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The Search for Amphipolis - Part 6 of 9

"Because I wanted a place where I could think and dream in peace," I answered. I grinned in spite of myself. "And now I'm here with someone who fills my dreams whether I'm awake or asleep."

"Gabrielle," she purred as I moved into her arms for a long delicious kiss.

That picnic I always remembered as the single most wonderful picnic in my life. Everything was perfect. The sound of waves crashing on the shore echoing from far below kept time in counterpoint to the beating of our hearts. The sun was warm, the breeze gentle which caressed and cooled the heated skin of our bodies. Xena and I took our time feeding each other, talking, flirting, binding our hearts and souls together once again. It reminded me of the first time we'd been together, in the Amazon village after fighting Valaska. The difference this time was that we were alone and wonderfully isolated from everyone and everything.

Earlier, while Xena packed our food into Argo's saddlebags, mother had gone outside. When she returned her apron was full of fresh picked strawberries from the plants along side the house. As Xena held the succulent berries for me to taste, my lips brushed her fingers again and again. When I could stand it no more I stilled her hand with my own and drew her warm fingers into my mouth. I sucked on them gently as a seductive smile eased across Xena's face. "Yes," she whispered, "I love that."

"Oh, yeah?" I asked as I withdrew my lips from her fingers. "Care to tell me what else you love?"

I moved my mouth to her wrist, keeping eye contact with her as I slowly placed moist kisses up the inside of her arm.

"I love the way you kiss me," Xena replied, her voice low and husky and full of promise. "I love the way your touch sets me on fire. I love the way your skin feels and how you move as my hands touch your body. I especially love the way you taste, when you're wet and ready. The sensation of your climax against my lips and tongue and how my fingers reach so deep inside of you... Gabrielle, I love it."

I was dumbfounded. Xena was a lot of things, but being known as a talker certainly was not one of them. The pulsing between my legs brought me back to reality and I touched her cheek softly. "Will you show me, Xena?"

"Yes," she breathed and claimed my lips with her own. Gods, it felt so good to wrap my arms around that leather clad body again. There were so many scents I associated with Xena. Regardless of where I was, or what I was doing, I couldn't help but respond to the scent of leather, mixed with a hint of sharpening oil. Her hair smelled of herbs, rosemary and lavender since that had been in the soap we'd used that morning. I marveled once again at its softness as my fingers threaded through her hair and I held her mouth close to mine.

She lowered me to the blanket, roughly shoving the satchel of food out of the way. Holding her body above mine, one elbow supported her weight as her free hand roamed over my exposed skin. She took her time, with feather light touches until I thought I'd go mad with need. I sucked on the skillful tongue that searched out the depths of my mouth, toying with my lips and throat. "Xena," I groaned with want, "this isn't fair."

Straddling my hips she began to undo her leathers as I unlaced my top. Her armor had been discarded some time ago when we'd set up the picnic. In one fluid motion the garment came over her head then she quickly discarded her breeches. My eyes hungrily roamed the naked body of my lover. I wanted it all, and was having some difficulty deciding where to start. With a practiced hand, she removed my skirt and breeches, then lowered herself to me once again. My bliss at the contact was short lived as my hunger for her intensified. Xena might have been the picture of contentment as she reacquainted herself with my body but I simply did not have the patience to wait.

I snapped my hips sharply and rolled her over onto her back. I think she was surprised, but I could tell she was loving every moment. "Please, Xena," I urged, crazy with desire, "let me taste you, now."

"Yes," she breathed, her eyes half lidded in pleasure. I started at her neck and kissed my way down her abdomen, stopping briefly at each glorious breast to pay my respects. As I teased my fingers through her curly down, she stopped me.

"No, Gabrielle," she said tightly, "the other way." Seeing what she meant, I repositioned my body on top of hers, feeling my erect nipples press into her hard abdominal muscles. The muscles of her thighs rippled as she moved her legs apart for me. With a giddy grin I continued my exploration. A bolt of electricity caused my grin to vanish as Xena's mouth pressed delightfully against me. I enjoyed the sensation of her tongue roaming along the rim of my outer lips. My hands tickled up and down the inside of her thighs. Only when I saw her quivering with expectation did I lower my mouth and taste the moisture that had seeped from her core. "Yes, Gabrielle," she groaned, momentarily distracted from her own rediscovery. She quickly recovered though, and in moments we were rocking in tandem to the pleasure we were giving each other.

I didn't know if it would be possible to climax together, but I was determined to try. When I felt Xena's body quicken, I slowed my ministrations to casual exploration. Xena did the same to me and we teased and toyed with each other mercilessly. Her sounds of passion and delight were muffled, but I could feel the perspiration building on our bodies, making our skin slick. Finally, when I thought I could hold off no longer I inserted two fingers deep into Xena's opening, then added a third. Her muscles clamped around me like a vice as her tongue drove me faster and harder. I was almost there when I felt the pressure of her tongue increase deliciously and she pressed two fingers deep into my core. Pleasure surged through me, heightened by the vibrations that coursed against my mouth and hand. Xena and I had indeed reached that peak together. Neither of us screamed, but we must have done something because a flock of birds took flight from the nearby shrub. My body went limp as I rested my wet cheek against Xena's thigh. "Woman, I love you," I panted, my breath against her center making her shiver.

"Heart and soul, Gabrielle," she agreed. "Heart and soul."

We spent the afternoon like that, making love more times than I would care to count. It felt so good to finally be together again, neither of us had the willpower to stop until Apollo started his descent from the sky. We were both sore but sated when we led Argo from the glade back to the village.

"What's this?" Xena remarked, stopping by the bush closest to the trail.

"That's where all the birds were," I supplied.

"What birds?" Xena asked.

