by Bat Morda
1997 Mar
Copyright © 1997
All rights reserved

Chapter 4

Beyond The Sea

Janice rolled her head for the hundredth time to gaze a Mel. She found the raven-haired beauty utterly captivating and felt certain she'd never tire of watching her sleep. Her eyes darted back and forth in dream, her features relaxed. Argo was curled up next to her, and for that Janice was grateful. Argo had kept her warm on many a cold night and she'd been worried about Mel's tolerance for the chill night air. "Still," she reasoned to herself, "it was her decision to come." She wondered again why the obviously pampered woman would choose such a hard path. With a shrug she reminded herself that it was none of her business, everyone lived and learned by their own mistakes. Being charming, gentle and magnificently beautiful was no protection against that. As the thunder of waves crashing on the beach subsided, Janice decided it was time to get up.

As soon as she moved the dog's eyes opened, watching her mistress intently. "It's okay girl, stay with Mel. I'll be right back." Janice whispered and gave the dog the visual command to stay, then headed a short distance beyond the rocks to relieve herself.

Mel awoke to the smell of coffee filling her senses. She opened her eyes to stars still hanging in the sky above her, with Janice Covington sitting on the other side of a rekindled fire sipping from a steaming mug. "What time is it?" Mel asked, very groggy.

Janice looked at the sky briefly before answering. "It's still a couple of hours before dawn. We've got a long hike ahead of us this morning."

"But the moon is gone- how will we see?" Mel asked, forcing herself to sit up. She gratefully accepted the enameled mug that Janice offered her, noting how warm the archaeologists hands felt against her own cold fingers.

"We'll be walking along the beach. By the time we have to climb to the next cove the sun will be up."

Janice was impressed that Mel refrained from complaining as they got ready to go. The archeologist's daughter seemed to be made of sterner stuff than she had first suspected. They made good time walking the length of the shoreline several miles to the next huge rock outcrop. An enormous basalt formation jutted some distance out into the water, there was no way around it- they'd have to go over.

"Now what?" Mel asked as they reached the base of the basalt formation. It was not strictly vertical, but still very steep.

Janice called Argo and extracted something form one of her packs. After making the dog sit down in front of her she proceeded to put leather booties on the dog's feet, securing them with strips of leather thong. "We climb." Janice replied matter of factly.

From her own pack she extracted two pairs of leather gloves and handed one to Mel. "The basalt is sharp. Argo cut her foot on it last time. Watch where you put your hands, and try not to bump you knees and you'll be fine."

Mel eyed the rock cliff dubiously. "How can Argo...?"

Janice smiled, "Argo. Up!" She pointed to the crest of the rock. The dog ran back and forth a couple of times looking for the best place to begin. Then she began to bound up the rock face. There was enough slope for the dog to climb by scrambling over the rock in a zig- zagging pattern "We follow the dog." Janice explained. She headed up the rock next with Mel following her. Several times she paused in her ascent to make sure Melinda Pappas was making progress. Argo reached the top in about ten minutes, it took the humans over twice as long.

Janice shrugged out of her pack and offered a canteen of water to Mel as soon as she joined her at the top. "Let me take a look at that." Janice said, and Mel was not sure what she was talking about. Then following the archaeologist's line of sight looked down to her leg, a small patch of blood seeping through the knee of her pants.

"I didn't realize I even cut myself." Mel said now feeling the pain from her knee.

"This rock is sharp, there is a lot of obsidian in it." Janice explained as she untucked Mel's pantleg from her boot and eased the material over her knee. The scrape was shallow but long. After pulling a battered first aid kit from her pack, Janice cleaned the wound with some water then wrapped a length of gauze around it. The archaeologist's gentle hands surprised Mel. She suspected that if Janice had the same scrape on her own leg, she'd ignore it. Finally she said as much.

Janice rocked back on her heels and smiled. "This isn't strictly for your benefit sweetheart. These smugglers are really touchy. They see blood and they think you're injured and helpless. I can control Aires to some extent but I don't know how unbalanced his crew this time out is. Last time I showed up on his ship with a bleeding cut on my shoulder- I had to eventually break a guy's arm to get him to leave me alone. We'll have a cabin on board, when we get there I suggest you stay put until we get to Cal's island. It'll be a boring two days, but believe me that's a lot nicer than excitement on that ship." Finishing with Mel's injury she put the first aid kit back in her pack and prepared to descend the other side of the rock wall. Unsure why, Mel was a little let down by the doctor's explanation. Janice noticed the sullen silence and smiled to herself as she followed Argo down the cliff.

They had not been on the sandy beach for long when a small boat appeared around the side of the cove. Argo noticed it immediately and barked. "Right on time." Janice smiled and motioned for Mel to join her as she walked over to meet the boat. Once in the shallow surf, one of the two men in the boat hopped out and guided the boat to shore. Janice grasped the man's offered hand. "Aires, good to see you," she glanced to the man still in the boat, "you too Toby." The boatman smiled and waved in greeting as Aires approached Mel.

"I got word you'd have a guest, Doctor Covington. I didn't know she'd be so radiant." With that he smoothly brought Mel's hand to his lips and kissed her knuckles softly.

Janice rolled her eyes skyward and stepped in between Mel and the Captain. "Don't even think about it," she warned. Mel took a moment to study the captain. He was handsome black man, with dark rugged features and well defined muscles. Very athletic. His companion in the boat, however, was anything but. Simply put, he was the largest man Mel had ever seen. He had a baldhead covered by an ornate tattoo, handlebar moustache and bright blue eyes. He also had a friendly smile and reminded Mel of an enormous teddy bear.

"I am Captain Aires," Aires said ignoring Janice's warning. "And in the boat is Tobias Eule, but we call him Toby. He can't talk so don't think him anti-social."

"Nice to meet you." Mel replied from behind Janice's shoulder with a nod to the captain and the man in the boat.

"Glad to see Argo recovered." Aires said, finally looking at Janice.

"Better than new." Janice confirmed, as she shouldered her pack and headed for the boat. Reaching the boat, Janice extracted a pouch and handed it to Aires. He counted the money carefully then nodded. After helping Mel into the boat Janice whistled for Argo who easily leapt into the small wooden craft. Janice climbed in next after stowing her gear to the back of the boat, behind Mel.

The boat ride to The Gauntlet was uneventful. Mel listened quietly as Janice and Aires caught up on each other's lives, noting with interest how she interacted with the man. The warm friendliness Janice had exhibited with Greg Ore was missing. Everything about her was no nonsense and formidable. Finally Aires leaned over and Mel could just barely hear him ask, "What's the deal with you and the beauty? Are you and she..."

Janice whispered back, "You'll live longer if you assume as much." He laughed openly at that.

"Always one for understatement Doc. Okay, I'll tell the men to keep away from your... companion." He smiled at Mel and winked. Returning his attention to Janice he was serious once more, "Silvus is still on board, I'd give him wide berth if I were you. He still hasn't forgiven you for destroying his arm the way you did."

Janice nodded, "I'll make every effort to avoid him. I hope he's smart and does the same."

It didn't take long for the small rowboat to reach the cargo ship. After a confirming hand signal from the Captain, the small craft and it's occupants were brought on board. A number of men hung over the side of the ship, hooting and calling to the new arrivals as the boat was hoisted up. However, Mel noted with satisfaction, as soon as the boat was secured and the occupants standing on the main deck of the ship, the whistles and catcalls silenced. In fact, most of the men quickly found something else to occupy their attention.

