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REGRETTED: PART 1

by noelle
kduncan@together.net

I make no claim to Xena, Gabrielle, Lila, Aries and any other characters associated with these on the show. They belong solely to the creators of Xena: Warrior Princess. I only own Jak.

WARNING: This is really my first attempt at writing fan fiction. Iíve also got to warn you that I missed the majority of the first season, so if anything that happens in the story contradicts something on the show Iím sorry. Plus, Iím not a professional writer, in fact Iím only in high school, but I made a sincere attempt at writing a decent Xena fanfic.

This story does have graphic violence in some parts, and can be disturbing in others.

It also has some sex, so if this bothers you, I suggest you donít read it.

And, yeah, itís got a little language in it, too, so if that offends you, maybe you should reconsider reading this.

For anyone who likes the old, bad Xena, this should be enjoyable.

Well, here goes:

Regretted: Part 1

She was tired, terribly tired and only now, sitting idly on a damp, fallen log did she fully begin to realize her fatigue. She half-yawned, relaxing her heavy arm on her knee. She busied her idle hand with a slender stick, poking the fire at her boots gently. She moved the ash around, streaks of curious glowing coals disseminating over the gray ash and steaming out. For once she was not out battling warlords. For once she was not settling other peopleís battles. For once she was not challenging the gods. For once she was not bringing justice. For once she was not saving the world.

Xena didnít like to be unoccupied. She liked to be doing something, solving some problem, righting wrongs she herself at one time had done. She liked her work, didnít she?

Or maybe, simply, Xena needed to be occupied. Maybe being left idle, alone with her thoughts, she could not stand herself. She could not stand the slow meander of her thoughts drifting towards the burden of her past that weighed so heavily in her mind; not untouched, not virgin, for this thought had been exercised thoroughly many times, but much loathed and regretted. Xena did not want to dwell in the past.

"Hey." A familiar voice pulled her out of her hellish reverie and back into the present.

She was not in the past anymore.

Gabrielle squatted and warmed her pink hands over the fire.

"Hey." Xena said.

She smiled weakly. She waited quietly for Gabrielle initiate conversation, an inexorable personality quirk that Xena depended upon often for her sanity.

Gabrielle stood, brushing herself off a little, and sat complacently beside the large amazon woman. She glanced at the warrior, smiling a little and shaking her head. When no one broke the silence, Gabrielle shifted uncomfortably, and then persisted to study her heroís expression.

Xena felt the curious eyes fixed on her and laid her stick aside.

"Yes?"

"Oh, nothing."

Gabrielle said the words quickly, as if they had been planned five minutes before the actual conversation.

"Nothing?" Xena chuckled, pretending to act interested.

"Yeah, itís really nothing," Gabrielle said.

Xena smirked and took up her stick. It was only a matter of time before. . . .

"Itís just---" Gabrielle began, "I can tell. . .somethingís bothering you. . .at first I thought you didnít want to go to Potedia, and me being so insistent and all. . .and I was just thinking. . ."

"I donít mind going to Potedia," Xena said. "Everyoneís got to see their family once and a while."

"Well, maybe thatís not it," Gabrielle said, "but something else is bothering you. . .I can see it. . ."

Gabrielle collected her words together.

"I mean," she said, "sometimes itís hard to tell whatís bothering you because. . .we never really talk."

"Talk?" Xena asked. "What do you mean by talk? Weíre talking right now, arenít we?"

"Sure," Gabrielle agreed, "but I mean talk. I always tell you whatís bothering me, but you never share with me, you know? And I can tell somethingís bothering you now. I just donít know what."

Xena sat back against the damp log supporting her back. She sighed heavily.

"Well," Xena began in a low voice, "youíre right. Something is bothering me."

She met the bardís inquiring gaze with pale eyes.

"But itís a long story," she concluded.

"Come on," Gabrielle said, moving closer to her hero. "Tell me. I want to know."

Xena smiled warmly, and looked down to study her fingers. She tested the joints, carefully with her other hand, but she wasnít really concentrating much on her hands or, for that matter, the conversation.

"Itís something I donít like to think about," Xena said. "Something that happened a long time ago."

"Someone you fought? An enemy?"

"No."

Xena observed her nails grimly.

"Someone who betrayed you?" Gabrielle probed further.

"No."

Gabrielle quieted a little.

"Someone you killed?" she asked, softly.

Xena remained silent, her fingers stopped moving.

"Itís a long story," she repeated, and her fingers returned to their nervous movement.

"Xena," Gabrielle moved closer to her, "was it someone you hated?"

A moment of quiet passed, the only sound the faint crackling of the fire before them.

Finally, Gabrielle retreated from Xena, discontent with her terse answers. She sighed, and began to idly rustle through her belongings, aimlessly searching for something.

"Fine," Gabrielle said, her back turned to the warrior. "If you donít want to tell me, you donít have to, but Iíd really like to know whatís bothering you---"

"It wasnít someone I hated," Xenaís voice was barely over a whisper, but it quieted Gabrielle immediately. "It was someone I loved."

Gabrielle left her bundle, and returned to Xenaís side.

"A man?" she asked.

"Yes," Xena said, slowly.

"Go on," Gabrielle urged. "This is good. We never have girl talks like this."

Xena was suddenly lightened with a small sense of humor.

"How do we talk?"

Gabrielle paused, and thought it over.

"Thatís not what I mean," Gabrielle said, "We just never have a talk. Like a girl talk. You know, about girl stuff."

"Girl stuff?" Xena questioned.

"Címon," Gabrielle said, throwing a mock punch at Xenaís shoulder, "you know. Iíve never really heard much about your past relationships."

Xena rolled her eyes.

"You want to hear about my past relationships?" she said, unbelieving.

"Yeah," Gabrielle shrugged, "why not?"

"Why not?" Xena laughed, and resumed her ever-exciting fire-poking. "I donít really take much pride in much of them."

"Well," Gabrielle said, her gaze growing distant, "we canít take pride in everything we do."

Xena smiled at the young girlís philosophy. She turned, and saw the vague expression on her companionís face, and her smile faded. Gabrielle felt her heroís eyes on her, and forced a pathetic smile. They shared a quiet moment of understanding between them; understanding of something that had tried their friendship, pushed it to their boundaries. If Xena still felt any aggression towards Gabrielle for everything she had done to her in the past, she showed no sign of it now. Instead, she simply offered Gabrielle a warm smile.

"Gabrielle," Xena said meaningfully, "itís in the past."

Gabrielle nodded gently. She felt Xenaís warm hand on her shoulder. Her eyes lifted.

"And so is whateverís bothering you," Gabrielle said firmly. "So why donít you tell me?"

Xenaís hand slid from her companionís shoulder and retreated back to her side. Her other hand still held the stick.

"Itís a. . .a hard thing to tell," Xena concluded.

She tousled the fire with her stick. Her eyes met Gabrielleís.

"And I havenít told it to anyone," Xena said, "ever."

She held her gaze steadily on the young girl.

"But Iíll tell it to you," Xena assured her, "if you really want to hear it."

"Yes. I do," Gabrielle said. "I want to understand whatís bothering you, Xena."

Gabrielleís eyes softened and warmed; a consolation of their friendship. Xena sighed, letting her own eyes fall to the ground, and set the stick aside.

"When I met Jak," Xena began, "it was a long time ago. I was still traveling with Borias. . .we were on our way to

Chin. . ."

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The land was changing as they made distance across Greece. It seemed to get slightly rockier, and harder on the horseís hooves. The weather was changing, too, getting ever so slightly cooler; cool enough to force the hot-blooded warrior woman to clothe herself with a light animal skin. The animal skin was plain enough; a modest accompaniment to the lavish jewelry the warrior adorned herself with; expensive reminders of her many victims. Her armor itself was almost completely constructed with gold, and her sword was tipped with silver edges; edges that had become a steely crimson red over time. And that time was not long; sheíd only began traveling with Borias a matter of months ago. After Caesar had betrayed her, and permanently scarred her with two broken legs, she originally struck out on her own because she didnít trust anyone. As her legs showed no sign of improvement, she joined Borias, agreeing to the fifty-fifty profit contract he offered her. Xena was a valuable war item, but as far as fighting went, with the old wounds of Caesar swelling to a painful zenith, she could barely limp around, much less participate in battle. Still, Xena did her best to fight, remaining on top of her horse throughout a battle, swooping down on helpless footmen with her sword.

Now, both Xena and Borias agreed that they should head east, far east, to the promising kingdom of Chin. Xena had high aspirations for looting and pillaging along the way, but Borias had no intention of stopping for anything. He was too focused on the goal; to get to Chin.

Presently, Xena headed Boriasí army, perched silently on a tall hill surveying a small town before them. Borias was off making deals with King Micos, asking for permission to pass through his reign. Xena was left alone to manage the army, something Borias felt unsure about, but he knew she was capable of the position. Whether he liked it or not, Xena knew how to handle an army.

Xena perused the busy town before her. It was small, but it seemed bountiful enough, and profitable.

"Do it, Xena," a familiar voice beside her coaxed.

Aries laid a supportive hand on her shoulder. She smiled.

"What do you think Iím doing?" she mused.

"Trust me," Aries said, seriously. "Thereís something valuable in that village. So go on, do it for me."

She gave him an evil grin. Then she turned to her soldiers behind her, and nodded. The men tensed, and their hands felt for the hilts of their swords. She reared her horse around once again, feeling the familiar tension in the still air preceding every victory.

Xenaís lips curled with an amused smile as she cried out, her undulating warcry chilling the battlefield, and raised her sword high above her head. She swung her leg into the flank of her horse. The horse jerked forward with the sudden movement and swiftly flew down the hill. The army thundered behind her, the menís eager battle cries clouding her own.

At the sight of the rapidly approaching army, the villagers began scattering randomly in every direction. Xena smiled at the panic; the hysteric, meaningless people crowding into their huts, hoping the flimsy walls would protect them from her massive army. Her horseís hooves pounded on the dirt, raising clouds of dust behind her as she entered the town. Her eyes flashed with the sight of the fearful villagers. She dismounted quickly, meeting a fleeing man with her sword. She wrenched the sword from his chest, and swiped at another man behind her. He ran, and she chased him into his hut. He turned, begging for mercy, but she met his cries with her sword. Pulling it out with sheer satisfaction, she turned and met another man who had followed her in. He was poised in a position of attack, armed with a feeble stick. She knocked the stick from his hand, and plunged her sword deep into his chest. She let it linger for a moment, and then drew it out, observing the streams of blood trickling down the edges. She wasted no time, but ran from the tent and joined the battle outside. Her men were everywhere, slaughtering the defenseless people, looting the tents, setting fire to the huts. She watched them for a moment, applauding her own inventions, and then returned to fighting.

