A detour on the journey home from their 25th anniversary adventure in the previous "Fifty Winters Ago" offers Gabrielle and Xena an extraordinary chance to rediscover themselves. The following also builds on events in my story "Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow." Thanks to Cousin Liz, Amberly, Suzanne, DJWP, and Mashy: Minney Motivator for their continuing support.
TWO-THOUSAND WINTERS AHEAD
A piercing cry signaled the dark-haired warriorís plunge into the marauders terrorizing a wagon train. Her series of kicks and punches sent bandits flying in every direction.
"Heeyah!" cried the warriorís blond partner, wielding a staff against bad guys intent on regrouping.
Soon bodies littered the ground. The men still conscious staggered off as fast as their injuries allowed. The rescued families shyly approached their two saviors.
"We are in your debt." An older man edged in front of his companions. "Donít know what we wouldíve done if you hadnít come along."
"Think nothing of it." The blond woman smiled at the other warrior. "Thatís what weíre here for."
"Are you Ö?" A young man pushed forward, gaping at the dark-haired woman with a mixture of awe and disbelief. "The way you fight Ö. That battle cry Ö. Iíve heard tell of a warrior like you, but Ö."
"Donít be silly, Gregoreus. Theyíve been long gone." The older man smiled apologetically at their rescuers. "You may not be old enough to remember, but there used to be a couple of heroes legendary in these parts. I never met them, but from the stories, you do bear a striking likeness."
"How do you know?" Gregoreus continued staring at the women. "How do you know itís not them? Itís said they can defy death and age."
The older man sighed. "Gregoreus, everyone has limits."
"I donít know about that," piped up a matron who, like the others, had gathered around the warriors. "My sister claims she saw them near Amphipolis. Said they looked about my age, had retired to a local village, but were still active in their way."
"Naw." Another in the group shook his head. "Nothiní but the usual wishful claptrap. Theyíre lucky if theyíre still food for the worms."
"But what if - ."
"Hello?" The blonde smiled. "Perhaps we can help?"
"Oh Ö um, yes, yes, of course. Forgive my friends." The older man winked knowingly. "Please, settle this once and for all."
The blonde grinned at her partner. "Shall we?"
"Nowís as good a time as any."
"Iím Gabrielle," the blonde said. "And as Gregoreus has probably guessed, my partner is none other than Xena the Warrior Princess."
"Iím glad we went."
"Uh huh." Xena flicked the reins to urge the wagon horses into a quicker pace. "A little mayhem, some sensitive chats, reunions with old enemies and friends. Doesnít get any better than that."
"Such a sentimentalist." Gabrielle bumped her head against Xenaís shoulder. "I meant the quality time in our ëanniversary suite.í"
"Yeah, maybe we can do that in another 50 years."
"Twenty-four, since you insist on counting only the time one or both of us was conscious. I still say ëtogetherí is ëtogether.í Unless, of course, youíre a ëpro and con,í split hairs, ëon one handí-."
"Weíre a few days from home. Remember home? Endless council meetings? Baby sitting? Training snot-nosed wannabe warriors?"
"Do I have to?"
"Uh huh. If you need incentive to make the most of our romantic getaway while we can."
"Already got that covered." Xena smirked. "Some of us focus on the forest, while others of us get lost in the trees."
"Yep. Iím thinking we can take a slight detour through Panos. As I recall, thereís a pretty nice inn. Not as fancy as King Cleadesí place, but itís got big rooms, decent food and clientele who probably wonít try killing us in our sleep."
Gabrielle cut her eyes at her partner. "Umhmm. Not to mention a lake full of fish."
"And lots of market stalls. Donít forget that. See, Iíve thought of everything. Just in case we need a diversion from staring at each other all day."
"And at night?"
Xena wrapped an arm around Gabrielleís shoulders. "Iíll only have eyes for you."
"Oh, good answer." Gabrielle leaned forward and grabbed the reins. "Yaaah! Giddy up there, horsies. Giddy up!"
Marius counted out the dinars heíd received so far. "Not too bad," he mumbled to himself. All the customers had left or gone upstairs. Given the late hour, he didnít expect more business. The innkeeper sighed, as usual not looking forward to the clean-up duties he preferred a lot less to rubbing coins between his fingers. He reached down to get the supplies heíd need. When he straightened, two women stood at the entrance.
Marius frowned. They didnít quite look like the kind to be roaming around at night, certainly not without their men. Attractive, despite the years on them. They loosened their cloaks as they conversed quietly before moving into the room. The taller one was dressed kind of funny - an exotic, colorful robe-like garment over flowing pantaloons. Her long dark hair, gray at the temples, framed a face with confidently observant blue eyes. In contrast, the other woman wore a frumpy peasant dress. Though not exactly a child herself, she projected a youthful air with her short blond hair and sunny smile.
"Can I help you ladies?"
The taller one led the way toward where Darius leaned against the bar. He noticed a carry bag slung over her shoulder.
"Got any rooms left?"
"Sure. Two if you like."
The taller woman smiled at her companion. "Oneíll be fine."
"Not necessary, if theyíre nice and big. Donít want my feet hanging off the edge."
Marius gave her a long look. Something in her eyes reminded him that he hadnít booked his best room - large, well appointed and featuring a big, comfy bed.
"I believe I have what you need. Itíll cost a bit more."
The tall woman checked with her companion. The other woman nodded.
"Weíll take it. Supper too, if thereís some left."
"Stew. Not hot, but should be warm enough. On the house. Iídíve had to feed it to the animals anyway." He gestured towards a table. "You can eat while I tidy up your room."
The two seated themselves across from each other. Shortly thereafter, Marius brought drinks and bowls of food. He returned a while later.
"Roomís ready. I filled a washbowl for you. Lit some candles, got a good fire started."
The blonde looked up. "Thank you. We could use that after a long day on the road."
Darius shifted from foot to foot, torn between finishing his chores and nosiness. "Will you be needing anything else before I close up?"
"No, this should do it."
The blonde smiled and wryly shook her head. "Nice place you have here."
Darius grinned. "May I?" he asked, pointing toward a chair at an unoccupied end of the table. He caught the tall woman rolling her eyes, but the blonde gestured for him to join them. "You planning on staying awhile? Just passing through? You from around here?"
The tall woman raised a brow at her companion, then resumed eating.
"We were visiting friends. Home is a few daysí ride from here, near Amphipolis. Weíre not sure yet how long weíll stay. We might browse through the markets." The blonde flashed a look at the other woman. "And your lake. We understand thereís some pretty good fishing there."
"Oh, yes, both are worth checking out." Darius looked at the tall woman. "You fish?"
"That obvious, huh?"
"Um, well, I figured of the two of you Ö."
"You figured right. My friend over there is the shopper."
Feeling more comfortable, the innkeeper leaned forward. "Well, let me welcome you to my neck of the woods. My brother and I own this establishment. Nameís Darius." He waited expectantly.
The blonde grinned at the brunette. The tall woman raised her brow again before smiling with what to Darius appeared to be a hint of mischief.
"Iím Eczema, but I go by ëZema.í Thatís Scabrielle." The woman scooted her chair back, apparently to search for something in her carry bag. "We call her ëScabbyí for short," she mumbled with her head down.
The blonde choked - on what, Darius wasnít sure. "You okay?" he asked, reaching over to pat her on the back.
"Y-yes," she finally coughed out. She scowled at the other woman, who now leaned back in her chair with her lips sucked in. "Sorry. Eczema caught me off guard. Thatís a nickname. From when I was much younger. I prefer Ö ëAbby.í"
Darius missed the wordless exchange between the two women, as his mind seemed elsewhere. "Strange," he said, focusing on his guests again, "your names remind me of somebody else." He squinted at one, then the other. "Look like them too. Ever heard of Xena and Gabrielle?"
The blonde smiled thinly. "We get that a lot. Distant relatives weíd hope to meet someday. We understand they were quite famous."
"Well, Gabrielleís stories keep them alive. And there are always rumors here and there."
Darius hunched forward conspiratorially. "No, not just rumors. Theyíre alive and kicking. I mean really kicking, like the stories say. As young as ever."
The brunette shook her head. "Darius, think about it. Theyíd be older than your mother. Sure, maybe still in good shape and - ."
"No, no. Itís true. I know for a fact."
The women stared at him. "What are you saying?" the brunette finally asked.
"Iím saying Iíve seen them with my own eyes." Darius sat back and proudly crossed his arms. "They stayed in the very room I gave you, just the other day."
"A few days ago it was ëSpitunia,í now ëScabby.í Iím beginning to wonder if you have some unresolved issues from our quarter century together."
"Hey, you were the one for us being low key, keeping on those costumes from Cleadesí little shindig." Xena headed for the washbowl. "Boy, itíll feel good getting that dust off my face."
"Donít change the subject." Gabrielle finished folding her clothes. She stood tapping her foot behind her insufferable soulmate. "What wouldíve been wrong with something like ëAthena and Daisyí? At least they donít sound like diseases."
Xena splashed water on her face. She reached for the towel but discovered it had suddenly vanished. "You know, I canít admire you as well, if Iím blinded by soap suds."
"Youíre incorrigible." Gabrielle stuck the towel in Xenaís outstretched hand. "Youíd better have a good theory about those women Darius saw."
"Who cares?" Xena patted her face dry and handed the towel back to Gabrielle. "He said they were going around doing good deeds. Thatís better than some folks whoíve impersonated us over the years." She sauntered over to the fireplace and put in a few more logs.
Lips pursed, Gabrielle watched her partner finish undressing and stroll over to bounce on the bed. "Why is it your curiosity piques over things better left alone, but not when any normal person would wonder what in Tartarus is going on?"
Xena slid back and propped herself against the headboard. "Iím a ësentimentalí kinda gal, remember? Come on, you said you wanted more romance, right? We just got through solving one mystery. Iíd think you wouldnít want to get preoccupied with another so soon." She batted her eyes. "Especially when I donít see any markets or fish in here."
"Grrrrr." Gabrielle huffily turned away to wash her face. She counted to 10, refusing to look at what she knew would be a smugly waiting warrior.
