Crossing Over: A Buried Story byDella Street

Author's note: This is one of several stories written some time ago, which stayed buried in my hard drive. (After reading them, you may wish they had stayed there.) There are various reasons they weren't posted publicly: CROSSING OVER is a mythologically based tale, not my forte, and since my exposure to Herc and Iolaus at the time was the X:WP episode "Prometheus," the accuracy of their characterizations is questionable.


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A tired figure leaned on his walking stick. Where was that damned sheep? With a sigh, the old shepherd continued his frustrated trek. He crested the hill and froze, his stick clattering as it fell to the ground. His mouth opened, but no sounds emerged before his life was crushed out of him.

* * * * *

Gabrielle stirred again, and Xena turned her head toward the covered figure a few yards away. By the remains of the low firelight, she could see that her companion had drawn her knees up tighter against her chest. Cold. The temperature had dropped considerably after they went to bed, and Gabrielle's thin blanket wasn't enough.

Xena sighed and looked over at the bag which held their spare blankets. She didn't really want to leave the comfort of her own bedroll and walk over there, but Gabrielle would be stiff tomorrow if she stayed in that rigid position. Xena returned her gaze to the balled-up shape again and decided on a lazier approach. Rising, she dragged her ground cover next to the sleeping form, then pulled her warm skin blanket over them both.

Gabrielle did not awaken, but the heat from two bodies soon permeated her skin, and she brought her legs down. Xena's eyes closed as she approached sleep, then opened again as she felt her companion turn and press her body along the length of her own. Xena looked down at her young friend, an eyebrow raised as Gabrielle flung an arm across her chest, mumbling in her sleep.

Xena wondered what she was dreaming about. A smile played at the corners of her mouth; with Gabrielle's imagination, anything was possible. She looked down at the bard's angelic face and decided not to move her. It wasn't that unpleasant; she could put up with it for one night.

* * * * *

Quiet footsteps approached their campsite shortly before dawn. A hand parted the brush, revealing two women lying together under a bearskin, wrapped in each other's arms. After a long moment, the branches came together again, and the footsteps retreated.

* * * * *

Gabrielle thought about opening her eyes, but she was too comfortable. It felt good lying next to--her breath caught. Lying next to Xena. Her arm across the other woman's chest, Xena's arm around her shoulder. She sat up abruptly and saw that Xena was also awake.

Xena suppressed a smile at the confusion on her friend's face.

"Uh . . ."

The warrior yawned and stretched vigorously. "Morning."

"Um, good morning . . ."

Xena smiled. "You were cold, and I didn't feel like getting up."

"Oh. Thanks."

"No problem." Xena stretched again. It looked as though she still didn't feel like getting up. Gabrielle looked at her, and found herself wanting to lie back down.

Footsteps in the brush brought them both to their feet, and with an almost invisible motion, Xena had her sword in hand, swinging it into ready position.

"Is that how you greet all your old friends?" A gentle voice carried over to them, followed by a tall, handsome figure in dark leather pants and light tunic that left little of his chest to the imagination.

"Hercules!" Gabrielle's eyes lit up.

"And me." A smaller blonde figure emerged from behind the big man, waving self-consciously.

Xena smiled and lay down her sword to clasp arms with her former colleagues.

"This is great! What are you doing here? Can you believe we're all here at the same time?" Gabrielle's hands waved as she chattered excitedly.

"Well, it's not exactly a coincidence," Hercules said, smiling. He turned to Xena. "We were looking for you. We could use your help."

"Something has to be done, but it's a big job. It'll take the three of us and a lot of luck."

Gabrielle opened her mouth, but Xena said it for her. "There are four of us."

"Uh, yeah." Hercules directed a meaningful look at Xena. He obviously would prefer to talk to the Warrior Princess alone, but she was not helping him. "Actually, Xena, I think . . ." He glanced at the younger woman. "I'm not sure it's a good idea to take, uh, civilians into this."

Xena held up a hand to still the fiery protest. "Gabrielle's with me. She can take care of herself."

"A hundred men have been killed, Xena. We may not succeed. How will you feel if she's harmed?"

To Gabrielle's alarm, Xena hesitated. "I'm going," the bard said determinedly. She turned her head and looked into clear blue eyes. "I want to stay with you." She held Xena's gaze a moment longer, and the warrior finally nodded.

Hercules looked down at the ground, frowning. Gabrielle was sweet, but it really didn't make sense to drag her into this. Maybe he could raise the subject again when Xena was outside the influence of her . . . friend.