"The birds that took flight while we were...busy." I was a little surprised. It wasn't like Xena not to notice those things.

She peered at the ground critically then glanced at my boots, "Those weren't birds, Gabrielle. That was Lila."

Chapter 6: Homecomings

"Ack!" Janice sputtered shaking her head with a start. The cold water dripped from her skin spotting her shirt in several places. "What the hell was that for!" she demanded as she wiped her face, eyes scanning the assembled women, looking for whomever was holding the glass.

Mel put the now empty water glass on the floor and smoothed the strawberry blond bangs on her lover's forehead. "We were worried Janice, you fainted and weren't waking up. Are you alright?"

Shaking off her disorientation, the archeologist was helped to a sitting position. "Yeah, I'm fine." From the assembled group another woman kneeled down to look Janice directly in the eye. The woman was attractive with blond curly hair that hung well past her shoulders. Janice guessed the woman to be a couple of years older than herself, and regarded her with a suspicion Janice instantly related to. "Who are you?" the archeologist asked sullenly.

"My name is Emily Stevens. The Charmer is my ship," she said matter of factly as she handed Janice an ice pack. The woman nodded at the archeologist's eye. Janice touched her right eye gingerly noting, that it was almost swollen shut. "Quest tells me that you're rather insistent about this Xena business," Emily continued conversationally.

Janice studied the woman with her good eye. She fairly radiated decisiveness. This explained why she was in charge. Janice wasn't surprised this woman was calling the shots, it was in her blood. "I suppose you're behind that little love note I received on the USO transport?"

"I had Quest leave it there, yes," Emily admitted. "You really should pay attention to warnings like that, Dr. Covington, they're for your own good." Leaning back on her heels, Emily glanced at another of the women that had gathered around. "Shayne tells me you've got an unusual medallion," she prompted.

Janice held the necklace up for inspection. "The outer rings were added recently to protect the inner piece. These were stolen from the entombed remains of Xena and Gabrielle, I'm here to find out why."

Emily studied the necklace with interest. In spite of its age, it was in remarkable condition. Mel held hers out as well. Emily held the two pieces together, seeing that they did make a perfect fit. "This is a long way to go for some stolen jewelry," she commented, studying the two pieces.

"Yeah, well, it's a family matter and I'm pissed," Janice quipped, repositioning the ice pack over her eye. Emily's eyes snapped up at the comment and Janice smiled. "That's right, Emily. Mel and I are descended from Xena and Gabrielle, just as you are descended from the Amazon queen, Ephiny." At her words a startled murmur swept through the crowded cabin. Several women looked at each other, surprised. They whispered excitedly to each other.

"How did you know that?" Emily demanded, her eyes boring into Janice's.

"Because I recognize you," the archeologist explained, well aware that she was sounding like a madwoman. "I can't explain it, but there are just things that Mel and I know. She spotted the necklaces, I recognize you." Janice let her eyes scan the room of women. "In fact I recognize several of you. Look," she said, shaking her head. "Mel and I just want to know what happened. I know it sounds crazy, but I feel like Xena and Gabrielle need our help, like something's going on."

Emily smiled, a warm radiant smile as she stood up. "It's not crazy Dr. Covington. Something is indeed going on." She turned to address the other women as well. "It seems that the time has come to finish the work started by our sisters centuries ago. Xena and Gabrielle will finally be put to rest and Valaska will be vanquished once and for all." Looking back to Janice, she held up her hand to forestall the barrage of questions she knew was coming. "I'll answer all of your questions over a hot meal. Please join us up on deck you're ready. We'll wait for you." Before turning to go she kissed Janice on the cheek then turned and did the same for Mel. "Welcome home," she said, then was gone.

As the other women filed out, following Emily's lead they stopped to kiss each woman on the cheek and say one or two words of welcome. Quest was the last one to approach Janice, an uneasy smile on her face. "I'm sorry about..." she began.

"When this is over," Janice said with a grin, "buy me a drink and we'll call it even."

"It's a deal," she agreed then turned to welcome Mel.

Mel accepted the kiss, then looked her squarely in the eyes. "Just don't hit her again," she warned gently through a warm smile. With a nod she left the cabin, closing the door softly behind her. "Why are people always beating up on you?" Mel asked as Janice rummaged in her bag for a dry shirt.

"It isn't like you haven't done your share of late," Janice quipped.

Janice and Mel followed Argo up the narrow stairs to the main deck of the fishing boat. The retriever was still favoring her bandaged paw, but Janice suspected it was more for the attention she was sure to receive than anything else. Well past noon, the sun was edging its way down the western sky. She'd been unconscious for some time. Several tables were on deck with women taking their places around them. Two seats to Emily's right were left open. Janice smiled when she saw the bowl of water on the deck near the empty seats. As the aroma of food reached her nose, Janice pinched the pressure points on her wrists, thankful that the twinges of sea-sickness were subsiding quickly.

There were spaces for eight women at each table. As Mel and Janice took their seats, bowls were passed around as the women served themselves and began to converse good naturedly. Mel chatted animatedly, her accent quickly becoming a favorite among the Greek women. One woman giggled uncontrollably when she had to have a friend translate exactly what it was Mel was saying. Emily smiled at the exchange. "I suppose not much has changed in hundreds of years. Gabrielle's descendants still have a way with words," she commented looking at Mel.

"I agree," Janice replied, "except that I'm Gabrielle's descendant. Mel is related to Xena."

Emily raised a surprised eyebrow at Janice and then looked at Mel with new appreciation. "I never thought I'd see a descendant of Xena's giggle," she said with a warm smile.

"It's one of her many endearing qualities," Janice chimed in. "So, you said all our questions would be answered. Why don't we start with you. Your accent sounds British."

