DISCLAIMER: See part one.
Chapter Three: The First Day
"I hate it; I hate it; I hate it. I always did and I always will. Tell me again why I don't change the Queen's dress code."
"Well," Xena answered, dropping her voice a few registers to sound like a Gao'uld, "there's always tradition. And then, if you don't change it, animals will be hurt only every other century or so. Your people just love to see you like this and your wife can't wait to get you out of it."
"You always know what to say to cheer me up, don't you?"
"I had a lot of time to find out, my Queen. And I still can't wait to help you get out of it."
"You can help but that's as far as we will go. You will have to take care of our guests and I will take the General and his team for a tour. And there still is the inconvenience of you "
" being on probation. I forgot, mistress. Do you know what I hate most when I have to be punished?"
"That you are not the only one to suffer, my love, but it can't be helped. It's not the first time and it won't be the last. Don't worry about it. Go and get yourself in your uniform. They want regalia and decorum, and they'll get it. Though I doubt General Hammond knew what he bargained for."
When SG-1, the research team, their guards, and General Hammond with his diplomatic staff stepped through the event horizon they were greeted by a sight as different as one can get to the day before. Where there had been nothing but a cushion of green grass, there now was a mass of people standing head to head, only in the last few rows towards the back human faces were visible. Everyone else was wearing strange masks, ranging from bird heads to large predators but most of them looked as if they came right out of the minds of fantasy film creators.
The Stargate Team had been briefed on what to expect, but they still were overwhelmed by the multitude and sheer magnificence of what they were seeing. And even Colonel O'Neill who usually prided himself on not being easily intimidated, couldn't help the thought that he wouldn't want such fierce looking warriors anywhere but on his own side in a battle.
After just standing there for more than only a couple of minutes, General Hammond finally found his voice.
"Greetings to you, proud members of the Amazon Nation. We come to you from far away to share your wisdom and learn your ways. We come with respect and an open mind. We come sharing a common past, a present enemy, and hopefully a future united by trust, friendship, and more. I am George Hammond, General of the United States Air Force."
To say that the Amazons were surprised at his words would have been an understatement. It was as if someone had read their old scrolls and adapted them to today's occasion. But Gabrielle had more than enough experience to deal with the unexpected, so she quickly stepped forward as if the exchange of formalities had been rehearsed beforehand and answered.
"I am Gabrielle, High Queen of the Amazon Nation, Artemis' Chosen, Queen of Gaia. Greetings to you General Hammond, and to your people. Hail to you from Gaia. You are welcome to share our food, our lodgings, and our knowledge." Gabrielle took a few steps forward and finally pushed her owl's mask on top of her head. All of her people followed suite. "Now let us meet and mingle to celebrate the union of two halves that never should have been parted."
An almost imperceptible nod started some flutes and low-key drums, helping to diffuse the tension between the two groups. "General Hammond, thank you very much for making this easier for us by your inspired words."
"It's not I you'll have to thank. I found them on my desk this morning and when I saw you all they seemed appropriate. Thank Major Carter. It was her handwriting though she didn't sign it."
"Thank you for telling us, General. Would you please follow me to the table to your right? There's a treaty to sign. It's short and sweet, leaving a lot of manoeuvring space for both of us. Please take your time to read it. I'm sure Major Carter will relish the opportunity to introduce me to the rest of her team. Meanwhile, my consort will try to answer all of your questions."
Xena's eyes followed her, her foul look quickly turning into adoration and desire. Not a good time to be aroused, she cautioned herself.
One of the General's aides was reading the treaty draft Gabrielle had sketched out last night and the General was asking questions, just like the Queen had warned Xena he would. However, she hadn't expected some of them being this personal.
"How many Queens did the Amazons have before Queen Gabrielle?"
A simple enough question, Xena thought. "The origins of Amazon history are lost; even we don't have more to go on than legends and myths. We don't have any scrolls or artefacts telling us about it but there must have been countless generation before my Queen took the mask, General Hammond."
"Is this the only world where one would be liable to find Amazons?"
"No, General, sir. There are a few others; some of them having decided to forego modern technology as a whole; some of them living it at its fullest while still caring for the protection of the environment."
"Where are they?"
Xena's smile this time didn't reach her eyes. "I'm sorry, General Hammond. Even if you already would have signed the treaty, I wouldn't be at liberty to tell you. They're on other planets and we are honour-bound to protect them. I hope we can be allies and still have one or two secrets."
There was a curt nod of acknowledgement and a long, uncomfortable period of silence but finally the next question came around a blind corner. "Doctor Jackson mentioned in his report that you were not born an Amazon. Where did you come from?"
Telling the truth was out of question, Xena knew, but she also didn't know how to frame her answer. So, she was extremely grateful when O'Neill passed by, asking the General if there were any problems with the treaty; thus giving her enough time to think of something plausible and not too far from the truth. Finally, she decided to be as honest as possible without however, telling him too much.
"Please don't be offended if I don't answer the question. But there's one thing you should know: I was well on the way to lose my soul to hatred and darkness when Queen Gabrielle saved me. She rescued my heart and my soul. -- I would be grateful if we could change topic. It still hurts to remember that time, General."
She could feel the tension settling between her shoulder blades and immediately after felt the comforting touch of Gabrielle's hand drawing tiny circles at the small of her back.
"We all have some dark corners in our lives." He answered with a sympathetic smile and then turned his attention to the newly arrived Queen. "Queen Gabrielle, should we get this ball rolling?"
"It would be my pleasure, General." They signed the treaty and Xena was dragged along for another round of socialising.
Even when she still was a rampaging warlord on the way to conquer all of Greece, she had hated crowds. They made her uncomfortable and on the edge. Some things never change; so Xena as soon as possible found herself a quiet corner, far away from the centre of attention. It was a strategic hiding space, close enough to join in the action or bolt away from it whatever was necessary. She was enjoying the quiet and calm, when suddenly someone slightly shorter than herself, with a more delicate bone structure but evenly developed muscles, slid in next to her.
