After lunch was eaten and the dishes cleaned and put away, Xena looked toward the doorway where Gabrielle was standing, her hair softly borne up by a gentle breeze, a cool glass of lemon water in her hand. The warrior stole quietly behind her partner, encircling the bard’s narrow waist with her long arms and resting her chin atop the golden head. "Hey," she said softly. "You up for a little walk to work off lunch?"

Smiling, Gabrielle leaned back into the solid warmth of Xena’s embrace, lifting the chilled glass to her lips and taking a sip of the refreshing liquid. "Mmmm. Sounds wonderful. It’s one of the things I missed the most, being in the Fields. I walked some, but it just wasn’t the same without you, you know?" Gabrielle gazed into the tree line, her eyes far away.

Xena squeezed her partner gently, nodding against the honey hair under her chin. "Yeah, I know." Making a quick decision, the warrior released Gabrielle and turned from her. "Stay here. I’ll be right back."

A few moments later, the warrior returned, bearing her sword tucked safely in its scabbard, and Gabrielle’s staff, which she threw to the surprised bard. "Woah," Gabrielle cried out as she caught and reflexively twirled the stout wooden staff. "It’s heavier than I remember."

"That’s just ‘cause you’re not used to it. I figure we can go out deep into the woods and spar a little."

The bard looked at her tall partner doubtfully. "I don’t think I’ll be very much of a challenge, Xena. You forget, I haven’t practiced for three thousand years." She laughed. "I’m bound to be a little rusty."

Slipping her arm through the leather thong she’d made for the scabbard and slinging it onto her back, Xena grasped Gabrielle’s free hand, leading her out of the house and toward the massive garage that stood a short distance away. "Nah. You’ll pick it up in no time. Easy as falling off a horse."

"Xe-na."

"Bad analogy. Sorry."

Gabrielle elbowed her friend as Xena hit the button to raise one of the garage’s four doors. Stepping inside the cool darkness, she snagged a set of keys from a hidden niche and sprang open the hatch of her black and gold Land Rover, placing her sword and Gabrielle’s staff inside, then closing the door. Then, opening the passenger door, she ushered the bard inside, helping her up the high step and making sure she was comfortably situated in the lush leather seat before closing the door securely and moving to enter the vehicle from the other side.

The big engine came to rumbling life and the warrior threw it into reverse, backing slowly out of the garage, the off-road tires crunching softly over bits of desert blown into the driveway by the ever-present wind. Hitting a button located under the dash, Xena armed the house’s security system, then put the Rover in gear and drove down the circular driveway and out onto the well paved road.

Gabrielle grinned at the comfort surrounding her, snuggling down into the padded comfort of butter soft leather and opening her window to let the clean scented air lift her hair from her brow. "As a means of traveling, Xena, this has riding double on Argo beat all to Tartarus."

A raised eyebrow was the warrior’s only comment as she kept her attention firmly centered on the road ahead, heading north, past the red rock vistas of Sedona and into the pine forests and mountainous areas leading toward Flagstaff.

For herself, Gabrielle divided her attentions between the lush forested areas displayed before her and the proud, noble profile of her beautiful lover. Throughout her years in the Elysian Fields, Gabrielle had kept a picture of her lover firmly ensconced in her mind, her bardic imagination serving her well in this area. But the first sight she had had of the living Xena, two weeks ago, had been enough to set her heart thundering in her chest. She had to admit then that three thousand year old memories were sorely lacking compared against living, breathing reality. She had been shocked, all over again, at the somber beauty that was the Warrior Princess.

Though not physically, however, Xena had changed a great deal in the last three thousand years. She had always been somber, stoic, carrying her regret for past actions around her like a shroud. But eons without the one thing that completed her, regardless of the darkness within, had turned her into an almost empty shell. Even now, with Gabrielle firmly placed back into her living reality, the warrior’s eyes spoke of a deep emptiness, an almost all-encompassing loneliness that called out to the bard and made her heart ache. She wanted to grab Xena by the shoulders and shake her. To tell her that this was no dream, no fantasy, no betrayal of a mind frantic to find some peace at any cost.

Gabrielle slumped against the seat, sighing inwardly. She knew that the only thing that would heal the warrior’s fractured soul was time. And time was what her beloved warrior had too much of and she, trapped within the shell of an all too mortal body, had entirely too little of. I’ll find a way, Xena, she promised again, silently. I just have to.

The bard shivered slightly as a gust of cold air entered through her open window. Xena had been driving into the foothills for the past half hour and the air was becoming decidedly chilly, though they were still well south of the snow line. Rolling her window closed, Gabrielle praised the foresight that had bade her dress in jeans after lunch. Still, she could have done with something heavier than a T shirt.

As if reading her thought, Xena turned her attention from the road for a moment to smile at her lover. "I’ve got a couple of sweat shirts in the back. You’ll warm up once we start walking."

Gabrielle grinned, then looked pointedly at her partner’s bare legs peeking out from beneath the athletic shorts she wore. Xena caught the look and shrugged. "You must have forgotten about my hot blooded personality."

The bard’s tongue slipped over her eyetooth as she smirked at her raven haired companion. "No comment."

Xena returned the smirk with a moue of her lips, then turned her attention back to the road. A short distance ahead, she brought the Rover over the curb and into the forest, easing the large vehicle through the tall stands of birch and pine with a grace borne of long practice. Dried pine needles and small downed branches crackled crisply under the Rover’s fat tires, the sound oddly comforting to the bard The air was thick with the scent of pine which flowed through the truck’s vents and Gabrielle inhaled appreciatively, almost humming with delight.

The warrior smiled at the tiny mewling noise emanating from her partner, then slowed to a stop when it became apparent that further forward progress would be seriously impeded by the giant trees that stood silent sentinel over the forest.

Gabrielle jumped down from the truck as soon as Xena shut the engine off, smiling happily and rubbing her arms against the cold inspired gooseflesh that humped up on her skin. Her breath plumed in a frosty vapor around her head before dissipating into the pine scented, sun dappled air. Walking around to the rear of the vehicle, the bard met Xena just opening the hatch and pulling out a thick, fleecy hooded sweatshirt which she handed over to her companion with a grin. "Put this on. It should keep you warm enough."

Sighing in utter contentment, the bard pulled the thick fabric over her head, breathing in the exotic, enticing smell of her partner that clung to the threads. She laughed softly as she noticed the sleeves hanging several inches past her fingertips. The waist hung halfway down her thighs. She pushed the sleeves up, then accepted the staff that Xena thrust into her hands, stepping away from the Rover and twirling it experimentally. Though Sara’s body was unfamiliar with the heft and movements of the staff, Gabrielle’s memories made the wooden weapon move fluidly through the chilled air.

"See?" Xena noted, pulling on a second sweatshirt and shouldering her sword. "Told ya."

"Yeah, well we’ll just see how long it takes for me to knock myself unconscious with it."

Xena raised an eyebrow. "I somehow doubt that’ll be happening any time soon."

"We’ll see."

Her hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder, Xena gently steered her partner deeper into the forest. A narrow, mostly overgrown path sprung up beneath the trees and it was to this the warrior walked. "It’s an old Apache hunting trail. Leads along a stream just beyond those stand of trees, then opens out into a small clearing about five miles west of here. The hunters used to make camp there."

"Sounds wonderful. Lead on."

Nodding, the warrior brushed past Gabrielle, taking the lead down the narrow path, her tread completely silent despite the carpet of dried pine needles that blanketed the winter ground. Gabrielle smiled and shook her head as she followed her partner’s lead, not being half as quiet, but also knowing that there was no need to be. It felt strange, walking with Xena and knowing there wasn’t a thug or bandit around to jump from behind the next bush. Sarah had told her that much, explaining that these days, the outlaws tended to stick to where the people were and the people tended to stick close to the big cities.

Still, for all that, the bard had to smile at her friend’s erect, ever vigilant bearing. Gabrielle knew the warrior’s keen senses were spread to cover them both as well as the surrounding woodland. From long experience, the blonde knew her tall companion could hear a fly alighting on a spring leaf five miles away and that knowledge always comforted her as it did now, though they were many miles from any human habitation. When Xena’s head turned to gaze off to one side of the path, Gabrielle noted with pleasure the hawk-like profile and the narrowed icy eyes that took in everything they fell on. Her grin widened at the familiarity of it all and she resisted the impulse to whistle a jaunty tune as her body easily fell into well remembered and well loved rhythms, her staff keeping time with her steps.

Almost before she knew it, the path widened before the bard and she stepped out into the clearing, almost gasping at the view of snow capped peaks which spread out in a breathtaking vista beyond the cheerful burbling of a winding stream in the foreground, several yards from her position. "It’s beautiful."

The warrior, typically, shrugged. "It’s not bad."

Gabrielle uttered a soft laugh, shaking her head at Xena’s typical bluntness, casually flicking her staff at the tall grasses which stood on the bank of the swift moving stream. A giant pinecone rested at her feet and she bent to pick it up, marveling over it. She threw it back down quickly when a friendly beetle decided to investigate the reason why its home had suddenly levitated around it. She turned to glare, eyes narrowed, as a soft chuckle sounded from behind her. "Just you wait, Xena. One of these days . . . ."

Xena’s grin widened. "Oh, I’m counting on it." The whispering sound of steel against leather filled the clearing as the warrior drew her sword, twirling it once in her hand. Then she cocked a knowing brow at her partner. "Better stretch first. Sarah’s body is in good shape, but I’m sure this is a little more than she signed on for when she volunteered to be your host."

Nodding, the bard began a slow, systemic stretching of her body’s muscles, enjoying the movement and the increased flow of blood that the actions caused. She paused in mid stretch as a warbling cry rent the air and her partner backflipped from a standing position, her weapon flying about her body in a symphony of movement. Slowly straightening, Gabrielle stood entranced as she watched a lethal dance she hadn’t seen in eons take place before her eyes. Her body filled with a tingling warmth as her heart sped up its pace and a radiant smile formed over her lips.

