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With Good Intentions

by Enginerd

October 1998

Disclaimers, Warnings and Other Information:

1. This is a Xena: Warrior Princess© story

2. Sixth in a series of stories in Enginerd's Xenaverse. Follows the story "For Better or Worse." While not necessary to read the previous stories, it is highly encouraged.

3. Content: This story involves scenes involving the following:

a. Love between women

b. Xena and Gabrielle

c. Janice and Mel

d. Acts of violence, implied and described, against people, horses AND clothing.

* Graphic violence is included and people die.

e. Gambling, drinking, smoking, swearing and Janice.

4. What third season?

5. Length: Very Long. If you attempt to read this in one sitting, the following recommendations are offered:

a. Do not drink a lot of fluids as too many fluids may require a break(s), thus violating the strict "in one sitting" rule.

b. Do not read near bed time - sleeping, dozing or naps are classified as interruptions to the "one sitting." However, medical emergencies are acceptable interruptions if observed and documented by an independent party.

c. Do not make any plans for a minimum of six hours.

d. Wear comfortable, non binding clothing.

e. Power bars and caffeinated beverages (caution: please see recommendation 4.a. above) are recommended for consumption during this reading marathon.

f. Do not plan to do anything requiring complicated motor skills immediately after, as those skills may be impaired.

6. Thanks to my beta gal Trusty.


The warrior stood on the rocky ledge. Alone.

She watched the sun make its slow descent behind snow-capped mountains, releasing spectacular colors that burst across the sky. Yet to the warrior, the brilliant display only signaled the end of another miserable day.

As dusk conquered day, the warmth of the valley fled from the invading night chill. The invasion was hastened by the unforgiving wind, erupting through the mountains in fierce gusts.

Even after pulling her heavy cloak tightly around herself, the warrior shivered. Her attempt to shield against the invasion was futile; the chill easily cut through her cloak like a sharp sword.

With the fleeting daylight, she carefully scanned the valley below one last time to confirm no one followed. No one did. The valley was empty, she concluded numbly, her precautions second nature and unthinking. Had she stopped to think, she would have been too weak to leave everything behind.

But she had to. . . .

She had to, she repeated to herself as her fingers unconsciously drifted to where her chakrum once hung. The vivid memories of that horrifying moment flooded back. The Warrior Princess inhaled deeply, struggling to bury the sickening feeling that threatened to overwhelm her.

There was no other option, she told herself and slowly exhaled.

With a temporary victory over the emotional turmoil, she glanced over her shoulder at her new home, a small cave. It was still as well hidden as she remembered from so many years ago . . . a lifetime ago. The lifetime of violence and pain she was going to spend the rest of her life trying to atone for. But that atonement was not possible . . . not now.

Lifeless eyes, no longer reflecting their usual vibrance, slowly returned their gaze to the dark valley below. No one would be able to find it, she concluded with certainty. She knew this because the few people who knew of this cave were dead. She had killed them.

Entering the familiar cave, the Warrior Princess lit a torch and inspected the small interior. As she exhaled, the cloud of warm breath promised the bitter chill would not willingly retreat from the cave. She noted with relief a large pile of wood still stacked against the cave wall, soon to be stacked in the empty pit in the center of the cave floor.

As she reached for the wood, the fierce wind attacked through the cave's small opening. The Warrior Princess shuddered, this time from the disturbing sound that resonated throughout the cave, not the cold blast. Once again the wind wailed, as if in pain, evoking an angry glare from the warrior towards the entrance.

Xena quickly spotted the barricade of large branches, hopeful it would dampen that infernal howling. Within three purposeful strides, she was by the barricade. Wedging her torch in a crevice in the cave wall, she paused a moment to warm her trembling hands over the flame. The next antagonistic gust provided her the incentive to pull her reluctant body away from the warmth and finally silence the unsettling sound.

Leaning into the side of the heavy barricade with her shoulder, she slowly pushed it towards the opening. The old wood frame shuddered as it scraped along the floor, losing a few branches during the rough trip. When it finally covered the opening, Xena eyed the camouflaged barricade, noting with a grimace how it allowed streaks of twilight to peak through.

When the next gust came, the warrior closed her eyes and exhaled with relief. The wind's cry was finally silenced.

Now able to focus on gathering the firewood, Xena started the chore of stacking the logs in the stone-lined pit. A chore she had done alone countless times before. But never had she felt so alone. Even her warhorse, Argo, who over the years proved to be a better friend than most people, was no longer at her side.

Xena retrieved the torch from the cave wall and lowered it to the pit. She stared as the old wood crackled and popped, eagerly fueling the flames. Her vacant eyes focused on her torch a moment before she extinguished it and placed it back with her supplies.

Reaching for her bedroll, she eyed the package of dried meat and fruit she hadn't touched since she left. With no argument from her still uneasy stomach, she sighed and pushed the package back in her saddle bags.

She unpacked her bedroll, more than ready to put this day behind her. Though she knew the night was not about to offer her relief. She sat on her bedding near the fire. This was the time she dreaded most. The time she wasn't moving. The time when she battled her thoughts and memories.

She held her hands out, close to the flames to shake the chill that still lingered. However, it really didn't matter how big the fire or how long she held her hands over it. The chill running through her was not one a fire could cure. Xena knew it wasn't that simple.

At one time, she remembered, things were simple. The time she was certain the 'Warrior Princess' would die by the sword . . . young and alone. There was no question. It was an obvious conclusion to the life she led. Then somehow, when she met a young bard, that certain future became uncertain.

It wasn't long before the warrior carelessly lowered her guard against the bard's insidiously contagious optimism. With that skeptical guard lowered, the Warrior Princess actually began to believe in the bard's dreams. Dreams that suddenly made the warrior's life anything but simple.

Besides hope, peace and love solving the world's plentiful problems, the warrior began to believe they would also be the key to her future. A future that was long, happy and with Gabri . . . the bard.

She shut her eyes and tried to push the name from her thoughts as if that would somehow ease the pain.

It didn't.

She shook her head with self-loathing that the Destroyer of Nations could have been so naive. After all she had lived through, she should have known better than to believe in the dreams of a bard. Grabbing a branch, she angrily fought her emotions and jabbed the firewood, which was devoured by flames as easily as her dreams were consumed by hopelessness.

She should have known better than to make those dreams her own, Xena thought, sneering at the fire.

She should have known there was too much blood on her hands to ever make those dreams come true.

She should have known she could not protect her love from the greatest danger of them all . . . herself.

Exhaling, she fought the tears that brimmed her eyes and the ache that tore at her heart. She should have known. . . .

"Gabrielle." The name slipped from the warrior's quivering lips.

Outside the cave the bitter wind continued to gust, carrying with it a wail that even the heavy barricade could not muffle.

CHAPTER 1 - A New Adventure

An obnoxiously loud horn sounded again, as the impatient driver blurted a few choice expletives. It was hot, humid, and they were going to be late if they didn't leave now.

With an annoyed groan and a few more colorful words, the young woman opened the truck door and climbed out onto the running board. Without her usual fedora, she was forced to squint in the blinding sun as she looked out over the roof of her truck for a certain late southerner.

Scanning the top of the hotel steps, Janice quickly realized the sun's glare prevented her from seeing the faces of the guests exiting the four-star Athens hotel. However, she knew she wouldn't have to see her face to spot the tall woman. Miss Melinda Pappas always stood out in a crowd.

Janice finally spotted the ever-impeccably dressed woman emerging from the Grande Bretagne. When Mel glanced at her watch then started to chat with the uniformed doorman, Dr. Covington shook her head in disbelief.

"Jesus CHRIST Mel, come on! We've got a meeting to go to!" She shouted and leaned on the horn again, startling the tall woman and doorman.

Looking to the street and finding a piercing green glare directed her way, the tall woman cringed.

"I was just . . . ," Mel blurted in her defense as she carefully descended each step.

"FINE . . . can we GO now???" Janice barked, Mel's explanation falling on impatient ears.

Mel nodded nervously and pushed up her glasses that perpetually slid down her nose. Hurrying down the remaining steps, she almost stumbled in her Italian shoes.

Janice sighed as she plopped back down into the driver's seat and started the engine.

As Mel struggled to open the rusty truck door, which required some not so ladylike encouragement from her hip, she wondered why she even bothered to ask to go with this easily irritated woman to this meeting. Janice had told her it wasn't necessary to go, that there was plenty of transcribing to do to keep her busy in the hotel. But no, the stubborn southerner insisted that she be included at the very beginning of a new 'adventure' and convinced the reluctant archeologist she should go. When Janice first said "ok," Mel was surprised at her success, considering herself lucky.

Now she wasn't so sure.

When the door finally opened, the southerner sighed wearily. Sometimes, like now Mel considered, it seemed that Janice wasn't any happier about her being along then when they first met five months, three weeks and one day ago. And lately, Mel considered as she lifted her tailored skirt up above her knees and awkwardly climbed into the musty truck, the archeologist had been getting extremely and unfairly exasperated with her about being late . . . like now.

Janice rolled her eyes as Mel diligently buckled her seatbelt. The archeologist didn't even know her old truck had seatbelts until the southerner's first ride, when she surprised the archeologist by digging the safety device out from behind the seat.

Mel considered seatbelts a prudent precaution, especially with Janice behind the wheel.

Feeling a little more prepared for the truck ride, the quiet southerner lifted her eyes from her seat belt and noticed the windshield. Her eyebrows furrowed at how dirty it was. She debated whether or not to ask Dr. Covington to at least try to clean off the windshield before attempting to navigate the already dangerous streets of Athens. However, based on the archeologist's level of irritation at the moment, she decided against asking and folded her hands neatly in her lap.

"Look, I'm sorry . . . you know this dig in Galisar is very important. I just don't want to be late to my meeting with Dr. Maveros." Janice spoke briskly. The fact that she used the word 'sorry' made it an apology, in her book.

Mel briefly glanced at the archeologist, quietly nodded and returned her gaze to the dirty windshield. It was a good thing she made out a will, Mel concluded with another sigh.

Her book was one Mel was still having difficulty reading, Janice considered guiltily.

"One minute late and you're . . . " Janice blurted an explanation but Mel's attention was distracted by something most unexpected.

"Is this a purse?" Mel interrupted with amazement, just noticing the shiny black accessory on the seat between them. Janice's eyebrows furrowed as Mel traced her fingers over the unexpected object like it was a precious archeological find. When she dared to look inside to continue her investigation of this artifact, an irritated Janice possessively pulled the purse closer.

"I am SURE you have seen . . . " Janice began to respond to the unwelcome fuss, but was interrupted again when the southerner's eyes widened, noticing something else amazing.

"A dress?" Mel blurted with a big smile. She was also surprised she didn't notice the dress when she got in the truck. She usually noticed everything about Dr. Covington.

Janice sighed heavily, shook her head, and put the truck in gear. Dr. Covington concluded Mel had a book of her own, and more than a few pages were loose.

"It MUST be an important meeting . . . " Mel noted with a slight grin. "I've never seen you dress up like this before Janice," Mel noted, admiring the surprisingly good taste of the simple green dress, which was a far cry from the Doctor's usual attire of khaki pants, cotton shirt, and boots, topped off with that brown fedora.

"I like it," Mel added softly with a warm smile, also pleased the Doctor wasn't wearing that distressing revolver of hers.

"Dress for success, isn't that what they say?" Janice shrugged nonchalantly, trying to ignore the southerner's surprisingly pleasing stamp of approval.

Mel grinned considering that might not be the only reason. "Is he handsome?" Mel teased.

"Who?!?" Janice asked with furrowed and confused brows, considering this must be yet another one of Mel's obscure tangents. "The doorman??"

"No silly," Mel rolled her eyes. "The very important Dr. Maveros, of course," Mel responded with a grin.

"You shouldn't assume things Mel," Janice said coolly, staring at the road ahead. The grin quickly faded from Mel's face. "There's a damn good chance you'd be wrong," Janice added.

Mel almost blurted out an apology for inadvertently insulting the archeologist, but she remained silent, fearing she would just make things worse. Until she saw the Janice in that dress, looking so . . . feminine, it had never even occurred to her to tease Janice about potential romantic interests. Well, now she knew with certainty, it never SHOULD have occurred to her. A pretty dress wasn't going to change the fact that the archeologist was a very proud and very private woman.

After they drove a few painfully silent minutes, Mel drummed up enough courage to speak again, this time venturing a more carefully crafted question. "Why is this meeting so important to our next dig?"

"OUR next dig," Janice repeated with a smirk, drawing a concerned look from the southerner.

Despite attempts by the archeologist to explain to this southern lady all of the reasons why she wouldn't be better off translating scrolls in the comfort of her own home, sipping ice tea, mint juleps or whatever the hell the genteel in South Carolina drank, this tall woman sitting beside her would not be deterred.

Damn, she's almost as stubborn as me, Janice concluded when her thoughts about the southern lady were abruptly interrupted by a dog running into the street.

Janice slammed on the breaks, causing the two women to lunge forward. The truck squealed to a stop, missing the lucky animal.

Mel's concern grew to panic.

"Janice Covington!" Mel snapped.

"I JUST . . . " The sensitive driver blurted in defense of the rough ride to her critical passenger.

"I don't care what you say or DO, Janice," Mel responded hotly as she adjusted her glasses. "You are NOT going to try and talk me out of going on another dig!" Mel informed her.

Janice's eyebrows rose in surprise that the southerner unexpected and passionate display was not about her driving.

"You KNOW I can help you. And don't even TRY and say it's too dangerous, after what we've already been through together, I'd have to say Dr. Covington, it couldn't be anymore dangerous than driving . . . with. . . . " The southern flare-up was quickly extinguished when she noticed the archeologist's green eyes narrow ever so slightly. ". . . you," she finished weakly with a gulp.

Mel had no idea what Janice was thinking at the moment. However, from the doctor's unnerving stare, she considered a desire to strangle her southern neck a strong possibility.

She knew that within the doctor's deceptively petite form lurked a giant temper. Mel had personally witnessed that frightening giant unleashed a number of times during the short time they had known each other. The scariest display was when Mel accidently broke two vases on their last dig. Never had the southerner heard such colorful words. Nor had she ever seen furniture flung across a tent before. Though, to the southerner's relief and amazement, Janice never directed that temper towards her personally and never mentioned the vases to Mel again.

"Would you like to drive?" Janice asked in a low, even voice.

"No thank you," Mel spoke weakly.

CHAPTER 2 - You Can Lead a Warrior

"So, what do you think?" Gabrielle softly asked with a straight face, holding out an amazingly ugly swatch of cloth for her tall warrior's comment. The bard glanced over to the merchant, who was on a ladder, busily stocking his shelves.

Receiving a polite smile from the pretty young lady when he glanced to her, the merchant knew she wasn't in need of his services yet. He smiled back, sighed and patiently returned to stocking his shelves. No need to rush the customers, he considered wisely. Especially when one of them was with a particularly intimidating warrior.

Not getting the sarcastic response she was expecting, the bard turned her attention back to her warrior, who stared out the window.

This was beginning to get annoying, the bard considered with a heavy sigh. Xena had not done a good job help her plan for their wedding. They hadn't even discussed when it would be, let alone what they were going to do about the bard's mother with her Poteidaian traditions, or the Amazons and their traditions. There always seemed to be some other, more pressing business for her to attend to than to make plans, the bard noted the aggravating trend.

