The following "mature" story is based on the XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS sixth season’s "Send in The Clones." It picks up just before the episode’s conclusion, though it pretends "Clones" never aired.
GONE TODAY, HAIR TOMORROW
"You ladies waiting for a cab?!"
"Here, let me get the dirt off your back."
"Thanks. Hey, that burn on your arm looks kinda bad. Forget the leathers. Our skin needs tending more."
The cabbie waited a few moments, watching the two women across the road dust themselves off. Partly it was because he’d just wiped down the passenger seat and swept the carpet. Mostly it was because the revealingly clad duo was simply worth watching. He’d let the tall brunette tie him up and have her way with him anytime she pleased. He grinned, imagining the little blonde taking care of him afterward.
"Oy." He shook some sense back into his head. "I won’t make a dime if I keep this up." He leaned further out the window. "Ahoy there! Need a lift?!"
The tall one’s head whipped around, the initial anticipation on her face clouding into a wistful frown as she examined the man’s … ride.
"Hold up," she said to her companion. "I think that guy may be giving us a way out of here. I have no idea where we’re going, but it’s gotta be better than here."
The smaller woman followed the other’s gaze. The man smiled and waved. She did likewise. "Sure, he seems safe enough."
"You offering?!" the brunette yelled back.
The driver nodded vigorously, beckoning them to come over.
The women gave one more pass at the grime coating them. They strolled toward the road and cautiously inspected it in both directions before crossing. The tall one dropped to one knee and rested her hands on the door.
"Where you headed?"
"Same as where you are, probably," he responded, grinning. "West Side."
"Yeah, isn’t that where most of you actor types hang out?"
The blonde braced her elbows on the other woman’s shoulders. "Actor types?"
The man chuckled. "Who else would be wandering around dressed like that in broad daylight? Heh. Unless Halloween got changed to June, and somebody forgot to put it on the news."
The two women gave themselves a quick once-over.
"Sure," the blonde said, her eyes dancing. "We ‘actor types’ just love … hanging … around each other." She backed up to allow her friend to rise. They stood there, waiting.
"Oh. " He swung open his door and got out. "Allow me." He opened the passenger door, gallantly sweeping his pudgy arm toward the interior. The women exchanged glances, shrugged, then got in, the smaller one first. Humming, the man returned to his seat and carefully pulled off.
"Name’s Sal," their driver offered over his shoulder. He reached down without taking his eyes off the road. There was the sound of something creaking. "Here," he said, passing a black bottle behind him to his passengers. He reached down again and held up two glasses by their long stems. "I like to keep a little champagne on ice for special customers. You two look like you deserve a treat. On the house."
The brunette held the bottle up by its neck as if it were a prize discovered under her pillow from the tooth fairy. She glanced bemusedly at her companion, then popped the cork and sniffed it. "Huh," she said, curious. She tilted the bottle toward the blonde and poured some of the bubbly liquid in the proffered glasses.
The brunette smirked. "Fraidy cat." She took a sip and slowly swirled the liquid around in her mouth, head tipped back, eyes closed. "Interesting palette." Sucked in her cheeks. "Kinda tingly." Swallowed. "Goes down pretty smooth."
"Oh, for the love of …." Huffing impatiently, the blonde sampled the drink for herself.
"Meet your approval?" the cabbie asked, grinning into his rearview mirror.
"Well, I’m used to something with a bit more –"
"Yes," the blonde said, kicking her companion in the shin. "It’s very nice. Refreshingly light, unlike that rotgut some people –"
"It’s fine," the brunette interrupted, returning the kick. "Thanks. Hits the spot." She relaxed against the seat and stretched her arm out behind the blonde’s shoulders, nudging the smaller woman closer.
"Not bad, huh, considering we started the day as practically nothing, got fawned over, arrested, hunted, and escaped Alti’s clutches by nearly blowing up into nothing again." She lifted her glass toward her companion. "To us."
Sal smiled when he heard the glasses clink. "Ah, still got the touch," he murmured to himself with satisfaction. "Industrial shoot?" he asked the women.
"The assignment you were on. Lots of factories back there, so I figure somebody was maybe filming a commercial." He snorted good-naturedly. "Or, from the looks of you, a safety training video."
"Um, that sounds about right. By the way, I’m Gabrielle. My tall dark friend here is Xena."
"`Xena,’ huh?" Sal’s brow furrowed. He stroked his close-cropped beard, surprisingly dark beneath the shock of curly white hair. "That sounds …." He snorted disgustedly at the gears that refused to budge in his middle-aged brain. "Nice name. Different. ‘Gabrielle’s’ nice too. French?"
"Yeah. Your folks from there, or they just liked the name?"
"Um, Greece, actually."
Sal grinned up in his mirror. "Yeah? My old man’s side traces back there. What part?"
"Thrace. Xena’s from there too."
"Thrace? I’ve heard of it. Don’t know where it is exactly, but then I’ve never been overseas. Wow. I knew you two were okay. Amazing how many people I carry that I’ve got something in common with. You know, like that Kevin Bacon thing about degrees of separation?" He looked at his passengers expectantly. They looked back with vacant expressions.
"Bet Joxer could help us with that," Gabrielle whispered out the corner of her mouth.
"Don’t believe in that stuff, eh?" Sal chuckled. "It helps pass the time, if nothing else."
"Uh huh." Gabrielle had leaned forward and was studying the cheery round face framed up front with some numbers under it. "Sal? You wouldn’t happen to come from a line of merchants, would you?"
Xena scooted forward to inspect the picture. She glanced at Sal’s profile, then back at the picture. "Nah, couldn’t be. What did Alti say? Something like 2,000 years?"
Sal’s normal loquaciousness was on hold. Intrigued by his passengers’ sudden interest in him, he searched his mind for this promising new link.
"I’m only sure about Gramps. He did sail on merchant ships. Pop sold encyclopedias. I’ve dabbled in quite a few businesses myself. I own this cab, you know," he added proudly. "Well, me and the bank. Does that count?" he asked hopefully.
The two women inched back slowly, looking as if they’d seen a ghost.
"Not possible. I mean, come on, what’re the chances?" Xena regarded her companion, seeking confirmation, but not sure of what.
"Whoa!" Sal exclaimed, realizing where they were. "Some driver I am. What’s the address?"
"Hey, I’m pretty good at figuring out what part of town folks seem headed for, but not that good. It’ll be a right or left at Demeter Boulevard, for sure, but which way?"
"Xena, I don’t know what to tell you. It wouldn’t be any weirder than what’s already happened. We’ve gotta trust somebody at some point."
"Ladies? Right or left?"
"Sal, truth is, we’re not from around here."
"Oh, that’s good," Xena mumbled. "We’re a hair away from not even being ourselves."
A noise blaring behind them made Sal’s passengers jump.
"What the …?" Xena craned her neck to peer out the back window.
"Ladies, please! I’m too mellowed out for road rage over a traffic light. Which way, before that guy jumps out and tears my head off?"
"`Road rage,’ eh?" Xena snarled, clawing at anything on the door that promised release. "Well, I’m your girl. I’ll show him some road rage."
"Arghhh! How in Tartarus …. Sal, open this door before I rip it off!"
"Xena! Stop that!" Gabrielle draped herself over her companion, trying to pull the determined hands away from the door.
Sal glanced nervously in the mirror, then at the yellow light, and the struggling women suddenly found themselves flung back against their seats. When they’d righted themselves sufficiently to check the front window, they saw they were headed for a large open area with lots of big metal wagons like Sal’s. He pulled into a space between a couple of them and stopped. For a moment he didn’t move. He took a deep breath, then turned to stare questioningly at the two passengers who, up to a little while ago, had appeared sane.
Xena stewed silently, lips pursed in frustration at the aborted mission and her unaccustomed clumsiness in trying to implement it.
"Sal …." Gabrielle glanced disapprovingly at her companion. "I’m sorry you had to witness that display of warrior tantrum. You were right about us having a hard day. We owe you an –"
"I’ll take care of it," Xena piped up testily. "We can make it on our own from here, Sal. Sorry for all the trouble." She began searching her body for something. "Centaur crap. I can’t find anything …. Ah, maybe this’ll make amends," she said with relief, reaching down into her bosom. Her hand stilled. She looked up in chagrin at Gabrielle.
"It’s not there! Freakin’ know-it-alls. Forgot to give us the important stuff."
"Xena, what are you muttering about?"
"My breast dagger! It’s not there. It’s the only thing of value I’ve got … I thought I had on me."
Sal had turned to kneel against his seat, his mouth open, eyes shifting from one woman to the other. "`Breast’ dagger?" His forehead plopped down on the backrest. "I’m in purgatory," he moaned into the pleather surface. "Caught between heaven and hell. I knew I should’ve gone after that nun and told her she gave me a $20 bill, not $10."
"Sal?" Gabrielle patted the bald spot on his head. "It’s not your fault, believe me. Sal? You gonna be okay?"
Sal sighed. He shifted to the middle of the seat and rested his chin on his arms. "You’re not actors, are you."
Gabrielle sighed. "That remains to be seen." She glanced resignedly at her partner. "Xena, it’s worth a try. He’s due an explanation at least. What else do we have to give him?"
Sal looked expectantly at Xena.
Xena sighed. "Fine. You’re the bard. Be my guest."
"Sal, how much time do you have?"
"I’m my own boss. How much do I need?"
"You got 2,000 years?" Gabrielle chuckled at his startled response. "Just kidding. Sort of. Can we go someplace to talk? Maybe one of those markets where you can get …. What was that they called it, Xena?"
"Sugar and fat."
"Yes, sugar and fat. You should know, we don’t have any money, but we promise we’ll make it up to you somehow."
"Yeah?" Sal gave them a devilish grin. "You’ve got yourself a deal. Fat and sugar comin’ up."
Xena lounged with her feet crossed on the opposite bench, while her seatmate brought Sal – gasping, snorting and laughing -- up to speed. He’d first taken them to a drug store, once he realized they weren’t joking about their sundry wounds not being cosmetic. He’d gone in alone to purchase the items they needed, then sat bemusedly in the front seat of the cab, eyes averted, listening to the women curse and fumble at the unfamiliar tubes, plastics and adhesives.
