by Anne Azel
Disclaimer: The characters of Xena and Gabrielle are the property of Universal Studios and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement is intended. The characters and events in the Journeys Series are the creation of the author.
As always a good deal of credit has to go to Lisa, Inga and Susan, my beta readers and friends, who work hard on these stories with me. A special thanks to Karen and Sharon for their medical expertise.
Warning: This story is alternative fiction. Please do not read on if you are under age or if such material is illegal in your end of the swamp.
You can contact Anne Azel at <email@example.com> or visit the Anne Azel's World web site at <www.jes.com.au/~azel> Anne's books are also available through <http://rapbooks.biz>
Alex Aubin woke cramped and groggy from lack of rest. She blinked the sleep from her eyes and tried unsuccessfully to stretch the kinks from her back without having to get out from under the warm cocoon of blankets. She could see her breath forming little clouds in the early dawn light. With a sigh, she gritted her teeth against the inevitable and sat up on the edge of the camp cot shivering.
She reached for her parka and pulled it on over her long johns, stuck her woolly socked feet into her mukluks and headed over to stoke the small potbelly stove in the centre of the tiny cabin. The sap, released suddenly, hissed and spit as the dry wood caught on the night's embers. Alex gave the fire one last fan to make sure the kindling was burning and closed the iron grate.
Breaking the crust of ice that had formed on the bucket of water, she poured some into a basin and set it on the potbelly stove to warm for washing and some into the coffee pot also placed on the stove to percolate. While they heated, she made a quick trip to the outhouse out back.
There was a good twenty centimetres of fresh snow on the ground. As she headed back to the cabin, she could see little furry heads starting to rise from a cluster of snowy mounds. Her team dogs. "Breakfast soon, guys,"she called, and was glad to step back into the cabin, which now seemed overly hot after her trip out back.
She pulled off her top and washed as best she could in the lukewarm water, dried quickly, and dressed in layers of warm clothes. Out came the frying pan next and into it went some back bacon. While the salty meat cooked, she mixed up egg and milk power with water, and forking the bacon out onto a plate, she poured the mixture into the greasy frying pan. She let the mess fry into a solid mass while she cut thick slices of bread and lathered them with strawberry jam.
The door opened, letting a cold blast of arctic air in just as Alex was sitting down to eat. It was Mike Jefferson, a Dene Indian, who was the local government agent. "Hey," he stated as a way of greeting. He put Alex's rifle that he had taken yesterday without asking by the door. Private ownership was a white-man's luxury. In the traditional communities of the north, communal living equalled survival.
"Plenty of food, in the pan," Alex muttered, as she took a mouthful of greasy egg. Not so long ago the thought of such a meal would have sent her into a fit. She had been a health food, fitness centre devotee. But the Arctic set the rules, not the people who lived there. The cold made your body crave and need fat. The Dene and Inuit had evolved, over thousands of years, larger livers that helped them digest fat easier. Alex had even been known to drop a slice of lard into her tea on the trail, as the old trappers did, to give her warmth.
"Mary says most of the pain has gone. Grandmother said she slept well last night," Mike stated as he slopped egg and bacon onto his plate and poured a coffee. "I went hunting so Grandmother could make her a rabbit stew." Mike would have had breakfast already. Grandmother would have seen to that but food, like everything else in the community, was shared. It would be rude for Alex not to offer, rude for her to comment on Mike simply walking into her cabin without knocking, rude to mention that she had noticed the gun missing, and rude too for Mike not to accept the food she had offered.
"I'll check her before I leave. Does grandmother understand how and when to give the antibiotics?" Alex asked, mopping up the grease on her plate with a slice of jam covered bread. Would she ever be able to fit into polite, Toronto society again? She sure had changed in a short time.
"She understands. Grandmother wants to know if she can take the medicine too for her joints. They ache, she says."
"No, I'll leave her some Tyennol. The antibiotics are to prevent Mary's incision from becoming infected. It needs to be watched. I only just got her appendix out before it burst. She was lucky."
Mike smiled. "I told Grandmother this already but she wanted that I asked you."
Alex nodded, carrying her dishes to the stove where another bowl of water was heating to wash the dishes in. A thought came unbidden to her mind, where would Sarah be now?
Sarah had woken that morning with a blinding headache. The smell of body odour, manure, and wood smoke was thick in the stale atmosphere. Outside the mooing of hundreds of cows filled the air. She moved cautiously, trying not to disturb the other women who slept under the same blanket with her. Carefully she stepped over sleeping, dark bodies and into the small area that served as a living and cooking space.
The home was small and a wattle and daub construction. That is, the frame was made from thick branches and the walls were a woven mesh of twigs. Over this was smoothed a thick layer of mud and cow dung as a plaster finish. You came through a low door way into a small entrance hall. To one side was a pen for the goats and calves. Then the small hall opened into a tiny living area, on each side of which was an alcove, one for the women to sleep in and one for the young boys.
Five women had shared the dirt floor covered with a few tatty, grey wool blankets. Maria's mother, Maria, and her two daughters, and Sarah. On the other side, Maria and Tolla's two young sons slept. Tolla had not slept there last night. He had either slept in his own house or with one of his other wives in her hut. Tolla was a very rich man and the village chief. He had four wives. Maria was, however, his first wife, and so had power over the other women in the village.
The house had no windows. The only light came from a small ventilation hole that let the smoke out. Sarah unwrapped a bundle of damp leaves and blew on the wad of dry straw within. It glowed red as the embers of wood that had been packed carefully in the centre last night caught. Sarah added kindling and got a tiny fire going to take the chill from the morning air. Maria's mother felt the cold now.
This done, she walked stooped over through the low roofed home and removed the strips of wood that blockaded the door. With relief, she straightened up outside. Most of the village men were up and moving about in the herd of cattle that had been driven inside the bush palisade in the evening. It was a rich village, with over six hundred head of cattle. The beasts pushed and shoved as they mooed to escape the packed confines.
