FIFTY WINTERS AGO
"Y ou know, if we donít get ourselves killed, Iíd say this trip isnít turning out so bad after all."
"Speak for yourself." Xena glued her mustache back in place. "Iíve yet to experience the mayhem my travel agent enticed me with."
Gabrielle adjusted her wig in the mirror they currently shared. "The leisure activities donít meet your approval?"
Xena reached over to even out the dark coloring on her partnerís eyebrows. "On the contrary. I hadnít realized how invigorating they could be before a big mission. These quickie pit stops really rev up the old horses."
"Mm." Gabrielle rubbed rouge into her cheeks. "Too bad you didnít discover this sooner. Might not be any bad guys left in the world by now."
"Never too late, I always say." Xena grinned at Gabrielleís reflection. "Um, that is something else I always say, isnít it?"
Gabrielle straightened Xenaís mustache. "Depends on which time ëalwaysí starts. Youíve certainly said it a lot lately." Gabrielle cut her eyes at Xenaís reflection. "Mostly when it involves something inappropriate for most folks your age."
"Hogwash," Xena declared, putting on her turban. "Youíre as young as you - and someone who matters - believes."
Gabrielle snorted. "Yes, you certainly are getting as much mileage out of the romance thing as you can." Grimacing, she pulled the despised floppy hat down over her wig. "There. One puppet, ready to go."
"Awww Ö. Honey," Xena said in her Anthrax voice, draping her arms over the smaller womanís shoulders, "you look cute as a button."
"Grrrrr." Gabrielle shrugged away to stalk over to where her grandmotherly shawl lay. "Start getting somebodyís attention, before ëHoneyí makes herself an untimely widow."
Xena paused a moment to enjoy her partnerís pique. "Yes Ö dear." She turned and began banging on the door. "Hey, you out there! We need to talk to you!"
They heard muffled voices, then, some moments later, the sound of something being moved outside the door. It finally opened to Spiros. A couple of other men stood behind him.
"Itís late. I hope this is about something more important than forgetting to bring your dessert."
"Um, no, the missus and I took care of that ourselves." Xena ignored the poke in the back she received when Gabrielle came up behind her. "We had some concerns about security. Maybe some suggestions you might find helpful." She showed him her weaponless hands. "Wouldnít hurt to hear us out. We could talk here if you like."
Spiros studied the potential co-conspirators. He conferred with the other men. "All right. Weíll give you a few minutes."
Xena and Gabrielle backed up to let them in. The warrior sat at the table, where Spiros joined her. The other two men guarded the door. Gabrielle sat on the bed.
"So whatís on your mind?"
"A man of action. I like that." Xena relaxed in her chair, legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles. "Hereís the thing. Way we figure it, Cleades may have a snake in his lair. The warning we got came in the Kingís invitation. Did yours?"
Spiros frowned. "My wife opened it. I do know the notes came together." He looked at the other men.
"The threat was inside mine," the first man confirmed.
"Are you accusing one of the staff? Somebody here now?"
Xena shrugged. "Could be. Donít know why they havenít moved yet. Maybe waiting for Cleades."
"You mean, heís the real target?"
"Or `cause the spyís with him."
Spiros drummed his fingers on the table. He narrowed his eyes at Xena. "Quite a lot of conjecture, for ësimpleí folk here to wine and dine at the Kingís expense. Maybe you and Honey -."
"My nameís not `Honey.í" Gabrielle walked over to stand behind Xena. She smiled thinly and placed a hand on Xenaís shoulder. "Thatís my husbandís term of endearment." She squeezed Xenaís shoulder with apparent affection. "This isnít the first time Iíve had to clear that up."
"Oh, sorry about that. What are you called?"
Gabrielle rested her other hand on Xenaís turban. "Meg." She smiled as she none too gently prevented Xenaís head from tilting back.
"Meg?!" Spirosí eyes widened. "The Meg?"
Gabrielleís mouth dropped open. This time she did let Xenaís head tilt back and looked to the warrior for help. Xena simply gave her a "you got yourself into this, get yourself out" smile.
"Um, the Meg?"
Spiros studied the shorter of the two detainees. "Cleades did say she was comely, with dark hair. But the eyes Ö the heightÖ." His brow rose. "Youíd be mighty well preserved for somebody that old."
Gabrielle mentally kicked herself. So much for trying to out-clever Xena. Now "Spitunia" wouldnít seem so bad after all. She bought herself some time by coming around to sit at the table. She demurely adjusted her skirt and the bun on her neck.
"Oh, that Meg. No, no, Iím not that Meg. Iím -."
"Her daughter." Xena smirked at the expression on her partnerís face. She patted Gabrielle on the knee. "See, thatís why I started calling her ëHoneyí - soís we could tell `em apart." She shook her head. "If youíd known Meg, youíd understand why sheíd come up with something like naming her child the same thing."
All Gabrielle could do was nod in agreement.
Spiros continued examining Gabrielle. "How do we know this isnít a sham to get in our good graces? Anybody could claim they were related to the famous Meg."
"Famous?" Gabrielle blinked in genuine surprise. "Why, I hadnít realized she Ö um Ö Mother was so well known."
"Awww, Honey, think about it." Xena winked conspiratorially at Gabrielle. "Remember she saved Cleades when heíd been shrunk into a baby? How she helped him and Xena fight for his kingdom after he turned into his real age? I bet he spread that story far and wide in gratitude."
"Why didnít you tell us that in the first place?"
"Cleades said she shouldnít reveal who she was. We werenít sure why. Honey didnít like the idea at first. Sheís not quite as rambunctious as Meg Sr." Xena leaned toward Spiros with her hand partially covering her mouth. "I talked quite a bit with Meg when she lived with us for awhile," she whispered to him. "You know how it can get between mothers and daughters sometimes."
Spiros looked at Gabrielle, whoíd pretended not to hear the whispered information. "Prove it. What did Meg call Cleades?"
"Um Ö." Gabrielle glanced between Spiros and Xena.
"You know." Xena grinned at her partner. "`Pookie.í"
"Pookie?!" Gabrielle pursed her lips. "Anthrax, Iíve told you, when weíre in public -."
"No, no Ö dear," Xena soothed. "I meant the pet name Meg gave Cleades when he was in baby form."
"`Pookie.í Yes, thatís what the King said she called him." Spiros stood and bowed slightly. "Please accept my apologies. If weíd known who you were, we never wouldíve treated you with such suspicion." He turned to the men guarding the door. "Go summon the others. Tell them to meet us in the banquet hall. I donít think theyíll mind being disturbed for this news."
Xena lounged in a chair with her feet propped up on a table. Gabrielle perched on another table a few feet away, nearly surrounded by the other guests. Theyíd "oooed" and "aaaahed" when learning Megís daughter was among them. Theyíd told her how Meg was a hero to Cleades despite her original intent to kidnap him for herself. She became the inspiration for their gatherings, which the King had hosted once a decade for about 40 years to celebrate courageous acts like hers. Gabrielle obliged their curiosity about Meg by telling them of the warrior barmaidís escapades with the Warrior Princess.