Through gentle persuasion, which she knew Xena classified as nagging, Gabrielle managed to get this reluctant warrior to agree to take a little time out from their trip to visit Xena's mother in Amphipolis to go window shopping with her for material.

Gabrielle hoped the shopping would spawn some discussion and perhaps some decision making before another family member offered endless, but not very helpful, advice. However, seeing Xena's attention on something other than their shopping, the bard discovered her plan had a fundamental flaw. You can lead a warrior to the store but you can't make her shop.

"We should probably get enough for both dresses," Gabrielle offered, eyeing her warrior, who was still intently staring out the window.

Overhearing the bard, the merchant smiled broadly and started down the ladder.

The warrior kept a close eye on the commotion developing in the street, involving a man who frantically rushed into town. In his haste, he stumbled into a horse that, luckily for him, was not Argo. When he looked like he was getting uncomfortably close to Argo, Xena tensed up, ready to go outside. However, Argo looked up and stepped out of the man's way. Xena grinned slightly. Smart horse.

"I think there's enough here for Argo too," Gabrielle informed her, her eyes narrowing.

With the sound of a really big sale, the merchant grinned as he approached the women. Spying the material, he cringed, trying to imagine why the lovely young redhead would choose to wear it. His eyes drifted up to the pea-green top she wore, realizing sadly that bad taste would always exist. Well, to each his own, he thought, glad to at least be making a sale.

"Though, we really should discuss it with her," she added with a thin smile. "Come to think of it, she probably has advice about our wedding too. You wouldn't want to rush into a DECISION without getting ARGO's input."

"Huh?" Xena's attention snapped to the task at hand, something she knew involved material.

The merchant, having seen the birth of numerous quarrels in his many years in sales, shook his head and did an about-face after the warrior's eloquent answer.

"You know, I thought it was going to be AFTER the wedding when you stopped paying attention to me," Gabrielle blurted.

"I'm listening Gabrielle," Xena responded defensively.

"I was saying . . ." Gabrielle started, then rolled her eyes with a groan when the Warrior Princess quickly glanced out the window again to check on the progress of the man. "I guess when I suggested window shopping, I forgot to mention it has nothing to do with WINDOWS!" Gabrielle snapped with frustration.

"Oh never mind," she blurted with exasperated defeat as she tossed the ugly swatch back on the fabric table, finally getting Xena's attention.

"No, no, what was the question? Oh, uh, nice material," Xena remarked, picking up the swatch with forced interest, trying to avoid getting into any further trouble with her bride-to-be. Something she seemed to be doing a lot lately.

"Simply amazing . . . not to mention just a little disturbing," Gabrielle muttered and shook her head as she left the store.

Spotting the man that had previously caught Xena's attention, Gabrielle slowed to a stop and watched as the anxious man made his way through the crowded street.

"Gabrielle, I'm . . . " Xena called out as she caught up to the bard.

"Xena . . . " Gabrielle interrupted with a sigh and turned to her partner. "Look, I'm sorry for snapping at you," Gabrielle relayed wearily, squeezing her partner's forearm with and apologetic look. "But sometimes I get so frustrated with all the distractions . . ."

Xena looked at the bard with a raised eyebrow. "Sometimes?" Xena asked.

Gabrielle cringed, prompting the warrior to tenderly take the bard's face in her hand and gently caress her cheek.

"It's ok Gabrielle," the warrior reassured her with a small smile. "I haven't exactly been helpful with the planning," Xena admitted.

"This I know," Gabrielle confirmed with a smirk.

When the warrior's guilty eyes broke from their gaze, the bard reached up and took the Xena's hand from her cheek. Planting a kiss on her love's palm before releasing it, Gabrielle noticed she had the warrior's undivided attention. Not to let this increasingly rare opportunity go to waste, she relayed her biggest concern.

"We still have to figure out what to do about mother and the Amazons," Gabrielle informed Xena, who looked uneasily to the ground. The Warrior Princess had yet to tell Gabrielle how much harder it was going to get once her mother found out about the impending wedding. Xena inhaled deeply, still debating whether to mention this additional complication before they got to Amphipolis.

"Gabrielle, you know . . . we really shouldn't rule out eloping," Xena relayed thoughtfully.

The exhausted man, busy looking through the crowded street for someone, inadvertently stumbled into an unsuspecting married couple at a fruit cart, pushing them both into a pile of grapes.

"Hmmm . . ." The bard pondered that suggestion a moment.

Perhaps, that WAS the solution, Xena considered hopefully.

". . . and have my mother, not to mention the ENTIRE Amazon nation, furious with me? Brilliant! Now why didn't I think of that?" Gabriele said dryly, rolling her eyes.

Perhaps that wasn't the solution, Xena considered.

"So that's a NO, huh?" Xena asked.

"Do you remember what you said about 'not exactly' helping?" Gabrielle responded with a thin smile.

"You idiot! Look what you just did!" The angry husband yelled as he surveyed the mess to their clothing from the squashed grapes.

"I . . . I . . ." The exhausted man blurted at the irate couple. Before he could apologize, the enraged husband pushed the man, sending him and his backside on the ground with a thud.

The warrior and bard looked towards the commotion, then each other. Obtaining unspoken agreement, they would, once again, put their discussion on hold to find out what this latest distraction was all about.

The two quickly joined the trio, preventing the husband from further bullying the man. As Gabrielle knelt down to help the man up, Xena silently eyed the couple. The warrior's cool gaze prompted the uneasy wife's defense of her husband's actions.

"We were just minding our own business and he comes barreling into us . . . Look what he did!!" The woman pointed to the purple stains on her tunic.

Xena sighed wearily and rolled her eyes. All in all, she preferred shopping to getting involved with this kind of squabbling. Why couldn't people just be nice?

"You think he did that on purpose?" Gabrielle asked, amazed at their reaction, wondering why couldn't people be more tolerant.

"It was . . . an accident . . . I'm SORRY . . . I didn't see you!" The man on the ground gasped.

"Well," the irritated wife snapped, "you should be more CAREFUL!" The wife scolded the man and did an about face with her husband.

Xena watched the indignant couple leave and shook her head.

"Why are you in such a rush?" Gabrielle asked, instinctively reaching out to steady the swaying man.

"I've got to . . . find . . . the Warrior Princess. We need her help," the man explained, regaining his breath.

"Of course you do," Gabrielle looked blankly to her Warrior Princess, who raised her eyebrow.

The man looked at the bard curiously, then the dark warrior.

"Are you . . . Xena?" The tired man asked hopefully.

"Yes," Xena answered with a sigh.

"Thank the GODS!" He blurted with a huge smile.

Xena looked to Gabrielle apologetically with a small shrug.

"What ever this is," Gabrielle informed her. ". . .don't even THINK this will get you out of the wedding planning," she warned her with narrowed eyes.

Xena sighed again.


As they walked down the hallway towards the office, Janice caught a glimpse of her crumpled reflection in a window and groaned, wondering how on earth her dress could get so wrinkled in such a short time. Her khaki pants and shirts never seemed to get this bad, even after being in a pile in her room for a few days, she considered.

As she paused a moment to straighten out her dress, Mel also glanced at her reflection, then down at her outfit.

"How do I look?" The southerner asked with concern, always wanting to make a good first impression.

Janice looked up, revealing what Mel thought to be a glimmer of surprise in those cool emerald eyes. Janice glanced over the southerner and contemplated her answer, quickly ruling out the first one that came to mind.

"Fine," she responded with her second, less accurate choice.

Mel glanced down at herself to confirm that opinion, then back to the doctor, who had already started marching down the hallway to Doctor Maveros' office. Mel exhaled heavily, pushed her glasses back up her nose, and followed the archeologist.

"Let's get this over with," Janice relayed unenthusiastically as she grabbed the door knob, and entered the office with Mel right behind her.

The peroxide blond secretary stopped her rapid-fire typing and looked up at the two.

"Dr. Covington, you're late . . . you know Dr. Maveros does NOT like tardiness," the secretary informed them in her Cockney accent.

Not believing they could possibly be late, Mel quickly looked at her watch which confirmed her suspicions. They still had ten minutes until the meeting. Shaking her head in frustration that everyone seemed to be oblivious to that fact, she happened to glance at the large grandfather clock ticking away in the corner of the office. Her mouth dropped, along with her stomach.

"Oh dear," Mel blurted with alarm, feeling horrible as she looked at her watch then the grandfather clock again. They were late.

"It happens," Janice relayed with a shrug, surprising Miss Pappas, who stared at this curiously unpredictable woman.

"So how's the husband, Roberta?" Janice asked, turning to the secretary with an easy smile before Mel could blurt out an apology.

"The bloke's still writing to me. That's always a good sign these days," Roberta informed Janice. Roberta sighed heavily when she looked at the picture of the handsome British soldier on her desk.

Janice nodded knowingly.

"I'd thought America would get involved when the Brits declared war on the damn Krauts," Roberta relayed, eyeing the archeologist. "When do you think America will join in?"

"Who knows? I'd expect the politicians would more likely send money than our boys. It's not politically popular to be involved, apparently," Janice relayed.

Not even in conversations about the war, did Janice seem to reveal much, Mel noticed with mild frustration. Realizing she was staring at the archeologist, Mel broke her gaze and pushed her glasses up her nose again as she studied her surroundings. A rather elegant office, Mel considered, noting the leather furniture in the waiting area and rich wood bookcases along the walls.

"So how's the good doctor's mood today?" Janice asked Roberta with a smirk, moving their discussion from one conflict to another.

Mel cringed, hoping for the best.

"You'll find out when go in. She IS waiting, you know," Roberta reminded the late doctor, and surprised the southerner.

'She,' Mel silently repeated to herself, wondering if could possibly have sounded any more foolish to the archeologist when she went on and on about Janice dressing up to impress this "male" colleague.

Janice nodded and sighed as she started to walk down the hallway, towards Dr. Maveros' door.

"Mel?" Janice called to the southerner, interrupting her mental note taking about never assuming.

Pressing the intercom lever with the eraser end of her pencil, Roberta leaned toward's the speaker to announce their arrival. "Dr. Maveros, Dr. Covington and. . . ." The secretary started but paused and released the intercom lever. She quietly glanced up to Mel with a questioning look.

As Mel opened her mouth to introduce herself, Dr. Maveros' voice boomed over the small box. "Tell Covington she's FIFTEEN minutes LATE and to get her American ass in this office before it becomes SIXTEEN!!"

Mel jumped at the loud, raspy voice that she might have mistaken for a man's if she hadn't just learned it belonged to a woman.

"Good luck," Roberta relayed sympathetically.

"Thanks," Janice responded with a smirk. Both knew luck would not help her smooth things over with Dr. Maveros. Seeing Mel frozen in place, Janice beckoned her to follow with an index finger.

Mel nodded, nervously pushing her glasses up her nose. She began to wonder if translating the scrolls in her comfortable hotel room, like Janice suggested, wouldn't have been a better decision. Giving Roberta an unconvincing smile of confidence, Mel quickly followed her friend to what she expected would be more unpleasantness.

When she caught up to the archeologist in front of Dr. Maveros' door, Mel whispered a heartfelt apology, "Janice . . . I am SO sorry."

Janice turned to her, ignoring the apology and looked her in the eye.

"Mel, when we get in there, let ME do the all talking . . . OK?" She asked, bringing a delighted smile to the southerner's face.

"Oh, of COURSE Janice . . ." Mel readily agreed, thrilled that Janice actually asked. "You know, mother always told me how important first impressions are. I'll just be as quiet as a mouse," she assured the archeologist, squeezing Janice's arm for emphasis.

Janice glared at the assuring hand on her arm then back to the enthusiastic southerner, who continued without a beat, or breath.

"I really wouldn't know what to say in a meeting like this anyway. Well sure, I have been to meetings like this before, but that was years ago, with my father at the University. Needless to say, he was doing all the talking, which was a very good thing, I must say, because I do tend to ramble on when I get nervous as, of course, you already . . . know. . . ." The southerner stopped, finally noticing Janice staring blankly at her.

Janice wondered how she ever ended up promising this well-meaning, yet inexperienced and, at times, flighty woman that she could come to this meeting with the painfully exacting Dr. Maveros.

"Sorry," Mel apologized nervously, pushing her glasses up her nose. "I'll let you do the talking," she added softly with a weak smile.

Oh God, Janice's mind moaned. This was SUCH a mistake. Well, mistake or not, the doctor concluded, a promise was a promise, damn it. With a sigh, Janice opened the door.

Chapter 4 - Many Skills

"Bayentes is marching North," the kneeling man informed the Warrior Princess as he drew the army's movements in the dirt with a stick.

The muscles in Xena's jaw flexed as she listened to the familiar story from this merchant turned reluctant soldier. Exhaling slowly, she leaned forward, resting elbows on thighs and stared at the path the merchant drew. A path that was paved with incredible pain and suffering, if she knew Bayentes . . . and she did.

Staveros looked up to find blue eyes intensely focused on the dirt map, not realizing her thoughts were not on this current march of Bayentes, but on one years ago.

"He has already destroyed three villages and Zemal is right in his path," he added, making an 'x' in the dirt to mark his village.

Xena sighed and glanced towards the fire, where Gabrielle was cooking dinner. Gabrielle seemed completely focused on adding herbs and stirring the stew, but Xena knew the bard was listening to every word this man uttered. This man, who had absolutely no idea, that the Queen of the Amazons was just a few feet away from him, making their dinner. A chore that certainly did not befit the title, Xena considered.

"We don't know how to stop him," the merchant spoke truthfully. "We need your help Xena," the man added sincerely, drawing Xena's attention back to the reluctant soldier.

"Zemal is not a rich town, but Bayentes is not going to stop his Northern advance and just go around," the man relayed.

"No, he won't," Xena agreed, not surprised he rebuilt his army. He still had something to prove.

In his attempt to get revenge, Bayentes almost tasted the sweetest victory of his life when his army nearly defeated Xena's in a surprise attack. But through the superior skill of the Warrior Princess, who rallied her battered army to victory, that sweet victory became a biter defeat. When she spared his life a second time, so he could spend the rest of his days remembering his humiliating defeat, Bayentes swore he would get his revenge or die trying. She remembered arrogantly laughing at his threats.

She wasn't laughing now.

Xena looked over to Gabrielle, who was watching her. When their eyes met, the warrior received what she needed, the precious gifts of trust, faith and love.

The bard smiled warmly then returned her attention back to serving the dinner. However, Xena's gaze lingered on the Amazon Queen.

"That is why need you to teach us how to protect ourselves," the man relayed as he received a bowl from Gabrielle. "Thank your Gabrielle," he smiled appreciatively, taking an indulgent sniff of the bowl's contents.

"You might want to taste it first before you thank me, Staveros," Gabrielle joked, evoking a chuckle from the man.

"Why me?" Xena interrupted the jovial mood with cold formality, knowing it wouldn't matter what the answer was. She knew she was going to help the people of Zemal and she knew Gabrielle knew she knew.

"We have heard the stories of your great deeds," Staveros answered, which prompted Xena to eye Gabrielle with a raised and accusing eyebrow.

