By An Unseen Hand

by BluInk

Disclaimer: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Ares, Joxer, Ephiny, and a bunch Iíve forgotten are the 100% exclusive property of Renaissance Pictures and its staff, which means Iím goiní to hell for just using them, let alone the situations I put them in. (The prospect will please the Moral Majority, no doubt.) The story features a close relationship between two adult women that includes a consensual sexual element: if this is illegal where you live, because of content or age restrictions, or if it violates your personal moral code, please hit your "back" button and find something less subversive to occupy your time.

I am tired of waiting for someone else to provide the entertainment I want. You may be in the same frame of mind, and your comments are welcome. Itís not as though I do this for a living, however, and amateur writers tend to be a wee bit sensitive. The tone of your comments will inspire the spirit of my reply.

Many thanks to the folks who have provided a forum for the kind of literature I was certain I wouldnít see in my lifetime. A good way to compensate them for doing similar good things for humanity is to appreciate the high-quality content they provide (well, Ďcept this) and to say thank you to them for giving us a place to stand and declaim our own stories. It ainít so damn long since we didnít have a voice at all.


Part 1

The townspeople see, with apprehension, the silhouette of a horse and rider appear on the crest of a hill just outside town. The rider bristles with armament and the horse looks powerful and well-rested. On its back, the rider carries what may be the cylindrical barrel of a powerful and previously unknown weapon.

The horse pauses for a moment so that the rider can survey the town below. In contrast to the horse, the rider looks weary. After a moment, the rider clucks softly to the horse, which starts down the trail to the town.

Cut to a leather saddlebag slamming onto a counter. The camera tracks away from a powerful hand holding the saddlebag to the face of Xena, which is stern and shut. In her eyes is a weary grief beyond all human age. Over her shoulder is slung a succession of wide bamboo tubes with wax-sealed plugs on the ends.

A gray-bearded, dark-skinned man hurries to the counter from the back of whatever this building is he's in. He stops short when he sees a warrior in full battle gear at the counter. She turns her head to him with deliberate provocation; he clasps his hands nervously, trying to resist the inclination to bow to her.

Cut to Xena riding away without the tubes as the graybeard, excited, calls to the back room, "Miriam!"

He has to repeat this a few times before a good-natured woman's voice says, "Don't burn the place down without me. I'm coming."

A woman, older than Xena but younger than the graybeard, emerges from the back room. She has dark hair and skin, dark friendly eyes, and large white teeth, which she shows in the smile she uses on the excited, half-coherent man. "All right, Daniel," she says indulgently. "What is it?"

"A commission,"` he sputters. "A copying job."

She crosses to the counter and picks up one of the bamboo cylinders, breaking the seal and removing the plug. "I know you realize that we've already got as much work as we can handle," she says easily. "Until I can train three more people to write--"

"She had a sword," Daniel says. "A really big one."

Miriam nods with abstracted amusement and removes a couple of sheets of parchment. "Well, let's see what we've gotten ourselves into." She lays out some of the sheets and begins to read, rapidly. "'When the woman warrior beheld the God of War in the midst of the fray...'" She shuffles through a few of the other documents, then looks up at Daniel, excitement in her face. "Do you know what this is?" He shakes his head, puzzled. "This is Gabrielle's Life of Xena." She goes through another couple of sheets, alive with attention. "I've never seen it."

With suppressed excitement, she rolls up the parchments and slips them back into the bamboo tube. "I'm taking these to the scriptorium right away," she says, hefting the tubes onto her back.

The camera cranes away from the doorway as Miriam walks down the street. As the camera pulls away, we see people walking, shopkeepers sweeping the street, a militia squad on horses trotting unhurriedly. As an unearthly whine begins on the soundtrack, the camera swoops back down, aiming for Miriam, making her way swiftly through the crowded streets.

The camera angle changes to street level to show Miriam walking toward it. The whine reaches an irritating pitch and she lifts her head, wondering what the noise is. Something hits her and she goes down, tubes clattering into the street.

Miriam squeezes her eyes shut for a moment, undergoing some terrific struggle, as passersby rush to her. An older woman takes her arm and asks if she's all right; breathless, Miriam nods.

She opens her eyes dizzily and starts to get to her feet, making a heroic effort to look as though nothing's wrong. The older woman scolds her: "I told you you were working too hard... shut up in that closet, scribbling all day..."

Miriam brushes her off with an uncertain smile. "I'm fine, just lost my balance... clumsy..."

As she collects herself and sets off again toward the scriptorium, her face takes on a look of fear, but she doesn't break stride. She's walking rapidly when she whispers, "Who are you?"

Fade in as Xena, her face bleak, strides into a tavern and tosses a small leather bag onto a table. She glares at the tavern-keeper, who hurries to bring her a pitcher of foaming ale and a tankard.

Xena picks up the tankard and empties it, throwing a leg over the chair and settling onto it. After she pulls down all the ale, she refills the tankard without missing a beat and empties it again.

Miriam, looking scared but game, comes through the door and looks around. She spots Xena and her jaw sets. Reluctantly, she makes her way through the crowd and stands at the table where Xena is sitting, trying not to cringe. Finally, she folds her hands in front of her and says quietly, "Good evening."

Xena looks up at her, arrogance in every line of her body. She nails Miriam with a baleful eye and inquires, "Are you bringing me more ale?"

Nonplused, Miriam hesitates. "Not at the moment."

"Then get lost," Xena says, dismissing Miriam's existence and picking up the tankard.

Miriam wheels. "The lady doesn't wish to be bothered," she mutters. "So I won't." She begins to march out, but stops a couple of steps away. "No," she says, shaking her head. "Forget it." It sounds uncommonly like one side of an argument, and Xena watches with mild amusement as Miriam begins to gesture to an invisible opponent. "I said I wouldn't..."

The battle lost, Miriam turns back to the table. Xena regards her indulgently until Miriam reaches for the tankard. Xena tightens her grip as Miriam tries to get the tankard away from her. As they struggle over it, a bit of ale slops over the side.

Something in the other woman's persistence intrigues Xena, and she lets go. Miriam moves the tankard away gently, setting it carefully right in front of Xena. There's a ring of ale on the table. Miriam reaches out with a tentative finger and draws a line away from the ring of ale. Then she draws another line across the first line. She stares in bafflement at the figure she's just drawn: a circle with a plus sign beneath it.

In an instant, Xena is up, moving with the speed of a viper. Before she can take a breath, Miriam is pinned to the table on her back, Xena's hands tight in her collar. She has about three seconds before Xena strangles her, and she has no idea why.

"Xena," she gasps, putting her hands up to pull the warrior's away from her throat. "Don't kill her!"

It's the last thing the warrior expects to hear. Baffled, she pulls away.

 

Fade in on Xena closing the door to a private room in the tavern. Miriam tries surreptitiously to rub her throat before Xena turns back to her. Xena's anger is still visible, overlaying the grief that Miriam can almost feel.

Miriam waits apprehensively for Xena to speak. Xena folds her arms and leans against the door. The silence gets a bit thicker.

"Well?" Xena says finally.

"Well what?" Miriam snaps, her temper finally getting the best of her.

"You must have an explanation."

"For what?"

Xena sighs; all right, we'll waste some time. "Where did you find out about that symbol?"

"What is it?"

Xena didn't expect the question. "What do you mean, 'what is it?'"

Now it's Miriam's turn to get exasperated. "It's a perfectly reasonable question, isn't it? I draw some little symbol on the table in spilled ale, and the next thing I know you're trying to kill me. Perhaps you'd be good enough to give me a list of things I should avoid drawing in the future."

Xena is implacable. "Where did you get it?"

Miriam rubs a hand over her face. "This has been a very odd day."

"Who are you, anyway?"

"Maybe I should ask you that first."

Warily, they study one another. Subtly, Xena shifts a hand to her chakram.

"All right, all right," Miriam says hastily, irritated. "The gods know it's not as though I have anything to bargain with. My name is Miriam, and I'm a scribe."

A line appears between Xena's eyebrows.

"I was carrying a bunch of scrolls from my employer's office to our scriptorium for copying. I was walking down the street and--" Pride keeps her from finishing the sentence; she shuts her mouth stubbornly.

"Go on," Xena says, dangerously reasonable.

"Not until you tell me who in Tartarus you are," Miriam replies, equally neutral.

"I'm the one who gave Daniel the scrolls to be copied," Xena answers.

Miriam thinks this over for a moment, then nods and walks toward the door. Bravely, she stands in front of the much-taller woman who's armed to the teeth and says, "Let me pass."

Xena opens her mouth to answer when Miriam begins shaking her head. "No," she says, as if arguing. "The next thing you're going to say is that she really is Xena."

As Xena watches in bafflement, the argument with the unseen antagonist continues. "I don't know what you're up to," Miriam says, "but I don't think much of it. You two can play your little games without me--"

Xena puts out a muscular arm and stops Miriam, who is already on her way out. "Sit," Xena commands. Miriam, out of options, goes back to the table and settles in, keeping both eyes on the warrior.

"Who are you talking to?" Xena demands.

Miriam says, "First I want a guarantee of my safety." She adds hastily, "And that of my friends... family... anyone I might possibly like... anyone I ever met..." She looks at Xena and speaks, but not to her, saying oddly, "I know I have your assurance that she won't do anything, but I'd still like hers."

"Granted," Xena says, more and more intrigued. "Now, will you explain what's going on?"

"I knew about the symbol," Miriam says abruptly, "because she told me to draw it. She said you'd recognize it. She said it was your idea to have a symbol you could use to recognize each other, no matter where--or when--you met."

"Who did?" Xena says through suddenly dry lips.

Miriam hesitates, though both of them know what she's going to say next.

"She says... her name is... Gabrielle."

Fade in on a very angry warrior princess striding out of the tavern. It's pitch black, and as Xena stomps off to the stable to get her horse and get outta Dodge, Miriam bursts out of the doorway of the tavern, right behind her.

Xena opens the door of the stable, much more quietly than she feels like doing. Miriam slips around her and stands in the way.

"Move," Xena growls.

"No," Miriam says.

Xena gives her one exasperated quirk of the lip, then shoulders her out of the way. Miriam goes down in a heap and Xena begins to saddle Argo.

"Talk to me," Miriam says, getting heavily back to her feet.

"I don't talk to con artists," Xena says shortly.

"All right, so what do you want? For me to prove it?"

Xena snorts with contempt.

Miriam moves to block her way again. "How?"

Xena moves out of the way to get Argo's bridle.

"Tell me. What would convince you?" Xena ignores her and begins to slip the bridle over Argo's head. "What would you consider proof?"

Xena's face, carefully neutral up to now, slides into a mask of grief. "Gabrielle is dead."

Miriam looks her right in the eye. "I know."

Xena puts up the mask again. "I don't have anything you'd want."

"Not necessarily," Miriam says steadily. "There are the scrolls. That could make a bard's reputation. In the right hands, they could make their owner rich."

Xena rounds on her. "Is that what you did? Read them all and fill in the gaps?"

"I didn't have time," Miriam says. "Will you listen to me?"

Xena's teeth set so hard it seems they'll shatter. "You're very clever," she says, grinding the words out. "But I'm through having people tell me she's just around the corner, or just sleeping, or just waiting for me."

Miriam holds her eye for a long time, then turns away, muttering, "I knew you wouldn't believe it. Ah, well. Hope springs eternal."

Miriam puts a hand over her ear reflexively, reacting to something we haven't heard, as Xena's sword slithers out of its scabbard, heading for her throat. Miriam shakes her head and blinks a few times, as if clearing her mind; the sword stops a few inches away.

Miriam sighs and rubs her ear, glancing up at Xena ruefully. "Apparently, I've just said something tactless," she apologizes. "I'm sorry." Her unfocused gaze takes in the sword. "You--ah--you don't suppose you could put that away, do you?"

Xena regards her for a moment, then whips the sword up and slips it into the scabbard. She turns away and keeps saddling Argo.

Gently, Miriam puts out a hand and places it lightly on Xena's wrist. After a moment, Xena's furious, grief-stricken blue eyes snap up to meet Miriam's.

 

Fade up on the two of them walking through the woods. Xena is leading Argo and Miriam is having just a bit of trouble keeping up, but it's not because of the pace: she seems a little distracted and makes half-gestures as though there's water in her ear. Xena is scanning the forest, looking everywhere but at Miriam, keeping an eye out for danger.

"Do you always have the fidgets?" she asks Miriam.

"Beg pardon--sorry?" Miriam asks sunnily.

Xena is about to make some sarcastic reply when she snaps to the alert. The sword is out and she's looking around for trouble. Miriam, about three steps behind, begins to look around in befuddlement.

A war cry sounds as several disreputable-looking leather-clad people charge them. Xena smiles with grim enjoyment--this is the first fun she's had in a long time--as several of the thugs surround her. She's thwacking away with stern merriment as Miriam backs slowly away from two of the warriors.

The expressions on the warriors' faces get happier as they realize that Miriam isn't going to put up much of a fight. Maybe they can use her to convince Xena to drop her sword.

Miriam shakes her head, looking at the warriors with an expression of pleading. "I can't," she whispers. They laugh in the time-honored manner of villains and advance on her anyway.

Xena, thumping away at the other warriors, can't quite get away to help Miriam (she may not be too upset about that). "Fight!" she shouts shortly.

Miriam is now up against a tree, holding up a shaking hand. "Please," she says to one of the warriors, who reaches for her arm, intending to rip it off and beat her over the head with it.

He's on his back in a flash, Miriam looking down at him in stunned incomprehension. The other warrior rushes her; she picks up a fallen branch and knocks him sideways, into the bushes. A nice flourish with the tree limb sends another of the warriors to dreamland. In a few seconds, they've cleared the road of persons of questionable intent.

Xena sheathes the sword and looks at Miriam with a new respect. "You're handy with that thing," she says. "Why didn't you tell me you knew how to fight?"

"I don't," Miriam says, dropping the branch with loathing.

Cut to a sunset fading in the west as Miriam sits beside the campfire, cleaning fish for supper. The job is distasteful; she makes a face as she works, exclaiming, "Are you sure she's that fond of fish?"

For the first time, we hear the voice she's been responding to: it sounds like it's a long way away, and the sounds are produced with an audible effort. "It's her favorite," the voice labors to say. It's a familiar voice, a woman's, with a bard's cadence and a wry, lively humor.

"Well, by all means, then. If it makes it easier on her," Miriam says, wrinkling her nose at the fish as she fillets it. She stops for a moment, sighs, and lays the knife down. "So how do you think it's going?"

"Rough," says the voice.

"Can you blame her?" Miriam mutters. She picks up the knife again, sets to the fish with determination, and says casually, "You're sure you can't just talk to her yourself?"

"No," says the voice, with an effort. "She can't hear me."

"It isn't for lack of trying--" Miriam begins, then shuts up as Xena appears with an armload of firewood.

"Talking to yourself again?" Xena inquires mildly.

"No," Miriam snaps, sawing at the fish.

Gently, Xena reaches for the knife, takes it from Miriam's hands, and begins to glide it through the fish. Miriam frowns, then gets up and adds more wood to the fire.

"I don't have anything," Xena comments conversationally. "No stash of loot, no jewelry, no palace. I'm not easy to travel with and warlords tend to attack me--frequently. I don't make conversation and the only stories I have are in the scrolls Daniel has for copying." She puts the filet down and cleans the knife. Miriam still hasn't said anything. Xena turns her head to look at Miriam directly as the fire crackles. "So why are you here?"

Miriam stacks a couple of logs on the fire.

Xena isn't accustomed to not being answered. "What are you getting out of this?" she asks Miriam, who's still working on the fire.

Miriam shakes her head subtly. The new logs sputter and she sits back on her heels, feeding scraps of wood to the fire. The silence goes on for a few more moments, then Xena gathers up the fish and begins to wrap it in leaves for cooking. She stands and brings the fish to Miriam, who places it in a pan and shoves it into the middle of the fire.

"'I dedicate this fish to Lyceus,'" Miriam mutters.

Xena's eyes narrow. "What?"

Miriam busies herself with the fish, waiting for more. Finally, she says, "I don't know. That's all there is."

Xena stands over her a moment, irresolute. Miriam looks up at her. "Ask. She said you're dying to know."

"You've seen the scrolls."

"ĎSeení is a bit different from Ďreadí," Miriam says, exasperated. "There were dozens of them, and there weren't any copies, and you know yourself that you only gave them to Daniel in the afternoon, and I met you that evening..." Her attention goes to inner space for a moment, then she shrugs and shakes the pan. "Besides, she says she never wrote that one down." She looks up at Xena again. "Is that true? Do you know what's in all of them?"

"I read them all," Xena says in a low voice, crouching next to Miriam. "Every one of them." Miriam turns to her. "Over and over. I know what's in each one--every story--"

Miriam's fury grows on her. "Then why in Tartarus--"

A burst of dazzlement knocks her off her feet as Ares appears in a cloud of glory. Xena is on her feet instantly; Miriam takes a bit longer to rise.

"Hullo, Xena," Ares says. "Found a replacement for the blonde so soon?"

"What do you want, Ares?" Xena asks.

"Ares? And you think I'm a con?" Miriam sputters, furious.

"Who's the new sidekick?" Ares asks, not really interested.

"I'm her cook. And her servant. Groom, stablekeeper, scribe, purveyor of armament, chronicler of deeds, magician extraordinaire, and Grand Vizier of the queendom of Xenopolis."

"Miriam--" Xena interjects.

"Well, as long as he's claiming he's Ares--"

"He isn't claiming," Xena points out. "He is."

"Whatever you say," Miriam mutters, turning back to supper, giving Ares a rough shove. "Out of the way, Your Highness."

Ares decides she's beneath his notice and turns to Xena. "How have you been?"

"I'm sure you've been keeping an eye on me," she responds.

"Listen, Xena," he says, holding up his hands. "I'm truly sorry for what happened to Gabrielle. The two of you made quite a team. She gave you the fire to keep going. Oh, I won't deny I made use of that... but without her, you would've curled up on a rock somewhere until the sun bleached you to dust."

"So why are you here?" Xena demands, with an edge. "I can't possibly be any use to you any more."

"I watched you fight today," Ares replies softly. "You're like an automaton--all the moves are there, but no spirit. I don't just want the win, I want the glory. I don't care about the body count, I want the soul. And yours... is lost."

Miriam gives the frying pan a vicious rattle.

"I wanted to do you a favor," he says, ignoring the noise.

Xena quirks an eyebrow. "A favor from the God of War?"

"If he's the God of War, I'm Diana the Huntress," Miriam mutters.

"I went to the Elysian Fields to see how she was doing," Ares says.

Xena clenches her fists.

"Not to use her as a pawn, or to bring her back," he says. "Just to see how she is. Is she content, did she have anything left to finish, that kind of thing."

"And?" Xena says, out of patience.

"And she's not there," he says simply. "Not in the Elysian Fields, not in Tartarus, not in Valhalla, not in the Wood between the Worlds, nowhere. I couldn't find her."

Xena looks away, certain he's lying. Miriam crouches closer over the fire.

"I asked around," he continues. "I have connections. Nobody knows where she is. I'm sorry, Xena--I couldn't find her."

Xena's eyes grow hard with fury. "Very pretty, the two of you," she says, casting a smoldering glance at Ares and Miriam.

Miriam springs to her feet. "So now we're in on it together? I've got news for you, my friend--I prefer my conspirators with a little more brains and a little less... hair!"

Miriam, fed up, stomps away from the fire, as Xena gives Ares a look, which he returns, in spades.

 

Fade in on a tavern, where an attentive, half-plowed audience listens to Miriam acting out a story. "The giant rose to his full height..." she says, rising slowly from a crouch on the floor. "Bigger than that... bigger than that... bigger than that, even!" She's now standing with her arms spread wide, looking menacing.

She tells the story in fits and starts, a phrase at a time; it's obvious that she's hearing the story as she tells it. "His strides measured... three leagues. Four." Her gestures don't quite match the story; it's as though she's being just as surprised as the audience. "His voice... roared... with a boom like thunder..." She adds a bit: "And his breath could knock over trees."

Pan across the room to Xena, sitting at a table, trying to ignore the floor show.

Cut to the two of them walking through a market, Miriam jingling a couple of coins and looking pleased with herself.

"That's a good way to attract thieves," Xena says unobtrusively.

"Like they'd get within a league of the Warrior Princess," Miriam says. "See? Told you I was just in it for the money." She puts a hand to her ear, shaking off a voice we can't hear.

Xena is fairly disgusted with the humor. Miriam catches sight of something and turns to Xena. "Oh, there's something I want to show--look at. If I leave for a few minutes, you'll be here when I get back?"

Xena nods reluctantly.

"Promise?" Miriam says.

Xena looks impatient.

"Won't be long," Miriam says.

She exits the frame as Xena looks around for something useful to do.

Cut to Miriam entering a shop that has beautiful stocks of paper, pots of ink, and various writing implements. She enters almost in a hush, looking around for a clerk. When she doesn't see one, she sets a couple of coins gently on the counter and picks up a delicate quill.

She dips the quill in an open pot of ink, brushes off the extra, and applies it to a piece of scrap paper. Her face breaks into a smile and she picks up a blank sheet. She stands there a moment, quill poised over the paper, and waits.

"Sing to me, Muse," says a far-off voice, "of the Warrior Woman." Miriam begins to write, repeating the words more slowly and with less inflection. "Strong and powerful, brave and courageous, clever and wise."

"Wait, wait!" Miriam cries, trying to keep up. She bends closer over the paper, drawing the characters with care.

"This is the tale of the Warrior Woman and her third battle with the War God," says the far-away voice.

"...'the War God,'" Miriam says. "Slow down or you'll only get every other word."

