DISCLAIMER: Please refer back to "Step 1" for specific disclaimers

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Naderus led his daughter and Lakme down the quiet, darks halls of the city’s palace. He felt better knowing that the city had managed to come together quickly and resolve the pressing issue of leadership. King Democritus had no heirs and Captain Cyres had made it clear that the city’s army, small as it was, did not intend to rule under a military jurisdiction. They wanted to remain a militia and a quick vote instated the city’s small councilship as the leaders of the community. Naderus was a member of that council and it appeared as though he might actually be voted in as council leader.

That meant a great deal more work for the aging man. Maybe it was time to leave the daily affairs of the tavern to Mallika? He looked back briefly at his beautiful daughter and her friend as they approached the door to the laboratory and smiled. Lakme would help her, of this he was certain.

They paused before entering, noticing Captain Cyres heading towards them from the opposite direction.

"Any change?" Naderus asked as the Captain drew nearer.

The soldier shook his head and sighed.

"No change. It’s been three days. I’m beginning to think we should take her to a room a your tavern. The cold of that laboratory can’t be helping her any. Not to mention that smell," The captain shuttered at the thought of it. "The longer she remains unconscious, the less the chance of recovery.....at least, that’s the way it usually goes with war wounds."

Lakme gave Mallika a look of great concern.

"That looks good." Captain Cyres commented with a slight smile, staring at the tray of food in Lakme’s hands.

"I just hope we can get Gabrielle to eat something." Mallika replied, placing her hand on Lakme’s shoulder.

The captain nodded in agreement and opened the door for the girls.

"Come on in, let’s see if we can get some food into that slip of a girl."

Cyres held the door open for the group to enter. They walked wordlessly in to the shadows of the laboratory. There were a few candles illuminating the room in a warm light, but the atmosphere was dark and brooding nonetheless. The only sound was the thick, wet bubbling of the still brewing cauldron on the hearth. Both Mallika and Lakme surpressed a shiver at the thought of what the cauldron still contained. The very sight of it gave them the willies.

The girls didn’t know it, but Cyres felt exactly the same.

Gabrielle sat on a small chair at the head of the pallet. She appeared to be bending forward, her head dropping down just above Xena’s in apparent sleep. There was a blanket and pillow in a small pile at the foot of the chair. They had been brought for the bard to use, but obviously the storyteller had attempted to stay up all night to watch her friend. Mallika shook her head at the sight, wondering if Gabrielle had gotten any real sleep at all in the last three days.

It didn’t take long for the very presence of someone else in the room to attract Gabrielle’s attention. She raised her head quickly, wiping her eyes in surprise. Mallika and Lakme cursed under their breaths.

"I’m so sorry, Gabrielle. We didn’t mean to wake you."

The bard waved the apology off, "Don’t worry about it. I wasn’t sleeping...exactly. I just thinking. It’s so dark and quiet in here..."

"And you’re so tired..." Mallika scolded the storyteller.

"Well, I want to be here when Xena wakes up."

"Keep this up and you’ll be with the healer when Xena wakes up." Lakme brought the tray of food over to the table and placed it down, "I brought you some breakfast and I want you to eat it."

"I’m not hungry."

"You will eat it."

"Really, I’m not hungry."

Mallika put her hands on her hips, "What do you want Xena to think when she wakes up? That we let you starve to death? Look at you. Your eyes are red and have dark circles under them from lack of sleep and you’re so thin, I can see your ribs. Eat something right now or Captain Cyres will put you back in those irons there on the wall and force you to eat."

"I will, you know." The captain confirmed softly, more than a little serious.

Gabrielle brought her hands up in surrender as Mallika pointed threateningly towards the wall where once Chemeclees and she were held captive.

"All right. All right already. I’m eating. I’m eating." Gabrielle stood up and walked over to the table, grabbing a piece of bread, freshly buttered and hot out of the oven. She stuffed it in her mouth and moaned.

"Hmmm, this is sooo good. You know, I am a little hungry after all." The bard pulled her chair over to the table and began to stuff her mouth.

"I’ve never known you when you weren’t." A weak voice commented from the direction of the pallet.

The bard halted in mid-chew, looking over to the bed and found a pair of clear, sparkling blue eyes shining back at her.

Lakme who had just stooped to pick up the bedding, dropped her bundle of pillow and blanket in surprise. Gabrielle threw away her bread and in two quick steps, practically pounced onto the now conscious warrior.

"Xena!" the bard exclaimed, grabbing a hand and kissing it.

"Hey, I’m happy to see you, too." Xena’s voice was raspy from lack of fluids. She smiled weakly as Gabrielle’s palm found it’s way to caress her soft cheek. The warrior’s smile turned sour as her eyes took in the bard’s pale features. "You look terrible. Are you all right? Looks like you haven’t slept a wink in days. What did I tell you about taking care of yourself first..."

