The Long Road From China
Part 2

By: Gershwhen


Summary - Picks up directly from the end of "The Debt" (I-II) and follows Xena and Gabrielle as they deal with the after-effects of the adventure and prepare for an unusual journey home.

The standard disclaimer: The characters of Xena and Gabrielle belong in their entirety to Universal and Renaissance, and to their writers and whoever else owns the property. No copyright infringement is intended, and this is all in fun and/or angst. The other characters in the story originated from my somewhat bored and workweek fried brain, and are not taken from any literary source or any other source whatsoever.

Violence Warning: This is Xena so there will be violence. She is, after all, not Marge Simpson, but she's not Atilla the Hun either (at least not any more). I'd give to a PG.

Spoilers: Makes direct reference to this season's The Debt (Parts I - II). Proceed at your own risk… heh, heh, heh…

Subtext: Its there, you don't have to look for it, you'll find it anyway. If you can't deal with it, mouse clicks back are cheap and I'll give you your first four for free.

This is my first try at this stuff...feel free to let me know if you liked it or disliked it...mail back at:

The walk back to the city proceeded quickly and without incident. Walking into the outer perimeter of the main square, Xena noticed the villagers had not really stirred out of their homes yet. It was still quite early and most of the shops and stands were still shuttered.

Aiming their path toward the castle, Xena steered them toward the front entrance. She was determined to avoid the thrown room that she had completely destroyed yesterday morning. She hadn't told Gabrielle what had happened to Ming Tien and she didn't want the issue brought up now.

Arriving at the main gate, Xena pushed on the door and was surprised as it folded inward without issue. Putting her hand back to stall Gabrielle, Xena peered into the entry courtyard. The lack of guards put Xena's nerves on alert, but she nodded and the women proceeded into the space.

Carefully picking their way through the rubble, they moved toward the front door as Xena's eyes continued to scan for problems.

"Don't you think its odd that we haven't seen anyone yet, Xena ?" Gabrielle asked. "I mean, I know you defeated Ming Tien's guards yesterday, but he'd still need security, wouldn't he ?"

The warrior eyed the bard with concern, but refused to lie in her answer. "There are any number of reasons why we haven't been attacked yet. That is what you're really asking isn't it ?"

At the bard's nod, Xena continued. "The guards could be in another section of the castle; they may have moved," she flashed a smile. "They may be afraid of us."

They moved from the courtyard and in through the front door.

"Alright, Gabrielle, where did you stay ? Let's get your things and get over to the ship."

The smaller woman started to move toward the main staircase as a slight movement caught Xena's gaze. She grabbed Gabrielle's arm and signaled for the bard to stay put. With a single leap, she vaulted across the foyer and pulled open a small door under the stairway. A small, wizened figure cowered before her.

Pulling him out by the front of his robes, Xena addressed him. " What do you want, are you watching us for someone ?"

The man began to shake and spoke quickly in his native tongue. "Please, I don't want to hurt you. Please do not hurt me. I am an old man. I mean you no harm."

Xena let go of the front of his robe and answered the man in his own language. "What are you doing here ? I wouldn't think this would be the place for anyone this morning."

The man smiled at her and replied, "It is much safer here this morning than it has been for many suns before. The torturers have all gone. Without their leader they were lost. We knew you would return today and I was honored to wait for you. Will you claim the castle of Ming Tien ? "

Xena's eyebrow rose with the question. "No," she replied, "I was asked to make The Green Dragon small again. I have done that. I have no desire to take over the kingdoms of Tien or Lau. I am returning to my home with the tide."

The man eyed her with interest. "We had hoped that you would stay. Lau Ma spoke greatly of you. She said that her husband thought you had great potential. You have his 'Book of Wisdom' to add to your own. You would do the next prince great credit."

By now, Gabrielle had ascertained that there would be no danger and wandered over to see what the conversation was about and why Xena was suddenly rolling her eyes. She kept looking back from the man to Xena with interest. Finally, she interrupted to ask for translation.

Xena grimaced down at her and said "I'll explain on the boat. Why don't you start for the room where your things are stored ? Our friend here says that the castle is pretty much empty at the moment. I'll be right behind you."

Xena turned back to the old man, " I appreciate that you think I would be a credit to the next conqueror, but I have responsibilities at home. As soon as my friend gets her things, we'll be off."

The man smiled at her, "Ah, yes a home. You'll have much to do, I'm sure. But I have a gift for you to take with you on your return. It is a gift from the people of Lau and will serve as a reminder of the beauty of our homeland. As Lau said, even in the dark, there can be beauty. You need to see the dark to understand and reflect the light."

Xena looked a the man, her face masking the surprise that she felt at his words. There could be no beauty in the darkness she felt here. Of that she was sure. She longed for light and goodness, being so close to the dark these past few days had taken its toll. She decided it wasn't worth arguing about.

The man pulled a small silk wrapped package from the folds of his tunic and handed it over to the warrior. Xena took the package with a word of thanks and stuffed it into her satchel to be reviewed later. Her greater concern right now was her friend that was wandering around in the upper level of the building. She turned to follow Gabrielle.

