Chapter XXXI

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

Gabrielle chuckled as she read those words in her diary, clearly remembering the day they were written.

The Renaissance was widespread and when she got wind of a bardic competition in Brittana, I mean England, Gabrielle reminded herself, she decided it was time to put her dislike of the place aside and go check it out. Time those memories were replaced with something better she mused to herself as she finally set foot on the shore, mentally crossing her fingers that that would be the case.

The place had much changed in the centuries since she had been in this place and yet it still had a wild untamed feeling for all the veer of civility it wore. Gabrielle made her way slowly towards the city, attracting as little attention as she could manage. A lone woman traveling the countryside was still seen as an invitation to take liberties from by brigands and thieves, though there were a few more safeguards against them in this time and place. Still, Gabrielle had no desire to become a target for them, even though she could clearly and easily destroy anyone who tried.

Finally she arrived in the city and cautiously made her way to the palace courtyard where the competition would be held. Lots of people were milling about and Gabrielle found herself near the registration table. She'd told herself that she was simply coming to listen, but she felt her blood stir in the most pleasant way as the atmosphere soaked its way into her consciousness.

A thrill skittered down her spine in the most pleasant way and before she had time for second thoughts, Gabrielle found herself entered in the challenge.

The morning and afternoon passed agreeably and Gabrielle enjoyed herself in a way she hadn't in years. Many storytellers took the stage - some good, others not so. But all of them were entertaining... even if only as they ran from the stage to avoid being pelted with rotten fruit.

Due to the lateness of her entry, Gabrielle was scheduled last and there were a number of entrants. So it was nearly sunset when a young man... the next to last entry, got up.

He was clearly a crowd favorite, judging by the applause he received when he was introduced and even Gabrielle was carried along on his tale of intrigue and woe. When he was finished, the crowd cheered and whooped until Gabrielle wondered if she should even bother. Then the master of ceremonies signaled for silence and the crowd quieted down.

"That was fine, Will," smiling at the young man who looked insufferably pleased with himself. "Now," the MC said, "We have one more bard, a late entry... please welcome Bard Gabrielle."

The applause was polite, but the silence was filled with expectancy. Aside from the fact that the crowd favorite, Will, ALWAYS went last, the fact that the interloper was a woman was almost unheard of so publicly in this day and age. Storytelling wasn't something most women chose to do, at least outside the home.

So they waited patiently and each of them found themselves captured by verdant green eyes and a slight smile as Gabrielle turned her gaze to the audience, attempting to make contact with everyone. Then she opened her mouth to speak.

The tale she told them was a simple one - her own story in her own words. Or part of it at any rate. Parts of it were too personal to share and others were simply unbelievable. She told of a faulty, human warrior hero, who didn't always make the right decision, but did always try. She told of her companion, left alone because of those decisions and her quest to find the warrior. Lastly, she told them of their triumphant reunion and all the joy it entailed.

There was dead silence when Gabrielle finished and she stepped back, feeling more drained than she had in many years. Without warning, the crowd favorite, Will, jumped up on the stage and lifted her arm in triumph. Stunned, the crowd raised its voice in roaring approval.

Gabrielle found herself surrounded by the many performers who were all eager to congratulate her. The master of ceremonies had to push and shove people out of his way to reach the middle of the stage where Gabrielle stood, talking to the performers and accepting the adulations of the crowd.

He held up a hand for silence.

"Ladies and gentlemen... I believe we have our winner. Bard Gabrielle."

Cheers rang out over the square again and the MC let it roll on for several long moments before raising his hands again.

"On behalf of their majesties, I present this year's purse to Gabrielle. Congratulations!"

Gabrielle accepted the small pouch with a smile and a nod and the performers surrounded her once again. More than once she felt hands reaching for the purse, but Xena's patiently taught lessons on pressure points came in handy for more than just seasickness and healing.

Eventually, the crowd began to disperse back to their homes and the villages surrounding the castle. Gabrielle took a moment to look around before a touch on her elbow caused her to turn around.

"Yes?" She paused. "Will, right?"

"Yes, Bard Gabrielle," he started, then halted at the shake of her head and upright hand. "I'm sorry... I...."

"Will, take a deep breath, all right? My name is just Gabrielle; not Bard Gabrielle, not Mistress Gabrielle, not Lady Gabrielle, or any other title you can think of. Just plain Gabrielle."

Will smiled at her. "All right then, just plain Gabrielle. I was wondering if you might like to come home with me."

Blonde brows rose to an equally blonde hairline and warm green eyes turned to ice. "Excuse me?"

"Wha... oh... OH!!" He shook his head and chuckled a bit. "No, no... I'm sorry, Gabrielle. That's not what I meant... at least not that way. Sorry. For a bard, I have a terrible habit of not conveying what I mean very clearly in normal speech. Let me begin again."

Gabrielle nodded, noting the blush that covered Will's face. He sighed. "I think that is the reason I normally win," he muttered to himself. He looked back at Gabrielle and motioned her to a seat before assuming on himself. "When I talk, I make all kinds of gaffes - say things I shouldn't or don't mean to say and generally embarrass myself greatly." His eyes took on a shine. "But when I tell stories...."

Gabrielle waited before finishing his thought. "When you tell stories, you become someone else. You tell their stories with their words."

