Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle and any other characters featured in the actual TV series are copyrighted to MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures while the rest of the story and other characters are my own.
Authors Note: This story continues the adventures of characters created in a previous story "Darkness Before The Dawn."
Salvator Mundi was a fine hospital. Clean. Modern. With state-of-the-art medical equipment, a highly trained staff, and abundant funding. In Rome, if you were among the best and brightest, then you were on staff at Mundi. Even the head dietician had once worked in the kitchen of a four-star restaurant in Milano. Hed moved to Rome and signed with Mundi for the guarantee of better hours and better money. Paid for, thank you, by the high-brow clientele Mundi attracted. Socialized medicine be damned. To the demanding patrician eye, in some quarters the facility had the looks of a deluxe class hotel, what with its soft bed linens, large single rooms, and top-shelf cuisine. Still, it was a hospital, all the same.
And Rebecca Hanson wanted out. Now.
The young flight attendant sat on the side of a hospital bed, her cotton gown discarded, already dressed in a white t-shirt, jeans, and brown leather slip-ons. She was nothing, if not optimistic. Becky was surrounded by a small crowd of anxious on-lookers: Mario, the flush-faced local Orbis Airlines representative; Alan Ross, a fellow Orbis flight attendant; a perplexed, baffled nurse, and one tall, dark, and simmering airline pilot Catherine Phillips.
"Hanson, I absolutely think you should stay here at least another day or two!" The pilots blue eyes glittered, full of frustration at the smaller womans obstinacy. What was the matter with her? Catherine wondered. After all, shed only taken a hijackers bullet in the shoulder the day before.
"You should talk," Becky shot back, taking in Kates bruised appearance the cut on her brow. Though she had to admit the pilot looked quite different out of uniform, in her putty-colored slacks, lilac blouse, and blazer. "You look like youve been in a prize fight!"
Kate sniggered. "You should see the other guy!"
Becky sighed and shook her head, running a hand through her short, blonde hair. There had been more than one guy, she knew. Four hijackers to be precise, and Captain Phillips had bested them all, saving the lives of everyone aboard Flight 2240 in the process.
"Please, Signorina Rebecca," Mario broke in, a worried look on his face, "Let Orbis take care of you, no? You stay " he waved his arms around the hospital room, "and soon you be all better!"
"Im all better now," Becky insisted. "That good nights sleep was all I needed!" She slipped off the edge of the bed and stood. Kate instantly moved close, to support her if needed, but the gesture was unnecessary. Though still a bit pale, the young flight attendant stood firm. "Lets go," she said.
"No-no-no-no, Signorina!" The heavy-set nurse moved in, wagging a finger. "You no leave ospedale until the dottore release you!"
"Better listen up, Champ," Alans voice was dubious. "You dont want to push it!"
"Ugh!" Becky tried a different tack. She swept her eyes over the people gathered round her, and smiled tightly. "Im fine. Really. Im sure getting out of here taking in some fresh air, will do me a world of good." She shrugged her left shoulder up and down, barely fighting back a grimace. "See? All better."
The effort it took Becky to work her shoulder had not escaped the intense blue gaze of Captain Catherine Phillips. She shook her head. "No way. You get back in that bed and"
"Please," Becky fiddled with her hospital bracelet, growing more desperate by the minute, "Im fine. I mean that. I-- I just want to get out of here see a little bit of Rome put all of this stuff behind me," and her voice broke at that. "Please," she repeated, lifting two emerald eyes to Kate, beseeching her.
The pilot battled with her emotions. She felt responsible for Hanson, for her safety and well being. Hell, she owed the younger woman her life! Kates stomach still fluttered whenever she mentally flipped back to the image of a bloodied Rebecca lying on the floor of the cockpit, unconscious. The wound had seemed terrible then, in those panicked moments before Kate had been able to bring the plane safely down. But Rebecca had been lucky. The bullet had hit the fleshy part of her shoulder and sailed right through. And there had been some talk of letting her out today, providing her condition warranted it. Granted, the girl looked much improved over the day before.
Becky arched a hopeful eyebrow at her, and Kate realized that the rest of her audience including the nurse also seemed to be awaiting her decision.
Good Lord! "Okay," Kate relented, as Becky heaved a sigh of relief, "IF the doctor says its all right. We wait for him."
"Fair enough," Becky smiled, folding her arms. "We wait."
This seemed to placate the nurse, who quickly huffed from the room. Mario began pacing back and forth, muttering to himself. His last 24 hours had been a public relations nightmare, and these Americans, particularly the dangerous-looking pilot, hadnt made his job any easier.
Alan coughed, nervously, and leaned against the windowsill, gazing out at the bright Italian morning. "So Bills gonna be put on a life-flight today, back to the states, I hear," he said, referring to Catherines first officer who had also been shot by the hijackers. "Probably do him good to be near his family."
"I saw Bill earlier," Becky said, quietly.
"What?" Kate nearly jumped out of her skin. Shed left the young woman alone for barely 15 minutes, while she grabbed a quick shower thanks to the good graces of a sympathetic nurse, and here Becky had gone off traipsing all over the hospital. "You shouldnt have"
"Hes doing better," Beckys voice was even, her eyes level. "I needed to see that."
"Oh yeah," Kate shifted from one foot to the other. "Ah right."
There was an awkward silence then, punctuated by the occasional page over the hospital intercom. After a minute or so, the nurse returned, with a tall, thin middle-aged man hard on her heels. He wore a tie and a blue dress shirt under a white smock, and his ebony hair was slicked back from a high forehead.
"Dottore Migliani!" the nurse stated by way of explanation, ushering him towards Becky. At this point, Kate chuckled to herself, it was hard to tell just who the patient was! She knew shed seen better days, and Mario looked as though he were going to stroke out at any moment. It was Hanson who looked the most composed.
"Buon giorno!" Becky said, holding out her hand. At first, the taciturn physician looked at the appendage as though it were attached to an alien being. Then, Rebecca offered him a dazzling smile, and his reserve cracked, ever-so-slightly. A small smile played at his lips as he took her hand.
"Good morning, Miss Hanson," he emphasized the use of his English, and bowed slightly. "If you please ." He waved a hand towards the door.
"Out out!" the nurse clucked. Alan and Mario shuffled towards the door, and reluctantly Catherine started to follow them.
"Stay with me," Becky softly grasped the pilots arm as she passed by. Kate stopped.
The doctor raised his eyes in a question mark, but said nothing.
"Sure." She stood at the bottom of the bed while Doctor Migliani poked and prodded Becky, assisted by the nurse responding to his silent cues. Off came the young womans t-shirt and the doctor nodded approvingly at the healing wound.
"You must keep this dry for the next 24 hours "
"Okay," Becky said eagerly. Sounded like discharge talk to her!
" and the stitches will dissolve within seven days. I can give you something for the pain take one tonight, so you sleep, and thereafter, as needed." After he applied a fresh bandage, the nurse helped Becky to slip her top back on.
"Does this mean Im free to go?"
A thin smile passed over the doctors features. "We were never holding you prisoner, Miss Hanson."
"II understand that," Becky laughed, relieved. "You were just doing you job."
"Are there any other special instructions, Doctor?" Kate stepped forward. "Any restrictions on say walking or exercise"
"No," the doctor replied, making notes on Beckys chart. He handed it to the nurse, and nodded. He was through here. "A bit of exercise will do her good." He turned to Rebecca. "Listen to your body, young lady. When it tells you its tired rest!"
"Ill listen," Becky said, bobbing her head agreeably.
Kate smiled tightly. "Yes. You will."
"Bene!" The doctor grinned slightly. "You are as you say free Miss Hanson." He paused. "Take care of yourself." And with that, he spun out of the room.
As if by magic, an orderly appeared with a wheelchair. "We go now, Miss Rebecca!" the nurse said, cheerily.
"Oh, goodness I dont need that"
The nurse was about to protest, but Kate cut her off. "Listen, Champ," she said through gritted teeth, her eyes glittering mischievously, "do you want to get out of here, or not?!"
"Oooh!" Becky glared at Kate, but did as she was told, sinking down into the wheelchair. "My bag" The orderly was already swinging Becky towards the door, followed by the nurse.
"Marios got our bags," Kate replied, hustling after them, "Dont you Mario?" She raised her voice as she passed by the chubby Italian lurking outside the door.
"Si! Si! Bagagli!" He passed a handkerchief across his forehead. "All taken care of, Capitano!"
"All right, Champ!" Alan smiled, pushing his lanky frame away from the doorjamb. "Youre outta here?"
"Yep! Eat my dust, Alan!" Becky laughed, as the little party raced down the hallway.
Too fast for Catherines tastes.
Wasnt Rebecca still a patient?! And after all the blonde flight attendant had been through to risk further injury here, now, thanks to a hot-rod behind the wheelchair unacceptable.
"Hey, speed-racer," she grabbed the orderlys wrist, "ease up on the throttle, why dont you?" Whether or not the young, black-haired Italian spoke English, Kate couldnt be sure. But he didnt need to, in order to understand the iron-grip of her hand, the steeliness in her voice, the darkness in her eyes.
