Gabrielle finds mixed results and an old enemy when she seeks help from the Amazons in dealing with a Warrior Princess who seems to be living her past and future in unexpected ways. This story makes reference to several episodes from Seasons One through Four.

When Xena Was Not Quite Herself

By IseQween

IseQween@aol.com <mailto:IseQween@aol.com>

June 2000

Part 1

"I'd like the pink one, please."

The market vendor looked at her customer doubtfully. "It is pretty, but I have other adornments that might be more ... appropriate."

"Oh, no, it's perfect. This outfit needs something to soften it up a bit, don't you think?"

"Um, well, yes, but...."

"The Princess said she wanted the pink ribbon." Her companion handed the vendor the requested dinars. "Give it to her and we'll be on our way."

The vendor looked at the tall woman and decided a sale was a sale. She took the dinars and handed over the ribbon.

"Thank you," the customer said happily, promptly tying the ribbon into a bow and attaching it with a hair clip to her bodice. "Now, let's go see what else we can buy."

Gabrielle sighed. "I have a better idea. We should get something to eat. By the time we're finished, who knows what you might want then."

Xena regarded Gabrielle curiously. "Well, all right, I am a little hungry. But I'm pretty sure I'll want to look at some of those dresses in that stall over there. This leather costume is so tight and hot. I can't imagine why it's all you brought for me to wear."

Gabrielle rolled her eyes, but said nothing. She checked to see if the man in black was still watching them. He was. She took Xena's arm and led her in the direction of the village inn, grateful that at least Princess Diana was cheerful and compliant.

No sooner had they crossed the inn's threshold, than Xena stopped in her tracks. Her eyes became blank. Except for a slight trembling throughout her body, she looked like someone in a trance.

"Hades," mumbled Gabrielle through clenched teeth. "Here we go." Who would she have to deal with this time? She prayed for Priestess Leah again, even Meg. She waited tensely, a slight prickling edging up her spine.

Suddenly Xena's posture slumped from the regal bearing of a few moments ago. A silly grin appeared on her face. She started scanning the bar patrons with way too much enthusiasm and familiarity.

"Meg?" Gabrielle hazarded, reminding herself she should be careful what she wished for.

"Hey, Gabby. What're you doin' here? You're not gonna ruin my fun are ya," Xena said with a mischievous twinkle in her eye.

Gabrielle pushed Xena to a back table, as far from the drinking crowd as she could get. "I'm afraid so, Meg. Xena said to wait for her and that she didn't want any trouble out of you. You wouldn't want to make her mad now, would you?"

Xena's mouth screwed up in a resigned pout. "Shucks. Xena oughtta learn how to let her hair down sometimes." She shuffled behind Gabrielle to the designated table, sneaking a forlorn peek over her shoulder at the fun that was so close she could smell it.

Once seated, Gabrielle ordered for both of them. "Nothing harder than cider," she said, preempting Xena's attempt to put in her bid for ale. Xena's pout grew bigger, but other than that, she sprawled in her chair and contented herself with fidgeting and picturing herself among the patrons drunkenly laughing or flirting around them.

Gabrielle relaxed a bit, but only a bit. Xena's metamorphoses seemed to be happening more frequently. More disturbing, this latest one had occurred during the day, not during Xena's sleep like at first.

A few days ago, the warrior had seemed fine. They'd made camp as usual. The next morning, Gabrielle woke to find Xena staring expressionless at the embers of their fire. Then her face became beatific. She knelt, clasped her hands above her head, and started chanting to the goddess Hestia.

"Oh, so you have visions of becoming a virgin again, eh?" Gabrielle had chortled, pleased Xena was in the rare mood to kid around.

Xena had stopped chanting and looked at her quizzically. "Why evah would I need that, when I am alweady a vuhgin?" She'd smiled indulgently and resumed her chanting.

Gabrielle had searched Xena's face frantically for any signs of humor, but found only blissful sincerity. Somehow the woman before her had become Priestess Leah and remained so for that day and the next. The following morning, Xena had pranced around seductively as "Cherish," the identity she'd had to assume when Autolycus passed her off as his concubine during their mission to recover a sacred chest. Today, on their way to this village to obtain supplies, Cherish had suddenly turned into Princess Diana.

Now, as they sat in the inn, Gabrielle absently pushed the food around on her plate, for once too distracted to care about eating. Xena's look-alikes were one thing. Diana, Meg and Leah were ditzy but good natured and harmless. Gabrielle shuddered at thoughts about some of the other roles Xena had played or bodies she'd inhabited. What would Gabrielle do if Callisto or another of the darker, less cooperative ones emerged?

At least when Xena went out of her head like this before, they knew the Furies were involved. But Gabrielle hadn't a clue where to look for answers this time. Should she head for the Amazon village, where perhaps one of the healers could help? Would they be safer going to Amphipolis, perhaps using Cyrene's insights as Xena's mother to figure out a solution?

Gabrielle felt so torn. She would have laid her head down in exhaustion if she could. But she had to keep thinking, keep watching, keep guarding her friend. A flicker of black interrupted her thoughts. The man she'd noticed earlier had seated himself two tables away. She was used to being stared at, traveling with the Warrior Princess, but she certainly didn't want to attract any more attention by confronting the man publicly. Maybe he was just curious. Maybe not. "Great," she thought to herself. "As if I didn't have enough to worry about."

┐┐┐

"Hey, Gabby, thought you said Xena would've joined us by now. Maybe she's off playing with her sword somewhere and forgot all about us?"

Gabrielle was not amused. "First, if you call me 'Gabby' one more time, it's my weapons you'll need to worry about. Second, Xena's back-up plan was to meet us at the Amazon village. Third, as long as you're wearing Xena's leathers and acting as much like her as possible, we may scare off anybody who tries to bother us."

"Oh, yeah, right," Xena said, pulling herself up to her full height and assuming a ferocious scowl that would have made even a rabid rabbit fall over laughing.

Gabrielle had opted not to cause Cyrene any more gray hairs than her erstwhile daughter already had given her. She'd gotten them out of the inn with no incidents and immediately set out to seek the wisdom of her Amazon sisters. Unfortunately, the finely honed instincts she'd developed at her partner's side told her they were not alone. Someone out there was trailing them.

Gabrielle left the main road and led them through the trees until she saw a large rock barrier with plenty of open space in front of it. "We'll camp here. You unload our things from Argo. Look around and cock your head every now and then, like you think you hear something, just in case anyone's watching us. I'm going to collect some wood. I won't be far away. Yell if you need me."

"Hey, I can take care of myself, you know," Xena said, feinting, weaving and bobbing her head. "Remember all those guys I decked that time we had to save the virgin lady?"

"Yes, Meg, I know. But Xena and I work as a team. If either of us needs help, the other one comes running. I'll yell for you too, if I'm in trouble, okay?"

Mollified, Xena set out for her task. Gabrielle gathered kindling for their fire. Soon the two were seated beside it eating their dinner.

"Gabby ... um ...rielle, can I ask you something?"

"Sure, Meg. What is it?"

Xena ducked her head. "Are you sorry you're stuck with me? I mean, I know I ain't Xena. Heck nobody's Xena, least of all me."

Gabrielle got up and fed the fire. She sat down next to Xena and took her hand. "You're right, Meg. Nobody's like Xena. Yes, I do miss her, but having you here makes me feel closer to her than you might think."

Xena snorted.

"No, Meg, I mean it. It's more than the physical resemblance. You've got a big heart, just like her. You're brave and resourceful. You'd be the first to jump to some innocent person's aid if you saw them being picked on or in danger. You even have that same gleam in your eye when you're up to something."

Xena grinned shyly. "Yeah, I guess I do have a little of the warrior in me at that. It's meant a lot to me, you guys trusting me on some of your missions."

"I do trust you, Meg. So does Xena. I'm proud to have you as a friend. Even if Xena doesn't come back...." Gabrielle's voice cracked. She couldn't stop the tears she hoped wouldn't lessen in her companion's eyes the depth of affection Gabrielle felt for the woman next to her.

Startled, Xena put her arms around her friend's shoulders in a big hug. "Gabrielle? Gabrielle don't cry," she said, patting her head. "Gee, you really do miss her, don't you? But don't you worry. Xena would never leave you. She's probably already with those Amazons, pacing back and forth, fussing `cause we're dawdling too long. Here," she said, taking out a cloth she'd "borrowed" from the inn and wiping Gabrielle's face with it. "Blow. That's a girl. Ol' Meg won't let anything keep you from getting yelled at by that big warrior of yours."

Gabrielle sniffed and chuckled simultaneously. "Thanks, Meg. I've had a lot on my mind lately. I'm sorry if I was gruff with you." She returned Meg's hug. "I feel better already, just like I do with Xena. See? I told you so. Now, come on, let's turn in so we can get an early start in the morning."

"Yes, ma'am!" Xena saluted Gabrielle with a lopsided grin. She plumped and smoothed her sleeping furs until they met her satisfaction. She lay down on them with her back to Gabrielle, only to flip to her other side a few moments later. "Night, Gabby," she said sleepily and was soon snoring softly.

Gabrielle shook her head, but couldn't suppress a smile. So much like Xena and so different. She lay down facing the woman who was and wasn't Xena. But she was afraid to close her eyes. Afraid of what might be hidden in the trees. Afraid for the beloved figure beside her. Afraid not so much Xena would leave her, but that she couldn't find a way to get Xena back. Afraid she'd be lulled to sleep by the rustling leaves, the crackling fire, the soft night breeze, the....

"Gabrielle!"

"Wha-?" Gabrielle struggled against her fatigue. Someone was hissing her name. Her eyes opened to daybreak and a leather-clad warrior standing over her with a sword pointed at her chest. "Oh, gods," she thought, "please don't let her be Callisto." She lay still and swallowed hard. "Who... who are you?"

The warrior stared at her, frowning. "It's me. Meg," she whispered. "Remember? Xena's not here."

Gabrielle looked at the sharp point hovering above her.

"Oh, sorry," Xena said sheepishly, lowering the sword. "I was doing like you said. You know, acting like Xena. I think I heard something."

Gabrielle exhaled in relief, following Xena's gaze to a clump of bushes. Nodding, she rose slowly, pulling the sais from her boots in a fluid, but unhurried motion. "Xena," she said loudly, "I think our breakfast is in those bushes! Throw your chakram in there before it gets away!"

Xena stared at Gabrielle in disbelief, pointing to herself as if to say, "What? Me?" At Gabrielle's nod, Xena shrugged, unsnapped the loop at her side and gingerly extracted the round weapon with two fingers. "Yiyiyiyiyi!" she shouted, crouching and pulling her arm back.