* * * * *

At dusk, they walked into a busy village, the last they would see for some time. Xena managed to claim a table in the crowded public house, and the four sat, exhibiting varying degrees of patience while they waited to be served. Gabrielle glanced nervously at her travelling companion. Xena's gaze landed on a flustered servant, lip starting to curl, and Gabrielle rose.

"I'll go," she volunteered, laying her hand on Xena's shoulder, calming the Warrior Princess with her touch and a smile before heading off toward the counter. Xena listened with half an ear to the friendly banter between her male companions, but began to grow restless as the minutes passed.

What was taking Gabrielle so long? Xena craned her neck casually to scan the horde at the bar, then jerked her head back around after spotting her friend navigating a course back to their table through the crowd, three drinks balanced on a wooden platter. Xena looked at the tray. "Where's yours?"

"I changed my mind," Gabrielle said. "I'm going for a walk."

The bard had an odd look on her face, Xena noticed; excited about something. The warrior took a sip from her drink and raised her head, about to say something else, but Gabrielle was gone. Xena frowned.

"I guess she really wanted to go for that walk," Iolaus said.

* * * * *

Hercules led the group down a narrow path, sandwiched between a steep hill on one side and a rapidly descending slope on the other. Heavy foliage concealed the edge of the decline.

Iolaus stepped too far to the right, and into air. "Yeeoow!" He flapped his arms wildly in an energetic performance to regain his balance. "Great road," he complained.

"Give me a break," Hercules said. "I wouldn't even know about this path if it weren't for my father."

"Your father?" Gabrielle repeated excitedly.

"Yeah. He told me how to get here."

"Is he involved?" Xena asked.

Hercules sighed, and nodded. "Typhon has stolen one of Zeus's thunderbolts."

Gabrielle's eyes widened. She started to reply, but was distracted by the feel of Xena standing close to her. Too close.

"Hercules!"

Xena shouted a warning, and in the same instant shoved her companion against the rock wall behind them. Swordsmen poured onto the ridge from the road ahead and behind, a half dozen from each side.

There was little room to fight. Xena backed into Gabrielle, until the bard could see and smell nothing but leather and the heat of blood pumping. The warrior's sword lashed out again and again, the howls of her less skilled opponents echoing down the long slope.

A thrusting blade caught Gabrielle's attention, and she cried out. Xena swore and smashed at the sword, impaling its bearer on her own weapon. From further down the path, Gabrielle could hear the grunts of other men falling under their colleagues' strong blows.

Finally she heard no sounds other than her protector's heavy breathing, and the dark leather which had pressed against her became metal plates as Xena spun around and grabbed her arms. "Are you all right?" Without waiting for an answer, Xena shoved the bard's surprised face into her chest.

"Well, considering that I didn't do any fighting, I should probably be asking you that," Gabrielle mumbled, her words muffled by the swell of flesh crammed against her mouth. The warrior's hand was stroking her hair now.

"I think there are other things we should be asking. Like how those men knew we were coming." Hercules stood a few yards behind Xena. "This was an ambush."

"Who would want to attack us?" Gabrielle asked.

"Hera, for one."

Iolaus rolled his eyes. "Oh, her again."

Xena ignored him. "Why do you say that?" she asked Hercules.

The big man sighed. "Rumor is that Hera was angry at Zeus for another one of his . . . indiscretions, and helped Typhon get the thunderbolt. She doesn't want it to turn up again." He brought his hands to his waist. "She'd still have to know what we're up to, and the route we were taking."

Xena and Gabrielle exchanged looks, then glanced up at the sky.

Hercules shook his head. "She's not here. Zeus is treating her to a second honeymoon."

Xena eyed him skeptically, and Hercules shrugged. "He says I owe him big for this one."

"So, if she's not spying on us . . .," Xena said.

"Someone must have told her our plans," Hercules finished.

"Well, that doesn't make any sense," Gabrielle said. "No one knows them except us."

Hercules looked away. "Let's head out," he said quietly.

* * * * *

"She wouldn't do that." Xena booted a dead branch into the forest.

"I'm not suggesting that she did anything deliberately," Hercules said. "But you know her, Xena, she's . . . friendly."

"Friendly, yes, but not stupid. She wouldn't have told anyone."

"If you'll forgive me, Xena, I don't think you're in the best position to judge."

"Meaning what?"

"Meaning it's hard to be objective about someone you're sharing a bed with."

Sharing a bed with? Gabrielle? Where had he come up with that idea? "What are you talking about?"

"Xena, I saw you together the other morning. I know you and Gabrielle are lovers."

Unreadable blue eyes stared at him. After a long moment, Xena forced herself to ignore his ridiculous supposition and said evenly, "I trust Gabrielle more than anyone else here, including myself."