Mel followed Argo and Janice below decks to their cabin. Once inside, Janice propped her pack against the wall and surveyed the room. Argo bounded up on to the bed, the piece of furniture that dominated the small cabin, and stood patiently as Janice removed her pack. There was a crate that served as a table or dresser with a large enameled bowl resting on top. An old mirror hung on the wall, and several pegs were present near by for hanging clothes. On the floor next to the crate was a large container of water with a lid. Sitting on the bed next to Argo, Janice began to unlace her boots. "The water is clean," Janice said conversationally as she removed a boot and wiggled her toes, "Aires knows better than to put me in a room without clean sheets and clean water. I can't vouch for anything else though."

"I get the impression you don't really like the captain?" Mel asked as she studied her reflection in the mirror. She didn't think she'd ever seen herself so... rumpled looking.

"Oh, I like him fine." Janice replied, watching with interest as Mel studied her reflection, "I just don't trust him. Hell, I know enough about his business to know that you don't survive by making loyalty a high priority." Mel nodded, distracted, and Janice shook her head. "See something interesting Mel?"

Mel turned with a start to see brilliant green eyes watching her. "I... well... I was just thinking that this attire is more comfortable than I would have expected. Except for the boots that is, my feet are killing me."

Janice was on her feet and getting the first aid kit out again. "You've done a lot of walking today, you might have blisters." She motioned for Argo to get off the bed, when the dog complied she motioned for Mel to take a seat. Sitting on the floor of the cabin, Janice began to unlace her right boot. Mel watched as Janice's skillful fingers made quick work of the bootlace. She began to feel her pulse speed up as the room seemed to shrink.

"You don't have to do that Janice." Mel shyly protested as the first boot was eased off her foot. The gentle attention of her friend was making Mel's heart race, that was disquieting enough, but the other sensations that joined in were downright distracting.

"Don't be silly." Janice replied intent on her task. "If you've got blisters you can't walk," she smiled up into clear blue eyes, "and don't think for a moment that I'm going to carry you." Almost as an afterthought Janice looked up, "you're not particularly shy about your feet are you?"

Mel wanted to run. "Ah... not especially..."

Janice nodded. "Good, 'cause there is little room in archeology for modesty."

Mel looked up at the ceiling, startled to see another mirror attached there. It was long and ran the same direction as the bed. Gazing up, she could see Janice's reflection as she removed her sock and began to gently massage her foot, looking for hot-spots or blisters. It felt wonderful, almost too good. "Janice, why is there a mirror on the ceiling?" She finally asked to distract herself, as the second boot was unlaced.

"This is Aires' cabin. I stay in it when I'm onboard. And no, not with him." Janice was silent once more, as if the owner of the cabin was explanation enough for the mirror.

"He said something on the row boat, about you and me..."

Janice looked up from her task and shrugged. "I'm sorry you had to hear that, repulsive as you might find it. You'll be safer if they think you're sleeping with me. If nothing else, they respect Argo, so it'd be stupid for either of us to be in a room without her." After seeing the other woman's mollified expression she added, "Don't worry, I think I'll be able to restrain myself. You'll be safe here."

"What do you mean by that?" Mel asked, annoyed at the comment.

"I'm just saying I won't try anything." Janice replied innocently.

"I'm not good enough? Is that what you're saying?!" Mel shot back hotly getting more miffed at the archaeologists assumptions the more she thought about it.

"Are you saying you want me to try something Mel Pappas?" Janice asked softly.

"I'm asking why I should assume that you wouldn't..." Mel retorted, removing her foot from Janice's grasp. Mel wasn't sure what bothered her more. That Janice assumed she thought sexual intimacies with her would be repulsive or that the archeologist wasn't the least bit interested in her.

Janice smiled at the forcefulness of the question. "Well for starters Mel, you aren't my type. Anymore than I'm yours I suspect. I mean business partner, maybe, but lover? Nah." Not entirely convinced about what she was saying, even as she said it, Janice was determined to keep her attraction from the spoiled southerner. She didn't want to face the inevitable rejection or make Mel uncomfortable with her. It had happened too often in the past.

Genuinely stung by the archeologist's dismissal, Mel turned away. "I'm gratified to hear it. That must say something for my degree of sophistication and maturity," she shot back hotly. "And just so you know, you're not my type either."

"I know, I'm not a man." Janice shrugged.

"It goes way beyond gender." Mel said icily.

"What do you mean by that?" Janice demanded.

She never got her answer. A loud knock sounded on the door. "What is it?!" Janice shouted, angry.

"Cap'n wants to see you on deck. Another ship is headed to intercept us." Said the voice on the other side of the door.

"Great, just great." Janice said as she began to put her own boots back on. Moments later she was heading out the door glaring at Mel and Argo sternly. "You two stay here."

As soon as Janice left Argo began to pace back and forth in front of the door. Finally sitting down she looked at Mel and began to paw at the closed door. "She said to stay here." Mel reminded the dog. The whining became louder and the pawing more forceful. Making up her mind Mel put her own boots back on. "I'm telling her it's your fault." She said opening the door and followed the dog.

Janice stood deep in conversation with Captain Aires, looking out to sea with a pair of battered binoculars when they arrived on deck. "Is it Leesto?" Aires asked after Janice had studied the approaching ship for several long minutes.

"Nope." Janice replied when she was sure. "They're smugglers plain and simple. What're you hauling?"

"That is not for you to know Covington." Aires replied with a smile.

Janice shrugged. "Well I don't think you're going to be able to out run them."

"Then we will fight them."

"Oh, wonderful." Janice muttered. "Might as well shut down your engines now. Make 'em think twice about approaching." Just then Janice felt a familiar wet nose nudge her hand, "I thought I told you..."

"Argo insisted." Mel supplied crisply when Janice leveled a glare in her direction.

Several men snickered near by. "What's so funny?" Janice demanded advancing on the snickering sailor.

"No hard feelings Doc," the young man said with a smile, catching his breath, "I can't control my wife either." Several more men laughed at the comment.

"Very funny." Janice agreed grinning.

"Who's the whore this week Jan?" Another voice asked, void of humor. "Does she come when you eat her?"

Janice spun at the sound, instantly finding the source of the comment. "How's the arm Silvus?" She asked, taking a cigar out of her pocket and lighting it.

His only response was a growl as he began to descend the stairs that led to the deck. Instinctively the men began to back up, giving the adversaries plenty of room. Janice stood her ground, calmly inhaling the smoke from her cigar, thin trails of gray curling from her nose and mouth. Casually she took the cigar out of her mouth and puffed several perfect smoke rings, chewing on the cigar once again when Silvus reached the deck.

Silvus was a mountain of a man, not so much muscled as thick. He had no neck to speak of and was dressed in filthy clothes that hung off of him like greasy rags. Janice checked on the proximity of the approaching ship, an idea forming in her mind. She turned her back to Silvus and began to take off her jacket. She walked over to Mel who was standing next to Aires and handed it to her.

"I'll take care of these smugglers for you." She whispered to Aires as she began to unhitch her gunbelt, "but you'll have to protect Mel and Argo from Silvus."

Aires nodded as Mel accepted the archaeologist gun belt. "What are you fixin' to do?" she asked.

Janice smiled taking out her cigar. "I'm going to pick a fight with him and loose." She turned back to Aires, "When I go overboard, start a brawl, will ya?" Absently she reached down and scratched Argo behind the ears. "You stay out of this." She whispered fiercely to the dog. Taking Mel's hand she put it around the dog's collar. "Keep her out of this," she said to Mel, "and when the fighting really starts, get below decks and lock the door." After a quick wink she turned back to face Silvus.

