Trouble, More or Leesto
"Wake up Mel, it's show time." Janice nudged Mel gently, wishing she didn't have to disturb the woman sleeping peacefully on her lap. Mel blinked in confusion, at first puzzled by the contrast of her dream and her present surroundings. "Leesto's party, we've got to get dressed." Janice supplied as she helped shift Mel to a sitting position. "I noticed some activity on the dock, we'd best get dressed and get out of here."
Mel nodded, clearing the cobwebs from her mind and opening the suitcase containing the items they'd stolen from the ship. She took out a white shirt and put it aside as she began to unbutton her own blouse.
"I thought I was wearing that." Janice blurted when she noticed what Mel intended to wear.
"You?" Mel laughed. "Don't be silly. Y'all will never be able to pass yourself off as a man, y'all will wear the dress."
"Like hell I will." Janice shot back, "what about all that, I'm the same size at the Vanderbilts?" Still smiling, Mel removed the luggage tag from the suitcase and handed it to her friend. "Marmax Vanderbilt," Janice read the tag out loud. "Great. Look Mel, I don't know how to put this, but there is no way you'll be able to cover... er disguise your... um... what about your hair anyway?" She finally finished, forcing her eyes above Mel's ample bustline.
Mel took a styled wig from the suitcase. "A little trim on this should do the trick, and don't worry I swiped some sewing scissors too. You get out of those clothes and put the dress on."
Argo lifted her head as she watched her mistress disrobe. "Not one word out of you." Janice warned the dog, who put her head back down.
Janice shrugged into the black satin dress, futzed with her stockings and shoes and slipped on the long gloves. She kept her back turned to Mel, not wanting the older woman to see how unaccustomed she was to dressing in such finery. From behind she could hear Mel dress, her mind painting pictures of how the statuesque woman would look in a tuxedo. When she finally stood up, her face to the boat house wall she felt a warm body move behind her and adjust the fasteners at the back of the dress. "You look very nice Janice." Mel commented as she adjusted the lace at the archeologist's shoulder. Janice could feel her skin tingle from the whisper of Mel's breath as it caressed the side of her neck. Lifting her head she caught a reflection of the two of them in the window. Janice's eyes widened with wonder at the vision standing behind her. Mel was dressed; the tuxedo complete except for the untied bowtie that was draped loosely around her neck. Her hair was still down; black tresses blending into the black jacket over a white shirt and vest, her blue eyes shining like lapis. Something caught her eye and she shifted her gaze to her own reflection. She cocked her head curiously at the stranger looking back at her. The dress was low cut and elegant, a masterpiece in lace and satin. She followed the black lace line at her shoulder to where it met the black cuffed wrist of Mel's hand.
Mesmerized she watched Mel's hands lift from her shoulder and move to the back of her head where they gently pulled her hair free of it's bindings. Mel brushed her hair with long luxurious strokes and pulled two combs from the pocket of her jacket to pin it gracefully behind her ears. Janice didn't recognize herself.
Gently those delicate hands turned her around and she was face to face with her friend. "You look incredible." Janice whispered.
"If you say so," Mel replied, breaking the spell. "I can't tie a tie though."
Janice nodded, not trusting herself to say any more. With shaking hands she reached for the tie, and as she had for her father many times, tied the complicated knot, forcing herself to concentrate. Feeling her pulse race, she willed herself to stay calm. Still, the thoughts persisted, her eyes persisting in showing her things and she couldn't help but respond. When she finished straightening the tie she moved her hands to Mel's shoulders, examining her work. She could feel the suspenders under the material of the jacket and vest, the material cool and smooth against her burning hands. Unable to stop herself, she leaned up and softly covered Mel's mouth with her own. Her hand slid across soft fabric to the even softer skin at the back of Mel's neck. After a few seconds of exquisite contact she realized that the other woman was neither helping nor hindering her efforts. Like a deer in headlights, Mel was frozen.
"Shit Mel, I'm sorry." Janice blurted embarrassed beyond words after abruptly breaking the kiss, "I don't know what came over me, I don't know why I... look, I... I'm sorry."
Mel continued to look at Janice for minutes more, not moving. She finally shook her head and mumbled, "It's okay Janice, let's get ready. We've got work to do."
Janice nodded blushing to the roots of her hair. Mel reached for the makeup, her own hands shaking. Her lips still throbbed from where Janice had touched them. She closed her eyes, unsure if the racing of her pulse was from fear or arousal. Sorting through the contents of the makeup pouch, Mel extracted a powder compact and turned back to Janice, aching for the embarrassment that still haunted her vibrant green eyes. "This won't hurt a bit," she reassured with a smile as she began to apply the makeup. Janice closed her eyes, torn between wishing she could undo the last five minutes and wanting to relive them.
"I need you to look at me," Mel instructed gently when she'd finished most of the makeup. Taking out the caked mascara, she spit into the container as discreetly as she could. Then, after moistening the applicator, gently held Janice's head still as she applied the tiny brush to delicate eyelashes. Janice marveled at the gentleness of the hands that held her face, skillfully transforming her.
"Almost done." Mel reassured as she reached for the lipstick. As she worked Mel stared in wonder at the soft full lips that had so recently touched her own. She felt a slight twinge of pain then noticed she'd bitten her own lower lip in distraction. "There, what'd ya think?" She asked turning Janice back around to the window, the closest thing they had to a mirror.
"I look like a freak." Janice quipped, barely able to recognize herself.
"Now you know how I feel in your daddy's clothes." Mel chided her friend.
Janice smiled in spite of herself. "Get to work on that wig, I'll have a look around. Argo, lets go." She said as she quietly stepped out of the boathouse. Mel sighed in relief, it was instantly easier to concentrate with the gruff archeologist gone. "What's happening to me?" She wondered as she set to work on the expensive black wig.
Janice returned shortly. Mel instantly noticed that the younger woman's hands were filthy with oil. "What have you done?!" She quietly demanded.
"Relax sweetheart, I took the gloves off didn't I? There were several of Leesto's boats tied to the dock. I did a number on all of them. When we make a break for it try to get the boat on the end, it's the easiest to fix. The others are in pretty bad shape." Janice looked around for something to wipe herself off with and unable to find anything suitable, she settled on her discarded shirt. She busied herself with checking her gun and putting her satchel in Argo's pack. When Mel finished adjusting the wig she turned around.
Janice nodded in appreciation. "Well I'll be. I still think you're too pretty to be a man, but I've heard that the Vanderbilt boys run that way. You know, pretty. Just one thing is missing." Carefully Janice took her father's pocket watch from her jacket and tucked it into the watch pocket of Mel's vest. After carefully stringing the chain through the button hole she tucked the watch fob into it's place. "There, now you almost look like a real man. How did you manage to flatten... ah... your..."
"Never mind." Mel cut her off. "But it isn't very comfortable, so the sooner I get back into my beige camisole the better."
Nodding Janice handed her the revolver. "Can you put this in your pants somewhere?"
"I'm not taking a gun. What if it goes off?"
"It only does that when you pull the trigger. C'mere, let me try putting it in back by your suspenders." Janice shook her head in appreciation as the black tails of Mel's jacket shifted as she moved. The heiress' attire was having a profound effect on the archeologist and she found it troublesome. Easing her hands inside of the jacket she could feel the firm muscles and warm flesh beneath as she positioned the gun. Successfully wedging it inbetween the woman's shirt and suspenders, she positioned it so the waistband of the black pants held it in place. It was secure, and while it might be less than comfortable, it was safe. "Well, I guess we're ready. This invitation says it's to Mr. And Mrs. M. Vanderbilt, if you're Marmax who am I?"
"My wife, Effie." Mel smiled at the other woman's grimace. "And sweetheart," she added taking the archeologist's gruff tone, "let me do the talking. Ephiny Vanderbilt is shy and demure. We should be okay as long as y'all don't open your mouth."
"Yes dear," Janice replied, dripping with sarcasm as they left the boat building.
They hid their gear among the lush trees by the water's edge, then proceeded to where small groups of elegantly dressed people were arriving by the way of rowboat. "Argo, c'mere." Janice whispered gently to the dog when they were still out of earshot of the arriving guests. She rummaged in the dog's pack and pulled out a fresh cigar.
"You're not going to smoke that, are you?" Mel asked, horrified.
Janice smiled in reply, "I'm not, but you are." With practiced efficiency, she made a small bite at the end of the cigar, then spat the excess tobacco on the ground. In moments it was lit and glowing. After a few luxurious puffs she handed it to Mel.
"Now, when you hold it in your hand, do it like this," Janice instructed. "When it's in your mouth, hold it between your teeth, and for gods sake, don't inhale." She warned.
Mel did as she was told, coughing at first and struggling to keep her eyes from watering. Finally she felt comfortable enough to proceed to where guests were admitted to Leesto's mansion. When they neared the ornate doors, Janice pointed to a rosemary hedge below a large bay window. "Argo, hide in there," she instructed. The dog complied and in moments was settled, out of sight in the shrubbery. "Stay," Janice commanded then handed their ticket to Mel as they approached the door.
They reached the double french doors just as a small group was admitted. Their invitation was checked against the guest list by a valet and they were admitted without further comment. The doors opened into a large formal ballroom lined with elegantly set tables. On one wall, framed photos were displayed with notes describing the artifacts to be auctioned. Mel and Janice casually walked over in a group of several other guests.
Janice was relieved that the sheer opulence of Leesto's ballroom and interest in the artifacts kept everyone's attention riveted elsewhere. No one paid them a second glance. She blinked, startled when she felt a possessive arm snake around her shoulders. She glanced up at Mel who with her eyes pointed in the direction of other couples. She was mimicking them. "Trust me, I'm not complaining," she muttered.
When they got close enough to the photo's to read the descriptions, Janice's eyes narrowed in anger. "These are my goddamned notes!" she hissed.
Mel leaned close to the shorter woman's ear. "Watch your temper, dearheart, someone may have heard that." She finished her statement with a soft kiss on Janice's cheek, eyes quickly scanning the closest aristocrats. No one appeared to notice the exchange or the outburst preceeding it. While there were several heads turned in her direction, it was clear that she and her wife held no special interest.
"You're enjoying this, aren't you?" Janice asked when Mel withdrew.
"About as much as you are." Mel replied with a small smile. "Nice penmanship, by the way," she added, studying the doctor's notes. The first object pictured was the wire-frame breast plate over the tattered remains of a leather dress.
"Xena's armor." Janice whispered.
"Her warlord armor." Mel added. "You were right about that. She stopped wearing it when she broke alliances with Ares." Mel glanced around. No one was within earshot. "Quite uncomfortable, I might add."
Janice looked up and was about to reply when another guest joined them, so they moved on. The next item was a bullwhip in excellent condition. Glancing up, Janice noticed a slight tug at the corners of Mel's mouth. Almost as if she recalled the item, and it held fond memories. Her suspicions were confirmed when they reached the next photo. Instantly Mel's expression shifted from amusement to sorrow, and anger. Janice looked at the photograph even as she felt the tensing of the hand that rested so comfortably on her shoulder.
The artifact titled Lot 3 was a pair of necklaces, each made from half of an intricate medallion. The two haves fit together, creating a pattern of celtic design. "What is it Mel?" Janice asked. "Was this Xena's? I didn't think..."
Still staring at the black and white photo Mel answered. "We were buried in those. From the day I put it on I never took it off. Neither did she."
