THE GHOST OF A SMILE

By IseQween

IseQween@aol.com
July 2001

 

NOTE: The following refers to and builds on the ending of the series finale, A FRIEND IN NEED. Its my way of moving from sadness to renewal regarding losses I experienced in June of 2001. It became a tribute to "Xena: Warrior Princess," as well as to a real-life hero and friend who just missed being able to see the last ep of her favorite show, and whose spirit will likewise always remind me of "the final, the good, the right thing to do." My thanks to Cousin Liz for capturing that so beautifully in her design. And hello, P.D. Wonder. Battle won. -- IQ

 

 

PART I

Gabrielle watched the shore of her beloved Greece approach, realizing she felt much less certain about where she was going now than when she'd started out. The journey back from Japa had been longer, more arduous than she remembered. Of course, Xena had been there to distract her before. Making fun of her continuing bouts with seasickness, telling her tales about the sites they passed, calming her anxieties about what might lie ahead. Time flew then. Now it seemed to stand still.

Gabrielle absently picked at a deep gash in the railing she was leaning against, recalling their conversation before the trip to Japa. How they'd wondered what they'd do the rest of their lives and joked about maybe going to the land of the Pharaohs. She shivered slightly, pulling around her more tightly the cloak she'd begun wearing, despite the warm weather. Smiling wistfully, she tried to snuggle into the memory of that last time her life had been as it should be. It brought her some comfort, even as she longed for the warmth of that campfire, of Xena's nearness and the limitlessly twinkling sky that had covered them.

She'd finally begun to take it all for granted. Silly me, she thought, clenching the battered rail. Should have known better. But she hadn't, even when that priest appeared to beckon Xena once again to a foreign land where her past continued to hover over graves like a specter that would never rest in peace. Gabrielle had assumed that whatever Xena faced wouldn't be easy. But this time she would be at the warrior's side. What could be worse than the trials they'd already been through? Worse than the deaths they'd managed to survive? Together.

No! Gabrielle rubbed at the tears beginning to blur her vision. No. She wasn't alone. Xena was beside her, like she'd promised she'd always be. Soothing her, telling her to go on with her life and do all the things she'd dreamed of. Becoming a famous bard. A nurturer of people in need. A prophet of peace, breaking the cycle of violence and hate. A warrior for good. Gabrielle sighed. All of that had less substance than what she dreamed of most. Xena.

"Drop anchor!"

Startled, Gabrielle looked up to see the pier, bustling with people waving or hawking goods. A few small boats already glided toward the ship. Passengers jostled each other, preparing to disembark. Sailors laughed, slapping each other on the back and boasting of the good time they'd earned. Gabrielle pried herself from the railing, not quite feeling a part of sights and sounds that should feel like home. She bent to retrieve the two bags they'd brought with them to Japa. One was lighter than it might have been, as it was missing her partner's standard armor and leathers. The other bore the added weight of the urn with Xena's ashes. Gabrielle ran a finger lightly around the circle of metal at her waist, smoothly edged on one side, deadly sharp on the other. It was her only souvenir of her warrior's last battle.

"Need any help? Hey! You there, do you need any help?"

Gabrielle felt a touch on her arm. Instinctively she backed away, hands raised in a defensive block.

"Whoa! I was only trying to help. Don't need to be so unfriendly."

Gabrielle found herself facing a rangy sailor, his weather-beaten face placing him near 40 winters, playful blue eyes suggesting he might be younger. She relaxed. "Sorry, I didn't realize you were speaking to me."

"Yeah, I noticed you didn't seem to realize we're home."

Gabrielle flinched. "*I'm* home, yes," she said, surprised at the brusqueness of her tone. She closed her eyes briefly and took a deep breath. "Please, excuse me. I I'm not quite myself. Thanks, but I think I can manage on my own."

"You know, these port towns can be pretty rough, especially for a pretty young woman like yourself. Might be good for me to escort you to wherever you're staying. You got somebody meeting you?"

"I'm fine, really," Gabrielle insisted. She picked up the straps to her bags and placed one over each shoulder. She surveyed the large clump of travelers impatiently awaiting their turn to be rowed in and the even larger clump of people impatiently awaiting their arrival. "On second thought, I could use a little help getting through these crowds." Taking a deep breath, she added, "I don't didn't usually have to worry about someone making a way for me."

"Oh?" the sailor said, his voice softening. "Did you lose your man?"

Gabrielle blinked, partly in surprise at the man's perceptiveness. "No," she responded, her eyes traveling past him to the direction from which they'd just come. "More," she said softly. "Much more."

"My mates call me Singer," the sailor said, tentatively reaching out to pat her shoulder. "I'm sorry to hear about your loss. I didn't mean nothin' by saying what I did earlier. Hope I didn't offend you."

Gabrielle reached up and caught his hand, squeezing it lightly before letting go. "Thank you, Singer. I didn't take offense." The ghost of a smile flitted across her face. "Though my partner might have. My name's Gabrielle."

Singer grinned. "Gabrielle, pleased to meet you." He scanned the scene around them. "Follow me. I'll get us out of here through the VIP route." He began picking his way across the deck to the side away from the pier. Glancing over his shoulder at Gabrielle, he asked, "Where you from?"

"Potadeia."

"I've heard of it. Not much there, but not much where I come from either. Lythos, about two day's ride from Potadeia." He stopped at the rail near the back of the ship and leaned over. "Ah, we're in luck. It's still here."

Gabrielle came up next to him and peered down. She saw a worn dinghy tied against the side. "That's what the VIPs use?" she chuckled.

He bowed and swept his hand toward the dinghy. "It is now."

*****

Gabrielle sat quietly in the back of the room, alternating between staring into her mug and watching the patrons of the establishment Singer had suggested to her. It wasn't much different from most of the other places she'd been in that combined a tavern on the ground level with guestrooms above. This one teemed with seafarers celebrating their homecoming or simply enjoying land again before taking off for some other destination. If Singer hadn't been an old acquaintance of the proprietor, Gabrielle wasn't sure where she'd have ended up. A cot in a tiny room off the kitchen might not suit most VIPs, but Gabrielle wasn't complaining.

She looked fondly over at her benefactor, who had his fellow sailors in stitches over some amusing tale. He'd turned out to be kind, if a little overprotective. He did indeed treat her as though she were royalty - forging ahead of her through throngs like an honor guard, bellowing at anyone who bumped against her, ordering the serving girl to clean their table spotless before allowing Gabrielle to sit. He'd said he planned to sleep elsewhere, so wanted to make sure everyone knew how to behave with her before he left.

Singer caught Gabrielle's eye. He winked and told his companions to give him a little room. They smiled, obeying immediately, apparently prepared for what was to come.

"All right, everybody!" one mammoth sailor yelled. "Quiet!" Most people who glanced his way hushed. A party of drunken townsfolk didn't seem to get the message, until they heard a menacingly hissed, "I said quiet" in their ears.

The loudest man swung around to confront the interruption. He couldn't see anything except a wall. A wall with a black vest? The man's eyes traveled up a mighty chest, to a bushy beard and glowering eyes. "Okay, you fellows. Quiet," he said to his buddies as though his command mattered. "The man said he wanted quiet."

Singer nodded to his big friend. He cleared his throat, which everyone could hear in the silence. Closing his eyes, he launched into the most beautiful renditions of popular songs that Gabrielle had ever heard. Only when the last strains of his deep, rich voice had faded away did his audience shout and stamp their approval. Winking again at Gabrielle, Singer made a courtly bow and smilingly accepted the backslaps of his comrades. He headed over to Gabrielle.

"See, told ya I'd let you know how I got my name," he said, taking a seat across from her. He cocked his head and frowned. "Course, usually I don't make people unhappy," he added, reaching up to brush away a tear from his new friend's face.

Embarrassed, Gabrielle hastily swiped at her cheek. "It was wonderful. You have a fantastic voice. I haven't been so moved since since ." She looked down into her mug again. "I'm sorry. So many things remind me of her. I should be happy about that, I guess." Raising her head, she let him see into a heart so full of love that it might burst into a thousand pieces. "Instead, all I feel is pain."

Singer took the hands clenching Gabrielle's mug and held them. He wasn't surprised. He'd seen the dark shadows under her eyes, the way her breath hitched sometimes when she'd stared out to sea, how her smile trembled at dark birds soaring against the sunset. Even before he happened upon her one day sitting on a pile of rope with quill and scroll, he'd known she had the soul of a poet. He could feel her appreciation for life, the joy she understood it could bring. Simply from her expression, he could see words straining to come out. He knew what that was like.

"Why?" he probed gently. "Why does someone like you feel pain at what is good?"

Gabrielle studied him. She pressed the back of his hand with her thumb. "Who are you, Singer? How did you get so smart?"

Singer chuckled. "Not so smart. Lucky's more like it." He squeezed Gabrielle's hand, then pulled back his arms and relaxed against his chair. "My father thought I should be a professional soldier. One less mouth to feed, one more son to send money home. He wasn't a bad man, just couldn't see what good could come from a boy who'd sing to the chickens rather than not sing at all." Singer paused, gratified to see the corners of Gabrielle's mouth turn up a little.

"One day - I was about 15 - I started composing this tune in my head on my way to the market. Next thing I knew, I was way past the market." He smirked. "But I wasn't finished with my tune, so I kept walking. I don't remember exactly how many days or charred rabbits it took, but I ended up here. I got a job as a deckhand, figuring I'd sail to someplace grand, where people got paid to sing."

"You never found it?"

Singer laughed. "Yes and no. Ship life can be boring. Fights and whippings entertain for only so long. I used to come up on deck at night and sing real quiet. I figured big ol' edgy sailors would like nothing better than to mop the deck with me for waking them up. Then I noticed that some of the men would come up to lounge when I was there. Tiny - he's the big guy who made everybody shut up - Tiny asks if I know a certain song. I say yes and sing it for him. Then others made requests. Well, there are only so many songs that sailors know, so after awhile I started doing my own."

Singer paused. "You hungry?" he asked, beckoning a serving girl. "I'm ready to eat a bear."

"Thank you, but ," Gabrielle began, then realized that, for the first time since in a long while, she actually did have an appetite. "Um, yes, I believe I am."