Immediately, he slowed, a glimmer of fear skipping across his face. This was a woman not to be crossed, he knew that much.
"Gosh, Kate, youre no fun!" Becky chuckled. She swiveled her head sideways and up, the better to take in the tall pilot who strode alongside her.
"You have no idea," Kate drolly replied, training her blue eyes straight ahead.
The light-hearted exchange did not escape the notice of Alan Ross. What was Becky doing, trading jokes with Captain Frosty-the-Snow-Bitch? Granted, Catherine Phillips had surprised the hell out of him back there, on that plane. They all would have been goners, if it hadnt been for her. Shed shown more guts, been savvier than the lot of them thrown together.
Well not including Becky. The Champ had surprised him, too. Then, with her fight
and spirit, and now, with her decision to spend some time in Rome, in the company of Captain Phillips. Who wouldve thought it? And, even more preposterously, the two of them actually seemed to be getting along! What a wonder.
They were nearing the hospitals double-glass entrance doors now, and the entourage slowed. With a hiss, the doors opened.
"I bring car around you wait here!" Mario scurried off.
Becky pushed herself out of her wheelchair, fighting off the efforts of the nurse on one side and Kate on the other, trying to help her. "Ahh " she exclaimed, beaming brightly and breathing in deeply of the fresh, morning air, "Its gonna be a great day."
"After yesterday, Ill say!" Alan said, moving closer to her.
The smile faded from Beckys face, and Kate glowered at the young man for bringing up such an unpleasant memory. As if the bandage on Beckys shoulder werent reminder enough.
Alan caught the pilots look, and cleared his throat uncomfortably. "Ah listen, Champ," he shuffled his feet, "Ive decided to take the #2260 back to JFK today."
"So soon?" Becky was disappointed.
"Yeah I was scheduled to work it anyway, so even though Ive got the day off now, I thought Id hitch a ride. I just want to get back home you know, get back to normal," he finished lamely.
"Joans going back on that flight too," Kate added, speaking of Joan Wetherill, the hijacked planes senior flight attendant. "She called this morning to let me know. Same thing. She just wants to get home."
"You need a ride?" Becky asked.
"Nah. Id rather walk a bit." He sighed heavily. "Anyway Nathan and Cindy are staying on, for a few days." The two Orbis flight attendants had decided to spend some quality down time in Rome, rekindling a some-times love affair. And, no doubt, taking the time to recover from their recent ordeal.
"There he is!" Kate pointed to where Mario was maneuvering a blue Fiat courtesy car into the circular drive in front of the hospital.
"Well, I guess this is it, then!" Becky said, gulping. Impulsively, she threw her arms around the young man, hugging him tightly, tears filling her green eyes. "Th- thanks Alan. For everything!"
"For you, Champ," his voice was choked, "Anything!"
Mario pulled the car to a stop in front of them; doors began opening and closing as he adjusted bags and seats.
At last, Becky stepped back, ending the moment. "Tell the rest of the gang I said hi!"
"You got it." He turned to Catherine, and awkwardly held out his hand. "Thank you, Captain," he swallowed hard, "Ill fly with you, anytime."
"Same here, Ross," she replied, giving his hand a solid shake.
With a final wave good-bye, the young man took off towards the busy street. The nurse moved to leave, too. She handed Kate a small bottle of pills, and a packet of materials and instructions for caring for Rebeccas wound. "Youll be all right from here, Miss Rebecca?" The nurse turned and gestured towards the car.
"Ill be fine, thanks," Becky grinned. "Thanks for everything. Arrivederci."
"Good-bye," the nurse tried in her stilted, accented English, and then she warily swung her gaze up at to taller woman. "You be careful with her, yes?!" Before Kate could respond, the nurse had spun on her heel and lightly boxed the orderly, bidding him to follow her back into the hospital.
"Ciao!" the orderly winked at Becky, quickly skittering away from the pilots reach.
Becky waved in return, laughing. "Ciao!"
"Italian men," Kate rumbled. "Dont encourage him!"
"Encourage what? He was cute!" The blonde turned to the older woman with a smirk, waving an arm out towards the city of Rome. "And theres a whole lot more where that came from!"
"Greaaaat," Kate groaned, but looking down at the sea-green eyes twinkling up at her, she could not prevent a smile from creeping across her face. She blew out a sharp burst of air from between clenched teeth. "Okay," she said, with laughter in her voice, "I thought wed get ourselves checked into that Pensione you talked about.
"Oh yeah!" Becky gasped, excitedly, as Catherine gently took her elbow and began guiding her to the Fiat. Mario stood by the passenger door, waiting. "The Ausonia, near the Spanish Steps!"
"Thats the one," a light danced in Kates eyes as she allowed herself to be swept up in the smaller womans eager anticipation. "I ringed them yesterday to tell them youd been delayed."
"Thanks," Becky said, pausing as they reached the end of the ramp. Once more, she breathed in deeply of the crisp, morning air, soaking in the sights and sounds of the city bustling so near: the toots of the car horns, the fashionably dressed Italians rushing to work, the sway of the umbrella pines. She was thrilled to be standing on the cusp of a great adventure, delighted beyond all reason at the unexpected company shed have for it and, feeling the dull ache in her shoulder with each breath she drew in, happy to be alive. Never had she held that sentiment more closely than she did right now.
"After we get settled in," blue eyes sparkled down at her, "what do you want to do?"
Becky looked up at the pilot and smiled. "Everything."
The Pensione Ausonia had been booked by Rebecca sight-unseen, and when Mario first pulled up to the tottering five-story building, she had been more than a little concerned. Creeping vines clung to the exterior, bits of the aged plaster façade were peeling away and crumbling to the sidewalk, and the structure itself seemed to tilt forward into the street, bent like an old woman. The bright, streaming sunshine shone unkindly on the pensione, highlighting its every wrinkle and ruin.
Uh-oh, Becky stole a sidelong, worried glance at Kate. You wanted native, youve got it! she thought, as the pilot helped her out of the Fiat. If the dark-haired woman had any reservations about the broken-down building, she didnt show it.
"Thatll be all, Mario, thanks." Kate shooed the heavyset Italian away from the bags hed deposited on the sidewalk.
"Capitano," his wide-open brown eyes darted back and forth from the pilot to Becky, "if you need anything anything ." The young mans tie was loosened about his neck, his belly strained at the buttons of his white shirt, and though the sun was not yet high in the sky, he was perspiring heavily.
Kate smiled wanly. "Dont call us. Well call you."
"Si ciao, Capitano Signorina Rebecca!" He backed away from the two women, dipping his head and waving furiously. He worked his way around to the drivers door, and Becky nearly jumped out of her skin when a small Pugeot came screaming around the corner, narrowly avoiding him. The car beeped angrily at the flustered Italian as it sped by.
"Mario!" Becky cried out.
"Sokay okay !" Still flashing a dumb smile, he awkwardly maneuvered his bulky form into the car, and drove away.
"I think you put the fear of God into him," Becky nudged Kate in the ribs.
"Hrmph!" the pilot mumbled, wagging her dark head. "Ill take credit for the fear, but not the God part!" She leaned down and effortlessly hoisted a strapped flight bag onto each of her shoulders, carrying her flight kit and Rebeccas pull-case in her hands.
"Here, let me" Becky reached for a bag.
"Ive got them," Kate smoothly dodged the young blondes outstretched hand, and struck out towards the door of the pensione.
Becky shook her head as she watched the taller womans broad back retreat into the building. This was going to be a long holiday indeed, if the pilot insisted on constantly babying her.
She followed Catherine into a cool, white-washed lobby, small even by pensione standards. Their shoes clicked along the tiled floor as they made their way to a high-topped oaken counter, behind which sat a 60-ish Italian woman. Her dark hair was streaked with gray, and pulled back into a bun. She wore a straight-lined floral print dress, a blue sweater, and her thin face bore the creases from years of exposure to the sun and cigarettes. She was smoking even now, holding a tapered sigaretta in a bony, long-fingered hand. A light cloud of smoke wafted around her, as though she hovered in an other-worldly fog.
"Signora Canova?" Kate let their bags drop to the floor by the desk.
A pair of deep brown eyes stared at her from over a pair of pince-nez chained about the older womans neck. "Americanos, eh?" Clunky gold and amytheyst drop-earrings jingled as she spoke.
"Yesss " Kate paused, before continuing. "Im Catherine Phillips, and this is Rebecca Hanson. Miss Hanson has a reservation, and I spoke with you yesterday about the delay"
"Si si!" The proprietress waved her hand dismissively, whirling the cloud of smoke around her. "I remember," she said, in a low, accented voice. She began turning the pages of a large, leather-bound book that looked to have its origins in centuries past, rather than present.
The pensione itself reeked with age, Kate considered, gazing round at the high ceilings, the ornately carved moldings, and the brass railed staircase that faced the street. A rickety, gated lift stood just to the right of the counter, and to the left side of the lobby was a small dining area. A parlor with a few over-stuffed chairs, sofas, and tea tables stood opposite. Two gray-haired men sat one table, immobile, silently playing chess.
"I have one room left. Quinto piano fifth floor, number two," she corrected herself in English. The Signora peered back over her glasses at the two women. "How long you stay?"
