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Disclaimers/thoughts: Xena, Gabrielle, Argo, etc. are (c)copyright MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. Absolutely no Copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fiction.

 

I believe in the theory we all deserve second chances. The story starts at the end of Xena's Conqueror days, and before she meets Gabrielle. She saves the life of a mother and an unborn child, for no gain of her own. In doing so, she is killed. Xena is given a second chance to make up for all the evil she has done, but, the important thing is: The Arch Angel Michael has given Xena 3 life times to find her way. Why three lifetimes? Because Xena asked for that long. This is where the real story comes into play.

 

SEX: Oh yeah! This story shows consensual love/sex between two adult females. Consider yourself warned if you find that kind of thing offensive.

 

I would like to thank Sam for her marvelous editing skills and LJ for her words of wisdom. <G>

 

I borrowed this from LJ...It sounded good to me<G>

FEEDBACK: Tell me if you liked it or not. Email: doria_donner@yahoo.com

The feedback I'm looking for is mostly about the characters and the storyline in general...does the story hold your interest...any problems you have with the story in general...the characters?

 

 

 

 

Her journey had ended, but the Conqueror felt neither joy nor relief. Futility hung upon her like a cloak of lead.

 

Far had she traveled, and for many years.

 

But all she had achieved was to return from whence she began.

 

Uneasiness slithered down her spine, as she came upon the village. Ten years had passed. Amphipolis appeared little changed, as if it were spellbound, awaiting its enchanted lord's return.

 

Tethering her horse, Xena, Lord Conqueror of Greece, gave a bitter smile. Amphipolis might well have been spellbound, but she was far from enchanted.

 

Cursed, some called her.

 

Xena eluded the moonlight's silvery grasp, as it crept across the road. Not a sound did she make. Not even the air stirred about her, as she blended into the shadows of the sleeping village. Only a owl, perched on a tree branch, marked her presence with eyes that glimmered an eerie golden.

 

Xena wandered further into the village. A second look revealed changes, which, at first, she missed. Few were heartening. The thatch of some cottage roofs sagged. Shutters hung askew on others. A few of the cottages even looked deserted, and the livestock, Xena scowled. Where was the livestock? Most villages kept a sheep or perhaps a goat. There should be oxen dozing in the broken-down stable, sheep bedded in their pens. She found a few ragged beasts, but they were but a shadow of what had once existed.

 

What evils had Amphipolis suffered?

 

She knew the answers, could see it all...warlords terrorizing the defenseless village, and the warrior who never returned.

 

I am a warrior. Let me prove myself.

 

Her own words from long ago haunted Xena. What sort of person had she proven herself to be?

 

"Look in the mirror, fool."

 

Well, the warrior had returned, after all. Xena snorted, as she trod on. Though how many would hail her return with joy, she dared not speculate, and what of when the villagers beheld what had become of her? A chill crept down her spine.

 

She would cross that bridge when she came to it.

 

A light, glowing from around a bend in the road, brought Xena to a halt. The cabin there seemed unusual, standing so apart from the rest, and so close to the forest.

 

Though the moon had not yet risen to mark the midnight hour, it was still late for these folk who rose with the dawn. Who could be about?

 

Considering that ten years had passed since she was last in the village, Xena was not surprised when she could think of no answer. Curious, she took a path through the trees so as to peer unobtrusively into the yard.

 

A girl sat upon a bench near the door, one leg curled under her. The bare foot of her other leg tapped in time to the tune she hummed. Xena watched as she drew her fingers through her hair. In the firelight from within the cabin, the silky mass that tumbled over her shoulders, to her lap, shimmered like gold.

 

She was beautiful. The gown she wore shrouded any hint of her form, but as she lifted her arms to bind her hair with a leather string, the gown tightened. Only for an instant, but it was long enough to lock Xena's breath within her throat.

 

Merciful Gods, she was perfection, and pregnant. Gods above! Xena scowled. What sort of beast was she, ogling a pregnant woman from the shadows?

 

Too late, Xena stepped on a twig and it snapped.

 

Gabrielle of Potidaea turned toward the cabin door, her attention caught by a stirring within. She heard the sound again, and turned away with a smile. Just a log crumbling into the fireplace.

 

Thank the Gods, her husband would return tomorrow with her parents. Bandits had destroyed Potidaea. Nothing was left but burnt crumpled buildings. What was left of the town folk were moving to Amphipolis. Safety in numbers, the leaders had said.

 

This was her favorite hour. With the cool breeze whispering to her, and the scent of summer blossoms in the air, she could forget her cares and dream the dreams any girl of sixteen might have.

 

Not that her dreams were so grand. A shepherd's daughter must have simple wishes, if she expected them to come true. But sometimes, it was nice to let her thoughts ramble far into . . .

 

The sudden rustling of leaves did not alarm her. Night was the time for woodland creatures to roam. But no animal uttered the muffled curse that followed. Her heart pounding within her breast, Gabrielle gazed into the woods, but not a shadow out of place did she see. Another crackle, like a footfall on twigs breaking, made a icy finger into her belly.

 

"Who goes there?"

 

Silence reigned for a heartbeat; then, from within the darkness, she heard, "I wish you no harm."

 

"Come out, whoever you are," Gripping the staff laying beside her bench, Gabrielle staggered to her feet. "Come into the light."

 

The staff felt reassuring under her hand. Gabrielle clung to the security it offered. Her gaze locked beyond a branch that slowly rose. A figure ducked under it.

 

The woman who straightened in the shadows at the edge of the trees was tall and lean, clad in a black cloak. Weapons glimmered in the moonlight.

 

"Who are you?" she demanded.

 

"One who found that her road led here."

 

Her voice, low and a bit rough, sent a shiver down the small woman's spine. Not quite from fear, Gabrielle decided, but caution, kept her hand firm upon the staff.

 

"We see few travelers in these parts." Even fewer who braved the roads at night. "Where are you bound?"

 

"I am a warrior, bound wherever the wind may blow me."

 

Gabrielle knew of wondering warriors, and her heart chilled anew. Amphipolis was in dread of bandits. Often what the warlords did not steal, they destroyed. Crops, livestock. Sometimes even people. Aye, Gabrielle knew of warriors. With a gasp, she tighter her grasp on the staff.

 

"I mean you no harm," the woman said, and lifted her hand to prove her honesty. "Not to you or any who mean no harm to me."

 

Strange, but Gabrielle believed her. Or did she just want to?

 

"You have traveled far?"

 

"Very far."

 

"You have no home?"

 

"Not yet."

 

"Have you a name?"

 

"I have," but she did not speak it. Instead, her hooded head tilted. "Have you?"

 

"I have," the blonde replied sharply. Two could play at her game.

 

The silence stretched. Then Gabrielle heard the woman's low chuckle and her own lips curved.

 

"You're in Amphipolis," she told the warrior.

 

"I passed through the village. What happened here?"

 

Gabrielle nipped her lower lip. "A clever warlord seeking revenge upon the Conqueror of Greece."

 

"Do you know which warlord?"

 

"No, There are many." The small woman stated. Gabrielle watched in awe as a storm began building in the warrior's sky blue eyes.

 

"I leave you in peace." Stated the warrior. As she turned, Gabrielle saw her shoulders slump, as if they bore immense burden, and her heart clenched within her breast. If hard times had befallen her village, at least she had a village to call home and at least she had more than a road leading to no welcome.

 

"Wait," she called softly. The woman hesitated, turned back. "Wait, please? Just a moment?"

 

Gabrielle darted into the cabin. Holding a cloth by the corners to make a small sack, she opened the larder and filled it. Relief warmed her belly when she found the woman still lingering at the edge of the forest, though the sensation puzzled her. She shook it off and started towards the warrior.

 

"Come no closer."

 

Her command cracked like a whip, and the small woman backed away, like a wild creature fearful of human nearness. Gabrielle stumbled to a halt, her heart skipping a beat.

 

"You can take this after I am within. You've my word I'll not spy upon you." Never taking her gaze from the woman, Gabrielle laid the bundle on the ground and, backing away, gave her a tentative smile. "May your wanderings lead you home."

 

***

 

The morning sun had just crossed the tops of the trees, beaming down with relentless persistence upon the crowd gathered around the Inn. A gusty wind did its bit in making what was left of Xena of Amphipolis' last minutes on earth miserable, by blowing sand into her eyes and against her cheeks, stinging her already bruised and battered face with a rude reminder that sensations would soon be a thing of the past.

