You Have To Die, So You Can Be Reborn
October 31, 2001
Lieutenant J.G. Grace Paxon's blue-green eyes searched the wide horizon of the Indian Ocean. She had expected to see the incoming choppers carrying ground troops by now. The long wait was about to be over, and un Fortunately the medical staff would now have something to do. Having worked the past two years as an ER nurse in Appleton, Wisconsin, Grace was used to sewing people back together and assisting doctors in removing bullets. She kept telling herself that this wouldn't be too bad. She just had to believe what she was telling herself.
She had joined the Naval ROTC when she was in undergraduate school. It helped pay for her college and continuing in the reserves, gave her something to do one weekend a month. Her nursing skills had been challenged by blisters, sunburn, poison ivy, and the occasional case of frostbite; the Navy in Wisconsin was far, far from the front line. When her unit had been called up for the Afghani incursion, she figured she might end up in a hospital in Spain, or maybe in some friendly middle-Eastern country, she never dreamed she would be on a ship. It was certainly a long way from Wisconsin. While the Navy was still a man's world, there were more women than she expected with about fifteen percent of the enlisted crew female. There were seven other nurses, a female doctor, and four other female officers, none of whom were her friends. Maybe if she had sailed over with the crew, instead of meeting up with them in Yemen, it would have been different. Now, this close to the front line, everyone appeared to be all business. It was probably best for everyone if they remained that way.
The rotation of the chopper's blades created a strong wind as it landed on the deck. Grace grabbed her hat and held it tightly against her blonde hair. Five men departed the chopper, one had his hand in a sling, one had a slight limp, and the other three seemed totally fine. The sixth person getting off the craft was a tall dark-haired woman, carrying her steel pot helmet in her hand, with the most wonderful smile she had ever seen in her life.
"Well, I guess they won't be needing our nursing skills after all." She said to another nurse standing beside her "from here the extent of the casualties look like they could be tended to by a troop of Girl Scouts with a first aid kit."
"Yea!" she sighed, "But did you see that woman? What is she doing coming from the front lines?"
"I think she is probably Russian." Grace's eyes tried to see if she could recognize any insignia. "May be part of the United Nation's forces."
"From the salutes she is getting, I think she's pretty high ranking. I bet she has some stories to tell."
"We'd better get down to the hospital room anyway. They might have something we need to test, Anthrax exposure or something."
"Sure hope not."
"Me either. But I wouldn't mind swabbing her throat." Grace kicked herself. That was not the right thing to say. She didn't really know her companion. Even a little slip like that might come back to haunt her, possibly ending her Naval career.
"Lieutenant Paxon. Here are the orders on Kapitan Fedorov. She is dehydrated. Start up a saline IV. After that, maybe she would like a bottle of water, too." Petty Officer Second Class Jeff Hansen, from her unit in Wisconsin, was the clerk for the ER unit today.
"Aye, Aye. Sir." She said with a big grin. "I'll get that for her right away." Despite the fact that Jeff was an enlisted man, they had become very close friends. She treated the big hulking farm boy as a younger brother, not someone who should salute her.
Grace ducked into the small curtained treatment room and found the Kapitan sitting on a chair with her legs up on the hamper holding the hospital gowns. She had already removed her shirt and was wearing only a short camouflage undervest stretched tight over her full breasts.
"Hello Lt. Paxon." She said looking down at Grace's name badge. "I honestly don't think I need an IV, but if someone is going to punch holes in my arm you look like the woman to do it." Her voice was strong and her English had only a slight hint of an accent. It came off more like a laugh than anything else.
"Well, I guess this is the night for punching holes, and I am a graduate of the University of Wisconsin School of Vampiring. Too bad we don't need any of your blood. Hole punching is second nature to me. But I-I-I prefer the neck." Grace was unsure whether they had Halloween or vampires in Russia. She hoped the officer would not think she was crazy.
"I'll keep my blood to . . " a slight flinch as Grace inserted the needle "myself, thank you."
"Let's give this a minute to see if it is flowing correctly, and I will get you some water to drink. Fresh pure American bottled water -- compliments of Coca Cola." Grace indicated for the woman to move her feet and sat down on the top of the gown hamper. "How long have you been out there, in the field."
"Almost two weeks. I came all the way through the country with a group that was picking up allies hiding in caves. " She didn't mention to Grace that she had also killed seven identified al-Qaida terrorists.
Grace's eyes looked down and saw a circular metal ring hanging from the woman's belt. "What is that?" She reached out to grab it and had her hand met by the tall woman's. "It's my . . " the Russian stopped for a second, "It's an old folk Russian weapon. Sort of like a boomerang, but easier to throw."
"Interesting!" Grace pondered. "Standard issue."
"Far as I know, I'm the only one who carries one. Actually, it is my personal weapon, but they let me carry it because . . .
"Looks like everything is running OK. I'll go get you some water, and then you just have to sit here for an hour while this bag empties. Then you are free to go. Just give a holler and someone will unhook you."
Grace hurried through the curtains and took a deep breath. She could swear that Kapitan Fedorov was carrying a chakrum. It probably had another name in Russian. She certainly would have never heard of Xena: Warrior Princess and would have thought Grace insane if she made any comment. Come to think of it she did look like Xena, in a weary unwashed sort of way. Grace laughed to herself and went to the refrigerator to get a litre bottle of water for her patient. "Nice isn't she, Gracie? Made sure you got to treat her." Jeff whispered as she walked by with the water.
"Shut up." It had been a mistake telling Jeff that she was gay. He thought was really funny and suggested that they could go out looking for women together and maybe "double date." Considering the social life she had had back in Appleton it really didn't seem like such a bad idea. She just didn't need him bringing it up here on the ship.
She handed the Kapitan her water with only a brief "Your welcome" and checked to see if there were any other jobs in what passed as the ship's ER. That was the worst thing about working ER, either something horrible had happened or you were bored. As things looked completely under control she returned to her quarters and thumbed through a Sci-Fi magazine not bothering to read any of the articles. Eventually she fell asleep and waited for more choppers.
A tall blonde male ensign escorted Kapitan Fedorov to a stateroom. "The Captain is sorry but this is our only empty stateroom, but I trust you will find it satisfactory."
"Ensign, when you've been sleeping on the ground for two weeks, a cot is a luxury."
The ensign who had spent the last few minutes trying to picture the officer with her shirt off, instead of merely unbuttoned, tried to picture this woman sleeping on the ground, and smiled. "Call me, if you need anything."
"I think if there is soap and shampoo in there, I will be quite happy for the time being. Thank you." She smiled at him. Even dirty, she was most pleasant to look at.
Olga brushed her long hair with a nylon brush she found in the room. Dirt, sand, and twigs fell on the floor. 'I must have been a sight,' she though, 'It's a wonder I wasn't scratching my scalp off.' A long hot shower and two applications of shampoo made her feel a little more human. She wrapped one towel around her body and a second around her head, and sat down on the bunk in her room.
She jumped. Someone was in her room. The hairs on her neck rose. She could someone. What an odd sensation! The room was so small she could almost see every corner, yet she knew someone was there.
In the time it took to look around the room and turn her head back, she saw him -- a tall dark man definitely not a part of the naval contingent on the ship. He had cut his hair and trimmed his beard, but she recognized him as the man she had rescued from the cave. The man she had given her Tchaikovsky tape, but what was he doing here?
He held his finger to his mouth, indicating that she shouldn't talk too loud. She wanted to scream. What was this strange man doing here? She remembered that in the cave he had spoken to her in Greek and acted as if she should know him. As usual, as when other unexplainable things had happened in her life, she had just ignored him. There were some things that if you thought about . . .
"I know. I should have waited." He was whispering softly, in English. "It's just, you can't imagine how much I missed you. How long I have waited. I haven't made love to any woman in ten years. I haven't made love to you in almost two thousand years. I can't wait."
