Death, Resurrection, and Taxes: A Comedy
by Trisha Von Doss AKA Xenamour
Standard Disclaimers -
These characters are owned lock stock and barrel by The Powers That Be at Renaissance Pictures, Universal MCA, and their various and sundry associates and affiliates. No infringement on the copyright holders of these characters is in any way intended. My sole wish is to share, through my humble efforts, my hopes, dreams, and fantasies for the Incredible Beings so lovingly created by the staff of Gifted Individuals at Renaissance Pictures. Thank you, PTB, for the loan.
Of course there are some pretty dusty hidden corners of this marginally balanced intellect of mine... and who knows... I may even develop a few of my own peripheral characters along the way.
Specific Story Disclaimers:
Violence - this is a Xena:Warrior Princess story for goodness sake... I rather doubt I would come close to fullfilling the premise of the characters without a little ass kicking here and there. I'll try to make it pertinent to the story line when it's present. However occassional random acts of violence attributable to other than the feature characters are beyond the scope of this disclaimer... or my control. <BG>
Subtext - It bothers me a bit that I even have to make a disclaimer here. I don't see too many disclaimers for stories with implied heterosexual relationships floating around and I am inclined to follow suit. However, until such a time as people can accept each others sexuality with reciprocal respect, it is evidently expected that we who view the Bard and the Warrior as more than friends warn those of you offended by this of the presence of such a relationship within the pieces we write. In any case, theirs is surely one of the greatest love stories of all time. It is my own personal belief that the emotional integrity of that love should be maintained at all costs, no matter how one views the physical aspect or lack thereof in this relationship. So if you have something against timeless, soul bonded, super-human love... this is not the story for you.
Emotional Content- Well I should blessed HOPE so.
Compliments and constructive criticism are always welcome; Please email me at Xenamour@cs.com
Now... on with the story. :)
Death, Resurrection, and Taxes: A Comedy
Hanging high in the midmorning sky, the new summers sun beats its earth bound subjects into a sluggish submission. The citizens of Athens hang their heads as if in reverence to its heat.
Two leather clad figures make their way through the growing throng of people in the citys streets, toward a cluster of ornate and official looking buildings at its heart.
A tall, dark, and dangerous looking woman wearing custom armor and armaments, carries a large saddle bag over one shoulder, and walks several paces in front of her companion, a smaller, fair haired woman, whose only weapons are the Sais in the sheaths of her booted feet.
Unlike the denizens around them, they hold their heads high... as if in defiance of their impending doom.
"Xena... How did you let this happen?" The fair-haired woman quickened her pace to pull beside her companion.
"ME?" The darker woman replied indignantly. "Youre the scribe... I thought you were keeping track of some of this stuff." *snort* "Surely you didnt expect me to do it all?"
"Well Xena you seem to have control over virtually every OTHER aspect of our existence..," the plucky blond replied.
"All the more reason this task should have fallen to You, Gabrielle," Xena said.
Gabrielle fell silent, thinking about this for a moment, then perkily replied, "Well I can do it this next year if you want me to."
The taller woman snorted, "Like were gonna have anything left for them to tax after this."
They traveled up the steps but stopped just short of the doorway of the largest and most imposing of the Athens Government Buildings.
Xena set the saddle bag shed been carrying down for a moment, ran her fingers through her disheveled hair, straightened her chest armor, and pulled her leather bustier into a position that exposed more cleavage.
"Xena what in the world are you doing?" Gabrielle asked, watching this unusual display of public grooming by her partner.
In response, Xena turned to her and began a similar procedure on Gabrielle and her attire.
"Hey, stop that! What the....?" Gabrielle asked, just as Xena ripped a suggestive notch up the side of her skirt.
"Come on Gabrielle, a little eye candy never hurts in these situations," was the Warriors reply.
Gabrielle looked at her skirt in horror. "Xena I am NOT marching in there in my birthday suit just to save you a few dinars!"
"Suit yourself Bard, but if we have to pay what they say we owe, I am not gonna be able to take you on that cruise down the Nile I promised."
Gabrielle rolled this over in her mind for less than a candle flicker before she took the skirts material from Xenas hands and ripped the notch up another several inches.
"Atta Girl!" Xena smiled appreciatively.
"Well as much as I hate it, I am sure as Hades not going to let showing a little less leg keep me from that cruise."
That said Gabrielle finished her own adjustments and bent to pick up the saddle bags as Xena opened the door. "My Gods Xena... What all is in here?" she groaned under the strain.
Xena rolled her eyes skyward and reached to take the burden from her complaining companion.
She opened one side of the bag and began pulling items out;
Two bed rolls
A cross bow
Various cooking utensils
Their medicine kit
2 flying parchment
A leg of lamb...
Gabrielles grew wider as she watched. Intrigued, she inched a little closer to the bag and looked inside. "Oh! I wondered where I had put that!" She reached in and pulled out a crumpled deerskin headdress, adorned with a pair of slightly mismatched antlers, one on either side. "Hey! Wheres that decoration that was in the middle here?" she pointed to the front of the headdress where only a few loose threads remained.
Xena squinted unevenly at the spot in question, "You mean that swirly thing...the one that looked like a cinnamon roll?"
"Xena that,"swirly thing", was the Queens Signet for the Northern Amazons." Gabrielle said pointedly.
"I think Joxer ate it," Xena deadpanned.
Gabrielles eyes fixed on the spot where the ornament had been. "No wonder he was so bound up after we left."
Xena laughed, "Cmon Gabrielle were gonna be late."
Gabrielle took one last disappointed look at her pillaged headdress before she tossed it back into the saddle bag and began helping Xena replace the rest of their belongings.
They walked through a well-lit and overwhelmingly white marble foyer, down an immense hallway, and toward a long line of people standing in front of the door to what appeared to be a substantially smaller room.
The sign posted near the head of the line and again at intervals along the way read: "Have your records ready."
Gabrielle read the sign aloud and turned toward Xena with a slightly worried look. "Xena we dont have any records... Do we?"
"What, you think Id be flashing my cleavage and your assets if we did?" Xena replied sarcastically.
Gabrielle chewed the cuticle of her index finger and thought about that.
Xena looked repeatedly down the line front of them, becoming more agitated each time she did, since it did not appear to be moving forward at any significant rate. Given a limited tolerance for crowds, after about a tenth of a candle mark, she decided that they had waited long enough.
She walked slowly and menacingly toward the front of the line, pulling her sword out of its scabbard and slashing at invisible enemies as she went. Every now and again shed turn to a member of the line, and say conspiratorially, "They dont think I can see em but I can... Dont worry...Ill kill you before I let em take you alive."
Gabrielle, who had been busy studying a copy of the latest "Athens Weekly", (front page caption, "Lucy Lawless has Alien Angels Baby"), dropped by a hastily fleeing citizen, failed to notice how much the line had thinned until Xena had returned to her side and motioned for her to move ahead.
"Wow! These guys are really efficient arent they?" She said, having been oblivious to the clatter of escaping footfalls a few moments before.
"Yeah, well, I think a few people decided to come back later," the Warrior smirked.
Gabrielle noticed that the few remaining people in front of them kept looking back over their shoulders nervously. "Guess were not the only ones without records," she said, erroneously assuming the source of their discomfort.
"Xena did you see this story?" Gabrielle pointed to one of the articles in the scroll.
Xena glanced at the scroll. "Alien Baby huh? Glad were not the only ones."
"No, not that one, this one... Says here that the Orpheum is discontinuing their series of recitals of Sapphos work. Something about subtext," Gabrielle said dejectedly.
Xena smiled, and raised a suggestive eyebrow. "Too bad... I always kinda liked her stuff."
"Hey Gabrielle, were next, get rid of that News Scroll will ya?" Xena asked, trying to pull the parchment out of her friends hands.
"Xena, Im not done with that yet! Just let me put it in the saddle bags so I can finish it later, ok?"
"And you wonder why these are so heavy. Just my luck I gotta travel with the Pack Rat of Potadea," Xena deadpanned.
"Count your blessings Warrior Princess, youd have one sore bottom if it werent for my tendency to cart around a few extra pieces of parchment for use in the little warriors room."
Xenas eyes shifted quickly in several directions looking for evidence of eavesdroppers. "Gabrielle I have a reputation to maintain. Ill gladly thank you to keep that stuff to yourself in public," the Warrior hissed.
"Well then dont provoke me. Or I might just end up telling everyone you suck your thumb, too," the bard said sourly, secretly grinning at her little victory of words.
A stuffy little man at the doorway, draped in excessively formal robes, ushered them into a small waiting room, wherein sat 4 chairs, all occupied. Gabrielle smiled politely at one of the waiting men, who subsequently raked his eyes up the Bards leg, newly exposed by her quickly redesigned skirt, and then returned her smile lavisciously.
His visual flirtation stopped suddenly as Xenas imposing figure and calculated glare appeared behind Gabrielle in the entryway. He swallowed audibly, then turned his head and coughed into his hand, before becoming enormously preoccupied with his boot laces.
Gabrielle turned and, looking up, placed the flats of her hands on Xenas leather clad stomach. "Xena my *assets* arent gonna help us out much here if you do that to the Auditor. Were bound to lose our shirts if you keep that up."
Xena narrowed her eyes at the offending stranger. "You lose your shirt, and somebodys gonna lose a body part," came her tight lipped reply.
The stuffy little doorman waved them toward two of the now open chairs.
Xena pursed her lips and let out a long, pressure filled breath.
"You ok?" Gabrielle asked.
Xena ran an agitated hand through her hair. "I just hate this kind of stuff Gabrielle. One of the reasons I loved the War Lord business so much is that nobody ever bothered us about taxes. If they sent a tax collector out, he never came back, so what was the point?"
Gabrielle patted Xenas hand. "Guess this is the down side of contributing to the, *Greater Good.*"
Xena snorted, "Almost woulda made being Ares Chosen again worth it."
Gabrielle leveled a particularly disapproving look at her partner.
"What?!? I said Almost. It was a joke Gabrielle," Xena retorted indignantly.
"Course if Ida had that kid Ares wanted, I coulda had another deduction," she added under her breath.
"What did you say?" Gabrielle asked, eyes and mouth wide in disbelief.
"Nothing... Never mind," Xena said, trying hard to look innocent and failing completely.
The Bard was not amused. "Dont patronize me Xena, what did you say?"
"I said, Course now that I am rid of Ares, I dont have to worry about his seduction," Xena lied.
"Uh huh," Gabrielle responded skeptically.
"Hey, were up." Xena motioned with her head toward another overdressed employee waving them into the Auditors office.
