Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained

by Tonya Muirt
tmuir@uswest.net

 

General Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle and various other characters are all property of MCA Universal and Renaissance Pictures, and their writers. All rights are reserved to the legal owners, and no infringement is intended. Please don't come after me … don't have much besides a couple worthless horses and a slew of pooches but I love them dearly and you can't have 'em :-). However, I do have a couple of cats that are all yours (just kidding!).

Specific Disclaimers:

EPISODE SPOILERS:

This is a story based off of Remember Nothing and assumes that Xena didn't choose to kill when she did in the episode. It also refers to A Solstice Carol (in a round about way), Sacrifice II, A Family Affair, and Crusader … I think that's it.

VIOLENCE WARNING/DISCLAIMER:

Though not incredibly violent, there are a few kinda bloody spots … this is a Xena story, after all.

HURT/COMFORT WARNING/DISCLAIMER:

Although I'm a huge fan of hurt/comfort, I don't think this one classifies as such. There is some general character angst and overcoming of internal turmoil … but I left the injuries out of it this time.

LOVE/SEX WARNING/DISCLAIMER:

This story depicts a love/sexual relationship between two consenting adult women. If you are under 18 years of age or if this type of story is illegal in the state or country in which you live, please do not read it. If depictions of this nature disturb you, you may wish to read something other than this story.

Special thanks to my Beta Reader and good friend Dawn who keeps me on the straight and
narrow :-) and wisely made me account for each oddly worded sentence and strange imagery. You readers should be glad she can control me to some degree. Without her help and patience, this story would read much differently.

And, as always, much thanks to my husband Clive who encourages me daily though thinks every one of us in the Xenaverse could use a good shrink. I love him anyway. However, he did look at Barbara Maclay's excellent drawing of Lacey and say "She looks like Xena." Such a brilliant man :-)

Please provide feedback and constructive criticism to tmuir@uswest.net. Thank you!

Here we go, a short one this time :-)

 

Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained

by Tonya Muir (tmuir@uswest.net)

My hands were tender on her bruised face as she stared sightless across the room. She flinched though I don't know if it was merely from my touch or the pain it caused her.

"Duck next time," I murmured, watching for her reaction, remembering the blows landed on her by Mezentius's men. After she'd killed him the battle had raged for just a few more minutes before the opposition had realized defeat and slunk away with Gabrielle and Lyceus hot on their heels. I'd managed to use blunt force attacks throughout the fight, rendering my victims useless without spilling blood.

Green eyes flickered to me slowly and I realized that my Gabrielle would have grinned at me, her eyes flashing with humor. My Gabrielle would have leaned into this touch instead of flinching away from it.

I finished dressing the wounds and turned back to my medical kit. "Take off your dress." My request was greeted with stunned silence and I turned to look at her confused expression. It was as if she were wondering if this was my true intention after everything we'd already been though.

I smiled gently at her. "I want to treat the rest of your wounds. Then you can change and get some sleep."

She nodded and removed her clothes carefully, watching me for any reaction, likely expecting me to be mortified by the markings on her frail body. I was, but I managed not to show a reaction as I returned to kneel behind her on the bed.

"I killed him," she said softly, her voice didn't have the light lilting quality I was used to.

"You did," I responded, my heart breaking. "Was that your first time?"

She was silent for several long moments, her muscles tense beneath my fingertips, and I began to believe she wouldn't answer.

"No," Gabrielle said at last, surprising me.

"No?" so this Gabrielle had already killed.

"But it was the first time I enjoyed it like that," she admitted sheepishly, meeting my eyes with bashful green.

"Enjoyed it? Why?" My fingers stopped moving along her back and I dropped my gaze to study the whiplashes that I'd found there alongside the bruises she'd received today during battle.

"Why?" she repeated my question and turned abruptly to watch me more closely. "You think I was wrong to kill him?" she asked, evidently concerned that I might think badly of her.

"No," I reassured her, meeting her eyes again. This young woman was so much like yet unlike my best friend. "I think you were right. I would have killed him. I just ... didn't think you were the type to kill."

Gabrielle watched me for several long moments and during this study I noticed that her features were harder and more lined than I was used to. "Your friend, she was innocent and pure. I'm not. I'm glad that you are, Xena," she said, nearly knocking me over with her words. "You don't kill. I envy that. You don't let your hatred take control."

Me, innocent and pure. I watched her closely and knew she felt these words she spewed were truthful.

"But you know how to kill. You're very skilled in combat."

I nodded dumbly at her. "I've killed before. I never want to again."

"It changes everything," she acquiesced, turning away to allow me access to her wounds once more. "I hope you don't have to kill ever again."

I finished treating her back, taking special care to observe the whip lashes more closely. She must have felt my scrutiny as she began to squirm beneath my fingertips. "Sit still," I murmured, cleaning the last cut.

 

She said nothing which surprised me. The Gabrielle I was used to spoke constantly but even more so when she was nervous or frightened. The taut body before me showed evidence of both.

"Don't be afraid to tell me anything, Gabrielle," I reassured her, tossing away the dirty cloths I'd used to clean her. "Speak your mind here."

She turned to me as I finished and actually gave me a tight-lipped grin. "I am. I'm just not much for talking, that's all."

Those words actually stung my heart when they entered my ears. Amazing physiological feat.

I turned away from her to hide my hurt and rummaged through my own belongings to find her something to sleep in, wanting my cloth on her skin and not my mother's. I found a soft cotton shift and pulled it out, tossing it on the bed.

"There's hot water in the bath, take as long as you want. Then I'll put some bandages on your wounds."

She looked stunned for a moment. "Don't you want to bathe first?"

I shook my head, trying not to notice her scarred nakedness before me.

"I'm so dirty ... and bloody. I'll soil the water for you."

I grinned at her and enjoyed this unselfish act until I realized that she expected to bathe last as a slave. The grin faded and her brow wrinkled in confused response. "I would make it just as dirty for you, Gabrielle. You're my guest ... please?"

She nodded her consent at last and I turned to leave her with privacy. "Wait," she said softly, even as she rose from her seat and began to pad on bare feet across the floor to the steaming tub. I turned to face her. "Can you stay?" she whispered. "I'm not ... used to being alone." I could tell how hard these words were for her so I simply nodded and made my way across the room to sit at the small table instead.

I listened to the gentle sounds of splashing water as I pulled out a quill and parchment. At first I doodled, trying to occupy my mind with thoughts other than my naked friend, then I found myself writing the events of the last day: my discovery of Gabrielle, her escape, the ensuing battle with Mezentius. The irony that I was now writing instead of Gabrielle was not lost on me, nor did the realization of this make me quit.

Her soft voice called to me after nearly an hour and I looked over at her but could see no obvious reason why she may need my assistance.

"No towel," she said at last.

Oh, right. I jumped to my feet and grabbed the linen in question to bring to her by the bath, intending to hand it to her. Instead, I found myself holding it open for her. She looked at me quietly before rising and moving into the linen which I wrapped around her. Then I grabbed another and began drying out her hair, tenderly rubbing her scalp and tresses with the fabric.

Then, on impulse, with her head covered in the towel, I leaned forward and placed a very gentle kiss on the crown of her head. I had fond memories of my own mother doing this after a bath, and wondered if Gabrielle's mother did the same.

For a moment she leaned into me, then she shook herself and pulled away. I allowed her the privacy and stepped back to the bed to retrieve the garment I'd already chosen for her.

I tried to leave the room for her to sleep but, again, she asked me to stay. And never having been able to deny that voice, I stretched out on the bed next to her, my own body above the covers while hers was snuggled beneath. I stared at the ceiling for a very long time.

"I don't understand you," she said at last and I actually laughed out loud at these words. "Why did you help me?"

"I told you."

She shook her head, rolling from her side to her back where she could stare at the thatched ceiling with me. "There has to be more. You don't even know me."

"There's nothing more," I assured her.