Xena was grateful for the diversion. Her gut warned that trouble would strike soon. Sheíd wandered off while Gabrielle did her bard thing, double checking the doors and satisfying herself that the three servants posed no threat. Still, she wished the other guests had some clue about their potential attackers and their motivation. She wished she herself had a clue what to do with all the potential gray-haired victims. Most seemed almost resigned to whatever fate awaited them. Gabrielleís stories were perking them up a bit, but they needed to give some thought to a defense.
"Folks?" Xena stood and got Gabrielleís attention. "Folks, I hate to break this up, but I think weíve got some planning to do."
The group reluctantly tore their attention away from Gabrielle to glower at Xena.
"Whatís your opinion, Meg?" the stout woman pointedly asked the celebrity in their midst. "You grew up listening to your motherís missions with Xena. Do you really think weíre in that much danger? What can a bunch of grandparents like us do about it anyway?"
Gabrielle beckoned her partner to approach. "Um, well, Anthrax is actually pretty knowledgeable about such things. My experience is second hand." She paused to allow Xena to sit next to her on the table. "We did give this some discussion. We do believe the danger could be very real, even though the compound is difficult to break into. Anthrax? Would you like to add anything?"
Xena stroked her goatee. "I gotta tell ya, the missus and I sometimes disagree on whatís appropriate for folks our age." She waited for Gabrielleís steely-eyed permission before standing and sweeping her gaze across everyone as she mightíve done with her army.
"I look around this room and see lots of experience. Some of you, like Lynal, have years of toughness in those old bones." She patted her prominent belly. "May not look like it, but I myself keep in shape, as does the missus." She saw a few nods added to the looks of skepticism. "If Meg Sr. was here, do you think sheíd nap with a bunch of goons threatening?"
A few heads bowed.
"Nope. Wouldnít matter how old she was, sheíd find a way."
More heads nodded.
"This is one time I think Honey Ö um, Meg JrÖ. and I see eye to eye on showiní whoeverís out there that they canít take us for granted." Xena sought confirmation of this from her partner.
Gabrielle gave her a long look before answering, "Yes, I trust that Anthrax has some reasonable ideas for a defense." She sought confirmation of this from her partner.
"Absolutely. I say we take a few minutes to talk about our options, get some sleep and wake up ready for whatever comes." She raised a fist. "For Meg!"
Slowly others stood and raised their fists. "For Meg!"
A s dawn broke, the scraggly band of 15 or so began their approach toward the compound. The strongest carried the battering ram on their shoulders. A few feet from the front door, Areus signaled for three men to take up positions guarding the other sides. He gestured for the rest to prepare to break down the door. Before he could give the command, the peephole opened up.
"Ho there," a voice said from within. "You here to join the party?"
Areus stood frozen with his mouth open. This was not quite the reception heíd expected.
Monlika came up beside him. "Think itís a trap?" she whispered.
Areus ground his teeth. "Who cares? Whatíre they gonna use against us? Canes?"
Monlika grinned. "I hope itís more fun than that."
"Yeah!" Areus shouted at the door. "Weíre here for the party. Wanna see our invites?"
"No need. Weíve been expecting you." The door opened. "Nameís Anthrax. Follow me." Xena turned her back on the door and started walking toward the interior.
"Hold up!" Areus waited for Xena to turn around. "We need you close at hand." He smirked. "Wouldnít wanna get lost." He backed away from the door, indicating that Xena should come outside.
Xena shrugged and did as instructed. Monlika came up behind and lightly pressed her knife blade into her taller captiveís back. Areus waited while two of his men cautiously peeked inside the door. They nodded that the coast was clear.
"Hereís the deal." Areus got in Xenaís face. "Donít know what youíre up to, but if thereíre any surprises, youíll be the first with a slit throat. Whereíre the others?"
"In the dining hall. About to start breakfast."
"Mighty relaxed, for folks marked to die."
Xena shrugged again. "All got to die sometime. Not like weíre that far from it anyway. Better to get one last good meal in our bellies, than waste time huddling around waitiní to be killed." She squinted at Areus. "Besides, weíre kinda curious why youíre so anxious to hurry us to our graves."
Areus snickered. "Oh, ya wanna chat, do ya?" He turned to the others. "Hear that? Theyíre `curiousí about why weíre here. Think we should satisfy their curiosity before we put `em out of their misery?"
"I didnít wait all this time for talk!"
"Whatís wrong with telliní `em whatís what?" asked one of the younger soldiers. "They should know why theyíre dyiní."
"Itíd be like a trial," piped up another.
"Yeah! With the executions thrown in."
Areus laughed with the others. "Okay, quiet down. Sounds like weíve got an affirmative on the ëtrial by fireí idea." He directed his men to lay down the battering ram. He told one man to inform the three guards to stay outside until further notice and stationed another at the front. "Monlika, you go first. Keep our friend here in front of you."
"Yes, sir, boss. Be glad to."
Monlika pushed Xena ahead of her, holding the knife pressed against her back. Areus followed. He had Xena point the direction to the banquet hall. As the others came in, he directed them to check the hallways. They tested the doors to all the rooms, finding them unlocked, no one inside. They reassembled near the front.
"Keep your eyes open." Areus unsheathed his sword and led the way to the banquet hall. Once there, he put his ear to one of the double doors. "Yeah, somebodyís in there all right." He stepped aside and motioned for Xena to go in. She obeyed.
Groups of four to five guests quietly conversed at half the 12 or so tables in the room. They looked up at the rag-tag soldiers bursting in, but more with mild curiosity than fear. Most calmly watched the interlopers fan out around the room, weapons drawn.
Areus swaggered to a small podium in front. "Well, well, well. I was hopiní for a little more action, but what can you expect from a bunch of do-gooders?" He surveyed the occupants with a sneer. "A bunch of old, used-up do-gooders."
A tall man stood. "Iím Spiros, ëmain greeterí for the bunch of `old do-gooders.í And you would be?"
"Nameís Areus. And in case you got any funny ideas, weíre gonna keep your boy Anthrax in our possession." He gestured over to where Monlika gleefully pantomimed cutting Xenaís throat.
"No need for threats," Spiros assured him. "Or, should I say, more threats. The first was sufficient."
"Yeah? That mean ya got a death wish?"
Spiros smiled. "Cleades lays out a spread good enough to die for."
"Doesnít seem much of a host to me, leaving his guests unprotected."
"He had to make a quick trip. He seemed unaware there might be uninvited company."
"That so?" Areus ran his finger along his sword blade, drawing blood. He drew a "C" in red on the front of the podium. "Letís hope he returns in time to enjoy the surprise."
Spiros glanced around at his silently waiting friends. "Yes, we did wonder about that - the surprise. Do we know you? Have we offended you in some way?"
"Funny you should ask. We was just talkiní about that ourselves. Beiní the professionals we are, we decided to make it official."
Areus caught sight of a high-back, ornate chair. He beckoned for one of his men to place the chair next to the podium. He lowered himself into it, appreciating the way its height elevated him above his seated prey.
