Chapter XVII

"What are you thinking, Little Dragon Warrior?"

Gabrielle started at the unexpected voice and swiveled her head in the direction the sound came from. Then she openly stared at the beautiful woman who sat tranquilly beside her.

The woman returned her stare without blinking and Gabrielle saw many things in the brown, almond shaped eyes that gazed into her very soul. Finally, she turned away, embarrassed.

"I'm sorry," she said, looking out over the river at the great statue of Buddha. "It's just that I have not heard that name in a very long time."

"Almost an entire millennia, I believe. A very long time to have been alone."

Gabrielle's eyes hardened. "Do I know you?"

"No, Gabrielle. But we share a mutual friend." Gabrielle's brow rose in question and Ch'uang-Mu smiled at the recognized gesture. Aphrodite had spent considerable time sharing this particular tale with the goddess and Ch'uang-Mu had been fascinated by the story as it had unfolded. Nowhere else in the vast archives of the world wide god web had anything been as interesting to watch... or as painful to endure.

Now sitting face-to-face with one half of the personalities involved in that story, she could easily see why Aphrodite was so fascinated by them both. There was an underlying strength that lent character to Gabrielle's features and yet her beauty was wrapped in sensitivity as well. It was a rare combination and Ch'uang-Mu wished she could meet this soul's other half.

When she noticed the second brow rise to meet the first, Ch'uang-Mu realized she had been staring while Gabrielle waited for an answer. She bowed her head in muted apology.

"A thousand pardons, Gabrielle. Your story is simply amazing and I got lost thinking about it when I finally saw you face-to-face, as it were."

"Oookaaaaay," Gabrielle replied, drawing the word out. "That still doesn't explain anything to me nor does it tell me who you are."

"Hiya, Sweetcheeks! What's shakin'?"

Gabrielle looked at Aphrodite, then at Ch'uang-Mu and noted their close proximity to one another. "Let me guess... our mutual friend?"

Ch'uang-Mu flushed slightly and nodded, but did not move away from the love goddess from Greece. Gabrielle reached out to draw Aphrodite into a hug. Now the Chinese goddess stepped aside, knowing these two old friends needed to reconnect again. The embrace was long as it had been a little while since Gabrielle's last visit to Olympus. The Greek gods had begun spending more time there again and less in Rome and that made it harder for her to stay.

"I've missed you, Cutie," Aphrodite whispered with a kiss to the top of Gabrielle's head. "And one of these days you've gotta like, share your secret with me."

Gabrielle pulled back just enough to be able to look Dite in the eye. "What secret?" genuinely confused, but thoroughly glad to see Dite nonetheless.

Dite took a big sniff and grinned. "*That* secret. The 'you always smell great' secret," remembering all too well her own smelly experience with being all too human.

Gabrielle laughed and blushed, mindful that they still had an audience. "Dite, I don't always smell great. Especially after a long day of working, or fighting, or even just walking. You just happened to catch me right after a bath."

The goddess narrowed her eyes. "Uh huh. Sure. Tell it to somebody that hasn't smelled you for nearly a millennia, less a century or so. I think you've just got great pheromones."

"Dite!! I think you're just trying to embarrass me!" Bur Gabrielle couldn't stop the laugh that bubbled up.

"Nope, I'm just trying to steal your secret." She wiggled her eyebrows rakishly. "Wanna share pheromones?"

Gabrielle didn't respond at first, except to simply cover her eyes and laugh. When she finally got herself under control, she looked at Dite seriously and said, "You need to get out more."

Ch'uang-Mu spoke up. "That is what *I* told her," with just the slimmest edge of jealousy. Gabrielle tilted her head slightly, as though trying to figure out the inflection and why it seemed to be directed at her. It was then that Ch'uang-Mu realized the truth and smiled gracefully. "Maybe now she'll believe me," said with a more genuine smile.

Dite planted her hands on her hips and pouted. "Ya'll are like, pickin' on me."

"Nah," Gabrielle replied saucily. "But I bet we could if we tried."

"Hmph. Maybe I shouldn't introduce the two of you. Might be radically dangerous for me."

"You might enjoy it," Ch'uang-Mu teased.

Dite looked between the two of them and leered. "Hmm... two beautiful babes. Oh yeah, the things I suffer through in the name of love."

Twin expressions, complete with a single raised brow faced her and Aphrodite chuckled. "You guys are so totally priceless. Ch'uang-Mu, Chinese goddess of things in the bedroom, meet Gabrielle, bitchin' immortal bard, warrior and teacher."

"I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Gabrielle. Aphrodite really has told me all about you."


"Yep," Dite took up the conversation. "With it being so radically hard for you to get to Olympus these days, I figured it might be nice to have someone on this side of the world who you could talk to when I can't like, you know, get away. Ch'uang-Mu and I have been friends for a long time and since we both do the love thing, we talk a lot."

"Aphrodite shared your story with me, Gabrielle and I'd like to be your friend, if you'll let me. But I certainly won't impose if it makes you uncomfortable."

Gabrielle studied the two of them for a long moment. She saw nothing but an earnest desire for friendship coming from Ch'uang-Mu and a caring, hopeful expression on Dite's face.

"I'd like another friend," she said finally. "Immortality ain't all it's cracked up to be."

"Ah, truer words were never spoken," Ch'uang-Mu said, then chuckled. "Humans think we have it so easy and yet...." She looked at Gabrielle. "And somehow, I think it is worse for you than for us. We still have duties and responsibilities and of course, the god web." The last was added a bit impishly.

"Totally rockin', babes. Although," Dite added in an aside to Ch'uang that she made certain Gabrielle would hear. "Ya prob'ly shouldn't let that one on the god web alone," gesturing towards the bard. "You remember the great crash we had a while back...." Dite let her words trail off thought her eyes conveyed precisely what she was talking about.

Ch'uang's almond eyes grew almost comically round as she realized exactly what incident Aphrodite was referring to. "Oh my," she said as she focused on Gabrielle. "That was you?"

Gabrielle turned a shade of scarlet so deep, Ch'uang expected to see blood on the outside of her skin. And she remained that color longer than a human being should have been able to maintain it.