"Exactly!" Will said excitedly, thrilled that she understood. "I disappear into the background as the characters emerge." He hesitated. "But you didn't do that. You became a part of the story. It was so real... so personal... like you had really experienced it. I'd like for you to teach me."

Gabrielle shook her head. "Will, it's not something that can be taught. Technique, sure. Cadence, absolutely. But the stories have to be a part of you. And you can't just tell them. You have to live them, experience them, believe in them so much that they become your truth."

Will gazed at her for a long self-conscious moment. "That story was true wasn't it? You're one of the people in your story."

Gabrielle had no need to answer. The truth was evident in her eyes when Will looked at her.

He slapped his hands on his thighs and stood. "Well, my invitation stands. You're welcome to come stay with me... or not. I'd like to spend some time getting to know you, I mean, as a friend. I mean...."

Gabrielle finally took compassion on him. "I understand, Will, really. Trust me... when you've been around as long as I have, you learn to gauge the signs. That is why your first offer took me so by surprise. It just didn't seem...." She waved him off. "Nevermind. Buy me a drink and then we'll see what we can do.

"Aren't you afraid that people will talk, Will? I mean, I'm just passing through."

"Gabrielle, I assure you that anything people think about me having you stay in my house will only improve any reputation I have. I'm considered the local idiot... another reason I think the humor me by letting me win the bardic challenge. Preparing for them keeps me busy and out of trouble."

"You don't have a whole lot of confidence in yourself there, do ya, Will?"

He shrugged. "Never had much reason to. All my life, people have told me how stupid I am. Kinda hard to get around it when it is all you ever hear."

Gabrielle bit her lip, remembering all too clearly her life before Xena and the core of confidence Xena had managed to plant deep in her soul.

"I'll tell ya what, Will. I'll come stay with you for a while. Maybe... maybe we can find your truth."

The walk back to Avon wasn't a long one, but it was fully dark by the time they reached Will's home. "C'mon in. It's not much, but it's home."

Will lit the candles, handing one to Gabrielle and keeping the other for himself as he walked around the house lighting others. The cottage was small but neatly kept and Gabrielle looked around with pleased surprise. The main living area contained a good-sized sitting room with a large fireplace at one end. The kitchen where she now stood took up the other part of the main room and it had a large fireplace as well.

Off to one side were two doors and Will opened one bashfully. "This was my parent's room. It's not much, but I've tried to keep it clean."

"Are they dead?" Gabrielle asked kindly.

Will laughed. "Oh no. My father was called to be a conner for the king. I saw them today, as a matter of fact."

"And they won't mind...?" gesturing to the room in front of them.

"No. They're not here and I wasn't kidding when I said your being here could only enhance my reputation." The young man colored. "I just hope you don't mind some of the things that will get said about you for being here... alone with me, I mean."

Gabrielle placed a tender hand on his arm, causing him to blush even further. "Will, if there is one thing I have learned in my life, it's not to let what other folks think of me become a concern. I have to do what is right and best for me; the rest of it just falls to the wayside."

Will thought about that for a long moment before smiling at her brightly. "I like your philosophy, Gabrielle. Goodnight."

Without waiting for her response, Will closed the door and went into his own room. Gabrielle looked around the tiny room with its neatly made bed and strong, plain furniture and nodded her head in satisfaction. This could turn out to be a very pleasant interlude.

"Will, I'm telling you... that is NOT how it happened."

The man threw up his hands in disgust. "But Gabrielle, there's just no drama... no tragedy."

Gabrielle sat back and rubbed her tired eyes. They had been working steadily for several weeks. Or rather, she had been relating stories to Will and he had been twisting them around to 'give them dramatic flair' as he called it. To Gabrielle, it was just messing up the facts.

"Will, why does there need to be drama? Or tragedy? Isn't life hard enough without adding more ugliness to it as a form of entertainment?"

She rose from the desk. "This was a classic love story, Will. Feuding families, petty intrigues and a girl determined not to live without her beloved. To the point she was willing to die rather than be wed to someone she didn't love, or watch the one she loved do the same."

Gabrielle started pacing. "A boy who went so far as to cause time to repeat itself until a way was found to stop his beloved from committing suicide. Not only that, but until a way was found to finally bring them together."

"And it happened, Will. I was there. That day repeated itself for eight straight days until every single detail was taken care of. And the couple did live happily ever after. Rare, I know, but it does occasionally happen and it did this time. I know. We went back and visited them several years later. They were still as happy and in love as they had been the first time I met them."

Gabrielle blew out an exasperated breath. "Why is it so hard to let them live happily ever after?"

She turned and looked at him for a hard moment before moving to the window. "Is happiness worth so little anymore that you can just throw it away for the sake of drama?"

Will scrubbed his eyes and began speaking softly. "No, it isn't but the truth is, Gabrielle, true love is so, so rare...." He held up his hand when she would have spoken. "Let me finish, please."

Gabrielle nodded and resumed a seat on the couch. Will walked to the window and stood looking out with his back to the room.

"True love is so very rare Gabrielle. Most of the world will never see it, much less be fortunate enough to experience it for themselves. It's like a faery tale. If you end up liking your mate, your marriage is generally considered a huge success."

He sighed. "And the sad truth of the matter is tragedy appeals to people because it reminds them that things could always be much worse than they are. Knowing that your neighbor is worse off than you tends to make you feel better about yourself. It's a terrible fact of the human condition, but it is also a very true one."