Xena was halfway up the stairs as the bard came out of a passageway and moved back toward her travelling companion. Gabrielle held the Amazon staff in her hand and had draped her travelling cloak over her arm. She was just swinging her satchel up over her shoulder as her eyes caught Xena ascending the stairs.

"I have everything, it was all where I left it," Gabrielle stated as she looked down the stairs at her travelling partner. Her smile started to grow and the green eyes twinkled with thought.

"You know I don't get this view too often," the storyteller stated.

"What view ? Of a castle in ruin ?" Xena replied surveying the foyer with a disdainful eye.

"No," the bard bared her teeth in a grin. "The view of the top of your head. Its kind of nice not to be the one who's looking up."

A roll of the eyes was Xena's only response to the comment. She turned around and started to head back down the stairs.

Morning activity in the village picked up as the duo made their way to the docks. Gabrielle was refreshing her mind with the pressure point theory of avoiding sea sickness as they walked closer to the ship.

Xena strode forward and made her way to the gangway, with Gabrielle in close pursuit. A few whistles could be heard against the wind as the sailors got a look at the two new travelers. An icy blue stare met each set of challenging eyes and the seamen quickly found that they had very important work elsewhere that required their immediate attention.

A rather tall man looked over from his perch leaning against the aft railing and approached the two women. Gabrielle looked at him in some interest. He was definitely a cut above the man that had captained the ship and brought her to this place. She shivered involuntarily as the thought of that voyage threatened to spill over into her mind. That was something to be dealt with later and not at this moment. Her eyes pulled back to the man as he addressed Xena.

The man stood a couple of fingers taller than Xena and carried significantly more weight. He wasn't fat, Gabrielle decided, but he looked decidedly solid… Yes that was it… solid. Like a big tree. Or, her bardic tendencies coming to the fore, maybe like the mast on this ship. Tall, straight and dependable. Somehow, she decided, I like him.

Her eyes were pulled in by his face. It was quite ruddy and carried the marks of sea spray and wind. He didn't look old, but he looked like he had seen a great deal of life on the seas. His hair curled around his head in brown spirals and a rough beard carried the same color down over his face. His eyes kept moving, taking in all the activity around them. The color kept changing from deep brown to fawn as he saw things that met with his approval or that required a command to set straight. Xena made a comment to him and the brown pools became alight with gold as his eyes sparkled with interest.

Gabrielle was somewhat surprised at his clothing. He wore simple breeches with a tunic and vest. However, they were in remarkably good repair. It was Gabrielle's experience that men (especially when in the company of other men) tended to let their appearance go wild if not pressed to change. His neatness did not quite fit with her version of what she thought the captain of a trading ship would find important.

"Ididarus, this is my friend Gabrielle. Gabrielle, this is the captain of this vessel, Ididarus." Xena's words pulled Gabrielle up the plank and onto the deck. Gabrielle extended her hand to the burly man and said hello.

"I explained to your friend here that were not equipped for passengers," Ididarus began. "But she indicated that you wouldn't mind camping in with our goods. Food and drink have been paid for with your passage. And it just may be that an extra hand to fight would come in handy."

Xena's gaze darkened at the last comment and she looked up at him waiting for an explanation.

"There are raiders on the seas, just as on land. My ships are know to carry a good crew who can fight to protect our cargo. It doesn't mean that no one will try to challenge us. But, we had to get that reputation from action, not story. It is possible no one will believe that we'll cause more trouble than the cargo is worth." Ididarus looked at Xena with meaning in his eyes and waited for a response.

"Most reputations are based on truth, I'll grant you that." Xena sighed. "Hopefully, no one's capabilities will be tested on this trip." She paused a moment and then continued. "We'd better store our stuff below and get settled while you set sail. Do you have a preference as to which cargo hold you want us to take ?"

In answer, Ididarus let out a long loud whistle and turned toward the hatch to the area below deck. A pair of long fingers pulled a very lanky frame up the stairway and into the hatch opening. Gabrielle looked to see a pair of hazel eyes staring at the captain in anticipation.

"Too early for lunch Capt'n Rus and I know you'll not be wantin' your drink yet. So what can I get you ?" The owner of the voice looked to the captain for direction as Gabrielle apprised the speaker. The child, for that's all she could think to describe him, couldn't have been more than ten or eleven. He was standing there in a pair of oversized pants that were tied around a linen shirt with a leather belt that was bigger than the width of Gabrielle's wrist. It only served to enhance the look of fragility in the boy. He hadn't filled out yet, but Gabrielle could see arm muscles well defined under the work shirt. Dark hair was cut short around his head in a motley fashion. Although he was clean, he looked as though whoever cut his hair and fashioned his clothes did not complete the task with a steady hand.

Ididarus pointed to Xena and Gabrielle. "These warriors will be sailing with us. Get them settled in the spice hold. Tell 'em the meal times and let 'em know how the crew runs. They can best avoid most problems by avoiding the crew's time off. If they need anything, you see to it. Okay,
Talus ?"

Talus looked over at Xena and Gabrielle in some surprise and then shrugged. "Sure Capt'n, whatever you say." Turning his eyes to the new passengers, he motioned to the stairs. "Come this way and I'll get you settled."