They heard something crashing through the underbrush away from them, then silence. Gabrielle grabbed Xena's arm as the warrior gleefully prepared to launch the chakram. "No! It's okay. Whatever or whoever it was is gone now. Let's pack up and get back to the main road."

They'd traveled about two candlemarks when, naturally, they spotted some rather unsavory characters blocking the path ahead. "Well, that's just perfect," Gabrielle grumbled, flexing her fingers and loosening her shoulders.

"Aw, Gabrielle, all you gotta do is throw some of that fancy bard talk at `em."

"Maybe. Xena seems to think I've lost some of my gift for gab. If so, I may have to let my sais do the talking. I'll take care of the first round. You can whack any that get past me."

Xena loosened her chakram.

"Um, no, Meg, I'd rather you use your fists ... or that big branch over there."

As Xena went to retrieve her new weapon, one of the men called out to them. "Hey there, pretty ladies. Don't get your dander up. All's we want is that nice horsey of yours and we'll be on our way."

"I don't think so," Gabrielle retorted. Then she recalled that she used to try something a bit more subtle. She plastered a sweet smile on her face. "I'm sorry, gentlemen, but I just wouldn't feel right foisting that particular animal off on you. She can be quite unmanageable unless handled by people she knows. And the person she knows best is Xena the Warrior Princess, whom you perhaps recognize as my traveling companion?"

The man smirked. "That's mighty thoughtful of you, miss, but we're used to handling other people's things. As for Xena, I don't remember tales of her slinking off to find twigs to fight with. Be a good girl and hand the horse over so nobody'll have to get hurt."

"Well, Xena, I tried," Gabrielle mumbled. "Meg, get behind me." She pulled out her sais as all four men rushed her. She spun low and kicked her first victim's legs from beneath him, knocking him into one of his colleagues, then blocked a blow from another's intended sword strike, spun again and sunk her foot into his midsection. Ducking the fourth man's swing at her head, she slashed him across the chest with one of her sais. The first two men struggled to their feet.

"I don't want to hurt you anymore! Please, just leave us alone."

"You little bitch! We'll see who gets hurt." Both men came at her again, saw her hands flash, then stumbled to their knees, surprised to feel something sharp piercing the shoulders of their sword arms.

"Stay where you are, or next time I may have to aim closer to your hearts!" she warned. The men cursed, but stayed put. Gabrielle backed away from them to where an open-mouthed Xena was standing next to Argo. "Come on," she said, leading them into the forest. "We'll travel off the main road awhile."

When they'd gone some distance, she slowed their pace. "Let's rest by that stream. I don't know about you, but I could use some cooling off." She headed for the water, eventually becoming aware she was walking by herself. She turned around to look at her companion, whom she'd neglected in her haste to ensure their safety. "I'm sorry," she said with some embarrassment, "I sometimes kind of lose myself in the heat of battle. It's okay now. You can relax."

But Xena continued to look a bit shaken, staring at Gabrielle as if for the first time. "Gabrielle? I don't understand." She looked down at her body, obviously confused. "Where's my skirt and blouse? If you're trying to kill people, I shouldn't be in my leathers. Something's gone wrong."

Gabrielle was equally confused. This wasn't Meg or Diana or Leah. It certainly wasn't Cherish. This woman stood and sounded like... "Xena? Xena is that you?"

"Of course it's me. But who are you? I mean, I killed Petracus' man so we could go back to the way we were. But you're ... you're more like the one who'd lost her faith and blood innocence."

"Oh, boy," Gabrielle thought to herself, "you're still not my Xena either." Slowly she approached her companion, who flinched slightly at the touch on her arm. "Xena, I'm not sure what's going on here, but we'll figure it out. How about we wash up and get ourselves settled first?"

Xena hesitated, then nodded. Silently she followed the bard's instructions, glancing over to her friend every now and then with furrowed brow. Once they'd settled on the ground, she let Gabrielle take the lead.

"Xena, something happened to you a few days ago. You haven't been quite yourself since, and I'm not sure why." Gabrielle took her partner's hands and held her gaze. "Tell me what you remember," she encouraged softly.

Xena looked down at the hands holding hers, afraid she'd lose her composure otherwise. "We... I ... we'd gone to the Temple of the Fates. I killed an attacker. He was just a boy. I told the Fates I wished I'd never become the Warrior Princess. They said they'd grant me my wish, as long as I never again spilled blood in anger. Next thing I knew, I was in Amphipolis wearing a long skirt. My younger brother Lyceus was alive and hugging me. He hadn't died following me into battle, because this Xena hadn't led her kinsmen against the warlord Cortese."

Xena sighed deeply. She raised her eyes to Gabrielle with a little smile. "I'd been given a second chance to make things right. I felt so happy at first, even though, in that alternate life, I'd lost Mother and hadn't met you." She looked down again at Gabrielle's intake of breath. "Of course, I missed you. But I thought you'd be better off without me. That you'd be living the normal life you were destined for before I came barging in."

"Oh, Xena. Don't you know --"

"Please, Gabrielle, this is hard enough. Let me finish, all right?" Gabrielle squeezed Xena's hand gently in response.

"I came to the rescue of a slave girl I saw being abused. You. You didn't know me. There'd been no Warrior Princess to stop Draco's men from kidnapping you. You were hard, distrusting. You had no hope, no dreams. I saw you run a man through with relish and no remorse whatsoever. It was then that I purposely shed blood again. I'd rather put things back the way they were -- be the former Destroyer of Nations with all those horrible deeds on my conscience -- than let the world be deprived of your light. The last thing I remember was returning to the temple and managing to spare that boy's life. You were there as I'd left you -- the joy-filled Gabrielle who made my sorry life bearable, meaningful."

"Ahhh," Gabrielle breathed softly, "so that explains the hug."

Xena pulled away slightly to take a better look at her partner's face. "What?" she asked, puzzled. "What did you say?"

Gabrielle regarded Xena with a sad, thoughtful smile. "We hadn't been together that long. It was one of the first times you hugged me out of the blue like that. You said something about my just keeping on being myself." Gabrielle chuckled. "I was thrilled, but a little mystified by this sudden show of affection. I said you didn't seem yourself. Do you remember what you answered?"

Xena glanced away, embarrassed. "No."

"Typical," Gabrielle smirked, punching her unsentimental partner lightly on the shoulder. "You said you felt more like yourself than ever."

A comfortable silence enveloped them. When it appeared Xena wouldn't - or couldn't - move on to the hard stuff of the present, Gabrielle anticipated Xena's unspoken thoughts.

"You're upset the Gabrielle you returned to at the temple is not the same one you just witnessed fighting those highwaymen."

Xena didn't respond. She kept her head down, but Gabrielle saw the tears sliding down her cheeks. Her own eyes began to water. She wrapped her arms around her partner, enormously gratified when Xena did the same. They sat holding each other, neither sure what words could ease their pain.

Finally Xena spoke. "When I saw you so skilled with such lethal weapons, and myself back in my leathers, I knew something wasn't right. Either the Fates hadn't kept their promise or ... or being with me would tarnish your goodness no matter what or when I tried to prevent it."

"Xena, please, please don't do this to yourself -- to us -- again. Being with you has always been my choice. More than that, it was my destiny. We've been through so much that you don't know about since we left that temple. We've been together in another life, even in death. We've both lost some of what we had, but we've gained much too. What's most important is we'd reached a point where we didn't worry so much about failing each other, hurting each other. We'd learned we could survive anything, as long as we shared it together."

Gabrielle wept quietly in Xena's arms. She'd gotten her partner back, yet they were more foreign to each other than when Xena had been those other personalities. She wiped her eyes and began telling Xena what had been going on the past few days. She felt the tenseness settling into Xena that they both knew all too well.

"Gabrielle, I'm a burden to you now. You can't be dragging around a princess or priestess or barmaid the rest of your life. They're of no use to you." Xena shuddered. "Or what if I become someone from my warlord days? Gods, how could I protect you from myself?" Xena stood abruptly and walked over to Argo. "I can't risk that. I'll go on to the Amazons alone. If they can't help, at least I know you'll be safe from me."

"By the gods, Xena, listen to me! This isn't how we do things anymore!" Gabrielle strode over to where Xena was separating their personal items from Argo's saddlebags. She took a firm hold of Xena's arm, turning her so they faced each other. "You're right -- I'm not the innocent girl trapped in the past where your head is now. But I'm not nearly as helpless, either. There is nothing -- do you hear me? -- nothing I haven't been through with you, that we haven't done to each other already. Maybe neither of us is quite who the other wants us to be right now. We're still standing next to the one were supposed to be with. That will never change. Never!"

Gabrielle literally dragged a stunned Xena back to where they'd planned to camp. "In that other life, you say you saw me angry and armed, right?" Xena nodded. "Well, that's nothing compared to how dangerous I can be in that state now -- especially when someone I love is involved."

Xena stared mutely at this new Gabrielle.

"Now, I'm tired, frustrated, worried, and -- most dangerous of all -- hungry. Your counterparts couldn't hunt. I suggest you make yourself useful and kill some poor creature for our dinner. And Xena? If you even think about sneaking off, I'll know. You'll wish you had that slave girl back instead of me. Are we clear?"

Xena swallowed, her eyebrows arched nearly to the top of her head. She might not be acquainted with this Gabrielle, but she did have sense enough to know she'd met her match. Slowly she nodded her assent and began doing as she was told.

A few candlemarks later, Xena lay sleeping fitfully, but trusting her partner knew what she was doing. Gabrielle was getting in the best snooze she'd had in days, not sure whom she'd wake up to, but for some reason trusting whoever it was would still be a friend.

┐┐┐

"Shakti? Shakti, it is you, isn't it?"

Gabrielle turned to her back, a smile on her face. They were in India in a future life -- Xena as Arminestra, "the Mother of Peace," and herself as the young rebel leader who protected Arminestra. They were painting the mendhi designs on each other. Learning their lives were inextricably woven together for generations. She could almost feel Arminestra's breath in her ear.

"Shakti? Are you all right? Please awaken and answer me."

Gabrielle's eyes popped open. Xena was inches away, a very concerned expression on her benign face. "Shakti? Were you calling me 'Shakti?'"

Xena sighed and sat back slowly. "Ah, Shakti, I was worried about you. It seems we've been transported to a strange land." Xena looked down at herself. "And put in someone else's bodies." She chuckled. "I'm not complaining about the one given me. Although I still move like the old lady I am."

Gabrielle put her head in her hands. Callisto was looking better and better. "Arminestra, give me a few moments to collect myself, all right? Make yourself comfortable. I'll get something for us to eat."

Xena nodded. She limped back to her furs and eased herself down. She smiled at Gabrielle, then relaxed her body in serene meditation, trusting the details of their survival to Shakti.