The Office of the Chief Executive Auditor of Greece was conspicuously designed to impress and intimidate its visitors. The entryway was twice as large as the one to the waiting room had been, and was framed in columns carved from a rare blue veined marble, dressed out with frightening gargoyles and a number of other powerful looking hybrid beasts.
The placard to the right of the door read: "Have your records ready."
Gabrielle read the sign, sighed, and shifted her eyes briefly to meet Xenas.
Xena shrugged. Nothing they could do about it now.
The room they entered rivaled any of the palaces they had seen in Chin or Egypt in its grandeur. Beautifully woven tapestries hung or rested on the walls and floors, which had themselves been inlaid with detailed designs, precisely created with symmetrically sized and shaped pieces of colored marble. Silk fabrics hung draped over a large window, framing a panoramic view of the city square in decadent splendor. Curtained doorways led to adjacent rooms on either side.
In contrast, the furnishings were sparsely appointed and included a number of small tables along the walls, a reclining couch, and two rather uncomfortable looking chairs. These few items were offset by an idiotically large desk. The top of the desk was hewn of a rose quartz marble, rubbed smooth, and veined with gold. Two large soapstone lions, seated with one paw out as if to strike, mouths roaring open, formed the base of the desk on either side. As wide and as long as a wagon bed and at least a boot length thick, it had obviously been designed to project every air of pretense and authority.
Behind that desk, on the edge of a large leather chair, perched a reed-like figure of a man dressed in the white, gold, and burgundy robes that signaled his rank and stature as the Chief Executive Auditor of Greece. Thin, and pale, he sported a hawkish nose that due to its size was unavoidably the predominant visual feature of his face. He wore jeweled greaves and ankle bands, color coordinated to match his robes, and a single earring dangled from his left ear. He stood slowly, and waved a graceful hand toward the two chairs positioned in front of his desk.
Xena grimaced mentally and leaned over to whisper in Gabrielles ear, "What makes me think were the wrong flavor eye candy?"
Gabrielle stifled a grin but then whispered back in all seriousness, "Xena you shouldnt make assumptions about people like that. Just think if everyone judged you based solely on your appearance." She finished the intent of the statement off with a raised eyebrow and a quick visual once-over of her partner.
"Just think of how many drunken soldiers youd have had to dodge, if they didnt, Gabrielle," Xena growled back under her breath as they approached the proffered seats.
"Eh hemmm." The Chief Auditor ceremoniously cleared his throat to begin the proceedings.
"You are...?" He trailed off.
"Hi, Im Gabrielle, and this is Xena," Gabrielle revealed her most winning smile and nodded toward her stoic companion, whose phony attempt at a similar gesture failed miserably.
"Oh yes, Gabrielle, the former Bard of Potadiea, and Xena, former Destroyer of Nations. Also known as the Warrior Princess," the Official said, raising two fingers of each hand simultaneously to place invisible quotation marks around the later of Xenas titles.
Xena fingered her Chakrum.
"Actually, Gabrielle replied sweetly, I am still a part-time Bard, and well, Xena here hasnt been a Warlord for quite a while now. In fact shes been contributing to the Greater Good for..."
Gabrielle looked at Xena with a slightly furrowed brow, a small part of her brain trying to figure out what the Warriors subtle but frantic hand gestures were working to communicate, as she continued her explanation.
Meanwhile, Xena alternately widened and narrowed her eyes, and repeatedly attempted to covertly motion for Gabrielle to "cut" or "stop" her monologue... all to no avail.
"...And well lets see, there were those few moons with Hercules, before I met her, and then weve been together for 6 years... Add that to the 25 years of the Void... Altogether a little over 31 years I guess. So you see, shes actually been an Ex-Warlord for far longer than she was ever the "Destroyer of Nations"."
Xenas jaw clenched visibly.
And the man they had both by now mentally dubbed, "Birdface", raised an eyebrow.
"Yes, yes... I see... Well, my sources had informed me of this 25 year Void and now you have confirmed it. Unfortunately we have no record of any appropriately designated party paying your taxes during this time period, or for that matter, any of the 31 plus years youve both allegedly been a part of the "productive citizenry" of Greece."
"Nice job Bard...You can kiss that vacation good-bye," Xena said through gritted teeth.
Gabrielle reached over and patted Xenas leg in an effort to settle her.
The gesture was not missed by the auditor who responded with a knowing smile.
"In addition to those 31 years you should have apparently filed *joint* tax returns, we have on record at least 10 years prior to that during which Xena failed to file an independent return. Gabrielle, you were exempt from paying taxes during that period, since you were a considered a dependent of your father."
Xenas Chakrum hand began to twitch reflexively.
Birdface began again, crossing his arms and turning toward the scene outside the large window framing the view of the public square, "So you can understand our dismay at finding that, although this is the first time in the last 31 years you have filed your taxes... plus or minus a decade...," he paused momentarily for dramatic effect and turned back toward them as he finished, "...you have somehow managed to show a tax refund due you by our office."
A sharp intake of breath could be heard as Gabrielles surprise got the better of her. "Xena told me we owed some back taxes but I had no idea..."
Xena raised both eyebrows, copped a half grin, and shrugged her shoulders in response to her companions dumbfounded look. Then she gave a nearly imperceptible nod and shifted her eyes sideways to remind the Bard that they were being watched. Gabrielle quickly regained her composure.
"Well we would be happy to answer any of your questions Birdfa ... I mean Mr. Executive Auditor sir. I am sure everything can be satisfactorily explained." Gabrielle inwardly shook her head in disbelief...and muttered under her breath...,"Yeah... explained...about as easily as our Resurrection."
Moving to sit, the Chief Auditor placed both elbows on the edge of his desk, and rested his chin delicately upon his hands, now folded one over the other in front of him. "Im sure you can Ms. Bard, and you will, I assure you, you will. In fact...I hope youve eaten a substantial breakfast, because we will be going over your listed deductions and credits one by one, just to ensure you CAN explain them satisfactorily."
Xena, elbows on the arms of her chair, cradled her head in her hands and groaned.
Gabrielle shot Xena a sideways glance. "What makes me think am gonna be taking that trip down the Nile traveling as a slave girl?"
Xena, her head still resting in her hands, peeked from between her fingers and sighed,
"Guess I know whos gonna be sleeping on the other side of the fire for a while."
Theyd been at it for an more than two candle marks, with no real end in site. Gabrielle and the Chief Auditor were sitting at the desk, hammering out every detail of their first ever tax return.
Meanwhile, having long since reached the limits of her focus and her patience, Xena was doing sword drills, and an occasional standing flip, in a corner of the room.
Gabrielle had initially been quite pleased with their progress. They had finished reviewing the first few itemized lists of deductions without too many problems. She set aside the most recently finished scroll and picked up another.
"Ok, next we have,"Weapons, Medical, and Funeral Related Expenses" ". Gabrielle waited while the Auditor sorted through his references and picked up a fresh piece of parchment. He checked each item against the tax code and made notes as she read them from the list:
67 Pig Bladders, Complete with Reeds
168 sewing needles/356 spools of cat gut
26 Poison dart/arrow Antidotes
1 Breast Dagger
10 Cases Horde Repellent
Darions House of Decay: Dead Body Removal Service
54 Funeral Pyres
1 Custom Made Coffin...
"Oh... I know one she forgot to list." Gabrielle looked up from the desk she and the Auditor had been hovering over all morning. "Xena... How many frying pans did we go through last year? Six that I can remember...were there any more?"
Birdface tipped his head down and leveled his eyes at Gabrielle, "First of all...a frying pan is considered a personal expense, not a business expense, and surely you are not going to try and tell me that the two of YOU," he shook his head in disbelief and pointed separate dancing index fingers at each of them, "cook enough to have used 6 frying pans in the course of a year."
"Er... Not exactly," the Bard replied sheepishly.
Xena stopped mid-impailment of her imaginary foe. "Actually I think it was 7 Gabrielle... Dont forget the one we lost in Chin."
Gabrielle responded with an absent look.
"You know... Joxer got the black powder mixed up with the pepper..." Xena reminded her of the explosion that had ended with their dinner decorating the night sky. And Joxers face. The frying pan had been reconfigured into something looking a lot like Joxers hat...only with a handle. Xena emitted a low chuckle as she envisioned the aftermath..
Gabrielle giggled, "Oh yeah...," and then turned her attention from Xena back to the Auditor.
The Auditor looked utterly befuddled.
"Um... We actually have used up a few and ...well, Xena...sorta has a tendency to be creative with the cookware."
Her listeners fixed stare bade her continue.
"See...she gets kinda bored using the same old weapons all the time... You know...you can only do so much with a sword... Eventually its gotta end up stuck in somebody. Well, and then sometimes she just grabs whatevers convenient. If we get an attacked suddenly in the early morning...before were really prepared...that usually means the frying pan." Gabrielle smiled almost apologetically, realizing it was probably quite a effort for Birdface to imagine using a cooking utensil as an instrument of warfare.
And it was. The auditor shot a slightly nervous sideways glance at Xena, who grinned rather sadistically in return and began bouncing her Chakrum from the his desk to a torch sconce, to an adjacent wall and back again. Every time the weapon hit the desk the Auditor flinched visibly.
In the interim, the Bard was busy perusing some of the remaining items on the Miscellaneous Expenses List, reading them audibly, but only to herself:
36 quills/212 blank parchment scrolls
2 flying parchments
1 Bottle "Rat-B-Gone" Mouthwash
1 Carved Wooden Lamb
One Mendi Ink Removal Kit
Delousing Shampoo Slobber Guard (Adult Bibs)...
"Ugh." She noted the next item on the list. " I just hope he doesnt ask about the..."
"What in the world is this????" Birdface had returned his attention to the Tax Return, and was pointing incredulously at the very item Gabrielle had been anticipatorily cringing about.
"Two vats "Scab-Away" Goat Dung," He read aloud.
"Im pretty sure you dont really wanna know." Gabrielle chewed her lower lip.
"Young lady...," the Auditor straightened his posture and inflection indignantly, "it is my Job to Know."
Gabrielle heard another low rolling laugh rumbling toward them from somewhere in the Warriors vicinity.
And she shot her soon to be estranged soul mate an irritated glare. "Xena... This is your list... You wanna share about that particular item?"
"Sure," Xena ventured, raising a single eyebrow. What the heck, shock values kinda worn off the Chakrum Toss for old Birdface there anyway. Lets see what kinda reaction thisll flush out...of both of em, she thought to herself, squelching a grin.