The two followed Talus down the stairs and through a passageway to the last room on the left.

"Capt'n Rus will be putting you here cause its right next to his room and the furthest from the crew quarters. The men sleep down the first passageway to the right. The galley, such as it is, is the first entrance to the left. Hot meals are at sunrise and sunset. There's a cold lunch that's offered when the sun is directly overhead. I'd suggest that you eat the morning mean here. It gets a little busy as the ship awakens and you'll not get run over in your hold. I'll bring in what you need."

The briefing continued, "There's usually ale at dinner. You'll want to eat and leave. The crew are kept in control by the Capt'n, but its best not to push your luck. It can get a little wild."

"I know you'll want to be up on deck - it helps with the sickness. You need to stay aft and to the bridge sections. The will keep you out of the crew's way." Talus eyed Xena's sword, "Although I guess if there's trouble you'd be able to hold your own."

Xena stared at Talus with a curious gaze and said nothing. Talus finished the list of items of instruction that were usually given to the new crewman. Darting a final glance at Xena, Talus closed the door to the hold and left.

Gabrielle, quirked a partial grin at the warrior. "Do you need to stare daggers at everyone we
meet ? You're usually better with children than that. What is it about him that bothers you ?"
She really was surprised, as Xena tended to be very gentle with children. Since Gabrielle had found out Solon, she attributed the kindness to Xena's hidden motherly instincts. This treatment of the cabin boy was really out of character.

Xena eyed her friend for a moment and then decided to keep her concerns to herself at this point. "There's something funny about Talus and I'm just trying to get a finger on it. I don't think he presents a danger to us, but we're not getting the whole story here."

Gabrielle's smile turned to a look of concern as she said, "You don't think he's being held here as a slave do you ? He's young, but he doesn't look frightened."

Xena shook her head, "No, not a slave. Ididarus has a pretty good reputation as a trader. He wouldn't use slave help. Plus, Talus' term of endearment of 'Capt'n Rus' doesn't indicate fear. No its just…" She trailed off. "Never mind, lets get everything settled."

They spent the next several hours moving cargo around to accommodate a makeshift set of sleeping quarters and a small sitting area. Xena moved several boxes to create a desk and sitting area for Gabrielle's use. The strong smell of spices permeated the hold as sacks of tea, dried flowers, herbs and seeds were shuffled about. Gabrielle looked up in surprise at the writing area and smiled her thanks to Xena. The warrior's consideration of her needs never ceased to amaze the bard. She had much to write about and looked forward to taking some time on the journey to do it.

Gabrielle settled on large sack of grain and stared off into the light streaming in the small window carved into the side of the hold. Her silence surprised Xena, as she thought once they were quartered, the bard would begin one of her stories. Glancing over, Xena saw a vacant look on Gabrielle's face that showed the bard had turned her thoughts inward. Sighing the warrior settled into her place, pulled out her sword and began to sharpen it.

Quiet held the hold for sometime as the final preparations for departure took place above. Finally, Xena felt the gentle sway of the ship as it pulled out of the harbor and headed onto the open seas. She glanced surreptitiously over at Gabrielle who had interrupted her thinking long enough to begin the pressure point treatment to alleviate seasickness.

Gently smiling, the warrior finally broke the silence. "Dinar…" she quirked an eyebrow at Gabrielle.

"I don't know that my thoughts are worth that much at this point," the bard replied. "I was just thinking of all of the major impacts that boat journeys have had on my life. Its amazing how one type of travel can have such an affect outside of just delivering you to a destination."

Xena looked at her in question, "I don't see what you mean. You've only had a couple of journeys. Although they certainly turned out be the start of adventures, I'm not sure I understand the profound impact you're placing on them."

She waited while the bard collected her thoughts.

"Well," Gabrielle began, "The ship ride to meet Bodaceia in Britannia truly began the 'relationship' with the cult of Dayhock." She paused as come of the color drained from her face. "The impact of that certainly was lasting. I committed murder, got pregnant and had a child all in the course of a little more than one moon's cycle." A slight shudder shook the bards shoulders and she took a deep breath to continue. She looked up just as Xena reseated herself closer and set a warm hand on Gabrielle's arm.

Xena looked at the bard in concern and her eyes betrayed a hint of the deep concern that she felt for the storyteller during that period. "I know she thinks of that thing as her child. We've never talked about the loss. I know how difficult it was to leave Solon. I can't imagine how difficult it would be to deal with his death. Let alone to know that I killed him."

Xena's thoughts paused for a second, while the terror of truly losing her child to the Elysian Fields came upon her. She shoved the thought down with a great heave. "No, Solon is fine. Solon is safe. 'Hope' as Gabrielle called her is not the same thing as the Solon."

"But," Xena continued to muse, "Gabrielle does have to grieve in her own time, in her own way. For the other things that she lost. And for the experience of dealing with Dayhock's offspring."

Xena offered a silent vote of thanks to anyone listening that it was not her sword that was responsible for the child's death. She could still remember Gabrielle's words about not coming between her and her baby. "Another potential break avoided and here we are. I wonder how many more chances I'll get…," her thoughts drifted back to the petite woman in front of her.

