DISCLAIMER: The following is a mature story based on "Xena: Warrior Princess," meaning it contains rough stuff, frivolity and innuendo comparable to what's in the TV production, which, of course, has legal, ethical, creative and all other rights to claim credit for the characters of Xena, Gabrielle and possibly others mentioned herein. This is my first (and hopefully last) fanfic, so has almost everything but the kitchen sink (primarily from the first three seasons) and pays much homage to both the original and fanfic treatments of certain themes.

For Mo & Mel, Kit & Suzar, Wishes & Demeter. Thanks to the ladies of the Mansion Retirement Home and to Cousin Liz for her wonderful design.

 

 

UNDER OTHER CIRCUMSTANCES

By IseQween
IseQween@aol.com
January 2000

 

*****

 

Under other circumstances, Xena would have smiled. Gabrielle obviously felt like Centaur poop, but stumbled stubbornly ahead, fully determined to out-stoic the notoriously stoic Warrior Princess. Using her staff as a cane, the bard still occasionally swayed, sometimes swiping at the sweat on her brow as though merely brushing aside her hair. Gabrielle knew her partner knew. Xena might not be the most sensitive person around, but her antennae for anything remotely wrong about her young companion's physical well-being were infuriatingly attuned.

Gabrielle might have smiled too, under other circumstances. It was all so silly. They'd stopped in a perfectly harmless looking village so she could get some nutbread. She just wanted something to break the monotony, she'd said. Something without fur, fins or stems. Xena had sighed and given her one of those looks, but admitted they needn't avoid the village up ahead, as it wasn't on her long list of former conquests. She also knew her partner was tired of the rough, bloody road they'd traveled the last few moons. And so the warrior had relented, even mumbling that maybe they could spoil themselves with a bath and bed for the night.

As soon as theyŪd gotten close enough to see the village, they sensed something was amiss. Any other visitors would probably have kept going. But nooooo, not them. "Nosiness," as Xena would say in Gabrielle's case. "Curiosity," as the more charitable bard might say in reference to the warrior. Both women wondered at the lack of activity in the tiny village square.

"Nice place you have here," Gabrielle cheerfully remarked to the owner of the stables where Xena had taken Argo. "Do you have a really good baker?"

"It's been nicer," the man replied. "But now most folks, including the baker, have some strange sickness. Maybe you two should think twice about staying here too long."

Warrior and bard exchanged looks.

"When did it start?" Xena asked.

"About a moon ago. Came on real sudden. The children got it first, then the old ones. Now it's even affecting young men."

"Describe it."

"The usual. Fever, bellyaches, tiredness. The healer's tried everything. People get better, then fall sick again."

"Has anyone died?" asked Gabrielle quietly.

"Not yet, but some have wished they had. You still want me to stable your horse, warrior?"

Xena wanted so badly to say no. She hated bringing Gabrielle into mysterious situations, especially ones she wasn't sure she could control. But she hated even more having to deny anything to those imploring green eyes.

"Yeah," she sighed. "Maybe we can be of some help."

"Suit yourself. Don't know what use a sword'll be, but nothing else seems to have worked. The inn is across the square there. See the sign?"

"Yes, thank you," Xena nodded. "Come on, Gabrielle. I guess that's as good a place as any to start."

The two crossed the square, earning a glance here and there from the few people who stood whispering dejectedly to each other. Only a handful of patrons sat in the inn's common area. Most looked sullenly into their mugs.

"An ale for me. Cider for my friend here," Xena instructed the proprietor. "We hear you've got problems with sickness. Any idea what's happening?"

The big man paused as he poured the ale and looked up suspiciously at the warrior. "Why are you asking me? I don't know any more than those folks out there."

Xena held his gaze a moment. "Just asking. I've had some experience with different kinds of sickness. Often it's spread through food or water, in places where strangers come and people congregate."

"You saying it could have started in my inn?"

"She's saying that someone like you might be in a good position to notice something unusual. Like a stranger passing through who's coughing a lot. Or overhearing gossip about how folks got ill after eating so-and-so's cooking. Or whether an illness that affected one family seems to have affected their neighbors, even if they hadn't shared a meal. Or÷."

"Yeah," said Xena smiling wryly at her companion. "That's what I mean."

"Oh, well then. I think it's those scruffy kids and old biddies usually hanging around the square who's spreading something. Don't know how they got it, but now it's afflicting hardy folks like the ones who come in here."

"Why do you think it's them spreading the illness? Oh, and could I have a little water, too, please?" asked Gabrielle.

"Well, they're the ones that got it first," he answered, studying Gabrielle a moment, then pushing a mug of water her way. "Kids and old folks from different houses. The healer treats them, they seem to get better, next thing you know, others in the family get it."

"Where do we find your healer?" Xena asked.

"Cerina? She's way over at Lekum's right now. Should be back by morning. Hers is the place four doors down, with the herb garden in front."

"Thanks. We'd like a room and a hot bath."

"Sure. Not like I'm being overrun with customers, as you can see. Room just at the top of the stairs is ready. Take a scenic tour of Themos, why don't you? Come back in a couple of candlemarks, and I should have the tub filled. Name's Jonas, if you need anything else." He smiled at Gabrielle.

"We'll do that, Jonas," said Xena, finishing her ale. "You ready?"

Gabrielle slurped down the rest of her two drinks. "Whenever you are."

Their room was large enough to accommodate two beds, a small dressing table with chair, and a three-drawer chest. The late afternoon sun came through a window overlooking the village square.

"Kind of quaint, don't you think?" Gabrielle turned to her quiet companion, who was unpacking and arranging their gear with a furrowed brow.

"Um, sure, just like all the other quaint inns we've stayed in. Except I could usually spot the trouble before it crept up on us."

"Oh, Xena, don't worry so much. You'll figure it out as usual. In the meantime, I think we should see if that baker has any helpers who haven't fallen ill." She wriggled her brows above twinkling eyes in the manner most irresistible to her taciturn companion. She could see the wheels in Xena's head turning.

"Tell you what. Why don't you finish unpacking and work on your scrolls a bit?" At the bard's suddenly cloudy face, Xena added, "I'll go track down your nutbread, OK? I just want to take a look around. I'd rather you not come in contact with too many people until I check out a few things."

"What? You think you're too big and bad for the sickness to attack you? Why is it that you always have to be the one to test the waters?"

"Gabrielle, please. I know you think I'm being overprotective, but it's not because I don't have confidence in you. It's hard enough for me to be wary of something I can't see on my own, without worrying about you too. You know I can't help that. Besides, where will we be if both of us get sick?"

"Fine," Gabrielle sighed. "I see your logic. Still, I can't help worrying about you either. You know how I hate being separated."

Xena walked over and drew Gabrielle into her arms. "Me too," she said, brushing her chin across Gabrielle's hair. "I'll only be gone long enough for Jonas to get that bath ready. You take the first shift, and I'll hop in just in time to soak up all that wonderful lukewarm water. I'll even wash your hair. How's that?"

Gabrielle tried hard to sulk, but it just wasn't in her. "OK, but you'd better have some nutbread with you too."

Xena laughed and kissed her on the forehead. "Yes, Your Majesty. I promise to be careful." With that, she headed for the door.

"Oh, no, you don't. You fix those beds before you leave. I don't want you doing it after our baths and getting all smelly again."

Eyebrow crooked, Xena ambled over to the bed farthest from the window and pushed it up against the other bed. "Satisfied? Or would you like me to turn down the spread and put some mint leaves on the pillows too?"

"No, that will do. You're dismissed."

Xena muttered something to herself as she headed back out.

"I'm sorry, what was that you said, dear? For some reason, I had trouble hearing you."

"Good. Wouldn't want you to think I was being impertinent." The door closed with unnecessary force. Gabrielle grinned smugly and hummed as she walked over to the saddlebags.

*****

Xena's "scenic tour" didn't reveal much. Conversations with those bold enough to brave the air did help her eliminate some possibilities. The illness didn't appear to be contagious. No one could pinpoint some feast, grain or other food source that had affected a number of people at the same time. No strangers had come in coughing or otherwise displaying illness. Xena even inspected the river water used for the village's personal and public wells. She sighed and headed back for the inn.

Gabrielle was contentedly soaking in the tub when she heard the familiar footsteps approach the bathing room door. When it opened, she could tell from the pensive silence at her back that Xena wasn't happy. "So what'd you find out?"

Xena stripped and slid down into the opposite end of the tub. Even with her legs slightly bent, her feet almost touched the back of the tub on either side of Gabrielle's hips. She poked said hips with her big toes. "Maybe if you give up that soap, I'll tell you."

Gabrielle squirmed and reluctantly opened her eyes. "Hey," she said, handing over the soap, "how come your hair's already wet?"

Xena grinned and started soaping herself. "I was testing the water. It was cold, but at least it was fresher than what I'd be coming back to."

This got the expected nonverbal response, so Xena felt free to recount her investigation with as little interruption as possible.

"I notice you haven't mentioned any nutbread," Gabrielle said after Xena completed her report. "Maybe you got your priorities a little screwed up?"

"Sorry, but no one was still standing who could prepare that rare dish to satisfy Your Majesty's demanding palate."

"Fine. Then you could at least deliver on the hair-washing promise." Gabrielle slid around to give Xena access to the back of her head.

"Oh, by all means, my Queen. In fact, I just happen to have some rose petals to give it that finishing touch you like so much."

"Ooooo, Xena! Maybe I'll keep you after all." Gabrielle turned her head to flash a toothy grin at her "help," then quickly dunked her head. Unfortunately, she was so tickled by the indignant look she'd gotten back that she choked on the water.

Xena hit the back of her coughing friend. "By the gods, Gabrielle, are you all right? I swear, only you could drown laughing."

Still gasping a bit, Gabrielle turned and slid her arms around Xena. "Can÷ you think÷ of÷ a better÷ way÷ to die?"

Xena smiled into the still-watery eyes she was pretty sure she'd never tire of seeing. After a few moments, her gaze turned serious. "No, I don't think I can. Now, let's finish scrubbing and get some sleep so we'll be properly energized to find out what in Hades is going on here."

*****

The next morning they ate from their travel rations, as they had the night before ("just to be on the safe side," Xena had said) and headed for the healer's. A haggard, middle-aged woman answered their knock. She just stared at them, possibly wondering what more could go wrong.

"Cerina? Hi, I'm Gabrielle, and this is my friend Xena. We heard about the sickness here and thought maybe we could help. Xena's quite an experienced healer herself."

Xena looked at her companion with an indulgent grin. The healer looked at Gabrielle too, but more with an "Oh, goody, more cooks in the kitchen" expression. Still, she stood aside to let the visitors in. Her home was filled with the usual vials, herbs and paraphernalia associated with her vocation. She waited for her guests to seat themselves, then asked if they'd like tea.

"Why, yes, that would be nice," Gabrielle replied cordially.

"None for me, thanks."

The healer left and returned shortly to hand Gabrielle a cup. Turning to Xena, Cerina said, "You look like someone who can sniff things out on her own. You've probably heard already that I've tried every remedy I know. I have the sickness myself. Maybe it's because I take good care of myself that I'm still able to carry on."

"Would you mind telling us exactly what you've done?"

"Xena's very good at piecing things together," Gabrielle interjected, bestowing a smile on the other women. "It's important not to leave anything out, especially when you've been as thorough as I'm sure you have."

It was all Xena could do to keep her eyes from rolling up in her head.

The healer explained in detail how the first victim came to her, what treatments she'd tried, the results she'd gotten. She looked down at her hands, examining them as though they had betrayed her. Sighing heavily, she looked back up at her visitors. "The frustrating part is that one of my mixtures seems to work. But then some people get sick again, and it doesn't seem to prevent others from getting it too."

Xena looked at her sympathetically. "Is there something in common among the people who get sick?"

"Well, at first it was just the children and some of the elders. What's so hard is that I've been paying special attention to them, trying to build them up because they're the most vulnerable."

"Special attention?"

"Yes, I prepared a mixture that has a lot of protective herbs. I've been giving it to the young and old for a few moons now, and they've had a lot less sickness than before. It's helped my own constitution too."

"Have you used any different ingredients, maybe a different source, recently?"

"No, I only use what I grow myself, in that garden out front. I'm very careful about the seeds I use and maintaining the soil," Cerina said in anticipation of Xena's next question.

"I'm sure you are. I suspected the well in the square, but I checked it and the river and couldn't find anything wrong."

"Oh, I don't use that water anymore. I found this wonderful spring that's purer than the river. I go there and fill up jugs to mix with my medicines. I used it for your tea, Gabrielle, since you're a guest and all," she smiled.

Gabrielle looked at the nearly empty cup in her hands, glancing over to see that Xena was looking at it too.

"So," Xena said evenly, "you've been using the spring water in the medicine you've been giving people for the illness?"

"Well÷yes, for the most part. I started giving some to healthy people, just in case, although I've had to give some of them the medicine with the regular well water. I haven't had time to get refills like I used to, so I've mainly given it to the ones who are already sick."

"And do some of their relatives drink it too?"

"I suppose." Noticing the exchange of glances between her guests, she asked, "You don't think my spring is tainted, do you?"

