"The Stars are the Same Here"

Part One

by Missy Ragona


Some of this story is fact; some of it is just me dreamin’ away. You decide. <grin>

Xena, Gabrielle (and the Queen’s costume), their friends and their family are created and owned by Renaissance Pictures and MCA/Universal. Any original characters may be used only with permission from me first. No profit is expected from this story, and no copyright infringement is intended. Imitation is the kindest source of flattery.

I offer special thanks to the actors, production crew, the staff of Whoosh, the Athenaeum and Lynka’s websites, and the fan-fiction writers who have inspired me. My deepest respect for your talent, time and devotion to this show and the fan-based websites. Use of your names is also meant as a sign of my respect and admiration. No infringements are intended. Any similarities to stories written by other fan-fiction writers are coincidental. Thanks also to my editor/proofreader Jennifer. Did’ya enjoy the ‘great comma hunt’? ;-)

Rated NC-17. There are graphic descriptions of sexual activity between consenting adults. If this type of activity is illegal where you live and you care, or if you are under seventeen, please choose another story. There are many interesting stories that are not as descriptive. The violence is about what you’d find on a battle episode. So if that disturbs you, please choose another.

I wrote most of this story during the summer of 1999 waiting for the new season and hunting the internet for pictures and spoilers for the new shows. This story is a different version of the Fifth Season. Please enjoy!!


Eli and Amarise returned to take Xena and Gabrielle’s bodies down from the Roman crosses and with a prayer to Abba, the God of Peace, Eli restored their lives. Shaken from their last battle with life and death, the warrior and her partner decided to leisurely return to the Amazons to rest. Eli continued on his journey to teach the world about the power of peace and nonviolence; and Amarise went on ahead to the Amazon village where the newest queen, Shalapa, lives with her partner Meslina and their Amazon sisters.

As they traveled back to the Queen’s village from the western mountains, they met up with Eponin and the band of young Amazons from Anatoli that Xena had befriended while in search of Gabrielle’s spirit. Eponin explained to her friends that Ephiny sent her and several other warriors as diplomats to Mesopotamia and to the East to invite the different tribes to join them and reunite the once great Amazon Nation, protecting themselves from the empire-building Romans and Persians. Some of the tribes declined, afraid that it would mean the loss of self-government for them. But Oteri, her partner, Yakut, the novice shaman, and the other young Amazons understood Ephiny’s dream and recognized the power of their combined strength and agreed to return with Eponin to the Amazon village.

That night in camp, Xena and Gabrielle told their friend of Ephiny and Solari’s deaths by the Roman soldiers. Xena held her warrior friend as she wept for the Queen and her mate. Later, as the story of the last few months was retold to Eponin and the young Amazons, Eponin asked why Gabrielle once again refused the Mask of the Queen. With Gabrielle’s lame response that she thought Shalapa would be a better queen, Eponin grew angry. She explained to Gabrielle that the rights that Terreis gave her were not given lightly but held great responsibility. She told Gabrielle that it was time she stopped believing that someone else was better for a job given specifically to her.

To Gabrielle’s surprise, Xena agreed. Gabrielle believed that this was Xena’s way of trying to protect her, but to that Xena disagreed. She explained that if she really wanted to protect Gabrielle she’d take her as far away from Rome and Greece and war as possible. But she had watched Gabrielle grow into a wise and strong leader and she believed that with Gabrielle as queen, Gabrielle might in fact be more at risk, but the Amazons would be better protected. And they would be ruled with as much wisdom and strength as Melosa and Ephiny had ruled. And with a smile, Xena said it would be her job to protect Gabrielle. Gabrielle softly told Xena that they would protect each other, now and always soulmates.

So, our friends, with Eponin and the small band of Amazons headed south toward home, with a plan for a national election between Gabrielle and Shalapa, and a dream of continuing Ephiny’s plans for reuniting the great Amazon nation.


The small band of women traveled down the road toward the village of the Amazon queen. Xena and Gabrielle traveled side-by-side occasionally holding hands, occasionally pointing out birds or flowers or small animals basking in the Spring sunshine, as Xena led her golden mare, Argo. Oteri, the young Amazon leader and her partner Yakut followed with their small band of about 15 young women. They chatted excitedly about the greenness and beauty of the countryside, and joked with each other regarding their shared anticipation of joining the Greek Amazons. The warrior Eponin followed with her dark mare, deep in thought, mourning Ephiny and Solari and blaming herself for the death of many of her friends because she was away "playing diplomat".

Several times, Gabrielle would smile and squeeze Xena’s hand, then drop back a little to speak with the young Amazons. She listened as Yakut described the plains and pine forests of the Steppes, and all that they had been through as girls without any adults to teach them and protect them. She was horrified by the stories of Alti’s warriors that hunted them for sport or the villagers who threw rocks or bones at them instead of welcoming them. She also listened as Oteri retold the story of how they had found Xena and their battle with Alti for the souls of Cyane and the Amazon leaders. When Yakut took Oteri’s hand and explained that Xena had returned to the Land of the Dead looking for Gabrielle’s lost spirit, Gabrielle smiled softly and sent a small prayer to the gods thanking them for Xena’s love. Xena, as if she had heard the silent prayer, turned and smiled back at her soulmate. During their trip to India, Xena finally told Gabrielle about Cyane and how she had betrayed the Amazons for Alti’s promises of power. Today, she sent her own prayer of thanks to the gods that Gabrielle had turned her from the Destroyer of Nations to the Protector of Nations, specifically the Amazon nation. It was another debt that she could finally repay.

Xena was the first to notice the dust rising far down the road; someone was traveling by horse and moving fast. She ordered Gabrielle and the young women to scatter into the trees and she and Eponin moved to the side of the road. A few minutes later, a speckled horse foaming with sweat raced by them with the young Amazon, Amarise, pushing the horse as fast as it would go. Xena yelled her trilling war cry at the top of her lungs and Amarise pulled the horse to a skidding stop. Turning, she saw Xena and another dark warrior that could have been Xena’s sister standing in the middle of the road, with Gabrielle and a band of Amazons rappelling down from the trees. With an excited whoop, Amarise kicked her horse toward them at top speed, stopping just before crashing into Yakut and Oteri.

Finally, Amarise thought, some Amazons who might know how to have some fun. She noticed the shy smile given her by the hooded shaman, as well as the look of jealousy shot from Oteri. If looks could kill, she thought. Then she looked at Xena and realized that if looks could kill, the jealous Amazon would have to stand in line.

Xena wasn’t really angry at Amarise for nearly running them down, she was angry because she saw how hard the horse had been pushed for the gods know how long. It was panting heavily, limping and severely dehydrated. If the horse survived the night, she’d be surprised. She knew there was a town about half a day’s ride to the south; Amarise should have stopped there and traded for a fresh horse.

"Xena," Amarise panted, "I’m glad… I found you…. Shalapa sent me …to find you… and bring you back to… the village as quickly… as I could."

Gabrielle and Eponin immediately started asking questions. "What’s wrong? Is Shalapa alright? Are the Romans back?" Xena had to place a heavy hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder to quiet her.

"What’s wrong, Amarise? What’s happened?" Xena asked as she raised her hands to quiet everyone else.

Yakut handed the breathless Amazon her water bag with a smile and Amarise thanked her with a wink. Xena sent a pair of the young Amazons into the woods to look for a stream for the foaming horse and a clearing they could camp in tonight as she waited for Amarise to take a long drink. Finally, after receiving an impatient eyebrow from both Xena and Gabrielle, Amarise handed the water bag back to Yakut and wiped her mouth with her wristband.

"Shalapa sent me to find you," Amarise restarted. "There were some people traveling from the East who were attacked by bandits. A hunting party found them and brought them back to the village. Some of them didn’t make it; a few of them are okay but speak a language no one understands. They seem to be really worried about this one woman who’s badly hurt. Seems she put up a fight trying to protect them and got herself pretty messed up."

"Did the healer look at her? Check her for internal wounds or a head injury?" Xena asked. Amarise nodded to each question. "So what’s wrong? Why did you nearly kill that horse to find me?"

"The woman stays asleep most of the time. But when she does wake up no one can understand anything she’s saying except that she keeps saying your name. She tore off a piece of her dress, handed it to the healer and said your name. Shalapa figured she was looking for you when her group was attacked."

"The piece of cloth, did you bring it with you?" Xena asked. She looked at Gabrielle and at the other women who had circled around them as Amarise searched her saddlebag for the cloth.

It took only a second for Xena to recognize the deep red silk, trimmed with gold, with the symbols from the Land of Chin woven into the material. Memories of Lao Ma flooded over her as she smelled the scent of the spicy perfume on the silk. Now, she understood why none of the Amazons could understand the travelers. But she still didn’t understand why the travelers had come so far looking for her.

"Oh yeah, Xena, I almost forgot. When she handed the healer that cloth and said your name, she pointed to herself and said ‘Sister’. Xena, I didn’t know you had a sister."

Xena looked at Amarise questioningly as Gabrielle gave her the same look.

"Xena, I didn’t know you had a sister, either." Gabrielle added.

"Neither did I." Xena answered them both, then turned to take Argo’s reigns from one of the young Amazons. Janna, I think is her name. I’ve got to remember their names, Xena thought to herself as she smiled at the girl. Xena climbed onto Argo, then reached a hand out to Gabrielle.

"Come with me, Gabrielle, please," she asked and Gabrielle nodded.

As she pulled Gabrielle up behind her, she asked Amarise and Eponin to continue home with the young Amazons. Eponin gave a nod, and Amarise started to complain and pout until Yakut smiled and asked her to stay with them. Then she yelled to Xena’s back not to worry, that she’d take care of everything. It might be fun after all. Amarise smiled back at the young shaman as Xena and Gabrielle rode toward the Amazon village.

End of Act One.


At the Production Company

She didn’t believe this was real…until now. She didn’t believe it when she found out that her story had gotten over a thousand hits the first week it was posted on Lynka’s website and linked to the Athenaeum. She didn’t believe that Missy Good and B. L. Miller had both written her to congratulate her on a fantastic story. She didn’t believe it when someone from Whoosh had actually taken the time to read and review her story, and then post the review in the September issue. She really didn’t believe it when Steven Sears e-mailed her and asked if he could talk to her. He said he was going to be at the Decatur, Georgia, convention in November, and was it too far for her to come and meet with him. She still didn’t believe it when she asked for and received in the mail four free tickets for the whole weekend. Her friends couldn’t even believe it when the limo showed up in Birmingham that Saturday morning to drive them to Atlanta.

She couldn’t believe her eyes when she saw Kevin Smith and Ted Raimi battling it out on stage with two rubber swords, or when she got a handshake and an autograph from Jacqueline Kim. Then, when the assistant to the assistant to Mr. Sears introduced her to Ms. Kim, she really didn’t believe it when Ms. Kim hugged her, thanked her and kissed her cheek. She didn’t even remember the meeting with Steven Sears very clearly, or believe it when the check arrived two weeks later. Her mother didn’t believe the size of the check that arrived two weeks later.

What she couldn’t believe the most was that they had asked her to play the part. She couldn’t believe that in all of Hollywood, or the rest of the world for that matter, that there wasn’t anyone who could play this role except her. She didn’t believe that they wanted her to take all three weeks of her vacation from the bank, all at one time, during February to fly to New Zealand to act out the role she had created for a special two-part episode. She didn’t believe it when the SAG form came by Federal Express, or when the second check arrived, or when the plane ticket arrived. She kept waiting for someone to wake her up and she’d find that she was in some hospital somewhere just getting out of a feverish delirium.

She didn’t believe it when the assistant to the assistant to Mr. Sears met her at the airport in Auckland, or when she saw the 4x4 with the production company logo on the door. It wasn’t until they reached the top of the hill when she asked the assistant to stop the car and she got out to look at the valley in front of her. She saw the trailers, the cranes, the sound stage, the trucks, the horses (actually she smelled them) and all the people running around. She saw Amphipolis, which also doubled as Potadeia, to the left and the Amazon village further down the hill to the right. She saw the "little village" where Minya and Hower lived, and where Xena and Gabrielle had fought with Najara against the slavers off in the distance and she saw the brown sandy beach with the bluest water west of the Gulf Coast. She saw a group of skinny Amazons rehearsing a dance, a pair of well-built centaur tops practicing their swordfighting, and a group of women just getting out of one of those extra long golf carts like they have at Six Flags. She stopped breathing when she saw two robed women get out laughing with each other. She almost passed out when the tall one put her arm around the shorter one and they walked into a long white building still laughing.

The assistant to the assistant to Mr. Sears finally leaned over the passenger seat to remind her to breath and would she mind getting back in the car so they could get to lunch before everything was gone. He smiled at her and told her that everyone felt the same way the first time they got here. She didn’t have to be afraid or nervous. Everyone was here to make sure she had the best time she could and to make a great show.

They drove the rest of the way down the hill and were let through the gate by a very muscular, very handsome guard who smiled at her and welcomed her. The assistant to the… Joe, she finally remembered… opened her car door for her, then led her into the service trailer. Someone handed her a plate and suggested several things to try, then led her to a table where Oteri and Yakut sat playing cards with several other Amazons, and Jacqueline Kim in blue jeans and a peach colored golf shirt sat talking with a young woman about her costume. Joe introduced her to the people at the table.

"Hey everyone," he said in a thick Kiwi accent, "this is Elizabeth Laire, the writer. She’s just come in from the States."

Everyone welcomed her. The seamstress leaned over to shake her hand and introduced herself as Lisa and told her it was a great story. Jacqueline Kim looked at her for a minute trying to place her, then realized they had met in Atlanta a few months ago. She shook Elizabeth’s hand and said she was glad Elizabeth was here and asked her if she had enjoyed the convention. Elizabeth mentioned that she had seen Jacqueline in the movie "Brokedown Palace" and how much she enjoyed it. Jacqueline thanked her, then she and Lisa got up to go. On the way out, Lisa said to come see her for a fitting after the meeting, her office was in the warehouse near the end of the road. Elizabeth waved to them both and began to look around at the other people having lunch.