Aries watched in satisfaction. He approved of her performance on the battlefield, relished it, loved it. He lingered around a moment to witness her slashing a few more villagers across the chest, blood spurting from the deadly wounds, and then he disappeared.

When they were finished, the village was a smoking wasteland; the huts had crumbled, the men lay dead or dying, the women and children were fleeing, tears streaming from their fear-stricken faces. Xenaís men were retiring back up the hill, carrying their loot in bags slung over their shoulders. Xena herself had her fair share of baubles, which she proudly wore out of the battlefield. One in particular struck her fancy; a large diamond pendant, gleaming with the light of the waning sun. She looked deeply into it, at the reflection of the charred, still village in its cool surface. She saw her own face, still glowing with the heat of battle, a gloating smile sailing over her face. She pocketed the diamond, and headed up the hill after her men.

Borias was waiting.

Borias stared at her, angrily. She walked past him coolly, and came up beside her horse. He followed her, and when he came close enough, he took her by the arm roughly, and spun her around.

Xena!" he snapped. "Just what do you think youíre doing?!"

She shrugged.

"Just having a little fun," she remarked.

"Youíre going to ruin everything!" he told her. "I just got clearance from King Micos, but when he hears of this---heíll kill us!"

"Then I guess we better move fast," she said, smiling. "Right?"

His grip on her arm tightened. She yanked her arm from his grasp, the diamond in her pocket falling to the ground with her sudden movement. He observed it, and his eyes gleamed. He stooped over to pick it up. Xena stepped on it with her boot, dismissing any thoughts Borias might have of taking it. She bent over and picked it up herself, all the while studying Boriasí wide-eyed expression.

"Xena," he said, "thatís the diamond."

"What diamond?" Xena asked.

She allowed him to snatch it from her hand.

"The Lost Diamond of Micos," Borias said, holding the beautiful gem eye-level.

He noticed the way it caught the light so brilliantly, and the heavenly aura that seemed to surround it. It was amazing.

"Where did you find this?" he demanded.

Xena jerked her head in the general direction of the former village.

"In there," she answered, quietly. "Whatís so great about this diamond? Looks like any other jewel Iíve seen."

"This diamond," Borias said with exaggeration, "itís amazing. Not only is it worth over twenty thousand dinars, but it brings luck to the battlefield. You donít know how useful this is."

He pocketed the diamond.

"Hey, wait!" Xena objected, reaching for his pocket. "I found it. Itís mine."

"You wouldnít even know itís power if it werenít for me, Xena," Borias snapped. "Besides. . .you owe me."

"For what?" Disgust was lining her tone.

"For this little outbreak," he said, gesturing towards the shambled village. "You donít know how much this affects us. It means we wonít be able to cross through Micosí land, even on the way back! Weíll have to detour around. That costs us time, and time costs us money."

Xena shook her head, disbelieving. She supposed she should let him have the diamond.

"Take it," she said. "I donít need luck on a battlefield."

"Someday, Xena," Borias said, "that may change."

Xena smiled vaguely. Borias began walking away slowly, the diamond closed tightly in his fist. She watched his figure

grow smaller as he made his way across the ranks of soldiers. Her smile faded, and she turned back to her horse.

Xena watched Borias bellowing orders at his soldiers in amusement. He demanded they set up a camp, and begin hunting or they would have nothing to eat. The soldiers were slow and groggy from two dayís travel, and they reluctantly obeyed his commands, dreamily walking through the motions. Xena smirked at his irritation, and it only broadened her musing smile as he turned and saw her looking on. He scowled at her, and moments later, trudged over to meet her. She waited in silence, showing no sign of welcome.

"What are you smiling at, Xena?" Borias said, annoyance weighing in his voice. "Do you think this is funny? My men are slowing us down! Youíve already cost us time with your little skirmish in Micos! At this rate we will never get to Chin!"

Xena eyed the panting man.

"Why donít you let them rest?" she asked. "Theyíre no good to you the way they are now. Look at them. . .theyíre pathetic! Either way you do it, weíre losing time. I still donít see why you and me donít just travel to Chin ahead of them. We can get a head start looting, and theyíll come along later to help us sort out the battles."

"Xena," Borias began, "no matter what you think, the two of us can do nothing by ourselves. The Chin army would wipe us off the face of the earth!"

Xena shrugged.

"Maybe you," she said, defiantly, "but not me."

Xena urged her horse forward. She trotted around Borias and towards the weary men attempting to set up camp. The men regarded her with uneasy glances. A few inaudible grumbles passed between the soldiers as Xena stopped her horse before them. Her voice raised over the tired conversation of the army.

"Youíre all exhausted!" she announced, grabbing their attention, "So rest well. Weíll stay here as long as it takes to regain our full strength, and then weíll head out for Chin."

A chorus of cries echoed over the camp. The cries died down to murmurs of contentment as the camp returned to settling in for the night. Xena turned, a complacent smile fixed on her lips, and a challenging flicker of rebellion in her eyes. She veered her horse over to her own quarters, which were set up on the outskirts of the camp, the same satisfied smile still at her lips. Borias watched her, anger burning in his eyes, and made his way towards her quarters.

Xena dismounted her horse and secured it to a nearby post. She could hear the heavy footsteps approaching, could sense the fury flooding through him. She merely tightened the knot, and limped inside her quarters, ignoring Boriasí presence. Xena pulled one of the tentís flaps over the entrance. She lumbered over to her bed of sheets and pillows, and eased herself down, relieving her legs of the burden of her weight. She bent over and began unlacing her boots, slowly. Soon the modest flap over the entrance whipped back, and Borias stepped inside. He looked down on her as she untied her boots, her lips pursed in innocence. He sneered, and his fist came down on her table. The sudden noise didnít phase her, nor move the nonchalant expression on her face. Her eyes merely lifted for a brief moment, acknowledging his presence, and then fell back down to her boots.

"Xena!" Borias shouted. "You have no right to do this! This is my army, my men! You stay out of this!"

"What are you talking about?" Xena asked, teasing his temper.

She fought a smile while he churned with wrath.

"You think you command this army?" His voice raised. "Iím the one who took you in! You owe me, Xena! You owe me!"

Xena tugged off the first boot, and then proceeded to tackle the other.

"Funny," she said, giving a slight nod of her head, "seems the men agree with my plans a little better, donít they?"

Borias stood in brooding silence.

"Well," Xena went on, "we both know that, out of the two of us, Iím much more well-acquainted with commanding an army. Face it, the soldiers know Iím much more capable of the position."

"They take orders from me, not from a crippled whore!"

His voice echoed in her ears, his booming anger resonating far outside the confined area of the tent. She stopped unlacing her boot, her fingers remained still, but kept their tight grip on the laces. Her teeth gritted, and she shot him a look.

"You would be nothing without me!" she said, indignantly.

His anger faded with satisfaction as he saw a flash of her own temper; a violent, fervent disposition that often led her straight into trouble.

"Then let me be nothing," he said. "I want you to leave."

"Leave?" Xena echoed. "Leave? You need me. You canít take care of this army, not the way youíre dealing with them. Youíre never going to make it to Chin without me. You donít even let your army rest!"

"I donít care," Borias said, stepping back, "I donít want you here. Youíre ruining my plans and youíre a burden. Leave."

"You donít want to do that," Xena said, clambering to her feet. "You need me, and you know it!"

"Maybe so," Borias said, "but I donít want you here. Get out."

Xena gave him a cold glare. She shook off the last boot, cursing underneath her breath. Then she limped over to him. She observed him for a brief moment. He did not budge, even though he had a keen suspicion she was going to strike him. To his surprise, she pressed close to his body, held his determined glower, and suddenly attacked his lips. She kept her lips on him until she felt his familiar hands on her back, then she pulled back, smiling coyly.

"See?" she said. "You need me."

She returned to his lips. He accepted her, tugging on her hips, pulling her ever closer. His lips touched her neck, and then passionately assaulted it with heavy kisses. His hands relieved her of the deerskin, and began, nimbly stripping her of her armor. She stopped his hands, telling him with her eyes that her armor should remain. He smiled, mischievously. She grinned as his hands slid down her body, stopping only to remove panties hidden underneath the folds of her leather skirts. Her hands left his chest and fumbled for his pants. His own shirt had left him, and now her cool armor pressed against his bare chest, rubbing with an unholy friction; blood-stained armor against burning flesh. Her hands returned to his back. She pulled him into her, wincing slightly at the sudden pain. He withdrew, his body tingling with pleasure, and tore into her again. This time she wrenched back with the pain, but forced herself to return to him. A curious hand found her breast, a handful of steel armor and plush flesh underneath. Her own hands played with the fine bones in his back, running down the length of his vertebrae like a ladder descending into his pants. She braced herself as he plunged into her once again. By now they were both breathing heavily, their hearts beating rapidly into each other with the force of their passion. Xena was rapidly beginning to ascend to her own climax, and with the next thrust from Borias, a scream edged from her throat. She recaptured her self-control for a fleeting moment, but it was quickly lost, enveloped in ecstasy as Borias descended upon her again.

Their next few minutes were lost in voracious rapture; a captivating, violent desire to consume the other before they were devoured themselves. It was a competitive experience, both warlords fighting for domination over the other through passion, a warped pleasure for both of them, but something that came quite natural.

Finally, Borias pulled away. Xena fell to the ground, her crippled knees crumbling beneath her. She watched him refasten his pants and draw his shirt on. A small, glinting item fell from his shirt and softly onto her bed of pillows. He pulled the ends of his shirt together and straightened them out.

"By the way," he said. "Youíre leaving tomorrow."

Xenaís eyes widened.

"But---"

"But nothing," Borias said, closing his shirt, and making his way out of the tent. "Youíre leaving tomorrow."

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"This wasnít the first time this had happened to me," Xena said, presently staring into the fire. "Borias and I were constantly struggling for power over each other. . .unfortunately, he usually won."

"Thatís awful!" Gabrielle exclaimed, drawing her legs up and wrapping her arms around them. "I canít believe he did that to you. And again in Chin."

"Yeah," Xena said, slowly, "but it was my own fault. I was rash and hot-headed, and I didnít plan ahead. It was probably best that he sent me awayófor him and for me."

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Xena cursed at her own stupidity. She crawled over to her panties which had long since been cast aside and drew them up the length of her legs. Then she gathered together her belongings in a small bundle, wearing the majority of her jewelry and layering on extravagant clothes under a heavy deerskin. She wasnít waiting until tomorrow to leave, so she could be humiliated in front of the whole army, she was leaving now.

She lumbered to the door, taking one last look at the interior of the tent, her eyes searching for something she might have missed. Suddenly, something in her former bed gleamed radiantly as a ray of sunlight struck it. The diamond. She smiled deviously, and hurried over to the bed. She placed the diamond in a small sack and nestled it into her cleavage. A small sense of revenge warmed her as she left the tent.