Singer nodded and ordered stew for her, mutton and quite a bit more for himself. "Anyway," he continued, "I discovered there's no grander place to sing than out on the ocean, no better audience than bored, homesick sailors. I didn't really want or need the dinars they tried to give me, so I accepted favors instead." He spread his arms as though taking in everything around him. "There are few places I've been where I couldn't get a warm bed, good food or pleasant company to pass the time with if I wanted."

Their dinner arrived. The two ate in companionable silence, occasionally checking on the progress Singer's comrades were making toward enjoying the good time they'd earned. Eventually Singer sighed with contentment. He put down the shiny bone of something or other he'd finished off and licked his fingers. "Ah. Nothing like a full stomach to help you focus on what's important in life."

"Are you sure you're not a philosopher?" Gabrielle laughed.

Singer grinned. "Nah, just a sailor who sings." He gazed her appraisingly. "But I bet thats something else your good at."

Gabrielle looked puzzled. "Something else?"

"Yeah, I saw you writing on the ship. Seemed like you were trying to capture something, like a poet would. I figured you for a woman of words."

Once again Gabrielle found herself studying this sailor who was so much more than he appeared. She glanced away. "Yes, like you, I left home to pursue dreams I couldn't if I stayed." Her eyes hardened as she caught sight of the loud townsman strong-arming a young serving girl into a dark corner. "Excuse me a moment, Singer. There's someone I'd like to talk to."

Singer followed her gaze. "Wha- wait," he said, confused, standing up with her. "Are you worried about that girl?" Gabrielle continued striding purposefully toward the struggling figures. "Gabrielle, wait! Let me handle this!"

Finally she seemed to hear him. She turned, and Singer gasped at the transformation.

"No," she said quietly, firmly. "This is another thing I'm good at. Stay there."

Mouth open, Singer did as he was told. He watched her walk up to the couple calmly and say something to the drunken man. The man looked at her blearily, then laughed and resumed his groping. She put her hand on his arm and said something else. This time he tried to push her away. She grabbed the offending arm and twisted it behind him. Cursing, he sought to sling her around, but ended up on the floor for his trouble.

"Stay down!" Singer heard her shout. Now other patrons turned to see what the commotion was about. The man stumbled to his feet and lunged at Gabrielle. She ducked neatly, then jabbed her fingers into his neck. Noise in the room ceased as he began to slump, gasping, eyes bulging. When he'd hit the floor, she knelt beside him.

"You have 30 seconds to decide," she warned with coldness that gave Singer goosebumps. "Nod your head yes, you'll apologize to her, and I'll let you live. Otherwise, I walk away."

Singer and everyone else held their breath as blood trickled from the downed man's nose. He seemed caught between pride and fear. The latter won out. He nodded his head, his eyes now frantic. Gabrielle paused a moment, then thrust her fingers into his neck again. The man coughed, sucking in air.

"Get up," Gabrielle ordered when he seemed mobile once more. He got shakily to his feet. Gabrielle waited expectantly, unconcerned by the hint of rebellion that crossed his face. He looked first at her, then to the serving girl. He hung his head. "Sorry," he mumbled to the floor.

"Say it to her."

The man raised his head. His lips pressed into an angry line. He knew everyone was watching, that his humiliation would be the fodder of gossip until he turned gray. But when he glanced again at that blond she-demon's eyes, he decided he wanted to live that long. "Sorry," he repeated to his former victim. "Won't happen again."

"Now leave."

The man looked to his drinking partners for support. They looked everywhere but at him. He sneered at them anyway before brushing himself off, straightening his shoulders and walking as best he could out the door.

Singer felt like he was watching a play. Everyone seemed frozen, waiting to see what Gabrielle would do. She stood looking at her hands. Just as quickly as he'd seen her certainty come upon her, Singer saw it ebbing away. Her hands began to tremble. He pushed forward. "Gabrielle?" he asked, grabbing her arms gently, peering down into her eyes. "Gabrielle, are you all right?"

At these words, she seemed to snap to herself. She looked quizzically at Singer, as if surprised to see him. Her shoulders slumped even more. "I don't know," she answered tiredly, trying to collect herself.

Singer started to lead her away.

"Wait," she said, noticing the serving girl. Gabrielle went to her and laid a hand on her shoulder. "Are you all right?"

The girl blinked. "Oh. Yes. Yes, ma'am," she responded shyly. "Um, thanks for what you did. You could've been hurt."

Gabrielle smiled without humor, though her eyes were warm. "There are worse ways to be hurt, believe me. I'm Gabrielle. I'm glad I could help." She squeezed the girl's shoulder, then let Singer walk her out into the fresh night air.

*****

Gabrielle poked a finger into her cot. The rigid surface didn't budge. She sat on the edge and glanced around the tiny room, strangely thankful there was little to set her memories off. She'd originally planned to visit her sister and niece, but the closer she got to Greece, the less she felt up to telling them why Xena wasn't with her. Autolycus and some of her other friends would have understood. She hadn't a clue where to look for them, though, as they had long ago retired from their various pursuits. What had Xena once told her? "You are my family." Gabrielle hadn't thought those words would ever hurt so much.

Sighing, she stretched out on the cot. A lot like the hard ground she was used to. She just couldn't bring herself to camp outside yet. She hoped this would do. She'd tossed and turned throughout her trip from Japa, managing to catch only a few brief naps during the day. Maybe she could finally sleep without the nightmares she feared would come, of Xena as she'd last seen her in flesh and blood. Then ashes. Gabrielle shuddered violently, tears gathering as usual when she thought of how her warrior's body was gone forever. How she'd held it in her hands, then had to let it go. Her own body convulsed in sobs, exhausting itself like her fevered brain.

"Gabrielle."

Gabrielle shivered. The rich, sensual voice vibrated through the chambers of her heart, stirred the hair on her skin. It was so real, but she would not be fooled again. It was too much to hope, too little to hope for. A sob caught in her throat.

"No! Stop it! It's not enough!"

"Gabrielle, it's me."

"No! It's reminders of you, memories of you, longing for you. But it's not you. It'll never be you!"

"Gabrielle, please, open your eyes."

She squeezed her lids together even tighter. "Touch me," she whispered, her desire to know overwhelming her fear. "If you want me to believe it's really you, I have to feel your flesh against mine."

Silence. Then, "I'm afraid it doesn't work that way. This is one promise I can't keep alone. You have to believe first."

Gabrielle hesitated, then slowly opened her eyes. She waited anxiously for them to adjust to the darkness. And then she saw it: The faint outlines of a figure standing next to her cot. Tall, slender, feminine. Whole.

She gasped. "Oh, Xena, is it really you?"

The figure knelt, reached out a hand and brushed Gabrielle's cheek. "Were you expecting someone else?"

Gabrielle grasped the hand and brought it to her lips. She kissed it, savoring its taste, inhaling its scent. She sighed as though she had feasted on one of those meals Singer had spoken of, then broke into sobs of joy.

"Shhhh," Xena said, pulling Gabrielle's head to her shoulder. "I'm here."

Gabrielle relaxed. Her eyes grew heavy. They fluttered open a little when she felt herself gently moved to the side of the narrow cot.

"I can't say I'm pleased with these accommodations," Xena said, lying down and pulling Gabrielle almost on top of her. "But I guess you weren't expecting company after all."

Gabrielle smiled against Xena's chest and snuggled in even closer. "I'm so tired," she murmured, "or else I'd've prepared a better welcoming."

Xena chuckled. "Oh, I think this one suits both of us just fine. Sleep now."

Gabrielle felt her hair brushed back and a warm kiss on her forehead. Soft humming caressed her ears. For the first time since Japa, she felt like she was home.

*****

"Mmmmm." Gabrielle stretched languorously from toes to head. She heard pots clanging nearby. Either the forest animals had learned to cook, or Xena was attempting to --. Gabrielle opened her eyes cautiously. She scanned the dimly lit room, already suspecting she wouldn't find what she sought. She lay there willing herself to sleep again, not caring whether Xena had only been a dream. But the sounds and scents wafting into her room wouldn't allow it. Sighing, she rose. She walked over to the little washstand that someone had thoughtfully set inside for her and began preparing for another day.

Gabrielle pushed her curtain aside and entered the kitchen. The cook regarded her curiously before nodding good morning. Gabrielle nodded back and headed for the main dining area.

"Good morning! Come on over and join me."

Gabrielle headed over to Singer's table and sat across from him. "I suppose you've already ordered my VIP breakfast?"

Singer grinned. "Yep. I figured we could get the best of everything, since the others are too drunk to be up this early." He gave Gabrielle the once over. "You look better this morning."

"Really?" Gabrielle considered her mood. "I suppose I did sleep better than I have in a long time."

"Pleasant dreams?"

Gabrielle blinked. "How .?"

Singer grinned. "I've seen that look on many a sailor's face when he's been dreaming of his girl. Makes 'em feel better, puts a spring in their walk."

"The dream, or being able to see their girl in person?"

The cook came over to put plates piled with eggs, meat, fruit, and biscuits in front of them. Singer arranged everything to his liking before answering.

"It depends. For some, it's the chance to be with the girl of their dreams, maybe someone they don't or can't have. For others, it's looking forward to running up and throwing their arms around someone waiting for them." Singer paused, absentmindedly using his fingers to push a yellow mound onto his fork. He looked thoughtfully at Gabrielle.

"Life at sea is funny. It's the same most days, yet anything can happen. You'll scramble around getting ready for a storm. It doesn't come. You're rocking peacefully in your bunk, when all of a sudden you find yourself on the floor. The elements can shorten a long trip or make short ones longer. You could die or wish you were dead. You take your good moments when you can, sometimes in a song, sometimes in a dream. For many of us, what we dream and the reality might as well be the same."

Gabrielle once again found herself staring at Singer, who resumed eating as though he'd just delivered the day's weather forecast. Something flashed through her mind that Xena had told her in Japa. "Listen not just to the sounds, but to what's behind the sounds," the warrior had instructed, wanting Gabrielle to know everything Xena knew. Is that what Singer did? Is that why he seemed to hear her muted heart?