"I feel like a judge," he said, grinning conspiratorially at his gang. "You there," he called to one of the servants standing nervously near the kitchen. "Bring us some of that food to die for. The rest of you might as well eat, drink and be merry at your last meal."
The servants brought out food, which Areus made them sample before distributing to his men. The guests ate in silence as Areus and his gang gorged themselves on dishes indeed fit for a king. Finally he belched and dropped his eating utensils on the floor.
"Well, that was civilized. Time to move on to the good stuff." Areus took out a knife and banged its handle on the podium. "Hear hear! The court will now decide the fate of the old geezers who serve in the army of our worst enemy - Xena the Warrior Bitch!"
Areus cocked his head at the small woman in a floppy hat who had jumped to her feet. "Youíre out of order, missy. Guess I forgot to mention you donít get to speak."
"S-s-sorry, sir." Gabrielle remembered to flutter her hands. "Please, pray tell what Xena has to do with you. She hasnít harmed anyone in years."
Areusí face darkened. He slid slowly off his chair and stalked a few steps toward Gabrielle. The guests held their breaths.
"Hey! Where you do ya think youíre goiní?"
Areus swiveled around to where Monlika stood with her free arm wrapped around her captiveís neck.
"Silly old coot tensed up, like he might bolt or somethiní." Monlika pressed her knife blade in deep enough to cause discomfort. "Any excuse and Iíll cut whatever spine heís got left."
"No!" Gabrielle hunched forward on the table as if faint, in the process knocking a metal goblet to the floor. Its clatter drew attention back to her. "Thatís my husband. Heís just worried about me. Anthrax? Please. You know how I get the vapors when Iím upset." She let her eyes roll up a little for emphasis.
Xena sucked in her cheeks. She relaxed her body.
Monlika loosened her neck hold. "Awww, and I was so hoping for a little fun."
Areus snickered. "You people take this hero worship much too seriously. Told ya it would get you killed." He focused on Gabrielle again. "The stories were bad enough. But you people couldnít let them die. No, you had to keep `em alive, spread `em around, soís theyíd keep hittiní us in the face, generation after generation. Well, it stops here!"
"Sir?" Gabrielle picked up a cloth from the table and gently patted her face. "Weíre here to talk about Meg. Yes, she sometimes worked with Xena, but - ."
"Quiet, woman! Before I kill you and your stupid man."
Gabrielle meekly bowed her head, in truth hiding a sudden flash of annoyance at having argued against the very mayhem she dearly wished to engage in at that moment. She didnít dare look at Xena. The warriorís smug calmness might send her over the edge. Instead, she fluttered her hands against her chest and sank heavily into her chair.
Areus walked back to sit on his "throne." He pompously surveyed the room. "We donít care about Meg or any of the other ëheroesí you yammer on about. Xenaís the main one who ruined our lives." He glanced over at Monlika. "Tell `em."
Monlika let her knife hand dangle over Xenaís shoulder and faced the gathering. "My grandpa was a simple man. Poor. Joined Xenaís army and said heíd be back with riches." She snorted. "She turned him into an assassin - the best. After sheíd become do-gooder, she broke him out of jail, then killed him. My pop named me after Monlik but didnít have the guts to avenge his death. It may be too late for me to get my hands on Xena herself, but not the fools who keep her name alive."
"Mezentius sired me," stated a grizzled soldier with a scarred face. "I remember he visited us a few times when he was in the area. Ma said he was rich and powerful, that maybe one day heíd let me take a place at his side. Xena made sure that never happened. Iíve hated her ever since."
Others added to the roster of people they accused Xena of wronging - Krykus, captured when she first united the Amazons and Centaurs; Deiphobus, brought down when she helped Helen in Troy; the warlord Cortes, gaming club owner Titus and gang leader Zantor, whose downfalls sheíd also engineered. Some held a particular grudge because of relatives who died at her hands, like King Xerxes, whoíd tried to eliminate the Black Wolf rebels; Lord Sinteres, a renowned master of pressure points; and Dagnine, whose obsession with the Ixion Stone she inspired and then snuffed out permanently.
When the gang members present finished recounting their personal grudges, Areus leaned forward in his chair. "My old man was Darphus. He challenged Xena for her army and won. She betrayed him, gutted him after she took up with Hercules. I was a baby when it happened. All my life Iíve born the shame that Darphus ëmadeí Xena into the scourge of those whose only fault is knowing how to use strength and weakness to our advantage."
Areus got down and walked around the room, stopping a moment in front of various guests. "The world needs people like us, just like the forest needs predators to keep things in balance. Without us, mortals would become too soft to survive. Do-gooders like you wouldnít have nothiní to do but twiddle your thumbs. But how do you honor us?" His lips twisted in a sneer. "You forget about Xena the Destroyer of Nations and celebrate Xena the destroyer of our families, our way of life, our reputations."
Areus returned to his chair. "Weíve been remembering Xena too in our own way. In fact, I got the idea for this reunion from Cleades. I heard about his hero-worship parties. Iíve spent years locating the descendants of Xenaís enemies. The ones here today had the guts to put things back in balance."
Spiros stood. "So what happens now? You slaughter us like sheep? Or do you allow us to take up weapons and defend ourselves?"
Areus gaped at him. "Defend yourselves?!" He exchanged disbelieving glances with the rest of his crew. "What would you old farts do with weapons?"
"No offense, but you and a few others in your Ö group Ö arenít exactly spring chickens."
"What are you saying?"
"Some among us could volunteer to challenge your warriors of comparable age." Spiros puffed out his chest. "I would." Lynal and Winston stood. Xena raised her hand. "We could fight in the garden, each member using the weapon of his choice."
"Th-thatís ridiculous! We have the upper hand. Why should we give it away to old farts who donít deserve spit?"
"Your traditions? Your honor?" Spiros looked at each of the gang members. "Surely ëprofessionalsí wouldnít be afraid to test what you say Xena had no right to deprive them of? Unless, of course, youíre saying she succeeded."
"No!" Scarface brandished his sword. "Iíve waited 50 years to avenge the blood in my veins. I would gladly fight for Mezentius!"
"Me too," echoed two other gray-haired veterans.
"Wait a minute! What about the rest of us?" Monlika pointed at the guests. "And them? Why not let all of us fight?"
Areus pursed his lips. He didnít like the feel of this. It was one thing to brag about storming in, ëtryingí and executing the allies of an old enemy. It was quite another, if word somehow got out that these old buzzards challenged him and heíd backed off or Ö. No, he wouldnít even contemplate defeat.
Areusí head whipped around to the woman who couldnít seem to keep her mouth shut. "Now what?!"
"Didnít you leave some men outside? You have some weighty issues to ponder. Might your men want food and to give their votes on the decision?"
"Votes?! This is an army, you fool. I give the final command."
"Areus, the lady has a point." Scarface gazed meaningfully at their leader. "Iíve waited for this long as you. Monlika was one of the first to join up when she heard about us. Wouldnít hurt to talk about makiní this more interestiní. Whoís to stop us from doiní what we want in the end?"