She found her horse where she had left it, and dutifully began untying its braces. She adjusted the saddle, securing to it her one sack of possessions. Then she climbed onto the horse, her deerskin slightly impeding the process, but eventually settling beneath her. She didnít dare look back at the camp, but shook the reins, and headed out for the road.

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". . .three solid days of traveling," Xena said, more to herself than to her companion. "Three whole days of traveling. I was exhausted by the third. Not to mention my horse was on its last leg. I was really a mess."

Gabrielle remained quiet while her hero took a slight pause.

"My horse was injured from running," Xena explained. "At one point, it was so bad, I had to get off and lead it down the path. I didnít cover much land, but enough to put a safe distance between me and Borias."

"What did you do next?" Gabrielle asked quietly.

Xena seemed startled by her companion as if sheíd almost forgotten she was there.

"Huh? Oh," Xena said, settling back into reality. "Well, it was the beginning of the fourth day. . ."

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She made her way slowly down to the creek, leading the horse behind her by the reins. She sank to her sore knees, and bent over, cupping her hands and scooping water into her wanting mouth. The cool water slid down her dry throat, coursing into her stomach where she felt the liquid settle. Her horse drank silently beside her, one hoof lifted slightly above the ground because it ached so badly. Xena felt a brief moment of passing sympathy for the horse, but then reminded herself that whatever the horse felt, she was feeling ten times worse. Her own knees were screaming in pain, and each tiny movement triggered a pinprick in her joints. She was contemplating resting in the wet grass beside the creek, when she heard a rustle of movement in the bushes behind her. Listening more carefully, she could distinctly make out the light breathing of a man and the sound of fingernails scraping lightly against the steel of a blade. She felt ground move even before the man budged from his hiding place, and she jumped to her feet, spinning around to greet him. Her sword was already drawn, and poised in his direction. The man stopped abruptly, observing the formidable blade, and his own sword clambered to the ground in surprise. She recognized him immediately.

"Retyius?" she said. "Did Borias send you to get the diamond?"

"Yes," he answered quickly. "He said only his second-in-command could handle the job."

She smiled. Retyius had never been one of her favorites. He had always treated her terribly because she was a woman warrior----a lame woman warrior.

"Iím flattered he sent one of his most valuable warriors," Xena said, "but Iím also a little disappointed he didnít come himself."

Retyius smiled, weakly. She countered his brief smile with a wicked grin, and he nervously eyed her swordís gleaming edge.

"Donít try anything," he warned. "Iíve got a band of thirty men following me with the sole purpose of getting that diamond whether they have to kill you or not."

She made a small, amused sound that seemed to lean towards laughter.

"Retyius," she began, "donít you know by now, not to serve as your own scout? You shouldíve sent one of your less important men ahead. Whatís the worst that could happen? I could cut and gut him, but hey, youíve got twenty-nine other men, right?"

She approached him, her amusement extending to the tip of her sword.

"But you," she said, "you matter. Youíre valuable. . .but not that valuable when youíre dead."

"Donít kill me!" Retyius shouted. "My men will cut you down in an instant!"

"Iím sure," Xena said, slyly.

"Borias gave me thirty men to find you! Thatís not a lie!"

"Oh no. I donít doubt you have thirty men," Xena said, lessening the distance between them. "But I know you pretty well, Retyius. I know the way you work. When you send scouts out, you send them a day or two ahead of the army, which means your army is somewhere back in Athens, huh? Which also means, that if I killed you now, Iíd be long gone before they even found your body."

Retyius stepped back quickly. His brows were furrowed, heavy lines of worry twisting his face. Xena relished his fear. She jumped forward with a sudden mock-thrust, purposely missing him.

"Like that, huh?" she teased.

He dodged another one of her half-hearted blows.

"You know," she began in a melodramatic tone, "I could send you back to Borias to deliver him a nice little message, but. . .well, Iíd much rather do it this way."

Her sword plunged through his heart. He grasped the blade with his weakening hands, blood quickly clouding over his armor, and streaming down his hands. Xena moved the blade to the side with a sickening crunch. He cried out in pain. She wrenched the blade around in his chest some more, mangling the surrounding flesh, fine drops of blood sputtering from his wound to the earth. Her sickly smile twisted back, hideously as she yanked the sword from his chest. He fell backwards, hitting the ground with a dull thud. His hands were clamped over his wound, a vain attempt to smother the rapid flow of blood from his body. He gasped for breath, but it came out staggered and feeble. Xena walked over to him, and leaned on her sword, her face swimming before his dying eyes. She gave him a classic smile---a smile he would remember in death, in Hades when he thought of her---and he would think of her.

When she became bored of watching him die, and his breath no longer came forth, she drew a large sack from the packs on her horse, and returned to case the body. It would be a shame to leave it here, especially because it would be so valuable, and to tell the truth, she was sort of proud of it. She started with the feet, pulling the sack over his heavy legs. She drew it up until it covered his head where she tied a strong rope around the top of the bag, closing the body from view. Then she swung the body around, using her shoulder as a center for the rope, and hauled it towards the road. The body was decently heavy, and Xena almost thought to leave it behind. She argued the matter over in her head, but eventually her instincts won out---she would take the body.

She started to head for the road, leading the lame horse behind her, the reins fitted neatly in between the coils of rope attached to the body, when her horse stalled. Her horse was tired and hurt, and expressed a need for rest once again. She debated whether to take the horse or not. It would never be useful at this rate, so she left it behind, turning only once to give it a solemn gaze, but otherwise, no goodbye.

The sun was waning, falling slowly behind the steep mountains that made up the horizon. Its rays pushed through the trees in long, blinding beams that warmed Xenaís cheeks occasionally. The road was relatively empty, except for a few overgrown places where the brush extended into the road, and Xena was its only occupant.

She was making progress, but not as much as she hoped. Of course, earlier today she had not been planning to be dragging a corpse along with her.

The sky was beginning to melt, shift into pastel colors that taunted Xenaís eyes to close. They were soft and comforting, despite the days travels, and Xena almost felt content, walking alone in the middle of nowhere at dusk, towing a dead body behind her. The air was growing cooler, a favorable substitute to the sunís earlier scorching rays. Xena drew in the night air, a refreshing scent of evergreens and blueberries invading her nostrils. She stopped for a brief moment to enjoy the placid setting, and to envelope herself in the swarming silence she longed for so often.

An intermittent creaking sound broke the silence. Xena turned around to look for its cause. A wagon was slowly pulling up behind her, one of the wheels apparently in bad shape. The creaking sound grew louder as the wagon approached, and the wheel that was the obvious cause was threatening to fall off. As the wagon came closer, Xena could clearly see the driver. He was a handsome man, with dark features, and an average build. Xena turned before she made eye contact, and began to move forward as if she hadnít noticed the wagon, dragging the bagged corpse behind her.

The wagon came up beside her. The driver slowed the horses, and pushed over to talk to her. She pretended not to notice.

"Are you all right?" he said, his voice concerned. "I mean, you look terrible."

Xena smiled, but didnít regard the young man in any way.

"If that was supposed to be a pick-up line," she said, dryly, "itís one of the worst Iíve ever heard."

The man said nothing in reply, and the horses remained at the slow drawl they were traveling.

"Would you like a ride?" he asked. "At least up the road a little." He took notice of the heavy burden she had trailing behind her. "Iíd hate to see you have to carry that any further. It looks heavy. What is it?"

A lazy smile crawled across her lips.

"You wanna see?" she asked, playfully.

The young man pulled the horses to a stop. He studied the strange woman, carefully.

"What is it?" he asked.

She met his eyes for the first time. She smiled.

"You wanna see it? Youíve got to come down here if you want to," she told him.

He looked her over once again. He climbed off the wagon slowly, watching her warily as he made his descent. She flashed him a reassuring smile.

"Come over here," she said, and bent over the body.

He walked over to her and crouched beside her. She teased the end of the bag, and smiled at him. He smiled back. She jerked the bag open and revealed the top half of the bloody corpse. The man looked it over, but to her surprise, he didnít seem very upset. He seemed slightly disturbed, but he managed to pull himself together and face her.

"Do you know him?" he asked, softly.

"Sure do," Xena said, simply. "Poor bastard. Too bad I had to kill him."

The manís eyes lifted and met hers.

"Why did you kill him?" he asked.

"Well," she said, "if I didnít, he would have killed me."

"So it was self-defense?" The man seemed hopeful.

"No. Not really," Xena said, bluntly. "If I hadnít killed him, he would have probably went back to Borias, and then came back to kill me. But no, at the time it wasnít really. I just didnít want to bother with him."

"Borias? The warlord?"

Xena smiled vaguely.

"So. You know him," she said.

"Not personally," the man said, "Iíve heard of him. Iíve heard heís terrible, but not nearly as terrible as the warrior woman he travels with. . ."

His voice trailed off with sudden realization.

"Xena." He said, softly. "Youíre Xena."

"One and only," she said, with a broad smile.

The man sat back, contemplating the brief conversation.

"Iíve heard a lot about you," he said, "not only that youíre ruthless and heartless, but that youíre quite smart."

Xena glowed with the compliment. The man noticed this and smiled.

"Iím a recovering warlord myself," he told her.

"A recovering warlord?" Xena said the words with amusement.

"Yes," he said. "I used to be just as bad as you and Borias, but I. . .quit. Sort of. Iím working on it."

"You quit? Why did you quit?"

Xena studied the young man, her eyes running slowly over his well-defined muscles. Up close, the man was much more impressive than she had estimated before.

"Well, my sister begged me to," he told her, "and I owe my sister a lot."

Xena closed up the bag, covering the reeking corpse, and resting her elbow on top of it carelessly.

"Thatís sweet," she said. "Are you always that. . .sweet?"

"No." The man shook his head. "But I do owe her a lot---and it was the least I could do."

He continued to look her over as she returned to securing the bag.

"You know," he said, "you could be really good, too. If you stopped raiding and killing, you could be hero. Iíve heard about your battle tactics. . .Theyíre very impressive for a man or a woman."

"Thatís swell," Xena said. "Iíll keep that in mind."

He noted her sarcasm with a small smile. He held his hand out for her to take. She took it lightly, and shook it, all the while her eyes were steadily set on him.

"Iím Jak," he told her.

"Pleased to meet you," she said in a sickly-sweet voice.

Xena moved so she could face him, her arms in back of her, supporting her aching back. She gave him a smirk.

"Could you do me a favor?" she asked.

He eyed her warily.

"Depends upon what that favor might be."

"Oh, no," she said, "you donít have to kill anyone. I just need some help with something."

He judged her for a brief moment, and then nodded.

"Fine."

"Great," she said eagerly, and revealed the corpse again.

