Chapter XXIX

Tony had taken her bag and dropped it in a spare room before guiding her out to where Leo was busy working. The workshop was completely different from what Gabrielle expected. All over were plans and sketches... ideas she and Xena had discussed brought to life on paper.

Hanging from the ceiling were several models - a couple she recognized, but the rest.... A large glass box held water and in the water were other models... working models that moved and functioned as she suspected their life sized counterparts were supposed to do.

On the walls were sketches and pencil drawings so detailed, Gabrielle nearly cried at the beauty of them. She stood still in the middle of the room for a long time simply absorbing the magnitude of creative genius and the two men watched in silence, appreciating her wonder.

After a few minutes, Gabrielle took a deep breath and looked squarely at the artist she'd come to see. "Leonardo da Vinci! You're a fraud!"

Two sets of dark eyes bulged from their sockets at both her words and tone. Da Vinci took a step in her direction and was outmaneuvered by Tony. Leo saw the twinkle in Gabrielle's green eyes, though and he held Tony back.

Tony turned to look at Leo's face and he caught the sparkle in Leo's eyes. He twisted around to catch a grin of sheer delight on Gabrielle's face. He cocked an inquisitive brow in her direction."

"'A bit of an artist', Chris said. 'Something of a genius'. *Something*?? Leo, this stuff is fantastic," walking around a model of a flying machine and reaching out delicately, stopping before her hands actually touched.

"Does it fly?"

She didn't give him a chance to answer before she bent down to observe the underwater ship and was reminded of the time she and Xena had found themselves caught in that situation.

"Is this intentional? Did you really mean to put the boat underwater?"

"Oh yes! I think boats could be made to travel underwater. See...." He motioned to the water turbines he had running in one corner of the tank. "I think these could be made to push a boat beneath the water."

"Okay," Gabrielle said slowly. "But why would you *want* to?"

"Well, I have this theory," Leo started saying, taking Gabrielle's hands and pulling her with him to his work table. Tony shook his head and went back to the house to start some dinner for them all.

For hours Leonardo shared his ideas and theories with Gabrielle and her eyes sparkled and shone at the thoughts that circulated through the conversation. So many of the things were ideas she and Xena had discussed all those years ago in the many fireside chats they'd shared in their travels. To know that others had finally come to the same beliefs and conclusions was gratifying.

For his part, da Vinci loved having someone new to talk to. He loved Tony, but Tony didn't talk much. He listened really well, but he rarely felt the need to contribute ideas to any conversation. Gabrielle, on the other hand, was happy to discuss, argue and converse on all sorts of points and ideas.

Days this went on from morning til night, though they spent a majority of their time in the house to include Tony, until he would run them out for a bit of peace and quiet. Leo would bring up an idea and Gabrielle would listen. Then she would formulate her own opinions and the discussion would be off and running. Many were the times when she would bring up a salient point, only to have him halt the talk so he could add it to his notes. Then they would pick up the thread and begin again.

After almost a week of discussion on every subject under the sun and some of the sun itself, Leo finally broached his initial reason for inviting Gabrielle to his villa.

"So, have you decided to let me paint you?"

Gabrielle shook her head. She had seen some of Leo's other paintings and felt fairly sure it was an easy way to become immortalized. She had enough immortality issues without putting a face to them.

"Um, no," she said at last. "I was wondering if instead you might be willing to apprentice me for a while... let me learn from you."

Leo thought about this for a time, then shrugged. "I can try. I can teach you technique, color mixing, brushstrokes, but the art itself...." He tapped her on the chest. "That has to come from inside. I cannot teach you heart."

She nodded. "That I understand, Leo. All my best stories come from here," patting her own chest. "And it's not something I can explain. It's something I have to feel to be able to relate to others."

Da Vinci nodded sagely. "You understand the most important part then already. The rest is simple mechanics and any good teacher can instruct an eager student."

So the following morning Leo set Gabrielle up at an easel in the corner of his workshop. He took several hours explaining perception and shading and showed her several of his sketches.

"I do a preliminary sketch of my ideas before I actually get the paints out. It helps me to picture what I want to show people with my art... shows me all the possibilities within the piece that I can convey." He paused. "Can you sketch?"

Gabrielle turned her gaze inward. "I've never tried, but...." She trailed off. "I think I could."

Leo looked at her a long moment, waiting for her gaze to track back to him. When she finally saw him staring, she smiled nervously at him and rubbed the back of her neck.


He walked to his desk, shuffling things around and pulling out drawers. Without a word, Tony came into the room and neatly moved Leo out of the way before reaching into the pile of papers on the desk and grasping a neatly bound sheaf of paper. He handed it to Leonardo.

"Dinner is ready," Tony announced without preamble, knowing they would follow him back into the villa.

"How did he...." Gabrielle asked, gesturing to the pad Leo now held in his hands. Da Vinci smiled as he looked at the bundle and shrugged.

"I dunno. He's always known when I've needed something and can pretty much put his hands right on it." He paused when all the implications of that statement sank in and blushed faintly. Gabrielle was kind enough to keep her reaction to a look of devilish merriment in her eyes. Leo cleared his throat and continued.

"Anyway, I made up a few of these. I've been tinkering on improving the printing press and found that the binding plays a huge role in book quality. So I put a few of these together and use them for sketch pads now." He handed the paper to Gabrielle, who accepted it delicately. "Enjoy it in good health, my dear."

"Thank you, Leo. I look forward to seeing if this is one of my many skills."

