"Well, that was a lot different story than the one I saw when you played," Gabrielle said to Richard as they reached the front door. He opened it and motioned her inside.
"Really?" he said before he called out, "Maman? Maman, I'm home and I brought a guest."
A robust woman waddled in, wiping her hands on a kitchen towel. "Richard, what have I told you about yelling in the house?" swatting him on the behind as he bent to kiss her cheek. "Introduce me to your friend, dear."
Wagner laughed again. "Yes, maman. "This is Gabrielle. Gabrielle, my mother, a true terror in the kitchen," laughing louder when she swatted at him again.
"Be nice, young man, or you'll do without supper and I made your favorite. Go wash up. Hello Gabrielle and welcome to our home. You will join us for even meal, yes?"
Gabrielle nodded. "I'd love to, thank you, if you're sure it's not an imposition."
"Pshaw, absolutely not, child. Richard is something of a loner, so if he took the time to make your acquaintance, there must be something pretty special about you."
"She sat and listened to my music maman," Wagner said as he pelted back down the stairs. There were water marks on his face and his hands were still fairly damp. His mother shook her head in despair. He was almost a man and still there was so much of the little boy in him.
"She listened with the expression of one who understood what the music was saying. Though now she tells me that what she saw and what it said was not the same thing." He ushered them into the kitchen where so many lovely smells were emanating from and fairly making Gabrielle's mouth water. Once more she was thankful she was still able to thoroughly enjoy this part of her humanity.
Frau Geyer set the dishes on the table and motioned them to a seat. A smile coming to her face as a hearty hail was shouted from the door. She looked at Gabrielle and rolled her eyes. "Men! No wonder I can teach the boy no manners," she joked good-naturedly. "Excuse me, please. My husband Ludwig is home."
In a moment she returned with a stout man trailing behind her and he grinned as he saw Gabrielle. "And who is this charming fraulein?"
The bard extended her hand and the man accepted it graciously and placed a kiss on her knuckles. The action drew him a smack from his wife and a chuckle from Gabrielle and Richard. "I'm called Gabrielle," she answered with a smile.
"And what brings you to our humble haus, Gabrielle?" Ludwig asked. They all resumed their seats and began to dish food out onto their plates.
"Richard's invitation," she replied honestly, though it brought a smile to her face.
"You are not German," a statement, though the question in the words was clear.
"No, actually, I'm Greek. I've just traveled the world a bit."
"Have you now? Sounds like a dangerous thing to do."
Gabrielle shrugged. "Sometimes, but it has also given me the chance to meet some interesting people and do some fascinating things." Not to mention spend hundreds of years watching the time pass while I waited to catch up with Xena. "Besides, I've learned to take care of myself pretty well."
Ludwig looked doubtful, but was too polite to say anything aloud. Instead he nodded and shoveled another mouthful of food in, smoothly preventing him from speaking without appearing rude.
The business of eating took precedence for a few minutes, but once it slowed down, Richard spoke up again.
"Tell me, Gabrielle. What did you see in the music if not war and triumph?"
Gabrielle smiled at Wagner's youthful enthusiasm. It had been a while since she'd felt so old... or so young. She chewed carefully and set her fork on her plate, then folded her hands and leaned her chin on them.
"It was more a feeling, Richard." Gabrielle closed her eyes. It's the feeling of an approaching storm. A meadow, holding its breath, waiting for the onslaught. The storm arrives and everything bows before its fury, but eventually it passes and life returns to the meadow once more."
Green eyes opened and beheld the wonder of the three faces looking back at her.
"What?" honest confusion coloring her voice.
"Even I did not see those things and I told Richard the story he based his piece on," Ludwig said. "That was amazing."
Gabrielle shrugged a little self-consciously. "I guess I've always seen things a little bit differently."
"Are you a poet, Gabrielle?"
"No, Maman," calling her as she had been introduced to her. "Not exactly. More of a... bard. A storyteller."
"Can you share some stories with us, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle thought for a moment, wondering what to share. Then she smiled. "Have you ever heard the story of the Rheingold?"
"You make it seem so real, Gabrielle... like you were really there."
The food had grown cold long before and now they sat in candlelight while Gabrielle told them her story of the Rheingold.
Gabrielle chuckled. "It all comes from knowing how to weave a good story, Richard... to believe in what you're telling so much that it makes everyone else believe too."
"Can you tell it again and go a little slower this time? I'd like to take some notes. I think I could tell the story with music." He blushed then stammered. "If you don't mind, that is."
"I don't mind, Richard. The difference in your craft and mine is that your work leaves things open to the imagination of the listener. Mine leads them along the path I want them to follow, creating the picture I want them to see."
"You should be a philosopher," Ludwig grumbled.
Gabrielle laughed aloud at the thought. "Like Plato and Socrates were, you mean?" She shook her head. "No thanks. I used to have to have their conversations interpreted for me when they waxed philosophical. It made my head hurt to try and think in circles."
