Chapter XIII

Mount Olympus hadn't changed much in the three hundred cycles since her last visit, Gabrielle pondered idly as she stood at the window. She wasn't sure exactly where she was looking at... it was a beautiful outdoor scene of somewhere she had never been. Beautiful white sand beaches melted into green grass that led to a lake with a waterfall rushing off the side of a mountain.

"Radical, isn't it?" Dite asked as she came into the room. "I put all my faves together in one pic so I could always look out and see what I wanted."

Gabrielle nodded without turning around. "It's nice," she commented absently, letting the breeze stir her hair. Aphrodite walked up behind her and placed a hand on the longer locks.

"Is something wrong, Gabs? You've changed so much, though your hair reminds me a lot of that young kid from Poteidaia." Aphrodite waited a moment, then drew a deep breath and plunged ahead. "I've really missed you. You've got no idea how surprised I was when you crossed my scrying bowl earlier. Where've you been, babe?"

Aphrodite noted the shaking shoulders and without another word she turned Gabrielle into her and enfolded the bard in an embrace. For the first time in an eternity, Gabrielle returned the hug of another being fully and wept silently as though her heart was breaking. Dite couldn't stop the tears that welled up in her eyes and wiped them away as Gabrielle withdrew from her arms.

"You wanna talk?" was all she said.

Gabrielle nodded. "I'd like that. It'd be nice to be able to talk to someone who understands immortality and what an eternity really is."

Dite nodded but didn't comment. She been alive for an eternity when Gabrielle was born and yet how different it must be for her, the goddess thought. I was born an immortal with the powers of a god and an immortal purpose in life. Gabrielle was born with the expectancy of living and dying a natural human life.

Instead she popped them into her favorite relaxation spot... the hot tub, complete with jet sprays and pink bubbles. With a sigh she settled back and waited for Gabrielle to speak, not understanding until this moment how much she'd missed her interaction with the bard. A sudden thought cause Dite to sit upright and slosh bubbles all over the place. Gabrielle looked at her a little startled.

"Sorry, babe. Just thought of something." She popped out and a moment later popped back in. Gabrielle blinked in confusion at her sudden burst of energy.

"Cool. Now we're all set for some majorly serious catching up. I just had to make sure Ares couldn't like, you know, waltz in here."


"Yeah, you know... c'mon in uninvited. He almost caught you today, ya know. It's how I found you."

"How you found me?" Gabrielle was beginning to feel less than articulate. She wasn't sure if it was her or Aphrodite or her exhaustion or that fact that her mind was beginning to replay the night's episode in her head, but whatever the cause, her coherence was less than what it should have been and she found herself simply repeating the pertinent parts of Dite's words to her.

"Yeah, you know, you like totally disappeared. You didn't take the Amazons to that gnarly little island. I checked and I kept checking. I even looked at all those other little islands and I never like, found you. Where'd you go babe?"

Gabrielle swallowed hard. "You didn't forget about me?" in a small voice.

"No way, cutie. Why would I do something grody like that?" The goddess reached a hand over and brushed the bangs back from Gabrielle's face, placing a light kiss on her forehead. "You're my friend."

The events of the night and three hundred years of loneliness caught up to Gabrielle suddenly and violently. "I think I'm gonna be sick," she said before rushing from the tub. Aphrodite followed her, covering her and wiping her face down and giving her some water when she was done. Then she clothed them both and popped them into the room in her suite that she'd set aside for Gabrielle's use. Gently she tucked the bard in and moved to her own room, lost in thought over Gabrielle's reaction. Twice she arose to sooth the nightmares that plagued Gabrielle's sleep. It was a long time before she closed her own eyes in rest.

Gabrielle had no way of discerning how much time had passed when she finally opened her eyes. She had eventually fallen into a deep, dreamless sleep, though her nightmares returned to her vividly in the light of day. She closed her eyes and held on until the wave of nausea passed. She knew it would fade with time. She just wished it wasn't there to begin with.

With a sigh, the bard rose from the bed and made her way to the shower Dite had set up for her use... after her comment on how she missed the waterfall showers she and Xena had always shared. It wasn't the same, of course... Xena was absent and the water was pleasantly warm, but she enjoyed it anyway and she walked away from it feeling better than she had in a while.

Gabrielle did a little investigating around her room and found that Aphrodite had set up things for her comfort. The goddess's thoughtfulness almost brought her to tears again, but she shook her head and got dressed, determined to find her friend. They'd been apart too long and had a lot of catching up to do.

Aphrodite looked up from her scrying bowl as Gabrielle knocked tentatively on the doorway, removing her glasses and studying the bard with frank appraisal. What she saw made her smile sadly. Immortality was taking a toll on Gabrielle, as told by the oldness of her eyes. But she looked better for her night's sleep and she was as fit and lean as Aphrodite recalled her being in her youth. Dite smiled. She remembered well several of the gods watching the duo just to see Gabrielle lose a little more clothing each time she got a new outfit.

Gabrielle noted the odd smile and wondered at the cause. But she promptly forgot as Dite bade her enter the workroom. Without further hesitation and feeling sure of her welcome, Gabrielle walked right into Aphrodite's arms and gave her a big hug.

"Good morning, Sweetpea," the goddess commented around the lump in her throat. The affection was totally unexpected and she knew that from Gabrielle, true friendship lay behind the gesture. She kissed the bard's head and smoothed her hair down as she stepped back slightly to catch the green eyes with her own.

"You look better this morning. How ya feelin'?"

"Better. It's good to be here. I've missed you."

"Oh babe!" taking her in another hard, fast embrace. "I've missed you too." Dite stood back and took Gabrielle's hand in her own, leading her away from the scrying bowl and toward a table laden with all of Gabrielle's favorites... or at least the favorites Aphrodite was familiar with.

They ate in silence for a bit before Gabrielle leaned back and looked Aphrodite straight in the eye. "I owe you an apology."

Confusion crossed Dite's features. "You do? What for?"