Janice stared at Mel in wonder. "Come with me," she urged pulling Mel away from the pictures to a more secluded spot in the huge ballroom near large draperies. "Are you...?" Janice asked. "I mean your accent...where did it go?"
"What are you talking about?" Mel asked, her regular voice back once more.
Janice shook her head and lifted a champagne glass from the tray of a passing waiter. When he was out of sight, she downed the contents in one gulp. "Just now, when you saw those necklaces, you sounded like... well you know."
"Oh Janice," Mel whispered, "don't be silly. I'm fine."
Janice was about to argue the point when a hush settled in the ball room as an elegantly dressed woman stepped up to the mike at the front of a stage next to the wall of photos. Now it was Mel's turn to watch the archeologist's eyes harden at the sight of her nemesis.
"Greetings, and welcome." the woman addressed her guests in a smooth, clear voice. "I am Doctor Calissandra Leesto, and I'd like to thank you all for accepting my invitation. I had hoped an old friend might decide to pay me a visit but it appears that she couldn't make it. So be it," she sighed, "we'll just have to start the auction without her.
"As you can see," she continued, turning to include the photos in a sweeping gesture, "I've documented and photographed my entire Xena collection. Each lot will be auctioned off separately. To make a bid, write it on a card provided and put it in the box with the corresponding lot number. Each half hour the lots will be checked and the highest bid for that item posted above it's photo. You will then have the opportunity to re-bid. Winning bids and bid-holders will be announced at midnight, unless annominity is requested."
"Will we be able to see the artifacts?" One guest called out in a clear baritone voice.
Leesto smiled sweetly in his direction. "Because of the value of the artifacts, they won't be brought down until eleven. You will have a chance to look at them before the last round of bidding."
"That tells me what I need to know." Janice said quietly from behind Mel's back. She'd moved there to stay out of sight when Leesto took the stage. "The stuff's upstairs, most likely in the study. Let's go."
As soon as Leesto stepped off the stage to mingle with her guests, Mel and Janice quickly passed by the remaining photographs they hadn't seen to note which items the doctor still had in her possession. That finished, the two headed up the grand staircase to the second floor of Leesto's palatial home.
"She bought all of this stuff off of money she made from your research?" Mel asked, noting the elegant house furnishings.
"I suppose that, and blackmail." Janice replied, fighting for balance as she ascended the stairs in ill-fitting high heels.
They reached the second floor landing and Janice headed for the study. "I'm glad one of us knows our way around here." Mel muttered as she followed her friend.
"The study was where Argo got shot last time." Janice shook her head sadly. "We ran from her bedroom and hid..."
Mel laughed quietly in spite of herself. "I'm sorry doctor Covington, but the thought of you running from any beautiful woman's bedroom is a little hard for me to believe."
Janice frowned. "I'm glad you find my sexual preference amusing Melinda, but I do have standards. Besides, Cal is definitely not my type."
"You don't go for blonds?"
Janice stopped and looked at Mel a second. "I don't go for twisted bitches. But since you're so curious." She added, gazing unflinchingly into Mel's bright eyes, "I think I'm developing a passion for black hair and blue eyes." Mel glanced away, embarrassed. Janice only smiled. "Careful Mel Pappas, I'm beginning to think you're flirting with me." She dropped her voice an octave lower, "and I love to be flirted with."
She turned away from Mel, whose cheeks were flaming red, and looked down the hall. "There's the study, with the two guards out front. Give me the gun."
"You're going to shoot them?" Mel hissed.
"Not unless I have to. Stay here." With that, Janice took the revolver, and holding it behind her back, casually approached the two men.
"Scuse me, y'all know where the ladies room is?" The guards looked at Janice, or rather at her cleavage, and nodded down the hall. "Thank you ever so much. I seem to have a had a bit too much hard liquor." She stumbled a couple of steps, one of the guards instantly at her side. The gun handle came up and hit him in the back of the head before he knew he was in any danger. Instantly Janice spun the gun in her hand and had it cocked and pointed at the other guard. "Don't be stupid," she growled. The guards brought his hands up and took a slow step away from the door. "Night-night," Janice said before rendering him unconscious as well.
"Come on Mel, help me with these bodies." Janice whispered as she tried the handle of the study door. The handle wouldn't budge. It was locked. "Great, just what we need."
"Let me try." Mel said joining the archeologist.
"Mel, this isn't a chakrum or..."
With strength she didn't know she possessed, Mel forced the door handle, breaking the locking mechanism. "Close enough," she muttered dragging the first body through the open door.
"You know Mel, I feel a lot more comfortable around you when you have that blasted accent." Janice quipped following Mel inside.
Inside the study, with the guards safely locked in a small closet, Janice turned to Mel and asked in an uncertain voice, "It's... you're...? I mean, are you...?"
The tall woman diverted her attention from the artifacts strewn around the room to the archeologist looking at her. "Yeah. We meet again Janice. But don't worry, Mel's here too."
"What is it with you?" Janice asked confused. "I mean that whole bit with Ares, okay. There was your chakram and that possession made sense, but this? Do you just pop into Mel's head from time to time?"
Xena took a deep breath and forced herself to be patient with Gabrielle's progeny. In a way, Janice was her descendent as well. "I can't explain it any better than you can. But look around you, we're surrounded by my things... by our things. We've got enough to worry about getting this stuff and us out of here safely than how I came to be here. It's going to take all four of us to pull this off. Janice, I need you to trust me."
Janice shook her head slowly, "Four of us. You're talking about you and Mel, me and Argo... right?"
"Oh yeah, Argo. Make that five of us." Xena nodded and continued her survey of the room.
"Oh no. You're not telling me I'm about to be possessed by that... by the..." after a warning look from Xena, Janice chose her words carefully, "by a certain bard, am I?"
Xena shrugged her shoulders. "Look around. Don't you feel a connection to this stuff?" The warrior's eye caught something, and picked up a battered staff. Two of its three pieces were attached, the third handing loosely, broken. "Here, do you recognize this?"
"Recognize it? Hell Xena, I dug that up. It's a staff." Janice replied taking the artifact that the other woman so reverently held.
"It's your staff." Xena replied evenly.
Janice felt lightheaded for a moment but shook it off. "Okay, Gabrielle's staff. I get your point." She looked around the room. Many of the artifacts she recognized from her digs, many of them having nothing to do with Xena. Finally, she located the scrolls and began to separate them from the other trinkets. "Look, let's just gather up the stuff and go. We don't have much time. I'm surprised Leesto is trying to pass some of this stuff off as Xena's... oops sorry, yours. I mean, take this saddle for example..."
Xena glanced at the saddle indicated. "It was mine, well Argo's, or Ego as she was called in her retirement." Xena laughed at the memory. "Little Lyceus couldn't pronounce her name." She stopped laughing when she noticed Janice's opened mouth stare.
"You had children?" She asked eyes wide. "With Gabrielle?"
"Well, we raised two. Obviously she had to give birth at some point, how do you think you got here?" Janice was about to respond when Xena shook her head. "You were right, we don't have much time. Get the scrolls, that's really what you came here for. There are a couple of things I want to take. Lets make it quick."
Janice quickly bundled the scrolls together, watching as she did the warrior princess dressed in a tuxedo, rummage through the artifacts, her belongings. Xena put a couple of things into her pockets and pulled a heavy bronze breastplate from a display stand. She also picked up her bullwhip, then put it down in favor of Gabrielle's staff. They were about to head for the door when it opened suddenly, revealing the blond scientist and several of her henchmen.
"Jan," Leesto said with a sinister sneer, "so glad you could make it." Her soft brown eyes darted to Xena. "And who is the pretty man in the wig?" She asked, her voice taunting.
"Don't Mel." Janice warned as Xena's eyes narrowed. "Cal, this is Melinda Pappas," Xena reached up and took off the wig, shaking her long tresses loose. Leesto's eyes widened in appreciation at the imposing woman.
"It's a pleasure, Melinda Pappas." Leesto purred. "I'm sorry you keep such dreadful company." Janice shrugged, not disputing the jibe. Finally Leesto looked around the room. "What, no dog? Whatever will I do for target practice?"
It was reflexes forged in the heat of battle that launched Xena's body to intercept the archeologist before she could attack Leesto, preventing her from getting shot in the process. "You're not helping." Xena murmured to Janice as she relaxed her hold slightly.
"So Jan, is your friend an authority on Xena as well?" Leesto asked, waving her thugs into the room to subdue the doctor.
Janice smiled and winked at Xena before looking around the warrior's body to her nemesis. "She knows a lot more about Xena than I do. Sometimes I have to remind myself that she isn't the warrior princess. I'm sure the two of you will have lots to talk about. You are going to lock me up somewhere, aren't you?"
Leesto smiled briefly and nodded to the guards to haul Janice from the room. "Do be a good girl Jan and rot, won't you?" Her voice hard she addressed her guards, "take her to the kitchen and lock her in the walkin refrigerator. I want three guards posted, and keep an eye out for her mutt. If it's here, I want it killed."
"But Cal, it was a love bite, honest." Janice laughed as she was dragged down the hall. One guard remained with his gun trained on Leesto's lone visitor. "Wait outside Theoradore, if I need you, I'll call." He bowed briefly then retreated from the study closing the door behind him.
"Brave woman." Xena said as she studied Leesto.
"Not really." The blond woman countered, "the slightest scream from me will result in the death of your friend. My men are funny that way. Like Jan's flea-ridden cur, they can be trained. So Melinda, what can you tell me about Xena? That I don't already know that is."
"Well," Xena began thoughtfully as she gazed at Argo's saddle, "she had quite a temper and was fierce in battle. But you know, nothing brought about her hostile nature like a threat to her family."
Leesto cocked her head. "Why don't you prescribe to the theory that Xena was a twisted loner like most of those fools downstairs? Most of them don't think there ever was a Gabrielle."
Xena rested her hand on the ancient saddlehorn, "Because I know better," she said remembering the feel of the leather, the warmth of the animal she rode, and the love of the woman she rode with. "Gabrielle wrote the scrolls. All but one. But those bits of paper aren't the real treasure. It's how they lived and the family they raised. Still their possessions do deserve better than to be sold to the highest bidder. They belong to her family, my family."
"So you're a descendant of Xena?" Leesto asked, false disbelief evident in her features.
Xena leaned close, azure eyes burning into soft brown. "You tell me." She whispered.
"And I suppose you're going to tell me that Jan is related to Gabrielle..."
Xena shrugged, her hand grasping the familiar handle of her bullwhip. Suddenly a familiar fire burned in the eyes of the blond archeologist. "Well isn't this old home week." She said, her voice brimming with the timbre of Callisto's as she drew her gun. With a snap of her wrist the gun was out of her hand, but it discharged as it hit the study floor. Leesto would have dived for it had her face not contacted solidly with Xena's elbow. "Not this time Callisto." She muttered as the unconscious woman slid to the floor.
Janice didn't bother to struggle against the guards that roughly escorted her to the kitchen. She could feel the gun barrel just below her ribs and knew that Leesto's men would have no qualms about killing her. Once inside the kitchen, however, she did struggle enough to knock some food on the floor and shouted as she was thrown into the large refrigerator. The door closed with a click, the latching leaver having been removed from the inside of ten foot by ten foot frosty cell. She was trapped. It didn't take long for the chill to settle in and in moments she was shivering. She paced the tiny room glancing out of the reinforced glass window, noting the position of the two guards beyond. "That leaves one more out in the kitchen", she thought. "Shit this sucks." Annoyed, she took off her gloves. The black satin was useless against the cold anyway. Not having a better plan for the moment, she began to look among the food stored with her for something to eat.