Maman laughed at this pronouncement. "Oh, I can see you'd fit in very well with Ludwig and his group of friends."
Ludwig glowered, but couldn't stop the twinkle in his eye. "Well," he said as his glare dissolved into laughter. "It is getting late. You will stay with us, or...?" he asked Gabrielle with a raised eyebrow.
"Of course she will stay with us!" Maman said adamantly. "She is our guest!"
"I know Maman," Ludwig said, "But I didn't know if she already had a place to be or someone who was expecting her."
"Oh," Maman replied, crestfallen. She turned to Gabrielle. "You are most welcome in our home."
"Thank you, Maman. I accept your invitation, as long as you're sure...."
The woman brightened considerably. "I'm sure. Come."
Gabrielle gestured to the still laden table. "But...."
Maman waved her hands. "It is of no matter. Ludwig will help me. And tomorrow you can tell your story again and maybe share some others?"
Gabrielle smiled. "I can do that. Thank you, Maman."
The following morning, Richard raced down the stairs anxious to talk to Gabrielle again. He'd never heard a storyteller who could paint such beautiful pictures with just words and he was looking forward to hearing more.
Already he had an inkling in the back of his mind of how he'd like to tell the tale of the ring trilogy, as Gabrielle had called it. It would make an intriguing opera, if he could just get all the pieces in his hands and weave them together.
So as soon as breakfast was over, Richard and Gabrielle sat down in the shade outside where they could see the fields being harvested and smell the rich tang of earth as it was being shorn of its fruits.
And Gabrielle told Wagner the story of the Rheingold once more.
Richard scribbled furiously as Gabrielle slowly went over each point of the story, making notes of things he wanted to compose around.
"So the Valkyrie were like Odin's harem?"
Gabrielle snorted, thinking of Xena's expression at that particular description. "Not exactly. They were like... angels, I guess would be the closest description. It was their job to bring Odin's warriors to Valhalla to receive their reward."
"And they had horses that flew?"
"Oh, yes... magnificent creatures. They made it easier for the Valkyrie to find the warriors and bring them to Valhalla for judgment."
"What did you think of Odin?" Richard asked.
Gabrielle's eyebrow raised and she gave the question careful consideration. "He was a weak god; at least that is how the stories portrayed him. He is presented as somewhat gullible and spineless."
Richard though about it, then nodded. "And the Rheingold?"
"Well, that is one reason I think he ended up being seen as such a weak god. He couldn't take care of it and when it was stolen from the Rhein maidens, it unleashed a monster they never expected."
"Yes. The power of the ring was that it made you invincible. It also stole that which you valued most. Since she valued her beauty...."
"... she became a hideous monster."
"Exactly. And it took a hero to take the ring from the monster and restore it to the Rhein maidens again."
"And was there a test... you know, for the hero?"
"Of course. Don't all good stories make the hero pass a test first?" Gabrielle said with a smile. "The test in this tale was one of fire... the hero had to cross through a ring of fire to claim the damsel that lay sleeping in the middle of it."
"Why? What key did the damsel hold that the hero needed to rescue her?"
Gabrielle's eyes went unfocused and her mind went back to the reality she had lived through. Remembering the dreams and the lost look in Xena's eyes. Remembering the joy that flowed between them when their lips met.
She turned back to Richard and blinked the past from her eyes. "She held the hero's heart."
Wagner nodded, but didn't comment. Already he had pictures forming in his mind, the basis for the opera he would one day write brewing in his imagination.
Gabrielle stayed with Richard and his parents for a couple more days, sharing stories of her own experience and legends she had learned as a child in Poteidaia.
Before she made ready to leave, Ludwig pulled her aside and offered her a small sum of money. Gabrielle looked at him questioningly.
"We, Maman and I, wanted to be sure you were taken care of, Gabrielle. We've never seen Richard as animated as he has been for the last few days around you. You've given him something and we didn't know any other way to say thank you, except to offer you a little money to help you in your travels."
"Ludwig, you took me in as a stranger, offered me your food and shelter with no thought of repayment. I can't let you do this. Your friendship is all the payment I need."
"I understand your feelings, Gabrielle. We value your friendship as well, but Maman and I don't feel right about letting a beautiful, young woman like yourself travel alone without providing for some sort of shelter for you along the way. Please. We'd feel better about it."
Gabrielle looked into his eyes, seeing genuine concern in them. There was no way she was going to show him her skills were more than they seemed. She had taken great pains to do her meditation and practice in privacy. Much like her bacchae behavior, her martial skills were hidden from the rest of the world except when she was called on to defend herself or someone in need. She was tired and not presenting herself as a target meant she fought less. A circumstance she was more than happy with after centuries of conflict.
She nodded slowly, seeing relief pass through his gaze. "Thank you, Ludwig. I... appreciate your concern. It's been a long time since someone besides me has looked after myself." She paused, not wanting to reveal too much. "Thanks."
