Remember When, Gabrielle?
"Come on, try again! You almost got it this time!"
Two figures could be seen, head and shoulders above the relatively calm surface of the lake, bobbing lightly with the soft undulations of the crystal-clear water. Their breath made little clouds of steam in the early morning air.
"Okay, here goes," the smaller and lighter-haired of the two said, took a huge gulp of breath, and dove forward. Her legs kicking briefly above the surface of the water, she disappeared below while her dark-haired friend looked on with a tiny half-smile.
The surface of the water calmed again while she was down, the occasional bubble rising and betraying where she must be. Still expectant, the other remained very still and stared at the spot where the blonde had disappeared.
A huge splash, and the little blonde emerged again, a triumphant yell escaping her even before she had quite broken the surface. In her hands, a silvery, shining form was flopping wildly back and forth, struggling to wriggle out of her grasp.
"I did it!!! Look Xena, I really did it!"
"I knew you could do it Gabrielle," the taller form said with an indulgent smile. "And look what a nice one, too. Now, why don't you toss it over there with the others, and lets go prepare breakfast, huh?"
"Sounds like a plan."
She tossed her prize ashore. It flew in a huge silvery arc, to land on a large pile of large multicolored stones. No longer a fat bass but an ordinary piece of wet rock again, the stone joined its companions with a loud clack.
From the water rose two young girls in cartoon-character bathing suits, wringing water from their hair and shivering a little in the crisp air. Gabby grabbed their towels, and tossed one to Sina, a pleased grin nearly splitting her face in half.
"All the way to the bottom, Sina. I really did it," she chattered on excitedly.
The other girl's blue eyes sparkled with quiet pride for her smaller friend. "Yes, you sure did," she said.
Windshield-wipers flapped a dull counterpoint to the low music drifting from the radio, as the little car pulled off the Highway. It was raining hard enough to make the world outside the beam of the little car's headlights become a dark blur. Lana peered bleary-eyed ahead, her gaze intent on the road but her thoughts swirling with today's interview, and with the new story she couldn't wait to continue writing as soon as she got to the hotel. She cast an almost loving glance at the laptop sitting beside her on the passenger's seat. Her baby.
She had three more towns to pass through before she would arrive in the small, peaceful country village where her next assignment lay. She worked as a journalist for a small tabloid, and usually got burdened with the jobs no-one else wanted to take, simply because she just could not say no. Her only consolation was her writing, and the fact that she had actually managed to land a minor success with a little volume full of childhood memories. They were just short episodes taken from her not-so-boring everyday life as a kid, at the side of that indomitable, black-haired spitfire, Sina.
She smiled at the thought of her long-lost friend. She had no idea what had become of her. Just after Lana's 13th birthday, her dad had gotten a better job, and they had had to move to another town, too far away for more than the occasional visit. For some reason, those visits had soon stopped as both girls tried to manage life without the other. There had been letters, though, weekly at first, then monthly. The last Lana had heard from her friend was that she had graduated and was headed for the Police Academy. That had been a minor surprise, seeing how a certain watchman had been their favorite enemy back then. But somehow, she could picture the tall, blue-eyed girl quite well as a cop.
She herself had gone to university, gotten a degree both in journalism and ancient history, and finally ended up in this dull job that did not begin to give her abilities credit. But it was a living, and it did allow her to get around.
Around that time, all replies to her letters had stopped. One came back with a note written across that the recipient had moved and no new address had been given. Shortly after that, she herself had moved again. That had been the end of that, but Lana - Gabby, as she had been called back then, Gabrielle being her middle name - could never quite forget the girl she had so looked up to when she was little. Sina had never made many friends, but Gabby had been her faithful and trusted sidekick throughout their childhood. The memory of those last days together still stung. It must have been the only time little Gabby had ever seen her big tough friend weep.
A few years later, she had been surprised to see Sina on the news, now a full-fledged police officer responsible for the arrest of an infamous serial killer. She had not changed one bit in Lana's eyes, even with her once unruly black mane cut short and that smart uniform. She was still an untamed spirit, her blue eyes still staring defiance at the world. She had grown up to be quite a beautiful woman. Lana had briefly considered seeking her out, but at the time there had just been too much on her mind. Her sister's ruined marriage and finally the divorce - a relief. Her mom being diagnosed with a brain tumor, which, thankfully, had been successfully removed and so far had not grown back. Her own messed-up affair with Patrick, and her brief interlude with Jennifer that had been just as disappointing. Best not to dwell on that.
By the time she had found the time and courage to go and see her friend where she supposedly worked, she had been curtly informed that Sina McRunnel was no longer doing police duty, no reasons given. That had been two years ago.
Sighing, Lana forced her mind back to the business at hand. The weather was truly turning nasty, gusts of wind whipping sheets of water against the windshield with enough force to make her flinch. Vision was so bad that she almost missed the left turn she was supposed to take.
Just ahead, she saw a blob of something move erratically across the street. Thinking it must be a deer or some other large animal, Lana slowed the car down. The figure suddenly doubled over and fell down in a contorted lump, right in front of her car. Its outline was definitely human. Lana slammed on the brakes just barely in time to avoid running over the motionless body. Cursing under her breath, she unbuckled her seatbelt and pushed door open against the wind. Rain pelted her face as soon as she was able to put a foot outside.
