~With Good Intentions~
Chapter 33 - In Search of Xena
Sustra and Eponin didn't wait long in the tavern before receiving reports from the Amazons who checked on the whereabouts of the Warrior Princess.
"Sustra! I haven't seen her but Argo is still here, in the stables," the first Amazon blurted, out of breath from running. Sustra looked smugly at Eponin, who was genuinely surprised.
A second Amazon came running into the tavern. "I've checked the Inn, Sustra. Xena's belongings are gone," the second Amazon reported, disturbed by her find.
Eponin now looked at Sustra with a raise eyebrow, returning the smug look.
"Should we send out a scouting party?" The first Amazon asked.
"No, we need to make sure our Queen is protected while she recovers. We can't spare the warriors," Sustra blurted quickly, looking at Eponin, daring her to countermand the order.
"I agree, it would be a waste of warriors to search for her. If the Warrior Princess doesn't want to be found, she is not going to be found," Eponin relayed with worry. "We'll need to post a guard at the Queen's bedside, in case she decides to come back and finish . . . "
"EPONIN!" Sustra blurted, ready to punch her.
"You expect Xena to come back and kill Queen Gabrielle?" The second Amazon asked nervously.
"NO!" Sustra interjected vehemently.
"We don't want to take any chances with our Queen," Eponin informed the younger Amazon. "You will be the first watch. You'll be relieved in four hours," Eponin instructed her calmly.
The Amazons looked between Eponin and Sustra and nodded uneasily.
"What do you think happened?" Cyrene asked, breaking the long silence between the older women, who rode behind Solari and another Amazon who came to protect Cyrene from Bayentes men if needed.
"I'm not an oracle, just an old healer," Frea replied with a shrug.
Cyrene nodded and sighed.
"I do know, if what Solari said is true and Xena hurt our Queen, life will not be easy for your daughter around the Amazons," Frea offered truthfully.
"If Xena did hurt Gabrielle, life will not be easy for her, regardless of where she is," Cyrene snapped. "I'm sorry," Cyrene blurted quickly. "I know she has done horrible things in the past but she has changed - and Gabrielle is part of the reason . . . if not all," Xena's mother explained.
"It is difficult for parents to see bad things happen to their children," Frea relayed knowingly.
"You're a mother?" Cyrene asked.
"I was. My daughter died in battle," the healer informed her. "There was nothing I could do," the Amazon added softly.
"I'm sorry," Cyrene offered sincerely, understanding that helpless feeling.
"Me too," Frea added.
It was before dawn when they entered the town of Zemal. Cyrene looked uneasily around the street noticing Amazon guards eye her carefully.
"It's dark and there is a strong resemblance between you and Xena, Cyrene," Frea noted the concerned look on the dark-haired woman's face. "Don't worry, they know you are not her," Frea added, dismounting.
"They despise her," Cyrene said fearfully, dismounting her horse.
"They are just uncertain, Cyrene," Frea offered softly. "Let's go see the Queen," she added.
Gabrielle stirred in her cot, mumbling something the guard couldn't understand.
"Sustra! She's waking up," the guard called out, waking Sustra and Eponin who fell asleep. They rushed over to Gabrielle's side.
Sustra felt her Queen's forehead, sighing with relief there was no temperature.
Gabrielle shifted and mumbled something.
"What was that?" Eponin asked Sustra. "What did she say?"
"You didn't understand that?" Sustra questioned the dark-haired Amazon.
"NO," Eponin responded with irritation.
"Then HOW do you expect ME to??" Sustra responded with annoyance.
"I just thought . . . oh never mind," Eponin blurted wearily.
Gabrielle mumbled something again.
Eponin once again looked with anticipation at Sustra, then realized with disappointment that neither of them knew what their Queen was saying.
"Hmmm," Sustra relayed and scratched her chin thoughtfully.
"What did she say??" Eponin asked.
"She says . . . uh, you probably don't want to know." Sustra relayed with a shrug.
"WHAT?" Eponin asked eagerly.
"She says stop being such an idiot about Xena," Sustra relayed unconvincingly.
"You, me, outside, NOW," Eponin spoke slowly, her anger seething as she stood up.
"Gladly," Sustra responded through clenched teeth, as she rose to meet her opponent.
"Girls, girls, curb your tempers," Frea warned them, interrupting their angry glares.
"FREA! Thank the Gods!" Eponin relayed happily, rushing to greet the healer but stopped in her tracks when she saw Cyrene. "Why is she here?"
"I'm here to see how my daughters are doing," Cyrene responded firmly, looking directly into the hostile Amazon's eyes.
"It is her right," Frea reminded Eponin, who sighed and reluctantly nodded.
Frea knelt down by Gabrielle and inspected her wound. She thanked Artemis it was healing well. But the cause still greatly disturbed her. Frea's brow furrowed as she gazed upon the wound.
"Gabrielle is alive and healing, thanks to Xena," Sustra blurted to the elder Amazon.
"Thanks to you," Eponin corrected her, with a glare. "Sustra did the stitching, Xena wouldn't touch her after she. . . ."
"Where is she?" Cyrene interrupted uneasily, looking around the tavern. She was surprised not to see her daughter hovering protectively over Gabrielle.
"She left," Eponin gladly offered with a thin smile as she left the tavern to get some air.
"Where?" Cyrene asked Sustra.
"We don't know," Sustra offered uneasily. "She took her things from the Inn but she left Argo."
"She left . . . " Cyrene hollowly spoke, feeling anguish for her daughters. "Oh Gods, how did this all happen?" She asked in a desperate whisper.
"Xena?" Gabrielle moaned softly, drawing everyone's nervous gaze to the groggy Queen.
Cyrene was quickly at Gabrielle's side. "Shhh, honey, go to sleep," the older woman spoke soothingly as she stroked the bard's head. "Sleep now," she repeated softly, successfully convincing the bard to return to Morpheus.
Cyrene looked up to Frea with a lost look. "We have to find her," Cyrene relayed uneasily.
Chapter 34 - Kind of Funny . . . Really
Georg paced ever since hearing all the gunshots. Stay here, that's what Dr. Covington and Miss Pappas told him to do, he reminded himself as he drummed his fingers nervously on his rifle. Stopping his pacing, he eyed the hostages who were still out cold. Thank God for small favors, he thought.
Hearing heavy footsteps approach the temple entrance, he jumped and pointed his rifle at the entrance. The barrel of his rifle shook as he waited. Finally seeing the source of the footsteps, he quicky lowered his weapon with concern.
"Miss Pappas! Dr. Covington! What happened??" Georg blurted, as the southerner carried Janice into the temple.
"Janice was shot in the shoulder. I don't think he followed. Do you know anything about gunshot wounds???" Mel rambled quickly as she carefully lowered the archeologist on the temple's altar.
"Ugh," Janice moaned. "Careful," she blurted.
"Sorry," Mel relayed with a cringe.
"To stop the bleeding, direct pressure, like you're doing," Georg answered her question, eyeing the wound which Mel's hands covered.
"ANYTHING BEYOND THAT?" Mel snapped.
"Uh. . . did the bullet go through?" Georg asked.
"No," Janice relayed weakly, taking shallow breaths. Although the altar was a bit hard, she was at least lying down now, she considered optimistically. Only if she had that scotch. . . .
"With ALL the education I've had to prepare me for crises . . . from whipping up seven-course meals for last-minute dinner parties to emergency mending of formals during debutante balls, no one ever mentioned ANYTHING about BULLET wounds!" Mel complained testily.
"Really? I thought those balls could get pretty ugly," Janice joked through a cringe to ease the tension, but realized Mel was starting to panic. "It's not that bad, Mel," Janice quickly offered, placing her hand over Mel's and looking into her eyes.
Mel took a calming breath and nodded.
"There's a first aid kit in the truck," Georg mentioned helpfully.
"Georg, there's a gunman out there and once he stumbles onto his friends. . . " Mel informed him.
"I'd better go quickly then, before I'm out numbered!" He blurted and enthusiastically ran off to get the first aid kit.
"Georg!" Janice yelled with annoyance, unsuccessful at stopping him. "Damn it," Janice growled and closed her eyes. Already Aristotle was dead because of her, she sighed, praying Georg wouldn't be next.
"He'll be ok, Janice," Mel relayed unconvincingly, causing the archeologist to open her eyes and stare at her briefly before sighing and laying her head back with exasperation.
"Have I mentioned . . . I HATE ZEMAL!" Janice barked to the temple ceiling, then cringed from the pain she caused her shoulder.
"And here you were worried it was going to be boring dig," Mel responded, shaking her head with a sigh.
Janice looked at her friend a moment and softly chuckled. "Ow ow," Janice blurted in pain, drawing a concerned look from the southerner.
"Hurts when I laugh," Janice quickly explained.
"I'm sorry," Mel offered guiltily.
"Jesus Christ Mel!" Janice blurted, getting a confused look from Mel. "I get you shot at and you are apologizing to ME for making me happy?" Janice snapped, then grimaced at the jolt to her body when she shifted to her good side and rested on her elbow.
"I . . . I make you happy?" Mel asked shyly.
"Yeah, except when you irritate the hell out of me," Janice smirked, then immediately felt like a heel for causing the hurt look in those blue eyes.
"Which I'm sure I do to you, occasionally, only you're too polite to say it," Janice offered quickly. "Which is probably why we get along so well," Janice added with a small grin, pleased with herself for bringing a shy smile to the southerner's face.
Shifting again on the hard surface to get more comfortable, Janice groaned and laid back down with a moan.
"Janice, would you stop moving around!" Mel blurted with irritation.
"I hate not being able to do anything," Janice grumbled, hoping Georg was all right. She also wondered what they would do once the gunman and his buddies figured out where they were.
"Now you know how I feel," Mel absently noted, surprising the archeologist as she quickly inspected the wound. Mel cringed. She did not like blood, especially coming from her best friend.
"Why do you say that?" Janice asked softly, making Mel look up, realizing she spoke out loud.
"I ah . . . it's nothing," Mel hedged as she twitched her nose because her glasses slid down. She looked to her bloody and busy hands and sighed in defeat.
Janice reached up with a slight cringe and carefully pushed her glasses up for her, surprising a very self-conscious Mel.
"You wouldn't have said that if it was nothing. Have I done anything to. . .?" Janice asked with concern.
"NO," Mel responded vehemently. "Absolutely not Janice, if anything you . . . you've always made me feel like I could do things . . . even when I couldn't."
"Mel, you are one of the MOST capable people I know," Janice countered, still confused at her admission.
"Well, yes, NOW," Mel interjected with a shrug. Janice looked at her a moment, then slowly glanced around the temple, realizing there was something they still had to discuss.
"Mel, I think it's time you told me about this 'good thing' that happened to you," Janice relayed calmly, though being very uneasy about what might have happened.
"Ah. . . oh. . . ," Mel responded with a small uneasy chuckle. "Kind of funny really. . ." Mel offered to the archeologist, who silently stared at her, waiting.
"Yes . . . well," Mel cleared her throat. "You see, I was . . . here," Mel offered, looking around the temple. "And I was feeling . . . well . . .a bit upset," she relayed with some embarrassment. "I found out from Georg the vases I broke made you lose your backer and forced you to . . . "
Janice listened quietly, struggling not to interrupt the southerner. It made her feel horrible to think Mel was still so upset about two stupid clay pots.
"Well, of course, you know all that . . . anyway, this man appeared. . . I thought it was Georg, but it wasn't. He scared me at first but then, he seemed . . . very nice."
Having been a long time since he heard a mortal sing his praises, he appeared in the shadows. A smile of pleasure crossed his face as the beautiful southerner spoke of him. She was much more pleasant and observant that her ancestor, he recalled.
"Did he, by any chance, mention his name, Mel?" Janice asked impatiently, looking around the rather plain temple again. Though Ares would have been her first guess from Mel's new fighting skills, she was almost certain it wasn't Ares. This place wasn't nearly ostentatious enough and he seemed the type to brag about his handiwork.
"Well, I asked but he never answered," she responded with a bit of annoyance. "He kept asking me what would make me happy, which made me think he was drunk or crazy . . . but I didn't smell any alcohol so I just assumed a bit crazy . . . ."
Janice sighed and listened.
". . . anyway. . . when he kept on and on about what would make me happy, I thought 'why not?" Mel offered with a shrug. "I'd could tell him and maybe it would make him go away and stop bothering me. . . ."
He frowned. Maybe not so observant.
"So you said you wanted to be able to kick some ass??" Janice asked in amazement.
"Heavens no, Janice," the southerner blurted indignantly. "I just told him it would be nice to not be so utterly uncoordinated," she added defensively. " . . . to actually be able to help you," she admitted with a shrug, then became very self conscious under the surprised gaze of the archeologist.
Before the archeologist could say anything, Mel quickly continued.
"You know, I AM supposed to be the descendant of one of the most SKILLED warriors in history and I told him that. . . that I couldn't even pitch a tent without - well, you were there . . . anyway, all of a sudden he disappeared and I was able to do AMAZING things, like what I imaged Xena always could do," Mel relayed, her southern drawl accenting her enthusiasm. "You don't know what that FEELS like Janice - well, maybe you of all people do," Mel added with a warm smile.
He glanced between the two women. "Ugh oh," he thought with an uneasy feeling growing in his godly stomach as he started to remember unhappy events centuries ago.
He dabbed the sweat on his forehead. It had been a long time since he did anything like this, he rationalized to make himself feel better. It didn't work. This wasn't good. Not good at all.
"Janice?" Mel asked, when she got no response from the concerned archeologist. "It's not like I went out looking for this . . . it just, well, fell in my lap," Mel noted defensively. "And I'm glad," she added with a firm nod.
He looked at the southerner apologetically then disappeared from the shadows.
Janice looked up into the blue eyes with mixed emotions. "Mel," she spoke softly. "I want you to listen to me . . . and not interrupt, ok?" Janice asked, making Mel sigh with exasperation and nod.
"You don't need to be a Warrior Princess, Mel - you are a capable woman in your own right," Janice informed her, making her unconvinced eyes roll.
"I'll be the first to admit those amazing things, disarming a guy with a whip or overpowering a couple thugs without breaking a sweat, have been really helpful lately. But those are just learned skills Mel. Given time and practice, you could have had those skills on your own . . . just like your ancestor did," Janice spoke with certainty, making an uncertain Mel wonder why.
"You already have something more important than those learned skills, Mel, you have a good heart . . . and you care about others."
Mel looked into Janice's impassioned eyes. It was a good heart and concern for others that Mel loved about Janice.
"When most people just ignore the problems around them, you jump in without hesitation. Hell . . . You'll practically kill yourself to help. And believe me Mel. . . you DO help," Janice spoke from the heart.
Mel waited a moment for her heart to stop racing before daring to speak. "I didn't know you felt that way . . . I thought you were just . . . too NICE to mention all the trouble I've caused you."
"ME? Too nice?!?" Janice snapped with feigned annoyance, making Mel grin sheepishly.
"Sorry. I forgot who I was talking to - Mad Dog," Mel countered with a flush sweeping over her.
Chapter 35 - A Mother's Work Is Never Done
She was tired of staring at the wall her room in the Inn. She was tired of lying face down on the bed. She was tired of not knowing. And she was tired of doing absolutely nothing as she waited for the scouting report. So, the restless bard took matters into her own hands.
As she pushed up from the mattress, she groaned as the pain shot through her back. Gabrielle immediately plopped back down on the bed. Ok, bad idea, she considered with a grimace.
Down but not out, she started to move her feet over the side of the bed. Rotating her body, she was able to slide off onto her knees. Success!
"GABRIELLE!" Cyrene almost dropped the plate of food as she came into the room. "You shouldn't be moving around like that!" Cyrene scolded her as she placed the plate down on the table.
"It's been . . . forever, I have to . . . get up," Gabrielle spoke between breaths. "Or I'll . . . go crazy," she added, carefully standing up to avoid more stress on her aching back.
"It's only been a few days," Cyrene informed her, carefully holding the bard's arm and back as she nervously looked over her bandages.
"Almost three weeks," Gabrielle corrected her.
"You've already got them to move you hear from the tavern," Cyrene noted.
"Which, I'm sure, the tavern owner is very thankful for," Gabrielle responded and pointed to the table. "I'll eat over there," Gabrielle said stubbornly, wondering if she could actually make it across the room.
"Gabrielle, you are pushing yourself," Cyrene scolded her.
"I'll be FINE Xe . . . " Gabrielle blurted at the older woman, pausing uneasily as her eyes dropped to the floor. "I'll be fine, Cyrene," Gabrielle informed her, finally looking into the eerily familiar but older eyes. Eyes that didn't bother to hide her concern or sadness from the young bard.
" . . . If you don't mind giving me a little help here," Gabrielle added softly with a sheepish smile.
"The Amazons will string me up for aiding and abetting," Cyrene muttered as they approached the table, unable to refuse the young woman's request. She wondered if her daughter had similar trouble refusing the bard.
"Don't worry, I know their Queen," Gabrielle relayed dryly, making Cyrene smile easily and conclude her daughter didn't stand a chance.
Finally sitting at the table, Gabrielle carefully sat and let out a big sigh. "Thanks," she added. "Dinner look delicious," she added appreciatively, taking a sniff as her stomach growled.
"Well, it's not my kitchen but I made do," she said with a tinge of pride.
A light knocking drew the women's attention anxiously to the door.
"Come in," Gabrielle commanded with surprising strength, the older woman noted.
"Queen Gabrielle," Sustra started to report to the bed, which was now empty. Quickly turning to see her Queen at the table, her eyebrows furrowed. "What in Tartarus are you doing over . . . uh," Sustra complained with annoyance then wisely stopped, receiving a warning glare from the Amazon Queen.
"What is your news," Gabrielle asked, knowing the answer when the Amazon's eyes dropped.
"The same, my Queen," Sustra reported sadly as Gabrielle looked back to her plate of food. Sustra and Cyrene noticed Gabrielle's head drop slightly, the only evidence of how the news tore at her heart.
"We'll resume the search again tomorrow morning," Sustra added as consolation.
Gabrielle briefly glanced over to Sustra, dismissing her with a nod. Sustra looked at Cyrene, who took a long, uneasy breath. Shaking her head sadly, a depressed Sustra left.
Gabrielle blinked back tears and tried to eat a few bites. Putting her fork down, she looked up to Cyrene, whose heart broke for the young bard. "I'm kinda tired . . . do you mind?" Gabrielle asked weakly, with a slight motion to the bed with her head.
"Oh, no dear," Cyrene responded, helping Gabrielle up.
With the young woman back in bed with closed eyes and heavy sighs, Cyrene quickly left Gabrielle's room. As she carefully shut the door behind her, the Warrior Princess' mother heard the brave woman's sighs dissolve into quiet weeping.
'Do you have any idea what you are doing to this poor child, Xena?' Cyrene silently reprimanded her absent daughter.
In the early morning, Cyrene entered the stables with Sustra and Eponin.
"Hello girl," Cyrene greeted Argo as she patted her on the neck and received a welcoming nicker.
"No offense Cyrene, but the best Amazon trackers haven't been able to find Xena. You really think you can find her?" Sustra asked skeptically as the older woman draped her saddle bags over the horse.
"I have no idea," Cyrene answered, patting Argo's neck again. "But I think Argo might have some ideas, don't you girl?" She asked the horse.
Argo whinnied and snorted loudly.
Eponin and Sustra glanced at each other then turned to smile weakly at Cyrene.
"We're going in circles," Eponin complained to Cyrene. Sustra was going to also mention that but was glad Eponin said it first when she saw the cold look Cyrene gave her.
"Argo thinks she's around here someplace," Cyrene informed her as she dismounted. The Amazons rolled their eyes and dismounted.
"Cyrene, we've been in this valley before and found no signs of her," Eponin informed the older woman, who silently nodded and looked around for herself. The Amazons sighed and followed behind the determined woman.
Rolling though the valley framed by snow-capped mountains was a lazy river. Cyrene almost smiled, picturing her daughter happily fishing there. But she didn't smile, quickly remembering Xena would be far from happy. Cyrene sighed and looked at the land.
Good grounds for hunting, Cyrene concluded from the looks of the lush foliage. There were ample berries and nuts to hold her over, if she didn't want to hunt or fish. A perfect place to stay - except there was absolutely no sign of anyone using the area, Cyrene noted with a discouraged sigh. But Xena was too smart to leave obvious signs of a campfire or shelter, she consoled herself then looked at Argo when she snorted.
"I can't believe we're listening to a horse," Eponin muttered softly to Sustra, who shrugged.
"What girl, where's Xena?" Cyrene asked. As Argo tilted her head towards the mountain, the surprised Amazons looked at each other then Cyrene.
"I'm NOT climbing a mountain because Xena's HORSE thinks it's a good idea," Eponin quickly informed them.
Sustra looked at Eponin and rolled her eyes in disgust. "I'll go with you," Sustra volunteered and walked next to Cyrene. The older woman surprised her when she placed a gentle hand on the Amazon's arm and stopped.
"No, Sustra, I need to go alone," Cyrene informed her softly. Sustra eyed her a moment and reluctantly nodded.
As Cyrene slowly ascended the mountain, she felt a cold breeze from the mountain tops and shivered, unsure of what she would find.
As she had done every day since she arrived, Xena sat, staring at the ashes in the fire
pit of the dark cave.
She didn't bother putting on her armor, which stayed piled up in a corner of the cave. Whenever she looked at it, she thought of the bard, who made it her job to help the warrior with her armor. But those haunting memories were not the reason she kept it in the corner, she told herself . . . she just didn't need it.
She didn't need to make a fire yet. It was still too early to need it for heat. And she didn't need it to cook since she hadn't found her appetite beyond an occasional bite of jerky or dried fruit. There was still plenty of that in her supplies.
As she had done every day since she arrived, Xena concluded there was only one thing left to do.
