Xena was only peripherally aware of the banked fire and the two animals curled up blissfully in front of it. Her entire focus was on the world she held in her arms and she walked without hesitation... into the bathroom.
Gabrielle chuckled soundlessly, as much from nerves as from amusement. "You trying to hint I need another bath?" she asked teasingly, smiling at the slight blush the climbed up Xena's face.
"Um, no... I took a wrong tu...." She took a good look around. "On the other hand, I can think of a few reasons to use that later," she said, wiggling her eyebrows as she nodded towards the shower.
"So can I," Gabrielle agreed as she pulled Xena's head down until their lips were nearly touching once more. "Now, take me to bed, Xena. I have waited an eternity for you."
The truth of those words hit Xena in an unexpectedly deep place. "Never again, sweetheart. Never again."
The warrior walked the few paces into the bedroom, not stopping until she was standing next to the bed. She set Gabrielle gently on her feet and stepped back slightly, allowing her eyes to roam the slim figure before her. Unlike any of the clothing she had previously seen Gabrielle in, the blue gingham teasingly hinted at the assets it hid. The strength of her shoulders and arms were hidden by the sleeves. But the snug material hugged full breasts and a trim waist, then draped nicely over the swell of her hips.
"You are so beautiful," Xena whispered hoarsely, noting the nervousness in Gabrielle's actions as she wiped her palms on the front of her skirt.
Xena closed the space between them and lifted Gabrielle's eyes to meet her own. Only then was she aware of the weight of Gabrielle's solitary life in her eyes and it made her heart break again.
"Always," she said softly, before claiming the lips that had been hers alone in lifetimes past.
The kiss was soft, gentle and unrushed. Xena traced Gabrielle's lips with her tongue and moaned when she was granted immediate entrance. She brought her hands up to cup Gabriele's face, trembling when she felt Gabrielle's hands running up her chest. The bard paused to tease Xena's breasts before she reached the top button on the warrior's shirt.
Without hesitation, she grasped either side, intent on ripping the shirt open. Xena pulled back slightly.
Gabrielle looked up in confusion. Xena smiled.
"Mama let me borrow the clothes... so I could have some clean ones."
Gabrielle smiled in return. "Well, in that case...."
She pushed the jacket to the floor and eased the suspenders from broad shoulders, feeling muscle that had grown firmer than she remembered. Gabrielle trailed her hands down the white shirt, smiling slightly when Xena's breathing hitched. She reached the belt and loosened it, unbuttoning the trousers, then watched them slide from Xena's slim hips to the floor.
"How accommodating," she said with a smile.
Xena shrugged and gave her a crooked grin. "They were a little big."
"Take them off," Gabrielle said, leaning against the bed and watching with interest. Xena did so, sitting down in the room's single chair to ease her boots off then stepping out of the trousers. Gabrielle giggled when Xena held them up.
"Xena, those are more than a little big. You, me and Shamrock could fit in those things with room to spare."
"Maybe we'll try it sometime without the horse." She stood up and wrapped her hands around Gabrielle's waist. "What happened to no talking? You all right? You're not... you're not... afraid... of me, are you?"
Green eyes flew up to meet blue and Gabrielle shook her head vigorously. "No, love, NO!" She chuckled uncertainly. "I'm just... I'm nervous, I guess. It's been a while. I haven't done this since...."
"Since...?" Xena repeated when silence fell, feeling her heart clench at the thought of Gabrielle having shared herself with anyone else. Despite what both Hercules and Cecrops had said, there had always been a tiny corner of doubt. How could anyone choose to be alone for so long?
"I haven't been with anyone but you, Xe."
Xena felt both overwhelmed and humbled by the quiet, startling admission. "You've been alone... since that last night in Japan?"
Xena enveloped Gabrielle in a full body hug, which the bard reciprocated in kind. She nestled into Xena's chest, absorbing the warmth and scent and feel of the warrior surrounding her. Xena leaned her cheek on the fair hair, nuzzling its softness with a sense of coming home.
"It was my choice, Xena," she said as she squeezed. "I... couldn't. I couldn't share this without the feelings and you own my heart."
Gabrielle felt Xena's heart stop at her words and then redouble as she blew out a breath.
"Let me love you, Gabrielle." The words floated down to her ears on a bare whisper.
Gabrielle pulled away just far enough to unbutton Xena's shirt and push it to the floor. She traced the tattoo and scars on the warrior's chest, arching an eyebrow in Xena's direction. Then she stepped back and looked at Xena, standing naked before her. Her legs had lost a good deal of their customary tan, but they were still long, lean and supple, the muscles flexing with each tiny movement of the warrior's body.
Her hips were a little slimmer than Gabrielle remembered and the abdominal muscles more pronounced. The breasts were still firm and round and the shoulders and arms were muscular, though differently than when they had wielded a sword.
The full lips were creased in a rare, full smile and the blue eyes twinkled in pleased embarrassment. No one had ever made her feel the way Gabrielle did with a single, smoldering look.
Gabrielle lifted her hands to her dress, but Xena gently pushed them aside. She began unbuttoning the bodice, shivering when Gabrielle ran her fingertips up the warrior's bare sides. She traced her fingers over ribs and stomach muscles and lingered over the round sides of her breasts before repeating the action.