"Oh, shut up!" The bard exclaimed breathlessly and then silenced the warrior with a deep and rather passionate kiss.

Lakme was frozen in place with her arms full of pillow and blanket at the sight of Xena and Gabrielle kissing. Mallika was taken completely off guard, turning a very deep shade of red. The two girls looked at one another in utter surprise.

In that one moment, Xena and Gabrielle confirmed for them what both knew was always possible. Love came in all shapes and sizes and when it claimed your heart, it didn’t matter if you were man or woman, warrior or bard, barmaid or tavern keeper.

The shyness in Mallika’s eyes and the blush in her cheeks gave her feelings away to Lakme instantly. The beautiful, dark woman dropped her own gaze demurely and then, just as shyly, grabbed her friend’s hand and squeezed. Together they watched as Gabrielle welcomed Xena home.

"Well," Xena whispered with a smile when their lips parted, Gabrielle finally needing to take a breath of air, "That’s one way to heal the sick!"

"Sorry," Gabrielle said softly, glancing with embarrassment over her shoulder at their silent audience. Mallika and Lakme were watching them with bright smiles plastered across blushing faces, "Sorry, I broke one of ‘the rules’ but..."

"What rules?" Xena asked with amusement, taking a moment to remove a golden strand of hair from a moist eyelash.

"You know, the ‘no kissing in public’ rule."

"Who made that rule up?"

"You did."

"Not me. That’s not one of my rules." Xena teased.

"I’m going to remember you said that," Gabrielle promised with a crooked grin and then got serious. "How do you feel?"

Xena looked inward for a moment, assessing her body with a warrior’s awareness. She shrugged her shoulders.

"I feel fine."

The warrior lifted herself onto her elbows and looked around, waiting for any feelings of dizziness or signs of injury.

"Everything appears to be fine." Xena confirmed, and then started to rise, the blanket falling away from her body.

"Wait a minute!" Gabrielle stopped her by the shoulders and pushed her back. "You have nothing on." She whispered, glancing again at their audience.

"What?" Xena asked confused, looking down at the blanket.

"No clothes. You’ve got no clothes on."


Xena halted and Gabrielle pulled the blanket back up to fully cover partially exposed skin.

"Wait here," the bard motioned with her hands, "I’ll get your leathers. They’re right over there."

Gabrielle stood happily and faced her friends.

"Do you mind giving us a minute so she can get dressed?"

"Sure!" Mallika, Lakme, Naderus, and Cyres answered as a chorus, nodding in unison. They shuffled around one another briefly, suddenly realizing that they had all been staring. Lakme picked up the pillow and blanket...again. Mallika gathered up the tray of half eaten food. Captain Cyres helped Gabrielle over with the leathers, armor and weapons.

And Naderus, well Naderus was watching Lakme and Mallika smile and fluster at one another. Looks like he was going to have two daughters to inherit his tavern, he thought to himself, and he couldn’t have been happier.

Eventually, everyone padded out of the room leaving Xena and Gabrielle in a suddenly quiet and rather ominously dark laboratory. The sound of the bubbling cauldron caused them both to look in that direction.

"Ugh, the smell of that stuff is making me gag!" Xena said crinkling her nose up in distaste and throwing off the blanket to swing her legs over the edge of the pallet.

Gabrielle was watching her closely. It never ceased to amaze the bard how Xena could be unconscious, practically at death’s door in one instant, and then awake and fully recovered in the next.

The warrior noticed her partner’s close scrutiny and spread her arms out as she stood.

"What?" Xena asked, looking down at herself, "Is something wrong?"

The warrior took a step closer to the storyteller.

"Everything’s back the way it should be, isn’t it?" Xena offered her body for her partner’s complete inspection.

Gabrielle smirked and made a slow circle, carefully going over every inch of the warrior’s anatomy with very appreciative eyes.

Xena turned and twisted, following the bard’s close inspection with concern.

"Everything’s back to normal, right?" The warrior pressed.

The bard assessed each swell and curve with a critical and obviously well practiced eye.

"Hmmmm." was Gabrielle’s only comment as she sauntered around the warrior, clutching Xena’s black leather tunic closely to her chest.

She stopped at Xena’s rear and tapped her chin.

"It’s all the right size now, isn’t it?" The warrior eyed the bard with concern.


Xena became worried and twisted around for a look down at her derriere.

"Isn’t it?"

Gabrielle finished her assessment and smiled brightly.


"Are you sure?" Xena turned to face the bard for a frontal inspection. "Everything?"

Gabrielle checked all points one more time and bit her lip.

"Ya know, I think the left one is a lllittttllee bigger than the right..."

Xena raised an eyebrow and grabbed her leather tunic out of the bard’s hands.

"Come on, let’s get the Hades out of here."



Continued in Step 24


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