"Samantha Carter, you should enjoy yourself instead of hiding and missing all the fun."
"Why do I think that this is the pot calling the kettle black, your highness?" Samantha Carter answered with the hint of bantering in her voice. Then she added, "I hate crowds. I never understood the need to mingle and exchange meaningless social niceties. Not talking at all is better then talking without saying anything."
"There's that, and then there are the smells." Xena answered.
"Too many people, too close together. Living in a dormitory at boarding school was pure hell, except for the winter season when my nose was too stuffed to smell anything. Though, looking at it now, some of our past missions make this appear like some sort of heavenly perfume."
The tall blonde who still only came to Xena's nose answered, casting a longing glance to the forest behind them.
"I don't consider dress uniforms particularly suited for tree walking, Samantha Carter, as much fun as it would be." The dark haired woman said with a smile of her own.
"The secret to being a good soldier is to always be prepared." The younger woman said and before Xena could answer Samantha pulled her hip hugging skirt up to her waist, revealing black spandex shorts. An instant later she had exchanged her formal heels against soft sport slippers from her bag. "Ready to go, your highness?"
There was a sad smile appearing on Xena's face. "I'd really love to but not today. I have to get back to my duties but I promise you a longer outing the day after tomorrow." Easily reading the disappointment on the blonde's face she continued. "I have to get back to the Queen but you don't have to miss out on the fun, Samantha Carter."
Xena whistled and a heartbeat later Aria dropped out of a tree to the right of them. "Aria, Major Carter wants to take a walk through the treetops. See to it that she doesn't risk her health and teach her what she needs to know. She's a natural but she only had her first practice run yesterday. One candlemark tops."
"Yes, your highness. I'll do my best to keep her safe."
Xena acknowledged the young woman's words with a nod and then headed towards the crowd to find her wife who probably was in the midst of charming every single official of Stargate Command.
"Please follow me, Major Carter."
The other two headed a few paces further into the woods and Aria taught the newcomer how to use a tree rope, also know as a tree whip. She got it with the second try and this was considerably faster than any apprentice of her class ever did, including herself. Aria was becoming intrigued. In her mind's eye she already had seen the stranger staggering clumsily through the trees after being hauled up here by force. A few candledrops later, she was convinced that the Consort had been kidding her. This couldn't be only the second time the other woman had done something like this; it simply was impossible.
So when they took a small break to decide on where to go next she asked. "Are you sure that yesterday was the first time you did something like this, Major Carter?"
"Yes. Why? Do I do something wrong?"
"No, you're doing great. The General was right, you're a natural."
"Sorry, Consort Xena. She doesn't like to be called 'General' though she is the head of our armies. She says it brings back too many shadows of her past, so we only do it behind her back. Of course she knows about it but I still would be grateful if you didn't mention it to her."
"I won't Aria, isn't is?" The younger woman nodded. "I think she would look good at the head of an army, sitting a top a proud war horse, riding in front of her men, her hair flying in the wind, her war cry alone chilling her enemies to the deepest level of their souls."
'Now, where did this image suddenly come from?' Samantha asked herself. She didn't know but she was sure that for some reason she shouldn't dwell on it.
"Let's get going again." Without waiting for a reply she started off in a new direction.
Aria had her work cut out with trying to keep up with the longer legs of her charge, who made up for her lack of experience with agility and an incredible sense of balance. One could almost feel the joy it gave her. And then she suddenly stopped, a slender but firm arm steadying her guide when she also tried to come to a halt.
"Why the day after tomorrow?"
"Pardon?" Aria panted.
"Xe Consort Xena, she said we could go tree walking the day after tomorrow. Why then, why not this evening or tomorrow morning? Why not now? I saw it in her eyes. I know she wanted to." Samantha said almost to herself, never expecting an answer.
In retrospect, Aria didn't know why she answered what she did; perhaps it were the familiar blue eyes, commanding blue eyes, she was used not to question. "The Consort is on probation, Major Carter."
"On probation? That sounds like she did something wrong." Samantha said incredulously.
"No one stands above the law, Major. She was punished for what happened with your commanding officer. The next two days she is supposed to only do her duty and to retire to her room in her free time to think about her transgressions. Only after that she will be forgiven."
The other woman was still looking at her as if she just had birthed a two-headed Centaur, so she continued talking.
"Usually, probation time is spent doing some manual labour, something the penitent doesn't like to do. It's different for everyone but one is supposed to do it with the same amount of dedication we usually put in our chosen professions. However, this was an unofficial punishment; that's why she is not relieved of her normal duties but she still has to adhere to the rules."
"Does this happen often? And when it's unofficial, how do you know about it?"
"Only the oldest among the elders can remember the Consort being officially punished, so, no, it's a rare occurrence. And for your other question, that's more difficult to answer. Unofficial only means that it will not be marked down in her personal record, it doesn't mean that no one knows about it. In this case the Consort honoured me with making me a witness to her punishment. But everyone else also knows. They saw it in the way she and the High Queen came to Athena's Ring. Usually the Consort is walking one step behind her Majesty, today it were three. It indicates that at the moment she is not allowed the intimacy of the Queen's touch. Unofficial punishments happen every once in a while, I was told."
Taking the first part of the answer as some sort of saying, Samantha concentrated on the second part and her mind focused on one particular part. "You witnessed her punishment? I , I don't understand. You surely are not talking about some kind of beating or something?"
"Perhaps you should ask her about our laws yourself." Aria tried to get out of this increasingly uncomfortable questioning.
"Yes. Perhaps I should, but I want some answers now and I want them from you." The blonde snarled in an uncharacteristic show of temper. "And didn't she say that you too were to be punished?"
Definitively the same eyes, the Amazon apprentice thought. She sighed and began to recount yesterday evening's events as best as she remembered. She ended. "I can see that you're not comfortable with the concept of physical punishment, but it's worked for our Nation since the time we started writing down our history and that's almost five thousand years ago."