"The sun had barely lifted its golden head above the horizon when she rode forth on her mighty charger Argo, every sense alert for danger--" the voice continues. The exultation in the voice matches Miriam's growing excitement. "The only sound was the drip of the dew from the leaves of the trees, the only sensation a slight breeze that ran over her skin--"

"Yes," Miriam says unobtrusively, continuing to write. "Yes--"

"Then came a feeling like a flicker of lightning over her--"

A leather-clad hand descends on the counter and Miriam jumps about six feet in the air.

"What do you think you're doing?" Xena growls.

"Testing a pen," Miriam says with dignity, trying to stuff her heart back into her chest.

Xena regards her soberly for a moment, then makes a sudden move and snatches the paper. Miriam makes a grab for it. "That isn't yours!"

Xena gets it away from her and scans it. She makes her face expressionless as she reads, then sets the piece of paper back gently on the counter. After a long moment, she looks away from the paper and back at Miriam. "What comes next?"

Miriam looks away for a moment. "You heard something and sent her into the woods on some pretext. When the attack came, she was lost in the fog and couldn't see you. She followed the noise of the fighting and got back to you just in time to see... I don't know, she's trying to describe the warriors, but it's--it's not--"

Xena's face takes on three different expressions at once. "Which one of the scrolls is this on?"

Miriam clears her throat and speaks with reluctance. "This is one she hadn't gotten to yet." She can't keep her eyes on Xena's face and looks down.

Gently, Xena reaches out and cups Miriam's chin in her hand. Miriam raises her eyes again. "Where is she?" Xena asks softly.

The tears spring to Miriam's eyes as she answers. "Here. In here. By the gods, I don't know how, but she's--"

Xena raises her hand and places it gently on Miriam's cheek. "Gabrielle?"

 

Fade in as Xena and Miriam sit at a campfire. Miriam is brooding into the flames while Xena peppers her with questions. Xena is much more eager to hear the story than Miriam is to tell it.

"When did it happen?"

"Right after Daniel told me we'd gotten a bunch of scrolls to copy. I knew whose they were, and I knew you were in town. I got the scrolls ready to go to the scriptorium and was on my way. I heard this sound... like an eagle swooping down on a mouse... and something knocked me over."

"'Something'?" Xena's eyes are bright with curiosity.

"Someone. I felt someone. Folding into me. My soul."

Xena's not really all that interested in Miriam's reaction. She waits a moment before asking the question she's longing to ask. "Is she there?"

Miriam sighs. "Yes."

Xena looks away, then redirects her eyes to Miriam's face. "Can I talk to her?"

Miriam rubs her hands, then holds them to the fire, not answering.

"Come on," Xena says, all suppressed excitement. "You wanted me to believe you... I do. You spent all this time trying to convince me it was true... now I believe it. What else do you want?"

Miriam says in a low voice, "What happens to me?"

Xena clams up; she's thought of this, but doesn't really want to discuss it.

"I just disappear into the background, is that it?" Miriam turns to Xena for the first time. "You two get to pick up where you left off, and I just... go away?"

She waits for an answer, looking steadily at Xena. Finally, Xena spreads her hands in helpless consternation and says, "There must be a way--"

"Then let me decide. When and how."

Xena feels trapped, but she can't think of any way out. "All right."

Miriam leans back. The flames play over her face as she closes her eyes. As the fire ebbs and grows, little bits of Gabrielle's face flicker across Miriam's. When she opens her eyes, she's Gabrielle.

"Xena," she breathes.

Xena moves forward cautiously. "Gabrielle?"

"It's been so long... I've missed you so much..."

Xena puts out a hand and touches Gabrielle's wrist. "And I thought I'd lost you..."

"You'll never lose me. I'll always be with you."

Xena strokes Gabrielle's hair gently, not really able to believe it. "How did this happen?"

Gabrielle frowns and takes Xena's hand. "I'm not sure. It's not like anything I ever experienced before... I never heard of anything like this. It was as though I was walking in darkness and then... I spotted something familiar."

"What was that?" Xena asks, her face shining.

"My scrolls. I... I felt you near them. I thought if I could get them back... I could get you back..."

Xena moves slowly to sit next to Gabrielle, putting an arm over her shoulders. "How long is this going to last?"

Gabrielle shakes her head. "I don't know. It's not always easy to... to reach you... and we have to think about..."

"I know," Xena says, tightening her arms around Gabrielle. "Let's spend the time we have wisely, then." She leans in to Gabrielle, closing her eyes.

"Whoa, there, warrior princess," Miriam's voice interrupts. When Xena opens her eyes, Miriam has both hands on her shoulders, holding her off. Xena sits back, disoriented. "Let's not get carried away, shall we?" Miriam continues, clearly livid.

Xena, mortified, sits back. "I'm sorry," she says.

Miriam lowers her hands. "I can't say I didn't see this coming (you should pardon the expression), but..." She shakes her head, then gets to her feet abruptly and picks up a waterskin. "I'm going to get some more water... some cold water."

Xena, hugely embarrassed, stutters an apology. Miriam holds out a hand in a peace offering. "I think we both need to cool off a bit." Xena takes her hand and grips it for a moment.

"We'll work this out," Miriam says in a soft voice.

She's bashing her way through the woods with the waterskin when a nimbus of blue light bursts in front of her.

Ares smiles his dazzlingly nasty smile. "Hi there. Remember me?"

"Xena--" Miriam calls, uncertainly.

And in another blue flash, the two of them are gone.

 

Fade in as Xena gallops Argo hard, bent over the horse's neck. Xena's expression is grim and Argo's hooves are throwing clods of dirt everywhere.

Cut to a tracking shot of a room heavy on the stone-and-armor motif. Ares is standing in front of an impressive-looking throne made of marble and wood, set on a dais down which he's making a theatrical descent.

"Welcome," he says in his best intimidating-jerk voice. "I hope you've been comfortable. 'Course, it doesn't really matter if you have or you haven't... because let's face it. You're pretty much expendable."

The tracking shot reveals Miriam, standing with her hands behind her back. "Good reason not to bother with me, then," she says steadily.

"Oh, I didn't say I couldn't use you... in fact, you figure prominently in a little plan I'm putting the finishing touches on."

"Kill me now," she says sarcastically. As the camera tracks, we see that her hands are heavily manacled.

He laughs. "You know, you could be a lot more fun than that mealy-mouthed little goodie-goodie blonde. She was enough to give you a permanent case of nausea."

Miriam feels her blood begin to boil. Gabrielle is obviously starting to percolate in her brain.

"But you..." he says seductively, coming close enough to run a possessive hand along her face. "You look like you've got some fire. Some spirit. Enough to spit right in my eye."

"Never mind killing me," she says. "I'll do it myself."

"Oh, yes," he says, as if this just confirms his opinion. "Much better than that whiny... little... Gabrielle."

"Shut up," she says with precision. "If you really are the God of War, I beg your pardon."

"Tell me," he says in his best I'm irresistible manner. "Is it a scam, or is it true?"

"Is what true?" she asks, not giving an inch.

"That there's more than one of you in there."

"Take off the manacles and I'll tell you."

He makes a gesture, and the manacles come apart. She frees her hands and tosses the iron onto the floor with disdain.

He puts an I'm waiting smirk on his face.

"It's not a good idea to lie to the God of War, is it?" she asks. He shakes his head. "All right. It's... it's a con." She sighs.

"I thought so," he says lightly.

"A scriptorium isn't the best place in the world to meet warriors. I thought... it was a chance to... to get away from a really dull life. And who wouldn't love the chance to travel with Xena, Warrior Princess?"

"I understand," he says, folding his arms and leaning back. "There's something about her. Something you can't name... and you can't tame."

"It couldn't have worked," Miriam says, shaking her head. "She just can't let go. She can't... she can't forget. I was stupid even to try."

"Oh, I don't know," Ares answers. "Let's just see how far we get with you, shall we?"

Miriam raises her head. "Excuse me?"

"You're not getting away that easily," he says. "You see, you know it's a scam, and I know it's a scam... but Xena believes it. And I can use that."

Miriam gives him a shaken, disbelieving laugh. "Are you kidding? You can't use me as bait. She couldn't be less interested in me."

"I think you're wrong," he says meaningfully.

Cut to a small, dirty cell, as Miriam presses on the stones, looking for a way out. As she searches, Gabrielle's voice fumes in her head.

"Whiny? Goodie-goodie? Mealy-mouthed?"

"You're getting much better at talking," Miriam points out in a whisper.

"Like no one's ever heard him whine!"

"Also shouting," Miriam whispers. "Listen, give me a hand with this, will you?"

"Which hand would you like?" Gabrielle asks, exasperated.

"Can you find a way out of here?"

"It may have escaped your notice that this is the stronghold of the God of War," Gabrielle says.

"Yes, we've met. I have a theory," Miriam murmurs, trying the stones. "I think he probably wants us to get loose. I think he wants us to get back to Xena. I think he wants her so angry that she'll do something stupid."

"Like what?" Gabrielle asks.

"Like going after him."

"Why?"

"So he can get her back."

"Makes sense," Gabrielle muses. "Try that one."

"Which one?"

"Allow me," Gabrielle says. Miriam's hand moves as though someone's holding her wrist, and her hand comes to rest on a stone near the sconce that holds the torch. She presses it, and the wall opens with a creaking noise. Miriam hesitates, not moving.

"What are we waiting for?" Gabrielle hisses.

"To see if anyone's coming after us," Miriam says.

For a moment, two pairs of ears in one body strain for a noise. Miriam nods with satisfaction. "That's it, he wants us loose," she remarks.

"You're not staying?" Gabrielle asks, incredulous.

"Of course not," Miriam says. "Ambrosia makes me sick."

Cut to Xena creeping through the God-of-War version of ventilation ducts in the dungeons of Ares's bachelor pad. She's moving cautiously, the sword in her hand: he's the God of War, after all, and whatever protects his place is bound to be nasty.

She hears a sound and whips around, sword at the ready. Miriam steps back with exaggerated caution.

"Glad to see you too," she whispers.

A storm of contradictory emotions runs over Xena's face. "Are you all right?"

"Yes," Miriam says seriously. "Both of us."

"Come on," Xena says, taking her arm.

A flash of blue interrupts their flight. Ares stands in the way. Xena hauls out the sword again, while Miriam puts her hands on her hips, looking bored.

"'Both of us'?" Ares inquires, lifting an eyebrow.

"Joke." Miriam snaps. "Private joke."

"Why don't you let me in on it?"

"Ares, we don't have anything you want," Xena says.

"You have everything I want," he says. "However, it's not going to do us any good to stand in this drafty dungeon and debate the matter. You," he turns turn Miriam. "Both of you. It's amazing, but I didn't have any idea the solo act had turned into a duet. And do you know how rare that is? How did you do it?"

"I could tell you, but then I'd have to level Olympus and sow salt on the ruins," Miriam responds.

Xena, taken aback, lowers the sword slightly.

Ares blazes with anger. "Do you know who you're talking to?"

Miriam shrugs. "Claims to be the God of War. I suspect the... claim... is compensation for some kind of... shortcoming?" She glances just to the south of his belt buckle as she finishes the sentence.

Now Ares is really pissed. He raises his hand to obliterate the two of them, but checks the gesture just in time. The anger steams in his face as he thinks it over.

"Aha," Miriam says, with satisfaction. "You can't do it, can you?"

This hadn't occurred to Xena. "You have a reason for leaving us alone, don't you?"

He deflates suddenly. "All right. I admit it. It's not often that I run into something I can't explain. And as far as something that we can't explain... that almost never happens."

"'We'?" Xena inquires, crooking an eyebrow. The sword flashes up and into the sheath on her back.

"The gods on Olympus," Ares says flatly.

"I'll be switched," Miriam says, impressed: it's not often the universe picks her out as an experimental subject.

"You may yet," Ares comments.

"So... you grabbed her--" Xena begins, gesturing with her head at Miriam.

"--and Gabrielle," Ares interjects.

"...brought us both out here... why?"

"I have a deal for you. An all-expense-paid trip to someone who can figure out what happened and what to do about it."

"And in return?"

"Satisfy my curiosity. Let me go with you."

Xena and Miriam look at one another. This is a test of their new, involuntary partnership, and both of them hesitate before deciding.

"What do you think?" Xena asks Miriam.

"That's a new one!" Miriam exclaims. Xena frowns. "Sorry, that just slipped out," Miriam says, subdued.

Xena smiles indulgently. "What does she think?"

Miriam looks away for a second, then turns back to Xena and nods, with a hint of amusement. "I think she's tired of being a brunette."

Fade in as Miriam, Xena, and Ares walk down a pleasant green road surrounded by non-threatening trees. Miriam is just finishing declaiming a poem, with gestures as extravagant as she can manage and still keep up the forward momentum.

"And for five stadia around

The villagers still hear the sound

Of angry giants' mighty tread

Along the hallways of the dead."

"That wasn't precisely the way it happened," Xena says mildly. It's evident, though, that she's enjoyed the story.

"It's the way Gabrielle says it happened," Miriam responds, with an unshakable faith.

"Loyalty," Ares mutters.

"She's worth it," Xena says, in a tone that indicates shut up or else.

"So when do we get to your magi?" Miriam asks conversationally.

"I like to build up the suspense," Ares says.

"So where--" Xena begins.

"There," Ares says, pointing.

Reverse angle as the three of them emerge from the woods. A beautiful little cottage crouches in a verdant clearing. The only thing that keeps it from being a standard English cliché is that, instead of a foundation of picturesque river rock, the cottage rests on two giant chicken feet.

"That?!" Xena exclaims.

"That," Ares says, trying hard to hide his smirk.

Xena unshoulders her sword and strides to the door. Behind her, Miriam and Ares settle into a patient stance, crossing their arms and watching.

As Xena approaches the door of the cottage, the chicken feet come to life. The cottage dances nimbly out of her way. Irritated, she follows it. Each time, as she reaches for the door handle, the cottage lifts up on its chicken feet and moves out of her way.

Ares leans sideways to whisper to Miriam. "You've heard this one, haven't you?"

"Not this particular one," she whispers back, "but let's say the punchline sounds familiar."

Xena decides to wait out the cottage and stands in one spot. The cottage dances up to her; when she reaches for the door handle, it sashays out of her reach.

"What do you think?" Miriam whispers to Ares.

"I don't get tired," he responds with quiet glee. "Especially not when I'm seeing something I don't see that often."

The cottage begins to circumnavigate Xena, moving faster and faster until it's a blur. She tries to walk away from the circle and the cottage blocks her way. She moves in a different direction, and instantly the cottage is squatting in front of her, stolid.

Miriam hides a smile with her hand.

Xena feints left; the cottage follows. She goes swiftly to the right and it hops in her way.

"All right, Ares," Xena says through her teeth. "You've had your fun."

"Me?" he says, spreading his hands in a gesture of wounded innocence.

"Xena--" Miriam begins.

"Tell it to let me out," Xena says.

"Xena," Miriam says again, patiently.

"I'm not kidding, Ares," Xena says.

"Xena," Miriam says.

Xena finally turns her attention to Miriam. "What is it?"

"It... wants to play."

"What?" Xena asks, puzzled. She jerks a thumb at the cottage. "That?"

Miriam nods.

Xena starts to make the reply that's uppermost in her mind, then her better nature takes over. She looks around on the ground and picks up a considerable tree branch. She taps it along the ground and the cottage goes bananas, dancing excitedly on its feet.

Xena heaves the tree branch as hard as she can and the cottage dashes out of sight, weaving its way among the trees. After a moment, it's lost to sight. Xena quirks a lip at Miriam, who smiles back.

With a suddenness that sucks the air out of the clearing, the cottage rushes back, with the stick caught in one of its feet. It settles down in its original spot and begins to worry at the stick.

Ares glances at Miriam, impressed.

"It's customary to pet it when it does a good job," Miriam calls out.

"I am not--" Xena says. The cottage leaps up, ready to flee again. With a sigh, Xena reaches out and pats some of the greenery next to the door. "Good cottage, nice cottage," she mumbles.

Miriam walks up to the door, patting one of the feet, and reaches for the handle. The door opens smoothly, and she gestures Xena and Ares inside.

Inside, the cottage looks just like a regular cottage, except with all kinds of fantastic things hanging from the ceiling and ranged around the walls. The disorder would be irritating, except that the objects have both an individual and a collective charm.

"What now?" Xena asks.

"We wait," Miriam says, moving to sit in a chair covered with brightly-colored, tumbled-about cloth. The bundle of cloth moves and she gets out of the way hastily.

"Now, now," the bundle exclaims, in a cracked, reedy, high voice. A gnarled little face appears out of the bundle. "What's the idea of interrupting my nap?"

A tiny, lumpy old woman emerges from the chair and moves toward the hearth. She puts a teakettle over the fire and turns to face her visitors.

"Ares," she says disapprovingly. "And what makes you take time out of your busy schedule of spreading mischief to pay me a visit, at long last?"

"I've been busy," the God of War replies.

"Hmph," she says, indicating just how lame she thinks the excuse. "Well, at least you've brought your friends to while away a few hours with a helpless old woman."

"About as helpless as the whole Roman army," Xena says in a low voice.

"Xena... Miriam..." Ares says, indicating each. "I'd like you to meet Baba Yaga."

"We're delighted to meet you," Miriam says. "And your charming house."

"Yes, it likes a bit of a chase now and then," the old woman says. "Well, I'll take fifty dinars if you've come on something other than a social visit," she says, fixing Ares with eyes as bright as an eagle's.

"Well--" he sighs.

"Oh, I'm accustomed to it by now. No one ever comes here just to see how I am."

"You don't exactly make it easy," Xena says.

The teakettle whistles and Baba Yaga pours the steaming water carefully into a teapot. She drops a spoon into the teapot and glares at it for a moment; it begins to stir itself. She gets the tea settled to her satisfaction and looks shrewdly at Miriam. "Getting a bit crowded in there, is it?"

Miriam smiles. "She's good company."

"Oh, no doubt, no doubt. She's a good girl."

"Thank you," Miriam's mouth says.

"But it's not common for there to be one where there should be two. You don't quite know how to handle it. And you don't think you ever will. Either of you."

Miriam nods, her smile fading. Xena gets a sense of just how much she's had to put up with since her unwelcome visitor took up residence.

"Well, it's not common, but it's not unheard of," Baba Yaga comments. She pours out four cups of tea and hands them around. What makes this remarkable is that she doesn't touch the teapot or the cups, which float in a graceful ballet around her head.

"Can you help us?" Xena says, holding her tea, untouched.

Baba Yaga blows the steam off the top of her cup and looks up at Xena searchingly. "What exactly is it that you want?"

For some reason, the question makes Xena hesitate. "I want her back."

"You have her back," Baba Yaga says instantly.

"I mean--you know what I mean."

"I know what you mean," Baba Yaga says mildly, sipping her tea. "The question is, do you?"

"What's that supposed to mean?" Xena asks, the storm threatening.

"I'm not so certain this couldn't be a good thing for everyone involved."

Miriam turns pale and sits down slowly on a three-legged stool.

"For a while," Baba Yaga amends. "The two of you--excuse me, the three of you--could do a lot of good things for a lot of people."

"For how long?" Miriam croaks.

"A while."

"How long is 'a while'?" Xena asks, trying not to scratch her trigger finger.

"Until they're done," Baba Yaga answers.

"I can't!" Miriam bursts out. "Baba Yaga, you have no idea what it's like to live with her! With both of them!"

"You could learn a lot," Baba Yaga says, implacable and kindly.

"About never being left alone? About having to spend time with someone who thinks I'm a murderer... and an idiot... and a con artist... and a useless burden? And all the time this voice is drumming, drumming, drumming in my ear--and I can't get either one of them to just--shut--up!"

"Oh, this is gonna be fun to watch," Ares says, with a hint of sadistic enjoyment.

Baba Yaga stands up. She's about as tall standing as Miriam is sitting down; she comes up about as high as Xena's chakram. She reaches out both hands and puts them onto Miriam's shoulders. "Don't think of it as a prison sentence," she says softly. "You don't think I'd say this if I didn't think you could do it, do you?"

"Is this your doing?" Xena hisses with sudden malice.

Baba Yaga ignores her, looking into Miriam's eyes. After a moment, she sees what she wants and pats Miriam's head. "All right, then, little one," she says indulgently, like a pampering grandma.

"Will you stay close?" Miriam whispers.

"I'll never be very far away," she says, infusing her crone's voice with love. "From either of you."

Ares reacts with disgust.

"Go, my child," Baba Yaga says softly to Miriam. "Have your adventures."

 

Fade in on Ares and Xena standing in a verdant glade at sunset. Ares shakes his head. "Well, you've got quite a situation on your hands. Sure you want to play babysitter for a couple of years?"

Xena glances behind her. "Doesn't look like I have much choice, does it?"

"This oughta be fun. Don't worry, I'll have a ringside seat." Ares raises his hand and disappears in a showy flash of blue light. With sparkles.

Xena makes her way wearily across the glade to where Miriam sits, regarding the sunset with what might be bitterness and what might be indifference. Xena looks down at Miriam, who doesn't look at her.

"On to the adventures..." Xena begins.

Miriam looks at her in disbelief.

"All right," Xena says. "This isn't exactly what I imagined would happen. But... I'm going to be there for you. Both of you. I promise."

Miriam gives her a tentative smile. Then she stands up, dusts off her knees, and sighs. "Well, then. Let's get to it."

The two of them begin to walk into the sunset.

"So where are we going?" Miriam asks conversationally, as they get farther away from the camera.

"I have no idea."

"Say, Xena, do you think we could stop by Ithaca on the way?"

"What for?"

"I think I'm gonna need some ink. And some parchment. And a few pens..."

Part 2

A terrific crash accompanies a flash of lightning. In the illumination, Xena and Miriam appear for a moment, slogging through an entirely inhospitable, densely-wooded area.