 

Xena stumbled and fell to her knees under a torrent of blows. Nearly blinded by her own blood, she fought excruciating pain and the ingrained warrior acceptance of her own fate.

 

This is how it ends, she thought. I'm dying.

 

Black clouds of smoke and ash swirled across her field of reason. Another object slammed into her head. She continued to struggle, but the heart had gone out of her.

 

There is no shame in dying an honorable death, the stoic voice in her brain intoned. A warrior death, a death that people will talk of on long winter nights.

 

"Please, you can't kill her," a woman sobbed, and cradled her belly, swollen to near-bursting with an overdue baby. She threw herself between the angry crowd and the man holding the whip. "She saved my life."

 

"Get back, Gabrielle," a man shouted from the side of the fallen warrior. "She's killed thousands of innocent people. Just because she saved you, doesn't change the fact of her past crimes."

 

Xena cursed and squinted her eyes. It was a hell of a day to die, but she'd been heading toward this for most of her life, and she knew it. Somewhere around the age of fifteen, she'd taken a step in the wrong direction, and there'd been no one in her life who'd cared to call her back.

 

The woman called Gabrielle screamed, as two men pulled her out of the way.

 

Xena stood and stared at the woman who'd uselessly pleaded her cause, and still could not believe she'd done what she had. One minute she'd been riding into town, and the next thing she knew, she found herself leaping from the horse and throwing herself onto the ground, using her body as a shield between the pregnant woman and the pounding hooves of the horses ridden by the warlord and his army. She sighed and swallowed another curse. Why the hell couldn't the small woman have been home having the child?

 

"Xena of Amphipolis ....do you have anything to say for yourself?" a man asked.

 

She grinned and shrugged as she looked at the sobbing woman. "Whatever you do lady...don't name the child after me."

 

In spite of her dusty, blood stained clothing; the smile transformed her face. Her beautiful grin made the small woman sob even harder.

 

Wrenching free of the man beside Gabrielle, she dashed forward, falling to her knees. Pressing a shaking hand on Xena's leg, she felt the jerky tremble of long thigh muscles under stress. "May we meet in another time," she whispered.

 

And in that moment Xena felt one small ounce of her guilt lifted and delivered. She winked.

 

With a last mighty surge of strength, she heaved herself forward amid the howling blood-thirst of the mob. Her wrist bonds snapped, and she seized a sword from the hands of the nearest guard and cut his head off with his own weapon.

 

Xena had little time to gloat. There were still more screaming for her blood. With a shout of triumph, she waded into them.

 

The element of surprise gave her the precious seconds it took to regain her reason. She sprang forward, blocking the descent of a spear shaft, elbowing the youth wielding it, and twisting left to jab another warrior in the pit of his stomach.

 

Strike. Twist. Duck. Swing. Xena moved on with the vengeance of a Greek hero, oblivious to the beating she was taking.

 

The circle around Xena tightened. Villagers and a few warriors drew closer. Each time, Xena parried the blows. Steel clashed against steal as she fought. Xena defending. She grunted with the force of each impact. Her arm tired under the onslaught, but in the blood lust, the crowd showed no sign of backing off.

 

She knew she was beaten. But she had still won. The crowd would cut her down, but she had saved Gabrielle and her baby.

 

A form hurtled from the shadows. Blazing light revealed a blade just before it jutted through the small of Xena's back, taking her to the ground.

 

It all seemed to happen so slowly. Mere moments took an eternity to pass. A woman kicked her over onto her back, while a man's sword lifted one last time. It glinted in the sunlight, aimed for her heart.

 

Then there was nothing but darkness.

 

The sobbing woman was escorted back to her cabin, where she fell into bed and promptly gave birth, to a beautiful blue-eyed girl named Xena; as suddenly and painfully as Xena of Amphipolis had died.

 

Then there was nothing but silence.

 

***

 

A loud roar filled Xena's ears. Fire swept across her face, and the smell of death scalded the insides of her nostrils and burned her eyelids. Confusion was uppermost within her heat-fogged brain as she tried to decipher the words being screamed at her in a virulent tone.

 

"YOU WERE MINE!"

 

The air around Xena reverberated from the sound of the voice. She inhaled, then wished she hadn't, as the steam once again scalded her throat and lungs. She stood her ground, unable to move from the spot on which she'd landed.

 

"Right up until the last, your soul was mine! And then what did you do? You ruined it! It might have been excusable if it had only been the woman . . . but no! You had to go and save a baby! An unborn one, at that! An INNOCENT! They still belong to Him!"

 

The hiss that accompanied the accusations sucked the air from Xena's body. She began to get the message. The voice screamed and spat, shouting obscenities Xena had never imagined, as she absorbed the implications of her situations.

 

I've done it now! I've gone and made Hades mad! This is too damned scary, even for me. From the way he's spitting and cussing, it seems I don't even belong in Tartarus.

 

The voice seemed to filter through the skin over her bones, insidious by its very nature, imbuing her with a sensation of scorched flesh and degradation. Yet, she saw nothing but the constant swirling clouds of fire and steam. If she hadn't been so stunned, she might have laughed. It seemed she was doomed to mess up, even in death.

 

"Get out! Get out!" the voice screamed, and Xena's body quivered from the onslaught of sound. "You don't belong here. There's nothing I hate worse than a sanctimonious warrior!"

 

Before Xena could blink, the fire, the smoke, even the voice, had disappeared, and she felt herself being tossed aside, as if she were so much garbage. It was as if she were left hanging in a vacuum where no one and nothing existed. . . except herself.

 

What now! She thought, and with the thought came the voice.

 

"Xena."

 

The voice was solace, after sin. Grace after a lifetime of gratuitous living, and Xena shivered.

 

"I never thought we'd be having this conversation," Michael said softly.

 

Xena shivered. Neither had she.

 

"You surprised me, my daughter," Michael said. "You were one that I thought I'd lost. But right at the last moment, when it actually counted, you did something right."

 

If an immovable force hadn't been holding her up, Xena would already have fallen. She'd endured more than a human could bear, and yet she was being forced to stand and listen again to her sins and the lack of compassion with which she'd lived her life.

 

"However, that in itself is not enough for all your transgressions to be forgiven," he continued. "Remember, it wasn't you who begged for mercy on your soul. . . it was the woman."

 

Xena's head dropped, her chin nearly touching her chest.

 

This is it, she thought. I'm about to get the shaft here, too.

 

"No, Xena. I don't give shafts . . . only second chances."

 

Xena's head jerked up, her nostrils flaring as she inhaled, and her mind absorbed the clear, pure sound of Michael's laughter. She almost smiled.

 

As badly as Xena wanted to, she could not speak. All she could do was stand and listen to her fate being handed out.

 

"This is my command!" Michael said, his voice deepening with a powerful force as the sentence He had decided to impose was made clear to Xena. "You will go back. Soul intact, flesh and bones. To the human eye, you will seem as all women. But heed me, Xena!"

 

Xena's body shook, and she blinked rapidly as a blinding light sent her to her knees.

 

"If you can learn what it truly takes to get to Heaven, then you will be granted entrance and eternal life."

 

Dear Gods. . .it will take three lifetimes to undo the damage I've done, Xena thought.

 

"So be it!" Michael commanded. "Then you shall have three lifetimes. Two hundred and forty more years on earth to right your wrongs, but . . .when we send you back to earth, it will be the year 1760. Remember heed my warning!"

***

Xena could not see, only hear, and feel, as the air around her body vibrated once again. Yet this time it was as if the motion came from a multitude of wings . . . as if all the angels in Heaven had suddenly surrounded her, and struck her blind as Michael continued.

 

"Stray from my path . . .ignore the way of the greater good . . .and you will be lost in Limbo, stranded between Heaven and Hell for all eternity with nothing but your conscience for company."

 

Suddenly all was silent. Xena tried to stand, and then she felt herself being hurtled backward.

 

***

 

Chapter 1

 

Seattle, Washington. . .Day of Our Lord 2000 AD

 

It was hard to tell where the rider began and the machine ended. From the toes of her worn black boots to the shade visor of her helmet, she was dressed in unrelieved black. Black leather gloves covered even her hands, as the motorcycle and its rider wove their way through the heavy weekend traffic on I-5 on the south side of Seattle.