Ludwig wondered at her statement, but clearly recognized he'd pushed as far as she would allow. So he nodded his acceptance of her words. And when morning came, the family stood outside the door of their home and bid Gabrielle godspeed on her journey.
Gabrielle reached the base of Olympus and wondered what had happened to Dite. She talked to the goddess nightly since she'd reached her homeland, knowing that Dite could hear her even if she couldn't respond. Usually the portal she used was open in expectation of her arrival, but it remained steadfastly shut. She started to knock, then realized that her blood was fairly tingling beneath her skin.
Gabrielle moved to an outcropping of rock and settled down to wait.
The tingling stopped suddenly and almost immediately Aphrodite appeared.
"Hey, there, Cutie. C'mon up." She took Gabrielle's hand and pulled her to her feet. "I tried to ya know, reach ya, but we like, didn't think about a way to keep you from here if something radical came up. Ares was here. He's been so majorly busy lately. Wars in Turkey. Civil unrest all over. A war in... what was... oh, you know, the United States and a totally nasty revolution in France. This is the first time he's been back here in like, ages."
Gabrielle nodded. "It's all right, Dite. I should have realized when you didn't answer there was a problem. I just... I promised I'd come say goodbye."
"You're leaving? Have you like, felt Xena or...?"
Gabriele shook her head. "No, but I'm ready for a change of scenery." She paused. "It's a gut feeling, but I think the time is close."
Dite put an arm around Gabrielle's shoulders and steered her towards her living quarters. "If it's any kind of consolation, babe, I think your gut's pretty much dead on the money."
"But you haven't seen her yet either?"
"Nope, but I totally believe it is just a matter of time... and really, not that much. Course, everything's pretty relative for you these days."
"That's the truth," Gabrielle acknowledged as she dropped onto a lounge chair. "It's been entertaining and I've met some of the most interesting characters...."
"But...?" Dite questioned offering Gabrielle a drink a sinking onto her own chaise.
"But I'm ready for it to be over. Given my choice it wouldn't have happened at all."
"Which part?" Aphrodite flinched at the look Gabrielle gave her. "Well, I didn't" she shrugged, "you know, know if you meant the bacchae part or the Xena part."
Gabrielle paused thoughtfully. "Ya know, the bacchae part was never an issue when Xena was alive. You had to tell me about it, remember? I think eternal life would be okay, even as a bacchae, as long as I had Xena to share it with." She hesitated, then added, "And you too, of course. I don't think I could have done this without you, Dite."
"Yeah, ya coulda, but I am so way glad you didn't."
Gabrielle grinned and opened her arms. Aphrodite slid from her chair to Gabrielle's and heartily accepted her embrace.
"I'm gonna miss you so much!" Gabrielle whispered into the hug.
"Me too, Cutie. But I'll be keeping an eye on ya and you can still, ya know, talk to me every night. Who knows? Maybe I'll even surprise ya sometime and answer," said with a shaky chuckle.
"I'll count it as a promise, Dite."
"Good," the goddess said. "You do that. Now, how long can ya stay?"
"Not long. I really do want to get started." Gabrielle gave Dite a look. "You know how I feel about sea travel."
"Ring working okay? You don't get radically seasick anymore, do ya?"
Gabrielle clasped Dite's hands as they trailed over the ring looking for flaws. "The ring is fine, Dite. I'm just not real big on the 'weeks on the open ocean' thing."
"Ah... gotcha. Don't blame ya... I'm sorta attached to the pop right in method myself."
Gabrielle looked at her wryly. "Dite, I'm pretty sure we'd ALL choose the pop right in method if it was an option open to us. Unfortunately, as far as I know, it has never been a possibility for me, so I have to do things the old-fashioned way."
Dite ran her hands through Gabrielle's hair, ending with a light touch on her chin. "You listen careful to old Dite, all right now?"
Gabrielle nodded, wondering why the conversation had suddenly become so serious.
"You take good care of yourself, especially now, 'kay?" Dite sighed and moved away from Gabrielle, walking over to the window and looking out with sightless eyes. "I dunno what Ares is up to, but he hasn't been himself since... well, you know. And he has been working himself into a frenzy, stirring up wars everywhere to accumulate every ounce of power he can muster. He hasn't said, but I think he is...." Aphrodite shook her head.
Gabrielle padded over to stand behind the goddess and out a hand on her shoulder. "You think what?" She pushed gently on Dite's shoulder, urging Dite to face her. "You think he knows what happened to Xena? You think he is looking for her??" Gabrielle's voice had dropped to a harsh whisper.
Dite shook her blonde head. "No... I don't think so. I think... I think he is looking for her replacement. Or something that comes as close to what she was as he can find. That is why it is doubly important for you to be careful. You have the same fire, the same warrior strength that Xena did... does... will have...." She waved her hand. "Whatever. You use it differently, channel it differently, but the strength is the same and that's what he needs. It's what he wants."