Pulling out her dagger, she started at it. The bard's words "As long as there's life, there's hope," repeated in her mind. She really believed that, the warrior thought numbly, unable to share that optimistic sentiment. What she held in her hand would within a short moment allow her to escape her agonizing pain . . . the pain of knowing she almost killed the most precious person in the world . . . the pain of being separated from the woman she loved because it was just too dangerous not to be, the pain of not having that light in her life. . . .
As she placed the point of the blade at her heart, she took a final deep breath.
But the dead can hear your thoughts, Xena remembered and slowly exhaled. . . .
She remembered just how powerful Gabrielle's thoughts were. So powerful, the warrior didn't just hear them, she felt them, making her selfishly cheat death to ease that overwhelming emptiness she felt in her bard's heart. In death, the warrior would be even more tormented than she was in life. But she wouldn't cheat death this time - she couldn't.
She couldn't live, she couldn't die . . . it was Tartarus.
As she had done every day since she arrived, Xena threw her dagger across the small cave in a burst of anger.
After the anger drained away, leaving a void for the numbness to return, she exhaled wearily and got up. Retrieving her dagger, she sluggishly sheathed it and placed it back in her supplies.
As she had done every day since she arrived, she sat down and stared at the ashes in the fire pit.
She didn't need to make a fire. It was still too early to need it for heat. She didn't need it for cooking since she hadn't found her appetite beyond an occasional. . . .
Xena blinked a couple of times when she thought she heard . . . knocking.
There. Her eyebrows furrowed, hearing the sound again.
"Hello?" She heard a voice. Her mother's voice.
Xena's eyes widened. Her mother was visiting her on a mountain in a cave no one knew about?
"Xena . . . would you PLEASE let me in?" She asked with exasperation, trying unsuccessfully to move the heavy barricade.
The Warrior Princess's eyes darted around the dark cave. She didn't expect to lose her mind so quickly. Well, she considered as an intrigued eyebrow lifted on her gaunt face, at least it was a change.
"Xena!" Cyrene called out with annoyance, then jumped when the barricade started to move and shudder. She saw a brief flash of her daughter's arms before the barricade stopped moving and Xena retreated into the shadows.
Cyrene walked in the stream of light that spilled into the dark cave from the opening just large enough for her to enter. She could feel her daughter's presence, though she couldn't see her. After a long uneasy silence, Cyrene started see the outline of her daughter emerge as her eyes adjusted to the dark.
"Xena . . . ," her mother called softly as her hand reached out to touch the tall shadow.
"How. . . , " Xena blurted weakly with a crack in her unused voice as she stepped back from her mother's hand. ". . . did you find me?"
"Argo. She's a smart horse," Cyrene informed her warmly.
"You . . . alone?"
"No," Cyrene answered, generating a wave of fear that washed over the Warrior Princess.
"Sustra and Eponin are waiting at the bottom of the mountain." Cyrene sat by the pit and looked up at her uneasy daughter, whose eyes briefly closed with temporary relief.
Now that this cave was known, where would she go, Xena wondered.
"Sit down dear," Cyrene encouraged her daughter, who numbly stared at her.
"You're not . . . going to change my mind," Xena informed her weakly.
"Of course not," Cyrene responded softly. "Sit down Xena," Cyrene added more firmly.
Xena reluctantly sat, deliberately out of reach from the older woman but inadvertently in the shaft of light. The warrior immediately recoiled from the blinding light, moving out of its path.
"Xena . . . ," her mother gasped at the glimpse of sunken in cheeks and dark rings under her daughter's eyes. "You need to eat something. " She reached out and gently stroked her daughter's cheek.
"I'm . . . not hungry," she informed her, weakly pushing her mother's hand away.
"Let me make you something . . . I could . . . ," Cyrene offered warmly, reaching out to squeeze her daughter's arm.
"STOP" Xena snapped angrily, once again pushing away her mother's hands. "Just . . . stop it," Xena repeated wearily. "A warm meal isn't going to fix anything," Xena said with defeat.
"She told us what happened to you . . . losing your ability to fight. She doesn't blame you for what happened to her," Cyrene relayed.
"I know that," Xena says testily.
After a long pause, Cyrene finally spoke again. "Well, you owe her an explanation," Cyrene informed her daughter, anticipating the bard would have a better chance of convincing her daughter of her foolishness.
"She's smart. She'll figure it out."
"She needs to hear it from YOU, Xena."
"I can't," Xena snapped then sighed in defeat. "This is . . . best," she added, telling herself as much as to her mother.
Cyrene took a deep breath, trying to avoid telling Xena she was being a fool, knowing Xena didn't respond well to the antagonistic approach. However, having engaged in numerous battles of will with her stubborn daughter, Cyrene had another strategy.
"She told us how you still stood up to Bayentes' army . . . how you stood up to Bayentes himself and faced your fear in the eye. I'm very proud of you, Xena," Cyrene told her truthfully.
"Proud," Xena repeated with a sharp laugh. "Do you know what I did to Bayentes, mother?" Xena glared at the older woman, unwilling to accept words of praise from her mother.
"Yes, Gabrielle told me that too," Cyrene replied firmly, seeing her daughter's eyes shut in pain. "She's always been on your side," Cyrene added softly.
"And that's what got her hurt," Xena countered with a cracked voice, the guilty ache she had fought hard to suppress almost overwhelmed her. "Being with me almost killed her," Xena added bitterly and stood up, needing to move. "Being with me will only bring her more pain," she relayed quietly, facing the cave wall. "Or end up killing her."
"Right now, Xena, being without you is hurting her far more than any physical wound ever could," Cyrene looked up to her daughter, whose hand reached out for the rocky wall to steady herself.
"She'll get over it," Xena said with forced detachment. However, her mother knew better than to believe the cold words. The hunched shoulders and dependence on the wall betrayed her daughter's emotional turmoil.
"So you have lost your ability to fight . . . ," Cyrene spoke softly, preparing herself for the harsh words her daughter needed to hear. "But you've lost other things too, haven't you Xena?" Cyrene continued. "You've lost your ability to see things through to the end . . . you've lost your ability to care about others. . . . You've lost your ability to love her," Cyrene taunted her daughter.
"YOU'RE WRONG!" Xena snapped, turning towards her mother, who looked up expectantly. "I . . . love . . . her," Xena spoke slowly, daring her mother to argue. Xena's eyes blinked back tears as she turned to the wall. "Too much," she whispered as tears finally fell.
"You owe her an explanation," Cyrene repeated as she stood up.
"I can't," Xena repeated, wiping her eyes with a trembling hand.
Cyrene fought the powerful maternal instinct to rush over and embrace her little one. She wished she could sing to her and rock away her troubles as she did when the tall warrior was just a waist-high sprite.
It had been too many years since she could offer her daughter comfort, she considered sadly, remembering how quickly her independent young daughter grew out of that motherly indulgence . . . how quickly the stubborn teenager grew rebellious . . . how quickly the young woman became the infamous Warrior Princess; The woman she was ashamed to call her daughter. Not just ashamed of the Warrior Princess, but ashamed of herself as well. For she was a mother who failed to guide her troubled daughter away from the wrong path.
But now, the woman standing by that cave wall was not that Warrior Princess, thanks to the love of the young woman who tunneled through the emotional walls that almost imprisoned her daughter forever. But now, the woman standing before her was her daughter. A daughter who was once again troubled.
But this time, come Tartarus or high water, however much it hurt, Cyrene was going to help . . .
"I've always thought you were the kind of woman who would finish what she started. You NEVER ran away from a problem before, Xena . . . that was ONE thing I was ALWAYS proud of," Cyrene noted firmly. "Always."
"Do the right thing Xena," Cyrene spoke and left her daughter in the dark cave . . . alone.
Chapter 36 - All Present and Accounted for
"It's about time you . . . ," Janice barked at Georg as he entered the temple with the first aid kit, followed closely by Hank and a tall gunman. "Shit," Janice exhaled.
The odds just got worse again.
Hank nodded to the gunman, who went over to his friends and untied them. Standing up as they rubbed their sore wrists and jaws, they all eyed the tall southerner warily.
"You, get away from her," Hank blurted at Mel, motioning with the barrel of his rifle.
"She need's medical attention!" Mel snapped, not budging. "She needs pressure on her . . . "
"Honey, I'm only not going to say it again," he growled, pointing his rifle at her.
Mel stood still with a cold gaze fixed on HANK.
"Mel, go on," Janice encouraged her, seeing Hank's patience wearing thin and his trigger finger become itchy. Mel looked down with questioning eyes. Janice nodded slightly, making Mel sigh.
"Well don't come crying to me if you bleed to death, Dr. Covington," Mel blurted in a southern huff as she reluctantly pulled her hands away and stepped back. Janice couldn't help but grin at the southerner, whose eyes narrowed, warning the archeologist this was no time to be making fun of her.
"So, Dr. Covington, you took a bullet . . . ," Hank interrupted the women's silent exchange with an amused smirk. "That can get pretty nasty sometimes . . . getting infected and all," he mentioned with a grimace.
"Well, with you here, the chance of THAT just increased," Janice said with a thin smile, then curiously sniffed the air.
Personally, if she were trying to talk their way out of this bad situation, she would not have started with insulting the man's hygiene, Mel considered, rolling her eyes. She sighed with relief when Hank just chuckled at the feisty woman.
"Well maybe, if you hand over the gold to me, I'll let you get that looked at in a hospital. What do you say honey?" He said with a smile and wink.
Mel glanced between Janice and Hank nervously.
"Why don't I think I'll be helping myself if I say yes?" Janice said as she sat up, muffling a moan.
"Janice!" Mel scolded her through clenched teeth. Hank eyed her with interest, then turned his attention to the feisty redhead.
"You don't have many choices, Dr. Covington. If you don't tell me where that gold is, I'll start shooting. And the first target will be your lovely brunette here," he informed the archeologist, immediately evoking a look of concern from the southerner.
Janice's eyes darted to the southerner then Hank then the floor. Her jaw clenched tightly as she thought of what to do now.
"Well, I'd have to say, Hank," Janice responded as her cool green eyes lifted from the floor and fixed on his. "If you shoot her, I'm not going to be in a talkative mood."
Mel's eyes widened in surprise followed by furrowed eyebrows as she decided she didn't appreciate that response from the archeologist.
"You ARE a heartless bitch. Aren't you, honey?" Hank laughed. "It's a shame we don't work together," he relayed with a longing glance and regretful sigh.
"Who says we can't?" Janice offered with a sly grin. "I know I've got what you want," she said. "And since you probably don't want to go back empty handed . . . I'm sure we could come to some sort of . . . arrangement." Janice offered in a low, seductive voice.
Mel nervously cleared her throat.
"Honey, I'm about the horniest guy around . . . ," he admitted with a grin, making the southern lady's eyes widen at his crassness. "But you're not exactly in top form and I do have my standards," he added glancing at the archeologist, who looked down at her shoulder and sighed with annoyance.
"And . . . I COULD just take what I want," he said as his eyes drifted over to the southerner, making Mel avert her eyes from his gaze and shudder with disgust.
"Oh, I think she likes that idea," he said with a smirk as he looked at Janice, who glared at him with intense hatred in her green eyes.
"And you don't . . . ," Hank added with amusement, making Janice furious with herself that she was so easily read by him.
"Well Hank, I have to admit," Janice glanced up to Mel, whose eyes were glued to her. "No woman likes to be dumped . . . especially before the first date," Janice complained and shook her head with a frown. With a deep breath, she climbed off the altar.
"Janice," Mel called uneasily as Janice slowly headed towards a cautious Hank, who pointed his rifle at her.
"Careful, Dr. Covington," Hank warned her. "You are out numbered and my men outside are armed and not too thrilled with you . . . or your lady here," he added, getting an odd look from Mel.
"You want the gold or not?" Janice asked with annoyance.
"Well, it's about damn time," he blurted and politely motioned for her to proceed, while still pointing his rifle towards her. He wasn't about to drop his guard again.
"Mel, could you give me a hand here?" Janice asked as she swayed, prompting Mel immediately to her side.
Hank kept a close eye on the two as he pulled out a cigar.
"Do you know what your doing?" Mel whispered uneasily as she helped Janice to the entrance of the temple.
"Would you like the truth . . . or a good story?" Janice asked quietly as she looked up at the southerner. The bright sunlight made them squint as they emerged outside.
"I'm guessing here, but is the answer 'no?" Mel asked as they slowly climbed over the pile of rocks blocking the path away from the temple. The archeologist managed to softly chuckle between some pained moans.
Walking slowly on the path, Mel glanced behind them to see if there were any immediate options. She sighed when she made eye contact with Georg. He was being escorted out of the temple at gunpoint and looked rather ill. Her eyes shifted to Hank, the closest man with a gun, who was staring at the two of them, at a cautious distance. He puffed his cigar and winked, evoking a shudder in the southerner.
When they approached the clearing where their tents were pitched, Mel noticed the men wandering around the trucks, stop, and coldly glare at them. They were not amused with two women who gave them so much trouble.
All present, armed, and accounted for, Mel noted, sympathizing with Georg when she started to feel ill herself.
Mel felt the archeologist slip something into her hand that was on Janice's hip.
"What . . . ?" Mel asked.
"A compass," the archeologist quickly informed her. "I'll create a diversion. When I do, I want you to go to the river and run North," Janice ordered her. "Promise me," Janice added softly.
Mel glanced down to the burgundy compass in shock.
The archeologist repeated herself. "Promise. . . ."
"I can't," Mel said testily through clenched teeth.
"Sure you can," she sighed. "When the metal piece with the wire around it points to the big "N" that's . . . " Janice patiently explained.
"I will NOT . . . " Mel struggled to keep her voice down.
"Mel, once I give him the gold, I have no more leverage. He'll kill us," Janice said. "After he's finished with you," Janice spat.
"Janice. . . ."
"Promise me. . . ." Janice asked with pleading eyes that were hard to say no to, so very hard . . . the Southerner admitted to herself. But she would have to.
As Mel opened her mouth to object, machine gun fire erupted from four armored jeeps as they charged into camp. Mel instinctively tackled Janice from the path, behind a thick cover of trees. "Ugh," Janice blurted as her wounded shoulder hit the ground sending a painful jolt through her.
"Sorry," Mel responded quickly and got up to look around a tree at the violent commotion.
The camouflaged jeeps skidded to a stop in front of the two parked trucks, kicking up large dust clouds as soldiers jumped out. The gunmen around the trucks scattered, some dove for cover behind the vehicles, some tried to make it to the foliage but were quickly apprehended.
Harry and his thugs turned and ran back towards the temple, leaving Georg standing alone, shaking with the first aid kit he clung on to. The men's escape was foiled when their path was quickly blocked off by two armored jeeps that burst through the foliage.
"Drop your weapons," a soldier barked out as all the machine guns mounted on the back of the jeeps aimed at them.
"This is the Greek Army, we have your camp surrounded," a captain in the passenger's seat announced on a bull horn. "Put your weapons down and your hands behind your heads," he ordered.
"Aw SHIT" Hank screamed out as he threw his weapon down angrily and put his hands up behind his head.
"Janice, we're SAVED!" Mel blurted with excitement to the archeologist, who didn't move.
"Janice!" Mel grabbed her arm, making the archeologist look up.
"I still hate Zemal," Janice blurted and passed out.
Chapter 37 - The Right Thing
Xena had it all figured out - until her mother had to come and ruin her plans to live in self-imposed solitude.
Do the right thing, her mother said . . . as if that wasn't what she was trying to do.
The warrior angrily wiped the tears from her face.
Do the right thing. . . .
"Damn it," she growled and kicked her saddlebags, which sailed across the cave and crashed into her armor and sword.
"Ugh!" She moaned with frustration and pain, grabbing her now throbbing toe.
Her mother was right. She had to finish what she started.
She limped over to her saddlebags and pulled out the pouch of food and looked at it, well aware she was going to need every ounce of strength she could get for the trouble ahead.
The lone Amazon heard a noise and bolted up from her bed roll with her sword drawn. It was morning and the Warrior Princess finally emerged from her cave and descended the mountain. Sustra smiled with relief as she sheathed her sword.
The Amazon had almost given up hope. It was three days ago when Cyrene came down empty handed. A furious Sustra was going to personally drag the Warrior Princess' stubborn butt back to her Queen. But somehow, Cyrene got her to promise to let Xena make her own mind up to come back. Those intense blue eyes, Sustra remembered, shuddering.
Argo saw her mistress descending the mountain and whinnied in anticipation.
"Sorry we doubted you," Sustra apologized to the horse, who snorted.
Near the bottom of the mountain, Xena paused a moment, seeing Sustra, next to a black horse and her Argo. Argo. A smart horse, she mused. Too smart sometimes, her eyebrows furrowed.
"Hungry?" Sustra asked, carefully looking over the Warrior Princess, who approached her silently. She could use a few meals in her, Sustra concluded.
"No," Xena replied as she walked to her horse. Argo whinnied happily, making Xena smile for the first time in a long while. She realized just how much she missed her horse as she patted her neck.
"Mother went back?" Xena asked, looking around the camp.
"Yeah. She went with Eponin back to Zemal," Sustra noted.
"Good," Xena said with relief. "And I suppose you're here to make sure I go back." Xena turned and looked at Sustra with cold eyes.
"Your mother made me promise to let you decide," Sustra noted with her eyes narrowing. "But I made a promise to myself that I wouldn't go back to my Queen empty handed. So I waited," Sustra added with a thin smile.
Xena turned to Argo.
"You'll need to wait some more," Xena informed her, placing her saddle bags on Argo.
"What?" Sustra blurted with annoyance.
"I've got some things to take care of first," Xena mentioned as she inspected Argo's saddle. Sustra was not pleased.
"What things?" She asked as Xena placed her hands on Argo's mount.
"Things I started, that I need to finish," Xena informed her confidently as she put her left foot in the stirrup and with a fluid grace, mounted her horse . . . sidesaddle.
Argo turned her head to look back at her rider, who stared ahead blankly and sighed.
After an awkward moment, Sustra spoke to the still silent warrior.
"I think you might want to . . . " Sustra suggested biting her lip, unable to finish as she motioned for Xena to move her leg to the other side of the horse.
With as much dignity as possible, Xena took a deep breath and swung her leg over the other side of the saddle and rode out of camp.
Sustra quickly mounted and caught up to the warrior. "So . . . where are we going?" Sustra asked, sporting an amused grin which really annoyed Xena.
"You should go back to Zemal," the Warrior Princess informed her.
"Oh no, I'm not letting you out of my sight, Xena," Sustra responded. "You're stuck with me . . . at least, until you come to your senses," she threatened the Warrior Princess.
"Fine," Xena relayed with a weary sigh. "But don't say I didn't warn you," she added.
"Where ARE we going?" Sustra's eyes narrowed suspiciously.
"To visit Bayentes," Xena replied nonchalantly.
"You're crazy," Sustra said in an annoyed whisper as the two lay on their stomachs and cautiously peeked over the top of a large grassy hill to spy on the camp.
"Sustra, I heard you the first thirty times," Xena relayed calmly, noticing the number of men in the camp curiously.
The two carefully crawled back down the hill, unseen by the soldiers below.
"Well, if you are trying to get yourself killed, Xena, your plan is brilliant." Sustra blurted sarcastically, drawing a glance from the Warrior Princess.
"You don't like the direct approach?" Xena asked, as she got up and adjusted her bracers.
"When you were able to whip an army single handedly, SURE," Sustra admitted as she got up and batted some grass off her skirt with annoyance. "But you have to admit, things are a little different now. Although, you'd probably still scare the Tartarus out of them riding into camp . . . sidesaddle," she smirked.
"You said the army withdrew from Amphipolis?" Xena asked Sustra, ignoring the gibe.
"Yeah. When we moved our forces into Amphipolis, they apparently weren't interested in Amphipolis anymore. Solari thought this was due to Bayentes getting injured in Zemal, Why?"
"There's only two platoons, at most, there," Xena relayed scratching her chin.
"That's good," Sustra blurted confidently. He eyebrows furrowed. "Isn't it?"
"Where would the rest be? He focused on Zemal and Amphipolis . . . you haven't heard of any movements against other towns the past few weeks have you?"
"No, just that the army left Amphipolis," Sustra noted, making the Warrior Princess sigh.
"If you're up to it, I'd like you go check the tents for Staveros' family while I . . . talk with Bayentes," Xena informed the surprised Amazon.
"Xena DON'T do this. You would just be walking into your death," she argued.
"I wanted to get Staveros' family back . . . if they are still alive. The chances of doing that are much better with your help, Sustra. They will be so preoccupied with me, you'll slip in and out with no trouble. Will you do it?" Xena asked.
Sustra looked at her with mixed emotions. "You're are going in without your fighting skills, knowing that if they start something, you probably won't walk away. . . ." Sustra stated the grim situation as she saw it.
"What in TARTARUS are you thinking?" Sustra snapped. "What do you THINK you are going to DO down there?!?" Sustra asked with annoyance.
"Kill Bayentes and take his army," Xena answered calmly.
"Oh . . . well, at least you have a plan," Sustra responded calmly. "You're crazy!" She blurted angrily. "Why are you deliberately trying to get yourself killed?"
Xena's eyes rolled as she sighed with little patience. She didn't need this.
"Are you afraid that if you live, you'll have to face Gabrielle?" Sustra accused.
"Keep Gabrielle out of this," Xena uttered her warning slowly to the Amazon.
"That's IT isn't it? You are going to go off, doing the stupid warrior thing and get yourself killed for WHAT? So you don't have to face the woman who YOU hurt, the woman who has been crying herself to sleep EVERY night for the past three weeks because you are the biggest idiot on the face of the. . . . Ooofff."
Xena tackled her, abruptly interrupting Sustra's accusations.
"Ugh," the stunned Amazon moaned, hitting the ground hard. She found herself on her back, pinned down by the Warrior Princess. Sustra looked up at the Warrior Princess' angry blue eyes glaring at her, then glanced at the tightly clenched fist hovering over her, trembling in anger.
"I am doing what I have to do," Xena explained through gnashed teeth. "If you don't want to help fine . . . but stay out . . . of . . . my . . . way," she threatened slowly.