Silently, she pushed away and rolled from underneath the covers. Next I knew, one slender thigh had found its way across my body and her hand was resting on my abdomen. She trembled and I was confused by these actions. I misinterpreted it as a need to be comforted and I put my arm around her shoulders, tilting my head against hers.

"I've only been with a woman once," she told me softly, her voice nervous. "But I'll do my best."

I jumped out of the bed quickly, practically dropping her to the floor in my haste. I realized immediately the severity of that mistake when the hurt etched across her features. So I sat on the bed again, took a deep breath. "Gabrielle, I don't want anything from you. Nothing. I don't expect any favors. I want you to be free and happy. I want you to be like you were."

"You don't know how I was," she scoffed softly but I could tell that my earlier mistake was forgiven and her feelings weren't hurt.

I grinned, knowing that I could play on this field. "I do," I told her, settling back on the bed. Both of us were now above the covers. "You were born the oldest of two girls to Hecuba and Herodutus. You grew up in Potadeia where your father was a farmer and you and your sister Lila helped him with the land and your mother with the home. You never felt like you fit in, you always wanted more out of life, wanted to explore, wanted to learn. You were eager to please, happy to help. You loved to tell stories and write down your dreams. The other kids liked your stories but your parents didn't approve because they thought it wasteful."

"Then what happened?" the voice beside me asked very softly.

I took a deep breath. "Then, one day, while you and your sister and some other villagers were doing the wash, you were captured. But you were brave; you tried to fight them. You wanted to willingly give yourself up so the others could be free but the slavers wanted everyone and they were too well armed for you."

She was absolutely silent.

"What happened to Lila?" I asked her, wondering this from our first meeting in this life.

"She died the first year," Gabrielle whispered, her throat constricting on the words. "She was pregnant ... Mezentius ... and died in childbirth."

"The child?"

"Died as well. I tried to save him but he was so little and I got caught twice stealing milk for him." The room was virtually humming with silence. Until, finally, this Gabrielle showed some of the curiosity of my Gabrielle. "How do you know these things about me?"

I shrugged, trying to come up with something believable. "I sometimes have dreams about a life with a woman who looks like you. And in those dreams, the woman told me about a childhood in Potadeia."

"So the friend I remind you of is only in your dreams?" she asked incredulously.

I nodded, that was a good enough explanation. "I think it means that you and I have always been destined to be friends so when I saw you, I knew I had to get you out."

She appeared to consider this for awhile. "So, in your dreams ... we're friends."

I nodded.

"I like that," she whispered.

I smiled into the darkness and lifted up the covers for both of us to slide under.

"Will you tell me one of your dreams?" she asked shyly. "I like stories."

"C'mere," I responded very softly, lifting my arm so she could snuggle against my side. After several long seconds of consideration, she did just that, resting her head on my shoulder. "Let's see ... let me tell you about Prometheus."

XXXXX

In the morning, I was awakened by a knocking on the chamber door. I blinked my eyes open slowly, finding my vision obscured by sweet smelling red blonde hair. During the night we'd both rolled over so I now held Gabrielle with her back against my chest, my own body curled tightly around her.

The second set of knocks caused her to flinch and struggle against me for just a moment.

"Easy," I whispered, bringing a hand from her abdomen to stroke her hair. She relaxed instantly even as the door pushed open and I looked beyond her head to see Lyceus peering in.

"It's late, Xena," he said after several awkward moments of staring at the two of us. I consciously decided not to make it worse by pulling away. I also didn't want Gabrielle to feel that I was embarrassed to be seen holding her.

"Rough day yesterday," I shrugged lazily.

"I need your help with some of the supplies from the store room. And then you really need to mend those fences in the North pasture."

I nodded disentangling myself from blankets and bard.

"What can I do?" Gabrielle asked softly and Lyceus smiled at her with that sweet expression I'd so dearly missed.

"I could use some help serving breakfast."

Gabrielle started to nod but I spoke before she could verbally agree. "No. Gabrielle's not serving anyone." Maybe my voice was too brusque because they both turned to look at me as I stood on the other side of the bed.

"Pardon?"

"Gabrielle doesn't serve anyone anymore," I said the same words again for some reason thinking a repetition would make my point clearer. She wasn't a slave. She'd spent years waiting on people and I never wanted her to do that again.

Amazingly, Gabrielle understood me. She turned gentle green eyes my direction as she rose to stand next to me. "Thank you, Xena," she said softly. "But it's okay. This is different and I want to help." Then she turned to face my young brother. "I'll be down in a few minutes."

I nodded dumbly and felt an uncharacteristic twinge in my stomach. I ached for this girl I loved so much yet knew so little. I wanted my Gabrielle or to turn this one into mine.

She tilted her head very slightly and watched me with growing concern. "Are you sad that I'm not the friend in your dreams?" she asked at last, painfully perceptive even in this life.

I gave her what I hoped was a reassuring smile. "I just ... I want to protect you. I want you to be safe and happy. I feel like I've let you down."

She smiled at me then, contrasting with the hardened lines of her face. "You've given me my life, Xena. You don't need to protect me, I can take care of myself."

Somehow I believed this statement more from this young woman's lips than I did the other Gabrielle when she had told me.

I nodded solemnly, giving her my best half smirk. "Help yourself to any clothes you want," I indicated the two sets of drawers and the hanging garment closet. "I'll be at the fields all day."

She watched me with twinkling eyes as I moved carefully around the room, washing my face in the basin, donning a tunic and loose cotton pants. When I was ready I moved to the door and turned around to face her. "Please be careful," I said softly. "I know you don't need my protection ... but I worry."

She grinned and it was so similar to the familiar countenance that a stab of pain lanced through my heart. "It's nice to have someone who cares," she said in response.

"I do care, Gabrielle. Please don't ever doubt that."

XXXXX

It was well past mid day when I finally moved from the far South fence to the East. The work was much more involved than Lyceus had let on. I'd had to completely remove four sections of fence, digging up the rotted posts, burying new posts and chiseling in the lateral rails to holes I'd burned through.

My arms ached with the exertion but, as always, I took comfort in this bone weary feeling. It distracted me from the current problem of living a life I'd never wanted to live, with a brother I'd missed terribly, and a best friend who was not the woman I was used to loving. But she was the same deep down. I could tell from the occasional smiles and the glimmer in her eyes. This was the same Gabrielle but she'd just survived a different life.

While my weary body was nearing exhaustion, my mind still spun with the memories lost and the new possibilities gained. I'd have to work a lot harder to stop thinking about it altogether.

"Xena?"

I spun around quickly, dropping the ax on its head, the stout handle still in my hand.

She stood before me, a wooden mug gripped between her hands and a bag slung over one shoulder. The contents of the cup, which I guessed to be lemonade, shook over the sides with the trembling of the young woman's hands. I dropped the ax immediately and stepped forward to remove the cup from her grip before all of its contents were puddled on the ground.

She wiped sticky hands on the skirt she'd chosen. "I just thought you'd be thirsty. I didn't mean to interrupt you. You didn't come in for lunch so I thought ... probably ... you didn't want to be bothered..." she even babbled like my Gabrielle.

"Thank you, Gabrielle," I said softly, needing to say her name as often as possible, enjoying the way it rolled off my tongue. "It's perfect. I was very thirsty, I just lost track of time." I met grateful green eyes. "I'm not avoiding you. There's just work to be done."

She nodded, believing my sincerity, and smiled for me.

"Sit with me while I take a break? Tell me about your morning."

She settled beside me, tucking her legs underneath the skirt and hugging them to her chest. Then, without further prompting, she proceeded to tell me about her morning's work. She described some of the customers with stunning details and ability, making me smile at the images she presented.

Suddenly, when Gabrielle was only halfway through recounting the morning, she stopped, mouth open and watching me. She dropped her eyes. "I'm sorry."

It surprised me. "Sorry for what, Gabrielle? Don't apologize, you've done nothing wrong."