They relaxed now in a booth at Disguise, the bar and grill Sal had recommended. "It’s off the beaten path," he’d explained. "Has sort of an … artsy … atmosphere you might find interesting. I doubt you’ll stand out in those get-ups."
"No kidding," Xena thought, absorbed in her study of the environment. The place was fairly dark, the double-doored entrance preventing even the early evening sun from coming in. Wheels of dim bulbs in the ceiling cast uneven shadows over the faux mahogany furnishings and paneled walls. Some 20 small tables centered the room, with rows of burgundy padded booths lining two sides, a bar in front, and a couple of pool tables and a juke box at the back on either side of the door. About the only adornments were a few neon liquor signs and several photos or posters of people dressed much like the clientele. But, then, the clientele were accessories in themselves.
Xena’s brow raised in wonder at a beefy man who breezed in wearing a flowing blond wig, pointy shoes with heels that looked liked spikes, his low-cut frock baring a massive growth of black moss. He perched on a barstool next to a slender person who, like the ultra feminine "Artifice" in the Miss Known World Beauty Contest, sported an Adam’s apple. The two seemed to represent the extremes of other males among the small pre-dinner crowd, with a scattering dressed in silky pantaloons, hosiery up to their necks and other attire foreign to Xena’s vast experience.
From what she could tell, she and Gabrielle were the only women in the place with their legs showing. A few wore voluminous gowns, but most had on breeches of some type or another – along with sideburns, toy weapons, heavy topcoats and/or boots. Some swaggered over to buy a fellow a drink or light whatever he was smoking. An especially small military-attired individual whispered in the beefy man’s ear, while running a hand up and down his thigh. Xena smirked. Now this was more like it.
"Did I cover everything?"
Something tugged at Xena’s arm. "Huh?" She continued observing two women who seemed to be preparing for a duel.
"Did I leave out anything important?"
"Um … I doubt it…. Gabrielle, look!" Xena dropped her feet to the floor, twisting for a better view. "They’re using swords! Maybe I should get in on some of that action. You know, to keep in shape."
Sal laughed. "Nah, they’re just playing. Some folks stay in character all night."
"Playing’s okay," Xena said, her body weaving slightly along with the duelists’ motions. "The bigger one looks like she really knows how to use that thing."
"Um, sorry to disappoint you, Xena, but that’s, um, probably a private party." Sal patted her arm. "See, it’s like a play. Those two only … play … together. It’s not really about the fighting, but the … playing. Understand?"
Xena glanced sideways at Sal, not ready yet to give up this chance to finally get some more exercise. "That’s silly. It’s not like this is some stage in Athens. Oooo," she exclaimed, as the taller woman deftly swept the other’s sword away. "So the swords aren’t real. They could still learn a thing or two." She sighed, slumping back dejectedly as the women embraced to scattered applause and headed for the bar.
"I get it!" Gabrielle leaned back with an expression of awe. "This is like theater, isn’t it?" She turned excitedly toward Sal. "People dress up for different roles. They come here to be those roles, and have a little fun, food and drink at the same time."
"Gabrielle, those folks are hardly actors. Two minutes sparing is just … two minutes sparring."
"You’re right. Most of `em aren’t professionals. Like Gabrielle says, they do it for the fun." Sal braced his arms on the table. "See, they can’t do that or dress like that at work – or anyplace else, for that matter," he added grinning. "Some wish they could live the way you see them. For others, it’s a break from reality or fulfilling a secret fantasy."
Sal pointed to a short, slight man in a blue skin-tight costume with a red cape and an "S" emblazoned on his chest. "Your average hen-pecked family guy, pushes paper for an insurance company. At Disguise, he’s a super hero who gets to deck ‘villains’ twice his size. It’s like a make-believe world. You can be anybody you want for a few hours."
Xena seemed perplexed. "But why? Who’s stoppin’ `em?" She snorted. "Nobody tells me what to do." She threw a look at Gabrielle. "Her either."
Sal laughed. "If even half of what Gabrielle says is true, you two are exceptions – probably in your own time too, I’d guess."
Xena considered this. "Maybe. But where we come from, it wouldn’t be unusual to see men with paint on their faces or women with spears, even in the village square. Heck, we’ve seen –"
"Xena. Think about it. Think about our world. If our world was Poteidaia or Amphipolis, what’s the chances of seeing that? Isn’t that one of the reasons we liked traveling?"
"Heh. Maybe one of the reasons you liked it. I had practical reasons."
"Oh, good, here comes your food." Sal sat back to let the waitress place what he’d ordered in front of his guests. "Some nice sturdy stout for you, Xena," he said, grinning at the warrior’s grin at seeing the big iced mug of brown liquid set down in front of her. He picked up a second mug. "I’ll join you. Doubt I’ll be doing much more driving today."
Gabrielle raised her glass of lemonade to clink with the mugs. "To all of us."
"To all of us."
Sal wiped his chin. "Dig in. I can’t wait to hear what you think."
The women eyed the huge buns of meat. Xena peeked under the top. "Lettuce, tomato, onion, mushrooms, salt pork, cheese – all cut up together. Certainly efficient, kinda like stew." She took a bite and chewed slowly. "Hmmm, not bad."
Gabrielle was examining the long, limp side item.
"That’s called a French fry." Sal frowned. "Not sure why. It’s a potato." He picked up a bottle of ketchup, pounding some out onto a few of Gabrielle’s fries. "Try some of this on `em. It’s tomato sauce."
"Don’t worry," Xena put in between bites. "She’ll eat most anything, no matter what’s on it."
"Very funny." Gabrielle tried a fry. "This is good." She sampled her burger. "This is too." Grinning at Sal, she added, "I hope you have some mint leaves. I can smell the onion already."
"Not to worry. We have perfume for just about every surface and orifice of the human body. Which reminds me, we’re gonna have to go shopping for you girls. But first, while you’re eating, I wanna make sure I’ve got this story straight."
The women nodded, munching.
"You’re from ancient Greece. You, Xena, are a warrior, formerly a juvenile delinquent who made it big, then decided to reform. You saved Gabrielle from slavery, and the two of you partnered up. You went all over your part of the world helping people, mainly `cause Xena felt guilty about her youthful indiscretions. Gabrielle, you weren’t sure what you wanted to do. You wrote some stories – ‘barding,’ you called it – and learned to fight from some Amazons and Xena.
"The two of you got in some weird battles with gods, demons, warlords, and such. One of your enemies was a woman named Alti. A witch. Somehow she came to this century. She got strands of your hair and brought you back from the dead."
"Um, more like brought us to life – not quite the originals but … duplicates. ‘Cloning,’ she called it."
"More like ‘clowning,’ if you ask me. With something called `science’ and magic pictures of stories about us."
Gabrielle snorted. "Supposedly based on my scrolls. Like they could ever do them justice."
"Anyway, you managed to … eliminate … Alti and get away, which is where I came in."
"Right." Xena’s lip curled. "Didya mention those crazy civilians who helped Alti?"
"We call them `fans.’" Sal chuckled. "Now I know why Xena’s name sounded familiar. There’s a TV show …. Um, `TV’ is short for `television.’ It lets people around the world see Gabrielle’s … um … the stories about your exploits." Sal grinned sheepishly. "I don’t watch much TV. Too busy making money. But I think I’ve heard my niece …. Hey! I’ve got an idea! Hold on a sec."
Sal’s guests watched him pull a little box off his belt. "Cell phone." He punched some numbers and put the box to his ear. "You can call other people. You know, like a drum." He held up his hand. "Message machine. She doesn’t get off work until – . Hi, honey, it’s Uncle Sal. Listen, have I got a surprise for you. Get over to Disguise post haste. It’s not about you selling anything for me, okay? You won’t regret it, I promise. Bye."
Sal relaxed back like he’d closed a big deal. "This is perfect. My niece can help with the shopping. Like I started to say, I’ve heard her mention this show she loves with a female hero. Sweet girl, my niece, but a little on the aggressive side. Big feminist."
"Yeah. Women who like to act tough and beat up on men."
"No kidding?" Xena punched Gabrielle on the arm. "Hear that? We’re feminists. I knew there was something better than ‘ball-bustin’, butt-kickin’ bitches.’"
Sal peered up at Xena, not sure whether she was serious or not. "Well, the ones nowadays have something against skirts. Heh. They’d probably kick you two out the club."
"Yeah?" Xena licked her fingers of the juice from her last bite. She belched, mainly to annoy Gabrielle. "Let `em try. The Battling Bard here would take care of `em with one finger."
Sal pondered that image. His eyes glazed. "Nuh uh, Sallie," he admonished himself. "Let it go. Focus on the present." He looked at his quizzically amused companions. "Bad habit – talking to myself." He scrunched his forehead. "That reminds me of something else. If you’re from ancient Greece, how come you talk like a native?"
The women stared at him, not comprehending.
"You traveled all over creation, right?"
Gabrielle nodded. "Literally."
"How did you communicate? You have some kind of Berlitz foreign language tapes back then? Maybe learn how to talk like us from those videos Alti played?"
"Um …. That never …. Xena? Did you ever think about that?"
"Nuh uh." Xena shrugged. "Just another one of my many skills, I guess." She looked at Gabrielle. "You didn’t have any problem with that either. Huh."
"Say something in Chin. Like, ‘I’m sitting here in this tavern, speaking Chin.’"
Xena tilted her head at Gabrielle, smiling indulgently. "I’m sitting here in this tavern, speaking Chin."
"I understood perfectly. What about you, Sal? Did that sound like Greek to you?"
Sal suddenly felt like someone transported to LaLa Land, who’d been so focused on the trees that he hadn’t noticed the magic forest. And yet, there were two nice – not to mention gorgeous – women sitting across from him, waiting for his answer as though everything were perfectly normal. He cleared his throat.
"Uh … no. It sounded just like I would’ve said, `I’m sitting here in this tavern, speaking chin.’ Whatever that … um … `skill’ you have is, it must work no matter where you are. Or when."