Xena walked past Callisto's inert body towards the door. She reached for the handle, then froze at the unmistakable sound of a cocked gun. "Not so fast Xena." Callisto said with a pistol leveled at the warrior. "And get away from that door." Xena complied, her eyes never leaving the gun pointed in her direction. She was fast, but not that fast. "Theoradore!" She called to the closed door. The beefy guard entered and waited patiently for his instructions. "Catch up to the others. If I'm not there in ten minutes with 'ol blue eyes," she said, indicating Xena, "have Covington shot." He nodded and withdrew from the room.
"So what do you think of my progeny's collection?" Callisto asked as she stood up.
Xena looked around the room once more. "Impressive, I suppose. Janice's research is thorough and scholarly." Xena cocked an eyebrow at the blond woman. "Alright Callisto, when did you find the time to procreate?"
"Oh, wouldn't you like to know Xena." Callisto replied dryly. "I was a god for awhile you know. Surely you don't think I was fighting with Velaska in a river of lava that whole time?" She continued in a light sing-song voice. "Nice thing about being a god, you can assume any form, make people think you're any one, even make them think they're dreaming. That's how little Arleia was born. Named after my murdered mother, by the way. Our mighty Hercules was reliving old times with you. Poor boy thought he was dreaming."
"You're sick." Xena said flatly.
"You ought to know." Callisto replied happily. "But really Xena, you should thank me." Xena only cocked an eyebrow, unwilling to play the age old game. "Were it not for me your precious little Lyceus would never have been born."
"You!" Xena's eyes flared in fury, "Erasmus raped Gabrielle..."
Callisto laughed. "Where do you think the dear boy got the idea?" Xena advanced menacingly toward her nemesis. "Not so fast, we've got a date to keep with the 'fridge. We don't show up and Janice takes a nap. A long nap.
"You know," she continued conversationally as she followed Xena down the back stairs to the kitchen, "I really owe Janice a lot. Her scholarly work is going to make me a fortune. Nothing like a war to make the rich salivate over priceless artifacts. I assure you the fact that I get to scatter your memory to the four winds is only a bonus."
"Why bother?" Xena asked, "burn the scrolls and I'll vanish from history."
"Oh no Xena, I could never do that." Callisto beamed as the refrigerator door was opened. "Why I'd vanish too, and that thought is simply too painful to bear."
Xena was roughly shoved inside as Janice finished off the last of her sandwich and washed it down with milk from a fresh carton. Callisto smiled at Janice from beyond the small window in the door. "I'm glad you're making yourself at home Jan. You're going to be here awhile. If you're still alive when the auction is over, I'll be sure to let you know how it turned out." With that she was gone.
"Who is it?" Janice asked, putting the milk carton back on the shelf. "Mel or Xena?"
"Oh, we're both here." Xena replied with the traces of an accent tugging at her voice. She looked around the small chamber.
"I've already checked." Janice commented. "The only way out of here is that door, the one with the two guards outside and a third somewhere in the kitchen."
Xena leaned against the cold wall troubled by Callisto's recent revelation. Something tugged at the corners of her vision and with a start she noticed the frost coming from Janice's mouth as she breathed. The archeologist looked quite cold. "What am I thinking?" the tall woman said, southern accent firmly in place. "Janice you must be freezing. Here, take my jacket."
Janice laughed but accepted the jacket. "We're trapped, our mission taking a terrible turn for the worse, my dog is going to be hunted and you're worried about me being cold?" She shook her head, grateful for what little warmth it provided. "Nice to have you back, Mel."
"How is the arm?" Mel asked examining the bandaged wound with more proficiency then she knew the southern belle possessed.
"It's okay." Janice said, "the long gloves covered the bandage fine, but they were of little use in here so I took them off."
Mel nodded. "We've got to get out of here. Janice please, get in touch with whatever part of Gabrielle you're carrying around with you and think of something."
Janice sighed. The southerner made it sound so easy. Still she didn't have the heart to tell her that was what she had been doing. Instead she just nodded and said, "I'll try."
Argo waited patiently, the fragrant scent of the rosemary filling her canine senses. She was used to the routine. They would go somewhere, she would wait or accompany her mistress waiting for the signals and commands that would complete the task. She jumped at the sound of a gunshot. She well knew that blast signaled painful injury, but it did not match the sound of her mistress' gun. Momentarily torn between the order to stay and knowing the shot signaled danger, Argo sniffed the air and quietly stole from the cover of rosemary.
Her finely tuned nose told her that her mistress had moved. She crept around the building, sticking to shadows and staying out of sight until she stopped at the back of the mansion. She sat down behind a row of trash cans, momentarily distracted by the myriad of scents coming from the refuse. She sat still as a gun toting guard entered through the back door. Her mistress was near by, beyond the door. The increase in the familiar scent when the door opened told her so. The dog sat and watched, waiting.
"Think of anything?" Mel asked, for the fourth time.
Janice turned to glare up at her friend. "Do you really think asking me that every five minutes helps?" Sitting on the floor of the 'fridge with her knees pulled up to her chin, she turned her attention back to the door. "Think about something else." She muttered as she rested her chin on her knees.
Mel continued to pace back and forth in the small room. "But we need a plan!" She pleaded, her arms waving in expressive gestures.
"I'll say this just once Mel." Janice said evenly, trying to control her rising anger. "I don't think up plans. They just happen to come to me when I'm thinking about something else. If you don't stop talking about getting out of here, I won't stop thinking about getting out of here and trust me- we won't get out of here. If you want to help, for gods sake change the subject!"
"Well." Mel said in a huff, "I can see why Xena tired of your company." The doctor continued to look dejected and Mel regretted her reproach. She moved to the wall where Janice sat and sliding down, joined her on the floor. "I was just teasing." She offered quietly.
Janice tried to smile and failed. "No you weren't, but that's okay. I know I'm not very nice."
"Oh, you have your moments." Mel continued, "you just have a lot of rough edges to go with them." Mel gazed at Janice for a moment, a new topic of conversation forming in her mind. "In the boat house, why did you kiss me?" She asked quietly.
"What kind of a question is that?" Janice asked, surprised.
"An honest one."
"Look Mel, I said I was sorry. It won't happen again, if that's what you're worried about." Janice glanced sidelong at her companion, hoping she wasn't blushing as much as she thought she was.
"You mean you regret you did it?" Mel asked, sounding hurt.
Janice shrugged, there was not getting out of this conversation. "Yes and no. I'm sorry I made you uncomfortable or scared you. But no, I don't regret the experience. I'm only human after all." Inwardly the archeologist groaned. "What a lame thing to say," she thought furiously.
"Why are you so certain I find the thought of being kissed by you repulsive?" Mel asked gently, watching the other woman carefully.
"Call it woman's intuition," she shrugged, "I don't think I'm your type. Are you saying otherwise?" Janice asked. "Besides, you didn't act as if you enjoyed it."
Now it was Mel's turn to blush. She quickly tore her eyes from her companion and stared at the door opposite them. Through the window she saw the face of one guard, watching, and the back of the other's head as he faced the kitchen.
"Maybe I was surprised?" Mel offered. "Maybe no one has ever kissed me like that before?"
"You're kidding." Janice said as her jaw dropped.
"I'm glad you find my lack of experience amusing Doctor Covington." Mel said primly, as she turned away from the doctor.
Janice grimaced as her own words were thrown back at her. She glanced up, also noticing the guard watching them intently. "But on the boat, when I was hauled out of the water you..."
"That was just to keep someone from seeing your arm. You were almost unconscious, and I just winged it." Mel's voice was tight, hurt, and Janice felt like a fool.
"Mel, you're incredibly beautiful, and smart. I just assumed that you'd have a list of suitors a mile long." Janice murmured, laying a gentle hand on the other woman's shoulder.
"You didn't mention rich." Mel added.
"Okay, so your list of suitors is two miles long. Surely someone has tried to... um... well... kiss you." Janice finished lamely, not knowing exactly what she was trying to say.
Mel turned around, indignant. "As a matter of fact the answer is no. I haven't met anyone I found interesting enough to pursue a meaningful relationship with, physical or otherwise, so I spent my time helping daddy with his work."
Janice's eyes continued to widen in surprise. "Look, Mel I'm really sorry then. Shit, I must have really scared you."
Mel shook her head. "What would you say if I told you I wanted you to kiss me again?"
Janice opened and closed her mouth several times, searching for words that would not come. "Ah... I guess I'd ask you if you were... er... sure about it." She finally stammered.
"I think so." Mel whispered, not knowing what to expect from the archeologist.
Janice's eyes softened, and a gentle smile eased across her features. She brought her hand to the side of Mel's face, cold fingers resting against warm skin. Slowly she drew their faces together, bringing her mouth to rest against Mel's once more.
Mel closed her eyes, savoring the touch that sent a charge through her nervous system. Without thinking, she brought her hands to Janice's shoulders, drawing the smaller woman even closer. As their mouths shifted, Mel delighted in the movement of soft lips against her own. Janice moved again, deepening the kiss as she felt Mel's body relax against hers. The kiss lasted for long moments, Janice encouraging Mel with her lips, letting the other explore at will. When it ended, with both women hungry for air, Mel looked at Janice in wonder. "That was really nice." She whispered.
Janice smiled. "You won't believe this, but I've got an idea."
"Yeah, so do I." Mel replied.
"I mean for getting us out of here." Janice corrected her.
"Oh." Mel sounded a little disappointed, which only made Janice's smile broader.
"Don't worry, it involves more kissing." She chuckled as Mel began to blush. "Tell me, is that guard in the window watching us?" Mel glanced over the archeologist's shoulder at the small window. Two faces were pressed against the thick glass.
Nodding, Mel whispered. "Both."
"Good," Janice murmured, leaning in close to Mel's ear. "If you don't mind, I'd like to try and distract them."
Mel closed her eyes as one hundred and one pleasurable sensations rippled through her. She felt warm lips at the base of her ear lightly trail down the line of her jaw before coming to rest on her lips once more. With growing confidence she responded to the gentle mouth moving against her own. She wanted more, more of everything Janice had to offer. She started at the sensation of a tender tongue moving against her lower lip, taking delight at a new rush of sensation. Responding in kind, she searched out the velvety depths of Janice's mouth. She caressed the archeologist's lips and teeth, taking special delight as Janice's tongue wrestled with hers. Reveling in the sensations of warmth and softness, Mel felt a growing hunger beginning to burn deep within. Moaning in delight, she felt Janice's tongue enter her mouth, caressing her in ways she never knew possible. She continued to return the ardent kisses with growing passion, as she felt the archeologist's hands at her neck, undoing the bowtie. That done, Janice shifted her mouth to Mel's neck, kissing her way down the elegant line of her throat.
"Gods you're beautiful." Janice murmured against the soft skin of Mel's throat, her tongue dancing in counterpoint to the rapid beating of the other woman's heart. Mel threw her head back, her breathing ragged, every nerve ending alive and hungry. Janice nuzzled lower, her lips resting on the top button of the tuxedo shirt. With a quick nip, she quickly removed the button. "Get ready for the guards," Janice whispered, just before her tongue dipped into the indent at the base of Mel's throat, just above the clavicle. Mel whimpered with need, trying desperately to keep some small part of her mind clear. Finally, Janice moved down to the next button, biting it off in the same fashion as the first. This time however, Janice pulled back with a surprised look on her face, both hands going to her own throat. Silently she tried to gasp for air.