"When did you first notice symptoms in yourself?"

Cerina thought for a moment, then slumped her shoulders. "I'll tell you how to get to the spring. You seem smart and strong enough to do this on your own. I'd go with you, but there's just too much here I have to take care of."

"No, that's fine. We'll be OK. We'll come back by and let you know what we find out."

Cerina gave them directions to the spring. As her guests were leaving, she touched Gabrielle's shoulder and signaled for her to let Xena go ahead. Grabbing one of her pouches, she shoved it into Gabrielle's hand and winked. "Put a spoonful of this in your friend's tea tonight, just in case she isn't as strong or as smart as she looks."

Gabrielle winked back. "Gotcha."

*****

Xena and Gabrielle found the spring and followed it to a pool at the base of a small waterfall. Xena was studying the area with her most thoughtful expression. Gabrielle knew this meant her friend was contemplating something Gabrielle wouldn't like. Xena knew she knew, so wondered what strategy would work best.

"You know, Gabrielle÷."

"Yes, Xena?"

"÷I've been thinking÷."

"Yes, you have."

"÷and it's a real problem to come up with a good way to really figure out what's going on here."

"Oh?"

"Yeah. I've tried tasting, smelling and eyeballing this water, and it seems OK. Maybe that's enough. What do you think? Think we should call it a day and tell Cerina to keep using this in her medicine?"

Gabrielle just stared at her. This wasn't what she expected. Oooo, that warrior was good. Risk all those people's lives, even though the spring seemed to be the prime suspect? Or let Xena do something ridiculous to find out for sure? No, she wasn't giving permission that easily.

"That depends, Xena, on what you have in mind. You're so much wiser in these areas than I. I'm sure you have some ideas. What are the possibilities?"

Xena just stared at her. This wasn't what she expected. Oooo, that bard was good. She'd put that eager little monkey right back on the shoulder where it belonged. Xena sighed.

"OK. I need to go below. See if there's something in there that can't be detected from what's on the surface. You know I can hold my breath for a long time. I'd make sure not to swallow."

"So, you propose immersing yourself in the very water we suspect is making people sick simply by drinking it?"

"Yeah, that pretty much sums up my possibilities."

"And if, say, it accidentally gets in through your mouth, your nose, eyes, ears, or one of those cuts you neglected because it was `nothing'÷."

Xena grinned smugly. "Then you can put some of that stuff Cerina gave you in my tea tonight."

Gabrielle jumped up and stomped around in circles. "Oooo, Xena, sometimes I could just choke every little evil breath out of your body! I have no privacy whatsoever around you! I can't worry or sneak or have a confidential conversation with somebody, without you knowing it." She stopped stomping and got in Xena's face. "Fine. At least put something on those `scratches.' And I'm going to count. If you're not back up when I finish counting, I'm coming in there after you."

"Agreed," Xena said, already looking for a plant whose roots she could use for a quick but effective coating. "How long do I have?"

"That's for me to know and you to find out. Seeing me there beside you will be your first big clue."

Xena kept her head down, trying to hide the smirk she knew would send the bard into a real hissy fit. Gabrielle knew she was smirking. She gritted her teeth at the warrior's back and found a twig to throttle instead of the neck she really wanted her hands around.

Xena finished mashing her concoction into a gooey paste. She then removed her clothes and spread the goo over the body parts she could reach. "Gab - ri - elle," she crooned to her companion, who was seated on a stump, facing the other way and mumbling to herself. "Could you give me a hand here?"

Gabrielle grumpily turned around and nearly fell off the stump at the sight of the bronzed, greased, magnificent body posed so nonchalantly a few feet away. "Wh- what did you say?"

Xena held out a handful of goo, her eyes glittering with devilment and something else that didn't help Gabrielle's concentration. "I asked if you could put this on my back for me."

"Um, sure. Sure thing." Gabrielle gathered herself into her most professional manner and began applying the goo, as she would oil to Xena's saddle. Except Xena's back was so much warmer, softer÷. Gabrielle cleared her throat. "There. All ready to plunge to your death. Happy now?"

Xena turned, startling her companion with the soft sadness in her eyes. "Thanks, Gabrielle. I could never do what I do without your touch, or try my damnedest to come out healthy so I could feel it again." She brought the knuckles of Gabrielle's right hand to her mouth for a gentle kiss. "I'll be careful. I promise." She stood, turned, then dove into the pool, leaving a very stunned bard speechless.

Gabrielle couldn't help recalling another time she'd sat on the bank waiting for Xena to surface. She knew the warrior pretty well now, but there was always something bobbing up to surprise her. Part of her wondered what Xena was thinking or feeling when she plunged alone into dangerous waters. Another part of her imagined Xena as a fish who just ÷ was. Who swam as one with the current, so much a part of her element that she was aware only of what she needed to survive. Xena had emerged that other time coughing, streams of water mixing in with tears at a good friend's death by her own hand. But she'd survived. And Gabrielle had been there to witness it. To comfort her and celebrate her living. To give thought and voice to the marvelous deeds that, to Xena, were simply÷ natural.

And so, she waited once again. That's what seemed to matter most at these times. She counted, too, but more to occupy herself than to worry whether the warrior would resurface. When she finally saw the bubbles, she smiled. She'd even let Xena revel in that smile awhile, before deciding whether to strangle her.

Xena swam over and let Gabrielle help her out. She lay in the grass -- eyes closed, chest heaving -- for several moments. Reveling in the touch of the small hands still wrapped around her arms, in the smiling warmth of the eyes she knew were welcoming her back as well. Then she struggled to say something that might not get her strangled.

"I found÷ the problem," she managed to get out. "We÷ can help÷ those people."

"Oh, Xena, I'm so glad. What about you? You didn't swallow any of that water, did you?"

"No. I'm fine."

"Good. Just lie there. Rest and dry off. You can tell me everything on the way back."

*****

By mid-afternoon, Gabrielle and Xena sat relaxing in Cerina's home. All three sipped from mugs of the healer's medicine, mixed with regular well water.

"So, tell me what you found," Cerina said to Xena.

Xena stretched out her legs and looked expectantly at Gabrielle. "You're the bard," she grinned. "I dive, you talk."

Cerina shifted in her chair and looked expectantly at Gabrielle, who, once again, was torn between hugging and throttling her tall companion.

"Oh, all right. Xena's ten-word version would probably leave too many gaps for you to plug anyway." Gabrielle smirked at the subject in question, then settled herself at the edge of her chair.

"We followed the spring to a little pool and waterfall. Xena couldn't detect anything on the surface, so of course she decided she needed to explore a little deeper."

"Oh, my!" exclaimed Cerina. "You don't mean she went all the way in?"

"Yes, of course she did. She doesn't need much excuse to put herself in harm's way, you know. If she doesn't do that at least once a day, she starts getting twitchy. I think it has something to do with --"

"Gabrielle! Cerina didn't ask about my personal habits. She wants to know what we found out."

"I thought you said I was the bard," Gabrielle responded sweetly. "You dive, I talk, remember? Now, where was I÷."

Xena sighed heavily. The bard had gotten her again.

"Anyway, I persuaded Xena to put one of her concoctions on to protect the cuts she insists on ignoring." Gabrielle gave Xena a look that dared her to interrupt again. "She found some plant and made a paste to spread over her body÷." The bard seemed to drift for a moment. A deep "Ahem!" brought her back to her story.

"Um, yes, then Xena dove in. She was down there a loooong time, but did manage to come up just before the deadline I gave her. She may be smart and strong, but sometimes she can be a bit÷ over-enthusiastic."

Sensing she might be getting a little close to Xena's nerves, Gabrielle decided to shift to a more factual account. "She hadn't seen anything suspicious in the pool itself, so she inspected the area around the waterfall. She discovered a large crevice behind it. Inside were some containers of all sorts of fluids -- many apparently poisonous. Over the years, the stuff had started leaking out."

Gabrielle's voice softened, and she gave her partner a reassuring glance as she continued, "Xena guessed that maybe some warlord's army had lost the containers in a storm or hidden them for future use." She paused, smiling sadly at the warrior, who sat unmoving, looking at the floor. "I told Xena that, however they got there, we were lucky she found them before any real harm was done."

Cerina wondered briefly what Gabrielle herself might be leaving out, then shrugged. There were more important matters to resolve than what was going on between these two strangers.

"Well," the healer said, breaking the silence, "at least we've solved the mystery of the sickness. It's clear why my medicine worked sometimes but not others. But how do we make sure someone else doesn't get poisoned from that spring?"

Xena felt two sets of eyes on her. She shook her head slightly, sighed, then looked up. It seemed they were back in her territory now.

"I'm going to talk to some of the men, see if we can load all the containers into one crate, then haul 'em up. We could put markers at the pool and along the spring, warning people not to drink. Maybe the worst of what's left will be flushed out after a few good storms."

The healer nodded. "That shouldn't be a problem. I'm sure folks'll be glad to help." She stopped and looked pointedly at Xena. "That probably means you're intending to take another swim."

Xena refused to look at Gabrielle. "Yes, I'm the best person to do it. I know exactly where to go and what we're up against." Now she did look at Gabrielle. "I'll be very careful and drink plenty of your potion before and after I go in. I'd say so if I thought it was more dangerous than it seems."

Cerina waited until Gabrielle's grudging smile seemed to indicate that an understanding had been reached. "All right, then. Why don't you two go relax for awhile? I'll tell the town gossips what you've discovered and drum up some volunteers. Sound good?"

Cerina's guests exhaled in relief and stood up. "Thanks, Cerina. I am a little tired. Besides, I'm sure my nurse will want to make sure I drink plenty of your potion before tomorrow." Xena rumpled Gabrielle's hair before adding, "And I'll make sure she does the same."

The healer shook her head and grinned at the two women she'd found herself becoming rather fond of. "Drink as much as you can stand for now. And Xena, Gabrielle was right for you to protect those cuts. Put this salve on yourself before you go mucking about in that water again."

"No problem. Perhaps I can persuade my friend here to help me put it on." With that, Xena hastily grabbed the salve and sauntered through the door.

"Got a real mischievous streak in 'er, eh?" Cerina cackled. "Don't hurt her," she added, noting Gabrielle's clenching hands. "At least not till she's gotten rid of that poison."

Gabrielle laughed. "Deal. But if she comes up sick, I may drag her irritable body back to you to fix." They embraced briefly before Gabrielle ran to catch up with her insufferable companion.

*****

Early the next morning, Xena and her helpers headed out on their mission. She wore one of her shifts, which covered the salve she and Gabrielle had already applied. Gabrielle stayed behind to assist Cerina and pack their gear. Both travelers were ready to resume a journey that suddenly seemed more peaceful than Themos.

Xena returned to find Gabrielle recording their latest adventure. "Mission accomplished," the warrior reported. "And, no, I didn't swallow any water this time either." Still, she grudgingly accepted the mug Gabrielle shoved at her without looking up from her writing. Between sips, Xena managed to change clothes and at the same time describe how her team had disposed of the offending materials. "Ready?" she asked as she finished adjusting her last buckle.

"Yep." Gabrielle stood, stretched, then packed her remaining items, and the two headed for the stairs. Gabrielle stopped midway down, surprised to see the common room filled with people. A dignified older man stepped forward and addressed the bard.

"Your warrior friend refused to take any dinars for your help. However, she informed us that you are Amazon royalty and could accept a small gift on behalf of Themos."

The Queen glanced at Xena, who was stroking the side of her face and appeared quite focused on the man's bearded mouth.

"Please accept this token of our appreciation. Your friend says it is certain to make both your lives more pleasant." He walked up to Gabrielle and placed a small bundle in her hands. It was warm. She held it up to her nose, closed her eyes and inhaled deeply.

"Yes," she finally said, her face beaming with gratitude. "This will do quite nicely. My subject was so thoughtful to suggest it." Ignoring the strangled sound coming from where Xena stood, Gabrielle embraced Cerina and shook hands with those closest to her. After all the farewells were completed, she turned to the tight-lipped woman behind her. "Come, Xena, I think it's time we got moving."

Cerina grinned as she watched the two visitors head for the stables. Under other circumstances, she would have been sad to see them leave. But it was just too funny watching Her Highness strutting haughtily with the grim-faced warrior in tow. When they emerged from the stables, Xena kneed her horse into a quick trot, her gaze fixed firmly on the road ahead. Gabrielle sat behind, cheerily waving one arm to the onlookers, with the other arm wrapped firmly around her companion's waist.

"What a pair," Cerina remarked to Jonas as the dust cleared.

"Yeah, I'm kind of glad I treated them so good," he replied. "Sure, I was afraid not to at first. That warrior didn't seem the kind you'd want mad at you. But it was the other one who convinced me to dip into my special stash."

"Special stash? What special stash? You mean that port you act like came from the gods themselves?"

Jonas kicked himself for having such a big mouth. "Look, this is just between us, all right? I mean, it wouldn't be too good for my im÷ my business, if folks found out."

"Oh, just spit it out, man. I'm sure whatever it is isn't worth dying over."