Noticing the silence, he peered up at Gabrielle. "Evthin awight?" he asked around the food in his mouth.

"Yes," Gabrielle answered. "You continue to amaze me. A lot like the one I thought I'd lost."

Singer blushed and finished chewing. "What? My little observations about things?" He snorted. "Comes from lots of time having nothing to do but study bored sailors and figure what song might lift their spirits to where they'd really rather be. It can get ugly if I choose wrong."

"No," Gabrielle said, reaching over to pat his hand. "You have a gift for just the right one. I think I'll be listening better from now on. Thank you."

*****

With Singer's considerable assistance, Gabrielle had found a horse that suited her size and personality. She agreed to leave it with the stable owner's brother when she reached Amphipolous. She imagined Argo still roamed the countryside where Xena freed the Palomino before heading to Japa. Gabrielle hadn't questioned the decision. She knew it was Xena's way of preparing for the worst, but Gabrielle had had faith that they would all be reunited as usual.

Singer helped Gabrielle load her provisions onto the horse, Tilly. "I'm gonna miss you, Poet," he said, hugging Gabrielle.

"I'll miss you too, Singer. I couldn't have gotten this far without you. And I don't mean because of all the favors you called in to help me."

Singer brushed at the dirt with his toe. "You're welcome," he said glancing up at her shyly. "Like I said, I knew you were special. It feeds my heart being around someone like you."

Gabrielle chuckled. "Like the girl of your dreams?"

"You could be," he grinned mischievously, "if maybe you had a beard."

Gabrielle looked at him blankly, before bursting into laughter. "Dream or reality?"

Singer smirked. "This is the one port where it's both."

Gabrielle embraced Singer again and pulled his head down to kiss his cheek. "I'm happy for you."

He bent to return the kiss. His expression turned serious. "And I'm happy for you. I can hear her" - he pointed at her chest - "in there. I'll be here for awhile before I head out again. Maybe you'll come back through when your business is finished. Maybe I can meet her then."

"Oh, Singer, I hope so. If anyone could see her, it would be you."

"Go on, then. Find her for yourself. If you ever need me, you know where to call."

Gabrielle brushed away a tear. "Yes, my friend. Until next time." She turned and led Tilly away, the ghost of a smile on her face.

 

PART II

Tilly was a good horse, but Gabrielle preferred to walk. Besides, she was in no hurry. Instinctively she tightened her grip on the bag that carried Xena's urn. She'd told herself it might get jarred too much if stowed on Tilly, knowing that wasn't the only reason. Would she lose sense of Xena in the vast outdoors? Would she be overwhelmed by years of memories on the road and end up losing Xena buried beneath them? To her surprise, the farther she got from the port town, the more natural it felt, as though little had changed between now and that fateful dawn when Xena had been called to the East.

Gabrielle glanced over at Tilly, fully expecting to see the beautiful dark-haired warrior riding vigilantly beside her. She could sense what Xena would be sensing, what she'd be thinking: "What's behind? What's to the side? What lies ahead?" Gabrielle smiled wistfully. "What's Gabrielle thinking? Is she all right? Am I pushing too hard?"

Gabrielle heard herself answering: "Xena, please relax. I don't think those village guys will be following any more women - certainly not us - this soon." "Xena, I'm fine, okay? Considering I just left 10 bad guys on the ground, I don't think a cut on my arm means I'm getting overconfident." "What do you mean, I'm 'day dreaming too much'? I'm listening for every ."

Gabrielle's internal conversation with her partner suddenly ceased. "Gods," she mumbled to herself, "the woman wins arguments even when she isn't here." She kept walking nonchalantly as though unaware that she was being followed. Whoever it was didn't seem much of a threat, as he was about as stealthy as a hobbled mule, which made her even angrier with herself for not noticing sooner.

Gabrielle made a show of shading her eyes and looking in the direction of the setting sun. "Oh, well, guess I might as well make camp soon," she said out loud. When she reached a good clearing, she began unpacking Tilly. She gathered wood for a fire and laid out her bedroll. She selected some provisions and sat facing the spot where she'd last heard noise. She began eating with one hand, making sure the other was free just in case.

"All right," she said calmly, raising her voice. "Show yourself." She unhooked the chakram and held it so the light glinted off its sharp edge. "I'd hate to throw this over there and find I wasn't having rabbit for dinner." She watched a large bush tremble.

"Please, don't hurt me," a fluttering voice pleaded. "I I didn't mean any harm."

Gabrielle laid the chakram down. "Come on out then, and we'll see."

Slowly a foot emerged, then the hem of a skirt, followed by a slender body and finally a pale face framed in red.

Gabrielle stood. "I know you."

"Yes, it's me, Marta, the serving girl you saved at the inn."

Gabrielle continued to stare at Marta, dumbstruck.

Marta shifted uncomfortably. "I'm sorry. I . Oh, I don't know what I was thinking." She reached back into the bushes to retrieve a satchel. "I shouldn't have . I'll be going now."

"Wait!" Gabrielle moved to Marta and gently grasped her arm. "No, I'm sorry. I'm just so surprised to see you. My name's -"

"Gabrielle. I remember."

Gabrielle smiled. "Now that the introductions are over, please," she said, leading the girl to the campfire, "sit. Share a meal with me and tell me what's going on."

Marta hesitated before sitting cross-legged next to Gabrielle. "I feel so foolish," she began, her eyes downcast. "I'd never seen anyone like you. So brave and kind. So small and powerful. You made that awful man show me respect. I felt so so ." She looked at Gabrielle with awe and tears in her eyes. "It was like I'd been waiting my whole life for someone like you."

Gabrielle shook her head in disbelief. "Shut up," she silently warned the leather-clad companion she could hear laughing at the irony of her situation. "Just shut up."

Gabrielle sighed. "Marta, you can't be more than 16. You have your whole life ahead of you to decide what you want. Being a warrior isn't all fun and kicking butt."

"A warrior?" Marta looked puzzled. "I don't want to be a warrior."

Now Gabrielle looked puzzled. "But . I thought that's why you followed me."

Marta's stomach rumbled. Embarrassed, she pointed at the dried meat and cheese Gabrielle had set out. "May I?"

"Oh, yes, of course. Help yourself."

Relaxed now, Marta ate a few bites and took a swig from Gabrielle's water skin. "Thanks. I kinda rushed when I packed my things," she said sheepishly. "I didn't have time to get much food."

Gabrielle smiled and nodded in understanding. "Yes, I know how that can happen."

"Do you? Do you know what it's like to be in a kind of fog, and suddenly have it lift, and there's the sun shining right at you?" Marta asked dreamily. "Sure, it was great seeing you deck that guy. I'm an orphan. I work off my lodging for anyone who'll have me. I get pushed around a lot. I'd like to be able to take care of myself, like you can, but I don't want to be someone who hurts people."

"I hurt people, Marta. You saw that."

"Yes, but inside ." Marta crossed her arms across her chest, her eyes traveling unfocused beyond Gabrielle. "I thought you'd gloat, the way you brought that man down with just your fingers. But you looked at your hands like you were sorry you had to do that. You were troubled, yet still you came over to check on me. You could see I was all right on the outside, but you wanted to make sure I was all right on the inside. Me -- who nobody's claimed, not for a good reason anyway. You made me feel like I was worth something. That's why I followed you. I want to learn to do that. I want to be able to make people feel special too."

Gabrielle didn't know what to say. Her brain was like a cauldron, its thoughts bubbling up in so many directions. All day she'd looked forward to sleeping, to maybe seeing Xena again. But not like this, not in flashes of scenes from early days with the warrior or later ones when she'd become a warrior herself. Everything wasn't clear yet. She needed time, time to find out who this new Xena was, who she herself would become. And now here was this girl, intruding upon that, needing direction she wasn't prepared to give. It was too much! Too soon!

"Gabrielle?"

Gabrielle felt torn between privacy and courtesy, irritation and compassion. She couldn't turn the girl away, but she didn't know what to do with her either.

"Ma'am?"

Ma'am. Gabrielle sighed. She looked over at the bag that held Xena's ashes, a little unsettled by the conflict she felt between wanting to hold the urn against her chest or whack it with a stick.

"Gabrielle. Please, call me Gabrielle. I know I'm supposed to be the adult here." Gabrielle let out a deep breath. "Look, Marta, I just lost someone very close to me. I'm still working through that." She reached into one of Tilly's saddlebags and took out an extra blanket. "Here," she said, tossing the blanket to a silently waiting Marta. "You can stay tonight. We'll talk about what to do next in the morning."

"Are you angry with me? Because I followed you?"

"No, I'm not angry. I'm . There are just so many new things I have to get used to, you know? I traveled with someone else for so long. I need a little time to myself to sort things out. It'll be okay as long as you understand it's not you that's the problem. Now get some sleep. You must be as tired as I am."

"Yes ma' - I mean, Gabrielle." Marta grinned, getting comfortable in her blanket. "I've slept on the road before, so don't worry about me. And Gabrielle?"

Gabrielle was cleaning up after their dinner and thinking of what else she could do until she was sure Marta was asleep. "Hmmm?"

"Thank you."

Gabrielle looked over to Marta and smiled. "You're welcome."

*****

Gabrielle lay awake. Even though she'd heard light snoring from Marta's direction for some time now, she still felt a little uncomfortable. She wasn't so afraid of nightmares anymore, of maybe screaming in her sleep. She was curious as to what form Xena was taking and why. In one way, it was more tangible, like when Xena was a ghost. Yet in another, it seemed more illusory - like the warrior she felt beside her when she sailed without a crew on the first leg of her journey from Japa a "presence" in her heart, but not to her physical senses.

Was the soulmate who had come to her the night before a figment of her imagination? If not, did she have to be alone for Xena to be with her like that? Would others be able to see Xena? Could she inhabit other bodies, as she did after being mortally injured by a log trap? Gabrielle shivered, recalling the awful emptiness of losing Xena that first time she'd struggled so mightily to save her. The warrior's cold body hadn't been much recompense then, though she'd still sought to honor it by taking it to Amphipolous, then

consecrating it to the flames of an Amazon funeral pyre. Unconsciously she smiled, feeling again the joy of learning Xena was inside Autolycus, fighting to return. The love in that kiss when she closed her eyes and finally "saw" Xena's spirit. The warmth and power that surged through her when Xena had come inside her to battle Velesca. If only she could feel that way forever, maybe not having Xena on the outside wouldn't be so hard.