"I'm sure you do, but you're not looking at this objectively. It's happened before, Xena," he said pointedly. "Someone comes along and causes you to fall in love. It can even drive a wedge between the closest of friends."

She barely registered the fact that he was describing their own history. In love? Now he was accusing her of being in love with Gabrielle? She didn't have time for this.

"Look. Gabrielle goes where I go. If you can't handle that, I suggest we split up and work apart."

"I don't think that's wise. Typhon's too much to handle separately. Xena," he began, then paused. Should he tell her everything? She wouldn't want to hear it, but . . . "Xena--"

"Forget it."

Footsteps approached in the brush, and Gabrielle stepped into the clearing with an armload of straplings. "I think this'll be enough." She scanned the campsite for a good place to pile the wood. "Where's Iolaus?"

"He went to get water," Xena said. "Don't put those down. Let's go."

Gabrielle looked up at her. "Let's go . . . where?"

"Through here. There's another clearing. We'll set up over there so we won't bother Hercules and Iolaus."

"Uh . . ."

"Come on."

Gabrielle followed Xena through the brush, struggling to keep a grip on her load as branches brushed against her face, until they came to a bald patch of ground.

"Here? You're kidding. There's no room."

"Sure there is. We'll bunk up together. It won't kill you."

"Xena, is something going on? I mean, we've shared a campsite with them before."

The dark-haired woman remained silent for a moment, then said, "Hercules and I are having a difference of opinion on how to proceed. He's being rather irritating about it."

"Really?"

"Yeah."

"Well, that's his problem then." Xena smiled at her friend's unquestioning loyalty, and was pleased to see Gabrielle smile back at her. She looked into warm green eyes. How could anyone doubt this woman for an instant?

She built a fire in the narrow clearing, the dry kindling coming to flame easily. Gabrielle laid Xena's bearskin over a single blanket on the ground, and soon a warm body settled in next to her under the skin.

Xena lay quietly, hands cupped behind her head, and stared up at the clear night sky. At times like these, she felt truly content . . .

She glanced at her friend as Gabrielle stirred beside her, brushing a shoulder against hers. Gabrielle shifted again a moment later, and Xena rolled her eyes. Zeus, she hoped the woman wasn't going to toss and turn all night. Gabrielle reached over and lifted the edge of their ground cover to peer under it.

"Gabrielle, what are you doing?"

"There's something sharp under there. There's no room to avoid it." The bard dug at the ground, grunting in frustration. "It's a rock."

She heard an exaggerated sigh, and looked up to see her friend grinning as Xena rolled on top of her, supporting herself on an elbow while she reached under the blanket. Strong fingers dug into the dirt until Xena was able to pull the offending object out and toss it to one side. "There you go." The warrior smirked and began to pull her arm back, her smile fading as she felt resistance. Her metal gauntlet was caught on the back of Gabrielle's tunic.

* * * * *

Hercules sighed and rose from the log he was sitting on. He'd been a little hard on his old friend. It probably didn't matter any more if her young companion had been indiscreet; they had branched off onto the secondary path several hours ago, and it was unlikely anyone was still following them. Everyone made mistakes.

Maybe he should apologize to Xena. With silent steps, he followed the women's tracks until he heard feminine noises. Cautiously, he peeked through the branches.

Xena lay on top of the smaller woman, both women laughing.

"Stop it! You're going to tear it."

"Then take it off."

"It's freezing out, and you expect me to take my clothes off."

"Gabrielle, either you take it off or I'm going to tear it off."

"Patience, patience. Keep still a moment so I can do this." Gabrielle leaned into Xena, bringing her hands behind her back, and Hercules hastily withdrew.

At dawn he watched the two women walk into camp, folded covers tucked under their arms. Their eyes met, and the women grinned at each other. Hercules lowered his gaze, trying not to imagine what they had done together the night before.

Gabrielle stuffed her rolled blanket into a saddlebag, smiling, remembering last night's laughter that had complicated their efforts to separate Xena's gauntlet from her tunic. Eventually, with the bard huddled under the blanket bare from the waist up, Xena had unhooked the sharp metal spear.

Gabrielle had watched, amused, as strong fingers bent the unruly strand back into shape, then carefully examined the cloth for tears. The Warrior Princess was as thorough in homemaking as she was in planning an attack.

Finally, her inspection complete, Xena handed the shirt back, a smile framing warm blue eyes as she lay back and watched Gabrielle tie up the cloth. Impulsively, the younger woman flung herself against Xena and threw an arm around her, and Xena pulled Gabrielle against her, returning the hug affectionately.

"Gabrielle, I--"

Questioning eyes looked up at her, but the smile had disappeared from Xena's face.

"What?"

"Nothing. We'd better get some sleep."

