DISCLAIMER: The recognizable characters in this tale belong to Rob Tapert and Co., RenPics, Studios USA, MCA/Universal and anyone else who has an investment in Xena: Warrior Princess. I am just borrowing them for use in this story. No profit is being made from this and no copyright infringement is intended. This is all just for fun and to keep me busy and out of trouble.
BETA (and partner in mayhem) TRANSLATION: Still not ours, although after a year, they should be.  And besides, we treated them much better.  They are much happier with us, honest.  They followed us home... can we keep'm, huh? Huh?
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Thanks: To Phil who won't let me list her as a co-author and without whom the story wouldn't be anywhere as interesting and it certainly wouldn't be nearly as long. She did all the research which I then twisted to suit my purpose. She also did all the beta reading which required hours and hours of time picking up all the letters I dropped along the way, of which there were many. I have to live up to the PITA DIVA reputation somehow. Also thanks to Les and SueG for keeping the clock ticking and reminding me that the deadline was LOOMING and for their encouraging words along the way. And thanks to Steph, who suggested the premise which we managed to take to Pluto and back before returning it to the Academy.
Beta (and partner in mayhem) Translation: Well, dang... there goes my anonymity.
Co-author... uh uh. I think I wrote one line every 100 pages or so (and provided suggestions for a name or two along the way). I admit I did help add a little humor. Be warned there is one line in there (not one of mine either, dang it) that is absolutely 'spew worthy' and no, I'm not telling you where. However, I will tell you that you can get a cheap replacement keyboard at Radio Shack... tell them you know me. I get quantity discounts now.
Beta... yep, I picked up all those dropped letters but she put them back in the right places. And I did voice checks on everyone but one like, fab blonde... D doesn't need like any help channeling that one like, bitchin' character.
Researcher... oh yeah. I have 147 "favorite places" links listed that we used for the story. I admit to sending her off on tangents to work in certain punchlines and character cameos (which I think ended up working out great). She also was kind enough to indulge me and hit some history highlights I thought y'all might enjoy. The overall idea was to try to get this sucker to 602 pages but alas, we fell a little shy of that goal. Okay, so that was MY goal. I say shoot high... why not? It's not like I was writing this thing. <.g.> Anyway, we fell a bit short because....
Special Thanks: To the readers of the Valiant Series I appreciate your patience and indulgence while I wrote this. Randi and Gwen were glad for the extra honeymoon time. I *have* already started on the next Valiant story and hope to have it out for your reading pleasure posthaste.
Beta (and partner in mayhem) Translation: ... she threatened to tell everyone who has been waiting on the next Valiant story exactly how to get to my house. YIKES!
Author's Note: This monstrosity is directly the result of a phone call that started out with the simple phrase, "I can't write a story about vampires or bacchae... I *am* one!" Now a year, 400 some-odd pages and $3,000 worth of phone calls later, this is the end result of that conversation.
Beta (and partner in mayhem) note: Still a vampire, still not a writer... my job here is complete. Thanks to Steph for the invitation... this was quite a ride. But, don't ask me again... she will beat me senseless. <.bg.> No comments from the peanut gallery are necessary, thank you very much.
Oh, one more thing... please read the story. I would like to know that the $3,000 in phone bills and the fact that I ate a cold dinner at least 3 times a week, due to the timing of said phone calls, was not in vein. HA! Little bacchae joke there.... Okay, very little bacchae joke there.
Beta (and partner in mayhem) note #2 (the really, really important one): Thanks D... you gave me my season 7(and 8 and pretty much 9 too). You ROCK!
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To avaliantheart01[at]gmail.com

Blood Bond
The Second Pint
or His… ahem… HERstory bites and draws blood

By D (a.k.a. Bacchae Bunny)

 

Chapter XL

Xena got nowhere with Mama, though her eyes did not close up when the warrior asked her questions. Instead they turned speculative. But she was not forthcoming with any information and it seemed as though the deputy Isaac had been called out of town early that morning on an emergency. And he wasn't expected back for several days, a fact that Mama lamented several times in light of the coming Samhain celebration.

Still, Xena did manage to get a good meal in the bargain and a room for the duration. She took her bags up to her room and decided to take a stroll through the town. She figured it was the best reaction she could have short of going totally ballistic and using the pinch on someone. She knew she was close... she could feel it. Waiting a little longer she could manage after the years she'd been waiting and searching and it sure beat ending up in some Podunk little jail.

Nocona Corners was different than what she expected... similar to Sutter's Mill, but by the same token vastly different. This town was well established, built of wood found in the scrub hills around the area, or of rock and adobe. It was also unsoiled and fresh, something Xena appreciated greatly. Even with the cattle that were herded in, the people took great pride in keeping it clean and only on days when the town was downwind of the stockyards did one realize that this was indeed a cattle town.

Her view of it from the hills was spectacular and she let her mind wander, trying to figure out the best way to find Gabrielle. She was convinced the bard was here and wondered at the secrecy of the townspeople about it. The ringing of a bell brought Xena out of her reverie and she remembered what Hercules had told her. He said Gabrielle was the schoolmarm here. I wonder....

She turned from where she had been at the far outskirts of town and began walking towards the small building that seemed to spew small children from its belly. From this distance, her eyes couldn't tell for sure, but her heart recognized the one small blonde who stood at the door til the others had left.

"Gabrielle!" she called. "GABRIELLE!"

The bard hesitated, but seeing no one, continued on to the barn with two boys walking beside her. Xena realized that the wind was working against her and she hustled to catch up.

Gabrielle was amazed when she, Dominic and Little Sal entered that stables. There in front of her stood an old friend whickering a greeting. The boys moved off to do their chores and left Gabrielle to say her hellos in private.

"Shamrock!" she exclaimed happily, moving to scratch the mustang between the ears. It was only when she traversed to the stall that she noted two other animals... animals that struck a chord of familiarity in her soul. She hesitated, unsure of her welcome by the panther and the fox.

The cat stalked slowly towards her, taking in her scent before curling around her legs with a purr. The fox gazed beguilingly at her and Gabrielle knelt down, allowing the panther to nuzzle her neck and the fox to crawl into her arms.

Shamrock stamped his forefoot impatiently and Gabrielle laughed. "Shamrock, be patient," she commanded, standing gingerly with the fox still cradled happily in her left arm. "You guys must have a great human to be so trusting and friendly."

Her skin prickled just before the voice spoke from the doorway.

"I'd like to think I'm a better human being than I was the last time we were together."

Gabrielle froze, stiffening in recognition. Then she put the fox down, keeping her back to the door. She felt as much as heard the steps behind her and flinched when hands landed lightly on her waist.

"Hello, Gabrielle."

A myriad of emotions washed through her, but surprisingly she was left with infuriation as her chief reaction, her abandonment by Xena coming to the forefront of her mind. Hundreds of years of emotion built up in a matter of seconds and she turned violently, putting the force of her anger behind the straight-from-the-shoulder punch. There was no sound until impact – fist to face and the crack of bone, the crumple of cartilage and the spurt of hot blood.

It was the scent of blood, so enticingly familiar that Gabrielle felt her canines grow in reaction, that brought her back to the present and she turned and walked out the door without a backwards glance. The panther growled in Xena's direction as it passed by the warrior before following Gabrielle. The fox cocked its head, then stepped across Xena's body before joining the parade leaving the barn.

"Thanks, guys," the warrior muttered, moving her lips as little as possible.

Gabrielle had always been quicker to anger and quicker to forgiveness than she herself had been. It was one of the things that made her so vibrant, so passionate and it was one of the reasons Xena loved her. Xena stood and allowed the punch, having seen it coming in the subtle nuances of Gabrielle's body language. Some things will never change, she had time enough to think before her face caught nearly two millennia of frustration.

The warrior was amazed at the amount of pain she felt as she flew back and landed flat on her back. She smacked her head on the hard ground and lay there looking up as her eyes began swelling closed. She heard more than saw the footsteps and knew from their weight that the older boy had left the barn at a run and the set approaching her belonged to the smaller boy that had accompanied Gabrielle to the stable.

Xena felt the eyes staring at her. Little Sal put his hands on his knees, crouching down to get a better look.

"Geez, mithter. Are you okay?" He reached towards her face and touched her swollen nose lightly. She hissed and grabbed his hand, moving it away from her. He pulled his hand from her grip and wiped the blood on his shirt before putting the hand back on his knee.

"Nope, I guess not. Ya gots blood runnin' out yer nose and a really big fat lip. Does yers hurt? Mine did... I had one of those once when I gots hit by the door. Loosed up my front teefs... that's why I talks funny right now. My tongue keeps slippin' through the big hole, see?"

Little Sal peered at her closely. "Ya can't see too good, can ya? You gots black and blue eyes, didja know that? The blue parts real purty, but the rest is real swolled up. Ya looks kinda like a coon. I seen a coon once... mean thing tried a bite me. Are you mean, mithter? Ya made Miz Gabr'elle mad and I's never seen her git mad like that 'fore. She's a nice lady. She telled us good stories. Do ya like stories, mithter? She telled lots of stories fore she got so sad. Are you the reason she's so sad, mithter?"

Xena's head was spinning trying to keep up with the five-year-old's conversation and she was relieved when she heard footsteps approaching.

She sat up gingerly, cradling her head in her hands. She was gratified to find that her head was going to stay attached. For a long moment there, she really had doubt... immortality or not. Then she heard Mama's voice.

"Help me get her up, Sal. I think this one has some explainin' to do."

"I c'n do id mythelf," Xena mumbled, slowly rising to her feet and swaying slightly from side to side. "Godda lub a woman wid a mean wighd," she muttered under her breath. Mama heard, though and put the thought away for later contemplation. For now, she put a gentle hand on Xena's arm.

She'd seen Gabrielle exit the stables as she herself had been out on the front porch at the time, having opened the doors to let some air into the packed dining room. She'd wondered, of course, but Gabrielle had headed up into the hills and she had paying customers to take care of. Then Dominic had come running up the street calling for her and Sal. It was amazing that the whole town hadn't heard and turned out at the commotion, but most everyone was at dinner. And Mama had left Sal's wife Josephina in charge... and everybody listened when Josephina spoke. She and Mama were a formidable team.

"C'mon," Mama said to Xena, who was trying to peer through her mostly closed eyes. "Let's get you back to the kitchen and get you cleaned up. You're gonna be in some pain for a few days and look like a raccoon even longer. But you'll live."

Xena chuckled ruefully at that pronouncement, wincing when her lip started bleeding again. Then she took Mama's arm and followed her to the privacy of her small back kitchen.

