At a Distance - Part 6

by: Melissa Good

Melissa Good

For DISCLAIMERS see Part 1.

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

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

Gabrielle grinned back. "I will."

"Be careful." No smile now.

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

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

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

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

Toris smiled, and sent his roan trotting after Gabrielle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Xena chuckled, and whispered into her ear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Agh!" Ares yelped. "That’s cold!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The warrior rolled her blue eyes. "Never."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Xena nodded. "Yep."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Nope." Xena confirmed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Well, sure." The bard acknowledged.

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

"Yeah." Gabrielle responded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Things?" Cyrene raised her eyebrows.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Xena tilted her head in inquiry. "What?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Yeah, I think so." Toris answered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Xena burst out laughing. "Toris!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Xena gave her a wry smile. And raised an eyebrow.

"Good." Cyrene nodded. "Because I like her very much, and I wouldn't want to see her get hurt." Now she stepped up and laid a hand on Xena's chest. "And that means you take care of yourself, too."

The warrior gazed down at her. "I will."

Cyrene hesitated. "She's a good person."

Xena nodded. "She is."

Her mother's gaze softened. "She loves you."

"I know." Came the quiet answer.

Cyrene smiled. "I'm glad." And she poked Xena hard in the chest. "You'd better come back here soon." And gave her a tight hug, armor and all.

"Don't worry." Xena said, returning the hug. "We will."

Cyrene broke off, and gave her a look. "And you're not leaving that wolf here, are you?"

Xena gave her a resigned, somewhat sheepish grin. "No. no.. I got.. convinced.. last night that we needed to take him with us." Hadn't taken much... just Gabrielle cuddling the fuzzy creature in her arms, and both of them giving her that... look... And she had melted like butter in the sun, unable to refuse either the bard, or the puppy. Mushball. Just a mushball. Some fierce warlord I am. She sighed inwardly.

Cyrene smirked. "Good for her." She stepped back and regarded her daughter. "You look so different in that stuff. I can't get over it." She mused. "You look.."

"Meaner?" Xena asked, suppressing a grin.

"Mmm....more imposing, perhaps." Cyrene allowed. "Intimidating." she admitted.

Xena paused a minute, then dropped her head angle, and let her darker side surface, putting glints of ice in her eyes, and a cold hardness to her face.

Cyrene stepped back involuntarily, her eyes widening.

Then Xena relaxed, and winked. "It has it's purposes." She chuckled. "Damned useful when you're walking through an inn full of half drunken out of work mercenaries."

Cyrene snorted, and backhanded her in the stomach. "Don't you ever do that again." She sighed, and took Xena's arm, steering her out the door. "Half drunken mercenaries?" She asked, her curiosity pricked.

"Oh yeah." Xena answered, as they walked to the door. "We get that a lot, traveling around."

"So.. what do you do?" Her mother asked.

Xena turned to her, and raised both eyebrows. "Well, either they steer clear of me. And Gabrielle, of course. Or..." She shrugged.

"You thrash them." Cyrene finished.

"Yeah." Xena admitted.

"Mmm. I have a job for you when you're finished running around saving the world, dear." Cyrene commented, patting her arm. 'We could use that here sometimes."

"I'll keep that in mind." Xena assured her, with a grin.

She pushed the door open, and went out into the sunny courtyard, where Argo and Gabrielle were patiently waiting. With Ares, of course, who was sprawled in Argo's saddle. Cyrene went over to Gabrielle and enfolded her into a big hug.

"Take care, daughter." She said softly into the bard's ear. "Try to keep her out of trouble, will you?"

Gabrielle smiled, and hugged Cyrene until her bones cracked. "That's hard. But I'll try." she answered. "Thank you.. for everything."

The older woman took Gabrielle's face gently in her hands. "No.. thank you, Gabrielle." She paused. "I'm glad you're part of the family." They looked at each other in understanding.

Then they broke apart, and Gabrielle hefted her staff, and moved to Xena's side, leaning against Argo's warm body as the warrior adjusted the mare's bridle. Then they exchanged a glance, and grinned at each other. "Come on." Xena said, tucking Ares into a large pouch attached to Argo's front saddle rings, and, putting both hands on the saddle, vaulted aboard, extending her arm down for Gabrielle to grab onto.

"Thanks." The bard responded, taking hold, and allowing herself to be lifted up and across Argo's quarters. She settled her knees, and slid her arms around Xena as she felt Argo start to move under her.

"So." Xena said, as they crossed onto the road, and she kneed the mare into rolling canter. "You about ready for a horse of your own?"

"Nope." Gabrielle responded. "That was fun, but I prefer something solid to hang onto."

"Oh really?" Xena laughed.

"Yep." The bard agreed. Then she laid her head down on Xena's back, and smiled And thought about the look on her father's face if they rode in together just like this. She chuckled.

The End


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