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged pleased grins.
"Glad that’s settled," Gabrielle said. "You had me going there for a moment."
"Uncle … Sal?"
The three looked up to see a rail-thin young woman with short brown hair spiked purple. She stood stock still by the booth, her mouth and gray eyes open so wide a harpy could fly through.
Sal’s previously perplexed expression morphed into profound relief. "Mav – I mean, Cyane!" he exclaimed, sliding off his bench to wrap the woman in a huge bear hug. "Am I glad to see you!"
"C-C-Cyane?" Now Gabrielle’s mouth was open. And Xena’s.
"Her given name is Mavis, but she insists on being called ‘Cyane.’ Honey, meet my new friends –"
"Lucy?!" Cyane gasped, incredulous. "And … and … Renee?!"
"No, honey. Thought you were such a big fan?"
"Oh … my … God." Cyane’s eyelashes fluttered.
"Here, come sit down before you fall down." Sal guided her onto the bench and nudged her nearly boneless body over until he had room to squeeze in beside her.
Cyane clutched her chest. "I love your show. Simply love it! You two are my most favorite actresses of all time. I could never afford a convention," she admitted apologetically. "So I never dreamed …. I can’t believe I’m sitting here …."
The women across from her appeared equally astonished. The blonde smiled tentatively and pushed a water glass toward the semi-hyperventilating Cyane. She nodded gratefully and took a sip.
"Whew. I am so sorry. What must you think of me? But Lucy and Renee at the same time? I mean, it’s just so …."
"Honey?" Sal grabbed his niece’s hand. "I thought for sure you’d know them. I don’t know who you’re confusing them with, but this is Xena and Gabrielle."
Cyane stared at him, then burst out laughing. "You have to excuse my uncle," she gulped between guffaws. "I told him he looks like the guy who plays Salmoneus, so I guess he thinks that makes him an expert on a show he’s never seen." She wiped her eyes and looked across the table, expecting the other women to be laughing as well. They weren’t.
The humor on Cyane’s face faded to confusion, followed by suspicion. She turned slowly, and a bit menacingly, toward Sal. "You didn’t. Tell me you are not involved in some publicity stunt and that these aren’t the two I heard about on the news, impersonating my most precious heroes." She glared at him, waiting.
Sal was torn between amusement and concern. "Of course not, honey. I didn’t even know who they were. That’s really –"
"Get up." Cyane started pushing on Sal. "Let me out of here. You see if I ever –"
"He’s telling the truth."
Instinctively, Cyane whipped around at the low, melodic voice she often imagined singing her to sleep.
"We know it’s hard to believe," the blonde said softly, putting a calming hand on Cyane’s arm, "but I’m really Gabrielle, and that’s really Xena."
"Honey? Give `em a chance, okay? Hear them out. It’s the strangest thing I’ve ever come across, but I believe them." He glanced at the two out the corner of his eye. "I think."
Cyane darted her eyes between the three. They all looked sincere. There was something commanding about the bigger one that brooked no doubt, a quiet confidence that she was real no matter what the circumstance. Cyane grudgingly inched back toward the wall, keeping a wary eye on "Xena and Gabrielle."
"Cyane? The girls have nothing but those scanty costumes on their backs. I’m gonna go talk to RT. He knows people. Maybe he can help them out." He started sliding slowly off the bench. "Stay here. Just listen. We could use your help. If you don’t believe them, you can walk away and never have to speak to me again."
Cyane studied her uncle. She searched for the tick that usually gave him away, but didn’t see it. His normally mischievous eyes were perfectly serious, his trademark self-effacing slumped shoulders squared with a proud resoluteness that she couldn’t recall ever seeing before. Sal had a big heart, but he was no fool. If these women were con artists, they’d duped one of the toughest marks around.
"Okay, Uncle Sal. For you." She turned her penetrating gaze onto the women across from her. "But if these two’ve been messin` with you, they’ll regret the day they were stupid enough to dream this up."
"Seein’ ain’t always believin’. I oughtta know, runnin’ a joint like this." Disguise’s owner tapped a pencil on his desk, trying to decide whether his childhood buddy Sal had inhaled too many gas fumes.
He surveyed the paraphernalia in his office: His own football trophies displayed side-by-side with ones the softball team Disguise sponsored had won in the Gay Pride Sports League. The family portraits – himself as a big teddy bear of a man posed with his petite wife and their four kids, next to photos of his father and mother, and more recent ones of his father in drag dancing with "Uncle" Todd. Of himself in the Navy uniform he’d expected to retire in, had he not punched an officer in the face for allowing the men to beat up on a "fag."
Sal followed RT’s gaze. "That’s true," Sal agreed, reading his friend’s mind. "Who’d have figured we’d end up like we did? When you inherited this place, I thought for sure you’d sell it." He smiled at his friend. "But you’ve always been your own man, never worried about what anybody else thought." Sal recalled the varied people RT had helped over the years, despite the big man’s gruff demeanor. "I’m just asking you to give these girls the benefit of the doubt, see?"
RT sighed. "You say Mavis is checkin’ `em out now?"
"Affirmative. And you know how picky she is."
RT heaved himself up. "Crap, Sal. I don’t know why I let you keep talkin’ me into anything after all these years." He glanced wryly around his office again. "Humph. Maybe I’m the one needin’ his head examined."
"Thata boy." Sal rose too, grinning. He slapped his friend on the back as they walked to the door. "When have I ever steered you wrong?"
RT scowled at him.
"Okay, besides the swampland in Florida. And buying that parachute company."
RT continued scowling.
"You’re not going way back to high school, are you? Come on, everybody makes a few youthful mistakes. Look how much wisdom we got from it."
"Yeah? Then how come you never learned when to shut up?"
"You mean, like now?" Sal opened the door for his friend.
"Now’d be a good start."
The two men passed through the hall that led from the bar to the restrooms, RT’s office and the stairs to the second floor. When they got to the main area, a piercing yell rocked both men back on their heels.
A tall woman in brown leather had just launched herself in the air. A couple of lazy flips later, she hung from one of the chandeliers long enough to throw a circular object toward the opposite wall. Ducking, the stunned patrons watched the disc ricochet off the juke box, slice through a poster above one of the booths, cut the wire to a bar sign, then return to the hand of the woman, as she flipped gracefully to land on her feet.
"Pretty good, even if she is a fake."
The two men waded into the crowd that had gathered around the acrobatic woman.
"That was fantastic!"
"In all my years here, I’ve never seen anything like it!"
"Who is it you’re supposed to be? Wonder Woman?"
"Out of the way!" RT forced his way through, with Sal in tow. "Go on. Buy some drinks. Shows ain’t completely free, ya know."
People parted at the familiar gruff voice, smiling despite RT’s attempt to look menacing. Finally he stood in front of the tall woman. She appeared perfectly relaxed, as though accustomed to commanding the center of attention. He gave her the once-over. She cocked her head at him, eyebrow raised, the corner of her mouth twitching.
"Yessss?" Somehow she managed to look RT in the eye without giving in to the five or so inches he had over her.
"Sal says you’re new in town."
"That maybe you could use a little help."
"On what it is and what we have to do to get it."
"Don’t say. Didn’t realize you were in a position to be choosy."
"Oh, I make it a habit to be in position. And I’m always choosy."
"Um, Xena?" Gabrielle had finally pushed through. She could see her partner’s competitive juices starting to flow.
"Um, RT?" Cyane knew that look. His competitive juices were starting to flow. She pulled on his arm. "Can we talk?"
RT didn’t budge or take his eyes off the tall woman. "Depends."
"On whether Wonder Woman here checked out or not."
Cyane blew out a breath of relief. "Yeah, she did. With … um … flying colors."
Sal threw his niece a pleasantly surprised look of pride. Everybody else chuckled. The onlookers withdrew to resume their previous activities. Sal, Cyane and Gabrielle headed for their booth.
"After you." RT gestured for the tall woman to precede him.
She stared at him a moment, then smirked. "Why is it I always have to take the lead?" she asked, turning in the direction of the others.
RT gave her backside an appreciative examination. "Better view?" he murmured to himself.
"And even better ears," she threw over her shoulder.
Everyone resumed their seats. RT snared a chair, placed it backwards at the end of the booth table, and dropped down. He looked expectantly at Cyane.
"Uh, RT, I’d like to introduce you to Xena and Gabrielle," she said, pointing to each woman in turn. "Uncle Sal fill you in on everything?"
RT slid a sideways look at Sal. "Your uncle’s always had a big imagination. I trust yours a little more."
"Well, this is one time the truth is even bigger. Did he say my friends here were cloned from hairs that date back to ancient Greece?"
RT nodded. "Plus, happen to have their very own TV show."
"Yep. I thought they were the actresses who play them, or look-alikes. I grilled them about certain details, but any fan would probably know the answers better than even the real deal. Lucy – that’s who played Xena – needed a stunt double and lots of special effects to pull off what you just saw." She looked apologetically at RT. "Sorry about the property damage. It was the only way I could think of for her to prove she’s Xena."
"So those news reports weren’t another attempt to boost ratings? You know, like when she supposedly fell off that horse on Leno’s show."
"Fell off a horse?!" Xena glared at Gabrielle. "You wrote I fell off a horse? When did I ever fall off a horse?"
"No, not you, Xena," Cyane hastened to explain. "The actress who plays you. It really happened. If it makes you feel better, she didn’t fall. The horse slipped and fell."
"All right then." Xena seemed placated.
"RT owns this place. He’s an old friend of mine. He might be able to help you with a place to stay." Sal sought confirmation from RT, who nodded. "And maybe give you a line on some kind of employment."
"Employment?!" Xena leaned forward. "We …own … our … selves," she enunciated emphatically. "We take care of ourselves. We go and do exactly as we please." She started sliding out of the booth. "See, told ya nothin’ comes free."
"Xena, wait!" Gabrielle grabbed her partner’s arm. "You saw what it was like trying to ride that horse on these surfaces, with those people and buildings and metal wagons spooking it. All the animals and gardens around here belong to somebody. I don’t want to live like outlaws, stealing what we need. Let’s hear what they have to say."