"I feel like a dam burst in my throat and words just keep spilling out of me," she grinned sheepishly. "I'm so comfortable with you even though I've only just met you. Isn't that silly?"

"Not silly," I assured, reaching out to rub her arm tenderly. "I'm comfortable with you, too. I'm glad you're here. I love to hear you talk."

"Really?"

"Really," I nodded. "Tell me what happened after the big Bear-Man came in." I used the name she'd given one of her customers and it caused her to chuckle. She continued with her story, gaining steam as she went.

She pulled out two large ham sandwiches while she spoke, placing one into my hand. I ate it eagerly, finishing it and the lemonade just as she handed me the other sandwich and pulled a water skin out of the bag at her side.

"You eat it," I said, pushing the food away.

"I ate already," she assured me, nodding her head in emphasis. When I acquiesced, she began her comforting prattle again.

My afternoon passed quickly after my young friend went back to the inn and left me to the tasks at hand. It was just before dusk when the fence was completed and I gathered the tools I'd used to return them to the barn.

I found Lyceus there, throwing hay to the sheep in the small barnyard.

"They can go out tomorrow," I told him, moving about the interior, replacing the items I'd grabbed that morning. "I still have to fix the horse pasture, though."

Lyceus nodded and silently watched me complete my mission. When I turned to face him, he looked pensive.

"What is it, little brother?" I asked fondly.

He sighed and took a seat on a bale of hay. I joined him there. "What do you think of Gabrielle?"

I was taken aback by the question. "What do you mean? I kidnapped her out of Mezentius's hands. I've tried to offer her a normal life. I think the world of her."

Lyceus nodded slowly. "She was working in the inn today."

I was silent, waiting for him to go on since he'd told me nothing I didn't already know.

"She did really well, chatted with everyone, served everything well. But sometimes she'd just get ... kinda ... startled. Just stop what she was doing and get really quiet, look kinda scared. I tried to touch her once and she jumped away from me."

"She's been through a lot, Lyceus. She can't be comfortable in just one day."

"I started watching her, then. And she won't let anyone touch her. Usually it's pretty subtle. She'll dodge away from an extended hand and smile or say something. Sometimes she just jumps right out of her skin. She broke three goblets today."

"I'll replace them, Lyceus," I offered softly.

"No, no. That's not it. I just ... I hate to see that. It makes my skin crawl to think what they did to her to make her react like that."

"Yeah, me too."

"She seems like she could be so full of life. So happy and carefree. She has such ... spirit about her."

"She can be like that, Lyceus. That's why I brought her here."

"You think she can? Really?" he looked to me with inquisitive blue eyes.

"I know she can," I assured him.

"She's very special."

"Yes, she is," I agreed, smiling gently. "Very special."

"Do you think they raped her?"

His whispered words kind of surprised me. I nodded mutely.

"I want to kill them."

"You already did," I reminded him. "You and Gabrielle took care of those slave traders."

"But there are always others. I want to kill all of them. Stop slavery for good. Free all the women like Gabrielle."

"You can't solve all the world's problems," I said carefully, reading the tension in the set of his shoulders and the clench of his fists.

"Maybe not the whole world," he admitted grudgingly. "Maybe just the cities and areas around Amphipolis. Give us a buffer. Maybe just a small army that will help me make our home safe."

My skin crawled. That's how it all started for me so many years ago. But I hadn't been able to control my urges to push the boundaries further and further. Or been able to control my dark side and my taste for violence. Would Lyceus be different?

"It's been a long couple days, Lyceus," I said while rising to my feet. "Don't make any rash decisions. For now let's concentrate on Amphipolis and Gabrielle."

"Yeah," he agreed reluctantly, also standing. "She's probably up to her armpits in dinner customers. Let's go."

I pushed open the tavern door to a lively crowd and a scrambling young blonde. She looked from the bar over to me with grateful green eyes and I smiled at her. When she approached me with a tray of food and drinks, I relieved her of it and leaned forward to touch my lips to her cheek.

"How ya doin'?" I whispered into her ear and she covered her surprise at my nearness pretty quickly.

She even placed a gentle hand on my upper arm and squeezed it affectionately. "Busy. Liza's got that half of the room but I got kind of overwhelmed with this half."

"Well, Lyceus shouldn't have left you alone," I cast my young brother a look and he shrugged his shoulders sheepishly. "Where is this going, Gabrielle?"

"Over there," she pointed to a table full of men in the corner of the tavern and it seemed she was a little relieved to not be delivering their tray.

I nodded silently and made my way over to the rowdy table.

They made bawdy jokes and cast leering glances but I fended them off well enough with my own unamused glares as I settled their food on the table. When I made my way back across the room to the bar where Gabrielle and Lyceus stood, I noticed them both watching me. Gabrielle's look was one of pure fear, Lyceus's of anger.

"Did I miss something?" I asked lightly, setting the tray down and going about filling empty wooden mugs with mead from behind the bar.

"Those men were mean to Gabrielle," my younger brother spoke with disdain.

I looked up from my task. "Mean, how?"

Gabrielle shrugged, pushed away from the bar but instead of leaving us, I noticed she slipped behind me so she was sheltered between my body and the wall behind the bar. "No big deal. I told you that."

Her body language suggested differently so I looked to Lyceus for further explanation.

"Liza said they were pinching her and grabbing her," the young man responded and I felt my body tense with anger. Gentle fingers touched the tense muscles of my shoulder, the tips massaging me lightly.

"What else," I growled out between clenched teeth.

"They insulted her, Liza said," my brother offered. "That's all I know and Gabrielle won't tell me."

I finished pouring the mead and turned back to my friend who cowered against the wall. I knew the look in my eyes and the anger radiating from my body didn't help so I took deep calming breaths. "Are these things true, Gabrielle?" I asked softly.

She nodded, shrugged. "No big deal, right? It's happened before."

"Not anymore," I swore to her quietly, conviction in my low voice. "You are not their property to boss around."

"Whose am I?" her green eyes started to leak salty tears and she wiped at them angrily. "It shouldn't bother me, it's happened before. I ... I feel so different now, though. I feel like I should have more respect than a common slave girl when I stand in this tavern with you and your brother and I wear these fine clothes," she fingered the skirt with agitated fingers. "But I'm treated the same because, on the inside, I'm just a slave."

"No," I whispered hoarsely, her heart so clear in those emerald eyes that it pained me to see. "No, Gabrielle, you aren't. Some people are just rude. They were rude to me, too. They don't have respect for women, that's all. It's not you." In my world I would have drawn my sword and stormed across the hardwood floor to flay those men. I would have taught them how to respect women and to hold their tongues or I would hold them instead ... in a pouch off my belt. But this was not my world nor my Gabrielle and my brother watched on with liquid eyes that saw everything and grew angry.

I knew I couldn't risk even walking over there now because I couldn't promise not spilling blood. So, instead, I pushed the tray of wooden mugs to my young brother and indicated with a nod of my head that he take care of the insolent travelers. My eyes never left the young blonde before me as she swiped angrily at wet cheeks.

"Gabrielle," I whispered at last, moving my hand up to help her wipe away the tears. Mine is the only touch she would allow and though disturbed at this realization, the amount of trust she had lain in me warmed my heart. "Let's finish up the dinner rush and then we'll take a walk, okay? Just you and me. And I'll tell you some stories."

She nodded, leaning gently into the palm of my hand, her eyes closed. "Could I ..." she stammered with the words, blinking green eyes open briefly before closing them again. "Would you ... hug ... me?" The words were ripped from her mouth as if painful and I realized she had probably never before requested such a thing. She lived in a world of denied pleasure and comfort.

Without hesitation I stepped forward and wrapped her too thin body in my long arms, crushing the frailness to me. My bard's body was lithe and muscular in comparison, though I'd watched it change from well fed and light of muscle during our travels. This body was merely bone thin and skeletal though the muscles I felt were tough and wiry from labor.