Gabrielle looked down at her plate, putting her bread down and clasping her hands together in her lap. "Doubting you. I knew you would have to hunt for us when we blew so far off course, but when year after year passed and you never came, I just figured you'd...." Slim shoulders shrugged. "I dunno... gotten too busy or forgotten about me."

Aphrodite bit her lips in a sad smile at the forlorn picture Gabrielle presented in this moment. She'd always known the bard as a strong-minded, independent, iron-willed person and the fact that she was still in her right mind after three hundred years of virtual aloneness attested to that fact. But even she... Hades, *especially* she understood just how lonely immortality could be. And she admired Gabrielle's spunk in admitting to needing a friend who understood it. It had taken the Olympians the coming of Twilight to admit any sort of need and even then they skewered it until it had almost become their oblivion.

Dite rose from her seat and went round the table to kneel at Gabrielle's side. She reached up one hand a lifted Gabrielle's chin to meet her eyes and covered the bard's clasped hands with the other.

"Oh babe, I NEVER forgot about you, just like you never forgot about me. I just couldn't find you. You disappeared completely off of my screen. As soon as I found you, I popped in. And I gotta tell ya, girlfriend, you were a sight for sore eyes."

Gabrielle gave Aphrodite a genuine, if watery smile. "Really?"

"Absolutely. I was way glad to see you again." She paused and pushed the bangs out of Gabrielle's eyes and popped a chair beneath her. "Getting a little old to be kneeling like that," cheered when she heard Gabrielle's soft chuckle. "So tell me where you've been... what happened."

And for the first time in a very long time, Gabrielle fell into bard mode, and with flair and enthusiasm told the story of the Amazon's journey to their new homeland. By turns, Aphrodite was thrilled, appalled, overwhelmed and joyful. Eventually the tale turned melancholy as Gabrielle spoke of friends who had passed into their afterlife.

Aphrodite could feel the loneliness of Gabrielle's soul and again cursed her brother for the predicament they all, but particularly Gabrielle, found themselves in now. She saw how Gabrielle had withdrawn from the world around her as a way of coping with her isolation from the mortal realm as she knew it. Curiosity tickled in the back of her mind and when the bard paused, Aphrodite spoke up.

"So what brought you back out, Gab? I mean, it sounds like you've totally settled in your new pad."

Gabrielle chuckled. "I think I would have come out eventually. I was beginning to feel um, hemmed in. But a crisis in the Nation brought us out and then Rome once again," her voice hardening, "destroyed years of knowledge and weeks of hard work."

Dite's brows crinkled in concern. "What kind of crisis? Maybe I can help."

"I dunno...."

Aphrodite was profoundly hurt by Gabrielle's lack of faith in her and her abilities. "C'mon Gab... at least let me try."

"Oh, no, Aphrodite," Gabrielle waved a hand to stop the goddess's speech, then she grasped both of Dite's hands gently in her own. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to slight you or your abilities. You know I think you totally rock!"

Aphrodite couldn't help but laugh and forget her mad when Gabrielle smiled up at her in all sincerity with those big green eyes and the cutest blush. She leaned over and kissed Gabrielle's forehead and all was forgiven between them.

"Okay, so...?"

"I don't know what kind of crisis. I mean, we were here to look for a cure to something that was killing the Nation slowly. I had a list of symptoms to go by, but we still hadn't found out what it was, much less how to cure it," said with more than a hint of bitterness. "I guess I failed the Nation, again."

Dite rose and picked up her glasses, a little annoyed that she actually needed them more than she wanted to admit. She held out a hand to Gabrielle, who clutched it and stood up with a questioning look on her face.

"C'mon. I'll bet we can figure this out. After all... I have the Olympic library at my disposal here and it that doesn't work, well, we can always go to Rome."

Gabrielle's face screwed up in distaste.

"Then again, maybe not," Dite replied lightly and tugged the smaller woman with her to her desk.

Gabrielle would have taken a seat on one side of desk, but Aphrodite continued pulling her around to the working side. With a wave of her hand a map of the known world appeared on the desk top. Gabrielle gazed at it, intrigued by the way it seemed to be lit from within and wondering just how it was managed. But her attention was drawn back to the map itself when Aphrodite started talking again.

"Okay, cutie. This is the world as we know it - Greece, Britannia and the Norselands, Rome, Gaul, Egypt, India and Chin," pointing out each of the places on the map and deliberately omitting Japa. No need to bring up those memories now. Nothing but water and clouds cover the remaining squares of the map. "This is the Sinhales Islands," gesturing to the original destination. "So where were you?"

Gabrielle looked at the map, then looked up at the ceiling and closed her eyes. "We made charts once we figured out we weren't going where we thought we were. And we updated them on our way back to Egypt." The bard furrowed her brow in thought. "It was so strange... the stars that I knew so well from my time with Xena all changed. Some of them stood on their heads; others were missing completely; and there were new ones I had never seen before."

Gabrielle opened her eyes and looked at the map again. "From everything we could figure out, we landed somewhere right about...." She pointed to an area almost off the map covered by clouds. "Here."

Aphrodite's brows shot into her hairline. "Are you sure?"

"Can you...?" Gabrielle motioned towards the ceiling. "Can you put the stars above us?"

Dite looked at her strangely, then waved the constellations into being overhead. Gabrielle searched the heavens, spinning until she was sure.

"Okay," she said, removing a bit of parchment from her bag. "This is how they look in the Amazon homeland."

Aphrodite took the scroll and studied it, changing the sky above her until it resembled the sketch she held in her hands.

"Like this?"

Gabrielle studied it carefully before she nodded. "Yep."

Dite took off her glasses and chewed on the earpiece thoughtfully. "All righty then. We need to turn the worldwide god web southeast a bit to see if we can get a reading on this gnarly new place. C'mon."

They walked over to the area that held the wwgw and Dite flipped on the screen. "'Kay... if we...." She turned a knob and pushed a couple buttons. "And then we...." Another button. "And then...." She aimed her little block box at the screen. "We should...." She waited a moment, then smacked the side of the monitor. "Oh yeah," Dite said as the picture came through clearly. "That rocks. 'Kay, let's see if we can find us some Amazons."