Scowling, the warrior stayed put, though her body language made it clear that her restraint had definite limits.
"Please," Gabrielle said to RT, continuing to hold onto her partner, "go on."
RT studied the two women skeptically. "Well, I was gonna say that I have a room upstairs that nobody’s using. Sal says Xena’s some kind of warrior. Now that I’ve seen her in action, I’ve got a couple of ideas for how she can work off the rent."
"I bet," Xena muttered sarcastically. "In a circus, no doubt."
"Xeenaa," Gabrielle warned.
"I was thinking along the lines of protection."
Xena’s interest piqued, despite her suspicions. "What kind of protection?"
"For starters, as the bouncer here at Disguise."
"It’s okay," Cyane quickly assured the prickly warrior. "That’s what we call someone who keeps the peace. Like a guard. You know how you made sure nothing happened to Helen and watched over King Lias’ castle?"
"Yeah, see Tim’s leaving for the service. I need somebody to replace him. We don’t usually have much trouble – maybe folks with a little too much to drink or rowdies who come cruisin’ by to see the ‘freak’ show. I could also use a little muscle for escorts and patrols. The cops don’t always come runnin’ when crime hits certain individuals."
"Cops? Are those like the police who arrested me and can’t control the violence Alti showed us in those moving pictures?"
RT smiled approvingly at Gabrielle. "You catch on fast. Now, you …. I hear you’re good with people." He glanced at Xena. "Which might not be sayin’ much."
Xena cut her eyes at him.
"Yes," Gabrielle confirmed, trying her best not to look smug, "I’m the ‘people person’ in this partnership. I can fight too, but I prefer reasoning, negotiating first. I may be rusty with my storytelling, but I wouldn’t mind giving that a try."
RT thought this over. "I could use you here as a hostess on the evening shift. People’ve been bugging me about letting them do little skits from time to time. Maybe you could give that a whirl."
"Oh, I’d love to!"
"And you could take Janine’s place at the children’s hospital. She’s our volunteer rep a few hours a week. If she reads stories like she explains the menu, she probably puts the kids to sleep. So, what do you think?"
"It sounds perfect! Xena, don’t you think that’ll work? At least until we can figure out what to do next?"
Everyone at the table focused on the taciturn warrior, who sat with her lips puckered.
"I’m not used to being shut up inside all day. Taking orders. Babysitting. I don’t think so."
"I know what you mean. I’m kinda like that myself. This ain’t what I had in mind for me either," RT acknowledged with a resigned sigh. "Look, we can work out the hours, so’s you two can have time to do whatever else you want. You can eat here free. I’ll deduct your room from the wages we agree on. We’ll let Cyane figure all that out, so you’ll know it’s fair."
Sal reached over and patted Xena’s hand. "RT’s a good guy, Xena. He’s offering you a great deal. Give it a few weeks. If you’re not happy, by then maybe you’ll have found some better arrangements."
"And I’ll come by to help you shop and learn your way around," Cyane added excitedly. "It’ll be fun, you’ll see."
Xena fiddled with a bracer, desperately seeking holes in what she admitted to herself were perfectly good arguments. Finally she slumped back against her seat and let out a deep breath. "`Bouncer.’ Another `b.’ Sure, why not?"
RT’s description of his "single occupancy rooms" sounded much like the inns Xena and Gabrielle were accustomed to – small, simple, the bare necessities. Five such rooms lined the hallway on the second floor. A sixth room offered a large tub and dressing area open to renters and any other patrons who wanted to use it. RT was vague about the occupants of the other rooms, except to say that their stays ranged from a few hours to a few months. Xena raised an eyebrow, while Gabrielle smiled and commented on how convenient that must be.
In reality, their room came as quite a surprise to RT’s pre-Mycenae guests. While certainly not equal to the size or sumptuousness of castles they’d stayed in, it offered luxuries even King Lias couldn’t have imagined. Xena had spent the first hour or so admiring the power of various buttons, switches, knobs, and handles to make light, heat, cold, water, music, or moving pictures like Alti’s. Even more impressive, they had another of those closet-like places where you could relieve yourself without scouring around for suitable bushes and leaves.
Gabrielle was particularly pleased by the small icebox where she stored the fruit, snacks and boxes of juice and milk RT had brought them. She couldn’t wait to try out the tiny oven that supposedly cooked or warmed food in the blink of an eye. In addition to a couple of chairs – one a rocker – and a chest, there was a small desk with flat sheets of "paper" for writing and fancy quills with their own ink. Most importantly, the generous bed promised comfortable sleep for both her and her oversized companion.
Gabrielle sat in the middle of the bed examining various personal items RT had asked Mavis ("He’s the only one allowed to call me that," Cyane informed her new friends with a resigned sigh) to pick up. Some – like brushes, combs or soap – hadn’t changed much over the centuries. Others had fascinating labels that proclaimed in elaborate detail how their use would bring Elysian freshness to teeth, breath, hair, feet, or underarms. Gabrielle had never before so appreciated her newly realized skill for reading in any language.
The "hmmm?" that came back was muffled, as Xena had removed the lid to the toilet tank and had her face pressed nearly inside examining how the thing worked.
"You should see some of this stuff." Gabrielle held by its string a little tube-like object in a white wrapper. "The instructions seem clear enough, at least if I ‘get’ the pictures right. But I’m thinking I’ll let you try some of them first," she said, snickering, "seeing as how you have so much more experience with certain body parts than I."
‘Yeah, sure," Xena replied absently. She lay under the washbowl now, running her hands over the plumbing. "Wow. You could last through a siege forever with equipment like this. Wonder who controls the water supply?"
"You should at least try on these clothes." Gabrielle stretched out some breeches that belonged to Cyane’s brother and sister. She measured the longer pair with her hands, figuring they’d do all right for Xena. She pulled on the other pair. "Mine fit fine."
"Mmmhmm, that’s good…. Yeow! Ouch, ouch, ouch!"
"Xena? You okay?"
"Yeah, I’m fine," Xena said, shaking her hand. "You gotta be careful adjusting the water in this bathing stall. Whew! It gets really hot." She turned it off and sauntered into the main room.
"Isn’t this exciting? I know you’ve been just about everywhere, but have you ever seen anything this incredible?"
"Not since that time I went into the future to stop Ares." Xena picked up the TV remote, pointed it at the blank screen and pushed the "power" button per RT’s demonstration. A woman appeared, going on in a singsong voice about whatever she was stirring in a big pot. Xena kept pushing buttons until she saw two huge men with long hair mauling each other in a wrestling ring. Grinning, she inched backward until she felt the rocking chair behind her and sat down.
Gabrielle stared at her companion wryly. "Well, at least you’ve found something to occupy yourself." Receiving no response, she gathered up the items on the bed and put them away. She went over to the desk and studied the writing implement. Gingerly, she grasped it and moved its tip in slow swirls across a sheet of the lined yellow paper. "Amazing." She sat down and pulled the chain on a desktop fixture that she now knew was a vehicle for the mysterious light they could summon at will.
"Goodness." Gabrielle yawned and stretched, surprised to see so many sheets of paper with her familiar handwriting covering them. Suddenly she realized how dark it was, save for the light coming from her desk and the screen still riveting Xena’s attention.
"Xena? Xena, I think it’s time we turned in."
"I knew it," Xena muttered ominously. "When they showed us those pictures of all the mayhem going on, said they needed a ‘hero’ to combat it, I had a bad feeling."
"What are you saying?" Gabrielle got up and moved to crouch beside her partner.
"We thought there was a lot of blood and guts in our world." Xena snorted. "You should see what goes on in this one. Some of what I watched is play-acting, like we saw on stage in Athens. But they have these shows they call ‘news,’ that’s about what’s happening for real. The violence is everywhere – in people’s homes, their streets, places all over the map."
Xena turned in her chair to put a hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder. "Their gods, even ones we thought were peaceable …. People everywhere are killing each other in the names of gods I’ve never heard of. It’s not just about which is most powerful. They’re fighting over anything from territory and `Greek fire’ to what clothes you oughtta wear."
"And Eli?" Gabrielle asked fearfully. "You heard nothing of him or his followers?"
Xena’s chin dropped. "I’m sorry, Gabrielle," she answered, squeezing her companion’s shoulder. "It’s as if …. If his spirit is here, it’s been overshadowed by another one." Her jaw tightened. "And I think we both know who that might be."
"No," Gabrielle gasped. "Ares wasn’t like that in the end."
"You forget, I saw him in a time not so different from this. He couldn’t wait to get behind a new crop of warlords he’d found out about. They must’ve freed him from that tomb I sealed him in."
"But you could always sense him." Gabrielle frowned, searching for a reason Xena must be wrong this time. "Why hasn’t he shown himself to you?"
"I do sense him. I’ve sensed him all along. I wanted to be wrong. I don’t know what game he’s playing, but this" – she pointed at the TV – "is certainly his handiwork." Xena looked off into the distance.
"The Olympians were toast, being replaced right and left by other deities. Think about it. What better way to consolidate his power, than to hide behind other gods he can use for his purposes? Maybe he doesn’t get the glory in his name, but war is war. That’s who he is. That’s what gives him immortality, no matter how he softens up, what the reason is or what it’s called."
The two remained silent, lost in the flickering images that seemed to capture their past, just as it portended a present that might not be that different after all.
Xena suddenly leaned forward, her head cocked toward her partner. "You said, ‘Ares wasn’t like that in the end.’ The end of what?"
"I meant …." Gabrielle’s brow furrowed. "I meant … the last time we saw him. You know, with Aphrodite, when he got his godhood back."
"What’s the last thing you remember after that?"
"Um…." Gabrielle stared at the TV screen. "Around my last birthday. Remember? You gave me that scroll from Sappho. We used Hermes’ helmet to fly around for a while, before we returned it …. Huh," she said, looking at Xena, "that’s odd, isn’t it?"
"It’d be odder, if it wasn’t the same for me."