Xena’s body danced and weaved, ducked and spun as her sword lashed out with ever increasing speed, the dappled sun winking off the meticulously cared for blade in random patterns, scattering shards of light through the silent forest. She punctuated phantom blows with soft grunts and louder yells, her fertile mind imagining a hoard of unwashed thugs intent on doing harm to those she loved. A pine tree rattled in protest as her booted feet bounced from its solid trunk, propelling her body high into the air as she tucked and flipped, landing solidly and silently on the ground before spinning to do battle with yet another attacker. "You’re not stretching," the warrior noted mildly, after ducking and launching a powerful overhead swing to decapitate yet another invisible thug.

"What’s stretching?" Gabrielle mumbled, her throat and eyes both suddenly dry.

The warrior grinned slightly and shook her head, before launching herself into the accommodating branches of a huge pine, then tucking into a double front flip to land inches from her lover. She waved her hand in front of the bard’s mesmerized face before snapping her fingers a couple of times. "C’mon, my bard, snap out of it. It’s not like you haven’t seen me do this a thousand times before." Her tone was gentle, her words teasing.

Gabrielle blinked, then blushed. Dropping her staff, she wrapped her arms tight around her companion, squeezing the magnificent woman in her arms for all she was worth. "By the gods, I love you."

Slightly uncomfortable with the unexpected display of emotion, Xena gently cradled Gabrielle, her actions hesitant. "Gabrielle? What’s wrong?"

The bard hung on for several long moments, causing the warrior to almost give up expecting an answer, when she finally released her lover and stepped away, wiping her eyes with the heels of her hands.

"Gabrielle?" If there was one thing that broke the heart of the mighty Warrior Princess, it was the sight of her beloved bard in tears.

"I’m . . .I’m sorry, Xena. It’s just that . . . gods. I gave up hope of ever being able to see you do that again, I guess. I tried so hard to have faith, to stay strong. But every morning that I’d wake up and you weren’t there made it harder to believe that there’d come a time when my dreams would come true and you would be." She sighed, wiping at her eyes again. "I’m sorry," she repeated. "I know it was harder on you. At least I could hear your thoughts."

Reaching out a gentle hand, Xena tipped the bard’s chin so their gazes met. "Never apologize for loving me, Gabrielle." Her smile was loving and the emotion in her eyes wrapped a cocoon of devotion over the grieving bard. "When I’d given up every last hope that there was something in me worth saving, you came along and taught me that there are always possibilities. When a soul as dark as mine can find a place beside a heart as good as yours, nothing is impossible."

The sun of Gabrielle’s smile swept away the storm clouds of her tears. "You kept the poet hidden next to the artist, didn’t you."

Xena smirked. "Some of my skills are better left unexperienced."

Gabrielle groaned and playfully slapped one broad shoulder, then came in for a hug that was less intense, but no less loving. Returning the smile, Xena gratefully gave in to the embrace, stroking her companion’s soft hair and kissing the crown of her head. After a moment, they released and Xena dipped her head slightly to look into her lover’s jade eyes. "Ready for some sparring, bard?"

Nodding, the blonde woman stepped away from her partner, hefting her staff and twirling it slowly. "Just give me a minute to get used to it again." Though Sara’s body had never known the motion of handling a staff before, Gabrielle’s memories enabled the muscles to move freely and, after several moments, fluidly, swinging the weapon in ever more powerful arcs. Soon the movements of the staff blurred as it whooshed through the silent clearing. Gabrielle’s face split in a radiant grin as she eyed her appreciatively watching partner. "Ok, I think I’m ready. Just remember to go easy on me. I’ve got three thousand years of rust to work off, you know."

An ebony eyebrow raised. "Don’t worry, I will." With a lazy swipe, Xena’s sword came up at the middle of the staff from below. Gabrielle countered the slow move, swiping the weapon with enough speed and strength to almost free it from the warrior’s hand. Xena smirked and eyed the bard from head to toe. "Nice one."

"Yeah. It felt pretty good, if I do say so myself."

With a firmer grip on her sword, Xena began the sparring session, still going at a quarter speed, but putting more strength and finesse into her movements, testing Gabrielle’s strength and the memories of her skill.

Gabrielle whooped with joy at the exercise, feeling the pleasant pull of her muscles as she defended and attacked. The clash of steel against wood filled the forest with its martial melody. The rush of adrenaline filled her body with a power she’d forgotten over the years, making her feel truly alive and at one with the elements surrounding her. The peaceful bliss of the Elysian Fields had nothing on this feeling, she decided, determined to enjoy every moment as it was given to her and treasuring it for the gift it surely was.

The sun began to slant through the trees from the west when they started the cool down phase of their sparring. Though Xena showed no evidence of the exertion, Gabrielle’s body was covered with a fine sheen of sweat and her breathing was slightly labored. The warrior took them both down slowly and easily, tipping her sword at her companion and smiling slightly. "How ya doing?"

"Me? Just great." The bard bent over at the waist, laying her staff on the ground and putting her hands on her knees, taking in deep breaths of air to calm her rapidly beating heart. Running a hand through her sweaty bangs, Gabrielle straightened, throwing a delighted grin at her waiting partner. "That was wonderful!"

Nodding in agreement, the warrior approached the bard, flipping the staff up into her hands and guiding the smaller woman over to the quickly flowing stream. Kneeling down on the gently sloping bank, Gabrielle plunged her arms and head directly into the crystal clear water, coming up a second later, spluttering and gasping. "Great Zeus, that’s freezing!!"

Biting back a laugh, Xena knelt beside her partner, dipping her hands in the water and rubbing the liquid over her face. "Should be. The stream’s fed by run-off from the mountains."

Narrowing her eyes at the tall warrior, Gabrielle flicked a bit of water at the lean body next to her. "You could have warned me."

Xena contrived to look shocked. "Gabrielle, it’s winter, in case you hadn’t noticed. See that white stuff on top of those mountains up there? It’s called ‘snow’."

Crossing her arms over her chest, the bard cocked a withering stare at her partner. "Very funny, Warrior Princess."

Flicking an errant drop of water at Gabrielle’s scowling face, Xena rose to her full height, taking a last long look around. "It’ll be getting dark soon. Ready to head back?"

Wiping the drop of water from her face, Gabrielle stood, pulling her sleeves down to cover icy flesh, then twirled once on her toes, her arms flung out from her sides. "Xena, this place is absolutely beautiful. Promise me that we can come back for a longer visit some day."

Smiling, the warrior handed the staff back to her partner. "Tell ya what. When the weather gets a little warmer, we’ll bring some bedding and come back out here. I’ll catch some fish, we’ll build a fire, you can tell me some stories, and we’ll spend the night under the stars like we used to. Deal?"

Gabrielle’s answering grin nearly swallowed her entire face. "Deal!"

*******

Sighing, Xena rested her cheek on her upturned hand as she leaned on the computer desk and peered at the scant information on the screen in front of her eyes. Her face was bathed in stark light as the fingers of her free hand tapped restlessly on the wood grain of the highly polished desk, leaving smudge marks in their wake. Another sigh as she lifted a mug of tea from its place beside the monitor, sipping without tasting the fragrant brew.

True to his word, Nigel had sent over all the information he could quickly dig up on the Ares cults sprinkled throughout the world. As she’d suspected, though, it wasn’t much. Gabrielle’s assessment of the cult’s origins was correct in that the first recorded mention of it was associated with a Turkish soldier by the name of Umit Suleyman. Suleyman was a no more than average soldier, his career undistinguished except for his eccentricities, to which most of his compatriots turned a blind eye. The man, apparently, had always claimed to hear voices, each one more outrageous than the last. To say that he heard the voice of the Greek God of War whispering in his ear during the night didn’t stir many comments. Running around buck naked through the camp spouting ancient Greek earned the man a few days in the brig but not much more than that.

Xena smirked at this information. It appeared her former mentor was still picking out the help as poorly as ever. Storing that information away for possible use later, she continued to read the scant lines of text presented her by the ever helpful Nigel.

Apparently, Ares used Suleyman’s time in the brig to instill a few lessons in decorum to his new convert, for when the Turk left his holding cell, he was a changed man. His bearing became erect and totally focussed, he never claimed to hear another voice speaking in his head, and he became an exemplary soldier. At the end of his tour of duty, he resigned without fanfare and went to live a hermetic life in the mountains. Apparently, other soldiers in his unit, their own tours over, decided to visit their compatriot, intrigued by his total change in character after his time in detention.

Suleyman won his friends over with his newly calm, rational style. He spoke with true awe and reverence about the power of the great god Ares and the things Ares was teaching him about power, strength, focus and the art of war. The more the men listened to his words and watched the truth of his actions, the more they believed in the outlandish tale. Morale was low in the Turkish army; fighting men respected strength and it was conspicuously absent in the ranks. And so, the modern world’s first known cult of Ares was born. A mercenary camp sprouted in the barren foothills of Turkey, filled with heavily armed and well trained men all falling willingly under the banner of Suleyman, who, in turn, fell under the banner of a long departed Greek god.

Xena’s eyes quickly skimmed the rest of the story, already guessing the violent ending. The Turkish government, well used to civil war, was nothing if not suspicious. When word came down from the mount that a large, and still growing, group of mercenaries was perched in full view of the large cities, the heavy artillery was pulled in and the threat was ended, easily and efficiently.

So ended the first known cult of Ares in modern times.

Raising an ebony brow, the warrior smirked again. It appeared that Ares had a great deal to learn about modern warfare. No matter how many men you had under your banner, all it took was one strategically placed bomb for your plans to be scattered to the four winds and your men right along with them.

Nigel hadn’t been able to come up with much more information than that, beyond saying that there was evidence of other cults springing up in Greece, Pakistan and perhaps one in Russia. He had signed off saying he’d check further into these areas and get back to her as soon as he had anything of note to report.

Rubbing eyes made dry from hours of staring at the monitor, Xena leaned back in her chair, stretching as she snapped off the computer monitor, her back cracking pleasantly. Turning her head, she noted, with a small smile, the relaxed figure of Gabrielle, who had contented herself with keeping her partner company and reading one of the many books found in the office. Stretched out on the leather couch with a thin blanket covering her legs, Gabrielle was fast asleep, the book she’d been reading covering her chest.