Samantha's mind snapped back to the time when she was in the headmistress' office, bending over the back of a heavy leather chair and being caned for something she didn't even do. She felt the same shame and humiliation she then had experienced; and she simply couldn't imagine the proud, intimidating woman she was just getting to know in a far more humiliating position.
The expression in her eyes now had changed to something between pain, puzzlement, and indignation. So once again Aria decided to continue talking. "This morning the Consort told me that you and your team mates know about my past, about where I come from. Please, let me finish. It will help you to understand. I'll have to cut this short but it's important that you understand.
"I grew up with the conviction that all women and girls are good for is birthing sons and serving as a punching bag for men. I grew up with daily beatings and humiliations. The Queen and the Consort got me out of there and offered me a chance at a new life, but I needed a long time before I was able to stand up for myself and learned to see myself as an equal to these strong women, this great Nation. I'm still haunted by the shadows of my past from time to time."
The blond woman's expression now showed sympathy and understanding, not the pity she had come to expect.
"When I learned that the Amazons often rely on physical punishment I was afraid that it would be as it always has been in my old tribe. But the first time I earned myself a punishment, nothing could have been farther from the truth. It's not about humiliation and it's not merely physical. It means that you accept responsibility for your actions and acknowledge in front of the Nation or one of your superiors that you were wrong and will try to do better next time. That's also what the probation period is for: to better understand your actions. It's hard to explain but it's almost like a spiritual cleansing."
"What about the children?"
"Children?" Aria took some time to understand the underlying meaning of Samantha's question, but then "Oh no, physical punishment is for adults only. No Amazon ever would raise a hand against one of our children. No one would even think of doing this.
Besides, no one is forced to undergo physical punishment. There are other options like community service, wearing restraints for some time, spending time in the purification hut, and other things like that. Most of us choose the physical punishment because it's fast and over with quickly. It may sound strange but Amazon justice reinforces our sense of community."
"Not even the Queen stands above the law. I think I understand, but I still have a lot to think about. Thank you for telling me, Aria. Perhaps we should head back. If two of your candlemarks are close to two of our hours we even have to hurry to be back in time. We've been up there for more than an hour now."
"Thank you for reminding me, Major Carter. And if you ever have questions you don't know whom to ask, I'll gladly try and give you the answers, even if it should go against our laws."
Samantha surprised herself with her words. "I gratefully accept your offer, Aria, and then I'll be in your debt. I only ask that should it be against your laws you tell me before answering, to give me the chance to reconsider my question."
"I will, Samantha Carter."
They had almost reached the clearing when a series of birdcalls echoed through the woods. Aria immediately stopped and this time Samantha had difficulties to keep her balance. "What is it?"
"Just a friendly warning. Your comrades are searching for you, for quite some time now. Some of them are worried. The signals said that we should go down at the other side of the clearing but at least a stone's throw from the edge of the forest and that we should try to get you cleaned up."
Samantha only looked down to her feet, taking in her rumpled dress uniform, laughed and took off towards the other side.
"Will you now stop worrying, Janet Fraiser?" A low voice asked from behind and above her left ear.
"It looks like flying. No wonder, she was so enthusiastic when telling me about it. Why didn't they see us? We were practically on top of them." The small, brown eyed doctor asked while holding on to the branch with both hands and desperately trying not to look down. Thankfully aware of the firm grip the Queen's Consort had around her waist.
"I didn't want them to see us. To be the Amazons' commanding officer also means I have to be always one step ahead of the best of them and Aria has the potential to one day be among the best of the best. And for my reasons, let's simply say that Doctor Carter is not ready to know that she had had an audience. Close your eyes and I'll get us down. We'll be back with the others at about the same time your missing team leader will."
Doctor Janet Fraiser, M.D., Major of the United States Air Force, Chief Medical Officer of one of the best guarded secrets of the world, obediently closed her eyes. She heard a slight rustling of leaves, air rushing around her and shortly after, without experiencing even a jolt she was gently set back to the ground. She had to tilt her head almost all the way back to look into the Consort's eyes, twinkling with a mischievous blue she only knew from a handful of private moments with someone else.
To get her mind back to reality she said, "Thank you, your highness." The tall woman just raised an eyebrow, in a suggestive way that would have made a certain Jaffa warrior envious. "Thank you for indulging my irrational worries."
"It is never irrational to worry about someone we care for and it was my pleasure, Janet Fraiser. You were very brave up there, despite your fear of heights."
"I knew that you would keep me safe, your highness." She answered without thinking, immediately after asking herself what the hell had got into her. She tried to regain her composure. "I think you read my file at the SGC computers?"
"There is that, and the fact that the moment you began looking for Doctor Carter you eyed the tree tops with the expression of someone about to do battle with one of her most notorious enemies."
Janet laughed but quickly found her sobriety. "Why are you so sure that she would have been disturbed by an audience?"
"Doctor Carter is a very private woman. She keeps up the pretence that she is nothing more than some sort of calculating machine, without fears, without emotions, without weaknesses, the perfect soldier. She has forged a certain image of herself, an image she knows how everyone will react to. You, Janet Fraiser, however, also know another side of her, a side that is funny and mischievous and has an evil sense of humour, a side that is sensitive and caring and loving. It's a side of her only you and Cassandra know about. And you know about her fears and insecurities because she trusts you with her soul." Xena gauged the smaller woman's face and then added. "I know you still have a lot of questions but now isn't the time or the place. Try to be patient."
They arrived just in time for General Hammond's lecture with Colonel O'Neill making his most smug 'I told you so'-face behind his back. "Major, this is not behaviour befitting a responsible senior officer. If it weren't for our new allies I would relegate you to desk duty for the next two weeks. I never want something like this to happen again."
Before Carter even had a chance to answer, Aria stepped forward. "General Hammond, sir, I apologise for occupying so much of Major Carter's valuable time. It is just that I am very curious about your world." She ended with her most innocent expression.
He turned around, making sure that he was out of earshot of his staff except for the members of SG-1. "I see you already inspired some loyalty, Major. I hope you had fun with your what did you call it, O'Neill?"