"It is," Emily confirmed. "What's left of it anyway. I moved here with my mother when I was eight. She was one of Solari's Children, and when I was old enough to understand what that meant, she explained it to me."

"Children of Solari being the descendants of the Amazons?" Janice asked.

"Not all Amazons. While the Amazon Nation had been united for generations after the Great Oracle, things fell apart when the centaurs were wiped out. Tribes scattered to the winds and eventually lost touch with each other. Gabrielle's stories were passed down through the Children of Solari, a name that came to mean descendants of Gabrielle's tribe."

"Why not just say 'Gabrielle's tribe'?" Mel asked dabbing the corners of her mouth with her napkin.

"For many generations it was very bad luck to say the bard queen's name out loud. It was a curse," Janice rolled her eyes at the statement, but Emily ignored it and continued on. "Valaska hounded the Amazons relentlessly. She destroyed the centaurs and was determined to see every Amazon perish as well. Uttering the bard's name was a sure way to attract her attention," Emily explained.

"Attract the attention of Valaska," Janice repeated dubiously. "Valaska that ate ambrosia and became a god."

"You sound like you don't believe it?" the woman Janice recognized as Carmen asked from across the table.

"Well, I wouldn't go quite that far," the archeologist explained, selecting a stuffed grape leaf from a passing plate. "I just thought all gods were trapped in tombs or some such."

Emily shook her head. "Xena trapped Ares in a tomb using the eye of Hephaestus, other gods disappeared for reasons unknown. Zeus, Poseidon, Apollo, no one has heard from them in centuries. Still, I suspect others are alive and well. Strife seems to be very busy these days."

"We also see the work of Aphrodite from time to time," a woman farther down the table added.

"Pop always used to say that a god can't be stronger than the conviction of their believers," Janice remarked. "I guess without believers there isn't much point in making oneself known. Especially when other religions hit the scene and things get messy," Janice said with distaste as childhood memories surfaced. Scores of missionaries on dig sites robbing the native workers of their cultural beliefs in the name of God, civilization and progress. Like wolves in disguise, they used food, clothing, and education as tools in their assimilation process until the natives were just like them. Looking around the table and hearing bits of conversation in Greek, Janice smiled. A few differences remained. She was glad of that.

Since early childhood, she'd been taught to celebrate the uniqueness of the various places she traveled. Harry Covington had often said, usually while drunk, that the preservation of cultural diversity was the only hope humanity had. "Sure, it might make living together more challenging, but survival has always been a challenge," Janice remembered him saying. He had been convinced that aspiring to be sheep, in any flock, holy or otherwise, spelled doom for mankind. "They can't get us all if they don't understand all of us," he would say without explaining to young Janice exactly who "they" were.

She often wondered if that was why her supposedly unusual attraction toward women had never really bothered her. It certainly hadn't surprised her father. In an odd way he seemed relieved, but then Harry Covington was an unusual man. Eccentric even for an eccentric. Shaking off the memory, she returned her attention to Emily. "So, Xena trapping Ares was the battle of the first age?" she asked the Amazon.

"That's right," Emily answered. "The battle of the second age will take place when a descendant of Xena's battles Ares once again."

"That's come to pass," Mel interjected taking a sip of ginger ale. Suddenly all conversation at the table stopped all eyes riveted on Melinda Pappas. Uncomfortable as the center of attention, she smiled nervously. "Six months ago in Macedonia," she explained, her voice quiet and shy. "Janice was there, she helped."

"What happened?" Emily sensing Mel's nervousness, asked Janice.

"The scrolls were found in the same tomb that held Ares. He was trapped in a separate chamber by the Eye of Hephaestus," she replied. "He killed three people in the tomb, then Mel fought him," she added with nonchalant shrug, as if Mel's heroics were an every day occurrence. Mel smiled shyly at the unspoken compliment. For all her pampered mannerisms, it was clear that Janice Covington had the utmost respect for her lover and her abilities.

"Well, it was really Xena," Mel added demurely.

Looking with new found appreciation for the Southerner, Emily had to shake her head to refocus her attention on her story. "It says in the Challenge of the Three Ages that, 'Unable to touch the realm of man he called upon the goddess of Chaos..."

" bind the soul of his champion before the battle of the third age could take place," Janice finished for her. "I read that story on the plane over here. What does it mean?"

"It means that Valaska will return as a favor to Ares. When Valaska and Callisto became gods and were still adjusting to their newfound powers, they were thrown into lava. That, coupled with the rage of their fight, made them the joint god of Chaos- one entity with two forces of will," Emily explained.

"Makes sense for a chaotic god," Janice agreed.

"Somehow Callisto managed to separate herself from Valaska. When that happened Valaska lost the ability to effect Gabrielle in life," the blond Amazon continued, seeing the puzzled expression on the archeologist's face. She smiled. "I don't know how," she said. "I suppose Mount Olympus had some rules we mere mortals were not privy to. So while Valaska couldn't hurt Gabrielle in life, she waited patiently for her death. Perhaps there was some way for her to keep the bard from reaching the Elysian Fields. We simply don't know. What is written however, is that in order to move beyond Valaska's grasp, Gabrielle's body would have to be surrendered to the rites of traditional Amazon passing."

"Body committed to flame," Janice murmured, understanding.

