DISCLAIMER: 1. This fanfiction is based on the TV show "Xena: Warrior Princess". This story includes hot, romantic lesbian sex, as well as non-descriptive mentions of unconsensual m/f sex in a character's past.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

The House of Lao
By Xena's Little Bitch

We're drunk, playing the game with the tiles. I don't even remember what it's called, but I know I'll win. I always win. It's nice to have some certainties in life. We lounge on big square pillows on the floor, looking out onto a huge balcony. I stare out into the night sky, at the gauzy red and yellow curtains as they shift voluptuously in the light wind. It's dark and cloudy and I'm getting bored. Inside it is less dark; orange and warm. The pillows I lie on have tiny mirrors sewn into them. The ceiling of the room is high, the furnishings low and few. Simple and elegant. It feels as if I am as much within the room as I am floating outside in the night.

"Borias, go!" I blurt out.

"What?" I've obviously startled him.

"It's your turn. We could just stop playing..."

"No, no," he says distractedly, looking blankly at his tiles.

I roll my eyes and light the hooka, inhaling deeply; the smoke makes my eyes water and I pass it to Lao Ma who accepts it with a little smile. I've never seen a person handle themselves while intoxicated like she does. I know she's had as much as I have and yet she seems almost as sober as she did at breakfast. And she looks beautiful, her long black hair flowing loose around her, the slight flush to her cheeks the only sign of her inebriation. I lie back on the pillows and stare at the clouds as they move lazily around the night sky. A gong sounds loudly and I pull my attention back inside. We all exchange glances. I don't know what they're thinking but I'm bored. I feel like dancing, maybe. Some dancing would be nice. While changing positions I "accidentally" knock over the low table the game is resting on with my foot.

"Oops," I say, giving Lao Ma what I hope is my most charmingly mischievous smile. She pretends to frown at me. "I win."

"Xena wins again," says Borias, poking me in the ribs and finishing off his glass of wine. He pours another, and I hand him mine to refill.

Two soldiers enter the room, holding between them a young woman so stunning I sit up straight and cannot help but stare directly at her, my wine and my boredom immediately forgotten.

"She was found stowed away on one of your trade ships returning from Rome," one of the soldiers explains to Lao Ma, "She bears Roman markings."

This woman stands a head shorter than I do, her hair is short and blonde and dirty. She's dressed in soiled gray rags; one wrapped around her torso, covering her breasts, the other fashioned into something that is almost a skirt. Though her condition breaks my heart, I can't help noticing that her muscles are incredible, that they gleam like copper in the dim light. She is beautiful, and she radiates strength and anger. I watch the muscles in her arms straining not to break free of the soldiers hands. She could do it easily, but she chooses not to.

"Let her go and leave us," says Lao Ma, and the soldiers obey. The glorious woman stands there, staring at the floor. "Come, sit with us," says Lao Ma gently. The girl does not move. I can see her breasts rise and fall quickly with her breathing and her fists clench convulsively at her sides.

I haven't stopped staring at her since she entered the room. Finally she looks up at me and meets my gaze. Everything is liquid, suddenly, from my insides to the very air around me. Her light-colored eyes reflect the flames from the tall candlesticks that stand near her, and I... I've met a lot of people, but not one has ever made me feel this way when I first saw them. Not even Lao Ma, and believe me, my first sight of her was like a punch in the gut. This is just scary.

"No one is going to hurt you. You are free now. I am Lao Ma, please, tell me your name," says Lao Ma in her most enticing tone. Still the woman does not respond, and she looks back to the floor. "Do you understand me?"

It takes a few moments but the warrior nods her head slightly.

"Can you speak?" Lao Ma asks. The beautiful woman does not respond. I feel Lao Ma's eyes on me. I look at her, feeling silly about staring at the girl. There's something about her so fierce and so gentle that I want to be devoured by it. In fact the process has already begun, and I can see that Lao Ma knows it.

"Little one," I hear her saying to the girl, "I think you need a friend right now. I present to you Xena, Warrior Princess of Chin. You may stay with her and she will be your guardian until you figure out where you want to go and what you want to do."

"In other words," says Borias gently, "You got on the right boat."

The girl looks up at him and he smiles his warm, beautiful smile. Her expression is still dark.

"Now, it is late. Let us all retire for the evening." And thus we are dismissed by the Empress of Chin.

I can hear the sound of the callouses on the girl's feet as they brush the polished wood floors behind me on the way back to my chambers. This is not the first time Lao Ma has assigned a lost soul to my care, but the first time that the soul touched my own so quickly; the feeling is so intense it seems impossible. Somehow that makes it easier to deal with; how do you think about the unthinkable? You don't. Everything we pass is swathed in red fabric trimmed with gold. Huge gongs adorn the walls, delicate vases stand on small pedestals, all the details are carvings of dragons and monkey heads. I've gotten used to it. It is so beautiful and elaborate, not at all like Greece, the naked wood and plain furniture I knew back then.

We enter my chambers and stand in the main room. Large windows across from the door, heavy green curtains, a huge desk by the window. A fireplace on the right, a low couch in front of it, the door to my bed chamber. The bathing chamber is to the left, and I know there's a hot bath waiting.

"Woman without a name," I say to get her attention. "The bathing room is that way; please enjoy yourself and take your time."

She looks at me. I look at her. I don't want to think about the last time she bathed; probably not since Rome.

"I know you understand me. Why don't you go in there and bathe? Just go."

She looks at the floor.

"You're not a slave anymore," I say. "There is no slavery in Chin. I promise. We run the place in case you didn't guess. Lao Ma makes the rules and Borias and I enforce them, so I promise, you're safe. Don't you want to take a bath?"

No response. I walk over and stand next to her. "This is how it's done," I explain, turning to face the bathing room, then slowly walking into it. She follows me.

The chamber is simple and square. A large, round, paper lantern hangs in each corner, a low couch leans against each wall. There's a fireplace to heat water, and shelves and shelves of bottles and jars of stuff I almost never use.

"Are you from Greece?" I ask her, watching as she looks around the room. She nods, a guarded expression on her face. I walk to a shelf and choose incense and soaps and lotions scented with herbs and flowers native to my homeland. Perhaps they will remind her of her life before, of freedom. They might make her sad, but I'll take any reaction.

"Am I going to have to get into the bath before you will?" I ask, staring at the large, square, tiled tub that commandeers the center of the room. Steam rises out of it. There are spies in the palace who just wait to figure out when we are coming back to our rooms so the water is always hot. Something a tavern keeper's daughter can appreciate.

"If you don't take off your clothes, Blondie, I will come over there and take them off for you and pick you up and put you in the tub."

The small, muscular woman looks at me as I bend and light the incense from the fire, sizing me up, wondering; could she beat me?

"Did you fight in the Coliseum?" I ask.

She nods. Since I've never lost a fight while able-bodied, I figure I could beat her, but maybe only just.

"Did you escape?"

No answer.

"Get in the bath." Nothing. "Fine." I will do what I must to avoid getting Roman dirt in my bed. I take off my black silk pants and my black silk shirt and lay them gently on a couch like Lao Ma taught me so long ago--she said I treated my clothes angrily, like everything else. She had laughed and I had frowned. I frowned all the time back then.

I get in the tub, easing myself into the hot water until it just covers my breasts. I don't watch as the gladiator pulls off her rags and gets in as well and sits across from me. I take a bar of soap and hand one to her. I begin washing myself and see her sniffing the soap with her eyes closed.

"I was born in Greece, in Amphipolis," I say, "The smell of coriander always reminds me of home."

We sit in the tub, smelling the soap and washing ourselves. She has a lot of tattoos. Though Caesar's marks cover her body, she is still amazingly beautiful. I can think his name without getting angry. That took years. I still feel the hate, and the pain of his betrayal, but I can keep it from controlling me now, even though I have a new reason to hate him. On her arm it says "Minerva."

"Is that what they called you, 'Minerva'?"

No response.

"Should I call you that?"

No response.

"When was the last time someone told you you were beautiful?"

She blushes and then looks almost angrily down at the water. And there she is, the little Greek girl inside the hardened warrior. Flattery can be a very effective way of gaining information.

"Well, you are. Don't worry, I'm not making a pass at you. Not that I wouldn't want to... under different circumstances."

I am impressed that I am drunk and in this hot bath naked with this gorgeous woman whose soul reaches out to kiss mine, and I am not making a pass. Guess I really have conquered myself after all. She washes her body almost tentatively; I imagine she is so used to having terrible wounds and bruises that she is surprised when she doesn't flinch at her own touch. Her muscles are amazing, so large and yet she's so well-proportioned for her height. Her skin is smooth and brown from the sun, except for all the tattoos and the scars. Part of her is very conscious of my presence, aware that I could prove myself to be unsafe at any time. We bathe in silence for a while. Earning her trust is going to be a challenge.

We get out of the tub and change into long silk nightshirts. I manage to keep my eyes off her as she dresses. I point out that there's food on the table by the window but she doesn't even look. She follows me into my bed chamber, a small room that is mostly a huge bed. There's a window on one side, and the soft, dark material that gathers in the middle of the ceiling hangs down the walls to create curtains that surround the bed.

"Impressive, isn't it?"

She looks from the bed to me and back again, and then to the floor; the blank look returns her face.

"Listen, girl," I say quietly, walking towards my bed, "I'm Xena, Warrior Princess of Chin; I don't take women against their will. If you insult me like that again, well... I don't know you well enough yet to know how to threaten you appropriately, so consider yourself threatened. Just get into the bed and go to sleep and maybe tomorrow you'll start trusting me."

She gets into the bed. I smile with satisfaction as I blow out the candles. Though I am unused to another person sleeping near me, I enter Morpheus' realm easily and remain there happily for a few hours. Soon enough I am pulled from my deep slumber by movement in the bed next to me. I remember that the girl is here, and her jerks and twitches tell me she's having a nightmare. I can hear her try to call out, a raspy, wordless whisper. I know exactly the kind of nightmare she is having. The kind where you're already terrified and then you scream and scream and yet you can't make a sound: total panic. I have to wake her up and I do the first thing that comes into my mind. I take the ceramic mug from the table by the bed and throw it as hard as I can into the corner of the room by the door. I feign sleep as the warrior shoots up into a sitting position, having no idea even that it was a sound that woke her, only that she is awake and no longer in the terrible dream place. I listen as she tries to calm her breathing, and eventually it pushes me back into sleep.

I wake up the next morning, hung over and aching. I open my eyes to see the blonde gladiator standing by the window, gazing out at the great wall of Chin in the distance. Her short hair is combed back and she looks wonderful in the red silk night shirt. She is completely still, her breathing is silent. I want to come up behind her and put my arms around her, but I've got to be strategic. She is far too unfamiliar with physical comfort, mistrustful of tenderness. She reminds me of myself, the day Lao Ma brought me home and washed my hair. It took all the strength I had to stay in the water and submit to her gentle touch. The gladiator is not in hiding here, nor is she lame as I was; she could easily leave before I manage to reach her. I have to treat her as I would a cat I wanted to tame; I have to get her curious, entertain her, make her want to stay.

She turns away from the window and looks right at me staring at her. I smile and say good morning, tell her I'm glad she's still here. I gesture to the wardrobe and tell her she can wear anything she wants. She doesn't move. I put on gray-blue silk pants with a matching top. The girl watches me dress and then looks through the clothing until she finds something that's a little smaller and almost the same color and style.

"You wanna blend in, huh?" I smile at her, "Don't worry. It's just Lao Ma and Borias. You met them last night. They're both really very nice." As we walk towards the dining hall I am amazed with myself. Assuring someone that Borias is a nice guy. Gods how times change! I remember the time he... well, he never killed women and children anyway.

Today Borias is hung over. He sits at the huge golden table in our private dining room, his back to the window, staring vacantly at his food with bloodshot eyes. Lao Ma of course looks lovely and fresh, her hair perfect, sitting up straight and tall in her chair. I look at her and she smiles at me. The gladiator and I sit next to each other, looking out the huge window at the beautiful sunny morning. The blue sky looks as if it goes on forever, and maybe it does. The table is long and covered with dishes and platters. I take my little charge's plate and fill it with things I think are delicious, hoping she'll like some of them.

I decide to start my day with the hair of the dog that bit me. I mean, why not? I have nothing planned, no warrior-princessing to fence me in. I pour a large goblet of red wine for myself, and some for the gladiator as well.

"Good morning," Lao Ma says to the girl. She doesn't look up from her plate. Then to me, "Has she spoken to you?"

"No," I said matter of factly, as if it didn't really matter either way, "But I figure she will at some point."

"Perhaps we should call her Gentle Dragon?" Lao Ma asks, looking pointedly at her.

"She looks like more of an Angry Dragon to me," says Borias warmly, smiling at the girl.