"And if he finds me...."
"If he finds you, it won't be hard for him to figure out that Xena is probably an immortal too."
"And he would destroy the world to find her."
"Well, I'll keep as low a profile as I can. I am ready to find her and come home. I think I've earned a rest."
Aphrodite smiled sadly. "You let her find you and get you home. I'll make sure you get your rest."
Gabrielle leaned forward and kissed Dite lightly on the cheek. "You've always been a good friend, Aphrodite. I'm proud to say I know you."
Dite teared up and smiled. "That has to be one of the totally nicest things you've ever said to me, Sweet Cheeks. You're just trying to radically screw up my face, aren'tcha?" She dabbed at her eyes self-consciously. "Look at that. I'll be days trying to get rid of the red nose and eyes."
Gabrielle smiled. "You can still wow 'em, Dite."
Aphrodite laughed as she wiped her eyes again. "You're such a sweet talker, Gab. No wonder you do the bard thing so well."
"Well, that and I have LOTS of practice. Now," changing the subject rapidly, "Can we have one more night of girl talk before I head out?"
"Ooo, what a radical idea," Dite squealed, snapping her fingers and depositing the two of them in a huge hot tub, complete with pink bubbles and hot chocolate with marshmallows.
"Ya know what I miss most... aside from the obvious, I mean," Gabrielle asked as she sipped her chocolate. Dite shook her head as she swallowed her own cocoa.
"I miss sensible clothing. It was so nice when I could wear my Amazon clothes."
"Ooo, or that hot little velvet number you had. Va-va-va-voom!!" Dite said, waggling her eyebrows in Gabrielle's direction.
Gabrielle felt the flush run up her face and rubbed the back of her neck. She cleared her throat. "I mean, have you seen some of the outrageous costumes women are wearing these days?"
"Oh yeah. They are so bogus." Dite laughed. "I've noticed you wear them as little as possible."
Gabrielle giggled. "Yeah. Just long enough to introduce myself and get established. Then I go back to the trousers."
"I noticed. You totally wouldn't believe the envy vibes I felt from the women who saw them."
"Really? Wonder how long it will be before sensible clothes are fashionable again."
Gabrielle left the following morning, never knowing how close she'd come to being discovered.
"Hey, sis," Ares said as he walked into her chambers. As the centuries had passed and their powers had depleted, the Olympians tended to respect each others need for space and didn't pop into one another's area unannounced. Dite was personally convinced it had less to do with respect and more to do with the fact that no one wanted to waste the energy when they could walk, especially since no one had the strength for a fight besides her and Ares and they were simply too busy.
She looked up at him and removed her glasses, nonchalantly changing the screen on her world wide god web. Gabrielle had just exited the portal from Olympus and she'd been monitoring her progress.
"Whassup, bro?" cheerfully, noting the distracted look on his face. "You all right?"
"Hmm? Yeah, yeah. Déjà vu," Ares said shrugging off the tingling feeling he'd briefly experienced. "I just stopped by to say goodbye. I'm gonna be gone for a while."
"Really? Where ya headed now?"
"Couple places. Gotta keep those war fires stirred ya know."
"No, thanks and I totally don't wanna either," Dite answered lightly, though the feeling in her gut told her this could be bad news. "You gonna like, pop back and forth?"
"Nah, I need to travel conventionally for a while... you know, save up my strength for the important stuff."
She opened her arms and they embraced for a short time. For all their head-butting, they held a deep and genuine affection for one another.
"Well, you be careful out there. Not like the world is a totally gnarly place to be some days."
"I know. I'll talk to you and you do the same?"
"Count on it, bro."
"You can call me if you need me."
"Ditto, bro... right back atcha."
Ares didn't have a reply, so he kissed Dite's cheek and turned from the room without another word. Aphrodite watched him go, staring at the empty doorway for long moments after he disappeared through it. Then she focused her attention back on the god web, carefully tracking Gabrielle's progress while she busied herself with her many other concerns.
"So that catches you up to the present, Xena," Gabrielle mumbled softly to herself as she closed the journal. "Not like you can hear me," she said as she absently rubbed the cover, "but I felt like sharing anyway."
She looked around the deck, noticing the barest darkening at the horizon.
"I'm looking forward to being on land again. I wish Leo had figured out that flying machine. I think the heights issue would have been easier to bear than weeks at sea." She laughed to herself and shrugged.
"I hope it doesn't take long to find, you, Xena."
She returned her gaze to the horizon as the wind blew loose wisps of blonde hair around her face.
Xena focused her eyes across the horizon as the sea breeze caressed her face. The town lay behind her and here she could concentrate on the warmth in her soul that was Gabrielle to her.