Mama set a glass of clear liquid on the table and wrapped Xena's hands around it. "Drink that," she commanded in a voice the eerily resembled Cyrene's.

"Whad id id?" Xena asked warily, trying to sniff the contents, but unable breathe through her nose, much less smell anything.

"Somethin' that'll make this hurt a lot less. Now drink."

Xena did so, gasping for breath as the tears ran down her face from the harshness of the alcohol as it burned down her throat and into her system. After a long moment, the burning subsided and she felt a little numb and somewhat disassociated from the throbbing pain of her face.

"Waid a minnud," Xena said, placing the flats of her fingertips on either side of her nose and jerking it sharply. She saw stars but she made no sound and spent a minute simply trying to breathe without passing out. Finally, she turned in the direction she felt Mama's presence.

"Aw wighd. Go ahead." Then the warrior sat perfectly still while Mama started cleaning up the damage Gabrielle had done.

"Can I tell you a story?"

Xena shrugged. She wanted the woman to get done so she could go rest long enough for the swelling to go down and then she could go find Gabrielle. She was fairly confident the bard had not left and she was glad her spirit guides had gone with Gabrielle to keep her company until Xena herself could get to her. She spared a rueful thought to Cecrops and sent him a silent apology for his broken jaw. Even as an immortal, this really hurt. She turned her attention back to Mama's voice.

"More than a decade ago, we met a man named Harrison Tillman. He and my son Isaac became reluctant friends because they fought on opposite sides during the War of Northern Aggression. When the late unpleasantness was over, he helped us move from North Carolina out here to Texas. Once we were settled, he went to Banff, where he had taken his sister to get her out of the war. He promised to come back and bring her for a visit."

Harrison Tillman? She's talking about Hercules. That must mean.... breaking her thoughts off to concentrate on Mama's words.

"When he came back the followin' summer, he brought a most delightful young woman... his sister, Gabrielle." Mama rinsed out the cloth she'd used to wipe the blood from Xena's face and tossed the old water out the back door. Then she pumped some fresh and soaked the cloth again, placing it gently over Xena's eyes before picking up a new cloth and the witch hazel. Xena didn't even flinch when she started dabbing it over the raw flesh and her split lip.

"It was obvious to me at any rate that Gabrielle was searchin' for somethin', or waitin' for someone. Though she eventually allowed herself to settle here somewhat contentedly, it was clear her heart was elsewhere. For a while she did go out searchin' regularly, but when Harrison left this last time, he convinced her to let him go alone."

"He was gone for several months and finally in early July, Gabrielle got a telegram from him... a telegram that changed... everythin'."

Xena shifted, uncomfortably aware of where this little tale was probably headed.

"He'd found whatever or WHOever she'd been searchin' for and she was so excited. I'd never seen her so happy."

So, on top of the fact that she's been alone for over eighteen hundred years because of a bad decision, now I have to explain why it took me over three months to take a trip she knows I should have made in less than three weeks. Some lifetimes you just can't catch a break.

"I don't think I need to explain what happened when the days turned to weeks and months for her, do I?" Mama cupped Xena's chin and removed the cold cloth, looking into the slits of her now open eyes.

Xena closed her eyes against the truth she knew, feeling the aching in Gabrielle's soul as though it was her own. She shook her head gently. Her eyes opened again when Mama tapped her fingers on her chin.

"I'm gonna share somethin' with ya, because I believe that you are probably the only thing in this world that can make things right for her. She has a little cottage in the woods back of this house. If you follow the path it'll lead you right to her front door."

Xena nodded.

"Now, I know she went up into the hills to think... she does that a lot, but she will be back down before dark. We have a town carnival tonight, usherin' in Samhain. She's supposed to be participatin' – tellin' stories and such. You might wanna get some rest if you wanna catch her beforehand."

"Bud...."

"Tch. You leave the details to Mama. I'll make sure you get your chance, if you promise to make the best of it." She chuckled. "At least you'll make a colorful impression."

Xena would have smiled, except she could feel the bones, cartilage and skin reknitting themselves whole and it was almost more painful than the initial hit had been.

"Than yu," she replied, before standing tentatively, waiting to see if her balance was going to stay with her or desert her for more stable surroundings. Satisfied that it was going to remain intact, she turned to the back stairs.

"Can I...?" Mama asked, laying a hand on the warrior's arm.

"I god id," Xena said cutting Mama off before she could offer more help. "Bud thans."

She eased up the staircase and she found her room by luck as much as anything else. Then she lay down, hoping that liquor Mama had given her would kick in and let her get a little rest while she healed.

Gabrielle was in a whirlwind of emotion. The connection she'd once had with Xena, the one she'd had to become accustomed to doing without, had reinserted itself with a vengeance upon their personal contact. The warmth that she had felt those thirty-odd years ago when she'd first reached the New World had blossomed with the first touch between them. It allowed her heart to believe in the possibility that she could be whole once more. Her head was having a much harder time wrapping itself around the fact that not only did she not have to be alone, but that Xena might actually desire such a resolution.

Her soul struggled... she wanted this. To her very depths she desired this, needed this. But she didn't want to. Her guts felt like they had been ripped out – first in Japan when Xena had chosen death over her and again when it seemed as though she had pushed everything between them aside. But had she? Gabrielle no longer knew. Her mind was in turmoil, weighing the odds; going over what she thought and felt and believed.

The fox crawled into her lap and she absently stroked the soft red-gold fur, so much like the color of her own temperamental hair. The panther snuggled down beside her, nuzzling both her leg and the fox's neck.

Gabrielle watched them for a long time, allowing the rhythm of her motions to soothe her. Finally it dawned on her that these two animals, animals that should have been natural enemies, were in fact mates. Against the odds, against nature itself, they were mated and perfectly suited to one another. Just like me and Xena.

And suddenly she felt better, knowing that despite everything, if they wanted it, they could work through everything and be together again once more. Only this time, it would be an eternal kind of thing. Because she wanted this... more than anything, she wanted this. And she was sure in the depths of her soul that Xena did too.

It was with a much lighter step and a smile on her face that she made her way back to her cabin.

It was nearly sunset when a light knock sounded on the door and Xena beckoned, "Come in."

Mama opened the door slowly, then gasped as she got a good look at Xena's face. The swelling was down and eyes which had been black and blue hours earlier were now merely shadowed in a remnant of their previous bruising.

"That's amazin'," she said, approaching Xena but not touching. She got the distinct feeling that any familiarity Xena had permitted earlier was gone.

Xena shrugged nonchalantly. "I'm a fast healer."

"I'd say so," Mama commented as she continued to stare a moment longer. A dark eyebrow raised in question brought her back to herself and she flushed slightly in embarrassment. "Beg pardon," she mumbled. "I'm not usually so rude. I uh, I came up here to tell you that your bath is ready."

Xena swallowed. "I appreciate that, but I've got nothing clean to put on. You think the general store might...."

"You leave that to me. Now g'wan, before your water gets cold." She handed her a long robe and shooed her down the hallway to the bathing room.

Xena didn't take long, but it felt so good to wash in hot water. And she appreciated the fragrant soap Mama had put in the room. But it made her start thinking and by the time she reached her room again, she was scowling fiercely.

Mama was waiting there with clean clothes and she turned when Xena closed the door quietly behind her after she crossed the threshold. "Here you go. These should be just about your size. You're much the size my Robert was." It was said matter-of-factly, but Xena could see the pain in the brown eyes that faced her and she sank to the bed with her back to the older woman to leave her to private grief.

"Why?" she finally asked quietly when she didn't hear Mama make her departure. "You obviously know what Gabrielle and I are to one another and I've seen the way your church treats people like us. Why are you so willing to help us?"

She felt the weight of the bed shift when Mama sat down on the opposite side with her back to Xena. "If I allowed the church to dictate all aspects of my life, you're right. I'd shun you and decry you as sinners headed straight to hell, because your love is not only not valid, but not real."

Xena's lips tightened and her fists clenched. She held still though, because she expected more and she had asked. She actually appreciated Mama's honesty.

"But I learned a long time ago not to let others decide what I believed or what love was real and valid. Even when the love turns out to be different from what you expect or hope for, it is still real and just as valid as anyone else's. My husband and I shared something like that briefly and it was worth what I have lived with since."

She paused and stood up from the bed. Then she walked to the door and turned the handle before looking back at the still figure on the bed. "If what I suspect is true, I would do this even if the church condemned me to hell because of it. If there is a chance to recover that kind of soul connection, then it is worth everything."

The door closed and Xena sat unmoving on the bed for a moment longer. Then she rose to dress in the clothes Mama had provided.

The black trousers were long enough, but were far too wide on Xena's slim waist. She slid into the suspenders and then looped the belt around her. The pants were still loose, but at least they wouldn't fall off.

The shirt actually fit across the shoulders, but hung down shapelessly in the front. She shrugged and tucked it in, chuckling a little when it reached to her knees. But at least it helped hold the trousers in place. She idly wondered how large a man Mama's husband had been, trying to picture the couple they had made.

Xena put on the thick socks Mama had given her, then stepped into her boots. She slid into the jacket, figuring to need its warmth against the chilly night air. Then she combed through her mostly dry hair and opened the door to find Mama standing there with a few precious roses and some wild flowers.

"Here," she said with a smile. "These may help," extending the flowers. "If she was mad enough to hit you, it's probably best to soften her up. Flowers always worked with me."

Xena accepted the bouquet and withdrew a single rose, pressing it into Mama's hand. She didn't say a word, but her eyes spoke volumes. Then she left down the stairs without a backwards glance. Mama stood still until she heard the back door shut in the waning sunlight.

Then she lifted the rose to her nose, breathing in its delicate scent with delight and smiling. She had a good feeling about this and against all logic, it gave her a hope of her own.

Gabrielle had come back to her cottage intent on taking a warm bath before the evening's festivities. She was surprised that the animals remained with her, but they curled up in front of her fireplace content together and she simply watched them for a moment, continually reminded of possibilities.

She went into her bathing room, happy she had taken the time to recreate all the creature comforts she'd seen and enjoyed during her lifetime. No one knew about her hot running water or her flushable toilet, but she definitely appreciated them.

Especially tonight, though she didn't let herself examine the thoughts too closely. She was still hesitant to hope too hard, though if she was completely honest with herself, she was more than hoping. She was betting her very essence on what would happen.

Gabrielle gazed into the looking glass as she dried herself, noting for the first time in a while the tattoo that still adorned her body after all the time that had past. It was slightly faded from what she remembered, but it still had color and movement with her body's own and she turned away feeling slightly nauseated by the sight.