"Talk about your backhanded compliments."

Gabrielle chuckled. "Now, Xena, you know I didn't mean --. Hey, wait a minute." Gabrielle's eyes shot open to see a smirking blue-eyed brunette lying on her side next to her. "Xena!" she cried, rolling over into waiting arms. "You did come again!"

Xena kissed the head beneath her chin. "Not quite. I never left."

Gabrielle pushed away and propped herself up on her arm. "Really, Xena? If you're always here, why is it that I've only seen you like this when I'm asleep?" Gabrielle caressed Xena's cheek. "Why," she asked softly, "can I touch you like this when I fear it's only a dream?"

Xena gently pulled Gabrielle back to her chest. "Gabrielle, I'm no more or less than what I've always been. I've truly lived only where I always have. I'll always be in the one place I belong. You. Your heart, your dreams."

"Oh, Xena, but I thought -"

"Shhhh. Listen to what's behind the sounds." Xena gently brushed Gabrielle's eyelids closed. "What did you dream before I came into your life?"

"No! I don't want to talk about dreams," Gabrielle cried, her voice muffled against Xena's chest. "I don't want to talk about ghosts or imaginations or karmic reincarnations. I want it to be you - the real you I had before Japa."

Xena tightened her arms around her soulmate. "What did you dream?"

Gabrielle stifled a small sob. "I dreamed of leaving Potadeia. Seeing the world, having great adventures."

"And after you met me?"

Gabrielle smiled a little through her tears. "I dreamed of leaving Potadeia, seeing the world, having great adventures with you."

"And when you got to know me?"

Gabrielle leaned back so she could look in Xena's eyes. "I dreamed that you would be the good soul I knew you to be." She swallowed, adding softly, "I dreamed that one day you would see that in yourself and find peace."

Xena nodded. "As much as you loved me for myself, in spite of all the terrible things I'd done, that dream was behind your words of acceptance and encouragement. I listened to it, just as you listened to the need behind my anger and self-loathing. It's why I knew the final, the good, the right thing to do in Japa. What was in there," Xena said, lightly touching Gabrielle's forehead, "and there," she said touching above Gabrielle's left breast, "was more than a dream to me. It became my deeds, my purpose, my destiny. My life. My peace. The true Xena - the one behind the sound of my battle cry -- exists because of you. You will find me inside you as long as you believe that Xena to be real."

Gabrielle lay silent, digesting Xena's words. "That's a heavy responsibility, Xena, as well as a great honor - being the beginning and the end of another's life. Do you know I also dreamed that I would be with you at your last battle? That, if we had to, we would go down fighting together?"

Xena closed her eyes against the pain and trace of bitterness in the intense green gaze. "Yes," she whispered.

"Yet that's one dream you consistently chose to ignore."

"Yes."

"Why, Xena? If your life was so much my doing, didn't I have the right to be there when it was undone?"

Xena sighed. "Yes."

Gabrielle sat up. "Then why? Why leave me to pick up the pieces, to burn them, to hold the ashes in my hand, helplessly, if you had such great commitment to my dreams?"

Xena sat up too. "You deserved to know I was saying goodbye to that Xena," she acknowledged quietly. "It was selfish of me not to give you the chance to say goodbye. I have no excuse."

"Not good enough, Xena." She reached over and covered one of Xena's hands. "I don't expect excuses - certainly not from you. What I'd like is an explanation."

Gabrielle almost felt sorry for Xena. The warrior looked as uncomfortable dealing with emotions as a spirit, as she had when she was a butt-kicking terror. But this issue had bothered Gabrielle for a long time. If she couldn't get any answers now, she might not get another chance.

"Xena?" she prodded, squeezing the warrior's hand. "You'll never leave me like that again, right?"

Xena looked up and nodded.

"And there's no longer any danger that I'll follow you to my death."

Xena's jaws clenched, but she nodded again.

"Then what harm could there be in telling me now?"

Xena sighed heavily. "Gabrielle, it was so instinctive, I'm not sure I can really explain it."

"Try, please. For me."

Xena frowned, searching for the words she'd never really expressed even to herself. Sighing heavily again, she began, "Remember just before I went to fight Yodoshi? When I taught you the pinch?"

Gabrielle withdrew her hands, regarding them with the same troubled expression Marta had described. "Yes, and you were right to keep it from me." She snorted in disgust. "I might've killed a man with it the other day, just because I could."

Now it was Xena's turn to grab her soulmate's hands. "But you didn't. And that's not why I taught it to you then, even though I trusted you to use that knowledge wisely."

Xena looked past Gabrielle. "Before you, so much of my life was about death and war. Listening was a form of defense. Keeping others away was a form of defense." Xena's eyes returned lovingly to Gabrielle. "But you kept chipping and chipping away. You got inside like no one else ever could. Letting you stay there was a bigger risk for me than walking blind and unarmed into a legion of enemy soldiers." Xena smiled wryly. "I couldn't help myself, yet it became the one act of courage I'll cherish more than any

other." Xena caressed her soulmate's cheek. "When I embraced you, I learned to embrace life. Yes, you are the beginning and ending to me. But not of my physical life. My body was merely a tool, a weapon - insignificant compared to the heart and soul of me that existed in your eyes."

Gabrielle cocked her head, remembering that moment she'd last touched her partner in living flesh, the pain of her confusion about what it meant at the time. "It scared me the way you took my hands like that -- so tenderly, lovingly, as one might the petals of the last rose. How you gently put my fingers against your throat and told me to feel the surge of blood just under your skin. Then used those same fingers to cut off the flow." Gabrielle shuddered. "It was the first of many times I would hold your life in my hands before before ."

"Our hands, Gabrielle. My hands were with yours at my throat. My hands stopped yours from bringing my body back. My life was both of ours to give or take."

"My heart nearly stopped, seeing blood run from your nose, hearing you gasp that you'd want to spend the last seconds of your life looking into my eyes."

"Because in them I'd find the love, the faith and goodness that never changed, no matter how unpredictable so much else proved to be. That's all I knew for sure -- the 'everything' I wanted to share with you. It's the knowledge I wanted you to carry away from me, what I believed you wanted most to keep of me. Whatever else that was left on some battlefield was only a shell you'd help me put to good use for so long."

"I think I knew that," Gabrielle said softly. "When you looked into my eyes, I saw the Xena I'd dreamed of. I sensed that this dream might soon be fulfilled. But I loved all of you, Xena -- the 'shell' along with what was inside. I never held it as casually as you did. And if I had to lose it, I wanted to be there, to have the choice to give mine up along with yours."

Xena swallowed. "There's something else. You won't like it."

Gabrielle smiled. "It won't be the first time."

"No," Xena said, allowing a small lopsided grin. "I suppose it won't." More relaxed now, she began carefully, "It's true we shared that dream of me, but I had to fulfill it alone. Not just for me, but for you. You had dreams of your own, dreams you couldn't fulfill carrying around my baggage. They weren't meant to die paying my debts."

"You're saying the dream we shared for you was really yours? Even though it was because of me and I saw myself in it."

"Yeah, I guess that's what I'm saying."

"Xena, don't you know that all my other dreams had you in them, side by side with me? Even now, I can't picture me alone. I can't imagine more than carrying on your legacy." Gabrielle glanced at the chakram lying beside her bedroll. "It's more than honoring you. It's putting to good use all that I learned from you."

Xena glanced at the chakram, her expression neutral. "Gabrielle, theres no one else I'd trust more with what I knew about being a warrior for the greater good. If that's what you want to be, I'm with you all the way. But the best of that I learned from you. It's what drew you to what you saw hidden in me. It's what drew you to the ideas of people like Najara, Aiden and Eli. You've dreamed of expressing it in so many more ways than what you learned from me. We're both free now to see you pursue those dreams. Nothing would make me happier than to be with you in fulfilling them, as you have been with me. For you to continue seeing me in them as you have since the day we became one."

"Oh, Xena." Gabrielle lay down again. "C'mere," she said, pulling Xena down with her. "I've never been around anyone who could make me feel such joy and pain at the same time." She put her head on Xena's chest, feeling the resonance of a deep chuckle. "I suppose I understand. I guess I need time to see in myself what you do."

"Not just me. Singer and Marta. Friends and enemies, mortals and deities throughout our journeys have always seen it, felt its power. I want you to know that too."

Gabrielle stretched out against Xena contentedly. It had been a long day. One in which she accepted the ending to a promise that couldn't be kept quite as she'd imagined, and as the beginning to a new way of seeing it that made living and dreaming the same. "I love you, Xena," she murmured sleepily. "You'll always be the best thing in my life."

Xena's arms hugged her tightly. "I love you too, Gabrielle. You'll always be the best of mine."

*****

Gabrielle turned on her side, her nose pointing toward the smell of meat cooking. Though the place beside her was empty, she knew this time that the chef wasn't Xena.

"Gabrielle? You awake?"

Ah. Marta. That little detail seemed to have slipped Gabrielle's mind during the night. She propped herself up on an elbow. "Apparently," she smiled. Noticing that the sun was barely peeking over the horizon, she added, "I see you're an early riser."

"Yep. And I can cook too. Anything else I can do to convince you not to send me away?"

"I'd say you've made a good start." Gabrielle got up and joined Marta at the campfire. "Let's eat first. A friend of mine said a full stomach can help you sort things out."

They ate and chatted casually - Marta about her experiences with different households, Gabrielle about her childhood in Potadeia. Finally Gabrielle stood and announced they should begin packing.

"So where we going?" Marta asked innocently.

Gabrielle turned to her. "Hmmm. I must've missed the part where I agreed *we* were going anywhere."

"But we are, aren't we?" Marta asked rhetorically. "I could tell by the way you talked with me today that it was okay. You must've decided it in your sleep."

"Great," Gabrielle mumbled to herself. "Another one who knows what's going on in my head at night." To Marta she said, "Maybe I did, with a little help from a friend. I'm headed toward Amphipolous. You can accompany me there. We'll figure out what to do with you when I've taken care of my business."