"I hope it doesn't take long to find you, Gabrielle," she whispered to the wind and let her thoughts roam. She had some interesting stories to relay to the bard, but more than that, Xena missed Gabrielle with a soul-aching intensity. It reminded her greatly of the weeks she had been without the bard's presence in her life after Gabrielle had taken Hope into the pit.
Only this was worse. This had been going on for years and she knew that for Gabrielle it had been an eternity alone. Xena looked down at the fox and panther that had joined her on the hill overlooking the ocean.
"I'm gonna have to think of something really incredible to do for her when I finally find her." She chuckled at the look the panther cut in her direction. "I know. But I'm gonna try anyway."
Xena looked down at herself. The time she had spent in California had changed a few things - given her another piece of her puzzle, brought some old acquaintances into her life and.... She glanced down at herself again. Even given her better clothing. She kind of liked the new duds, though she still missed the freedom of her old leathers.
She let her mind drift back over the last few years.
It was cold in January, but Sutter had wanted a mill built and Xena was glad to get out of the confines of the stinking cattle town. So for the last couple months, she'd been billeted about fifty miles away from the settlement town working on building a new mill.
It wasn't bad. The pay was all right, the food was decent and it was so nice to be outdoors and using muscles that were used to a different work out. Besides, it was a lot easier to feed out here undetected.
Idly, she wondered what had happened to her sword and chakram, feeling confident that Gabrielle would have taken good care of them. She felt a passing twinge of concern that the bard wouldn't have them with her and they would have to travel back to Greece to recover them. Part of her hoped for that; it would give her some much-needed time alone with Gabrielle. The other part simply wanted to return to the home and time she knew and understood. Then she and Gabrielle could take some time together... maybe they could visit this land. She'd like to see it before there were so many people around.
Xena realized that she had no doubt about the fact that Gabrielle would forgive her. She did wonder what sort of price she'd pay though. Not that Gabrielle was vindictive, but knowing the bard as well as she did, she was going to be frustrated at the very least. And that frustration was liable to take many forms before it was extinguished.
Gabrielle was also liable to be very angry as well, Xena knew and she almost hoped she was. Gabrielle would be more likely to forgive her faster if she was angry. Her anger would burn hot and fast and then be gone. If she was only hurt or upset, it could be a long time before Xena was out of the doghouse. Xena didn't want to be in the doghouse. It was cold there.
Xena recognized that she had no doubts about their finding one another either. It was taking longer than she hoped, but she was now sure in the very depths of her soul that it would happen.
She smiled and finished dressing, wrapping the palms of her hands carefully in leather strips before pulling her gloves on. Then she walked outdoors, ready to put in another day of mill construction.
She wasn't sure why it caught her attention, but Xena recognized the somewhat shiny rock for what it was as soon as she picked it up. She gazed at the nugget thoughtfully before slipping it into her britches pocket and continued her work.
A few minutes later she spotted another and then another. By the end of the day, her pockets were full of gold nuggets.
The following day, they were out again and this time Xena saw that she wasn't the only one who'd noticed the glittering surprise the riverbed seemed to hold. But the boss, Marshall, seemed determined to not only keep them busy finishing the mill, but also in keeping the gold a tightly held secret. Xena had to wonder how long it would last.
She didn't have long to wonder.
Almost overnight a new shanty town sprung up and people began streaming in infected with 'gold fever'. If Xena thought Sutter's original town had been bad, this was magnified a thousand fold. The crowds, stench, noise and lawlessness nearly drove her away, but she stayed, clinging with tenacity to the belief that her answer was here somewhere.
Out of necessity, Xena found herself playing the part of a lawman and she was very good at it. Amazing how universal the pinch was when is came to working on the bad guys. Not surprising, as it was much what she had been doing while she spent years wandering the length and breadth of Greece with Gabrielle.
It wasn't something she planned. More, it was something she fell into and did such a good job at it that the Federal Marshal made her a deputy, having seen her in action and knowing she was capable of getting the job done.
She had been at the job for a number of months when she finally found what she had been seeking.
It was the darkest part of the night and Xena was out alone. It was time to feed again, something she'd noticed was occurring much more frequently with the influx of humanity and the increasing tensions they brought into her life.
She had to go quite some distance out of the town to find any wildlife, but eventually she found a trail she could track and it led to a den of bears. Okay, a little wilder than I'd like. Xena stood still, hands on hips, simply breathing and listening. Then she found a scent she recognized and followed it as quickly and silently as she could. It didn't take long for the jackrabbit die at her hands as she rapidly drained it of its life force.
She felt the second presence more than anything and her hyper-alert senses allowed her to pinpoint the intruder almost immediately. Xena place the now dry rabbit on the ground and turned yellow eyes to the spot where her unwelcome visitor stood unmoving, watching her.
The voice was low and deep and Xena tilted her head in recognition. She closed her eyes, willing the burning away. She shivered a little and opened her now bright blue eyes, focusing on a spot in the darkness that finally stepped forward to establish its identity.
"Hello, Xena. It's been a long time."