Becky looked quickly at Kate before blurting out, "Oh three or four days, at least."
Catherine lifted an eyebrow at that, but said nothing. Perhaps Hanson was more tired than she was letting on, and needed the additional time to recover. Whatever, Kate had committed to watching over her, and she would not back away from that promise.
Signora Canova put the cigarette in her mouth, and began writing in a light, scrawly hand: Miss R. Hanson Miss C. Phillips "You sign here," she said, pushing the book around to face them. Kate took the pen, and then handed it to Becky.
"That will be 100,000 lire per night, no credit cards, payable in full, now," the older woman stated defiantly. "Continental breakfast is served every morning from 6 until 9."
Before Becky could even make a move, Kate had already laid out the bills on the counter-top. "Will this do?"
At last, the proprietress face broke open in a broad smile. "Si si!" She bobbed her head. "Benvenuto! Welcome to the Pensione Ausonia!" She swept the lire back across the counter, and slipped an old, bronze-colored key towards Kate. "Number two," she repeated, making no move to show them to the room. "Lascensore," she pointed to the lift, "o le scale" the stairs.
"Grazie!" Kate said, grabbing the key and hoisting the luggage. She turned for the elevator, and then stopped, realizing Becky was not following her.
"Ah Im okay with the stairs," she said, eyeing the lift dubiously. The pilot had already pressed the button, and ominous clanking and banging sounds were emanating from the shaft.
You need to conserve your strength," Kate reminded her. "Four flights of stairs can get awfully old, awfully fast." She paused, holding back a grin. "Youre not scared, are you?"
"Of course not," Becky replied, huffily. "I just thought ." And her voice trailed off.
The lift rattled to a stop on the ground floor, and Kate pushed the gate aside. "After you!" and she did smile then, allowing the smaller woman to enter the closet-sized lift first. With a bump and a hiss, the lift was off.
"Great," Becky said. "If this is the elevator, I cant wait to get a load of the plumbing!"
"Are you sure there is plumbing?" Kate was intently examining a small spot on the ceiling of the lift, carefully avoiding Beckys glare.
The young blonde blushed deeply at the pilots words. It had been well-enough when she thought shed be alone to get a room in a small pensione, versus a large hotel. The thought of going native, of being absorbed into the local culture, had appealed to her then. But even she had been taken aback by the Ausonias tired appearance, and she was embarrassed for the sake of the tall, elegant woman standing next to her. Surely, Captain Catherine Phillips was used to the best things in life, whether they be clothes, cars, or companionship. The elevator labored higher and higher, but Rebecca Hansons heart sank with the humiliation of knowing that shed dragged the pilot slumming with her. Oh God, how would she ever get over this! She ought to suggest that they leave right now, go someplace else.
With a sighing groan, the elevator clanked to a stop. "Were here!" Kate said, cheerily. She had noticed Beckys increasing discomfiture in reaction to the ambiance of the pensione. Quite frankly, she was enjoying it. While there was no doubt that she welcomed the amenities of a first-class hotel, shed also seen her share of the underbelly of what military housing had to offer, thanks to her early days in the Air Force. Compared to some of the places shed seen, the Ausonia, so far, was a damned castle.
The women stepped from the lift into a carpeted hallway, blanketed in light streaming in from a floor-to-ceiling palladian window at the end of the corridor.
"Hmnn " Kate said, appreciatively. "Nice." She walked slowly along the hall, examining the room numbers, while Becky glumly followed behind. "Looks like this is us," she said, stopping in front of the last door near the window. She slipped the key into an old brass lock.
Rebecca could stand her misery no more. "You know, Kate, why dont we just leave here and omigod!" Her hand flew to her mouth in shock.
"I know," the pilot stepped into the room and dropped their bags to the floor, "awful, isnt it?" She turned to Becky and grinned. "You were saying?" She pulled Becky in and shut the door behind her. "Not quite the Hilton, eh?"
The room was stunning.
A snapshot of classic, old-world Italy, their room was all cream-colored walls, antique oak and ashwood furniture, balanced with a delicate, needlepoint rug in the center of the floor. A gilded mirror dominated one wall, while double glass doors opposite led out onto a small balcony.
The ceiling had to be at least nine feet high; a benefit of being on the uppermost floor, no doubt, Kate thought. On it, a central fresco of ancient Rome was framed by the rest of the ornately carved ceiling and molding, overflowing with a riot of grape leaves, vines, and sunbursts.
A small sitting area was tucked in a corner, near a low-silled window that reached upwards to the crown molding. The window was cracked open, and a gentle breeze parted lace curtains, allowing golden sunlight to warm an oaken writing desk and a pair of easy chairs. A drinks table in front of a beige divan held a bottle of San Pelligrino, several glasses, and a bowl filled with grapes, apples, walnuts and crackers.
Kate and Becky mutely wandered to one door a walk-in closet. Another led to the bathroom. It was there the women received a second shock.
"This is as big as my apartments living room!" Becky gasped. The young woman stepped onto polished terra-cotta floor tiles and gazed around the bath. The porcelain fixtures were of classic design: a claw-footed tub with shower attachment, a pull-chain commode, a pedestal basin, a heated towel rack and, of course, the requisite bidet. A wicker basket holding a variety of soaps and bath salts sat on a marble shelf jutting out from the wall. Next to the basket were a stack of fluffy white towels and wash cloths.
Catherine walked back into the room, shaking her head. "100,000 lire, right? About $55 dollars. You heard it too?"
"Yeah, can you believe it?" Becky squealed, pushing past her and lifting the latch on the balcony doors. "Oh gosh," she sighed, flinging them open wide. "Unbelievable."
Kate followed Becky out onto the deck, beautifully framed-in by a wrought-iron scroll-work balustrade. A pair of all-weather chairs were grouped around a small table, decorated with a potted plant. Becky leaned on the railing, taking in the view below. She let the breeze ruffle her hair the sun warm her skin.
"What is it?"
"The Piazza di Spagna," Kate said, easing her arms down on the rail next to Becky. "Look there," she casually put her hand on the younger womans back, and pointed. "The Spanish Steps!"
"Beautiful," Becky breathed, and indeed, it was an impressive sight. The Piazza was closed off to motor traffic, but the cobbled square was teaming with people in the late-morning sun. Students, professionals, tourists, children even the occasional dog formed a sea of humanity, flowing and ebbing on the midday tide.
In the center of the square was a large fountain featuring a half-sunken boat in it, noisily spouting water. The steps themselves were dotted with groups of young people reading, drawing, chatting. Photographers, espresso drinkers, friends and lovers, gathered at the traditional meeting place as had their forebears for the past two centuries. Twelve flights mounted upwards towards a renaissance-style church on the piazza above; budding azaleas were just beginning to bloom along the length of the steps as they journeyed there.
Kate still held her hand lightly on Rebeccas back; for some reason she hadnt been inclined to move it away. She felt the young woman begin to tremble.
"What is it?" she asked, alarmed. "If youre chilled"
"No," Becky said, turning to look up at her with two moist, green eyes that looked like gemstones in the sunlight, "I I just cant believe Im here. That that we made it ." and she started to cry in earnest.
Kate hesitated for only a moment. Yes, Hanson was a weeper, but God knew she had good reason to be, after what shed just been through. "Sssh there take it easy now!" and she reached out to the smaller woman.
The pilot was surprised at how quickly Becky responded; at how comfortable the girl felt in her arms as she embraced her. After all, Catherine Phillips was not normally the touchy-feely type. "Cmon now dont cry!" she stroked the short blonde hair. "Its okay you made it! Everybody made it!"
After a time, Beckys sobs quieted, and at last the girl pulled slightly away. She let her arms drop to Kates waist. "Thanks," she said, forcing a smile to her tear-streaked face. "I know Im just being silly, I guess."
"No youre not." Kate gave Beckys arm a squeeze and stepped away. "Youve been through a lot the past couple of days. Its only right that you should be a little " she groped for the right word, " emotional."
Becky laughed aloud at that. "Emotional. Thats me!"
"Listen, why dont we freshen up, and then go out and see some of the sights? Maybe grab a little lunch?"
"Sounds good," Becky said, moving back through the doorway, wiping at her face. "I was hoping you couldnt hear my stomach growling!"
"Oh, thats what that was!" Kate latched the doors closed behind them. "I thought it was some heavy construction equipment out on the Piazza!"
"Ha!" Becky said, flouncing down into an overstuffed chair. She reached for a bunch of grapes from the bowl, kicked off her shoes and propped her feet up on the tables edge. "You aint heard nothing yet!" She plunked a grape into her mouth. "I snore."
"Now wait a minute," Kate growled in mock anger, shrugging off her blazer. "That was not in the brochure I saw!" She sat down into the chair next to Kate, and poured herself and Becky a glass of mineral water.
"Sorry!" Becky said simply, taking the proffered beverage, "Mustve been the beta version!"
"You rat!" Kate laughed, pitching a grape at the young flight attendant. Becky nimbly caught it, and made short work of it. "Still," Kate eyed the sweeping floral canopy that hung over an ornately carved four-poster bed the only bed in their guest-room, "maybe you would be more comfortable if I slept here." The pilot gestured towards the divan.