The man was crazy and he was going to rape her. A Kapitan in the Russian army was going to be raped on a U.S. Naval vessel. A woman who had transversed Afghanistan and suffered only dehydration was going to be raped by a mad man once she had reached safety. She reached for her weapon. His hand was even quicker. There was really no space in the room to fight hand-to-hand. He seemed to sense something and backed off.
"I'm sorry. I assumed you knew. I'm really sorry." His eyes were huge and black and filled with tears.
"I guess I am going to have to explain it to you, but I need to touch you. Can I just sit down beside you and explain. I promise. I'm not going to hurt you."
She nodded her head. He sat beside her and took her hand in his. It was large and callused. He smelled like leather and strangely a little like lilacs.
"What should I call you?" He asked.
"My name is Olga, Olga Fedorov. Kapitan Olga Fedorov."
"So should I call you Kaptitan, Olga or Fedorov?" He asked.
"What do you think you should call me?"
"Olga, I guess." He wanted to call her Xena. "And you have absolutely no idea who I am?"
"Well if the intelligence we received is correct your name is Ari Sadam and you were, until September 16th a rather high ranking member of the al-Qaida forces. Some sort of strategic planner, but battles mainly, not terrorist activities. Or else you would be dead and not here on this ship. On that date . . " She switched to Greek in case the room was being monitored by someone who would surely speak both English and Russian "you accomplished a major goal of the current fighting and decapitated Osama bin Laden. We can't make that public yet or people might think that the war is over. It isn't and won't be for a long time."
He looked into her eyes. It was almost as if he was trying to crawl into her mind, to touch her soul. "You have absolutely no idea who I am, do you." He bent over and took her face in his hands and gently kissed her. His lips were firm and his tongue probing. She suddenly had no fear of rape, but welcomed his advances. She welcomed his removing the towel, she welcomed his hands on her breasts, and the soft firm strokes down her torso. He broke off the kiss and began it again, this time lower and more personal. It had been a long time since she had been made love to, even longer since it had been by a man.
It was so very strange. He claimed he hadn't made love for ten years, yet he seemed in no hurry. He seemed only to be concerned with her pleasure, her feelings. She ran her fingers though his long dark hair and pulled him more tightly into her groin. He held her firmly and seemed almost to be trying to crawl inside her. He made no effort to remove his clothing, to enter her, or to even get her to touch his penis. He seemed content. She felt her body stiffen and the pangs of orgasm begin to rise. She tried to stifle them, as you did a sneeze when you were in hiding. It made it worse. She thought of knitting -- men thought of baseball. She thought of her grandfather. She thought of headless corpses. 'Damn, nothing was working. This was not a problem women often had with men. Usually they had to fake it. '
When the inevitable happened, she closed her eyes. Her entire body began to convulse. He held her softly until it ended, and when she opened them he was gone. It had to have been some sort of hallucination. She found herself wondering if there had been some sort of sedative in the IV that she had received. Some sort of opiate that had brought on . . . she remembered whisperings, rambling words that he had said as he held her. "I love you. You have absolutely no idea who I am do you? I love you, Xena." Someone and something on this ship was really messing with her mind.
In retrospect, and to protect her sanity, Olga decided it was just a dream. She found a hairdryer blew out her hair. The friendly ensign had returned with clean US officer whites that fit her perfectly. She dressed and found her way outside the cabin area. Lt. Paxon was standing, looking out at the sea. She wondered if she should comment on the contents or the IV, but in the interest of diplomacy she decided to let it ride until she had more information.
"The stars are different here than they are in Wisconsin." The young nurse commented.
"Everything seems so 'overhead' and north so far away."
"I was in South Africa once, you felt lost when you looked at the stars. No Ursa Major. No North Star." Kapitan Fedorov commented.
"No following the drinking gourd." Grace thought of the American folksong and how it related to the blacks of South Africa. 'Not the type of comment you would expect from a woman who had drugged you!' Olga thought. "I recognize that from an American Song."
"Always loved it. My mother had it on an old record. You know vinyl record. I think I played it until the needle wore out and we couldn't find another one. Wasn't the same on a CD."
"I mostly listen to classical music. I love Tchaikovsky, don't you."
"The Nutcracker?" The nurse wrinkled her nose. "Sorry that's all I think of. The Waltz of the Flowers. Having to get dressed up at Christmas and go to the ballet while you could be playing in the snow with your friends. People thought I was odd enough in Appleton listening to folk music, never thought of listening to that classical stuff."
"You really should you know. The emotions it brings out . . ." Suddenly her mind was back to that man in her room, in the cave, the man with those black eyes.
"You seem far away." Grace looked up and into her eyes. "That must be some emotion you are feeling." She reached out to take Olga's hand.
'She's coming on to me. That's it. She must have slipped some sort of aphrodisiac into that IV and is waiting for it to take effect.' Even after the cold war ended, tales of what the American's might do if they got their hands on a strong Russian mind still circulated. 'She is going to seduce me and try to find out -- she probably doesn't know about bin Laden.' It was time to put an end to this right now. She looked down at the Lieutenant and pulled her hand back. "Don't ask, don't tell." She whispered. The Lieutenant shuddered and walked away.
Kapitan Fedorov returned to her room. Here she was on a US Naval vessel trapped between an irritating, and horny, blonde Lieutenant and a disappearing dark man who wants to rape her. Given her druthers, she would return to Afghanistan tomorrow, where the enemies she faced would be real and identifiable. Sleep would be a relief, as long as she didn't dream.
Kapitan Fedorov awoke refreshed. No men or women had entered her dreams, not even Afghani terrorists. She had had peaceful dreams of flying over Africa watching giraffes, zebras and elephants. She dreamed of swimming in the Black Sea and climbing mountains. She was ready to eat a hearty breakfast and get back to fighting. Unfortunately the ship's mess was serving that soft, cottony American bread. The hardtack she carried in her pack was better than that stuff. They did have fresh bananas, which she always enjoyed and orange juice. Lieutenant Paxon had been there too. Chirping around from table to table. Always smiling, always friendly. She hid her face behind a large mug of weak American coffee when she danced by her table. Becoming involved with an American nurse was the last thing she needed right now. The information she received about when she was returning was inconclusive. It seemed all of those airlifted were responding well, however, unless there was a call to return to the mainland to pick up wounded, they were going to remain on the ship another 24 hours for observation. If the choppers had to go back, they would return, so they should remain ready to go on just a few minutes notice. She decided it was best to return to her quarters and pack up the few things that she had brought with her. She planned to remain dressed in her clean clothes until the last notice arrived.
He was sitting in her room when she arrived. He was definitely not a dream or a hallucination.
"Have you figured out who I am yet? Have you even thought about it?" He had an evil smile, yet at the same time projected the aura that he was not going to hurt her.
"I thought.. " she stammered "That you were a hallucination."
"Well, I'm not am I, Olga?"
"I thought you said I could call you whatever I wanted."
"That was before..."
"You still haven't answered my question. Do you know who I am?"
"I am sorry. I would give you the exact same answer I gave you yesterday, which I feel was not the one you were looking for."
They had stood there, toe to toe, looking in each other's eyes, searching. She had no idea what either of them would have been searching for. He reached out, put his hand on her shoulder, and pulled her into a kiss. Although she kissed him back for a few seconds, she pulled back.
"I have absolutely no interest in a repeat performance of what happened yesterday afternoon." She said sternly.
"Why, I thought you rather liked it."
"I loved it." Why had she said that? Because she had, but then she shouldn't have told him.
"And you still . .
"Have no idea who you are, or at least no idea who you think I should think you are." "I'm sorry. I'd hoped it wouldn't come to this." His look was distant, almost cruel. He lunged toward her and grabbed her arm and twisted it behind her back. He was much stronger than she was and seemed to anticipate her every move. He was definitely going to rape her, or beat her up, or kill her. Maybe all three. He pulled his arm back and made a fist. He was going to hit her in the face. She wondered where the security was on this ship.
"No, can't do it. I thought . . . I've fought you a lot more times than I've fucked you. Maybe you'd remember that. . . but I can't do it."
She was totally confused.