Gabrielle untethered Tilly and led them to the main road. They'd walked along in relative silence for awhile when Marta asked, "So what's in Amphipolous?"

Gabrielle wondered if this was how Xena felt when a certain inquisitive young hanger-on had asked questions Xena didn't want to deal with.

"I told you I'd lost someone," Gabrielle answered, continuing to set a good pace and watch the road ahead. "Well, I'm taking her ashes to her home village. I'm also supposed to deliver Tilly to someone there."

Marta peered at Gabrielle from the corner of her eye. "She must've been someone very special to you, for you to go to all this trouble for her ashes."

"Yes, she was." Gabrielle felt a hand on her shoulder. It wasn't Marta's. It wasn't anyone's she could see.

"Gabrielle? You okay? How come we're stopping?"

Gabrielle looked up from her shoulder, a strange smile on her face. "Everything's fine. I was just listening." She resumed her previous pace. "I'll teach you about that sometime - listening for what's behind the sounds. My friend taught me that, although she'll say I taught her. We're close like that."

Marta frowned. "Um, you are? You mean you and the friend who, um, you know -- died?"

Gabrielle laughed, realizing what she'd said. "It's hard to explain. You see, she's alive in my heart, so it's hard for me to talk about her like she's gone." Gabrielle thought a moment. "You'll probably have to get used to that while you're traveling with me."

"Okaaay," Marta said. "What was is her name?"

Gabrielle was beginning to like this. "Her name's Xena. Have you heard of her?"

Marta looked pensive. "No, I don't think so. But then I stay pretty much to myself."

"Well, she was known as perhaps the greatest warrior of her time. We first met when she saved me and my village from some slavers." Gabrielle looked wryly at Marta. "I followed her, traveled with her. She wanted to atone for a dark past. I wanted to see the world. We taught each other how to be our best selves no matter what we did. We came to love each other very much. We became family. Xena fought many battles for the greater good, usually with me at her side. She died saving thousands of lives and souls in a land far to the East." Gabrielle pointed to the chakram. "This weapon I carry was Xena's. It's about all I have of hers from that life." She looked down at her carry bag. "Except for her ashes."

"How come you can't keep them?"

"What? Her ashes?" Gabrielle's pace slowed. "I do feel some comfort having them with me. Seems a little selfish, weird, though. I considered scattering them over some of the lands and seas we've journeyed across. Or maybe storing them someplace special to Xena, though I couldn't think of where. Xena would leave it up to me to decide. But a long time ago I promised her I'd take her body ." Gabrielle paused, her head cocked as though she were having a conversation with herself.

"Gabrielle? Take her body where?"

"Home. I promised to take her body home." Gabrielle stared at Marta a moment, then gathered the girl's slender frame in for a big hug. "Oh, thank you, Marta! Thank you, thank you, thank you. Why didn't I think to ask that before?"

Marta regarded Gabrielle a little skeptically. "Are you sure you're all right? You've been acting kinda funny all morning." Gabrielle seemed to have forgotten her. She was standing motionless in the road. Marta was starting to get nervous.

"Gabrielle? Gabrielle what're you doing?"

"Shhhh. I think I hear a waterfall not too far from here." Gabrielle noticed a narrow path leading into the woods. "Come on," she ordered, heading in that direction. "We can camp there, relax and enjoy ourselves, until someone comes along that I can trust to take Tilly to Amphipolous."

Confused, Marta stumbled after Gabrielle, taking a last worried look back at the road they were leaving, wondering if maybe following Gabrielle was such a good idea after all. "We're not going to Amphipolous anymore?"

"No need," Gabrielle said over her shoulder. "Xena's ashes are already home. With me."

 

PART III

"What are you doing?"

Gabrielle and Marta had spent the day swimming and talking. Marta sat entranced as Gabrielle recounted the different ways she and Xena had stopped wars, united kingdoms, saved innocents from destructive gods and zealots. The girl especially wanted to hear about the different philosophies and religious beliefs Gabrielle had been exposed to. She was as much a sponge as Gabrielle herself. Finally Gabrielle had become so immersed in the numerous untold details and unanswered questions that she'd felt the urge again to let it spill out in words.

"I'm writing."

"I know that," Marta sighed impatiently. "What are you writing?"

"I need to finish this thought, okay? Give me a few more minutes."

Marta looked around for something else to occupy her. She'd already cleaned up after supper, polished Gabrielle's weapons, rubbed down and fed Tilly. Glancing over at Gabrielle, Marta suddenly got an idea.

"Gabrielle?"

"Not yet."

"It's OK. I don't want you to stop. I was wondering if you had any extra quills and scrolls."

"Mmmmm. Uh, yeah," Gabrielle murmured, continuing to write. "In my bag."

Marta searched through Gabrielle's bag, careful not to disturb Xena's urn. "Gabrielle? You sure? I don't see them."

"What?" Gabrielle asked distractedly. "Oh, check Xena's bag. Maybe I put them in there."

Marta gave Gabrielle a sideways glance. "Xena's bag. Peachy," she mumbled. She went over and tentatively stuck her hand in the designated bag, as though snakes might be inside. "Ah," she said, finding what she wanted. As she pulled a scroll out, a small bundle fell to the ground. It unwrapped to reveal a weird little stick doll dressed in leather with dark fuzz on its head. Curious, she started to ask Gabrielle about it, but decided to tuck the doll into her blouse until a better time. Quietly, she sat next to Gabrielle. She bit on the end of her quill and scrunched up her face, as she'd seen her friend do, then dipped her quill into the ink pot and started scribbling on her scroll.

Gabrielle finished her thought and rolled up the scroll she'd been using. "I think that's it for the night." Only then did she look up to discover Marta writing furiously.

"Marta?"

"Hmmm?"

"What are you doing?"

"Writing."

Gabrielle chuckled. "Yes, I see that. What are you writing?"

Marta dipped her quill in the ink. "Just a few more lines and I'll be finished for tonight."

Gabrielle could've sworn she heard "payback" uttered gleefully in her head. She'd have glared, but was afraid Marta might think it was directed at her. Instead, she focused on the mental image of herself sticking her tongue out, figuring Xena would get the message.

"I saw that," she heard the voice in her head say.

"Good," she replied silently. "Now go off and gloat somewhere else."

"Okay, all finished," Marta pronounced. "I'm making notes of the wisdom you've shared with me. This way I can always refer to it and let others read it too. Maybe that's why you were sent to me, so I can spread your thoughts."

Gabrielle put her head in her hands. She stifled thinking, "Why me?", figuring it would provoke another internal lecture she didn't want to hear right now. "I'm flattered," she said, looking over at Marta. "But I think it's even more important for you to write down your own thoughts about what you hear. Like, does it make sense? Do some things inspire you more than others? Are there times when something might not be as true?"

Marta grinned. "Excellent idea. I'll try that tomorrow. Now, what were you writing?"

Gabrielle looked at the scroll she'd been working on. She wasn't sure she was ready to talk about it yet. "I've been trying to write about Xena's last battle. There are still some things I can't quite wrap my mind around." Sighing, she added softly, "Like why she had to die."

"Didn't you say she was doing her hero thing like usual?"

Gabrielle resignedly collected herself to face the inevitable. "Well, yes. You see, a long time ago, she accidentally caused the deaths of a lot of people. Their souls were trapped in an evil ghost who came about because of someone Xena had befriended. That someone called Xena back to free the lost souls. To do so, she had to she had to become a ghost herself."

"A ghost?" Marta gasped. "You mean she killed herself?"

Gabrielle looked down. She took a deep breath before responding, "Not exactly. She single-handedly took on a contingent of enemy archers. I I didn't see how it happened. Afterwards, she was able to destroy the evil ghost, freeing the lost souls. We'd found a way to restore her to her body, but she wouldn't let me do it."

Marta frowned. "Why not? Wasn't what she did enough?"

Gabrielle looked up, a flash of anger briefly darkening her eyes before she answered in a controlled voice, "The person she befriended neglected to mention a little technicality. Turned out that, to be at peace, the souls Xena freed needed to be avenged. As the one who caused their demise, she herself had to remain dead for that to happen." Gabrielle looked down again. "So she did."

"Wow," Marta breathed. "She'd done so much good." She looked at Gabrielle. "Did she think she deserved to die?"

"I'm not sure she was so worried about justice for her past crimes. She did believe she was solely responsible for herself and her deeds. No matter how else she was judged or punished, no matter how many times she was forgiven, she accepted that she couldnt change what she'd done, regardless of how long she lived trying to balance it. But I think her main concern was what all those other souls deserved. "

Gabrielle fell silent, unconsciously rolling her unfinished scroll between her hands. Marta hesitated, then reached over and patted her friend's hand. "Gabrielle? It'll be all right."

Gabrielle nodded slightly. She studied the girl a moment, then asked, "Marta, how would you have felt? If you were me."

"Me? Oh, I don't know enough about things like that to -"

"I've told you enough about Xena and our life. I don't think I have to say any more for you to know the depth of our love for each other. How would you have felt?"

"Gabrielle, I don't want to do this," Marta said, fidgeting with her own scroll. "You might get angry with me if I say something stupid. I'm not used to people asking me -"

"I'm asking you," Gabrielle prodded gently. "I won't get angry."

Marta shook her head and sighed. "All the bad stuff you say she did intentionally, and she sacrifices herself over something she never meant to happen. Doesn't seem right."

"It did to her."

"Well, I'd be mad. I'd be mad at her too," Marta added, ducking her head in anticipation of Gabrielle's response to that. Gabrielle simply nodded her head in encouragement.

"We're supposed to mean so much to each other, yet she leaves me for a bunch of strangers, over a technicality? I'd feel like she was abandoning me, like she didn't think I was worth staying alive for. I know it wasn't my parents' fault they died in that storm, trying to make sure I was safe, but Xena had the chance to choose." Marta's voice was tinged with anger. "How could she do that to you? To someone so loving and loyal? You asked me to think about what makes sense. Well, I'm sorry, but that doesn't make sense to me, no matter how noble Xena was." Marta looked at Gabrielle defiantly, refusing to amend her last word to "is."