"Howís this? We spend a couple more days relaxing. Ask a few questions. When we find out itís just two harmless admirers, we continue on home."
Gabrielle donned her sleeping gown. She blew out the candles and grumpily plopped on the bed next to Xena, staring into the fire.
"Gabrielle?" Xena gathered her partner in. "Isnít this better than wasting time on strangers?"
Gabrielle sighed. "I know itís silly. I just donít like the idea of people going around pretending theyíre us. Weíre only a day or so behind them. If we wait too long, you know neither of usíll wanna go traipsing after them."
Xena rested her chin on Gabrielleís head. She chuckled. "All these years, we still have different timing when it comes to romance vs. adventure."
"Canít they be the same?" Gabrielle snuggled closer. "Just because weíre trying to solve one mystery doesnít mean it has to get in the way of exploring each other."
"No," Xena said, sighing. "I suppose not. If we happen to come upon any good fishing holes while weíre - ."
"Okay, okay." Xena slid down, pulling Gabrielle with her. "Just checking."
Xena whistled as she cast into the water again. It had been a good morning fishing. Sheíd let Gabrielle win the argument about going after their counterparts, suggesting that the market might be a good place to start. And that the lake would be a good place for Xena to wait. "Heh heh." She so loved putting one over on her dear partner. She grinned at the tug on her line. "Oooo, Iím reeliní `em in today - just like Scabrielle."
She dropped to the ground to take her catch off the hook and prepare her line for another. Sheíd nearly filled her bucket, but wanted enough for Darius. Heíd loaned her his gear. In exchange, sheíd promised he could share in her bounty. She was so focused on her task, she didnít hear the familiar footsteps until Gabrielle was almost upon her.
"Hi there," Xena said, without turning around. "You pop by to check on my progress?"
"Uh uh. I popped by to report on mine."
Xena looked over her shoulder, surprised. "Youíre done?"
"No stalls left uninspected?"
"Letís just say I got everything we needed and then some. Rations for a few days on the road. Breeches to travel in thatíll be a lot more comfortable than those costumes. Yep, all in all, Iíd say I did pret-ty well."
"Arenít you forgetting something?"
Gabrielle blinked. "Am I?"
Xena narrowed her eyes. She could swear Gabrielle had that innocently attentive "oh are you gonna be surprised" expression she got when something was up. "Another item you were supposed to be shopping for?"
"Oh, yes." Gabrielle whacked herself in the head. "The old brain just doesnít work like it used to. I did meet someone of interest." She turned toward the trees behind her. "Okay, you can come out now!"
Xena watched a young man emerge.
"This is my partner, Eczema."
"Wow," he said, as he got closer. "Youíre right. Sheís older, maybe fatter, but I can really see the resemblance!"
"Uh huh. Like I said, probably distant cousins." Gabrielle rubbed her nose. "Zema, Iíd like to introduce you to my new friend Ö."
He had a shock of red hair, was a little taller than Gabrielle and rail thin. Not particularly notable, if you overlooked the round, sieved metal plate covering his chest and the dorky pointed hat atop his head.. Xena suppressed a snicker. If she didnít know any better, sheíd think he was trying to imitate - .
In the past, Xena mightíve rolled her eyes in disgust, turned dismissively back to her fishing. But sheíd matured over the years, acquired more patience and sensitivity. At least, in her opinion. She gazed at the young man calmly and said simply, "You have got to be kidding."
"Noooo. As sure as Iím Scabrielle, my friend here is Joxer."
"Joxer" stuck out his chin. "You think Iím too young? Iím nearly 17. Iíve had lots of experiences traveling throughout the country. Maybe I havenít fought any battles yet, but Iíve seen them. Iíve smelled death and blood."
Xena raised a brow at the young manís "armor."
"My uniform? Iíll have you know itís as authentic as they come. I used the stories as a guide. I asked old people whoíd actually met my namesake. But I have even better proof." He drew himself up. "I heard it from those who would know best - Xena and Gabrielle."
Xena scowled up at her twinkling-eyed companion. "Scabby, can I have a word with you?"
"Not yet. First I want you to hear him out. Joxer, sit. Share with Zema what you told me."
He recounted how heíd been born into a clan of traveling trades people. Heíd been obsessed with the Warrior Princess since hearing about her as a child. Heíd ask about her everywhere he went. He knew the names of all her friends and enemies. But the person he identified with most was the awkward unlikely hero who died trying to save Gabrielle.
"Joxer wasnít a super warrior like Xena or Gabrielle. He couldíve been anybody, even me. He had a big heart and would do anything for his friends." Still, he always wondered if Joxer ever really existed - whether any of his heroes were true. Until a few days ago when some bandits attacked his caravan.
"Two warriors came out of nowhere and drove the bandits off. Nobody but me believed they had to be Xena and Gabrielle. They stayed to make sure none of the bandits hung around to bother us. The only payment they accepted was a hot meal. Thatís when I asked them about Joxer. I knew then what I had to do."
Heíd packed up and snuck off after his heroes when they left. "It wasnít hard keeping up with them, since they didnít have Argo. They discovered me the second day. They let me travel with them awhile." He grinned. "They even went along with calling me Joxer, though my given name is Gregoreus. When we got to Panos, they told me about a problem they had. Theyíd gotten wind of possible spies in Panos, scoping it out to see if it was ripe for the picking. But they were already supposed to be helping someone in another village. They couldnít be two places at once, see?"
Xena raised her hand. "Let me guess. They gave you a mission - keeping an eye on Panos." Gregoreus nodded proudly. "Well, at least theyíre that smart," Xena muttered.
"Oh, yes, very smart. They said to ëbeepí them if I saw anything suspicious."
"They have a private code," Gabrielle interjected. "Maybe we should try that," she added, cutting her eyes at Xena.
"Yeah, Gabrielle explained that `beepingí was their word for secret communication. I was to buy two bells. If everything seemed okay in a couple weeks, Iíd send one bell. If it didnít, I was to send both."
"Yep, you could be Joxer, all right." Xena ignored Gabrielleís warning scowl. "Just where were you supposed to send these bells?" In response, she got sealed lips and crossed arms. "Or not."
"I told Greg Ö um Ö Joxer Ö that we really needed to hook up with our Ö relatives. Heíll help us if - ."
"We take him with us."
"Now can we have that little chat?"
Gabrielle got to her feet. "Iíd agree this is an appropriate time."
The two women strolled out of earshot. Xena stood with her head cocked, lips pursed.
"Xena, what was I supposed to do? He approached me in the first place because I reminded him so much of Gabrielle. Which makes sense, seeing as I am Gabrielle. Although Iím beginning to have my doubts Ö." She shook her head. "Anyway, heís our best lead. You got any better ideas?"
Xena glared at Gregoreus. "I suppose ëyou have 30 seconds to liveí is out?"
Gabrielleís exasperated sigh affirmed the ëpinchí was not an option.
"We make him run ahead - scouting - until he falls out and begs us to go on without him?"
"Only if ëweí means you, yourself and your dark side."
"You realize weíll have to use these stupid names for gods know how long."
"Perhaps youíll keep that in mind next time ëScabbyí is just itchiní to get at those lips."
Gregoreus sulked in the back of the wagon. Heíd expected more consideration in light of his information, his relationship with legendary heroes. Scabrielle was okay. She treated him like he had sense. Understood his reluctance to trust them yet with more than the general direction they should take. Asked him to share what heíd learned being with Xena and Gabrielle. Called him Joxer when she could remember to, despite snorts from other parties.
"Old bat," he mumbled to himself - very quietly, as he was a little afraid of "other parties." Zema acted like some kind of queen. Calling him by whatever she wanted - not just "Gregoreus," but "you there" or "him." Ordering everybody around as they prepared for the trip. Sheíd ignored him since pulling out of Panos. If not for the loyalty and dedication of his namesake, heídíve told them to take a hike.
In truth, Gregoreus had come a lot closer to being dumped than the other way around.
"Amphipolis," Xenaíd muttered within minutes of setting out.
"Shhh. Keep it down."
Xena had stopped the wagon on the pretext of needing a bush break. Gabrielle said she could use one was well.
"I think I know where Jerksterís taking us."
"Amphipolis? Yes, of the possibilities on this route, thatíd be my guess too."
"So we donít need him anymore. Weíre close enough to Panos that he can walk back before the sun is high."
"Oh, please, donít tell me youíve grown fond of that pimply-faced nuisance. I loved Joxer, but one in a lifetime is enough. Iím too old and cranky for that again."
"I think heís sweet. And whatís wrong with another pair of hands? You know how your back gets sometimes. Wasnít it nice having somebody else lug that grain sack to the wagon?"
"Are you referring to the sack he dragged along the ground, leaving a trail for at least 100 birdies?"
"We still have more than enough. Xena, heís so excited. Heís lived for something like this. What harm could there be exposing him to a taste of what we had when we were young?"
"You wanna talk ëharmí? What about the harm to my eardrums, listening to him clank around in that ridiculous ëarmorí? Or Ö or his nonstop pointers on how ëXena would do it this wayí? Pffft. Worse yet, what Joxer would do. I swear, if he calls me ëmaíamí one more time Ö. "
"Xena, heís only trying to be helpful, respectful. Isnít that what we would do for our elders?"
"Listen, he almost knocked me down three times, trying to beat me to something I was about to pick up. Iíve always done for myself. I donít intend to let a few gray hairs stop me now, especially since I can do more with my ëfatí baby finger than that scrawny twit."
Gabrielle folded her arms. "My. I hadnít realized youíd become so sensitive about your age."
"Yes, I see now I was wrong. I thought you could enjoy having a young person around. Someone to bring out your maternal and mentoring instincts. Youíre so good at that - you know, putting people on the right track, helping them think through things logically, to believe in themselves. Teaching them skills to - ."
"Iím still not calling him Joxer."
"I reserve the right to spank his butt if he gets in my way again."
"Yes, maíam Ö. Whereíre you going?"
"Now I really do need to use the bushes."
Gregoreus sensed a change in the temperature following their rest stop. Zema continued to address him other than "Joxer," but with more effort to sound like she wasnít talking to a toad. He reminded himself that bodily functions could be more difficult for older people. Perhaps that had contributed to Zemaís mood. Heíd try to be more understanding, perhaps suggest another rest stop if irritability reared its ugly head again.