She drew a dagger from her boot, a thin double-edged weapon she rarely used unless it suited her purpose. She smiled, convincingly at Jak who gave a weak one in return. She straddled the corpse, using her free hand to expose his chest and abdominal area. Then she plunged the knife deep into his stomach, wrenching the blade around in a circular path. She opened up the corpse, clearing passage to the intestines, the other bloody organs she pushed aside, fearlessly with her eager hands. The insides were still warm, and the blood clung to her exploring hands. Jak cringed at the stench, but watched intently as the morbid woman pulled out a string of intestines. She looked encouragingly to Jak as she jerked the remainder of the long entrails out onto the ground before them.

"Nice, huh?" she said in surprisingly good-humor.

Jak nodded faintly. He looked on as she stood, and tested a nearby tree branch with her weight. She judged it all right with a discerning nod, and turned back to the corpse, her expression focused on her inner goal.

"Do you really have to do this?" Jak asked quietly.

"Yeah," Xena said. "I told this guy Iíd let him deliver Borias a message for me." She grabbed for the exposed intestines. "And heís going to do just that."

She picked up the corpseís upper body, and placed it into Jakís hands.

"Here," she instructed, "hold this."

He took the body, falling forward a little with the weight, but managed to regain his balance.

"If I do this favor for you," he said slowly, "will you do one for me?"

"Depends on what it is," she mocked him.

He smiled a little.

"Promise?"

"Yeah," she said, reluctantly.

She urged Jak to lift the man off the ground. He held the corpse steadily while she secured the intestines to the tree, her hands sliding over the greasy organ while she attempted to get a good grip on them. Jak cringed as she tightened the knot with a sickening squelch. With a nod from her, Jak let the man go, and he fell suspended several inches from the ground. Xena stepped back and admired her work.

"Zeus, thatís gross," Jak said.

"Yeah. It is," Xena admitted. "But itís worth it. If this doesnít get through to Borias, nothing will."

"Do you always take revenge to such. . .extremes?"

Xena patted him on the back with a bloody hand as she passed by him.

"Youíre just beginning to learn," she said, "Iím a very extreme person."

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Jak watched her trot off in the direction of a nearby stream. His stomach turned a little as he caught the scent of the entrails. He turned back to the corpse, shaking his head slowly, observing the mutilated body dangling from the tree branch.

Xena stooped over the small brook, immersing her hands in the water. She mused over the thought of Borias stumbling onto Retyiusí body, and the expression he would have on his face when he saw it. A faint smile broke out over her lips, but immediately formed a smirk as she felt someone else in her presence. A trail of blood stained the translucent water, and trickled down past rocks, gradually making its way into the small pond at the bottom. She lifted her head and met her visitorís eyes. He smiled down on her, watching the blood run from her hands.

"Thatís morbid," Aries said, nodding in the direction of the corpse, "what you did back there."

"Too morbid for the God of War?" she asked, playfully.

"No," he answered, curtly. "I rather like it."

Xena dried her hands on her skirts, and stood. She gave him a questioning glance.

"So what are you doing here? You obviously havenít come for nothing," she commented.

Aries acknowledged her abruptness with a fleeting smile.

"Oh, Xena," Aries began. "Why must you always be so. . .to the point?"

She smiled.

"Itís called focus," she said softly.

He came up beside her, close enough she could catch the heavy scent of his leather garments. He stroked her cheek lovingly, but his eyes were intense. She met his gaze with an equally powerful one, and his seriousness broke with a smile. He leaned in to kiss her, but he soon felt her leave his arms.

Xena wagged a solitary finger at him.

"Not until you tell me why youíre here," she told him.

Aries smiled and mumbled something about "focus".

"Fact is," Aries said, "I donít like seeing you without an army. It makes me sick. Why donít you go back to Borias?" She shot him a glare and he quickly abandoned his suggestion. "Or start your own army?"

Xena smiled at his proposals, but even more at his concern.

"One," Xena began, "I donít intend to go back to Borias. He needs me, he just doesnít know it. I figure, if I let him come to me, heíll finally realize how valuable I am. Two, Iím not in the mood for an army at this point."

Aries frowned and shook his head.

"Battle, Xena," he said, "thatís what your made for."

"Iím tired of dealing with imbeciles," Xena muttered. "I can do so much more on my own."

"Imbeciles," Aries repeated amusedly. "Donít get me wrong, Xena. I agree with you completely. The mortal race is by definition imbeciles." He closed in on her again. "But I canít stand to see you like this. . .youíre powerless."

"Iím not powerless," Xena protested, retreating from Aries. Aries shook his head.

"Xena," Aries began, "you have no men, no army, no soldiers. Youíre weak. You need an army."

"Iím not weak!" she snapped. "If anything, Iím better off than Iíve ever been!" Her glare penetrated him. "And I donít need your help or advice. . .so get lost."

Aries countered her glare before disappearing. The air grew still and quiet as the godís presence faded. Xena calmed herself and forced the conversation to the back of her mind.

Xena returned to Jak moments later, her hands cleansed from the crimson red blood. She seemed very unaffected, offering only a small acknowledgment of the body as she passed by it and took her place beside Jak.

"So whatís this favor?"

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"Not a very romantic meeting, but Iíve never been a romantic, anyway," Xena said regretfully.

Gabrielle was still cringing with the vision. She retreated a little from Xena. Xena noticed this and smiled.

"Sorry," she said, "but you asked me to tell you the story."

"I know, I know," Gabrielle said. "But I just canít get over. . ." She shuddered. "Zeus, thatís gross."

"Exactly what Jak said," Xena said, smiling faintly.

They shared a tacit moment of silence in which the two women gazed into the fire blankly. Gabrielle shattered the moment with a solitary question:

"So what was the favor?"

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"Travel with you for two days? This favor only took you five minutes! Thatís not fair." Xena dismissed the deal with an avid objection.

Jak shrugged.

"I helped you out," he reasoned. "Now, the least you can do is do this for me. Iíll get you to wherever it is youíre

going, all youíve got to do is travel with me." He gestured to his old wagon beside him. "Weíll travel by wagon. Itís a lot faster than on foot."

Xena shook her head at first, but with a little thought, she lifted her eyes and met his.

"Youíll bring me wherever I want to go?" she asked.

"Thatís the deal," Jak said. "All youíve got to do is let me take you there. Iíll get you accommodations along the

way. . .whatever."

Xena took a thoughtful moment to weigh the deal in her mind, and then acquiesced, nodding slowly.

"All right," she said. "You have a deal."

She stuck out a hand, and met his halfway. It quickly retracted, and she eyed him warily.

"Iím not a concubine," she warned. "I donít do prostitution."

"No. Nothing like that," Jak agreed. "Under the deal, I wonít ask you to do anything you donít want to."

His hand remained, suspended in the air, waiting for the consolation of her own. She regarded it, carefully, and then took it. She shook it firmly, watching the unchanging expression on his face. He caught her critical eye, and smiled.

"Xena," he said, "there isnít a profit in everything, and sometimes the profit isnít measured in gold."

"Thatís deep," she said, patting him on the shoulder, and stepping in front of him. "Are we going to shove off?"

"If you want to," he said.

"What a gentleman," she mumbled underneath her breath. "Yeah. Sure. Letís get out of here."

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"I donít get it," Xena said, studying Jak as he steered the wagon onto the center of the path.

He let her words be captive in momentary silence, and then answered.

"Get what?"

"What are you getting?" she asked, watching him, "from this, I mean."

He didnít respond, but let her inquiring gaze linger on his face.

"No money, no riches, no army," she shifted her position. "No sex."

He shook his head gently, but said nothing.

"And your sister," Xena went on. "Do you think I really believe you changed your whole life around for your sister? No. Thereís something else. Thereís got to be."

Her fine eyebrow raised in question.

"A girl, maybe?" she asked.

She studied his face.

"No," she concluded. "Not a girl."

"Yes. A girl," Jak broke in. "My sister. I wasnít lying to you."

"Uh-huh."

Xenaís fingers drummed restlessly on her powerful thighs, while she rested her heavy head on her elbow.

"So why exactly do you owe this. . .sister so much?"

"She raised me," Jak explained. "You see, my mother died while having my youngest sister, and my father left us for war shortly after. My older sister gave up her entire childhood for us, and the only thing she ever asked from me, was to settle down and get an honest job. So thatís what I did."

Xena snorted, haughty laughter closely following it.

"Do you think I really believe that?" she asked. "Thatís the biggest load of shit Iíve ever heard. Zeus! Youíre mother died in childbirth! Thatís the most damn unoriginal thing you couldíve came up with. And your father. . .If youíre going to lie, at least be convincing. . .itís boring for the audience."

"Xena," Jak said, seriously, "Iím not kidding. Itís all true."

"Yeah," Xena said, turning her preying gaze from Jak to the road. "Well, Iíve got a real story. My father did abandon me and my mother."

"Thatís too bad," Jak said sympathetically.

She stared off into the distance. Slowly, her senses returned to her.

"So," she began, idly, "you married?"

"No."

"Got a girlfriend?"

"No."

"Live with your sister?"

"As a matter of fact," Jak said, "I do."

Xena shook her head in disbelief.

"Youíre funny, you know that?"

"In what way?"

She didnít answer, but looked deeper into the night. Past the tree line, she could distinctly make out the outline of a fortress. They seemed to be heading towards it.

"Where are we going?" she asked.

"To Corinth," Jak said. "Isnít that what you asked for?"

"Yeah. But, this isnít the right way," she told him.

"It is," Jak assured her. " Itís just a different route than you normally take. Iíve been on this one several times. I know where Iím going."

For a moment, the only sound was the quiet chirping of crickets on either side of them. Jak relaxed. The interrogation was over for now. He almost felt Xena relaxing a little, too; letting down her protective guard, and finally realizing he wasnít a threat to her. He felt her cold gaze on him again.

"I thought weíd spend the night here," he said, indicating the castle. "If you donít mind."

"No. I donít mind," Xena said. "You know the people here?"

"Barely," he said. "But Iíve heard theyíre very hospitable."

The wagon veered in the direction of the looming castle. Soon, they were within shouting distance, and Xena could clearly make out the interesting architecture of the palace, and the creeping vines crawling up either side of the fortress walls. The palace itself was a vision; wonderfully constructed and each arch and edge tipped with gold. Her eyes gleamed when she thought of the interior. Jak drew the wagon up to the palace, and got out. Xena followed his example, wincing as her sore knee accepted her body weight. Jak was soon beside her, and offered his shoulder as support. She merely glared, and he backed away. They approached the gates, Jak lingering a little behind, so Xena could keep up.

When they reached the gates, Jak rapped on the wood. Soon, footsteps echoed hollowly from inside. A small square of the gates opened up, and a man peered outside. He observed the two people, cautiously, first Jak, then Xena.

"Who are you?" he demanded, "and what do you want?"