"Thank you," Gabrielle said after a moment of strained silence. "Honesty is very important to me." She glanced away. "Truth is, I don't think what you say is unreasonable. If she were anyone else, I'd have a much harder time not feeling as you would."

Gabrielle's thoughts seemed to drift. "When I started traveling with her, she appeared so hard and invincible. I was awed at how she took everything in stride. Here she was someone who'd come close to ruling the known world and you know what I saw her do first? Save a baby and unite a couple of star-crossed lovers potential victims of skirmishes she would have reveled once in fighting. Seemed like a piece of cake. Little did I know she'd be putting her life in danger with some old warlord buddies, or that they could've tempted her back into her old ways. A good friend tried to stop her. She told him it was so simple to turn his life around, that the first step was to do one good thing for no other reason than you know its right. So he did. He helped her and died in her arms. That's the path she chose for herself putting her life on the line no matter how big or small the need. Or how foolish it seemed."

Gabrielle exhaled a deep breath. "Xena's own sense of honor defines her as surely as my love and belief helped define that honor. I so hoped that one day she could look into her heart and see the good in it, respect it like she did her physical abilities. I knew that would be when she truly found peace."

Gabrielle turned to Marta and took the girl's hands in hers. "Marta, when your heart swells with love for someone like mine does for Xena, it can bring a lot of pain, whether it's from sharing her agony or her joy, because sometimes it's one and the same. I believed she was the woman of my dreams. She trusted me to go on loving her either way. I can't betray that by saying I didn't mean it, now that it's come to this. We do expect to spend our future together. This only changes the form it'll take. Does it make sense?" Gabrielle chuckled. "I'm sure a lot of people asked that about much of the life Xena and I shared, about what we were willing to protect or sacrifice. Don't feel bad if you're not sure either."

Marta sat quietly, listening intently to Gabrielle's words. "So, you're saying this honor thing - doing good - meant a lot to Xena. So much, she didn't want to live without it."

"Yes."

"And it meant a lot to you too, because you love her and wouldn't want her to have to live without being true to herself, happy with herself."

"Yes."

"So you can go on like this because you're happy she has that now. And what makes her happy makes you happy."

Gabrielle thought about this. "That's true. I'll miss terribly being with her as we were before, but she's inside me now - fills me, completes me -- in a way I hadn't imagined possible before."

"Okay then," Marta concluded, nodding her head. "If it makes sense to you and her, then that's what counts. That makes sense to me."

Gabrielle smiled at the girl, eyes brimming with tears of affection and appreciation.

Marta looked at her uncertainly. "Gabrielle? I'm thinking it's much harder being you than a warrior like Xena. No offense, but while she gets to die in peace, you're left to worry about the sense of it. I mean, I've always thought that was important - you know, being somebody who can inspire others. It's just that this is the first time I'm seeing how much love and understanding and patience it takes to stay behind those people. I'm not so sure I'm up to following you," she admitted, looking down, fearing her teacher's disappointment in her. To her surprise, she heard laughter a light, cleansing laughter that bathed Marta like the streams of water they'd let flow over them that afternoon, that lightened the tears washing Gabrielle's face.

Gabrielle leaned forward and embraced her young student. "You're doing fine, Marta," Gabrielle assured her. "You're doing just fine for all of us."

Marta grinned bashfully. "Oh, Gabrielle," she said, remembering the doll and pulling it from her blouse. "Um, I hope you don't mind, but I found this when I was looking in Xena's bag. Seemed kinda funny for a big, bad warrior to be carrying around."

Gabrielle took the doll, turning it over in her hands fondly. "It's supposed to be Xena. I made it when I was practicing some flips I'd seen her do. I used the doll to show her I knew the right way to take off and land."

Marta laughed. "Bet she was impressed, huh?"

"Maybe with the doll," Gabrielle responded dryly. "Not with the flip. I ended up twisting my ankle, getting shot with a poisoned arrow and nearly dying as I watched Xena fight off a whole army."

Martas hands flew to her chest. "You you almost died?" she gasped, stricken.

Gabrielle had to restrain a chuckle, in deference to the girls obvious concern. "It wasnt the first time. Or the last," she answered, patting Marta on the arm, neglecting to mention that at least twice she actually had died. "As usual, Xena wouldnt let me." Suddenly Gabrielle went very still, a range of emotions flickering across her face. She looked off into the distance.

"Gabrielle? Gabrielle, what is it?"

Gabrielle finally turned to Marta with an unreadable expression. Her fingers tightened around the tiny leather figure in her hands. "Xena was the only one standing between a lot of people and disaster. She wanted to abandon them in order to save me."

"All right!" Marta exclaimed. "Now, thats more like it. Too bad she couldnt have done that ." Marta caught herself. She looked with chagrin at Gabrielle.

Gabrielle held Martas eyes. "She didnt do it then either. I wouldnt let her."

"But." Marta pointed at her friend as if to say, "But youre here, alive." Finally she mumbled, "I dont get it. Are you saying both of you have some kind of death wish?"

Gabrielle couldnt help but smile. "No. Far from it. I reminded her about the greater good, how shed taught me there are things worth dying for that have a higher meaning than our own existence. I begged her to honor my memory by doing what we both knew was right, by not leaving that fight because of me."

"Wow," Marta whispered. "What did she say?"

"Poor thing. Ive seldom seen her so uncertain. She said she didnt accept defeat, that there are always choices. That she was done paying for her past mistakes and I was her primary responsibility now." Gabrielle seemed to go inward, to somewhere Marta could only imagine. "I answered that I had long ago accepted the consequences of our life together and knew one day it might come to this. I let her know I wasnt afraid. And she believed me."

A tear rolled down Martas cheek. "Gods," she sniffed, "you mustve both been heartbroken."

"No," Gabrielle said softly, gazing down at the likeness of her partner she had fashioned that fateful day. "Its the first time I truly understood what I meant to Xena. She said I was the brave one. She called me her source for reaching down inside herself to do the impossible. She promised that we would see this out together." Gabrielles eyes closed briefly. "That even in death she would never leave me." She looked up at Marta. "And I believed her. I thought it was too late for me, had a vision of Xenas throat cut in the battle to come, yet I was at peace."

"Wow," Marta repeated softly. "How did you survive all that?"

"Like always, I guess," Gabrielle answered, gentling stroking the stick doll's "hair." "With luck, many skills and an awful lot of love."

*****

Gabrielle and Marta spent a few more days by the waterfall. They discussed the girl's dreams and why they were important to her. Gabrielle posed philosophical questions, which Marta sorted through with a practical simplicity that Gabrielle admired. Gabrielle also taught her some defensive moves, using a staff they whittled for that purpose. Fortunately, Marta made up in enthusiasm for a considerable lack of athleticism. Gabrielle discovered a surprising exhilaration in opening up the treasure trove of knowledge she'd accumulated over the years, in watching Marta make it her own.

Each day they'd spend some time near the main road, occasionally stopping passersby who might be suitable for taking Tilly to Amphipolous. Today they saw a cart approaching, carrying what appeared to be a small family.

"Hello there!" Gabrielle shouted, standing in the middle of the road.

The man driving the cart stopped a few paces from her.

"Are you on your way to Amphipolous?"

"Lythos."

"Lythos?" Gabrielle exclaimed. "Why, I have a friend from there. He's called Singer."

The man turned to share a private look with the woman seated next to him and the two children in the back. "Yes, I know him." He smiled. "He's one of my older brothers. Haven't seen him in awhile though. How's he doing?"

Gabrielle walked up to the side of the cart. "He's well. Doing what makes him happy. He's one of the most talented and generous people I've met. You'd be proud of him."

The man regarded her a moment. "Good," he said sincerely. "I've always liked that he found a life where he could be himself. When did you see him last?"

"A few days ago in the port town. He was kind enough to secure a horse for me, which I promised to take to a man in Amphipolous. I changed my plans about going there. I was hoping to find someone else who could take her."

The man looked again at the woman. She smiled and nodded. "We can do that," he said to Gabrielle. "It's not much out of our way. Mylo - um, Singer - has been very good to us. We'd be happy to help out a friend of his." He extended his hand down to Gabrielle. "I'm Lyceus."

"Lyceus?" Gabrielle repeated, pleasantly surprised. "Good name."

"Yes, it was to honor one of our local heroes. He died a long time ago trying to stop some warlords from taking over the villages in the area. I hear his sister had to do it instead, but became a warlord herself. Then I guess she turned good, became a hero like Lyceus. Xena. Know anything about her?"

Once again, Gabrielle found laughter rumbling unbidden from her chest. She gave up trying to suppress it and decided to go with it. Her way. "Sorry, I meant no disrespect," she said when she could talk again. "Xena did indeed become a great and noble warrior. It's just that I understand she had this devilish streak the size of an equally large ego. Must've been like Tartarus living around her." She ignored the growl she heard in her head. "I'm Gabrielle. I can't thank you enough for helping me."

After all the introductions and instructions were given, Marta went off to fetch Tilly. They tied the horse to the cart and everyone exchanged good-byes.

"When you see Singer again, tell him I did some sketches for him to look at," Lyceus said, smirking and clicking his horses in motion. "He used to say I had mud balls plugging my ears. Be sure to let him know you didn't see any. He'll know what I mean."

"Don't worry," Gabrielle laughingly called after him. "I've listened enough to Singer to know exactly what you mean."

*****

Gabrielle and Marta spent the rest of the day retracing the path they'd originally set out on, heading back to the port town to which Gabrielle felt inexplicably drawn. They had bedded down for the night. Marta was already asleep. Gabrielle lay with her eyes open, a little nervous about seeing Xena again.

Her last few nights had been filled with visions of the foreseeable future. Images flashed of herself expertly throwing her chakram to knock out some bad guys. Helping restore the Amazons to the vibrant Nation they once were. Standing before rapt audiences who wanted to know the true story of the now mythical Warrior Princess. Setting up hospices like Najara had talked about, except without killing anyone who wouldn't abide by her rules. Studying more about the beliefs of India and some of the other places she'd been. Returning to Egypt or Rome or Chin to see what had transpired since she and Xena stuck their noses into the history of those lands. Reconnecting with family and old friends, now that Xena's ashes no longer burdened her as they once did.