Gabrielle laughed. "Hey, I'm not the one slowing us down." She glanced up to see Xena making a show of glaring at her, and smiled. She hugged Xena again and sighed, letting herself get sleepy.

Xena lay back, conscious of her friend's warmth pressed against her. There wasn't really enough room to have Gabrielle move over, she decided. One more night of cramped conditions wouldn't hurt.

She had nearly told Gabrielle that she loved her. She would have, but now she was self-conscious. How would Hercules have twisted *that*? Xena scowled. Damn Hercules and his accusations. Lovers. Gabrielle stirred slightly and Xena smoothed a hand against her shoulder, feeling the woman's warm breath on her skin as she drifted off to sleep.

* * * * *

They traveled down the narrow path, Hercules, Xena, Gabrielle leading Argo, and Iolaus bringing up the rear. At mid-afternoon, the group stopped for quick refreshment, sipping sparingly from their waterskins.

Xena glanced at Hercules, perched on a flat rock, a hand draped across his knee as he chewed on a piece of bread, and some perverse emotion was triggered within her. With a slight smirk, she crossed the few paces over to Gabrielle, who was leaning against a rock wall and clucking at a small blackbird just beyond her reach. Hercules would have a fine view.

Xena tore a strip from her ration of dried meat and handed it to her friend. "How are you doing?"

"Don't you want this?"

"Go ahead."

"Thanks." Gabrielle took a bite. "I'm fine. How close do you think we are?"

"Another couple of days." Xena leaned back next to the blonde woman, the full length of their bodies touching. "How are the ol' legs holding out?" She laid a hand on Gabrielle's thigh.

"Fine." Gabrielle looked at her quizzically.

Xena drew back her hand. She was probably going a little too far in her efforts to yank Hercules' chain.

"Gabrielle . . ."

A stray wisp of blonde hair floated toward her as the bard's head turned. "Yes?"

Xena reached out and took the hair into her fingers, noticing how it almost seemed to radiate its own light under the sun's rays. She blinked and let go of it. She had forgotten she wasn't going to tease Hercules any further. "Gabrielle, did you talk to anyone in the last village?"

"Did I talk to anyone?" The bard shrugged. "There was a guy at the counter in the tavern when I went for drinks."

"What did he want?"

Gabrielle laughed. "Well, he put his hand on my thigh, so--"

"He touched you?" Xena straightened and turned toward her.

"Yeah. Like you just did."

"Well, it's not the same thing. You should have told me."

"It was no big deal," Gabrielle said. "I asked him to move it and he did. Then we had a nice chat."

Xena felt her pulse rising, her mind still focused on the fact that a man had put his hand on Gabrielle. If she had known, she would have explained to him -- in detail -- the inadvisability of manhandling attractive young women. Belatedly, Gabrielle's last statement sank in. "A nice chat?"

"Yeah. He knew a lot about this area. You know, the history, the layout. He was really interesting."

"Did you tell him where we were going?"

Gabrielle stared at her, perplexed. "Of course not. Why would you ask that?"

"No reason. Just talking." Xena kept her eyes straight ahead, concerned that Gabrielle was about to put two and two together. That would not be good. Time for a little deflection. "I like to hear you talk," she said.

Their eyes met, and Gabrielle smiled.

"Xena, let's go."

Xena scowled, briefly shifting her gaze to the two men beckoning to them from the path. She wanted a few more minutes with Gabrielle, just to make sure she was all right. Maybe she could hang back, walk with her for a while . . .

She frowned. She could just imagine what Hercules would make of that. Reluctantly, Xena took her turn in the lead, further irritated that Hercules was now between her and Gabrielle. He'd better watch out for her.

* * * * *

The sounds of metal on metal died out as Xena took down the last of their attackers. Hercules knelt beside his friend and examined the bloody gash in Iolaus' thigh.

"Damn it!" The smaller man swore under his breath. He could barely walk in this condition, let alone fight. "Not again!"

Hercules rose and walked over to Xena, the two conferring quietly. Iolaus shook his head. They'd have to leave him. Frustrated, he shifted his attention to the pretty blonde girl efficiently tearing a sheet into strips, all the while staring at something behind him.

Iolaus smiled. The last time something like this happened, her words and touch had comforted him. She was even more beautiful now.

He twisted his head to see what held her attention so intensely, but could see only Xena standing there. Now the girl was over by Xena's horse, retrieving a water container and food rations. For one.

"Here." She smiled sweetly and placed the supplies on the ground beside Iolaus. "This should be enough food and water. Do you want me to bandage your wound?"