"Sit down. Just stop me when you remember something. OK. Long, long time ago. Thrace. Small farm-house, belonged to your grandparents. I was a farmer. Big ugly dog, Horace. Used to take things and bury them. Anything? Does anything sound familiar?"
"Dog maybe, but my grandparents lived in Kiev. Never been to Bulgaria. Too depressing. Are you sure you haven't got me confused."
"You'd gone to the village with your friend. The bard. Little blonde."
"No, Gabrielle. I can't believe it. You really, honestly don't remember."
A knock on the door. She turned to look that way and when she looked back he was gone. She realized that she had been sitting talking to a hallucination again. It was the ensign telling her that she needed to go back to the hospital for a few more tests, nothing serious, the doctors had just decided to test all those who came from the mainland.
Of course Lt. Grace was waiting blood kit in hand for her to come in and get vampirised.
"Well it looks as if your wish has come true." She smiled at the nurse. If you can't beat her, the least you can do is torment her.
"They just decided that while you were here we'd do some tests for exposure to chemical and biological contaminants. Nothing to be worried about. Pump your fist. Now a little stick."
"Shut up and take the blood. I know the drill."
She watched as the tube filled with blood. The nurse changed tubes and took another.
"I said I knew the drill."
"You know, they teach nurses what to do with patients like you. Just a little slip and you have a nasty hematoma deal with for the next two weeks."
"Even if they outrank you."
"Especially if they outrank you. You should see what we can do with men!"
Kapitan Fedorov could think of one man, somewhere on this ship perhaps, that she would love to see this little nurse get her hands on. 'What a delightful match that would be.' Her smile, while appropriate to her thoughts, was totally out of line with the needle being removed from her arm and the nurse placing a cotton ball and a band aide over the puncture. "Thank you. I trust you will find something interesting."
Olga Fedorov stared out at the Indian Ocean. The strange memories that she had dealt with all her life by ignoring had followed her here. Followed her here, and magnified. She'd never hallucinated like this before, she was sure of it. Maybe she had been exposed to something on the mainland. Maybe al-Qaida had developed a new weapon and had tested it on the allied ground forces. If that was the case, the war was going to be a long one, a very long one.
Six months later
Olga Fedorov couldn't believe it. Kat had moved to Prague. The woman she loved, the woman she had expected to spend the rest of her life with, had taken a job with an American law firm in Prague. She hadn't even written to tell her, but just left a message with her landlord in Moscow. The hairy old man was only too delighted to deliver the message when she stopped to pick up her key. She wanted to throw her fist through the wall. All that time, thinking about coming home. She turned her back and started up the stairs.
"Kapitan Fedorov, wait, I've got something else for you."
She spun around. He threw an audiocassette with a note wrapped around it at her. She caught it with one hand and continued up the stairs. She knew who had sent it, but wondered what the note would say.
Still wondering if you remembered. Got tired of waiting in your empty apartment. Remember I do love you. If you need me just call. Ari.
She had come home for a three-week vacation -- R & R as the American's called it -- from the war. Now she finds out that her lover has moved and some crazy man has been hanging out in her apartment. She went into her bedroom expecting to see her civilian underwear spread all over the room. She worried that he might be stalking her, waiting outside for her to leave her apartment, or worse yet, hiding in the shadows like he did on the ship, convinced that she really did love him, as he kept saying he loved her. To her surprise, the apartment was as she left it and empty.
She awoke the next morning and went to the gym before breakfast. For the first time in seven months she worked out with heavy weights and found that she if anything had gotten stronger. She had lost five kilos but felt fit.
"I hear your girlfriend left for Prague." A short bald man working out at the next bench said to her.
"What is this, dump on Olga week. Even my gym friends welcome me back with bad news."
"Sorry. She wasn't good for you, you know. Just liked the idea you were a military hero. She wasn't going to wait."
"I thought she was. Good and willing to wait."
"Well, even Kapitan Olga Fedorov can be wrong sometimes."
"By the way, have you seen a strange man around here. Tall, very well built, long black hair, black eyes."
"Olga, you just described half the men in this gym."
"Names Ari, or Ares or something like that." She had no idea where the name Ares had come from after she said it.
"Arum. Arum Tchaikovsky. Says he's related to the composer. Started coming in about five months ago. Works out three-four hours a day. No idea what he does, but he usually comes in about ten. Do you want me to tell him you asked."
"Don't you dare say a word to him. Arum you say. I can't believe the bastard is calling himself Tchaikovsky. Don't you ask for identification when someone joins this gym." "I did, he had it, Olga. I.D. card, passport, everything."
She muttered under her breath. She was only going to be in town for three weeks. If she got here early and was gone by 9:30, she probably wouldn't run into him. That is if she could trust the weasel that ran this gym not to tell him that she was here in the morning.
"What was it like there, Olga?" Her work out friend asked.
"You know, cold, dry, ugly. Bad food. Lots of blood. The usual."
"Sounds like it." "Yah, but you know what the worst thing about Afghanistan is?"
"Worst place on earth to try to pick up women."
He laughed. It was too bad that this gorgeous woman had absolutely no interest in men. But then, if she wasn't interested in men, why had she asked about Arum Tchaikovsky. He wondered.
"Grace. Lt. Commander Harris wants to see you." Jeff had a concerned look on his face. "Says it is important."
She wondered if anything had happened to any of her patients after she left yesterday. None of them seemed critical; she tried to visualize a case where something might have gone wrong. Of course her next thought was always that her sexual preference had been discovered. She had been very careful, and since that Russian Kapitan had left, not really tempted. Still, you never know when you might slip up.
"Lt. Paxon," the Major asked, "How is your Russian?"
"Totally non-existent. I don't even know how to say hello. I know 'nyet' or is it 'neyt'. That's about the extent of it."
"What if I were going to tell you that you were going to spend the next three weeks in Moscow."
"I'd say 'nyet.'"
"And I'd say what you say has nothing to do with it. Our friends the Russian's have developed a new way of taking blood. It doesn't involve needles, some sort of ultrasonic beam that inserts a cannula. Really cuts down the risk of blood born contamination. We're sending you to learn about it.."
"Shouldn't you send a doctor?"
"Can't spare a doctor. Never know when a battle is going to turn ugly. This is really a skill for nurses, you're the ones who insert most of the needles, and you Lt. Paxon are our best vampire."
"I guess I could stand a change of scenery. " Six plus months of ocean had gotten a little old, even to someone from Wisconsin.
"Go pack your things. You leave in two hours. " "Thanks. I'll get you a Faberge egg or something. They do come in chocolate, don't they?"
"I thank you in advance Lt. Paxon. Now get going."
She couldn't believe it. She had been picked to go to Moscow to learn about this new procedure. Three whole weeks away from this cussed gray ship, that cussed blue ocean, and that cussed red blood. No! There was still going to be blood, lots of it. She wondered if she might run into Kapitan Fedorov, but convinced herself that the blue-eyed Russian was still killing men in caves in Afghanistan, if she hadn't been killed herself.
Olga had been home less than a day and already she was bored. After a hearty breakfast, she had no idea what to do next. She had not made plans to fill her downtime, expecting to spend it with Kat. Now with her lover gone she had absolutely no interest in going out to try to find someone else. Not with her leaving again in three weeks. She walked silently in the cold rain; it wasn't spring yet, even though the calendar said April.
He was walking silently beside her. Matching strides. She could sense his presence before she saw him. Again he appeared out of nowhere. It was beginning to get frightening. After not bothering her for six months, she was certain he was not a hallucination, but wasn't sure what he could be.
"I hear you have a new name. Complete with I.D." She looked him square in the eye and told him.
"Creative aren't I? Don't you just love it?"
"Why are you stalking me?"
"I'm not stalking you. I just heard that you might be a little lonely the next few weeks. Girlfriend left you. Those guys in the gym were sure excited about it."
"Damn them, always talking behind my back."
"You should hear what they say, or maybe you shouldn't. You've killed men for less than that."