"You'll have to go through me first - you warrior idiot," she responded, prompting the rapid descent of the fist towards her face. Before the fist hit, she bucked the Warrior Princess off her and quickly stood.
"If you can beat me, Xena, I'll let you go," Sustra challenged with a satisfied smile on her face as the furious warrior slowly picked herself up from the ground. Sustra never thought she would ever challenge the Warrior Princess - and expect to live.
Xena started to charge the Amazon then stopped abruptly and looked around. "What was that?" Xena asked, alerting the Amazon, who also looked around. "Oooof," Sustra blurted as Xena tackled the Amazon.
"Is THAT your plan for the entire army, Xena?" she heckled as they wrestled in the dirt.
"Stay out of my way," Xena repeated angrily, wildly throwing a punch which missed the quick Amazon and hit the ground. "Ugh," she rolled off the Amazon. The two scrambled to their feet. Xena shook her throbbing hand with annoyance.
"This PROVES my point, you are in no . . . ," Sustra blurted and froze as a blue spiral of light appeared and expanded near them. A familiar man in white tunic and brown pants jumped out from its center.
"YOU!" Xena blurted angrily at the man from Hermes' temple as she stopped rubbing her sore hand. But she now knew, he was no man - he was Hermes.
Xena looked over with concern to Sustra, who continued to stand still with her mouth in an "o" and her finger pointed angrily at the warrior.
"Don't worry, she's ok. . . ."
"You did this to me!" She snapped and stepped towards him. "WHY?!?" She asked, completely bewildered. Ares she could understand, but Hermes? Why would HE cause them so much trouble?
"Well, it was a little accident," he offered uneasily, taking a nervous step back.
"Little accident?!?" She snapped in utter amazement, continuing to close the distance between them with a few more steps.
"Uh. . . Calm down Xena!" He held his hands up as he took a few steps backwards.
"Calm down?!?" She asked incredulously, taking another, more menacing step towards him. "Do you know what I DID because of you?" She stammered in anger. "I'll show you a little acci . . . " She snarled with a wild glare as her hands lunged for him.
He quickly waved his hand and stopped the Warrior Princess' angry attack. He sighed with mixed feelings, as he wiped his forehead with his forearm.
"I never meant to hurt you . . . or Gabrielle," he said softly to the frozen Warrior Princess, whose hands were still reaching out to strangle him. "I just wanted to help. . . ." He added sadly.
Raising his hand again, he quickly looked around the clearing and up to the sky. With the coast still clear, he waved his hand over Xena once again and disappeared through the spiraling light that collapsed into nothingness.
". . . condition to fight!" Sustra finished yelling at the Warrior Princess who moved on her. She quickly turned to see the Warrior Princess grab at the air and blurt ". . . dent."
"Huh? How in Tartarus did you get over there?" Sustra barked uneasily, her eyes darting around the area for any other odd things.
Xena shook head and took a deep breath. She felt a little dizzy. What did he do THIS time, she wondered. Her eyes widened as she dared to hope.
"I'm not going to let you kill yourself Xena," Sustra informed her. "I WILL stop you," she added with a confident air that slowly faded as she watched the Warrior Princess take another deep breath and slowly stretch her neck and back.
Finished stretching, Xena looked blankly at an uncertain Sustra for a moment. A smile emerged as Xena slowly laced her fingers together and cracked her knuckles.
Sustra swallowed hard as Xena slowly walked towards her. She's just trying to psyche me out, Sustra concluded standing her ground. Yeah, that's it. Gods she's really good at that, Sustra noted.
Xena focused on the uneasy Amazon, like a panther ready to pounce on her prey.
Sustra was relieved when Xena just walked past her, unsure if was the slight cool breeze or her intimidating presence that generated the goose bumps on her arms.
After a few paces, Xena stopped and turned towards the Amazon. With a long absent grace, she smoothly unsheathed her sword and started to guide the blade around her tall form in an intricate pattern. The blade moved slowly at first, then more rapidly as the warrior's confidence grew - until the Amazon saw only a metallic blur.
Sustra's mouth dropped in awe at the warrior's skill. So confident, so beautiful, Sustra noted with a smile. The smile quickly faded when Xena did a back flip and without a beat, continued her sword drill. So deadly, Sustra considered with a gulp. She never did like pain.
After the drill was finished, a bright smile burst on the Warrior Princess' face and she sheathed her sword. In an instant, a buoyant Xena was lifting her ill-looking friend in a big bear hug and chuckling joyfully.
Please don't hurt me, please don't hurt me. . . .
When Xena put the Amazon down, she noticed Sustra's eyes still tightly shut and body still stiff.
"Sustra?" Xena asked with a grin.
"Uh huh?" Sustra answered weakly with her eyes still tightly shut.
"I'm not going to hurt you," Xena relayed, hiding her amusement.
"Really?" Sustra asked as one eye ventured open, followed by the second after she realized nothing bad happened.
"Well, not unless you deserve it," Xena informed Sustra, whose eyebrows furrowed as she considered that.
"Still interested in stopping me?" Xena asked with a raised eyebrow.
"How do you feel?" Sustra asked tentatively.
"Like I could take on an army," Xena responded with a fire in her eyes.
"Well, in that case, my answer would be no," Sustra relayed with a weak smile.
"Good answer. I still need your help . . . you up for it?"
"I'm game," Sustra responded with a relieved smile.
Chapter 38 - A Bumpy Ride
"Ah, there we go," the Army medic smiled as his smelling salts jolted the wounded archeologist awake. The bumpy ambulance ride wasn't enough.
Janice's face cringed from the potent odor. After a few blinks, she finally opened her eyes and focused on the camouflaged medic hovering over her.
"Oh God . . . ," she blurted through a rough voice, staring at his familiar broken nose and two black eyes. ". . . I'm in hell."
An anxious Mel looked curiously at the medic then Janice. Her eyes widened in surprise when they hit another bump in the road and a small box of bandages fell off a shelf and onto the patient. Mel's eyebrows furrowed.
"Not yet," Sergeant Tomas muttered as he grabbed the box and shoved it back onto the shelf. "You're in an ambulance going to Athens. You lost lots of blood but you'll survive," he informed her as he grabbed her wrist and looked at his watch. "I've seen much worse," he added casually, letting go of her wrist, allowing her hand to plunk back on the gurney.
"Janice?" Mel asked uneasily, unsure about the medic's assessment. "How are you feeling?" Mel came into the archeologist's view, peering over the Sergeant's broad shoulders in the cramped ambulance.
"Mel, you ok?" Janice immediately asked.
"I asked you first, Dr. Covington," Mel countered with annoyance.
"You must be fine or you wouldn't . . . ," Janice responded with a smirk but was interrupted when the Army ambulance hit a huge hole in the road and violently jostled them. The archeologist groaned sharply as Mel was thrown into the sergeant's back.
"Janice!" Mel called with concern as she peeled herself off of the medic.
"Would you watch where the hell you're going Mac?!?" Sgt. Tomas yelled at his driver with a bang on the forward window of the compartment and received a grumbled response.
"Sorry about that Dr. Covington," Sgt. Tomas apologized sincerely as he rechecked the bandage. Janice nodded.
"When will we get to the hospital?" Mel asked with annoyance.
"Soon, Miss. Don't worry about Dr. Covington, she's in the best hands in Greece." Sgt. Tomas informed the southerner with a wink and grin.
Mel looked blankly at him a moment then down at her friend, choosing to ignore him.
"Janice, I wanted them to take you to Athens General because it was the best hospital and the sergeant SAID you could easily make the trip." Mel explained, then glared at Sgt. Tomas. "But I'm SURE they won't mind taking us to a CLOSER hospital."
"Athens is closest now," he informed her with a furrowed brow.
Mel eyed him coldly.
"Mel," Janice spoke, drawing the southerner's cold gaze, which immediately warmed.
"Where's Georg?" Janice asked.
"Oh don't worry Janice, he's fine," Mel informed her with a warm smile.
"Where IS he?" Janice asked again with a sigh, making the tall woman roll her eyes.
"Driving the supply truck behind us. We'll have to go back and get your truck later." Mel said, making Janice nod and smile.
Mel sat down in the hospital cafeteria and anxiously started tapping her fingers on the table. Despite Sgt. Tomas telling her it was a simple surgery to remove the bullet, she knew she wouldn't be able to relax until she saw for herself that Janice was Ok. She glanced over to Sgt. Tomas, who was at the counter getting two cups of coffee and flirting with the pretty cashier.
"Men," she silently sighed, pushed her glasses up and returned to nervously tapping her fingers on the table as Sgt. Tomas returned with the coffee.
"Here you go, blond and sweet," he remarked as he sat down and slid the cup and saucer towards her.
"Thank you, Sergeant," she responded with a small smile. "You know, you really don't need to stay, I'll be fine," Mel said unconvincingly as she stirred her hot cup.
"I thought you might want some friendly company. Those detectives are going to want to talk with you," he informed her, eyeing the two men in dark suits by the cafeteria door talking with a doctor.
"Why?" Mel asked, also glancing at the men. "I already spoke with that officer we met in Zemal."
"Well, they want to be thorough - you were involved in gold smuggling with Dr. Covington," Tomas offered with a shrug.
"I most certainly WAS NOT," Mel snapped indignantly.
"I didn't mean YOU were the mastermind or anything," he quickly responded.
"Janice wasn't masterminding anything either!" Mel snapped. "We were just minding our own business at the site and . . . ," Mel explained to the Sergeant then stopped when she felt someone hovering near her.
"Why don't you tell US all about that, Miss Pappas," the oldest man in a dark suit interjected with an insincere smile.
"I'm Detective Agnu, and this is Detective Pollus. We're very interested in what you have to say . . "
For the life of her, Melinda could not fathom why these men could not remember or understand what she said. She had to repeat herself for what seemed like a thousand times over the past two hours.
"I've already told you," Mel wearily responded, rubbing her eyes underneath her glasses, and repeated her story once again for the amazingly dense police.
"Janice and I went on a dig for the University in Zemal and . . . ," Mel began her story.
"I thought you said the dig was on for the University of Athens. . . ." Detective Pollus eagerly interrupted.
"I just DID," Mel replied, nonplused.
"You just said the University of Zemal," he countered, making Mel roll her eyes.
"I said the dig was for the University . . . IN Zemal," Mel argued, finding it difficult to be civil to these men, especially the pushy Detective Pollus.
"There IS no University in Zemal," he countered argumentatively.
"I KNOW . . . You are deliberately misunderstanding what I say," Mel snapped, adding him to her growing list of those needing to be smacked.
"Well you should be more careful to say what you mean," Detective Pollus responded with annoyance.
Mel pondered those annoyingly familiar words. Janice had told her that too.
"Go on . . . ," the older detective interjected softly, drawing Mel's gaze for a moment before she sighed and looked at her cold cup of coffee.
Detective Agnu shot a warning glare at Detective Pollus who frowned.
"The men Janice hired didn't come to the site," Mel started again.
"What men?" The young detective asked.
"I don't know," Mel responded with annoyance.
"How do you know Janice hired any men?" The young detective asked.
"Because Janice SAID so," Mel replied in amazement.
"You trust the word of this woman?" He asked.
"YES," Mel groaned, making the detectives look at each other and shake their heads with a knowing smirk. "WHAT?!?" She asked heatedly.
"Please, go on," the older detective encouraged her warmly.
"Dr. Wright said the workers went on strike but that we shouldn't worry because he hired replacements," Mel continued.
"What replacements?" the young detective asked, raising the southerner's temper to very near boiling.
"Go on, please," the older detective wisely interjected.
"Dr. Wright never hired replacements . . . eight armed men came instead. Dr. Wright had smuggled gold in her supply truck and arranged a pickup in Zemal but these armed men, Hank and the others, double crossed HIM and tried to take the gold. When they couldn't find the gold, they threatened us. We tried. . . . "
"Where's the gold now?" The younger detective interrupted.
"I don't KNOW!" Mel spat as she slapped her hand down on the table, inadvertently knocking her spoon off her saucer and onto the cafeteria floor. A vigilant Sgt. Tomas quickly retrieved it.
"I've TOLD you that," she moaned shaking her head wearily. "You're wasting valuable time here. You should be interrogating Dr. Wright and Dr. Maveros!"
The detectives looked at each other and once again smirked knowingly. Sgt. Tomas sighed, feeling great sympathy for the pretty southerner.
"Miss Pappas, you do realize Dr. Covington has been associated with the smuggling of Ancient Greek artifacts," the older detective finally explained. "It is natural we'd like to understand her involvement with the stolen gold," he added with a seasoned voice of reason.
"But she didn't steal the gold!" Mel responded angrily . . . again. The lead detective motioned for the other detective and the sergeant to leave. Sgt. Tomas ignored the detective who glared with annoyance as he continued to sit next to the fair southerner.
"Miss Pappas, look," the lead detective sighed. "We know you didn't have anything to do with this. You are an upstanding American from a good family with a good reputation in Greece. But you are accusing Dr. Maveros, who is also an upstanding citizen, not to mention the senior professor of archeology at the University. And this Dr. Wright has never done anything to make us think he is anything but an upstanding citizen. Which leaves, Janice Covington."
"DOCTOR Covington," Mel corrected him, making his eyes roll.
"Miss Pappas, DOCTOR Covington doesn't care about the laws of our land. She's been arrested more times than I can count. She'd be in jail today if we could prove even one of the many things we suspect her of," he mentioned.
"Which means you have absolutely no proof of your suspicions," Mel countered.
"Eight men say Dr. Covington was behind the gold smuggling," he offered as if that was conclusive.
"Eight upstanding citizens, no doubt," Mel responded coolly.
"Miss Pappas . . . ," he sighed wearily.
"I'm a little curious, Detective Agnu. How do you intend to prove Dr. Covington has been smuggling gold if you can't find it?" Mel countered innocently, making his eyes narrow.
"Miss Pappas, if you are involved in this . . . ," he responded, surprised at her question.
"Detective, I am not and neither is Doctor Covington," Mel relayed firmly.
"I've dealt with DOCTOR Covington before, Miss Pappas, and I don't share your confidence in her. If we find so much as a trace of the gold in DOCTOR Covington's possession that she doesn't have a legitimate receipt for, I'll throw every book I can find at her and personally see her rot in prison," he said with an eerily pleasant tone and smile.
Mel swallowed hard.
"What if Dr. Maveros confesses?" Mel asked.
Chapter 39 - Debts Paid
Before leaving on her mission to check for Staveros' family, Sustra looked over her weapons, more out of ritual than utility. With her dagger in hand, the Amazon looked up to watch the Warrior Princess get ready for her grand entrance into Bayentes' camp.
Xena first unsheathed her sword. In relaxed motions, she whirled it skillfully around her tall form, making Sustra very thankful she didn't hold a grudge. Apparently satisfied, Sustra concluded from the content grin on the warrior's face, Xena sheathed it.
Pulling out a dagger that was hidden in her boot, Xena ran her thumb along the blade. Tossing it up in the air by the blade, the dagger quickly tumbled blade over hilt as it rose in the air then started to descend. Catching the dagger by the hilt, she smoothly slipped it back into her boot.
Sustra smiled, considering every experienced warrior has a hidden dagger for emergencies as she ran her thumb over the blade of her own dagger. Glancing up, Sustra's eyebrows furrowed curiously when she saw Xena's shoulders tense oddly.
Out from the Warrior Princess' cleavage popped another dagger.
"Ow," Sustra blurted and her bloody thumb shot up to her mouth as Xena snatched the breast dagger from the air.
"Problem?" Xena asked with amusement, as she eyed the weapon and returned it to its happy home.
"No no . . . uh . . . supposed to be sharp, right?" Sustra shrugged, glancing at her dagger. Placed her thumb back in her mouth, the Amazon pondered the sharpness of the Warrior Princess' happy dagger.
The Warrior Princess grinned.
"Right," Xena responded as she instinctively reached for her last weapon. Her grin immediately dissolved as her fingers brushed over where her chakrum would have hung.
"I'm ready," Sustra quickly informed the disturbed Warrior Princess, attempting to draw her thoughts away from the painful memory. "You?" She mumbled with her thumb back in her mouth.
"Yeah," Xena replied with a small, appreciative smile and turned to pat Argo on her neck.
Seeing Xena whisper something into her ear seemed a little odd to the Amazon. But then, Argo was a smart horse, Sustra considered with a shrug.
"Be careful," Xena said, turning to the surprised Amazon.
"Uh . . . you too," the Amazon responded, watching Xena mount. With effortless grace, Xena propelled herself onto her horse . . . sidesaddle.
Sustra's mouth dropped as she gasped in fear. Her shock dissolved into annoyance as the Warrior Princess chuckled and swung her right leg over to reposition herself on the saddle.
"Sustra, lighten up," Xena said with a smirk.
The look outs alerted the camp as the Warrior Princess rode towards them, alone. They nervously watched her tall form sitting imperiously on her golden mare as she slowly glanced over the camp. A camp which they fully expected to soon be hers.
She noticed the men, curiously appearing weary, almost defeated. A few of those men nervously surrounded her when she stopped in the center of the camp.
"Where's Bayentes?" Xena coolly asked the tallest soldier, whose eyes darted uneasily to the others, then to a tent which she suspected he was in.
Tired of waiting for a response, she dismounted. One soldier made a half-hearted attempt to stop her by placing his blade in her path.
"Your manners leave a lot to be desired," Xena noted with a raised eyebrow, prompting the soldier to quickly move his sword out of her path.
Opening the tent flap, Xena saw everyone turn and nervously look at her. A few lieutenants stood in a protective line in front of a cot, immediately drawing her attention to the injured man on it.
"Invite her in . . . " Bayentes blurted cordially through a wheeze.
"Sir?" One lieutenant asked hesitantly.
"Good Gods, NOBODY listens anymore," Bayentes complained then started coughing. "I want to see her," he added, weakly wiping the spit away from his mouth.
Xena cautiously went to the cot and looked down at the dying man who was once her trusted, then victim, now . . . enemy.
"Your Amazon arrows did this," he weakly informed her as if it were merely a stain on his tunic. "I was so close to victory . . . wasn't I?," he asked with a small smile and coughed. Sniffing, he added wryly, "well, you lose some, you lose some. . . . "
She knelt down and looked under his bandages. "You . . . ," she ordered a lieutenant. "Get my saddle bag, and YOU," she looked at another lieutenant. "Get some hot water and rags," she barked, prompting quick action.
"What in Tartarus are you doing?" He asked, coughing.
"Your wounds weren't that bad until they got infected. I think we can still fight the infection . . . ," she noted with encouragement.
"Xena? Do you actually think I will stop hounding you or your loved ones if you help me get better?" He asked calmly and coughed.
She looked at him and considered the question. Sighing heavily, she answered "No."
"Then it would be in your interest to let me die, don't you think?" Bayentes asked her with a smirk.
"Yes . . . it would," she answered as she continued to take the bandages off, motioning to the lieutenants to come closer with the items they brought.
"For GODS' sake woman, are you deaf?" He snapped, then smiled oddly.
"I'm NOT going to let you die because it's easier for ME if you do," she snapped back.
"What? Don't tell me you are worried about your soul NOW, Xena," He blurted with a chuckle, followed by a cough.
"It's about time, don't you think?" She replied as she grabbed a damp cloth and started to wipe his wounds carefully.
"No," he blurted, grabbing her hand and stopping her from cleaning the abscessed wound. "Do what you should have done in the first place . . . kill me," he told her.
Xena took a deep breath.
"You OWE me, Xena," he spat bitterly.
Xena made a decision to finish what she started.
"You . . . owe . . . ," he repeated angrily, stopping when the dull sensation filled his chest. A smile flickered across his face before he stilled.
Xena stared at her hand, which still wrapped around the dagger protruding from the now dead man.
She remembered when her friend first joined her army, the various campaigns he fought for her, and that hot, miserable day when she disfigured him. Her eyes lifted to his earless face. She did owe him . . . more than she could ever repay. But she finally finished what she started, something he also wanted. Now she would move on.
"You were a good warrior, Bayentes," she whispered as she let go of the hilt of her dagger.
"We await your orders, Xena," Rolf announced, clearing his throat nervously when she shot an annoyed glare at him.
"How can you possibly follow me?" She asked in annoyed amazement and stood.
"Uh . . . ," he looked around to the other lieutenants, who shrugged. "You defeated our leader."
"Defeated? I just killed a dying man," she responded incredulously.
"Still . . . ," Rolf shrugged.
"You all ride against me to get revenge one moment, then you turn around and follow me in the next?" She asked, nonplused.
"Uh . . . revenge?" Rolf questioned then looked to the other lieutenants, who shrugged. "What exactly are you talking about?" Rolf asked cautiously.
"Why did you ride with Bayentes?" Xena's eyebrow rose questioningly.
"It certainly wasn't for the advancement opportunities," Rolf blurted with a smirk, then noticed the Warrior Princess' annoyance growing. "Uh . . . he payed well," Rolf offered quickly, looking to the other lieutenants who nodded their heads in vigorous agreement.
"Really well," Rolf added to the surprised warrior. "Well, until he started to run out of money," Rolf explained. "He had downsized and let some soldiers go. 'Right-sizing,' he called it. Anyway . . . with you leading us, I'm sure in no time . . . ," Rolf relayed with encouragement.
"Money. You just did it for money," she interrupted numbly and glanced down at Bayentes.
Mind games, she concluded in weary amazement and shook her head. He won that round too, she considered with anger, reluctant respect and most of all . . . relief.
"What are your orders," Rolf asked, drawing her eyes away from her dead enemy.
"Go home," Xena replied and started to leave the surprised group.
"But . . . ."
Pausing at the tent flaps, the Warrior Princess looked back at the confused men.
"We should all just . . . go home," she added wearily and left.
Chapter 40 - A Brilliant Plan
"Dr. Covington?" Georg whispered into her room after the doctor left, looking in the hallway for nurses.
"It's clear, Georg. Where's the truck?" She asked blinking her eyes to focus, still feeling the effects of the drugs from her surgery.
