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by Anne Kistner

The night was cooler than most. The dew had already settled heavily and Xena shivered slightly as she packed her bedroll into Argo's saddlebag. Sighing, she returned to her sleeping friend and knelt to wake her. She reached toward Gabrielle's shoulder and then thought better of it. The girl could sleep a bit longer. Xena rose and headed toward the stream.

Wind whipped Gabrielle's hair as she tried to find shelter behind a large boulder. The storm had gotten worse throughout the day and the clear sky had been replaced by dark menacing clouds.

"Xena!" Gabrielle shouted into the roar of the wind. "Where are you?" Frantic with worry, she stepped from behind the rock to get a better view. She could barely make out a figure in the distance struggling with a horse.

"Hurry up. Get over here!" Her cries were weak, but her friend finally looked in her direction and headed toward her. Suddenly, a tree was ripped out of the ground by the force of the gale and shot toward Xena. It hit the pair with a CRACK and kept going. Gabrielle screamed and ran with all of her might to the warrior. Argo was struggling to stand, but Xena wasn't moving. Her prone figure lay quiet.

"NOOO!" Gabrielle untangled Argo's reins and he raced toward the fallen rocks. Wiping dust and tears from her eyes, she bent and grabbed Xena's shoulders. "Wake up!" She shook her and then pressed her fingers to the well-muscled neck. There was no pulse. She began CPR, but after a minute realized they were unprotected from the storm.

"Wake up! You aren't doing this to me again! I can't carry you Xena, so GET UP!" Gabrielle frantically pounded on her friend's breastplate, but Xena didn't move. "Wake up dammit! Don't leave me again! You PROMISED!" The ground began to shake and Gabrielle lost her footing. A large crack formed in the ground and steam started to rise. She felt herself falling...falling...

"Gabrielle!" Xena shook her friend firmly. The girl was in a nightmare and was mumbling incoherently. Gabrielle turned and Xena could see the sweat. "Wake up Gabrielle." She lifted the tormented girl's head and laid it gently into her own lap. She lightly stroked her face and once again called for her friend.

The heat was intense and Gabrielle couldn't breathe. She clawed at the ground, but the dirt was loose and she dropped into the fire beneath. "Help me, Xena!" Fire and smoke was everywhere. As hot as it was, she was amazed that she wasn't getting burned. She landed on solid ground and sat there, dazed. Where was she?

Xena looked down into the face below her. It was flushed and damp. The warrior felt her forehead and recoiled slightly. The girl was burning up! How had this happened? She had just been sleeping so peacefully. Worried, Xena eased herself away from Gabrielle's head and paced it gently to the ground. She went to the saddlebag and grabbed the calfskin and pouch of herbs.

A fever this bad was going to do damage quickly. Xena had to hurry.

Gabrielle rose slowly from her position. The air stung her eyes and she coughed every time she tried to take in extra breath. The heat had already begun to redden her skin, but she was amazed that the fire stayed away. She bent and felt the ground beneath her and realized the reason. It felt cool to the touch. "This is definitely going to be printed in the Weirdest Dream category,"she muttered. Confusion changed to fear as the tiny hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. She was not alone. A large dark figure was coming toward her and Gabrielle was a prisoner to that spot. With nowhere to go, she bent and took a defensive stance.

"Oh, come now, Gabrielle. Is that any way to greet an old friend?" Ares stood tall and erect in front of the fair-haired girl and chuckled. "I sense our last meeting was less than amicable. I do have the habit of that, don't I?" Gabrielle stood and glared at the God of War.

"So, what game are you trying to play this time, Ares? I must admit, they are getting more and more creative." She stood unfaltering, determined to meet this next challenge with strength. "You've resorted to messing with my dreams? MY dreams?"

"You know me so well, little one. I am amazed at your brilliant perception of the obvious." He continued in an irritatingly mocking tone. "I, however, am not playing games. This devised plan is failsafe. Either way, I will win this time. Xena WILL come back into my fold, so to speak." His eyes danced with reflective fire, but Gabrielle was not amused.

"You know, I have seen some really stupid animals, Ares, but you take the cake. How many times does the girl have to beat you before you give up? I mean, I should expect it, you being a man and all, but you ARE a GOD!" Her sarcasm had reached a height she had never known, but the feeling was exhilarating. She started to continue, but his look suddenly took her words.