"We come in peace," Jak assured him. "Iím a traveling merchant and this is my wife. Weíve been traveling for days, and weíre looking for a place to sleep."

Xena shot him a look.

The man seemed to take a while to evaluate them. Finally he withdrew inside and lifted the gates. He looked them over, suspiciously, as they stepped inside.

"Youíre wife carries a lot of weapons there," he said, nodding in the direction of the Xena.

"Yes," Jak said. "She uses them to protect herself. I taught her how to use them."

The man seemed to accept this. He led them inside.

"I will see you to my lord," he informed them, "and he will decide whether to have you."

"Thank you," Jak said, politely. "We are most gracious."

Xena rolled her eyes with exaggeration as the man led them into the palace.

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"Xena?"

"Yes, Gabrielle?"

"What was the inside of the palace like?"

Xena sighed and smiled, reflecting on her memories. She sat back, and folded her arms, neatly across her chest.

"The palace was----well, it was wonderful," Xena recalled. "The staircase was golden----even the rail. . .I ran my hand over its smooth surface, and thought about all of the other wonders hidden in the palace. It was amazing. . .The whole palace was literally drenched in gold. . .Brightly illuminated tapestries everywhere, and golden pillars dropping from the ceiling. The ceiling itself was beautiful. . .it was so high, it seemed like it was part of the sky only it was entirely crafted with gold, except for the stained glass windows. . .those were beautiful. . ." She smiled at the vision. ". . .legends crafted into beautiful plates of colored glass. I was amazed. . .and also very anxious to get further inside."

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Soon they came to the top of the staircase. A long, elaborate hall extended before them. The guard led them down the length of the hall, stopping at the very last door, a heavy door, presumably made of iron or something similar. He rapped on the door quickly, and a muffled voice from inside permitted entrance. He stepped inside, looking over Jak and Xena, and closed it behind him. Xena sighed as the door closed, the metal barrier denying all sound from leaving the room. She wondered faintly what they were discussing, and what his "lord" would think about her array of weapons.

She studied the hall they stood in, the tapestries clinging to the walls on either side. Even the floor was amazing, a dark, ebony wood, lined with gold at the edges. She stooped over and felt the surface of the cool gold. Jak watched her do this, and smiled vaguely. She rose to her feet, her eyes flashing with the promise of profit.

The door opened once again, and the guard stepped out. He nodded, and waved them inside. Jak stepped in first, then Xena, following closely behind.

The room was entirely adorned with gold, but the throne was the most impressive. Gems plated the head of the throne, and gold and silver intertwined to form the arms, and extending down to the legs. The throne and its occupant were illuminated, and even though the rest of the room was covered with gold and beautiful drapes, it served only as a modest accompaniment to the elaborate throne in the center. The man perched on the throne observed them with a cautious eye, but it soon faded, and his lips lifted, revealing a row of pearly white teeth. Xena felt Jak relax before her.

"Welcome, welcome!" he said eagerly, and waved them further in.

Jak stepped forward. He dropped to his knees, and bowed respectfully, urging Xena to do the same. Xena fell to her knees, and gave a half-hearted bow, a sneer intentionally placed on her lips. Jak rose to his feet, and helped Xena up. She cringed as he aided her to her feet, but realized she had little choice. She could barely get to her feet with help, let alone without. They approached the king, heads bowed down slightly, eyes lifted with their full attention. The king looked over them, smiling brightly.

"Come forward," he urged, "tell me your names. It isnít often we get company here in the kingdom of Micos."

"Micos?" Xena echoed, weakly.

If the king heard her, he didnít seem to pay much attention, he merely waited some response to his question.

"My name is Jak," Jak said. "Iím a traveling merchant. This is my wife. . .Xena."

"Xena," the king numbly repeated, "the name sounds familiar."

"There are thousands of Xenas, my lord," Jak said, then adding, quickly, "but none as special as my wife. She is exceptional."

The king raised an eyebrow.

"Is that right?"

"Yes, my lord."

"Well," the king said, clearing his throat, "I welcome you both here. Youíre more than welcome to spend the night in my castle. In fact, Iíll have my servants draw you two a bed. Iíll give you my best chamber, next in line only to my own. How does that sound?"

"It sounds wonderful, my lord," Jak said, eloquently. "We are much obliged to you, and forever in your service."

"Very well," the king said.

He dismissed several servants, and they quickly scampered from the room. He waved another one over, and gave him specific instructions to show them to their room. Xena watched Jak from the corner of her eye. He stood perfectly still, waiting for an order from the king. She followed his example and remained quiet, but rocked slowly back and forth on her heels.

"Enjoy your stay," he said. "Skiros will show you to your chamber."

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Xena toured their chambers. Everything was adorned with gold and silver, and Xena marveled at the bold, affluent display of wealth. She looked around at the royal purple drapes and the gold-plated furniture. Xena scooped several things into her pockets, small things, like perfume bottles that were laid out before a gold-laden mirror. She turned to Jak who had situated himself on the bed, staring into the ceiling.

"Itís kind of funny, though," Xena said, sniffing the scent of a perfume bottle gently, "King Micos is letting us stay here. . . treating us with hospitality. . .and no more then two days ago, I raided a small village on his land. Funny, huh?"

"Yeah. Funny."

Xena eyed him out of the corner of her eye.

"You know," Xena said, lazily, "if you really want to impress me, you should steal me a whole pile of this kingís riches. That would be impressive. . .of course, youíre on this Ďrecovering warlordí kick, so I doubt that would happen."

Jak said nothing, but turned over on his side.

Eventually, he rose to his feet, and fell into a nearby chair. He drew off his boots, and nestled into the heart of the chair. He turned to her.

"You can take the bed," he offered. "Iíll sleep here."

Xena shrugged.

"Fine."

She set the perfume bottle she was currently playing with back down on the dresser. There were only so many bottles she could store inside her deerskin before it became obvious. She sauntered over to the bed, and relaxed on it. She stretched out her tired legs, gave a heavy sigh, and put her arms behind her head. She closed her eyes lightly with another sigh of contentment.

"I wasnít kidding about the riches, Jak," she said, "if you stole those for me. . .it would be very impressive."

"Is that what Iím out to do? Impress you?"

Xena chuckled at this a little. Her eyes opened, and she studied him from a distance.

"I donít quite understand your intentions," Xena began. "But if you stole these for me. . .I might just stay with you a little longer."

She waited for a response. There was nothing in return, but:

"Good night, Xena."

She mused over his reluctance.

"Good night, Jak."

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The next morning, the king had servants prepare the wagon. The servants scrambled around the wagon, piling luggage into the back, and fixing small things, like the broken wheel. Jak watched them carefully, making sure nothing was misplaced or miscalculated.

Xena felt well-rested and alive with the fresh morning air. The pain in her legs had relented for the time being, and she used this temporary condition to her advantage, enjoying a solitary stroll through the kingís gardens. The gardens were in full bloom, brightly colored flowers in every lush green bush. The air smelled sweetly with the scent of a thousand different types of flowers, melted into one, ambrosial fragrance. Xena stopped in front of a rose bush, examining the fine, red petals of the flowers. Blood red. She stroked one of the flower heads with her rough hand, feeling the smooth soft surface in her palm.

"Xena!" Jak called, "The wagonís ready!"

She tenderly took the stem in between her fingers and snapped it. She turned to Jak, who watched her expectantly from the wagon, and smiled.

"Iím coming!" she said.

She strode over to Jak casually, neglecting the servants as she passed by them. The servants watched the austere woman approach the wagon, their eyes wide with curiosity, but even more so, the fear that the warrior woman inspired deep in the hearts of every spectator.

Jak helped Xena onto the wagon, and Xena accepted it, begrudgingly. He took his place beside her, and took up the reins. He shook the reins lightly and the horses trotted towards the main road, and away from the kingdom of Micos.

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They soon found themselves on the road again. They plundered on in silence for about an hour, until Jak handed the reins to Xena, and crawled into the back of the wagon. Xena turned to watch what he was doing, but she quickly found her eyes back on the road as the wagon hit a large bump. She slowed the horses a little, just so she might catch a glimpse of what he was up to. He soon returned beside her with an elaborate trunk in both hands. He rested the trunk on his lap, and snapped the lock open. She watched in curious fascination as he popped the lid open, and revealed lavish jewels and shining gold. Xena gasped in amazement. She forced the reins back into his hands, and seized the heavy chest from him, setting it down beside her. She opened the lid again, and took a brief moment to looked over the untouched riches. Her eyes were wide with bewilderment. The astonishment quickly converted to greed as she rummaged her eager hands through the riches, examining each rare jewel, grinning foolishly at the trunk full of gold and gems.

"You stole these," she said, addressing Jak.

"Yes," Jak said, softly.

"Whoa!" She held up a brilliant emerald, letting it catch the morning sunís rays.

She smiled, and plunged her hands into the mass of valuables once again. The coins fell from her hands, and landed softly with a pleasing sound into the chest. She plunged her hands into the cool gold again, and threw her head back. If Borias could only see her now. . .

"So I guess I owe you now," she said, finally. "How many more days do I have to travel with you?"

"None," Jak said. "The favor will come later."

"All right."

She seemed satisfied with his offer; satisfied enough to return to the gold without a single question.

Suddenly, men crowded the road from either side, forcing Jak to pull the wagon to a halt. Their armor clanked with each heavy step as they planted themselves firmly in front of the wagon. Xena smiled at the sight of them, and closed her trunk tightly. One of the men stepped forward.

"Xena," he said, "Borias sent me to recover the diamond. If youíll hand it over, there wonít be a fight. If you donít. . ."

He let his voice trail off, meaningfully. Xena studied him for a brief moment, then began in a bored voice.

"Did you get my message?"

The man grimaced.

"Yeah. We got it all right."

"Funny," she said, observing the ranks of men. "I donít think you did."

"Xena," Jak began, quietly, "what is this about?"

Xena ignored him, reserving her full attention to the soldier.

"We found Retyius," the man objected, " We did get your message----youíre a morbid, sick, and twisted person."

She grinned.

"Why, thank you!" she said. "But I donít think you fully understood the message. Whereís Borias?"

"He----he didnít come," the man said. "He sent us to get the diamond. Heís still on his way to Chin."

Xena rolled her eyes.

"Chin, chin," she said, lazily. "Is that all he can think about? Tell him, if he wants his diamond, heíll have to get it himself."

"Xena," the man said, "you belong to Borias. Therefore, the diamond belongs to Borias. Hand it over."

"Until tomorrow morning," Jak cut in, "Xena is mine."

"What?" the man objected.

"Deal is a deal," Jak said. "Xenaís mine until tomorrow morning. Her two days havenít been paid."

"Then I guess weíll have to take it by force," the man said, drawing his sword.

The others followed his example, quickly, pulling their swords from their belts. The glint of the morning sun touched all the blades, forcing Xena to squint against the glare. She narrowed her eyes.