Jonas glanced around to make sure they had privacy. "I ain't gettin' any younger, you know. Or prettier. I had to do something to get Jerrella to notice me. A stranger came through not long ago - handsome fellow - and told me how he preserved himself so well." Jonas grinned sheepishly. "He÷ um ÷ he bathes regular in special spring water."

Cerina got a queasy feeling in the pit of her stomach. "And he told you where to find this special water?"

"Yeah. There's some not too far from here. I took a bunch of trips there, hauled as much as I could back. I had my first bath in it a few days ago. He was right. Made me feel all tingly, like a new man."

Hating to ask, the healer did anyway. "Are you talking about the spring west of here, that runs between the forest and Themos Mountain?"

"Why, yes," Jonas said, surprised. "I didn't think anybody else knew about it."

Cerina whacked him on the arm. "Idiot! That's what's been making people sick! Where have you been the last two days -- the moon?"

"I thought it was your medicine," he answered defensively, rubbing his arm. "Old Theo came in yesterday and said there was something wrong with your herbs. After that, I didn't pay any attention to all the yammering going on about it."

"No! It was the spring water that I was mixing the herbs in that was bad. Did you or anybody else drink it?"

Jonas scrunched his forehead. "Well, I was about to. I figured if it worked that well from the outside, that it'd be even more potent from the inside. Then that warrior and her friend came in. I gave the mug I'd poured for myself to the cute one. She was so nice and mannerly. Not like that other one."

Cerina recalled that she too had felt moved to put her special water in Gabrielle's tea that first time they'd met. Even then, she'd sensed Gabrielle was someone who should be protected. Not because she seemed helpless or anything. On the contrary, it took an exceptional person to travel so comfortably with a warrior who exuded power like Xena did. The bard certainly showed she had a feistiness of her own. No, Gabrielle had an openness about her, an ability to make people feel special, which in turn made her special. Precious. Rare, like one of those gems folks wanted the rest of the world to see, but guarded for fear something might happen to it.

Cerina couldn't really fault Jonas for responding to Gabrielle as he did, so the healer simply asked, "Was that it?"

"Well, no. The cute one came down later and asked if I had anything that smelled nice to put in their bath. She said the warrior might be grumpy when she came back and that a nice bath would improve her mood. I told her no, but that I had some water with something special in it that was real relaxing." Jonas puffed out his chest. "She gave me a little hug. Said that would be fine and thanked me."

Cerina sighed. "I guess that was all right, then. Besides, I'd given her some of my medicine. Get rid of that water. Maybe it doesn't hurt to bathe in it, but you don't want anybody accidentally drinking it. Next time let me know if you intend to go into the healing business. I might save your ugly hide, not to mention the people you 'treat.'" She snorted in disgust and walked away.

Jonas stood there frowning a moment. He shrugged and headed back to the inn. He probably should have mentioned that the cute one had filled their water skins from one of the barrels he'd brought back from the spring. He didn't like to think of her maybe getting sick. Still, he just couldn't throw away his chance at being younger, no matter what that know-it-all healer said. Even she admitted it wouldn't hurt to bathe in it. He'd hide it and just use it for himself. No use chasing after those strangers, alarming everyone. Besides, like Cerina said herself, it's not like anyone would die over it.

*****

Gabrielle and Xena had spent a blissfully uneventful day putting distance between themselves and Themos. They'd been caught in a bad rainstorm that evening, but had found some shelter under a large tree. Gabrielle didn't much care that they couldn't build a fire or stretch out for a good night's sleep. She happily munched on her nutbread and worked out stories in her head. Xena contented herself sharpening her weapons. If her partner was happy, she was happy.

A slight mist dampened the following morning, but they set out anyway, figuring they'd stay warmer moving than sitting on the cold ground. It wasn't until they'd trudged along for awhile that Gabrielle started feeling a little sick. That happened sometimes during this kind of weather, she thought, so didn't bother mentioning it. Instead, she got out her cloak to ward off the chill.

"You feeling OK?" Xena asked.

"Old hawk eyes," Gabrielle mumbled to the cloak as she settled it around her shoulders. She assumed her best healthy face and looked up to the woman riding beside her. "Gods, can't a girl put on one extra piece of clothing without someone making a big deal of it?"

"Gabrielle, considering what we just left behind, I only want to make sure we didn't somehow bring it with us."

"Xena, I'm fine. When we make camp tonight, I'll warm myself by the fire, drink some of your anti-cold medicine, get some sleep, and be fine the next day like usual."

"Describe your symptoms."

Gabrielle came to an abrupt halt. "Stop right there, Xena. I'm not the one who took two swims in poison. I had one cup of bad tea, counteracted by enough of Cerina's potion to kill off anything stupid enough to hang around for more. Let's just keep going. You can baby me all you want tonight."

Xena sighed. She reached into her saddlebag, rummaging around until she found the pouch with Cerina's herbs. She pulled out a mug and mixed the herbs with water from one of their skins. "Here. Drink this and I won't say another word. For now. This ought to take care of whatever might be ailing you. Except, possibly, grouchiness."

Gabrielle saw that this last comment was accompanied by a little smirk. She stuck out her tongue, but took the mug and swallowed the contents. "Satisfied?"

"Like I said, for now," Xena answered as she replaced the mug. "Let's just hope for better weather and a nice cave for you to continue not being sick in."

Gabrielle whirled impressively and started walking again. She knew Xena was purposely slowing down in order to stay at her back and keep an eye on her. The bard didn't object. She accepted small victories when she could. Besides, continuing the conversation might have forced her to reveal that she hadn't taken as much of Cerina's herbs as she'd pretended. She still had them, secreted away with her scrolls. For the warrior who might not be so strong or smart after all. Heh.

Xena studied her friend's back with amused affection. She doubted the poison was still in Gabrielle's system, so wasn't that worried. Besides, the warrior had more of Cerina's herbs than Gabrielle thought. She took a swig from her water skin, smirking as she recalled how she'd only pretended to put the healer's medicine in all those mugs Gabrielle kept shoving at her. She'd saved some. Just for a rainy day like this and an oh-so-smart bard. Heh.

*****

That evening, they were forced to set up in the open. Their makeshift tent kept the rain out, but didn't allow a fire. Gabrielle stepped out a few times "to get some air," only to return looking much less refreshed than when she left. Xena didn't question her. There wasn't much to be done at the moment, except give Gabrielle herbs from her own and Celina's healing pouches when the bard wakened from her fitful dozes.

As the next morning's ugly weather showed no signs of letting up, Xena's mood began to turn equally gloomy. A grassy plain stretched around them for as far as she could see. True, that would help them anticipate any human trouble, but it sure wasn't going to protect them from nature. Gabrielle's usually energetic stride had slowed to a snail's pace. Even without seeing it, Xena knew her friend's face was flushed. Maybe it was just the beginnings of a cold. Xena hoped so, as she was beginning to feel a little queasy herself. She really hated to think that the afflictions in Themos had somehow caught up with them.

"Gabrielle, hold up a minute."

"Yessss?" the Amazon Queen replied testily.

"I'm thinking of taking a detour. We'll have to travel a while to reach a good camp site if we continue heading toward Athens." She scanned the horizon, knowing her partner would do the same. "This weather doesn't look promising. There used to be a town about a day's ride from here. If you climb up here with me, we should be able to get there tomorrow by early evening."

Gabrielle squinted at Xena. Her gut was conflicted. One part said, "Oh, yes, please." The other was suspicious of the warrior's nonchalant change in plans.

"You don't seem particularly concerned anymore that I'll drop dead at any moment."

"Should I be?"

"No, but that hasn't stopped you before. What you say sounds reasonable enough, but why do I have the feeling you're not telling me everything?"

"Like what?"

"Like you're still worried about that stupid poison. Xena, I had one lousy cup of it. Unlike you, I didn't dunk my head in Themos water -- unless you count our bath. At least the only thing Jonas' water did was help de-tensify a certain warrior."

"Jonas' water? What do you mean? Didn't he use the same water as everybody else?"

"For your information, he treated his bath water with something really relaxing. He was kind enough to fill our tub with it."

Xena didn't like where this was going. "Did he use it for drinking too?"

"I don't know. It might've been different from the water he told me I could fill our skins with." They looked at each other, then at their water skins. Gabrielle noticed the tensing in Xena's shoulders. "You don't think÷. But then you'd be feeling sick too." She cocked her head at Xena accusingly. "Well?"

"Do I look sick?"

"No, I suppose not. As if you'd let it show, even if you were."

"Gabrielle, you're always accusing me of making mountains out of molehills. Let's say that all you're coming down with is a little cold. Sure, I've been giving you medicine to treat a couple of possibilities. But you've been out in the elements for a couple days now, not resting with a roof over your head like Cerina's patients in Themos. We both know you have a fever, that you've been retching up your precious nutbread and are about to fall on your face. Whatever you have, we don't want to risk letting it get more serious."

Xena softened her voice. "Gabrielle, we still have plenty of time to reach Athens before the new plays are staged. Don't be stubborn about this like that big lunk of a warrior you love so much for reasons that are beyond me." Xena summoned up the beseeching expression she knew was most irresistible to her partner. "Please?"

Gabrielle refused to look at Xena's outstretched hand long enough to convey that, while she might be sick, it had been a long time since she'd fallen off any turnip wagons. "Fine," she said, finally allowing herself to be pulled up behind Xena. "But only because it'd be such a shame to waste that pitiful look you've worked so hard to add to your repertoire."

Xena merely chuckled, urging Argo into a moderately fast pace. She pushed into a small corner of her mind the chill she felt creeping into both her body and her heart. So far, they'd been able to use rainwater to supplement what they carried with them. Now, when Xena wished for a few drops, all she got was useless mist. She didn't dare trust what was in the skins anymore. When she felt Gabrielle sleeping lightly against her back, Xena emptied Jonas' water onto the ground beneath them.

"Xena, could I have some water?" Gabrielle asked after they'd stopped for the third time so she could lean over to empty whatever contents might be left in her stomach.

"I'm sorry," Xena said, settling the weakening bard in front of her. "We don't have any more. Hold on for a little longer. We're almost there."

Gabrielle's head lolled against Xena's chest. "Xena?"

"Yes, my Queen?"

"This isn't one of those villages where the scarecrows will resemble a certain Warrior Princess is it?"

"No, Gabrielle," Xena said with a grim smile into her partner's hair. The good people of Lothos would more likely prefer hanging the real thing.

*****

Dusk shrouded the figures aboard the golden mare that trotted into Lothos. They attracted the usual curious stares accorded to strangers. A few of those milling around thought they recognized something familiar about the tall woman, despite the cloak tucked around herself and the other rider's body. She pulled up in front of a young boy.

"Could you please tell me where to find the healer? My friend is very ill."

That voice. It couldn't be. Jerros came over and nudged the boy aside. His eyes narrowed as he looked up at the woman. "Who are you?"

She held his gaze a moment. "Someone who simply wants to make sure that a sick, innocent young woman is properly cared for."

Jerros turned to a handful of other townsfolk who had edged up to get a better look at the stranger. A few whispers and nods later, he sneered, "You're Xena, aren't you?"

Xena sensed the air around her and considered her options. She looked down at the precious gift she protected next to her heart, realizing in an instant that she'd already made her decision. That wasn't so hard, she thought, and conjured up her most fearsome persona.

"If you know who I am, then you know two things." She drew out her chakram, confirming by the gasps she heard that these people did indeed remember her. "First, if I wanted to, I could kill every last one of you with a single throw." She re-snapped the chakram beneath her cloak.

"Second, I would not ride into enemy territory with my back unprotected, relying on mercy I rarely gave myself." She paused to let her words sink in, giving special attention to a couple of men who'd been creeping up with swords.

"Yet I ask for that mercy now -- not for myself, but for someone who has done you no harm. Let me get her safely to a healer, and I swear that you can do what you will with me."

The hush that had descended was broken by a small, quavering voice. "Xena? I'm so cold. Aren't you finished washing my hair yet?"

Xena glanced again at the armed men. She raised her own sword arm from where it rested lightly on her thigh, then brought it around to join the arm that wrapped her shivering companion. "Shhhh, Gabrielle," she said, resting her chin on Gabrielle's head. "I'm almost done. You'll be fine. I promise."

"No!" Jerros said. "It's a trick!"

"Let's get her while we can," shouted someone else.

Xena maintained her position, but readied herself for action.

"Quiet! Everybody settle down!"

Xena looked up to see a tall, gray-haired man emerging from the crowd. He strode over to place himself between the strangers and his neighbors.

"It's Xena we have a quarrel with," the man said. "We can't right the wrong she committed against us by committing a wrong against someone else we don't even know. Those of you who are armed can escort us to Ptolmey's house. We can deal with Xena after the young one's been settled inside." Looking pointedly at Xena, he added, "We are not killers."

Once again the townsfolk conferred. Then some, including Jerros, began surrounding Argo, holding swords, pitchforks and whatever else they could use as weapons.

"All right, Demos, we'll do as you say for now. But we will have justice," Jerros declared.

"That is what you've entrusted me to see to, and that is what I intend to deliver," responded Demos. He reached up for Argo's bridle. Xena nodded her permission, and the group slowly headed for the healer's. Once there, a sturdy young man beckoned for Xena to hand Gabrielle down to him. Xena shook her head. "No. I'll carry her in myself. I need to tell the healer a few things about her condition." Cradling Gabrielle, Xena smoothly dismounted.