Stretching one more time for the sheer pleasure of it, Xena pushed her chair back and stood to her full height, straightening out the arms of the light sweatshirt she’d donned when they returned from their trip to the woods. She walked over to her sleeping lover, reaching down and retrieving the book, closing it and laying it on the desk before scooping the petite bard up into her arms, blanket and all. Easing out of the office with her precious burden, she paused to turn off the lights, then walked through the den and into the living room. Setting Gabrielle down on the thick hearth rug, the warrior proceeded to bank the fire for the evening. Then she returned to the bard’s side, fully intending to carry her up to the bedroom. Gabrielle had curled up into a ball, snuggling down into the blankets. The sight of her, so content, the firelight bathing her skin in a gentle glow, changed Xena’s mind. With a smile of profound happiness, the lanky woman eased her body down beside that of her sleeping lover, curling around the tight ball of living flesh and settling down for a well deserved rest. Within moments, she was asleep, the sound of a crackling fire in her ears and the smile still on her face.

*******

Manuel opened the solid door, stepping into the kitchen, his two youngest sons, both bearing several bags of groceries apiece, entering behind him. Hector and Carlos were twins, his pride and joy, and the last link the quiet, somber caretaker had to his beloved wife, who had died bearing them. Both were tall, strapping and strong young men in the first blushes of maturity, stepping over the line between boy and man with the grace and geniality characteristic of their people. Manuel thanked the Great Mother every day for their health and prayed they would be spared the curse of Diabetes which continued to run rampant through their Tribe, taking men and women alike in the prime of their lives, often hooking its talons into those just born.

Gesturing for his sons to put away the food, the caretaker stepped into the living room and stopped, his eyes fastened on the scene before him. One the floor, in front of the embers of a dying fire, lay Xena and Gabrielle, entwined like the vines growing around the trunk of a mighty oak. His normally austere face broke into a warm smile at the picture, at the simple rightness of the vision. He was seeing something very ancient, very precious, and he knew it.

As he lowered his gaze and started to back away, his progress was stopped by a solid body colliding into him from behind. "Woah, papi, what’s up?" Hector asked, steadying his father with one strong arm as he looked over the top of the older man’s head. His eyes widened slightly. "Wow." Turning his head briefly, the young man beckoned his brother. "Carlos, get your butt over here and check this out."

Carlos entered the living room and looked on, eyes wide. From the time of his birth, the young man had had a fascination with the tall beauty curled up on the hearth rug. As he grew, his obsession had turned from awe into a full blown crush, one which he had yet to lose. He knew, as did the entire Tribe, who and what Xena was, and the fact that her stunning beauty remained unchanged the whole of his life did nothing to dampen the young man’s feelings for her. Yet he knew, as they all did, that no one person could fill the hole left behind by the death of the one she loved above all others. Seeing the two women curled together on the rug, fitting together seamlessly, brought that fact home to him more clearly than any words ever could. Though a part of his heart stung at the picture, a bigger part was happy, relieved beyond words that the woman he had come to truly love had found the other half of her soul.

Blinking his eyes once and committing the scene to memory, he set gentle hands on the shoulders of his brother and father and turned, gently ushering his family back into the kitchen. "Let’s leave them to their privacy," he whispered.

Pale eyes opened as the trio retreated back into the kitchen. They sparkled with faint amusement, then turned to look down at the blonde head resting against her chest. Xena tightened her hold on her partner, relishing the warmth of Gabrielle’s soft skin as it melded with her own. The bard’s gentle breathing tickled against her chest and the warrior let the warm contentment of that simple feeling suffuse the parts of her that were still hurting, wounds that would never fully heal, soothing her in a way nothing else ever could.

At the increased pressure and warmth surrounding her body, Gabrielle made a sound deep within her throat and burrowed closer, shifting slightly against the rough woven rug before the stiffness of overused muscles yanked her out of the warm haven in which she had been resting. Jade eyes popped open, then a scowl lowered amber brows. "Ow."

Cocking a half smile at her lover, Xena rubbed the knotted muscles of her partner’s back in gentle circles. "Overdid it a bit yesterday, huh?"

"You could say that."

Xena tried for chagrined, but failed miserably.

That earned her a poke in the chest. "You could have reminded me of this particular downside, ya know."

Blue eyes widened. "Hey, I warned ya. It’s not my fault you didn’t stretch enough."

And that earned her a trip flat on her back with a bristling blonde bard fully covering her body. "I’ll show you ‘stretch’, you big headed, overgrown . . . .mmmmph." Gabrielle’s words were silenced effectively by a pair of soft lips covering her own. Outmaneuvered, she thought, sinking into the warm passion of the kiss, her righteous indignation of a moment ago totally forgotten.

After several long, breathless moments, Xena pulled up and away. "I’ve got just the thing for sore muscles."

Gabrielle scowled. Again. "What you were just doing was working just fine, Xena," she rumbled, her tone of voice easily conveying her displeasure over the warrior’s abrupt change of tactics.

"Ah, but this will work better. Promise." Coming to her feet gracefully, the warrior reached down and pulled the bard up, steadying the smaller woman as her legs swayed beneath her briefly.

Gabrielle hissed at the sharp pains shooting through the big muscles in her thighs. "Whatever it is, it had better be good," she warned darkly. "I don’t remember feeling this stiff and sore even when I was just starting out on the road with you."

Grasping her partner’s hand, Xena led Gabrielle through the huge house without comment.

"Where are we going, anyway?"

"The gym."

Gabrielle stopped all forward progress, tugging on the big hand encircling hers. "Oh no. I am not going to punch some stupid sandbag or lift huge pieces of iron, Xena. No way."

Xena grinned. "Relax. Nothing so bad as that, I promise. Though a good workout would loosen you up some."

"I was getting a good workout back in the living room, Xena."

"Not that kind of workout, Gabrielle."

Grumbling darkly, the bard allowed herself to be tugged forward again. They continued through the house, then down a long, windowed hallway of sorts, actually a long extension to the main house, stopping before a heavy wooden door which Xena proceeded to open, stepping into the vast space and snapping the lights on as she did so. Bright, softly humming flourescents shone down on the gleaming metal of exercise machines and free weights and their attendant benches. The open space was huge and the mirrors lining three of the four walls only made it appear that much more so. Fully one quarter of the room was roped off to form a ring of sorts. Boxing equipment, from a huge heavy bag tethered to the ceiling by a stout chain, to a quick bag and man sized dummies took up most of the space. A small tumbling mat sat benignly in one corner, edged weapons covering the wall beside it.

The pair walked silently through the room, stopping at yet another door on the far side. Xena opened it and the women’s senses were assaulted by the fresh, spicy smell of cedar. This room was smaller than the other, and paneled entirely of the red cedar wood. It was broken up into three distinct sections. On the far side, a sturdy platform stood and sunken into this platform, a large whirlpool sat, waiting. The middle of the room held a large, leather massage table. The closest third of the room was completely walled off and was entered into by yet another door.

Opening the door, Xena ducked through the low thresh hold, coming to stand fully erect again in a small, square room. A long bench, thickly padded, lined one wall. Along the opposite wall, a large round brazier stood, filled to the brim with flat river rocks. Stooping next to the base of the structure, the warrior extracted a long match from a hidden niche, striking it off the rough metal base and lighting the tinder placed beneath the rocks. The dry wood caught fire quickly, warming the coals beneath and spreading heat up through the piled rocks.

Gabrielle looked on curiously. "What is this?"

Rising to her full height, Xena cocked an ebony brow at her partner. "Think of it as a sweat hut."

Green eyes narrowed. "A sweat hut," she repeated, her voice disbelieving. "Xena, you took us all the way out here to do what? To sweat??" She placed her hands on her hips, scowling at the tall woman. "In case you hadn’t noticed, I was working up a pretty good sweat back in the living room!"

The corner of Xena’s mouth lifted in a slight smirk. "Oh, I noticed alright."

"Then why this?"

"Strip."

"What?"

"Strip. Take your clothes off, Gabrielle."

The bard took a step back, crossing her arms over her chest. "Oh no, Warrior Princess. You had your chance in front of the fireplace."

"Gabrielle . . . ."

Gabrielle lifted her head at the warning tone, then sighed. "Oh alright."

Holding out a long arm, Xena caught the clothes as they were flung at her. Stepping briefly out of the room, she returned with a large, fluffy white towel which she handed to the bard. "Here. Wrap this around yourself, or put it on the bench over there."

"What about you?"

"What about me?"

The bard tapped her foot impatiently on the wood floor. "In case you’re not aware, Xena, one of us is still fully clothed."

"And she’s gonna stay that way," Xena replied, eyeing her beautiful lover. "I’m not the one who’s sore here."

"You will be," the bard mumbled under her breath.

"Say again?"

"You heard me." Gabrielle tried another maneuver. "You’ve got two options, Xena. Either you strip down to your birthday suit, or I walk on out of here and force you to listen to an entire day of me complaining about how sore I am." She smiled sweetly at her partner. "In a really annoying tone of voice." She took a step closer to the warrior, her victory all but fully assured. "Repeatedly."

After a long moment, blue eyes rolled and Xena exited the room, returning a short time later, naked and bearing her own white towel. "Better?"

Gabrielle’s grin was positively smug. "Much." She allowed her gaze to roam avidly over her lover, her heart-rate doubling in strength and rhythm as she did so. Past the beautiful face with the raven hair, high planed cheekbones, clear azure eyes and full, ripe lips. Down a long, elegant neck to measure the breadth of wide, well muscled shoulders. Down further to zero in on proud, full breasts and a tapering waistline outlining a ribbed abdomen. Hesitating for a long moment on the triangle of dark hair at the apex of immensely strong and well defined thighs. And finally down along the smooth skin of legs that seemed to go on forever. Gabrielle ran a tongue over suddenly parched lips and when her gaze returned to the warrior’s eyes, her own were smoky with desire. "This was a wonderful idea," she said, her voice husky and seemingly deeper by at least an octave.

