"The Stars are the Same Here"
by Missy Ragona
Please see the disclaimer at the beginning of Part One.
Tzu Mei, the young Chinese empress, looked around her at the crowd that had gathered for the Amazon Queen-making. She was surprised that there were so many strong and fierce women. They were dressed in close-fitting, revealing leather and feather outfits, and they were raising their weapons and shields in the air to welcome the new queen.
These women weren’t ashamed of being women, she thought. In fact, they seemed proud and empowered by it. My mother would have felt comfortable here among these strong and courageous women.
A tear welled up in Tzu Mei’s eyes as she thought of her mother, Lao Ma. The image of her mother preparing to walk into Ming Tien’s throne room for her execution still cut deeply. Her beautiful mother was clothed only in simple, undyed linen, her hair draped loosely over her shoulders like a girl’s. Lao Ma was stoic as she walked toward her death… until Ming Tien threatened to drag in Tzu Mei to watch the execution. Only then did she begin to weep and beg him for mercy, not for herself, but for her daughter. Laughing evilly, he promised that if she would not resist him, he would spare the girl. But she knew he was lying, and Lao Ma feared for her daughter’s safety. She began yelling to Natalia, the girl’s aunt, to get her daughter out of China and take her to Xena. Only the Warrior Princess would be able to protect the child, the last of the House of Lao, and save China.
Tzu Mei recalled the vision she had during her exodus from China: As Natalia dragged the crying child away from the throne room, they could hear Lao Ma using her magic for one last spell. She prayed to the ancestors, asking them to draw the light of goodness around Xena to protect her from the forces of evil trying to manipulate her so that she would stay on her true path. She wrapped the prayer in a ball of light and watched it reflect the evening sun that streamed through the window. Then, as Ming Tien brought the knife over his head for one final deathblow, she yelled out Xena’s name. With her last breath she sent the prayer out of the window toward the sun, toward Xena. Her spirit watched as Natalia took Tzu Mei and her servants out of China. Her spirit followed the glowing prayer across the Steppes, across India, and into Greece to find its target. Lao Ma watched as the Warrior Princess buried her armor, her sword, and her chakram, trying to bury part of herself in the dirt. She turned and followed Xena when she ran toward the screaming girls. Both women, one painfully human, the other peacefully spiritual, stopped to watch the young woman courageously step out of the crowd of girls trying to protect her friends. When Lao Ma saw the aura of unfailing love and courage around the blond-haired, green-eyed, peasant girl, her spirit smiled. Her prayer had been heard. She would be able to continue her eternal journey in peace.
Tzu Mei’s thoughts were disturbed by the sound of her name whispered through the shouting and drumming. She looked up at her aunt, the tall, blond, brown-eyed warrior who had brought her to Greece. Natalia looked down at the young girl and smiled as she gently brushed the bangs out of Tzu Mei’s eyes and shook her head when Tzu Mei asked if she had called her name.
Tzu Mei shrugged and decided that she must have over-heard someone talking about her. But a few minutes later she heard her name whispered again and she turned left and right to see whom had called her. Natalia grabbed her shoulder to stop her fidgeting and chided her restlessness. Then she heard her name a third time, just a little louder. This time it didn’t sound like a whisper but more like someone calling from very far away. Tzu Mei almost thought she recognized the voice. She turned around expectantly, but everyone was watching Queen Gabrielle, and they were oblivious of her. Everyone began shouting and screaming, welcoming the new queen and her consort, everyone but the small, blond-haired woman who stood at the back of the crowd, staring at her. The woman, whose name she would soon learn was Callisto, was dressed in a Roman robe and had a short haircut like the new queen’s. Callisto smiled and blew a kiss toward the girl, who quickly turned and took Natalia’s hand. Callisto’s smile reminded the young girl of her brother Ming Tien’s smile, evil and treacherous. She knew there was no love in that woman, even though she had never seen her before. She turned for another quick glance, but the blond woman was no longer there. Tzu Mei could still feel the fear coursing through her as Natalia pulled her niece toward the new Queen and her Warrior Princess.
Natalia leaned on her crutches and pulled the restless child toward Xena and Gabrielle to congratulate them. She pushed through the crowd of Amazons surrounding the couple and handed her crutches to Eponin as she opened her arms to Gabrielle. The smaller woman laughed joyfully and wrapped her arms around Natalia in a bear hug that nearly broke her ribs. The warrior understood why Xena was so taken with this shining, laughing spirit. Who wouldn’t be, Natalia thought. No one could resist the combination of beauty, strength and joy in this woman.
Then Lila, Gabrielle’s sister, made it through the sea of Amazons and Centaurs and screamed Gabrielle’s name. The sisters hugged and laughed, jumping like two girls at Winter Solstice. As Natalia struggled to balance herself on her right leg and keep her splinted leg from being kicked, Xena grabbed her arm to steady her. Natalia took Xena’s hand in hers and pulled the dark warrior to her. They stood face-to-face and eye-to-eye, blue staring into to brown. Then, they smiled at each other and embraced in a hug that only the old lovers near-by understood. Not the A-frame, cheek-kissing hug of peasant women meeting in the market; but the full-bodied, hips-touching embrace of two women who were unrestrained with each other. After a moment, Natalia felt a strong hand on her shoulder.
"May I cut in?" she heard a deep voice behind her ask. She reluctantly let go of Xena and turned to see who had the nerve to disturb them only to find herself staring into the smiling, blue eyes of the half-god son of Zeus. "Do you mind?" Hercules asked and Natalia took a hop to the right. She was getting better at balancing herself on one foot. She watched Hercules give Xena a friendly kiss as he congratulated her and hugged her before doing the same to Gabrielle.
Then Natalia watched as Iolaus walked up to Xena and hugged and kissed her, as well. She sensed something odd about the small, muscular man as he laughed and joked comfortably with Xena. During her eight years living with and learning from Lao Ma, she had learned to feel the spiritual world around her. She could sense that the spirit world still touched this laughing man like the dust still on him from the road; the same way it still drifted around Xena and Gabrielle. She was right when she told Xena that there were powerful forces of good on her side now. But she knew that it also meant that the forces of evil were still trying to tap into that power for their own ends.
As the swarm of well-wishers began to thin, heading toward the tables being loaded with meat, wild vegetables and sweet desserts, the group of family and friends were led toward four tables that had been placed in a square in the center of the village. Xena and Gabrielle were lead to the middle of one table, next to Shalapa and Meslina. Gabrielle invited Tzu Mei to sit between them and she described the different dishes as an attendant brought each one. Lila and Cyrene were seated next to Xena, with Joxer, Minya, Hercules, Morrigan and Iolaus seated beside them. Xenan, Ephiny’s son, and Tyldus, his grandfather, were given a place at the table, and Eli, Oteri and Yakut sat beside them. Eponin and Natalia sat next to Yakut and the remaining Amazon leaders were seated between Natalia and Meslina. Other tables were placed around these for the Amazon tribe, villagers and Centaurs sharing in the festival.
Everyone’s mouth watered as tray after tray of garlic-roasted deer, duck with a honey-orange sauce, and butter-grilled fish were offered to them. Then came the trays of wild rice and vegetables garnished with laurel and sage, and bowls of humus and tabouli were placed around the tables with warm flat bread for dipping. Musicians played while everyone ate and talked comfortably. When the baked apples, cream-filled pastries and cinnamon-coated fruits were brought out, everyone oohed and aahed and Gabrielle called out the cooks so everyone could applaud their tremendous efforts.
After she had eaten more than she’d care to admit, Gabrielle went around the tables to visit with those who were still eating or talking. She stopped for a quick game of shells with a group of young girls and described some of her adventures in India to a group of older women from a nearby village. She watched as Tamra showed Amarise how to walk on her hands, and talked with a band of Telequai Amazons about a school for the girls.