"HUSH!" His words thundered around them and the fire seemed to dim just a bit. He roughly grabbed the bard by the shoulders and pulled her to within inches of his face. "You are not in a position to speak to me like this, you little scrap of a thing." His words were spoken with a forced calmness and he stared directly into Gabrielle's greens. "Either she comes back to me or you stay here for an eternity!" His control left and he shoved the girl away from him. Gabrielle lost her footing and fell to the ground, her eyes not leaving Ares.

"Oh, that IS a good one, your Majesty of Disgust. There is only one little insy- tinsy problem. If I leave Xena, she won't go to you, she'll come here. You see, we are connected and, together, we make a whole. Her grief will consume her and she will give up. Nice try though, my man, er . . . , I mean, god. Is that the warlord you were looking for?" Gabrielle couldn't stifle the laughter that erupted, even when Ares lifted her by the hair and yanked her back up to him.

"I see that your insight has made me see the error in my plan. For that, I thank you, Gabrielle." A wide grin replaced the grimace from seconds before. "I should have thought this out more, huh? Well, to reward you for your brilliant bit of info about Xena, I will grant you with a kiss."

Ares leaned down toward Gabrielle and snaked his arm around her waist. She struggled to free herself, but Ares held her tightly. Grabbing the back of her neck, he eased her head toward his and watched as cried out in terror.

"Since you say I'll never have Xena, I'll take you instead." With that he closed his mouth around hers and began an exploration with his tongue. Gabrielle, shocked at his actions, made an attempt to get away. His strength was too powerful and another sensation began to smolder from deep within. Her attempts were futile and she slowly, surprisingly, gave in to feelings that she had never anticipated. She wrapped her arms around his muscular shoulders and tentatively started returning his kiss. Their tongues met and Ares drew her even nearer. His groan sent shivers up her spine and her legs gave way beneath her. Ares slowly lowered the fair-haired beauty to the ground and gently began to caress her face, then neck with his fingers. Ever so gently, he leaned his head back to look into Gabrielle's eyes. Her flushed face and wanton expression gave him a tiny sense of victory. Without stopping his exploring fingers, he whispered the question he had longed to ask Xena. "Will you join me?" Without hesitation, she answered "yes."

"Yes? Yes, what?" Xena leaned down and questioned Gabrielle again. She felt a wonderful feeling of relief when Gabrielle's eyes fluttered open. The fever had lasted all night and Xena had not rested in fear of something worse.

"I'm fine, Xena." Gabrielle responded with a bit of irratance "What were you asking me?" She sat up on the bedroll and rubbed her eyes. They hurt and she had a tightness in her chest. Coughing a couple of times, she glanced back at her friend."Huh?"

Xena was used to this grumpy behavior and shrugged off the look Gabrielle was giving her. "You kept saying 'yes' in your delirium. I was trying to find out why." She stood and hoisted the saddle to her shoulder. "I'll start packing while you finish waking up." With a wink, Xena turned and walked over to Argo humming some diddly to herself.

Gabrielle shook her head to alert herself and tried to stand. A wave of dizziness hit her and she fell back to the ground. Slowly rising from her fallen position, she laid her head in her hands to stop the spinning. Xena returned to the campsite and rushed to her friend's side.

"Hey, what's wrong?"She knelt and attempted to help, but was shocked when Gabrielle slapped her arm away.

"I said that I'm fine, Xena. Which word did you not understand?" Her eyes rose slightly to meet Xena's and Xena recoiled. Gabrielle was glaring at her! Chills ran up her spine and she stood to avoid anymore torture. Only one other person held that expression. . . Callisto.

Xena regained her composure and lowered her voice. "Okay, Gabrielle, tell me what is wrong. Who pissed on your nut bread THIS morning?" She cleared her throat and waited for an answer. She loved this woman dearly, but refused to deal with this ongoing attitude her friend seemed to have. She crossed her arms and watched as Gabrielle rose shakily to meet her.