Curious now, Gabrielle replayed her conversations with the "fans." "I seem to recall something the one called ‘Dr. Polly’ said, about Alti getting the hairs in some Tomb of the Scrolls. I meant to ask her more about it, but forgot when they started showing those pictures."
"Tomb of the Scrolls? If they meant where Ares was trapped, we blew that up. Besides, it would’ve been our descendants’ hair, not ours. And where’d Alti get my real chakram – the new one – from?"
"So …. Our memories only go up to when Xena and Gabrielle lost those hairs? Obviously they were probably together and in the same place. Who would’ve collected the hairs, and for gods’ sake, why?"
"Heh. Maybe they had ‘fans’ then too. Maybe Minya was stalking us … them … all those years."
"Were they maybe buried together? With the scrolls and chakram?" Gabrielle gasped, realizing what this meant. "Xena, we won’t know what happened to us … to them … to either them or us!"
"Kind of ironic," Xena concluded. "All that concern about blotting out my … Xena’s … past, and now it’s the future we were supposed to have that’s blank."
"None of that hit me before." Gabrielle shook her head slowly from side to side. "Xena," she asked softly, "what’re we gonna do?"
Xena sighed. "I don’t know." She chuckled darkly. "We missed all those reincarnations we found out about in India. Heh. Maybe the ‘real’ Gabrielle and Xena are somewhere having a grand ol’ time in a traveling carnival, with no cares in the world. Or dead. Who’s to say how this ‘cloning’ thing works – what span or kind of life you can get from a strand of hair?"
Gabrielle let herself drop to the floor, head slightly bowed. "Are you saying you wish we weren’t … that Alti hadn’t …."
"Oh, no. Not at all." Xena lifted Gabrielle’s chin. "I don’t want to waste this chance. I don’t want Ares or anything else to mess things up like before." She slumped back in her chair. "It’s like we’ve got a clean slate. A chance to make our own future. I don’t know if I want us to go through being heroes again," she admitted quietly. "Why can’t we just be ordinary folks for a change?"
Relieved, Gabrielle patted Xena’s hand. "I understand, partner. Believe me." After a moment, she pulled herself up using Xena’s chair. "But you know what? We don’t have to decide that tonight. In fact," she added, grinning devilishly, "there’s only one question I think is worth answering right now." She ran to leap on the bed. "Which of us can jump higher?"
Xena turned to stare at the bouncing bard. She got up. "Do I hear a challenge, Shortie?" she growled, stalking in that direction.
"If you think you’re woman enough, Too Tall." Gabrielle ceased jumping and held up her hand in warning. "But first, you gotta promise not to break these lovely springs."
Gabrielle and Xena spent the next day getting acquainted with Disguise and their respective duties. Cyane dropped by later to facilitate the negotiations between her new friends and RT. True to her reputation for thoroughness, she also interviewed the two women about everything from clothing preferences to interests, making lists that would guide them on their expedition to various malls that weekend. Cyane’s approach gave Xena hope that maybe shopping wouldn’t be the pain in the butt she’d feared, while Gabrielle looked forward to hitting a range of exciting venues.
By 4:00 on Saturday, Cyane’s Subaru brimmed with packages. Xena wore one of the five pairs of jeans and countless t-shirts she’d acquired ("very versatile and comfortable," she said approvingly), along with a pair of black cowboy boots that lured her like a Siren’s song. She’d even found a bracelet and earrings in silver studded with amethyst stones at a crafts shop. A couple of long dresses, some Western shirts and jacket, sandals, athletic gear, and a canvas backpack satisfied her idea of the major items she’d need short term. Gabrielle purchased similar merchandise, except in greater quantities, styles and colors. She’d kept on a pair of shorts and a halter top (green, naturally) for the day.
Cyane’s orientation to modern life included instruction on how to find the best bargains. She explained the finer points of outlet, discount and second-hand stores. Pleased with all they had accomplished so far, she’d pronounced that her trainees were ready to enjoy the tradition of rewarding one’s self for a good day shopping. She took them to a spa, where Gabrielle gleefully luxuriated in a mineral bath, followed by a manicure and pedicure. Xena got a massage. ("Not quite up to Egyptian standards, but it took out the kinks.")
On their way to grab a bite to eat ("You need to know some alternatives to the grease Disguise serves," Cyane warned), they’d passed a bookstore – Gabrielle’s Siren song, once Cyane described what lay inside. Gabrielle emerged with sightseeing guides, a pocket dictionary, a translation of Sappho’s poetry, and some popular magazines. Xena picked up a couple of "how to" manuals, a compendium of maps, some history books, and periodicals on weapons and cars.
"I’m still not sure how that little money card works," Gabrielle said, preparing to dive into the salad at the "health food" restaurant Cyane had recommended. "How can you remember what you spent? Do Xena and I need to get a card to pay you back?"
Cyane ducked her head. "Um, that was RT’s card. He said this was your ‘starter’ money." She reached in her pocket and pulled out a wad of receipts. "See these little pieces of paper? They show how much you spent. Later on, the card company will send a bill with the total amount."
Xena looked up from the pile of spinach on her plate. "We pay our own way. Give Gabrielle those papers, so we can keep track of what we owe RT."
"Xena …." Cyane frowned, trying to find the words to explain the monetary system. "See, you two don’t have what we call a ‘credit history’ or a ‘checking account.’ You have no identification. You’ll need something like that to get a money card. Until then, you’ll have to use cash – those dollars and coins. The small advance RT gave you will cover your necessities, but it’s not enough for the kind of shopping we did today. I’ll help you work that out with him, okay?"
"Tonight. We start working it out tonight. I’ve had enough debt in my lifetime, thank you very much."
Gabrielle snickered. "Xena, I don’t think this is the same –"
"Oooo, ‘The Debt’ was one of my favorite eps!" Cyane sighed deeply. "Lao Ma was exquisite, simply exquisite. The colors, the music, the pageantry. Xena’s vulnerability. Gabrielle’s poignant self-disgust." She looked at them in admiration. "I think that was some of your finest work."
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged quizzical glances.
"Oh." Cyane put her hand over her chest, grinning in embarrassment. "Um, I mean Lucy and Renee’s best work. The actresses. I keep forgetting …."
"That we’re just the characters they played?" Gabrielle finished, smiling good-naturedly.
Cyane laughed. "Yeah, something like that."
"We’ll have to see some of those pictures," Gabrielle decided, "so we’ll know what you’re talking about when you mention what we’ve done."
Cyane leaned forward. "Did what you see – you know, when you were with Alti – was it true? I mean, like, did you really know gods and fight demons and die and come back to life all those times?"
Xena regarded Cyane thoughtfully. "What was the last thing you saw happen to us?"
"You mean on TV?"
"Yeah. Seems our memories only go up to when those hairs fell out or whatever."
"What?!" Cyane gasped. "You mean, you don’t know …. Wow, I never thought of that."
Gabrielle snorted. "Neither did we."
"Well, one of the most interesting final eps was a few months ago. It was called, ‘You Are There.’" Cyane got a gleam in her eye. "You know, the one where you start to reveal your true relationship and –"
"Our ‘true’ relationship?"
Cyane looked at them uncertainly. "Um, see, the show hinted and skirted around it. We were left to guess whether you were good buds or … you know … more than that."
Xena cocked her head at Gabrielle. "I thought those scrolls were about our adventures. My ‘heroic’ quest to make up for my past."
"Um …." Gabrielle scratched her nose. "They were. Cyane, what’re you talking about?"
"Awwww, man!" Cyane slumped back in disgust. "Don’t tell me you’re gonna pull that same crap."
"Crap? What crap?"
Cyane snorted. "That ‘are we or aren’t we, it’s our business what we do off-screen’ crap."
"Hey! Our private lives are our private lives. What’s the big deal about what we did?"
"Are you saying nobody in your time ever wondered? The two of you just traipsed around like two peas in a pod, with all your male suitors dying or fading away, and nobody batted an eye?"
"Well, I’m sure people were curious," Gabrielle acknowledged.
"But not suicidal enough to get in my face with it."
"That reporter did. You were about to give it up, until they chickened out with that fake blackout."
"Reporter?" Gabrielle looked perplexed.
"Valhalla," Cyane gritted out with a touch of annoyance. "That guy who reported about Xena’s fight with Odin, when she got the golden apples and restored Ares and Aphrodite. Are you saying that didn’t happen?"
"Well, yes, but there wasn’t any ‘reporter’ guy there. I certainly didn’t write that."
"So, you’re saying you don’t know what happened to us either?"
"You mean after ‘Many Happy Returns’? Last we saw of you, you were flying off into the sunset with Hermes’ helmet. The producers talked about maybe going another season or having a movie to continue the story, but we’re not holdin’ our breath." Cyane snorted again. "Like they were gonna ‘out’ you anyway. Riiiight."
"`Out’ sounds fine to me." Xena glanced sideways at Gabrielle. "Better than being ‘in’ that domestic bliss some people saw us havin’ with the Amazons."
"Xena, we couldn’t spend all our lives roaming around the countryside. We had to settle down some time, some place."
"Heh. Yeah, well, that was ‘in’ the wrong time, wrong place."
"Hey! Do you two mind?!" Cyane pointed at herself. "Big fan here, needing answers to her biggest questions, from the only people who know the low down!"
Gabrielle and Xena stared at Cyane, understanding only too well what it meant to feel weird in what was supposed to be your own skin.
"Cyane? Please excuse us," Gabrielle finally said. "We’re at a disadvantage here. You have pictures of us that we don’t know about. Let us take a look at them. Then we’ll be able to say more about what really happened and what somebody made up, okay?"
"I guess so." Cyane’s expression resembled that of a child who’d been tricked into eating lima beans before the desert she really wanted. "It’s just …. This isn’t turning out like I expected."
Gabrielle patted her hand. "If it makes you feel any better, we’re right there with you."
Xena sat at the desk, thumbing through her magazines. Gabrielle ejected a tape from the VCR RT had hooked up for them. She had just watched "One Against An Army" in her quick review so far of selected episodes from the "Xena: Warrior Princess" show, compliments of Cyane.
"No wonder Cyane had questions," Gabrielle mumbled to herself, stunned.
