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At a Distance - Part V

by: Melissa Good


Well, first off, these characters, most of them, belong to MCA Universal, and whoever else has an interest in Xena: Warrior Princess.

Secondly, There's a little violence involved here. Not too much, and not in Part I, but it's there. Xena is, after all, a Warrior Princess, and not Betty Crocker.

Thirdly, this story is based on the premise that it's about two women who love each other. If this bothers you, click somewhere else. There is nothing graphic involved, but you can't say you weren't warned. And anyway, if love offends you, you have my condolences, and please send me your snail address, so that I may send you some chocolate chip cookies. I feel bad.

For information purposes only, this story takes place sometime after the Quest in series terms... and not long after my last story, A Warrior by Any Other Name lets off. Please send any feedback to the author.

At A Distance, Part V


The only real sound was the soft rhythm of Argo’s hooves, as the mare ambled slowly down the road heading down out of the mountains. It was twilight, and they weren’t far from the crossroads leading into Amphipolis. "Hey." she called over her shoulder.

"Hmm?" Gabrielle answered, lifting her head up. "I wasn’t sleeping." Indignantly.

"Didn’t say you were." Xena answered, with a hidden grin. "We’re almost there." She cast a glance at the bard. "And besides, it’s OK if you fall asleep. At least you keep my back nice and warm." She felt Gabrielle take and release a deep breath, and resettle her head between her shoulder blades. Well, it was nice and warm.

It had actually been a fairly nice couple of days riding back, Xena mused. The weather had cooperated, and once she got Gabrielle past that cliff.. A rueful grin crossed her face. Gabrielle had taken one look down that wall, taken one look at her, and nearly passed out. Forgot she hates heights. And been given an immediate lecture on taking unnecessary risks, which she had effectively silenced with a simple statement she was really rather proud of. "If I hadn’t, you’d be dead. That’s sufficient motivation for me." And the bard had just stopped talking and given her that little breathless look that she sometimes did. And a hug.

Now, with the fields of Amphipolis starting to extend around them, she felt an rare sense of well being, which allowed her to relax into Argo’s rocking walk, and brought a grin to her face for no particular reason. She heard faint sounds now, and played a game with herself in identifying them. Was that a rabbit? Or one of her erstwhile students..., that was two footed, and sneaking along the field edge, keeping her in sight. With a smile, she listened for the bird calls she’d taught them, and was not disappointed. The call that meant a traveler, inbound. Another which told it was a friend. And finally, the hunting hawks brash challenge that they had insisted be assigned to her, causing her to sigh and roll her eyes. Pursing her lips, she answered the call, and grinned as one of the villagers popped into sight, carrying his staff, and waving.

Gabrielle peered interestedly over her shoulder. "Wow... you have been teaching them." she said, with surprised admiration in her voice. She smiled at the villager as he trotted alongside, holding his staff with somewhat awkward competence.

"Xena!" The man called out. "I’ve sent word ahead to the inn." He grinned up at her. "I see your mission was a success."

Xena’s eyebrow rose. "My what?" she laughed. "Where do you think I went?"

"Oh." The man said, shrugging a bit. "Cyrene said you’d gone to help out a friend." He grinned at Gabrielle. "I figured this was the friend."

"Hello." the bard replied, holding out a hand. "I’m Gabrielle."

"The storyteller." He answered, delightedly. "that’s grand!" And shook her hand, though doing so with Argo’s steady gait was treacherous at best.

Gabrielle laughed. "Yep. That’s me. And I have a bunch of good ones to tell" She replied, with a mischievous look at Xena.

I’m dead. Xena resignedly sighed to herself. I’ll never hear the end of this. She’ll tell every damn story she has about me here and I’ll have to go into the woods with Ares and camp before she’s done. "I’m going to regret this, aren’t I." she asked, returning the bard’s look.

A devilish grin from her companion. "I have no idea what you mean, Xena." All innocence and blinking green eyes. "I’m a bard, right? I tell stories. I do it all the time." She grinned down at the villager. ""Right?"

"Whatever you say, storyteller." The villager agreed enthusiastically.

Xena nodded to herself, and half turned on Argo, making eye contact with the bard. "Do me one small favor?"

"Hmm.. maybe." Gabrielle answered, chuckling. "What is it?"

"Try not to tell mother the gorier ones, OK?" With a pleading look, not feigned.

The bard’s brow creased. "Xena, with you, they’re all gory." She said, raising both hands in apology. "But I’ll try to tone the worst bits down." She reassured her, giving the warrior a pat on the shoulder. "Trust me."

"Oh boy." Xena said, facing forward again, looking ahead to the now emerging lines of the inn, and the movement around it. "Looks like a busy night." She commented, nodding ahead.

"Has been." The villager commented, hanging from Argo’s right stirrup. "Traders came through today, so everyone’s in a good mood."

"Glad to hear it." Xena said, quietly.

"Bet your mother will be glad to see you back." Gabrielle said, into her ear.

Xena glanced back. "She’ll be glad to see you." Her face creased into a smile, unseen by the bard. "She wanted to meet the newest member of her family."

Felt the bard’s arms suddenly convulse. "What?" She choked, reaching up and grabbing Xena’s shoulder armor and pulling. "Run that by me again?"

"You heard me." Xena replied, calmly. Threaten me with stories, will you? "Don’t worry, You look really cute when you blush"

"Gods." Gabrielle giggled. "What did you tell her?" Well, that’s unexpected. I never thought she’d...Gods. Well, it’s her mother. What would I tell mine? Ugh. Better not go there.

Xena shrugged, and gave her a little grin. "Actually, I didn’t have to tell her anything." The warrior chuckled. "She just knew."

The bard mulled this over. That made more sense. But she was glad... Families were so...weird. She knew that lots of people looked at the two of them traveling together, and wondered.. but no one would dare have the guts to ask. Even Ephiny hadn’t.. she’d just fumbled all around the subject. Except family. They’d ask. And if Xena’s mother was fine with it, that made lots of things a lot easier. She grinned. "Can I call her mom?"

"Why don’t you ask her?" Xena said, pulling Argo to a halt in front of the inn, and sliding off the mare’s high back, turning in one fluid movement and catching Gabrielle as she followed suit, breaking her slide and letting her lightly down onto the hard packed dirt. They both turned as the inn door opened, and Cyrene came bustling out, a smile on her face.

"Well!" She called, "That didn’t take long." She crossed the inn yard, and hugged first Xena, then Gabrielle with enthusiasm. "Welcome back, Gabrielle." she smiled at the bard. "I bet you’ve got a story to tell this time." With a knowing grin. "And you..please!" She turned to Xena. "Go see that puppy of yours.. he’s going out of his mind looking for you."

Xena shook her head at both of them. "I’m going to go stable and take care of Argo. Try not to get in too much trouble, OK?" Now I have the two of them together. I'm dead. Her brain assured her. "C’mon Argo."

"Oh.." Gabrielle extricated herself from Cyrene’s encircling arm. "I gotta see this puppy." She grinned. "I just gotta.. I’ll be right in."

Cyrene smirked, and watched the look of resignation cross her daughter’s face, as she watched the bard approach and grasp Argo’s bridle. I think I’m going to have a lot of fun the next couple of days. "All right, but you two hurry up. I want to hear this story, and I’ll have some dinner waiting for you."

They walked to the barn, and Xena pushed the door open, going first, and leading Argo into the building. She hadn’t more than cleared the threshold when she heard a frantic scrambling noise, and her boot was attacked by a growling Ares.

"Roo!" he protested, dancing in the straw from forepaw to forepaw.

"Yeah, yeah.." Xena said. "Let me get Argo in here."

Gabrielle squeezed past the mare, and stopped short, biting her lip in a delighted grin on seeing the furry face blinking back at her. "Ohh.. Xena... he’s so cute." She giggled. "Did you have to name him Ares?" She crouched down, and studied the tiny animal, who responded by sitting back on his haunches, and poking a tongue out at her.

"Roo!" Ares growled, then sneezed.

Xena got Argo in a stall, and started stripping her tack off.

"Xena." Gabrielle said, crossing her arms, and looking up at the warrior.

"Yeah?" she said, glancing over.

"He’s waiting for you to say hello to him." the bard replied, biting her lip again to keep from laughing.

Xena sighed, and peered over the stall railing. Sure enough, the puppy tilted his tiny head at her, with a sad look. "Oh.. all right." She padded out of the stall, and sat down cross legged on the straw. Ares bounded over to her, and climbed up her booted legs, and scrambled up the front of her leathers, tiny claws getting purchase on the irregular surface.

"Roo!" he growled in triumph, as she leaned back, and he got up to her face, and started licking enthusiastically. "Roo!" He pulled his head back, and then went back to his tasting.

Xena peeked over at Gabrielle, who was sitting with her arms clasped around her knees, one hand clamped firmly over her mouth to keep the wild giggle shaking her body from escaping. She felt the hot flush rising up her neck, and tried to ignore it as Ares finally exhausted himself in licking, and settled down on her chest. The puppy gave a little puppy sigh, and gazed at her with adoring eyes. Xena let a smile cross her face, and she stroked his fur, scratching him behind the ears, hearing a rustling of straw as Gabrielle moved closer.

The bard settled herself at Xena’s left shoulder, and peered down at the puppy, then up at the warrior’s face. "He’s adorable, Xena." She said quietly.

"Yeah" she answered, rubbing a tiny ear. "He is kind of cute, isn't he? He’s got this look in his eyes that sort of reminds me of something." She smiled, and glanced at Gabrielle, who was studying the animal.

"Oh." A sudden smile. "You mean when he looks at you.?" the bard asked.

"Uh huh." Xena answered, putting out a finger, and letting the puppy chew.

"I’ve seen it before." Gabrielle replied, putting out her own hand for the puppy’s inspection.

"Where?" Xena asked, absently.

"Every time I look in a mirror." The bard answered, and turned her head, and gazed directly into Xena’s eyes. "See?"

Xena studied her face, then shifted her gaze to the puppy, then back. Her mouth quirked, and she realized she was blushing badly. Oh... she’s I know why it seemed kind of familiar....

I got her... Gabrielle chuckled to herself. About time, too... she’s gotten me way too often in the past few days. "Hey... you look pretty cute when you blush yourself." The bard remarked with a gentle teasing grin. She glanced down as the puppy started licking her hand, apparently approving of her. "I think he likes me." She grinned, and looked back up.

Xena studied her face. "He has good taste." she remarked, with a slow smile. ‘C’mon. We’d better get going before mother sends a search party." She stood up, and handed the puppy to Gabrielle. "Here. Introduce yourselves while I finish taking care of Argo."

"Ooo.." the bard cooed, tickling the delighted animal on the belly.

The warrior finished removing the mare’s tack, and gave her a quick rubdown, checking the feedbin and filling it with hay, and making sure there was water in the bucket. "There you go, girl." She murmured, giving the horse a last pat. "Now for my feedbag." she chuckled, and left the stall, pausing as she spotted the bard, curled up in the straw with the puppy, playing with him.

She had rolled him over on his back, and was rubbing his stomach with her hand, as Ares growled and waved his paws enthusiastically. Then he flipped over, and stumbled toward her, pouncing on a strand of her fair hair and tugging. She tickled him under the chin, and he released the hair, and grabbed her finger, shaking his head in mock ferocity.

Gabrielle laughed in delight, and leaned down, blowing in to the puppy’s ear, which caused him to rock back on his haunches, and sneeze. Then he bounced forward, and started licking her face, causing the bard to giggle.

So.. Xena mused ruefully to herself. Looks like love at first sight. Now I don’t feel so bad. "Gabrielle." she said, with a grin. "Hungry?"

The bard looked up with a wide smile. "You bet. OK, Ares.. I’ll be back later." She promised the puppy, rubbing noses with him and settling him back into the straw. "Let’s go." She added, standing up and brushing herself off, then tugging on Xena’s arm as they walked out the door.

"Oh yeah" Xena mentioned, as they got to the inn door. "Be careful of the ale." she reached for the handle and pulled.

"It’s not good?" Gabrielle asked, startled. "I would have thought.."

"It’s very good." Xena replied, giving her a smile. "And it’s sweet, and light, and I know you’ll love it. But three glasses nearly did me in when I first got here. So like I said, be careful."

"Ooohhhh..." the bard drawled, entering the inn at Xena’s proffered hand gesture "Now that, I would like to have seen."

Xena followed her in, acknowledging the calls and greetings with a wave. "What, me drunk? No you wouldn’t." She put a hand on the bard’s back and steered her towards the table where Cyrene and Toris were seated, that had two empty places at it.

"No, huh?" Gabrielle grinned. "You know, I can’t imagine what you’d be like drunk."

"Good." Xena muttered, taking the seat against the wall, and giving Toris a nod. "Evening."

Toris looked up and smiled. "Welcome home." And turned his eyes. "Hello again, Gabrielle. Glad you could make it."

Cyrene patted the bard’s arm. "Now, you tell me exactly what happened, since I know I won’t get the whole story out of my daughter." She smiled at Xena, who just shook her dark head and laughed. "She leaves out parts she thinks I don’t want to hear." Another glance at the warrior, who spread her hands in acknowledgment.

Gabrielle pursed her lips, then turned her head and made eye contact with her companion, who gave her a little raised eyebrow shrug. That’ means, Oh go ahead, Gabrielle. She took a small sip of the cold ale in front of her Wow...I see what she meant...Mmmm... and started the tale. Most of it was from her perspective, which let Xena off the hook, but Cyrene realized that part of the story had happened right here at the inn.

"Wait, mean that the two Amazons that were here tried to kill each other?" She exchanged a horrified glance with Toris.

"No." Xena spoke up, unexpectedly. "Erika tried to shoot Ephiny in the forest, to make it look like I was involved, and invalidate Gabrielle’s choice of champions."

"You forgot to mention who was between Erika’s crossbow and Ephiny’s heart." Gabrielle drawled, with a teasing grin.

"Does it matter?" Xena sighed.

"Xena!" the bard laughed. "I have to tell the whole story, so knock it off. Of course it matters." She resumed her tale, now speaking from Ephiny’s perspective as she’d heard the Amazon tell it. Even Toris gave his sister a look of amazed respect. Xena sipped on her ale with an enigmatic expression.

Dinner arrived, and Xena reached out an touched Gabrielle’s arm, then looked over at Cyrene. "You need to let her stop and eat." With an amused glance at the bard.

Gabrielle grinned back. "I’m almost done." She replied, but dug into her dinner anyway.

Cyrene filled in with some news of the trader caravan that had come through in Xena’s absence, and noted that the rumors about the village seemed to be spreading quite far. "It was nice, actually - some of the traders in the caravan joined the train specifically to come here." She gave Xena a warm smile.

They finished dinner, with Gabrielle taking seconds of everything, and trying to ignore Xena’s teasing grin. Once they’d cleared the dishes, she continued the story, holding even Xena’s close attention as she described the prelude to the battle at the Centaur Village, because the warrior had not gotten a chance to hear this part.

"This Arella sounds very unpleasant." Cyrene remarked. "Like a spoiled child that needs a good thrashing." Not understanding the exchanged look between her daughter and the bard, or the mutual chuckle.

"Yeah, I thought so too." Was Gabrielle’s comment. "So, they went down to the Centaur Village to retaliate for what they thought was an attack. A bunch of us went after them."

"You." Xena interrupted, with a glint in her eye. "Come on, Gabrielle, you gotta tell the whole story." Ignoring the bard’s glare. "YOU went down there to stop them."

Cyrene bit her lip to keep from laughing. They were so cute together. She wondered if they had any idea just how cute. Probably not.

"Fine." Gabrielle sighed dramatically. "Fine... OK, I did." She shook her fair head. "Anyway, I got down there, and just tried to keep people from killing each other. Then I saw the children.."

"Centaur children?" Toris asked, curious.

"Yeah." The bard answered. "And Arella was headed towards them with a sword so...uh.." She couldn’t help it, a blush was creeping up her neck. "Well, I had my staff, so I sort of stopped her." She gave a shrug.

"That was very brave." Cyrene said, quietly. Darting a glance at Xena’s face, which was calm.

"It was very dumb." Gabrielle laughed. "Because she picked up a staff and proceeded to beat the tar out of me." She paused, and glanced down, and felt, under the table, the gentle touch on her leg. And took a breath. "And once she knocked me down, she decided she wasn’t in the mood to play around any more, so she got a centaur crossbow, and there I was, kneeling in the mud, in front of a little centaur boy."

Silence around the table. Cyrene and Toris were staring at her, waiting for her to go on. Xena was watching them watching her. And felt her heartbeat pick up, in remembrance of topping that last grassy rise, and seeing the scene Gabrielle was describing. Relived in her mind that sudden jolt of panic driven energy that drove her forward into that last, desperate leap.

Toris cleared his throat a bit. "She thought better of it?" Hopefully.

"No." Gabrielle answered with a sigh. "She fired." A shrug, and the beginnings of a smile crossed her face. "One second, there I was, watching her finger pull the crossbow trigger, thinking a few last thoughts." A pause, and she glanced up at them. "Next second the arrow got pulled out from in front of my throat, and there was Xena, catching the second one, and heading towards Arella." Her eyes drifted to Xena’s face, and noted with a twinge of concern the tenseness she saw there. She slid a hand out and lightly touched the warrior’s knee, watching the blue eyes blink and turn to meet hers, and the taut lines slowly relax. That was scary for me. What must it have been like for her, to see it happening? Knowing she was the only thing in the world that could have stopped it? What would have happened if she hadn’t? A chill ran down the bard’s spine.

"Whoa!" Toris breathed, glancing at his sister. "Nice timing!" He backhanded her shoulder. "How come you didn’t teach us to do that trick?"

"I didn’t have several years." the warrior answered dryly, taking a deep breath and forcing herself to relax. ‘Besides, it’s not easy to teach. Mostly it’s just... instinct."

Cyrene caught her breath, and leaned forward, touching Xena’s hand. "And did you thrash her, dear?"

Xena chuckled and gave a little nod. "Yeah."

"Oh yeah." Gabrielle confirmed, with a snort. Picking up her ale, and taking a swallow. "She most certainly did."

"So then what?" Toris asked, draining his own cup. "Was it still raining? Sounds like a mess."

"Well, then the rest of the Amazons showed up." Gabrielle replied. "And Xena finished with Arella, so we got a chance to say hello to each other and then headed back to the Amazon village." Not daring to look at Xena’s face. Knowing the mischievous sparkle she’d see in those blue eyes, that would send a deep blush up her face, and blow her composure entirely. "And, yeah... it was still raining." A pause. "I think."

Xena laughed, surprising Cyrene and Toris, who didn’t consider the story a funny one. "I was wondering how you were going to end that." The warrior drawled, giving Gabrielle a poke in the arm.

Gabrielle bared her teeth at her chuckling companion. "I’m going to have to hurt you." She said in an undertone. Only making Xena laugh harder. "So then I find out that Xena, here, got knifed in the back by an ambush." Startling both of them. Cyrene’s eyes widened. They both glanced at Xena, who appeared none the worse for wear.

"It was just a scratch." The warrior waved them off.

"Yeah, which I had to stitch up. But whatever." Gabrielle grinned. "And then I find out she got from here to the Amazon village in less than two days. Wanna know how?" Her eyes danced, as she watched Xena roll her eyes.

"Absolutely." Cyrene stated, eyes glinting in amusement. She raised a finger at the serving girl for dessert.

"There’s a cliff, about a day out off the main road from here." The bard said, folding her hands on the table, and smiling. "You know it?"

"Yeah." Toris said, hesitantly. "There’s a river at the rock edge, and it goes pretty much straight up ,and up, and breaks the range in two pieces."

"She climbed it." A smirk at Xena.