Areus recognized the subtle challenge to his authority. He pulled himself up. "Zentius is right. We still hold the power, whatever we decide. I canít deny the proper reward to those of you who have been loyal." He addressed the servants. "Put some food together for my men outside." He singled out a few soldiers. "You four relieve the others. No telliní when Cleades might get back. Weíll let you know what we come up with and see what you think. That suit you?" The men nodded.
The servants prepared trays and handed them to two of the relief guards. As they were about to head for the door, Xena jumped up out of Monlikaís grasp.
"Please! Donít make me go out with them! My wifeís poor heart might not take it!"
Monlika quickly reached up to put her knife at Xenaís throat. "Whatever we do, this oneís mine! I think he aims to be a hero."
Areus sneered. "You know, Antyrocks, I believe sheís right." He cocked his head thoughtfully. "Not a bad idea though. Monlika, you go in Gorgonís place. Take Anty with ya. Iím likiní the way you two look together." He turned to leer at Gabrielle, who seemed near apoplexy. "That oughtta keep him and his woman quiet for awhile. Or, better yet, permanently."
After feigning reluctance, Xena slumped her shoulders and let herself be pushed out the door along with the replacement guards.
Areus directed the remaining prisoners to bring their chairs to the front and pack closely together. He motioned for the soldiers to sit where they could keep an eye on everyone. The gang began a spirited discussion about what to do next. It was some minutes later that Areus realized no one had returned. He sent Zentius out to check. When Zentius didnít come back either, Areusí bad feeling got worse. He put up his hand and stood.
"Somethiní ainít right. Gorgon, you and Titan stay here. If any of `em so much as sneeze, kill `em. The rest of you come with me."
X ena followed three guards down the long hall, with Monlika behind. Theyíd gone a few steps when Xena "tripped." In a flash, sheíd spun, grabbed the dagger at her back and brought it up to sever Monlikaís windpipe, using the womanís own sleeve to trap the blood. Except for a slight "whoosh" from her lips, Monlika crumpled quietly to the floor. Xena cleaned the dagger on Monlikaís leg before inserting the knife in her waistband.
She quickly came up behind her next prey. He, like the other middle guard, carried a tray. She tapped him on the shoulder. "Monlika told me to take that," she whispered in his ear. As he instinctively turned toward her, she grabbed the tray in one hand and snapped his neck with the other. She let his body slide down hers, then noiselessly set the tray on the floor.
The last two were now nearing the entrance. Xena simultaneously pressed the dagger against the closer oneís back and her palm over his mouth.
"Hey, there," she called quietly to the remaining man. He looked back. His eyes bulged, but that was about the only reaction he had time for, before a knife handle slammed into his forehead. His colleague gaped as the guard fell unconscious.
"Like Areus said, donít be a hero." Xena pointed behind him. He turned and saw the two bodies. He swallowed, soon nodding his head. Xena gestured for him to set the tray on the floor. After heíd done so, she jabbed her fingers in his neck. His legs buckled.
"Iíve cut off the flow of blood to your brain," she warned as he dropped to his knees. "If you cooperate, Iíll let you live."
The guard stared at what he thought must be a demon in disguise. He managed to choke out, "Y-e-ss."
Xena took his sword and released the pinch. She gestured for him to help her deposit his comrades in a sleeping chamber, after which she knocked him out, then bound and gagged the two unconscious men. She put one of the trays in with them before closing the door. She opened the peephole.
"Areus thought you might be hungry. He ordered me to bring you some food."
"Come on out." The guard backed away from the door.
Xena came out and took a few steps forward. She placed the tray on the ground. "Iíve got more for the others," she informed him. She turned as if to go back inside.
"About time somebody remembered us."
When the man bent to sample the food, Xena spun and kicked him in the head. She dragged him to a nearby tree and used vines to prop him sitting against it. Anyone looking out the peephole would probably think he was dozing. She got the tray again and went around to the other three guards, each time leaving them unconscious and bound to a tree. She positioned herself against a side of the building, close enough to the front where she could keep an eye on the entrance. A minute later, she heard someone call out.
"Garus! What in Tartarus are you doing?! You were síposed to come in." The door opened slightly. "Monlika?"
Zentius cautiously stuck his head out. He didnít like the quiet, but he couldnít see anything very wrong either. He unsheathed his sword, walking slowly toward where Garus appeared to be napping, every now and then checking behind him. When he glanced back just before reaching Garus, his mouth dropped open at the sight of a tall, colorful figure standing in front of the door.
"You?! What Ö Whereís Ö."
"I sense thereís a question just dying to come out. Perhaps I can help." Xena strolled a few paces toward him. "If youíre looking for your friends, theyíre taking a break."
Zentius swung his head from side to side, puzzled at not seeing anyone else. "Donít know what game youíre playiní, but it ainít good for your health."
"I appreciate the advice," Xena said, continuing her approach, "but Iím afraid Iím a little pressed for time."
Zentius realized his captive now carried a sword. He raised his own. "Whatíre you gonna do with that?" He snorted. "You figure `cause Iíve got a few years on ya, you can take me?"
Xena came close enough to lay her sword against his. "Not really. I donít put much stock in years."
Next thing Zentius knew, his hand was empty and a fist smashed into his face. Xena trussed him up and dragged him into the stable. She soon heard Areusí voice.
"Zentius?! Whatís going on out there?!"
Xena cracked open the door. "Over here!" she yelled, doing her best to sound like Monlika. "The stable!" She piled some hay over Zentius.
Areus came outside, accompanied by four others. "Whatíre you doing?! Whereíre the rest?!"
"Having some fun with Anthrax! Almost done!"
"You fool!" Areus led the others to the stable. "This ainít some game!"
Xena lay curled on her side, facing the front with her hands behind her.
Areus cautiously pushed open the door. He stood at the threshold letting his eyes adjust to the interior. "Monlika?" He approached the body on the floor, glancing around for his female ally. Suddenly his feet flew out from under him.
"She had another appointment," Xena said, head-butting his lights out. She sprang to her feet to deal with the four who came rushing in. A few kicks and punches later, all lay out cold. She was tying up the last of them, when she heard several horses galloping down the road.
"Halt!" King Cleades put his hand up to the guards accompanying his carriage. He peered down at the compound. "Everything looks fine, Balthus. Well, except youíd think the guests would be in the garden on a beautiful day like this." He signaled for the driver to proceed. "First you send us on a wild goose chase away from here. Then you have me racing back because your nerves are unaccountably on edge. Youíd think you were the crazy old man here, instead of me."
"Iím sorry, sir. My informants are usually reliable. They insisted there could be some truth behind rumors of marauders at the northern boundary. I still think it was a good idea to send the bulk of your guards back to the castle, while we checked on things down here. Who knows? Maybe the idea was to lure us away and attack while we were gone."
As they neared the stable, Cleades noted the guestsí wagons. He was just about to relax, when Balthus touched his arm.
"Sir, did you assign guards here after all, before we left?" Balthus pointed to what looked like a sentry nodding off in the front yard.
Cleades frowned. "No, I didnít." He started to direct one of his guards to check it out, when a figure emerged from the stable.