"Weíll call it a day, camp near the lake," Xena announced late that afternoon. She pursed her lips, then turned to her companions. "If, of course, that meets with everyoneís approval?"
Gabrielle discreetly rolled her eyes.
"Isnít it a little soon? I mean, Xena and Gabrielle traveled almost until sunset, to make better time. Weíve probably got a good -."
"Thanks for the input, Greg." Xena secured the reins. "They were probably traveling lighter and had more experience than us." In one fluid motion, she rose and jumped lightly to the ground. "Plus, moved faster." She reached her hands up to Gabrielle and lifted her down. "Not to mention less years and ëfatí on `em."
Gregoreus blinked, his brain momentarily stuck between Zemaís words and her actions. "Um, yes, I hadnít thought of that." He hopped down. "Want me to start unloading this stuff, take it over by the lake?"
"Under those trees."
"Show off." Gabrielle swatted Xenaís arm as the two unhitched the horses.
"Sorry, did I forget to totter and creak?"
"Will it take another 25 years for you to grow up?"
"Of course not." Xena smirked. "Twenty-four."
A couple hours later, the three sat around a fire, dining on roast rabbit. Only one bedroll lay on the ground, as Xena and Gabrielle would sleep in the wagon.
"Mmmm, this is pretty good - better than Gabrielleís," Gregoreus said, licking his fingers. "You arenít so bad yourselves at this camping stuff." He frowned. "In fact, Xena and Gabrielle could learn a thing or two from you."
"We moved around a lot in our younger days," Gabrielle explained. "I did some teaching. Zema did some Ö healing. We like to stay active. We do what we can for our family and village. We have friends far and wide, so we go visiting quite often."
"Itís a newer place, between Amazonia and Amphipolis."
Gabrielle gave Xena a "you take it from here" look.
"Amphipolis." Xena smirked. "Quite convenient, since we figure thatís where weíre headed."
The women nodded. Gregoreus stared blankly at his food, not sure what this revelation might mean.
"Itís okay," Gabrielle assured him. "Weíve already decided you can stay with us. We could use your help - not just your brawn. Weíve never met these particular Ö relatives. They might feel more comfortable having somebody they know introduce us."
Gregoreus brightened considerably. "Yes, yes, I hadnít thought of that. I did seem to gain their trust."
"One thing, though." Gabrielle cut her eyes at Xena. "As youíve noticed, weíre pretty self-sufficient. Weíre even handy with weapons if needed. We appreciate that you were raised well, to respect your elders, but on the road itís important for everybody to pull their own weight. How about we agree to treat you like an adult, and you treat us like we donít have one foot in the grave?"
"Oh, I didnít m-m-mean Ö." Gregoreus blushed. He studied the two women a moment and saw good-natured humor in their smiles. "Y-yes, that sounds good."
"If we need help, weíll ask," Xena added.
"You can start by dropping the ëmaíam.í"
"Oh. Okay Ö Zema." Gregoreus straightened and cleared his throat. "And maybe you could start by calling me Joxer?"
"Scratch that. It would be my pleasure, Greg. Soonís I sprout a big olí pair of wings."
The trio had been on the road about two hours the next day when Xena stopped the wagon.
"What is it?"
Xena held up her hand. "Listen."
Like Xena, Gabrielle and Gregoreus sat perfectly still, trying to sense what didnít belong amidst the natural sounds of the forest.
"Hear it?" Eyes narrowed, Xena cocked her head toward the left side of the wagon. She pointed through the trees a little ahead of them. "Iíll go check it out," she said, handing the reins to Gabrielle.
"Oh, no you donít." Gabrielle signaled for Gregoreus to come up front. "Where you go, I go - especially if it might be trouble."
"Me too?" Gregoreus pleaded as the two women scowled at each other.
"Sorry," Gabrielle answered, maintaining eye contact with her partner. "We need somebody to guard the wagon."
"But - ."
"Weíll come back as soon as we can." Gabrielle stepped down and stood with her hands on her hips looking up at Xena. "Coming?"
Xena rolled her tongue in her cheek. She glanced between the sullen young man and the woman tapping her foot, wondering if she still had her hallmark ability to command obedience simply with her eyes. Sighing heavily, she turned to Gregoreus.
"Hand me that bag, will ya?" She cut her eyes at Gabrielle. "The one next to it? Thereís a staff folded inside. Give that to Ö Scabrielle."
Gregoreus picked up the first bag, surprised by its weight. As he handed it to Xena, he felt a long object. Like a Ö. "Is that a scabbard in there? A sword? Whatíre you doing with - ."
"Always good to have protection. Never know what grandmas might run into on the road."
"I know how to use a sword." Gregoreus found and handed Gabrielle her staff. "I meant to get one in Panos." He looked plaintively at Xena. "See, I should go with you. I could use yours if -."
Xena shouldered her bag. "Thanks, but that probably wonít be necessary. Donít worry, weíll get you if we need another pair of hands." She smiled. "Especially Joxer the Mightyís."
Gregoreus searched Xenaís face for the usual hint of mockery, but didnít see it. "Well Ö okay. I guess it wouldnít do to have anything happen to the wagon and horses. Then youíd have to walk Ö." He glanced at the trees, realizing his older companions were about to do just that. "You sure youíll be all right? How far do you think -."
"Weíll be fine. We do this all the time." Xena put her arm around Gabrielle as the smaller woman came to stand beside her. "Right, Scabrielle?"
"Yep, all the time."
"Itís still early. Thereís a good chance weíll be back before nightfall. If not, donít wait up. Weíll meet you here in the morning."
Gregoreus sighed and nodded. The women headed into the forest. He strained to hear their footsteps, but it was if theyíd vanished into thin air. He climbed down to tend the horses, keeping his eyes on the spot where his new friends had disappeared. "Be careful," he said softly. "Please come back."
"Yeah, we do this all the time. Just forgot to mention ëall the timeí was a gazillion years ago."
"Speak for yourself. Iíve exercised every day during those gazillion years."
Theyíd woven their way through dense trees and underbrush on fairly flat terrain. Gabrielle had trusted Xenaís keen ears were leading them in the right direction. Now, she could clearly hear activity ahead. Beyond the steep wooded incline blocking their way.
"Not a problem." Xena reached into her bag and retrieved a coil of sturdy rope. "Always be prepared - thatís my motto." She wound the rope around Gabrielleís waist, then her own. "Donít think weíll need this, but Iíll never hear the end of it if you tear those new breeches during an untimely descent."
"Forget the pep talk." Gabrielle pushed Xena forward. "Sooner we break our necks, sooner I wonít have to worry about darning holes."
Given the plentiful trees to steady themselves on, the two women had an uneventful trek to the top. It took less than a minute to jog across to the other side.
"Well, well, well. Lookee there."
Gabrielle came up beside Xena to gaze down at the large grassy clearing that served as a camp for the rather rough characters engaged with a couple of intruders. Female intruders - apparently more the "hurt and leave" than the "love and leave" variety.
"Think they need help?"
"Nah." Xena lowered herself and patted the ground next to her. "Probably a walk in the park for those two."
Gabrielle squinted at the blond figure decimating men with a staff. "Unbelievable! Sheís wearing one of my later outfits! Grrrr, canít see much detail from here."
Smirking, Xena pulled a telescope from her bag. "Remember, my motto is -."
"Yeah, yeah. Save it for somebody who hasnít heard it a million times. What do you see?"
Xena focused on the tall woman in brown leather. A few moments later, she shrugged and turned the scope toward the blonde. "Yep, just like you in your prime."
"What?! Give me that," Gabrielle huffed, snatching the scope. She peered through. "Sure, she favors me physically, but thatís about it."
"Not from where Iím sitting."
"Xena, come on." Gabrielle gestured vaguely at the swinging, smashing figure. "When did I ever fight like that? Whereís the finesse? The restraint? Sheís whomping those guys like thereís no tomorrow, like she doesnít care whether they get up or not."
Xena snorted. "Are you kidding? Gabrielle: Amazon Mowing Machine? Itís a wonder you didnít leave heads bouncing around."
"I beg your pardon. I fought defensively, gave them a chance, which is more than I can say for that imposter."
"Whatíre you complaining about? Least sheís making a better effort than my wannabe."
Gabrielle snorted. "Au contraire. Sheís got you down to a tee."
"That Ö that Ö whirling dervish?! Give me a break. See? See the way sheís flinging her arms at those guys? My punches were precise, controlled. More like a boxer."
"More like a wind mill, if you ask me," Gabrielle muttered.
"A big, spinning blur. Can I help it, if thatís what you looked like sometimes? Whatís wrong with that? It worked, didnít it?"
Two sets of jaws clamped. Two pairs of eyes bored into each other in preparation for a battle of "did too, did not," when suddenly the sound of clashing weapons ceased.
"Xena, look. Theyíve flattened everybody."
Xena jumped up. "Weíd better catch them before they leave."
"We canít exactly waltz down and say, ëWho do you think you are, impersonating us?í"
"I may have just the ticket." Xena reached in her bag and plucked out a black wig tied in a bun. "I saved this from your party costume. Figured it might come in handy one day." She tossed the wig to Gabrielle and took out a floppy hat. "Thought you might want to replace the one that got torn. Doesnít go as well with your breeches, but I doubt itíll matter to those two."
Gabrielle held the items as if they smelled bad. "Youíve finally done it - lost your mind. Iím surprised it didnít happen sooner."
"Hear me out, okay?" Xena took the wig and positioned it over Gabrielleís hair. "This way they might not notice the resemblance so much. Go over and yell, wave your hands. Say you need their help. Get `em to follow you to the wagon. Weíll have Greg to help break the ice." She set the hat on the wig and fussed with the drooping brim until it framed Gabrielleís face just so. "Perfect."
"Remind me once again why I suffered through 25 years with you?"
"Twenty-four." Xena wrapped her arms around Gabrielle and kissed the top of her head. "You had no choice. And as long as I can help it, never will." She pushed back and flashed her most beguiling smile.