Two pairs of eyes swiveled in her direction. "You didn’t." Cyrene whispered, shocked. "Xena, do you know how many people have..." Died, she thought, trying in their foolhardiness to climb that rock face?

Xena leaned back in her chair, and summoned up her very best bored warlord imitation. She took a long sip of ale and gave them all a shrug. "Wasn’t that bad." she replied, casually. "And it was hardly raining." Another sip. "And it with that, and the darkness, I couldn’t really see the bottom, so.. " They stared at her. "It really wasn’t that bad."

Dessert came, and distracted all of them. Toris cleared his throat and started relating how the sparring sessions were going to Xena. "They’ll be glad to see you back, at least for a little while, though." He grinned at her. "I’m not really that much of a challenge any more." He lowered his voice. "You’re going to hang around for a few days, right?"

Xena paused, then nodded. "Yeah. We’re due back at the Amazons at the full moon, so you’re stuck with us until then." She gave him a smile. "Not enough time to teach the arrows, I’m afraid."

Toris nodded. "I’m glad." He lowered his voice further, though Cyrene and Gabrielle were fully engaged in a conversation across the table. "Glad you got there in time." He reached out and squeezed her hand, catching her off guard. For a moment, he thought she was going to brush him off, then her face relaxed into a grin, and she returned the squeeze.

"Thanks." she responded. "Listen, you’d better take one of those cakes while you have a chance." Now her voice was amused. "Trust me." They both did so, and let the evening wind down, talking about local subjects, then Cyrene coaxed another story out of Gabrielle, what she called the ‘whole’ story of how Gabrielle came to hold the Amazon rite of caste. With an apologetic grin in Xena’s direction, the bard complied.

Finally, they stepped out of the warmth of the inn into a chilly clear evening. "Brr." Gabrielle said, wrapping her arms around her. "When did that happen?" She chuckled. "I think I’d better put a real shirt on before I freeze."

"Mmm." Xena agreed, slipping an arm around her shoulders. "Thought it felt like it was getting a little colder when we were on the way in." She tilted her head back and gazed up. "Makes the stars clearer, somehow."

Gabrielle looked up, and they both stopped walking and quietly studied the sparkling canopy "They’re beautiful" The bard said, softly, watching Xena nod in agreement. Watching the starlight reflected in her eyes. "Your mother said I could call her mom, by the way." the bard grinned.

Xena glanced down at her, and returned the smile. "Uh huh. I heard her." She reached up with her free hand and tapped her ear, giving the bard a rueful look. "They’re pretty sharp."

"Oh." Gabrielle said, then giggled. "I should know that by now, right?" She wrapped her arm around the warrior and pulled. "Come on, before I freeze."

The relative warmth of the barn was welcoming, but Gabrielle changed into one of her longer shirts, still chilled. "Your mom’s face when you insisted on staying in the barn..." she chuckled, rubbing her arms.

Xena snorted. "She’s full up anyway, and those rooms are too small. I get..." she glanced around. "I don’t know, it just bothers me." She carefully tucked away her armor, trying to ignore Ares attempts at helping. "Sorry for you, though - you must be used to a bed after a month." she gave the bard a smile.

Gabrielle shrugged. "Nah." She leaned against one of the centerposts in the barn, and watched as Xena stood, lifting the puppy and carrying him over to where she was standing. "oh... he’s shivering!" The bard exclaimed, touching the soft fur.

"So are you." Xena said, handing her the animal. "Here." Waiting until the bard took the puppy into her arms, then she pulled both of them close and wrapped her long arms around Gabrielle, relishing the bard’s immediate relaxation as their bodies made contact.

"Wow..." Gabrielle sighed happily. "that’s much better. How do you stay so warm, anyway? I’ve been meaning to ask you."

"Oh, I don’t know." Xena replied, with a half grin. "Hot blooded, I guess." Turning into a full grin, as she glanced down into Gabrielle’s eyes. ‘I never really thought about it."

Gabrielle chuckled, and snuggled closer. "Oh really?" Then she glanced over Xena’s shoulder. "Speaking of not thinking about things, do you have a stepladder handy? Cause I know you can jump high enough to get up into that hayloft, but I sure can’t."

"Ah." Xena commented, studying the edge of the loft, which was at her own eye level. "You know, I was having a talk with Ephiny about how I have to work pretty hard to keep up my skills."

Gabrielle cocked her head and studied her companion’s face. "Really?" And what brought up that subject, I wonder?

"Yeah." Xena replied. "And it is important. My life... " she brushed a lock of errant fair hair out of the bard’s eyes. "Our lives sometimes depend on it."

"That’s true." Gabrielle answered, gazing at her. "Mine sure did a few days ago."

"Mmm." Xena agreed. "But you know, sometimes I’m just glad I do it so I can occasionally impress my friends." And released the bard, letting her hands slide down and come to rest on her waist, then taking a firm grasp, and lifting up. "Hang on to the puppy." Taking a step forward, and raising the startled Gabrielle over her head and onto the hayloft floor with not much apparent effort. Stepping back and crossing her arms, giving her companion a smug grin. "There you go."

"OK." Gabrielle put the puppy down in the straw, and leaned forward. "I’m impressed." Laughing a little, and shaking her head. "You always impress me, you know that."

Xena chuckled, then sprang up and grabbed the loft support, pulling herself up next to the bard. "Stupid warrior tricks." she remarked wryly, as Ares clawed his way onto her leg, and attacked her hand. "Ouch." she scowled at the puppy.

Muffling a giggle, Gabrielle rolled across the wooden floor covered with a very thick carpet of soft hay, and settled on top of the familiar black sleeping fur with her hands behind her head. "Wow." She said, reaching up a finger and tracing lines in the wood. "So this is a childhood haunt of yours, huh?"

Xena joined her, cradling Ares on her chest. "Yeah." she answered quietly. "Lyceus and I used to hide out up here." She shrugged. "Do kid stuff, you know."

Gabrielle smiled at her affectionately. "I think my version of kid stuff is probably different than yours." She rolled onto her side, and faced Xena, propping up her head on her hand. "I bet you were a tomboy."

The warrior let out a surprised laugh. "Oh yeah." She nodded. "What we actually talked about up here were great battles, and how we were going to be fighters when we grew up."

"I wish I could have met him." The bard said, softly. "I wish it could have been different." She slid a hand up Xena’s nearby arm, and squeezed. She remained silent for a long moment, then. "Xena? Can I ask you something?"

Uh oh. When she asks me if she can ask me, I’m in trouble. "Always." Came the answer. "you know that."

Gabrielle dropped her gaze to the furs, and took a breath, choosing her words carefully. "Uhm. When we talked.. about.. well, us. And Jessan’s parents the other night?"

"Yeah." Xena drew out the word. "I remember."

"You said Jessan thought... we were like his parents." The bard continued, still not looking at her.

"I did." Xena responded, wincing. Why didn’t I tell her before now is the next question, Xena - better come up with a damn good answer.

"Why didn’t you tell me? Did you think he was wrong?" Came the very quiet question. And now Gabrielle looked up, and there was pain in her eyes. "Did you want him to be?"

Xena felt it hit her like a hammer, felt her body actually flinch. "No." She swallowed hard. "No, I didn’t think he was wrong." A pause. "I knew he was right. I.. I’ve felt it for a long time. I just never knew what it was until he described it that night. By the fire." Another pause to choose words. "I just didn’t know.. how you’d feel about it." Silence.

Gabrielle studied her intently. "And here I’ve been worrying about how you felt about it. We’re quite a pair." And a tiny smile broke the seriousness of her expression. "And for the record, I couldn’t be happier." She held up a hand as Xena drew breath to speak. "Wait, I know... it’s dangerous. It’s a rough life. I should be at the Academy. I know. " A breath. "I.. don’t...want...that.." She rolled over on her stomach. "I don’t want a normal life. I don’t want to settle down in some nice town with some nice guy. I don’t want to live in Athens. I don’t."

Xena just nodded a little, in acknowledgment. "All right. I believe you."

"You do?" Gabrielle responded, blinking. "Just like that? No argument?"

"Uh huh." Xena confirmed. "Just like that. After two years, I think you know what you’re getting into."

Gabrielle just looked at her with a smile. "After two years, you still surprise me sometimes."

"Mmmm... wouldn’t be good to be too predictable." The warrior drawled, with an attempt at an innocent look. It failed, but got a giggle from Gabrielle anyway. "Oh... you think that’s funny?" She lifted the sleepy Ares off her chest, and settled him in the straw, and hitched herself up on one elbow.

"Yeah." The bard chuckled, lifting one hand and letting her fingertips trail down Xena’s cheek. Tracing the smile there. "You know, you should smile more." she breathed. "It really looks good on you." Felt a tingle go up her arm as the warrior turned her head slightly, and kissed her palm. Closing her eyes as Xena reached over and stroked the side of her face, then let her touch drift down the side of her neck, tracing her jugular, which was now pounding fast against the warrior's fingertips.

Then she was being lifted up, and settled into Xena’s arms and she got a much more intimate experience of that smile. They spent a leisurely time at that, and in a slow exploration of each other with tentative but increasingly confident touches.

Gabrielle let instinct take over, and an innate sense, which she realized, in a fuzzy sort of way, must be part of whatever it was that linked them together, because there were things she now just knew. And that was a good thing, because there was no awkwardness between them, as both had sort of expected, and it was very comfortable, and very intense, and then got more so.

And then she was trying to catch her breath, letting her body relax into a nice warm spot it was going to be really hard to get out of. Even Xena was breathing hard, and her heartbeat was up, as the bard could plainly hear under her left ear. But even as she listened, it slowed, and resumed it’s normal beat, long before her own did.

"You all right?" Came Xena’s gentle question, which the bard could hear as a vibration in her ear as much as a sound in the air.

She nodded, not having the energy to speak, and felt Xena’s lips brush her head, and a chuckle move through her, rippling the muscles under the bard’s hand. Smiling, she let herself drift into sleep.

It was, as always, still dark when Xena reluctantly let her eyes open. Sometimes, this before dawn stuff is overrated. Her mind complained idly, as she gazed down at the sleeping bard wrapped around her. But that wasn’t overrated... she felt a slow grin cross her face. Damn, it had been a while... but it had been like we’d been doing this for.. years. Strange. Nice, though.

She could feel the gentle warmth of Gabrielle’s breathing against her skin where her shirt was half opened, and realized with a sense of bemusement. that her own breathing was keeping the same rhythm. Lifted a hand to stroke the fair hair cascading over her shoulder. And was surprised when the green eyes blinked dreamily open and glanced up to meet hers.

"Hey." Gabrielle mumbled. "It’s dark."

"It’s before dawn." Xena answered, chuckling.

"Ugh." the bard responded. "You do this every day, don’t you."

"Uh huh." her companion replied. "Almost."

"My respect for you just jumped three notches." Gabrielle admitted, then peeked over Xena’s chest, and spotted Ares sound asleep sprawled across her left shoulder. "Awww.." The puppy responded by opening his eyes, and yawning, stretching his tiny front paws out, then resettling himself with a satisfied sigh. "So." A look "What’s on your usual agenda at this disgusting hour?"

"Mmm...hunting, early in the morning." Xena replied. "Just anything that needs doing around here after that, then drills after lunch. "

"I see." Gabrielle chewed on this for a moment. "Hunting for anything in particular?"

Xena considered. "Well, at first, mom’s larder was so bare, I had to get whatever I could - she was serving for lunch what I caught before breakfast." she chuckled. "First day I brought home a big buck. Should have seen her face." A pause. "Then, it became more habit than anything. They’re nice woods.. it’s home.. " she shrugged. "I like being out there."

"Mmm." the bard mused, "Well, what I think is, you healing from a knife wound and all, you shouldn’t go out on a nasty, wet, cold morning like this."

"Oh really?" Xena snorted. "Gabrielle, you know perfectly well there’s nothing wrong with me."

"Ah ah ah..." Gabrielle lazily lifted a hand and wagged a finger at her. "No sense in taking any chances." She smiled up at her sweetly. "Come on, often do I get a chance to convince you to sleep in?" She paused. "Hmm?" Using her right hand, she gently rubbed the warrior’s half exposed belly, much as she would have the puppy’s.

"Mmm...keep doing that, and you’ll have your wish." Xena admitted, capitulating without much struggle.

"Oh really?" the bard grinned in delight. "That puts you to sleep?"

"I shouldn’t admit it, but... yeah, always has " A low chuckle. "You know, you really are a bad influence, Gabrielle."

"Uh huh." Gabrielle grinned in happy triumph. "Now close your eyes." She kept up her light massage, charmed to see the warrior’s eyes shut, and her body relax.

Oh well. Xena thought, as she drifted off. She’s right, she doesn’t do it often, and it is cold outside, and that damn knife wound does still ache, though I’d better not tell her that.

Gabrielle waited until Xena’s breathing had deepened before she put her head back down and let the steady heartbeat lull her back to sleep.

Xena just sighed, as she took some sarcastic kidding from Toris the next morning for sleeping late. "Toris, drop it." She finally said, glancing across the table at him, with one of her more no nonsense looks.

"Aw, c’mon, sis..." Toris laughed. "Too much ale last night?" He started, and glanced up as a touch fell on his shoulder. "Oh, hi Gabrielle."

"Hi." The bard said, leaning on him. "Can I see you outside for a minute?" With a sweet smile.

"Uh... sure." Toris responded, agreeably. "Let’s go." He turned to Xena. "I’ll be back."

Xena waved with one hand, shaking her head. "Gods." she sighed again, giving her mother an aggrieved look. "You’re sure we’re related, right?"

Toris and Gabrielle walked outside, and Gabrielle closed the door behind them, then she turned and gently pushed Toris against the wall, leaning against it with one arm.

"All right... all right... what’s this all about?" Toris laughed, crossing his arms.

"Look." The bard said, suddenly serious. "She really hates being teased."

Toris frowned. "Hey, I’m her brother. I know her."

Gabrielle leaned forward, and pinned him with her eyes, despite their difference in height. "You don’t know her at all. " She said, letting a bit of anger show. "Let me tell you something. Most of the time she pushes herself so hard, it would kill just about anyone else I’ve ever known. Most of the time we’re out there in a world where we have to fight just about every day and that never stops. Never. Most of the time she’s so hair triggered that even I have to be careful not to walk up behind her without warning." She stepped closer. "So if I take the opportunity to get her to relax for a couple of days, do me a favor?" She poked him in the chest. "Don’t give her a hard time, OK? Because I don’t get this chance very often."

Toris blinked at her. ‘I’m sorry, Gabrielle." he finally said. "She’s just so... I don’t know... she always seems so.. invincible... like nothing ever hurts her. " He shrugged. "I know... she’s my sister, and so she’s just as much flesh and blood as I am, but it never seems that way."

The bard took a deep breath. "I know. Believe me, I know." A pause. "She does more things with sheer will than most people could do with the strength of the gods. But she bleeds, Toris... and gets hurt about as often as anyone. And that same will makes it almost impossible for me to get her to slow down and take it easy for a while, out there. So, here, at home... I’m going to try. Don’t mess me up."

Toris chewed his lip thoughtfully. "All right." He agreed. "I promise."

"Good." Gabrielle grinned. "And you can say thank you, because I can tell you that you were about to be picked up and tossed across the tavern in there."

"Aw, come on." Toris objected. "She wouldn’t..."

Gabrielle raised her eyebrow at him in silence.

"Oh." he finished weakly. "Um...thanks."

They walked back inside, where Gabrielle immediately claimed a plate and a seat next to Xena and dug enthusiastically into breakfast.

Xena took a look at her brother’s face, then at the bard’s, and ducked her head, chuckling. "So." She commented to Gabrielle. "This more to your liking?" Indicating the breakfast.

The bard nodded. "Uh huh" she mumbled, around a mouthful. Hastily she swallowed. "Take me on a tour after?" She gave Xena an innocent look. "Didn’t get a proper one, last time we were here."

"A tour." Xena repeated, glancing at her. "Sure."

The leisurely tour turned into a walk in the forest, where the bard insisted she be shown the area where all the action had taken place when Ephiny was there. So Xena did, and also showed her the spring, and a rock that was great for drying off on. So naturally, Gabrielle insisted on trying it, so they spent the morning swimming and sunning, by which time Xena had picked up on the general plan. Should I let her get away with this? She mused, sprawled on the rock with a cool breeze counteracting the warmth of the sun, and tangling her dark hair and Gabrielle’s red gold where the bard’s head rested on her shoulder. Yeah... why not? A few days peace and quiet couldn’t hurt either of us.

So the next morning, she didn’t even stir at dawn, just wrapped her arms more securely around Gabrielle, and let the sun shining into the glazed window wake them both up. And other than the drilling after lunch, and their fair share of chores around the inn, gave the bard free rein to plan the day. And found she was enjoying herself very much, and was quietly relieved to see a month’s accumulation of strain ease from her companion’s face, and her bubbly good nature reassert itself with solid conviction.

On the fourth morning after they’d arrived, Xena had woken early, too full of energy to stay asleep, and had left the equally wakeful bard to dress while she padded up to the inn, hearing unmistakable early morning sounds from the kitchen. She pushed the door open, and poked her dark head in, spotting Cyrene struggling with a cast iron pot of water. "Mother." She chided, and reaching over Cyrene’s shoulder, grabbed the handle and lifted it out of the older woman’s hands, swinging it over her head, and onto the firepit.

Cyrene gave her an affectionate hug. "You have the knack of being in the right place at the right time." she chuckled. "And don’t think I don’t appreciate that."

Xena raised an eyebrow, but smiled. "I do my best."

"And that’s generally quite, quite good." Her mother acknowledged, tilting her head to regard her daughter. "Got some sun, did you?" A quirk of a grin. " Looks good." She let her face go serious. "By the way, I’ve been meaning to tell you.. I love having both of you here." Reaching out a hand and gently grasping Xena’s arm. "I really like your Gabrielle. You know, she comes in here and entertains us all with stories in the afternoon."

"I’m glad." Xena smiled. "She’s a good storyteller." Hope she’s been toning down the stories though... "And she collects quite a few stories."

Cyrene turned and picked up a sweet roll from a tray, and offered it. "Here." Took one for herself, and they munched in silence for a short time. "Those stories are true, aren’t they." She asked, looking directly into her daughter’s blue eyes. "The ones she tells.. about you."

Xena leaned against the post, and took a deep breath. "Well...yeah." She gave her mother a little shrug. "Most of them, though I think she tends to emphasize the..." An amused look. "most dramatic parts." What’s she been telling them, I wonder?

Cyrene turned, and began tossing things into the pot of water, hiding a smile. "Well, dear...I had to think of you as a warlord, for a long time. Then, I got to think of you as just my daughter." She turned and backhanded her lightly on the stomach. "Now I get to think of you as a hero. It’s a bit disconcerting. You see?"

"Oh." Xena blushed. "’s been a tough sell for me, too." she admitted, with a rueful grin. "And I know I’m not nearly as heroic as Gabrielle tells it. "

"Wrong." The bard interrupted cheerfully, draping a casual arm over Xena’s shoulder. "I hold back. No one would believe it otherwise." She was wearing a sleeveless white tunic, and the contrast between it, and her newly sun bronzed skin was striking. "Really." she insisted, giving Xena a wicked grin.

Xena snorted, then as the bard started to elaborate, reached behind her, grabbing a sweet roll, and stuffed it in Gabrielle’s mouth. "There. That should keep you quiet for a minute."

"Hey." The bard managed to get out, around a mouthful of roll. She chewed for a minute, then swallowed. "I’ll get you for that." She promised a smirking Xena. "Hi Mom... great rolls." Directed at Cyrene, who glanced warmly at her.