"What if she's not a dragon?" I ask.

"She's a dragon," says Lao Ma, "Wait and see."

The gladiator's face is red from the gentle teasing. Slowly she raises her hand and points at a tattoo of a tiger on her lower arm.

"Tiger?" I ask. "What kind of tiger?" I can feel Lao Ma and Borias staring at me, at the intensity with which I stare at the girl. Unsurprisingly, she doesn't respond. "Then it's Tiger. For now."

"What are you going to do with your day off, Xena?" Lao Ma asks. She never needs a day off. She's happy to be responsible all the time.

"I figured I'd show Tiger around."

"Show off, you mean," mutters Borias. I can see out of the corner of my eye that Tiger's eating and I don't want to disrupt that by punching Borias. So I just smile. Lao Ma shakes her head at me.

After breakfast, the girl and I walk over to the stables. She allows me to pull her up behind me onto the back of the glorious black stallion I call Desire, and we slowly ride away from the palace, through endless green fields.

"I'm going to show you around the place, give you a taste of what it's like here, see if you have an affinity for it," I say, turning my head as far around as I can and speaking loudly into the wind, "But you could go anywhere in the world. Have you been anywhere interesting?"

"Only in my dreams," she says into my ear. Her voice is deep and full of emotion; worth waiting for.

"I know just what you mean," I say to her, enjoying the way her hands feel on my stomach. "Don't get me wrong, I've lead a very interesting life, but that's still not the same as having the things you dream about." Why in Hades did I say that? What a stupid, stupid thing to say. "What's your name?" I ask, hoping to cover it up.

"What do you dream about?" she asks. Her lips accidentally touch my ear and I feel her pull back quickly, lighting shooting through my body.

"I'll tell you that when you tell me your name."

"I haven't told anyone my name since I became a slave," she says.

"And I've never told anybody what I dream about," I counter.

As we ride on, I slow the horse and point things out to her. Not that the beautiful countryside of Chin needs any explaining. The fresh air and sunlight seem to agree with her, and her face becomes almost animated as we explore Lao Ma's grounds.

We stand at the top of a mountain from which we can see as much of Chin as can be seen from any one spot. I explain to her that all of this is Lao Ma's. It's endless and beautiful.

"At first I didn't understand, I just thought it was land and that controlling land gave you power. Lao Ma taught me how the land itself holds power." I pause and chuckle, "I thought I knew everything about power, how to get it, how to keep it, the best things to do with it once you had it. I was such a fool. I did terrible things, before Lao Ma..."

My companion looks up at me for a moment, then back out at the view. I wonder when she was last outside of Rome, what her favorite color is, what her skin would feel like under my hands. Her blonde hair glows in the sunlight. I can tell she is savoring her new feelings of freedom; from slavery, and perhaps from herself as well.

"I'm really free?" she whispers.

"Really. You got away. This part is the bonus." I smile at her and she looks up at me.

"Thank you, Xena," she says gravely.

"No problem," I say, suddenly feeling emotional and changing the subject, "Look at those clouds. There's a storm coming."

We ride quickly across the fields towards the palace. As the sky changes color with the wind and the clouds, so does the plant life. Everything glows and sparkles and I can feel the excitement in the small body behind me. Probably she has not seen a storm in years.

"You like it, don't you," I call behind me into the wind.

"I love the weather," she says into my ear, "it makes me feel alive."

We dismount at the stables and hand the horse off. The sky is dark green with the storm, but it is not yet raining. We walk together in silence, soon coming to my favorite of Lao Ma's sixty-four decorative gardens that represent the hexagrams of the I Ching. Each has a stone at the entrance with an inscription, and I read this one to Gabrielle.

"This hexagram is called Kway, Breakthrough. The marsh above heaven. The superior man rains benefits on those below him and does not let his gifts go unused."

She looks at me curiously.

"That's from The Book of Changes. Self-augury. Its main purpose is to advise in battle, but it applies anywhere. One aspires to live as the superior man does."

Lightening cracks in the sky, followed closely by thunder. I watch the girl marvel at the unusual stone sculptures, the small topiary cats, the waterfalls. So delicately does she run her fingers along the tops of the bushes that I wonder how she could possibly have turned off her gentleness to fight in the arena.

"This is marvelous," she whispers, "You're so lucky, living here."

"There are all kinds of jobs in the palace, and those who work in the palace generally live here as well. I'm sure we could find something for you that suits your skills. But I want to make clear, you can choose. You're free. To go anywhere, do anything. We'll help you get set up wherever you want."

Suddenly there is a clap of thunder and the rain explodes from the sky. I figure it's a little bit of everything, but the gladiator smiles. At the rain, the marble benches, her freedom, me. I smile back and we hold each other's stare for longer than necessary. I think she's started trusting me. And more than that. Or is it just me? I tear my eyes away.

"We only got to be outside when we were fighting, or practicing," she says, staring into the pool at the bottom of one of the little waterfalls. The raindrops cause the surface of the water to be constantly disturbed. "And when we were inside, there were no windows. At least, a storm you can hear. You can't hear a sunny day."

"No, you can't," I agree, feeling immeasurably sad for her. The fingers of her right hand caress the leaves of a bush, and she stares down at the pebbles on the path below us.

"Six years of my life. You don't get years back," she says bitterly.

"I know. There are quite a few years I myself would like to have to redo, but I've mostly come to terms with it."

"Yeah?" She turns and looks up at me almost hopefully.

"It takes a lot of work but, yeah, I promise you'll feel alive again, like the present makes the past bearable. I'll help you. If you want." My heart pounds against my ribcage and I know, damn the gods I know, what this feeling is. I've never felt it before but there's really no other explanation. Lightning cracks overhead, a little closer than I'd like.

"Really?" she asks, looking intently into my eyes, her bangs plastered to her forehead by the rain.

"On my honor," I say, because I have honor now and the way she looks at me when I say it makes my chest expand with happiness. Oh, the things I would like to be for this woman.

She slowly puts out her right hand, and I take it in my own. It feels calloused yet soft, and it fits into mine perfectly. I sense that my body has given itself away somehow, whether by sound or sudden movement I can't tell, but I feel exposed. She continues to hold my stare.

"Gabrielle," she says.

"Gabrielle," I say, the name is like honey, and I'm smiling so wide it hurts. "Perfect. Very pleased to meet you."

Thunder rumbles, leaves rustle in the wind, water splashes loudly.

"It's your turn," she says, with something close to a smile.

I give her an innocent look.

"Your dreams," she prompts, still holding my hand. No hand has ever felt like hers.

"Can you give me a little time? It's a more complicated answer."



We enjoy the storm until we are drenched, then walk slowly back to the palace. In my chambers, we dry off in front of the fire, not looking at each other as we change into long, soft, silver under dresses. Outside it is still green-gray and stormy, but in my rooms everything is licked gently by the warm orange of numerous, well-contained flames.

"What would you like to do?" I ask.

"I like that question," says Gabrielle shyly, "can we just stay here?"

"Sounds great, let me just get some things." I leave the room and speak to someone in the hall, asking for food and wine to be sent up. When I return, she is sitting on the couch in front of the fireplace, looking for all the world like someone's little girl. "Mine!" a part of me calls out; no one could resist the urge to take care of something so beautiful. Even at my worst, part of me would have cried out to a girl like this one; something Borias and I have always had in common. Yet these feelings are different, not mixed in with a thousand other more negative emotions. Borias has always been better than I am about... caring for people. I always mess everything up.

I sit on the other end of the couch. The food arrives and I pour us each a goblet of wine. I watch her lips as she drinks. They are so pretty.

"From the time I was little," I say, "I wanted to be a warrior. I had brothers and grew up like one of them, yet at the same time I always felt different."

Gabrielle smiles as she takes a sip of her wine, looking into the fire. "I was a happy little kid. I told stories and taught smaller children how to play different games... I wanted to be a bard," she says huskily, and suddenly she's sobbing. I put my hand out towards her and she sinks down to the floor away from me, knocking her wine onto the carpet and her dress.

"Gabrielle," I say softly. She continues sobbing, trying to catch her breath, as she slowly crawls along the floor away from me. My heart wrenches and I have to follow her.

"Leave me alone," she whispers savagely, kicking back at me and moving more swiftly towards the door.

"No," I say, and I throw myself on top of her. She scrambles and flips me over quickly, straddling my torso and holding my wrists crossed over my head. She stares at the floor and tries to regain control of her breathing, but she can't. She continues to sob as she speaks.

"I wanted to be a bard... my parents didn't want me to... I wanted to grow up, and fall in love..." her voice cracks and catches, and she stops to regain control. Tears pour down her face. "I wanted to tell stories. Make people happy." On the last word, she looks into my eyes. She takes my breath away. My urge to help her is even stronger than my urge to hurt the people who caused her this pain. But if they were here, I'd kill them. Easy. No questions asked.

"I know," I say softly, trying not to move, "You didn't deserve what happened to you, Gabrielle, and you can never get back what you lost. But you can still have everything you dream of. You can still be all the things you wanted to be."

"Tell me what you dream of," Gabrielle says quietly, her breathing calmer, tears still flowing. She grips my wrists harder and stares down at me.

"From the time I was very young, I felt like I was different. I've always wished for someone who loved me completely, without judgment. Someone who thought I was the best thing in the world, who made me feel like I wasn't alone." There, I said it. My terrible truth brings a change into her eyes.

"You don't already have that?" she asks softly, her tears finally stopped.

"You mean with Lao Ma or Borias? There have been times when I have been very...intimate with each of them, but it was never like what I dream of. And that's all in the past anyway, I mean, with them, like that..."

"Xena, you make me want to tell you things I've never told anyone before."

"Tell me. I want to hear."

She crawls off of me, letting my wrists go, and then she sits on her heels, wraps her arms around her knees, and bends over until her forehead rests on the floor next to my ear. I am not going to get angry and swear vengeance. I am going to listen and try to comfort her.

"Once upon a time there was a girl named Gabrielle," she whispers, "and she was innocent and smart and funny. One day the slavers came and they took her. She fought back hard but they eventually knocked her unconscious and chained her up, took her far away from home. Because she was pretty and they were evil, they raped her. She fought back, hard. So hard she hurt them, so hard that even when she was chained up it always took at least four of them, and all four came away with injuries. Eventually they realized her spirit would not be broken and that she might be better suited to a different kind of slavery..." She pauses.

"So they sold her to fight in the arena," I whisper, sliding my hand slowly along the floor towards her, hoping that eventually she will take it again.

"Yes. She learned all kinds of different fighting techniques, from nets and tridents to bare-handed. She learned how to fight wild animals, and groups of ten men at once with only a dagger. And she learned to kill. She learned to forget that the men she fought were men even as their blood flowed down her almost naked body as she held them against her, slitting their throats, one after another. There was the training, the fight, the kill, and the staring at the gray wall of her cell. There were no friends, only potential opponents; she learned the hard way that there was no other option. Sometimes she ate. Sometimes she thought about things, or told herself stories, or imagined a better future, but the longer she was there, the less energy she had for fantasy and hope. For six years, this was how she lived, and as time passed she felt the girl who wanted to be a bard disappearing more and more. The fight was all there was, and the fight felt good."

"It was the closest she came to feeling alive," I whisper. Oh how familiar is the feeling of the satisfaction of a fight when you have nothing but the kill to nourish you. Like the tribes who eat the hearts of their enemies, you pull their life force into your self-hatred and then you're pulsating with power. I know that feeling all too well.

"Yes. She was beaten and she was branded. She was tortured for the entertainment of the guards. She tried to escape many times, and the torture was more terrible each time, and always, always worse because she fought it. But she still fought it. There was her anger and there were her opponents to take it out on. There were months at a time when she didn't speak to anyone. She stopped thinking about her parents, about her home, her sister..." her voice breaks on the last word, and the tears begin to flow again. She takes a moment to compose herself and I sense she sees my hand, palm up, near her head. She takes it, and I hold hers tightly. "Because the girl was fierce and beautiful, she became a popular attraction at the arena. They called her the Amazon Warrior, and one day she was being transported from Rome to Alexandria for a royal exhibition. When the Romans went off guard duty on the dock they did not tell the Egyptians how to properly contain her. And of course, them being slavers, the girl being a slave, they attempted to rape her, and she killed them all. She found a boat with unfamiliar lettering on the side that was leaving Rome at that very moment, and she stowed away. Foreign soldiers found her, but they didn't try to hurt her. They contained her, but they fed her, and they brought her to the most beautiful palace." Her fingers tighten their hold on my hand and I press back. "It was peaceful, and the people seemed kind, so the girl knew it couldn't be real."

Gabrielle's tears begin again. I move as slowly as I can until I am sitting up next to her, still holding her hand.