Gabrielle slowed her voice and the thoughts behind her adventures at sea. She was watching the myriad of emotions fly through Xena's eyes. Gabrielle continued to be amazed that the warrior could maintain a completely stoic expression and yet everything she was thinking could be reflected in her eyes.

"You just have to know what to look for," she inwardly smiled at the thought. "Or maybe, you just have to want to look at her eyes to begin with. They could be so piercing that it could be frightening. And yet, if you got the chance to look closer you could see so much more." Another inward sigh. "And the color is so beautiful, the way it can change from the color of a summer's sky to the most threatening shade of midnight."

She shook herself on that idea, " Oh, Gabrielle, you must get off that subject. Its way to close in here and those thoughts are way to close to the surface. Back to the ships and the seas."

Gabrielle regained her voice and began anew as she struggled to pull both Xena and herself back to the original conversation.

"Our time with the Mariner certainly taught me a few things and it showed me quite a few more." Gabrielle cut short that line of thought. What is showed was something she couldn't discuss with Xena. " And, " she continued aloud, "My trip on the boat to the land of Chin allowed me to catch up on some scrollwork and do some thinking. It certainly delivered me to another set of experiences."

"So," Gabrielle summed, "Ships seem to play a big part in my destiny."

Realizing the bard was cutting the conversation short, Xena stood up. She couldn't completely hide the look of hurt in her eyes as she recognized that Gabrielle was locking her out of these particular thoughts. "Well," she thought, "The voyage will be long. Maybe, she'll come around to really talking with me again if we work on it. But not right now. I'm still too tired to push this with the care I know it will take."

Aloud, Xena stated, "Speaking of ships, I'd like to see this one under sail. I'm going up top for a while. Okay ?"

The bard nodded and returned to her contemplation of the window. Gabrielle had seen the hurt in the warriors eyes and knew that it came from her dropping the thread of the conversation.

"Oh, Xena," she thought, "This is one area I can't talk with you about. How do I tell you what I've learned most on these trips is how much you mean to me ? She thought back to the moment when she had been stranded on that cursed ship, doomed forever to sail with that party of lost souls.

A rainbow of emotions had overtaken her. Each one strong and individual and yet blending into the next. First the fear had been so great. She wasn't sure that anyone had made it to shore. Then the fear had been replaced by dread as she realized what standing on the deck of this particular ship meant. Never to see Xena again: not her family; not her scrolls; not her friends. It was the loss of her best friend that had come into her mind as the priority.

The dread was replaced by relief as she saw the familiar figure running down the edge of land on the island. Relief washed into joy as she saw Xena was safe and unharmed. She would survive this, just as Xena survived all of the other horrors she'd experienced. No little ocean was going to stop her !

The joy, however, was replaced with dizzying speed by confusion as she saw the warrior continuing to run and her eyes caught the chakram slice through the heavy sail.

The emotions were now churning as quickly as the water around her. Shock, at the sight of the warrior airborne and heading for the ship. Pride, at the stunned looks of the other passengers as they realized why the warrior was propelling to the ship. Happiness, that they were in this together. Happiness that she hadn't just lost the most important thing in her whole world.

And finally, guilt. Guilt washed over the happiness. Her friend was not going to leave her on this ship alone. That it might mean they were stuck here forever, but they were stuck here together. And as much as she wanted guilt to be the only emotion, the repercussions of the happiness stayed with her. Xena had come for her again. And she would not let go of that thought. It was selfish but she held onto the concept like a rope and tied it tightly around her heart.

Xena had given up her quest for redemption to join the plain girl from Poteidaia that had followed her around like a lost puppy. Xena had chosen Gabrielle over the rest of the world. Even if it was a choice she might regret one day, she had chosen. And for that Gabrielle offered thanks to the Gods and to Xena.

Gabrielle smiled as she pulled herself back into the present. She stretched and realized that although not completely alleviated, the seasickness was being kept at a minimum. Gabrielle started to move toward the hatch. Fresh air always helped and she could use some now.

The bard climbed up the stairs to the main deck and stopped to allow her eyes to adjust to the light. Once adjusted, she allowed them to travel around and review the proceedings. The crewmen were busy at various jobs. Xena was on the upper deck leaning across the railing watching as the captain directed the ship. Deciding that she didn't really want conversation, Gabrielle proceeded over to one of the railings and chose a place to stand that was out of the way of the activity.

The bard stood there for some time before she heard a stern voice interrupt her thoughts.

"May I help you with something ?" The icy cold comment came from her left and Gabrielle turned to see Xena standing about two strides behind her and staring with the look of death at someone. Gabrielle continued her turn and leaned her back up against the railing as her eyes caught the object of Xena's anger.

The tall man in front of Gabrielle made no effort to move, but turned his head to Xena. He said in a calm voice, "No actually, I just wanted to talk to Gabrielle for a moment. And I don't need your help with that."

The warrior's eyes turned a shade darker and she seriously considered just throwing the man overboard right here. She took a menacing step forward and saw Gabrielle lift up a hand to stop her.