The older woman smiled at them, shaking her head. "You two...." Are obviously made for each other. Her mind finished silently. What a lovely girl this bard is...and the expression in her eyes when she looks at my daughter... I’d almost forgotten what love looks like. Now I remember... seeing that.

Xena pushed off from the wall support, and shook her head. "I’m going to see what I can find for dinner. " She ruffled Gabrielle’s hair. "Try not to cause too much trouble, OK?"

"ME???" The bard snorted. "Like I EVER cause trouble. Unlike some OTHER people I could think Mmffph." she sighed melodramatically as Xena popped another roll into her mouth, and then disappeared. And then glanced at Cyrene, who was trying not to burst out laughing. "See what I have to put up with?" A glance in the direction the warrior had taken, then back at Cyrene.

"Do you like hunting?" Cyrene asked, curiously.

"Uhm." Gabrielle hesitated. "Well, no. I don’t have the heart to kill things.. especially when they’re cute. Like rabbits." She grinned. "On the other hand, I do like to eat, as you am sure have noticed, so Xena is very kind to me.. she does the hunting, and field dresses what she gets before she brings it back." She finished her roll, and carried the stack of ingredients Cyrene had been working with over to the table for her. "So I don’t have to see the eyes and things."

Cyrene chuckled. "Oh. I see." She began sorting the ingredients. "Thank you, by the way." Started putting them in the now steaming water. ‘Gabrielle..."

"Mmm?" The bard replied, stepping closer, and cocking her fair head at the older woman. ‘What’s wrong?" Knowing something was, reading the woman’s body language almost as easily as her daughters.

"We had heard.. a while back. A rumor." Cyrene concentrated on her ingredients, not looking at Gabrielle. "False, as I know.. but we’d heard she died." Now she looked up at the bard, to gauge the expression in her eyes. And was shocked at what she found. "I’m sorry...did I upset you? I only wondered what would cause that kind of...Gabrielle?" She reached out and grasped the younger woman’s shoulders.

Taking shuddering breath. "No... I’m OK." she managed, giving Cyrene what she hoped was a reassuring smile. "That just caught me off guard." Boy, did it. I forgot how stories can fly around the countryside. Why didn’t I think that particular one would have made it here, of all places?

"Here." Cyrene ordered, steering her to a chair. "You’re white as a sheet. Sit down." Gods.. it must be true. "Now, tell me." She said, patting the bard’s hand.

And Gabrielle did, speaking quietly, and trying to remove herself from the emotions of the story. Except when she got to the cabin in the mountains, and Nicklio, her breath came tight in her chest, and she had to stop. "Give me a minute." she swallowed. "I have nightmares about this part."

"No... you don’t have to go on." Cyrene whispered, aghast. "Gabrielle, please. I can see this is hurting you. Stop."

"You have a right to know." the bard said, with a grim smile. "She’s your daughter." And she continued, down the mountain, and meeting Iolaus, and the Amazons. Then Autolycus, and the sudden, unlooked for rebirth of hope, and now it became easier to tell.

"Wait... how did she do that?" Cyrene asked, bewildered. "Is that possible?"

Gabrielle shook her head. "She found a way." And told the rest, of Velasca, and the ambrosia, and, at last, the moment when she came back. ‘You’re the first person who I’ve actually told that story to." She finished, quietly. "It’s just too hard." She paused. "Too personal."

"Oh Gabrielle." Cyrene murmured, clasping her hand. "I’m sorry."

"So was I" the bard smiled briefly. "It was the worst thing that ever happened to me." She took a breath, and glanced up, settling her shoulders. "But it’s in the past." She gave Cyrene a compassionate look. "I’m sorry you had to hear the way you did.. I forget, sometimes, just how far and how fast stories travel about her."

They heard footsteps outside the door, and Gabrielle half rose, recognizing that distinctive tread. The door swung open and Xena powered her way through the opening, turning to slide a small deer off her shoulders and onto the table, then cross over to her, and press her back down.

"What’s wrong?" the warrior asked, darting a glance at Cyrene, then focusing completely on Gabrielle. "What’s got you upset?" Blue eyes boring intently into mist green.

"I’m OK." the bard responded, laying a hand on her companion’s shoulder. "Your mom just asked me about a rumor they heard around here a few months ago." The quiver at the corner of her mouth told Xena exactly which rumor.

Xena looked over at her mother. "She told you." Not a question. Cyrene’s nod confirmed it. "Sorry about that. I should have sent word."

"It’s all right." Cyrene replied, "I.. I really didn’t think it was true." she glanced over at the deer on the table, then at the two of them. "I’m going to get my butchering knives." Stood and left the room, knowing the knives were right where they usually were, in the knife box. On the table. Knew Xena knew that too.

The warrior let a hint of a smile cross her face, then turned to Gabrielle. "You OK?" Very softly. Chafing the bard’s cold hands. Feeling the sense of responsibility for causing this pain settle squarely on her shoulders. Glad they’re broad. Cause I’m never going to get rid of this particular piece of guilt.

"Yeah, I’m OK." The bard smiled. "Really... she just caught me by surprise.. I don’t know why I just went off like that." She rubbed her temples. "I mean, I can usually talk about it fine.. I hate the nightmares, but it’s not like I go into a panic about it..."

Xena stood, and moved around to the back of the chair, reaching over and massaging the tension out of Gabrielle’s suddenly aching neck. "Stress hits you right there, doesn’t it." The warrior remarked. "I noticed that. You get this great big knot back here." She glanced over to the larder. "Have you had anything but those sweet rolls?" The bard shook her head. "Hang on." Xena walked over, and took off a corner of fresh bread, and a large slice of cheese, and handed it to her companion. "Eat. Sweets on an empty stomach do strange things sometimes."

The bard ate in silence, stealing glances at Xena, who had retrieved the butchering knives from the tool box and set to work on the deer, skinning it and removing the organs, which she discarded. "You know, I feel a lot better now." She remarked, dusting off her hands. "You were right. As usual." Catching the wry grin directed at her over one blue linen clad shoulder.

Cyrene stuck her head back in, and bustled through the door when she spotted Xena cleaning her kill. "Ah, there they are." she said, ignoring the knowing grin from her daughter. "Give me those." She bumped Xena out of the way, or tried to, and bounced off. "Gods, you’re solid." she laughed, reaching for the knives. "Come on, give. "

Xena turned the blades over, giving her mother a reassuring grin. "It’s OK." she said, softly.

Cyrene nodded, and put her hand on Xena’s arm. "I’m glad you’re OK." Just as softly. "Go take her for a walk or something. We’ll talk later."

Xena nodded, and turned to the bard. "Swim?" she asked, raising an eyebrow. My turn to play this game, I guess. "Worked up a sweat chasing that deer down." Saw by the quirky grin on Gabrielle’s face that she wasn’t fooling her, and returned the grin. "Yeah, yeah... come on anyway."

"You don’t have to ask me twice." Gabrielle grinned, and sauntered over, poking her ribs and sliding out the door first.

They walked up to the spring and sat down on one of the rocks, side by side. Xena glanced at the bard. "You sure you’re OK?" she asked.

"I’m fine." Gabrielle answered, staring off across the spring.

"You’re lying." Xena responded, tilting her head, and making eye contact.

Gabrielle closed her eyes, and dropped her head. "Yeah." A deep, deep breath. "Sorry. That touched something... I don’t know what’s going on with me."

Now what... Damn... "We don’t talk about that whole...thing much." Xena replied, carefully choosing her words. "I know that was a pretty bad week for you. " She shrugged. "It wasn’t really great for me either."

Gabrielle looked up, and studied her face. "Why did you just give up?" The question she’d been wanting to ask ever since. Needing to ask.

I can’t lie about this. "Gabrielle I was.. not in the present... when I was feverish from the head wound. I was reliving a very bad period in my past.. the one thing that, more than anything else, made me what I am. Was. I hope I’m not still that person." Staring down at the water. "And... Nicklios was the one who healed me, that time. And his healing me let me become.. who I am. And my being there caused the death of someone who was an innocent, whom I cared for a lot." A long pause. "And I thought... in my fever, that if he let me die, then...a whole lot of things wouldn’t happen. Like Cirra. And everything that caused."

"Oh.’ Gabrielle’s almost inaudible answer. "We would never have met, then." The strain in her voice was very evident.

"No." Xena answered. "And I wasn’t convinced that wouldn’t have been better for you. You’d be safe at home, Perdicus would still be alive.. anyway." A long pause. "I didn’t realize... until after, that I wasn’t that person. I was who I am now.. and by then, it was too late. " The warrior continued, a touch of hoarseness entering her own voice.

"Then how..." the bard cleared her throat and started again. "How did...why...?"

Xena finally raised her head, and met the mist green gaze across from her. "My friend that died, M’lila.. she came to me, where I was...and told me it wasn’t my time..." a faint smile crossed her lips. "She told me to listen to the thoughts of the living." Now the smile became more definite. "And so I did... and do you know whose thoughts I heard?"

"Mine?" Came the whispered answer.

Xena nodded. "Yours." And reached out a hand to stroke the bard’s cheek. "Right until then I hadn’t realized...well, anyway, I had to find a way. I couldn’t leave you... not in that much pain... Gabrielle, I couldn’t." she gave a little shrug. "So I found a way."

"You did." The bard laid her head against Xena’s warm shoulder. "And every morning, when I wake up and see you there, I say thank you." She closed her eyes. "Because I don’t think I realized until right then either...and it was about the worst moment of my life." She let her eyes open, and stared off across the water.

Xena saw the haunted look. Damn... now what can I say to her that’ll knock that out of there... she paused, a thought occurring to her. Well... I can try that one...I don’t think I’ve tried that one yet. Would that be a plan A, or a plan B. Oh, definitely a plan B. She bent her head, and looked at Gabrielle, waiting for the bard to sense her gaze, and look back. Which she did, an expression of gentle inquiry crossing her face.

"What?" Gabrielle asked.

"I love you." The warrior answered. And watched a fierce answering glow jump into the bard’s intense eyes. Oh.. wow... I think that hit the target.

The bard’s answer was a smothering hug, coming at her with such momentum that Xena was knocked off her usually flawless balance, and was unable to prevent them both from tumbling off the rock and into the rippling cold water of the spring.

So tangled up, that it took all of Xena’s considerable strength to push up from the bottom, and get both their heads up and through the surface, where she coughed the water out of her lungs, and managed to hang on to the bard at the same time. "Damn, Gabrielle." She finally wheezed, having tread water to a point where she could stand up, and support the still coughing bard. "Next time, remind me not to do that near any water."

"Gods." Gabrielle gasped. "Sorry." She burst into laughter. "No I’m not." She coughed a few more times, then blew out a breath. "Wow." And looked up at Xena, who was watching her with a tolerantly amused grin, and cradling her like a baby in water that was up to the warriors shoulders. "I love you too." She paused, as they regarded each other. "Just in case you hadn’t had a clue about that yet." Both smiled. Gabrielle slid her arms up around Xena’s neck, and pulled her head down for a kiss, and when they broke off, she regarded the warrior with a suspicious look.

"Hot blooded or no, I want you to explain to me how you still manage to be toasty warm standing in the middle of an ice cold spring." She put her cheek against Xena’s arm. "Because you are."

The warrior chuckled. "Maybe it’s the company I’m keeping." she drawled. "Come on, let’s get this stuff out to dry."

They spread out their tunics to dry, and spent the balance of the morning swimming, then sunning next to their tunics on the nicely warmed rock.

"Hey... I think I’m going to join you guys for that afternoon sparring." Gabrielle commented from her comfortably relaxed position using the warrior as a pillow.

"Sure." Xena replied, opening one eye, and regarding her. "Anytime.. you know you’re welcome to." She yawned. "It’ll be a pleasure to have someone good to spar against for a change." She paused, and opened the other eye. "You getting bored of telling my mother stories." Hopefully.

Gabrielle snorted, and smacked the warrior’s thigh. "Ouch. I have to remember not to do that." she commented. "No... I just don’t want your mom’s cooking catching up with me. "

"Mmm." Xena agreed. "See your point.’ll make up for a month with the Amazons." she gave Gabrielle a sly grin. "I don’t remember being able to count your ribs before I dropped you off there." she reached over and ran her fingertips up the bard’s ribcage, causing the younger woman to giggle. "Anyway, it won’t hurt you, so enjoy it while you can. We barely keep even when we’re out on the road."

"Good point." Gabrielle mused. "And I do enjoy it." She craned her neck around and gave Xena a look. "And so do you."

"Uh huh." Xena gave her a lazy grin. "You about ready to go back? I think our stuff’s dry."

So they did, separating when they reached the inn. Xena retrieved her hand ax, and started methodically preparing firewood, and Gabrielle went in search of Cyrene, to see if she could relieve the older woman from whatever task she was at.

"Hi mom." the bard said, as she entered the storage area, and plucked the large bag Cyrene was hauling from her hands.

"Oh!" Cyrene started. "Goodness, Gabrielle. You startled me." She laughed, but peered intently at her. "You look much better now. Did you have a nice swim?" Her eyes twinkled.

Gabrielle returned the grin. "Yeah." She hefted the sack. "Where do you want this?"

"On that table, dear." Cyrene chuckled. She followed the bard into the kitchen area, and watched, amused, as Gabrielle selected a knife from her collection and started slicing the vegetables in the sack. "So, you were starting to tell me a story about that giant yesterday."

"Right." Gabrielle picked up the tale, not missing a beat with her knife.

Xena came in and joined them for lunch, along with a muddy Toris, who had been fishing. A number of her quarterstaff class also came in, having finished in the fields for the day. Toris was busy bragging about his fishing catch to Xena, who was listening with a patiently bemused expression. Two of the villagers had seated themselves at the table next to where Gabrielle was sitting, and were shyly asking her about a particular story they’d heard in another village.

"Oh, that." The bard finished swallowing and said. "Well, that’s sort of how it happened." She related the story between bites of stew and bread.

They cleared the yard after lunch, and her class assembled, grinning when they saw not only their teacher, but Gabrielle warming up. Nudges were passed among them, when a smiling Xena stepped back, and motioned the bard to engage her, and they put on a show for the circle of villagers.

"Wow." Toris murmured to one of his cronies. "She’s pretty good."

Gabrielle felt her body settle into a comfortable rhythm, as she became reacquainted with Xena’s quicksilver style after a month of working with the Amazons, and felt the remembered sting of her rapid attack. Damn... I’d almost forgotten how good she is. The bard took a settling breath. Remembering all over again who this was she was facing. Knowing she could once again go full out without fear of hurting her opponent, which was something she had to worry about when she was facing Eponin. Which had been a very strange feeling.

"You know, when I was working with Eponin..." the bard commented to Xena, who was working her through a series of attacks and parries. "the first time, it threw me way off because she’d try to slam me back.."

"Oh, like this?" Xena asked, and lunged.

"Uh.." Smack. "Whoa." Smack. "Yeah, like that. Anyway, she’d try to do that, and it was... like it was a kid doing it. I could hardly feel it." Gabrielle finished, absorbing the powerful thrust, feeling the shock jar her shoulders. "Ouch." A stinging parry. "Wow... haven’t felt that in a while."

"Sorry." Xena apologized. "Let me know if it’s getting too much for you." In a lower voice. "We haven’t done this for a month."

"Don’t apologize." Gabrielle grinned, and came at her. "I’ve missed this." And went full out, giving her attack everything she had, and actually driving Xena back a few paces. Seeing the delighted grin on the warriors face, as she turned it on, and came back at her, walking a delicate balancing act between giving the bard a challenge, and letting her fighting instincts take control.

Back and forward they ranged, until Xena felt in the response that Gabrielle was tiring, and they went through a final flurry, then backed off, and accepted the applause from the class. Xena waved them off with a roll of her eyes, then walked over and grabbed a water skin, taking a long sip, then padding over to where Gabrielle was standing, leaning on her staff. "You all right?" Xena murmured, as she got closer.

"Yeah." the bard answered, reaching for the water. "Just catching my breath." She took a pull on the skin and chuckled. "Amazons don’t have anything on you, my friend."

Xena snorted. "Uh huh. Take a break while I get these guys moving."

"Nah... I’m fine." the bard protested.

The warrior studied her face, then her eyes dropped to the pulse point at Gabrielle’s neck. One eyebrow raised. "Sit down for a few minutes." Her voice was quiet now, but held the note which Gabrielle recognized as Xena meaning business.

"OK." she said. And walked over to the wall, leaning against it and taking another sip of water. Her heart was pounding a little harder than she’d expected. That’s what a month of not keeping up with this gets me. I think I see her point. She watched as Xena started the lesson, bringing the villagers forward first singly, then in pairs. Waited a few minutes for her heart to settle, then hung the water skin up, and trotted in to join the class.

Xena broke them up into two groups, and showed Gabrielle what she was doing in the way of basics, and then they just went at it.

Things went fine, and the class was almost over, when the warrior noticed a flurry of activity to her right, and realized that Gabrielle was squaring off against her brother. She waved off her student, and turned around to watch, folding her hands around her staff and leaning on it.

Toris’ competitive nature, akin to her own, was escalating his bout from a thrust and parry class to a full contest with Gabrielle, who, by the intent look on her face, had realized this. She was deflecting his attacks, moving with a solid sureness that brought a brief smile to Xena’s watching face.

Toris’ face was getting flushed, and his movements wilder, as he began to lose control over what he was doing. He tried to over power the smaller Gabrielle, but she sidestepped his lunges, and started to take advantage of the openings his lack of control was causing, and slipped in with several stinging slaps. He swung viciously at her head, and she caught his staff with her own, shoving him back off balance, to his disbelief.

He collected himself, then slammed his staff back into hers, and moved his stance to his left, swinging the top of his staff up and towards her neck. Unexpectedly, Gabrielle dropped to one knee, and with a backhand swing, took out his knees, dumping him to the ground in a scattering of dust. Shaking her fair head, she stood, and dusted her hands off, then picked up her staff and headed in Xena’s direction.

Toris’ temper snapped, and he lurched to his feet, grabbing the his own staff up and swinging it towards the back of Gabrielle’s head in a vicious arc.

Gabrielle had caught Xena’s eyes as she walked towards the warrior, and saw the sudden widening, and the first hint of alarm as Xena’s whole body surged into sudden motion.

And she realized what it had to be, and reacting on instinct, she whirled and raised her staff in a into a defensive alignment that by pure luck caught Toris’ descending blow and deflected it.

Felt her own temper snap, as she followed that up by whipping her staff up with all the strength she possessed and sent his own flying, then slammed into his chest with the end of hers, and knocked him to the ground.

And knelt over him, the end of her staff pinning him to the dirt.

"All right, class is over." Came Xena’s voice from behind her. She heard the shuffling footsteps of the rest of the villagers leaving. Then silence. Then felt a pair of warm hands on her shoulders. "Why don’t you go inside and get some water." That voice in her ear, rumbling down her understanding. "I need to have a little talk with my brother." A pause. "Gab?"

Then she was taking a deep breath, and letting Xena pull her up and away from Toris. Facing her. "Let me take care of this." She said, meeting Xena’s level gaze. "It’s between me and him."

A long, long look of regard from those blue eyes. "All right." Xena said finally. "I’ll be inside." She patted Gabrielle’s cheek, and turned and walked towards the inn.

The bard watched her go, then crouched down next to the still prone Toris. "Are you suicidal?" she asked, almost conversationally. "You need to learn to control your temper."

Toris stared at her. "What do you mean, suicidal?" he asked, slowly sitting up. "I wasn’t going to... I mean...I didn’t... oh Hades." He rubbed his head. "I can’t help it. I just lose track of what I’m doing, I get so mad."