"Guess youíll have to," she said.

The commander hesitated for a brief moment, and then called for an attack, his commanding voice booming through the still forest. Jak stood and drew his sword. Men clambered onto the wagon and Jak kicked them off, occasionally fending them off with his sword. Xena eventually rose beside him, her own sword poised and ready for attack. She delivered a few swift kicks to oncoming men, then sounded her trilling warcry and flipped over the remainder of them. She landed softly on the road behind them. Men surged towards her, and she met them all with her sword, slicing through them with one gigantic sweep. Blood spurted out onto the road, trickling off to the sides, forming small rivers in the gutters beside the road. Xena turned and greeted more men with a sharp edge. Several men attempted to attack her from behind, but she swept them to the ground with a kick as she turned. They fell, their backs hitting the ground with an enormous impact. Several of them quickly scrambled to their feet to try her again. She smiled at their tenacity, but her own was much greater. She plunged her sword into one of them, and smacked the other oneís jaw with her open palm. She took out the third with a kick to the head, and he fell silently to the ground where he remained motionless. Another group of men sprinted for her. She drew her chakrum from her hip, and sent it flying towards them. It sliced through each manís neck, returning to her open hand, dripping with blood. She smiled at the sight, brushed it off on her skirts, and restored the chakrum to its former place at her hip.

Soon, the only man left standing was the commander. He looked around nervously at his fallen men, and backed away.

"Wait!" Xena called.

The commander looked from Jak, poised on the wagon with a raised sword, to Xena, who was stained with blood, extending from her armor to her knees. He made no motion of escaping.

"Please donít kill me," he requested, quietly.

"No," Xena said. "I want you to deliver a message."

"Xena---" Jak began.

She flashed him a glare.

"Not that type of message," she assured him. "Donít want that joke to get old."

She gave a small smile, then turned back to the commander.

"Tell Borias," she said, "if he really wants his diamond, he should come and get it himself."

She waited for some sort of acknowledgment from the soldier. He nodded rapidly.

"Tell him, I donít want any more second-in-commands or anything like that," she said. "It was rather flattering, but if he really wants the diamond, heís got to come for it himself."

The commander waited for further instruction.

"Now go!" Xena waved her hand in dismissal.

The commander ran blindly down the road in the opposite direction. Xena watched him go, a complacent smile at her lips. Then she turned to Jak. He was staring in amazement at her.

"I was told you could fight," he said, "but Iíve never seen anyone fight like that."

She gloated in the compliment, climbing aboard the wagon next to him.

"Well," she said, "I try."

"No, really," Jak said, "Iím very impressed. Iíve never seen a man or a woman fight like that."

She sat back, and jerked her head towards the reins.

"Are we going to Corinth or what?" she asked.

He nodded, his gaze falling from her to the reins. He took them in his hands, and shook them. The horses started a slow trot down the road.

After the battle-glow wore off, and the flash of violence faded in her eyes, Xena became bored, and attempted conversation.

"Iíve got a question," Xena said.

"Whatís that?"

"How come you helped me. . .you know, with that corpse," Xena said. "Didnít that scare you at least a little bit?"

"Yeah. . .well, itís nothing I havenít done before," Jak said. "Just maybe not quite as extreme."

Xena smiled.

"I could tell you were a warlord, anyway," Jak said. "I can see it in your eyes. I used to get that same look. . .that fire.

itís almost demonic in a way. . .but sometimes, Xena, when youíre not thinking about profit or violence, youíre almost beautiful."

"Is that supposed to be a compliment?"

"Well, yeah, sort of," Jak said, chuckling. "But itís true."

He grew quiet for a moment.

"You have the most amazing eyes," he told her, facing her for the first time. "They have incredible depth, like the sea."

"Thatís great," Xena said, sarcastically. "Youíre a regular poet."

He laughed a little to himself. He turned to her.

"You donít mind if we stop for a minute in Rhinesboro, do you? Itís right on the way. I just want to see how my sister is, okay?"

"Go ahead," she said, giving him a wave of permission.

He smiled, and urged the horses to move faster.

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Xena lumbered out of the wagon and onto the street. People glanced at her warily; regarding her large deerskin, and the flashes of brilliant armor underneath with watchful, distrusting eyes. They backed slowly away at the sight of the austere woman, and as Jak came up beside her they drew even further away. Apparently, Jakís reputation as a warlord was well-known throughout Rhinesboro, and the only people that regarded him with friendliness were a few harlots who seemed to know him well. He gave a small wave in their direction as they called his name. Xena eyed them, and then Jak. She smiled knowingly, and followed him as he headed towards a small hut to the left. Throughout the crowded streets, Xena caught whispers of disapproval. This only broadened her smile as she walked, haughtily past the lines of shops and the people gaping from inside. Jak reached the hut, rapped on the door, and ushered Xena to the threshold. Xena took her time catching up with him. She wanted to give the people a show; a hint of the warrior woman she was, and a fear of her they would forever keep in their hearts. She thought to attack one man who eyed her suspiciously from behind a piece of pottery, just to get her message of destruction across, but as she saw Jak again, and the hopeful expression on his face, the thought was dismissed.

She reached the door as it opened slowly. A girl, maybe in her early thirties, peered out. She was a pretty girl, but in a plain and modest way. She had light brown hair, rolled into a tight little bun towards the back of her head. Her lips were uncolored, and her neck was bare, lacking any sort of bauble or pendant. She was a simple girl, and to Xena, she was merely a housewife. The girlís face lit up at the sight of Jak, and the door opened wide. She fell into his arms, and hugged him tightly.

"Itís always good to see youíre alive, brother," she said thankfully.

"Likewise, Rachel."

She pulled back, her eyes in his. Then, slowly she became aware of the other womanís presence, and she looked her over. She asked, weakly:

"Who is this?"

"This is Xena," Jak said triumphantly. "Sheís traveling with me for while. And Xena, this is Rachel, my sister."

"Xena," Rachel repeated slowly.

Xena could tell by the expression on her face sheíd heard the horror stories. Still, Rachel dared not to ask.

"Pleased to meet you," Rachel said, politely, and extended a hand.

Xena seemed for a moment that she might not take it, but to Jakís relief, she accepted Rachelís hand, and gave it a light shake.

"Likewise," Xena said.

She let go of Rachelís hand, but her eyes remained on her. Rachel felt the pressure of the warrior womanís icy gaze, and turned back to Jak for comfort.

"We really just stopped by to make sure you were all right," Jak said, looking inside, "and maybe to get some of those great apple muffins you make."

Rachel laughed lightly.

"Come on in," she said, inviting them inside. "Iíve got a whole bunch in the kitchen."

Jak stepped inside, Xena following him, slowly. Rachel eyed the tall warrior woman as she stepped over the threshold, keeping a safe distance from her.

"Make yourself comfortable," she told them.

"Hey," Jak said, looking around, "whereís Crysta?"

Rachel frowned at the mention of the younger sisterís name.

"Sheís with the local boys," she explained, worriedly, "you know, being sixteen and all."

Jak smiled vaguely.

"Yeah. I know."

"I really do worry about her," she said, "sheís growing up so fast. I hate to think what she does with those boys."

Oh, I can think of a couple things, Xena thought to herself.

Xena settled down in a wooden chair. She remained quiet, observing the two siblings with the utmost skepticism and amusement.

Rachel seemed intimidated by Jakís quiet companion, but tried her best not to show it. She disappeared into the kitchen, and soon came out with a tray full of muffins. She laid them down on the table in front of them, and insisted they take one.

"Eat as many as you like," she said, quickly.

Jak took one, graciously thanking her, and looked to Xena. She met his eyes, but did not take a muffin.

"Arenít you hungry?" Rachel asked carefully.

Xena rolled her eyes up to meet Rachelís. Jak felt the tension in the air as his sister waited for a response. Rachelís eyes grew anxious as it seemed that Xena might not answer. Jak felt anger swelling in his gut towards the haughty warrior who made a chore over answering simple questions. He anticipated the harsh, sharp, witty insult just hanging on her tongue, waiting for the appropriate time to launch it after she had built up so much suspense, but Jak found he was much surprised.

"No, thank you," Xena said, sweetly. "Iím kind of full from breakfast, but itís very kind of you to offer."

Jak breathed a sigh of relief. Rachel sensed the falseness of her voice, but pretended she hadnít.

"Would you care for anything else?" she offered, "a drink maybe? The sunís so hot today."

"A drink would be nice," Jak said, "Xena?"

"Yeah. Sure."

"Is ale all right?"

"Fine with me."

Rachel left the room quickly. Xena flashed Jak a smile.

"Nice little place your sister has here," Xena commented, looking around.

"Yeah," Jak agreed. "I built it for her with some of the locals."

Xena drummed her fingers on the tabletop, and yawned with exaggeration.

"So this is what you left the warlord life for?" Xena said, more to herself than to her companion. "Kind of funny."

Rachel returned to the room with two heavy mugs balanced in her hands. She placed one in front of Jak, and set the other one next to Xena. Jak thanked her quietly, and Xena nodded in approval.

"Why donít you sit down?" Jak suggested to his sister.

She nodded faintly and sat down beside him. He took a small sip from his ale. They both watched Xena take a huge swig, swish it around in her mouth, and stomach it. She gave a charming smile, and attempted to initiate conversation.

"So, ah, your brother tells me your a remarkable woman," she said, eyeing Rachel. "Regular saint, raising up your siblings. Must make you feel good, huh?"

Rachel nodded gently. She looked to Jak for some comfort, and swallowed hard.

"Yes, well, weíve had some tough times."

Xena smiled.

"I bet you wanted to quit, right? I mean, they werenít even really your responsibility in the first place," Xena said, taking another gulp from her mug. "You didnít roll around in bed with your father and shit out these kids, did you? Then you got stuck with raising them up. Lifeís tough, huh?"

Xena waited a moment, relishing Rachelís surprise at her barroom talk. Then she began again:

"My mother," Xena went on, "she hates me. Youíre thinking too bad, right? You know what? I donít give a shit. I donít give a flying fuck what she thinks or says. Iím better than she could ever be. Ten times better."

An uncomfortable moment passed. Jak shot angry glances at Xena over the tabletop, but Xena ignored them, reserving her full attention to idly fooling with the handle of her mug.

"Jak," Rachel cut in, quietly, "could I see you in the kitchen for a moment?"

"Yeah. Sure."

Jak stood and followed her out of the room. Xena watched him over the rim of her mug, a satisfied smile creeping over her lips. She heard the low argument in the kitchen, but could only make out a few words. "Why. . .warlord days were over. . .canít understand. . .difficult." Rachelís frantic whisper persisted even as Jak began to answer. Jakís voice rose a little, enough that Xena could catch more of the conversation. "Iím over that. . .donít you understand. . .she could be good. . .really. . .if she tried." Xena cringed as the ominous "she" reoccurred throughout the quiet quarrel. They were talking about her. In a way, it was annoying, but at the same time, it was kind of flattering. She mused over how quickly sheíd disturbed the household. Sheíd always had an instinct for that.