"Okay," Gabrielle thought to herself as she prepared for the day. "This isn't so bad. I'll tell her I had a vision about all this. We've been sent back to help our past incarnations. The Amazons are the people who will help us do that. Sure, sounds plausible enough. Xena and I didn't have much trouble accepting something like that could happen. Why should Arminestra?"

Gabrielle filled Xena in on their mission over breakfast. She did indeed believe it. Given her new companion's frailty, Gabrielle decided they should ride Argo for the remaining few miles to the Amazon village. It seemed strange bracing Xena in front of her, but kind of nice too. Xena dozed lightly against her, absolutely certain her young protector would keep them safe.

Gabrielle tuned her senses to their surroundings. She believed she could hear every falling leaf, the flutter of birds' wings. The snap of a twig under a human foot. This last sound didn't concern her as much as it might have a few days ago. If it was the mystery man in black, he didn't seem intent on attacking them. He was more of an annoyance to her now, another unexplained occurrence she would have to deal with in its time.

The sun had almost set when she became aware of the silent sentries around them. She clasped her hands above her head in the Amazon greeting, as masked women began descending from the trees.

"Shhh," she whispered to her companion, who'd been startled from her nap. "It's all right. Let me do the talking."

"Gabrielle? Is that you and Xena?"

"Yes, it's us. And whom do I have the pleasure of addressing?"

"Adreena. I'm one of the warriors who fought under your command against Brutus when Ephiny... when Ephiny went to the other side. It's good to see you again. Especially since we'd heard you were... dead."

"Good to see you too, Adreena. Yes, we managed to survive some rather horrendous things. Unfortunately, Xena has become ... unwell. Would you be so kind as to take us directly to Queen Chilapa?"

"Of course, Gabrielle. She will be most happy to see you."

The party made its way to the Queen's hut, with greetings shouted by those who remembered Gabrielle as their former leader. Chilapa emerged to see what all the fuss was about.

"Gabrielle! What a wonderful surprise. I was afraid we wouldn't see you again."

"Chilapa. It has been too long. I'm glad you can see for yourself reports of our death were somewhat exaggerated." Gabrielle dismounted and assisted Xena down. "However, I'm afraid Xena needs your healers' help. Could you please see to it she's made comfortable while you and I chat?"

Chilapa quizzically regarded the quiet, stooped woman whom they'd seen decimate entire armies. "Yes, Gabrielle, of course. Adreena, Tiran, assist Xena to the guest hut. Make sure she has everything she needs."

Gabrielle squeezed Xena's arm. "Go with them. I'll be there as soon as I can."

Xena smiled back conspiratorially. "As you wish, Shak -- um, Gabrielle. I will pray you have the wisdom you need to make things right, even though I have faith my prayers may not be necessary." Xena murmured her thanks to the two women holding her arm on either side, though Gabrielle heard her add, "You know, I can walk by myself if you find me a nice cane."

"Gabrielle, what in Artemis' name has happened to Xena?" asked Chilapa once the warrior was out of earshot. "It's as though she's aged 30 winters!"

Gabrielle shook her head. "In a way, she has. Please summon your best healers. I'll explain the situation as best I can."

Part 2

It was well into the evening before Gabrielle finished bringing the Amazons in attendance up to date on what had been happening with her and Xena since their former Queen had led them into battle against the Romans. The healers Chilapa had summoned insisted on as much detail as possible -- difficult considering Gabrielle's tales included travels into the future, their crucifixion at Caesar's hands, and going to Heaven, Hell and back to life on earth.

It was decided one of the veteran healers, Milana, would be most suited to unraveling the mystery of Xena's affliction. Milana had met Xena that first time she and Gabrielle came during Melosa's reign. The healer remembered the extraordinary measures Gabrielle and Xena's love for each other had compelled them to take to bring the warrior back from the dead after her fatal injury from a log trap.

Milana had witnessed the equally profound anguish that drove the Warrior Princess to attack her partner after Xena's son died because of someone they later discovered was Gabrielle's daughter. And she'd also marveled at how the two of them had melded their very different philosophies about violence into a strategy that had saved the Amazons from the Roman army.

"Gabrielle, I'm not going to pull any punches with you," Milana said. "It's very difficult determining the best way to proceed. Xena is a mercurial person with powerful emotions. She's more entangled with the gods than any other mortal we know. Probably has as many enemies as all the Amazon villages put together. The source of her difficulties could be from within, from divine intervention or somehow tied to an enemy skilled in sorcery or evil potions."

Milana looked around the room, receiving affirmative nods from the others present. "We don't know what Xena will do next. Nor can we be certain what might result from some of our treatments. For the safety of everyone -- Xena, you, this village -- I suggest we first confine Xena to her quarters, remove anything that could be used to harm her or others, and assign a contingent of seasoned warriors to guard her at all times."

Gabrielle had been prepared for this. In her heart, she didn't believe Xena would hurt anyone, yet she knew the Amazons would simply be doing their duty to take such precautions. "I understand. I ask only that I am allowed to be with her at my own discretion -- including for her treatments. I want to be notified if she asks for me or there is any change in her condition."

Milana had expected no less. She knew the two women were virtually inseparable. She also knew that -- along with compassion -- bluntness and objectivity served good healers well. "I'm not sure that would be wise," she replied with gentle firmness. "We must consider you may be part of the problem."

Gabrielle blinked. "Me? Surely, after all I've told you, you realize Xena trusts me. That we are a source of strength to each other."

Milana sighed. This would not be easy. "It's true, I have rarely experienced a connection as deep as the one between you and Xena. I have also rarely seen two such people cause each other so much pain, unintentionally or not." She held up her hand as Gabrielle leaned forward to speak. "Hear me out, Gabrielle. Please. I respect your feelings. I ask you to respect my advice."

"Yes, yes, of course I do," Gabrielle said, wondering silently if that were really true. "You just surprised me. I want to hear your thoughts. Please, go on."

That hurdle crossed, those in the room relaxed a little more. All looked to Milana.

"Gabrielle, it's precisely your closeness to Xena that makes me wonder if you are part of the puzzle. To be honest, I don't have any thoughts beyond that. When I interact with Xena, I have to know I'm dealing with the true person, not how she thinks someone else sees or wants to see her. She values your opinion of her highly. I've heard her refer to you as her ╬guiding light.' Maybe neither of you knows now where one begins and the other leaves off. I may have to try to find that out, if it appears Xena's problem is emotionally based. Do you understand?"

"Yes," Gabrielle sighed. "I feel that way about how she's influenced me. I pray my influence isn't at the bottom of this. If so, I want to know and will do whatever is necessary to help."

Milana smiled. "That's all I ask - that we keep an open mind. Be willing to pursue the difficult paths. I want to spend some time with Xena in the morning. Check her physical responses as well as her state of mind. You can be sure I'll inform you of whatever I find out, regardless of how painful it might be to you."

"I'm fine with that. Tonight, I'll--"

"Gabrielle! Chilapa! Please, forgive me for interrupting," Adreena said nervously as she strode into the room and bowed hurriedly. "Something's going on with Xena.  I think you'll want to see for yourselves."

Gabrielle hesitated, looking to Milana. "Should I...?"

"Yes," Milana said, leading everyone out the door. "Right now, you're probably the only one who'll know what -- or whom -- we're facing."

As they headed to the guest hut, Adreena gave them a breathless summary. "We were standing guard, as instructed. Xena came out and sat on the porch. She asked us questions about our enemies. Why so many of us are armed. Whether she and Gabrielle were here to help us make peace with someone. She seemed to tire easily. After a short time, she let me help her to her cot. I thought she would sleep."

As the group neared the guest hut, they heard quiet weeping. "A little while ago, she began crying. I knocked and entered. I think I startled her. She put her hands to her chest and backed away. She asked who I was, where she was. She started sobbing even more, so I thought I'd better get help. The funny thing is, she wasn't stooped over anymore. She looked more like Xena, but ... younger."

"Thank you, Adreena," Milana said. "Gabrielle, I think you and I should go in alone. At least she may recognize you."

The woman who looked up to meet her visitors seemed physically stronger, yet somehow more vulnerable, than Arminestra. "Gabrielle?! Oh, Gabrielle, I'm so happy to see you," she cried, running over to embrace her friend.

"Shhh, it's OK." Gabrielle returned the embrace and led Xena to her cot.

ŃGabrielle, what's going on?ń Xena looked with concern at Milana, then turned back to Gabrielle. "Why have I been imprisoned? Is it those gods again?"

"Xena?" Gabrielle asked tentatively.

"Yes?"

Okay, at least we've got that part figured out, Gabrielle thought. Now to figure out which Xena. Taking Xena's hands, she said gently, "Xena, you've been out of it for a few days. During your ... lack of consciousness, a lot has happened. What do you remember?"

Xena still seemed frightened, but was beginning to draw comfort from Gabrielle's presence. She frowned and stared into space a moment. "I remember...." She shuddered slightly. "I remember something bad had happened to us. We were dressed in sackcloth. I felt so stiff. So cold. Joxer was with us and some new friends. Amarice and Eli."

Gabrielle gasped. This must be the Xena who returned to life "pure" of her dark past and memories after they'd been crucified and fought in Paradise.

Xena drew back. "You're doing it again. Looking at me as if I'm not who I'm supposed to be. All of you looked at me like that. You kept expecting me to know about being a warrior." She bowed her head in pain. "Joxer and Amarice laughed at me. Because I wanted to have fun or didn't know how to fight like the rest of you."

"They didn't mean to hurt you, Xena. They were worried about you. We were in a very serious situation where others were trying to hurt you." Gabrielle squeezed Xena's hands reassuringly. "Go on, please. What else?"

Xena took a shaky breath. "There was this round weapon everyone thought I should know about. I touched a picture of it. I had these terrible visions of someone who looked like me. Someone viciously attacking and killing people. A warrior." Comprehension dawned in her face. "Is that who I was supposed to be? That warrior? I must have begun thinking so myself. The last thing I remember is picking up that round weapon as though it belonged to me. As though somehow I could use it to make things right."

"And everything after that is a blank?"

"I think so. I do remember having a beautiful dress on then. Now I'm in the clothes of that warrior. Does it mean I failed? I didn't make things right after all?"

"Oh, no, Xena, you did fine, just fine. I'm here, aren't I? You're here. You helped save our friends too." Gabrielle thought it best not to add it was because Xena had indeed become the warrior in her vision.

"Xena, that woman over there is Milana. In the morning, she's going to begin helping us get your memory back. Is there anything we can do now to make you feel better?"