"Toris." Gabrielle said, laying a hand on his arm. "If I hadn’t blocked that blow, you would have hurt me." Catching his guilty look. "Probably really badly. You’re very strong."

He dropped his head. Gabrielle reached over and tugged his chin up so that he would have to meet her eyes. "Toris, do you understand what would have happened then?" She sent her voice deeper. "That’s not fair to her, Toris. Not fair." A pause. "I won’t have that happen. You are not going to cause her that kind of pain, Toris. Don’t you ever do anything like that again."

Toris blinked at her. "I am sorry, Gabrielle. It just gets to me, sometimes. Being third best in a party of three." He looked down. "I have Lyceus’ ghost, and the reality of my sister, and I’m not sure which is worse. "

And Gabrielle sat down, there in the dust, and put a hand on his knee, and met those very familiar blue eyes in this flawed mirror image of someone whose heart she knew, and felt compassion for him. "I’m sorry, Toris. I really am." And patted his leg in comfort.

"You know, I used to hate my sister. " Toris sighed. "Then I felt sorry for her." Now he looked right into Gabrielle’s mist green eyes. "Now I wish I was her." He glanced down. "Life is funny that way."

The bard smiled, and, reaching up, brushed a bit of hair out of his eyes, surprising him. "You’ll find your way, Toris."

"Think so?" He asked, gazing at her.

"Yeah, I think so." Gabrielle grinned. And she stood, and held out a hand to help him up. He took it, and stood next to her.

"You’re pretty remarkable, you do know that, right?" Toris said, dusting his pants off.

"Nah." Gabrielle shrugged. "I just do what I do." She brushed herself off, and started towards the inn. Barely, in the shadows of the window, she spotted a vague movement, and smiled inwardly. "And you owe me yet another thank you."

Toris glanced at the inn, and scowled, but shot her a rueful smile. "Yeah, I really think I do this time. I saw her face before you stood up. You didn’t. That wouda hurt."

Xena nodded a little to herself, as she pulled back from the window and dropped into a nearby chair. Looked up at a scraping sound, to see Cyrene settling next to her and pushing a mug towards her across the table.

"Here." Cyrene said, quietly. "Looks like you could use this."

The warrior glanced inside the mug, and smiled. "I’ve always liked this stuff." She admitted, and took a long sip.

"Johan asked me what I fed you as a child to make you grow up so big and strong.’ Cyrene commented wryly. "I told him you always drank lots of milk." She chuckled. "I don’t think he believed me."

The door to the inn opened, and Gabrielle walked over to their table and sat down. "OK, all better now." she remarked, as Xena gave her a raised eyebrow stare. "Really." A quick grin. "He just has a bad case of Warrior Princess envy."

Xena laughed. "Nice defense, by the way. You heard him coming?" She took another long sip of milk, studying the bard’s face.

Gabrielle shook her head. "Nope. Saw you start to move." She leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees and rolled her head forward, then sighed. "I’m going to go change. This tunic’s full of mud." She stood and plucked at Xena’s blue sleeve. "Not all of us can do a couple of hours of this without raising a sweat, like some people I could name, but won’t." She winked at Cyrene, then threaded her way through the tables to the front door and left.

Xena let her eyes follow the bard until she disappeared, then returned her attention to her mug, and the level gaze of her mother. She sighed inwardly. "I owe you an apology, I think." she said, quietly.

Cyrene leaned forward, and studied her. "I don’t expect progress reports from you, Xena. It’s your life out there, and most of the time I’m sure I’d rather not know what you’re doing. It would scare me out of good sense."

"But this was different." The warrior acknowledged, glancing at her.

"This was different." Cyrene confirmed. "I think your family deserved better than to hear this from some wandering minstrel." Her voice displayed tightly held anger.

Xena regarded her for a long moment. "For a long time, my family would have greeted that news with a cheer." Flatly.

Her mother took a breath. Not denying it. "That was true." She answered, watching the flinch in the blue eyes facing her. "But that’s not true now. And I think you know that."

"I know." Came the answer. "But for a long time I didn’t think I had a family. Then.. there was Gabrielle. Now... I have you again." She steepled her hands on the table and rested her fingers against her lips. "It’s been a tough adjustment." She played with the mug idly, then looked up. "I’m sorry. I just didn’t think." We won’t mention I was a little occupied right after that with angry and insane immortals and gods. No. I think that would scare her out of good sense. "You’re right. You deserve better."

Cyrene smiled. "Apology accepted." She patted Xena’s hand. "I hope there won’t be a next time, but if there is, please.."

Xena let a slow smile cross her face. "I promised Gabrielle there wouldn’t be a next time."

Her mother’s eyebrows rose in a familiar expression. "That’s a hard promise to keep." she said, her face serious. What a thing to ask of someone who spends their life in constant fighting. But maybe that bard knew exactly what she was doing....

Xena nodded slowly. "More than you know." Her lips twitched into a grin. "But I intend to keep this one."

"Keep what?" Came Gabrielle’s curious voice, as she slid back into the chair she’d vacated a short time ago.

"I was apologizing to mother." Xena explained.

"Ah." the bard replied. She was about to continue when the front door to the inn slammed open, and a flustered villager stumbled in."Raiding party, inbound." He blurted, glancing around and spotting Xena with a look of profound relief. "Mounted, and they look like they mean business."

Xena launched herself out the door and towards the barn, hitting the door and catapulting herself over Ares’ startled body. She could hear the approaching thunder of hoofbeats, and didn’t stop for armor, but grabbed her sword from it’s sheath and turned back towards the door, leaping over the confused puppy again, and heading for the village road at a dead run.

It was disciplined chaos in front of the inn, as her quarterstaff class assembled, nervous, but eager, moving to defensive positions at Toris’ direction.

The first riders thundered in just as Xena had crossed the open space in front of the inn, and she didn’t even slow down, but dug in hard and leaped for the lead rider, taking him right off his horse and into the road, slamming an elbow hard into his ribcage, and feeling the man go limp under her.

Bounding up, and dodging a slashing blade, returning the stroke with her own sword and seeing blood fly as she connected. Reaching up and grabbing an arm of a third, and yanking hard, pulling him down off his mount, and causing the animal to slip in the soft dirt and come down as well.

Around her, she saw grim villagers making a steady assault on the attackers, backing each other up, and taking down a fair number of them. An instinctive glance found Gabrielle, faced off against an unhorsed opponent, and having little trouble with him. The bard disarmed the man, then whacked him in the head with her staff, watching him slide to the ground with a bemused expression.

Xena returned her attention to the task at hand, now that most of the attackers were on foot, she went through them like they were straw targets, alternating short arcs of her sword with brutal kicks and the occasional punch. Always, always keeping the bard in her peripheral vision, dividing her awareness with a ease built on long practice.

Another short while, and the attackers were retreating, dragging some of their wounded with them, but leaving a score of dead comrades and several captured horses behind.

In the silence that followed their footsteps, they all looked at each other. At Xena, standing legs braced next to three dead attackers, sword drawn and red with blood. At the scattering of unmoving forms.

Gabrielle broke the stillness, dusting her hands off, and trotting over to where Xena was now crouching, examining her erstwhile opponents. Saw the warrior touch a badge sewn to the leather of one of them. Was close enough to see the dark mask drop over the familiar features that meant trouble of the worst kind.

"What is it?" The bard asked, as she knelt at Xena’s side, and grasped her arm.

"Bad news." Xena growled, shooting her an flashing glance. "This badge belongs to a real bastard."

Gabrielle took a long breath. "Huh." she commented, then looked Xena over. "Any of that blood yours?" First things first, her mind made order out of panic. Make sure she’s OK, then she’ll take care of the rest.

"They didn’t touch me." The warrior reassured her. "Not even a nick." She cocked her head at the bard. "You?"

"Nah." The bard scoffed. "Not even close." She leaned forward. "But we chased them off, right? So it’s OK?"

Xena’s eyes met hers. And the bard felt a long chill chase down her back. "Not OK." Came the response. "I know this one. He’ll take this as an insult. He’ll be back, with enough support to take this village."

Slowly, she stood up, and gazed off into the darkness, her only movement a shifting of her grip on her blood stained weapon.

"Maybe we can reason with him." Gabrielle suggested quietly. "Try a parley."

"No." Came the flat response. "Not this time, Gabrielle." And Xena turned her gaze to capture the bard’s. "Don’t even think about it.’

Gabrielle’s brows creased. "You need to tell me why not." she answered firmly, taking Xena’s arm, and tugging her towards the now empty road, out of the way of the villagers removing the bodies around them. "What kind of person is this who can’t even be talked to? I don’t buy it, Xena."

Xena turned to face her, with an expressionless look. "You’ve seen me at my worst." She answered. "You’ve seen me kill people in anger, Gabrielle. In anger, in revenge, in the grip of battle madness. You have, haven’t you."

"Yes." The bard answered quietly. Meeting her gaze without flinching. "I have."

The warrior nodded. "Have you ever seen me hurt anything because I thought it was funny?"

Gabrielle’s whole body started in reaction. "Never." she said, her voice roughening with intensity. "Never ever, and don’t you ever say you did. I know better."

"Do you? Are you that sure?" Xena asked, staring at her.

The bard reached out and grabbed the front of her tunic, and pulled her close. "Yes. I’m that sure." A pause. "I’d lay my life on the line for that."

Xena let a gentle smile play on her lips. "You’d be right." Her face grew grim again. "But this warlord, Benelen, he hurts things for fun, Gabrielle. I once saw him cut the legs off a hound, one at a time, because he thought it was funny to watch the animal try to deal with it."

"Oh gods." Gabrielle paled.

"Yes. So I don’t think we’ll be parleying with him. If you think I’m letting him within a mile of you, forget it." The warrior sighed. "Question is, what are we going to do."

Gabrielle shuddered, still thinking of the poor hound. "You’ll think of something." she answered absently, then realized what she’d said, and looked up, catching that familiar look that meant Xena was trying, once again, to rise to the occasion despite very bad odds, because she expected her to. "We’ll think of something." she corrected herself, and was rewarded by a momentary flicker of acknowledgment in those troubled eyes. "Come on." she said, giving Xena’s arm a gentle tug. "We’d better tell them all what’s going on."

A quiet meeting of the village leaders. Who listened grimly to Xena’s terse description of Benelen and exchanged knowing nods. They had heard of him. She set extra watchers around the village, and told everyone to get a good night’s rest. "We’ll see what’s happening in the morning." Was her last comment, in dismissing them.

"I’m going to go change and wash off." Xena remarked, as she passed Gabrielle heading towards the door. "Grab something to eat while you have the chance."

The bard nodded. "Coming back?" she asked, raising an eyebrow. "You have to eat too." Receiving no response. "OK then, I’ll get something, and bring it to you." With a knowing smile. Seeing the unwilling glint of acknowledgment in her eyes. "See you in a bit." Giving her a shove towards the door.

Cyrene looked up as Gabrielle approached, giving the bard a grim look. "It’s bad."

"Very." Gabrielle responded, assembling a selection of meat and bread on a trencher.

"So, what’s the plan?" The older woman asked, picking up several pastries and tossing them on the trencher. "What’s she going to do?"

Gabrielle stopped, and stared at her hands. They were shaking. Her body knew what her mind was consciously not allowing her to focus on . She looked up at Cyrene. "I don’t know yet." She admitted. "But I’m going to find out." But I do know...don’t I? She won’t let me go, but she’ll go herself, won’t she? Alone?

The barn was very quiet when she got there, and one glance inside told her that her fears were probably well founded. A clean hay bale, with armor pieces precisely laid out on it. Clean. Ready. Weapons beside them.

A rustling of straw drew her attention, and she gazed across the darkened lanternlit room to where she could just make out Xena’s form, curled up in the straw with the puppy Ares. "Hi." she forced herself to say calmly, walking over and dropping to the straw next to the warrior. Who had exchanged linen for leathers. And whose pale blue eyes stood out in stark relief, catching the glints from the lanternlight.

"Hi." Xena responded, reading the tension in the bard’s body. "Thanks." She stopped rubbing the puppy’s belly and took a piece of bread and meat from the trencher, biting into it and chewing slowly. Nodded toward her. "You too."

Gabrielle took a piece of bread, and fiddled with it, breaking off a piece and reluctantly putting it in her mouth. Then she raised her eyes to meet Xena’s. "Don’t." Was all she said.

Xena’s eyes flickered. "You do know me, don’t you." Half in regret, half in admiration.

"You have no idea how many of them there are. You have no idea what kind of guards, or traps, or... Xena, please. " Her voice was tense. "Just don’t."

"I could find out those things." The warrior answered gently. "You losing confidence in me, my bard?"

"Never." Came the instant response. Gabrielle moved the trencher aside, and slid closer, making herself feel their connection. Knew Xena felt it too. "You feel that?" she whispered. "That’s us." she took a breath. "I’m going to have to live the rest of my life knowing that could disappear at any moment. That you could." She reached up and touched Xena’s jaw. Felt the muscles clenched tight there. "Try to keep the odds in my favor. Please?"

Xena studied her face, committing to memory the shape of it. The exact shade of her eyes. The watery brightness of unshed tears she was refusing to let fall. And once again found that old wolf inside her tamed to puppyhood under Gabrielle’s honest hands. "Let’s see what tomorrow brings." She finally answered, but knew it for a promise.

And so did Gabrielle, who settled into the straw next to her, and they sat shoulder to shoulder, sharing the trencher’s contents and each other’s company, and delighting Ares with tickles and table scraps.

The morning brought a messenger from Benelen, who handed a scrap of parchment to an elder, and trotted back out of the village without a word. The elder glanced at it, then walked inside the inn and handed it to Xena in silence. Watched as she scanned it several times, then let it drop on the table she was seated at.

"Well." she sighed. "Nothing like being direct."

Gabrielle picked up the parchment and read it. "He can’t spell." she commented. "He’s not educated."

Xena glanced at her with a raised eyebrow. "Most of us aren’t, Gabrielle. We can't all be bards."

The bard looked up at her. "You always spell everything right." A tiny hint of smile there.

"And just how much of my writing have you seen to determine that?" Xena replied, with a wry grin.

Gabrielle glanced to the parchment, then up at her. "Enough to know you never make that kind of mistake. Even in different dialects." She studied the scrap "It says here he wants 50 percent of everything in the village, or he’ll attack again." She tilted her head thoughtfully. "Why doesn’t he just attack?"

Xena braced one booted foot on a nearby bench, and rested her forearm on her leg. "Trying the easy way first. He lost a score of men here last night." She shrugged. "I’d have done the same."

The bard tapped the edge of the parchment against the table, and glanced up. "Maybe he can be talked out of it, then." Watching the dangerous expression settle into those blue eyes. Gearing herself up for a fight she knew she had a very slim chance of winning. "Look, I know what you said, but is there a better way? You said we can’t hold them off."

"No." Xena replied, low and angry.

"Yes." Gabrielle shot back, leaning across the table, glancing around to where the other occupants of the inn had wisely moved away from them, sensing the tension. "Where’s the choice, Xena? We can’t hold them off, are you going to give them half the village?"

"No." The warrior snapped back. "But I’ll go and bargain with him. I’m not risking you."

The bard felt her heart pumping hard, causing her temples to pound in response. "No way, Xena. That won’t work. He knows you. He’s not going to negotiate with you, since he knows all he has to do is wait for you to leave, and take what he wants." Her eyes flashed. "He doesn’t know me. He won’t know I’m not from here."

"What makes you think that?" Xena countered, leaning forward herself. "Just how do people know who I am when I don’t tell them, Gabrielle?" Sharp and biting.

Gabrielle snorted. "Just how many six foot tall, black haired, blue eyed female fighters of your caliber do you think there are running around Greece?"

"Uh huh." Xena growled. "And just how many five and a half foot tall, fair haired, green eyed bards who are known to be in my general vicinity do you suppose there are? Who just happen to be hanging around my home village?" She slapped the table with a resounding pop. "You think you’re invisible after two years?"

Gabrielle caught her breath, and remained silent for a moment. Then: "There’s a chance he won’t. And I’m the best choice you have for a negotiator." She replied quietly. And knew it for the truth. Saw that knowledge reflected back to her in Xena’s long stare.

Damn. The warrior cursed silently. She’s right. "Listen." One last try. "I want you to listen to me very carefully, Gabrielle. "

The bard remained silent, watching her face, listening.

"One of his viable options, if he does recognize you, will be to take you." Xena’s voice was steady. "Or even if he doesn’t recognize you. He’s that kind of man." she added.

"I realized that." Gabrielle replied. "I have to talk him out of it."

Xena shook her head. "That’s not the part I wanted you to listen to." She leaned forward, resting her bracered forearms against her knees. "If he does that, Gabrielle, talking isn’t going to help." She raised her eyes and met the bard’s. "If you do this, and I think that’s going to happen, I’m not going to give him a chance to do anything to you. I’m going to unsheathe my sword, and kick Argo into a gallop, and come in there after you."

"Through his army." Gabrielle said, barely breathing.

Xena nodded. "Think about that before you consider risking your life. And his, and those soldiers. " She paused. "And mine. Because they’re going to have to kill me to stop me."

Gabrielle let her gaze drop, and she mirrored Xena’s posture, leaning forward and resting her elbows on her knees. Holding her head in her hands and staring at the floor for what seemed like a very long time. Then she raised her head back up and took breath to speak.

Was stopped by a minute head shake from the warrior. "You won’t get me to promise that." Xena said, with quiet sureness. "You never hesitate to offer your life up, Gabrielle, and I admire you for that, but you asked me last night to think twice about that kind of sacrifice. Now I’m asking you to." Already knowing what the answer would be. What hers would be if the situation was reversed. Feeling the nervous tension start to coil within her.

The bard studied her face intently. Reading... everything. "I have to try." she finally whispered, noting the lack of surprise in the eyes across from her. "But I’ll go mounted, and if he so much as twitches and I don’t like it, I’ll get out of there, and trust you to cover me."

And very slowly, Xena nodded in acceptance. "All right." She replied. "We can try that." Even when every protective instinct she had was screaming no. "But if he even thinks about twitching..."

"I know. I will." Gabrielle confirmed.

"And you’ll have an escort." The warrior added, in a tone that said this was a non negotiable item.

The escort was ready, not long after. Xena studied them, a faint smile crossing her lips. One was Eldaran, the best of her quarterstaff students. The other... was Toris. Not her first choice, but he’d cornered her in the kitchen, and pressed his case. That he owed Gabrielle a favor. That he could ride a horse and not fall off. That he could use a sword, which was more than any of the other students could do. Xena weighed his honest desire against his weaknesses, and decided he would do all right. And, against all logic, it made her feel better to have him going, since she couldn’t.

Xena left them adjusting their saddles in the courtyard, and pushed open the barn door, stepping over the threshold and glancing inside. Spotting Gabrielle seated on a haybale, idly stroking a half asleep Ares in her lap. She looked up as Xena approached, and took a deep breath.

"I’m ready." The bard said. "Just saying.. uhm... playing with Ares for a minute." She dropped her gaze to the puppy, who flipped over and stumbled to the edge of the bale when he saw Xena come closer. "Looks like he knows who his mommy is." She gave Xena a smile.

"Hmm." The warrior agreed, as she allowed him to chew on her fingers. Her gaze came up and raked the bard from head to foot. "Your escort's waiting." she commented, reaching out and straightening the forest green tunic Gabrielle was wearing, a donation from Cyrene, who said it would at least make her blend in with the garb the escort was wearing. The slightly oversized shirt was belted around her slim waist, Xena noted, and depending from the belt was a very familiar sheath. She reached out and touched the hilts, then raised her eyes in question to Gabrielle’s.