He wondered at the sadness of her tone, but the distant look in her eyes kept him from asking questions. Instead, they went inside to share the lovely meal that Tony had prepared for them.

Over the course of the next few days, Gabrielle spent hours outdoors. Leonardo found he missed Gabrielle's companionship, but he turned his attention back to his scientific studies, incorporating some of the ideas that he and she had discussed. Tony missed her as well because she had added something to his kitchen.

Every time either of them checked on her, she seemed to be staring out into space accomplishing very little. Only occasionally did they see the charcoal move across the paper at all.

Finally, after nearly a week of this, Gabrielle came back in quietly late one afternoon. She put the sketch pad down carefully and sank into da Vinci's padded thinking chair near the workroom's vast window.

She turned her attention out across the vista, not even realizing when Leo set his own work aside and approached her.


Gabrielle looked at him and gave a brief smile before shrugging and returning her focus back to the view outside the window.

Leo rubbed his hands over his beard, trying to figure out how to ask without being too nosey or condescending. Finally, he just spoke.

"You shouldn't be too disappointed, Gabrielle. Not everyone can draw, you know. Perhaps you should try simply painting instead."

Now she smiled at him again and he could see the sadness lurking behind the slight mischief her saw in those green depths. She reached for the sketch pad and shook her head.

"Drawing wasn't the problem, Leo. I seem to have a knack for it. But I can't paint these. The images are just too personal for me."

"May I see?" Leo asked hesitantly. "I know they aren't for public consumption," he said holding up a hand. "Believe me when I say I can totally understand that. I have some of those myself. I have several sketches that will never see the light of day because of... well, here... see for yourself."

He moved to a small box tucked in a corner of the room. Lifting the lid, he removed several sheets, the topmost one bringing a smile to his face.

"I always wanted to paint Tony. He has such a beautiful face and body. I thought it would make an incredible picture." Leo passed the sheaf to Gabrielle. "I was right."

Gabrielle accepted the papers hesitantly, feeling like she was prying even though Leo was offering them to her for her perusal. She looked in his eyes a minute longer and he nodded. Gabrielle turned her attention to the pages and felt her eyes widen.

The love the artist had for his subject was apparent in every stroke of the pencil. Gabrielle felt as though she stumbled into the privacy of someone's bedroom and she turned back to Leonardo.

"These are... so personal."

"Yes, so you see, I do understand. But I would also like to see your work if you feel you can share... one artist to another. No one else will see them... not even Tony, without your permission."

Gabrielle stared at him for a long moment, weighing his words and his honesty against the need she felt for privacy. And found, surprisingly, that she wanted his honest opinion... knowing he understood at least part of her dilemma.

She hesitated, then handed him the sketch pad and turned her attention back to the window while he studied them. For a while, the only sound in the room was the occasional turn of pages and the breathing of two people. Then only the breathing could be heard as the rustle of paper ceased. The sharp silence went on interminably, until Gabrielle looked at Leo's face to try and gauge his reaction.

The tears in his eyes surprised her and she moved to kneel beside him. Leonardo gazed at the picture, not acknowledging her presence. She laid her hand on his arm and asked softly, "Are they that bad?"

He shook his head, then asked in a whispered voice, "They're incredible. Who is she?"

"Someone who is everything to me... someone that has been gone from my life for a very long time."

The pictures were all memories of Xena she most cherished, but the one Leo was focused on was particularly precious. It was Xena as she had appeared to Gabrielle when their souls had left the cross before they had ascended into heaven. The look of sheer love and joy on Xena's face was so intense, it was palpable even on paper.

"She loved you." A statement.

"Yes and I love her."


A nod. "Always."

"I see your problem, Gabrielle," matter-of-factly. "Perhaps you would do better to simply paint... something you can see instead of something you remember."

Gabrielle nodded slowly. "I can try," she said at last.

Leo nodded. "You are very gifted. The skill is there. Just let it work for you." He motioned to the easel he'd set up in the corner for her a week prior. "It's here and set up, ready to go when you are ready to start. Just let the art lead you."

Everyday after that, for a least a little while, Gabrielle stood in front of the wood. She added a little at a time... sometimes no more than a single brushstroke and other times she would stand there for hours working on tiny details.

Leo and Tony neither one got to see the work before it was completed. They could have peeked, of course, but Gabrielle kept a cloth over it when she was not working and they respected her need for privacy.

Finally, the day came when she was finished and Gabrielle left the cloth covering off the painting and went for a walk. She was fairly certain neither man would resist the temptation to look given the opportunity and she wanted a chance to prepare for whatever reaction they might have.

When she returned to the villa, the house was silent. She was glad for that little fact. It gave her time to take a bath and she relished the experience to the fullest. Leonardo had contrived to produce a bathroom complete with indoor plumbing and Gabrielle loved the efficiency.

The house was still empty when she finished and she figured she'd stalled as long as she could. Gathering up her courage, she walked to the workshop and poked her head in the door.

Leo and Tony sat in front of the painting, studying it silently. They merely turned to look at her a moment when Gabrielle crossed the threshold, then they resumed they contemplation of the portrait before them.

"Who is she?" Tony asked when the silence grew heavy.

Gabrielle shrugged. "She is many people. She has your eyes, Tony and Lisa's hands. Her facial shape is Leo's and the clothes belong to the bishop's wife. Her hair is part of a memory for me and the body shape belongs to the baker."

"She's remarkable," Leo commented finally. "What is she called?"

Gabrielle shrugged. "I dunno. You can call her whatever you want. I'm giving her to you."