"I have to say, Gabrielle, it really was quite a work of art you managed. Not something I'd necessarily like to see again, but it was a masterpiece unto itself. I do not believe I have ever seen that many snarls on the network since its inception."

Gabrielle scrubbed her face. "It was an accident," she muttered.

Ch'uang placed a hand on the bard's shoulder. "Of that much, we were ALL sure. I don't think it could have been done intentionally. Do you know what you did?"

"Not exactly," she continued to mumbled, her eyes still on the ground. "I pushed the wrong button."

"Well, if you don't mind sharing, we can surf the god web together from time to time. I have to keep an eye on this one," jerking her thumb in Aphrodite's direction.

"HEY!!! I'm a good goddess, ya know!!"

"I know," Ch'uang smirked, feeling a bit playful now that her jealousy had been put aside. "That is why I have to keep an eye on you."

"Hmph," Dite pouted, but couldn't stop the smile or the twinkle that crossed her face. "C'mon. I'm hungry and I think the Little Dragon Warrior is prob'ly in need of sustenance by now as well."

"Please don't call me that," Gabrielle said unexpectedly. "I know you don't either one mean anything by it, but none of the memories I have of that name are good ones."

Both goddesses looked a little stunned at her pronouncement. They had only recently met face to face as it were and had been developing a real friendship and respect, though it was clear there would probably be more between them sooner rather than later. They had forgotten though that Gabrielle wasn't part of the little trysts that were common in their existence and that name especially reminded her of just how alone she was in the world.

"Sorry, babe," Aphrodite said in a subdued voice. "I just...." Dite broke off, not sure what else to say.

"I, too, apologize, Gabrielle. The name just seemed so suited to you. I did not stop to think how many unhappy memories you associated with it."

"It's all right, really," Gabrielle replied, feeling a little conspicuous about having reacted so strongly. "I just prefer Gabrielle, although 'Cutie' is kinda nice too."

Dite brightened considerably. "Gnarly, dudette. Now," as three stomachs growled in tandem. "Let's go eat. There is this majorly fab Sichuan place that has the most radical Gongbao chicken you have ever tasted."

Ch'uang-Mu nodded. "I know the place of which you speak... and they deliver." With a wave of her hand, the trio disappeared.

Aphrodite stayed around for a little while once they adjourned to Ch'uang's palace to insure that Gabrielle was secure in Ch'uang's company. Then made haste to get back to Greece, not wanting anyone to become suspicious of her absence and hoping like Tartarus she'd made the right decision in trusting the Chinese goddess.

Meanwhile, Gabrielle and Ch'uang were beginning to know one another and both discovered much to like and admire about the other. Gabrielle found Ch'uang reminded her greatly of Lao Ma and realized it was much easier to like her when Xena's past wasn't between them.

Ch'uang was much more reserved than Aphrodite, but Gabrielle discovered she had a very sly sense of humor. So a bit of time passed for Gabrielle as she and Ch'uang became acquainted and Gabrielle learned many things about the Chinese culture.

Finally, Ch'uang mentioned that the Chinese New Year was approaching and with the coming of a new millennium, the people were going all out to celebrate.

"Good grief!! I have been here over a century??" Gabrielle wasn't sure whether to be appalled, annoyed or amazed. It really hadn't seemed that long and she had learned so much about not only China, but many of the different lands surrounding the country.

She had taken many short field trips, going in and out of places like a spectre or wraith, but a goodly portion of her time had been spent in Ch'uang's palace reading and learning.

"I need to get out... go back on the road. The little side trips I've made aren't enough."

"Enough for what, Gabrielle? You're not seeking redemption... yours or Xena's. There is no reason you should have to suffer through any more of humanity's growing pains than necessary. Why do you feel the need to continually put yourself out there? You have a home here."

Gabrielle sighed almost silently. "Ch'uang, I am thankful for your hospitality and you giving me a place to be safe for a while. But this is not my home."

Ch'uang looked down at the floor, a crestfallen expression crossing her face. "I am sorry, Gabrielle. I am being selfish. Having you here has been so much fun for me... a breath of fresh air. You see and appreciate things that most of us take for granted or have forgotten about. It has been wonderful to experience things through your eyes."

"I don't mean to sound ungrateful, because I have really enjoyed my time here with you. This culture has been a joy to learn about and be a part of, but I really can't *live* here indefinitely." She paused to blow out a breath and ran her hands through her hair.

"It's hard to explain, especially to someone like you who actually needs to stay. There is a part of me that needs to be on the road helping people. Even in all the quick little side trips I took, I tried to take the time to help others." Gabrielle shrugged. "It's just part of who I am."

Ch'uang nodded. "I know... I watched you." She smiled tremulously at the bard and held out a hand. "I will miss having you here though. Now come," she said almost imperiously. "In all the time you have been with us, you have not gotten your zodiac reading. You must do that before the new millennium."

"How come?"

Ch'uang raised an eyebrow. "Because I said so." Then she chuckled. "Besides, it is a lot of fun. I think you will find it interesting. And afterward, we will go sit on the roof and watch the fireworks display." She hesitated then went on more softly. "Aphrodite promised to be here."

Gabrielle's eyes lit up. Nice as Ch'uang had been and though their circumstances had definitely grown a strong friendship between she and Gabrielle, the bard still missed Aphrodite's somewhat constant presence in her life.

The Greek/Roman gods had mostly fallen out of favor with people and though they were still alive, their powers were greatly diminished. Most of them had chosen to come home to Greece to live in comfort and relative boredom.

Aphrodite was still quite active and since she drew her strength for the power of love itself, she was also much stronger than all but Ares. Love and war seemed to be the two most constant, consistent forces in the world and it enabled the two of them to continue to function more normally than the rest, though they could both feel a distinct difference in the potency of their powers.

So they still traveled and did what they could, though it wasn't at nearly the intensity that it had been in their heyday.

Aphrodite had gone to China twice in the time that Gabrielle had been there. Once she'd been gone mountain climbing in Tibet, though when Dite got a good look at the mountain, she had to wonder about the prudence of her actions, even if Gabrielle was an immortal. Seemed like an awful lot of work just to go to the top. But she was happy that Gabrielle was staying busy, since that more than anything besides Xena tended to make her happy.

