Chapter XXXIX

It was only when Shamrock stopped walking that Xena opened her eyes to near darkness. The loss of blood combined with the day's heat, Shamrock's rocking gait and the exertion of the battle had caused Xena to drift into a state of disassociation. By unspoken common consent, the three animals kept a slow steady pace and the cat searched for a spot to make a lair.

Fortunately, the country they were currently in had hills and mountains... some of which had caves. It was to these that they headed.

When they stopped, Xena looked around in confusion, her mind not clear enough to understand where there were... or why.

"Whassa matter, boy?" she slurred. "Ya loss?"

She studied the area, trying to wrap her focus around what was happening. Now that the adrenaline had worn off, she was having trouble thinking coherently.

She slid from Shamrock's back, her knees buckling when her feet touched the ground. A sharp pain lanced through her chest and she put her hand up, pulling it away covered in blood. Her legs slid out from under her and she sat down on the hard-packed earth rather abruptly.

The fox nuzzled her hand, licking it clean. Xena realized that she needed blood to replenish what she had lost and to help speed her recovery. The problem was her ability to hunt. She wasn't sure she could remain cognizant long enough to find what she needed.

"Gotta do this... gotta get... to... Gabrielle."

She made to stand and instead slipped to the ground unconscious.

Hercules helped bandage the wounded and saw to it that everyone was on the trail away from the Union soldiers before he headed for the nearest outpost. There was a little town a few days' walk from his current location and he had a promise to keep.

He bid Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse goodbye and headed east, hoping to get to his destination quickly.

The vagaries of weather made him a few days later than he'd hoped and he briefly considered skipping his errand altogether. After all, given Xena's anxiousness to get to Gabrielle, she could very well have run her horse to its very limits which would put her to Texas in a very few days. On the other hand, he had told Gabrielle that he would let her know if he found Xena as soon as he could, so she could make some preparations.

He stepped into the telegraph office, pulled one of Gabrielle's fountain pens from his shirt pocket and began to write:


He reread it twice before he nodded in approval. Then he took the message to the clerk and handed him a few pennies. He watched with satisfaction as the message was sent out across the wire, then he walked back out into the town, intent on finding a hot bath and a soft bed.

July in Nocona Corners made Gabrielle wish for the forests and trees of home. It also made her long for the cloth and leather outfits the Amazons had introduced her to. Though, she admitted to herself with a smirk, Xena had a lot to do with the increasingly lack of material her clothes were made with. Her ego had preened every time she caught *that look* in Xena's eyes and a new outfit with less material was a sure fire guarantee to bring that look out. She hadn't done it often, but they both always enjoyed the results.

"Miss Gabrielle! Miss Gabrielle!"

Gabrielle came out of her reverie, spinning to find Dominic running down the street waving a paper at her. He skidded to a stop in front of her and she waited patiently for him to catch his breath. Finally he extended his hand to her.

"Here ya... go, Miss... Gabrielle."

"Thanks, Dominic," she said, taking the paper and glancing at it before she turned her attention back to the boy. "C'mon. Let's go see if Mama has some lemonade." Dominic smiled and did his best to contain himself to a walk.

Gabrielle laughed and tousled his hair. "G'wan. Tell Mama I said it was okay."

Dominic grinned broadly. "Thanks, Miss Gabrielle. You're the best."

Gabrielle chuckled and left him to his enthusiastic run as she strolled towards the boarding house. She took a good look around her, seeing the town she had called home since Hercules had brought her here with new eyes. It had grown some since they'd first arrived, but it was still a cattle town and in many ways reminded her of the home she'd had lifetimes ago.

Mama had taken her in immediately, treating her as one of the family and making sure she was looked after. It tickled Gabrielle's sensibilities in a way; after all, she'd been on her own and taking care of herself for a very long time. But Mama had deigned that it wasn't proper for Gabrielle to be without family, so she'd simply made Gabrielle part of hers. And Gabrielle had discovered it was much easier to go along with Mama on most things than to put up an argument.

Part of Gabrielle appreciated Mama's overtures as something she'd been without for more years than she cared to remember. It was nice to know that people cared about you for yourself and Gabrielle had a whole town full of people who felt that way about her. Thanks to Mama's acceptance, she had carved her own little niche here and was a respected member of the community.

Part of her, though, just wanted Xena to find her and go home. She and Hercules had searched together for a while, but nothing had come of it. She'd gotten involved with the school and the town and when he'd asked her to remain behind this time, Mama had backed him up and she'd agreed.

Now she had in her hands proof that her search was nearly over and her patience was finally going to be rewarded. Though she fumed a bit to herself, acknowledging that their reunion would have already happened if she had been with Hercules. Still, she couldn't quite contain the grin that slid onto her face at the prospect of being in Xena's arms again.

"That must be some news," Mama remarked as she handed Gabrielle a glass of cold lemonade. Mama had carefully tended the two lemon trees Hercules had found for her in their travels and she made good use of their fruit. "I don't think I've ever seen you so happy."

Gabrielle accepted the glass with shaking hands and Mama motioned Dominic out of the kitchen. Then she took Gabrielle's cold hand in hers and led her to the table. She looked at her flushed face and then patted her hand.

"I'll be right back."

Mama stepped out of the kitchen and into the dining room which had a small bar on one wall. Mama's boarding house was a little unconventional. Her dining room was a restaurant that was open to the public for lunch and dinner and the bar was actually a bar that served alcohol... to a point. If Mama or Sal decided you had enough, that was it. And they never let anyone have enough to get drunk. Mama had learned that costly lesson early on.

Strangely, it didn't put a damper on business, though that had a lot to do with the great food Mama served. It didn't hurt that Gabrielle told stories for an hour or so three nights a week either.