Tolla and two of his brothers singled out a cow. While the brothers held the terrified animal by its horns, Tolla shot an arrow into the vein of its neck. Then he quickly pulled it out and held a bowl against the wound to catch the blood that drained out. The blood would be mixed with cow's milk and eaten for breakfast by the village. The Masai ate only milk and blood. Once Tolla felt the cow had given enough blood, he sealed the wound with a handful of dung and passed the bowl of warm, steaming blood to one of his wives. She would mix it with the milk from one of the cows that had freshened and feed it to the children.
The small village was a simple circle. There were four exits, one for each of the males who lived here, Tolla and his three younger brothers. Maria's house was just to the right of one of these entrances and her husband's to the left. A man's first wife always held this position. Then to the left of the man's house would be his second wife, to the right of the house of the first wife would be the house of his third wife and so on. One of the younger brothers was escorting a group of women outside to relieve themselves. Sarah joined the group. This early in the morning there was the danger of predators; a hungry lioness, an old rogue wildebeest, or even the danger of attack from a neighbouring village.
That was likely under the circumstance. Yesterday, Sarah had been allowed to go with the men on a raid of a neighbouring village. It had been a great success and they had taken back eleven of their cows despite the strong resistance of the neighbouring warriors. A return attack was to be expected. Sarah squatted with the other women just outside the compound walls while the warrior stood some distance off, long spear in hand, his back discretely turned to the women.
Standing again, Sarah pulled back her shirt to look at her shoulder. The scratch she had got from a spear that had flown past her as she had run after the cows was now red and swollen. It had infected during the night. Normally, Sarah would be staying at a bush camp where she could have attended to the minor injury easily, but the raid had gone on late and it had been safer to stay at the Masai village. Tonight, back at the camp, she would give it a good cleaning and put on a disinfectant. She had not told Maria of the injury. She would have wanted to sterilize it with cow urine and stop the bleeding with dung.
The women returned to the safety of the compound as the village gradually woke up and took on the slow easy pace of morning activities. People drank their milk and blood and then the men herded the cows out to pasture. The women collected the fresh dung in their hands and used it to patch houses or dried it for fires. There were no teenage boys in the village at the moment. They were off participating in their initiation rites.
Sarah ate a power bar from her knapsack and watched the activities with interested eyes. She had been studying the Masai traditional culture for nearly three years now and was comfortable with their ways and even understood enough of their language to communicate to some degree. When the women were finished their morning chores, she would go with them walking across the Serengeti plain boldly. No other tribal group would dare to do so unarmed.
The Masai believed they were safe because the animals feared the red colour that they wore. The truth was more likely to be that the wild animals of the vast grassland sea had learned to have a healthy respect for the long spears, machetes and clubs of the Masai.
Dressed in brightly coloured robes of yellow and red with elaborate bead work earrings and necklaces, the knot of women started off, their tall, lean bodies regally dwarfing the petite figure of Sarah Meloche. The women laughed and sang as they walked along or gossiped about the recent events. Sarah was unusually quiet. Her mind had turned back to the nine year relationship that she'd had with Alex Aubin. Alex had been finishing her premeds, Sarah working towards a doctorate in anthropology. They had met by chance in a bar frequented by lesbians.
Their early years together had been magical but thing had changed slowly. Alex had changed. She had graduated top of her class and had an outstanding clinical record. She could take her pick of positions. A child from the wrong side of the tracks who had been driven to succeed, she had found the power and money that came from her success heady stuff. There were meetings, parties to meet the right people who would further her career, a sudden interest in cultivating the power image where before she'd been happy in blue jeans and a t-shirt.
It had been ironical. Sarah's parents had both been successful lawyers and it had not been pleasant when she had shown up at home with an awkward and moody lesbian lover from the wrong side of the tracks. But with the exception of their alternative life style, Alex Aubin had become everything they would have wanted in a partner for Sarah. She was wealthy, ambitious, an important member of several business clubs, and a supporter of the arts. Everything that Sarah couldn't give a damn about.
Sarah's degree in social science had led her to a more compassionate and deeper understanding of social structure. Having never done without, she was not impressed by the trappings of success or wealth. Small philosophical disagreements had become raging battles between them. In the end, Sarah had packed her bags and left for Africa while Alex was away giving a talk on her first book, "Living Healthy, Wealthy and Wise". That had been three years ago. In a few days she would meet Alex again in Nairobi.
The letter had come last month. The postmark had been from Yellowknife on Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories. It was short and to the point, which was very much Alex Aubin's style. It read: " I have obtained your current address through your parents. I would very much like to fly out to Kenya and talk to you if you are willing. I want to try to rekindle our relationship." Had the letter ended there the answer would have been a resounding no, but in a hesitant hand Alex had added, "You see, I still love you and I am hoping that you might come to love me again."
Sarah had written back agreeing to the visit. Now, just a few days off that reunion, she wasn't sure that had been wise. The problem wasn't that she had fallen out of love with Alex: she just couldn't live the life that Alex wanted her to. Had she stayed, she would have been the woman behind the great Doctor Alex Aubin. Alex's lover, social secretary, and hostess, no more than a politically correct token for conservative power brokers to display to show what progressive thinkers they were. It was a shallow life of which she wanted no part.
Her work in social anthropology helped to promote an understanding of cultural world views. Her material, when used properly, gave the business community tools to make successful ventures into a culturally diverse world. It provided governments and sociologists with the raw material for constructing models and policies that were user friendly, it helped the Masai to be better understood in an effort to protect their rights, and it recorded the depth and richness of traditional roots for future generations.
Scientists such as Alex looked down on the so called "soft" sciences as being frivolous and unimportant. This, as far as Sarah could see, was one of the biggest misconceptions in the so-called modern world. Perhaps in the old Industrial Age a glut of math and science people would have been handy but this was a new era, the Age of Information, where globalization demanded flexibility, multi-tasking, creative problem solving, and cultural/social awareness - all of which were the skills of the arts and social science programs. Could she and Alex find some mutual respect and understanding? She very much doubted it and that made her sad.