"My god, she's choking!" Mel exclaimed, easing Janice to the floor. She turned to shout at the guards. "Get in here and help her, unless you want to explain to Leesto why her precious prisoner is dead!"
Argo moved closer to the kitchen door. The dog noted that as people entered or left the door was slow to close. When another guard left to make a security sweep of the grounds, Argo slipped in, unnoticed as the door eased shut. She padded silently down the hallway, stopping in an unused supply area at the sound of foot falls. She could smell food as well as her mistress and headed in that direction. The big dog's ears perked at the sound of the other female voice. It was muffled, coming from behind the silver door a short distance in front of her. Two guards stood transfixed at the door, peering in the small window. A third approached from the kitchen, his gun drawn. When the silver door opened and Argo detected the comforting scent of her mistress, she acted. With a sinister snarl she launched herself at the third guard with the drawn gun. She'd learned her lesson and knew that the arms holding the dangerous weapons must be rendered useless.
With theatrics she didn't know she possessed, Janice flailed on the floor like a woman scared to death of death. After a moments indecision the door opened, both guards entering. In a heartbeat she was attacking one, Mel going after the other. Both women heard the angry snarl of Argo, then the brief but terrified scream of the third guard. In seconds all three guards were rendered unconscious. Two in the 'fridge from blows to the head, the third from fear as well as loss of blood; both arms sporting severe dog bites. Argo sat patiently outside the silver door, hoping she would not be reprimanded for leaving her post. She wagged her tail happily as she was greeted with affectionate rubs and whispers of "Good dog." Finally, looking around the empty kitchen, Janice pondered what to do next.
"Was that all a ploy to get the door opened?" Mel asked tentatively.
Janice turned and smiled at her companion. "Mel I'm soaked from being turned on. Did that feel like a ploy to you?" The archeologist glanced down the hall, back to the stairs that lead to the upper floor. "When we get back to the ship, I have every intention of proving my sincerity." Then, with a shy glance at Mel added, "That is, if you'll let me."
"Let you?" Mel asked her eyes burning with desire, "I'll make you."
Janice grinned as she headed past a supply room. Not knowing why, she paused and grabbed the large utility broom. It took a couple of moments to unscrew the broom head, and with only the sturdy handle, she headed for the stairs.
"I was wondering when you'd get here." Xena commented from behind as Gabrielle headed up the stairs, as fast as her tight dress would allow.
Gabrielle glanced at her lover with a smile. "You try breaking through the conscious mind of someone not entirely convinced you aren't useless. She's got your stubborn streak."
"Hey, don't blame me, she's your offspring." Xena replied, reaching the second floor and leading the way to Leesto's study. "But I thought I recognized your theatrics. Was the kissing thing your idea too?"
The bard giggled. "No, and what she's thinking makes even me blush."
Xena rolled her eyes, "now I know she takes after you."
"Xena, I think our kids were so much like both of us, it's really a moot point as to who belonged to whom." Gabrielle replied with an affectionate smile.
Xena nodded as Gabrielle spun the broom handle in her hands, getting a feel for it's balance. Argo looked at the two women, confusion evident in her canine features. Pointing to a bend in the hallway, the bard looked at the dog and commanded, "Stay." Argo appeared to ignore her at first, then watching the big stick for a moment, obeyed.
"I believe we've got a little score to settle with Callisto," Xena quipped, reaching for the handle.
"Just like old times." Gabrielle muttered from behind the warrior as she removed the satchel from Argo's pack.
"I hate to break up this reunion," Janice said sincerely, "But do you know what time it is?"
Xena shrugged her shoulders, and the archeologist shook her head, smiling. "Here, let me..." Janice said as she extracted the battered pocket watch from the tuxedo's vest pocket and smiled. "Perfect. Leesto or Callisto, or who ever the hell she is probably downstairs. She'll find us missing soon enough. Xena, or Mel" she shook her head, it was starting to hurt, "or both, slip inside the study and put the scrolls in this. Dump the stuff out her window if you have to, it'll land on the plants outside." She handed Xena her satchel. "I'll slow the bitch down. Argo and I will meet you outside under the window."
Xena shook her head, "I think I should go after..."
Janice cut her off. "Not this time. Gabrielle, Argo and I all have scores to settle with that irritating blond. It's payback time." She leaned up and kissed her passionately but quickly. "I'll see you soon."
"Be careful." Xena called out quietly as the other woman left. She absently touched her lips. They tingled with the memory of Gabrielle and something more. Shaking it off with a smile she opened the door to the study and slipped inside.
Gabrielle descended the stairs quietly, dispatching the two guards she encountered with several quick blows of her staff. Janice had to admit that the bard was an expert with the weapon. Still, that knowledge did not stop her from taking the gun each guard carried. "My weapon," she muttered to herself as she tucked them into the pocket of the tuxedo jacket she still wore.
She and Argo reached the opulent ballroom and peered around the corner of a grand Doric column. As expected Leesto was mingling with guests, answering questions and discussing the artifacts as the bidding continued. Ducking back into the shadows, she headed back to the kitchen, noting that all three guards had left. "Probably running for their lives," Janice muttered. Pointing to the bloody floor and inside the walk-in, she asked the dog, "Where are they?"
Argo sniffed around and in moments she was heading for the door. The guards had fled outside. Janice smiled, "Good work." Inwardly she sensed Gabrielle's grin. "All Argo's should be that size." Alone in the kitchen, Janice looked around. It was payback time indeed.
Xena looked around the now familiar study and quickly headed for the scrolls. She put them in the satchel then added Gabrielle's staff, after taking it apart, and her bullwhip. Not ideal treatment for priceless antiquities, but the rugged artifacts would survive. Next she grabbed her breastplate, it's familiar weight bringing a smile to the warrior's lips. She'd already put the necklaces in the jacket pocket of the tuxedo, when she was in the study previously so the only item remaining that she had any attachment to was Argo's saddle. With a shrug she grabbed it. She didn't want strangers to have that either. She carried her booty to the window and peered out. The only question remaining was how to get it to the garden below. Dropping the stuff out the window was out of the question. The artifacts were fragile and being treated roughly as it was.
"Curtain!" Xena plainly heard Mel's voice in her head.
"This is no time for interior decorating." Xena muttered looking around the room.
"No, you oaf, the curtain pull, the rope, use it to..." Mel shot back.
"Alright, alright, I get it, why didn't you say rope in the first place?" Xena's eyes landed on a battered dagger. She recognized it as Callisto's. "That should do the trick," she said as she drew the dagger and cut the ropes that operated the curtain pull. Securing the saddle in a crude rope harness, she lowered it to the ground below. With a second rope she lowered her breastplate. When that touched the grass below the window she positioned herself on the edge of the windowsill. She put Callisto's dagger into the satchel around her neck and smiled. "Hang on Mel." She whispered as she pushed off. With a tight tuck and an aerial spin she landed lightly on her feet. Picking up the other two items, she headed toward the kitchen.
Leesto smiled at her guests as she made her way toward the kitchen. Theoradore rushed up to meet her. "Dr. Leesto," he said in his thick accent, "several of the guards are missing."
"Shit, Jan must have gotten out somehow. Give me your gun. I'll check to make sure she isn't still here. Have some men check my study, make sure the artifacts are there. After that, round up as many as you can find and meet me at the dock. She'll try to get out by boat." The burly man nodded and disappeared into the crowd.
Leesto cautiously entered the kitchen. It was dimly lit, the only sounds coming from the ballroom behind her. For a moment she regretted her decision to not serve dinner for her guests. She shrugged, deciding they didn't come to eat, they came to buy stolen artifacts. Besides the extra staff required for dinner would have only put those artifacts in greater danger. Drinks were enough, and that requirement was being handled from the service area at the other end of the ballroom.
Cocking the gun she headed toward the walk-in refrigerator. Just outside, she glanced down noticing a patch of blood on the white tile. She didn't bother to look in the 'fridge window. Janice and Mel were not there. "Looking for me?" A pleasant voice called from behind.
Leesto spun at the sound to face Janice, leaning casually on a broom handle, a service revolver pointed at her head. "A staff and a gun?" Leesto teased. "Make up your mind Jan, are you a useless bard or a hopeless failure?"
Janice smiled warmly. "Just because you have fewer options: bitch or bitch, don't blame me."
"Oh, you're good." The blond woman purred, a soft sinister quality threading her voice. "But you won't be able to beat me. You've never been able to beat me."
"You don't keep score real well, do you?" Janice replied smoothly, enjoying the confrontation. "Put the gun down on the counter and slide it toward me. And if you're going to get cute, remember I still owe you for Argo."
Callisto complied, slowly stepping toward the counter. "So what's it like Gabrielle?" she asked, "sharing your psyche with an abject failure. Oh, but I'd guess you'd know about that, wouldn't you?" Gabrielle kept her gaze steady. She would not be taunted by the madwoman, not again. "As long as I've got the chance I should thank you Gabrielle." Callisto added in a sincere voice as she slid the gun across the counter.
"For what?" Gabrielle asked sarcastically, as she pocketed the weapon.
"For being such an exquisite fuck." Callisto smiled, and laughed lightly.
"What are you saying?" Gabrielle growled, furious at the other woman's ability to bait her.
"Erasmus dear Gabrielle, I'm talking about Erasmus. You know, your brother-in-law? Funny though, I would have you expected to put up some sort of fight. I've always wondered about that. You see, I was in his body at the time. I raped you Gabrielle, and you didn't even struggle. Perhaps you enjoyed it?" Callisto's eyes narrowed with hate. "Maybe there are things our precious Xena couldn't do for you after all?" Callisto crossed her arms, confident that she wouldn't be shot in cold blood.
Gabrielle's pulse raced with rage. Of course the madwoman had somehow been behind it. It made so much sense. "Look," Janice's voice cut into her thoughts, "if this is all past history to you, why not let me handle it? She's trying to make you mad and careless. It's what I would do if I were her."
"What are you going to do?" Gabrielle thought to Janice.
"Turn the tables on her." Janice replied. "Trust me."
The bard shifted her stance and laughed. "So that explains it!" She said, her eyes bright.
"Explains what?" Callisto asked.
"Why he was so... inept." Janice shrugged. "I mean, I'd done it with him once or twice before, I didn't understand why he was so clumsy. If I'd known I was with a virgin, I could have been more... instructive."
Callisto's eyes narrowed in fury as she quickly drew a carving knife from the drawer. Ducking behind the metal counter she threw the knife at the archeologist's head then ran. Gabrielle knocked the weapon from its trajectory with her staff, pocketing the gun as she calmly followed the fleeing woman down the hall.
The kitchen hallway that led to the back door was wide. Designed to accommodate shipments of food and other supplies, Janice could hold her broom handle in a horizontal position and not touch either wall. As Callisto fled, she skidded to a halt twenty feet from the back door. Argo stood, hackles raised, teeth bared and snarling. She spun back the way she'd come. On reflexes alone she caught the mop handle that was thrown to her by the bard. Gabrielle intended to fight her. Callisto smiled. Things didn't seem so bad after all.
"Oh isn't this quaint," the madwoman purred as she struck out at the bard. Gabrielle deflected the blow easily, and parried twice more fending off the other woman's assaults. She chose her targets carefully, hampered in her movements by her tight dress. With efficient mastery she tested Callisto's defenses, making it clear by her blows that she was playing with the other woman. All of her blows were parried, but the concentration required was evident on the other woman's face. It made sense, she admitted to herself. She'd gotten better with the staff than Xena.