Now, however, the dining room was closed and Mama went behind the bar and grabbed a bottle of clear shine. Sal cocked an eyebrow in question, but Mama waved him off and he kept wiping the glasses.

Mama re-entered the kitchen, noting Gabrielle's faraway expression. She picked up her still nearly full glass of lemonade and poured in a generous dollop of liquor. The recipe was an old family one she'd brought with her from North Carolina and though the climate differences changes the taste slightly, Mama's shine still packed quite a punch.

"Drink," she commanded softly, pushing the glass into Gabrielle's hand. Gabrielle did, consuming huge gulps that made her swallow her tongue as soon as her body realized what she was ingesting with such fervor. Tears came to her eyes as she coughed and gasped for air. Mama rubbed her back and waited for her to settle down again.

"Whaddya do that for?" she asked Mama in a hoarse whisper, eyeballing the water she set before her with distinct suspicion.

"I figured to err on the side of caution. I didn't want you goin' into shock and you were showin' signs of it. Now," she said without pausing for breath. "Tell me the news."

Instead of answering, Gabrielle passed over the telegram to Mama as she picked up the glass to drink. She'd never explained much of her story - just that she was searching for someone who'd been missing from her life for a long time. Mama had her own suspicions, but she figured Gabrielle would share when the time was right for her.

Mama smiled as she read the words printed on the page and then passed the paper back to Gabrielle. "Good news, then." She smiled. "I am so happy for you Gabrielle. I know this is somethin' you've been searchin' for for a long time.

Gabrielle nodded but didn't speak. The compunction to share with this woman was overwhelming, so she simply kept her mouth shut and nodded. There was no way she was going to spill her guts when she was so close to recouping everything.

"I'll miss Harrison, though," Mama continued, unaware of Gabrielle's wandering thoughts. "He's been a good friend to Isaac and me since we met."

"Who has, Mama?" Isaac asked as he came in the back door. He leaned over and kissed her cheek before moving to the counter to fix himself a glass of lemonade. "Hey, Gabrielle!"

"Hey, Isaac," she replied even as she pondered his likeness to Iolaus. Sometimes it was simply uncanny and she had to catch herself from referring to him as such. He had become a good friend though, once he'd gotten over his crush.

"Harrison," Mama was answering his question. "He's gone up to Banff for a while. I was just mentionin' to Gabrielle here how much I'd miss him."

"Yeah," Isaac replied. "He's always finding some adventure or other to get involved in."

"Hmph," Mama answered eloquently. "Always findin' trouble for you two to get into, you mean."

Gabrielle hid a giggle behind her hand. The truth was Isaac was a LOT like his ancestor Iolaus and he and Hercules still got caught up in all sorts of escapades.

"Mama," Isaac whined, blushing furiously.

"Don't even," Mama said, cutting him off with a wave of her hand. "I still can't look at honey without laughin'."

Isaac blushed even harder and Gabrielle finally let loose the laughter that was dying to be released.

"You'd think I'd learn," he muttered as he lifted the glass to his lips and drank.

Now Mama laughed. "Yes, but then where would Gabrielle get story material from?"

Isaac looked up with a horrified expression on his face. "You wouldn't...."

Gabrielle stopped giggling, though she couldn't quite wipe the smile from her lips. "No, I wouldn't... but it sure would be easy to." She shrugged. "You two make it sooo simple."

Finally, Isaac chuckled ruefully. "I guess we do. But it sure is fun... mostly." He looked between the two women. "Any idea when he'll be back?"

Gabrielle shook her head. "He said through the summer, but I don't know what he'll do once he gets there. That's been home for a long time. He may stay until next spring."

"And what about you, Gabrielle?" Mama asked quietly when Isaac moved to retrieve the pitcher of lemonade. "Will you be stayin' once your beloved arrives?" She smiled slightly at Gabrielle's startlement. "C'mon, Gabrielle. I'm not so old that I've forgotten what the sparkle and flush of love looks like."

Gabrielle's eyes dropped to the table. "I'm not sure," she stated honestly. "We have a lot of things to talk about. I'm sure that'll be one of them."

Mama patted her hands. "Well, I hope you decide to stay, but whatever you decide, I want you to know I am happy for you."

"Thanks, Mama. That means a lot."

"What does?" Isaac asked as he resumed his set, setting the pitcher and a plate of cookies on the table.

"Having you all as my family, Isaac. Now if you two will excuse me," she added as she stood, "I have a couple things I need to take care of at home." She patted Mama's arm. "Thanks for the lemonade."

Then she disappeared out the back door and down the lane that led to her tiny cottage.

Her house was small and very reminiscent of the cottage in Banff though this one housed the few mementoes she'd collected. But Hercules had insisted she have her own private space and he, Isaac and a few of the townsmen had gotten together and built an adobe house similar to the log cabin as soon as he'd convinced her to make Nocona Corners her home for a while. Its furnishings were spare, but she was comfortable enough with what she had.

So now she had a place that was as much a home to her as any had been and she went to make things ready for Xena's imminent arrival. Not that she had a logical reason for it; she was fairly certain Xena wouldn't be noticing much of anything when she got to town. At least, she hoped not... feeling the tiniest niggling bit of doubt. After all this time, Xena did still feel the same about her, right?

Gabrielle forcibly put the doubts aside and began preparing her house to become a home to share with Xena, at least for a little while. She wanted some time alone with her soulmate to reconnect on every level, before they made any decisions about their future... or their past.

So she did her busy work, cleaning and polishing until everything was just so. Then she settled back to wait, hoping the next few days would pass swiftly.

Days turned into weeks and weeks became months and still there was no sign of Xena. Gabrielle went from the heights of joyous hope to the depths of depressed despair until it became obvious to everyone in town that she'd lost her sparkle and zest for life.