Gabrielle smiled thinly as she walked over to her and handed her warrior a bowl of stew.

"Well Xena IS the best at what she does," Gabrielle relayed casually, eyeing the warrior right back as she sat next to her.

"Staveros, don't believe everything you hear. The stories of my deeds tend to be . . . exaggerated," Xena countered, still eyeing the bard.

"Embellished!" Gabrielle corrected her testily and jabbed her spoon in her stew, trying to ignore Xena's criticism.

"Is there a difference?" Xena responded dryly. Gabrielle turned her head toward the warrior, slowly.

"It's not just the stories Xena, I have spoken to many who have SEEN what you have done. Your skills are renown," Staveros added with conviction, with a mouth full of stew.

Gabrielle grinned slyly.

"Did you know she has MANY of them?" The bard asked Staveros with a polite smile, earning a sharp glance from the Warrior Princess. "Why, she has all sorts of skills, well, except for wedding pl . . ." Gabrielle added before being lightly jabbed in the ribs by a wayward warrior elbow.

"Oh . . . sorry," Xena insincerely apologized. The wide eyes of initial surprise that turned into a furrowed glare of annoyance. Xena's poorly hidden grin slightly widened anticipating the apology the bard would require would be very long and very thorough.

The warrior's grin disappeared as her eyes darted to the dark forest.

Gabrielle quickly reached for her staff as Xena dove across the camp.

Staveros heard something whiz towards him just before Xena snatched the arrow from the air. Staveros, dropped his bowl, both frightened and awed by what he saw.

After her tumble, Xena stood and caught another arrow, inches away from her chest. In a blink of an eye, she dodged another, aimed at her head.

"Take cover!" Xena ordered, not sure how many were out there. Tossing the arrows to the ground, she drew her sword and bolted after the owners of those arrows.

Staveros looked around in confusion.

"Come ON!" Gabrielle called to the stunned man, grabbing his arm and pulling him from the vulnerable clearing, toward the edge of the forest.

"Move," Gabrielle pushed the sluggish man in front of her, urging him deeper into the cover of trees. "Keep going," she called out. Hearing some twigs break behind them, she knew they were not alone.

"Is this far enough?" Staveros whispered as he turned, finally unsheathing his sword. "Gabrielle?" He called out quietly, straining to see where the small woman went.

"Gabrielle?" He dared to speak a little louder, with concern for the young woman. Before Staveros could call again, he saw a dark figure approach. "Oh there . . ."

"Zeus!" He blurted, seeing the dark figure with a sword charge at him. Lifting his sword up, he braced himself for the impact. However, the only impact made was between the dark figure and the hard earth, due to a timely placed staff between two unsuspecting legs.

Once again stunned by another attempt on his life, Staveros numbly watched as the dark figure scrambled to his feet. Before he fully stood up, Gabrielle emerged from behind a tree. With a quick blow across his chest, then another behind the knees, the attacker was down again. A blow to the head knocked the dark figure out cold.

"Thank the . . . ," Staveros declared with great relief when the bard came towards him.

"SHHH!" Gabrielle blurted, holding her hand up. Listening for signs of other attackers, she was relieved when she didn't hear anyone else. After a quiet moment, she faced Staveros.

"Let's brining him back to camp," Gabrielle relayed. "Xena will probably want to question him . . . I know I do."

As they lugged the unconscious man back to camp, Gabrielle smiled seeing Xena standing and waiting for her. It was a comforting sight.

The bard's warm smile was returned.

"We got . . . ," Gabrielle proudly announced then flatly added "one," spotting the three archers already tied up and gagged, sitting by the fire next to their neatly stacked bows and quivers. "You are SO competitive," Gabrielle blurted, rolling her eyes with mock annoyance.

Xena smirked as she watched Gabrielle and Staveros add their catch to the collection already by the fire.

"Actually, mine really didn't put up much of a fight," Xena offered, sounding a bit disappointed.

"Uh huh. You know, you said that about the three headed hydra, and as I distinctly recall, you almost got yourself killed," Gabrielle relayed with slight irritation as she tied up her unconscious attacker.

Staveros looked at Xena then the bard in amazement. Moments ago, Gabrielle was in danger from these men and now she dared to argue with Xena. Considering the reputation of the Warrior Princess, he thought the latter more dangerous.

"Gabrielle, I only got a scratch on my arm with that hydra," Xena countered pointing to the scar on her forearm. "Of course, to a bard, that constitutes a loss of a limb," Xena relayed with a challenge in her eyes. "Lucky I'm not a bard." Xena rubbed her old scar, waiting for the inevitable response.

Staveros watched in amazement that neither of them seemed to be too bothered about the fact they were just attacked.

"I'm sure MANY would share that sentiment if they heard YOU tell the story," Gabrielle replied with a polite smile as she came over to inspect the Warrior Princess herself. "I can hear it now . . . ," Gabrielle walked behind the warrior, continuing her unneeded inspection.

"The great warrior killed a hydra . . . " Gabrielle told the short tale blandly, pausing a beat. "Oh . . . sorry, I didn't mean to EXAGGERATE. . . ." Gabrielle added with a satisfied smirk, drawing a surprised look from the Warrior Princess, who felt the masterful sting of another verbal jab from the bard.

Before Xena could respond, Staveros shook his head and interjected, "GODS."

"We almost got killed! How can you just tell stories?" The stressed man blurted, plopping down on the log, his sword loosely held in one hand while the other was busy rubbing his aching temples.

"Well, you kinda get used to it," Gabrielle offered.

Gabrielle's offhand comment struck a nerve in the Warrior Princess, who eyed the four men by the fire. Sure, the Warrior Princess had gotten use to this kind of life, she had no choice . . . but the Amazon Queen did.

"Get USED to it? I don't think I could ever get used to this," he responded and looked at the captives by the fire. "Or them," he added.

"Shouldn't we find out what they wanted?" Gabrielle asked Xena, who was still eyeing the captives as they began to stir. "Besides the obvious," the bard added with a smirk, picking up an unsuccessful arrow and inspecting it.

"Unusual markings," Gabrielle noted, holding it out for the warrior to see. There was no need.

"They belong to Bayentes," Xena relayed flatly, with a long sigh.

Chapter 5 - The Wait

Experiencing Dr. Maveros' displeasure with their tardiness, and Mel strongly suspected life in general, the southerner was thrown out the moment she set foot in the office.

Mel immediately began her vigil outside the doctor's office, nervously pacing back and forth, in front of Roberta's desk wondering what was happening behind the closed office door. Based on her brief experience with the disturbing Dr. Maveros, she expected it wouldn't be pleasant for Janice.

Feeling bad for the lady friend of Janice's, Roberta sighed and stopped her typing a moment.

"You know, you're not the first person to be thrown out and you won't be the last," Roberta chuckled, recalling the parade of all types of people, from academics to politicians, thrown out of the curmudgeon's office. Admittedly, this was the first time she saw a southern lady thrown out. And, this was the first time she ever saw a southern lady come here, with Janice, no less.

Roberta realized her attempts to cheer up the worried brunette were not working when Mel stopped pacing and turned to her. A look of genuine worry flooded Mel's face.

"I just hope I didn't ruin everything for Janice," Mel relayed, bitting a nail, and started to pace again, still not knowing why Dr. Maveros was so important to their next dig. And she didn't know why Janice allowed the gruff woman to be so . . . unpleasant . . . towards her.

Mel hating being in the dark. And Janice, not one for volunteering information, was not particularly helpful in enlightening her. To get Dr. Covington to talk about anything seemed to take an inordinate amount of effort. The southerner shook her head and sighed heavily.

"Don't you worry about Dr. Covington, Miss Pappas," Roberta relayed knowingly. "She has never allowed a little . . . trouble . . . discourage her," she offered encouragement with a smile, then went back to typing her shorthand notes. Squinting at her scribble, Roberta sighed and looked up at Mel.

"How do you spell denarius . . . 'ious' or 'ius' ?"

"ius," Mel answered absently, continuing to pace and consider Roberta's words. Sure, Janice can handle 'a little trouble,' Mel thought. She even seems to thrive on it, the southerner considered. But how long before Janice tires of dealing with a LOT of trouble, of the southern variety, Mel wondered uneasily.

"Thanks," Roberta blurted and started her rapid fire typing again.

Mel looked at her nails, sighed and stopped pacing. She decided pacing wasn't going to help anything, or please her manicurist. Glancing over to Roberta, Mel realized something very interesting. A slight smile crossed her face as she considered there was a much more productive way to pass the time.

Mel sat in the waiting area by Roberta's desk, looking through magazines on the coffee table she had no intention of reading. She casually glanced over to Roberta, who finished typing another page.

Mel watched Roberta with admiration as the skilled secretary quickly released a sheet from the carriage, pulled it out, laid it neatly in the completed pile, and fed a fresh sheet in the carriage.

Mel tried to do secretarial work for her father once. However, after managing to break two typewriters, an adding machine, intercom, and a roll-top desk in less than a week's time, her father finally told his little girl she shouldn't waste her time with secretarial work. He gave her a big kiss on the forehead and told her she was 'suited for bigger and better things.' She knew that speech by heart. She had heard it often.

The rapid tapping of the typewriter drew Mel's attention back to her task at hand.

"So, Roberta . . . it sounds like you've known Dr. Covington a while," Mel mentioned with a warm smile.

"A bit over five years now," Roberta smiled, as she returned the carriage at the sound of the ding.

"You don't say," Mel responded, still smiling as she awkwardly drug her heavy leather chair closer to the secretaries' desk for a more cozy chat.

"She introduced me to my husband. I don't know whether to curse her or thank her sometimes," Roberta chuckled at the memory, typed a few words and paused a moment. "She told me he was the one for me. And damned if she wasn't right," she admitted as she shook her head and glanced at the photo on her desk.

Mel's eyebrows rose.

"That surprises you?" Roberta mentioned with a smirk.

"Well, I've never really pictured Janice as a matchmaker type," Mel admitted.

"Let's just say that it is one of Dr. Covington's many skills," Roberta relayed with a smile and a wink.

"So how did she know your husband? Did she date him?" Mel blurted, immediately regretting the tactless question as soon as it left her mouth. However, the response she got was not exactly what she expected.

Roberta burst out in a hearty laugh.

"Janice and Albert?" Roberta gasped and laughed again. "No . . . no . . . Albert was definitely not Janice's type," Roberta informed a curious Mel, who leaned over the desk to look at the picture of Albert. Handsome man, she thought, then realized she was being obvious in her inspection. Mel smiled politely, pushing her glasses up again as she retreated back in her chair.

"Janice was a friend of Albert's sister, Alice," the secretary explained, wiping a tear from her eye.

Although Mel had many more questions for this friend of Janice's, the next question poised on her lips was abruptly silenced when she heard the door to Dr. Maveros' office open.

Mel glanced nervously towards Janice when she emerged from the office.

There was no smile, no frown . . . nothing on the doctor's face that gave away how the meeting went. However, even with her limited experience with this kind of meeting, Mel concluded that the sound of the door slamming behind Janice was not a good sign.

Roberta pulled out a flask of whiskey and glass tumbler from her desk drawer and poured a drink for her friend.

This also didn't appear to be a good sign, Mel considered.

A number of unspoken comments crossed Mel's mind. "I'm sorry," was key to all of them. Mel would never forgive herself if she caused more trouble for Janice.

As Janice walked towards them, she eyed the glass and Roberta with a smirk.

"Roberta, get in here. I need you to take dictation," Dr. Maveros' raspy voice boomed over the intercom, making both Roberta and Mel jump.

"I don't suppose she's in a good mood, aye?" Roberta asked Janice sarcastically.

"Oh yeah, really good . . . now," Janice relayed, making Roberta roll her eyes and groan.

The two looked at each other, then the drink.

"Go ahead, sweetheart," Janice offered, sliding the drink towards the secretary.

Roberta didn't hesitate, quickly downing the whiskey before grabbing her stenography pad and pen.

"Good luck," Janice relayed with an amused grin as Roberta rushed to Dr. Maveros's door.

"Thanks a lot," Roberta shot back flatly.

Mel carefully eyed the archeologist as they walked outside, considering it wise to wait for Janice to say something.

Janice sighed heavily and shook her head. It was almost noon and it had already been a very long day.

Mel couldn't remain silent anymore, even if Janice got mad.

"Janice . . . " Mel began as they descended the steps but was interrupted.

"Mel . . . I'm sorry she threw you out. I forgot to let her know you were coming," Janice offered with sincere regret. "I promised you to include you this meeting and I broke that . . ." Janice continued the unexpected apology.

"No Janice, you did NO such thing," Mel spoke sternly, surprising the doctor when she firmly grabbed her arm and stopped her.

"It's not your fault SHE was so . . . so . . . unpleasant!" Mel blurted in exasperation, fiercely defending her friend.

"Anyone who would count the number of minutes you were late must not have much else to do . . . why, I think Dr. Maveros was actually was GLAD you were late," Mel continued the angry diatribe that Janice somehow knew better than to argue with.

As Janice listened, she was amazed that Mel was able to be so mad AND refrain from cursing. Ever the lady, Janice considered.

"For a woman who demanded the courtesy of timeliness Janice, she certainly did not display one ounce of courtesy herself," Mel relayed angrily, then sighed. "I just hope I didn't ruin anything for you by making you late. I am SO sorry Janice."

Momentarily stunned into speechlessness, Janice just looked at her. What did she ever do to earn such a loyal friend in this southerner, she wondered. Janice knew she wasn't exactly the easiest person to be around. Down right . . . unpleasant even.

Dr. Covington considered the southerner's supportive words as a warm smile of appreciation emerged.

"What?" Mel asked. Seeing her friend's silent smile made her feel a bit self-conscious.

"Nothing," Janice's smile grew into a grin.

Mel eyed the archeologist and sighed in mock frustration. Janice usually enjoyed teasing the southerner about her rambling. And usually, Mel didn't mind that much, as long as she got to see the young woman smile.

"Soooo, when are we going to Galisar?" Mel asked, deliberately changing the subject and unintentionally wiping the grin from the archeologist's face. "Oh Janice . . . I'm so sorry," Mel said as her heart dropped, instinctively reaching out to place a comforting hand on Janice's forearm.

As was happening frequently lately, Mel caught the young archeologist off-guard. Janice reflexively clenched her purse tighter.

"Uh . . . yeah, well, we'll get there . . . eventually," Janice blurted, trying to ignore the invasion of her personal space by the southerner, who seemed oblivious to that very important fact. However, Janice elected not to saying anything to Mel, since the southerner was already feeling horrible about today. The archeologist certainly didn't want to make her feel worse, invasion or not.

"Yes, we will, Janice," Mel reassured her friend with a confident nod, adding a squeeze with her comforting hand.

She means well. She means well. She really means . . .

"Janice, are you ok?" Mel asked.

"Yeah. Did I mention we have a dig?" Janice offered, raising her eyebrow waiting for the response she expected and received.

"A dig? Really!?! Where are we going? What will we be doing?" Mel blurted with infectious enthusiasm.

"You may not be so excited when you find out the details," Janice shrugged, but couldn't help grinning at Mel's happy disposition.

"How about over lunch?" Mel suggested.

"Uh, I've got some things to take care of today," Janice quickly responded, disappointing Mel.