"Back at the hotel," he said. "What are you going to do? The detectives are questioning Miss Pappas now," he said, evoking a concerned look from Janice.
"Shit," Janice blurted and closed her eyes with a guilty ache in her heart. Opening her eyes, she focused on Georg. "Tell the detectives I want to see them RIGHT now," Janice informed him firmly, hoping to minimize the time her southern friend would be subjected to that unpleasantness.
"What are you going to . . . ?" Georg questioned, then froze, hearing the southerner's voice in the hallway. He glanced nervously to Janice.
"I can't believe you are not going to let her rest, she's been shot and just operated on you know!" Mel blurted with annoyance as the crowd following her passed the nurses' station and approached the room. A blond nurse looked up from the desk at the parade passing by and frowned.
"The doctor said she could see us, Miss Pappas," Detective Agnu countered unsympathetically.
"Guess they saved you a trip," Janice informed Georg wryly.
Mel entered the room first and smiled with relief at the site of her alert friend. Detectives Agnu and Pollus, and Sgt. Tomas quickly filed into her small hospital room behind her. Sgt. Tomas grinned appreciatively at the well-endowed blond nurse, who entered the room last. Esther was ready to toss every last one of them out if HER patient so much as blinked funny.
"You ok?" Janice asked with concern as she glanced at the southerner then the crowd.
Mel shrugged her answer and approached the archeologist's bedside.
"How are you feeling?" Mel asked, reaching out to squeeze her forearm.
"I asked you first," Janice responded with a grin, making Mel sigh and roll her eyes.
"So Dr. Covington," Detective Agnu interjected. "You've been involved in some interesting events lately," he blurted with a smile.
"You could say that, Detective Agnu," Janice relayed coolly.
"You shouldn't be surprised to know, you are our prime suspect in the theft of the gold at the moment," he informed her with a smile. "Eight witnesses have implicated you."
Janice silently nodded and stared at the smiling detective. Nope, now would not be a good time to hand over the gold, she considered.
"Aren't you going to say anything?" Detective Pollus asked in surprise.
"Why bother? You've already decided what happened," Janice offered, still staring at Agnu, who stared back with equal dislike.
"Miss Pappas has made some interesting accusations about Doctor Wright and Doctor Maveros," Agnu noted, seeing the cool archeologist glance at the southerner.
"Janice, I had to tell them what I know," Mel explained.
"I know," Janice said softly, glancing at the southerner a moment longer before returning her attention to the less pleasant-looking detective.
"The problem is," Detective Agnu explained. "They are not exactly the kind of people to be associated with gold smuggling and. . . ."
"I am," Janice finished his sentence.
"Yes. But your friend has an interesting solution to your problem," he offered, prompting the archeologist to look at the southerner with worry.
"All we need is a confession from Dr. Maveros," Mel offered simply, making Janice stare at her in amazement.
"We'd need the gold too," Detective Agnu noted with a smile.
Janice glanced between the southerner and detective. What the HELL was she thinking, Janice wondered, looking over at the crowd in her room and focusing on Esther, whose eyebrows rose expectantly.
"I'm tired, is there anything else?" Janice informed them conveniently. It also happened to be the truth.
"Ok, time to go people," Nurse Esther informed them forcefully, winking at Janice as she started to move the herd.
Mel's eyebrows furrowed.
"We'll have someone right outside," Detective Agnu informed her with a sigh. "So don't plan to go anywhere, DOCTOR Covington," he added, glancing at Mel with a thin smile and left with the crowd.
Nurse Esther stood in the door with her hands on her hips glaring at the final visitor. Mel sighed with annoyance and started to leave.
"Where do you think you're going?" Janice snapped the southerner.
"You're tired and YOUR nurse wants me to leave," Mel responded with annoyance.
"Miss Pappas. . . . " Nurse Esther called firmly to the straggler, making Mel roll her eyes. Normally, she'd really appreciate someone protecting Janice. But for some reason, she just didn't like this blond . . . extremely attractive . . . woman.
"It's ok Esther, I wanted to talk to her," Janice informed the nurse, whose eyebrows furrowed.
"Janice, you are in NO condition to . . . ," Esther blurted with annoyance.
"ESTHER . . . Sweetheart," Janice interjected with an uneasy laugh, drawing a curious look from the southerner. "I just need to talk to her," Janice explained with a soft smile, making the nurse's firm position crumble. Esther sighed and shook her head with a small smile.
Mel's eyebrow raised as she glanced between the nurse and her patient.
"You need to rest to heal, Janice," Esther added softly.
"Remember that," she added bluntly, throwing a glare at Mel before leaving the southerner alone with the archeologist.
When the door to her room finally closed, Janice finally exploded.
"And how the HELL will I get Dr. Maveros to confess?" Janice barked, startling the southerner who was still glaring at the door. "She MUST know something went wrong by now. If I just waltzed in, she'd call the cops on me, or more likely - just shoot me" Janice added.
"I wasn't talking about YOU getting her to confess Janice, I'll do it," Mel told her confidently.
"Would you just calm down and listen? All they need is for Dr. Maveros to admit her involvement in front of the police or a witness the police trust . . . Sgt. Tomas has volunteered. . . . "
"Absolutely NOT," Janice blurted, amazed how the bad situation kept getting worse.
"Janice, I don't think we have much choice," Mel reasoned.
"MEL, there is no WE about this. This is MY problem. I'm not going to let you risk yourself or your reputation if this brilliant plan of yours goes sour," Janice argued vehemently.
"Janice, trust me," Mel said simply.
"It's just not worth the risk," Janice told her with pleading green eyes attempting to dissuade determined blues.
"It is to me."
Early the next morning, an uneasy Mel stared out the backseat window of the taxi as it stopped at their destination. Her eyes followed the long flight of steps up to the imposing marble building perched on top.
She would have felt much more comfortable had it been the University of South Carolina, where her family had considerable pull and the friendly faculty spoke southern. However, there was no use wishing for that, she sighed. She was going to meet with that scary woman who, despite being the senior professor of archeology for the University of Athens, had an appalling lack of manners.
The southerner turned from her window to find the driver and Sgt. Tomas turned towards the back seat and Georg, sitting next to her in the back, staring at her. She sighed and started opening her purse to pay the taxi driver.
Sgt. Tomas furrowed his brow. "I'll get it," he offered, quickly pulling out his wallet from his suit pocket, surprising the southerner.
As Sgt. Tomas handed over the fare to the driver, Georg leaned towards her and discreetly asked, "You sure you want to do this?"
"Yes. I am going to clear Janice," Mel said firmly, making her friend nod.
With a deep breath, she clenched her purse and started to exit the cab. Glancing up, she was once again pleasantly surprised by Sgt. Tomas who was already at her door, with his hand extended. Smiling, she reached out to take the offering. As she stood, the strap of her purse fell off her shoulder and caught on the door knob handle, causing her to stumble back.
"Oh . . . " she blurted uneasily.
"Careful . . . ," Sgt. Tomas cautioned and quickly came to the rescue with a strong arm wrapping around her. ". . . Miss Pappas," he finished with a sly grin.
Staring at the sergeant's bandaged nose inches from her face, Mel dropped her purse, which dangled on the open door. The sergeant smiled and reached down, easily rescuing the purse from the clutches of the hostile door. With the purse in hand, he once again stood face-to-face with the southern lady and handed the purse to her.
With narrow eyes, Georg glared at Sergeant Romeo, who accomplished that heroic feat single handedly . . . since he never removed his hand from her hip.
"Ah . . . thank you, sergeant," Mel responded as she took back her purse. With a questioning glare she glanced between him and his unneeded hand on her hip.
"Perhaps you should call me Spirou, Miss Pappas. Dr. Maveros might be suspicious of a Sergeant in the Greek Army showing up in her office," he suggested softly, his brown eyes gazing into her nervously blinking blues. He smiled and finally removed his hand.
"Good idea . . . Spirou," she responded hesitantly. "Let's go," she announced with a weak smile, gingerly stepping around him to head towards the steps.
At the bottom of the steps to the Department of Archeology with Georg and Sgt. Tomas at her side, Mel glanced over her shoulder. She easily spotted the detectives in their car. If she could spot them, she worried if Dr. Maveros could too.
"Do you think Dr. Maveros really is involved?" Detective Pollus asked his mentor as they watched the three approach the University steps.
"I don't know," Detective Agnu responded. "I guess anything's possible," he added with a shrug.
"Like Dr. Covington isn't really involved?" the younger man asked.
"I think that's about as possible as pigs flying," he blurted with a smirk.
"Hmmm. She has Miss Pappas fooled then," the younger man responded. "She's convinced of Dr. Covington's innocence."
"Miss Pappas is either really naive or . . . ," Detective Agnu spat without finishing, not wanting to speak of that distasteful alternative.
"But what if she's right? How will she get Dr. Maveros to confess," Pollus relayed.
Detective Agnu shrugged.
Chapter 41 - Home Coming
Xena sat on Argo, looking down at Bayentes camp one last time, deep in thought.
"You ready?" Sustra asked, drawing the warrior's attention to her. Xena took a deep breath and nodded unconvincingly.
"It will be ok, Xena. You'll see," Sustra added with a small smile of reassurance and rode off to catch up to Sylvia and her little boy riding ahead.
Xena sighed, not as confident as Sustra. She patted Argo on the neck and nudged her with her knees to follow the optimistic Amazon.
Xena's stomach was in knots as they entered Zemal. She wondered if Gabrielle was up and about yet, knowing if she could - she would. Her gaze drifted from face to face. There were only Zemalians and a couple Amazons in the streets watching them arrive with no sign of the Poteidaian bard. She sighed with mixed feelings. Probably resting, she considered.
The Zemalians seemed pleased to see her. The Amazons . . . well . . . Xena considered she was probably lucky they didn't shoot at her when she rode in.
As she dismounted, Xena watched Staveros cry and hug his wife and child. The reunion brought a smile to the warrior's face. She was convinced Bayentes had killed them. She was glad she was wrong.
"Thank you Xena, THANK you," Staveros blurted as he still clung to his family and wept.
"Thank Sustra, she rescued them," Xena mentioned.
"Thank you," A teary Staveros relayed to the uncomfortable Amazon, who nodded quietly and shrugged. "Come on you two, let me get you home . . . where you belong," Staveros happily relayed to his family.
Xena watched Staveros and his family go home, wondering with a sinking feeling whether that was possible for her.
Sustra grinned at the tall warrior. "I think you have your own reunion to attend to," Sustra offered with a twinkle in her eye. Xena sighed.
"You'll be fine," Sustra nudged her with a smirk. "Don't keep her waiting any longer," Sustra prompted the uncertain warrior towards the Inn. Xena nodded. Sustra was right, she considered and started for the Inn.
"You're too late," Eponin announced to them coolly as she joined them in the street.
Sustra and Xena abruptly turned to the Amazon with alarm.
"This isn't a bad thing, Xena," Sustra mentioned to the silent warrior again as she turned the roasting rabbit over their camp fire.
Xena stopped her sword sharpening, looked up at the Amazon, raised her skeptical eyebrow, then resumed sharpening her sword.
"I mean, she didn't know you were coming back. It makes sense that she wanted to move on . . . ," Sustra continued with a shrug.
Xena stopped sharpening her sword and stared at the ground, making Sustra quickly try to amend her words.
"I mean, leave . . . uh, TRAVEL . . . yeah, travel. She likes to . . . ," Sutra blurted nervously. ". . . travel," she added with a defeated sigh.
"For GODS sake Xena, she just went to Amphipolis with your mother," Sustra blurted with annoyance, drawing a glare from the Warrior Princess.
"That isn't a bad thing," Sustra muttered and turned the rabbit again.
At sunset, they rode into Amphipolis. Xena scanned the busy streets and found more Amazons not exactly thrilled to see her. Bet they'll be glad to leave, Xena considered with a smirk.
In front of her mother's Inn, the two riders dismounted. Xena took a deep breath to settle her nervous stomach and entered the familiar establishment. Sustra followed closely behind.
"XENA!" Cyrene called to her with a mixture of joy and concern.
"Mother," Xena responded with a warm hug for her surprised mother as her eyes glanced uneasily over the tavern. Cyrene savored the gift from her daughter, although she knew her visit was to see Gabrielle. She sighed and stepped back from her daughter's embrace.
"She's not here," her mother informed her sadly. "After making sure I got home all right, she left with Frea and Solari for Amazonia," Cyrene added, cringing sadly when the warrior shut her eyes and exhaled wearily.
"What you need is a good home cooked meal," Cyrene mentioned eagerly, getting a furrowed brow from Xena, who had lost her appetite.
"You still need to gain your strength, Xena," Cyrene glanced over her thin daughter. "Your armor is practically falling off you," she added, evoking a sigh from the Warrior Princess.
"And after, we will talk," Cyrene added, caressing her daughter's cheek as she looked into the sad eyes.
They ate late, after the dinner crowd left the Tavern and the barmaid was able to handle the remaining customers on her own.
For the first time in a very long time, Cyrene was able to have a relaxed dinner with her family. She smiled as she watched her son Toris discuss a wide range of topics with Sustra from swords to scrolls as they each greedily stuffed their mouths with food. She was going to mention that they shouldn't speak with their mouths full, but they seemed to be enjoying dinner too much for her to spoil it.
Her smile faded as she looked to Xena who quietly stared at her plate, poking her potato with a fork.
"Pass the rolls, please," Sustra mumbled through a full mouth to Xena, who was oblivious to her request.
Cyrene reached across the table to the basket of rolls directly in front of her daughter and passed them to Sustra.
"Thanks," Sustra blurted, causing Xena to glance up from her plate.
"Sorry," Xena said quietly, getting a soft, understanding smile from her mother. Xena's eyes drifted back down to her plate.
"Dis is guud, Cywrene," Sustra blurted appreciatively with her mouth full.
Xena poked her potato again. Surveying her plate, she decided the boiled spud needed protection it from her piece of chicken and rolled her potato away from the leg.
"Thank you, Sustra," Cyrene chuckled at the woman's healthy appetite. Cyrene wished Xena would eat just half of what Sustra was eating.
However, distance wasn't good enough, the warrior concluded and carefully constructed a wall around the vulnerable potato with the army of peas, which wasn't easy since they tended to desert and roll away. Thinking she would be satisfied once the wall of peas was constructed, the Warrior Princess only frowned, noticing the carrots could easily scale the peas to get at the potato.
"Xena, don't play with your food," Cyrene scolded the Warrior Princess, making Toris muffle a laugh. Xena's eyes darted towards him and narrowed threateningly, making her brother giggle more.
Sustra sipped her water and ate another roll.
"Come on and help me with the dishes you two," Cyrene mentioned, then frowned when Sustra swallowed quickly and started to stand with her plate.
"No no, sit down Sustra, you're a guest," Cyrene informed her warmly. Sustra smiled and shrugged, knowing not to argue with this particular Tavern owner and sat down, happily grabbing another roll.
Cyrene went to her kitchen with her children in tow. Toris placed his dish on the table with the other dishes and went to get some water from the well.
"How was she doing?" Xena asked immediately when Toris left.
"Not good," Cyrene sighed sadly. As Xena opened her mouth to ask another question, Toris came back with two buckets of well water and poured them in the sink. Xena sighed as he started to scrape the dishes and place them in the sink.
"You two go on, I've got everything covered here," Toris mentioned as he scraped another plate, surprising the two women.
"Thank you, honey," Cyrene smiled and squeezed her son's shoulder and left the kitchen. As Xena followed her mother, she paused at the door looking back at her brother. Toris glanced up from the plate in his hands.
"I would have fenced in the potato with the carrots then filled the moat with peas," he informed her nonchalantly, finishing cleaning the plate.
"You trusted the carrots?" Xena asked with surprise, making her brother chuckle.
"Sometimes Xena, you just have to trust your vegetables to do the right thing," her sage brother informed her, making her grin.
Cyrene sat in the cleared Tavern with Sustra, who was finishing the last roll.
"These are soooooo good, Cyrene. You should give me the recipe," Sustra mentioned, surprising the older woman.
"You cook?" She asked with a smile.
"I manage, especially when it involves food I really really like," Sustra replied with a grin. "I don't have anyone to cook for me. . . yet," she offered and looked up to find Xena standing quietly behind her mother.
"I'll go check on my horse then call it a night," Sustra announced as she stood. "I'm looking forward to sleeping in a real bed," she added with an enthusiastic grin to Cyrene.
Xena watched her friend leave the now empty Tavern. Her eyebrows furrowed. "Where is everyone?" Xena asked, knowing the answer.
"Xena, talking with you is more important than one night of business, which has finally recovered now that the army is gone," Cyrene informed her with relief.
"You said she wasn't good," Xena stated with concern as she sat down. "Isn't her wound healing?"
"The one on her back is," Cyrene responded. "Her heart still needs mending," her mother added softly.
"I know . . . I thought . . . I know," Xena blurted with a defeated sigh. "I don't know what I am going to say to her . . . I never do," Xena quietly complained. "She's the bard. . . ."
"Well, perhaps 'I'm sorry' would be a good start," she suggested.
"Even I know to say that," Xena countered with a smirk. "I say that a lot to her," she admitted wearily.
"And she forgives you . . . ," Cyrene offered encouragement.
Xena nodded, then shrugged as she uncomfortably glanced down at the table. "Or gets annoyed that I apologize too much." The comment made Cyrene smile warmly.
"But what if she doesn't this time?" Xena looked up with concern. "What if . . . "
"What if's. . . . There are a lot of those to worry about aren't there?" Cyrene interrupted her daughter, who looked at her curiously.
"But what if she doesn't forgive me?" Xena asked with concern. "She's everything to me," Xena croaked out a whisper as her eyes dropped to her hands which nervously clenched at the feeling of vulnerability.
"I've never known anyone like her," the warrior princess explained to her nodding mother as a lopsided grin couldn't help but form on the warrior's face when she spoke of Gabrielle.
"And she gives me so much more than I thought possible. Things I never knew I needed . . . until I met her. Things I know I can't live without. Her. . . . " Xena looked up to her mother, surprised to find Cyrene sitting back and shaking her head with a smile.
Xena's eyes narrowed, not understanding what Cyrene found so amusing in her misery. "What?" Xena asked coolly.
"I think you know what to say to her, Xena," Cyrene grinned.
Chapter 42 - Miss Manners
Sgt. Tomas looked up to Department of Archeology building as he tucked the handkerchief in his dark suit pocket, looking very much the gangster. Especially with the bandage on his nose and black rings under his eyes.
"Are you ready, Miss Pappas?" Sgt. Tomas asked, startling the preoccupied southerner.
"Yes," she spoke confidently, trying to ignore the bevy of butterflies in her stomach. Each step she took made her more nervous. As the three reached the top, Mel looked back down at the car and observed the detectives casually get out and look around.
Tripping over the last step, Melinda was once again caught by Sgt. Tomas, who rather enjoyed the opportunity to put his arms around the beautiful American.
"I've got you, Miss Pappas," Sgt. Tomas smiled warmly and helped steady her.
"Oh my," Mel blurted with panic, realizing that the 'good thing' that happened to her in Zemal was gone. . . .
Georg glared at her with wide eyes, realizing something was wrong.
"Thanks," she remarked uneasily as she started to hyperventilate. Not NOW, she silently moaned as her butterflies started to jitterbug. It was bad enough meeting with Dr. Maveros when she could walk straight without killing herself, but NOW . . . oh no, she moaned.
"Just take a deep breath, you'll be fine," Georg suggested, hoping he was right. She certainly didn't look fine, he considered.
"Of course," she added with an uneasy smile and took a long deep breath. Then another. And another. And another. . . .
Finally entering the building, the southern lady stopped in front of a glass door out of habit and glanced at her reflection. At least she could still LOOK good, she considered. It's just a meeting, she reminded herself. A simple meeting to get that unpleasant woman to admit she was behind the entire plan and clear Janice. Swallowing hard, Mel inspected herself one final time, nervously tugging the bottom of her suit coat down. She looked up to Georg expectantly.
"You look great, Miss Pappas," Georg offered.
"Beautiful," Sgt. Tomas interjected with a grin, correcting Georg.
"I think I'm going to be sick," Mel mumbled, making Sgt. Tomas' eyebrows furrow.
As Sgt. Tomas looked around the immediate area, because it seemed like something he should to do, Georg leaned towards her with concern.
"If you're not up to it, you shouldn't . . . ," Georg mentioned quietly, gently touching her elbow.
"Did Janice have you come with me just so you could to keep telling me that?" She snapped, pulling her elbow away.
"She worries about you," Georg responded. "We both do," he added.
"I'm sorry Georg, I know you do," Mel responded with a sigh and looked over her purse and outfit one last time, her confidence quickly slipping. She considered she better move now before all her confidence was gone.
Pushing up her glasses, she blurted "OK then!" and prayed for the good Lord to help her. As she started to walk towards Dr. Maveros' office with Sgt. Tomas, Georg's eyes widened and he called to her.
"Wait!" Georg' anxious whisper, made Mel and Sgt. Tomas turn abruptly.
"What?" Mel asked uneasily, looking around the halls suspiciously.
Georg reached inside his dusty suit jacket and pulled out a small cloth pouch. Smiling, he handed the small pouch over to a curious Mel.
"I almost forgot I had it," Georg informed her as she carefully opened it and pulled the contents out with her long fingers.
"My grandmother's watch. . . ," Mel whispered in amazement. Tracing her fingers over the sorely missed heirloom, she noted the hands were on the right time. Daring to hope, she smiled and lifted it up to her ear and heard it ticking away. "It works!" Mel added, taken aback. "Oh, THANK you, Georg," she hugged him, then with a big grin, eagerly put it on her wrist.
"Uh . . . well, actually Dr. Covington found it and dropped it off at the jeweler," he admitted, making the southerner smile broadly. "I just picked it up cause she was . . . uh . . . busy," he hedged, making Mel's smile fade.