But she gritted her teeth and tried to put the utter disappointment aside during the day, digging in her heels and continuing to teach the children when the school year rolled around. She stopped telling stories, however and many nights she roamed the countryside alone, searching for a reason to stay.

Finally, a week before Samhain, Mama came to her home, determined to do what she could to help make things right.

Xena awoke after a long sleep. She was inside a small cave, but she couldn't have said how she got there. The last clear memory she had....

"Gabrielle??" she called out, sitting up swiftly and then regretting the action as the world went dark again for long minutes. She laid there simply content to breathe, letting her mind wander as she tried to put the pieces back together.

She remembered the fight with Custer, Alti, her mind cheerfully supplied. The gunshot... Xena put her hand on her chest. Her deerskin shirt had a hole and it was hard and crusty from the blood that had soaked it and subsequently dried.

Well, I had to have been here at least a day or two. Let's get up and see where we are and get some nourishment, Xena.

Xena slowly rolled to her knees and paused, waiting for her equilibrium to catch up with her body. She idly wondered just how much blood she had lost to have affected her so drastically. She stood on shaky legs and fell into the wall, almost blacking out again, before sliding back to the ground using the wall to ease herself into a sitting position.

She sat there for countless minutes before she noted that the fox and the panther stood in the opening. The cat carried a large jackrabbit carefully in its jaws and it crossed the cavern floor to drop the still warm animal in Xena's lap.

She felt her canines extend themselves and without ceremony Xena sank her fangs into the rabbit, draining it in seconds. Then she leaned her head back against the wall and let the bit of blood seep into her system. It wasn't nearly enough to replace what she'd lost, but it might be enough to keep her on her feet. She looked at her two spirit guides.

"Thanks, guys," she croaked out hoarsely. She set the carcass to one side and slid up the wall slowly. "Let's go see if we can find some more game, some water and something to burn. I need to get my strength back and get to Gabrielle."

When she stepped from the cave, she noticed several things immediately that made her heart heavy. The weather was much cooler than she remembered it and the grass all around her was brown. Shamrock had cropped it short in all directions as far as she could see and he had somehow worked himself out of the saddle, though by the condition of the girth strap, it had taken a while and hadn't been a very pleasant experience.

Xena leaned against the mouth of the cave as another wave of vertigo swept through her. "How long have I been out?" she muttered to herself. Finally she straightened and moved towards the saddlebags that lay with the abused saddle near the entrance to the cave.

They were more worn than she remembered but still intact and she pulled them to her, opening them carefully. She didn't want any nasty surprises. What she got were musty clothes and old trail rations. The pemmican she'd carried was soft and odd to the taste, but the jerky still tasted like jerky and she chewed it slowly. The water skin was bone dry and her bow was broken so she hoped her reflexes were up to hunting. With a little more haste, she opened the second bag, gratified to see the careful packing of the totems had paid off. Not one thing was broken, though the staff was quite scuffed up.

Xena let the wave of relief wash over her. She gradually made her way to where Shamrock had wandered near the cave entrance when he'd seen her emerge.

"C'mon, guys," she said at last. "Let's find some game."

Shamrock knelt at her command and Xena slid into his back, hefting the skin and her knife before signaling the mustang to stand. Then they took off at a slow pace in the direction the cat led.

Etor led them to a small herd of deer and with Shamrock's help they managed to separate two good-sized deer from the rest. Xena fell on them as a starving person would, incisors extended fully and soon both animals were drained. Now, feeling exhausted, but no longer weak, Xena placed the remains on Shamrock's back and began leading the mustang back towards the cave.

Etor led them by a burbling stream and Xena dismounted as quickly as her tired body would allow her. She filled the empty skin, then stripped off her clothing and sank into the cold water with a sense of unerring relief. She drank until she'd quenched her thirst, then scrubbed the dried blood from her body, glad beyond words to remove the itch from her skin.

When she stepped from the water, she realized her clean clothes were still at the cave and she really had no desire to put on the ones she'd so recently removed. Xena looked around, noting the barrenness of the landscape and shrugged. It wasn't that long of trek and nakedness had never been an issue for her before.

They reached the cave without incident and Xena removed the deer from Shamrock's back, patting the horse and promising him a good grooming later. Then she pulled her cleaner clothing from her saddle bags, smiling a little as she slid the denim pants up her long legs. They'd worn to an even more comfortable point over the years and the last she'd heard, Levi was doing quite a business with them. She slipped the shirt over her shoulders and buttoned it with shaky hands, then turned to see what sort of fuel she could find for a fire.

It took her a while, but she was finally satisfied with the chips and wood she'd found. She butchered the three carcasses and laid them out for smoking, putting the hides aside to tan. She began the smoking process, saving a large portion of raw meat for the fox and the panther to share between them, which they did with gusto. Xena wondered again how long she had been out of things. Then she took the hides to the stream and washed them well, stretching them out when she returned to the cave.

Then she sat back to wait for the meat to smoke and the hides to cure. Never realizing when she fell asleep again. Only knowing when she woke up that it had been several days by the coldness of the fire and the dryness of the new hides. But she felt better than she had in a very long time and she stretched before she climbed out from under the white buffalo robe she still carried.

With much more energy and enthusiasm, she rebuilt the fires, then began working on the hides. It took a few days, but soon they little party was ready to travel again. Shamrock had been groomed til he shone, though the saddle was no longer useful. Xena flipped the saddlebags over his hindquarters, then vaulted aboard herself.

"You guys coming?" she asked the panther and the fox. She'd noticed they'd stayed pretty close to her and she rather hoped they would choose to travel with her to Nocona Corners. She wanted Gabrielle to meet them and visa versa.