Gabrielle watched in fascination as the familiar shores of the Nation came into view.

"Cool," Dite said. "Looks like you were totally on target there, cutie. Awesome. Now, let's see if we can find out what is ailing these bodacious babes and figure out how to like, fix it."

They skimmed through the Nation until they came to the healer's hut. It was empty. They moved on to the Regent's hut, the mess hall which only had the cooks in it at this time of day and then they came to the council chambers.

Here sat the leaders of the village, including the healer who was at the moment answering a question from another of the council members.

"Well, I'm sure whatever Queen Gabrielle and the rest come back with will be helpful should we encounter it again, but hopefully it was destroyed by the fire that went through the eastern plain right after they left."

"So you think it was confined to that one area?"

"It appears so, Regent Cylla. It was the one common thing that all the victims shared. We still don't know *what* caused it. Buitu tends to think and so do I for that matter, that the fire will have eliminated it. But we can't be sure for a while yet."

Cylla ran her hands through her dark hair. "Well, with any luck then, the fire has taken care of it. At least for now it's gone then and the eastern plain is off limits until further notice. Perhaps the Queen will be able to pinpoint the problem so we know what to look for if this starts happening again."

Dite felt rather than saw Gabrielle's shoulder's drop. "Well," she commented brightly, "the good news is your plague seems to have fixed itself."

Gabrielle nodded forlornly. "The bad news is I gave them nothing and after what happened...." She broke off and Dite didn't wait long to jump in.

"What did happen? I know you like, did something radical to get Ares attention, but I missed a lot of stuff looking for you once I saw you, ya know, cross my screen."

Gabrielle sighed and her shoulders slumped even further than before. "The Amazons found out the truth behind my immortality."

"Oh," was all Dite said, but a world of expression was housed in that single utterance.

"Yeah, oh," Gabrielle repeated. "I had already decided to stay behind, see if you still remembered me or whatever," said with a slight shrug, "but...."

"But that was like having the decision made for you."

"Yeah and I know what we needed was there somewhere. We would have found it." She smiled a little. "It was frustrating, though... that's why we weren't in the library when it went up in flames. We just needed a little break."

Aphrodite sat lost in thought for a moment and Gabrielle's attention went back to what had happened and what she could have done differently. Without warning, Dite rose from her place and took Gabrielle's hand again.

"C'mon. I got an idea."

They went into the vast library that Olympus held... both of them sneezing violently at the amount of dust contained in the large room.

"Guess this place doesn't get used much," Gabrielle commented wryly as she wiped her hands together to rid them of dirt.

"Um, no," Dite replied with a sheepish shrug. "I actually can't remember the last time I was in here. Hmm," she said, looking around at the towers of shelves. Then she apparently came to a decision.

"Here," Dite said, leading Gabrielle to a console. "Ew! Grody! Hang on a sec," and with a wave of her hand, made centuries of dust and neglect simply disappear. She took another look, pleased by the difference. "Muuuuuch better. 'Kay, now... I want you to sit here and.... Oh, you like, don't know how to type yet, I guess."

She pushed the keyboard out of the way and replaced it with a scroll, quill and ink. Gabrielle studied the odd instrument a moment longer before turning to Dite with a serious question.

"Why are the letters all mixed up?'

"Pul-eeze... like anyone would explain that to me. Rumor had it that it was a test Hera devised for Zeus, but really, who knows." She shrugged then waved her hands. "Anyhoo, that so doesn't like, matter right now. Right now, I need you to sit your cute self down and write out every radical detail you can remember about this... thing... illness, plague, whatever... that was messing with your Amazons. Then we'll put it into the web and should have a fix, like pronto."

Gabrielle shook her head, gleaning the important parts of Dite's speech and letting the rest fall to the wayside. She sat down immediately and wet the tip if the quill, dipping it into the ink and beginning to write. She had the symptoms memorized. It wouldn't take long.

Dite went back to her work room, not a little surprised to see Ares waiting outside the door.

"Hey bro! How's it hangin'?"

Ares pushed off the wall and shrugged. "A little to the left," smirking when Dite made a face at his answer. "Hey, you asked."

"TMI, bro... waaaaay TMI."

Ares gave a full out belly laugh. "You know better than to ask."

Dite chuckled. Despite the fact that he was a sincere pain in her ass, she really loved Ares and missed him a lot now that he was in Rome so much. "Yeah, I do." She paused. "So whassup?" hoping Gabrielle would take her time before coming back.

"Not much," he answered, following her into her workroom. "I thought I'd stop in to say hello before I got back to work. The Romans are keeping me busy these days... or I'm keeping them...." He shrugged again and waved a dismissive hand. "Whatever. I, um...." He kicked the ground with the toe of his boot and looked for all the world like a kid caught with his hand stuck in the cookie jar. "I kinda miss you." Not mentioning the odd feeling in Alexandria that reminded him of home and her.

Aphrodite broke into smiles and sparkles. "Oh Ares, you're such a sweetie." Her eyes became slightly teary. "I miss you too... I miss all you guys. I get a little lonely here by myself sometimes."

"Well, you know, Dite... you could come to Rome." But even as he spoke, he knew she wouldn't.

"No, this is home for me," she said softly. "I get over there a lot, but it's just not the same."

Ares nodded, knowing it for the truth. The Romans took up a lot more time than he'd imagined they would, but he still missed the old days... Greece and Olympus.

He took her in an awkward embrace then stepped away, almost embarrassed at his perceived weakness. "I gotta get back," he said. "Maybe I can get some of the others together and we can come home for a short visit."

"Oh, I'm liking that radical idea, bro! You rock!"

Ares couldn't help the color that suffused his features or the tiny smile that crossed his lips. Despite their differences, Dite was and always would be his favorite. She just had a knack for making him crazy... in the many various incarnations that it was possible to do so.

"So do you. Later!" And he was gone in a field of blue fire before she could respond.