I rocked her gently in my embrace, feeling her body hitch slightly with her sobs. I hoped she could regain herself and we could finish the evening's chores but I decided to give her just a few more minutes before I would drag her away from this place to somewhere private where I could hold her in my lap and soothe away her fears.

She seemed somehow to know my thoughts and slowly came back to herself, taking deep breaths to calm her nerves and end her sobs. Then she backed away and smoothed my blouse where she'd left a wet tearstain. "Sorry," she whispered.

I cupped her small face in my large hands, forcing her to meet my gaze. "Don't you apologize," I whispered back. "You can tell me anything: all your wants and needs. And I will always hold you."

She smiled softly at my words, losing herself in my sincere gaze. "I thanked the gods for you all day today, with every breath I took."

"As I did you," I smiled back and placed a gentle kiss on her forehead. "Let's get this over with, huh?"

She nodded as she stepped away and went back to the kitchen to grab the next set of full plates.

So intent on watching her, I was unaware of my brother's presence at my elbow until he spoke. "She lets you touch her like no other."

I shrugged, grabbed a wet cloth to wipe down the bar to keep my hands busy since I was standing here doing nothing. "She trusts me."

"She needs you. I don't think she could heal without you."

This was a painfully true statement. Our connection had survived the change in her life and she needed me in this life just as she did in the last. As I needed her. We would not be separated and I had no desire to sever those ties that were fated to be. "I need her. I can't live without her." In some corner of my mind, I chastised myself for never saying these words out loud in our other life. In that life sweet Gabrielle walked along with her cheerful stories and her spirited soul and I grumbled at her occasionally. Even then I knew I couldn't be without her, I just never told her that. This Gabrielle would know, I resolved. This Gabrielle would have no doubts as to her importance to me.

Lyceus rocked back on his heels thoughtfully, studying my face. "What about Maphias?"

Well, that was a good question and one I didn't have an answer for. It appeared my brother was more clever than I'd ever given him credit for. He read and understood the nuances of my relationships with relative ease, leaving me unshrouded. "I don't know. I won't ever leave her." It was the only truthful answer I had at the moment. Regardless of the nature of my relationship with Gabrielle, I was committed to her as any wife to a husband and would not betray her to be with another. Which threw a horseshoe nail into the workings of wedding plans. So be it. My destiny lay not with Maphias, anyway. That much was clear.

"Your bed isn't big enough for three," Lyceus said softly and when I turned to him I saw the gentle teasing sparkle in his eyes I'd so missed.

"It's not like that," I laughed at him, shoving playfully.

He nodded understanding. "Doesn't matter. The hearts are already committed, the bodies need not follow. Maphias deserves to know."

"Yes, he does," I agreed, nodding, wondering how to break the news to my fiancÚ of years. But knowing the news must be broken so that there would be no doubt as to where my loyalties lie.

Lyceus patted me gently on the shoulder and went back to work, sliding past Gabrielle into the kitchen. I put away the cloth and started pouring more drinks for the clamoring crowd.

XXXXX

The moonlight lit our way nicely as we walked down the main street of my childhood town towards a path I knew well. I'd followed it often as a child, only then I'd been planning attacks and warding off imaginary ambushes. Tonight I walked slowly, silently, leaning gently into the small body next to mine.

Surprisingly, it was Gabrielle who spoke first. "You think those men knew I am ... I was ... a slave?"

I shook my head and reached a hand over to twine my fingers with hers. She accepted the contact gratefully, squeezing my long smooth fingers with her shorter callused ones. "No. They wouldn't have cared if you were a landowner. They were just a bunch of drunk guys out to make themselves feel better about who they were and what they were doing."

"Would they have hurt me?"

"Maybe," I nodded. "Don't ever leave the inn with people like that. Always get Lyceus or me to go with you."

She agreed with a nod of her head but was otherwise silent as we met the base of the trail and I guided her into the forest. With each step I noticed her become slower and seem more reluctant.

"You okay?" I asked at last when her feet seemed to have grown roots.

"Where are we going?" she replied slowly, her eyes flicking from me to the dark trail in front of us. The hand I still held in mine was sweating and shaking.

"Gabrielle, I will never hurt you. I know it's hard for you to trust after everything that's happened. But I will never hurt you," I swore to her, seeking darting green eyes shadowed by moonlight and swaying branches. "Do you want to go back?"

"I want to be with you," she said softly. "But where are we going?" her voice caught and I knew tears were threatening. She was torn between her trust for me and her fear of what could happen. She wanted desperately to give herself over without concern or dread but she'd lived a long life where those feelings were her bedmates and her solace at night. It was my fault for not telling her everything, this Gabrielle wasn't quite ready for surprises and it was unfair for me to ask her steadfast trust after a couple short days.

"There's a creek not far up this path with a clearing beside it. On a night like tonight you can watch the moonlight reflect off the water. I thought we could sit there for awhile. And, if you wanted, I could hold you and tell you some of my dreams," I squeezed her hand. "But if you're not ready yet, I won't mind. We can do it another time, maybe during the day."

Slowly, her feet moved from their rooted position and she stepped up next to me, still shaking slightly but turning herself over to my capable care. With this silent approval, I led the way further into the trees.

The clearing was as I remembered it with a large log on one side where Lyceus and I had diligently dragged it. The other side of the clearing was bordered by the gently moving water and the canopy of trees opened up to let the moonlight dance among the fallen leaves on the grass and the rippling movement of the water.

I glanced to my companion who was too busy sucking in the surroundings with eyes and inhaled breaths to notice my scrutiny. She clasped my hand in both of hers, smiling slightly. "You have a gentle soul," she whispered at last, "to notice these things. Most people pass them by."

Ah, sweet Gabrielle, you have shown me these things. It was your alter ego that taught me to see with unjaded eyes. It seemed only fitting that this Gabrielle should benefit from that Gabrielle's teachings.

I tugged her to the log where I sat and pulled her down with me. Using the old fallen tree as a backrest, I settled her body between my legs, her back against my chest. Without armor and leather, I felt the warmth of her skin as well as the bonyness of her back. "We need to get a little weight on you," I murmured into her hair as I snuggled her against me with gentle arms around her waist.

"I don't eat well," she said softly, relaxing into my body with surprising ease.

"Something to work on," I responded simply. I pulled some jerky out of the sack I'd brought along and placed the thin strips of meat in her hands. There was also bread and jam in the cloth bag but I chose to save that for later and instead pulled out a flask of wine. I unstoppered it and took a swig before holding it to her lips. She drank as well.

So the night went on, us munching the snacks and downing the wine until I could tell she was slightly tipsy. The more relaxed she felt, the more she snuggled into my willing embrace, turning slightly to tuck her face into my exposed neck where she inhaled deep breaths of skin and sweat.

"This woman in your dreams, who looks like me. Her name is Gabrielle too?"

"Yes," I told her softly.

"Really?"

"Mhmm," I nodded, taking another drink of wine before settling the flask on the ground and rubbing my large hands along her back and arms.

"Tell me about your Gabrielle."

I brought my knees up so I might wrap myself more firmly around her, her body cocooned within my longer limbs. "At first she annoyed me because I was very angry. I'd decided that life wasn't worth living and I wanted to give up. I met her outside Potadeia, when the slavers attacked her and her sister. I saw her fight and I when I looked into her eyes I knew I had to save her. She had such spirit. So I did. She wanted to leave her home and follow me."

"You let her?"

"No," I laughed gently. "No. I told her she couldn't but she was stubborn and she followed me anyway. So I told myself she could come with me and camp with me because I knew she would leave regardless of if I allowed her to be with me or not. And she was young and inexperienced and I thought harm might come to her."

"What did you feel inside?" the blonde asked hesitantly. "In your dream?"

"I was honored to have such a loyal friend. She followed me everywhere and didn't question my past or my anger. She soothed me at night and told me stories through the day. She was open and free with a loving heart and an optimistic soul. She was the light to my dark and I needed that very much. She was bubbly and lively and the only person in the world who could make me laugh or cry."