Xena worked the buttons loose as quickly as she could, then stepped away from Gabrielle's touch. She walked around behind the bard and trailed her fingers across Gabrielle's shoulders, watching the goosebumps rise following her touch. Xena pushed the dress down her arms and waist, watching it fall to the floor in a heap of material. Another tug and her undergarments joined them.
Then Xena scooped Gabrielle up in her arms once more and lowered her onto the bed.
For a long moment she simply looked, gazing into Gabrielle's eyes and loving her without words or touches, seeing that love returned in kind. Then Xena's eyes traveled down the immortal body, remembering how and where Gabrielle liked to be touched. Finally she brought her lips and hands to bear, capturing Gabrielle's mouth possessively and allowing her fingers to trace the smooth contours of the bard's body at last.
They took their time. Having waited a lifetime and beyond, they went slowly - touching, exploring, rediscovering - igniting one another's passion and celebrating the joys of coming together and being whole once more.
They met body to body, heart to heart and soul to soul. And at the height of their passion, just as the clock struck the witching hour, they renewed their blood connection and for the first time in nearly two millennia, the circle was complete.
"Harrison! What are you doin' here?" Mama exclaimed as she opened her arms for a hug. "It's so good to see you again."
"Hello, Mama. I thought I'd come check on Gabrielle, but I saw she is finally in better hands."
"Lord, you didn't interrupt...."
Hercules chuckled and flushed slightly. "No ma'am, but it was a near thing." He motioned to her finery. "What's the occasion?"
"It's Halloween, Harrison. We're welcomin' Samhain."
"And you just volunteered because I'm bettin' we don't see Gabrielle for a while and I need the help."
Mama shrugged. "He got called off on some emergency before daylight this morning. Told me it might be a few days. Now go get into your Sunday-go-to-meetin'-clothes. We got a party to go to."
Hercules laughed and took the stairs two at a time to get changed.
Folks were glad to have Hercules, or Harrison as he was known to them, back among them and they welcomed him warmly. Though they were disappointed that Gabrielle was suddenly unable to join them, the party was in full swing when Hercules ran into a most unpleasant and unexpected visitor.
"What are you doing here?" he hissed taking the visitor's arm and pulling him into a more private area. "Can't you find somewhere else to be?"
Ares jerked her arm out of Hercules grasp and smoothed down the material of his jacket. "It's a free country, bro. I can go where I want."
"Yeah, well I want you to go somewhere else... preferably back to your hidey hole in Greece."
"Well, we don't all get what we want, do we?" the war god said bitterly. "Don't get your shorts in a twist. I'm leaving soon. I got what I came for."
Hercules eyes got big, but he bit his tongue on the off chance that Ares hadn't come for Xena and Gabrielle.
"Besides, even with that annoying little Iolaus clone you call a lawman, this town has an energy... a power I haven't felt in ages. It drew me...." Ares shrugged. "Maybe it is just the time of year." He walked off a few steps before he turned. "See ya, little brother."
"You know that jerk?" Isaac asked as he came up beside Hercules, who turned in surprise. Isaac smiled. "Hey, big guy."
Hercules clapped a hand on Isaac's shoulder. "Hey, buddy. I didn't think you were supposed to be here, but I'm glad to see you."
"Same here. You know him?" jerking his chin in Ares direction.
"We've had a few run-ins, yeah." A pause. "Why?"
"He's the reason I left so early this morning. He's rounding up mercenaries to join up with Union forces to fight the Indians. Seems the government is still smarting over their loss at Little Big Horn."
"Always something, isn't it?" Hercules muttered, though he wondered what had brought the god of war to the point that he was physically recruiting mercenaries. "Well, nothing to be done about it tonight. C'mon, let's go get some of Mama's pie."
Classes were suspended briefly at Mama's behest. She explained that Gabrielle had things come up that took precedence and any communication with her would need to be directed to Mama for the time being. Hercules volunteered to fill-in as the teacher, but first he and Isaac made a quick trip to Kansas to warn the Indians of the coming military raid.
Unfortunately, none of these natives recognized either white man as a friend and it took the two several days to convince the braves of their sincerity. Only when they finally met with Kya and Kepo did they make headway, but it was the mention of Xena's name that gained them the trust the needed. They told their story and turned towards home. Hercules particularly was anxious to hear about the reunion between warrior and bard.
It was a two week round trip, so Hercules was more than a little surprised when Mama stopped him from visiting when they returned to Nocona Corners.
"No, Harrison," she said calmly but forcibly. "They are not ready for visitors yet."
"Gabrielle promised to let me know when they were ready. Until then, you respect their need for privacy."
"How long do they need? It's been over four months."
"No. Gabrielle's companion arrived on Halloween, just as you did."
Hercules creased his brow in thought. "But...."
"Let it go, Harrison."
He nodded. "All right. Not like I'm going anywhere for a while what with teaching school for Gabrielle," realizing for the first time just what he'd committed to. "It'll wait. It's just...."
Mama patted his arm. "I know, but we'll get the whole story eventually." She turned to slip a pan of biscuits in the oven. "I hope," she muttered in afterthought.