The second time had been almost awkward for Dite, though she realized that feeling was all on her side and probably due to her own jealousy. Seeing Ch'uang and Gabrielle happy together, even though she knew there was nothing more than friendship between them, made the little green monster want to come out and play. But Dite remembered all too clearly what that particular emotion had done to Cupid and she deliberately set it aside. Then found that her feelings were completely ungrounded as she was welcomed heartily by both women. It had been the most fun she'd had in ages and Aphrodite was looking forward to returning for the millennium.

Gabrielle was happy and Ch'uang could clearly see the difference in the bard's demeanor at her pronouncement.

"I guess you have missed her?"

Gabrielle nodded. "Yeah. We've been friends for a long time and I do miss getting to talk to her. The god web thing just isn't the same."

Ch'uang chuckled. "Agreed. I too am looking forward to her visit. She has a way of bringing her own fun."

Gabrielle laughed. "Oh yeah." Then the two of them meandered down towards the temple library.

"I cannot believe we haven't done this already. Did you read about the Chinese zodiac in all of your studying, Gabrielle?"

Gabrielle scratched her forehead. "I think so, but I'm not remembering any of it clearly right now."

"Given the vastness of the library you've been reading the last hundred years or so, I do not doubt it. Our zodiac was established mostly to name the years to help delineate the passing of time. The people decided to get a bit of enjoyment out of it and took attributes from each of the animals that were chosen to be the year's mascots. Those traits are said to represent the personality of the person born to that year."

They entered the library together and Ch'uang led Gabrielle over to a small alcove that housed several beautifully woven tapestries. Each of them contained a different animal and the largest of them contained all twelve. Gabrielle stood in front of this one for a long moment, simply studying the delicate embroidery involved in creating such a work of art. She reached out a hand to touch it and hesitated, looking to Ch'uang for permission. The goddess nodded her head and gave Gabrielle a slight smile.

Gabrielle ran her hands gently along the silk fabric, marveling at the intricacy of the work and the richness of detail involved in each aspect of the animals represented.

"This is amazing," Gabrielle finally commented. "I can't believe I missed this."

"Well, it's not like this is part of the open area of the temple," Ch'uang pointed out. "You really have to know it is here to look for it."

"So tell me about them."

"What year were you born, Gabrielle?"

Gabrielle told her and Ch'uang laughed softly. "You really have aged very gracefully." Gabrielle blushed, even as she chuckled at the teasing. Before she could respond, Ch'uang went on... "Especially for a pig."

Gabrielle's brows flew into her hairline and she choked out, "Excuse me?"

Ch'uang motioned to the tapestry. "You were born in the year of the pig," she replied seriously, but her eyes held a teasing twinkle that made Gabrielle realize she was being tweaked just a little.

"Wonderful," she muttered. "Xena will have a field day with this."

"Well, the characteristics surrounding the pig are quite pleasant," Ch'uang replied. "And I'd be willing to wager, fairly accurate. According to my people, you are a splendid companion and an intellectual... someone who thinks deeply about things and sets difficult goals, prepared to carry them out. You are sincere, tolerant and honest. At one point, you were incredibly naive because you expected the same from others, but life and time have wrenched that ideal from your grasp. Now you simply maintain your own code of morality and adjust to deal with others who hold to a different code."

Gabrielle thought about that for a few moments, taking in all the nuances of what Ch'uang had said. "I can live with that I think," she said with a smile. Then added impishly, "So what does that make Xena?" giving Ch'uang the warrior's birth date and remembering just how hard it had been to pry that information out of Xena once upon a time.

"Hmm... your partner is a monkey."

"Heh... I could work with that," Gabrielle murmured to herself. "Wonder how she'd look with a tail." It took a moment of total silence before Gabrielle realized that in her contemplation of said picture, Ch'uang was regarding her with studied amusement.

"Ahem," she laughed softly. "Sorry about that. What are the monkey's attributes?"

Ch'uang's dark eyes sparkled with unveiled amusement. "Well, she is very intelligent with a deep desire for knowledge and a hidden, clever wit combined with an excellent memory. She is skillful and flexible, remarkably inventive and original. She can solve the most difficult problems with ease and has a magnetic personality, which is a good quality for a leader, but she is quite distrustful of other people."

"Amazing." Gabrielle's eyes narrowed. "Are you sure you didn't study us first and just make that up?"

Ch'uang laughed, a clear, ringing sound. She walked over to the shelves and pulled out a particularly thick tome. "See for yourself."

She opened the volume to the spot that talked about the zodiac and Gabrielle rapidly began scanning the page.

"This is amazing," she said as she continued to read. "I know people who fit all these descriptions."

"As do I. It seems...." Whatever thought Ch'uang was going to add was dissipated by the unexpected arrival of the Greek goddess of love who showered the room with rose petals as she made her entrance.

"Yo babes! Whassup?"

She dropped an arm around Gabrielle's shoulders and kissed her head gently. "Hey, Cutie! I've missed ya."

Gabrielle returned the embrace fully. "Hi, Aphrodite. I've missed you too."

Dite smiled at her affectionately then turned to Ch'uang without releasing Gabrielle. She held out a hand which the Chinese goddess accepted. "And how are you, hon?"

Ch'uang-Mu squeezed Dite's hand. "I am well. Yourself?"

Dite hugged Gabrielle once more then let go of her. "Can't complain, I s'pose. Love is love everywhere and it keeps my juices flowing, ya know. I do kinda miss the old days, but at least I've still got the power, if you know what I mean. A lot of the gods are pretty much powerless, so I guess I'm one of the lucky ones."

Ch'uang took both of Aphrodite's hands in her own. "Well, I for one am glad you are lucky."

Gabrielle observed silently as the two of them spoke. The dynamic connecting them had changed and changed again. The lust that had burned so obviously between in their early relationship had deepened into true affection and friendship, but surprisingly, not love. Gabrielle was curious enough to wonder if they had ever consummated the lust, but her private belief was that they had not. Or if they had, it had been a very, very brief affair.