Georg looked uneasily at Sgt. Tomas, whose eyes widened, realizing he was referring to the poker game where he attacked a woman, even if it was only Dr. Covington. The beautiful American would certainly not appreciate that, Sgt. Tomas grimaced, seeing all his hard work to impress the southern beauty go down the drain.
Mel's eyebrow rose curiously at their mutual discomfort. "Doing what?"
"Well so much happened that night . . . ," Georg shrugged, then felt the southerner's narrow eyes encouraging him to continue.
"You know, it would be nice to chat . . . but don't we have some business to take care of?" Sgt. Tomas suggested quickly, motioning towards Dr. Maveros' office. He received a look of appreciation from Georg and a glare from the suspicious southerner.
"Yes, you're right. Let's take care of one thing at a time, shall we?" Mel sighed and looked down the hallway towards Dr. Maveros' office.
At the office door of the archeology department, Mel paused and took a deep breath.
Staring at her hand nervously strangling the door knob, she remembered the last time she was there . . . with Janice, who actually wore a dress for her business meeting, trying to play by the rules, trying to get a University job and build her professional reputation. . . . But the cards were all stacked against her best friend from the start, she silently fumed.
They THOUGHT they could get Janice to take the blame, Mel's eyes narrowed as her anger swelled. But they made the grave mistake of using HER friend . . . not to mention being RUDE while doing it!
A furious Mel, now ready to teach Dr. Maveros a few lessons in manners, pushed the door wide open . . . until it struck something.
"OW!" Roberta yelped through her hands that shot up to her face as she staggered back from the vibrating door.
"Oh MY!" Mel blurted as she rushed into the office. "Are you all right??"
Sgt. Tomas quickly went to the secretary's side, pulling Roberta's hand away from her face to inspect her nose.
"Not broken," he announced with a smile, greatly relieving the southerner.
"She do that to you?" Roberta asked the Sergeant, glancing at his bandaged nose, making the southerner frown at the accusation.
"Oh no, Dr. Covington did this," he admitted with a chuckle, getting a stunned look from the southerner, which abruptly stopped his chuckling. "Uh . . . there are no hard feelings," he quickly informed Mel, who looked at Georg, who quickly looked away to admire the . . . furniture. Sighing, the southerner returned her attention to her victim.
"I'm so sorry Roberta," Mel gushed, eyeing the secretary's nose.
"It's ok," she replied with a wave and smiled. "Now what was I doing?" She asked looking around, scratching the back of her blond head. Mel's eyes widened, hoping she didn't cause the poor woman any memory loss.
"Oh yeah. The bloody MAIL!" She snapped her fingers. "Now what are you all here for? I don't have Dr. Maveros down for any appointments today," she asked curiously.
"We're here to see Dr. Maveros about some business," Mel informed her, with an air of professionalism.
"Without an appointment?" Roberta asked in amazement.
"I'm pretty sure she'll want to see us," Mel relayed with a polite smile.
"Miss Pappas," Roberta relayed to the southerner, paused, and turned to smile at the men. Taking the southern lady by the arm, Roberta pulled her aside.
"You were here before, right?" She asked quietly, then looked back at the men to find them curiously looking at her.
"Well, you KNOW she doesn't like people late for an appointment," Roberta explained.
"Yes Roberta, I'm well aware . . . "
"She is even WORSE with people that don't have appointments," Roberta interrupted, her eyebrows furrowed with concern.
"Please Roberta, tell her I'm here and would like to discuss some business with her," Mel informed her calmly.
"Are you SURE you want to do this?" Roberta asked.
What a question, Mel thought. "Yes Roberta," she answered.
"Ok," Roberta exhaled, having done all she could do, and went to her intercom.
"I've heard," Dr. Maveros responded into the phone receiver as she leaned back in her leather chair, looking out the window. The same window she had looked out of for the past twelve disappointing years as head of the Athens archeology department.
"No, I don't know where it is and it's not my problem," she responded, pulling a pencil from the collection contained in a German stein by her intercom. She sighed and started to irregularly tap the pencil's eraser on the desk in no particular rhythm.
"Look, I arranged the pickup, it's not my fault your men screwed it up," she noted, rolling her eyes.
"They only had to deal with three of them and I'm not counting that idiot husband of yours . . . yes, I'm aware of how much money was at stake here. I had a down payment on a new yacht. But we can't cry over. . . ."
"Dr. Maveros, Miss Pappas is here to see you," Roberta's voice on the intercom interrupted the gruff woman.
Dr. Maveros groaned with annoyance.
"Hold on," she spoke in the receiver with a sigh. Leaning to the corner of her desk, she pushed down the intercom lever. "Tell Miss Pappas, I don't see anyone without an appointment," Dr. Maveros barked harshly and let up the lever, shaking her head.
"Now what was I . . . NO, I don't know who this Miss Pappas is," Dr. Maveros answered with annoyance. "And I really don't. . . ."
"Dr. Maveros, Miss Pappas says she is not leaving until she sees you." Roberta's strained voice once again interrupted the doctor's phone conversation.
"Damn it!" Dr. Maveros groaned. "Hold on," she spoke into the receiver with a sigh and leaned to the corner of her desk, depressing the intercom lever again.
"Tell Miss Pappas, she is welcome to wait until HELL freezes over," she responded gruffly. "I'm busy and if she wants to see me, she should make a damn appointment!" Dr. Maveros blurted and released the lever.
"God, what is it with people today?" Dr. Maveros complained into the receiver. "Yeah, she was shot . . . I guess so . . . just the shoulder . . . why do you even. . . . Yes, she's the prime suspect just like. . . ."
"Dr. Maveros, Miss Pappas said she would like to know when you will be free," Roberta's voice uttered weakly, interrupting Dr. Maveros again. "She'd like to make an appointment, since she's pretty sure hell won't be freezing over any time soon."
"AGGGHHHH!" Dr. Maveros moaned, then heard laughing on the other end of the telephone. "This isn't funny Alice!" She blurted into the receiver and leaned over to her intercom.
"Tell Miss Pappas, I should be free uh. . . hmmmm. . . oh. . . there's an opening, put her down for the twelfth of NEVER," she added and released the lever.
"No, I DON'T know who Miss Pa . . . " the gruff woman spoke into the receiver.
"Damn . . . really?" Dr. Maveros faintly remembered, becoming concerned.
"Dr. Maveros, Miss Pappas says she'll be leaving now but considers you'll be missing out on a golden opportunity," Roberta's voice cracked uneasily.
"You want me to what?" Dr. Maveros blurted into the receiver uneasily. "So what if she does? I don't think we should risk . . . OK, ok, you've got a point," the gruff woman responded wearily and hung up the phone. She leaned forward for what she hoped would be the last time that afternoon and depressed the damn intercom lever.
"Send her in," Dr. Maveros sighed.
Chapter 43 - Small Talk
"Your mother is nice," Sustra said as they rode away from Amphipolis.
Sustra didn't realize it then, but that was the kind of exchange she would have with the Warrior Princess the entire time they rode. Sustra would say something and Xena would nod, shake her head no, grunt or moan depending on the kind of question, while staring at the road ahead. After a few hours, the Amazon finally gave up trying to talk to the preoccupied princess until night, when they set up camp.
"So, what do you want for dinner?" Sustra asked, getting a shrug from Xena.
"Oh," Sustra responded with a sigh and pulled out her own ration of left over rolls from the tavern and some meat.
As Xena built the fire, she glanced over to the Amazon eating her dinner.
"You want some?" She held a hunk of meat out. With an almost imperceptible motion, Xena shook her head no.
With the fire blazing away, Xena sat and started to sharpen her sword.
"You know, your mother is a great cook," Sustra relayed as she happily stuffed a roll in her mouth.
Xena nodded as she continued to hone the blade's edge.
"Aren't you going to eat?" Sustra asked.
Xena looked over to her steadfast friend. "I'm not hungry," she finally spoke, surprising the Amazon.
"But this is so GOOOOD," Sustra relayed, enthusiastically devouring another roll. The sight made Xena chuckle.
"Your appetite is almost as big as Gab . . . rielle's," Xena finished hesitantly, the small smile on her face now gone.
"Xena, if you are afraid to say her name, how are you going to talk to her?" Sustra blurted, making Xena sigh at her good point.
Sustra shook her head. Getting up, she walked over to Xena and sat next to her.
"OK. . . the basics . . . Gab-bri-elle," Sustra spoke slowly. "Go on, you can DO it," Sustra coached her friend, who looked blankly at her.
Sustra sighed with disappointment. The warrior was not even trying. "Come on Xena, I know you can . . . " Sustra encouraged her friend, who rolled her eyes. Eyes that quickly glared at the helpful Amazon's hand which was about to make the grave mistake of touching the Warrior Princess' cheeks to help form the name.
Sustra laughed uneasily and carefully withdrew her hand.
"Saying her name won't solve my problem, Sustra," Xena said with a sigh.
"I suppose not," Sustra muttered, disappointed.
"I need to talk to Gabrielle and explain what happened and ask her to understand," Xena stared into the fire.
"She'll understand, Xena," Sustra noted confidently.
"I could go in first, check things out," Sustra offered as they rode onto Amazon land.
"Not necessary," Xena informed her, feeling the eyes in the forest on her.
"You sure?" Sustra asked.
Xena glanced up to the trees but didn't see anything. However, bird calls were unmistakable. Their arrival was announced by Amazon lookouts to Amazon scouts. However, the bird calls did not identify they were friendly, alarming Sustra and Xena.
"Not particularly," Xena mentioned, with a sigh. "But it's too late now. . . . "
The two riders dismounted and placed their swords in the ground as was the custom. When they clasped their hands over their heads, three Amazons descended from the trees.
"Sustra . . . ," Trayla blurted, clasping the Amazon's arm as she eyed the Warrior Princess.
"Anything exciting happen while I was gone?" Sustra asked.
"Bayentes' army disbanded," Trayla informed her, glaring at the Warrior Princess, who brought that trouble to them.
Xena sighed and glanced out over the forest.
"Know all about that, anything new?" Sustra said with a smirk, surprising the Amazon.
"Queen Gabrielle is back, but I guess you already knew that too," Tralya informed them, staring at the silent warrior, whose blue gaze met hers.
"Yeah, Xena needs to talk with her," Sustra blurted.
"Can't she talk for herself?" Trayla asked with annoyance, making Sustra roll her eyes wearily.
"I need to talk to her," Xena said softly.
"Well, she's been in with the elders ever since she arrived," Trayla informed them.
"Why?" Sustra and Xena asked with concern.
"Last I checked, they had been discussing whether or not to hold council against you, Xena," she informed them casually.
"Gods," Sustra blurted. Xena cringed slightly, not out of concern for herself but for the bard.
"She's still healing. The elders are making her meet with them?" Sustra asked indignantly.
"Nobody makes Queen Gabrielle do anything she doesn't want to do," Trayla responded with a smirk. "It's a just a formality. Queen Gabrielle already declared you pardoned in Zemal," she said to the tall warrior with a shrug. "She didn't want the Amazons to waste their time holding formal hearings on an accident, despite the large number of Amazons in favor of them," Trayla explained casually.
Sustra glanced at the tall warrior who looked drained.
"You may walk among the Amazons freely," Trayla informed them, pulling the women's swords from the ground and handing them back.
"But you must still observe our customs and traditions," Trayla informed the tall warrior, who nodded as she sheathed her sword.
"She is our Queen, Xena. If she doesn't wish to see you, you won't get an audience," Trayla added to ensure Xena fully understood the conditions, and walked towards the village.
Before following Trayla, Xena briefly glanced at Sustra, who was startled to see so much worry revealed in the warrior's blue eyes.
"I have heard your arguments, Reya. I am still not going to change my mind," Gabrielle repeated for the fifth time.
"Queen Gabrielle, Amazon tradition dictates that. . . . "
"I am well AWARE of the Amazon traditions!" Gabrielle snapped testily, eyeing the group of five women. "But, the fact that Luna and Tynea are daughters of warriors does not mean they should BE warriors. They've both told me their hearts lie elsewhere. We should encourage them to follow their hearts, not ignore them," she relayed with conviction.
"We must not ignore their safety either, they should still learn warrior skills. . . for survival's sake," Reya added.
Gabrielle sighed at their good point.
"Their training should not dominate their time, they must be allowed to pursue their art," Gabrielle countered.
Ephiny grinned, more than happy to let Gabrielle deal with the Elders, who finally grumbled their reluctant agreement.
"Why don't we call it a day? I'm a little tired," Gabrielle noted and watched the women quickly leave the council hut in a low murmur.
"Ughhhhh," Gabrielle blurted and dropped her head in her hands, rubbing her eyes.
"You want to skip our walk?" Ephiny offered her tired queen.
"NO! I've got to move . . . these meetings are so tiring!" The Queen stood and stretched a little, evoking a grimace. Her back was still tender.
"You ok?" Ephiny asked with concern.
"Ephiny," Gabrielle responded wearily, rolling her eyes at the regent who seemed to ask that all the time. "I'm fine, well other than the fact these elders are doing their best to irritate me," Gabrielle muttered as they left for their walk.
"How do you do it? Day in and day out . . . ," Gabrielle moaned as they strolled towards the bard's favorite spot by a small pond. The sun was setting and the pond was a perfect place to watch it.
"Because it's worth it to see my home and people prosperous. I only fight with the elders when we disagree," Ephiny informed her.
"So that's every day, huh?" Gabrielle responded, making Ephiny chuckle.
"With you here, I think we'll actually make some progress with some of the issues with the Elders and the other Amazon nations," Ephiny relayed with a grin as the pond came into view.
"I'll do what I can while I'm here Ephiny, but I will be moving on when I'm better," Gabrielle informed the surprised Amazon as she reached out and touched a wild flower as she walked by.
"But . . . you're not settling down here?" Ephiny asked, gently holding Gabrielle's arm and stopping her Queen.
"I can't Ephiny," Gabrielle informed her softly, making the regent sigh with disappointment. "I need to keep moving . . . " Gabrielle added and started once again towards the pond.
"Running?" Ephiny challenged her, stopping Gabrielle who threw her a sharp look which was quickly replaced with a polite smile.
"Well, perhaps after my back gets a little better," Gabrielle informed her, not taking the bait.
Ephiny sighed in defeat. She tried everything she could think of to get Gabrielle to talk to her about Xena. But on that particular topic, her Queen spoke with no one. The reagent grew more concerned each day she pushed down her feelings. It couldn't be good to bottle her feelings up, she worried for her friend.
"The healer says you should be able to practice your staff soon," Ephiny offered a new topic.
"Yeah," Gabrielle sighed with relief. "I'll be glad to get back to exercising something other than my mouth," she added with a smirk, eyeing her staff and sitting on a felled log. Ephiny laughed.
"I've been thinking a lot about something Ephiny. I wanted to talk to you about it," Gabrielle informed her, a serious tone in her voice.
"Shoot," Ephiny responded, hoping Gabrielle would finally be confiding in her. Despite her efforts to put on a happy front around the Amazons, the regent knew her Queen. Gabrielle was still lost and hurting. As she sat, Ephiny heard her queen say something.
"What was that?" Ephiny asked with a warm smile.
"I want you to be queen," Gabrielle repeated. "So I plan on. . . . "
"What was that?" Ephiny asked again with narrowing eyes.
"You should have the mask. So I plan on. . . . "
"Ephiny, you've been acting queen for all this time and have to step down every time I decide to come back in town. . . ."
"Have I ONCE complained about that?"
"Of course you haven't, but it just isn't fair. I do not see myself here, ruling these Amazons for the rest of my life,"
"You have the Rite of Caste, Gabrielle. Terrais entrusted you with that honor. You can't just give it back," Ephiny blurted in a huff.
"I can, I've checked. I am doing a disservice to the Amazon nation by keeping their true ruler, YOU, from the real power," Gabrielle noted. "You deserve the mask," the bard added.
"I don't know where you are getting your facts Gabrielle, you have NEVER done the Amazons a disservice." Ephiny stood up with annoyance. "As your regent, it's my duty to tell you, you are NOT thinking straight, Gabrielle. And I LIKE the way things are!" Ephiny blurted and stormed off in a huff.
"Ephiny . . . . Ephiny!" Gabrielle called out with irritation, then groaned as she leaned over and dropped her head in her hands.
Hurricane Ephiny stormed back into the village wanting to hit someone. Considering it wasn't wise to pummel an injured Queen, she kept an eye out for candidates.
"Ephiny!" Sustra happily called to her, making the regent angrily turn towards her.
"WHAT!?!" Ephiny snapped, eyeing the lead candidate.
"Uh . . . hmmm . . . uh . . . ah " Sustra relayed thoughtfully, scratching the back of her head.
"You don't say," Ephiny remarked sarcastically.
"Xena's here," Sustra blurted. Ephiny's eyes widened and she glanced to pond where Gabrielle was.
"Where is she?" Ephiny asked coolly.
"Trayla is with her in my hut," Sustra noted. "She wants to see Gabrielle."
Chapter 44 - Dr. Maveros
Mel walked confidently to Dr. Maveros' door, her optimism buoyed by her first victory against the gruff woman - getting an audience with her. Now all she had to do was merely get her to admit everything in front of Sgt. Tomas. No problem, she told herself, desperately wanting to believe that.
Mel sighed uneasily as she looked over her shoulder at Sgt. Tomas and Georg, who followed closely behind. Both men looked at her and smiled with reassurance. Sure, easy for them to be confident, THEY don't have to get this woman to confess, Mel sighed and turned her attention to the door.
Pushing her glasses up, Mel started to knock. Before her knuckles met the door, the door abruptly opened, revealing the imposing Dr. Maveros. Her black outfit perfectly accentuated the doctor's dark mood at the moment, Mel noted as the doctor glared at the southerner's fist still frozen in the air, then the southerner's wide blue eyes.
A polite smile quickly covered Mel's stunned features as she retracted her hand from the air.
Not having noticed before, due to the short period Dr. Maveros tolerated her presence during her last visit, Mel noticed how the older woman's greying hair, which wrapped tightly in a bun, seemed to accentuate all the wrinkles on the woman's aged face. Especially the scowl and furrowed eyebrows that formed when she noticed the two men, Mel observed uneasily.
"Hel . . . . " Melinda attempted to greet the older woman, who interrupted the pleasantries.
"I don't like crowds," Dr. Maveros barked. "I'll only talk with YOU Miss Pappas," the older woman informed the startled southerner, glaring at the uncomfortable men.
Georg was relieved. He wasn't really needed in there anyway. The only reason he agreed to go with Miss Pappas was because Dr. Covington suggested it would improve his well being. Remembering her exact and much more colorful words, he cringed. Surely she couldn't blame him for getting kicked out of the old battle axe's office. Janice knew what Dr. Maveros was like, Georg attempted to reason away his growing concern.
Sgt. Tomas knew this was not good and looked to the southerner with a hint of panic in his eyes.
Mel smiled and glanced to the concerned men, nodding confidently. She wisely decided against trying to convince the professor she needed them in the meeting. The only reason she could think of was the truth and she expected that wouldn't go over very well.
As she followed Dr. Maveros into the office, Mel had no idea what she was going to do but then, that was no different from before, she considered as a small consolation.
Mel looked around the large office filled with dark wood book cases, leather furniture, a large world globe and various artifacts tastefully displayed around the office. Glancing out the window, Mel noted Dr. Maveros' third floor view of Athens was spectacular. What a wonderful place to work, she thought.
"You're a tenacious woman, Miss Pappas," Dr. Maveros informed her as she motioned the southerner to a chair in front of the large mahogany desk.
"I've been told that by Dr. Covington," Mel answered with a polite smile, noticing with interest the odd look that crossed Dr. Maveros' face.
"How is she?" Dr. Maveros asked nonchalantly, sitting in her leather chair and pulling a pencil from the stein by her intercom. Reclining in her chair, she started tapping the eraser absently on the desk top.
"Recovering," Mel informed her. "She's in the hospital now," she offered. "The bullet wound to her shoulder has taken her out of commission for a while," Mel added, noting the gruff woman relax a bit.
"Well, no one said archeology was an easy job," Dr. Maveros smirked. "Why are you here, Miss Pappas?" She asked, a little startled to see the tall woman stand.
"Yes, why am I here," Mel repeated, considering now would not be a good time to pass out. A confession without witnesses was worthless, Mel fretted, her mind racing for an option as she walked over to a barrister's book case. Until she came up with that option, she needed to stall.
"Nice furniture, Dr. Maveros, you have excellent and expensive taste," she mentioned as her hand traced over the wood appreciatively.
"It's functional," she offered getting up. "You want a drink?" Dr. Maveros offered as she went over to the large world globe, which conveniently rolled opened, revealing a wide selection of alcohol.
"No thank you," Mel noted with a polite smile. A drink right now would definitely not be wise, she considered, well aware of her tendency to talk even more when tipsy.
"You said something about a golden opportunity," Dr. Maveros mentioned as she grabbed a crystal container of scotch and unplugged the top.
"Yes . . . well," Mel mentioned weakly as she contemplated how to stall. Passing the end of the large mahogany desk, she noted the striking stein full of pencils next to the intercom. Well, that was something to talk about for oh, a minute or so, she considered with a sigh, about to ask about the handsome German creation.
She jumped when she heard Roberta's voice boom over the small box.
"Dr. Maveros, there are some men who are going to do some painting in the hallway. They wanted the offices to know they were out there," Roberta announced uneasily.
Dr. Maveros shook her head. "God, I hate that thing," she admitted as she poured her drink. "Modern convenience . . . my ass," she mumbled.
Mel eyed the intercom with an understanding smirk. The intercom was one of many pieces of office equipment that did not survive her very brief stint as a secretarial helper in her father's office. They never did give her proper training on how to operate that thing, she recalled with annoyance at the embarrassment she caused. How was SHE supposed to know how easily that lever jammed. . . .
Mel's eyes widened as she glanced once again at the pencils conveniently located next to the unsuspecting intercom. Pencils that always seemed to break around her, Mel grinned.