She dressed with more care than usual, choosing her favorite blue gingham dress and combing her hair out carefully before pinning it up in the accepted style of the day. She looked at herself again, realizing Xena hadn't seen this look on her before and wondering what she would think of it. Then a knock on the door caused her to stop breathing for a moment.

She wiped sweaty palms on her and moved to the door....

... only to find Hercules standing on the other side.

"Surprise!" he said, extending his arms for a hug. "Wow, Gabrielle. You look great. Can I come in?"

She looked beyond him. "Well...."

"Or are you expecting someone? And where is Xena?"

"I hope I'm expecting someone and I'm not really sure."

An eyebrow rose. "But I thought...."

"Long story... one I'll share with you soon, I promise." Gabrielle looked past him again and this time her eyes burned with a fierce inner joy tinged with sadness, though her face never lost its stoic expression. The years had enabled her to hide many things, though her eyes told a story all their own.

"Hello, Xena," he said as she approached, her eyes never leaving Gabrielle. The bard blushed at the intensity, but she didn't let her stare waver.

"Hello, Hercules. Nice to see you. Now get lost."

Xena reached the steps and walked purposefully up them, pulling the flowers from behind her back. Hercules walked backwards, nearly tumbling down the stairs in an effort to escape the strength of passion he could feel flowing between them.

"I think I'll go surprise Mama," he muttered before turning and moving briskly back towards the boarding house.

Xena stopped short of touching Gabrielle, not quite sure of her reception despite what her heart and soul were shouting at her. She extended the flowers and watched Gabrielle tear up as she reached a hand out to accept the bouquet.

When Gabrielle opened her mouth to speak, Xena stepped into her personal space, resting one hand lightly on her hip and putting the other over her lips.

"Don't," she said. "Don't apologize. I deserved that and gods...." She let her hand trace Gabrielle lips and travel up smooth cheeks, smiling tremulously when Gabrielle leaned instinctively into the touch. Xena wiped the solitary tear that slipped from the green eyes and let her hand feel the silky smooth skin beneath her fingertips – a sensation she had missed for more than half a lifetime and one Gabrielle had not shared in longer than forever.

Xena's hand trailed down Gabrielle's neck and into her hair, loosening the pins that held it in place and running her hands through its corn silk softness. She went no farther; now any overtures would have to be Gabrielle's. But first....

"We have so much to talk about. I need to explain...." But her words were cut off when Gabrielle repeated her earlier action, raising a shaky hand to cover her lips.

"Do you want there to be an us?" Gabrielle asked in a bare whisper, moving her fingers and tracing Xena's lips with a feather-light touch. "Do we have a future together?"

"Oh yes! Gods, yes, Gabrielle. If you're willing, we have an eternity together to look forward to," Xena answered softly, kissing the fingertips that remained on her lips. She waited patiently as Gabrielle studied her eyes while the bard's fingers continued to roam around her face and down her neck. It was sending all sorts of pleasant sensations along her body and she trembled slightly in reaction.

Gabrielle felt the shiver and smiled as she saw the banked fires in Xena's eyes burst into a barely controlled flame. She understood suddenly that their future rested in her hands. Xena was giving her the decision to make and she knew if she turned the warrior away, she would never see Xena again.

Just the thought made her catch her breath and Xena's eyes filled with concern.

"Gabrielle?"

Gabrielle smiled nervously, feeling much like a blushing bride on her wedding night. She wound one hand into Xena's long tresses and ran the other up the front of her body until it rested on the curve of her neck.

"We do have a lot to talk about," she said, urging Xena's head down. "But we have an eternity to do it in," she added as she brushed their lips together in a teasing kiss. "And we can start tomorrow." A second kiss lasting just an instant longer. "But tonight, especially tonight, I need to feel you. No words... no explanations... no excuses. Just us... touching, feeling, loving one another."

For her answer, Xena swung Gabrielle up into strong arms and crossed the threshold into the house, shutting the world out with the slamming of the door.

Chapter XLI

Xena was only peripherally aware of the banked fire and the two animals curled up blissfully in front of it. Her entire focus was on the world she held in her arms and she walked without hesitation... into the bathroom.

Gabrielle chuckled soundlessly, as much from nerves as from amusement. "You trying to hint I need another bath?" she asked teasingly, smiling at the slight blush the climbed up Xena's face.

"Um, no... I took a wrong tu...." She took a good look around. "On the other hand, I can think of a few reasons to use that later," she said, wiggling her eyebrows as she nodded towards the shower.

"So can I," Gabrielle agreed as she pulled Xena's head down until their lips were nearly touching once more. "Now, take me to bed, Xena. I have waited an eternity for you."

The truth of those words hit Xena in an unexpectedly deep place. "Never again, sweetheart. Never again."

The warrior walked the few paces into the bedroom, not stopping until she was standing next to the bed. She set Gabrielle gently on her feet and stepped back slightly, allowing her eyes to roam the slim figure before her. Unlike any of the clothing she had previously seen Gabrielle in, the blue gingham teasingly hinted at the assets it hid. The strength of her shoulders and arms were hidden by the sleeves. But the snug material hugged full breasts and a trim waist, then draped nicely over the swell of her hips.

"You are so beautiful," Xena whispered hoarsely, noting the nervousness in Gabrielle's actions as she wiped her palms on the front of her skirt.

"Still?"

Xena closed the space between them and lifted Gabrielle's eyes to meet her own. Only then was she aware of the weight of Gabrielle's solitary life in her eyes and it made her heart break again.

"Always," she said softly, before claiming the lips that had been hers alone in lifetimes past.

The kiss was soft, gentle and unrushed. Xena traced Gabrielle's lips with her tongue and moaned when she was granted immediate entrance. She brought her hands up to cup Gabriele's face, trembling when she felt Gabrielle's hands running up her chest. The bard paused to tease Xena's breasts before she reached the top button on the warrior's shirt.

Without hesitation, she grasped either side, intent on ripping the shirt open. Xena pulled back slightly.

"Wait."

Gabrielle looked up in confusion. Xena smiled.

"Mama let me borrow the clothes... so I could have some clean ones."

Gabrielle smiled in return. "Well, in that case...."

She pushed the jacket to the floor and eased the suspenders from broad shoulders, feeling muscle that had grown firmer than she remembered. Gabrielle trailed her hands down the white shirt, smiling slightly when Xena's breathing hitched. She reached the belt and loosened it, unbuttoning the trousers, then watched them slide from Xena's slim hips to the floor.

"How accommodating," she said with a smile.

Xena shrugged and gave her a crooked grin. "They were a little big."

"Take them off," Gabrielle said, leaning against the bed and watching with interest. Xena did so, sitting down in the room's single chair to ease her boots off then stepping out of the trousers. Gabrielle giggled when Xena held them up.

"Xena, those are more than a little big. You, me and Shamrock could fit in those things with room to spare."

"Maybe we'll try it sometime without the horse." She stood up and wrapped her hands around Gabrielle's waist. "What happened to no talking? You all right? You're not... you're not... afraid... of me, are you?"

Green eyes flew up to meet blue and Gabrielle shook her head vigorously. "No, love, NO!" She chuckled uncertainly. "I'm just... I'm nervous, I guess. It's been a while. I haven't done this since...."

"Since...?" Xena repeated when silence fell, feeling her heart clench at the thought of Gabrielle having shared herself with anyone else. Despite what both Hercules and Cecrops had said, there had always been a tiny corner of doubt. How could anyone choose to be alone for so long?

"I haven't been with anyone but you, Xe."

Xena felt both overwhelmed and humbled by the quiet, startling admission. "You've been alone... since that last night in Japan?"

Gabrielle nodded.

Xena enveloped Gabrielle in a full body hug, which the bard reciprocated in kind. She nestled into Xena's chest, absorbing the warmth and scent and feel of the warrior surrounding her. Xena leaned her cheek on the fair hair, nuzzling its softness with a sense of coming home.

"Oh, Gabrielle...."

"It was my choice, Xena," she said as she squeezed. "I... couldn't. I couldn't share this without the feelings and you own my heart."

Gabrielle felt Xena's heart stop at her words and then redouble as she blew out a breath.

"Let me love you, Gabrielle." The words floated down to her ears on a bare whisper.

Gabrielle pulled away just far enough to unbutton Xena's shirt and push it to the floor. She traced the tattoo and scars on the warrior's chest, arching an eyebrow in Xena's direction. Then she stepped back and looked at Xena, standing naked before her. Her legs had lost a good deal of their customary tan, but they were still long, lean and supple, the muscles flexing with each tiny movement of the warrior's body.

Her hips were a little slimmer than Gabrielle remembered and the abdominal muscles more pronounced. The breasts were still firm and round and the shoulders and arms were muscular, though differently than when they had wielded a sword.

The full lips were creased in a rare, full smile and the blue eyes twinkled in pleased embarrassment. No one had ever made her feel the way Gabrielle did with a single, smoldering look.

Gabrielle lifted her hands to her dress, but Xena gently pushed them aside. She began unbuttoning the bodice, shivering when Gabrielle ran her fingertips up the warrior's bare sides. She traced her fingers over ribs and stomach muscles and lingered over the round sides of her breasts before repeating the action.

Xena worked the buttons loose as quickly as she could, then stepped away from Gabrielle's touch. She walked around behind the bard and trailed her fingers across Gabrielle's shoulders, watching the goosebumps rise following her touch. Xena pushed the dress down her arms and waist, watching it fall to the floor in a heap of material. Another tug and her undergarments joined them.

Then Xena scooped Gabrielle up in her arms once more and lowered her onto the bed.

For a long moment she simply looked, gazing into Gabrielle's eyes and loving her without words or touches, seeing that love returned in kind. Then Xena's eyes traveled down the immortal body, remembering how and where Gabrielle liked to be touched. Finally she brought her lips and hands to bear, capturing Gabrielle's mouth possessively and allowing her fingers to trace the smooth contours of the bard's body at last.

They took their time. Having waited a lifetime and beyond, they went slowly – touching, exploring, rediscovering - igniting one another's passion and celebrating the joys of coming together and being whole once more.

They met body to body, heart to heart and soul to soul. And at the height of their passion, just as the clock struck the witching hour, they renewed their blood connection and for the first time in nearly two millennia, the circle was complete.

"Harrison! What are you doin' here?" Mama exclaimed as she opened her arms for a hug. "It's so good to see you again."

"Hello, Mama. I thought I'd come check on Gabrielle, but I saw she is finally in better hands."

"Lord, you didn't interrupt...."

Hercules chuckled and flushed slightly. "No ma'am, but it was a near thing." He motioned to her finery. "What's the occasion?"

"It's Halloween, Harrison. We're welcomin' Samhain."

"Ah."