Xena glanced up, semi-listening. A few minutes into the premier episode, she’d walked away, muttering something about the present being more interesting than watching old paint drip. She’d peeked at the screen periodically when she heard swords clashing or the whoosh of her chakram, but otherwise found the whole exercise either ludicrous or boring.
"Now what? They got me leaping across an ocean again?"
"No," Gabrielle said quietly, still staring at the screen. "Something I didn’t realize was in there." Her grip tightened on the video box in her hand. "It must’ve come through anyway."
Something in the subdued voice caught Xena’s attention. She let the magazine rest in her lap. "What did you see?"
Gabrielle hesitated a moment. "Love," she answered, smiling ruefully to herself, unaware of her companion’s scrutiny.
"And that surprised you?"
"Not exactly." Gabrielle turned around to gaze fondly at her friend. "I wrote of two women who cared deeply about each other, who became each other’s family." She looked down at the video cover. "But what I saw was … more than that."
Xena grinned uncertainly. "They take more liberties with your scrolls?"
"They didn’t add anything, if that’s what you mean." Gabrielle snorted softly. "At least, not from my perspective." She looked up and smiled. "Nothing to worry about," she said, getting up and stacking the video boxes. "It’s a bardly thing. I’ve just never had my words … played back to me before like that. Fascinating."
"`Your’ words?" Xena paused until Gabrielle turned around. "Weren’t they supposed to be mine too?"
Gabrielle’s cheeks reddened. "I … sometimes used my imagination, maybe took a little poetic license."
"It must’ve been based on something."
Gabrielle eased down to the floor. She sat cross-legged facing Xena, imagining earth beneath her, the desk lamp like a campfire illuminating the shadowed planes of Xena’s face. "I liked to think so, but sometimes believing is seeing. The line gets blurred for us bards."
Xena switched off the lamp. "Or maybe it’s clearer than for us warriors."
"You think so? You think maybe it’s based on more than imagination?"
Xena tilted her head. "I think maybe that’s what makes a bard good."
Gabrielle smiled. "I’ll take that under advisement." She uncurled, stood and stretched. "Think I’d like a bath tonight. TV watching is more tiring than it looks."
Xena sat silently as her friend got out a sleeping gown, robe and toiletries.
"Want anything from downstairs?"
"No, thanks. I hope whatever you’re getting doesn’t have too many crumbs."
Gabrielle chuckled, then headed out for the bathing chamber down the hall.
Once alone, Xena strode quickly to the TV. She examined the videos and selected the one on top, which Gabrielle had viewed last, and popped it into the VCR. She pressed the "rewind" button. She hit "play" when she saw the part where she was bringing an injured Gabrielle in to the old sentry post near Tripolis in preparation for fighting the Syrian army.
Gabrielle returned to find Xena in bed. She walked quietly to the desk and sat down to finish off her milk and cookies, flipping through one of Xena’s magazines with a wry smile. A little while later, she eased under the covers, surprised to feel long arms pulling her close.
"I need to work on my timing," Xena murmured above the head on her chest. "When I thought there was little time, I feared losing the friendship we had. When I thought we had all the time in the world, I took having … more … for granted. Maybe I can make the line clearer this time."
Gabrielle swallowed, her eyes brimming. She squeezed Xena’s arm. "Maybe we can both improve on that."
The next few weeks found the two Greek women engrossed in adapting to their new life. When they weren’t working vigorously to earn their keep, they immersed themselves in their study of contemporary ways and means. They often seemed like two ships passing in the night, flopping tiredly on the bed for a few comments about their day or simply drifting to sleep with a barely murmured "g’night."
Gabrielle’s four nights hostessing had quickly expanded to include a range of other activities. The patrons loved her openness and friendly wit. She soon knew the regulars by name. They revealed to her the scenarios they’d like to act out for their allotted 10 minutes of Disguise fame. Within a week, she’d had RT remove one of the seldom-used pool tables to create a small staging area, and drawn up a schedule of Friday and Saturday night performance slots. Business swelled with friends or club parties drawn by the amateur but always entertaining skits.
Long unhappy with Janine’s mathematical and other non-serving skills, RT had enlisted Gabrielle’s help with the accounting and other aspects of his business. He taught her the basics of using a computer, marveling at how, with some tutoring from Cyane, Gabrielle soon showed him features he’d never bothered to check out. Next thing he knew, he’d ordered a DSL line so that his blond assistant could search for, receive and send out information so fast it made his head spin. Not only did he find himself freer to get away more, but his fishing buddies gazed at him with new respect when he told them about his website and showed them attractively designed flyers about Disguise activities.
Xena’s duties expanded right along with – often because of – Gabrielle’s innovations. At first, the warrior had paced restlessly next to the door, praying for trouble at the low-key, usually quiet establishment. But with increased traffic had come increased trouble. Some audience members decided the little skits were a form of competition, so sometimes got into fisticuffs over their favorite performers. Curiosity seekers were tolerated, but Xena had to distinguish the ugly ones from those genuinely interested in a respectful good time. She also got to be outside more, protecting the clientele from unfriendlies who’d gotten wind of the place from local newspaper mentions of "little hideaways you can’t miss for a ‘different’ kind of experience."
Soon the tall raven-haired "bouncer" became somewhat of a draw herself. Those in the know had learned better than to underestimate the quiet, slender beauty who could usually keep peace with a flicker of her penetrating blue eyes. Those stupid enough to challenge her discovered she could take their breath in multiple ways. ("I don’t know what hit me," lamented a former troublemaker, "but I got dumped outside, barely able to move till she did something to my neck.")
RT’s escorts and patrol now looked to Xena as their leader. At her direction, they set up lookout posts, a communication system and procedures for spotting and handling crime in the area. In the first – and last – major incidents since her arrival, a gang would drive up to someone, drag him into their car, then leave him beaten with epithets painted on his body. The authorities scoffed at such distractions from their focus on more important matters like terrorism. A few days later, four men were discovered trussed up on the steps of the courthouse, along with neatly bagged bloody brass knuckles, a videotape and hate literature. Each man had rouge on his face and a sign around his neck – "I’m a real man. Kiss me."
RT had called Xena in to show her a news story with the headline, "VIGILANTES SOUGHT IN MYSTERIOUS CAPTURE. Police Stymied by ‘Veil of Silence.’"
"The law’s probably a little stricter about things like that now than in your day," he’d said, one brow raised at Xena. "Still, can’t help but admire this kind of work."
"Hmm, you’re probably right. Good thing you don’t know anything about it," Xena had responded, one brow raised at RT. "I’ll tell our crew to be careful, just in case. Wouldn’t want to taint Disguise with anything like that."
The two had chatted awhile. In a moment of bonding, Xena admitted that she missed her horse Argo. A couple days later, RT took her out back and pointed to a large black and silver vehicle on two wheels.
"It’s a motorcycle. Old Harley I never got around to fixin’ like I meant. It’s not gold like your horse, but it’s fast and gives you a similar feelin’. If you want, we can work on it, so’s you’ll have a way to get around."
Xena stood there, unaccountably attracted to the gleaming machine. "Yeah, I’d like that."
RT towed the renovated cycle to a country road, where Xena practiced maneuvering it.
"Ya can’t be runnin’ anybody over yet – not until we can buy … um, get you the papers to make ridin’ it legal."
"I won’t," Xena’d said, hugging the big man. "I’ll pretend it’s this mule Gabrielle bought once – ornery as a bee and slow as honey."
"Xena, look!" Gabrielle nearly skipped across the floor to the desk where Xena sat clipping articles on turmoil local and abroad. "It’s a portable computer," she reported excitedly, pushing Xena’s pile of snippings aside and gingerly setting down a large flat black box. "It’s called a laptop, because you can use it just about anywhere."
Xena pursed her lips at this encroachment into their shared territory, but grudgingly moved aside. "What’s it do?"
"What can’t it do?!" Gabrielle enthused. "I’ll show you." She stuck wires into a couple of holes in the wall, as Xena vacated the desk chair and dragged the rocker over to sit in. Soon, music played and some images appeared on the inside lid of the laptop.
"It plays music and pictures? Half the other things in here can do that."
"No, silly. I mean, yes, that too, but it lets you create things, keep records, add up tons of numbers – oh, so much I can’t even cover it all, and so fast!" Gabrielle pulled up one of her archived stories and demonstrated how you could add and delete.
"Great," Xena grunted. "I’ll keep that in mind the next time my muse hits me." She returned her attention to more important matters – trying to figure out whether or where Ares was hiding in this world.
"Xena, wait!" Gabrielle huffed in exasperation. "I haven’t even shown you the best part." She hit some keys. Xena frowned at the sound of something squealing.
"It’s dialing up the internet," Gabrielle explained. "In seconds, I can write to people all over the world. Cyane showed me how to get information on anything you name. See this?"
Reluctantly, Xena peered at the little screen. "What the …?!" she gasped.
"Yes! It’s you and me. There are hundreds of places like this – with our pictures, little bits about my stories, stuff on every aspect of our lives. I even got on what they call ‘discussion lists’ and ‘chat rooms,’ where all they talk about is us!"
Gabrielle opened a desk drawer and pulled out a stack of paper. "See this?" she asked, waving the sheets in front of Xena’s nose. "This is one of countless stories about us that I didn’t write. Some even imagine us in modern times like now. You wouldn’t believe what a lot of `em have us doing …."
"Doing …?" Xena twirled her hand in a "finish the sentence, wouldya" manner.
"Um, in bed."
"Uh huh. And in forests. Streams. Caves. On mountains and every hill and dale."
Xena stared at her, dumbfounded. "What is it with these people? Is that all they think about?" She pondered that a moment. "Am I …." She cleared her throat. "Are we any good?"
Gabrielle laughed. "I’ll say. Remember when we were in Aphrodite’s temple and I asked if some of those positions were possible? Well, according to these stories, you were right."
"Gods." Xena shook her head. "How nice you’re getting such an education. That laptop seems good and all, but I prefer something more active."
"What kind of active?" Gabrielle’s fingers poised above the keyboard.