"In the dreams ... are you more than friends?"

"No," I said softly and wondered if that was regret I heard tingeing my own voice. "She was my best friend, part of my soul. But there was nothing physical."

"Do you want her to be more?"

I shrugged, squeezing the slight body to me, resting my head against the crown of hers. "Doesn't matter. I love her like no other and would never leave her. What unfolds physically or doesn't is fine."

"Do you still have the dreams?"

I took a deep breath and sighed, feeling moisture in my eyes for that lost Gabrielle who was such a strong part of me and what I'd become. "No. No more dreams."

This startled my young friend and she sat up straight, clocking my chin soundly with the hardness of her skull. "What happened to the dreams? Why did they stop?" her voice raised in alarm.

"They stopped when I met you," I said softly, trying to subtly rub the soreness out of my jaw. "So now I think it's my job to forget about the dreams and work on my life with the real Gabrielle."

"I can't be your dream Gabrielle," she whispered softly, settling back into my embrace. "I like the sounds of your Gabrielle better."

"You don't need to be that Gabrielle," I assured her. "I want you to be you. We can build our own lives. Dreams are just dreams," I nearly choked on the words as if I betrayed my Gabrielle by brushing off our life together so easily.

"Don't forget the dreams," she whispered. "I like to hear them."

"I won't forget," I responded in a hushed voice, placing a gentle kiss at her temple. "I'll share them with you."

"Tell me one now, please?" she requested, seemingly trying to snuggle deeper into my arms though I could not possibly be closer to her body.

After much thought I told her the story about Death being chained, skimming over Gabrielle's attraction to a sick young man.

XXXXX

Our days turned slowly into routine. We would sleep together each night, nestled in the others' arms and reveling in the closeness that we felt. Each day she seemed bolder and happier and she skipped to meet me for the midday meal wherever my chores had taken me. I would eat the sandwiches she'd prepared and she'd tease me and joke with me. So much of my Gabrielle was in her that I knew I'd made the right choice and I swore to not reverse the decision of the Fates. This was my life, my brother, my Gabrielle ... and I would make it work.

Sometimes at night I held her while she sobbed silently into my linen clad shoulder. Sometimes the fears of the day, though held at bay, were too much for her in the stark cold night. We talked about these things as I comforted her. We discussed different ways to alleviate her fears and she stepped up to each challenge boldly.

She never showed weakness in front of Lyceus or the inn's patrons but I knew, by the quiver of her smile or the look in her eyes, when she needed my strength. I gave it freely, without reservation, and prayed that some of the strength I no longer needed would become hers.

I was fortunate that Maphias had chosen to accompany a trade wagon to the nearest village soon after Gabrielle's arrival. Though I still worried over the words I would say to break his heart in the end.

By the end of the first week, I noticed a pattern in this Gabrielle that was very unlike my own young bard. When things got too much or she was too frightened or too frustrated, she reacted with anger. She lashed out at those around her and I often had to step into the fray and confine her flailing limbs. She would curse and spout and scream until the fervor left her and then she'd collapse crying into my arms.

Later, when we discussed it, she had no explanation for these outbursts but apologized profusely. The village healer spoke of unbridled rage from patients who'd undergone extreme torture though he didn't have any solutions to handle this rage.

It was then that I decided to train this Gabrielle in the arts of weaponry and war. My thoughts were that if I could teach her to control herself she'd find that solace even in the outbursts of rage.

We started with the quarterstaff and she handled it brilliantly, enjoying the time we spent together training. Once her training had started, her rages seemed to disappear.

Each night we'd go at each other, staves in hand. Her concentration was complete, as was her enjoyment. She learned quickly and soon became a formidable opponent. I could tell when her days were bad by the strength and quickness of her hits but I handled them easily and they also gave me an outlet for the frustration that built during this peaceful life I was trying to embrace.

Slowly, she learned to control her anger until I was free for some drilling. Then she would seek me out with two staves in hand and a wild look in those brilliant emerald eyes. Soundlessly, I accepted this part of her as I had accepted every other. This Gabrielle was more like myself than the other Gabrielle ever was and I understood this facet of her with aching clarity.

On such a night, when her anger was high and her rage nearly insatiable, we crossed staves in the moonlit clearing that had become such an important part of us.

She cracked my staff hard, her lithe body pressing against my weapon, her face in my face. As often happened during these bouts, we also carried on a heated conversation.

"You have to tell him," she growled, long since having lost her fear of me or my reactions. The trust she placed in me was all consuming and we exchanged words without dread or concern for retribution or hurt feelings. Today's rage was brought on by jealousy. Maphias had sent me a letter saying that he was returning in two nights and looking forward to pursuing our wedding plans. The fear of losing me was more than she could handle on an intellectual level so she turned to the physical. She had nothing to fear.

"Of course I will," I grunted back, shoving against her and causing her to step back with the force. She responded with a low arc aimed at my knees. I blocked it easily, spinning the force of her strike until it flew by me harmlessly and allowed me an opening for a counter strike.

She blocked it without thought. "He can't have you back."

"No," I agreed easily, granting her the block and backing off to better evaluate my attack. "I was never his. Always yours."

Often I cringed from the hatred in these green eyes. Sometimes I dreamt of the love and peace these eyes used to hold. But dreams were worthless now and I didn't love her any less for this expression of negative emotion. "Always mine," she growled in agreement. "I don't want to be here with him here. I don't want to think of him wanting you."

I nodded, blocked a wild strike that would have left her exposed in real battle. I told her so and she responded with a solid hit that almost knocked me over but instead reverberated through my staff to my hands and arms. I'd expected her wanting to leave. Our wandering nature had appealed to her in our previous life and to me as well. I'd planned us to depart Amphipolis some day anyway. "When do you want to leave?"

She stopped midstrike and my block almost turned into an attack without the weight of her staff against mine. It was all I could do to stop the motion and not knock her senseless. She tilted her head and I watched the rage leave her. Tonight had been tame compared to other nights.

"Why do you put up with me?" she asked softly, those green eyes imploring.

I grinned at her as I always did when she asked this question and gave her my patented answer. "I love you."

"Even like this?" she held the staff balanced in both of her palms, showing the weapon to me as if it were evidence of her evil nature.

"I love all of you. That's just part of you." I dropped my own staff to the ground, knowing I was done defending myself this evening. Each time seemed easier as she worked through her fears and insecurities.

"How can you love me with my past and my anger?"

I smiled to myself. I'd never understood my bard's love and loyalty for an undeserving ex-warlord. I understood it now. I would never question her support again. "That doesn't make you who you are, Gabrielle," I explained to her gently, trying to imagine what my Gabrielle would say to me. "Who you are is in your heart. You were a victim of circumstance, that was your past. Your anger is an outlet for that. I know you aren't mad at me but I know you need to vent and I can take it and still hold you at night."

She sighed, tossed her staff aside and turned away from me. She'd adopted the clothes I was more used to her wearing: a short leather skirt and a halter top. The abdominal muscles the clothing revealed became tauter day by day and I often let my fingers linger over them when I held her at night. Now I watched the small of her back and imagined my touch there.

"You would leave this place for me? Because I wanted to?"

"We don't belong here," I answered honestly. "Lyceus looks at me as the child I was: all heat and challenge. I don't feel that anymore. I don't want to break up bar fights and fend off raiders."

"Everyone sees me as the slave I was. I'm growing past that. I don't need their sympathetic looks as reminders."

This was a true statement and I had watched her change. The eyes that followed her, even Lyceus, had not yet redefined her. It's hard to break past the mold others expect from you and she faced that fight daily.

"I'm not a slave anymore," she said definitively and my heart soared. It had been nearly a moon and I'd been trying to tell her that every day. I could tell her the sky was blue for years but until she opened her eyes, I was wasting breath. Her eyes were open. "How can we survive on the road? I can't tell stories like the Gabrielle in your dreams." She turned back to me at last and studied me with silent intent.