The weather turned colder and snow flurries blew through on Thanksgiving. December was colder still and Christmas approached with no sign of Xena or Gabrielle emerging from their cocoon. Even Mama became concerned and girded her loins to check on them.
Hercules tried to dissuade her, knowing they could survive much longer without any of the so-called necessities of life. But he couldn't convince Mama of that without betraying their secret, so with great reluctance he let her go, hoping Gabrielle could cope with the questions he was sure would follow.
She wrapped up a meal, packing it into a basket before pulling on her heavy coat and wrapping a shawl over her head. Then she started down the path, hoping she was not stepping where angels feared to tread.
Mama heard soft laughter and the murmur of voices when she lifted her hand to knock on the door. Her hand fell as she considered the wisdom of simply dropping in. Gabrielle had promised to let her know when she and Xena were ready for company and though it had been nearly two months, that sign had not yet come.
On the other hand, it had been nearly two months and there had been no sign of life around the cabin save the wood smoke that came from the fireplace. Mama felt her concerns were well-founded. No matter how strong, human beings simply could not live on love alone.
She raised her hand again only to hesitate when the laughter turned to something much more provocative and intimate. Instead, she set the basket down, knowing the cold would keep everything for a few days. If she didn't see them before the first of the year, she would try again.
They heard the steps coming up the stairs, but when there was no knock, Xena and Gabrielle turned their attention back to one another. The days since Halloween had been filled with much sharing - love, laughter and tears.
Gabrielle had gotten out her diaries and they were reading through them together and Xena saw so many ways her bard had influenced the course of history. She felt a bit of melancholy over all the time they had missed together and a little jealousy over all the things she had missed sharing with Gabrielle.
They were curled up together on the bearskin rug Hercules had brought back from Banff on one of his trips. The fire was cozy along with being warm, something they both appreciated.
"You did a lot of good over the years, my bard," Xena said as she handed Gabrielle a cup of tea. "I mean...."
Gabrielle shrugged. "I guess."
Xena sat up at the tone. "Gabrielle?"
She shrugged again and took a sip of the tea. "I would have rather spent the time with you," came the quiet admission.
Xena set her cup aside and did the same with Gabrielle's. Then she embraced the bard's body completely with her own, nuzzling the soft skin of her neck until she got a delightful little shiver and a tiny mewling sound out of Gabrielle. The bard turned her head and their lips met again. Xena was fuzzily aware of the retreating footsteps but her attention was focused elsewhere.
"What if you could?" she asked when they separated.
Gabrielle shifted in Xena's arms until she could look up into her face with a furrowed brow. She cupped the soft cheek gently and urged the blue eyes to meet her own quizzical green ones.
"Wha...?" She shook her head. "Xena, I don't understand what you're asking me."
Xena smiled and captured the full lips beneath her own for a long moment. "What if you could?" she asked breathlessly when they pulled apart. "What if we could go back and live through that time together?"
"Don't tease me, Xena," Gabrielle said harshly. She pulled away as much as the floor allowed her and would have moved from Xena's hold had not the warrior held on tightly. "I don't think you really understand what an eternity alone is like."
Hurt flashed in Xena's eyes before it was swiftly hidden. She kissed the blonde hair beneath her lips. "You're right, Gabrielle. I don't... I can't. I can tell you I didn't like the small taste of it I had and given the chance to do it over, I do things differently so we could be together... I mean, if that's what you wanted."
"Of course it would be what I wanted, love, but what is the point of speculating over something that can't be?"
This time Gabrielle did pull away, enough to sit up until she was leaning on her elbows. She looked at Xena askance and rubbed her temples.
"Simple words, Xena. My head hurts."
In answer, Xena rose and went to the large saddlebags Gabrielle had collected on Samhain morning, following their Halloween reunion. It had been the only time either of them had been out of the house except to collect wood from the shed. Now she sorted carefully through the totems in one bag until she reached the scroll at the bottom. She unrolled it and passed it to Gabrielle.
"When I arrived here, I was... so... lost. All I could think of was finding a way home to you." Silence. "I found out how I was brought here and how to reverse it." Xena opened the bag again and set the items out one by one. "It took me a while and a lot of searching, but eventually I had all the items I needed to go home... except one."
Gabrielle looked over the totems carefully, recognizing all of them but putting her questions save one aside for the moment. "You'll share the stories behind these with me one day, right?"
"You're missing the chakram," she stated unequivocally. Xena nodded again. "The chakram that is now in my possession." A third nod. "Well, we have a tiny little problem," Gabrielle said and Xena's head dropped. She had been afraid of this.
"Lemme guess... you left it in Greece. With Aphrodite."
It was Gabrielle's turn to nod. "It seemed like the best idea at the time. I had to leave most of the weapons in her care. I still have a staff with me and some of the smaller knives, but she kept the katana, your sword and the chakram."
Xena smiled ruefully. "Well, I guess in the spring we'll be taking a trip to Greece. In the meantime...." Her smile turned rakish and her blue eyes twinkled wickedly.
"Yessss?" Gabrielle drawled, feeling her blood prickle in excited reaction.