Leonardo gave a slight gasp. "Gabrielle... that is... she is.... Thank you. She is simply amazing."

"One condition, Leo." He tilted his head and waited for her to elaborate. "She is YOURS. Your work, your art, your name."

"But... why?" This from Tony with a perplexed look on his face.

"It's the best thing for me, Tony and everyone already knows Leo is 'something of a genius' when it comes to art," Gabrielle said with a sly snicker. Leonardo gave her the appropriate adult response and stuck out his tongue.


"Tony," Leo cut in quietly. "Let it go. I understand." And the look he shared with Gabrielle assured her that his understanding went deeper than she imagined it could.

"So what are you gonna call her?"

"I don't know. Mona maybe? For Many Odd, Nefarious Assets... Lifted In Sacrilegious Accord From All Things Surrounding...."

Gabrielle burst into laughter. "Mona Lisa Fats?!?" She paused, still chuckling. "Although Mona Lisa has a nice ring to it." She shrugged again. "You can name it whatever you want, Leo. It's yours." He voice softened and she reached around to give him a firm hug, gratified when it was returned in full measure.

"Thanks, Leo."

"For what, my friend?" brushing the blonde locks back out of her eyes.

"For teaching me. For talking and listening. For allowing me to stay here and for just being my friend. You'll never know the difference you have made in my life."

Leonardo kissed the top of Gabrielle's head. "And you'll never know the difference you have made in mine."

"Hey!" Tony's voice suddenly cut in. "Is this a private hug, or can anyone here get in on the action?"

Gabrielle and Leo stepped back a pace from one another to allow the big man to participate and Tony promptly scooped them into an all-encompassing hug. It lasted for several minutes before Tony pulled back.

"Now, let me go see what I can throw together for supper."

They waited until he was gone back into the villa before turning to one another again. "How much longer can you stay?" Leo asked after a moment's silence.

"A little while. I just take it one day at a time."

Leo chuckled. "We should all do that. The world would be a better place." He paused. "You know you're welcome here as long as you're comfortable."

"I know. Thanks, Leo."

As it was, Gabrielle stayed longer than she'd planned. Within just a few months, Leo's father passed away, then a beloved uncle. And then without warning, Tony died in the darkness of night. No sickness than anyone was aware of, no pain that he ever spoke about - he simply drew his last breath in his sleep.

Leo was devastated and Gabrielle stayed with him for a while as he recovered. They spent many hours talking and finally the day came when Leo smiled again.

"I'm sorry to have changed your plans so drastically," da Vinci said the night before Gabrielle was leaving. "I hope you didn't miss something important."

Gabrielle took his hands in hers. "Nothing was more important than this. Tony was good people and I consider myself lucky to have known him."

Leo released her hold and turned to the window. "I still miss him," he said simply.

Gabrielle smiled sadly. "You always will, but the fact that you loved and remember him is important. It allows him to live still."

"You live with this everyday, don't you?" asked without turning from the view.

"And have for longer than I remember," Gabrielle replied softly.

Now, finally, Leonardo turned from the window. "You are a woman of great strength and courage, Gabrielle. Thank you for coming here. Thank you for sharing with me. I wish you much success on your journey... and your search."

Though they had never spoken of it, Gabrielle could see that Leo understood... far more than she'd explained to him. She looked questioningly at him and he smiled.

"It shows... in your words and your actions... and your art. Good luck, my friend."

"You too, Leo."

For reasons she could only later put down to a macabre curiosity, Gabrielle headed to Rome. She had heard some comments about the art that could be found there and wanted to see for herself how it compared to Leo's work. Besides, she and Rome had a long history and she was interested in seeing how the old city was holding up under the weight of years that had passed.

What she found was both surprising and disheartening. Much of what she had known was crumbling around her and it reminded her just how old she really was. On the other hand, she didn't mind the fact that the Coliseum that had brought her and Xena such repeated misery was becoming a heap of rubble.

She walked the streets of the city slowly, her bright eyes taking in the many new sights that graced the walkways and boulevards of the capital city. As in other parts of Italy, the arts abounded in Rome. Everywhere Gabrielle looked, philosophers and scholars thrived and she caught bits and pieces of conversation that reminded her of her talks with Xena so many years before.

"Looks like the world may finally be catching up with us, love," she whispered under her breath, before beginning her search for a comfortable lodging.

She spent several days just looking around the sights of the city, impressed again by the quality of workmanship in so much of the artwork now flowing all around her. The sculptures, in wood, brass and marble, had such exquisite detail that Gabrielle could only marvel at its intricacy. She had rolled her eyes when she realized that most of it was devoted to some aspect of religion or another, then set that fact aside and simply enjoyed the work for the beauty of the art itself.

As she crossed into yet another cathedral, she came across a piece simply labeled 'David.' She started laughing so hard it brought tears to her eyes and a man to her side in concern.

"Is there a problem, Miss?"

Gabrielle calmed her chuckles and wiped her eyes, trying not to look at the sculpture for fear it would bring the laughter all over again. "No... no. I'm fine, thank you."

"Can I ask what was so funny?"

Gabrielle gestured to the statue. "David didn't look like that. And he certainly never left himself flapping in the wind that way." She chuckled again and headed out the door, the man following rapidly behind her.

"You speak as though you knew him."

Gabrielle answered him absently as she gazed out across the boulevard. "I did."

The man did a double take at her matter-of-fact response. He caught her eyes and noted they were the eyes of a dreamer, an artist like himself. He smiled at her and extended his hand in greeting.

"People call me Mike. That's my sculpture," pointing back to the church.