Xena clung to her friend. "Yes, please stay with me. I feel so lost. Like I'm missing something inside. I don't seem real to myself. If you leave, there'll be no one who knows who I am, who sees me as flesh and blood. I'm afraid I'll be like a ghost .... Just disappear into thin air."

"Oh, Xena," Gabrielle murmured, fighting back tears. "You're everything to me. You live in so many hearts. We won't let you disappear."

Gabrielle turned to Milana. "Will you have my things brought in? I'll be staying here with Xena."

Milana nodded her agreement and closed the door behind her.

"There. It's all settled. Come on, let's get you ready for bed."

┐┐┐

Gabrielle kicked open the door to the guest hut and set the tray of breads and fruit on the table. "Good morning," she greeted her partner cheerily.

Still in her nightshirt, Xena was walking slowly around the room, looking out the window, examining various items inside with fascination. She gaped at Gabrielle in astonishment, fell back against the wall and doubled over laughing.

Gabrielle wasn't sure how to take this. She inspected herself to make sure nothing strange had somehow attached itself. Deciding to play along, she asked with a smile, "And just what's so funny, Miss Sleepyhead?"

Xena tried to talk, but the best she could manage was pointing her finger at Gabrielle and stammering, "You... you....  What ...." Noting that the object of her mirth was quickly losing her good humor, Xena brought her giggling under control. She put a dainty hand to her chest and drawled liltingly, "Mah, mah, Janice, that's certainly a change from your usual attiah. Tryin' to fit in with the natives, are ya?"

Uh oh, Gabrielle thought. Just who in Xena's pantheon do we have here? She casually pulled out a chair and sat. "And exactly what's wrong with my current ... um ...`attiah?'" she asked this latest personality.

Xena chuckled. "Well, if you don't mind mah sayin' so, it is rather becomin'. Ah just nevah expected to see you give up those britches and that hat. Not quite the ensemble Ah'd think you'd approve of for the diggin' and fightin' you love so much. Have you given up cigars too?"

Gabrielle searched her brain for clues to who they were supposed to be, but couldn't come up with any. She'd have to play this straight. "Please don't be alarmed, but I'm not Janice. My name is Gabrielle. And who might you be?"

Xena crooked her head and squinted at Gabrielle. "Ahhh," she said grinning, "Ah got ya. And Ahm not Melinda Pappas? Ahm Xena the Warrior Princess? Oooo, a little role playin' to get inside our subjects' heads. Ah like it!"

Gabrielle was dumbstruck. Janice? Melinda? Where was Callisto when she needed her? "Melinda. May I call you ╬Mel?'"

Xena smiled shyly. "Ah've always preferred that. Yes, please do."

"All right then...Mel. Let's pretend for a moment I really am Gabrielle. That you have to explain to her who you and I are. What we're doing here among the ... natives. What would you say so she'd comprehend it all?"

Xena regarded her appraisingly. "Whah, Janice, Ah don't think Ah've properly appreciated your creative side, what with all that brusque physicality of yours. Ah find this all very intriguin'." Xena sat on her pallet and crossed her leg demurely. She placed a graceful hand under her upraised chin, staring at the ceiling. Suddenly she stood.

"All right, here's what Ah'd say." She began slowly walking around the room, as though lost in thought, her hands moving fluidly with her words. "Ah'd tell her that Ah, like mah daddy, am an archeologist. Someone who digs around in ancient places to learn how our ancestors lived. Ah went to this site where Ah'd heard another archeologist was looking for something Ah too was interested in -- the Xena Scrolls."

Gabrielle gasped. "The what? The Xena Scrolls?"

Xena laughed. "Oh, sorry. Ah forgot Ah was talkin' to Gabrielle. Uh, yes, you actually wrote the scrolls, but they were mostly about the great Warrior Princess Xena and your travels togetha. Apparently you were quite modest and underplayed your own role in changing the course of the world." Xena glanced at Gabrielle, relieved to see her audience seemed mollified by this amendment to the story.

"Anyway, the person Ah teamed up with was a small but very forceful blonde named Janice Covington. Ah had to explain to Janice, when we found the scrolls, that Xena was the dark-haired warrior, whom Janice had confused with the evil light-haired warrior named Callisto. Janice wasn't as versed in the language as Ah, although that didn't stop her from --"

"Excuse me ... Mel, but when was all this taking place?"

"Oh, sorry. This was centuries after you and Xena died. You see, a horrid man named Hitler--"

"What color eyes did Janice have?"

"What coluh eyes? Janice, if you'd evah look in a mirrah .... Oh. Sorry. Ah forgot again. Gracious, but you can be so picky sometimes. Fine. Some would say hazel, others might say green, dependin' on the light or her mood. Whatevah, Ah think they're beautiful. So fiery and.... Janice? Janice, Ahm sorry, did Ah embarrass you?"

Gabrielle had her head in her hands once again. She was recalling those earlier days when a verbally challenged Xena would come back from some solo adventure with an off-hand explanation like, "I had to take care of something. It's done. I'm fine." Did this have to do with the time Xena'd made some passing remark about being summoned into the future to fight Ares? Gabrielle wished so badly for the real Xena to be there. Much as she wanted to, she couldn't bring herself to do to this Mel person what she desperately wanted to inflict on the Warrior Princess.

Gabrielle sighed. "No, Mel, that's not the problem. The problem is, we seem to have a reverse situation from the one where I believe Xena was somehow transported to your time. You're back in Xena's time. I really am Gabrielle. Those 'natives' are Amazons. I'm hoping they can help you return to where you belong."

Xena searched Gabrielle's eyes and saw only concern and honesty. "But you... you're the spittin' image of Janice. Ah don't understand. Why would Ah be here but not her?"

Gabrielle heard the consternation in Xena's voice. As she had before, she led Xena to the bed and put her arms around her. "You love Janice, don't you, just as I love Xena?"

"Yes, Ah suppose so," Xena sniffed. "She was gonna let me work with her. We made a good team. Ah was just kiddin' about the outfit. Ah like her just the way she is - all rough and gruff and stubborn as a mule. Do you really think Ah can go back?"

"We're certainly going to do our best." Gabrielle held her tighter. "It's selfish of me, but I'm glad I got to meet you and hear you talk about Janice. I'll carry both of you in my heart longer than I would have imagined."

There was a knock at the door. "Gabrielle? Can we come in?"

"Just a moment, Milana! Mel, the healer is here to help you. She believes you're really Xena. Don't worry if she asks you some strange questions. Think of it as another form of archeology."

Xena smiled. "You know, you're a smart one, like Janice. Ahm gonna miss you too. Sure, Ah'll play along. Should be interestin'."

Gabrielle gave Xena's hand an affectionate squeeze. "All right, Milana, you can come in now!"

Milana entered with one of the other healers following. "Gabrielle, I asked Larosa to assist me this morning. She has particular experience with various potions and their effects. Do you think Xe ... our patient ... will mind if we examine her without you?"

"Milana, I'd like to introduce you to Melinda. Somehow she came from way in the future into Xena's body." Gabrielle turned to Xena. "Mel, is it all right if I leave you with the healers? They'll come get me if you want."

"Ah'll be fine, Jan ... um ... Gabrielle. You run on off now and do what you have to. Ah am eternally grateful for the generosity and kindness you've shown me." She bent down and whispered, "Xena is one lucky woman. Ah hope that shows up in your scrolls some day."

"Thank you, Mel. Milana, this is one special lady. Please treat her as such."

"By all means," Milana responded.

Gabrielle looked pointedly at the stone-faced Larosa, who grudgingly nodded her head under the intense green gaze. "Then I'll be going." Gabrielle walked to the door and turned, giving particular attention to Larosa. "I'll be interested to hear from you as soon as you're finished."

┐┐┐

Gabrielle, Chilapa and the two healers sat in the Queen's hut sharing a noontime meal.

"How is she?" Gabrielle asked.

"Well, she certainly was pleasant and cooperative," Milana said. "Strange, though. Talked funny. Made references to things I've never heard of before. You say she's someone Xena was or knew in a future life?"

"It would seem so. I don't doubt it."

"Well, to be honest, we mostly focused on her physical condition this morning. Larosa didn't find any obvious signs of something wrong. However, we do have a couple of questions."

"Oh?"

"Well, her heartbeat is unusually rapid, though that's not unexpected given the situation. Her fingernails are very pale. Also, she has some odd, reddish blotches on her body. Has she ever had any reaction like that before to something, like food or plants?"

Gabrielle pictured plenty of scars of course. The little mark above Xena's breast. A couple of moles, that pimple on her back, the birthmark on her.... "Um, no, I can't say as I recall anything like that. Could it be important?"

"Probably not," huffed Larosa.

Milana cocked her head at Larosa. "We're not sure," disagreed the lead healer. "It could indicate a foreign substance. We'll check to see if there are any ingredients that might cause such a reaction."

"How was she when you left, Milana?"

"Oh, fine. She wanted to read some of our historical scrolls. She had them nearly up to her nose when we left her. Tomorrow I'll try putting her in a trance -- nothing too deep or dangerous -- and see if we can break through that way."

"Excuse me, but do you need me for anything else today?" Larosa asked abruptly. "I have some other patients who need tending, you know."

Milana gritted her teeth. "Go. I'll let you know if I need you further."

"What's her story, Milana?" Gabrielle asked after the other healer had left. "She doesn't seem exactly thrilled to be treating Xena."

"Oh, don't mind her. She's one of those who resents paying 'special' attention to any non-Amazon."

"Especially Xena?"

Milana sighed. "Possibly. She has a long memory -- mostly for anything negative. She may not love you, Gabrielle, but because of the position you held in the Nation, it's hard for her to get past seeing Xena drag you away like that."

Gabrielle grimaced. "I can understand that. It was hard for us to get over too. You won't let that interfere with Xena's treatment?"

"Absolutely not. I'll use Larosa sparingly and not for any of the mental sessions."

"Thank you, Milana. Since my friend is in good hands and, thankfully, occupied, I think I'll take a walk before I go visit her."

"Excellent idea, Gabrielle. All this has got to be very wearing on you."

"It is," Gabrielle admitted. "You said earlier Xena is mercurial. Imagine that multiplied by 10. I feel wrung out. As though I've gained and lost a new friend every time a new personality pops up. I've liked them all. Each time I've had to ask myself -- if this is it, if we can't bring the real Xena back -- could I live with this one? Love this one as much?" Gabrielle shook her head and started for the door.

Milana cleared her throat. "Gabrielle? Do you have the same answer each time?"

Gabrielle paused. "Yes," she said softly without turning around. "I do."

Part 3

Gabrielle couldn't help thinking about Milana's question - and her own response - as she lay in the grass beside the lake at the boundary of Amazon land. It was a beautiful day, though not quite warm enough for a dip. She felt safe, relieved to have this time to herself to mull over recent events and feelings.