"Hey there, Kingy. A bit late, but your timing couldnít be better."
Cleades and Balthus gaped at the tall man, turbaned, in a flowing robe. "Do I know you?" the King asked, having a feeling he did.
Xena walked over to the carriage and extended her hand. "Anthrax. Been awhile since I dropped in on ya." She winked. "Back when both of us were a little younger. You were Ö in transition Ö to your throne, so to speak."
The Kingís eyes widened in stunned recognition. "Y-y-yes," he stammered, shaking Xenaís hand. "So good to see Ö you Ö again. I wondered if you would make it."
"Sir?" Balthus frowned at what to him was a mystery guest. "I donít recall -."
"Before your time, Balthus. Anthrax, this is my personal assistant." Cleades stood a bit shakily and let Xena help him down. Balthus followed.
"Assistant, you say?" Xena maintained her steadying support for the frail King, while wrapping her other arm around a startled Balthus. "You wouldnít happen to know a fellow by the name of Areus, wouldya?"
Balthus nearly choked. He tried to disentangle himself, only to find the steely arm around him locked in place.
"Iíll take that as an affirmative." Xena pointed her chin toward the stable. "Why donít I fill you guys in on how the partyís been going? Cleades, you might let your guards know weíll need a little private time."
Though still puzzled, the King heeded Xenaís suggestion. He allowed her to help him - and drag a reluctant Balthus - into the stable. Both men gasped at the hog-tied figures decorating the floor.
Xena gently deposited Cleades on a bale of hay. Still holding on to Balthus, she walked over to the unconscious gang leader. She crouched in front of him, pulling Balthus down with her. "Areus! Wakey wakey." She lightly slapped his face.
Areus stirred. His eyes blinked open. They narrowed, then darkened, when they focused on the slight, balding man beside Xena. "You! You bastard!"
"No! Itís a mistake!" Balthus did his best to manufacture outrage. "Iíve never seen this man before." He squinted meaningfully at Areus. "Itís not too late to set things straight."
Areusí lip curled in a snarl. "Look at me, you fool! Look at my men! Itís too late for all of us!"
Xena nodded. She pulled Balthus to his feet, pushed him onto a stool and tied his arms and feet. "Come, Cleades," she said, helping the King up and leading him to the door. "Letís chat a few moments in your carriage."
Gorgon and Titan paced uneasily in front of their prisoners. The two werenít the brightest candles burning, but even they deduced something was amiss. Though theyíd briefly discussed one of them going to check on the rest, they quickly decided their chances were better staying put.
After what seemed liked hours, they heard a voice outside the banquet door yell, "My missus better be okay!" They turned to see Anthraxís head poke in, followed by Areusí. The guards sighed in relief.
"Boy, am I glad to see you." Gorgon walked toward the door.
"Yeah, boss," Titan added, turning his back on the guests. "Where you been? We almost started the party without ya." He never saw the floppy hat coming down to cover the top part of his face. Nor did he have time to pull it off before a heavy metal pitcher bonked him on the head, sending him slumping to the floor.
"What the -." Gorgon turned at the noise behind him. He started when he felt a sharp point in his back.
"Walk nicely to the table, or Iíll push the blade through."
Gorgon did as told. When given permission to turn, his mouth dropped open at Anthrax standing in front of him. An old man stood with what looked like Royal guards surrounding him. One held a bound Areus, whose cheeks seemed fuller than usual. Soon other guards pushed in the rest of the surviving gang.
"Itís okay, everyone." Xena raised her fists, thumbs up. "King Cleades is back and has everything under control."
The room burst into pandemonium.
Cleades sat on his high chair, bemusedly observing the scene in front of him. Half the guests surrounded the small, dark-haired woman whoíd bopped Titan on the head. She sat fanning herself as if nearly overcome by her own bravado. Others tossed questions at "Anthrax." A few argued with Spiros about what advice to give the King on handling the situation. Finally Cleades reached in his robe and pulled out the bell heíd begun using to save his fragile vocal chords. He rang it as vigorously as he could. Gradually the din quieted.
"First, a belated welcome to you all. My apologies for not being here to assure a more proper reception."
"Thatís all right," the silver-haired matron said. "Meg more than made up for that!"
"Meg?!" Cleades glanced around in confusion.
"I donít believe youíve had the pleasure of meeting Meg Jr. in person." Xena pushed through Gabrielleís admirers to stand next to her partner. "Meg Sr.ís daughter." She grinned at Cleades, her eyes glinting mischievously. "My wife. Sorry, guess I forgot to mention that."
Cleades shook his head, catching Xenaís hint. "Uh, glad to hear that. What a Ö fortuitous Ö joining."
"Iíll say. Very sudden. See, I was courtiní a woman named Spitunia at the time. Meg Jr. kinda sneaked up on me. She mustíve -."
"Anthrax," Gabrielle interrupted through gritted teeth, "I think itís sufficient to say we were both surprised at the outcome."
"Yeah, well looks like you chose right," one of the guests enthused. "Sheís a `chip off the old block.í A hero, just like Meg Sr."
Gabrielle fanned herself. "Thank you, thank you. It was nothing. I didnít like that old hat anyway." She smiled modestly as everyone laughed. "But you know, we mustnít overlook Anthrax." She blinked adoringly up at her partner. "No doubt he played some role in our rescue."
"Now, now, dear." Xena patted Gabrielle on the head. "Much as Iíd like to brag, I didnít do anything out of the ordinary. Besides, itís only right you should have the spotlight. Letís not forget, Megís the reason weíre all here."
Spiros chuckled. "Very sensible of you, Anthrax - touting the mother-in-law - though itís a bit of an exaggeration."
"Quite right," said the matron. "Above all, we mustnít forget Xena and Gabrielle."
Cleades noticed two pairs of eyebrows shoot up. He began laughing so hard the guests feared for his health. He raised a hand to ward off well-meaning attention.
"I fear this may be too much for a man my age. But before I retire to rest, it seems I neglected to orient our new guests sufficiently."
"Yeah, like not telliní `em the passwords." Winston glared at Lynal. "In case somebodyíd `membered ta ask."
"Yes, yes, my apologies for that as well. I take it you didnít introduce yourselves to them?"
Spiros cleared his throat. "Um, I may have fallen down a bit in my vice-host duties, what with the excitement and all."
"Ah. Weíll rectify that shortly. You see Ö Anthrax Ö and Ö Meg, itís true this all began because of Meg - um, Sr., that is."
Cleades explained that heíd always wondered what became of Meg. Technically, Xena had saved him and his kingdom in the end, but he credited Megís maternal instincts, quick wit and courage for initiating his escape from the "baby" state heíd been consigned to. When heíd regained his adult form, it was what heíd learned in her company that helped him become a better leader. He recounted his attempts to find Meg, how he kept running into others who had, as children, been similarly rescued - not by Meg, but by Xena and Gabrielle.