Mel quietly waited for Janice to explain, wondering exactly what things she was talking about.

"Dinner?" Janice counter offered.

Mel sighed and nodded. She should know by now that Janice wasn't going to volunteer information, Mel considered.

"I'll come by about eight, ok? " Janice offered with a smile, noticing Mel's enthusiasm curiously wane.

"If you need help getting ready for the dig, I could . . ." Mel offered, not really knowing exactly what she was volunteering for.

"Nah, I've got it covered. You know, you could go to the jewelers to see about that watch of yours," Janice informed her with a smirk, peeling the comforting southern hand off her arm. Mel cleared her throat, feeling a flush of embarrassment for both the comment and action. However, the embarrassment passed quickly when she saw the reason for the archeologist's action.

"Janice!" Mel scolded her, as Janice opened her purse and pulled out a cigar.

"You know, purses actually can be useful," Janice told her, drawing the cigar under her nose as she inhaled the pleasing tobacco bouquet. Janice exhaled, sounding her appreciation with a relaxed "ahhhh." Mel shook her head disapprovingly.

Janice offered the cigar to the southerner. "It's Cuban," Janice relayed as if that might mean something to the southerner, for it certainly did to the archeologist.

Mel's eyes shot up to the heavens as she sighed in exasperation.

"And what ELSE do you have in that purse, Dr. Covington?" Mel asked in an accusing tone, her eyes returning from the heavens to glare at the vile cigar, then the archeologist.

"This, of course," Janice stuck the fine cigar in her mouth, and casually pulled out a small shiny object.

Mel almost fainted, nervously looking around for anyone, especially a police officer, who might not appreciate Janice wielding a gun, even if small, on the steps of the University. She began to breathe again, finding no one was nearby to notice.

"Janice!" She blurted, too upset to articulate her desire for Janice put it away NOW. However, she did manage to give the doctor with the most indignant and disapproving look she could muster. It was one thing having a gun on a dig, Mel considered, but it was an entirely different matter packing a piece in your purse.

"Hmmm?" Janice responded, seemingly oblivious to the southerners panic attack as she put the muzzle up to her cigar and pulled the trigger. A flame appeared, which she quickly used to light her cigar. Puffing happily away on the stogie, Janice inspected the shiny lighter and pulled the trigger again to admire the useful flame.

"Pretty neat, huh?" She mumbled through another puff and placed the lighter back in her purse.

Mel's indignant and disapproving glare dissolved into a very cold look. Her eyes now narrow slits.

"I'll be in the truck," an unamused Mel announced coolly, staring at the innocent looking archeologist a moment before crisply turning to descend the stairs.

As she watched her southern friend march down the steps, a grin emerged. Slowly puffing on her cigar, Janice savored the moment.

CHAPTER 6 - A Proper Good Night

Seeing the blur of hands, the largest archer gasped and fell to the ground from the two sharp jabs to his neck.

The remaining three captives watched and gulped. As their powerful comrade was quickly reduced to a helpless pile of flesh, they prayed they would somehow be spared from the infamous wrath of the Warrior Princess or at least die a quick and easy death.

They would prefer death to what happened to Bayentes.

The largest archer had heard of the Warrior Princess' touch of death, yet thought it only a clever tale to frighten enemies. Now, with fear the only thing he could feel, he knew first-hand it was more than a tale. He looked with panic at his fellow archers when the Warrior Princess lifted his significant girth effortlessly and propped him against the log.

"P. . . p . . . please," he blurted, not knowing if it was the numbness that invaded his body or his fear that made him stutter. "d . . . don't let m . . . me die," he pleaded, looking to his captors.

When the lone male captor quickly averted his eyes, the archer sought sympathy from the young woman, who seemed to be his last hope for finding compassion. When the young bard uneasily averted her eyes, his stomach dropped. He was certain hope was lost.

"P. . . please," he whimpered to the dark one towering over him. The one who would decide his fate.

"That will be up to you and what you can tell me in 30 seconds," the Warrior Princess spoke, unmoved by his fearful pleas.

"ANYTHING!" He blurted, uncaring of what Bayentes would do to him, certain it couldn't be any worse than what she would do.

"Why is Bayentes marching on Zemal?" The Warrior Princess asked in a cool tone.

"I told you, Xena, it is in on the way . . . " Staveros interjected helpfully, drawing an annoyed glare from Xena. Realizing his error, Staveros took in a sharp breath and held his breath.

The uncomfortable bard scratched the back of her neck and look to the ground with a slow sigh.

"He doesn't care about Zemal, like he said," the largest archer informed the Warrior Princess, who was still eyeing a now quiet Staveros.

"It is on the way," the archer added. "He didn't trust anyone enough to tell us his reasons for marching North."

Xena slowly returned her gaze to the archer and raised an eyebrow.

"Bayentes only uses us to stop the men sent out to get help for the small towns," the archer relayed nervously, hoping to appease the curiosity of the menacing warrior interrogating him.

"Typical," Xena blurted.

Staveros gulped, feeling sick considering of what would have happened to him if Xena hadn't saved him.

Once again, the archer saw only a blur before receiving two jabs to his neck. His body convulsed with relief as he gasped. Silently thanking the Gods, he rubbed his neck.

"Go tell Bayentes he will be defeated if he marches through Zemal," Xena announced to all the captives, who looked at each other uneasily, then back at the Warrior Princess, knowing Bayentes would not be pleased with their failure.

"What!?! You're going to let them go?" Staveros blurted nervously.

"We'd appreciate it," the smallest archer blurted truthfully, drawing a cold look from the Warrior Princess, making him cringe.

"Oh, good going . . . ," the bearded archer muttered.

Xena returned her gaze to the merchant. "Do YOU want to kill them?" Xena asked Staveros with a glare. "Go ahead, there they are . . . " Xena added, motioning impatiently towards the captives, frightening him.

Staveros gasped.

"Can we discuss this?" The bearded archer interjected uneasily.

Staveros averted his eyes from Xena's chilling gaze and looked to the archers, who successfully relayed their opinion that it was a bad idea. They shook their heads 'no.'

"I . . . uh . . . I just . . . I couldn't," Staveros stammered.

"Well, unless you convince Gabrielle to kill them . . ."

The prisoners looked over to the bard. When she glanced over to them, they smiled politely and shook their heads 'no.'

Gabrielle rolled her eyes and returned her gaze to her partner, who continued to frighten the merchant.

". . . you have two choices . . . ONE," Xena blurted, holding her index finger up then poking it in his chest. "YOU take care of ALL four prisoners for the entire trip or TWO," she continued, angrily holding two fingers up.

"You can stop questioning me and do what I said in the FIRST place," Xena snapped impatiently, causing Staveros to jump and Gabrielle to cringe.

"Well?" Xena asked. "What will it be Staveros? I haven't got all night," she blurted after a short pause, before he could answer.

"Let them go?" he said weakly.

Xena sighed heavily, quickly glaring at Staveros then the archers, who sighed with relief. The archers' relief was short lived when Xena drew her sword with an odd smile.

"Tell Bayentes that if he wants to talk surrender . . . I'm all ears," she added with a frightening look in her eyes before slicing through the rope binding the captive's hands.

The archers cringed and looked to each other uneasily then to the Warrior Princess, who sheathed her sword and quietly stared at them. They rubbed their wrists and nodded before they ran back through the trees to deliver the Warrior Princess' message.

With the captives finally gone, Xena turned and coldly eyed Staveros. Tired of talk, she shook her head and focused on Argo.

"We'll leave at the break of dawn," Xena informed them, walking to her horse. "We should get some sleep," she added, unpacking the bedrolls.

When she finally turned to face Gabrielle, expecting a look of disapproval, she found the bard was leaving the camp. Seeing her disappear into the forest, Xena momentarily closed her eyes and sighed with frustration, knowing the bard wanted to talk about this.

"Guard the camp," Xena ordered Staveros, turning to him and throwing a bedroll at his chest before heading after the bard.

"Alone?" He asked nervously, stopping the warrior in her tracks. With narrowed eyes, she slowly turned her head towards him.

"If anything happens," Xena spoke slowly. "Yell," she added unsympathetically.

Hearing the hooting of an owl, Staveros' head instinctively jerked towards the sound. Content that the owl was not going to do him harm, he returned his gaze towards the Warrior Princess. She was gone.

Swallowing hard, Staveros glanced around the incredibly empty camp.

After following the bard's trail through the forest, Xena found Gabrielle sitting on a boulder. She quietly observed her love, whose knees were drawn to her chest with her arms hugging her legs. Her head tilted up as she gazed at the night sky.

She looks so young, Xena thought with a sigh.

Gabrielle turned to see her tall silent warrior looking at her. She waited for the warrior to say something. She didn't. The bard grew tired of waiting.

"Tell me about Bayentes," Gabrielle said softly, surprising Xena, who expected a discussion about her treatment of Staveros.

Shrewd bard, Xena considered. However, shrewd or not, Xena still didn't want to talk about Bayentes. Xena didn't want to think about Bayentes. But Gabrielle did . . . of course, the warrior sighed.

Xena quietly walked over and sat next to the bard, who waited for her warrior to answer her question.

"It's the usual, Gabrielle," Xena relayed casually, leaning back on her arm and finding some loose pieces of rock on the boulder to pick at. "Old enemy, rebuilds army, marches on unprotected cities and towns . . . like I said, the usual," Xena sighed wearily, tossing the small stones to the ground and stared out into the forest.

Gabrielle looked at her warrior's profile a long, silent moment then back to the forest with a disappointed sigh. Releasing her legs from her embrace, she stood up and dusted herself off.

"Well, I'd better get back, Staveros is probably a nervous wreck," Gabrielle relayed simply, making Xena feel guilty.

Xena turned to the bard, who didn't wait for a response and walked towards camp. Watching the fair-haired woman walk away made her uneasy. "Damn it," the warrior exhaled under her breath.

Staveros paced with his sword drawn as he nervously scanned the forest and listened for all potential threats. Hearing footsteps approach, he whipped around, pointing his sword towards the noise.

"You ok?" Gabrielle asked, eyeing the sword.

Staveros sighted with relief and lowered his weapon.

"Bayentes marching on my home, Four assassins out to kill me, getting on the Warrior Princess' bad side . . . just great." He blurted with a nervous laugh, plopping down on the log.

"The assassins won't come back Staveros, they are too afraid of Xena," she informed him with certainty.

"I know how they feel," Staveros blurted. "I mean . . . I . . ." He stammered.

"Staveros, I trust Xena," Gabrielle relayed. "You can too," she added, sitting next to him.

He looked at her and sighed. "I am never going to get used to all this . . . assassins, warlords, armies, battles . . . I'm just a merchant. I don't know how you do it Gabrielle," he relayed wearily.

"Faith," Gabrielle said simply.

"Faith," he repeated, looking up to the sky then back to the bard. "Artemis? Hestia? The Fates?"

Gabrielle smiled. "Faith in Xena . . . faith in myself . . . faith in people like you."

"Well," he laughed uneasily at the last example. "I wish I had your faith. It sounds difficult," he relayed thoughtfully.

"Sometimes it is," she admitted, glancing out to the forest.

"You know, we really should be getting ready for bed. We'll have to rise obscenely early," Gabrielle relayed unenthusiastically, rolling her eyes. She patted him sympathetically on the back, before standing up.

"Oh, Xena gave me this bedroll, but I can't have you sleep on the ground," he quickly picked up the bedroll. "Here," he offered, holding out the bedroll to her.

Gabrielle just looked at the bedroll and smiled. "That's ok Staveros, Xena and I . . . "

"Can share," Xena interjected as she returned to camp, making Staveros jump.

"Oh, of course, I didn't mean to second guess . . ." Staveros blurted nervously, as the Warrior Princess approached them.

"Staveros, I'm sorry for snapping at you," she relayed with a heavy sigh, glancing at the bard, who was pleased with the peace offering. The smile now on Gabrielle's face made the incredible discomfort of the apology worth it, Xena considered. "Assassins make me a little jumpy too," she added, returning her gaze to the merchant.

"Really?" He asked as a relieved smile filled his face.

Xena's eyebrow furrowed slightly.

"Uh, perhaps we should get some sleep," Gabrielle interjected, withholding a grin.

As the three settled in for the night, Xena eyed the merchant while the bard and warrior spread out their bedding. Gabrielle yawned as she sat and took her boots off. Xena took her armor off and sat on her side of the bedding, making a concerted effort not to cross over onto the bard's side.

Gabrielle looked curiously at their bedding, then the warrior, who was still eyeing the merchant.

Staveros pulled up a blanket over him. "Good night," he spoke through a yawn.

"Good night," Xena grumbled, laid back and closed her eyes.

"Good night," Gabrielle responded uncertainly, looking down at the resting warrior who didn't give her the usual goodnight kiss.

Gabrielle looked over to an apparently content merchant, who shifted a bit then closed his eyes. The bard's eyes drifted down to the resting warrior . . . way over on the other side of their bedding. After a few moments, the bard laid down and stared at the stars with a disappointed sigh. Once again, she glanced at the warrior, whose eyes were still shut. It's just a goodnight kiss, she told herself and shut her eyes.

Is she mad at me? The bard's eyes popped open.

Despite the day shopping in town and her frustrated outburst, she was pretty sure Xena wasn't still annoyed about that. Glancing at the warrior's still shut eyes, she sighed and shut her eyes again. She possibly just forgot, she considered.

But how could she forget! Her eyes popped back open.

No! Don't look at her, Gabrielle thought. She just forgot. It's that simple. Gabrielle shut her eyes again.

First a missed kiss, THEN what? Her eyes popped open.

Stop that bard! You're being ridiculous, she scolded herself. No big deal, it's just a goodnight kiss, she repeated to herself as she shut her eyes again and sighed.

Or is this some sort of stupid test to see what I would do if she didn't kiss me goodnight? Her eyes popped back open, then narrowed.

Well, if she's expecting ME to beg her for a goodnight kiss, she has another thing coming, Gabrielle considered with annoyance.

"He's asleep," Xena whispered, hearing Staveros' steady breathing. She turned to find the bard staring intensely at the sky.

"Hey," the warrior spoke softly, rolling on her side, towards the bard. "We didn't say goodnight properly."

With a nonchalant 'oh really?' ready on her lips, the bard turned to the warrior. The soft smile and beautiful eyes waiting for her undermined her ready comment.

"I was wondering when you'd get around to that," Gabrielle responded softly.

A small grin emerged on Xena's face before their lips met for a slow and gentle goodnight. When she pulled back from their kiss, the warrior saw the bard's content smile that turned into a grin.

"Assassins make you jumpy, huh?" Gabrielle asked, cuddling up closer to the warrior, who softly grumbled as she shifted to embrace her bard. After a few quiet moments in the comfortable embrace, Xena kissed Gabrielle's forehead.

"Gabrielle . . . I don't like talking about Bayentes," Xena admitted finally, getting a supportive hug.

"He came very close to destroying my entire army and me with it," Xena admitted, hoping it would be enough to appease the bard's curiosity.

Gabrielle shifted, leaning on her elbow to look at her warrior.

"But you didn't let him," Gabrielle observed.

"No, but he very came close. Too close. He's dangerous," Xena relayed simply. But the bard knew for her to say that, it wasn't that simple.