"If there is a man I should kill, it would be you. Mr. Sadam or Mr. Tchaikovsky, or whatever you think I should KNOW your name is."
"Still don't remember do you?" He asked again.
"I know, maybe it's Rumplestiltskin." He laughed. "Not quite, but a good guess. Going to have to give you style points on that."
'Damn' she thought to herself. 'Why does this stalker have to be so good looking? Why is he so tempting? Why do I want to take him home with me.'
'That's it, Xena.' He thought to himself. 'Go with it. Just let it run and you'll remember who I am.' "Let's get out of the rain. Get a cup of coffee or something. How about coming back to my apartment. It's just a couple of blocks from here." 'Damn it, why did I just say "yes:' she thought to herself.
He made Greek coffee, replete with sugar, in a small copper pot, and poured it into small white cups.
"Why do you insist that I am Greek? I was born here in Moscow. My family is from Kiev. Never been to Greece in my life." She said.
He answered her in Greek. "That is where your spirit is. Why do you speak the language of a country where you have never been?"
"In case you haven't noticed. I am speaking Classical Greek. I learned it in college. A modern Athenian would understand about every third world. Why do you understand me?"
"Haven't you wondered that, too, Olga? My Greek is the same as yours. Does that mean anything?"
She hadn't. Now she did. "All Greek to me. .Sorry. I couldn't resist."
"Quite honestly, it doesn't matter what language you speak. I know them all. Any language where a war has ever been fought." He wondered if he was giving anything away. He had so wanted her to figure it out for herself. He was fairly sure now that he hadn't resurrected her from the ashes in that cave, but instead caused her spirit, alive and well and living in the twenty-first century to come to him. It was his Xena; she just didn't know it. He wanted her to figure it out for herself.
"Think someone told me that once, when I got the orders to go find you in that cave. Didn't know what it meant then, still don't. You are the most mysterious man I have ever known."
"And you have known me for a long, long time."
"You keep telling me that. How long? Didn't you say two-thousand years."
"You have a good memory, Kapitan Fedorov. Short term anyway. It's that long term stuff that seems to have slipped a bit."
"Well, if I have two-thousand years of memories, sorting through them is going a while. I'm only back home for three weeks, so I'd rather not bother."
"Not bother!" He seemed somewhat upset.
"Yes, why do we not make that the operative phrase for the next three weeks -- You will NOT BOTHER me and I will NOT BOTHER trying to figure out who you are."
"And if I don't"
"I have friends on the police. I can have your good looking ass thrown in jail and I am sure that the GUYS there will have a lot of interesting ways of making you feel right at home."
She turned and walked out the door. Once again he stood there alone and confused, wondering where he had gone wrong this time again.
Grace Paxon sat in the classroom and looked around. There were about thirty people, ten of them women, five of them very attractive, in the seminar. The speaker would talk, three to five minutes, in Russian and then a voice would come in her earphones translating it into English. It gave her a lot of time to look around and look at the people, check out her "gay-dar" which was rusty from the ship. 'Shit, it was rusty from Appleton, Wisconsin, too,' she thought. She probably wouldn't know a gay woman if she came up and kissed her.
'Kissed her,' she thought above the translation, 'I should have kissed her. That night on the ship. I wanted to kiss her. She was so beautiful there with the wind in her hair. She was . . .
The program ended without an English translation. The final few minutes had to have been banal platitudes that the presenters deemed unworthy of translation, or else they were government secrets. She would never know. She thought about all those years in high school in college she had struggled with French, then changed to Spanish because it was supposed to be easier, how could she have known that what she really should have been studying was Russian.
Her hotel was a short two-block walk from the hospital where the classes were being held. It would be easy to not venture further into this city that seemed to alien. She walked with her head down carrying the heavy bad of materials they had been given for the course and ran into . . . Olga Fedorov.
'Was it proper to hug a Russian military officer on the streets of Moscow? Hell, she didn't care.' She grabbed the taller woman and pressed her body against hers.
Olga Fedorov seemed somewhat surprised at the nature of the hug. With another woman it would be breast to breast, groin to groin, but Olga was so much taller that the two women's body parts just seemed to spoon into convenient hollows. Grace loved the way Olga smelled and didn't want to let go.
"I thought you were in Afghanistan rescuing men in caves!"
"And I thought you were on the Indian Ocean, sewing up the men I rescue."
"R & R."
They both laughed.
"Do you need a drink. We Russians drink too much. I know a nice place down the street."
Grace thought, 'You need a drink. There isn't enough vodka in Russia to cover what I am going to do to you tonight.'
They were the only two women in the bar, yet none of the men seemed to bother looking at them. In fact, most of them didn't look beyond their personal glasses of vodka. Grace found it hard to visualize another place where Olga Fedorov could have walked into where the men present would not have stopped dead in their tracks and stared at her. It were Russian men that dead and uninterested, or was this a gay bar?
They sat, talked and drank. At first they talked about meaningless things. Then Olga allowed her to babble about the course she was talking, the details of drawing blood, things she couldn't have cared about. She remembered taking her hand and demonstrating the finger prick, and not letting go. She had rolled up the Kapitan's sleeve and traced the veins on the inside of her elbow with her finger. She wanted to trace the veins on the inside of her neck. She had not removed her hand as Olga told tales of Afghani caves.
Grace was still nursing her second drink while Olga seemed to have had four, or was it five. A few slices of hard, dense, dark bread had appeared, with sweet white butter. They had filled her stomach and produced the same feeling as dark chocolate. No wonder the Russians had always complained about the bread on the ship.
"It's getting late. I should be getting back to the hotel."
"I'll walk you back. It's not safe to walk the streets alone." "But you will be walking back to your apartment alone."
"First of all, I am a Kapitan in the Russian army. I can take care of myself."
"First?" She looked up at the taller woman.
"And second, who said, I am going home?" Olga took her face in her hands and softly kissed her. Obviously "don't ask, don't tell" was not the rule in the Russian army. Here was a officer kissing another woman in the dark, but still rather public, bar. Perhaps else the men in this bar had secrets of their own not to ask or tell.
She could not walk close enough to Olga as they navigated the two blocks to the hotel. Her steps came with irregular rhythm as if she were the one who had had the five glasses of vodka. She didn't remember when she had been so excited. She was surprised she could walk at all. They separated as she retrieved the key to her room and walked up the three flights of stairs, but as soon as the door opened, they were in each other's arms again.
There was no time for ritual undressing; neither of them wanted to wait for the other to take the lead. Grace removed her own blouse and folded it neatly; Olga peeled off her T-shirt.
"Stop. Let me look at you this way," Olga said when Grace had removed her trousers. She was wearing a floral patterned bra and matching bikini panties. "I've always had a thing about western underwear. Leave it on for a while, please." Strangely enough Grace had thought the exact same thing about Olga's ribbed knit, seriously covering, underwear.
'Tidy whities' she had said to herself.
Olga kissed her and held her tightly. The bodies, undressed, seemed to fit a little better. In fact, undressed, it didn't seem to matter how the bodies fit. Grace reached under Olga's shirt and fondled her huge breasts. She had never made love to a woman with breasts like that. Olga had breasts like the women in men's magazines, except they were real.
"Lie down, and let me undress you. I've always wanted to untie those little strings that hold on woman's panties. Too bad yours are elastic."
"If I'd known, I would have worn my tie-on ones this morning. Maybe tomorrow."
"If, I'd known, I would have checked for holes," Olga laughed. Grace's finger had found a hole in her underwear and had sneaked inside.
"Are there more? I hope."
"It's supposed to."
"Shut up girl, and let me fuck you."
"Make me." She did.
Although Grace had always known she was gay, the sex she was having with Olga was different than any she had had with a woman. She was more powerful, in control, and yet at the same time totally uninhibited. It seemed totally natural, as if the things they were doing what female bodies had been designed to do. Olga seemed to sense and do things that Grace had only done to herself, but with the feeling of unexpected pleasure that comes from someone else's hand. 'Well, Grace, you're not in Wisconsin anymore' was all she could think.