The Masai Mara, "the bead language intestine", as it literally translated, was a vast ocean of tall, matted grasses that stretched as far as the eye could see. Masai meant bead language and Mara was added because the Mara river wound back and forth across the endless plains like a twisting intestine. It was the north end of the massive savannah area that stretched down into the Serengeti. It was here that the great migrating herds of wild African animals still roamed as they had for thousands of years.
The sun beat down on the little party of women. The great plain had little shade. Sarah pulled her Tilly hat on and smeared sun block on her fair skin. Being a strawberry blond was not conducive to living a life under the African sun. The Masai women with her laughed. Their dark skin was far more resistant to sun damage. The Masai were beautiful people, extremely tall with wonderful posture and graceful movements. They pierced the lobes of their ears and stretched them into long loops as a sign of beauty. They were a proud people who had probably migrated thousands of years ago down the Nile Valley. Their cultural roots were strong and they had steadfastly maintained their traditional ways against the Europeanization of Africa.
Sarah laughed and joked with the women as they walked along carrying the tall spears of the Masai. Predators did not come near when they saw the red robes and tall spears of the Masai. The life of the women was hard. Most of the work done in the traditional Masai villages was done by the women. Girls were circumcised at puberty and would be married to a man in a nearby tribe who could afford the bride price of nine cows. Although discouraged by the government, Masai men who could afford to do so had more than one wife.
She looked out over the rolling sea of grass. It was early July and the huge herds of migrating animals were just starting to arrive in the area, moving their way up from the now dry and over grazed lands in Tanzania. To the south a herd of wildebeest and zebra moved in a line that stretched nearly to the horizon.
"Lions'dinner comes,"laughed one of the women. "They will not want skinny, tough Masai woman when they can have a shiny coated wildebeest."
The dogs were making a hell of a racket now, eager to be off. They had popped out from under their individual mounds of snow as if hatching from eggs when Alex had finished checking on Maria and had brought her knapsack out to the sled. Alex fed each dog a frozen slice of caribou meat, part of last fall's hunt. Just enough to give them energy but not enough to make them lazy. They would get a much bigger feed tonight. One by one, she untied them from the line and attached them to the dog sled, making sure that she had first taken out the hook and line that was used as a brake on the sled and embedded it deeply into the snow.
The eager sled dogs would take off without the brake in place and a sled minus a driver could run over and drag the valuable dogs attached to it. The dogs were small and mismatched. They were true Indian sled dogs. The Huskies that are associated with sledding are really breed as pets. They were, compared to the Indian sled dogs, slow and lazy animals and not used on any serious dog team. Alex had only two dogs that were one quarter Huskies. They were bigger, heavier set dogs and she kept them at the back of the team for extra strength and traction on hills.
Cleo, the smartest and most experienced animal was the lead dog. Female dogs generally made better lead dogs. Behind her were the fastest dogs and at the back were the slower, heavier animals. Cleo set the pace and made sure the other dogs followed her lead. She would listen closely to Alex's encouragements and orders and see that they were obeyed. A good lead dog was invaluable and Cleo was one of the best. She was paired with Anthony, who showed great promise but was still young and a little too enthusiastic to be a lead dog. Behind them were Butch, Jasper, Sweetie, and Nugget, all Indian sled dogs, and then behind them, Nip and Tuck, the two Huskies-mix.
Alex reviewed the medication and care for Maria one more time with Mike and then held on tight to the sled as she pulled the hook from the ground and placed it on the sled. "Hike-up!" Alex yelled, and ran pushing the sled ahead of her until her dogs had established a good momentum. Then she stepped onto the long runners and let the team pull her.
Sliding between the two runners was a rubber mat. If Alex needed to slow the sled going down a hill so as not to over run her dogs, she would step on the mat and cause drag. If there was a fork in the trail she would yell to Cleo "On By", or "Gee" to go right and "Haw" to go left, much as you did with a team of horses. To stop she'd yell "Whoa" and step hard on the rubber mat between the runners.
Alex could have had a snowmobile. It would have been faster and far more convenient, but she loved shouting encouragement to her team and the sound of the whoosh of the blades across the snow. It was just the greatest feeling of freedom and excitement. She had a good team, well trained and in good shape. They ran full out, barking with delight. On the hills, Alex would step off the runners and run behind the sled to help lessen the load for the dogs. In the turns, she would lean way out in the opposite direction to keep the sled from tipping over. It was a wild ride and it made Alex laugh with sheer exhilaration.
Two days by dog team back to her place on the outskirts of Yellowknife. Then a commuter flight to Peace River and another to Edmonton. Her bags were already packed and ready to go. There would be only a couple of days to rest and see to the last minute details with Doctor Radcliffe, who was coming out of retirement to handle Alex's clinic and mind her house and dogs until she got back, and then she was off. An Air Canada flight first to Toronto, then British Airways to Britain and on to Nairobi, Kenya. In all, about twenty-four hours of flying time alone, not counting the lay-overs in between.
What would it be like to see Sarah again? Could they make it work this time? All she knew for sure was that she had to try. Life without Sarah had been just an existence.
Sarah had gone off like a bombshell in Alex's life. She could recall when they met. She'd been shooting some pool at the back of the Krazy Kate's and sipping at her third beer. It had been hot as hell that day and Alex had gone straight from class to work the afternoon shift at the construction site. She laid brick. She was good at it. Both her dad and granddad had been masons and they'd been damn good when they were on the wagon. It was late at night now and she was feeling a bit punchy with lack of sleep and not enough food to go with the beer.
