Home is where the Heart is - Part 4

by Melissa Good
Melissa Good

For DISCLAIMERS see Part 1.

Xena studied Gabrielle’s face intently, noting the cold hardness around her normally open and trusting expression. "We’ll talk about this later." The warrior said, quietly, as she turned and walked over to the debris of the hay crib, and knelt on one knee. "Looks like the supports were hacked through." She muttered, lifting the end of one and examining it.

Lennat joined her, nodding. "Yeah - look at that." He agreed, running one long finger over the jaggedly cut wood. "Done in a hurry, too." A quick sideways glance at Xena’s intent face. "You are..I mean.."

Her eyes drifted over and met his, and an eyebrow raised a fraction. "What?" She asked.

The boy gave her a half smile. "Well, I mean you’re obviously all right…right?"

Xena turned her head fully to look at him. "I’m fine." She repeated. What’s going on here? "Must have made some kind of noise, huh?" She indicated the metal crib.

A moment’s long silence. "No…well, I don’t know. " He replied. "We didn’t hear it." It wasn’t a noise that brought us running, Xena.. But I have no idea how to explain what did.

"Oh." Came the quiet answer, and a slight smile, and a glance over her shoulder at Gabrielle, who lost her stony expression as their eyes touched and walked forward to crouch down at Xena’s side, steadying herself with a hand on the warrior’s back. "Did you.. " Xena hesitated, curious. "What did it..??"

A curious grin came over the bard’s face. "Yeah.. I did…" She answered reflectively. "It was…really weird." One minute, I’m sitting there talking, the next minute…I had to be.. here. "So. .I guess it works both ways." I wondered if it would…I hoped it would.

"Would either of you mind explaining to me what’s going on?" Lila spoke up at last, agitation evident in her voice. "All I know is Bree suddenly jumps like something bit her, and takes off out the door." She gestured at the mess. "And we come in and find this. And you… and…"

"Later." Xena waved her off, and went back to studying the debris. "Lennat, give me a hand with this." She stood, and took a grip on the metal crib, and waited for him to do the same. "Needs to go over there." She jerked her head towards the back wall. "Ready?"

"Uhh… yeah…" Lennat grimaced, trying to shift the metal. "Sure. but I don’t.." Think we have a chance in Tartares of lifting this…oh brother…

"Go." Xena said, and straightened her back, taking the weight of the crib onto her legs and shoulders, and moving with it towards the wall. Oh…boy. Now I can’t drop it, either, or I look like an idiot. Xena... sometimes..…But her muscles held, to her surprise. A month of those drills at home did some good, I see.

Lennat felt the drag on his arms that threatened to pull them from their sockets, and he prayed he wouldn’t drop his end of the thing before it was moved. Zeus… his mind cursed, as he watched Xena take her portion without too much evident strain. How does she do that????

"Here.. let me help." Gabrielle smiled, and took up part of his end, seeing the cords stand out on his neck. They got the huge thing moved, and stood quietly while Xena padded back across the straw and dropped to examine the ground again.

"Thought so." She muttered, and held up a small item. They clustered around her eagerly, and stared. It was a gold coin. "Glad to know what I’m worth." Xena’s voice was dry.

"Hey!" Came a small voice, from behind them. "What happened?" Alain ambled into the open space around the stalls with wide, round eyes.

"Hello, Alain." Xena’s voice cut them all off. "There’s been a little accident.. glad you weren’t here for it."

The boy walked over and stood at her shoulder. "Me too." He glanced down. "Ohh…you’re bleeding!" His voice became anxious.

"Just a scratch." Xena assured him. "So.. where did you go this afternoon?"

Alain was gazing doubtfully at what Xena was characterizing as a scratch, and now Gabrielle joined him, peering more closely, and closing her eyes in reaction. "Xena, you need to get those taken care of." Her voice was gentle, but inflexible. "You and your just scratches."

"Later." Xena growled. "Alain?"

"Oh.. um…I went home." The stableboy stated, crouching down next to her and meeting her eyes. "Someone told me da was looking to see me, so I went there. But he wasn’t." The blond boy shrugged. "Trick again, I guess."

Lennat cocked his head at Alain. "Who told you to go home? "

Alain shrugged. "One of them…you know. Was passing by and yelled." He turned his gray eyes back to Xena’s face. "Hey.. can I take Argo for a ride? She likes me…" His voice was a touch breathless. "Please?"

Xena studied him and let a small smile quirk over her lips. "Sure.. she’d like that. " Her eyes drifted up and regarded the mare. "She could use it, too. Go ahead."

Alain grinned, and straightened up, limping over to where Argo was regarding them, and stroking the mare on her high shoulder. "C’mon.. I’ll show you the new calves.. maybe we’ll see ducks.." He chattered to the horse, as he fitted her bridle over her head.

Gabrielle muffled a small giggle, and glanced up to find Xena’s eyes on her. "Who did this?" the bard asked, letting her humor fall. "Was it really meant…"

Xena shrugged. "More to scare, I think - after all.." Her eyes glinted. "You did make sure that everyone in the village is well aware of the fact that I’m capable of catching arrows in flight when I really need to." She glanced around. "But I don’t need to tell you that I’m starting to get pretty ticked off at this whole thing."

"Me too." Came Gabrielle’s unexpected answer. "Now, let’s get those.. er… scratches of yours taken care of, OK?"

Which means..Xena mused. They’re more than scratches, and she’s probably right, because they hurt like Hades. "All right." She reluctantly agreed, then stopped. "Hey." As she saw the unfocused look in Gabrielle’s eyes.. "Gabrielle?"

One of those beams must have fallen right on top of her…the bard’s mind shuddered. If my father did…arrange.. for this.. she stopped, and thought about that. Mother. Lila. Me.. I feel a.. kind of dull anger.. sadness.. Her mind focused clear and sharp. But now he’s tried hurting something that means…more than life to me. Now what? Why is that so different, all of a sudden? I can feel.. it’s more than anger.. kind of a rage at that. Scary. "Yeah." The bard answered, shaking her head a bit. "Sorry..I was just thinking." She sighed. "I suppose I’d better get my discussion with him over with."

Lennat shook his head slowly. "Not tonight, Bree." They all looked at him. "He and Metrus were in the inn before…I guess you didn’t notice them, Bree. They were pretty far gone." He gave her an apologetic shrug.

Lila nodded. "That’ll be all night then. I have an idea…" She looked from Xena to Gabrielle. "Come over to our house for dinner. I know.." Her eyes took on a bare twinkle "you love the inn food, but…" She reached out and touched Gabrielle’s arm. "Please, Bree? Mother will be glad of it.. I know she wants to see you. "

"That’s a good idea." Xena said quietly. Gabrielle looked up at her in mild surprise, but nodded in agreement mutely. "Thanks.. I was going to have to go hunt for dinner otherwise." The warrior remarked, with a droll grin, and got a chuckle out of the other three. "Maybe Gabrielle could get coaxed into giving a private performance, too."

The bard snorted. "Oh yeah..I’m sure they want to hear yet more stories." But her eyes and smile at Xena shone with quiet appreciation. "I’ll get you.. I’ll tell some of your wilder ones."

Lila laughed. "That should make for a fun evening…all right. Let me head off and get things started.. after sundown, then?" She turned to Lennat. "You’re coming too, of course."

The blond man chuckled. "Like I would miss this. Right." He winked at Gabrielle "Besides, I missed the stories last night.. I was a little.." Big smile "busy." He took Lila’s arm, and led her out the door, with a wave in their direction. "Later.." he called over his shoulder.

Silence fell, and they looked at each other.

"So.. what really happened?" Gabrielle asked, leaning close and circling her arms around the warrior, as she’d wanted to do since she’d come in the door. "Gods.. that felt so strange…it was like I was being pulled here."

Xena didn’t answer for a while, just stood quietly returning Gabrielle’s embrace. Then she sighed, and slid her arm around the bard’s shoulders, and walked to where the crib had been. "I was standing by Argo.. checking the shoes I had them put on her today." She cleared her throat. "I heard.. whoever it was drawing their bow. So.. I did the usual." This with a depreciating shrug. "Then tried to catch him - when I got there.." Her arm pointed. "The supports collapsed and fell in on top of me. " A wince. " I had just time to get my arms up over my head, and roll back. Just the smaller ones clipped my shoulders."

"Close." Gabrielle whispered, tightly reining in her sudden anger. "I don’t think I can forgive him for this."

Xena stared at her. "Come on, Gabrielle - we don’t know he was behind it, for one.. and.. it was a pretty mild attack, all things considered."

"You could have been seriously hurt, Xena." The bard bit the words out, feeling a touch of unaccustomed rage building in her. "I can’t…you never did anything to him, Xena! "

"Neither did you." Came the low, controlled response, as Xena turned and caught her gaze.

"It’s different." Gabrielle answered, her voice rising. "He has no reason.."

"He does." Xena cut her off.

A long pause. "What do you mean?" the bard responded, searching her face. "You haven’t done anythi…" Seeing in Xena’s face that it wasn’t the truth. "What….did…"

Xena’s face was in shadow, from the fading light outside, but it was enough for Gabrielle to see the remembered anger there. "It’s like this, Gabrielle..’" Xena said, slowly. "I yelled at him for what he did to your mother."

No answer from Gabrielle, just an intent, watchful gaze that seemed to drill right through her.

"He said it was none of my business." The warrior continued.

"He did, huh?" Came the whispered answer.

"Yeah. And I told him you…were my business." Gabrielle’s eyes closed, and a hint of a smile crossed her lips. "And then I told him that if he ever…touched... you… ever… again…" Xena drew the words out, in a low, controlled growl. "That I would hurt him so bad he’d only wish I’d killed him." She gave the bard an intense look. " Better he think I’m a threat, Gabrielle.. I’d rather have feeble attempts like this than have something coming at you."

Unexpectedly, Gabrielle smiled, as she felt the anger drain out of her. "Well... that must have annoyed him." Her voice was returning to a more normal tone. "I think he probably appreciated Lennat’s approach better, but.." I hate to admit it… even to myself.. but she’s right.

Xena paused and considered what she’d said. Damn.. I about laid claim to her. In his eyes, anyway She laughed. "I guess he could have viewed it that way…" She glanced down at Gabrielle "Do you mind my speaking for you?" She queried, watching the bard ponder the question.

"Gods no.." Gabrielle chuckled. "I mean…" She blushed and looked down. And felt Xena’s hand on her chin, lifting her gaze up to meet her own. "I really don't mind." So much for letting me fight my own battles, not getting involved in my problems, and letting me deal with my family on my terms. And you know what? I’m loving every minute of it. I should be totally ashamed of myself. But. .there’s something inside me now that wants to just…surrender.. everything to her. I gotta fight that..it’s not right. But some things… some things I think it may be all right to just.. let go..

"Look, I know I should have told you…" Xena hesitantly started "But it happened before we left for the river and…" A light shrug. "We got kind of sidetracked. "

"No..it’s all right." Gabrielle smiled. " I’m glad you did it…it makes me feel.. really good."

"Really?" Xena questioned. That was a change…she usually hates when I do that.

"Yeah, really." Came the answer. "Come on…let’s get you cleaned up, and go get dinner. I’m starved." She took Xena’s arm and started out of the barn. "Hey.. you sure Alain is all right on Argo? I thought she hated other riders."

Xena chuckled. "He’s fine - she likes him. Just like she likes you, o bard of mine. " She gave Gabrielle a bump with her elbow. "And she could use the exercise. I’ve been really bad about that lately." She paused. "In fact, I think after dinner I just might indulge myself in some much needed sword drills."

Gabrielle gazed at her. "Out in the forest?"

"Nope." Xena’s face broke into a sly grin. "Here in the courtyard." Her blue eyes glinted. "Just in case anyone gets any ideas of giving me another try.. I’d like them to know what they’re getting into."

"Ohhh…" The bard breathed. "I get to watch you put on a show, then."

Xena just chuckled.

‘Hold still, will you?" Gabrielle rolled her eyes, and muffled a sigh. "I can’t help it you have half that barn embedded in your back. I’m being as gentle as I can." Pulling out yet another sliver of splintered wood from the tanned skin between Xena's shoulderblades.

"Sorry." Xena muttered, flexing both hands against the pain. Willing herself to stillness under the bard’s admittedly gentle hands, she leaned on her knees and closed her eyes, waiting for Gabrielle to finish her task.

Gabrielle winced as she saw the next piece, easily two inches long, and half of that under the skin. "Oh.. Xena - this one’s gonna hurt." She warned, putting a sympathetic hand on the tense shoulder next to her. "But it’s the last one. Hang in there."

The warrior nodded a little, and reached out to grasp two of the spindle supports on the chair next to her. "Go ahead." She said, evenly.

The bard took a deep breath, and got a solid grasp on the wood splinter, then pulled with a steady even tug. Not a sound from Xena, but a loud crack startled her and she almost dropped the wood piece and tweezers she’d been holding. Looked down, to see a slightly sheepish looking Xena examining the chair supports, which she’d snapped in her hand as though they were pieces of kindling wood. "Wow. That’s quite some grip you have there."

Xena gave a little snort of laughter. "Yeah, I surprise myself sometimes." She admitted, shaking her head.

Gabrielle patted her bare shoulder. "Just let me get some cleanser in these. Nothing’s deep, there’s just a bunch of them.. and a big bruise here. " Her fingertips traced a line across Xena’s left shoulderblade, which shifted as the warrior flexed her arm experimentally. The bard smiled quietly as she felt the muscles move under her hand. "That’s not making it any easier." She teased, catching the glint of an answering smile from Xena’s half turned face. "That’s better." When the movement stilled, and she was able to finish her work in peace, swabbing the wounds with cleanser, then applying a soothing aloe mixture on them.

Xena leaned back when she was finished, and took a deep breath. Her entire back felt like it was on fire, and she sighed as she began her mental trick of convincing herself to just ignore it, concentrating until the pain drifted into the background of her awareness, and she was able to think about other things. "Thanks." She gave Gabrielle a quick smile, as she stood and pulled up the fresh tunic she’d unpacked, and fastened it.

Gabrielle grimaced. "I’d say anytime, but I’d rather not have to. Don’t you get tired of this?" She shook her fair head and put the medical items back into Xena’s kit, not seeing the warrior’s hands still and her face go quiet.

"Sometimes." Xena answered with a heartfelt sigh. "I get tired of hurting all the time, yeah." Hey..hey.. she meant that as an offhand comment, Xena..don’t give her those kinds of answers. Seeing the sudden look of stricken concern on the bard’s face. "But I get over it." She amended, letting a smile form. And gave Gabrielle a wink and a slap on the shoulder that was rewarded with a relieved look from her partner. That’s better. Besides, you idiot, you chose this life, remember? You knew what it’d be like - remember the bruises from training? Gods… that seems like such a long time ago. "Hardly hurts at all now." And, to her bemusement., it was true.. either from the bard’s ministrations, or her mind’s agile work the pain had faded to something that was just a mere tickle in her awareness.

"Roo!" Ares tugged on her boot enthusiastically. "Grr!" he added, as she chuckled, and dropped down to a seat cross-legged in front of him. "All right.. all right." She glanced up at Gabrielle, who was quietly watching her, hands resting on the medical kit, lit with the very late afternoon sunlight that burnished her hair to fiery richness, and made her eyes almost glow from within. "You interested in a little staff practice tonight, by the way?" Her eyes took on a mischievous look. "You've been slacking off lately, I noticed."

"You going to be up for it?" Gabrielle asked, watching for and getting the expected raised eyebrow stare. "Don’t want to tax you, or anything." Seeing the unmistakable competitive glint appear, which eased her heart a little. Oh oh..think I just got myself in trouble…and she's right. I have been slacking off.. and I bet I'll feel it tonight. She chuckled at herself. I've just been a little.. distracted.. I guess.

"Well..well.. we’ll just have to see, won’t we???" Came the drawled answer, as Xena played with Ares, rubbing the puppy’s belly, and using a bit of extra leather as a tug toy. "Come on, Ares.. you can do better than that."

Gabrielle grinned to herself, and slid into a fresh tunic, taking an experimental very deep breath. "Hey..hardly hurts anymore." She noted, with a pleased expression. "Maybe I’ll even be able to give you a challenge tonight." She waited a beat, for Xena to look up. "For more than..oh..three parries, anyway." With an impish look.

"Could be." Xena replied, giving the leather bit a last tug, and boosting herself to her feet, brushing herself off and crossing over to where the bard was giving her hair a quick brush. "Ahh.. is that why you had me just lazing around all afternoon being fed tidbits? All a plan, I see… to get the advantage in sparring."

Gabrielle laughed. "Oh .. absolutely.. I have to get some kind of advantage." She stood and bumped Xena playfully. "Come on..let’s go get dinner. I’m starving."

"Everything’s ready for the wedding." Hecuba said, as she and Lila worked side by side in the small kitchen. "I just wish.."

Lila sighed. "I know.. I wish it wasn’t so tense.. I wish da wasn’t so…" She looked up at her mother. "But at this point.. I’m just glad it’s happening at all." She drew a shaky breath. "I never thought.. I.."

Hecuba gave her an awkward one armed hug. "I will miss you, Lila." The older woman admitted, with a sigh. "I wish.." Better not to even say that. "I’m glad everything worked itself out. Strange, how that all seemed to fall together… must be the moons." She gave a light laugh. "Now, if we can only get your sister settled. I know she likes her traveling life, but.."

Lila sliced the vegetables she had in front of her, and casually put them in the dish. Maybe she could do Gabrielle a return favor.. she was sure her older sister didn’t want to have to hear this lecture for the next several years when it was obvious to Lila that Gabrielle was settled just exactly where she wanted to be. "Well, as a matter of fact, mother.." Lila started. " It didn’t just… fall together."

Hecuba stopped wresting one handed with a large cheese she was trying to slice, and gave Lila a confused look. "What’s that?"

Lila started on another pile of vegetables, and added these to a stew that was bubbling on the fire. "The first night that Gabrielle was here.. as soon as she found out what was in store for her, she told Xena about it. And.." Her eyes watched Hecuba’s profile sharply. "she said, after, that Xena would find a way.. some way.. to make everything right." Now she turned her head towards her mother, and stopped cutting. "And she did, mother. I don’t know how she did it, but she did."

Hecuba took a deep breath, and sat down on a corner of the prep table. "She came.. here. This morning, and helped me." She idly played with the cheese knife in her hand. "She’s a very strange, very violent person. I’m afraid for Gabrielle, traveling with her. Despite what she did for me.. and the care she seems to take of your sister. " She shook her grayed head. "I still want her home, Lila - I refuse to believe we can’t find a way to make her happy here."

"They love each other, mamma." Lila said, not looking at her.

"Surely not, Lila." Hecuba scolded. "Don’t let your own romantic imagination run away with you. That’s nonsense. I know that Gabrielle is concerned with Xena's safety, and I know that Xena does try to make sure Gabrielle stays well, but that’s to be expected. They’ve been traveling together for quite some time now. Surely, they’ve become.. friends.. hard as that is for me to believe."

"Mamma." Lila stopped her work, and faced Hecuba, putting her hands on her mother’s shoulders. "They love each other. Just like Lennat and I do." Watching her mother’s disbelieving face. "I’ve gotten to spend time around them the past few days, you haven’t."

The older woman just stared at her, then wrapped her arms around herself and cast her eyes down. "I can’t believe that." She looked up. "I don’t want to believe that. I’m sorry Lila.. that’s not something I can accept as easily as you seem to." She cleared her throat. "I’m going to ask her to stay here, this time."

Lila closed her eyes. "Mamma, don’t. Please." She whispered, reaching out a hand to the older woman "Listen, I thought the same as you did.. a few days ago." She turned and played with her hands. "I hated her.. for taking Gabrielle away. For keeping her out there… with all that danger.. I thought she just didn’t care what happened to her."

"And you don’t think that now?" Hecuba asked, skeptically.