"Thank you," she said to Demos.

"Don't thank me yet, Warrior Princess. Keep your word, and I'll see that you receive a fair trial. Pull anything funny, and this whole village will seek vengeance, regardless of the consequences to that young woman. Either way, you may hang."

"Understood," she replied without emotion, then carried Gabrielle inside.

The healer, Ptolmey, seemed competent enough. He expressed genuine interest in his patient's health. Xena explained about the poisoned water and gave him the rest of Cerina's potion. He agreed with Xena that it would be hard to predict the poison's effect. Whatever the source, Gabrielle's fever was rising, possibly complicated by a slight lung infection. "It's good you got her inside when you did," he said. "I think she has a pretty good chance now to recover."

Xena spent most of her brief time there kneeling next to Gabrielle's bed, stroking her friend's forehead and murmuring encouragement. Whenever she tried to rise, Gabrielle would fret at the loss of contact. Xena felt the same way.

The healer viewed this scene with some puzzlement. He remembered the tall, dark woman sweeping into Lothos with the cold arrogance of Ares himself. She'd said no one would be harmed if they cooperated. Her troops needed some supplies and a little relaxation. Seven Lothosian men died resisting. Xena executed four of her own for raping two women and drunkenly causing a fire that trapped two children in the flames. Xena's "justice" for these atrocities was surprising in a warlord, but didn't begin to pay for her crimes against them or for the years of fear and hostility she left behind without even a backward glance.

Ptolmey tried to reconcile that woman with the one hovering with such concern beside his new patient. He wondered at their relationship. Xena had simply referred to the young woman as "my friend, Gabrielle." How could such a woman have friends? This Gabrielle didn't seem to be a slave. In her delirium, she spoke Xena's name with such love and longing that even he could see Xena's presence meant healing, not harm, to the young woman. Maybe the rumors were true, that the Warrior Princess had somehow changed. But that didn't change the past.

Ptolmey felt mixed emotions when Demos told Xena her time was up. The healer viscerally felt the effort it took for the warrior to tear herself from her friend's side. Her eyes were full of ÷ tears? ÷ when she turned to him and said quietly÷ smiling? "She hates being separated from me. Stroke her forehead if she calls my name. Tell her everything will be all right." She took his arm, squeezing it as she looked deeply into his eyes. "She's the kindest, most precious person I've ever known. I beg you to give her the care I can't."

Xena straightened and turned to Demos. "OK, let's do it."

*****

The main thoroughfare of Lothos was a rough semi-circle lined with the usual establishments. Shops took up most of the right side, while a small inn, Ptolmey's quarters, a smithy, and other services were on the left. A large meeting hall sat directly across from the entrance to the town. These structures surrounded a somewhat grassy area with a slightly raised wooden platform in the middle that could be used for such public activities as speeches and entertainment. Or a hanging.

The jail in Lothos didn't amount to much more than a wide storage room beneath the town meeting hall. Two chairs sat outside a large cage that served as the prisoner's cell. The rust and dust indicated little use in the recent past. Xena sat on a pallet hastily thrown inside the cell for the unexpected occupant. A bucket for drinking water and another for relieving herself were the only other accoutrements. She fingered with grim humor the shackles around her ankles, which were attached by a chain to the bars. They allowed her to stand and walk around a bit, so she'd decided she might as well not break them. Besides, it wouldn't hurt to maintain the illusion that Themos controlled the Destroyer of Nations.

She was working hard to shake the effects of a night spent tossing restlessly without her companion's soothing warmth. She shivered in the light tunic she'd been given to wear, thankful her captors had let her keep her boots. The storage room itself was damp, but not particularly cold, despite an annoying draft from the ceiling. Braziers and a series of oil lamps had been set around outside the cell to provide a modicum of heat and light. She draped her thin blanket around her body, even though she'd shortly be using it to wipe the sweat from her face. Or the residue from her lips after one of her trips to retch into the waste bucket. Xena sighed in self-reproach. What a mess. So much for strong and smart.

At least she could picture Gabrielle resting comfortably. She imagined how Gabrielle would react if she knew Xena had been affected by the poison after all. Or that, once again, she'd allowed herself to be captured. Either way, the bard would want to kill her, so the good news was that it looked like Gabrielle wouldn't have that on her conscience. Except that wasn't exactly true. She'd mourn Xena no matter how Xena died. And if it were in the process of protecting Gabrielle÷.

A noise at the storage-room door interrupted Xena's increasingly guilt-ridden thoughts. Demos came in, first instructing the guards with him to stay behind. He approached Xena's cage. The prisoner sat immobile on her pallet, her eyes devoid of the spark he'd seen earlier.

"Well, Xena," he said, "seems you're going to be luckier than we were the last time you paid us a visit. Since you turned yourself in and acknowledged your crimes, we won't need to subject ourselves or you to a trial. You'll be hung quickly, with no unwarranted pain. In two days. Your body will be treated properly -- no desecration -- and burned."

"How is Gabrielle?"

Demos frowned. "Didn't you hear what I said?"

"Yes. How is Gabrielle?"

Demos stared at her, speechless for a moment. "She's about the same as when you last saw her. Ptolmey seems to think she senses something is wrong. Says she's not responding to his treatments as he'd hoped."

Xena seemed to come alive, softening and toughening at the same time. She rose and shuffled as close as the chain would allow. Demos took an involuntary step back, unsure if it was anger or fear emanating from the powerful woman. Before she could say anything, he felt compelled to reassure her, "Hold on, hold on. Ptolmey is doing everything he can. He said to tell you that he's doing as you instructed when she calls for you, but that it doesn't seem to help."

"I want to see her. Now."

"That wouldn't be wise. I had to do some fast talking to convince folks not to string you up this very moment. You'll get to see her again when ÷ before we ÷. We're not inhuman. I'm sorry your friend has to suffer, but surely not having you around won't kill her. Ptolmey will probably have her back on her feet in a few days."

Xena shivered again. She went back to her pallet, sat down and pulled the blanket back up around her shoulders. After a few moments of thoughtful silence she said, "Pull up a chair, Demos. I have a proposition for you that I believe you can sell to your people with little problem."

*****

Xena was in her leathers, semi-reclined on one of the healer's beds, her back against a wall and Gabrielle lying in her arms. "Missed me, huh," she whispered to the head resting on her chest. "I missed you too." She gave her friend's body a long but gentle squeeze.

"Now, stop acting like a baby and do what Ptolmey tells you," Xena softly ordered her friend. Gabrielle coughed and mumbled something, her head moving slightly from side to side. Xena smiled. "OK, OK, then stop acting like a big, bad warrior we know." Gabrielle's face relaxed into the hint of a smile, and her head stilled.

"Ptolmey, let me have that broth, will you? I'm going to try to get some of it into her."

The healer re-warmed the bowl he'd prepared for his patient, then handed it to Xena.

"All right, Your Majesty, it's time you had something a little more substantial. No, not your nutbread, but if you're good, I'll get÷. I'll make sure you get some more."

Xena leaned Gabrielle forward a little and put the spoon to her mouth. "Come on, come on," she crooned, as Gabrielle's lips remained firmly closed. "Such a shame not to open that mouth of yours on one of the few occasions I'm actually begging you to." The mouth slowly cracked just enough for Xena to dribble in some broth. "Good girl," she said, kissing her friend's damp forehead. She brought another spoonful to its target. "And there's more where that came from."

Ptolmey sat down near his stove. He'd given up trying to understand what his heart told him to just accept. At enormous personal sacrifice, the dark warrior had bought time to be with her friend. And from the looks of things so far, it was well worth the effort. Gabrielle seemed literally to blossom at Xena's touch. The soul he feared would wilt, taking her body with it, responded in a way that he could only describe as miraculous. He could say the same thing about Xena too. Both women seemed to live for each other. Would die for each other too, if necessary, though that seemed such a shame.

Guards appeared at the door.

"OK, Gabrielle, I have to go for awhile. You know me - always twitchy if I can't be getting into trouble." Xena gently extricated herself from behind Gabrielle, beckoning Ptolmey to take the broth and sit beside his patient. Taking a hold of Gabrielle's hand, she said, "Ptolmey's going to finish feeding you. Don't frown. If you eat and take a nice nap, I'll be back before you know it."

Gabrielle opened her mouth and accepted the spoon. Xena kissed the hand she held, then placed it at Gabrielle's side.

"You know, Xena, I believe you could use some of that poison potion, now that you're going to be with us awhile longer."

"I appreciate your concern, Ptolmey. You're a good man. Gabrielle needs it more than I do. I'll be fine long enough to see her out of the woods." Turning her back to the room, she allowed a guard to put the irons on her. She shuffled erectly back to the meeting hall, seemingly oblivious to the hostile stares and spittle directed her way.

Back inside the jail, Xena removed the leathers covering her soiled prison shift. A peach-faced young guard had already taken off her manacles and was reaching down to hook the shackles to the cell chain. "I'll do it," she told him, dropping to sit on her pallet. "What are you called?" she asked him.

"Dimitri."

"Push that bread and cheese over to me, Dimitri, will you?" She smiled, adding, "I'm sure you have better company to share your noontime meal with than a broken-down warlord."

The guard hesitated, then smiled back. He handed her the platter that had been left outside the cell. "Um, anything else before I go?"

"Not unless you've got a hot bath and some good port up your sleeves." Xena waited until the guard left. She set the food down for later, wrapped herself tightly in her blanket and lay down wearily to restore herself for whatever came next and her evening visit with Gabrielle.

*****

"You don't look so good." It was a couple of candlemarks later. Demos had come to initiate the other part of Xena's proposition.

"I've been better," she replied, finishing the last of the bread and cheese. "Is it time?"

"Yes. Let's go over this again, just to make sure we understand each other." At Xena's nod, he continued. "Those directly affected by your crimes will have first crack at you. Around noon each day -- for however long you last -- four people will have a quarter candlemark each to exact whatever punishment they desire, with a few restrictions. No hitting in the face or head, no breaking of bones in your arms or legs. Blows delivered to unprotected areas where there are vital organs must be done by hand. Is that right so far?"

"Yes."

"In exchange, you will get to visit Gabrielle for a candlemark in the morning and in the evening. Ptolmey will do what he can to make you presentable and keep you alive as long as your friend needs you to help her recover. If you survive longer than that, we can still hang you."

"Yes. And Gabrielle is not to know any of this. If she asks of my whereabouts, I'm off doing something for the greater good of Lothos. If I'm hanged or die otherwise, you'll tell her I was killed defending the town against raiders. You will release my body to her for transport to my home village."

"Agreed." Demos shifted on the chair outside Xena's cell. "One more thing. Why are you doing this? You're obviously not afraid of death. Your friend may suffer a little more without your presence, but Ptolmey says that she's out of any real danger. You say Lothos deserves justice from you, which would be served by hanging you right now. Why endure this unnecessary pain, just to survive a few more days?"

Xena chuckled. "Invincibility, justice and compassion all rolled into one. Should do wonders for my legacy, don't you think? Maybe I want that Xena to be remembered, not the one who is guilty as charged."

Demos shook his head. "You're a hard one, Xena, but if that young woman you care for is any indication, you're not as hard as you pretend."

"Demos, your job is to see that justice is carried out as agreed. I suggest you get on with it. If you don't mind, I'd like to make sure I have time to get in shape for my visit to Gabrielle tonight."

Demos shook his head again. "As you wish. Guards! Prepare the prisoner."

*****

Demos watched as guards lowered the chain that stretched the prisoner's arms toward the ceiling. Xena swayed a bit, so he helped lower her to the floor. The stench still made him nauseous. "I hadn't anticipated some of this," he said, holding his nose.

"S'all right," Xena mumbled. "I've had worse."

"Rest a bit. I'll send Ptolmey over."

"No. Not that bad. Rather tend to my own bumps and bruises. Tell Ptolmey I'd like some herbs for pain and sleeping. A poultice or two would also help."

"Xena÷." He paused as the warrior lay gingerly on her side and closed her eyes. "As you wish," he sighed, thinking to himself that sometimes revenge wasn't quite as sweet as promised.

Alone again, Xena reflected on how lucky she'd been this time. All her punishers had been women - the wives or mothers of those who'd died at her army's hands. They'd wanted to hurt her all right, couldn't wait to unleash all that stored up bitterness and pain. The first one brought a whip, but didn't have the strength or expertise to use it most effectively. The second used a truncheon. She got in a few good licks before collapsing into anguished sobs. The third was more creative. She shed no tears. She marched in with a bucket, hissed, "Filth for filth!" and doused Xena with animal waste. The guards were not happy that they'd had to clean the mess off and around their prisoner. Xena suspected this particular punishment would be banned.

The last woman made Xena suffer the most. She sat on the "guest" chair and quietly talked about one of the children who'd perished in the fire started by Xena's men. She described how she felt at his birth -- he was her first, so they'd named him Primus -- and what he looked like. She recalled his favorite foods, chuckled about the games he liked to play. "He was such a joy to us," she said as she prepared to leave. "I wanted you to know him, to understand how much he was loved. I realize most of your victims were faceless to you. I didn't want Primus to be. Justice will be served for me if you see him every night in your dreams."