"Oh, I don't know, Xena. Maybe the fact that you treat me like I'm some fragile statue or maybe because you don't think I can take care of myself." She thought for a moment and then continued. "No. . . no, I think it's because I'm sick of you running the show ALL the time. I thank you for your concern, but I think that it is time you go on your own." She met Xena's gaze with intensity and Xena sucked in a long breath.

Gabrielle's words struck her like daggers and she was at a complete loss for response. She stood unmoving as Gabrielle picked up her gear and bound it tightly with twine. She followed her friend's figure with her eyes and turned slightly when Gabrielle spoke again.

"I'm sure we'll meet again soon, Xena. I think it is in the cards." She smiled, almost devilishly, and, retrieving her staff, laughed. "Be careful my warrior friend. You never know who might sneak up on you." With that, Gabrielle turned and walked out of the clearing.

Xena waited until Gabrielle was out of sight to let the tear roll openly down her cheek. Her legs seemed to wobble and she braced her arm against a tree for support. She wanted to follow her friend, but paused. She couldn't take another tongue-lashing as the last one had stilled her heart. She looked helplessly around for something that Gabrielle had forgotten. She could run after her and give it to her. No, Gab would know that she was just trying to keep her from leaving. "Fine" she finally said aloud. "I'll just follow you in the shadows to make sure you stay safe." Gabrielle's words still rang in her ears as she loaded Argo and straddled the mare.

It didn't take Gabrielle long to lose her friend and she stopped and leaned against a tree. She was hungry and she hadn't bathed. A quick stop to a stream seemed to take priority and she headed that way. When she reached her destination, she wasn't surprised to find Ares standing on the bank. With a step, she was in his arms and leaned up for a sensual kiss from the handsome god.

"Very well handled, my pretty." Ares stepped back to look at his newly acquired protégée. Gabrielle smiled and bowed flirtatiously to her performance. She was delighted that he was pleased and regained eye contact with him.

"Now. When are you going to teach me to use a sword, Ares?" She caressed the sword behind his back and playfully ran her other fingers through the hair on his chest. He laughed and gently pulled her hands away.

"After you take a bath and eat. Now go and I'll return soon for your first lesson." He faded away and Gabrielle stepped into the stream to wash. She removed her clothing and wrung it out to dry on the bank. Easing into the cool waters, she sighed and leaned back to rest. She couldn't believe how good she felt and brushed her own lips with her fingers remembering the recent kiss. Moaning slightly, she turned just in time to see a figure dart back into the woods. Without seeming to care, Gabrielle rested her head on the bank and smiled. She knew she nothing to fear. Ares would protect her. Always.

Xena slipped through the brush effortlessly and dropped to her knee. With care, she slowly parted the leaves to get a good view of the stream. She spotted Gabrielle laying on the bank and sat perplexed. "Does she know how dangerous that is?" She almost lost her balance and she stumbled into the clearing. As quickly as she came, she retreated, hoping that her friend would not spot her. Glancing back, she felt Gabrielle's eyes upon her and she held her breath. From the security of the woods she watched as the girl just turned over and lay back against the bank, uncaring.

"What is going on?" She had taught Gabrielle better than to be exposed and to jump at the hint of danger. "Was she doing this solely to get back at her? How far was she intending to go?" Suddenly infuriated, Xena stood and stomped back to Argo, her stealth mode gone. She grabbed the reins and hoisted herself up. With a snap, they rode off in the opposite direction, Xena seething with anger.

After dressing, Gabrielle speared two fish and ate heartily. Licking her lips, she spotted Ares as he strode toward her. Her eyes sparkled as he drew near and she stood to once again greet him.

"First lesson, Gabrielle. Wipe the smile off of that face. He glared and then relaxed. "You have to face your enemy with hate and disgust. A smile is a sign of weakness." He drew his sword and motioned for Gabrielle to do the same with one he had brought her..

"Callisto smiles all the time, Ares" Gabrielle grunted as she parried with the heavy object. She was going to have to get stronger quick in order to handle the blade long. Beads of sweat immediately rose on her forehead.

"Yes she does, but then again, Callisto is insane. Her smile is one of craziness." He swung his sword and connected with steel. The force flipped Gabrielle and she landed on her bum. "Ouch!" She exclaimed and returned to her feet.

"Here, this ought to help." Ares removed a pouch from his belt and walked over to Gabrielle. Lifting her chin in his hand, he asked her to open her mouth. He poured a bit of the contents down her throat and stepped back.