"Besides," he continued in a tone so soft Gabrielle had to strain to hear him. "You told me to write what I know. And I certainly have had my share of heartache in the romance department."

Gabrielle put a hand to the back of her neck and rubbed it. "All right, Will. You do what you want with this one. I'll sit down and see if I can come up with a REAL tragedy for you."

Will wondered what Gabrielle was doing. It seemed to him she was simply sitting staring out into space for hours at a time. He had no way of knowing she was reviewing centuries' worth of memories trying to decide which tragic event she could share with him.

She reviewed her life at home, in Poteidaia before she'd met Xena. Boring, perhaps, but somehow a missing lamb really didn't qualify on the tragic scale. Xena's 'death' by Callisto's dart; Xena's death by the tree; her own near death by being burned alive. None of them tragic because of their ending.

Her murder of Meridian; her rape by Dahok; Hope; her betrayal of Xena and Solon's subsequent death; the months they had spent hurting and almost hating one another. Very tragic and far too personal to share. Just thinking of those memories made the bile rise in her throat.

Hope's final death; Eve's destruction. Still not things she felt comfortable sharing. And there was no way she was going to share Xena's final act. She had exposed far more of that story than she'd ever planned to share and she wouldn't use it as the basis for yet another tragedy, although after all the time that had passed, the recitation of that story was as likely to make her mad as it was to hurt.

Her mind continued to wander through history, remembering the many different people she'd met along the way. Finally near noon on her fourth day of contemplation, Gabrielle sat up straight and reached for pen and paper. She knew what story she wanted to tell... very tragic and very true.

For days she sat, filling sheet after sheet of heavy paper with her long, fine strokes. Will wondered if she stopped for anything. She was writing when he got up in the morning and was still at it when he fell asleep at night.

Finally, after several weeks of writing, Gabrielle turned from her chair with a satisfied smile on her face. She gathered the manuscript into her hands and held it for a long moment.

"Now, the events in these pages actually happened. I was there, so I know. This is a first hand account of what I saw and the things I know." She looked up at Will's earnest face. "If you decide to use this, you're gonna have to change things so that the true story is hidden. I have some ideas on how you can do that, but I'll let you read the true history first."

Silence reigned in the house then except for the occasional rustle of paper as William read. Gabrielle waited until she was sure he was completely engrossed in the tale before she disappeared to take a bath. She figured she was due a long soak after the hours she'd put in to crafting the story she given to Will.

Will was quietly setting the table by the time Gabrielle arrived back at the cottage. She still had a thing for the great outdoors and she was so glad Will had a bit of a creek running through his property. She loved a hot bath, but so much of her time in the last few weeks had been spent thinking of her life with Xena that she felt compelled to bathe as she had during that part of her life. Besides, she had really needed to feed and that gave her the opportunity to do both without causing talk.

The smell of stew was thick in the air and Gabrielle seated herself at Will's indication. He placed a bowl at each place and set the bread between them. Then he began eating, all without saying a word.

Gabrielle left him to his silence, respecting this need to process the story she'd given him. How many times had Xena done the same thing, though with Xena, it had been as much in her nature to simply be quiet as anything else.

Will finished his bowl and rose to refill it, judiciously checking Gabrielle's as well. When he resumed his seat, he stirred the stew and cleared his throat to speak.

"That was a true story?" his voice was slightly hoarse.

"Yep," Gabrielle said succinctly. She didn't want to influence his thinking.

"Um... well... uh, you were um... you were right about the tragedy involved. I would never have come up with something like that in a million years of thinking. It probably would have driven me to drink, actually," he offered with a wry smile.

She raised her cup to him and he returned the salute.

"It's a powerful story though. Do you really think we can change it enough so people don't recognize the basis of truth in it?"

"Oh yeah. I've been thinking about it for a while. Let's finish dinner and we can sit down with a pen a paper. Then we'll see what we can come up with."

Will rushed his meal, obviously anxious to get into the creative process. As soon as he was sure Gabrielle was done, he removed their bowls and brought the paper to the table. With a jar of ink in front of him and a sharpened quill in his hands, he sat ready for her comments.

Gabrielle cleared her throat. "Well, the first thing I think we should do is add the Fates... make them witches if you like, but they need to be a consistent theme throughout, tying things together."

"Oh, I like that... a little mysticism and occultism is just the thing to add an edge. What else?"

"How 'bout we make the feudal lord a king? And instead of revenge, make the motive greed?"

The quill was moving swiftly as Gabrielle made suggestions and Will struggled to keep up.

"You want intrigue... instead of two sisters, have a husband and wife. The wife wants her husband to become king and convinces him murder is the only way to achieve it. The Fates... the witches could insure that the act will drive him mad."

"Oh, I like this a lot. What shall we call it?

"Well, where do you want to set it? That will make a difference in the names that get chosen. Only...." she paused. "You can't put it in Germany. That's where this happened. We need to remove it from its origins."

"Hmm... Scotland maybe? We could call it... Mac... something. MacDuff? MacDonald? Macbeth?"

Gabrielle thought about that for a long moment. "I like that... Macbeth, Lady Macbeth... has a certain ring to it, doesn't it?"

Will grinned big. "Yeah, it really does. Bet we could stir up some nice rumors about the name too." He laughed heartily. "Thanks, Gabrielle. I think I have found my voice. This is gonna make us famous. They'll be putting this play on everywhere... indoor theatres, in the park, maybe even open air theatres by the sea.""