Xena's eyes hadn't once flinched from the woman's gaze, though her words flayed Xena to her very soul. She thought the least she could do was let this mother know she was listening. Only when the woman had turned to leave did Xena drop her head and allow a tear to fall; she knew it was as much for herself as for the lost little boy. "I'm so sorry," she apologized softly to the retreating form.

"So am I," the woman replied sadly without turning around. "So am I."

*****

When Demos returned to take Xena to Gabrielle, the warrior had already put on her leathers. Thanks to woman number three, Xena was certainly cleaner than she'd been in awhile.

"Are you sure you're up to this?" Demos asked her.

"Yes," she said. Indeed, she felt lighter in a way she hadn't in a long time. She'd never really believed that doing good deeds now would make up for her past, or that even imprisonment or physical punishment was enough. Besides, as a warrior, she'd learned how to deal with that kind of thing. But the agony she'd felt at hearing about Primus couldn't be minimized in the same way. Primus' mother had shown her that faceless justice was almost as forgettable as faceless victims. She'd given her word that Lothos would have its justice, and now she'd seen how they could truly exact it.

"Demos, I'd appreciate it if you could see your way to doing a couple of things for me."

"Oh?"

"I'd like a soft shirt and breeches for future visits to Gabrielle. They'll cover marks better and won't chafe the welts as much. I÷ I don't want her to suspect that anything might be wrong."

"That won't be a problem."

"And when you send the people in tomorrow, instruct them to first tell me the name and relationship of the one who suffered."

"What?" Demos asked, perplexed. "Why would you care about that?"

"This is supposed to be about justice, right? I should at least know the names of those I'm accused of destroying."

Demos wondered if there was some record for the number of head shakes provoked by a single person. "Sure, Xena, as you wish." His mouth turned up in a faint grin. "Sometimes I have to ask myself exactly who is running the show here."

"Funny," his prisoner said. "I ask myself that same question when I'm around Gabrielle. OK, I'm ready."

When they arrived at the healer's, Xena was overjoyed to see that Gabrielle's eyes were open and much less glazed. She was still quite weak, but able to stay awake for longer periods. Xena sat on the side of the bed and pulled Gabrielle's head to her shoulder. "My, my, aren't we looking the picture of almost health today," she said.

Gabrielle smiled. "Hi. I do feel better." She pouted a little. "I wish you'd come to see me more. No offense, Ptolmey," she said turning her head to the healer, "but I'm more used to gruff orders to get well than sympathetic coaxing."

"That cinches it," said Xena with her meanest scowl. "Your patient is definitely on her way to recovering her usual irritating self."

"Yeah, well, while you're having all the fun getting into trouble, I'm reduced to counting cobwebs. No offense, Ptolmey. I'm sure it's the climate."

Healer and warrior both laughed, though under the circumstances their hearts weren't entirely in it.

"So, Warrior Princess, what have you been up to?" Gabrielle asked, poking Xena in the chest.

"Oh, this and that. You'd be proud of me. I'm doing the `people thing' in your absence. Learning about the inhabitants of Lothos."

Gabrielle craned her neck to see Xena better. "Really? Let me feel your forehead. You look a little flushed."

Xena captured the hand that came perilously close to the truth. "You're the one always telling me how I can change. I'm even getting better at the bard thing. In fact, since you've been so good, I'm going to tell you about a little boy named Primus."

Ptolmey settled in to listen too. Gabrielle had told him she wrote stories and had described a little of her travels with the Warrior Princess. But it was watching the two of them together that touched him most. He felt blessed that these two had come into his life and so sad that it was under such circumstances.

As Xena shuffled back to the jail that evening, she wondered briefly if the Furies had been messing with her mind again. She actually felt pretty good. Amazing what a sick friend, some cow poop and a tongue lashing could do for a girl.

"Hey! Xena!" It was Jerros. He walked along side her long enough to sneer, "You got off easy today, but I'll make up for that tomorrow. Sleep well."

Xena scowled, but not for the reason Jerros assumed. She was trying to imagine how she could use his threat to improve her mood even more.

*****

"My name is Jerros, and I'll make sure you never forget it. My wife is one of the women your men soiled."

"Since she was the one `soiled,' it's her name you might want to mention."

"Marin," he spat out. "But because of you, she's my wife in name only. Damaged goods I can hardly bring myself to look at. I'm man enough to keep her, but my good name is ruined forever."

Xena hung suspended once again from the top of her cage, feet barely touching the floor. A fresh assortment of red, black and blue marks on her skin attested to her vulnerability during the previous three sessions that day. Still, she managed to summon up that aura of menace that made braver men than Jerros quake in their boots.

"No, you're worse than the foul crap that stunk up the room yesterday," she snarled. "I owe Marin twice. Once for what my men did to her. The other for giving you the excuse to treat her almost as badly."

Jerros looked at the chains securing Xena, satisfied that she couldn't get free. "I'm going to enjoy this, you murdering bitch. I didn't bring nothing but these," he said, holding up his bony fists, "so I can feel when your insides squish against your back."

Xena glared at him icily. "Do it. But know that it's all for Marin. You and your good name won't be any more avenged than they deserved to be the day both of us darkened Marin's life."

Jerros rushed forward with a howl, determined to make this she-devil beg and scream for mercy. What he got instead was Marin's name repeated to him after every blow. The rules said he could hit where there were vital organs, and he did. He stopped several times to get his breath back. But each time he resumed, "Marin" was still the only faint sound he heard from her lips.

Dimitri was standing guard outside and heard Jerros screaming, "I'll kill you! If I can't do it with my bare hands, I'll see you dead another way!" Dimitri ran in and tackled Jerros just as he swung a chair to bash Xena's head a second time.

"You know that's not allowed," Dimitri told the irate man pinned beneath him. "Get out before I call the other guards to drag you out."

Jerros looked at the woman slumping in chains above him. "It's not fair!" he cried, stumbling to his feet. "I didn't get my justice! She ruined my life and wouldn't give me what she owes. It's not fair!" he kept repeating as the door closed behind him.

"Xena?" Dimitri quickly loosened the chains and half carried her to her pallet. Blood flowed from a large gash above her temple. "Hold on, Xena. I'm going to get the healer."

Soon after, Xena felt hands on her body. She tensed, but relaxed when a voice she trusted urged her to lie still.

"Xena, it's me, Ptolmey. You've got a nasty head wound, among other things. Heed the advice you gave Gabrielle and let me tend to you."

"Gabrielle?" Xena tried feebly to move. "Got to see Gabrielle."

"Not tonight, my friend. You're too badly hurt. You don't want Gabrielle to see that do you?"

"But÷." Xena tried to clear those cobwebs she vaguely remembered Gabrielle talking about.

"But she'll worry and be disappointed, right?" Ptolmey finished for her. "It's OK. I'll tell her something. Like maybe there was a rockslide and you stayed to help dig out the survivors."

"But÷."

"No buts, Xena. Between fighting off sickness and these new injuries, you've hit your limit. As it is, you may not be in shape for your visit tomorrow morning." He put his hand on Xena's shoulder as she tried to rise again. "Xena, I'll do everything I can to get you ready, but you have to help me too. I know what these visits mean to both of you."

Xena gave Ptolmey a look of reluctant defeat. He brought a sleeping potion to her lips, trying hard to raise and wiggle his eyebrows in comical imitation of his two favorite patients. She chuckled -- even that hurt -- but raised her head to accept the healer's drink.

*****

Both Demos and Ptolmey had done everything to convince Xena to postpone her visit to Gabrielle the next morning. Yet there she was, already dressed in her shirt and breeches, struggling to pull on a boot.

"Gabrielle will know something's wrong. You can fool her only so long with stories about rockslides." Xena winced as the stubborn boot refused to come up any farther.

Ptolmey dropped down next to her. "Here, let me help you with that. Xena, you can barely move. This is ridiculous."

Xena ignored him. "Can you see it?" She was combing her hair down over the head wound, having refused to let Ptolmey leave the bandage on.

The healer sighed. "I don't think she'll notice."

"Good. Help me stand up."

Between them, the two men got Xena on her feet. She stepped away from them and began stretching her muscles. Ptolmey and Demos quickly grabbed her again as she nearly passed out. "Too much inactivity," she explained. Both men rolled their eyes.

Now that she knew where it hurt -- or, more accurately, the few places where it didn't -- Xena cautiously tried stretching again. "Better," she pronounced, breathing heavily and mopping her face with a cloth Ptolmey silently handed her. "Help me to the door."

Word of Jerros' actions had spread. There wasn't the usual crowd outside the town hall, waiting to watch the Warrior Princess make her trek to the healer's or to take their turn with her when she came back. Those on hand were stunned to see her emerge, unshackled and supported by their Chief Councilor and healer. When the three reached Ptolmey's place, Xena gently disengaged the men's hands from her arms. She closed her eyes and took several deep breaths. With each passing moment, she seemed to grow taller, look stronger. Soon all traces of frailty had vanished. She smiled with self-satisfaction and walked steadily inside.

"Xena!" Gabrielle exclaimed excitedly. "Look! I'm sitting up! No more fever. No more retching. Soon, no more cobwebs."

"Ah, such amazing recuperative powers you have, my bard," Xena said as she bent to kiss Gabrielle's forehead.

"Oh, no, that won't do anymore. C'mere, you." Gabrielle pulled Xena down for a big bear hug. Xena hung on for dear life, reluctant to let go for several reasons. Ptolemy took one look at Xena's pale, pain-filled face and held his breath. "My, you really are glad to see me," Gabrielle grinned over Xena's shoulder.

"Yes," Xena gasped, fighting the blackness that threatened to engulf her. "You have no idea."

The friends chatted until Demos stuck his head in the door and nodded.

"Xena, why do you have to go now?" Gabrielle asked in exasperation. "Can't you spend the whole day here for once? These folks are going to have to learn to live without you in a few days anyway. I've got most of my strength back and should be ready to travel soon. Right, Ptolmey?"

"Right," he answered without the enthusiasm she expected.

"Gabrielle, I'm almost finished with what I promised to do here. I know I'm being selfish, but it feels so right to keep going as long as I can."

Gabrielle's expression turned serious. "Xena, all of you are so mysterious about what you're doing. Sensitive chats and rockslides don't quite explain why you can only come at certain times, or why you can't sleep here some nights. You're keeping something from me, and that usually means you're either hurt or involved in something I won't like."

Xena sighed. She knew this was coming. "Gabrielle, you've been so sick, you were asleep most of the time. These people have been through a lot. Death, destruction, anguish that's manmade -- well, except maybe for rockslides." Xena smiled. " I understand that. I used to cause it. I'm helping Lothos rebuild in a way that only someone like me could. Sometimes it's just being there to let someone vent their anger. Or listening to someone talk about a loved one who's died or been hurt. It's not much different than what you do all the time. The only mystery about it is that it's me doing it."

Gabrielle studied Xena's face. Xena sounded so sincere, and yet÷. "All right, Xena, I'll accept that for now. You do seem more at peace. If this means so much to you, how can I not be happy and proud for you?"

Xena embraced her friend again, more than happy to accept the accompanying pain. "Thank you, Gabrielle. It does mean a lot to me. It means even more to have you say that." Xena looked imploringly at Demos, who got the message. The Warrior Princess was about to lose it.

"Sorry to break this up, Xena, but folks are waiting on you. Don't worry, Gabrielle. We'll let you borrow her again soon." Maybe.

*****

Xena awaited her visitors, surprised to be sitting on a chair in her cell, as opposed to dangling from above. Demos had said that wouldn't be necessary today. She wondered if her condition had something to do with that. She'd practically collapsed when they'd left the healer's. Demos said he'd try to delay her punishment sessions until the next day, but she'd have none of that. A deal was a deal. She'd taken some herbs for the pain and let Ptolemy encase her in bandages and poultices again. She'd gotten in a good nap. "Surely, I can last for a candlemark," she'd said, willing that to be true.

As Dimitri ushered in the day's visitors, Xena noted a trend developing. None of three so far had brought with them any instruments of torture or degradation. Instead, each scrutinized the prisoner for a few moments, then launched into stories about the loved one who had suffered during Xena's encampment at Lothos.

A wife sat in the chair outside the cell and quietly talked about her husband and how proud she was that he had died trying to protect the town from the likes of the Warrior Princess. She expressed bitterness that Xena had wiped out the very men whose courage and strong convictions provided the backbone of what was decent about Lothos. She had since remarried, but could never forget Timon. Xena's reappearance convinced the woman that they should build a memorial to remind themselves that, without such heroes as Timon, they would always be vulnerable to warlords and slavers.

A father alternately paced and stood motionless in the middle of the floor as he spoke of the plans he'd had for the talented young son who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The man had scolded Cilius that day for neglecting his schoolwork. The boy had run off crying. He was hiding with his friend Primus when Xena's soldiers dropped a lantern in the stables and left without telling anyone. With tears in his eyes, the father said he would always carry the weight of his own possible guilt in driving Cilius to his death.