Cut to a two-shot of Miriam and Xena. Rain streams from their faces and shoulders as they force away the vegetation and try to pull their feet from the mud.

Miriam cups her hand around her mouth and shouts. "Tell me that we have some reasonable expectation of finding the bad guys before we drown."

Xena is distracted by trying to get through the mess. "What?"

Miriam gives up. "Are we going the right way?"

Xena nods, saving her breath for the task of forcing their way through the woods.

The two of them are slashing at the trees, heaving through the thick undergrowth, when another dramatic flash of lightning arcs through the forest, splintering a tree and sending it toward the two women.

Xena strongarms Miriam, who spins away and drops to the ground. The tree makes a beeline for Xena and knocks her into the mud, pinning her legs. Xena fights for air, trying to lift the tree trunk from her legs.

Miriam catches her breath and dashes toward Xena, heaving at the tree. Xena tightens against the pain and grabs Miriam's arm.

"Hang on," Miriam shouts over the noise of the storm. "I'll get you loose."

Xena nods, distracted by the pain.

The rain drops enough in volume that we can hear Miriam muttering a half-prayer. "Tell me how to get her out of this."

Fade in on Miriam leading Argo to the tree. Argo balks. Miriam whispers, "How do you get her to do what you want?" She listens for a moment, the rain dropping from the tip of her nose, then nods in frustration. "Thanks, that's very helpful." She turns back to Argo. "Listen. I know I don't know how to talk to you, but I need you to go over there and wait till I tie something to your saddle."

Argo snorts the water out of her nose and walks to the spot Miriam needs her to be in. Surprised, Miriam stands for a moment. "Thank you. That's perfect."

Miriam loops a length of rope around Argo's saddlehorn and makes it fast. "All right," she says softly, clinging to Argo's bridle. "Let's work together."

The two of them make their way carefully backwards, Miriam encouraging Argo without words. Cut to Xena, holding herself up by her arms, ignoring the pain as the tree trunk lifts off her legs.

Miriam whispers to Argo, telling her to stay still with a pat on her neck. For a moment, Miriam closes her eyes and gathers her strength, clinging to Argo's neck, as the rain continues to fountain down her body.

Argo stands like a rock as Miriam makes her way to Xena, moving with slow determination. She puts her hands under Xena's arms and begins to pull with deliberation and tenderness.

"I'll try not to hurt you," Miriam growls with the effort.

Xena closes her eyes, bares her teeth, and submits.

Fade in on a room in an inn. Two burly women are putting Xena to bed; she submits with a singular lack of grace.

Miriam sits in a chair beside the bed, trying desperately not to fall asleep. She props her hand under her chin as the women get Xena settled.

The storm rages outside as Xena finally settles back, her pain-wracked body finally finding a comfortable resting place.

Miriam is dozing, her body relaxing, when Xena's voice runs around the room.

"Are you all right?"

Miriam rouses herself to answer. "We're fine."

"Good." Xena closes her eyes and sinks into sleep.

Cut to a warrior shouldering his way into the tavern. He makes his way to the bar and speaks in a voice just loud enough to carry over the noise in the common room. "Has a woman stopped here? A warrior?"

Miriam comes down the stairs, holding out her hands in greeting. "Joxer!"

The man at the bar turns, startled.

"It's good to see you," the woman says.

Joxer looks confused.

The woman regroups. "Er... she's told me a lot about you..."

"Who has? Xena?"

"Yes," Miriam replies with relief.

"She's here?" Joxer asks eagerly.

"Yes... she's had an accident..."

"Is she all right?"

"Yes, sure, she's just gonna need a little... a little..." Miriam stares at him. "She told me you were... it's very, very good to see you, Joxer." She lays a hand on his arm.

Promptly, he misunderstands. "I better go see her."

"Good idea," Miriam agrees immediately.

Cut to Joxer walking into the room tentatively, Miriam moving with hesitation behind him. He clears his throat and speaks.

"Xena?"

Xena, in the grip of a powerful boredom, looks up. Her face takes on an uncommon softness. "Joxer," she purrs, holding out her hands.

Joxer approaches the bed, taking Xena's hands in his. "How are you?" he asks softly.

"All right. And you?"

"Fine," he answers with reluctance. "That is--"

"I understand," she says quickly.

Miriam studies the two of them as she moves to pour tea for the Warrior Princess and her guest.

"I heard you had gone back to Thrace," Xena says conversationally.

"Yes, I did." There's a certain awkwardness to his speech. "I had to... you know..."

"Yeah," she replies softly, looking away.

"Tea?" Miriam says brightly, holding up the teapot.

"Ah... Joxer..." Xena remembers her manners. "Have you met Miriam?"

"Yeah," he says shortly. "Downstairs." He nods with fragmentary courtesy and looks back at Xena. "Are you all right? What happened?"

"Tree," Xena says, and that's that.

"Oh," he says with relief. "I thought it was maybe... you know, a god or something."

"We've had enough of them lately," Xena says. Miriam's eyes brighten with anger. She controls herself and hands a cup to Xena. "What's this?" Xena asks in her best I'm-not-happy voice.

"The healer left it for you," Miriam murmurs.

"Like that's all I have to think about." Xena's scowl provokes an equally dark expression from Miriam.

"Well, why don't I leave you two to talk over old times?" Miriam says, her fury apparent. She strides to the door, flings it open, and stops, turning her head as she listens to something we can't hear. "You don't want much, do you?" she whispers, anger making her voice shake. "You've got to be kidding. Who is this guy?"

Joxer watches in befuddlement as Miriam, her teeth set, moves to the side of the bed and sits. At Xena's inquiring look, she remarks mildly, in a code she's inventing on the spot, "Wanted to stay."

Joxer turns back to Xena, ignoring the interruption; he's used to odd things happening around the Warrior Princess. He tries to grope his way through the unfathomable pain to his emotions. "Xena... I wanted to say... I know what you're going through. Every morning when I wake up... she's the first thing I think of... and it seems impossible to go through the day knowing I'll never... never..."

He looks away. Miriam directs a laser-beam gaze at Xena, who shakes her head subtly. Miriam's eyes narrow.

Joxer doesn't notice the exchange. He looks back at Xena, pleading for her to restore his hope.

Xena sighs. "Joxer, you know... she's in a better place..."

"The Elysian Fields?" he asks eagerly.

Xena glances at Miriam, who is getting angrier by the moment. "Maybe..."

"Not... not Tartarus?" he pleads. "Oh, not that. Not someone as good as--"

Miriam's wordless communication becomes urgent. Xena ignores her. "No, of course not. I mean, I don't think so."

"Then... where?"

Xena looks away. "I don't... I don't know. Someplace where she can tell her stories--"

Miriam snorts in disgust, unable to bear it any more. Xena looks at her with an attitude of begging.

"I never got a chance to tell her... I know she thought I was... well..." Joxer clears his throat and looks away.

Miriam puts out her hand and touches Joxer's arm. "You want to know what she thought of you? She thought you were kind... and brave... and resolute. She wrote about you once:

'Behind the laugh, perhaps too merry,

The smile a shade too full

This weary world will never see

The pure and noble soul.'"

In the silence that follows, Joxer puts a hand up to brush at his eyes. Xena tries to hide it, but she's moved. Miriam meets Xena's gaze, then stands up abruptly and goes to the door. She leaves, closing the door quietly behind her, as Joxer looks up.

"I never heard that," he says softly to Xena, not noticing that Miriam is gone.

"Yes..." Xena says reluctantly," there's a lot I'm learning about Gabrielle too lately."

Cut to Miriam stalking about under the full moon, her hands cradling her elbows. Around her, in a sudden breeze, the ends of a shawl flutter and dance.

"I can't believe her," she mutters.

As if from a distance, a voice murmurs on the breeze. "She has a good reason for everything she does."

"This?" Miriam exclaims in disbelief. "She won't tell him what's going on, and he's in such misery!"

"She has her reasons," the voice repeats patiently.

"You're sure of that? It's--" Miriam stops pacing. "It's cruel, that's what it is. To leave him without any comfort... he thinks you're beyond his reach forever."

"Miriam," Gabrielle's voice echoes gently. "How can we know what kind of grief he's going through?"

Miriam sputters and waves her hands.

"We can't," Gabrielle says. "But there's one person who can."

Miriam's hands and jaw drop at the same time. She thinks it over. "How did you get so wise?" she asks finally.

Gabrielle laughs.

Cut to Miriam latching the door gently behind her. Joxer is asleep, exhaustion painting his face, in the chair by the bed. Miriam gives him a smile that isn't all hers and stops to blow gently on the embers. She adds a few more sticks to the fireplace, then holds her hands out to the growing glow.

"Back so soon?" Xena's sardonic voice cuts through the silence. Startled, Miriam moves away from the fire to approach the bed.

"I thought you'd be asleep by now," Miriam says in a near-whisper, drawing the shawl around her shoulders. In the firelight, she looks a lot smaller and more vulnerable.

"Where have you been?" Xena growls.

"Talking things over," Miriam says wryly. She sits on the side of the bed, glancing at Joxer. "Did you and he..." she turns back to Xena, then realizes that she has no idea how to finish her thought and shrugs with a helpless chuckle.

"You thought I would tell him," Xena says, lowering her voice.

Miriam looks away and plucks at a strand of the bedcovers. "I thought you might."

"It's not that I don't believe you--" Xena begins.

Miriam gives her a quick the-hell-you-don't glance, then lowers her eyes again. "She said... you'd have your reasons," Miriam murmurs. "She said you were the only one who could possibly know what he was feeling. She said... to leave it to you, because you always know what youíre..." She looks up; to her shock, there are tears in Xena's eyes.

Xena stares unseeing at the fire, the tears glimmering. "That's her. That's Gabrielle..." she says, the pain audible. "Gabrielle was the kind of friend who believes, without question, that you're everything you ever hoped you could be. Dreamed you could be, knowing that you'd never..." Xena turns away a little to touch her eyes gently, hoping Miriam wonít notice. "She saw the best in me... no matter what."

Miriam cocks her head a little, listening. "That's because there's so much good. Xena... you've seen life from all sides... and you've decided to do the right thing. And you're so good at the wrong thing..." She clears her throat and falls silent.

"She told you that?" Xena asks, hope making her voice unsteady. The two of them are speaking in barely audible tones.

"Well... there's one thing that I always get from her, always. Love. For you." Miriam raises her eyes and looks into Xena's. "Faith. In your ability to do good things. The certainty that you've been... singled out... to use your gifts for the benefit of others. She's certain it happened for her."

Xena tightens her hand on Miriam's. "She gave me so much more than I ever..."

"Shh..." Miriam says, placing a gentle hand on Xena's cheek. "Don't think it's one-sided. It's both of you. Together, you're a team that nothing in the world can withstand. And it's based on that unshakable love you have for one another..."

Xena raises a shaking hand to her eyes. "I miss her..."

"She misses you too," Miriam responds, stroking Xena's cheek gently with the back of her hand.

Xena's eyes find Miriam's. "Stay near," she says with an unmistakable bluntness. "I want both of you near me tonight..."

Miriam's eyes hold a tenderness she hasn't shown before. "Of course," she says, pulling her shawl away from her shoulders. "Both of us..."

Fade in on Joxer, pouring a dipperful of water over his head at the well in the town square. He shakes the water out of his hair and splutters a bit, turning to look around at life in the street early in the morning.

"'Morning!" Miriam calls out. She strides forthrightly down the street, greeting him with a bright smile.

He blushes and turns away, a little bashful. "Morning," he murmurs. "Ah--Xena up yet?"

She shakes her head, not in the least embarrassed. "Still asleep when I left. She's still not quite back to her old self. She's getting cranky, though--that's a good sign. Have you had breakfast? C'mon, I'm buying." She links her arm through his and turns him around, heading back up the street.

"You seem to know a lot about Gabrielle," Joxer comments conversationally.

"Yes, well, you know, that's an interesting story..." Miriam says, gesturing with a free hand and leaning in to him.

A sudden thud halts them in their tracks. A huge staff has whammed into the ground in front of them. Joxer immediately straightens up, looking fierce; Miriam just stares.

One of the biggest, nastiest, scuzziest warriors they've ever seen blocks their way. He's got one filthy hand wrapped around an evil-looking staff; with the other, he's demolishing a large apple in a couple of bites, chunks and juice spraying in a cloud around his grimy face.

He spits some of the apple at Joxer, then grins, showing off his tooth.

"Sad when cousins marry, isn't it?" Miriam comments sourly.

"Theobolus wants you to know something," the ogre says.

"Oh, yeah?" Joxer says, going into his bantam routine. "And who might Theobolus be?"

"Warlord," Miriam says shortly. "Big. Ugly. Bad manners, and worse breath. Reminds me a lot of this guy."

"Theobolus put a lot of work into taking this town," the plug-ugly says. "And he's gonna keep it."

"Is he, now?" Miriam says, putting her hands on her hips. "You may not be aware of this, inbreeding being what it is, but this town is under the personal protection of some pretty powerful warriors, including this imposing gentleman here." She indicates Joxer with a toss of her head. "So you might want to tell Theobolus to get over himself, if you can remember a message that long."

The plug-ugly laughs and jerks a dirty thumb in Joxer's direction. "Him? Hah! He's hardly reason enough for me to sharpen my sword." He gives her a scan. "You, on the other hand, might be a tasty target for a good blade."

"Well, whaddaya know?" Miriam says. "The concept of metaphor has reached the mud flats. Just tell your boss he'll regret it bitterly if he tries anything here."

The mercenary laughs, juice dribbling into his beard.

Miriam regards him for one more brief instant, with disgust, then takes Joxer's arm and continues down the street. "Come on, Joxer," she mutters.

The plug-ugly's hand shoots out and grabs her arm. "Wha'd you say? Joxer?" He turns to Joxer. "'Zat who you are?"

"That's me," he says with bravado. "Wanna make something of it?"

"Naw, you're not much. But where you go... Xena usually shows up."

"I was just about to mention her," Miriam says.

"Now, wait a minute--" Joxer protests.

"Is she here?" the warrior demands of Miriam.

"Yep," she says with satisfaction, crossing her arms.

"I'm plenty dangerous--" Joxer asserts.

"You tell her to keep her nose out of this, or she'll answer to Theobolus."

"Hey, Xena's not the only one he has to worry about--" Joxer says plaintively.

"Xena won't be scared off by some toothless wonder in scuffed leather."

"Theobolus don't like threats."

"I could be a threat to him--" Joxer asserts.

"How does he deal with missing teeth and multiple fractures?" Miriam asks brightly.

The plug-ugly gives her a menacing smile.

Cut to Xena, in the bed, clenching her fist on the table in her room. "Theobolus."

"So who's Theobolus?" Miriam asks.

"A bully who grew up and learned which end of a sword to hold."

"So you could take him, right?" Joxer says.

Xena looks at him in disbelief.

"I mean, he's not so tough, is he?"

Miriam grows still. "Xena--" she says uncertainly. "I told his lieutenant he'd better not try anything because you're here."

"Yeah," Xena says. "Thanks for that."

"Can't you do anything?"

"Has it occurred to either of you that I can't even stand up?"

"Not to worry," Joxer says. "Xena'll think of something. Right?"

"In every one of Gabrielle's stories," Miriam says slowly, "there comes a time when Xena spells out the plan."

Both of them look expectantly at Xena, who sighs.

Thus it is that, when Theobolus rides into town, what meets him is a completely deserted street. He turns to his second-in-command, the plug-ugly we saw earlier, and grins evilly. "Told ya she'd back down without a fight," he says.

"Wrong." Xena's voice rings through the square. "I told you to stay away from this place, Theobolus."

Theobolus peers around for her. "Come on, old friend, let's just talk this over."

"All right, old friend," Xena says patiently. "I tell you to leave--you leave. Talk over."

Theobolus, with a sudden growl, spurs his horse into the square. His men follow, drawing swords and brandishing torches.

One of the warriors suddenly loses a sword and stares in befuddlement at his empty hand. Cut to a shot of Joxer, grinning as he reels in a lasso with a sword caught in its coils.

The warriors wheel their horses, shouting, as one by one their weapons disappear, lassoed and zipped upwards. They look up to see the upper-story windows filled with jeering townspeople.

"Right," Theobolus intones. "All right, men, burn 'em out!"

The warriors go to apply their torches to the houses and shops in the square, only to be greeted by showers of water that put them all out. Spluttering, they regroup.

"Xena," Theobolus calls. "Let's make a deal."

"No deal," she shouts implacably.

"Where are you? I can't see you!"

"Didn't think there was much reason for me to show," she says.

Theobolus looks around as a lone figure steps into the street. Miriam walks with a deliberate courage toward the group of semi-armed and angry men.

"She told you to leave," Miriam says. "So leave."

"Well, well," says Theobolus, leaning over the pommel and drawing a huge club. "Seems like we have ourselves a hostage, boys."

Miriam grins. "Just say no."

Theobolus spurs his horse, heading for Miriam. As he approaches, he is suddenly propelled out of his saddle. In a trice, he's swinging from a lasso that pins his arms to his sides.

"Let me go!" he bellows.

"You didn't know that this town was home to the best horse-herders in the country, did you?" Miriam asks.

"Get her, men!" Theobolus shouts.

In a moment, the men are pelting after Miriam, who pales, turns, and runs down an alley. They round the corner and encounter a group of very angry, very adept townspeople who lasso them off their horses one by one.

As his men are marched past him in a group, Theobolus fights in the lasso. Miriam walks up to him and turns him around so that he's facing the porch of the tavern. Xena sits in a chair. "All right, Theobolus," she says, toying with her chakram. "This is the offer. Freedom for you and your men, as long as you never approach this town again."

"There's a lovely valley two days' ride north," Miriam offers. "It would make a good home for you and your men, as long as you're willing to work the fields."

He lunges at her ineffectively. "You'll move on some time," he says. "They'll drop their guard."

"Guess I've got no choice, then," Xena says, looking at the chakram with sorrowful anticipation.

"That's not fair!" Theobolus shouts. "I can't get away!"

"These people aren't going anywhere, either," Xena says.

"Er... maybe I can help," Miriam says, pulling a scroll out of her sleeve. "I just happen to have here a treaty of non-interference. Theobolus and his men to withdraw their claim to this town, and the townspeople to provide services in horse care and construction for the new town in that lovely valley I believe I mentioned."

"You want me to go straight?" Theobolus howls.

"There are worse things," Xena says softly.

Cut to Xena, mounted on Argo, with Joxer and Miriam flanking her. Miriam is trying desperately to write on a scroll as she walks.

"And all without a shot being fired," Joxer says in admiration.

"We'll have to see how Theobolus and his men do with the new town in the valley," Xena says. "I have a feeling he's not gonna like the concept of the plow."

"Slow down," Miriam mutters. "No, wait, that doesn't scan... Because it's important, that's why... don't give me that guff about 'artistic license'..."

Joxer stares around Argo's neck at Miriam. "Does she do that often?"

"I'm getting used to it," Xena says, with a private little smile.

 

Part 3

Xena leads Argo down a nondescript road, with trees overgrowing the way. Behind her, Miriam rolls up a scroll and fits it carefully into a leather case.

"We're on our way to a complete set for Daniel," Miriam says happily.

"You really think anyone will be interested in that?" Xena asks, looking around for danger.

"I think stories about you will be the most requested tales in taverns for a thousand years," Miriam replies, with certainty. "We have to get copies to every bard in the world."

Xena looks away with an appropriately skeptical expression. A moment later, she's in full alert mode. Miriam is beginning to snap to with a bit more speed than she's shown up to now; she whips her staff up to a defensive posture.

The woods explode with hollering soldiers; Xena whirls and sends one of them into the bushes with a world-class kick. Miriam spins the staff and whacks one of the soldiers in the ribs. His fellow closes in with menace; Miriam backs up slowly.

Xena is dealing with three soldiers, who are engaging her with skill and planning. She spares enough breath to yell some strategy points: "Watch your back!"

Miriam, terrified, doesn't give any indication that she's heard. She tries to block sword thrusts from the soldier, and for a while she's successful. Eventually, he gets beyond her guard, and his sword smacks broadside, with great force, against her head. Miriam drops like a sack of potatoes.

Xena, occupied with the two soldiers who are still standing, looks up: her face grows darkly homicidal, and she reaches for her chakram.

The soldier is just about to smite Miriam mightily when the chakram thuds into the back of his armor. His arms head for the sky and he falls sideways.

Xena makes short work of the two remaining soldiers and runs to Miriam. She touches her cheek cautiously; Miriam doesn't react at all.

 

Xena turns away, exhausted, from a bed in which Miriam lies, as if in state. Xena growls through her teeth, "Will she be all right?"

Beside the bed, a middle-aged woman in a colorful robe shrugs.

"That's not very reassuring," Xena snarls.

"What do you want, a guarantee?" the woman snaps back, with an accent. "There are none."

"And you call yourself a healer," the warrior mutters.

"The damage is very great," the woman says, subdued. "It is not easy to recover from such a wound."

"But can she?" Xena asks with an edge.

The woman looks up, dark eyes flashing. "It is not up to me," she says simply.

Xena clenches a fist and her jaw, looking away.

 

A distant voice whispers, "Miriam..."

On the bed, Miriam stirs, frowns.

"Miriam..." the voice repeats. It's familiar, but we haven't heard it in a while.

Miriam opens her eyes and sits up, slowly. Behind her, the body in the bed is transparent. She turns her head slowly and stares at the body, with an expression of confusion that wouldn't be out of place on the face of a little girl.

"Miriam," the voice says.

Miriam turns her head. On her face, a smile ghosts into being, then grows. "Is that... you?" Miriam asks, hope and wonder in her voice.

"Get up," the voice says, the gentleness at odds with the imperiousness of the command.

"I've never seen you," Miriam says, settling into the covers.