Shalapa and Meslina sat talking with two guys in blue jeans and T-shirts. Other crewmembers were seated around the room eating lunch, one was talking to his wife and their toddler, another leaning against the wall catching a quick nap, and one woman with wavy red hair was intensely studying what appeared to be a script. She made notes here and there, occasionally shaking her head or nodding in agreement with something she read. Joe had been following Elizabeth’s visual tour of the service trailer when he saw Liz and called to her.

"Hey Liz, your writer’s here," he said to her, then turning to Elizabeth, "She’s got some questions about the script she wanted to ask you. Do you mind?"

"No, no, not at all. I guess that’s why I’m here, to help." Elizabeth rose to meet the intense redhead as she reached her hand out from underneath a pile of scripts and folders. "Hi, I’m Elizabeth Laire, it’s nice to meet you," she said, taking Liz’s offered hand. "May I help you with some of those?"

"Thanks, I’ve got it, I think," she smiled as the pile of folders tumbled onto the table. Elizabeth helped Liz gather the files, thinking how glad the folks at Whoosh would be to get their hands on these…scripts, storyboards, character profiles…gold to a Xena fan. They sat back down and Liz leaned on the pile of neatly stacked folders in front of her.

"So, I have a few questions about the script. Do you mind if I ask you about them? Well, like Xena and Gabrielle are coming from the west from Rome," She continued without giving Elizabeth a chance to refuse. "But Eponin and the eastern tribe are coming from the East. Somehow they meet on the road. That seems pretty unlikely. And Amarise didn’t really like being with the Greek Amazons, yet she went back to them after leaving Eli. No one’s going to believe that. Oh, and Xena and Gabrielle praying. To whom? They don’t really get along with the Greek gods. Eli’s god? Maybe Gabrielle, but Xena? Krishna? No, Xena just doesn’t pray."

"Sure she does," Elizabeth cut in.

"What?" Liz looked up from her notes.

"Xena does pray. She prayed when Callisto killed Perdicus and Gabrielle wanted to kill her. She prayed to Krishna, too. She’s called for Ares when the villagers blamed her for killing when he really did it. That’s kinda like praying, even though she really was tricking him. And she talks to the dead all the time…her mother in that one where the Fates gave her back Lyceus, and to Marcus, and to Gabrielle in "Adventures in the Sin Trade"…a lot of people think that’s praying. She just doesn’t ask for things like money or rain or chariots like most of us. It doesn’t matter whom they’re praying to, 90% of the people in the world pray to something and we’re not really sure whom or what it is. But we understand being thankful for a gift of love like Xena and Gabrielle share."

Liz nodded, laughing. "A chariot. Yeah, I guess you’re right."

"And where else is Amarise going to go? She doesn’t want to go back to the first tribe she came from. And Xena and Gabrielle are headed back to the Greek Amazons. That’s what she really wants to do, to be with them." Liz nodded in agreement. "And, well, Eponin and the Amazons coming from the East was the only thing I could think of to explain why Solari and Ephiny had died but not her. It also was a good way to keep Gabrielle busy while Xena was doing her thing, and maybe bring a little conflict of interest into the story."

"Yes, yes, there is that. Good. I’ve got other questions. Let’s get together after the cast meeting and maybe we can talk about some of the other things. Okay?" she asked as she gathered her folders into her arms.

"Uh, sure. Anything to be of help."

"Great!" Liz yelled over her shoulder. "Glad you’re here, Elizabeth."

"Yeah, me too." Elizabeth waved to the screen door.

Elizabeth felt a gentle hand on her shoulder. "Don’t mind her. She’s always rushing. She’s got so many great ideas and she works really hard to make them a reality."

"Uh, yeah, it seems like it." Elizabeth agreed as she watched the screen door. Then she did it. She swore to herself that she wouldn’t, but she did it anyway. "Gawleeey." Ugh. "You, you’re Renee." Oh, there you go. Big news. "Oh my god!" Oh, smooth. Elizabeth stammered as she turned to see the most beautiful blond-haired Amazon queen smiling down at her, wearing a light robe over her yellow sari.

"Hey, what’s up?" And this blue-eyed, raven-haired, widely grinning head popped over Renee’s shoulder. "Oh, hi. You must be the writer. Elizabeth is it?" And she reached a hand over Renee’s shoulder.

At this point, Elizabeth’s mouth had stopped functioning, so she just took Lucy’s hand and shook it like a maraca. Joe leaned over the table and reminded her to breathe and she turned to him, finally able to blink and close her mouth.

"Sorry," she said as she proceeded to turn three shades redder than Renee’s hair had ever been. "It’s just that I never thought I’d ever get here. To meet you both and get a chance to work for this company. Even for just three weeks. Man! This is a dream come true." Everyone smiled at her southern twang and her enthusiasm.

Lucy finally took Elizabeth’s hand in both of hers and smiled at her. She’d seen it before at all the conventions and the talk shows. The fans were super. And she could tell that Elizabeth was a true fan.

"We’re glad you’re here, Elizabeth. We both want to help you as much as we can," Lucy said as she placed a hand on Renee’s shoulder. "Just let us know if you need anything or have any questions. Okay?" Elizabeth was still trying to get used to the Kiwi accent coming from Xena, but that helped to make it easier to separate the actress from the act.

"I will. Thank you."

"Great. Well, I’ll see you in a little bit at the cast meeting. It’s someone else’s feeding time now." Lucy smiled down at Elizabeth as she patted her back and headed toward a cook with a baby’s bottle and a handful of towels. Elizabeth finally realized that Renee and Joe were both watching her watch Lucy leave the trailer. She looked beside her at Joe, then up behind him at Renee and once again turned beet red. They both smiled at her and laughed. But it wasn’t a laugh meant to make Elizabeth feel like an idiot. It made Elizabeth feel like they actually understood her; and all of a sudden, she wasn’t nervous any more.

"Well, I’ve got to stop at the powder room before the meeting," Renee said, patting both Joe and Elizabeth on the back. "I’ll see you in a few minutes. One o’clock, Joe, don’t forget," And she walked behind the stainless steel serving counter to the restrooms.

"Well," Joe turned to smile at Elizabeth. "How ‘bout a quick tour before the meeting?" And he took Elizabeth by the hand and led her to his 4x4.





Xena and Gabrielle rode through the afternoon and into the star-filled night. They finally stopped to rest Argo and share a small rabbit Xena had trapped. They spent most of the trip in silent reflection; Gabrielle wondering about this woman who called herself Xena’s sister, and Xena wondering why she hadn’t thought to tell Gabrielle about this "sister" before. She had left her out of so many stories, but she couldn’t avoid talking about her any longer. She’d tell Gabrielle tomorrow, after they had a chance to check on the beaten woman.

They were back on the road after a couple hours rest and arrived in the Amazon village shortly after dawn. This was the first time they’d been here since the battle with Brutus against Pompey. It may have only been a month ago, but it felt like a lifetime. As they rode through the north gate, Gabrielle noticed that many of the huts had been replaced since the war, but she was surprised that there were still about fifteen groups of women sleeping around fires scattered throughout the village. Some of the women were waking or feeding their young children, and Gabrielle realized that these women were from the different Amazon tribes who had answered Ephiny’s call to unite the nation. She hadn’t known that there were so many different tribes that had been scattered since Hippolyta’s reign as queen and mother of the once great nation. Xena also noticed the refugee tribes that had come to rebuild the Amazon nation. She noticed the large number of spears and swords among them; she noticed the group of young girls already awake and attending a javelin training class; she noticed that most of the adult women were too thin and the children were suffering from malnutrition. Whatever planning had occurred before Ephiny’s death didn’t include how all of these people were going to be fed.

Shalapa welcomed the weary couple and led them to the healer’s hut as a young girl tended to Argo. The sun hadn’t made it over the tall trees surrounding their village, so the hut was still dark except for an oil lamp near the healer’s bed. The hut was a single large room with several windows covered with thin cloths used to screen out any curious critters. The room had an odd mixture of scents: aloe, mint, vegetable broth and the rosehip tea simmering in the fireplace. There were five beds lined against the far wall and five more across the middle of the room. There was a large worktable at one end of the beds loaded with tools, jars and bunches of medicinal plants. The healer’s bed was at the other end of the room. Xena and Gabrielle were impressed with the condition of the hospital, and knew that this healer was probably one of the reasons the village and the Amazons had recovered so quickly after the war against the Romans.

They found the healer, a short middle-aged woman with dark, curly hair cut slightly longer than Gabrielle’s, attending to a young girl with a broken arm and a few cuts on her face and left shoulder. Xena recognized that the child had gone riding on a horse that was too much for her and had fallen; she’d done the same when she was about that age. Shalapa introduced them to the healer, Tamra, who had followed a refugee tribe from the north and had asked to open the hospital a few weeks ago. Xena complimented her on how clean and organized the hospital was.

"Our people have been fighting against the Northmen since my father was a young boy," Tamra began, in an accent similar to Borias’. "They came to steal our crops and goats and steal women and children to sell as slaves. My grandmother was Amazon before she met my grandfather and went to live with him in the North. She was a healer in our village and she taught me the healer’s art. She taught me that a well-run hospital would be an important key to saving our people. When I heard about Ephiny’s call to unite all Amazons, I decided it was my duty to return here and offer my skills to my sisters."

"We’re lucky, then, that you’ve decided to join us," Xena smiled as she reached out her hand. Tamra took Xena’s forearm in a warrior’s greeting and patted her shoulder with a wide grin. "I’m Xena, and this is my friend Gabrielle."

"You’re Gabrielle?" the dark-haired healer asked with one of those ‘I thought you’d be taller’ looks. "I’ve heard the women speak about you. They say that you are the true queen of the Amazons. I’ve even heard Shalapa say that. Wait…. I thought you two were dead?" Tamra poked Gabrielle in the arm.

"Hey!" cried Gabrielle, swatting away Tamra’s hand. "Don’t believe everything you hear."

"Tamra," Xena gently touched the healer’s arm. "Is there someone here…" She wasn’t really sure what she wanted to know; she wasn’t really sure if she wanted to know.

"Oh my, yes, yes. She’s right over here," and Tamra lead them to the bed nearest hers. "She’s pretty hurt. Concussion, broken leg, a few cuts and bruises. When the fever started, I thought I’d lose her, but she’s hung on. She sleeps mostly, but I try to wake her and get her to drink some broth. The fever gives her nightmares and she starts to thrash about, sometimes crying for you, sometimes screaming. I found that when I hold her hand, she calms down, so I put her near me. The only time she’s been coherent was when she tore off a piece of her dress and asked for you, Xena. Do you know who she is?"

Xena leaned forward to get a closer look, and when she saw the dimly lit face of her old friend, she moved closer and sat on a stool near the bed. She lifted the sleeping woman’s hand and gently caressed it, then raised it to her cheek. Gabrielle had never seen Xena so tender with anyone but her. Then, Xena moved to sit on the edge of the bed and began caressing her face, calling her name softly.

"Natalia… Natalia…" Xena whispered, not wanted to startle the injured woman. "Talia… I’m here."

Slowly, the woman began to wake, moaning with the pain of moving her head. As she opened her eyes in the darkness she saw the silhouette of the warrior princess and believed she was still dreaming. When the shadow didn’t disappear with waking, Natalia reached her hand out to touch the concerned face. She touched Xena’s cheek, her forehead, her mouth, slowly remembering, slowly realizing that she wasn’t dreaming.

"Xena, is that really you?" she whispered, speaking Xena’s language for the first time in almost ten years.

"Yes. I’m here, Talia." Xena smiled at her old friend, using Natalia’s shortened name reserved only for her and Natalia’s brother.

For a few minutes, Gabrielle watched the two older women do nothing but look at each other, Natalia’s hand slowly caressing Xena’s face searching for signs of age and peace, joy and anger. Then Natalia’s shoulders began to shake and she began to weep. As the grief surfaced, she began to cry harder and harder, until finally Xena was cradling her, rocking her.

"She’s dead, Xena. He killed her. He killed his own mother." She sobbed in the warrior’s arms. "He didn’t have to do that. By the gods, Xena, he used the knife himself. He killed her." She leaned back to look at the face of her dear friend whom she hadn’t seen since the day Lao Ma arrived in Borias’ camp. "Oh, Xena. She wept for you. She cried out your name. He didn’t have to kill her. She would have left," and Natalia fell back into Xena’s arms.

All Xena could do was rock her, running her hand through Natalia’s long blond hair, whispering soft reassurances. "It’s in the past. Everything’s okay now. You’re safe here. Shh, shh, Talia. It’s okay. He won’t hurt anyone else."

Natalia pushed her away in anger. "What do you mean he won’t hurt anyone else. Lao Ma is dead. Ming Tien killed her. He knew she wouldn’t try to stop him. Now that she’s dead, there’s no one to stop him from destroying all that is beautiful about China."

"Shh," Xena reached to hold her. "I know. Everything’s going to be all right."

"No! No!" Talia shouted. "It’s not all right. With Lao Ma gone, there’s no one to stop Ming Tien."

"I stopped him." Xena answered dryly.

"Wha… what?"

"Ming Tien is dead."

"How? When?" Talia wasn’t sure she believed what Xena was telling her.

"Lao Ma sent a messenger to find me. I went to China. Ming Tien is dead." Gabrielle, Tamra and Shalapa could hear the pain and sorrow as Xena’s voice cracked trying to bury her pain. Talia looked at the sad face of the warrior and raised a hand to her cheek. "Get some rest," Xena finally said. "I’ll come see you later and we can talk."