"Tree walking, sir. Definitively an occupation for women; the branches would break from the weight of a muscular male body."
Xena luckily saw the teasing twinkle in the colonel's eyes and joined in his banter. "That's why you don't do it on earth, Colonel. The trees there are just not sturdy enough. But I'd love to give you a short lesson. Let's say, the day after tomorrow to give your team a chance to settle in."
"I'm game, your highness. Besides, you still owe me a sparring match, if I remember well."
"It will be my pleasure, Colonel Jonathan O'Neill." The tall woman answered with a smile O'Neill interpreted as seductive while Carter and all of the other Amazons recognised it as feral and despite their annoyance over his bravado instantly felt sorry for him.
"Queen Gabrielle, I think you promised us a tour through your village?" General Hammond refocused everyone's attention.
"Of course, General. It will be my pleasure. I hope you don't mind if my Consort takes your research team to their quarters, they can get comfortable and will be taken to a tour of their own. You have to understand that for you and your men even visiting our village is a unique occurrence in Amazon history."
"We're looking forward to see whatever you feel comfortable of sharing with us, your majesty." The General answered with a rare smile usually reserved for his grandchildren.
He offered her an arm she surprisingly took, all the time thinking that this delicate woman that easily could have been his youngest daughter was far too innocent and young to be leading a Nation of woman warriors, but he also sensed that there was more to her than the eye could see.
"Major Carter, research team take care of yourselves. Contact the SGC whenever you need but remember that there will be a standing line every evening between 20h00 and 21h00 of this time. Dismissed."
The twelve members of Samantha's team followed Xena to the guest palace SG-1 had visited the day before this time they took the direct way. They entered the patio and the blonde half expected to see half an army of serving girls waiting for them to help them wash their hands. This time, however, they passed straight through the court, though Xena still bowed in front of the statues. She led them to a long corridor lined with private quarters: double occupancy suites with a small living room, two even smaller bedrooms, and a big bathroom behind a simple door. Pair after pair, they were assigned their quarters. Finally only Carter and Fraiser were left; they stood in front of an ornate double door Xena opened for them.
They were looking at a big room with two comfortable leather chairs, a small table, and a double king-size bed. To the right was another door, probably leading to the bathroom. "I'm sorry, it's not what you expected but this is the only room left. The other wing of the palace is reserved for the regents of the other villages scheduled to come here less than a week from now. Most of them will be quartered in the village but our capacities are limited. Think about it. If there are any problems we'll see that one of you can bunk down somewhere else. We'll meet in three of your hours in the patio."
Samantha and Janet stood on the threshold, staring into the room; both of them locked tight into their own minds. Candledrops passed; Janet found Samantha's hand and pulled her forwards, murmuring. "It's a big bed, you know. And after your disappearance this morning, I don't really want to let you out of my sight more than necessary."
"So, I'll stay?"
"Yes, Sam. I want you to stay here. I need you to stay with me. Make yourself comfortable."
Samantha closed the door, only then realising the possible impact of Janet's words. 'I need you to stay with me.' Her heart started to beat faster and she tried to rationalise them to regain her equilibrium. For a second, still turned towards the door, her face showed joy and hope, but with an effort she re-established her usual noncommittal expression before facing her friend. Janet already was in the midst of unpacking, so the blonde decided to get some breathing space. "I'll go and take a quick shower, Janet, and slip into someth and get out of this uniform."
"All right, Sam, take your time."
With her usual efficiency Samantha was back less than ten minutes later, dressed in fatigues and an Air Force regulation black t-shirt, her hair still damp. "Your turn, Janet. There's a whole row of lightly scented soaps and a stack of fluffy towels at your disposal. Take care that you don't get lost in the tub; it's big enough to house all of SG-1 and then some."
Coming from Colonel O'Neill she would have taken the words as an insult referring to her height or the lack thereof but coming from Samantha she knew it was just an innocent remark. So, she smiled, grabbed a change of clothes, and headed towards the bathroom.
Samantha made short work of her own unpacking and then settled on the bed to have a look at the regulation book waiting on the night-stand. She idly leaved through it, marvelling at the elegance of Amazon hierarchy; about how they were able to combine punishment with dignity. And at the same time she asked herself how she was able to see these things in something that seemed to be nothing more than a very long list of laws, traditions, conduct rules and the punishments one risked when breaking them. While puzzling over this paradox, she uncharacteristically fell asleep, in the middle of the day and with the still opened book lying on her chest.
"Xena, come, join us." Gabrielle called her partner from the other side of the communal dinner hut. She was sitting at the Royal table, with the remaining three members of SG-1 and General Hammond. The rest of the staff already had gone back through Athena's Ring. "Did you get the team settled?"
"Yes, your majesty. I showed them to their rooms and told them to get comfortable and also to try and get some sleep. The village is already literally buzzing with anticipation of the upcoming party."
"A party? And you didn't invite us, your majesty; I'm hurt, deeply hurt." O'Neill quibbed in, thinking of himself as the life of every party.
"I'm sorry, Colonel, but men are not allowed." He tried giving the adorable blonde his best pleading look.
"Tell me, Colonel, Doctor Jackson, how many times were you invited to dine and party with the men of a planet you visited while Major Carter had to stay in the background, tucked away in the women's quarters?" Daniel looked at her in understanding and O'Neill had at least the decency to stay quiet. "Perhaps now you can understand her annoyance after such missions."
"You have a point there, your highness. The Queen just offered to take us to have a look at the training grounds. Care to join us?"
Xena exchanged a look with Gabrielle and then answered. "It will be my pleasure, Colonel."
On the way the Queen was amiably chatting with General Hammond and Daniel Jackson while Xena and the others were ambling along in companionable silence. They reached the training grounds shortly after the midday break. A class of advanced staff students had just started and for a few minutes they just stood at the edge and observed. Then one of the girls saw their Queen.
She ran over and fell to her right knee. "Your majesty, could you please help us with a disagreement we have?" Only then did she realise that the Queen and her Consort were not alone. "I'm sorry, your majesty. I didn't see our guests. It can wait."