Xena watched as the young queen charmed everyone at the celebration. Gabrielle was a natural leader, and her interest and concern for her tribe showed. Xena was proud to be called Gabrielle’s partner, although she still wasn’t sure how she felt about her new title as the "Queen’s Consort". The Warrior Princess continued to watch Gabrielle, her eyes roaming over her new sunset-colored leather and linen outfit. The color accented the queen’s tanned arms and legs, and made her hair seem even lighter than before. Xena finally saw what everyone else already knew: Gabrielle’s hair had gotten lighter during their years of traveling and living on the road.
Funny, Xena thought, that I hadn’t noticed that before. She had red hair that first day she begged me to take her with me. It seems that as she struggles for enlightenment and gets closer to being who she was meant to be, her purity shines through and she glows.
Sensing that she was being watched as she mused about her lover, Xena turned to see Natalia leaning on her crutches and smiling broadly at her. Xena gave her former lover a questioning look and Natalia motioned for Xena to join her. She walked over to Natalia and for the first time that day noticed Natalia’s robe. It was a plum-colored, silk robe with stylized long-stemmed lavender lilies woven so that they curled around and accented Natalia’s tall, thin body. Xena’s eyes grew wider as she followed the lilies over her breasts and hips, and down her long legs. Her long, blond hair was braided and draped loosely over her left shoulder and her cheeks and the top of her nose were red from sitting in the sun while she ate. Natalia could feel a tingle run up her spine and her cheeks redden as Xena looked at her, and she was pleased with Xena’s reaction. Xena held Natalia’s arm lightly as they walked over to sit on a bentwood couch loaded with cushions and pillows that had been placed under a tree. Tzu Mei joined them and put her head on Natalia’s lap and shortly fell asleep.
Xena smiled down at the girl in Natalia’s lap. She had spent ten of the last fourteen days captive to slave traders who worked for the new Roman emperor and three on the road to the Amazons. The slavers hadn’t been concerned with caring for the girls and Meslina and Xena had been mostly concerned with getting everyone home safely. The warrior hadn’t heard Tzu Mei complain at all. In fact, she often held hands or sang to one of the other girls when they got tired or began to complain.
"Is she okay?" Xena asked, concerned that the child had spent too much time in the sun after eating too much. Natalia nodded and explained that she thought Tzu Mei was missing her mother.
Lao Ma and Natalia have done a great job raising this little one, Xena thought to herself as she caressed Tzu Mei’s cheek. I can’t even imagine what she’d have been like if I had stayed. Then sadly, Xena thought, I couldn’t imagine what my life would have been like if I had stayed. I never would have fought against Borias, I never would have left Solon, I never would have raided Cirra and created Callisto.
"You never would have known Gabrielle." Natalia finished Xena’s thought for her.
Shocked, Xena asked, "Did I say that out loud?"
"No," Natalia smiled. "I saw you looking at her the same way I look at her," she said, pointing to her niece. "I’ve asked myself the same questions over and over. What would I have been like if I had stayed with you and Borias? And since I’ve been here, I’ve asked myself if you would have been different had I stayed. Would your son still be alive? Would Borias still be alive? But then I think of Lao Ma and Tzu Mei and I remember what I told you last night. We made our choices, we followed our stars, and because we did we both found love. You found Gabrielle and I was blessed by Lao Ma and this precious child."
"Yeah, I know you’re right," Xena answered distantly.
"So what’s troubling you, old friend?"
"I still have a few loose ends I need to clean up," the Warrior Princess admitted and her old friend nodded understandingly.
During the next hour, Xena and Natalia sat underneath the shady tree watching the new Queen charm everyone with her stories and her laughter. Occasionally, they would have short conversations about the Amazons or one of the guests. Iolaus joined them for a while until Lila asked him to dance, and Oteri walked over and sullenly sat at Xena’s feet, putting her head in her hands.
"What’s wrong, Oteri?" Xena asked. She was glad that the Anatolian Amazons had agreed to join the Greek Amazons. As independent and mature as they were for their years, she felt more comfortable having them nearby so she could protect them from what was left of Alti’s warriors. She also realized that she was beginning to really care about this young tribal leader, and was concerned that Oteri could be so depressed during the festive Queen-making.
"Well," the young woman sighed. "I saw Yakut heading toward the river with Amarise about three hours ago, and they’re still not back. At first I was hurt but now I’m worried. Yakut usually prefers to stay near the village. She says she feels safer now than she’s ever felt. Even when we went hunting the other day, she insisted that we not go more than an hours walk out of the village. We couldn’t find anything other than a few rabbits and a flock of ducks by the lake," she laughed to herself as remembered them trying to chase the ducks.
Nine years ago, after Cyane and the Amazon leaders had been killed and the girls had been left alone, Yakut had been Oteri’s best friend. As they grew into women, their friendship turned into a deep love and they had vowed to spend their lives together. But their relationship had never been tested before, and Amarise’s overtures to Yakut had been the basis for several arguments over the last few days. During the Queen-making ceremony, as she watched Xena and Gabrielle, Oteri realized how much she loved Yakut. She realized that she too would cross into the Land of the Dead to be with Yakut if necessary. All she wanted right now was a chance to tell her.
That’s when Oteri saw her lover and Amarise walk through the trees into the clearing. Their clothes were torn and they looked like they had been rolling in the dirt. Oteri rose to her feet furiously and started to walk toward them, ready to fight for Yakut’s love. At the same moment, Tzu Mei woke with a start, calling out her mother’s name. And Xena jumped out of the couch, grabbing Oteri’s hand to stop her.
Oteri turned on her angrily. "LET ME GO!" she shouted at the Warrior Princess.
"No," Xena held her arm more tightly. "Look." Xena pointed to the leather-clad men walking behind them with crossbows aimed at the women’s backs.
"YAKUT!" Oteri yelled as she tried to pull away from Xena. But Xena threw her arm over Oteri’s shoulder and pulled her back as she placed her other hand over Oteri’s mouth.
"Quiet," Xena hissed. "You’ll get them and yourself killed if you rush them now. Stay here and let me find out what this is all about. Alright?" Xena gave Oteri’s arm to Natalia as she slowly moved to the center of the village.
Gabrielle was the first to reach the warriors and asked them what they were doing with two of her Amazons. The shorter, more filthy of the two men, grinned and showed that he was missing several of his rotten teeth. Through his wheezing laughter, he explained how he and his partner had captured themselves two pretty, young Amazons.
"We came up on dem two huggin’ an’ kissin’," his green eyes widened as he ran a strand of Yakut’s hair between two dirt-covered fingers. "At first we jes wanted to join in. We asked real nice and polite, but dat one der knocked out two teef and then tried to poke me with one of her little knives. We said we’d act like gentlemen and this one nearly cut my ear off." He pointed to a stream of blood flowing from his right ear. "We was tryin’ to make nicey nicey, but they wanted to fight wit’ us. We had to call a few friends to come help us jes so we could keep from being skewered. Cleotus said that since we got these two, we had first choice of the rest of you."
"Cleotus?" Xena growled as she walked up behind Gabrielle. "Where is he?"
"I’m right here," the warlord announced as he walked into the village clearing. A second later, fifty men came out of their hiding places and circled the people who were still mingling around the tables. "Aw, Xena, I’m hurt. You take my property, torch my best tent, and then forget to invite me to the party. A guy’s got to wonder if you like him."
"Well, now you know," Xena growled and bared her teeth at him.
"But my boys just wanted to have a little fun."
"But your boys weren’t invited," Hercules shouted as he walked up and stood a little behind Xena with his hands behind his back. Iolaus stood next to him, and Shalapa joined them and stood next to Gabrielle. The Regent looked around for Eponin but couldn’t find her. She saw Meslina being dragged out of their hut by two warriors and made a silent signal for everyone to remain calm but to get ready to fight.
"Hey, Hercules," Cleotus backed up nervously. "No one said you were here. I don’t want no trouble from you."
"Well, if you and your goons leave now, you won’t get any," Hercules warned.