"Active,’ Gabrielle. Ya got running, riding, swimming, climbing, hand-to-hand, honing your body. I don’t need that thing to tell me what it is."
"`Active’ as in individual, group, competitive, instructional? Cold weather, warm? ‘Extreme’ endurance, athletic, fitness? Martial arts, weapons? Want to buy something? Go somewhere that specializes?"
Xena scooted warily over to peer at the results of what Gabrielle had just asked the laptop. She watched a little arrow point to a word. Suddenly pictures of a room appeared, with people in white tunics tossing each other around.
"A martial arts academy about a mile from here. There’s clubs all over the city where people share the same interest. Wanna try?" Gabrielle turned the laptop more towards Xena.
Xena sighed as though she’d been asked if she wanted another stint in Gurkhan’s dungeon, but in truth was quite intrigued. She leaned closer.
"See this little box? Use these keys to type in the word you want – like ‘running.’" Xena did as instructed. "Now use this little button to direct the arrow – that’s it – to ‘Go.’ Now, press here."
Xena watched a multitude of lines appear. "All this is about running? How’m I supposed to find anything in that pile of words?"
Gabrielle showed Xena how to refine her search to a specific topic or place. She sat back and watched as Xena tried different word combinations and clicked on sample responses. Quietly, she moved away, smiling at the now absorbed warrior. She was preparing her clothes for the next day when Xena let out a howl of glee.
"Find something interesting?"
"Not yet, but I’ve got lots of possibilities."
"Oh? What’d you type in?"
Xena laughed evilly. "Ares."
"Xena, it’s been over two months. Cyane’s friends are dying to meet us, and I can’t think of any more excuses to put them off. We can do it down here, so they won’t disturb your precious shrine to Ares."
"Laugh if you want, but it’s important research." Xena reached across the booth table and snared a few of Gabrielle’s fries. "I’ve got good leads to several possible warlords scattered all over the globe. Once I figure out which news source to believe, I might be able to identify who’s most likely to be Ares’ protégé."
"And then what?" Gabrielle took a sip of Xena’s soft drink. "We hop on one of those flying machines and take the warlord’s army out with your homemade sword, rusty chakram and my Dollar Store sais? What happened to us being ordinary folks for a change?"
"I didn’t say anything about all that. I just have to know for sure, okay? Besides, it’s not like that’s all I do. I’ve got my self-defense students two days a week, my own martial arts classes, training new escorts and patrol members, investigating neighborhood crime, plus extra hours guarding this place because ‘someone’ made it so popular."
"And where do I fit in, huh? What about time to do things with me? About the only occasions I see you is when you’re working, taking me somewhere on your new Argo or snoring."
"Oh, no you don’t. Who’s the one going to school on her off-hours? Who’s always got her nose stuck in schedules, ledgers and computer screens? I’m not the one who’s so busy with fan clubs that she spends more hours talking about a certain Warrior Princess than talking to her."
The two women glowered at each other across the chasm of half-eaten food, note pads, day-timers, and assorted reference material. Their eyes widened as they simultaneously recalled an echo chamber reverberating with, "It’s your fault! No, it’s your fault!" – the imagined sound only slightly less painful than when it had assailed their ears in the Land of Illusia.
"Gods," Gabrielle breathed softly.
"Yeah," Xena agreed, exhaling like she’d just climbed 40 flights of stairs. "Can’t blame Ares for this mess, huh?"
"No, we did it to ourselves." Gabrielle chuckled ruefully. "All our newfangled time-savers, yet somehow we managed better when we had a host of Olympians, half of Greece and a good portion of the rest of the world on our plates."
Xena swiped her hand across the table, clearing a space free of modern clutter. She lay her open hand in the middle. "So, when you want to invite your groupies over?"
"Oh, Xena, really?" Gabrielle lay her palm on Xena’s.
"Yeah. It’s not like Greece, heaven or the universe is hanging in the balance."
"True. How `bout we both cut class tomorrow? I promise not to let things drag on for more than an hour or two, okay?"
"I don’t have to put on my battle dress or anything, do I?"
Gabrielle laughed. "Not unless you plan to ‘Kill `em all!’"
As scheduled, the two sat the next day surrounded by women nicknamed Solari, Ephiny, M’Lila, Naima, Lao Ma. And Callisto. ("She was a strong female character too," Cyane explained defensively. Xena held her tongue.)
Introductions over, the guests stared wordlessly at the flesh and blood versions of their revered icons. Gabrielle broke the strained silence with complimentary comments about what Cyane had told them of the women’s charitable activities and treasure-trove of information about their favorite heroes.
"You’re bigger than Lucy," Solari finally observed. "Even without the breastplates."
"And a little more butch than her portrayal," Callisto added.
"But you’re the spitting image of Gabrielle." M’Lila studied the blond specimen more closely. "Not quite as buff as ROC, though. More like early Gabrielle."
Soon the guests were posing – and answering – questions about everything from whether Xena was suicidal in "Sins of the Past," to how often Gabrielle’s sports bra or hair color changed. Every now and then, they’d get tickled about some scene they recalled. They included the two silent honorees in the "high fives" and shoulder slaps like they were one of the girls.
"You’re like one of the girls," Lao Ma confirmed. "Lucy and Renee are down to earth too, but their handlers don’t like them getting too close to us." She grinned lasciviously. "I’d give up my mother for a chance to get next to Xena."
"She’s okay, if you like them tough and aloof." Ephiny shrugged. "But Gabrielle, now she’s a cutie."
Xena leaned sideways. "Do you get the impression we don’t quite measure up to our characters or the actresses who play them?" she whispered to Gabrielle.
Gabrielle observed the animated gesticulations of their guests. "We wanted to be regular folks," she whispered back, not that anyone was paying attention to them anyway. "Guess we got our wish."
"That old argument?" Solari was saying. "What difference does it make what any of `em said?" She waggled her finger at M’Lila. "We know the truth."
"Absolutely," agreed Ephiny. "I don’t understand how anybody could deny it, certainly not after ‘Doctor in the House.’"
Callisto snorted. "Pul-leeze. I keep telling you the sizzle was there the first time they made eye contact in ‘Sins.’"
"I’m with you, Cally." Cyane shot a sideways glance at her two new friends. "Privacy or no privacy, I don’t see why –"
Gabrielle grabbed the sai she’d brought ("just in case") and rapped it against a glass. "Um, everyone?" She waited until she had her guests’ reluctant attention. "It’s been a pleasure, but we have to get back to work."
"Awww, so soon?" Naima groaned. "I was so enjoying this. We get tired of talking to the same old people all the time."
"Can we do this again, maybe next month?"
"We’ll be with you in spirit," Xena answered quickly. "Perhaps at your next meeting, you could stick our pictures on a couple of chairs and pretend it’s us," she added helpfully.
Gabrielle winced at the women’s expressions. "Um, Xena means that you’re doing a wonderful job without us. She’s been so terribly busy. I’ll drop by every now and then, so I can keep her current on what you’re doing."
"What about the dance?" Ephiny looked accusingly at Cyane. "You did remember to invite them, didn’t you?"
"Um, see, I was waiting – "
"Of course she did," Gabrielle assured them, cutting her eyes at Cyane. "She just wasn’t sure about all the details."
"It’s next Saturday, right here at Disguise. From 7:00 until midnight." Solari ticked off various activities. "We’ll have a wonderful DJ, door prizes, Salsa lessons, and a Xena and Gabrielle look-alike contest. These two have an excellent chance at winning that, don’t you think, girls?"
The girls nodded, though a couple had their doubts. They pushed back their chairs and bid their farewells.
"I think Lucy’s prettier," Callisto muttered as they headed out.
"Shush! They’ll hear you," Naima cautioned.
"What? You think the clone actually hears as well as `our’ Xena?"
Xena and Gabrielle stared at the closed door, then at each other.
"Talk about scary," Xena said, hitting a cupped hand against her ear.
"I know." Gabrielle furrowed her brow in mock concentration. "I wonder which is worse – thinking the character is better than you or that the actress who plays you is better looking."
"Hmmm, seems there might be something even more horrifying." Xena snickered. "I could look like `early’ Gabrielle."
"Well." Xena stared at "The End" as though the letters formed "The Beginning" instead. "So that’s `fanfic.`" She shook her head of images guaranteed to stir the blood of someone who’d been a "love free zone" far too long. "Least I know what I’m up against." She smoothed the pages flat, careful not to disturb the corners Gabrielle had folded down, then slid them back into the desk drawer.
She was alone, having begged off Cyane’s offer to take her and Gabrielle to find outfits for the party. She’d said she figured she’d wear her black jeans, shirt and boots. "Oooo," Cyane had responded, shivering, "that is soooo `uber.’" Xena wasn’t sure what that meant, but it sounded like a compliment, or at least not disapproval of her choice. She had second thoughts now, though, suspecting that those fanfic bards had a better handle on what made her appealing.
She got up and went to the closet, examining her wardrobe with a critical eye. Finally, she selected a few things and packed them in a shopping bag. She stopped by the desk on her way out. "Had some errands to run," she wrote on the lined pad. "Won’t be long. Meet me at the party."
About a half hour later, Gabrielle entered their room, surprised to find it unoccupied. She read Xena’s note, now surprised to find herself pleased at this time alone. She put her shopping bags down and went to sit at the desk. She retrieved one of her favorite fan stories, skimming the pages she’d marked. She nodded, smiling at her decision, humming as she went to get what she’d need for her bath.
Xena returned through the bar’s back door. She went to RT’s office. He’d been more than happy to let her use his private restroom to wash up and change. She took her time, even when she began to hear muffled voices and music. She focused on her mission, summoning the resolve that habitually vanquished doubt, stoking the fire in her veins that had made her thrill to the call of battle so many times before. She dressed purposefully, pulled herself up to her full height, head held high.
She opened the door and strode down the hall, standing in the shadows a moment to survey the main room. Her eyes widened. Except for a handful of men, the place teemed with women. Women representing all shapes, sizes, colors, ages, and attire. Dancing, snuggling, flirting, laughing as though they hadn’t a care in the world.