He stood on the deck ten feet from Janice, one hand holding a baseball bat with an iron spike in it. His other arm hung loosely at an odd angle from his body. It appeared to have been broken in several places and set incorrectly. While the fist still clenched reflexively, the arm looked almost useless. The two began to circle each other when to Mel's horror the sailor's began to place bets on the outcome. Most bets were in the archaeologist favor. After all she'd bested the big man last time.

With a roar he swung at Janice who sidestepped the blow easily. Her knee came up into his gut her fists down on the back of his neck. He didn't appear to have felt it. Twisting back around he took another swing, this time missing Janice by only a whisper. In a flash her whip was out and the tip coiled around the base of the bat. With a hard yank she pulled it from his grasp and sent the weapon sailing overboard. Silvus charged, his meaty fist jabbing at Janice's head. She ducked and slipped behind the big man. "So," he asked turning to face her, "do you come when she sticks her fingers in your hot, wet...uh" Janice's leg connected with his knee and he went down to the deck with a thud. Just as fast he was back up again and forcing Janice to the ships railing.

"As a matter of fact, I do... repeatedly." She grinned after taking another puff from her cigar. This time however she did not move when a badly thrown fist sailed at her mid section. She took the force of the blow, acting like it hurt more than it did. She could hear voices on the other ship now, as the other smuggling crew bet on the outcome of the fight. Another minute and they'd be close enough.

Mel was startled by Argo's growl when Silvus' fist connected with her mistress' belly. "No, girl." Mel said, struggling to keep the big dog from joining the fight. She struggled again as another punch from Silvus had Janice landing on deck, hard. With a triumphant roar he kicked the prone woman in the ribs then picked up her struggling body and threw it overboard. Janice's worn hat fluttered to the deck as her body sailed overboard and into the sea below.

"That dumb ass." Aires muttered as he shoved Mel. "If you know what's smart, you'll get going now!" With a yell of his own he struck the nearest crewman. In minutes the entire deck of the ship was engulfed in a brawl.

Janice hit the water and swam down, as far and as fast as she could. When she finally surfaced for air she was right next to the hull of the approaching ship. She looked up to see the faces of the smugglers either looking at the brawl on The Gauntlet or scanning the water for signs of her body. Fortunately they were scanning the water where her body had landed, not where she was. Cautiously she moved to the side of the ship away from The Gauntlet and flicking her bullwhip onto a deck rail, began to climb up the side of the ship. She stayed quiet and careful, easing her dripping body onto the cargo ship.

As she hoped, all of the crew on deck were at the rail watching the brawl. As silently as her wet clothes allowed, she slipped below decks. Janice had recognized the ship as Remember Nothing from on board The Gauntlet, and while it wasn't something Aires needed to know, Janice had a score to settle. The independent thugs that operated the pirate vessel had stolen a prize find from her in the past. Now it was payback time. She startled one crewman on the stairs leading into the belly of the ship. He was silenced with a wet boot landing solidly on his nose. Not bothering to step over the body, she continued down the stairs to the deck below.

Cautiously she checked the open cabins until she found that of the Captain. He was studying himself in a mirror, shaving.

"You know, some day your vanity is going to get you in a heap of trouble." Janice said quietly as she leaned on his table. Her hand and wrist relaxed, holding her bullwhip.

He spun around at her words, his eyes flashing. "Jan? Why, how good to see you. I don't suppose you've brought me another present?" He shrugged, answering his own question, "Dr. Leesto was so happy with the last one. Xena's breastplate wasn't it?"

"You remembered Captain Crunch, I'm flattered."

"If you don't mind Jan, it's Krykus, Captain Krykus." He looked closely at the dripping archeologist, "What, no mutt? Oh, did she not make it?" He asked with feigned sincerity.

In a flash the bullwhip was out and wrapped around the throat of the captain. Janice yanked down hard and with a thud his chin connected with the tabletop. "That's for Argo." Jan hissed as she shoved his unconscious body to the floor. Quickly rummaging through his room. It didn't take long for her to find what she was looking for. "So predictable," she muttered, retrieving her whip as she left.

Almost as soon as it began the fighting began to subside. Aires noted with concern that the other smuggling ship was getting painfully close. Much longer and they'd be able to board. Already they had cut their engines and were drifting toward The Gauntlet. Soon he'd give the signal to gun the engines and try to move away, whether Janice Covington was on board his ship or not. He dabbed at his bloodied nose gently as he approached Mel Pappas, who was looking forlornly at the ocean where Janice had landed. "Any sign of her?" He asked gently.

Startled out of her thoughts she replied quickly, "no, not yet." Mel gingerly fingered the brim of Janice's hat that Argo had retrieved from the deck as soon as the fighting started. Both woman and dog seemed only vaguely aware of what went on around them, both human and canine eyes riveted to the ocean below.

He joined in her visual search of the waters. "Well I can give her another five minutes, but if there isn't a sign of her by then, we'll have to go. I can't risk being boarded."

Mel nodded absently, there wasn't much she could say to argue with the captain. If she didn't even know how to articulate her own feelings for the complicated archeologist, how could she explain them to another?

As if sensing her confusion Aires changed the subject. "As long as we're waiting, why not tell me when you were born?"

Janice quickly positioned the sticks of dynamite in the main hold of the cargo ship, shaking her head at whatever priceless antiquities she was about to destroy. "Not so fast Covington" a seething voice rasped from the doorway.

Krykus stood leaning against the doorway, his revolver pointed at Janice, his neck red and blistered from the burn of the bullwhip. "Nice nap?" Janice asked, gaging the distance between Krykus and the door.

"It's over Jan. You've been good for business in the past but it's over. I'll have to make sure that barge that brought you out here pays for dealing with your kind of scum."

"That's no way to talk about a lady." Janice smirked.

"You're no lady."

Janice shrugged, he was right after all, and dove for the door. A shaky hand followed her movement and the revolver fired. Janice yelped in pain as she rolled to her feet and kicked up at Krykus. A commotion sounded above them on deck as excited voices responded to the gun shot. The momentary distraction was enough to divert Krykus' eyes for the second Janice needed to land another kick, this time hitting her mark. The gun sailed from the captain's hand and skittered across the deck. She brought her foot back again, this time landing a blow to the captain's groin. He doubled over and instantly she was on her feet winching in pain as she stood.

She cast a quick glance down to her arm. A swelling stain of red was quickly seeping through her shirt, she'd been shot in the left bicep. Her eyes narrowed in fury. As Krykus surged across the floor in search of his gun, Janice sprang over his prone body reaching the gun first. Quickly cocking the gun she aimed at his arm and fired. Voices now filled the stairs leading into the hold. Passing the gun to her left hand she roughly hauled Krykus into a sitting position and kept the gun barrel at the base of his skull. Several men entered the room and froze at the sight of their bleeding captain, held at gunpoint by a very angry woman, dripping blood and water.

"Not so fast boys," Janice growled.

"Listen to her," Krykus pleaded.

"You threw the gun to Leesto that she used to shoot my dog. Tell me why I shouldn't kill you where you sit." She seethed.

"You can have the cargo, take it." The men in the doorway nodded their agreement.

"Oh, like I believe you." Janice shook her head. She jabbed the gun barrel into his neck for emphasis. "Light a cigarette." She commanded, keeping her eyes on his men.

With shaky fingers Krykus removed a battered pack of cigarettes from his pocket and with trembling hands brought one to his lips. He had some trouble with the matches, but got it lit.