Gabrielle smiled. "I'm glad, Will. You've been very kind to me and a good friend. Will you do something for me though?"

"Anything, Gabrielle. Name it."

"Keep my name out of it. All I did was put you on the right path, but these stories are gonna make you famous. I don't want to be famous, Will. I can't be."

Will gazed into the green eyes across the table and suddenly saw an ancientness there that he hadn't noticed before. Whatever her secret was, it was one she had carried for a long time and he felt himself nodding his agreement.

"I feel funny taking your stories, though. I expected we'd share credit...."

Gabrielle clasped her hands over his.

"Will, I'm giving you the stories. You can take them and rewrite them anyway you want to. Give them your special touch of dramatic appeal, all right? It'll be my pleasure to say I knew you when."

Shakespeare flushed. "You're a very special woman, Gabrielle. Thank you."

Gabrielle shrugged. "I just do what I do, Will. It's the only way I know to be."

"Well, I'm glad to have had the chance to know and work with you, even if it has to stay between us."

"Trust me when I tell you it's better this way. You're destined for great things, William Shakespeare."

He blushed again and rose rapidly, trying to cover his embarrassment. In his haste, he knocked his wine over, landing cup and liquid squarely in Gabrielle's lap. She stood and grabbed her napkin, brushing the stain briskly.

"Out, damned spot! I just washed this outfit!"

"Sorry, Gabrielle. I...."

"Don't worry about it, Will. It'll come out with a bit of scrubbing. Let me go change and we can get back to work."

"Where will you go now, Gabrielle?" Shakespeare asked her as they walked together back towards the town where they had met a year earlier. Gabrielle was not competing, but she had promised Will that she would stay long enough to watch him win.

"Germany, I think. I have a hankering for a good beer and they make the best I've ever had."


"Yeah. You should make a trip over and try it."

"Maybe one day," Will commented. "Thanks to you, I have so many ideas... so many stories I want to tell, it's gonna be years before I get done telling them."

"I know how you feel, Will. That's why I know you'll succeed."

Shakespeare won the contest and he split his winnings with Gabrielle. She tried to refuse, but he wouldn't let her and rather than make a scene, she accepted the purse gracefully. Then she hugged him tightly and kissed his cheek, disappearing into the fog of the night.

Gabrielle was happy to set foot on solid land again, though sea travel really didn't bother her much, thanks to Dite's talisman. But she needed to feed again and she really was looking forward to a good beer.

She made her way into Munich. It hadn't been quite a century since her last visit, so she was shocked speechless to see a credible likeness of herself set up in one of the market squares. Gabrielle approached a vendor who looked hard at her, turning and deliberately studying the statue before looking back to Gabrielle.

"You a descendent?" the man asked, motioning to the statue. "Never seen anyone who looked like her come through here before."

Gabrielle shrugged. "I dunno. Who is she?"

The man shook his head. "I don't rightly know her name. It's not mentioned in any of the stories. But she's the one who convinced Duke Wilhelm IV that beer needed to be nothing more than barley, hops and pure water. Made all the difference in our brewing process and our beer."

Gabrielle rubbed the back of her neck remembering clearly the fight she'd had to convince them and the gratitude they'd responded with when they had tasted the difference. She had never counted on a statue, though. She looked up and realized the man was waiting for her response.

"That's an incredible story. Um, where can I get one of these beers?"

The man pointed. "Tavern's three buildings down. Got the best beer in town."

Gabrielle nodded. "Thanks, friend... for the tip and the tale."

"Anytime, pretty lady," doffing his cap and giving her a half bow.

Gabrielle moved towards the tavern when her talisman ring began to glow and tingle. It was the pre-arranged signal she and Dite had agreed upon to indicate a safe time for Gabrielle to visit Olympus. She smiled. It had been a long time since she'd seen her friend the love goddess and she missed the somewhat ditzy, blonde presence as a constant in her life. She was looking forward to the opportunity to see Aphrodite again.

"But first, I'm gonna have that beer."

Chapter XXXII

"Ooo, Sweet Cheeks!" Aphrodite cooed excitedly as she wrapped Gabrielle in a fierce hug. "I can't tell you how totally stoked I am about having you here. I have missed you sooo much!"

Gabrielle returned the hug fiercely. It had been forever since they'd seen one another and it felt so good just to be back with someone who knew her, knew things about her that no one else could and someone that she knew and trusted.

For long moments, they simply held one another, until Dite finally pulled back to take a good look at Gabrielle. She ran a hand through the long blonde hair, gently tracing the plains of her face before coming to rest on Gabrielle's shoulder.

"You look really good, Sweet Thing. Totally radical." She tugged on Gabrielle's hand and drew her over to the chaise, plopping down and patting the space beside her.

"I just can't get over how different you look... so strong, so bodaciously fit, so... I dunno, at peace, maybe?"

"Maybe," Gabrielle answered. "I've learned to live my life to its very fullest. I've made some great friends, done some fabulous things, experienced a lot of new discoveries first-hand. And I know now, without a doubt, where Xena is... well, relatively speaking. I just have to wait for her to get there."

Dite shimmied. "I sooo cannot tell you how I am like, looking forward to *that* reunion. Gives me the tingles just thinking about it."

The love goddess was so completely lost in her fantasies that she missed the shadow that crossed Gabrielle's face at the mention of her reunion with Xena.