Xena pointed to her traveling companion and stated, "Baby face there got a raging case of foot rot awhile back. She couldnt stop scratching it. Turned her into one big dry flaky scab. "
The Chief Auditor, having found yet another reason to feel superior, gave Gabrielle an appraising visual once over.
"So we had to do something about it before she became a big bleeding, pus filled scab." Xena emphasized the words "bleeding" and "pus filled".
She was naturally encouraged to continue when the Chief Auditors face lost its little remaining color. "The only thing that ever really helps the itch, besides...," Xena couldn't help but shoot a quick glance at Gabrielle here,. "Linseed Root...," a visible grimace from the Bard, "...is goat dung."
Oh yeah...this is definitely fun. Xena's nostrils flared slightly, and her lips twitched up at the corners, despite her best efforts at suppression.
"You cant imagine how much of the stuff you have to spread over someone whose skin is in that state of decay..."
Birdface ducked his head and waved his hands in voiceless surrender.
Xena flashed the Bard a quick but full-on smile as she took a mental victory lap. I win... Again.
Gabrielle suggested they take a break for lunch.
And the Auditor promptly lost his breakfast.
Xena reached over and wiped some errant sauce from the Bards chin with her thumb.
After assisting the Chief Auditor to his reclining couch, they had escaped into the citys open market for some much needed air and a quick lunch.
Well, her lunch had been quick anyway. The Warrior shook her head. Even after all this time, her friends appetite still amazed her.
The Bard in question was now devouring her third gyro. "Ooooo this is so good! Wfma bt?" she said around her next mouthful.
"Youre offering to share your food?" Xena snorted a laugh and put a hand on the Bards forehead. "You sure youre feeling ok?"
"Very funny," Gabrielle clipped, not nearly as amused.
"You know Xena... I know we havent filed a return before... And I may be way off here... But some of the figures on those forms of theirs dont really seem to add up," Gabrielle said, now alternating between munches of the meat roll and a freshly purchased fruit kebab.
"What are you talking about?" Xena asked, reaching over to steal a piece of melon from the top of Gabrielles desert.
Gabrielle pretended a slap at Xenas thieving hand as she continued, "Well, ok, even given the 25 years, which, by the way I am pretty sure they cant tax us for since we were nonproductive... to say the least, I think the taxes theyve recorded against us are excessive."
Xena gave a short laugh. "Gabrielle, I am pretty sure taxes have probably gone up in the last 31 years."
A blonde brow furrowed in concern. "Xena, Im not kidding here... You know how I am... I can talk any merchants price down by half... Im good when it comes to money...and something about this whole situation isnt quite right. How do you figure we merrited having the Chief Executive Auditor of Greece assigned to our case, anyway?"
"Guess thats what happens when you wait 31 years, plus or minus a decade, to pay your taxes," she said. Then she chuckled. "Bet that doesnt happen too often."
Gabrielle tsked at Xena, "How can you laugh about that? I am afraid to ask whats gonna happen when they find out that everything we own is in those saddlebags, well, that and the horse they rode in on."
Xena shot a wary sideways glance at her companion but didnt say anything.
It took Gabrielle a few moments longer to realize what the silence meant. She took a step in front of the Warrior, turned, and stopped dead in her tracks. "Xena... What ARENT you telling me?"
Xena ducked her head to rub an index finger across her forehead, and kicked a booted toe at an invisible target in the dirt.
The Bard placed her hands on her hips indignantly, and shifted her weight toward one leg.
"Uh oh... Bitchy Bard Stance," Xena said under her breath.
She chewed the inside of one cheek, raised both brows, and rolled a pair of rounded blue eyes guiltily sideways.
Gabrielle crossed her arms, very deliberately, over her chest.
"If yu cnt py smtims thyl go aftr yr rltvs," Xena mumbled.
Gabrielle gave her head a little shake, arched her eyebrows skyward and cocked one ear toward Xena to indicate that she couldnt possibly have heard that last statement correctly.
Xena puffed up her cheeks and exhaled a long breath through taught lips, letting it go in an exaggerated rush of air at the end.
"If you cant pay your taxes, sometimes they go after your relatives assets." There... Shed said it.
Gabrielle looked at her with horror. "Something tells me were not talking about the same kind of *assets* we were earlier."
Xena rolled her lips in toward her mouth and briefly shook her head "no".
"You mean my folks... Lila and her family..." Gabrielles voice began to fade.
"...could lose their farms," Xena finished for her. "And my Mom and Toris could lose the Inn."
Xena had purposefully left off mentioning their daughter. She knew Gabrielles mind was already twisting in on itself. No need to have her worrying over Eve too.
"Oh no... Xena what are we gonna do?" Gabrielle fretted.
Xena stepped closer and put what she hoped was a pair of comforting hands on the Bards shoulders. "Some creative accounting," she finally said.
"Isnt that part of what got us into this mess?" Gabrielle responded doubtfully, "Xena, why in the world, after 31 years of unpaid taxes, did you indicate we were due a refund? I mean...talk about your red flags."
"Well, for one thing... I had Salmoneouss kid brother help me...," Xena started.
The Bard let out a tortured sigh, closed her eyes, and rolled her face into her hands.
"And I kinda figured the best defense was a good offense...you know...go after them before they came after us."
Gabrielle opened her eyes and raised her head, the first two fingers of either hand still pressed against her temples. "Xena this isnt like defending your family or your village... It isnt like waging war for Heras sake!"
Xena dropped her head and leveled an apologetic look at her exasperated soul mate. "Um... Well... It kinda is now."
When they returned from their lunch, the Auditor was finishing his own, apparently having made a full recovery from his earlier nausea. "Mateus, when youre finished with that, bring me some mint tea," he said to the servant who was removing the remains of his meal. He turned toward them and smiled contritely. "Id offer you some, but Im sure your tastes run toward the more...shall we say, basic."
Gabrielle pinched off a forced smile. Xena bit back an oath and bore little holes into his head with her eyes.
By the time Mateus returned with the Auditors tea, Gabrielle had returned to her place at the desk and was reviewing the next scroll of the tax return.
Personal clothing items were about the last thing she had expected to see listed by Xena as a business expense. She inwardly chastised her partner for some of these submissions, and hoped she could bluff her way through a convincing clarification if Birdface decided to investigate further.
"Um, before we look at these, you should know, we tend to use an awful lot of disguises in our line of work," Gabrielle prefaced. Despite her explanation, she was wary that some of the items would sound suspect no matter how matter-of-factly she described them.
The Auditor looked at her skeptically as he finished his tea and set his cup aside. He inked his quill and prepared to check each item off against the record of allowed deductions, as Gabrielle again read them aloud, one by one:
"1 Veiled Dancers Outfit (Blue/Red/Gold Trim)"
"2 Sets Amazon Queens Leathers, (Formal/Casual),w/Antler Crown"
"1 Set Maternity Leathers, (Black)"
"1 Hestian Virgin Priestess Gown (White w/Gold Trim)"
When the Auditor failed to respond, Gabrielle looked up at him hesitantly. She followed his line of sight to the large window, where she could see Xena doing chin ups on the long silk swag draped overhead. Very much aware of the crowd of people that had gathered outside in the public square to watch, the Warrior would now and again release her grip, drop to her feet, and just as she hit the floor push back up toward the swag with her powerful legs, flipping herself in the air two or three times as she went. The crowd could periodically be heard to "Oooo" and "Ahhh" in response.
Gabrielle repeated the item: "1 Hestian Virgin Priestess Gown (White w/Gold Trim)"
Birdface, still watching Xenas antics, voiced a faint, "check", and made a mark on his scroll without even looking at it.
Gabrielle chuckled to herself.
Her good humor was quickly forgotten when she spotted the last item on the list. She aimed a lethal look at Xena, who was now pacing back and forth in front of the large desk, tossing her Chakrum up high in the air with one hand, and catching it behind her back on her sword with the other. Xena flashed a mischievous grin back at her. She knew very well what was next on the list.
"1 Very Ugly Billious Green Top."
Unfortunately for Gabrielle, she seemed to have regained the Auditors full attention.
The Bards cheeks flared red, as she repeated the item, leaving out the offending descriptors,
"1 Billious Green Top."
"Just what is a Billious Green Top, may I ask?"
Gabrielle had rolled her head to the side and was looking at Xena with a raised brow and a pair of tersely set lips.
Xena feigned innocence, throwing her hands up, and mouthing, "What?", in response.
Gabrielle returned her gaze to the Auditor. "It was a blouse I used to have, my favorite blouse actually. In fact I loved that blouse... Used to wear it everyday."
"And just how does that qualify as a business deduction young lady... daily use does not classify it as a disguise," Birdface said indignantly, adding, horrible fashion sense, to the list of reasons to maintain his imperious attitude toward the Bard.
"Xena decided to use it as a rope...to tie up one of the scum bags we caught and needed to take back to prison." Gabrielle narrowed her eyes at her partner as she continued, "Made me walk around in a barley sack for four days."
"I didnt have anything else," Xena said defensively, "we were out of rope".
"You always hated that top Xena, admit it. You were just waiting for the opportunity to get rid of it. Not having any rope was just a lame excuse. You couldve bought more rope the day before in Reina."
"That thing refused to die a natural death Gabrielle. It outlasted any other fabric known to man. I had no choice. I had to kill it. That or look at it every day for the rest of my life. And frankly, it wasnt all that flattering."
Gabrielle crossed her arms across her chest and harrumphed loudly.
The Chief Auditor, to his credit, decided not to pursue the issue any further.
"Gods I thought wed never finish," Xena said they exited the Hall late that afternoon.
"WE?!? WE?!? What do you mean WE??? Not like you really had to do anything but play with yourself... I mean your weapons... all day Xena!" Gabrielle fumed.
"Hey...I did my part... Who do you think filled out that thing in the first place?" Xena answered.
"Yeah, well maybe Id be feeling a bit more appreciative if it werent for the fact that Ill be spending tomorrow explaining YOUR part to Buzzard Breath again," Gabrielle replied dourly.
"Yeah... About tomorrow... I was thinking... Maybe Id go check out that..," Xena started.
"Oh no you dont Warrior Wimp, dont even think about it. Fat chance you are gonna leave me holding the saddle bag on this one. Nope. No way. I have to be there, you have to be there.
I dont know what possessed you to put half of those items down as deductions. And by the Gods Xena, listing me as a dependent? Ill have you know I am perfectly capable of fending for myself! If you think for one minute..."
Whoops. Runaway Bard. Rats. Xena mentally slapped herself. I really should know better than that by now, shouldnt I?
Gabrielle continued her tirade as they walked back through the market place, toward the stable where Argo had been boarded ...