Xena pushed the scroll and other totems aside and moved back to lie beside Gabrielle on the fur. Then she ducked her head, kissing the bard with abandon until she felt Gabrielle relax into her. She loosened the ties on Gabrielle's robe, setting her hands free to explore and asked on a ragged breath when she felt the bard reciprocate the touches in kind, "How 'bout a trip to Elysia?"
Her answer came in the form of a touch so intimate, Xena simply held on and let the bard take her there, cradling her heart and soul tenderly while setting her body free to soar.
They lay together in the afterglow watching the flames burn the new wood Gabrielle had fed them. Xena had opened the front door and retrieved the basket Mama had left and they were cuddled together under a think blanket feeding one another bits.
Unexpectedly, to Gabrielle at least, Xena was on her feet and crouched in defensive position before the rose petals reached the floor. Aphrodite stepped back in pure reflex. Gabrielle giggled and Xena glared before sliding back down beside her bard.
"Whoa, babe! Nice reflexes! Wow... great bod, too!" She turned her attention to Gabrielle who was glaring. "Oops!" And she laughed girlishly. "Forgot about those radical green eyes." She winked and took a look around before dropping onto the couch, bouncing on it a time or two before nodding approval. "Quaint little place you've got here, Cutie. I like it... it totally suits you."
Gabrielle tied her robe and crossed to sit on the couch, wrapping Dite in a crushing hug. "I've missed you," she whispered, feeling a tightening of the goddess's arms around her in reflexive response.
"Oh, babe... I've missed you too... so much." She looked at Xena who was caught between the need to glare jealously at the interruption and the joy she still felt flood her being when she realized that she and Gabrielle were together again at last. Instead, she tied her own robe and began clearing the remains of their meal, keeping one ear on the conversation.
"It is like, so bitchin' to have you two babes together again. The love vibes are just rockin'."
"How did you get here?" Gabrielle asked seriously. "I mean... I know you just popped in, but I thought... I mean you haven't been able to do that for a while."
"Yeah, well, you two have juiced the batteries so much since you've been back together, my energy is totally off the freakin' scale. It's awesome!"
Gabrielle blushed, but her smile was radiant. She gazed at Xena adoringly. "Well, it's been pretty awesome for us as well."
"I know," Dite said softly. "And I am so, so glad. Now," she said in a louder voice, pulling her glasses from a nonexistent pocket and slipping them on her face. "Let's get down to business. Here," she added briskly. "I think you're gonna need this."
She pulled the chakram from another nonexistent pocket and handed it to Gabrielle. Xena reached for it almost automatically, but pulled back with a scowl when Gabrielle took it and set it aside, both at the action and the implication of Aphrodite's words.
"You've been spying on us?" Xena said low and dangerously.
"Not exactly, no," Dite defended herself. She turned to face Xena squarely. "Gabrielle, could you give us a moment alone, please?"
The bard looked between the two of them - one angry and defiant; the other angry and determined. Aphrodite's use of her full name and the seriousness of her tone had not escaped Gabrielle's notice. Dite turned her head, her eyes pleading. Gabrielle turned her attention to Xena, noting the stiffness of her posture before the blue eyes turned her way and the dark head nodded her agreement with a sharp, short nod.
Gabrielle looked back at Aphrodite and nodded with a soundless sigh. Then she rose and picked up the chakram, laying it in Xena's lap before kissing the top of the raven hair. She picked up the basket Xena had left with its neatly stacked dishes and moved over to the tiny kitchen area which backed up to her bathroom.
Then she went into the bathroom and started a hot shower running, figuring it was about the only way to give the two women a bit of privacy.
Aphrodite waited until the door closed before she turned outraged eyes to Xena who met her stare with an equally furious look. She rose to her feet until she was nose to nose with the warrior.
"Just listen," she said when Xena opened her mouth to speak. "Yeah, I overheard your conversation. I've been keeping an eye on Gabrielle for nearly two thousand years. It's kinda become an ingrained habit."
"So once you knew we were back together, you kept watching because...." It was a bare whisper, but the outrage came through clearly.
Aphrodite rolled her eyes. "Get over yourself, warrior babe. With your track record, figure the odds. Besides, it's my job, remember?? It's like, what I do."
"Yeah, well, you can stop now."
Dite gave an unladylike snort. "Let me explain something to you, Xena. You have the chance to go back and do things right this time... to be able to live through all the time you missed with Gabrielle. BUT...." She poked the warrior in the chest to emphasize her point. "You screw this up and I guarantee you there won't be a third chance."
"Is that a threat?"
"NO. That is a promise." Dite softened her eyes and her tone. "Xena, most beings, mortal or otherwise don't get the kind of opportunity you've been offered. Don't squander it."
"Or you will be alone for eternity. I won't see Gabrielle live through this... alone like this again."
Xena walked over to the window and looked out across the expanse of bare, snow-dusted ground unseeingly.
Dite's brow furrowed. "Huh? Why what?"
"Why am I getting this chance?
The goddess shrugged. "A lot of different reasons. But I think mostly because of Gabrielle's faith in the two of you together."
"Yeah, but don't let that get around, all right? People will start expecting it all the time," she replied wryly.