Winston nodded his head. "Didnít know who she was at first," he acknowledged. "Mustíve been about 10. I hated her `cause her armyíd burned down our village, made me an orphan. One day, this woman warrior rides up on a gold horse. I begged her for food. She threw me some breadín cheese. Wasnít much, but ëtwas the first kindness anybodyíd shown in a long time. Never forgot it. Later, I heard Xenaíd turned ta good. Woman they described sounded like the one I saw. Hard to keep hatiní the other Xena Iíd heard about but hadnít really seen."
"She and Gabrielle kept me and some other kids from being tossed out of an orphanage," Lynal said.
"I wouldíve been an orphan as well. Iíd been put in a basket and sent downriver. They found me, stopped me from being killed by someone who thought Iíd grow up to be a threat to him. Xena convinced King Gregor to take me as his son. Thatís how I got my name - Gabriel."
"Iím Melina. This horrid blond warlord attacked our village, claiming she was Xena. A dark-haired woman fought her. The blonde threw her knife right at me! The other woman dove over and caught it before it struck me. I found out she was Xena, that the other woman was really Callisto."
"I am called Meadea. Xena save us from painted men." The small, soft-spoken woman shuddered. "I watch her slam into tree because of me. I think she die. Many moon after, I hear of woman dark and brave like her. I so happy she alive."
"Yeah, Gabrielle almost died saving me - Timuel. There was a big battle going on between Thessaly and the Minatoans. I got separated from my father when everyone took refuge in a healing temple. She was wounded after she came out to get me."
"My name is Sarita," said the stout woman. "My two brothers and I saw Xena get shot with an arrow defending our village. My father took her in." She sighed. "Our mother had died. We hoped Xena would take her place. I had lost the will to speak. Xena was so warm and funny, I suddenly found my voice again, trying to get her to stay with us. When I was older, I understood she had more important work to do."
The silver-blond matron smiled ruefully. "My own experience wasnít nearly as bad as most others. Iím Queen Alecia - a rather spoiled princess at the time. Iíd run away because I too had lost my mother. Xena helped me accept my new one. Even though Zantorís gang attacked us, I had more to fear from the stories told me by Xenaís friends Joxer and Aphrodite." She chuckled. "Xena became my fairy godsmother." She touched the arm of the woman seated next to her. "Perhaps Daphne got `up close and personal` with the Warrior Princess more than anyone."
"Yes, Aphrodite accidentally trapped Xena in my body. I was very ill, partly from grief at my motherís mysterious death. Xenaís energy saved me. While she was inside, I did the most amazing feats. Yet what impressed me most was how she told me of her own childhood and helped me repair my relationship with my father."
Others shared their stories. They also spoke for some of the members who had passed on or couldnít attend: Icus, whose jealous brother drugged their father into nearly sacrificing Icus. King Lias II, almost kidnapped as a baby from his mother Diana and who had also recalled hearing of Meg because she worked awhile in his castle. Marissa, whom Xena had carried to safety during a siege at Corinth. Pilee, known for the mediating skills sheíd exhibited between her blood family and the Pomira tribe who had kidnapped and raised her. Everyone agreed that, like Daphne, most of them didnít stress being rescued, so much as learning the importance of self-respect, courage, generosity, humility, or that being a hero could even be fun sometimes.
Spiros spoke last. He rose importantly, ignoring the eye rolls of the other guests. "It wonít surprise my friends if I take exception to Areusí claim that his father, Darphus, `madeí Xena. According to bards who attended the Athens Academy with Gabrielle, one of her first stories was about how warlord Xena saved an infant - the act of kindness that gave Darphus the excuse to brutally sever her from her army. She joined Hercules shortly after. Needless to say, I was that baby."
"Yeah, yeah, but technically Cleades is still the oldest."
"Not to mention the only one of us who remembers Xena and Gabrielle as less than 10 feet tall."
Cleades smiled at the puzzled expressions on his mystery guestsí faces. "You see, I found so many people theyíd saved that I decided to limit the group to the period in my own life when it had such an impact - childhood. Except for me, everyone else here was no more than 12 when they encountered our heroes. We decided not to take in people who claim to have been saved as children after those 25 or so years when Gabrielle and Xena appear to have risen from the dead."
"We may need to reconsider that," Spiros added, "given our age and how our numbers have dwindled. Itís just that the newer tales we hear donít have the same Ö."
"Humanity?" Alecia sighed wistfully. "We or our folks remember them before they became such legends. When they still had faults and doubts like the rest of us."
"Yeah. When the hero stuff was still new for `em." Winston looked into the distance. "That woman who tossed food ta me knew she werenít betterín me, just luckier. But even though I didnít have no food, I was luckier in my way. Her eyes said that whatever she hungered for, food wouldnít make it go away."
Cleades broke the silence that fell. He addressed Xena and Gabrielle. "Those of us here may not have much time left. We could use a more Ö objective Ö opinion. What do you two think? Should we expand our membership? Forget our restrictions?"
Xena had been sitting next to Gabrielle during the guestsí stories. Her head remained bowed, as if she were contemplating the Kingís question. Gabrielle knew a lot more was going on behind the disguised visage. She grasped Xenaís hand.
"As grateful as you are, itís children like you who helped Xena feed the hunger Winston saw in her. Meg hungered for the child she couldnít have. I believe it was the good deed she did for baby Cleades that allowed her to conceive."
Gabrielle glanced at the sullen captives hunched over tables under the watchful eyes of guards.
"Areus and his gang grew up hungering for something they never got - love, justice, respect. They hoped to force that from others. You have children, grandchildren, younger friends, neighbors. Whatever it is you believe you received from your heroes, I canít think of a better way of passing it on than to continue giving the good part of yourselves and trusting others to carry on for you."
"And you, Anthrax?" Cleades said softly to Xena. "Would you agree?"
Xena straightened. "I do. Tell folks to be their own heroes." She smiled. "That way you wonít have to worry anymore about running out of stories or time to tell `em."
PART 7 (Conclusion)
X ena and Gabrielle spent awhile with Cleades in his private quarters. The King relaxed on his bed as they discussed recent events. Heíd been shocked to learn from Balthus that the trusted servant had been planning his betrayal since before he joined the court staff nearly 12 years ago. Heíd never bothered to reveal that his grandfather was Kryptus, the corrupt official whoíd taken over when the King had been turned into a baby and plotted to steal the treasure to which Cleades was the "key."
Balthus blamed Meg and Xena for disgracing his family and robbing him of the power and riches he might have inherited, had those do-gooders not intervened. Heíd run into Areus, the two soon discovering the hatred they had in common. It particularly galled them that Cleades had dedicated himself to memorializing the women whoíd ruined their lives. They devised a scheme for revenge. Areus would locate others whom Xena had wronged. Balthus would worm his way into a position close to the King.
"It might have worked, if I hadnít asked you to come this year." Cleades shook his head. "Balthus copied most of the invitations. I wrote yours myself and added it to the pile. Evidently he didnít notice the little `Xí Iíd put on the outside, when he slipped Areusí note inside the invitations. He also didnít expect me to personally investigate that false threat of his or to have him accompany me."
