Disclaimers: Xena, Gabrielle, Joxer, Autolycus, Eve and the horsies belong to MCA/Universal Pictures. Just the little story is mine

Love/Sex: Two women in love, but nothing graphic. The following chapters will also contain an m/f relationship. This is not the main part of the fic, but it is essential to the plot. F/F loving will prevail.

Angst: Yep....

Timeline: This is an alternative to the events following 'Looking Death in the Eye'

Comments: Any feedback can be sent to mjb1_1@hotmail.com

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16

Border patrol was… Mesella couldn't really finish that thought, border patrol was border patrol. Repetitive, unfulfilling and mind numbing; exactly what the healer ordered under these circumstances. Once more she had found herself running from the Warrior Princess, with good reason, she reminded herself. Yet, was anything a good enough reason to run a horse for days and end up on border patrol? Having never run from anything in her life…

My life… Is it my life? If I believe what she said… Hourly since leaving the palace, four days ago, she had come back to the other woman's words. What did she have to gain from fabricating such a story? But what if it were true… If it were true! The exasperation in her mental voice was expressed in the agitated motion of eyes flickering to and fro scanning the empty woods.

Clasping her sword hilt firmly in hand, in a near painful grip, she pulled her attention back to the present and firmly continued to walk the perimeter. The two young soldiers charged with watching the border for this rotation were awestruck by the presence of the formidable warrior. Like every other young man in the guard, they had joined in hopes of meeting the legendary hero. In the flesh she was every bit as impressive and frightening as they had imagined.

"What's she doing now?" Daelon nudged his partner who was tending the rabbit over the fire and pointed at the pacing blonde.

"Dunno," Syyrus shrugged, glancing only briefly in he direction his friend indicated. His stomach was more important than his curiosity, "Looks like she's patrolling to me."

"Well, yeah, but she looks kinda' edgy and why is she here anyway?" Daelon could never ignore a puzzle.

"Thought you were glad she was here?" He poked at the meat, mmm, another few minutes.

"Well yeah, 'course I am, she's Mesella! Think what we could learn, the things we could ask her." Dreamy best described his expression at that moment.

"Yes, because she's been really talkative so far." Finally the meat was cooked. "Dinner's ready!" He called just loud enough to get the older woman's attention, a dashing hand gesture let him know that for the second night she would not be eating with them.

She heard them, each word each night, knew how much they longed to learn and a part of her, a big part, wanted to teach them. At any other time she would be down on her knees, explaining strategy in the dirt and teaching them all manner of fighting styles. Such a shame that she was far to distracted to follow her heart. Feeling tired and very alone she settled in the crook of a tree and faced the on coming gloom, seeing within it shades of herself.

********

It had been days since Postumus' volatile entrance into her room and his equally distressed exit, with no word from the small soldier. Xena had tried asking for her whereabouts from guards, servants and even nobles but received short shrift from all. It was apparently an open secret that she had been the one to drive the heroic captain away.

Realising early on in day two that she was going to get nowhere she resigned to wait and see when the younger woman returned. Trying to tamp down her worries she focused her attentions on her daughter and her new friend. The small boy had seemed much more withdrawn since Mesella's departure and in a child so quiet it was quite spooky. Those big pale eyes just seemed to search your soul.

It was clear from his demeanour that the youngster considered the absent warrior as much more than a friend or mentor. She was, in nearly every way, his mother. She had been a part of his life since his first real memories and was clearly the only person, aside from his older brother, who seemed to spend any time with him. His mother clearly wished that he would disappear and take the stigma that he represented away, and Octavius? Octavius only had time to interest himself in his heir and didn't see Claudius at all.

Xena felt guilty that she had, in her own way, robbed this child of his only source of love. Mesella could be gone for days or months depending on how she processed the facts. In a bid to occupy her time and in some small way make it up to him she was spending long hours in the garden, sometimes watching but more often playing.

After the first night Eve had come to her and explained that Claudius had been up crying all night. Apparently Mesella never left without saying goodbye, when she did the boy knew that things would be fine and she would return. Now she was gone and he was scared and confused. Since that night she had installed him in Eve's room, much to her daughter's delight and her husband's displeasure.