"What?" Becky was stupefied. "Dont be silly. Youd have to be a contortionist to fit there! Theres plenty of room in the bed!"
"But your shoulder what if"
"Nonsense. Youre not killing yourself over here. Either were both in the bed, or both out of it," she firmly said, gazing levelly at Kates blue eyes. "Now, what do you say?"
Kate briefly contemplated the image of an injured Rebecca Hanson bunking on the floor of the room, well-carpeted though it was, and she cringed. "The bed it is," she sighed, closing her eyes. "You dont play fair!"
"I play to win," Becky chuckled. Remember, this is the Champ, youre talking to!" And with that, she pushed herself out of the plush chair, and headed towards the bath. She lightly brushed Kates shoulder as she slipped by. "I wont be a minute, and then we can hit the streets. Sound like a plan?"
"A plan it is," Kate groaned, smiling under her still-lidded eyes. As she listened to the receding patter of Beckys feet, the pilot thought it curious that she could still sense where Beckys fingers had made contact with her shoulder. The girl had such a sweet, innocent way about her, and already Kate could feel how she was chipping away at the stony exterior of her austere reserve. An image shed worked so hard to cultivate. With each passing moment, Catherine was feeling more and more like the façade of the Ausonia. Crumbling under the gentle spirit of Rebecca Hanson. Dammit! She couldnt afford to let her guard down. Not now. Rebecca Hanson didnt deserve to have any more pain in her life. She would watch out for her, see her through this, and that was it.
Hurt. Thats what happened to people who got close to Catherine Phillips. Hadnt she seen the results of that time and time again? Finally, shed stopped trying at all. She couldnt stand the pain she seemed to bring to peoples lives. Her family. Friends. Come to think of it, she didnt much like the feeling herself.
Better to avoid it entirely.
Thats the ticket, Kate thought, reaching for another grape. Keep on running.
Rome wasnt built in a day, and they sure werent going to see it in a day, Kate knew that much. Regardless of Beckys ambitious touring designs, the pilot had every intention of keeping the pace slow and undemanding, for Hansons sake. The younger woman had obviously planned for some intense sightseeing; shed produced a backpack from her luggage, and filled it with a small 35mm camera, tour books, maps, bottled water, and a light jacket.
"Sunscreen?" Kate had turned up her nose when she saw Becky stowing it in her pack. "Never use the stuff."
"No kidding," Becky blithely replied, taking in the tall womans bronze skin. "Ill bet youve never been burned in your life."
"Well, not by the sun, anyway," Kate chuckled. "Here, give me that." And before Becky could protest, Kate snapped up the filled backpack. She was wearing her long, dark hair loose, and she swept it out of the way as she shouldered the bag. "Cant have you hurting yourself."
Becky opened her mouth as if to speak, then thought the better of it. Kate was probably right. She was still feeling a little achy, and shed be darned if shed let the pilot know it. There was too much she wanted to do this day!
Becky convinced her companion that taking the stairs down would not be too taxing, and so they clattered down the marbled four flights with ease. When they hit the lobby, Rebecca headed right for the front door. After a moments consideration, Kate decided to interrupt Signora Canovas latest cigarette.
As she approached the large, oaken desk, she could see the older woman peering at her from above her pince-nez. She was smoking, yes, the billowing cloud around her was proof-enough of that, but she also had been reading a newspaper. Quickly, she folded it aside.
Kate coughed. "Ah thanks for the room," she said, eyeing the gray-haired woman closely. "Its lovely."
"All of the Ausonias rooms are bello!" she said indignantly, pushing a stray wisp of hair back into her bun. Her dark brown eyes darted from Kate to the newspaper and back again, and Kate turned to it too.
Splattered on the front page, was a screaming Italian headline about the hijacking. There was a photo of the gaping hole in the fuselage of the Orbis 777-200 jet and, next to it, an old head-shot of Kate. God, it mustve been taken when she first joined Orbis! Below the pilots picture, the face of Rebecca Hanson smiled out at her.
Ugh! Publicity!! The the tall woman thought, pretending she hadnt seen it. Obviously, Signora Canova had. Perhaps that accounted for the upgrade in their room.
"Look," Kate changed the subject, "is there a place nearby we could get something to eat before sight-seeing?"
"Si," the Signora replied, still a bit testy. She waggled a spindly finger towards the door. "Down past the steps, go left, and right you will see the Tavernetta. Food is good, yes?"Grazie." Kate adjusted the pack on her shoulder, popped on a pair of aviator-frame sunglasses, and headed outside to catch up with Rebecca. The young woman smiled up at her. "Lets go!"
Kate took Becky to the restaurant by way of the Spanish Steps, and the flight attendant insisted that Kate pose for a photo at the bottom. "Im going to ruin your pictures of the sights if you keep that up," the pilot grumbled, but something told Becky that was far from the truth.
The Piazza was lined with food and wine shops, boutiques, and restaurants. "Ooh I cant wait to go shopping," Becky said, eyeing them greedily, "but I need some sustenance first!"
A few stops and turns later, there was the Tavernetta Signora Canova recommended. Kate led the way, selecting a pasta in a walnut and cheese sauce. She paid the attendant, got a slip, and then moved to the end of a counter for her dish. Becky followed along, pointing to a pasta and eggplant concoction for her entrée. In short order, the two women had redeemed their slips for lunch, and were relaxing at a table near the street with some fresh bread and mineral water.
"Oh God, this is fantastic!" Becky said, twirling her pasta and munching away.
"Not bad," Kate smiled into Beckys green eyes, teasing her. The food was delicious. From the moment theyd walked into the place, her mouth had watered at the cooking smells: the oils, the roasted peppers, the breads.
"Well, what you dont want, I can finish for you!" the younger woman replied. A pause and then, "So youve obviously been to Rome before."
"Yeah," Kate turned her eyes away at that, "A few times."
"For work or pleasure?"
"Work. Definitely work." Kate realized that the younger woman expected her to elaborate. She took a sip of water, and bent to lift the backpack off the floor, placing it on an empty chair at their table. A constant stream of Italian working people were making their way in and out of the small restaurant, brushing closely by. "I used to be in the Air Force, stationed in the north, at Aviano."
"The air base thats in the news now," Beckys voice was solemn, referencing the Balkan conflict.
"Mnnnn. Anyway I was able to pick up the language a bit get down to Rome a few times," Kate finished, leaving it at that.
Rebecca could sense that there was a deeper story there, but by the way her companions eyes had clouded over, she decided to leave it alone for the time being. She reached into the backpack, and retrieved a large notepad. "Well," she twirled another bite of her pasta, "its painfully apparent that Ive never been. So, what I thought we could do " and she began to read off a laundry list of activities.
"Whoa, there!" Kate grabbed the notebook from her and held it up for examination. "Is this for the rest of the week?"
"No!" Becky replied, blinking her eyes. "This afternoon."
The pilot snapped the notebook shut and replaced it in the backpack. "No way."
"No buts. Youve been through a lot the past couple of days, and I dont want you wearing yourself out."
"Kate," Becky was whining now, and she hated herself for it, "Im fine. The Forum, the Colosseum"
"Will still be there tomorrow." The tone in Kates voice told Becky that the older woman would brook no argument.
Silently, Becky pushed her plate away, deeply disappointed. So much for Rome. So much for the things shed wanted to do. And so much for thinking this Captain Frosty could ever be her friend. She turned to gaze out at the street. At the people. Anywhere, but having to look at Catherine Phillips.
"Look Im sorry." A lower tone now, apologetic, and Becky could feel a warm hand slip over her own on the table. She tried not to respond to it but, somehow, just the simple touch of the pilots palm drew her back in.
She lifted her eyes to the dark woman. "Forget about it."
"No " Kate pressed. "II guess sometimes I have to think about how somethings gonna sound before I say it. Im not used to just talking." A pause. "What I meant to say is that we can still sight-see today. We can do some shopping, go to some of the places in this area of the city but not stray too far from home base. Id rather wait on the more vigorous stuff until tomorrow, even."
"That sounds fine," Becky found her resistance melting away under the womans earnest admission.
"Hell, Hanson," Kate continued hoarsely, "You just got out of the hospital this morning. I want to see you all better not any worse!" Now it was Kates turn to blink and look away.
Rebecca felt about two inches tall. How selfish of her, pushing, pressing to meet her own agenda, not realizing the effect it might be having on the Captain. After all, she hadnt had the easiest flight of it either, Becky realized, eyeing the fading bruise and thin scab on the pilots forehead. It hadnt occurred to her that her companion might not exactly be feeling up to par either, though Becky decided to keep that thought to herself. No use in mentioning it at all, for Kate would surely deny it.
"Hey," Becky said, turning the tables on Kate and clasping the larger hand in her own. "I have an idea," she gave the hand a squeeze.
Kate swiveled her head back to the younger woman. "Well?"
"Your plan for today sounds great. The last thing I want is to overdo it, and not be able to enjoy the rest of our time here. So how about today, the Piazza, and tomorrow, the world!" her green eyes sparkled.