His mouth opened, then closed again. She wasn't going to stay with him? What was she doing? She wouldn't be any use to them up there. Iolaus jerked his head around to appeal to a higher authority, but was silenced as he saw the Warrior Princess glance down at the single rations with a smile.

Hercules touched Xena's arm, and the two colleagues approached. "How do they know where to find us?" Hercules asked. He turned to the youngest member of the group. "Gabrielle?"

"Yes?"

The big man hesitated.

"He wants to know if you told anyone where we were going," Xena interjected mildly.

"No! I already told you."

"That's good enough for me," Xena said. "She talked to one guy at the bar who hit on her, and that was it."

"Gabrielle, I saw you sitting with a man in the back," Hercules said. "When you were supposed to be on your walk."

Xena blinked, then looked over at the bard, confirmation of his words written plainly across Gabrielle's face.

"What did you talk to him about?" Hercules continued.

"Nothing."

"You were with him over an hour."

Xena stared at her friend.

An awkward silence followed, finally broken by Gabrielle's nervous answer. "We didn't talk about where we were going. I wouldn't do that."

"I know you wouldn't," Hercules said. "But he might have done something to make it easier to track us. Did he ask you anything about what we were doing?"

She shook her head.

"Did he give you anything?"

Gabrielle hesitated almost imperceptibly. "No."

Xena gaped at her in disbelief. It was a lie. The warrior dropped her gaze, trying to decide what to do about it. Maybe if she talked to Gabrielle in private--

"Give me your bag."

Xena's head jerked up, and she looked from one to the other. Gabrielle blanched, and drew the purse in toward her body. "No."

"I'm sorry, Gabrielle, but this could mean our lives. We can't take any chances." Hercules moved toward her, and Gabrielle pressed the bag tightly against her stomach. She looked at Xena, silently appealing to her.

Xena's head won out over her heart. Gabrielle was unquestionably hiding something. Feeling slightly ill, she hoped her friend would forgive her. "Give it to him, Gabrielle," she said. "Then we'll put it behind us," she added gently.

Gabrielle extended a palm toward the demi-god, who continued to advance on her. "Wait."

Hercules snatched the bag in a swift movement and emptied it onto the ground. As Xena joined the two men in staring down at its contents, Gabrielle quickly bent over and picked something up.

Gabrielle shook her head. "No. It's personal."

"Let us see it," Hercules said.

Xena/Gabrielle illoHercules took a step forward, but Xena inserted herself between them. "No." No one would touch Gabrielle against her will. She drew her companion a few steps away, her back to the others, and said quietly, "Let me see, Gabrielle."

"No."

Xena drew back her head in surprise, keeping her gaze on the younger woman until Gabrielle finally looked up, quickly averting her eyes again.

"Please don't do this, Xena."

Xena stood silently; Gabrielle had to understand that she had no choice.

"It's not something I -- I mean I didn't ask -- he just did it." The words stumbled across each other, and Xena put her hand on the bard's forearm to calm her. Finally, Gabrielle held out a clenched fist and placed something in Xena's hand, her eyes closed.

The warrior looked down at her palm and saw a lover's bracelet. Xena raised her hand to examine it more closely. Etched on the stones were her name and Gabrielle's, alternating, symbolically intertwining.

"Xena, I swear. It's not . . ." Gabrielle couldn't continue.

Xena studied the bracelet for a long moment, then at the sound of movement closed her fingers around it. "Forget it," she said to Hercules, who had come up behind her. "It's private." She turned and picked up Gabrielle's bag, shoving items back into it. "Let's move on."

Hercules started to speak, but was silenced by the look on Xena's face. Whatever else she was thinking, it was clear that Gabrielle had been exonerated in her mind. He nodded his acceptance; she had been open-minded enough to let him take her friend's bag in the first place.

"I'm sorry," he said to Gabrielle, but she walked wordlessly past him to Argo, attaching her bag to the saddle, then leaned into the horse's neck. Hercules exchanged glances with his companion, who shrugged helplessly. Iolaus was usually good with crying females, but in her present mood, he didn't think Xena would appreciate his efforts to console her friend.

Xena looked over at Gabrielle. "Let's go," she urged. She was anxious to get on the road again and put this place and her companion's humiliation behind them. Gabrielle would feel better once they were on the move again.

Hercules clamped a hand on Iolaus' shoulder. "We'll be back, my friend."

"You'd better. I won't wait here forever, you know."

"I know." Hercules smiled.

Xena fell into line behind the demi-god, glad that it was his turn to lead. She wanted some time to think. She closed her fingers tighter over the bracelet, seeing its image in her mind again.

 

* * * * *

Hercules strolled into the woods, leaving the two women alone at the campsite. Xena studied the quiet figure sitting next to Argo, then walked over and sat beside her. Gabrielle did not look up.