 

The rider in black, suddenly shot into the far, right-hand lane and geared down to take the next exit, which would lead to Seattle University. The biker leaned into the turn, and as the rider did, she caught a glimpse of the altercation, taking place in the visitor parking.

 

The frown on the rider's face was hidden behind the smoke-tinted visor of the helmet, but the biker didn't like what she saw. Without taking her focus from the road before her, she accelerated through a small gap in traffic and shot across all lanes, coming to a sliding halt a few feet behind the gathering crowd.

 

The woman's hair was the first thing she noticed. It shimmered like gold. Because of the business at hand, she ignored the faint, but enticing legs and a slender, but shapely body beneath the light blue suit the small woman was wearing.

 

The biker yanked off her helmet and hung it on the handlebar of her bike as she dismounted. Her legs were long and heavily muscled. The lower half of her body was covered in supple black leather, ending with dusty black boots.

 

She was rock-hard and a deep-to-the-muscle brown from countless years and endless miles on the road. As her fingers threaded through her midnight hair, she lightly massaged her scalp along the places where the helmet had ridden, then let the shaggy black length of her hair fall where it would.

 

Above her waist, she wore a sleeveless tee shirt with a leather vest laced loosely across her taut belly; she pulled sunglasses from her bike pack and slid them on. It was intentional that their mirrored surface hid much of what she was, while allowing her to see more of what was before the rider. She'd heard it said that the eyes were the mirror of the soul, and Xena was real careful of who she let look inside the woman that she'd become.

 

***

 

Gabrielle was nervous. And because of that, she was also mad as hell. She, a grown woman of twenty-six, had let these teenage boys get her almost surrounded. Granted, there were more than a few. And also granted, in this day and time, few boys of that age were the innocents that their parents would like to believe, but the gang of boys preventing her from leaving the parking lot was daunting and as the number in the gang had grown, so had their daring. They were in control, and she knew it. Because of that, she was afraid.

 

"Sweet little thing," one drawled, and Gabrielle recoiled from the grasp of his grubby hand. "Ever seen such hair, Thomas?"

 

Thomas bared his yellow teeth in a grin. "Pure gold. I wager. And look at those green eyes."

 

Several of the others laughed and hitched at their jeans, swaggering in thought, if not in deed, at the idea of taking this pretty lady down a notch or two, of showing her what real men were all about.

 

Her heart pounding, Gabrielle scrambled away from the gang, only to come against another boy. He snatched at her arm, tearing her jacket. "This University is looking better. Come on Gabrielle, be nice and we'll not keep you long."

 

"Or hurt you bad." A fourth boy closed the circle.

 

"Just let me pass, Thomas," Gabrielle said, trying again, as she had for the past ten minutes, to get to her car on the other side of the lot.

 

"Been a while since I had anything sweet as you beneath me." Another boy said, grabbing at her arm. His chuckle sent a gust of sour breath into Gabrielle's face, and she grimaced.

 

Thomas stepped forward; his dark eyes seemed a reflection of his inner self, wild, and out of control. And as he moved, the other teenage boys moved with him, as if joined at the hip, their dilated pupils and jerky, foot-shuffling movements a sure bet that they were riding high on more than adrenaline.

 

Enough! Gabrielle swung her backpack and clouted the man beside her in the head. The blow staggered him. The blonde leaped over his sprawled body, but not fast enough. Thomas snagged her hair. Pain brought tears, stinging into her eyes. Rage kindled the spirit of battle in her heart. She raked her nails down his face and, not satisfied with his yowl, brought her knee up, hard. He sank to the ground, hands clutching his groin.

 

Gabrielle cried out as clawing fingers scraped the side of her neck and caught her jacket. Gabrielle whirled, all scratching nails, pounding fits and bared teeth, to the attack.

 

"Little whore." He tore her jacket and blouse from her shoulders, locking her arms behind her back. "I'll teach you, I will.

 

Gabrielle heard the blow more than felt it, a sickening thunk of his fist against her jaw. The fall knocked the wind out of her, her head spun, and for a moment, she lay still, face down on the ground wondering what had just happened. The tang of blood strong upon her tongue, she dug her fingers into the gravel and dirt. Thomas flipped her over roughly, straddling her; his boyish looks twisted with lust. She caught the sickening chemical order of cocaine emanating from his pores.

 

"You think you're so damned smart, so much better than the rest of us, so innocent and untouchable." Thomas gripped the front of her shirt, slapped her once, twice. The blonde sent the whole mess of dirt and gravel flying into his face. Howling, he jumped off. Her head spinning. Gabrielle's heart skipped a beat. She straightened very slowly, her mouth dry with terror as she took of running.

 

"After her, you idiots!" one of them shouted. "Don't let her get away."

 

Bile seared the back of her throat, but Gabrielle forced it down. She ran as hard as she could toward her car. The rush of water roared in her ears. Or was that the hammering of her heart?

 

She looked back and saw one of them leap for her. A shrill cry burst from her lips, as she hit the ground hard.

 

The rest of the gang came to an abrupt halt. All their cocky assurance slipped away as they looked up and over her fallen body.

 

Xena was one of those people who grinned when she was irked. When she was really pissed, the grin widened. She was smiling from ear to ear.

 

"Is there a problem here?" she asked the small woman who had staggered to a standing position.

 

Xena's fingers skimmed down the side of the smaller woman's face in a long caress her hand coming to rest lightly at the edge of the small woman's shoulder. Though the small squeeze she gave was as much a question as what she had asked, Gabrielle knew the second the tall woman had touched her, that she could trust her.

 

In answer to the stranger's question, she nodded. She had problems indeed.

 

It was instinctive, an urge born of relief, she knew, but Gabrielle felt a sudden need to turn and bury her face against what she sensed was a big, strong body and forget everything but the safety she knew she would find there.

 

Thomas was one bad dude. All you had to do was ask anybody on the south side of the city. They would tell you stories you wouldn't believe. He had his hands in a little bit of everything rotten that went on in the area and still managed to stay one step ahead of the law.

 

"Back off!" Xena snarled, and even Gabrielle jumped at the tone of the voice.

 

She didn't say where, she didn't say when, but the look on her face made four of the boys at the edge of the gang take several steps backward in nervous reflex.

 

"Move, now," Xena said in a softer, more menacing tone of voice. When they held their ground, she swiftly put herself between the woman they called Gabrielle and the gang.

 

Her fingers curled into fists and her stomach muscles tightened against the possibility of oncoming blows.

 

As Xena slid past her, she caught sight of a wild dangerous smile, and then all she had left was a very solid view of the woman's back.

 

Gabrielle should have been scared out of her wits, yet she'd never felt so protected in her entire life.

 

Thomas' skin crawled as he looked into the woman's face. His thoughts went into free-fall, as if he'd just walked into a whirlwind and been caught up in the dead calm of the eye, waiting for the rest of the storm force to catch up and eat him alive. Yet, he felt honor-bound to hold his ground. He couldn't lose face in front of his boys, not for just a woman.

 

"Ain't nothin' here that's any of your business." One of them sneered, secure from his vantage point in the middle of the gang. "Take the bitch down, Thomas."

 

The biker's motion was so swift, that Thomas never saw it coming. He shuddered as hands locked around his arms, the grip iron-hard and unyielding. Looking up and suddenly seeing the terror on his own face mocking him from the mirrored reflection of the biker's glasses was a humbling experience. Thomas did not like to be humbled. Yet there was no way to describe the fact that his feet were now dangling inches of the ground, while the biker held him suspended as if he were a child.

 

"Boys do stupid things. Threatening a woman like this is stupid...real stupid, boy"

 

She emphasized the taunt by glaring over Thomas's shoulder at the others, who quickly began to slide back.

 

"You've gained nothing by frightening her." Xena dropped Thomas as suddenly as she'd picked him up. And there's something else you should remember." Her last statement encompassed the entire gang as she took off her sunglasses and stared them full in the face, no longer hiding behind the mirrored lenses for effect. "Men don't run in packs . . . but dogs do."

 

"Come on, Thomas, let's split." One boy said nervously. "No big deal, right?"

 

"Is it going to be a big deal, Thomas? It can be one, if you need it to be," Xena said softly.

 

"We ain't splittin'," Thomas snapped. "This bitch is the one who's splittin'. Maybe in a body bad." Gabrielle caught her breath when the knife appeared in his hand, the blade gleaming in the twilight.