"Its alright Xena, I know him. Tiberius, this is my friend Xena. Xena this is Tiberius. He was on the crew of the ship I sailed over on." The bard explained in haste, before the nice clean decks could be covered in blood, or worse.

The warrior relaxed her position somewhat, but made no move to step back. She nodded her head, "Tiberius, if you were on another ship in these lands, why sail with Ididarus back to
Greece ?"

Tiberius appraised the warrior with a quick eye and inwardly smiled. "Boy the lioness sure is protective of her cub." Then he sobered, "Given the voyage over, maybe its not unfounded."

Tiberius returned his gaze to Gabrielle and answered, "As you know the voyage over was not the most pleasant for any of the crew, or passengers for that matter. I decided to wait for a better position to return home. Ididarus needed a new navigator, so here I am."

Xena raised an eyebrow at the implied understanding of the difficulties of the journey to the land of Chin. Gabrielle had not spoken about that journey and apparently more had gone on there than the warrior had considered.

Setting that aside for later discussion, Xena again spoke to the crewman. "So if you're working on this ship, why aren't you working now ? Or is that why the last voyage was difficult ? Slackers are not handled well at sea."

This time, Tiberius turned his whole body to face the warrior. He realized she wouldn't give up until she thought the girl was safe and understood his intentions. And he noted, she was quite imposing and would be down right scary if he didn't remember several of the stories that Gabrielle had told on the previous voyage. Someone who had done half the things the storyteller had attributed to this warrior was not about to slaughter in haste.

"The captain will follow the shore line for most of the next several days. I'm not needed during the daylight. My skills will be needed at night to keep us on course until light returns and we can be directed again by sight."

"I can see the shore." Pause. "You can see the shore." Pause "The captain can see the shore. So no navigation is required."

He gave Xena a genuine smile and continued, "Look, I'm not a murdering rapist. I don't intend to throw your friend overboard. I just want to talk to her. If she tells me to go away, I'll leave."

"Now a ship is considered 'broken' without its navigator," Tiberius continued. "You don't want that. I don't want to be the ship's broken navigator, I'm sure it would be really painful. So, I talk to Gabrielle and you promise not to kill me. Deal ?"

Xena quirked an eyebrow at the man and inwardly acknowledged amusement at his nerve. She shifted her eyes to Gabrielle in a question. At the bard's nod, Xena moved down the railing a few paces. Far enough to be politely out of earshot (or so she hoped they'd think) but quick enough to intervene if necessary. She painted a bored expression on her face and waited.

Forgetting about the warrior's razor sharp hearing, Gabrielle giggled to the seaman. "You know that was really risky. She could have stabbed you before you gotten through with your little speech. You shouldn't take chances like that, especially with her."

Tiberius shook his head. "Oh, I don't know. The stories you told didn't indicate a hateful, twitchy killer. She was just concerned for your safety. Besides, if she attacked me, you would have jumped in to save me. Just like you did before."

It was Gabrielle's turn to raise an eyebrow. "Save you ? You're the one who tried to save me, remember ?"

"I'm not the one who beaned him with the staff and almost knocked him overboard, Gabrielle."

"Yes, but I was only able to do that because you pulled him off me," she reminded Tiberius.

"Yea, then he was choking me and I was getting ready to pass out and die. You stopped that part. Look, we're not going to agree on who was the hero back there, let's just be glad it ended the way it did." This last comment with a bright smile from the sailor.

Down the railing, Xena's bored look was still in place. However, her insides were roiling. Someone had attacked Gabrielle and she hadn't been there to stop it. Gabrielle had been on that ship as a way to try to save Xena.

"She was put in danger because of me", the thought pounded on her conscience. "Again." The pain at the incident knotted hard in her stomach but she pulled her attention back to the couple standing several paces away.

Knowing the danger to Gabrielle had been eliminated, the warrior realized that she shouldn't be listening in on the talk. However, there was a part of her that couldn't let go. She saw the warm regard the bard had for the sailor and realized that she might be witnessing something she really would not want to see. She didn't move.

Tiberius, looked at Gabrielle for a moment and then started in on the real subject of his thoughts.

"When I heard that a pretty red-headed woman with a staff came on board I knew it must be you. I wanted to thank you for our last conversation. You were gone so quickly once we docked, I never got the chance."

Gabrielle glanced at him and then turned her eyes back out to see. "I had pressing things to do. I am sorry I didn't get the chance to say goodbye."

Tiberius placed a gentle hand on the bard's arm and continued. "All the talking we did on the voyage, you gave me a lot to think about. I think it helped me to make a decision. But I have to ask you. Did you really mean what you said ?"

Xena steeled herself for what was to come. Mentally gripping herself for the answer, she waited.

"Yes, I did," Gabrielle replied. " I meant it with all my heart. Tiberius, loving someone is the greatest gift you can be given. You need to act on that love in the best way possible. Whether offering friendship, offering your heart or offering your whole being, you need to share the gift with the person you feel that way about. I'm not sure about much in life. But I am sure of that." She smiled up at him.