She realized she'd been dozing when she was jerked upright by something that shattered her brief serenity. She listened hard for the unearthly scream she could have sworn awakened her, but heard only the natural sounds of her wooded oasis. Still, she felt a chill. She rubbed her arms, but realized it was her blood, not the air around her, that had turned cold. Her head whipped around in the direction of the village. She scrambled to her feet. It was then that she saw him standing on the other side of the lake. The man in black, watching her. She didn't have time for him, she decided quickly, heading back. Xena needed her.

She ran as though pursued by Harpies, oblivious to the scrapes and cuts she was acquiring on the shortcut to the village. She jogged straight for the guest hut, then sagged breathlessly against a post at the sight that confronted her.

Xena was outside, surrounded by guards with their weapons aimed at her, her hair like a mass of writhing snakes about her head, her eyes demonic, her face contorted in a terrifying smile. She would lunge at one of the armed women, then pull back cackling at the fear this provoked. "You think you can defeat me?" she taunted. "Reach the darkness? Grasp it, tackle it, kill it? Ha! It will always be here, just like the light you pray will save you from it. Come on! Come and get me if you think you can."

Gabrielle's mind swirled with images of Xena at her darkest -- rampaging as the Destroyer of Nations, turning back the Horde, dragging Gabrielle through rocks and fire from this very village, crunching the hand that kept Najara from plunging into oblivion, fighting Aiden in his make believe paradise, leading the fallen angels in their attack on heaven. Which hell did this Xena represent?

Finally Xena caught sight of her. "GABWIELLLLE!!!" she screeched, suddenly launching herself over the guards and landing in the blink of an eye in front of the petite figure who would determine what happened next. "Don't listen to him!"

Gabrielle held up her hands in the hush that followed -- one to the Amazon guards, the other to the disheveled woman in front of her. "Xena," she began soothingly, "Aiden is dead. I'm all right. You don't need that darkness anymore."

Xena blinked and studied Gabrielle closely. "No! He's trying to trick me. He hasn't leached out all your goodness yet. I can still see it."

"Keep looking at me, Xena." Gabrielle kept her eyes on Xena, but saw Milana edging up behind the warrior, handing out a couple of darts Gabrielle trusted were tipped with a sleeping potion. "Don't you see fear too, Xena? I was at peace with Aiden. Would you see fear if I was still under his spell?"

Xena frowned in confusion. "Yessss," she hissed after a moment. "You'd still be afraid of me."

"No, not of you, Xena. For you. Afraid you wouldn't understand the difference. Like now."

Milana signaled the guards were ready. She waited for Gabrielle's command.

"No! I gave up whatever goodness I had. It was the only way to protect yours."

"Oh, Xena, why can't you remember all the times and other ways you've done that?" Gabrielle nodded her head slightly. "Please forgive me. I have to make sure you get that chance however I can."

Xena straightened abruptly when the first dart buried into her thigh. Snatching it out, she smelled it and looked in disbelief at Gabrielle. She whirled and advanced menacingly toward the guard she'd identified as having shot the dart.

"No, Xena. I gave the order. If you want to hurt someone, hurt me."

Xena started stumbling toward Gabrielle, when the second dart hit. She flinched, but kept moving forward.

Gabrielle stood her ground, her eyes clear and dry, though inside she felt she'd betrayed Xena once again.

Xena swayed and dropped to her knees. "Why? Didn't you think I could make it right?"

"You always have, but I want you -- all of you -- back."

Xena's eyes rolled up. She crumpled to the ground, struggled against the darkness she'd so recently embraced and lay still.

Now choking back a sob, Gabrielle hurried to her partner's side, reassuring herself Xena was simply unconscious. "Will she be all right?" she asked, looking up at Milana.

"Physically, yes," sighed the healer, kneeling beside Xena and checking her vital signs. "It's a very powerful drug that should keep her asleep most of the evening."

Chilapa came over to them and watched several Amazons lift Xena onto a litter. "Is it safe to take her back to the guest hut?" the Queen asked. "I'd hate to put her in a cell, but...."

Gabrielle deferred to Milana. "I think she'll be all right for now in the hut," the healer said. "I believe there were some special circumstances that caused this." At Gabrielle's puzzled frown, she added, "Gabrielle, we need to talk. About this and something else that may be a clue to Xena's condition."

Gabrielle nodded, her eyes sadly trailing the prone body as it disappeared into the guest hut.

┐┐┐

"By the gods, I knew that woman was trouble! Milana, I trusted you. How could you let this happen?"

Milana regarded the angrily pacing guardian of the Warrior Princess. Even though the healer felt responsible, she couldn't let her own emotions distract her from her ongoing duty to move forward as best she could.

"Gabrielle, it won't do much good for me to keep apologizing. What's done is done. We have to focus on the problem still at hand."

Gabrielle plumped down in the other chair at Milana's small dining table. "But why? What was she thinking? She's a healer, for Gaia's sake. How could she let her resentment influence her like that?"

Milana sighed. "Gabrielle, I know this will be hard for you to believe. It wasn't just her attitude toward Xena that drove her to sneak off and do what she did. Larosa had witnessed Xena at her worst. She was suspicious only harmless personalities kept showing up. She thought either Xena would eventually blow or that these other personalities were somehow keeping her from being her 'true' self. She feared the rest of us were buying into Xena's good side too much, being lulled into moving too slowly. By convincing Xena you were in danger, Larosa thought she'd provoke a breakthrough to that self."

"Then why didn't she of all people realize she was playing with fire?" Gabrielle asked in exasperation. "Did she think Xena would just snap back to her normal self and stroll out for a bite to eat?"

"Um, something like that." Milana smiled slightly. "Even she recognizes Xena is usually very controlled, not some madwoman who flies off the handle at the slightest excuse. I guess she didn't believe Xena was as much under some other influence as we thought. She figured the 'real' Xena would come back to protect you. Reclaim her darkness to do that, which would make her 'whole' again. That she wouldn't be any worse than usual."

Milana left the table to get some tea. "In her own way, she might've been on to something. Didn't you sometimes wonder why Xena never became any of those more dangerous people you talked about?"

"Yeah, I kept waiting for Callisto." Gabrielle smiled grimly. "I even wished for Callisto sometimes. At least I pretty much knew what to expect from her."

"That brings us to the second part of what we need to discuss," Milana said as she poured their drinks. She sat and reached over to pat Gabrielle's hand. "I'm afraid it's a little of both good news and bad."

Gabrielle swallowed. "Milana, right now I still have my friend in some fashion. Probably one of the more pleasant versions unless she thinks I can't handle myself. Unless you're going to tell me," her voice caught, "that she's ... that she's...."

"Dying? No, Gabrielle." Milana patted her hand again. "She's not dying. Those symptoms I mentioned? The blotches and such? I found a reference to a rarely used mixture of herbs that can produce that. It causes delusions that differ in kind from person to person."

"Oh, Milana, do you think that's it?" Gabrielle asked hopefully. "Except, how would Xena have gotten it? She usually can detect things like that."

"I don't know. The problem is, even if that's the cause, the effects can be permanent without the antidote. What I read gave no recipe for one. I'll keep searching, of course. It could take several trips to other healers to find what we need."

"Oh," Gabrielle breathed softly. "I see."

"Gabrielle, what's in our favor is that maybe Larosa was right in her way. I don't think it's an accident a dark personality came out only when Xena thought you in danger. This may indicate that, on some level, Xena can control who she becomes. I'd still like to try putting her in a trance, seeing if somehow we can communicate with that part of her."

"What if she's still ... that Xena we last saw when she awakens?"

"I'd like to keep her sedated until tomorrow morning. Just as she's coming out of it, I'd administer the potion I use for trances. If it doesn't work, at least she'll be too disoriented and uncoordinated to do much damage."

"Whatever you think is best. I'd like to be there, if that would be all right."

"Yes, I think so. In that state, she'll probably focus on the comfort she feels in your presence." Milana rose. "I've got some things to do. Why don't you visit with Chilapa? Have her bring you up to date on what's been happening here since you last saw us? I'll go look in on Xena, give her another dose of my sleeping potion, in a few candlemarks."

Gabrielle rose. "Thanks, Milana, for all you're doing. I might also stop by Larosa's. I'm still angry with her, but she may have helped us with Xena, whatever her intentions. I'd like to clear the air between us."

Milana smiled. "That's very gracious of you, Gabrielle. She's probably feeling a little rotten right now. She can be cantankerous, but she's not a bad person."

"All right, then. I'll see you later."

Deep in thought, Gabrielle set off for Larosa's quarters. She looked up to find herself standing instead in front of the heavily guarded guest hut. "Guess I just can't stay away from you," she said to herself with a little smile. "Oh, well, might as well take a peek since I'm here."

Gabrielle greeted the guards and went inside. Xena lay on her back, now dressed in her nightshirt, her hair still in disarray. Gabrielle retrieved a comb from their bags. Xena stirred a little as Gabrielle scooted behind her and lifted her head to her lap.

"What am I going to do with you?" Gabrielle said softly to her silent partner. She began gently detangling the dark locks. "All that time I was afraid you'd leave me, I never dreamed you could do it in so many ways." She continued combing absentmindedly. "At first I thought it would be physically. That you'd ride away one day, leaving me in the care of some 'safe' village." She lightly kissed Xena's forehead. "But you didn't. Oh, you tried, but I stuck to you like a burr."

Gabrielle finished grooming Xena's hair and reached over to a bowl of water sitting nearby. She dipped a towel in and began bathing Xena's face. "Then I noticed how you left me mentally. You'd plan things in your head, go off for a while to gods know where. I'd never know what you were thinking. You got better about that too."

She ran the cloth down Xena's arms. "I guess the emotional withdrawals were the hardest, for both of us. You'd be in this shell. I could touch you. Feel your warmth and strength. See from just the tightening of your jaw that you wanted to say something. Oh, I could sense the emotions. That wasn't the problem. I wanted you to share them with me, not to bottle them up like you were still alone. When you finally opened those expressive eyes to me and began inviting me into your soul, I discovered it was my own fear that had left. You were there, waiting for me to reach you, all along."

Gabrielle straightened Xena's nightshirt and pulled the covers to her chin. "Now I must deal with my fear again. This time that you'll be lost forever under all these other people inside you. Milana asked me if I felt the same about all of them." She placed a kiss on Xena's lips as she stood and prepared to leave. "It was a good question. You know what I found myself answering? Yes. Yes, I could be with, love any of them, as long as I still had you."