Gabrielle blushed lightly. "Well, it's very well done." She rubbed her nose. "It's just not very, um... realistic."

Mike laughed. "No, but it is good art. Come. Have some lunch with me and I'll take you to my latest project, so you can critique it as well."

Gabrielle looked at him for a long moment. "You sure your boyfriend won't mind?" she asked impishly, watching for the shocked reaction she knew was coming.

"I don't.... How did...? Never mind. You wanna come, or am I eating alone?"

She took his arm and Mike led her down the boulevard towards the chapel where he was working.

"So what brought you to the cathedral in the middle of a work day if you're working way down here?" Gabrielle asked as they entered the chapel. It was large as far as chapels went, Gabrielle thought, then stopped abruptly as she realized the interior was completely covered in scaffolding. "Wha...?" She turned and looked at Mike's face.

"I've been commissioned to repaint the ceiling in Bible stories. Sometimes, it gets a little overwhelming. So I take some time and go look at David. Sorta puts things in perspective for me. Reminds me I can do this, even if it takes me years."

Gabrielle glanced at the ceiling and noted a small portion of it was covered in murals. But with her lack of height and the imposing scaffolding, all she could see were bright colors occasionally. She looked back at Michelangelo who was watching her face with an amused expression.

"Do you think we could get a little closer? All I can see from here is a lot of pretty color." Now it was Mike's turn to laugh.

"Sure. Um, you don't have a problem with heights, do you?"

"Not for years," Gabrielle said drolly, thinking back to her first experiences with the Amazons and learning to walk in the trees. Mike didn't notice her distant expression.

"Good," he mumbled, "because it's a long way up."

It was a long way up, but well worth the climb, Gabrielle decided when she reached the top of the ladder. The little bit that had been completed was so rich in detail, it brought tears to her eyes.

"This is fabulous!" she said breathlessly, after taking a long time to look around at each panel. "The storytelling involved here is just incredible."

Mike smiled. Though he and Leo were rivals and had been for years, it was almost a friendly rivalry and something both men secretly enjoyed. When he'd received the missive from Leo detailing Gabrielle's arrival in Rome and the subtle favor asking Mike to look out for the bard, it had piqued the artist's curiosity enough to make him go looking for Gabrielle.

So what he'd told Gabrielle about David was the truth, just not the entire truth. He'd spent the last seven days waiting for her arrival there, knowing that if what Leo had said about her was true, she'd be there sooner or later. Personally, he was glad it was sooner. The Pope and his archbishops were getting a little perturbed at his continued absence.

"Thanks," he said with a blush. He wasn't much for the girls, but there was just something about Gabrielle.... "Say, I got a note from a mutual friend the other day."

Gabrielle cocked her brow in question.

"Leo told me there was a beautiful artist headed my way and that...." He cleared his throat self-consciously before affecting a nasally voice. "It would behoove me to make your acquaintance."

Gabrielle chuckled. "That sounds like Leo." She paused. "So it wasn't just dumb luck running into you?"

"Not exactly, but I'm glad I took the chance to find you. I haven't laughed like I did at your critique of David in a while," motioning to the ceiling. "This is such tedious, exacting work." He went on before she could answer. "Not that I don't love it, but still." He hesitated. "I don't suppose you'd like to do some, would you?"

"How do you know I have the talent?"

"Because for all the grief Leo and I give one another, we never lie about artistic talent," he said without delay. "There's no room for fakers in this business."

"You don't know me or anything about me. How do you know I won't take you for a ride or screw things up for you?"

"I know Leo. He'd never get taken in by that and I know you spent a while with him and Tony. He trusts you."

Gabrielle watched his face, gauging the sincerity of his words and voice. Finally she nodded, satisfied with what she found. "I'll help, on two conditions," she said at last.

"Yes?" Michelangelo was curious now. Given what Leonardo had shared, he had a fairly good idea what was coming.

"You keep my name out of it and you feed me."

"I can do that," Mike said with a smile and an extended arm.

Gabrielle accepted his handshake. "Then you've got yourself a deal."

Gabrielle came back to the present with a start. It had been a while since she'd either sketched or painted and now she carefully withdrew the pad Leonardo had given her those centuries ago. The feel of the thick paper brought a smile to her face and the pictures still brought a teary twinkle to her eyes.

"I'll have to take you to Rome again, Xena and show you what I painted. You can't tell the difference, but I remember. It was an amazing work of art... still is. That time made me appreciate so many things."

She put the sketch book away and pulled the feather out of her diary that marked her place and twirled it in her fingers, remembering the time long ago when she'd watched Xena repair her Queen's mask before a festival.

"One day, when we have time, you're gonna have to teach me how to make an Amazon mask, Xena. I know you've got the skills and though I have no use for one now, I'd like to have my Queen's mask again. I'll never get the one Ephiny made for me back." She shuddered. "Not that I'd want it with the memories attached to it now."

Then she picked up her diary, closed the door and headed for the sunlight.

Chapter XXX

Xena twirled the feather Keto had given her in her fingers as she made her way across the plains towards the Mexican part of the continent. Only two days out and it had been rough going so far - her animal companions were still greatly put out with her and the feather brought so many memories of Gabrielle to the forefront of her mind. She decided to focus on the animals first. The trip was going to allow her plenty of time to explore her memories of Gabrielle.

"C'mon, guys. I said I'm sorry I went without you."

She wasn't sure how, but they managed to look at her with complete disdain. Xena sighed and stopped walking. The animals kept their slow pace in front of her.