Gabrielle shook her head. "Iím tempted to run off with your younger version, except itíll probably just delay the inevitable."
"Thatta girl. I knew youíd see the light." Xena sauntered off to hide. "I wonít be far," she threw over her shoulder. "Iím not as trusting of my wannabeís abilities as you."
Gabrielle called upon her bardly skills to convince the female warriors they needed to hurry. When they climbed up to her position, she ran frantically toward the slope on the other side of the hill. The taller woman caught up and insisted on carrying Gabrielle down on her back. Part of Gabrielle suppressed indignation, especially since Xena might be close by snickering. The other part suppressed a snicker, as Xena herself might be indignant.
Once on flat terrain, the other women tried in vain to make sense of Gabrielleís breathless "I hope heís all right" and "Iím so worried" and "Faster, faster!" Finally the three reached the wagon. Gabrielle ran to where a startled Gregoreus stood brushing down the horses.
"Gregoreus!" she exclaimed, throwing her arms around him. "Thank the gods youíre all right!" She put her mouth to his ear. "Play along," she whispered. "I had to fool them to get them here."
"Joxer?" The blond warrior stared at Gregoreus. "What Ö? We thought Ö."
"You know him?" Gabrielle turned to face the warriors.
"All right, whatís going on here?" The taller woman crossed her arms. "This wasnít some ruse, was it - to join up with us again?"
"Um Ö." Poor Gregoreus shifted his eyes between the women.
"No, please, whatever youíre thinking, Gregoreus isnít to blame." Gabrielle put her bard brain into warp speed. "My companion and I heard some long-lost relatives were in the area. We got to talking with Gregoreus in Panos, and he graciously offered to help us find them. We thought some robbers had followed us. Gregoreus sent us into the woods while he bravely prepared to defend our possessions. I guess we panicked. We ran to get help, just in case."
"Um Ö." Gabrielle scanned the area. "My companion and I got separated. I hope sheís all Ö. Oh, yes! Here she comes now!" she said, pointing toward a figure emerging from the trees a good ways down on the opposite side of the road.
Xena made a passing attempt at seeming flustered. "Whew! This old heart isnít used to such excitement," she lied as she approached. When she got closer to the others, she looked open-mouthed at Gabrielle. "Oh, my! Is that them?"
Gabrielle gave Xena a "we have got to work on our codes" look. "Um, they came to help with the robbers." She smiled sheepishly. "Well, with the men we thought were robbers."
The other two women silently appraised Xena. They exchanged glances, then included Gabrielle in their scrutiny.
Gabrielle smiled. "Perhaps youíre thinking we remind you of someone?"
"Her, I can understand." The taller woman raised a brow at Xena. "I was always cursed with twins. You, on other hand," she said, narrowing her eyes at Gabrielle, "need some explaining. I doubt youíre descended from one person you remind me of. If youíre a descendent of the other, I may have to kill you."
Thanks to Gabrielleís "people" skills, she and all her companions survived long enough to sort things out over supper. It was touch and go for a few tense moments, though. Xenaíd been itching to take her younger look-alike down a peg. Threatening Gabrielle offered the perfect excuse. Oddly, Xenaís flared nostrils and menacing expression didnít seem to intimidate their tall guest, so much as strike a common chord. It was as though the woman considered Xenaís protectiveness a sign that Gabrielle might not have evil blood flowing through her veins.
"I take it your lineage includes Xena and Gabrielle?" At the younger womenís cautious nods, Gabrielle had clarified that she and her companion were not direct descendants of the famous duo, but of distant kin. Sheíd suggested everyoneís pitching in to set up camp, making the proper introductions when they were more relaxed. Her partner and the "other" Xena had locked eyes a respectful amount of time before finally nodding their acquiescence. Unlike Joxer, Gregoreus had the good sense to make himself as inconspicuous as his noisy armor allowed.
"So," Gabrielle began breezily when everyone was finally seated, eating supper. "Tell us about yourselves."
The dark-haired warrior heard Xenaís soft snort. She narrowed her eyes at the older women. "You first."
Gabrielle smiled. "Probably not as interesting as your story, but all right. See, we were returning from a party with friends." She glanced adoringly at Xena. "Celebrating our anniversary. Would you believe 25 years together?"
The blonde glanced fondly at her partner. "Iím so happy for you. Thatís a nice record to shoot for."
"Well, it wasnít always easy, but weíre here, and thatís what counts. Right, dear?"
"Anyway, weíd hoped some of our relatives could attend. Weíd heard for years about Xena and Gabrielle, but figured weíd missed ever meeting them. When we decided to prolong our vacation at Panos, the innkeeper and Gregoreus Ö." Gabrielle slapped her cheek. "Oh, my! I donít believe we told you our names!"
The two guests shook their heads.
"Iím Scabrielle, and this is Eczema."
The blonde bit her lip. Her companion raised a brow.
"Your parents had quite a sense of humor," the taller woman said, her face expressionless.
Gabrielle laughed. "Well, they also meant to honor our famous semi-namesakes. Your parents obviously did it a little more directly." She waited for a response, but got none. "Moving right along Ö. You can see why all our lives peopleíve asked us if weíre related to Xena and Gabrielle - what with the similar names and physical Ö." She slapped her cheek again. "Zema, why didnít you remind me I still had this on," she said, yanking off the hat and wig.
The other women stared at Gabrielle.
"It was a costume party - our anniversary celebration. You can see why Greg Ö um, Joxer Ö told me how heíd encountered you, why maybe you could help us find our relatives."
Only the crackling fire broke the silence that fell. The warrior women glanced at each other, their mature look-alikes, Gregoreus, then back at each other.
"Excuse us a moment?" the blonde finally said. She tugged on her companionís arm, urging the reluctant woman to her feet and out of earshot. The two held an animated conversation, punctuated with visual references to the three people sitting at the campfire. When they returned, it was clear the taller woman hadnít prevailed. She propped herself against a nearby tree with crossed arms. Her more relaxed companion dropped to the ground.
"Iíve learned that sometimes people arenít who they seem." The blonde smiled apologetically. "Weíre not sure if you are, but we canít exactly say we are either. Iíve also learned that sometimes youíve just gotta have trust."
"I know what you mean." Gabrielle patted Xenaís leg. "Weíve had our share of mysterious situations. Times when we had to believe in strangers." She tilted her head. "But somehow I donít feel weíre strangers."
"No," the blonde said, gazing deeply into Gabrielleís eyes. "I donít think we are." She took a deep breath. "I believe itís true we carry the same blood. Except, weíre not related to Xena and Gabrielle. We are Xena and Gabrielle."
The older womenís eyes widened - not just at this news, but because it was delivered with such conviction.
Gregoreus smirked. "See, told ya it was them."
"Weíd heard they could cheat death, defy age, but you Ö." Gabrielle waved her hand at the other women. "It would mean you hadnít changed in Ö since Ö."
"Did you also hear that Xena and Gabrielle traveled through time? That they discovered theyíd live on in different bodies?"
The older women scrunched their faces, as if searching their memories.
"Zema? Now that I think of it, I do believe thatís one of the rumors we heard."
"Yeah, but I took it with the same grain of salt I did the others."
"I know, sounds incredible." The blonde smiled over at her silent partner, who now came over to sit beside her. "It is to us, too." She grasped the taller womanís hand. "You see, weíre not the Xena and Gabrielle you know from your time. Weíre from the future."
Gregoreus gasped. "The future?! You mean, like years and years from now?"
"Wow! Youíve become immortal?! And Joxer? Is Joxer immortal too?" Gregoreus whacked his head. "Unbelievable! Xena and Gabrielle forever!"
The tall warrior held up her hand. "No, I doubt it, yes, not exactly."
"Whatíre you saying."
The blonde shook her head in sympathy at the confusion on her audienceís faces. "What she means," she said, cutting her eyes at her partner, "is that weíre mortal and not exactly known as ourselves. We took the names Alexandra and Dominique. They were popular in some stories about us we read. Not ones Gabrielle Ö um Ö I wrote." She chuckled. "Iíll explain later. Anyway, you can call me ëNikkií for the time being, if you like, and her ëAlex.í" She shrugged. "Weíd kinda gotten used to that until we Ö dropped Ö into your world."
"But ëXena and Gabrielleí is still okay, right? I mean, thatís who you are to me."
"Absolutely. I have to say though, the only Joxers weíve heard of are people masquerading at gatherings held in honor of Ö the ëXenaverse.í"
Xenaís sword thumb had started twitching the moment sheíd heard she was supposed to be alive in two places at two ages at two times in the same body. She leaned forward, her eyes frozen pools of danger.
Her younger versionís face contorted. Before Nikki could say anything, Alex snarled, "Alti."
Xena and Gabrielle lay in the wagon, holding each other but lost in separate thoughts. Their companions slept peacefully in their bedrolls - the other women apparently less burdened, now that they had shared their tale. And what a tale it was.
"ëClones.í Trust Alti to come up with something like that. And from strands of hair, no less."
"Remembering a life you never experienced." Gabrielle shuddered. "Never felt. Can you imagine?"
"Having skills you didnít learn. Instantly knowing what to do. Without the mistakes or the joy of figuring the angles, making the right move."
"What am I saying? Itís probably like that horribly wrong world Caesar created. Except theirs is Ö truer."
"She wanted to understand where her darkness came from. Feel the guilt and shame of what sheíd done. Know the satisfaction of fighting evil with more Ö ëblood and guts.í Why in Tartarus would she come back for that?"
Gabrielle smiled when it sank in what Xena had said. "Look whoís asking," she teased, squeezing the arm around her.
Xena frowned. "Well, sure, but it was my darkness. Guilt and shame the gods know I earned. Why should she pay for that?"
"You took on crimes you didnít personally commit. You believed you deserved justice for accidents or soldiers disobeying an order. She has the body and soul - the memories - of someone who did bad things. Sheís taken responsibility for that as her own."
"Doesnít seem fair." Xena snorted. "Well, it wouldnít if it wasnít me. Or someone who says sheís me."
Gabrielle twisted to look up at Xena. "You donít believe it?"