"Well, I can’t," the fat warlord insisted as he took a cloth out of his pocket and wiped the sweat from his forehead.
"Why not?" Xena asked.
"Cuz she won’t let me," Cleotus answered. "She says that since you took the girls from us the other day, we should take some of yours so we can make our quota. We’ve only got two days left and you set us back at least a month. She said we could take enough women here to cover our quota and we’d get extra since they were Amazons."
"Who said that?" Xena asked angrily.
"She said," and Cleotus pointed to the woman riding out of the forest on a white horse.
"I said," Callisto answered in her singsong voice. She looked like an angel as she rode in on a pure white horse through the crowd to the center of the village and stopped in front of Xena. "Xeeeeena. It’s nice to see you up and around. And Gabrieeeelle. How nice. They made you queen. And they even gave you a new outfit. It’s sad though; I’ll miss your cute brown skirt and that little green top."
"What are you doing here, Callisto? What do you want?" Gabrielle asked defiantly.
Callisto leaned forward in her saddle and smiled at Gabrielle sweetly. "Ah, Gabrielle. Did you enjoy sliding Xena’s sword into those Roman guards? I always knew you had potential. Well, it seems you two have ruined everything one more time. Caesar’s dead and you two are alive.
My Lord was going to make me a queen in his world, but because I failed and Caesar is dead, he sent me back here… to you, Xena. I really had to do some talking just to convince Him to give me a second chance. I convinced him that Mark Anthony is a better choice to lead Rome to Him anyway. Caesar was too obsessed about you, Xena." She sat back in her saddle and wiggled with delight. "Oh, Xena. You should have seen his dreams. They would have made even you blush like a virgin."
Xena grimaced at her and shrugged her shoulders. She was over Caesar. Six feet over him, she snickered at the irony. But if what she says is true, she never was a demon. Then the war in heaven was just a final test for Gabrielle and me.
"You don’t have to do this," Eli said as he walked from the edge of the clearing into the center. "You’ve been given a second chance. You can start all over and live your life the way you were meant to live it."
"What are you talking about?" Callisto hissed at him as Xena, Gabrielle and Hercules turned to look at him with the same question on their minds.
"You’re human again. You can start all over and learn to be happy," Eli smiled as he opened his hands to her.
"What are you talking about, Eli?" Xena whispered to him. "She’s a god, immortal. She’ll never change."
"I can’t explain it, Xena. I can sense the blood of a god in Hercules but I don’t sense it in her." Eli answered her quietly.
"How can that be?" Xena asked him but he just shrugged his shoulders.
"All I know is that she may be a slave to her anger and hatred, but she is fully human."
"It doesn’t matter, Xena," Callisto hissed at her. "I’ve beaten you as a god and I could have beaten you as a mortal. You’ve just had a lot of friends to help you. I can beat you now with my new friends." Callisto turned her horse and yelled to Cleotus, "Take as many as you can catch! Mark Anthony will pay you a hundred and fifty dinars for each live Amazon you bring him and fifty for the dead ones!" Then, she rode out of the clearing as Cleotus and his men began to tighten their circle around the Amazons.
Just as Cleotus’ men began to raise their crossbows and draw their swords, Xena felt cool metal touch the palm of her hand.
"Here, Xena. You may need this," the half-god whispered in her ear.
Xena turned to look at Hercules then looked down at the ring in her hand. She grinned at him and mouthed a thank you, then he watched as the battle lust took over Xena’s body. As she let out her trilling war cry, she slowly pivoted to face Cleotus and brought her silver and gold chakram up to her shoulder. As Xena’s friends dove behind tables and bushes to prepare for the battle, she threw the chakram and watched it cut a path through crossbows and swords, ricocheting off shields and an iron cauldron that held the spiced cider made especially for the queen.
Amarise and Yakut each did a tuck-and-roll as the chakram flew by splitting the crossbow darts pointed at them, then ran to find weapons. As Xena caught the restored chakram, she smiled broadly and let out a contented sigh. She lifted it, took aim and prepared to throw it again as she heard Eponin’s war cry leading the charge of Amazons coming from the training field.
Eponin had meant to keep her surprise a secret until sunset, but Cleotus’ attack had changed that, unfortunately for him. She laughed to herself as she led the Amazons into the village center. Men were so arrogant. That fool should have made sure he had everyone surrounded before he called the attack. I’m going to enjoy watching these women stomp his butt. And I’m really getting tired of Callisto. She causes trouble everywhere she goes. It’s time we did something about her.
Gabrielle turned toward the training field when she heard Eponin’s war cry to see a hundred uniformed Amazons armed to the teeth and running toward them. She vaguely remembered watching the women leave in pairs or small groups and wondering where they were going, but she brushed it off as some contest they had started on the training field. What Gabrielle hadn’t suspected was that Eponin, as a show of strength and skill for their guests, had trained these women for a synchronized fighting drill. She had fitted each one with a sword, a staff, a pair of knives, and a matching uniform. They had spent the last three days rehearsing acrobatic sword fighting and martial art moves.
Someone threw Gabrielle a fighting staff and she stood with Xena fighting the outnumbered, but persistent warriors. Xena kept an eye on Gabrielle, making sure that her lover didn’t have any second thoughts about fighting. Hercules and Iolaus joined them, while Morrigan and Oteri battled beside some Centaurs against a handful of Cleotus’ warriors near the couch where Xena and Natalia had spent the afternoon.
Natalia was trying to get the non-fighting guests to safety, but couldn’t find Tzu Mei in the crowd. When she reached Eli, who was still trapped in the middle of the fighting, she asked him if he had seen where the child went at the beginning of the battle. He shook his head and they began calling for her. They both turned when they heard her screaming for Natalia and saw a filthy warrior holding Tzu Mei by her neck. Natalia screamed her name as she tried to run to her, but she tripped on her crutches and landed hard in the dirt. Eli helped her up and held her hands as she tried to pull away, but he wouldn’t let her go. Natalia turned to him angrily.
"Wait," the Avatar insisted as he squeezed her hands tightly.
Natalia felt a surge of heat flow through his hands and over her body. A moment later, she stopped feeling the pain from her broken leg and the headache she was beginning to get used to was gone. She looked at Eli in disbelief as he looked from her to the child.
"Go," he ordered and she ran toward Tzu Mei without hesitation. The blond warrior plucked a sword out of a dead warrior and pulled the knife from inside her robe. She slashed at one warrior coming at her from the right, and spun to avoid another coming from the left. When she was through the crowd fighting in the village center, she tossed her knife at the warrior who held Tzu Mei. The long, thin stiletto slid easily into his right shoulder and he dropped his sword with a scream. Tzu Mei jammed her fist into the warrior’s windpipe as she pivoted out of his grasp then ran to the safety of the Queen’s platform where Joxer was protecting Cyrene and Lila. Natalia reached the kneeling warrior gasping for air and raised the sword over her head. His eyes widened as he watched the tall woman swing the sword at his neck, and he was dead before he could scream. As Natalia turned, ready to continue fighting, she saw the rest of Cleotus’ warriors being collected and the Amazons shouting and raising their weapons in the air.
End Act Five
The only Amazons who had gotten hurt were the women who had been knocked out at their guard posts and a few others who had gotten bruises or minor cuts in the battle. Cleotus and many of his warriors didn’t fair as well, and their bodies were quickly gathered up and readied for burial.
As Xena and Gabrielle ran to check on Cyrene, Lila and Tzu Mei, an Amazon called a warning from a treetop lookout.
"ROMANS COMING. LOOKS LIKE A CENTURION GUARD," the Amazon shouted down. "THEY’RE CARRYING A FLAG OF TRUCE."
Xena ordered Joxer to take her mother, Lila, and Tzu Mei to her hut. Eponin ordered the Amazons into formation and the women waited as the Romans marched in.