"I know... I should have waited until spring, but I... just.... I need to find the totems. As fast as I can. I've got to get back to Gabrielle."

They didn't forgive her exactly, but they did stop walking and look at her, waiting for her to catch up to them. Xena smiled. It wasn't the warm welcome she wanted, but it was a good first step.

They walked along in silence for a time. It was what they were all most comfortable with. Eventually, Xena's attention turned back to the feather she still held in her hand.

It was long, thin and the same shade of dark gold that Xena remembered the feathers of Gabrielle's mask being on top. She could still clearly see the defiance the bard's face had worn as she accepted the responsibility away from Velaska. Xena had been pretty damn proud of Gabrielle at that moment.

Xena let the memory run, remembering what she'd felt when her spirit had taken over Gabrielle's body. It was the first time she was sure that what she felt for Gabrielle was returned in full measure and it had been the most wonderful, terrifying feeling. And it had been the first step on a journey she desperately wanted to get back to.

She twirled the feather absently, letting it caress her lips as she let her mind wander over the few times after that she'd seen Gabrielle don her ceremonial clothing. She rarely wore the mask, claiming it hot and confining. She preferred to leave it hanging in the small hut set aside for their use.

Xena knew there was more to it than that and she made it her own personal mission to insure that the mask was in pristine shape on the rare occasion Gabrielle had deigned to wear it. They had actually discussed it once, just before Ephiny was killed.

"It's a symbol of honor, Gabrielle. Of tradition."

"I know that, Xena." Gabrielle scrubbed her hands through her recently shortened hair in frustration. "I'm proud of the symbolism, the honor and the tradition that goes with it. But I should no more wear that mask than Ares should. I'm not an Amazon Queen." She sighed. "I never have been," finishing on a much softer note.

"I disagree with you, Gabrielle, and so would many of the women of your tribe. Why do you think Ephiny is holding it for you? Why else would it hang in your hut and not hers?" Xena gently brushed the shaggy bangs off Gabrielle's forehead. "One day... one day, you'll wear that mask and you'll understand why you really are a true Amazon Queen."

Xena came back to the present, realizing that the sun was going down and she was going to have to make camp for the night.

The two animals went off on their own hunt while Xena conducted hers and once the large rabbit had been drained of blood, she set it over a spit to cook. Not that she was ever particularly hungry, but she had quickly realized that if gave her body a regular ration of food, her need to feed on blood significantly decreased.

Xena hated this facet of her immortality... the price she paid for her continued existence. Her thoughts wandered to how Gabrielle would be coping with something similar. The loss of dignity and control were humiliating and Gabrielle had always been much more sensitive to killing and death than Xena, even after becoming a warrior.

It had been much easier and here Xena smiled broadly, much more pleasant when they had been together. Not even something they acknowledged between them, but there nevertheless. Now her smile faded completely. Why hadn't she thought of that *before* she made her decision in Japan? She shook her head to clear it. No matter how many times she went over it, how many regrets she lived with, it would never change what she had done... to herself and to Gabrielle.

Would you change it if you could?

Xena's head whipped around, her hyper-alert senses scanning the area for anything to clue her in to what could have been a whisper of the wind or her over-active imagination. She snorted in derision. No one had *ever* accused her of THAT particular malady. Gabrielle had always been the part of their partnership that could imagine all sorts of possibilities. Xena loved listening to the bard's musings, but tended to stick to cold, hard facts.

So she waited, patiently, trying to sense... something, anything... to explain what she had heard, what she had literally felt as a caress of her skin as it crossed her hearing. Only silence and stillness greeted her senses, however and Xena knew there would be no rest for her as the question continued to play over and over in her mind.

The next several days passed the same, though now that question weighed most heavily in her thoughts. Though she knew the answer without a doubt was an unequivocal YES, the query remained as a constant reminder... a constant thought. At times, Xena felt sure she would go mad from the unending cycle, sure that the Furies had returned to haunt her once more.

Finally, through sheer force of her will alone, Xena set the question aside and turned her attention back to the mask she needed to find.

When he'd given her the feather, Keto had explained that finding the mask would be a little more involved than her search for the staff had been.

"Kya not share much, but took two full cycles of seasons before he return to us. Feather you hold is all left from mask."

"He destroyed it??"

"No. Was left with single feather when totems returned home."

Xena nodded and wondered what it had taken for Keto to obtain the feather from Kya. The young man still harbored a huge grudge towards Xena and the fact that she had undertaken a quest he felt was rightfully his. She had no way of knowing that the rest of the tribe had insured he understood the penalty for dishonoring Xena again.

"Will need stealth to find... many traps, well-hidden."

Xena nodded and took the scroll and the staff in hand and headed southwest, into what had once been Aztec territory.

Now she found herself well into the journey, though she knew it would take some time on foot. She didn't feel right taking one of the few horses the tribe had, though Keto had made one readily available for her use. There were so many fights and little wars that plagued them and Xena didn't want the warriors to get caught short.

So she walked, finding a new appreciation for the world around her and for Gabrielle's strength those many years ago. Of course, having no horse, she carried a bit more than Gabrielle had to. In addition to the backpack that carried her spare set of clothing, towel and some foodstuffs, she also carried the pot for her tea and her lone cup and plate. Her bedroll was tied to the bottom of the pack and rested snugly at the small of her back.

Around her waist she wore the gun Michael had given her with a quiver on the other side and slung over one shoulder was a short bow. She was thankful for the staff in a way she hadn't expected to be. No wonder Gabrielle had taken to riding once she'd given up her staff.