"Hey, don't worry. All this is real. You're safe now. All that other stuff is over."

"I never told anyone any of those things before," she whispers, "I know I did the best I could but still I feel ashamed."

"I know. I'm honored you told me. I'll help you see there's no shame."

"I don't want to burden you with my pain, Xena. I just couldn't hold it all in anymore."

"Gabrielle, it is an honor that you trust me with it. I will do everything I can never to betray your trust in me."

Her emotions have exhausted her and she gets into my bed and falls asleep quickly. I tuck her in and stare at her a while before going to visit Lao Ma. Gabrielle amazes me. I have to remember to ask Lao Ma; I'm sure she has the perfect word to describe something that is both so gentle and so strong. Some kind of reed, I imagine, that bends without breaking.

I knock on the door to Lao Ma's chambers and she bids me enter. Her receiving room is large and sparsely furnished. The walls hold beautiful paintings, black on white, bold brush-stroked scenes of the countryside of Chin. It's all her work, and in fact she is painting as I approach her from behind. Somehow she has convinced a small group of cats to sleep in a pile in front of her canvas, and she paints them quickly, almost never looking at her work.

"Good afternoon, Xena," she intones deliberately as I arrive at her side.

"Hey. Nice."

"Thank you. How is your little charge this stormy afternoon?" she asks, smiling, continuing to paint.

"As well as can be expected," I say, blushing, "She's going to be fine. She's very strong."

"I know. I sensed that when I met her, just as I knew it about you. Destined for greatness." She turns and grins at me. I move forward and kiss her cheek, squeezing her shoulder in a delicate embrace.

"There are no words to thank you for what you did," I say quietly for the millionth time.

"As I always say, Xena, it was you. Look at the little dragon--who is saving her?"

"She is," I say, finally seeing it, "I'm just holding her hand."

"And the candle, just ahead, down the dark hallway," she says, "Have some wine."

I pour us each a glass and pace the floor beside her as she paints.

"Caesar is a lucky man," I say, "Because of you."

"He did not personally set the whip to her back, you know."

"Still, he is lucky."

"You are the one who is lucky, Xena, you and the girl."

"Gabrielle," I say, knowing I have put way too much emotion into it. Lao Ma turns and looks at me, her face almost bursting with her smile.

"You're already in love!" she laughs. "Caesar is no threat to Chin. I promise, if ever he were, his life is yours. I could only hope that by then you wouldn't want it."

"I don't want it," I whisper, "And I wouldn't say that I'm, you know, in love..."

"What would you say?"

"That, well... you know, I..." I pause again, "That it's possible that I might be in love."


"She's done nothing but fight for six years. It's a terrible story."

"And she has such a gentle soul. It must have been exceedingly difficult for her."

"Yes," I say, "It isn't fair that she had to live the life she has. Part of me can't help but wonder why it had to be that way."

"I think there is no reason, Xena. Things just happen as they do sometimes. Like when a whole village of people dies because one person fell asleep with their blanket too close to the fire. Cause and effect. The slavers came to Gabrielle's village. That's why all the bad things happened. There's no better reason, and even if there were, you still couldn't hold it in your hand, you couldn't use it to take away her pain."

"You're always right," I complain, "Don't you ever get tired of it?"

"Never," she says, smiling.

One of the cats wakes up for a moment, and yawns. It looks at us curiously and goes back to sleep.

"I hope you will both join us for dinner."

"Anything is possible," I say, smiling at her as she continues to paint the sleeping cats.

In my chambers I find Gabrielle still asleep in my bed. Like everyone does, she looks more peaceful while she sleeps, so I pretend she is having nice dreams. I know her dreams are anything but. When you've spent days killing people, pleasant dreams are almost impossible to come by. So I watch her for a few minutes, allowing myself the luxury of feeling that everything is right now that she is here. What I feel conflicts with my lack of belief in fate; there is no "supposed to be," yet here is Gabrielle. I decide that for the moment she needs sleep more than food, so I leave her be.

I am late for dinner and Borias lets me know this by pulling my chair out from under me while pretending to be courteous.

"How much have you had to drink?" I ask him.

"Just the right amount, I think" he says, drinking.

I watch the sun set. Purples and pinks tonight.

"How is Gabrielle?" asks Lao Ma.

"'Gabrielle'," drawls Borias knowingly.

"She's sleeping. She's been through a lot. Tell us about your day; what were the highlights?"

Servants hover silently about. Birds chirp in the distance at the dying of the light.

"I resolved minor land disputes in the morning and painted in the afternoon," replies Lao Ma, "I suppose the painting was the highlight. Yours?"

"I rode around with Gabrielle, enjoying the storm together. She painted cats," I explained to Borias, "You?"

"As you know, I listened to reports of all the things that are broken or missing. That took all day, as you might imagine, so I can't say that there were any highlights. Do you think our stowaway is going to stay, Xena? I would bet that there are all kinds of things she could do around the palace..." He grins at me.

"I want her to stay," I say, "But I don't know what she'll do." I look down at my chopsticks and sigh quietly. I feel sad suddenly; if she doesn't stay, and why would she stay, I will feel bereft.

"I hope she will join us for breakfast tomorrow. I look forward to hearing her voice," says Lao Ma.

I pour us all more wine. Suddenly I feel relaxed, like everything is okay. Is it some power Lao Ma has to do that to me? I still don't know, after all these years, the extent of her abilities. If she can stare down a hunting dog when he's standing right in front of his quarry, what can she do to a mere human? As we finish dinner, Borias suggests a game of darts. And of course I am never one to pass that up, so moments later the servants have cleared away the meal, set up the dart board, served more wine and brought out the hash. Sometimes I think that ruling Chin is not so bad an occupation.

The darts have been laid out on the table halfway across the room from the board. Lao Ma and I sit leisurely on a couch, while Borias stands next to us, a dart in his hand. He's wearing black leather pants and a black leather vest, his long, dark hair braided away from his face. He's already drunk enough to think that he could win.

"Please, Borias, take the first shot," says Lao Ma, gesturing with her head. Borias lifts his hand slowly and takes aim, and I find myself staring at the tattoo on his upper arm. I have always wanted to get a tattoo but have never been able to figure out what. Lucky for me, else I might by now have "Kill 'em all" emblazoned on my breast. Borias' shot hits just left of the bull's eye and he sits down next to me on the couch, lighting the hash pipe and inhaling deeply. I watch Lao Ma's red feathered dart rise up into the air above the table as if lifted by an unseen hand, finally pausing to float directly across the room from the dart board. Suddenly it shoots forward, and lands in the middle of the bull's eye. I remember when she showed me she could break a bottle with her mind, how I asked her to teach me. Little did I know it would take years to learn, like everything else.

"I'm gonna go for directly between your darts," I say to them, taking a swig of wine. I close my eyes to gather as much concentration as I can at this hour and heave my dart into the air. I open my eyes and hurl it across the room with my mind; it is an almost physical act. It lands two hands below the board.

"Whoops," I say, "Guess my concentration is off. Could I do it the other way?"

"If you want to give up so easily, of course you can," says Lao Ma.

"Why do we put up with her?" I ask Borias.

"Don't ask me," he laughs.

"It's your turn," I tell him, wrestling with myself. Do I want to do it right or do I want to win? I want both, dammit!

Borias throws another decent shot. Lao Ma blindfolds herself with a red silk scarf; still her dart hits the bulls eye. She is much easier to compete with in games that take a combination of skill, strategy and luck. I concentrate on my dart and lift it from the table, asking the universe ever so politely if it could just shove it into the middle of the dart board. Push! And there it is, almost touching Lao Ma's.

"It's always better when one doesn't give up," she says, exhaling hash smoke towards my face in a long thin line. I roll my eyes at her and gesture for Borias to take his third turn. He gets up and takes another dart from the table. He has never wanted to try to learn to move things with his mind, though he was always closer to living her other lessons than I. And I suppose on some levels he still is. He and Lao Ma have much in common, their patience being the first thing that sets me apart from them.

Borias takes his shot. It hits just to the right of Lao Ma's, in the bullseye.

"Very nice," she says. Borias and I watch as her third dart rises into the air. Lao Ma smiles and makes it do a little dance for our entertainment. I laugh.

"What's the meaning of life again?" I ask to distract her from her throw.

"To find peace within yourself and to share it with the world," she says, as her dart flies across the room; there's not much space left in the bullseye now. My shot better be good or I've lost this round. I concentrate on lifting the dart into the air and take careful aim, which is honestly hard to do from the angle at which I am sitting. Just as I've gathered the energy and begin to push, Borias calls out "Caesar!' and my dart hits the wall halfway across the room from the dart board.

"You bastard!" I don't like losing the first round of anything. Or any round, to be honest.

"Xena, it's not like you didn't just try to do the same thing to Lao Ma," he says, laughing.

"But that's different," I say, knowing I have no excuse.

We play for another hour or so, talking about little things, teasing each other, then I announce I need to get back to my room.

"And don't even start," I say to Borias. He closes his mouth.

Gabrielle is awake, sitting back in bed, when I return to my chambers. The black curtains serve only to accentuate her beauty. She reminds me of a little princess from a story book, and yet of a prince at the same time. It's hard to explain, how she can look so sexy in such a strong way and such a gentle way, like she is both the rescuer and the one needing to be rescued.

"Hey," I say, "Did you get any sleep?"

"A little," she says quietly, "I'm sorry about before."

"Please," I say, waving it off.

"I really...appreciate it."

"It's what I'm here for."

"Trusting you terrifies me, Xena. It's been so long since I even tried."

"Didn't you fight lions barehanded?"

"Actually, I got to use weapons on the lions," she says, smiling shyly at me, "it was the Elijians I had to fight barehanded."

"Lao Ma missed you at dinner. I told her you needed your rest."

"She must think I'm so impolite."

"No! Gabrielle, Lao Ma is the wisest woman I've ever met in my life. You wanna know what she said about you?"


"She said she knew when she met you that you were a strong person, and that you have a gentle soul."

Gabrielle blushes and looks pleased. "Yeah?"

"Yeah. I told her I agreed with her."

"Thank you. I can't tell you how much it means to hear that. But I really was rude. I could have responded to her. I don't know why I didn't."

"Hey, when I first met her she tried to ally with me and I tried to kill her."


"Get in the bath and I'll tell you a story before bed," I say, wondering who in Hades I've become.

We bathe and I tell her the story of myself and Borias, the life we lived before we met Lao Ma. "I saw him for the first time in a tavern. I was drunk, I'd been fighting with someone and I was upset. I looked across the room and there he was, like a dangerous prince from a foreign land, and I thought, if I were a man, that's who I'd be." I pause for dramatic effect and to reach over the side of the tub for our glasses. I pass Gabrielle hers and continue my story. "I found out who he was, a warlord with an army, as well as a wife and a child who traveled with him. He was powerfully charismatic. I knew there were things I could learn from him, so I took him."

"You took him?"

"I took him away from his army, his child, his wife. It was easy. I was good at things like that."

"You must have been a very different person then, Xena."

"In some ways."

"What happened to Borias' child?"

"Eventually he found him again, and the wife. The wife doesn't like him very much and won't accept his help, but he visits a few times a year anyway, to keep in touch with the kid. But you've distracted me."

"I'm sorry."

"No problem. So Borias and I set out together. We were a terrible pair. I was full of anger and self-hate, I blamed everyone but myself for everything, and I took out my frustrations wherever I felt like it. My behavior made me hate myself more, then I'd do worse things, feel worse about myself, on and on... I hated Borias in the moments I thought he might actually care for me, though those were few and far between. We were bad people and we did bad things. We wanted more, we wanted to win, we wanted our lusts and our desires satisfied, and we were strong enough and ruthless enough to get what we wanted. It was the kind of lifestyle that went nowhere, but that was just where I deserved to go, so it was the perfect trip. Our goal was ultimate power, world domination, and we ended up out here with a pretty large army. We were good leaders, and good fighters, and we always won, so people followed us. When I was on horseback, no one in the world could beat me, but when I was not, well, Borias had more power than I would have liked."

"Why when you were on horseback?" She drinks and leans back in the hot water, watching me. Tonight the story seems even farther in the past than usual. Ten years is a long time.

"Because my legs were broken. A long time ago I trusted the wrong man, Julius Caesar, before he was Emperor, and I ended up on a cross with broken legs. Suffice it to say I got here from there but the first part of the journey was a bitch."

"You don't want to talk about it."

"Well, no. I never want to talk about it. Just thinking about it now I can feel the anger. I still hate that man for his betrayal, but I don't let it consume me any more. I try to remind myself that it's because he hurt me, and that my feelings of pain don't have to lead me to violence. Controlling that is the hardest thing I've ever done."