Xena lifted the woven blanket to Talia’s chin and brushed a strand of hair from her face. She rose quietly from the bed as Talia’s breathing began to slow, and she led her friends out of the hospital. Xena continued away from the hospital and silently walked toward Gabrielle’s hut. With a reassuring look at the healer and the Queen, Gabrielle followed her soulmate, knowing that Xena would be ready to talk soon.

As the two Amazons watched the friends walk away, the healer asked Shalapa if she would tell her about the Warrior Princess and the Queen Bard; and they went back into the hospital to share a pot of tea and a story or two.

Xena walked into the hut and went straight to the bed. She lay down with her hands behind her head and studied the thatched roof. Gabrielle stopped a Queen’s attendant on the way to the hut and asked her to bring some fresh bread and fruit. When the attendant also offered to stand guard and let them get some sleep after their breakfast, Gabrielle thanked her for her thoughtfulness, then continued into the hut she shared with Xena.

The hut was divided into two rooms: the front room that acted as war room and dining room; and the bedroom with a large bed at one end and the cedar tub at the other end. The tub was a gift sent by Cleopatra after she returned to Egypt as a thank you for Xena saving her life. They had asked Ephiny to keep the tub for them, so she had the tub placed over a hotspring and the hut built around it. The queen made sure that the tub was kept stocked with wonderful soaps and oils, with soft, absorbent towels nearby. When Gabrielle and Xena were away, Ephiny allowed the older women and any injured women to use it for its soothing warmth. But when they were home, the hut belonged to the bard and her warrior.

Gabrielle walked into the dimly lit hut to find Xena lying on the bed fully clothed, still wearing her armor and boots. She silently removed Xena’s brown leather boots and armor, then retrieved the tray of food quietly left by the attendant. She placed the tray in the center of the bed and sat cross-legged at the foot of the bed. After eating some of the bread and several figs, Gabrielle removed her dust-covered sari and climbed into the steaming tub. She dipped her head underwater, and as she moved to sit along the edge of the tub, she let out a contented sign.

"Xena," Gabrielle finally broke the silence. "Come in here," she gently commanded. Without a word, Xena rose and undressed, then slowly climbed into the tub. Gabrielle took the moment to admire her friend’s tall, muscular body. Although she kept it covered by her protective leather dress, Xena’s stomach was as flat and taut as Gabrielle’s. She smiled as she looked at Xena’s long legs and noticed that she could tell when Xena’s boots and knee guards ended, Xena had a warrior’s tan. But what caught her eye the most was Xena’s graceful stretch over the tall cedar planks into the tub. After nearly four years of traveling with Xena, it still amazed Gabrielle how strong and fierce Xena could be, and how gentle and graceful.

"Hmmm?" Xena inquired with the lift of an eyebrow, as Gabrielle realized she’d been caught staring at Xena’s body.

"I was just, um, making sure your back was feeling better. We rode for quite a while last night." Gabrielle stammered, hoping Xena would think the hot water had made her face red.

"Um hum," Xena smiled softly. "Come here," she asked, reaching her hand out to Gabrielle. Gabrielle took her hand and was pulled across the tub. She turned to face the same direction Xena was sitting, and was pulled into a loving embrace, Xena’s arms and hands covering Gabrielle’s. Gabrielle leaned back against Xena’s chest and allowed the warm water to relax them and soothe their tired muscles. Xena held her soulmate for a few minutes then remembered there was something she’d been waiting to say to Gabrielle.

"Gabrielle," She whispered in the smaller woman’s ear. "I love you. I just wanted you to know that. Back there, on the mountain, as they were…" Xena couldn’t finish the sentence. "I told you that you were the best thing in my life. You are. You’ve freed me from so much of the anger and hatred I carried. You showed me what it meant to love and be loved. There have been people in my life that I thought I loved, and I gave them my body. But I never gave anyone all of me, my heart, and my soul. I give that to you, Gabrielle."

"Oh, Xena," Gabrielle breathed as she turned to face her soulmate. "I love you, too. And before the gods and all the earth, I give you my heart. I know that you and I will be together for all eternity, but I’m so happy that we have now, this life, to share." Gabrielle reached up and placed a hand on Xena’s cheek as Xena leaned down to softly kiss Gabrielle’s lips. Then Gabrielle looked into Xena’s eyes and saw something new, she saw Xena looking at her as an equal, as a partner, as a woman; and she pulled Xena’s lips to hers. As they shared their first passionate kiss, each exploring the other’s lips and mouth, they wrapped themselves in each other’s arms. But both of them knew that now would not be the time to explore their passion, there were too many things to be done in the village and neither had had more than a couple of hours sleep in two days.

Xena climbed out of the tub and wrapped herself in a soft, fluffy towel and held another open for Gabrielle. Gabrielle stepped out of the tub and into Xena’s arms to be dried. Slowly, sensually, Xena dried Gabrielle’s hair, then moved down her neck and back, then she wrapped her arms around Gabrielle to dry her chest and stomach, feeling the muscles tighten as she softly caressed them. She continued moving the towel down Gabrielle’s hips. Then, kneeling in front of the mesmerized bard, Xena wrapped the towel around her left leg and dried down to her ankle, then lifted Gabrielle’s foot and softly dried… each… toe… separately. Then she ran the towel down Gabrielle’s right leg and foot with the same slow motions.

"By the gods," Gabrielle moaned, as she placed her hands on Xena’s shoulders to steady herself. "That was wonderful." As Xena stood, she ran the towel along Gabrielle’s hips and underneath her arms and pulled the young woman to her for another slow, deep kiss. Each one moaned with the pleasure of this new experience, Gabrielle’s hands in Xena’s hair pulling Xena’s lips to hers, Xena’s arms enfolding and lifting Gabrielle. Xena lifted the bard onto the bed they shared and removed the towel with soft kisses on her neck and the sweet spot between her breasts. She removed her own towel and laid down beside Gabrielle, opening her arms for the young woman. Gabrielle rolled into Xena’s arms and they lay like that until Gabrielle’s soft caresses on Xena’s bare stomach lulled the warrior to sleep.

Shalapa found them still in their embrace when she went in to offer them lunch. She quietly backed out of the hut and asked the attendant to remain until the Queen and her warrior woke. Shalapa needed to talk to Gabrielle. She’d been hearing rumors about an election, and she had no intention of allowing it to happen; but she could wait a few more hours to deal with that.

End Act Two.

Act Three

Gabrielle woke from the nightmare in a sweat, Xena holding her and whispering that everything was okay. The nightmares had begun the first night after Eli revived them. Each night, Gabrielle relived her fight with the Roman soldiers, slashing at them, beating them, and then they’d reach bloody hands out to her, pulling at her, screaming her name. She’d hear Callisto laughing at her, and Xena screaming for her to stop. The noise would grow louder and louder until she’d shout for it to stop, and only then would she wake up.

Xena had hoped that the dreams would stop after a week or two, but it had been nearly a month and Gabrielle’s guilt still invaded her dreams. Xena knew that if she could get Gabrielle to talk about what had happened and deal with the guilt, she’d begin to heal. But Gabrielle would only continue to say that she chose the path of friendship and she’d do it the same way again if necessary. Xena decided not to push the issue until Gabrielle was ready to deal with it. So when mornings came and the nightmares began, she’d just hold her young soulmate until she was fully awake and the dream had faded away.

This afternoon wasn’t any different for Gabrielle than the last month had been, even though Xena had hoped that being in her own hut, in her own bed, would have helped her sleep more soundly. Finally, as Gabrielle’s tears subsided, Xena reached for a tangerine from the tray that had been brought that morning. It was about the middle of the afternoon and Xena’s stomach noisily announced that it wouldn’t wait any longer. She peeled the fruit and split it in half, then tore a few wedges off and ate them, spitting three seeds rapidly out the window. Gabrielle watched her, and with a grin, bet the warrior that she couldn’t hit the small poplar tree near the left side of the window. Xena ate a few more wedges of the tangerine and aimed her shot.

"Wait! You have to ricochet it off the right edge of the window," Gabrielle insisted.

"What do I get if I do it?" Xena questioned.

"I’ll brush Argo," Gabrielle offered.

"Oh, no. Argo’s not eating this tangerine, I am. What…do…I…get?"

"Hmm, let’s see. I’ll give you a massage." Suggested the bard.

"Done." Xena agreed, then took aim and shot four seeds at the top edge of the window. The seeds then bounced and hit the right edge of the window, then the left edge, then the bottom, before flying out the window and hitting the tree with four thwacks. When they heard a passing Amazon exclaim at being hit, they looked at each other, giggled and ducked under their blanket to stifle their laughter. "I have many skills," Xena said with a wink.

Gabrielle’s mood changed as she noticed the sun streaming through the blanket onto Xena’s tanned face. She rolled on top of the tall woman and straddled her hips. Placing her hands next to Xena’s shoulders to brace herself, she leaned over the dark warrior and looked into the clear blue eyes.

"Xena," She breathed. "There’s a skill you have that I want you to teach me," she whispered in her partner’s ear, and then gave Xena a slow, deliberate kiss, tasting the sweet juice of the tangerine. She kissed Xena’s neck, and slid her tongue down between Xena’s breasts. As Gabrielle took a raised nipple between her lips, Xena moaned with pleasure.

"Gabrielle, umm, I don’t think you need any lessons," She whispered.

"Xena, the teenagers want a lesson in hand to hand combat," Amerise shouted as she pushed open the front door of the hut. Gabrielle jumped off Xena, bounced off the bed and landed near the window, ignoring the fact that she was still nude. Eponin was walking by the window with a few warriors in tow, and one let out a slow, high-pitched whistle. The unfortunate warrior found herself sitting on the pathway staring at Eponin’s back as the group walked away and Gabrielle ducked under the window.

With a wide grin, Xena tossed the blanket over Gabrielle’s head, threw on her brown leather shift, and pushed through the curtains dividing the bedroom and the front room.

"Hey, Xena," Amarise called, trying to peek over the tall warrior’s shoulder as muffled curses followed a crashing table in the bedroom.

"Hey, Amarise." As Xena reached down to catch a rolling orange, she asked Amarise, "What’s this about the teenagers?"

"Eponin says you’re the best hand-to-hand combat warrior she’s ever known. So the field trainer was wondering if you’d show her students some moves."

"Amarise, I’ve got to go over to the hospital. Why don’t you show them your two-handed knife fighting? I was very impressed the first time I saw you use that move on the Roman soldiers," Xena confided.

"Really?" Amarise straightened up, placing her hands on the knives at her hips proudly.

"Really," Xena assured the young Amazon. "Tell Eponin that Gabrielle and I will show them some flips tomorrow. Gabrielle," She turned toward the bedroom, "do you still have that little flipping dolly?" Amarise was surprised when Xena caught both fig missiles coming from the bedroom. Xena bit into one and tossed the other to Amarise, who proudly headed toward the practice field that had been set up near the west edge of the village.

Xena went back into the bedroom finishing the fig and watched as Gabrielle climbed into the hotspring tub. By the gods, she’s beautiful, thought Xena. It’s amazing how she’s grown from a girl into a woman over the last few years. When she first climbed onto Argo’s back, I thought I’d hate listening to her chatter all day. Now, I can’t imagine my life without her.

It was Xena’s turn to get caught staring and, to the bard’s surprise, she watched Xena’s ears turn three shades redder.

"Hmm?" Gabrielle inquired, mimicking the warrior princess’ steely gaze.

"I was just…well, I…you’re beautiful," Xena finally got out. She turned to hide her blushing face and reached for her armor that Gabrielle had stacked neatly on a chair near the bed. As she began to dress, she turned to study Gabrielle, who smiled softly at her. With that one smile, Xena changed her mind about going to the hospital and their world changed.

Xena dropped her boots and leather arm guards and walked to the edge of the hot tub to stand behind Gabrielle. The young bard turned her face to look at the serious warrior. Xena reached down to brush Gabrielle’s hair then lifted her chin as she kissed her temple, her cheek, then her lips. The dark warrior brushed her lips lightly over the young queen’s, then, using her tongue to gently part the soft lips, she circled Gabrielle’s tongue and drew it between her own lips. Gabrielle used her tongue to explore Xena’s mouth, tasting the sweet nectar from the fig.

Xena’s hands moved over Gabrielle’s shoulders to softly caress her breasts as Gabrielle’s hands wrapped around Xena’s neck and wove themselves into Xena’s thick black hair. Xena’s right hand dipped into the steaming water and continued over Gabrielle’s firm stomach to lightly brush between Gabrielle’s legs. Gabrielle moaned, kissing and pulling the warrior closer to her as she tried to turn toward Xena. But Xena pushed Gabrielle’s shoulder back against the cedar tub as she continued to lightly brush her thighs and hip. Then she moved back between the moaning bard’s legs. She parted Gabrielle’s legs with her right hand while caressing her breasts and neck with her left.

As her hand continued underwater, exploring, searching for the places that, when touched, would send quivers throughout Gabrielle’s body, Xena’s lips moved over Gabrielle’s cheek and neck. Xena’s tongue moved around to Gabrielle’s ear, lightly brushing along the edges and then moved back down the side of Gabrielle’s neck. Underwater, Xena slowly slid two fingers deep into Gabrielle and used her thumb to caress the more sensitive areas. Gabrielle’s breathing grew faster and she raised her hips in unison with Xena’s thrusts. As Gabrielle neared her peak, she pulled Xena to her, burying her face in the warrior’s neck, and raising her hips to feel the final deep thrusts of Xena’s long thin fingers. With a series of quivers and a deep-throated moan, Gabrielle climaxed as Xena held her tightly, whispering in the young woman’s ear, "I love you, Gabrielle. I’ve got you. No, I won’t let go. I’m right here. Oh, my heart, I love you so much."