While she was thinking, Aphrodite and Ch'uang finished up their conversation and they turned to her. She looked up at them with a puzzled expression. "What?"

Dite shook her head. "Nothing. You just looked so totally involved in thinking that we decided to let you know, like finish first." She took a deep breath. "So tell me about this gnarly room. I've never seen this cool stuff before."

"Ah," Ch'uang answered smoothly. "We were doing a reading on Gabrielle... explaining her zodiacal symbol to her."

"Awesome! So what are ya, babe?"

"She is a pig," Ch'uang answered when Gabrielle covered her hand to hide the blush that suffused her face and groaned pathetically. Aphrodite howled in laughter.

"Oh my gods! Priceless!! I have blackmail material for years now."

"Be nice to me," Gabrielle growled from behind her hand.

"Why? This is bitchin'. And while I'm totally sure that what the Chinese define as piggish behavior is different from ours, the tweak factor on this is just so totally there."

"Yes, but you love me and don't want to make fun of me like that."

Dite was momentarily stunned by Gabrielle's words until she realized the context in which they were meant. Then she giggled.

"You're right, I do love ya, but I am gonna absolutely razz you about this. It is just way too precious."

Gabrielle sank into the chair and dropped her head on the desk. "I'm doomed," she moaned, eliciting laughter from both non-sympathetic deities.

A stirring in the vestibule made Ch'uang realize how close it was to the New Year. "Come. It is very nearly the New Year and we do not want to miss any of the fireworks. I understand that the planners have gone all out in their efforts to make this truly spectacular."

She whisked them to the roof of the palace moments before the festivities were scheduled to start. The two goddesses sat in comfortable chaises in the middle of the roof, while Gabrielle wandered to the edge to view the massive crowd gathered in the streets below.

They had a flagon of wine between them and several courtesans who made sure their glasses remained full and their plates were never empty. Gabrielle stood apart, feeling the differences between both herself and the throng which was congregated below and the goddesses who were mere feet behind her. Again she felt her solidarity in the world and her resolve firmed to go out again and try to find some meaning to her existence.

Behind her, Dite and Ch'uang kept a casual eye on her while watching the festivities taking place around them.

"You know she is leaving," Ch'uang commented to Dite.

Dite nodded. "I figured as much. She lasted way longer than I expected her to."

"I will miss her. She has become a good friend."

Dite nodded. "She always has been." She paused. "Do you know where she is going?"

"No, not definitely, thought I suspect she will walk the wall. It is the one thing we have talked about that she has yet to do. Do not fret, Aphrodite. I will keep an eye on her as I have always done for you." Ch'uang hesitated, then plunged forward. "She does not know, does she?"

Dite looked at her, seeing her truth mirrored in the brown eyes which regarded her. "No," she shook her head, "and she never will."

Ch'uang accepted that statement with a silent nod and turned her attention back towards the magnificent display of fireworks going on just above them.

Two days later, Gabrielle departed the palace.

Gabrielle couldn't believe how great it felt to be out and about roaming the streets again and mingling with people. Thus far, she had rescued a chicken, stopped two fights, pulled a child from the river and traded a story for her room and board. Now it was late on her first night back on the road and she found herself kept awake by the sheer excitement of traveling once more.

"I must be nuts," she said to herself. "I had everything at my fingertips and yet I prefer to be out here making my own way." She fell asleep to that thought with a smile on her face.

The next few days passed with minimal excitement, but Gabrielle found herself appreciating her life once more in a way she hadn't in a while. *This* was living, not reading about it in a palace library, though she was imminently grateful for the time she'd had to do that. She needed down time, but she had missed this.

The down side was that her blood need had to be satisfied a little more regularly here and she actually had to hunt for it. It was while she was on her first hunt that something totally unexpected happened. And for Gabrielle, it would change her world forever.

Gabrielle came back from her memories with a start. She set the diary to one side and rose from the bed, walking to the window and gazing out across the moonlit water. The stars were bright around the orb and Gabrielle stared at them for a long time, smiling in memory when she found the North Star.

"It's a bear, warrior."

Chapter XVIII

Xena looked up at the night sky, easily finding the North Star. "I still say it's a dipper, Gabrielle," she said with a soft sigh. It was times like this especially that her sense of loneliness became almost overwhelming. She missed Gabrielle with a constant ache, but at night, under the stars, the ache became an acute pain.

She was still at least another full day's walk from where she expected her adopted family to be. Xena was looking forward to being back with the Cheyenne tribe. Not only had she missed them, but she was fairly certain now that the answer to how she had come to this place and time lay with them.

Without warning, an unearthly howl screamed across the landscape and sent chills skittering up Xena's spine. She rose from her bedroll and let her eyes wander the darkness. A second screech put her feet into action and she was running towards the noise before her mind had processed her intentions.

Her two animal companions had gone hunting in this direction and she wondered briefly if this was the sound of their prey. But her heart knew differently and she continued running full throttle to reach them.

When she arrived at the small glen where they were, Xena fell to her knees. On the ground before her lay the fox, bleeding profusely and gasping for air. Sad green eyes turned to her, conveying a truth she was not willing to admit. She glanced to the panther and saw an agony so profound it cut through her with razor-like precision.

Gently, she picked up the fox and cradled it in her arms. She staunched the flow of blood and took off back towards her campsite at a frantic run. She and the panther arrived together and she placed the fox down on her pallet gently. The panther curled protectively around its mate as much as possibly and looked up at her with pleading eyes.

One handed, she reached for her medical kit, eternally gratefully for habits that were ingrained in her psyche. By feel alone she managed to extract gut and needle, then as quickly as she could manage she sewed the gashes that had been torn through the beautiful red coat and into the flesh and veins of the fox's body.

Xena's mind went back to the healing temple in Thessaly and bit her lips to keep the tears from spilling onto her face. The harsh rasp of breathing was so much like what Gabrielle had sounded like just before she had... died... that first time and the memories this stirred still burned as sharply as they had then.