"Don't get cocky." Janice warned in her mind's voice. The archeologist's words were prophetic. Callisto changed the direction of her strike and slammed the mop handle into the archeologist's injured arm. Gabrielle yelped in pain and let go of the staff. Now relying on only one hand for control, her defenses slipped and many of the other woman's blows found their mark. Gabrielle ducked from a blow aimed at her head and hit Callisto solidly in the gut with the end of her staff.
"That's for Janice." She said as Callisto slumped from the impact. She reversed her grip bringing the stick across her jaw, "and that's for me." Callisto screeched and landed another blow to the injured arm. This time Gabrielle had no choice but to drop her weapon. Before another blow could land, however, her hand had come up holding a cocked gun drawn from her jacket pocket. "But we still haven't settled Argo's score." Janice said quietly.
Callisto froze. It was over, she'd lost, she left. Leesto stood for a moment, dazed at the feeling of emptiness that overcame her. "Drop it." Janice commanded, nodding at the staff. Still dazed, she acted as if she didn't hear. In quick succession, the archeologist fired off two shots, each finding it's mark in the mop handle, eliminating a foot of wood from each side. "I said," Janice warned as Leesto dropped the stick. "Open the 'fridge," she commanded, and utterly defeated, the scientist complied. Before she could enter however, Janice took a step forward and struck a solid blow across the other woman's jaw. Leesto fell to her knees from the impact, drops of her blood now joining that of her guard on the white tile floor. "That's for Argo." Janice said simply as she slammed the 'fridge door shut.
"We've got to get out of here." Janice said, heading for the door.
"You mean you've got to." Gabrielle replied, inside her mind.
"You're... I mean..." Janice muttered, feeling self-conscious and realizing for the first time who it was she was talking to.
"Leaving. Yes Janice, I'm going." Gabrielle's voice was kind and gentle.
"But... I mean, you just got here." Janice shook her head. It was now or never. "What I mean is, there is something I'd like to say to you."
"Yes?" The voice asked patiently.
"I... I owe you an apology. You're not at all what I thought... you're... well, all the things Xena said you are." Janice hated herself. Since finding out who in the Xena scrolls was her ancestor, she'd considered giving up archeology all together. She felt like a first class idiot realizing just how wrong she'd been.
"You don't have to apologize to me." Gabrielle said, her voice soft. I lived the life I wanted. How I'm remembered couldn't interest me less. But there is something I think you should know." Janice stopped walking and cocked her head, listening. "I am very proud of you. You have the qualities that made Xena and I proud of our own children. I'm happy to see the important things were passed down. You're strong, you know what to fight for and when to fight for it. You also stayed by your father when no one else would." Gabrielle sighed. The time had finally come when mere words failed.
"Thanks." Janice said quietly feeling inadequate. "But... um... Xena, she's outside, I think. Don't you want to stick around and see her?"
Gabrielle laughed, Janice smiling in spite of herself at the sound. "Xena and I are never apart. These bodies are for the living, not the centuries dead. I love you Janice, Xena and I love you both. Be happy, and remember when you think of the dead..."
"The dead can hear your thoughts." Janice finished as Gabrielle's presence faded.
Exiting the back door and stepping into the cool night air, Janice allowed her eyes to adjust to the dark. Listening intently, she made certain no one was around before moving. She could hear the voices of guards still in the mansion and knew that time was running out. She signaled Argo, and quickly moved towards the other side of the building towards the study. She'd gotten about half way there when Argo nudged her.
"What is it girl?" She whispered.
The dog headed over to a large rosemary shrub, poking her head inside. "Argo, is that you?" came a voice from the bush.
"Mel?" Janice called softly. She suppressed a grin as Melinda Pappas wriggled her way out of the confines of the shrubbery. "What the hell were you doing there?"
Doing her best to look indignant, Mel put her hands on her hips. "Once we jumped out the window and got about here, Xena left. She just took off, just like last time. I'm sorry Janice, but the saddle and everything was just too much to carry and I could hear guards coming and..."
Janice nodded, "I get the point. Why on earth did you bring the saddle?"
"It wasn't my idea. But she want's us to take it." Mel whispered, dragging the relic from the bushes.
"Okay, I'll get it." Janice said, hoisting it over her shoulder with her good arm. "Can you get the rest?" When Mel nodded she headed back the way she'd come. "We've got to get to the boat. They'll find Leesto soon enough. I want a head start on them when they do."
They made their way to the dock avoiding the various guards that came within visual range. Just as they began to load their cargo a commotion erupted from the mansion, with shouts and booted footfalls coming their way.
"Shit!" Janice muttered as she frantically reconnected the wires she'd pulled loose from the boat engine. "We're going to have to leave the stuff near the boat house, there's no time to get it."
"Doesn't matter." Mel said, trying to stay out of what little light the moon overhead provided, "it was just clothes."
"Easy for you to say." Janice quipped finishing her work as the shouts grew louder, "my hat and my favorite shirt were back there."
"Why was that shirt your favorite?" Mel asked as Janice pulled the starter on the motor boat.
Janice winked. "It still smelled like you."
The boat pulled away from the dock just as Leesto and a group of guards reached the other boats. "Do you want to drive or shoot?" Janice asked, needing to yell to be heard above the roar of the motor.
"Are you crazy?" Mel yelled back. "I can't drive or shoot."
"Well, pick one." Janice shouted. "They'll be on our tails in no time. We've got to get clear around the other side of the island..."
Her words were cut off as a distant gun shot rang out. Argo barked in response, the fir on her neck raised in anger. Mel looked out the small wind shield on the power boat. The direction they were headed was marked by rough water. Already sea spray was splashing over the sides of the boat, drenching both women and dog. "You drive." Mel shouted as Janice handed her a gun. "What do I do?"
"Just point and shoot. There's extra bullets in Argo's pack. Try to make 'em think twice about following us." Janice shouted as she navigated the rough water.
Mel did as she was told and found that after the first couple of shots she could even fire the gun without closing her eyes. Three boats were following them, all firing as well. One bullet struck dangerously close, biting into the wood on the side of the boat. Janice changed course several times, trying to shake those in pursuit. It also succeeded in nearly shaking her companion from the deck of the boat. "Careful!" Mel screamed.
"Duck!" Janice shouted, drawing one of the guard's weapons from the tuxedo jacket pocket. She fired over Mel's head and a dark figure fell overboard from the boat closest to them.
"I thought you said you were driving!" Mel shouted. She steadied her hand trying to aim carefully at the boat moving ever closer. An instant after she pulled the trigger, flames and smoke erupted from the pursuing boat's engine.
"Good shot!" Janice screamed as she was drenched by yet another breaking wave. The southern aristocrat's smile quickly faded from her face however as two more bullets struck dangerously close. Janice tried several more maneuvers, but the other two boats were gaining. "Get all the guns fully loaded!" She yelled, as she swung the boat in a wide arc. With the guns laid out, she picked up one after the other, firing in quick succession at the closest of the two remaining boats. The gun fire from the other craft ceased as it's occupants dodged the fury of raining bullets. With her good arm Janice held tight to the wheel of their boat, navigating the rough water as best she could and shooting with the other. Finally, the driver of the gaining boat slumped over, the boat turning away from them, speeding toward shore.
They neared the far side of the island with only one boat left in pursuit. The shots kept getting closer; someone on that boat had exceptional aim. "It's Leesto!" Janice screamed above the boat noise and the splashing of water, "She was a champion marksman in college. Duck!" Janice turned the wheel hard to the left as the small boat sped back toward the island.
"What are you doing?" Mel shouted watching the island grow larger.
"Trust me," Janice shouted back, "and keep shooting."
Leesto's boat altered course, using the change in direction to add more to the ground they gained on the fleeing boat. Janice grabbed a gun and carefully took aim on the ever nearing boat. As soon as she fired she spun the wheel hard to right, heading back out to sea. As she'd hoped, her shot either hit the driver of the other boat or dangerously close enough. The boat did not alter course in time and ran aground into the soft white sand.
Mel and Janice laughed, overjoyed and relieved as their craft sped away from the island, no one left in pursuit. Moving just beyond the island's point they saw a large ship in the distance. "It's The Gauntlet." Janice yelled. "We made it Mel!"
In Aires' cabin on board the smuggling ship Janice combed her wet hair, a huge smile on her face. In the corner of the small cabin Xena's treasures were neatly stacked; the satchel full of scrolls resting on Argo's saddle. Her Argo lay nearby, chewing contentedly on a large beef bone. She lifted her eyes at the sound of the cabin door creaking open. Seeing it was only Mel, the dog returned to her snack.
"Toby kept guard outside while I bathed." Mel said, removing the towel that wrapped her hair. She was dressed once again in the tuxedo, her other clothes still on Leesto's island. Janice was dressed in her customary attire, having traded the expensive dress for something more suitable as soon as she came on board. "How did you arrange hot baths for us?" Mel asked. "Although I don't think that was really a tub- tea cup maybe, but tub? Not quite."
Janice laughed, "I traded the speed boat for it." Mel looked at her stunned. "Well, I really wanted a bath, and I don't really need a boat. Besides, I got a couple more favors thrown in for good measure." Janice looked at Mel. She was simply stunning. The way she wore the tuxedo was bad enough, but her eyes framed by tresses of long wet hair made the archeologist's heart skip frequent beats.
"I'll bet." Mel replied, beginning to feel self conscious and shy.
"Are you hungry?" Janice asked, "Can I get you something to eat?"
Mel shook her head. She felt ravenous, but it wasn't for food. Still, she didn't know how to articulate her feelings; as embarrassed as she was by them. She moved further into the room, stopping when she stood at the foot of the bed. "Did Gabrielle... say anything to you before she... left?" She asked, not looking at her companion.
Janice shrugged, noting the distance in the other woman's body language. "We talked a little. I apologized for... well for being an asshole. She's a class act, like you. So, did Xena have any parting words of wisdom?"
Mel smiled and began to blush. Janice wasn't sure if it was the compliment or something more. "We talked a little. She's kind of intimidating though. Wouldn't answer any questions, said I'd find out for myself."
"What did you ask?" Janice asked as she got up from the bed where she'd been sitting. She led Mel to the bed then nudged her to sit down. Climbing on the bed behind the heiress, she began to comb out the wet raven tresses, delighting in the silky texture as it slid through the comb.
Shaking her head slightly, Mel's cheeks glowed crimson. "Oh, nothing. Just advice." Mel hoped her growing nervousness wasn't as obvious as she feared it was.
"Advice about...?" Janice asked quietly from near her right ear.
Mel stood up and took two steps away from the bed before turning around. "I don't know what to do Janice." She said, her voice tight with emotion. "I'm nervous, embarrassed and plenty of other things I can't name. I... I don't... know how to..."
Janice got up from the bed and slowly moved to where the other woman stood trembling. "Do you trust me Mel?" She asked softly.
The other woman responded with a nod. "It isn't a matter of trust. I feel so..."
"Shhhh." Janice whispered. "I'm as nervous as you are. It's to be expected when you're with anyone... for the first time. It passes. I want you to listen to me Melinda Pappas. I don't want to do anything you're not up for. If something makes you feel uncomfortable; if you change your mind and want to stop, just say so. I promise I will."