Slowly, Etor and Melo were warming up to her again, though they'd made it clear she had made them angry but good. The fox looked as though it wanted to forgive and forget... there was an almost forlorn look in the green eyes that watched her from across the campfire. The panther, though, continued to glare and growl in her direction. Knowing that they were similar in temperament to Gabrielle and herself, she couldn't help but wonder if it was an indication of what her welcome from Gabrielle would be. She almost hoped so. At least Melo wanted to forgive her, even if it was taking a while. Etor still looked ready to bite.

For days and weeks they walked on together in relative silence. There was little to bother them along the way except the expected predators and the trio gave off enough of a predatory scent themselves to make everything else move away from them.

The plains melted into mountains and the mountains fell away into desert sands before the sand gave way to the jungle the scroll had told her to search for. The air was much heavier here, wet with the scent of age and decay.

They walked stealthily for a long time, careful not to disturb the silence that was as heavy as the air. Finally, they reached a pyramid and Xena began her search.

It was oppressive here and there was no evidence that anyone had been here in a very long time. She walked around the area slowly, noting absently the crumbling remains of what appeared to have been a once-thriving civilization.

She searched carefully. Though she had definite ideas of where she suspected the mask would be, it wouldn't do to overlook either the obvious possibilities or the obscure ones.

Xena checked the area around the temple first, working in a spiral pattern that slowly closed the circle. Eventually she reached the temple and not seeing an obvious way in began the trek towards the top.

She looked around each side of the pyramid, knowing the mask could have been lost or hidden, but fairly certain that it was somewhere inside, given the excellent condition of the feather now in her possession.

She reached the top and the altar area and let the revulsion she felt at what she found there wash over her in waves. Quite without her conscious permission she felt her eye teeth elongate as her nose picked up the scent of very old blood. Her eyes noted the stains still on the altar and she cringed inwardly at both the horror of the place and her uncontrollable reaction to it.

She was pretty sure the evidence before her attested to human sacrifice and would have prayed, had she had any faith left at all, that Gabrielle had been spared the ghastly experience of seeing that atrocity in the name of a god. Knowing the memories that would invoke, she swallowed the bile it brought to her own throat.

A meticulous search around the altar area finally turned up the trigger she'd been hunting for. She moved it, then waited patiently for the door to slide open, allowing her entrance to mysteries that had been hidden from prying eyes for generations.

The air was old and stale, though it was relatively free from the scent of blood Xena noted happily. She explored the opening carefully, then fashioned several torches from the materials she could scrounge from the vicinity. It took her until nearly dark, but she decided she preferred to be inside and away from the smell of blood and death. So she lit a torch and slipped inside feeling the two animals slide in beside her.

The darkness was thick and cloying and the torch made little headway against the oppressiveness the heavy air conveyed. The going was slow as Xena didn't want to trigger potential traps, nor did she want to allow the possibility of the mask she was searching for to escape her notice.

The steps lead downward and Xena figured that they led to ground level and probably a main chamber. So she followed the stairs slowly and methodically, watching as bugs and beetles scurried out of her path and careful not to disturb the snakes and other more deadly creatures that watched her passing.

The blackness pressed around her and Xena stood still a moment once she reached the floor. The area here was free of anything living and it made the warrior wonder. It made no sense... either that anything could survive inside the temple, or that those that did avoided the openness of the floor. Then something caught her attention in the darkness and she put her confusing thoughts aside to get a closer look.

It was another altar, but utterly different from the one she'd seen outside. This one was in pristine condition, save the coating of dust and laid out across its surface were a variety of knives. They were very similar in hilt and form... only the length of the blade differentiated them from each other. They were clean and still razor sharp, though Xena's senses detected the faintest traces of blood where the hilt and blades met.

She walked slowly around the altar, aware of a variety of things hanging on the nearby walls, though nothing was clear in the thick shadows outside the small circle of light. Xena moved closer to the walls to investigate. She didn't notice when the panther and the fox wandered away together.

Directly behind the altar hung a large blue and green feathered cape with a gash on one side at the neck and bloodstains around the whole itself. A decorated mask hung neatly above it and Xena reached the torch higher to examine it more closely.

The mask was made of wood and feathers, but the only feathers Xena found evidence of were the blue and green of the cape and not the gold she sought. Xena lifted a hand to touch it, but a low rumble from beside and slightly behind her changed her mind.

Her torch began to sputter and dim, so Xena took another from her stash and lit it, leaving the first one to give her extra light until it died of natural causes.

On one side of the robe was a staff of sorts with beading and decoration Xena did not readily recognize. On the other hung a shield... again more decorative than useful. Xena fingered it lightly, the slowly continued her trek around the chamber.

Various other bits of artifacts hung well preserved on the walls and she had cause to wonder where they had come from and why they remained still when no one was left to appreciate them or understand their place in the society that had one obviously thrived here.

When she reached the wall directly across from the altar, a familiar tingling skittered up her spine. "Gabrielle?" she whispered, even though her conscious mind knew the impossibility of that prospect. Still the feeling lingered and she slowed even more, desperate not to miss the slightest clue.

Here there was a pile of bloody weapons, none of them cleaned from their last use and all of them randomly thrown on the floor. Her nose twitched and she wondered why the weapons had been left in such a condition.

Her eyes moved around and up the wall slowly, lighting at last on another mask. This one was held in place by virtue of a knife buried to the hilt between the eyes of the mask and into the wall itself. Xena brought the light closer to the wall, unable to stop the slight gasp that escaped her when she could clearly see the mask in front of her.