Sarah had arrived with two other women. They'd been to a show and had stopped in for a night cap. The other two were clearly a couple and Sarah was obviously a newbie. The beer had got her over there. The aggression brought on by the heat had kept her going. "You wanna dance?" she'd asked, she thought politely enough.
Sarah had looked up with eyes like a deer's in a pair of headlights. One of the other women looked concerned. "You don't have to, Sarah. If you don't feel like it you can just sit and have a beer with us."
Alex had let a slow, sexy smile spread across her face. "I never take advantage of a woman on the dance floor... I only give private lessons. Come on, newbie, you're safe."
The dark green eyes that she had looked down into had flashed with fire. "Oh I'm not afraid, I'm just not sure dancing with you wouldn't ruin my image."
"Only one way to find out," Alex had grinned, offering Sarah her hand. The small hand that had slid into her strong, calloused one was soft and warm. It felt just right there and Alex was surprised at the sudden shot of desire that dropped to the centre of her need. She had smiled and thought, play your cards right Alex and you're going to have virgin for dinner tonight.
How wrong she had been. They had danced until Krazy Kate had thrown them out and then Sarah had taken Alex to her apartment, cleaned her up and made love to her until she thought her eye balls would pop out with coming.
The next morning, they had sat in Sarah's sunny breakfast nook enjoying coffee and chocolate croissants. Alex was making an effort to develop some table manners, mimicking Sarah's actions with deep concentration. It was a second before she realized that Sarah was checking her out with a look that could only be interpreted as predatory.
"What?" Alex demanded, forgetting not to talk while you chew.
"I'm going to marry you," Sarah stated simply and took a sip of coffee.
Alex's eyes had got big with surprise but she rallied quickly. "You're gonna have to do better than one night in the sack to get me to make a commitment, Babe."
Sarah's answer had been to stand up and slip from her housecoat. Alex savoured the beautiful, muscular body as the petite woman came around and mounted Alex's lap. She wrapped her arms around Alex and the kiss that followed almost tickled Alex's toes. Slowly, Sarah worked her way under the taller woman's t-shirt and panties until she was eating Alex for breakfast. Alex took it for as long as she could and then slipped like a puddle to the floor where Sarah used her fingers to take Alex screaming over the top and rushing down the other side. "Marriage is a possibility," Alex had managed to mutter after.
That had been a long time ago. After the first disastrous visit to Alex's family home, she had made up her mind that she would do everything she could to make Sarah proud and not let Sarah feel that she ever had to justify her love to anyone. Alex had done just that. She not only excelled through her training but she had gone on to join one of the most prestigious medical associations in Vancouver, write a best seller on lifestyle and diet, join some of the best clubs, and cultivate an interest in the arts. Alex had thought that she had lived up to Sarah's trust and love in her. She knew they were going through a difficult time, couples do from time to time, but she simply was not prepared to come home and find Sarah gone. Three years later, she was still reeling under that impact.
By the late afternoon Sarah was back at the camp. She had showered and given special attention to her inflamed shoulder. Then she'd dressed and walked over to the open air bar of the camp and ordered a beer and a tomato juice, mixing the two together. Another habit she had picked up from Alex. Of course in those early days, Alex called it breakfast not a nightcap. Three days from now she would be meeting Alex at the airport. How do you meet a former lover? This was just too unreal for words.
She remembered taking Alex home to meet her parents. Alex had worn a black muscle t-shirt and a pair of black jeans. Her hair was short and spiked and attitude positively dripped from every pore. Her parents were wrestling gamely with the fact that their only child had picked a lesbian lover. They had tried to make conversation.
"So Alex, Sarah tells me that you want to be a doctor," her mom had said.
"I don't want. I am going to be," had come the abrupt response.
"What does your dad do?" Sarah's father had asked, letting his distaste for the whole situation start to show.
"Mostly he drinks. Sometimes he lays brick. I lay brick. And before you ask, I drink too." It had gone downhill from there and they had left shortly after dinner. It had been their first real fight and it had been a good one.
Sarah finished her drink and rolled her shoulder uncomfortably. The damn scratch was hurting like hell since she had cleaned it.
"You need a shoulder rub?" asked a voice behind her.
Sarah turned to see the tall, ageing figure of James Phillips. "No way. I hurt it the other day."
Phillips nodded. "Let me buy you another one of those disgusting mixes you drink. It is an abomination to beer lovers everywhere. I need to talk to you."
Sarah shrugged and then winced. She wasn't going to fall asleep easily tonight anyway, the way her shoulder was aching. Another drink would be okay. "Sure. What's up?"
"That's what I need to know," Phillips mused, as he painted patterns with a bony finger in the condensation on the side of the glass the waiter had put in front of him. Sarah waited, enjoying the sound of the crickets and the rustle of the wind through the grass. The stars spread from horizon to horizon and seemed so bright and close that you felt you could pick them from the sky. "The bombing of the American Embassy a few years back opened our eyes to a very real and dangerous fundamentalist movement in East Africa. Just how widespread is it, that is what we need to know? How wide spread? You have the trust of the local tribes. Do you hear anything?"
"I hear a lot of things. The reason they trust me is because I keep my mouth shut about it," Sarah smiled kindly.
"Sarah, you know how serious this has become now, with the war against terrorism. There is a lot of pressure being put on the government to get a pulse on how deeply certain fanatical groups might have infiltrated some of the communities in North Africa." James Phillips sighed. "No country can ignore the real threat of terrorism today, especially countries carrying large foreign debts."
"When Egypt called on the U.N. to hold a world forum on terrorism a few years ago, the U.S. vetoed the idea," Sarah reminded him. "The fear of terrorism wasn't so important then when it was only third world countries feeling the pain."
Phillips sighed. "The lack of foresight makes fools of us all, Sarah."