 

"You don't want to do this," the stranger said, seemingly indifferent to that length of cold steel.

 

"You're wrong. I'm going to enjoy this, bitch." With a harsh grin, Thomas moved toward her. Flanking her was three of his friends.

 

Gabrielle took a firmer hold on her backpack. She wasn't going to stand by and see her would-be rescuer hurt without trying to help her. She was just about to deck one of the gang members with her backpack when it became obvious that the stranger didn't need her help. Thomas feinted toward the biker with the knife, expecting his opponent to dodge back, putting him within reach of the youth who'd moved behind her. From the way they'd fanned out, it was obviously a move they'd used successfully before, but not this time.

 

The stranger didn't jump back to avoid the knife. Instead, she moved forward, stepping inside Thomas's slashing thrust. Her large hand closed around Thomas's wrist in an almost casual hold. With a cry of pain, Thomas dropped the blade and the stranger released his wrist, bringing his hand up in a smashing blow to the face that dropped Thomas in his tracks.

 

Even as Thomas hit the ground, his opponent was moving, spinning to face the boy who was lunging at her back. In a move so graceful it was almost ballet like, her feet left the ground, one leg kicking straight out. The worm leather boot caught her attacker just under the chin. The force of the blow lifted the younger man off his feet before he collapsed on the cracked pavement.

 

The stranger hit the ground in a crouch, her hands lifted, her fingers crooked, her eyes on the remaining toughs. They hung back, looking from their fallen comrades to the woman facing them. Her calm gaze challenged them to continue the fight to the finish.

 

Gabrielle held her breath, waiting to see what would happen. Obviously, her rescuer needed no help from her.

 

It must have been equally obvious to the remaining opponents. They looked from the stranger to the fallen bodies. She wasn't even breathing hard, yet Thomas and several others lay on the ground, unconscious. It must have occurred to them that the biker could have killed them without exerting much more effort. The remaining youths raised their hands in unison and took a hasty step back.

 

"Hey, lady, we ain't lookin' for no trouble." The blatant lie would have been funny if the situation had been less tense. Even now, it was enough to cause the stranger's mouth to twist in a wry grin.

 

"My mistake," she said. Gabrielle noticed that she didn't relax her stance. "Why don't you pick up your friends and get out of here?"

 

The remaining youths looked more interested in a quick departure than in carrying off their friends, but perhaps they thought the stranger might pursue them if they didn't do as she said. They moved to obey, keeping a wary eye on her. The teenagers shuffled away, tossing half-hearted threats and curses over their shoulders, unwilling to completely acknowledge the fact that they'd let themselves be bested by a woman.

 

And then Xena remembered the woman and turned.

 

"Are you all right?" she asked gently.

 

Gabrielle nodded, then fainted in the biker's arms.

 

***

 

She used her bike for a chair as she cradled the woman who was lying loose and limp across her lap. Her heart slammed hard against her breast. "My Gabrielle." She mouthed the words.

 

There could be no mistake. The warrior's entire being responded to the small blonde. Xena finger brushed the small woman's face with incredible gentleness her thumbs stroking the satin skin over the pulse beating so frantically in the blonde's throat. No other possessed those same lips, now parted slightly with her shallow breathing. No other owed the same delicate jaw and lean curve of cheek and no other had such soft skin...

 

She sighed and inhaled slowly, wishing away the thousand thoughts that instantly intruded. What she was thinking? She had no place in this small woman's life, and because of who Xena was, neither did she.

 

Xena's gaze wandered from her face. The jacket was torn at the shoulder, and beneath Xena's large palm, the shirt gaped to bare a silken valley. She found the small woman's flesh cool and smooth when she brushed the back of her fingers over the curve of a half-revealed breast. She looked down at her fingers, and thought of the teachers' soft skin, how it would feel beneath her palms, under her body, how it would taste, the thought of the blondes' mass of silky hair brushing her heated body.

Shocked at the erotic twist her thoughts began to pursue, Xena snatched her hand away. Hell and damnation, had the girl escaped the clutches of those beasts only to fall into the grasp of another?

 

"Ohhh. . ."

 

On a low moan, Gabrielle shifted. Xena held her shoulders to still her, marveling anew at her slenderness, but breathed a sigh of relief. If she could move so easily, Xena doubted any serious injury had been done.

 

Gabrielle eyelids fluttered, stilled, and then fluttered open for a brief moment. Xena knew her eyes would be green. Her mouth was wide, her lips full. They were the kind that drove a person wild and begged to be kissed, without saying a word. Xena had come too far, and lived to long, to turn down the un-extended invitation.

 

Ignoring the busy traffic on the street just beyond the parking lot, she bent down, opened her mouth just enough to encompass Gabrielle's, and then groaned when the blonde sighed, and unconsciously responded.

 

She tasted of heat and peppermint, and as her mouth tightened across those beautiful lips, she dug her hand into the coil of blonde hair.

 

Gabrielle moaned, and the biker lifted her head, and frowned, instantly aware that she'd trespassed. It was a silent acknowledgment that the good she'd done by helping the small woman had been wiped out in a heartbeat by the marauding manner in which she'd taken her favors without permission.

 

"N-not dead?" Gabrielle muttered.

 

The hoarse sound rumbling from her own throat shocked Xena. Not a laugh, surely. She had not laughed since . . .since she had sparred with Gabrielle over who would reveal their name first.

 

"No," she assured the blonde gruffly, "you are not dead, though you'll wish you were soon enough."

 

She meant only that Gabrielle's ill-used muscles and battered jaw would throb mercilessly when the languor left her, but she blinked and heaved a resigned sigh.

 

"Strike fast."

 

Her eyes closed, and her head lolled in Xena's palm.

 

The warrior stared, bemused. No fear. No pleading. Just resignation that her fate was in Xena's hands.

 

She gathered Gabrielle in her arms, and her belly gave a queer roll at how well she fit there. Her head tucked under Xena's chin so naturally, and her shoulders nested into the cradle of the biker arms as if she had been made for her embrace. Guilt at her transgression made the biker feel too much like the gang she'd just ran off.

 

Xena inhaled her into her very body, her scent so feminine, so seductive. The teacher stirred such depths of feelings after such a barren existence it terrified her. She was used to an emotionless life. This woman could bring her good, but her potential for evil was enormous. She was a law unto herself. Even the laws of the land, the very laws she defended, had never applied to her.

 

The small woman came to with a start.

 

"Oh," she muttered, as she realized where she was and began trying to unwind herself from the woman and the bike.

 

The action, as well as her panic, was wasted when the biker calmly stood and then set her back on her feet without a word.

 

"You fainted," she said.

 

Gabrielle's hand shot to her head. She felt the heat from her bruised jaw and the lip that was split.

 

"I..I..can't see your face," she said, unaware of the nervous tremor in her voice.

 

The biker's movements were as slow as molasses on a cold winter night. Gabrielle held her breath as the woman leaned forward until their faces were only inches apart, then slid her glasses down the bridge of her nose and let them drop into her hand.

 

Oh. . . I had a feeling this would only get better . . .and worse, Gabrielle thought. Cobalt blue eyes stared back at her. She caught her breath at the purity of the color.

 

"That better, Gabrielle?"

 

She took a step backward, then swayed. Xena's hand shot out so quickly that the small woman didn't even see it coming. She felt only the firm, yet gentle grip, as the biker steadied her on her feet.

 

"How do you know my name?" she asked.

 

"Thomas called you by it several times. I assumed he knew you. Was I right?"

 

She signed and buried her face in her hands. Xena frowned. There was obviously more to this incident than casual harassment.

 

"My name is. . ." There was no reason on earth why she should be telling this bike-riding, leather-clad warrior on shining metal a darn thing about her personal life.

 

"My name is Gabrielle Sinclair."

 

Xena held out her hand, and then waited to see how much woman Gabrielle turned out to be. By all rights, she should be scared out of her wits by the biker's appearance.

 

Gabrielle looked down at the long, strong fingers, the wide callused palm, and the tracing of scars across the backs of the woman's knuckles. Surprising herself, as well as the biker, she reached out and took what was offered.

 

Xena was shocked. Her eyes narrowed, and her mouth firmed. She looked down at the way Gabrielle's fingers had curled around hers and then back up into her face. She swallowed hard. Oh damn! Not trust!