"And you just volunteered because I'm bettin' we don't see Gabrielle for a while and I need the help."

"Where's Isaac?"

Mama shrugged. "He got called off on some emergency before daylight this morning. Told me it might be a few days. Now go get into your Sunday-go-to-meetin'-clothes. We got a party to go to."

Hercules laughed and took the stairs two at a time to get changed.

Folks were glad to have Hercules, or Harrison as he was known to them, back among them and they welcomed him warmly. Though they were disappointed that Gabrielle was suddenly unable to join them, the party was in full swing when Hercules ran into a most unpleasant and unexpected visitor.

"What are you doing here?" he hissed taking the visitor's arm and pulling him into a more private area. "Can't you find somewhere else to be?"

Ares jerked her arm out of Hercules grasp and smoothed down the material of his jacket. "It's a free country, bro. I can go where I want."

"Yeah, well I want you to go somewhere else... preferably back to your hidey hole in Greece."

"Well, we don't all get what we want, do we?" the war god said bitterly. "Don't get your shorts in a twist. I'm leaving soon. I got what I came for."

Hercules eyes got big, but he bit his tongue on the off chance that Ares hadn't come for Xena and Gabrielle.

"Besides, even with that annoying little Iolaus clone you call a lawman, this town has an energy... a power I haven't felt in ages. It drew me...." Ares shrugged. "Maybe it is just the time of year." He walked off a few steps before he turned. "See ya, little brother."

"You know that jerk?" Isaac asked as he came up beside Hercules, who turned in surprise. Isaac smiled. "Hey, big guy."

Hercules clapped a hand on Isaac's shoulder. "Hey, buddy. I didn't think you were supposed to be here, but I'm glad to see you."

"Same here. You know him?" jerking his chin in Ares direction.

"We've had a few run-ins, yeah." A pause. "Why?"

"He's the reason I left so early this morning. He's rounding up mercenaries to join up with Union forces to fight the Indians. Seems the government is still smarting over their loss at Little Big Horn."

"Always something, isn't it?" Hercules muttered, though he wondered what had brought the god of war to the point that he was physically recruiting mercenaries. "Well, nothing to be done about it tonight. C'mon, let's go get some of Mama's pie."

Classes were suspended briefly at Mama's behest. She explained that Gabrielle had things come up that took precedence and any communication with her would need to be directed to Mama for the time being. Hercules volunteered to fill-in as the teacher, but first he and Isaac made a quick trip to Kansas to warn the Indians of the coming military raid.

Unfortunately, none of these natives recognized either white man as a friend and it took the two several days to convince the braves of their sincerity. Only when they finally met with Kya and Kepo did they make headway, but it was the mention of Xena's name that gained them the trust the needed. They told their story and turned towards home. Hercules particularly was anxious to hear about the reunion between warrior and bard.

It was a two week round trip, so Hercules was more than a little surprised when Mama stopped him from visiting when they returned to Nocona Corners.

"No, Harrison," she said calmly but forcibly. "They are not ready for visitors yet."

"But...."

"Gabrielle promised to let me know when they were ready. Until then, you respect their need for privacy."

"How long do they need? It's been over four months."

"No. Gabrielle's companion arrived on Halloween, just as you did."

Hercules creased his brow in thought. "But...."

"Let it go, Harrison."

He nodded. "All right. Not like I'm going anywhere for a while what with teaching school for Gabrielle," realizing for the first time just what he'd committed to. "It'll wait. It's just...."

Mama patted his arm. "I know, but we'll get the whole story eventually." She turned to slip a pan of biscuits in the oven. "I hope," she muttered in afterthought.

The weather turned colder and snow flurries blew through on Thanksgiving. December was colder still and Christmas approached with no sign of Xena or Gabrielle emerging from their cocoon. Even Mama became concerned and girded her loins to check on them.

Hercules tried to dissuade her, knowing they could survive much longer without any of the so-called necessities of life. But he couldn't convince Mama of that without betraying their secret, so with great reluctance he let her go, hoping Gabrielle could cope with the questions he was sure would follow.

She wrapped up a meal, packing it into a basket before pulling on her heavy coat and wrapping a shawl over her head. Then she started down the path, hoping she was not stepping where angels feared to tread.

Mama heard soft laughter and the murmur of voices when she lifted her hand to knock on the door. Her hand fell as she considered the wisdom of simply dropping in. Gabrielle had promised to let her know when she and Xena were ready for company and though it had been nearly two months, that sign had not yet come.

On the other hand, it had been nearly two months and there had been no sign of life around the cabin save the wood smoke that came from the fireplace. Mama felt her concerns were well-founded. No matter how strong, human beings simply could not live on love alone.

She raised her hand again only to hesitate when the laughter turned to something much more provocative and intimate. Instead, she set the basket down, knowing the cold would keep everything for a few days. If she didn't see them before the first of the year, she would try again.

They heard the steps coming up the stairs, but when there was no knock, Xena and Gabrielle turned their attention back to one another. The days since Halloween had been filled with much sharing – love, laughter and tears.

Gabrielle had gotten out her diaries and they were reading through them together and Xena saw so many ways her bard had influenced the course of history. She felt a bit of melancholy over all the time they had missed together and a little jealousy over all the things she had missed sharing with Gabrielle.

They were curled up together on the bearskin rug Hercules had brought back from Banff on one of his trips. The fire was cozy along with being warm, something they both appreciated.

"You did a lot of good over the years, my bard," Xena said as she handed Gabrielle a cup of tea. "I mean...."

Gabrielle shrugged. "I guess."

Xena sat up at the tone. "Gabrielle?"

She shrugged again and took a sip of the tea. "I would have rather spent the time with you," came the quiet admission.

Xena set her cup aside and did the same with Gabrielle's. Then she embraced the bard's body completely with her own, nuzzling the soft skin of her neck until she got a delightful little shiver and a tiny mewling sound out of Gabrielle. The bard turned her head and their lips met again. Xena was fuzzily aware of the retreating footsteps but her attention was focused elsewhere.

"What if you could?" she asked when they separated.

Gabrielle shifted in Xena's arms until she could look up into her face with a furrowed brow. She cupped the soft cheek gently and urged the blue eyes to meet her own quizzical green ones.

"Wha...?" She shook her head. "Xena, I don't understand what you're asking me."

Xena smiled and captured the full lips beneath her own for a long moment. "What if you could?" she asked breathlessly when they pulled apart. "What if we could go back and live through that time together?"

"Don't tease me, Xena," Gabrielle said harshly. She pulled away as much as the floor allowed her and would have moved from Xena's hold had not the warrior held on tightly. "I don't think you really understand what an eternity alone is like."

Hurt flashed in Xena's eyes before it was swiftly hidden. She kissed the blonde hair beneath her lips. "You're right, Gabrielle. I don't... I can't. I can tell you I didn't like the small taste of it I had and given the chance to do it over, I do things differently so we could be together... I mean, if that's what you wanted."

"Of course it would be what I wanted, love, but what is the point of speculating over something that can't be?"

"It can."

This time Gabrielle did pull away, enough to sit up until she was leaning on her elbows. She looked at Xena askance and rubbed her temples.

"Simple words, Xena. My head hurts."

In answer, Xena rose and went to the large saddlebags Gabrielle had collected on Samhain morning, following their Halloween reunion. It had been the only time either of them had been out of the house except to collect wood from the shed. Now she sorted carefully through the totems in one bag until she reached the scroll at the bottom. She unrolled it and passed it to Gabrielle.

"When I arrived here, I was... so... lost. All I could think of was finding a way home to you." Silence. "I found out how I was brought here and how to reverse it." Xena opened the bag again and set the items out one by one. "It took me a while and a lot of searching, but eventually I had all the items I needed to go home... except one."

Gabrielle looked over the totems carefully, recognizing all of them but putting her questions save one aside for the moment. "You'll share the stories behind these with me one day, right?"

Xena nodded.

"You're missing the chakram," she stated unequivocally. Xena nodded again. "The chakram that is now in my possession." A third nod. "Well, we have a tiny little problem," Gabrielle said and Xena's head dropped. She had been afraid of this.

"Lemme guess... you left it in Greece. With Aphrodite."

It was Gabrielle's turn to nod. "It seemed like the best idea at the time. I had to leave most of the weapons in her care. I still have a staff with me and some of the smaller knives, but she kept the katana, your sword and the chakram."

Xena smiled ruefully. "Well, I guess in the spring we'll be taking a trip to Greece. In the meantime...." Her smile turned rakish and her blue eyes twinkled wickedly.

"Yessss?" Gabrielle drawled, feeling her blood prickle in excited reaction.

Xena pushed the scroll and other totems aside and moved back to lie beside Gabrielle on the fur. Then she ducked her head, kissing the bard with abandon until she felt Gabrielle relax into her. She loosened the ties on Gabrielle's robe, setting her hands free to explore and asked on a ragged breath when she felt the bard reciprocate the touches in kind, "How 'bout a trip to Elysia?"

Her answer came in the form of a touch so intimate, Xena simply held on and let the bard take her there, cradling her heart and soul tenderly while setting her body free to soar.

They lay together in the afterglow watching the flames burn the new wood Gabrielle had fed them. Xena had opened the front door and retrieved the basket Mama had left and they were cuddled together under a think blanket feeding one another bits.

Unexpectedly, to Gabrielle at least, Xena was on her feet and crouched in defensive position before the rose petals reached the floor. Aphrodite stepped back in pure reflex. Gabrielle giggled and Xena glared before sliding back down beside her bard.

"Whoa, babe! Nice reflexes! Wow... great bod, too!" She turned her attention to Gabrielle who was glaring. "Oops!" And she laughed girlishly. "Forgot about those radical green eyes." She winked and took a look around before dropping onto the couch, bouncing on it a time or two before nodding approval. "Quaint little place you've got here, Cutie. I like it... it totally suits you."

Gabrielle tied her robe and crossed to sit on the couch, wrapping Dite in a crushing hug. "I've missed you," she whispered, feeling a tightening of the goddess's arms around her in reflexive response.

"Oh, babe... I've missed you too... so much." She looked at Xena who was caught between the need to glare jealously at the interruption and the joy she still felt flood her being when she realized that she and Gabrielle were together again at last. Instead, she tied her own robe and began clearing the remains of their meal, keeping one ear on the conversation.

"It is like, so bitchin' to have you two babes together again. The love vibes are just rockin'."

"How did you get here?" Gabrielle asked seriously. "I mean... I know you just popped in, but I thought... I mean you haven't been able to do that for a while."

"Yeah, well, you two have juiced the batteries so much since you've been back together, my energy is totally off the freakin' scale. It's awesome!"