"Too much blood loss..." she muttered, knowing there was little to be done for that and almost no hope of survival. A black paw came to rest on her knee and she turned her attention to the cat that looked back at her mournfully. And without a word, Xena understood exactly what the panther was asking of her.

"Are you sure?" she asked. "Do you know what it will mean... for you both?" But even as she spoke, she felt her incisors grow to meet the need she felt emerging at the coppery scent surrounding her that she was now fully cognizant of.

In answer, the panther opened its mouth, exposing its own fangs and moving purposefully towards Xena's wrist.

"All right, Etor. I get the point." Xena sat sill for just an instant, then reached for the sharpest blade she had. She steeled herself and cut through her skin, immediately lifting her wrist to the fox's mouth and hoping there was enough strength left in the animal that it could drink from her.

She felt the fox's lips nuzzle her wrist and she monitored its swallowing until she was sure the fox was getting the sustenance it needed. When she began to feel lightheaded, Xena pulled away, binding the cut she could already feel closing.

"That's enough for now, Melo. Let's see about getting you cleaned up." She moved to stand but her legs refused to support her. Instead she sank back down to the ground and blindly searched through her kit. When she found the trail bar she'd been searching for, Xena snatched it up and began eating it. It wasn't what she needed, but it would suffice until she was strong enough to go on a hunt.

Unexpectedly, a plump jackrabbit fell into Xena's lap and she would have jumped had she not been quite so drained. She had heard the panther's approach, of course, but she was not anticipating this particular gift to be dumped in her lap.

Without thought, Xena sank her fangs into the bunny and drank until the animal was bled dry. It was not enough to replace what she had lost, but it did slake her hunger enough that she could function somewhat normally.

Xena set the animal aside momentarily, knowing both she and the panther would need its solid sustenance. Then she put some water on to warm, to clean up both herself and the fox and she started preparing the rabbit for cooking.

She skinned the rabbit, then a large portion she cut off and set in front of the cat. She cut up the remainder and dumped it into a second pot, adding a small amount of spice and covering it with water before putting it on the fire and removing the first pot.

She reached for her medical kit again and removed some clean linen scraps, wetting them and gently cleaning away the blood that the fox was still covered in. Melo didn't move, but simply remained still to allow Xena to do the most careful and thorough job she could.

Once she was done, Xena looked into the fox's tired green eyes. "Rest now, Melo. Etor and I will keep you safe."

The panther resumed its protective position surrounding its mate and gently nuzzled the fox until the red furred chest moved in the deep, regular breath of sleep. Then blue eyes met again in anguished understanding and the cat began a careful grooming of the fox.

Xena stirred the stew that had started bubbling and leaned back, closing her eyes tiredly. She'd never allowed another creature to feed from her before and was more drained than she could possibly have imagined herself ever being. Xena concentrated on not falling asleep, knowing she needed to eat and replenish what she had lost before surrendering to the slumber that was pulling at her so desperately.

The prickle of a sharp claw on her leg brought Xena sharply out of the light doze she had fallen into and she realized that her stew was mostly ready. She looked down, fully expecting to see a black paw resting on her calf. Instead, Xena noted that the two animals were twined together in sleep and that the fox's breathing seemed to have gathered a little more strength. She smiled, believing for the first time that the small creature might actually survive.

She portioned herself a large quantity into her bowl and moved the rest off the heat. Then Xena ate quickly and methodically, idly noting that at least it was better than tolerable for a change. When she was finished, she rinsed the bowl with just a bit of water and turned the bowl over the remainder of the stew to keep it for the morning meal. Then she stretched back out on her furs and settled into sleep. Trusting to her instincts and the panther's that nothing would happen to them in the meantime.

Morning came far earlier than Xena would have liked, but much later than she expected. The sun was fully risen, though it was still early comparatively speaking. Blue eyes blinked into the sunlight as she tried to fathom why exactly she was still so exhausted.

Xena sat up and looked around, rubbing her hand across her face in an effort to jump start her brain. When she saw her companions still sleeping and completely entangled together, a sad smile crossed her face as she remembered the many mornings she and Gabrielle had done the same. The only real difference was that the panther was shielding the fox - Gabrielle tended to use Xena as her own personal body pillow.

"One day, Gabrielle," Xena whispered to herself. "One day we will have that again. I will find a way to get back to you."

The cat's eyes opened and with infinite care began grooming the fox again, gently encouraging the smaller animal's wakefulness. Reluctantly, the green eyes opened briefly, then the fox relaxed into the panther's ministrations and let sleep overtake it once again.

Xena moved the pot of stew closer to the fire to reheat a bit without cooking it too much; then she picked up her bit of towel and soap and moved to the tiny creek to bathe.

By the time she returned, her stew was slightly bubbling and the two animals were once again sleeping soundly together. She ate, then separated out two smaller portions, one which was mostly broth, correctly figuring that the fox would need to start rebuilding its reserves and knowing that it would need to ease back into eating. Even with the bacchae blood Xena had shared and the immortality it had been given, the fox had suffered some gruesome wounds and it was going to take a little time for it to heal.

Xena ran a hand along the soft fur, thankful that it was the natural red of the fox's coat and not the blood it had been covered with the night before. She idly wondered what had happened to cause the fox's injuries, then the green eyes opened again and Xena's attention focused on the animal beneath her fingertips.

She heard the growling and had to chuckle silently at just how much the panther reminded her of herself. Xena remembered the many times she had growled in just such a manner when she felt someone or something threaten Gabrielle, even long after she knew Gabrielle was more than capable of defending herself and making her own decisions.

Xena looked up into the blue eyes that were watching her carefully. "Etor, I'm not gonna hurt Melo. Go eat your breakfast," pointing over her shoulder towards the bowl of stew that she'd set aside for the panther. "I just need to make sure things are healing properly."

The cat held Xena's eyes for another very long moment, before its attention was drawn away by the fox. They communicated wordlessly, then the cat stretched and gave Xena a last look before moving towards the fire and its breakfast.

Xena smirked at the familiarity of the exchange, then turned back to Melo with serious eyes. "You know what's changed, don't you?" she said softly as she inspected the still damaged, though rapidly healing tissues. "You know you're like me now." Xena swallowed hard in an effort to keep the tears at bay. "I'm sorry, Melo. I wouldn't have had this happen to you... either of you... for all the world. But Etor asked and I couldn't say no."