Throwing all the warnings she had ever heard about roadside robberies in the wind, she struggled to reach the fallen form. It was a tall woman, dimly lit by the headlights of her car, her shoulder-length hair plastered to her face, and a bleeding wound gaping on her forehead that she must have gotten falling down onto the concrete. The water washing down in rivers made the blood spread quickly across a finely chiseled face and into her hair. Her eyes were closed, and she wasn't moving, but a touch of Lana's fingers against a chilled throat found the pulse beating strongly, if somewhat irregularly.
She looked a mess. Even through the wind and rain, she also positively reeked of alcohol. Saliva trickled from her mouth, mingled with the rain water and what must be traces of vomit.
Though more than disgusted at the woman's intoxicated condition, Lana realized that she needed medical care. She had to get her to a hospital.
"Hey, can you hear me?" she called, softly at first, then louder to be heard over the roaring of the weather. But she had to bring her mouth close to the woman's ear before she got any reaction at all.
That reaction, when it came, was a series of incoherent groans and mumbles. "Leeme...lone..."
"What's your name?" Lana tried again, louder and more insistent as she carefully ran her hands along the woman's body to check for more blood or other obvious injuries. She found none.
"Lemme... shleeeep...," she drawled drunkenly, struggling to raise her head, "don't yell... need... a drink..." Lana barely caught the woman's head before it thudded back onto the concrete.
"Oh, no you don't," Lana mumbled to an unhearing audience. It was a mannerism of hers to start talking to herself when under strain, and so she chattered away as she helped a now semi-conscious drunk to her feet and half-carried her to the passenger seat. She was a solid woman, and quite massive, and she leaned heavily on Lana. While certainly not skinny, there seemed to be more muscle than fat to her.
Groping around to get her precious laptop out of the way, she heaved the limp and heavy form into the passenger seat with a grunt, and experienced a brief moment of almost-panic when she heard the woman choke and retch. No more vomit came, though. With a sigh, she slammed the door shut and got in behind the wheel. Before she started the engine, she found an old cloth and cleared away the worst of the blood from the woman's face. It was too dark to see clearly even with the tiny lamp in the cockpit lit, but she could see that the wound was still bleeding profusely. She hastily tied the cloth around the drunk's head to stop the worst of it.
She had passed a somewhat larger town that had a hospital a few miles back, and so she turned her car and drove back there as fast as the weather would allow. She checked her watch - 9:20pm. Hopefully, she would still be in time to check in at her hotel.
An hour and a half later, she passed that same spot on the road again, bone weary and shaken by the thought that she had almost been responsible for the death of a human being.
They had let her off at the hospital after a brief interview, after she assured them that she had no idea who the woman was. It seemed they had found no ID on her at all. Something had tickled her mind, but she had thought nothing of it.
It seemed the woman had suffered no worse than a light concussion, other than having barely avoided a serious alcohol poisoning. They would keep her under surveillance for a day or so, but she would be okay.
Barely in time, the journalist reached the tiny hotel that was to be her home for the night. All thoughts of writing were gone from her mind. She took a quick shower to warm herself, and went to bed for an uneasy sleep, troubled by visions of a blood-covered face on a lonely, rain-pelted street.
Lana had no idea what made her go back to the hospital the following day, though she was later to think that some God must have smiled on her that day.
The assignment had been more or less routine, coverage of that little hamlet's rather peculiar Easter tradition, supposedly brought there by Eastern European immigrants generations ago. She was still shaking her head at the thought of girls and women voluntarily letting males whip their butts with a willow rod, and even thanking them with treats of chocolate eggs afterwards, when she climbed the stairs to the first floor of the hospital and the room she had been directed to.
She almost turned back without knocking, as a sudden, inexplicable wave of trepidation washed over her. For a minute she just stood there in front of the closed door, fist poised for knocking.
Squaring her shoulders, she drew a breath and knocked, knowing suddenly with giddy certainty whom she would find on the other side.
But how... whatever happened to her since we parted? Oh my God!
At the sound of a shaky voice telling her to come in, she pushed open the door, her heart suddenly in her throat.
She lay there with her eyes closed, looking a lot better cleaned up and with the wound on her forehead neatly dressed, though still drawn and pale, with deep circles under her eyes. Lana wondered why she had not recognized her the day before. But it had been so very long, and it had been too dark to see clearly out on that road. And it seemed life had not been kind to her. Not kind at all. The journalist's heart ached for her oldest, dearest friend.
Lana found herself unable to speak, and just silently willed her to open her eyes. She so wanted to look into those eyes again!
Obviously expecting a nurse or doctor, Sina only opened her eyes when her visitor made no move and did not speak for some time. A trace of the old, impatient spirit flared there, to be turned into puzzlement and then into surprised wonder as recognition dawned.
"Hey," Lana croaked past the lump in her throat.