"Dr. Maveros?" Roberta's voice called out again.
"I should get rid of that thing," the older woman groaned.
"May I?" Mel asked motioning to the box, which would soon experience the same fate as her father's intercom did years ago.
"Knock yourself out," Dr. Maveros shrugged with the crystal decanter in hand, making Mel smile as she discreetly reached for a pencil.
Mel grinned as she leaned towards the box and depressed the lever.
"Thank you Roberta."
Hearing Miss Pappas' voice, the secretary looked up at the four men surrounding her desk with surprise.
"What's she doing?" Detective Pollus asked his mentor, who smiled and motioned for him to be quiet.
"Dr. Maveros and I have much to discuss and would appreciate you not interrupting us with the INTERCOM, unless it is urgent of course," Melinda relayed, hoping she understood. "Starting now," Mel added briskly and snapped the tip of the pencil between her fingers as she coughed.
Roberta sighed and leaned towards her intercom to respond but her hand was gently held by the older detective.
"That won't be necessary," Detective Agnu quickly noted. "She doesn't want to be distracted," he added with a grin.
Roberta didn't understand until she heard the southerner, who was now talking with Dr. Maveros.
The detectives smiled at each other. Georg and Sgt Tomas sighed with relief.
"Ooohhh. . . " Roberta blurted and sat back in her chair with a smirk.
"I'll come to the point, Dr. Maveros," Mel informed her confidently.
"About time," Dr. Maveros responded curtly and sipped her scotch.
"The golden opportunity involves 300 bars of the precious metal," Mel informed her. Dr. Maveros swallowed funny and started to cough.
"I thought you appreciated the direct approach," Mel stated with a pleasant smile and sat back in the leather chair.
"I do. But why would you think I would have an interest in 300 bars?" Dr. Maveros asked cautiously sipping her scotch again.
Melinda smiled at the older woman. "I thought you might want to salvage what you could from that nasty little fiasco in Zemal."
Dr. Maveros's eyes narrowed slightly.
"Salvage what?" She asked innocently.
"Oh, well, perhaps I was mistaken. I naturally assumed, since you were the one who gave Janice that dig in Zemal . . . . which was a perfectly brilliant plan," Mel blurted enthusiastically.
"A brilliant plan?" Dr. Maveros repeated guardedly, though she'd have to agree with the observant American.
"Of course. Well, up until my incredible fortune of stumbling onto the 300 bars before those men did. But no one ever said smuggling was a fair business," Mel responded with a smile and noticed the slight grimace on the doctor's face.
"I guess not," Dr. Maveros responded with a sigh as she poured herself another drink. "Tell me Miss Pappas, what exactly are you hoping to achieve from this meeting? If you have the gold, why would you need me?"
"I was hoping to establish a profitable and of course . . . discreet . . . business arrangement with someone who could handle the large amount of gold now in my possession. Although there is some pleasure in having 300 gold bars, you must agree, they are not exactly . . . portable," Mel relayed wearily to the attentive older woman, who actually smiled at the southerner's predicament.
"I would prefer something a little easier to spend as well. Being new to Greece, I had THOUGHT Dr. Covington could provide me with the kind of connections my family enjoyed in the United States," Mel sighed and shook her head.
Dr. Maveros' eyebrow rose with interest, contemplating the possible American opportunities.
"I'm afraid she doesn't have the connections I was hoping for, and of course with this current situation, you can understand my reluctance in asking her for help," Mel relayed with a shrug.
"Yes, of course. . . . I have to admit, I'm little surprised you sought out Janice first when you came to Greece," Dr. Maveros relayed, sitting at her desk with her drink.
"Well, I heard of the Covington's reputation and thought . . . ," Mel offered with a shrug.
"Oh, the Covingtons may have a reputation, but they're just small time crooks. A missing statue here, a missing vase there . . . all to finance their idiotic pursuit of those Xeno scrolls," she relayed with a laugh.
A strained smile crossed Mel's face.
"Covington actually tried to convince me to finance a dig in Galisar! She even wore a dress . . . as if THAT would prove she was serious professional," Dr. Maveros relayed with a hearty laugh, so amused she didn't notice the glare she received from the furious southerner.
"But how did you convince her to go to Zemal instead?" Mel asked with forced civility, a well-developed skill in every southern lady's arsenal, fortified by a dangerously polite smile.
"I was surprised actually, I didn't have to do much convincing. Pretty amazing timing, really. I needed a way to get the gold out of Athens and there she was," Dr. Maveros relayed with a shrug. "The perfect solution to my problem," the older woman said with an amused laugh. "If something went wrong, the police would jump at the chance to blame Janice - especially since she's made them look like fools more than once. I was right, wasn't I?" Dr. Maveros smiled with satisfaction at the southerner.
"Yes, Dr. Covington is their prime suspect," Melinda relayed, struggling with her desire to smack that content grin off the doctor's face.
"So . . . where do you have the 300 bars now, Miss Pappas?" Dr. Maveros asked casually.
"I wish I could tell you but . . . you understand . . . ," Mel offered with a smile.
"Yes . . . of course," Dr. Maveros nodded as she sat back in her chair, contemplating her first trip on her yacht.
"Tell me something Dr. Maveros, did you also arrange the . . . withdrawal . . . from the Greek treasury? Mel asked.
"I'm only involved in facilitating transactions, I leave that messy work to others," Dr Maveros waved her hand.
"Like who?" She asked nonchalantly.
"Miss Pappas, you wouldn't be thinking of cutting me out of future transactions now. . . would you?" Dr. Maveros asked with narrowing eyes.
"Of course not. . . . " Mel informed her nervously when the phone rang, which made the southerner jump.
Dr. Maveros glanced curiously at Mel and shook her head. "If it's not one interruption, it's another," she muttered as answered on the third ring.
"WHAT," Dr. Maveros barked, making Mel roll her eyes. Where DID she learn her manners, the disapproving southerner wondered.
"Oh," Dr. Maveros responded with a weary sigh and handed the receiver to the surprised southerner.
"It's a Mr. Terrence for you, he says its urgent overseas business," Dr. Maveros informed Miss Pappas, who stared numbly at her for a moment trying to place the name. She couldn't. Realizing the older archeologist was still holding out the receiver, she smiled and took it.
"H. . Hello?" She asked hesitantly as Dr. Maveros curiously watched the southerner.
"Miss Pappas, hold on for a second." The familiar voice of Sgt. Tomas made her relax slightly as she looked at the older woman and smiled apologetically for the delay.
"Mel?" The voice immediately filled the southerner with panic.
"Ah . . . uh . . . you really shouldn't be calling me here . . . ," she relayed desperately, glancing uneasily around the room. Her hand nervously strangled the receiver.
"And YOU really shouldn't have gotten that doctor to increase my medication . . . I just woke up!" Janice snapped with irritation. "I can't believe . . . "
"Uh . . . Could we discuss this later?" Mel said with annoyance. "I'm kind of BUSY right now," Mel added, looking up to Dr. Maveros with an uneasy smile.
"You know, I ought to just let you sit in there a little longer, I know how much you enjoy her company . . . " Janice threatened.
"Well I'm beginning to think that might be a more enjoyable alternative than listening to you . . . now if you don't mind," Mel responded with irritation, making Dr. Maveros eye her with amusement.
"Let me talk to her," Janice suggested playfully, making Mel start to wonder if that medication wasn't still affecting the archeologist.
"I most certainly will not, J . . ." Mel blurted then nervously forced a cough. "JACK."
"Hey . . . nice save," the archeologist admitted. "But not necessary. You did it, Mel. You really did it," Janice praised, making the southerner slowly smile, hesitant to believe it was over.
"The detectives heard everything. They should be knocking right about. . . . " Janice noted, and paused a moment "Now. . . ."
As Janice promised, there was knocking, prompting Mel's wide eyes to glance to the door.
"NOW what?" Dr. Maveros barked gruffly. Standing up with a groan, she marched to the door and opened it. "This had better be. . . ."
The two detectives stood at their door with their badges displayed. "Dr. Maveros you're under arrest for the smuggling of Greek Treasury gold. . . . " Detective Agnu informed her.
"I don't know what you're talking about," she snapped defensively.
"Well, thanks to your confession over that intercom, we think you'll have a hard time convincing the judge of that. If you please," Detective Agnu smiled and politely invited the older woman to join them.
Dr. Maveros turned abruptly and threw an angry glare at the vile piece of office equipment, then the southerner.
"Mel?" Janice's voice made Mel smile.
"Yes, Janice?" Mel asked with amusement, noticing with great satisfaction how Dr. Maveros' mouth dropped when she heard the younger archeologist's name.
"She doesn't look happy, does she?" Janice asked. Mel could picture the grin on Janice's face.
"No Janice. I'd have to say, she doesn't look happy at all," Mel replied loudly with a satisfied smirk.
"Good," Janice responded.
Chapter 45 - Getting to Yes
Xena paced in Sustra's hut as Trayla watched and shook her head. The Warrior Princess suddenly stopped pacing and looked at the door, alerting Trayla. It was a few moments before Trayla heard what caused Xena to stop.
"Can I see her?" Xena asked anxiously as Sustra entered.
"Ephiny went to find her," Sustra shrugged.
"Find her? Where is she?" Xena asked with concern.
"She goes for walks after the meetings with the Elders," Trayla relayed, to the relief of the Warrior Princess. "In the evening, she likes to go to the pond at sunset," she added.
"But sunset's OVER," Xena blurted with annoyance.
"Xena, you'll get your answer soon enough," Trayla informed her with a small smile that faded when Xena glared at her and started pacing again.
"Gabrielle?" Ephiny called to the Queen who still sat on the felled log.
"Are you still mad?" Gabrielle responded, continuing to look up to the early evening stars.
"Uh . . . oh . . . yeah," Ephiny relayed half-heartedly and sat down on the log.
"Oh," Gabrielle responded uneasily, eyeing her curiously.
"But I realize that sometimes . . . people do things because they think that it's best for another. . . ." Ephiny relayed hesitantly.
"Exactly," Gabrielle blurted with relief.
"Even though, initially, the other may not see it that way," Ephiny added, drawing another curious look from her Queen.
"Uh huh," Gabrielle blurted cautiously.
"But when time is taken to actually look at the reasons behind those actions, which seemed wrong or perhaps even hurtful at first, one can only draw the conclusion that the person acted with good intentions, and thus . . . ."
"She's here isn't she?" Gabrielle said softly, knowing the answer from the surprised look in Ephiny's face.
"How did you . . . ."
"Ephiny, you start talking like an elder when you're nervous about informing someone of something they might not want to hear," Gabrielle relayed with a sigh.
"I do not," Ephiny protested, evoking a disagreeing look from her Queen. "Do I?" Ephiny added curiously, getting a slight nod from Gabrielle.
"She wants to see you," Ephiny told the Queen, who sighed and looked out over the calm pond.
Xena paced as Sustra and Trayla played cards.
"Three Kings," Trayla announced.
"Damn," Sustra threw her cards down. "Kings," Sustra spat as Trayla collected her beads.
"Wish you had money," Trayla remarked with a smirk.
"Oh, shut up," Sustra muttered.
"Hey, don't tell me to shut up because you don't know how to play poker," Trayla countered.
"Why do you think I don't play with MONEY!" Sustra blurted.
Xena stopped and glared at the two, who looked up at the menacing warrior, smiled uneasily, and shut up.
Before Ephiny had a chance to walk in the hut, she was grabbed and yanked inside by the Warrior Princess.
"Can I see her?" Xena asked anxiously, as Trayla and Sustra stood up from the table.
"Not tonight," Ephiny relayed uneasily, feeling bad seeing the hopeful look drain away from the Warrior Princess as she let go of the regent.
"This is actually good. It gives me a chance to think more about what I'll say to her tomorrow . . . " Xena said with forced optimism, more for herself than the Amazons.
"Uh," Ephiny blurted, receiving a concerned look from the Warrior Princess. "When someone makes a decision based on emotions at that time and not objectively on the facts before them, that decision could be assumed to be the final decision, when actually, when time passes and objective heads prevail, the final decision may be entirely different."
Xena's eyes dropped, as did her heart.
"What in Tartarus is she talking about?" Trayla asked Sustra whose eyebrows furrowed.
"Gabrielle just said no," Sustra announced, eyeing a surprised Ephiny.
"How did you . . . ."
"Ephiny, when you have to relay bad news you suddenly become confusing," Sustra blurted. "Like an elder," Trayla added.
"I do not!" Ephiny relayed indignantly, receiving glares of disagreement from her Amazons. "Do I?" They both nodded.
"Ask again, tomorrow," Xena relayed softly, looking up at the regent, who became uneasy. "Please," Xena added with worried eyes.
"I will ask as many times as you want me to, but Xena, I don't know how long . . . ," Ephiny responded with uncomfortable honestly to her friend, who nodded.
"Ask tomorrow," Xena interrupted her friend. "And every tomorrow . . . until she says yes."
Tomorrow came and the regent entered the Queen's hut to escort her Queen to the council hut for their morning meeting with the elders.
"Hmmm?" Gabrielle brushed her hair one last time and placed the brush on the table.
"Xena's still here," Ephiny blurted, surprised to see no change in the bard's features as she got up from her chair.
"She still wants to speak with you," Ephiny relayed again.
"No," Gabrielle said simply and walked towards her staff next to the door.
"Wait . . . please," Ephiny called out with concern. "Gabrielle, shouldn't you give her a chance to. . . . " Ephiny relayed diplomatically.
"TO WHAT?" Gabrielle exploded, turning back to her regent. "Explain why she left? I KNOW why. To explain she's sorry? I KNOW she is. To explain she loves me? I KNOW she does. But knowing all that doesn't take away the HURT, Ephiny," Gabrielle informed her bitterly.
"I still HURT," Gabrielle added angrily and grabbed her staff as she marched out of the hut.
Ephiny sighed heavily. Shaking her head, she left the hut. As she walked to the council hut, the regent looked up to find the Warrior Princess standing alone at the edge of the village, looking at the council hut Gabrielle just entered. When Xena looked to Ephiny, the regent sighed and shook her head no. An answer the Warrior Princess already knew from the bard's brisk departure.
Ephiny glanced to the council hut with a frown, then back to the Warrior Princess, who was gone.
The next morning Ephiny arrived at Gabrielle's hut to escort her to the council hut for the morning meeting.
"Come in," Gabrielle said softly at the knock.
"Good Morning," Ephiny relayed with a smile for her friend.
"You know, I think we should move these council meetings to the afternoon," Gabrielle relayed with a yawn.
"Then they wouldn't have all day to argue . . . ," Ephiny relayed with a smirk.
"ANOTHER good reason to move it to the afternoon," Gabrielle relayed with a grin and stood up.
"Uh. . . Gabrielle," Ephiny relayed with and uneasy look.
"I won't get mad at you for asking," Gabrielle relayed, casually checking over her outfit.
Ephiny sighed with relief. "Xena has requested a meeting with you, what should I . . . ."
"No," Gabrielle relayed simply, making Ephiny's eyebrows furrow.
"But. . . " Ephiny blurted.
"But I WILL get mad if you argue with me about it," Gabrielle interrupted sternly, successfully discouraging further attempts by the regent to argue.
Ephiny sighed as she followed Gabrielle out of the hut. Glancing up to the edge of the village, Ephiny found the Warrior Princess, waiting. Once again, Ephiny shook her head no. Once again, the Warrior Princess left despondently.
At a small camp fire, the Warrior Princess sat alone, sharpening her sword. She glanced up to Argo, who nickered softly, bringing a small smile to the warrior's sad face. Her eyes glanced around the empty camp then back to Argo.
"I don't suppose you would want to tell me a story now, would you girl?" Xena asked, evoking a snort from her horse. Xena smirked and returned to sharpening her sword.
Hearing a noise in the forest, Xena abruptly stopped her stroke and eyed the forest hopefully. Realizing it wasn't who she was hoping for, she sighed and went back to her sharpening, shaking her head.
"Are we THAT obvious?" Sustra complained as they came into view, drawing an amused look from the Warrior Princess.
"You didn't even try to be quiet," Xena smirked. "To what do I owe this pleasure? Are you here to evict me from Amazon land?" Xena asked with a raised eyebrow.
"No. We're here to help you," Ephiny informed her as the Amazons took their seats by the fire.
"What makes you think I need your help?" Xena responded defensively, making Sustra and Trayla roll their eyes.
"Where are you sleeping tonight?" Ephiny countered with a thin smile, making Xena stare at her for a moment before she groaned and yielded that point.
"Xena . . . we tried asking in the morning," Ephiny relayed wearily.
"She said no," Sustra offered unnecessarily.
"We tried asking in the afternoon, considering her disposition would be better than in the morning," Ephiny relayed thoughtfully.
"She said no," Sustra added bluntly, making Xena annoyed at the helpful reminder.
"We tried asking her just after a meal, considering a full stomach would make her more receptive," Ephiny said with a shrug.
"She said . . . "
"I've GOT the POINT," Xena snapped, glaring at Sustra.
"It's obvious your plan to win her back is failing miserably," Sustra relayed nonchalantly.
"It's only BEEN two weeks . . . ," Xena relayed defensively. "All a part of my strategy," Xena relayed confidently with a smirk, causing the Amazons to look at each other hopefully.
"Which is . . . .what?" Ephiny asked curiously.
"Make her so sick of that question she'll say yes," Xena said with a satisfied smile.
"A long-range plan, no doubt," Trayla interjected making the Amazons chuckle.
"What?!?" Xena questioned the laughter.
"She's just more stubborn than you are, Xena," Ephiny relayed honestly.
"Well, what brilliant plan do you have?" Xena asked testily.
"A challenge," Sustra smiled.
"For a right to an audience," Trayla added as the Amazons looked to each other with enthusiasm for that obvious solution.
"You want me to challenge Gabrielle?" Xena asked incredulously.
"Exactly. It is a brilliant plan, isn't it?" Ephiny relayed with a big smile, evoking nods of agreement from her fellow Amazons.
"Are you NUTS?" She bolted from her seat. "I am NEVER going to lift a finger against her. NEVER!" Xena yelled at the three, who cringed.
"She would have a champion Xena," Sustra relayed. "Of course we'd let you . . . uh, you'd obviously win," Sustra relayed, clearing her throat.
"Oh . . . no . . . " Xena relayed warily. ". . . she would accept for herself, just to see me have to retract the challenge. She knows I'll never fight her," Xena informed them with a heavy sigh.
"If you are afraid of hurting her . . . you could use the staff," Trayla offered helpfully, evoking a resounding NO and annoyed glare from the Warrior Princess.
"Too bad you can't arm wrestle for it," Sustra joked, making Xena roll her eyes knowing Gabrielle would resent being bullied into a meeting. And that wouldn't help her case with the bard at all, she frowned. She needed to do something to convince her to see her, Xena considered, scratching her chin. Something that would impress the woman of many words. . . .
"Well, Xena would be requesting the terms of the challenge," Ephiny chuckled shaking her head, causing Xena to look up curiously at the regent.
"I CAN choose the type of challenge, can't I?" Xena repeated with hope as a plan formed.
"Yes . . . why?" Ephiny asked with narrowing eyes.
"What?" The three Amazons blurted when they saw the Warrior Princess grin with the perfect idea to impress her bard.
"I'll do it," Xena relayed firmly.
"Do WHAT?" Ephiny asked with growing concern.
"I'll challenge Gabrielle for the right to see her," Xena felt hope for the first time in ages.
"Doing WHAT?" The Amazons blurted with impatience.
Xena grinned with satisfaction and slowly looked at each anxious Amazon. "I'll debate her," she informed them triumphantly.
The Amazons stared silently at the Warrior Princess, contemplating the tall warrior's strategy.
"You know, I'm sure we could come up with a good plan if we just tried harder," Ephiny relayed turning to the other Amazons, who nodded thoughtfully.
"There's always kidnapping," Sustra offered with a shrug. "Works for me," Trayla quickly added.
"I'M SERIOUS!" Xena blurted angrily.
Chapter 46 - Worth the Risk
As the detectives escorted Dr. Maveros out of her office, Janice crossed her arms and sat on the corner of Roberta's desk, enjoying the parade. A satisfied grin emerged on her face when she received an angry glare from the gruff woman.
Georg and Sgt. Tomas looked at each other uneasily. "She gives me the creeps," Sgt. Tomas admitted to Georg who nodded in vigorous agreement.
Roberta smiled and pulled her flask of whisky from her desk drawer and held it up to the doctor. "Cheers!" She announced to Dr. Maveros as she left the office for what the secretary expected to be the last time. As she took a swig, the platinum blond noticed her own glare from the angry doctor. Shrugging, Roberta took another sip.
Janice looked back to Maveros' office, wondering where Mel was. She glanced down at the intercom when she heard what sounded like soft southern sobs. Alarmed, she immediately headed towards the office, almost bumping into Sgt. Tomas, who was more than ready to lend his broad shoulder.
"I'll only tell you this ONCE, Sergeant," Janice growled. "Back off," she snapped, with narrowing eyes.
Georg and Roberta looked at each other and grinned.
Sgt. Tomas glanced to Dr. Maveros' office then looked directly into the threatening green eyes and sighed, wisely lifting his hands in defeat. He had a feeling about them, but kept hoping he was wrong. How does she do it, he wondered, shaking his head in amazement as he watched the archeologist quickly go to the beautiful southerner's side.
Janice hesitantly opened the office door and found Mel at the window, weeping softly.
Tears usually evoked a strong desire in Janice to flee from another's emotional turmoil. However, strangely, those southern tears evoked an unfamiliar desire in the concerned archeologist. A desire to confront that turmoil and comfort the tall woman.
"Mel?" Janice asked uneasily as she entered the office.
Mel cleared her throat but didn't turn around. "This view is beautiful, don't you think," Mel's voice quivered as she struggled not to cry.
"Yes, it is," Janice offered softly, glancing uneasily to the intercom and grimaced. Picking up the box, she found its lever jammed. She frowned as she attempted to unjam it without success.