"Now give it to me." Janice said evenly after he took a tentative puff. Not able to see what Janice intended, he handed the cigarette to her. Next he noticed the eyes of his crew men go wide as they turned and ran from the cargo hold as fast as they could. "Wha...?" He snapped his head around at the sizzling sound that came from near his ear. Janice stood, a stick of dynamite in her hand, the fuse burning.

"You're insane!" He screamed as he struggled to his feet and ran for the door.

"No, just pissed." She replied as she followed after. Partway up the stairs she paused for a moment, letting the fuse burn down further before throwing it into the cargo hold. She didn't see anyone in the stairwell, and suspected that there was a flurry of activity on deck namely getting the lifeboats lowered. She had just reached open deck when she felt rather than heard the first tremors of the explosion. With a mad dash for the railing she leaped from the deck of Remember Nothing, hitting the water with the added force of the explosion.

"What was that?" Mel Pappas asked when she heard the first shot ring out from the approaching ship.

Aires studied the approaching vessel. He shouted to a near by crewman. "Ready the engines. We get out of here, now. Full speed, on my mark." The man nodded, and began to shout orders to other people. Soon The Gauntlet was buzzing with organized activity. Then another shout sounded and Aires hit the rail impatiently. "What could she be doing over there?" He ordered the engines fired when he saw people streaming over the other ships deck, jumping into the water and frantically lowering lifeboats. When the answering roar of The Gauntlet's engines did not sound in his ears, he hurried down into the bowels of his ship to rectify the situation.

Mel was not sure what was happening, but she did know that something had happened on the other ship. She didn't get much of a chance to ponder the though because an explosion from deep within the approaching smuggling vessel erupted, sending debris smoke everywhere. It was several more minutes before The Gauntlet's engines roared and the boat began to pull away from the wreckage of the other ship.

It was at that moment that Mel realized that no one intended to wait for Janice, if in fact she'd survived the plunge she'd taken. Her eyes began to well with tears as she looked down forlornly. As she did however, she noticed a dark figure clinging to the hull of The Gauntlet like a fly on a wall. Mel's tears of sorrow turned to joy as she saw Janice struggle to climb up the ship, her tenuous hold on her bullwhip the only thing keeping her out of the water.

Mel grabbed at a passing crewman, relieved to see that it was Toby, the silent man she'd sat near in the rowboat. "Janice, she's down there!" Mel said, pointing. He looked over the rail, as he craned his neck Mel noticed several scars on his neck. Pulling back, he motioned for Mel to stay where she was and pointed to Argo as well. Instinctively she put her hand on the dog's collar. He grabbed a nearby life ring and tossed it down to Janice, hitting her in the head with it. Tobias' eyes darted around the ship as he hauled Janice up. The look of worry on her face reminded Mel about what Janice had said earlier. That, coupled with the image of an enraged Silvus made Mel very nervous. "I hope she's okay." She muttered to which the big man nodded. "If she's hurt, we can't let any one know, can we?" Toby spared a glance for the striking woman and shook his head emphatically. Mel nodded. "That's what I was afraid of," she murmured to herself.

Toby heard a grumble and managed to turn, still holding the rope but appearing to lean casually over the railing as Silvus stepped into view. He sported a black eye and several cuts, but seemed in bright spirits. His eyes narrowed when he saw Mel. "So, you're Jan's bitch. You a good ride?"

Mel's mouth opened, stunned. "Not for you." She finally sputtered. Argo growled, her hackles rising menacingly.

"C'mere puppy- time you joined the lezzie overboard." Silvus advanced slowly. Argo bared her teeth, long and sharp, stopping the thug where he stood. With one hand still holding the rope behind his back, Toby protectively draped the other around Mel's shoulders. He also bared his teeth.

Silvus thought twice about continuing his advance. "Sorry buddy, I didn't know you had dibs. Let me have her when you're done..." He continued on his way, not looking back as he moved on. As soon as he was out of sight, Toby returned to the task of hauling Janice up. Dumped onto the deck of the ship, Janice coughed water out of her lungs with what little energy she had left. Mel and Toby managed to get her standing by leaning her back against the outside of the ship's cabin.

"Goodness gracious, she's bleeding." Mel stammered. Tobias quickly put his finger over his mouth silencing her. After another quick shake of his head Mel nodded. Just then another crewman came around the deck from the direction Silvus departed. Not knowing what else to do Mel quickly covered Janice's body with her own, obscuring the bloody arm from view and kissed the woman soundly. She turned her head at the appreciative whistle.

"She's so sexy after a swim." Mel muttered, not needing to feign embarrassment.

"Well give us a break and take it below decks will ya?" The seaman muttered, continuing on his way.

Mel glanced up to see Tobias looking at her, blushing profusely. With a grin he helped Mel get the barely conscious woman to their cabin. "Will you tell the captain that we got her back?" Mel asked as Toby prepared to leave. He nodded and patted her hand gently. On impulse she kissed the big man on the cheek. "That's a thank you from Janice... and me." She said as he departed.

"Sexy after a swim?" Janice said in a strained voice from where she leaned against the wall.

"Well I had to think of something." Mel replied helping the archeologist out of her wet clothes. "What happened to your arm?"

Shivering Janice looked down at the blood still oozing from the puncture wound. "I got shot. Bullet's still in there. You're going to have to dig it out."

"You've got to be kidding! I'll get the Captain, or Toby..."

"No! Janice said fiercely. I meant what I said earlier. Toby has already done enough. Either you do it or I do, and I don't think I'd do a very good job of it right now." Janice sat down heavily on the edge of the bed, trying to keep her dripping to a minimum.

"First of all let's dry you off." Mel said taking charge. "No use having you go into shock." Rummaging through the crate by the mirror, she extracted a large blanket and set to drying off the archeologist's shivering body with it. Careful of the injured arm, she got most of the cold seawater off of Janice. Her color began to improve.

Janice could feel the heat rising to her cheeks. As much as her arm hurt, there was no denying the signals sent to her brain from everywhere Mel touched with the blanket. It was all she could do to keep a satisfied smile off her face. The sensation ended however when she accidently bumped her arm. The bullet lodged in her flesh made itself known, painfully. "Get the first aid kit out of my pack, and the bottle of whiskey. And that bowl." She nodded to the enameled bowl on the crate.

Mel complied and hurriedly brought all the items to the bed. The first thing Janice did was open the bottle of whiskey and take a healthy swig. She was about to pour some over her wound when a light knock sounded at the door. "That's Toby's knock," Janice said, taking another swig of whiskey, "go ahead and answer it."

As soon as the door was opened a crack, the big man quickly handed Mel a bundle of bandages, some alcohol and other first aid supplies. Before she could say a word, he deposited the items and was gone. "Okay, what do I do?" Mel asked as she positioned herself on the edge of the crate, by the bed.

Janice grimaced as she positioned her arm for the other woman's inspection. After another swig of the whiskey she was ready to speak. "Take those tweezers and try to find the bullet." She probed the sides of her wound, gasping with pain as she did. "I think it's near the surface, shouldn't be too hard to find. After you get it out, clean it with the alcohol then sew it up. I'll talk you through it if I'm still conscious. If not, just wing it. You look like the type that can sew."

"I appreciate you faith in me Janice Covington." Mel said smiling through her sarcasm as she took a deep breath and went to work.

Aires shook his head in disbelief. Tobias simply shrugged. "So she made it back to the ship and now they're..." He left his words hanging as Tobias supplied a crass hand gesture leaving little to the imagination. "So she's fine then?" Aires asked, to which the big man nodded his head emphatically. "Funny," Aires wondered aloud, "I thought for sure she'd be a goner on that ship."