"So," Gabrielle said after a few minutes of silence. "What happened? I mean, I didn't actually expect to ever get to come back here... not with Ares here and knowing the way the rest of the Pantheon feels about me."

Aphrodite picked at the silky material on the chaise. "Well, Ares isn't, like, ya know here... stirring up more of those radical war things in Turkey or some such. As for the others," she shrugged gracefully. "It took 'em a little while to, you know, get over the bitchin' and moanin', but they did eventually realize that Xena did them a totally awesome favor."

Gabrielle looked up at her in surprise. Dite looked up through her lashes, easily reading the unbelief on Gabrielle's expression.

"No kiddin', babe! The move to Rome did some totally awesome thing to their power bases. They had you know, centuries of massive power they wouldn't have otherwise. It was a majorly bitchin' rush while it lasted. Besides, Artemis was absolutely whacked over the fact that her Amazon babes found a new place to like, flourish."

"And the rest?"

"They really don't have the power to waste worrying about something that happened nearly two millennia ago that was ultimately a good thing for them, ya know?"

"So they just don't care?"

"Nah, not really. They mostly just get together with some of the other gods, ya know, like I do with Ch'uang. They spend a major amount of time just rehashing the past."

"Do they know about me?"

Aphrodite shook her head. "No one has said a word and trust me, babe. I woulda heard. These chicks gossip worse than a bunch of old hens after a night with a rooster."

Gabrielle couldn't help the laughter that bubbled up, though whether it was due to the expression falling from Aphrodite's lips or the comical look on her face as she said it, it would have been hard to say. Regardless, she laughed until the tears streamed down her face and Dite couldn't help but join in, though she didn't know *why* she was laughing except that the sound of Gabrielle's laughter was infectious.

Finally the laughter slowed with only the occasional giggle or hiccup to mar the silence. It took several attempts, but eventually Gabrielle was able to look at Aphrodite without sputtering back into laughter again.

"Whew!" she said with a grin, waving her hands in front of her face to help cool the flush she'd developed with all her laughing. "Gods, I needed that. I haven't laughed like that in... ever."

Dite chuckled. "Me either. But what were we like, laughing about anyway?"

The question was enough to nearly send Gabrielle back into the throes of laughter, but she quelled the urge with supreme effort. Taking a deep breath, she turned to Aphrodite. "Well, *I* was laughing at the visual you gave me... Somehow picturing Athena and Artemis and the rest as chickens strutting around in the yard was just not something I ever expected to hear coming from your lips."

Aphrodite sat there for a long time thinking about this with a very serious face. Finally she nodded. "Okay... whatever. Now," brightening and changing the subject, "I have a totally gnarly surprise for ya."

Gabrielle blinked. "A surprise. Aphrodite... you didn't have to...."

Dite covered Gabrielle's mouth. "I know I didn't. But trust me, Cutie. This is one rockin' surprise. You're gonna love it... I promise. Now, close your eyes."

Gabrielle gave her a look and she waved her hands impatiently. "Close 'em and no peeking." Dite rose and reached for Gabrielle's hands. "C'mon. It's in the other room."

Gabrielle walked slowly, holding onto Dite's hand and trusting the goddess not to run her into anything. When they crossed the threshold, Gabrielle heard the slight whirring noise of the world wide god web and figured maybe Aphrodite had news of Xena. She clenched Dite's hand in reaction.

"Whoa, babe! Chill! You're gonna damage the merchandise holding on like that. Take it easy, will ya? It's not Xena," she started, then felt the slump of the body behind her. Aphrodite turned and pulled Gabrielle into her arms and simply held her as the tears slid down her cheeks. Tenderly she wiped the wetness from Gabrielle's face.

"Im so sorry, Gab. I never thought about this raising your hopes. I would never, ever tease or set you up like that."

"I know, Dite. I'm just so tired of waiting. I don't think I realized how long eternity was until just then. I feel like I have been alone forever and sometimes...." She stepped back from Aphrodite and wiped her eyes before opening them. Dite sucked in a breath at the loneliness that was apparent in the depths of those green eyes.

"Sometimes I wonder what will happen to me if I don't find her. Aphrodite, I'm not sure I could bear that."

"Oh you will, Little One and I for one am sooo totally looking forward to that rockin', reunion," wiggling her hips and shimmying just the slightest bit. "I am expecting serious love vibrations and a way gnarly power surge to be headed my way over that one."

Gabrielle chuckled wryly. "Yeah, well, I'm still waffling between kissing her and killing her when I do find her."

Aphrodite snorted, glad to see Gabrielle's sense of humor reasserting itself. "Well, if you kill her first, you can kiss and make up later." She paused in thought pinching her lips between her fingers. "Though, you could skip the fighting and go straight to the making up... although I'm betting a good fight would make the making up even more delicious. On the other hand...."


Aphrodite stopped her vocal musing when Gabrielle said her name so emphatically. "Hmph?" she hummed against Gabrielle's hand on her lips.

"Please, you're making my head spin with all the coulds and could nots. I have to find her first. Now," deliberately changing the conversation, "where's my surprise??"

Dite squealed and clapped her hands together. "Oh, this is so cool. Check this out."

She led Gabrielle over to a small marble table near the god web. "I know you've been hiding your scrolls whenever you pass through Greece." She put her hands behind her and began pacing allowing her glasses to appear when she resumed speaking.