"Because he vowed to get revenge or die trying?" Gabrielle guessed correctly, Xena nodded.

"Well, don't let him," Gabrielle said simply, giving her warrior a peck on the cheek as if the problem was solved. She settled back down under the blanket, snuggling next to the surprised warrior.

"Don't let him?" Xena questioned her, now up on her elbow to look at Gabrielle.

"Uh huh, good night," Gabrielle relayed, shutting her eyes and adjusting the blanket.

"Don't let him . . . ," Xena repeated and shook her head, amazed at how simply Gabrielle saw things. Considering herself very fortunate, the warrior gazed down at the beautiful bard who had a slight smile on her inviting lips.

"Good night Gabrielle," she whispered to the bard and accepted the invitation. After the gentle kiss, the bard's eye peeked open.

"Feel any better?" Gabrielle asked with a smile.

"Well, this . . ." Xena relayed with a sly grin, slowly leaning in and stealing another kiss. ". . . does help."

"Uh, Xena, I'm really glad but . . . " Gabrielle blurted, but was interrupted by the hovering warrior who put her finger over the bard's lips.

"Shhh . . ." The warrior responded, almost inaudibly. Seeing the familiar look of her conquest being planned in the warrior's blue eyes, Gabrielle's eyes darted over to Staveros on the other side of their camp.

"Xena, don't you think . . ." Gabrielle quickly blurted as the warrior slowly closed the distance between them. Her important observation about the guest in their camp was interrupted with a searing kiss that spoke volumes. Not surprisingly, among the volumes she heard, the bard didn't hear 'Good night.'

"Hmmm?" Xena finally responded, more interested in kissing the bard than thinking at the moment. The bard gasped at the attention the warrior was now giving her neck. When the warrior returned her attention to the bard's lips, Xena forced herself to pause and look into the bard's eyes for another invitation.

Forgetting her question, the bard slipped her hand around the warrior's neck and pulled her closer.

CHAPTER 7 - Room Service

Mel glanced at her grandmother's watch, now stuck on 7:54. Sighing, she faithfully rewound it, again. Perhaps she would find a competent jeweler tomorrow, the southerner considered.

Even if her watch didn't say so, Mel knew Janice was over an hour late. She wondered what Janice was involved with now, as she slowly paced back and forth in her large hotel room.

Janice said she would be here, and she'll be here, Mel reassured herself as she sat in a chair and picked up a Greek fashion magazine. Flipping through the pages, Mel became more annoyed with each minute passing. Why didn't she want my help today, the southerner wondered with frustration. Mel's eyebrows knitted together under her glasses that slid down her nose again.

She was tired of waiting.

Pushing up her glasses, she sprang out of her chair and marched to her purse on the table. As she picked it up, she glanced out the window and saw a familiar old truck parked in the street below. A smile of relief emerged on the southerner's face.

The phone rang making Mel's smile wider. "Hello?" Mel answered eagerly, before a second ring.

"Miss Pappas?" A male voice asked.

"Yes?" Mel answered with surprise.

"There is a . . . " the man at the front desk paused, scrutinizing the fedora capped, khaki trousered woman.

". . . lady . . . here, who says you're expecting her? A Janice Covington? We will gladly send her away if you do not wish to be disturbed at this hour," the man spoke with a superior air as he glared at the archeologist.

Janice rolled her eyes, then eyed the large doorman who towered over her with his hairy arms crossed over his barrel chest. She shook her head considering the only thing intimidating about him was his strong cologne. One swift kick to the family jewels and he'd drop like a sack of potatoes, Janice concluded with an amused smirk. The smirk faded as she sighed. Mel might not appreciate her solution to this . . . inconvenience.

"I. . . I . . .yes . . . she IS?" The man at the front desk uneasily glanced at the archeologist. "But . . . I . . . Very well, Miss Pappas," the man responded to the southerner, sighing as he hung up the phone.

Janice looked to the obnoxious man, impatiently.

"I am . . . sssorry for the delay, DOCTOR Covington," he spoke bitterly through clenched teeth, bringing a smug smile to the archeologist's tanned face.

"You may go up, now," the man relayed and cleared his throat. "See to it DOCTOR Covington doesn't get lost along the way," he added, receiving a grunt from the large doorman and a very cold stare from the archeologist.

A knock on the door a moment later and Mel was face to face with an agitated archeologist and a suspicious doorman.

"Thanks for the escort, Goliath," Janice blurted sarcastically, as she barged into the room before Mel had a chance to invite her. The abrupt action made the doorman look hopefully to Miss Pappas, certain she would not wish to tolerate this woman's rude behavior. He was just waiting for an excuse to toss this brusk woman out on her khaki-covered rear.

"Thank you, Christos," she quickly blurted, sensing he was not won over by the archeologist's unique charm. He frowned with disappointment until she handed him a generous tip. His face lit up accordingly.

"If you need anything Miss Pappas, anything at all, please don't hesitate to call on me," he tipped his hat to the lovely lady, trying to ignore the irritating laugh from within the room.

What a guy, Janice thought with irritation. Looking around the impressive room, it reminded her more of a museum than a hotel room. While truly elegant, Janice wondered if anyone could ever feel comfortable or relaxed in it. The room certainly didn't have any kick-your-boots-off and prop-your-feet-up kind of furniture in it. On the plus side though, she was pretty sure Mel didn't have to worry about rodents or leaky roofs.

"Of course, thank you," Mel responded with a smile to the man as he tipped his hat and left.

As she shut the door, Mel uneasily looked back at Janice, who had plopped her gear down on the floor next to the coffee table.

"Jesus Christ Mel, I can't believe you tipped that ape," Janice blurted, shaking her head in amazement.

"He was just doing his job, Janice," Mel said softly but firmly.

"Yeah," Janice exhaled and rubbed the back of her sore neck. "Well, seems the staff isn't exactly thrilled with the company you keep," Janice relayed, forcing a laugh and smirk as she knelt by her backpack and unfastened a clasp.

"With whom I spend my time is my own business, Janice Covington," Mel snapped back, surprising Janice, who looked up curiously to the southerner. "I'm sorry, Janice," Mel added, feeling bad for her curt words and for the curt treatment her friend was subjected to.

"Don't be," Janice responded casually as she pulled out a map, and set it carefully on the coffee table.

"So, 'things' took longer than you expected . . . ," Mel asked nonchalantly, watching the archeologist and her map with interest.

"You could say that. Sorry I'm late," Janice said briskly, going to the small bar she was very pleased to discover.

Mel rolled her eyes.

"Did you get everything done that you needed to?" Mel persisted, hoping to loosen the archeologist's tight lips. She wondered if whatever she needed to do was done in a bar, for Janice's clothes held a smokey odor. Probably some seedy place the archeologist didn't want to expose her to, Mel assumed.

"Nope," Janice relayed, returning to the coffee table with two empty glasses.

Nope, Mel repeated silently to herself. The woman has a doctorate in archeology, fluent in several languages and yet she can only respond with 'nope,' Mel thought with frustration, staring at the young doctor. Before Mel could offer to help Janice again, the archeologist spoke.

"Well, here it is," Janice announced unenthusiastically, kneeling down next to the coffee table as she rolled the map open. Anchoring the corners of the map with a bowl of fruit, a candy dish, and two glasses, Janice crossed her arms and sighed. "Here's the site."

Mel smiled and anxiously peered over Janice's shoulder at the map. "Zemal?" She asked curiously, holding the side of her glasses as she inspected the Greek lettering.

"Told you, you might not be so thrilled . . ." Janice relayed, unimpressed. Nice fragrance, Janice thought, noticing Mel's perfume. Better than eau d' smoke, she smirked. God, she really has no concept of a person's personal space, Janice considered, starting to feel uncomfortable with the southerner still peering over her shoulder at the map.

However, the archeologist elected not to mention this to the southerner this time since, after all, Mel was probably still pretty upset about making them late to the meeting and Janice didn't want to make her feel worse.

Mel sighed. "Just because we haven't found any evidence that Xena and Gabrielle have been there, doesn't mean it is a worthless venture," Mel relayed confidently, sitting down.

"Yeah, if all goes well, it will help us get to Galisar," Janice relayed getting up and stretching her sore muscles. She started for the bar. "Do you mind?" Janice asked, holding up a decanter of some caramel colored liquid.

"Please, help yourself, Janice," Mel relayed with a warm smile.

"Want one?" Janice asked as she poured herself a drink.

"I . . . " Mel responded, hesitating. "I'm actually a little hungry," Mel admitted. "If you don't mind, I'll order room service," Mel offered.

"Room service?? Here?" Janice thought a moment, her eyes darting around the room at the expensive furniture.

"It's not that bad," Mel offered, with a shrug. "Even if they don't know how to chicken fry steak," she relayed with a small grin.

"Uh . . . In that case, we probably should go out," Janice responded quickly with an uneasy smile, getting a frown from the brunette.

"Janice, I find it hard to believe even YOU know of a Greek restaurant that happens to serve good southern food," Mel remarked as she stood and walked to the phone. "Besides, it's late and I am starving," Mel informed her friend.

Janice's mind raced. "Uh, Mel . . . you should just order for yourself . . . I'm really not hungry," Janice blurted.

Mel paused with the receiver in hand, eyeing the archeologist. She knew Janice tended to skip lunch when she was busy, which would have to make her famished too.

"Did something happen today that made you lose your appetite?" Mel asked with some concern, still curious about what business the archeologist had to tend to alone.

"Christ, Mel, I'm just not hungry, OK?" Janice snapped and sipped her drink, which burned all the way down to her empty stomach.

"I . . . ," Mel blurted, then sighed. "All right," Mel added, pushed her glasses up, and dialed for room service.

The food came quickly. Christos knocked on the door and was surprised the archeologist was still there, let alone answering the door. He thought Miss Pappas would not be able to tolerate such a rude woman for very long.

"Hey Goliath, so you deliver food too?" Janice blurted sarcastically, receiving some satisfaction in knowing her presence irritated the man. "Well, I guess you did say you'd do ANYTHING for Miss Pappas," Janice quickly added with a thin smile.

"I have Miss PAPPAS' dinner," he responded coldly, peering in the room but not seeing the southerner.

"Hey, I have an idea. After you drop off the food, why don't you give my truck a good washing?" Janice suggested, seeing his eyes narrow. "Trust me, you'd be doing Miss Pappas a big favor," Janice added.

"Where IS Miss Pappas?" The man asked through clenched teeth.

"Here! I'm right here Christos . . . ," Mel announced nervously, rushing to the door from the powder room. She could feel the angry tension between the two.

Christos smiled warmly at the pretty southerner. Janice rolled her eyes and returned to the bar to pour herself another drink.

"You came faster than I expected." Mel smiled at the attentive hotel employee.

"We like to take care of our guests, Miss Pappas," Christos grinned, rolling the cart in the room.

"I'll bet," Janice muttered, drawing an uneasy look from the southerner, who hoped Christos didn't hear her friend.

Seeing his grin was still firmly in place, Mel sighed with relief.

"Well, thank you Christos," Mel relayed as the man started to leave. Mel looked over to Janice, who sat carefully on the uncomfortable couch with a healthy size glass of scotch.

The archeologist grabbed a small pillow and stared at its lacy fringe a moment. Sighing with defeat, Janice put it back where she found it.

Christos paused at the door expectantly, clearing his throat.

"Oh, of course," Mel said with a smile as she pulled out her purse and tipped him once again.

"Thank you," she said sincerely.

"Thank YOU, Miss Pappas," he blurted enthusiastically, grinning.

Janice shook her head and took a large sip from her glass.

When the door closed, Mel looked at the archeologist and sighed. "There was no need to be rude to him Janice," Mel scolded her in a soft voice as she walked to the cart.

Janice's sharp glance towards the southerner faded quickly, considering she was probably right. Janice took a deep breath and looked at the map.

"Dr. Maveros has reason to believe there is some historical significance to Zemal, but has been a little vague on the details of why she thinks that," Janice relayed with a little annoyance.

Mel could understand her annoyance.

"Well, don't all sites have some historical significance?" Mel asked, looking under the stainless steel cover at her dinner plate.

"They do if the University of Athens is willing to foot the entire bill for the dig," Janice relayed with a grin.

"Didn't the University pay for the last dig?" Mel asked, becoming more confused when Janice laughed sharply.

"The Xena scrolls still aren't significant enough for them," she shrugged. "Or any other university for that matter. Dr. Maveros still isn't interested in Galisar, despite all your hard work translating that last scroll," Janice blurted with annoyance.

"OUR hard work," Mel corrected her, but felt a surge of pride in the casual praise.

"She's more interested in Zemal for some reason . . . God knows why," Janice continued, ignoring the southerner's comment. Shaking her head in frustration, she added, "Guess she's interested in counting pots or temples or some other bull sh . . . "

"Janice," Mel interjected quickly. ". . . if the University didn't back your digs, how did you . . . ," she asked as she picked up the plate and a glass of milk and settled down on the floor by the coffee table.

"Other backers," Janice offered quickly, sipping her scotch and eyeing the southerner sitting on the floor. "Don't you want to sit at the table?" Janice asked, looking over at what the Grande Bretagne would probably call small diningroom table.

"No, I'm fine thank you. What happened to your other backers?" Mel asked, taking a small bite of her sandwich.

"They changed their minds," Janice stared at her drink.

"Why? After that last scroll we found about the wedding in Galisar, I am certain we will find some fascinating artifacts," Mel said enthusiastically. "Maybe even a fossilized Furry egg!" Mel added.

"Jesus Mel, it's a furry WEGGET egg, how many times do I have . . . ," Janice quickly corrected the southerner, who grinned with satisfaction. "Why do you DO that?" Janice moaned rhetorically, shaking her head.

"I can't believe you couldn't convince them. You are a very persuasive woman, Dr. Covington," Mel continued, exuding great confidence in her friend.

"Apparently not persuasive enough," Janice sighed heavily, leaning her head back against the carved wooden frame of the uncomfortable couch. Looking up at the ceiling, she noticed the intricate molding. Even the damn ceilings are elegant, she sighed silently.

"Galisar will have to wait until I can raise up enough money, Zemal will be a good start," she informed Mel, returning her gaze to the southerner with elegant ceilings.

"Janice, if money is the only problem I . . . " Mel offered simply, wondering why the archeologist didn't mention it before. Janice knew she definitely had the means.

"NO!" Janice blurted vehemently, bolting out of her seat and surprising the southerner.

"I . . . I only wanted . . . " Mel said quickly as Janice slammed down her drink on the map, making the coffee table shake.

"I've managed to get by THIS long without leeching off of my friends," Janice blurted, grabbing her backpack. "I'm NOT about to start now," Janice added, as she stormed towards the door.

"Janice! You wouldn't be lea. . . . Janice!" Mel scrambled to her feet, watching the angry archeologist leave. "JANICE!" Mel called out again, with a panic in her voice that stopped the archeologist in her tracks.

"If you still want to go to Zemal, be ready to leave Friday morning," Janice blurted without turning and quickly left the hotel room.

Mel stood staring at the door.

CHAPTER 8 - The Weak Link

Gabrielle stretched and rolled over. Her arm fell on the cold ground, instead of the warm warrior. "Xena?" The bard called softly, opening her eyes, trying to adjust to the darkness. Not hearing her warrior respond, she sat up. "Xena?" She called again, looking around the empty camp.