She didn't remember drifting off to sleep. She only remembered waking up, looking at the clock and realizing she was already late for the first morning session. Instead of awakening Olga with the same pleasures with which the Kapitan had put her to sleep the night before, she had to dress quickly and run to her classes.
Olga awoke starving in the small hotel room. Grace was gone. Looked at the clock and realized it was almost ten-thirty am. Too late to go to the gym and not run into Arum or whatever he was calling himself that day. She wasn't sure she wanted to go into the gym smelling of sex -- female sex -- anyway. She walked in the bathroom, splashed some water on her face, and swirled some of Grace's mouthwash in her mouth. It was too early in the relationship to borrow her toothbrush.
She turned around and he was there. Standing right behind her leaning against the door jam to the bedroom. He was wearing a soft leather jacket, full cut black trousers, and a too tight black T-shirt with Paverotti printed in white on the front. The ever-present leering smile was there, too.
"What in the hell are you doing HERE?" She took two steps toward him.
He grabbed her, pulled her toward him, and kissed her full on the lips. He didn't stop. She was not used to kissing men while she was naked; she was not used to kissing men. His short beard brushed against her face. With such little time passed, the difference between being kissed by a man and a woman became apparent. It was definitely different.
"I tried to stay away," he said, "But as you can tell you still BOTHER ME."
Finally mustering enough courage to pull away, she glared at him. "I assume, since you seem to be trailing me, that you realize that I have just spent the last twelve hours making love to a WOMAN. I am a lesbian. Do you understand me? I don't DO MEN!!"
He smiled at her softly. "If that is the case, Xena. Will you please take your hand off my butt."
She pulled it away, as if it was in a fire, but he grabbed her again. "You can put it back if you want, but I certainly would prefer it if you put it on the front of my pants." She missed her chance to comment on the name he had called her, there was no way she could respond now because she had parted her lips and allowed him to fill her mouth with his tongue. Her hands, to her total shock, were doing exactly what he had suggested.
She unfastened his belt, unbuttoned the top of his trousers and slowly unzipped. The pants fell unaided to the floor. He was not wearing underwear. She was not aware of his hands ever leaving her body, yet with a slight shrug, the jacket was gone. He lowered her to the bed -- Grace's bed -- and mounted her still wearing the T-shirt.
Although she had gladly welcomed an assortment of oversized, creatively engineered, and pseudo-realistic sex toys, that women like Kat sometimes used in lieu of fingers and tongues, it had been years -- since she had been a teenager-- that she had had a man's penis in her body. She had forgotten its natural warmth. No teenage boy she had fucked had been this large or this skilled. He kept her pinned to the bed in what she had always called "momma and papa" position, and refused to let her roll him over.
"Today, I am fucking you Xena. You can always fuck me later." It was that name again. It just rolled off his tongue so naturally, and he was talking to her in Greek again.
He came first, his sticky cum spilling out on the bed. "I'm sorry. I thought I had remarkable self control considering how long it has been," he whispered. His hand covered her hand on her crotch. "We'll work at this together, Xena. I love looking at you like this."
"That's the third time, you've called me that."
"You can still count. I must have lost my touch." He snuggled a kiss into her neck, laughing a little. "And I suppose you still don't even know who I am."
"I suppose you couldn't fuck me again."
"Why do you suppose that?" His cock was hard against her stomach.
"I'm not often wrong."
"This time you are." This time she was on top. This time she came.
"Your little nurse friend is going to be in for a real shock when she comes back. Hotel housekeeping is not going to be able to mask the smell of what went on after she left. She is going to know."
Olga glared at him. She hadn't thought about Grace for over an hour. With all honesty she wanted to grab him again, to feel his cock in her mouth, or maybe even in her ass. She couldn't imagine what had happened to her. She wasn't high. She wasn't drunk. She wasn't even hungry anymore.
He was gone. His clothes were gone, but the scent remained. Nothing she, or a legion of Russian housekeepers, could do would remove the smell of that man. She tossed her holey underwear in the wastebasket and put on her outside clothes. She had to get away. Somewhere far away. Somewhere safe. On the way back to her apartment to change, brush her teeth, and gather a few clothes, she stopped at the train station and bought a ticket to Kiev. She was going to spend the next two weeks with her grandfather.
There was some romantic, little girl part of her mind that said when a woman visited her grandfather she went to a farm, or a little house by the forest. Her grandfather, her father's father, lived in Building 44, apartment 321 of a huge 100 building complex outside of Kiev. She hadn't been there in five years and wondered how the old man was doing. She had never thought of her grandfather as anything but very, very old. Climbing the two flights of stairs to his apartment was nothing for a woman who have been climbing small mountains and hills an Afghanistan for the last six months, but she wondered how her elderly grandfather managed. The five years she had been away had not improved the condition of the apartments. Mortar crumbled from between the yellow bricks, and curtains blew out windows never seemed to close even against winter winds. Children still ran and played in mud yards, and halls were still lined with discarded items that overnight would disappear into the homes of people who still deemed them useful. She was certainly fortunate that she had always been able to live in better housing in Moscow.
Walking into her grandfather's apartment was like walking into another world, maybe another planet. If you looked down you saw floral oriental rugs, layered over each other, and interspersed with fur rugs, rattan mats, and other rugs she couldn't identify. The furniture, the same furniture he had had as long as she remembered, consisted of two huge leather chairs, which ordinarily would have filled the room, except for the fact that the room was already filled with bookcases, hutches, trunks, tables, and more bookcases. The windows were draped first with heavy ecru lace, and then with dark burgundy velvet curtains. There didn't seem to be an inch of wall space, shelf space, or floor space that wasn't covered with something special.
Her grandfather, a small man who barely came to her chest level, with sparkling blue eyes and a mass of unkempt white hair did not seem to have changed at all in the five years she had been away.
"It's you. My mishonok <little mouse>," he crooned as he saw her. No one but Ivan Fedorov would call a soon to be Podpolkovnik in the Russian army a "little mouse." She shuddered to as she thought about the rats that lived in the caves in Afghanistan. She grabbed the small man and pulled him into her. His hug back was almost as strong. She kissed the top of his head.
"It's so good to see you, devochka<little girl>. I hear you are a hero. I hope you can do now what we didn't do ten years ago."
"It's not the same. We're not fighting for ourselves now. We're fighting for the greater good."
"That's my vnuchka<granddaughter>. Always looking for the greater good."
She smiled. "That is what I do!"
"I only have one question, why is a beautiful young woman like you spending her time with her old, old grandfather and not with her friends. You will be returning to that war way too soon."
"I haven't been here in five years." Most grandparents would complain about her not visiting often enough. Five years was way, way too long. She always wondered if this visit might be the last time that she would see the old man.
"Sit down, devochka. Your favorite chair awaits. I'll make you some tea."
"I can made the tea, grandfather. You don't have to wait on me."
"I have special tea for you, and cherry jam to put into it. Have to dig through my pantry to find it though. You just relax, and pet the sheep."
As long as she remembered her favorite chair had had a fleece draped over its back. She remembered when she first realized what it was; she must have been only four or five. Her grandfather had explained it to her when she expressed horror at the skin of a farm animal being in his house. He told her that this was a special sheep -- one that so loved the little girl who owned it -- that when she moved to the city he chose to be transformed into a fleece so that he could travel with her. The fleece needed to be petted and talked to so it didn't get lonely for its fellow sheep or the little girl who had since moved on. She suspected, from the age of the fleece, that the little girl might have been her grandmother.
Olga sat on the chair and draped the fleece over her legs. It still seemed supple and warm to the touch. She ran her hand over the large arm of the chair, the leather never seemed to get stiff or wear out either. Her grandfather presented a tray sporting two glasses of tea in ornate silver holders, a small crystal bowl of cherry jelly, and an earthenware plate with small cookies. She wondered if he had baked the cookies, but decided they were a gift from some friendly widow in the building. Her grandfather still had a way with the ladies.
He sat in the other chair and looked into her eyes. "You look sad that girlfriend of yours has gone away."