"It's all right, Kanith. I'm here, so stand up and tell me what your disagreement is about?" Gabrielle answered with a smile.
"Yesterday, the Consort taught us this backhanded sweep to take out a taller opponent's legs, and it works one time out of two. But what do you do when your sparring partner simply jumps over the staff? I know there must be some counter moves we don't know yet but we still got in a discussion if staff fighting is better suited for smaller or bigger people." She answered with a nervous glance towards the Consort.
"I'm quite sure Consort Xena explained the principles of staff fighting to all of you, even before you held a staff for the first time. So you should know that what really counts is your centre of balance and speed." The girl was thoroughly embarrassed and didn't dare to look her Queen in the eyes. "But I suppose this is not really about you not knowing. Am I right?"
"Yes, your majesty, as always. It's a rare feat to find you at the training grounds, so we hoped you would give us a demonstration." She stammered.
"So what do you think, Xena, care to give our guests a little show?" Gabrielle said with a smirk.
"Yes, my Queen." Under her breath the tall woman muttered. "Can't wait to get my ass kicked."
"Sorry, what did you say?"
Xena had the grace to blush almost imperceptibly and answered. "I can't wait to get started, your highness."
The raven-headed woman shrugged out of her tight jacket. The staves were brought to them and they took position in the centre of the square, quickly attracting an audience other than their male guests. They began rather slowly, with Gabrielle taking the role of the teacher and giving a running commentary to every move.
"There are a lot of things you can do when the first reverse sweep doesn't work. You can follow it up by a second one, fast enough after the first to let your opponent not regain equilibrium. When this also doesn't work you can change direction, bring the staff between your opponent's legs and make her topple over. You take all the fun out of things when you make it this easy for me, Xena."
"I'm sorry, your majesty. I thought this was to teach a couple of new moves. You know it has to go step by step; that's the only way to learn."
"Yes, my love. And now for the show I promised. Are you ready?"
"As ready as I'll ever be. Go easy on me, please. It's been centuries since I stood a chance against you."
Once again they began slowly. When they were sufficiently warmed up, they started in earnest. Xena knew that she didn't have to pull her blows like she usually did, and Gabrielle relished the chance to go full out without the fear of harming her partner. To the inexperienced observer they were nothing more but a blur of movement but the soldiers watching were impressed to see a combination of agility, speed, balance, and mastery of the body none of them, not even the Jaffa ever had encountered. It was like a ballet, a ballet on a tight rope; only one slip by either of them and they could have been severely injured. As it was, Xena took a rather hard hit to her ribs and had been taken down two times, but each time was back on her feet and on the move before the other woman could take advantage of the situation.
When they returned to their guests, Xena was still buttoning her jacket. Teal'c said in his usual deadpan manner. "O'Neill, I think you should reconsider this sparring session."
"You're right my friend, if I were a sane man, I'd postpone the sparring for at least a few years, unfortunately I'm a bit nuts and I always keep my word. Though it's pretty obvious that I will get my ass kicked this time."
"My wife has a hell of a lot experience in all sorts of combat. I'm sure you both will have fun."
"Thank you for the demonstration, your majesty. It was very enlightening and I can see that my team will be in good hands with you. I'll send Teal'c and Colonel O'Neill back the day after tomorrow to get a first report from Major Carter and also for this sparring lesson. Would you mind accompanying us back to the Stargate?"
"Of course not, General. Don't you want to say another good-bye to the team?"
"No, your majesty, that won't be necessary. They're grown women and I don't want them to feel too coddled."
After seeing the men off, the Queen and her Consort retired to their hut to change into something more comfortable than the formal attire in which they had been sparring. When the door was closed, Xena fell to her right knee in front of her Queen. "I'm sorry, your majesty. I didn't watch my tongue."
"Please, rise, my Consort. There's no need for this. It was nothing more than a lapse. I'm sure even Daniel will think that it's some sort of proverbial saying and when the time is right we will have to tell them the truth anyway. Now, help me out of these things and take a shower with me."
"You're cruel, my love, to torture me this way." Xena said with concern in her eyes and a hopeful glint in her eyes.
"You'd deserve it, my big dumb warrior, for trying to hide away during the reception and for almost getting Samantha into trouble by letting her run around in the trees. But I won't torture you; we'll just take some time out from your probation. I need to feel your touch. The hungry eyes of some of the men the General brought had me really on edge."
"I can always go through the Ring and blind them, my love." Xena answered in a low purr while patiently undoing knot after knot to reveal her wife's perfectly sculpted body.
"Strip for me, slowly."
The tall woman took two steps back and began to unbutton the dark blue jacket of her uniform. She then discarded the white t-shirt underneath, leaving her naked from the waist upwards. She then turned sideways and began to unlace her knee-high leather boots. She once again turned around, taking her time with coming to a standing position. She found Gabrielle's eyes and held them. Meanwhile her strong hands opened the belt around her waist and slowly drew it out of the belt loops. She loosely coiled it like one would a whip and deposited the sturdy leather strap in front of Gabrielle's feet. She then began to open the buttons holding her black leather pants. When she was down to the second to last, she heard Gabrielle's command.
"Stop it. Put your hands behind your neck. Close your eyes and don't move."
Xena had a hard time not trembling in anticipation. The last two buttons now were open and Gabrielle tucked the black leather over her hips. The trousers were of a rather wide and comfortable cut; they simply would have dropped down to the ground; instead they were guided downwards, slowly and gently caressing the skin of her thighs and calves. She instinctively stepped out of them, immediately fearing that her unauthorised movement would bring the game to an end. Her breeches quickly followed the trousers.
She felt her lover's eyes on her skin, felt her hands tracing the still vivid marks of her punishment and the quickly forming bruise at her right side, just where the lower ribs had been hit. Gabrielle's lips now were touching her, kissing every stripe from the strap and every welt from the cane. Wetness was trickling down her inner thighs, evidence of her steadily growing arousal. She felt it licked away and soon the tongue was entering her and she more felt than heard the command. "Come for me, my love."