 

The blonde was more woman than she'd even imagined. The thought made her angry. Not now! She thought. Don't you do this to me! Not when you know my time is nearly up. She glared up into the sky.

 

Xena, Xena. When will you learn? Everything that happens, you bring upon yourself, said His voice.

 

The quiet answer slid through her mind, and with it came the truth slapping her full in the face. She dropped her hand and sighed wearily. How many years had she been on earth, riding the roads and highways, trying to get it right?

 

"And your name is . . .?" Gabrielle asked.

 

"My name is Xena."

 

"Just Xena?"

 

"Yes, just Xena."

 

Gabrielle thought back to the past half hour and knew that her troubles were only momentarily solved. When tomorrow came, it would be more of the same from Thomas and his gang. And then she had a sudden and shocking thought. She focused on Xena's heart-stopping smile and ignored the warning her brain was sending.

 

"Xena, where were you going when you so kindly came to my rescue?"

 

She shrugged. "Nowhere . . .anywhere."

 

The blonde's pulse jumped. Everything kept falling into place. It had to be a sign.

 

"How would you like a job?" she asked.

 

The question caught the warrior off guard.

 

"Doing what?" she asked, eyeing the small woman carefully.

 

"I've ignored the signs for weeks, but after today. . . I think I need a bodyguard." Ignoring the shocked look on the bikers face, she continued before she lost both her breath and her nerve. "I'm a teacher of Greek Mythology and the gang you rescued me from happens to be part of my class. I'll be damned if I'll let them beat me. I will not be frightened into quitting."

 

"Aren't they a little young to be in college?" Xena asked.

 

"It's a special program between the college and the high school."

 

Xena was speechless.

 

"It would only be for a few weeks," Gabrielle said quickly. "Then school is out for the summer. After that, you could be on your way to nowhere . . .or anywhere."

 

The nervous look Gabrielle gave the biker sent her heart right to her feet. She couldn't have told the schoolteacher no if her life depended on it.

 

"Let me get this straight," she said. "You want to hire me to accompany you to school and sit in on all your classes until summer vacation begins?"

 

She nodded. "Why are you so shocked? Surely it won't be all that bad. I won't even suggest you wear a dress. Just look at it as a refresher course."

 

"That's just it," Xena muttered to herself. "I never went to school."

 

It was hard to say who was the more shocked. Gabrielle for what she'd heard, or Xena for admitting it.

 

"You can't read?" Gabrielle asked, trying hard not to sound as shocked as she felt.

 

"I can read fine, thank you." Xena said shortly, pushing her sunglasses back on for protection. "I've had a long, long time to read just about any and everything ever written. And believe me, I mean everything."

 

"Then you are self-educated," she said.

 

"I'm self-everything," she said in disgust.

 

"Why am I not surprised?" Gabrielle muttered under her breath, then glanced up. "So, my angel in devil's clothing . . .is it a deal? Will you be my guardian angel for the next few weeks?" She lifted her chin. "When I start something, I like to finish it."

 

Her voice softened, and Xena would have sworn she saw her chin tremble.

 

"I'll need a place to sleep," she warned.

 

The light grew bright in her clean green eyes. I've never taken a single risk in my entire life. I think it's about time I started . . . before it's too late. Gabrielle's hesitation was only slight.

 

"Follow me," she said as she headed for her car. Her slender body swayed gently, as she ignored the howl from her abused body.

 

At that moment, Xena would have followed the blonde to the ends of the earth.

 

Chapter 2

 

Her home was a small, two-bedroom apartment on the East side of Seattle. It was a tasteful display of life, with flowering things, leafy things, spiky stems, and flowing vines. Gabrielle pushed open the door and stepped onto the polished wooden floor. She shrugged out of her jacket and turned to see that Xena was still standing on the step.

 

"Come on in. Make yourself at home," Gabrielle said, and tossed her purse on top of the kitchen table.

 

All the way home she'd debated with herself about the utter stupidity, and careless abandon, with which she'd hired the biker.

 

But what Gabrielle Sinclair had endured over the past few months had taken some of the caution out of her life. She would finish this school year and her teaching contracts, no matter what.

The front door slammed behind Xena, as she shut and locked it. Gabrielle turned at the sound and couldn't hide a shudder. The biker looked so out of place. A wild creature caged within four walls. She bit her lower lip and turned away, hurrying into the kitchen and opening the refrigerator door, then bending down to peer inside.

 

Xena heard the tremor in the teacher's voice, as she was invited in. A wry grimace crossed her face, as she dropped her duffel bag beside the couch, then stretched. She was unaware of the small woman's observation and wouldn't care if she had known. She was used to her appearance making people nervous.

 

Gabrielle turned, with some packages in her hands. She watched the biker close her eyes and reach first one arm and then the other toward the ceiling in a halfhearted attempt to work out, what the blonde suspected were muscle kinks, from long hours on her bike.

 

"Are you hungry?"

 

Her question took the warrior by surprise. Xena's eyes opened, and she stared intently at the blank, almost innocent expression on the small woman's face. Yes...but not for food . . .for you.

 

The thought made her angry both with herself and at the situation. She didn't have time for entanglements, especially those of the personal kind.

 

"Why the hell aren't you afraid of me?" she asked quietly.

 

"I suppose, if I'm honest, I can't say I'm not." Gabrielle hastened to add, before the biker got angry and left, "but let's face it. The worst you could do to me is rob me, or rape me, or . . .maybe torture or kill me."

 

"Good Lord," Xena whispered, uncertain how to take her blithe assessment of her presence in the teacher's life.

 

"Those are givens," Gabrielle continued. "And, after what I've been through the past few months, I'm not much afraid of givens anymore. Besides . . ." She shrugged. "Everyone has to die . . .sometime."

 

A bitter smile twisted Xena's face. "You'd think so, wouldn't you?" She'd watched more than one generation disappear from this earth, and she was still here to tell the tale.

 

The blonde looked up, startled by the biker's strange answer, and then shrugged off the curiosity that might have let her pursue her comment.

 

"I need you, Xena. I need you to get me through the next few weeks of school. After what I've endured at the hands of those boys, I will not let them think intimidation wins wars. And believe me.... this is war!"

 

The warrior grinned slightly, at the ferocity in the small woman's voice.

 

"Just stay until my job is over, and then you'll be free to go your own way," Gabrielle added.

 

The biker nodded. Of course, she would stay, but the teacher didn't understand why. She couldn't. Leaving someone in trouble wasn't part of the deal Xena had made with Michael. The warrior was honor bound to help, whether she liked it or not.

 

"Where do I sleep?"

 

A faint flush painted the blonde's cheeks a rosy hue, as she led the way down the small hall.

 

"This is my spare room and also serves as a store room." She opened the door and stepped aside as the tall woman moved through the doorway, ducking her head as she did. Gabrielle watched as she dropped her duffle bag by the bed.

 

"The room isn't much, but it has a separate bath. There are clean sheets on the bed, and . . ."

 

"It's fine," the biker responded.

 

She nodded, "If you want to clean up or. . .or rest before you eat, feel free. I don't stand on ceremony."

 

"It's a good thing," Xena said. "I don't care much for ceremonies." Frowning, she rubbed a thoughtful hand across her upper right breast. She was reliving the sight of the sword aimed for her heart that had done what it could to end her life. "The last one I was at didn't serve food."

 

Just what and who had she invited into her home? The decision was made, and Gabrielle didn't ever go back on her word. She spun away, and headed back toward the kitchen.

 

"We're having spaghetti," she called over her shoulder.

 

Xena shut the door, then leaned against it, a thoughtful expression on her face. Spaghetti!

 

Three hours ago I was on my way to Colorado, minding my own business, and now I'm in a bedroom full of artifacts as old as I am and about ready to be served spaghetti. She picked up a staff that was leaning against the wall. As she examined it carefully, a smile crossed her lips. It was an authentic Amazon staff.

 

***

 

Xena eyed Gabrielle as she prepared spaghetti and garlic bread. She'd insisted on helping with dinner, so she'd made the salad. She tried to ignore the smaller woman, but she couldn't disregard the tumultuous feelings roiling inside her. To combat them, she went over all the reasons why she couldn't get involved. Her mind applauded her fortitude, but her libido scoffed at her.