"No." Lila answered, with a smile. "She cares."

Her mother studied her with a cool expression. "I think you’re wrong, Lila. I think that Gabrielle is a nice traveling companion. She’s quite funny, and tells stories, and does chores.. and I think she can do better."

Lila went back to chopping vegetables. Well, I tried. Gods.. as if it wasn’t hard enough. "Maybe.. but I don’t think she thinks so."

Twilight had fallen over the village, bringing a purple haze that cast shadows under the eaves of the small cots, and dulled colors to grayness. The drifting smoke of evening fires mingled with a gentle cool mist, smelling of burning wood, and the rich scent of wet pine as Xena and Gabrielle strolled towards her family’s homestead. It was a quiet time, and neither of them spoke much until they were almost there.

"Nice night." Xena commented, casting her eyes up to the barely seen emerging sphere peeking over the trees. "Full moon."

Gabrielle nodded, and moved closer, linking arms with Xena, and smiling up at her. .

"Your mother still doesn’t trust me, you know." Xena added, with a wry smile, reaching over and clasping Gabrielle's hand with her own.

The bard tilted her head. "I know." She sighed. "I’ll try to talk to her."

"Maybe I should." Xena joked, giving a half smile. "I’ve been doing pretty good in that area lately."

Gabrielle snorted, as they reached the porch and mounted the stairs, their booted footsteps in unison. "You might be right." As she reached out, and pushed the door open. "A lot better than I have, in fact." She muttered under her breath.

Hecuba looked up as they entered, and gave them a smile. "Come in.. come in." She gestured, and watched as Xena crossed directly towards her, moving with that unnatural power that made the older woman nervous She took a breath, as the warrior stopped a pace away from her, and quirked an eyebrow.

"How’s the arm?" Came the question, in that deep voice that seemed to go right through her.

Hecuba held out the limb in question. "It.. hurts. As you said it would. But.. it will be well." She gestured towards the table, where Lila and Lennat were seated, heads bent together. "Please.. sit." She hugged Gabrielle. "I’m glad you’re here." She said to her daughter, with s smile. "Perhaps we can get another story or two out of you."

Dinner was fairly uneventful, mostly featuring Hecuba’s many and varied questions regarding the stories she’d heard the night before. "But dear, were you actually there in that Centaur village? That was very dangerous to you - couldn’t you have just gotten descriptions from… someone?" Her voice left no doubt as to who the someone was.

Xena leaned back, and regarded her companion, and decided she’d had about enough. "Well, Hecuba.. " She drawled. "Thing is.. I may be a crazy warrior. But…" her teeth flashed in a feral grin. "There aren’t many people I’d willingly throw my body in front of an arrow for. She paused and saw Gabrielle's resigned look and grinned privately. "The Amazon Queen my bard here describes so well is herself. She was the hero of that story."

Dead silence in the room, as they all stared at Gabrielle, who gave Xena an affectionately exasperated look. "I’m going to get you for that.."

"Gabrielle..’ Her mother whispered. "Is that true? That was you?"

"Yeah." The bard answered, offhandedly. "Sure was. And boy, was I ever glad to see Xena, let me tell you.." Was I. Glad enough to kiss her in front of an entire tribe of Centaurs and half the Amazon Nation, and take us both into uncharted waters. Lucky swimming is a skill we both share. . Her lips twitched into a grin.

 "Gods." Lila breathed. "I had no idea…that must have been terrifying.. is that the worst thing you've ever faced?"

"No." Gabrielle answered, in a quiet voice. "But that other thing.. worked out." Felt fingers twining with hers under the table. And returned the squeeze gratefully.

"Worked out.." Hecuba repeated. "Gabrielle, you could have died there."

"I could have." The bard agreed. "But I didn’t." She saw the anger in her mother’s eyes. "The Amazons are my responsibility, mother. And I got myself into trouble there… but fortunately, as usual, I could count on Xena to get me out of it." She gave her partner an appreciative look. "Nothing to worry about."

Hecuba stood up, and moved to the kitchen, her motions stiff and furious. She turned at the door and looked directly at Xena. "And you think it’s just fine, letting my daughter just risk her life? It’s criminal.."

Gabrielle stood, and felt an anger rising in her that she seldom felt. "Don’t you .." Her voice snapped out with an audible edge, but a hand closed on her upper arm, and pulled her down, making her stop in mid sentence. She turned and glared at Xena, who met her gaze with gentle understanding. Raised an eyebrow, and gave her a little quirky grin, and her anger was capped, and stilled, gentled to a wry realization. Oh yeah.. I guess she can take care of herself. Right? Right.

Xena turned her gaze on Hecuba, still standing in the kitchen entranceway. "No. I don’t think it’s fine at all." she said, with a sigh. "But it’s what she chooses to do." And I’m the person she chooses to do it with. Even I find that impossible. "Life is dangerous, Hecuba." She glanced pointedly at the woman’s arm. "Here, out there…who’s ever really safe?"

A long silence, and Hecuba walked slowly back to the table, and sat down, putting her hands in front of her. "I’m afraid for her." She said, as though Gabrielle wasn’t even in the room. To this very strange, unknown person who had, it seems, taken responsibility for her daughter. Who, incredible though she found it, was unmistakably a friend, even Hecuba could see that much between them.

Xena leaned forward, and gave her a rueful smile. "So am I." Glanced over at Gabrielle, who was keeping quiet for the moment. "But believe me when I tell you that her safety is my highest priority" A lot higher priority than my own.. I wonder if she's ever realilzed that.

"Hey!" Gabrielle suddenly barked. "Waitaminute. You’d think I’m the one who gets into all the trouble around here." She waited for them to focus on her. Gotta get this tension down..we’re supposed to be having a good time "Couple of Amazons? Hah.. let me tell you some of the trouble Xena gets into."

And she was off, telling of their adventures, and after three or four, managed to get everyone concentrated on what she was telling. And finally had them all in laughter, so they moved from the table into the tiny hearth area, and sat on the colorful rugs to listen further. Lennat pushed back against the wall, and patted the ground next to him, where Lila gladly settled herself and leaned back against his shoulder.

Xena stretched her length out near the hearth, crossing her arms and leaning her head back against the stone. Watching Gabrielle’s face as she spoke. How the firelight picked up highlights in her hair, and outlined her graceful hands as she used them to describe the action in the story. Xena felt her eyes irresistibly drawn to the bard's profile and a gentle smile crossed her lips as she let the words of the story flow over her unheard.

Hecuba was able, finally, to just let herself be carried along by her daughter’s voice, and she stopped agonizing over the life that was described in the sometimes funny, sometimes grave tales. After a while, she realized Xena wasn’t really paying attention to the stories, and so she just watched her, out of the corner of her eye. Well, certainly, she’s heard them before..lived them.. and to hear Gabrielle speak of her, you'd think she was some kind of.. hero.

The older woman sighed. Then she saw the expression in those pale, fierce eyes change as she watched, becoming far gentler, and a matching smile transformed her face from harsh alertness to a sudden, startling adoration. And Hecuba realized where those eyes were fastened, and closed her own eyes on the truth she found there. No.. she was mistaken, she must be. Opened her eyes, in time to see her daughter half turn, sensing the warrior's gaze, and return the smile with an open warmth that left little to salve her sensibilities. Oh, Hera. Hecuba groaned to herself. How did I miss this before? I'm afraid.. Lila was right. Oh dear.

Her mind slowly adjusted, and now she watched Xena covertly, with newly understanding eyes. And saw, for the first time, qualities that had somehow.. escaped her before. Like the warm humor in her smile. And the friendly sparkle in her gaze when she exchanged glances with Lennat and Lila. And the exasperated rolling of her eyes when Gabrielle elaborated outlandishly on some thing or other that she'd done.

Hecuba smiled reluctantly. So. I still don't like it.. it's too dangerous. She sighed resignedly to herself. But I can see I'm not going to convince her of that.

Xena put out a hand and made Gabrielle stop when she heard the rough edge in her partner's voice. "Hey..you'll be voiceless tomorrow If you keep this up." Was her lazy comment, noticing the stiff little nod of approval from Hecuba. Well well.. mamma approves of that.. interesting…

"Hah." Gabrielle grinned. "you're just saying that because you know what story I'm going to tell next." Which got her a relaxed grin. "Gotcha.." But she could feel the strain, and knew Xena was probably right. "But I get your point.." She stifled a yawn. "Been a long day." She shrugged apologetically. "Thanks for the invite."

"I was glad to have you here." Hecuba replied, with a wry smile. "Both of you." She added, getting a raised eyebrow and hint of a grin from Xena.

Wonder what I did to get that little seal of approval. Xena mused to herself, getting to her feet, and extending a hand down to the still seated Gabrielle, who cheerfully took hold of it, and allowed herself to be pulled to her feet.

 They bid Gabrielle's family good night, and walked out into the cool air of the evening, which still carried more than a hint of wood smoke and cooking, and brushed with a welcome chill after the enclosed warmth of the homestead.

"Mmmm.." Gabrielle yawned. "That feels really good. It was kind of stuffy in there." She regarded her partner. "It went ok..after that first bit. And at least dinner was decent." A gentle laugh. "Not as good as your mom's though."

"Uh uh." Xena answered, watching the path ahead of them thoughtfully. "Not too bad." A quick look at the still yawning Gabrielle. "Hey..you promised me some staff practice, sleepyhead."

Gabrielle groaned, and gave Xena a look. "Gods.. did I do that? How silly of me. " A sideways glance to determine the temper of the look she was getting. "OK..OK..Let's go.. just kidding." Gods.. the woman had an energy level that just wouldn't quit.. how does she do that? It's just neverending.. she makes me tired just watching her sometimes.

Gabrielle padded over to where Xena was standing, halfway through shrugging out of her tunic. "Let me get some aloe on those while you're at it." She tugged on Xena's elbow. "Sit down a minute."

With a mildly amused look, Xena complied. "Sure..sure." she sighed, letting the fabric slide down off her shoulders and relaxing as the bard reapplied the soothing salve to her lacerated back. "Thanks..that feels really good.'" she admitted, giving Gabrielle a half smile. Though she wasn't sure what felt better, the salve on her back, or the fact that Gabrielle had thought to do it. Mm….tossup. She decided with a private grin, closing her eyes and feeling the bard's hands against her skin with a sense of gentle pleasure.

"These look pretty raw.." The bard advised. "You sure you want to..I mean, not like I'm trying to get out of sparring with you..but.." She winced a bit as she examined the worst of the wounds. "Skipping one night woudn't be a bad idea.. I’m hurting for you just looking at them." Feeling the tension in the warrior's shoulders, she gently kneaded the muscles around Xena's neck, and felt them relax as the warrior leaned back against her. "Mmm? Are you sure you want to do this?"

"No..I'm not sure." Xena replied, with a rueful grin. "But I'm gonna do it anyway. You don't have to, though. You've had a pretty long day." She patted Gabrielle's leg, and tipped her head back, watching the conflicting emotions cross the bard's face. "Really. I was just teasing you before."

Gabrielle sighed. "Nope...if you go, I go." Her lips quirked. "Besides, you were right. I"ve been a lazy bum lately when it comes to that.. and I'll pay for it one way or the other." She leaned down and touched her nose to Xena's, and laughed as the warrior nipped at her hair, catching it in her teeth. "Hey! Ouch! Ok..ok..let's go and get this started." She freed her hair from Xena's grasp, and walked over to her bag to pull out her usual traveling gear, and slipped into it. "Maybe I can talk you into joining me for a hot bath afterward, hmm?" Looking up as she heard the answering chuckle. "Sound like a plan?"

"Oh yeah." Xena agreed, fastening the buckles on the padded gambeson she wore for sword practice. "You don't have to wait, though. I'm gonna be at this a while." She reached over her head and clipped her sheath to the straps on the garment. Knowing full well the bard would insist on waiting anyway.

Gabrielle shrugged, and picked up her scroll case. "Nah..I'll just work on some stuff until you finish... I've got two stories I have to get down." Slinging the case over her shoulder, she moved to the door and held it open for Xena, following her out the door and down the stairs.

"Your stomach still bothering you?" Xena asked, pausing in her attack, and studying her partner's face with a tinge of concern.

"A little." Gabrielle admitted, stepping back and trying to catch her breath. "It's more that I haven't been doing as much of this lately, I think." She gave an apologetic grimace. "I never understood your point about constant practice until now.. didn't realize how fast you lose it if you don't use it." She paused and pushed her hair back off her forehead, and settled herself. "Ok..Iet's go." Moving forward and raising her staff up to a defensive position, and blocking Xena's next thrust. "Stop coddling me, Xena.." She growled, as she felt the distinct lack of sting in the contact.

Laughter from the warrior. "Maybe I'm coddling myself... I feel it in my back every time you hit me." But the sparkle in her eyes belied the comment, and she whipped her staff forward, taking the staff out of Gabrielle's hands and sending it flying. "Whoops. Sorry."

"Sure you are." Came the caustic response, as Gabrielle went trotting and retrieved the staff. "Teach me to keep my mouth shut."

"Never." Xena commented, cheerfully, as she fielded a determined attack from the bard. "There, that's better." Approvingly, as the edge of Gabrielle’s staff slid in past her defenses and got a piece of her forearm. "Good. You want to try and get that arm out of commission - because it makes it much harder for me to do this." Smack. "See?"

Gabrielle nodded, and took a satisfied breath. She didn't tag Xena often. They'd been at it for quite a while, enough for the torches to burn down a good ways outside the barn, and she was getting tired. "Ok.." Let’s try this.. she gathered her strength, and surged forward, biting her lip in concentration, and using a reverse move that ended in a sweep at a low angle, which usually worked for her with Xena because of their height difference.

And it did, this time - getting past Xena's block, and hitting the warrior full force in the upper thigh. They both winced, Xena from the blow, Gabrielle from the sting as her staff rebounded and knocked her off balance.

"Damn, Xena." The bard hissed, dropping the staff and shaking her hands. "I think I'd rather have missed you...it would have been less painful."

"For me too." Xena responded, shaking her leg out, and examining the red mark where the bard's staff had hit. "Good one, though."

Gabrielle snorted. "Yeah, it was like hitting a tree." She retrieved her staff, and leaned on it, feeling pleasantly tired. "Enough for me, I think."

Xena glanced at her, then nodded. "Yeah, take a break. I’m going to get a drink and do some sword work."

Gabrielle picked up her scroll case, and settled herself comfortably on a haybale that had been discarded outside the barn. She spread her scrolls out, and took out a quill, sharpening it absently as she watched Xena do some of her little warm-up exercises. Haven't watched her do this in a long time..usually I work on my stories while she's out there.. Oh wow.. As Xena finished her preliminary routine, and dove right into a set of high speed drills, her sword blurring the air in front of her body.

Then she moved around in a circle, and started combining the offensive and defensive strokes with flips, and Gabrielle just sat, entranced, her quill forgotten. As the torches burned down, and the shadows increased across the courtyard, the fitful light catching quicksilver glances off Xena's sword. Oh wow…wow..I’d forgotten just how fantastic at this she is. The bard’s talent began tentatively pulling words to describe her.. a poem, maybe?

Well.. Xena mused, as she rotated yet another set of flips. At least I have an appreciative audience... Seeing the faces plastered against the inn window, indistinct in the gloom that filled the courtyard, and hid the silent watchers, too, outside the building. She dropped into a full crouch, then uncoiled and shot skyward, startling herself with the height of the jump, and lazily tumbled over sideways while tossing and catching her sword in mid air. Now.. that's showing off. She scolded herself, darting a glance back and catching Gabrielle's wide eyed fascination. On the other hand...she did say she wanted to see a show.. A grin crossed her face. Let's see how she likes this.. And she tossed her sword skyward, and threw her body in the other direction, then backflipped to the center of the courtyard, not using her hands. At the top of the last backflip, she caught the sword, and landed, bouncing a little, and spun the sword over the top of her arm and back down.

Peeked at Gabrielle's stunned expression, and chuckled to herself. Not bad..not bad at all. She tested her reserves, and found her body relaxed and ready for more. That's a good feeling..I know I lost that for a while…glad to have it back.. She started in practicing jumping kicks, eventually progressing until she was hitting marks over her own head. Finally, she got a little running start, and leaped for an overhanging branch in the big tree outside the inn, getting a grip and pressing her body up and onto the limb. Sheathing her sword, she stood, lightly bouncing up and down, surveying the ground some distance below.

Gabrielle looked up at her, giving her fair head a little shake, then her eyes widened as she watched Xena leap off the branch, and catch another, more flexible limb, swing up, and simply jump off, headed groundward at a frightening rate. Whoa! Her mind yelled, as the warrior hit the ground with stunning force, rolled twice, then flipped up into the air, and came down seated next to her on the bale.

"Hi." Came the cheerful greeting, complete with a smirk. "Enjoy the show?"

"You are disgusting." Gabrielle stated, crossing her arms. "You're not even breathing hard." A slight shake of her head. "Yeah, I enjoyed the show..so did everyone else, I think." She grinned. "Is it just because I haven't watched you do that in a long time, or... you were amazing..not that you didn't know that already, but.. I don't remember you getting height on those flips like that before. Is it just me?"

Xena sighed, and leaned back, wincing as her cuts pressed against the rough wood. "No.. I realized.." she shrugged, and glanced down at her hands. "that I'd lost a few steps lately. Don't know.. maybe it was the last time I was hurt. " Died, actually. but she never said that in front of Gabrielle. It was too.. raw. Still. "But after that, I just didn't feel right. Felt like I was tired all the time." She glanced out over the courtyard. "I had to push really hard.. doing stuff that used to come easy." It was a hard admission.. knowing just how much the bard depended on her for protection.

"You didn't really get a chance to rest after that.." Gabrielle replied, thoughtfully. "I thought we should take a few days off.. but stuff happened." Stuff always happened to them. It was part and parcel of their lives together. "I was ... a little worried about you." How about a lot worried? But I was so damn glad just to see you smiling at me every morning I just….

"Yeah...I know." Xena laughed a little. " I noticed you kept pretty close for a while after that." Watched Gabrielle's eyes drop, and a light flush cover her face. "No.. I appreciated that. I was glad you did." She sighed. "But anyway, during the month I was home, I got a chance to get plenty of sleep for the first time in.. gods... forever.. and it felt.. wonderful." She gave the bard a sheepish grin. "And of course mother was feeding me like a prize hog.. so between the two, I started feeling a lot better and I went out at night and just rebuilt a lot of things. I feel great, now." A pause. "Better than I have in a long time."

"It shows." Gabrielle grinned. "You seem a lot more relaxed." And a lot more likely to say..stuff like this to me. I think I really like that.

"Mmm." Xena agreed, with a slight grin. "Though I'm not sure that has anything to do with my being able to do backflips." She turned her head, and gazed intently at Gabrielle, who blushed. "Get your stories done?"

The bard snorted. "Not... a single word, and you know it." She gave Xena a poke in the ribs. "With that kind of show going on? What kind of bard would I be if I just sat here like a lump and did copywriting?" Her eyes twinkled a bit. "I won’t say I wasn’t busy composing..oh..a poem.. maybe."

"Oh really?" Xena asked, giving her an inquiring look. "About???"

A devilish grin from Gabrielle. "My favorite subject, and the impossibility of what I just saw, and the dark torchlit courtyard here, and the slivers of fire and moonlight reflecting off your sword, and you.."

Xena snorted. "Gabrielle, how in the world can you make a sword drill poetic?"

The bard shook her head slowly, and reached out one hand, riffling her fingers through the midnight dark hair on Xena’s shoulder. "I can’t.. but you can. You move, and it’s poetry." Watching in amusement the startled blinking of pale blue eyes. "Haven’t you ever realized just how magical you are? Xena.. I could spend the rest of my life trying to describe it, and not do you justice."

Silence.. and then a sigh. "No.. you’re the one with the magic, my bard. I’m just a beat up old fighter." Xena gave her a quirky grin. "Dinar a dozen, we are."