In her thousands of years on earth, Xena had put her body on display countless times, and always for her own benefit. Always, that was, except when it was subject to the claiming gaze of the gentle bard from Poteidia. Her body reacted as it always did when those emerald eyes beheld her. Her adrenals kicked in, thumping her heart into stronger, quicker action, her blood flowing in electricity-driven spurts through her body to land, pulsing, into the areas most nerve enriched. Her breathing quickened as she took a half-step toward Gabrielle’s compelling visual summons, drawn to her like iron filings to a magnet, so strong was the intensity between them.

She blinked once, then again, to break the mesmerizing lock, smiling slightly at the look of defeat that spread over her soulmate’s face, watching as lightly tanned shoulders slumped slightly as the body they belonged to sat down on one end of the long bench with a loud, dejected thump. Xena’s smile widened, slightly, as she walked over to the small wooden barrel and retrieved a filled dipper from it, casually pouring the clean water over the heated rocks. Steam rose in a misty wave as the water sizzled on mineral surface, vaporizing quickly in the heat. Another two dipperfuls and the room was filled with fragrant steam. "Patience," the warrior intoned, moving to sit on the bench next to Gabrielle. "This’ll loosen up your muscles enough so I can give you a proper massage."

The bard’s shoulders straightened at Xena’s words and her pout changed into a hesitant smile. "Massage, huh?"

"Yup. I’ve got some oils heating up in the other room."

"Welllll, I think I might be able to live with that."

Xena’s lips pursed against a half grin that threatened to erupt. "I sure you can."

Gabrielle stretched out on the bench, laying on her back and pillowing her head on Xena’s muscled thighs. "You’ll just have to get used to me using you for a pillow then." Clasping her hands together and resting them on the sweating flesh of her naked abdomen, the bard contentedly closed her eyes and appeared to fall asleep.

Shaking her dark head and narrowing her eyes, the warrior let the earlier suppressed smile come to her face before leaning her own head back against the smooth wood of the wall, regarding the steam benignly and thinking of nothing.

*******

"Gabrielle."

"Mmm?"

"Gabrielle, wake up."

"Don’t wanna."

"C’mon, Gabrielle. If we stay in here much longer, we’re gonna turn into a couple of sweaty puddles."

"So? ‘s comfortable here."

"You’ll be more comfortable on a nice soft massage table with warm oil coating your body."

In the space between one heartbeat and the next, Xena found herself alone in the steam room, snorting softly in amusement as she watched the door slowly swing closed. Rising gracefully from her place on the bench, the warrior doused the flame under the rocks, then leisurely ambled out into the main room, lashing a dry towel around her hips. "Comfortable?" she asked, eyeing her partner’s prone, naked form sprawled out on the large leather table.

"Very." Gabrielle’s voice was muffled by the leather upon which her damp head was resting. "Could be a little warmer, though."

"I think I can take care of that for you." Walking over to the small hotplate, Xena removed a small bottle of massage oil, opening it and inhaling the spicy fragrance before pouring some into her hands and coating them thoroughly. Stepping back to the right side of the table, the warrior gently pushed her partner’s long hair out of the way before digging oiled hands into the flesh of her shoulders, pressing down firmly and loosening knots of tension in coiled muscles.

"By the gods that feels good," Gabrielle mumbled, closing her eyes in bliss.

"Many skills, Gabrielle," Xena teased.

"Less talk, more rubbing."

"Yes, my Queen." Smirking, Xena proceeded to give her lover a most thorough massage, leaving no muscle untouched, no inch of skin uncaressed. Her strong hands prodded, kneaded, loosened and smoothed, liberally coating the silken flesh of Gabrielle’s body with musky scented oil.

After thoroughly massaging Gabrielle’s feet, the warrior moved up and gently swatted the muscled firmness of her partner’s posterior, earning her a small squeak of outrage from her half-stuporous lover. "C’mon, Gabrielle. Turn over so I can do your front."

"Don’t wanna move," the bard protested sleepily.

"You’re gonna have to. I’m not about to listen to you complaining about how stiff you are all day, Gabrielle. Now flip over."

Grumbling slightly, the bard wiggled and flipped over on her back, her languid green eyes flashing a warning to her partner that she hoped would be well read. "Better?"

In lieu of an answer, Xena merely smiled enigmatically and poured more oil on her already liberally coated hands, beginning her frontal massage with a warm manipulation of the sensitive flesh covering Gabrielle’s collarbones and spreading downward, carefully avoiding her partner’s breasts, much to the bard’s extreme consternation. Xena contented herself with the warm, vibrant flesh beneath her palms, coaxing relaxation from abused muscles. Sara’s abdominal muscles weren’t as pronounced as Xena remembered Gabrielle’s being, but they were well toned and accepted the knowing pressure of the warrior’s large hands greedily.

She continued down over the bard’s slim hips, then stopped to work out the big, knotted muscles of her thighs, kneading and coaxing them into a state of blissful lassitude, before continuing her trek downward, working over shins and ankles before finishing off with the tops of Gabrielle’s feet.

Gabrielle’s verdant eyes were half lidded and sleepy, though her gaze took in her partner’s actions like that of a hawk. The warrior’s attentions had put her in a wonderful, warm space; peace and contentment radiated out through her limbs and she blinked sleepily as Xena returned to the head of the table, smiling tenderly down at her, pale eyes suffused with love and devotion.

"How ya feeling?"

"Mmmm. Like a fat, happy, totally limp noodle."

"Any pain?"

"None at all."

"Good." Xena gave her lover a half smile as she retrieved the bottle of oil once more, uncapping it and holding it up to the light. Then she tipped it, just slightly, and watched as a few drops eased out of the neck to land on the creamy skin of Gabrielle’s breasts, running sluggishly down the peaks to pool in the valley between them, gleaming in the mellow light of the room. Using the last of the oil to coat her hands again, the warrior slowly dropped them to cover the bard’s firm breasts, just resting them there for a second while looking up to capture her young lover’s gaze.

At the feel of those warm, slippery hands on her sensitive breasts, Gabrielle’s breathing halted as her slowly beating heart clenched, then thundered in her chest. The relaxation in her eyes was replaced with a smoky arousal and she bit her lip, hoping beyond hope that this wasn’t just another part of the massage. I should know better than to challenge her by now.

White teeth flashed in the light as Xena spied the change in her lover. Using just the flesh of her palms, she massaged small circles over the firm flesh beneath them, feeling Gabrielle’s nipples stiffen and stand erect, brushing against the callused skin of her hands needfully. Slipping both hands to the valley of the bard’s breasts, she gathered up the pools of oil and spread it entirely over the ripening flesh, now using the strength of her fingers to add to the stimulation, expertly manipulating each tiny area of flesh under her fingers while listening to the low moans forced from her companion’s throat.

Once both breasts were glistening, Xena returned her attention to Gabrielle’s nipples, using the well oiled tips of her index fingers to trace rings around the tightly coiled areolas, forcing the small buds of her nipples to become almost painfully tight and erect. Gabrielle squirmed against the sensations, tiny mewling noises coming from deep within her as her oiled body slid sensuously against the leather of the padded table.

Xena tweaked the bard’s engorged nipples, pulling and squeezing them in a rhythmic motion which the bard’s body quickly mimicked on a grander scale. Then she released the flesh from her fingers, blowing a jet of air from her mouth, cool against the heat of the oil. Gabrielle’s body convulsed at the sensation, her stomach muscles clenching, drawing her head and shoulders up off the table and arching her back. Breath hissed from between her teeth as her eyes rolled back in her head and thickly lashed lids clamped tightly over them. She relaxed against the table, but arched up again as a hot, wet mouth clamped over one breast while knowledgeable fingers claimed the other. "Xena," she groaned softly. "By the gods . . .Xena . . . ."

Taking the bard’s heaving breast into her mouth, the warrior insistently tongued the erect nipple, before gripping it in her sharp teeth and biting down gently, setting off another spasm in the body below her. Releasing her purchase on the other mound of needful flesh, Xena reached over and grasped Gabrielle’s arm, urging it over until the bard’s hand covered her own breast. A large hand urged Gabrielle to continue her actions of kneading and caressing. Sure her message was received and understood, the warrior’s now free hand began a journey over taut, oiled flesh, smoothing down over Gabrielle’s belly and tangling in the soft hairs of her sex. Her middle finger split the bard’s swollen folds, oil mixing with the copious fluids she found there. She ran a slick trail over the exposed head of the bard’s clit, feeling her lover’s body clench and writhe against her.

Gabrielle’s body jerked beneath her as she panted. Xena knew her lover was close to the zenith, so she backed off, instead carefully oiling and manipulating her labia, gently tugging on the engorged skin and listening to her lover’s groans of delight mixing with fractured utterances of her name.

Xena’s fingers darted back in to the source of greatest heat, circling around Gabrielle’s entrance teasingly before being taken into the hot tunnel by a strong, demanding thrust of bardic hips. Chuckling softly against the flesh in her mouth, the warrior pumped into her lover’s depths, fingers tickling against the inner walls which clamped and expanded around her in a fevered greeting.

"Xe-na. Please. Pleease . . . . ."

Lifting up from her cherished duty, the warrior smiled at her lover’s passion flushed face. "Patience, beloved," she purred in a low, sultry voice that raised gooseflesh over the bard’s exposed skin.

"Please. I . . .can’t . . . . Please . . . ."

"Shhhhhh." Reaching down, Xena grasped Gabrielle’s other arm, urging it to join it’s partner in the pleasuring of the bard’s firm breasts. "Keep these warm for me, will ya?" Then she removed her other hand from its haven, to the bard’s exasperated groans. Biting back a smile, the warrior walked to the foot of the table, grasping her partner’s widely splayed ankles and tugging downward. The bard’s oiled body slid easily against the smooth leather of the table until the cheeks of her ass were at the very edge. Strong hands eased Gabrielle’s thighs apart again, then the tall warrior knelt between them, hooking both of the bard’s strong legs over her shoulders.

Xena took a long moment to gaze at her lover, her partner’s hands clenching and squeezing at her own breasts in a dance of erotic abandon, the long blonde hair whipping back and forth over the tan of the table as her head rolled right and left. Her eyelids danced, golden lashes fluttering. Lightly tanned skin gleamed in its blanket of oil, muscles stood out, clenching, shadowed against the light shining down on them, bathing them in an intoxicating beauty.