Xena chuckled when the fox tried to scramble up Shamrock's flanks, causing the mustang to whinny and shy away from it. Only the panther's low growling kept the horse from bolting completely, sensing that the cat would have no compunction in making escape a painful prospect. Xena bent over, reaching a hand down until Melo could grab hold and be lifted up in front of the warrior.

"Behave, Etor," Xena rumbled lowly, grabbing the reins and pulling Shamrock back under control. "We've got a long way to go yet and a short time to get there. I just hope we're not already too late." She squeezed Shamrock's sides with her knees. "Let's go, boy... YAH!" And they raced from their past towards their future.

Gabrielle had taken to wearing her trouser outfits again except when she was teaching. Not that anyone saw them... for the most part she was cloistered in her home, or out away from the town where no one went in the darkest hours. Besides, she figured she wasn't going to stay here past the current school year, so it really didn't matter if they did see or what thy thought.

Her only regret was that it was only October, so she was committed to staying in Nocona Corners for another seven months. Once school was out, however, she had decided to travel back to Greece. Xena had made it clear so was no longer interested in being part of Gabrielle's life, so she was going to go home and ask Aphrodite if she could simply remain in Olympus. She was tired in her very soul and there was nothing left to fix that.

The knock on her door in the early evening surprised her. Most of the townsfolk were either at Mama's restaurant or in their own homes. So she opened the door hesitantly, only to find Mama standing on her front porch.

"May I come in?" Mama asked, her brogue showing itself just slightly. She showed no astonishment at Gabrielle's choice of clothing. She simply waited with understanding in her eyes.

Gabrielle nodded and opened the door wider, motioning the older woman in and to a seat on the small couch. Gabrielle's home was an eclectic mix of things, Mama decided and reflected the younger woman's personality in an odd way. An old leather-bound book sat on a table nearby and Mama wondered what secrets it held. She took a seat and waited for Gabrielle to do so.

The bard didn't sit, crossing instead to the fireplace and stoking it, poking at the wood until the flames were literally jumping up the flue. Then she stood, keeping her eyes focused on the flames.

"Did you need something, Mama? Something I can do for you?"

"No darlin'. I was hopin' I could do something for you."

"Nope," Gabrielle said without turning from the fire. "I'm good."

"You're lyin'" was Mama's rejoinder.

"It no longer matters, Mama and there is nothing you can do."

"Your beloved is here then?"

Gabrielle didn't answer, but she didn't need to. Mama knew; she more than most was aware of the despair created by the desertion of the one you'd entrusted your heart to. It wasn't something she shared, but it did make her understand Gabrielle better than most. The difference for her had been Isaac; he'd given her a reason. And as far as she knew, Gabrielle had no one... save her brother Harrison.

Gabrielle took a deep breath. "You have been a good and dear friend to me, Mama. I think it's only fair to tell you that I'll be leaving in the spring."


Gabrielle held up a hand. "When the school year is over, I'm going home. There's nothing left for me here anymore."

"You can't know that. Time heals...."

Gabrielle laughed ruefully. "Time heals nothing! The pain is always there, even if it is only a dull, throbbing ache." She looked Mama full in the face as she said these words and for the first time allowed her to see the oldness of her eyes. Eyes that had seen and done more and lived alone for far longer than a human being should be permitted.

"I'm sorry, Gabrielle," Mama said as she rose from her seat. She laid a hand on Gabrielle's cheek, grateful when the younger woman didn't pull away, though she didn't lean into the contact either. I would like to ask a favor of you, if I could."

The request was so stunning, Gabrielle nodded. "If I can," she replied.

"It's two-fold," waiting for Gabrielle to nod her agreement again. "First, I'd like for you to help me with Samhain. We have the fall carnival for the kids coming up...."

"I'll help you with the preparations, Mama."

Mama shook her head and took Gabrielle's hands, leading her to sit down on the couch. "Gabrielle, I want you to do more that help us get ready. If you're only gonna be with us a few more months, let us give you some good memories to take with you. Don't shut us out."

Gabrielle withdrew her hands as gently as possible and walked back to the fireplace. "No promises, Mama. I can't."

Mama nodded, understanding more than Gabrielle was aware of. "Will you try?"

Gabrielle bit her lip and closed her eyes. She really was so very tired, but what would it hurt her to make a little effort for these people who had been so kind to her? When she opened her eyes, there was resigned acceptance in them and she nodded at Mama.

"I'll try," she said simply.

"Good," Mama answered approvingly. "Now, will you tell me where I can get a pair of those trousers? They look sinfully comfortable."

All Hallow's Eve arrived and with it came a stranger into the small town of Nocona Corners. Classes were scheduled for half a day to let the children prepare for Halloween festival that evening. Gabrielle crossed from Mama's to the general store as a cream colored mustang pulled into the stables on the other end of town.

Xena eased off the horse, both rider and animal a bit weary from the pace they had set. Then she stepped to the blacksmith to see about a price. Once that was settled, she turned the conversation to more personal interests. The warmth she felt in her belly told her she was almost home and she hoped this man could point her in the right direction.

"Hey, Smithy, I'm looking for a friend... woman about this high," she described, holding her hand at shoulder level, "green eyes and red-blonde hair. Her name is Gabrielle."

Xena watched his eyes shutter, though his face gave nothing away. He shrugged nonchalantly and she knew something was up.

"May wanna check with the lawman, across from the general store. He might know of her whereabouts. Though it's a mite early for him to be into the office yet."

Xena nodded. "Much obliged," was all she said, moving back to the stable area and grooming Shamrock carefully before she left. Then she hefted the saddlebags and headed down the street.