Soon, they both returned from the kitchen, composed and ready for what would come next. Rachel kept her eyes to the floor as she took her seat silently beside Xena. Jak remained standing, watching the warrior woman coldly.

"Weíre going to go now, all right?" Jak said, more to Xena than to Rachel.

Xena nodded. She stood, raising the mug with her. She finished off the last of its contents in one giant gulp, and made her way to the door.

"Thanks for the drink," Xena said, before they turned to leave. "Iíll keep you in mind when Iím pissing it out."

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They traveled in silence. Jak hadnít said a word since theyíd left Rhinesboro two hours ago. His eyes fixed on the road ahead, and he barely moved or breathed.

Xenaís hands had somehow found their way back into the chest. Her smile reflected the shiny gems as she dove her hands further in, breaking the silence with the soft jingling of coins.

"Jak the Warlord," she said, amusedly. "I donít think Iíve ever heard of you."

"Well," Jak said, "itís been a while."

"Well itís been a while for me, too," Xena said. "Iíve been a warlord for at least six years now."

"Yes," Jak said, concentrating on the road. "So Iíve heard."

"And it all changed with your sister?" Xena swerved the subject back to Jak, "That Rachel girl?"

"Yes," Jak said heavily.

Xena could tell he was smothering his temper. The anger was raising his voice a little, but other than that, he seemed calm and collected.

"What about your father?" Xena asked.

"What about him?"

She closed the trunk lightly.

"How do you think he felt?" she asked, "To see his son go from greatness to zero in a matter of days? You said your father was a man of war. Thatís what he left you for, right?"

It seemed as if Xena was trying to disturb him in some way but Jak held his cool, his grip tightening on the reins a little. He approached her question carefully, leaving no room for insult.

"He left us out of bravery." Jak assured her. "My father was a courageous soldier."

"Where is he now?" Xena asked mildly.

"I donít know." Jak said honestly. "He never returned from the war. I suppose he was killed in battle."

"Is that right?" Xena asked, teasing him. "What was your popís name?"

"Petroclus," Jak answered.

"Petroclus," Xena said the name slowly. "Whereíd you say he came from?"

"Rhinesboro," Jak said, "my hometown village."

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"And that was when I couldíve done something terrible," Xena said, slowly.

Gabrielle had long since pushed closer to Xena, and now she was almost leaning against her.

"Done what?" Gabrielle asked, curiously.

"I could have told him the truth," Xena said, unhappily, "that his father was a coward. I donít know if he ever did go off to that war Jak was talking about, but he did join my army much later. He ran from battle, got scared and ran. He was one of the worst soldiers Iíd ever had. He couldnít fight, and he wasnít brave in the least. If I ever caught him again, I was sure to kill him. He ran from battle and I donít respect that. I still donít, but I did a nice thing. . .I didnít breathe a word of it to Jak. He held his father so highly, almost like he was talking about some legendary hero, like Odysseus or something. I couldnít bear to tell him that his father was such a coward. I think, by making his father out to be such a hero, Jak could deal with the fact that his father left them. He never even sent money back for them. They were totally on their own."

"Thatís awful," Gabrielle said, "I donít understand how someone can leave innocent children behind so easily."

Xena looked, vaguely down at her boots. Gabrielle caught her gaze immediately. Her hand fell on Xenaís shoulder.

"Xena," Gabrielle said, "I didnít mean it that way. When you left Solan, you left him in good hands. Petroclus didnít even leave them a mother or a caretaker."

Xena smiled, weakly, her thoughts with her dead child.

"I know you didnít mean it that way," she said. "Itís just sometimes I wonder if I really did the right thing----leaving Solan behind like that."

Gabrielle rubbed her shoulder consolingly.

"You did the right thing," she assured her. "Children arenít fit for the road, and the lifestyle you lead." The hand fell back to her own side, and she smiled. "Now go on with the story."

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"Do you know him?" Jak asked, eagerly, excited by her interest in the name.

She studied him for a moment. Then she shook her head, slowly.

"No," she said. "Never heard of him. For all I care, he could be a sheepherder or something."

"Oh," Jak tried to hide his disappointment.

Xena sat back, toying with a ruby gem between her fingers. She held the gem eye-level, looking through the partially transparent jewel at Jak, who appeared misshapen and blood-red through the gem.

"That really bugs you, doesnít it?"

"What?"

"That I was rude to your sister."

"Yes. It does," Jak said, honestly. "But itís not like I could have helped it."

Xena raised a fine eyebrow.

"Oh really? I think you would have liked to punch me out or something," Xena said, "or at least kicked me out of the house."

"That wouldnít have helped, Xena," Jak said. "I canít change you. Only you can change yourself."

"Who says I want to change?"

"Exactly."

Xena seemed a little annoyed at the sudden loop in their conversation. She closed the ruby in her fist.

"What are you talking about?"

"Nobody can make you change," he said, "you have to want to change."

"Well, I donít," Xena said. "I like the life I lead."

"Do you?"

Xena put the question into the slow turmoil of thought in her mind, but when it became complicated, she tore back into reality.

"Why are you asking me all these questions?"

"I donít know," Jak shrugged, nonchalantly. "To make conversation."

"Well, stop it," Xena said, defiantly.

She clenched the ruby tightly in her fist. Her temper colored her cheeks, warmed her. After a few silent minutes, she began to relax, but still she eyed Jak from the side. Her anger settled with the cool night air, and she closed her eyes lightly. She felt herself growing less aware of her surroundings, and fading into a surface sleep.

She was awakened by a sudden jar in the wagonís movement. She spun around as several men fell from the trees, and landed on the wagon. The wagon shook, unsteadily with the impact, knocking Xena forward. She resiliently regained her balance, pulling herself to her feet, and turned to face the men who had already drawn their swords. She grinned and pulled her own sword from its sheath.

"An ambush," Jak said, quietly.

He took his place beside her, and drew his sword. The men growled in pleasure at the sight of two adversaries. The leading one made the first move, a quick thrust towards Xena. She blocked the blow, and kicked him in the ribs. He fell backwards off the wagon, and lay still. More men poured from the brush beside them, surrounding the wagon. Jak looked desperately to Xena:

"What are we going to do?" he asked.

"Kill Ďem all!" she shouted.

"Are you crazy?" Jak objected, but she had already begun to fight.

She drove her sword into a man that surged at her, then quickly pulled it out, and met another man with it. She could hear men clambering up the side of the wagon behind her. She back-fisted the first in the face, then swung around and met the others with a swift kick. Bodies flew from the wagon to the ground, landing with dull thuds, followed by groans.

"Xena! I canít hold them off!" Jak called.

Xena turned to Jak who was overwhelmed with a dozen men, fending off blows from every direction. She came to his rescue, slashing her sword through several throats at a time, while watching Jakís back. In some ways, they had the upper hand being on the wagon, but it hardly made up for the fact that they were drastically outnumbered.

Jak saw his opportunity, quickly as the men withdrew from the front of the wagon, attempting to get at them from behind. The population of the ambush had decreased sufficiently, mostly by Xenaís fatal slashes. He pushed passed Xena and the soldiers, and fell into his seat at the reins. He shook the reins, violently, and the horses started with a jump. Men fell from either side of the wagon as the horses jolted forward. Xena herself lost her balance, and nearly fell over the side. She recaptured it, however, and managed to get enough footing to kick off several soldiers still clinging onto the sides of the wagon. Through the dust clouds, Xena could just barely make out the upset men, scrambling to their feet in pursuit of the wagon. They were long gone however, and it was impossible to catch up to them on foot. Xena carefully made her way up to the front of the wagon, descending beside Jak, and taking her former seat. The battle-fire was still in her eyes, and she looked excitedly to the road ahead, and what might lie in store for them.

"That was close," Jak said. "I thought we were dead for a minute there----"

"Naw," Xena said. "We would have won, even if we stayed there. Boriasí men arenít too bright, and theyíre very overconfident. I could have taken them out by myself."

Jak said nothing, but concentrated on the road ahead. Finding some confidence in the distance heíd put between the ambush and the wagon, he slowed the horses down to a more normal pace. He peered out ahead, squinting through the darkness, making out the rough shape of a fortress ahead, a dark, ominous shadow against the forest.

As they grew closer, they could see it was a modest fortress that served only for the purpose of defense. Jak veered the wagon in front of it, and stopped the horses. He climbed out.

"Seems like a good place to stay," he said.

"As good as any," Xena said, eyeing the large castle.

"Iíll talk with the guard," he explained. "Heíll get us a room."

Xena watched Jak approach the gates. She sighed, her adrenaline from the battle dwindling and eventually dying off. She almost wished she could go back and toy with Boriasí men a little further, but in the dark that would be risky.

She heard the low conversation between Jak and the guard. Moments later, a short man appeared in front of her followed by Jak.

"The king has agreed to give us lodging," Jak told Xena.

The short man observed Xena, skeptically.

"Whoís this? Your concubine?"

Xena sneered.

"No," Jak answered, "sheís my wife."

"Concubine," she muttered, indignantly as she passed by the small man.

The castle interior was dark; the walls a somber gray with shadowy corners dwindling into pitch black. It took a few moments for Xenaís eyes to adjust to the darkness, and she felt herself bumping into Jak several times. Jak took her arm, gently, to guide her, but she shook his grip off, and tried the best she could to make out rough shapes ahead of her. The guard paused only once, to see if they still followed. He led them up a staircase, its color dulled from lack of care. Xena was unimpressed with the castle interior, but nonetheless, every king had his riches, and somewhere within the castle, there were valuables.

Soon, they found themselves in their chamber, a plain room that Xena took only a moment to measure, and then dropped to the bed with disgust.

"This isnít a castle," she said. "I see no riches, no gold. . ."

Jak shrugged.

"Itís a place to sleep," he said.

"Yeah. Thatís about all," Xena agreed.

Xena lifted her head, and watched Jak casually. He was sharpening his sword, steadily with rock heíd pulled out from a sack on his hip. The blade made a threatening noise as he coursed the rock over it, and Xena smiled.

"You know," Xena said, "I bet you made a good warlord."

He stopped what he was doing, and let his sword fall to his side. He turned, smiling gently in her direction.

"I was all right," he admitted. "But I didnít have enough drive. . .motivation, maybe."

He returned to sharpening his blade.

"Motivation?" Xena said. "Even without the gold, the riches, the power alone is enough."

He said nothing, but tested the blade with a straying finger.

"Thereís something about having all that power----itís very appealing," Xena explained. "Controlling a whole army, conquering villages, towns, and eventually cities----I canít explain it. I love it."