Xena turned away, remembering all too clearly the pain she'd felt every time Gabrielle had been lost to her for whatever reason, but especially when she thought death had beaten her. She shook her shoulders, trying to rid herself of the feeling of guilt that wanted to settle so squarely there, knowing it was something that she would never fully escape.

A softness on her knee returned her attention to the fox and she noted again the intelligence and compassion that lurked in those eyes. So much like Gabrielle, was her one thought as she saw understanding and forgiveness come into them.

"I'm glad you came into my life, Melo. You and Etor have been good friends. I just hope you don't hate me for this later."

The look never changed and Xena found comfort in that fact. The fox closed its eyes and relaxed into Xena's touch. The warrior kept up a soothing motion as she carefully explored the areas which only the night before had been ripped and raw. Already they were closed and the swelling had gone down remarkably.

"I think we'll stay here another day," Xena commented aloud when her examination was finished. "At the rate you are healing, you should be secure in moving before then, but I would definitely feel better with another day of rest."

It wasn't typical, but Xena knew both animals would understand her need to stay put. The fact that she admitted as much to them aloud showed precisely how badly she needed some recuperation time for herself.

The cat licked its bowl clean and moved back to its mate. The fox watched the panther's progress, resting securely against the black fur that snuggled up against its spine. Xena set the bowl of broth at an angle against the panther's paw, getting a look that could curdle milk in return.

"Yeah, yeah. Tell it to someone who doesn't know better, buddy." The look turned to one of resignation and Xena had to chuckle just slightly.

She watched patiently as the fox slowly ate the broth and then offered the animal some water. When Xena was satisfied that she'd done all she could for the moment, she picked up both bowls and waterskin and moved to the river. In a few short moments, her chores were done and she was back in camp.

Everything was tidy and her bladed weapons were as well honed as she could manage to make bone. She did not have enough ammunition for the gun to do much with it and truth be told, she was still exhausted from her experience the night before.

Xena heard another soft growl come from the panther and looked up to find herself pinned in place by rather baleful blue eyes. She felt her eyebrow rise in response.

"What?" feeling just like she did when Gabrielle looked at her that way and trying to figure out what exactly she had done to warrant that glare.

The panther stared at her rather pointedly then turned its attention to her empty pallet. Xena had made the fur and blankets up neatly when she'd decided to stay put another day. She followed the cat's gaze to her made up bed, then met the eyes squarely when they returned to focus on her. The panther let its lip curl just enough to show a hint of fang and Xena through her hands up in exasperation when a low growl emanated from the black chest.

"Fine!" she said, not realizing just how much like Gabrielle she sounded. "Nothing like being bullied into something!" She lay down and stretched out, unwilling to admit even to herself how badly she needed the rest. Her eyes closed and she almost moaned at how good it felt to simply rest. Then she sat up and pointed a finger at the cat.

"You keep watch!" Then she fluffed up the end she was using for a pillow and pulled the covers up to her shoulders, muttering and mumbling to herself the entire time. She was asleep before her head hit the fur.

The two animals exchanged a glance and a rumbling that could have easily been mistaken for laughter ran through them, the two sounds running counterpoint to one another to create its own music. Then the panther gently nudged the fox into closing its eyes again and with an exasperated sigh, the fox returned to its healing sleep. And steady blue eyes remained vigilant in the silent campsite.

It was morning again when Xena's eyes opened, although the only way she could tell was a very slight lightening of the eastern sky and the completely rested and refreshed way her body felt. She looked over to her companions, whose eyes were still closed in sleep. When she blinked, she found blue eyes staring back at her and marveled once more at just how much the two animal companions were like her and Gabrielle. Not just in their eyes and coloring, but in their mannerisms and very attitudes.

"I wish there was a way for her to meet you two. I think she would probably love the idea of mascots and adopt you both on the spot."

Xena stretched and groaned as her spine popped and shifted back into alignment. "I'm getting too old for this," she muttered as she rose from her pallet and moved to the other side of the fire. Bright green eyes blinked at her and Xena smiled in unconscious reflex before kneeling at the fox's side and running a gentle hand over the soft fur.

"Let me look, Melo," Xena said, easing the fox onto its back so she could check its chest. She ran her hands over the new, soft fur, unable to find even the slightest amount of damage. She unwrapped her wrist, finding no trace of the cut she had put there two nights before.

"Well," she commented, "I suppose there has to be some nice benefit to being a bacchae. Guess that answers the immortality question, huh?" She looked at Melo with sad blue eyes. "Sorry," she whispered.

"All right," she continued, scratching her hands through her hair as she stood. "I think we are ready to travel today. Lemme go clean up and we'll see if we can get to the winter camp."

It didn't take long and soon Xena was headed out into the prairie. The animals walked sedately beside her for a while, then the fox felt the need to explore. Without thought, it took off running and the panther growled as it ran to catch up. Never before had the fox been the one to take the lead and the cat wasn't sure what to make of it. With a patented glare in Xena's direction, the panther followed its mate across the open space. Xena just laughed.

"Oh Etor. You have no idea the trouble you're in for now," Xena commented absently with a grin. She remembered fondly her own experiences with Gabrielle as the bard had started coming into her own. Just the memories of what they'd shared and what Xena wanted desperately to recover lent wings to her own feet and soon she found that she was running simply because it made her feel like it brought her closer to her goal.

Her companions soon got into the spirit and it became something of a race. The panther had naturally resumed the lead, when without warning the fox leaped out in front and ran like the wind, becoming a blur. The cat stopped so quickly, it actually somersaulted on the ground before landing on its feet, eyes following its mate in disbelief.

The fox sensed the panther's regard and turned, racing back to the cat's side with great haste. The smaller animal had every intention of nuzzling its mate when a throaty growl from the panther made the fox stop short. The fox sat down and cocked its red head, gazing inquisitively at the panther, a look of curiosity crossing its features. Xena just stood back and watched the proceedings with interest.