"I can imagine," says Gabrielle, suddenly sounding a little tipsy. "It's interesting how we both did such terrible things. It makes me feel as if we are alike in some way."

"Not in that way," I say almost angrily, "You did horrible things because you had to, I did them because I loved it."

"No, you didn't."

"No, I didn't."

"We were both trapped. Now we are free," she says.

I look at her and wonder to myself, "Really free?" Am I? One can never be free of one's self.

I realize as I prepare to get into bed that I should have offered Gabrielle her own room by now. I have no real excuse not to; she's probably not going to run, or if she does, I know she's okay to take care of herself. Being with her gives me pleasure, and I am no longer interested in denying my true self pleasure. Again I am awakened in the middle of the night by Gabrielle's deepest fears. My eyes grow accustomed to the dark and I reach out to touch her shoulder. Her sleeping self responds by smashing her fist into my face. My screamed curses wake her up. She's confused and disoriented.

"You were having a nightmare. I tried to wake you up. I think you may have broken my nose." I can feel the sticky blood flowing down my face and neck. "It's okay. I mean, you didn't mean to."

She sits silently next to me in the dark, shaking. I guess I should have broken another mug.

"I'm gonna light a candle, Gabrielle, so I can clean myself up. Shield your eyes."

In the candle light I can see a few tears rolling down her face. I want to reach out and wipe them away.

"Hey. What is it?"

"All I know how to do is hurt people," she whispers, "Make people bleed. You're covered in blood because of me."

"Then come help me wash it off."

I get up and walk into the bathing chamber, sitting near the still-burning fire. I pour hot water into a bucket, and hand her a towel. She takes it from me and tentatively begins to wipe the still-wet blood from my skin.

"I don't think my nose is broken," I say hopefully. I don't know if anyone has washed my face since I was a small child. Gabrielle's soft touch is so nice. I try not to catch her eye; it feels too intense. Watching her face from under my eyelashes, it seems like it was the right thing to do, to have her wash off the blood. Perhaps what she needs is a sense of control.

"Do you ever think about having children?" she asks suddenly. Maybe she thought about her mother cleaning her face, too.

"No. I've been pregnant once or twice, but I've always taken the appropriate measures. You?"

"Never been pregnant but," she pauses, and so softly says, "having children is one of the dreams I gave up."

"I can't help you with that directly, but..." I say, watching her blush, "I could help figure something out."

She finishes cleaning me off and we go back to sleep, more tired even than we had been before.

I wake up the next morning lying on my side. In our sleep we moved closer together and I can feel Gabrielle's back lightly pressing against my own. Hard for me to believe as it is, there really are women who don't enjoy making love with other women, and there's no reason to believe Gabrielle might not be one of them. Nevertheless my body reacts to her; I close my eyes and luxuriate in the feeling of desire. I imagine that she turns around and suddenly we--I pull myself out of bed before my fantasies take over my poor taxed brain. My face hurts, though in the mirror the slight bruising is barely noticeable.

At breakfast Gabrielle introduces herself to Borias and Lao Ma, and attempts to apologize for her behavior.

"Gabrielle, you have nothing to apologize for," Lao Ma answers gently, "You are an honored guest, and you have been through great trials. You deserve as much room as you need."

"Thank you, Empress."

"Please call her 'Lao Ma' or we shall all be ill," says Borias, "Plus, you're Xena's friend now, and any friend of Xena's..."

"Shut up," I say, "Behave. She's an honored guest, remember?"

Gabrielle is smiling. It's going to be a great day.

Gabrielle and I have decided to work out, so we change into appropriate attire, my idea of which is loose blue pants and a matching sleeveless shirt. Hers is just this side of total indecency in brown leather. How will I ever concentrate on my drills? The sun is out and we walk along to my favorite work out spot, one of the simpler hexagram gardens. This one is called Kheih, or Release, and I read the inscription to Gabrielle.

"The thunder rolls. Releasing a cloud burst. The superior man stays on friendly ground. He forgives errors and deals gently with those who wrong him.'"

"I think I'm starting to like the superior man," says Gabrielle, smiling.

"He lives within us all, you know," I say, half jokingly.

"Most of us anyway," she amends. I can't completely disagree.

The ground is flat and there's room to spread out. So we practice by ourselves for a while, doing exercises and fighting the air, each lost in our own world. I find that I have worked up a sweat by the time she shyly suggests that we spar. Part of me is afraid of fighting with her, and part of me desires it, to be on the receiving end of whatever kind of passion this woman is willing to share with me.

Xena, Warrior Princess of Chin, twirls her sword three times over before advancing on her beautiful opponent. Gabrielle is immediate and fierce in her attack, and suddenly I am moving backwards, blocking strike after strike. I have to pay attention; she is better, even, than I had imagined. I change tactics, pushing her back, putting the battle onto equal ground. I can sense the location of the white-washed walls around us, the vines, the trees, where the benches and sculptures are, and decide to use them to my advantage to make the fight more interesting and less likely to cause serious damage to either of us. She follows me, a smile on her face, enjoying the pursuit, as I retreat around a statue of Lao Ma's late husband, the Emperor Lao Tzu. Gabrielle backs me into a wall and our swords clash, I block strike after strike and finally turn to run up the wall and jump backwards over her head. She spins and thrusts her sword out at me just as I land, engaging me again easily. Now I am on the offensive, and I lose myself in the attack. Our swords clash, vibrations echoing down my arm, and our feet shift quickly on the sandy path beneath us. Our swords meet again and I push forward until the hilts are touching, and suddenly we are face to face, looking into each others eyes. We are both breathing hard, all our senses heightened. She grabs my right wrist and spins me around, pushing me back until I come up against the wall. Gabrielle slowly pushes her body against mine, trapping our sword arms between our chests so that our swords rise from between us and point skyward right next to my head. I can feel her hot breath against my neck and it excites me. She is so strong, and I can feel the lust coming off her body in waves. She slides her thigh between my own and touches my neck with her mouth, trapping me against the wall with my own desire. She moves her pelvis against mine, and my body responds, pressing back when she presses forward. Her lips suck my neck; I have never felt this exposed before, as if everything I am shows in the taste of my skin. I groan as I copy her rhythm, not thinking, just following the pleasure, and for a moment I give myself over to it. I caress the hot skin of her back with my free hand, moaning as she bites me. Gabrielle pushes even harder against me and finally the one part of my brain that is not consumed by lust surfaces and forces me to whisper, "Gabrielle, we have to stop."

She pulls away from me and drops her sword. "I'm sorry," she says to the ground.

"It's fine," I say, trying to breathe, "I mean, if later, when we're not in the middle of a battle, if you want to..."

She looks at the ground near my feet. "I don't deserve any of this kindness."

"Oh please spare me!" I say, almost angrily. "I'm sorry. I'm just confused. I mean, not confused. I don't know."

"I never did anything like that before. I didn't mean... Let's talk about it later?"

"Good idea."

We spend the rest of the afternoon riding in silence, patrolling sections of fencing for damage. I gave Gabrielle her own horse, and she follows just behind me, soaking in everything around us, watching everything I do. She has clear handwriting and has been taking notes for me of the repairs that are needed on the fences. If she can fight and write, who knows what other skills lurk in between. I think of earlier in the afternoon, the way her body pressed into mine with such purpose. It makes me shiver just imagining it. No one has ever made me feel like that, like they could be, for those few moments, everything in the world. I hope what she did was at least a little bit about me. People call it battle lust, but I don't believe in that. I believe that sometimes our emotions are tied into our bodies very intensely and in those moments you never know what's going to happen. Rage, murder, birth, love, sex. We're animals just like the rest of them; lots of animals walk on two feet. My mother used to say that. I haven't seen her in a thousand years. Would she be proud of me yet?

I planned it so we'd be on the best hill to watch the sun set from at just the right time. We dismount and sit on the ground, overlooking infinite grassy fields, hills and trees and rocks, and all the way at the other end of the earth, is the sunset. Tonight there is a lot of orange in it. We sit quietly, passing a wine skin back and forth. As the last of the sun slips out of view, she says,

"I don't know what came over me earlier. I've never touched anyone before the way I touched you today. It was, just there suddenly. I apologize for doing something so ill considered and ill mannered."

She's staring out into where the sun was and she passes the near-empty wine skin back to me.

I don't know how to feel. What to say to this girl that won't be the wrong thing. There are always a million wrong things to say, and I've said most of them at one time or another.

"Gabrielle, it's okay. Sometimes our bodies react in strange ways. It was an intense moment, you responded in an intense way." I pause and say more quietly, "And you might have noticed, it wasn't like I tried to stop you immediately."

She turns and looks at me, a big smile on her face, "Oh yeah, I didn't really think about that." She's remembering my hand caressing her hip and her back, the sound of my moans. She blushes. I blush in response.

"Let's go to dinner," I suggest, "If we leave now we'll be just in time."

"Late again," drawls Borias as we enter the dining room, both slightly out of breath.

In my most threatening voice I say, "Better late than never," and I give him the evil look. He smiles.

"Gabrielle, you look lovely tonight," he tells her, pulling out her chair for her and looking pointedly at me when he doesn't pull it out from under her. He sits back down across from Lao Ma. Gabrielle blushes. We eat dinner, and it is as usual more than delicious. The servants refill our glasses far too frequently for me to maintain any coherence, and suddenly I focus my eyes and find I've been staring at Gabrielle's hands. Borias is saying,

"After Xena killed Ming Tsu, Ming Tien declared war on the House of Lao. Though Lao Ma had thrown our beaten bodies out onto the street only days before, we felt compelled to fight for her, and so we did. We toppled the House of Ming in a matter of weeks, and eventually earned her trust again. We still do not know what happened to Ming Tien."

I can't help but glance at Lao Ma; she looks sad and wistful, as she always does when the topic of any of her children comes up. She has two daughters as well, who she gave away when they were very young, in order to protect them. She can protect them now, so always, always, there are men out on the trail looking for all her children.

After dinner Lao Ma decides we will play the Questions Game. The servants prepare the receiving room and we sit again on the pillows around the low table, just inside the great balcony. There are a million stars out tonight. If we were alone, I might point this out to Gabrielle, but somehow I feel too silly in front of Borias and Lao Ma, and so uncomfortable about the Questions Game. Not that I ever actually like the Questions Game. No one does except Lao Ma.

Lao Ma explains the rules to Gabrielle. "There are already questions in this box. Questions of all natures and descriptions, but most of them the kind that force you to do some introspection, to share something important about yourself. We each write three more and put them in. Then we take turns picking from the box and answering the questions."

"How do you win?" she asks.

"You finish the game without running from the room in hysterical tears," I say, "It's fun."

"It takes a brave person to play the Questions Game," says Lao Ma, giving me a withering look, "The winning is in the playing." Lao Ma passes out little pieces of paper on which we are to write the questions. We sit in silence as we write. The hash pipe is passed. Borias chuckles to himself as his quill scratches the paper; our new life really agrees with him. If he'd had a kingdom to protect in the first place, I bet he would have always been a good man. What questions do I want to ask? The trick is that I might have to end up answering them myself. Sometimes a guest will put in an innocuous question for politeness sake. That's always a welcome relief, but I wouldn't dare try it; Lao Ma would know if it was me.

Tonight Gabrielle and I are dressed in matching green silk pants and shirts embroidered with red and yellow dragons. She sits within arms reach of me, and I can't help but glance at her more than every so often, and grin when I catch her eye. She looks cute drunk. She inhales from the hash pipe, slowly, as I showed her, and exhales. She smiles.

"I will go first," says Lao Ma, and puts her hand into the small, wooden box of questions. She pulls one out and drinks as she reads it.

"Tell the group a positive memory from your childhood," she reads to us. Borias leans back on his pillows and stares at her intently. "Alright. Being one of a few daughters, and thus completely worthless to my family, the best times of my childhood were spent alone. I was wandering in the woods one morning, it was a dark, cool day. I stumbled across a spider web so huge it hung from three different trees, sticking to all the grasses and flowers, and rocks along its way. It was early so that the web sparkled with dew, and in that moment I first saw the interconnectedness of the universe. I realized that everything was somehow attached to and thus effected by everything else. That people, animals, the earth, everything was one, part of the same energy."

"Someone else would have told a story about a birthday party," drawls Borias, laughing and draining his glass.

"I hope that was not your question, then," says Lao Ma.

Borias gives her a feral grin, and pulls a question out of the box. He reads it to himself and laughs. He sits up straight and reads it. "How many people in the group have you had sex with?"

I watch Gabrielle blush.

"Only one," he answers, that smile still on his face, "But many, many times. That was easy. May I say that I hope yours will be less so." He passes the box to me and I pull one out. I am feeling a little tipsy at this point.