Gabrielle’s hips flexed and released, begging. Xena lowered her head slowly, painfully slowly, breathing into the fragrant nest aching for her touch. The legs over her shoulders tightened convulsively. "Easy, love. Relax. Let me in."

The purring tone of her lover’s voice shot sparks along Gabrielle’s nerve endings as she obeyed, relaxing her clenching thighs to permit Xena access to her body, heart, mind and soul. She cried out as the feel of wet lips and sharp teeth settled against the engorged, throbbing flesh between her legs, stroking her to heights she heretofore thought impossible to attain. A sobbing gasp left her throat as she felt teeth gently bite down on her clit. She felt herself stretched as she was drown into Xena’s mouth by a powerful suction that almost ended things there and then. She forced herself not to go over the edge, knowing that if she was just able to muster up the patience her lover desired, it would be well worth the effort. The flat of a soft, muscular tongue bathed her in long, soothing strokes as a throaty growl tingled against her slick skin.

She was filled to bursting again as long fingers reentered their welcome haven, stroking her walls with expert skill, hitting, repeatedly, each sensitive spot deep within. "Oh gods, Xena," she breathed, "that’s it. Ohhh yes. You’re sooo deep in me. Gods. You feel so good. Like that. Yes! Pleeaaasseeee. . . ." Words became impossible for the bard then, as those fingers began a primal rhythm, that was joined by the concentrated stroking of her partner’s talented tongue, circling, dancing, lapping at her with exquisite knowledge. Her hands renewed their own dance upon her breasts, picking up Xena’s rhythm as brilliant beams of light fractured and reformed behind her tightly clenched lids.

"Oh, Xena. . .that’s it, my love. Oh yes, that’s it. Just like that. Ohhhhhhhhhh." Her moans reached a crescendo as her mind gave up the fight, letting her body take over, allowing her lover to guide her up the long hill to ecstasy before exploding at the summit, robbing her of the ability to breathe, to think, to do anything but feel. Her back arching, oiled shoulders sliding against the table, a scream burst forth from her throat as her body rode the crashing waves of her lover’s making, hurdling joyously through space.

Xena guided her back down gently, easing from the depths of her passion after she relaxed and let those wonderful fingers loose. She was gathered up in a strong embrace, surrounded by the essence of her soul’s mate, the exquisite feel of her tingling, slippery breasts sliding against Xena’s threatening to start her up all over again. "I love you," she whispered into long raven hair. "I love you so much, Xena." Tears filled her eyes, spilling over to cover the soft down of her cheeks.

"I love you too, my Gabrielle," Xena replied, low toned and crooning into her ear as long fingers stroked through her sweat stained hair, easing her trembling, soothing her as even the Fields could not.

After several moments, Xena gently pulled away, then scooped her lover up into a secure hold and crossed the room to set her gently into the heated Jacuzzi, flipping on the controls with her foot. Positioning Gabrielle’s half-asleep body so that it would not slip beneath the surface of the churning water, Xena left briefly, returning with a washcloth, several towels and a bar of soap. Shedding her own towel, the warrior climbed down into the bath, wetting the rag and lathering it up with the fragrant soap. Then she tenderly began to cleanse the oil from her lover’s warm skin, guiding the pliant body to reach all areas. Sated green eyes followed her movements lovingly and Xena smiled, a rare full one that made it to her eyes, deepening the icy pools to a vibrant blue reflected and enhanced by the swirling water as it churned around their bodies. When she was finished, Xena wrung out the rag and placed it over the side of the tub before sitting on the bench and scooting over to embrace the bard. "How do you feel?"

"Mmm. Heavenly," came the slightly slurred words.

A tentative hand smoothed along the warrior’s spread thighs, causing Xena’s already aroused body to go into overdrive. Flinching, she pulled away. "No. There’s time enough for that later."

"But . . . ."

"Shhhh. I wanted to relax you. You just say in here as long as you want, but be careful not to fall asleep." Leaning over, she placed a gentle kiss on Gabrielle’s head. "I’m gonna go work off some of this tension." With a cocky grin, she hopped out of the churning water, grabbing a towel as she walked from the room and leaving Gabrielle to her bliss.

*******

Having finished her workout, grueling even by her own exacting standards, Xena sat perched on her office chair connecting to the internet when the door opened to admit a slightly wobbling bard, fresh from her bath.

"The Fields have nothing on you, Xena," Gabrielle remarked as she took slow, measured steps across the room to the couch at the other end, collapsing into it with a relieved sigh. "I’m about as weak as a newborn lamb."

"A lot cuter than one, though," Xena observed, taking in her partner flush with the glow of the afternoon’s activities.

Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed. "Thanks. I think." She gestured to the computer with her chin. "Whatcha doing?"

"Connecting to the internet to see if Nigel was able to dig up any more information." Xena typed in her password and was just about to sign on when the phone rang. After a second, she picked it up, cradling it against one broad shoulder as her fingers tapped out the keyboard commands. "Yeah."

"Bluu jicho! How goes the vacation?"

"Simba!" Xena returned, smiling. "How’s the fort holding going?"

At the mention of her friend’s nickname, the man who had saved her life from the murderous Paul Magasee, Gabrielle straightened, her face creased with an excited grin.

"Wait a minute, Jarrod," Xena said, "there’s someone here who wants to say hello. I’m gonna put you on speaker."

"Jarrod!" Gabrielle piped up happily from her place on the couch.

"Dhahabu malaika!" Jarrod retorted in his mellifluous Swahili accented voice. "How are you doing? Is bluu jicho treating you well?"

"Like a queen," Gabrielle said, before mouthing a question to her partner.

"’Golden angel’," Xena translated in a whisper, eyebrow raised.

"As it should be," Jarrod responded smugly.

"Alright. Enough of the mutual admiration society crap already. Jarrod, what brings your voice to my phone? Business or pleasure."

"Ahh, business this time, I’m afraid, my friend. We’ve been handed a case that I cannot handle."

A raven eyebrow rose to hide beneath thick bangs. "Can’t say I’ve ever heard you say that before, Jarrod. What’s up?"

"Have you ever heard of a . . .well, ‘man’ is the technical term, I suppose, by the name of Randolph Claiborne?"

Xena thought for a moment, shifting effortlessly through her massive mental files, before shaking her head. "Don’t believe so, no."

"Praise to the gods you haven’t then. Racist would be too kind of a term to describe him."

"Then how would you describe him?"

"An Ibilisi," Jarrod answered forcefully. "A demon in human form. He runs an organization he terms a ‘church’ called ‘The Church of Christ the Judge’. It’s just a front for a militant white supremacist group that spouts hatred like water from a tap. I’ll send you his dossier and an .avi file I have to give you more of a taste of his particular brand of medicine, Xena."

"And where do we fit in with all of this? And where is this . . .person . . .located?"

"Actually, very close to your neck of the woods, my friend. Just outside Yuma, to be exact. Has himself a nice little setup out in the middle of nowhere. Almost like Manson did way back when." A chair’s plaintive squeaking came through the phone lines as Jarrod settled his weight more fully into it, reclining slightly. "There have been a rash of disappearances in the area lately. Migrant farm workers from over the boarder, mostly. It’s difficult to tell how many because they’re mostly day workers, so if they don’t show up for work, their employers just assume they went back home."

"Anything tying the disappearances to Claiborne?"

"Not at first, no. Then some citizens started coming up missing. Minority citizens, to be exact. And then there was the bombing of a synagogue. Nasty one, that. Luckily no one was killed, but the rabbi was badly burned rescuing the Torah."

"He get in trouble for that one?"

"Nope. The witnesses had mysterious changes of heart when it came trial time. Even the threat of jail time for obstruction wasn’t enough to sway them. The charges were dropped even though the cops caught his groupies red handed, so to speak. The cops raided the ranch twice, but nothing hard was ever turned up. Not that there would be, of course. If this guy is linked to the disappearances, the desert is a great place to hide a bunch of bodies. Especially bodies no one seems to care about. Then people started disappearing over the boarder in California. You probably know what happened next."

Xena rubbed the skin over her eyes against the headache that was threatening to erupt. "Let me guess. They called in the FBI."

"Right as usual, bluu jicho. They sent in a couple of agents under deep cover. Apparently, it wasn’t deep enough. They were lucky to get out alive, and they didn’t learn anything of import. They found weapons, but they were all licensed and registered. No traces of the bodies anywhere."

"And so they come to us."

"Exactly. And as much as I’d love to take the bastard out with my bare hands, we both know that there’s no cover on earth deep enough to let me in the door."

"Michael Jackson’s plastic surgeon?"

The line exploded with Jarrod’s musical laughter. "Your angel seems to have dug your sense of humor up from out of that moldy cellar, Allah bluu jicho."

"Among other things." Gabrielle grinned at Xena’s scowl, leaning forward on the couch and clasping her hands between her knees.

"Anyway . . . ." Xena’s voice rose slightly to cut through the laughter being uttered at her expense.

"Sorry, my friend," Jarrod replied, getting his mirth back under control. "The police and the FBI sent over some files with Claiborne’s particulars as well as an avi file of one of his ‘sermons’. I can e-mail them to you right now, if you wish, so you can go over them."

"When do they need to know?"

"Tomorrow at the latest. They’re very interested in getting this case solved, one way or the other. If you refuse, they’ll have to look elsewhere for answers."

Resting her chin on her clenched fist, Xena saw the plans she had for an extended vacation with Gabrielle go up in smoke. "Send ‘em over, Jarrod. I’ll have a look at the information, but I’m not promising anything. I’ll call you back tomorrow with my decision."

"Very good, my friend. Sending the files over now."

"Thanks, Jarrod. Take it easy."

"Good bye, bluu jicho. Bye, Gabrielle."

"Bye, Jarrod!"

As Xena completed her log on to the internet, a soft knock was heard at the closed door. "Come in."

Manuel entered the room, smiling and bearing two trays filled with gently steaming food. "Lunch," he explained unnecessarily as he set the trays down next to both women.

Gabrielle excitedly shifted on the long couch, tucking her legs beneath her and placing the laden tray on her lap. Her eyes closed as she took a deep breath through her nose, inhaling the fragrant aromas of the food the caretaker had prepared. "Mmmm. Manuel, this smells heavenly! Thank you."