Sitting watching the pair play a card game, animated voices and gestures drifting towards her on the faint breeze, she let her mind travel to thoughts of Aphrodite. The Goddess of Love had not made contact with her since out lining her plan. The bubbly blond had seemed so grim and determined that Xena hopes that she would find something, for both their sakes. There was no doubt in the brunette's mind that the gods, in their last death throws, had engineered some sick game as their ultimate revenge. Aphrodite was innocent of the deed, of that there was no question but was Ares? That question, along with a hundred others, was gnawing at the back of her mind.

Terrible as it might be to suspect her husband of such a foul deed, his recent furtiveness and dark humour indicated wrong doing on a massive scale. What she would do if Gabrielle re-emerged was also a question plaguing her. How do you choose between your soul mate and your family? Gabrielle is my family. Suddenly, as if called by her wandering thoughts, Ares stood several feet away beckoning her over. Easing herself up she moved to his side, still keeping the children in sight.

"Xena, I'd like to spend some time with you and Evie, my business finished early today." Seeing Xena's eyes flicker over to the boy he was quick to reassure her, "I've organised for one of the maids to baby-sit the boy. I'm sure he'll manage to be separated from you and our darling daughter for a few hours. Please?" His words sounded sincere, endearing even at the end, but something in his tone reeked of insincerity.

"Ok, just let me tell Eve and Claudius." Looking around she saw nobody waiting, "Where is this maid?"

"She'll be along, don't worry. The amount you're worrying anybody would think we were leaving the boy in a den of thieves. The palace is well fortified and nobody can get in."

Feeling a crawling sense of dread at the idea of leaving the boy behind, she none the less collected Eve and headed in with Ares. The little girl had pouted and protested at the idea of leaving her best friend but when she realised that she would be spending time with her father she soon forgot her sulk. The trio made there way into the palace, Eve perched n broad shoulders while Xena found herself looking back and hoping beyond hope that the boy would be all right.

*********

It was the last chance, the only chance they had left to make a stand. They were too few to fight back directly, the Emperor's troops had seen to that. They were outclassed and out numbered. They had to give the nobility a short, sharp shock. This was the only way, the only thing left. They would make an example of the Emperor, take one of his and destroy it!

Spies had filled the castle for years, those unwilling to fight but ready to help by getting information as the rebels rebuilt. Now one such spy was willing to do more than just listen and get them access to the palace. Watching, they waited for the signal.

On the lawn the pretty young maid approach the small boy playing serenely. Stooping low she seemed to ask him a question to which he nodded before taking her hand. Hand in hand they walked towards the servant's entrance of the palace where rough hands covered the child's mouth and lifted him off his feet. This was their prize; with him they would send a message.

********

"They took the boy. This was found in his chambers this afternoon." The grizzly guard held up the scroll that held the demands of eh rebels.

Octavius sat on his throne, Livia to his right, Germanicus to his left and pondered this development. Out of the corner of his eye he could see that his 'son' wanted to leap from his chair, make a stand and charge out to save his brother. That would be neither wise nor appropriate and the boy knew it, tamping down his own desires. Casting a speculative eye towards his wife who seemed disinterested and quite bored by proceedings, he knew what must be done. As sweet as the little one was, he was no heir. If the throne didn't fall to Germanicus it would be Caligula's. No man could be spared on the saving of a superfluous boy.

"Then they may keep the boy. I will send no man on a rebel's errand. Let it be known that Octavius Caesar does not give into the demands of criminals and thieves. Take this message to the people." The wave of a heavily adorned hand dismissed the guard and any hope of Claudius' rescue or survival.

********

"Aphrodite!" It was a pained cry for help.

The Goddess appeared immediately, drawn by the very desperation in her voice. Having said that Xena could call, she had never expected she would. The warrior was too proud for that yet here she was after that pain filled cry.

"Babe, what's the haps?" Xena was buckling on her maternity armour as the blonde spoke.

"The last of the rebels kidnapped Claudius. They left a ransom note but nobody care! How can they not want to save a child? What sort of mother would let their baby be killed?" Tears of frustration pooled in her eyes but she would not let them fall.

"You can't go into battle Xena, you're getting to close and you're not completely well…"

"You can give me a boost, use your godly powers. I need that and I need you to transport me to just outside the rebel camp." He took a deep breath, "Then I need you to get Mesella and bring her to me. She'd never forgive herself if something happened to her boy." Seeing that Xena was not to be dissuaded Aphrodite could only nod and do as instructive. Without a word to anybody the two were gone.