"What is your ideal lover like?" I choke out. I stare out into the night as I answer, "They would be gentle but passionate, and they would want to be with me because I was me, not just because of the way I look or how I make them feel."

"They?" asks Gabrielle.

"I don't discriminate on the basis of gender," I explain. And I never have. It just doesn't make sense to me. I know Lao Ma and Borias are not like me; they only like women. Not that I can blame them for that predilection.

The hash pipe goes around again and Gabrielle whispers to me that she has never been this intoxicated in her life; in fact she can barely say the word.

"It suits you," I say.



Gabrielle picks a question from the box. She blushes and asks, "What if the question you pick is literally impossible for you to answer?"

"You give it to someone else. They have to answer it and you have to then pick and answer the next two questions," Borias explains, "You see why we don't play this game too often?"

Gabrielle hands me her tiny slip of paper. I look down at it, and then into her eyes. She's still blushing. I smile. I drink. I answer the question.

"I was thirteen and there was a traveling carnival in town. It had all sorts of attractions I'd never seen before, having never left Amphipolis and it being an extremely boring place. The carnival was in town for two nights, and the second night I saw the acrobatic act. In it was a girl, about my age, she had dark skin and beautiful eyes, and she was a little more developed than your average thirteen year old. The way she was in her body, well, she inhabited it with such pleasure. I'd never seen anything like it before. Anyway, I ran into her after the show, and we walked into the woods in silence. I don't know how I knew, but I bent to kiss her, and she kissed me back. It was a wonderful moment. The carnival left town the next day, and the girl with it, but I knew now for sure that my life would lead me far from home. All it took was that first kiss."

Borias and Lao Ma applaud lightly. I scowl, knowing it will only amuse them further. I hold the box out to Gabrielle and she picks out her first of two questions. I am glad that no one pauses to contemplate the fact that Gabrielle has not had a first kiss. I have thought about it, though, and it makes my heart ache for her.

"What do you wish you were doing right now?" she reads and looks up at Lao Ma, "I really have to answer this truthfully?"

"If you want to win the game," she says with a smile.

"I'd like to be alone with Xena." She looks down into the box and picks out another question. My mind is still trying to wrap itself around her answer to the last question and I refuse to look at Borias.

"You're very good at this game," Borias says to Gabrielle. I silently apologize for ever having tried to kill him.

"Where do you see yourself in five years?" reads Gabrielle. She blushes again, "Maybe here? Helping all of you?"

"Oh did you get on the right boat!" laughs Borias, "You're more than welcome to stay with us, you know."

"More than welcome," I echo quietly. I can feel her looking at me. I am so drunk I can't quite sit up without swaying a little.

Lao Ma takes her turn.

"Who is the best lover you have ever had and why? Oh, I don't want to think about who put all these sexual questions in here," she says in her mock-threatening voice. "Xena is the best lover I have ever had, and I believe she was so because she paid such detailed attention to my pleasure and my responses."

"You know the funny thing?" I say to Gabrielle, "Everyone I've ever been intimate with has said I was the best."

"We just know what you'd do to us if we didn't," says Borias, barely able to keep his eyes open. It's good we're not playing darts.

"Your turn," I tell him.

"Damn the gods," he mutters, pulling a slip of paper out of the box and taking another swallow of wine. "If you had to give up either sex or love, which would you choose? I would give up sex." I've never seen him blush before, in all these years, and I realize, suddenly, that it's because of Lao Ma. Gods on Mount Olympus. In my confusion, my leg hits the low table and I can do nothing but watch as one of Lao Ma's favorite glasses becomes unstable and begins to fall towards the floor, suddenly stopping in mid air. I feel Gabrielle's hand on my arm.

"It's Lao Ma," I say, "She caught it. It's hard to explain. I'll try later."

Gabrielle nods and looks at me with wonder. I get choked up. Lao Ma catches Borias' eye and while they are distracted by each other, I bend towards Gabrielle and whisper,

"I would like, someday, to be your first kiss."

"I would like that too," she whispers back, and lifts her hand to caress my arm, making my skin tingle. She doesn't look up at me. "Now."

I pull back, my body suddenly humming with energy, and she looks at me with the most charming expression on her face.

"You're drunk," I whisper. It's as if Lao Ma and Borias are no longer in the room, but I can hear their voices in the background, and I pull Gabrielle to her feet as I stand. We step out onto the balcony. The cool breeze feels wonderful on my face and we walk silently to the edge, out of view of the rest of the company. She hands me a small slip of paper. I guess the game is not yet over.

"Why do you want to kiss me?" I read in a whisper.

"Because you're so sweet, and so strong, so angry and so full of life, because you're so giving. I've never met anyone like you, and I want to be closer to you. You make me feel a little better about being me."

"I declare you the winner of the Questions Game, Gabrielle," I say as I put my hand on her hip, sliding it along the silk of her top and encircling her waist, gently pulling her to me. I look into her eyes as our bodies press against each other and I can tell she likes the way it feels as much as I do. Her hand cups the back of my neck and pulls me down until my lips meet hers. Her kiss is as unstoppable as the tide, and it drags me under fast. Her lips are like a dream, her hands on the skin of my neck make me feel like I'm made of something more than flesh. She opens the collar of my shirt and plants a burning kiss on my chest, then rests her cheek against my skin. I hold her tightly to me. It is a moment worthy of savoring.

A gong sounds loudly from inside. Gabrielle and I look at each other. She's flushed and startled, like she just woke up. I imagine I look much the same. I take her hand and pull her back into the room. The most senior of the royal messengers stands before Lao Ma, which tells me that the news must be bad. He was chosen to deliver it because he is the least expendable: if someone had the urge to kill the messenger, they would be more likely to control it if it was him.

"Say it," says Lao Ma coldly. Borias and I stand just behind her, one on each side, and Gabrielle stands behind me. It's going to be very bad news.

"It appears that your daughters have been found by someone else and kidnapped. We have received a ransom demand."

Lao Ma is speechless. I ask


The messenger closes his eyes. "Julius Caesar."

Now we are all speechless, staring at Lao Ma.

"Everyone, back to your rooms. Pack your personal necessities and put them outside your doors. I will arrange for the rest. Sleep if you're able. We leave at dawn." Lao Ma turns and exits.

"Wow," says Gabrielle.

I'm still in shock, but I can't help but smile at her. Borias looks anxious.

"She's probably reading the I Ching," I say to reassure him. "Go see. Let me know if you need me."

"Yes," he says. He sweeps out of the room. I look at the messenger.

"You. Make sure there are people ready at Lao Ma's door to answer any call. Arrange for our horses, and one for Gabrielle, and at least 15 men, armed, dressed in plain clothing, a few servants, dressed similarly, supplies for a few weeks of camping. Have it packed and the men ready to ride at dawn. Anything Lao Ma says of course countermands these orders. Dismissed."

In my chambers we quickly pack some dark, nondescript clothing and some personal items of mine. It all fits into one bag and I leave it outside the door, in the hallway. I pour us wine and casually leave a mug on the table by the bed, in case Gabrielle has another nightmare.

We sit next to each other at the desk in the main chamber, looking out the window at the stars that spread themselves evenly across the deep blue sky. I think this shade of blue is auspicious but I'm not quite sure why that is.

"Tell me about Caesar," she says, pouring wine.

"The first time I met him, I saved his life. One of my men was about to behead him like a mere foot soldier, until I stepped in with the bright idea of ransoming him. Over the next few weeks while I held him captive, I became his lover, and began falling in love with him, or what I thought of as love in those days. I should never have kept the ransom, but I did, and soon after I freed him, he returned and captured me, crucifying me to show his power and gain his revenge."

"What happened?"

"A friend saved me. I didn't deserve it, but she saved me, and ended up giving her life for me. It just broke me, Gabrielle. That someone as kind as she was died for the sake of someone as worthless and stupid as myself. I swore vengeance on the entire world. I blamed Caesar for a lot of things. It was meeting Borias that calmed me down a little, gave me a bit of focus." I smile.

"I hated him too, Xena," she whispers, inching her chair a little closer to me. "I never met him, though I often saw him; he attended all of my matches. He requested that I fight privately for him many times, against all sorts of unusual opponents. His attention made me uncomfortable. And he was responsible for it all, for everything that was bad in my life, for all the evil that went on in the Empire, for the daily torture of legal slavery. I can't tell you how many times I've wished him dead." She says this last sentence savagely.

"Not nearly as many as I have, I'm sure."

"And now he has stolen Lao Ma's children."

"It really is amazing. Just the other day Lao Ma was saying that we had no problems with Rome."


"We need to sleep," I say, getting unsteadily to my feet. Gabrielle rises as I do and stands in my way. She moves a step closer and I can feel her breasts press against me.

"And about the kiss, Xena" she whispers, looking up at me.

"A wonderful kiss," I say. My breathing hitches, my hands seem to be moving slowly over her body.

"And the next one?"

"Even better," I say into her mouth. Her lips on mine, like fireworks, like the first bite of a ripe plum. Her hands on the small of my back, even through my clothing, draw low moans from a part of me I've never heard from before.

"You're so beautiful, Xena," Gabrielle whispers in my ear, her hands on my neck. She kisses me behind my ear. I shiver.

"Gabrielle, this feels perfect but we have to stop."

"You're right."

We step away from each other and I hold out my hand. She takes it and follows me into the bedroom. In bed, she snuggles up against me immediately and kisses me softly.

"You don't mind, do you?" she asks quietly, "I don't know how any of this is done. I've never wanted to hold someone while they were sleeping before."

"Your instincts are perfect." I will not get choked up.

"Thank you. I hope you won't regret this in the morning," she says.

"I won't regret this. I just wish the timing were different."

"At least we'll be together on the road."

I smile, "I knew there was a really positive person in there just dying to get out!"

She pokes me and presses up more closely against me, her head resting on my shoulder. It's only four hours, but we sleep.

Dawn finds us by the stables. It's cold and we're all dressed in dark clothing, blacks and browns, and nothing obviously in the style of Chin. Lao Ma is pale and beautiful in her casual leather pants and black cotton shirt, her long hair back in a loose ponytail. She is having a final discussion with the men and women of the council whom she's leaving in charge of governing during our journey. They have detailed battle plans from all of us, with all kinds of contingencies. They're better off without their leaders around than most countries are with theirs in residence. Gabrielle stands beside me and I stare at Desire's breath as it hangs in the air. Borias looks very serious. Suddenly I feel guilty for spending the night with Gabrielle when I could have been helping Lao Ma. What's done is done. I will approach her today when I have the guts, though somehow I doubt she was unhappy with Borias' attentions. And as far as Gabrielle is concerned, here she stands about to embark on a very dangerous quest with us, one that brings her back to the place from which she has so recently escaped, in more than one way; her bravery impresses me.

"Is everything in place?" I ask Lao Ma. I imagine messages have been sent to her men in Rome, that plans have been put in motion, maps requested; things I don't want to take the chance of mentioning in front of the one soldier whose tastes are more expensive than a soldier's should be. Lao Ma nods at me and mounts her horse. The rest of us mount as one, more than twenty people, servants and soldiers and us, leather creaking, clouds of dust rising from the ground. The horses strain with their cargo as their riders turn them towards the gates. Lao Ma rides to the front of the procession and the three of us follow her. I beckon Gabrielle with my eyes and she follows me as I pass the Empress and take my place at the front of the small army. I am the best tracker, the best fighter, the best planner, and coincidentally enough the person with the best eyesight. I am the Warrior Princess: anyone who would not put me at the head of their army would be foolish indeed.

The giant gates of the grounds of the House of Lao are pulled open slowly, and I ride through, not looking back; I know they are following. Soon after the horses have cleared the gates, the archers and scouts fan out into the woods on either side of the road. We may not be traveling as royalty, but we are not stupid either. We are a well-oiled fighting machine with many great minds behind it. We move along the roads at a decent pace. Gabrielle rides behind me to my right, just out of reach. I can sense Lao Ma and Borias two horse lengths behind her, and the rest of the men behind them. Someone was wise enough to think of using foreign soldiers, so only a fraction of our party is from Chin. The sun has risen and it's quickly becoming a beautiful day.

I turn to glance at Gabrielle and she looks wonderful. Healthy and comfortable, soaking in everything around her. She actually looks proud. And when I think of it, who wouldn't be? To represent the House of Lao, even incognito, is a fine thing. But of course it's more than that; she's free, riding a horse, on a beautiful day. She catches my eye and rides up beside me.

"You look happy," I say.

"I am," she says decisively, "I feel almost at peace today. As if I am exactly where I should be. Odd that it's on a journey to Rome."

"Yes. Quite odd. You look wonderful. I'm glad you're here."