Despite numerous attractive and splendidly costumed specimens, one stood out. A small blonde in midriff-baring reddish-brown velvety leather. Her athletic grace suggested she knew how to use the weapons adorning the sides of her boots. She projected confidence and maturity, yet radiated the honest, joyful openness of a young girl. She reminded Xena of someone she’d met at a pivotal point in her life. Someone with conviction far beyond her years, but who was certainly not a child now. Time seemed to still, like Xena’s heart, as the image of an old friend merged with that of the woman across the room. Xena had never seen anyone so beautiful.
Gabrielle tried not to be rude to the women chatting with her, but she felt a presence that demanded her attention. When she turned toward it, her knees grew weak. Everyone else vanished, save for a tall raven-haired woman in a short brown leather skirt. Her taut legs went on forever. You could lose yourself in her cleavage. No Greek statue bore more exquisitely chiseled features. Yet the steel at her back and in those eyes left no doubt that this woman was not about being simply magnificent. Gabrielle’s mind traveled back to another time, when such a woman appeared at a critical moment in her life. A warrior who exuded the same power and courage. Gabrielle loved her as a sister and best friend. She was reminded now of why the warrior had come to mean so much more.
RT and Sal were lounging at the bar, allowing themselves the luxury of admiring what they couldn’t have, when Cyane joined them. She nudged them and pointed first to one side of the room, then to the other. Spellbound, they shifted their gaze between two magnetic women who wore the aura of another time and place, who seemed drawn inexorably to each other by some force that could be felt if not seen. A path opened among the suddenly subdued patrons. Most sensed they were about to witness something both magical and real, destined for that moment yet mythic in its origins and duration.
"Hi," Xena greeted Gabrielle when they met in the middle of the room.
"Not quite what I expected."
"Me neither. Cyane left out a few details about this little party."
"Um, yeah." Xena glanced around, noting several pairs of suddenly averted eyes. "I feel like we’ve been transported back to Amazonia," she said, chuckling. "Not that I mind this time." Her gaze rested on the woman a few inches in front of her. "But I meant …." She pointed her chin at Gabrielle.
"Oh." Gabrielle blushed. "I wanted to surprise you."
Xena grinned. "Me too. You look … great."
"You’re not so bad yourself. Love the new outfit." Gabrielle grinned mischievously. "Didn’t I see that in Vogue?"
Xena looked at her blankly. "Um, don’t know. It’s the same one Alti got from somewhere. Oh, almost forgot." Xena reached into her bosom. Smiling shyly, she held out a small paper-wrapped item.
"For me?" Gabrielle tore off the wrapping. "Oh, Xena. It’s that brooch from the specialty store Cyane took us to." She rotated it so the light caught the multi-colored stones.
"You said it reminded you of rainbows in Greece." Xena helped pin it on Gabrielle’s top.
Gabrielle stared in wonder at the woman who listened just when you least expected. "I love it. But …. I didn’t get anything for you." She remembered her packages upstairs. "Well, you won’t be the one wearing it," she amended under her breath.
"I told you. You are a gift to me." Xena noted the quiet in the room. "Um, we seem to be the main attraction, Miss Activity Director. Got any ideas?"
Gabrielle looked around until she caught Cyane’s eyes. She motioned with her hands and a raised eyebrow, as if to say, "Come on. Let’s get some action going here."
Cyane nodded. She gestured to the DJ. The frenetic music that had been playing was replaced by a popular ballad. Couples turned their attention to each other and pressed their bodies close to move slowly with the sensuous rhythm.
"Whew. Much better than flapping around like those crazy Amazons. Care ta dance?"
"Dance?" Gabrielle couldn’t remember them doing that before. She liked the idea. Very much. She stepped into Xena’s arms in response. They didn’t move much, mostly swayed to the music like everyone else.
"Mmm, this is nice."
"Yeah, it is. Sorta like cuddling in bed, `cept on our feet."
"Xena?" Gabrielle murmured into the warrior’s chest. "I’m thinking we should get our own place. I saw one advertised not far from here, in our budget."
Xena rested her head against Gabrielle’s. "You do, huh? Kinda like settling … `in?’"
"Would you be okay with that? Having our own place while we figure out what we’re gonna do?"
Xena pursed her lips. "It’s like home here. Mountains, forests, the ocean. We could take long rides on my bike, go camping. Plenty of ways to be ‘out’ when the spirit hits us. Sure, why not."
"I’m glad." Gabrielle sighed contentedly. "We’re gonna be okay. You’ll obsess about Ares and fighting crime. I’ll obsess about ways to bring folks together. And we’ll still have each other, like always."
"Speaking of which …." Xena stopped moving. She lifted Gabrielle’s chin. "You know that timing thing we talked about improving on? Your `bard sense’ tellin’ ya anything about that right now?"
Gabrielle’s eyes gleamed. "Why, yes, as a matter of fact. It’s saying we should go upstairs and … study … it further."
"Excellent. My `warrior sense’ must be on the same" – Xena cleared her throat – "wavelength." She smugly anticipated Gabrielle’s eyebrows hike. "Term I picked up from your buddy the computer. Means our minds must be cloning each other."
They broke apart, Xena nudging Gabrielle to lead the way.
"Perhaps we could consider throwing page 11 into our … discussion."
Gabrielle halted abruptly, nearly causing Xena to collide. She turned to see her insufferable companion smirking. "What’d you say?"
"Keep moving, while nobody’s paying attention."
Gabrielle reluctantly resumed their course to the back stairs. "Have you been sneaking into my fanfic stash?" she threw over her shoulder. "All you had to do was ask."
"What’s the fun in that? You might not’ve shown me the parts where we get to do the impossible."
Gabrielle hesitated before proceeding up. "Why, I oughtta …," she growled.
"Save it for later." Xena rested a hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder as they ascended the stairs. "Now that we’re on our own time, you can do whatever you want." She chuckled seductively. "Even page 18."
Cyane waited until the two had turned the corner. She climbed up to stand atop the bar, waving her hands until she had everyone’s attention. She put a finger to her lips, before silently pumping her fist in the air. The room exploded in pumped fists and a quietly hissed, "Yessss!"
"Well, you called it," RT congratulated Cyane. "I had my doubts after that conversation you had with `em."
"Nah, I was used to the `soulmates however you define it’ routine. All they needed was a little push."
"And maybe some distance." Sal laughed. "They sure got that, in spades."
"Not to mention my tapes so they could see it for themselves, some suggestive fanfic and the right setting."
"You come up with the idea for `em to wear their old warrior outfits?"
"Nope. I had more in the line of Victoria’s Secret in mind. They did that on their own. Bless their little hearts, it worked."
RT slapped his jaw. "Crap! I forgot about the video camera in their room. Some nuts like ta see themselves, Lord knows why."
"What?" Sal gasped. "You mean it’s on?"
"Got an automatic timer. Starts when there’s enough action for the bed to bump a button on the wall. Stops if ain’t nothin’ happenin’ for five minutes. Neat, huh?"
"RT, of all the hare-brained …." Sal pounded his fist on the bar. "Accidents happen, you know. That tape could fall into the wrong hands." He hopped off his stool. "I’ve gotta warn them," he huffed, heading for the stairs.
RT raised his shot glass, studied it, then took a sip. "Ahhh," he sighed appreciatively, propping his elbows on the bar and surveying the crowd of merry women.
Cyane rolled her tongue in her cheek. "There’s no camera in their room, is there."
"Nope." RT whistled softly at a statuesque redhead.
"Probably none in any room."
"RT, you know how much they like their privacy. Xena might break Uncle Sal in two – first for disturbing them, then for thinking he made up the video thing."
"Sorry, Mavis, but I’ve waited a long time for this moment. See, your Uncle’s gotten me in a lot of trouble over the years. One time in particular, I thought we wouldn’t make it out of our teens in one piece."
"What? You got in trouble for stealing? Joy riding?"
"No. `Cause Sal got too nosey with the wrong people, at the wrong time, in the wrong place."
"Too nosey?!" Cyane snorted. "I must be a chip off the old block, then." She mimicked RT’s smugly relaxed posture. "I’ve been waiting a long time for this moment myself." She grabbed her bottle of beer and held it aloft. "To Xena and Gabrielle."
RT clinked his glass against the bottle. "To Xena and Gabrielle."
A little while later, Sal came barreling around the corner. "RT, you’re dead meat!"
RT glanced at his friend. "I see you ain’t."
"Not for your lack of trying," Sal groused. He plopped heavily on a barstool. "I don’t believe you set me up like that. We searched every cranny for that supposed camera. I’m lucky they were such good sports about it."
"Yeah? What’d they say?" Cyane asked, her curiosity piqued.
"They said it wouldn’t matter anyway. That what they didn’t do was on tape, so what they did do might as well be too."
"They did?! Bwahahahaha! Oh, do I wish that Nigel guy from `You Are There’ was here. Bet he’d have a camera planted."
Sal and RT exchanged looks, then shrugged. They rarely understood Cyane half the time anyway.
"Hmm, but does this count, though?" Cyane wondered aloud to herself. "I mean, they’re clones. Who knows what the real ones did?" She looked off into the distance. "Or might be doing this very minute."
"Mavis, how many beers you had tonight? Who cares if they’re clones? They’re happy, doin’ what you always wanted. Ain’t that enough?"
After a quick briefing from Cyane, the three argued about the possible "canon" of Clonedom vs. the television Xenaverse vs. Fanfic Land vs. the "real" world. Meanwhile, the two women upstairs were taking a more experiential approach to the subject.
"Whew! I’m exhausted already."
"Me too. I’ll have to double my miles to keep in shape for this." Xena grabbed a glass of water from the nightstand. She took a long swallow, then handed the glass to Gabrielle. "Hmmm, must’ve been a little dehydrated. I’m feeling better now."
"Yeah?" Gabrielle drained the glass. "Me too. Got enough steam left for page 20?"
Xena leaned over the edge of the bed to scan through the sheets of paper on the floor. "Um, sure. No problem."
"Okay, but with one teensy revision. I get to be the warrior this time."
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