Cleades expressed disappointment that his surprise had been ruined. "I couldnít wait to see everyoneís faces when you revealed your true identity. All these years talking about you as if you were characters in some childrenís tale. To see you in the flesh Ö." He looked hopefully at his two guests. "Itís not too late, you know."
Xena smiled. "I appreciate the thought. I canít tell you how moved I am to hear that weíve been in your hearts like this. You give new meaning to my old fears that the past is always with us." Xena gazed fondly at her partner. "Iím fine leaving things as they are. I guess Iíve gotten used to enjoying the present I never expected, anticipating a future with someone who loves me for the flawed human Iíll always be."
"I understand." Cleades sighed. "The others have trouble seeing beyond the past. One side dedicated themselves to helping it live on, the other to making it go away. They act as if you donít exist anymore or are drooling in rockers somewhere." He smiled with fond wryness at his two guests.
"I look at you and still see such vitality and optimism, such strength and courage. People think that escapes us when we get a few gray hairs. Guess I wanted my friends to know that doesnít have to be." He snorted. "Perhaps thatís why I insisted on taking that trip like an old fool. One last, impressive adventure."
Gabrielle got up to sit on the Kingís bed. She took his hand. "You know, I think they learned that anyway. Xena convinced them we could defeat Areus. They were prepared to use whatever they could to beat, stab or squash the enemy. And that was before learning half the opponents were the same age." She chuckled. "They still donít know we had a secret weapon that would probably make their bravery unnecessary."
The King nodded. "I admit, I expected to walk into a room full of hapless victims waiting for slaughter. I havenít seen them this spry and excited in ages." He smiled at Xena. "You always did know how to rally the troops."
Xena chuckled. "Yeah, well, thatís something I havenít had to do in ages either."
"Heh. You shouldíve seen how spry and excited she got when she found out your little get-together promised a side dish of mayhem. The romance of our anniversary celebration paled in comparison."
"Anniversary?" Cleades frowned. "What anniversary?"
"Would you believe 25 years together? Well, technically 24 if you take out a particular year, or 50 if you add in some others, but thatís too many long stories to tell."
Noticing the chagrin on the Kingís face, Xena came over to sit on the other side of his bed. "Not to worry," she said, patting his shoulder. "You couldnítíve given us a better present."
Cleades wasnít mollified. He accepted that the group couldnít honor Xena and Gabrielle, but saw no reason why they shouldnít toast Anthrax and Meg Jr. The two agreed. Xena said theyíd like to set out for home the next day, so Cleades summoned a servant to announce a party for late afternoon.
Xena gazed out the garden window of their room. The party continued in full swing after two hours. Some of the guests sat on the lawn, chatting in small groups. A few men - plus Sarita - tried to outdo each other at archery. The rest perched in chairs under a canopy listening raptly to Gabrielle. Xena had quietly slipped away when the bard began recounting untold Warrior Princess tales sheíd supposedly learned from Meg Sr.
Xena admitted her heart sang to see living proof of the good sheíd done. At the time, sheíd been so focused on her mission to atone for the past, sheíd taken the lives saved for granted - part of her "job." She hadnít pictured orphans getting another chance, or kingdoms ruled better because sheíd rescued a baby destined to lead. Now she associated personalities and experiences with some of the young faces she vaguely recalled from a time long ago.
Yet she was also aware of the faces absent from the celebration outside, of the adults not participating in the sunlit beauty of the Kingís estate. The shackled, sullen band of would-be assassins had been led away to the castle dungeon, the two bodies discreetly whisked off for unheralded disposal. Cleades had insisted on taking care of all that, on making sure the surviving interlopers received due justice. "You wonít accept credit for the positive lives of the ones you saved," heíd told her. "I wonít hear of you assuming responsibility for the ones who chose vengeance."
Xena sighed. What Cleades couldnít understand was how she felt being hit with new realization of how her past could crop up to threaten her friends after all these years, even if she wasnít there. She couldnít help wondering how many others might be somewhere honoring who sheíd become, angering the descendants of victims, allies or enemies of what sheíd been. Would the bad always be there, underlying the good? The flip side of the same coin? Like her?
Monlika. Sheíd been about the same age as Xena when Hercules came along. What if Ö. Xenaís darkening thoughts were interrupted by unmistakable footsteps approaching. She strode quickly over to crouch next to her carry bag before the door opened.
Gabrielle poked her head in. "Hi there. Wondered where youíd wandered off to."
"Hi, yourself." Xena glanced up before taking some items from her bag. "Figured Iíd get a head start on packing."
"Ah." Gabrielle gazed a moment at her companionís bowed head. She strolled over to the dressing table. "I needed to get out of the sun awhile," she said, examining herself in the mirror. "Much as I hated that floppy hat, it mightíve protected this stupid rouge a little better."
Xena chuckled. "Titan didnít seem to like it much either. Seems Iím not the only one who can make anything into a weapon."
Gabrielle went to gather up a couple of dresses sheíd hung on a bedpost. "Speaking of which Ö." She pointed her chin at the chakram and some knives Xena had taken from her bag. "Looks like you brought your usual ones for nothing. Hope you filled your quotient for mayhem anyway." She held up a particularly hideous garment before folding it. "Remind me to glue my lips together the next time we get invited to any costume parties."
Xena chewed the inside of her cheeks. Gabrielleís casual observations didnít fool her one bit. It was her way of leading up to why Xena hadnít said much about events in between leaving the banquet hall and re-entering with Cleades. No doubt everyone noticed the absence of Monlika, if not the other dead warrior. Theyíd assumed the Kingís guards had dealt with them and the others. Gabrielle, of course, would assume otherwise.
"Iím fine," the warrior responded tersely. "The mayhem was quite satisfactory."
"You take all of `em out before Cleades arrived?"
"Got in quite a few of the old kicks and punches, eh?" Gabrielle gazed at her with a knowing smile. "Mustíve felt pretty good, finding out everything still works okay."
Xena sighed. She stretched her legs out on the floor and gave up pretending to rearrange her things. Gabrielle walked over and sat cross-legged facing her.
"I did what I had to. As usual." The warrior glanced down at her hands. "I wouldíve spared them if I thought I could."
Gabrielle patted her partnerís leg. "I know. Being an `army of one,í with only moments to take out a dozen bad guys, when neither the captives nor their captors can know youíre there - quite a challenge." She grinned with some pride. "Even for a rusty old veteran Warrior Princess."
Xena allowed a small smile in acknowledgement. "Itíd been so long, I wondered how Iíd react." She held her partnerís eyes "I felt nothing Ö except the cold calmness of clarity. The satisfaction of a quick, precise cut. Of seeing what I needed to do next, before Iíd even cleaned the blade."
"Monlika?" Gabrielle asked softly.
Xena nodded. "For all her talk, Iíd bet she never spilled blood." She shook her head. "Sure picked the wrong time, wrong place, wrong person to try it."
"You mean, right person."