Gabrielle blushed, but her smile was radiant. She gazed at Xena adoringly. "Well, it's been pretty awesome for us as well."

"I know," Dite said softly. "And I am so, so glad. Now," she said in a louder voice, pulling her glasses from a nonexistent pocket and slipping them on her face. "Let's get down to business. Here," she added briskly. "I think you're gonna need this."

She pulled the chakram from another nonexistent pocket and handed it to Gabrielle. Xena reached for it almost automatically, but pulled back with a scowl when Gabrielle took it and set it aside, both at the action and the implication of Aphrodite's words.

"You've been spying on us?" Xena said low and dangerously.

"Not exactly, no," Dite defended herself. She turned to face Xena squarely. "Gabrielle, could you give us a moment alone, please?"

The bard looked between the two of them – one angry and defiant; the other angry and determined. Aphrodite's use of her full name and the seriousness of her tone had not escaped Gabrielle's notice. Dite turned her head, her eyes pleading. Gabrielle turned her attention to Xena, noting the stiffness of her posture before the blue eyes turned her way and the dark head nodded her agreement with a sharp, short nod.

Gabrielle looked back at Aphrodite and nodded with a soundless sigh. Then she rose and picked up the chakram, laying it in Xena's lap before kissing the top of the raven hair. She picked up the basket Xena had left with its neatly stacked dishes and moved over to the tiny kitchen area which backed up to her bathroom.

Then she went into the bathroom and started a hot shower running, figuring it was about the only way to give the two women a bit of privacy.

Aphrodite waited until the door closed before she turned outraged eyes to Xena who met her stare with an equally furious look. She rose to her feet until she was nose to nose with the warrior.

"Just listen," she said when Xena opened her mouth to speak. "Yeah, I overheard your conversation. I've been keeping an eye on Gabrielle for nearly two thousand years. It's kinda become an ingrained habit."

"So once you knew we were back together, you kept watching because...." It was a bare whisper, but the outrage came through clearly.

Aphrodite rolled her eyes. "Get over yourself, warrior babe. With your track record, figure the odds. Besides, it's my job, remember?? It's like, what I do."

"Yeah, well, you can stop now."

Dite gave an unladylike snort. "Let me explain something to you, Xena. You have the chance to go back and do things right this time... to be able to live through all the time you missed with Gabrielle. BUT...." She poked the warrior in the chest to emphasize her point. "You screw this up and I guarantee you there won't be a third chance."

"Is that a threat?"

"NO. That is a promise." Dite softened her eyes and her tone. "Xena, most beings, mortal or otherwise don't get the kind of opportunity you've been offered. Don't squander it."

"Or?"

"Or you will be alone for eternity. I won't see Gabrielle live through this... alone like this again."

Xena walked over to the window and looked out across the expanse of bare, snow-dusted ground unseeingly.

"Why?"

Dite's brow furrowed. "Huh? Why what?"

"Why am I getting this chance?

The goddess shrugged. "A lot of different reasons. But I think mostly because of Gabrielle's faith in the two of you together."

"You think?"

"Yeah, but don't let that get around, all right? People will start expecting it all the time," she replied wryly.

Xena couldn't help it. The deprecating, sardonic answer made her smile and she realized that Dite genuinely cared for both of them, though she suspected that caring went much deeper for Gabrielle.

"So what do we do now?"

"Well, I can't take you back. I mean... I can take you back to Greece, but not back in time. You need to find the spell that brought you here and reverse it."

Xena concured. "That's what I've been working on – collecting the totems. The chakram was the last piece of the puzzle. I need to talk to Kya." She looked at Aphrodite. "He's the shaman who brought me here."

Dite nodded and chewed her nail. "Probably a good idea."

"What is?" Gabrielle asked as she stepped from the bathroom drying her hair with a towel.

"Talking to Kya before we attempt the ritual that will take us back to our Greece... our time."

"So you think we can really do this successfully?" Gabrielle asked, looking between them.

"I think so," Xena said slowly. "I don't think we have anything to lose by trying."

"Agreed," Gabrielle said with ultimate faith and trust reflecting in her green gaze.

Aphrodite clapped her hands. "This is so totally exciting! I got things to do." She leaned forward and kissed them both on the cheek. "Good luck guys.... Later!"

Gabrielle laughed when Xena shook her head to clear it of the rose petals that had landed in her hair. Then she blew off one that landed on her nose. Gabrielle covered her mouth to keep from howling. Xena glared in the bard's direction, then let a wry smile cross her face.

"She really cares for you, ya know," Xena commented.

"She cares for both of us, Xena and she's been a good friend."

"Yep. I'm glad...." She started to say more then bit her tongue. She still felt guilty though she and Gabrielle had worked things out between them with lots of honest conversation since their reunion. Now with the opportunity to make things right, she didn't want to dwell on the coulda-woulda-shoulda's. "Here's hoping she's right about us going home again although...." Xena paused. "Gabrielle... are you sure? I mean, I'd be happy to make a life here with you. And by your own admission, you've done so much, helped so many...."

Gabrielle wrapped the towel around her neck and closed the two step distance between her and Xena. She lifted her arms to Xena's neck, gratified when the warrior's hands automatically went to her waist.

"Xena...." captured for a long moment in the intent regard of those blue eyes. "Yes, I'm sure. If it works, we'll be able to do all those things again... just together this time. If it doesn't...." She shrugged. "We'll make a life here together and I'll be happy to do that because we *will* be together. But I'd really like to give going home a try. What do we have to lose, right?"

Xena remembered Aphrodite's warning, niggling in the back of her mind. She wondered if she were destined to repeat her mistake or if the Fates were truly given her a chance to choose her own greater good this time. "Right," she answered.

She pulled Gabrielle into her and hugged her close, nibbling on her neck and chuckling silently when the bard was caught between a giggle and a moan as she allowed Xena better access. The warrior licked her way up to Gabrielle's ear and patted her on the butt.

"Go get dressed. I think it's time to go see Mama."

"You're a tease," Gabrielle said with a hint of frustration in her voice.

Xena grinned rakishly. "Yeah, but you love me anyway."

Gabrielle reached around and pinched a firm warrior behind, then scooted towards the bedroom. "Yep. I sure do," she said laughingly.

Xena growled and gave chase.

They were later to Mama's than they planned, but still made it in time for dinner.

Chapter XLII

Xena and Gabrielle observed Christmas with Mama, Isaac, Sal and his family and Hercules at Mama's insistence. Xena didn't understand what exactly what they were celebrating, but it was near enough to solstice for her to accept it as a holiday. Gabrielle had long since given up trying to explain that she didn't commemorate most of the modern holidays and simply participated in her own way. They were both glad of the opportunity to thank the woman who had welcomed them into her heart and home without judgment, though and they did so with relish.

Sal, Isaac and Hercules each received a bone knife from the white buffalo Xena had killed so many years before. She had kept them carefully and carved a bit of her story on each of them. The children and Josephina were given Cheyenne beaded necklaces. Mama received the white buffalo robe over her protestations that she couldn't possibly accept something so valuable.

Each of them was given genuine scrolls from Gabrielle that told a different story. The uniqueness of the gift made Sal's eyes light up at the prospect of a new business venture – until Josephina smacked his head for allowing commercialism to intrude on such a sacred holiday. The story she gave Mama brought tears to her eyes.

"Thank you," she whispered to the bard when she was done reading.

"You've been a mother to me for... a few years, Mama," Gabrielle said with a smile. "It was the best way I could think of to say thank you... and goodbye."

"You're leaving?" This from Hercules. He hadn't had a chance to catch up with them yet and he felt a pang at the possibility that he might not get to.

Gabrielle bit her lip and nodded, looking directly in his eyes. "We have a chance to go home again. We're gonna take it."

"Will you be back?" Mama asked.

Gabrielle shook her head. "Probably not. Home for us is Greece. It...." She trailed off, at a loss for how to explain without actually saying anything revealing. Isaac broke the silence before it stretched on too painfully, opening his arms for a hug.

"We'll miss you, Gabrielle."

"Thanks, Isaac. I'm gonna miss ya'll too."

Mama got up from her seat and first embraced an embarrassed Xena and then a teary Gabrielle. "I expect you girls to be careful and be safe. And if you can come back here, we'll be glad to see you."

"Thank you, Mama," Gabrielle said. Xena didn't respond verbally, but she gently returned the hug.

Hercules walked them beck to the cabin later that evening. "So you found all the totems?" he said into the cold air, watching the fog of his breath billow out at his words. Xena nodded. "You think it will take you back home then... to the time we are from?"

"I dunno. I think so... I hope so."

"But you're gonna try?"

Xena nodded. "Yeah. We are. We've got nothing to lose...."

"... and everything to gain," Gabrielle finished. Hercules acquiesced. They reached the cabin and Hercules remained at the bottom of the steps while Xena and Gabrielle walked up them and paused.

"Do me a favor," the big man asked. "If you don't make it back to the beginning, go to Banff and wait for me. I'll come up in the summer to see if you're there or not. But I'd like to know if ya'll do stick around this time, okay?"

Gabrielle walked back down the steps and into his arms. They hugged for a long moment. "We will," she agreed softly. "Thank you Hercules... for everything."

He kissed her cheek tenderly. "Thank you, Gabrielle. You brought back a wonderful part of my life and I'm glad to have had you in mine."

"Hey," Xena called softly. "Can anybody get in on this little love fest?"

Both Gabrielle and Hercules opened an arm to her and they embraced briefly. Then the two women withdrew and moved back to the door.

"When are you leaving?" Hercules asked as they opened the door.

Xena shrugged. "Probably the next day or two. May as well go to the winter camp while the weather is decent."

"Do you need an escort?"

"No, Hercules, but thank you." And Hercules knew that Xena was thanking him for more than just the offer and he acknowledged it with a smile.

"Can't blame a guy for trying," he said teasingly. "Ya'll be safe, all right."

"You too, Herc."

It was cold but brightly sunny when they started out two days later. Shamrock for one was glad to be out in the open again. The panther and fox made periodic appearances, as though they were checking on the progress of the little party. But both Xena and Gabrielle had grown accustomed to their odd emergence and disappearances.

The trip was a lot like their travels in Greece had been and they found themselves falling into a comfortable, well-rehearsed routine. They weren't really bothered by thugs or brigands and the days were filled with games they had played and conversation. Mostly from Xena, surprisingly, as she shared tales about her early life in this strange, new world and the people she had shared it with. Gabrielle found herself looking forward to meeting the tribe Xena proudly called family.

Nights were filled with warm campfires and lots of star chasing. Two thousand years hadn't changed the argument.