Aphrodite stood rooted to the spot, gazing with tears in her eyes at where he'd been for a timeless moment. Only when Gabrielle cleared her throat behind her did the goddess of love take a deep breath and wiped her eyes none-too-subtlety.

"I, uh... I'm sorry, Dite. If this is a bad time...."

"No, babe. You're timing is fab. I was just, um...." Aphrodite bit her lip, unsure exactly what to say.

Gabrielle shrugged. "Well, I was done kinda quick, but..." when I heard Ares voice, she thought, though she didn't say it out loud, "I decided to look around the library." Her eyes shone in remembered excitement. "I could get lost for days in there."

Dite gave her a genuine smile. "Well, you've got the time. But let's see whatcha got here and take care of business first."

The goddess walked back to her desk, removing the virtual map and replacing it with her god web input screen. It had been quite a surprise to find out that there was land beyond the known world and Dite wondered briefly what other realities they were missing out on. Then she turned her attention back to the matter at hand.

Aphrodite got so completely caught up in what she was doing that she never even heard Gabrielle approach her until the bard laid a hand on her shoulder. Dite looked up, startled.

"Thank you, Aphrodite."

Gabrielle didn't say any more than that, but she really didn't have to. Dite understood what she said and even more what she did say and nodded her acceptance of the sentiment with a smile. Then she drew a deep breath.

"Well, I'll be honest, babe. I haven't found out a whole lot about this. This is something radically new apparently...." Dite smiled sadly at Gabrielle's defeated posture. "I'm gonna do a little more research on this thing though. See if we can at least find out the why behind it... ya know... to keep it from happening again."

"You really think we can, Aphrodite?"

"Well, I think if it's in the scroll bank we will." She paused, pinching her lip before continuing. "The bad news is we were REALLY bad about keeping it up, so...." She shrugged. "We'll keep trying though," patting Gabrielle's arm.

"Now," Dite said, turning towards her screen again before the loud rumble of Gabrielle's empty stomach interrupted her train of though. "Hmm... guess we better feed that beast ya got roaming around in there. You got a taste for anything in particular?"

"Xena," Gabrielle stated without thought, then blushed to the roots of her hair. She scrubbed a hand over her face. "Sorry, I didn't mean to say that."

Aphrodite laughed out loud. "No, but you totally meant it now, didn't you?" taking Gabrielle's hand and leading her towards what in any other place would be called the kitchen. She looked back at the blushing bard. "Hey, it's nothing to be ashamed of. I think... no, I *KNOW* what you two have absolutely rocks." She hesitated, then continued. "I uh... can I tell you something honestly, friend to friend?"

The seriousness in her tone brought Gabrielle's head up in concern and she lost her embarrassment in light of Aphrodite's flushed face.

"You can tell me anything. We girls gotta stick together you know."

Aphrodite cupped Gabrielle's cheek and kissed her forehead. Then she turned and started walking back towards the food. Gabrielle waited, a little puzzled, then followed patiently behind, knowing Dite would speak when she was ready. Dite began rummaging up a snack for Gabrielle.

"What I had with Hephie, have with Vulcan as he is now... he's a great guy and I love him a lot. He's always been kind and wonderful. Very loving and caring and even after centuries together, we are still passionate with each other." She looked at Gabrielle to see if she was paying attention, then nodded in satisfaction when the bard motioned for her to continue. Aphrodite set a platter of food in front of her then moved round the bar area and took a seat beside Gabrielle. She purposely looked ahead instead of at Gabrielle, not wanting to influence her thoughts or feelings with her facial expressions.

"Still, you know being the goddess of love, I tend to get around and I never once, EVER found a love like yours and Xena's. Not in the world and not for myself. It made me jealous."

Gabrielle choked as a bite of food went down the wrong pipe as she inhaled too quickly. Aphrodite quickly rapped her on the back to clear the passage. Finally Gabrielle took a deep breath and picked up the water Dite set in front of her.

"Excuse me... sorry. Did you say you were jealous?"

"Yeah," Dite answered, biting her lip. "I mean... it's just... see, Gab, gods don't have soulmates and watching you and Xena together sometimes made us all jealous. Probably why we meddled with ya'll so much."

"Trying to break us up?" Gabrielle asked in an anguished whisper, the loneliness of three hundred years and an eternity alone ahead of her nearly drowning her in the intensity of her pain.

Finally Dite turned and looked at Gabrielle, winding an arm around her shoulder in a gesture of comfort. "Uh uh. Watching you come together stronger and tighter than before. It was... amazing."

"Yeah, right up to that last one."

"Well it would have been pretty fabulous, if it had played out like it was supposed to," Dite answered before waving those thoughts away. "I guess my point is that I understand *that* you miss her and *why* you miss her and even to some degree, I understand why you can't be with anyone else." Dite shook her head. "Don't think I could give that up, though."

Gabrielle smirked, wanting to get out of the funk she was in and needing to tweak Dite just a little bit. "That's 'cause you never had Xena. Kinda spoils the appetite for anything else."

Gabrielle slid of the stool she'd been perched on and headed back to her room. Aphrodite sat completely still for a moment longer, her jaw swinging loose in shock. Then she spun around and nearly ran to catch up with Gabrielle just outside her door.

"Hey Gab, I don't supposed you'd...."


"Not even...."


But I...."


"It totally rocks to see a love like that," Dite said with another kiss to Gabrielle's head. "I'm glad it happened to an awesome chick like you. Now," before Gabrielle could say a word, "go get some rest. We have a lot to do tomorrow and you want to be fresh starting out."

Gabrielle hadn't realized she was exhausted til the words fell from Dite's lips, but now she couldn't contain the yawn that threatened to break her jaw. She leaned slightly forward and brushed her lips over Aphrodite's cheek.

"Night, Dite," she said before stepping into her room and closing the door softly behind her.

The goddess stood completely still for another minute before turning her footsteps towards her own quarters. "And it's a total bummer that the goddess of love will never know love like that," she whispered dejectedly before crossing into her own domain.

Gabrielle came back to her surroundings with a start. She smiled in memory at how long it had taken her to see exactly what Aphrodite wasn't saying and vowed to go visit her friend just as soon as she found Xena and they were home together again.