At the front of the column rode a clean-cut Roman about Gabrielle’s age. He wore Caesar’s armor: a gold breastplate covered his leather uniform, and a cape with a red plume was draped over his left shoulder. Beside him rode two centurions with red plumes on their helmets. These three led a hundred soldiers who marched in two columns into the village.
Xena and Gabrielle stood with Eponin and Shalapa in the center of the village. Natalia, Meslina and Tzu Mei stood behind them, with the Queen’s guards flanking each side of the queen. The honor guard stood in formation behind them, and the rest of the Amazons, Centaurs and villagers were standing with Hercules and Iolaus.
The Roman commander climbed down off his horse and walked up to Gabrielle. He gave her a Roman salute and then gave one to Xena. As the queen returned his salute, the young Roman commander looked around quickly. My god, he thought to himself. There are nearly four times more women than Brutus described. Where in Tartarus did they all come from?
"My name is Octavius. I send greetings from Brutus and the senators of Rome. They appreciate your help in the matter with Caesar and send their deepest regrets for any harm he may have caused you." This brought a sneer from Xena. "We came as soon as we heard about the attack on your village. We thought you might need our help against this raid on your women." The young man looked around, and shook his head in disbelief. "But it seems that we under-estimated your warriors," he shined a friendly smile at Gabrielle.
"Yes," Gabrielle smiled back at him. "So did Cleotus," she glanced at the blanket covering his dead body.
"Well, since we are here, may we stay and pay our respects for your Queen-making?" Octavius asked.
Gabrielle looked at Xena questioningly, and Xena looked at the soldiers with concern. Gabrielle understood Xena and invited the Roman and his personal guards to stay. She suggested that the soldiers would be more comfortable camping near the river and offered to send a barrel of ale and some of the deer to them. Octavius saw the wisdom in Gabrielle’s suggestion; his men had been away from their homes and their wives for two months and he didn’t want them creating trouble while he negotiated with the young queen.
After Cleotus and his men were cleared out of the village, the women continued their celebration with new energy. They had had their first threat against the new nation and they had won easily. The Avatar had healed Natalia and now she was leading the dancing near the Queen’s platform. Xena and Gabrielle were seated at the head table with Octavius, Hercules, Iolaus, Shalapa and Eponin, while Octavius’ two Roman centurions stared in amazement at the women celebrating around them.
Xena, in her usual fashion, got right to the point. "Why have the Romans come back to Greece. I thought we gave you all a strong message to stay home."
"Yes, that was true," Octavius agreed. "With Pompey and Caesar dead, and most of their armies destroyed, it makes sense that we should stay home and take care of our affairs in Rome. But since my uncle’s death, the senators have been controlling Rome. Because I am Caesar’s heir, the people are calling for them to make me the new emperor. However, Caesar’s second-in-command, Mark Anthony, also wants to be emperor. He’s kept control of most of the army and he thinks that if he can increase its size, he can march on Rome and take the throne by force. That’s why we were headed this way when our scouts heard that Cleotus was planning a raid on your village."
"As you can see, we can handle ourselves," Gabrielle reminded him proudly.
"I see that," Octavius smiled at her. "Brutus told me that you were a strong group, but we didn’t realize that there were so many of you. Perhaps you’re better at recruiting than Mark Anthony is." He looked around the village at the women preparing for the evening festivities. "Queen Gabrielle, I’ll get to the point. I’m here to negotiate a treaty with you. We’re offering you these centurion guards to protect you from Mark Anthony and in return we would like some of your women to act as guides for us. Mark Anthony is using his troops, and mercenaries like Cleotus, to raid Greek and Sumarian villages and steal women. These he sells to the filthy barbarians in the north as slaves." He stopped to take a drink of ale as Gabrielle looked around the table to make sure Tamra or Natalia weren’t nearby to hear him insult their people.
"We have to try to stop Mark Anthony," he continued. "Your warriors know this territory better than we do, and we’d thought that if you could help us find his soldiers, we’d be able to defeat him more quickly and leave your country in peace."
"How do we know that you won’t decide to do the same thing?" Hercules asked.
"You have my word as a Roman," Octavius swore. The Greeks at the table all sneered at him and he tried to reassure them that he would honor his promise that once Mark Anthony was defeated, he’d pull his army out and return to Rome.
Xena cut him off. "There isn’t a person at this table who hasn’t been lied to by a Roman, so your word means little here. We defeated Cleotus and we’ll do it again."
"But with the money Mark Anthony is getting for the slaves, he’s buying more and more mercenaries every day," Octavius argued. "Soon, he’ll have more trained soldiers than you have of these women warriors."
"Don’t underestimate these women, Roman," Xena hissed at him.
"I don’t, Xena," Octavius tried to calm her with one of his charming smiles. He silently wished he could talk to Queen Gabrielle alone. She seemed more responsive to his ‘diplomatic abilities’. "That’s why I came here asking for your help."
Gabrielle looked around the table at her lover, her friends and her Amazon sisters. The looks on their faces showed that they still didn’t trust the young Roman.
"Octavius, I want to talk with the tribal leaders before I make any agreements with you. Eponin will escort you to your troops, and I’ll send for you when I’ve made my decision." Gabrielle rose from the table followed by Xena and Shalapa; and Eponin stood waiting to escort the Romans to the river.
Octavius watched the queen and her consort walk toward where the women were dancing. He then rose to follow Eponin out of the village. He didn’t understand these women, he thought to himself. He couldn’t believe that they would prefer the company of each other instead of men. But he had heard that the beautiful queen had been married before, and he thought that he might be able to convince her that his company would be more stimulating than the tall Warrior Princess’ company was.
A half an hour later, Hercules walked up to Xena and Gabrielle, who were talking with Natalia about her healed leg. Iolaus followed him with a very upset Morrigan.
"Xena, we’re going to head out," Hercules said, nodding toward Iolaus. "We’re going to escort your mother and Lila home. Then we’re going on to Sumaria."
"Why there?" Gabrielle asked.
"Queen Nebula is a good friend. Iolaus and I haven’t seen her in a while and she’s been concerned about him," he said; trying not to make reference to the fact that Iolaus had died protecting the queen from her own brother. But somehow the Gods decided that Iolaus still belonged here with them. "And if Mark Anthony is planning to raid Sumaria for its women, then she needs to be warned." He turned and took Morrigan’s hand. "Morrigan would like to stay and help the Amazons, if that’s alright?"
"Sure it is," both Xena and Gabrielle answered. They turned and smiled at each other. "We’d be glad to have you stay with us," Gabrielle continued, putting her hand out to welcome her. "When can we expect you two back, Hercules?" Gabrielle asked.
"I’m not sure exactly," Hercules answered. "We need to make sure that the Romans won’t keep trying to overrun our homes. And until then, there’s a lot we’ve got to do."
"Well, be careful," Xena grabbed his hand and pulled him into a bear hug. Hercules wrapped his arms around her waist and held her until Iolaus poked him in the side.
"Hey, give someone else a chance to say goodbye, big guy," Iolaus teased. Then he hugged Xena goodbye as Hercules said goodbye to Gabrielle. Finally, Iolaus pulled Gabrielle aside and kissed her on the cheek and told her that he was glad he had met her and that she had to remember to take care of herself. She put her arms around his neck and kissed him lightly before hugging him one last time.
As Iolaus began walking toward the gate where Lila and Cyrene waited, Hercules and Morrigan followed for a few paces then she put her hand on his arm to stop him.
"Hercules," she looked up at him sadly. "Promise me that you’ll come back to me."
"I promise," he said, brushing a tear from her cheek. "When the Romans have left Greece, and our families are safe, I promise that I’ll return for you. Then we can go back to Eire."
"It’s okay, Hercules. You don’t have to promise me that. I know you need Greece as much as it needs you. I’ve made friends here, and I think Bridget will like it here too."
"Maybe we can give her a sister or brother to play with," he pulled the small redhead to him. "I think it’s time we think about being a family."