"It's a bear."

"It's a dipper."

"Bear."

"Dipper."

"Xena...."

"Gabrielle... even in this time, star gazers call it the Big DIPPER."

"But SCIENTISTS call it Ursa, as in BEAR, Major."

They looked at one another and burst into laughter.

"You think we'll have this argument every night for the past two thousand years?" Gabrielle asked.

Xena kissed the top of the blonde head. "I sure hope so." Then they snuggled down to go to sleep. They had high expectations of reaching the winter encampment sometime before midday on the morrow.

Strangely, the winter encampment was eerily empty when they arrived, with no sign that it had been inhabited all winter. Xena surveyed the area and tried to remember what Hercules had told them about the reservations. She exchanged a grim look with Gabrielle and they mounted Shamrock and headed out into the wilderness.

Travel was slow as the weather increasingly got worse and by the time they reached the land Hercules had described, even their immortal blood was frozen nearly solid. Shamrock was terribly unhappy and the fox and the panther had disappeared once more.

Xena looked around, discontented with the conditions she saw. But before she could comment on it, Gabrielle spoke up.

"I think we may have to delay our trip, love. We can't leave family in this kind of shape." Xena smiled at Gabrielle's words, knowing they came from her heart even though she knew little of the people who her warrior called family.

It was touch and go about their reception until they were recognized and acknowledged by Kya, especially since Gabrielle was so obviously not one of them. Kya was now an old man and he welcomed them both warmly, taking a liberty in age he couldn't have managed in his youth. He cupped Xena's cheek and smiled.

"Hello, Kya."

"Zee-nah, my friend. Welcome." He beckoned them forward into his small dwelling. "And this is...?"

"This is Gabrielle. This is the reason I was searching for the totems."

"Is great honor, Gabrielle. Zee-nah legend of our people."

Gabrielle chuckled and took his hand. "Yeah, she's something of a legend of ours, too."

Xena cleared her throat and changed the subject, trying to will away the blush she felt coloring her skin. "Kya, why are things so bad here? Where are your supplies... your homes?"

And he told them of the raid that had been perpetrated on the Nation little more than a moon before. A raid that had wiped out many of the supplies and homes of the northern clan. The Blue Coats had forced them all to the reservation and now they were having to make due with too little shelter and too few supplies. Sickness was running rampant through the camp and many were not expected to survive the winter.

"Let us help, Kya. We can help build more shelters and do some hunting. Then you can help us go home."

"Finished journey, then?"

"Yes," Xena said simply.

"Good," he told them with a glad smile. "Come. Talk to council. Will help the people then will send you home."

Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances and a tiny, almost imperceptible nod. "We can do that. C'mon."

The trio walked from the hut and Kya picked up a small drum that hung on the wall outside. He banged on it steadily and precisely and a crowd gathered. He continued until the council arrived and pushed its way through the congregation at Kya's hut. Then with very few words, they and Xena and Gabrielle went around back to have their discussion.

The discussion was held in Cheyenne and Xena patiently translated for Gabrielle. First Kya explained who they were and what they meant to the local tribe. Gabrielle could have guessed that just by the looks they were receiving.

Then he went on to tell them of Xena's offer. That caused a loud outcry from the elders until a younger man – the war chief – stood up and motioned for silence.

"Zee-nah fought at Little Big Horn. Killed Custer. Led braves to victory over Blue Coats. She clan. I will follow."

Dead silence ensued his pronouncement. The war chief gave up his leadership only in times of peace, something they hadn't seen in some time. For him to relinquish his position to Xena spoke volumes of not only her abilities but also his faith in her personally.

And Xena proved out his faith in her in spades. Within just a few weeks, the warriors had turned their weapons of war into weapons of salvation for their people. Tomahawks chopped down brush to help create beds and arrows were used for hunting game that Xena was able to pinpoint even in the dead of winter. Then she taught them how to find fish at the bottom of a riverbed.

Gabrielle helped the women and children collect rocks and make mud to build a permanent structure to house the overflow of bodies in. It was hard, grueling work, especially in the dead of winter, but when they finally had it standing after two weeks of exertion, it was well worth the effort. People's attitudes had changed in that time – both towards Xena and Gabrielle and about life in general. They had been given hope again. And they all understood the reason behind the change.

The day before Xena and Gabrielle were to leave, heading off into the privacy of the plains to test the ritual for themselves, Kya called them into his dwelling. A load had been removed from his shoulders by the work they had done in taking care of his people. But the look he wore was a cross between consternation and confusion.

He held in his hand the parchment Xena had given him. Though he remembered the ritual he'd performed that had brought Xena to them, he had wanted to check the details against his memory to be sure he instructed them correctly. Now especially, after just a very limited time on this reservation, he could truly understand both the want and the need to return to the home of one's roots. He marveled at Xena's patience. But he found the scroll... mystifying.

"Hello, Kya."

The shaman looked up from the parchment when the two women walked through the doorway. He was again struck by how well suited they were to one another and wondered if it had always been so. He wondered though, why Gabrielle's green eyes were so much older than Xena's. Then he had a sudden flash of insight. If he had brought Xena, who had not aged a day in the forty years he'd known her, from the distant past, could Gabrielle have possibly lived through it? He didn't expect to actually ever have an answer, but it would give him an interesting question to ponder until he died.

Kya realized he had been silent too long and that Xena was giving him that raised eyebrow look. He motioned them to sit.

"Forgive old man, Zee-nah. Get lost in thinking too easy."

Xena smirked. "Kya, my partner is a bard. I'm used to it." Then she squirmed to dodge the backhand that hit her squarely in the belly.

"Watch it, Warrior Princess. We have plenty of time for me to torture you, ya know."

Blue eyes twinkled mischievously. "Promise?"

Green sparkled back at her, forgetting their audience for a moment. "Uh uh," Gabrielle replied. "Guarantee."

Kya's laughter brought them back to the present. "You old couple. Been married long time."

"You think we act married?" Gabrielle asked with a smile.

"Yes," Kya answered with a vigorous nod. "Like parents." Then his face turned abruptly serious. "Zee-nah, where did you find?"

Xena scowled. "In the cave, Kya... just like you did."

He shook his head. "Not same. Different ritual."

Xena ran a hand through her hair. "What?? You mean we can't go home - I collected all those totems for nothing??"

"No, mean ritual different. Still need totems."

Xena blew out a big breath and Gabrielle casually stepped up behind the warrior and began rubbing her back. Xena relaxed into the touch though it wasn't noticeable to anyone save Gabrielle. The bard smiled at Kya.

"Can you explain what you did and how it differs from what we will need to do?"

"That is key... this for two. Will take both to do."

Xena nodded. "That almost makes sense, though how anyone knew there would be two of us...." She looked at Gabrielle. Gabrielle shrugged.

"I have learned not to question some things too deeply, Xena. I either don't like or don't understand the answer."

"Gods know I can understand that," Xena muttered. "All right, Kya... spill it." She took Gabrielle's hand. "We have places to be."

It took them nearly a week to reach the sacred ground Kya directed them to. They had returned to the spot where he had originally performed the ritual that had brought Xena to the New World so far out of her own time. Xena had some serious niggling doubts about the whole process now, but figured she owed it to Gabrielle to at least try.

"Xena?"

"Hmm?"

"Are you sure about this? I mean... I get the feeling you have some... doubt... or whatever. I don't want you to do this just for me. I'm content to stay here and live out our lives together from this point."

Xena took Gabrielle in her arms and pulled her into a nearly crushing hug. Then she brushed a kiss to the top of her head, feeling Gabrielle return the favor on her clothed chest. "Sweetheart, let me be real honest here... even with doubts, I would do this for you, because I really believe you would be happier if we got to travel through all that time together. But to be completely selfish... *I* want this. I want to be there when you re-establish the Amazon Nation or meet Genghis Khan or write the Scottish Play. I missed so much this go round and if I have the opportunity to change that... even if I have doubts about its success... I'm gonna try. Because I want it. I want us to have that time together."

Gabrielle didn't say a word. She didn't have to. She simply lifted her tear-filled eyes and embraced Xena for all she was worth. Xena pulled back slightly after a few minutes and wiped away the lone tear that slowly rolled down Gabrielle's face.

"I don't say it enough, my bard," bringing a smile to Gabrielle's face with the endearment. "But I love you. You still give my life meaning and joy and regardless of whether this works or not, I'm gonna do a better job of showing you that. You deserve that... we both do."

"Time for us to be the greater good maybe?"

"Maybe, yeah... I think it is."

The two women separated and began collecting wood and chips needed for the fire and placed them in the center of the fire ring that had already been prepared. Gabrielle laid the fire and started it, while Xena lifted the saddlebags from Shamrock's back. She groomed him carefully once more before removing the bits of tack he had left.

"Go on, boy," she said with a gentle slap on his rear. "You've been a good friend, but it's time for me to set you free. Go find you a pretty filly and make some beautiful babies, all right?" She took his head between her hands and kissed his nose. "Thank you, Shamrock," said as a whisper.

The mustang nodded and butted her in the chest. Then he reared and walked away, but only went so far as to be out of the light cast from fire ring.

The fox and the panther stepped forward and took up sentinel positions on either side of the fire and no amount of coaxing could convince them to move. Xena and Gabrielle physically relocated them, picking them up and repositioning them out of the fire ring to wait beside Shamrock. The spirit guides simply followed both warrior and bard back into the sacred ring and resumed their stance by the fire.

"You think they know something we don't?" Gabrielle asked.

Xena shrugged. "Maybe. I don't think it will hurt to have them here, though."

Gabrielle nodded her agreement.

Xena looked around when a familiar tingling skittered up her spine, but she didn't see anything out of the ordinary. With a shrug, she returned her attention to the task before her.

They placed the six totems equally around the circle. Xena had explained her journeys behind each one and Gabrielle had been amazed at the connections to both herself and to those they called friend. She idly wondered how it all tied together, then turned her attention to Xena.

Without a word, the two women stripped naked and entered the water much as Kya had done forty odd years before. The freezing temperature made them scrub much faster than he did and they were happy to remove themselves from its icy wetness and dry with the thick blanket they'd set aside strictly for that purpose.

They stood in the circle as close to the fire as they could manage, thankful for the distinct lack of wind inside the fire ring. Xena picked up the two pots of paint they had made – one green, one blue - and began painting non-descript symbols on Gabrielle's body as she chanted low in her throat. She then painted stripes of blue and green on her own face before passing the paint to Gabrielle.