The husband of the other woman who had been raped gripped the cell bars, his voice quivering with suppressed rage. He described how, after the attack, his shy, kind Danae refused to leave the house. How she often sat rocking in her chair, her arms tightly holding her body. How one day she did leave home, only to be found later floating in a nearby lake. How his nightmares were filled with his helplessness to stop the Warrior Princess and his dreams with killing her in the worst possible ways. He'd slumped suddenly against Xena's cage, drained of the anger that had sustained him all these years. Laughing bitterly, he said this was the first time he'd talked about his wife since her death. Yet, instead of avenging her as he'd promised, he'd poured his pain into the hole where Xena's heart should have been. He'd looked at Xena one last time, saying at least now he was free to picture Danae in Elysia and the Warrior Princess in Tartarus where she belonged.

"Well," Xena said out loud to herself after Danae's husband left, "guess we both got our wish." She hadn't considered that, like Primus' mother, others would talk and not exact physical punishment of some kind. It's not that she wanted to be hurt that way. She'd just assumed it would be a part of satisfying Lothosians' need for justice. Had Demos set this up to comply with her demand that the sessions continue, yet save her from more damage in her present condition as well? Was it by chance that the people scheduled for today were content with simply talking? Would the other forms of punishment resume when she was better or if that's what the punisher wanted?

Xena shook her head. It didn't really matter. She had one more visitor to hear. She couldn't prepare herself as she usually did, being well acquainted with, say, the feel of a blade or fist. In those instances, she was practiced in steeling herself, compartmentalizing the pain, anticipating the effects, concocting the right remedy. There was a beginning and an end. Either she would die or she would heal. With these talking sessions, she didn't know what to expect. The feelings were personalized, so different from one mourner to the next. And in herself. But she couldn't worry about that now. All she could do was empty herself of everything that had preceded this moment. Focus on whomever came in next. She owed them that. So she sat in her chair and waited.

The door opened to a small woman who appeared a little older than Xena. She sat down. For a long time, she said nothing, just looked curiously at Xena, as though trying to get as far inside the warrior as she could. Xena kept silent too. When the woman finally spoke, Xena had to strain to hear her.

"My name is Marin," she began, nodding knowingly at Xena's audible intake of breath. "A warlord came here awhile back. A woman warlord. She let her men take from me. To this day, my skin crawls from hands and foul bodies that tore at me, invaded me, touched and put their mouths on me in ways I thought only someone who loved me would. In ways that only someone who said he loved me had. I believed that was all I could expect. All I deserved. What I lost that day was the hope that it would ever be any different."

Marin looked down at the hands folded tightly in her lap. She closed her eyes, trying to bring the beating of her heart back under control. She sat silently like that for a long time. Xena did, too.

Marin opened her eyes to Xena and cleared her throat. Both women leaned forward with their arms now resting on their knees. "Yesterday, my husband went to that warlord to avenge me. He came back drunk and angry. It seems he wasn't seeking justice for me after all, but for himself. He said he had beaten the warlord unmercifully, demanding his due, yet the only thing he heard from her lips was my name. Marin. The warlord said that I was the one who deserved justice. For what she had done. For what my husband had done. That was what she told him she would take the blows for."

Marin stood. She walked over to the bars, close enough to put her hands around them. "The same warlord who took away my hope gave it back to me. The pain she felt for me proved that I deserved better, that I was worth more then and am still worth more now." She straightened and backed away. "I accept your justice, Xena. I am taking back what you said was due me. I won't ever believe I must give it away to anyone else again."

As Marin exited past him, Dimitri stuck his head in to see if Xena needed anything. "Xena?"

She didn't seem to hear him. She sat in her chair, unmoving. As he came closer, he noticed a slight sheen on her face and she was shivering slightly. He unlocked the cell door and knelt next to her. Something told him not to touch her yet.

"Xena?" he repeated quietly. This time she noticed him. She looked so tired. "Xena, let me help you to your bed. You can rest now."

"Yes," she whispered. "I can rest now."

Dimitri braced her as she walked to and lay down on the pallet. He pulled the blanket up over her. As he was about to rise, she lightly clutched his wrist, her hand cold and clammy.

"Dimitri," she said softly, "tell Gabrielle not to wait for me tonight and that I send my love. She's nearly well, you know." A brief smile almost lightened the dark circles under her eyes. "Tell Demos I gave Lothos what justice I could, that I'm sorry I couldn't do more." She let her head drop. She still shivered, but fell quickly into what appeared to be the deep, dreamless sleep of the dead.

*****

Gabrielle was not happy. No Xena last night. No Xena this morning. Demos had given her the usual line about Xena's oh-so-important activities, but they couldn't be earthshaking enough to keep her from a lousy few moments with her supposed dearest companion. If Xena wouldn't come to her, then she would go to Xena. Gabrielle had spent yesterday and this morning testing her strength. She'd even helped Ptolmey do light chores with very little fatigue, so they couldn't use her health as an excuse any more.

Ptolmey observed his patient's irritated pacing with some trepidation. This was a side to her he hadn't seen before. He'd learned that Gabrielle was an Amazon Queen, but couldn't quite reconcile that image with the wan, sweet young woman he'd been ministering to. He certainly could now. With her color and energy back, she was every bit the confident, feisty person capable of wrapping someone like Xena around her little finger. He was a healer, not a diplomat. He cursed Demos for leaving him to contain this green-eyed tempest.

"I want you to take me to Xena. Now. And don't tell me about how dangerous that might be. You have no idea what I've had to fight my way through being with Princess Tougher Than My Leathers. Right now, my instincts are screaming danger, and I have no intention of letting Xena face whatever it is alone."

Ptolmey groaned. "Gabrielle, please calm down. Xena knows what she's doing. I'll see if I can find Demos. Maybe he can resolve this for you."

"You do that. Be sure to tell him I'm through being patient. If the two of you won't help, then I'll go out and search every nook and cranny of this town by myself."

Ptolmey was even more convinced that Gabrielle and Xena were destined to be together. He'd never known two people who seemed so different, yet turned out to be so much alike. Each was certainly a formidable opponent in her own way.

"As you wish, Gabrielle," he sighed. "As you wish."

Ptolmey walked to the town hall with a heavy heart. The day of reckoning had come. They all new it would, but none of them was sure how it would turn out. It had seemed so simple at first: Save the good one, kill the bad one. How could they have foreseen that it would become so complex?

Ptolmey rounded the side of the meeting hall to see Demos with his hands up, motioning a good-sized crowd to disperse.

"I told you, she's too ill," Demos was saying. "The way things look, she might not survive for any more sessions."

"No! I haven't had my turn yet," one woman shouted.

"She's only begun to pay for what she did to us," a man added.

"Quiet!" Demos ordered. "Isn't that what we wished? Her dead? The only reason you can have a `turn' is that she proposed suffering these daily sessions until her friend recovered. The justice we have now is more than we'd have had if we'd hung her in the first place."

"What if she doesn't die now?"

"We agreed that if she lived until her friend got well, that we could do with her as we wanted. Now, I'm going in to see about the situation. I suggest you all go home until I have something more to tell you."

The crowd grumbled, but began breaking up. "You'd better come with me," Demos said to Ptolmey. "We can't rouse her. She seems to be getting worse."

"Well, that's not the only problem we have. I just left Gabrielle, and --"

"And she's right here," a voice said evenly behind him. "Now, take me to Xena."

*****

The two men were grateful that the first phase was going better than expected. They had proceeded to the jail without conversation. Gabrielle waited calmly for Demos to open the cell door. Marin, who sometimes assisted Ptolmey, had volunteered to watch over Xena and was applying a cold cloth to the warrior's brow. Gabrielle smiled at Marin appreciatively, then knelt down to take her place. She touched the bandage near Xena's temple. After a deep breath, she lifted the blanket, then looked under Xena's shift. She raised questioning eyes to Demos.

"A couple days ago, before she came to see you," he said, lowering his head.

She nodded, not surprised, and tucked the blanket back around her friend. She brushed the back of her hand against Xena's cheek.

"Gabrielle," Xena murmured.

"Yes. Wait for me. Everything's going to be OK."

The three now sat around a table in Demos' council office. No one had said a word since leaving Xena's cell, except to thank Dimitri for bringing in some tea. Demos and Ptolmey watched Gabrielle. She appeared to be deep in thought, her hands steepled just below her nose.

Ptolmey marveled again as he recalled Gabrielle's behavior. No hysterics, few tears, none of the anger she'd displayed earlier in his quarters. The dam had to break some time.

"Gabrielle, would you like us to tell you how this all came about?" the healer asked gently.

"No, I heard enough."

"We're so sorry you had to find out like this. She didn't want us to tell you. Would you like to know why?"

"No, I already know that, too."

"Isn't there anything you want to ask us?"

"Yes," she said, the fire back in her eyes. "What are you going to do about it?"

Both men sighed. The second phase wasn't going to go as well.

"Gabrielle, this latest collapse took us by surprise," said Demos. "We all knew she wasn't well, but she insisted on going through with the punish÷ with the sessions. I told the people waiting yesterday that only those who wanted to speak on behalf of their loved ones could see Xena. No physical ÷ justice would be allowed."

"Obviously you miscalculated. You really think she'll recover rotting in that cell?"

"Gabrielle, from what Dimitri said, she seems to have given up. It's as though she held her illness and pain at bay until you were better, until she'd done as much as she could to live up to her part of the bargain. It all finally overwhelmed her. Ptolmey doesn't think there's much we can do for her now."

"You can start by giving her that medicine we brought with us. It has healing properties beyond dealing with the poison."

"She made me give all she had to you."

"No, I have some. As to her giving up, I'll take care of that. Demos, I suggest you do whatever talking, voting or ordering is necessary for Xena to ride out of Lothos healthy and intact. In the meantime, I intend to see that she is taken to Ptolmey's, even if I have to use my staff to clear a path through every head that's in the way. Do we understand each other?"

The two men looked at one another and sighed. "As you wish," they said in unison.

*****

"Am I in trouble?" Xena peered up at her friend with sheepish apprehension. When she'd awakened in the healer's quarters that evening, she knew Gabrielle was involved somehow. It didn't matter what or how much Gabrielle had been told. She wouldn't like any of it.

Gabrielle was semi-reclining with Xena in her arms, just as Xena had done a few days ago. She'd been so worried that Dimitri was right about Xena giving up. She'd had to use her best persuasive techniques to bring the warrior out of her stupor. Kisses, hugs, strokes, tears. Yelling. She was angrily ordering Xena to stop acting like such a baby, when she discovered blue eyes measuring her and the room. "Xena! You came back!" she'd exclaimed, immediately sliding from her chair to her current position as Xena's cushion.

"Does it look like you're in trouble?"

"Looks can be so deceiving," the warrior said hoarsely. "Sometimes you've got to get underneath."

Gabrielle studied her friend a moment. "Isn't that the truth," she smiled. She gave Xena some water from the skin lying on the bed. "Can you sit up a little? I want you to try some of this," she said, reaching over to retrieve a bowl of broth she'd been eating.

Xena was surprised at how weak she was. She struggled to push herself up, then raised a shaky hand toward the bowl.

"Nuh uh. Payback time. I want you to see how much fun it is having your lips poked with a spoon."

Xena considered her situation, deciding that the better part of valor was to do whatever Gabrielle wanted. She opened her mouth.

Ptolmey appeared, his face lighting up when he saw the scene in front of him. "Why do I feel like I've stepped back in time?" The two women on the bed chuckled.

The healer became serious. "Xena, everyone's still wrangling over your fate. It seems people are split over what to do. Jerros, of course, wants your head. The funny thing is, Marin is one of your staunchest defenders. She's moved out to live with her sister, which made Jerros even less kindly disposed toward you."

Gabrielle looked questioningly at Xena.

"Long story. Let's just say I ended up being the marriage counselor."

Gabrielle grinned. "That explains a lot."

"Anyway," Ptolmey continued, "I expect they'll have a formal hearing tomorrow. Xena, you still have some healing to do. But I see you are in capable hands, so I'll get back over to the meeting hall." He winked. "I've got a few dinars to put into that discussion myself."

The two women ate and napped in comfortable silence. Gabrielle finally extricated herself and sat down to work on a scroll. A few moments later, she heard rustling from Xena's direction.

"Gabrielle? Is there anything you want to ask me?"

"No, not right now." Gabrielle felt the need for some justice herself. She'd let Xena suffer a little longer.

Xena's guilt was eating her up. Sometimes she wished her friend would be less understanding. A whack or two on the midsection would at least let Xena know she'd been forgiven. She sighed. "Gabrielle, I'm sorry I misled you and shut you out of this. You were sick, I was getting sick, and I was so afraid I wouldn't be able to take care of you."

"Xena, you don't have to explain," Gabrielle responded, continuing to stare thoughtfully at her scroll. "You love me and would do anything for me. Anything except what I want most: for you to value your own life as much as you do mine."

Gabrielle wished sometimes she could stay mad at her partner. Sighing, she went over to wipe away the tears she knew would be trickling down Xena's face. "It's OK, Xena. That's what I love in you one moment÷" she playfully brought a hand to Xena's throat, "and want to strangle you for the next."