"You are my family, Hercules. I love you," she said and then kissed him deeply. "Just don’t you forget that while you’re off saving the world."
He wrapped his arms around her waist and lifted her for one last kiss. Then he lowered her and released her. He smiled at the crowd that had gathered to send Iolaus and him off, and waved to them. He walked to where Iolaus stood waiting for him, and they both turned for a final wave goodbye and then they walked into the setting sun. Morrigan watched Hercules until he disappeared around a hill, then she turned and walked toward the trees where she could be alone with her grief.
Gabrielle and Xena had watched the friends walk away also, and when they were gone, Gabrielle wrapped her arm around Xena’s waist and leaned her head on Xena’s arm.
"You know, I’m going to miss them," she said sadly.
"Me too," Xena said, hoping that one day she’d have a chance to thank Hercules again for helping her find her true path. Then Xena put her arm around Gabrielle’s shoulder and led her to the dance floor. "Come on, my Queen, it is time for your dance." And Gabrielle looked at her and grimaced as Xena pulled her onto the dance floor.
End Act Six
At the Production Company
Elizabeth was glad that her second week as an actress began more easily than the first week. She was much less nervous as filming continued on the Queen-making ceremony and the battle with Cleotus. The young actress who played Tzu Mei, Amy Tong, delighted her. Amy had the ability to portray both the wisdom that Lao Ma had and the innocence of a twelve-year-old child. Kevin Sorbo even compared her to the young actor who played Maven the Druid in several episodes last season.
Renee and Ted invited Elizabeth to join them for lunch that day, and where she was caught staring at Liz Friedman as she walked into the service trailer. When Renee winked at Elizabeth and gave her a huge grin, she began to blush. I’ve got to stop this, she thought to herself. I can’t have everyone knowing what I’m thinking all the time.
Renee invited Liz to join them and to everyone’s surprise Liz sat next to Elizabeth and began showing her some of the storyboards for an upcoming episode. Renee knew that Liz usually kept these under strict guard until the first cast meeting for that episode. She and Ted shared a knowing smile as they watched the two Elizabeth’s find a shared obsession: Xena, Warrior Princess.
"So, Teddy, how about those chicken livers? Did they help the corns on your feet?" Renee asked, trying to see if either woman was paying attention to them.
"Well, I tried them fried on Saturday but that didn’t work. So today, I put them in my shows raw this morning and walked around my house three times backwards. The pain is gone and I hope that tomorrow the purple coloring will go away."
"Oh, you can use pumpkin seeds to remove the coloring. Tape three behind your left ear and sleep with your head at the foot of your bed. It’ll clear right up." Both continued to watch for a reaction from either the producer or the writer, but they were too entrenched in a discussion about a design for a new chakram that they didn’t even notice when Renee and Ted got up to leave.
Renee and Ted were still laughing about the two women sitting head to head with only the sketches between them when they met Lucy at the screen door.
"What’s going on, you guys?" Lucy asked as she held the sleeping child in her arms.
"Them," Ted pointed to the two women in intense conversation. "They’ve been like that for nearly an hour. We’ll have to pry them apart before we all end up with crewcuts and our bellybuttons showing."
"Really?" Lucy smiled. Renee could almost see the light bulb go off over her tall friend’s head.
"What are you cooking up, Luce?" Renee asked warily.
"Who me? Nothing. Nothing at all," Lucy replied innocently.
"Uh huh, you can’t fool me. I can tell when you’re planning to do some match-making."
"Well, it worked for you, didn’t it?" Lucy said, feigning hurt.
"Well, yeah… it did. But John and I live here. Elizabeth lives in, what, Alabama? She probably has no intention of leaving her job or her family to come thousands of mile away for a woman she’s only known for a week."
"I’m not so sure, Ren. I think she’s a bigger romantic than she’s letting us see. I’ve read her story. She believes in happy endings and I think she’ll do what she has to so she can have one of her own."
"Just be careful, Luce. That’s all I’m saying. I’d hate for her to come all the way here just to get a broken heart."
"I promise, Renee. I’ll be cautious and if I see them feeling pushed, I’ll back off. I just think it’s time Liz found someone who made her happy. And from the looks of it, they seem to be hitting it off pretty well without me. I just want to make sure that their shyness doesn’t keep them from being open with each other before it’s too late." Lucy put a hand on Renee’s shoulder and smiled down at her. "Thank you for being so concerned for them. You really are a good friend."
Renee smiled up at Lucy and then laughed with her as Julius yawned and stretched in Lucy’s arms, oblivious to the women’s romantic intrigues. Renee volunteered Ted and herself to help feed the hungry child, and they followed Lucy into the kitchen.
Later that evening, as Elizabeth was walking across the lot to meet Joe for a ride back to the Bed and Breakfast, a dark blue Mercedes pulled up beside her and the tinted window rolled down. Lucy popped her head out and smiled at her.
"Hey, Elizabeth, Rob is back from the States and we were wondering if you’d like to join us for dinner tomorrow. He wants to try out a new barbecue sauce he found in San Diego last week. Do you eat barbecue?" Lucy asked.
"Why, Miss Lawless," Elizabeth drawled in an exaggerated ‘Gone With the Wind’ accent. "Ah’m from the South. The dayuh we’re weaned we staht eatin’ bahbecue. I’d be overjoyed to join you and your beau for dinnah tomorrah evenin’."
"Great," Lucy laughed. "Oh, I thought about asking Liz Friedman. Should I ask her or would you like to?"
Elizabeth looked at her, at first surprised, then she looked as if she was going to ask Lucy to do it. But then, with a gleam in her eye, Elizabeth waved her hand at Lucy, "I’ll do it. What time should we be there?"
"Eight," Lucy said. "Great! See you tomorrow." Then she waved goodbye and rolled up her window and went home to her husband. She missed Rob and she was glad they had an early day of shooting so she could spend some quality time with him.
On Tuesday, they finished shooting the Queen-making, and the scenes with Octavius, and Hercules’ farewell. Everyone was sad that Kevin was leaving, but they were proud of him for the new Roddenberry series he’d been developing. The new show would be filmed using the Star Trek: Next Generation set, and the Sorbo’s had already moved into their new house in the Hollywood Hills. They held a bon voyage party for him at lunch and there wasn’t a dry eye in the room as he and his wife, Sam, made their goodbye speeches. Lucy thanked him for making this last cameo appearance on her show, and hoped that he would consider reprising his role occasionally. Michael tried to hide his sadness behind his jokes and laughter, but even Elizabeth could tell that he was going to miss his "big buddy".
Elizabeth and Liz were sitting together chatting about the Xena/Herc trilogy when Elizabeth finally found the nerve to ask Liz to dinner at Lucy and Rob’s.
"Hey, Liz. Lucy has invited me to dinner with her and Rob; and I was wondering if you’d be willing to go with me? I’m still a little overwhelmed by all of this; but I’m not as nervous when you’re around. Would you come with me? Besides, I think it’ll be fun," Elizabeth asked all in one breath.
"Not as nervous, aye?" Liz smiled at her.
"Well, it’s a different kind of nervousness," Elizabeth grinned.
"Uh huh, I see. So, are you asking me out on a date?"
"Are you accepting?"
"I might, if I’m asked properly." Liz replied nonchalantly.
"Oh, well, excuse me. Miz Friedman, would you do me the honor of accompanying me to a dinner party at the Lawless-Tapert homestead, please?" Elizabeth asked with a deep bow.
"Ah, that’s much better," Liz laughed, and tapped Elizabeth’s still bowed head. Elizabeth looked up shining her most flirtatious grin and batting her eyes. "I’d be happy to," Liz curtsied and Elizabeth bowed again. Heads turned as the two women began to laugh with each other.
"Great!" Elizabeth clapped her hands excitedly. Then she grinned sheepishly and asked, "Can you pick me up?"