Gabrielle’s face went serious, and the hand resting on Xena’s shoulder clasped tight. "What you are..to me.. has no price." A pause. "And the golden light you fill my soul with is worth more to me than all the riches of Mount Olympus."

Xena made no answer, just sat there quietly, looking at her for what seemed like an eternity, there in the foggy moonlight, in the shadows of a guttering torch With the damp scent of the earth rising around them, and the faintest hint of the sweet blossoms of jasmine in the air.

Finally, she shook her head, and let her fingers brush Gabrielle’s face. "You know.." In a very soft voice. "You’re the only thing in my whole life I have no regrets about." Watching as the bard’s eyes closed, and gentle, soundless tears dampened the soft down on her cheeks. "Hey.." She slid an arm around Gabrielle’s shoulders and patted her padded sleeve. "Here..nice soft fabric."

The bard gladly snuggled close, wrapping herself around Xena’s sprawled form, and burrowing her head into the warrior’s warm shoulder.

"Y’know, everyone is probably watching us." Xena commented, letting her chin rest on Gabrielle's head, and closing her eyes.

"Let em." The bard mumbled. "I don't care."

A raised eyebrow from Xena, who considered a moment, then shrugged lightly. "OK." She chuckled softly "I seem to remember you mentioning something about a hot bath..??" Rubbing her back lightly with the tips of her fingers. "Hmm?"

"Means I gotta move." Gabrielle objected, tightening her hold.

The warrior grinned quietly to herself. "Nah." She whispered, then bit her lip to hold in a chuckle, and slid her arms around the bard and stood up, cradling her.

"Awk." Gabrielle protested. "Xena... what are you doing?"

"Just hang on." Came the response. "You said you didn't want to move, right? So.." She backed up, and studied her surroundings. I'm nuts to try this. It's official. Ex warlord loses mind, tries stupid stunts for no reason..ah. She spotted a stack of boxes outside the inn, and padded over to them, increasing her speed as she got closer, and launched up, landing on the first one with a little bounce.

"Hey!" Gabrielle hissed, grabbing a tight hold around Xena's neck. "What in blazes are you doing?"

Xena grinned. "Well, navigating those tiny stairs inside is just not going to work. .so I figure I'll try the window.." She glanced up to the second story opening. "Hold tight."

"Xena.. put me down.. I can walk.. I was just kidding. " The bard remarked, starting to loosen her grip.

The warrior glanced down at her. "Don't trust me?" In a bantering tone, and without letting her go.

Green eyes searched hers. "Don't be dumb. You know I do... but there's no need for you to..."

"So hang on." Xena interrupted her. "And be quiet for a minute." She planned her route, and moved smoothly from one crate to another. If I lose my balance and fall, this is gonna go down as the stupidest thing I ever tried. She jumped from the stack of crates onto the low porch, and felt the sturdy wood flex under her. The upper rooftop that led to the window was a body length, hers, away, and about half again that higher. A completely insane idea presented itself, born from the springy feel of the wood under her boots.

"What are you thinking?" Gabrielle asked, loosening one hand, and reaching up to brush her dark hair back from her eyes. "You have this really weird look on your face."

Xena felt a wild grin forming. "Now..one last jump, my bard..get a nice strong grip." And felt Gabrielle's hands tighten on her. "Good."

Took two long strides, and then bounced up, coming down and letting her crouch deepen, getting all the flexing energy out of the wood. Then she catapulted off the edge of the porch, and shot them both forward and up with all the strength in her very strong legs.

"Whoa!" Gabrielle gasped, her eyes widening as she felt Xena's body tuck and roll, turning them both in a lazy flip in the air. A bubbling laugh burst from her lips as she watched the world spin under her in a blur, and then she was right side up again as Xena's boots hit the roof and she straightened up. "Wow!" She breathed. "That was awesome!!"

Xena grinned, and stepped forward, crossing through the window opening, and dropping down into the room. "You liked that, huh?" Irrationally pleased with herself, she hopped up onto the bed, still holding the bard and half fell, half sprawled back, finally loosening her grip.

"Oh yeah." Gabrielle laughed in delight. "I never knew it felt like that... no wonder you like practicing those." She paused. "That was a kind of crazy thing for you to do, though.. wasn't it?"

"Yeah.." Xena admitted, giving her a sheepish grin. "I.. I don't know what came over me." And felt an unexpected warm giddiness Yeah I do...its this completely impossible, wonderful, ridiculous, totally mind numbing being in love thing. Gods. I can't believe I feel this way.. like a kid. And I’m acting like it, too.

Gabrielle gave her a slow grin, and pillowed her head on the warrior's belly, letting her fingers toy with the buckles stitched into the fabric. "I loved it." She closed her eyes and smiled. "I love you." She felt a yawn coming on, and relaxed into it, stretching, and settling her arms securely around Xena.

Got a soft chuckle from the watching warrior. "I love you too." Xena sighed, tangling her fingers in the soft red gold hair spilling across her chest. "Care to join me in a nice hot bath?"

Gabrielle felt sleep pulling at her, and debated briefly. "Only if you don't let me fall asleep in there.." She grinned. "I'm a little tired." Another yawn. "Mmm.. nice pillow" She bounced her head gently on the flat surface. "Little hard, though."

Xena chuckled. "Come on…or do I have to carry you there, too?" Her face relaxed into an easy grin.

"I’m moving.." The bard sighed, as she rolled over and got to her feet, raking her hand through her hair as she walked over to their gear and pulled out a pair of linen towels. She turned and handed one to Xena, who had come up behind her and was resting her forearms on Gabrielle’s shoulders. "Let’s go…"

They walked down the hall, trying to be quiet in the late hour, when only the barest sounds came from the downstairs inn, a creak of wood as a table settled; the scuttle of mice; and the faint clink of crockery being washed as the scullions cleaned up after a long night’s work.

"Shh." Xena cautioned, as she lifted the bucket pole, and hoisted two full buckets of hot water from the cistern, which ran against the fireplace, and kept the water hot. She carried them over, and Gabrielle quietly tipped them into the tub. They repeated this several times, until the level was high enough to cover them.

Gabrielle grinned, as she discarded her skirt and top and approached the water, only to be stopped by a lazily smiling Xena. "Ah… gotta be careful. Wouldn’t want you slipping." Came the chuckling remark, as she scooped the bard up, and gently lowered her into the water, stopping mid way to meet her lips in a long kiss.

"Oh boy." Gabrielle muttered, as they broke apart, and Xena stepped back to take off her padded gear. A grin crept across her face as she watched the warrior put her hands casually on the rim of the tub, and press her body up and over, lowering herself into the water just behind where Gabrielle was sitting. "You do like to show off, don’t you?" She giggled

"Who.. me??" Came the puzzled response. "What are you talking about?" And the sharp, fresh scent of herbal soap drifted over Gabrielle’s shoulder as she felt Xena’s hands sliding over her back. "I was just getting in the water, Gabrielle - would you prefer it if I’d just dove in head first?"

The bard let out a snort of laughter. "That woulda hurt." She grinned, and just let herself relax under the effects of the warm water, the clean smell of the herbs, and Xena’s presence. Felt the gentle tracing of a finger right up the back of the bard's neck, which sent shivers up and down her spine. She closed her eyes, and leaned back against Xena's warm body, giggling at the gentle tickle the warrior gave her as she slid her arms around Gabreille, and pulled her closer. "Mmm.." she growled, tipping her head back and felt Xena's lips tasting hers.

They alternated hastily shushed splash fights with long stretches of exploration so it took forever but they were both finally clean. Xena stood, vaulting over the edge of the tub, and shook herself off with enthusiasm, then turned around to face the bard, putting her hands on her hips. "Well? You want to try and hop over that side, or you want me to show off some more?"

Gabrielle climbed to her feet, and put her hands lightly on the edge of the tub, gazing at her partner with frank admiration. "Oh, show off, please." She answered cheerfully. Getting out of this tub when you’re my height would be embarrassing at best, and she knows it.

"Uh huh." Xena nodded wryly. "Thought so." She moved closer, and waited until Gabrielle lifted her arms and let them rest on the warrior’s broad shoulders. Then she reached out, and grasped the bard’s waist, stepping back and lifting in one smooth motion, swinging her up and over the high wall, and setting her down gently "There you go." She handed her a linen towel. "Here.." Taking the end of it, and carefully drying off the bard’s ears and head. "Don’t want you catching a chill."

So.. Gabrielle thought dreamily to herself If that was anyone else talking to me in such a condescending manner, I’d… yeah.. so why does it just melt me coming from her? I used to get upset at her when she treated me a like a kid..now.. oh gods..is it possible to feel this strongly about something.. someone.. and survive it? I hope so. "Thanks mom." She teased, her green eyes twinkling. And got a raised eyebrow and a poke in the belly. She giggled.

"Watch it, bard." Came the warning growl. With a light snap of her towel for emphasis. They both chuckled, and, wrapping the linen around themselves, walked quietly back to the room.

"Roo." Ares blustered, as soon as he saw them, padding over and grabbing the end of Gabrielle’s linen wrap and giving it a hearty tug. ‘Hey!" The bard protested, with a laugh. "This thing’s small enough as it is, Ares, cut that out!"

Xena watched with a grin, as she traded her wrap for a soft shirt, and stepped idly to the window, peering out. Spotting two shadowy figures watching the window, and going very still, realizing how she was outlined in the dim light from inside the room. Damn… Her eyes strained against the settling dark, trying to make out details of the two silent watchers. Men, yeah.. middle height, by the set of their bodies older.. one was Metrus, she realized, matching his heavy outline against her memory. The other… her eyes slitted. Herodotus.

"What?" Gabrielle’s voice came from behind her, and she swung out an arm automatically to keep the bard from approaching the window. "Xena?"

"Stay back." Xena muttered, in a low tone. "We’ve got some interested onlookers." She straightened, and put a negligent hand against the windowsill, returning their gaze unabashedly. "Metrus and your father." She informed the bard. Felt a light hand against her back as Gabrielle ignored her warning arm and joined her in the window opening, settling in at Xena’s side, and wrapping an arm around her. Xena hesitated, then let her lips quirk into a grin, and circled Gabrielle’s shoulders, pulling her close. "That what you wanted them to see?" She whispered, as they both watched the two men turn on their heels, and dissolve into the darkness.

"Yes." Came Gabrielle’s quietly contented answer.

"That’s not going to make it easier tomorrow." Xena commented, a little worried frown darkening her face, and creasing her brow.

"I know." The bard answered, briefly. "Xena.. I.. I decided I don’t like being afraid." She studied the shadowed face above her. "It does something… ugh.. to me inside that I just don’t want to deal with."

"We’re all afraid, sometimes, Gabrielle." Xena responded, gazing back.

"Not like this." Came the serious answer. "Not this kind, which makes you forget who you are, and what you’ve done. I don’t like it. I don’t want it to be part of me. I’ve been running from this for two years, Xena. I’m not running anymore."

Xena studied her for a long moment. Then slowly nodded. "All right. I see where you’re going, Gabrielle." She gave the bard a smile. "I’ll be right there with you." A pause. "Your courage always astonishes me, my bard."

Now Gabrielle smiled, and laughed a bit. "It shouldn’t..it comes from you." She gave the startled Xena a gentle shove. "Come on..I’m about to pass out I’m so tired."

But it took her a long time to find sleep that night, and for a timeless space she rested quietly in Xena’s arms, feeling the steady heartbeat under her ear, and the gentle warmth of her breathing against the top of her head. We all have to take that final step sometimes.. she mused. When we stop being a child, and become an adult.. things change. I’ve had a long time to get ready for that.. after all, when did Xena face this? When she was..what…15? I don’t think I could have done what she did. No.. I know I couldn’t have. Not then… because I hadn’t met her yet..and she hadn’t taught me how to master what’s inside of me. Now.. she has. And it’s a gift she’d never suspect she’s given me. Lazily, she let her eyes slide open, and studied the sculpted features above her. Then she smiled, and let her lips brush the tanned jawline. Thank you, my friend. For everything you are. And everything you’ve helped me become. Then her eyes closed, and she took a deep breath, and slid down into sleep.

Not seeing the glint of dim candlelight against a pair of blue eyes that gazed down at her sleeping form with gentle understanding. Then closed into sleep themselves.

Xena opened one eye, and ran a quick check of the room. Quiet. That was good. Dark. Even better, because it meant she had no reason to move, yet. Warm - at least she was, despite the cool breeze coming in through the open window, since she had Gabrielle snuggled up tight to her like a sea limpet. All in all, a good way to wake up. As if I seriously think I'm going to actually get up now..yeah right. Her mind mocked her lightly. Oh no.. I couldn't pry myself out of her arms if I had a fire going on in the next room. My body's decided it likes this way, way too much.

She stretched her back out a little, and felt Ares curl himself into a tighter ball behind her knees. You're not helping.... she mentally growled at the puppy, who lifted his head, blinking sleepily at her, and yawned, then stretched and curled up again, letting out a warm sigh that tickled the back of her leg and caused the warrior to bite her lip to keep from laughing.

"What's so funny?" Came a sleepy murmur from just under her jaw.

Xena glanced down and met the half open green eyes peering at her. "Oh..hi. Sorry.. nothing's funny. I was just..." She paused when she felt Gabrielle's hand slide under her shirt and come to rest against her skin. "Uhm."

"Felt you laughing." The bard commented, poking her a little.

"Ares... made a face. It was kind of cute." The warrior replied casually.

Hearing his name, the puppy woke up again, lifting his head up and peering at them. "Roo?" He questioned, then ducked back down, nuzzling the back of Xena's leg.

Oh gods... she clamped down tight on the ticklish feeling, forcing herself to remain relaxed and not react. Then she felt him start to lick her and sighed. "Ares, cut that out."

Gabrielle hitched herself up on an elbow for a better view of the animal. "Aww..that's so cute..." She giggled, then saw the muscles jump in Xena's leg, and glanced up at her face. "Heyyy.. he's tickling you, isn't he!" A demonic grin crossed her face. "I knew it..." Hearing the muttered curse under Xena's breath that was it's own answer.

"Hehh..." Gabrielle chortled, and slid her hand down Xena's leg until she was in position to replace Ares' industrious tongue.

"Gabrielle." Xena raised a warning eyebrow. "Careful what you start, here..."

"Ok.. I will be." The bard grinned, and started in with a feather light touch that got a squawk from her partner, and progressed until Xena was shaking with laughter and just couldn’t stand it any more, snaking out one long arm to reciprocate. "Whoa!" Gabrielle yelped, trying to squirm out of the way. They ended up in a breathless ball, tangled up as each tried to prevent the other from reaching sensitive spots.

"Gods." Xena finally sighed, rolling over, and laying down flat on her back, arms outstretched. "That's one way to wake up." But to her total disgust, her body was rebelling against the thought, preferring to stay right where it was, and wanting the bard’s warm presence along with it.

"Are we getting up?" Gabrielle asked, innocently, as she shifted over, and put her head down on Xena's shoulder, molding her body to the warrior's side, and starting to trace soothing patterns on her belly. "Still dark out..nothing really to see... " She felt Xena take a deep breath, and let it out, and with that, the muscles under her hands relaxed. "Nice and warm here..." She peeked up at her partner's face, and was charmed to see her eyes half closed already. "Ahh..that’s better." Closing her eyes and keeping up her gentle tracing. "This really does put you out like a baby, doesn’t it?"

Xena nodded sleepily. "Uh huh." She murmured "Like that… " Her voice trailed off as she gave in and let sleep take her.

Gabrielle chuckled quietly to herself, as she closed her eyes again.

"You ready?" Xena asked, looking up from adjusting her bracer and studying Gabrielle's tense face thoughtfully. "Gabrielle?"

"Hmm?" The bard looked up, and gave Xena a quick smile. "Oh.. yeah. I'm ready.."

Xena cocked her head and moved a little closer. "You OK?"

"Fine.. no problem." Gabrielle answered, getting up out of her chair, and taking a deep breath.

"Uh huh. You're lying." Came the knowing answer, which set her off.

"Hey.. I said I was fine... don't take advantage of this bond thing, OK?" Meant jokingly, but the words were out, and she realized how they sounded too late. "Gods.. Sorry.. .I didn't mean that."

Xena studied her for a moment, and felt a little sad. "Actually, Gabrielle, I was basing that statement on the fact that you haven't touched your breakfast." She answered, quietly. "Sorry."

"No." The bard leaned her head against Xena's tall shoulder. "You're right. I'm scared half to death. I shouldn't bother trying to hide that from you, of all people." And felt Xena kiss the top of her head, and give her back a brisk rub.

"It's a lot to get used to." the warrior admitted. "I really want to ask Jessan some questions about all of this... rather than find out by trial and error."

Gabrielle nodded. "Yeah... but in the meantime, I've got a job to do here. So... I better go get this over with." She straightened her shoulders, and looked Xena in the eye. Eyes..really.. which, it occurred to her for the thousandth time were the most beautiful shade of blue in the whole world. Snap out of it, Gabrielle. Good grief. Get your head on straight here. "Walk me over?"

Xena raised one very expressive eyebrow. "Walk you over and loiter right outside, my friend." She put a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder and steered her towards the door.

"Oh.." The bard grinned. "Is that why we're in full intimidation mode?" She flicked her gaze over Xena's leathers and armor, and the full set of weapons she had clipped on. "Your mom was right..you do look bigger with all that stuff on." She studied the warrior. "You even look taller."

Got both eyebrows raised on that one. "If you say so."

They walked down the stairs, and out the door to the inn, crossing the courtyard and heading down the path in silence.

Herodotus stared blackly into the bowl of cereal in front of him, plunging his spoon in, and wrestling another mouthful down into a queasily rebellious stomach. That was the worst part of drinking.. and why he often followed up a long night with a liquid breakfast. But they were out of readily available drink.. so he was stuck with his headache, and this bowl.

The house was silent.. Hecuba knew better than to have clattering going on when he felt like this. His lips gave an ironic twist. She knew him all right.... and especially after the brief visit from Agtes, who tossed back his dinars, and told him no way, no how, was he going to do any more attempts at scaring off no damn woman who could do what that woman did. No way.

And after leaning his alcohol hazed head against the rough inn wall and watching out the glazed window last night.. he couldn't even find it in his heart to despise Agtes. Damn. And he'd lost his daughter to her.. that much was disgustingly clear, even if he and Metrus hadn't seen the quite, quite deliberate embrace the two had shared, outlined there in the window. Damn.

He hated her. He hated what she had, and he didn't.

His head raised, as he heard footsteps outside. One lighter pair, one heavier. The heavier stopped outside the door, and only the lighter pair continued up the steps, and paused outside the door.

He waited, and watched the door slowly open, letting a glaring blast of sunlight into the room, which was blocked by an entering body, then disappeared as the door was shut. He blinked afterimage from his eyes, and waited until the dim form moving towards him resolved itself into his elder daughter.

Hera.. his mind mused. She has grown up, hasn't she.. There was a grace, and a sureness to her movements that had nothing of the child about it, and her brief top and skirt left very little to his imagination, exposing a muscular suppleness that surprised him, now that he was seeing her from a new perspective.

Gabrielle walked across the room, and stopped when she reached the table, resting her forearms on the back of the nearest chair, and gazing down at him.

"Did you leave your pet outside?" He asked, in a softly humorous voice. Watching for her reaction. And it surprised him.

She smiled, and shook her head. "She's probably talking to mother." A pause, then softly. "Checking her arm out."

His eyes narrowed slightly. "By your little exhibition last night, I take it you've decided to abandon us. Am I right?"

Gabrielle pulled the chair in front of her out, and sat down, folding her arms on the table and studying him. "Did you have anything to do with what happened in the stable?" Direct and cool, and her eyes locked on to his with uneasy intensity.

Herodotus shrugged, and leaned back. "I wanted you free of her influence in making your... decision." He played with his spoon a bit. "Wasted effort, I see."