Gabrielle walked back from the general store with Sammy helping her carry the grocery items she'd picked up for Mama. Then together they, Dominic and Little Sal made their way to the schoolroom for the day's classes. She dismissed the tingling in her gut as anticipation over the coming night's activities.

Xena stepped into the street and noticed the general store. She headed that way, anxious to find the lawman. Somebody had to know something in this town and he was gonna be her best bet.

The door of the office was locked and Xena figured as early as it was she might do better to find some breakfast. She crossed to the general store and went straight to the counter, sliding the bags to her feet.

"Morning," the shopkeeper greeted her politely.

"Morning," she responded in kind. "I was looking for a bit of information."

The man crossed his arms and leaned casually against the counter. "Well, I don't know how much help I can be, but let's hear it."

"I'm looking for a woman named Gabrielle," watching the walls go up in his eyes. "Bout this tall, green eyes and red-gold hair."

"Hmm," the man appeared to consider. "Probably wanna talk to Isaac. He's our local deputy marshal," said with a hint of pride. "If he ain't left yet, he'll be over to Mama's. That's the boardinghouse directly at the end of the street."

"Appreciate it," Xena muttered, slinging the saddlebags over her shoulder again and headed for the boardinghouse.

Chapter XL

Xena got nowhere with Mama, though her eyes did not close up when the warrior asked her questions. Instead they turned speculative. But she was not forthcoming with any information and it seemed as though the deputy Isaac had been called out of town early that morning on an emergency. And he wasn't expected back for several days, a fact that Mama lamented several times in light of the coming Samhain celebration.

Still, Xena did manage to get a good meal in the bargain and a room for the duration. She took her bags up to her room and decided to take a stroll through the town. She figured it was the best reaction she could have short of going totally ballistic and using the pinch on someone. She knew she was close... she could feel it. Waiting a little longer she could manage after the years she'd been waiting and searching and it sure beat ending up in some Podunk little jail.

Nocona Corners was different than what she expected... similar to Sutter's Mill, but by the same token vastly different. This town was well established, built of wood found in the scrub hills around the area, or of rock and adobe. It was also unsoiled and fresh, something Xena appreciated greatly. Even with the cattle that were herded in, the people took great pride in keeping it clean and only on days when the town was downwind of the stockyards did one realize that this was indeed a cattle town.

Her view of it from the hills was spectacular and she let her mind wander, trying to figure out the best way to find Gabrielle. She was convinced the bard was here and wondered at the secrecy of the townspeople about it. The ringing of a bell brought Xena out of her reverie and she remembered what Hercules had told her. He said Gabrielle was the schoolmarm here. I wonder....

She turned from where she had been at the far outskirts of town and began walking towards the small building that seemed to spew small children from its belly. From this distance, her eyes couldn't tell for sure, but her heart recognized the one small blonde who stood at the door til the others had left.

"Gabrielle!" she called. "GABRIELLE!"

The bard hesitated, but seeing no one, continued on to the barn with two boys walking beside her. Xena realized that the wind was working against her and she hustled to catch up.

Gabrielle was amazed when she, Dominic and Little Sal entered that stables. There in front of her stood an old friend whickering a greeting. The boys moved off to do their chores and left Gabrielle to say her hellos in private.

"Shamrock!" she exclaimed happily, moving to scratch the mustang between the ears. It was only when she traversed to the stall that she noted two other animals... animals that struck a chord of familiarity in her soul. She hesitated, unsure of her welcome by the panther and the fox.

The cat stalked slowly towards her, taking in her scent before curling around her legs with a purr. The fox gazed beguilingly at her and Gabrielle knelt down, allowing the panther to nuzzle her neck and the fox to crawl into her arms.

Shamrock stamped his forefoot impatiently and Gabrielle laughed. "Shamrock, be patient," she commanded, standing gingerly with the fox still cradled happily in her left arm. "You guys must have a great human to be so trusting and friendly."

Her skin prickled just before the voice spoke from the doorway.

"I'd like to think I'm a better human being than I was the last time we were together."

Gabrielle froze, stiffening in recognition. Then she put the fox down, keeping her back to the door. She felt as much as heard the steps behind her and flinched when hands landed lightly on her waist.

"Hello, Gabrielle."

A myriad of emotions washed through her, but surprisingly she was left with infuriation as her chief reaction, her abandonment by Xena coming to the forefront of her mind. Hundreds of years of emotion built up in a matter of seconds and she turned violently, putting the force of her anger behind the straight-from-the-shoulder punch. There was no sound until impact - fist to face and the crack of bone, the crumple of cartilage and the spurt of hot blood.

It was the scent of blood, so enticingly familiar that Gabrielle felt her canines grow in reaction, that brought her back to the present and she turned and walked out the door without a backwards glance. The panther growled in Xena's direction as it passed by the warrior before following Gabrielle. The fox cocked its head, then stepped across Xena's body before joining the parade leaving the barn.

"Thanks, guys," the warrior muttered, moving her lips as little as possible.

Gabrielle had always been quicker to anger and quicker to forgiveness than she herself had been. It was one of the things that made her so vibrant, so passionate and it was one of the reasons Xena loved her. Xena stood and allowed the punch, having seen it coming in the subtle nuances of Gabrielle's body language. Some things will never change, she had time enough to think before her face caught nearly two millennia of frustration.

The warrior was amazed at the amount of pain she felt as she flew back and landed flat on her back. She smacked her head on the hard ground and lay there looking up as her eyes began swelling closed. She heard more than saw the footsteps and knew from their weight that the older boy had left the barn at a run and the set approaching her belonged to the smaller boy that had accompanied Gabrielle to the stable.

Xena felt the eyes staring at her. Little Sal put his hands on his knees, crouching down to get a better look.