Xena couldn't help it. The deprecating, sardonic answer made her smile and she realized that Dite genuinely cared for both of them, though she suspected that caring went much deeper for Gabrielle.
"So what do we do now?"
"Well, I can't take you back. I mean... I can take you back to Greece, but not back in time. You need to find the spell that brought you here and reverse it."
Xena concured. "That's what I've been working on - collecting the totems. The chakram was the last piece of the puzzle. I need to talk to Kya." She looked at Aphrodite. "He's the shaman who brought me here."
Dite nodded and chewed her nail. "Probably a good idea."
"What is?" Gabrielle asked as she stepped from the bathroom drying her hair with a towel.
"Talking to Kya before we attempt the ritual that will take us back to our Greece... our time."
"So you think we can really do this successfully?" Gabrielle asked, looking between them.
"I think so," Xena said slowly. "I don't think we have anything to lose by trying."
"Agreed," Gabrielle said with ultimate faith and trust reflecting in her green gaze.
Aphrodite clapped her hands. "This is so totally exciting! I got things to do." She leaned forward and kissed them both on the cheek. "Good luck guys.... Later!"
Gabrielle laughed when Xena shook her head to clear it of the rose petals that had landed in her hair. Then she blew off one that landed on her nose. Gabrielle covered her mouth to keep from howling. Xena glared in the bard's direction, then let a wry smile cross her face.
"She really cares for you, ya know," Xena commented.
"She cares for both of us, Xena and she's been a good friend."
"Yep. I'm glad...." She started to say more then bit her tongue. She still felt guilty though she and Gabrielle had worked things out between them with lots of honest conversation since their reunion. Now with the opportunity to make things right, she didn't want to dwell on the coulda-woulda-shoulda's. "Here's hoping she's right about us going home again although...." Xena paused. "Gabrielle... are you sure? I mean, I'd be happy to make a life here with you. And by your own admission, you've done so much, helped so many...."
Gabrielle wrapped the towel around her neck and closed the two step distance between her and Xena. She lifted her arms to Xena's neck, gratified when the warrior's hands automatically went to her waist.
"Xena...." captured for a long moment in the intent regard of those blue eyes. "Yes, I'm sure. If it works, we'll be able to do all those things again... just together this time. If it doesn't...." She shrugged. "We'll make a life here together and I'll be happy to do that because we *will* be together. But I'd really like to give going home a try. What do we have to lose, right?"
Xena remembered Aphrodite's warning, niggling in the back of her mind. She wondered if she were destined to repeat her mistake or if the Fates were truly given her a chance to choose her own greater good this time. "Right," she answered.
She pulled Gabrielle into her and hugged her close, nibbling on her neck and chuckling silently when the bard was caught between a giggle and a moan as she allowed Xena better access. The warrior licked her way up to Gabrielle's ear and patted her on the butt.
"Go get dressed. I think it's time to go see Mama."
"You're a tease," Gabrielle said with a hint of frustration in her voice.
Xena grinned rakishly. "Yeah, but you love me anyway."
Gabrielle reached around and pinched a firm warrior behind, then scooted towards the bedroom. "Yep. I sure do," she said laughingly.
Xena growled and gave chase.
They were later to Mama's than they planned, but still made it in time for dinner.
Xena and Gabrielle observed Christmas with Mama, Isaac, Sal and his family and Hercules at Mama's insistence. Xena didn't understand what exactly what they were celebrating, but it was near enough to solstice for her to accept it as a holiday. Gabrielle had long since given up trying to explain that she didn't commemorate most of the modern holidays and simply participated in her own way. They were both glad of the opportunity to thank the woman who had welcomed them into her heart and home without judgment, though and they did so with relish.
Sal, Isaac and Hercules each received a bone knife from the white buffalo Xena had killed so many years before. She had kept them carefully and carved a bit of her story on each of them. The children and Josephina were given Cheyenne beaded necklaces. Mama received the white buffalo robe over her protestations that she couldn't possibly accept something so valuable.
Each of them was given genuine scrolls from Gabrielle that told a different story. The uniqueness of the gift made Sal's eyes light up at the prospect of a new business venture - until Josephina smacked his head for allowing commercialism to intrude on such a sacred holiday. The story she gave Mama brought tears to her eyes.
"Thank you," she whispered to the bard when she was done reading.
"You've been a mother to me for... a few years, Mama," Gabrielle said with a smile. "It was the best way I could think of to say thank you... and goodbye."
"You're leaving?" This from Hercules. He hadn't had a chance to catch up with them yet and he felt a pang at the possibility that he might not get to.
Gabrielle bit her lip and nodded, looking directly in his eyes. "We have a chance to go home again. We're gonna take it."
"Will you be back?" Mama asked.
Gabrielle shook her head. "Probably not. Home for us is Greece. It...." She trailed off, at a loss for how to explain without actually saying anything revealing. Isaac broke the silence before it stretched on too painfully, opening his arms for a hug.
"We'll miss you, Gabrielle."
"Thanks, Isaac. I'm gonna miss ya'll too."
Mama got up from her seat and first embraced an embarrassed Xena and then a teary Gabrielle. "I expect you girls to be careful and be safe. And if you can come back here, we'll be glad to see you."