The loud gasp and whimper that came from the cabin next door abruptly shattered his silent musings. He looked at Toby who had the good grace to blush, "I can see you weren't mistaken." He said to his silent companion. Another cry followed with some loud sobbing when Aires shook his ruefully. "Christ," he muttered, "she's louder than last time."

Mel studied her handiwork critically. The stitches were neat and the wound cleaned to the best of her ability. Carefully she wrapped the archaeologist's arm in clean bandages, occasionally glancing to the bowl that housed the bloody slug. Janice smiled at her weakly, looking up through heavily lidded eyes. "See, I knew you could sew," she muttered, completely inebriated.

"Nice to know you haven't lost your sense of humor." Mel observed.

"Nope. Just blood."

Mel cringed at that. There was a pile of bloodied compresses on the floor. Janice had lost a fair amount of blood. After gently prying the whisky bottle from Janice's good arm, she set it on the table and began to clean up the mess. After washing the last traces of blood from her fingers she turned to see Janice studying her, a small smile on her relaxed face. Argo had hopped onto the bed and lay curled at the archeologist's side, injured hand resting lightly on the big dog's head.

"See something interesting?" Mel asked when Janice failed to redirect her gaze.

"Just a beautiful woman." Janice replied honestly.

"Janice Covington you're drunk!" Mel laughed as she moved to check on the bandage.

Janice nodded, "Yes, completely. But fortunately for me that does not change the fact that you are incredibly beautiful." She gently covered Mel's hands with her own and gazed into impossibly blue eyes.

"Are you always this flirtatious when you're drunk?" Mel asked, unable to pull herself away from the green eyes that looked so intently into her own.

Janice shrugged, "I don't know. If I'm going to be really drunk, I try to do it in private. I'm much better company when I'm sober." The last was said with a suggestive leer than broke the spell and made Mel laugh.

"Oh, I don't know about that." Mel said, putting the archeologist's hand back on the big dog's head. "Sober you've been positively infuriating, drunk I find you oddly charming." Casually she began to glance around the small room. It was late, she was exhausted and there didn't seem to be any other place to stretch out other than the bed.

Now even Janice laughed. "Too bad I don't drink very often." With a shrug she changed the subject as she noticed Mel's eyes wandering.

"You might as well get into bed with Argo and me. I'm in no condition to indulge in anything more aggressive than idle fantasy."

Mel smiled as she began to undress. "Nice to know I'm having some impact." She muttered as she slipped into bed on the side of Janice's good arm. Oddly, she felt more comfortable with the inebriated flirtatious Janice than the hothead of earlier. She looked over to see if her comment met with any response to see Janice's eyes closed, sound asleep. With a smile she relaxed into the bed, smiling to herself as she too drifted off to sleep.

...I learned an important lesson after Thessaly. Never underestimate the determination of a bard. Well, at least one bard, that's for certain. I suppose I was overprotective, but how could I not be? As momentary as it was, the loss of Gabrielle hit me so deeply I don't think the pain of it ever affected me less regardless of how many years later the memory surfaced.

When she was ready to travel we left the Temple of Asclepius and continued on our way toward Athens. I insisted she ride, surprised that she didn't argue the point. She wasn't strong enough to talk, well not at her usual capacity, so a significant part of our journey was in silence. In hindsight I guess it was not ideal for either of us. I was left to brooding on the dark thoughts of what might have been. Gabrielle, who knew me better than any one alive could tell. With each step Argo took I got closer to learning something important about Gabrielle as well as myself, and that lesson would not be easy to take.

When we camped for the night I saw to it that she moved as little as possible. The stitches were not yet ready to come out, and there was no sense in aggravating the wounds. Gabrielle was strangely moody and by the time I'd cleaned up after dinner she appeared despondent, gazing absently into the fire.

"Are you okay?" I asked, worried that a full day's travel had been too much for her.

"You're joking, right?" She replied sullenly, her eyes clouded over with something unreadable.

"Can you tell me what's bothering you?" I asked taking a seat next to her on her bedroll.

She shrugged her shoulders. "I could, but I doubt it would do any good."

I blinked in surprise at the frankness of her answer. "I'd like you to try," I said, "I might surprise you."

She took a few moments to compose her thoughts then turned a steady gaze to me. "Xena, I'm sorry about what happened at the temple," she began, "but the way you're dealing with it isn't healthy for either of us."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean you're scared. I don't know if you've admitted it to yourself yet or not, but you are. I can see you doubting my abilities, going overboard trying to take care of me and smothering me in the process." The tone of her voice gave little away. She didn't sound angry, or hurt, just numb.

"That's a little harsh, don't you think?" I replied, "I mean you don't even have your stitches out."

She smiled a thin smile that did not reach her eyes, "I don't think it would matter if I had gray hair Xena. You need to come to grips with this and until you do, you're not going to let me out of your sight." She sighed. "You feel too much responsibility for my life Xena and it isn't doing you or me any good."

I was starting to get angry but tried not to show it. Sometimes I hate it when she's right. "You could tell all of this by one day's travel?" I asked, my own voice icy.

She nodded. "You're a complex person Xena." she said, "but sometimes you're not very hard to read."

"Well thanks for the complex part." I muttered.

"Am I wrong?" She asked.

I shook my head, "I guess not. But Gabrielle, you've got to understand that I am responsible for what happens to you..."

"No you're not!" She said forcefully, grabbing my hand for emphasis. "Until you realize that I am responsible for my own life this will continue to be a problem." She shook her head, frustrated. "Xena, I travel with you because I choose to. I know who you are and who you were. I am well aware that every warlord from here to Sparta would love to have your head on a pike outside their front gate. But Xena, I am an adult. Knowing what the risks are, I have made my choice, and it is to be with you. You're my home and I'm your family. I can't explain how we got this way but I just know that we are. You're going to have to let go..."

"Gabrielle," I butted in, "you died. This is not a matter of a sprained ankle or the ungracious behavior of a warlord."

She nodded. "That's true. But every day I have to live with the reality that you might die. That some assassin might get lucky, that down some dark corridor there may be the numbers to overwhelm you. Yes, Xena you have to live with the same risks that I do." She shook her head sadly, "I have faith in you to come to my rescue when things get too much for me. I wish you had faith in me to know it won't happen very often."

I didn't know what to say to that. Looking back to the few other painful conversations we'd had I tried to do what she had told me then. Put myself in her place. But there was a big difference between Gabrielle and myself. She wasn't as strong or proficient in any weapons save for the staff. But, I countered myself, she had talked herself into and out of some amazing predicaments in the past. With a sigh I realized that she was much more versatile than I and ultimately could avoid more confrontations. Fortunately for me I had learned as a warlord that there was little to be gained by not taking good advice when it was presented on a silver platter.

"What would you have me do?" I asked quietly.

"What?" She asked, stunned.

I shrugged, "I think you're right Gabrielle. I'd like to try to fix this if I can."

"You think I'm right?" She asked in wonderment.

"Is something wrong with your hearing?" I inquired dryly.

"Oh no," she hurried on. "I'm just surprised that's all. I thought it would take at least another hour to talk some sense into you."

"Well I'm glad I can surprise you from time to time." I replied. "Unlike some people, I try not to have a problem admitting it when I'm wrong."

"Ah, yeah." She nodded getting my point. "So what to do..."