Catherine could not help but smile at her companions enthusiasm. And finally, the girl was seeing the sense in taking it easy for the day. That took a load off of Kates mind. "Deal," she replied, a silly grin over-spreading her face. "What are we waiting for?"
The women walked back along the Via due Macelli towards the Spanish Steps area, where they revisited many of the shops and boutiques theyd passed by on their way to lunch. They took their time nosing about in several art and antique galleries, before Kate finally put her foot down. "Clothes," she said. "One of us did not pack enough for this little holiday."
Becky was only too willing to allow herself to be steered down the Via Condotti towards the Via del Corso. She loved to clothes-shop, but after a bit of walking, even she was overwhelmed by the heady concentration of the fashion elite and their emporiums.
"Oh wow," Becky exclaimed, as they strolled by plate-glass window displays chock-full of the latest styles and fabrics, "How do you know what to wear?"
"Oh, dont worry," Kate rumbled, "Theyll tell you!"
All the top designers were represented: Versace, Ferre, Laura Biagiotti, with prices that - lire or no took Beckys breath away. The young woman swallowed hard. "Look, if you want to stop in any of these ."
The tall woman laughed. "Around the corner here," she pointed to the del Corso, "there are some nice shops that arent quite as pricey. Theyll do fine."
"Oh, good," Becky gulped, relieved. "You know," her shopping mode kicked in once again, "I could use another outfit for night-time "
Merona was the first shop Kate led them to, a smaller boutique with a mix of mid-range designer wear and pret-à-porter. The exotic-looking sales associates spoke English a necessity in this metropolitan part of the city and two women instantly descended upon Kate and Rebecca, only too willing to direct them towards a variety of fashionable ensembles.
"Im just looking for a few outfits for touring!" Kate said for the tenth time, as a tall, bone-thin saleswoman several inches taller than the pilot, flashed her a sleek, full-length evening dress.
"But dear," the clerk crooned, "this was made for you!"
"Put it back!"
"Oh cmon, Kate!" Becky called over her shoulder. The smaller woman was eagerly working with an older, thin-faced saleswoman, and the two of them already had their arms loaded down with clothing. "Try it on Ill bet it looks great on you!" She turned back to her attendant "Can you grab me one of those, too?"
"Okay " Kate sighed through gritted teeth.
Making sure that at least some reasonable clothes were included in her selections, Kate finally allowed Maria to lead her back to the dressing rooms. "See you there!"
The pilot was fairly sure it was Hanson who spoke from beneath a mound of walking couture.
Maria opened a walk-in dressing room for Kate, and arranged her selections strategically on hooks along the walls: coordinating separates, highlighting the eveningwear. When she was finished, the saleswoman made no move to leave. "I can handle it from here, Maria," Kate said, smiling tightly.
"No bella I help you " she looked at Catherine, panic and doubt flickering across her face. This was simply never done!
"Really," Kate said, lightly grabbing the taller womans bony shoulder and turning her out of the dressing room. "Ill call you if I need you!"
Kate slammed the door shut. "Heel, Maria!" she muttered under her breath.
The pilot began picking though the draped clothes, trying to recall just which were the ones shed selected in the first place. She heard the dressing room door next to her open, and from the excited chatter she could tell it was Hanson and her designer diva.
A light tap on the wall. "Kate, you over there?"
"Uh-huh," her voice was toneless.
"Great! I cant wait to see how we look in these gorgeous things!"
"I can," she mumbled.
"What?" Giggles and bumping sounds coming from over the wall.
"I said, me too!"
Ugh, Kate shook her head, and quickly went to work. Fortunately for the tall woman, she had an unerring sense of what clothes fit her best, what caught her eye, and which were comfortable to wear. She stuck to those sensibilities, rather than let herself be guided by trendy styles and high price tags.
After slipping in and out of several ensembles, Kate finally decided to splurge on three new outfits. After all, what she didnt use here, she could certainly make use of somewhere, she rationalized. She wasnt much of a shopper, and God knew when shed get the chance again. She placed a white cotton ¾-sleeve poplin shirt over a nylon-lycra spandex tank, and a beige pencil skirt in her to go pile.
Next to make the cut were a charcoal cardigan with a matching tank top, and the one pair of jeans shed been able to find in the blasted boutique. Lastly, in a concession to the spirit of Roma, she opted for a loose-fitting white cotton top, sleeveless, with a pair of blue patch-pocket capri pants.
"Kate!" There was a rapping on her door this time. "Let me see!"
Kate finished buttoning-up her own lilac blouse, then flung open the door to Becky. The hawk-like Maria was anxiously hovering just behind her.
"You no like ?" The saleswoman was disappointed.
"I like." Kate thrust her pile of selected clothing at the taller woman. "Ring me up, sister."
Kate dropped her eyes to the young blonde in front of her. "You look nice."
Becky was wearing a white silk and cotton sleeveless top, with a matching lightly beaded, knee-length skirt. "I like it too," she said. "Its just that " and she fingered the bulky bandage that was peeking out from beneath the shoulder strap.
Kate could see the girls face fall. Dammit, Hanson looked terrific in that outfit. If she wanted it, she should get it. The tangible evidence of her recent trauma would fade soon enough. "Get it," the pilots voice was firm.
"You think?" Rebecca brightened.
"I think!" And she moved to leave the dressing room.
"Si!" Beckys salesclerk jumped in. "You look adorable, darrrling!" she purred.
"Hey!" Becky stopped the pilot from leaving. "Didnt you try on that dress?"
"For what?" Kate sniffed. "I dont need it!"
"You dont have to need it," Beckys eyes twinkled. "Thats the joy of shopping!"
"Si!" the saleswoman enthusiastically agreed.
God, Kate thought, with these people the answer is always yes, if it involves a sale. "Thought you were going to try one on?" she tried to change the subject.
"I did," Becky lowered her head, glumly. "Turns out I need to be about a foot taller to pull-off something like that "
"I get you something shorter, bella!" And the saleswoman scurried off.
"But gosh, Kate, if I had your height-- Cmon!" the smaller woman stood tall, and grabbed the gown from the hook in Kates dressing room. "Live a little. Try it on. You know what they say. When in Rome ." She shoved the dress at Kate.
"Here you are, dear!" The older saleswoman had reappeared, with a shimmering something for Becky.
"Lets go, Phillips," Becky narrowed her eyes. "Or are you scared?"
Blue eyes locked on green. Catherine Phillips never backed down from a challenge, no matter the circumstance. She grabbed the dress from Becky, and stuck out her chin. "Meet you in the hall."
Becky smirked triumphantly and retreated, her saleswoman in tow.
Once more, Kate undressed and, sighing, slipped the gown over her head. It was a black matte jersey-style dress, with spaghetti straps. The first thing Kate noticed was that it felt wonderfully comfortable. The second thing was, as she checked herself out in the mirror, that it looked as good as it felt. Dammit, Hanson was right!
"Lets see it!" More knocking on the door.
In her bare feet, Kate padded out into the hallway.
She was met with silence.
And then, "Stordimento!" Stunning! Beckys clerk gasped.
"Oh wow Kate " Becky shook her head. "Gorgeous."
"Bella you really from Milano, no? You model there, eh?" The haughty Maria had returned.
Other patrons in the store peaked down the hall at the commotion, catching a glimpse of the striking, raven-haired woman in the designer evening gown. The black jersey material clung to Catherines body like a second skin, part of the reason why it felt so comfortable on her. The tanned hue of her defined arms, exposed shoulders, and plunging neckline, offered sharp, breathtaking contrast to the midnight-black material of the dress. Down it swept, hugging every shapely curve of her along the way, finally tapering to a finish tickling the toes of her feet.
"You have got to get that dress," Becky finally blurted out. Not only had she barely been able to recognize Kate in her gown, shed been knocked for a wallop by the sheer force of the beautiful womans sleek, panther-like presence. And Catherine Phillips was that. Beautiful.
Kate did not answer Becky right away, so taken was she by the vision she was met with in the hall. Rebecca Hanson stood there in a light-weight, coral colored, front-drape dress. It was sleeveless, but the material managed to fall over Beckys injury. The dress hung in a straight-line down to just above her knees, its rayon weave lending a lustrous sheen to it.
In Catherines eyes, the young woman fairly glowed, like a blonde goddess from ages past. "You dont look too shabby yourself," she managed to get out at last.
"You think so?" Becky twirled around for Kates benefit. "Ill get it if you do!"
"Done," Kate said, not wanting to argue. She retreated back into her dressing room before her emotions betrayed her. She leaned against the fiber-board wall, breathing heavily. Just what the hell was going on here? She wasnt sure she wanted to know the answer to that question.
"Now for the shoes!" The pilot heard Maria go swishing off in search of matching footwear.
Take your time, Maria, take your time. Kate closed her eyes, and concentrated on steadying her breathing.
In the next dressing room down, unbeknownst to her, Rebecca Hanson focused on doing the same.
It was mid-afternoon by the time Catherine and Rebecca left the shopping district; hundreds of thousands of lire lighter, and five large shopping bags heavier. At Kates insistence, they stopped back at the Pensione Ausonia to relieve themselves of their purchases, only to find that their travel bags had been mysteriously unpacked and their fruit and Pelligrino refreshened.
Signora Canova had struck again.