The feeling was immediate. As her eyes widened, Gabrielle stared as the lean muscles in her arms grew to a sinewy hardness and her legs slimmed and firmed. Fatigue vanished and her hearing became inanely acute. She gasped at her new figure and looked at Ares with warmth.

"There. That's better. Now pick up your sword and start again." Her new strength surprised her and she found herself putting Ares on the defense, once or twice. This was going to be fun.

Xena ran with Argo for miles. Her anger had waned, but despair and depression had taken its place. She dismounted and led her horse to the lake for water. She sat down at the waters edge and gazed into its rippled surface. She tried to piece things together, but it was impossible. They didn't fit. Only yesterday had brought joy to both of their hearts when Xena had rescued that little girl from a burning thatched roof. Last night had been one of comfort when they lay together and had discussed the stars and their many different shapes. The many trials and obstacles they had been through together had brought, Xena thought, them closer than two people could possibly be. She was no longer ashamed to admit her love for her friend and had done so on numerous occasions. "How could Gabrielle have given all of that up in one moment? What had the girl been afraid of? What had she been dreaming that night with the fever?" Xena wanted answers, but wasn't sure how she would get them. Gabrielle was SO SURE with her decision. And she had left with a warning.

"What's that all about?" Xena realized she had spoken the words aloud again and looked to see if anyone had heard her. The night was quiet and the water turned black against the reflection of the sky. Xena didn't feel like moving and rested her head on her knees. With some sleep, she would begin again in the morning.

For weeks, Ares trained Gabrielle and was pleased at her progress. She had learned moves in half the time it had taken Xena, and Ares began to believe that this girl might just turn out to be a strong match. Sword fighting was soon mastered and Ares turned to the bow. Within days, Gabrielle could shoot arrows through arrows and her aim was precise. Throwing a spear was a bit different. Ares had come quite close to losing his eye, but stayed on it with his student. Gabrielle was rewarded every evening with kisses and caresses, but was stopped short before anything further. Ares would leave with a teasing grin promising more the next day. Gabrielle's temper began to rise at this behavior, but she kept it in check. The more she learned, the more she would get. One day, Ares stopped Gabrielle's workout and handed her a box. In it lay the softest brown Leathers and a beautiful breastplate of intricately woven brass. She squealed with delight and quickly replaced her clothes with the new ones. The leathers hugged her body and the breastplate was perfectly contoured. New boots and wrist guards finished the ensemble and Ares laughed. "You can give Xena a run for her money, now." He whistled and turned the freshman warrior around. At the mention of Xena's name, Gabrielle paused. Something nagged her from deep inside and she averted her gaze from Ares. It had been two months and she had not heard that name once, either from him or her. Stammering, she looked back at Ares and put her hand on his shoulder.

"Thank you so much for the beautiful attire, Ares. If you don't mind, though, I'm feeling a bit washed out right now. I'm going to take a rest. I think my training is about over." She smiled and gently pressed her lips to his. He smiled and bowed royally. With the wave of a hand, Ares vanished.

Xena was cold. It had been summer when Gabrielle left, but now the cold November wind was biting to the bone. She had retraced her steps, but Gabrielle had vanished. She inched closer to the fire and blew into her hands. She had lost Gabrielle's trail and every town she had passed through had not seen her. Xena feared that something had happened to her friend, but her heart knew different. She could feel that the young bard was still alive. She had not dreamed since that day and the loneliness was really taking its toll. She couldn't bring herself to stay at the villages she helped. As soon as she helped them, she would leave, scared to make any new acquaintances. She had lost weight, due to lack of appetite and the lack of sleep had left many of her senses dull. As she stared into the embers of the fire, she cursed herself. "I never should have agreed to take Gabrielle in the first place. If I had known how much her parting would hurt, I would have left her behind, long ago!" She spat the words as the pain in her heart rose to a new height. For the first time since Thessaly, Xena cried.

"It is time to meet your Army, Gabrielle." Ares stood proud as he directed Gabrielle to the center of the clearing. Men clad in black garb stretched a hundred yards or more. As she passed, Gabrielle could hear the hisses and sneers aimed at her. An extremely ugly ruffian stepped into her path and raised his sword. "This waif couldn't stop a cow! She hides behind the skirts of Xena!"