"That's right," Emily confirmed. "When this prophecy, dating to before the bard's time, was understood by her Amazon tribe, a runner was dispatched with the warning. Xena had crossed over years before and most suspected that Gabrielle would join her soon. The runner returned with a message. Gabrielle requested that five Amazons be sent to Amphipolis to wait with her for her reunion with Xena. She asked that when that happened that the bodies of herself, Xena, Lyceus and Cyrene be committed to the ceremonial fires because she did not want to be separated from her family. Five of the bravest, most skilled Amazons left for Amphipolis. None of them were ever seen or heard from again. That winter the worst rains in memory plagued the countryside. When a messenger could finally get through, they found no trace of Gabrielle or anyone else in Lyceus' tomb. Little Xena and Lyceus the younger met with the runner and told her that the rains started the day that Gabrielle died. Ceremonial fires were out of the question as everything was too soaked. It was explained that as soon as the last breath escaped the bard queen's lips, she and her deceased family were spirited away from Valaska's grasp. It is unknown to us whether the five Amazons were killed in the course of hiding the sarcophagi, if they killed themselves to keep the location a secret, or if they simply disappeared from view. It is our belief that only when the time was right would their children come forth to finish what had been started centuries ago. To free Gabrielle before Valaska can find her body and bind the bard's soul to her will."

"If Valaska wins," another voice added from further down the table, "Ares will surely be freed in the third age. If she loses, Ares won't be able to hold the souls of Xena and Gabrielle hostage during the battle. He will have to fight their descendants alone."

"Descendants," Janice repeated with a frown, "after us? I've got news for you, it doesn't seem likely."

"I don't think you need to worry about that right now," Emily said with a knowing smile. "After all, Gabrielle had a sister. Besides, the reference to descendant isn't as clear as it was predicting your arrival. The original text makes reincarnation seem equally plausible."

"Oh, that's real plausible," Janice muttered.

Ephiny ignored the comment. "Valaska is the one you've got to worry about at the moment. If you're certain you want to find the bodies, you'd best be prepared to deal with her when you do." Janice and Mel nodded, still stunned by what they were hearing. "One more thing," Emily added. "You'd also better be prepared to finish the ritual if you find them. It's imperative that the bodies of Gabrielle's family be committed to flame as soon as they're discovered. If you can't agree to do this, we won't help you."

Janice nodded, considering the Amazon's words. "I can't make any promises until I've thought about it. Besides, we've no idea where they are. I'll have my decision for you once I've seen the ruins of Amphipolis. Is that acceptable?"

"If you didn't need to think about it, I'd be suspicious," Emily agreed. "We should reach our destination by evening. We'll stay onboard The Charmer until first light. Then we'll take a car to Amphipolis."

"You've got people in position there?" Janice asked mildly surprised.

Emily nodded with a slightly guilty smile. "Our last line of defense, should we have been unable to stop you in Athens. You'll be all right when they see you with us."

"In other words they'd have killed us if they had to," Mel remarked.

Emily shrugged. "For hundreds of years, the stories of Solari's Children have been passed down, each generation learning the responsiblity that was their birthright. The survival of thousands of people depends on those bodies not being disturbed until the appointed time. We are prepared to die ourselves for that, as well as take lives if necessary."

Janice nodded her head in understanding. There wasn't much to say in response so the group ate the rest of their meal in silence. When the dishes were cleared away, the archeologist excused herself from the table and took a stroll around the ship, her dog, as always, at her side. Lost in thought, she eventually made her way to the starboard bow.

Melinda Pappas joined her lover sitting on the edge of the ship, legs dangling over the side, ignoring the sea spray that covered her heavy leather boots with a light sheen of mist. Argo was curled up next to Janice's side, so Mel took the seat on the other. Holding onto the rail, Janice studied the expanse of ocean as if somewhere in the surrounding blue she might find answers. "You're a mess," Mel commented affectionately, taking in the pallor of her lover's face and the troubled cast to her green eyes.

Janice smiled weakly and nodded. She felt a mess. "If only it were just sea sickness. I've been thinking about something I said to my students last week. I was talking about Pop, the infamous grave robber. I said that sometimes we don't notice when our search for facts blinds us to the science we claim to serve. It's happened to me, Mel. I've fallen over the same edge dad did. How can I sit here and seriously consider setting the find of the century on fire, yet that's exactly what I'm thinking of doing."

"Why is it so important to put Xena and Gabrielle's bodies in a museum?" Mel asked, turning her own blue eyes to the cerulean blue of the ocean.

"They can teach us a hell of a lot. How they lived, what people were like back then," Janice answered absently.

"Do you think Xena and Gabrielle were typical examples of the period? We know how they lived from the scrolls, haven't they done enough?" Mel knew she was only voicing the archeologist's inner thoughts. Still, she suspected that Janice needed to hear it.

"I know, Mel, but every find is like a puzzle piece. What are the pyramids but desecrated graves? Why should this be different just because it's my family?" Janice shook her head in frustration. Her quest for knowledge was at war with her sense of duty.

"I think because it's our family, it is different. Janice, when I fought Ares in that tomb, my path was clear. I didn't have time to ponder and wonder if what I was doing was right. I have a feeling that when the time comes you'll feel the same. Y'all will know what to do, and mark my words, you'll do the right thing. In the meantime, see what you can discover at Amphipolis."

They both turned their eyes back to the expanse of blue. After a bit, Mel wondered aloud, "Are you worried about meeting Valaska?" Janice looked back over her shoulder and shrugged.

"I don't know," she admitted. "I keep telling myself it can't be any worse than meeting Callisto, right?"

"Except she's a god," Mel amended.

"Thanks for reminding me," Janice shot back with a rueful smile.

"So, do y'all find it difficult to remain an atheist? Considering what's going on and all." Mel teased good naturedly.

"Me?" Janice chuckled back. "Doesn't this conflict with your Southern Baptist upbringing just a tad?"

"Episcopalian, Janice. Episcopalian." Mel corrected, "Still, it does make me wonder if certain parts of the Bible might have been left out by mistake. But I suppose when you believe in one god to begin with, you're halfway there to believing in others."