Chapter XIV

Xena traveled for many days to the east before she came upon signs of civilization or at least other life her mind mocked her, knowing that civilization was a very thin veneer for most of humanity. If asked why she'd traveled east, she could have given no answer, save that it was an age old instinct that she followed and the few times she'd ignored that feeling in her gut, she'd paid dearly for it.

However, now she approached the outer edges of the town and noted immediately that she had attracted the attention of *everyone*. The stares and whispering made her drop her warrior mask even firmer into place and her expression was inscrutable as she and her two companions crossed into the small town.

It was hardly more than the village Amphipolis had been, she noted wryly. Just a gathering of a few ragged storefronts huddled together on the vast prairie. She looked around slowly, noting that the conversation she could hear was in a language she didn't understand. Her shoulders slumped on the inside, though she gave no indication of the setback in her quest she could feel coming. It was bad enough she had no horse - the tribe needed them for war and she couldn't justify taking one for herself, though the shaman had offered - and now it seemed like the time she had spent learning the language of her adopted people was for naught. The sounds she heard coming from the strangers that surrounded her was unintelligible to her.

The words may have been foreign, but Xena recognized quite easily the gestures that indicated her unwelcome status in the town. A young man stepped forward, his intentions clear in his body language, but before he had the opportunity to touch Xena, he found his hand caught in the vise grip of a panther's jaws.

The man screamed in agony, but no one made a move to help him. Clearly this woman... warrior... Indian... whatever she was... was far more than she appeared to be. Xena spoke softly to the cat and it turned and looked at her with what could only be interpreted as disbelief. She raised an eyebrow at it and with an audible sigh of disgust, the panther opened its jaws and released the human, making sure to lick its lips for every single drop of blood before moving back slightly to stand by its mate.

"Hey," a grizzled old man spoke up from the back of the small crowd. "Ya speak any 'Merican?"

Xena looked at him confused, shaking her head. The crowd watched her a moment more before wandering off, leaving her alone except for one lone middle-aged man and his native wife.

"You Cheyenne?"

Xena pointed to herself. "Xena... Natsęhestahe notaxe."

The woman's eyes widened before she stepped forward. "May I see your marking?" exposing the skin below her right collarbone so Xena could see her own tattoo.

Xena nodded and opened her shirt enough to pull it to the left side. It was a tattoo unlike anything the woman had seen before, though it contained the same claw marks that her own did, identifying their tribe. She reached out a hand to trace the unusual tattoo, then hesitated when a low growling began to emanate from the panther at her feet. The woman smiled unsure at Xena and withdrew her hand.

"She is Cheyenne," the woman said to her husband before turning back to Xena. She pointed to the warrior. "Xena," was all she said. Then she placed a hand on her own chest. "Ari." Then she pointed to the man. "Michael."

Xena nodded to the woman and extended an arm to the man who grasped it in pleased surprise.

"Nenaasęstse!" Ari said softly. Xena eyed her warily, then decided to go with her instinct and trust this woman who spoke the language of the tribe... who was somehow part of the tribe and yet not. Ari pointed to herself once more. "Vovestomosanehe. Ari will teach Xena ways of the white man."

They stood in silence for a time while Xena considered the words and tone. Finally Michael spoke up. "Otahe, Xena. Ari kin help ya."

Before Xena could speak, she felt a soft touch on her knee. Looking down, she saw the fox nuzzling up against her in an oddly familiar manner. Once assured it had Xena's attention, the fox gazed into Xena's eyes trustingly, clearly conveying its thoughts. The panther came to sit behind its mate, as though giving its approval of the couple that patiently waited for her answer.

Without a word, Xena looked back at Ari and Michael, then nodded and motioned for them to lead the way.

Xena wondered at her odd behavior, then realized it had been many, MANY years since she'd been as dependent on others as she was right now. And her much vaunted instincts told her that rampaging through here, wherever *here* was, was probably not only a BAD idea, it would more than likely screw up any chance she had to fix things for her and Gabrielle. So she bit her lip and followed Michael and Ari to their wagon, hoping that it wouldn't take her long to learn whatever it was that Ari needed to teach her.

Xena was an apt student and she was eager to learn everything as quickly as she could, knowing that her learning and understanding more about this place was the key to finally start unraveling the puzzle that her life had become.

Xena spent her days learning the language and customs of the place she now called home and came to the realization that this was a real live place and not an afterlife. It was the only thing that made sense in the grand scheme of things and she knew none of the gods she was personally acquainted with was clever enough to come up with an afterlife this elaborate just to torture her. Besides, they would have left her completely alone and she had made friends here. Now it was just a matter of finding out where here was.

After several weeks of intense tutoring and study, Xena asked Ari, "Do you have a map of the known world? I need to see where I am so I can figure out how to get back home." The Indian woman looked at her strangely, but went to find one. She had put the various history texts away, knowing Xena needed to focus on language and math.

"Whatcha lookin' fer, Ari?" Michael asked as she walked into the small barn where her trunk was stored. She smiled warmly at her husband, thankful he'd been willing to teach her the many years ago when they had first married.

"The histories, Michael. Xena asked for a map."

The man's brows rose to his hairline. The warrior had been quiet during her stay with them... doing her bit to contribute to the household, but otherwise keeping to herself when not engaged in study with Ari. He wondered what she did in her time alone, but found her intensity a little more than he was prepared to deal with and left her to her peace and quiet. Besides, the two spirit guides she'd acquired tended to stick fairly closely and he had no desire to take on that mountain cat.

"Michael?" He came out of his self-imposed trance when his wife called his name again and shook his shoulder gently.

"Sorry, Ari. What?"

"Do you remember where I put the histories?"

Michael rubbed his hand over his unshaven face making a peculiar sawing sound and causing a chuckle to spring from Ari's lips. He smiled sympathetically, loving that sound and then turned to the small boxes that were stacked neatly beside the trunk.