Without a blink, Gabrielle disarmed him and the tip of her sword nicked his chin as she gazed upon him with steely eyes. "That wasn't very smart, was it?" She giggled and placed her sword back in the scabbard. With lightning speed, she grabbed her staff and took the man's legs out from under him. She then stepped over him as she made her way to the front. All eyes followed her til she stood above them on the stand.

"We have a new kid in town and she is no one to mess with. Her name is Gabrielle and you will follow her without question, Don't, and you will suffer the consequences." Ares stepped back and kissed Gabrielle hungrily. She returned it with intensity then stepped back. Her expression changed and she turned with a glare to her men. Ares waved and vanished. Gabrielle was left alone with 2000 soldiers.

"For those of you who question MY abilities, I'll be glad to answer with force. Xena and I no longer travel in the 'same circle', but I warn you. She is not who you should be wary of, anymore. Stay loyal to me, and we'll get along, perfectly. Gabrielle raised her sword and the men cheered with enthusiasm. "Gabrielle, Gabrielle. . ." Their chant echoed far into the wilderness.

Argo snorted and brought Xena out of a snooze. She looked up and focused on their surroundings. The cold had stiffened her muscles and she dismounted to gather wood for a fire. As it grew, Xena tracked and killed a rabbit for a long overdue meal. She roasted it and then wolfed it down in just a few bites. She leaned back against the bedroll and took a long swig from the calfskin bottle. "AAAH," she sighed. It was nice to taste wine for a change. The alcohol calmed her and warmed her insides. She watched as the sparks from the fire flew into the sky and, as usual, thought about Gabrielle. As she sank into a drunken slumber, a smile crept to her face.

It was the fifth village ransacked and Gabrielle raced through the streets yelling for attention. She dropped to the ground and demanded valuables and food. The soldiers broke down doors and frightened the families. A fire was set and the place turned chaotic. Gabrielle drove her men out of the town as quickly as they entered with enough to feed and clothe her men. Each village had been the same. The soldiers began to notice that Gab wasn't the killing type. They would kill a few, yes, but, Gabrielle never stayed long enough for a righteous battle. One night, ten of her men snuck out of camp to tell Slopintees. He would love to take this young thing on in battle.

Xena was awakened by a scream and she jumped up with sword in hand. A young girl ran right through the camp and kept going. Xena intercepted two men as they came barreling after the girl. She didn't recognize the seal and slammed her fingertips down on the neck of one of the unfortunate men.

"Who do you follow, ruffian? This seal is unfamiliar to me." The man looked up and recognized to raven-haired warrior. He struggled, but Xena held him tight.

"We follow the Warlord Gabrielle." The man gasped, then collapsed to the ground. Xena quickly released him and shook him awake.

"What did you say?" Her eyes danced with fire and she shook the man to full alertness.

"I said, Gabrielle. She was hand picked by Ares to lead a tirade of destruction. We thought, at first, that you were with her. Isn't that more YOUR style?" He looked questioning up at the Warrior Princess and waited. He wasn't prepared for what he saw.

Xena slumped to the ground and her whole body began to shake. Grabbing the man's uniform, she rubbed the seal so exquisitely made onto the armor. She lost her breath and doubled over as black spots ran before her eyes. The young soldier got scared and ran, happy he had been given a door to run through. Gabrielle had been right, Xena no longer traveled with her. He couldn't wait to get to Slopintees. Without Xena, Gabrielle's army would surely fall. This meant war.

It seemed hours before Xena could raise herself from the ground. With a sick feeling threatening to engulf her, Xena grabbed Argo and threw the saddle upon him. With ease, she connected her armor and secured her belongings. She mounted Argo and took off into the night, dismissing the soldier she had let get away.

Gabrielle received word of her ten men and immediately laid plans for a defensive stance against Slopintees. She would not relinquish her Army to anyone. As she seethed with anger, Ares quietly applauded her from the shadows. "This had been SOO easy!"He smiled and touched his lips with his fingers. "Plus, the girl knew how to kiss!" Almost laughing aloud, he thought of his present to her if her army triumphed over Slopintees. He receded into the darkness with a crossed finger.