And she did to the feeling of three strong fingers thrusting in and out of her nether lips, hitting the special spot inside of her that only Gabrielle was able to find. Another climax washed over her and she fell to her knees into the waiting arms of her wife. The smaller woman settled them on the ground with Xena's head cradled on her stomach, gently stroking her long hair. Some time later, blue eyes found green, and the loving adoration in the blue eyes made Gabrielle's heart skip a beat.
"Thank you, my love, my soul. You don't know how much I love to be taken this way, how much I sometimes need to be taken this way. Thank you, my Queen."
"And I love taking you this way. You're always incredibly beautiful when you come but when your climax comes out of your surrender you're even more beautiful. I'm glad that you are mine and mine alone."
"Yours, for as long as you let me. Hey, didn't you say something about a shower?" Xena came to her knees, scooped the smaller woman in her arms, and carried her to their bathroom.
Had they been in their hut in the village instead of the larger, isolated house in the forest, the whole village would have known that everything was as it always had been between the Queen and her Consort.
"I can't believe it. They left us at the mercy of barbarians." Janet's outburst brought Samantha instantly back to reality. Janet was sitting next to her on the bed waving the regulation book she had fallen asleep reading.
The tall blonde had a good idea what her friend was talking about; nevertheless she asked to gain some time.
"What I'm talking about? As if you didn't know, don't try this innocent act with me Major Samantha Gabriella Carter. You know I'm talking about this physical punishment thing."
"I was afraid it was what has you this agitated." She answered quietly, immediately cursing herself for her answer when the usually level-headed, controlled doctor began a tirade followed by a lecture she would have given a lot to be able to tune out.
Finally, when the other woman had to stop to take a breath, she said. "Please, calm down, Janet. Yes, I know, they prefer physical punishment to other methods and I'm sure this book contains a list of punishments for every possible transgression. They believe that no one stands above the law, not even the Queen or her Consort and certainly not their guests. But you don't need to worry; physical punishment can always be substituted by other things like community service and stuff."
"That doesn't make it any better, Sam. If they have physical punishment for adults, and this book is very detailed concerning all kinds of whips and straps and paddles and what not. If they do this to adults, can you imagine what they let their children go through?"
"That's the point, Janet. Physical punishment is for adults only. I spoke with Aria while we were gone. At first I was as shocked as you are but when I insinuated that they beat their children she almost fell out of the tree. She said, and I quote: 'No Amazon would ever raise her hand against a child.' I believe her."
"So, you think they will let us choose another way should it become necessary?"
"I'm sure of it, Janet."
"Hey Sam, you have the same name as the Queen; well almost, one letter difference is close enough, Samantha Gabriella Carter. How cool is that."
"Who told you? Oh, yes, my personal file. It can't be more than mere coincidence, Janet. Besides, my father always hated the name because it came from my mother's mother. After my mother's death, I was never allowed any contact with my grandmother. When he learned that I had sought her out while at college, he was as furious as I ever had seen him even more than when Michael was caught driving under influence in a stolen car. She died from a car accident during the Golf War. I didn't have the chance to attend her funeral and there isn't a grave for me to visit. She wanted to be cremated and her ashes spread over the ocean."
"Sounds like you loved her very much, Sam."
"Yes, I did. We didn't have much time together but she reminded me a lot of my mother, and she had a joy in life I never before had experienced. It was the only time in my life I openly defied my father's orders."
Janet knew it probably was a big mistake, but she still followed her heart's desire and took the taller woman in her arms, gently rocking her to and fro'. Surprisingly Samantha didn't pull away but leaned into the touch and let herself be comforted. Cradled in the competent arms of her CMO she felt safe and for the first time in more than ten years, on a planet almost 53000 light years from her home, she allowed herself to cry for her grandmother.
When the tears had subsided Janet demanded. "Tell me about her, Sam."
"She was a doctor, the head of the children's cancer station. Her name was Catherine, perhaps that's why I always got along with Doctor Langford. She was working hand-in-hand with a research team at the university in Washington; that's how I found her. My father had told me that she was living at the West Coast. I was sixteen and felt very alone. One evening I went to her house to ask why she never visited in the three years since my mother's death. That's when I learned that my father had had her served with a court order forbidding her to approach any member of his family the day before my mother's funeral. She tried to attend but he had her removed from the graveyard by some of his Air Force buddies before she had a chance to get even close to the grave.
"The first evening I spent with her was very emotional but we soon learned that we had a lot in common. She was the only one who didn't laugh when I told her that I wanted to become a fighter pilot. We discussed astrophysics and music and psychology, her research and my mother's childhood. For a long time she was my best friend."
"She sounds like someone I would have loved to know, Sam." After a long moment of silence she tentatively asked. "Why did your father hate her so much? It's not like the Jacob Carter I know."
"He has changed a lot since being joined with Selmac. He's a much nicer person now." Samantha turned in Janet's arms and sought the brown eyes of her friend. "She was gay, Janet."
"She wasn't in the military; it shouldn't have made a difference." Janet blurted out.
"No, it shouldn't but it did for him. It was strange in a way. He taught us to respect other religious beliefs and cultures. He taught us to respect different live styles and sexual orientations but in his own family he couldn't tolerate it."
"It's hard to be on the receiving end of something like that. My father always told us how important our armed forces are for the security of our country, but since I joined the Air Force he refuses to speak to me. I know how it feels. I'm sorry you and your grandmother had to suffer because of your father's fears but I'm happy that you got a chance to get to know her."
"Thank you for listening to me. I'm happy that I have a best friend like you, Janet. I " Before she could say anything else, there was a knock on the door, reminding them that it was time to meet with the Consort.
When they joined the others a few minutes later in the patio, they found them animatedly talking about the regulation book. Samantha ordered them to stay calm. She told them about the possibility of choosing an alternate punishment and that she saw no reason not to trust their hosts. When Xena arrived, ten minutes late, she rushed through the entrance, but still took the time to bow to the statues.