"Is this a private brooding session or can anyone join in?" Emily asked as she took a seat on the bow of the ship next to Argo. The dog raised her head noting the newcomer, then lowered it back to Janice's lap, drifting to sleep once again. "I've talked to the others, five of us will accompany you on shore, the rest will stay with the boat."

"Five?" Janice asked. "Sticking with the original story, are you?"

Emily smiled warmly. "It seemed only fitting. I will accompany you as well as Stacey, Tory, Debby, and Shayne. Quest will take charge of things here on the boat."

"How do you guys survive?" Janice inquired. "I mean obviously you come from various walks of life. I'm assuming you don't live in an Amazon commune in the middle of Greece."

Emily arched an eyebrow at the notion. "An Amazon commune in the middle of Greece, now that'd be something to see. No, we live apart. Many of us have families, children, jobs. For most, their husbands don't know, or don't care. They see women getting together as some kind of coffee klatche or bridge club. We keep in touch with each other in person where we can, and by mail when we can't. The descendants of Gabrielle's tribe have gone to all the corners of the world."

"Yes," Mel agreed, "there is the Clan MacGab contingent in Scotland."

Emily nodded, "MacGab is just one name associated with the Children of Solari, there are others."

"It doesn't seem quite fair," Janice commented absently.

"What doesn't?" Emily asked.

"You keep bringing everything back to Gabrielle. I don't mean to sound ungrateful, but I don't think Xena's being adequately revered here." As she spoke, she continued to look out to the shimmering ocean, noting the pod of dolphins that followed, frolicking in the wake of the ship. Janice Covington was unaware of the glances exchanged between her lover and Emily, an ancient injury instantly reigniting.

"I think Xena's memory is best served by it's fading," Emily answered honestly, casting a wary glance toward Mel. "At least as far as we're concerned. While she did mend her fences with Queen Ephiny in life, so many of our trials can be traced back to her very existence. She is a difficult figure to celebrate."

"I agree," Mel added. "Xena well knew that the best thing about her was Gabrielle..."

"That isn't true, Mel, and you know it!" Janice snapped, instantly hating herself for doing so. "If you're going to give me the argument of Gabrielle being responsible for Xena's redemption then I'm going to have to give Xena's darkness credit for bringing out the best in Gabrielle. If Xena hadn't shown up in Poteidaia, dark and ill adjusted as she was, Gabrielle would have lived and died there in oppressive obscurity."

Mel opened her mouth for a retort, then closed it. Janice was right, there was no point in arguing. Emily smirked, but then Janice continued, this time leveling her steely gaze on the Amazon. "And it seems to me that all of this current unpleasantness can be traced back directly to Gabrielle. Valaska didn't originally have a quarrel with Xena, after all."

Emily was also going to respond, but thought better of it. After all, centuries later it didn't make much sense to assign blame to one or the other when the two women in question led lives that were so interwoven with the other's.

Later, in the cramped confines of the small sleeping cabin, Janice readied herself for bed. She still felt rotten about her outburst earlier. Mel had been unusually quiet, and Janice knew she was still stinging from her harsh words. The archeologist fidgeted, not knowing quite what to say. Used to many years of living in uncompromised isolation, and never needing to explain herself to anyone, she didn't know where to start. She slipped out of her clothes and put on a clean sleeveless undershirt. Mel stood quietly a few feet away, dressed in her silk slip, fumbling with the clasp of a bracelet.

Janice silently approached the taller woman, walking up behind her and resting her head between Mel's shoulder blades as she wrapped her arms around the Southerner. "I'm sorry lover," she whispered.

"Sorry for what?" Mel asked as she gently traced her fingers along the strong arms wrapped around her.

Inhaling the scent of dark silky hair, Janice mumbled into Mel's back. "Sorry for being such an ass. I shouldn't have snapped at you, Mel."

"You've a lot to be tense about, Janice," Mel offered, leaning her head back as Janice's hands began to softly roam over her torso.

"That isn't any excuse to take it out on you," Janice said as Mel turned in her arms to face her. "I hate to see you hurting, especially when it's my fault."

Mel looked down into soft green eyes and smiled warmly. Everything Janice had said was true, as was her apology. That was one thing Mel found so endearing about the brash archeologist. "I guess I'll have to let you apologize then," Mel offered, her voice a warm whisper.

Janice's eyes flashed with excitement then quickly looked toward the door. "Mel, this ship is rather crowded... someone's gonna hear."

"I never said apologies, especially quiet ons, were easy. You'll just have to keep your screaming to a minimum," the taller woman offered with a wicked grin.

A similar grin eased across Janice's face as she slowly eased her palms up the front of Mel's slip, teasing and enticing the warm flesh beneath. "Oh, I'm not worried about me," she drawled leaning up to claim waiting lips. "Just don't say I didn't warn you." With a warm chuckle and hungry heart, Melinda Pappas felt up to the challenge.

...We reached my parents house as it grew dark. Lila had already come home and left again. Mother said she'd been there a while ago and had gone to feed the chickens. I nodded and headed for the door. It made sense, our chickens were kept in a communal coop a short ways from the house. As children it had been the nearest thing to privacy we had.

Lila was there, sitting on an overturned barrel outside the coop. "Lila?" I called to her as I approached.

"I'd rather not talk to you right now, Gabrielle," she said darkly.

"Lila, I know you were at the glade this afternoon, I just want to know why you didn't say something. I thought you were going to be helping Tessa."

She looked at me, and the fury in her gaze was piercing. "I went to Tessa's house to help with the mending. When I told her you were visiting she said the mending could wait, and that I should spend time with you. I wanted to surprise you, so I hurried to the glade and hid in some bushes. I fell asleep waiting for you. When I woke up the two of you were talking. I didn't say anything because I was too shocked at what I heard. After that I was too disgusted." She turned away from me and stared into the chicken coop. "Xena was having a wonderful time," she added acidly. "She really seems to enjoy you."