"Thanks to you, I'm free to enjoy things . . . like that view," Janice added absently as she now tried to release the lever with a paper clip. Something was jamming it in there really good, Janice considered with a furrowed brow.
Mel started to weep again.
"Mel," Janice blurted with concern, feeling helpless with the intercom in one hand and a paperclip in the other. In frustration, Janice quickly tossed the paperclip down and grabbed the cord and yanked hard. With a satisfied smirk, she eyed the frayed wire in her hand.
"What are they saying?" Georg asked Roberta.
"There's only static now, I don't hear anything," she complained. Georg and Sgt. Tomas sighed.
"Well, I'm going to a bar," Sgt. Tomas blurted with a smirk and left for the door. "You wanna come?" He asked the two. Georg shrugged and followed him. Roberta looked back at the office.
"Nah, you boys have fun," she smiled and waved as they left. Once the door shut, Roberta leaned towards her intercom box and listened. Not hearing anything she tapped on the side of the box and listened more.
"You must think me foolish to cry like this," Mel blurted and wiped her nose with her handkerchief, quickly glancing with embarrassment to her friend now at her side.
"No . . . never foolish, Melinda Pappas," Janice responded firmly, looking at the southerner's teary profile. Mel couldn't face Janice.
"You've been through hell," Janice offered. " . . . for me," Janice added with amazement, glancing out the window. "I can't believe how much hell . . . I'm sorry for getting you mixed up in all this" Janice sighed heavily, tensely staring out the window looking over the city with furrowed brow.
"You are my best friend Janice Covington," Melinda relayed firmly, dabbing her nose with the handkerchief. "I'm not sorry about that," she added.
Janice turned to face the southerner and regarded the tall woman curiously. A small smile emerged on archeologist's face.
"Thank you," Janice relayed simply, making the southerner smile. "So . . . " Janice said uneasily, suddenly feeling the need for lighter conversation. "You hungry? Battling foes must have worked up and appetite . . . I know a . . . " Janice blurted enthusiastically.
"Janice," Mel interrupted, rolling her eyes. "Don't you think you should be resting?" Mel asked with a glare.
"Rest? After what you just did? We should get out of here and celebrate," Janice offered with a grin as she reached out to take the southerner's elbow and encourage her out the room. Realizing what she was doing, Janice quickly retracted her hand, briefly staring uneasily at it before shoving it safely away in her pocket.
"Celebrate? Your nurse ESTHER was pretty adamant about you not doing anything too strenuous, Janice," Mel replied briskly, making Janice sigh.
"Jesus, Mel, I'm not talking about a dance marathon or anything," Janice mumbled with annoyance as she headed out the door first. "Just a dinner or something . . . ," Janice suggested with a shrug. ". . . I know this great place. I'm SURE you'll like it. . . ." Janice blurted to southerner she thought was following closely behind.
However, Mel had paused at the door, looking in Dr. Maveros' office.
'I actually did it,' Mel considered with amazement. A proud smile spread over her face. Even without a whip or a deadly right hook, she was actually able to help her best friend.
Her best friend, who was determined to celebrate and didn't have the common sense to rest, she considered with a furrowed brow. Turning to tell her best friend as much, her train of thought was immediately derailed when she saw the archeologist waiting for her with a warm smile. A genuine smile, not a smirk or grin . . . a genuinely warm smile.
That right there, made it worth the risk, Mel considered.
The two women stood in the hallway, sharing a silent moment as they gazed into each other's eyes, like that dreadful day in the tent after Janice discovered the broken vases. However, unlike that day, it was not sorrow they shared in their silence. Today, it was joy.
Mel's heart fluttered as that familiar devilish glint crept into those beautiful green eyes, immediately changing the southerner's mind about when she felt most vulnerable. Now, definitely now, she concluded as she swallowed hard and anxiously waited for the glint to manifest itself into words.
"Dr. Covington?" Detective Pollus called to her as he joined them in the hall.
"What," Janice blurted with annoyance as she reluctantly broke her gaze from the disappointed southerner and slowly turned to the young detective.
"The gold?" He asked urgently.
"Gold?" Janice asked.
"Dr. Covington, we need the gold," he responded with irritation.
"Why does everyone think I have the gold?" Janice offered, quickly glancing at the southerner and winking. Mel smiled considering if she couldn't smack him, a little mental torture would be appropriate.
"What?!? We KNOW you have the gold," he responded heatedly.
Janice sighed and walked out to the waiting area. Roberta looked up from her desk as she gathered her purse.
The detective groaned and looked at Mel, who shrugged, pushed her glasses up and smiled politely, evoking another groan from the detective.
"Going someplace?" Janice asked Roberta, who grinned.
"I'm taking the rest of the day off to celebrate," she informed the archeologist. "Thanks to Miss Pappas," she smiled at the southerner, who walked in the waiting area behind that rude detective. Roberta looked at the archeologist, who was, not surprisingly, also watching the tall southerner enter the waiting area.
Janice looked back to the secretary to find a sly grin on her face, causing her eyes to narrow. "We were going to celebrate this evening at Kidonia's, you want to come?" Janice asked with a thin smile.
"Janice . . . WE did not agree . . . " Mel said with annoyance.
"Oh no, I wouldn't want to be the third wheel . . . you kids have . . . ," Roberta quickly interjected.
"The GOLD!?!" Detective Pollus blurted in frustration.
"I can't believe I agreed to this," Mel muttered in amazement as Janice pulled out a chair for the tall southerner at a small table in the back. She sat with a sigh and glanced around the small family-owned restaurant. "You really should be resting, Janice," Mel scolded Janice, who smiled and nodded at the waitress to come over and take their orders.
"Mel, I'm fine . . . " Janice spoke softly into the southerner's ear. ". . . and you look great, by the way," Janice added casually before sitting across her in the archeologist's favorite restaurant in Athens.
As much as Mel wanted to be annoyed, she just couldn't stay annoyed with the archeologist for long. She thinks I look great, Mel mused with a small smile as she looked down at her dark blue dress. My, it IS warm in here, Mel noted silently feeling a bit flushed. She curiously looked around the candle lit restaurant at the patrons who wore sweaters including an older couple by the window. Oh, how romantic, she thought and smiled, as the older couple held hands and shared a dessert. . . .
"And I've got to eat anyway . . . to keep up my strength . . . " Janice casually explained to her, picking up the small menu on the table, drawing Mel's attention back to the table.
"Of course you need to eat, Janice," Mel agreed with a polite smile. About to explain that Janice could have just as easily eaten dinner at home, Mel noticed a pretty Greek woman intercept their waitress, tell her something, and come to wait on their table instead.
"Janice! It's been ages since you brought someone here. Where have you been hiding?" The dark-haired woman smiled broadly.
"Hello, Kidonia," Janice smiled.
"We wondered if you moved or something," Kidonia offered with a grin. Mel watched curiously as the woman signaled to the bar tender who quietly came over with a bottle of wine.
"Or something," Janice shrugged. "You don't need to go to any . . . ," Janice relayed as the bartender was about to open the wine.
"Nonsense, Janice. You are a friend . . . speaking of friends," Kidonia turned to the southerner staring at her and grinned.
"Kidonia, I'd like you to meet Melinda Pappas," Janice introduced the southerner with an easy smile, evoking a similar smile on the southerner's face.
"Mel, Kidonia is the owner of this fine establishment which happens to serve the best food in all of Greece," Janice relayed enthusiastically.
"Pleased to meet you," Mel smiled politely and pushed up her glasses.
Kidonia smiled back and casually placed a hand on Janice's shoulder. Mel's eyebrows furrowed slightly.
"Janice, you KNOW flattery will get you everywhere," she chuckled. Mel's eyebrows furrowed more.
"What will you ladies have? The usual?"
"Mel, do you trust me?" Janice asked with a grin.
Mel shifted slowly under the covers, releasing a pained moan at the sudden movement of her head. As she regained consciousness, her brain, apparently unhappy in its current confines, demanded freedom by pounding violently against her skull. She considered one way to appease the unhappy grey matter was to get a gun and shoot herself in the head. However, she quickly dismissed that plan knowing the noise would be entirely too loud.
Her eyes fluttered open but quickly shut, repulsed by the blinding light that washed through the window. That too hurt her head. With another moan, she reached over to the night stand and felt around for her alarm clock to disarm it. Although, she didn't remember setting it, she didn't remember going to bed either. Out of self-preservation, she sought out the clock, certain her head would explode if it went off.
Her searching hand knocked a pile of papers onto the floor. The thunderous crash evoked another pained moan from the southerner, whose hands immediately shot up and grabbed her aching head. After a few uncertain breaths, she slowly lower her hands from her skull when a new, bone-jarring noise suddenly attacked, pounding over and over, getting louder and louder . . . until it stopped. It stopped, she praised the Lord for the reprieve, which was cruelly short-lived. A helpless whimper escaped the southerner as a thunderous chink announced the continued aural torture by what seemed to be an eternal shriek. Then it stopped, just before someone shouted her name.
"Mel?" Janice asked softly, pausing with her hand on the doorknob as she eyed the southern lump.
Opening her eyes slowly, Mel focused on the source of the incredible noise. A familiar fuzzy figure stood with a glass in her hand, making Mel moan at the thought of another drink. She blinked a couple of times and looked at the blurry room. It wasn't her blurry room.
Bolting upright, Mel moaned again at the sudden movement.
"Drink this," Janice offered softly, sitting on the bed.
"SHHHHHhhhhh," Mel blurted then moaned at her own loudness. "I'm going to die," Mel whispered with concern.
"You're not going to die, Mel," Janice responded with a smirk, struggling not to be too amused at her friend's expense.
"I want to die, Janice," Mel moaned.
"Mel, listen to me," Janice informed her, taking the southerner's hand and placing it on the glass. "Drink this," Janice said firmly. "Don't stop until you're finished," she added, helping the glass up to her friends lips.
Mel reluctantly let the glass to her lips, but paused to look at her suspiciously.
"Trust me," Janice said with annoyance.
"That's what got me in this condition in the first place . . . "
"Honey, if you'll recall, you drank that bottle of ouzo willingly," Janice responded with a smirk, surprising Mel. "Just drink this, fast," Janice encouraged the southerner, who out of sheer desperation complied.
After gulping down the most vile tasting concoction she had ever put to her lips, she grimaced and looked at the archeologist who took the glass and set it down on the night stand.
"I drank a bottle of ouzo?" Mel asked uneasily.
"You tried," Janice clarified.
Mel bit her lip and looked around the room she didn't remember entering.
"And . . . how did I end up here?" Mel asked nonchalantly, nervously patting the wrinkles out of the sheets on the bed that wasn't hers and looked up to a grinning archeologist.
"I brought you here," Janice offered simply. "It was closer than your hotel, and I wasn't quite sure how to get you past the hotel staff. I didn't think you'd want . . . " Janice offered uneasily, finishing the thought with a shrug.
"Thank you," Mel said sincerely then became concerned. "Janice, how did you get me up the fire escape?" Mel asked.
"Carefully," Janice smirked.
"You brought me up?" Mel responded in amazement, evoking a small shrug from the archeologist. "Janice you shouldn't have with you're . . . Janice, where are my clothes?" She asked uneasily when she noticed she was wearing a man's shirt.
"Well . . . you got really sick," Janice informed her with a grimace, making Mel mortified.
"Oh Janice, I'm so sorry," Mel blurted.
"You really don't remember much, do you?" Janice asked softly.
"No . . . I . . . don't remember anything," Mel admitted and started to cry.
"Mel," Janice gently cupped the southerner's cheek, startling her. "Mel," Janice repeated softly, gaining the tall woman's undivided attention. "Except for you getting drunk, I didn't let anything else bad happen to you and you didn't do anything too embarrassing," Janice relayed with a warm smile, calming the sniffing southerner down.
Releasing her friend's cheek, to Mel's chagrin, Janice pulled a handkerchief from the night stand drawer and handed it to the teary woman.
"Thank you," Mel sighed and wiped her nose.
Looking into concerned green eyes, Mel's eyebrow's furrowed.
"What do you mean I didn't do anything too embarrassing?"
Chapter 47 - Another Battle
In the morning, Ephiny stood waiting to escort Gabrielle to the council hut. Gabrielle finished brushing her hair with a yawn.
"Is it me, or are you arriving earlier each day, Ephiny?" Gabrielle asked with another yawn.
"No. . . . same time," Ephiny shrugged. "Uh, Gabrielle?"
"No," the bard answered quickly, placing her brush on the table.
"Look, Ephiny. I know what you are going to say, considering you've been asking me the same question every day for the past two weeks. The answer is still no," Gabrielle relayed with a sigh, glancing up at her regent.
"Well, actually . . . I wasn't going to ask that question," Ephiny relayed, surprised to see the brief look of hurt in her Queen's eyes.
"Well, it's about time she gave up," Gabrielle quickly relayed, surprised her broken heart was still able to ache so much.
"She hasn't given up," Ephiny relayed, sparking the interest of her Queen.
"You just said . . . ."
"She wants to challenge you for the right to an audience," Ephiny relayed, making Gabrielle's mouth drop in disbelief.
"A challenge?" Gabrielle responded with annoyance. Another broken promise, the bard thought bitterly.
"Yes," Ephiny relayed uncomfortably. "Xena is waiting in the council hut with the elders to set the terms of the challenge."
"Sustra said she has her fighting skills back," Gabrielle said softly with a disappointed sigh. She shouldn't have been surprised the Warrior Princess would resort to a physical confrontation, the bard thought sadly. She knew how Xena defined her self-worth by her skills. Without them, she was lost and not even her love was enough to help her, Gabrielle considered as another ache resurfaced since the arrival of the Warrior Princess.
"I would be honored to be your champion," Ephiny offered, although not knowing what she'd do if her Queen took her up on that offer. Although, the challenge planned was one she thought she'd actually have a fighting chance of winning against the Warrior Princess.
"I'll fight my own battles, Ephiny," Gabrielle responded firmly. "But thank you," she added with a weak smile as Ephiny sighed with relief.
Entering the hut, Gabrielle was surprised by the unusually large crowd, which looked anxiously towards her. The hut was packed with people surrounding the council table, lining the thatched walls five people deep. Gabrielle's eyes narrowed and glared at Ephiny who shrugged.
Like the village, this crowd was decisively split down the middle. Those angry at the Warrior Princess for hurting their queen and those who had sympathy for her. The angry crowd stood together at the North end of the hut, Gabrielle noticed, seeing Eponin and Solari with them. The sympathetic crowd was on the South side with Xena.
Gabrielle didn't need to seek out the Warrior Princess. She knew exactly where the tall warrior stood, despite her standing in the back of the crowd. Her presence was unmistakable. Her presence was . . . magnetic, the bard considered as she shut her eyes for a brief moment. It was hard enough feeling her watching from a distance, but now she was going to have face Xena because of this . . . challenge, the bard took a deep, disappointed breath and opened her eyes.
"I am so pleased Amazon politics have become so popular," Gabrielle remarked loudly as walked to her chair at the council table. "It's truly heartening to know both young and old are taking an active interest in council matters and the molding of our Nation."
Gabrielle eyed the crowd with a warm smile, evoking guilty looks from those young and old, who were just there to see the fireworks between their Queen and the Warrior Princess.
"Are you sure you want to do this?" Sustra whispered into Xena's ear as the two watched the Queen's skillful manipulation of the crowd. Xena sighed and nodded weakly as she began to question her sanity for concocting this plan, let alone deciding to go ahead with it.
"It has come to my attention that Xena of Amphipolis would like to challenge me for the right to an audience. The elders and I will listen to her terms. . . ."
The crowd parted, making way for the Warrior Princess to approach the queen. Xena took a deep breath and walked confidently towards the table with Sustra following closely behind.
". . . after the scheduled business is finished," Gabrielle added as the Warrior Princess stepped out from the crowd, evoking groans from the Amazons gathered.
A surprised Xena stopped abruptly, almost making Sustra collide with her. Xena glanced around uneasily as all eyes focused on her. She looked at Gabrielle, who briefly glanced at her before proceeding with the day's business.
Xena's heart dropped. She had feared the day when she would see hatred or fear in those green eyes. Yet, she never expected how much a look of indifference would crush her.
'What did you expect,' Xena silently scolded herself. 'Did you expect the bard to just jump up and throw her arms around you when you decided to return,' Xena asked herself as she clenched her jaw. The bard was still hurting, Xena could see, despite the impressive wall that Gabrielle had successfully constructed around her heart. No doubt another lesson she learned well from the Warrior Princess. But walls can be broken down, Gabrielle, Xena promised. You taught me that. . . .
With a deep breath, Xena of Amphipolis waited.
After the day's business was finally finished, Xena counted seven issues discussed. Four of the issues Gabrielle resolved quickly and fairly, two she argued to an impasse with the elders but got agreement to table the issues until another meeting. And one issue, she lost. However, Xena questioned that lost, noticing the bard did not argue with the same passion as she did for the other issues. Probably a strategic loss, the warrior considered wearily.
Ok, this was not one of her better ideas, she considered. But she did have the passion and a powerful motivation to win, she considered hopefully. Who was she kidding, she sighed as hope fled. She'd be slaughtered by the bard in a debate, she considered, lose the chance to speak with her on Gabrielle's terms, the only terms by which Xena would ever have a chance of winning her back, and perhaps . . . lose the bard forever.
"Now, for the final business of the day, Xena of Amphipolis, please approach the council," Gabrielle announced loudly, rolling her eyes when she saw the heads of more than a few Amazon heads pop up from a drowsy state, including some council members.
Xena felt her heart pound.
"As is allowed by Amazon law, a person may request the audience of the Queen. If refused, that person may issue a challenge for that right. Xena, do you wish to challenge the thrown for that right?" Cold green eyes locked onto saddened blues.
"A challenge is not my wish . . . it is my only option," Xena informed her softly, making cold green gaze melt to the table.
"So be it," the Queen responded softly. "As Amazon law allows, I may have a champion . . . ," Gabrielle announced, prompting a dozen angry Amazons, including Eponin and Solari, to step forward. Xena glanced at them and sighed.
"However, I will fight my own battles," Gabrielle added.
"But Queen Gabrielle, you are still healing," Eponin interjected with concern, glaring at the Warrior Princess whose eyes narrowed.
"Eponin, your concern is appreciated but I have made my mind up," Gabrielle responded firmly, leaving no room for argument.
Glancing over to the Warrior Princess to see how she would respond to that decision, Gabrielle was disturbed to find the Warrior Princess actually eyeing her with a small grin. Gabrielle's heart dropped. She said she would never lift a finger against me, Gabrielle remembered the promise.
Xena's grin quickly dissolved when she noticed the hurt look she brought to the bard's face.
"As the law states," Gabrielle announced, staring at the table. "You are allowed to choose the weapon for the challenge," Gabrielle relayed with a disappointed sigh and looked up to Warrior Princess. "What weapon do you choose, Xena," Gabrielle asked sadly.
"I choose words," Xena relayed softly, immediately concerned when Gabrielle's eyebrows furrow angrily.
"Swords!?!" The bard snapped.
"No!" Xena responded with alarm. "WORDS," she repeated clearly, making the crowd murmur and some chuckle.
"I challenge you to a battle of words, Gabrielle . . . a debate," Xena relayed with a satisfied grin at the stunned look on Gabrielle's face. Her grin faded when more Amazons started to laugh. A cold look at the vocal group promptly silenced the mirth.
The stunned bard stared at the table.
"Do you accept my terms?" Xena asked, making Gabrielle look around uneasily, seeing Ephiny nod slightly, with encouragement.
"You want to debate me . . . ," Gabrielle asked in an amazed whisper as her pulse raced.
"I'd rather battle a three-headed hydra bare handed, Gabrielle," Xena offered with annoyance. "My chances of winning would be better . . . ," Xena added wearily, obtaining nods of agreement from both sympathetic and angry Amazons.
"Then . . . why?" Gabrielle asked softly, dropping her gaze back to the table as she blinked back tears.
"I don't know any other way to get you to listen . . . ," Xena said with a trace of helplessness that surprised the angry Amazons. Gabrielle swallowed hard, unable to look her warrior in the eye . . . the warrior that tore at her fragile heart.
"Will you accept my terms?" Xena asked again, putting a stop to the unbearable moment of silence.
All watched anxiously as Gabrielle slowly stood. As she grabbed her staff, her troubled gaze swept the hut then focused on the source of her trouble, who looked at her uneasily. Her gaze fell to the ground and she walked towards the door.
Xena looked to Ephiny with concern that bordered panic.
"Gabrielle?" Ephiny called to her Queen.
"I've changed my mind about the challenge," Gabrielle turned to Ephiny, who looked back at a hopeful Warrior Princess.
"You can be my champion, Ephiny," Gabrielle said simply and left the shocked group.
Gabrielle sat in her hut that night, like other nights, staring at the shadows dancing on the thatched walls as the candles flickered. She watched for hours, remembering the good, which was oh so very good, and the bad, which was so incredibly bad.
What did it all boil down to, she wondered, sighing heavily.
Risk, she concluded. Relationships all came down to risk. Risking something bad happening against something good.
At one time she believed in that risk, she considered. But she didn't understand the full story, the bard smirked at the irony. For better or worse, she pompously preached to the warrior. 'What a hypocrite,' she silently berated herself. When it came down to it, neither of them could deal with the 'worse' part, she concluded sadly.
The warrior couldn't deal with the physical risk their relationship brought the bard, Gabrielle knew well. She always knew how Xena would react to danger. Xena would try to protect her. However, the bard never imagined that any action borne out of love could hurt so deeply.
Gabrielle now understood the risk their relationship brought her. Her need for the warrior to be at her side was overwhelming. When she was the most frightened in her life and needed the warrior the most, the bard was left . . . alone.
She had always relied on the warrior to be there. She had a faith that as long as they were together, they could overcome anything. But she was left alone. The ache of that frightening loneliness was not an ache she ever wanted to experience again.
And now, the warrior was back.