Xena reached into her cleavage and brought out the bracelet, handing it to Gabrielle, who accepted it wordlessly. "I like it," she said.

Green eyes shyly glanced up at her, a question in them.

"I know what it is."

Gabrielle suddenly found the dirt at her feet fascinating again. "I didn't ask him to do that," she said quietly. "I'm not . . ." She started to look at Xena again, but couldn't meet the other woman's eyes.

"I know."

"He asked if there's someone . . . I didn't mean . . ." Gabrielle got to her feet and retreated to the comfort of Argo, taking out a brush and running it through the horse's coat, Xena's eyes following the smooth motions.

After a few minutes' silence, the young woman's attention was diverted by a welcome arrival. "Hi, there," she cooed softly. She retrieved a small chunk of bread from her saddlebag and extended it toward a feathered creature on the ledge a few feet away.

A disapproving voice carried over to her. "You shouldn't give away your food, Gabrielle."

"This is a friend of mine." She clicked her tongue at the bird. "He's been with us the whole way, haven't you?" She smiled. "He's cute, don't you think?"

"Yeah. Gorgeous. But food may become scarce."

"I'll live."

Gabrielle heard a small sigh from the warrior, then the soft sound of wings fluttering as the bird pecked the proffered gift from her fingers. She smiled again, and returned to grooming Argo. Suddenly she heard the familiar sound of metal slicing through the air, and jerked her head around in time to see Xena's chakram dissect the tiny black animal.

"What--" Gabrielle began to exclaim. Then she saw it. Not flesh and feathers, but a bright glow shrouding what had been the bird's face. The image vanished, and she sensed Xena standing close behind her. "What was that?"

A masculine voice answered. "One of Hera's messengers. If it's been following us, that's how she knew what we were doing." Hercules stepped up to them, looking down at the smaller woman. "I'm sorry," he said.

"It's all right," she said hastily, not wanting to be reminded of earlier events, of the bracelet. She retreated to the edge of camp and climbed under her blanket. Xena's eyes followed her friend, and she wondered if she should move her own blanket closer to Gabrielle's, just to comfort her. Just for tonight.

* * * * *

In the distance ahead of them, a tall, clean-shaven man reclined beneath a tree, decked out in various layers of lavender and white. He stood with exaggerated effort as the three travelers came into view.

"Cadmus." Hercules clasped the flamboyant man's forearm. The stranger acknowledged the son of Zeus, then promptly shifted his attention to the two beautiful women with him.

"Hello," he said, inviting Hercules to introduce him, unable to decide which woman to focus on. Very different, but both very delectable. The foursome sat and began to talk.

Moments later, Cadmus erupted. "What?!" He nearly fell over in his haste to get to his feet. "You didn't say anything about this when you sent for me, Hercules. It was bad enough just finding this place. Your mapmaking skills leave something to be desired, pal."

Hercules ignored the change of subject. "I said I needed your help, and I do. You owe me a favor."

The man's blonde locks shook vehemently. "No way. Typhon? Not me. Call me a welsher."

"Cadmus, we don't have any choice." Hercules' tone left no room for refusal. "Typhon's weakness is music, and you have the flute."

Gabrielle perked up. "Flute?"

Hercules gestured toward the newest member of their troupe. "Show her."

Cadmus carefully drew a shiny instrument from inside his robe. Gabrielle's eyes widened, and she instinctively reached out her hand. Cadmus pulled the flute back out of her reach, but at the sound of Hercules clearing his throat, begrudgingly held it out toward the girl. Gabrielle took the delicate instrument into her hands and caressed its smooth, golden shape. "Beautiful," she breathed. "Isn't it, Xena?"

Xena stared silently at her.

* * * * *

"There." Hercules indicated a darkened area on the side of the rocky slope. "That cave."

"OK." Xena pointed. "You head up over there; I'll come around from the north. Can we get up from here?"

"I can't tell. Let's check it out."

Gabrielle watched the two athletes begin to scale the side of the cliff, then reluctantly turned and headed back to camp. It wouldn't hurt to talk to Cadmus for a while, she supposed, as long as she didn't get too close to his hands. After only two days of travelling with the man, Gabrielle could easily see that he would be pretty nimble on finger instruments. She hadn't mentioned his wandering attentions to Xena, for fear a swollen lip would keep him from playing when the time came.

She entered the clearing and looked around. "Uh oh."

Half an hour later, the bard caught sight of flashy robes and hurried through the brush, emerging in front of the figure hustling briskly away.

"What are you doing?" she demanded, leaning down with one hand on her thigh as she tried to catch her breath.