"I've taken them, a few at a time and transcribed them, putting them into book form for you. Then I put them back where you hid them." Dite looked directly at Gabrielle. "I, you know, figured you like, had them there for a reason."

"You read my scrolls?" Gabrielle swallowed, never having thought that anyone would ever read her scrolls. She'd made sure to put them in the one place she was sure no one, not even the gods would look.

Dite shook her head. "No, not really. I mean, not much. I mostly saw bits, um... little things. The um, the god web scanned them in and when I was done with everything I could, you know, find, I printed them up."

"Why?" a hoarse whisper. She knew very well how personal some of those scrolls had been.

"Why what?" She turned and noted with alarm that Gabrielle was sporting a pallor instead of her normal healthy complexion. "Gabrielle?!?"

Gabrielle closed her eyes and focused on breathing. When she felt her world equalize, she opened her eyes and gave Dite a tremulous smile.

"I'm sorry, Aphrodite. You just caught me a little off guard. I never thought anyone would ever *find* my scrolls... much less *read* them. There was some really personal stuff in there. That's why I hid them in the...."

"... tomb Hephaestus created. I know. I wondered why you went in there. When I found the scrolls, well, I thought it would be a radical surprise for you." Dite took off her glasses and faced Gabrielle squarely.

"I'm sorry Gabrielle. I didn't mean to upset you. I was just tryin' to do something nice for ya."

Gabrielle covered Dite's hands. "You *did* do something nice for me. I just wasn't expecting anything like it. I'm sorry I hurt your feelings going off like that. I know you better than that. Now, can I see them?"

Dite looked at Gabrielle for another long minute, seeing her color return. Then she walked over to her desk and removed four large, leather-bound volumes. Then she came back to the marble table and set them down with a loud thump.

"You've written a lot there, girlfriend, you know that?"

Gabrielle nodded, too stunned by the intricate tooling on the covers to say a word. She let her hand run over each cover, noting the different insignia Aphrodite had inscribed into each one. Finally, she drew a shuddering breath.

"Thank you, Aphrodite. These are... fantastic. Can I... share them with you?"

Dite smiled and clapped her hands, bouncing around like a little kid in her excitement. "I was sooo hoping you were gonna share, cause it was mega hard to be good when I was puttin' these things together. You've had some gnarly adventures."

Gabrielle caressed the cover of the first journal. "I really have and I've met some of the most interesting people." She opened the book to the first entry and noted it was dated in the upper right corner.

"You put them in order?"

"Well, yeah. I mean, how else would you read it? That's how I got to see bits... you know, looking for the dates and stuff. You could get a massive amount of info on one of those scrolls of yours, ya know."

Gabrielle nodded and smiled. "I know. Xena used to tease me about that. She said I could get more stories onto a single scroll than should be physically possible," she added with a chuckle. She looked up at Aphrodite. "How did you get it all into four journals? I've done a lot in the centuries I've been around."

"No kiddin', babe! I will not tell you the massive amount of ink and paper it took to copy those scrolls. But it was worth it, if you like them." Aphrodite looked down bashfully. This was probably one of the most intensely personal and intimate things she had ever undertaken that didn't involve sex in some way. She was a little unsure given Gabrielle's initial reaction.

Gabrielle rose from her chair and moved around to where Dite sat hesitantly, opening her arms and embracing the love goddess when Dite clasped her in a hug.

"I love them, Dite and I love you as well. Thank you for looking out for me," she said softly.

Gabrielle didn't see Aphrodite catch the tears that fell from her eyes. But she felt the light kiss brush the top of her head and heard the whispered words, "That what friends do for each other, Gab!"

After a lengthy embrace, Dite had her emotions under control and pulled back. "Now, c'mon. I wanna read the good stuff!"

Gabrielle laughed and soon the two of them were pouring over the journals.

"I can't tell you how much I enjoyed this... how much I needed this."

"Me too, bardic babe! And I can honestly say I sooo haven't had this much radical fun or laughed so hard in like, ages. Now you be careful, will ya? I know my bro has been way busy with his war stuff lately. Otherwise, he'd have, you know, popped in on me."

"I will, Dite. Thanks for caring. It means a lot to me."

"Well, make sure you come say good bye to me before you leave, if you can, all right? Time's gotta be getting close."

Gabrielle nodded. "I hope so. I'm ready for this to be over."

Aphrodite pushed the bangs off Gabrielle's forehead. "I know," was her soft response.

Gabrielle sighed as she overlooked the city. Even from here she could smell the coppery scent of blood and felt her teeth elongate in response. It wasn't something she wanted to feel, but it had been so long since she'd had the chance to hunt and feed, it was an involuntary reaction. The fact that humanity seemed to be at war with itself again simply exacerbated the problem.

Gabrielle hadn't been to Gaul in a very long time and nothing she saw now changed her attitude of the place. Poverty was rampant and many people looked filthy and gaunt... as though they had been run into the earth and hadn't eaten properly in years.

Gabrielle had to be careful as she hunted. She didn't want to cause problems in what was clearly a troubled society, but she needed the blood. She found a small pig and drained it, then carefully cured the meat to leave on some unfortunate's doorstep.

The troubles this country now known as France was suffering through were staggering, but still she had wanted to do her bit to further the greater good. So Gabrielle had traveled the countryside, doing what she could to alleviate the stress of the common people all around her.