"...and of all the... Xena...wasnt bad enough I actually had to suffer through being applied with goat dung to get rid of that foot rot... You gotta list it as a business expense???...Of all the insensitive... "
When Xena stopped along the way to buy a loaf of bread, the Baker glanced from she, to Gabrielle, and back again and shook his head empathetically. Xena, nodded and rolled her eyes slightly in acknowledgment.
She formed a reciprocal momentary bond with the the Cheese Vendor, and with another of his patrons as well, who appeared to be enduring a similar verbal onslaught from his wife. They both responded with nonverbal, Ah-Hahs, when Xena mouthed the word, "Bard".
She was in the middle of this communion of the hen-pecked when the sudden absence of her partners incessant voice caught her attention. She, the Vendor, and the Patron exchanged simultaneous anticipatory grimaces. Xena expelled a long breath and turned around...
...just in time to see Gabrielle turn on her heels and stomp off into the market place, sending clouded puffs of dirt into the air with every step.
Xena groaned, grabbed her goods from the merchant, and jogged after her. "Gabrielle... ! Wait up! Oh cmon... I was just kidding!" Jeez Xena...when are you gonna ever lovin learn!
"Where did she go? Oh thisll be a first...she wasnt two paces ahead of me...," Xena grumbled to herself as she looked through the crowded marketplace. Frustrated she finally stopped in the middle of the main row of stalls to get her bearings and to see if she could sense her connection with the Bard.
She closed her eyes and tried to still her mind. Screening out the squawking ducks, the talking passersby, the jangle of coins, she focused on feeling rather than smelling, or seeing, or hearing the world around her.
Yes... There it was... Faint... Almost as if there were some kind of barrier between them. Xena opened her eyes and turned to look down an intersecting street, beyond the vendors and the market stalls, where a crowd of people had gathered around a small platform. No... couldnt be! Why, of all times, now?
Gabrielle, in full and vibrant form, was atop the small stage...walking it from end to end, her body and arms moving in time with her voice...playing the Bard. Xena could not make out the words of the story, but even from this distance she could see that Gabrielle had her audience enraptured. The crowd was substantial and growing...not one person passing continued on their way...if they fell within ear shot...they were caught.
She made her way toward the platform slowly, watching the laughing faces of the people as she walked, befuddled by her friends strange choice in timing for this particular performance. As she neared the crowd she caught Gabrielles eye and flashed her a curious smile. Gabrielle grinned wryly in return. Listeners watching the exchange turned Xenas direction individually and in groups, and appraised her with rather revolted looks.
Xena, in somewhat of a shock over the sudden and less than flattering attention, gave her own attire a quick visual once over, then checked to make sure there wasnt someone behind her.
Unable to find anything overtly noticeable, she shifted her eyes from face to face in the crowd searching for clues. Thwarted and confused, she turned her attention back to the Bard...and heard the words that very suddenly and clearly explained, "...and so the Warrior Princess and her noble War Horse, Argo, defeated the Cythian army not with weapons but with Vermin... ...the Cythians ran for fear of their Lice."
The audience roared and applauded in appreciation of the Bard, tossing dinars onto the stage as she finished her story. Xenas eyes shifted quickly in several directions, and then rolled up into her head, as the dispersing crowd gave her wide birth, and people pulled their children and even their animals well out of the range that any bug could jump.
Gabrielle picked up the coins and placed them in a small pouch she kept tucked inside the waist of her skirt. She took her time, and bit back a grin at the knowledge that the irritated Warrior was waiting for her, not five paces away. When she had her pouch tucked neatly back in its place, she stepped down off the stage, swept the area with her eyes and returned the wave of a departing little girl, perched on the shoulders of her father. Gradually she turned toward Xena, who had her arms crossed stiffly over her stomach, and looked like she was going to chew a hole through the inside of both cheeks.
Gabrielle lifted up her hands and mouthed, "What?", as her counterpart had done earlier that day in the Auditors office.
Xena scowled, "Gabrielle, what was that all about...telling all of Athens that Id had Lice?"
Gabrielle smirked, "Hey... Sometimes, paybacks are an itch."
This time it was Xena who stomped off.
The now lit torches lining the city streets cast a peaceful glow on the inhabitants of the stable and its visitors. The dirt and dust once stirred by the days traffic had settled, and though the scent of hay and horses was strong, the air was cleaner now, and cooler. A light breeze occasionally caused the flames of the torch light to dance, or tangled in the branches of the palms high above.
Two figures sat on a low wooden bench, in front of the livery, eating, talking, and enjoying the welcome relief from the days stress and heat.
"Oh come on Xena... I said I was sorry," Gabrielle apologized again for her earlier behavior.
"Well, guess it serves me right for making fun of you." Xena handed the Bard another piece of dried meat. They had supplemented the cheese and bread she had purchased earlier for dinner with some of their own traveling rations.
"Hey...slow down...its dead already Gabrielle, it wont be running off on you, you know," Xena teased her companion who seemed to be intent on consuming her portion and setting a speed eating record simultaneously.
"Guess I was hungrier than I thought,"Gabrielle admitted.
"Yeah, well, it isnt like three gyros is enough to tide anyone over," Xena deadpanned.
Her mouth already full again, Gabrielle waggled a warning finger in response.
Xenas eyes scanned the smoothly cut marble stone of the main stable house, and the cobbled stones of the courtyard in front of them. "This place is really nice. Nicer than some of the inns weve stayed in. Sure as heck dont mind bedding with Argo here."
Gabrielle gazed appreciatively around the compound, as she took a swig from the water skin and swallowed. "You know, I was talking to the owner when we first got here, I think his names Teopholus, he and his wife seemed really nice. He said this place has been in his family for four generations now. Sure doesnt look any the worse for wear, does it?"
"One of the great things about using marble," Xena agreed, "Itll cost you an arm and a leg up front, but itll last forever and still look beautiful."
"Hey Xena, do you think you could rewrap the grips on these for me tonight?" Gabrielle pulled her Sais from their places in her boot sheaths, and held them out in question.
Xena nodded and stuck them in the belt of her skirt. "Guess wed better clean up. I still need to sharpen my sword too." She picked up the parchment that had wrapped their food and started wadding it into a ball.
Gabrielle raised a blonde brow at the wadded up paper and chewed on her lower lip.
Xena rolled her head sideways and puffed out a loud breath in protest. "Oh cmon Gabrielle, we dont need to save every piece do we?"
Gabrielle shrugged. "Suit yourself, Im not the one with the tender bottom."
Xena looked at the paper momentarily, carefully unwadded it, neatly folded it, and put it in the pouch with the remaining provisions.
"Hey...its really cooling off... Im gonna go see if I can borrow an extra blanket, you want one?"
Gabrielle asked as she stood and dusted the crumbs from her skirt.
Xena nodded. "Go ahead and get two if you can. Even if I dont use it, Argo might like one."
"You treat that horse better than you do yourself you know," Gabrielle chided.
"Yeah, well... then its a good thing you take such good care of me isnt it?" Xenas eyes glinted a smile in the torch light.
"Try to remember that the next time youre complaining about me saving every stray scrap of parchment, will you?" Gabrielle teased back, trying to cover her embarrassment at the unexpected compliment.
Gabrielle headed toward the stable owners office hoping it wasnt too late to bother him, and was pleased to see a light shinning from an open window. Oh good hes still here, she thought. As she passed the window, she caught the movement of her own shadow against the wall of the building opposite the office.
She held her hand up experimentally and grinned to herself...itd been years since she and Lila had played at making shadow puppets in the hearth light. She cupped one hand over the fist of the other and wiggled her thumb to make a turtle. Next, she turned her hand sideways and stuck out her thumb and first two fingers, changing the turtle into a crocodile.
Shifting her thumb, she scissored her fingers open and pointed them skyward, transforming her crocodile into a rabbit. She hopped it up and down a few times and was chuckling inwardly at her efforts when her latest creation took on a life of its own. She glanced at her hand and then back at the shadowed rabbit on the wall, which had suddenly grown fangs. And watched with a mix of horror and shock as the bunny opened its toothy mouth and turned to attack her in effigy. The ghosted killer was thwarted when it was usurped by a much larger image outlined from inside the office.
"You don't pay now you're gonna pay later Hay-head." Gabrielle spun toward the window. A very large man had Teopholus partially suspended by the collar with one hand, and had a club in the other hand, poised to strike. The stable owner's face and shirt were bloodied and crumpled, testifying to the beating he had already received.
She bolted toward the half-open door of the office, but when she reached it, stood suspended for a heartbeat at the threshold. The thug who held the now unconscious man had his back to her. Instinctually she reached for her Sais... "By the Gods, Gabrielle, of all the nights...," she said, only half-under her breath, momentarily forgetting the nearby audience.
The bully dropped the stable master and turned around.
She grimaced. Oh that was good Bard. Great work. Three times your size and armed... What are you gonna do now?
Stall. "Hello...anybody home? Uh.. Hi. I was, um...looking for Teopholus...the stable owner. Have you seen him?" Gabrielle strategized while she talked, using the only weapon currently at her disposal...Words. You better hurry Xena, I'm a little rusty... it's been awhile since I had to talk my way outta one of these.
The attacker straightened to his full height and stepped more obviously in front of his victim, blocking Gabrielles view of his limp body.
"He's taking a meeting," the man growled.
Other voices sniggered from the shadows. Gabrielle groaned silently...they had company...at least 3 more from the sound of it.
"Oh....well, I uh, I didn't really mean to interrupt but, you see, it's cooling off this evening and I was kind of hoping to borrow a few blankets. Wow... You know it was so warm earlier too... Hard to believe this weather huh? I mean, you could have fried an egg on the cobblestones this afternoon and now...well... I sure wasn't expecting to be needing blankets. You know...where I come from the weather is..." Gabrielle watched the thugs expression turn from confusion, to anger, as she rattled on.
True to his baser instincts however, he soon realized that Gabrielle was alone, unarmed and attractive. "Look here little girl," he interrupted, "You shouldn't be out this late on your own... No telling what might happen to a pretty one like you."
The other men, who had remained hidden until then, just outside of the edges of the candlelight, laughed and took a step closer to her.
"First Of All...," A low voice echoed in the darkness from behind the nearly lifeless body of the stable owner, "...She's Not a Little Girl." The head thug's eyes went round and rolled sideways as he realized the voice had not come from the little blonde in front of him.
"And Second ...," The man turned to attack and was met by Xena's booted foot and the crack of his own breaking ribs as she sequenced three kicks to his large torso, "She's Not Alone." He fell to the floor on his knees stunned by the blows.
"Gabrielle catch!!!" Xena yelled, tossing the Bard's Sais to her over the man's head as he fell.