The women left the pensione to continue their walking tour, and Kate led them on a wider sweep this time, poking their heads into a number of churches: the classic renaissance, the gilded baroque, the imposing gothic.
As they stood on the leading edge of the Ponte Cavour, a bridge crossing the Tiber, the skyline of the Vatican and the dome of St. Peters rose up in bold relief against a cloudless blue background.
Kate could sense the younger womans desire to cross the river. But that would take them further from their home district, and the sun was slipping lower in the western sky. "Maybe tomorrow," Kate said, placing her hand on Beckys shoulder. "Cmon!"
She directed her back down the Via del Corso, left on the busy Via del Tritone, and then straight up the Via della Stamperia to the Trevi Fountain. The travelers could hear it before they could see it; the gushing, crashing cascades of the water.
"I didnt realize it was this big!" Becky marveled, opening the pack on Kates back to grab her camera. She took a snap and then paused, closing her eyes and lifting her face to the fountain. "Oooh I can feel the mist!" she had to raise her voice to be heard above the roar of the fountain.
"A regular shower!" Kate stole up behind her. "Here, let me take your picture."
"Would you?" Beckys green eyes blinked open happily, and she handed her the camera. "You look through here, and you press this button---"
"I think I can handle it," the pilot grinned. Becky blushed and scooted over to an edge of the fountain where the view was clear.
Kate started to frame her in the lens, when she felt a gentle tap on her arm. An elderly couple, flush from a day of touring, stood next to her. He was in bermuda shorts, with a Nikon slung around his neck and a porkpie hat jammed on his head. She was in a designer running suit, which shed no doubt never perspired in, wearing a beltbag and carrying a large, floral-print purse.
"Would you like my Edgar to take a picture of you and your friend?"
Kate could barely see the womans eyes through her over-sized frame sunglasses. Shed heard about the thieves and pickpockets that seemed to be everywhere in Rome, but these two looked fairly tame.
And they were obviously, painfully American.
"Sure sure get over there!" Edgar was only too eager to help. "Im something of a shutter-bug, you know!"
"Is he ever!" the wife waved her hand dismissively her husband. One of these days, Im gonna KILL him!" and she laughed heartily at her own joke.
"Thanks," Kate made up her mind. "You look through here ."
Edgar studiously took in the pilots instructions. "Got it," he said solemnly, accepting her trust in him.
Kate jogged over to Becky.
"Whats that about?"
"Picture time," Kate replied, wrapping her arm delicately around the smaller womans shoulders. Becky leaned into her, slipping her arm around her waist. Once more she was amazed at how right, how familiar it felt to let Becky get so close. In fact, she wasnt anxious to see it end, she thought, and a goofy grin pushed her mouth up in a smile.
"Say cheese!" Edgar cried, and the two women obliged him.
"Aw thats gonna be great!" the older man said, walking towards them with the camera. "You two kids look so cute together!"
Reluctantly, Kate let go of Becky. "Thanks again," she said, taking the 35mm and replacing it in the backpack.
"Toodles!" Mrs. Edgar waved good-bye, and the couple melted off into the crowd.
"That was nice of them," Rebecca said, watching them leave.
"Mnnn." Catherine was digging in her pocket. "Here," she said pressing a 50 lire coin in the younger girls hand, "Toss it in."
"Oh yeah!" Becky said brightly, taking aim with her good arm towards a statue of Neptune in the frothy waters. "Throwing a coin in the fountain means"
"That youll return to Rome one day," Kate finished, gazing off into the roaring mists.
Beckys coin toss flew up into the sky, briefly catching the late-afternoon sun, before it plummeted down, striking Neptune squarely in the nose. The sound of the hit, as well as its subsequent plunk into the water, was lost in the crashing eddies of the fountain.
"Nice throw," Kate said appreciatively, and she turned away.
"What about you?" Becky scampered after her. "Dont you want to throw one in?"
"I already did." The pilot lowered warm, blue eyes on her companion. "A long time ago."
They had barely scratched the surface of Rome and all it had to offer, and already Rebecca Hanson was convinced this was one of the best days of her young life, bar none. Better than her senior prom, better than her college graduation, better than the day shed graduated first in her training class at Orbis Airlines. Not bad, for a day shed started off in the hospital!
If it werent for the valleys, wed never know it when were standing on the peaks, the flight attendant considered, her mind skipping back to that awful hijacking.
She shuddered at the memory of how shed been scared half out of her mind and even more frightened to show it, for the sake of her passengers.
Just when shed thought that things looked darkest, there was Captain Catherine Phillips, making all kinds of crazy promises that shed get them all out of it. Alive.
And so she had.
The beautiful, dark-haired pilot had insisted on not giving up on fighting the odds, and shed won. Her supreme confidence in that outcome had soothed Rebeccas fears, calmed her panic, until the younger woman had felt sure herself that they would make it.
Even at the end, when the hijacker had aimed his gun at Catherine, intending to fire at her as she desperately attempted to land the plane, Becky knew he would not succeed. And so shed done her part, putting herself between the pilot and the weapon.
A popping flash, a burning pain, and then nothing.
When shed come to in the emergency room at Salvator Mundi, her first thoughts through the fuzzy, excited chatter around her, were of her passengers, her co-workers, and her captain.
As promised all had made it. Calmed with that knowledge, shed released a great, contented sigh and allowed herself to just float away.
Later, right before shed regained consciousness in her hospital room, shed had the strangest dream sensation call it what you will. Shed been scared, frightened, lost and then shed felt herself being enveloped by an overwhelming aura of comfort. Protection. Love.
And then shed heard the captain calling her crazy.
Roundly annoyed at that, and at Kate calling her by her last name as she did, Rebecca had awakened to see the tall, bronze-skinned woman hovering above her, holding her hand. Quickly, Kate had pulled away, embarrassed. Something in Becky had mourned the loss of that touch, of that contact, and before shed known it, she was asking the pilot to join her for a few days in Rome, sightseeing. Even as shed made the offer, Kate stiffened, and Becky had instantly regretted putting her on the spot.
After all, Catherine Phillips barely knew her. Surely, she had better things to do with her time than to trail after a gimpy flight attendant all over Rome. Becky had stuck her foot in her mouth.
Just like her big brother Johnny always told her she did spoiling surprises. Spilling the beans.
She had wanted to crawl under the sheets of her hospital bed and hide, hoping that as if by magic the captain would disappear.
Until she heard, "You need someone to keep you out of trouble ." Blue eyes, smiling warmly.
Unbelievable. The pilot agreed to spend a few days layover in Rome with her. After all, she was planning on taking some time off, anyway. And so before she drifted off to sleep once more, Becky rested easy in the knowledge that this striking, engaging woman whod only recently entered her life, would not be leaving it.
Not just yet.
For she found herself drawn to the taller womans energy, to the confidence she exuded, to the safe harbor that she offered. And although in many ways Catherine Phillips was a mystery to her, she looked forward to the journey of getting to know her better. One thing was for certain; she wasnt the bitch-on-wings that her colleagues had characterized her as. If only theyd had the chance to see for themselves that Kate wasnt all that bad!
Take today, for instance. Kate had been so solicitous of her, keeping an eye out for her, and yet still showing her all the sights in the area near their pensione. Lunch, shopping, a walking tour, the Trevi Fountain and later, a promenade up the Via Vittorio Veneto to the beautiful Villa Borghese. The large, 17th century park had originally been built at the edge of the Porta Pinciana one of Romes early city gates as the pleasure gardens for the powerful Borghese family.
Theyd strolled through the lushly landscaped walkways; many plants and flowers were only just beginning to bloom, and the chattering birds in the trees sang of springtime on the wind. Kate had asked her if she were too tired to tour the summer house on the property, housing an extensive artwork collection and several Bernini sculptures. Of course, Becky had said no, and through the museum theyd tramped, marveling at the genius of Berninis Daphne transforming herself into a laurel tree twigs sprouting from her fingertips - while fleeing from a lecherous Apollo.
Now, Becky had to admit to herself that she felt a little peaked as they exited the summer house, and she hated to admit it but her shoulder was paining her, probably due to all that clothes shopping earlier.
"This way," Kate said, pointing to the far end of the gardens.
Becky found that being out in the fresh air did her good and, armed with that second wind, she wandered with Kate through the rear gardens to the Pincio, just as the sun was beginning to set. The terrace, an extension of the Villa, offered a spectacular view of Rome, and the Piazza del Popolo below.
"Oh ." Becky moved to the stone railing on the edge of the terrace, and rested her arms on top of it.
Kate stood by her side. "Beautiful, isnt it?"
A few clouds had spaced themselves across the sky just where the sun began to kiss the horizon, and the rays of light streaking through the atmosphere lit Romes ancient stones and walls in undulating rosettes and ambers, as though the city itself were aflame.
Rebecca breathed deeply and shivered as the air turned crisp and cool around her, and she unconsciously moved closer to the dark woman next to her, drawn to the intensity of her heat.
Before she knew it, her jacket had been retrieved from her backpack, and draped over her shoulders. She felt the pilots hands linger there for a moment, before they withdrew.