"Sure, no problem, madam. I’d be glad to," Liz answered, patting Elizabeth on the shoulder. "Hey, I’ve got a conference call in fifteen minutes, so I’ve got to run. What time should I pick you up?"
"Seven thirty," Elizabeth said, then added, "And thank you. I’m glad you’re coming."
"To save you from an evening of the butterflies?"
"No, because I’m looking forward to spending some time with you, actually," Elizabeth answered. Had she followed Liz out of the service trailer, she would have noticed how the Kiwi woman’s ears turned red when she blushed.
Elizabeth looked around the room for Lucy, and found her sitting on a table next to Kevin. When she caught Lucy’s eye, Elizabeth gave her a ‘thumbs up’, and a wide grin. Lucy raised her fist in the victory and winked at her. They shared a knowing smile with each other for a moment, until Kevin remembered a blooper Lucy made him swear never to tell. He decided that he could break his oath now that he was leaving the company.
Elizabeth gathered her backpack and walked out of the service trailer toward the transport carts. She asked the young driver to take her back to the filming sight for the afternoon shoot, anxious to get through the day. When she arrived at the scene, there were only a few extras hanging around and some of the crew were setting up the first shot.
She sat on the bentwood couch daydreaming as she watched the crew work and the extras talking and laughing with each other. This was where she wanted to be, this was where she wanted to work. It didn’t matter if she worked in the office, drove a cart, or cleaned up after the horses. She wanted to work here. She had begun to feel this way when a strange birdcall woke her up last Saturday night and found herself sleeping in a tent next to Lucy after a wonderfully peaceful day. She realized that she and Lucy had become fast friends. She also realized that Lucy was right when she suspected that Elizabeth was deeply attracted to the redheaded producer.
Elizabeth’s thoughts were disturbed as a cart drove up carrying Lucy, Renee and Amy Tong. The child jumped out of the cart as soon as it stopped and ran over to hug Elizabeth. In the short time that they had known each other, Elizabeth and Amy had begun to act like the aunt and niece they portrayed. Elizabeth put her arm around the girl protectively and they walked over to the group that was gathered near the tables. They were given a few final notes before the shooting continued and the rest of the afternoon was a blur activity. They finished the battle with Cleotus and the two shots with Octavius, the first as he rode in and the second around the tables. And as the sun began to set, they shot the final scenes of Gabrielle’s queen-making.
Elizabeth laughed out loud as Renee lead the women in her version of the Amazon electric slide. The final shot that evening was a short scene where Xena tells Gabrielle that she seen how much the young woman has grown over the last four years and that she’s looking forward to the next forty years at her side. Elizabeth couldn’t believe how much the screenwriters had had to cut out of her story, but she found herself staring at Lucy and Renee as the two shared the tender moment. In a handful of words, Lucy conveyed the same feelings that took Elizabeth several, decidedly more graphic, pages to describe. As Elizabeth watched, she remembered one of her friends back home saying how much she hoped there’d be a Xena movie where Xena and Gabrielle could finally share some of the physical love to match the emotional love that was conveyed in the television show. Then, Elizabeth smiled to herself and thought, Ah, but then what would fan-fiction writers have to write about?
Leaning on a post at the edge of the dance floor, Xena tapped her foot as she watched as Eponin and Shalapa lead Gabrielle in the Queen’s Dance. She smiled as Gabrielle swayed and stomped to the drums, lyres, flutes and hand chimes. The immigrant Amazons from the North and East had brought with them their unusual instruments, and those from Africa kept the feverish pace on their skin-drums. The music reminded Xena of the music she’d heard in China and India, only much faster, like the heartbeat of one in love.
Okay, ol’ girl. Now you’ve really lost it, Xena thought to herself. ‘Music like the heartbeat of one in love?’ Either you’ve been hanging around Gabrielle too long, or you’ve completely lost your mind. Xena hesitated and then smiled to herself. Well, probably both, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. She shook her head laughing at herself.
Xena watched for a few moments longer then went to find the pot of warm, fermented cider that was a specialty of the Amazons. She preferred the cider to ale or the mead she had tried in Britannia because it was gentler on the head and stomach, and she knew that tomorrow only a few women would be sick from drinking too much tonight. Earlier, Tamra had given her a taste of the clear liquid her people distilled from winter wheat. Wodka, she called it. Xena had taken a small sip and found it tasteless, so she took a bigger gulp. She thought she was going to burn from the inside out until Tamra finally stopped laughing long enough to get her some water. Xena preferred the sweet flavor of the plum wine that Natalia had smuggled out of China to the clear, liquid fire. But more than anything, she preferred keeping a clear head and she could keep her wits about her regardless of the amount of Amazon cider she drank that night.
As she walked up to the cider pot, she found Oteri leaning over the edge and swaying as she dipped a large mug.
"This is good shtuff," the heart-broken Amazon slurred as she smiled at Xena. She raised her mug to Xena, then drank half the cider. The young leader looked at Xena with glassy eyes and shrugged, then finished the glass before dipping into the pot to refill her mug again.
"Come on, Oteri. Let’s find a place to sit and talk," Xena smiled and put her arm around Oteri’s shoulders.
"No no, I wanna shtay ‘ere," Oteri pivoted out of Xena’s hold. "I’m shtayin’ ‘ere wit’ my friend."
"This pot?" Xena asked.
"Yeah, that’s it. Miss Pot. She can be my new partner." Oteri put her arm around the black cauldron hanging on a tripod. "She’s warm, she’s quiet. An’ I always thought Yakut was too skinny, anyway." She hugged the pot, oblivious of the small fire below it.
"Come on, Oteri. Come talk to me. There’s a great spot to sit and watch the moon. You can visit with ‘Miss Pot’ later. I’ll even help you put her in your tent."
"Oh, no you don’t. You’ve already got Gabrielle. You don’t need another one. I’ll get her later, myself." And Oteri took another mugful of cider and walked to the patch of grass that Xena had pointed to, leaving Xena staring at her, amused and sad.
Xena sat cross-legged beside Oteri, who was staring into the dark mug. After a few minutes, Xena finally asked her if she wanted to talk.
"What’s there to talk about, Xena?" Oteri asked sadly. "Yakut doesn’t love me. She’d rather be rolling in the leaves with Amarise." She wiped an escaped tear from her cheek and took another gulp of cider. "I thought we’d be together forever; like you and Gabrielle. I didn’t know that it was only going to be until someone else came along." Oteri threw the half-empty mug toward the moon and it landed a few yards away with a splat. "We should have never come here. Maybe then she’d have never met Amarise and left me." Angrily, Oteri got up and stood over Xena with her hands on her hips. "I’m going," and she turned and walked away.
Xena scrambled after her, and caught Oteri by the arm. "I’ll walk you to your tent."
"I’m not going to my tent."
"What? Where are you going?"
"I’m going home. I can’t stay here and watch them be all hug-and-snuggly in front of me. I’d rather be alone."
"Well, that’s your decision, I suppose," Xena said. "But I was hoping that you’d come with me."
"Where are you going?" Oteri asked.
"I want to find Mark Anthony. It could take Octavius a month before he finds Mark Anthony, and then it will be autumn and both of them will be trying to settle in for the winter. I don’t want either of them in Greece that long. I was hoping you’d come with me."
"Well, since you need my help, I guess I can stay for a while. But I’m leaving as soon as we find him," Oteri insisted.
"As I said, it’s your decision. Now get some rest, we’re leaving tomorrow," Xena ordered.
Oteri walked to the tent she had put up after the battle earlier that day. She decided it was easier for her to sleep in the tent than it was to stay in the hut with Yakut after Cleotus’ men had found her romping in the leaves with Amarise. Xena watched until the young woman wobbled to her tent, then headed back to the dance floor in search of Gabrielle. Near the tables, she met Gabrielle, who had been looking for her.
"Xena," Gabrielle called breathlessly. "Eponin says you’re needed on the dance floor. It seems there’s a ritual dance that you’re supposed to do, also."