"Didn'tcha put 'em in here?" motioning to the smallest box before bending down to open it. He withdrew several bound volumes and passed them over to her. "Did she say why she wanted 'em?"

Ari frowned. "She said she wanted to know where she was so she could go home."

Now Michael frowned as well. "Okay... that has gotta be the oddest thing I ever heard from a Cheyenne. Hell fire... that's about the damnedest thing I ever heard from anybody. How do ya not know where ya are?"

Ari shrugged. "I do not know, but I did get the distinct impression she was completely serious. Let me get these back to her."

Michael nodded. "Go on. I still gotta feed the stock 'fore I come in." He turned back to his work as Ari rose from the trunk she'd seated herself on when Michael went looking through the boxes. "Hey," he called to her as she reached the barn door. "What's fer supper?"

"Xena brought in a couple rabbits after her hunt last night. I have those on for stew."

Michael nodded his acceptance, but didn't comment. He found it rather odd that the warrior did her hunting at night, but she was successful enough at it that he just let it lie. Ari turned and left, making her way back to the house, where Xena was not-so-patiently waiting.

Xena rose from the chair she'd been sitting in bouncing her legs and twiddling her thumbs in an effort not to pace a rut into the floor or go running across the plains to expend the nervous energy coursing through her body. Her two companions eyed one another, then looked at her warily. They had a far better understanding of what was coming than Xena possibly could have at that moment.

Ari crossed to the table and motioned Xena to join her, which the warrior did with alacrity. The native woman opened the larger of the books she carried and beckoned Xena closer.

"This is the United States," she said, pointing to the large land mass that filled the map and gestured to the center of it. "And we are here in the Territories."

A flash of fear washed over Xena's features as her mind remembered clearly her tormenting by the Furies. Suddenly she felt like she was being punished by madness again and it was only her iron will that kept her at the table and allowed her to voice the question burning in her mind.

"Ari? Where is the rest of the world? Greece, Brittania, Chin...."

Ari's brow scrunched up in confusion for a moment. "Oh!" she exclaimed and reached for another book. She flipped through the first few pages and Xena's mind was again briefly distracted by the thought of how much Gabrielle would have enjoyed books. Eventually Xena hoped to figure out how they were made so she could do something like that for Gabrielle when she found her again. But that thought brought her back to her current predicament and her forehead creased in anxiety.

Ari was unaware of the multitude of thoughts washing through Xena's mind and set the book down on the table. She placed a hand on Xena's arm when she noticed that the warrior was not looking at the book before pointing again.

Xena shook herself from her thoughts and turned her attention to Ari and the book. She scowled mightily when she realized that a good portion of what she was seeing was unknown to her. Xena focused her attention on Ari's voice.

"Here is Greece and this is um... well this is Great Britain. And here is, uh, China," Ari started uncertainly, hoping these were the places Xena had mentioned. They were the closest facsimiles to the names she had mentioned, at any rate. Xena nodded in recognition. At least some things seemed to be unchanged, but the remainder of the map....

"What are these places?" indication the continent that lay down under all the others and the large land mass in the west. "Wait, this is the United States one you just showed me, isn't it?"

Ari nodded affirmatively. "Yes and the other is a British prison colony called Australia. There are...."

"Ari, when is this place? What's the cycle?" Xena interrupted somewhat frantically.

"Cycle?" Ari puzzled over that for a moment.

"A cycle... the passing of the four seasons."

"Oh, you mean year? It's eighteen thirty-five."

"I don't understand."

"Don't understand what?" Michael asked as he crossed the threshold into the house.

"Eighteen thirty-five."

Michael frowned. "What don't ya understand?" Now despite Michael's appearance and somewhat casual speech, he was actually quite a learned man who had studied and read all he could before moving west to settle. "Here," he continued before she could reply. "Lemme show ya how the Julian calendar works."

"The Julian calendar?"

Michael assumed the posture of a teacher and even his speech inflection changed. "Yes. The birth of Christ changed the way we account for the passage of time and Julius Caesar is credited with the conception of the modern calendar."

The fury that Xena felt at the mention of that name was clearly reflected in her features and the growl she emitted from deep in her chest was echoed by the panther that had been contentedly resting with its partner.

"That bastard gets...." Xena stopped speaking when she realized her reaction was considerably off the scale as far as Michael and Ari were concerned.

"Sorry," she muttered, not bothering to explain and trying to get her mind back on track. "Go ahead."

"Um, yes," Michael said, clearing his throat. "Anyway, according to our modern calendar, one thousand, eight hundred and thirty-five years or what you counted as a full cycle of seasons have passed since the birth of Christ."

Without warning, Xena's knees gave out as the implications of what Michael was saying sank into her mind. It was only her swift reflexes that allowed her to gracefully sink into the chair that had been pushed to one side to allow them to study the map.

Blue eyes grew wide and round and she swallowed several times trying to speak, though coherent thought had completely left her mind. Ari set a glass of water down at her elbow and placed a gentle hand on her shoulder.

"Xena," asked with motherly concern, "are you all right? You are so pale you look as though you've had a visit from the Great Spirit."

"I...." Xena croaked before reaching for the glass with shaking hands and draining it. "I'll um... excuse me," was all she managed before she flew out the door and across the vast plain as though Lucifer himself was on her heels.

With Xena's abrupt departure, Michael's teacher persona faded and he fell back into lazy, comfortable speech patterns. "Whaddya s'pose that was all 'bout?"

Ari shook her head, at a complete loss to understand what had happened. "I do not know," she finally said as she crossed to the door and looked out at the rapidly disappearing figure before closing it softly. "I am glad her spirit guides are with her though." Then she moved to the stove and stirred the slowly simmering stew, wondering what demons were chasing the woman warrior she was able to call friend.

How long Xena ran she couldn't have said. She only knew that she didn't stop til the moon was high in the sky and the stitch in her side burned with an intensity she hadn't felt even in Tartarus. She fell into the grass as her breathing slowed, enjoying the cool wetness of the dew against her skin.

Her head came up as two warm soft heads landed with a light thump on her ribcage and she almost had to smile at the glares she was receiving from her two animal friends.