As Gabrielle’s quivers subsided, Xena reached for a piece of lightly scented soap and bathed her lover. She used a wooden bowl to rinse the soap from Gabrielle’s short blond hair and placed a tender kiss on her forehead. Gabrielle reached up to wrap her arms around Xena’s neck, then stood facing her lover. She pulled Xena to her, wrapping her arms around the armored warrior, and kissed Xena slowly, deeply, feeling Xena’s desire for her rising.

Just as Xena was preparing to lift Gabrielle and move their lovemaking to the spacious bed, she heard boots pounding up the stairs of the hut and through the door.

"XENA!" shouted Shalapa. "Come quick! It’s Natalia! Something’s wrong!" Shalapa stopped and spun on her heels as she pushed through the bedroom curtains. "I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were awake. Excuse me," She stammered as she headed back out the bedroom as quickly as she came in.

"It’s okay," Gabrielle assured the queen, forgetting any embarrassment. She looked at Xena, who was sincerely apologetic. "Go. It’s all right. I’ll be here when you get back." And with a whispered "I love you," Xena ran out of the hut barefoot and dashed toward the hospital.

By the time Xena reached the hospital hut, Natalia was sedated and sleeping, and Tamra was cleaning off a small dart.

"I’m sorry, Xena. But I didn’t want her to hurt herself." The short healer met the tall warrior in the middle of the room. "She woke up calling for someone, and got agitated when one of her friends there said something to her," she pointed at one of the small Chinese women cowering on a hospital bed. "I sent Shalapa to get you, but she just got more and more excited. I had to sedate her. She should be asleep for a few hours."

"Did you understand what she wanted?" Xena asked the healer.

"No, but maybe you can talk to one of them. Maybe one of them speaks enough Greek to tell you what’s wrong." The healer led Xena over to the beds against the wall.

"Do any of you understand me?" Xena asked the tiny, distressed women. "What’s wrong with her?" She pointed to Natalia. Several of the women began to speak at the same time, but Xena couldn’t understand any of them and waved them quiet. "Please, keep an eye on her," she asked the healer. "I’ll come back when she wakes up and see if I can figure out what’s wrong."

The healer nodded just as they heard shouting near the queen’s hut. Both of them ran out of the hospital and stood at the top of the stairs, the warrior stopping the healer from running into the crowd of angry Amazons.

After Xena ran out of their hut, Gabrielle climbed out of the cedar hot tub and quickly dried and dressed herself in the shimmering yellow sari. She’d grown so fond of the soft material against her skin and how easy it was to move in it. She was thankful that Eli had thought to retrieve it and Xena’s clothing and armor. He had even tricked the guards into giving him Xena’s weapons and the broken chakram with an illusion to make the weapons appear possessed with the dead women’s spirits. The guards were so grateful as Eli took their bodies and "possessed" weapons out of the prison to be burned that they never followed the mourners. If they had, they would have seen their latest shipment of supplies being torched as the warrior princess and the Amazon queen were resurrected. The only thing Eli had been unable to restore was the chakram and Gabrielle knew that would require a different god.

Gabrielle ran an ivory comb she’d also gotten in India through her short hair and walked outside searching for Amarise. She stood at the top of the stairs, using the extra height to survey the village. She saw Amarise and Yakut on the practice field with a group of teenagers and their trainer. She also saw Eponin coming out of her hut laughing with Oteri and several other tribal leaders. She noticed how Oteri’s mood dimmed when the young leader turned toward the training field to see her partner and Amarise wrestling playfully.

Eponin led the group of Amazons over to Gabrielle and arrived just as Shalapa and Meslina walked up insisting to know more about the election Gabrielle was planning.

"Actually that was my idea," Eponin spoke loud enough so everyone nearby could hear her. "We’ve lost so many queens in the last two years that I think we should give our sisters a chance to decide who will lead them. When Terreis gave Gabrielle her birthright, Ephiny and I were the first to question her decision. But Terreis wanted Gabrielle to take her place. When Melosa knew she was going to die she asked Ephiny to find Gabrielle. Melosa wanted Gabrielle to take her place." Eponin was shouting now as the crowd continued to grow. "Ephiny had always made it clear that she was only queen while Gabrielle was away with Xena. She knew that one day Gabrielle would return and claim her rightful place as the Queen of the Amazons."

"We know all of this, Eponin," Shouted someone from the crowd. "What’s this all about?"

"Yes, Eponin. What’s this all about?" Shalapa repeated. "Despite what we all hope for, Gabrielle continues to give away the Mask of the Queen. If she wanted it back, all she had to do was to challenge for it."

"And risk getting killed, or killing you, Shalapa. That’s not Gabrielle’s way and you know it," Eponin answered. The crowd began to argue; some claiming that a woman who couldn’t kill shouldn’t be queen; others insisting that Gabrielle’s wisdom was more powerful than her strength as a warrior. No one noticed the warrior princess and the healer standing at the top of the stairs watching the crowd, both ready to rescue Gabrielle from the mob.

"QUIET!" Gabrielle yelled above the noisy crowd. "Shalapa, I was wrong to delegate my responsibility once again. I didn’t think I could rule as queen and remain non-violent. I was willing to die for the person I love and now I’ve had to kill to protect her. These women," Gabrielle waved her hands to include the crowd of women around them. "And you, Shalapa and Meslina, you are all my sisters. I was willing to die with you. But seeing how all of you have answered Ephiny’s call to reunite the Amazon nation, you have shown me that we don’t need to die for our dream. We need to survive and fight if we must! We need to grow and protect each other. We need to teach the children that they have a choice. One day, I would like our daughters to be able to choose between picking up a sword and picking up a quill! One day, I would like our daughters to be able to travel throughout the world and not be afraid of being stoned, or whipped like animals, or raped and sold as slaves!" Gabrielle raised her voice so the growing crowd of women could hear her. "Hippolyta had a dream of women living free, making their own choices for their lives. Plowing fields, building huts, forging weapons, learning philosophy and art, and protecting their daughters. Melosa and Ephiny tried to carry on that dream and the Romans tried to destroy it. Together we can make that dream come true. Do you want to make Hippolyta’s dream come true?" Gabrielle shouted to the crowd.

The women answered her with their warrior yells and by raising their weapons or fists into the air. Shalapa also removed her sword from the scabbard on her back and raised it into the air, causing the women behind her to step back and give her room. She lifted the sword with two hands and then thrust it into the earth before Gabrielle. Falling to her knees, she removed the Queen’s mask, bowed her head and held it out to Gabrielle.

Gabrielle took the Queen’s mask from Shalapa, raised it over her head to the joyful shouts of the Amazons around her, and lowered it over her face. Then she pulled Shalapa’s sword out of the dirt and raised it over Shalapa’s head.

"Shalapa remains as my regent and my heir!" Gabrielle shouted for all to hear her. Then she lowered the sword onto Shalapa’s shoulder, and smiled as the brown warrior raised her head to look into sweet and wise green eyes. Gabrielle flipped the sword and handed it hilt-first to the amazed warrior.

"Eponin," Gabrielle turned to the dark warrior, Xena’s sister some thought. "I’m asking you to be the Captain of the Queen’s Guard. Will you protect the queen, no matter who she is, with your sword, with your life if necessary?" As an answer, Eponin placed her sword in Gabrielle’s hands and knelt before her, pledging her allegiance with her life.

Gabrielle continued through the crowd, going to every Amazon, young and old, Greek and foreign, asking for her allegiance to the Amazon nation. Amazons handed the young queen swords, sickles, spears, children, pots, and bolts of cloth. These skills, these gifts they would give toward fulfilling the dream. Even the healer, who had pushed through the crowd to hear the young queen’s speech, knelt before Gabrielle offering her a handful of herbs and her journal.

Eponin was the first to notice the rustling at the edge of the crowd. Meslina, who stood almost a head taller than most of the Amazons could see the reason for the disturbance, and looked at Gabrielle gravely. As the Amazon nation parted, a tall, dark warrior walked up to the Queen. Xena was barefoot and dressed only in her leather dress and breastplate, which she removed and dropped before Gabrielle. Then she stepped over the breastplate and dropped to her knees before the Amazon Queen.

"I pledge all that I have to you, Gabrielle, my queen, my love. I give you my sword, my family, my love. I give you my heart and my soul and my life." Xena lifted empty hands to the queen. Gabrielle removed the feathered mask from her face, handed it to Shalapa, fell to her knees and took Xena’s hands in hers. Then she opened each of the warrior’s empty hands and kissed each palm tenderly.

"I pledge all that I have to you, Xena, my Warrior Princess, my love. I give you my days and my nights, my love. I give you my heart and my soul and my life," Gabrielle echoed the warrior’s vow drawing Xena’s hands to her chest. Then Gabrielle stood and kissed both of Xena’s cheeks, then lightly kissed her lips before asking her to stand. When Xena stood, holding Gabrielle’s hand, Eponin let out a loud warrior yell that echoed throughout the village. Three hundred women began to yell and dance in celebration, lifting the queen and dancing with her on their shoulders.

As the procession headed toward the Queen’s hut with their new queen on Meslina and Eponin’s shoulders, Gabrielle turned to look at Xena. "Go!" Xena yelled over the crowd and waved at her. "I’ll be here when you get back."

Xena followed the small healer back to the hospital, dumping her breastplate on the healer’s bed. Then the tall warrior picked up the stool near Natalia’s bed and placed it near the wall, where she sat, legs out stretched and arms folded on her chest, waiting for the injured woman to wake. As she dozed, the warrior princess didn’t notice Amarise riding out of town on a fresh horse with a leather pouch about the size of a plate strapped to the saddle.

End Act Three.


"Xena? Xena?" The tall, thin blond called to her in the dark. "Xena? Is that really you?" Natalia asked as Xena opened clear blue eyes. "I thought it was just another dream when you were here earlier. By the gods, it’s been so long. Nearly ten years, isn’t it?" Asked Natalia, reaching out her hand for Xena. Xena dragged the stool and a lamp near the bed and took Natalia’s hand with a nod. "So, are you going to tell me what you and my brother have been doing all these years. And where are we? I haven’t heard any warriors," she looked around the room. Then Natalia remembered what had made her upset. "Oh, Xena. Tzu Mei. Where is she? What have they done with her? Oh, God, Xena! Tell me she’s okay!" and Natalia tried to get up from the bed as some of the Chinese women woke and began yelling at her. Xena grabbed her old friend and forced her to lay back down.

"Who’s Tzu Mei? I don’t understand," Xena asked the distraught woman.

"She’s…she’s…you don’t know? No, I guess you wouldn’t; you left before he did."

"No, I don’t know. Who is she?"

"She’s Lao Ma’s daughter. We escaped before Ming Tien could capture us and kill her. I swore to Lao Ma that I would protect her and bring her here. She knew that Borias was returning here, so we had a plan that if anything happened to her, I was to bring Tzu Mei to Greece. We’d been looking for my brother and you when those thieves saw the silk we wore and thought we had gold. Oh, Xena. They must have taken her. You’ve got to find her. Please." Natalia grasped Xena’s hands desperately.

"I will, Talia. I promise. I’ll find her." Xena reassured her.

"Xena, where’s Borias? I need to see him. He’s got to know," Natalia said, still concerned.

"Talia, your brother’s dead. Borias is dead." Xena said sadly. "He died a hero. He died protecting the Centaurs."

"From whom?" Natalia asked quietly.

"From my army." Xena answered.

Natalia nodded, understanding. "Lao Ma said that might happen, that Borias would die a great man and his child would never know his love."

"How did she know that," Xena asked, not really expecting an answer. "I didn’t think she knew about Solan and Alti’s curse."

"Who are Solan and Alti? She was talking about Tzu Mei," Natalia informed the shocked warrior.

"Tzu Mei is Borias’ daughter? But how? We betrayed Lao Ma and killed Ming Tzu. I thought she hated us." Natalia saw the candlelight shining on Xena’s sad face.

"Xena, she didn’t hate you. She loved you; more than she ever loved Lao Tzu or her own son." Natalia took Xena’s hands in hers. "She knew that you were gripped by anger and hatred. She also knew that one day you would free yourself from all of that and become a great woman."

"And Borias? How did she…?" Xena was too shocked by the revelation that Borias had another child.

"Lao Ma was worried that people would think Lao Tzu was too old and frail to rule the Kingdom of Lao. She felt that if she could produce his child, people would see that he was still alive. So she convinced Borias not to let people see you leave the Kingdom of Lao together since you were an outlaw and Borias was viewed as trying to protect the House of Lao from Ming Tzu. That night she fed him fine foods and had her women bathe him. And when he was so ripe that he couldn’t refuse her, she took him to her bed. The next autumn, she announced she was with child, an heir for the House of Lao. You see, Xena, that child is a gift. She is all that is left of Lao Ma," she hesitated, "and Borias." As Natalia choked back the tears, Xena flinched with the painful words. "You must find her. Please. Before something terrible happens to her. Please."

"I will find her. I promise." Xena looked up as Tamra appeared at the side of the bed with a steaming cup in hand.

"Okay you two. It’s late and both of you need your rest. Natalia, drink this, it will help you rest," ordered the healer as she handed the blond woman the warm mug. "Xena, you too. It’s late and both you and Gabrielle have had quite a day. Go see if you can get her to rest."

"I will," Xena replied to the healer, then she brushed Natalia’s cheek and repeated her oath, "I will," to Natalia and left the hospital to find Gabrielle.

Xena walked across the dry dirt on bare feet, thankful the rains hadn’t come yet, and went to look for Gabrielle in their hut. She found Gabrielle with Shalapa, Oteri, Eponin and several other tribal leaders meeting around the table in the center of the room. Scrolls and maps had been scattered about, and the leaders were arguing heatedly.

"No," Gabrielle insisted, pounding on the table. "I won’t do it."