 

The evening meal had come and gone with surprising ease. Gabrielle's matter-of-fact attitude helped. In addition, Xena had a suspicion that this was just another heaven-sent test. During the past 200 plus years, she'd endured quite a few. Thrusting a teacher of Greek Mythology and History into her face was obviously a none-too-subtle way of telling her that she had more to learn.

 

She got up from the table, and began gathering their dirty dishes. Unintentionally, they reached for the same bowl at the same time. Xena's fingers slid over the back of the small woman's hand, and for a second she felt the panic pulsing through her system, but as quickly as it had come, it passed, leaving her with nothing more than the beginnings of a sleepless night. Her body flushed at the thought of spending the night with Gabrielle wrapped tightly in her arms, but sanity reminded her that this was out of the question. Getting involved, in any way, was out of the question.

 

"Sorry," she said, and calmly reached for another bowl, instead.

 

Gabrielle shivered. The biker's touch had done something to her nervous system that she hadn't expected. For one heart stopping moment, she thought she remembered that same hand, cupping her face, as soft breath feathered across her cheeks. She inhaled and opened them, calmly meeting a cool blue gaze.

 

"Did you get enough to eat?" she asked, ignoring the sexual tension she felt building between them, but the moment she'd said it, she realized she'd only added fuel to the fire.

 

Xena smiled. The ache in her body increased. Oh damn, I shouldn't be thinking this, Xena thought.

 

Gabrielle forgot what she'd been about to say, as she stared at the smiling bodyguard.

 

The mouth, the one that had been twisted in a wry, almost cruel smirk ever since they'd met, had turned into a thing of beauty. Xena's smile had turned her mouth into the most beautiful set of lips she'd ever seen.

 

"What a waste," she muttered, under her breath.

 

"Not for long," the warrior whispered, and moved . . . too quickly for the small woman to react.

 

Xena captured the teacher between the sink and her body, then leaned down and pressed her lips against the shock of protest she saw coming. She'd only meant to tease, but the intensity of their joining left her breathless. White heat. Blue lightning. She tasted of the apple pie they'd had for dessert, and of passion too long denied. Her blood surged and pounded. Little jackhammers began to beat in her skull. She wanted this small woman with every fiber of her being, every cell in her body.

 

The biker pulled back and stared, long and hard into the blonde's face, missing nothing of the fact that the little one's eyes had slipped shut, and she was no longer pulling away from the warrior. In fact, at that moment, if Gabrielle hadn't opened her eyes and realized what had just happened, Xena knew damn well that the younger woman meant to slide her arms around her waist.

 

"Why did you do that?" Gabrielle asked, trying to work up the good sense to tell herself that she'd asked for it, by inviting a total stranger into her home.

 

"You said you wanted a taste," Xena said, drawing a finger along the curve of the blondes' throat, down to rest on the pulse beating so frantically beneath her satin skin. "I was just obliging."

 

She was smiling at the biker's words in spite of every effort not to. "I did not!" she gasped. "I said . . ." she looked back at the biker's mouth, remembering that only moments earlier it had been pressed against her own ". . .what a waste." Her pulse was racing beneath the pad of the bikers thumb. Her skin was hot satin, inviting the taller woman's touch, inviting further exploration. There was conflict in her mind; fear uppermost, but there was also desire.

 

"Oh," the warrior said, and masked a grin. "My mistake."

 

"Good Lord," Gabrielle muttered, thinking to herself how close it had come to being a mistake for both of them.

 

She turned away from the table, with a handful of dishes, and headed to the sink.

 

"Forget it," she said, giving the dark haired woman a warning look she couldn't miss.

 

Not on your life, Gabrielle Sinclair, she thought, but she shrugged and continued to clear the table.

 

"Why do those boys have it in for you?" Xena asked as she carried the last of the bowls from the table to the sink.

 

Gabrielle rinsed and loaded the dishwasher with absent skill, as she thought about the question. Finally, she could only shake her head.

 

"Honestly . . .I have no idea. It's been rough all year, but the last three months have been hell. Pure hell! I've been cornered in the halls, in the classroom, even in the parking lot at school. But today was the first time it happened off the school grounds."

 

Xena watched the emotions displayed in the small woman's eyes.

 

"Have you reported this?"

 

"They said somebody would look into it." Gabrielle looked away.

 

"Why are you risking your life to teach at the high school instead of just staying at the college?

 

"They're human beings," Gabrielle said in exasperation. "And deep down, most of them are decent kids growing up in a world that strips them of their dignity. Polite society ignores them, because the problem is so vast that it seems insurmountable. The leeches of society feed off them, taking what little they do have and turning them into junkies and prostitutes. They're confused, frightened, and angry; and they band together, in an effort to survive.

 

"That still doesn't explain why you would risk your life for them. South Side is known for its violence toward teachers and other students."

 

"You have to prove to a street kid that it's more productive to use their brains, not their brawn. You have to teach them the value of an education, and convince them that it will get them out of the life they are currently living for good."

 

"Thomas is the leader of the gang, isn't he?"

 

"If you can turn the leader around, then the rest of the gang is bound to follow suit. Before you know it, they'll all be in school learning a vocation." Gabrielle replied.

 

"Gabrielle, what you're saying is wonderful in theory, but you can't be na´ve enough to expect it to work. And have you considered the consequences if it doesn't?"

 

"Yes. I have."

 

"And you think that you alone can make a difference?" she scoffed.

 

"I'm not alone. I belong to a group of professional men and women who beat the odds. They're people like me, and we aren't gullible enough to believe that we can solve the entire mess. What we do believe is that one success is worth our time and energy. We also hope that every person we save will save another. If we can get a chain reaction going, we may be able to wipe out the poverty, ghetto environment entirely."

 

"It won't happen in your lifetime," Xena noted sadly.

 

"Let's talk about this later, why don't you go in and watch TV or something?" she said pointing toward the living room. She needed to get the woman out of her space.

 

When the small woman's back was turned, Xena leaned forward just enough to inhale a faint whiff of her scent and considered the thought that she would rather watch Gabrielle, but after the kiss she'd taken without asking, she didn't think the teacher would appreciate knowing that. When the blonde wasn't looking, she grinned, and ambled out of the small kitchen.

 

Gabrielle breathed a quick sigh of relief. The dark haired woman was so darned big that she swamped everything she came into contact with, including her. The teacher never had claustrophobia in her life, until Xena started helping her with the dishes. After the biker kissed her and then turned away, as if it was no big deal, it was all she could do not to burst into tears.

 

The strange thing was, she didn't know why. Although she probably should, she didn't feel threatened by the older woman. If the biker did as she promised, she was going to make life a whole lot easier for her. There was absolutely nothing to cry about. Right? Right!

 

She grimaced and tossed the hand towel on the counter. If she looked at it another way, she had absolutely everything to cry about. She stomped into the living room, her posture ramrod-stiff and her expression furious.

 

"I'm going to bed," she said sharply. "Is there anything you need first?"

 

Xena stared long and hard at the anger on the small woman's face, wondering where the wall had come from, that was suddenly standing between them.

 

"Go to sleep, Gabrielle Sinclair," she said quietly. "I'm a big girl. I can take care of myself."

 

As she walked down the hallway toward her bedroom, she couldn't forget the way that the taller woman and muscles had pinned her against her own kitchen sink, with so little effort.

 

Therein, lay part of her problem. Gabrielle Sinclair had done two stupid things today. She'd hired a total stranger to be her bodyguard and it wasn't enough that she didn't know the woman. Xena had to be a biker . . . riding the biggest, meanest, blackest Harley she'd ever seen. To top that off, she'd taken the woman home with her like some stray animal, and let the biker kiss her.

 

And there lay the root of Gabrielle's problem. She was way too interested for her own good in the wildness, the freedom and the carefree attitude of the woman she'd brought home. The last thought she had before she finally drifted off to sleep was that her avenging angel didn't look the least bit domesticated. In fact, if she wasn't careful, the biker might turn into some wild thing, and eat her alive. She giggled sleepily, what a way to go.

 

***

 

"Oh no!"

 

Gabrielle's shouts of outrage as she walked out of the apartment ahead of the bodyguard sent Xena bolting out the front door, expecting to have to rescue her again. Unfortunately, for Gabrielle, they'd already come and gone.