Sarah nodded. "Forgive me, James, for being so difficult. I'm tired and my shoulder hurts. You are right. It was important to do something then and it is more important to take action now. The Masai in this area are a law onto themselves. They don't easily accept ideas into their culture that are in conflict with their beliefs. Nor have they felt the impact of global warming and AIDS as much as other tribal groups have. There are still food, water and land here. AIDS has spread slower so villages are still bigger than graveyards. I don't see fundamentalists getting a strong foothold in this area - but in other areas of Kenya? You bet."
"You want to be more specific?" Phillips asked, munching on a peanut disinterestedly.
Sarah took a sip of her beer to give her time to organize her thoughts before going on. "Kenya has a significant population of poor and it is growing. She has three borders that are under constant stress. Look at the countries around her, Somalia, Uganda, and Ethiopia. They are or have been household names in the human slaughter trade. Refugees have poured into here, primarily to the cities, and they have brought a lot of hate, crime, sickness and violence with them to add to the resentments that might have already existed amongst the poor of Kenya."
"Tell me something I don't know." Phillips smiled sadly, meeting Sarah's eyes.
Sarah considered her words carefully. "The Masai let their boys decide if they want to live a traditional life or go to a western school. Those that choose to get a European education often end up in the cities but their roots and family are here. They are expected to come back and participate in the different rites of passage and to marry locally. When they return they often have picked up the hates that breed in the slums of cites like Nairobi."
"Do you think we should be monitoring this area more closely?"
"I think European nations have been selling the toys of war to African nations for years. The whole damn continent is a fucking pile of guns and explosives. I don't think any monitoring in the world is going to do a damn bit of good. There could be a flash point anywhere at anytime. There are very few stable areas left in Africa and it is only going to get worse."
"I was hoping to find the end of the fuse that is burning," muttered Phillips, before downing the last of his beer.
Sarah shook her head. "There are so many fuses burning I don't think it is going to be possible to snuff them all. All I can suggest to you is that you keep an eye on the local bar at Matarra. What I would consider high risk individuals for trouble hang out there."
Phillips smiled, getting off the stool. "Thanks, Sarah, I'll do that." Sarah nodded and watched him leave, her eyes worried and thoughtful.
The trip to Africa had been anything but enjoyable. Alex had always found air travel difficult. Even in first class, there was not enough room for her long legs and now with the intense security checks and the worry that the strange looking individual across the aisle might be a terrorist, it had gone from uncomfortable to just plain unpleasant. It was with relief then that she unbuckled her safety belt in Nairobi, ran a comb through her thick, dark hair, and followed the others to the immigration area.
"Good day. You are staying how long in Kenya?" asked the officer, after Alex had handed over her passport and visa.
"Two weeks." Two weeks to try to revive a relationship that had been terminated so long ago.
"The nature of your stay is?"
"I'm here on a holiday, visiting a friend," she answered. Is that who Sarah was now, a friend? Someone from the past whom you meet and exchange histories with only to discover you have nothing really in common anymore?
"Enjoy your stay," the officer smiled, after stamping several pages and passing her documentation back.
Alex moved on to the baggage pick-up area. The relief she had felt earlier was quickly being replaced by something that felt a lot like panic as she stood watching the conveyor belt bounce luggage around in a circle. What the hell do you say to someone whom you have loved and lived with for nine years and haven't seen in three? How much had Sarah changed? What if she had a girlfriend? Alex grabbed her bag as it came past on the conveyer belt and pulled out the handle on the wheeled luggage. Then a few minutes later she snagged a small, well wrapped box of medical supplies that Sarah had requested that she bring for the local clinic, and balanced it on top before heading over to Customs. The bored looking cleric took her declaration card without a word and waved her through.
Sarah had been standing in a crowd of family, friends, business people, and tour guides waiting to meet the people who had just arrived on BA flight 518 from London. When Alex came out through the arrival doors, she stood looking about uncertainly, unable to find Sarah in this crush. She read the signs that people were holding up, none had her name on it.
"Hi Alex," said a familiar voice from beside her.
Alex turned and looked down. Sarah looked beautiful, a bit pale perhaps, but fit and healthy. For a minute the world around vanished and there was just Sarah. Then some one put his arm around Sarah and the world came back into focus with a rush. Alex's dark eyes snapped up and made contact with a pair equally dark. "This is Paul Na-tana , Alex. He came along to help me. He works for the Kenyan Cultural office like I do. He is stationed here in Nairobi. Paul this is Alex Aubin."
"Hello Paul," Alex managed to say evenly.
"Hi Alex. I'll take your bags. We have a bit of a walk to the van." Paul smiled, a little too smugly for Alex's liking.
Alex relinquished the bags and gave her attention to Sarah, who was looking her over critically. "Give me your watch, ring, and necklace," Sarah ordered.
Alex complied. "Theft that bad here?"
"Yes. But more than that, someone snatching your watch could scratch you or they might cut off a finger to get a ring. Then you have the real danger of disease. Don't wear any jewellery while you are here."
"Okay," Alex stated, handing the items over to Sarah who tucked them away quickly in an inside pocket. So far this wasn't going so well. Sarah and Paul seemed to be good friends and so far Sarah had treated her like she was a business associate passing through.
"Only the one case, the box, and your overnight bag? Good. Come on then," Sarah organized, and she and Paul headed off through the milling crowd with Alex in tow. The van turned out to be a battered old Toyota held together by a thick layer of dust. Paul tossed Alex's bags in the back and opened the side door for Alex to get in. Much to Alex's annoyance, Sarah did not follow but went around to the front passenger side and got in beside Paul.
"Welcome to Nairobi or Nairobbery as some of the disenchanted would say. It isn't that bad, but you do need to be very careful," Sarah stated as she turned in her seat to face Alex. "How was your flight over here?"
Alex gritted her teeth. Sarah was acting like a tour guide not a lover, not even a friend. "Cramped and uneventful,"Alex responded abruptly. Sarah nodded and turned around again, leaving Alex to her own thoughts. All of them pretty gloomy.