"Thank you, Mama," Gabrielle said. Xena didn't respond verbally, but she gently returned the hug.
Hercules walked them beck to the cabin later that evening. "So you found all the totems?" he said into the cold air, watching the fog of his breath billow out at his words. Xena nodded. "You think it will take you back home then... to the time we are from?"
"I dunno. I think so... I hope so."
"But you're gonna try?"
Xena nodded. "Yeah. We are. We've got nothing to lose...."
"... and everything to gain," Gabrielle finished. Hercules acquiesced. They reached the cabin and Hercules remained at the bottom of the steps while Xena and Gabrielle walked up them and paused.
"Do me a favor," the big man asked. "If you don't make it back to the beginning, go to Banff and wait for me. I'll come up in the summer to see if you're there or not. But I'd like to know if ya'll do stick around this time, okay?"
Gabrielle walked back down the steps and into his arms. They hugged for a long moment. "We will," she agreed softly. "Thank you Hercules... for everything."
He kissed her cheek tenderly. "Thank you, Gabrielle. You brought back a wonderful part of my life and I'm glad to have had you in mine."
"Hey," Xena called softly. "Can anybody get in on this little love fest?"
Both Gabrielle and Hercules opened an arm to her and they embraced briefly. Then the two women withdrew and moved back to the door.
"When are you leaving?" Hercules asked as they opened the door.
Xena shrugged. "Probably the next day or two. May as well go to the winter camp while the weather is decent."
"Do you need an escort?"
"No, Hercules, but thank you." And Hercules knew that Xena was thanking him for more than just the offer and he acknowledged it with a smile.
"Can't blame a guy for trying," he said teasingly. "Ya'll be safe, all right."
"You too, Herc."
It was cold but brightly sunny when they started out two days later. Shamrock for one was glad to be out in the open again. The panther and fox made periodic appearances, as though they were checking on the progress of the little party. But both Xena and Gabrielle had grown accustomed to their odd emergence and disappearances.
The trip was a lot like their travels in Greece had been and they found themselves falling into a comfortable, well-rehearsed routine. They weren't really bothered by thugs or brigands and the days were filled with games they had played and conversation. Mostly from Xena, surprisingly, as she shared tales about her early life in this strange, new world and the people she had shared it with. Gabrielle found herself looking forward to meeting the tribe Xena proudly called family.
Nights were filled with warm campfires and lots of star chasing. Two thousand years hadn't changed the argument.
"It's a bear."
"It's a dipper."
"Gabrielle... even in this time, star gazers call it the Big DIPPER."
"But SCIENTISTS call it Ursa, as in BEAR, Major."
They looked at one another and burst into laughter.
"You think we'll have this argument every night for the past two thousand years?" Gabrielle asked.
Xena kissed the top of the blonde head. "I sure hope so." Then they snuggled down to go to sleep. They had high expectations of reaching the winter encampment sometime before midday on the morrow.
Strangely, the winter encampment was eerily empty when they arrived, with no sign that it had been inhabited all winter. Xena surveyed the area and tried to remember what Hercules had told them about the reservations. She exchanged a grim look with Gabrielle and they mounted Shamrock and headed out into the wilderness.
Travel was slow as the weather increasingly got worse and by the time they reached the land Hercules had described, even their immortal blood was frozen nearly solid. Shamrock was terribly unhappy and the fox and the panther had disappeared once more.
Xena looked around, discontented with the conditions she saw. But before she could comment on it, Gabrielle spoke up.
"I think we may have to delay our trip, love. We can't leave family in this kind of shape." Xena smiled at Gabrielle's words, knowing they came from her heart even though she knew little of the people who her warrior called family.
It was touch and go about their reception until they were recognized and acknowledged by Kya, especially since Gabrielle was so obviously not one of them. Kya was now an old man and he welcomed them both warmly, taking a liberty in age he couldn't have managed in his youth. He cupped Xena's cheek and smiled.
"Zee-nah, my friend. Welcome." He beckoned them forward into his small dwelling. "And this is...?"
"This is Gabrielle. This is the reason I was searching for the totems."
"Is great honor, Gabrielle. Zee-nah legend of our people."
Gabrielle chuckled and took his hand. "Yeah, she's something of a legend of ours, too."
Xena cleared her throat and changed the subject, trying to will away the blush she felt coloring her skin. "Kya, why are things so bad here? Where are your supplies... your homes?"
And he told them of the raid that had been perpetrated on the Nation little more than a moon before. A raid that had wiped out many of the supplies and homes of the northern clan. The Blue Coats had forced them all to the reservation and now they were having to make due with too little shelter and too few supplies. Sickness was running rampant through the camp and many were not expected to survive the winter.
"Let us help, Kya. We can help build more shelters and do some hunting. Then you can help us go home."
"Finished journey, then?"
"Yes," Xena said simply.
"Good," he told them with a glad smile. "Come. Talk to council. Will help the people then will send you home."
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances and a tiny, almost imperceptible nod. "We can do that. C'mon."