"We'll manage. Maybe I could tell stories or we could labor for wages."

"I like your stories," she grinned. She stepped forward to extend a hand and take mine in hers. All of her tenseness had left and she eyed me carefully. "You would leave him for me? I don't give you pleasure."

I growled playfully and leapt on her, swooping her up in arms kept strong from labor, and spinning her around. She squealed with joy as I flipped her over and lowered her gently to her back where I straddled her and sat on her exposed abdomen. She grunted at my weight.

"I would die for you."

"Don't say that," her happy countenance turned fearful and I saw some of the slave Gabrielle's insecurities creep back. "Don't ever say that. I'm not worth it."

"You are," I nodded. "Get used to hearing it. I would leave Maphias, and my brother, and my birthplace to make you happy. We'll travel the world together but you'll have to protect us."

"I need more training," she said simply. She'd never questioned my apparent abhorrence to violence. "Can you teach me the sword?"

I nodded slowly, though it pained me. This Gabrielle was not like mine, I had to continually remind myself. This Gabrielle would wield a sword and kill enemies if the cause was just and our safety was in danger. I would have to give that part of me over to her and train her to serve that role.

"I could give you pleasure ... that way ... if you wanted it," she whispered, green eyes flitting away from me. "I know that Mezentius needed it. And probably you do, too. I would do that for you."

"I'll tell you a secret," I responded, trying not to reveal that her words broke my heart. I leaned over her and forced her eyes to meet mine so that we breathed each other's air. "Maphias and I were never intimate in that way. I kept putting him off until we exchanged vows."

"Really?" she sounded hopeful.

I nodded. "He and I never shared a bed or cuddled at night. I never told him my dreams; I never planned my future with him. Only you. Always you. Someday, maybe, if we're ready, we'll pleasure each other. But you will not be providing such a service to me simply because you think I need it to be with you. All I need to stay with you, is you. Okay?" My nose was touching hers now and I could see the flecks of brown mixed with her brilliant green irises. There was no question that I had her undivided attention.

She nodded almost imperceptibly; I would have missed it had our closeness not revealed even her slightest movements. Finally, she grinned softly, breaking the somber mood. "Get off me you lug. You're crushing me."

I laughed out loud as I jumped to my feet and pulled her up with me. I enveloped her in a hug, pressed my lips to her ear. "We'll leave in a week. I'll buy a horse from my brother and we'll teach you to use a sword. Deal?"

Mhmm," she nodded, returning my embrace. "What about Maphias?"

"Leave that up to me. There's no room in my life for anyone but you." Unlike the life I'd come from, in this life I lay my heart on the table for all to see. No more secrets, no more withheld feelings. At least I'd learned something in my new existence.

XXXXX

It was the night Maphias returned home that I chose to tell him my wishes. There was no sense in lingering through the truth, especially when he leaned in to kiss me in greeting and I denied him the contact.

Gabrielle found something to do with her time and disappeared up the stairs of the inn into the room we'd been sharing. She had spent a good part of the past evenings gathering and mending clothes for our journey. Lyceus, damn him, slapped Maphias on the back and cast him a sympathetic look before making himself scarce as well.

"Let's walk," I said softly, meeting Maphias's gentle gaze and wishing I could spare him harm without being his wife. I saw no way out of this inevitable future. He nodded solemnly and walked with me into the moonlight.

I didn't lead him towards the path and clearing because that belonged to Gabrielle and me. I could not share it with another. Instead, we walked directly opposite it, towards the barn and the field beyond where we'd all played games as children: Lyceus, Toris, Maphias, and I.

"Let me guess," he joked evenly as we rounded the corner of the barn and the moonlight fell on us completely, highlighting his sharp features and bouncing off my dark hair. "You're delaying the wedding again?"

I smiled despite the sad news I was forced to deliver. Despite my feelings and our doomed future, I'd always cared for Maphias. He was a good man with a good heart. He'd always said he'd wait his entire life for me and I was beginning to see the truth in that statement. "No, actually. I'm canceling it."

"Pardon?"

"No wedding, Maphias," I said softly, not knowing how to break this news gently. I was just growing accustomed to this softer side of me and had not yet refined it to satisfaction. Still, sometimes, the blunt warrior princess leapt forward with sharp tongue and short temper.

"At all? Not next year or the year after?" he seemed shocked by this news as I suppose he was. He hadn't been around the past moon to see my interactions with Gabrielle.

"No. Never. Gabrielle and I are leaving Amphipolis. We need a change and what we're looking for isn't here." It wasn't until then that I met his eyes and saw the emotions fly across their depths like shooting stars.

I saw him consider a fight, perhaps to yell at me and degrade me. To accuse me of leading him on with foul intentions. But the fight in him faded, he had never been a fighting man, really. Then I saw sadness and expected him to storm away and sit in solitude to count his woes. He almost did just that before a fleeting look of jealousy, and finally a glimpse of understanding.

"That's it, huh?"

I nodded slowly. "You know I would never be ready."

"I knew," he laughed softly at himself and his wishful thinking. "But I'd hoped, ya know? I figured you'd want children some day and need a man and there I was. It was a good plan."

I smiled for him. He'd always been honest and strong. "Maybe in another life it would have been that way," I offered gently.

He shook his head. "I'd never seen you want something as badly as you wanted to free Gabrielle. I think even in another life, the two of you were destined to be together."

I nodded, turned my eyes from his hurt expression to the stars above. "Maybe," I acknowledged.

"Will you be safe in your travels? Do you need something from me? A horse perhaps?"

"Gabrielle is turning into a good warrior. I can fight in a pinch. I bought that bay gelding from Lyceus."

 

"That old sway back?" he asked astonished. "You know horses better than that, Xena. He'll be lucky to make it down the road with you."

I shrugged. "It was all he could spare. I figured we could save up and trade him and some dinars for something more."

"Let me give you a gift," Maphias smiled suddenly, looking immensely pleased with himself. "I brought back a mare for us ... for our property together. You take her with you."

"Oh, Maphias," I responded, saddened by his thoughtfulness and enthusiasm to bestow this gift on me and my friend. "I couldn't. You bought her for us ... and then I turned you away. I couldn't possibly take her."

"You can, and you will. Come with me," he was eager to show me this prize he'd found and tugged me to the barn. I stepped inside with him and he led me to the large box stall on the end that had been empty this morning.

Had I had a loose tooth, I would have swallowed it with my intake of breath. Before me stood Argo, or her twin sister, it mattered not which. The warhorse I'd trained and loved in my other life stood before me now in this one. She was younger than she'd ever been when I owned her, rolling her eyes in panic at the noise and fuss we were making. She was not the steadfast mount I'd turned her into but I'd done it once before and I could do it again.

She stood roughly sixteen hands high barefoot, holding her head high as spooky horses often do. She was probably two or barely three.

"She's beautiful," I said.

He nodded.

"Does she have a name?"

"No," Maphias grabbed a halter and stepped into the stall with her, slipping the garment over the filly's golden ears. He swiped at her bright white forelock, clearing it from her unmarked face and rolling brown eyes. I wanted to kiss Maphias right then and there but figured it would be counter-productive to the goal of the evening.

He led the filly out, ignoring her when her unshod hooves scattered on the hard packed dirt in the aisle. She spun restlessly around him at the end of the lead line, muscles sliding under glimmering golden coat, the torch by the barn door sending flames dancing along her hide.

My heart ached with the familiarity of her. "Argo," I said deliberately.

Maphias shrugged. "Good name as any."

"I will give you everything I own for her," I swore to my once betrothed, meeting his shadowed eyes. He was proud of his acquisition and it shone in his face as well as his stance.

"Nonsense," he scoffed gently. "She's worthless to me. Green and high spirited. You're the horsewoman around here. She was meant for you."