"I don't want to be free of her influence." Gabrielle answered, taking a breath, and glancing down. "I'm sorry, papa. I can't change what you are. And I'm not going to stay here and be just another.." she paused a long time "target." Her voice took on a roughness at the word. "You're the one who has to make a decision.. to be different."

They stared at each other for a long time, with the faint sounds of the house drifting around them, in time with the dust motes drifting in the pale filtered sunlight coming through the glazed windows.

"After the wedding tomorrow." Herodotus finally said, his tone cool and brief. "I want you and your.. friend.. out of here. I don't know you. You're not my daughter." He paused, watching his words hit her like stones, and enjoying the sight. "You're not welcome here. It's no longer your home." And he stood, pushing his chair back, and walked out of the room.

Gabrielle sat, staring at her hands for what seemed like forever, battling down waves of tears which threatened to overrun her. Determined not to break down. It was my decision.. I knew this might happen, right? Right. Oh gods.

She looked up as her mother walked in, on hesitant feet. "Does that go for you too?" She forced the words out, taking iron control over voice. Best to know the worst, now.

Hecuba sighed, and sank down into the chair next to her, reaching out and putting a warm hand on her daughter's rigidly knotted fists. "It's his house, and he makes the rules for it." She touched Gabrielle's cheek gently. "But you will always be my daughter... no matter what."

Gabrielle swallowed hard. "Thanks." She whispered, not looking up.

Hecuba stayed silent for a time, then sighed. Thinking about the conversation she'd just had outside, and what she'd seen last night. "Gabrielle, Is she really worth..."

"I can't live without her." Came the quiet answer. "It would tear me apart in so many pieces I'd never... " Her eyes closed and she let her head fall into her hands. "You wouldn't want what was left."

Hecuba gazed at her in quiet contemplation. "I felt that way, once." She remarked, watching her hands play idly with the spoon Herodotus had left. "When I was very young." She sighed. "But my parents had different plans for me. And his for him." She paused thoughtfully. "I often...life treats us hard, Gabrielle...you have to take the good things when you find them. You and your sister.. have been good things for me. The rest..." She shrugged.

"Do you love him?" Gabrielle rested her chin on her doubled fists, and met Hecuba's eyes.

"Yes." Came the stark answer. "But it's not like it would have been with Berran. Or how it is for you." She leaned forward. "Don't give that up, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle stood, bracing her hands against the table. "Never." Beyond death, beyond good sense, beyond understanding. "I gotta get out of here." She tried to ignore the painful pounding in her head, which was getting worse by the minute. "Tell Lila..."

"I'll have her come and talk with you." Hecuba assured her, giving her arm a pat. "Go get some fresh air.. you're as white as a sheet."

Gabrielle nodded, and crossed the room, opening the door and flinching at the bright light after the dim interior. It took her several blinking moments for her vision to adjust, and by then a familiar presence was at her side.

"You heard?" The bard asked.

"Yeah." Xena answered, with a sigh.

"All of it?" Came the soft response. Knowing the sharpness of her hearing.

"Yeah." An almost inaudible reply.

"Good." And Gabrielle took a deep breath, and squared her shoulders. "Can we go.. somewhere. My head's about to explode."

"Gabrielle.." Xena started, then stopped when the bard turned and put a hand up to her lips.

"Don't, OK?" She leaned forward and put her hands flat on Xena's armored breastplate, and looked up into her eyes. "This stopped being my home two years ago."

Xena took a breath, and patted her cheek. "All right. Come on... let me see if I can return the favor you did for me yesterday."

"Shh.. careful." Xena said, laying a soothing hand on Gabrielle's head. "You have a migraine, Gabrielle. It's a really bad kind of headache."

It had started with a sudden tunneling of her vision, on the walk back to the inn, and nausea, which rapidly escalated into a bout of dry heaves that left her shaking in Xena's arms. "Oh gods.." she groaned. "This is worse than being seasick."

"Uhm.. yeah, actually.. I think it is." The warrior regretfully agreed. "Good thing you didn't have breakfast after all."

"Thanks." Came the sarcastic mutter. "You're so comforting."

Xena leaned back against the wall, and pulled the bard into her lap, cradling her against one shoulder. She rinsed off a linen rag in a bucket of cold water, and squeezed it mostly dry, then held it against Gabrielle’s head, and felt the bard go limp against her.

"I didn't mean that." Gabrielle murmured, closing her eyes.

"Mean what?" Xena asked, shifting slightly.

"You not being comforting." she replied. "If I have to feel like Hades, this is the place I want to do it in."

The warrior grinned, and rinsed out the rag again. "I'd rather you not feel that way."

"Ugh." Gabrielle snorted. "Do you ever get these?" Keeping her eyes closed as she lifted the cup Xena had prepared to her lips, and took a swallow. "Guh.. Xena, that's awful."

"I know it's awful." Xena sighed. "And yeah, I do.. occasionally."

Gabrielle drank down the rest of the mixture with a grimace. "You never said…" she tilted her head up and gazed at her partner. "You just carry on. As usual."

Xena shrugged, and put the cool cloth in place. "It’s that tough as nails, never admit when you’re hurt warlord thing, I guess." And I have enough sense to just drink down the damn mixture, without making faces about it.

Gabrielle closed her eyes, and felt a weak grin crossing her face as the intense pain subsided a little, and she felt a wave of sleepiness come over her. "Whatever that was is working.." She mumbled, putting the cup down, and feeling the tension go out of her body as she went limp against Xena’s armor clad chest.

The warrior waited a few minutes, idly brushing the hair out of the bard’s closed eyes, then picked her up, and crossed to the bed, laying her down gently. And stood next to her, for a timeless moment, just watching her steady breathing. She told her mother…. she couldn’t live without me. I thought… I know how I feel.. but I never.. I don’t deserve that. She touched the bard’s soft cheek gently, and a faint smile appeared on the sleeping face. Xena’s face mirrored the smile, then she sighed, and stepped back, drawing a light cover over her partner’s body. And for a long moment, almost joined her. Xena, you cut that out. She has an excuse, you don’t. So get moving, and get what you need to do, done.

And so she took herself off to the stable, and Argo’s reproachful snorts. Taking the mare out for a long, thorough ride, across shorn fields and through the rim of old forest that ringed Potadeia, galloping her into a sweat, then taking it easier through the river valley, stopping on the rise that overlooked the river and relaxing back into her saddle.

Enjoying the cool breeze that blew the dark hair off her forehead, and whipped Argo’s mane into stinging slaps against her arms, resting on the saddlebow. The wind carried the scent of the river to her, and of the sun drenched fertile strips to either side, and far off, a hint of wood smoke. "Hey girl." She murmured to the enthusiastically cropping mare, enjoying the fresh river grass after the days of dry fodder in the stable. "You like that, huh?"

She put her hands on the saddlebow, and vaulted off, letting Argo’s rein’s drop free, as she walked through the mid calf length grass, and dropped to the ground near the edge of the flowing water, wrapping her arms around her knees and letting the peaceful chuckling sound flow through her, matching the ripples of warmth coming from within, as she thought about just how much her life had changed in two short years. About just what a difference one person had made. I can sit here… and just enjoy the sight of this valley.. and for the first time since I was barely old enough to think at all, I’m starting to imagine a.. tomorrow. Even though all my instincts are telling me that’s a bad idea… I can’t help it.. damn.. I want there to be a tomorrow. She smiled to herself, and picked up a small stone near one boot, studying it’s flat surface for a bit, then whipping her arm sideways, and sending the rock skipping neatly across the surface of the water, finally landing with a splash. Guess that’s still one of my many skills. She gingerly indulged in a bit of self teasing. That’s it, Xena..learn to take yourself a little less seriously. A grin appeared, and she was about to pick up another stone, when her ears caught an errant footstep behind her.

She went still, and focused her senses in that direction, now hearing the sound of labored breathing, and hands breaking leaves, feet snapping underbrush that meant whoever it was probably couldn’t sneak up on a dead rabbit, much less her. She waited, and watched with interest as the pale hair on her arms lifted in response to her body’s detection of danger.

Getting closer now, near the edge of the trees, and now the follower stopped, and looked out over where she was sitting.

Heard the unmistakable creak of a crossbow mechanism., and cursed roundly to herself, as she stood and turned in one smooth movement and faced her attacker, putting her hands on her hips and her best scowl on her face.

"Herodotus. What a surprise." She sighed, watching him freeze on seeing her looking at him. "Go ahead. Give it your best shot." She spread her arms wide, and waited. "Or can you only hit little children and shoot people in the back?" Her voice took on a growling contempt.

Herodotus studied her for a very long moment, then lifted the crossbow muzzle, and cradled it in his arms. "Damn you to Tartarus." He said, in a low voice.

"Been there. Done that." Xena answered, lowering her arms and moving forward a few paces. Until she was able to make out his face, in the shadows of the trees. And saw, in a brief, shivering instant, a flash of memory that matched the expression in his eyes. Of a very different Gabrielle, in a reality where she hadn’t stopped those slavers, with a look of resentful loathing that she knew.. was directed both inward and out. "Haven’t you done enough hurting today?"

"What do you know of it, damn you?" He said, coming closer. "You think I enjoyed that? I didn’t. But it was the only thing I could think of that might.. might get her to look at this straight, and do the right thing."

Xena studied him thoughtfully. "What makes you think she didn’t""

"You’re going to get her killed. Is that what you want?" The older man said. "You know it’s true, Xena. She’s already been hurt… why can’t you just leave her alone? What would it take.. you need money, horses, what?"

So. He’s a talker, just like she is. Now I know where she gets it from. "And I’m supposed to believe you’re doing this because you care for her, right? " Now Xena felt her anger building. "Tell me how? Tell me how you care for her when you’ve been beating her since she was a kid? Explain to me why a bright, innocent child had go through that, and then maybe we can talk about what kind of danger she’s in with me. " Her eyes were flashing, and she knew it, days of watching her soulmate suffer were rising to the top of her mind’s eye.

Herodotus stared at her for a long, dark period. "Because she had something I couldn’t have anymore. And I was damned if I was going to watch that." He surprised himself with an honest answer.

Xena gazed at him in dawning understanding. "You’re a storyteller."

Dead green eyes looked back at her. "I’m a farmer." Came the flat answer. "I used to see pictures, yeah. Like she did. Then I figured out if I drank enough, they’d eventually go away." He paused. "And they did."

"That’s what would have happened to her." Xena replied, quietly. "Is that what you really want?"

The man laughed a mirthless laugh. "What I want? I want someone to take care of me, to make sure my head’s not on the floor at the end of the night, and to distract me from beating on my wife. What do you want her for.. does she cook well?"

Xena’s temper snapped, and before he could take another breath, she was on him, and shaking him like a dog, discarding the crossbow with one swipe of her fist. "I’ll teach you what it’s like to be a little kid, you bastard." She lifted him up by the front of his tunic, and held him against the tree. "You like that?" Her voice was silken smooth. "How about this?’ And backhanded him as he had done with Gabrielle. "Or this." picking him up and tossing him a few feet, to collide with a tree stump.

His eyes glazed, and he stayed where he was, back to the stump. "No.. get away." He stammered, raising a hand to guard his face.

"Oh, had enough?" Xena voice seethed. "Funny how the biggest cowards can dish it out, plenty, but can never take it." She crouched over him, and grabbed his jaw, forcing him to look her in the eye. "You listen. Your daughter has more courage in one hand than this entire village does combined, you got me? She’s kind, she’s bright, she’s a great bard, she strong, and she has the right to choose what she’s going to do with her life." Her eyes drilled into Herodotus "Even if that life is hard, and dangerous, and might get her killed." Her voice sank. "But you better understand that I’d gladly die myself to prevent that."

They looked into each other’s eyes for what seemed like a very long time, until Xena finally let her hand loose, and stood, turning her back on him and walking towards Argo. Sensing rather than hearing the stirring behind her. The vibration of air against gut, of air over feathers, the hissing twang of a crossbow bolt in flight.

Turing in mid stride, and letting her body react, as her hands came up to catch the bolts.. and then discard them in disdain. Letting her eyes go cold. Letting the wolf out, as she walked back towards him, braced against the stump. Staring at her.

Watching the tall warrior walk towards him, crossing from sunlight into shadow in a dappled movement that scattered glints of light across her, and reflected off her armor, and stopped only when she crouched down and gave him a feral smile.

"You should thank the gods for your daughter, Herodotus." Her voice wrapped around him. "Because if it wasn’t for her, you’d be in lots and lots of pieces right now." And she picked up the crossbow, glanced at it, glanced at him, then put her hands on either side, and moved, and the weapon snapped in half.

Stood in silence, and returned to the patient golden mare, and this time mounted without incident. One last look at the man. Well, I didn’t really hurt him. Much. Her mind sighed. So much for a relaxing ride "Come on, girl. Let’s go." She touched Argo’s side with a gentle knee, and the mare obligingly headed back through the forest.

"Fancy meeting you here." Lila smiled, as she and Xena crossed paths not too long later, in front of the dressmaker’s shop. "How’s she doing?" In a lower voice, with sympathetic concern in her tone.

Xena shrugged a little. "Had a pretty bad headache when she came back. I gave her something to knock her out.. she’s sleeping it off. " A pause. " She seems all right."

Lila sighed. "Damn him." She pushed a few strands of dark brown hair back out of her eyes. "I’ll come by later to see her, then." She hefted a bundle she was carrying. "Mind taking this back to her? It’s the dress.. came out really nice." Her lips twitched reluctantly. "Better than mine, anyway."

"Sure." Xena replied, taking the package from her, and gently tucking it under her arm. "How’s Lennat doing?" She glanced over to the smithy, where she could see the dim shadows of two tall men bent over the main forge.

Lila gave her a big smile. "He loves it." She shook her head and laughed. "Pounding all day on hot metal, I don’t know.. but he comes home and talks about it like it’s the most wonderful thing on earth." She looked down. "He said he’s going to talk to Gabrielle later.. you know Metrus did the same thing to him that…"

"I know." Xena replied, quietly.

"So.. " Now the hazel eyes briefly flickered up to meet Xena’s. "I guess we have something in common."

"Mmm…" Xena agreed, with a hint of a grin. "Could be. Does Lennat have any regrets?"

A laugh. "Gods, no." Then Lila sobered, and studied her intently. "No more than Gabrielle does."

Xena shrugged. "I don’t know about that."

"I do." Came the sure answer. "Xena, she’s my sister. I’ve known her all my life." Lila gave a quick look around, and lowered her voice. "She never…" A pause and a sigh. "How can I put this.. she never let anyone really get.. all the way into her heart. You know how she is.. doing things for other people, making jokes, telling stories, trying to fix things.. she’s my older sister - she’d always try to comfort me, take care of me.. try to help mother, take some of the strain off her.. now that I look back, she really needed someone to just sit down and do that for her sometimes. But there really wasn’t anyone. So she kept everyone at arms length. " Another pause. "She felt she was responsible for us."

"Well, " Xena commented wryly. "She does have that tendency."

Lila shook her head. "She does. But.. I don’t know what I thought she was thinking when she hared off after you two years ago. I thought she was nuts, frankly."

"So did I." Came the fondly amused response.

"Mmm.. I bet. " Lila chuckled. "I heard about the tree." She went quietly serious again. "But.. this time, now that I’ve had a chance to spend more time around her.. I’ve seen flashes of a part of my sister that I… had never seen before." She glanced down. "You’ve seen a side of her that I never have.. and that’s what made me realize that she’d.. found someone she could.. and wanted to.. and did, let all the way in."

A long silence between them. "And I’m really glad." Lila finally went on. "I’m sorry we started off so ratty."

A hand clasped on her shoulder. "You had reason." Xena’s calmly resigned answer. "She’s your sister, and I’m pretty scary."

Lila chuckled. "Mm.. I wasn’t going to say that." But she looked up at Xena, and saw the smile. "But .. yeah. You are, a little."

A raised eyebrow. Then a second. "A little??" This with a twinkle in her eyes.

"Uh.. ok. A lot." Lila confessed. "In fact, you’re about the most frightening person I think I’ve ever met. Not that I’ve met many, mind you."

"Well, that’s better." Xena replied, with a straight face. "I have a reputation to keep up, you know."

They both looked at each other, then laughed. "I better get back." Xena chuckled, lifting a basket. "This has lunch in it, and you know Gabrielle."

"I’ll walk you partway back." Lila offered, as they started off. "That reminds me, don’t you feed her out there? She’s nothing but skin and bones."

Xena snorted. "Oh please.. your sister eats easily as much and probably more than I do. She just uses it all up.. probably all that talking."

Lila laughed. "Glad to see some things haven’t changed. She was always like that."

Xena climbed the stairs, still chuckling, and gently eased the door open, slipping inside without a sound. She put the basket on the table, laid the package down on the chair, and stood quietly at the bedpost, just gazing at the still soundly sleeping bard. Seeing her from a slightly different perspective, thanks to Lila. I’ve always seen.. how hard it was for me to open up to her. Gods.. I must have driven her completely insane on more than one occasion.. never occurred to me that she was opening up, too. Always seemed so natural to her… but.. Her mind cast back. It wasn’t. She took a risk.. just like I did… She mused, unclipping her body armor, lifting it over her head and setting it down on a chair.

Trying to be a quiet as possible, she gave into her inclination and joined her partner, curling up at her back and sliding an arm around her waist. Felt the hint of tension leave the bard’s body, and the hand that clasped over hers as Gabrielle settled back against her with a soft sigh. And she let the steady rhythm of the bard’s breathing lull her into a twilight state somewhere between waking and sleeping, in a warn, comfortable haze she discovered she liked very much.

Gabrielle kept her eyes closed, and let her other senses cross slowly from sleep to waking. She smelled the clean, herbal scent of the linen, and the warm mustiness of the wooden floors in the room. Heard the creak of floor boards settling, and felt a familiar warm presence at her back. A smile etched itself on her face as her hand recognized the powerful arm that cradled her protectively, and she let herself sink unashamedly into the wonderful feeling of safety that caused in her.

She basked in that for a while, then stretched and rolled over, snuggling up tight under Xena’s chin with a contented murmur, and blinking up at her with a lazy grin. Meeting an amused pair of blue eyes that warmed as their glances touched.

"How are you feeling?" Xena asked, propping her head up on one hand.

"Much, much better." The bard responded, touching her head. "And..relieved." That it was over… That the pressure she’d felt since she’d come here was now just… gone. "And sad." A quiet, honest admission. "So.. have you been snoozing here too, all this time?" She asked, with a teasing grin., unable to keep her hands from drifting over Xena’s leather clad form, running her fingertips over the steadily moving ribcage, and feeling her partner’s breath catch at the light touch.

"No." Came the answer. "I went and exercised Argo, met up with your sister and brought your dress for tomorrow back, got some repair work done on a piece of tack, and got you some lunch." A pause. "Then I came back here, and you looked so peaceful, I decided to join you for a while."

"Lunch?" The bard grinned, zeroing in on the essentials. "I’m starving."

"You must be feeling better." The warrior chuckled.

"I am." Gabrielle answered. "It’s weird.. I should feel really bad.. about what happened, and what he said, and all.. but.." She took and released a deep breath. "it feels so good to have that pressure gone.. I know I’ll feel bad later, but right now, I’m just more relieved than anything else." She paused. "Now.. what was that about lunch?"

"Gods, Gabrielle." Xena answered, shaking her head in mock amazement. She rolled over, and grabbed the endpost of the bed, and pressed herself into a handstand, then flipped up and onto her feet and crossed to the table where a basket was resting. "Here." She turned and walked back over to the bed. "Lunch."

Gabrielle explored the basket, and patted the edge of the bed next to her. "Join me?" She offered, around a mouthful. Then, try as she might to ignore it, her father’s voice echoed back in her mind, and she stopped eating. I shouldn’t care. He did awful things to me, and to mother, and to Lila. Her eyes closed. But I do.