"You have to get up," the voice says severely.

Miriam, befuddled, sits up and, after a moment, stands and looks around. She is obviously stunned; the surroundings are half-realized, and she's the only thing that seems substantial.

"Come with me," the voice says.

Out of the frame, a hand stretches out. Miriam stares at it for a moment, then makes a decision and reaches out.

 

Miriam sails through empty air, holding onto a hand. The expression of delight on her face is childlike. Stars and the occasional meteor flash by.

"Beautiful," Miriam murmurs, lost in wonder.

She comes to a light landing in a moonlit clearing and turns to look at her guide. Tears fill her eyes.

"Gabrielle," she says softly.

A reverse angle shows us our heroine, dressed in a simple white shift that leaves her midriff bare. Her hair waves slightly in a gentle breeze. A lovely smile breaks over her face, and she reaches for Miriam's hands.

"Thank you," Gabrielle murmurs. "Thank you for taking care of Xena."

Miriam shrugs, embarrassed. "I don't think I've done a very good job of that..."

Gabrielle shakes her hands gently, still smiling. "Of course you have. I've left her in good hands."

Miriam considers this a very good time to change the subject. "What are we doing here?" she asks hastily.

"Waiting," Gabrielle says. She turns and faces away from Miriam. Miriam studies her for a moment, thinking of all the things she wants to know, then she turns so that they're standing side by side. The light angles off their faces: dark and light, ethereal and earthy, unreal and solid.

For a moment, they don't speak. Then Miriam says, "I have to tell you, I haven't really taken care of her like you think I have..."

Gabrielle lifts an eyebrow and doesn't look at Miriam.

"She's all broken up," Miriam says in a low voice. "She doesn't want to live without you. And she's so close... but I get in the way."

"No," Gabrielle says, turning her head to look at Miriam. "Don't think that way. You've been sustenance to her, in a way you'll never know."

Miriam thinks it over, then nods with gratitude, then turns to face east.

They wait for a few moments. Around them, the half-real landscape starts to solidify. In the middle of the landscape, a movement begins. First, it is amorphous; then, it resolves itself into a square that moves ponderously back and forth. The square moves rapidly, with a rocking motion, toward the camera. As Gabrielle watches with patience, and Miriam with astonishment, the square turns into a little cottage. A few moments later, and we can see that the cottage has chicken feet.

Miriam claps her hands and laughs with delight. Gabrielle glances at her with a very Xena-like expression of bemusement.

The chicken-footed hut comes to a stop in front of the two of them, wriggling like a puppy. In great excitement, Miriam turns to Gabrielle; the woman in white smiles at Miriam and reaches for the door.

The two of them walk through the doorway, finding themselves in a room that appears to have been decorated by a higher intelligence with locally-available materials. Gabrielle waits like an archangel at attention, while Miriam goes through the room with a lively curiosity.

Miriam skirts a bundle of clothing, remembering what happened the last time she tried to sit on one. As she sidles back, she bumps into someone and turns with a startled gasp.

The angle reverses and Miriam looks into the face of Baba Yaga.

"Hello," Miriam says, subdued.

"Came to visit again, did you? And this time youíve brought a friend," the crone says, turning to Gabrielle. "Lovely."

"Gabrielle, this is Baba Yaga," Miriam says formally.

Baba Yaga gives Gabrielle an assessing look. "Youíre looking well," she says. "Ectoplasm agrees with you."

"Thank you for taking care of Xena," Gabrielle says, holding out a hand. Baba Yaga looks at her hand for a moment, amused, then tries to take it. Gabrielleís hand passes right through hers; after a moment, Gabrielle withdraws it, with a little frown.

"I bet youíd like your own body back," Baba Yaga comments.

Miriam takes a breath, and the crone fixes her with a glare. "In time, little one, in time. Youíve got a lot to do, yet."

Deflated, Miriam sinks onto a three-legged stool and clasps her hands between her knees.

"And youíll only delay things if you keep going around getting your head bashed in," Baba Yaga says sternly. "Didnít she tell you not to drop your guard?"

Miriam tries to figure this out.

"You donít remember what happened, do you?" Gabrielle asks softly, moving closer.

"No..." Miriam says, trying to think.

"You were attacked on the road. Some thug caught you upside the head with the flat of his sword." Baba Yaga shakes her head. "Clumsy."

"If you wanted someone who could write and fight, you should have looked a little harder," Miriam says in a low voice, not looking at the crone.

"Grave as a turnip," Baba Yaga says disapprovingly. "Oh, now, donít go all serious on me. Warriors arenít known for their penmanship. I knew what I was doing."

Gabrielle places a spectral hand on Miriamís shoulder (it stays) and addresses Baba Yaga. "What, exactly, were you doing?" Miriam looks up in surprise.

Baba Yagaís face grows serious as she looks from one to the other. "The stories. I want the stories."

Miriam and Gabrielle exchange baffled glances.

"Letís not be dense," Baba Yaga says to Gabrielle, crossing her arms over her considerable bosom. "Those stories have got to get finished. If you hadnít been idiot enough to get yourself killed, Iíd have had them by now."

"Why?" Gabrielle asks simply.

"Thatís my own affair. Mine, and a bunch of people you havenít met, and never will. Not that thereís anything you can do about it now."

"Is Ares behind this?" Gabrielle asks.

To their surprise, Baba Yaga bursts into laughter. "That overfed, whiny, glass-gazing, musclebound, selfish little excuse for a divinity? He hasnít got the brains the gods gave a raindrop!" She sighs, shaking her head. "But he sure is a well-made brainless fop, isnít he? If I werenít so scrupulous about the arts of enchantment, Iíd whirl him away for a fortnight and test his skill at something other than war. No, heís not the boss."

"Then who is?" Miriam asks.

"Well, itís not me, if thatís what youíre thinking," Baba Yaga says unexpectedly. "Iím merely a subcontractor on this job."

Miriam starts to ask a question; Baba Yaga holds up a hand. Defeated, Miriam drops back onto the stool.

"Thatís not important right now," Baba Yaga says firmly. "You have to get those stories done and delivered to Daniel. And because you zigged when you should have zagged, we have a bit of a problem." She looks up speculatively at Miriam. "Youíre cut loose from your body. It will probably take some time for you to get back."

"ĎCut looseí?" Miriam asks.

Baba Yaga nods at Gabrielle. "And that was really rather careless of you. Iím running out of spare bodies, ladies."

"You mean... Iím hurt badly enough that I canít... recover the use of my body?"

Baba Yaga winks at Gabrielle. "Swift, isnít she? Donít fret, little one. Itís not permanent."

"How did it happen?" Miriam asks, looking at her hands.

"How the hell should I know? You want a medical explanation, go hunt up Aesclepius. But weíve got to do something, and fast. Your body wonít do well if someoneís not in there taking care of it. Fortunately, you have an option most other people in your situation donít."

Miriam closes her eyes in despair. Gabrielle shoots a glance at Baba Yaga.

"I know, I know," Baba Yaga says soothingly. "Youíd sooner die. But just look at her! Now, thereís a woman who knows how to treat a body. Youíll probably end up in the best shape youíve ever been in. Think of how wonderful youíll look. New clothes. Women throwing themselves at your feet. Dozens of admirers bringing you dozens of roses and laughing at your feeble jokes. That sort of thing."

Gabrielle kneels in front of Miriam and takes her hands. "Listen to me." Miriam shakes her head and turns away. "Please." Miriam looks at her reluctantly. "I promise Iíll take care of you. Youíve taken care of me--and Xena. I wonít let you down."

"What about when I want back in?"

"Just as soon as you can."

Miriam looks her straight in the eye and asks steadily, "And what happens when she finds out youíre there... and Iím gone?"

This takes Gabrielle off guard. She struggles to find an answer.

The tension breaks when Baba Yaga snorts with laughter. "Oh, like youíre going to turn that down! Have you taken a good look at your warrior princess lately? I can think of much worse fates."

Miriam loses her temper and shoots to her feet. "This is what sheís been waiting for! This is her chance to get Gabrielle back! She doesnít give a damn about me, or you, or the stories. Sheíll accept a different... body... if she has to... but sheíll fight to keep it, as long as Gabrielleís there. And where does that leave me?"

Baba Yaga describes a little circle with her finger. "Orbiting. Like an electron."

Gabrielle gets to her feet with a weariness that is entirely unphysical. "Sheís right. I know how lonely Xenaís been. Itíll certainly be a temptation, if nothing else."

"Then," Baba Yaga says, implacable in her lack of sympathy, "I have a suggestion. Keep it from happening."

Gabrielle hesitates. "I donít know that I can," she whispers.

Miriam puts a hand to her forehead.

Baba Yaga sighs with disapproval. "I donít think hormones were Aphroditeís best idea ever. Well, then. How about this? Tell her you have a headache."

But Miriam and Gabrielle arenít listening; theyíre looking at one another, trying to reach a decision.

Gabrielle hesitates a moment before speaking. "I can see what itís done to her to lose... to lose me... but I donít know what will happen if she... loses... both of us."

Miriam canít keep her eyes on Gabrielleís face. Her gaze drops; after a moment, she nods.

 

Fade in on the bed, Miriam lying in a deep sleep. Itís late at night and odd shadows move in the guttering firelight.

Miriamís disembodied voice whispers sourly, "She looks so natural."

"Donít worry, Iíll take care of you," Gabrielle whispers back.

"Thatís what Iím afraid of. Go easy on the calisthenics, will you?"

A shadow ripples over the top of the bed; it almost looks like a body settling over Miriamís form. Thereís a slight twisting motion, almost impossible to see, and then a breathless, still moment.

Miriam opens her eyes.

She takes a deep breath, puts her hands over her eyes for a moment, then pulls them away. She looks at the color and shape of her hands and smiles with delight, turning them this way and that.

She heaves the bedcovers off and springs lightly to her feet. This proves to be not the best idea sheís ever had, and a wave of dizziness makes her sit abruptly, her face sobering. She decides to be more careful and stands again, more slowly.

The camera tracks her as she crosses the room to where Xena sits in a chair, profoundly asleep. Miriam reaches out a tentative hand and touches her shoulder.

Xena jerks awake, a momentarily unsettled gaze coming to rest on Miriamís face. Her concern is entirely theoretical. She starts to get up, but Miriam places a hand on her shoulder and keeps her in the chair.

"Xena," she says, with an inflection that is entirely Gabrielleís, "we need to talk."

Cut to the two of them leaving the inn. Xena finishes settling a saddlebag over Argoís back and gives the strap one last tug. She turns with a quiet excitement and reaches for Miriamís hand.

"Whatís this?"

"Youíre riding."

"Xena..." Miriam smiles with intimate indulgence, and her shoulders shrug in a very Gabrielle-like gesture. "Have you forgotten that Argo hates me?"

"No, she doesnít. Sheís never had any trouble with you."

"Her, you mean?"

"Whatever," Xena says, taking her hand and leading her over to mount Argo. Xena crouches and makes a cup of her hands for Miriam to step into.

"This isnít necessary. I can walk."

"No, no, youíve been sick. Itís better to ride. She wonít mind."

Miriam smiles at Xena over the tops of her lashes and sets her foot into the impromptu stirrup. Xena lifts her into the saddle with a practiced gesture, her face reacting with surprise at how well it goes.

Xena takes Argoís bridle and starts off down the road, turning to give her returned lover a brilliant smile that holds all the hope and promise of a world reborn.

 

And in the meantime, thereís the real Miriam, moving through a world of transparency and shadow as she keeps up half-heartedly with what looks for all the world like a honeymoon journey. She kicks at a half-realized weed in the road, which doesnít take the slightest notice of her attempt to mow it, then sticks her hands in her pockets and saunters, whistling.

"They look happy," a womanís voice comments beside her.

Surprised, Miriam looks down; Baba Yaga is plodding along next to her. She stops and grabs the older woman by the shoulders, smiling. "Baba Yaga! Itís good to see you."

"I told you Iíd be by to keep an eye on things. So howís the ectoplasm? Not too cold?"

"Perfectly comfortable, thanks. As a matter of fact, itís so comfortable that I canít even feel it. Should I be worried about that?"

"No, itís just a switch from having a physical body to running around in just your spirit. Wait till you find out what that can do! I think youíll be pleased."

"Well, like what?" Miriam sees Xena and Gabrielle (in her body, thank you very much) disappearing around the bend and starts walking again, glancing apprehensively back at Baba Yaga.

"For one thing, thereís no need to spend every blessed moment shuffling your feet, or what would be your feet, if you had any." Baba Yaga puts her hands on her hips and stops in the middle of the road.

"Sorry... I just donít want them to get so far ahead that I canít find them."

Baba Yaga laughs. "All right," she says merrily, "first lesson. Take my hand."

"I thought I didnít have any," Miriam responds, reacting giddily.

"Donít contradict your elders, youngling. I said take my hand."

Miriam walks back to her and reaches for her hand cautiously; to her surprise, she can indeed pick it up.

"Now drop the ground."

Miriam stares at her.

"Go on," Baba Yaga says, flapping with her free hand.

Miriam looks down, a bit nonplused, then comes up with an idea and quirks her head.

They are suddenly fifty feet in the air, which would have left Miriam breathless if she had had any breath, and are hovering like balloons. A gleeful smiles breaks out over Miriamís face and she turns to Baba Yaga.

"Thank you," she says.

"I hope you know itís not just up and down," Baba Yaga comments. "Itís also back and forth."

"Can we find Xena and Gabrielle?"

"Gíhead," Baba Yaga says, as if sheís not really very interested.

They begin to move forward, slowly, and soon Miriam leans into the wind (although itís having no effect on her whatsoever), picking up speed as the landscape flashes by. They catch sight of the two humans and the horse, toiling along the path, and zip past them to tumble in the ether above a clearing.

The angle changes to show Xena, Gabrielle, and Argo entering the clearing, the effort of moving their physical bodies apparent in contrast to the ease of the flyers. Far above them, Miriam and Baba Yaga play torpedo bomber in the air, holding hands and zooming back and forth above the oblivious Xena and the fascinated Gabrielle. Miriam sails overhead, lets go of Baba Yagaís hand, and spins in the air with a "Woo-hoo-hoo!" of triumph that makes Gabrielle laugh.

Xena looks back with a puzzled smile; Gabrielle, laughing from inside Miriamís skin, points up. Xena follows her finger, but canít see what sheís reacting to. After a moment, she just drinks in the sight of Gabrielle, then turns and leads Argo along the path.

Fade in on a clearing in the woods, late at night. In the glow from the fire, Argo, saddleless, crops grass quietly as Xena and Gabrielle sit on their leather blanket, quietly talking, big grins on their faces. A little bit away, Miriam sits on a rock, barely visible, her chin on her fist, gazing away from the two.

Xena and Gabrielle are playing some kind of amorphous game with a handful of pebbles; Xena tries to snatch them out of Gabrielleís hand, and Gabrielle makes a show of keeping them away from her. She turns to conceal the pebbles from Xena, who catches her hand. The two of them freeze for a moment, then Xena raises Gabrielleís hand to her lips, gazing quietly past the unfamiliar eyes into the familiar soul.

After a moment, Gabrielle gently takes Miriamís hand away. Xena tries to conceal the hurt in her eyes, then turns slightly to stretch and lie down as if the rejection doesnít matter. Gabrielle casts about for something to say, then decides thereís no way to say it and lies down next to, but not touching, the warrior. The camera tracks past them to Miriam, who sighs and rubs her face with her hand, keeping watch out into the dark night.

 

Later that night, Argo is dozing under a blanket and Xena and Gabrielle are sleeping quietly, turned away from one another. Miriam sits on her rock, thinking bitter thoughts. A twig snaps somewhere out in the darkness and Miriam raises her head. Stealthily, although thereís no reason to be, she slides off the rock and makes her way cautiously into the darkness.

As she rounds an aggressively flowering bush, she spots a man holding a knife, looking through the gloom at the little group of humans and horse, illuminated in whatís left of the firelight. He grips his knife and prepares to sneak out into the clearing. Miriam shoots out an arm, and instantly the thief is dangling several feet off the ground, terrified.

"You picked the wrong place to be and the wrong time to be here," Miriam growls, tightening her grip. The manís eyes bulge out of his head and he squeaks in fear. "And Iím just in the mood to use your head as a kickball."

"Miriam," says a voice in the darkness. "Leave him alone."

Miriam turns her head to see her own face a few feet away. Gabrielle stands in a long nightshift, hands clutching a shawl around her shoulders. On her face, blue-shadowed in the moonlight, is a grim determination.

"He was going to--"

"I don't care. Let him go."

"Please," the thief murmurs, in terror. "Call off your genie and youíll never see me again."

"See that we donít," Gabrielle says shortly. She turns to Miriam and gives her an imperative expression.

Xena, half in her armor and half out, slides to a breathless stop behind Gabrielle, sword in hand, staring in bafflement at the man hanging some feet off the ground.

Miriam lowers the thief slowly to the ground. The instant his feet touch the turf, he is scrabbling away like a rabbit, lost to sight in a moment.

"Gabrielle," Xena begins uncertainly.

"Just a moment, Xena," Gabrielle says, not taking her eyes from the vengeful fury standing beside the absurdly beautiful shrubbery. "You canít do this," she says carefully to Miriam. "You can hurt people, more easily than you think."

"Thatís exactly what I had in mind," Miriam snaps between clenched teeth.

"But not because of anything he had done," Gabrielle says reasonably. "Thatís not fair."

"Where is she?" Xena asks in a murmur.

"Here, by this... hydrangea," Miriam says. Itís obvious that Xena canít hear a word sheís saying.

"Miriam," Gabrielle says. "I want you to promise me you wonít do this again."

Miriamís jaw sets. "Then you want too much from me," she replies.

"Even the gods donít vent their anger on the innocent, Miriam. Thatís the wisdom theyíve learned."

"He was hardly an Ďinnocentí, Gabrielle. He could have cut your throats as you slept."

"Not with you looking out for us," Gabrielle says. She draws nearer to Miriam, who reacts to the sight of her own face coming closer by turning away in pain. Gabrielle puts out a hand and lays it gently on Miriamís arm. "Thereís no reason to use a permanent solution on a temporary problem."

Miriam thinks it over, still not turning toward Gabrielle. In a nervous, helpless gesture, Xena whips up the sword and goes into a defensive posture.

"All right," Miriam sighs, and Gabrielle, in her body, relaxes visibly. "I promise. But you just donít want me to have any fun, do you?"

The attempt at a tiny joke makes Gabrielle smile. "So go flying."

For a moment, they share the memory of the incredible adventure Miriam had that afternoon, and Gabrielleís joy in watching. Miriam smiles back at her, nods, and gestures toward Xena. "You ought to get your sleep."

Gabrielle steps back and takes Xenaís arm, turning to smile up into her face. "Itís all right. Letís go back to bed. You donít have to worry about a thing. Sheíll be watching over us tonight."

The two of them walk back to the blanket arm in arm, as Miriam sighs, turns, and follows, settling back onto her rock.

 

Xena has tried to be good, but as she watches the river water fly in sparkling droplets from Gabrielleís hair as she shakes her head, the longing becomes almost too much and settles as a visible hunger in her face.

Gabrielle turns, wringing the water out of her hair, as the water runs in shiny rivulets down her skin. She spots Xenaís look and her face softens as she plows her way gracefully through the water. Xena looks away, studying something terribly important along the horizon, squinting into the sun, as Gabrielle comes up onto the bank and begins to dress. She pulls Miriamís shirt over her head and steps into her pants, then sits on a flat rock and begins combing her hair.

Beside Xena, the shadow of the spirit Miriam stands, watching the same spot Xena is watching. "She wears it a hell of a lot better than I ever did," Miriam mutters, holding up a hand to touch Xenaís shoulder, then dropping it as she realizes it wonít work.

Xena gives no sign of having heard. The two of them stand there, sentinels on post, unwilling to look at the woman who has captured Miriamís body and Xenaís soul.

Gabrielle begins to hum in a rich, melodious voice as she combs her hair. Startled, Xena turns.

"I didnít know you could sing," Xena says, unbending far enough to take a few steps toward the rock.

"I never had a voice like this to do it with before," Gabrielle answers.

"A lot of your poetry would go well set to music," Miriam comments, not looking at the two of them.

"Maybe weíll try that."

"Try what?" Xena asks, sitting cautiously next to Gabrielle.

"Singing some of the stories," Gabrielle says.

Xena looks at her, the hunger flaring up in her expression again. She damps it down and glances away. "So whatís it like?"

"What?" Gabrielle asks, tying her hair back.

"This--" Xena gestures toward her without looking, her wrist guards catching the light.

"This body?" Gabrielle asks softly. Xena nods, still not facing her. A very Gabrielle look of thoughtfulness comes into the face that isnít hers. "Soft. Easy." She thinks a moment more. "Itís so easy to write with these hands; they really know what theyíre doing..." She gazes down at them for a moment, lost in contemplation. "A singerís voice. And a singerís mind. The rhymes just tumble out of it. And sheís such a beautiful color!"

"Color?" Xena laughs.

"Isnít she?"

"Gabrielle," Xena says sternly, "I donít think itís a good idea for me to express an opinion on that one way or the other."

Miriam sighs, looks up, raises her hands, and vanishes into the air.

"And thereís so much here to draw on; sheís read everything, and she remembers it... Even the music is so easy to make..."

"She never sang around me," Xena says stiffly, still not looking at Gabrielle. "I suppose Iím not very... welcoming..."

Gabrielle shakes her head, annoyed. "Honestly, Xena, do you have to make every woman in the world fall in love with you?"