It was a dig, I could tell she meant it as such. It didn't bother me though. Two could play that game."I assure you, Lila," I shot back. "The feelings are mutual."

She glared at me again. This time I saw tears welling up in her eyes. "How could you?"

"I'm in love with Xena, as she is with me," I offered simply.

"Great Zeus, Gabrielle! Perdicus hasn't even been dead a year," she sobbed "Or were you servicing the warlord before you even married him?"

"Stop it, Lila, you're just trying to be cruel," I said fighting the urge to slap her senseless. I took a deep breath. While I wasn't ready for it, it was now or never. "Lila, I know you were fond of Perdicus. Believe me when I say that I loved him, too. His loss still hurts me very deeply. But you have to understand that he and I never should have married in the first place. I know it's what mother and father wanted, what they'd always planned on, but it wasn't for me. I made a mistake when I agreed to marry him. My mistake resulted in his death and that is something I'll carry with me forever."

"But you said you loved him," Lila said in a small voice. "And I've never known you to lie. You're not very good at it."

"I did love him, Lila," I tried to explain. "But it was the love for a dear friend or a brother. He connected me to home and he needed me so badly." I pulled another barrel over and sat down, hoping I could make my sister understand. "I never lied to Perdicus, not really, because the truth of my heart and my feelings was hidden, even from me. Looking back now, I can see that I was in love with Xena, even then. But at the time, I honestly thought that if I married Perdicus for the love of friendship that it might bloom into something else later. Maybe if he had lived it would have, but we'll never know.

"After Perdicus died I was so wrought with pain I literally threw myself at Xena, hoping she would make me forget. Xena would have none of it. She wouldn't take advantage of me when it would have been the easiest thing in the world for her to do. Xena has been the truest friend to me that I've ever known. It was only after she died and the magnitude of my loss came crashing down around me that I realized that I loved her very deeply. The kind of love I should have felt for Perdicus but didn't. Later I came to know the depths of her feelings for me. When that happened, neither of us could help but act on it." My words were as much for me as they were for Lila. I was still coming to terms with what had recently happened between us.

"Lila, Xena has made me happier than I ever imagined, even when things get difficult. I never wanted to hurt you with this, and I certainly never wanted you to see such intimacies, but beyond all of that, I do hope, as my sister, you'll be happy for me that I've found someone who makes me feel the way she does."

"You're asking too much, Gabrielle," she said solemnly.

My own anger flared at the remark. "How dare you," I growled. "Xena's done nothing to hurt you. In fact, she saved you and me from a horrible fate. How can you sit there and believe idle talk and stories about her when I'm here to tell you different? What was so incredible about Perdicus that no one believes I can actually move beyond his death?"

"Because we can't move beyond it, Gabrielle!" she shouted. "Perdicus was the last thing that connected you here, to your home and to your family. We knew him and understood him. He was like us, ordinary. We've lost the ability to understand you, Gabrielle. At least through Perdicus we had a connection to you. But I suppose an Amazon Queen needs a Warrior Princess. Us mere mortals must seem rather dull. I bet you tell people you're from Amphipolis as well and that you have no family."

"This is crazy," I countered. "I love you and mother and father very much. That never wavers just because I don't live here. I'm proud of Poteidaia and my family. Besides, I've got news for you, Lila-Xena is very human. She has faults and makes mistakes just like anyone else. But no, she isn't a farmer, she never had that chance. She didn't take up the sword because she wanted to be famous. She thought that her village and family were worth protecting, and she paid a dear price for that. I'm sorry if that makes her too intimidating for you, but that's the way it is. Besides, it isn't as if I'm asking for your permission." I stopped myself there, knowing I was close to saying things for the sole purpose of being hurtful. Gods, but Lila could bring out the worst in me.

"Last night, all that talk that I thought was about Perdicus-you were talking about Xena, weren't you?" she asked. I nodded. She shook her head, sighing in disgust. "As long as you don't need anyone's permission, I hope you spare mother and father this little bit of news. It will kill them."

"I hadn't intended for any of you to find out yet. I know Perdicus has only been gone for nine months, but this love that Xena and I share has been growing for two years. I'm not sorry you know, Lila, but I am sorry you disapprove."

"She can't even give you children," Lila shot back, her anger losing steam.

I sighed. This was a truth I was beginning to realize. "I know that, and it saddens me. But Xena has my heart. It's a sacrifice I'm willing to make. Come on, let's go back. Mother and father will be worried." She didn't say anything, but got up and headed back. I tried to put my arm around her. She flinched and moved away. I guess I wasn't surprised.

Dinner was dismal, even more quiet and strained than the night before. Mother and father didn't ask about it, since they knew Lila and I always worked things out on our own. Lila glared at Xena whenever she thought my warrior wasn't looking. Xena tolerated this for a while, then taught Lila a lesson. Lila looked over, only to find Xena's eyes already fixed on her. When she wants to, Xena can have a very formidable stare. It made Lila choke on a bit of stew and she had to leave the table.

That night, as the night before, Xena headed for the barn. I walked out with her, igniting a new flare of hostilities in my sister. She stormed off to our bedroom. I seriously considered staying in the barn all night. I said as much to Xena, which made her smile. "As tempting as I find that offer," she said as she held me, her voice a deep rumble in her chest, "I don't think you should. I doubt I'd be able to restrain my warlordly passion and, well, you don't want to wake the whole village."

"I don't think warlordly is a word, Xena," I chided softly.