Jak mused over her last sentence.

"Thereís more to life than power," he said quietly.

Xena studied his face, the fine lines of stress over the years accenting his gentle expression.

"Thereís love," she said, softly, "and passion."

Jak pocketed the rock in his sack, and sheathed his sword. He thought softly on her words, but did not meet her eyes. He stood, and paced over to the window.

"I trust youíre leaving tomorrow," he said quietly.

She gave no response.

Jak stared out into the night. The moon was a sliver, providing little light, but a creating a surreal effect on the landscape below. The night was still and calm, and not an animal or person stirred outside. Jak watched the tranquil setting from the window, his thoughts elsewhere.

Suddenly, Xena was beside him.

"That favor," she said, softly. "What was it?"

Jak continued to stare out at the black night.

"I want you to return the chest," Jak said, "to Micos."

"No," Xena said, firmly.

"Itís my only request," Jak said.

She stepped back angrily.

"Listen," she said, "if you want to change, thatís fine. Donít drag me into your Ďreformed warlordí shit!"

Her words echoed off the walls of the chamber. Jak turned to her.

"Iím not asking you to change," he said calmly. "Iím just asking you to do a small favor. Return the chest to Micos, the rightful owner. If you choose to change, thatís your decision. This is only one good deed amongst a thousand you could do. Youíre an amazing woman, Xena. You have no idea what you could accomplish."

"Iím everything I want to be now!" Xena shouted, "I donít need people trying to change me and every little thing I do! This is what I was born to do, this is my destiny!"

"Xena," Jak said, "Iím not writing your destiny, Iím just telling you you can change it."

"I donít want to change it," she said defiantly, "This is my life. . .my decisions. . .If you think you can change me with a stupid chest, then youíre gravely mistaken. . .I might as well go back to Borias."

He touched her arm, gently. "Borias doesnít know how special you are. If you go back to him. . ." He shook his head.

". . .No, youíre better than that. Youíve been weaned on hatred---I can see that fire in your eyes, but it doesnít mean you canít change. . ." Her eyes were swelling with forming tears. She wiped them away, cursing at him. His hand remained on her arm, a comforting reality in the midst of his words. ". . .I donít see you as the blood-thirsty warlord you are, but as the magnificent, beautiful creature you could become. I see that."

"Youíre fucking with my head," Xena said softly, as she pulled closer to kiss him, her eyes still watering.

Her lips met his gently. She pulled back, but soon returned, unable to control herself. Her mind clouded, and she was suddenly moving slowly back, guided by Jakís strong hands. Soon they were on the bed, Xena in a trance, her cheeks streaming with tears, and her lips pressed, closely against Jakís. She stripped him of his shirt, and he dutifully did the same to her. Her armor fell from his hands, clattering to the floor. He unstrung her leather undergarment, and revealed soft, pulsing flesh. She pressed against his warm, bare chest, his heart synchronized with her own. Her hands slid down to his pants, teasing the button, and then releasing it. He took the initiative to draw his own pants off, and they fell, softly to the floor. Her leather skirts eventually found their way to the floor, also. Her lips melted into his and she urged his hands to run up her body. Jak brought himself down into her, slowly, and she groaned a little. He lifted, and descended again. They shared another kiss, Xenaís tongue pushing through and reaching his own. Her hands felt over his rippling chest, nestling into the patch of chest hair between his pecks. He found himself inside her again, and she cried out quietly. He held her tightly against him, her warm breasts pressed to his chest. She quivered slightly, and he sensed this, and released his hold on her. She didnít let him, but tugged him closer, her wanting lips held tightly to his. His hands ran down the length of her legs as she wrapped them around him. She cried out with the next thrust, and he quickly withdrew. He hesitated before diving into her again, but she gripped his back, and he pulled him into her. He moaned softly as she kissed him tenderly on the lips. She forced him to roll into the bed, and she soon found herself on top. Her dark black mane fell across his face and shoulders. He caught the primal scent of her hair above the heavy fragrance of her perfume as she moved in for his lips. He stroked her hair gently as she lip-locked him, her whole body shuddering with fervent passion. Finally, she allowed him to fall softly against the bed. He looked into her eyes, and held her gaze. She smiled.

"Xena," he said.

Her smile faded quickly, and she put a lone finger on his mouth.

"Donít," she warned. "Donít say it."

"I love you," he said.

She closed her eyes, tightly. Her lips found his again.

"Please believe me when I tell you it," he said, softly between kisses.

Xena said nothing, but continued receive his kisses.

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"Wow, Xena," Gabrielle said, shaking her head a little, "I had no idea. . .was it. . ."

Xena smiled.

"Good? Yes."

"Whoa." Gabrielle was still picturing the scene in her mind.

"It was probably the most erotic night of my life," Xena recalled. "Except for that one night in Tripolis. . .with the Persians in the bar. . .and all those whips. . ."

She frowned and shook her head.

"Another story," Xena said.

"I think maybe Iíll skip that one," Gabrielle said.

"You see, when Borias and I made love, it was like animals," Xena remembered. "But Jak and I were different. When he said he loved me, I knew he meant it. Borias said it only during sex. . .and he didnít even mean it."

"What did you guys do next?" Gabrielle asked, eagerly.

Xena smirked.

"If youíre looking for another sex scene," Xena said, observing her over-excited companion, "nothing of the sort." Gabrielle reddened to the ears, and sank back against the log. Xena continued. "I left him that night. . .didnít even make his deal of two days. I used the curtains to make a rope for myself, then I crawled out the window when Jak had fallen asleep. . .didnít even leave a note. . ."

Xena fell into a distant silence. Gabrielleís hand fell on her shoulder.

"Itís all right," she said, "itís in the past."

"Yeah," Xena smiled, grimly. "Itís in the past."

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Xena surveyed the horizon sullenly, her thoughts lost in the weekís events. The land grew increasingly flat as they headed towards Chin, but she could see huge, purple mountains looming in the distance. She stared off into the desolate plains. She became suddenly aware of Boriasí presence, and smiled briefly. She turned and met his eyes.

"Xena," he said, his diamond bouncing on its pendant, "the men are ready to depart. Are you coming?"

"Yes, Borias," Xena assured him.

Last night they had made love so furiously, Xena was almost restored in Boriasí eyes. Borias tugged on her arm lightly, and indicated the restless army. Xena nodded softly.

"I missed you, Xena," Borias said, truthfully.

"I missed you, too," she said.

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"It wasnít a lie," Xena said to her quiet companion. "I did miss him, but it wasnít so much him in a sense. It was more like the army, the battles, the promise of fortune. That was what I missed. But at the same time, I kind of missed Boriasí familiarity. It was something I needed at the time."

"So you just left Jak like that?" Gabrielle asked. "And for Borias? Didnít you even return the chest for him?"

"Iím getting to that," Xena said, amused at her companionís interest, swatting away the questions with an idle hand. "The kingdom of Micos was pretty far behind us, now. . ."

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Xena sat alone in her tent, playing, idly with jewels from the trunk Jak had stole her what seemed like so long ago. Really, it had only been a matter of days, maybe a week or two. Xena sighed, and twisted a pearl necklace around her index finger, listening to the scuffles of the army settling into camp for a nightís rest. Borias was off discussing routes of travel with his new second-in-command; the brutal death of the former second-in-command hadnít phased him much. In fact it only sparked an increasing lust for the murderess. She smiled at the memory, but looked at her clean hands, frowning, imagining the blood running down her wrists like it had before.

The thread snapped, and the pearls spilled off the necklace and over her hands. She didnít bother to pick them up; there were plenty left in the trunk. She eyed the trunk again. A terrible, sinking feeling sat in her stomach. Her thoughts turned to the origin of the trunk, but were soon interrupted as a man stepped inside her tent.

"Hello, Borias," she said.

"Xena," Borias said, lustfully.

His eyes set on her, but were quickly averted by the trunk full of riches.

"Where did you get that, Xena?" he asked. "Those riches are fit for the palace of Micos."

Xena smiled, distantly.

"Thatís my little secret," she said softly.

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"I didnít enjoy making love to Borias at all that night," Xena explained to her young friend. "I couldnít keep my mind off the trunk, and more importantly Jak."

"What did you do?" Gabrielle egged her on.

"I left the next morning," Xena continued, "to the kingdom of Micos."

"So you brought it back?" Gabrielle asked, in disbelief.

Xena nodded.

"Yeah, I brought it back," she said.

"And then you went back to Jak, right?"

Xena nodded again, sadly.

"But not in the way you expected," Xena said. "I felt so disgusted with what I did----taking the trunk back----I felt like I had betrayed myself, or worse, I was beginning to become tamed. That was what I feared most, having to settle down, raise a family, and leave the warlord life behind. . .like Jak. I got so angry for what he made me do. He was trying to change me-----trying to destroy everything Iíd worked to be. . .and he had said those words. . .nothing scared me more than love at that time, and love had taken over my mind, and he was the cause of it. . .I snuck into his house while he was asleep. . .he was so angelic, the way he slept. I watched for a few minutes, just watched. Then I felt myself softening, and I became angry again. He had tamed me. . .for a brief while, he had tamed me." Xena was distant, but her eyes were tearless. "I drew out my dagger and sank it into his heart. . ." She looked, deeply into the fire. ". . .and I just kept doing it, and doing it. I hated him for what heíd done to me." When she looked to Gabrielle, her eyes were clouded with tears.

"You killed him?" Gabrielle asked, in disbelief.

"Yes. I killed him," Xena said, softly, "and not only that, but after he was dead, I cried over the corpse. My sobbing woke up his sister. . .she came and saw him all bloody, and me crying with a dagger in my hands, and she just screamed and screamed and I panicked. . .I killed his sister. . .slit her throat. . ."

Xena quieted and let the crackling flames fill the silence. Gabrielle stared in awe at the fire, avoiding eye contact with Xena. She heard Xena, gently wiping away her tears. She breathed heavily.

"Iím sorry," Xena said, "I shouldnít have told you that----"

"No. I asked," Gabrielle said, wiping tears from her own eyes.

Somehow, she managed to push over and hug Xena, tightly. Xena smiled pathetically, and held the young girl close against her.

"I was awful," she apologized, "that was one of the worst things Iíd ever done in my life and Iíll regret it forever."

She let Gabrielle fall gently beside her. She said nothing in her own defense, but let Gabrielle consume herself with hate for the warrior princess of old. Xena could feel the disgust in Gabrielleís thoughts; a disgust so great Gabrielle refused Xenaís eyes for several minutes. After the moment passed, Gabrielle looked up to her with questioning eyes.

"So why is this bothering you now?" she asked, "what started you thinking about it?"

Xena met her eyes, seriously.

"Two nightís ago," she began, "I woke up. . .and he was there, watching me sleep."


Part 2


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