"Staveros is gone," Xena spat out as she angrily strode back into camp, annoyance clearly etched on her face.

"Gone?" Gabrielle repeated as she yawned and rubbed her eyes. "What do you mean gone?"

"He's GONE, Gabrielle. How much clearer do you need me to make it for you?" Xena snapped.

"Well, let's see, just so I can CLEARLY understand . . . what you're saying is . . . he's not here," Gabrielle blurted sarcastically, eyeing her warrior as she got up and stretched her still sleepy body.

Choosing to ignoring the bard's response, Xena groaned with annoyance. "I can't believe I fell for the 'I'm just a poor merchant and my town is in trouble' routine," Xena blurted, pacing in the camp. "I let down my guard and . . . "

"Xena," Gabrielle called to her partner, who continued to pace. "XENA!" Gabrielle held her arm to prevent her pacing. "What is wrong with you? Maybe he's . . . stretching his legs," Gabrielle suggested, looking out at the trees.

"I've looked, he's GONE," Xena blurted, reclaiming her arm from the bard, and started to pace again.

"Maybe he left for Zemal," Gabrielle suggested, knowing that sounded unlikely when she said it. Though her concern about Staveros' absence was growing, she was still more worried about her partner's disturbing reaction.

"Gabrielle, he's working for Bayentes, he must be," Xena hissed.

"Xena, what about the assassins?"

"Bayentes sent them to help his story . . . an old warlord trick," Xena explained with a thin smile.

Gabrielle thought a moment, remembering everything Staveros said and did as Xena paced.

"But he was really sincere in his concern about Zemal," Gabrielle noted, causing the Warrior Princess to pause a moment to stare at the bard.

Too trusting, Xena thought, shaking her head then continued to pace across their camp, thinking.

"Ok, ok, even if it IS true . . . " Gabrielle offered as Xena marched towards her, then marched passed her. Gabrielle sighed with annoyance, staring at her warrior's back.

The pacing warrior turned and walked towards her again.

". . . and he IS working for Bayen. . . . " Gabrielle continued but paused as the warrior past her. ". . .tes" the bard blurted, annoyed she was once again talking to the warrior's back.

"XENA! Stop pacing!!" Gabrielle barked in frustration. Xena turned to her and sighed.

"Gabrielle, don't you SEE," Xena relayed as she went to the bard and placed her hand firmly on her shoulder. "He had one of his men come in and make himself at home in OUR camp," Xena blurted with annoyance as she glanced over to Staveros' bed roll.

"Bayentes looks for the weak link in his enemies and goes after it," Xena added looked back in Gabrielle's eyes. "I let my guard down, Gabrielle. And now Bayentes knows MY weak link . . . YOU," Xena explained and started pacing again.

Gabrielle's eyes rolled. "Weak link. Gee thanks, I've heard of ball and chain . . . " Gabrielle muttered.

"Gabrielle, this is no time for sarcasm," Xena snapped.

Gabrielle sighed and rubbed the back of her neck.

"Ok, Xena. So, Staveros probably knows a little more about 'us' than we'd like," Gabrielle relayed, seeing Xena's eyebrows furrow on one of the trips past her.

"But we haven't exactly kept our relationship a secret. So he tells Bayentes what he knows . . . People already know we love each other. That really isn't new information."

Xena looked at her bard, who sat on the log. Gabrielle was right.

"He likes playing mind games," Xena relayed wearily, sitting next to her bard. "I guess he won this battle," Xena spat with self-loathing and leaned forward, her head sinking into her hands.

"Why are you letting him get to you?" Gabrielle rubbed the warrior's back.

Xena grunted and rubbed her temples.

The bard knew there was more to Bayentes than what Xena told her. "What exactly did you do to make him want revenge, Xena?" Gabrielle asked softly, gently stroking the back of her warrior's head.

Xena stopped rubbing her temples and looked at her bard, hearing the question she hoped she wouldn't be asked.

Staveros stood in Bayentes war tent, nervously waiting for the warlord to arrive as he listened to yet another platoon march by. His eyes darted around the tent at the large display of war paraphernalia. He whimpered when he noticed the dark stains still covering the axes and swords.

Glancing to the table, he spotted a map. Leaning over to get a closer look, his stomach dropped. There were arrows on the map indicating Bayentes was still planning to march North, to Zemal . . . his home. He also noted after Zemal, the arrows turned East, to a town that was circled which was apparently his final destination. Staveros shook his head. Even he, a naive merchant, knew it was clearly quicker to skip Zemal and just go Northeast. Staveros wondered why Bayentes desired to waste time and pick on his home.

The warlord and his entourage came through the tent flap. Staveros quickly stood erect and turned towards Bayentes. Despite trying to avoid insulting the dangerous warlord, the merchant cringed, like everyone else who laid eyes on the disfigured man.

"Staveros! It's so good to see you," Bayentes relayed warmly, as if he was greeting a long lost friend.

"Good to see me? You send me off to get information and then you send assassins after me!" Staveros blurted nervously, still staring at the man's scars.

"You're still in one piece, so what's the problem?" Bayentes relayed with an amused grin that would have been ear-to-ear, if he still had them.

"I could have been killed!" Staveros blurted.

"What? With the Warrior Princess to protect you?" Bayentes smiled and laughed heartily, then in a disturbingly rapid change of mood, his face went emotionless. "You exaggerate merchant," Bayentes responded coldly with a dismissive hand. He sat at his table, looking quickly over his map before rolling it up.

"Exaggerate?!? An arrow came this close to piercing my heart!" A flustered Staveros blurted and continued to exercise poor judgement, showing an inch between his fingers.

"One still could, if you don't mind your tongue, merchant," Bayentes relayed calmly, motioning for a bowl of fruit to be brought to him. "And don't forget . . . ," he added as the servant placed the bowl next to him. "I have your wife and child," he said with satisfaction, placing a grape in his mouth.

"I. . . I'm sorry . . . my lord," Staveros blurted with forced respect. "How are they?" He asked uneasily.

"Scared I'll kill them . . . ," Bayentes relayed, motioning for a guard to pour him a drink.

". . . as they should be."

"As they should be? But you said if I helped you, you'd release my family!"

"You haven't helped me yet," the warlord noted, savoring another grape and washing it down with wine. "All I've received so far are insults and threats from the Warrior Princess."

"She is not alone," Staveros quickly blurted. "She has a . . . companion," he informed the warlord, hoping to prove helpful. Bayentes didn't seem impressed.

"They are . . . lovers," the merchant reluctantly added, still embarrassed about finding out when he was woken by their moans. He was thankful the Warrior Princess was too . . . preoccupied . . . to notice.

"Gabrielle, isn't it?" Bayentes relayed with a warm smile that gave the merchant chills. "A young bard from Poteidaia, with lovely ears . . . I am told."

Bayentes' smile faded as his hands drifted up to touch the sides of his head, where his ears once were. His gaze went blankly through the merchant as he remembered what it was like to feel something other than scar tissue . . . what it was like the day he became an enemy of the Warrior Princess. . . .

With all pride gone, hoping his worth as a soldier and friend would prove enough reason for her to spare him, he begged the dark warrior standing over him for mercy. Of anyone, HE should have known none would be given. There never was with her.

He had seen, too many times to count, the Warrior Princess dispense swift and harsh punishment . . . without one moment of hesitation, or remorse. 'You must instill fear in those who would oppose you,' she lectured him and a chosen few in her army. That philosophy didn't just apply to villagers. On occasion, she killed an incompetent or lazy soldier to send a message to the rest of her army. They could always tell the message was received by the increase in sparring practice.

He never thought he would be on the receiving end of her cold brutality. But as the Fates would have it, he, one of her trusted, was.

Bound and kneeling, he looked up to her. The tall warrior blocked the sun, whose rays escaped from behind her dark form, creating a bright halo. She was frighteningly magnificent. And she knew it.

It was a hot day with no clouds, he remembered. Not even the wind blew. It was the kind of day the army dreaded in their hot armor. Yet the heat never seemed to affect the Warrior Princess, making her men speculate with wonder. Most believed Ares made her invincible, even against nature. Today, Bayentes finally figured out why. . . .

It was because her heart was so cold.

Her haloed form stood menacingly over him for what seemed like an eternity. He couldn't take it any longer, wanting it to be over with.

"I fought as your friend and I will die as your enemy, Xena," he spoke with a fierceness that surprised himself.

The Warrior Princess grinned. In the next heartbeat, she was face to face with him with her dagger at his throat. She slowly and intimately traced the tip of her dagger up his neck, under his jaw to his chin. With slight pressure on the blade, she drew his chin up towards her as she leaned in even closer.

"What makes you think I'm going to kill you?" She asked with amusement.

Her unnerving blue eyes sought and found what they were looking for - fear. She grinned, knowing he had seen those who lived after her punishments. Death was preferred.

"If you don't kill me, I will cause you such pain and suffering you will beg ME to kill YOU," he threatened, hoping to show he would not cower like the others, hoping she would conclude his death was in her best interest.

She laughed as she put her dagger away.

Bayentes' stomach dropped.

Next thing he remembered was hearing her sword unsheathed. It whooshed through the air before his pleading screams could escape his mouth. He remembered the blade swiftly slicing through his skin, not once but twice. Before the unholiest of pain and the horrific sight of two bloody chunks of curved skin at his knees could register in his mind, two orange-tipped swords were place on his injuries causing an incredibly loud sizzling. He did not stay conscious long enough to smell the sickening odor of his searing flesh that filled the air. . . .

Staveros stood wide-eyed, fearing to speak to the entranced warlord.

Bayentes' distant gaze disappeared as he refocused on the frightened merchant. The warlord smiled warmly with thoughts of revenge as he slowly picked up his wine goblet and sipped his wine.

"You have more work to do for me, merchant. THEN, we will discuss the release of your family."

"Xena," Gabrielle called to the warrior, who bolted from her seat and out of camp after blurting out she cut off Bayentes ears and was pretty sure he was still annoyed about that.

Gabrielle sighed with frustration then took a deep breath before following after her. The bard quickly caught up to Xena standing by the familiar boulder they found themselves sitting on the night before.

"Xena," Gabrielle called out quietly and sat. "Sit down and talk to me," the bard suggested softly to the standing warrior. "Please . . . "

"I didn't want to tell you," Xena admitted, exhaling wearily. Though aching for the comfort of the bard's arms, she chose to stand. "There are so many things I don't want to tell you," the warrior added barely above a whisper.

"You . . . ," Gabrielle spoke, then paused to think her words through, knowing they were important to Xena. Especially now.

"I am not going to say it is easy to hear that you . . ." Gabrielle paused another uncomfortable moment then continued. ". . . cut off a man's ears, because it isn't," Gabrielle admitted, looking at the profile of the guilt-ridden Warrior Princess, who still stared at the forest.

"But Xena, I need to know about the past. Especially when it becomes something WE have to deal with in the present," Gabrielle argued, standing up and gently taking her warrior's hand. "And WE will deal with it," Gabrielle emphasized with a firm squeeze of her hand.

"He delayed raiding the next target so his men could rest," the warrior offered without prompting from the bard. "There was no reason the raid had to be the day I said, other than the 'Warrior Princess' said so," Xena continued. "He disobeyed my order for a lousy day of rest for his men. I didn't even think twice about punishing him, Gabrielle," Xena informed her numbly, still staring out into the forest.

"Punishment should always be swift and harsh . . . ," Xena lectured to the quiet bard.

". . . . then they'll be too afraid to go against you." Xena forced a laugh. "Well that theory didn't exactly work the way I thought it would . . . did it?"

Xena tried to take her guilty hand back from the bard's grasp, but the bard wouldn't let go. Xena's head dropped as she looked to the ground.

"I know you have done horrible things," Gabrielle said firmly to her warrior, who still couldn't look at the bard. "You've told me about some and you must know, Xena, I've asked people and heard stories," Gabrielle admitted, making Xena stiffen. The Warrior Princess knew, but that didn't make her like hearing Gabrielle admit it.

"You don't even know the half of it, Gabrielle," Xena countered guiltily.

"Maybe not," Gabrielle conceded. "But I do know one thing. I love you," Gabrielle added. "Don't you forget that," the bard warned her sternly with another squeeze of the warrior's hand.

Xena slowly faced the bard.

"How could I forget, Gabrielle?" Xena uttered softly. "You won't let me," she added, looking into eyes that reflected no animosity, fear or disgust in them. There was only unquestioning love in those green eyes, making the stoic warrior vulnerable to the tears which threatened to come. The warrior fought them back.

"OK then!" Gabrielle blurted, quickly changing the subject to ease her warrior's discomfort.

"So, what will we do about Zemal? Do you think the story about Bayentes marching North was a lie?" Gabrielle asked.

"There is only one way to find out," Xena informed her, drawing in a deep, cleansing breath.

"I guess we are going to Zemal then," Gabrielle spoke with finality.

CHAPTER 9 - A Visit

It was only Thursday, the morning after Janice stormed out of her hotel room. But Mel couldn't wait until Friday to see the archeologist. Her stomach tightened up in knots every time she thought of how angry Janice was. Now the southerner was going to call on her, uninvited . . . something a proper southern lady would never do. But she just had to talk to Janice and was unable to get through on the phone. This was an emergency! Well, sort of, Mel considered then sighed, wondering if this visit would make Janice even more annoyed. Mel started to bite her fingernails.

"Here it is," the cabby announced as he slammed on the brakes, sending Mel lurching forward in her seat.

Adjusting her glasses as she sat up, she wondered if he had gone to the same driving school as Janice. Mel squinted as she looked out of the cab window. The narrow street seemed more like an alley, and a rather seedy one at that. With a thick blanket of grey clouds above it, the street seemed even more ominous.

"Uh," Mel blurted, turning to the burly Greek driver with an uneasy smile. "I think you have the wrong street," she relayed as politely as possible.

"No no, this is the street," he pointed to the sign. "Maybe you got the street wrong."

Perhaps Janice told her the wrong street, she considered a hopeful moment but quickly dismissed that possibility knowing Janice wouldn't make a mistake like that.

"No, this is the right street," she confirmed with a sigh, looking back at the sign then the narrow street.

"I could wait for you if you want Miss, it's not the best neighborhood as you can see," he offered.

"No thank you," the southerner answered, smiling weakly. "I'm visiting a friend here," she informed him as she handed him the fare.

"Suit yourself," he blurted, shaking his head as the tall brunette left his cab.

The cab drove off, leaving the tall, impeccably dressed woman alone in the poor Athenian neighborhood. She immediately felt the stares of curious people as they walked by. Instinctively clenching her purse tightly against her body, Mel attempted to ignore her nervousness and push on, in search of the Ritz Carlton Hotel.

Passing a few dilapidated buildings, her eyes nervously darted from darkened doorway to darkened doorway. Above one doorway, Mel glanced up to find a weather-beaten sign, swinging free at one end. Tilting her head to read the sloppy lettering on the crooked, hand-painted sign, Mel could make out the hotel name, 'Rits Karlton.'

"Oh dear," Mel blurted. She had found Janice's hotel. While Mel guessed Janice thought it amusing, the southerner's her heart dropped.