Xena sighed. "I donít know what to believe. I believe them, I guess. I mean, I believe they believe what theyíre saying." She smirked. "I can believe Blondie is Ö was Ö could be you."
"Xeenaa!" Gabrielle swatted her partnerís arm. "Was I really that Ö bubbly? Sure, at first I thought I could save the world. But by the time Ö. When was it their memories stopped? The Hermes helmet escapade? By then I knew all too intimately that I couldnít stop the cycle of violence and hate. She really believes she can do that - maybe by coming back here."
"Yeah, she is missing your Ö edge. Having thatís not a bad thing," Xena hastened to add. "The causes maybe." She squeezed Gabrielleís arm. "And the pain. But not the wisdom, the firsthand experience of the forces at work."
"Hmmm. Kinda like yours. Sheís Ö mellower. Same passion, but not quite as Ö intense Ö as the original." Gabrielle sighed. "Makes you wonder Ö. Maybe things turned out precisely as they should for us, but what about for them?"
"Yeah, theyíre not part of our karmic Ö whatever. Not even descendants. Who knows what destinies they have? Maybe trying to follow ours is the wrong way to go."
The two lay quietly awhile.
"What do you think of Nikki? I mean Ö physically."
"I told you." Xena chuckled. "You disagreed."
"No, silly, not the way she fights. The way she Ö looks."
"Do I want to run off with her? Like you threatened with Alex?"
"Oh, you. I was kidding. Sort of." Gabrielle recalled her initial sighting of the young dark-haired warrior earlier that day. "It was so Ö eerie Ö. I admit, I flashed back to when you and I met. Watching you stand up to those slavers. So beautiful. So deadly. I got chills. Then my heart raced all over again."
"Yeah?" Xena decided she might as well confess too. "I know what you mean. Kinda weird on one hand. On the other, sheíd be like ambrosia from the gods - if," she amended, giving Gabrielle a hug, "I wasnít already taken."
They both let out a long breath, satisfied there was at least one complication they wouldnít have to worry about.
"Should we tell them? Who we are?"
"Hey, we just spent our anniversary with people who gave me new insights on the past. A few days later, we run into these two - us 25 years ago, but from 2,000 years in the future. Theyíre ëNikki and Alex.í Weíre ëScabrielle and Eczema.í All claiming to be Xena and Gabrielle. At this point, weíre lucky weíre reasonably certain we ainít Hope and Meg."
"So youíre saying play it by ear? Sleep on it?"
Xena shrugged. "Sounds good. In the meantime, wouldnít hurt if we did some of that ëexploringí you talked about earlier."
"Delve into each other a little more? Gather information on who we might be?"
"Mmhm. I was thinking of starting here." Xena brushed her finger across Gabrielleís forehead. "I noticed today a tiny line that escaped my attention before." She planted a kiss on her discovery.
"Interesting. Looking at the younger you tonight, I wondered why her face seemed so shadowed." Gabrielle lightly tousled Xenaís bangs. "I think now itís because the fire didnít catch the highlights Iíve become accustomed to." She brought some strands of the gray-streaked dark mane to her lips. "Mmmm. I can even taste silver."
"Funny, the face I know better than my own, that I think canít be more fascinating than it already is, just keeps on getting better."
"Uh huh." Gabrielle squinted through the darkness at the blue eyes she didnít have to see to know theyíd lightened over the years. "Maybe the gods made a fortuitous mistake? Not wasting maturity on the young?"
The cool dawn air reminded Xena that winter was only a few months away. Theyíd enjoyed unseasonably warm weather this year, and she intended to make the most of every moment. She stretched carefully so as not to disturb her soulmateís slumber. When she pushed up to peer over the sideboard, she saw Alex gently disentangling herself from the sleeping Nikki. Xena smirked. "Chip off the old block, eh?" She jumped down from the wagon and approached Alex, putting a finger to her lips and beckoning the younger woman to join her a few paces away.
"Interested in some fishing?"
Alex cocked her head. "You know, thatís something Iíd been meaning to do. Never seemed to have time enough back home."
Xena grinned. "If weíre quiet enough," she said, gesturing toward the sleeping women, "I believe we can work that in."
Alex grinned back. "Iím with you."
The two went to their respective beds and finished dressing. Xena got a pail. She stuffed some other items in her carry bag. Soon they were headed for the lake.
Gabrielle stirred, smiling at the early morning sunís warmth on her face. She wasnít surprised that she now lay alone. Semi-retirement hadnít changed her partnerís habits over the years. She yawned, tempted to snuggle deeper into the furs cocooning her on the wagon floor. Suddenly she remembered she might not really be alone. She sat up to survey their camp.
Red hair peeked out of Gregoreusí bedroll on one side of the smoldering embers. On the other, Gabrielle noted a single lump under the covers where there should be two. She grinned, pretty sure which of their guests still snoozed. "Heh. Like original, like clone." She wrapped herself in a blanket, pulled on her boots and stepped down. Moving as quietly as possible, she began building up their fire for the fish Xena no doubt would bring back.
Gabrielle turned to see Nikki groggily pushing back her furs. "Good morning. Sorry if I woke you."
"Itís okay." Nikki yawned and stretched. "Iíve learned to be an earlier riser around certain individuals."
Gabrielle pointed her chin at the wagon. "Same here."
"I swear, what Alex finds to do at the crack of dawn is beyond me. Well, after jogging around the neighborhood, that is."
"Knowing other certain individuals, Iíd bet sheís fishing this time."
"Fishing, huh?" Nikki pulled on her boots. "Good. Sheís always saying she wants to do that. She needs to relax more." Draped in a blanket, she walked over to join Gabrielle. "I wish my predecessor couldíve found something more practical to wear." She glanced down at her midriff-baring reddish brown leather outfit. "She mustíve frozen a lot in this thing."
Gabrielle snorted softly. "I imagine so." She laid her blanket beside the fire. "Letís sit awhile, get warm. Probably a couple hours before they get back."
"Iíd like that." Nikki smiled ruefully, dropping down to face Gabrielle. "Itís nice having someone to talk to." She frowned. "Not that Alex and I donít talk. We do. Itís just Ö."
"Talking isnít her favorite pastime?"
Nikki chuckled. "Yeah, you could say that." She studied Gabrielle a moment. "But you Ö. You seem to enjoy talking, hearing about peopleís lives, the little things that make up their day. Like me."
"Yes, I do. You donít have friends in your world? I mean, friends you can chat with?"
Nikki gazed into the fire. "We were very lucky. We met some wonderful people right after the thing with Alti. They took us under their wings - gave us a place to stay and jobs, helped us learn our way around. They believed us, accepted us as Xena and Gabrielle. The ëfansí I told you about wanted to talk with us all the time." She sighed.
"They were very nice, but they kept confusing us with those characters they saw in the moving pictures. After awhile, people came from all over to gawk at us. We feared we couldnít really start fresh in our new lives, if that kept up. After some months, we decided to move on, change our names and Ö and leave the past behind."
Gabrielle reached over to pat Nikkiís hand. "That mustíve been hard."
Nikki nodded. "We had all those memories. Feelings. Ideas and ways of doing things. The only certainty we had, though, was in each other - the world we meant to each other, that we were and would always be no matter where or when." She let out a long breath. "But it was a world we didnít feel we had a hand in. It didnít truly become real to us until we stepped out of that machine Alti created us in. What we did after that was ours, in a world that wouldnítíve been real to the ëoldí Xena and Gabrielle." Nikki searched Gabrielleís eyes. "Can you understand?"
"I think so. Like being yourself, but somehow out of place? Missing something important that made you Ö you?"
"Exactly! We liked that we could sort of re-create ourselves from the same stuff that made us in the first place. We had experiences to fill in and replace the memories. Every time we adapted to something new, we learned what about us wouldnít change. The reactions were ours, the decisions were ours, and the consequences - good or bad. We belonged where we were, in a way we didnít belong where we came from."
"So how come you came back?"
The women whirled to see Gregoreus propped up in his bedroll. In truth, theyíd completely forgotten about him.
"Did you find out you were wrong? That you really do belong here?"
Nikki and Gabrielle exchanged wry glances.
"Not exactly. We made a good home for ourselves in the new world. We got used to it. It was more Ö. Have you ever been somewhere you were okay with, but kept wondering what it would be like somewhere else?"
"Like being okay as me, but imagining myself as Joxer?"
Nikki grinned. "Yeah, like that. We were curious. Something was still missing, something we couldnít satisfy where we were. Something driving us, that we couldnít really understand unless weíd been to the source. Then you get there and itís not what youíd hoped."
Gregoreus snorted. "Yeah, like somebody old and cranky who wonít see you for who you are, even though the people who know better see you that way."
Nikki frowned, puzzled.
"Zema," Gabrielle explained. "She refuses to call him Joxer."
"Ah. We donít have that particular problem here. People seem quite willing to see us, instead of two women who ought to be dead or crones with drool on their chins."
Gabrielle cringed. "Um, Nikki? Maybe we should get back to why you came?"
Anyone observing the two women would assume them mother and daughter. The age difference couldnít mask the shared height, startling blue eyes, proud carriage, and athletically sure moves. Perhaps most striking was their similar laughter - deep and often ironic, yet playfully light and free as well.
The older one gave pointers as though knowing instinctively what the other needed, when and how to intervene. The younger one nodded, her quick mastery belying her intense absorption of her teacherís quiet, clipped lessons. They exhibited a comfort level of many years, the unobsequious respect of equals confident in each otherís word. No one would guess theyíd met the day before.
"Weíve done pretty well," Xena said, indicating the bucket nearly filled with their catch. "Wanna take a break?"
Alex studied the bubbles near where sheíd cast her line. "In a minute. That suckerís mine."
Xena relaxed on the blanket sheíd brought. Silently she observed the other woman, grateful once again for the rare opportunity to do so. All the comments sheíd heard about herself had taken on new meaning. Sure, she was conscious of the persona she intentionally projected, but there was so much else sheíd taken for granted, dismissed, not understood, or simply been unaware of.