"Who told you?"
"Your eyes told me. Nothing, other than the loss of someone you love, can cause eyes like that. Not poverty. Not illness. Not even war."
"Grandfather. It's so much more than that. Kat was just another girl. Beautiful, smart, fun, but she wasn't my soulmate."
"I so wanted to tell you that. Give her another two years and she will be married to some Czech with a baby in her belly."
"If that's what she wants, fine." She wondered how he knew Kat had moved to Prague.
"But the question is, what do you want?"
"I don't know. Besides going back and kicking Afghani butt, I really don't know. There's talk about a promotion, but that would mean my field fighting days are over. I'm not sure I want to give it up."
"I don't need to know about war, Olga, I want to hear about love."
She had to be the only woman in the world whose grandfather wanted to know details of her love life. It would be difficult enough to tell him about men, but she always felt uncomfortable talking about her relationships with women. He had never really seemed to care. Love to her grandfather was important and should be taken wherever it could be found.
"There is someone new. She's an American. A navy nurse. I call her a vampire because her specialty is blood work. I met her about six months ago on a ship, but she is in Moscow now."
"You're in love with a upir<vampire>; so why are you are in Kiev?"
"She's wonderful, but she scares me. She's in the navy, but she's not a fighter. She is a healer. I try to kill; she tries to save. Our worlds are too far apart. Shit, ten years ago we would have tried to kill each other."
"Times change. Things change. But love remains constant."
"But. . . there's more. . ." She bit her lip and drank on her tea. The rest of the story seemed impossible to relate to anyone. She couldn't even tell Grace about it. "There's a man."
"A man, devochka, now that is a change. Tell me about him."
"I'm not sure I can." The look on her grandfather's face was puzzled.
"Am I a security risk, or something?" he laughed.
"Oh, that too, forgot about that. I did first meet him in the field. He was some sort of al-Qaida trainer, military strategist. . god grandfather, I hope this place isn't bugged. . . I could be killed for telling you his story. Let's say that he changed sides with a bang, or in his case, a slice. When I met him he was sitting in a cave crying."
The old man wanted to go to the kitchen to get more tea, or go to the bathroom, or take a walk outside, anything but hear the rest of the story his granddaughter was telling. He reached across the table and took her hand, patting it gently.
"Grandfather, he follows me. He comes to me out of nowhere. I turn my head and he is gone. He keeps telling me he loves me. We had the most wonderful sex you can possibly imagine, but I think he is dangerous."
"He is! How do you know?"
It would be easier to lie to his granddaughter, make up some story about stalkers and sex with strangers, not tell her what he knew, but he was now an old, old man. He felt he had kept the truth from her way too long.
"Sit back, Xenulya <pet name Xena>, and let me tell you about this man. He's tall, large, and very dark. His hair is wavy, thick, and black as midnight. He has deep-set brooding eyes, but when he smiles his smile can melt the Siberian snow."
"How do you know, grandfather. Can you see the future?"
"Possible futures, and many pasts."
Her eyes tried to focus on something else in the room. She looked at the pictures on the walls, a photograph of her in her uniform, a heavy old oil painting of a landscape, a delicate floral watercolor, and a Russian Icon.
"Look at me, Xenulya, there's more isn't there." She nodded his head.
"He speaks to you in Greek." Her grandfather had said those words in the self-same Ancient Greek dialect, Ari, Arum, whoever, had used with her. What had he called her?
This was frightening. More frightening than war. Her grandfather knew intimate details of her life that had happened only yesterday. She had told no one. Things that had frightened her to her very core. "I don't understand, how do you know about him?"
"Xenulya, do you know of Ares?"
"Ares. No, he calls himself Ari or Arum. Ari Sadam. Arum Tchaikovsky." She was shocked at how na´ve those aliases seemed now when she said them aloud. "Ares, the Greek god of war?"
"The very same."
"There's no such thing. Grandfather, are you trying to tell me that I am being stalked by an ancient God that no one has worshipped for 2000 years? I think not."
"You'd better think so, because it is true. I always sort of thought he would find you. My guess would have been earlier, when you first started at the academy. I knew he would be looking for you."
"From that first day your mother brought you to our home, I remember she pulled back the baby blanket and I gasped. I knew it was YOU."
"Of course it was me." The old man must really be losing it. Perhaps it was the early stages of Alzheimer's; she was worried.
"No, you don't understand. HER, YOU. I can't explain. I can explain, but it going to take a long time, and you're not going to believe me."
"How much vodka have you been drinking before I came here, grandfather?"
"Not a drop, but that might help. Maybe we should switch from tea. I have vodka in which I have soaked dried apricots. Most pleasant. Maybe it would help."
'Afghani brown opium wouldn't help,' she though as she nodded her head "yes."
Grace Paxon had made the twenty-block trek from the hospital to the Olga's apartment only to find her not home. She had stopped at the gym and learned that she had gone to Kiev. Swearing under her breath she was about to return in the rain when she was confronted by a tall man.
"Hello. You know who I am don't you?" he said to her in English with a menacing demeanor.
She nodded her head "yes". She knew, even if she was afraid to tell him.
"I didn't bring her back for you."
"You had your turn. You messed up."
"Now I get my chance. I certainly waited long enough. I under estimated you. What do I call you now?"
"Grace. Grace Paxon."
"Kewl name. All elegance and peace. I'm Arum Tchaikovsky."
"Sounds made up."
"And Grace Paxon doesn't. Excuse me."
"There is no excuse for you."
"I did what you said. I waited. I waited for almost two millennium for your damn conditions to be met. I think I deserve a chance."
"I honestly don't know how it happened. Those conditions were supposed to hold you for eternity."
"I believe the fact that they didn't is good argument to give me a chance. What do you think, Gabrielle?"
He was gone. Somewhere in the darkness. Grace Paxon shivered. She was soaked to the skin from standing in the rain outside a Moscow gym. Her head hurt. She could have sworn she had just had a conversation with a man she didn't know, about things she knew nothing about, in a language she could not speak.
Olga's grandfather had been talking for almost an hour, nonstop. She tried to listen to most of what he said; despite that almost every word out of his mouth was totally unbelievable. The old man seemed to have confused history and myth. Most of what he told her was stuff she had read in ancient Greek tall tales and seemed to have no relationship to her life. It bothered he that he had insisted that he speak to her in Greek. She kept wanting to interrupt, ask questions in Russian or even English.
"And when you died, in far off Jappa, your lover carried your ashes back to Greece and buried them next to your family. She kept a small amount of the ashes and took them to Santorini where she married m. . . an old friend. She had five children, four boys and a girl. The rest of your ashes were buried there. Except . . . .
"Except what?" This story made absolutely no sense.
"Ares, the god of war, as I said, had always been in love with you. She told . . it was told . . . that she gave him a small amount of our ashes but protected them with conditions that could never be met, so that he wouldn't try to bring you back to life."
"What happened to this Ares guy. Where did he go? " she asked.
"I don't know. It was said he was behind every war that was ever fought even though usually it was claimed that he was fighting for both sides. Even in holy wars. Even when during the Crusades. Christian against Muslim and still Ares was on both sides. Christians against the Incas and the Aztecs, still on both sides. Catholic against Protestant, Arab against Jew. Gods, Xena, event the godless communists were sure he was on their side."
She was thinking about her grandfather, who had worked all of his life in a communist foundry smelting iron ore to produce stainless steel, who had risen in the ranks of the communist party, now calling his comrades godless. She never cared for any god. Then she realized he had called her by THAT NAME.
"What did you call me?"
"He calls you that doesn't he. It is your name, or at least it is now. I knew it was your name as soon as you were born. I told your mother. She laughed at me. Called me a senile old man."
She thought, if my mother thought he was old when I was born, how old is he now?
"My best guess is . . and I will call you Olga if you prefer . . is that I saw what was going to happen. I never really knew her conditions, but my guess is that in whatever fluke created this strange, strange war, the conditions were met. At that point, when he cried into your ashes, you . . the woman standing before me . . ceased to be Olga Fedorov and really, honestly, truly became Xena. Believe what you will, but that is what I think. That is what an old, old man thinks."