At the front desk of the Rits Karlton, Mel looked around for someone to greet her. She didn't know if it was nerves or that odd charcoal smell making her stomach uneasy. Perhaps a bit of both, she considered.

After waiting a few moments with no one in sight, she dutifully tapped the bell on the front desk. Her eyebrows furrowed curiously as it made a dull thunk. She looked at the bell a moment and attempted tapping it again considering perhaps she didn't ring it right the first time. With the second dull thunk, she sighed.

"Excuse me," Mel called out, peering behind the front desk, undeterred.

"Excuse ME?" Mel called out again, then heard a crash and a cat screeching.

"God Damn!" An old woman in a floral housecoat emerged from behind a curtain. "Oh, hello," she eyed Mel curiously.

"Are you all right?" Mel asked with concern.

"Damn cats, they sometimes get in the kitchen," the woman relayed, scratching her arm and lifted up her bra strap back up on her shoulder. "Well, at least they help keep the damn rats under control," the woman muttered as she stepped towards the desk.

Mel's mouth dropped, her eyes darting to the floor.

"You're looking for Janice?" She asked the surprised southerner, who nodded.

"How did you know that?" Mel questioned, her eyes glancing between the woman and the floor.

"Well, not too many Americans come by here and you really don't look the type to be looking for a room in this neighborhood," the white-haired woman chuckled. "Come with me," the woman told her, as she emerged from behind the desk. "I'm Octavia," the old woman introduced herself.

"Pleased to meet you Octavia, I'm Melinda Pappas," Mel smiled warmly, politely offering a hand to shake.

Octavia just stared at Mel's hand, then Mel, making the southerner awkwardly pull her hand back and scratch the back of her neck. Mel cleared her throat weakly.

"So. . . you're a friend of Janice's?" Octavia asked, looking over the very tall, impeccably dressed woman critically, then smirked.

"Yes, we work together," Mel responded happily as they walked through the front door. "Uh, Octavia, where are we going?" Mel asked, looking uneasily around the seedy neighborhood as she pushed her glasses back up her nose.

"We have to go around, because of the fire damage," the woman relayed, having to squeeze past a couple of large wooden crates in the narrow alley, which proved a little difficult for the stocky woman. "I wish Janice would move these damn things," Octavia muttered.

"Fire?" Mel blurted with great concern as she followed the old woman past the crates.

Suddenly, she felt a yank on her purse strap, almost making her fall. Mel took in a sharp panicked breath causing Octavia to look back.

The old woman found the southerner's eyes wide, until Mel realized her purse was caught on a nail.

The southerner exhaled with relief then struggled to unhook her purse strap from a nail which jutted from the crate. Mel looked up to find the old woman staring blankly at her. After a soft, embarrassed laugh, Mel cleared her throat and continued her attempts to free herself from the cunning nail, laying in wait for unsuspecting passer-bys with purses. Finally successful, she exhaled, stood up straight as she adjusted her purse and pushed her glasses up.

"So . . . you were saying, there was a fire?" Mel blurted with a polite smile.

"Yeah, yesterday afternoon," Octavia relayed, eyeing the southerner. Shaking her head slightly, Octavia turned and continued their trip out back. "That drunk old fool's lucky he didn't burn the whole damn building down and himself with it," Octavia muttered with annoyance. "Smoking in bed . . . " she spat.

The southerner heard the busy sounds of hammers and saws well before she saw the flurry of activity in the back yard. When they arrived, she glanced over the half-dozen workers hopefully until she found no sign of Janice.

"She's inside, fixing the roof," Octavia quickly told Mel, noticing her disappointment. "Follow me," Octavia added with a wave.

Holding a hammer in one hand and straddling a roof beam, Janice reached down for a two-by-four that was held just out of her reach. "Ugh!" Janice uttered, grasping air and almost lost her balance. "Georg, higher!" Janice barked.

"I'm not a carpenter Dr. Covington," Georg reminded her of the painfully obvious. "I excavate artifacts good. I carpend bad."

Wiping the sweat off her forehead with her forearm, Janice sighed heavily.

"Georg, do you, or do you not, live in this building?" She asked, her eyes narrowing at the man below.

"Well, after this fire, I'm not sure," Georg relayed honestly, surveying the damage. Janice sighed with annoyance, then tried a different tack.

"Georg, do you, or do you not, want to that job in Zemal?" Janice smiled thinly.

"Here you go Dr. Covington!" Georg answered enthusiastically, plastering on a smile as he handed a board up to the archeologist.

"Thought so . . ." Janice muttered, grabbing the board and placing it on the rafters.

Pulling a nail from a pouch on her tool belt, she deftly placed it on the board and hammered it in with two easy strokes. Finishing with the board, she paused to look at the work left to fix hole in the roof. The hole was only about the size of her truck, she observed, concluding she should be able to finish patching it before dinner. Good thing, she considered as her stomach grumbled, rebelling against another missed lunch.

Ready for another board, she looked down to see Georg scratching the back of his head and looking around the room, sighing with boredom.

"Georg!" She blurted, startling him into action. With help like his, she considered she might not finish until breakfast the next morning. It was a really good thing he excavates artifacts good, she thought wearily as her stomach growled again.

Hearing the distant hammering and angry bellow of Janice's voice, Mel became more nervous as she followed the older woman.

"So, after the fire, where did everyone go?" Mel asked as she climbed the rickety fire escape, looking carefully down at her feet to make sure her heels wouldn't get caught in the metal steps. She was determined to avoid further embarrassment in front of Octavia.

"Nobody went anywhere, we made do . . . no different than usual," Octavia responded with a short chuckle, though the southerner's face still cringed.

Finally making it to the top floor, Octavia eyed the hallway window. "I'm getting too old for this . . . that old fool and his cigarette," the woman muttered as she climbed in.

Mel looked at the window then her skirt and sighed. She tossed her purse through the window, pulled her tailored skirt up over her knees and awkwardly climbed in the building after the old woman. With an unfortunate miscalculation of her center of gravity and the windowsill's slipperiness, Mel's hand slid off the sill, causing the southerner to tumble through the window and onto the floor like a most unladylike sack of bowling balls.

Mel exhaled heavily, grabbed her purse, and picked herself off the floor. Dusting her outfit off, she moaned with frustration at how the dark blotches got worse with each stroke. Glancing up, she noticed Octavia staring at her.

"I slipped," Mel explained with a weak laugh and pushed her glasses up.

Octavia nodded, then shook her head slightly as she continued towards the old man's room.

"Damn Damn Damn Damn Damn!!!" Janice blurted as rain startled to sprinkle down on the unfinished roof. A crack of lightning, quickly followed by the rumbling of thunder made her curse more.

"Ugggh . . . I'm getting WET!!" Georg whined as he stepped away from the hole in the roof.

"Georg, hand me another board!" Janice barked, knowing she didn't have much time before the skies would completely open up on them. She didn't want to think of the additional damage a downpour would inflict on this old, unprotected building.

"What about the lightning!" He added, nervously looking up through the hole.

"Just hand me a DAMN board, damn it!" Janice yelled down. When the rain increased from a sprinkle to larger drops, she looked up and groaned with frustration.

She was surprised when a board appeared by her hand, fully expecting to have to threaten Georg again. "It's about damn . . . " Janice relayed, looking down to find familiar blue eyes looking up.

". . . time," Janice finished weakly.

"You looked like you needed help," Mel offered with an awkward smile and shrug.

"Mel, you're getting your nice clothes wet . . . Georg! Get off your a. . . . " Janice bellowed.

"Just take it and hurry up, Janice," Mel interrupted firmly, surprising the archeologist. "It doesn't look like it's going to stop anytime . . . ugh oh," Mel blurted when the rain came down harder.

Janice sighed. Fine, if she wants to get soaked, let her get soaked, Janice thought as she took the board and placed it down on the beams. After she quickly nailed it, another board was ready for her. Even with her aching back, the strong possibility of getting struck by lightening, and the rain starting to soak through her shirt, Janice couldn't help but grin. After a few boards, Janice didn't even need to look down, knowing right where Mel would have the two-by-four.

The Greek man attempted a quiet retreat out of the room.

"Hold it buster. Where do you think you're going?" Octavia challenged Georg. He froze in place when he saw Octavia shake her head with disappointment. He shrugged with a sheepish smile.

"Well, as you can see, Dr. Covington and Miss Pappas make a such a great team, they don't need . . . ."

"OW!" Janice blurted when a distracted Mel jammed the board in her hand.

"Oh Janice!" Mel blurted nervously, looking between the offending board and the redheaded woman. She felt horrible as she watched the archeologist shake off the sting in her hand.

"I'll bet you've been just waiting to smack me with a two-by-four," Janice relayed with a smirk, eyeing her hand as she wiggled her fingers, then looking down to her concerned friend's face. ". . . not that I don't deserve it," Janice added seriously, then offered a sheepish smile.

Octavia and Georg looked at each other curiously then back at the two.

Incredible relief washed over Mel. "Janice, about yesterday, I never meant to . . . ."

"MEL," Janice interrupted the southerner's apology and pointed up to the sky then the hole in the roof. "The board?"

Mel closed her mouth, sighed, and handed another board up to the archeologist. When Janice took it, the rain seemed to be coming down harder. Janice groaned. She knew the damage this storm was making and she was not going to get the roof done in time to stop it.

"Damn Damn DAMN . . . I don't even have a damn tarpaulin big enough to cover this damn hole!"

"What about your tent" Mel blurted, interrupting the archeologist's temper tantrum. "Your tent, Janice!" Mel suggested, bringing a big grin to her friend's face.

"Yeah! It should be big enough," Janice responded, enthusiastically. "Georg!" Janice yelled down, making the Greek man roll his eyes.

"I'll get it . . . where is it?" Mel interrupted, making Georg smile.

Octavia looked at Georg. "Slug."

"Uh . . . room 313," Janice responded hesitantly. Another bolt of lightning cracked loudly, drawing her attention to the sky for a moment. "In the. . . " Janice continued, looking back down but Mel had already gone.

As Mel rushed through the third floor hallway, she saw the disturbing damage done to the stairwell by the fire and wondered with growing annoyance why Janice didn't say one word about it to her. Quickly arriving at the door to room 313, she paused a second, feeling a little awkward barging into her friend's room. She knew how much Janice valued her privacy. However, hearing another clap of thunder made her feelings of awkwardness moot. Janice needed the tent.

Opening the softly squeaking door, she entered and scanned the room. She wasn't surprised to find it sparsely furnished and a bit messy. Mel grinned at the unmade bed with the covers in a jumble and clothing thrown haphazardly across it. Next to the bed was a night stand cluttered with books, newspapers and on top, a revolver which made Mel cringe with displeasure.

Looking over the rest of the archeologist's room she spotted Janice's desk which was covered with papers scattered in a large pile, making Mel wonder if the archeologist had ever heard of that amazing piece of office furniture called the filing cabinet. A smile emerged on the southerner's face seeing one neat thing in the room. On the back of her desk chair, was Janice's carefully hung leather jacket.

Mel's grin faded when she noticed more evidence of the fire. A small scorched couch next to the blackened wall.

"Oh Janice," she exhaled sadly.

Another startling crack of lightening reminded the southerner of the task at hand. The tent! Spying the two doors next to each other, she reached for the one on the left and opened the door. Wrong one, she concluded after from the subtle clues of a bathtub and commode.

"That's the bathroom," Georg announced helpfully, startling her when he entered the room.

"Thank you," Mel said with a thin smile and closed the door. Turning, she gave Georg a questioning look.

"Dr. Covington said the tent was heavy," Georg explained as he followed closely behind her.

"Hmmm," Mel responded flatly as she opened the closet door to find the tent rolled up in a large bag on the bottom of the closet. Next to the tent was Janice's whip and a cardboard box filled with more paper, and a few pieces of clothing - actually on hangers. One piece caught Mel's eye, Janice's pretty green dress. Or rather, what was left of it. Pulling it towards her for a closer inspection, she found about a quarter of the skirt gone and the edges charred.

"Oh my," Mel responded.

Georg was on his toes to peek over the southerner's shoulder.

"You should have seen it catch on fire," Georg relayed with amusement. "When Dr. Covington pulled Aristotle out of his room, her skirt caught and WHOOSH! . . . I've been friends with Dr. Covington a while now and have to say, the words out of her mouth surprised even me!" He chuckled, annoying Mel at his cavalier attitude.

"Georg, she could have been hurt!" Mel blurted angrily, effortlessly picking up the tent by herself. "And I, for one, do NOT find that funny," the southerner scolded him and marched out of the room, leaving the stunned Greek to scratch his head.

Janice was surprised when the southerner climbed the ladder, with the tent.

"Jesus Christ, Mel . . . you should get Georg to . . . "

Without a word, Mel glared at Janice and plopped the tent on the roof.

"Ok, no Georg . . . ," Janice responded cautiously and as she pulled the tent away from the hole in the roof to unroll it. She glanced up at the quiet southerner, now sitting on the edge of the roof by the ladder. Janice knew she didn't like having all her clothes drenched. There was certainly no need for Mel to endure this too.

"You don't have to be out here," Janice relayed, smoothing out the tent.

"I know," Mel responded crisply, pushing up her glasses. She didn't budge.

"Oh," Janice relayed uneasily as she pulled her hammer out of her tool belt. She felt around the belt pouch for some nails. Damn. She looked up with a weak smile.

"Would you mind getting some . . . , " Janice started to ask when Mel reached in the pocket of her smudged and soaked suit, grabbed some nails, and held her hand out. "Nails . . . " Janice blurted, eyeing the southerner's extended fist and the drops of rain water that dribbled from it.

Mel raised her eyebrow.

Janice felt a bit unnerved at the silent treatment. "Thanks," Janice responded with another weak smile as she took the nails.

As Janice started to fit the tent over the hole, she looked up at Mel. "I think this will do the trick," she relayed with a hammer in her hand and a confident smile on her face.

Mel eyed the archeologist and sighed. Janice's smile faded.

"Yeah . . . well," Janice relayed, grabbed a wood board and started to carefully hammer it over the tent. After a few more moments of tacking the tent down, Janice looked up at the drenched and silent southerner.

"You know there is really no need for you to be. . . . " Janice stopped and cringed, seeing Mel silently raise her eyebrow again.

"Yeah . . . well," Janice relayed and continued attaching the makeshift roof. Finally getting to the last side, Janice looked between Mel, who sat in the way, and the ladder.

"How will you get down?" Mel asked coolly.

"Fire escape," Janice answered with an unconcerned shrug.

Mel eyed her a moment, then apparently satisfied, nodded curtly and descended the ladder.

Janice stared at the ladder a moment before attaching the final side of the tent. Finished with the makeshift roof, Janice sat on the roof, looked up to the sky and sighed.

Chapter 10 - Just the Facts

The warrior and bard rode Argo in silence, each thinking of what might lay ahead in Zemal.

Gabrielle found comfort in Xena's arms, which held her a little more tightly than usual. The bard didn't mind. It felt safer, though she knew very well they weren't safe. Not with Bayentes out there . . . somewhere, the bard considered, her eyes sweeping over the remote and overgrown path before them.