┐┐┐

The get together at the Queen's hut was going strong despite the lateness of the hour. Gabrielle yawned. "I'd forgotten how much you Amazons like to regale each other with tales," she laughed apologetically. "You'd put me to shame in even the best of my bardic days."

Chilapa smiled wryly. "Ah, but Gabrielle, it's rare we have such an appreciative audience. Usually it's other Amazons and just degenerates into another form of competition."

"Well, I'm heartened to hear about all the progress you've made. But I think I'm going to be as comatose as Xena any minute. Perhaps I should go join her."

All heads turned toward a noise at the door. Adreena entered and bowed. "My Queen, I'm sorry, but it seems I must interrupt you once again."

"Is it Xena?" Gabrielle asked anxiously, starting to rise.

"Oh... no, Gabrielle. Our perimeter guards caught an intruder. A man. He won't tell us anything, but he did ask to see the blond woman who came in with Xena."

"So, he's finally showing his hand," Gabrielle murmured. "Adreena, is he dressed in black?" At her nod, Gabrielle continued, "He's been following us since the last village. I saw him briefly at the lake. I was so worried about Xena, I forgot all about him."

"What do you want to do, Gabrielle?" asked Chilapa. "Do you want to see him now? I can have him brought here."

"Yes, please. Perhaps we should excuse the others?"

Chilapa waved her hand. The other Amazons quickly headed for the door.

"Wait. Not the council members," Gabrielle said. "And Milana, I think you should stay too. I don't know why, but I have a feeling this man is somehow connected to our latest trials."

"Of course," the others said in unison, reseating themselves.

Soon Adreena returned, pushing a man into the room in front of her. "I'll leave his hands tied, though he barely resisted when we captured him. We'll be right outside the door, should you need us," she added, leaving the man in Chilapa's charge.

The man and women stared at each other in silence.

"You said you wanted to see me."

"Alone."

"Sorry, no can do. These are my friends. Whatever you have to say, you can say in front of them."

The man appeared nervous, but not particularly afraid. He decided to gamble. "Then I have nothing to say. Too bad, as it concerns that warrior of yours."

Gabrielle didn't bat an eye. "That is too bad. For you." She turned away disinterestedly. "Chilapa, this man has been following us for some time. He obviously means to harm Xena in some way. I know you don't abide men on your premises for too long. Perhaps you could build a pen for him on the outskirts somewhere. He can watch the birds like he watched us."

"Adreena!" Chilapa called. When the guard entered, Chilapa ordered, "Take him back to the cell for the time being. I'll give you further instructions later."

As Adreena grabbed his arm, the man suddenly found his voice. "Wait! I want amnesty first. I'm only a pawn in this."

"Hold on, Adreena." Chilapa addressed the prisoner. "I can't promise leniency. You are on Amazon land and will be judged according to our laws. We will first hear what you have to say, then decide if your actions come under our jurisdiction."

The man looked at the stern woman who had spoken, then at the expressionless Gabrielle. Both suggested it was time to fold his cards. "All right. You don't need to keep me bound. Give me a chair and some water. I'll tell you what you want to know."

Chilapa nodded to Adreena, who untied his hands and fetched a chair. Milana brought him a cup. He drank thirstily, then cleared his throat. He looked at Gabrielle.

"Who are you?" she asked.

"I'm called Talon. I do ... special jobs ... for people. Nothing violent. Things people have trouble doing themselves."

"Who was your client this time?"

"A woman I met at a prison. Real strange. Called herself The Crusader."

"Najara," Gabrielle breathed in wonderment.

"Yeah," said Talon, "that was her name. Another prisoner told her about me. This Najara said she wanted to pay back the woman who'd put her away. Said the woman was very dangerous. I'd need to be real careful. When I found out it was Xena, I thought Najara was having another of her delusions. I'd heard about Xena, but understood she hadn't been active in a long time. The crusader said her followers had been keeping tabs on Xena, knew where she was. She had one of her men pay me a lot of dinars as down payment."

"And what did she want in return?"

"She was upset Xena traveled with a bard who believed Xena was good. Said Xena's problem was she didn't listen to the voices that would convince her of who she really is. Najara knew of this potion that would help Xena 'get in touch' with the right voices. Sent me to a healer who gave me the potion. He said all I had to do was slip it into something Xena ate or drank, that it was hard to detect and would last a long time."

"But how did you do that? Xena would've heard you sneaking into our camp."

Talon smiled smugly. "I don't get paid the big dinars for nothing. I study my victims. I found out Xena had turned do-gooder. Remember a few days ago you ran into a man who'd been attacked by thieves? His cart had nearly been destroyed? That was me in one of my disguises. I begged you to accept what food I had, as a way of thanking you. Xena wasn't too eager. You said it would be rude not to. I'd mixed the potion in the water I gave Xena. She was very thirsty after working on my cart. She drank a whole skin."

Gabrielle's face clouded, but she restrained herself. She had a few more questions. "Why did you follow us?"

"To make sure the stuff worked. Besides, I was curious about its effects. The crusader had the impression Xena would go berserk or something. I was afraid I wouldn't get the rest of my money if she found out Xena was prancing around, praying, being ladylike and such. I kept waiting for Xena to blow, but it didn't seem like she would."

"Is that all?" Gabrielle asked, preparing to give that sorry son of a Bacchae a piece of her mind.

"Not quite. That's when I started considering Plan B."

"Plan B?"

"Oh, yeah. I like to cover all my bets. Najara was scary, but I'd heard Xena could be even scarier. And even if she wasn't in her right mind, she had you. I could see you'd do just about anything to make her well. When I saw you at the lake, I'd pretty much decided it was time to bargain."

"Bargain? With what? Your story about Najara?"

"No. Something much better. The antidote."

Gabrielle gasped. "The antidote? You have it?"

Talon rubbed his fingernails on his shirt. It was good to keep a card up your sleeve. "I figure if someone wants something badly enough, someone else will pay a lot not to let that happen. Normally I don't renege on a deal. Sometimes things get out of my control. I'd asked the healer if he could make up the antidote. He could. I paid him extra for it."

Gabrielle walked over to Talon. "Where is it?"

"Don't have it on me. I was afraid one of these ladies might catch me."

"Talon," Gabrielle said as evenly as she could, "a good woman is suffering because of you. Please, tell us where it is so that we can help her as quickly as we can."

"It's not free, you know. I paid considerable dinars for it. I'll lose considerable dinars if I hand it over -- not to mention possibly my life."

"Xena and I refuse payment for helping people. You know that. I have nothing to bargain with."

Talon slowly scanned the room. "These Amazons do. We could start with my freedom and maybe a crate of those lovely weapons they have."

The Amazons in question exchanged glances. They waited for Chilapa to say something. Chilapa waited for their former Queen. Gabrielle retrieved her chair, put it down directly in front of Talon and sat facing him, close enough that he could see the determination in her eyes.

"Talon, do you know why I rushed away from the lake? I heard a scream. A horrible, demonic scream. When I got back, Xena was in the very state you'd hoped. Know why? An Amazon had purposely caused it. You see, Xena has enemies here too. She did some bad things to them, which some of them never forgot. Even if I had the nerve to ask them to accept your terms, they wouldn't necessarily do it for Xena. They would for me. I'm not going to ask them to."

Talon shifted in his chair. She was bluffing. "You're telling me you'd let your good friend stay like this. After all you've tried to do for her? I don't think so."

Gabrielle leaned even closer to Talon and smiled thinly. "Talon, you're a smart man, but you still have a lot to learn. I do love Xena, so much I would never betray what she holds most dear -- her honor. I couldn't forgive myself if I cheapened it by bargaining with the likes of you."

Gabrielle sat back. "You know what I would do? I'd let her defend her honor herself. It's quite possible she'll wake up soon a raving lunatic. She thinks someone's trying to harm me. I believe she's right. I believe I'll tell her it's you."

Gabrielle picked up her chair and moved it back to the table. "Chilapa? I'm tired of this man. If I were you, I'd put him back in his cell. Tomorrow we'll let Xena pay him a visit. I don't think there'll be any need for guards, as Talon himself says he doesn't do violence. Afterward, Milana, we can try putting Xena in a trance as you'd planned."

Talon's mouth was open, drool seeping from the corners. "You wouldn't! That ... that would be like murder! You might fight pretty good, but you're too soft for that. I saw it that day on the road. The way you've cared for Xena in her craziness."

"I'm the healer here," Milana spoke up. "I doubt what Xena does in this state could be considered murder. It would be more like you assisted in your own suicide."

"Well said, Milana." Chilapa smirked appreciatively. "I believe we have a plan. Gabrielle, I relieve you of any further responsibility in this matter. This ... man ... mistakenly believes you to be too soft. Well, it doesn't matter. I'm the one now giving the orders. Adreena!"

Adreena entered. "Yes, my Queen."

"We have no further use for the prisoner. Please escort him back to his cell."

Talon was beside himself. "No! Wait! This isn't how it's supposed to be! If I give you the antidote, what guarantees do I have you won't kill me anyway?"

"None," Chilapa said coldly. "But that's not our way. I can't speak for Xena."

"Damn you all to Tartarus!" Talon nearly sobbed. "All right, I'll tell you where the antidote is. Just don't turn Xena loose on me."

"Adreena, you and another guard go with Talon to get the antidote. Bring it directly to Milana. Then make the prisoner as comfortable as possible. Give him whatever he wants to eat and drink. Make sure no harm comes to him. Understood?"

"Yes, my Queen. As you wish." Adreena pulled Talon up. "Come on, then. Don't dawdle. It's already past my bedtime," she said as she dragged him out the door.

The Amazons remained seated in awed silence. Gabrielle looked at them and suddenly felt her body turn to jelly. She put a hand over her mouth. "I don't believe what I just did," she said between her fingers.

Milana came over to put her arms around Gabrielle. "I do," the healer said proudly. "That may be the most magnificent performance you'll ever give."

"Unbelievable," added Chilapa. "When you passed the royal mask to me, I told you I could never fill your boots." She chuckled. "I feel better now. I see no one else could either."

Gabrielle responded with a small, grateful smile. "Thanks, but I took a huge chance with someone else's life at stake. For love and honor that wouldn't have meant much to her if I'd been wrong. The only lesson here, Chilapa, is to follow your heart and pray it's good enough to lead you well."

Part 4 (Conclusion)

"Ready?"

Gabrielle watched the fluttering eyelids of the woman cradled in her lap. She blew out a breath. "As I'll ever be."

"This first cup has the antidote in it. If we can get that down her with no problems, we'll follow it with my sleeping potion. It'll give her body time to adjust before she deals with the world again."

Gabrielle took the first cup. "Xena? It's me, Gabrielle. You're sick. I'm giving you something to make you well.ń She sat Xena up a little and put the cup to her lips. The warrior tried to move her head. "No, Xena, don't fight it. Please, drink. I'll feel so much better if you do."