The younger woman truly was impressive. Not just physically, but the way she soaked up knowledge like sheíd been born a sponge. And her patience, her determination to conquer even the smallest task, was a little surprising in someone with such energy and low tolerance for stupidity. The flip side was a certain arrogance, a casualness about her prodigious natural gifts. A knee-jerk hint of rebellion in the way the corner of her mouth twitched or her jaw tightened at an idea not her own or the suggestion that anything was beyond her grasp.
"Yeah!" Alex exclaimed, reeling in her latest victim. She turned triumphantly toward her fellow fisher and caught an unguarded look of wonder. "What? You surprised I got as many as you?"
Xena laughed. "You counted?"
Alex shrugged, grinning. "So Iím goal-oriented, to go along with my many skills." She deposited her fish in the pail and came over to join Xena. "I have a reputation to maintain, you know."
"Canít fault you for that." Xena cocked her head, chewing her lip, regarding the young woman with a strange expression.
"But you can for something else? Nikkiís always getting on me for being so competitive. She doesnít understand -."
"No, itís not that." Xena smiled. "I Ö like you."
Nikkiís brow furrowed. "You sound surprised." She snorted. "Whatím I saying? With a past like mine -."
"I donít see your past in you. I meant, I like you as a person. Someone I can relate to."
Alex regarded Xena thoughtfully. "Yeah, me too. Itís like I can be myself with you. I mean, I can with Nikki too, but Ö."
"But not as much?"
Alexís mouth dropped. "Exactly!"
"She helps you keep things inside that youíd rather not come out. You try to bring out whateverís most likely to support that bright side of her you love and need so much."
"That how it is with you and Abby?"
Xena chuckled. "You could say weíre a lot like you two. I guess you noticed sheís the counterpoint to my ëstrong, silentí type."
Alex laughed. "Nikki has nothing on her in the gab department. No offense."
"None taken. Life would be mighty boring otherwise."
"Yep, I know what you mean." Alex adjusted her arm guards. When she looked up, it was with serious eyes. "This was her idea. Coming here. We seemed to be missing something. She thought maybe we could find it, knowing more about our roots."
"Yeah. We knew our old villages would be different. Probably nobody left who remembered us as kids. We have our memories, but Ö. Weíre orphans in a way. Adopted by a whole new set of people, adapting to a completely different world."
"You wonder sometimes why you are who you are? Whether it has to do with where you came from?"
Alex sighed. "She of goodness and light unwittingly produced a monstrous evil. I was a monster, yet ended up bringing someone of peace into the world. Thatís in our heads, our blood. It Ö drives Ö us. But somehow it just doesnít Ö."
"No, it doesnít seem real. Or ours. Itís not the responsibility. That feels Ö right Ö natural. It gives us purpose in our new life. We just canít seem to satisfy it there."
"Thereís something to be said for living in the moment," Xena reflected, gazing at the lake. "Gods know I wasted a lot of moments on the past myself. Messed up a lot of good ones worrying about the future - especially when it came to Ga Ö Abby." She shook her head and focused on Alex. "Which reminds me Ö. You told us how you got to your world. Iíd like to hear more about that ëtime machineí that brought you to ours."
The group sat around their campfire, sharing a breakfast of - what else? - fish. They conversed about a range of topics, from current events in Greece to the crazy ways "civilized" people entertained themselves in the 21st century. Without actually verbalizing the decision, they traveled on together toward Amphipolis.
Alex and Nikki insisted on walking alongside the wagon, in deference to the senior members of their party and obviously oblivious to the gritted teeth of the taller "senior member." Gregoreus - anxious to fulfill his duties as "the man" of the group - had run on ahead to scout for any trouble, obviously oblivious to the rolling eyes of his companions.
It was about noon when Gregoreus came stumbling back. "Xena! Itís them!" he panted, bending down to catch his breath. "The same men who attacked my kinfolk, except more! Headed this way!" He looked at Alex with fear in his eyes. "I donít think theyíre after loot this time. Theyíre Ö theyíre dragging a dummy that Ö that looks like Ö you!"
Alexís lip curled. "Are they now."
"You gotta run! Hide!" Gregoreus clutched at the tall womanís arm. "Please?!"
"Calm down." Alex gently pried Gregoreusí hand loose. "How sooníll they get here?"
"Soon! I saw them from the top of the pass ahead. They had to climb a pretty steep hill first, but -."
"Were they on horses?" Xena asked.
"Some of them."
"I know the place. That hill is rocky, can be treacherous on foot, let alone on horseback."
"I know it too." Alex grinned. "In my mindís eye, itís only a few years away."
"See? Youíve got time to take cover in the forest. Thereíre too many this time. You Ö I mean, the three of us donít stand a chance!"
"Three?!" Xena glowered at Gregoreus. "What are we? Chopped liver?"
Alex and Nikki nodded to each other in silent agreement. Alex addressed the women in the wagon.
"Thanks, but this isnít your fight. Turn the wagon around. Race like Hades till you get to that clearing where you can get off the road. Head for the trees, go far enough in to hide yourselves and the wagon. Take Gregoreus with you."
"No! If you stay, I stay!"
Alex ignored Gregoreus, instead focusing on the silent - and unmoving - older women. She crossed her arms. "You got a problem with that?"
"What she means," said Nikki, coming up beside her partner, "is that weíre sure you could be of assistance. We just donít want innocent people hurt. If things get too tough for us, weíll come lookiní for ya." She winked. "Okay?"
Xena crossed her arms. "We had in mind a little more than being ëof assistance.í Us `innocent peopleí can still -."
Gabrielle rested a hand on her prickly soulmateís arm. "Um, what Zemaís saying is, weíre used to defending ourselves, certainly not sitting around when others are in danger. However," she added at Alexís imminent objections, "we understand that this fight is Ö personal." She reached up to grasp Xenaís chin, turning the stubborn face toward her. "You understand that, donít you, Zema? Not wanting others to fight your battles for you? Let them do what they have to, okay? They donít have much time."
"Hurry!" Gregoreus shouted back from where heíd run up the road. "I think I hear them!"
Xena threw Gabrielle a "youíd better be glad I love you" look. "Weíll give you a reasonable time to dispatch them. After that, all betsíre off."
"Thatís fair," Nikki agreed quickly.
Xena steered the horses into a turn. "Hop in Ö Joxer." She cut her eyes at Alex. "We might need you for protection."
"Take care of yourselves!" Gabrielle called over her shoulder as the three started down the road.
"We will!" Nikki promised. She and Alex quickly began laying traps for their attackers.
"How come weíre stopping here?" Gregoreus stuck out his chin. "Xena said -."
"I know what she said."
"Xe Ö ma, you told them -."
"I know what I said." Xena was already climbing into the wagon bed, searching around for something. "Greg, get up here and take the reins. Nobody said we couldnít watch."
Gabrielle ground her teeth, reluctant to argue in front of Gregoreus. "Might as well hand me my staff while youíre at it."
"Wonít need it." Xena smirked. "Not if weíre gonna be good little watchers."
"Whatím I supposed to do?" Gregoreus groused, climbing onto the driverís bench. "Guard the wagon again?"
"Smart boy." Xena jumped down.
Gabrielle joined her partner. She reached up to pat Gregoreus on the leg. "Sorry, but we really do need to get this wagon back in one piece. We borrowed it from a neighbor. Iíll memorize every detail of what we see, tell you about it just like Gabrielle. Howís that?"
"Youíre not my parents," Gregoreus muttered. "Iíve got a mind to -."
"Get a spanking? I can do it, you know." Xena gave him her iciest glare. "Wanna test me?"
"Then do as I say. Take the wagon to that spot and hide it. Stay there until we get back." Xenaís eyes softened. "If nobody does come back, weíll all need you to be like Gabrielle, to pick up where we left off."
Gregoreusí eyes widened. "Donít say that! Xenaín Gabrielle always come back! Theyíll bring you with them, safe and sound."
Gabrielle smiled. "Youíre right Ö Joxer. Thanks. We needed that."
Gregoreus puffed up. "Thatís what Iím here for. Now go on, before I change my mind."
"Yes, sir!" Xena gave a salute. "Hurry, Abby, before he changes his mind."
Tongue between her teeth, the dark-haired warrior perched on a branch high above the road. A thick vine trailed from her hand, down through the leaves to the ground, across the road, and back up to where it wrapped around a limb on the other side. She grinned ferally at the spot where her partner knelt in some bushes, holding a vine tied low on a tree trunk across the way.
The women watched the gang come around the bend. Some on foot preceded and followed the mounted leader and his lieutenants. The latter laughed and made crude gestures toward the straw dummy tied to one of the menís horses, bouncing along through the dust. They came closer and closer to the womenís position. Suddenly the first group found their legs swept out from under them. The lead horsemen didnít have time to stop before something thwacked them in the chests and sent them sailing.
A large projectile swooshed across the road, knocking over those still mounted.
Men and horses tangled with and tripped over each other. The last group on foot stood uncertainly, not exactly encouraged to climb over their sprawled brethren and engage the enemy.
"Looking for me, boys?"
The men in the dirt scrambled around to see what had hit them. They beheld two figures.
"Didnít realize you were fans." The tall one held up the bedraggled dummy.
"Not very good ones either," said the shorter one, tsk tsking the dummyís condition.
The men growled and stumbled to their feet. The taller woman unsheathed her sword. The shorter one twirled her staff.
"I think they want your autograph."
"Yeah? Which is better - on their heads or some other body part?"
"Be creative. You want them to remember it was you, right?"
"I knew there were advantages to having a bard around."
"Shut up!" the leader snarled. "Ya think yer so smart." He signaled to the group whoíd managed to escape demolition. "Weís ready for ya this time."
Four frightened children were pulled from behind the hulks whoíd been obscuring them and now raised knives to their throats.
"See, we wasnít `spectiní the ëgreatí Xena ta come mix it up with us before - her supposedly long gone an` all. Whether yaíre or not, ya know how ta put a hurt on folks like she did. Seem ta like goiní `round stickiní yer nose in tíother peopleís business like her." The leader smirked. "Beiní kinda smart míself, I figured yaíd have the same motivation not ta let poor lil innocent kiddies get killed on account a ya. Ainít that right?"