The shadows came alive as the other men rushed Gabrielle. She was hit from the side and taken down just as she reached for her weapons. She managed to catch one, but heard the other plunk to the floor somewhere beyond her.
Two of the men landed on her, pinning her down under their weight. Gabrielle groped for a better grip on the single Sais she held in her right hand while the two men atop her scrambled for a better grip on her. She drove her arm up in an attempt to free the weapon and as she did she managed to hit one of her attackers in the bread basket, completely by accident.
Immediately incapacitated he rolled off of her, allowing her freedom to wield the Sais more purposefully toward the second man. She kneed him in the abdomen and when he doubled over hit him aside the head with the leather gripped handle of her weapon.
And found herself pinned again as he went cold on top of her. Which would have been a lot more tolerable if he hadnt started to drool.
The third assailant scanned the room frantically for a weapon of some kind and his eyes lit up when he saw the stables branding irons hung on a nearby wall. ( 0+ )
The head thug had regained his feet and despite having to brace his fractured chest with one arm, was keeping Xena occupied, and keeping her view of Gabrielles predicament blocked sheerly by virtue of his bulk. He took wild swings at her with the club, now in his left hand, and while the Xena easily stayed clear of his telegraphed movements, she was having trouble getting the man to stay down.
She finally got fed up. Exacting two quick jabs with her fingers to the nerves of his neck she watched for the usually immediate and paralyzing effects of the pressure point technique to set in. Instead, his movements gradually slowed to the degree that even when she virtually stood still he missed her. When he finally came to a full stop, she took a curious step forward and, twitching her mouth into a half-grin, exhaled a powerful lung full of air. This time he stayed down. And Xena got a clear view of the rest of the office just in time to see the third of Gabrielles attackers pull the branding iron from the wall.
"Teach you to mess with me little girl," the man sneered as swung with all his strength toward the Bard. Gabrielle freed herself from the dead weight of the second man and rolled to her feet just as the iron hit the downward slope of its arc...and met the immovable force of Xenas opposing blade.
The long metal arm of the iron meeting the stone cold solid steel of Xenas sword set the mans body to vibrating with such force that Gabrielle swore she could hear his teeth rattle in his head.
Xenas eyes went wide with that just left of center look and her head twitched on its stem. A low rumbling growl began in her throat, but as she opened her mouth to grind out a threat, a voice she only remotely recognized as Gabrielles interrupted her.
"Maybe he didnt hear you Xena." Gabrielle twisted her own head on its axis and took a step toward the her attacker. She hit the man in the stomach with both Sais bearing hands, "I...," her right knee swung up to meet his face as he doubled over, "...am NOT...," she landed a single potent kick to his chest, "a little girl." She took a step forward and stood menacingly over his prostrate body... in response to which he promptly passed out.
Xena fought off a chuckle as she replaced her sword in its scabbard. She raised both eyebrows and stared briefly at the Bards attacker-turned-victim, "I dont think hell make that mistake again."
Gabrielle flipped her Sais expertly through her fingers and into their boot sheaths, then turned and flashed a toothy grin at Xena. They each took a quick glance around the room and, realizing they were in no immediate danger of a refreshed attack, turned their attention toward Teopholus still form.
Gabrielle crinkled up her nose as they stepped over the bodies of their assailants and made their way over to him.
"Is there some rule in the thug handbook against bathing Xena?" The bard blinked a few times, her eyes watering a little from the odor.
Xena chuckled. "Its part of the "mystique" Gabrielle. They think it makes them tougher."
Gabrielle shook her head. "Its a wonder they ever get the drop on anyone...one good whiff and Ill bet even the wind changes direction."
"Oh Gods Xena." Gabrielle winced as they reached the stable owner. She hardly recognized the man, so bruised and beaten were his features.
"Hes still breathing...here, help me get him up on that table Gabrielle."
Xena took his shoulders and Gabrielle his feet. They moved him as gently as they could. Gabrielle found a few blankets and folded them under his head, trying to make him as comfortable as possible.
"Ill get our medical pack." Gabrielle started for the door.
"No..wait.. There should be something here...stable owners always keep stuff around...just in case a hired hand or an animal gets injured." Xena scanned the room. "Over there... See that box?"
Gabrielle quickly retrieved the indicated case from a corner shelf and opened it. "Yeah... Bandages...cleansing herbs..."
She paused, her gaze fixed on the contents of the kit.
Xena looked up. "What?"
Gabrielle blushed a little as she lifted an large insemination device, from the box.
Xena arched her brow and twitched her lips into a knowing half-grin.
Chuckling blue eyes met laughing green, as Gabrielle replaced the instrument.
"Hey, is this the stuff you use for pain Xena?" she asked, finding the remainder of the needed items in the box.
Xena nodded and without another word she and Gabrielle set to work caring for the mans injuries. A half candle mark later, they had his wounds cleaned and bandaged, and the stable owner began to rouse to a groggy consciousness.
Gabrielle tried to make eye contact with him. "Teopholus...can you see me?
He replied with a stuporous grin, "Aphrodite?"
Xena snorted a laugh. Which earned her a narrowed glare and a pinched frown from the Goddess in question.
"No ... Its me... Gabrielle... Xenas here too...do you remember us?"
The man gave a faint nod in response.
"Good...listen...you were attacked...and beaten. Youre injured but ...," She looked up at Xena who gave a nod in affirmation, "...but youre gonna be ok."
Xena stepped closer to the injured man and gently placed a reassuring hand on the bruised arm closest to her. "Teopholus can you tell us who did this too you?"
He blinked at them foggily with his unbandaged eye. Slowly his dilated pupil regained some semblance of focus. He grimaced painfully as he tried to turn his head to look at one of the downed assailants.
"Wait...here...let us help," Xena said as she and the Bard slowly guided the man to a supported sitting position. As his one good eye adjusted to the shadows they watched as his mangled features went from apprehensive to panicked.
"I... I... I .... dont know them," he stuttered nervously.
Gabrielle and Xena glanced from Teopholus to each other, and back to Teopholus
"Its ok Teopholus...you can trust us...maybe we can help," Gabrielle said evenly.
The stable owner took a long hard look into her eyes with his single good one, and turned and gazed equally as long into Xenas, weighing his decision carefully.
Then he looked again at his attackers, scattered on the floor of his office, and took a heavily measured breath. "Theyre henchmen of Scriptus."
"Whos Scriptus?" Gabrielle asked
"Scriptus...," Teopholus replied, "...is the Chief Auditor of Greece."
"What are we gonna do Xena?" Gabrielles worry was evident in her voice.
They had walked a wobbly Teopholus home and were headed back toward the stable. His wife had nearly come unraveled when she had seen his condition and it had taken them another half a candle mark to calm her and reassure her he would be all right. Once the woman had settled down she had provided added details to the stable owners sketchy story.
And the Bard had every reason to be concerned. Birdface was on the take, and they, among others, were apparently on his list of targets.
"I dont know about you, Gabrielle, but Im in the mood for a good mug of port," Xena replied.
When they returned to the stable from the Tavern that night, they compared notes on what theyd each discovered. Essentially, the story Teopholus and his wife had given them had been corroborated by other citizens of Athens.
Gabrielle leaned, arms crossed, with her back against a support post, watching Xena brush Argo down as they talked. She knew this part of their nightly ritual served to comfort and settle her partner when she was ill at ease, or needed to sort something out. The supple power and grace of Xenas movements in this, as in all things, had always fascinated her. Argos muscles rippled nearly in synchrony with Xenas own as she worked the comb.
"From the looks of things, old Birdface has been altering peoples tax returns to reflect a higher income than they actually had during the year...and then omitting recorded deductions," Gabrielle summarized the information she had gleaned from the Tavern patrons.
"Then he levies excessive taxes on them, based on the altered figures, and takes their property, or their familys property, when they cant pay the inflated amount," Xena finished the line of thought.
Gabrielle nodded. "Apparently."
"Bastard." Xena cursed.
Gabrielle took a few steps forward and rested her hands and her head atop the wooden wall of the stall divider. "Xena, we dont have an copy of our original tax return. Its gonna be pretty hard to show how hes altered the figures. If we cant prove it, hes gonna go after our families for what he says we owe."
Xena stopped her brushing momentarily and turned to face the Bard. She fiddled idly with the comb in her hands, avoiding eye contact by pretending to pick bits of straw from it as she talked.
"Gabrielle...this tax thing...it's the perfect metaphor for my life...a debt so big it can never be repaid. Even when I try to do good look what happens." She shook her head slightly in self-disgust. "I finally become a productive citizen and because of that everyone I love, everyone you love, is in danger of losing what they've spent their whole lives working for. Another in the long line of disasters that I call my life...and your life too, thanks to me. No matter how hard I fight... I can't seem to protect you from... that."
Xena wrapped both arms around Argo's neck, rested her head against the mare, and sighed.
Whoa... Gabrielle was genuinely worried now.
"Hey...," her voice was soft. She stepped around the stall divider and moved closer to her sullen friend. "Xena...we'll get through this...we always do." She paused, then began again with more conviction. "No it hasn't always been easy...in fact... it's never been easy...but someone I trust once told me that some thing's are worth fighting for."
"And Xena," Gabrielle placed a gentle hand on the Warriors shoulder and bade her turn, "I don't need you to protect me anymore...from yourself or from anyone else for that matter. But that doesn't mean I don't need you....you know that right?"
"You've taught me how to fight Xena...so I can protect my body from harm," she closed the remaining distance between them now, drawing close enough to touch the Warrior...to look into her eyes... reassure the her in the way Gabrielle knew she understood best, "but there has only ever been one safe place for my heart...," she said, tapping an open hand over the Xena's own, "...and that's right here."
The next morning they left the stables early, and as they headed through the waking city streets toward the Athens Government Buildings, they reviewed their plans. If they could somehow document the changes in their own return, and get the information into the proper hands, they might have a chance to stop the Chief Auditors graft.
"Xena... I dont really think you oughta be the one trying to review or copy those records. If you do, youre gonna lose your patience with the guy at some point...thats a given. Hes liable to end up as roof thatch. Your tolerance for "sit down" activities is kinda in the negative numbers," Gabrielle reminded her.
"Yeah... Youre right." Xena pulled her lips to one side as she mulled their options over...then broke into a grin. "Hey...maybe we can use that to our advantage."
They finalized their strategy as they reached the entrance to the building that housed the Auditors Office. Xena would continue to be her naturally overactive self and try to distract
and intimidate old Birdface to the point that his attention and scrutiny might be compromised. But today, Gabrielle would use these opportunities to covertly make copies of their altered tax return.