Apparently Xena's concern about physical risk was gone, Gabrielle considered, now that Bayentes and his army were now history and the Warrior Princess' fighting skills were back. But what happens next time . . . when the warrior becomes concerned about the threats again, she wondered. What would happen to her heart if Xena decided it was best to leave again . . . was it worth the risk?
Standing up, the bard looked at the hut door. Taking a deep breath, she walked to her staff and left the dancing shadows alone in the hut.
Chapter 48 - Back to Zemal
"You could have slept in," Janice informed the southerner, as she squinted and adjusted the sun visor on the passenger's side of the supply truck again.
"And miss out on a chance to go to Zemal?" Mel responded dryly, once again tossed around when Janice drove over a bump. "Would you please not aim for the boulders and canyons in the road, Janice," Mel remarked testily, pushing her sunglasses up on her nose and sighed.
"Dr. Covington, you are deriving entirely too much pleasure from my misery," Mel snapped.
"Yeah," Janice giggled, evoking an annoyed moan from the southerner who adjusted her large brimmed bonnet. "Might teach you not to participate in a bet that involves alcohol," Janice relayed with a smirk, looking in the side view mirror at the detectives following them in their black car.
"Janice, you tell me right now what happened!" Mel demanded with annoyance.
"Nothing bad," Janice offered.
"You KNOW that but how do I know if I don't know," Mel responded with irritation, then sighed heavily when Janice glanced at her with a grin. "You know what I mean," Mel snapped.
Janice looked at her with amusement.
"You are cruel, Janice Covington," Mel announced dramatically with a heavy sigh.
"Yup," Janice agreed with a smile.
As they got out of the truck in Zemal, Janice noticed Mel tense up as she glanced over the site, eyeing the tents.
"You ok?" Janice asked as she put her fedora on and walked to the southerner's side, glancing over to the black car that pulled up behind the truck.
"I know there's no reason to be nervous but . . . " Mel said apologetically and sighed.
"Do you have knots in your stomach, too?" Janice asked.
"Yes," Mel said with relief that the archeologist knew what she was feeling.
"Could still be the hangover," Janice smirked, evoking a hurt look from the southerner.
"Sorry," Janice quickly responded, wanting to kick herself for continuing to be an ass around this woman who had done nothing but prove herself a friend over and over again. A woman, who deserved much more than the archeologist could possibly give her. The LEAST she could do was try to be a bit more sympathetic to her 'condition,' Janice considered, berating herself.
"Mel, once we give the gold back to the detectives, you'll never see this place again," she informed the southerner, who turned to the archeologist with a small smile of appreciation.
"How's your shoulder?" Mel asked, pushing up her sunglasses.
"Good," Janice responded and smiled before a grimace replaced it. The detectives joined them.
"Where is it?" Detective Pollus blurted impatiently.
"It might be hard to get it from the temple to. . . ." Janice offered, surprising Mel.
"Where's the temple?" He barked anxiously. Janice shrugged and pointed to the path towards the temple, where Pollis and Agnu immediately departed.
As the two women watch the men disappear down the path, Mel looked to Janice.
"It's not in the temple is it?" Mel asked, smiling when that devilish glint flickered in those green eyes.
Janice proceeded to the back of the supply truck with Mel following her closely, eager to see what three-hundred bars of gold looked like.
"It's here," Janice opened the back doors.
With the doors wide open and the back of the truck exposed, Mel's eyebrows furrowed with concern.
"Uh, Janice? It's empty," Mel responded uneasily.
Janice smirked and climbed into the back and removed a few planks from the false wall at the front of the truck, making Mel's mouth drop at the sight of the troublesome gold.
"Oh MY!" Mel blurted, pushing up her sunglasses.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" Janice asked, pulling out a heavy brick and briefly admiring it before lugging it over to Mel. "Go on," Janice grinned, encouraging the reluctant southerner, to take it. She almost dropped the heavier than expected brick.
"Goodness, it isn't portable, is it?" Mel blurted with a big smile as she held the heavy bar in both hands.
"For not knowing what you were talking about, Miss Pappas, you sounded very convincing, when you told Dr. Maveros that," Janice grinned. "You could be a politician," she added as she pulled another brick from the compartment.
"I heard it was heavy, but I had no idea . . . ," Mel responded with a bit of pride and amazement. "Hey, your shoulder!" She scolded Janice, who shook her head.
"Mel, I'm fine . . . You know, were also right about it not being easy to spend, at least not in this form," Janice offered as she started to stack the bricks on the floor.
"What do you mean?" Mel asked curiously as she climbed into the back to help the stubborn archeologist.
"Smugglers end up melting bricks because the brick has markings that are traceable." Janice pointed to the serial numbers and seals stamped onto the gold. Mel held the side of her sunglasses as she peeked over them to squint at the markings.
Janice sighed as she stared at the brick.
"What?" Mel asked with concern.
"I could get one hell of a steak dinner with this," she offered with a grin.
"You could get a herd and the land to keep them on with that, Janice," Mel responded with amusement.
"Hmmm, settle down and raise a herd of steaks," Janice joked, making Mel shake her head. "I think I'd just rather have the gold and buy my dinners," Janice offered as she pulled another brick from the truck wall.
"Janice?" Mel asked hesitantly as she reached for a brick.
"Hmmmm?" Janice eyed her as she took a breather. Taking her fedora off, she wiped the sweat off her brow and sat against a side wall.
"If I wasn't here . . ., would you keep the gold?" Mel asked nervously, surprising archeologist.
"I'll tell you, it would be very tempting, Mel," Janice informed her honestly, looking at the beautiful bricks. "But no," she shook her head. "It's not mine," Janice responded truthfully.
"But . . . you've smuggled artifacts that belong to the government," Mel countered with an uneasy curiosity as she sat next to the archeologist.
"Yeah," Janice sighed, tossing her fedora in her hands. "But I found those artifacts. Harry used to tell me, they wouldn't even know they were there if it wasn't for our sweat digging the damn things out of the God damn ground," she offered and sighed.
Mel had to smile, knowing that besides his philosophy on those legal issues, Janice also inherited her father's . . . vocabulary.
"Guess I didn't think there was anything wrong with it . . . But I'm finished with that, Mel," Janice promised her.
Mel nodded with a small smile.
"You know . . . ," Mel relayed as she eyed the gold. "They'll be mad when they find out they didn't need to leave Athens," Mel offered.
"Yeah," Janice grinned at the southerner, who looked at her friend and chuckled.
Mel sighed with relief as they watched the supply truck and black car finally leave the site with the gold. "I am really glad they have it now," Mel relayed to Janice, who smiled and glanced to the hills where the sun was starting to set.
"We better hurry up, or we'll be taking the tents down in the dark," Janice relayed as she started to briskly walk to the tents. "As I recall, they are anchored down pretty securely and will probably take some extra time . . . ," Janice called back to the southerner and smirked.
"Janice," Mel called out to the shorter woman, who stopped. Mel quickly caught up to her and looked into the questioning green eyes. Mel's mouth opened but nothing came out.
"What?" Janice asked softly.
"Uh . . . You know," Mel smiled uneasily and cleared her throat. "It has already been a busy day and well, it is getting dark and uh . . . it WILL take lots of time to pack the tents and equipment and it is a long way to drive to Athens and . . . well . . . ," Mel blurted pushing up her glasses.
"You want to stay the night?" Janice asked curiously.
"Why not?" Mel asked with a shrug. "The tents are already up and we have some supplies. . . ."
"Here?" Janice asked incredulously, looking around the site.
"Well, I understand you want to go back. You probably have lots of . . . things . . . to do," Mel relayed with a disappointed sigh and started to walk towards the tents.
"NO. . . . I mean . . . Mel?" Janice countered quickly, catching up to the long-legged southerner, who stopped. "After everything . . . I thought you'd want to leave here as soon as possible," Janice relayed.
"I thought I would too, but . . . It is beautiful here and . . . there isn't anymore gold or any gunmen here to worry about," Mel looked around the camp, then focused on the archeologist. "I can't really explain it, but I feel . . . comfortable . . . you know?" Mel asked, hoping Janice understood.
Janice looked around the site and back to the expectant southerner. Janice nodded as a small smile emerged. Mel beamed.
Chapter 49 - Not too Late
Gabrielle stood by the pond, gazing at the stars above. Her eyes lowered to the other side of the still water, to the distant campfire that had burned every night in the same spot for over two weeks. On some nights, when the wind was just right, she could hear the sound of the warrior's stone stroking against the blade.
Tonight, she didn't hear the stone.
With a disappointed sigh, she sat on a felled log and looked up. She longed for the day of not so long ago, when she could enjoy the night sky with her warrior and talk. But so much had happened since then, she exhaled wearily, looking down at the quiet campfire.
Words, which had been her trusted allies, they too, deserted her.
All she had now was emotion. A melee of feelings which battled each other to a tormenting standstill. A chaotic jumble she could no more articulate than a newborn could request her mother's milk.
If only she could hate her.
If only she could forget the hurt.
If only she knew what to do.
Sustra sat by Xena's fire, leaning against a boulder as she read from one of the many scrolls she and Ephiny brought.
"Ok, in a debate, one of you will be pro, or FOR something, and one of you will be con, or AGAINST something," Sustra carefully explained to Ephiny and Xena. Sustra looked up to the warriors to find them both glaring at her impatiently.
"Hey, you guys told me to 'start from the beginning and don't leave anything out,' remember?" Sustra responded defensively.
Xena shook her head and stated to pace, wondering if Gabrielle would even attend the debate.
"We know that pro - con thing. You can skip the beginning," Ephiny remarked testily as she stood and stretched her legs. Being cooped up in a council hut was taking its toll on the regent's muscles. She hadn't had the time to get good sparing practice in and now she was preparing for this ridiculous debate that should never have been needed in the first place, she sighed heavily. A regent's work is never done.
"Fine," Sustra grumbled. "What's your topic?" Sustra asked Xena who frowned.
"Well, I was going to argue why Gabrielle should be with me," Xena sighed. "But now that YOU are debating me . . . ," she added, eyeing the regent.
"I still think that's a good topic," Sustra relayed with a shrug.
"I'll do the PRO," Ephiny offered. "I'm good at PRO," she added.
"That's MY side," Xena blurted with annoyance. "And you are not supposed to be good," she added with a glare.
"Oh yeah," Ephiny relayed with a sigh.
"OK then," Sustra cleared her throat and continued reading the scroll. "The first part of the debate is the opening argument, you each make an argument that lasts an equal amount of time. It says here the time can be negotiated. How long do you think you'll need?"
Ephiny and Xena looked at each other and both shrugged.
"One or two minutes," Xena offered.
"Two minutes!?!" Ephiny responded with amazement.
"Too long?" Xena asked with concern, glancing to Sustra who rolled her eyes.
"Xena you need to lay out your case, point by point, structure your arguments that would convince the CON side to be PRO," Ephiny informed her. "HOW can you possibly do that in two minutes?" Ephiny scoffed at an annoyed Warrior Princess.
"I have something to say and I'll say it," Xena responded coolly, making Sustra glance uneasily between the two warriors who now stood face to face. "It's NOT going to take longer than two minutes," Xena snapped.
"Xena, two minutes may be more than enough time for a threat," Ephiny smirked. "But you have to SWAY the judges to your side with compelling arguments," Ephiny argued.
"LOOK, if you can't make your opening argument in less than two minutes, that's YOUR problem," Xena countered, poking the Amazon in the shoulder.
"Don't poke me," Ephiny snapped, poking the warrior back.
"I'll poke you if I want to," Xena poked her again, making the Amazon lose her temper and throw a punch which was easily dodged by the Warrior Princess, who countered with a punch to the stomach.
Ephiny exhaled sharply and crumbled to her knees clutching her stomach.
"Fine . . . two minutes," Ephiny wheezed.
Still without answers, Gabrielle sighed and reached for her staff. As she stood and started to head back to the village, her head abruptly snapped towards the distant campfire across the now rippling pond. The breeze that caused the ripples brought with it the disturbing sounds of clashing swords.
The Warrior Princess shook her head wearily and blocked the Amazon's lunge and waited for her next attack.
"There's got to be more than just an opening argument," Ephiny blurted angrily and leaned into the next thrust.
"WHY?" Xena snapped and blocked the Amazon's blade, which quickly recovered and sliced through the air on a path towards the Warrior Princess' head. "There's nothing more to say," Xena countered stubbornly and met the blow with her sword as she shoved the Amazon back with her foot against Ephiny's stomach.
"Oooff," Ephiny exhaled as she stumbled back, almost falling to the ground. "But that's NOT a debate!" She argued and gripped her sword tightly as she took angry steps towards the obstinate warrior.
Xena sighed and readied herself for another blow.
Ephiny swung her blade towards the tall warrior but abruptly stopped in mid-stroke, surprising Xena and Sustra. "Ugh oh," Ephiny quickly muttered and stood as nonchalantly as possible with her sword tucked under her arm.
"What's going on?" Gabrielle asked as she stepped into camp, making Xena's heart leap for joy.
She's here, she's here, she's here!
Don't blow it, Xena thought to herself, noticing the bard waiting for an answer. 'Now what was the bard's question?' she wondered uneasily.
"Practicing debating," Sustra answered with a big smile as she stood up.
Xena's eyebrows furrowed as she glanced at the helpful Amazon then down to the sword in her hand. Xena sighed heavily.
"I see," Gabrielle relayed. "I guess it's a good thing I chose a champion. I'm not sure I'd be up for this kind of debating," she added with a polite smile and a brief glance at unhappy Warrior Princess.
'Ugh,' the miserable warrior silently moaned, considering she was already blowing it without having said a single word.
"We just had a few disagreements on how to debate," Ephiny offered with a sheepish smile, making Xena glare at her. There wouldn't have been any disagreements if Ephiny had just agreed with her.
"Oh," Gabrielle responded with an understanding nod. "You do realize it's late and there are Amazons trying to sleep," she offered casually, motioning to the village with her head.
"Uh . . . I guess we should probably continue going over the rules tomorrow, OK Xena?" Ephiny asked the tall warrior who snarled a smile and rolled her eyes.
"Speaking of sleep . . . ," Ephiny quickly added. "I'm tired and will be heading back now," Ephiny announced as she sheathed her sword and walked past Sustra who was still standing and smiling.
"You're tired too," Ephiny told the smiling Sustra and grabbed her arm.
"Oh . . . yes I am," Sustra responded with a convenient yawn and grinned as the two Amazons quickly left the Warrior Princess and their Queen alone.
An uneasy Xena watched the Amazons leave then focused on Gabrielle, who gazed at the sword in the warrior's hand.
"You can put that away. I'm not interested in debating," the bard informed the warrior, who cringed slightly and sheathed her sword.
A painful silence fell between them.
"There are a lot of rules and conditions," Xena offered, looking away from the bard uneasily.
Gabrielle sighed, allowing the silence to return.
"Harder than I thought . . . ," Xena admitted softly, glancing up to the bard.
Gabrielle opened her mouth then a pained look crossed her face. She sighed wearily and closed her mouth, disappointing both of them.
"You don't know what to say . . . ," Xena whispered as the disturbing revelation sank in.
The lost bard looked at her with agony in her eyes.
Xena took a step towards her bard wanting to hold her, but stopped. "I don't know what to say either," she uneasily informed the bard, whose eyes closed tightly. Tears escaped.
"Gabrielle, you know I love you . . . ," Xena whispered taking another small step.
The bard nodded weakly, her eyes still shut.
"And you love me . . . ," Xena added uneasily, sighing with relief when the bard nodded again.
"I thought I could protect you by giving that up . . . . " Xena informed her, taking another step.
"I know," Gabrielle spoke weakly, her eyes still shut. Her head resting against her staff. "I just never thought . . . . " Gabrielle's voice trailed off.
"Never thought . . . what," Xena asked, softly encouraging her bard.
Gabrielle took a deep breath and stood straight, wiping her eyes. "It's getting a little late. . . ." Gabrielle offered uneasily, glancing back at the village, bringing panic to the Warrior Princess as she felt her bard slipping away.
"It's not too late," Xena countered quickly. Their eyes locked and Xena took an uneasy breath. "Is it?" She ventured weakly.
Gabrielle opened her mouth and took a pained breath. "I don't know," she answered with a lost look.
"Well, I do, Gabrielle. It's NOT too late," Xena informed her firmly and took the remaining steps to close the distance between them and stopped inches from her.
"I won't let it be too late," the warrior promised the uncertain young woman before reaching out and pulling the stiff bard in for a desperate embrace.
"I won't let it be . . . ," Xena whispered into the strawberry blond hair, feeling the bard's tears freely roll down against her chest.
"WE won't let it be . . . ," Xena corrected herself.
Gabrielle let her staff fall as she finally reached for the comfort she had ached for and could only receive in her warrior's arms.
EPILOGUE - Janice and Mel
Mel lit the kerosene lantern with a smile on her face. She stood, glancing around the empty tent as she blew out the match. The southern lady knew her family would think her odd, even odder than usual, that she could think of calling the large canvas structure home.
But for the first time, she felt she really belonged someplace. For the first time she felt someone needed her, even if that someone didn't know it most of the time, Mel smiled. If that wasn't what a home was, Mel wasn't sure what was.
Mel lifted up the lantern from the table and placed it between the cots on the small table. Sitting down on her cot which creaked slightly, she sighed with contentment.
"Well the campfire is out," Janice entered the tent. "Sorry about the meal," Janice offered with a grimace, tossing her hat on the table.
"I like baked beans," Mel informed her with a shrug as she took her boots off.
Janice smiled and shook her head at this very easy to please woman. "Well, it would have been nice to have some MEAT too, may be some wine and . . ."
"Ugh, no wine! I don't think I will ever drink again," Mel responded with a grimace as she reclined on the cot, pulling a light blanket over her.
"How is your head by the way?" Janice smirked as she sat on the cot and took her boots off, sighing with relief.
"Fine. Are you ever going to tell me what happened?" Mel asked with a tinge of annoyance.
"You drank too much," Janice offered with amusement as she lay on the cot with a long sigh. The aches of the past week caught up to her and she grimaced.
"You can be so infuriating sometimes, Janice! You KNOW what I . . . Are you ok?" Mel asked with concern, sitting up to see her friend when she heard the archeologist muffle a moan as she tried to get more comfortable.
"I'm fine now, thanks," Janice responded with another long sigh, staring up at the tent roof. "Good call about not driving back," the archeologist admitted with another heavy sigh and closed her eyes.
Mel stared at her a moment and sighed before laying back on her cot. "Well, in the daylight I can at least see the holes and boulders you aim for and brace myself," Mel responded dryly.
"I don't aim for them," Janice countered, turning her head to eye her accuser but the light shone in her eyes, making her green eyes squint.
"Yes Janice," Mel responded politely with a thin smile, and extinguished the lantern.
"You know that polite agreement crap is annoying," Janice informed her bluntly.
"Yes Janice," Mel answered in the same polite tone, making Janice chuckle as she lay her head back on her pillow and pulled up a blanket.
"Good night, Mel," Janice offered, amusement still in her voice.
"Good night, Janice," Mel answered and smiled broadly.
EPILOGUE - Xena and Gabrielle
Though exhausted after the many tears, which finally stopped, Xena lay still, unable to sleep. She was too happy. Gabrielle was back where she belonged, in the warrior's arms.
Xena briefly closed her reddened eyes again, relishing the long-missed touch of the smaller woman and the sound of her love's steady breathing.
The bard was right, the warrior considered thankfully. Even for the Destroyer of Nations could find happiness. After a soft kiss to the bard's temple, she took a long satisfied breath. She was determined not to lose that precious gift.
"I promise to make everything up to you , Gabrielle," she whispered almost inaudibly.
Gabrielle shifted and faced her surprised warrior. With the teary evidence of their emotional reunion nearly gone, the bard offered a relaxed smile for her love.
"I thought you were asleep," Xena said softly, reaching out to stroke the bard's cheek.
"You thought wrong," Gabrielle grinned, resting her arm over the warrior's leather-clad torso.
"Not the first time," Xena replied softly, brushing wayward strands of hair from the bard's content face. "I'm sure it won't be the last. . . ."
"How?" Gabrielle asked, making Xena furrow her brows slightly.
"How what?" Xena asked uneasily.
"How do you propose to make it up to me?" Gabrielle asked simply, gently stroking the warrior's side.
Xena grinned. "Whatever you want, Gabrielle," Xena replied softly with a tender kiss on the bard's cheek, as a number of pleasurable things ran through the warrior's mind.
"You sure?" Gabrielle asked, now tracing her fingers over the warrior's lips.
"Absolutely," Xena responded kissing the bard's fingers.
"Good," Gabrielle grinned, letting her fingers gently drift over her warrior's face, prompting Xena to shut her eyes and enjoy the touch.
"Tell me what you want, Gabrielle," Xena moaned as the bard's fingers drifted slowly down her face . . . to her neck . . . to her shoulders.
"You're sure I can have anything I want?" Gabrielle asked with a grin as she kissed the warrior's collarbone, evoking a moan, which did not adequately reflect the extent of warrior's desire.
"I'm sure," Xena responded as her hands sought the laces to the bard's brown halter-top. "Tell me," the warrior encouraged the bard, slowly pulling at the laces, giving her plenty of time to say no.
"I want . . . " Gabrielle slipped the warrior's shoulder strap off and rewarded the bare shoulder with a kiss.
"What . . . what do you want Gabrielle," Xena asked, shivering as wet lips attacked her neck. "Tell me . . . "
"Just one . . . little . . . thing . . . ," Gabrielle whispered into the warrior's ear and gently rolled the willing warrior on her back.
"Anything . . . ," Xena relayed as Gabrielle descended into a passionate kiss.
Breaking from the kiss, a grin emerged on the bard's face.
Noticing the devious flicker in the green eyes accompanying that grin hovering over her, Xena suddenly became concerned.
"What do you want?" Xena asked as the uneasy feeling rapidly grew about the possible answers.
"I want YOU to plan the wedding."
Next Story (J&M)- “Southern Hospitality”
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