I think we talked most of the night that night. At times it was painful and exhausting but at other times it was warm and comforting. She shared a lot about growing up in Potedia. Little things she hadn't yet told me about how her family treated her and how I had been such a contrast to that. Knowing why she was so sensitive to being babied gave me the insight I needed to keep from doing it- that is unless it was necessary. I managed to avoid talking about my past but I did tell her, through graphic examples, of the painful demise of warriors who had let pride get in the way of their commons sense.

As we turned to our bedrolls she spoke one more time. "Thanks Xena," she said, "for talking this out. You were really much better at this than I expected."

I couldn't suppress a grin at that statement. I'd changed so much in the past year. "Just don't expect this level of conversation every time you have a complaint." I muttered as I laid down to sleep. She laughed and that lyrical sound and the radiant smile that went with it I carried with me as I traveled past the land of dreams...

Chapter 5

Private Parties

Mel awoke with a start. She was warm, comfortably so, and something soft was pressing against her side. She looked down to see the mass of strawberry blond hair resting in the crook of her shoulder, and a bandaged arm draped across her chest.

She could feel one of Janice's legs draped across her own and then she saw the reason. Argo had stretched out on the bed, effectively shoving Janice on top of Mel. Both dog and owner were breathing the slow relaxed breaths of peaceful slumber.

Mel stayed that way for awhile, absently stroking Janice's back with her arm, feeling protective, needed. It was when she realized that she needed to use the bathroom that she decided to wake Janice.

"Doctor Covington?" Mel asked softly, gently shaking the archeologist's shoulders.

"Murphhh na lau." Janice mumbled into Mel's breast.

"Janice, wake up. Please." Mel tried again.

"Not now, I'm busy." Janice mumbled, only slightly more coherent.

"Busy doing what?" Mel asked, blue eyes blazing into green as Janice slowly lifted her head.

"Wha...?" Janice asked trying to focus. It took only a moment before she glanced down at her own nude form, then to Mel who was dressed in only a slip. "What happened?" Janice demanded wincing in pain when she tried to move her arm. Then again once she realized the pounding she heard was coming from inside her own head.

"What happened when?" Mel asked calmly.

"Did I...?" Janice's mind raced trying to put the pieces together. She didn't know what would be worse, having taken advantage of Melinda Pappas or not being able to remember doing it.

Mel laughed, the sensation of moving breasts not lost on Janice who still leaned against them. "No Janice, you didn't do anything. You implied that you wanted to however, but you fell asleep." With a nod she indicated Argo. "I think your dog shoved you onto me in your sleep." Janice nodded, cheeks flaming red, almost as red as her blood shot eyes. "So how is the arm?" Mel asked deciding to be merciful and change the subject.

"Arm?" Another wince. "Oh that arm." She considered a moment then nodded, "it's okay. Just stiff." Janice paused for a moment. "And hungover. Ah, excuse me." She added as she shifted more of her weight onto Mel in order to turn and shove the dog. "Argo down!" After a couple of shoves the dog woke and complied. As gracefully as she could, Janice extracted herself from Mel's embrace and headed for her clothes.

Mel had finished dressing when she turned around to see Janice unwrapping her arm. "What are you doing?" She asked.

"Relax sweetheart, I'm just checking on your handiwork, okay?" Taking out a new set of dressings Mel waited patiently for Janice to finish her inspection. She got a shrug and a smile of approval. "Nice work Mel."

"Why thank you doctor. Ah, do you think we should switch shirts?" Mel asked. "I washed the blood out of your's but there is a hole in it, and your bandage will show through."

Janice nodded, wondering why the thought hadn't occurred to her. "That's a good idea, thanks. Does anyone know I'm hurt?" She asked trading shirts with the southerner.

"Just Toby, there was no around it."

"I'll keep out of sight until we get to Leesto's. It shouldn't be much longer."

Mel and Argo proceeded on deck. Janice had assured Mel that she would be fine and was ravenously hungry. In the quest for food that did not come in a can, Mel endured the appreciative glances of the crew as she looked for Aires. Grateful Janice's shirt had a chance to fully dry, she was comforted by the scent of the archeologist that clung to the khaki fabric.

"Could you keep her a little more quiet next time?" Aires said in way of greeting when he met up with Mel on deck. She stared at him blankly for a moment until she got his meaning.

"I'll try," she murmured demurely. "But I don't think she can really help it."

"Yes, well I'm not the only one envious of her helplessness." Aires replied with a grin. "Have you had anything to eat? Er, I mean food that is."

Mel rolled her eyes at the joke, not completely certain what the eating thing was about. It was the second time it was mentioned and she honestly didn't have a clue. She did have enough of an idea that she did not want to ask Janice. A quick trip to the ships mess rewarded her and Argo with better food than she'd expected on a smuggling ship.

She returned to the cabin, arms laden with bread, cheese, roast beef and fruit. Once she had the door closed behind her she unloaded her spoils on the bed. She handed Janice a steaming mug, that meeting with the most approval.

"I'm surprised you can eat with a hangover." Mel observed as she watched the food between them vanish.

"I can always eat." Janice replied. "Sick, hungover doesn't matter. Dad said it ran in the family."

"You can say that again." Mel quipped before she could stop herself.

Janice looked at her strangely. "How would you know?" Mel looked down, embarrassed. "A memory thing?" Janice asked, her voice surprisingly soft.

Mel nodded. "I'm sorry Janice. Things just pop into my head. It's like things I've known or just remembered. I can't explain it."

"So you're saying I'm a lot like Gabrielle?" Mel laughed, and was instantly sorry she did. Janice looked positively furious.

"Well actually no, you and Gabrielle are... very different." Mel shrugged helplessly. "Gabrielle had a much nicer disposition."

"How nice for Xena." Janice replied, and had no idea as to why she said it. She shook her head trying to clear the cobwebs forged in the stupor of inebriation.

Toby's knock sounded at the door. After pointing to Janice then up towards the deck, the two women followed the big man. Aires stood leaning over the rail of the ship, intent on the sight through his binoculars: A small island looming on the horizon. He winked at Janice when she approached.

"Sorry to disturb you, but I thought you might want to see this." He said, handing over the glasses.

Janice peered into lenses, adjusting the focus slightly. A large ship was anchored just off the island with minimal activity on deck.

"Have they seen us?" Janice asked.

Aires nodded, "I wouldn't worry about it though. Leesto is used to cargo traffic, we can pass by without arousing suspicion then double back. What do you make of that big ship there?" he asked.

"Looks like a pleasure cruiser to me." Janice shrugged. "Cal has visitors, wealthy from the looks of them. Wonder what she's up to?"

Mel grabbed Janice's good arm with a start. "The scrolls," she whispered fiercely, "something to do with the scrolls."

Janice nodded, her hangover returning in full force. "Knowing Cal, it's an auction."

"Are you sure about this?" Mel asked hours later as she rowed the small boat toward the giant cruise ship.

"I'm not really sure of anything." Janice replied, "I just wing it and hope for the best. Maybe the ship's crew will be too busy taking care of their wealthy guests to pay much attention to us."

The reception that met them however was a bit more than the archeologist had hoped. Seven crisply uniformed men with guns waited at the base of a ladder when the tiny boat pulled up. Before Janice could speak Mel stood and regarded the most decorated of the uniformed men coldly, "I will speak with the captain immediately."

"Who are you?" The man asked, surprised by the regal tone.

"I am Kathryn Von Melosa, this ship was supposed to wait for my arrival before departing. As it was, I had to take inadequate transport to get here. Don't think for a second I will let this sort of affront pass."

"Von Melosa?" The man sputtered. "We did not have any Von Melosa on our manifest."

"Then I will have a word with your captain over that as well."