"Of course, if it doesnt work, I can always resort to the Dark and Dangerous Warlord bit," Xena chuckled as she opened the door and they entered the long hallway that led toward the Auditors office.
The Bard frowned.
"Only as a last resort...," Xena said, holding up her hands up in mock surrender, "I promise."
Gabrielle nodded seriously. "Good. As many enemies as this guys got, I hardly think you beating him to a pulp is going to get us out of this particular predicament."
"Well, if push comes to shove, Im not going to let him steal our familys property, or have our parents spend their old age on the street, either," Xena stated firmly.
Gabrielle tipped her head toward the spindly man as they entered his office, "Im not sure he could survive push, let alone shove."
It was a fairly simple plan, but it had been the best they could come up with on such short notice. And so far it seemed to be working.
They had taken a short break and returned to the office after a trip to the "little warriors room".
As Gabrielle returned to her chair behind the desk, she spotted the next of the morning's itemized list of deductions. Oh Gods. Short of a blow to the head, she wasn't sure anything would divert further interrogation over these particular items. She communicated this worry effectively to Xena with a small sigh and a wide roll of her eyes.
Then she glanced at the Chief Auditor, who she'd only just realized was wearing the same color robes as yesterday, but had changed his coordinating accessories. As white as he already was, he seemed to blanch to an even paler hue every time Xena got near his desk with a weapon
He was pretty much alabaster at the moment.
Xena was standing about halfway across the room, using a potted tree, which was sitting at one end of the desk, for target practice. Having just about exhausted her repertoire of sword and Chakrum drills, she'd decided to bring a few new toys out for entertainment today. Mostly her entertainment.
Currently she was holding two of her hunting knives over her shoulders, handles forward, blades in hand, and sending them flying with a quick flick of her wrist toward the trunk of the tree. The tree's total diameter was no more 10 inches and if she missed to either side she'd hit the desk. Of course if she missed much, she'd hit the Auditor and Gabrielle, sitting to the right of her, behind the desk.
Every now and again Xena could be heard to say, "Whoops", as she threw the knives, pretending to have misdirected a throw. Gabrielle could see the Chief Auditors eyes dart sideways and his shoulders tense each time the weapons hit their mark. Good job Xena. The corners of Gabrielle's mouth involuntarily edged into a grin. Bad Bard. She chastised herself under her breath and returned her attention to the list, sighing a bit internally, as she considered what more they still had left to review. Well, I guess we'd better get started.
"Deductions for Business Related Fees and Services," she read aloud.
"Hold on young lady," The Chief Auditor, who was still keeping one eye on the weapon-wielding Warrior Princess, interrupted her.
"Huh? What's the matter?" Gabrielle asked, aware that this was Not a good start.
"Perhaps I should read the list for a change," Birdface replied haughtily.
"Are you sure... I mean.. I really don't mind, and I am sure it will make things go faster if I help," Gabrielle asked innocently.
"Precisely why I do not want you to do it Ms. Bard. I would hate for mistakes to be made, or items to be inadvertently overlooked," Birdface replied in a tone insinuating mistrust. His accompanying look of superiority deteriorated a bit when he caught site of Xena preparing to let loose her knives again.
"Whatever's best for you," Gabrielle answered, groaning mentally. "I guess I'll just do Homer's Weekly Crossword, until you need me." She was still seated close enough to the Auditor to see the form and it's figures. She pulled yesterdays News Scroll from the saddle bags, along with a fresh piece of parchment and quill, so she could copy down the numbers without drawing suspicion.
Her shoulders and neck knotted in anticipation as the Auditor started reading the list aloud. Each time they got by a particularly "iffy" item without a glitch, she and Xena exchanged glances. She was actually amazed at how far down the list he got before the Auditor found something he decided was suspicious.
"1 Sea Faring Ship"
"Entry Fee: Miss Known World"
"Noahs Ship Repair and Paint Service: 12 Visits"
"Entry Fee: Athens Academy of the Performing Bards"
"Dahoks Death Pit Rescue Service"
"2 Consultations, Bard Makeovers -R- Us"
"Deja Vu Time Travel: 2 Round-trip Tickets"
"4 Trips: Land of the Dead Excursions"
"Amazon Babysitting Service"
Gabrielle looked up from her pretend cross word puzzle.
"7 day stay: Henbane Anonymous Rehab. Center???" Birdface read incredulously.
"Whoops." Gabrielle heard Xenas voice from somewhere behind the tree, minus the subsequent sound of the knives hitting their target.
"Ms. Bard... How would you care to explain this particular deduction?"
Her eyes wide in disbelief, Gabrielle placed one elbow on the chairs arm and slowly tilted her head into her hand. She opened her mouth to speak but her tongue had uncharacteristically disowned her. She shifted her gaze toward Xena, who had suddenly become very preoccupied with the condition of the trees leaves.
When they finally made eye contact, Xena rolled her lips into a circle, puffed her cheeks up with air, and started making duck noises.
"Well?" The Auditor was becoming impatient.
Gabrielle tried again, "Uh... Umm... I ... Uh... ...you see, I...uh..."
Xena edged around behind Gabrielle and interrupted her friends sputtering response. She continued to play with the knives, flipping them end over end in her hands as she talked.
"Ysee, when Gabrielle and I first started traveling together, she was kinda naive. You know the type... Chastity belt... never been outta the village for more than a pony ride..."
The Auditor rolled his eyes and nodded knowingly.
Xena continued, ignoring the increasingly stunned expression on her partners face, "she gotta hold of a loaf tainted nut bread during one of our rescue excursions... ate the whole thing. I had to leave her talking to the rocks in a cave for half a dozen candle marks or more, waiting for the effects to wear off enough that shed be safe in public."
Meanwhile, Gabrielle, completely embarrassed, was reconsidering the virtues of Dahoks Death Pit.
Xena gave a small nod toward Gabrielle as she continued, "I didnt find out until later that shed stashed another several loaves in the saddlebags. One hit of Henbane and she was hooked."
The Auditor gave Gabrielle a condescending look and tsked.
Xena glanced at Gabrielle, whose eyes were now studying the ceiling intently. "So it was either the Rehab.Center or cold withdrawal. And frankly, doing detox with an irate, hallucinating Bard isnt even on my wish list of "many skills".
The sleepy city streets they had walked through that morning now hummed vividly under the midday sun, filled with people who, like themselves, were taking a break and looking for lunch.
"How close are we to done with the audit Gabrielle? That guy is really starting to get on my nerves... If he calls you, "Ms. Bard", one more time, hes gonna be my new "weapons rack,""
Xena said as they passed the "McGyro" theyd eaten at yesterday.
Gabrielle, still rather irritated over the mornings round of "deductions" was trying hard to give Xena the silent treatment. Which lasted all of about a candle flicker.
"Xena, my Gods, what were you thinking when you filled out those forms?" the Bard started.
Xena, reminded of the prior days lesson,"Never cross a cranky Bard", held her tongue and let Gabrielles monologue run its course.
"I mean, I can laugh at myself as easily as the next person, but some of those things are pretty personal and down right embarrassing," Gabrielle steamed.
Time for a little distraction.
"Hey, you hungry?" Xena stopped outside of a shish kebab vendors stall, and flashed the merchant 2 fingers.
"I dont know, I dont think I can eat... my stomachs in a knot. I still cant figure out how were gonna make this work Xena. I mean, even if I can get enough of the records copied, we still dont have proof that he altered them." Gabrielle, lost in her own thoughts, commandeered both shish kebabs skewers just as Xena was getting ready to take a bite of one of them.
Xena let out a small frustrated squawk as her mouth closed on air. When Gabrielle failed to notice, she frowned and waved two more fingers at the vendor. Glancing at the already disappearing food in Gabrielles hands, she got the vendors attention again and revised her order to four.
"Well, something we can use will present itself before then," Xena said confidently. She accepted the 4 skewers from the vendor and handed him a few dinar.
Gabrielle immediately relieved Xena of half of her cache. "I hope youre right Xena. Because one way or the other somebodys going to jail. Right now it looks like it might just be us."
A candle mark later, they were back in the Auditors office and well into the final stages of the audit. Gabrielle resettled in her chair, shifting slightly to allow the Chief Auditor an unrestricted view of her partners latest efforts.
Having grown tired of the knives, Xena had pulled out her whip, wryly noting the subtle shrink in the Auditors posture as she did. She didnt normally like to use the whip indoors, but the size of the office invited it. Besides, she chuckled to herself, talk about distracting.
She was standing at the far end of the room, tossing her Chakrum against the hard marble surface of the ceiling at an angle, so that when it hit, it shot toward the adjacent wall and back at her. When it came within reach, shed unfurl the whip, pulling back on it at the last second so that its end curled like a long finger around the edges of the rotating disc, suspending it mid-flight. One subtle movement of her wrist changed the direction of the whip, and a moment later she was again holding the Chakrum in her other hand.
"Ok...let me get this straight," Gabrielle said, rubbing at the knot in her shoulder and trying hard to keep her growing exasperation in check, "youre telling me that each time one of us died, the Government of Greece was due to collect an inheritance tax from of our so called, "estate"? "
Birdface arched an eyebrow and gave the Bard a single imperative nod.
"Well, neither one of us has ever really died if you closely consider the circumstances..,"
Gabrielle started to expound on a theory she just happened to be making up as she went.
"I mean, when I got injured in the war in Thesaly... I was only gone for maybe say...a tenth of a candle mark before Xena brought me back, and..."
"Did you stop breathing?" the Auditor interrupted.
"Well yes, but like I said..."
"Dead." the Auditor said with finality, making a decisive mark on his parchment.
Gabrielle twisted her lips briefly to the side. "Well, when I lost Xena the first time you know she wasnt really gone, she never crossed over...in fact...since she was actually in Autolocuss body at the time you can hardly..."
"Did her heart stop beating?" the Auditor interjected again.
Gabrielle expelled a frustrated breath across terse lips, "Yes but you dont understand..."
"Dead." he said again flatly. Xenas whip snapped just as he touched quill to parchment, sending his hand shooting across the page as he made his mark. His gaze shifted discreetly toward the far wall as he cautiously eyed the source of his discomfort.
The Bard took the opportunity to add to her covert notes, the corners of her mouth curling toward a smile as she did. She covered her mouth with her hand and feigned a cough just as Birdfaces eyes shifted back to her.
"Ok...well, this last time, when we were.... Well when we both...we didnt really die.... I mean look...there arent even any nail marks." Gabrielle held up her hand, sure that this last bit of physical proof would make a difference.