The tall warrior rested her sword on her shoulder. "Like you said, maybe Iím pretending to be her, for kicks. Either way, I was hopiní for more competition than a bunch of fraidy cats hidiní behind children."
"No!" The leader held his hand up as his men grumbled and started forward. "Thatís what she wants. Nothiní wrong with usiní hostages. Perfectly respectable tool of the trade. Besides, no use wastiní our manhood when we donít have to, eh?" He winked at the women when the men laughed.
"My daddy told me `bout yer little tricks. `Member Zagreus? Ya got that giant ta stomp his troops. Shoeís on tíother foot now. Iím gonna stomp those kiddies ifín ya donít do `xactly like I say."
"And just ë`xactlyí what is it you want?" She pointed her chin at the bedraggled dummy. "This?"
The man grinned evilly. "For starters."
"If you know so much about me, you know I keep my word. Let the children go, and Iím all yours."
"Hmmm." He scratched his throat. "Letís see Ö. On one hand, I got Xena, her lil friend and some kids I might have ta kill. On tíother, I got Xena, her lil friend and some kids I might can ransom. Know what? `Cept maybe for addiní ta the blood on my shirt, Iím not seeiní the benefits ta lettiní the kiddies go." His lips curled in a sneer. "And ainít nobody gonna stop me."
The sounds of metal clanging, wood thumping and pained cries snapped everyoneís attention to the rear.
"I wouldnít be too sure about that."
A tall woman shielded the children. She carried a skillet in one hand and a bucket in the other. A shorter woman stood beside her holding a sturdy tree limb at the ready, guarding the groaning men at her feet. The others gawked, glancing between the menacing older women and the younger ones frozen with their mouths open.
"W-wha Ö." The leader stared at the new women. "Whoíre you supposed to be?" He snickered, pointing at the first women. "Their mammas?"
"Not sure what difference it makes." The tall woman grinned ferally. "Seeing as how we shouldnít have any trouble spankiní your butts." She motioned for the children to run for the trees, which they did.
"Get `em!" the leader roared. "Kill `em all!"
"We only came to watch." Gabrielle smiled sweetly. "Really."
"With pots and pans?" Nikki looked dubious. "What were you thinking?"
"A little cooking? You need to keep up your strength, you know. Especially after a big fight."
The four women rode side by side on the banditsí horses. Theyíd taken the children home, fortunately only a few miles away. As for the renegade Xena "fans," most seemed convinced they should try different pursuits, while the others werenít in shape to pursue much of anything for a while. Or ever.
"You couldíve been hurt." Alex raised a brow. "Shouldíve been hurt."
Gabrielle stuck out her arm. It bore a small scratch. Xena pointed to her bruised cheek.
"Worse than that."
"What is it with everybody? Youíd think folksíd be a little less disappointed to see evidence of life after 30." Xena brushed at her graying temples. "With some exercise, a little luck, good bloodlines, anybody couldíve handled those wimps."
Alex gave Xena a long look. "Maybe a rest stop is in order. You two could tend to those serious injuries. At your age Ö. Oops, I forgot. That doesnít matter Ö with the right bloodlines."
Xena gave Alex a long look. "Thanks, but Gregoreus must be clanking out of his pants by now. If you got somethiní you wanna say before then, nowís the time."
"No," Alex responded with hooded eyes, "it can wait."
Gabrielle and Nikki exchanged looks. They shrugged and began comparing notes about the battle. Their companions rode next to each other silently, wrapped in their own thoughts. They traveled thusly until reaching the area where theyíd sent Gregoreus. He popped out of the trees and waved his hands.
"There you are! I knew youíd come!" As they got closer, he remembered he was supposed to be put out with them. He crossed his arms and glared at Alex. "What took you so long? You didnít expect me to sit here forever, did you, wondering if you might need my help?"
Alex chuckled. "We were just saying to ourselves, ëWeíd better hurry, in case Gre Ö Joxerís getting antsy.í"
He went over to help the older women dismount, much to Xenaís annoyance.
"Oh, thanks," Gabrielle said, beckoning him over to her, giving Xena a chance to get down on her own.
"Hey! Youíre hurt!" he said, noting the dried blood on Gabrielleís arm. "You werenít supposed to get that close. You didnít get in their way did you?"
"Show us where the wagon is," Xena growled, "before someone else here gets hurt."
Gregoreus stared at her blankly. He couldnít decide which disturbed him more - the bruise on the older womanís face or the snapping blue eyes. It occurred to him that maybe she was due for a bush break. "Uh, sure, sure. Through there." He watched her lead her horse in the direction indicated. "How about you, Abby? You feeling okay? Um, from all the excitement?"
"UhÖ yes, fine." She grinned wryly. "Oh, you mean better than Zema? Donít worry. She recovers quickly. Maybe we should join her?"
The other women nodded. As they walked off, Nikki put her arm around Gregoreusí shoulders. "A word of advice?" she said softly. "Iíd watch the ëold ladyí stuff. You might tempt Zema to take you over her knee."
Gregoreus listened raptly to the Nikki/Gabrielle tag-team account of recent events. It was as if the two had worked together for years. One would present a scene from her vantage point, often dramatizing the action. The other might add embellishments, before giving her perspective. Though they focused on their partnerís heroics, they clearly enjoyed describing the contributions of each other.
Alex and Xena sat on opposite sides of the fire, the former sharpening her sword, the latter whittling. They smiled, shook their heads and sometimes groaned at the blond storytellers, interspersed with surreptitious glances at one another.
"Oh, we almost forgot!" Nikki grinned at Gregoreus and strode over to a saddlebag from one of the banditís horses.
"Yes!" Gabrielle clapped her hands. "We brought you a souvenir."
Nikki returned to stand next to Gabrielle with something hidden behind her back. She waited for Gabrielle to take hold of whatever it was. "Ready?" Gabrielle nodded. "Ta da!" they sang in unison.
Gregoreus gaped at what dangled from their upraised hands. Straw sprouted in every direction, barely held together by tattered brown leather around the middle. Long, black, yarn-like strands spilling from the top nearly obscured the Ö. He squinted at the two yellow circles painted side by side on the dummyís chest, gasping and turning red now that he had a better view.
"It Ö it Ö has Xenaís Ö." He covered his eyes, pointing. "Ewwwww! Thatís awful!"
Nikki and Gabrielle looked at the area identified. They overheard dual snickers.
"Oops. We meant to fix that." Gabrielle unwrapped the sash around her waist to cover the grotesquely misshapen, black-tipped mound peeking through each of the dummyís "breastplates." "Itís okay now," she assured Gregoreus.
He nodded his bowed head. He snuck a peek at Alex, but couldnít seem to face her.
Nikki walked over to pat his head. "Donít worry. Embarrassment is one weapon that definitely canít hurt your friend over there." She smirked at Alex. "If it makes you feel any better, her real ones arenít nearly as scary as those awful men made them out to be."
"Gabri-elllle?!" Gregoreus jumped up, cupping his hands over his ears. "Ewwww, ewwww, ewwww," he whined, now avoiding eye contact with any of the women. "I-Iíve got to Ö. Iím gonna go Ö get some wood." He clanked hurriedly away. "I wonít be long," he threw over his shoulder.
The women watched him disappear into the dark. They looked at each other with their cheeks sucked in, before exploding in subdued guffaws.
"And Iím supposed to be a devil?"
"Ha. Everybody knows you corrupted my pure, innocent soul. Just ask the Gabfans."
Nikki winked at Gabrielle. "People in our century who appreciate the smaller, cuter, more even-tempered member of the dynamic duo."
Gabrielle grinned. "Did she get her own ëwantedí poster?"
"Much more than that. Mugs, clothes, jewelry, dolls, replicas of the staff and sais."
"No sword? Like the one from Japa?"
Gabrielle ducked her head. "Sorry," she said, glancing at Xena. "Um, thatís an adventure we heard about - after your memories leave off."
"Huh." Nikki frowned. "We didnít see that in the videos or fan fiction. Maybe a ëlostí story?"
Gabrielle chuckled softly. "Yeah, maybe so."
The pairs had stretched out on blankets facing each other, leaning on their elbows. Alex pushed up and gazed into the fire.
"Everybody seems to know more about us than we do. First it was the pictures Alti played in our heads. Then it was the fans, all the stuff written about us. Now," Alex said, turning toward the older women with an unreadable expression, "itís you."
Gabrielle moved to sit cross-legged, leaning toward Alex. Xena rolled over to prop her head on Gabrielleís thigh.
"Are there questions you wonder if maybe we can help you with?"
Nikki sat up. She scooted over to wrap an arm around her partner's waist. "Gabrielle and Xena?" She took a deep breath. "Do you know what happened to them?"
Gabrielle exhaled softly, grateful for the trust in Nikkiís accepting green eyes. "There are always rumors of their death," she said, absently massaging Xena's scalp, "just like the ones where they still live. What doesn't change in any of them is that they're together."
"So they could still be kicking butt?" Alex raised a brow. "With skillets? Like you?"
Xena sat up. "Why not? Folks can be their own heroes. Helping themselves and others in their own way. It doesnít matter so much if the ëgreatí heroes arenít around." She smirked. "Or how old you are."
Nikki sighed. "Things seemed so much simpler here - the good guys and the bad, what the gods wanted and whose benefit it was for. The evil in our world has so many faces, so many shapes. You canít always fight it with the usual weapons. The world is so much bigger than a home village. Yet we can see or talk to - even visit - people continents away, in less time than it takes you to cross Thrace."
Xena snorted softly. "Kinda makes you miss Ares and Alti?"
"Oh, theyíre around, all right," Alex said, her jaw tightening. "I just canít get my hands on `em. Itís like theyíve multiplied, seeped into ordinary folk, popping up when you least expect it. Too many messes to clean up, no matter how hard I try or fast I run." Her lips pursed in frustration. "Hard to tell what difference it makes, if the enemy wonít stay down."