"You must," Shalapa and Eponin ordered. "It’s tradition. Every queen has done it."

"Xena, tell them that this is not a good idea," The young queen pleaded as her lover walked in. "Tell them that I don’t dance well and I shouldn’t have to dance at the Queen-making ceremony if I don’t want to."

"Oh no. You tell them. You’re the queen." Xena teased as she retrieved her armor and sword from the bedroom.

"What are you doing?" Gabrielle asked, watching Xena put on her boots and knee guards.

"Talia was traveling with a young girl. She’s been missing since they were attacked by the bandits and Talia thinks that they have kidnapped the child. I think I know where to find them so I’m going to take Amarise and get her back. We’ll be back in a few days." Answered Xena nonchalantly. "Where’s Amarise? I haven’t seen her lately."

"I sent Amarise on an errand. A few days! You can’t. The Queen-making ceremony is tomorrow and you have to be there."

"You’re already queen, Gabrielle. The ceremony is just a formality. You don’t need me there for that."

"Xena, you’ve got to stay. You’re part of the ceremony. You can’t go. Not now."

"Gabrielle, this is important. A girl’s life is in danger."

"It can’t wait one day?" Gabrielle asked angrily.

"I wasn’t asking your permission." Xena insisted gently. "This is important. I’ve got to find her. I’ll be back in a few days." And Xena picked up her pack and walked out of the hut in search of Meslina.

"Xena," Gabrielle ordered. "Xena!" But Xena didn’t turn around.

Xena and Meslina headed out of the village about an hour later, taking with them a pack of food and an assortment of weapons. Both warriors were familiar with the area, so traveling by the light of the full moon, they made quick time crossing the hills east of the Amazon village. They traveled through the night and Xena finally slowed Argo a few hours before dawn. The two warriors hid their horses and climbed into the trees for a couple hours sleep.

Argo was the first to sense a problem and she whinnied her alarm to the two warriors dozing lightly in the trees above her. Xena silently moved to see what had alarmed Argo and she received a low call from Meslina that the small group of bandits was coming from behind them. They were dragging four young girls by thick ropes tied around their waists. From the shuffling and whimpering it was obvious that they had walked the girls through the night, knowing they were so close to their camp. Meslina knew the girls to be from the village north of the Amazon territory.

Xena signaled Meslina, and the women attacked from the trees, Meslina shooting arrows into the two leading the pack as Xena flipped to the ground to take on the two in the rear. Then Meslina rappelled into the middle of the girls, cut the ropes binding them, and yelled for them to run back down the road. The warriors made quick work of the remaining two bandits, leaving the last conscious so he could tell them more about the camp. When he refused to cooperate, Xena pinched pressure points on his neck and explained to him how the interrogation would continue.

"Okay, no blood to your brain, dead in thirty second, you tell me who your leader is," Xena ordered.

Gasping for air, the filthy middle-aged bandit finally cooperated. "Cleotus."

"Cleotus? He’s only got half a brain. Who’s he working for?"

"I don’t know." The man grabbed her hand wishing her to relieve the pain.

"Wrong answer. Twenty seconds. Who’s Cleotus working for?"

"A Roman. Calls himself Mark Anthony. He wants to sell the girls so he can pay for the mercenaries he’s sending out. He’s offering everyone a chance to get rich conquering the world with him. He’s sending shiploads of warriors out everyday to Gaul, to Britannia, to India, and Egypt. He says he wants to unite the world under his banner, the banner of the new Roman emperor."

"Where is this emperor?" Xena hissed.

"I don’t know. Really! He said he was heading back to Rome. But I’ve been away for four days."

Xena released the pinch from the shaken, coughing man. "I suggest you go find a nice field to plow. If I catch you again trying to sell girls as slaves, I’ll cut your heart out and feed it to you. Understand?" The frightened man nodded as Xena watched the puddle grow at his feet. "GO! Get out of here!" She shouted as he took off into the bushes.

Xena asked Meslina to double back and check on the girls, while she got a better look at the camp. Xena skirted around the camp and found a hiding place that gave her a clear view of Cleotus’ tent and the large wooden cage housing about ten young girls. When Meslina’s whistle signaled that she was positioned across the camp from Xena, Xena let out her war cry and flipped across the clearing. She slashed at the stomach of one guard, spun and buried her sword deep into the chest of the other guard standing in front of the padlocked gate. She raised her sword above her head then brought it down on the lock’s hinge, breaking the iron lock in two. Meslina knocked out two ragged soldiers with her longbow and shot another as he exited his tent. She shot two more who were running up behind Xena, and ducked below the sword of a warrior who had sneaked up from behind. She spun, pulling her dagger out of her belt and buried it underneath the man’s tarnished armor. Then she turned and ran to help Xena gather the frightened young girls.

Xena saw the first arrow speeding toward her, and caught it in her free hand. The second arrow buried itself in her shoulder a second later and she dropped to her knees in pain. She called for Meslina to get the girls to safety as she heard the third arrow bury itself in her side. She saw the sniper hiding in a wagon near Cleotus’ tent and she reached for her chakram, cursing when she remembered it wasn’t there.

When she was certain that Meslina had gotten the girls safely into the bushes and had returned to kneel behind a roaring fire for cover, Xena cried out her war cry and somersaulted behind a stack of barrels. She grinned devilishly when she smelled the oil in the barrels waiting to be loaded onto the next ship. She pulled a barrel onto its side as she yelled for Meslina to light an arrow. The blond warrior readied her shot and with a painful grunt, Xena pushed the barrel rolling toward the well-covered sniper and ran toward the road. When it was only a few feet away, Meslina aimed at a seam in the barrel and let loose her flaming arrow. The arrow sliced through the barrel, which exploded into a fireball. Burning oil spewed everywhere, torching the sniper and Cleotus’ tent, causing the fat warlord to run out in his nightshirt.

Xena ran into Meslina, who pulled her to a halt and forced her to sit while she examined Xena’s wounds. Both arrows were still buried in the warrior princess. The one in the shoulder thankfully had passed through and the arrowhead was poking out of Xena’s back. Meslina could smell the poison on the tip and said a quick prayer to Artemis that it hadn’t passed through any major veins. She left the arrow in the warrior’s shoulder to slow the bleeding until they could get to a safer place. But when she saw the one in Xena’s side, Meslina knew it was another matter altogether. This one had stopped with the arrowhead still inside and there was no way to know what organs were damaged and how soon the poison would begin to work.

Xena called for Argo and used the reins to steady herself as Meslina helped her stand. They both knew that they needed to get further away from Cleotus before he sent his goons looking for them, and they needed to get Xena back to the village as soon as possible. Trying to avoid the arrows, Meslina helped Xena climb onto Argo and led the horse down the road toward the group of frightened girls. She told them that they would be all right and that she and Xena would take them home. Xena looked over the group of hungry, dirty girls to see if there were any visible wounds that needed to be checked as she searched for a young Chinese girl. Cowering behind the group of girls was a small, black-haired girl with wide, almond shaped eyes.

"Tzu Mei?" Xena called to her. The child peaked around another girl to shyly nod at the warrior princess. "Tzu Mei, you’re safe now. I’m going to take you back to Natalia. Do you understand? Natalia," Xena pointed down the road.

"You take me to Borias?" The child asked in a thick accent.

"No, I’m taking you back to the Amazons, to Natalia," Xena answered and the child nodded her understanding.

"Come on, Xena. Let’s get you both home," Meslina softly ordered and she took Argo’s reins and handed her horse’s reins to one of the older girls in the group.

They walked down the road to where the four girls waited, quietly shivering in the bushes, and then proceeded toward the Amazon village. Occasionally, Meslina would double back through the trees to make sure they weren’t being followed, but as the day progressed and they got further from Cleotus, Meslina was certain that he had decided to cut his losses. She decided to put the small Chinese girl on Argo behind Xena. Tzu Mei was smaller than the other girls and Meslina thought she would become tired more quickly. She showed her how to hold onto Xena’s waist, and tried to explain that if Xena started to fall, she should yell out.

The group of warriors and children traveled slowly, Meslina walking at the speed of the slowest girl. Unlike her normally quiet nature, Meslina chattered continually, telling them stories, trying to cheer them up and alleviate their fears. As darkness fell, Meslina found a clearing deep in the woods for them to sleep in. She taught them how to gather dried branches for the fire and how to gather leaves and soft moss to make a bed. They caught a few small rabbits and spent the evening learning about the constellations. Then, Meslina got eight of the smallest girls to lie down in a circle with their feet touching and she placed her blanket over them so each small head peaked out of the thickly woven cloth. She used Xena’s bedroll to cover a second group and taught the older girls how to sleep near the fire with a partner, spooned to keep warm. She told them to take turns so that each one had a chance to be near the fire and stay warm. When all the girls were put to bed, Meslina took Xena’s medicine pouch out of the saddlebag studying the herbs, trying to decide which to use to make a poultice for the two wounds. She needed to get the arrows out soon, but she didn’t have enough bandages to stop the bleeding or the medicine necessary to keep the poison from spreading.

As she was staring into the fire trying to decide what to do with Xena’s wounds, a small hand touched her shoulder. She turned to see the small Chinese girl looking at her then at Xena solemnly.

"Mei help," she whispered. She reached for the pouch in Meslina’s hand and picked out several herbs. These she placed in a large leaf and crushed them. She took a torch from the fire and handed it to Meslina. The tall Amazon followed the young girl to Xena’s side, understanding what they were about to do. Tzu Mei got Xena to sit up. Then, taking the torch from Meslina, she asked the Amazon to break the arrow and remove the point. After burning closed the two ends of the wound, Tzu Mei place the poultice on wound on Xena’s back and signaled for Xena to lie on it. Then she knelt beside the warrior princess, placed her hands together and began to meditate. A few soundless minutes later, Tzu Mei placed her hands on Xena’s shoulder, and Xena felt a white heat pass through her. Meslina and Tzu Mei completed the same ritual with the wound in Xena’s side, then the three of them curled up together for warmth and slept.

Xena woke up to a pair of small, bright blue eyes and a wide grin surrounded by a mop of golden curls. "You’re okay now," The little girl said, as she brushed a strand of hair tenderly from Xena’s face. "We all took care of you. I watched." The child beamed proudly. Then she ran to Meslina, grabbed her hand and dragged her over to where Xena was slowly trying to sit up.

"How do you feel?" Meslina asked.

"Stiff…a little sore…but all in all I think I’ll live thanks to you." Xena winced as she tried to rotate her shoulder.

"Don’t thank me. Tzu Mei was the one who got that arrow out of your side without making the damage worse. And when she touched you, I almost thought I could see the wound healing before me eyes. Is she a goddess?"

"I saw her mother tame wild dogs and she had great spiritual powers, but she wasn’t a goddess. She said it came from living the Way. Perhaps she taught her daughter the same." Xena put an arm around the young "watcher", who steadied her as the tall warrior stood and began putting on her armor. Xena ruffled the girl’s mop of yellow curls, glad that they got to Cleotus before any real harm came to this sweet girl or any of the others. "Let’s get ready to head out!" Xena announced for everyone to hear. "We can get you home by tomorrow if we travel some this afternoon."

The girls eagerly gathered the blankets and makeshift bowls they had created, buried the fire, and were ready to continue about fifteen minutes later. They traveled until sunset, each girl getting a chance to ride in pairs on Argo and Meslina’s mare. They camped that night under a full moon and the two warriors took the opportunity to teach the girls about surviving in the woods if they had to make another trip like this one. Hopefully, the warrior princess thought, they will learn that they don’t have to rely on their fathers or husbands to protect them, and they don’t have to be afraid of things that go bump in the night.

The next day, the warrior princess and the Amazon said goodbye to nineteen smiling girls, who ran to their families with stories of slavers and Amazon rescuers and how they caught their own food and learned to find water and edible plants. Their parents weren't sure whether to be thankful that the two women saved their daughters, or angry that they filled the girls’ heads with such nonsense. Xena, Meslina and Tzu Mei simply waved goodbye and smiled their way out of the village. Tzu Mei was glad she had made some friends in the group and she was going to miss them, but she was excited about seeing Natalia again.

Xena and Tzu Mei rode on Argo and Meslina rode on her gray mare through the day and arrived in the Amazon village at sunset. They had been gone three days, just as Xena had promised. Meslina called for Tamra as they rode through the village while several Amazons joined them to help take Xena to the hospital. As they reached the stairs of the hospital, Tamra and Gabrielle ran out to help Tzu Mei and the warrior princess down from Argo. Gabrielle, more worried that she admitted, began to question Xena about the trip and how she got wounded. Xena simply said she was okay, but Tamra insisted that she had to examine Xena and the young girl to make sure everything really was okay.

The tall warrior and the small Chinese princess were guided into the hospital and over to the worktable that doubled as an examination table. But as Tamra started to lift Tzu Mei onto the table, the child saw her attendants and her guardian and ran to hug each one. When she finally reached Natalia, the tall blond woman cradled the child like a baby and rocked her, cooing to her in Chinese. She whispered words of love and prayers of thankfulness that the child was returned to her safely. The warriors, the healer and the queen watched as the two were reunited and only the toughest stood with dry eyes.

Even Xena, flooded with the awareness that here was her family, had tears streaming down her normally stoic face. Xena watched as Lao Ma’s daughter told Borias’ sister and her former lover of the Romans and the slavers, of how Xena and Meslina rescued the girls, and their trip home learning to read the stars, and how to find water and food. The child had been silent for most of the trip, but among her family and attendants, she was an animated storyteller. The guardian listened intently, relief evident on the older woman’s face. Xena remembered that she never got around to telling Gabrielle about Natalia or their past relationship.