"Geez, mithter. Are you okay?" He reached towards her face and touched her swollen nose lightly. She hissed and grabbed his hand, moving it away from her. He pulled his hand from her grip and wiped the blood on his shirt before putting the hand back on his knee.

"Nope, I guess not. Ya gots blood runnin' out yer nose and a really big fat lip. Does yers hurt? Mine did... I had one of those once when I gots hit by the door. Loosed up my front teefs... that's why I talks funny right now. My tongue keeps slippin' through the big hole, see?"

Little Sal peered at her closely. "Ya can't see too good, can ya? You gots black and blue eyes, didja know that? The blue parts real purty, but the rest is real swolled up. Ya looks kinda like a coon. I seen a coon once... mean thing tried a bite me. Are you mean, mithter? Ya made Miz Gabr'elle mad and I's never seen her git mad like that 'fore. She's a nice lady. She telled us good stories. Do ya like stories, mithter? She telled lots of stories fore she got so sad. Are you the reason she's so sad, mithter?"

Xena's head was spinning trying to keep up with the five-year-old's conversation and she was relieved when she heard footsteps approaching.

She sat up gingerly, cradling her head in her hands. She was gratified to find that her head was going to stay attached. For a long moment there, she really had doubt... immortality or not. Then she heard Mama's voice.

"Help me get her up, Sal. I think this one has some explainin' to do."

"I c'n do id mythelf," Xena mumbled, slowly rising to her feet and swaying slightly from side to side. "Godda lub a woman wid a mean wighd," she muttered under her breath. Mama heard, though and put the thought away for later contemplation. For now, she put a gentle hand on Xena's arm.

She'd seen Gabrielle exit the stables as she herself had been out on the front porch at the time, having opened the doors to let some air into the packed dining room. She'd wondered, of course, but Gabrielle had headed up into the hills and she had paying customers to take care of. Then Dominic had come running up the street calling for her and Sal. It was amazing that the whole town hadn't heard and turned out at the commotion, but most everyone was at dinner. And Mama had left Sal's wife Josephina in charge... and everybody listened when Josephina spoke. She and Mama were a formidable team.

"C'mon," Mama said to Xena, who was trying to peer through her mostly closed eyes. "Let's get you back to the kitchen and get you cleaned up. You're gonna be in some pain for a few days and look like a raccoon even longer. But you'll live."

Xena chuckled ruefully at that pronouncement, wincing when her lip started bleeding again. Then she took Mama's arm and followed her to the privacy of her small back kitchen.

Mama set a glass of clear liquid on the table and wrapped Xena's hands around it. "Drink that," she commanded in a voice the eerily resembled Cyrene's.

"Whad id id?" Xena asked warily, trying to sniff the contents, but unable breathe through her nose, much less smell anything.

"Somethin' that'll make this hurt a lot less. Now drink."

Xena did so, gasping for breath as the tears ran down her face from the harshness of the alcohol as it burned down her throat and into her system. After a long moment, the burning subsided and she felt a little numb and somewhat disassociated from the throbbing pain of her face.

"Waid a minnud," Xena said, placing the flats of her fingertips on either side of her nose and jerking it sharply. She saw stars but she made no sound and spent a minute simply trying to breathe without passing out. Finally, she turned in the direction she felt Mama's presence.

"Aw wighd. Go ahead." Then the warrior sat perfectly still while Mama started cleaning up the damage Gabrielle had done.

"Can I tell you a story?"

Xena shrugged. She wanted the woman to get done so she could go rest long enough for the swelling to go down and then she could go find Gabrielle. She was fairly confident the bard had not left and she was glad her spirit guides had gone with Gabrielle to keep her company until Xena herself could get to her. She spared a rueful thought to Cecrops and sent him a silent apology for his broken jaw. Even as an immortal, this really hurt. She turned her attention back to Mama's voice.

"More than a decade ago, we met a man named Harrison Tillman. He and my son Isaac became reluctant friends because they fought on opposite sides during the War of Northern Aggression. When the late unpleasantness was over, he helped us move from North Carolina out here to Texas. Once we were settled, he went to Banff, where he had taken his sister to get her out of the war. He promised to come back and bring her for a visit."

Harrison Tillman? She's talking about Hercules. That must mean.... breaking her thoughts off to concentrate on Mama's words.

"When he came back the followin' summer, he brought a most delightful young woman... his sister, Gabrielle." Mama rinsed out the cloth she'd used to wipe the blood from Xena's face and tossed the old water out the back door. Then she pumped some fresh and soaked the cloth again, placing it gently over Xena's eyes before picking up a new cloth and the witch hazel. Xena didn't even flinch when she started dabbing it over the raw flesh and her split lip.

"It was obvious to me at any rate that Gabrielle was searchin' for somethin', or waitin' for someone. Though she eventually allowed herself to settle here somewhat contentedly, it was clear her heart was elsewhere. For a while she did go out searchin' regularly, but when Harrison left this last time, he convinced her to let him go alone."

"He was gone for several months and finally in early July, Gabrielle got a telegram from him... a telegram that changed... everythin'."

Xena shifted, uncomfortably aware of where this little tale was probably headed.

"He'd found whatever or WHOever she'd been searchin' for and she was so excited. I'd never seen her so happy."

So, on top of the fact that she's been alone for over eighteen hundred years because of a bad decision, now I have to explain why it took me over three months to take a trip she knows I should have made in less than three weeks. Some lifetimes you just can't catch a break.

"I don't think I need to explain what happened when the days turned to weeks and months for her, do I?" Mama cupped Xena's chin and removed the cold cloth, looking into the slits of her now open eyes.