Gabrielle put her hand lightly on Xena’s arm as Xena looked into the smaller woman’s laughing eyes. Gold and red from the torches in the village center shined in the Queen’s green eyes, looking like Chinese fireworks she’d seen on Lao Ma’s birthday. Xena bent down and kissed Gabrielle’s lips warmly.
"What was that for?" the laughing Queen asked.
"I just wanted you to know how proud I am of you." Xena looked around (and Gabrielle followed her) to make sure no one was close enough to hear. "And I wanted to tell you how beautiful you are today."
"Just today?" Gabrielle asked coyly.
"Yes… Well, no… I mean… Oh, Zeus… No. You’re beautiful everyday. But today you’re particularly beautiful in your new outfit and when you were dancing. I don’t think I’ve ever felt this way about you before."
"What way?" the bard asked sweetly.
Xena lowered her head to whisper in Gabrielle’s ear. "Like I wanted to hold you in my arms and make love to you for a month."
"Oh. Well, I think that’s a great idea. Wanna go now?" Gabrielle grabbed Xena’s hand and began walking to their hut.
"I mean, yes. But we can’t."
"Why not?" Gabrielle asked incredulously.
"Well…We have to dance first," Xena began to head for the dance floor.
"Wait a minute. You’re not telling me something. What’s wrong." Gabrielle took Xena’s hands in hers.
"Now, Xena, I can tell when you’re hiding something from me. What is it?"
"Well, I wanted to surprise you later, but since you insisted," and Xena reached inside a small pocket to pull out a piece of silk that was folded tightly. She opened Gabrielle’s hand and placed it gently in her lover’s hand.
Gabrielle slowly unfolded the cloth and then walked to a nearby torch to get a better look at what had been folded inside. She lifted the delicate ring and held it near the torch. The metal was a strand of gold and a strand of silver that had been braided together. Somehow Gabrielle couldn’t tell where the silver ended and the gold began. It was as if they were one strand but the ends had been braided together. ‘Two lines, ever connected,’ she remembered Naima tell them. She noticed that there was an inscription on the inner surface of the ring and held it closer to the light. ‘For All Eternity’ it read.
"Oh, Xena," Gabrielle cried and threw her arms around Xena’s neck, planting kisses all over the smiling warrior’s face.
"Try it on," Xena asked softly. Gabrielle slid the ring onto her left pinky, but it was too big. "Here, let me." Xena took Gabrielle’s hand and gently slid the two-tone ring onto the finger next to her pinky. "Perfect," Xena breathed. Gabrielle looked up at Xena with tears welling in her eyes. "Why are you crying? Don’t cry, please. I hoped you’d like it."
"Oh, Xena. I love it. It’s made of lines, like the mehndi; and it’s two-toned, like your chakram." Then the reality of Xena’s surprise set in. "Like your chakram! Xena! You knew!" Gabrielle slapped Xena’s stomach, amazed that both Xena and Amarise had kept the secret from her. She’d have to remind Amarise who was queen, she thought, not really angry.
Then, Gabrielle slid her arms around Xena'a neck, pulling the tall warrior closer, and planted more kisses all over her face. While Xena just stood there with her arms wrapped around the queen's waist their Amazon friends started gathering around them, curious about the extravagant show of emotions from their queen. Many of them began asking questions at the same time until Xena finally had to peel Gabrielle off her and wave her hands to quiet the curious women around them.
"Hold it, hold it!" Xena shouted. "Not all at once!"
When one of the Island Amazons heard a break in the shouting, she asked what the excitement was about. Gabrielle stuck her hand out to reveal the two-toned ring and explained that Xena had asked that the ring be made from a piece of the chakram while Hephastus was repairing the weapon.
Xena beamed proudly as the women around them let out a chorus of "Aw". This relationship stuff wasn't so hard, she thought to herself.
Another Amazon remarked how romantic Xena's gift was and jokingly asked how she thought of it. The women around them gasped as Xena turned to give the woman the evil-eye, and then smiled at her and said, "I have many skills." A wave a relief and then laughter moved through the women and Xena realized how much at home she felt among these women. Xena then turned to Gabrielle and began, "On our way home from the prison, Amarise showed me the broken pieces that Eli had retrieved. Offhandedly, I mentioned that it had saved my life so many times and I wished there was a way I could get a chakram for you. But I don’t know of another one like it. Then Amarise made a joke that you'd probably just wear it as a necklace or on your head as a hat."
"Been there, done that," Gabrielle added with a flashing smile.
"That's when it hit me that you might not want a weapon from me, but you might accept a part of it as a token of the bond we share...two sides of the same chakram."
"I have to remember to thank Amarise," Gabrielle whispered to Xena as she kissed her lightly.
After another group "Aw", the women circled around Gabrielle, asking to see the ring. Xena looked up and saw Natalia smiling at her, nodding her head. The older woman mouthed "Very nice," and gave Xena a quick nod.
Xena smiled as she watched the crowd of women around Gabrielle. Gabrielle loves me. Natalia's proud of me. I've got a plan to help Yakut and Oteri. And there are finally enough Amazons here to protect themselves. Maybe now I can get the Romans out of Greece forever. This has been a good day. When she saw the gleam in Gabrielle's eyes, she added, and it will be an even better night.
Gabrielle continued to proudly show off her new ring as Eponin walked up and patted Xena on her back. "That was really nice, Xena. I never would have taken you for a romantic."
"I have my moments," Xena answered with a lop-sided grin. "And speaking of moments, have you seen Amarise or Yakut?"
"Amarise asked for patrol duty, so I put her on the west wall. And I think I saw Yakut heading for her hut about an hour ago. Tamra gave her a special tea to help her sleep. She was pretty beaten up by those... those... goons this afternoon. What's going on, Xena? What are you planning?"
Xena whispered to the Amazon general, "I don't trust Octavius and I don't like the idea that Mark Anthony and Callisto have joined together. I want to see what the Emperor-wanna-be has planned."
"Great! When do we leave?"
"To---? Xena, you can't do that! You just got back, you were hit by a poisoned arrow for Artemis’ sake, and today was Gabrielle's queen-making. Both of you should stay here for at least a few days."
"I'm not taking her. It's safer for her here, or with you and a squad helping Octavius with the tracking. If you find Mark Anthony, just point Octavius in his direction and get out of there. Let the two of them kill each other."
"Xena, you can't leave without Gabrielle. She'll freak."
"She'll be fine. Eponin, Mark Anthony was Ceasar's general. Caesar may be dead, but the threat he was to Greece still exists as long as Mark Anthony is in command of the Roman Army. I've got to try to stop him."
"Stop whom?" Gabielle asked as she placed an arm around Xena's waist.
Xena turned and looked into Gabrielle's eyes, trying to find a way to tell her that she was leaving for the coast tomorrow. "Gabrielle, I think you should help Octavius. Most of the women here are excellent trackers. We can keep an eye on him and the sooner we help him find Mark Anthony, the sooner he'll be out of Greece."
"And what are you going to do while we're traipsing around the countryside looking for someone who's probably sunbathing on a ship waiting for Callisto to bring him some Amazons."
"You're going to the coast to find Mark Anthony, yourself! Xena, you just got home."
"No! I thought we'd get a chance to spend some time together - without fighting bandits or warlords or Romans. Ahh!" she growled. She paused, waiting for Xena to deny her accusations. When she heard none, she asked, "So, when are you leaving?"
Great! That's just great! You've been home a day and already you want to leave. And I suppose you've already decided who you’re going to take with you!"
"I suppose you're taking Natalia with you!"
"And Oteri and Yakut."
"Great! You'd rather be with your ex-lover than with me. Well fine. Go ahead!" And Gabrielle stormed away from Xena and the crowd of shocked women. All Xena could think at that moment was that this relationship stuff was a bitch.
Xena watched as Gabrielle stormed up the steps of their hut and slammed the door. Then she turned and walked away in the opposite direction as the crowd of women parted to let her through.