 

Her nearly new blue Explorer had been vandalized to the point of being totaled. Four separate colors of paint had been sprayed in graffiti-like fashion all over it. All the windows were shattered, the wheels slashed. The seat covers had been slashed, and a offensive odor emanated from the inside the vehicle.

 

Xena stared. The anger that surged through her made her shudder.

 

"Call the police," Xena told her. When she saw indecision sweeping across the teacher's face, her voice grew harsh. "Do it, Gabrielle! Now!"

 

The teacher swung around and headed back to her apartment, her posture a vivid statement of her anger at the vandalism, as well as Xena's bossy demand.

 

After placing a second brief phone call, this one to the school to let them know she would be delayed, they waited. Several minutes later, a squad car pulled up. The officer's gaze went from the biker who was leaning against the vandalized car to the big black Harley parked beside it.

 

Xena had traded her leather pants for jeans, and a long-sleeved shirt beneath her leather jacket, but it didn't help disguise her go-to-hell attitude. The officer came out of the car with his hand on his gun.

 

Xena sighed. One of these days, she was going to have to make a change in her appearance, if only to alleviate some of this crap.

 

"Put your hands in the air," the officer shouted as he slid into a half crouch behind the open door of his car, aiming the revolver at Xena.

 

Gabrielle had enough. "It wasn't her, for God's sake!" she shouted, slamming her briefcase down on the sidewalk as she swept over by the two. "If it was, do you think she'd be standing there waiting to be arrested? She's with me," she said, and then buried her face in her hands.

 

Xena's fingers slid up the back of the blonde's neck in a gentle, reassuring squeeze.

 

"It's okay, Gabrielle," she said quietly. "It's happened before."

 

The officer made no apology for his misunderstanding, as he holstered his gun.

 

Within a few minutes, the report had been made. They watched as the officer drove away with their meager information in his possession. What they had was a vandalized car and a lot of suspicions. But as he'd told them, in his business, you couldn't take suspicion to court.

 

"I'll have to call a cab," she said, eyeing the ruined car and then her watch.

 

Xena shook her head and pointed at her skirt. "Not if you're willing to change your clothes." Her eyebrows arched as the biker's suggestions sank in. "Put on some pants, Gabrielle, and I'll get you to work on time."

 

She looked from Xena to the bike and tried to picture herself perched on the wide seat behind the taller woman, her arms wrapped around the bikers' slim waist. She was annoyed at how easily the image came to mind. Gabrielle shook her head. "Sorry, but I've never ridden a motorcycle and I don't intend to start now. They're too dangerous."

 

Xena leaned back against the bike and crossed her arms over her chest and looked at her with those clear blue eyes that seemed to see far too much. "Take my word for it. You're safer on the bike with me than you are in that vehicle you drive."

 

Just thinking about what her superintendent would say when she arrived at work on the back of a Harley made her nervous, and then a determined glint came in her eyes, changing them to a darker shade of jade.

 

"Why not?" she muttered, and ran to change.

 

Xena smiled. She was beginning to like Gabrielle Sinclair more and more. The small blonde was her kind of woman. And then the smile slid off her face. She didn't have women . . . of any kind. It didn't pay to care when you knew you couldn't stay.

 

"All set?" Xena asked, while Gabrielle ran back to the bike wearing jeans and a pair of hiking boots. She held a leather jacket open for the small woman.

 

"It's too hot for a leather jacket," she protested.

 

"You aren't wearing it for warmth," she explained. "If I should have to lay the bike down, leather is the best protection. It doesn't rip easily."

 

"What do you mean by "lay the bike-down?" Gabrielle inquired, suspiciously.

 

"Use your imagination," Xena answered, as she shook the jacket at her, a challenging gleam in her eyes. "You aren't chicken, are you?"

 

Gabrielle's common sense told her to refuse to go anywhere near the motorcycle, but it had been a long time since anyone had issued her a dare. She couldn't resist the challenge.

 

She slid into the jacket and pulled on the gloves, which might save her hands, if she went sliding across pavement.

 

Xena eyed Gabrielle with appreciation. . . denim and leather became her. She wanted to sweep the small woman up in her arms, but confined herself to a long, slow look.

 

"I'm ready," she finally told Xena.

 

"Here. Put this on."

 

"I don't need that." Gabrielle protest was muffled as the biker set the black helmet on her head. It was too big for her and Xena had to bite back a grin as she looked at the teacher. With those vaguely indignant eyes staring at her from under the raised visor, she looked like a little girl who'd been bullied into playing Darth Vader in the school play.

 

"There are only two rules you need to remember, Gabrielle. The first is, keep your feet on the foot pegs even when I'm stopped. The second is, in the event of a crash, roll away from the bike, so you don't get trapped beneath it."

 

"If you're trying to reassure me, Xena, you're failed miserably."

 

The biker tapped her finger against the teacher's nose before dropping her visor into place. "You worry too much."

 

She was ready to admit her cowardice and beg Xena to take a cab, but the biker swung her leg over the motorcycle. When the tall woman patted the seat behind her, she wavered. When the biker patted it more insistently, she climbed on.

 

Awkwardly she swung her leg over the bike. The teacher settled into the seat with something less than grace and immediately discovered that there was no way to keep a polite distance from her companion. In fact, there was no way to keep any distance at all.

 

Uneasy at finding herself practically plastered against the older woman back, she scooted back, only to clutch at the bikers waist when she shifted the bike upright and booted up the kickstand.

 

Xena glanced from one side to the other, to make sure the small woman's feet were on the foot pegs. Then she yelled over her shoulder, "Hang on tight and lean when I lean."

 

"I'm not sure . . ." The engine started with a roar effectively cutting off the rest of her sentence. She had only a moment to consider the possibility that a previously unknown tread of insanity might run in her family before the bike started with a jerk.

 

All thoughts of keeping a decorous distance from the woman in front of her disappeared instantly. Gabrielle took the biker's order literally. She clutched at her companion waist, pressing herself against the taller woman back as if the two of them were intimate friends. The bike roared down the street, and she began to mutter every prayer she'd ever learned.

 

Xena came to a stop at the second traffic light and gave her hands a reassuring pat. For some reason, the gesture calmed Gabrielle's racing heart. When they took off again, she found the courage to glance around her. With the wind buffeting her, she felt as if they were going a hundred miles an hour, but the scenery wasn't zipping by any faster than it did when she was in her car.

 

By the time Xena pulled onto the freeway ramp, Gabrielle was beginning to enjoy the ride and it did have some unique pluses, she concluded as Xena accelerated, causing the biker's back to press firmly against her breasts and the tall woman's bottom to nestle between her thighs. She could feel muscles tensing and relaxing as her bodyguard maneuvered through traffic. She became aware of the power vibrating beneath her. It was an exhilarating, and strangely erotic, sensation.

 

Good heavens, she thought in chagrin. I'm getting turned on by a motorcycle!

 

But it wasn't just the motorcycle. It was also Xena. This enforced closeness made her acutely conscious of every nuance of the taller woman's body. She wanted to slide her hands inside the leather jacket and caress Xena's breast. She wanted to touch her to ascertain whether the biker was as affected by their closeness. The thought was so powerful that she tightened her hold around the muscled waist, in front of her to keep from acting on it. Touching the taller woman that intimately, at sixty-five miles an hour, was definitely a traffic hazard.

 

***

 

"Wow! Would you look at that?" one of the students shouted, pointing toward the motorcycle and its riders, as they turned into the staff parking lot.

 

The bell was ringing as Gabrielle swung her leg over and dismounted. She could hear the bell's shrill peal through the helmet Xena had made her wear.

 

I can just imagine what my hair's going to look like, she thought, then looked up in time to see her boss heading toward her. She grimaced. Perfect timing!

 

She ran her hands through her hair and sighed. It was hopeless. Settling for a redo of her outfit, she began to tuck the tail of her silk blouse back into the waistband of her slacks.

 

Late-arriving students were making a mad dash across the parking lot. Teachers were strolling through the doors on their way to their classrooms, but Xena's instincts homed in on the short, overweight man who was lumbering across the pavement toward them.

 

"A friend of yours?" Xena asked, readjusting her sunglasses, then nonchalantly using her fingers for a comb as she thrust them through her wind-blown hair, with casual abandon.

 

"My boss," Gabrielle said, and sighed, as she handed the biker his helmet.