The Amazons returned to the exam table and forced Xena (well, coerced her really) to allow Tamra to check the two arrow wounds. The healer was surprised that they were healing well, considering the lack of medicine the warriors took with them. Xena could feel a lecture coming on, so she told the healer how Tzu Mei had used a poultice to prevent infection and then stopped the poison with her hands. When the healer began asking questions about the technique that Xena couldn’t answer, the warrior princess suggested that Tamra ask Tzu Mei to show her. The healer finished Xena’s exam quickly, confident that Xena would ask for her help if it was required and walked down the ward to meet Tzu Mei.

Most of the other Amazons had left to give the healer and Xena privacy, but Meslina and Gabrielle waited until Xena was dressed so they could accompany her back to the Queen’s hut.

"Meslina, I wanted to thank you again. You saved my life," Xena reached her hand out to the tall blond warrior.

"Don’t mention it. You’d do the same for me. I’m glad that you asked me to join you. Saving those girls and watching the looks on their parents’ faces was worth more than a haystack of dinars." Meslina took Xena’s forearm, then with a wink, wished the queen and her partner a restful night.

"What do you think she meant by that?" Gabrielle asked innocently.

"Oh, I don’t know. What do you think she means?" Xena winked at the young queen.

"Perhaps she knows that we need to talk," Gabrielle answered seriously.

"I know. I’m sorry I walked out on your Queen-making ceremony. But that little girl is important to Natalia and I had to find her. I’m glad that we were able to save the others as well."

"That’s not what I’m talking about, but thank you for apologizing anyway. We need to talk about Natalia and Tzu Mei. You still haven’t told me who they are." Gabrielle’s voice revealed that she was more upset than she’d been letting show. But when Xena tried to hold her and comfort her, she pulled away. "Xena, you were almost killed. You went out with only one warrior against the gods knew how many. You didn’t bring with you enough blankets or medicine. You barely had enough food."

"I didn’t think we’d find so many girls," Xena interrupted, beginning to get angry at having to justify saving Tzu Mei. "And you and I have faced more warriors than that before and we were fine."

"But you’re not fine this time. You could have been killed this time!" Gabrielle shouted.

"It’s only because I didn’t have my chakram. I could have taken that sniper out if I’d only had it with me," Xena countered angrily. "But it’s broken and I feel naked without it." Xena’s mood grew gray as she remembered why Hephaestus’ ring was broken. Callisto was still a problem and now there was a new Emperor. At least she knew Caesar and what to expect from him. This Mark Anthony was too much of an unknown to take any chances; she’d have to find out his plans for Greece.

"Xena, I’m sorry. I just didn’t want to lose you; not after all we’ve been through. You can’t leave me here alone." Gabrielle couldn’t admit that her dreams kept her awake every night that Xena was away.

"Don’t worry, Gabrielle. I’m not going anywhere else, not without you anyway," Xena smiled, trying to lighten their conversation.

"Oh, thank you so much," Gabrielle said sarcastically as she nudged her lover. "But seriously, Xena. I’ve never been anywhere more beautiful than where we were, after we…died. But I’m not ready to go back just yet. And I’m not ready to lose you. We’ve just begun a new stage of our lives together, and there’s so much left to share with you." The queen took the warrior’s arms and turned her so they were face to face. "Promise me that you’ll take better precautions the next time you try to rescue someone."

"I can promise that, Gabrielle," answered Xena.

The two friends were interrupted by the sound of a cane on the wooden floor and they turned to see Natalia and Tzu Mei coming toward them slowly. The older woman was leaning on the girl, who kept looking from Xena to her guardian, grinning proudly at how well Natalia had healed.

"Xena, Gabrielle," Natalia called as she walked across the dark hospital. "I just wanted to thank you both for taking care of me and Tzu Mei’s attendants. And for bring little Mei back to me. I’ve taken care of this child since she was born." She smiled down at the wise, black eyes that peeked out from under straight, black bangs. "I can’t imagine my life without her. Thank you both." Natalia pulled her arm from around Tzu Mei to shake the women’s hands.

Gabrielle noticed how both women hesitated before parting hands and both smiled shyly at each other. Perhaps there was more to their friendship than I first believed, Gabrielle thought to herself.

A small hand reaching into hers disturbed Gabrielle’s musings. "Tamra says you’re going to be made queen tomorrow. Can I come?" asked Tzu Mei softly.

"Of course you can," Gabrielle stooped down to answer Tzu Mei. "You will be my honored guest, my first ambassador from Chin."

Xena was shocked. "You waited to hold the Queen-making ceremony. Why? For me?"

"I told you that you’re part of the ceremony. As the queen’s consort, you have to take part."

"The queen’s consort," Xena and Natalia repeated together.

"Well, I thought…after the other…. Is that okay?" Gabrielle hadn’t talked with Xena about her new title as the Queen’s consort.

"Yes," Xena answered reservedly. "Yes," she insisted. "Sure it is." She placed her hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder affectionately.

"The judges accept that as a yes," answered the healer as she walked up. "I hate to break this up, but everyone to bed," she ordered. "Now." She added and clapped for emphasis as the three women and the child collectively moaned.

"Xena, can Mei stay with you?" Natalia asked. "A hospital isn’t the place for her to sleep."

"No," cried the child. "I want to stay with you."

"There isn’t anywhere for you to sleep, Precious. You can stay with Xena and Gabrielle. They’ll take good care of you."

"Sure we will," Gabrielle added. "I’ve got some wonderful robes I brought back from India. Let’s find you one to wear tomorrow and we’ll take it up for you." She reached her hand out and led the girl to the Queen’s hut, answering questions about India and the Queen-making ceremony.

"Xena," Natalia quietly spoke as they both watched Gabrielle and Tzu Mei walk out of the hospital.

"Hmmm?" Xena turned to the first woman she ever took as a lover and smiled.

"Thank you. No, really," Natalia insisted as Xena tried to wave her quiet. "I wasn’t sure if, after the last time we saw each other, you and Borias would even see me. And now, with Borias gone, you and Mei are the only family I have left."

"You were right, Talia," Xena grinned as she took Natalia’s hand and lead her back to her bed. "You called me your sister. That’s what you are to me. That’s what you’ll always be."

"I remember the first time you called me that," Natalia squeezed Xena’s hand.

"Yeah, so do I. You nearly cut my head off when I did."

"Well, at the time, it wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted you all to myself. I never should have made you choose."

"It wasn’t your fault, Talia," Xena said as she helped her into bed. "I was angry at the world, I wanted to destroy it and I thought Borias would help me if I gave him what he wanted. I never expected to fall in love with you." Natalia looked at Xena, shocked to hear her admit such feelings. "It was true. I did love you; at least in the only way I could back then. I thought love meant giving my body to you. Gabrielle taught me how much more than that love is." Xena pulled the blanket over Natalia, then sat on the edge of the bed.

"When you asked me to choose between my love for you and my plans with Borias, well, I was too blind to see the better choice. Lao Ma even tried to help me see that I was heading down the wrong path. She tried to teach me a better way. But I was too angry, too hungry for power. I only wish she knew how much I owe her and that I’ve finally gotten on the right path."

"She knows, Xena," Natalia reassured her, holding her hands tightly. "She told me that you stayed with her for a while. She could sense the changes happening deep within you. She knew that there were forces trying to use your anger for their own power. She also knew that you would overcome them and find your true path. That’s why she’s giving Mei to you."

"What?" Xena stood up, shocked to hear why Natalia had brought the child so far from her home. She went to retrieve a lit candle and set it on the table near the bed.

"That’s why she’s giving…"

"I heard you. What do you mean, ‘she’s giving Mei to me’?"

"Well, she sent both of us, really. She knew you’d protect her daughter. She knew you’d forgive me, the same way she knew Borias would never know his daughter." Natalia hesitated. "The last time I said that you mentioned someone named Alti and Solon. Who were they?"

"Alti was the shamaness who promised me great power if I followed her way. Because I believed her lies I nearly destroyed the Amazon nation," Xena admitted sadly as she sat back down on the edge of the bed.

"Now you are the ‘Queen’s Consort’ and you’re helping her to rebuild the Amazon nation. You can’t change the past. But you can, and you are, helping them now." Xena nodded quietly. "And who’s Solon?"

"He was my son." Xena hesitated, then added, "He was Borias’ son."

"Was? What happened to him? Where is he?"

"I learned later that Alti cursed him while he was still in my womb. ‘He would never know the love of either parent.’ She said. We hadn’t been back in Greece long when I started to deliver Solon. Borias tried to get me away from my army and save Solon. But one of my lieutenants killed him the night Solon was born. Borias died fighting with the centaurs and I knew they’d protect his son. I gave Solon to a centaur named Kaliepus to raise. I didn’t want him to be a target for my enemies. And I didn’t want him growing up to be like me."

"Where is he now?"

"Dead," Xena choked back the lump in her throat. "He was killed by a demon before I could save him."

"And he never knew you, either?"

"We saw each other the summer before he died, and I was there during that last week. But he never knew until after he died that I was his mother."

"What do you mean, ‘until after he died’?"

"I blamed Gabrielle for his death. I tried to kill her. Solon helped us see that we weren’t enemies. ‘Hatred’ was our enemy. When we stopped fighting, he was there and he knew I was his mother."

"It all sounds very incredible," Natalia replied, shaking her head at the amazing story. "But Lao Ma taught me that evil will do whatever it can to destroy good. It’s only through our conviction, our commitment to good, that we can destroy hatred. It seems that you are still fighting the forces of evil that held you ten years ago. Only now, you are succeeding. Solon did know his mother. The Amazon nation is rebuilding. Ming Tien is dead. I’ve overheard women around here whisper about how you were crucified and a devi, a holy man, brought you back to life. Xena, you have powerful forces of good on your side now, to help you fight against evil."

"You’re right," Xena agreed, realizing how much she’d changed since the last time she saw Natalia. Xena gazed out of the window at the full moon. As the moonlight streamed in, also came the memories.

Ten years ago, they had spent the summer secretly having an affair, Natalia a calming force in the middle of the storm raging around Xena. One night during another full moon, Natalia came to her and passionately seduced her. The next morning she asked Xena to leave Borias and return with her to her home in the Northlands.

Xena, angry at Natalia’s attempts to manipulate her, tried to force her to leave Borias’ camp the morning before they met Lao Ma. But Natalia wanted to stay with her brother and help him negotiate the deal with Lao Tzu. They fought, swords clashing, each one trying to gain an advantage over the other. When Xena finally had her pinned against the wall of the yurt, sword at Natalia’s neck, Natalia pleaded with Xena to let her leave. Natalia was sure that Xena would kill her instead of letting her go and a silent tear ran down Natalia’s cheek. Xena scoffed at her lover’s weakness then let her leave the camp that morning as long as she only told Borias that she was going home.

Xena had been angry with Natalia for forcing her to chose between her and her brother. She wanted them both, even if it was for different reasons. But if she couldn’t have both, then she’d stay with the one who could help her get the most power. She thought that if she went "riding" with Borias that morning and bedded him that he’d ignore the fact that his sister had left so abruptly. Until she was sitting in the dirt, watching him ride away, she didn’t realize that he had his own reasons for going riding that day. Later that day, as Borias and Lao Ma negotiated, Xena tried to hide her grief and loss in the opium pipe. When the negotiations turned into flirting, her jealousy nearly cost Xena her life.

"Xena, are you okay?" Natalia asked.

Xena looked up from her thoughts, old feelings flooding over her. "I’m sorry, Natalia. I pushed you away from me and from your brother. Now you’ll never see him again."

"Xena, Borias lived his life the best way he knew how. You told me he died a hero. I’m sure that right now, he and Solon are looking down on us from the Elysian Fields, who knows, maybe even Lao Ma is there, too. And they know how much we love them and miss them. I wouldn’t change the last ten years of my life if I could. For a brief time I knew great passion in your arms, and ever since then, I’ve had a deep friendship with Lao Ma and her daughter.

"We are all who we are today…You the Warrior Princess, Gabrielle the Queen, Tzu Mei the rightful Empress of Chin, me her guardian, even Borias the hero…because of what happened that summer on the Steppes north of Chin. Our past defines us just as much as our future does. Chinese sailors can tell where they’re going by looking at the stars. The stars are the same here, Xena. You can look at your past to see where you’ve been or you can look up and see where you’re heading. Lao Ma was right, you are a great woman today. But it’s because of all that you’ve done to get here."

"And now she’s got to go," insisted the healer as she walked up to the bed in her sleeping tunic. "I promised myself that I’d give you two until I finished checking on the others. Now, I’m sorry to break up your conversation, but Natalia needs her rest. You’re going to begin exercising that leg tomorrow. And you, Warrior Princess, are still on the injured list. So go to bed, and be careful not to tear any of those stitches or I’ll force you to sleep in here where I can keep an eye on you."

"Okay, okay," Xena gave in. Bending to place a long and tender kiss on Natalia’s lips, Xena wished her a good night and went home to her queen and Borias’ daughter.

The warrior princess found the Amazon queen and the Empress of China still chatting about India as they sewed the final touches on a robe they had cut down for Tzu Mei. The robe was a blue silk tunic with an intricate gold sun on the back and smaller, similar designs on the front. The cuffs and collar were edged in the same gold thread and they used the material cut from the bottom as a belt. Another, thinner piece would be braided in Tzu Mei’s long black hair and a final patch would be used as a small purse to carry a fan made of rice paper and bamboo. The fan had the same design painted on it that Lao Ma’s book had tooled in the leather cover. Xena assumed it was a symbol for their household.

Xena wished them both a good night and pushed through the curtains into their bedroom. She removed her leather dress and boots and poured hot water from the tub into a bowl to wash. Then she climbed into the bed she shared with Gabrielle, and for a while, listened to them share stories about the places that they’d seen. The warrior princess didn’t know exactly when she fell asleep or when Gabrielle joined her, curling up in Xena’s arms. That night the only things she knew were in her dreams: making love to Natalia as the sun rose over the Great Wall; floating in the air with Lao Ma; and the rush of water over her and Gabrielle as they sat on the beach after returning from Illusia.