After setting the second tray on one corner of Xena’s desk, the Pima bowed slightly, smiling. "My pleasure, Gabrielle. Your enjoyment is a blessing to me."

The bard took a forkful of steaming, spicy shredded beef, cheese and vegetables and hummed in delight. "Your cooking is a blessing to me!" she enthused, attacking her meal with abandon.

Laughing gently, Manuel turned back to Xena, smiling as he watched her watch her lover and shake her head slightly at the bard’s antics. Startling pale eyes met his in gentle understanding. "Thanks, Manuel."

"Always, my friend." His hand dropped to briefly touch the warrior’s powerful wrist before raising it again. "Always." With a brief nod, he turned and left the room.

Absently picking at her own lunch, Xena scanned her email as she waited for Jarrod’s information to arrive. There was a short note from Nigel saying, in essence, more of the same. He hadn’t been able to crack the deep government files yet, and the surface stuff had no references to what they were looking for. He signed off promising to keep her updated on the situation. The warrior pounded her fist softly on the hard wood of the desk in frustration.

She continued to eat her meal without really tasting it when a soft chime alerted her to incoming mail.

"Is it from Jarrod?" Gabrielle asked, setting her now empty tray aside.

"Yup."

"Can I read it too?"

"Sure. C’mon over." The warrior leaned slightly back into the pressure of her partner’s hands on her broad shoulders as she clicked on the ‘new mail’ icon and brought up Jarrod’s files. Opening the text file first, she scanned its contents with attentive eyes.

Name: Randolph Reginald Claiborne

Aliases: None

DOB: 1/19/42

Birthplace: Chattanooga, Tenn.

Mother’s Maiden Name: Claris Marion Poole

Father’s Name: Reginald Madison Claiborne

Height: 5’ 9.5"

Weight: 175 lbs

Hair Color: Gray

Eye Color: Blue

Distinguishing Features: None

Elementary Education: Unremarkable

High School Education: Diplomate

College Education: Southern Baptist Seminary, Nashville, Tenn.

Graduated?: Expelled.

Reasons: Inciting a riot, plagiarism, immorality (unspecified)

Work History:

9/16/62 – 12/17/68 Assistant Manager Stop ‘n Go Markets, Nashville, Tenn.

12/18/68 – 3/11/72 Incarcerated

Convictions: Trespassing, Forcible Detention, Carrying a Concealed Weapon without a Permit

Specifics: On 11/8/67, defendant did willfully trespass and forcibly detain Ms. Laura Martin from entering the establishment henceforth known as the Downtown Women’s Reproductive Center in Louisville, KY. When subdued, he was found to be carrying a loaded .45 pistol without a permit.

4/12/72 – 6/22/80 Wheel balancer Monty’s Discount Tires, Chattanooga, Tenn.

7/11/80 – 5/14/81 Incarcerated

Convictions: Public disturbance, public intoxication.

Specifics: On 2/26/81, defendant did stand outside the establishment henceforth known as Planned Parenthood, Evanston Indiana creating a public nuisance and attempting to bar entrance into the private facility. When evicted from the premises, defendant was shown to have a blood alcohol level of .239.

"This guy sounds like a real peach, Xena," Gabrielle commented, squeezing her partner’s shoulders while peering intently at the monitor. "What’s he got against women’s reproduction anyway?"

"Those places are known to some as abortion clinics, Gabrielle."

The bard cocked her head. "Abortion clinics? What’s abortion?"

"When a woman finds out she’s pregnant, she may decide to terminate the pregnancy. These places help her with that."

"By the gods. Why would anyone want to do such a thing?"

Xena shrugged. "There are many reasons, I suppose."

"And that’s legal?"

"Mmm hmmm."

"Maybe he’s not such a bad guy after all."

"Oh, he’s a bad guy alright, Gabrielle. If you want to protest against abortion, or anything, that’s fine. Especially in America. But to do so with a loaded gun in your pocket isn’t very nice. Or very smart."

"Ok, you’ve got me there. What else does it say." The bard’s eyes were tired from staring so long at the blinding white background and she rubbed at them, sighing and blinking.

"Basically, it says that when he was released from prison the second time, he basically disappeared for awhile, popping back up in the late 80’s just outside of Yuma. He apparently got some sort of mail-order Pastor’s certificate and took to calling himself the Chosen Lawgiver of Christ. He started spewing his hatred and some people bought it. Looks like he’s managed to gather close to one hundred followers out there in the desert."

"Must be a big place, then."

"Let’s take a look." Clicking on the next attachment, Xena brought up, one by one, several pictures of the compound and its surrounding areas. The home looked to be a single level ranch-type structure, very long and wide. Several large outbuildings were grouped to the sides and behind the main structure. A large building which appeared to be a church stood off to the left of the other dwellings, imposing in its size. Flat open desert surrounded the grounds, stretching seemingly to infinity, with nothing but cacti and hearty scrub dotting the otherwise desolate landscape.

"Homey," the bard commented.

"Oh yeah." Reaching over, she gave the mouse a quick click to bring up and download the attached avi file. "Ready to hear some trash?"

"Not really."

Ice blue eyes met verdant green. "You don’t have to listen, Gabrielle. I can . . . ."

"Oh no, Xena. I might not want to hear it, but I will." Crossing her arms over her chest, the bard’s eyes narrowed, daring her partner to contradict her.

If she were in a different mood, the warrior might have taken up the bard’s challenge, never one to be back down to anyone, even her beloved Gabrielle, but she decided this time to just let it go. Gabrielle was a grown woman and she could just leave if it got to be too much for her.

After a moment, the file finished its download and the viewscreen came up, filling most of the monitor. Claiborne was sitting behind a simple wooden desk, his hands crossed and laid against the dark, polished surface. He was wearing a conservative blue suit, crisp white shirt and a plain navy tie. Wire rimmed glasses perched on his patrician nose. He looked younger than his years, his face unnaturally pale given the climate he lived in, and unlined. The blue of his eyes was slightly magnified behind the glasses he wore. To his right stood the American Flag, and to his left, another flag, pure white with a blue square in the upper left corner, which bore a golden cross, a scarlet crown of thorns perched atop it. Behind him was a framed picture of Jesus staring benignly off into the distance.

WARNING: The passage below contains words and references that are offensive to all. Racism and hatred is portrayed graphically below. If this upsets you, PLEASE read no further. There will be a similar bold print below this section to let you know when it’s over.

"Sodom and Gomorrah! That's what this land has become! Everywhere you look, homosexuality, race mixing, abortion, Jews and other non-Christians are forcing their beliefs, their un-Godly lifestyles on us! Who's to blame? The Jews who run the government ... the Zionist Occupational Government .. that's who! We're being lulled to sleep by the government and the powerful Jewish whoremongers who run Hollywood and the media. They have us convinced that we should tolerate these things and ultimately accept them. We, as a Nation of White

Christians, have turned from Yahweh’s law and have embraced Satanic Order. Our punishment is the society in which we live today – a modern day Sodom and Gomorrah!

"Remember White Christians, God speaks to us in Leviticus 20:24: ‘I am the Lord thy God which have separated you from other people.’ Separated .. that's what Whites should be .. separated from the scum of the earth ... blacks, whites, Jews, homosexuals, baby killers.

They will meet their fates at the heel of our boot!

"Wake up my brothers and sisters in Christ! Shake yourself out of your fitful sleep and

you'll see the true enemies, the race-mixers, the sodomites, the blacks, the Mexicans, the so called ‘Native Americans’, the Jewish Jesus haters and abortionists! They all target their anger at the White man! They are coming for us! Our race is headed for destruction ... annihilation! Race-mixing is causing the genocide of our proud White race. Across the world our precious Aryan gene pool is being destroyed through integration, non-White immigration, and

non-White crime. Satan’s' children, the "jews" have worked long and hard to destroy White America and the followers of Christ. Racial unrest and conflict is just another way of attacking God's chosen people. White's are being robbed, raped and murdered at an

ever-increasing rate by non-whites. Our prison systems are overflowing with non-whites that hate our people

"This White holocaust must be averted. We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White children ... by any means necessary. Join us in the fight to save the white race from destruction. Only by taking pride in the pure race of God can you save your souls. In Jesus’ Holy Name. Amen."

We now return you to your regularly scheduled reading. Thank you.

The screen slowly faded to black.

"By the gods," Gabrielle breathed, a flush of anger reddening her neck and cheeks. Her hands were white-knuckled where they’d dug into the powerful muscles of Xena’s shoulders. "Does he really believe that?"

Reaching up, Xena gently covered the bard’s hands with her own. Her lips were compressed into a thin, flat line. "I dunno. Maybe." Feeling the wetness of tears drop onto the back of her hand, the warrior turned quickly and gathered her lover into a close embrace. "Shhh. It’s alright. Shhhh."

"No it isn’t, Xena," Gabrielle retorted, her wet face pressed against the warm chest of the Warrior Princess. "It isn’t alright at all. How can people have that much hatred for other people just because they’re different? I don’t understand it!"

"Gabrielle, I had that much hatred once. For everyone, whether they were different from me or not."

"That’s different, Xena."

"Is it?" The warrior’s face was grim, her eyes haunted by demons time would not let fade.

"Yes. It is." Pulling away, she looked at her partner intently. "Xena, you killed because you were hurt. Betrayed. The things that happened to you killed you inside. You lashed out because of that, because you were hurting. You didn’t target people because they were different from you."

The warrior’s lips curled into a self-mocking smile. "No, I targeted people because they were there."

"Xena . . . ."

"No, Gabrielle. It’s the truth and you know it. I was an evil, selfless bitch who killed anyone who got in my way or didn’t agree with my vision of how the world should be run. Just like this guy. I’m not any better than he is. I’m much, much worse. And the dark side of me, the one that wanted all those things, is still there, still waiting. But the difference between the two of us is that I know better now, and I won’t let that dark, hateful side win." Turning, she stared into the computer monitor with blank, unseeing eyes. "I know how he thinks. I know what he wants. I was him once, and I can beat him because of that."