Ares stood in the doorway, questioning once gain what his wife and sister were up to. Wondering what was so special about Mesella and why the thought of her dredged up a familiar well of doubt.

********

Why did men have to snore so loudly? It wasn't as bad at night, you seemed to be able to prepare yourself for it then, but when they slept in the day it was so incongruous. The two youths lay sleeping in the shade of an old oak, recovering from their night shifts. They had protested that they did not need to sleep at the same time but she had assured them it would be all right. She could do with the peace and quiet.

Sitting on a tree stump in the middle of the clearing, she began to cut away at a small piece of wood with her dagger. Still alert, she was feeling much more relaxed today, almost like sleep had chased the demons away. Naturally she still doubted all that she had heard but she had resolved to confront the other woman and set her straight, to stop running like a frightened child.

A crawling sensation began at the base of her neck, an all too familiar sensation from the last few months. She was prepared when the Goddess of Love appeared as if from nowhere. What she was not prepared for was the look of total melancholy that covered her features. Sad eyes gazed down at her and the soldier knew that something was very wrong.

"Who? The Emperor?"

"Claudius, he's been taken and the Emperor has decreed that nothing will be done." Wood shattered under the pressure of her hand and she clenched hem in rage. "Xena is waiting for you outside the rebel camp, I can take you there." Without preamble she leapt to the Goddesses side.

"Take me!"

********

Even prepared for their imminent arrival, Xena couldn't help the anticipation of seeing the little warrior again. To be on a mission, just the two of them, might help to bring back some of the memories of their shared past. Some good could yet come of this. As she waited she was laid low in the brush on a small rise, looking down over the rebel encampment, planning their liberation of the boy.

On her arrival she had been flooded with relief on seeing the boy healthy and safe in a large cage in the centre of the camp. It was a rough hewn affair, wooden poles lashed together with vines but at least it kept him in one place and she wouldn't have to worry about his whereabouts. The last dregs of the rebellion were a motley crew of old, ill used men and boys full of youthful zeal and inexperience. It should be a piece of cake, that's what she hoped.

Aphrodite deposited Mesella but did not stay; this was something that the duo needed to do together with as little interference as possible. Mesella lay beside the Warrior Princess, feeling oddly peaceful under the circumstances. The smell of the other woman's leathers had a calming effect on her as she, too, scanned the scene.

Without Mesella even realising it the pair fell into an old routine, subtle gestures and few words crafted the plan and unleashed the attack. They waited for dark before making their move. The tension between them from all previous encounters was gone, stripped away by the mission. As Mesella basked in this new but oddly comfortable experience, Xena celebrated on the inside as another facet of Gabrielle was laid bare.

Night fell and the pair stole into the clearing like thieves. The few men standing watch stood no chance against them, each banished into unconsciousness by a strategic and non-lethal blow. Silence reigned as the pair sliced open the cage and Mesella gently lifted Claudius out. A studious and bright boy, he saw but made no sound as he was rescued. The beaming smile on his face was enough to let them know he appreciate their actions.

Unexpectedly Mesella set the boy down and gave his hand to Xena. Puzzled, the taller woman quirked a quizzical brow at her companion. A waved hand encompassed the camp and Xena realised that the soldier was going to put the rebels out of business.

Xena hustled the boy into the woods and began the journey back to the palace, knowing that Mesella would catch up. As warrior and child moved, a lone guard snapped staved and bent swords until no weapons remained. Softly she tied the sleeping men up, more as a show of power than a restraint, and left a quickly scrawled note. They should not try this again.

With that she was gone, ready to join her companions.

********

Catching up with the pair close to the camp, Mesella scooped the child into her arms and swung him onto her back. Without a word the trio pushed on through the dense underbrush, until both women were satisfied that they were sufficiently far away from the enemy to relax.

Finding a small clearing almost totally shielded by trees they began to set up a rudimentary camp. Neither having any supplies they were unprepared for what they saw on the flaw of their proposed camp site. Before them had appeared three bedrolls, a bag or trail rations and Claudius favourite toy. Clearly Aphrodite, though choosing not to interfere had decided to make them a little more comfortable.

"I guess we shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth." Mesella was feeling rather pragmatic as she laid the tired child on one of the furs and wrapped him snuggling. With a kiss on the forehead and a softly whispered word the boy was soon snuggling down and fast asleep.