"Sure." Xena sat down, and pulled a piece of bread out of the basket, tearing off a bit and looking at it for a long moment, before putting it in her mouth and chewing slowly. Then glanced up and saw Gabrielle’s face, and moved the basket out of the way. "Hey.." Moving closer, she put a hand on the bard’s shoulder, and took the sandwich out of her suddenly nerveless fingers.

"I shouldn’t feel bad." Gabrielle whispered, staring out of the window. "I knew he was probably going to do that." She took a shaky breath. "I know he did.. mean.. things. To us." She studied her hands. "But it still hurts." Blindly, she reached out and tangled her fingers in Xena’s leathers, pulling herself over and burying her face into the familiar smoky tang of the hide, letting her defenses down, and the tears come at last.

"Must be rotten getting all these water stains out of that leather." She finally rasped, a while later, and felt Xena’s hand stroke her hair in response. "I think after this I’ll owe you a whole new set. Glad you didn’t have armor on.. I’d be forever getting the rust out of that." She looked up and let out a long held breath. "Thanks.. for about the hundredth time since I got here, I think. I’m sorry I keep falling apart on you."

Should I tell her about my little encounter with her father? Xena debated with herself. Does she need to hear it? Probably not. Do I need to tell her? Probably not. But this.. connection.. is making it very hard for me to keep things from her, and that may not be a good thing. She sighed. "I.. when I was out riding Argo, I.. you father followed me.’

Gabrielle’s eyes sharpened, and she lifted her head off Xena’s chest, to study her face. "What happened?"

And she told her, down to the last word, and the last movement, in a cool remote tone. Watched as the bard’s gaze turned inward, and waited for a response long in coming.

"I think I just found out something horrible about myself, Xena." Gabrielle finally whispered, wrapping her arms around her chest.

The warrior put a hesitant hand on her shoulder, and felt the shudder at her touch. Quietly let her hand drop, ignoring the sharp dagger’s thrust at her heart that caused. "What.." And had to stop and clear her throat.

"I wanted you to do that." The bard answered, in a remote voice. "I wanted to watch you take him, and make him feel.. "

"Like you did?" Xena’s voice was gentle. "Like your mother and Lila did? Gabrielle, that’s a natural feeling." Gods.. I knew I shouldn’t have told her.

"Not for me." Came the sad answer. "Breaking the cycle of hatred, remember, Xena? Now I’m just a part of the cycle."

"No." A low rumbling growl, that made Ares cower in the corner, blinking at her. "You are not, Gabrielle, do you hear me?" She swung off the bed and down onto one knee, grasping Gabrielle’s face between her two hands and forcing her to look into her eyes. "Don’t you ever say that. You were hurt… gods, by him, Gabrielle.. you have every right.. every.. need.. to have him feel what you felt." Her voice deepened. "You don’t feel hatred, Gabrielle - it’s not in you.. because I know it far better than you ever will.. and I’d know the barest echo of it.. and I don’t find that anywhere in your heart." She paused, and searched the green eyes fastened on her face. "I know you.. in some ways better than I know myself. I would trust your heart in anything.. with anyone..because you are the most loving, forgiving, most beautiful person I’ve ever known." A longer pause. "Don’t you ever doubt that. "

How many times have you told me it’s my belief in you that keeps you whole, Xena? Her mind rolled the words around, tasting them with bittersweet intensity. And I kind of knew that. But I never thought I’d need your belief in me so badly as I do right now. She unwound her arms from their tight hold, and reached up, clasping her fingers around Xena’s and pulling her hands down in between them. Bringing them up to her lips and closing her eyes as she pressed them there. And abandoned herself up to Xena’s faith, feeling the dark heavy guilt wash gently away under that steady blue stare.

A long silence fell, broken only when Xena glided back up onto the bed, and wrapped her arms around the bard, and then only by the sound of almost inaudible breathing and the settling of the wood panels that surrounded them.

Gabrielle had fallen into a dreamy half sleep when she felt Xena stiffen, and sensed an almost physical charge run through her. "What?" She asked, lifting her head.

Xena touched a finger to her lips, and cocked her head. Far off, a faint, muted rumble.

"Horses." She answered, concentrating. "Moving fast, coming this way." Then she heard the grunting yells, and stood, moving for her armor. " Fighters.. probably a roving band.." And the first outlying screams. "Trouble."

With two quick jerks, she had her armor fastened, and a third added her scabbard to its clips. "Nice timing." She sighed, as she headed for the window. "Meet you downstairs." No question of Gabrielle staying behind.. hadn’t been for quite a while now.

"Right." The bard affirmed, grabbing her staff, and watching her partner vault out of the window, and leap for the porch top, then flip off that and head groundward. "I couldn’t invent someone more amazing than she is." She muttered to Ares, as she pulled the door open, and went headlong down the stairs.

Xena reached the ground just as the first horsemen were charging into the village, swinging burning torches and heading towards the villagers with spears and iron clad pikes. They were a typical lot, the warrior thought as she headed towards the first of them at a dead run, sword drawn.

The first of the raiders swung his pike down, just barely missing a running woman. Looked up just as a hurtling leather clad body took him right off his mount, and tumbled them both to the ground. He started to get up, swinging the pike still in one hand, but Xena blocked the shot, and nailed him in the face with a short, vicious uppercut. He dropped without a sound, and she vaulted aboard his snorting mount and kneed the animal towards the now oncoming raiders.

There were about a dozen and a half of them, and three fell to her sword before the rest realized that this little village contained something far more than they had expected. With a wild yell, Xena drove into them, alternating brutal stabs with her sword and bone crunching blows that went through their half armor as though it was cloth.

A hut was on fire. Cursing, Xena reined in her mount, and looked around, spotting Gabrielle already heading towards the building. "I’ve got this!" The bard called, waving her off, and swinging her staff sharply around to take out a dismounted raider, catching him cleanly in the head and dropping him without a sound.

"Nice..’ Xena muttered to herself, then slid off the horse’s back, and started engaging the raiders on foot. The tallest of them got a hand on her, and smashed his forearm into her head. She rolled with the blow, and came right back up on her feet, stepping forward and catching him in the face with a solid elbow. He gave her a brief look of shock before sliding down her body and into the churned dirt of the courtyard.

Hoofbeats approaching, and now she was looking up to see a mounted spearman riding at her, his eyes slits behind his stiffened leather visor. Xena grinned, and waited until the point was within a hair of her face, then ducked aside and grabbed the spear, planting both boots firmly in the dirt and holding on.

Pulling the rider off, and using the end of the spear in a brutal thrust to his face that killed him instantly.

Heavier hoofbeats now, and when she looked up this time, her blood ran cold. A rider headed not for her, but for a lone figure standing in the path towards a familiar homestead.

The animal was huge, easily half again Argo’s size, and the rider.. Xena’s mind chilled. Taller than a man, with a bulls’ head and neck. "Minotaur." She breathed, and felt her heart start to hammer. And Herodotus directly in his path.

Time slowed, as it always did for her in times like this. And she had a single, still instant to understand that she could do nothing, and let this man, who had hurt his family, hurt her Gabrielle so badly get his justice. At the hands of an enemy she knew she had little chance of defeating.

"Damn." And she was moving, throwing her body into long, powerful strides that covered the ground with increasing speed, as she sheathed her sword, and pounded towards the running horse, and the minotaur, and Herodotus.

The minotaur raised his club for the killing blow, letting out a snorting roar that shook the ground with its fury. His arm swept down, but the club was suddenly blocked by a lunging airborne form, who twisted in mid air and took the heavy blow on brass armored plating.

Ouch. Xena winced, as the club crashed into her armor, but that didn’t keep her from getting her hands on his leather harness, using her forward momentum to just keep going over the other side of the horse and hoping her weight would be enough to take him with her.

And it was, just barely, taking them both down, and sending them crashing into the trunk of the tree Herodotus was backed against. Xena felt her very brains rattle at the impact, but she ignored the unpleasant sensation, and bounced off the trunk and onto her feet, facing the minotaur. Oh.. boy. I’m in trouble. "Get out of here." A growled aside at Herodotus. "Move!" He did, but not far, just out of range of her sword, and the snorting, drooling minotaur.

"You will die." The half man, half beast grated, lunging at her.

"Been there, done that." Xena responded, taking his blow on her bracer, and giving one back, which rocked the beast, and startled him. What was that Gabrielle was telling me? I convince myself I can do things? All right…let’s see if I can convince myself I can defeat.. this.

The minotaur drew his sword and came at her, and she answered, trading blows that caused sparks to fly from their blades, and sent an ethereal hissing down the path as the weapons slid across each other.

He came at her again, shoving his blade hard against hers, using his greater size to try and pin her to the tree, but Xena slid sideways, and deflected the force of the blow, and slammed her hilts into his side, getting a pained grunt and a return blow that left her head ringing like a bell.

He knew he’d stunned her, and he let out a triumphant snort as his hands closed around her throat, and she was unable to stop him.

And the world began to dim under the pressure of his gnarled hands, as she felt a soft buzzing sound fill her ears. It was quiet now, saving the buzzing, and getting dark, and her body was too tired to respond to her instinctive commands to struggle.

I can’t… Her mind drifted in a gray haze. Can’t leave… I have something… I gotta do. Someone.. I gotta see. And a stark, vivid lance of terror pierced the darkness, and banished the buzzing, as she took control of her body again, and reached up, hooking her hands around his pelted arms. This’ll either save me or kill me. Her mind sang calmly.

And she flexed her body up, bringing her booted feet against his chest, and pushing off with all the power her legs could muster. It should have broken her neck, but it broke his grip instead, and sent him crashing back against the tree. And threw her into a backflip which her body somehow managed to control, landing her in the dust, her lungs taking huge gulps of air.

Saw him coming at her, arms outspread, too enraged to remember who she was, or what she was carrying. She dropped into a crouch, then drove upwards as he leaped, her sword piercing his armor, and driving thorough his massive chest as her upward motion stopped his downward, and tossed him over backwards with Xena’s weapon buried to it’s sturdy hilts in him.

They both crashed to the earth, and Xena rolled off him, and up onto one knee, leaning on the other, waiting for her body to stop shaking, and the world to stop spinning.

Heard running footsteps whose sound was familiar, and whose close presence woke no warning bells in her battered defenses. Found the strength, somewhere, to push herself to her feet, just in time to stop Gabrielle’s headlong rush at her, and wrap still shaking arms around the bard. "Shh.. it’s ok."

"Gods.. I thought.. he almost…" The bard gasped out, running her hands over Xena’s bruised neck. "Oh.. Xena."

"It’s OK, Gabrielle. I’m all right. You … go check your mother…I’ll be fine. I just need to catch my breath." The warrior assured her, giving her a squeeze to emphasize the fact. "Go on.."

Green eyes boring into hers for a very long moment. "I’ll be right back." The bard promised. "Then I’m going to go and take care of you, because you don’t look ‘all right’. OK?"

Xena gave her a tired grin. "It’s a deal."

And she strode off down the path, giving her father only the barest of glances in passing.

Xena watched his face, watching her, then met his eyes as he turned to face her. And caught, for the barest second, a glimpse of a wide eyed boy whose spirit rang a familiar chord

Then it was gone, and his eyes were hooded again.

"Which one of us were you rooting for?" Came Xena’s quiet question, as she felt her energy level coming back, and her strength returning. She crossed to the huddled form of the minotaur and put a booted foot on his chest, gripping her sword with both hands and giving a long steady pull that freed the weapon from his chest.

Herodotus looked at her for a long moment. "I don’t know." He paused. "Why didn’t you just let it kill me? No loss to you."

Xena looked up from cleaning her blade on the minotaur’s cloth trews, and studied him. "I have a lot of blood on my hands. I won’t have yours." She sheathed the sword, and stepped towards him. "Sorry to disappoint you."

"Wouldn’t have been your hands, now would it? " The quiet question.

"Oh yes it would have." The warrior replied. "I knew I could stop him from killing you." She paused, then shook her head. "I just didn’t know if I could stop him from killing me."

"You make no sense." Herodotus replied. "What possible reason could you have to risk your life for me? "

Xena stepped up next to him, forcing him to look up at her, and remained silent for a time. Then she sighed. "Because she loves you."

Herodotus stared at her. "Just that simple?"

"Just that simple." Came the reply. She turned in a circle, and surveyed the village, which was returning to some semblance of order. Common, raiding parties, in this part of the world. She sighed again, and started back towards the inn.

"Xena." Herodotus’ voice followed her.

"Yeah?" She turned and looked at him.

"I was rooting for you." And for the barest instant, the wide eyed boy was back. Then he was gone, and an aging man broken for too many years was heading back up the path towards his home.

Xena slowly shook her head, and chuckled under her breath, then turned and headed back again to the inn, passing through clumps of villagers who watched her with intent eyes. Well.. at least it’s not open hostility.. she mused. That’s an improvement. She slowed as one of the younger girls approached her, and offered up a waterskin. "Thanks." She took the skin, and gave the girl a smile in return.

Shyly, the blond youngster smiled back, and ducked her head as she walked back to where her mother, presumably, was waiting. Gods.. was I ever that young? Xena sighed, as she uncapped the waterskin and took a long pull. And continued walking, taking a detour into the barn for a short visit to assure herself of Argo’s safety. "You missed a good show, girl." She informed the mare, who placidly chewed hay at her. "You’d have hated the minotaur." She leaned her arms on the mare’s high back, and let her head rest on the golden shoulder "That was closer than I really like to see it, Argo." She mumbled into the horse’s coat. "For a minute there…" She took a breath, and straightened up, dismissing the thought. It didn’t happen. That was all.

She turned around, and leaned back against the mare, and took another long swig of water, wincing at the metallic tang of blood, and realized that last blow from the minotaur had made her bite the inside of her cheek. Oh..that’s gonna be sore. She sighed, rocking her head back and forth to loosen her neck muscles, and hearing the popping of abused vertebra. Still, a smugly satisfied voice inside her noted, not bad at all considering that she’d taken out most of the raiding force, and killed a minotaur in single combat. Her lips quirked into a grin. Guess I’m not quite ready for retirement just yet.

The door opened, and she glanced up as Gabrielle entered, shutting the door behind her, and crossing the straw strewn floor with purposeful footsteps. "Hi." She said, once she was at Argo’s side.

"Hi yourself." Xena replied, offering her the waterskin.

"Thanks." She took it and drank. Then studied Xena’s face intently. "That was pretty scary." She moved closer and lifted a hand to the angry purpling marks on the warrior’s throat. "I wasn’t.. I was really, really frightened there for a minute.."

Xena folded long arms around her. "Me too." She admitted, closing her eyes and burying her face in Gabrielle’s pale hair for a long moment. I couldn’t leave this.. not now. Not yet. "So I guess I can scratch off minotaur on my list of challenges, right?"

Felt the bard chuckle. "Yeah, I guess." She pulled her head back and looked up at her partner. "Do you really have a list?"

Xena grinned. "Sure, doesn’t everyone?" She squeezed the bard. "Oh.. and by the way, do me a favor and tell Hercules a little story of me and the minotaur next time we bump into them, OK?"

Gabrielle pulled free, and gave her a perplexed look. "Waitaminute. Did you get hit in the head? I thought you did… you’re asking me to tell someone a story about you?"

"Uh huh." Xena confirmed, sliding an arm around Gabrielle’s shoulders, and steering her towards the door. "We have a 50 dinar bet going that I can’t beat a minotaur in face to face combat."

The bard laughed. "50 dinars? Are you guys nuts? What else do you…oh.. wait. Scratch that question. Can he beat a minotaur?"

"I’m sure…" Xena responded. "He’s a demigod, remember?"

"Mmm." Gabrielle thought about that for a minute. "Do you guys ever bet against each other?" She asked, curiously. "I mean, you against him?"

"Gabrielle.. he’s the son of Zeus." The warrior laughed. "And the last time I checked.." She felt the side of her jaw and winced. "I’m mortal. Not much of a contest."

They walked across the now empty courtyard, where the bodies had been removed already, which was painted in the crimson shafts of the setting sun. They were almost to the door of the inn when Gabrielle spoke up. "I’d bet on you."

"What?" Xena asked, almost missing the door handle as she turned to look at her partner.

"I said, if it were you against him, I'd bet on you." The bard repeated calmly. "Now, you going to let me take a look at those bruises? " She raised her brows at Xena, who was standing there holding the door open with a faint scowl.

I’m fine, Gabrielle, it’s really.." Seeing the look in those green eyes "Ok.. ok.. yeah, I will." And kept a grin off her face with a good deal of effort. "After you, your majesty."


On second thought… Xena mused, not long after. This isn’t such a bad idea after all. She was stretched out on the bed, with Gabrielle perched cross legged next to her, and the bard was conscientiously applying some of the healing oil to the damage done by both the raiders and the minotaur.

"Gods.. that one must hurt." The bard winced, touching the spot where she’d taken the blow meant for Herodotus. She smoothed the oil on with gentle fingers, then glanced up and met the gently amused blue eyes studying her. Felt a smile crossing her face at the sight, which was mirrored immediately. "You know.. when I saw that thing heading for him… I realized you were right, Xena. I don’t hate him."

"I knew that." Came the quiet response.

"Yeah.. you did… I started running towards him.. though the gods only know what I thought I was going to do once I got there." She gave Xena a wry look. "Then you passed me like I was standing still… and I wasn’t sure if I more scared to death for you, or relieved for him. Weird." She paused, then let her face slide into a grin again, and patted Xena’s thigh. "You sure can move when you want to."

"I do all right." Xena answered, in a deprecating tone. "And if it’s any consolation, I really didn’t have a good plan as to what I was going to do once I got there, either."

Gabrielle stared at her, and giggled. "Really?"

Xena laid an idle hand on her knee. "Really.. I don’t have a contingency plan for minotaurs."

"Wish I could have done something to help." The bard sighed, contemplating her hands. "Instead of just stand there being scared to death."

The hand resting on her knee clamped down, and she looked up, startled, into Xena’s now serious eyes. "What? Oh.. you know what I mean, Xena.. I was just…"

"You said something to your mother this morning." The warrior’s voice was very quiet.

I said a lot of th…oh. "Yes I did." Knowing almost surely what she was talking about. "And it’s true." True that I couldn’t live without you.. without this.. anymore.. I forgot she heard that. She smiled inwardly. But I’m glad she did, even if it was probably a little embarrassing for her.. I mean, first this lifebond thing, then…

Xena nodded slowly. "I think you know that goes both ways. Right?"

Gabrielle felt a flush rising. "I.. uhm… " Breathe, Gabrielle, breathe… "No, I didn’t." She finished, in an almost inaudible whisper.

"I wanted.. to make sure you knew that." Xena took a deep breath. "Because.. when that minotaur was choking me to death this afternoon… the only thing that kept me going… " she paused, and reached out, to clasp the bard’s stilled fingers. " was knowing there was a reason not to die." She waited for the green eyes to raise to her own, and they did. "I felt your being scared.. and it gave me the will to break that hold, Gabrielle. So.. don’t you sit here and tell me you didn’t do anything." A short pause. "You did."

Gabrielle took several breaths to say something, but eventually just lifted their linked hands, and pressed her cheek against Xena’s knuckles, closing her eyes and smiling. And trusting that the bond that joined them would speak for her. For a bard, I have this really bad tendency to let her render me speechless. How.. embarrassing. But I think she gets the message.

And speak for her it did, as she felt herself being pulled down, and let herself collapse into Xena’s arms, falling into the pool of crimson light that cascaded over both of them.

"Hey." Gabrielle murmured, quite a while later. "I saw you get hit.. how’s your head? You didn’t get a concussion, did you?"

"Mmm." Xena reluctantly opened her eyes, and considered the question. "No.. don’t think so. Usually there’s a.. kind of foggy feeling right after, when I do. Didn’t get that this time." She reached lazily up and tapped the side of her head. "Pretty hard."