M’Lila’s words of so long ago played through her mind. "Xena, you know evil. You were evil. And now, you can fight evil."

Gabrielle’s hands clamped down over the warrior’s. "We."

Blinking, Xena looked up at her partner. "What?"

"We can beat him, Xena. We’re in this together. Remember? Where you go, I go."

Xena’s eyes became gray with sadness. "Not this time, Gabrielle."

"What?" the bard whispered, shocked. She tried to pull away, but Xena reversed her grip and clamped down gently on her lover’s hands.

"Gabrielle," she began gently, "things are a lot different now than they were then. Fighting is different. Weapons are different. Catching arrows is a lot different than trying to catch dozens of bullets as they’re being fired at you. I . . .I can’t protect you from that anymore, Gabrielle. And as good as you are with your staff, it won’t help you when a gun is pointed at you." She chafed the hands under hers. "You saw what happened to me back at the cabin, Gabrielle. Magasee shot my legs right out from under me. The only reason I didn’t die is because I’ve got this blasted Immortal curse hanging over my head."

The bard’s jade eyes flashed with anger; her jaw tightened. "You were able to protect Sara just fine."

"That was different."

"Why? Because she was Sara and I’m Gabrielle?"

"Yes." The words came out in a harsh whisper, full of the warrior’s agony.

The two soul bound lovers looked at one another in silence for a very long time.

"I won’t let you do this, Xena," the bard finally ground out. "I can’t and I won’t."

"Damnit, Gabrielle, think! You could die out there! You could die and I . . .damnit, I can’t!" Xena took a deep breath against the sob building in her chest. Her next words were whispered. "I can’t lose you again." The words echoed hauntingly between them, filling the still air like a death knell. Both women remembered the last time those words were uttered, three thousand years ago.

Gabrielle broke the silence first, jerking backward and pulling her hands from her partner’s gentle grip. "Don’t do this to me, Xena. It’s not fair."

"Life isn’t fair, Gabrielle."

The bard paced away, then turned, her face full of anger, her eyes flashing. "No, it isn’t! Life isn’t fair! Your life isn’t fair, Xena! Did you ever stop to think about the guilt I carry over this? You came back because of me! You’re here now, stuck in this life, because of me!"

"Gabrielle, that’s . . . ."

"Shut up, Xena!" At the stunned look on her lover’s face, the anger drained out of the bard. Breathing out a forceful sigh, Gabrielle ran her hand through her hair, then stepped forward, coming to stoop between the warrior’s spread legs, resting her elbows on powerful thighs. "Xena, you know what I’m saying is the truth. You heard me ask you to come back and you did. You knew the risks, and you took them anyway. Because I needed you." Her tear-filled green eyes lanced through Xena’s anguished blue. "Please let me do the same for you. I came back because I need to be with you. Please don’t shut me out. Don’t push me away. And don’t wrap me in swaddling clothes and keep me locked in this room with all your other memories of me. Please."

Xena’s jaw opened slightly in shock at Gabrielle’s words. Is that what I’m doing? Wrapping her up and hiding her away like that staff and those scrolls? Keeping her tucked away safe and sound so that nothing can ever hurt her? Somewhere deep inside herself, she realized the fundamental truth to those questions and it shamed her. But another, vastly rational, part of her mind reminded the warrior that to do otherwise, especially in this circumstance, was absolute lunacy. She would be leading Gabrielle, an untrained, innocent soul with no knowledge of this world Xena lived in, into a nest of vipers without a weapon or even the knowledge needed to defend herself. The harsh, desperate reality of both truths tore at the fabric binding the warrior together, manifesting itself as a headache which throbbed sickly in her temples. She rubbed at her temples, wincing at the pain that traveled to the base of her skull and pulsed along the length of her tightly clenched jaw. "Gabrielle, I’ll admit that part of me is doing exactly what you’re accusing. I’m not proud of it and I’ll try my best to stop it. But the words I said earlier are no less true because of it. When I worked with Sara, I was doing my best to keep her away from those who would do her harm. In this case, I’m going right into their midst. And as much as I’d love to have you there with me, I just can’t take that chance. No matter who you are and what you mean to me, I cannot take that chance." Blue eyes shone with an inner light, pleading to be understood. "Can’t you see that?"

After a long moment, Gabrielle closed her eyes and nodded. When those jade eyes opened, however, they were blazing with familiar purpose. "Yes, Xena," she said, finally. "Yes, I see that. And yes, I understand. I’m sorry for yelling at you."

Xena’s face relaxed with the relief coursing through her, then tensed again when Gabrielle held up a hand.

"But . . . . I’m still going with you."

"Gabrielle . . . ."

"No, Xena. I listened to you. Now it’s your turn to listen to me, alright? I know I’m an innocent in this world, Xena. I realize I know next to nothing about it, including how to protect myself from people who I’m sure make the warlords we used to face look like toddlers. But none of that matters. None of it. Because my place is by your side. We’re in this together. And if you don’t take me with you, I’ll find a way to get there on my own." Her lips turned upward in a smile, her jade eyes twinkling. "Face it, Warrior Princess. Like it or not, you’re stuck with me." Standing, the bard gathered Xena’s head to her chest in a heartfelt hug.

After a long moment, Xena responded, wrapping her arms around Gabrielle’s hips and squeezing back, listening to her friend’s heart beat beneath her ear. Then she pulled gently away, leaning back against the thick, padded leather of her desk chair. "This isn’t just your decision to make, you know," she said quietly.

Gabrielle cocked her head. "What do you mean?"

The warrior laid a gentle hand against the bared flesh of her partner’s side. "This body belongs to Sarah. She needs to have some say in what happens to it."

The bard’s smile turned triumphant. "Already taken care of."

"Wha-at?"

"We talked."

"You . . .talked."

"Yup. She says you taught her a lot about courage in the face of danger and besides, she has to pay you back for all the things you did for her, so . . .she’s in."

"Gabrielle . . . ."

Gabrielle crossed her arms, displaying her best ‘Warrior Princess’ smirk. "Forget it, Xena. You’re outnumbered. Just accept defeat and move on."

With a dramatic sigh, Xena flung her hands in the air. "Fine. I’ll yield." Her eyes narrowed dangerously. "For now. But just remember one thing. This is my mission. You disobey me one time . . .one time, Gabrielle, and I send you back on the first bus going east. Ya got me?"

The bard grinned cheekily. "Oh, I gotcha alright."

Groaning at the bad joke, Xena huffed out another sigh and turned back to the computer, muttering under her breath.

Gabrielle clenched her fist and pumped her arm back. "Yes," she triumphed, silently.

*******

The room was dark, pale eyes lit by the feeble light from a slowly sinking moon. Xena lay on her back in the large bed, one hand behind her head and the other gently tangled in the honey hair of her softly snoring lover. The warrior’s eyes darted back and forth as straight white teeth gnawed at her full bottom lip. I must be crazy. Maybe the Furies made another deal with Ares. Shifting slightly, she felt Gabrielle burrow further into her loose embrace, the bard’s breath tickling the hair hanging at the sides of her face. I can’t believe I said I’d let her come with me. What was I thinking?

She must have tensed unconsciously, because Gabrielle’s verdant eyes popped open. "Xena?"

"Mmm?"

Lifting her head from the warrior’s shoulder, the bard shot a quick look out the window, scowled, then turned her attention back to her partner. "Ugh. It’s still the middle of the night! What are you doing awake?"

"Just thinking."

"Probably trying to devise a way to go back on your word to let me go with you."

Xena was glad the darkness hid her guilty flush.

Feeling the heartbeat pick up under her hand, Gabrielle propped herself up on one elbow, staring down at her lover. "You were, weren’t you."

Reaching up, Xena batted away a golden braid that insisted on dragging itself over her nose in small, annoying arcs. "Go back to sleep."

"Not until you tell me I’m right, Xena."

"Ok. You’re right, Gabrielle. Now will you go back to sleep?"

The warrior’s muscled shoulder absorbed the impact of Gabrielle’s head as it crashed back down upon its pillow. "Hmmmph. Not likely."

"Gabrielle . . . ."

"No, Xena. We’ve already settled this issue, remember? I’m going with you. Period. No more thinking required."

Xena was silent for a long moment, going through battle plans in her head, wondering which one would cause her the least amount of pain. "Fine."

"Fine?"

"Yes, Gabrielle. Fine. Now just drop it and go back to sleep, alright?"

"Fine." With a melodramatic sigh, the bard detached herself from the warm flesh of her lover, rolling onto her other side and burrowing into the blankets.

Rolling her eyes, Xena brought her other hand up to rest behind her head as she contemplated the ceiling once more.

********

The next several days were spent in frenetic activity as Xena tried to cram what amounted to a lifetime’s worth of knowledge into the space of just under a week. Gabrielle was on the internet from almost dawn to nearly dusk, learning a little bit about everything it took to live in the modern world, but mostly learning what it meant to be a bigot.

The warrior called frequent stops to the study, taking time out for meals or walks among the fragrant pines to clear the vivid, horrible images from her lover’s mind. But the words Gabrielle read put her off her feed and she developed a sickly yellow pallor and shadows under her eyes that began to worry her stoic partner in the extreme. The bard had even jumped from her place in front of the computer several times, her hand clamped firmly over her mouth as she stumbled into the downstairs bathroom to disgorge what little food she had managed to keep down.

Gabrielle’s gentle soul rebelled against the filth that seeped behind her eyes, filling her mind with horrid images of hatred and ignorance. Her nights were spent sweating and screaming out as nightmares gripped her with horrifying intensity, refusing to let her go. Xena spent those nights cradling the struggling bard in her strong arms, singing ancient nursery rhymes and stroking sweat soaked hair, gentling her partner back into the arms of Morpheus while damning herself for allowing her soul’s mate to absorb such filth. Promising that things would stop, then and there. But every morning, Gabrielle would look up at her with quiet intensity, brooking no argument, logical or otherwise, and storm back down to the den, immersing herself in the study of hatred once more.

Things came to a head on the morning of the fourth day since Xena’s acceptance of the mission when she walked into the study, arms bearing a tray filled with tasty concoctions of Manuel, designed to get the wan bard to eat. The warrior found her partner staring, blank eyed, at the computer monitor, tears streaming down her cheeks. "Gabrielle?"