Xena's eyes opened briefly. She squinted groggily at her caretaker, then began to drink. When Xena finished, Gabrielle sat the cup down and took the second one from Milana.

"Xena? I need you to drink for me one more time, then I'll let you sleep." Xena complied again. Gabrielle rewarded her with a hug. She handed the empty cup to Milana. "Now we wait?"

"Now we wait. Talon said the antidote should begin working after about four candlemarks. It should take a day or so to do the job completely. His healer didn't know for sure if there would be after effects."

"It's already going better than we thought," Gabrielle said, as Xena appeared to slip into a deep sleep. "I think I'll stay with her awhile, just to be sure."

Milana patted Gabrielle's shoulder. "I'll have some breakfast brought in for you. Relax. I believe she'll be fine."

"Thanks, Milana. I do too."

Gabrielle intended to spend the time telling Xena stories, reassuring her of how much she loved her. Memorizing every peak and valley of her face. Instead, her exhaustion won out and her head fell back against the wall.

"Gabrielle?"

They were at their camp. Xena was up first as usual, trying to wake her as usual. She smiled to herself. Maybe if she pretended she was still asleep, Xena would go off to do some more chores before trying again.

"Gabrielle!"

Guess not. "Hmmm? What's the rush? We don't have anywhere special to be, do we?"

"No. No rush. I don't seem capable of moving too fast anyway. Especially with you holding me down."

"Wh-?" Gabrielle realized she lay sprawled over Xena's body. And they didn't seem to be at camp. She opened her eyes slowly. "Xena!"

"Yessss?"

"Is it really you?"

"I certainly hope you don't take such liberties with some other Warrior Princess."

"Oh, Xena, it is you!" Gabrielle exclaimed, squeezing her partner's shoulders. She rolled to her side of the bed. "I'm sorry. I must've fallen asleep after... after...."

"After what?"

"Xena, do you know where we are? Why we're here?"

"Well," Xena considered, surveying the room, "I'd say we're in an Amazon village. I feel like I've been dead and can barely push around a short irritating blonde. I must've been pretty sick. I don't remember getting us here, which means said blonde has everything under control." Xena yawned and stretched. She rested her head on Gabrielle's chest. "Now, why don't you tell me. The short version, if you don't mind."

Gabrielle let Xena's head thump to the bed and strode over to the window in exasperation. "Xena, I swear, you can be so infuriating sometimes!"

Xena look bewildered. "What? I just woke up. Was I killing people in my sleep or something? Is it because I haven't thanked you yet for taking care of me? What?"

Gabrielle pulled herself together. It wasn't fair to take out her frustrations on Xena. The warrior had no idea what she'd been through the past few days. "I'm sorry. Your ... illness was worse than usual. I was so worried. I...."

"C'mere," Xena said, patting the bed. She wrapped her arms around her precious friend. "No, I'm sorry. I brushed this off with no thought to what you must've gone through. Here, punch my arm. Cry. Talk. Do whatever you need to get your frustrations out."

Xena felt Gabrielle's body trembling. "Gabrielle?" she said, getting concerned. And then she realized Gabrielle wasn't sobbing. She was laughing. Now Xena was even more puzzled. "Gabrielle? What is it? Have I done something wrong?"

"Nnnno," Gabrielle said, still laughing. "You did everything just right."

Xena did a mental shrug. She thanked her lucky stars she hadn't thought about what she was doing, as whatever it was had worked out on its own. She felt her eyelids getting heavy. "Um, Gabrielle, can we talk later? I'm a bit wiped out."

"Sure," her partner said, snuggling closer to the comforting body next to her. "The healer said you need rest to help you get well. I could use a little more myself. Let's enjoy this peace and quiet while we can, together." She heard light snoring in response. She smiled contentedly. "I'll take that as a yes."

┐┐┐

"Milana," I don't know what you gave her, but I had no problem convincing her to stay in bed for the rest of the day. Oh, she grumbled all right. That's a good sign she's back to worrying about her stoic image."

The healer was moving about in her hut, replenishing vials, mixing new medicines. "Glad to hear it. Did she say anything about what she remembers?"

"No, we didn't get to that. She just took it in stride she must have been sick. She seemed fine, though -- actually, more than fine. Didn't seem anxious at all."

Milana walked over to her table and sat across from Gabrielle. "I don't want to alarm you, but this could be the calm before the storm. As you say, Xena's a proud woman. I doubt she'll take it all in stride when she discovers what's been going on."

"Ha! You don't know all the weird situations Xena's been in. The Furies, out of body experiences, going to various lands of the dead -- you name it, Xena's been there, done that."

Milana took Gabrielle's hand. "Is that what you like most about her -- that stoic, unflappable warrior you spoke of earlier?"

Gabrielle frowned. "Well, yes, among other things. That's who she is. It's what she believes gives her an edge when things get rough, or helps reduce the chance that things will get rough. Why do you ask?"

"I think that potion stirred up emotions in Xena that have been lying dormant for a long time. Awhile back I said that you might be part of the problem, or at least part of the puzzle. Whatever it is that Xena likes about or expects of herself, I believe it's tied up with what she thinks you like and expect. There's something curious about these 'lighter' personalities that came out, and your reaction to them."

"Milana, I don't understand. Are you saying --"

"Gabrielle, that's between you and Xena. I'm not making any judgments. As both healer and friend, I just want you to be careful. Maybe use this misfortune as an opportunity to reexamine your feelings about each other. That's all." She patted Gabrielle's hand. "Now, get out of my hair so I can finish my chores."

Gabrielle still looked pensive. "All right. I guess it's part of that healer mystique to sound mysterious," she chuckled. "I'll give some thought to what you've said. And thank you again, Milana, for caring so much." She embraced the healer on her way out. "You've been more comfort to me than you know."

"Likewise," Milana murmured to herself, heading to her storage cabinet with a definite spring in her walk.

┐┐┐

Gabrielle lay facing Xena's back and the window. Just as she thought it would be another glorious morning, juicy raindrops began pelting the sill. Gabrielle didn't mind. Another good excuse to loll around in bed one more day.

"Don't even think that's going to keep me in this bed."

"Ah, the sleeping princess finally awakens."

Xena turned over. "Of course I'm awake. I feel fine, ready to see if my body hasn't withered away."

"Xena, it's still early. There's food left from last night. You don't have to go on some expedition in the rain to fetch anything. Besides, you haven't even heard the short version of our latest adventure yet."

Hearing only a low growl, which Gabrielle took as an OK, she relaxed again against her partner. She listened gratefully to Xena's steady heartbeat, the drumming on the roof, the leaves rustling outside the window, the....

"So, you gonna tell me, or do we pretend nothing happened?"

Snatched back from the brink of a nice snooze, Gabrielle raised her head. "What? What did you say? Are you starting to remember something?"

"Not really. I just know it upset you more than you're letting on." Xena paused a moment. "I know I must've had a really bad fever. I was having weird dreams. Sometimes it was kinda funny -- the usual mix-ups with my look-alikes. Other times it was ... like a nightmare." She shrugged. "That's it."

"How about you give me the long version?"

Xena shifted uneasily. "It was just the usual. It's not important."

Gabrielle took Xena's face in her hands. "It's important to me, Xena. I had to watch you suffer through 'that's it.' I didn't know what was going on. Please, tell me."

Xena gently pulled her head away, but let it stay on her partner's chest. "All right," she sighed. "It was like all the times I felt I failed you flashed through my head. I kept trying in different ways to get it right, but it always seemed to turn out wrong."

Xena turned her face away. "It was like I was in this tug of war. Part of me wanted to get angry, to do my usual warrior thing. Other parts said no, I couldn't, because I might lose control and hurt you." She snorted in disgust. "I let some of those other parts out instead -- frivolous ones, clueless ones, dreamy ones. But they must not've worked, because finally one came out that was ... hideous. And I let it, because I thought that's what you needed."

"Xena, are you saying these ... visions ... were all somehow tied to me? To what you thought I expected?"

Xena thought a moment. "I don't really know. You were always there.... The visions seemed to come at will, but when they did, I guess I did try to let the ones play out that were the least of a threat to you."

Gabrielle cocked her head in thought. "Xena, are there times you want to be more like some of those visions in real life?"

"What?"

"I mean, would you like to be more playful, more carefree or trusting?"

"That's not for me. It's too late. Besides, it's hard to be like that and a good warrior too."

"But what if you could?"

"Gabrielle, I don't see where all this is leading. You asked me what was going on in my head when I was out. I told you. That has nothing to do with real life."

"Oh, but it does, my friend." Gabrielle turned Xena's face toward her again. "You were those parts in real life. Whatever you were envisioning, you were acting out. You'd been slipped a potion that caused you to become Leah, Meg, yourself in other lives and various states of being."

Xena gasped in horror. "Are you telling me those weren't fever dreams? You actually had to live with that?"

"Yes. And you know what? It was okay." Gabrielle paused, staring thoughtfully into space. "I knew from the beginning I'd have to commit to your dark side. I focused on all the ways it made you strong, almost invincible, as a warrior. Maybe I learned to love that part of you, got so used to being sensitive to it, that I kept waiting for someone like Callisto to come out."

Xena looked up sharply, hurt showing in her eyes.

Gabrielle squeezed her hand reassuringly. "No, I don't mean I wanted that. I just knew it was in there somewhere and wondered where, why it was hiding. But those 'frivolous' parts, as you call them, made me realize I didn't appreciate enough all the other things you are that have little to do with being a warrior. I liked those parts. I started trusting them to be there, just as I count on the darker parts being there when I need them. I wished you could enjoy them some time, as I did."

Xena went very still. "You told me that, didn't you? You said you could love any of them, as long as it was still me."

"You heard that?"

"I guess I saw and heard a lot of what I thought I imagined."

"Well, you didn't imagine that either. Of course I wanted desperately to have you 'whole' again. But Xena, during all those times I feared I'd lost you to the darkness, I still loved you. Still found a way to be with you. Believed somehow I could get you back. I began feeling the same way about those softer personalities. Either way, I couldn't stand the thought of not having you in my life. Do you understand?"

Xena closed her eyes and swallowed. "Yeah, I do. I'm one lucky woman." She grinned crookedly. "I still can't believe that didn't drive you as crazy as I was."

Gabrielle laughed. "I had my moments. I mean, we're talking huge changes, sometimes twice in one day. That's a little different than one pretty steady personality having some fun once in a while."

"I see. I'll have to remember that. Can we get up now?"

"Xena?"

Guess not. "I'm sleeping?"

"S'okay. You seem to communicate better then anyway."