Xena closed her eyes against the truth she knew, feeling the aching in Gabrielle's soul as though it was her own. She shook her head gently. Her eyes opened again when Mama tapped her fingers on her chin.

"I'm gonna share somethin' with ya, because I believe that you are probably the only thing in this world that can make things right for her. She has a little cottage in the woods back of this house. If you follow the path it'll lead you right to her front door."

Xena nodded.

"Now, I know she went up into the hills to think... she does that a lot, but she will be back down before dark. We have a town carnival tonight, usherin' in Samhain. She's supposed to be participatin' - tellin' stories and such. You might wanna get some rest if you wanna catch her beforehand."


"Tch. You leave the details to Mama. I'll make sure you get your chance, if you promise to make the best of it." She chuckled. "At least you'll make a colorful impression."

Xena would have smiled, except she could feel the bones, cartilage and skin reknitting themselves whole and it was almost more painful than the initial hit had been.

"Than yu," she replied, before standing tentatively, waiting to see if her balance was going to stay with her or desert her for more stable surroundings. Satisfied that it was going to remain intact, she turned to the back stairs.

"Can I...?" Mama asked, laying a hand on the warrior's arm.

"I god id," Xena said cutting Mama off before she could offer more help. "Bud thans."

She eased up the staircase and she found her room by luck as much as anything else. Then she lay down, hoping that liquor Mama had given her would kick in and let her get a little rest while she healed.

Gabrielle was in a whirlwind of emotion. The connection she'd once had with Xena, the one she'd had to become accustomed to doing without, had reinserted itself with a vengeance upon their personal contact. The warmth that she had felt those thirty-odd years ago when she'd first reached the New World had blossomed with the first touch between them. It allowed her heart to believe in the possibility that she could be whole once more. Her head was having a much harder time wrapping itself around the fact that not only did she not have to be alone, but that Xena might actually desire such a resolution.

Her soul struggled... she wanted this. To her very depths she desired this, needed this. But she didn't want to. Her guts felt like they had been ripped out - first in Japan when Xena had chosen death over her and again when it seemed as though she had pushed everything between them aside. But had she? Gabrielle no longer knew. Her mind was in turmoil, weighing the odds; going over what she thought and felt and believed.

The fox crawled into her lap and she absently stroked the soft red-gold fur, so much like the color of her own temperamental hair. The panther snuggled down beside her, nuzzling both her leg and the fox's neck.

Gabrielle watched them for a long time, allowing the rhythm of her motions to soothe her. Finally it dawned on her that these two animals, animals that should have been natural enemies, were in fact mates. Against the odds, against nature itself, they were mated and perfectly suited to one another. Just like me and Xena.

And suddenly she felt better, knowing that despite everything, if they wanted it, they could work through everything and be together again once more. Only this time, it would be an eternal kind of thing. Because she wanted this... more than anything, she wanted this. And she was sure in the depths of her soul that Xena did too.

It was with a much lighter step and a smile on her face that she made her way back to her cabin.

It was nearly sunset when a light knock sounded on the door and Xena beckoned, "Come in."

Mama opened the door slowly, then gasped as she got a good look at Xena's face. The swelling was down and eyes which had been black and blue hours earlier were now merely shadowed in a remnant of their previous bruising.

"That's amazin'," she said, approaching Xena but not touching. She got the distinct feeling that any familiarity Xena had permitted earlier was gone.

Xena shrugged nonchalantly. "I'm a fast healer."

"I'd say so," Mama commented as she continued to stare a moment longer. A dark eyebrow raised in question brought her back to herself and she flushed slightly in embarrassment. "Beg pardon," she mumbled. "I'm not usually so rude. I uh, I came up here to tell you that your bath is ready."

Xena swallowed. "I appreciate that, but I've got nothing clean to put on. You think the general store might...."

"You leave that to me. Now g'wan, before you water gets cold." She handed her a long robe and shooed her down the hallway to the bathing room.

Xena didn't take long, but it felt so good to wash in hot water. And she appreciated the fragrant soap Mama had put in the room. But it made her start thinking and by the time she reached her room again, she was scowling fiercely.

Mama was waiting there with clean clothes and she turned when Xena closed the door quietly behind her after she crossed the threshold. "Here you go. These should be just about your size. You're much the size my Robert was." It was said matter-of-factly, but Xena could see the pain in the brown eyes that faced her and she sank to the bed with her back to the older woman to leave her to private grief.

"Why?" she finally asked quietly when she didn't hear Mama make her departure. "You obviously know what Gabrielle and I are to one another and I've seen the way your church treats people like us. Why are you so willing to help us?"

She felt the weight of the bed shift when Mama sat down on the opposite side with her back to Xena. "If I allowed the church to dictate all aspects of my life, you're right. I'd shun you and decry you as sinners headed straight to hell, because your love is not only not valid, but not real."

Xena's lips tightened and her fists clenched. She held still though, because she expected more and she had asked. She actually appreciated Mama's honesty.

"But I learned a long time ago not to let others decide what I believed or what love was real and valid. Even when the love turns out to be different from what you expect or hope for, it is still real and just as valid as anyone else's. My husband and I shared something like that briefly and it was worth what I have lived with since."

She paused and stood up from the bed. Then she walked to the door and turned the handle before looking back at the still figure on the bed. "If what I suspect is true, I would do this even if the church condemned me to hell because of it. If there is a chance to recover that kind of soul connection, then it is worth everything."

The door closed and Xena sat unmoving on the bed for a moment longer. Then she rose to dress in the clothes Mama had provided.

The black trousers were long enough, but were far too wide on Xena's slim waist. She slid into the suspenders and then looped the belt around her. The pants were still loose, but at least they wouldn't fall off.