She grins at me, Gabrielle does. "In such a short time you have all managed to make me feel like I'm part of something. You've been nicer to me than my own family ever was. Except Lila."

"Thank you. When we're done with this, we could try and find her."

She grins more, "That would be wonderful. If there weren't all those people behind us, Xena..."

It's my turn to grin, "So you do remember last night?"

"Every second. Of the best parts, anyway. I don't want to play that Questions Game again for a while, though." We laugh.

Lao Ma has ridden up on my other side. Gabrielle stops her horse and waits for Borias to catch up to her, and they continue along behind us.

"How are you?" I ask.

"I know where my daughters are. That is more than I knew before."

"Yes. And that they are alive. Presumably."

"Yes. And I am doing exactly what Caesar has requested; coming to get them. If I do what he wants me to, I trade Chin for my children, with no actual proof that he has them."

"You can't do that. I won't let you."

"Good. He must truly be a madman, to come after Chin in such a dishonorable way."

"He is. He will regret this move. Never forget that I am the best strategist the world has ever known."

She laughs. "Come. We must speed up the pace. Make camp by sunset and head out early. I want to get to Rome as quickly as possible."

I give Desire a little kick and we are off. I hear the rest of them speed up behind us; Lao Ma and I are halfway down the hill.

Dusk finds us at our campsite. The four of us sit around a campfire drinking, while the servants prepare the dinner and the tents, and serve drinks to the soldiers at the other campfire nearby. Gabrielle sits next to me, so close I can feel her. Across the fire I see that Borias and Lao Ma are not that much further apart. Finally it hits me. Somehow, though still a cohesive group, we have become two couples overnight. Were they waiting for me to have someone, or did this just happen between them? And what is it exactly? I realize I'm sort of staring at them, but I honestly don't understand.

"Just accept it," Gabrielle whispers in my ear, "Don't you need to pee?" she asks innocently.

"Yes. Yes of course." I mumble something about peeing to Lao Ma and Borias, and let Gabrielle drag me into the woods behind Borias' tent.

She pushes me up against a tree. I listen for archers, for anyone, and hear nothing but the night. She kisses me. Soft lips, her heart beating so fast I can barely believe it. It's exciting on so many levels. I close my eyes and float in the feeling, my body held up between hers and the tree.

"Tell me how you feel," she whispers in my ear, her hands snaking around my shoulders, moving slowly down my body to my hips and pulling them against her own. I groan. "No analysis, just feelings."

Who would I be to define emotion if not required to? I smile to myself and I whisper shakily, "Touching you is the best thing in the world. I want to be with you all the time."

"Good," she whispers in my ear, "That sounds good," and she kisses me again. "This time," she says as she pulls away from me, "I get to be the one who says we've got to stop."

We have dinner in Lao Ma's tent, because it is the largest. Not a royal tent, but definitely the tent of a powerful warlord. It's full of pillows and trinkets, a few trunks with coins and gold, a princess' ransom in jewelry. Treasures from so many lands it would be impossible to guess where the owner of the tent was from. The food is delicious and two servants play those string instruments that sound like gentle waterfalls. Candlelight and incense, a beautiful woman by my side. It would be a lovely evening if not for the occasion.

"So what's the plan?" asks Borias finally, "We get to Rome and then?"

"I don't know yet," says Lao Ma simply, gazing at him.

"We need to get into the castle, and find the girls without getting them killed," I say.

"If they are there," says Borias, "if they even have them. What if the whole thing is a set up and they don't have them at all? What if it's just a trap?"

"It's a kidnapping. We have to assume it's real," I say. I consider various plans and discard them. I listen to the small animals in the underbrush outside the tent; they wonder if we will leave them our leftovers. "I assume we can't just attack Rome?"

"Correct," says Lao Ma.

"Do some under cover work and then call the army in?"

"No," she says.

"What about if I just sneak into the palace and murder him in his sleep?"

"Leave it, Xena," she warns.

I can feel Gabrielle's body tensing up beside me.

"What if we had something that was of value to him?" she asks.

Suddenly all eyes are on Gabrielle; she hasn't spoken until this moment.

"What do we have?" Borias asks.

"Me," she says.

"Under no circumstances--" I begin.

"Hear me out," she says, and Lao Ma gestures for me to be quiet. "I would bet anything that he has a bounty on my head, a reward so huge anyone would go out of their way to secure it. Not only did he enjoy watching me fight, but my escape must have caused him great embarrassment upon arriving at Alexandria. He would not want to be embarrassed in front of Cleopatra."

"I'm sure you are correct about all these things," Lao Ma says.

Gabrielle smiles and continues, obviously excited that Lao Ma likes her plan so far. I like her plan too. In fact, I already thought of it and discarded it because it was too dangerous. "We go under cover early, get into character. Borias is a warlord who has found an escaped slave; he's bringing her back to Rome for the reward. It's the perfect way to get to Caesar, make him think he's getting what he wants. Borias' retinue includes a number of attractive slave girls who of course wear veils, disguising the fact that among them hide the Empress and the Warrior Princess of Chin. We're in the palace and doing Caesar a favor, his guard is down; he has no idea he's let the enemy into his home. We find out our information, does he have the the girls? If he does, we're in a good position to get them without having to trade. If he doesn't have them, well, we're in a good position anyway. What do you think?"

"Wow," I say, "very impressive."

Lao Ma thinks as she speaks, "We'd have to find out how far the bounty posters got. Perhaps take a trip out of our way and come upon Rome from the opposite side..."

"Then we'd just have to all sit in a room without killing him," says Borias.

"For the time being anyway," I partially agree. This is enough for Caesar. How long can we just leave him out there to do as he desires? "Are you sure you want to go back there?" I ask Gabrielle.

"Me?" she asks, "I am honored that you include me in your party, Warrior Princess."

We all sit for a moment in silence.

"It's the best plan we have so far," I say.

"We should send a false royal party towards Rome the slowest way we can," says Borias, "Throw them off the scent."

"They are already on their way," Lao Ma says, "They left two hours after we got the ransom notice, and took a southern route. They are very ostentatious and are carrying a great deal of money. I imagine Roman spies have taken notice of them already and are on their extremely slow trail."

Gabrielle gazes at Lao Ma, clearly impressed. We can't possibly get there fast enough. Even Lao Ma can't fly.

An hour later Gabrielle and I are in our tent. It's smaller than Lao Ma's, but full of color and texture. It's all a throwback to my days with Borias; we had no home, so we did the best we could on the road. What were we going to do with all that money if not live well? Everything is a little orange by candle light, from the high, soft, sloped walls of the tent to the pile of multi-colored silk pillows we're to call 'bed.' I watch her back, the way the candlelight plays over her muscles as she lifts her shirt off over her head, stopping suddenly and letting out a surprised grunt of pain.

"What is it?" I ask. Her back is so beautiful. Her arms. Her hair.

"Nothing, I must have just pulled something. No big deal."

"Let me see," I say, staring at her skin. There is a crucifix tattooed just under her right shoulder blade, scars from more than one kind of whip. As I move towards where she now sits on the pillows of our bed, it occurs to me this may be a trap; she might not be in any pain at all. Her body, hot and strong and beautiful; the injury just a lure to get me near her. I make myself comfortable behind her and pour scented oil onto my hands. When my fingers touch her naked back, we both jump.

"Did that hurt?" I ask.

"Uh, yeah," she lies. It didn't hurt at all. I know it. I run my hands along her shoulders and back, massaging the oil deeply into her skin. She moans and tries not to move into my hands wherever I touch her. The sounds she makes excite me.

"Is that any better?" I whisper into her ear after some time has passed.

"Oh, yes," she sighs, "I mean, no, please, keep touching me."

"Massaging you."

"Whatever," she whispers, so I let my hands slide along her ribs, until they reach her breasts. She arches her back, pressing her breasts into my hands; they fit perfectly. She groans and whispers my name. "How long 'till sunrise?"

"Hours," I whisper, as she turns around and looks me in the eye. Her breasts are so beautiful, the scar just above her heart. "Kiss me before I say something stupid."

Gabrielle grins, pushing me back onto the pillows, sitting on my stomach. I watch the muscles of her abdomen shift and suddenly she's using both hands to rip my shirt open. I gasp.

"I want you, Gabrielle."

She stares at my breasts, at the remains of my black shirt where it hangs from my arms. She bends and touches her lips to my breast. I moan. My moans make her smile. Which makes me smile. Suddenly we both can't stop smiling.

"I thought a girl's first time was supposed to be a serious thing," she says.

"Oh this is serious all right. Just pleasurable on many levels."

Gabrielle holds me down by the shoulders and kisses me. This kiss is tired of joking, so I take it very seriously. She crouches over me and presses her naked breasts against my own. I moan. Her mouth on mine, she changes positions so she's lying on top of me. I press up into her kisses, my hands slipping under her black leather pants, massaging her bottom. Gabrielle groans, exploring my mouth with her tongue. Her body is so much more muscular than mine is, I can feel it in her arms and even in her stomach. A woman this strong is an exciting thing.

"Pants," she whispers. It takes me a moment to understand. Yes. Gabrielle moves back from me to take off her pants, glancing up at me with a look so full of emotion it literally makes my heart hurt. I remember that she's never done this before.

"You're so beautiful, Gabrielle."

"You keep saying that."

I take off my pants, and the remnants of my shirt. She stares at my body; my stomach, my legs, my breasts. I can see she's trembling as she raises her head and looks me in the eye.

"If I'm beautiful, I don't think there's a word for what you are, Xena" she whispers.

We gaze at each other in the candle light. This night could go on forever as far as I'm concerned. I know it can't. I know tomorrow we could be dead. The world is like that.

"Where were we?" I ask, knowing full well where we were. I was lying on my back under this beautiful blonde gladiator. And suddenly here I am again, staring up into her dark green eyes. She narrows them as she gazes at me and bends down for another kiss. Her mouth on mine, with her naked body so close, thrusts me into a deeper level of arousal. Suddenly I can smell her scent and it overpowers me. I reach up and pull her to me, pressing my thigh up between hers. Gabrielle presses down against me, her eyes opening as she moans my name, then closing again. Gods, the way her body feels, her skin under my hands, her response to me, my response to her, her powerful thigh pressing down rhythmically between my legs. Anything could be ahead, but this moment is perfect.

We caress each other everywhere. The way it feels is wondrous, explosive, sweet, like when you're eating something that's so delectable you can't help murmuring "Ummmmm," over and over again. That's what making love with Gabrielle is like. The most delicious thing.

"Gabrielle," I pull my mouth away from hers and whisper into her ear, "there are words, words that would be stupid to say."

"Yes," she says, her mouth sucks my neck hard. I groan and thrust up against her.

"I want to say them," I whisper hotly, panting, trying not to come right here. Her body feels too good. I could never tire of touching her. She is glorious.

"Yes," she moans, pulling back to look at me, thrusting against my thigh more quickly, "say them!"

"I love you, Gabrielle--ungh!" and suddenly we are both coming, hard and uncontrolled. Gabrielle pulls away from me and moves a small distance to where our wine glasses are. She drinks, her back to me.

"Gabrielle?" I ask, my heart in my throat. How could something be wrong? Wasn't that the best thing in the world that just happened? "Gabrielle?" She won't answer. I will make this okay. "Could you pass me a glass of wine?"

Gabrielle pours me a glass of wine and pulls a silk sheet around her body. What is she thinking? Another moment I can make the wrong decision, and obviously I am way, way too involved now. What did Lao Ma say about the Questions Game? That the winning was in the playing, in telling the truth.

"Did you know, the last time I had physical relations with someone was five years ago? Wanna guess who?" I ask, pretending I'm not half afraid she's going to break my heart. "Yeah, Lao Ma. When I met her, Borias was my lover, but after her, there was no going back. Not to him, not to anybody. It's hard to explain, why she and I stopped sharing ourselves that way. I guess, when you're doing it with the right person, there's this urgency that it be them; only their body, their heart, their mind will satisfy your desire. She was the first person I ever felt that way about, and after a few years, it mellowed, and it turned into something else. But Gabrielle, with you, I feel that way, but it's more powerful. It's like all the love I've ever felt combined and magnified a thousand times, and yet still it is different." I pause. "You didn't hear that, did you, when I accidentally used the word 'love'? I wouldn't want you to feel..." my voice trails off as she turns to look at me, smiling her beautiful smile, tears running down her face. Well, I wouldn't really know what to do with a woman of less intense emotions now, would I?

"I'm sorry, Xena." She looks at me and starts to laugh. "I don't know what to say."

"Nobody's perfect. I'm sure I'll do something terrible soon enough. They claim I can be scandalously manipulative."

"You?" she asks, smiling.

"We're going to have to spend all day riding tomorrow. We need our four hours."