Xena snaps her head around, the shock apparent in her eyes. She scrambles up and takes a step back. "Gabrielle, I didnít--"

"Hush," Gabrielle soothes her, coming off the rock fluidly to put a tender hand against her lips. "This isnít easy for any of us. Blaming yourself wonít--"

But Xena just canít endure any more, and she seizes Gabrielleís hand and presses it to her lips, closing her eyes tight against the pain. Before she can think about what sheís doing, Gabrielle sways closer and takes Xenaís head in her arm, pulling her down toward her breasts.

"Itís been so long--" Xena gasps, burying her lips in Gabrielleís neck.

"I know, my love, I know," Gabrielle murmurs back, pulling her closer and closing her eyes.

A psychic thump makes her open her eyes again. Miriam is standing behind Xena, fists clenched, clearly furious. "All right, lovebird," she hisses, "do that on your own time and with your own body."

Gabrielle disengages herself with difficulty from the passionate Xena. "Xena," she says in a low voice, "weíre not alone."

"You should have remembered that before you turned washing your hair into a spectator sport," Miriam says bitterly.

Xena wonít let go of Gabrielle; she holds her firmly as she looks around for Miriam. Gabrielle rests her hands lightly on Xenaís forearms and looks at Miriam. "Miriam--please, for the godsí sake! Have a heart!" she pleads.

"I do. Youíre in charge of it at the moment. That is my body and I have not given you permission to--"

"Miriam," Xena interjects in her best command-imperative mode. "We have got to talk about this."

"With your girlfriend doing the interpreting in my voice, no doubt," Miriam says with exquisite sarcasm. "Get away from her before I see what else I can make my ectoplasm do."

"Sheís not going for it," Gabrielle says, trying to get out of Xenaís arms. After a brief struggle, Gabrielle frees herself; Xena, exhausted, walks over to the rock again and flops down on it.

After a moment, Gabrielle sits next to her, shooting Miriam a defiant look. Miriam, defeated, sits at Xenaís other side.

Xena puts her elbows on her knees and buries her face in her hand. Gabrielle and Miriam exchange very different expressions with identical faces. Gabrielle puts an arm around Xena; Miriam sighs hugely and puts her chin in her hand.

"This is gonna tear us apart, isnít it?" Miriam says conversationally.

"It could," Gabrielle agrees just as neutrally.

A short silence precedes Miriamís next question. "I donít suppose thereís any way I could get the two of you to just... stay away from one another?"

The tears start in Gabrielleís eyes, and she has to swallow past them to speak. "I could leave," she whispers.

"No!" Xena cries, looking wildly at Gabrielle. "Donít say that! Please--it would--it would kill me to lose you again--"

"Calm down, both of you," Miriam says, putting her fingers to her eyes. "This is really disturbing." She opens her eyes and runs her hand along her chin. "Let me think..."

"Wait," Gabrielle says to Xena, kissing her gently on the lips.

Miriam stands and begins pacing in front of them. Gabrielle follows her with her eyes; Xena tries to keep up, but sheís looking at leaves swaying on tree branches and sunlight sparkling on water.

"One. I could leave for a while. Say, a night. Or during the night. I could try to leave the two of you alone. But, then, you see, every second I leave you in there, youíre more tempted not to give back my body when youíre done with it."

"Thatís not--"

Miriam whirls to face her. "Even if you spend the night in her arms? How much would it take? One kiss? Two? Before you started figuring out ways to get me out of the picture?"

Gabrielle is thunderstruck. "I hadnít thought of that." She raises her eyes to Miriamís.

"No, thereís pretty much only just the one of us whoís been thinking lately," Miriam says wryly.

"And I canít deny it," Gabrielle says.

"Thank you for being honest," Miriam says, resuming her pacing. "Two, I could go back to Baba Yaga and plead with her. Like sheís done anything I wanted lately. Three, I could try to curl up somewhere out of the way... an elbow, a spleen. But three in a bed is always lonely for someone, and I have a feeling itís not gonna be either one of you."

Gabrielle is still following Miriamís pacing; Xena is watching nothing, baffled.

"Four. Sublimate. Get the stories done and maybe Baba Yaga will turn you loose. But then weíre right back where we started; you with no body and no home, and me stuck with a woman who hates my guts."

"She does not--" Gabrielle tries to interrupt.

"Five. Try to get back into my body with you staying there, and try to connect you with Xena through me. Almost as lonely as option three, but Iím not looking forward to having to pour a bucket of cold water over the two of you every five minutes."

"Letís try it," Gabrielle says resolutely, standing up suddenly. Miriam stops pacing and turns to look at Gabrielle.

"Try what?" Xena asks.

"Come on. Letís see if we can do it." Gabrielle faces Miriam squarely, hands down at her sides, a brave and stubborn expression on her face.

This is the last thing Miriam expected to hear. "You mean it?"

"Miriam... this is your body. Not mine. And..." Gabrielleís gaze falters as she looks down at Xena. "And Iím not sure how long Iíll be able to remember that."

Xena and Gabrielle look at one another for a long time, trying to say without words what theyíve meant to one another. Xena reaches up and grips Gabrielleís hand, hard. When the look of pain on Xenaís face becomes almost unbearable, Gabrielle closes her eyes.

Miriam takes a sudden step forward--

--and passes right through Gabrielle. Gabrielleís eyes snap open, and she turns to look at Miriamís back as her shoulders slump.

After a moment, Miriam turns around. "Well," she sighs, "itís not like flying over the treetops isnít wonderful..."

Gabrielle lowers her head. "Iím sorry," she murmurs, close to tears. Xena stands, moving cautiously closer to Gabrielle.

"Doesnít matter," Miriam says, trying to make light of her disappointment. "I guess Iím just not quite ready... or itís not quite ready... or Baba Yaga has some other errand, like I have to empty the garbage or something... but do me a favor, will you?"

"Anything," Gabrielle says firmly, as Xena puts a protective arm around her.

"Take it easy on that body, will you? I donít think itís used to anything quite like the two of you."

Gabrielle nods. Miriam gives her a little half-salute and rises upwards, disappearing into the sky. Gabrielle watches her go, then turns to Xena with a brave smile.

"Itís only for a little while," Gabrielle says softly, reaching out a gentle hand to caress her loverís face. "And we have to remember that itís not just the two of us, not any more..."

"I promise," Xena says seriously, leaning forward to place her lips on Gabrielleís in a gentle kiss. The camera cranes away as the two of them move slowly into one anotherís arms.

Part 4

The camera tracks by a wall in an innyard. It passes windows; most are dark, but some are lit as the camera goes by. The soundtrack fades in and out on the noises the people inside are making. From one, lit with an eerie blue glow, rises the sounds of a prayer being chanted; from another, pitch-black, emerges a ferocious snore. The camera lingers on one lit window, from which the most profound silence issues; as we watch, there is the deep boom of a door slamming. A figure next to the window turns at the sound; in the spectral light, we see that it is Miriam.

Cut to the interior of the room, as Xena finishes latching the door and turns to look at the figure standing near her, which has a shawl over its head. The figure pulls the shawl away from its head; itís the same face as Miriamís, watching outside, but the soul inside belongs to Gabrielle. She moves to a table in the center of the room and begins removing bracelets as Xena watches silently.

"Tired?" Xena asks in a soft voice.

"Not so much. Itís been a long day, though." Gabrielle takes the earrings out of ears that arenít hers and places them gently on the table, her hands shaking slightly.

Xena notices the trembling and speaks in the same soft, caressing tone. "Headache?"

"No, itís gone," Gabrielle says quickly. "She must be getting better."

Xena absorbs the implications of this: they donít have much time. She takes off her wrist guards and holds them in her hand, watching Gabrielle.

Gabrielle slips out of her shirt and Xena turns away, not watching. Shirtless, Gabrielle approaches her slowly, then reaches out with a hand for Xenaís chin. She turns Xenaís unwilling face toward hers.

"Love," Gabrielle whispers. "Donít turn away from me. Please."

Xena looks down at her and reaches out tentatively to touch her shoulder. "I donít mean to. Honestly. But I canít help thinking..."

Gabrielle hushes her with a gentle touch of her hand on Xenaís lips. "Please, itís a gift. Hers. Please, accept it in the spirit in which she offers it."

"Itís enough to be able to talk to you," Xena says, disproving the words by folding Gabrielleís hand gently in both her own and kissing it.

"Then letís talk," Gabrielle offers, disengaging her hand with a subtle gesture and leading the way to the bed. She sits on the bed, naked to the waist, the firelight running in soft, seductive curves over her breasts as she pats the covers next to her.

Xenaís lip quirks upward as she looks at Gabrielle. With a sudden movement, she pushes away from the door sheís been leaning against and approaches the bed, moving more slowly the closer she gets to it. She reaches up to unbuckle her armor; Gabrielle puts out a hand. "Let me," she says in a whisper.

Gabrielle unbuckles the armor and, as itís heavy, struggles a bit to pull it off the leather underneath. Xena smiles and helps, and soon they both are able to lay the armor on the bed beside them.

Xena reaches up a hand to run it along Gabrielleís cheek, studying her closely.

"What is it?" Gabrielle asks.

"Orpheus... and Euridice... out of the underworld..." Xena murmurs with distraction, watching the firelight play over Gabrielleís face.

"Don't think about that," Gabrielle replies, holding a hand up and placing it with infinite gentleness against Xenaís cheek. Her tone becomes sardonic. "You know I canít play the harp."

The tension breaks with Xenaís laugh. "No matter how hard I tried to teach you--"

"Never mind. With all youíve taught me... eh, I can give up the harp," Gabrielle answers, looking deeply into Xenaís eyes.

This has the opposite effect from what one might expect; Xena tumbles into lovesickness as quick as thought. "Oh," she breathes in the firelight, returning Gabrielleís enraptured gaze. "How I love you."

"And I love you," is Gabrielleís instant, fervent response. "Let me..."

The silence lengthens as the two of them touch each otherís skin. Xena shakes herself into coherence and asks, "Let you what?"

"May I... may I prove it to you?"

Xena closes her eyes.

Gabrielle takes Xenaís hand and urges her wordlessly to stand. As Xena gets to her feet, Gabrielle is working on the fastenings of Xenaís leather tunic. Lovingly, with soft kisses and half-voiced exclamations, Gabrielle removes, layer by layer, Xenaís armor against the outside world. Finally, Xena stands naked in front of her, the softness of her breasts and the invitation of her hips belying the tough warrior she is in the daylight.

Gabrielle, overcome, moves closer to clasp Xena in her arms, laying her head against her loverís breasts with a soul-satisfying contentment. Xena closes her eyes and gathers Gabrielle to her, the emotion overwhelming both of them.

"My turn," Xena says, in a voice grown suddenly untrustworthy.

With a soft, intimate kiss on Xenaís breast, Gabrielle moves away, waiting. The pulse beats in her neck as Xena moves toward her. Slowly, softly, the warriorís hands become gentle as she undresses her lover.

Xenaís breath hisses in her throat as she moves a hand down Gabrielleís hip. Gabrielle reaches out quickly to stop Xenaís hand; she takes it and pulls her lover down on the bed, bending over her to kiss her deeply on the lips. Xena pulls Gabrielleís head toward her neck, staring into space as Gabrielleís mouth travels down her neck.

"Ohhh," Xena moans, as the two of them settle more deeply into the bed. "Oh, yes--" Her eyelids flutter as Gabrielleís lips move lower to nibble at Xenaís breast. Gabrielleís hand moves up and cups Xenaís breast as Xenaís hips shift subtly.

"My love, my love," Gabrielle murmurs, moving to slide a thigh between Xenaís. She takes Xenaís nipple in her mouth, sucking, as Xena hisses and arches her back. Their hips settle into each other, Gabrielle moving to establish a rhythm that Xena follows blindly. Xenaís hands twine convulsively in Gabrielleís hair, pulling her close as she clenches her eyes shut, her head moving back and forth, fierce sounds erupting from her throat.

"Yes, love," Gabrielle moans against the softness of Xenaís breast. "Show me. Show me."

Xena clutches at Gabrielleís shoulders, trying to pull her into her body.

"Do you want it?" Gabrielle whispers. "Do you want me?"

"Yes," Xena gasps, grabbing for Gabrielleís free hand. Gabrielle takes Xenaís hand, moving it downward, as Xena thrashes wildly against Gabrielleís hipbone. "Yes, my darling, please--"

Gabrielle moves her hand down, lower, lower, as Xena becomes more frantic. Xena pushes Gabrielleís hand against her body, willing her to enter; Gabrielle moves decisively and breaks through the last of her loverís resistance, plunging into her warmth and her welcome. "Yes, yes, yes," Xena breathes. "I love you, Gabrielle. I love you, my darling."

Gabrielle gasps, her hands caught in her loverís warm wetness. "Youíre so very beautiful, my love," she says, moving hard and fast, feeling the overwhelming connection to Xena, lying half-fainting with lust under her.

Xenaís moans leave the realm of the physical and become a hymn to love as she moves with a passionate rhythm against Gabrielleís body. The feeling builds in both of them as they soar upward, upward, flying like falcons, and Xena feels her eyes open suddenly, looking with adoration into Gabrielleís eyes, waiting for her.

The two of them move without consciousness toward consummation, an eternity of effortless sensation. They crest the mountain and hold onto one another as, together, they leap into the open sky.

It seems like a long time later when Gabrielle opens her eyes to find herself lying across Xenaís body, her hand still tangled in her lover, her breath still coming in huge gulps. She raises her head and looks into Xenaís face, seeing the tears in her loverís eyes. "Oh," she says, contrite, "no, love, please don't cry..."

"Please forgive me," Xena says, breaking down into a flood of tears. "I love you so much. And Iíve missed you..."

"Shh, Xena, shh," Gabrielle says softly. "Iíve missed you too. Please... donít cry, my love... Iím here now..."

Gabrielle moves the hand thatís still deep within her lover. This causes Xena to get control of herself. "Please, donít. Stay there, just for now."

"Of course," Gabrielle sighs, lying down on her loverís breast, feeling the strong arms envelop her. "Iíll stay as long as you like..."

And so the two of them drift into a dreamless sleep, lying close to one another.

 

Miriam, standing outside, turns toward the window and regards it briefly, then moves off on her patrol. Keeping them safe.

 

This does not mean that sheís in a good mood about it. Rounding the corner of the building, she strides along, muttering angry words that, if she were an Olympian, would result in three earthquakes, a half-dozen typhoons, and some mighty ferocious hangnails for some unlucky soul. As it is, sheís storming so effectively that she doesnít see him until she almost runs right through him.

She stops and lifts a livid face to the God of War.

Ares looks her over; not hard to do, as sheís all over ectoplasm. "Youíve lost weight," he says by way of greeting.

"Get away from here before I rip out your heart and feed it to the cat," she snarls.

"Not a truly effective threat," he answers, quirking an eyebrow and folding his muscular arms over his hairy chest. "See, I donít have one."

"Fine," she says, putting her hands on her hips. "There are always other organs I can target."

He laughs, not moving. "Whatís the matter, sweetheart? Not happy with the Lend-Lease Program?"

"Shut up. Better yet, leave the country. Better still, dissolve into non-existence." She begins to walk away from the building, and he skips to keep up with her.

"Hey, hey, donít be like that," he says, dancing around her furiously-striding form and trying to look into her face. "I thought we were friends."

"Another example of your all-encompassing intellect, no doubt." She makes her way rapidly out of the innyard. "Why canít you just go wherever it is you go and do whatever it is you do?"

He steps in front of her and throws his arms wide in a gesture of wounded innocence; she stops to avoid getting any closer to him. "Now, what did I do, Miriam? Iím not the one using your body as a nightgown to play hide-the-banana with a leather babe."

"I distinctly recall telling you to shut up," Miriam says decisively.

"Knowing sheís up there... arms wrapped around your body... lips pressed against your lips... hands stroking your skin... and you down here in the courtyard in the cold, wait--"

She turns and silences him with a hand against his chest.

His eyebrow lifts again as he shifts his gaze from her hand to her face. "Ooh, things are lookiní up."

Sheís suddenly serious. "Ares... if thatís who you are, which I doubt... thereís not too much you could say to me right now that I havenít thought of over and over tonight." In the sudden silence, she takes her hand off his chest and rubs it against the leg of her pants, brushing off his aura. "So... Iíd save my breath... that is, if you have any lungs to worry about..."

She turns away from him, making an effort to control herself. He approaches and places gentle hands on her shoulders; she shrugs him off, but he puts his hands on her again, gently, and the two of them stand there for a moment, looking out into the night as black as pitch, each busy with bitter thoughts.

"Then why?" he asks softly in her ear.

"Why?!" She turns on him, incredulous, then sees that heís serious and calms down. She looks into his eyes for the first time, seeking something, and nods after a moment. "Itís true," she says reflectively. "You donít have a heart."

"Kind of a liability in a God of War, wouldnít you think?" he says with casual bitterness.

She puts a spirit hand on his arm. "Ares... sheís damaged goods. Sheíll never come back to you. Someone else has a much more powerful claim on her, body and soul. This life, and the next, and the next, stretching out to the omega of time itself. Canít you just let her go?"

Ares looks away from her beseeching expression. "Is that why you agreed to the... body swap?"

Miriam shakes her head and folds her arms as if sheís cold. "War isnít the only thing worth perfecting." She looks up into his eyes again. "Or donít you believe that?"

He casts about for a reply, but for once, heís speechless. He looks down at her, his mouth working for a moment.

"I want you to tell me something," Miriam says unexpectedly, "and I donít want any horsing around out of you."

Despite himself, he smiles. "Whatís that?"

"Is there any way for me to get really, really drunk?"

He throws back his head in laughter and takes her hand, and the two of them shoot into the night air.

 

At just about that same time, Xena is drinking Gabrielleís soul from another womanís body. The firelight is a soft visual counterpart to their gentle sounds and urgent touches. Beads of moisture run down their bellies and their backs, leaving delicate traceries in their skin. They canít take their eyes off one another, except for times when the emotion becomes too overwhelming. Xena looks up across the expanse of Gabrielleís body to her face, and Gabrielle presses Xenaís head closer to her body with one hand, caressing the strong, moving shoulder of her lover with the other. Although itís difficult, she keeps her eyes on her lover as her Xena guides the two of them into a place where time and space mean nothing.

 

When Gabrielle has time to catch her breath, Xena brings her some clear, cool water in a little ceramic cup. "Drink, my love," Xena whispers, sliding an arm under Gabrielleís sweat-soaked body. Gabrielle takes a mouthful, then reaches up with a languid arm and pulls Xena close for a kiss, feeding her some water.

Xena holds the cup to Gabrielleís lips again, then sets it at the side of the table. She moves smoothly into the bed to hold her lover, who burrows down into her breasts and sighs with complete satisfaction.

"Do you know how much I love you?" Gabrielle murmurs sleepily into Xenaís chest.

The firelight flickers golden and crimson over their skin as Xena brushes a strand of hair away from Gabrielleís face, kissing her. "I think the whole inn knows how much you love me," she answers wryly.

Gabrielle looks up at her, concerned. Both of them figure it out at the same time. "Singerís voice," they say in unison, nodding.

Xena toys with a strand of Gabrielleís hair as Gabrielle folds her hands under her chin. "Iím sorry," she says in a small voice.

"Iím not," Xena says, running her hands through Gabrielleís hair and kissing her again. "Thisíll do wonders for my reputation."

Gabrielle laughs, waking up a little. "Like your reputation needs any help."

"My soul, then," Xena answers, placing a kiss on the part of Gabrielleís forehead she can reach with the way theyíre tangled up. Gabrielle reaches up to turn Xenaís head with her hand, pulling her mouth closer, and the two of them feel their emotion heading for high tide again.

Gabrielle breaks the kiss and sighs, looking deep into her loverís eyes. "This night has been magic," she whispers.

"Itís not over," Xena whispers back, reaching for her again. "Itíll never be over."

 

Miriam is pretending to snooze on a bench outside the inn, one foot propped up on a water barrel and the other trailing in the dust. Itís full daylight, and a woman walks by leading a horse. Miriam tries ineffectually to shy the horse, but it ignores her and plods on, following the human who holds its bridle. She thinks better of her base impulse and looks around idly for something to do. Itís obviously been a long, long night, made longer by her untiring spirit form and her ability to see through walls.

Gabrielle walks out of a doorway in Miriamís body. Miriam leaps to her feet and approaches her, questioning her wordlessly.

Gabrielle canít meet her eyes. "Thank you," she murmurs, subdued.

"Gabrielle..." Miriam begins, "I wasnít watching..."

"No," Gabrielle agrees readily, turning away for a moment. "You were out here. Protecting us."

"I didnít want anything to disturb you--"

"It didnít," Gabrielle says shortly.

Miriam is imagining disasters involving breakups, deception, accusation, indifference. "For the godsís sakes, Gabrielle, was everything all right?"

Gabrielle raises her head proudly and looks into the face that is a mirror of her own. "It was perfect." She moistens her lips. "Thank you. Thereís no way to thank you. Except one. Let me give you yourself back."

Miriam frowns, astounded. "That good, huh?"

Gabrielle puts a hand on her arm. "Please."

Miriam tries to figure this out. "Have you told her?"

Gabrielle, close to tears, tries to speak and ends up shaking her head. The woman with the horse walks by again sans horse, giving Gabrielle a curious look; she looks away as Miriam searches her face. She turns away and begins walking out of the innyard.

Miriam sighs and follows her. "You canít just... vanish like that. Not after a night that lit the firmament from one pole to the other."

Gabrielle turns, concerned. "Did it?"

"Poetic license," Miriam says with a dismissive gesture as Gabrielle starts walking again. "You love her... she loves you... you canít just up and disappear on her without a word of explanation. Without saying goodbye--"

Gabrielle rounds on her. "Do you think I havenít thought of that?" she snaps, out of patience.

Miriam is immovable. "I donít know. Have you? Have you really?"

"Miriam... if I stay one minute longer, Iím not sure I can give this up." Gabrielleís pride is up, and so is her head, but the tears begin to trickle down her cheeks as she faces Miriam.