The bard tilted her head to gaze up at Xena. "Does it happen that often? You know it’s not really a good thing." Her brow creased in worry. Why didn’t I think of that before? Gods, Gabrielle, just how blind are you?

"Couple of times." Xena shrugged. "I try to avoid it, love. I’m not looking to have my head scrambled up." And smiled quietly when she realized just how naturally that affectionate term had slipped out. Even with Marcus, she’d had to consciously use words like that. Not with Gabrielle. They just.. happened. No comment from Gabrielle, she noticed, but she couldn’t hide that little sparkle in her eye, either.

"No, I suppose not." Gabrielle answered, more cheerfully. She glanced out the windows. "Nice sunset." She narrowed her eyes and gazed into the crimson light, feeling the warmth on her face. "I miss watching them out there."

"Do you?" Xena’s voice was curious. "Thought you’d rather have a roof over your head." Unlike me, for instance.

The bard shook her head, and rolled over, so she was looking up at the charcoal stained ceiling. "No.. I miss looking at the stars with you." She answered dreamily. "Or chasing clouds.. or watching the sunset. Listening to the animal noises changing from daytime to night time. Hearing the waterfalls you’re so good at finding for us to camp near." She paused. "I’m glad we’re leaving tomorrow."

Xena considered this. "Me too." She chuckled. "And we’ve got plenty of ground to cover before we’re anywhere near Cirron."

"Mmm." Gabrielle agreed. "It’ll be nice to see Jess again."

"Oh yeah." The warrior sighed. "I’m in for it from him."

The bard cocked her head. "Why? Oh..because.." Her eyes flicked between them.

"Yeah." A chagrined look from Xena.

Gabrielle giggled. "Is that what all those snarky comments were about?"

A sigh was her answer.

"Don’t worry." She patted Xena on the shoulder. "I’ll protect you. I’ll tell him to leave you alone or I’ll make up a story about him and tell all his friends."

That got a big, dazzling grin back. "C’mere."

"Huh? What…oh." Gabrielle closed her eyes and just enjoyed the kiss, letting the warmth of it travel through her like mulled wine on a cold night. "Have I ever mentioned to you how good you are at that?" she mumbled, as they took a pause to breathe.

"Uh huh." Came the drawled answer. "But it never hurts to practice."

"Nope.." The bard replied. "Besides.." She slid a hand down Xena’s ribcage, and felt the muscles ripple under her fingertips. "Can’t be too careful with your being hit in the head. Better not sleep for awhile."

"Oh.. that’s a good one." Xena chuckled. "I like that." She pulled Gabrielle into a more comfortable position and trailed one hand down the front of her body, grinning at the catch in her breathing. "I’ll have to get hit in the head more often." Then stopped talking and just reacted.

"Xena?" Gabrielle raised her head up from her comfortable position sprawled across Xena's chest to peer dazedly up at the half asleep warrior. Much later.

"Hmm?" Xena opened one blue eye and regarded her with benign affection.

"Is it ok that.. I mean, is this comfortable for you? Just letting me.. sort of use you as a big pillow?" She blushed. About time you asked that, don’t you think? "I mean.. honestly?" Like, can you breathe with all this resting on your ribcage, for instance?

Xena’s brows creased, and she laughed silently, a rumbling Gabrielle could feel. "Of course it is, Gabrielle. You belong here." She ruffled the bard’s hair, and rubbed her back gently. "I.. like it."

Offhand words.. Gabrielle thought, as they glided down her soul, and grabbed her heart with a sharp spasm. I belong here. A shout of joy ignited in her, and raced through her body, emerging in a giddy smile and a huge intake of breath. "I'm glad." She sighed, putting her head back down and relaxing.

Huh..I said something right. Xena glanced at the bard quizzically, feeling the reaction in her body and through the bond that connected them. Then she remembered.. a flash of a scene two years gone and more. "I don’t belong here." The young, fair haired village girl had said. And Xena had felt the truth of that, even then.. But you never expected this, did you. Her mind chuckled. They’d both been searching for something… And to think we found it in each other. What were the odds of that happening?

They lay quietly for a time, each immersed in thought. From the window came the faint sounds of activity in the courtyard, and the incoming breeze carried the scent of woodsmoke. "Must be getting ready for the wedding tomorrow. " Xena commented, to which the bard nodded.

"Yeah.." Gabrielle yawned, and raised her head, resting her chin on Xena’s shoulder. "I don’t think my father’s going to say anything if you’re there, now." Her lips curled into a grin. "You could be nice and not show up in armor, though"

Xena raised an eyebrow at her. "We’ll see." She commented. "You haven’t eaten all day. Hungry?"

"A little." Gabrielle gazed dreamily at her. "But not enough to move or do anything about it." Her eyes tracked to Xena’s throat, scant inches from her. "Fading already." She shook her head and lifted a hand to gently trace the marks on her neck. "Incredible."

Xena’s head suddenly cocked to one side, in a listening attitude. Hoofbeats, again, but this time slower, more decorous.

"What?" Gabrielle asked softly, feeling the change in her, seeing her eyes go distant as she focused her other senses.

"Horses, two of them." Xena answered, a faint grin starting on her face, as the hoofbeats stopped in the courtyard, and the low murmur of voices wafted on the breeze into them. "Better get dressed."

"Who is it?" The bard whispered, darting a glance towards the window, then studying her face. Must not be too bad, she’s smiling.

"Mother and…" She concentrated, then gave a little snort of laughter. "Toris."

Gabrielle grinned happily. "Awesome!" She paused. "Sokay if I tell them about the minotaur?"

Xena shrugged. "No point in not – they’ll hear it from everyone anyway." She rolled over, and stood up, carrying Gabrielle with her, setting the bard neatly on her feet. "There you go."

‘Thanks." The bard patted her lightly on the side. "Here." Handing her a tunic from the pack near the bed, and taking one for herself. "Watch out, Ares." She stepped around the now wide awake puppy, and slid into the garment, fastening it, and grabbing a piece of fruit out of the basket on the table. "Any chance we can get your mom to give them some cooking tips?" She joked, taking a big bite of the apple in her hand, and turning to face Xena.

And found the bite of apple being taken out of her mouth by gently precise white teeth, and a kiss being left in its place. "Oo." She gurgled, hastily chewing the bit that remained and swallowing it. "Can we do that again?"

"Later." Xena laughed, with a wink, as she held the door open. "Let’s go say hello first."

They got to the bottom of the stairs just as Cyrene and Toris were speaking in low tones to the innkeeper. Who looked up at their footsteps on the stairs, then blinked, darting his eyes from Xena to the two newcomers and back.

"Well, well.. fancy meeting you here." Toris grinned, and dodged around the innkeeper to grab his sister in a bear hug, which was returned with some enthusiasm. They broke apart, and he gazed at Gabrielle for a minute.

The bard read his hesitation, and gave him a welcoming smile. "Hello, Toris." And moved towards him for a hug. He grinned in response and complied, far more gently than with his greeting to Xena.

"Mother." Xena said, as Cyrene gave her a brisk embrace. "Thanks for coming out here."

Cyrene raised an eyebrow at her. "When Johan told me…" She shook her head, and glanced down. "Let’s talk later." She turned a beaming smile on Gabrielle, and wrapped her arms around the bard, then held her at arms length for a long moment.

"Hi mom." Gabrielle said, with an impish smile. "Didn’t expect to see you again so soon."

Xena watched this for a minute, then turned to the innkeeper, who was staring at them all. "Problem?" Her eyebrow raised at him.

"Uhm… friends of yours, warrior?" The man hesitantly inquired.

"Family." Xena responded, tasting the word in her mouth, rolling it around and liking the feeling.

"I’ll give them the best room available." The innkeeper promised, giving her a nervous smile.

"Are you all right, daughter?" Cyrene asked Gabrielle in a low voice, searching her eyes anxiously.

The bard let out a breath, and gave her a nod. "I am.. now." Her eyes drifted unconsciously to Xena’s tall form, then back. "I was in good hands."

Cyrene patted her cheek. "That, I was sure of." She turned to Xena. "Shall we sit down and have a talk?" She gestured to the tables, by this late hour only half filled.

"Sure." Xena said, putting a hand on Toris’ back and steering him forward. "Long as we don’t eat anything here." Said in a bare undertone for Cyrene’s ears only.

Her mother stopped, and regarded her thoughtfully. "I'll join you in a minute." And strode purposely off towards the inn kitchen.

Xena smiled, and winked at Toris. Who winked back, with sibling understanding. They sat down at an empty table, sipping at the cups of ale brought to them by the innkeeper.

"So.." Toris said, leaning back and propping a booted foot against the table support. "What’s been going on?"

They heard a crash from the kitchen. "Cyrene, Warrior Innkeeper" Xena muttered, and launched herself up from her chair, and towards the door, vaulting two tables that stood in her way.

Toris and Gabrielle looked at each other for a long, shocked moment, then burst out laughing.

"Oh gods…" Gabrielle sighed. "I needed that." She took a long sip of the ale in front of her. Then glanced up to see Toris' concerned eyes on her. It's soo weird.. her mind mused. Seeing her eyes in his face.

Toris leaned forward, and hesitated, then spoke."Listen.. I can't tell you how bad I felt when Johan told us." He looked around, then back at her. "You're like a second sister to me, Gabrielle.. "

Green eyes studied him gently. "You don't know what it means to me.. having you both come out here." Watching the faint flush come over his face. "Thank you, Toris. It was awfully nice." She paused, and now it was her eyes that dropped. "Just knowing I had.. " Her voice stopped, and she felt the warmth of his hand as he covered hers, resting on the table. "And if your sister hadn't been here.. I don't know.. what I would have done."

Toris smiled. "You're family, you know that." He reassured her. "And.. I didn't get a chance to tell you .. before you left.. but I’m really glad you are." His eyes gently sparkled. "I'm glad for both of you." He looked up as the door opened, and returned the curious gaze of the tall, blond haired man that stood there.

Gabrielle turned to see who he was looking at, and grinned. "Hello, Lennat."

Lennat walked over, still gazing at the dark haired, blue eyed man sitting with her. "Hi. Uhm…"

"Oh.. sorry." The bard realized. "Uhm.. Lennat, this is Toris. He's Xena's brother. Toris, this is my sister's betrothed, Lennat."

The two men looked at each other, then Toris smiled easily, and held out a forearm. "Great to meet a new member of my extended family." He drawled.

Lennat took the proffered arm. "Uhm… " His thoughts were evident on his face.. that he'd never considered such a thing. "I guess you're right…" With a note of pleased surprise. "Nice to meet you too."

He took a seat next to Gabrielle, and sat quietly for a few minutes, obviously digesting this newest change in his life. "I was just getting ragged on by most of my buddies." He said finally, as though to excuse his presence at this hour in this place.

They all glanced up as the door opened yet again, and yawning Lila poked her head in the room. "Oh good." She said, on spotting her sister's familiar form. She came fully into the inn, hugging her shawl around her for warmth. "Mother.." Then she glanced up, and realized there was a stranger at the table. "Oh.. sorry.." Her brow creased as her eyes got used to the light, and her mind tried to place the strange familiarity of the dark haired man next to her sister.

"Stop trying to figure out where you know me from." Toris sighed, rolling his eyes. "My name is Toris, you've never met me, but you do know my sister."

"Your sister?" Lila asked, cocking her head at him.

Toris raised one expressive eyebrow at her.

"Oh1" Lila burst into laughter. "I never knew…"

"No one ever does." Gabrielle and Toris said in perfect concert.

The door to the kitchen chose that moment to swing open, and Xena steered a smirking Cyrene towards them, pausing a step when she saw the new arrivals. Well.. this has turned into quite a little party.. her mind chuckled. "Hello Lennat, Lila." She nodded at them. "Say hello to my mother, Cyrene." She glanced across the table. "I see you've met Toris." She sat down next to him, and leaned back, putting an arm across the back of his chair. "He's my brother."

"We would have never guessed." Lennat and Lila managed to speak at the same time, then looked at each other, and laughed.

"Any luck?" Gabrielle asked Cyrene, who snorted.

"I'd say.." Xena commented, taking a long swallow of ale. "The prospects of no one being poisoned at your sister's wedding tomorrow have significantly increased."

"So.. what was the crash?" The bard persisted, reaching under the table and giving her partner a tickle behind the knee. Which got her a sharply raised eyebrow, and feral grin. She bit her lip to keep from laughing.

Cyrene sighed. "I was simply trying.."

"Mother objected to the storage techniques they use here." Xena muttered, giving Toris a look.

He grimaced. "Oh."

"Scary." She replied. "Very."

Lila and Lennat sat down, and they all listened as Gabrielle related the tale of that afternoon's raiding attack. Xena let her shoulders relax as she listened to the tale, and watched the rest of them watch Gabrielle. Saw the wince from her family on the bard's graphic description of the Minotaur fight, and gave a shrugged response.

Lila and Lennat stood when she was finished, and bid them all a warm good night. "Mother actually sent me over here to make sure everything was ok." Lila murmured to Gabrielle as they hugged.

Gabrielle gave her a strange look. "I saw her after it was all over… so…"

Lila smiled, and gave her hand a squeeze. "She was concerned about Xena." In a conspiratorial whisper.

"Oh." The bard smiled. "She's ok." But her heart warmed at the thought. Even that's coming together.. she mused. 'Thanks for asking."

Lennat was quiet during the short walk home, but he finally sighed, as they walked down the moonlit path "So.. what did you think?" He finally asked her, pulling her to a stop and sitting down on a nearby rock. Patted the rock next to him, and she seated herself, pressing next to him for warmth.

"What do I think about what?" Lila asked, though she had a pretty good idea of what.

"Them." Lennat replied.

"Them as in Xena's family, or them as in my sister and her, or…" Lila teased, gently. "Come on, Lennat, what are you asking here?"

"Toris said we were part of his extended family now." Lennat avoided the question. "He considers.. I guess.. I don't.."

Lila thought about that. "He considers Gabrielle to be a sister to him." She mused. "So.. I guess that makes me one, too.. and you're.. well, going to be my husband, so.." She looked up at him. "Does that bother you?" Tell me the truth, Lennat. You know you can."

"It's just that… " Lennat sighed. "It seems like he takes it so.. like it's natural." His eyes uneasily searched hers. "And it's not natural, to me. You and I.. that's natural."

Lila studied him quietly. "Do you think they love each other any less than you and I do?" she asked softly.

The blond man stared off into the dark woods for a long moment. Finally, he dropped his gaze to his hands, then back up to her. "No." His lips quirked. " No I don't."

"Then??" Lila asked. "Look.. it took me a while to get my mind wrapped around the whole thing.. but once I did, Lennat.. once I did.. Gods.. who are we to say what's right or wrong? That can't be wrong.. love can't be wrong, Lennat.. not that kind.. it's what you and I are feeling right now. How could you deny that feeling to anyone?"

Lennat gazed at her. "I can't." He let out a long breath. "I can't, and I won't. and… now that I've had a chance to get used to the idea, it's going to become natural for me, too." His eyes smiled. "And they'll be family to us, to you, and to me, and to our children." His eyebrows quirked. "And, besides…" Now a grin started to appear. "In the world we live in, I can think of a lot worse people to be related to."

Lila laid a loving hand on his cheek. "Thank you, my love." She looked up. "Now, we'd better get home and get some rest.. I have a feeling tomorrow is going to be.. a long one."

Lennat chuckled. "I think you're right." He stood and held out an arm. "My lady?" From the prince and princess games they used to play as small children. Lila smiled, and laid her hand on his arm. "My lord.." She replied, and they walked on into the moonlight strewn path.

No sleeping in late today, Xena mused, idly watching the sky outside turn a faint shade of coral. Already, she could hear the sounds of activity outside the inn - the first muted clanking of stock being harnessed, the faint pinging of the blacksmith's light hammer ringing out, a goat's far off protest.. carried on a crisply cold breeze that also brought her the tang of burning charcoal and the rich scent of a roasting pit in full swing.

We should get up.. plenty to do out there. She glanced down as Gabrielle stirred, flexing her hands, and nestling closer, then relaxing again with a contented sigh. A grin quirked across Xena's face as she regarded her sleeping partner. Well.. maybe a few more minutes.. She really didn't have the heart to wake her up.. not when she looked so peaceful. Not when their closeness so obviously caused that little delighted smile on her face, that touched Xena's heart and melted her resolve like river ice on a spring morning. She has me wrapped around her little finger like some lovesick kid... I should be upset at that. She laughed at herself. Except that I'm enjoying it as much as she is.

Nice, that Gabrielle seemed to leave her nightmares behind when they slept like this, and had for a while. And mine.. Xena's eyes grew grim. Less frequent than the bard's, but darker and more violent. They both slept through the night now.. and that made for a more comfortable daytime relationship too. She gets irritable when she's not sleeping. And I get short tempered. Not a good combination. This.. has been good for both of us. Her eyes began to drift closed against her will, and she sighed, and forced them back open. No no.. Come on now, we really do have things to do today.

Shouldn't have stayed up so late last night with mother and Toris.. that was pretty dumb. Her lips quirked. Cyrene had been kind and supportive while Gabrielle had remained downstairs with them, but once the bard had regretfully said good night, and gone upstairs, her mother had spent quite some time venting her outrage. At Gabrielle's parents. At Potadeia. At Xena herself, once she'd figured out that her daughter had risked her life for 'that man'.

Then had chased her upstairs, citing the battle and telling her to get some rest. Xena had just shook her head, and exchanged knowing glances with her brother, and took the suggestion, snuggling down with cheerful pleasure next to her partner in the darkened room.

Her eyes began to close again, and she let them for a few minutes, then prodded herself awake again. This isn't working.. she admitted to herself.

Gabrielle stirred again, and this time her eyes drifted lazily open, and she grinned up at Xena. "Morning." She stretched in sensual pleasure, and tightened her grip on the warrior, squeezing her in an enthusiastic hug.

"Good morning to you." Xena chuckled. "What was that for?"

"Cause I can." Came the impish answer, along with another squeeze. She glanced over at the window, then back up at Xena's indulgent eyes. "Rats. It's light out." A mock aggrieved sigh "Guess we gotta go help out, huh?" Letting her fingers run lightly along Xena's side, and smirking at the raised eyebrow she got in response.

Xena nodded, and ran her fingers through Gabrielle's hair. "Uh huh" Gently tracing the outside edge of the bard's ear, and seeing the pulse point in her neck jump.

The bard briefly toyed with the idea of coaxing some additional time out of Xena, knowing she could.. but acknowledging her mother probably could use the help. And the support. She giggled suddenly. "Oh gods..."

"What?" Xena asked, peering at her.

"My mother is going to go crazy when she meets yours." She rolled over, still laughing. "That's going to be worth seeing. Did you catch Lila watching her out of the corner of her eye? Cyrene, Warrior Innkeeper. Gods, Xena..that almost made me hurt myself laughing."

Xena rolled up onto one elbow and grinned. "Well she is. She terrorized that poor cook."

The bard gazed up at her and smirked. "I guess you come by that honestly, then, huh"

The warrior glowered at her, then laughed. "Yeah..maybe I do." She admitted sheepishly.

Gabrielle gazed fondly at the familiar lines of her face, and traced the darts of sunlight down her neck and across the wide expanse of her shoulders. And sighed. "Gotta go help, huh?" Wistfully. Then finding her attention suddenly distracted by the intensity of the blue eyes across from her, that caused a subtle warmth to start spreading out from her gut. Uhhh.. maybe we could postpone that for a little while..

"Guess so." Xena answered, but she couldn't seem to tear her eyes away from Gabrielle's and she found her hand moving of it's own accord to reach out and stroke her face. Felt the sensual jolt as the bard caught her hand in her own, kissing her palm, and making her pulse race. Guess chores are going to wait a few minutes.. her mind chuckled, as she leaned forward and felt Gabrielle's hands slide under the cloth of her shirt and begin teasing explorations, while their lips found each other and the world faded out for a while.