Gabrielle continued into their bedroom and waited for Xena to follow her. But when Xena didn’t appear, she began pacing the floor talking to herself.
"I knew this wouldn’t last. Xena doesn’t want to settle down and be a farmer or a teacher. She’d rather be out there beating up warlords, bandits and fish. Why can’t she follow me for a change? We have a chance to good something good here. These women need me; they need us both. And I need Xena."
"Then you should tell her."
"What!" Gabrielle looked up from her ranting and pacing to see Natalia standing in the bedroom doorway.
"Then you should tell her how you feel about her before she leaves in the morning," the older woman repeated softly. "You haven’t lost her. I’m as certain that she will return to you as I am that the North Star will rise in the sky again tomorrow night. But if you let her go and don’t say anything, you both may regret it."
"I don’t know what to say. She feels that she is working for the greater good if she’s trying to rid Greece of Mark Anthony. But now she doesn’t want to take me; she’d rather take Oteri, and Yakut, and…"
Gabrielle nodded silently.
"Gabrielle, many years ago I made Xena choose between settling down with me and her quest for power. We both know how that choice affected us all. If I hadn’t tried to change her, she might have let me stay and I might have been able to help her deal with the anger and bloodlust she felt. She might have stayed to be Lao Ma’s Warrior Princess. Borias might still be alive. Solan might still be alive. Lao Ma might still be alive. But where would you be today?"
"I’d probably have been sold off as a slave by Draco, or dead, or…still at home married to Perdicas."
"Can you imagine the things you would have missed had you never met Xena?"
"Yes." Gabrielle lead Natalia to the table in the living and poured them each a mug of cider. Then she began to tell Natalia about her travels with Xena. She told the story of Pandora’s empty box filled only with hope. She talked about the young prince and princess from rival families that she and Xena reunited. She told Natalia about their encounters with Prometheus, Poseidon, Hades and his sister Celestra, Aphrodite and Ares, Bacchus and Orpheus.
As the hours went by Gabrielle continued to talk as Natalia contently listened to the tales of the Warrior Princess searching for redemption and the village girl who became an Amazon Queen. Gabrielle talked about Callisto, the death of Perdicas, travelling to Brittania, her daughter Hope, and the day that her daughter killed Xena’s son. Natalia sensed that there was something more about that story that Gabrielle wasn’t telling her. So she asked the bard to tell her how Solan learned that Xena was his mother. Gabrielle quietly described Xena coming to kill her, blaming her for Solan’s death. She had been knocked unconscious shortly after Xena grabbed her ankles with her whip, and only remembered waking up above Xena’s head about to be thrown over a cliff. The only other time she had been that angry was after Perdicas’ death. She had really wanted to kill Xena. But they both fell over the cliff and into a strange world called Illusia. There, they realized for the first time that they were meant to be together. Again in India they were reminded that their lives were intertwined.
Then, for the first time since their resurrection, Gabrielle described the events at the Roman prison, her fear, her anger, her love for Xena. She realized that she had made a choice at the moment she picked up Xena’s sword, and she had been feeling guilty for killing those eight men ever since. But she also knew that she would do whatever was necessary to protect Xena. As she talked to Natalia, Gabrielle understood that Xena had been forgiven for her crimes, and so had she. When they were standing on the ledge with angels surrounding them, drawing them both toward that place where Love thrives and Peace wins, Gabrielle knew that they would be able to spend eternity together.
"As Naima said, ‘our lives are intertwined. Like two lines in the mendhi, separated but forever connected’," Gabrielle ended.
"Like that ring," Natalia added, taking Gabrielle’s hand. "Two lines, separated but together. Despite all the forces that have tried to separate the two of you, you grow stronger and closer together. Have faith in that bond. It seems to me that if death won’t separate you, there isn’t anything that Mark Anthony, or Callisto, or even I can do to break that bond."
Gabrielle looked into the mug of cooled cider, realizing that she had over-reacted and that her jealousy for Natalia’s relationship with Xena had been unnecessary.
Natalia continued. "I only wish that I had had as much faith in my relationship with Lao Ma to tell her how I felt. Instead I hid behind my status, my job as her protector and my duty to Tzu Mei. I never once told her I loved her."
Gabrielle looked up to watch the tear silently slide down Natalia’s cheek. She took the older woman’s hands in her own, noting to herself how much like Xena’s they felt. She pulled them toward her a little and Natalia looked up into emerald green eyes.
"Natalia, Lao Ma was a wise woman. I’m pretty sure she knew how you felt before she died. And, we Greek believe that the dead can hear our thoughts. I’m certain that she knows how you feel about her and right now she is watching you and loving you right back."
Natalia smiled at her and started to say something but instead of words came a wide yawn. Gabrielle looked at her wide-eyed, then the two women began to giggle, trading yawns until finally Natalia looked out the window a realized that it would be dawn in just a few hours.
As she rose to leave, Natalia promised Gabrielle that she’d do everything she could to bring Xena home safely. Then she hugged the young queen and urged her to get some sleep. As she closed the door, a final glance assured her that the queen was headed to bed. Then she turned and walked to the edge of the porch and nearly stepped on Xena, who was sitting near the top of the stairs, asleep with her head propped in her hand. Natalia tip-toed around the sleeping Warrior Princess, and nearly tumbled down the last two steps when Xena sleepily thanked her.
"For what?" the blond warrior whispered into the pre-dawn morning.
"For listening, for being there for Gabrielle, for being here."
Natalia could only grin and nod.
"And Talia, she’s right about Lao Ma. Lao Ma knew how you felt about her."
"You think so, huh?"
"I know so. She wrote something in her book, near the back. It wasn’t like her other writings. It was a poem and it spoke of the love she shared with you. So, you see, she knew. Even if you never had a chance to tell her. She knew."
"How long have you been out here listening?"
"For a while. It’s been a long time since Gabrielle has talked about some of the things we’ve been through. She’s really had to deal with a lot since she joined me."
"But she wouldn’t do it any differently if she was given the chance. She loves you very much, Xena."
"I know. I don’t know what I’d do without her. I can’t imagine who I’d be if I had never met her on my way home five years ago. I don’t think Lao Ma’s teaching would have been enough."
Natalia nodded understandingly, then remembered something Xena had said. "YOU HAVE THE BOOK!" she shouted. Then, realizing she might have awakened the entire village, she repeated in a whisper, "You have the book!"
"Yes. I brought it back with me from China. I just couldn’t leave it there to be burned or found by someone who would abuse its lessons."
Natalia became very excited by this revelation. "You have the book. Do you have it here? Where is it? Is it safe?"
Xena wearily rose from her spot on the steps and tried to lead the frantic woman away from the sleeping queen’s hut. "It’s fine. It’s safe. No, I don’t have it here. I put it some place where I knew it would be protected."
"You must get it. We may need it. Please, send someone for it. Today!"
Xena couldn’t tell if her friend was worried about the safety of the book or their safety without the book. She reassured Natalia that she would send someone to get Lao Ma’s book.
"Someone who’ll get it and bring it back as quickly as possible. It must be someone you can trust to succeed. Like your friend Joxer."
Stifling a smirk, Xena insisted that she’d get someone who would bring the book safely to them. Then, she remembered that sometimes his bravado and clumsiness helped him get out of some very sticky situations. After she escorted Natalia back to the hospital to get a few hours sleep before they started their mission, Xena continued toward the large, barracks-like tent near the practice fields where the single, male guests had been housed for the night.
A few hours later, Joxer proudly rode toward Amphipolis with a note requesting that Cyrene give him the Chinese recipe book Xena had left with her. Gabrielle woke from a peaceful sleep to find a single, wild rose on the pillow beside her with a note that simply read, "Separated but forever connected. I’ll be home soon." And a small band of well-armed women headed toward the coast to introduce themselves to the new emperor of Rome.