The panther circled the fox, sniffing reflexively. Another throaty growl emanated from its throat before the cat turned and moved away from the fox, wandering farther out into the prairie alone.

The fox turned its attention to Xena, gazing at the warrior with mournful eyes. Xena knelt down to be closer to eye level.

"I'm sorry, Melo. I don't know how to make this better. It's a warrior pride thing, I'm afraid and Etor will have to come to terms with it eventually. I just don't know how long eventually might take." She looked around, noting that the panther was moving slowly enough to keep them within both hearing and sight distance.

"C'mon," she said, standing up and beginning to walk in the panther's direction. "We've still got a ways to go yet."

The day progressed slowly with the panther always walking just far enough ahead of Xena and the fox to be separate. As the afternoon wore on, Xena detected a small cloud on the horizon and knew she was close to the winter camp.

It was nearly dark when Xena reached the outskirts of the camp with Melo beside her and she was warmly welcomed by many members of the tribe. Hotassa was the first to greet her.

"Va'˘htama ma'pa'o, Zee-nah." She clasped the warrior's hands and Xena smiled broadly, glad to be back among people she considered friends and family. Hotassa motioned to Xena's new clothes with a grin.

"Hello, Hotassa," she responded automatically, then realized she was still thinking and speaking in the odd language Ari had so patiently taught her. The Indian woman's eyes widened and she spoke before Xena could apologize.

"Speak white now?" she asked brokenly though clearly enough that Xena understood.

Xena nodded.

"Good," Hotassa said firmly, somewhat surprising to Xena with her vehemence. "Make things easier for you." The older woman looked around, noting that the fox remained at Xena's side while the panther had already settled itself by the fire and appeared to be sulking. Hotassa looked back at Xena questioningly. Xena waved her off, but Hotassa understood the answer all to well and laughed. "Is way of love. Come," she said with a wave and led Xena over to her fire.

The shaman was already seated and indicated for her to take a seat. Xena set her travel bags on the ground behind her and sat, a little surprised when the fox sat beside her and laid its head in her lap. Almost unconsciously, Xena began stroking the soft, red fur beneath her fingertips, feeling Melo relax under her touch and feeling the same peace steal over her.

They sat silently for a bit, then the shaman gestured first to the fox and then to the panther. "Fight?"

Xena shook her head. "No, Keto. More like pride."

The elder shaman looked back and forth between the two animals and grunted. "Figures," he muttered so low that even Xena was unsure of just exactly what he'd said. Quiet fell between them again as Hotassa served up their evening meals. Xena made a move to protest when a solid squeeze on her shoulder stopped her words before they could be formed, much less spoken. So she accepted the bowl and welcomed the warmth and flavors the food provided her with.

"Good hunt?" Keto asked when he was finished and had set his empty bowl aside. He withdrew a pipe from his pouch and pulled the tobacco out as well, packing it tightly and lighting it from a small twig he'd caught for just that purpose. He puffed a few moments and that gave Xena time to carefully formulate her answer.

She was fairly certain that if she was mentioned by name, Ari would be recognized. In fact she suspected that Hotassa already knew that Xena had met Ari. She couldn't explain it as more than a feeling, but she'd learned to trust her gut and decided to speak to Hotassa about it privately. Meanwhile, she turned her attention back to Keto.

"Yes," she finally responded. "I think I will stay here through the winter though. Start fresh again in the spring."

"Good," he replied, taking a deep drag off his pipe and handing it to her. Xena accepted it and took a lighter pull, allowing her thoughts to wander. Eventually, she felt herself slip into a restful haze and spoke the words that had been teasing her for several days, but had only just been given the opportunity to slip out.

"Keto, will you take me on a vision quest? I think my answers may be closer than I thought. I think they may be here."

The shaman continued to puff on his pipe as he considered her words... both spoken and otherwise. He had wondered if she would ask; he had seen things in his own recent vision quest that she would need to know. This would probably be the best way for her to find out.

It was unusual, though not completely unheard of for a woman to take a vision quest. The male ceremony was different from the female however and due to her status as a warrior within the community, Xena would need to take the male ceremony to find the answers she sought.

Finally the pipe was empty and Keto knocked the few ashes left in it on the ground. Then he turned to face Xena, who returned his stare measure for measure. He smiled, liking what he saw in her soul and nodded.

"I will," was all he said at last.

Now Xena allowed her own brief smile, the relief flowing through her in palpable waves. "Thank you, Keto," was all she said aloud, though the shaman could feel just how much it meant to her. She moved to stand and he placed a hand on her knee, halting her movement. She looked at him again, questioning.

Keto gestured first to the fox and then to its mate some distance away beside Xena's tent. "Fix."

A dark brow rose in mute question.

He motioned between them again. "Fix. Fix first. Need them on quest."

It was the most words Xena had heard him put together at one time and she nodded gravely. "I will, Keto," she said as she stood, moving away from him with a nod back to her own tent. Only then did she mutter to herself, "As soon as I figure out how to." Then she ducked in her doorway, grateful that the clan had been prepared for her return. She made a mental note to ask Keto about it when they spoke again.

Xena crossed to the furs already laid out for her use and stretched out with a contented sigh. She laid there for a while, slipping in and out of sleep when a rustle attracted her attention. Xena opened her eyes to mere slits and kept her eyes half closed as she watched the proceedings at the door.

The fox had followed her inside the small dwelling, content to stretch itself out near the doorway. The panther remained unmoving outside the door and the fox gazed at the entryway longingly before a sigh escaped and the green eyes closed.

Time passed and when everything was still and quiet, the panther crept in and stood beside the fox, gazing sorrowfully its mate. It didn't move or touch the smaller animal until the green eyes opened. With a mere look, the fox gave the panther the assurance it was seeking and the cat immediately settled into its place near the fox, curling its larger body protectively around its diminutive mate and beginning a gentle grooming. The fox closed its eyes in contentment and Xena smiled.

"And sometimes," she whispered to herself, "you just get damned lucky."

Then she closed her eyes and let her dreams take her to a place where she and Gabrielle were still together in life.