"I'm sorry for the delay. I hope you all had the chance to get some rest. I see you already got the regulation book. It's an abridged version of our most important laws and rules affecting everyday life. I wanted to give it to you myself but something must have gone wrong. I'm well aware that it might need some explaining."
"Do you really expect us to let some Amazon beat up on us?" A tall brunette asked provocatively.
"Watch your mouth, Lieutenant Jenson. This is not the way to speak with our hosts, to be exact; this is no way to speak to anyone. Apologise immediately!"
"I apologise for my ill-chosen words, your highness."
"Apology accepted, and to answer your question: as long as you stay in our world, you all are my responsibility. So it wouldn't be 'any' Amazon charged to mete out a punishment, it would be me. But, and this is why I wanted to talk to you before giving you the book
"As long as you stay in this world you will have to adhere to our regulations and live according to our law and customs. Not even the Queen stands above the law, Lieutenant."
The tall woman turned her head slightly to include the others. "We know that most of you are not comfortable with the notion of physical punishment. I'm sure you see it as barbaric and uncivilised. To us it's a physical as well as a spiritual experience. We don't believe in discipline for it's own sake.
"We believe in discipline as a way to create a balance between heart and hand, body and soul. Breaking the laws or losing your temper, as I did yesterday, disturbs this balance. For most of us the pain of physical punishment re-establishes the balance.
"Over the centuries we learned that it doesn't work this way for everyone. That's why there always is the possibility of choosing an alternate punishment ranging from communal services like kitchen duty or caring for the elders or the children to imprisonment, purification rituals, and other things. However, we never would force you to endure something you think you can't stand. So, should it become necessary, you can choose to either return to Earth or to accept our form of justice. And you can be assured that no one will think any less of you should you decide to go back to your world."
"I think this is something we can live with, your highness." Karen Jenson answered to make up for her earlier burst of temper.
"That's good to hear, Lieutenant. Let's get going, there's a lot to show you before the party starts."
"Party? You never mentioned a party. I mean we just had this get together, wouldn't it be better to get started with the mission?" Carter asked, with a hint of nervousness in her voice. She just hated parties.
"It is part of the mission, Samantha Carter. You will be introduced to the people you'll work with and learn from. To understand us, you have to get to know us not only on a professional level. Besides, Amazons just love to party. Queen Gabrielle would have a riot on her hands if she even tried to miss out on such a great opportunity. And this socialising thing before, well, it was just that, and soon you will see, it doesn't qualify as a party, not even remotely. One word of warning though, the wine and ale we serve is pretty strong and goes straight to the head. So, if you don't want to regret it tomorrow, you shouldn't drink more than three or four mugs. And now, would you please follow me, we'll begin the tour with something familiar, our laboratories. Everyone's preparing for the party, so you can familiarise yourself with the place without getting in the way."
It had been a long afternoon; visiting the laboratories and the power plant alone had taken more than four hours. They just had enough time for a quick visit to the so-called infirmary and even Janet who prided herself of her state-of-the-art infirmary was more than impressed with the efficiency and simplicity of its layout. Then the party had started, and now, a couple of hours after midnight it still was in full swing.
Samantha had crept away from the crowd and the noise a little over an hour ago and simply dreaded the thought of going back. She had to admit that for a while even she had had fun. Most of the Amazons were friendly and obviously as curious about them as they were about the Amazons. Some of them had been a little too friendly, openly inviting her and other members of her team to their beds. She even had had to fight a burst of jealousy when one of them had flirted with Janet. The small doctor hadn't even acknowledged the other woman's overtures but Samantha still wished she would have been able to openly step in and claim the brown-eyed beauty as her own.
She sighed; she knew it was nothing but wishful thinking. Janet was straight; the woman had been married and even if she weren't she didn't feel anything but friendship for her, Samantha rationalised. And then there was the small problem with the military. Not even General Hammond would turn a blind eye to two of his senior officers having an affair, and both of them being women, to boost.
Samantha almost jumped out of her skin when someone sat down next to her. "Do you see the big bright star just over the hillock to your right, Samantha Carter?"
"Yes, your highness."
"From there, count ten stars to the left and seven up. What does the pattern look like? And please call me Xena as long as we're alone."
"It will be my pleasure, Xena. Please call me Sam. It looks like a woman, a very well developed woman. What is it called?"
"It represents Aphrodite, the Greek Goddess of Love. It is said that praying to her turns even the most complicated relationship into a happy one." Samantha didn't know how the Consort was doing it but she seemed to look straight into her soul.
"Yeah, and if wishes were hor " She stopped herself. The taller woman didn't deserve to become the scapegoat for her anger at herself, at her inability to get a certain five foot two doctor out of her mind. "I'm sorry, Xena. It has been a long day. The energy shield at your gate. It makes men more aggressive. Do you think it makes women more emotional?"
"No, I don't think so. It picks up on the different hormone distribution patterns in men and women by way of submolecular nanites that are absorbed in the body when passing through. This is what causes the testosterone output with men, but there are no records of a women ever being influenced in any way. Why? Have you or one of your team mates have experienced any problems?"
"No, I it just was a specula " Samantha stopped in mid-sentence. She suddenly felt the overwhelming urge to be honest to this woman. "I don't know but I surprise myself doing and saying and feeling things I never would have allowed myself to do, say, and feel in any other situation. Take this morning, my playing hooky with Aria. I knew that it was wrong and usually I'm the type of officer doing everything in her power not to anger my commanding officers. Obeying orders and always acting appropriately seems to be something I was born with. But today it simply didn't count. It was absolutely unimportant in comparison to the joy of being up there in the trees. Perhaps I should have Janet run a few tests on me. My reaction could be related to the protein marker and the naqada in my blood stream."
"You really are worried about this, aren't you?" Xena studied her face.
"Yes, Xena. You have to know that usually, I'm not a very emotional person. I'm a soldier; we're not supposed to have any emotions at all and suddenly it feels as if I were about to burst at the seams if I don't show what I'm feeling. It's scary."