I wrap her up in my arms and try to fall asleep. I just made love to someone for the first time in years, someone I might easily be in love with, who might actually love me. Plus, we're going to Rome to confront Caesar? It's all too much to take in. Scenarios rush through my mind; what could happen in Rome, to Caesar, to me, to Gabrielle. I reassure myself that there is no greater fighting force than the four of us; Lao Ma's abilities in battle are beyond compare, really. But what if something goes wrong? What if Gabrielle doesn't really love me? I remind myself that I deserve to have a nice life. I deserve good things. Still, I don't sleep. I plot and plan, I imagine battles, I smell Gabrielle's hair and go over in my mind everything we did earlier. Every kiss, every touch, reliving it all in my mind many times over. And remembering what happened after, that she is still so delicate, there is so much more work for her to do.

Eventually Gabrielle wakes up and turns and looks at me. A million different greens. She kisses me. We tighten our hold on each other; her naked body in my arms is luscious. Borias calls my name through the wall of the tent. I guess we're running late again.

We dress quickly, wrapping ourselves in layers of black and gray cotton. We splash ourselves with cold water from a jug. Another day on the road. I run my wet hands through my long dark hair and shake it out.

"Please," says Gabrielle, pushing me down until I'm sitting on the edge of a trunk. She slowly starts braiding my hair. She stands so close to me I can't help but reach out and stroke her leg absently as she twists strands of my hair together. Just the feeling of any part of her body under my hand, whatever the circumstances, is beyond desirable. "What's the most important thing you've learned from Lao Ma?" she asks me, out of nowhere.

"Early on, when we first met and I was extremely resistant to her teachings, Lao Ma said a lot of things to me that I didn't understand until much later. 'To conquer others is to have power, to conquer yourself is to know the way.' I remembered it because at the time I was attracted to the words 'power' and 'conquer.' There was a moment Lao Ma created for me, a moment of choice that should have been my turning point. I failed her. I should have been able to value the idea of saving my soul over satisfying my vengeance, and I wasn't. Instead of making her proud, I messed up her plans badly, and she ended up throwing us out on the street. As Borias told you, Ming Tsu was dead and his son declared war on Lao Ma. Borias and I were in a tavern when we heard the news, licking our wounds, and plotting revenge. I don't think I had ever felt worse in my entire life than I did then, and I hated myself for being so weak. I respected her so much, and I let her down. But she was a fool. Wasn't she? I don't know why I said the next words out loud. I can't imagine what would have happened to my life if I hadn't said them, how many more years I would have traveled the world causing pain. I said, 'We should help her.' Borias nodded his head at me and said, 'It would be the honorable thing to do.' And I said, 'Let's do it anyway,' And we did."

"So you conquered yourself," says Gabrielle, finishing the first braid and laying it gently on my shoulder. She walks around me and begins a braid on the other side of my head. I like the way this feels.

"Yeah, and as time went by I did it more and more. She helped me realize that my anger at Caesar was my doing, not his; that instead of focusing on him to somehow make it hurt less, I had to focus on myself. It's the hardest lesson but it helps every day."

"Do you always remember?"

"No. Lots of times I forget to try to control myself. Lots of times I forget not to blame others. I try to accept my failures when they happen."

Gabrielle is now behind me, sitting on the bed, holding the two braids up behind my head. "I don't have anything to tie them together with."

Across the room there are some thin leather strips. I find them with my mind and lift them gently. "Ready?" I ask, gesturing at the leather as it floats across the room towards us.

"That's amazing, Xena. Can you do it all the time?" she asks, catching the leather and tying a small piece into my hair. She helps me to my feet.

"Nope. It's hard. But I'll teach you if you wan to learn."

"I want to learn," she says, standing on her tiptoes and kissing me on the lips. I return the kiss passionately and there's Borias' voice from outside the tent, yelling about breakfast.

At breakfast in Lao Ma's tent, things are less tense than they could be. Lao Ma may not be perfect, but she has gone a long way towards being able to completely control her emotions. Sometimes I wonder if this is a good thing, but who am I to question the master? Borias gives me a few looks that make it clear he suspects what happened between Gabrielle and myself last night. I just grin at him. I'm not surprised that he can see it, because I feel like I'm bubbling over with it. This is our last meal as us; before we break camp we transform ourselves into Borias' war party. Now he will ride at the front, and all the women in the party will ride at the back, unarmed and guarded, dressed alike in long white robes, with hoods, capes, and veils. The soldiers don matching brown uniforms, and we set out.

We move quickly, just north of the usual route. We don't stop to eat or speak all day, we just ride. Finally, right before dark, we stop to make camp. Tonight, Borias' sleeps in the warlord tent, and Lao Ma sleeps with us, along with the three female servants who play slave as we do. Borias joins us for dinner and makes the expected unamusing remarks about how he always wanted to have a harem. He is so foolish that Lao Ma laughs for the first time since before she heard that her daughters were in danger. A wonderful sound.

A scout enters the tent and reports to Lao Ma that he has found something in a town nearby. He hands her a large piece of paper. She smiles at it and turns it to show the rest of us. "Quite a good likeness," she jokes, and it is. Gabrielle blushes at the sight of her own wanted poster, and takes it when Lao Ma passes it to her. She reads aloud: "Wanted, escaped Roman arena slave, female... extremely dangerous killer... small intellectual ability... This is just appalling."

"It's a really nice likeness, though," I say, because it is, but still, I make her laugh, and that's the point.

"I am the warlord Niklio. I've seen the wanted poster and had the beautiful blonde gladiator's image in my mind all day," says Borias, "She's all I can think about so of course the moment I see her, foraging for food behind a tavern, I know it's her."

"Foraging for food?" Gabrielle asks, "Couldn't it be something a little more heroic?"

"No," he says, grinning, "So I captured her and had nothing else planned, so I headed over towards Rome to get the reward."

"Works for me," I say, forcing myself not to stroke Gabrielle. Every part of her body makes me want to touch it, for one reason or another.

After dinner we all prepare for bed immediately. I lie next to Gabrielle and as soon as the lights are out I pull her into my arms. Just holding her silently in the dark in a room full of people... such a feeling of peace. When I wake up in the morning in the same position, I realize that in my arms she does not have the nightmares.

"Good morning, Xena," whispers Lao Ma.

I open my eyes to see her lounging on a pillow, staring at me.

"Good morning."

"This is very sweet," she says, smiling at the girl sleeping in my arms.

"Only you could get away with saying that, Lao Ma," I reply, "Have we overslept again?"

"It's early still."

"I could go hunting. We could use some fresh meat."


"As I recall, you don't eat meat. Yet lately, I could swear--"

"I don't. It is possible to love someone without there being a sexual aspect involved, you know."

"Really?" I ask, humorous disbelief in my voice.

"Yes, really. I cannot explain what it is that I feel for him, Xena, how it has deepened over time. It would be easy to say he was my soul's mate, only I am not sure I believe in that concept."

"I guess I just can't imagine anyone not wanting to have sex with Borias," I joke. She laughs with me.

"Odd, isn't it?" she asks, as if she really thinks so.

"We don't need to have each other's permission," I say.

"I know."

Gabrielle starts waking up, conveniently bringing an end to this uncomfortable conversation. Another day on the road begins.

So I take Gabrielle on her first hunting trip. It's a cold morning, so we wrap ourselves in layers, bows and arrows on our backs. We move north silently, prepared for anything but looking for deer. She is good at moving stealthily, not a twig breaks as she passes over it. After an hour of northern movement, I sense something up ahead. I point forward and put my finger to my lips. Gabrielle nods. As we continue onward even more carefully, Gabrielle takes her bow from her back, and I pick up the scent of our quarry on the breeze. It's human. I shake my head at the bow and she replaces it, giving me a questioning look. I motion for her to move closer to me and she does. I whisper in her ear, "Human." It takes a lot for me not to kiss her, but we need to be focused. Who in Hades would be out here in the middle of nowhere? Gabrielle following directly behind me, we finally come to a spot where we can see them from afar. Though I know my eyesight is fine, I find it hard to believe what I am seeing. Roman soldiers. Roman soldiers a day outside of Chin! Gabrielle's eyes widen and I clamp my hand over her mouth. She nods. We watch. There are three of them, obviously scouts, and it looks as if they're scouting up to just before where we're hiding. We have to follow them, see what on earth is going on. We stay far enough behind that they can't sense they're being followed. We approach a campground; I can smell many people. The soldiers continue forward, and luckily there is a small hill to the left. We climb it, and my intuition is correct: we can see the entire campsite from here, and Gabrielle puts her own hand over her mouth. There must be a five hundred men.

"This isn't good," I whisper to her.

"It's a trap," she whispers back.

"Yes. I need to go down there and eavesdrop and you need to stay here."

"Got it."

I begin to move away and she grabs me, scowling.

"Sorry," I say, and pull her forward into a passionate kiss. I put a lot of heat into it, to purposefully leave her flustered and distracted so I can get away fast.

The bushes outside the Roman camp smell like urine. Clearly I have entered upon the area they are using as an outhouse. Just my luck. I crouch in the bushes for a few moments, watching Roman soldiers pee. It is not a pretty sight. Just as I am about to move further along the edge of the camp, I hear the sound of urine hitting stone just to my right. I turn and look; gold armor, the penis, the face: it's Julius Caesar in the very flesh! And he looks terrible, older than he should, and bloated somehow, yet unmistakably himself. My hand moves to the hilt of my sword and stops before unsheathing it. Not the plan, Xena, this is not the plan. I could just cut off his penis. I wouldn't have to kill him. But I want to. No one would know. Not ever. I could take my sword and slowly push it through his heart. I could say the names of all the people I've known who have suffered because of him as I gently pulled the sword out and watched as he fell to the ground. Images float through my mind; looking up at his face when we made love, looking down at his face from the cross when he ordered my legs broken. He perpetuates slavery, he threatens Chin. He deserves to die.

But Lao Ma would be so disappointed in me. Even if she didn't actually know, I would know, and I wouldn't be able to look at myself in the mirror. He finishes his business and I retreat, returning quickly to Gabrielle, and racing back towards camp.

"What did you see?" she asks, out of breath, when we stop for a drink of water.


"Caesar?" she gasps, "And five hundred men. So the kidnapping was a trap, a ploy to get us away from Chin."

"Yeah. I imagine he doesn't have K'ao Hsin and Pao Ssu, but we still can't be sure. Come on."

Back at camp, we enter Borias' tent, where he and Lao Ma are engaged in an intense discussion.

"Lao Ma," I say, as she looks up at me, startled, "I have surprising news to report. A few hours north of here, we spotted Caesar and five hundred Roman soldiers."

"What?" asks Borias, shocked, starting to rise. Lao Ma puts her hand on his arm, and he sits.

"I assume you are sure it was Caesar, Xena," asks Lao Ma.

"I squatted in the bushes watching him urinate."

"Wonderful," says Borias, "Thank you for that image."

"The council is prepared for this contingency," Lao Ma says as she pours us wine. She speaks to a servant, asks her to explain the situation to the perimeter guards and get messages to the scouts. We sit on red velvet pillows, Borias glancing at Lao Ma every few moments. I want to tell him that she's alright, that she is dangerously resilient, but we need to focus.

"Okay, so we have lots of options here," I begin, "First, we could just attack him. Take him from the west as he prepares for a fight in the east."

"He has five hundred men and we have twenty," says Gabrielle. She certainly is taking to this whole strategy thing.

"But Lao Ma is one of our men," I explain. I leave Gabrielle to imagine what that might mean; if she can catch a glass without touching it...

"If he gets to Chin, they'll be ready and defeat him easily," Lao Ma mentions.

"We could come in from behind while they do," I say, "trap them between two armies. We could have reinforcements here in two days, meet them further along the road--Caesar wouldn't know what hit him."

"Or we could just go straight home and run the war from there," says Lao Ma.

"I could have killed Caesar at his camp, but I didn't," I say.

"Really?" asks Borias.

"Really. But I think we should kill him now." I'm angry. I want him dead. The things he's done to the people I love.

"We have to find out if he has my daughters."

"I doubt he does, but yes," I say. The look on Lao Ma's face tells me she doesn't think he has them either.

Gabrielle clears her throat, "All these plans include terrible bloodshed and the death of soldiers on both sides. If we go ahead with my original plan, no one has to die. Except maybe Caesar."

Borias is thinking and says, "Here's the story I tell Caesar. What do you think? I saw the wanted poster and happened to run into the slave. I captured and subdued her. My scouts happened to come upon Caesar's camp. How convenient, I think, that I don't have to travel all the way to Rome to collect the reward for returning the gladiator slave. I explain to Caesar that my taste in slave girls leads me to the Orient every time. I question him mercilessly and we find out whether or not he has K'ao Hsin and Pao Ssu. If he has them, we get them. If he doesn't, we make him leave, however we end up having to do that."