"Y'know, I could get used to this dawn thing." Gabrielle drawled, a bit later, nibbling her way up Xena's exposed belly, ending up tucked under her chin and settling comfortably into her surrounding arms. "I should try waking up like this more often." And felt Xena take a long breath, and let it out slowly, warming the back of her head, and sending a trickle of air down her neck. Gabrielle grinned.. it felt good. So did the low chuckle that followed it that laid tiny vibrations all up and down her spine. Actually, that felt more than good. Her eyes closed in contentment.

"I'll have to remember that." Xena commented, giving the now openly daylit window a sheepish look. "We'd really better go help out, or we'll never hear the end of it."

"Mmm." Gabrielle sighed "I suppose I can't just say to Hades with the wedding, right?"

"Gabrielle..." A warning tone, but there was laughter in it.

"You gotta help me put that dress on. There are several dozen little things to tie. Its worse than your armor." The bard added, in a aggrieved tone, as Xena gave her a hug, then released her, rolling out of bed and standing up. "All right. .all right.." She hopped down off the bed and crossed to where Xena was rummaging in their packs, and ran her hands over the warrior's bare back. "Anyone ever tell you that you have a really nice back?"

Xena turned around and put her hands on her hips. "Only you, but on several occasions." She answered with a wry chuckle. "Get dressed, Gabrielle." She paused, and let her eyes sweep the unrepentantly grinning bard's form. "Or I won't be responsible for explaining why you missed your sister's wedding."

Gabrielle closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. "You'd better get dressed first, or I won't care if I miss my sister's wedding." Gods.. what's gotten into me today? Must have been something in that ale last night. She blushed, and heard Xena chuckle. "Sorry."

Felt hands gently cradle her face, and she opened her eyes to see Xena's dazzling grin peering down at her. "Don't ever apologize for that, Gabrielle." And kissed her soundly.

"Did you have to do that?" The bard gurgled, as they broke apart, and Xena pushed a tunic at her with a laugh. "I'm gonna kill you."

"Sure, sure. Threats." The warrior snorted, as she fastened the straps on her leathers. "I'm scared." She ran a comb through her dark hair, and twisted it back off her face.


They both looked down, to see Ares sitting on his hindquarters, front paws braced, looking from one to the other of them. "Oh.." Xena crouched down and pushed him over, rubbing his belly. "You want to get in the act too? All right.. you can come hunting with me. How's that?" She stood up, scooping the puppy up and carrying him with her as they headed down the stairs.

Cyrene strolled outside the small temple, nodding briskly to herself. She’d spent her morning productively, and had every reason to be pleased with herself. She’d scratched the inn’s proposed feast, and when they’d protested that they had no other viable choices.. her daughter, gods bless her hunting talents, had blithely shown up with the most enormous deer, and deposited it at that innkeeper’s feet with that delightfully smug smile of hers. Cyrene grinned just thinking of it.

So that had gone well, and she’d finally gotten her working relationship figured out with the inn cook – once she’d convinced the woman that she really did know her way around the kitchen. And had let her taste some samples. Cyrene chuckled softly.

Then there had been the temple – she’d sent Toris over to help decorate it with garlands of flowers, and now she wandered over to take a peek. She spotted a bunch of village girls working on the project, and Toris helping – but it was obvious his attention was distracted by a quietly working figure some distance from the others.

Gabrielle, and with a set expression on her face. Cyrene stayed a moment, and watched the bard complete what she was doing, then walk out of the back door to the temple. Noted the uneasy glances that followed her from the villagers, and the concerned look from her son. Toris noticed her, and walked over, grasping her arm and steering her outside.

"What’s wrong?" She asked, in a low voice.

Toris glanced around and then looked at her. "It’s Gabrielle – did you know what happened the last time she was home?"

"No." Cyrene breathed. "But you’re going to tell me, aren’t you dear?"

And he did, having heard it in several different versions from the village girls he had been helping. Perdicus, Callisto, and her own wedding. "Gods." Cyrene sighed. "Leave it to Xena not to mention all this." She patted his arm. "You stay here and help. I’ll see if I can find her."

"Try the graveyard." Toris replied, quietly, as he gave her a nod, and returned to the temple. The girls covertly watched him as he crossed back over to them and picked up yet another garland, and he chuckled wryly to himself. Time for a little lesson, I think.

"So." The oldest of them asked, watching him out of the corner of her eyes. "What's it like being Xena's brother?" The youngest giggled. "Can she beat you up?"

Toris laughed. "Sure." Noting their startled glances. "She can beat up everyone. Really handy to have around, as you guys found out yesterday." He paused. "Sorry we missed all the excitement. But we were really glad to have a chance to come over and meet the rest of Gabrielle's family." Keeping a straight face was hard. "Now that she's a sister to me also."

The older girl stopped, and cocked her head at him. "You consider Gabrielle part of your family?" They were all watching him covertly, paying the barest attention to the flowers they were arranging.

"Of course." Toris replied, hopping up on a stone bench, and throwing one end of the garland in his hands over the wooden suppport beam over his head. "We all do.. and you should have seen the huge birthday party we threw for her when she was.." He hesitated for a moment. "Back home." And for a little while, it had been. And might, an inner sense told him, one day be so again. He smiled. "We love her. She's great."

They looked at him quietly, then looked at each other.

Toris grinned, and kept decorating.

Cyrene walked down the solitary path, the only sound being her boot soles crunching the gravel strewn over the ground. The sparse woodland around her seemed barren, as winter had settled in the region, and she felt.. chilled. She rounded the last corner before the burial ground, and stopped, in the shadow of an old oak, one hand resting on the rough bark. Before her lay the graveyard, and in the center of the many stones stood one, lonely figure.

Gabrielle stood in silence, looking down at the neatly kept burial plot at her feet. Hello, Perdicus. She sighed. I hope you’re in the Elysian Fields, somewhere. With lots of people to talk to, and things to do. She studied her boots for a while. I know you can hear my thoughts… and I know you know what’s happened to me since you.. left. A long pause I’m sorry, Perdicus. You don’t know how sorry I am. Sorry you had to get in her way. Sorry we went through with our marriage. Sorry I couldn’t give you the one thing you asked of me. Her eyes misted. Because that had been given elsewhere before we’d ever met again. And I think…deep in your heart.. you knew that. She hugged herself. I did. And I went ahead with it anyway, and I’ll never, ever forgive myself for that. Even if you do. Even if.. even though she freely does. I won’t. Not ever.

A glance up at the cloudlessly clear blue sky. They’re right, Perdicus. This isn’t my home, not anymore. Maybe I’m just unlucky. I always got blamed for bad harvests, remember? Anyway. I know you’re at peace now. Someday, we’ll sit down and talk, ok? And don’t be mad at Xena… none of this was her fault, Perdicus. It wasn’t. Callisto surprised us.. we thought she’d go for me. Never expected her to go for you. If Xena could have stopped her, she would have… even though, , I know now.. that would have been a terrible thing for both of us. For all of us. Because she’s the other half of my soul, and as much as I know you loved me.. that would have come between us.

She prayed for me, Perdicus.. she never asks the gods for anything, but she got down on her knees, and offered her sword, and prayed for my soul. And you know.. that’s an image I carry in my heart.. always. She used her sleeve to clear her eyes. Time to go get dressed, and watch my sister get married, old friend. I’m praying that her life with Lennat is long, and without danger, and fruitful. They belong together.. be happy for them. I am. Gently, she knelt, and took a bunch of the flowers from the wedding garlands, and cast them over his grave. Then she stood, and kept one last flower, and twirled it in her fingers. Good rest, old friend. Then she took a long breath, and turned, walking back towards the path, between the rows of long and recent dead.

As she got back onto the path, she realized Cyrene was standing in the shadows, watching her. "Hello, mom." She said, quietly, as she drew abreast of the older woman.

Cyrene walked forward and pulled her into a hug. "I’m sorry, Gabrielle." She murmured into the bard’s ear. "Sorry you had to have that happen. You don’t deserve such unhappy things."

Gabrielle returned the hug, then stepped back a pace, and gazed at Cyrene. "I’ve kind of come to a.. conclusion about all that." Her mouth moved in a weary half smile. "Sometimes, things have to happen. And.. it seems horrible when they do. But you look back on them later, and see that… well, they just had to happen. That’s all."

"Is that how you live with it, daughter?" The older woman whispered, appalled.

"I have to." The bard whispered back. "Because I know… in the truth of my heart, that if he’d lived, I would have been.. It was a mistake, mom.. and I knew it was." Her eyes closed, and her shoulders slumped. "And I did It anyway. So this had to happen. " She paused. "Because if it hadn't.. " In her minds eye she could suddenly picture what might have been.. the slow dying of her dreams, and the stark emptiness in her that she'd come to know only could be filled with one person. That she'd started to feel, even that night she and Perdicus were together. She'd told herself then that it would fade, after a while. But now.. knowing now what she did.. A shudder passed through her. "But I made the wrong decision. And we all paid for it."

"Oh, Gabrielle." Cyrene hugged her again. "Is that what my daughter thinks, too?"

The bard sniffed, and laid her head on Cyrene’s shoulder. "No.. she says what happened was Callisto’s fault, and neither of us can take the blame for it."

"She’s right, you know." Cyrene said, patting her back gently. "Imagine, my daughter showing sense."

This got a faint laugh from Gabrielle. "Hey.." she protested. "she has lots of sense." Realizing what Cyrene was doing and glad of it. "She sees things a lot clearer than I do sometimes. " Defending Xena being an unconscious reflex to her.. even against her mother. Even though she knew Cyrene was just trying to get her mind off things.

"Hmm.." Cyrene put an arm around her and steered her up the path. "Must be that height. Better view." But inwardly, her heart ached, for this young bard, and for her daughter as well. "Did she stand for you, at your wedding, dear?"

Gabrielle nodded. And closed her eyes momentarily against the memory that goodbye.

"And blessed it, too, I would think." The older woman coaxed.

The bard nodded again. If only I could have read her then like I can now. I would have known. That wouldn't have fooled me for a second, not with the way her heart was pounding. I felt it, when she hugged me. So was mine.

Cyrene sighed. "She’s such an idiot sometimes."

Gabrielle snorted in surprised laughter. "No she’s not." Then her throat closed, and she could barely speak. "She just did what she thought was best for me." She paused. "She always does. Even when it’s really not the best thing for her."

Cyrene hugged her shoulders. "That’s one of the most honest definitions of love that I’ve ever heard, Gabrielle."

The bard smiled. "I know." They walked on in silence for a bit. Then.. "Thanks, mom."

"Anytime, dear. And speaking of that, when do I get to be introduced to your own mother? I’d ask Xena to do it, but you know how that usually goes."

They glanced at each other, and chuckled. "Actually, she’s been umm.. really diplomatic this whole time." Gabrielle stated, with a grin. "Except for the odd threat, and dumping someone in a manure pit." She sighed. "Come on. I’ll do the honors."

Oh.. that was amusing. Gabrielle contemplated, as she climbed the stairs to their room, after performing introductions at her family home. Sorry Xena had to miss that. She would have enjoyed it. Lila sure did. She pushed open the door, and glanced around. Xena was no where to be found, but she’d been there.

Gabrielle walked around the room, and smiled. Her dress had been unpacked from it’s bundle, and neatly hung up, all the laces and fastenings straightened and arranged precisely. On the table lay her small kit, and the bag she kept her jewelry in. Next to a basket of bread, cheese, and fruit, with a note resting on top of it. She lifted the note, written in a firm, familiar hand.

"Eat something, or you’ll keel over during the ceremony. I mean it. X."

She lifted the note to her lips and pressed it there. Gods, I love her. Her mind chuckled. The uneasy depression she’d been plagued with since decorating the temple eased away from her as she complied, perching on the edge of the table, selecting a thick slice of bread, and topping it with a creamy white chunk of cheese.

She was halfway done with it, when the door swung silently open. She glanced up to meet Xena’s eyes, and gave her a warm smile. "Hey." Her hand gestured around the room. "Thanks."

A grin from the warrior, and a depreciating shrug. "Thought you could use a hand."

Gabrielle gazed at her, and put down her bread. "The only thing I could use right now is you." The words were out before she could stop them.

Xena put down the bundle she was carrying, and came over to her. "Toris said you were upset.. not that I needed his bulletin. C’mere." She opened her arms and wrapped Gabrielle in them, pulling the bard into close contact.

The bard fell gratefully into her strong embrace. "Gods.. that feels good." She muttered into Xena’s shoulder, breathing in the welcome scent of herbal soap and leather, and her soulmate. "I thought I had everything pretty much under control.. I forgot about the temple. Brought it all back."

"Yeah. For me, too." Came the unexpected answer. "I don’t.. have fond memories of the place." She avoided Gabrielle’s heartsick eyes. "Maybe the wedding today’ll wipe those out." And managed a smile for her partner. "Listen, if you want to stick around after the ceremony.."

"No." Immediate and final. "I’ve had about enough of this place. I want to spend tonight under the stars. Alone, except for a wolf, a horse, and you."

Xena gave an unseen smile. "Our stuffs already packed." She replied. "I’m looking forward to that, too." Gods.. was she ever. Enough of small minds, small villages, and petty intrigues. "Mom has things under control here – she’ll stay on for a few days, and get things straightened out with Hecuba." Her lips twitched. "Now that was a pair to see together."

Finally releasing Gabrielle, who moved just far enough away to gaze up at her. "You’re wonderful."

Getting a sardonic grin from Xena. "Not."

Gabrielle wrapped her hands in the soft leather covering her and tugged hard. "Yes."

"Go get cleaned up." Xena changed the subject. "And let’s get you into that dress, so you can get to this wedding. " she paused. "Get going."

"Ok mom." Gabrielle teased, sliding in for one more hug.

"I’m going to get you for that, squirt." Xena threatened, wrapping an arm around her waist and lifting up . "Gotcha."

"Xena!" The bard laughed. "Let me down!"

"Uh uh." The warrior shook her head. "You’re stuck. I’m gonna carry you into the ceremony just like this." She started walking towards the door. "I might even do this." And proceeded to tickle her, getting yells of outrage from the bard, who was laughing too hard too struggle much.

"Ohh.. Yow! Cut that out…" She tried to get a grab on Xena, but the warrior ignored her efforts and kept walking, out the door and down the hallway to the bathing room. "Xena!!!"

"Did you hear something?" Xena asked no one in particular. "I must be imagining things." She nudged the door open with a booted foot, and kicked it shut behind them, and grabbed Gabrielle’s knees, swinging her up into a cradled position. "Unfasten your tunic."

Gabrielle blew out a breath, but did as she was asked. "What are you doing? Xena, it’s going to be cold in .. oh. Wow." As she was lowered into the waiting tub full of warm scented water. "Wow." Xena removed her loosened tunic, and pulled it free, leaving her to float. "Wow." She sighed, and took in a deep breath of the steamy, jasmine scented water. And looked up at Xena in stark adoration. "You’re so cute."

Xena paused, as she folded up the bard’s tunic, and put both hands on the tub rim, raising both eyebrows and snorting. "Cute?"

"Uh huh." Gabrielle caught her lower lip in her teeth in an effort not to smirk. She splashed water at her partner. "Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone just how sweet you are, and how cute. And nice. I promise."

Xena blushed. Which got a delighted giggle from Gabrielle. The warrior scowled. "I just thought…"

A hand slid from the tub and covered hers, and the bard’s face went serious. "I know you did. And.. gods.. thank you. For everything. Xena, I mean that."

Xena sat down on a low stool next to the tub, and rested her chin on her folded arms atop the rim. "You’ve had a really rough time here, Gabrielle. I would.. I would have spared you this, if I could have." Her blue eyes were filled with an aching sadness.

"Fair trade, Xena." The bard whispered, touching her fingertips to Xena’s cheek. "Lila, mother, Lennat..Tectdus, Alain.. it was worth it. "

"I knew you’d say that." Came the quiet response. "Here, let me get your hair..time’s running short."

Gabrielle stood in front of the mirror, scowling at her reflection. "I really don’t…"

"Shh." Xena said, adjusting her sleeve. "You look beautiful." And she did, the dress, in cascading layers ranging from pale gray to slate picked up on her coloring, and made her tanned skin and red gold hair fairly glow.

"No." Gabrielle turned and looked at her. "I look adequate. You, on the other hand, look drop dead gorgeous." Surveying the rich, wine colored embroidered silk long tunic Xena was wearing. ‘But then, you could wear a towel and look that way, so…"

"Opinions vary." Xena snorted, adjusting the high collar on her outfit, and flicking her hands through her dark hair to settle it. The tunic was tapered, and outlined her muscular form with elegant precision, moving with her as she moved, and clinging to her body in just the right places. Not bad. She grudgingly admitted to herself. Well.. if they’re gonna stare, might as well give em something to stare at. She grinned at her reflection, and settled the intricately worked bracelets around her wrists. "At least it covers most of the scars." But her eyes twinkled.

Gabrielle glanced in the mirror, and was caught by the image of them both, standing side by side in the warm sunlight from the window. ‘Actually.." she gave Xena a little sidelong glance, and blushed. "That’s quite a picture." She nodded towards the reflection.

"Mmm." Xena arched an eyebrow at her. "I guess it is, at that." She put her arms around the bard, and observed the results in the mirror. Quite a picture, indeed.

They looked at each other, and smiled "Ok..we’d best be going." Gabrielle finally said, giving her dress one last twitch.

"Hmm.." Came the response. "Oh.. one last little thing." Xena casually captured Gabrielle’s hand, and slid a ring gently on her finger. Completely enjoying the totally stunned look on the bard’s face. "Figured that’s easier to carry around than that damned dagger." She tried to be offhand, but her voice broke, and she flushed. She'd been more nervous about this than she'd thought.

Gabrielle opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out. So she studied the ring instead – it was a smaller version of Xena’s own signet, with her crest engraved on it, and serpentine twined gold underneath. "It… it’s beautiful." She finally whispered. Oh.. gods. It’s perfect.. "But.. I mean.. you didn’t have to… I know you.. " A slight pause. "Oh Xena." In the softest voice she had.

"Uhm." Xena sounded uncharacteristically unsure of herself. "Look.. the ceremony today is.. kind of a legal contract. And… the Amazons have a ceremony that.. provides a.. social contract." Her eyes moved up and met Gabrielle’s. "I don’t think either of those really.. cover… what you are to me."

Saw the bard’s jaw clench tight, and her throat swallow hard.

"So I had to improvise." She paused. "As usual.. so I just.. well, I thought.. I wanted to give you something that." she took a breath Gods..this was harder than I'd thought it would be. "Something that.. well, kind of indicates just how.. much you’re a part of me." There. Gods. I’ve fought entire battles in less time, and with far less effort. And I even practiced for this one.. She dropped her gaze and finished quietly. "Because you are a vital part of my life, Gabrielle. And I.. can't express to you just how happy that's made me.."

Can I freeze this moment? Gabrielle hugged herself. I want it to last forever, so I can take it out, in the darkest of times, and just remember it, and that will drive the darkness away and put my soul at rest. I want to memorize every sound, every smell.. so that the birdsong outside, and the ping of the smith’s hammer, and the scent of newly put out beeswax candles, and the color of her tunic, and the look in her eyes.. everything.. will remind me of this instant of time.

"Iif there were words to express what I'm feeling right now..I'd say them." The bard said softly. "But there aren't, so I'll just tell you that you are my life." She paused, never taking her eyes from Xena’s. "And my home. And you always will be."

They stood in the silence of the moment, in the warm sunlight that slanted across their joined hands and danced off the reflecting mirror, and let the emotions settle inside them.

Finally, Gabrielle smiled thoughtfully. "I’ve seen writings that celebrate the joining of lives.. of hearts.. Xena, but none of them tell what it’s like to be in the center of the joining of two souls…" She gave a faint shake of her head. "I wonder why not?"