Miriam is thunderstruck. She reaches out for Gabrielleís shoulder, then pulls her hand away. "Iím sorry," she says with humble misery. "I thought this would help."

"It has... it did... youíll never know... but itís got to end here, now. Because one more night with her... and Iíll fight you tooth and nail to keep it."

For a moment, the two identical faces look at one another. Then Miriam nods, clenching her fists, and takes a step forward.

"Gabrielle!" a sunny voice calls. Miriam stops in her tracks, baring her teeth in frustration, as Xena spots her lover in the innyard and runs to her.

"You were up early," Xena says, taking Gabrielle into her arms and giving her a deep kiss.

"Tell her," Miriam growls.

"I wanted to check on..." Gabrielleís reply is smothered with another kiss. After a moment, she puts her arms around Xenaís neck and pulls her close.

"Tell her," Miriam says again.

But Gabrielle is lost in the wonder of her loverís presence, and Miriam, beyond endurance, takes to the air again, leaping lightly off the ground. The camera tracks her, pulling up and back to frame Xena and Gabrielle, then getting further away. The sunlight sparkles all around them as they stand in the innyard kissing, proving their love before the whole world and not giving a damn about anyone else--human or spirit.

 

Fade in on Xena and Gabrielle walking through the woods arm in arm, stopping for the occasional kiss. Argo follows the hand Xena keeps slack on her reins, and Miriam is sailing along above them on her back, hands crossed behind her head, thinking.

Xena leans over to murmur something in Gabrielleís ear. This provokes a spontaneous, gorgeous, and entirely Gabrielle-like smile that breaks like dawn over the face that belongs to Miriam. Xena grins back and breaks a sprig of flowering branch off a tree they happen to be passing at that moment, then presents it to Gabrielle with a flourish and a kiss on the ear. Gabrielle toys with the blossom, radiating adoration at Xena.

With the same gesture as someone turning over on a sofa, Miriam flips in midair to watch the two below her, putting her chin on her fist and gazing at them soberly.

"Howís here?" Xena asks, gesturing with the hand that isnít holding Gabrielleís.

"Perfect," Gabrielle says simply, ignoring Miriamís concerned look.

Xena laughs, turns, and catches Gabrielleís elbows in her hands, reveling in the closeness. "I think youíre lovestruck, my dear."

"I think youíre right, my dear," Gabrielle tells her. They kiss deeply and Miriam sighs, coming to a soft landing next to Gabrielle.

Xena looks down at Gabrielle, her face shining. "Good place for a picnic?"

"Anywhere is fine, as long as itís with you."

Xena smiles and grips Gabrielleís arms briefly, then turns and begins unlashing a saddlebag from Argoís back.

"Gabrielle," Miriam says in a low voice.

"What?" Gabrielle whispers out of the corner of her mouth.

Xena looks across Argoís withers at Gabrielle.

"You have to tell her," Miriam says.

"We donít even know if it will work," Gabrielle murmurs, not taking her eyes off Xenaís.

"What wonít work?" Xena asks, hauling the leather blanket off Argoís back.

"Nothing," Gabrielle says, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear nervously.

"Gabrielle," Miriam hisses urgently.

"No," Gabrielle says with defiant softness, taking the saddlebag from Xena.

"I mean it," Miriam says.

"I said no," Gabrielle says stubbornly.

"Is anything wrong?" Xena asks with concern, leaving Argoís side to approach Gabrielle.

"No, darling," Gabrielle says firmly. "Everythingís perfect."

"You werenít kidding, were you?" Miriam snaps, standing directly behind Xena and looking at Gabrielle searchingly. "You canít give it up, can you?"

Gabrielle looks past Xena to Miriam, pleading with her eyes.

Xena takes Gabrielleís hands in her own and looks behind her for a moment, puzzled. She turns back to Gabrielle. "Is she here?" she asks, sotto voce.

"She sure as hell is," Miriam snarls. "Nice of you to remember."

"Yes," Gabrielle says, subdued.

Xena takes the bull by the horns and turns around to face Miriam (a neat trick, since she canít see her). "Miriam," she says in a commanding tone, "thank you for giving us this time together."

"ĎNow get lost,í is that it?" Miriam says, clearly furious.

"I want you to know how much it means to me," Xena continues. "Thereís no way to repay you for this."

"I have a couple of ideas," Miriam says, deadly.

"Oh, leave those poor kids alone," says an ancient, cracked voice. Miriam spins to find Baba Yaga standing right behind her.

"Oh, thank the gods you showed up," Miriam says sarcastically. "This is all I needed to make my day complete."

"Miriam, hush," Baba Yaga says, going to Gabrielle and laying a hand on her cheek. "How are you, my dear?"

The tears begin to sparkle in Gabrielleís eyes. "Is it time?"

Xenaís sword is out in a second and she pulls Gabrielle closer, leveling the blade at Baba Yaga.

"Oh, put that damn thing up before you hurt yourself," Baba Yaga says, with scant sympathy.

"Youíre not taking her," Xena says, with every indication that sheíll fight to the death.

"Youíre right, for once," Baba Yaga says.

The sunlight bursts in Gabrielleís face as her hope returns.

"Come on!" Miriam explodes in frustration. "How long are you gonna keep this up?"

"Itíll make a great story, wonít it?" Baba Yaga says, not paying too much attention to her. "How are you feeling?" she asks Gabrielle.

Gabrielle swallows. "Fine."

"Stronger?"

Gabrielle hesitates, then decides to tell the truth. "Yes."

"Good," Baba Yaga says, nodding with wise approval. "And thanks for being truthful about it."

"OK, so sheís taken care of my body. Yippee skippee. When do I get it back?" Miriam demands.

Baba Yaga turns to her. "You... are such an... impatient little dolt."

"This was not my idea, in case anyoneís forgotten that," Miriam says carefully.

"Youíre ready to give up flying?"

"Yes. And ectoplasm, and weightlessness, and... and having my carcass rented out to passing bards who didnít have enough intelligence to keep theirs intact."

"You see how she is," Baba Yaga comments to Xena, then does a double-take and turns to Gabrielle. "Well, you see how she is, at any rate." She turns to Miriam again and puts a hand on her shoulder. "You donít think this is very fair, do you, kiddo?"

"Not noticeably," Miriam says through clenched teeth.

"Thatís because it isnít. Well, hold on a little while longer. Let the lovebirds have their picnic." She turns back to Xena and Gabrielle. "Ephinyís Amazon village is two daysí easy journey from here," she says firmly. She searches their faces with her button eyes. "Iíll give you a week to get there."

Gabrielle looks at the ground and nods with an effort. Xena tightens her grip on the sword.

"And you," Baba Yaga says, turning to Miriam again. "You come with me. I have something to show you."

"What?"

"The Alps."

The two of them are in the air and out of sight in seconds. Xena and Gabrielle turn to one another, despair in their faces.

 

That night, Gabrielle lies pillowed on Xenaís chest, her hand on the leather tunic, misery carved in every line of her body. Xena stares grim-faced up into the stars.

"It couldnít last," Gabrielle murmurs. "This was too good..."

"Gabrielle," Xena says in desperation, rising on one elbow and facing Gabrielle. "Even if we had three hundred years more, do you think I could love you any more than I do at this moment?"

Gabrielle raises her head and looks directly at her lover. "Could you?"

"No," Xena assures her fervently, catching up her hand and kissing it.

"Even if I were in my own body again?" Gabrielle asks softly.

In the silence, Xena puts Gabrielleís hand--sorry, Miriamís hand--down. Sheís not at all sure how to handle this one.

"It doesnít belong to me," Gabrielle continues, in the same soft voice. "This... time... doesnít belong to either one of us."

"It could," Xena says in a low voice, looking past Gabrielle and finding a corner of the blanket she urgently needs to smooth out with her hand. "We could just... not show up at the Amazon village."

Gabrielle sits up, displacing Xena, who moves out of the way hastily. "And do what? Run for the rest of our lives? Spend our every embrace looking over each otherís shoulder? Tormented with guilt that our lovemaking is no more than theft?"

Xena reaches up to run a length of Gabrielleís hair through her fingers. "I wasnít thinking of it in such metaphysical terms," she murmurs. "I was only thinking of a little more time with you."

Gabrielle shakes her head. "Impossible."

"Ares owes me a few," Xena says softly.

Gabrielle stares at her, stunned and speechless.

Encouraged by her lack of protest, Xena continues idly, "I could make a trade..."

"Youíd sell your soul to him to stay with me? And exactly how much time do you think heíd give you? Youíd never get the better of a bargain like that."

"Iíd do it," Xena says stubbornly, sitting up, "if it meant I could stay with you."

Theyíre sitting side by side, Gabrielle shaking her head, Xena trying to get past her guard and take her into her arms.

"Xena," Gabrielle says finally, "donít. Donít take our last moments together and make them this... travesty of plan-spinning."

"Gabrielle," Xena says, "every moment with you is precious. Can you blame me for wanting it to go on forever?"

Gabrielle, overcome, fights off her loverís touch for a moment, then gives up and clings to her. They hold one another close in misery and desire, and finally Xena kisses Gabrielleís forehead softly.

"So you wonít," Xena whispers.

"I canít," Gabrielle corrects her.

"Even when you know this might be... the last...?"

Gabrielle raises her tear-stained face to look into her loverís eyes. "Then," she says with determination, "Iíll just have to love you enough to last a lifetime."

Xena looks at her, a searching expression on her face. Sheís looking for some way to reply to this when Gabrielle folds Xenaís arms around her and lays them both gently back on the blanket.

Xena doesnít take her eyes from Gabrielleís face as her lover settles into her shoulder and gazes into the stars. "Let me tell you a story," Gabrielle begins in a soft voice, "about the first time I saw the woman who was to become... my destiny..."

 

Ephiny slams her fist onto the council table. Baba Yaga waits in front of her, ready to talk for a thousand years, if thatís what it takes.

"We canít be a part of this," Ephiny says decisively. Around her, the Amazons murmur agreement.

The camera widens the angle to show Miriam standing beside Baba Yaga. Whatever they saw in the Alps seems to have done her some good: she looks almost as patient as Baba Yaga, and is indeed looking from one Amazon to the next, studying their faces, their shining bodies, and their armament with a quiet curiosity.

Ephiny looks up at Baba Yaga, waiting for her to object. Baba Yaga, silent, makes a go ahead gesture with her hand.

"Xena is a friend," Ephiny continues, "and Gabrielle... is our Queen. Their love is a powerful force for good, battling against the evil that threatens to engulf our world. You canít expect us to separate them."

"Theyíre already separated," Miriam murmurs unobtrusively.

Baba Yaga gives no sign that sheís heard this comment, and doesnít pass it along to the assembled Amazons.

"How can we tear apart such a connection?" Ephiny asks simply.

"Iím not asking you to do that," Baba Yaga says. "Iím just asking you to take care of her for a while. Because itís going to happen, whether you want it to or not. And youíre the closest thing she has to a support group."

Ephiny stands. "I wonít sit by idly while my Queen is cast into the underworld."

"Oh, child," Baba Yaga whispers fervently. "Donít make me bring out the heavy artillery."

Sheís just finished the sentence when a mist of rose-colored glory appears in the middle of the room. When it solidifies, a woman in gleaming silver armor stands in the midst of the awestruck Amazons. She gazes around the room, her warrior glance taking in the armed women who fill every corner of the council chamber.

The whisper begins in one corner and runs through the room, quick as light. "Artemis... Artemis..." In a moment, the room is full of the name.

Artemis turns on her heel, hand on the hilt of the sword hanging at her hip, looking at each face in turn. When her gaze reaches Ephiny, she stops.

"Well done, daughter," she says, a slight halo of presence shimmering around her voice. "I have left my Amazons in the best of hands."

Ephiny steps out from behind the council table, goes to her Goddess, and kneels in front of her. Artemis holds out the hand sheís been gripping the pommel of the sword with; Ephiny seizes it and presses it fervently to her lips. Artemis takes her hand away, gently, and strokes Ephinyís hair with it, a tender expression on her face. "Get up, daughter," she says in a soft voice, and Ephiny stands, an expression of shining wonder suffusing her features.

Artemis takes Ephinyís hands in both her own and, not looking away from her, addresses the group. "Amazons!" she says in a voice that rings through the room. "You have served me well, and your mothers before you, and their mothers before that, back into the mists of time. I thank you. But now... you are called upon to perform a task that will seem odious to you."

"Who the hell is that?" Miriam whispers to Baba Yaga, irreverently.

"The boss," Baba Yaga whispers back.

"Oh," Miriam says, subdued.

"You have been an example of valor, courage, and bravery to all who fight for justice," Artemis continues, looking around at the women in the room, all of whom are standing up straighter than they would if their patron goddess werenít there. "You have accomplished every task I gave you with dedication and zeal. But now I ask for something you may find difficult to give, and that is your consent to the separation of Xena and Gabrielle."

A low murmur begins around Artemis. She looks around the room, Ephiny, at her side, glaring at the Amazons to get them to shut up.

"This separation must occur for the work Gabrielle is doing to continue. Her work is of the utmost importance to you, your children, your childrenís children, and generations yet unborn who might never otherwise know your names, your deeds, your battles, or your victories."

Miriam is starting to get the idea, and she frowns in concentration, following Artemisís words.

"Gabrielleís tales will inspire Amazons for thousands of years," Artemis says, "even when there is no Amazon village anywhere in the world to tell them, when no Amazon lifts a blade in defense of right, when no Amazon stretches the boundaries of the world by exploration. Only then will stories of a womanís valor, a womanís courage, a womanís skill, be needed. You form part of that legacy.

"Birth is always painful, involving separation and loss at the same time that it brings a new life into the world. Give Gabrielleís tales life, and the world begins again."

Artemis turns to Ephiny. "The Amazons live the dream that will be only a shining, far-off possibility for countless generations of women living in a time of darkness. Give it to them, in words, until they can make the dream flesh in deeds again. Help me with this, my daughter."

"Of course," Ephiny breathes, overcome.

Artemis smiles and salutes Ephiny, who is paralyzed with the honor and doesnít remember to salute back until the rosy nimbus has sparkled and winked out.

Miriam turns to Baba Yaga, excitement in her face. "The stories! Thatís whatís so important about the stories! Theyíre the key to a new world!"

"Nobody believes me," Baba Yaga says lightly.

 

Xena cradles Gabrielle close. Gabrielle is deeply asleep, and Xena lies on her breast, awake and miserable.

"Gabrielle," Xena whispers to her lover, looking up at her face hopefully. After a moment, she decides that Gabrielle isnít going to wake up, and Xena settles back into her body, laying her head on Gabrielleís shoulder.

Xena sighs. "Let me tell you," she whispers, "about the time I first saw the face of the woman who was to become my destiny..."

Alone, she breaks down, covering her face with her hand.

 

"Sheíll need friends," Ephiny says, crossing the parade ground much faster than anyone who doesnít have a regular access to a Nautilus machine has any right to expect. Baba Yaga does her best to keep up with the Amazons who are marching behind her in their ground-eating stride. "This wonít be easy. We canít expect Xena to give her up without a fight. But itís got to be done."

Baba Yaga gives up and leaves the ground, floating a few inches off the turf, listening to the Amazons.

"Can we reason with her?" one Amazon asks. Baba Yagaís expression changes as she considers the possibility.

Ephiny snorts. "This is Xena weíre talking about. No, itíll be swords, and itíll be rough. Let me handle her."

Baba Yaga nods in reluctant agreement.

The camera cranes back as the Amazons reach the edge of their village, standing in a clearing in a defensive line. They wait.

Miriam steps out in front of the group. Itís easy to spot her; sheís the only one who doesnít cast a shadow. Baba Yaga comes to a light-footed landing beside her.

"Think theyíll be here?" Miriam asks, not taking her eyes off the horizon.

"Theyíll be here," Baba Yaga assures her.

Miriam nods grimly. After a moment, another thought occurs to her. "I donít suppose I could just--"

Baba Yaga shakes her head before Miriam can finish her sentence. "It wonít work that way," she says firmly.

The camera waits on the motionless group for a moment. Then thereís a movement through the trees, and the Amazons go to battle alert. Swords appear, hissing out of their scabbards, and arrows get nocked onto bowstrings.

Xena and Gabrielle, in Miriamís body, emerge into the clearing. Xena catches sight of Baba Yaga, and unconcealed loathing twists her face for a moment. Then she sees Ephiny, and her expression becomes determined.

Ephiny stands with the solid determination of your average oak tree at the edge of the clearing, sword at the ready. Xenaís sword whips out of the scabbard as she grabs Gabrielleís arm above the elbow.

Xena and Gabrielle stop about thirty feet away from the Amazon line. There is a moment of silence as each assesses her chances of living through the encounter.

"I wonít let you take her," Xena says, the challenge in her voice unmistakable.

"Itís bigger than that, Xena," Ephiny calls out. "Bigger than you. Bigger than me. Bigger than the Amazons."

Gabrielle spots Miriam and raises her chin defiantly.

"I donít want any trouble," Miriam tells her. "I know how hard this has got to be."

"You have no idea," Gabrielle spits at her. She looks up at Xena and takes her arm gently from Xenaís grip.

"Love--" Xena says softly.

"You donít have to tell me anything, my love," Gabrielle says firmly. "You told me everything you had to say last night. I love you. Now and forever."

"I love you," Xena replies, looking away from the line of armed women for a moment. "Now and forever. And I wonít let this happen."

"Itís already too late," Gabrielle says, taking a step toward Miriam, who begins walking toward her.

Xena clutches at Gabrielleís arm as the Amazons advance. Since Ephiny is in front, she is the one who gets to Xena first. Xena whips her sword up.

"One more step, Xena, and we cross swords," Ephiny says, low and deadly.

"If thatís what you want," Xena says, implacable, as she lunges at Ephiny.

"Donít hurt her!" Baba Yaga calls as the swords slither together in a shower of sparks. No oneís sure who she means.

Gabrielle continues to walk toward Miriam, and Xena tries wildly to get past Ephiny to stop her. In the swirl of dust and heat, a bright line of blood courses its way down Ephinyís shoulder. Another clash of blades, and another line of red starts moving over Ephinyís thigh.

A swirl of bright rose color appears in the midst of the battlefield. Artemis steps forward, catching the whirling blades in one hand and looking at Xena with patience, tenderness, understanding, and absolute opposition to her will.

"Get out of my way," Xena snarls at her dangerous new opponent.

"I wonít see you kill Ephiny," Artemis says. "And I wonít allow you to take Gabrielle."

Xena swings at the Goddess, fury overwhelming her good sense. Artemis steps aside and stops the blade in its downward swing with her bare hands. Xena struggles to pick up the blade.

Gabrielle takes another step toward Miriam, who takes another step toward Gabrielle.

"You know I can stop this," Artemis says. "But I want you to know that this is the only way."

Xena stares at her in consternation for a moment, trying to accept what she simply canít, then finds that she isnít inclined to argue. She gives Artemis her best youíll-pay-for-this glare, then steps back and casts her sword into the dirt.

Artemis nods, accepting Xenaís unspoken terms with a solemnity that almost goes unnoticed, then raises a hand. The Amazons surround Xena. In a moment, they have her kneeling in the dirt, a multitude of powerful hands and arms holding her down as she struggles to rise.

Xena looks toward Gabrielle, making her way slowly toward the waiting Miriam, who spreads her hands in a gesture of welcome and supplication.

"Gabrielle!" Xenaís long-drawn shout of agony makes Gabrielle turn her head for just a moment. The look between the two is something both will remember for a lifetime: love, loss, consummation. Xena raises her hands as best she can, reaching one last time for her lover. Then, Gabrielle turns her face with courage toward Miriam again, closing the gap between them with one last step.

Miriam jerks and shudders, then disappears into her body again. She spares just a moment to check out her hands, then spins and faces Xena, who is still being ground into the dirt by the Amazons. Miriam holds up a hand--it obviously feels good--and says, "Let her up."

But Xena sinks into the dust bonelessly, sobbing. Miriam approaches her, reaches out with a tender hand, and cups her chin. Xena lifts a face contorted in agony to Miriamís, and Miriam smiles with a nurturing tenderness.

"Everythingís going to be all right, Xena," she says simply.

Artemis disappears in a cloud as the Amazons lift Xena to her feet, conveying her in a solemn procession into the village.

Part 5

Ephiny raises a shaking hand to her face. Beside her, an Amazon, as pale as Ephiny, winds a bandage around her upper arm.

"That went well," Miriam says absently, regarding her clenched fist in the sunlight coming through the window.

Ephiny glares at Miriam, who returns the look with a raised eyebrow, in spades.

Baba Yaga gets to her feet wearily, holding up her hands. "Please, the two of you. We have a lot to do, and it doesnít help to have you snarling at one another like fighting dogs."

"Iíve just helped send my Queen into darkness," Ephiny says, turning involuntarily to glance at the woman who is tying the bandage tightly around her arm. "Youíll understand if Iím not quite happy at the prospect."

"I keep forgetting just how limited you are," Baba Yaga remarks casually.

Ephiny is really not pleased at this.

"Oh, donít take offense," Baba Yaga says, with a note as close to contrition as sheíll ever get in her voice. "Artemis explained it to you, didnít she?"

"I donít question the Goddess," Ephiny says, as if that settles that.

"Now, thereís a good philosophy to live your life by," Baba Yaga comments.

"You donít think sheís handled this well, do you?" Miriam asks her quietly.

"Letís just say--" Baba Yaga begins.

A woman with a sword enters the room, looking straight at Ephiny. "Sheís awake."

Ephiny looks at Baba Yaga, who looks at Miriam. After a moment, Miriam sighs, slaps her thighs, and stands without effort.

"Well," she says with resignation, "itís not like I was having all kinds of fun here."