The trio walked from the hut and Kya picked up a small drum that hung on the wall outside. He banged on it steadily and precisely and a crowd gathered. He continued until the council arrived and pushed its way through the congregation at Kya's hut. Then with very few words, they and Xena and Gabrielle went around back to have their discussion.
The discussion was held in Cheyenne and Xena patiently translated for Gabrielle. First Kya explained who they were and what they meant to the local tribe. Gabrielle could have guessed that just by the looks they were receiving.
Then he went on to tell them of Xena's offer. That caused a loud outcry from the elders until a younger man - the war chief - stood up and motioned for silence.
"Zee-nah fought at Little Big Horn. Killed Custer. Led braves to victory over Blue Coats. She clan. I will follow."
Dead silence ensued his pronouncement. The war chief gave up his leadership only in times of peace, something they hadn't seen in some time. For him to relinquish his position to Xena spoke volumes of not only her abilities but also his faith in her personally.
And Xena proved out his faith in her in spades. Within just a few weeks, the warriors had turned their weapons of war into weapons of salvation for their people. Tomahawks chopped down brush to help create beds and arrows were used for hunting game that Xena was able to pinpoint even in the dead of winter. Then she taught them how to find fish at the bottom of a riverbed.
Gabrielle helped the women and children collect rocks and make mud to build a permanent structure to house the overflow of bodies in. It was hard, grueling work, especially in the dead of winter, but when they finally had it standing after two weeks of exertion, it was well worth the effort. People's attitudes had changed in that time - both towards Xena and Gabrielle and about life in general. They had been given hope again. And they all understood the reason behind the change.
The day before Xena and Gabrielle were to leave, heading off into the privacy of the plains to test the ritual for themselves, Kya called them into his dwelling. A load had been removed from his shoulders by the work they had done in taking care of his people. But the look he wore was a cross between consternation and confusion.
He held in his hand the parchment Xena had given him. Though he remembered the ritual he'd performed that had brought Xena to them, he had wanted to check the details against his memory to be sure he instructed them correctly. Now especially, after just a very limited time on this reservation, he could truly understand both the want and the need to return to the home of one's roots. He marveled at Xena's patience. But he found the scroll... mystifying.
The shaman looked up from the parchment when the two women walked through the doorway. He was again struck by how well suited they were to one another and wondered if it had always been so. He wondered though, why Gabrielle's green eyes were so much older than Xena's. Then he had a sudden flash of insight. If he had brought Xena, who had not aged a day in the forty years he'd known her, from the distant past, could Gabrielle have possibly lived through it? He didn't expect to actually ever have an answer, but it would give him an interesting question to ponder until he died.
Kya realized he had been silent too long and that Xena was giving him that raised eyebrow look. He motioned them to sit.
"Forgive old man, Zee-nah. Get lost in thinking too easy."
Xena smirked. "Kya, my partner is a bard. I'm used to it." Then she squirmed to dodge the backhand that hit her squarely in the belly.
"Watch it, Warrior Princess. We have plenty of time for me to torture you, ya know."
Blue eyes twinkled mischievously. "Promise?"
Green sparkled back at her, forgetting their audience for a moment. "Uh uh," Gabrielle replied. "Guarantee."
Kya's laughter brought them back to the present. "You old couple. Been married long time."
"You think we act married?" Gabrielle asked with a smile.
"Yes," Kya answered with a vigorous nod. "Like parents." Then his face turned abruptly serious. "Zee-nah, where did you find?"
Xena scowled. "In the cave, Kya... just like you did."
He shook his head. "Not same. Different ritual."
Xena ran a hand through her hair. "What?? You mean we can't go home - I collected all those totems for nothing??"
"No, mean ritual different. Still need totems."
Xena blew out a big breath and Gabrielle casually stepped up behind the warrior and began rubbing her back. Xena relaxed into the touch though it wasn't noticeable to anyone save Gabrielle. The bard smiled at Kya.
"Can you explain what you did and how it differs from what we will need to do?"
"That is key... this for two. Will take both to do."
Xena nodded. "That almost makes sense, though how anyone knew there would be two of us...." She looked at Gabrielle. Gabrielle shrugged.
"I have learned not to question some things too deeply, Xena. I either don't like or don't understand the answer."
"Gods know I can understand that," Xena muttered. "All right, Kya... spill it." She took Gabrielle's hand. "We have places to be."
It took them nearly a week to reach the sacred ground Kya directed them to. They had returned to the spot where he had originally performed the ritual that had brought Xena to the New World so far out of her own time. Xena had some serious niggling doubts about the whole process now, but figured she owed it to Gabrielle to at least try.
"Are you sure about this? I mean... I get the feeling you have some... doubt... or whatever. I don't want you to do this just for me. I'm content to stay here and live out our lives together from this point."
Xena took Gabrielle in her arms and pulled her into a nearly crushing hug. Then she brushed a kiss to the top of her head, feeling Gabrielle return the favor on her clothed chest. "Sweetheart, let me be real honest here... even with doubts, I would do this for you, because I really believe you would be happier if we got to travel through all that time together. But to be completely selfish... *I* want this. I want to be there when you re-establish the Amazon Nation or meet Genghis Khan or write the Scottish Play. I missed so much this go round and if I have the opportunity to change that... even if I have doubts about its success... I'm gonna try. Because I want it. I want us to have that time together."