The shirt actually fit across the shoulders, but hung down shapelessly in the front. She shrugged and tucked it in, chuckling a little when it reached to her knees. But at least it helped hold the trousers in place. She idly wondered how large a man Mama's husband had been, trying to picture the couple they had made.

Xena put on the thick socks Mama had given her, then stepped into her boots. She slid into the jacket, figuring to need its warmth against the chilly night air. Then she combed through her mostly dry hair and opened the door to find Mama standing there with a few precious roses and some wild flowers.

"Here," she said with a smile. "These may help," extending the flowers. "If she was mad enough to hit you, it's probably best to soften her up. Flowers always worked with me."

Xena accepted the bouquet and withdrew a single rose, pressing it into Mama's hand. She didn't say a word, but her eyes spoke volumes. Then she left down the stairs without a backwards glance. Mama stood still until she heard the back door shut in the waning sunlight.

Then she lifted the rose to her nose, breathing in its delicate scent with delight and smiling. She had a good feeling about this and against all logic, it gave her a hope of her own.

Gabrielle had come back to her cottage intent on taking a warm bath before the evening's festivities. She was surprised that the animals remained with her, but they curled up in front of her fireplace content together and she simply watched them for a moment, continually reminded of possibilities.

She went into her bathing room, happy she had taken the time to recreate all the creature comforts she'd seen and enjoyed during her lifetime. No one knew about her hot running water or her flushable toilet, but she definitely appreciated them.

Especially tonight, though she didn't let herself examine the thoughts too closely. She was still hesitant to hope too hard, though if she was completely honest with herself, she was more than hoping. She was betting her very essence on what would happen.

Gabrielle gazed into the looking glass as she dried herself, noting for the first time in a while the tattoo that still adorned her body after all the time that had past. It was slightly faded from what she remembered, but it still had color and movement with her body's own and she turned away feeling slightly nauseated by the sight.

She dressed with more care than usual, choosing her favorite blue gingham dress and combing her hair out carefully before pinning it up in the accepted style of the day. She looked at herself again, realizing Xena hadn't seen this look on her before and wondering what she would think of it. Then a knock on the door caused her to stop breathing for a moment.

She wiped sweaty palms on her and moved to the door....

... only to find Hercules standing on the other side.

"Surprise!" he said, extending his arms for a hug. "Wow, Gabrielle. You look great. Can I come in?"

She looked beyond him. "Well...."

"Or are you expecting someone? And where is Xena?"

"I hope I'm expecting someone and I'm not really sure."

An eyebrow rose. "But I thought...."

"Long story... one I'll share with you soon, I promise." Gabrielle looked past him again and this time her eyes burned with a fierce inner joy tinged with sadness, though her face never lost its stoic expression. The years had enabled her to hide many things, though her eyes told a story all their own.

"Hello, Xena," he said as she approached, her eyes never leaving Gabrielle. The bard blushed at the intensity, but she didn't let her stare waver.

"Hello, Hercules. Nice to see you. Now get lost."

Xena reached the steps and walked purposefully up them, pulling the flowers from behind her back. Hercules walked backwards, nearly tumbling down the stairs in an effort to escape the strength of passion he could feel flowing between them.

"I think I'll go surprise Mama," he muttered before turning and moving briskly back towards the boarding house.

Xena stopped short of touching Gabrielle, not quite sure of her reception despite what her heart and soul were shouting at her. She extended the flowers and watched Gabrielle tear up as she reached a hand out to accept the bouquet.

When Gabrielle opened her mouth to speak, Xena stepped into her personal space, resting one hand lightly on her hip and putting the other over her lips.

"Don't," she said. "Don't apologize. I deserved that and gods...." She let her hand trace Gabrielle lips and travel up smooth cheeks, smiling tremulously when Gabrielle leaned instinctively into the touch. Xena wiped the solitary tear that slipped from the green eyes and let her hand feel the silky smooth skin beneath her fingertips - a sensation she had missed for more than half a lifetime and one Gabrielle had not shared in longer than forever.

Xena's hand trailed down Gabrielle's neck and into her hair, loosening the pins that held it in place and running her hands through its corn silk softness. She went no farther; now any overtures would have to be Gabrielle's. But first....

"We have so much to talk about. I need to explain...." But her words were cut off when Gabrielle repeated her earlier action, raising a shaky hand to cover her lips.

"Do you want there to be an us?" Gabrielle asked in a bare whisper, moving her fingers and tracing Xena's lips with a feather-light touch. "Do we have a future together?"

"Oh yes! Gods, yes, Gabrielle. If you're willing, we have an eternity together to look forward to," Xena answered softly, kissing the fingertips that remained on her lips. She waited patiently as Gabrielle studied her eyes while the bard's fingers continued to roam around her face and down her neck. It was sending all sorts of pleasant sensations along her body and she trembled slightly in reaction.

Gabrielle felt the shiver and smiled as she saw the banked fires in Xena's eyes burst into a barely controlled flame. She understood suddenly that their future rested in her hands. Xena was giving her the decision to make and she knew if she turned the warrior away, she would never see Xena again.

Just the thought made her catch her breath and Xena's eyes filled with concern.


Gabrielle smiled nervously, feeling much like a blushing bride on her wedding night. She wound one hand into Xena's long tresses and ran the other up the front of her body until it rested on the curve of her neck.

"We do have a lot to talk about," she said, urging Xena's head down. "But we have an eternity to do it in," she added as she brushed their lips together in a teasing kiss. "And we can start tomorrow." A second kiss lasting just an instant longer. "But tonight, especially tonight, I need to feel you. No words... no explanations... no excuses. Just us... touching, feeling, loving one another."

For her answer, Xena swung Gabrielle up into strong arms and crossed the threshold into the house, shutting the world out with the slamming of the door.

Part 21