"Yeah.. uhm.." The bard shrugged a little. "It makes me feel better to have that... like I’m carrying a part of you around with me." She smiled wanly. "I don’t think I could use it but..."

"I don’t think you could either." Xena replied quietly. "But if you show that to him, it might make him stop long enough for you to get out of there." A cold glint came into her eyes. "He’ll remember the seal."

"Will he?" Gabrielle asked, curiously. "Why?"

Xena picked up Ares and held him close, delighting the puppy. "If he gets off his horse, you’ll see he limps." She drawled, tickling the animal under the chin. "I broke both his legs in three places for what he did to that hound."

"Did you now." The bard replied, a slow smile appearing. "That’s good to know." She paused. "What happened to the hound after that?"

The warrior put Ares down, and sighed. "I put him out of his torment." Her lips twitched. "Living was agony for him, it wasn’t life, really, just torture." She looked up into Gabrielle’s uneasy glance. "It’s what I would have wanted, in his place."

Gabrielle nodded silently. Then she got up off the haybale, and wrapped her arms around Xena, armor and all, and just held on tight. And got a stranglehold in return, until she loosened her hold, and felt Xena do the same, just enough for the warrior to duck her head down and kiss her for a very long time. Until they finally broke off, and she buried her face in Xena’s leathers, taking a moment to soak it all in. "If that was supposed to reinforce your instructions for me to be careful and come back, it worked." she muttered, both feeling and hearing the surprised chuckle in response. "I guess we gotta go now, huh?"

"Yeah." Xena replied, sliding an arm around her shoulders, and guiding her towards the door, not relinquishing her hold even when they stepped through the doorway and into the courtyard. They walked across the open space, where most of the village was assembled and finally stopped in front of the sturdy chestnut mare Gabrielle would be riding.

"Give me your knee." Xena said, removing her arm and holding one hand out. Gabrielle did so, grabbing the saddle horn as she was boosted aboard and settling herself. Xena tucked her boot in the near side stirrup, and patted her calf. They looked at each other.

"Remember to smile." Xena said, giving her one as an example.

Gabrielle grinned back. "I will."

"Be careful." No smile now.

"I promise." The bard responded, picking up the reins and tightening her knees. The mare obediently moved forward, with the two escorts following.

Toris reined in as he passed Xena, and held an arm down. She clasped it, and looked up at his face. "You be careful too, Toris."

"I’ll bring her back, Xena." Her brother said softly, squeezing her arm.

"Bring yourself back as well, brother." The warrior answered, and clapped him on the knee. "I’d like to keep my family in one piece."

Toris smiled, and sent his roan trotting after Gabrielle.

Xena shook her head, and sighed, turning as a hand touched her elbow. "Mother." she said, glancing down.

Cyrene gazed after them. "It must be killing you to stay behind here." She said, giving her a little squeeze.

Xena let a feral smile cross her face. "It would be if I was staying." She gave her mother a kiss on the top of the head, and walked over to where a cloth bundle was lying. Picked it up, and slung it over her shoulders, revealing a mottled green cloak that fell to her mid calf. She settled her weapons, and headed towards the forest paths that would cross the road the three were taking. Pulling up as four villagers rose up in front of her, dressed for tracking.

"We’re going with you." The first said, giving her an open yet stubborn look.

Xena paused. Well, I can jump over them if I have to.. but.. "Why?" she asked coolly.

The villager shifted his feet. "We know we can’t do much, really.. but you’re going to watch her back. Well, we’d like to watch yours."

They were very young, these ones. Xena thought. And in the reflection of their eyes, she saw, dimly, a long off shadow of herself. "All right." she chuckled. "Come on." And led the way into the forest.

Gabrielle glanced over her shoulder at her escort, as they moved out of the last band of trees before the meeting place Benelen had specified in his note. She looked forward again, her fingers twisting the chestnut’s mane, trying to calm herself down. Next time, why not volunteer for something less scary, huh Gabrielle? She could see the rise ahead of her, clear space where three riders waited, and she took a deep breath, and settled herself firmly in the stirrups. "OK, let’s go." And nudged the horse forward, followed closely by the other two.

Toris drew even with her. "You all right, Gabrielle?" He asked keeping his voice low.

"Yeah, I’ll be fine, thanks." the bard replied, glancing at him. "Are you OK?"

Toris laughed. "Oh yeah, I’m fine. Just trying to live up to family expectations here." But his smile took away the sting of that comment. "Just kidding. I made Xena put me on the escort."

"Made her?" Gabrielle gave him a knowing grin.

"Well...." Toris gave her a sheepish look. "OK.. have you ever been able to make her do anything? I gotta know."

The bard chewed on that for a bit. "Uhm. Make her do something? No." She finally answered. "But sometimes I can ‘get’ her to do something...but usually she knows what I’m up to, and just does it because she wants to anyway."

"And you know she knows?" Toris asked, curious, seeing a side of his sister come a little clearer to him.

"Yeah." Gabrielle smiled. "And sometimes she does things just because she knows I want her to." She glanced ahead to where the three riders were now distinct. "Guess we’d better get ready."

The three riders on the summit were dressed in the usual conglomeration of leather and metal, and were of a type, being medium sized, with a range of brown hair, and stubbled faces. Their mounts were equally undistinguished, and Gabrielle filed this information away for future use. As she drew close to them, one lazily moved his mount out to meet her, and she studied him.

A fighter, surely. He wore his weapons familiarly, one hand resting on his saddle mounted longsword hilt, and bore the scars of someone who fought for a living. A voice sounded in her head. Only bad fighters have scars all over them, Gabrielle. Xena had laughed, when she’d asked the warrior why she had so few. So. Another possible clue. His face was cruel, though. Gabrielle could see it, in the small eyes which ranged up and down her body. In the smirk which appeared on his thin lips. She felt her skin crawl, and remembered the hound.

"Benelen." Gabrielle said, calmly. "You sent a message." She forced her eyes to study him, as he was studying her. They sat their mounts in knee high grass, out in the open, with the nearest trees a lonely distance away. She felt very exposed, and not just because of his now openly judgmental stare.

"How do you want to turn over the half?" He asked, bored. "And are you part of it?" His two henchmen chuckled.

"I don’t, and I’m not." Gabrielle answered, sensing Toris and Eldaran edge closer. It didn’t help. "You lost 20 men last night." She shifted in the saddle, and leaned forward. Never retreat, Gabrielle. Remember that. "Why do you think we’d just turn over anything to you?"

Benelen moved forward, until he was within touching distance. "Because, little girl, I don’t care how many farmers you have with sticks down there. I’m going to ride in there and kill them all if you don’t." He reached out and fingered a lock of her hair. "But maybe I won’t kill you. For a while." He smiled.

Xena was right. Her brain screamed at her. Here was madness, and her words weren’t going to help. She felt panic building up in her in an irresistible pressure. Felt her heart start to pound.

"First, we’ll have us a little fun." He moved closer. Grabbed her horses bridle.

A moment of total fear encompassed her. Then, like a warm blanket thrown over her shoulders, she felt a wave of confidence chase the fear away. "It will be the last thing you do." She said, finding the words from someplace. And she smiled at him.

Benelen started a little. "You going to stop me, then, ay lassie?" He recovered his composure, reached out a hand again, but this time she knocked it away. And as her arm moved, the hilt of her dagger showed clear in the mid morning sun. He jerked his hand back, and his lazy humor vanished. Now he regarded her with a gathering anger. "Oh, we won’t have fun, then. I’ll just spit you where you stand, maybe."

"No you won’t." Gabrielle stared into his eyes. Using the only weapon she had. One which sometimes backfired. One that could get her killed. "You don’t want to die." She unsheathed the dagger, and held it up. Oh Xena..I hope you reputation can get me out of this one. "You know whose this is."

"So." Benelen drawled. "Those idiots were telling the truth." He spat on the ground. "They said she was there last night." He eyed her speculatively. "You hers?"

Gabrielle thought about that for a minute. Then nodded. Saw them exchange glances, and relaxed just slightly.

Benelen sat back in his saddle. "What’s to keep me from going in there after she’s gone?" He asked, giving Gabrielle a big clue in the asking.

She smiled. "It’s her home village." She jerked her head towards Toris. "That’s her brother." She leaned forward and lowered her voice. "You don’t want her coming after you."

The warlord studied her. "I hear she’s not what she used to be." He parried, watching her slightest reaction.

"Two hundred dead of Ansteles’s army wishes that were true." The bard answered. "I was there." Now she felt her advantage, and pressed it, moving closer to him, forcing him to back his mount. "And she didn’t even have anything..." a pause and a very sweet smile. "personal.. against them." She reached out and tapped his chest. "What do you say, Benelen.. do you want her to have something.. personal.. against you?"

Silence. For a very long moment. "Come on." Gabrielle grinned. "Grab me. You know she’s probably close enough to take your head off with the chakram." Benelen’s guard jumped, and darting glances went in every direction after that statement, and now the very sound of the wind had them suspicious.

Then Benelen drew his sword in a flickering movement. "Reputations can be exaggerated." He said, coolly.

"Are you willing to bet your life on that?" Gabrielle asked, gazing straight into his hazel eyes. Sensing Toris and Eldaran coiling into readiness at her side. Waiting.

"Are you?" Benelen answered, raising a hand to signal his men.

Gabrielle smiled. "Any time." And didn’t flinch. Didn’t drop her gaze. Felt her whole body tense in anticipation of his actions.

And his sword swept up. In salute. And he motioned his men to turn around. "We’ll find better pickings. Probably not much there anyway." Turned his horse and put the animal into a lazy trot. And passing a point in grass, the beast shied, and bucked, and threw him off. Cursing, he limped after.

Not looking down. Not seeing the amused glint in a pair of deep blue eyes buried in the grass not two lengths from where they had met. Who waited until they’d disappeared down the horizon before glancing back at the three remaining, two of whom were anxiously supporting the third, who appeared to be unable to stay on her placid chestnut mount.

"Gods." Gabrielle croaked, as she held onto the horses mane to stay aboard. Her whole body was shaking in aftershock, and she felt dizzy from the pounding of her heart. Toris and Eldaran had come up on either side of her, and she knew they were congratulating her but couldn’t force her mind to make out the words.

Then a third set of hands were on her, and these she knew from the very feel. She stopped even trying to hold on, and just dove towards the one voice her mind had no trouble distinguishing.

"I got you." Xena said, as Gabrielle half fell, half lunged into her arms. "I got you." She repeated. "Well done, Gabrielle. Very well done. "

"You were here." The bard whispered. "I knew it."

"Of course." Xena said, patting her back. "I don’t take chances with you, remember?"

"I remember." Gabrielle replied softly, a gentle smile playing around her lips. "Did you see him fall off his horse?" She looked up and grinned. "He does limp."

"See him?" Xena drawled, with a sly grin. "Who do you think made the horse buck?"

Toris laughed. "I should have known you’d be around. You were much too calm back there in the courtyard." He looked around. "How in the heck did you get that close, though? It’s not like you’re the size of a rabbit, sis."

Xena cocked an eyebrow at him. "One of my many skills, Toris." She turned her attention back to the bard. "And you...that was fantastic." A broad smile crossed her face. "Couldn’t have done better myself. You scared him out of what little wits he has."

"Yeah?" Gabrielle said, blushing in pleasure. "I guess I did." She glanced around, taking in their admiring smiles with a feeling of surrealness. Wait a minute... I’m supposed to be the recorder.. the bard here.. I’m not supposed to be the one in the stories... when did that happen?

Xena apparently read her mind. "Oh... " A proud but devilish grin shaped her lips. "Tonight *I* get to tell a story. With a very brave hero."

"Oh..but wait.." Gabrielle protested, eyes widening. "I didn’t.."

Xena put a finger across the bard’s lips, silencing her. "You most certainly did, Gabrielle. This is your story.. and I’m no bard, but I’m gonna enjoy telling this one."

Gabrielle wrinkled her brow. What a weird feeling. She didn’t think what she had done was heroic, or even particularly brave. She’d just bluffed Benelen into backing off, that was all. Was that worth being part of a story? Much less one told by Xena? It was almost embarrassing.

A thought occurred to her, and she raised her eyes to meet Xena’s, and her mind opened up another window of understanding into the woman standing casually next her , forearms resting on the bard’s shoulders. Xena never thought what she did was particularly heroic either. Was this odd mixture of relief and shy embarrassment what the warrior felt all the time? Especially when Gabrielle was up there telling stories about it? Interesting. "I’m not sure I deserve to be the subject of a story." she murmured to Xena giving her a pleading look.

Xena smiled down at her in complete understanding. "Can’t avoid it." she whispered back. "You had witnesses." And squeezed her shoulders. "C’mon. Let’s get back." She jerked her head towards the chestnut, raising a hand to give the bard a knee up.

"Right." Gabrielle sighed, grabbing the saddle and allowing herself to be boosted aboard. Xena turned, and let out a piercing whistle, occupying her time with adjusting Gabrielle’s reins until they all could plainly hear the approaching thunder of hoofbeats.

Toris moved out of the way as Argo cantered up, snorting, moving behind Xena, and ruffling her hair with a head toss. Xena gave Gabrielle’s calf a pat before she turned and greeted the mare, untying her reins from the saddle ring, and vaulting to the tall back. She set Argo next to the chestnut, and motioned for Toris and Eldaran to move on ahead of them. And they did, leaving her to match paces with the smaller mare, and keep an eye on Gabrielle’s thoughtful face.

"It really was well done, my bard." Xena finally said, with a little smile. "Though I’ll admit I had a few tense moments there."

Gabrielle shook her head. "YOU had a few tense moments? There was one bit there...when he started to grab the halter, where my mind just blanked. I almost froze." She glanced over at the warrior. "I was really scared."

"I know." Xena replied, gently. "Did you know I was that close, or were you just bluffing him?"

The bard sat back in the saddle, and thought about that. "So you heard the whole thing, then." She commented. "No.. well.. I didn’t know you were there, no.. but something made me think it was OK to say what I said." She darted a quick glance at Xena. "I decided to use your reputation, again."

"Mmm." Xena agreed. "I noticed." Now she relaxed a bit. "So I’m up to 200 again, huh?" she chuckled. "I can’t wait to see how fast this little tidbit gets around. And how it gets stretched out of shape." She gave Gabrielle a little slap on the leg. "And I liked that bit about having something personal against him."

"Did you?" The bard chuckled, feeling her sense of humor coming back. "Yeah, I thought that was pretty good, myself." Relaxing as she realized what Xena was doing. "And it was all true." She said, putting on a virtuous look.

Xena snorted, and glanced down the road. "More than you know, Gabrielle. When he touched that bridle, I had this dagger " She touched the hilt at her breast. "in one hand, and my arm cocked." She adjusted a bracer, then glanced at Gabrielle. "If he’d touched you one more time..."

"Nah." Gabrielle scoffed. "He wasn’t going to lay a finger on me after I told him I was yours." She gave Xena a look, accompanied by a slight blush. Still going to take a bit of getting used to, I think.. she mused to herself, amused by the half surprised, half appreciative look she was getting from the warrior.

Xena chewed on that momentarily. "That’s going to get around too, you know." she ventured, unsure of the reaction.

"Good." The bard answered, giving a brisk nod. "Maybe I won’t get messed with quite as often." She turned and looked directly into Xena’s eyes then, as a thought occurred to her. "Does that bother you?" Came the tentative question.

Xena laughed. "Please, Gabrielle. I said you could only do my reputation some good." She gave the bard a poke in the shoulder. "Besides..." she lifted her hands in resignation. "If any of my enemies haven’t figured out by now that someone I've kept around me 24 hours a day for two years means something to me.." She paused, and fiddled with Argo’s reins. "Means everything to me." A quiet correction. "Then I’m not going to worry about them." And looked ahead to the dusty outlines of Amphipolis. Aware of the look she was getting from Gabrielle. "Come on, let’s race." She said, slapping the bard’s chestnut mount on the hindquarters, and startling it into a canter.

"Hey!" Gabrielle yelled, grabbing the reins, the saddle, the mane... and hanging on. "Xena!" Somehow getting her body to settled into the rhythm of the mare’s pace, and actually, sort of, enjoying it for a minute. Just for a minute, her mind sternly said. Then Argo surged up next to her, and the two mares matched stride for stride, and the chestnut took up the challenge. Well.. she had time to think, before the pace increased, and she had to hang on for dear life. Today is just chock full of new experiences, isn’t it?

They thundered past Toris and Eldaran, who pulled up, then sent their own mounts in pursuit. Gabrielle bit her lip in concentration, trying to remember all the things Xena had ever told her about riding. The wind whipped her hair back, and she felt somewhat reassured by Argo’s steady presence just a length away.

"Like this!" Xena yelled, indicating her balance above the saddle, tapping her knees. "Center of balance above here!"

The bard shifted forward on the fast moving animal, until she felt an odd, suspended feeling, as though the horse were running, but she was standing still. A shiver passed over her. She could feel the strain in her thighs to keep the position, but it felt... really good. An incredulous smile crossed her face. I can’t believe I like this. There is no way I’m liking this. No way. No. Wow. She felt a laugh bubble up. Knew Xena heard it.

"That’s it!" The warrior called, glancing ahead to gauge the closeness of the village proper. A little more... she pressed Argo’s sides and put the golden mare into a full gallop, and nodded as the chestnut gamely responded.

Gabrielle’s eyes widened at the sudden shift in the mare’s pace. Now the wind was causing her eyes to blink and the ground was flying past. She’d gone this fast on Argo, of course, but this was a much more intense feeling. More personal. She kept her balance, somehow, and managed to move with the gait, feeling for a short, exhilarating moment a part of the animal.

Then Xena was slowing Argo, as the first buildings in the village flew by them, and she was able to breath again, and sink down into the saddle, waiting for her heart to slow down from it’s frenetic pace. They trotted into a filled courtyard, where eager hands reached for her bridle and Argo’s. Xena slid out of her saddle, and just reached up and pulled her down, which was a good thing, because between the excitement, the strain, and the unexpected racing, her knees gave out when she hit the ground and it was a very good thing the warrior had a firm grasp on her.

"She did it." Was Xena’s terse analysis, to which a cheer arose, and hands patted her on the back with enthusiasm. "Benelen’s tucked his tail and ran." Xena grinned. Another cheer, and now the villagers were pulling Gabrielle into a weave of arms and smiling faces.

Xena released her, after sending her voice down low where she knew the bard could hear her. "Go. be a hero for a while. Everyone should be, at least once." And watched, with a nod, as the crowd took her off, and her escort too, to hear exactly what had happened. Then turned to Argo, and the chestnut mare. "Come on...I bet you girls could use some nice cold water after that." she said conversationally, reaching up and grabbing the cheekpieces on both bridles, and tugging the animals towards the barn.

"Here." Cyrene said, a touch of amused admiration in her voice. "I bet you could use some nice cold water, yourself" Handing the warrior a full waterskin.

"Thanks." Xena said, taking a long pull. Then nodded her head towards the inn. "Don’t you want to hear the story?"

Cyrene took the chestnut’s bridle and smiled. "Suppose you tell me?" she remarked, as she guided the horse forward. "I’d like to hear your perspective."

So Xena told her, as they stripped the harness from the horses, and rubbed them down. Told her what she had seen, once she had left her own escort at the forest’s edge, and took to the grass, sliding ahead so quietly even the rabbits feeding had been startled. Getting close enough to see the buckles on Benelen’s leather armor. To smell the sweat on his horse. To hear Gabrielle’s quiet, clear voice.

"He was going to grab her." Xena said, picking up Ares and scratching his ears. "And I had a knife out ready for him." Bluntly, almost forgetting who she was talking to. "But she changed tactics, and decided to scare him with my ever so intimidating reputation instead."

