knack for dealing with the toughest criminals. Well, you know that story." She grinned, but Lana remained silent.
Clearing her throat, Sina continued. "Well, turning in that two-timing asshole that was my own boss kind of put a dampener on my career at the time, and things went bad from there. I was hardly faultless, but I guess these things happen. I changed sides for a bit - told you most of that, too. Anyway, I kind of joined forces with this one guy, a Russian Mafioso who was pretty big at the time, by the name of Boris. What can I say, he had the influence, I had insider information only an ex-cop who still has ties to a few old colleagues can have; we made a good team. And I guess we were a little more than just business partners for a while. It was only a matter of time."
Sina drew a long, shuddering breath, and gave Lana a look that was desperately begging not to condemn her. "I got pregnant."
She struggled for a while. "I felt this little life grow inside me, and it was wonderful. I felt complete at last. It was magical. With all the trouble I was in, I was a happy woman."
Ignoring the tear that was snaking down her cheek, she continued. "But I knew that the life I was leading was no place for a little child. So, I had to give her away." She stopped in her tracks. To Lana, she had never looked so forlorn and helpless as in that moment. "I gave my baby away.
"All those years, I could never forget this little thing, how it moved and breathed in my arms, the moment I handed her over to Karl, an old friend who had promised to find her a good home. So, I gave her to him, and told him I'd like her to have my sword when she was old enough. I vowed to find her again one day."
Finally, Lana spoke. "All this time, all the searching, it wasn't your father you were after?"
"Oh, I am looking for him, too. But a while back, I started contacting people to find out about my baby. Karl was killed in a shooting a few years ago, so I had no way of finding out who had adopted her." She slapped the toy sword into the palm of her free hand.
"How did you find them, then? Is she in a good home?" Lana was struggling to digest this latest news.
"I got lucky. Got hold of a friend of Karl's who did a bit of research for me. Yeah, she's in a good home, they're good people. And hey, easy to see she's a good kid, huh?" Now there was a hint of pride in her tone.
Lana smiled. "She is."
"So, I got hold of her parents, talked to them for a bit. I never planned to actually see her, I figured it'd be too painful. Anyway, they were nice enough talking to, although I could tell they were a bit worried what I would do, and how Mel would take it. You see, the kid had been snooping, and she'd found a few papers to do with the adoption, so she knew. They tell me she won't part with the sword since they told her it was a gift from her mother."
She looked wistful. "Even though her mother dumped her as a baby, she cherishes that thing more than anything else."
"You haven't told her, then?"
"I think it's better this way. She's a happy kid. What do you think would happen? No, let her think I'm a good friend for now. I'm sure some day she'll know the truth, but I don't think she's ready."
They lapsed into silence once again. Presently they arrived back where they'd first met, and Lana stopped to face her friend.
"Why didn't you tell me, Sina? All those years. What did you think I'd do?"
"I don't know. They weren't good times, Gabby. I just wanted to forget. I... I didn't want you to think bad of me for abandoning my child. But the thought of her growing up with a mother and father like we were... I had a hell of a time getting away from Boris. He came after me more than once after I left his gang. I.. I'm sorry. I should have told you."
"You should have. I was sick with worry. You were gone for so long..."
"I rented a room in the neighborhood. I figured you'd know something was up if I did come home. I... aw hell, I was scared of what you'd think." She buried her face in her hands.
"Well, it's quite a bit of news, Sina." It's going to take some getting used to."
"You're mad at me."
Sina sighed. "Well, there's nothing I can do now, except tell you I'm sorry."
Lana did not reply.
Sina was saved by Melanie, who had seen them approach and was running towards them and skipping excitedly. She carried a bundle in her arms "Look, Sina, she was running around all alone," she panted when she reached the two women. A dark, blue-gray kitten was snuggled in her arms, purring loudly. "And I caught her all by myself and got her to let me pick her up. Otis says I should be a animal trainer when I grow up. I just talked to her real quiet, and she followed me!"
"That's impressive, Mel," Sina told her with a rare, warm smile. "You certainly have a way with animals."
"Sina? D'you think they'll let me keep her?" She was pensive. "Flora don't like cats much. Her nose gets all runny when she goes near'em."
"Tell you what, kiddo, if Flora says no, she can stay with us, if it's okay with Lana."
Lana, however, had already dropped to her knees and was stroking the kitten's soft fur. Large, amber eyes peeked out of the dark face; a handsome animal. "Sure," she said. "And you could come visit her -" she looked at the kitten again, "visit him, whenever you like. It's a little boy."
"Thank you, thank you," Mel said happily. She looked at Sina. "So, you going back home now? With Lana?"
Sina looked at Lana uncertainly. "If she lets me," she half-joked.
Melanie giggled, unaware of the tension between the two women.
Lana got to her feet, and shook her head in mock exasperation. Sina grinned disarmingly.
"What should I call him?" Melanie asked, holding the kitten at arm's length.
"I don't know, said Sina, "why don't you ask Lana? She's good with these things."
"Call him Moses," Lana offered.
Melanie squealed in outrage. "That's the name of a pig!"
Lana refrained from giving the child a lecture on biblical incidents, instead she rubbed her nose. "Hmm, with that color... how about Onyx? An onyx is a beautiful, precious stone. What do you think?"
"Onyx... I like it."
"That's settled, then," said Sina crisply. Then she handed Melanie back her sword. "But now, I think it's time for you to go home, young warrior. I'm sure Flora's got lunch ready for you."
"Yeah, okay," Melanie said lightly. "But you'll still come and see me? After you've gone back home? Promise?"
"You betcha, kiddo," said Sina.
After a long good-bye from Melanie and promises to meet again as soon as possible, Sina and Lana were on their way to where Sina had parked her motorbike, Argo II. She handed Lana the helmet, but the young woman declined.
"Thanks, but no thanks," she said wryly. "You know me and bikes. Besides, what about him?" She held up a wicker basket, where Onyx was glaring out at them reproachfully. Melanie's adoptive mother, Flora, had indeed thrown a bit of a fit at the sight of the kitten, and so his new home had been decided on rather quickly.
"Yeah, yeah, I know." Sina threw her leg over the machine, and sat, turning over the helmet in her hands. "So, we're still friends?"
Lana pulled out her lighter, lit it and held it up between them. "Remember this?"
With only a slight hesitation, Sina put her own, trembling fingers around the hand holding up the flame.