It was an Amazon war mask and more precisely, it was the war mask of a Queen.

Xena wondered how it had come to be in this time and place and then put her questions aside to remove it from the wall. She pushed the bloodied weapons aside and planted the torch in the ground. Then she jumped straight up, removing the knife from the wall and catching the mask with her free had as it slipped free.

Xena dropped the knife and grasped the mask in two faintly shaking hands. There was blood spattered all over the front. She let her fingers trace the familiar form, remembering the rare few times she'd held a mask similar to this one in her hands before offering it to Gabrielle.

She looked around again, hoping to find some clue as to where the mask came from and why it was here. Seeing nothing, Xena turned it over in her hands and froze. Nestled in the straps and crevices of the backing were blonde hairs the shade of which Xena had only ever seen on one person in her lifetime.

"Gabrielle?" She reached towards them then pulled back, not wanting them to be real and at the same time needing the tactile confirmation her eyes were insisting was the truth.

Xena removed her backpack and set the mask calmly on top of it. Then she sat and leaned against the wall, refusing the comfort of tears and simply letting her mind wander.

She hated this... hated where she was; hated what she'd done; especially hated not knowing the whole truth about WHY she was here and HOW to go home. And the thought that Gabrielle had been here without her sent a pain through Xena so sharp it made her gasp in reaction.

The fox left its place near the panther and curled up without hesitation in Xena's lap. Xena let her hands gently stroke the red-gold fur, feeling the satisfied rumbling purr in the warm body. The panther came closer, maintaining a sentinel watch but not approaching within Xena's reach.

"Why was she here, Melo? Because I know she was. I can feel that truth in my very bones. When was she here? By all accounts the people of the valley have been gone for centuries. She's alive... and immortal. I'm positive of that much now. Question is - how do I find her?"

Xena shifted to make herself more comfortable, lighting another torch. "May as well wait until morning before starting out again," she muttered to her two companions before turning her attention back to her wayward thoughts.

"What do you think, Melo? Will Gabrielle be happy to see me when I find her? Does she want me too? Will she want to go home or will she want to stay here? She's been alone for a long time... maybe she'd rather...." Xena slapped her hands to her face and scrubbed them hard.

"Sorry," she mumbled again. "Being stupid." And just why are you being stupid, Xena? Where is this bout of insecurity coming from, hmm? Gabrielle has never given you reason to doubt or mistrust and if she wants to stay here, then you'll find a way to stay here and make it work. Her choice this time, warrior!

Xena knew the sentiment was her own and heartfelt, but the words felt as though they belonged to another. She briefly wondered again if the Furies had been sent to punish her, then pushed the idea aside. There was nothing they could do to her worse than she could manage on her own. And right now, she seemed to be managing just fine... if driving herself nuts was on the agenda.

Xena knew those kinds of thoughts were pointless, but it was so much harder to dismiss them here. Maybe because she'd had no transition time; maybe because Gabrielle wasn't here; maybe... maybe this place is just depressing and I should just let it go.

She closed her eyes and deliberately let her mind take her into some of her happier memories with Gabrielle.

With morning came a better perspective and Xena put her mood down to the darkness of the temple. She hadn't let her torch go out through the night and now was down to her last one.

"C'mon guys. We've got other places to be besides here."

Xena looked around, hoping to find a way out at the bottom. After much searching, she finally found a crack in the wall that resembled a door and went about hunting for a key to unlock it. Just as she found the keystone, the torch sputtered and went out. Xena breathed a sigh of relief when the stone door swung soundlessly open, allowing fresh air and sunshine through the portal.

The respite from the darkness and the stale air was a welcome one and the trio slowly made its way back out of the temple area with the mask strapped to Xena's backpack and the staff still well in hand.

After many days travel northward, Xena finally reached an inhabited area of the country, but the number of soldiers she'd seen in the area was unnerving. It made her blood burn... and then the unthinkable happened.

A soldier pushed a young boy down and raised his rifle. The boy's mother, frantic and distraught, threw herself in front of the child in an effort to protect him. The soldier laughed derisively and reached for the woman, thrusting her aside and raised his gun again.

This time the mother jumped him from behind and the soldier threw her off him and onto the ground, lifting the gun like a club and swinging it backwards....

... only to find it caught and held by a blue-eyed demon woman.

Xena pulled back her arm and punched him hard enough that she felt his brains rattle before he fell solidly to the ground. The woman screamed and Xena had just time to kick out before several soldiers fell on top of her and started hitting with a will.

She let them swing for a while... they were mostly hitting one another and she saw no reason to stop them. One of them landed a lucky punch on her nose however and as soon as the blood started flowing, everything changed.

Xena's focus closed and her world narrowed to just the men on top of her. She felt her fangs grow and the burning howled in her blood and she let it, drawing strength from it for the coming battle.

Without warning, she pushed herself from the ground and slowly, methodically decimated the squad of soldiers that had jumped on her. When all was said and done, she was the only living thing left standing in the small town. The people had scattered to their homes and only bits remained of what had moments before been proud Mexican soldiers.

Slowly, her fangs receded and she stepped back, bloody and sated from what was in essence, the remnants of a war zone.

Xena walked over to her gear where the fox and the cat sat patiently guarding her things. She lifted the backpack carefully, not wanting to get more blood on the mask, or any of her other gear for that matter. She bent to retrieve the staff when a hissing sound caught her attention.

She turned and there stood the woman she'd stood up for only moments before. With a tug on the warrior's sleeve, the woman made it clear she wanted Xena to follow her and since her senses no longer prickled, Xena complied.