Xena sniffed and brought the hand at her throat to her lips.

"It's the same thing with your quest to make up for your past. Your life has become so important now -- the good you've done, the seasons of good left in you. Yet you put that on the line at the drop of a hat, because you are a true and noble warrior. I love how it makes my heart sing one moment, but hate that it stills my heart the next."

"I know," Xena sighed. She brought Gabrielle's hand between both her larger ones and squeezed. She couldn't think of anything else to say. Silence hung between them.

"Xena? I guess I do have one question. Last night÷. Had you really given up?"

Xena heard the pain in her friend's voice. She fiddled with a bandage on her arm while she gathered her thoughts. This was definitely one of those times she wished she was as good with words as she was with swords.

"Gabrielle, you know how I always say `first things first'? It's true what you said, about your being the most important priority in my life. Almost every big decision I make flows from that. All the information my body senses instinctively, all those options my brain can consider in an instant --" Xena looked fondly at Gabrielle, "all that I'm feeling in my heart -- none of it means much if the next action I take jeopardizes your life." She paused, waiting for Gabrielle's usual objections. Gabrielle simply nodded her encouragement.

Xena took a deep breath and continued. "I do value my own life, in that I want to help keep you safe and happy, to be with you and to do deeds we can both be proud of, for as long as possible. In that order. Whatever next step I choose in a particular situation determines the chances for future steps. I can't always predict what else that step will lead to, but if I don't focus on taking it, all may be lost." She paused again, noting that Gabrielle continued to listen intently.

"My first step a few days ago was to get help for you as quickly as I could. My getting hung for that was a distinctly possible outcome, but I couldn't worry about it until the time came. When I realized you still needed me around to help you get well, I took a step that allowed me to do that, to be with you longer and satisfy Lothos' need for justice at the same time." Xena's mouth curled slightly. "My body wasn't too happy about that, but it had already taken too much and I couldn't ask of it any more than that. I didn't want to die. I didn't want to leave you. So, no, I hadn't given up. I just didn't have anything left inside to take any more steps." She exhaled a long breath and swallowed. "Lucky I had someone else to do it for me, huh?"

Gabrielle gently pulled Xena's head to her shoulder. "Always," she responded softly. "I hope you remember that." She brushed at a strand of dark hair. "Xena, thanks for telling me that. I know how hard these sensitive chats are for you."

Xena chuckled. "I've had some practice lately. At least at the listening part. I discovered words can be more useful than I thought." She tried, but failed miserably, to stifle a yawn.

Gabrielle grinned and patted Xena's head. "Tiring, huh? Now you see why I have so much trouble getting up in the morning. How `bout you get some sleep. Tomorrow we may have to do what you do best -- kick butt."

*****

"Well, Xena, seems you've convinced folks that hanging's too good for you," Demos came over to announce the next afternoon. "Half of `em like the idea of beating you to a pulp. They say you're rotten to the core, and only a prolonged, painful death will rid them of the Warrior Princess they know and hate. The other half thinks maybe you have a conscience after all. They like the idea of you having to live with the same painful memories they do."

"And who says that's justice either way?" asked Gabrielle.

"Um, that would be me," Xena said wryly. "Like I said, you never know where the next step might lead."

Ptolmey stopped mixing and stirring his potions. "Do they expect Xena to be there? She's a lot better, but she could use another day or two of rest."

"The arguments'll start in a couple of candlemarks and may last for awhile," Demos said. "The council may not make a decision before tonight or even tomorrow morning. She doesn't have to be there until the verdict is read."

"Oh, no, I'm not letting them decide my fate behind my back," Xena stated, already swinging her legs over the bed. She teetered a little, got her balance and commenced to do the slow-motion version of her stretching routine. "See?" she said somewhat later, drenched in sweat, teeth gritted in a poor semblance of a smile. "I too have amazing recuperative powers."

"Great show, Xena," Ptolmey said with heavy sarcasm. "Perhaps for your next trick you'll do flips around--"

"No! Don't dare her to÷" Gabrielle started to warn him, then joined the others in watching her insufferable companion, "do what she's doing now. Xena, stop! You proved your point. Now sit back down before I have to come over there and push you down with my little finger."

"Fine," Xena said, winded, pooped and only too happy to oblige. "Now, someone get me my leathers, so we can take my show on the road."

The men looked at Gabrielle. She shrugged. "I suppose if we start now.... Demos, you do her boots. Ptolmey, help me with the leathers."

"What about my armor?" At very exasperated glares from three directions, Xena quickly added, "OK, forget that. Might be too intimidating."

*****

The process of getting Xena dressed torturously completed, Demos went on ahead to settle the crowd he knew would be champing at the bit in the meeting hall. Xena still had time for a contented nap before Dimitri and three other guards came to escort their prisoner to the hearing.

"No irons," Ptolmey said, pointing to the numerous bandages Xena had finally consented to leave on.

The guards nodded. They knew it would just be for show anyway.

The din inside the room shushed immediately when Dimitri opened the door to usher his charge in. Xena stopped at the threshold, squaring her shoulders and gingerly pulling herself up to her full height. She surveyed the room. It seemed that all the ugly people were on one side, among them Jerros. On the other were those who still looked human. She nodded her head slightly at Marin and some of the others who had visited her. She swiveled her head back to Jerros' side and gave him her most feral sneer.

"Xena," Gabrielle whispered. "Behave. Focus on the next step, remember?"

Xena spared her partner a flash of blue from the corner of her eye, then walked with majestic dignity to the front. Gabrielle obviously didn't appreciate the importance of a good entrance.

Demos gestured to a small table near the podium. Xena stood a moment in front of the chair indicated, then sat rigidly with her arms on the table. Without bothering to ask anybody's permission, Gabrielle grabbed another chair and put it next to Xena's. She swept her eyes over the audience, letting her gaze rest a bit on the man Xena didn't seem to like too much, before she regally took her seat. Xena smirked. She should've known better than to underestimate her bard.

Demos pounded his gavel on the podium -- unnecessarily, as the room couldn't have been more quiet. "We are here today to decide the fate of Xena, known as the Warrior Princess -- to the extent that she allows, that is, as I suspect she could leave here alive anytime she chose."

A wave of gasps, grumbles, and epithets washed across the room.

"Order! Order!" This time Demos did need to use his gavel. He seemed pleased. "I say this to remind you that Xena came to Lothos voluntarily. She possesses the same personal capacity for destruction as the warlord who victimized us, yet has shown mercy that the Warrior Princess of old did not. The Xena before us today put her life at our mercy, and I would hope that our sense of justice is at least as good as hers."

Demos met Xena's eyes. She swallowed. She hadn't expected that. Gabrielle had. She smiled at him fondly.

"Now," Demos went on, "here's where we are. Some of you believe that those most directly affected by Xena's crimes should be able to subject her to physical punishment until she dies. Others believe it sufficient that she continue to hear about and live with the consequences of her crimes against those victims. The council will make the final determination, but will first entertain relevant arguments. Jerros has been chosen to speak on behalf of the first view, Marin on behalf of the second. I will recognize other views as appropriate."

Gabrielle stood. "Will Xena be able to speak?"

"Of course, if she wishes, either before or after other arguments. Xena, do you want to say anything now?"

"No."

Gabrielle sat back down.

"All right, Jerros, you may begin."

Several men shook Jerros' hand and patted him on the back as he made his way to the front. He cleared his throat, then pointed at Xena. She glanced at his bruised knuckles and smiled evilly, then mouthed, "Marin."

It was all Jerros could do to restrain himself, until he realized Xena wasn't chained this time. He pulled his finger back. "Th- that woman ruined my ÷ our lives. You already know what her men did to my Marin, who that witch has now turned against me. You know about the deaths of the good men, children and woman she is responsible for."

He paused to allow for murmurs of assent, then began pacing as he warmed to his subject. "That's not all she owes us for. Some of you had your property destroyed, your hard-earned supplies stolen. How can telling stories to her make up for that? If she doesn't care about a little child, why should she feel bad about a stick of wood or some grain? I say, the only way she'll suffer is to feel that piece of wood against her back!"

Several voices from one side of the room yelled in agreement.

Jerros raised his own voice. "She came here because she had no choice. Something that belonged to her was broken, and she needed it fixed. She's still the selfish, conniving animal she has always been. If we let her have her way again, what's the justice in that? If we let her live, what's to stop her from ruining other lives like ours and that innocent girl she keeps with her?" He turned to Marin's side of the room. "Unless you propose to talk her to death, how do you answer those questions?"

Jerros leered triumphantly at Xena, then went to receive the congratulations of his comrades. Xena had stared impassively at Jerros throughout his speech as though he were a bug she could squash if only he'd crawl a couple of boot lengths closer. Without looking, she reached over and took Gabrielle's hand, gently separating the small, clenched fingers.

"Quiet!" Demos got to use his gavel again. "Marin?"

Marin rose and walked to the front. "Jerros has already reminded you why I should have no mercy for the Warrior Princess," she began quietly. "And I'm not here today to talk about mercy for her. Many of us have lived with our memories sealed away in crypts of anguish and hate. We never truly mourned our loss. We mourned our own shame, helplessness and guilt instead. That's a terrible burden to bear and not one we should pass on to our children."

Marin paused and looked at Xena. "Nothing Xena does can change the past. But whether she intended to or not, letting us tell her about it has given us the chance to breathe new life into what was taken from us. To bring our memories to light, to look again on those we loved without the darkness that has shrouded them from us for so long. Only Xena can decide whether she wants freedom from those faces. If she doesn't, there will be justice in that. But even if she does, there's justice in our being able to reclaim and celebrate what was lost. We deserve that. We need, finally, to have mercy on ourselves."

There was quiet murmuring on both sides of the aisle as Marin took her seat. Xena sat like a statue, afraid that one tiny crack in her veneer might send pieces of her crashing to the floor. Without looking, Gabrielle extricated her hand from Xena's and began lightly stroking her friend's fingers.

Demos asked if anyone else wanted to speak. A couple of merchants came forward to support Jerros' view that loss of livelihood should be considered along with loss of life and reputation. Ptolmey and Dimitri gave examples of Xena's courage and selfless care of Gabrielle. Primus' mother, Cilius' father, Timon's wife, and Danae's husband affirmed the truth in Marin's words.

After no one else came forward, Demos turned to Xena. Gabrielle noted her friend's rigid posture, rose and moved in front of the council podium.

"Hi, my name is Gabrielle. I've been traveling with Xena for the past few seasons, since she saved my life. As you can see," she said glancing again at Jerros, "I don't look particularly ruined." This got a few chuckles.

"But Jerros was right about one thing. Xena didn't come here voluntarily. I made her do it."

Xena looked up sharply. Gabrielle walked over and put a finger to her friend's lips, backed away and went to stand near Marin's side of the aisle.

"You see, Xena loves me. And for her, it's just that simple. I didn't ask her to save me the first time we met or the other day. I didn't ask her to sacrifice her body, her freedom, her dignity, or certainly her life for me. Neither have a lot of other people she loves, and some she despises or doesn't even know. But she's done it anyway. She has to. When someone needs her, she can't refuse. Partly it's to make up for things she's done in the past, as she did here. But mostly it's because of what was buried deep within her all along. Loving me helped bring that to light, just as loving those you lost can bring the best of what they were back out in you."

Gabrielle crossed over to the side where Jerros sat. "Xena would understand the need to be vindictive and cruel. That came as easily to her once as it does to some of you. She'd even say it's what she deserves. Maybe that other Xena would have deserved that, if she still lived. But if she did live, we wouldn't be here today. Everyone agrees that the Warrior Princess of the past would never have felt compelled to place someone else's life before her own, to put her own life in the hands of her enemies or to stick around to give them their justice even if it killed her."

Now Gabrielle moved in front of her soulmate. "But if putting others above one's self is a crime, then justice will be served by punishing this Xena who sits before you. Take her life, if you must, for loving me too much and holding her honor too dear. Then take mine, as I confess before you all that I am her most steadfast accomplice, will continue to serve proudly as such and intend to do everything in my power to save her."

Few in the audience were unmoved by the sincerity of Gabrielle's words. Losothians had carried such a clear image of the Warrior Princess in their heads. A few days ago, each had wanted to tear a piece off and grind it into the dirt. Now that image seemed to blur and another one take its place. Most found themselves relieved that the council would have to decide what was right.

Demos broke the silence. "If there are no more arguments, the council will--"

Xena stood. "I would like to say something."

Startled, Demos simply nodded.

"My ÷ accomplice÷ speaks the truth in charging me with loving her more than life itself. It is the one thing I am guilty of that I could never regret, and I apologize to her for the pain she suffers because of it. I would like to think she has made me a better person than the Warrior Princess charged with past crimes against Lothos, yet I am equally guilty of those. I do deeply regret and also apologize for those crimes, understanding that no price I pay can atone for the lives lost. I gave my word I would accept your justice. The only barrier standing in the way of that is any indication whatsoever that you will harm a hair on Gabrielle's head, whether she asks you to or not. Thank you." Xena sat back down.

"Sorry," she whispered to her red-faced partner. "It's that crime of loving you too much thing. Guess I'm destined to be a repeat offender."