Cyrene regarded her. "And that worked?" She let a wry grin cross her face. "Not that I’m surprised, mind you. That’s quite a reputation you have."

"Mmm." Xena agreed. "She told him if he didn’t want me coming after him, to leave Amphipolis alone." She gave Cyrene a rueful smile. "He left."

"Well, that’s a relief." Cyrene sighed. "Now, you’d better get inside and rescue her before our well meaning friends run her ragged." She stood, and walked towards the door, passing by Xena and laying a hand on her shoulder. "Come on."

"Yeah." Xena stood, and stretched. "She deserves nothing but good today." A quiet smile appeared on her lips. "Especially today."

Cyrene stopped, and cocked her head at her daughter. "Why today?"

Xena chuckled, and whispered into her ear.

"Oh really?" Cyrene said, with a delighted grin. "Why didn’t you tell me?" She rubbed her hands briskly. "Does she know?" She looked at Xena.

"I don’t think she remembered." Xena said, thoughtfully. "She hasn’t said, and I think she would, just to mention it."

"Do you..’ Cyrene started to ask, putting a hand on Xena’s arm.

"Yes." Her daughter answered, with a smug grin. "I do."

"Good girl.’ The innkeeper smiled. "Now let me see what I can do." She bustled out, leaving Xena to drop her extra armor and weapons. The warrior then picked up Ares, and moved towards the door.

And was almost there when a dark form coalesced and put out a hand to stop her. "Well." She said, leaning against the doorway and studying the tall muscular form. "What do I owe the honor.. " a feral grin " of this visit to?"

"You named a dog after me, Xena." Ares drawled, coming closer and letting his eyes drift over her body. "I’m crushed."

Xena felt a reluctant grin appearing. "A wolf, Ares, a wolf. Never a dog."

"Oh." The God of War replied. "And that’s supposed to make me feel better?" One dark eyebrow arched. "Some gods would be.. angry.. at such arrogance." But his lips were quirking with an unseen smile.

The warrior noted that, and figured Ares couldn’t be too upset. "Well, I let him sleep on my chest." She commented dryly, watching his face closely for a reaction.

Ares let the smile spread over his bearded lips. "Did I ever tell you how good I look in fur?" He bantered, sauntering closer and peering down at the puppy in Xena’s arms, then up into her eyes. "Lucky boy."

Xena chuckled and shook her head. "I always saw you as a leather kind of man, Ares." She responded with a smirk. "But since you’re here, say hello." She plunked the puppy against his black clad chest, forcing him to lift his hands to cradle the animal.

"Uh.." Ares scowled. "Puppies and the God of War don’t mix well, Xena." But he looked down at the curiously sniffing puppy, who looked back up at him.

"Grr." The puppy ventured, poking his nose into a gap in Ares leather vest.

"Agh!" Ares yelped. "That’s cold!"

"Roo!" The puppy objected, getting his teeth into a leather tie, and tugging. "Grr."

The tall God of War ducked his head and got his face closer to the animal. "Grr, yourself." He rumbled, causing the puppy to drop the lace, and blink at him. They stared at each other for a minute, watched by a fascinated Xena, then the puppy hopped up onto his back legs, bracing his front paws against Ares’ bearded jaw.

He sniffed cautiously, then sneezed. Ares jerked slightly, but stayed put, face to face with his little namesake.

The puppy cocked his head, then stuck out a tiny pink tongue and licked Ares nose. Then started chewing on his beard, at which point the god pulled his head back, and glanced up at Xena. Who was biting her lip really hard to keep from laughing.

"If you ever tell anyone you saw that, I’m going to have to deal very severely with you, Xena." Ares warned, handing the puppy back to her. "I mean it." Giving her a glowering look. "This is a couple of weeks in Tartarus kind of thing."

"Sure, Ares." Xena drawled. "So.. I doubt you just stopped by to meet my little friend here. What do you want?"

Ares settled back onto a hay bale, and regarded her. "I’m hurt, Xena. Can’t I just want to say hello to one of my favorite mortals? Most people would be honored." He crossed his arms and tilted he his handsome head. "You’ve been giving me some nice thrills lately... and Cirron... Ohh...Xena." He chuckled low in his throat. "That was just magnificent." He gave her a lazy once over. "I love watching you work.. you’re soooo... deadly."

"Thanks." Xena said dryly. "Glad you enjoyed it more than I did."

He smiled. "Come on, Xena. Don’t play those games with me. This is Ares, remember? You know, and I know just how much of me..." He stood up with feline grace, and ran a light fingertip down her jawline. "runs in you." He waited. "Oh... no arguments this time?"

"No arguments, Ares." The warrior replied, giving him a even stare. "Just something I’ve learned to accept."

"Mmmmmm." He replied, a glint appearing in his eyes. "I think I like that.. it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside."

Xena sighed, and gave him a slightly exasperated look. "Ares, you couldn’t feel warm and fuzzy inside if you swallowed a wad of lambs wool."

The God of War gave her a sardonic grin. "Don’t underestimate me, Xena. You might end up being surprised one day. " He rose and brushed his leather vest off. "Well, I’ll leave you to your party then. " He gave her a wink. "Say hello to your little friend for me, hmm?" Watched her eyes grow guarded and cool. "Oh... look at those defensive instincts come up.. relax, blue eyes. She’s safe. From me, anyway."

Those pale eyes bored right into his, reminding him again of just why she fascinated him. Which she did, in a way that no other mortal ever had. Or ever would, he suspected.

"Why?" Xena asked, bluntly. "I would have expected you to use any advantage you could, Ares. Why ignore this one?"

Ares crossed over and stood within inches of her. "Two reasons, really." He said, softly. "One.. I want you back." His hand reached out and he wound a lock of her dark hair around his fingers. "And I’m not stupid, Xena. I touch her, and that puts a wedge between us that an eternity in Tartarus won’t erase." He crooked an eyebrow. "True?"

She took a breath before answering. "True." Feeling a mixture of apprehension and relief. She hadn’t expected Ares to understand her as well as he did.

"I can wait. I’ve got all the time in eternity. And..." he drawled, lessening his intense stare, and allowing a grin to quirk his lips. "Even though I’m a god, and I live up on Mount Olympus.." He paused and gave her hair a playful tweak. "And you’re just a lowly mortal, and have to put up with.." he glanced around and shook his head. "this..." His eyes met hers. "I really, really don’t want you to have something.. personal.. against me, either." He winked, stepped back, and in a flash, was gone.

Xena let out a long held breath. "Whoa." She muttered. "Nothing like a visit from Ares to pick your day right up."

"Roo?" The puppy answered, gazing up at her. She shook her head, and patted the animals head. "Come on, let’s go get some lunch. I know I could use it, after that." She walked across the courtyard slowly, letting her body unwind from that edgy tension Ares always caused in her. Partly it was fear, she was honest enough to admit. He was a god, after all. Partly it was her defensive instincts, sensing a real and present danger from him. Partly.. and very privately, there was something about him that touched something in her.. she knew it, and knew it was double sided, and that she had the same kind of effect on him, god or no.

They were more alike than she was willing to admit, even to herself. Iolaus, seeing the two of them standing together after his confrontation with Hercules that last time had asked her half jokingly later if they weren’t related somehow. And had ducked her angry cuff at the suggestion, and apologized.

But he’d been right, she knew, because they were the both of them tall, and dark haired, leather clad, and had that same cool intimidating stare. Two of a kind, her mind mocked her, as she felt the weight of that inescapable knowledge settle on her shoulders. The knowledge of that part of her that came from him. That was a large part of what she was. That she needed, because it was where her strength was.

That was dark, and bloody, and as long as she carried a sword, something she could never escape from. Sighing she pushed the door to the inn open, and ducked inside, listening to Toris’ voice as he willingly paid witness to the parley of the morning.

The villagers were seated in a wide circle, with the Gabrielle and her escort in the center. The bard was leaning back against the wall, with a tall cup in her hands that she was taking frequent sips out of, and as the door opened, her gaze lifted and met Xena’s, and an involuntary smile creased her face. Her green eyes lit with an inner glow that hit the warrior with an almost physical force and snuggled into her dark mood, dispersing it like so much fog in the sunshine. She found an answering grin tugging at her, and she relinquished herself to it, and headed across to the floor.

"What kept you?" Gabrielle whispered, as she slid into the seat next to the bard. "I was about to come over there and find where you were hiding."

"And drag me kicking and yelling over here?" Xena muttered, giving her a raised eyebrow look.

The bard glanced to her right and left, then ducked her head closer. "To hide with you, actually." She giggled and rolled her eyes. "I’m sorry..I’ m not going to tease you any more about how you feel about me telling stories..."

Xena chuckled, and rested a bracered forearm on the back of the bard’s chair, idly rubbing her between the shoulder blades with the tips of her fingers. "Well, enjoy it as much as you can."

"Mmmm." Gabrielle closed her eyes and leaned back slightly into the pressure of her hand. "I’m enjoying that a lot more." She admitted, with a lazy grin. "I was a little sore from yesterday." She winced a little as Xena’s powerful grip went to work. "Ugh.. yeah. There... "

Toris sat down, and resumed eating, and let the conversation roll around them. He glanced up at his sister, and grunted. "Oh..there you are." He grinned. "Mother was looking for you." A quick look toward the kitchen door. "Here she comes. Must have spotted you."

"I’m a little conspicuous." Xena commented wryly, watching as Cyrene threaded her way through the tables, and put a plate down in front of her. "Thanks." She said, giving her mother a grin.

Cyrene seated herself in the chair next to Gabrielle, and gave her arm a pat. "How’s our hero doing?" She teased, watching the bard blush. "Xena! You’re spoiling that animal." She gave her daughter an exasperated look, as the warrior fed bits of her lunch to the puppy.

Gabrielle watched her with an amused smirk. "You’re blowing your image, you know that, right?" She remarked, as Xena neatly sliced a piece of meat in half, popped one piece in her mouth, and offered the other to Ares. The puppy sprawled happily on her lap, gripping the meat between his two paws, and chewing enthusiastically.

"Uh huh." Xena acknowledged, cutting another piece, and placing it on a slice of bread, then leaning back with a sigh. Raising an eyebrow at Gabrielle when the bard leaned forward and stole one of the remaining chunks and settled back with it. "Thought you had lunch already."

"I did." The bard cheerfully admitted. "Your point?"

Well, you did tell her to enjoy it while she could. The warrior chided herself, studying her companion with some amusement. "Just asking." Catching her mother’s eye, which had a twinkle in it.

"Are you accusing me of not making sure Gabrielle got fed?" Cyrene arched an eyebrow at her. "For shame, Xena."

The warrior rolled her blue eyes. "Never."

Cyrene chuckled. "Good." Then she leaned forward, and caught Xena’s attention. "What took you so long, by the way? I thought you’d be right behind me coming back." Not mentioning the voices she’d heard behind her in the barn. The one she recognized as Xena’s, the other... a far deeper rumble she hadn’t ever heard before.

Xena studied her mother’s face. Saw a hidden glint there. "I had a visitor." she said softly, catching Gabrielle’s suddenly serious eyes, then dropping her own to the puppy, then back up to the bard’s. The green eyes narrowed, then widened, and her brows rose.

‘Trouble?" Gabrielle asked quietly, keeping her gaze locked on Xena’s.

The warrior shrugged. "I don’t think so. He wanted to meet my little friend here."

Cyrene rapped on the table, startling both of them. "Excuse me. Would one or the other of you like to let me in on this conversation that I started?" Tartly.

Xena chewed her lip thoughtfully, then shrugged at the bard, who shrugged back. "The voice you heard was Ares." She informed her mother.

Who glanced at the puppy, then glanced at Xena. "Ares?"

"The God of War." Gabrielle gently explained, patting Cyrene’s shoulder.

"The God of War." Cyrene repeated, tonelessly. "In my barn?"

Xena nodded. "Yep."

"I see." Her mother absorbed this. "You know him.. personally?" She felt her way cautiously. "I know I heard the stories but..."

"She does." Gabrielle answered, getting Cyrene’s attention and focusing it on herself. "Xena was the one who rescued him and restored his sword when Sisyphus stole it." There.. that’s the safest one of the Ares stories, isn’t it?. "He was pretty grateful."

"Oh." Cyrene said, with a brighter expression. "Well, you’ll have to tell me that whole story, too." She jabbed Xena with an elbow. "Some company you keep."

Xena nodded, gazing at Gabrielle with an affectionate grin. The bard caught the smile, knew the reason, and smiled back. "Oh yeah. The best company." The warrior commented. "Well, I think we can cancel the drills today, since we’ve had so much excitement this morning." She turned her head and spoke to Toris, who nodded in agreement as he cleaned his plate with a scrap of bread. "And it looks like rain anyway. I’ve got some armor strapping I need to complete." She stood up, grabbing Ares as he scrabbled for a grip on her leathers. "Gabrielle, did you have that scroll you mentioned last night? The one about the Medusans? I wanted to check something Hercules suggested to me the last time we talked."

The bard’s brow furrowed. "Uhm.... yeah. I do." She said, standing up and stretching. "I’ll get it out for you." Then held her hands out. "Here.. let me carry him."

Xena handed over the puppy, who licked Gabrielle’s chin in appreciation. She grinned, and waited for Xena to start for the door, then followed at her shoulder, acknowledging the nods and waves of the villagers who were still gathered, discussing the morning.

Gabrielle glanced up at the lowering clouds as they crossed the courtyard. "Was he mad?" She asked, curiously. "Ares, I mean?"

Xena shrugged nonchalantly. "Nah, I don’t think so. He was just... you know. Ares." She gave Gabrielle a grim smile. "We do have a certain... understanding of each other."

The bard nodded slowly. "Yeah, I know." She paused as Xena reached out and pulled the door open for both of them, then continued inside, and put the puppy down in the straw. "It’s a part of you I’m just starting to understand myself." she finished quietly.

"Are you?" Xena asked, turning to gaze at her curiously.

Gabrielle smiled. "Yeah, a little bit.I sure got a different perspective when I was with the Amazons." She walked over and dug in her pack, and pulled out a bound set of parchments. "I sort of kept a diary when I was there... you could look at it, if you’re interested." Outside a sudden clap of thunder startled them. "Whoa." Gabrielle breathed.

Xena had removed her armor, and now walked up behind the bard, and settled her arms around the smaller woman’s shoulders from behind, resting her chin on Gabrielle’s head. "I’d love to read it."

The bard stilled, and a broad smile crossed her face. "That’s exactly what I felt today." She said, turning her head and gazing up at a confused Xena. "When I was so scared.. and he was grabbing the bridle.. and I didn’t know what to do.. then... it just felt like.. this." She took a happy breath. "Like someone... like you had come up behind me and just... That was you, wasn’t it."

"I guess it was." Xena answered, thoughtfully. I should have asked Jessan more about this when I had the chance... just how far does this go? "You know, I think we might just want to detour back past Cirron after we visit your folks."

Gabrielle nodded vigorously. "I think you’re right." She giggled. "Poor Jess. All those hints he was trying to drop.. "

"Yeah." Xena laughed. "Let me see those scrolls." She lifted them out of Gabrielle’s hands, then went over to a thick pile of hay near the lantern and settled down, stretching her long legs out, and leaning back. Watching the bard fiddle with some stuff for a bit. "Gabrielle?"

The barn turned, and cocked her head in answer. "Hmm?"

"C’mere. I might need translation services." The warrior invited, patting the straw next to her.

Gabrielle grinned, and trotted over, settling herself contentedly in the curve of Xena’s arm, and resting her head on the warrior’s shoulder. "Your mom really likes having you home." she commented unexpectedly.

Xena tilted her head and regarded her. "Yeah... I know." A quiet smile. "That was a switch." A wry look. "Considering the first time you saw us together."

"Mmm." Gabrielle agreed. "It’s nice here." She studied the half shadowed face above her. "You like it, don’t you."

The warrior sighed. "It was nice to be able to come home.. again. For a while. Yeah." she admitted. Looked at Gabrielle for a long time. Then "If you’d have stayed with the Amazons, I think I would have stayed here."

Gabrielle went very still. "That was never..." her voice trailed off, as she read the minute reaction in the blue eyes meeting hers. Oh gods... she didn’t know. Even after... then her conscience slammed her hard. After Perdicus, I deserve that. "That was never an option for me." she whispered. Dropping her eyes. Feeling sick. "I’m sorry." How’s that for inadequate? "I should have said." Her voice cracked, and now Xena had a grip on her chin, and was forcing eye contact with her.

"Gabrielle, it’s all right." The warrior said softly.

"No it’s not." the bard responded. "No.. it’s.. not."

"Yes, it is." Xena replied, putting some force behind the words.

Gabrielle looked deep into those eyes. Which had seen far more than her own. Which were cool shields against everything that could hurt her. Which she used to keep anyone from getting close. She hid behind strong locked doors, and could bear more of the weight of the world, could stand more physical pain, than any other person the bard had ever known. Or ever would. She had built up barriers against all but one thing. One person.

And Gabrielle knew it. There were no barriers, no walls, no locked doors against her. She could scald this woman with simple words.

"Hey!" Xena said, popping a cupped hand against the bard’s cheek. "You’re scaring me. Stop it." Watched the mist green eyes blink once, twice. And finally lose the horror she’d seen there. "It’s all right, Gabrielle. We’ve been through that now. OK? I understand."

The bard took a long breath. "You’re stuck with me, Xena. You’re going to have to drop me over a cliff to get rid of me now, you realize that, right?" Behind the humor was a plea.

"I realize that." The warrior relaxed. "And if you drop off a cliff, I’ll jump off after you. You realize that, right?" Another plea.

"Yeah." And the hint of a smile. "I know."

"Good." Xena answered slowly, then drew the bard close. "Glad we got that settled." Felt Gabrielle’s arms slide around her, and tighten fiercely, and she put down the scrolls, and gave the return squeeze her full attention.

Then she threw her head back, and regarded the high timbered ceiling. Now? Why not... she’ll be madder than a wet cat at me tonight, if my mother does what I thinks she’d going to do.. so.. "Hang on. I’ll be right back." She said, gently disentangling herself from the puzzled bard’s embrace, and standing up. Crossing to Argo’s saddlebags, where she patiently dug until she’d found what she was looking for, then walked over to the small tack table and lifted something off of it.

Came back, with thunder rumbling in the background, and resettled herself in the sweet straw, capturing the bard’s eyes with her own, until she was seated, and then, letting a smile across her lips and into her eyes, handed across a single rose, trimmed of thorns.

Those green eyes widened in wonder as Gabrielle reached out a hand and took it, speechless, her gaze never leaving Xena’s face. But then she was forced to look down, because the warrior handed across a wrapped package, still not saying anything.

"But.." Gabrielle stammered. "What... Xena... I mean, thank you.. " She looked up and her voice dropped to a whisper. "Thank you.."

"Open it." Xena drawled, enjoying herself very much.

The bard did so, in slow motion it seemed to her. Her look of bewilderment was replaced by a wide eyed delight when the wrappings came off though. "Oh... " She lifted the tooled leather scroll case up and blinked. "It’s beautiful." Her eyes drifted back up to Xena’s. "Xena, thank you." She lifted her hand and touched the warrior’s cheek. "Why?"

Xena raised one eyebrow, and let a half grin out. "Do I have to have a reason?" she asked.

"Nn no." The bard stammered. "But..." She closed her eyes and shook her head as if to clear it.

"Glad you agree. However, I do have one." The warrior replied, chuckling.

Gabrielle looked at her in question. "What?" She asked, lifting the rose to her face and taking a long breath of the wafting fragrance. "Oh.. that’s wonderful."

Xena gave a light shrug. "It’s your birthday, Gabrielle." And watched as the bard’s mouth fell open, and her gaze went internal for a very long moment.