His eyes moved out to the waves and he was silent for a moment. "Gabrielle, it looks like things turned out for you okay in this strange land. You found your friend." He glanced at her and she nodded over at him with a curious look at the change in subject.

"Did the nightmares go away ?" he asked.

Her face flashed in surprise as her eyes returned to the sea. "What nightmares ? Tiberius, I don't know what you're talking about."

He heaved a big sigh. "Look, during my nightly navigation you appeared on deck several candlemarks after the moon had risen high. That first night, you looked absolutely terrified as you came up on deck for air. Then you offered to tell me a story and keep me company. Your voice was shaking and took a while to calm. It didn't take a God to figure out what was happening. Especially when it happened every night after that. I was hoping you were better after finding your friend. Or should I expect some entertaining company tonight, half way between moonrise and sunrise ?"

Xena griped the railing of this ship with this revelation. The conversation wasn't going in quite the direction that she had anticipated. "Thank the Gods for that, " she invisibly sighed in relief. But she realized that Gabrielle was having a lot more trouble with things than she was letting on. This presented a new (abet easier) set of problems to deal with. And it was going to take some planning to handle them correctly without the bard feeling the warrior part of Xena was coming on in total overprotection mode.

Gabrielle, meanwhile, stood staring out to sea for so long a time that Tiberius (and Xena) thought she wouldn't offer an answer. Finally, she cleared her throat and replied. "I don't know. We're going to have to see. Hopefully, my storytelling will be limited to daylight. I do appreciate your concern, but I can't help but think that there is something else driving this conversation."

She now turned and looked directly at the seaman, who rolled his eyes at her insight.

"Gabrielle, look you weren't real specific in our conversations. But I'll ask straight out, even though I think I know the answer. Have you ever been married ?"

He had his answer as he saw the color drain from her cheeks before she voiced the word "Yes."

"And you loved him with all you heart and soul ?" Tiberius continued.

A single tear slid down her cheek as she replied, "No."

Startled, he turned to her. "I don't understand, you said…"

"I married to be responsible. I had gone my own way and was happy. But there were responsibilities in my family, promises that were made long ago. I couldn't shirk my duties any longer. I cared about my husband, but he was not the great love of my life. " She stopped and took a deep breath to calm her racing heart. She knew this needed to be said aloud, it had been needed for such a long time. But oh, it still hurt to say it.

"He died because of me. I wasn't strong enough to make the choice a I really wanted and to follow my heart. I gave in to my family, I gave in to him and I gave into a fear that had been in my heart for quite sometime. In the end my lack of strength gave him over to death and caused quite a few people a great deal of pain. If I hadn't married him, he'd still be alive today. And maybe he would have found someone to share his love with, someone to love him as much as he needed. But that someone could never have been me."

"There," Gabrielle thought. "I said it. I got it out in a cowardly way, but I got it out. And I know damn well she heard it." Smiling a little at her thought, she tried to pin point exactly when she realized that Xena could hear every word. It was at the 'nightmare' comment and Xena's fingers gripping the railing. It was only a slight change, but the bard had seen it out of the corner of her eye and realized.

"Now, Tiberius, I can finally see where all of this is leading. Your fishing for confirmation about offering your love to someone who you see as beyond you. You keep telling me you're not worthy of her. But I'll tell you what. I don't think we ever feel worthy of the love of the people we truly care about. We see them in the best possible light and realize that gift of love that they give us is greater than our understanding."

She stopped to gather breath and continued, " I don't mean we see them as less than whole, in real love we take the good and the bad. We see the whole person. But I think the strengths and goodness of our loved ones overpower the flaws."

Gabrielle placed a hand on his arm, " You remember the night you told me that you left Elthina because you decided it was best for her ? And then I got so mad ?"

Tiberius nodded with some embarrassment at the anger he had brought out in the bard.

"I've been there Tiberius. I had people make decisions for me for my own good. And you know what ? I'm not usually grateful. Part of being a person is making your own choices. You can't do that when people take away the options before you know that they exist."

Her hand gripped his arm a little more tightly. "You don't even know how Elthina will feel about you. You decided without ever giving her a chance. She never got to love you, never got to decide for herself if loving you was right for her. Or worse, she did love you and you took the option to tell you and act upon that love with you when you left."

She let her hand drop from his arm. And returned her gaze to the seas. "Let her choose Tiberius. I promise, if she's half the girl you say she is, she'll choose what's best for her. And you know what ?" She turned and looked directly at Xena. "You might just be surprised at the answer."

Gabrielle looked back to Tiberius and smiled. "I'm going down below. I brought some things to work on and our evening meal will be ready soon."

"Gabrielle, thanks for the talk. I appreciate your view and your honesty. I will go home and I will take my chances. I think I knew that the night I last talked with you. Now, I'm sure. I want my choices to be my own. I have to allow Elthina the same."

He smiled and then grabbed her hand quickly. Tiberius drew it to his lips and brushed a quick kiss across the knuckles. "Thank you," he breathed. He then straightened and moved off.

Gabrielle moved toward the hatch and disappeared down the ladder.