The woman and her family offered Xena a place to bathe off and a hot meal while the woman scrubbed the blood from Xena's clothes. They didn't talk much, which was fine with Xena. She felt more drained than she'd been in years. They offered her a bed that she fully intended to refuse, until the boy she had saved looked at her with pleading eyes that reminded her so much of Gabrielle.

Xena smiled then and riffled his hair and he gave her a big grin in return. Tomorrow would bring more soldiers and problems, but for the night they had their very own hero.

The family looked askance at the two animals that followed Xena calmly to the tiny bedroom they'd given her, but both panther and fox casually strolled in and promptly disappeared.

When dinner was over, Xena went to her room and opened the window to look out at the stars. Most of the night she laid that way, thinking about how good it felt to fight the good fight again. It wasn't like it had been in Greece. Even without the bacchae curse, fighting was different in this place and this time.

With guns, it was much easier to kill... much easier to die. And without Gabrielle to watch her back, it changed the dynamics of the way Xena fought. It had taken her years to think of Gabrielle as a partner, an equal and now the habit was so ingrained Xena found it almost impossible to fight differently.

"I miss you, my bard... in more ways than I ever imagined I could," she whispered to the stars as they faded with the dawn. "But I think I've gotta find a way to do the 'greater good' thing again, at least for a while. It seems like the best way to cope without you, until I find you again. I've always been proud of you, Gabrielle and I want you to be able to say the same thing of me."

Then she rose from the bed and dressed, eager to head out for her next destination.

The scroll had been less than specific on where she needed to go, but Xena knew enough to move west towards the ocean. Along the way she helped those who needed it - nursing the sick, building homes and corrals, mending fences and occasionally fighting the bad guys.

Xena took great joy in her fighting and found a renewed optimism in herself and her abilities as she allowed herself to indulge her skills and instincts. Word began to spread of a fierce, blue-eyed defender and champion of the weak, but now, no one knew her name.

She simply swept in, did what needed to be done and moved on without much conversation. Occasionally, her spirit guides would be seen, but by and large, Xena was seen as a lone warrior. Not that people didn't want to get closer... a few even tried. But Xena made it clear she wasn't interested in making friends or anything else. She would accept a meal and sometimes a bed and bath, but she that was enough to satisfy her need for human contact.

That and the fighting that is. It was then that she felt whole again and she was careful to try and contain her enthusiasm to the point that no one was exposed to the bacchae side of her personality.

So she slowly made her way up the coast, hoping she would sense where she needed to be to find the fishhook. The description in the scroll made it sound very familiar... something she remembered seeing Ephiny wear in the Amazon village.

Xena easily recognized the representation of skill it afforded, but she was at a loss to explain how an Amazon necklace had ended up halfway around the world. Surely she wasn't simply following Gabrielle while chasing these clues. She shook her head. No, she'd know if Gabrielle were that close, she was sure of that. Her Gabsense had rarely failed her and it had been so long since she'd felt it, she'd identify the change immediately.

Still she contemplated the whys and wherefores of the objects she was forced to track down. Their being here in this time and place was a mystery of no small proportion and it was interesting, if not always fun to speculate on the reasoning behind it.

Not many folks had made it so far west yet and Xena could go for days without encountering another living soul besides the animals that were so prevalent. Once in a while, she would run into a native tribe and do a bit of bartering, but by and large, it was wide open country.

Or it had been, Xena thought wryly as the stench of a shanty town hit her nose. It still amazed her the way humanity smelled when it congregated and she couldn't believe it didn't make people as nauseas as it did her. And adding cattle to the mix....

Her first impulse was to turn around and head for the hills and the fresh air she knew she could find there. But she'd been there and found nothing. Her instincts had brought her here and if there was one thing in the world Xena still trusted implicitly, it was the instincts she had honed from her days as a warlord.

Somewhere in this tiny, stinking shanty town was the next piece to her puzzle.

Xena got a job on the building crew. Not what she wanted to do really, but it beat the only 'work' that was available to most women in this town. It had taken a bit of convincing on her part, but when the boss saw she did the same amount of work as the men with less effort, he nodded his approval of her into his crew. The men watched her for a while and with grudging acknowledgement accepted her as one of them.

Slowly the town began transforming from a shanty town to something more respectable and once or twice Xena caught the profile of someone who stirred ancient memories. But she was never able to see clearly enough to confirm her suspicions.

Days passed and Xena found she missed the clean air and quiet she'd reveled in since coming to this land. Her animal companions had abandoned her when she reached the edge of town, disdaining the noise and smell for the peace they could maintain away from the mass of humanity. Xena missed them.

Several times she felt the wanderlust calling her, remembering so clearly the call of the open road she had shared with Gabrielle. Only that innate sense she'd come to respect held her in the town though she'd investigated as much of the surrounding area as she could reasonably manage. And still she was without the talisman she sought.

Building slowed as the weather turned colder and nastier and Xena found it increasingly hard to stay in one place... especially this one. But her nightly talks to Gabrielle eased the frustration and loneliness and Xena took comfort from them. She imagined she could feel Gabrielle's presence growing closer and felt better just sharing her day.

Then came a day in the beginning of the New Year when three things happened that brought both satisfaction and a frightening, disturbing annoyance into Xena's life.

Xena entered her small room at dusk and flopped on the bed gracelessly, looking up at the wooden ceiling. For the first time in several months she felt optimism and she smiled as she clutched the fishbone to her breast.

"Oh, Gabrielle... do I have a story to tell you."

Part 16