"You know what I mean," she ammended. "Besides, you know you won't be able to sleep until you settle things with Lila. We're leaving tomorrow, and neither of us knows when we'll be back this way."

While she didn't say it, I knew what she meant. Like it or not, I was in a very dangerous line of work now. Every time I left home, it was entirely possible that I might not ever see it again. Traveling with Xena taught me the importance of letting the people I loved know how I felt, since I never knew when I'd ever see them again. While it sounded rather morbid, it was nice to live without having unspoken loose ends with people.

By the time I got to our room, Lila was already in bed feigning sleep. Her back was to me, but I could see by the movement of her torso that she was very much awake. "Lila," I began softly. "I know you're awake and I really wish you'd talk to me." She didn't respond so I continued. "Since you won't, I'll do the talking, you listen. The love Xena and I feel for each other in no way diminishes the love I feel for you or mother and father. Someday, when you've found someone who makes you feel as wonderful... maybe then you'll know what I'm talking about. The fact is, I'm leaving tomorrow and I don't know when I'll be back. I don't want to leave with harsh words between us. While I'm happy traveling with Xena, it isn't without regrets. I regret not being here with you, watching you grow into the beautiful woman you've become. I'm sorry you think I've changed so much. Maybe I have. I just wish you thought I was worth staying close to." It was getting hard for me to talk, and Lila still failed to move. Deciding to give it a rest, I quickly told her that I loved her and wished her sweet dreams.

I wish I'd taken my own advice. Since leaving the Amazon camp, I'd pushed all thoughts and memories of killing that warrior out of my mind. By force of will I didn't think about it. I certainly didn't talk about it. Had the circumstances been any different, I'm sure Xena would have brought it up. I had a feeling that she was trying as desperately as I was to put the whole wretched experience behind her. In later years, we talked about it some, but it was always one of those things she rarely ever mentioned.

That night, as soon as I drifted off to a fitful sleep, the nightmare started. I was walking along the beach when I happened to glance down at my hands. They were covered with blood. The memory of that man's blood running down the sword, bathing my hands in warm, sticky gore made me cry out. I looked around frantically for Xena, but she was nowhere to be seen. I felt the tide lapping at my feet, but something was not right. The ocean shouldn't have been that warm. I looked down at the surf and saw that the ocean was a sea of blood, crashing upon a black shore, the sea foam clinging to red-black sand in sickly pink tendrils. I tried to run, but my bare feet stuck to the blood drenched sand. I fought for every step I took, my feet skidding on something slick that turned out to be a decomposing skull. In terror I looked back to the waves and saw bodies bobbing in the surf. White from death and bloated from exposure, they crashed onto the shore, propelled by the waves. As the tide receded they were reclaimed by the bloody surf.

I felt complete despair as I sank to my knees in the grotesque surf. I couldn't even cry, so overcome was I with remorse and grief. I just sat there and waited until the madness that was sure to follow simply claimed me. Then I felt a strong warmth envelope me. A presence gently asked, "What is it, Gabrielle?"

"There's so much blood, on my hands, all over me." I whispered, wondering if I was indeed going mad. I wondered if this was the type of nightmare Xena endured in her sleep. If it was, I didn't see how she could stand it. I couldn't see the blood anymore, but I could feel and smell it.

"Sometimes blood has to be spilled," the presence reassured me.

"What if I can't make it stop?" I wondered. I was thinking that no one would want to be near me, that I would taint them, covered in blood as I was. I said as much.

"No, you won't, Gabrielle," the voice answered. "It will stop when you make it stop. Why is there blood?"

"I killed a man," I choked. "Stabbed him in the back, took his life."

"Why did you do this?" the voice asked patiently.

"He was going to hurt my friend," I replied.

"Do you accept the consequences of your actions?" I was asked, somewhat hesitantly.

I nodded, sure that this was indeed madness. I deserved it, I decided. I was a killer, I wore the blood of others. But, given the chance, I would have done the same thing again. "Yes," I said. "I accept the consequences of what I've done."

The warmth closed tighter around my body "Then let this go, Gabrielle," the voice said. "Understand this and move on."

"But how?" I cried. My senses jolted, and I awoke with a start. The familiar warmth I felt was none other than Xena's body holding me tightly. I breathed in the scent of her skin, felt the softness of her long hair as it brushed against my face. "Xena?" I asked hesitantly, aware that my skin felt chilled and my eyes were wet. I'd been crying.

"Shhhhh," my warrior soothed. "It's alright, only a bad dream."

"How did you know?" I asked, remembering I'd left Xena in the barn.

"Lila came and got me, Gabrielle," Xena softly explained.

"You started thrashing around," Lila added, "and I couldn't wake you. You seemed so scared, in pain almost. I didn't know what to do, so I got Xena." She added this last part somewhat shyly. I could well imagine how difficult it must have been for my sister to seek Xena's aid in light of our recent conversations about her.

"Thank you, Lila," I said sincerely.

She stood, then came to the edge of my bed where she sat down. Xena was still behind me, holding me in her strong arms. She glanced nervously at the warrior before turning her attention to me. "I'm sorry about earlier," she said. "Regardless of our differences, you're my sister and I don't want to see you in pain, ever." She glanced once more at Xena, then continued. "I'll spend the rest of the night in the barn. If you wake up early, there's no reason for mother and father to know."

"I love you, Lila," I said. Xena released me as Lila bent down for a brief hug.

"I love you too, big sister," she replied.

Unfortunately, waking up early has never been a particular strength of mine. I was sound asleep when Lila came quietly back to the bedroom. "Come on, you guys, wake up." I vaguely heard her voice as Xena gently shook me awake. She'd held me all night, standing guard against nightmares that wouldn't dare intrude on her embrace. Twisting as she stood, Xena's back popped loudly. I'm sure her muscles protested the hours spend in an awkward position. I made a mental note to give her a backrub as soon as it was convenient.