Mel nodded again, lost in green eyes that regarded her so kindly. Janice gently put her hands on the other woman's forearms, slowly sliding them up the black jacket. "Did you really think Xena was going to tell you what to do?" She asked, smiling as her hands moved across the taller woman's shoulders.
"Well, I thought she might tell me what to expect." Mel said, watching Janice move closer.
"What's the matter, you don't like surprises?" Janice teased, drawing her head down. Her tension dissipated as the archeologist covered her mouth with soft lips once again. Bringing her hands to the sides of Janice's face, she held her close, losing herself in the velvety softness.
"I love the way you kiss." Mel whispered when they finally broke for air.
"That goes double for me." Janice whispered back, slipping her hands under the black jacket, her lips drawn to the taller woman's throat. In a graceful movement, she eased the jacket from Mel's shoulders, letting it fall to the floor. With skillful fingers, she released the cufflinks and unbuttoned Mel's vest, all the while nipping and kissing at the tender skin of the taller woman's neck. When the vest fell to the floor, Mel started in surprise.
Janice drew back slowly. "Are you okay?" she asked, concern evident in her features.
"Oh I'm fine Janice." Mel teased. "It's just that you seem awfully good at this. Do all of your women dress like men?" She ran her fingers through Janice's still-damp hair, delighting in the soft texture of the strawberry blond tresses. The doctor's eyes smoldered with desire and she smiled. If Mel hadn't jumped she would not have really taken a good look at the woman standing before her. White shirt buttoned, save for the top two which were missing, tucked into black pants with black suspenders. Mel's black hair hanging past her shoulders created a dizzying vision of black and white. The only points of color, intense arctic blue, were her eyes. She was gorgeous.
"If you must know," Janice purred then turned her head to brush warm lips against the palm of Mel's hand. "I'm usually the one in the suit. That's how I know things like cufflinks and shoes need to come off first. Have you ever tried to get your arm out of a sleeve with the fastened cufflinks? It's embarrassing." She leisurely began to trace her fingers over the white fabric of Mel's shirt. She slowly brushed her fingertips along the line of the suspenders, lightly touching the sides of Mel's breasts. Her smile broadened as she felt the other woman tremble, followed by a sharp intake of air. "Still, I don't think I've ever seen a more gorgeous vision in a tuxedo." Mel's eyes widened, riveted on the hunger clear in Janice's expression.
"Do you have any idea how incredibly sexy you look in that?" The archeologist asked, softly easing one suspender over a graceful shoulder. "What it's doing to me?" she continued, slowly reaching for the other suspender. "How much I want you?"
Janice's words were having a profound effect on the other woman, and she knew it. Her movements became more deliberate as Mel's breathing became more ragged. "You are so beautiful." She whispered as she lightly caressed Mel's breasts through the thin fabric of her shirt. Green eyes burned with passion as she felt nipples harden under her teasing palms.
Mel leaned in to claim Janice's mouth once more. Her body was on fire, nerve endings burning whereever the archeologist's hands touched her. Janice's soft tongue exploring the recesses of her mouth brought some degree of satisfaction to her need, but not enough. Not nearly enough. Mel couldn't imagine anything being enough. Before she realized what she was doing, her hands were at Janice's neck and she was unbuttoning the sturdy khaki shirt. "Uh, is this okay?" She asked, wondering if she was being too forward.
"Absolutely." Janice smiled, her own fingers at work slowly undoing the buttons of the white shirt. "Mel, I can't think of anything that wouldn't be okay." Janice said as she eased her hands under the white fabric, "as long as makeup isn't involved."
Mel laughed at that. "How do you do that Janice?" She asked.
"Do what?" She replied as her fingers lightly trailed across Mel's torso causing the muscles to tremble in their wake.
"Know just what to say to put me at ease." Mel shuddered again as light fingers moved across the bare skin of her back.
"At ease?" Janice arched an eyebrow as she slowly drew her hands up to cup ample breasts. Mel gasped, her knees feeling like water as skilled fingers caressed her nipples, teasing them to taunt points. "You mean like not nervous?" She asked innocently as she maneuvered Mel in the direction of the bed.
"Yeah, not nervous." Mel agreed as Janice eased her onto the bed. She opened the shirt slightly, but left it on.
"So that means you're feeling something else?" Janice asked as she lowered her lips to Mel's chest.
Finding concentration difficult and coherent thought almost an impossibility, she struggled to find the words to utter between pants. "Yes," she breathed as soft lips kissed a path of fire across her exposed skin. "Take this off." She gasped tugging at the archeologist's shirt, then instantly regretted her outburst. Janice's mouth hovered just over her nipple. If she'd kept quiet, those magnificent lips would be kissing her there, not smiling and withdrawing from her body. "I mean..." Mel stammered, caught with indecision.
"Yes?" Janice asked as she slowly sat back on her knees.
"You don't have to stop what you were doing." Mel finished quietly.
Janice began to unbutton the rest of her shirt, watching Mel watch her. "So do you want me to take this off? Or kiss your perfect breasts?"
"Ah... both." Mel replied as Janice brought teasing fingers to her burning skin once more. Her mouth opened in disappointment as Janice shook her head. "What?" Mel asked.
"You take it off." Janice said softly, raising Mel's hands to her unbuttoned shirt. She swallowed, pulse racing, and pushed the material off of the archeologist's shoulders. "Verrrrry nice." Janice murmured at the first touch of Mel's hands on her body when the shirt fell to the bed. Mel gazed in fascination at the muscular body uncovered before her. She trailed her fingers over warm skin, smiling at the shudders and tremors rippling beneath the surface in their wake. Janice sighed and caught her lower lip between her teeth as Mel caressed her breasts, her desire heightening as she watched the southerner explore her body. Straddling Mel's hips, she let her own hands wander once more over her torso, adjusting the white shirt to expose more of the soft flesh beneath as she went.
"Oh, sweet Jesus." Mel gasped as soft lips circled her nipple, gentle suction pulling her deeper into warm depths. Teasing the aroused flesh with tongue and teeth sent wave after wave of desire coursing through her veins. "Yes, Janice, do that." Mel whispered fiercely, then felt the other woman's mouth smile against her flesh.
"Yes ma'am." Janice replied and trailed moist kisses across the Mel's chest to the other breast. As she reveled in the scent of warm skin, delighting in the softness contracting in her mouth, Janice reached out and found one of Mel's hands, guiding it to her own breast.
"That feels too good." Mel gasped, overwhelmed by the sensations rushing through her. Janice pulled back a little, kissing the valley between ample breasts and murmured into the soft skin.
"It gets even better." She promised.
Mel swallowed reflexively. She was not convinced she could handle 'much better'. With a gentle nudge she moved the archeologist forward. Propping herself up on her hands and elbows Janice looked down. "Yes?" She replied to Mel's silent command.
"My turn." Mel murmured, laying claim to one of the doctor's breasts.
"God, yes." Janice encouraged and shifting her hips slightly, she gently began grinding against the woman below her.
"Just like that." She breathed, as Mel swirled her tongue around the sensitive flesh. "Mel, that's won...derful," she panted, gazing at the face so intent on giving her pleasure.
"You feel so good," Mel murmured as she headed for the other breast, "so soft." Janice closed her eyes in ecstacy, the thrumming of Mel's voice against her skin making her dizzy. Janice let her continue for several minutes until her own desire became insistent. Shifting her weight she leaned back form Mel's mouth, helping the other woman sit up. When she did, she eased the white shirt off smooth shoulders gliding her hands over the planes of Mel's back as the shirt fell to the bed. Moving close once more, Mel smiled as the warm softness of Janice's breasts rested against her own.
"I had no idea." Mel whispered, smiling as she gazed into liquid green eyes.
"Neither did I." Janice whispered back, her voice tight with emotion.
Mel stared in wonder. "But you've..." She was silenced by gentle fingers against her mouth.
"Never like this." Janice whispered fiercely. "Never with the other half of my soul."
"How can you know that?" Mel asked quietly, voice brimming with emotion at the archeologist's words.
"I felt it the moment I saw you," Janice answered simply, "and fought against it. It scared me Mel, it still does. But I'm through fighting, fighting against it anyway. Fighting for it is another matter." Mel watched as Janice traced light fingers across her thigh.
"If I didn't know better Janice Covington, I'd think that was a proposal." Mel smiled, running her hands over the other woman's shoulders, fingering soft red-gold hair.
"Maybe it is." Janice smiled. "You wouldn't be flirting with me again, would you Mel?" She asked as she trailed her fingers along the inside of an elegant thigh. "Because I really like it when you do."
Mel smiled wickedly. "Would you show me how much you like it Janice?"
Janice's eyes gleamed as she leaned forward to claim Mel's lips once more, her knee resting in between the other woman's thighs, then applying firm pressure to her center. "Oh Christ!" Mel gasped, causing Janice to jump back.
"What? Did I hurt you?" The archeologist asked, scared to death.
Mel shook her head, blushing. "No, I think I wet myself." Mel mumbled, then looked at Janice with surprise when the other woman laughed.
"I'm counting on it." Janice beamed, reaching for the fasteners of Mel's pants. Mel did likewise, and soon two pairs of pants joined the rest of the discarded clothing. "Now, wasn't I going to show you how much I appreciate your flirting?" Janice asked as she stretched out next to Mel on the bed.
"Something like that." Mel murmured in reply, drawing her hand slowly up the side of Janice's body. When she reached the bandaged arm she paused. "How is it?" She asked.
Janice removed her mouth from Mel's breast once more. "Absolutely perfect." She whispered.
"No Janice, your arm." Mel laughed at the gleam in the doctor's eye.
Shrugging, Janice replied, "Since my senses are otherwise engaged, I don't feel a thing: Not in my arm anyway. I'm feeling glorious things everywhere else."
Mel rolled over, tucking Janice beneath her. Propped up on her elbows she gazed down into penatrating green eyes. She didn't doubt the archeologist's words. Janice's touch had a staggering effect on her own body and knowing she could do the same for her left her with a sense of power that made her slightly dizzy. "What things?" She asked, her voice husky.
"For starters," Janice said quietly, gently tracing the outline of Mel's cheek and jaw, "your voice makes me melt. Your eyes set me on fire and I think the feel of your skin is positively addictive."
Throwing her head back at the exquisite feel of Janice's hands caressing her back Mel smiled. "It's clear to me which one of us descended from a bard."
Janice grinned and rolled Mel over noting that her feet only reached as far down as Mel's mid-calf. "Are you saying you have latent warlord tendencies Melinda Pappas?"
"Well you don't want to get on my bad side. Oh my!" Mel glanced up and for the first time since they returned to the boat, noticed the mirror positioned above the bed. Janice followed her gaze.
"Nice view." She chuckled, noting how wide her companion's eyes had grown. Mel gazed in rapt fascination at the sleek body entwined with hers. Strawberry blond tresses lay strewn across her torso as Janice kissed her way downward. The feel of moist, warm lips across her flesh was sublime. It was only after abstract these observations that she realized where Janice was headed.
"What...what are you doing?" She asked, surprised.
"Is there a problem, Mel?" Janice asked gently without the slightest trace of reproach in her voice.
"It looked like you were going to... uh... kiss me..." Mel shook her head embarrassed. Surely she was mistaken.
"There." Janice finished for her, drawing gentle fingers across Mel's soaked labia. "I was hoping to, but I won't if you don't want me to." Mel moaned at the contact as desire surged through her being. Still caressing with slow strokes, Janice drew herself up Mel's body to gaze into her eyes. "Mel," she whispered softly, "remember how my tongue felt inside your mouth?" Mel nodded quickly, her hips arching at the gentle strokes she continued to receive. "Well, imagine it here." To make her point, Janice shifted her finger to caress a slippery, hard bundle of nerves.