Xena sat standing at the railing. Slowly unflexing her hands from the railing, she idly noticed several cracks in the thick planking where she had been holding on. She took a couple of deep breaths and performed a series of quick exercises to loosen her taught frame. She stretched her back to remove the kinks of tension and then made her way to the hatch, following in the footsteps of the bard.

Xena arrived in 'their' cargo hold to find Gabrielle sitting in much the way she had left her several hours before. Clearing her throat, she entered the room.

Gabrielle looked up with a slight blush on her cheeks and was just about to say something when she saw a small figure appear behind Xena. The warrior turned as Talus came up behind her.

"Dinners on in the galley and Capt'n Rus says your to come now." She turned without waiting for an answer and disappeared back down the aisle.

"Gabrielle ? I think we need to talk a little. Tiberius indicated that the journey here was not exactly easy and I'd like to know what happened." There, Xena thought, we'll start with the easy stuff and move onto the harder.

An understanding appeared in the bards gaze as she nodded to her companion. "We can talk about it later. But for now, I think we both need to eat."

Xena proceeded Gabrielle into the galley. Collecting bowls of hot fish stew, chunks of bread and cups of ale, they sat down on a bench next to the captain and a majority of the day crew. Gabrielle noted with amusement that Xena chose a bench next to the wall of the galley that afforded her a full view of the room.

"Everything ok in the spice hold, Xena ?" Captain Ididarus asked. Several heads swiveled in the direction of the voice at the mention of the warrior's name.

"Just fine, Captain." Xena put on one of her fierce warrior looks and eyed the staring crewmen. She was glad for the distraction as the captain's ploy was somewhat transparent and his implied warning to the crew amused her.

"There's plenty or room, I just have to make sure my sword doesn't pierce any of your sacks during practice," she stated with a slight smirk.

The captain nodded and continued "Maybe, you'd be better off practicing up on deck. There is plenty of room and there will be no danger to the cargo."

Xena eyed the man and was about to answer when Tiberius sat down to join the trio at the table.

"Evening, Captain. Looks like the clouds are moving out. We should have clear sailing tonight." He nodded to the two women. "Are we going to get a story or two after dinner, Gabrielle ?"

The captain raised a curious eyebrow at his navigator. "A story ?"

Xena was about to answer him, when Tiberius cut her off. "Gabrielle is a bard Captain, and quite a fine one at that. She kept us entertained on the voyage over."

Xena watched as Talus refilled their ale with a look of derision. She remembered the warning of retiring to the cargo hold as soon as dinner was completed. Talus took one last look at Gabrielle, shook a head and moved onto the next table.

The captain was silent for a moment and then looked at the two women. "I'd be much obliged if you offered a story this evening. It would help to entertain and pass the time."

Gabrielle looked over at Xena and raised an eyebrow.

"Its up to you Gabrielle, if you feel up to it fine. If not, feel free to decline."

"You wouldn't mind Xena ?"

Her question carried several meanings, none of which were lost on her leather clad companion. "No Gabrielle, I wouldn't mind at all." She gave the bard a wide grin and unspoken permission to tell her 'Xena' stories or any others of her choosing. Their discussions could wait and showing the bard was more than a pretty face might save trouble with interested men later.

The meal finished with chatter about various things and the warrior kept an eye on the room. She noted the unrestrained staring of Talus and the easy camaraderie of the crewmen.

Xena leaned back against the hold wall, braced one long leg up on the table support and watched Gabrielle rise and sit up on the table to face the men. The bard took a look around the room and started to open her mouth.

Tiberius raised his voice to her, "Hey tell us a story about the sea, Gabrielle. That'll be a good way to start." His voice got the attention of the men and introduced the activities of the bard. She smiled down at him in thanks and scanned the room.

"Did you know that the God of the Sea, Poseidon, has been beaten by a mortal ?" She paused, "More than once ?" And she was off. Xena observed the men as they quieted and were pulled into the bard's tail. Gabrielle's face shown with the excitement and love of the of her art. Xena thought, not for the first time, that Gabrielle was at her most beautiful when she was telling her stories.

Poseidon gave way to other tales. Xena was grateful that some of them were actually not about her. Gabrielle talked of Hercules, told a couple of old Greek legends and finally a offered tale of the Amazons to finish the night up. Xena noted that Talus had completed cleaning up the room and perched on the end of the bench next to Ididarus. The youngster was pulled into the enchantment of the room and looked absolutely enthralled during the story of the Amazons.

The bard smiled her good nights to the crew and moved to exit the galley, with Xena following right behind.

"Gabrielle, I know we have a great deal to talk about, but after talking for the last several candlemarks, do you want to continue tonight or start tomorrow ?" Xena eyed the bard with some concern as neither had completely recovered from their adventure at the palace and they both still needed rest.

The storyteller, smiled back at her friend, "You need to have more salve put on your neck and wrists. Why don't we talk while I tend to those ?"

The warrior raised an eyebrow at the concern of the bard, Xena's wounds were healing quickly and the need for medical attention was questionable.

Gabrielle pulled the necessary items out of the medical pack and began to make a paste of the herbs.

"About what happened up on deck, Xena, I'm not sure where to start." Gabrielle began to gently rub the salve on the warrior's wrist as she took a deep breath.