The bard accepted the paint and returned the favor... chanting the words Xena had taught her as she decorated the warrior's body in patterns she felt more than understood. Finally, she striped her own cheeks and set the pots out of the circle. Then Xena and Gabrielle began a rhythmic dance that was at once both non-sexual and highly erotic, continuing to chant the words that the parchment scroll had given them.

The dance tempo increased, as did the recitation of words and Xena lifted the chakram from its position in the circle. It like the other totems had begun to glow with an unearthly energy and she felt the warmth of its power flow through her when she raised it above her head.

Beyond the circle, the wind blew fiercely and Shamrock had gone for cover against the rumbling thunder and flashing lightning that was increasingly evident in alarming proportions.

In the distance, a lone rider saw the commotion that seemed to light up the horizon and he raced towards it. Perhaps here at last was the trail he had been searching for.

They continued to dance, closer and closer without touching. The totems pulsed with light and energy and as the sun began to drop beneath the horizon, Xena sliced into the palm of her left hand and lifted it to Gabrielle's lips.

Gabrielle felt her incisors lengthen and her eyes change from green to red. She extended her tongue and swiped it over the cut, licking her lips and savoring the taste of Xena's life essence. A low growl rumbled in Xena's chest at the sheer eroticism of the act and she waited impatiently for the bard to return the favor, her canines extending in anticipation.

Finally, after what seemed an eternity to the warrior, Gabrielle took the chakram and cut her own left palm, proffering the bleeding extremity to Xena. Xena accepted with alacrity, relishing the sweet tang of Gabrielle's blood and smiling at the moan she felt emanating from the bard's chest.

They were unaware of the storm growing outside their circle and they clasped their left hands together, letting the blood flow and mingle jointly. Their right hands each held a side of the chakram, which now pulsed steadily and brightly. The five remaining totems pulsed until their energy arced and raced towards the chakram.

The chakram glowed and sent out a light that surrounded them, drawing the energy of the approaching storm to them.

Ares pulled to a quick stop a short distance from the light, sensing the end of his journey... a strength and presence he had only felt occasionally in two thousand years. He was trying to reconcile what his mind knew with what his eyes were seeing. But there was no way to deny that the tattoo on the shorter woman's back belonged to Gabrielle. These were not descendants or reincarnations. This was the real deal... and if they were here....

"IMMORTALS???" he whispered. "But how??"

Xena lowered her mouth toward Gabrielle's neck and Gabrielle extended her mouth toward Xena's. As fangs sank into flesh, lightning converged on them. And the world was blinded for a very long moment.

CHOOSE YOUR ENDING

SUCCESS FAILURE

Chapter XLIII – A: SUCCESS

Ares closed his eyes when the crash of thunder and the flash of lightning rocked the world. And when he opened them, Xena and Gabrielle were no longer in his sights.

"NOOOOOOOO!!!" he screamed in frustration, before his own world began to vortex and he disappeared into the center of it. When sound and motion stopped, the only thing left on the prairie were a fox and a panther curled up together near a small hillock and a cream colored mustang leading a herd towards the stream.

The fire had burned low, though there was still a little bit of heat and light coming from it. Lying side by side on a fur bedroll were two women – one with eyes closed contentedly and the other with her hands under her head looking up at the night sky.

Gabrielle sat up, leaning back on her elbows and studying the vast expanse of stars overhead. "Looking out at the cosmos makes you think - about where we are - where we've been - where we're going now."

Xena rolled onto her side and leaned up on one elbow. "Yeah - and like the bigger now. I mean, Gabrielle, what are we gonna do? Wander around Greece our whole lives looking for trouble? Why don't we go away? Far away? Whaddya say?"

Bright pink sparkles and a shower of rose petals put an abrupt halt to the conversation. Gabrielle smiled. Xena just rolled her eyes and smirked.

"How's about a totally rocking time at the kick-ass vacation spot in the Aegean?" She looked around at the crude outdoor accommodations and popped a chaise lounge into place, then dropped onto it gracefully. "Hey, hot babes! What's shakin'? Did I hear you two discussing some radical travel plans? I have a gnarly idea for that."

Gabrielle looked at Xena. "You know there is someone else out there."

Xena nodded. "Yeah... has been for the last half candlemark. I'll go...."

Suddenly there was dead silence – no sound at all... not from the breeze or the animals or the water that trickled in the tiny stream behind them. The fire froze unmoving, as did Gabrielle. Xena turned her focus to Aphrodite and raised an eyebrow in question.

"We need to talk." Dite said gravely and leaned forward on the edge of her chair, resting her arms on her knees.

Xena agreed, seeing clearly the serious intent in the goddess's blue eyes. "What's up?"

"Xena, how much do you love Gabrielle?" Dite paused, knowing she'd flustered the normally reticent warrior. "I want you to think about something, all right?" She waited for Xena to consent. "I want you to think about how you would feel if you had to spend eternity alive without Gabrielle."

Xena's eyes widened and she swallowed hard, but she didn't say a word. That was a possibility she'd never honestly contemplated. She had her own distinct impressions of just how long their lives together were really going to be and pondering anything less... especially if it meant eternity alone, was simply too painful to bear up under scrutiny.

"Why are you asking me this?" came the hoarse whisper when Xena could no longer bear the silence.

"Xena, you have one chance here... one chance to choose YOUR greater good. Sometimes... sometimes you have to make a commitment," glancing pointedly at Gabrielle's still form, "and stick with it." Dite hesitated, then continued more harshly. "But I warn you to choose wisely, because you won't get another chance at this. And I guarantee you I won't let her be alone this time."

"You know something," the warrior accused flatly.

"Yeah, I do," Aphrodite responded candidly, thinking of the journals she'd found in her private library and the tears she had cried when she'd read them. She wondered, but some things were better left as mysteries. "But she doesn't and you can't. You're gonna have to live for a very long time to learn what I know... I've given you all the warning I can. What you do next is up to you... and it will determine your eternal fate."

Xena sat thoughtfully silent for a bit before sighing and dipping her head in acknowledgement. She squirmed uncomfortably, not wanting to be beholden, but needing to know. "Dite, when this is all over...." When not if, because she was determined to do right by Gabrielle and herself this time. She had a gut instinct telling her that this was no ploy, no joke of the gods and a misjudgment on her part would cost her everything she held dear.

"Yes?"

Aphrodite waited, but Xena seemed unable or unwilling to put her thoughts into words.

"Look, babe... I'll tell ya what. You do whatever it is you feel ya need to do with Kimchi boy toy out there and then if you're up to it, I'll see about that rockin' vacation on Lesbos. A couple weeks time-out maybe, to you know, like, put the priorities in order, get a few things totally settled between ya." She gave Xena another meaningful look. "Then when you're ready, you and the Gabster can come on up to Olympus. We could have a bitchin' girl fest and I could, you know, let you in on a couple things you like, need to know... answer whatever questions I can."

"Like our immortality?"

Dite blinked in surprise and cleared her throat. "Uh, among other things, yeah." She raised her hand to move time along again when Xena stopped her.

"You're doing this for her, aren't you?" Xena asked softly.

Dite had the grace to blush, but she never broke eye contact with the warrior. "I've got my reasons," she answered, laying a hand on Xena's chest. Xena gasped at the momentary emptiness she felt. "But I meant what I said. You won't get another chance." Dite removed her hand and Xena struggled to breathe.

"Xena?"

The warrior looked at Gabrielle, trying to get her mind back in the game. "Huh?"

"You all right? You kinda faded out on me."

Xena rubbed a hand across her eyes. "Sorry... what were we talking about?"

"Well, you mentioned going away and Aphrodite popped in and volunteered Lesbos as a great getaway."

"Lesbos, huh?" Xena smiled engagingly. "Might actually get a chance to finally meet Sappho. Whaddya think?"

"Oooh, I think you know what I think. But we've gotta get rid of whoever is roaming around out there first," she added under her breath.

"Well, you girls remember what I said. Lesbos is hoppin' and I think you would have a totally wicked time. Just lemme know, 'kay? Toodles!" And Dite left in a shower of sparkles and rose petals before either Xena or Gabrielle could get a word in edgewise.

Gabrielle shook her head. "She is so blonde sometimes!"

"Careful there, my bard," Xena chuckled. "So are you."

Gabrielle narrowed her eyes at the warrior. "Are you calling me ditzy?"

Xena riffled her fingers through the pale locks then kissed the fair hair. "Nope, I'm calling you blonde." She shrugged though there was a twinkle in her eye. "You are blonde this week."

"Why you...." Gabrielle sputtered before she pounced on Xena and began a tickle fight which ended abruptly when a slight Japanese monk stumbled into their campsite, only to stop when the edge of Xena's chakram touched his throat.

"I search for Xena."

"You've found her," the warrior said casually. "Whaddya want?"

"I bring a message from Akemi. She seeks your help."

Xena got a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach that matched the emptiness in her heart when Dite had touched her. The girl had lied to her and used her before. She wasn't going to let it happen again, especially with Aphrodite's warning floating around in her mind.

"No."

"But...." stammered the monk.

"Xena?" Gabrielle said at the same time.

"No, Gabrielle. He can tell me her problem and I'll advise him to the best of my ability, but I am not getting mixed up with her again. She caused way more trouble than she's worth and I'm not cleaning up behind her any more."

"But Xena...." Gabrielle turned perplexed green eyes towards the warrior and found nothing but love and compassion in the blue eyes that met hers. "What about the greater good?" said on a whispered breath.

Xena cupped the bard's cheek in her hand, heedless of their audience. "Gabrielle, sometimes *WE* have to be the greater good. We can't solve the world's problems and I'm tired of everyone from my past thinking I owe them something. Akemi, especially, I don't owe her a thing and I'm not gonna be fooled by her again. I've paid my dues already. It's time to focus on us for a while."

Gabrielle examined the truth she saw in Xena's eyes. "You'll tell me the story?"

"On our way to Lesbos, I promise."

Xena dropped her hand and turned her attention back to the monk. "Talk."

"Akemi is dead."

"Yeah and...? She's been that way for a while now."

"I've seen her."

"Great, a freak who sees dead people. You got anything else or you gonna keep wasting my time?" Xena muttered harshly, still feeling the emptiness in her soul now that she was no longer touching Gabrielle. The monk looked taken aback by her attitude.

"You are not what I expected."

"Yeah, well, you don't know the whole story either. So either talk or don't, but make a decision. Gabrielle and I have somewhere else to be and surprisingly, you're not invited."

"Xena...." Gabrielle chided softly.

Xena sighed and motioned him to take a seat. Gabrielle stirred the embers and fixed tea for everyone, then took a seat beside Xena, stunned when the warrior leaned over and casually clasped her hand. Not that she doubted Xena's feelings for her, but she had never been overly demonstrative, especially in public.