"Not a dream, then," Sina breathed, and grinned weakly, bitterly. "Guess I wasn't as hammered as I thought. Hey, Gabby." Her eyes closed again, briefly. "I'm sorry."
"Sorry for what?"
"For what? Do you think if I ever met you again, I wanted it to be like this? I've dreamed of this moment, but I just never saw it happening. And certainly not like this. I feel like a piece of shit."
Lana sat down on the edge of the bed, and took Sina's hand in both of hers. She was still stunned at the unexpected reunion, and the incredible coincidence that had let them find each other again on some godforsaken, drenched country road, of all places. "What's happened to you in all these years? Tell me, Sina."
A brief smile flickered across the taller woman's features, and with Lana's help she propped herself up against the headrest as she started telling her tale. Hesitant, almost shy at first, Lana's encouraging and compassionate gaze gently urged her on.
She had been a cop for some time, and then something had happened involving bribes and other nasty things going on among Sina's colleagues. Sina had apparently stumbled upon some atrocity that her own boss had been involved in, and had tried to take matters into her own hand. As a consequence, she had been unceremoniously suspended, with a list of nasty charges on her record, which she insisted was not fully justified. After that, she had been able to get the odd job as a body guard, most of these for the more dubious and seedy characters in town. From there, it seemed she had spiraled down a maelstrom of minor crime, drugs, and alcohol.
Lana listened in growing horror, but Sina assured her that she was clean now of drugs. She had even managed to get an honest job again, hauling furniture for a local seller, with the help of one of the few of her ex-colleagues who had believed her rather than her one-time boss. It wasn't heaven, but it kept her alive.
The alcohol was a problem from time to time, though, she admitted. She just got so terribly lonely, and sometimes she just had to drown it all or she couldn't stand it.
As she listened, Lana had started softly stroking her friend's hand. Her own story was told quickly, and by the time she ended, she found Sina's blue gaze resting on her, the old pride at her smaller friend's success evident in her eyes.
"So, you're Lana Bachman, the author, huh? I really should have made the connection. The last name... but then, no one ever really called you Lana back then, not even your parents. Why did you change that?"
Lana shrugged. "It just seemed the thing to do, with so many things changing already in my life. So, I take it you haven't read my book, have you?"
Sina looked sheepish. "I don't read much. You know me. That much, at least, hasn't changed."
"Oh, but I think this will interest you. I've got a few autographed copies in the trunk of my car. I'll get you one later." She smiled excitedly, impatient to learn what her friend thought about her collection of anecdotes from their childhood.
"Sure, you do that," Sina agreed smiling. She turned serious again, her hands fiddling with the covers. "I'm really glad for you, Gabby. Is it all right if I still call you that?"
"Of course it is. And hey, it's not as if my life is pure bliss. I'm really not too happy with my job right now. They just walk all over me, because I'm too chicken and too naive to do anything about it."
Sina stared out the window, only half-hearing her friend's words. "You were always the nice one of us, the pure, good, innocent one. I was just scum."
"That's not true Sina, and you know it," Lana replied intently.
"Yes, Gab, it is. My mom said so, your mom said so... what was there not to believe?" She laughed bitterly. "Look at you, you're educated now. I'm nothing."
Sina's biting remark hurt, but looking at her drawn and haggard face and seeing all the pain and anger her one-time friend must have gone through, she swallowed her own irritation.
"No you're not. You were a cop once, and from what I hear you were one of the best. You can be again."
"Oh, you have no idea. That is one thing I can never be again. I took care of that myself." Another mirthless laugh.
"Listen, Sina, I don't care what you've done to end up where you are, but it's not too late to turn back."
"That's easy for you to say."
"Sina - Xena, Warrior Princess... I have never stopped believing in you, even after all that time. You were my hero back then, and my protector, and I loved you." She paused to cup Sina's face in her hands. "I still do," she finished quietly. The next she did not speak aloud. I wonder why it's taken me all these years to realize that. I should have gone to her right away, and Patrick and Jenny be damned. She needed me. She always did need me, big stupid thing!
"Xena...", the dark-haired woman murmured, "I haven't heard that name spoken in ages..." She closed her eyes, overcome with memories. When she opened them again to look at her friend, they were glistening with unshed tears. A crooked smile accompanied her words.
"And what makes you think even Xena can straighten up this mess she's made of herself? Tell me, Gabrielle..."
Lana blinked at the magic words from her childhood, surprised to have tears sting her own eyes. "Oh, Xena, there is always a way... and now that you've got me to take care of you, what could go wrong? We'll make it, you and I." She sniffed. "Now see what you've made me do. Crying like a little girl."
"Like I'm any better," an equally sniffling Sina laughed through her tears. "Come on little bard, give your warrior a hug! I think I'm finally coming home."
"Oh," was all Lana managed before Sina drew her into a fierce embrace. What ever else was about to happen, let it come. Xena and Gabrielle were together again, and nothing would stop them. Nothing ever had.
The warrior had indeed come home. So had the bard.
Author's Note: Again, this is not the end of the Sina and Gabby stories. Lana - Gabby - is getting ready to write more as we speak. And, with Sina now adding her two Dinars, I'd say the fun was just beginning!