Xena looked down at the top of Gabrielle's head as she applied the medicine. "You could start by telling me what happened on the last journey and what happened to the man who tried to rape you." The warrior replied.

Gabrielle's hands stopped for a moment and then Xena heard the bard begin to whisper. "It wasn't really all that bad. Once you left me and got on that ship, I realized I couldn't let you go to murder the Green Dragon without trying to stop you or warn him. I asked around and found out another ship was leaving the next morning for the same trade route. I had to hope that a smaller ship would be faster and that I would arrive at the palace in time."

Gabrielle began to minister to the other wrist and continued. "I didn't have the fare for passage, so I offered my services to the captain as a second cook and bard. I'd work during the day and then offer my stories at night. He didn't want to take the offer at first, but I convinced him it would make the journey go faster to have me along. Anyway, after much talking, he finally agreed."

The bard glanced up to Xena and offered a crooked smile. Xena, having been on the end of several of Gabrielle's sales pitches, smiled in recognition. The bard could be quite persuasive when she tried.

Gabrielle continued, "Anyway, one afternoon I went up on deck to bring the captain a drink and on the way back below deck, one of the crew grabbed me. He knocked the staff from my hand and pushed me back on the deck. Tiberius came to assist me and that was the end of it."

Gabrielle gentle placed her hands on top of Xena's and began to pry Xena's fingers out of the clenched fists that her hands had taken. "Xena its all right. I'm all right. Really."

The bard looked up at her friend and saw the anger in her eyes. She watched as Xena tried to control her temper and asked through gritted teeth, "What happened to the sailor Gabrielle ?"

Gabrielle shrugged at her friend. The captain yelled at him and he was put back on duty. You know and have told me, they don't carry extra crew on these ships and every man was needed. He didn't come near me again and I always kept my staff handy. I appreciate your anger on my behalf, but I really am fine."

The warrior took several cleansing breaths and finally tamped down her anger with great effort. She knew the bard had told a very abbridged version of the story and wondered if there was more damage than was let on. She decided to let it go. "I'm glad you're okay Gabrielle. I just wish you hadn't had to go through it at all."

The bard picked up more salve and moved to stand behind Xena and tend her neck. "It was my choice Xena and I won't be sorry I made the effort to find you. I can be sorry for a lot of things that happened at the palace, but I won't be sorry for trying to go to you." She paused. "You know you really are remarkable, this gash is almost healed. By tomorrow, you won't need anymore medicine."

"Comes in handy in my line of work," Xena replied. Taking a deep breath, the leather clad woman asked, "Gabrielle, are you sorry about any of the other choices that you have made in our travels ?"

Gabrielle's hands stopped the application of the salve and the hold was quiet. The ship's creaking seemed to echo in the silence. Gabrielle squared her shoulders and stepped in front of her friend. She settled down across from the warrior and looked her directly in the eye.

"Xena, there are a great many things that I regret doing in the last three summers. But none of the regrets have to do with you or my choice to travel with you. This is where I want to be. I've made my choice and I'm happy with it."

The open look on the warrior's face surprised Gabrielle. She could see so much in Xena. Gabrielle took one of the long tanned hands in her own and looked back to Xena's eyes.

"Gabrielle, I thought about you a great deal on the trip to Tien. When I was walking through that chamber to kill Ming Tien I thought back to how much of an impact your friendship has had in my life. I had the debt to pay, but I wasn't sure losing you was worth that price. I've lost you before, I don't want to go through that again. At the same time, I don't want anyone or anything to hurt you, especially not me."

Gabrielle turned Xena's hand over in her own and held on tightly. "Xena, as long as I'm allowed to make my own choices you won't hurt me. You're worried about disappointing me or endangering me. None of those pains could begin to equal what I feel at the thought of losing you. You are what is most important to me, and I need you to believe that."

The bard brushed the hair along Xena's face with her free hand. "Now, I think we both need some rest. You still are recovering from your experience at the palace and I need to rest my throat." Gabrielle ran her fingers along Xena's jaw line, lightly squeezed the leather clad shoulder and dropped her hand.

"Now how about I help you get out of that armor and we'll both get some rest ?"

Xena nodded a yes to the bard and allowed her a full smile that extended up to the bright blue eyes. Gabrielle assisted in removing the armor, laid it out carefully and then laid down on her makeshift bed.

Xena leaned over and snuffed out the lamp. "Sleep well my bard," she whispered and then crawled on to her pallet.

Gabrielle's eyes flew open at the comment. "MY bard," she thought to herself. "I must have heard her wrong. She wouldn't offer that term of endearment to me."

And yet Gabrielle knew what she'd heard. Those four words pulled themselves around the storyteller's heard like a warm blanket. She cuddled into the depths of the feeling and soon was asleep.

Xena heard the gasp of surprise and waited for a comment. She listened as the bard controlled her response and finally heard the breathing even out to signal sleep. Xena reached out and brushed a quick caress across Gabrielle's placid countenance and then allowed herself the same luxury and drifted into her second night of a peaceful sleep.

Continued in Part 3

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