"Don't feel bad, guys. I think I overdid it myself."

Two soft snorts was the only response.

Xena laid back and looked up at the stars, trying to understand the chaos her life had become. Ever since Japa... Japan... she thought morosely, remembering the island's marking on Ari's map. I've become someone I don't even know. When did running from something become my first instinct... my first choice?

She thought back, ignoring her still burning side. The best she could figure, she had been in this place and this time about a full cycle and for the most part, she'd stayed off balance in both her perceptions of this world and her reactions to everything around her.

She closed her eyes, the stars reminding her too closely of the last night of peace she'd shared with Gabrielle. Then they popped open in blinding revelation.

"That was it," she whispered to herself, though her two companions raised their heads to look at her. "I have been off balance since that night... so many memories and bad decisions that brought me to the here and now that I am now in. The question is... can I get back to the where and when I belong in? Maybe do things differently?"

She pondered her thoughts aloud. "Okay, Xena. Time to be the warrior you are and have always been. Time to start acting to make things happen for you instead of reacting to everything around you."

Xena looked down at the fox and panther who gazed back at her in silent satisfaction. "Guess you two have been waiting for me to get with the program, huh?" She laughed lightly. "All right. The first thing I have to discover is how I got here. And to do that, I think I need to go back to where this all started for me."

She stood slowly, wincing until she stretched out the ache in her side. "I think I'll ask Ari if I can read her histories before I leave, though. I need to know what I've missed in eighteen hundred cycles... wait, what did Michael call them? Yips... yarns... years. That's it, years. C'mon guys." They started walking back.

"I guess if we're gonna stick together, I should have names to call you. I wish I knew what you called each other." The fox practically smirked at her and she shook her head at how much that expression reminded her of Gabrielle. "Then again," she chuckled, "it's probably a good thing I don't know, huh? C'mon, Red," speaking to the fox, jumping when she felt a nip against the back of her knee. "Hey," glaring down to meet equally brilliant eyes looking back at her. Xena shook her head in patent disbelief. Gabrielle had given her the same outraged look the few times she'd referred to her as 'Red'.

"Okay, then. Maybe not," Xena muttered as the trio resumed their trek across the prairie. "So, not Red... but what then?"

Xena looked back and forth between them as ideas began to run through her mind. Light, Dark; Yin & Yang; Bard, Warrior; Xena smiled when she realized where her thoughts were taking her. These two really did reflect so much of what she and Gabrielle had together.

She studied the pair as they sedately walked along beside her. "I know," she said finally, a genuine smile crossing her features. "Since the tribe has made you my spirit guides, I will give you spirit names." Xena turned her attention to the panther.

"I'll call you Etor Anapauo and you," looking at the fox, "will be known as Melo Meion." She paused. "Whaddya think?"

The animals stopped walking, communicating silently with one another before rubbing lightly against Xena's leg. Then they resumed their stride back to Ari and Michael's. At the rate they were going, it would be midday before they arrived.

Xena took their reaction as approval and nodded in acceptance. Then her thoughts turned back to her situation and her growing hunger. It was the blood hunger she felt slowly burning through her body that produced a new line of thought and brought Xena face to face with another fact she had studiously been avoiding up to this point.

Somehow, I have become a bacchae. It is the only explanation that makes sense for the bloodlust that burns like it does.

Her brow furrowed in thought. It's not the same as what I knew before; I haven't taken animal form and the bloodlust itself feels different... not like it felt with Gabrielle. So how and when did this happen and what can I do to change it?

Another thought occurred to her almost immediately. If this is related to what happened to us with Bacchus, does that mean Gabrielle.... Her mind trailed off, knowing it almost certainly did. Especially remembering the times Gabrielle's bloodlust had come to the fore.

Then Xena stopped dead in her tracks as something else occurred to her. Wait just a damn minute... bacchae were immortal. Does that mean... could it be....

She scrubbed her hands over her face and through her hair in frantic thought. Okay, if we are immortal, then how come we kept dying? Then again... how come we kept coming back to life? And why didn't it work the last time and how in Tartarus did I end up here?

Wait... we couldn't be immortal. Gabrielle didn't drink from the chalice, did she? I know I didn't. Still doesn't explain our continued ability to return to life. AUGH!!!

She grabbed her head in both hands to stop the circular logic that was suddenly giving her a headache. I can worry about that later. I'm still betting my being here ties into the tribe somehow and I'll figure it out when I get back to them and can ask Hotassa some questions. I am still missing more pieces to this puzzle than I've got.

Xena resumed her walk, picking up the pace. She had a better understanding of things than she had even this morning and she'd figure the rest of it out soon enough. After all, if she was right about all this, she had all the time in the world.

It took Xena nearly a month to go through the three history books Ari and Michael owned. She spent a good deal of time helping Michael around the farm, feeling a sort of indebtedness to them for their kindness to her. Besides, Ari had promised her a pair of trousers and a couple shirts if she would stay long enough to help Michael get in the crop. It was the first year in several that it looked like they would have a surplus and they didn't want to lose it to the coming fall weather.

Xena would have stayed anyway... she knew that her tribe would be moving back towards her soon to settle into their winter home. She was also glad to help Michael and Ari. They had been kind to her for no reason than it was the right thing for them to do and she was glad to return that favor. And to be honest with herself, she was looking forward to the clothes Ari had promised.

There were many interesting things in the histories. Most notable to Xena was the fact that there was no mention of her or her exploits in ancient Greece. In fact, very little about that time period received much notice, including Hercules. And the things that were recorded were skewered so as to be almost unrecognizable to someone who actually lived through them.

She read with great curiosity. Many things had happened in the years betwixt and between and Xena wanted to know about all of them.

So she studied and learned, realizing that the world was a very different place than it had been in her day and yet so much of it remained the same.

Most of her evenings were filled with reading and talking to Michael and Ari about the things she had read. They answered all of her questions they could and made it easy for her to understand the different progresses mankind had achieved and the setbacks that had befallen them.