Xena slowed at the outskirts of the camp and was stunned at the sight. It was clean and she could hear no sounds coming from inside the tent. Anxious to get closer, she ducked from tree to tree, until she was directly by the largest one. With care, Xena slipped inside and observed the sight before her. Gabrielle stood at a mapping table surrounded by six men. Her armor was the most beautiful Xena had ever seen and the woman's hair shone fiery red as the glow of the firelight danced about. As she watched, Gabrielle pounded her hand on the table and Xena saw the muscles ripple. She could hear only bits of conversation, but concluded that they were planning an attack against another army. "Slopintees." Xena breathed the name quietly and was surprised when two arms jerked her from out of the darkness

"Xena." The woman turned so that they faced one another. Gabrielle looked at her former traveling companion and stepped back suddenly at her appearance. "Did you give up food for lent?"She raised an eyebrow and waited for Xena to respond.

"I have had too much on my mind to think about food, Gabrielle." She lowered her voice and walked closer to her friend. "I see that life has treated you well. But then, with the aid of a god, who wouldn't prosper?" Her lips curled in a sneer and she glared down at her young captor. Gabrielle noticed the range in pitch, but stood, unfaltering.

"You know Xena, I would love to sit and do the 'catch-up thing' with you, but I don't have time at the moment. Largo, please escort her to the suite. I hope the accommodations are to your liking, Xena." She turned and walked back to the table.

"I'm not tired and would love to have that chat right about, NOW!" Xena wrenched Largo's arm from her wrist and bent it back, painfully. Largo let out a wail and Xena threw him across the room. She somersaulted over the remaining five men and landed next to Gabrielle. Unfortunately, Gabrielle had anticipated this and, as Xena landed, brought her sword to meet the warrior's chin.

"As I said, Xena, I'm busy. I don't have time for this crap, NOW!" She pushed the blade further and Xena's eyes widened at Gabrielle's bearing. The younger woman lowered her weapon and motioned for her men to remove Xena. With an afterthought, she reached over and took the chakurum and laid it on the table. Her mind was on the attack and Xena's presence was distracting her. That same feeling was back and she was trying hard to shake it.

Xena paced up and down the length of Gabrielle's sleeping quarters. Her mind was a blur and her heart was fighting with the mixed emotions. "How DARE she take my chakurum and stick a blade in my face!" From deep inside she could feel the old rage beginning to smolder and she punched the air with her fist. "How could she be so blind? How could she so easily forget our bond?" She collapsed on the bed and tears welled up in her eyes. Ares had done something terribly wrong and she was going to have to find a way to fix it. Fast.

Slopintees moved his men to the ridge overlooking Gabrielle's camp. He motioned for complete silence and observed the layout. He caught movement and saw a tall woman being escorted to a nearby tent. He immediately recognized the figure and gasped. "Xena!" What was she doing there? He knew Gabrielle had parted her company months ago and taken up a new Quest. Xena's old one. "Was she the one who taught her?" He momentarily panicked, remembering their last encounter. Xena had killed his entire army that day, but had left him alive to spread her news. A new anger welled up in him and he leaned to Tyros and whispered something in his ear. A shout was given and the army cascaded down the hill for a surprise attack

Gabrielle heard the shouts and ran from the tent. The night was as black as coal, but she could hear them coming. Shouting to her own men, she drew her sword and raced toward the middle of camp. Soon, she was joined by her men who were ready and alert. Gabrielle shrieked with a new fire and dove into the onslaught with vigor.

Xena also heard the shouts and reached for her chakurum. Remembering, she flew out of tent toward the war room. She stopped cold and stood transfixed at the sight before her. Gabrielle was fighting with a sword! She watched as her friend parried and thrust with skill that matched her own. The strength Gabrielle wielded shocked Xena and she took a step back to recover. She finally willed herself to move and raced to get her own weapons. Once secure, she joined in the fight.

Gabrielle dropped the men with ease and she began to grin as each took her blows. "What a feeling this is!" she exclaimed as another came at her with a dagger. Catching the arm midair, she threw him with his own momentum and he landed, sprawled at the feet of a familiar figure.