"That's the plan," says Lao Ma decisively. She will almost always choose the plan with the least potential for casualties. One of the many things I admire about her.

Two hours later we are on the road. Borias looks incredible, handsome and regal as always, but with the extra sparkle of a fine performance. I keep my head bowed, as do Lao Ma and the three other servants. I am the only one who is not from Chin but with make up I can pass, and I do. Ten soldiers ride with us, one pulling Gabrielle along by a rope attached to the heavy handcuffs on her wrists. She's dressed in rags and is barefoot. She is supposed to be a dangerous prisoner but still I wish she was riding with me on Desire, her back pressed up against my stomach. I don't like her being this close to Caesar.

I am thinking what an insane plan this is, as we finally come upon the Roman camp. It's a gray afternoon, so all the colors stand out against the drab sky; tents and banners and flags and soldiers as far as the eye can see. We ride boldly into the camp, knowing they have seen us and will not attack until they are sure of our intentions. A group of soldiers ride up to us and ask our business. They seem particularly nonplused at the idea of visitors.

"I am Niklio. I seek an audience with the great Caesar," says Borias, "I have something I believe he is looking for."

Our soldiers pull Gabrielle towards the front of our party, and Borias presents her with a flourish. There is no mistaking this woman for any other person than the one on the wanted poster. She stares sullenly at the ground. The Roman soldiers tell Borias to follow, and to leave his soldiers. We follow. Our soldiers retreat into the woods, and head towards the spot we will meet later.

At Caesar's tent, we wait outside as Borias is announced. He enters, pulling Gabrielle along. We five slave girls follow demurely and retreat to the corner of the tent, away from Caesar's throne. The tent is large and unadorned. A few trunks with coins and clothing spilling out of them, weapons racks, some tables and chairs, a pallet. I am the only one who can feel it as Lao Ma builds a protective dome of energy around the tent. No one can go in or out while the energy remains as a buffer. There are two guards who stand at attention behind Caesar's throne, and two more just outside the doorway. The tension of inaction is killing me already. Now that I am safely in the shadows, I can look at Caesar.

Encased in golden armor and the finest Corinthian leather, seated on a rather plain throne, is my ex-lover, The Emperor of Rome. Now that I have my leisure to examine him, I realize that his face has become distorted by anger and disappointment. His life has not gone the way he wanted it to; he is desperately unsatisfied. I am glad. And I am glad that his ugliness shows on the outside now.

"So, Niklio," says Caesar in that deceptively kind, manipulative voice he uses when bargaining, "I see you have found my little flower." He can't hide the excitement in his eyes at the sight of Gabrielle. His look is covetous, obsessed. His smile revolts me. I can feel her body shrink under his gaze. I want to jump across the room and stick my dagger into his chest. I want to make him pay for everything.

"Yes, Emperor," says Borias slowly, "I found her in Chin, pathetically foraging for food in the garbage behind a seedy tavern. I'd seen the wanted poster, and knew it was her immediately."

"Of course," says Caesar, "Who could forget someone like her?" His eyes rake over Gabrielle's body and I feel revulsion prickling my skin. Caesar does not seem to sense the tension in the room; I don't understand how he has lived this long.

"Yes, she is impressive, certainly, and amazingly strong, for a woman. Very difficult to control. I prefer my women...docile," explains Borias. Oh he is good! I am fairly squirming imagining what this Niklio would do to his slaves. Caesar looks back at us, huddled in a corner. We are nothing to him. He doesn't even bother to focus his eyes on us.

"I can see that," says Caesar, cold and smug, "but this one was trained for fighting, not for fucking. Though sometimes I wonder if that was a terrible mistake."

Caesar reaches out to touch her, and Gabrielle takes a step back. Caesar scowls. Lao Ma digs her nails into my arm as it slides towards the dagger I have hidden in my boot. I control both my hiss of pain and my urge to taste Roman blood. For the moment. Now Gabrielle stands behind Borias and stares angrily at the ground, looking a great deal like she did the first time I saw her. Except she's more beautiful now. If I can control myself and play this scene right, I have the chance to be with Gabrielle.

"Well," says Borias, taking a sip from the goblet of wine offered him, "to each his own, I have always said. And as I return to you what is yours, in exchange for your generous reward," he pauses and Caesar nods curtly, "I wonder if you perhaps have anything around that might, say, be a little more to my taste? To sweeten the deal, perhaps?"

"You are in no position to bargain, Niklio," says Caesar, the ugly sound of a threat in his voice." He has become so repulsive I cannot bear to look at him.

"I assure you, I do not mean to ask for more than my due. Of course, you realize that few people could have captured your little flower. If not myself, I can't quite imagine who, trained as I suspect she was by the finest warriors of Rome." Borias is incredible. I've never seen him lose a negotiation. Charming and powerful.

Caesar concedes this.

"But still, I do not ask for more, I ask perhaps for something different," Borias says, in a manner subtle yet so suggestive it cannot be misinterpreted. Suddenly all eyes are on Caesar, gauging his reaction.

"Ah," says Caesar, drinking, "I understand. I am afraid I cannot help you. I am on my way to Chin, not on my way back."

"Are you sure?" Borias asks, "Sure you have no girls at all from Chin? I would give you your flower free of charge if you had even one delicate beauty for my collection."

I fear Borias may have gone too far. Caesar is an egotistical bastard, but he's not stupid. My hand swiftly reaches the hilt of my dagger and I shift my weight in preparation for attack.

"If only I did," Caesar says, laughing at his own joke, "But alas, I am bereft of girls."

There is a moment of complete silence. I believe him. Lao Ma steps forward, pulling off her slave outfit to expose her royal robes of red, gold, and purple. She looks fierce and formidable, in her understated way. Every bit the Empress of Chin.

"So you do not have my daughters after all, Caesar?" she asks quietly.

"Lao Ma... how dare you..." sputters Caesar as he struggles to sit upright on his throne, "How could you..."

"It doesn't matter," she says, "You truly are a dishonorable man, to use my love for my children in this way. How could you imagine you could take the House of Lao so easily?"

Watching him from the shadows I can see he doesn't realize he's already lost. I almost pity him. I know I will enjoy what is to come more than I should.

"I am Rome," he explains, as if it is obvious, "The greatest power in all the world. Chin is a simple, peaceful place, run by a woman! It only took me this long to conquer it because it's such a distance to travel. But now I am here. I will be kind enough to offer you the opportunity to give up and save us all casualties that might be better used as soldiers on another front, for Rome."

Lao Ma looks at him and laughs lightly. "You are a fool, Caesar," she says, "on so many levels I cannot even begin to explain it to you."

"I'd like to focus on his lack of respect for women," I say, stepping up next to her, my disguise left in the shadows. I look at Caesar and try to put at least a tenth of my hatred for him into my eyes. While he stares at me terrified, Borias unlocks Gabrielle's handcuffs.

"Xena!" breathes Caesar, "You bitch!"

"If you insist on threatening Chin," I look at Lao Ma for permission and she nods, "Then the war is on."

Caesar unsheathes his sword and comes at me, as his guards take on Borias and Gabrielle. Lao Ma steps back to protect her loyal servants.

"Guards!" Caesar calls, as our blades clash and I kick his throne across the tent. While he is distracted, I trade my dagger for a sword, and give my battle cry as I again advance upon him. At the edges of my vision I can sense my companions fare well, as my focus pinpoints itself on Caesar's sword. He is pathetic, desperate already, arming himself with a second sword, as if it will help. "Guards!" he cries again, retreating a table's-length away from me. In the background of my hearing are chairs breaking and muttered curses. And the sounds of the guards outside the tent, trying to get in, not understanding why suddenly the soft material is impenetrable.

"There aren't gonna be any guards," I say, "You chicken-shit bastard. You really should have learned to fight!"

And that's enough to get him to fight me all out. He comes at me, slashing with both swords, a look in his eye of such rage.

"I despise you, Xena!" he screams, plunging a sword towards my abdomen. I sidestep it and kick his hand hard, knocking the sword to the ground. He throws his remaining sword from his left hand to his right, blocking my blows as best he can while moving backwards quickly across broken pieces of furniture. I take a moment to watch Gabrielle; she is holding her own easily, barehanded against the armed guard. I watch her as she manipulates his right arm, forcing him to slit his own throat, jumping out of the way as his body falls. She's not even out of breath as she turns to look and make sure I am okay. I nod at her and continue fighting Caesar. He's cornered and I hear a scuffle and then the sound of Borias killing the other guard somewhere behind me.

Julius Caesar stands in front of me, hideous creature that he is. I am amazed that I ever loved him, that anybody did.

"Your death will be like a gift to the world," I tell him, my voice barely more than a growling whisper.

"You'll never amount to anything," he spits out as he lunges at me. I disarm him easily and pause, staring at him, my sword pulled back for the killing blow. The bastard broke my heart and killed M'lila, he made my Gabrielle do terrible things. I can taste his blood already.

"No!" says Borias.

"What the Hades do you mean 'no'?" I scream, on the verge of losing control of myself, brushing the sweat off my forehead and up into my bangs. "He doesn't have the girls. What do you wanna do? Let him go?" I ask scornfully, almost hysterically. "This is Caesar, have you all forgotten that?" I half turn my head to Lao Ma when I say this, and Caesar takes the moment of my distraction to lunge at my sword arm. I react without looking, and just as I'm about to feel my sword pierce his chest, someone knocks me to the side. As I hit the ground, it's Gabrielle who falls on top of me, and I look up to see Borias plunge his sword into Caesar's stomach.

"If anyone asks," he says, pushing the blade in deeper, "You were killed by Borias."

I hold Gabrielle to me as Caesar's pathetic body sags to the ground. We all watch as the most powerful man in the known world takes his last breath.

"This isn't how it was... supposed to end," Caesar whispers, and he is dead.

Gabrielle gasps. She's shaking. "Thank you," she whispers.

"My pleasure," Borias says, "Now we go home?"

"Yes," says Lao Ma, "We go home."

Gabrielle and I get to our feet. We all stand there a moment staring down at the body.

"You were going to kill him all along, weren't you?" I ask Borias.

"Yes," he says, "For me it was less personal. Better for my karma." He smiles and puts out his arm for Lao Ma and she rests her hand delicately upon it.

"And?" I ask.

"And I enjoyed it," he says, a sly smile on his face.

As we exit the tent, the shield moves with us, invisible and very powerful. There are hundreds of soldiers outside, and they lunge towards us, weapons draws, only to be stopped by what appears to them to be absolutely nothing. We run to our horses and the energy shield runs with us, arrows and spears bouncing off easily. The soldiers scream and pound at it; some of them have entered the tent by now and know Caesar is dead. It's a confusing few moments. We mount our horses and as we ride away in clouds of dust, the protective shield melts. After a few hours we stop to meet the rest of our party and regroup. I sense we haven't been followed, so we head back towards Chin, leaving a few scouts to make sure the Romans don't retaliate. Leader-less, it is doubtful that they will even return to Rome, never mind come after Caesar's enemies.

We camp tonight just inside the great wall. The four of us dressed as ourselves again, eating dinner and drinking wine in Lao Ma's tent, telling old war stories and listening to the raucous celebration from the soldier's camp. Even the servants are drunk tonight.

"To a job well done, all around," says Lao Ma, and the four of us lift our glasses and toast. We drink and laugh, joking about how impressed we are with ourselves.

"Will you be staying on with us, Gabrielle?" asks Borias, as the laughter dies down.

"I would, I would love to but I'm not sure what I really have to offer," says Gabrielle.

"She doubts her skills!" Borias laughs, gulping down his wine and holding his goblet out for more. I fill it and he continues, "Let me begin by stating the obvious. You are a brave, cunning warrior, and a creative, experienced fighter."

Gabrielle blushes and looks down at her hands; she knows what he says is true.

"You are a fine strategist," says Lao Ma seriously, "You have a good understanding of human nature, and you are the only person besides myself ever to have won the Questions Game."

Gabrielle looks at Lao Ma with admiration, knowing what high praise she has just received. Then she looks at me. I blush.

"What they're not saying is they like it that you keep me out of trouble," I joke. Holding her stare I take her hand in mine and say, "I'm too biased to answer for Chin, so I'll answer for me. You make me so happy, Gabrielle, and I think you're wonderful in too many ways to name. If you left I'd ride to the ends of the earth to be with you again."

Gabrielle's expression as she listens to me is worth every single moment I have lived through to get here. She says, "If only to spare Desire such a tiring journey, I will stay."

Borias smiles at her and we all raise our glasses. Lao Ma laughs, bending forward to kiss Gabrielle's cheek, and says,

"Welcome to the House of Lao."

The End

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