"Oh god." Mel groaned at the exquisite touch.
"I thought you'd see it my way." Janice smiled but added, "But if you want me to stop, just say so, okay?"
Mel nodded again, gazing one again up at the mirror, ready for anything. Mesmerized by the sight of Janice's body moving so intimately against her own, she watched in rapt fascination as Janice gently stroked her thighs, urging them apart, then lowered her face to her center. Mel's head snapped to the side and she moaned into the pillow to muffle the sound. Janice raised her head and watched her partner for a moment. When Mel realized the delicious contact was gone she peered down at Janice.
"I'm fine," Mel said in a rush. "Oh god, please don't stop. It's incredible."
"I'm glad you think so." Janice smiled. "But you don't have to worry about keeping quiet. If you want to yell, then yell."
Frowning Mel shot back, "I hate to be the one to tell you, but we're on a crowded smuggling ship. This isn't the back forty."
Janice giggled and eased a hand up Mel's sleek body to fondle a grateful breast. "The other part of my trade. I made Aires get everyone above deck. They're having a loud party up there, and will be until sunrise. No one is below decks but us. I'm sorry, but it's all the privacy I could arrange."
Mel laughed and reached down to tousle the smaller woman's hair. "You traded a speed boat for two baths and some privacy." She stated.
"And the beef bone for Argo, it'll keep her busy for hours."
"Is there anything you didn't think of Janice Covington?"
Janice grinned wickedly. "Yes. How to keep one stunningly beautiful woman from talking so much. Are you sure you're not related to the one named 'Gabby'?" Janice placed a wet kiss on the inside of Mel's thigh, sending a shudder through the body beneath her. She paused to inhale the sweet, musky fragrance of her lover, imprinting every detail she could into her memory. Slowly she drew her hands back down, and gently parting soft folds lowered her lips once more.
Mel groaned again, freely this time, as a skillful tongue sought out her depths. In moments she felt as though she were flying, spinning out of control on wave after wave of heady ecstacy. Her body began to shudder, hips bucking of their own accord. She cried out, the wave of her climax crashing down on her. She couldn't speak, she couldn't move; she was unable to do anything but enjoy the sensations thrumming through her body and soul. When the tremors stopped, Janice slowly withdrew. Cupping a firm hand to Mel's center she moved to rest her head on a heaving breast.
As Mel fought to get her breathing under control, she wrapped her arms around the woman resting on her chest. Still gazing at the mirror above she noted how perfect the two of them looked lying together, legs entwined. "I don't know what to say." Mel finally said.
"You don't have to say anything Mel." Janice murmured, warm breath caressing Mel's chest.
"Is it always that incredible?" She wondered aloud. "I mean I can't believe I haven't heard something. Someone should have told me."
Janice laughed, propping herself up on an elbow as she slowly began to move her other hand. "I guess you haven't been hanging out with the right people," she said, as Mel closed her eyes in pleasure once more.
"Guess not." She sighed as Janice's fingers picked up a rhythm that matched the throbbing of her pulse. With a careful touch she caressed the base of her lover's opening, teasing the hungry flesh. "Yeeeessss," she panted as Janice's fingers teased deeper.
"This might hurt a little." Janice warned, "I don't have..."
"Do it." Mel groaned, desperate to uncover every sublime sensation for herself.
Straddling Mel's thigh, Janice positioned herself so she could have the most control with her hand. Carefully, she began to push deeper, using her thumb to caress an engorged clitoris once more. As her partner's panting became louder her own self control began to slip. Driven by the urgency in Mel's voice she pressed harder, rewarded by ardent groans. With a final push she broke through the thin membrane as muscles convulsed around her fingers. Another wave of orgasm surged through Mel's body. She was sure she'd never recover. No one could possibly feel that good and survive.
Blue eyes blinked open to see radiant green watching her with interest. "You are so beautiful." Janice whispered, tenderly moving a stray strand of hair from the corner of Mel's mouth.
"You are so magnificent." Mel whispered back. "Beautiful and magnificent." There was something there in Janice's expression. The vibrancy of her eyes, the flush to her cheeks. Once more, Mel was aware of the power they shared over each other. "Show me." She whispered.
Janice blinked. "Show you what?" She asked, genuinely confused.
Mel dropped her voice even lower. "Show me how to make you feel as exquisite as I'm feeling right now. I want to make love to you Janice Covington, teach me how."
Janice's eyes flared in passion, her lover's words surging into her heart like a bullet. Mel moved to give Janice room to lay down. As she did, she touched one of Mel's hands holding it in her own. After studying it for several moments she gazed into Mel's eyes as she put the hand to her breast, encouraging the exploration of her body. Mel smiled, watching the smaller hand guiding hers, the pads of Janice's fingers warm against her skin.
As Janice's eyes captured her image in the mirror above she sighed happily. The sight of the statuesque woman touching her, loving her, was almost enough to send her over the edge. The dark tresses that spilled against her skin tickled a trail down her abdomen as Mel moved lower. Janice was in heaven. The powerful throbbing of her own heart matched the aching need at her core as she guided Mel's hand to her center.
"Nice." Mel murmured to herself as her fingers slid into warm wetness. A tremor shuddered through Janice's body at the sound, a small precursor to the powerful wave that was building. "You're so soft." Mel whispered, and Janice closed her eyes, focusing all awareness on the arresting voice and sensations rushing through her. Another shudder and Janice realized that too soon it would all be over. The passion that had been building since first meeting Melinda Pappas was destined to be her undoing. Her eyes shot open at the sensation of a warm mouth and tongue joining seeking fingers, picking up the rhythm of her bucking hips, driving her forward.
"God, yes Mel." Janice panted, awed by the sight in the mirror of the dark crown of hair moving with each exquisite touch. She gazed down her body only to find azure eyes watching her, visible just above red gold curls. The sight, of Mel performing such an intimate act almost undid her. It was however, when Mel thrust two fingers deep inside Janice's opening and clasped her lips on the hard knot of nerves, drawing it into her mouth, that Janice's world spun out of control. "Mel...lin...DA" Janice groaned as wave after pleasurable wave of sensation crashed through her. Mel held her with her hand and lips until the passionate spasms subsided. Finally, she gently withdrew and curled up alongside Janice's body.
"God woman." Janice stammered when she could finally speak. "You're... you're..."
"A quick study?" Mel offered with a giggle.
"Among other things," Janice murmured into the raven hair resting on her chest. "Is...everything okay?" She finally asked minutes later when her breathing returned to normal.
Mel looked up and smiled, blissful contentment evident in her features. "Very okay Janice Covington, and thank you for asking."
"Glad to hear it."
Mel traced random patterns on the abdomen in front of her, noting the thin sheen of sweat that covered Janice's body as well as her own. "How long is everyone going to be above deck?" She asked casually.
"Until dawn." Janice replied.
"I'm glad to hear it," Mel smiled. "It'd be a shame to trade something as valuable as a speed boat and not make the most of it."
"I couldn't agree more Melinda Pappas." Janice grinned, green eyes flashing with passion once more.
...The summer Gabrielle broke her leg was a pivotal one in our lives. We had been in the mountains of Parnasus, assisting a small village in their relocation when it became clear a nearby volcano was getting ready to erupt. We were almost done when a earthquake hit and destroyed what was left of the village. Gabrielle had been inside the main lodge at the time, her leg broken by a falling ceiling beam. We were fortunate that the break was a clean one. The two bones of her lower leg did not splinter, and I was able to set them in perfect alignment. We had been there for a couple of days recuperating when a messenger arrived.
Hercules had sent word from Thebes. The gods were at work, Ares gathering his forces preparing for a bloodbath. I was torn. I knew I had to go help, but every fiber of my being yearned to stay with Gabrielle. She was my heart, my soul and my life, and she knew it. It was her suggestion that since Poteidaia was on the way to Thebes I could drop her off there. I could continue on to help Herc and she could recover in the company of her family. At the time, it seemed like the perfect solution. Looking back I guess it still was, although there was a time when I'd have given anything to undo that decision. I know more now, and as Gabrielle has told me on numerous occasions, more good came from that decision than ill.
So it was that it was Argo's turn to carry Gabrielle in a travois as we slowly made our way down the mountain. We reached Potedia in three days. For once the fates seemed to be with us. There were no storms, no wandering marauders, no random thugs. It was a blissfully uneventful three days. I stayed the night with Gabrielle in her family home. Lila had taken over their childhood room, so I worked hard with everyone else to convert a large pantry into a suitable room for my bard. She was pleased with the results. To be honest, it was nicer than Lila's room, and that night we quietly made love, christening her new bed. "There, you see Xena." Gabrielle whispered as I rested my head on her thigh, "my leg doesn't hurt at all now."
"That's because all the blood has rushed from your brain." I replied as I gave her sweetness one more kiss before stretching out beside her.
"Possibly." She agreed trailing a finger down my sweat soaked neck. "How long do you think you will be?" she asked softly.
"I don't know," I answered honestly. "Ares is unpredictable. I'll leave at first light and get back as soon as I possibly can."
Gabrielle smiled, giving me a sight I'd carry in my minds eye all the way to Thebes. "I know you will Xena."
It actually took me a little less than two weeks to get back to Potedia. The ride to Thebes was quick, and within days Hercules and I were able to deduce Ares' plans and lay them to waste. Hercules is a smart man and a good one, but he just doesn't have the understanding of military strategy that I do. I was grateful that he realized it and sent for me as soon as he did. Hundreds of lives were saved; the suffering and pain of even more avoided. It wasn't hard to see through Ares plans, it was the same goal as always: to get me back into his fold and torture his half-brother in the process. And once again it was Ares who went back to Mount Olympus empty handed.
I arrived back in Potedia around mid-morning. I noticed immediately that the eyes that greeted me were cold. No one said anything. I was puzzled by the attitude of the villagers and sought out Gabrielle's family. Gabrielle was alone in her room. Everyone else was gone. My voice caught in my throat when she looked at me. Something had happened, something terrible. I wanted to rush to her but she kept me at a distance with her gaze. "What happened?" I whispered.
She just shook her head. "Xena, I want to leave. Now." I nodded. Her expression made it very clear that disagreement on that count would be a big mistake.
"But your leg?" I asked.
"Take me to Amphoplis," she said, "I'll finish recovering at your mother's." She looked at me shyly for a moment. "If you think she'll let me?"
"Of course she will Gabrielle." I said. "You know she thinks of you as another daughter anyway." Gabrielle nodded, and that was all that was said.
When we were ready to leave I felt a bit nervous. Her family hadn't shown up, and I felt bad leaving without saying goodbye. I said as much to Gabrielle.
"The others will tell them I'm gone." She replied, nodding to the curious looks aimed in our direction. "That's all they need to know. I've already said my goodbyes to my father. He's the only one who'd be interested anyway."
"Gabrielle, can you tell me what happened?" I finally asked, feeling helpless.
She shook her head, "Not here Xena. Give me some time when we get to Amphoplis, but not here."
I nodded, what else could I do?