"Need some help?" Xena smiled at her friend and Gabrielle returned the smile. "No, but I won't stop you if you want to. Our business is not over, Xena." Her grin changed to a scowl and she turned to block an assailant's sword as it came within inches of her neck. Punching the man's windpipe, Gabrielle darted off, leaving the attacker gasping for air in the dust. Xena, intent on staying near her friend, headed in the same direction.

Slopintees took a small group around the other side of the camp and waited. He motioned toward the tall warrior, but held his hand up, wanting to spring at just the right time. Xena finally stepped into the ambush and the men came at her with force. Slopintees jumped and barley missed her blade as Xena tried to ward off the attack. A blow to the head by an unseen attacker stilled her efforts and she crumbled to the ground.

Gabrielle was having fun. She toppled the soldiers like dominoes, then turned to find out where Xena had gone. A small crowd of, both her and the enemy's, men had gathered and she could hear sneers and shouts as someone was being lifted from the ground. As she got closer, she gasped. The fallen soldier was Xena! She rushed to the crowd and pushed her way to the center. Slopintees was laughing and held Xena's chakurum in his hand. Xena was unconscious and the men had started to pull apart her leathers. She shouted above the voices and stepped into view, her sword raised and ready.

"I suggest that you disperse and let the woman go." Her eyes danced with fire as she continued. "You will feel the sting of my sword and a one way ticket to Tarterus if you don't." She moved closer to Xena and noticed a fair-amount of blood running from a gash in her head. Unable to suppress her anger, Gabrielle advanced on Slopintees. He dropped the chakurum and whipped his sword out to meet hers. The men stood back and watched the confrontation in silence. The winner of this battle would be their next leader.

The two danced and swung, each blocking the other's blade. Gabrielle dropped and rolled to get a better position. As she rose, Slopintees feigned back and sliced, leaving a nice long gash in her midriff, cutting through the armor.. Wincing with pain, she stumbled, but quickly recovered in time to block his sword from behind. Noticing the chakurum on the ground, she dove, retrieving the weapon in another roll. As Slopintees came at her again, she let lose the weapon and watched as it glanced off his armor, sending him sprawling on the ground.

Xena came to as the two warlords were fighting. Through blurry vision, she could see her friend battling ferociously. As she raised her head, she noticed that the battle was only between these two. A stab of pain in her head released a feeble moan and Gabrielle turned in her direction. The move gave Slopintees opportunity and he whipped a dagger from his belt. As Gabrielle turned, he dove toward the fair-haired girl and sunk the blade deep into her shoulder. Gabrielle screamed and knocked him off with her sword. Blood spewed from the wound and Gabrielle could feel the loss of blood. Slopintees scampered to Xena and grabbed the woman by the hair. Xena was still too dazed to defend herself and Slopintees raised his sword to deliver the final blow.

A growl from deep within her erupted and Gabrielle lunged at the crazed man. "NOOO!" With a speed that surprised even her, she stabbed Slopintees in the heart and rolled away. Slopintees dropped his sword and fell over, dead.

Xena slowly lifted herself to a sitting position and glanced over at her now blood soaked friend. The men backed away, nervously. Gabrielle rose shakily to her feet and she glared hotly at the crowd before her. "Get out of here!" She stumbled and clutched the still embedded dagger in her shoulder. With a guttural scream, she yanked it out and dropped it to the ground. Dizziness overtook her and she fell to her knees. The men dispersed with whispers and Xena inched her way closer. Suddenly, the sky was filled with lightning, and thunder roared.

"Very well done, my pretty." Ares approached, clapping. He knelt to Gabrielle and lifted her to her feet. "I knew you could do it!" Smiling, he leaned down and left a lingering kiss upon her lips. After releasing, he spied Xena below him. He stepped back and began to laugh. "What's this? The raven haired warrior downed in a battle? I see you've met MY new friend, Gabrielle. Isn't she the cutest?" He cupped Gabrielle's face in his hand and turned it to meet Xena's gaze. Gabrielle closed her eyes and they welled with tears. The realization of the recent events took hold and she lost her strength. Without support, she fell heavily to the ground, inches from Xena. She curled up in a fetal position as emotions overwhelmed her.