"What does it look like?" Cadmus replied. "I'm getting out of here while I still can. You want to come with me?"

"You're supposed to go up there and play. They can't do it without you."

Cadmus waved a hand dismissively. "You're crazy. Have you seen that thing? We're all dead."

"They have a plan. You--"

"Yeah, some plan. I'm telling you, it's crazy."

The Amazon positioned herself before him, staff poised. "No. You're not going anywhere. You're coming back with me."

Cadmus knew a determined face when he saw one. "To play this?" He reached into his robe and slowly pulled out the golden flute.

"Yes."

"It is beautiful, isn't it?" he said, holding it up so that the sun glinted off it. "Unique."

Gabrielle nodded, eyes drawn to the glimmering metal.

Suddenly the instrument was flung high into the air, sailing backward over Cadmus' shoulder. "No!" Gabrielle dropped her staff and ran. With a desperate leap, she caught the flute as she landed hard on the dirt, the wind knocked out of her. She raised herself, one hand pressed to her side with the effort to breathe. "What are you doing?" she shouted angrily. "You would have ruined it!" But he was gone.

* * * * *

"His things are gone," Hercules said disgustedly, hands fisted at his sides.

Xena paced around the edge of the camp. "She must have gone after him." The warrior's lip curled. "That swine."

"He might have . . .," Hercules began, then shook his head. "Nah."

"What?"

"Nothing."

Xena fixed him with an irritated look.

"Well, Cadmus sort of . . . took an interest in Gabrielle. But I don't think he would take her against her will. Take her with him, I mean."

She gaped at him, wide-eyed. "Gabrielle?"

"Yeah." Hercules shrugged apologetically. "I caught him . . . Gabrielle didn't want you bothered with it."

She took a step toward him. "Caught him what?"

Hercules grimaced. "He pinned her against a tree last night when she went for firewood. I went over to help, but she beat me to it." He chuckled. "She brought her knee up. Pretty hard," he added, unconsciously wincing at the image.

So that explained Cadmus' pallor last night. "I'll kill him," she declared furiously.

"Xena--"

"No one touches her!" she snarled.

Hercules blinked. He'd seen Xena angry before, but . . . He held his hands up. "First things first, Xena. We'll find Gabrielle, then we'll have to--"

They heard it at the same moment, faint tones in the distance. "Well, I take back what I was thinking," Hercules said. "That's our cue." The warriors looked up at the slope, where a solitary figure approached the creature.

"No!" Xena instinctively started toward the hill, but was held back by powerful arms. She struggled fiercely against Hercules' hold. "Let me go!"

"It's too late, Xena. She's too close. Movement from us now could get her killed." Hercules looked at the warrior's face. Lovers or not, her feelings for the girl were intense.

Xena closed her eyes, struggling to regain control. "She can't . . ." She shook her head, stunned.

"There's nothing we can do," Hercules said. "Let's get in position."

The Warrior Princess didn't move, her gaze fixed on the tiny shadow advancing slowly across the meadow.

"Xena." Hercules put his hand on her forearm.

She tore her arm away. "Don't touch me!"

"It'll all be for nothing if she makes it to Typhon, and we're not there."

Xena gazed up at the silhouette on the hill. Gabrielle at the mercy of a murderous beast who would think nothing of�

She took a deep breath to calm herself, then hurried toward the side of the cliff.

* * * * *

Three heads popped up at the sounds of a flute, played by a young mortal female. As the girl drew near, her breath caught sharply and the music stopped. Her eyes were wide as she stared at the hundred hands and poisonous spikes.

"Why do you fear me, girl?" the creature called out to her.

She spoke nervously, but clearly. "You've killed a hundred and twenty men."

"And why should you not be the hundred and twenty-first?"

"Because I am here to pay my respects. It wouldn't be polite to kill me."

Typhon's eyes appraised the small figure before him. "All right. Play for me, girl." Fifty of his hands waved at the air. "Make it good," he warned. "I have heard many others."

"OK." She swallowed. Her representations to Xena notwithstanding, Gabrielle had no illusions about her skill level on the flute. She raised the instrument to her lips, then yielded to her bard instincts and addressed her audience. "This is a piece about a beautiful woman with a tragic past." She glanced up; he seemed to be listening, although she couldn't really tell with all those bobbing heads. "A warrior, turned by tragedy to a life of struggle and despair. Then she found love, and began to seek peace and justice."

Gabrielle took a deep breath and began to play. She knew the piece well, had worked on it for many hours when Xena was away, keeping her friend close to her through the chords.

* * * * *

Xena paused. She didn't recognize the song Gabrielle was playing. It actually sounded pretty good--hard, fast, exciting. Too exciting; it was unlikely to lull Typhon, but it might keep him occupied until she could get close enough to pull Gabrielle away.