"You can if youíre the one being helped." Gabrielle smiled sympathetically. "We used to feel that way too sometimes Ö um, you know - comparing ourselves to our legendary relatives. Weíd worry about all the people we couldnít help. Then weíd run into those we did. Theyíd tell us how maybe the smallest gesture had given them hope, another chance, even changed their lives. Some returned the favor by doing good deeds for others. I guess we stopped adding up how many or for how long. We knew it had worth to the person, that at least somebody was better off than if weíd done nothing."
The crackling fire and crickets filled the comfortable silence of unspoken thoughts. Even Gregoreus managed not to disturb the quiet when he carefully laid more wood on the fire. He nodded at the womenís smiles of acknowledgement and walked a discrete distance away, pretending to fuss with the horses.
Nikki rested her head against Alexís shoulder. "Funny how things work out. We came back thinking we might be needed. We needed something too." She gazed thoughtfully at their older look-alikes. "What we found was Ö you. Somebody who showed this worldís doing quite fine without us. Who seem to suggest our place is in another world weíre not sure we can help."
"We Ö. Your ëlegendary relatives,í so to speak, would be around your age." Alex studied the other women. "Give or take 25 years. What advice do you think theyíd give us?"
"Honey, you realize thatís like asking what weíd tell ourselves?"
Alex rolled her eyes. "Yesss. Dear. The trip here didnít scramble my brains that much."
"Actually Ö." Gabrielle hunched forward. "Thatís a very interesting question. Um, Zema," she asked, eyes twinkling, "donít you think thatís an interesting question?"
Xena rolled her tongue in her cheek. "Why, yes Ö Abby. Iím all ears."
"No, no, you take it. I always do the talking. Besides, youíre the Ö elder Ö of the group. And donít forget those bloodlines you and Alex have in common. Warrior Princess bloodlines, only matured." Gabrielle batted her eyes. "Aged."
Nikki laughed and lightly swatted Alexís midsection. "Is this what weíre gonna be like?"
"One can only hope."
Xena chuckled. She shook her head and sighed. "Theyíd probably be like any good parent. Proud, wanting you to carry their best inside you, free to pursue your own destiny with their blessings."
"Hmmm." Nikki nodded. "I like that," she said softly.
"I Ö." Alex swallowed. "I had a child. Eve. Iíve wondered Ö. Do you know if -."
"Sheís alive and well." Xena reached across to put her hand on Alexís shoulder. "We understand she has fine daughters and grandchildren." She smiled at Nikki. "Who revere Gabrielle as their own blood."
Both younger women bit their lips, their eyes filling. Alex stared off into the distance a moment before sticking her hand down between her breasts. At her partnerís nod, she brought out a small black box, seeming to weigh it before raising her head.
"This activates the time machine. We figured we might want to go back sooner or later. Iím thinking itíll be sooner."
Gabrielleís breath caught. She took hold of Xenaís hand. "Are you sure? You found your answers? What about Amphipolis, Poteidaia?"
"Youíre not leaving?!" Gregoreus ran over to kneel in front of his heroes. "You canít! Donít listen to them! We do need you here!"
Nikki laughed. "Weíre not zapping off this very minute."
"Yeah, we may bypass Amphipolis, but I could use a few more good fights to hold me over for when we get back."
"Can I go with you?"
"Well, sure, until we -."
"No, I mean go back back."
"Um, Joxer, I donít know if -."
"What?!" Nikki stared at her unpredictable partner in amazement.
Alex shrugged. "He feels he doesnít belong here. We sure know what thatís like. Wouldnít hurt to try."
"But it could be dangerous! Weíll be lucky if it works for us."
"Hey! Donít I get a say? What about all that ëfree to make your own destinyí talk? Itís my destiny to be with you. I know it!"
The younger women looked to their older counterparts for help.
"Heís got a point," Xena agreed.
"You could come too, Zema and Abby! You know - be like my parents, even if I am grown enough not to listen."
Xena silently counted to 10. "On second thought, heís got more than a point. Itís a necessity. My gut tells me heís much safer zapping into an unknown future with you."
The party of five decided to relax together a few more days. They camped across from a shimmering waterfall, which - along with the weather and flora-filled meadow - provided the perfect setting. Sounds of laughter and good-natured debate intermingled with quietly intense conversation, the scratching of points in journals, the hiss of fishing lines arcing into the lake.
The younger women queried Xena and Gabrielle about how theyíd spent their later years, what theyíd learned as a result, how they hoped to live out their days. The taller two might wander off to hunt. Their partners often strolled together among the wildflowers. At one point, Alex joined Gabrielleís search for mushrooms deep in the forest, while Xena lay in the grass with Nikki imagining animals in the clouds. When the older women watched their three friends ride off in the opposite direction, they felt a part of themselves go as well.
"You okay?" Xena wrapped herself and Gabrielle tighter in the furs theyíd laid on the ground that evening instead of the wagon. "Warm enough?"
"Mmhm. Iím okay. A little sad, I guess."
"Yeah." Xena snorted softly. "They kinda grew on me."
Gabrielle squirmed so she could see Xena better in the firelight. "Enough to go with them? Back to their time?"
Xena thought about that. "Honestly? I was a little intrigued by those scientists Alex talked about. You shouldíve heard some of the things theyíve invented."
Gabrielle smirked. "You mean, like the things a certain Warrior Princess has come up with `cause she hates being stymied or doing things the same way twice?"
"Nooo, Iím talkiní a whole new level. The power and ability of gods. Itís more than using the mind, like the Alti we knew. They can do magic with physical things - things anybody can use in their everyday life - cooking or farming, making trips, protecting themselves. Hundreds of people can fly together, way up in the sky, in tubes."
"Like fire, rakes, horses, my staff. Or when we took off with Hermesí helmet."
"Well, yeah, but much more efficient. And how often can you count on finding a magic helmet? Iím more concerned about who might get their hands on the really special equipment - the kind that lets you wipe out an entire land or navigate the universe whenever you want."
"Sort of like the Destroyer of Nations or using karmic cycles to propel into the future?"
Xena scowled. "They can make babies without the usual body parts."
"Been there, done that. You too, as I recall."
"Okay Ö Scabby. You sayiní that fertile imagination of yours wasnít the least bit curious?"
"Of course. What creative person wouldn't be? We've got plays and puppet shows. Nikki can't count all the sources she has for inspiration - like boxes that have stories she can watch, read, listen to - without ever leaving the house!"
"As opposed to someone who actually lives what she writes about? I didn't hook up with you so I could lug around an indoor vegetable."
"What about the wealth of outlets where my work could be performed, for millions of people at a time, enjoying it whenever they want?"
"Like the way your stories get repeated - apparently centuries from now - over and over and over and -."
"Youíre missing the point. Noxiouszema. Think of the opportunities to spread a message of peace. Nikki says there are groups across her world devoted to that. They can use that ëscienceí that interests you so much, but to promote love, not destruction."
Xena snorted. "From the turmoil she complained about, Iíd say you did a better job with your mouth."
Gabrielle narrowed her eyes. "Thatís a compliment, right?"
"Depends." Xena smirked. "Does it mean I win round two?"
"Ohhhh, you Ö." Gabrielle considered suitable consequences for the owner of the arms cradling her. "Just waitíll Iím not so warm and comfy."
"Heh heh." Xena hid her smug victory smile in a kiss to her partnerís forehead. She wriggled deeper into their furs. "You think those fancy tents they talked about would be better than this?"
"I canít imagine anything that could." Gabrielleís mind replayed now treasured moments with their younger selves. "I hope we did that for them - helped them appreciate what they have."
"My betís on it."
"Fitting payback in a way - at both ends." Gabrielle yawned contentedly. "I did wonder if they knew the truth, if weíd ever talk about it. "
"Is that what you wanted?"
"Sometimes. Other times Ö. Not sure if it was the clone thing or what, but they were almost like different people. I mean, I recognized myself in Nikki, got some insights into me now. Itís just Ö."
"There was something as true Ö right Ö in keeping our distance?"
"Yeah, like respecting they had new choices, burdens, possibilities. Anyway, in the end? When Nikki embraced me in farewell?" Gabrielle swallowed. "She told me how inspired she was by what Iíd done with my life. She felt more confident her ideals and her love for Alex would be strong enough, whatever lay ahead."
Xena chuckled. "Puts a new slant on ëgive yourself a hug,í eh?"
"Mmhm. Your goodbyes with Alex looked pretty buddy-buddy. Donít think I didnít notice her whispering in your ear."
Xena snickered. "You jealous?"
"Of you being self-absorbed?" Gabrielle snorted. "You really wanna go there again?"
Xena growled under her breath. "She was glad weíd met, okay?"
"Spill it. Itís either now or after Iíve badgered you till your teeth grind away."
Xena huffed. "She thinks Iíve achieved peace. Makes her more at peace with what drives her. More confident she can put it to good use."
"You still think I canít tell when youíre holding back? Silly girl. Wanna know how? Itís your voice, the way - ."
"All right all ready! She said sheís proud of what Iíve done with myself. And that Ö. And that she Ö likes me."
"She did?! She actually said she likes you?"
"Excuse me? You sayiní Iím not likeable?"
"Noooo." Gabrielle grinned, squeezing Xena with all her might. "Iím surprised to hear that from those particular lips. Slow learner, huh?"
"Maybe, but I bet nobody else takes that long. Heh, best even the future me can do is tie."
"Youíre counting? Against yourself? Is there anything you donít see as a competition?"
"So Iím goal oriented. I do have a reputation to maintain." Xena smirked. "Alex said so herself."
Gabrielle shook her head. "You know, this reminds me of something else - another of those cryptic gems youíre so fond of dropping while you saunter blithely away."
"In Illusia. When you sang, ëthe love of your love is you.í" Gabrielle snuggled closer to the body that enveloped her, to the heart she shared, to the soul that was hers for eternity. "Itís taken on a whole different dimension."
Xena shrugged, her arms tightening around her partner in the process. "Like Nikki said, funny how things work out."
"Seems we got the best 25th anniversary Ö present Ö from ourselves, centuries later." Xena absently nuzzled Gabrielleís hair, a faraway look in her eyes. "Know what?"
"Iím thinkiní we can beat that."
"Yeah. We done good against the odds even when I was 10 winters behind. Whatís the sense in quittiní, now weíre 2,000 ahead?"