"Yeah, thanks," Becky drew the jacket closer around her. "What a day, huh?" And she turned to look up at Kate. There, in the setting sun, the taller womans finely sculpted features, the line of her jaw, the glitter of her azure eyes, seemed to take on a unearthly glow of their own as if fueled by a supernatural source. Becky found herself idly wondering just what that source was whether shed ever be able to see it. To taste it to touch it .
Oh God! In horror, Becky realized shed actually started to raise her hand to the pilots cheek. Get a grip, woman! She chastised herself, making a great show of slipping her arms into her jacket even as she felt the flush of her dismay rising to her face. I hope she didnt notice and matters werent helped any when Kate moved to assist her.
"Ive got it," Becky shrugged her off.
If Kate was perturbed by Beckys change in mood, she didnt show it. "How about some dinner?" she said, hoisting the backpack.
Like Pavlovs dog, just the sound of the word dinner made Beckys stomach grumble. Kate heard it too, and smiled. "Ill take that as a yes?"
The young blonde breathed easier, welcoming the change of subject to familiar, safe territory; she felt the flush leave her face.
"Are you going to eat the rest of this?" Rebecca Hansons hand hovered over the last piece of thick, crusty bread teasing her in the basket.
"No, go ahead."
"Thanks!" Becky claimed her prize, and began buttering it. "This was sooooo good! Not like back home!"
"Uh-huh ." Catherine Phillips pushed back from her plate, swirled a sip of red wine in her mouth, and silently amazed at the short-haired blondes capacity for consumption. A large plate of antipasto, soup, a calamari dish that made Kates stomach do flip-flops, vegetables, and fruit and cheese for desert all had come and gone.
Not to mention, the fresh-baked Italian bread. Becky was polishing off their second baskets worth.
The girl had merrily charged through course after course, chewing and swallowing with unfettered relish. Kate had simply stuck to the antipasto and a veal chop in spite of her companion trying to talk her into the manicotti. They had both laughed then, at the memory of how the young flight attendant had unwittingly pitched a tray of the pasta onto Kates lap in mid-flight. The pilot was sure her regulation Orbis slacks would never be the same again.
"Mmnnn?" With a full mouth, Becky offered her a last piece of the bread.
"All yours," Kate replied, holding up a hand in surrender. Where was Hanson putting it all? Maybe the girls appetite had been bolstered by all the walking theyd done. For surely, if she ate like this all the time, shed be twice the size. As it was, Beckys form was trim and compact, well-toned and muscled, but with softness and curves in all the right places.
Kate had to know. "Do you always eat like this?" The question was blunt, but Becky took no offense at it.
"Well, mostly yeah!" she wiped a stray crumb from her chin. "People always tease me about it, but I do like to eat!"
"Wow," Kate shook her head, "you must have a high metabolism or something."
"Maybe " Becky took a gulp of mineral water, "but I also have to work out like a maniac too. Lets me enjoy my guilty pleasures. How about you?" she gestured towards the taller woman. "Look at you. Youre in incredible shape," and she blushed a bit at that. "What is it? Weight training? Running? Tae-Bo?"
"Please," Kate laughed, "Youre tiring me out. Actually," she hesitated, "I hardly ever work out."
"What?!! Youre joking, right?" Becky was flabbergasted.
"Never had to, really, to stay in good shape," Kate explained. "I mean, Im active and all, so I guess I get exercise that way. And of course, back in the Air Force Academy, we had to train but no, I dont do anything now. Much."
"I hate you," Becky groaned, rubbing her eyes.
"Hey Ive just got good genes, I guess!"
"Più pane?" More bread? A young, white-shirted waiter scooped the empty basket and looked at Becky fearfully. The girl, while quite attractive, was eating the small restaurant into minor bankruptcy.
"Well--" Rebeccas face was thoughtful.
"No, grazie," Kate said firmly, waving the youth off.
"Prego," he breathed, relief flooding his features. He bowed and retreated towards the kitchen.
"I suppose youre right," Becky patted her stomach and smiled, gazing around the restaurant. Torino, it was called. Shed heard about it from one of her fellow flight attendants on a recent haul from New York to Atlanta. Reasonable prices, great food, and a good location on the Via Veneto. In the hospital, shed vowed to Kate that shed take her here.
Torino had about 10 tables scattered throughout a main dining room, and a bar lined the side wall. Diners had come and gone, but it seemed to Becky that the faces at the bar never changed; Italians young and old gathered for the food, the wine, the sigarettas and the conversation. White tablecloths bore the faded burgundy markings of meals gone by, and the three waiters who serviced the floor spent their time either bringing food from the kitchen at a leisurely pace, or lounging casually at the bar, joining animatedly in the debates raging there.
Service had been slow and it was late, but Becky hadnt minded. And neither had the pilot across from her, judging by the way shed seen her visibly relax as the evening wore on. But as amiable as the pilot seemed now, Becky was certain that there was still a part of herself that she kept guarded deeply hidden, and at no small price. It took energy to stay so distant, so closed off; thats why Becky had no time for it, herself. Shed always been open and fun-loving, eager to meet people and make new friends.
And although shed enjoyed her day immensely, she could tell those few times when Catherine withdrew. She could feel it, see it, how the angles of her face set like a stone, how her eyes grew as cold and choppy the icy waters of the North Atlantic. Becky recalled well-enough the time shed first seen the pilot in such a state; it was back on the airliner, when the captain had sworn the hijackers would not win. When Kate withdrew to that dark place where no-one else could touch her, it frightened Becky, yet she resolved to not turn away. If anything, sensing the pain that lurked there too, it only endeared the beautiful, lanky pilot to her all the more. Darn it, it would just be up to her, then, to show Catherine Phillips that there was a better way.
"So," Becky said, plunging into new territory, "wasnt there anyone you needed to call today? After everything that happened?" She considered how relieved shed been to speak to her own parents, just this morning.
"I already spoke to Cyrus," Kate said diffidently.
Cyrus Vandegrift, Orbis Airlines Director of Flight Operations, himself a retired Air Force Colonel, was Kate Phillips mentor and friend. Their relationship dated back to years before at Randolph Air Force Base. It had been at her former teachers insistence that Kate had decided to take a few days off and spend them in Rome. The fact that Rebecca Hanson figured in the arrangement had been a convenient coincidence, or so Kate tried to tell herself.
Becky could see that the older woman in front of her was tensing up, averting her eyes, but she refused to back off. "Are your parents ."
"Dead?" Kate stiffened, and turned to stare squarely at Becky. "My father shot himself when I was twelve. My mother is still alive, but she might as well be dead for all the contact Ive had with her since I left for the Academy. And," her voice grew bitter, "my little brother is dead too, thanks to an accident," she used the tips of her fingers to slash imaginary quote marks in the air, "when he was flying experimental jets for the Air Force." Kate paused, her topaz eyes ablaze. "Oh, and I have an older brother too, who, Im pretty sure hates every last stinking piece of my guts. Is that what you wanted to know?"
Kate pushed back from the table then, her eyes desperately searching the restaurant for their waiter. Time to run again! She spied him leaning against the bar, casually talking to a young redhead. The pilot raised up her hand, snuffling quickly at her nose along the way. "Cameriere!" she shouted. "Il conto!" The check!
The waiter heard the anger in her voice, and he did not dawdle. "Si! Si!" he cried, scurrying back to the kitchen with a fearful look over his shoulder. He knew the stormy, dark-haired woman was not to be trifled with.
"Kate ." A voice, soft, but Kate refused to turn around, choosing instead to keep her eyes on the swinging kitchen doors.
"Kate, I didnt mean-- Im sorry. I-- I just "
Catherine could hear the pain in Beckys voice. And dammit, if there was one thing she couldnt tolerate, it was Rebecca Hanson feeling badly. It just wasnt right. So, in spite of herself, Kate slowly edged back around to face her companions watery green eyes.
Kate shook her head. "Its okay," she said, reaching out a hand to lightly touch Beckys own, calming the woman. "Its not you, its me." A heavy sigh, and she shifted uncomfortably in her chair under Beckys open, honest gaze.
"Its just so hard for me to talk about it."
Becky thought about that. "Maybe " she pursed her lips before continuing, " maybe its because you dont talk about it."
The waiter interrupted with their check, and Kate quickly threw three 20,000 lire notes at him to make him go away.
Kate released a short burst of air, and looked at Becky. "Youre right," she said simply. "II owe you an apology. Im sorry." Kate heard words that were most unfamiliar simply rolling off her tongue under the influence of this young woman.
Kate could see the confusion and hurt ebbing away from the flight attendants face. And with it, the guilt that she bore at having put it there.
Becky smiled, and then stretched, barely stifling a yawn.
Instantly, Kate was alarmed. What the hell had she thought she was doing, keeping the injured woman out this late?
"Cmon," the pilot picked up Beckys backpack and stood. "Lets get you to bed. Big day tomorrow!"
Rebecca did not protest as the tall woman guided her to her feet and out the door into the crisp, cool Italian night.
Behind wispy clouds, the moon looked like a dollop of whipped cream, ready to be plucked from the chocolate midnight of the sky overhead. Traffic still buzzed along the streets, though it was not nearly so congested as earlier, and the pedestrian traffic was reduced too, with just a few couples strolling along either side of the Via Veneto.
