At a Distance - Part 5

by: Melissa Good
Melissa Good

For DISCLAIMERS see Part 1.


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.

Continued - Part 6 (Conclusion)

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