*****

Xena and Gabrielle were alone in the jail cell. Demos had wanted them close by in case the council needed to call on them. Xena thought it was a good way to show that she intended to keep her word. Gabrielle hadn't objected, as she'd had them bring a fresh pallet in and forced the protesting Xena to rest during the wait. The doors were unlocked. Dimitri stood outside mainly as a courtesy to attend to the two women's needs. And because he wanted to.

They could hear muffled noises above them. Nearly everyone had remained after Demos adjourned the hearing and had watched the defendant stride expressionless from the room. Gabrielle had acknowledged the "good luck" whispered by a few and, like Xena, ignored "good riddance." That had been about a couple of candlemarks ago.

Xena lay on her back with her arm thrown across her eyes. Gabrielle knew the warrior lived by her word, so hadn't asked her what she would do if sentenced to immediate or prolonged death. She did wonder, though, what Xena was feeling -- or if she had, as she'd suggested, simply put her emotions aside to make room for reacting to whatever was actually placed in front of her. Xena's only response so far had been to turn her head every now and then to Gabrielle and smile.

Gabrielle sat cross-legged on the floor a short distance away, studying her companion as she had the surface of those lakes she'd waited beside. But this time, she'd gotten a glimpse into what lay beneath. Hearing those people talk about how Xena had affected their lives brought the Warrior Princess' past home to Gabrielle in a new way. Humanized it. Callisto was one thing. Primus, Marin, Danae, Cilius, Timon were another. As much as Gabrielle hated the thought of these innocents haunting Xena's dreams, they did deserve that much. It suddenly hit her what Xena had sentenced herself to long before this day. And that there was justice in that.

Yet, Gabrielle realized also for the first time how Xena's living meant more than just her good deeds. Some of those same people Xena had hurt were now freed from their pain by her simple act of serving witness to it. Sharing it. Both they and Xena had to acknowledge that dark could become light, in order for either to believe the Warrior Princess capable of making that difference, of feeling such pain. And there was justice in that too, maybe more so than in random acts of redemption. Gabrielle knew now why Xena had said that getting to know the inhabitants of Lothos seemed "so right." Xena had been touched by the meaning of her life in a new way, a way that lightened her dark deeds even as they weighed more heavily on her heart.

Gabrielle didn't know whether to rejoice over the opportunity Lothos had given Xena, or to cry.

There was a knock at the store-room door. Dimitri stuck his head in. "Gabrielle? Demos says the council would like to talk to you."

Xena was up, her hand on Gabrielle's arm, before Dimitri could add, "Xena? He said for you not to worry, that no harm would come to Gabrielle. He said he hoped you knew him better than that by now."

"I'm sure it'll be OK, Xena," Gabrielle reassured her partner. "Please, lie back down and let me see what they want."

Every nerve in Xena's body screamed for her to grab her soulmate and run, that she'd relinquished her control to these people's mercy too long. It was one thing for her to ignore a bow cocked at her own back, but never one at Gabrielle's.

"Xena?" Gabrielle gently pried the hand off her arm and held it. "Trust me. Let me take this step. I've waited on the bank for you so often. I've believed in your instincts to bring you back safe. I'm asking you to do the same for me."

Xena trembled with the effort to stay rooted where she was, to focus on her partner's calm words. She believed in Gabrielle, but not in Lothos' capacity to overcome the hatred she'd felt in the room above - a hatred that might now extend to her "accomplice." "Gabrielle," she said haltingly with tears in her eyes. "I don't know if I can do that."

"Yes, yes you can. For me. Because you love me. Because you need me and maybe this time I'm the best one to save us."

Xena ran a shaking hand through her hair. She looked deeply into Gabrielle's serene eyes with anguish that nearly blinded her. And saw the truth. She pulled the smaller woman into her arms and hugged her fiercely. "All right," Xena relented, her voice cracking. "But I'm going to count. If you're not back by the time I'm finished, I'm coming after you."

Gabrielle gently disengaged, rewarding Xena with a dazzlingly grateful smile. "You got it, warrior. I'll know my time's up when a blur of leather grabs me and drags me out. Now, because you're being so good, I'm going to let you pace around this cell, rather than make you lie back down."

"Don't push it," Xena growled. "Go on, before I change my mind." She sauntered casually over to the pallet and lay down, arms folded across her chest.

Gabrielle snorted and left.

Xena popped up immediately and began pacing the floor with a vengeance.

Dimitri poked his head in again. "Xena?"

"What?!!!"

"Gabrielle wanted me to bring you some water. Said something about you needing it to `de-tensify' from all that lying around on the pallet you'd be doing."

*****

Just about the time Xena had come to the end of her count, Dimitri poked his head in again. "Xena? They want you back upstairs. Are you r--" He had just enough time to dive to the side before Xena came hurtling past him.

Xena didn't care what kind of entrance she made this time. She slammed the doors open and was halfway up the aisle before she saw her partner's head, every hair apparently unharmed. Gabrielle turned and waved. Xena slowed her pace and managed to walk the rest of the way with some dignity, aware of the uneasy silence at her back. Gabrielle joined her at the defendant's table.

Demos went to the podium and banged his gavel. "People of Lothos, the council has made its decision about the fate of Xena the Warrior Princess. First, when we agreed to her unusual proposal, we set the precedent that she would in essence be judged on an individual basis, and that those who had suffered most should have the first opportunity to exact the punishment of their choice, within certain limitations. At least one member of each of those families had that chance. All but one has expressed sufficient satisfaction with the justice they received. This weighed very heavily in our deliberations."

"That's not fair," someone shouted. "What about the rest of us?"

Demos continued as if no interruption had occurred. "Second, we recognize that many others did not have the chance to exact punishment of any type. However, that would still be the case if the Warrior Princess had been hung earlier or died yesterday. To help us reach a suitable compromise, we enlisted the aid of the bard Gabrielle. She has consented to record brief stories of the lives affected and will be available to do so for the next three days. Once again, we will begin with the relatives of those who lost someone. If there's time left, Gabrielle will record the stories of any pieces of wood or seeds of grain worth talking about."

A few people laughed; the tension in the hall began to dissipate.

"Gabrielle assures us that Xena will hear or read these stories and that they will have the impact on the Warrior Princess that we desire. Gabrielle says she will also make Lothos' victims a part of her tales in such a way that what we loved about them can be shared with people far beyond our town." Demos paused to acknowledge murmurs of general approval.

"Third, during the next three days, Xena will help us build a memorial to the brave men who died defending Lothos against her." Demos turned to Xena. "I'm sure my son, Timon, would have approved that."

Continuing to address the general assemblage, he concluded, "If Xena agrees to and carries out this decision, she will be free to leave on the fourth day from now. If she does not agree, or cannot comply because Gabrielle fails to perform her part, Xena will be hung on the fourth day. Regardless, Gabrielle will not be held liable in any way and is free to leave at any time."

Demos turned again to Xena. "Xena, what say you?"

All eyes fastened on the Warrior Princess in anticipation of her reply. None was forthcoming.

Demos cleared his throat. "Xena, do you agree?"

The onlookers began shifting nervously in their seats.

"Clever," Jerros said behind his hand to those nearest him. "The conniving bitch is trying to scare us into a better deal."

"Compassionate," Marin said softly as much to herself as her neighbors. "She's overwhelmed by the mercy we've shown her."

"Xena?" Gabrielle whispered to her partner as tension began to build again at the deafening silence emanating from the defendant's table. "Xena!" she hissed, poking Xena in the side.

"Hmm?" Xena inclined her head slowly toward Gabrielle with a blank expression on her face. Up until a few moments before, she'd been according Demos her most sincerely attentive look, the one she'd perfected for one-way conversations with her partner and for other occasions when she already knew what her answer would be. She'd been listening for the pitch change indicating that a question had been asked, when some stunning new information filtered through that brought her wandering mind to a screeching halt. Son? Timon?

"Oh, for the love of ÷." Gabrielle muttered under her breath, incredulous that Xena had chosen this of all times to tune out, as though merely having to help decide whether Gabrielle should wear her usual garb or the Amazon leathers. "Xena!" Gabrielle whispered forcefully, "Stand up!"

"Stand up?"

Gabrielle nodded vigorously. Xena stood.

"Now, say yes, you agree!"

"What?" Xena whispered back. "I agree?"

"No, not to me! To Demos. Louder. Tell him, `Yes, I agree.'"

Comprehension finally dawned in the blue eyes. Xena straightened and cleared her throat. Then she said to Demos, in a strong voice that suggested she'd known all along where she was and what she was doing, "Yes, I agree."

"Now sit!" Gabrielle whispered again, tugging surreptitiously at Xena's skirt.

Xena sat.

Demos fought the satisfied smile threatening his lips. He'd needed to exact a little justice for himself too. Seeing Xena's eyes snap to attention and her command humbled, when he'd slipped in reference to Timon's parentage, would do nicely. He cleared his throat and pounded his gavel one last time.

"Xena the Warrior Princess has agreed to our decision. It is done. Xena÷. Uh, Gabrielle, you and Xena will stay in Ptolmey's charge while you carry out your assigned responsibilities. We are now adjourned."

*****

Xena stood up and stepped back. The memorial wasn't fancy -- a simple marker of wood and stone that reached her chest and was about three feet wide and deep. It bore the name and a brief description of each of ten Lothosians who'd died because of her last visit. Townspeople brought construction materials to the small, shaded clearing behind the town hall, but Xena had insisted on building the structure herself. She'd worked on it the last three days, in between recuperating and accompanying Gabrielle on some of the bard's recording sessions. Xena had just added the finishing touch - a plaque that read, "In memory of those whose lives I took and to whom I owe mine. Xena, known as the Warrior Princess."

Xena looked questioningly at those who'd gathered to inspect the memorial. Some stood expressionless, uncertain how they felt. A few shook their heads in disgust. Most smiled and nodded their approval. Many came forward just to touch it, others to place flowers or small tokens at its base.

Demos stepped up next to the memorial. "Does anyone have any objections to the way Xena has complied with this part of her agreement?"

Despite a few grumbles, no one expressed objections. Jerros was noticeably absent, but not missed.

"Then it is done," Demos said, a touch of pride in the acknowledgement he gave his neighbors. "Xena is free to leave." He felt a hand on his arm.

"Not yet," Xena said softly, mesmerizing the gathering as her beautiful voice lifted in the haunting dirge she'd sung for all those others who had changed her life in some way. When the last strains died, not a dry eye remained. She turned her head slowly, making contact with each person there. "Thank you. I won't forget," she promised, then walked away, back to Ptolmey's house.

Gabrielle stayed behind a few moments, watching Lothos watch her partner's retreating back. She smiled through her tears as she saw a few hands raise to wave the warrior a silent farewell.

When Gabrielle reached Ptolmey's, she saw Xena saddling Argo. "We're not leaving in the morning?" she asked, already knowing the answer.

"If it's OK with you, I'd just as soon leave now. The weather looks good. Besides, we certainly don't want to miss those plays," Xena said with a little smile.

"Fine with me. I'll go get the rest of our things."

Ptolmey and Demos came up to them a short while later. The other townspeople mingled a distance away, watching the visitors' preparations in a generally respectful silence.

"I'm going to miss you two," the healer said, embracing each. "I learned a lot just seeing you do what comes naturally."

"We'll miss you too," Gabrielle said, gracing him with her infectious smile. "We couldn't have done it without you."

Xena and Demos grasped each other's forearms. "Demos, about Timon. I÷."

"No, Xena. No more words. We'll let what we've all done speak for itself." He paused and swallowed. "You know, that first day, I wanted to stand by and let the crowd have you. I didn't care that innocent people would surely be hurt in the process. But that's exactly the kind of injustice my son gave his life to prevent. He saved us both, Xena, and that's the memory I'd like to carry away from all this."

Xena swallowed too and nodded in understanding.

"Where are you headed?" Ptolmey asked as Xena pulled Gabrielle up behind her.

"To Athens," Gabrielle said. "I want to see the new plays."

"The gods be with you," he called after them.

"I wonder which god oversees the dangers and dispensation of nutbread," Xena mumbled loud enough for her partner to hear.

"Very funny. Under other circumstances, I'd give you a whack on the butt for making my mouth water."

Xena snorted. "Gets your juices going, eh?" She urged Argo into a fast trot.

Gabrielle's eyes sparkled, which of course her companion couldn't see. But Xena did detect the interesting tone in Gabrielle's voice when she answered, "Yes, I guess that's one way."

"Oh?" It was all Xena could do not to peer around at Gabrielle. "You mean like a good fight?"

"Not exactly."

"Having to get creative with frying pans, whips or mirrors?"

"Hmm. That has possibilities. But we've been there, done that already."

"True, but maybe not under the circumstances you had in mind."

Gabrielle pondered this a moment. "You have a point there."

"How will we know if it's the right circumstances?" Xena asked.

"Oh, we'll know," Gabrielle said, giving Xena's midriff a squeeze. Xena squeezed the arm squeezing her midriff. "We'll count, come together and be right there beside each other as though we'd never been apart."

Xena pondered this a moment. "Works for me."

"I kind of thought it would."



THE END