She edged closer to the figures on the hill. Hercules was coming up the other side, she could see. Xena raised her head. The song had transformed into a lovely, slow, hypnotic melody. Beautiful. Gabrielle had never played this for her.

She peered around a boulder and saw Typhon's eyes closed. In the background, Hercules was edging his way into the cave behind the monster. Slowly, Xena crept the last few feet up the cliffside, crawling on level ground until she reached her destination. The beast was still distracted by the lilting tones of Gabrielle's flute, and didn't notice the warrior slip into position on the overhang directly above the pair.

Xena looked at Gabrielle and made some basic calculations. She would have only one chance. She reached down to her belt and pulled up a cloth bag, its drawstrings pulled tight.

From across the clearing, Hercules emerged from the cave entrance with his father's thunderbolt in hand. Their eyes met, and he nodded. Xena tossed the satchel up over the monster and vaulted silently off the ledge. Hercules leveled a lightning bolt at the bag, spreading a mist of fine powder into the air.

Landing gracefully on the ground beside Gabrielle, Xena circled the small waist with her arm and leapt over the edge of the cliff to a shelf floor below, pulling them both into a natural cavern carved into the side of the slope. From above, she heard an angry roar as the powder stung Typhon's eyes, clouding his vision, numbness soon to overtake the monster's poisonous limbs.

Xena pressed Gabrielle against a wall of the cave and leaned into her, eyes closed, breathing hard. The bard stood wordlessly, face crushed against the bare skin of Xena's chest.

"Don't ever do that again," Xena choked.

Gabrielle remained silent.

Xena leaned back and looked into the eyes gazing up at her. Without thinking, she bent her head and kissed Gabrielle. After a long moment, she drew her companion into her arms, pressing the bard's face against the pulsing artery in her neck. Gabrielle's arms tightened around her back.

Neither was aware of how much time had passed when they heard a light "ahem" from the cave entrance. "Uh, Xena . . . We have some things to take care of."

The women stayed in their silent embrace for another moment before Xena drew back. She glanced at Hercules, then returned her gaze to warm green eyes. "Stay here," she said softly. "I'll be back." She clasped Gabrielle's hand and walked toward the entrance, letting the small hand slide out of hers.

Gabrielle sat in the cave, listening as Hercules and Xena carefully hacked at dozens of thick, poisonous limbs, the drugged monster unaware of the affronts. The bard had climbed up and watched just long enough to fix the image in her mind for retelling later, then returned to the seclusion of her dark refuge. She ran her fingers lightly across her lips.

Two shadows appeared at the entrance of the cave. Gabrielle looked up as one figure turned to the other.

"We'll meet you later at the campsite," Xena said. Hercules nodded, then pivoted and started down the hill.

Gabrielle rose and handed her friend a waterskin, watching silently as Xena washed her face and exposed skin. When the warrior was finished, she walked over and settled next to her friend on the floor of the cave. They sat for several minutes, neither one speaking.

Finally, Gabrielle broke the stillness. "You kissed me," she said.

"I kissed you," Xena acknowledged.

"You love me."

"I love you."

"You love me . . . like that."

"I love you like that."

Gabrielle was silent for a moment, contemplating the enormity of the admission, and then continued. "You're going to kiss me again."

Their eyes met, and Xena slowly leaned in to touch her lips to Gabrielle's. The younger woman threw her arms around Xena's neck and pulled the warrior to her, enjoying the sensation of Xena's arms wrapped around her. After a moment, Xena lay on her back and drew Gabrielle on top of her, drawing out the kiss, circling her back with strong arms.

Long minutes later, Gabrielle felt Xena's hands at the back of her tunic. She froze, anticipation tempered with vague worries of inadequacy. "Isn't Hercules waiting for us?" she asked nervously.

"He can wait. There's no hurry now." Xena took a strand of gold hair between her fingers. "Gabrielle, if you don't want to do this--"

"I do!" Gabrielle was surprised at the vehemence of her own response. She looked down at her best friend lying beneath her, wanting her, and her fears dissolved. She brought Xena's hands back up to her tunic.

* * * * *

Hercules looked up as the two women walked into camp. He didn't need to ask what had delayed them; the look on Gabrielle's face was unmistakable.

Gabrielle stepped up to Argo and pulled her bag off the saddle to slide an empty waterskin inside. Hercules watched as the Warrior Princess joined her, reaching into the purse.

Xena turned to the woman gazing up at her. She brought Gabrielle's hand to her lips, then fastened a bracelet around the younger woman's wrist. They smiled at each other, and gently wound their fingers together.

END

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