Kate and Becky walked slowly back towards the Pensione Ausonia, taking their time, talking. A barrier neither one had been fully aware of had burned off like a warm spring shower, and the conversation flowed easily. Comfortably.
Becky told Kate how although shed enjoyed the course-work shed taken for her business management degree from UCLA, it was her minor in literature that shed loved even more. Although her parents had hoped that shed follow her father and older brothers footsteps into the world of finance, Becky had fancied for a time that she would be a writer, journeying to different worlds through her minds eye, living the excitement and mystery that she might find there.
In a decision that shocked her family and Becky most of all shed compromised and chosen to pursue a career as a flight attendant with Orbis Airlines. The people, the travel, the adventure and maybe, someday, shed find the time to work on that great novel.
"Youll be sorry, Rebecca," her father had warned, concerned that his daughter was wasting her not insignificant business talents on a dead-end job. But his attitude only served to fuel her desire, and Becky had attacked her job at Orbis with everything she had, never looking back. As a result, shed ratcheted up through the ranks at the airline, scoring the preferred routes unusual for one so young. It was how shed come to be on the hijacked transatlantic flight in the first place.
From what Catherine had heard through the grapevine about the small blonde walking next to her, she had deserved every bit of that success. Her actions on the hijacked plane had proven that beyond doubt.
Kate, in turn, described to Becky the solitary life she led in New York her home base. Shed chosen that location not because of its close proximity to the Irish mother and Greek/Irish brother in Queens she never saw, but simply because it was convenient to JFK Airport and La Guardia. Beckys heart reached out to the pilot when she talked about her Manhattan high-rise, how the apartment was simply a place to eat and sleep nothing more.
"Dont you ever get out and you know, have some fun?" Becky asked.
The pilot quirked an eyebrow at her. "I dont need to have fun," she replied, planting a tongue firmly in cheek.
The two women passed through the Piazza Barberini, stopping briefly to admire the lines and form of Berninis graceful Tritone Fountain.
"That Bernini guys everywhere, isnt he?" Becky laughed, moving closer to Kate as she did so.
"You aint seen nothin yet," the pilot grinned back at her. "Just wait until tomorrow! Cmon now," she smiled, moving the younger girl along.
"Eese late too late for Miss Rebecca!" The omnipresent Signora Canova shook a thin finger at them as they entered the quiet, darkened lobby of the Ausonia. "She need her sleep!"
"Well try and do better tomorrow," Kate said, quickly shunting Becky into the elevator.
"What was that supposed to mean?" Beckys voice was suspicious as Kate pulled the gate closed.
"Ahhh " the pilot hesitated, and the ancient elevator rattled and groaned as it made its way to the fifth floor. "I think she knows youre a celebrity."
"No big deal!" Kate put a hand on Beckys arm, trying to calm her. "I just saw her looking at the newspaper this morning. There were pictures ."
"Oh God," Becky groaned. "I think Im gonna be sick!" She leaned back against the back of the elevator car. A pause, and then two green eyes blinked up at her. "So how did I look?"
"Cute as a button," the pilot rumbled, smirking, as the elevator clanged to a stop.
It had been a long day, longer than Kate had intended, and it was obvious to her now that Rebecca Hanson was exhausted.
Truth be known, she was feeling it herself.
Too tired for words, the women silently entered the ornate room and began to ready themselves for bed. Kate kicked off her shoes and headed towards the curtains blowing gently in the breeze. She noted along the way that the canopied bed had been turned down by the Signora. She smiled to herself, and chose to leave the window open a bit; shed always enjoyed the sensation of fresh air around her as she slept.
"Okay with you if I keep this open?"
Becky poked her head in from the bathroom. "Sure, I like it." She had traded her jeans for a green pair of sleeper shorts, and was holding a matching top to her chest, covering herself. Kate could clearly see the bandage on her shoulder, and the packet of gauze she held in her free hand.
"Here, let me help you with that." She started moving across the room.
"Thats okay," Becky ducked back into the bath, "I can do this"
"One-armed?" Kate said skeptically. "No way. If you hurt yourself, your Nurse Ratched will have my head!" And at that, she directed the smaller woman to the lidded commode.
Becky complied, secretly glad to let the pilot take over. Working one-handed was tough enough, and well not that she was squeamish or anything but "Ah!" She gasped as Kate removed the bandage.
"Sorry," the tall woman replied, her blue eyes full of concern, "Did I hurt you?"
"Well, a little," Becky replied, and while that was true, it was equally true that the feel of the womans warm fingers against the smooth skin of her shoulder had startled her.
"Sshh " Kate said, softly. "This wont take a moment." Gently, she swabbed clear the grime of the adhesive, taking care to keep the entrance and exit areas of the wound dry, as the doctor had advised.
Lightly, she traced a finger on the undamaged skin adjacent to the stitched area just below the tip of Beckys collarbone, berating herself once more for the dangerous risk the girl had taken on her behalf. "This looks pretty good, considering." Her voice was quiet.
"Yeah?" Becky croaked, quickly clearing her throat. She dared not catch Kates eye for fear that her emotions would betray her. If she didnt get a grip on herself soon, she would end up making a fool of herself!
The pilot laid a fresh strip of gauze over her shoulder, securing it front and back with the surgical tape. "Feel okay? Not too tight?"
Kate stood back, admiring her handiwork. "One more thing," she said, and exited the bathroom, giving Becky a chance to catch her breath. She returned a few moments later with a glass of mineral water.
She held out a hand containing a small, white pill. "Take this."
"Do I have to?"
"Dont argue with Doctor Phillips," Kate laughed. "Itll help with the pain and with sleeping."
"Sleeping will not be a problem," Becky yawned, taking the proffered pill and washing it down with the Pelligrino.
"Youll be okay from here?"
"Okay!" Becky smiled faintly, and she watched the pilot leave. The young woman continued to sit there for a moment, under the bright fluorescent lights of the bath, gazing morosely at the tiled floor. No things are definitely NOT okay . She clutched her nightshirt to her chest, and wondered just what the hell she was going to do about it all.
Several minutes later, after Becky had composed herself, she left the bathroom to find Catherine Phillips staring at the contents of the closet, with her hands on her hips.
"Whats up?" Becky trundled slowly to the bed, finally giving in to her exhaustion, letting the numbing, soothing sensation of that whatever pill creep through her system.
"I need something to wear." A voice muffled, coming from the closet.
"Cant find anything?" Becky sat on the bed and yawned, pulling a clean sheet and fluffy beige comforter on top of her.
"No," a dark head turned and faced her. "I mean, I dont have anything."
"Oh," Becky felt a flush rise to her face, as she got the pilots drift.
"I could have gotten something today, if only Id thought about it," Kate explained, "but since I normally travel alone, its not an issue."
"Of course," the blonde hastily agreed, running a hand through her feathered hair. She forced her muddled mind to think fast. How much of this torture was she supposed to endure? "Um why dont you check the bureau? I have a sleeper t-shirt. Signora Canova probably put it in there." And with that, she collapsed back onto a downy pillow.
Eyes closed, she heard the pilot rummaging through the drawers. "Bugs Bunny?" her voice was incredulous.
Becky smiled. "Hey, dont knock it till youve worn it!" she said. "You ought to try the Warner Brothers store sometime!"
"I dont think so," Kate said pointedly.
"Take it or leave it." Rebecca heard an exasperated sigh. There was more shuffling and grumbling, and the door to the bathroom clicked shut. Apparently, Kate had chosen the former option.
Becky lay there, floating on the softness of the bed. She listened to the night-sounds of Rome filtering through the window, and with each slowing breath found herself drifting off into that hazy plane of existence which lies somewhere between full wakefulness and sleep.
"I feel ridiculous."
Becky blinked open an eyelid. There was the pilot standing before her in the moonlight, wearing - what amounted to on the taller woman a Bugs Bunny mini-dress. It barely fell to the top of her shapely, muscled thighs. Becky decided to open both her eyes after all.
"Dont let Maria see you in that," she said, referring to Kates high-fashion sales clerk from earlier in the day. "Or next season everybody will be wearing it!"
"Uh-huh!" Another sigh. "Look, are you sure you dont want me to take the sofa"
"Remember what I said!" Becky growled, moving to get out of the bed herself.
"Okay okay!" Kate lifted the blankets and eased down next to the smaller woman. She preferred a firm mattress normally, but she had to hold back a gasp of surprise at how wonderfully delightful the soft, four-poster bed was. As she put her head back on the pillow and stared up at the canopy, she couldve sworn she was lying on a cloud.
There was silence for a few moments, disturbed only by the rapid pounding of Catherines heartbeat, though she dared not allow herself to consider the reason why that it might have something to do with the young flight attendant slumbering only inches from her. What a day.
"G night, Kate ." A soft, breathy voice, slurred by sleep and the effects of the painkiller.
"Good-night," the pilot replied, in rich, low tones. "Sweet dreams."
There was no response from Becky, save for the deepening, evenly measured sounds of her breathing.
Though tired to the bone, it was some time before a pair of blue eyes winked shut against the darkness.
Continued in Part 2
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