The monk haltingly began to talk. It took him a good candlemark to falter through his story and Xena's patience was stretched to the snapping point by the time he stopped speaking. But her mind had been working as he talked and she already had most of the details worked out.

She jerked her dark head at him. "Get some sleep. I'll have something for you in the morning."

He looked at her doubtfully, but the expression in those ice blue eyes didn't change. He finally nodded and moved to the opposite side of the fire, curling into the blanket Gabrielle gave him.

"Xena?"

"Trust me, Gabrielle. This is the best solution for everyone concerned. I'm not... I won't...." She drew a deep breath. "I know I don't say it enough, my bard, but I love you. You are still what gives my life meaning and joy and I'm gonna do a better job of showing you that. You deserve that... we both do."

Gabrielle gave Xena a gently sweet smile. "I love you too and I think I'd really like that."

Xena pulled the bard close for an intensely passionate kiss. She took her time, tracing Gabrielle's lips with her tongue and accepting the invitation when Gabrielle opened her mouth. For long minutes they tasted one another, exploring and teasing until they were both a bit breathless.

"G'wan," Xena said, though her darkened eyes had another message altogether. "May as well get some sleep. This is gonna take me a while."

Instead, Gabrielle poured them each another cup of tea and settled in beside the warrior. "I'd rather keep you company," curling an arm around Xena's bicep and leaning her head on the warrior's shoulder.

Xena smiled and kissed the blonde head. "I'd like that," she said tenderly, before turning her attention to the parchment in front of her, trying valiantly to remember how to write the characters of the monk's language correctly.

When morning came, the man left with the parchment in hand, though he was still disgruntled. Akemi was going to be most displeased that he'd failed to convince the warrior to return with him. She'd been so sure Xena would do anything for her....

Ares looked into his scrying bowl and watched Xena send the monk away with instructions, but not accompanying him herself. "Now I wonder," he muttered, "what exactly is up with that?" watching the monk walk off mumbling to himself. It was totally unlike Xena to refuse to help someone in need since she became a do-gooder. His eyes went unfocused and he had to wonder what he'd missed while he'd been busy with those lovely little skirmishes in Persia and Sparta. Ares shook his dark head to clear his mind of the past and focus on the puzzle the present had just handed him. But when he turned his attention back to Xena and Gabrielle, they were gone.

Xena and Gabrielle headed out towards the sea, hoping to find passage to Lesbos from the nearest port. When Mt. Olympus came into view, however....

"Gabrielle, would you mind terribly if we stopped by to see Aphrodite on the way out?"

The bard felt of Xena's forehead then pulled back with a puzzled look. "You feel cool. What's up?"

Xena shrugged. "I just wanted to say thanks. She's been a good friend and we really don't have many of those left. I thought we could just...."

Gabrielle jumped into Xena's arms and kissed her soundly. "I think that is a fabulous idea."

Aphrodite saw them coming and popped them into her boudoir. "Well, this is a totally unexpected, but radically bitchin' surprise. But I'm glad you girls stopped by. We've got tons of gnarly stuff to catch up on and you're in for a bacchae of a bombshell! C'mon in."

Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances, then followed Dite further into her quarters, stepping into a new unknown future together and closing the door to the past firmly behind them.

THE END

10/03 & 02/04 – 10/04

Chapter XLIII – B: FAILURE

Ares closed his eyes when the crash of thunder and the flash of lightning rocked the world. And when he opened them, Xena and Gabrielle were kneeling collapsed against one another.

"This must be my lucky day," he muttered to himself. After nearly two millennia of castigating himself for his part in what had happened to Xena on Mt. Fuji, he found himself with an unexpected second chance. He realized with a start that it must have been Gabrielle that he had sensed in those odd times throughout history when he'd *almost* felt Xena's presence and some things fell into place for him.

The fact the both Xena and Gabrielle were obviously immortal were just icing on the cake and he planned to take any advantage of that that he could. It was times like this especially that he hated having to conserve his powers. Popping in and out was just so much easier and less time consuming. But there was nothing to be done for it now, so he remounted his horse and headed towards them purposefully.

Xena and Gabrielle leaned against one another for support breathing deeply as the aftereffects of so much energy flowing through them receded. Slowly they opened their eyes and gazed at one another and Xena smiled sadly.

"Guess it didn't work, my bard. I'm... I'm sorry."

Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xena neck and returned the smile, though hers was bright and not full of the sadness Xena's showed.

"Xena, we have to focus on the time we have ahead of us, not the time we have already missed. There's a whole world out there just waiting for us to experience it... together."

"I know... I had just hoped we could start over. I... I feel like I've missed so much time with you."

Gabrielle urged Xena's head down until their lips were just touching. "Look at it this way," she said softly as she brushed their lips together. "We have an eternity," kissing again, a little longer and deeper contact. "To try to catch up." This time the kiss went on until Xena's hands clenched at Gabrielle's waist, drawing them closer together.

Gabrielle smiled into the contact and felt Xena do the same and they separated with several tiny kisses, only pulling back as far a necessary to look into one another's eyes.

"Always trying to see the bright side?"

Gabrielle chuckled lightly. "Yeah. It's better for the long term outlook."

Xena gave her a real smile. "Yeah, I guess it would be." She drew a deep breath, but whatever she was beginning to say was lost on the wind as Ares reached the fire circle and several things happened simultaneously.

"Well, well... now isn't this just... cozy," Ares commented with a smirk.

Both the fox and the panther rose to their haunches, hackles standing on end and fangs exposed, causing the war god to take an undignified pace away from them. Xena and Gabrielle scrambled to their feet, stepping in front of one another to shield their naked partner from Ares' view. For his part, Ares crossed his arms over his broad chest and let his smirk broaden, though he kept a judicious eye on the two animals that seemed to be watching him with almost malicious intent.

Xena reached for her saddle bags, lifting them and digging through them to find a shirt for both herself and Gabrielle. It felt wonderful... now that the adrenaline rush of the experience had worn off, they were both feeling the cold cut through them and even a little defense was better than none.

"Oh, please don't cover up on my account. I was thoroughly enjoying the view."

"Whaddya want, Ares?"

The god stroked his beard as if in thought, though he was careful not to approach any closer. "What do I want? Hmm.... Well, let's see...." He looked at Gabrielle. "Hey, Blondie. Ya miss me?"

Gabrielle looked at Ares with disdain. "In a word... NO."

He clutched at his chest dramatically. "I'm wounded. After all, isn't it because of me that you two are finally together? I mean, I'm the one who sent Xena into the future, right? Don't you think I should get some consideration for helping the two of you back together again?"

"What do you want, Ares?" Xena asked again, pronouncing each word distinctly.

"I'd think it would be obvious, Xena. I want you. We have a whole new world to conquer and I...."

Without warning and so fast Xena nearly missed it, Gabrielle erupted, putting the force of her frustration of Ares continued interference in their lives behind the straight-from-the-shoulder punch. There was no sound until impact – fist to face and the crack of bone, the crumple of cartilage and the spurt of hot blood. It took another five seconds before Ares' behind hit the ground from the force of the blow.

"Thun ob a bith!" he screamed, glaring forcefully from behind the hand that covered his nose and mouth. Gabrielle leaned over him and smiled mirthlessly darkly gratified when he instinctively winced away from her.

"Let me explain something to you, war god and I'm only gonna say this once, all right? I'll put it into words even *you* can understand." She stood and wrapped and arm around Xena's waist, who obligingly curled an arm around the bard's shoulder. "MINE, not yours. So stay away from her... and from us."

Ares looked at Gabrielle in disbelief. No one spoke to him like that and got away with it. Of course, no one had ever broken his nose before either and he was going to have to look into how she managed that little feat a little more deeply.

Xena walked forward and knelt next to him with what could almost be described as sympathetic pity in her eyes.

"Hurts like a bitch, doesn't it?" She removed his hands from his face and winced. "Tch... you're gonna need to set that before it'll heal." She stood and moved back into the fire circle to stand at Gabrielle's side, gratified when the bard immediately wrapped herself around Xena's body.

"Word to the wise, Ares. You've got to worry a lot more about what she'll do to you," squeezing Gabrielle to her and smiling at the return pressure, "than you do about what *I* will. She's had a lot more years practice honing HER many skills."

Xena brushed a kiss across the top of the blonde head. "You sure you wanna chance it?"

Ares rose, keeping one hand on his nose to staunch the river of blood that flowed through it. He was startled to see two sets of eyes turn red and suddenly many things were crystal clear to him.

"You're bacchae!! You're immortal because...." He backed away, wishing for the nth time he was still powerful enough to manage the things he had in his prime. "Damnation!" He jerked his nose back into joint and the tears ran freely down his face.

"This isn't over Xena," he said. "I'll find you again when you're not on holy ground and we'll... talk," he said with what he intended to be a rakish smirk, but what the deformation of his face turned in to a hideous grimace. "And don't think I'll forget about this, Gabrielle. One day you will both be mine."

Without another word he mounted his horse and turned it towards the east, loping away from them into further darkness at a ground eating pace.

They watched him go before turning back to the fire. Xena stoked it while Gabrielle put on water for tea and got out a bit of food from their rations to make into soup. Even with the exchange of blood she was exhausted and the cold simply drained her faster.

Xena laid out the blankets, chuckling when she saw the panther and fox had curled up together on the far side and were resting comfortably together despite the cold temperatures now making themselves known inside the circle.

"Guess we'll wash the paint off tomorrow," Gabrielle commented when a pair of long johns and socks hit her squarely in the chest. Xena nodded.

"I think one ice bath a day is enough for anyone."

They sat down together, side by side and watched the flames hiss and crackle in the fitful wind that blew while they waited for the water to boil. Gabrielle poured the water into their cups and let the tea steep while she stirred the stew that was slowly warming up. Then she sat back against Xena's chest, sighing when the warrior wrapped long arms around her and stared out into the darkness of the plains night.

"So, where do we go from here, bard-o-mine?"

Gabrielle shrugged. "Well, we promised Hercules we'd meet him in Banff for a while if it didn't work. After that...." She shrugged again. "I dunno. I'd like to go back to Greece... maybe visit Aphrodite for a bit."

Xena nodded soberly. "She was a good friend to you, huh?"

"Yeah," Gabrielle sighed. "She was."

Xena considered then agreed. "All right. We'll go see Herc and let him know what's going on and then we'll go visit Aphrodite. After that...."

"After that, the future is ours to make of it what we will... as long as we make it together."

Xena tilted the bard's chin up and captured her lips in a long passionate exchange while the pot bubbled unattended and the stars winked back in silent indulgence.

The End

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