There was now nothing between the pair, no barrier or safety net to shield them from the others scrutiny. Xena observed her companion as she moved to the pack and began to fish out trail rations for them both. Watching her move, performing the tasks which had been hers in their days of travel the brunette saw another piece of Gabrielle easing into place. Mesella handed the water skin to Xena, but kept a hold of it as the other woman grasped the neck; the gesture forced blue eyes to meet green.

"I'm not ready to talk about it yet." Even as blue eyes lowered in understanding, and acceptance, a jolt of electricity passed from woman to the other as hands brushed.

Retreating to the other side of the tiny space, which still meant that they were too close for comfort, the young captain began to chew doggedly on a strip of dried meat. She tried not to watch the other woman eat, the way her moth moved, how her lips seemed to caress whatever she placed near them, but it was a task to difficult to manage. Eyes downcast, she would flick a glance at the other woman, looking away before being noticed or at least, acknowledged.

Xena made sure not to stare at the other woman as she devoured her food with the same gusto that she always had. She could feel the eyes on her and was pleased that the younger woman now seemed to find her captivating.

They didn't talk as night moved into morning. Deciding that the clearing would be safe enough with Aphrodite watching, and alerting them to any oncoming danger, the pair settled onto their furs, Xena only feet from Mesella, separated only by one sleeping boy.

********

The rest of the journey home had been uneventful, taking only a further day and night on foot. Mesella had separated from the Warrior Princess and the child as soon as they arrived at the palace, knowing that she must answer to the Emperor for her recent rash and uncharacteristic behaviour. She hadn't wanted to leave the child but was assured by Xena that he would not leave her sight and, if she was sure of nothing else, she was certain that the taller woman would be true to her word.

Inside the opulent throne room she explained that Aphrodite had come to her and explained Claudius' plight and she had felt compelled to save a royal prince. Neither she nor Octavius were under any illusion that the other truly knew her motive for saving the boy. The Emperor had been pleased when his Captain took an interest in his sons and the small boy seemed to lend her an air of calm that she had previously been lacking. Once assured that the border was secure, though he was not certain that there ever really had been a problem, he dismissed her without chastisement.

Without looking towards his two companions he knew what he would find. Germanicus would be smiling like a loon. The youth would be out of this room as soon as possible and seeking out his baby brother. He would make a fine ruler one day, he so cared about the people. On his other side he could almost feel Livia vibrating with anger. He was under no illusion, he knew that she had wished the boy dead so that his underdeveloped imperfection would be ended and her reputation repaired. In the back of his mind he could not help but wonder if she had pointed certain parties in Claudius' direction, after all, why else choose him?

Sitting up straighter in his throne he put those thoughts aside for another time as he motioned in the next noble to wish an audience with his ruler.

********

The dreams that plagued her that night were too vivid, too alive, but her brain refused to set her free. Inside her mind she could see herself, two of herself! One image was her, Mesella, dressed in her white imperial armour and the other was her, Gabrielle. The other blond was dressed in a leather halter and skirt in a dark brown with twin Sais in her boots. She was muscular and looked more than a little savage.

"She was right, wasn't she?"

"Yes." It was a simple reply. "Once we were Gabrielle and now we are Mesella. Only time will tell if we will turn back."

"I don't remember anything." Desperation tinged her voice.

"You may never, only time will tell." There was a quiet serenity to the words. "Would you like to?"

As if the words had conjured it a vision appeared between them, a ghost in leather armour and crowned by a mane of dark hair. Looking at the image, she could see through it into the face of the other. The look on Gabrielle's face was pure adoration, a deep love and devotion that she had never known, but seen directed at her in the face of Lepida.

"If you love her so, why did you come here? Die here?"

"A good question; we never died, I have just been sleeping. I left because she and I were dieing together, we needed to be separate, to think. I never thought that it would be such a long distance."

"Tell me about… me?"

"I can't do that; you will know when you're ready. You may never remember, your lives may continue separate paths. Allow them to come as they will, do not as her questions." To punctuate her words the ethereal warrior vanished. Turning Gabrielle began to leave, to walk into nothingness and fade away.

"Will you come again?" It was shouted into the echoing space.

"We will never meet again."

To be Continued in Part 17

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