Though missing the comfort of the bard's voice, Xena was relieved for the quiet. It made it easier for her to focus on the sounds of the forest, making it nearly impossible for Bayentes men to surprise them. Though she was pretty sure Bayentes wouldn't want to waste his resources trying to hunt her down in the dense forest.

'But what will Bayentes do?' Xena silently examined the situation.

If she were Bayentes, the warrior considered, she would send out a patrol to Zemal to assess the defenses. 'What defenses?' she sighed heavily at the problematic situation. When her army marched through towns like Zemal, she remembered being bored. No challenge. A small patrol could probably take towns like Zemal by themselves. Maybe they already have, the Warrior Princess speculated with growing apprehension.

Being uncertain of Bayentes' next step took away any comfort she might have had holding the bard close. Yet, she found no comfort in the one thing she was certain of - he would go after Gabrielle.

"Hey, you're making a permanent indentation . . . ," Gabrielle relayed softly, patting the warrior's bracered arm that wrapped tightly around her waist.

"Sorry," Xena whispered, relaxing her hold a little as they stopped at the edge of the dense forest.

Peering through the trees, they saw the town of Zemal. A few quiet moments passed as the sun set further in the sky while they observed the people coming and going from the busy town. Gabrielle took interest in the man who started to light the torches lining the street, remembering a merchant of a similar build who wouldn't sell 'her kind' anything.

"Remember when we weren't welcome here?" Gabrielle spoke softly. "I guess they are pretty lucky you don't hold a grudge," Gabrielle added with a small smile which grew when she felt the warrior nuzzle against her hair.

"Well, it looks ok to me. Just like any other town getting ready for the night," Gabrielle relayed to the warrior optimistically, patting her warrior's thigh.

Xena straightened up in the saddle and took a deep breath.

"Looks can be deceiving," Xena spoke, suspicious of all activity she observed. "Get down," Xena ordered her coldly.


"I'm going in alone," the Warrior Princess announced. "Get down."

"Like I said . . . WHAT!?!" Gabrielle relayed with annoyance, twisting in the saddle to look at the warrior.

"Gabrielle, I'm not going to argue," Xena relayed crisply.

"Good. Neither am I," Gabrielle said with a thin smile.

"Get down," Xena articulated slowly.

"No," Gabrielle also articulated slowly and turned back forward. "I'm going with you."

"Don't make me make you get down," Xena threatened.

Argo snorted uneasily.

"WHAT?!?" Gabrielle blurted.

Before the bard could take a breath and express the full measure of her displeasure, she felt the warrior grab her arm and slide her other hand under her thigh. Within a heartbeat, she gasped, experiencing the odd sensation of being lifted out of the saddle and abruptly deposited on the ground.

"I can't . . . BELIEVE . . . you just DID that!" Gabrielle sputtered up at the warrior between angry breaths, struggling to maintain her composure.

"I said get down and I meant it. I also meant what I said about going in alone," Xena relayed coldly. "It's too dangerous."

"We're in this together!" Gabrielle snapped angrily, amazed they were even having this discussion after everything they've been through.

"Not this time. . . . Gabrielle, I can't be distracted with Bayentes and his army out there," Xena attempted to reason, hoping the bard would stop arguing.

"First I'm a weak link, now a distraction, THANKS! I thought I was a little more than that to you. Apparently NOT!" Gabrielle threw her hands up towards the sky in frustration.

"Gabrielle . . . " Xena sighed heavily, concluding this wasn't going well.

The bard looked up at the warrior with narrow eyes and crossed arms, waiting.

"Gabrielle, Bayentes is too dangerous, I need to focus on one thing, not whether you might need my help or not."

"Xena . . . " Gabrielle said with amazing calm. Xena didn't know if that was good or bad.

"You're sure he's in Zemal?" The bard asked with a raised eyebrow.

"NO," Xena blurted with relief, seeing an opening to win this argument. "And that's why I should go in ALONE . . . just in case he has already occupied . . . ," the warrior explained with a tone of reason.

"And what if he hasn't?" Gabrielle interjected simply, making Xena's smile fade. "Ok, let's go over the facts shall we?" Gabrielle added, making Xena's eyes narrow.

"Gabrielle . . . "

"Xena," the bard interjected. "You know I'll follow you if I am not convinced you are right, so I'm giving you the opportunity to convince me to stay here, like you want me to," Gabrielle relayed with an innocent shrug.

Xena sighed as her eye's dropped to the ground. So much for taking charge. Ok, it was a really stupid idea to think after all this time, Gabrielle would just do as she said, the warrior admitted to herself. She knew the bard didn't respond well to orders. But all she wanted was to go in alone, check out the town, do whatever she had to do to make it safe for Gabrielle. . . .

"Can't we just arm wrestle for it?" Xena offered, looking up to see the bard roll her eyes.

Argo snorted.

"Number one, you are concerned about me," Gabrielle offered diplomatically, looking up at the stubborn warrior, who looked at her and cautiously nodded, unsure of how that would support the bard's case for going.

"Number two, we don't know where Bayentes is," the bard added, holding up a second finger.

In agreement, Xena cautiously shook her head 'no' and raised an eyebrow.

"Number three, Bayentes is smart," the bard relayed holding a third finger.

Xena nodded.

"Number four, he knows about me and would not mind getting his revenge by hurting me," Gabrielle said calmly, though not particularly thrilled with that fact.

"Number five . . . " Gabrielle started strongly but paused. "Uh . . . What if he's not in Zemal when you go in alone?" She asked curiously.

"It'll will be quick work then. Once I'm sure it's safe for you, I'll come back and get you," Xena explained.

"Assuming . . . " Gabrielle relayed with a shrug.

"Assuming what?" Xena asked testily.

"I don't bump into him while I'm safely waiting out here . . ." A thin smile crossed the bard's face. ". . . alone."

Xena looked at the bard a moment. With a heavy sigh, she extended an arm down.

Chapter 11 - Mr. Wright

"It's right there," Octavia pointed Mel to the phone on the front desk as they walked in the front door. "But if you wait a bit, I'm sure Janice will . . . "

"A taxi will be fine, thank you," Mel interjected firmly.

"Well, I'll be in the back . . . starting dinner," Octavia motioned to the curtain behind the front desk. Seeing the southerner nod as she picked up the receiver, Octavia shook her head and disappeared behind the curtain.

Finished ordering a taxi, Mel placed the receiver down and sighed, wondering why it was so difficult for the archeologist to talk to her? They were friends and friends do that, she considered. Her HOME was on fire . . . SHE was on fire for heaven's sakes, the southerner sighed heavily. And she probably didn't even let a doctor check her for injuries, Mel thought shaking her head in exasperation as she picked up her purse off the counter and turned around abruptly.

"Whoa!" The man blurted before Mel collided into him.

"Oh EXCUSE me!" Mel blurted as she awkwardly backed away from the gentleman's embrace.

"My pleasure," he responded with an easy smile, lingering his hand on the southerner's hip a little longer than she considered necessary. "I'm Richard Wright." The American introduced himself with an extended hand as he took his hat off with the other.

"Melinda Pappas." Mel smiled uneasily and pushed her glasses up before delicately shaking his hand with the tips of her fingers. "Pleased to meet you. I'm sorry for running into you like that . . . I don't know where my head is sometimes," Mel laughed weakly and uncomfortably backed up another step from the well-dressed man, suddenly aware of every wrinkle and every smudge on her outfit.

"No harm done Miss Pappas. Actually, colliding into a beautiful woman is the best thing that has happened to me today," Richard responded with a weary exhale, adjusting his tie.

"Sounds like you've had a bad day," Melinda offered, feeling sympathy for the handsome man with a sad look on his face.

"Well, things are looking up now," he smiled easily and winked at her. "Are you a guest here?" He noted she seemed to be out of place in the dumpy hotel, even with her current disheveled appearance.

"No, just visiting someone," Mel answered with a polite smile. "You?" Mel asked.

"I'm visiting someone too, an old. . . . " He laughed awkwardly. "Well, I haven't seen her in a long time. I'm surprised I was able to track her down," he informed the southerner as he looked around the front lobby.

"It's wonderful that you're looking up an old friend," Mel said with a warm smile.

He looked at her uneasily. "Wonderful," he repeated thoughtfully, then gave a short laugh. "I hope she's as positive about that as you are." He smiled thinly.

The dripping archeologist paused at the front door not sure why the southerner was annoyed or what she would say. But she felt compelled to see Mel before she left and at least offer her a ride back. Oh hell, Janice silently swore and opened the door. What's the worst thing that can happen?

Spotting the tall woman, Janice started to smile. The smile was short lived when she noticed Mel standing next to a man she never expected to see again. A man she never wanted to see again.

"Janice," he blurted nervously when she entered, braking off his small talk with the lovely southerner.

"You two are old . . . friends?" Mel asked, looking between the two, who apparently didn't hear her question. They were busy staring at each other. Richard seemed extremely uncomfortable and Janice, well . . . Mel couldn't tell.

"Why are you here?" Janice asked neutrally, despite her strong desire to deck him. He was lucky Mel was there, Janice considered, acutely aware of the southerner's presence.

"To see you . . . ," he quickly answered.

If ever Mel felt like a third wheel, now was the time. She glanced uncomfortably down at her Italian shoes. Wondering just how good an 'old friend' Richard was, she cringed, remembering her embarrassment over Dr. Maveros. It was just none of her business, she reminded herself.

". . . about a job," Richard quickly added.

The southerner looked up with surprise. A good old . . . business associate?

"A JOB," Janice laughed with surprise, though Mel knew it wasn't a happy laugh.

"Yes, Janice. I heard you got another dig . . . in Zemal," he relayed nervously.

"Word gets around fast," Janice said neutrally, her suspicious eyes narrowed.

"Yes, well . . . I need a job and . . . Janice, I'll be cook, bottle washer . . . whatever . . . " he blurted with desperation.

"You're a little overqualified for a bottle washer, don't you think, Doctor Wright?" Janice interjected skeptically.

"Janice . . . I," Richard tried to explain.

"Look . . . DICK," Janice interjected. "I'm tired, wet, and have absolutely NO desire to talk to you now. So if you want me to give you a job, you might want to try to convince me tomorrow because your chances right now are zero," Janice informed him coldly, staring him down.

Mel glanced away from Janice uncomfortably, wondering what Dr. Wright did to earn that unnerving stare.

He looked down to the hat in his hands, nodded and started to leave. He paused at the door, turning back to the southerner. "Miss Pappas," he said politely with a nod, then looked at Janice. "I'll be back tomorrow, Janice," he said softly as he placed his hat on his head.

"Oh joy," Janice said flatly.

He sighed and closed the door behind him.

Mel was not sure of what to say, noting the weariness of the day suddenly seem to catch up to the archeologist.

"Are you all . . . " Mel asked cautiously, interrupted by the sound of the taxi honking.

"I'll be fine," Janice said with a heavy sigh, seeing the cab outside through the drapes.

Mel opened her mouth to say something, but the taxi horn blew again.

"You better not keep your cab waiting," Janice relayed coldly.

As the dejected southerner nodded silently and started to leave, Janice felt like an ass, which the archeologist considered appropriate since she was acting like one.

"Mel . . . thanks for your help today," Janice offered softly, making the southerner turn at the door and smile. The small gift buoyed the archeologist's spirits.

"I'm glad I could." The tall woman answered softly.

Janice's gaze dropped from the startling blue eyes to the southerner's clothing.

"Sorry about your outfit. . . " Janice relayed sincerely, then started to chuckle. "You look like shit," she blurted with a grin, taking stock of the drenched and smudged woman.

"Why THANK you, Doctor Covington," the southerner responded with frosty politeness. "It is SO refreshing to find someone who believes there's no such thing as TOO much honesty," Mel smiled thinly and briskly left the amused archeologist.

A moment later, the grinning archeologist was at the window. As she moved the drapes slightly to the side to peek outside, Octavia emerged from the curtain behind the front desk.

"She's an interesting one," Octavia remarked with a smirk. Janice just nodded with an amused grin still on her face as she watched the taxi drive away.

"Are you going to give that son-of-a-bitch a job?" Octavia asked bluntly, making Janice turn and sigh.

"I'll deal with that tomorrow . . . ," Janice said wearily.

"Janice, how could you even stand looking at him let alone talk to that thieving . . . ," Octavia blurted angrily.

"Octavia," Janice interrupted sharply, then exhaled heavily. "Not now . . . "

In a phone booth down the road from the Rits Karlton, Richard Wright anxiously hunted for a nickel in his suit pockets. Finally successful, he picked up the receiver, dropped the coin in the slot, and dialed as quickly as he could with the painfully slow rotary dial.

Each unanswered ring made him more agitated. He moaned after the fourth ring when finally, someone answered.

"Hello?" The deep voice answered.

"It's me," Richard relayed, his eyes suspiciously darting outside the phone booth for unwelcome ears.


"I saw her," Richard relayed with some irritation.

"Did she agree?" the deep voice asked.

"Uh . . . she didn't say no," Richard admitted.

"Your plan better work . . . " the deep voice threatened.

"It will!" Richard responded testily. "I'll be in Zemal with the goods just like we planned," he added.

"Where are they now?" The deep voice asked. "The police are looking all over . . . "

"Don't you worry about that . . . they're safe," Richard snapped defensively. "Just make sure the people and the money are in Zemal, like we agreed," he added. "Or I'm taking my business elsewhere," Richard threatened and hung up.

Emerging from the taxi, Mel chose to ignore the lingering stares from many curious eyes as she made her way up what felt like the longest set of stairs she ever climbed. As Janice so eloquently informed her . . . she didn't exactly look her best, which was even more excruciatingly evident when she passed hotel guests in their evening wear.

Quickly passing the doorman as she entered the hotel, she cringed when she heard him call her name. "Good GOD, Miss Pappas!"

Placing polite smile on her face and tucking her purse neatly under her soggy arm, she turned to Christos, who rushed up to her.

"Are you all right, Miss Pappas?!?"

"I'm fine, thank you," Mel responded politely.

Christos' eyebrows furrowed at her unconvincing answer, critically assessing her from head to toe. His eyes stopped at her toes, where the small puddle of water was forming on the marble floor.

"It rained," Mel explained, then cleared her throat. "If you'll excuse me." Mel smiled weakly, turned and quickly retreated to the elevator.

Finally in her hotel room, Mel sighed with relief as she placed her damp purse on the table. Unbuttoning her weather-beaten suit coat, she walked into the bathroom and sat down on the tub edge. She turned the hot water on, twisting the brass faucet handle as far as it would go, anxious for a long hot soak. After today, she considered she deserved it.

Returning to her bedroom, she plopped on the edge of the bed. She took her shoes off and wiggled her toes with a sigh of relief. The things women have to do to look good, she smirked as she stared at an uncomfortable shoe in her hand. Well, SOME women, Mel corrected herself, getting up and placing her shoes neatly in the closet. Passing the full-length mirror, she paused, daring to take a look. A grimace formed on her face as she confronted the dreadful reflection, which would have mortified her a few months ago.

"Well Dr. Covington, it does seem you've hit the nail on the head." She spoke aloud as she took her earrings off. "But we really MUST work on your tact," she added and grinned as she pulled her ring off and placed it on the vanity. As she reached to unclasp her watch band, her eyes darted to her wrist with a gasp.

Her grandmother's watch was gone.