 

Xena howls her outrage; the entire Amazon village can hear it. A furious din accompanies her shrieks; sheís trying to pull down the jail, stone by stone.

The door slams shut behind a pair of boots. The camera tilts upward to show Miriamís livid face. "Stop that," she calls, "before you pull this place down around your ears."

Xena, behind iron bars, raises a Furyís face to Miriam. "You," she growls, anger distorting her features.

Miriam looks far more courageous than she feels; thereís only a fragile wall of iron bars between her and the unappetizing fate of having Xena tear her to pieces. At the moment, the bars seem to be losing.

"Xena," she says, trying to sound reasonable, "I know youíre angry right now--"

Xena lunges, reaching through the bars with a clawed hand, and Miriam steps back, appalled, before she can think better of it. "Woah," she whispers, as Xena howls in triumph.

Two Amazons appear at Miriamís side, pikes at the ready. Miriam looks at both of them in turn, tempted, then raises a hand and waves them back. They settle beside the door, ready to dismember the Warrior Princess.

"Xena," Miriam begins again.

Xena paces back and forth, ignoring her.

"Would you listen to me, dammit?" Miriam shouts.

Xena turns to face her. "Whereís Gabrielle?"

Miriam thinks for a moment, looking not entirely unlike Joxer. "At this precise moment," she says carefully, "Iím not exactly sure--"

Xena snarls and lunges for the bars again, impacting them with a terrific clang. Miriam steps back toward the Amazons, who stand with their pikes lifted.

"Iíll come back later," Miriam says, turning to leave. She has her hand on the door handle, then shakes her head in dissatisfaction and turns back.

"Xena," she says softly, "do you hate me?"

"Yes," Xena spits, trying to get through the bars.

"Youíre sure about that?" Miriam asks in a quiet voice.

Xena stops attacking the bars and turns away. A short silence stretches between them. "No," Xena says finally.

Miriam suddenly puts a hand to her eyes, whispering rapidly, "Somebody tell me what to do--" She lifts her head and looks at Xena. "Xena," she pleads, "youíve got to understand. This is something bigger than all of us..."

"Yeah, thatís just what Ephiny said before she tried to kill me," Xena says, pacing again.

"She wasnít trying to kill you, she was trying to..." Miriam looks up, catching Xenaís eye. "Listen to me. Listen."

Xena gestures with impatience.

"Look, Iím just a scribe. Somebody who fills pieces of parchment up with words, trying to convince myself Iím doing something important. But... I got a promise that, for some reason, somehow, what I was doing was crucial. Indispensable. To the lives of people whose great-great-grandparents havenít been born yet."

Xena looks at her sharply.

"Iím not sure Iím ready for a destiny," Miriam continues, in desperation. "And thereís only one person who can teach me how to handle it."

"Iím not your nursemaid," Xena says shortly.

"Youíre all Iíve got," Miriam whispers.

"Iím through being the godsí plaything," Xena snarls.

Miriam shakes her head slowly. "I donít know anything about being noble. Living for a cause. I need your help."

"Find it out on your own."

"Xena... please..."

"Go to hell, will you? Just leave me alone!"

"Xena... Iím trying to tell you... I donít have all of them yet."

"All of what?" Xena growls, despite her indifference.

"This is all about the stories, isnít it? Well, I donít have them all yet."

Xena looks up, the first sign of hope in her eyes.

 

Ephiny settles her arm more comfortably into the sling and holds out her free hand to Xena. Xena grasps it, saying what she can with her eyes, because we could all live a long time before it occurs to her to apologize for trying to make Ephiny learn how to swordfight with her other hand.

"I wish you would stay a while," Ephiny says, looking straight into Xenaís eyes.

"So I could wreck half the village?" Xena says lightly. "I donít think you want that."

"Weíve had our differences," Ephiny says with admirable understatement. "But I hope you know youíve always got a home here."

Xena turns from arranging Argoís saddlebags and gives her a sincere smile. "Thanks. I have something else to do at the moment."

The two of them look toward the door at the same moment as Miriam emerges, clutching a saddlebag protectively to her chest.

Xena looks wryly at Ephiny and lunges to take the saddlebag from Miriamís hands, slinging it over the back of the unprotesting horse. Miriam tries to get over her heart seizure and turns to Ephiny.

"Take care of yourself," Miriam murmurs, taking Ephiny carefully into an embrace.

"You too," the Amazon replies. "Youíre not going into an easy path."

Miriam looks toward the sky in supplication, not saying a word. Ephiny smiles and pats her shoulder in reassurance as Xena turns Argo and begins to walk away from the village. With a final, helpless look at Ephiny, Miriam turns and runs after Xena and Argo.

 

The two of them are walking through the forest, not speaking to one another. Miriam is clearly flagging, but Xena marches on, oblivious.

"Ready to stop for the night?" Xena asks with light malice.

"Only about three hours ago," Miriam says, the exhaustion making her voice gravelly.

"Another hour," Xena says casually. Miriam stands stock-still in astonishment. Xena continues to walk, enjoying herself.

The blood begins to boil in Miriamís head. The anger gives her the energy to run to catch up with Xena. "Oh, no, you donít," she says, her voice shaking, matching the Warrior Princess stride for stride. "Youíre not going to keep me marching through the forest all night long. We can damn well stop here."

Xena gives her the briefest of glances and then studies the terrain around them. "Gabrielle never had any trouble keeping up," she comments to the bushes.

"All right, thatís it," Miriam says, twitching Argoís rein out of Xenaís hand and stopping again. "Weíve got something to finish, and Iím damned if Iíll follow you through the woods all night instead of finishing it."

Xena turns on her, fury in every cell of her body. "Then letís finish it. Tell me something, little scribe. Just how long do you think youíll last?"

Miriam looks at Xena with loathing, then pulls her knife slowly out of its scabbard, holding it hilt-first toward Xena. "Go ahead," Miriam says, in a low voice. "Do it."

Xena murmurs, "Youíre not serious."

"Iím as serious as a centaur attack," Miriam says. "Here, Iíll make it easy on you." She grabs Xenaís hand and wraps it around the hilt, then places the blade to her neck.

The two of them stand there for a moment, glaring into each otherís eyes over the gleam of the knifeblade.

"Just donít think this is the end of it for you," Miriam tells her. "Seems like half of Olympus wants those stories finished. Someone will have to do it. And if you think I canít keep up, wait till you have to travel with Daniel." She thinks it over. "And wait till he gets a load of you. Poor Daniel."

Xena pulls her hand away reluctantly and picks up Argoís bridle. "Come on," she mutters, more to Argo than Miriam.

Miriam slips her knife back into its scabbard. Xena and Argo move a few paces down the path.

"Xena," Miriam calls after her.

Xena half-turns, but decides to keep walking.

"Youíre acting like a spoiled brat for losing something that was never yours to begin with," Miriam says steadily.

Xena stops and swipes a furtive hand across her eyes. She turns to face Miriam, and her expression is a mask of neutrality. "Weíll stop here tonight," she says.

 

After a grim supper, the two of them are staring into the fire, carefully avoiding one anotherís eyes. Miriam has her hands clasped between her knees and Xena is sharpening her sword.

"So," Xena says, her words punctuated by the scraping of the whetstone, "you have to finish the stories."

"Thatís the plan," Miriam mutters shortly.

"So finish Ďem." Xena squints along the blade.

Miriam props her chin on her fist. "Lost my source."

"Make it up, then."

"Like theyíd let me get away with that."

"ĎTheyí?" Xena lifts an eyebrow at Miriam.

"When youíre in the hands of the gods, you do what they want." Miriam picks up a stick and tosses it into the fire, punctuating her next statement. "Anything else is giving them a good excuse to smite you."

Xena nods with a ghost of a smile. "Iíve been there." She strokes the blade again with the whetstone. "So why do they want them?"

"The stories?"

"Yeah."

"Artemis says theyíll be an inspiration to Amazons, even when there arenít any Amazons any more."

"Sounds like the sort of thing a god would say," Xena comments, polishing the blade with an oiled scrap of leather.

"And thereís jack-all that either one of us can do about it," Miriam says, looking at her for the first time.

Xena looks up into her eyes briefly, but the memories of another woman with the same face begin to press in painfully and she looks at her sword again, the metal winking in the firelight. "So what do we do?"

"I donít see much else we can do. Wait."

"For what?"

Miriam stands up and dusts off the back of her pants. "For Gabrielle to get back so we can finish these damn stories and lock them up for eons in some enchanted cave guarded by a griffin."

Xena looks up; it might be hope shimmering in her eyes, or it might just be the campfire. "You think sheíll be back?"

"I canít think of any other way we can get this done. Can you?"

"No," Xena says soberly.

"What do you know, we agree on something." Miriam picks up a saddlebag. "But while weíre waiting, Iíd appreciate it if you kept the homicidal rages to a minimum."

Xena looks down at the blade balanced in her hands. "Iím sorry about that."

"Canít say as I blame you," Miriam responds casually, stooping to pick up the frying pan and slip it into the saddlebag. "But this is not going to be easy for anyone, and a little of that famous ice-bound self-control might not be out of place."

"Deal," Xena mutters, looking away.

"And Iíll try not to be so hard on you," Miriam whispers into the fire, out of earshot.

 

The two of them are picking their way down a slope, Xena with practiced ease and Miriam with a bit of difficulty. (Argo, of course, has no trouble at all, which is the advantage having four feet gives you.)

"Want to spend the night in town?" Xena calls over her shoulder.

"Nope," Miriam says shortly.

Xena turns to look at her for a moment. "I thought youíd like that."

"Tavern," Miriam responds, looking at her feet.

"Ah," Xena says, with an illuminated nod. "Look, letís stop here for a second." She seats herself on a flat rock.

Miriam slithers over to her and sits, a bit out of breath. "Thanks."

"So why wonít you go near a tavern?"

Miriam gets some air into her lungs; this is gonna be a long one. "Because Iím looking for a bar forty feet long, all to myself."

Xena grins at her. "Earn the godsí favor by resisting temptation?"

"Try to keep my brain from pickling. I have a feeling Iím gonna need it."

"Look," Xena says, indicating the view with a wave of her arm.

Miriamís duly impressed, but doesnít quite have the breath to whistle in admiration. Itís late afternoon, and the golden sunlight pours into the valley below them, falling gracefully from the tops of the mountains, green with summer vegetation, to the verdant, rolling turf below. The thermals are just perfect for soaring, and a few hawks are doing just that, swooping in slow spirals above the valley floor.

"Is that fun?" Xena asks, jerking her head toward the hawks.

"What? Flying?"

"Uh-huh."

Miriamís face softens into a smile. "Oh, better than you could ever imagine."

"I donít know, Iíve got a pretty good imagination."

"The airís so soft... none of that windy nonsense. Nothing takes any effort at all. You can go wherever you want just by thinking about it. The trees and the hills just flashing past you, spinning in the sunlight. Itís so easy to be graceful..."

"Maybe it wonít be so bad to end up in the underworld," Xena muses.

"Not if they let you fly," Miriam agrees.

"Miriam... I never said thank you--"

"Yes you did," Miriam interrupts, not looking at her.

"I wanted you to know just what a gift you gave us."

"Xena," Miriam says steadily, looking her straight in the eye. "Itís not like the mind is the only thing that can hold a memory. The body can too."

Xenaís mouth goes dry as she thinks this over. "Well, weíd gone three whole hours without a problem, after all. We were overdue."

"Itís not a problem," Miriam says, shaking her head in annoyance. "But itís not my... you donít have to thank me for anything. I understand."

Xena looks out into the landscape again. "Why is it that all the women in my life understand everything without me having to say a word?"

"Because you never say a word. We have to make it all up."

Xena sighs. "A tavern wouldnít be an unwelcome sight right about now, would it?"

Miriam turns her head and gazes at the mountaintops. "So... weíre sleeping in the woods again tonight, huh?"

 

Xena kneels again in the dirt, fighting against the unbreakable grip of the Amazons, as she watches Gabrielle walk slowly into nothingness to return Miriamís body to her. Xena shouts something that makes no sound, but Gabrielle turns her head, and for a moment, sheís herself again; golden hair shining in the sunlight, clean-limbed body draped in flowing white, standing proudly as her green eyes send an unmistakable message straight into Xenaís soul. Then she turns again, and the light of the universe winks out.

"Xena," Miriam whispers with urgency, shaking her roughly. "Wake up."

Xenaís eyes fly open and stare blindly into the darkness. Miriam takes her arm and helps her sit up. She puts a hand to Xenaís chest. "Your heartís going like Argo at a gallop," she says. "Are you all right?"

Xena tries to work her soul back into her body (not that she wants to) and shifts to push Miriamís hands away.

"Whatever that was, it came straight from hell," Miriam mutters, putting her hand on Xenaís shoulder. Xena tries to push Miriamís hand away again, but she ends up clutching it unconsciously.

"Itís all right. Just a nightmare," Miriam tells her, moving with caution to sit a little closer. Xenaís breathing slows down a little and she scrubs at her face with her hand. "You know, you donít holler very often, but when you let loose: whew! If you had a sense of pitch youíd have made a great singer. Do you? Iíve never heard you sing." She thinks it over, as Xena stares at her in shocky disbelief. "Maybe a priestess. You could fill an amphitheater with that voice. Letís start our own religion. Xenism. How does that--"

"It was Gabrielle," Xena interrupts.

Miriam reaches an arm around Xena, moving slowly so as not to spook her. "I thought it might be. Want to tell me about it?"

"You were there," Xena says shortly, trying to pull away.

"Ah," Miriam says, lifting her eyebrows. "Scenes from an Amazon village." She reaches gently across Xenaís chest and clasps her hands around her neck. "Not the best day any of us ever had." Xena looks away; Miriam doesnít really seem to care. "You know what I wanted to do that day? I wanted to pull Olympus down, rock by rock, and burn it so high that theyíd still be talking about the fire ten thousand years from now. ĎThat was some fire,í theyíd say..."

Xena pulls Miriamís hands from her neck gently. "Thank you," she says formally, with a distinct note of dismissal.

"Youíre welcome," Miriam responds in kind, as if theyíre at a tea party on the Duchessís lawn at high noon. "You think being alone is such a hot idea right about now?"

Xena looks her right in the eye. "Yes."

Miriam moves over about two inches. "Well, Iíll be all the way over here, then."

"Go on back to your bed," Xena says, smiling in spite of herself.

"Hey, I canít let you do that again. Youíre scaring the owls."

 

The next morning, theyíre carefully casual with one another.

"So where are we headed?" Miriam asks.

"Iím not exactly sure," Xena answers. "Maybe Delphi."

"Delphi? To talk to the priestess? Why?"

"To see about a job. Somebody told me Iíd be good at it," Xena says with a little smile.

"Seriously."

"Seriously," Xena says, "Iím looking for some answers--"

They round a bend in the path and there, standing in front of them, is a group of three heavily-armed women at the ready. The sunlight gleams off polished armor and sculpted flesh. Two of them have arrows locked and leveled at Xena and Miriam.

"Oh, no, not again," Miriam mutters, eyeing them. "I just got my head back on straight."

"Can you climb trees?" Xena whispers to her.

The three women coalesce into a shapeless bundle of rags, and Baba Yaga laughs merrily. "Morning, girls!" she calls out. "Lovely day to play Diana in the woods, isnít it?"

Miriam ignores her and turns to Xena. "The answer to your last question," she says in utter seriousness, "is Ďnoí. So Iíd take that little gambit off your list in the future."

"Iíll remember that," Xena says, turning Argo back the way they came. "This way?"

"Suits me," Miriam says. They begin retracing their steps.

"No, you donít," Baba Yaga says, standing in front of them. "I have to talk to you."

"In case it had escaped your notice," Miriam says patiently, "weíre not speaking. In fact, weíre both pretty steamed at you right about now. Xena, you could take her, right?"

"Oh, no question," Xena says, smiling evilly and reaching for her chakram.

"Pick up that toy and Iíll fuse it to your flesh for a week," Baba Yaga admonishes her.

"Think sheís serious?" Xena asks, getting closer to her belt.

Miriam shakes her head and puts out a hand. "A woman who lives in a cottage on chicken feet is capable of anything."

Disappointed, Xena puts her bloodlust away until suppertime.

"What can we do for you?" Miriam asks with exaggerated resignation.

"I come in response to your call," Baba Yaga answers.

"My call? Her call? What?"

"Xena wants answers. So Iím here to give them to her. And better than youíll get out of that cryptic Oracle at Delphi, too. I hate people who are in the prophecy business for money." Baba Yaga sits on an overturned tree trunk and pats the bark next to her. "Come here, child. Letís talk."

Xena half-growls, then goes to sit next to Baba Yaga. Miriam joins them, putting one booted foot against the trunk and looking down at the two of them.

"Lonesome?" Baba Yaga asks, looking up at Xena.

"What do you think?" Xena flares.

"Touchy, arenít you?" Baba Yaga says, patting her hand. "Xena, many people live lives of solitude, never knowing the comfort of a loverís touch, a loverís voice. Take Miriam, here."

"You could do me a large personal favor if you left me entirely out of this discussion," Miriam says, crossing her arms over her chest.

"Do you expect me to just forget that she ever lived?" Xena asks in quiet anguish.

"Why, no, child!" Baba Yaga crows. "I expect you to live your life as though knowing her had made a difference in it!" She lets this sink in for a moment, studying the unwilling, sullen enlightenment on Xenaís face. "People lose people they love. And they go on. Never the same as before, but the best of them incorporate the love theyíve known into a new way of being. Gabrielle made you... with a little help from other people... and the legacy the two of you leave will be a shining example of heroism and courage in the face of opposition for thousands of years to come. Give or take a century or two."

"Terrific," Xena says bitterly, looking away.

"You wanted to know why the stories were so important. Make no mistake, my dears. The darkness is coming, and itís going to last a long, long time. Some day, though, some idiot in khaki with a pith helmet covering her sun-fried brain is going to stumble over an iron ring in the sand of a nameless desert, and your legacy will begin again."

Miriam and Xena stare at one another. "I only followed about half of that, myself," Miriam shrugs.

"Why canít the gods keep the darkness from happening?" Xena asks, with an entirely understandable reasonableness.

"Youíre assuming theyíll always be around," Baba Yaga responds simply.

"I donít think I want to hear any more of this," Miriam mutters.

"Smart girl. The point is, in a world with no gods, and no women with swords in their hands, someone needs to keep the dream alive."

They absorb this for a moment in silence. "Theyíre not finished," Miriam says suddenly. "And I need Gabrielle back to finish them."

"I know that," Baba Yaga says. "Youíll finish them."

Xena looks at Baba Yaga, hope dawning in her face.

"There are ways to say thank you, you know," Baba Yaga says diffidently, encircling Xenaís arm with her hands and pinching her bicep experimentally. "I could bring back those three buffed gals with the armor. You wonít have anything else to do for a little while."

Xena disengages her arm gently and looks up at Miriam.

"Ah, well," Baba Yaga sighs. "Itís always the warriors I go for. No accounting for taste, is there?"

"When?" Miriam asks.

"Oh, not right this second," Baba Yaga says airily. "I wanted a chance to toss some more irresistible charm at your taciturn friend, here."

"Thank you," Xena says carefully. "Iím very flattered. But my heart is elsewhere."

"I wasnít really thinking about your heart," Baba Yaga says, "but it never hurts to ask, does it? Be on the lookout, ladies."

And she shrinks into a little dandelion puff and floats away on the breeze.

"I donít know which is worse," Miriam says reflectively. "Not knowing, or knowing but not knowing when."

"Come on," Xena says, slapping her knees and getting to her feet. "Letís get moving."

"Where to?" Miriam sighs.

"Anywhere thatís a distraction," Xena answers.

"Tavern," Miriam says.

"Tavern," Xena agrees.

 

The two of them are doing their best to drink each other under the table that night. Grimly, not saying anything, they match shots of firewater, trying to conceal their watering eyes and gasping breaths. Miriam tips the last of the hooch into the miserably small cups theyíre using and sets the bottle on the table with an unsteady hand.

"Enough?" Xena asks gruffly.

"Out of money," Miriam says, trying to shake her head and not succeeding. They swallow the last of the booze, tipping their arms up in unison.

"Well," Xena says thickly, "I think weíve managed to kill an evening." She stands up, then reaches out to grab Miriamís arm and haul her to her feet. Miriam badly needs a squad of people to hold her upright, and she does her best to remember how to use her legs as they make their way around tables to the door, amused patrons watching them and trying to stay out of the path of danger.

"Baba Yagaís right," Miriam says carefully.

"ĎBout what?" Xena asks, opening the tavern door with exaggerated slowness and negotiating their way out.

"You are awfully cute," Miriam says as they make their way into the street.

"Hah," Xena says with unthinking amusement. "Like you could do anything about it right now."

"Ooh, tough girl. Now, you listen to me, young lady," Miriam says, trying (and failing) to put a hand on her hip and wag a finger in Xenaís face. Xena crosses her arms, looks at the ground, and rocks a little on her heels, waiting for this one. "If I wanted to, I could lift a finger and turn your eyeballs up in your head so fast that--"

The wind swirls up suddenly, and Miriam is instantly sober, bright eyes darting up and around. Xena looks up at her, every sense coming alive like a lamp flaring into light.

Miriam takes a few steps into the square, throwing her arms out and her head back. "Come back, come back," she calls, closing her eyes. Xena follows, her eyes on Miriamís face, not wanting to miss a moment of Gabrielleís return.

"Weíre right here," Miriam calls, closing her eyes. "Waiting for you--"

A swirl of mist surrounds her, and she lifts her arms higher in triumph. Xena reaches out, tempted, then decides itís better not to interfere.