"Ares. How long do you think this will last?" In a very controlled voice, her eyes also brimmed with tears, Xena continued. "You have broken her spirit. She has never killed before tonight and that alone will be enough to do her in." She looked at Gabrielle laying on the ground and reached out to touch the trembling figure.

"ENOUGH!" Ares glared at the two women and yanked Gabrielle back to her feet. Gabrielle hung her head and could not meet his gaze. Ares bent to capture her lips in his, but stopped when he realized the kiss had not been returned. He shoved the girl away and unloaded on Xena.

"It's your fault Xena, not mine. You were the one who kept her isolated from life. You were the one who held her self-esteem in your hands. I gave her the ability to prove herself worthy. I was the one that showed her LOVE AND AFFECTION! I didn't break her spirit, YOU did!" His words climaxed to a roar and he knelt so his eyes met Xena's. "And tell me, oh smart one, who did she kill for tonight. Me or YOU?!"

Xena cringed at the words and closed her eyes to his heated gaze. When she opened them, Ares was gone. She noticed that the men had fled and she was left alone with her wounded friend. Though her head pounded, she crawled to Gabrielle's side to inspect her injuries. Her face was pale and the color was gone from her lips. Without hesitation, Xena grabbed her sword and, with effort, rose to find fire. A torch hung nearby and she returned to heat the blade. Once done, she pressed the reddened metal to Gabrielle's shoulder and winced when Gabrielle screamed out in pain. Noticing the blood oozing from the girl's breastplate, Xena tore long strips from the tent nearby and , after removing the armor, wrapped Gabrielle's torso tightly. She stood, her own dizziness increasing, and whistled for Argo. The horse galloped to meet them and stomped the ground in recognition of Gabrielle. Xena lifted the unconscious bard to the saddle and bent to grab her chakurum. She hoisted herself up behind her friend and snapped the reins. Argo flew into the darkness.

Hours later, Gabrielle woke up beside a glowing fire. She winced at the pain in her shoulder and shifted her weight to sit. Xena was leaning back against a tree trunk, asleep. She reached out to touch the woman's face and noticed wet blood trickling down her cheek. With difficulty, Gabrielle stumbled to the saddlebag and retrieved an old sleeping shirt. She ripped it to pieces and returned to the now shivering figure. With care, she applied a compress to the open wound and tied the ends together. She took her blanket and tucked it around the woman before pulling her to her lap. New tears formed and Gabrielle sobbed. She knew when Xena woke that she would leave her. She had spilled a man's blood and that was a promise she had broken. She closed her eyes tightly and winced at visions invading her mind. "How could she have been so stupid! Ares had taken her weaknesses and used them against her." As she fought her rising demons, she was unaware that Xena had awakened below her.

"Thank you."

Gabrielle's eyes flew open and she looked down to her lap. Xena's bright blue eyes met hers and held. Unable to speak, Gabrielle once again broke into sobs. The pain she felt racked her body and sole.

Xena reached up and wiped a tear away. "You have to stop this or I'll drown." Her attempt at humor was weak and Gabrielle looked away.

"I failed you , Xena." She sniffled and went on. "I know you will leave and I understand. How could anyone be around someone like myself?"

"You could be." Xena sat up and turned Gabrielle's face toward hers. "Don't you remember? It was you who wouldn't leave me. I did unspeakable crimes and you never lost faith in me. How could you possibly think that I would leave you, now?" Her comforting voice soothed some of Gabrielle's dark waters. She caressed the warriors face with hers and a tentative smile spread to hers. Xena leaned over and gently kissed Gabrielle's tears way. She hesitated, then brushed hers lips lightly across her friend's. It brought a surprised reaction and Gabrielle tensed. Xena receded and sat back to gaze upon her best friend.

"I will always love you, Gabrielle. Nothing could ever change that. I have been too protective and not given you enough credit. For that, I am sorry. I have witnessed your ability to take care of yourself, but my caring gets in the way. You are closer to me than any other and I could not live without you. Please give us another chance."

Gabrielle was surprised at the honesty poring out of Xena. The emotions she felt were overwhelming and she buried her head in Xena's chest. At last, she moved and once again gazed into the piercing blue eyes before her.

"You don't know how long I've waited for you to say that." Gabrielle embraced Xena and they sat that way til the sun rose. It was going to be a beautiful day.

The End

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