I smiled at the truth of his statement. Argo and Gabrielle were meant to be with me. I was a complete person with them both.

"She won't be carrying you anytime soon. I don't think she's even broken to a pack. But I couldn't pass her up, she so reminded me of you."

"I'll owe you forever," I said gently.

He laughed, pleased that his gift had inspired me so. "Enough to marry me?"

My heart deflated for a moment. I'd not thought Maphias the bribing type but a man's heart should never be played. I turned to him a bit crestfallen until I saw the humor in his eyes. I would have easily turned down Argo for Gabrielle ... sorry, old mare. But it was the truth.

"I'm teasing you, Xena," he whispered gently. "She's all yours. No strings attached. For you and Gabrielle in hopes of safe journeys."

XXXXX

I almost tripped over the rug in our room I burst in so quickly. My entrance startled Gabrielle and she rose to her feet to stand with her back against the wall. She already had a staff in her hand and I smiled at her readiness despite my preoccupation.

I grabbed her in a huge hug, squeezing her body tightly to mine, laughing and crying all at once. Though she didn't understand my actions, she found them infectious and laughed along with me.

"Tell me, tell me!" she said at last when I'd put her back on her feet and met her eager emerald eyes with my own searching blue.

"In my dreams, I told you about the horse ... in our travels?"

"Yes, yes," she nodded anxiously. She recalled easily all of my dreams and stories and sometimes repeated them back to me in our night embraces. She hung on every one and revered them as if they were of the gods.

"Maphias brought her to me. To us. As a gift for our leaving."

"Argo? Is here?" she asked incredulously.

I laughed, hugged her again, so overflowing with the joy that the two most important souls were back with me. "Not the Argo of my dreams but a young Argo. I can train her and she'll carry us wherever we want to go. Both of us."

"Maphias did this?" she inquired with raised eyebrows. "Does he know you're leaving him ... did you tell him?"

"Yes, I did. But he'd already bought her for me and gave her to me anyway. He understands. He does, he won't interfere. Three more days, Gabrielle, and you, Argo, and I will be gone."

My happiness knew no bounds as I tugged the young blonde out of our room and down the stairs to introduce her to Argo. This Gabrielle was no more fond of my mount than the previous Gabrielle and it made me laugh all the harder.

"She's awfully tall," Gabrielle said softly. "Don't they come in a shorter variety?"

I hugged her from behind, frightening the filly, startling the former slave. "Come with me to the clearing," I said softly, already pulling her to the door. "I'm too excited to sleep."

She ran her fingers fondly through my long dark hair, smiling at my good fortune though unable to share in my unbridled enthusiasm.

The energy thrummed through my body with the bard in my arms and the moon over our heads. I held her tightly to me, rocking our bodies back and forth, loving the warmth of her back against my chest and the scent of her sweet long hair. She relaxed into me, stroking my arms with gentle fingertips. "Just like my dreams," I murmured into her ear.

"But better because it's real," she offered gently.

The words caught me by surprise and guiltily reminded me of the life I'd left behind to reverse my warlord ways and bring my young brother back to life. But this life was okay, too. With Lyceus alive, the bard in my arms, and Argo as my mount, I'd be all right. But I would never wish my previous life with my other Gabrielle away.

"Yeah," I said softly, hugging her, kissing her ear and her cheek. She laughed at my affectionate playing, having grown accustomed to my touches and my bold emotions.

"I've never been happier in my life, Xena," she said after many long moments of absorbing each other. "I know I don't speak about my feelings much ... I'm sorry," she twisted in my embrace to pin me with a solemn emerald gaze. "I love you. There's nowhere in all of Greece I'd rather be."

I smiled fondly at her, knowing the strength it took to say that. It was a strength I'd not possessed before and they were words my beloved Gabrielle had never heard. I relished their offering and hugged her more tightly. "I feel the same," I assured her.

XXXXX

My last three days in Amphipolis were busy ones. I spent my mornings and evenings working sword drills with Gabrielle. I'd commissioned the blacksmith to make her armor, and the tanner to make her leathers. If she was going to be forced to protect us, I'd be damned sure to protect her as much as I could.

The sword we'd purchased for her wasn't as fine as I would have liked but I would find something better for her later. It was hard to balance her short stature and wanting strength with a serviceable blade. As she grew stronger and more skilled, we'd be able to get her something heavier and longer.

She responded well to the training, eager as always to please me. I drilled with a staff, poking her when she left openings, blocking her thrusts with little effort. It would be a long time before she would be able to get past my defenses though she improved with each session. She was stubborn and determined and I loved that about her.

It was during these sessions, while instructing her and parrying with her, that I evaluated the words of the Fates. Their instructions were that I should never spill blood in anger. Did that preclude hunting? Was it okay to nick Gabrielle while drilling since I could never feel anger or hatred towards the fair young woman?

I dreaded the moments where I did spill blood, once on Lyceus because I'd pushed open the kitchen door and he'd been standing behind it. It smacked him squarely in his face and bloodied his nose. And even as I held a cloth to him and apologized, I wondered if I would be transported away from this life I was building. But I wasn't. Apparently accidents were okay. I wanted it all written down on parchment for my reference but of course that was impossible. Never in my life had I been forced to evaluate my every move and consider all my options in the day. It was a good mind drill for me but became tiresome quickly.

I spent my days working with Argo in the small arena built specifically for this purpose. I wouldn't have this facility on our travels and needed to get as much done as possible.

The first afternoon, Gabrielle leaned on the split rail fence and watched me. I let Argo run wildly around the small ring while I stood in the middle observing her. She wore only a halter and reared and stomped and spun with the zealousness of a child, which she still was. I regretted I'd have to take that freedom from her for our travels. A horse her age should be able to run through a pasture and buck and kick.

Argo was oblivious to me for several long minutes, and I let her be. She flew around the ring with young abandon before slowing and beginning to snuffle the dirt at her feet. She rolled, rose and shook, tossed her head, then she looked at me as if seeing me for the first time and snorted.

"Are you ready?" I asked her gently. She licked her nose with a thick pink tongue signifying her compliance and I smiled at her. "Step up, mare," I said softly, waving an arm at her and directing her to the rail.

We worked for nearly two hours the first time, she learning to watch me for changes in direction and pace, I learning how far I could push her and what she'd respond to. I sacked her out with a pack saddle, letting her carry it around the ring and get the bucks out of her, then we drilled some more until she accepted it as a second skin. Her first lessons finished, I rubbed her down all over, my large tanned hands contrasting with her golden hide. I picked up each foot, tapped the hoof, rubbed her ears, pulled her tail, then opened the gate and turned her into the pasture. Instead of running away like she would have short hours ago, she walked a few steps before turning to look at me with deep brown eyes. We'd connected and she was mine.

"Go on," I told her. "Run and play." She tossed her head and trotted across the pasture to the other young horses.

Gabrielle met me as I climbed through the rails and she watched me with questioning eyes which bordered on reverence. "Don't look at me like that," I chided her gently, not wanting her hero worship in this life or any other. "Didn't that bore you?"

She shook her head, blonde hair dancing around her shoulders. "She understood you. You knew how to talk to her."

I shrugged, it was a skill I'd had since childhood. In my teenage years I'd worked problem horses for friends and neighbors. Argo was far from a problem horse.

"Argo and I are lucky that you dreamt of us," she smiled, weaving her arm through mine as we headed back to the inn together. "You have the gentlest soul."

I grinned at her, leaned over to touch my cheek to her golden hair. "I'm the lucky one to have found you both."

By the time we left Amphipolis, I'd ridden Argo twice, getting her used to the shifting weight only a rider can introduce. She'd held the thick snaffle bit in her mouth and had responded to my gentle tugs. I'd also had her pull around shafts dragging on the ground in case she'd need to pull a litter or supplies to assist us in our travels. She accepted everything readily and honored me with her service.