Gabrielle didn't say a word. She didn't have to. She simply lifted her tear-filled eyes and embraced Xena for all she was worth. Xena pulled back slightly after a few minutes and wiped away the lone tear that slowly rolled down Gabrielle's face.
"I don't say it enough, my bard," bringing a smile to Gabrielle's face with the endearment. "But I love you. You still give my life meaning and joy and regardless of whether this works or not, I'm gonna do a better job of showing you that. You deserve that... we both do."
"Time for us to be the greater good maybe?"
"Maybe, yeah... I think it is."
The two women separated and began collecting wood and chips needed for the fire and placed them in the center of the fire ring that had already been prepared. Gabrielle laid the fire and started it, while Xena lifted the saddlebags from Shamrock's back. She groomed him carefully once more before removing the bits of tack he had left.
"Go on, boy," she said with a gentle slap on his rear. "You've been a good friend, but it's time for me to set you free. Go find you a pretty filly and make some beautiful babies, all right?" She took his head between her hands and kissed his nose. "Thank you, Shamrock," said as a whisper.
The mustang nodded and butted her in the chest. Then he reared and walked away, but only went so far as to be out of the light cast from fire ring.
The fox and the panther stepped forward and took up sentinel positions on either side of the fire and no amount of coaxing could convince them to move. Xena and Gabrielle physically relocated them, picking them up and repositioning them out of the fire ring to wait beside Shamrock. The spirit guides simply followed both warrior and bard back into the sacred ring and resumed their stance by the fire.
"You think they know something we don't?" Gabrielle asked.
Xena shrugged. "Maybe. I don't think it will hurt to have them here, though."
Gabrielle nodded her agreement.
Xena looked around when a familiar tingling skittered up her spine, but she didn't see anything out of the ordinary. With a shrug, she returned her attention to the task before her.
They placed the six totems equally around the circle. Xena had explained her journeys behind each one and Gabrielle had been amazed at the connections to both herself and to those they called friend. She idly wondered how it all tied together, then turned her attention to Xena.
Without a word, the two women stripped naked and entered the water much as Kya had done forty odd years before. The freezing temperature made them scrub much faster than he did and they were happy to remove themselves from its icy wetness and dry with the thick blanket they'd set aside strictly for that purpose.
They stood in the circle as close to the fire as they could manage, thankful for the distinct lack of wind inside the fire ring. Xena picked up the two pots of paint they had made - one green, one blue - and began painting non-descript symbols on Gabrielle's body as she chanted low in her throat. She then painted stripes of blue and green on her own face before passing the paint to Gabrielle.
The bard accepted the paint and returned the favor... chanting the words Xena had taught her as she decorated the warrior's body in patterns she felt more than understood. Finally, she striped her own cheeks and set the pots out of the circle. Then Xena and Gabrielle began a rhythmic dance that was at once both non-sexual and highly erotic, continuing to chant the words that the parchment scroll had given them.
The dance tempo increased, as did the recitation of words and Xena lifted the chakram from its position in the circle. It like the other totems had begun to glow with an unearthly energy and she felt the warmth of its power flow through her when she raised it above her head.
Beyond the circle, the wind blew fiercely and Shamrock had gone for cover against the rumbling thunder and flashing lightning that was increasingly evident in alarming proportions.
In the distance, a lone rider saw the commotion that seemed to light up the horizon and he raced towards it. Perhaps here at last was the trail he had been searching for.
They continued to dance, closer and closer without touching. The totems pulsed with light and energy and as the sun began to drop beneath the horizon, Xena sliced into the palm of her left hand and lifted it to Gabrielle's lips.
Gabrielle felt her incisors lengthen and her eyes change from green to red. She extended her tongue and swiped it over the cut, licking her lips and savoring the taste of Xena's life essence. A low growl rumbled in Xena's chest at the sheer eroticism of the act and she waited impatiently for the bard to return the favor, her canines extending in anticipation.
Finally, after what seemed an eternity to the warrior, Gabrielle took the chakram and cut her own left palm, proffering the bleeding extremity to Xena. Xena accepted with alacrity, relishing the sweet tang of Gabrielle's blood and smiling at the moan she felt emanating from the bard's chest.
They were unaware of the storm growing outside their circle and they clasped their left hands together, letting the blood flow and mingle jointly. Their right hands each held a side of the chakram, which now pulsed steadily and brightly. The five remaining totems pulsed until their energy arced and raced towards the chakram.
The chakram glowed and sent out a light that surrounded them, drawing the energy of the approaching storm to them.
Ares pulled to a quick stop a short distance from the light, sensing the end of his journey... a strength and presence he had only felt occasionally in two thousand years. He was trying to reconcile what his mind knew with what his eyes were seeing. But there was no way to deny that the tattoo on the shorter woman's back belonged to Gabrielle. These were not descendants or reincarnations. This was the real deal... and if they were here....
"IMMORTALS???" he whispered. "But how??"
Xena lowered her mouth toward Gabrielle's neck and Gabrielle extended her mouth toward Xena's. As fangs sank into flesh, lightning converged on them. And the world was blinded for a very long moment.