The next morning, Xena and Gabrielle woke to the steady beating of the Amazon drums. The drummers were calling all the people in the valley together for the Queen-making. Attendants arrived shortly after sunrise and began preparing the women and Tzu Mei for the ceremony. Tzu Mei was dressed and taken to the hospital to have breakfast with her guardian while four attendants impatiently waited for Gabrielle and Xena to eat breakfast. The second they finished, the women pounced on the queen and her warrior princess.

The women bathed, oiled and massaged the queen and her consort. Then, they dressed Gabrielle in a new leather and cloth outfit that made a tingle run up Xena’s back. The top was made of the same material as Gabrielle’s sari, only it was a rich chestnut color. It was shaped like Gabrielle’s green top had been, it was cut short to show her firm mid-drift, and the tailors had cut the shoulder straps very thin to give her even better movement. Leather covered Gabrielle’s breasts, adding both protection and style to the outfit. Gabrielle’s skirt was made of the same chestnut material, and had a wide belt and three leather straps that hung down. Designs from Greece and India were tooled in the leather and dyes were used to accent the designs. A pair of sais were strapped to new, matching leather boots. The queen’s mask was also new and matched the rest of her outfit.

Xena was in the front room, struggling with an attendant to dress herself. The Amazons had made a new outfit for her, and Gabrielle insisted that it looked fabulous on her.

"My, aren’t we spiffy?" Teased Amarise as she walked into the queen’s hut and saw Xena’s new ensemble of brown leather and blue Amazon linen that matched Gabrielle’s.

"Hey Amarise," Xena said dryly as a young attendant tugged the laces on the new top that was too tight for the warrior princess.

"Xena, you working out?" Asked the young Amazon as she pushed her elbows behind her several times. "Row, row, row your…" Amarise ducked just in time for a boot to fly by her head.

Xena swatted the attendant away and adjusted the laces on the top as she informed Gabrielle that Amarise was back from her trip. Gabrielle ran out of the bedroom, one boot on and the other carried by one of the attendants who had been trying to get the nervous queen to sit still for just five minutes so she could finish dressing her.

"Amarise, you’re back. Great! Did everything go all right?" The excited queen asked.

"Sure, everything is just like you wanted," Amarise announced proudly, as Xena wondered what these two had cooked up.

"What’s going on?" The warrior princess asked warily.

"Oh, nothing. You just finish getting dressed. The dancing starts in an hour and then you can go hang out." The queen smiled sweetly as she glanced at Xena’s top. Xena smiled one of those "gee thanks" grins and went back into the bedroom to fix her top.

Gabrielle took Amarise’s arm and led her to the door. "Thanks, Amarise. Just get someone to take care of our guests, and we’ll be out in a little bit." Amarise nodded and went to find an attendant before she went searching for Yakut.

As Gabrielle turned around, Xena walked out of the bedroom and asked her why the secrets.

"I’m the queen," Gabrielle swooned. "I’ve got to have secrets."

"Uh huh." Was the only answer she got.

"Aw, Xena, don’t be mad," Gabrielle pleaded as she walked up to the warrior princess and wrapped her arms around Xena’s waist. "I promise, before long you’ll know all about it."

"Okay," Xena said dryly. Then Xena looked down into beautiful green eyes. The color of ferns in spring, Xena thought. This must have been what the earth looked like when it was new. Then she leaned down and kissed her soulmate for what would have been longer if only an attendant hadn’t cleared her throat.

During the next hour, the attendants finished adding accessories to the queen’s outfit with silver wrist guards and an ornate silver and lapis necklace. Eponin and Shalapa came in to check on their progress, and Meslina finally came in to tell them that everyone was waiting for them.

Eponin marched out of the queen’s hut first and walked through a double line of her new squad of Queen’s guards. She wouldn’t lose another queen any time soon. As she passed the last pair, the drums changed to a slow steady beating, announcing the queen and her entourage. Shalapa and Meslina walked out next, and stopped at the top of the stairs. They parted and stood on each side of stairs with the Queen’s guard. Then, three loud drumbeats that echoed over the valley, and the new Queen and her Consort walked out of their home.

Xena and Gabrielle stepped through the door of their hut and stopped. They looked around to see all of the people who had come to the ceremony. They saw Lila and Joxer smiling proudly and standing next to Xena’s mother, Cyrene. They saw a delegation of centaurs and their friends Eli and Minya, standing next to Natalia, Tzu Mei and her attendants. They were really surprised to see Hercules and Iolaus with a small, red-haired woman, Morrigan, a friend from Eire, they later learned. Next to all of these special guests were the tribes of the Amazons, each one lined up like military squads on a parade field, with the tribal leaders in a row at the foot of the stairs.

The drums began to beat again and Gabrielle and Xena moved toward the edge of the porch. When they passed Shalapa and Meslina, the women followed them down the stairs and through the honor guard. As they got to the middle of the line of guards, the first six women in each line moved forward, leading the queen and the regent to the platform in the center of the village. The remaining guards followed the four women to the platform before the twelve, handpicked women moved to position themselves around the base of the platform. The queen, the regent and their mates climbed the stairs and lined up across the platform. Meslina and Xena stood on the outside, Gabrielle and Shalapa stood in the center, Eponin stood behind the Queen.

Oteri, leading the tribal leaders, walked to the platform with the new queen’s mask in hand. She climbed the stairs and handed the mask to Gabrielle, who raised it and then placed it over her head. She stood there for moment, wondering what would happen next. What she heard was the sound of the four hundred people shouting, clapping, stomping, and beating drums and shields. They welcomed in the new era of the Amazon nation as they welcomed Gabrielle as the new queen. Everyone there believed that this would be the beginning of a great, new age in history. Everyone, but the blond woman standing at the back of the crowd, watching, waiting.


At the Production Company:

Elizabeth peeked around the room to see the actresses, actors and production crew that would be filming her episode. Lucy and Renee sat at one end of the long, wooden table, Renee occasionally reaching over to tickle the small boy in Lucy’s arms. The Amazons were scattered around the room, some in costume; some dressed in jeans or shorts. Sheeri (Oteri), Kate (Yakut) and Jennifer (Amarise) were piled together comfortably on an easy chair behind Lucy. Jennifer was dressed in a soft, cream colored dress with a small flower print. Nichole (Shalapa) was sitting at the table next to Chloe, one of the producers, and Timothy (Eli). They were laughing about the scene from "It Takes One to Know One" that Willa (Lila) and Ted Raimi were describing where Darien (Cyrene) had to say "Maybe she likes her pears bruised" and Renee had to say, "She’s your mother". They had to film that scene five times before Darien could say her line without laughing.

Everyone else filtered into the room and found a place to sit at the crowded table or on couches or chairs placed around the room. Elizabeth could tell that these people enjoyed their jobs and enjoyed working with each other. There didn’t seem to be any divas here. Even Lucy was more interested in showing off the laughing child in her arms to friends she hadn’t seen since the last time they were guests on the show. What really surprised Elizabeth was how small and feminine Hudson was in her tank top and jeans. She had expected to find Hudson more like Callisto than the California girl she really was.

"Okay, everyone, let’s settle down and get this meeting started." A disembodied voice spoke over the crowd in the conference room. Then, with a bit of shuffling and paper ruffling, the cast meeting began. "First, I’d like to welcome everyone back." The red-haired executive producer said warmly. "And I’d like to welcome our story writer, Elizabeth Laire." Elizabeth waved to the group gathered around the table. "Second, in case anyone’s read the original story from the Internet, the sex scenes have been replaced with more acceptable scenes."

"Oh, but Sweetie, Ren and I have been looking forward to those scenes." Lucy pleaded, as she took Renee’s hand and brought it to her cheek.

"Okay, well, maybe later," Rob teased back as everyone cracked up. "Let’s look at the script and the schedule, and then I’ll get out of your way. I’d like to see Steve, Chloe, Liz and Lucy in my trailer after the meeting. Then I’m taking my son to Toys R Us before we leave for LA," Rob smiled sweetly at his wife at the other end of the table holding their sleeping child, and she smiled back lovingly.

Elizabeth sat through the meeting speechless, anxiously waiting to see what these people thought about her story. She was also aware that she was totally out of her element. But she was completely interested as camera shots, script changes, schedules and costumes were discussed. When they finally reached her part in the read-through, she followed everyone else and read her lines as if she was being filmed. When everyone applauded and congratulated each other at the end of the read-through, she began to relax. The meeting ended after a few more script edits and a review of the shooting schedule.

Lisa pulled Elizabeth to her trailer; excited about the costumes she and Ngila had designed for her. The first fitting was for the tattered silk robe she’d wear in the hospital. The second was the gorgeous silk gown she would wear to the Queen-making ceremony. The last outfit was made of brown leather and resembled Borias’ in "The Debt". After her fitting, Joe came to take her to the hospital stage for an evening rehearsal and blocking. On the way, he explained that they had to shoot approximately eight to ten minutes of film each day, so the actors usually had long, twelve hour days, more if an actor had special makeup. Since Steve was directing this episode and he was familiar with the actresses and their styles, the rehearsal went smoothly and they were done by 8:30 p.m.

As Elizabeth opened Joe’s 4x4 door and slid onto the leather seat, she realized that she hadn’t really slept since the day before, back at the hotel in LA. She vaguely remembered Joe leading her into her room at a Bed and Breakfast and laying her luggage on a chair in the corner. An older, Maori woman came in to pull back her blankets and left a tray of fruit, hot tea and freshly baked rolls, but Elizabeth sat on the edge of the bed to remove her shoes and then leaned back to test the bed, and the tray was forgotten. She fell asleep holding one shoe, the other still on her foot. She moved only once that night to crawl underneath the sheet and kick of the remaining shoe.

Several hours later, Elizabeth leapt out of the bed and was standing shoe-ready before she realized that the offensive noise that woke her up was the ringing telephone. Joe was calling to tell her that he’d pick her up in half an hour and asked her if she needed anything. She suggested another four hours sleep and he hung up the phone laughing. The Maori woman lightly tapped on the door and walked in with a fresh tray of sweet rolls, fruit and a pot of coffee. Elizabeth’s stomach announced that the tray was just what she needed, and she grabbed a roll as she went to take a shower. After showering and dressing, she had a few minutes of panicked searching for her missing shoe. But as Joe came in and sat on the foot of the bed, the shoe was discovered under the sheets. They both grabbed a final roll as they left the room and Elizabeth stuck a few plums in her backpack for later. As she walked out of the Bed and Breakfast, she finally realized that it was still dark outside and asked Joe for the time.

"Oh, about 5:15 in the morning," he smiled sweetly.

"Oh no." Elizabeth moaned and turned to go back into the house.

Joe laughed and grabbed her hand before she escaped him and led her to the 4x4. "You sleep, I’ll drive." He smiled understandingly.

The view from the hilltop outside the production site was more breathtaking as the sun dawned over the purple sea than it was the day before, and Elizabeth smiled as she remembered where she was and why she was there. She was still a little nervous; this would be her first day of shooting, and they would try to knock out most of her hospital scenes. The crew had already shot the opening sequence with Eponin, Amarise and the young Amazons and they were going to group different scenes that could be shot in one location before moving to the next stage or site.

At the staff meeting the day before, Steve said that with a shooting schedule like that, Elizabeth could take time to sightsee, but she asked if it would be all right if she stayed and watched the filming. She would be willing to help or stay out of the way, whichever he preferred. Seeing the heads of the crew nodding that they welcomed her help, Chloe welcomed her to RenPic and slid a notebook toward her with a smile.

Elizabeth’s first day as an actress was probably very much like every other actress’ day: make-up at dawn, and a quick rehearsal of each scene before shooting the real thing. They shot the reunion of Xena and Natalia, and then the short scene where Natalia realizes Tzu Mei is missing. After lunch they shot the scene where Xena finds out about Tzu Mei. The last shot of the day was the reunion of Natalia and Tzu Mei after Xena and Meslina rescued her.

It was hard to be an actress, Elizabeth realized. During the day, she had ridden a rollercoaster of emotions from sad to afraid to happy, and it had taken its toll on her. By the end of the day she was drained emotionally as well as physically and she couldn’t believe that people did this for a living, deliberately putting themselves through the wringer. But most of her scenes were shot that first day, so she had the rest of the week to relax and enjoy watching the others work.

Two days later, on Thursday, a reporter from the E-channel came to interview Elizabeth, Lucy and Renee. And by Friday, the major scenes for the first episode were finished. During the following week, stand-ins would film the acrobatic shots for the fight scenes, while the lead actresses and actors went on to shoot the next episode. The closing scene of the episode, shot on Friday, was the most fascinating to Elizabeth. Watching Renee transform from the beautiful bard in her yellow sari to the Amazon Queen in a leather warrior’s outfit was breathtaking. When she joined the cast to watch the replay of the scene and see the extras, the centaurs, the squads of Amazons, and then follow as the camera searched the shouting crowd to find Callisto standing in her white robe behind them…that was more than Elizabeth ever expected. Steve had taken her simple story and translated it into epic proportions. She was both proud and awestruck that he had taken images out of her head and put them on film for the world to see.

That afternoon, on her way to a rental car she’d gotten so she could spend the weekend sightseeing, Lucy called to her from across the parking lot. She explained that they were celebrating Renee’s birthday and would she come to the party tonight. It was Friday night at about 8:00 p.m., the shooting was over for the week and Elizabeth had a decision to make: go back to the B&B and catch up on her sleep, or join the cast and crew for a party. Yeah, some decision. She followed Alison Wall to the club near Lucy’s home in the hills.