As fast as the men could move Melinda, Janice and Argo were brought on board. The men were beside themselves with fear. The Von Melosas were as infamous as the Vanderbilts and Rockefellars. After several apologies by the men, Janice suggested since they were on board, and that was all that really mattered, why bother the captain when the helpful men would certainly be held responsible for the oversight. They were in favor of forgetting the whole thing and escorted the trio to a vacant suite.

"Von Melosa?" Janice asked with a raised eyebrow when the door closed securely behind her.

"Mother's maiden name." She explained. "Comes in useful from time to time."

"Your mother is Kathryn Von Melosa?!" Janice was stunned.

"Well, pappy called her Katie."

"You're an heiress?" Janice was still stunned.

Mel shrugged unhappily. "Well, sort of." Getting annoyed, Mel firmly put her hands on her hips. "Shut your mouth Janice, or you're going to catch flies. Yes, momma is rich, but I haven't seen her in years. Your daddy wasn't the only one with trouble keeping a wife, momma left us too." She shook her head, trying to scatter unpleasant memories, "So, Doctor Covington, I got us on this ship but it won't take much checking to discover that momma isn't supposed to be a passenger. What now?"

Janice shrugged. "Let's have a look around."

After breaking into the room across the hall, Janice found an embossed invitation on the dressing table. "It's an auction all right," she noted, reading the elegant parchment. "Xena scrolls and other related artifacts to be auctioned off tonight, starting at 8pm sharp. Bids will be taken until midnight. Only after the final bid is taken will the artifacts be distributed. I guess she figures only unlocking the vault once will be safer for her and her clients," Janice guessed. "Which means we have until midnight to figure out a way to get to them first."

"Or I could just buy them." Mel muttered. She shrugged at Janice's shocked expression. "It isn't like I don't have the money, wouldn't that be easier?"

Janice looked at her, a wicked gleam in her vibrant green eyes. "But not nearly as fun. Think about it Mel, what would Xena do?"

It only took a moment to think about what had been done. The theft of her things, of Gabrielle's things. It wasn't the items that mattered so much as the fact that they were being sold to the highest bidder and taken away from her family. "We take what's ours," she replied. Janice had to do a double take. Mel had spoken without her accent.

Janice checked the time on her pocket watch, thankful that it was in the pocket of her jacket and not ruined by her fall overboard. "We don't have much time Mel." She urged as the heiress put the last few items into the large suitcase.

Mel nodded. "I've got everything, lets go."

"Are those clothes going to fit?" Janice asked as they retrieved Argo from their room.

"Sure," Mel replied, "I've always been the same size as the Vanderbilts."

They carefully lowered the suitcase onto their dingy, keeping an eye out for crew. With Mel and the luggage in the boat, Janice carefully removed the dog's pack and tossed it down to Mel.

"Okay girl," Janice said to the dog. "You're going to hate this, but I need a diversion. That end of the ship. Then come back here and jump overboard. Mommie will get ya." The dog looked nervous, apparently understanding the word overboard, and was not happy. Janice tried again, enthustically whispering the words "big mess" and pointing. With a pant, the big dog trotted off.

"Mommie?" Mel asked with a grin as Janice seated herself in the boat.

Janice frowned. "Forget it Mel, and start rowing." Moments later screams could be heard on board as havoc broke out. They were halfway to shore when Janice pointed at the water. "Stop rowing. There she is, let her catch up." Mel lifted the oars out of the water as Janice struggled to lift the dog into the boat. She winced with pain at the exertion of her wounded arm, but all was forgotten when the soaked canine showered her with sloppy kisses.

Mel didn't try to hide the amusement from her face at Janice as she hugged her dog and praised her with kisses for a job well done. Shouting could still be heard from the cruise ship as their tiny boat found a secluded cove on the island. On firm footing, Argo took the opportunity to shake the water from her coat, managing to drench Mel with most of it.

"That's mommie's good girl." Janice snickered with satisfaction.

After some scouting, Argo discovered an empty boathouse near the main complex of Calissandra Leesto's island retreat. An elaborate walkway was decorated, clearly the entry way for the evening's event.

"We have four hours until show time." Janice said looking at her watch. "Get some sleep, I'll keep an eye out for anyone. Once the guests start to arrive, we get dressed. If your disguises work we should be able to slip in with the rest of 'em. When we find the stuff, we get back to the boat as soon as possible. Aires said he'd wait 24 hours on the other side of the island. After that we're going to have to hijack a cruise ship if we want to get home."

Mel watched Janice carefully. It was clear that the younger woman was in pain. She was using her injured arm as little as possible, but trying to favor it casually. She needed to be still, to rest if they were going to be successful in their attempt at recovering the scrolls. Janice sat on the floor of the boat house, back propped up against the wall as she glanced out the window across from her and listened to the sounds of the island. Mel lay down using Janice's jacket as a blanket, and her thigh as a pillow. Janice started in surprise at first, but Mel smiled as she felt the archeologist relax under the contact.

"Comfortable?" Janice asked, as she draped her good arm over Mel's shoulders and played with her hair absently.

"Very." Mel replied warmly. "Don't forget to wake me with plenty of time to get dressed. It's going to take awhile for your hair and make up."

"I can hardly wait." Was the last thing Mel heard her say before drifting off to sleep.

...I don't know who was more surprised by the announcement of Iolaus' wedding, me or Gabrielle. We'd kept in touch with him and Hercules over the years, keeping each other updated on our adventures, and occasionally coming to each others aid. The announcement of Iolaus' betrothal, however, came as a complete surprise. What was even more surprising than simply being invited to the wedding, was the request that I sing at the ceremony. Iolaus was like family, and there was simply no way I could refuse. Gabrielle and I arrived into town a full two days before the nuptials were scheduled to take place. Hercules arrived shortly after us. Gabrielle had been unusually quiet since we'd gotten into town and I'd hoped that catching up on old times with Herc might remedy whatever it was that was bothering her.

We sat at an outside table watching the village prepare for the wedding of a celebrity. Herc had made certain that Gabrielle and I stay in the castle of his brother. He seemed very pleased that for once the attention was not focused entirely on him. To a lesser degree I knew how he felt. Gabrielle continued to keep to herself, contributing only rarely to the conversation. The arrival of Jason, Hercules' step-father only made things worse.

"Beautiful time of year for a wedding." Jason commented, to which Hercules, Gabrielle and I mumbled our agreement.

"Selene is crazy about Iolaus. Of course, being crazy helps if you're going to marry him." Hercules commented.

"Can't say she was the one everyone expected to marry Iolaus." Jason countered.

"Really?" I asked. "Who was he expected to marry?"

Jason smiled across the table. "Why Gabrielle, of course."

The fact that Gabrielle choked on her wine let me know that she was indeed following the conversation. Her comment of "How silly," was apparently not what Jason expected.

"Why do you say that, Gabrielle?" He asked.

"Well," she replied, "we've never been more than friends, and it isn't as if I'm available anyway."

I could see Herc try to suppress a snicker as he looked intently into his goblet. I kept my expression neutral as I waited for Gabrielle to explain this one.

"Well you've done a very good job of hiding him Gabrielle." Jason replied with a chuckle. "In fact, the only company I ever hear of you keeping is Xe..."

A judiciously raised eyebrow at Jason brought his musings to an abrupt end. "I guess people can forget the double wedding between you and Hercules and Gabrielle and Iolaus." Jason muttered as he excused himself from our table, supposedly to find his wife.

"Apparently so." I agreed after his departure.

Hercules laughed heartily. "That was priceless." He grinned when he could finally speak.