" is.." Her brows contracted. "Can it.. what day..." Then her eyes closed and she let out a short laugh. "Gods.. it is, isn’t it."

"Yep." Xena confirmed, mentally patting herself on the back.

"How did you know?" Gabrielle suddenly asked, putting a gentle hand on Xena’s arm. "I never said."

Xena summoned up her very best omnipotent expression. "A good warlord always knows the essential details, Gabrielle." Arching one dark eyebrow and smirking. Really, it hadn’t been all that hard... a trader from Amphipolis going down the trade road, who happened to stop in Potadeia.. and happened to be selling some nice trinkets.. who engaged an ordinary family matron about selling them, which naturally led to speaking of the matron’s children, and he had to stay and hear the sad story of the eldest daughter who was out somewhere in the world, no doubt in trouble. And of course, since he was from old fortuneteller stock, the most natural thing in the world was to ask for the poor child’s birth date so he could divine her fate. No, hardly any trouble, Xena mused, for Johan the clever, who’d earned a bear hug for his pains, and laughed of it.

"So you’re not going to tell me." Gabrielle concluded, her eyes now dancing with mischief.

"Nope." Xena confirmed.

The bard nodded. "And I don’t suppose you’ll tell me when yours is."

"Oh no." Xena shook her head. "I don’t do birthdays."

"Uh huh." Gabrielle drawled. "We’re here in your hometown, I have to mention to you."

"They’re sworn to secrecy." The warrior replied, with a smug grin.

"Uh huh. " The bard responded. "We’ll see." She lifted the rose again. And looked at Xena, serious now. "I’d forgotten completely."

"I know." Xena answered, just as seriously. ‘I kept track of my mother’s, Toris’s. Now yours." A slight shrug. "Comes with being part of my family."

Gabrielle studied her with a poignant intensity. "Tell me yours. I want to do this for you." The question came from a wave of emotion that threatened to overwhelm her.

"No need." Came the words from a person of few of them. "I already have the only gift I could ever want."

Gabrielle just closed her eyes, and let the words roll over her, let herself experience this moment in all it’s golden fullness. Funny..I’ve read a thousand poems about being in love. They don’t even come close. Maybe I’ll have to write one that does. Then she opened her eyes, and ducked her head in acknowledgment. And put the case and rose aside, and moved into a pair of welcoming arms. And as their lips met, and Gabrielle let her hands slide across the curves and hollows of the arms that cradled her, she reflected that she really didn’t want any other gift either.

Xena listened quietly to the drumming rain, knowing by her time sense it was mid afternoon, but you couldn’t tell that from the darkness outside the glazed windows. She let her gaze drift lazily down to Gabrielle’s sleeping form, still intertwined with her own, and reached out, pulling down her mottled cloak and tucking it around them both against the light draft from the uncaulked timbers.

Then she turned her attention back to the scrolls, which she had propped up against one knee, and was reading with interest. And anger, when she realized by reading between the lines what Gabrielle had gone through with Arella. Lucky for her, I didn’t have time to read these first. The warrior mused, taking a deep breath to let some of her rage evaporate. The diary was honest, and recorded the bard’s confusion, as well as her frustration with attitudes she didn’t understand. Xena was at first startled, then charmed to see that most of the scrolls were in the form of letters written to her.. She smiled at some of them. "Hey, Xena, I got to beat up on some Amazons’d have been proud of me." Oh yeah. No question there. "Xena, I’m scared. Arella is getting harder and harder to fend off. I try to think what you would do, then I realize if you were here, you’d just squash her like a bug, and I wouldn’t have a problem. I wish you were." You did all right without me, my friend. You really did. Squash her like a bug? Really, Gabrielle. The warrior’s lips quirked in a grin. "Xena, I miss you." Yeah, I missed you too, my bard.

"Today was a really bad day. Arella cornered me after the council session, and just pushed and pushed. Then I slipped in sparring and almost took Eponin’s head off, and pulled I can’t think what in my back. It hurts. I hurt. It’s the lowest I’ve felt since I came here, and all I can think of is how I’d rather be out in some dusty meadow under the canopy of the stars with you." Xena’s finger traced the words, and she silently shook her head. "Ephiny just came back, with Erika in tow, and Cait - and Cait handed me your dagger, and Xena, I didn’t know whether to be scared out of my wits, or relieved, because at least that meant I wasn’t imagining all this stuff, because you sending that meant you knew something was really, really wrong. And if something scares you, I don’t mind being terrified by it. "

"Ephiny just gave me your note, and seeing your familiar handwriting is like a fist squeezing my heart. I sat here and talked to you tonight, even though I know you can’t hear me. It made me feel better, until I went to sleep, and had that old nightmare. It’s worse here, Xena, because when I wake up, here I am in the queen’s quarters, where I would have been.. and it takes me time before I can convince myself it’s a dream again. This time, I was lucky. I had your note clenched in my hand. Xena sighed, and closed the scroll, leaning back into the straw, and idly petting Ares, who had crept close and was curled in a tight ball against her thigh.

She studied Gabrielle’s peaceful face. The trip home had done her a lot of good, the warrior mused. That wary, tense look was gone, and she’d filled back out to her normal healthy self under Cyrene’s influence. Tanned and relaxed, she reminded Xena once again of just how young she really was, and the warrior felt a twinge of regret, that she’d had to go through all the trials of the last two years. Was it fair? She suspected her view and Gabrielle’s view on that subject would differ, and a faint grin crossed her face.

She stifled a yawn, and realized the rhythmic drumming of the rain, and Gabrielle’s warm presence were coaxing her into sleep, and she mentally berated herself for being a lazy bum. Then sighed, and shrugged to herself, and noted that it was raining, and her armor was clean, and Argo was taken care of, and there were no chores, and she was home, and safe, and she might just as well snuggle down into the warm hay that smelled of late summer, and just...for a minute...

Gabrielle blinked her eyes slowly open, aware at first only of the light patter of rain still falling, and the warmth surrounding her. Her eyes drifted up, and a smile twitched across her face when she saw Xena sound asleep. In the middle of the day, yet. And apparently at peace, because even the faint lines of tension that usually marked her face were absent. Looking at her like this, Gabrielle could almost forget what she was.. until her eyes dropped down and took in the sleekly muscled body, which even in sleep maintained the impression of a taut bowstring. Or saw the sparse but significant scattering of scars. Or until a sharp crack of thunder rocked the woodwork, and she was being cradled in a protective embrace, with one of Xena’s arms instinctively guarding off any danger in the barest split seconds after the sound echoed.

"Hi." The bard chuckled. "Glad I didn’t move before. I might have gotten my head taken off." She commented as the warrior relaxed and released her.

"Nah." Xena said, stretching out her long body. "You’re safe." She grinned as Gabrielle snuggled back into her arms and let out a contented sigh. "We should get up and get dressed for dinner." She commented.

"Uh huh." Gabrielle agreed, closing her eyes, and letting her hand slowly trace the muscles under the skin of Xena’s stomach. "We should." She felt the chuckle before she even heard it. "But I never thought a haybale could be so comfortable."

"Come on." Xena remarked, rubbing her back. "I think it’s slowing down." Listening to the rain. "We might not even get soaked." But she noticed that she herself had no inclination to go anywhere, and the sensation of Gabrielle’s gentle fingers against her skin wasn’t helping matters any. She gave in and let herself drift for a while before she took a deep breath and forced her body to move, rolling to her feet, and pulling the lazily grinning bard up with her.

"Thanks..." Gabrielle yawned. "Ow." She grimaced as she moved the wrong way. "Going full out with the Warrior Princess yesterday was not the smartest thing I ever did." She muttered, giving Xena a dirty look.

"Hey..not my fault." Xena raised both hands. "I told you to tell me if it was too much for you." She walked over and studied the bard thoughtfully. "I’ll have to have a word with the Amazons about conditioning when we’re there for the festival." She gave Gabrielle a sardonic smile. "I know they’ll love hearing that from me." She stepped up behind the bard and laid both hands on her shoulders. "Where does it hurt?" Her fingers probed gently. "Here?"

"Yeah." the bard sighed. "All across there."

"Uh huh." Xena said. "Hang on a minute." She rooted around in a saddlebag and pulled out a small jar. "Let me guess, here.." She laid a finger on one side of the bard’s spine. "Is where you pulled something during practice with Eponin."

Gabrielle thought a minute. "Yes, but that healed.."

Xena rubbed some of the contents of the jar on her hands, and began to work the substance into the tight muscles across Gabrielle’s back. "Uh huh..but you avoided the upper parries until it did, right?"

"Well, sure." The bard acknowledged.

"And that was OK, because most of the Amazons are your height. Right?" Xena pursued, feeling the tension relax under her expert hands.

"Yeah." Gabrielle responded.

"And after it healed, you still used the lower and the middle parries, because that’s what you were defending against. Right?" The warrior continued.

"Right again." The bard replied, fascinated. "How did you..."

"OK.. so yesterday, after over a month of not using them, all of a sudden you have to defend yourself against someone who is half a foot taller than you, weighs a lot more, and hits you twice as hard as what you’ve been used to." Xena gave her an amused look. "And you have to use the upper parries, because you have no choice. That’s the angle I come in from."

"Oh." Gabrielle said. "That does make a lot of sense."

"Yeah, and I should have thought about that, and been more careful." The warrior sighed. "Next time, tell me if you get hurt somewhere, OK?"

"Like you always tell me?" Gabrielle turning around and arching a brow at her. Putting a hand on her hip and smirking.

Xena crossed her arms and allowed a smile to cross her face. "You’d get pretty tired of hearing that from me, Gabrielle." She gave a little shrug. "I’ll let you know when it’s something critical, all right?

The bard stepped close to her, shrugging her tunic on. "Listen.. no one knows better than I do just how much you hate to show any kind of weakness in front of anyone. Right?" She gave the warrior a light punch. "But would it be so horrible if you let me do for you what you just did for me? It feels great, by the way. Thanks."

Xena finished fastening her own tunic before she answered. "I’m used to living with pain, Gabrielle." She gave the bard a small grin. "It comes with the job." She thought a moment more. "But you’re right. Sometimes that would be really nice. I’ll.." she gave Gabrielle a sheepish look. "try."

"Good." Came the answer, as the bard ran a comb through her hair. "And I promise I’ll let you know next time so you don’t clobber me."

"Uh huh" Xena responded, leaning against a support beam. "Ready?"

They went out the door, and Gabrielle stopped short. "Wow.." She breathed, catching sight of the rainbow shimmering in the just evident sunlight.

Xena’s eyebrows rose. "That’s a nice one." she admitted.

‘Do you think the rain causes them?" Gabrielle asked, gazing at it.

Xena mused to herself. Rain? Who knew? "No, I think it’s there because it’s your birthday." She answered, with a sly grin. Glancing up at the windows of the inn, and catching a furtive movement there. "Come on."

They walked together across the muddy courtyard, and Xena grabbed the door handle, pulling it open, and gesturing for Gabrielle to precede her into the building. Which she did, and was greeted by wild yells and stamping.

And a room full of decorations, and villagers, all of whom were swamping her, giving the bard birthday greetings.

Xena stepped through the door, shutting it behind her and leaning against the panel, just watching, with a quiet smile. Gabrielle was trying to laughingly fend off her well wishers, and was blushing furiously. She turned her head, and spotting Xena, mouthed "I’m going to kill you." as the warrior laughed.

Toris stepped forward with an impish grin. "Gabrielle.. and not a word from you about it being your birthday.. we have to hear this from my sister???"

The bard sighed. "I forgot." She rolled her eyes. "Honest." She glanced around the inn, which was decorated gaily with cloth banners.

Toris gave Xena a sly look. "You know, there’s an old tradition in Amphipolis, Gabrielle." He said, solemnly. "All the guys get to kiss the birthday girl."

The bard gave him a disbelieving stare, raising one eyebrow and snorting. "As if." she replied, putting her hands on her hips.

"No, really." Toris said. "It’s for luck. You don’t want us to have bad luck the rest of the year, do you?"

Gabrielle was caught in a quandary. If she had to kiss all these men, she’d die of embarrassment, but she didn’t want to cause a problem... but...

Xena sauntered across the room, and slid a very companionable arm around her brother’s broad shoulders. "Toris." she said, smiling at him. "I’ll let you invoke that old custom if I can invoke the one that goes with it." Having read the bard’s moral quandary with no problem at all.

"Uh.." Toris said, confused. "Which one is that? " Given that he’d invented the first on the spot.

The warrior nodded at him. "The one that says if the birthday girl doesn’t want to kiss all the guys, she can pick one person to be her defender, and all the guys have to fight the defender for the honor." She grinned. "You remember that one, don’t you Toris?"

"One person." Toris repeated with a sheepish grin.

"Uh huh" replied his sister. "If that’s what the birthday girl wants to do. It’s her choice."

They both turned and looked at Gabrielle. Who looked at them, trying to muffle a giggle.

"Or you could drop the idea." Xena remarked, conversationally. "And we could go have dinner, before mother throws it at us." She jerked her head towards the kitchen door, where Cyrene was standing, hands on hips.

"Ahh.... that sounds like a good plan." Toris nodded vigorously. "We don’t want to upset mother." He escaped from Xena’s encircling arm, and scooted off, getting ribald catcalls from his cronies as he moved across the room.

Xena shook her head, and glanced up at Gabrielle, who was still chuckling. "Sorry about that. " She gave the bard a sheepish shrug. "I didn’t know mother was going to .." she waved a hand around the inn.

Gabrielle walked over and took her arm, tugging her towards the large table in the back. "It’s OK..I"ve never had a surprise party before. It’s kind of neat once you get used to the idea. " She gave Xena a look. " gives me a lot of... ideas."

"Ideas?" Xena repeated. I’m dead. She’s going to get me back for this. "What kind of ideas?"

The bard just smiled, and allowed Xena to steer her to a seat, and sat down.

Dinner was long and extensive, and capped off with a pastry large enough to go around the room and then some. Gabrielle finished her portion, then sat back with a sigh. "I’ve never been so stuffed in my life.’ she commented to Xena, who was leaning back with arms crossed, having finished some minutes before. "That was fantastic." She glanced around. "In fact, let me go thank mom."

Pushing her chair back, she stood up, and moved across the room and through the rear door. She spotted Cyrene perched on the prep table, finishing her own piece of the pastry. The older woman saw her coming, and stood up, with a smile.

"Hi mom." Gabrielle said, and gathered her into a hug. "Thank you." she whispered into Cyrene’s ear. "It was great."

Cyrene released her, and held her at arms distance. "Happy birthday, Gabrielle." She smiled at the bard. "Did you have a nice time today?" With a knowing twinkle in her eyes.

Gabrielle laughed. "Yeah.. you know, I completely forgot it was my birthday." she glanced down, then back up into Cyrene’s eyes. "I’m glad someone remembered."

Cyrene hugged her again. "No worries about that now, daughter." She said quietly. "And she never forgets."

Gabrielle smiled gently. "Which brings me to why I’m here." She rested her hands on Cyrene’s shoulders, level with her own. "Spill it, mom."

The older woman took a breath. "I could say I promised not to." she responded, watching those mist green eyes take on an inner glow.

"But you won’t." The bard said, sure of it. "So spill."

And Cyrene told her. Cheerfully. "So now you know."

"Thanks." Gabrielle said, ideas already turning over in her mind. "I wonder if I can get Hercules to...well, anyway. "

Cyrene put a hand on her arm. "Hercules..what’s he like?" She asked, curiously. "You get to meet so many interesting people in your line of work, Gabrielle."

The bard laughed. Interesting. Uh..yeah. "He’s really sweet." she answered the first question. "He has a nice personality, and he’s really funny." She grinned. "Sometimes we get together with him and Iolaus, and do things."

"Things?" Cyrene raised her eyebrows.

"Oh..not what..." Gabrielle blushed. "that’s not.." She laughed. "I mean, we take care of things fighting and stuff."

Cyrene chuckled. "I see." she studied the bard. "Do you like what you’re doing, Gabrielle?"

"No, I love what I’m doing." Came the rock solid answer. "Everyone asks me that, you know." With an amused grin. "Come on.. will you come sit and listen with us? I think I’m going to have to sit through the story of this morning. Again."

Cyrene linked arms with her, and they walked into the dining area together.

Xena glanced up as the door opened, and she watched her mother and Gabrielle move across the room towards them. She could see the sparkle in the bard’s eye, and held no illusions as to exactly what her mother had been discussing in there. She sighed in resignation. Well, maybe she’ll forget. It’s not for a while. Maybe we’ll be in the middle of a war, or something.Or maybe I could start one.

They seated themselves at the table, and Xena leaned forward, and tapped the bard on the arm. "Hey.’

"Mm?" Gabrielle responded, ducking her head closer. "What’s up?"

"Toris volunteered to tell his eyewitness account again. Unless you’d rather me do it... he did have a better view." Xena gave a half grin at the blush on the bard’s face.

"No..that’s OK. But I want you to do something for me." Gabrielle replied, locking her eyes with Xena’s. After this, you’d better say yes. or... or... Or what, Gabrielle? You going to knock her down or something? You know she just loves doing this in public. But I think they need to hear it. And I love listening.

Xena tilted her head in inquiry. "What?"

"Sing." And she put on her best wishing look, the one she knew Xena had a very hard time resisting. "Please?"

The warrior chewed her lip. "Gabrielle... I don’t..." Then a sigh. "All right." A half smile then. "I guess I deserved that, after putting you through all this."

And so. after Toris had told her tale, and she’d suffered through the cheers of the village again, she watched as Xena stood casually, and with no warm-up, and no preamble, delivered a song she knew was one of the bard’s favorites.

She had a true pitch, and her voice was rich, and full, and surprised the listeners into a stunned silence. Never expecting this from her. And as she closed her eyes in concentration, and took her voice up in a sinuous climb, Gabrielle smiled, and let her soul soar as well. Singing was a gift Xena didn’t use often, except when she had need, to sing friends to their final rest. Or sometimes late at night, when she knew Gabrielle was having problems sleeping. When the dreams got too much, or the horrors of the day haunted her, that voice would put her gently to sleep.

When she finished, Xena dropped back into her chair with studied casualness, raising an eyebrow at the too, too silent room. Giving them that cool blue stare. Until Toris stood up, and leaned over, and kissed her on the head. "That was beautiful, sis." He said, causing her to blush. And then they cheered.

Xena just bore it, letting the sound wash over her, and giving Gabrielle a look. Which was returned, along with a mouthed "Thank you." from her companion. Xena shrugged, but let a smile appear. "You could ask for that anytime, you know. " she said quietly.

Gabrielle blinked. "No, I didn’t know." she answered, honestly.

"Now you do." The warrior replied, settling back in her chair and taking a long sip of ale.

The next few days were spent at peace, with the exception of the minor food fight in the kitchen, which resulted in Cyrene chasing her children out of the inn with a wooden spoon, and caused Gabrielle to almost sprain an ankle when she slipped while laughing too hard and ended up under the prep table. And got a lecture from Xena while she got her leg wrapped up despite her protests that it didn’t hurt.

"Any last bits of advice?" Toris asked her, leaning against the inn wall next to Xena on the last afternoon before their departure, following a long practice session, that had ended in a free for all where the warrior had stood against all comers, and had actually managed to break a sweat in doing so. "Where do I take them from here?"

Xena thought about that for a minute, wrapping her hands around her staff and leaning back. "Well, you can keep doing this, but it gets boring after a while." She admitted. "I’d start having little competitions. Let them push each other, instead of depending on you to do it."