This time, thereís no sudden thump, no dramatic noise. The mist wisps away, and Miriam opens her eyes in wonder and delight, looking straight at Xena, who whoops with excitement and relief and sweeps her up in her arms.

 

The first light of dawn, coming over the hills, finds Xena and Miriam still talking. Theyíre sitting by a stream. Miriam has a shawl draped around her shoulders, Xena leaning eagerly in toward her. They look for all the world like two people in love.

"So what was the Wood Between the Worlds like?" Xena asks.

"Beautiful... peaceful... sheís trying to describe the colors, but there just arenít any words. The kind of place you could lie down under a tree and dream away eternity."

"Tempting?"

"Not really. She wanted to get back to you."

"So what took you so long?"

"Hey, itís not like anyoneís made a road map," Miriam says, playing with the edge of her shawl. She yawns, suddenly and hugely, and Xena springs to her feet.

"Time to get the two of you to bed," Xena says decisively. She holds out a hand; Miriam takes it and rises, much more slowly. Xena tucks Miriamís hand in her elbow and the two of them walk beside the stream, the water glittering in the early-morning light. As they walk, Miriam lays her head on Xenaís shoulder and closes her eyes.

"Tired?" Xena asks.

"At least she spared us a massive hangover," Miriam says, opening her eyes again just in time to avoid tripping over a tree root.

"Sheís spared us a lot more than that," Xena says unobtrusively.

"Wake me up before sunset," Miriam says.

"Why?"

"Quills. Ink. Parchment."

Xena smiles.

Part 6

To the accompaniment of a wailing wind, the camera tracks around the common room of a tavern. Itís obviously quite late at night, and the building fairly echoes with a tomblike stillness. Xena emerges from a doorway, closing the door gently, and makes her way quietly to a table where Joxer sits, waiting, his hands cupped around a mug of steaming tea. Xena settles onto a bench at the table, which is set with a teapot and another mug. Their faces are half-shadowed in the light of the dying fire in the hearth.

"So howís she doiní?" Joxer asks, raising the mug to his lips.

Xena shrugs. "Every time I go in there, the pile of paperís bigger."

"Progress," Joxer says, sipping the tea and pulling back hastily to avoid scalding his mouth.

Xena quirks a lip at him and pours herself a cup of tea. "If you want to call it that."

"Have you..." Joxer blows on his tea with studied casualness. "Have you read any of it?"

"Are you kidding?" Xena says with a short laugh. "If I touched any of it before the ink was dry, sheíd skewer my fingers with her quill."

"And those quill wounds are so nasty," he says with absolute seriousness, poking his nose into the mug again.

She gives him one of her patented looks and turns to gaze into the fire, sinking into a private reverie. He might as well be on the moon for all the notice she gives him.

"And what happens after theyíre finished?" he asks.

"Hm?" she asks politely, turning back to him.

"What happens when sheís done?"

She shrugs, a rare softness in her face, half-visible in the reddish glow from the fire. "Dunno. I guess sheíll go back to the scriptorium. Sheís getting a lot of practice... shame to put it to waste." She picks up her mug and drinks.

"What about you?" Joxer asks, a shade nervously.

"What about me?"

"Where will you go?"

Xena shrugs again; she hasnít really thought about it. "Hit the road again... try to see what kind of good I can do before that spear with my name on it comes my way."

"Alone?" Joxer asks, trying to be brave.

She is oblivious to the drift of his questions. "I suppose so. Iíd only be waiting, anyhow." She broods into the bottom of her cup. "Oh, I could go on, all right, do the fighting-for-justice thing, but it would all be mechanics, no spirit." She looks up at him. "Marking time."

"Until you... could be together again."

"Yeah," she sighs, setting her mug down on the table. "Or until it wouldnít matter any more. Maybe the gods will grant me that. A drink from the cup of oblivion."

"Beats tea thatís too hot, I guess," he says, pushing his cup away from him. "Lissen, Xena, I know thereís no way that I could make up for what youíve lost, but I just wanted you to know... you wouldnít have to travel that path all by yourself." He reaches out and pats her arm with determined courage.

She sees his vulnerability and takes refuge in sarcasm. "Whatís in that tea?"

"No, now, Xena, donít just tell me no right away," he stutters. "I want you to think about it."

She shakes her head. "Joxer, I have. I have thought about it. What kind of life would that be for anyone? Thereís only been one person in my entire life that I thought I could do that with, and... and thatís over. I donít find myself inclined to offer the same consideration to another living soul."

"So donít. I can stay in the background, not bother you. You need time to be by yourself, fine. I understand that. And I can give you that."

"How does fifty years sound to you?" Xena says, getting up and stretching. As much to get away from his nervous sincerity as anything else, she says, "Iíd better go see if thereís anything she needs."

"Right," he mutters, turning his head to the fire.

Xena closes the door softly behind her. The camera tracks around the room: on every available surface is a piece of parchment, the ink drying in the heat of a blazing fire in the hearth and about a billion candles. Huge stacks of parchment tower over the bed in one corner. Itís as bright as day in the room, and Miriam sits at a wooden table, carefully drawing figures onto sheepskin.

"Need anything?" Xena asks quietly.

Miriam shakes her head, not looking up.

"Howís it going?"

Miriam nods, concentrating on her writing. She puts the quill down for a moment, carefully, in a little saucer on the table and flexes her fingers. She doesnít look up from the parchment as she does a complicated stretching exercise with both hands.

"Let me," Xena says quietly, moving to stand behind Miriam and rub her shoulders. As her fingers move soothingly over Miriamís muscles, Miriam sighs and leans back, closing her eyes for a moment.

"You have about three more seconds of that before you send me right to sleep," Miriam says, in a voice rusty from lack of use.

"So go to sleep," Xena says seductively.

Miriam opens dreamy eyes and looks up at Xena with a faint smile. "You shouldnít use that voice on the unarmed, you know."

"Miriam," Xena says carefully, "there is not a square inch of this room that you could put one more piece of parchment on. Itís full. And itíll still be here in the morning."

Miriam laughs just a bit, leaning back in her chair. "You only think itís a good idea because Xena came up with it," she says, in response to a part of the three-way conversation we havenít heard. "All right, I canít fight both of you."

"You should listen to her," Xena says, working on the stiffness in Miriamís neck.

"Now thereís something I havenít tried lately," Miriam says drowsily.

"Come on," Xena says with patience, holding up a hand. Miriam takes it and stands, doing a little pirouette under Xenaís arm.

"Know what?" she says, as Xena loads her carefully into the bed and leans over to cover her with a blanket.

"Whatís that?" Xena asks, making sure sheís comfortable.

"Gabrielle really loves you," Miriam says, sinking instantly into dreamland.

Xenaís face twists for just a moment. She straightens up and goes to the table, carefully putting the stopper back into the ink bottle and blowing out candle after candle. When the room is as dark as itís going to get, considering the fire in the hearth, Xena moves to the table and sits broodingly, not yielding to the temptation to pick up a single piece of parchment.

 

Itís full daylight in the stable, and Xena curries Argo, trying to be gentle. In a minute, sheís going to have to hunt up some human companionship or go quietly insane. The door to the stable creaks open and Joxer bumbles in.

"Oh, Xena, youíre back," he says.

"I took Argo to get some exercise," she says, turning around gratefully at the interruption. "Howís it going?"

"She kicked me out," Joxer says cheerfully. "Says she can wipe her own pens, thanks all the same."

"Sounds like something sheíd say," Xena says with a faint smile, giving Argo one last swipe and setting the brush down on a barrel.

Joxer sits on a nearby crate, his hands clasped between his knees. "Thatís the weirdest thing," he says reflectively.

"What is?" Xena sits next to him.

"Watching her do that. Row after row of letters, one after another after another, until you get dizzy just watching the pen move. Sheís like a writing machine."

"Thatís the basic idea," Xena says, crossing her legs.

"Any idea when sheíll be finished?"

Xena shrugs and reaches for a nearby bale of hay, tugging a wisp out and twisting the strands together. "When she gets finished."

"Have you had a chance to think about... about what we were talking about the other night?"

Xena sighs. "I have."

"And?" he says, trying to disguise the hope in his voice.

"Joxer," she says carefully, turning to face him, "I just donít think this is the best idea you ever had. Iím not much of a traveling companion."

"Heck, I know that already," he says, then colors as he realizes how it sounds. "I mean..."

"Thatís exactly it," she says, leaning with her elbows on her knees and chewing on the hay. "I make you nervous."

"No you donít," he asserts stoutly.

"And Iíd just go on making you more nervous, until you were jumping at your own shadow."

"I do that already," he offers.

"Thanks, Joxer," she says, making an effort to straighten up and take him seriously. "Youíre a sweet guy. And a formidable warrior. And an asset to any quest. But I think I have to go down this road alone."

He peers up through the chinks in the roof, gauging the sunlight. "Almost time for lunch," he says. "Donít we have to feed the famous author?"

Xena gets to her feet heavily and moves toward the door. "Iíll take care of it."

A thought occurs to him just then, and, being Joxer, he has to express it immediately. "Has she had a bath recently?"

Xena turns at the door and gives him a roguish grin. "Shame on you, Joxer. This is Art."

 

Miriam sits at the supper table, scrubbing at her fingers with a cloth soaked in some obnoxious liquid. "Iíll never get all this ink off," she mutters.

"Thatís not important," Xena answers. "Eat."

"With all this ink all over me? Iím already breathing it... and the candle smoke..."

"Gives you an appetite, does it? Will you put that damn thing down and eat something? Youíre driving me crazy."

Miriam looks up, and itís obvious her long-range focus hasnít seen much use lately. "Am I?" She thinks it over, and the rubbing with the cloth slows. "I never drove anybody crazy before. Itís the sort of thing Daniel usually does to me. New experience, really, the shoe being on the other foot and all..."

Before this can trail off into world-class blithering, Xena reaches out suddenly and grasps Miriamís hands in one of hers. "Have your supper," she says softly.

Miriam pulls her hands gently out of Xenaís grasp, not looking at her, and puts the cloth down. "Iím not making much sense lately, am I?" She picks up a spoon and a hunk of bread and begins to eat.

"Iím getting used to it," Xena says, relieved.

"So," Miriam says unexpectedly, "are you going with Joxer when this is over?"

For a moment, Xena is too shocked to say anything. Then, as she thinks about it, she starts to get mad. "Has he been wasting your time with this nonsense? Because if heís not letting you work, Iíll be happy to kick him from here to Galilee."

"No, no, of course not. He barely says two words to me when heís in the room. He just stands there and stares at my hands until he gets dizzy and has to leave." She smiles a little smile and shakes her head, her sight turning momentarily inward. "She has a great deal of affection for that young idiot, you know."

"So do I," Xena says, trying to keep the conversation going.

"She thinks itís a good idea," Miriam says, pouring some ale into a cup. "You taking him with you, that is."

Xena isnít sure how to respond. "Iíd like a chance to talk it over with her," she says carefully.

"I hope you will," Miriam answers, taking a bite of her soup.

"Miriam--"

"Hm?"

"Do you know... whatís going to happen?"

Miriamís face grows grave. She shakes her head. "No... Iím sorry, Xena... neither of us does."

Xena stands suddenly. "Finish your soup." She thinks of something else. "Are you all set for the evening?"

"Yes," Miriam says, then gets suspicious. "Why?"

"I thought Iíd take a walk," Xena says. "I think Iíll go looking for a cottage on chicken feet."

 

Thus it is that our heroine is parading around with a huge tree branch, trying to make cottage-tempting noises. She feels like an absolute idiot, which isnít far from the way she looks, and her determination to be available for play is impressive.

As she passes under the limb of a tree, she hears a delighted cackle. She looks up to see Baba Yaga, holding on to the trunk with one hand and laughing herself silly.

"Do you have any idea how you look?"

"Get down from there," Xena growls.

"At your service," Baba Yaga says merrily. "How could I ignore such dedication to getting me out here?" She jumps out of the tree lightly and lands at Xenaís feet (than which sheís not much taller). "What can I do for you, o imposing warrior?"

"Laugh all you want--" Xena begins.

"Not a problem," Baba Yaga assures her.

"--but I want some answers."

Baba Yaga turns and puts her hands behind her back. "Walk with me."

The two of them ramble through the woods.

"Howís it going?" Xena asks.

Baba Yaga shrugs. "You tell me. Is she writing?"

"Yes."

"Goofing off?"

"I canít get her to goof off," Xena says, a little worried.

"Donít fret over it, small one," Baba Yaga says. "Itís going the way it should. Is it any good?"

"I donít know," Xena says in a low voice. "I havenít read any of it yet."

"You want my advice? Donít. Iím not sure how youíd deal with Gabrielleís honest opinion of you."

Xena files this one away for later consideration. "Baba Yaga... is there... any way..."

Baba Yaga stops and peers up into the gloom at Xenaís face. "To bring her back, you mean? In her own carcass and not somebody elseís?"

"Yes," Xena sighs, a mere breath. "I wouldnít care what conditions you put on it... even if I couldnít see her again... it would be enough to know..."

"My poor, brave little warrior," Baba Yaga says, for once not being sarcastic. "Youíve had a lot shoved your way lately. Makes cleaning the Augean Stables seem like light work for a hot summer afternoon, doesnít it?"

Xena nods, misery making her shoulders slump.

"Let me ask you a question. If I got her back for you, right this minute, what would happen?"

Xena turns her head and looks at Baba Yaga warily.

"Iíll tell you," Baba Yaga says. "You would sweep her into your arms and leap onto your golden charger and vanish into the sunset. Leaving Miriam with a pile of half-finished stories. Thatís what."

"So when theyíre finished--"

Baba Yaga holds up both hands. "Now, wait a moment, here, warrior hopefulness. Itís not like I know this. Thatís just what I think."

"Artemis is behind this, isnít she?" Xena growls, her hand going to her chakram.

"Yes. And before you go leaping into the forest to rend her limb from immortal limb, you should know that I agree with her one hundred per cent. Those stories have got to get finished. Body or no body, Miriam or no Miriam, Gabrielle... or no Gabrielle. You have no idea how important this is. Will be. To people you couldnít possibly begin to give a damn about because right now youíre so far away from them that you might as well be on the moon."

A light breeze starts to ruffle the leaves around them. Feeling trapped, Xena looks up to the stars.

"Thatís a good place to start," Baba Yaga says. "Keep your eyes up there."

And Xena continues to look up until she can feel the stars move around her, constellations spinning in a dance far older and much more important than the misery of one lonely woman in armor. She waits until she can feel, for one instant, that it might just be enough.

A long time later, when Xena looks down, Baba Yaga is gone. She stands under the trees for a moment, then turns and walks slowly back to the lights of the tavern.

 

Several days later, Xena is dozing in a chair by the fire in the common room, hands dangling off the armrests. Miriam appears in the doorway and closes the door quietly behind her, then descends the steps and stops in front of Xena, kneeling to look up in the dim firelight into the face of the exhausted, heartbroken Warrior Princess.

For a moment, before she wakes her up, Miriam studies every line of Xenaís face, reliving all the stormy, passionate, argumentative, adventurous moments since their involuntary partnership began. Whatís behind them is overwhelming, and whatís to come is something no one can see. She leans forward, placing a hand on Xenaís cheek with a butterfly lightness, then, when she doesnít stir, kisses her softly on the lips.

She backs off with a wry smile and grabs Xenaís shoulder, shaking her gently. "Wake up, Xena," she whispers.

Xenaís eyes are open immediately, and her senses come to full alert. "What is it?" she whispers back, looking down at Miriam kneeling before her.

"Weíre done," Miriam says simply.

 

Miriam holds Xenaís hand gently, leading her into the room. Xena looks around at stacks of parchment, all covered with precisely-drawn letters, laid out on a table that blazes with light like an altar. Xena approaches it slowly, reaching out with a tentative hand to pick up one of the parchments, reading with utter absorption.

Miriam shuts the door without a sound and leans against it, crossing her arms and taking one last look at Xena when she doesnít know anyoneís watching. Her eyebrows contract with a sudden pain, and she puts a hand to her chest.

"Sing to me, Muse," says a familiar voice, "of the battles of the Warrior Woman..."

Scarcely daring to hope, Xena puts the parchment carefully back on the table and turns. Standing in the middle of the room is Gabrielle, in the flesh.

 

Miriam is sitting on a bench outside the front door of the tavern, inside which a riotous party is in full swing. People reel in and out, and she has to duck the occasional drunk who falls her way. Good-naturedly, she shoves bodies out of her way, grateful for the cool night air and the lack of ink-bottles in her immediate vicinity.

"And you the only one without a flask in her hand," says a cheerful, ancient voice.

Miriam stands up and takes Baba Yagaís hands in hers. "Itís good to see you," Miriam says sincerely.

"So what are the lovebirds up to?" Baba Yaga asks mischievously.

"What do you think?" Miriam shoots back.

"Whoís the party for?"

Miriam turns to glance at the lit windows of the tavern. "Martha the carpenter just had her first granddaughter."

"Well, good for her. Come on, weíre taking a walk," Baba Yaga says.

The two of them make their way through the yard into the silence of the woods.

"You must have something to say," Miriam offers as a conversational gambit.

"Yep. Wanted to pass along a message from Artemis. She says, ĎWell done, my daughter.í"

Miriam thinks this over, then nods. "Please tell her Iím grateful, and that if she has any more jobs for me, Iím gonna start hanging out with Aphrodite instead."

Baba Yaga laughs. "Itís been good working with you," she says. "Youíre a lot of fun."

"Iíd like to say Iíll miss it, but..."

"But you wonít?" Itís too dark for Miriam to see the suspicious sparkle in Baba Yagaís eye.

Itís a question Miriamís been longing to ask since the beginning. "Why me?"

Baba Yaga shrugs. "Your handwritingís better than hers."

Miriam stops and turns to her, close to blowing her stack. "You mean... all of this... is because of my handwriting?!"

"Certainly," Baba Yaga says, as if this truth is self-evident.

Miriamís fists and teeth clench at the same time. "Make your peace with the gods, old woman, because in moments you are going to be very dead."

"Oh, calm down, youngster. Whoever finds it has to be able to read it, donít they?" She takes Miriamís unwilling hand and begins to stroll with her through the woods again. "Iíve got more good news for you. Out of ten scrolls you do, maybe one will survive."

"Donít give me any more good news," Miriam groans. "I canít take it."

"Of course itís not just your handwriting. Someone has to live the life, and someone has to write it down. Gabrielleís schedule is getting awfully busy, and thereís more to come."

Miriam sighs hugely. "So itís not over?"

"You wonít miss it after all. And Aphrodite isnít the bookish type."

"Why did you and Artemis cook up this scheme in the first place?"

"You want the after-dinner speech? Might as well; I need the practice for the awards ceremony." Baba Yaga stops, turns to face Miriam, and takes her hands in both of hers. "When Xena first took up a sword to battle Cortese, she set in motion the machinery that changes a woman into a hero. What everyone forgets, looking at the way she handles a blade, is that anyone could have done the same thing. You have to have an example in front of you, or youíll never believe you can do it too.

"But battles arenít all about blades and horror, and the spirit of a warrior is going to be astonishingly helpful in a world you wouldnít begin to recognize."

She shrugs. "At least we should know our sisters when we see them. The mark of the warrior shouldnít be that hard to spot. And itís also a good thing to remember that even the darkest soul can set the world alight, if itís turned by a loving heart, and a deadly sword, in the service of justice, really can save the world. What a surprise."

Baba Yaga turns and begins walking again. "Pithy enough for you?"

Miriam is deep in thought, standing in the woods. As Baba Yaga gets farther and farther away, the little grin on her face gets bigger. "Thought so," she murmurs, just before she vanishes into the darkness.

 

Xena and Gabrielle are loading Argo up. Miriam hands them miscellaneous bits of stuff, wondering how either one of them has the energy to stand up.

"Sure we canít help you get those scrolls back to Daniel?" Xena offers, tightening a packstrap.

"No, thank you," Miriam says fervently. "I was looking forward to the next century being a little more quiet."

"Iíll send you the rest as I get them done," Gabrielle says.

"See that you do. I really donít want Artemis pissed at me. But do me a favor, will you? Try to enjoy each other for just a little while before you get back to bashing peopleís heads in?"

Xena and Gabrielle smile at one another, and the world opens up and lays itself at their feet.

"Well, I see thatís not gonna be a problem," Miriam says hastily, stepping forward to give Gabrielle a last, heartfelt hug.

"Thank you," Gabrielle says simply. "For everything."

"Go out and live it, so I can write about it," Miriam says unsteadily. "And you," she says furiously, turning on Xena. "You had better damned well take excellent care of both of you from now on. Or you will be hearing from me."

Xena backs up, blinking in surprise as Miriam begins to jab angrily at her armor with a finger. "Do not make me show up in whatever godsforsaken spot on the earth the two of you happen to have blundered into, because you do not want to see--"

In mid-tirade, Miriam reaches up, pulls Xenaís head close with both hands and gets her in a stunningly effective liplock that goes on for some time. Gabrielleís eyes get round, then she peers more closely, not quite able to believe it.

Miriam pulls away and continues without a breath. "--that. Got it?"

"Got it," Xena says, horribly confused.

Miriam stands for a moment. "Fine," she says shortly, then turns and goes back through the door of the tavern.

Xena and Gabrielle watch her go. "What--?" Gabrielle begins.

"Gabrielle," Xena says, reaching for her hand, her face alight. "I have you back. Just this once, letís not question the gods."

They walk out of the innyard hand in hand as the camera tracks out and up. Just before they get too small to see, they turn to one another for a kiss.

 

Cut to a hand with a quill in it. As the camera cranes back, we see a much older Miriam sitting at her desk, spatters of candle-tallow at her elbow. She stops writing, picks up the parchment, and reads the final lines.

"Well," she says to herself, "thatís the way it should have ended, anyway."

* * *

For Jane, as all things are.

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