"I don't find it funny at all." Gabrielle shot back and abruptly left the table. I assured Hercules that it was not his sense of humor that had driven off my bard. She'd been acting odd for awhile now and it was high time I found out why.

"What's the matter?" I asked when I finally tracked her down to the stall where Argo was stabled.

"It's nothing," she replied sullenly, "I guess I just don't like weddings."

I walked up behind her, easing my arms around her shoulders and resting my chin on the top of her head. "I think there is more to it than that." I murmured. "Is it Perdicus?" I asked wondering if the preparations for Iolaus' wedding brought back memories of so long ago.

She shook her head. "Not exactly."

She turned in my embrace and looked up at me with those enchanting green eyes. "I really don't like weddings. I can't dance. I'll be expected to, and I'm not looking forward to..."

"To what?" I asked when it became clear she had no intention of finishing her sentence.

"It's nothing. Really, let's just forget it." She said, casting her eyes downward. A stable hand came in to attend another horse. Instinctively Gabrielle took a step away from me, her cheeks flushing red.

"If it's bothering you, it is something, and I want to know about it." I assured her, ignoring the boy and taking a step towards her to wrap her in my arms again.

"Xena." She put her arms up to block mine and looked pointedly at the stable boy whose back was turned. For me the gesture was like a torch lighting up in a dark cave.

"Let's go to our room," I said quietly. "It's not what you think." I added when she shot me a knowing glance. "Well, not just what you think."

Safely behind a closed door I was hoping Gabrielle might be a little more forthcoming with what was really bothering her.

"Is it this wedding in particular that's bothering you?" I asked, taking off my sword and chakram.

"I suppose," she agreed. " But not because it's Iolaus. The people in this village know you, or know of you at least. I'm not thrilled that every noble within riding distance is going to descend tomorrow and be all over you like flies on..." I looked at her expecting a dig but she only smiled as she said, "honey."

"What makes you think they will?"

She turned, exasperated from the window where she had been standing. "Because people don't know that you aren't available." She finally blurted.

"I can't say I've ever really acted available" I observed.

"No, I don't suppose you do. But there isn't anything or anyone to suggest you aren't. Or, they'll just think you're with Hercules." She finished.

I couldn't help but smile as I approached her. "Then we shall endeavor to inform them otherwise," I replied stealing a gentle kiss.

"We can't do that." Gabrielle replied when our kiss finally broke.

I shrugged, "I thought as Warrior Princess I got to do pretty much whatever I want. You're telling me there are limits to my power?" As I'd hoped, my reply was rewarded with a small chuckle.

"You're the one worried about me being a target." She said. "Besides we both know how some people would feel... about us."

I had to think about that for a moment. It was true I had been concerned about people trying to get to me through Gabrielle, but in reality that had been happening the whole time we'd known each other. As for the others, people were saying any number of things about me behind my back, and occasionally to my face, but rarely more than once. "Gabrielle," I began as I gently clasped her shoulders, "anyone who knows us knows how we feel about each other. I mean, Callisto knew, and that was before either of us did. I'm not about to endure an entire wedding reception without my beloved at my side. If it disappoints the fantasies of people like Jason, well I'm afraid that can't be helped."

She smiled at me, the first time I'd seen that glorious sight in days. The smile however shifted to terror when I added, "So I think it's time for your first dancing lesson."

" Gabrielle, your left foot goes behind the right, then you kick with the left. I kick with my right." I explained patiently, showing her again.

"I just don't get it." She complained, eyeing me intently as I began to take off my breastplate. I caught her eye and got an idea.

I shook my head. "Nope, the breastplate stays on until you get this. Try it again."

In a few minutes she had the dance and my breastplate. After that, Gabrielle picked up the steps quickly. With each dance she mastered she got a piece of my clothing. In no time she'd mastered seven different dances and I found myself busy congratulating her on her progress.

When she slept, the exhausted, contented sleep of blissfully sated, I bathed, dressed and headed back into the village square.

"Nice dress." Hercules commented when I ran into him outside. "Where have you been?"

"Oh, just teaching Gabrielle to dance." I replied. I'd left my armor in the room. I was going to be wearing a dress for the wedding and decided getting used to walking around in one wouldn't kill me.

"I'm sorry about Jason." Hercules said in a rush.

"Don't be." I assured him. "Really, he prompted a conversation Gabrielle and I had been needing to have."

"About marriage?" He asked.

"No, about dancing." I replied with a smile. "But as long as we're on the subject of marriage, know any good jewelers?"

I practiced the song Iolaus had asked me to sing as Gabrielle and I dressed for the wedding. Her mood was greatly improved and that pleased me to no end. "Well what do you think?" She asked and I turned around to see what she meant.

I don't think I've ever seen a more beautiful vision. The dress she wore, a low cut masterpiece in green and gold was positively striking. I think I even needed to grab the back of a nearby chair for support, so struck was I with her brilliance.

"You are the most beautiful creature I've ever seen." I whispered. "But something's missing," I added when I could force myself to think.

"What?" She asked, crestfallen.

I turned to hide my smile and then reached in to the saddle bag that hung on a peg by the door. I eased the necklace from the velvet that housed it and reached for Gabrielle.

"What's this?" She asked, catching the pendant that hung from the delicate chain in her fingers.

"For you," I replied, "from me."

She studied the detail in the gold medallion with interest. "It's exquisite. But there is only half of it here- is it broken?" She asked.

"Sort of." I replied, taking another necklace from the pouch and handing it to her. "It's called a celtic knot, it's from beyond the sea, where M'lia was from. I cut this into two, this is the other half." She touched the two halves of the medallion, smiling at the completed picture. "As you are my other half." I added quietly.

She looked at me, eyes brimming with joy. "I love you, Xena."

"I know." I replied, smiling at the playful punch I received at that. She put the other necklace around my neck and we headed to the wedding arm in arm ready for anything.

As weddings go I suppose it was lovely. To be honest I don't remember much about that day except for Gabrielle. I managed to get through the song without my voice breaking. It was hard though, seeing Gabrielle's eyes on me from where she was sitting, had me on the verge of joyous laughter. Selene and Iolaus were very happy, and we wished them well. At the reception Gabrielle did manage to put her new found mastery of dancing to good use. She danced with Iolaus, Hercules and even Jason but every other dance was for me, much to the supreme disappointment of a variety of local nobles. I was not the only one who appreciated the vision in green and gold.

Looking back, I suppose I'm a little surprised at just how at ease we were. We held hands, kissed and danced like any other married couple. I could feel a few stares, but in all honesty it wasn't any different from the stares I'd get from my armor. I suppose Gabrielle and I had become used to being looked at, speculated about. Only now the stares were for Xena and Gabrielle; two women in love, not just Warrior and Bard: Potential trouble for our village. For the chance to spend a day as just Gabrielle and Xena, we didn't mind a bit.

After a well spent night of little sleep in a comfortable room we returned to the road after breakfast the next morning. I stole frequent glances of Gabrielle. She fingered her necklace absently as we walked. She was surprised and pleased that I had not taken mine off. After all, there was no reason to.

"So Xena," Gabrielle asked as we rounded the bend that would have taken the village from our sight, "when do you think we'll get married?"

"I thought you didn't like weddings." I teased.

"Oh, I think I've developed an appreciation. The dancing definitely helps." She smiled at me as she continued. "but by the time we get married, I might need a refresher course."

"I think that can be arranged." I replied, glancing down at my own necklace, silently agreeing with Gabrielle that it did look rather fitting...

Part 3

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