 

"I say," the fat man began. "You can't park here. This is reserved for . . ." A stunned expression crossed his face a she recognized the face that had emerged from under the shiny black helmet. "Miss Sinclair! What on earth do you mean by arriving in such a . . . ?

 

"Mr. Harems. I'd like you to meet Xena. She'll be accompanying me to class for the remainder of the school year. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to hurry or I'll be late."

 

Harems turned pasty white. He wanted to argue. But nothing more than a gasp slid past his big lips as he grabbed her arm, stopping her progress, then stared fearfully at the tall, ominous-looking woman who stepped between them.

 

"What do you mean, she'll be accompanying you to class? We don't allow people to monitor classes without special permission from . . ."

 

"I'm not monitoring anything but Gabrielle's welfare. Xena said quietly, gently removing Harem's hand from the teachers arm.

 

Harems shuddered as the tall dark haired woman's gaze warned him to look, but not touch. As much as he would like to, he didn't have the guts to refuse someone who looked as if she'd climbed up from Hell to spend the day on earth.

 

"I don't understand," Harems said.

 

"I hired her," Gabrielle said.

 

"Hired her for what?" Harems asked, wondering what on earth this biker could possible do that was worthy of a paycheck.

 

"Bodyguard," Xena said, daring the man to argue.

 

Harems had a mental flash of an earlier meeting with Miss. Sinclair. He remembered her complaints about student harassment and vaguely remembered telling her that it would be checked into, of course, he did not intend to waste his time. He looked from her to the biker and back again in panic.

 

"You can't have a personal bodyguard," Harems argued. "Whatever protection a teacher needs is furnished by the district."

 

"Then why didn't she get it?" Xena asked. "Why was this woman left to deal with the problem on her own?"

 

Xena didn't get an answer to her question, nor had she expected one. They left Harems standing in the breezeway with his mouth agape as Gabrielle hurried away with Xena only a half step behind.

 

The closer Xena and Gabrielle got to the teacher's classroom, the louder the noise level became. Gabrielle gave her a nervous glance, as she started inside.

 

"I'm right behind you," Xena said quietly.

 

Her stomach settled, her heart rate decreased, and a calm expression spread across Gabrielle's face. She opened the door and walked into the room.

 

Thomas's hand slid up her arm, and in spite of the fact that she'd been braced to fight, she found herself being thrust against the blackboard behind her. His pale face, rank odor, red-rimmed eyes, and cold stare told her more than she wanted to know. Even if he wasn't high now, he'd obviously spent most of the night that way.

 

"Take your seat, Thomas," Gabrielle said firmly, pushing him away from her.

 

He grinned, and let his gaze rake her body from head to toe in a rude, sexual manner.

 

"I'm a little surprised to see you, Gabby. Thought you might chicken. . ."

 

The sneer slid off Thomas face as his gaze went from Gabrielle's nervous expression to the woman who'd walked up behind her.

 

"Now, why would you think something like that?" Gabrielle asked. "I haven't missed a day of school this year."

 

Thomas flushed, and looked nervously away, as the biker chick from yesterday pulled off her sunglasses and started toward him. In spite of his determination to remain belligerent, he felt himself backing away.

 

"Hi, boy," Xena said softly, for Thomas's ears alone. "I thought we settled all of this yesterday."

 

Thomas tired to bluster his way out of the fact that, step-by-step, the biker was backing him all the way down the aisle to an empty seat, but it was no use. The obvious fact was that he was scared out of his mind.

 

"What's she doing here?" Thomas asked loudly, and pointed toward Xena, who refused to budge from his personal space.

 

"Who? Oh! You must mean Xena," Gabrielle said in an offhand manner. "Just pretend she's not here," the teacher said, quickly taking charge of her class. "Students, please take your seats and let's begin."

 

Xena grinned at Thomas, and the boy shuddered at the feral gleam in the biker's eyes.

 

"She's right," Xena said, sweeping her hand out to encompass the class of gaping students who'd suddenly realized she was there to stay. "You won't even know I'm around."

 

And then she stunned the entire class as her whispered warning swept across the room. "But so help me, if one of you has one cross word to say to her . . . or looks at Miss. Sinclair with anything other than a question about school on your mind, I'll take care of you myself." There was a long pause before she finished. "Have I made myself clear?"

 

They nodded as one, while silently absorbing the fact that their teacher had obviously hired herself a big gun.

 

 

The class was nearly over. Xena sat at the back of the class silent, barely moving, never speaking; yet the entire time, her eyes had rarely drifted from Gabrielle. She'd watched the sunlight play havoc with the hidden textures and colors of the small woman's hair until she'd had to mentally restrain herself from ignoring the fact that there was a classroom full of student watching every move she made. She'd never wanted anything in her life, as much as she wanted to bury her face in Gabrielle's hair.

 

Who was she trying to kid? She'd like to kiss Gabrielle, and smear that perfectly applied lipstick. She'd like to bury her fingers in that golden blonde hair until it was in tangled disarray. She'd like to watch those big green eyes fill with passion, and hear her soft voice begging Xena for more. She'd kneel at teachers feet, touch her, her mouth moving over the blondes; her body commanding the younger woman, taking her, hot and furiously. And then she'd . . .She shuddered at the thought and shifted uncomfortably in her seat, stretching her long, jeans-clad legs out in front of her to ease the building pressure.

 

Need to be taken out and shot!

 

What she'd expect to be unmitigated boredom had turned out to be a treat. She'd read history, Hell, she'd even lived part of what the teacher had taught earlier in the day. But she'd never expected to fall under the spell of being taught that there was more to it than dates and events. Too much of her life had been wasted just trying to survive, and when that had failed, the rest of it had been . . . and was being . . . spent on doing what she'd been sent back to do.

 

Ancient history seemed to cause the small blonde to come alive. The story of the Trojan War brought her to life. The biker, along with the students, began to visualize the great wooden horse slowly being rolled to the gates of Troy.

 

She smiled, along with them, as Gabrielle related how the Greeks remaining outside must have waited impatiently for the soldiers encased within the bowels of the gift horse to climb out, drawing a picture with her words of how they'd emerged during the black of night and opened the great gate so that the Greek soldiers could come inside and conquer.

 

The great devastation of the siege that followed was presented, as if she'd actually been there, as a tear slid down Gabrielle's cheek. Xena wasn't the only one to be jerked rudely back to the present when the bell rang for class to end for the day.

 

"So the next time someone tells you, "Don't look a gift horse in the mouth," you'll know exactly what they mean."

 

Watching as one of the girls paused on her way out the door to whisper something to Gabrielle, and then ducked her head when Gabrielle impulsively laughed and hugged her before shooing her out.

 

Xena was jealous. She wanted the small woman to smile at her and share whispered nothings in her ear. As she looked past the thought to the emotion behind it, she decided that she'd finally lost her mind.

 

She'd heard of the phenomenon, but mistakenly imagined that it only befell little girls and boys, but Xena had been mistaken. Regardless of her age and the reason for her presence, she'd only spent one day in a classroom and already she'd fallen for the teacher.

 

In sudden panic, she grabbed her sunglasses from her pocket, slid them quickly onto her nose and glared through their darkened lenses, daring anyone to see through the mirrored reflection to the truth behind.

 

She couldn't be in love. For Xena there was no future in loving. Her future had ended the day the sword sliced through her heart. And regardless of the fact that she'd been returned intact to earth, for her, a future no longer existed. Only time. . .a waiting period that was soon coming to an end.

 

She turned away from the curious looks the students were giving her, pretending enormous interest in a poster that pointed out the health hazards of cigarette smoking. Next to that was a poster detailing the terrible things that could happen when you took drugs. She wondered if the message had any impact on the students it was intended to reach. She certainly hadn't seen much evidence that it did.

 

Gabrielle gathered up the papers from her desk, sighing as she lifted the stack that would have to be graded tonight.

 

"Let me," Xena said, and took them from the smaller woman's arms, before she could object. "You did all the work," she added by way of explanation, and stood aside for her to leave the room.

 

"Another day, another dollar," Gabrielle said, and gave the biker a weary smile.

 

Xena saw her determination being replaced with exhaustion. It was that moment when she knew that as long as Gabrielle Sinclair had a fight that needed to be fought, she was the person to help. Like it or not, love be damned, the small woman needed her and it felt good . . .real good.

 

Xena handed over the helmet. "Put this on, Gabrielle. We're going home."

 

Part two

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