The Auditor raised his hands, fluttered his eyelids and turned his head away, signaling her to stop. "DEAD, Ms. Bard...as in the absence of physical signs of life within the body...as in fish bait, worm fodder, fire fuel... DEAD." This time he used his free hand to steady the quill as he made his mark.
"So if my calculations are correct, that is at least four deaths to the primary bread winners in your family unit for which your estate owes back taxes," the Auditor summarized his findings.
Are you aware that our "estate" has pretty much up to this date included a horse, what we can carry in those...," Gabrielle pointed at their saddle bags, "and what were wearing? And monetarily speaking...working for the Greater Good hasnt exactly been what you would call lucrative."
"Ah... Well thats where youre wrong young woman, here, let me show you." The Auditor searched for another scroll amongst the pile on his desk.
"Oh, yes, here we are...you see, here is your originally reported income." He pointed toward a figure on the original tax return. "And based on my calculations of your unreported income, here is what needs to be added to that amount," he said, pointing at the newly located scroll.
"How on earth did you come up with that amount?" Gabrielle asked, flabbergasted at the inflated figure.
"The average estimated value of each meal you received free of charge from a grateful villager is multiplied by the number of meals per day, and the number of days per year. Any commodity received in barter for goods or services must be accounted for, including food," the Auditor said matter of factly.
"Well, how do you know for sure how many times per day we actually ate? I mean...what if I only ate once a day for instance?"
Xena, whod shifted to doing flips from a handstand off of one of the small tables to the side of the room, snorted a laugh through her nose.
Gabrielle shot her a sideways look but otherwise pretended to ignore her, "Or what if we hunted for our own food that day?"
"Since all public lands are ultimately the property of Greece, those items gathered for consumption from those lands, are also the property of Greece. Ipso facto you were essentially "given" those items as well, and they are to be included in this estimate."
"Wait a second, how can we be taxed for food like its income? I mean... Its fuel, we burn it to do our work. Its like feeding Argo... I mean, you dont tax people for the fuel that makes the horse go."
"Actually, thank you for reminding me, I had forgotten to include the horses feed in this figure." The Auditor began scribbling away again industriously.
Gabrielle was beside herself. "People are already taxed for owning land, taxed for what they sell, and taxed for what they buy. Now youre telling me that youre taxing them for what they eat, and what their livestock eat as well? How is the average citizen supposed to survive, or feed their family?"
"I interpret and enforce the tax codes, Ms. Bard. It is not within the scope of my job to be concerned with how people pay their taxes, only that they do pay them. If they are unable to maintain a decent standard of living for themselves, perhaps they need to work harder"
Gabrielles dual nature was never more evident than when she was defending the life or the rights of others. The fighter in her began to emerge now, her eyes narrowing angrily at the Auditor as she took a deep breath and prepared an all out verbal assault on his arrogance...
But she stopped short when she saw his face still and his eyes focus on the large shadow that had suddenly fallen over his shoulders and onto the desk, eclipsing the light from the window behind them.
"You wanna show me just where in those tax codes it says youre supposed to take food outta the mouths of children." Xenas voice was a low rolling half-growl.
Two days worth of watching Xena defy the laws of physics had worked their magic on Birdface. When he slowly turned in his chair to look at her, the close proximity of the powerful Warrior in all her dark glory was so overtly unnerving to the man that he visibly trembled in response.
Xena did what she could to add to this reaction by reaching toward the desk, within inches of his person, and picking up his copy of the tax code.
She held up the scrolls, "You wanna point that one out to me, Scriptus?" she asked again, leaning toward him, pinning his eyes with her own, and purposefully using his own name to intimidate him.
Gabrielle noted the beads of cold sweat forming along the mans brow. He started to lift a hand in an effort to wave at the guards near the door way.
Xena leaned in even closer and whispered in his ear, "Youll be dead before they take a second step."
He quickly lowered his hand. "A...As I said before, my job is, in part, to interpret the tax code. The code itself is written more generally, in legal jargon," he explained, stuttering slightly.
Gabrielle placed a hand on Xenas forearm, hoping to remind her of her promise to use force only as a last resort. Xena, in full Warrior Mode now, initially ignored her.
"Xena..." Gabrielle gently stroked the tense muscles under her hand.
The persistent touch finally broke through her partners intense focus, and Xena gradually straightened and backed off several paces, not trusting herself to remain within an arms length of this weasel of a man.
Gabrielle watched her friend a second longer and then turned her attention back to the Auditor.
"So you essentially get to choose the meaning of the codes, is that right?" Gabrielle asked evenly.
"Well...yes.. I mean no...I do not act alone. The interpretation is determined by the Tax Council... which includes myself and 4 other appointed officials," Scriptus replied a little more quickly, now that he wasnt sharing air with Xena.
"Who appoints these officials?" Gabrielle continued her query.
"Well, naturally I do." Scriptus tone was regaining its arrogance, bolstered by each moment the distance between he and Xena was maintained.
"Naturally," Gabrielle replied sarcastically.
The sarcasm was lost on the Auditor, who continued on in the same vein, "And naturally, if there is a discrepancy, the deciding vote falls to me."
"Naturally." Gabrielle shifted her eyes toward Xena, who crossed her arms tightly over her chest and began clenching her jaw repeatedly.
"And just what happens if people cant pay the taxes that you "interpret" need to be levied on virtually every aspect of their existence?" Gabrielles increasingly acidic tone reflected her own escalating irritation..
"According to the law, if a party is unable to pay the amount due within a reasonable time frame, those things of value which they own are to be confiscated by the Auditors Office, proscribed an estimated value, sold, and counted against the debt owed." Birdface sat fully erect as he finished, his quoting of tax codes reminding him of his status and helping him to resume his superior attitude toward the Bard.
"Of course... If their property alone is inadequate to fulfill the debt, then that of any living relatives may be pursued."
"Of course. And a reasonable time frame would be....?" Gabrielle said through nearly gritted teeth.
"Well, that is also an issue decided upon by the Council...currently the time period is three days. Granted...under certain circumstances, for example if theres been a death in the family, we will occasionally allow a fourth... If the death can be proven that is."
"And just how is your death gonna be proven, Scriptus, since Im gonna cut you into so many tiny little pieces no one will ever be able to identify your body?" Xena was behind him now, her voice low and menacing, rasping into his ear, crawling over his skin and slithering its way up his spine like a poisonous viper.
This time the Auditor bolted from his chair and shot around to the other side of the desk "Guards!!! Guards!!!"
In seconds the two guards stationed at the door flanked them, followed by two more who had been stationed at the entrance to the waiting room. The thugs theyd pummeled the night before, entered from the adjacent room to their right. Xena and Gabrielle were quickly surrounded.
Scriptus smiled sardonically. "Your propensity for violence is well known, "Warrior Princess". You didnt really think I would leave myself completely unprotected and at your mercy did you? It was a foregone conclusion that you would be unable to pay what you owe in taxes you know."
"You mean, what you say we owe Scriptus...we know you altered our tax return...and probably hundreds of others...and that youve illegally taken possession of peoples homes and property... Leaving whole families on the street." Gabrielle was seething now.
"Ah...but there is the perfect beauty of it all...those who would speak out are either in jail, or destitute. Pity... no one listens to the criminal or the poor." Birdface smirked.
"I wouldnt say No one, Scriptus." An unfamiliar voice entered the conversation as a strikingly handsome and well built man stepped from behind the curtained doorway to the adjacent room on the other side of the office, accompanied by Teopholus, and two other local men who Gabrielle recognized from the Tavern.
"Hello Equitous, howve you been?" Xena broke into a large, self-satisfied smile.
"Well, except for having to travel a lot, and deal with the odd bit of graft and corruption...," he waved his hand toward Scriptus... fine Xena, and you?" The man smiled back.
"Oh... Same old, same old. Did those copies of our originally filed return get to you all right?" Xena asked politely.
"Why yes, yes they did...as a matter of fact, Salmoneous Jr. had them delivered to my office this morning Xena, thank you," the Magistrate answered her in kind.
It was a toss up as to who wore the more dumbfounded expression, Gabrielle or Scriptous.
Scriptous snapped out of his shock first however. "Get them!!!" he shouted to his guards and henchmen.
The men scattered in both directions..the guards headed for Equitous and his group, and the henchmen converged on Xena and Gabrielle. Teopholus and his friends had come unarmed, but quickly surrounded the Magistrate in an effort to help protect him, using whatever was at their immediate disposal to do so. Small tables became shields, their broken legs became clubs.
"Didnt you boys get enough last night?" Xena asked, pulling her sword from its scabbard, and putting her back to Gabrielles as they faced the circling men. "Came back for seconds did you? Guess youre just gluttons for punishment."
The head thug from the night before was the only one stupid enough to respond. "You and blondie there just got the jump on us last night, thats all. But were gonna teach you a lesson now, right boys?"
Sniggers in response, from the idiot chorus.
All four of the men came at them at once. Xena landed two for one with a round house kick to the faces of the men closest to her. In the split second it took for the men to regain their balance and come at her again, she glanced over her shoulder at Gabrielle. The Bard was holding her own, alternating kicks one direction with the rapid movements of her Sais in the other.
Xena coiled and launched into the air with a yell, flipping over the heads of her two assailants. When she touched down behind them they swung round with their swords and came at her from opposite sides. She alternated thrusts toward one with parries toward the other until she had one of them off balance. She saw the opening and kicked him hard in the chest, sending him flying across the desk and through the branches of the potted tree at the other end. He landed, unconscious, directly on top of Scriptus, who had been working on sneaking out the door.
"Ooo nice shot!" Gabrielle said appreciatively, as she finished a combination series of blows to one attackers ribs, managing to temporarily disable him. This left her with only the one thug for the moment, and it just happened to be the same man shed manage to hit in the bread basket the night before.
Worked once, she thought...so she shot a quick blow to his left shoulder with her Sais to unsettle his center of gravity, and aimed her right foot at the truly intended target. Her eyes went round in surprise when her boot hit something unexpectedly hard and solid. The man, proud of his own ingenuity pulled a piece of shoulder armor from his pants and held it up, grinning his victory. The Bard raised her eyebrows and nodded her head to one side, acknowledging his creativity, and then promptly kicked him again in the same spot, sans the protection. His eyes fixed and dilated and he gurgled once before he fell stiffly backward to the floor, the armor piece still clenched tightly in his hand.
The first man had since regained his footing and was now charging at Gabrielle with his sword. She shunted him aside, catching the blades edge in her Sais and with a quick flick of both wrists, flipping it out of his grip and into the air toward Xena, who caught it as it fell, in her empty hand. Relieved of the weapon, the man was carried by the force of his own charge through the large glass window of the office and into the public square, with a loud crash.