"I know, Sam. It's hard to suddenly find out you have a heart beating strongly for someone else when all you felt before was emptiness and loneliness. But I think you are wrong. Having no emotions at all and not easily showing any emotions are as different from each other as fire is from ice. Not even someone as brilliant as you are can live with hiding their fears and desires for an extended period. Believe me; the price would be too high to pay. Either you end up really losing your emotions or they break through with force. Give your feelings a chance; explore them before you think of putting them away once again."
"The problem is that I know what I'm feeling, Xena. I just can't afford to act on my feelings." The blonde answered in a subdued voice, asking herself why she was this open to someone who was nothing more than a stranger.
"You'll find the answer when the time is right and it has nothing to do with our energy field. But to assuage your fears, we'll get Janet Fraiser and run a few tests."
"Why not? It's as good as any other time and by the way the party is still going; there won't be much work done tomorrow. Hung-over Amazons are worse than partying Amazons, I have to tell you."
The dark haired woman offered her a hand up and when she touched it, the naqada in her blood began to practically scream. Samantha jerked back. "Don't be afraid, Sam." Xena's soft voice said. "You're in no danger from me. Like you I once was the host to a Tok'ra. One of these days I'll tell you the story. Let's go and get Janet Fraiser; she probably is out of her mind with worry about you."
By the sadness in Xena's eyes Samantha could tell that there was a long, possibly heartbreaking story to be heard but she also knew that now was not the moment to dwell on it. "So, did you search for me or were you just passing by?"
"Janet Fraiser was getting worried and the Queen sent me to find you. I knew where to find you but I took my time to have a few minutes of quiet."
"So, you won't get into trouble with this probation thing?"
"No, no trouble. I presume Aria told you?"
"Yes, she did, Xena, but please don't be angry with her. I think it was important for me to know, though I do not know why. I still have some problems with the whole concept of physical punishment; I think."
"Did you ever lose control and do something you later were ashamed of, Sam?"
"Yes, of course, who didn't?"
"I was ashamed of my behaviour with Colonel O'Neill. Telling the Queen, submitting to, and receiving my punishment made me feel better in my skin. And when tomorrow night she gives me the kiss of forgiveness, the balance in my soul will be re-established once again. The pain gives me a chance to forgive myself."
"I think I understand. When I was a child and did something wrong I always felt awful until my mother found out. When it was out in the open, I knew that I no longer had to fear anything."
"Yes, Sam, it works along the same parameters. Ready to face the crowd?"
The Amazons were dancing to the steady, hypnotising rhythm of the drums and most of the members of her team obviously had loosened up enough to join in. This looked like a promising start for the mission. When they passed through the mass of undulating bodies, Samantha saw one of the women put a hand on Janet's arm, obviously trying to drag her on the dance floor. They were close enough to hear the small doctor saying. "No!" It was the woman who had been ogling her earlier and this one word was all the excuse the blond soldier needed.
"What part of 'No' didn't you understand? Take your hands off of her, now." Samantha Carter said with a low growl permeating her words, suddenly standing next to Fraiser with her arms folded across her chest.
"Hey, I was just being friendly." The obviously drunk woman slurred. "Besides, it's none of your business, blondie."
"I just made it my business, and even if I didn't know her it still would be my business. I don't allow the men on my planet to force themselves on women, and I certainly will not condone it now, especially when a woman is doing the bullying, a woman who should know better."
While speaking Carter had inched forward and now was standing in front of Fraiser, face to face with the Amazon.
"Are you trying to tell me that I'm acting like a lowly male, stranger?"
"If the shoe fits, Amazon." Samantha answered with a snarl, surprised by the strength of her anger.
Out of the corner of her eyes, the blonde saw the Queen, evidently on the verge of interfering, held back by her Consort. Instead of an answer the Amazon aimed a right hook at her. The Air Force Major easily deflected it and shoved the woman away. She stumbled backwards, landing hard on her behind.
Samantha felt a familiar touch at the small of her back and turned around. "You all right, Janet?"
"Yes, Sam. Always the protector, aren't you? Let's get going before this ends like our last outing at O'Malley's."
"Hey, it wasn't my fault. They started it."
"And you ended up with a cracked rib and a lot of bruises."
"They looked worse, and I still think they deserved " Her answer was cut short by someone taking a hold of her shirt; she went with the pull, let herself fall to the ground into some sort of back somersault, and came back to her feet having put at least a body length of distance between herself and her assailant.
"You insulted me, stranger."
"Wouldn't have happened if you could hold your liquor, Amazon. Go to bed, I'm not in the mood to play." Carter snapped back in her best Jack O'Neill imitation.
Of course the woman was far beyond listening. She attacked and found herself at the receiving end of a roundhouse kick that sent her flying and effectively knocked her out when she collided with one of the numerous benches.
"All right, the show is over," Xena's voice rang out. "Kari, Reana, see that Niva gets to bed. You are responsible for getting her to the training grounds one candlemark after sunrise. And everyone else, get back to whatever you were doing." She then closed the distance between her and the two humans. "You did well, Samantha Carter. Still think that you need to be checked out?"
"More than ever, your highness. I hope I didn't make an enemy tonight."
"I don't think so, not after she sobers up. It's not her style to behave like this; she just has lost someone dear to her heart. We probably should cut her some slack here. Let's go to the infirmary, care to join us, my Queen?"
"Infirmary? Is someone ill? Niva didn't even get a chance to touch her."
"No, everything's all right, my love," the Consort answered. "Samantha Carter is just worried that our defensive shield could have messed with the naqada in her bloodstream or somehow have influenced the protein marker. We'll run some tests, just to prove to her that everything's all right."
"Let's go; so we can put your worries to rest, Samantha Carter." The Queen answered with a smile.
"Won't we need one of your doctors?" Fraiser asked.
"Xena is more than just a soldier. Samantha Carter will be in good hands. Xena is the best healer we have."
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