Many thought her an angel and she didn't correct them, letting them think that a mythological creature had come to ease their distress.

So it had taken her a very long time to reach the center of the city that had stirred her hunger and she'd had to travel back out into the country under the cover of darkness to fill her need.

Finally sated and sure that her gift had been accepted by a family that had shown her kindness, Gabrielle headed into the city to see what she could do there to help.

She found a tavern, clean with a decent house wine and sat down to rest for a bit. After a bit of time, a group of French revolutionaries came in, loud and strident.

"Barkeep! Dinner and wine all around!"

The man behind the bar nodded and within minutes the group was served. Food and drink had calmed them all somewhat, much to Gabrielle's surprise. Her experience had taught her that spirits tended to make men rowdier and more rambunctious.

Without intending to, she found her senses sharpening and she easily honed in on the quiet conversation now flowing at the nearby table. She ordered a meal to keep them from becoming suspicious of her motives, though her dress made her stand out anyway.

With a mental shrug, she directed her attention to the revolutionaries, nodding her thanks to the waitress as she set the meal in front of her.

"I'm telling you, we have to fine a way to stop the Scarlet Pimpernel. Too many of the highbrow aristocrats are escaping because of him and his league. If we want this revolution to be successful, they all have to die!"

"C'mon, Pierre. The streets run red with their blood now. What difference does it make if a few get away? The country is ours. They will never get it back from us!"

A smack to the back of the head made the speaker bite his tongue and he glared at Pierre who returned the look without flinching.

"Idiot!" he hissed. "Until we get them all, there is always a chance that they will return and try to recover what they think is their rightful place." Jacques nodded slowly, then Pierre continued speaking.

"Chauvelin has been ordered to find the Pimpernel. He has put the word out into the streets. One million francs for the Pimpernel, dead or alive. Five hundred thousand for any other league member. We can be patriotic and get rich at the same time."

Gabrielle's mind went back several months, to a time when she was working in a costal town.

When she had left Greece, Gabrielle had headed north and had walked until she reached the sea. Then she had turned her steps westward, determined to conquer the unreasoning dislike she still harbored towards Gaul and its inhabitants. She remembered far too easily what the land had been like under the Romans and she hoped sincerely that time had changed that.

She wandered near the coast for a while, finding plenty of families in need and realizing that they were in the midst of a revolution by the tales that floated across the countryside now and again. But there were so many to help that she hadn't made it into the city to confirm it. Given what was rumored, she really wasn't sure she wanted to.

Late one evening in July, she stood on a high cliff looking north towards England. She had much better memories of that country now and was reminiscing about her time spent with Will. He had surpassed her expectations and had become the most famous and prolific bard that country had ever seen. She was glad. He had been a good friend to her and had managed to turn many of the stories she'd shared with him into something greater than what she'd thought they could become.

Some were even stories he'd told her in the raw stages of their infancy and she was amazed at how polished the finished products had become.

Out of the corner of her eye she caught sight of a British schooner approaching the coast. There was something furtive in its movements and Gabrielle easily dissolved into the shadows she was so familiar with.

The boat was hidden in a natural cove that kept prying eyes from seeing unless they knew exactly where to look. The men who exited the boat were dressed for stealth and secrecy and Gabrielle watched with interest as they made their way cautiously towards the city.

For several days she watched, wondering what had happened to the men, until finally, on the fourth night, they returned bearing one with them who walked blindfolded and gagged with arms pulled behind him and bound.

Gabrielle stepped out from the shadows, bringing the little parade to a sudden, unexpected halt.

"Step aside, m'lady," a cultured English voice commanded, brandishing a sword in her direction. "I have no desire to harm you, but you will not stand between us and the success of our mission."

Gabrielle batted the sword aside as though it were of no importance and even less threat. "You tell me your mission. I will determine whether your night will end in success or failure."

The masked man flung his cape back from his dark shoulders and laughed aloud. "A delicate flower such as yourself, my dear lady? Somehow...."

Whatever he had been about to say was cut off when two silk-clad arms flashed out and the man crumpled to his knees. Half a dozen swords were heard being drawn from the sheaths, but no one moved when they heard Gabrielle's words.

"I have just cut off the flow of blood to your brain. So tell your boys to put their swords away and we'll talk. You've got about twenty seconds left before your brain shuts down. Make your choice."

The man sputtered and signaled his men who immediately sheathed their weapons and stepped back a pace. Gabrielle walked forward again and her hands again rushed forward towards the man's neck. He gasped and fell forward, his arms catching him bare inches from the ground.

"Now that I have your attention... who are you and what are you doing?" Gabrielle walked over to the man who was bound and calmly untied the ropes holding his hands behind him.

The prisoner released his own gag and blindfold, then turned his attention to the group still standing silently around him. One rubbed his throat conspicuously and the others deferred to his action. The man caught sight of Gabrielle and gently clasped her hand, raising it to his lips for a kiss.

"Madame," he said with a deep voice and a French inflection to his words. "I am the Marquis du la Noire. And this gentleman who has saved my life from the mobs of Paris is none other than the Scarlet Pimpernel, if I am not mistaken."

The man still rubbing his throat rose stiffly to his knees and was then aided by one of the other of his band to stand on shaky legs. The second man waited until his leader had his balance, then stepped back respectfully.