"A lifetime," she said, still without moving.
Cecrops moved closer to her with his arm extended in greeting. "More like an eternity," smiling when she took his hand. "I never expected to see you here."
"It's a very long story."
Cecrops smiled turned wry at her words. "I have as long as you need to share and possibly, I can fill in some bits for you as well. Come. Let's sit down and exchange stories. I have a feeling this could take a while."
He waited for her to seat herself crossed-legged on the ground before he seated himself across from her in the same fashion. He folded his hands, propping his elbows on his knees and resting his chin on his hands. Xena kept her hands loosely clasped in her lap, not sure where to start her story. So she waited, hoping Cecrops would speak first.
"It's been a very long road for me to get here," he said in a soft, musing voice. "I've seen the world - actually been around it a couple times now. Visited some interesting places and taken part in lots of history. Met some fascinating people and made the acquaintance of a lot of beautiful women along the way." Cecrops grinned rakishly at Xena.
"Love 'em and leave 'em?"
He shrugged his shoulders. "Well, one of the perks of immortality. I know there's no future in it, so I don't invest everything in any relationship."
"Isn't that like cheating?"
"Not really. Come now, Xena. I've been alive and ALONE for over two thousand years and the only immortal I've encountered turned me down flat in favor of remaining faithful to someone who condemned her to a life alone. Somehow I don't think you have a right to criticize me for a dalliance now and then."
He never saw her straighten and it was only the searing pain in his jaw that clued him into her fury. He pushed her away from him.
"What the hell is wrong with you, Xena?" he said through clenched teeth, trying not to move his jaw too much. He rose and stood to his full height. She stood and went nose to nose to him, poking him in the chest to emphasize her words.
"Gabrielle?? Who do you think you are?"
"Someone who's been alone for a long, LONG time and could understand her loneliness as well. She's a beautiful woman, Xena and you left her alone. She didn't owe you fidelity. You made her fair game."
Xena's fists clenched and unclenched as she struggled not to put the pinch on a man she had once called friend. She lost the battle with her self control.
"How dare you...." She swung and connected with his nose this time, showering both of them in warm blood. Though satiated from her earlier feeding, she felt her teeth grow with the scent and rage now flowing in her veins.
Xena growled and lunged and for the first time, Cecrops raised a hand to defend himself. He felt she had a very good chance of actually killing him if she drained his body of blood and as tired as he got of living sometimes, he had no desire to die at Xena's hands in such a manner.
He caught her, spinning her away from him while holding her against his chest. "Xena, she turned me down. She's quite capable of taking care of herself and as far as I know, she has remained faithful to you and what the two of you shared together."
The rage died as quickly as it had flamed and Xena slumped in Cecrops arms. He eased an arm away from her, gingerly wiping the blood from his nose and sniffing. He grasped his jaw, wincing when he heard the bones grate together.
"Well, another perk of immortality is the ability to heal quickly," he said with a chuckle.
He released his hold on her. "Come. I know a place to go get a good stiff drink and a hot meal. Let's go trade stories. And I'll tell you about Gabrielle."
Xena stood still simply breathing, reigning in the emotions which were closer to the surface than she wanted them to be. Another moment and she drew a deep breath and nodded her head.
The Grass Valley Saloon was like nothing Xena had ever seen. She hadn't been in this town except to pick up the occasional troublemaker and she'd never stayed around long enough to visit. Something about the place just made her skin crawl.
So she entered with her warrior hackles up, giving her goosebumps and making the hair on the back of her neck stand straight up.
The interior was... gaudy was the first word that came to mind. The furniture was something that would be found in a palace - velvet, gilt mirrors, chintz curtains. Xena even spotted what appeared to be a Persian rug on the floor. And even though it was very early morning, the sconces that lined the walls flared with light so the stage could be clearly seen throughout the saloon.
Xena looked at Cecrops, the disdain visibly written on her face. He shrugged nonchalantly.
"The food is good."
"Damn well better be," she muttered. "I hate these kinds of places."
"Xena? You mean you never...?"
"No, not really." She shrugged. "And once Gabrielle came into my life, I wouldn't have anyway."
Cecrops gingerly shook his head. "You've both got it really bad, you know." He dropped his hand on hers and left it there, even when he felt her stiffen under his touch. "She's grown into a beautiful woman."
"She always was," Xena retuned quietly, as a server approached their table.
"Two specials and a pot of coffee," Cecrops said with a grimace. Maggie was a favorite and they had shared companionship many times since his arrival in the small town. She looked with concern at his bruised and busted face before she nodded and winked. Xena was a well-respected person in the territory and Cecrops had shared with Maggie the fact that he and Xena were old friends. He had in fact been out several times to find her, wanting their first meeting to be private. Maggie was glad he had finally been successful since this would hopefully mean an end to his nightly hunts, though she did wonder what had caused such damage to Cecrops' handsome visage.