The journey to Amphoplis was uneventful. As I suspected my mother was overjoyed to see Gabrielle. She was happy to see me too, but Gabrielle had found a special place in my mother's heart. I suspect it was a chance for my mother to envision a daughter untainted by violence and bloodshed. Since I was determined to stick around until Gabrielle's leg recovered, I made myself useful around the tavern. The roof needed mending, wood needed chopping, and an assortment of tables and chairs were in need of repair. When I changed Gabrielle's splint for the first time, I noticed some severe bruising. I asked her about it. She shook her head and said she'd fallen out of bed. I suspected she was lying, but didn't want to press the issue. The bones were still in alignment, and although it would be painful, and had set her back in her healing, she was essentially fine. I would press the issue later, when she was less fragile, if she neglected to tell me the truth before. My mother insisted on moving into my old room in the loft so Gabrielle and I could share her's downstairs. Gabrielle was still unable to manage stairs, and mother had made it clear to me that she was aware of the nature of our relationship.
"I'm glad you've settled down Xena." She said one morning over breakfast, while Gabrielle was bathing.
"Settled?" I asked, "I wouldn't exactly call my life settled."
Mother smiled, "I mean Gabrielle." She replied, "trust me, that's more settled then I ever hoped you be. Although a long time ago I fantasized about grandchildren..."
I forced a smile on my face. I had not told her about Solon, and didn't know if I'd ever have the courage to do so. What good was knowing about a grandson when he could never know his grandmother?
A couple of days later, I came in from chores to get some water. I noticed mother and Gabrielle at the table, talking. The tavern was closed; they were the only ones inside. As soon as I entered, mother squeezed Gabrielle's shoulder and left. "Xena," Gabrielle whispered, "we need to talk."
I nodded and sat down across from her. "Before I tell you Xena, you must promise me that you won't go crazy. I don't want you to do anything. I will handle this how I choose to handle this."
"Why don't you just tell me." I urged.
"No.'' She was adamant. "I want your word that you won't do anything, and I mean anything without talking it over with me first."
"Very well," I said, "you have my word."
She nodded. She was silent a few moments, clearly putting her thoughts in order, choosing her words. My apprehension grew; something very serious had happened.
"When we arrived in Poteidaia," she began, "most of the villagers were out on a hunt."
"Right," I confirmed. "We saw a heard of deer not far from the village on our way in."
She nodded. "The hunters returned two days after you left. It was a very successful hunt. It is a village tradition that when a big hunt is that successful, a lot of celebrating goes on." I nodded. We had a similar custom in Amphipolis.
"Okay." She said, shifting to another part of her story. "I don't know if you know this, but Perdicus has a brother. A younger brother." I shook my head, I didn't know. "His name is Erasmus. Lila mentioned her betrothed..."
"Right. She said something about it while we were fixing up your room. She didn't say his name, so can I assume it's Erasmus?"
"Yes." Gabrielle confirmed, tears starting to well up in her eyes. "The night of the hunt celebration Erasmus came to my room." My blood went cold. "He," she shrugged, "raped me."
"What?!" I lept to my feet, warlord fury coursing through my veins. Gabrielle stilled me with a look and reluctantly I sat back down.
"He was drunk, completely. He was so... so... angry. He blamed me for Perdicus' death, and said some equally unkind things. My staff was by the door, he grabbed it and hit me with it once, at my broken leg. I'm sorry Xena," she said, "there was no point in struggling or fighting. If I had fought back I'd have had to kill him, hurting him would only have made him angrier. As for struggling... he was looking for an excuse to hurt me, any excuse. I'm sorry Xena, I chose not to fight."
I stared at her wide-eyed. With what she just told me, she was worried how I'd feel? "He should die," I finally said.
"No Xena." She replied fiercely. "He was right. If I hadn't married Perdicus, he would still be alive."
"That's not true Gabrielle." I said quietly, "He threw down his sword in the middle of a battle. If you hadn't married him, he'd be dead by some sword other than Callisto's. Gabrielle," I urged gently, "if you didn't travel with me, if you weren't my soul, Perdicus would still be alive. It was Callisto's hate for me, it had very little to do with you."
Gabrielle took a deep breath. "Regardless of why, Perdicus is dead and Erasmus hadn't let go of his grief. He took it out on me, now it's over and done with."
"Did you tell someone?" I asked.
She laughed bitterly. "Yeah, I told my mother, my father and my sister. My father was the only one who believed me, finally convinced by the bruise on my leg when he changed the dressings of my splint. Mother and Lila accused me of trying to destroy Lila's chances at happiness. They said some things even more unkind then Erasmus had."
"About me?" I offered.
She shook her head, leveling blazing green eyes at me. "No Xena, about us. Xena, I love you above all others, I would go to Tarterus and back for you, and you know it. My family does not understand it. Your mother does, so does your brother. They are my family now."
"I'm going back there." I said, starting to get up again.
"You'll do no such thing." She said evenly, "Xena, think I'm pregnant. If I'm going to have a child I want you here, not rotting in some jail, arrested for murder."
"Oh, Gabrielle, I'm so sorry." I said, turning back around. "I might be able to..."
"No." She said quietly. "I've been thinking about it. Trust me, the thought crossed my mind, but if I am pregnant, I will keep the baby. It isn't the child's fault how it got here, after all. Besides, I think we would make good parents."
I sat back down. This was too much too fast. "Parents?" I mumbled, stunned.
Gabrielle smiled, "Funny, I think that was the expression my father wore when he found out about Lila."
That was the first of several conversations on the subject. It took time, Gabrielle talking about her experience in varying degrees of detail, until it was finally out of her system. The wound had been lanced and drained, now it just needed to heal. There would be a scar, and I always regretted that, but Gabrielle and I moved on. I waited until she was ready, until she approached me in bed before attempting to make love. When she did, I tried with every fiber of my being to erase the cruelty that she'd suffered. While nothing could really erase it, I think she appreciated my efforts.
As The Fates would have it, she was with child. My mother couldn't have been happier. Somehow, we all saw the pregnancy as a completely separate issue from how she got in that condition. It was necessary, in all fairness to the unborn child, to separate it from it's conception. Gabrielle was genuinely happy during her pregnancy. I think because she got to order me around mercilessly. I was hard at work building an addition to the tavern that would serve as our home. Mother and I were adjusting to being around each other again, and thanks to Gabrielle, she truly liked the person I had become.
My nervousness grew as her time approached. Mother teased me often, telling me that I acted like a nervous father. I didn't have the heart to tell her my concern was from having gone through the experience myself. Still, I suspected bearing a child alone in the woods was a bit more stressful than surrounded by loved ones.
One morning, as Gabrielle and I lay in an exhausted heap together, I heard a commotion outside. A centaur had come to Amphipolis looking for me. Gabrielle and I talked to him alone, and my heart broke. A fire had broken out in their village. Solon, attempting to save others, had been trapped by burning debris and lay dying at his uncle's house. I had been sent for to say good-bye to my son. I spun at the sound of a anguished gasp. Mother had overheard the conversation from where she stood in the doorway. I explained the whole story to her, right there and then, about Solon's birth and my reunion with him ten years later. Gods, that was eight years ago. Solon was a man now.
"You have to go to him." Mother and Gabrielle said in unison.
"But the baby..." I protested.
"Gabrielle will be fine." Mother assured me. "Remember Xena, I've had three. We have a skilled healer nearby if there is any trouble. She will be fine."
"You have to do this Xena," Gabrielle implored. "You won't be able to live with yourself if you don't."
It was with a heavy heart that I set out for the centaur village. I pushed Argo as hard as I dared, respectful of her gaining years. It took me three days to arrive. I was escorted to the room where my son lay dying, my eyes welling with tears as I saw his pained face. He was indeed a man now. He'd grown tall and strong. He was handsome, and I suppose looked more like me than his father, although his hair had stayed light. But I knew his eyes, they were mine. He smiled when he saw me in the doorway. "I sent for you Xena," he whispered.
"I'm here." I said taking his hand as I sat on a chair by the bed. His back had been broken and his skin had been badly burned in places. Inwardly I screamed in frustration because there was nothing I could do to save my son.
"I have a favor to ask of you. The wall that fell on me, I tried to save my wife, but I was not able to. I did save our daughter though. I want her to go with you." He gasped, struggling against unseen forces, then continued. "I want you to raise her."
"What?" I objected. "She should be here with your family."
He shook his head. "She should be with her family. Her name is Xena, after her grandmother."
I could do nothing but stare in disbelief. Solon knew. He laughed at my expression. "Of course I knew," he said. "But uncle Kaleipus didn't tell me. Look at my eyes Xena. There is only one other person with eyes this color, well two now. I asked uncle when I suspected, and he doesn't lie very well. Still, he tried to protect you by protecting me from the truth."
"Solon, I'm so sorry." I began.
"I know mother. I know why you did what you did. I know who you were, and who you became. What you did you did for me. And while I was very angry at first, now as a father I understand. Please mother, I'm dying. Promise me you'll raise Xena and love her so I can cross over in peace."
I nodded. "I'll love her as I've always loved my son," I whispered.
Solon sent for little Xena. It was then I did the one thing for him I could. I pinched several nerves on his neck. He was no longer in pain, but he didn't have much time. His body was giving up. I couldn't believe my eyes, Xena was indeed my descendant. The hair, the eyes, the defiant glare. At two years old, she looked like a much shorter version of me. Solon smiled as climbed up onto his chest, no longer in any pain. She listened with all the maturity she could muster as he explained he was going away to join her mother and that she needed to go with me. She cried, but when Solon did cross over and I opened my arms to her, she went to them willingly.
We left for home the next day. She'd already lost so much, I couldn't imagine how she'd ever pull through. But she did. I explained where we were going, who we would see, where she would live. She wasn't afraid of Argo, and for me that was a good sign. She rode well, and by the end of the week we were home.
Sure enough, Gabrielle had given birth. Xena and I entered our bedroom to see Gabrielle cradling a beautiful baby. "Xena," Gabrielle said, and we both turned our heads, "meet Lyceus." I cried at that, much to the confusion of little Xena, who answered to Xe more often than not. She called me Na and both of us were usually called our full name when we were in trouble.
My mother was positively beaming. I guess for her it was like watching Lyceus and me all over again, except that this time there was no Cortese, no warlord, no redemption. Toris was a good uncle, when he was around, and was fond of both children. Since Lyceus took to calling Gabrielle Mama, so did Xena. Since Xena called me Na or NaNa, Lyceus did too.
When they were old enough, they traveled with us. I slowly extracted myself from the 'hero business'. I could do more good raising healthy, bright children then I could traveling and handling petty disputes, so I stayed home more and more. When we did journey though, few negative comments were ever directed at my family. I certainly never heard anyone complain more than once, and they always apologized.
Gabrielle and I were very proud of our children. They were a source of constant joy for us, and there was never a dull moment. Lyceus was a charmer, able to talk his way out of almost anything. Xena was a hot head, and had inherited my tendency for direct confrontation. The village soon learned that they were an unstoppable team. They were also an anchor for us when life began to take it's toll. Argo was the first of our family to depart, followed many years later by mother.
By then, Xe and Ly had grown and moved on with families of their own. They visited often and in time we had our own grandchildren and great-grandchildren to spoil. They were there for Gabrielle after I died. I had broken my neck in a riding accident long after I should have known not to get on a horse. I think Gabrielle understood though. I would never have been able to wait for my body to slowly wither. Gabrielle and I were reunited sooner than I expected, our bodies resting side by side in the family crypt. Over the years, several others joined us before our children and their children had scattered to the winds weaving their lives in a rich tapestry. When all is said and done, I would not have changed a single thing...
Part 4 -(End)
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