The first man swirled his cape back over his shoulders and extended an arm to the Frenchman. "I am indeed, sir," he confirmed with a hoarse voice. Then he turned to Gabrielle. "My apologies, dear lady. I of all people should know better than to judge a book by its cover. Will you walk with us? I would be glad to explain our mission to you, but we need to get the Marquis to the ship with all due haste."

Gabrielle considered. The Pimpernel's men had made no move against her, though they had certainly wanted to and except for misjudging her delicacy, Gabrielle snorted at *that* particular thought, he had been quite the gentleman. Yet her doubt of him was plain, though she sensed no real danger from him. It was simply a bizarre situation and her bard's curiosity won out over whatever sense of danger the band of men had been projecting.

She nodded her consent. Without another word, the men formed up around the Marquis and the Pimpernel took Gabrielle's arm and placed it within his own. Then he began to tell his tale.

He finished just as they reached the ship and he was much winded for the telling. Gabrielle stood silently while he caught his breath, appalled at what she'd been told. Finally, the Pimpernel was able to speak again.

"Now do you understand why we do what we do? And why we make it look like a kidnapping? We can't do any good if we are locked up or dead."

Gabrielle chuckled wryly. "Yeah, I supposed being dead could put a real crimp in your plans," thinking of the times it had caused her more problems than it had solved. "I will keep your secret, Pimpernel and wish you success in your efforts. I may not agree with the government, but I know I don't agree with wholesale slaughter."

"Neither do I, dear lady. Neither do I."

And since that time, Gabrielle had had several occasions to run into the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel and though she never directly contributed to their cause, she made sure he was aware of any goings on in the capital city that were relayed to her by the many travelers she met on her way.

This however, was the first time she herself had made it in and she wondered even now why she had finally come. It had been dark when she arrived and she was curious about the overwhelming scent of blood that made her hair stand on end.

When morning arrived, her curiosity turned to revulsion and for the first time in centuries, Gabrielle was physically sick to her stomach as she saw people cheer while others were beheaded. The memories the vision of the guillotine stirred in her were horribly unpleasant, but the peoples' rejoicing was sickening to a degree that Gabrielle could not abide.

She turned and pushed her way out of the press of bodies, shuddering each time she heard the blade fall and choking back bile with every glad cry that arose afterwards.

In her haste to leave, she didn't notice the short military man standing at the edge of a platform with a hand tucked into his waistcoat as he callously watched the proceedings. And she never saw the dark eyes of the taller man that flanked the general search the crowd, wondering what had suddenly caused his pulse to race. Only one had ever done that to him and she had been dead for nearly two millennia.

Ares shook his head, putting the delicious sensation down to the blood that flowed so freely through the streets of Paris. The purge was going quite well and soon the man who stood next to him would be ready to create a new empire.

"C'mon, Napoleon. We have plans to make."

The general looked at his mentor for a long moment before nodding his agreement. He had learned much from this man who was called after the ancient Greek god of war. But soon it would be *his* time and the world would tremble when it heard the name Napoleon Bonaparte.

Gabrielle waited for the Pimpernel, wanting to say goodbye and to warn him of the escalated price on his head. He thanked her for her warning and they parted as friends. It wouldn't be until years later that she learned his identity, as well as his whole story.

She turned her footsteps back towards Greece, having determined that she was ready to travel to the new land now known as the United States of America. It was there she was sure that she would find Xena again. There was something about it that called to her... had done so even when she was crossing through it the first time. Besides which, Dite had practically confirmed it when they had traveled together briefly through it.

Gabrielle let her mind process all the places she'd traveled in that wild, untamed land and speculated just how much of it had changed in the centuries since she'd visited. She hoped not much. She wanted Xena to experience the beauty she'd seen.

Now her thoughts focused on Xena, wondering how she would react to being so far out of time and place. She would be disconcerted, certainly and confused, but would she be angry? Upset? How would she communicate? Would she make friends or would she try to do everything on her own?

Gabrielle smiled. Knowing her warrior, she'd find every challenge she possibly could while she tried to figure out how to get home.

The sound of music drew her attention and Gabrielle walked off the road and looked around to find where it was coming from. What she saw was something of a surprise and she made her way over to the young man who sat alone on the stage, apparently oblivious to the rest of the world.

She sat under the shade of a tree and let the music wash over her. There was a quality that spoke to her and brought to mind several of the events of her life. When it was over, she still sat, eyes closed, allowing the peace the memories had brought her to flow through her like sweet wine. She felt the youth approach, but waited until he blocked the sun before she allowed her eyes to flit open.

"Did you enjoy the concert?" the boy asked with a hint of arrogance.

"Yes, I did," she answered placidly. "You play very well."

"I wrote the piece myself."

"Well, it was lovely. I enjoyed it very much. Is there a story behind it?"

He tilted his head. He was used to a much different reaction, but strangely, he appreciated the honesty of this one. He smiled and offered Gabrielle his hand.

"Yes, there is actually. My name is Richard... Richard Wagner."

Gabrielle accepted his hand and let him pull her to her feet. "Well, Richard Wagner, it is nice to meet you. My name is Gabrielle. Perhaps you'd share the story with me? And then I'll share a story with you. Who knows, maybe you'll find something to write about from it."

Wagner laughed. "Come, Gabrielle. I think my maman would love to meet you."

And the teenager led the way to his parents' home.

Part 17