Gabrielle and I drilled in Amphipolis for the last time that night, me easily blocking her advances though they were admittedly stronger even in the few short days we'd been working on sword handling. She practiced in her armor and leathers for the first time, making faces at me due to the awkwardness of it, repeatedly shrugging her shoulders to settle the cumbersome weight. I grinned at her and she poked out her tongue.

"You would make a better warrior," she teased. "I would make a better bard." Over the last week she'd come to call me a bard because of my stories and dreams. I let her, though I knew the true nature of our relationship.

I smiled at her, shook my head. "You'll be fine, we'll work together."

"I would never ask you to do something you don't want," she said sincerely, sheathing the sword in the scabbard at her back. The motion appeared almost natural to her. "You won't ever have to kill, I promise you that. I admire that about you."

I hugged her suddenly, startling at the feel of armor and scabbard and not the soft skin and the scratching cloth I was used to.

That night, wrapped in each other's arms, sharing this bed for the last time, I told her about Gabrielle's death from an arrow wound and how I'd begged her back to life. This Gabrielle held me tightly and could feel the affect it had on me through the tremors in my body. I remembered holding my other Gabrielle, telling her I couldn't live without her and how badly I'd needed her. She'd come back to me for no better reason than I'd asked.

I'd known at that moment that our destinies were together. I wondered vaguely if that other life continued, if it was like a parallel existence with that Gabrielle and Xena living alongside this Gabrielle and Xena. But the thoughts were too deep for me and the warm scent of my bed mate too distracting so I gave up on that line of thought and snuggled the young blonde tightly against the length of my body. Finding sleep in the comfort of my childhood bed for the last time.

XXXXX

Goodbyes having been said, we hit the road just after daybreak. I held Argo's leadline and she danced restlessly at the end of it like the adolescent she was. She tossed her head and snorted enough that Gabrielle refused to walk anywhere near her. It hadn't helped that the filly had stomped one shod hoof on the young blonde's boot, bruising her toes but not causing any serious damage. The act itself, though, reminded me to teach my young four legged charge a little more about personal space and wayward limbs.

So Argo trod on one side, Gabrielle on the other. We walked in silence which was odd to me since this was so reminiscent of my other life. Only that Gabrielle would have laughed and skipped and told stories and teased me to no end. This Gabrielle was calmly walking beside me, dressed in her leathers and armor, her expression pensive but relaxed. Occasionally she would reach out and run her fingertips along my forearm, making the dark hairs there stand on end. She was very needy of my closeness and it gave her comfort during her moments of panic to know I was nearby.

Though the young blonde had come far through our moon long stay in Amphipolis, she still had an internal journey to travel. I could walk beside her, hold her in her times of need, but for that journey I was merely a sidekick and she the leader. I could not force her to take roads she wasn't ready to traverse. She was still an ex-slave: beaten, battered, and raped for years. The road back would take more than several weeks of relaxation and growth and my hugs at night.

The journey we began that day was one wrought more of personal quests than plain wanderlust. But together we were ready and it was a relief to my new non-warlord soul to be out of the confines of small buildings and villages. I felt better here with my horse and my young partner, out to travel the world.

The first night's camp was a strange sensation for me. Though I knew this Gabrielle infinitely better than the young Gabrielle who'd followed me from Amphipolis that first time, so much of her was reminiscent of that young woman. I had to show her which wood was best to burn, where to find good tinder, how to prepare a fire ring. She was eager to learn, almost too eager as if she'd reverted to her slave persona and feared her mistakes would cause either her own physical harm or me to walk away.

Finally, frustrated with herself at her lack of outdoor skills, I saw the rage building and tossed her one of the staves we'd tied to Argo's pack. She tilted her head at me, blinking back tears, and I gave her my best smile reserved only for her.

"All of you," I said softly, reminding her of my dedication and love for her regardless of anger and temper. She nodded and followed me to a more open space near where we'd tethered Argo.

Crossing staves she was silent for the first time during one of our drills. Usually she argued or vented or shouted her anger. Tonight, she cracked my staff hard, ruthlessly trying different angles and strikes, letting tears roll unchecked down her cheeks.

I marveled at how well I understood this Gabrielle. She carried my anger and hatred, my resented past. But she held it all on young bard shoulders and, though she was reluctant to reveal her inner self even to me, the bard part of her could not keep it all inside. Each tear reflected that pain and self hatred, each angry swipe was a hit at herself. I merely held on for the ride: striking and counter striking, nodding approval at her good moves, murmuring encouragement.

We continued until I saw the anger disappear and the tears dry up. The hits became less vengeful and more tactical as she tried to find my weaknesses and work on her strengths. I worried briefly that her anger and fear would prevent her from reaching this point in a battle against anyone but me. I tucked that away in the back of my mind to think about and concentrate on during tomorrow's trek.

Finally, when I felt she was relieved of her rage, I began the hits that signaled the end of our drill. I watched her acknowledge them and accept them. Sometimes, when she wasn't ready, she'd deny my pattern and interrupt it with a strike that restarted the fight. This time she countered precisely: across left, across right, block overhead, block at knees, strike front, block hip, cross at chest so we were inches apart.

She nodded to me and grinned. I did the same and dropped my staff. "You did good," I offered her, always sure to praise her hard work and her new skills.

"Best teacher," she responded easily, the tension gone from her. "Now teach me how to ready the camp."

I smiled at the peace offering and accepted it easily. She was ready to try some more.

I hunted that night with great trepidation, worried that killing a rabbit would end this world. It didn't. I skinned it easily and cut up the meat for Gabrielle to cook. She enjoyed cooking and excelled at it, wanting to prepare something pleasurable for both of us. I watched her cut vegetables and add herbs to the soup she prepared. The campfire reflected orange off her golden highlights. Though this Gabrielle's face was more wrinkled in concentration and tightened in worry, her features would always be beautiful to me in any life. I reminded myself to tell her that more often. No secrets, not anymore. She would always know her importance to me.

Gentle green eyes met me as I watched her, causing me to grin and her to return it. "Soon as the rabbit's ready, we can eat," she offered, retreating from the fire to sit beside me on a log.

"Are you glad we left?" I asked her.

She nodded, looking up to the stars through our canopy of trees. "I feel closer to you out here, like you know even the smallest workings of my mind."

I smiled. "I do know the smallest workings of your mind," I teased her gently. "Right now you're wondering how I could know such things about you."

She laughed, shoved at me playfully. This Gabrielle had no fear of me or my quick and deadly reactions. She touched me and played with me freely. "That was easy. What am I thinking now?"

"You're thinking 'what could I think of that she could never guess.'"

She laughed again, wrapping me easily in an embrace and placing a kiss on my cheek. "I never laughed before you."

"Neither did I," I told her. It was a true statement for my other world, maybe not so true in this one but I knew she wouldn't dissect my response. It was enough for her to understand the sentiment behind the words.

We snuggled into our bedroll later in the night, surrounding ourselves with warm furs. She wrapped herself around my limbs rather like the weaving of a basket and I welcomed the entanglement, not knowing how to sleep without it anymore. Once situated, she tilted her head against my shoulder and stared at the stars with me. Her eyes looked almost clear in the moonlight and I felt an incredible urge to kiss the lips that pursed with concentration. The feeling was not new in this life though I'd never experienced that desire with my other Gabrielle. The confusion of these thoughts enabled me to fight down the urge rather easily and tuck it away for further consideration later. Much later.

"Let's play a game," I whispered as a means of distraction.

"What kind of game?" she asked instantly. She'd grown to love what she considered my creative nature of games and stories and weaving of dreams. Little did she know I was merely bouncing her own ideas back to her.

"See those stars up there? To me they look like they form a horse head. If you connect the dots with lines. See?" I illustrated by moving my finger in the air above our heads.

"A horse head?" she sounded shocked by such a revelation. "No, no. It's a dog paw. See it there?" And thus the game began and we murmured late in the night, wrapped up in the warmth of each other.

XXXXX

Continued...Part 2