"Tell me," Xena commanded with soft fierceness.
"It's been a few centuries, but I ran into her and we traveled together for a while."
Silence for a few minutes as Xena thought about his words. Then Maggie returned with their plates and coffee, coming back with a wet towel for Cecrops' face. He stroked her cheek and thanked her, then began to cautiously eat his food.
Xena mostly pushed hers from side to side of the plate. "How was she?" she asked after a while.
"Alone. Though she made friends wherever she went and had the favor of at least two goddesses that I'm aware of."
"Yes and Ch'uang-Mu... Chinese goddess of the bedroom."
"She was in China?"
"Then, yes... but she had already traveled much of the world. It was one of the things we enjoyed discussing... our experiences in different lands." He paused and chewed his food, pointing at her plate. "You really should eat. Even if it's just for appearances."
Blue eyes bore into him with searing intensity.
"Then again, maybe not." He shrugged.
"She was taken surprise by her immortality... and the reason behind it. Were you?" he asked with a bluntness that was unexpected.
Xena thought about it for a bit, then shook her head. "Not exactly. It was...." she shrugged. "It wasn't something I thought about much." She signaled the waitress over and waited for Maggie to bring the bottle and two glasses to the table before she resumed speaking.
"I was aware of the... possibilities... though." She opened the bottle and poured two shots, swallowing one and refilling her glass to sip at the second glass.
"Does it bother you?" he pried, knowing her was pushing his luck, but figuring he was out of harm's way as far as her killing him was concerned.
"Not if it means I can be with Gabrielle again," she said without hesitation and the look in her eyes made him swallow any other questions he had about that particular subject.
Cecrops pushed his mostly finished plate away from himself. He opened his mouth to change the subject when he was interrupted by a shrill screech. He and Xena looked up to see a dark haired, dark eyed woman sauntering down the stairs. Halfway down, she stopped and bent over, shimmying just the slightest bit.
"Hello boys! Here comes trouble!!"
The majority of the crowd whooped and hollered and even Cecrops grinned as much as his broken face would allow him. Xena simply froze.
"Callisto?" she muttered, rising to her feet. By this point, the woman had reached the bottom of the stairs and wiggled her way through the crowd to stand in front of Xena. There was no hint of recognition in the brown eyes that faced her, but Xena knew who the woman was, even if she went by a different name now. They were that same eyes she had seen a lifetime ago in Greece. The same eyes that had held accusation in them whenever their eyes had met. There were some things... some souls... that once encountered, were never forgotten, no matter what shape they took.
Dark eyes trailed up and down her body until Xena felt the need for a bath. She simply returned the look with a sneer.
"My, my. Aren't you a big girl, dear? I'm Lola Montez, proprietor of this fine establishment. All my friends call me Lola. And you do want to be my friend, don't you?" She waited for a response and was greeted with silence. Anger burned bright in the brown eyes at the slight, but she shrugged as though it was of no consequence. "Your loss."
Then she hollered and took the stage, ready to perform her nightly review for the lonely men who flocked to see her dance.
Xena dropped a few coins on the table to cover her tab and started out of the Saloon. Cecrops hadn't missed the interplay between her and Lola and followed as rapidly as he could pay his own bill. He caught Maggie's eye and she nodded her understanding before he walked out the door into the cold night.
"Xena?" he called out. "Hey, Xena... wait up," he said to the rapidly retreating figure. He bent over at the waist, a little dizzy from the lack of air his slowly healing nose was allowing him. "Have mercy in an old man, Xena. I can't move like I used to."
Xena turned around slowly. "I dunno. You seem to be doing all right."
Cecrops caught his breath and slowly stood upright. "You want to tell me what happened in there?"
"Not really," Xena replied shortly. Her emotions had been rubbed raw and she was ready to fight. He held up his hands in supplication.
"All right. All right. Come on back to my place and you can tell me what you've been up to and what you're doing here in California."
She regarded him steadily. Cecrops had never struck her as being a stupid man, though the centuries of immortality had made him a little more lax about things. Still he didn't seem completely suicidal, his earlier behavior not withstanding and she had promised to share her story.
Finally she nodded at him and motioned for him to lead the way.
Cecrops actually had a fairly comfortable home on one of the quieter streets in town. It wasn't much to look at on the outside, but the inside had three small rooms and he motioned Xena to a chair in front of the fireplace, seating himself in the other after he stirred the embers up into a blaze.
"Now, I have two questions for you," he said in a low tone. She nodded and waited for him to continue. "First off, why are you here without Gabrielle?"
She looked at him askance, as though he had lost his mind. He knew the story of their separation... why did he need her to repeat it again. Cecrops held up a hand to forestall the retort he could see forming in her eyes and on her lips.
"Let me rephrase - I know *how* you were separated. Are you here looking for her, or...?"