When there was no answer, Xena hastily deposited the tray on an endtable and strode behind the desk, dropping her hands down upon the bard’s chilled shoulders, peering intently into the monitor to see what visions had stolen her lover away this time. A parade of horror danced across the screen, images shifting into one another to the tune of jaunty music and a sniggering voiceover. American films of the atrocities in the German concentration camps dissolved into KKK rallies, cross burnings and lynchings, graphically portrayed. A young man of Hispanic origin, his face a bloodied mess, lay on the ground as his hands were tied to the bumper of a pickup truck sporting a Confederate flag. The engine gunned and the truck pulled away, the screams of the dragged and dying man sounding clearly through the microphone pinned to his chest. Scenes of torture, Asian ‘snuff’ films and so called ‘fag bashing’ filled the screen in an unending stream, each horror dissolving into the next, never ending, never fading.

Even the warrior, well versed and well used to such scenes felt her stomach twist under the assault. Her hands dug convulsively tighter into her partner’s unfeeling flesh and she swallowed hard, finally reaching out and shutting off the monitor with a vicious snap. "That’s enough," she snarled, releasing her hold on Gabrielle and whipping the chair around to face her. "Gabrielle, snap out of it. C’mon now, it’s over. Come back to me, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle’s eyes stared unseeingly ahead.

Xena grabbed her partner’s hands between her own, gently chafing the cold flesh beneath her palms and fingers. "C’mon, Gabrielle. Come back now."

The bard blinked and another tear rolled down her cheek to drop onto a cotton shirt already wet with them. "X….Xena?"

"Yes, love. It’s me."

"Why?"

"Oh, Gabrielle . . . ." Squatting down, the warrior gathered her lover into a strong embrace, cradling the blonde head against the crook of her neck as sobs rolled through the smaller woman’s body in waves.

"How could people hate so much? How could they get so much joy out of the suffering of others? How?"

"I wish I had a simple answer for you, Gabrielle, but I don’t. Part of it is ignorance and fear, I think. Maybe they think that if the world sees them as equal, they’ll lose what makes them special." Taking a deep breath, the warrior shrugged slightly. "I dunno." Pulling away slightly, Xena put one slim, powerful finger under the bard’s quivering chin and tilted the young woman’s head up. "I do know one thing, though. I’m not gonna put you through this any more. I’m gonna call Jarrod and tell him to tell the FBI that they can get someone else to do their dirty work for them."

Gabrielle pulled away, shocked. "Xena, you can’t do that!"

"Yes I can."

"No! Please. Don’t."

"Gabrielle, listen to me. I’m not going to let you suffer through any more of this. Look at you! You can’t eat, you scream in your sleep. And this is just from reading stuff on a screen! There’s no way in Tartarus that I’m just gonna put you in the middle of these bastards!"

Shaking her head violently, Gabrielle hastily scrubbed the tears from her cheeks. "I’m alright, Xena. Really." She tried for a watery smile, failing miserably. "It just hit me hard, that’s all. I’m used to seeing violence and hatred . . .or at least I was, when I was alive. This is just so much . . .bigger, somehow. It just overwhelmed me for a minute, but I’m fine now."

"Gabrielle, you are in no way ‘fine’." Fierce, narrowed blue eyes burned into Gabrielle’s own.

"No, not right now maybe." The bard sniffed, wiping again at her swollen eyes and nose with a negligent hand. "But I will be. I just need to settle down a little bit and process what I saw. I’ll be alright. I promise."

"No, Gabrielle. I’m sorry, but . . .no." Xena reached out an arm to lift the phone, unsurprised when a quick hand darted out to clamp over her wrist. Her eyebrow arched.

"Xena, these people need us." Gabrielle kept her hand where it was, knowing that she could no more physically stop Xena from picking up the phone than she could stop a Titan, but needing to try.

"There will be other people, Gabrielle. Other battles." Her lips quirked into a half-smile. "I seem to be a rather popular person these days."

"Xena, we need to help these people. We need to fight this battle."

The warrior cocked her head slightly. "Why is this cause so important to you, Gabrielle?"

The bard thought about that for a moment, chin in hand. "I think it’s the same reason it’s always been, Xena. I need to do something to end the cycle of hatred. Maybe I can reach these people; show them that their way is wrong."

"Gabrielle, that’s not the purpose of this mission. I need to get in there, find the proof I need that this group is behind the disappearances, and get out. No fancy speeches, no conversions. These people won’t change, Gabrielle. They’re too set in their beliefs."

"Maybe. But I think some of them are just lost and confused. They’re looking for something to believe in and this man says things that they might be able to relate to. But if I can show them that there’s another way, a way of love rather than hate, maybe they can turn away from that life before it’s too late."

Xena sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose between her fingers. "Gabrielle, the only thing those words are going to get you is killed. I have no doubt that Claiborne and his thugs are behind the disappearances and I know that the desert outside his compound is littered with the bodies of people who committed no crime other than to be born with a different skin color or heritage. You go in there and start stirring things up and your body will be joining them."

"Xena, I know you think I’m being impossibly na´ve. But I’m not. I’m just being me." A bittersweet smile curved her lips. "I don’t even think eternity would erase the differences between us, my love." Reaching out a hand, she gently cupped the cheek of her lover. "But, like always, we agree on the one basic point in all this. These people need to be stopped. And I think, if we work together, we can do just that."

Leaning into the softness of her partner’s palm, Xena reached up and covered the bard’s smaller hand with her own, squeezing gently. She laughed softly through her nose as an image sprung unbidden into her mind.

"What?"

"Just thinking." The warrior’s smile broadened till it reached the paleness of her crystal eyes. "All these years without you have been lonely, my bard. But my getting the job done was sure a heck of a lot easier!"

Returning the grin, Gabrielle tapped Xena’s nose with one finger. "You just needed me around to keep you on your toes."

"Oh, is that what it was."

"Yup."

The two women’s foreheads touched as they looked into one another’s eyes. If love could move mountains, the people in the desert didn’t stand a chance.

********

"I don’t know about this. Are you sure?"

"Positive. Relax, Gabrielle. You look fine."

"Xena, I was showing more skin than this when I followed you out of Poteidia!"

The warrior smiled in agreement as she settled the large bow at the breast of Gabrielle’s high-necked beige blouse. "This is how Claiborne and his ilk expect women to dress, Gabrielle. It might not be comfortable, or particularly attractive, but it should get you in the door."

Gabrielle sighed, looking down at the severe chocolate brown polyester skirt and blazer and fiddling again with the bow at her throat before getting her hands slapped away by her taller partner. "Ugh." She looked again in the mirror, wincing slightly at the sight she beheld, and plucked at a few strands of golden hair that insisted on slipping out of the staid bun Xena had confined them into. "I feel like someone’s elderly maiden aunt."

"Perfect disguise, wouldn’t you say?" Opening up a long black box, Xena withdrew a necklace and opened the clasp, intending to put it around Gabrielle’s neck.

"What’s that?" Gabrielle asked, eyeing the cross hanging from the gold chain. "Execution charms all the rage these days? No wonder you hate it here. What’s next? Hangman’s noose earrings?"

"The cross is the symbol of Christianity," Xena explained.

"Not to me it isn’t." The bard shivered, remembering the huge effect that particular symbol, firmly grounded in reality, had over their lives in the past. Her hand closed over the jewelry. "I’d rather not have that kind of reminder hanging around my neck, if you don’t mind."

By way of an answer, Xena turned the finely wrought piece over, displaying the back. "See that?"

Gabrielle looked down at her partner’s hand, eyeing the cross. In the exact center, a tiny bump stood barely out, looking like a small welding flaw. She nodded.

"Press it. Three times. Slowly."

Looking quizzically at the warrior, Gabrielle did as requested.

"Say something."

"What do you want me to say?" The bard was beginning to get frustrated with the display of her partner’s enigmatic ways.

Xena smirked. "Perfect."

Gabrielle scowled. "Mind clueing me in here?"

The warrior dangled the cross in front of Gabrielle’s eyes. "This is a communications device. When you activate it and then speak, I can hear you."

"Well of course you can hear me, Xena. I’m standing right next to you!"

Rolling her eyes, Xena reached into her ear, then withdrew, extending the tip of her index finger to Gabrielle.

The bard winced. "Ugh. Xena, now is not the time to be showing me your ear . . .hey, that’s really cool! What is it?"

Xena looked down at the tiny flesh colored dot on her finger. "This lets me listen to whatever’s coming through the microphone in the jewelry. This way, we’ll be in constant touch with each other."

"What about me? Do I get to have one of those too?"

Nodding, the warrior replaced the chip in her ear canal and opened a small box, removing another chip. "Ok, tilt your head. Right. Just like . . .there. How’s it feel?"

"Like I’ve got something stuck in my ear."

"You’ll get used to it. Don’t scratch or you’ll dislodge it and I won’t be able to talk to you, alright?"

"No scratching. Got it." Jade eyes narrowed. "How about rubbing? It itches."

Xena rolled her eyes. "No touching of any kind, alright? Just leave it alone and you’ll eventually forget it’s even there."

"Fine." Gabrielle resolutely clasped her hands behind her back. "What about you? How will you be able to talk to me?"

Extending her arm, the warrior pulled back the cuff of the black cotton shirt she was wearing to expose a thick silver bracelet. She slipped one long finger under the jewelry, pressing a tiny spot on the otherwise pristine surface. "There. Can you hear me?"

Gabrielle smiled. "Cool! I can hear you perfectly in here. It kinda buzzes, though. Is it supposed to do that?"

"Yes. That lets you know that the microphone’s been activated. If for some reason you can’t hear me talking, at least you know I’m trying to get through."

"Hmmm. Wish we had these things back in Greece. Nigel make these for you?"

Xena smiled fondly. "Yup."

"I’ve got to meet him one day. That man’s a genius!"

"That he is, my friend."

"So, what do we do now?"

The warrior hefted a duffel over one broad shoulder. "Now? Now we go for a ride."

*******

Continued...Part 3


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