"Too right." Toris snorted, shaking his head. "They’re pretty good.. they even got you sweating." He glanced at her. "Or are the effects of mom’s cooking.. " He teased, poking her in the ribs. "..catching up with you, sis?"

The warrior gave him a withering glance. "Not hardly. And besides.." She gave him a return poke, too fast for him to avoid even though he knew it was coming. "Look who’s talking"

Her brother chuckled. "Well.. I don’t know... " He studied her. "I think all this relaxing took some of your edge off."

"Think so?" Xena asked, with a quirky grin.

"Yeah, I think so." Toris answered.

"Let’s find out." Came the unexpected answer, and she leaned the staff against the wall, and took his out of his hand in one smooth movement. They looked at each other for a moment, then Toris pounced, and they grabbed each other and started wrestling.

"Oh boy." Toris muttered, as he felt himself being lifted off his feet. Then they both hit the ground, and he tried to pin her arms, but couldn’t, and then tried to use his size advantage to keep her from flipping him over, and couldn’t do that either. "Maybe I was wrong." He coughed, as Xena picked him up by the scruff of his neck and tossed him a few feet into the mud, then leaped over his head, and grappled with him again as he rose up onto his knees. "Ooof." He gasped, as she knocked him over backwards, and leaned casually on his shoulders with both hands, pinning him to the ground. He arched his back with all his strength, to throw her off, then realized it just wasn’t going to happen. He was out of breath. She wasn’t. "Ok..I was wrong. I give." He sighed. "Now let me up out of this damn mud."

Xena gazed at him for a minute, then released his arms, and stood up, but grabbed his shirt as she rose and pulled him up with her.

"Oh...thanks." He said. "Oof..wait...ouch..Xena!" As she continued the movement, and slung him over her shoulders.

"Come on, Toris. I got you muddy, gotta get you cleaned up." The warrior chuckled, and started walking, ignoring her brother’s struggles to get free. Lost my edge, have I, Toris? You wish. She headed up the path to the spring, hearing light footsteps behind her.

"Hey." Gabrielle laughed. "What’s going on?" She looked at Xena "You’re covered with mud."

"Hi." Toris said, having given up struggling. "Nice day, huh?"

The bard patted him on the shoulder. "Teased her, didn’t you." She shook her head at him. "I thought I warned you about that?"

"Warned him?" Xena asked, glancing down curiously. "About what?"

Gabrielle looked at Toris, who looked back at her. "Never mind." They both said together.

"Uh huh." Xena nodded. "I see." She reached the edge of the spring, and paused. Glanced at Gabrielle. "Move." She warned, waiting until the bard shifted several steps away. Then she grabbed Toris and pressed him over her head, and, tensing, pushed up and out, and sent him neatly into the middle of the spring. "There. All clean."

Then felt hands on her back, as Gabrielle hurled herself forward, and knocked her off her balance by sheer momentum, and by dint of extreme effort, managed to send the warrior tumbling into the water after her brother.

"Yes!" Gabrielle laughed, pumping her fist in the air. Then.. "Uh oh." As Xena surfaced closed to the rocky edge, and boosted herself smoothly out of the spring. "Uh... now Xena..." the bard started backing away. "Take it easy.." One look at the warrior’s face. "Damn." And she took off running. Maybe I’ll get lucky.. "Oof."

As the sprinting Xena caught her in about two strides and wrapped a long arm around her waist. "Oh no." The warrior growled, turning and sending them both back over the water with one healthy leap.

Gabrielle had a sudden moment of memory, of a similar scene what seemed like a lifetime ago. Before Ephiny had found them. In the stream with the turtle. She grinned as the water closed over her head, and instead of struggling, wrapped her arms around Xena and just went along for the ride as the warrior kicked off against the bottom, and surfaced with a splash.

"I spend hours retraining my instincts so that you don’t get hit every time you creep up on me, and that’s the thanks I get?" Xena asked, giving the bard a wry look. I should be mad at her, and she knows it.. Toris is right.. I’m turning into a total mushball.

Gabrielle giggled. "Hey... that’s the first time ever, so give me a break." She reached out and pushed the wet hair out of Xena’s eyes. Expecting and getting an indulgent grin in return. They turned and swam over to where Toris was trudging out of the water, wringing out his thick tunic with a scowl.

He sat down on a rock, and put his chin in his hands, and dripped at them. And watched warily as Xena pulled herself up out of the water and took the rock next to him, giving herself a good shake and scattering droplets everywhere.

"Bet you’ll be glad to see the last of me." Xena commented, half jokingly.

Toris looked at her, and thought about that. "No, not really." He answered, giving her a grudging smile. "I still miss having my sister around. Even if she can beat me up." He wrung a sleeve out. "Don’t suppose we’ll get to see more of you now.. "

Xena pulled off her boots, and set them on the rock to dry. "Maybe. Depends on what we get involved in." She glanced at Gabrielle, who was floating peacefully in the spring. "She does have to keep an eye on those Amazons."

"Good." Her brother said. "Besides, mom will be happier. She’ll miss you." He looked off into the distance. "So will I." He turned his dark head and regarded her. "Maybe someday..."

"Maybe." Xena acknowledged. Maybe when I can’t do this anymore. When I lose my skills and it’s a choice between dying and backing off and going into retirement. Always thought I’d choose dying.. always assumed I’d get caught someday by someone younger, someone better.. isn’t that the way it happens? Simple. I had no family, no friends, no obligations... there was just me, and that sword. And Argo. Now.. it’s all changed. Now.. Her eyes drifted to her brother’s face. "Maybe." She repeated, then leaned back against the rock face behind her, and folded her arms across her chest.

"Well, I’m going to go change." Toris sighed. "Thanks for the bath, sis." He rose, and clapped her on the shoulder in passing. Then he stopped and put his mouth close to her ear. "I was joking before, by the way... you’re sharp as a razor, and always will be." Ignoring the raised eyebrow he received in reply.

Xena listened to him leave, and closed her eyes against the brightness of the sun, and kept them closed until she sensed Gabrielle approaching. One eye opened, and she regarded the younger woman. "Finished floating?"

"Yeah." Gabrielle sighed, hitching herself up on Xena’s rock, and laying back next to her. They sat quietly drying off. "So, exactly why did we all end up wet?" She asked, turning her head and looking at Xena curiously.

"You ended up wet because you pushed me in the water." Xena answered, shutting her eye again and shifting slightly. "That’s how I ended up wet. Toris ended up wet because I got him all muddy, and he was complaining."

"Uh huh." Gabrielle mused. "And why did you get him all muddy?"

"We were wrestling." Xena gave that last a note of finality. "I won."

"Big surprise." The bard yawned. "You always do."

Xena thought about that for a while. "That won’t always be the case." she finally said. Feeling the jerk go through the bard’s body in reaction.

"What are you talking about?" Gabrielle asked, rolling up onto one elbow and studying her closely. "Are you all right?"

The warrior opened her eyes and gave the bard a reassuring pat on the arm. "I’m fine." She let a half smile appear. "But I can’t do this forever, you know." I thought I could, once. "Gabrielle, the human body has it’s limits.. and one day I’ll reach mine." She saw the bard’s heartbeat pick up. "I’ve made a lot of enemies." True. "Some day, maybe sooner, maybe later, time is going to get to me, and one of those enemies is going to take advantage of that." Do you understand, my bard? That thought is what’s made me keep you at arms distance for all this time. I don’t want you to see that. I can’t stand the thought of letting you down.

"No." Gabrielle replied, low and fast, laying a hand on Xena’s forearm. "No."

Xena reached over and clasped her other hand over the bard’s. "Gabrielle, it’s how life works. You know that." she searched the mist green eyes regretfully. "I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to.."

"No." The younger woman said again. "I’ll tell you why." She scooted closer, and moved her hand up Xena’s arm to her biceps. "Because your strength isn’t here." Seeing the raised eyebrow facing her. "Well, I mean, yeah, you’re strong, I know that. But your real strength is here." Touching Xena’s forehead. "You do things because you convince yourself you can, Xena, I’ve seen you do that. You do things mortals can’t do. Things that I’ve only seen Hercules do." She touched the warrior’s forehead again. "Because your strength is here."

Xena rolled her head to one side against the warm rock, and regarded her companion. And very slowly smiled. "You’re wrong." She said, watching the dismayed reaction in her eyes. And tapped her own forehead. "It’s not here." Reached out and laid her hand over Gabrielle’s heart. "It’s right there." And felt the heartbeat under her hand stop for an instant, then redouble. "I try to live up to the vision you have when you look at me, Gabrielle. It’s a tough job sometimes."

"I.. " Gabrielle started to speak, then stopped. And just looked at her. Finally she shook her head a little, and laid her cheek against Xena’s arm. "I believe in you." she whispered.

Xena closed her eyes. "I know you do. Even when I don’t." She slid her arm around the bard’s shoulders, and hugged her. "Don’t worry, I have a few good years left in me," she chuckled a little. "Sorry.. I never really thought about what I’d do after I finished fighting. " She looked around. "Never thought I’d have a place to come home to." Just some unmarked battlefield grave. If I was lucky, and not drawn and quartered and put on city gate display.

Gabrielle let her head rest on Xena’s damp shoulder. "I could live here." she said, simply. She’s right.. I’ve never heard her talk about the future before. It’s always here, and now, and let’s not think about what happens next. I guess that’s a good thing. She glanced up. "We should go change before we catch cold. You know how much you hate being sick." With a little grin for the healer who was her own worst patient.

The warrior grinned in sheepish acknowledgment. "True." She stood up and waited for the bard to join her for the short walk back to the village.

Gabrielle stood for a moment, in the rosy light of the next morning, watching Xena saddle Argo, and arrange her various saddlebags securely. The warrior had changed into her leathers, but had not yet donned armor, and the bard could see the edge of the well healed knife wound under the neatly mended slice in the dark hide. She walked over, and inspected it. "That healed nice." she commented to Xena, who glanced over her shoulder.

"Did it? I can't tell." Giving the bard a wry grin.

"What, you really don't have eyes in the back of your head?" Gabrielle teased, brushing her fingers over the scar. "Could have fooled me."

Xena chuckled, and moved around Argo, crouching down next to her armor, grabbing the chest and shoulder piece, and standing up. "Yet another rumor to go flying around the countryside." She remarked, as she slid the gleaming armor over her head, and settled it, reaching for the buckles, only to have her hands slapped aside by her companion, who performed that service, then used the excuse to slide her arms around Xena, and hug her.

"Hey.. what's that for?' Xena asked, as her arms moved, of their own volition, around the bard in response.

Gabrielle smiled. "I never needed a reason." She admitted. "I just always liked doing that." she continued, as she released her grasp.

"Ahhh.." Xena drawled. "Now the truth comes out." She reached for her bracers, sliding them up her arms, and drawing the laces tight, then pausing, and holding out an arm to Gabrielle. "Would you mind?" Without waiting for her to offer. And knew by the little warm glance she got from the bard that the point was appreciated. Well well.. I might possibly figure this all out yet.

The door opened, and Toris poked his dark head in, spotting them. He stepped inside, and crossed the hay strewn floor. "Xena." He said, holding up a square of parchment. "Trading party just came in, and they said they were asked to carry this to you." He handed her the packet. "Good morning, Gabrielle." he gave the bard a friendly grin.

"Where's the trading party coming from?" Gabrielle asked, darting a glance at Xena, who had opened and scanned the parchment, and whose face had gone quite still.

"Potadeia." The warrior answered, before Toris had a chance to. "Here." She handed the parchment to Gabrielle. "It's from your father."

The bard's eyes widened, and she grasped the parchment, reading it several times before she turned it over, then looked up at Xena. Xena (it said), bring my daughter home. And was signed by her father's sigil. "Wonder what's up with this?" She mused, tapping the parchment on her thigh. She paused in thought for a long moment, then looked up at Xena. "Guess I'd better postpone a return visit to the Amazons and see what's going on here." She started to fold up the parchment, but Xena neatly removed it from her grasp.

"We'd better see what's going on." Emphasis on the we. And before Gabrielle could break eye contact and glance down, Xena saw her first, instinctive reaction. Gratitude and relief. "After all, it's addressed to me." She gave the bard a smile. "Not to you."

Gabrielle sighed. Oh do I wish I could.. "You don't have to do that, Xena. No sense in both of us having to suffer through my parents." She looked up. "I know you're not comfortable around them. Go on to the festival."

Ah.. my noble and self sacrificing bard. "Let me ask you a question." Xena said, crossing her arms. "Are you comfortable around them?"

The bard put her hands on her hips and let out a breath. "Not anymore. No." She glanced at Toris, then at Xena. "But they're my family." She paused. "My blood family, anyway."

"Uh huh." Xena nodded. "And would having me be there make you feel better, or worse?"

Gabrielle started to answer before she thought the question through. "What a dumb question, Xena. Of course I'd feel bet..." And looked at Xena's face, which was twitching with a knowing grin. "That was sneaky." But she couldn't restrain the smile, or the sudden lightening of her mood.

"Well, one thing, I make them as uncomfortable as they make me." Xena concluded, ruffling Gabrielle's hair. "Maybe I can distract them from bothering you too much." She glanced at Toris. "I'm going to go say goodbye to mother. Can you finish up packing here?"

"Sure." The bard acknowledged, giving her a hug. "Thanks." she whispered, and heard the answering chuckle. "I mean that."

"I know." Xena responded, the patted her on the shoulder, and followed Toris out the door. The two siblings exchanged glances as they walked across the courtyard.

"That doesn't sound like fun." Toris commented, giving her a little sympathetic smile.

Xena sighed. "Nope. Her family never is." Remembering the last time she'd seen them. Remembering Perdicus. "They really don't like me."

Toris mulled over that. "Well, sis.. you charmed everyone here." He winked at her, ignoring the rolled eyes. "Maybe you can do the same for them." He opened the door to the inn for her. "And if not, you can just beat them all up."

Xena burst out laughing. "Toris!"

"What?" Her brother exclaimed, giving her a jab with his elbow. "Tell em it's a family tradition."

"Oh yeah, I'm sure that'll help the relationship." Xena snorted, shaking her head at him.

Toris shrugged. "Never hurt ours." And he slung an arm over her shoulders, and steered her towards the kitchen. Feeling the cold armor under his fingers. And smiling when he felt the return pressure of her arm settling around him.

Cyrene looked up as the kitchen door opened, and smiled when she saw them. "Stop." She said, and they did, blinking at her. "I just want to look at you two for a minute like that." Memorizing the sight of them, of her two children. Hers. "OK." She waved them in. They looked at each other, and both shrugged, then they burst out laughing at the similar gesture.

"I guess we're related, huh?" Toris chuckled.

"I guess." Xena replied, giving his shoulder length hair a tug. "Though you'd never know it to look at us, right?" Two sets of identical blue eyes regarded each other.

"Nah." Toris said, cheerfully. "You're much cuter than I am. " Getting sharply arched eyebrow for that. "And you have bigger biceps." Then he pulled her into a hug. "Visit soon, Xena."

She returned the hug. "I will." She grasped his shoulders. "Take care."

He nodded, and ducked out the door, turning as he did so. "Good luck in Potadeia."

Xena rolled her eyes, and waved at him. "Thanks." Then she turned and regarded her mother.

"Potadeia?" Cyrene asked, quirking an eyebrow. "Thought you two were headed back to the Amazons for a while."

"Change in plans." Xena responded, pulling the parchment from where she'd tucked it under her bracer edge and handing it to Cyrene.

"This doesn't sound very pleasant." Her mother commented, holding the parchment by it's edges.

Xena shrugged. "Her family isn't." She met her mother's gaze. "I'm glad you've taken her into.. ours." And thought about how odd it felt to be able to say that. Again.

Cyrene folded the parchment back up, and handed it to Xena. "I hope you're not letting her go there alone." With a severe look at her daughter.

Xena gave her a wry smile. And raised an eyebrow.

"Good." Cyrene nodded. "Because I like her very much, and I wouldn't want to see her get hurt." Now she stepped up and laid a hand on Xena's chest. "And that means you take care of yourself, too."

The warrior gazed down at her. "I will."

Cyrene hesitated. "She's a good person."

Xena nodded. "She is."

Her mother's gaze softened. "She loves you."

"I know." Came the quiet answer.

Cyrene smiled. "I'm glad." And she poked Xena hard in the chest. "You'd better come back here soon." And gave her a tight hug, armor and all.

"Don't worry." Xena said, returning the hug. "We will."

Cyrene broke off, and gave her a look. "And you're not leaving that wolf here, are you?"

Xena gave her a resigned, somewhat sheepish grin. "No. no.. I got.. convinced.. last night that we needed to take him with us." Hadn't taken much... just Gabrielle cuddling the fuzzy creature in her arms, and both of them giving her that... look... And she had melted like butter in the sun, unable to refuse either the bard, or the puppy. Mushball. Just a mushball. Some fierce warlord I am. She sighed inwardly.

Cyrene smirked. "Good for her." She stepped back and regarded her daughter. "You look so different in that stuff. I can't get over it." She mused. "You look.."

"Meaner?" Xena asked, suppressing a grin.

"Mmm....more imposing, perhaps." Cyrene allowed. "Intimidating." she admitted.

Xena paused a minute, then dropped her head angle, and let her darker side surface, putting glints of ice in her eyes, and a cold hardness to her face.

Cyrene stepped back involuntarily, her eyes widening.

Then Xena relaxed, and winked. "It has it's purposes." She chuckled. "Damned useful when you're walking through an inn full of half drunken out of work mercenaries."

Cyrene snorted, and backhanded her in the stomach. "Don't you ever do that again." She sighed, and took Xena's arm, steering her out the door. "Half drunken mercenaries?" She asked, her curiosity pricked.

"Oh yeah." Xena answered, as they walked to the door. "We get that a lot, traveling around."

"So.. what do you do?" Her mother asked.

Xena turned to her, and raised both eyebrows. "Well, either they steer clear of me. And Gabrielle, of course. Or..." She shrugged.

"You thrash them." Cyrene finished.

"Yeah." Xena admitted.

"Mmm. I have a job for you when you're finished running around saving the world, dear." Cyrene commented, patting her arm. 'We could use that here sometimes."

"I'll keep that in mind." Xena assured her, with a grin.

She pushed the door open, and went out into the sunny courtyard, where Argo and Gabrielle were patiently waiting. With Ares, of course, who was sprawled in Argo's saddle. Cyrene went over to Gabrielle and enfolded her into a big hug.

"Take care, daughter." She said softly into the bard's ear. "Try to keep her out of trouble, will you?"

Gabrielle smiled, and hugged Cyrene until her bones cracked. "That's hard. But I'll try." she answered. "Thank you.. for everything."

The older woman took Gabrielle's face gently in her hands. "No.. thank you, Gabrielle." She paused. "I'm glad you're part of the family." They looked at each other in understanding.

Then they broke apart, and Gabrielle hefted her staff, and moved to Xena's side, leaning against Argo's warm body as the warrior adjusted the mare's bridle. Then they exchanged a glance, and grinned at each other. "Come on." Xena said, tucking Ares into a large pouch attached to Argo's front saddle rings, and, putting both hands on the saddle, vaulted aboard, extending her arm down for Gabrielle to grab onto.

"Thanks." The bard responded, taking hold, and allowing herself to be lifted up and across Argo's quarters. She settled her knees, and slid her arms around Xena as she felt Argo start to move under her.

"So." Xena said, as they crossed onto the road, and she kneed the mare into rolling canter. "You about ready for a horse of your own?"

"Nope." Gabrielle responded. "That was fun, but I prefer something solid to hang onto."

"Oh really?" Xena laughed.

"Yep." The bard agreed. Then she laid her head down on Xena's back, and smiled And thought about the look on her father's face if they rode in together just like this. She chuckled.

The End

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