Gabrielle caressed the urn, which she'd laid next to her that night. She wanted to reassure Xena how much her nearness meant. Sure, Gabrielle had seen the warrior in all the scenarios that floated through her mind - hovering in the background, smiling at her accomplishments, throwing punches in the air in pantomime of Gabrielle's, whispering advice when Gabrielle seemed to be overlooking something important. She'd felt Xena's presence, heard her voice, throughout the day. Still, she worried that maybe somehow she was beginning to push Xena away, losing the touch of her that she'd been experiencing in her dreams.

Gabrielle fingered the stick doll that now lay nestled between her breasts, bound around her neck with a piece of twine. Smiling, she recalled how Xena had teasingly picked her teeth with the doll during Gabrielle's exposition of her newly acquired flipping skills. Gabrielle sighed and brought the doll to her own lips. She chuckled as the doll seemed to move on its own.

"Hungry?"

Eyes still closed, Gabrielle let her body tell her what she needed to know. Yes. She felt herself pressed against soft leather, long arms cradling her. She smiled against the fingers that playfully danced against her lips. "How long have you been here?" Gabrielle asked, taking hold of the familiar hand.

"I told you. Always. It seemed you needed a little more of me tonight."

Gabrielle looked up at Xena. "Do you hear all my thoughts? I'm not complaining. It's just a little disconcerting. I I'm still working some things out, you know."

Xena brushed the top of Gabrielle's head with her chin. "I know. And if it makes you feel any better, I do give you your space." She chuckled. "Especially when I can tell you'd like to have your hands around my neck."

Gabrielle pulled back a little. "Xena, I don't really mean that I think you're -"

"An egotistical devil who left you to the mercies of a tagalong?" Xena laughed. "It's the truth." She lightly tweaked Gabrielle's nose. "But it doesn't hurt. It's awesome being inside you, sharing in thoughts and emotions I was too busy or clueless to see before."

Gabrielle looked at her curiously. "Just where do you go when you're giving me privacy?"

"I guess I could be everywhere, anywhere, if I wanted. I haven't really tested it out yet. The only place that draws me is you. You're pretty fascinating, you know." Xena looked deeply into Gabrielle's eyes. "I was wrong about doing this for 30 seconds. I'm even more convinced I want to do it forever."

Gabrielle's eyes got even brighter. "I hate to say this, but being a ghost - or whatever it is you are - becomes you. You're turning into a real philosopher, a poet even."

"Good," Xena said, squeezing her soulmate. "I always dreamed of becoming more like you."

"Speaking of dreams," Gabrielle said, squeezing her soulmate back. "I'm not sure how I feel about the ones I've been having lately. It seems that the more they're about me, the less I have of you the way you are now. I like this. I don't want the future to mean you slipping away from me."

"I'm not worried about that. I don't want you to worry either. I'll be what you need when you need it. My presence may envelop or walk beside you. It may pulse through your veins, flit in and out of your mind, be in the background as I was in your dreams about the future. Wherever you want me, I'll be there, loving every minute of learning and growing with you, even if I seem miles away."

Gabrielle frowned. "Why would you seem like miles away to me?"

"I don't know," Xena said gently. "It could be because you're so sure I'm there that you don't need evidence anymore. You may feel you need your space, possibly block me out like you did during most of the journey from Japa."

"Xena," Gabrielle tried to object. "I don't think -"

Xena put her fingers to Gabrielle's lips. "Shhh. We need to talk about this. Just because you're feeling all right now doesn't mean there won't be times you're angry with me or afraid I might disapprove of something. You may find other sources of comfort, and I'd want you to. What I'm saying is, I'll understand even if you're confused or scared. I'll be here waiting no matter what." Xena chuckled softly. "I have nothing better to do."

Gabrielle smiled. "Not even trying to find that big old fish you loved so much and launched into the sky?"

"Nope."

"Or reunite with any of your dead flames?

"Absolutely not."

"Or see if Caesar or Alti is up to no good wherever they are?"

Xena was silent a moment. "Now there's a thought. I wonder if I can still -"

"Xena! The whole point of this was to be a better - a good - soul. I don't think seeking revenge and mayhem quite lends itself to that."

"No, it wouldn't be for revenge. Itd be if they were harming some poor souls or had found another way to interfere with this realm again. And I'd only do it after consulting you first."

Gabrielle continued to glare at Xena.

"I'm teasing. Sort of. Hey, it's hard to break old habits. Tell you what. You just keep on wanting me close by, and that way we'll be able to keep an eye on each other. Deal?"

Gabrielle's disapproval turned to wonder. "You still need me."

Xena frowned. "Of course I do. What d'ya think I've been trying to tell you all this time?"

"It hadn't hit me quite like this before," Gabrielle responded thoughtfully. "I mean, I know what you said about living in my dreams and heart and all. I just thought it was because I needed you, that you wanted to be here for me. I figured you'd be out there somewhere whether I thought about you or not. It didn't occur to me that I might still give you purpose or be needed to keep you out of trouble." Gabrielle smiled. "Huh. This is getting better and better."

 

PART IV

"Singer! I'm so glad we caught you before you left."

Singer whirled around on his stool at the bar. His face lit up. "Poet! You're back!" He picked Gabrielle up in a bear hug, then set her down to examine her in great detail. "My, you're looking much better. Must've been some really good dreams, eh?"

Gabrielle laughed. "Yes, you could say that."

"And whos this with you? Don't I know you from here?" he asked Marta.

"Yes, I used to work here, until Gabrielle showed me the light." She looked fondly at her friend.

"Ah, yes. The fair maiden our warrior here rescued."

"I went to the docks, asking about you," Gabrielle said, leading them to a table. "They said you'd be shipping out soon."

"Whoa!" Singer said, seating himself. "First things first. What've you been doing since I last saw you? How did you get back from Amphipolous so fast? Did you trade Tilly in for a speedy war horse?"

"No, silly," Gabrielle said, slapping Singer on the arm. "Marta caught up with me my first day out. A few discussions and the fresh outdoors cleared my head to think straighter. I decided to keep Xena's ashes with -"

"Xena?" Singer's eyes nearly bugged out of his head. "The warrior Xena? That's the friend you lost? From Amphipolous?"

"Oh boy," Gabrielle mumbled to herself, not sure quite what to expect. "Um, I guess I didn't mention her name." She smiled sheepishly. "Sorry. Yes, that Xena and my Xena are one in the same. Problem?"

"No," he responded doubtfully. Then, "Yes," still sounding uncertain. "Curses, Gabrielle. I've heard that name since I was a kid. I heard it in my travels around the world. Depending on where I was, she was a nightmare that some people would never get over or a hero others didn't want to forget. There was a long period when I didn't hear much about her. Then I started hearing things again, but didn't put much stock in it. Even if she hadn't died one of those times people said she had, she'd be way too old to be the person they were talking about."

Singer paused and looked pointedly at Gabrielle, who held his gaze. "She was said to have a companion. Short blonde who could be sweet as cake and kick the tar out of you. You wouldn't know anything about that, would you? I mean, being so young and all."

"Oh boy," Gabrielle mumbled again. "Singer, it's a loooong story, one I'll be happy to tell you when we have time. But, yes, I'm the short, sweet, butt-kicking blonde who, like Xena, managed to defy old age. Oh, which reminds me. Lyceus sends his regards. He said he has some sketches for you to see and wanted me to reassure you that he no longer has mud balls in his ears. We met him on the road to Amphipolous. He was kind enough to take Tilly there for me."

Singer sat shaking his head. He'd seen enough of the world that little surprised him anymore, but Gabrielle sure did. His brain flipped through countless thoughts before he eventually noticed the grip on his arm.

"Singer! You'll survive this, all right?" Gabrielle smirked. When she was pretty sure she had his attention, she continued, "Now, can we get back to second things? When do you leave? Where are you going?"

Singer shook his head again, this time to clear it. "Leave? Oh, yeah, I leave tomorrow. Got quite a few stops to make, first to Egypt, then most of us will ship out for India and probably Chin."

Gabrielle gasped in disbelief. "You're kidding. I was just talking to myself about possibly going to the Land of the Pharaohs. I went to Chin with Xena. Well, I didn't exactly arrive there with her, but never mind. Another long story. Anyway, our daughter may be in Chin or India."

Singer let his head drop to the table. "Daughter. Your and Xena's daughter?" He raised his head to rest his chin on the table. "Another long story, I bet. Gabrielle, for someone who seems so solid, you sure are full of surprises."

*****

Gabrielle and Marta had been able to get a room for the night at the inn. Gabrielle could hear the girl mumbling and turning restlessly in her bed. Theyd spent the better part of the evening with Marta arguing her case for traveling with Gabrielle. Gabrielle questioned her own sanity for considering the trip, especially on the antiquated merchant ship Singer had signed up with. He'd wangled jobs for her and Marta as cooks, just in case. She already knew from personal experience how hard it would be to dissuade Marta from tagging along. Besides, she'd grown fond of the girl and enjoyed her company. No, the real question was whether Gabrielle should go.

Of all the ways to launch this new phase of her life. Strange. And yet .

"Why not?"

"Xena, must you pop in like that? I'm thinking here. Making big decisions. Since I apparently need you right now, the least you could do is curl up with me."

Xena grinned. She rose from her knees beside the bed and climbed in, snuggling Gabrielle next to her.

"What's wrong with India or Chin? If you go to Egypt, all you'll do is complain about getting sand up your in your clothes. Besides, I like that that you might get to see Eve."

Gabrielle felt a slight tremor go through Xena. She gave her soulmate a squeeze. "Yes," she said softly, "it would be good if she could hear about you from me."

The two lay in companionable silence for awhile before Xena ventured, "I know one of the reasons you're keeping my ashes. I don't want your new life to end up being another quest focused on me."

Gabrielle moved away a little to look Xena in the eye. "Like you say, it's not about what you need, Xena. It's my life to make mistakes or pursue the impossible, as I deem fit. I'm interested in different cultures and philosophies. So is Eve. And Marta. I'm not obsessed about restoring you to the body you had. I know we'll meet again in other bodies some day. But if I happen upon a remedy that won't jeopardize those souls you freed, what's wrong with that?"