James Phillips settled back with his gin and tonic in the lounge of the Norfolk Hotel. He had showered and changed into grey flannel slacks, white shirt, school tie and navy blazer. Yet he still felt seedy. It was a feeling that was with him all the time now, having slowly built up over the years. Intelligent grey eyes watched the comings and goings in the lobby. Nervous and excited tourists dressed in department store safari wear waited to be organized into rooms by their tour guides. Kenyan porters patiently arranged the tour group's luggage ignoring the fretting Europeans around them. Two British business men were painstakingly going through their bill at the counter and in a small room off to one side, a Kenyan woman, elegantly dressed, helped guests with the slow and clumsy internet system.
The scene at the old Norfolk Hotel never really changed, just the styles and toys. Phillips' grandfather had come to Kenya full of hope that he would make a fortune in the new groundnut plantations. His dreams blew away with the topsoil when the rains failed to come. His son, Phillips' father, had tried planting an orchard, tangerines and almonds. When the Second World War came he enlisted, the possibility of being killed in combat better than the slow death of poverty. He didn't die and his small disability pension for the loss of a leg made it possible for him to feed his wife and son.
It was a scholarship that allowed James to escape the farm and get a good private school education in England. He had chosen a career in the civil service, believing that the confines of European society were not for him. For most of his career, he had been in some part of Africa. Now his life had come full circle and he was back in Kenya. Like the country, he was slipping into slow disrepair. At least for him, there was the escape of a simple retirement; for the country there was none.
He supposed, once he retired, he would stay on in Kenya for as long as he could. Then when he was too old or sick or the country too unstable, he would with regret head to England. He'd get a cheap flat near Dover were he could live out his days, looking out to sea, his heart yearning as his father's and grandfather's had for the promise that was Africa that never materialized.
He ordered a second drink, a luxury that he didn't usually allow himself. He felt he had earned it. He had been on the road for weeks listening, watching, and hopefully asking the right questions of the right people. He stretched out his long legs stiffly and watched and waited. A good deal of his life had been watching and waiting. He was good at it.
Much to Alex's relief, Paul Na-tana left them once he had unloaded the bags from the van and handed them over to a waiting porter. And her spirits rose even more as she stood by while Sarah asked about their reservation and booked them into one room. With a barely concealed smirk she followed Sarah out through the morning room to the large garden courtyard beyond.
With interested eyes, James Phillips watched them go. He drained his glass and refused the offer of a refill. He thought he would get a few hours reading and perhaps a nap before dinner, then he would see what developed.
The room was lovely. The carpets were thick and deep and the walls polished mahogany. The room was finished with good quality furniture in rich, deep colours. There was a beautiful writing desk and sitting area and a large bay window overlooking the gardens of the courtyard. The bathroom was large with teak walls and marble counter tops. The Norfolk Hotel was a colonial bastion that had steadfastly refused to change with the world around it.
"Which bed do you want?" Sarah asked, as she lifted her bag onto the rack provided. Pain shot across her face and she had to bite her lip to stop the tears.
Her soft gasp brought Alex's eyes from sad reflection of the two double beds to Sarah's face. "What's the matter?
Sarah smiled. "Nothing."
"Sarah, God damn-it don't do that!" Alex snapped, far more forcefully than she had meant to and added to soften her outburst. "I...I just want to help."
Sarah blinked in surprise at the woman across the room from her. She hadn't thought that they would be yelling at each other the first day. "I was wounded in a cattle raid the other day. A spear just scrapped my shoulder. It was nothing but I stayed at the Masai village and I think it got infected. I have cleaned it and put a disinfectant cream on it.
"Why didn't you get a shot of antibiotic at the clinic?" Alex asked, coming across the room with a worried frown in her face.
"Alex, nobody willingly has a needle in Africa. With the shortage of supplies, lack of proper facilities in most clinics, and the widespread epidemic of AIDS, a needle could be a death sentence."
"Let me see," Alex demanded, her emotions hidden behind a well cultivated professional neutrality as she stood a few feet away from Sarah.
"Alex, I don't..."
"I'm a doctor, Sarah and I have with me medical supplies including needles and antibiotics. Take your shirt off and let me have a look." Alex turned her back before Sarah could argue and went to open the box of medical supplies she had brought with her. Behind her, she could hear Sarah slipping out of her shirt. Alex smiled with relief. She didn't want a scene over this. She was here to win Sarah back not fight with her.
When Alex came back with a stethoscope, blood pressure cup, and thermometer, Sarah was sitting on the edge of the bed looking flushed and vulnerable. Alex felt her desire pool deep in her gut. Sarah was beautiful, her skin soft and clear and scented gently of sunlight and fresh herbs. The shoulder, however, was swollen and the scratch now weeping and an ugly red. Thin threads of infection were spreading out like roots down her arm.
Alex put the thermometer under Sarah's tongue and then sat beside her to listen to her chest. Fighting back the urge to wrap Sarah in her arms, she gently wrapped the blood pressure gauge in place and pumped it up, reading the numbers as she slowly let the pressure drop. "You are going to have to lie down. I'll need to give you some freezing and clean up some of this tissue before I bandage it and give you a shot."
"The medical supplies are for the clinic,"argued Sarah, stubbornly, but she did lie down once Alex stood to go root in the supply box again.
"And you're for the graveyard if you don't let me treat that infection. It is well on the way to a serious situation. Already your temperature is up." Sarah laid still after that and let Alex do what she needed to. Alex was gentle yet quick and efficient in her actions. It reminded Sarah of when Alex had been doing her training and would practise listening to Sarah's heart and taking her blood pressure. Sarah would find the oranges in the bowl on the kitchen table punctured with needle marks from Alex practising her technique. They had been happy then.
Despite Alex's care, it had hurt and tears had brimmed in Sarah's eyes and rolled down her face as she lay there. "There, all done," Alex said gently, as she finished bandaging her work. "I'll need to keep an eye on it for a few days to make sure the antibiotic is going to do the trick," she said, wiping a wad of cotton soaked in alcohol on Sarah's arm.