My parents seemed relieved that breakfast went well. I chatted with Lila and mother while Xena occasionally added something to the conversation. I don't think my father said two sentences, but to my surprise I think those two sentences were directed at Xena. I think they had a brief exchange about blacksmithing and horse feed.

After saying my goodbyes Lila walked us to the edge of the village. I hugged her briefly, then to my surprise, she turned and hugged Xena as well. I could tell Xena wasn't expecting it, but she returned the shy hug with a smile. If Lila could make an attempt to accept Xena, I had hope that in time my parents would as well.

Still somewhat shaken by my nightmare, I wasn't quite ready to get back to business as usual. I don't think Xena was either. I suggested we travel to Amphipolis as long as we were in the area. She was hesitant, I could tell, but agreed nonetheless. While Cyrene had essentially forgiven Xena for her warlord past, there was still tension between the two that never eased completely. Xena and her mother still ached from the death of her younger brother, Lyceus, and while that pain drew them together, it also kept them apart.

The last time we'd been to Amphipolis, Xena had been trapped in Callisto's body. We had sent word when Xena got her body back, but until now no one had seen her. I suppose that was why the villagers were so apprehensive at the sight of our approach.

Things settled down somewhat, and the town gave a collective sigh when we reached Cyrene's Inn. Xena's mother made the comment, loud enough for the nearby eavesdroppers, that if I was in Xena's company, she had no doubt it was her daughter. Cyrene had always been so warm and loving towards me. This trip was certainly no exception. After a somewhat formal greeting with her mother, Xena went to see the blacksmith, so Cyrene sat down with me over big bowls of rabbit stew to hear about what we'd been up to.

I gave her the basic run down of what her daughter's adventures, omitting the darker parts, glossing over the violence. I've no doubt Cyrene knew it, but I think she appreciated the gesture. She smiled, her eyes kind and warm as she squeezed my hand affectionately. "What troubles you, child?" she asked gently.

"Troubles me?" I stammered, thinking frantically.

"Gabrielle," she said gently in a tone so reminiscent of Xena's. "I'm not blind. Something is bothering you and I don't think it's the retelling of your seasickness." I didn't know what to say so I just looked at the table, afraid to meet her gentle gaze. "Gabrielle?" she asked more firmly this time. "Is something wrong between you and Xena?" My eyes flew up at that statement. That wasn't what was bothering me, of course. Still, I couldn't believe she knew. She laughed, a low chuckle that was so much like her daughter's. "Surprised I know?" she teased. "Don't be. I knew the moment you showed up to rescue my daughter from a village ready to stone her that it would only be a matter of time before you had her heart." She sighed, and I could tell she was debating her next words. "To be honest, I don't think Xena deserves you." I was about to protest that remark but she put up a gentle hand to silence me. "Please, Gabrielle, let me finish.

"I love my daughter, very much. It's hard to describe what it's like for a parent to watch her child sink to the depths of darkness the way Xena did. There was a time when I'd hoped the next messenger coming to Amphipolis would bring news that the Warrior Princess, Destroyer of Nations had been killed in battle, not tale after tale of sacked cities and victims that numbered into the thousands.

"The change in Xena over these past two years is more than I'd ever hoped for. I don't know if she will ever atone for what she's done, but that is between her and Hades. That someone like you, with a kind and loving heart, would choose my daughter, knowing her past and her darkness..." she smiled as she wiped a tear from the corner of her eye, "again, it's more than I hoped for."

"Thank you," I said, beginning to tear up myself. "But to answer your question, there isn't anything wrong between Xena and me. She's very good to me, I've never loved anyone the way I love her. It's just that..." Without really meaning to, I told Cyrene about the nightmares, which led to why I was having the nightmares, which in turn led to telling her the whole story. When I was finished, smoky blue eyes studied me for a moment before she spoke.

"Gabrielle, you must be the bravest woman I've ever met," she finally said. "Xena had better be good to you indeed after what you've gone through for her." She shook her head sadly as she cleared our lunch dishes. "I can't help but feel responsible," she explained. "I willingly chose to ignore the oracle's prophecy. Arrogantly, I thought that leaving my tribe would invalidate the prediction. The blood on Xena's hands weighs heavily on me..."

"No," I protested. "Xena doesn't feel that she's controlled by prophecy and neither should you. She's a grown woman and is able to decide for herself. Granted, in the past some of her decisions weren't so great, but she's grown a lot since then. With each brush with darkness she's had in the past two years, Ares has had less and less of a hold on her. Who knows, maybe all of this will eventually result in her besting him once and for all."

"Maybe so," she agreed.

"So, um, Cyrene?" I asked hesitantly. She looked up from the sink where she'd poured water to wash the dishes.

"Yes, Gabrielle?" she asked as I dried the dishes she handed me.

"Would you tell me about your Amazon tribe?" With a light laugh she agreed and proceeded to tell me the most wonderful stories beginning with her adventure rescuing a lost oracle. It was almost time for dinner when Xena returned, looking at her mother and me suspiciously. She looked exhausted. Clearly she'd been to the blacksmith's to use his forge, and not to have him do the work.

"Sorry I'm late," she announced. "I'll clean up for dinner."

As soon as she left the room Cyrene handed me a small pot of ointment. "Dinner can wait, why don't you go help Xena."

I smiled back. "You know, she's going to wonder how you figured out... about us."

She shook her head and waved me in the direction Xena had gone. "She's not ready for that yet. For now, let's keep this between us."

"Fair enough," I agreed grateful that, for once, I knew something before Xena did."

Part 7 of The Search for Amphipolis

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