When she arrived, she was surprised to find out it was a disco theme party. She started to turn around so she could leave without anyone seeing her, but Renee and a tall, tanned, good-looking young man, often called "the Kiwi boyfriend", caught Elizabeth before she could escape. They led her to a room full of boas, Pinball Wizard shoes, strands of beads and colored wigs. After five minutes she looked like a drag queen on 42nd Street and was blinded by the flash from the Polaroid in Renee’s hands. She tried to grab the photo, but Renee gave it to John with a victorious laugh. Now, Elizabeth stood eye-to-eye with Lucy, and although she used the gym at the bank occasionally, she knew she’d be no match for the muscular, young man.

She left the small room pouting about the picture until Timothy Omundson walked up to her, looking very much not like Eli, and asked her to dance. She forgot the picture and spent the next hour dancing with as many people as she could, male and female, cast and crew. It didn’t matter to these people, they were family and they really liked each other. They’d gather around different people who were showing off their disco steps, or line the floor to do the hustle, following Avery Grove, the actress who was playing Tamra.

Around 9:30 p.m., Lucy walked in by herself. Dressed in, or rather poured into a pair of pale blue jeans and a tie-dyed T-shirt, Lucy walked up to the bar and asked the bartender for a bottle of water. Then she sat on a stool, watching and smiling at the dancers, chatting with friends who’d come up to the bar to get a drink, or talking with the bartender. Elizabeth noticed that no one invited Lucy to dance and Lucy didn’t seem too interested in dancing anyway. So she walked up to the actress and shyly asked her to dance. Amazingly, Lucy agreed; and she took Elizabeth’s hand and was led onto the dance floor where "I Will Survive" was blaring.

The two tall women boogied to the Gloria Gaynor song and to "Stayin’ Alive", doing the Freak, the Bump, and pretending to be John Travolta. They even tried to do the Tango to Barry Manilow’s "Copa Cabana" but half way through the song they started to laugh at themselves uncontrollably.

"Thank you." The blue-eyed actress said as they walked back to the bar.

"I should be thanking you." Elizabeth countered. "You’ve made this week so wonderful. And now you’ve made another dream come true."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, at heart, I’m still a nutball Xena fan, despite the impression I may have given you this week of being a skilled writer and seasoned actress," Elizabeth joked. "I’ve spent four years dreaming of meeting you, just hoping to get your autograph. I never expected all of this."

"Then, you’re welcome." Lucy said graciously with a slight nod. "But that’s not what I’m talking about. Ever since I married Rob, no one asks me to dance anymore. You’re the first, other than Rob or Daisy, that I’ve danced with in nearly a year."

"Really! Why?"

"I’m not sure exactly. It’s not like that at work. There, we still treat each other the same. But that’s work and we’re there to concentrate on the show. But I think they’re intimidated by my relationship with Rob when we’re off the set. You know, we used to be on the same side; it used to be us against them. I even have an agent that negotiates my contract with Rob."

"I read that in an interview once. It seemed strange that you could separate those two parts of yourself so completely."

"Yes, but it helps to keep my work separated from my relationship with Rob. If we have an argument because he left his towel on the bathroom floor, I don’t want to worry that I won’t get a raise next season." Lucy laughed to herself. "I think that they wonder if I’ll tell Rob who’s complaining, or who was late or forgot a line, like I was one of "them" now."

"I don’t think you need to worry about that, Lucy. I’ve never seen a more compatible group of people. Maybe they just don’t know what rules you and Rob have set for yourselves. After all, he spends a lot of time in the States and you’re here with Daisy and the baby. They may think he’s the jealous type and will fire them if he catches you fraternizing."

"He wouldn’t do that. He’s not that way."

"So, let them know, go to them and ask them to dance. That’ll let people know that it’s okay to come to you."

"Okay, but next month, at my birthday party. Hey, if you’re still here we’re going to have a beach party before the kids have to go back to school. You should join us."

"That sounds great. But I’ve only got three weeks vacation. That means next week to film part two and the week after that to do any voice-overs or re-shoots. God, I’d love to stay longer. Other than waking up at five every morning, I’ve had so much fun. I knew before I got here that I admired this company and the way they treat the cast and crew, and how they feel about hiring locally. I thought about bringing my resume and begging for a job."

"Well, it’s not too late," Lucy said as she patted Elizabeth on the shoulder.

"Oh, yeah, thanks. Keep me dreaming," Elizabeth laughed as she waved at the bartender for another Diet Coke.

They spent the next hour talking about the show, rumors Elizabeth had read in interviews, and young Julius. The bartender came over and offered them another round of water and Diet Coke, and Lucy noticed that a slow Yvonne Ellimann song was playing and asked Elizabeth to dance. Speechless for the first time all evening, Elizabeth took Lucy’s hand and followed her onto the dance floor.

Lucy held Elizabeth’s right hand and rested her left arm lightly on Elizabeth’s shoulder. Elizabeth put her left hand on Lucy’s waist and prayed that she wouldn’t sweat. She hoped that she had remembered to put on deodorant that morning. The two women danced to the slow music, hips touching lightly, swaying side to side as they moved easily across the dance floor. When the next song was another slow tune, Lucy pulled the tall blond woman closer to her and rested her head on Elizabeth’s shoulder. As Lucy’s hand lightly ran through her hair, Elizabeth held the thin actress tightly to her, their hips and feet almost still.

They moved into a dimly lit corner of the dance floor and continued to sway to the sensual music. Then Elizabeth moved her head to glance at the beautiful woman in her arms just as Lucy tilted her head and they found themselves staring into each other’s eyes. The second seemed to last an hour, and Lucy lifted the edge of her mouth in a smile before kissing the lips of the woman smiling at her. It was a sweet kiss, soft and light on Elizabeth’s lips, one that said "thank you for understanding me" not "sleep with me". At that moment, the inattentive disc jockey decided to play "Last Dance" by Donna Summer. This time, as it does every time, the music started out slow and sensual then changed to a frantic disco beat, disturbing the women entwined in the corner. Lucy took Elizabeth’s hand and led her through the crowd and off the dance floor.

"Daisy is with her father this weekend, and Rob and the baby are still in California visiting his family. I’m going fishing this weekend. Would you like to go?" Lucy offered.

"Yes." Elizabeth answered without hesitation. "That would be nice." She added, trying to be nonchalant. Lucy smiled, knowing better.

"Great. I’ll pick you up at five in the morning." Lucy said as she walked out of the club.

"Five?" Elizabeth said to herself. "What is it about you people. Don’t you know you’re supposed to be asleep when it’s dark?" But no one in the noisy bar answered her.

The next morning, at 4:45 a.m., Lucy woke Elizabeth up. Elizabeth was so surprised to see the actress leaning over her bed that she jumped and fell off the other side. She banged into the night table and sent it and a brass lamp crashing to the floor.

"What are you doing here?" Elizabeth asked, rubbing an elbow. She grabbed the sheet to cover herself. She’d been so tired after the party, that after showering, she didn’t feel like putting on her pajamas.

"I thought it would be a good idea to wake you, so you didn’t wake the whole house." Lucy said laughing, climbing over the bed to help Elizabeth right the table and lamp. "But now we don’t have to worry about that."

"Is everything alright?" Bella, the Maori woman asked as she ran in. "Oh, hi Lucy. I didn’t know you were here."

"Well, I came to pick up my American friend here to show her the best fishing spot on the North Island. Sorry we woke you."

"Na, no problem. I would have been getting up soon anyway. Do you want something to eat before you go?" Bella asked.

"Do you still serve those sausages your father makes?"

"Sure do. Want some biscuits to go with them? I’ve got some elderberry jam my sister made."

"Ooh, sounds wonderful. And can we borrow some plastic cups to take with us? I left some on my kitchen counter."

"Sure, I’ll pack you a box of some things."

"That sounds great, Bella. Thanks. We’ll be down in a few minutes." She turned to Elizabeth, still wrapped in the sheet. "What are you still standing there for? Shower. Now. The bus leaves in fifteen minutes." Lucy handed her a towel off the back of a wooden chair. It was still wet from the shower she had taken four hours ago.

"I’m okay. I’ll just throw some clothes on and I’ll be ready." Elizabeth pulled the sheet tighter around her and went to the closet to decide which pair of her new jeans she’d wear for fishing.

"You can’t wear any of those. It’ll be too hot for you. Here, I thought you might need these." She reached into a leather bag she had brought in and pulled out a pair of khaki shorts loaded with pockets.

"Hey, these are cool!" Elizabeth replied, as she held them up in front of her. Then she looked at Lucy, who realized why Elizabeth hesitated.

Lucy turned around and talked to the door as Elizabeth got dressed. "So, we’ll drive to the lake and camp there. The trout are biting this time of year and they’ll be great for dinner. Then, if you want we can run some of your lines or go swimming. How’s that sound?"

"Wonderful." Elizabeth announced. "All finished." She added as she started packing her backpack with extra clothes, her script, and some toiletries. She started to pack her hair dryer, but Lucy said she wouldn’t need that since there weren’t any outlets where she usually camped. Elizabeth threw her backpack over her shoulder and Lucy grabbed a heavy picnic basket that Bella held out as they walked downstairs. After a group hug with the chubby, gray-haired woman, the two actresses piled into a red Jeep and headed west toward the center of the North Island.

"So how did you get in this morning?" Elizabeth asked as they drove through the green pastures.

Lucy smiled at finally being caught. "That was where I stayed when I first started working on the show. I liked it so much that when I heard that Bella was going to close down because she didn’t get enough customers, I bought it and let her run it. I have a key." She said, jingling the brass key in front of Elizabeth.

Elizabeth punched Lucy on the shoulder lightly, and shook her head. "You could give someone a heart attack sneaking into their room like that. And my elbow still hurts." She cried, showing Lucy the red spot that was turning into a bruise.

"Aw, poor girl. Give it here and we’ll kiss it." Lucy drawled in her kiwi accent as she reached for the sore arm.

"Oh no! You keep your eyes on the road, or you’ll kill us both. Then we’ll never hear the end of it." Elizabeth put her hand to her ear pretending to be a news anchor. "Xena and female fan killed while kissing in car. Thousands of mourning lesbians storm funeral to torch bodies in Amazon fashion. Film at eleven. Like Gabrielle said, ‘I’ll ruin my karma and come back as a Tele-evangelist.’ My mother’s an MCC minister and she would hate that."

"An MCC minister? What’s that?"

"It’s a church that ministers to gays and lesbians. She’s been a minister since the 70’s. She’s retiring this month."

"There’s a church for gays? Wow. I never knew that."

"Sure. There are even two in New Zealand, in Christchurch and Auckland."

"Really?" Lucy hesitated. "So does that mean your mother is gay?"


"And you, how long have you known?"

"Since I was about nine I knew that our family was different. I was about twelve when I finally understood how."

"No, I mean, how long have you known that you were gay?"

"You know?" Elizabeth looked over at the dark-haired woman in shock.

"Sure. I saw you flirting with Liz Friedman and I realized it then."

"I wasn’t either!" Elizabeth blushed.

"It’s okay. We obviously don’t mind here. New Zealanders are more concerned with protecting the ozone layer or having anti-nuke rallies, not who you sleep with afterwards." Lucy smiled and patted Elizabeth’s knee to reassure her. "But how is it that both of you are gay? That seems improbable."

Elizabeth laughed. It wasn’t the first time someone was shocked by her family exceeding the 1-in-10 statistic. "My mother says she always knew I was different. I figured out that I was different at about the same time I realized that she was different."

"Uh hum. Go on." Lucy prodded.

"Well, I remember going to a church conference and meeting these two women who were acting as security guards that weekend. One was tall and strong, and she filled the room with her laughter. The other was older; she was wise and gentle and loving but you still knew that she’d kick your butt if you messed with her. I never knew women like that before and I wanted to be just like them. As I got older I realized how much I really was like them."

"Which one is Natalia?" Lucy asked.

Elizabeth thought for a moment. "Natalia is both, really. She’s tall, strong and beautiful like one. And she’s wise and gentle, but can be tough, like the other. Like Xena or Lao Ma."

"Where are they now?"

"In Rhode Island. I haven’t been able to visit them in a long time. But I think about either one of them almost every day."

"If they’re as good friends as you say, they’ll understand. And the next time you visit them, it’ll be like no time has passed at all." Lucy reassured her. Then Lucy looked out the passenger window. "Look." She pointed. Elizabeth turned to look outside the window and saw the most beautiful landscape she’d seen on the island so far. As the road turned and headed down the hill toward the lake, Elizabeth felt like a pioneer discovering a place that no human had ever seen before.

Thick, green trees lined the road, then spread out to leave a clearing of grass speckled with wildflowers. At the other edge of the clearing was the mountain-fed lake. The lake was mirror-calm and reflected the clouds and the flock of ducks flying overhead. Lucy drove the Jeep off the road and into the clearing. Then the two women unpacked and set-up their camp and tents before heading to the lake. They spent the day bathing in the sun, not really worrying about fishing after they caught the first three, and enjoyed chatting and learning about each other. They shared the treats that Bella had given them, and even spent some time studying their lines.

That night, they feasted on trout baked over the fire with wild chestnuts and sage, and a boil-in-bag of rice. They talked easily, revealing dreams and plans over a bottle of kiwi-fruit wine. Even though they had brought and set up two tents, they found themselves still in one tent, playing gin rummy well after it had gotten dark. They spent the night curled up together, whispering like schoolgirls at a sleepover until they drifted to sleep.

The next day was enjoyed at the same pace, and when she returned to the Bed and Breakfast that Sunday evening, Elizabeth knew that something had changed inside her, something that would make her mother very upset. But she went to sleep wrapped in the soft comforter in her room, and vowed to not worry about it for two weeks. On Monday morning when Joe picked her up at 5:00 a.m., she was still calm and relaxed. When he asked her what she had done over the weekend, she simply smiled and leaned back to enjoy the sunrise.

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