"Michael, how did you learn all these things?" Xena asked one night after they had discussed the ramifications of the War for Independence. He smiled sadly at her.

"I s'pose that's a valid question. As an old man, I've gotten lazy 'bout a lotta things I used ta be p'ticl'r 'bout and really it don't help matters much round these parts to seem to be better'n yer neighbors. But when I was a boy, schooling was very import'nt ta me. I had ta fight long 'n hard ta be able to study, an' I coveted the time I got to do so. So I read 'n I studied ever' minute I could spare from chores. Even got to go to school fer a little bit, 'fore I had ta take care of the farm full time."

"And the books?" Xena asked, knowing from the care they received and the fact that there were so few of them that the printed word was greatly treasured.

Michael shrugged sheepishly. "It's my one vice and Ari indulges it because we can share. We put aside every spare penny we can to buy a new book now and then."

Xena noted again the fire in his eyes and how much his inflection changed when he spoke of books and learning. In that respect, he reminded her greatly of Gabrielle and their many and varied discussions of anything and everything that came to the bard's insatiable attention.

Finally Michael got the courage to ask something that had bugged him from the day Xena had stepped into their lives. He figured the worst she could do would be to refuse to answer.

"Yer not really Cheyenne, are ya?" Michael blurted, drawing both Ari's and Xena's startled eyes to his face. He flushed crimson.

"Michael!! That was rude!!"

Before the man could open his lips to retort, Xena laid a hand on Ari's arm.

"It's all right, Ari."


"Really. It's okay and he's right. I wasn't born Cheyenne though they have become my family in this time and place."

An odd choice of words, but true nonetheless, Michael thought. He nodded.

"How did you know?" Xena asked, curious to know what had given her away.

"Little things, mostly. Yer clothing, yer weapons, yer reaction to my guns."

Xena nodded. Her clothing was different from what any of the Cheyenne Nation wore and she'd crafted her weapons in a more traditional Greek method which made the bindings and decorations on them a little more subtle.

The guns, though... that had been a learning experience on a very steep curve.

The noise had been horrendous and it had brought Xena running full throttle towards the sound. She skidded to a halt as Michael lifted the object to his shoulder and after a moment of stillness, thunder rolled across the air once more.

He turned to her then, aware of her presence and smiled. "She's a beaut, eh?" indicating the gun in his hands. "A little somethin' I put together myself. I've never missed with 'er."

Confusion was self evident on Xena's face and Michael walked closer. She reached out a hand and he obliged her by extending the gun for her to take. She did so gingerly, surprised by the weight of it.

"Never seen one 'fore, have ya?"

Xena shook her head while her eyes continued to examine the weapon she held almost negligently in her hands.

"Here," Michael said taking the gun from her. "Lemme show ya."

And he did, patiently explaining every nuance of the gun to Xena, making sure she understood everything about it. By the time he was finished, Xena could have put it together in her sleep and she was more than a little anxious to try to fire it.

He reloaded the gun and put it in her hands as he began explaining once more what she needed to do. Without hesitation, she raised the rifle to her shoulder, sighting a prairie hen in the grass. Michael started to caution her, as they were known for their ability to disappear quickly, but before he could open his mouth, a shot rand out and the hen went down in a heap.

Michael closed his mouth long enough to walk to where the hen had dropped, then his mouth fell open once more. Xena had taken the chicken's head clean off. He looked back at her in surprise, noting she had a pleased smirk on her face. Michael shook his head and collected the rest of the hunt, anxious to get home so Ari could fix up some fried chicken.

"I don't think I ever saw anybody take to a rifle like you did, Xena."

Xena smiled. "I have many skills," she purred and the couple was amazed at the difference the smile made in her demeanor. She had done it so rarely in her stay with them that it was enough of a novelty for them to sit up and take notice.

"How soon will you be leaving us, Xena?" Ari asked. Already the cool winds of October were blowing across the plains and no one wanted her caught alone on the prairie should an early blizzard blow through. But they both knew she was eager to get back to the Cheyenne, though they didn't know her motivation.

"Well, we're done with the harvest," Xena said slowly looking at Michael who nodded back at her. "So whenever you get done sewing, I guess, Ari."

Ari brought a paper wrapped package up from beside her chair. "They are done. You just need to try them on for fit."

Xena took the package carefully and smoothed her hand over the paper. "Thank you, Ari. I don't know how I will repay you."

"You won't," Ari said firmly. "It has been a joy to have you here with us this summer and we hope you won't forget us."

"It's true, Xena," Michael broke in. "I got a lot of things done that normally get put off because of your help. You have more than repaid our kindness."

Xena nodded and cleared her throat awkwardly. "Thank you both. I will head out in the morning then. But I will try to get back out to see you in the spring."

Ari's eyes lit up with her smile, but Michael rose from his place. "Here," said reaching behind the door. "I made this fer ya."

Xena reached up a trembling hand, knowing instinctively what it was.

"Michael, I can't."

"Hush," he said and she blinked at the authority no one except her mother and Gabrielle had ever executed towards her. "I made it for you. Ya'll have to break it in and I don't have much shot 'n powder ta spare. But we'll go ta town tamarra and get a little more so's you kin have some."

Xena's mouth opened to argue, but the look on Michael's face made it seem unwise to argue. So she nodded, reminded again of the many times she'd lost an argument with Gabrielle.

Michael smiled and nodded. "Good. It's settled. We'll go inta town with ya in the mornin' then ya kin head out ta the Nation."

The morning held a bittersweet parting for the three and Ari chided Xena like a child as the reached the edge of town.

"Be careful, Xena and try to avoid trouble. The prairies are big and I don't want anything happening to you while you are traveling alone." She and Michael had offered to accompany her to the winter stead, but Xena had politely and firmly turned them down.

"I'll be all right Ari. And we'll come see ya in the spring."

"I will hold you to that," the older woman smiled.

She gave Xena a brief hug which was gently returned. Then Xena and Michael exchanged a handshake before the warrior turned her attention to the road in front of her and headed out to find some answers.

Part 8