"You know I don't like needles," Sarah whined, although she hadn't meant to.
Alex got a roguish grin and raised her eyebrow, "Well, I could kiss it better but you might prefer the needle."
"The needle is fine. I won't look," Sarah answered, a little too quickly for Alex's liking Even though Alex anticipated this response, it hurt. She gave the needle as quickly and as gently as she could. "There, you should be okay in a few days."
Alex looked down into deep green eyes then nodded, too emotionally wired to respond. She got up quickly to go and put the medical supplies away. What if this didn't work out? How could she leave Africa without Sarah?
"Who is this Paul Na-tana? Are you involved with him?" Alex heard herself ask, and wished she could take back the words as soon as she had said them.
"Are you jealous?" chuckled Sarah from where she lay over on the bed, her good arm draped over her eyes.
"Have I reason to be?"
"It's been over for three years," Sarah answered noncommittally.
"Not for me it hasn't."
Sarah's hand dropped and she met serious, intense eyes with her own. "Paul works for the main office here in Nairobi. It is best to have someone who knows the city. Robbery and muggings are common. He was along for protection. He'll take us to the airport when we leave as well. There hasn't been anyone else, Alex. I have been busy with my research."
Alex would have felt happy if it hadn't been for Sarah's last line. "I've been busy too," she mumbled and went back to packing the medical supplies neatly away.
They went down to the pool once they were settled in. Sarah contented herself with a good book and a lounge chair while Alex did laps until she was so tired she could have sunk like a stone. She knew she needed to open the lines of communication with Sarah but communication except in terms of commands and temper was not something that Alex was good at. That's why she had opted for surgery. You didn't need a bedside manner, just good feet and steady hands.
"Hello there, Sarah, I thought I saw you crossing the lobby earlier today." Sarah looked up to see James Phillips looking down at her.
"Hi James, this is a small world. Didn't we just have a drink together the other night out on the Masai Mara?"
James chuckled. "Yes, I believe we did. We migrate about as much as the herd animals it would seem. Can I join you?"
"How is that sore shoulder of yours?" James asked as he settled in a chair in the shade. James was good at putting people at ease. It was good fortune to have looked out his window when he did and seen the two woman come down to the pool. This was a much better location for a friendly, casual talk than the formal dinning room of the Norfolk Hotel.
Sarah smiled. "Better now. My friend Alex," she nodded towards the woman doing laps in the pool, "is a doctor, so she was able to give me some medical treatment."
"Lucky you. One can't be too careful these days." James nodded, enjoying the opportunity to observe the beautiful body in the water. An afternoon talk with two beautiful women was a rare treat. "Tell me, do you know John Cattleman?"
"Interesting chap. You know he has a degree from Leeds in palaeontology. He worked with the Leakeys in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania as an undergraduate. The focus of his doctorate though was the Silk Trade routes. He spent a good deal of time in the Middle East, primarily Iraq."
Sarah put down her book and looked at Phillips with serious eyes. "I have always found John to be reliable and friendly whenever he has been home. Where are you going with this, James?"
James rubbed his lip with a finger as he considered how much to tell. "He's home now. I need you to be aware of him. Listen, watch and report back to me."
Sarah looked annoyed. "James, I am not going to do that. It has taken me a long time to gain the trust of these people. I am not going to betray that trust. I am here to observe a unique culture not get involved in international politics."
Sarah and James watched as Alex climbed up the pool ladder and headed their way. Alex's black Speedo clung to her body like a skin and beads of water dripped down her lean, muscular form. She was a magnificent sight and both observers watched with open pleasure.
Alex approached the group like a panther letting her strength and confidence radiate out. She hadn't liked the sudden change of expression on Sarah's face. The man had said something Sarah didn't like that was for sure. She picked up her towel and gave it a crack before wiping dry her wide shoulders.
"Alex, this is James Phillips. James, Doctor Alexandria Aubin."
Phillips stood and waited for Alex to offer her hand. Her handshake was a little too firm to be polite. "A pleasure, doctor. Sarah tells me that you have fixed her shoulder. That's good news. Of course, if she hadn't been out stealing cattle it wouldn't have happened, right Sarah? Well, I must be off. Keep in mind what I said, Sarah. It never hurts to keep one's eyes open. Nice meeting you Alex. No doubt I'll see you around. Good day, ladies."
The two women watched as Phillips made his way up the brick stairway that led from the pool gardens. "What did he want?"Alex asked bluntly, forgetting that she no longer had the right to insights into Sarah's life.
"I'm not sure. Rumour has it that James works for MI6 and probably at the moment the CIA too. He wants me to keep my eyes open. There is a lot of political unrest just below the surface in Africa."
Alex finished drying and wrapped the towel around her waist before sitting on the chair that Phillips had vacated. "Why the worried frown?"
"I never told him I'd been wounded on a cattle raid only that I'd hurt my shoulder. Was it a slip or a warning?"
"Are you in trouble, Sarah?"
Sarah smiled, shrugging off the chill that Phillips' visit had left. "No. It is just the politics of Africa. Nothing to do with me. Let's head up to the room."
The women took turns showering and discretely changing away from each other. Alex chose black tailored slacks and a silk shirt. Sarah wore cream cotton slacks and a matching t-shirt decorated across the front in gold with the Big Five of the African animals.
A sexy smile raised the corner of Alex's lips as she openly looked at Sarah's breasts. "Like your animals."
Sarah gave her a look. "Watch yourself, they are the Big Five game animals of Africa, The rhino, elephant, lion, leopard, and Cape buffalo. They are very, very dangerous."
Alex smile widened. "Yeah, I remember."
Sarah blushed and decided to let this one go. "You ready for dinner?"
"Sure. I guess we could eat in the bar or if you know of a place..." Alex let the sentence unfinished. She wanted Sarah to take the lead. Choice of restaurants was one of the things they had argued about.