"But why? Why me? And why the strong sexual attraction? Why would the God of War want to have me for a sex partner and not a soldier?"
"Do you look at yourself in the mirror? Soldiers are fungible. That is what makes war possible. One dead soldier, except to those who loved him or her, is the same as any other dead soldier. You however, Xena, are different. He loves your body, but he also loves your spirit."
"I don't accept it. I don't believe it."
"I'm not asking you to. I am just telling you what I know. What I believe to be true."
"What should I do?"
"I can't tell you. But I will tell you a fable. A sweet young girl told me this story a long, long time ago. At one time all people had four legs and two heads. Then an angry god split them in two. But they only had one heart, so all of their lives, people run around looking for that one person who has the other half of their heart."
"Cute story, but I suppose both Grace and Ar . . Ares .. think I have the other piece of their heart."
"Maybe you do. I never did figure out how you figure gods into the equation." She did not hear him mumble under his breath. ."or even half-gods."
"So I suggest," he continued, "that you get that fine ass of yours back to Moscow and spend the next two weeks doing whatever you need to do to make that determination. Understand."
"But you said Ares was dangerous."
"And you're not!"
They spent the rest of the evening finishing the vodka and talking about everything in the world besides Xena, Grace and Arum. They ate borsch, sour cream and black bread. He showed her pictures and told her about the in the Icons. He told her about rugs, and leather, and making steel. She told him about Afghani desert rats, and American ships. They laughed a lot, and cried a little. She was never sure when the old man was telling the truth and when he had lapsed into another of his myths.
The next morning in the train station she held him tightly to her. He seemed too frail.
"Promise me you will be here when I get back."
"Promise me you will come back."
"Please don't die."
"Please don't die. But I may die, Olga . Sometimes I have to die so I can be reborn."
"That sounds like some odd Christian rhetoric."
"Believe me, Xena, it is not."
There was a large stack of messages waiting for her when she returned to her apartment. The landlord insisted the top two were the most urgent. One was from the Army informing her that she was to leave to go back to Afghanistan that evening. The other was from Grace telling her that she had to go back to Afghanistan that evening. The other eight messages were from Ares.
A file of papers was waiting for her at the airport. On the top was the order announcing her promotion to Podpolkovnik. She had been assigned to command a United Nation's Hospital Camp. You will be working with refugees, the Northern Alliance, doctors and nurses from several different countries. Her days of cleaning out caves were over. She was no longer a fighter, but an administrator. 'Wars do strange things to people,' she thought.
She was surprised to see Grace Paxon standing in the crowd. She approached her with reserve.
"I got your message. I am going back, too," Olga told her.
"I'm not going back to the ship. I have been assigned to a refugee hospital base. Can you believe that?"
"Well if that's the case, Lieutenant, you'd better brush up on your salute. Because you are talking to your new commanding officer."
"Hello, to Podpolkovnik Olga Fedorov."
"I'll have you know, Podpolkovnik Fedorov, that I am resisting the urge to kiss a superior officer."
Olga brought her finger to her mouth again "Don't ask, don't tell."
They both laughed.
TWO MONTHS LATER
Olga Fedorov slipped seamlessly into her new role as an administrator. She actually seemed to enjoy reviewing shipments and orders. She liked having men salute her and could return the best stare of the Northern Alliance officers, who still though women should be veiled. It had to have been some sort of ugly joke concocted by her once defeated Russian army fellows to put a woman in charge of the base -- even the Americans seemed a little uneasy with that. The base seemed to have more than its share of women officers and enlisted women, as close to the action as American females could get.
Ares had yet materialize anywhere on the base, and she figured he was probably still waiting for her in the gym in Moscow getting more angry and muscular. She hoped that night in the hotel had gotten her out of his system, but subconsciously worried that her performance was not to his liking and that he had deserted her. Then why the eight messages. She wondered how many had piled up at her apartment by now.
Grace Paxon was delighted to find that her friend Jeff Hansen had also been assigned to the base. They spent most of their free time together reading books and playing Ping-Pong. She never had the nerve to tell him about the hot night she had spent in the Moscow hotel with the woman who was now their commanding officer.
She still drew blood and patched up wounds. However most of the blood seemed to be drawn from refugee women who were about to pop another baby out of their emaciated, veiled bodies; and most of the wounds were skinned knees of children playing soccer. Olga Fedorov rarely came to the hospital tents, and it seemed only when she was not on duty.
Jeff was excited when he opened his package from home that bright June day. Grace was amazed how someone could be so happy to receive a large bottle of mouthwash. A part of her mind, which still thought most people were gay like her, wondered if he was going to use the mouth wash to remove certain scents which even in today's Navy should not be found on enlisted men -- or officers.
"It's vodka. Cinnamon vodka," he whispered to her.
"No way." Alcohol was strictly prohibited under the terms of engagement.
"Way. My uncle works for P & G. Makes special bottles just for his relatives. He had a son who was in the state pen in Ohio the last fifteen years. Sentenced for dealing coke back in the late eighties. Came up with this idea just for him. Short of opening it, there is absolutely no way that you can tell this isn't 100% virgin mouthwash."
"I didn't know you had it in you, Jeff Hansen."
"Well it's not in me yet, but it will be in a few hours. In you, too! You see you and I are going to hike up to one of those caves, we are going to rinse our mouths out a lot, and then you are going to tell me the story about you and that long legged Russian who bosses us around."
"After I am done, I am going to have to have a bit more -- talk about a mouth that will need to be washed out. Hopefully he didn't send you any soap."
"He did, but it's actually chocolate. Do you think that will liven up the story time even more?"
Grace hugged her friend tightly. "Of course. I'll do anything for chocolate." She winked at him.
Olga Fedorov was worried. Reports from her perimeter had noted an increase in night movement. Nothing big, just a few people moving randomly through the area between the base and the hills. Those who had seen the reports were not worried, but things she didn't completely understand always concerned her. She was just short of issuing an order confining everyone to the base perimeter, but knew that some of the troops had received packages from home -- packages that they would be safer consuming off base.
She was also concerned about the letter she had received from the hospital in Kiev. Her grandfather had been admitted last week for tests after he had fallen on the stairs in his apartment. She wondered why she hadn't insisted that he put his name on the list for a ground floor apartment. She wondered why she hadn't insisted he move to Moscow. She told herself not to be concerned, but it didn't help.
She turned instead to the paperwork in front of her. New staff members would be arriving on the next flight, a Kiwi dentist and a British mortician. She welcomed the first and worried that it was just a matter of time until she had to deal with the second. She heard a blast, then screams. She dropped her papers on her desk and ran outside. She expected to see refugees or alliance troops, instead she saw Jeff Hansen carrying Grace Paxon. She had never realized how large the Hansen was. He held Grace in his arms as if she were a small child. Blood was streaming from her face, and her legs were twisted at odd angles.
"She stepped on a land mine. I have to get her to the hospital. Out of my way, everyone. I have to get her to the hospital."
Olga waited in her office for what seemed like the longest hour of her life. She hastily typed up the confinement to perimeter order and printed it off her computer. Finally she mustered the courage to go to the hospital.
Grace was lying in a bed hooked up to monitors that up to now had basically been unused. In Afghanistan you were usually alive or dead, not much middle ground. Now the hospital staff was desperately trying to save one of its own. Jeff Hansen sat next to her holding her limp hand.
"I don't think she is going to make it," he told Olga. "She lost a lot of blood. Even if she does make it she will lose her leg, she's too weak to try to operate now, but it is going to have to come off."
"I'm afraid so, I'm sorry."
"What was she doing out there anyway? What were you doing?"
"We're just friends. Very good friends. I am from her hometown in Wisconsin. We used to tell each other stories. Crazy stories. She had quite a vivid imagination. I always told her she should have been a writer, not a nurse."
"She's not going to die. I won't let her."