"I don’t know." Xena said, lifting her hand up and brushing her fingers with her lips. "Probabaly because you haven't written it yet." Her eyes took on a burnished glow. "Now I guess you will."

"I guess I will, at that." Came the softly laughing answer. "Come on.. if I’m late to this, I’ll never hear the end of it."

Xena held an arm out, and raised her eyebrows. Gabrielle wrapped her arm around the warriors, and they headed for the temple.

"Everything ready?" Cyrene asked, putting a friendly hand on Hecuba’s arm. "Hecuba?"

"Hmm?" The distracted woman replied. "Oh..goodness. Yes, I’m sorry, Cyrene. You’ve been like a gift from the gods. Thank you." She spared the dark haired woman a glance, still trying to get used to the idea of the utterly strange and violent Xena having.. of all things, a mother. And a very nice one, at that, who had calmly stepped in, and taken charge of many of the details her frazzled mind hadn’t really had the energy to cope with. The woman was positively… competent. And had very nice things to say about her Gabrielle, who had simply strolled in to the kitchen earlier and said "Mother, this is Cyrene." And she’d looked up from her preparations, quite startled, to see an older woman, of middling height, and piercing eyes standing next to her older daughter.

And she’d liked her, very much. They’d had a lot to talk about.. living in villages, crops, dealing with merchants. Her lips twitched. Daughters. She'd learned a lot about the person her Gabrielle had chosen to live her life with.. and now that she'd resigned herself to that, it had gotten easier for her to see Xena as smoething more than an ex warlord. But she still feared for her daughter. And had found out that Cyrene felt the same way.

Now they stood in the temple, waiting. Hecuba glanced around approvingly. "They did a lovely job with the flowers, don’t’ you think?"

Cyrene nodded, and watched the villagers start to gather in the temple, clustering in small clumps, and talking amongst themselves. The door nudged open, and Gabrielle slipped in, spotting her sister near the altar and crossing towards her.

"Oh my…doesn’t she look nice." Hecuba remarked, with a little surprised smile.

Cyrene gave an appreciative chuckle. "Very beautiful." She agreed. And the fair haired bard certainly did look nice.. the shaded grays of her dress set off her hair, and made her vividly green eyes stand out sharply. Too.. she carried herself with an air of confidence.. and had in inner glow about her that was very different than the quiet sadness Cyrene had seen earlier. Something happened.. and if I know my daughter, she was at the root of it. the innkeeper predicted.

"Gabrielle!" Hecuba called, motioning her over. The bard changed direction in mid stride, and walked over to join them. "How lovely you look!"

"Thanks." Gabrielle grinned. "They did a good job with the dress." She glanced down and gave a little shrug.

A whistle sounded behind them, and then Toris was poking his head between Gabrielle and Cyrene. "Wow..you look great, Gabrielle." He winked a bright blue eye at her, and she gave him a warm smile in return.

The bard plucked his sleeve, and stood back a minute to gaze at him. "You look pretty nice yourself, Toris. That’s a great color on you."

Toris blushed, contrasting strongly with the deep blue of his tunic, shades darker than his eyes. "Uhh… thanks."

Hecuba bent her head closer to her daughter and sighed "And what a lovely necklace." She turned Gabrielle towards the light a little. "Wonderful color."

"Everyone says that." Gabrielle replied, with an impish grin.

Cyrene chuckled, and happened to glance down, catching a small movement out of the corner of her eye. Gabrielle’s hand was flexing slightly, her fingers playing unconsciously with an unfamiliar ring that graced her finger. Then she stilled for a instant. Long enough for Cyrene to get a good look at the piece of jewelry. That scamp! Her mind chortled. I can’t believe she didn’t tell me she was going to do that!

"Well, Lila’s waving at me.. gotta go." The bard remarked, giving her mother a hug. "See you all later."

She turned and strode over to where Lila was standing, and gave her younger sister a hug as well. Lila plucked her gray sleeve, and said something that must have been sarcastic, because Gabrielle spread both hands out and shrugged.

"Gods." Toris’ voice rose to a squeak, alarming Cyrene.

"What??" She demanded, turning to face him, and realizing his gaze was fixed across the room. She whirled, and spotted what he was looking at, and raised both eyebrows. My..goodness..

Xena had entered quietly from a side door, and was making her way across the temple towards them, passing in and out of pungent bars of sunlight from the windows that caught every silken fold of the rich burgundy tunic she was wearing and dancing reflections off the twin knotted bracelets at her wrists. Moving with an unconscious strength that the clinging fabric did nothing to disguise.

Surely… Cyrene mused. Surely she realizes every singe eye in the room is on her. And a quick movement of her head told her that was true… and caught Lila’s poke at her sister, who smirked. And she felt a surge of maternal pride.

"Hi." Xena said, glancing from her mother to her brother. "Something wrong?"

"Whoa.. lemme tell you.. if you weren’t my sister.." Toris growled, sidling up next to her and running his fingers over the soft fabric.

"You would do.. what? Toris?" Xena replied, raising a dark eyebrow at him, and adding a feral smile. "Hmm??"

"Mmm…something that would guarantee to land me in the healer’s hut." Her brother responded, waggling his eyebrows at her. "You look really good in that, sis."

Xena grinned. "Thanks. You look pretty nice yourself." She patted him on the side. "You too, mother."

Cyrene snorted. "Hmph. Two best looking people in the whole room, and what do you know? I’m their mother."

"Mom!" They both sighed in unison.

Cyrene grinned.

"Great Hera, Gabrielle… you look fantastic. Much better than I do." Lila teased, as her sister crossed to where she was standing near the altar. "When did you get to be gorgeous?"

"Lila!" Her sister snorted. "Get real." She looked around, and took a deep breath. And put her memories of this place firmly away, for another time. This was Lila’s day, and she refused to think about sad things during it. "Besides, you look great yourself."

"No, really.." Lila protested, turning her towards the light. "I’m not joking." In a softer tone. "You look like… you look different somehow."

"Nope." The bard grinned cheerfully. "Just me." She looked around. "Where’s Lennat?"

Lila rolled her eyes. "Getting last minute instructions from our father, and Tectdus."

"Mmm…is that a good thing?" Gabrielle asked, crossing her arms over her chest, and raising her eyebrows.

"Well, Lennat is pretty strong minded.." She giggled. " And Tectdus is really sweet., so.." She stopped speaking and reached a hand out, grabbing her sister’s hand and pulling it away from her chest. "Gabrielle!!!"

"Hey..what..oh." The bard surrendered her hand, trying not to blush. "Yeah..uhm…"

"That is really beautiful." Lila crooned, examining the seal. "Is that…" She glanced up at Gabrielle’s face. "Must be." She grinned, and paused, and they looked at each other. "I hope.. gods, I hope my life with Lennat will put half the expression on my face that you have on yours right now."

Gabrielle closed her eyes, and let the rich warmth roll over her again. Then she let her eyes slide open and gazed at her sister. "I hope so too."

"Well, I don’t… gods, Bree." Lila’s eyes widened, and she poked her sister sharply in the ribs. "Whoa…"

Yeah, whoa. Gabrielle took a breath. That’s mine. Then the blue eyes lanced across the temple, and caught hers, and gave her a conspiratorial wink. And she realized she had that amazingly dumb grin on her face by the sudden twinkle in Xena’s eyes, and the flash of her own dazzling smile. "Cleans up nice, doesn’t she." she commented to Lila, getting her face back under some kind of control.

Lila gave her a look, then laughed. "Well, that just stunned half the village. Between her and Toris, yo'uve managed to cover eveyrthing.."

Gabrielle chuckled, and watched Xena join her family just off to the side of where she was standing. "Yeah.. they're quite a pair." And got another wink from her partner, which she returned, with a smile.

Then the door pushed open, and Lennat strode across the rough stone floor, followed by Tectdus, and Metrus, and Herodotus. The villagers quieted down, and started to gather around the altar where the priest was standing.

Lennat stepped up next to Lila, and took her hand, lifting it to his lips, and kissing it. They turned and faced the altar, and the priest joined them, draping fragrant garlands of flowers over their heads, and scattering them with herbs.

Alain, wide eyed, stood next to Lennat, all startled nervousness, and freshly scrubbed pink skin. "My brother!" He whispered to no one in particular, having been newly told.. "Wow." He glanced up and over to where Xena was standing, and gave her a grin.

She winked at him. That made his face all happy, and he sighed in contentment. The stories he’d always loved best were the ones Bree always told that had heroes in them. He bounced up and down on his feet a time or two. Now he knew a hero himself. He had a picture. now. one of his very own.. that he kept to snuggle down with at night and remember..

Herodotus was a silent, brooding presence behind his daughter, and Lennat. His face was still and closed, and no reaction showed there, even when his eyes flickered off the altar, and glanced over Gabrielle.. And went no further, because he knew if he did.. if he let his eyes slide past her elegant form, he’d have to meet a pair of ice blue eyes whose intensity he’d discovered too much for him to bear.

Damn her. His mind growled. I want to hate her. Oh.. how I want to. But his mind kept running the previous day over and over..leaving him no rest. No solace, even with enough drink to take him into oblivion, he still saw that damn minotaur’s froth flecked face coming at him. Swinging that damn club at him..and knowing his death was approaching.

Then that damn woman.. that damn woman. She’d jumped in front of that minotaur, and taken the blow that had been meant for him. He’d seen it..seen the look of agony on her face as it struck.. no matter how she tried to shrug it off later. He’d heard the horrible crunch as both of them had hit the tree next to where he was standing. Seen her somehow..somehow… collect herself, and just…He’d never imagined what it would be like to be a warrior..never thought beyond the shiny swords, and the triumphs.. never imagined what it would be like to pit your body day after day, time after time, against enemies that, some of them, were bigger, and faster, and stronger than you were. She’d gone against that beast not caring – knowing only that she stood between it.. and him. Put his life before hers. And his mind would admit to only one definition for her now.

He was furious. At himself. At her. At the damned images that she’d planted in his mind, after all these cursed years that were stirring something in him he desperately wanted to keep buried. To forget. The part of him that he saw so agonizingly in his older daughter. Gods damn you, Xena. You will not wake that voice in me, not now. Not again.

But was there. Whispering to him. He’d wanted to give into it so badly – Hecuba had asked him what happened when he’d gotten home right after.. and he’d bitten his lip almost through from the want of it. The need to paint with words the pictures now so vividly embedded in his mind. The need they thought they’d beaten out of him, all those years ago which he himself had actually killed with bitterness and drink long after.

Resolutely, he shut that out of his thoughts. And returned his attention to the priest, and the ceremony before him. It would go away after a while. They always did. But damn that woman.

"Doesn’t he look like he swallowed a cow patty?" Cyrene muttered almost inaudibly, knowing Xena would hear her.

"Mmm." Came the slightly louder response.

"I can’t abide him, Xena. Can’t – I can talk to Hecuba, but.." She continued, keeping her eyes on the progressing ceremony. "Nothing will change with him."

Felt a sudden hand on her shoulder, and felt the warmth as Xena leaned close to her ear. "Anyone can change."

She turned her head slightly, and met the serious gaze from her daughter. Who was living proof of that statement. Her mind twitched. Or was she? Had she changed in the last two years.. or merely reawakened a part of herself long buried? Cyrene remembered the toddler who insisted on aggressively protecting village curs, and smiled inwardly. "It’s impossible, Xena."

"Get him to tell you a story." Came the whispered response. Then Xena leaned back, and bumped shoulders with Toris, who was attentively listening to the exchange of vows. Toris glanced at her, and unexpectedly slid an arm across her shoulders.

Got a raised eyebrow.

"Because I can, and not get my ribs broken." Was his answer, with a smug look. Then he flinched as he felt her shift.

"Relax." She snorted, and returned the gesture, curling an arm around his waist. "I’m not going to dump you on the ground in the middle of a wedding."

They glanced at each other, and smiled, and then turned to watch, as Lennat lifted the garlands off of their necks, and wound them around the pair of clasped hands in front of them, and Xena saw Gabrielle’s shoulders twitch, and a pang of sympathy rang though her. Hang in there, love. It’s almost over.

Saw the bard take a deep breath, and square her shoulders, and the lift of the head that Xena knew well. Good girl. Her mind smiled.

Then the ceremony was over, and they were showering the new pair with flower petals, blessing the union with symbols of the earth’s fertility. Lennat and Lila held their arms up in protection from the shower, and ran for the door, laughing.

And as they crossed the door threshold, waving, Xena relived one of her own private nightmares. Even after all this time, and with her relationship with Gabrielle being what it was… it still hurt. The feeling of abandonment that had left such emptiness in her that it had.. for an endless time that night almost.. almost… She closed her eyes, and let it run its course. Damn.. that was a long night. And I hadn’t cried like that since… Lyceus. She took a deep breath, and felt a concerned hand on her arm.

"Xena?" Cyrene’s voice was very low, as she studied the lost look on her daughter’s face. "Dear?"

"I’m all right. Just some bad memories." Xena replied, letting the nightmare fade back into the recesses of her thoughts. "Nice ceremony, wasn’t it?"

Cyrene forced a smile, guessing which memories were plaguing Xena. "Lovely." She sighed. Should she needle the thoughts from her daughter? No.. that picture didn’t need to be dragged into the light. "Hey.." She prodded her in the belly. "Nice ring Gabrielle is wearing."

"Oof." Xena mock coughed at the poke, then blushed a little, and glanced at the stone floor. "Yeah, well…"

"Was that my name I heard?" Came Gabrielle’s quiet voice as she slid in beside Xena, and leaned against her shoulder. "What am I being blamed for this time?"

"You?" Xena snorted, feeling her good humor slowly returning. "Who ever blames you for anything? Now.. me, on the other hand…"

They grinned at each other, and Xena felt the gentle comforting movement of the bard’s hand against her back. Guess she sensed that, a minute ago. She sighed inwardly. Let go of it, Xena. It’s in the past. This is now.

"If you two are determined to leave.." Cyrene said, but in a gentle tone. "You’d best get something to eat first."

"Mom, I like your priorities." Gabrielle answered, with an irrepressible smirk. "Especially if you had anything to do with the cooking."

Cyrene chuckled. "That’s as may be…shall we?" She gestured them out, and grabbed Toris’ arm, puling him ahead, to leave Xena and Gabrielle walking a few paces behind.

They looked at each other.

"Subtle." In unison.

They walked towards the door, then Gabrielle slowed, and pulled Xena to a halt, at about, Xena mused, the place they’d said their good-byes the last time.

Gabrielle paused, obviously gathering her thoughts, then took a breath to speak. She gazed up into Xena’s eyes for a long moment, then sighed. "I’m sorry." She closed her eyes and dropped her head. "I’m sorry." Again, this time whispered.

"No." Xena lifted both hands, and carefully cradled Gabrielle’s face in her hands, raising her head up. "I should have said something then."

Green eyes melded with hers. "There was something to say?" Quiet wonder in her voice.

Xena nodded, letting a faint smile touch her lips. "For a long time."

Gabrielle caught her breath. "How long?"

Now the smile deepened. "The moment I saw you."

The bard leaned forward and rested her head against Xena’s chest. "Now I don’t feel so bad." She sighed. "Me too."

Xena pulled her into a hug, and they stood in silence for a time.

Finally, Gabrielle pulled her head back, and gave Xena an amused look. "Come on..let’s get some food, get a cup of something with a kick in it, and get out of here. I’ve had about all I can take."

Xena chuckled, and they walked outside arm in arm.

"Now, you two take care." Cyrene fussed later, as she slung an extra bag on Argo’s saddle pad. "That’s dinner."

"Mother.." Xena laughed, then shook her head. "Thanks." She gave Cyrene a hug. "We’ll try. We want to stop in at the Amazons after we take a trip down the coast.. maybe we’ll drop by home."

Cyrene put her hands on her hips. "Maybe??"

Toris chuckled and gave her shoulder a punch. "I’ll be looking forward to it." And got a hug from his sister, which surprised him a little. "Hey..you getting all mushy on me?" The hug turned into a vise grip, which lifted him completely off his feet. "Ugh. Sorry. Scratch that." He coughed, as she relented and let him down.

Xena sighed. "You take care, Toris. Be careful on the ride home… I don’t like the idea of those raiding parties roaming around out there."

Toris grinned. "Guess you’ll have to stick close to make sure we’re all right then, huh?"

"Toris…" A warning growl.

He patted her cheek. "Just kidding."

Xena rolled her eyes, and finished fastening the extra bags on Argo. She reached down and picked up Ares, tucking him into his carry bag. "You’re almost big enough to run and keep up, huh boy?" She commented to the wolf.

"Roo!" He protested, and started chewing her thumb. She peered over Argo’s high back, keeping an eye on the small cluster of people around Gabrielle. Her family – whom Xena had already said a somewhat cordial good bye to.

"You be careful, all right, Bree?" Lila grasped her hands, and gave her a worried look. "Promise me?"

A quiet smile from the bard. "I promise." She hugged Lila, then her mother. "Take care, mother." With quiet grief, knowing just how long it might be before she crossed back into Potadeia.

"Be well, daughter." Hecuba replied, with a sigh. "Keep yourself safe."

Gabrielle nodded, and turned to rejoin Xena. And found herself face to face with her father. Her head lifted, and she gazed at him, waiting. Seeing, over his shoulder, a sharp pair of blue eyes watching intently. Felt safety cascade around her like a soft summer rain. He can’t hurt me. Not anymore. "Father." She said, with a cool tone.

"Gabrielle." He answered, studying her face. Saw himself in the strong structure of her bones. "Be well." A pause. "Come, I’ll walk you over to your friend." No color on the word. No indication on how he felt about it.

She nodded, and they turned and started walking.

"Sometimes things get said.. in haste.. that you live to regret." Herodotus commented, putting his hands behind his back and glancing everywhere but at Gabrielle. Or into Xena’s eyes, now getting closer and closer.

"Sometimes." Gabrielle allowed, watching his face.

"I may have done so." Her father said, taking a breath. " Would you.."

Gabrielle stopped, and regarded him. "I never heard it."

Herodotus nodded. "Very well."

They stopped in front of Argo, and Herodotus found himself looking over the horse’s back right into Xena’s level gaze. He blinked. She didn’t. "I don’t like you." He said, bluntly.

Xena’s eyebrow raised. "I don’t much like you either, Herodotus."

Slowly, he nodded. Then stepped around Argo and faced her, letting his eyes rake her from head to foot.

And put out a forearm, which was taken by the startled warrior. "So long as we have that understood." He released her arm, and stepped back, giving Gabrielle a final glance, then turning and heading back to the wedding party. Not once looking back.

They looked at each other in wary puzzlement. "What was that all about?" Gabrielle wondered.

Xena shrugged. "Don’t wanna know." She vaulted up onto Argo’s back. and waited, while Gabrielle gave Cyrene and Toris fierce hugs.

"Thank you for coming." She whispered into Cyrene’s ear. "It meant an awful lot."

Cyrene patted her on the back. "Wouldn’t have missed it."

The bard nodded, and walked back to Argo’s side, glancing up.

Xena grinned, and extended her arm, pulling Gabrielle up behind her.

They waved, and Xena kneed Argo into a canter, as they watched the village turn to fields, and then into rough country.

"So. You ever consider taking up a career as a diplomat?" Gabrielle asked, conversationally.

"What?" Xena half turned in the saddle, and peered at her. "Oh..yeah..I’m diplomatic, all right. Hey, Mr. Councilor, cancel your war or I’ll break your arm. Uh huh…"

"No, really..I think you’d be great. You could ride around with this big group of aides, and send diplomatic notes all over the countryside."


"No, huh?"


The bard sighed. "What about a fashion consultant. That was one great outfit you were.."

"Gabrielle…" This time a low, haunting growl. "I like what I do."

Gabrielle grinned. "Good." She leaned forward, and brushed Xena’s back with her lips. "I like what you do, too. "

Their laughter trailed them as Xena urged Argo into an headlong gallop, and scattered an outraged flock of ducks in the meadow before them.


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