Sarah looked up in surprise. Alex offering to eat bar food was right up there with pigs flying. Once she started to practise, she always wanted to go to the finest restaurants and be seen eating a health conscious meal of salad and dead fish. Sarah enjoyed dressing up and going to a nice place now and again but she was more the pizza and beer type. "We could go to the Carnivore. It's a restaurant that serves African meats, ostrich, zebra, crocodile, that sort of thing."
Alex wrinkled her nose. "I don't do feathers, stripes, or bog crawlers. How about we just eat in the restaurant here. I'm kind of tired after the flight anyway."
"Sounds like a plan,"agreed Sarah, pleasantly surprised that Alex had not taken her up on the opportunity to eat at the well- known restaurant.
They walked through the garden courtyard, stopping to observe some of the African birds at the feeders, and then made their way to the restaurant. "Sarah Meloche, I just phoned down for a reservation."
"Yes, of course Dr. Meloche, it is good to have you staying with us again. A table for two? Good, this way please." They were taken to a lovely table over- looking the gardens and given menus.
Alex looked at the selection and put down her menu to look at Sarah with a frown. "I am not that person anymore, Sarah."
Sarah looked up in surprise and then put down her own menu to focus on what Alex was saying. "What person?"
"The social-climbing snob that you came to hate." Alex played with her cutlery, feeling awkward and out of her depth. She hated this sort of conversation. But it was important if she was ever going to rebuild a relationship with the woman she loved.
Sarah frowned. Knowing Alex's short temper, she wasn't sure this was the place to get into this discussion. Still, they needed to sort through their history in order to move on. "There is nothing wrong with being rich and successful. I just felt our interests and priorities had gone in different directions and we didn't have much in common anymore."
Alex nodded, still not able to make eye contact. She licked her lips nervously and tried again. "We never did have anything in common. I came from a dysfunctional, poor family and you came from the privileged class. I wanted to fit in. Make you proud of me."
Sarah looked at Alex with a new insight. "I was always proud of you. You had nothing to prove to me. Your background was never a problem."
Alex snorted. "Oh yeah, it was a problem! You think I didn't know how much your parents hated me and your friends wanted nothing to do with me."
"Some of that crap comes with the territory of being gay in a bigoted world. It wasn't all you." Sarah shrugged. "I was pretty young and idealistic. I've learned that the world's problems are not so easily solved as sharing wealth equally." She chuckled. "Living in the local villages has also made me appreciate better the finer things in life too. So let's enjoy this rare opportunity to dine well while we can, okay?"
Alex smiled, letting the tension bleed away. "Okay."
The rest of dinner went well. They skirted difficult issues between them and focussed on the unimportant issues such as Alex's flight out, the weather, books they had read and movies they had seen. Their meal was poached salmon served on a bed of spiced rice and a fresh orange and pine nut salad. Mellow, they walked side by side through the walled gardens.
"Sarah Meloche, hello," came a voice from up ahead of them. They could see a tall, lean Masai walking up the path towards them.
"John Cattleman," Sarah smiled. "It's good to see you again. Do your people prosper?" Sarah stepped forward and met John with a hug, her petite body dwarfed by the lanky African. "You've grown a beard since I last saw you."
"Ahhh, yes. I am too poor a man to have many cattle or wives, so I must grow a bread to show I am no longer a boy." The Masai's deep, vibrant laugh mixed with Sarah's soft chuckle. "My family is well thank you."
"John, this is my friend, Doctor Alexandria Aubin. She is visiting me for a few weeks."
The African turned interested eyes on Alex. "How do you do, Alex. Welcome to Kenya."
"Thank you," Alex stated, watching Sarah closely out the side of her eye. Something was up. There was a tension behind Sarah's smile.
Sarah forced her body to seem relaxed. John and his extended family were friends. "I met James Phillips here today. He told me he had heard you were back living in your village."
The only sign of a reaction to this news was a slight tightening of John's lips. "Oh, I am. You know us Masai always come home eventually. Some business brought me to Nairobi. I will be heading back home in one of the supply trucks in a few days. What about you?"
"I am just here to meet Alex who flew in today. We'll be leaving on the late flight to Governor's Camp tomorrow."
"Then perhaps our paths will cross again soon. I must be off now, I have an appointment. Nice meeting you, Alex. Bye now."
Alex waited until the tall African had disappeared into the main section of the hotel. "You want to tell me what is going on?"
Sarah broke her worried contemplation to look up at Alex. "I don't know. That's the man Phillips wants me to keep an eye on. Isn't it strange that we should all be here at the same time. A little too coincidental. I feel I am being caught up in a game of Blind Man's Bluff."
In silence the two women headed back to their room. The relaxed atmosphere they had enjoyed over diner was gone. Sarah was preoccupied by the events of the day and Alex was finding being so close to the woman she loved when she was not able to express her feelings very frustrating.
Finally, she could stand it no longer, she came up behind Sarah and gently took her by the shoulders as she was hanging up her slacks. "Are you all right?"
"Yes, I'm fine." Sarah smiled brightly over her shoulder and then pulled away. "Our flight isn't until the afternoon so Paul is going to take us to the Giraffe Centre tomorrow and to Karen Blixen's home. You remember she wrote 'Out Of Africa'. We saw it together."
Alex nodded and moved away, trying not to show her hurt. "Yeah, I remember. Thanks for arranging the tour."
Sarah wanted so much to be in Alex's arms. It would feel so good. But there was a lot of bad history that would have to be resolved between them and she wasn't sure that could be done. Still, she had to admit that everything about Alex Aubin attracted her. The hardest thing she had ever done was to walk out of Alex's life. She wasn't sure she would be strong enough to do it a second time if their relationship went back to the way it was.
They settled down into their separate beds and Alex turned off the light. Each lay in her own personal darkness, alone and confused about where to go from here.
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