"I don't think, even you, Podpolkovnik, can do anything about that. I'm sorry. I think she knows you are here. Do you want to talk to her? I'll leave if you do."
"No, you can stay. I think she enjoys holding your hand."
"There's not another one for you to hold." Olga looked in shock. Grace's right arm was missing from just below the shoulder.
"Noooo!!" She screamed. "I though you said she was too weak to have been operated on."
"We didn't have to operate on that arm. It was blown off. Please speak softly, I think she can hear you, even though her chart says otherwise. I'll let you have this hand."
Olga held the cold hand in hers. She caressed the fingers that had been so adept at drawing blood, and finding holes in underwear. "I love you, Grace. I was going to choose you. Please don't die." She thought she heard a voice somewhere deep in the back of her head say, 'You have to die, so you can be reborn.'
"Podpolkovnik Fedorov, you have a phone call. I'm sorry." Jeff Hansen took Grace's hand from hers and gave her the mobile phone. "It's from Kiev."
Olga walked away silently. "She knows you love her, Podpolkovnik, she knows it." The voice on the other end of the phone told her that her grandfather had died that afternoon.
Olga Fedorov hid. She hid and she cried. She did not want the Americans to see her cry. She did not want the Alliance Troops to see her cry. She did not want Jeff Hansen to see her cry. She cried like she had never cried before. She could not believe that the two people she loved the most, both of which she had ignored and never, ever told how much she loved them, had died within minutes of each other.
Jeff Hansen was waiting for her outside the door of the small hut that served as a camp mortuary.
"She wants to be cremated and have just have her ashes sent back to Wisconsin," he told his commanding officer. He was speaking as Grace's friend, not as a clerk.
"What, we have no facilities for that? She'll have to go home in a body bag tucked under an American flag like everyone else," Olga replied.
"No, we talked about it a lot. Grace saw how the refugees cremated their own on those open fires and told me that if she ever died here, that is what she wanted. I believe if you go through her things you will find papers to that effect."
"Tell you what, Petty Officer Hansen, if you find the papers, and get the new mortician to agree, we can do it. Otherwise what's left of Grace Paxon will be flying back to Wisconsin tomorrow."
Olga walked into the hut and immediately recognized him, even though his back was turned. 'Mortician,' she thought to herself, 'was a job for which he was uniquely qualified.' She just wished someone else would have been his first.
"Hi!" He spun around and smiled at her. How dare he smile at a time like this? Grace's naked, mutilated body was lying on the table between them. "I'm Harry Holst. You must be . . . "
She wanted to say a lot of things. 'What in the hell are you doing here? Can't you let her die in peace? Where do you come up with those cheesy aliases?' But all she said was " Podpolkovnik Olga Fedorov."
"I've talked to Petty Officer Second Class Hansen. He was pretty fond of this young lady. Told me she wanted to be cremated."
Ares had realized immediately that the farm boy from Wisconsin, who had shared the last moments of Grace Paxon's life, was actually his brother, Hercules. The medical clerk had no idea of the real identities of the mortician, his commanding officer, or his friend who had just died. Strangely Ares did not feel his usual rage; he had no need to taunt his brother. They were all here together, fighting on the same side, for the greater good. This was a strange war. Interpersonal conflicts could wait for peace.
"We'll see about that," Olga answered.
"She will you know. She was always very thorough. I am sure she has all the details spelled out. Including the small bag of ashes for me to give to you."
"Careful, Xena. Someone might hear you."
"Don't call me that. Please don't call me that. Why did you kill her?"
"I didn't kill her, a land mine killed her. Do you think I would have chosen such a chicken shit way to off her? What do you think I am?"
"I believe I have already called you that. And, just in case you don't realize it, I can have your bogus ass on the next plane back to London or whatever you call home these days."
"London is good. But not as good as Moscow. Or Thrace."
She was sick of his sneering and his arrogance.
"I hear your grandfather died, too. Don't fret about him, Xena, he never stays dead very long."
"How did you, do you, know about my grandfather?"
"I know him almost as well as I know you. I knew poor little Gracie here, so tragic." He reached down and pulled a sheet over her body. "She won't stay dead long either, Xena."
"What can you do about her, Ares?"
"So you do know who I am."
"Yes, my grandfather told me. What about Grace?"
"I guess it will take about nine months, give or take. . . " His eyes lowered and seemed to stare at her stomach area. He smiled the biggest smile she had ever seen.
"You don't know do you? Have you been too busy, or are you just in denial, Podpolkovnik Olga Fedorov?"
A shudder ran up her spine. She hadn't been listening to her body. Hadn't even dawned on her. That was one advantage lesbians had. They didn't have to take birth control pills or mess with diaphragms or implants. They didn't even have to keep track of their menses, they always came eventually. Afghanistan was hard on a body, and with her recent weight loss. She hadn't even noticed.
"I'm not?" Her hand covered her stomach.
"Well, my sister Aphrodite is usually the first to know, and this time she was so excited she had to tell me. Not for me, mind you, but she always loved your little friend -- Gabrielle, Grace, whatever you call her. She and my sister were very close."
"I'm a military leader. I can't have a baby. Not here."
"You might have to go back to Moscow, for a while anyway. Other women have had babies during war. You did, Xena. But this one is different. Her father is the God of War -- but her spirit belongs to --
"Peace. Grace Paxon."
Jeff Hansen's entire jaw ached. He drank his unopened bottle of mouthwash and it still hurt. He couldn't believe it. It started hurting almost the same time he had delivered Grace Paxon's papers to the British mortician. The man had stared at him, looked as if he should have recognized him, and then his mouth started aching. He had never had a toothache like this. Maybe he had cracked it when he clenched his jaw while carrying Grace back to the camp, and didn't feel the pain until she had died. All he knew was that now it felt like his jaw was going to split in half. He lay on the cot in the medical tent and looked up at the red-haired doctor poking around his mouth.
"Boy are you in luck," Lt. Commander Janice Marsh said as she examined him.
"Yesterday I would have had to pull that tooth, but today we have a new guy, Captain Iverson. I think a dentist, even if he is a Kiwi, will do a much better job than a gynecologist."
Jeff feigned a smile. He was sure of it, too. He relaxed as the IV drip brought the Sodium Pentathal into his system. He didn't even think about his dead friend.
"Just relax, Jeff. He'll be here in a few minutes. Close your eyes." Her voice trailed off. He opened his eyes and saw the small blonde man bouncing around the room.
"Well buddy, that was a fun one. You split that sucker right down the medial axis."
Jeff hated dentists. He hated the sound of drills. He hated the smell of their offices. This guy seemed better than most, even though he still talked like a dentist.
"Didn't think I would be pressed into action quite that quickly. Open up and let me rinse it out one more time. Don't want to have a dry socket. Think you are going to have to wait until you are stateside to have the restoration done though."
The dentist leaned over and looked into his open mouth. His smock was open, and a carved stone pendant fell out and hit Jeff in the chest.
"Is that part of the official Kiwi uniform?" he asked. He wasn't sure. Something about this guy seemed very familiar.
"What do you think, buddy?" The dentist seemed to be trying a little too hard to be friendly.
"I'm sorry, but I'm not your buddy, Sir. I'm not really in a friendly mood. My best friend died yesterday. I carried her back here after she stepped on a land mine. She died holding my hand. It's hard to lose someone you love."
"I'm sorry. I am truly sorry." The dentist's blue eyes looked into his. It was a look of deep friendship, of understanding, of almost love, from a man he had just met. Not the artificial concern of someone who was always upbeat, but something much deeper. Despite his recent losses, Jeff Hansen had a feeling that he would soon have a new friend, to share his cinnamon mouthwash and his crazy stories. He had a feeling that he had known that man for a long, long time.
Fred Iverson, who had recognized him immediately, felt like a newborn.
Thus it has been, and thus it will be. For over two thousand years bodies have lived and died, yet spirits live on. You have to die so that you can be reborn. Lovers and friends together for eternity. The names and bodies may change, but love remains confusingly constant.
Revised February 2002