Xena's eyes brimmed. "Gabrielle, even if that time comes, there are so many changes to consider. I could be younger than you, or crippled by wounds I had when I died. I already feel like a different person, even though I teased you about Caesar and Alti. I'm at peace now. I don't know how to live in the world like that. I wouldn't mind so much, except I know you. You'd try to compensate for that, make accommodations and adjustments to ease my way. You don't deserve that, not again."

Gabrielle brushed a tear away from Xena's cheek. "And you didn't do that for me? You didn't change your life so you could look into my eyes and see a soul deserving that much love? I wouldn't mind spending my last breaths like that either, Xena. Unless you're saying I might not see that in your eyes if you came back."

Xena sighed in defeat. "No, I'm not saying that."

"Good. I proved I meant I could accept what makes you happy. I guess we'll see whether you'll be able to do the same."

"I'll work on that," Xena whispered. "I promise."

Gabrielle squeezed Xena's arm affectionately. "I know you will. Now, while we're on the subject of your need for control ."

Xena reared back, eyebrows disappearing beneath her bangs.

"I find it curious that so many things are falling into place the way they are. Kind of eerie how I seem to be meeting people who know just the right thing to say. Any ideas about that?"

"What do you mean?" Xena asked innocently.

Gabrielle looked at her accusingly. "You said you could probably be everywhere, anywhere. Does that include inhabiting other people besides me?"

"Gabrielle, what're you getting at? Come on, spit it out."

"Fine," Gabrielle huffed. "Have you been influencing people somehow, like Singer and Marta, maybe even Singer's brother Lyceus?"

"What makes you ask that?"

Gabrielle drummed her fingers on the bed. "Things they say. The way they treat me sometimes. I swear it reminds me of you."

"Ah." Xena chuckled wryly. "You'll have to speak to yourself about that, as you control the way you see me as much as I do."

"How?" Gabrielle asked skeptically.

Xena rested her chin on a finger, as if in deep contemplation. "Let's say you need something or like something, or maybe there's something I do that irritates you. Maybe you bring it out in others or see it in others, so it reminds you of me."

"You're getting good at this, aren't you? Forget the speculation. Just answer yes or no."

"Oh, all right," Xena relented. "Truth? I don't know. I admit I've tried, okay? The day you docked, I picked Singer as a decent sort. I felt your sadness and confusion, so I thought maybe I could get him to help you, but I wasn't sure how. I could touch his soul, see into his heart. I couldn't move him like a puppet or anything. I talked to him, but frankly, based on what I saw inside, he might've done what he did on his own. Same with Marta. I wanted her to see your goodness, not so much for you, but for her, because I could feel how much she needed someone like you to befriend her. But she could've just as well gotten that herself. I've pretty much left it alone. Yeah, it'd be neat to know if I could do it, but it wouldn't be because it's necessary."

Gabrielle regarded Xena quizzically. "Neat? Did you say 'neat?'"

Xena frowned. "I don't know. What if I did?"

"Oh, nothing. Just that you sound like Solan talking about learning to bat a ball." She kissed her soulmate on the forehead. "'Sokay. I think it's great you're getting to be like a kid again."

"Gabrielle."

"Oh, just go with it. Won't hurt you." She looked into Xena's eyes. "Nothing can anymore," she added softly, gratefully. Snuggling back into Xena's chest, Gabrielle resumed their previous discussion. "In other words, I can see you in whomever or whatever I want. Maybe you'll be there, maybe you won't." Gabrielle pondered this. "I guess as long as it brings you to me in some way, I can live with that."

"Whew," Xena sighed in relief. "I'm liking not feeling so responsible for everything. It's so much more interesting watching nature take its course."

"I'm happy for you, Xena," Gabrielle yawned. "Keep that in mind when we set sail tomorrow."

"Yes, ma'am."

Gabrielle emitted a low growl. "Xena? If you don't want to become homeless and have your ashes dumped into a smelly pit, I suggest you not call me 'ma'am' again."

Xena smirked. "Yes, sir."

"Xena."

"Yes, O great and wonderful mentor whose every word should be recorded in Gabrielle's Book of Wisdom. How's that?"

"It'll do. Until we come up with something better. Now let me get some sleep. We've got a big day tomorrow."

"Gabrielle?" Xena snuggled her hand between them and eased the stick doll from Gabrielle's breasts. "I'm so sorry," she acknowledged softly, lightly brushing the doll with her fingers. "I know we'll be all right. I still wish with all my heart that I could've done things differently. I just wanted to make sure you knew that."

"I do." Gabrielle raised up and kissed the love of her life. "But thank you. I think it's something I needed to hear for myself anyway."

*****

Gabrielle leaned against the well-worn rail, taking in the endless vista that lay before her. Singer had been right. The grandeur of the ocean was a fitting theater for the words her heart felt like singing. And no audience could have been more rapt than the sailors who'd welcomed her and Marta like roses among weeds. Once Singer told them who she was, they clamored to hear about her travels with Xena, which she was only too happy to tell.

The first night at sea established a routine that everyone looked forward to when the weather allowed. It began with a few performances from Singer, followed by Gabrielle. Her first story described when she and Xena met. The sailors already knew about Xena's great skills and some of her exploits, so Gabrielle gladly focused on the woman behind the warrior - her initial loss of hope, being reviled and nearly stoned to death by her kinspeople, her doomed efforts to turn away an innocent peasant girl she feared her past would taint. The men cried, gasped, laughed, cheered - possibly because Gabrielle did too. Soon, a day didn't pass without at least one sailor remarking, "I bet Xena would've" or "Remember that time Xena."

Gabrielle marveled at how her soulmate did indeed seem anywhere, everywhere. Gabrielle sensed her in the gently rocking waves, the breeze caressing her skin, the sun that warmed her, the rain she sometimes stood in with eyes closed simply enjoying it course down her skin. She saw Xena on lookout, way atop in the crow's nest. At the helm, expertly guiding them through storms. Pacing across the deck with a scowl on her face at any sloppiness or disrepair her inspections revealed. Gabrielle inhaled deeply, reveling in the presence silently sharing the wonder and mystery of it all through new eyes.

"I feel her too," a voice said softly above Gabrielle's head.

"Where?" another voice asked at Gabrielle's ear.

"Hi there," Gabrielle responded, not needing to look at the two who'd come to lean against the rail on either side of her. "Yes, she's particularly full today. I'm not sure why exactly, but it feels glorious."

"Maybe because you're at peace?" Singer offered.

Gabrielle pushed up from the rail and turned to him with questioning eyes.

"Xena wasn't the only one who had to find peace, you know. Your dreams. They're different, aren't they?"

Gabrielle thought about this. It was true, she didn't "see" or talk with Xena as she had before. The warrior was with her in so many ways throughout the day and night that she'd stopped focusing on the leather-clad body that she felt throughout the ship, the blue eyes she saw whenever she looked at the sky or water, the dark hair that now spread out across the night. Gabrielle's mouth dropped open. Unconsciously she put her hand against her chest, where the stick doll still lay.

"When did that happen?" she asked, not realizing she'd spoken out loud.

Singer smiled. "If you're asking me - and I'm not sure you are - I'd say it was around the first day at sea. The next morning anyway, you had 'that look.'"

"What look?"

"Like maybe Xena's become more than the woman of your dreams."

Gabrielle leaned down on the rail again. She felt an arm around her shoulder. She glanced at Marta, who'd been listening intently, not quite sure what they were talking about, but sensing it was very deep. Both the girl's arms were on the rail.

Gabrielle glanced at Singer. His arms were on the rail too. "Yes. She has," Gabrielle said to Singer, eyes shining with gratitude. "Much more."

Singer grinned. "Told you I'd meet Xena once you'd found her again. Looks like you freed her to do just that." He swept his arm to include the sailors on deck and everything around them. "Let's mark this moment," he said, pulling out a pocketknife and proceeding to carve some initials into the railing.

Gabrielle traced them with her finger. "G+X=P.D. What's the P.D. stand for?"

Singer peered up at her a little bashfully. "Pleasant dreams."

Gabrielle gazed into the distance where the blue of the sky and the ocean became one, like she felt with the presence watching over her. "That came true." She closed her eyes and murmured again the one name that said it all. "Xena."

Marta frowned at her companions. "How come I don't see her?" she finally piped up. She looked apprehensively over each shoulder. "Do you think that means she doesn't like me?"

Gabrielle squeezed the girl's arm. "No, Marta. She likes you fine. In fact, she's glad you're with me." She tilted her head toward Singer. "Even him."

Singer gave her a mock glare.

"*You* know that, but how'm I supposed to be sure? Can't she send a sign or something? Can't spirits do that?"

"I don't know, Marta. Xena's still learning about her new state."

Marta sighed in disappointment. She stared out over the ocean with a slightly bored expression, wondering if all that deep conversation would be worth recording in her scrolls. Suddenly something caught her attention. "Oh, look!" she said, pointing to a small white bird, winging its way towards them.

"Huh." Singer said as the bird got closer. "It's a dove. Haven't seen too many of those out here." He scanned to determine if others followed. "Seems to be alone."

The three watched, mesmerized, as the dove circled gracefully above them, then landed on the rail between Marta and Gabrielle. It cooed, flapped its wings a bit, then settled in to gaze out with the humans next to it. Marta tentatively edged her hand toward the bird. She started to snatch it back when the bird bent its head that way, afraid that it would peck her. Instead, it sidled over to gently rest one of its tiny clawed feet on Marta's little finger.

"Wow," Marta breathed. She peered over at her companions. "You don't suppose ."

Singer hunched his shoulders, a mischievous grin on his face.

Gabrielle shook her head in wonder. "I wouldn't put it past her. She's always had many skills."

The dove stayed with them like that for awhile, somehow seeming to establish a connection that drew all of them closer. Finally, it fluttered its wings, signaling its departure. As unlikely the possibility, all three could've sworn that, when the dove flew off in the direction they were headed, it graced them with the ghost of a smile.

 

FIN for now