She turned toward the Magistrate just in time to see that he had been separated from the other men and that the guards were closing in on him, whittling away with their swords at the makeshift club and shield he had been using to protect himself. "Xena!" She yelled as she headed toward the siege to help.
Xena, still encumbered by the lone remaining thug, watched from the corner of her eye as Gabrielle crossed the room. Realizing she was needed elsewhere, she turned her full attention back to her attacker, and went at him with both swords now. "Its been real fun, but Ive got another play date." She met his blade with the crux of her own two, as he thrust at her dead on, and with one shove sent him reeling backward. The moment he regained his balance she hit him with a series of kicks that sent him following his fellow thug, over the desk and onto the top of Scriptus who had only just managed to free himself from under the weight of Xenas previous victim.
Teopholus and the two men who had come with him were now unarmed. Xena vaulted into the air and twisted as she flew over the heads of the guards so that she landed facing them, putting herself between the civilians and their assailants.
The Magistrate was trying to fight off one of the other two with the nub of what was once a table leg, nearby. "Hope you know how to use one of these," Xena said, as she tossed him the extra sword. He flashed her a grin, "Guess this is as good a time as any to learn."
Gabrielles combatant, frustrated by his inability to hit his quickly moving target, was swinging his sword wildly at her now. During one particularly grand effort he swung the blade round his back and over his head and down toward the Bard with the full force of his weight. She stepped aside just as the blade began its descent, subsequently embedding itself in the Auditors reclining couch behind her. The guard pulled fruitlessly at his weapon, unable to dislodge it.
Gabrielle hit his exposed side with a series of rapidly alternating blows, but he remained preoccupied with his sword and seemingly oblivious to her attack.
When she scanned the room for something heavier to hit him with, her eyes alighted on their saddle bags, the contents of which had, at sometime during the course of the skirmish, been upended and lay scattered about the office floor. Her gaze fixed on the frying pan. She frowned and made another quick visual sweep of the area, looking for something else...anything else...to use.
She rolled her eyes and let go an exasperated breath, then reluctantly picked up the frying pan, swung it back over her shoulder, and hit the guard on the head with it. The impact sent a vibrating ring throughout the room...and sent the man down and out. She took one long last look at the cooking-implement-turned-weapon and noted it now sported a large, head-shaped dent. "Bet I never hear the end of this," she sighed, before tossing it back over her shoulder and knocking the barely waking guard back into Morpheuss arms. Then she ran to help the Magistrate, who was only just managing to keep his own attacker at bay.
Xena, meanwhile, had dispatched one of her freshly acquired targets with a head butt followed by the hilt of her sword. She was still toying with the other one. His chest armor negated the use of pressure points. She kept him engaged with sword play as she considered just how she wanted to finish him off. She was joined shortly thereafter by the Magistrate and Gabrielle, who had together made short work of their last attacker.
Gabrielle crossed her arms casually over her stomach and flipped her Sais idly through her fingers. "You want any help with this one?" She thought she should at least ask. Equitous stood nearby, leaning casually on his sword, admiring the Warriors flawless blade work.
"Naw...just trying to decide how to finish him...got it narrowed down to two choices, but Im not really thrilled with either one of them," came Xenas nonplused reply.
Just then, Scriptus, disheveled and covered with soil and leaves, wobbled out from under the last thug Xena had sent flying his direction, on the other side of the room.
Xena grinned sadistically. "But then, its always best to keep your options open." She caught the hilt of the mans sword with the tip of her own and divested him of it with a flick of her wrist. She coiled and leapt with one swift thrust of her powerful legs, flipping her laid out form, end over end backwards. As she began her decent, she leveled a single powerful kick at the man in front of her, sending him flying toward the Auditor. Scriptus looked up just as the man went airborne, his eyes still dilated and dazed, and emitted a large sigh in resignation just before the man fell on him.
Gabrielle, Teopholus and his friends, and the Magistrate fell in beside Xena, laughing. Gabrielle heard the tinkle of sandals on broken glass and turned toward the shattered window that had framed the public square. She tapped Xena on the shoulder. "Looks like weve got company."
At that the whole group turned to face the window and as they did they were greeted with a loud cheer and applause from the crowd outside.
"How long you think theyve been watching?" Teopholus asked, waving at some of his friends in the square.
Xena spotted several vendors peddling refreshments to the crowd. "Oh Id say quite awhile."
After confirming the District Magistrates identification, the local authorities had been all too happy to cart Scriptous and his henchman off to jail. The guards were let off with a community service detail and a reprimand, since they had had no way of knowing who the Magistrate was, and had only been following the orders of the Auditor when they had attacked him.
Xena, Gabrielle, and Equitous discussed the outcome of the days events as they passed through the doorway of the Government Building and headed down the steps for the street below. Teopholous and his friends, on their way to the Tavern to celebrate, waved at them as they passed.
"Your records, together with the forged documents, and what I overheard here today, should be enough to put Scriptus away for quite awhile Xena. Ill send someone round to inform his wife of his whereabouts this evening, since he wont be making it home for dinner," Equitous informed them.
"Birdfa... I mean Scriptus is married?" Gabrielle asked, surprised.
"Well, yes, no children, but I believe hes been married for quite some time, why?"
Gabrielle and Xena bounced a look between them. "Oh nothing... I guess I just hadnt thought about it," she lied.
"What are you gonna do about the Tax Council?" Gabrielle asked, wondering about their still unpaid taxes.
"Oh, theyve already been dissolved. I will appoint a temporary Council from a cross section of citizens until an election can be held for those positions. There have been concerns for some time over the potential for just this type of situation to develop, so some of the changes were already being sought after. I am sure this turn of events will speed up the process."
Gabrielle nodded. "Um...about our tax return..."
Equitous waved a dismissive hand. "It has been taken care of. The citizens of Greece are indebted to you both my dear, you owe no more than what you have already given here today. Having seen your original tax return however, I would recommend that you consider hiring a different consultant to help you next year."
Gabrielle and Xena exchanged glances.
"Will do, Equitous. Hey, you wanna join us for dinner?" Xena asked.
"No thanks, I am taking Antony to dinner and then to the theater. The last recital of Sapphos work is slated tonight at the Orpeum. We didnt want to miss it."
"Ok, well, thanks again for everything, Equitous. Take care, and give Antony my best," Xena said sincerely.
The Magistrate nodded and waved as they parted ways.
Gabrielle pulled a little closer to Xena as they turned down the street toward the stable. "Xena, why didnt you tell me you had a copy of our original tax return coming?"
"Gabrielle, I wasnt sure my message would even reach Sals brother, or if he would be able to get the copy back to us in time. I only sent word to him after we confirmed Teopholuss story last night at the Tavern. I gotta hand it to him, he got them here overnight."
Gabrielle wasnt satisfied. "Well, I still dont understand why you couldnt have at least let me in on the plan."
"If those records didnt arrive, or Teopholus couldnt get the Magistrate here, I figured you were our best shot at getting out of this without killing someone. I mean, if any one could talk their way outta something like this, itd be you. But I also knew that old Birdface might even push your patience at some point, and when he did, I didnt wanna put you in a position to accidentally tip him off," Xena answered.
They walked on in silence for a few moments, lost in individual thought, before the Bard spoke again, her voice subdued, her eyes focused on the ground in front of her, "Xena, this whole experience was pretty embarrassing and degrading for me you know...parading some of my most inept moments out in front of a total stranger...especially one who already thought of me as a second class citizen."
Xena slowed her walk to a stop and turned toward her partner with a defiant air, prepared to defend herself, to tell Gabrielle that she was being too touchy, that she shouldnt worry about what anyone like old Birdface thought about her. But she took one look at the Bards troubled expression and those reflexive words of denial promptly evaporated on her lips. She chastised herself mentally, Gods Xena...sometimes...sometimes youve got all of the awareness of armor plate.
"Gabrielle... youre right...Im sorry...I shouldve been more sensitive. It never occurred to me that those things would bother you... I mean...its just... those things happened so long ago... you arent that naive little girl anymore. No one else's opinion of you matters but your own," she said in earnest.
Gabrielle bowed her head and regarded her hands for a moment, idly massaging the palm of one with the fingers of the other, then gradually looked up and found her partners sharp blue eyes with her own. "Your opinion still matters to me, Xena. Maybe thats why these last few days bothered me so much...it was like being that awkward little girl all over again...re-living how much I had embarrassed myself in front of you back then."
Xenas demeanor softened visibly. She reached out and brushed a wisp of wayward hair from her companions cheek, letting her fingers linger a moment...watching glints of fading sunlight play through her pale golden mane...studying pensive emerald eyes with the sapphire of her own. "Gabrielle...that awkward, innocent little girl, the one youre so ashamed of..," she cupped the Bards chin gently in her hand and took a slightly unsteady breath, "...shes the one who saved my soul...and made my life worth living again."
Gabrielle blinked a few times, a little stunned by the intensity of her friends words. A grateful smile crept slowly over her face, as she silently absorbed them. She pulled closer and wrapped her arms around Xena in a warm hug, letting the contact say what she could not, the Warriors words having made her swallow her own, along with her heart.
They stayed like that for a moment...ignoring the steady flow of people passing around them... holding onto one another in the middle of the busy Athens street. Xena let go a small contented sigh, happy that, for once, shed apparently said the right thing, at the right time. She rubbed her friends back gently with her hands and reluctantly broke her hold, leaving one arm wrapped around the small blonde as they continued on toward the stable. Gabrielle leaned into her partners tall form, and snaked a hand around Xenas waist, quietly enjoying the connection.
A few minutes later the Bards chipper tenor added to the waning din of the citys street vendors and merchants.
"So you really think I coulda talked us outta this one, huh?"
"Sure... I mean... If anyone couldve... Gabrielle, it woulda been you." Xena replied sincerely.
"I dont know Xena...Im not sure a convincing argument was even possible for some of that stuff."
"Hey, Sals brother told me those were legitimate deductions."
"Xena, he also tried to get you to endorse "Warrior Princess Pita bread...the bread shaped like a Chakrum...remember?"
Xena laughed. "Well, yeah....you gotta point there."
Gabrielles stomach chose just then to growl.
"Three things I can count on in life," Xena chuckled, "death, taxes, and your appetite."
Hanging low in the evening sky, the last slivers of the new summers sun faded slowly into the horizon. Two leather clad figures made their way, arm in arm, through the dwindling throng of people in the citys streets.
Compliments and constructive criticism are always welcome; Please email me at Xenamour@cs.com
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