Xena glared. She made a big production of plumping the pillow, testing the mattress, straightening the blanket, and otherwise indicating her desire for more sensitive chatting. "Fine. Now what?"

"Are you disappointed in me? In what... in who I've become?"

Xena raised up on her elbow. "What?! Disappointed? No! Where did you get that idea?"

"From you. At least from some of those personalities that came out in you."

Xena cursed, falling back on the bed. "I knew those mealy-mouthed, touchy feely ones were trouble. I didn't think I had any other choice. Now I find out they hurt you as much as the dark ones might have."

Gabrielle raised up on her elbow. "No, you've got the wrong idea. It's like you said -- you were afraid you'd failed me. You thought you'd somehow protected my innocence, my ideals. Then, when you saw me with my new weapons, fighting like you, drawing blood, prepared to kill if necessary, you were sad and blamed yourself. I'm sure you were disappointed in yourself, maybe thought I was disappointed in you too. But it was just as much because I wasn't who you wanted me to be either."

Xena was silent, obviously mulling this over. "Were they all like that? I mean, sorry you'd become more of a warrior?" She swallowed. "More like me?"

Gabrielle considered this. "Well, no, Leah and Meg seemed to take it for granted. Arminestra and Melinda were even proud, like it was my role to be good at taking care of myself, of them."

"Good," Xena sighed, relieved. "That's how I feel too. Sure, I sometimes regret what you've had to give up along the way. But Gabrielle, I could never be disappointed in the woman you've become. I love everything about you. Just as you say you can accept -- love -- all of me." Xena smiled gently. "It was nice having a little sister, but I really like finally having a partner."

Gabrielle started to say something, but Xena put her fingers to Gabrielle's lips. "Hey, I'm awake and I'm communicating. Who knows when that'll happen again?"

Gabrielle grinned and squeezed Xena's fingers encouragingly.

"Remember when Tara was with us? She thought maybe she'd been born bad. I told her --"

"╬You are what you do. You can re-create yourself every second of your life.'"

Xena gaped at Gabrielle. "You heard that?"

Gabrielle smirked. "I have many skills."

"Brat. Lucky for you, I can overlook your many flaws." Xena ignored the punch to her arm. "Seriously, I've watched you go through quite a few re-creations. I've admired or loved them all for different reasons. Maybe your skilled ears also heard Tara ask --"

"╬How do you know when you're being good?'"

"And I said I counted on you for that." As Gabrielle looked up, her eyes questioning, Xena added softly, "Yes, I still do. Your sais don't change that. Your heart is as pure as that young peasant girl's who saved me all those winters ago."

"Oh, Xena, you don't know how happy I am to hear that. Until this happened, I guess I'd assumed we'd gotten past those fears. From now on, no more worrying about being a disappointment to each other, okay? We'll each appreciate in ourselves what we've given to the other. Even exchange."

"Gabrielle, I already cherish whatever I have that's anywhere near who you are."

"I don't think so. You made snide remarks about the fun, dreamy parts when they showed up in you, but that's me too."

"Yeah, but a bard needs .... Oh. If I accept your warrior parts, and you also have those other parts, then that means I can have them too? Gods, I think my brain is starting to fry."

Gabrielle laughed and patted Xena on the head. "Don't worry. Leave the brain frying to me. We'll chalk that up to one of the skills you don't have to borrow from me. Deal?"

"Um, deal," Xena replied, still somewhat uncertain. "Now are we finished? Can I get up? Maybe take a run in the rain, ride Argo till she drops, find somebody to beat up on?"

Gabrielle's face lit up. "Oooo, do I have an idea for you!" She hopped off the bed and started dressing. "Well, come on, slow poke," she said to her startled partner. "We've got people to meet, pent-up energy to release."

Xena threw her legs over the side of the bed, keeping a suspicious eye on Gabrielle, wondering if maybe she should have been a little more careful about what she'd wished for.

┐┐┐

Xena and Gabrielle had met with Chilapa and the council. They were now preparing for their last task before resuming their travels.

Gabrielle stood examining Xena's appearance. "I think we should do something with your hair," she said, proceeding to pull the warrior's head down and scrabble her hands through the raven strands until they went every which a way. "There."

"What about some war paint?"

"Absolutely." Gabrielle ran outside and brought back a handful of mud. Tongue between her teeth in deep concentration, she drew black marks below Xena's eyes, on her forehead and chin. She stepped back. "If we had some big bunny teeth, you'd be perfect."

"Oh, I think I can manage the proper effect," Xena assured, smiling evilly. "Shall we go?"

The rain outside had stopped, which meant Gabrielle's artistic additions to Xena's face wouldn't be washed away. A large contingent of amused Amazons lined their path. When they reached their destination, Gabrielle bowed to her partner, swept her hand in the direction of the door in front of them and said, "Break a leg."

Xena paused a moment, summoning up the appropriate aura, then kicked the door open. "Talon!" she yelled as she strode in. "I hear you wanted to see me!"

Talon nearly wet his pants at the sight of the wild woman approaching his cell. He backed up to the wall when she unlocked the door and sauntered in, menace crackling around her despite her studied nonchalance.

"Well, here I am. Got something to say, little man?"

Perspiration dripped down Talon's blanched face. "Xxxxeennnna," he managed to stammer.

"In the flesh. Now spit it out! I haven't had my ration of children to eat. Even a moldy thing like you is starting to look appetizing."

"It was that crusader," he nearly sobbed. "She's the one you should eat ... I mean, get. Please forgive me for my role in this. I beg you, let the Amazons carry out their justice like they promised."

Xena came over and pinned him against the wall by his throat. "This is their justice. Me."

"Wh- what are you going to do to me?"

Xena took her hand from his throat. Her fingers flashed into his neck. He dropped gasping to his knees.

"I've cut off the flow of blood to where your brain should be. You got 30 seconds to decide if you want to live."

"What ... do you ... want?" Talon croaked out.

"Never, ever bother us again. Cease your 'special jobs' business. Donate the money you got from Najara to the town of Tripolis. And apologize to my partner for calling her too soft. Agreed?"

Talon felt the blood trickling from his nose. Stacked deck. He nodded his head.

"What? I didn't hear you."

"Yeph. Agweed."

Xena's fingers flashed again. Talon sprawled on the floor. She let him get his breath back before hauling him up and dragging him outside.

"Chilapa, Talon has agreed to our terms. Have your spies make sure he lives up to them. You can escort him to your border after he does one more thing." Xena pushed him over to where Gabrielle was standing, scowling with her arms folded across her chest.

Talon knelt and bowed his head before the smaller of his two adversaries. "You are obviously a strong woman ... and one Tartarus of a card player. Please excuse my ignorance in calling you too soft."

Gabrielle lifted his head. "Do not mistake generosity for weakness. We have spared you in the hopes you will learn a positive lesson from this. But understand, if Xena and I hear you have turned back to your old ways, there's not a place on earth or beyond that we can't hunt you down."

Talon looked into the eyes that were inches from his own and saw both silk and steel. "You won't have to hunt me down. I'd probably die first from fear. May I go now?"

Gabrielle gestured for him to rise. Chilapa waved two guards over to take him away. The watching Amazons smirked at his retreating back.

"Excellent," applauded Chilapa. "Well done. Xena, have you considered a career on the stage, should you ever give up being a warrior?"

"Acting? Who said I was acting?" Xena said malevolently. She enjoyed the uneasy looks that appeared, then broke into laughter, somewhat relieved to see her audience did too.

Milana walked up to Xena. "You sure you feel up to traveling? No side effects?"

Xena stretched out her arms and inhaled deeply. "Milana, I haven't felt so good in ages." She winked at Gabrielle. "The exercise I got with Talon was almost worth a couple days in bed."

┐┐┐

"Um, Xena?"

"Maaaybe."

"What are you doing?"

Xena had changed into a flowing white sleeveless gown, her hair up in a prim bun. She sat cross-legged with her hands clasped out in front of her, mumbling something to the sky. "Chanting?"

"I can see that. Care to give me the long version?"

"Why, I'm getting in touch with my inner child. Didn't you say I should loosen up a little sometimes?"

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. She seriously considered banning the word "wish" from her vocabulary. She walked over to the blanket they'd spread out and dumped the berries she'd just returned from dutifully picking. She looked around, perplexed. "Xena? Where's the rest of our meal -- you know, the part you usually catch that goes with whatever I get?"

Xena demurely placed a hand on her chest. "Shorely you didn't expect me to destroy some poor little furry or winged critter, did you?"

"Xena, what's the matter with you? Are you saying you can't even punch a fish out during this warm and fuzzy mood of yours?"

"'Xena?' Whah, Janice, are you doin' that role playin' thing again?"

Gabrielle's stomach growled. She couldn't believe Xena had picked now to develop her playful side. She popped a few berries in her mouth. She smirked. Fine. Two could play this game.

"That's right, little lady," Gabrielle drawled, assuming what she hoped was a roguish expression. "Which means, as the mighty Warrior Princess of the so-called Xena Scrolls, you shouldn't worry about getting some blood on that pretty 'attiah' of yours. Not that I don't think it's becoming, mind you."

Xena's genteel manner quickly morphed into a stiff, huffy warrior pose. "I thought you liked my leathers. You certainly have your nose in them enough."

"Hey! No fair! We haven't gotten to the part yet where Mel says she likes Janice just the way she is -- gruff, rough and stubborn as a mule. I kinda liked the sentiment."

Xena glowered at Gabrielle, then broke into a grin. "All right, all right, maybe another day. Why don't I change my ╬attiah' and go whack something for dinner?"

"Yeah, I guess the mood is gone now anyway. At least our stomachs are in synch. But you're not getting off that easy. You're gonna tell me all about Janice and Mel when you get back."

Xena scrounged up a couple of rabbits. She obliged her partner and gave the long version of her trip into a future where machines had taken the place of horses, and people could kill each other with invisible ammunition shot from small weapons you could hold in one hand.

As they were sitting side by side preparing to bed down for the night, Gabrielle looked up at the stars reflectively. "Xena, don't you find it interesting that, in at least two future lives, you're either dorky or peace loving, and I'm the strong, resourceful protector?"

Xena smiled. "No, not at all. You're already like that in this life." She regarded her partner with wonder and gratitude. "Gabrielle, don't ever change."

"What?! Xena, I thought we'd settled that. Don't you ever listen to a --" Her words were cut off by a long arm grabbing her and pulling her down on their furs. Xena nestled Gabrielle in front of her.

"Keep talking," Xena murmured with a little smirk. "I hear better when I'm sleeping. Besides," she added, closing her eyes and snuggling closer, "long as it's you, I believe I can live with my dreams coming true." 

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