"Yeah," Xena snorted. "She wanted so badly to lay hands on the Warrior Princess. Too bad. Got her wish and died not even knowing." She smiled a bit sheepishly. "What happened outside was different. None of them was much competition, but I still felt the old `rush.í The perfect sensation of mind and body performing like a finely balanced sword. Gods, how Iíve missed that. Part of me worried a little I wouldnít still have it." She looked down at her hands again. "I guess another part questioned if I should."
Gabrielle rose and walked over to the window. "Did you see Sarita on the archery range?"
Xenaís head jerked up. "What? Sarita? Uh Ö yeah."
"She said sheíd never tried that before. Used to remind her of you being shot, falling off your horse, lying there silent like the last time she saw her mother. Now, she says for some reason she remembers more how happy she was that youíd recovered to tell jokes and fight again."
"Howíd she do?"
Gabrielle chuckled. "Sheís quite a strong woman. Certainly managed enough distance. Weíre not quite sure what she mightíve hit though. Her arrow went over the wall."
"Um, Gabrielle?" Xenaís lips pursed. "Is there some moral to this, or you just tryiní to cheer me up?"
Gabrielle grinned. "Both? Címere." When Xena joined her, Gabrielle gestured toward the festivities. "An old friend of mine once said things happen precisely as they should. Take those folks out there. Most of `em wouldnít have been here yesterday, if you hadnít had `ití in the past. They might not be here today, if you didnít have `ití now. Theyíre safer and more confident as a result."
Xena let out a long breath. "Like I wouldíve wanted to do for my own children," she said softly. She gave her partner a small, wistful smile. "And you for yours."
Gabrielle nodded. "I look at those people as our children too, Xena. They blossomed during the other ëlostí years you worried about, when we were no better than ice cycles. Can you say their lives werenít worth whatever price we paid? That you couldíve done much more good than what you see in front of you?"
"No," the warrior acknowledged after a moment. "I was lucky for the chance to do even that."
"Not just lucky. What you see is the flip side of that ëití you sometimes hope will wear away over time." Gabrielle put her arm around her partnerís waist. "Donít ever forget, `itís` what attracted a certain someone to you before you even met all those people - except maybe Spiros. Iíve seen `ití at its best and nearly its worst. If Iím gonna tolerate you for an eternity, Iíd rather have `ití as part of the bargain, than not."
Xena pondered this. "So Ö youíre saying I should listen to a certain someone who wears frumpy clothes and silly hats?"
Gabrielle cut her eyes at her nemesis. "Iím saying you should listen to a certain someone who would only let a certain someone else talk her into wearing frumpy clothes and silly hats."
Xena surveyed the scene outside again. She had to smile at the happy, contented faces. Winston hopped gleefully on his good leg, having beaten Lynal in the archery contest. Daphne knelt beside Medea at the flower garden, their eyes closed, noses poised inches away from scented petals. Cleades, Alecia and Gabriel compared notes on the challenges of royalty. Spiros. To think heíd been the baby whoíd forced her to confront the evil sheíd arrogantly convinced herself she could control. Yes, there was a certain rightness about it all, about recognizing the innocence in faces sheíd long ago let slip away. They did deserve a place in her memories beside the victims sheíd vowed never to forget.
"You win." Xena smiled. "You did what you do. As usual." She rested her head against Gabrielleís. "Iíll even let you drag me back out there for more revelry."
Gabrielle moved away a little to study her soulmate. She frowned. "I donít think so."
"No." Gabrielle pulled the curtains across the window. She turned to Xena with smoldering eyes that stilled the warriorís heart an instant before setting her whole being aflame. "I think weíve had enough revelry out there. I think we should spend the last of our ëvacationí celebrating in the Anniversary Suite."
Xena swallowed. "Yeah?"
Gabrielle reached up and gently detached Xenaís goatee. "Uh huh."
The warrior summoned her enormous will power. There was one more round yet to go. She crossed her arms. "You know the passwords?"
Gabrielleís fingers paused in their course toward the taller womanís mustache. "Passwords?"
"Uh huh. The oneís that was síposed ta git ya in ta this little celebration."
Gabrielle stared at Xena in disbelief. She ripped off the mustache and smiled unapologetically at Xenaís "ouch."
The warrior glared, rubbing at the stinging spot above her lip. "And you accuse me of being the Destroyer of Romance. Humph."
Unfazed, Gabrielle started pulling on Xenaís sideburns. "I take it you know the passwords?"
"Spiros told me. Iídíve thought one of your admirers wouldíve shared that with you."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. She sighed with exaggerated patience. "`The Warrior Princess.í"
"Mm Ö warm."
"`Xena and Gabrielle?í"
"`Xena, Gabrielle and Meg.í"
"Not so warm."
"I give. Tell me." Gabrielle batted her eyes. "Surely theyíd want Meg Jr. to know."
"Maybe not if they learned how sneaky she is."
"Xena?" Gabrielleís lips pressed together.
Xena scratched her chin. "I suppose it wouldnít hurt to give you a hint."
"Xeenaa." Cheeks reddened.
"Though if youíd put a little more thought into it, youíd probably -."
"Xena!" The bosom heaved.
"Gods, talk about no appreciation for foreplay." Xena grinned as Gabrielleís foot started tapping. "Okay, okay." She began steering Gabrielle towards the bed. "`Fifty winters ago.í"
Gabrielle abruptly halted. "Twenty-five."
"No," Xena said, gently pulling Gabrielle forward again. "Thatís it."
Gabrielle resisted. "I told you, weíre celebrating 25."
Xena mentally kicked herself. Sometimes her dark side just had to go too far. "I meant," she soothed, grabbing Gabrielleís shoulders, "the passwords."
Gabrielle stiffened against being guided onto the bed. "So what are they?"
"`Fifty winters agoí!" Xena huffed in exasperation. "The cursed passwords are `50 winters ago!í" She plopped heavily down on the bed.
"Fifty?" Gabrielle frowned. "Why 50?"
"Gods be damned, Gabrielle, who cares?!" Xena fell back. She stretched out her hand toward her partner. "Now would you címon and give it a rest?"
Gabrielle took a few steps forward. She stopped as if hit by a sudden thought. "Xena, imagine! All those times they came together to remember meeting us, they were actually celebrating -."
"Grrr-ab-ri-elllle!" Xena rolled to the center of the bed and beat it with her fists.
Gabrielle knelt on the bed. "My, my." She crawled toward the middle. "Such passion." Gently pushed her red-faced, mumbling partner to her back. "Hear that voice?" She stroked the warriorís throat. "Mustíve deepened two octaves." Walked her fingers up Xenaís chin. "Look at those lips. All pouty and quivering. And your eyes. What a provocatively darker shade of blue." She straddled Xenaís hips. "Iím sure Iíve told you countless things I love about you. In all this time, did I fail to mention how beautiful you are in a snit?"
Xena stared up into the innocently playful green eyes, fairly certain she noticed the glint of "gotcha" behind them.
Gabrielle caressed Xenaís open, but silent mouth. "Donít tell me Iíve rendered my big, bad warrior speechless."
All Xena could do was lie there and let her lop-sided grin give her away. "Not entirely," she finally answered. She reached up to pull Gabrielleís face closer. She batted her eyes. "Happy anniversary?"
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