The early morning darkness was broken by the raucous noise of raiders. It wasn't clear who the marauders were, but it didn't really matter. The fact that they were causing mayhem and chaos was clear enough.

Xena scrambled from her tent and was instantly in the thick of the battle. Immediately, she missed her sword and chakram, but adjusted her fighting easily to use whatever weapons came to hand.

She was in the thick of the battle, demolishing enemies left and right when a commotion caught her attention out of the corner of her eye. She held up her hand abruptly and the man she was fighting was so stunned by the action that he froze and turned his attention to the tableau that Xena was now moving towards intently.

Xena strode forward purposefully, knocking men out of her way with blows that killed or maimed, depending on where they landed. She had seen it all happen and was hoping beyond hope she had misunderstood.

In the few seconds it took her to cross from one side of the compound to the other, the fighting became a distant focus and the silence that fell in her ears was loud in its very stillness. Harsh breathing could be heard and Xena closed her eyes as she reached the spot where her animal companions had fallen.

The panther was crouched over the fox, a low keening vibrating from its chest as agonized eyes tracked to Xena's own. Gently, she moved the cat to one side, realizing immediately that the fox had stepped between the panther and the knife that was now embedded in its own red-furred chest. A swift glance around showed Xena the knife-wielder had died painfully under the cat's sharp fangs. It also showed her clan beginning to clean up the bodies of their fallen and those the few raiders that had escaped left behind.

Xena tenderly lifted the fox into her arms and headed for her tent, the panther literally stuck to her knee. She ducked through the doorway and placed the small animal on the furs, quickly rummaging for the supplies she needed to close what would be a gaping wound when she removed the blade.

Skilled fingertips ran along the fur, glad to note there was no other damage. Xena looked seriously into green eyes dulled with pain. "I know why you did it, Melo and I can't fault your reasoning. But you've gotta learn to get outta the way a little faster. You may be immortal now, but you're not invincible and this is gonna hurt like Hades own fire."

The fox closed its eyes in concession to a truth it already understood too well and Xena opened the wineskin. She pulled the knife out and poured the alcohol in, hoping to kill any infection before the wound closed over. The fox barely flinched, though its breathing sped up exponentially in proportion to the sheer misery it felt. Xena moved to the water skin she kept warming near the fire and poured a goodly amount of that over the blood-soaked fur. In bare minutes, it was impossible to tell just how injured the fox had been, save for the open but now unbleeding cut on its chest.

"Melo, I'm gonna have to sew this up."

A sigh was the only indication that the softly spoken words were heard and Xena rapidly pulled the gut and needle out of her kit and through the torn flesh. In moments, the only hint of the damage that had been wrought was a thin red line that cut through the fox's fur at an odd angle.

"Now, I want you to rest and take it easy the remainder of the day. We'll say it was just a scratch, but you've gotta be more careful. What we are makes us different and even here in a community of acceptance, it can make us hunted because we're seen as a threat." The sadness in her eyes was reflected back to her from the fox's.

"Etor...." But her directive was unneeded. Already the panther had curled around its mate and begun the gentle grooming that allowed the fox to relax into sleep. Xena smile slightly at the picture the two of them made together, then stepped from her dwelling to provide whatever assistance she could to the tribe.

Surprisingly, there was very little real damage. Most of the dead were raiders who'd been killed by her hands as she'd moved to Melo's side. Otherwise, there were a few injuries and some collateral damage, but nothing that couldn't be repaired fairly easily. It occurred to Xena just how peculiar that was, then she was being called to assist in setting a broken bone and the thought went to the wayside.

By mid-afternoon, the compound was clean and orderly once more. All the wounded had been taken care of and the dead raiders had been cleared out. Xena was checking on Melo, when a soft knock at her doorway drew her attention.

"Yes?" she asked and waited for the flap to be pushed aside.

Hotassa crossed the threshold with a large bowl of something hot and fragrant. Xena's stomach rumbled in reaction to the scents it was exuding and Hotassa chuckled in sympathy. She nodded towards the two animals still wrapped tightly around one another.

"Better now?"

Xena took the bowl that was being extended and began eating. She'd long since given up trying to share. That wasn't the way things were done in this society and she always, ALWAYS remembered her status as a guest here, no matter how accepted she was.

"Yes," she said around her food as she continued to eat.

"Good," came the answer as Hotassa watched them wake up together and start to nuzzle one another gently. "Keto says begin quest tonight. So Zee-nah rest now."

The warrior nodded and put her half-full bowl in front of the fox and panther. Then she moved to her pallet and stretched out, allowing her mind to float free and take her into a dozing state. Hotassa watched the proceedings with interest, noting that Xena's spirit guides finished their meal simultaneously and settled back down into slumber almost immediately. The older woman brushed the hair back from Xena's face and pulled the fur up to cover her before retrieving the bowl and stepping back out into the cold October wind.

Night fell and Xena awakened and started preparing herself for the ritual. She bathed in the lukewarm water provided for her, then dressing in the breechcloth that she had been given. The moon was nearly at its zenith when she wrapped herself in her buffalo robe and stepped from her dwelling with her two companions matching her step for step.

People stepped away from her respectfully, realizing her intent. When she reached Keto's fire, she waited for his invitation to join him. Instead, he rose to meet her and began chanting in a low tone, cleansing her with smoke from both the fire and the pipe he held lit in his hands.

Xena kept her eyes straight ahead, figuring this was part of the ritual. Finally, when Keto was done, he lowered his voice even farther, until it was a mere whisper of sound. He explained to her very simply what she needed to do and handed her a small skin of tobacco and a pipe, then led her to the sweat hut. Here she would be left alone to seek her vision until she came out seeking guidance.

Hotassa handed her a full water skin. This would be replenished regularly until Xena stepped out of the hut when her quest was complete. Other than that, there was no nourishment provided for her use.

Just as Xena was ready to cross the threshold to begin her journey, she looked up into the night sky. A streaming light caught her eye and at first glance she thought it was a shooting star. But as she stood and watched it slowly move across the sky, she realized it was something more. Then she stepped into the sweat hut, hoping to find the answers she needed to make it back home to Gabrielle.

Part 10