Xena shook her head. "Not exactly. I know she's alive... I've felt her. But I don't know where she is. I'm... the ritual that brought me here can take me home, back to Gabrielle before this started. But first I have to find all the totems. All the pieces of the puzzle that were used in the ritual that brought me here."
Cecrops nodded his dark head slowly. "That makes sense, I guess. But why here? Why now?"
"The scroll that gives the ritual lists items that each represent different traits of a warrior and where they were originally found. Keto said that the mishandling of the ritual scattered the totems to the four winds and I would have to travel to the original location to find each one."
Cecrops nodded his relative understanding. Specifics weren't necessary yet. "So?"
"So, I'm here looking for the next item on my list. Only...."
"I've scoured every bit of earth and water within a hundred miles looking for this thing." Her shoulders slumped. "I don't know where else to look."
"What are you looking for?"
"It's a ...." She rose from her spot and stood with her back to the fireplace. "A bone fishhook. About this big," holding her fingers about three inches apart. "From the description, it reminded me a lot of something the Amazons used to wear for decoration." She turned and looked at the flames. "But there aren't any Amazons here.
Cecrops reached up to his neck and removed his kerchief. Then he lifted a leather cord over his head. "Something like this, you mean?" he asked softly.
Xena swung to face him, clamping her jaw shut to keep it from swinging on its hinges in sheer surprise. Dangling from Cecrops fingers was exactly what she had just described to him... that for which she had been searching for more months than she wanted to remember at this point.
"How...? Where...?" Xena lifted slightly shaking hands to touch, clenching them into fists to stop their motion. She hesitated and Cecrops extended it to her.
"The Amazons are in the British colonies now known as Australia and New Zealand. Gabrielle moved them to the Australian continent more than fifteen hundred years ago. Then around five hundred years ago, several of them migrated to New Zealand."
"And you know this because...?"
"Gabrielle shared the tale just before she left China. I eventually traveled that way and spent a little time there. When I got to New Zealand, I was gifted with that necklace. Now I think I know why." He closed his larger hands over Xena's. "Keep it. It was meant for you. I was merely its guardian."
She smiled... the first genuine smile he had seen from her since they'd made land in Greece so many centuries ago. He tapped her cheek. "You should do that more often." She raised an eyebrow at him and he held up his hands in defeat. "Or not," he continued with a chuckle. "Now I have one more question."
"All right," she drawled, slipping the necklace over her own head and tucking it into her shirt.
"Those are great pants. Where can I get a pair?"
She looked down at her denim trousers and smiled. "I made these myself."
"I have many skills," she said with a smirk, "and I was tired of cloth pants that wore out so fast. My friend Levi got the material for me from France, I think he said."
Cecrops reached out a hand, then stopped and looked directly at her. "May I?"
She nodded and he touched the material lightly.
"These are fantastic. Are they comfortable?"
"Yeah, they are."
"You think you could hook me up with your friend Levi? I can't sew, but I'd love a pair of these pants."
"Yeah. C'mon into town and I'll introduce you. He's a nice kid."
"Should I ask how you met?"
Xena shrugged. "Some men just aren't cut out for drinking. He's one of them."
"Got into trouble, huh?"
"Oh yeah," Xena said, chuckling a little at the memory. "When he sobered up, we got to talking a little and I found out he was a tailor. As thanks, he found me some material I could be almost as comfortable in as I was in leather. Though he was a little put out at first that I made the pants myself, I think."
"He got over it?" Cecrops asked with a chuckle.
"He got over it. And then he asked if he could borrow the design to make them to sell. He thinks he can make his fortune selling denim pants."
"You gonna let him?
"Sure, why not. He helped me out... if Levi Strauss wants to make his fortune with denim pants, I say more power to him."
Cecrops laughed heartily. "Stranger things have happened, my friend. Believe me... I've seen them." He paused. "So where to now?"
Xena shook her head. "I'm not sure. I've been here for so long searching...."
"Got kind of focused?"
"Yeah, something like that."
"I don't suppose I can talk you into hanging around, can I?"
"No. I need to get moving. I've... it feels like I've done nothing but waste time and I still have to find the dagger of Helios before I start searching earnestly for Gabrielle. I... I want to have everything in place when I find her, so we can go home together."
Cecrops cleared his throat. "And if she doesn't want to go back and relive the last two millennia again?"
Xena looked down at her hands, clasping them together as she acknowledged the very real possibility of that happening. "Then I guess we'll figure out a way to make it work here."
"Her choice, huh?"
Xena nodded. "Yeah. She deserves that much."
Cecrops rose from his spot and extended his hand. "I wish you much luck, my friend. And if you do decide to stay, look me up. I kind of like it here."
Xena nodded again. "We will." She motioned to his face. "I, uh...." But his upraised hand stopped her speech.
"No apologies, Xena. Had I been in your place it would have been much worse. I envy you, you know and I wish you much success on your journey."
She took his hand and shook it, then walked out the door, ready for the next step in her journey home.