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Standard Disclaimer - These characters, most of them, belong to Universal, and Renaissance Pictures, and whoever else has a stake in Xena: Warrior Princess. This is written just in fun, and no copyright infringement was intended.

Specific Story Disclaimers:

Violence –Why does anyone ever disclaim violence in a Xena story? Of course there's violence. Do you think we'd put out a story that consisted of pages and pages of Xena just.. .fishing.. or something? She is a Warrior Princess, not a Mary Kay consultant. (no insult intended - some of my best co workers are Mary Kay consultants, and I purchase from them regularly) And Gabrielle is no slouch with that staff, either. So, yes - there is violence.

Subtext - C'mon. Even the show has subtext. Heck, sometimes, it's not subtext. Sometimes, it's maintext. But anyway, this is an alternative fan fiction story. That means, it's based on the premise that Xena and Gabrielle are more than just best friends. If that's not your cup of mint tea, there are many, many talented bards out in the Xenaverse who post general fiction, that does not follow this premise. Go find them. Enjoy them.

This is, of course, PG13 level involvement here, no more.

So - having read this lovely disclaimer, if you then read the story and are shocked that Gabrielle and Xena are kissing each other, I can't help ya. If you're offended by it, send me your address, and I'll send you a bushel of citrus. We like to send that from here - we have to get rid of all of it somehow.

Any and all comments are always welcome. You can email them to:



Promises Kept - Part 1

By Melissa Good

The sun beat down on an age old struggle, between animal and man, or to be precise, animal and woman. The stallion shook his shaggy head, snorting, and bucked a little, rising up off his two front feet and dropping down again as he warily watched his opponent, a tall, dark haired woman who was patiently circling him.

"C'mon." The woman coaxed, moving towards him with a springy, catlike stride. In her hand was a carrot, which she held out enticingly, letting the horse get the scent of it. "C'mon, big boy.. you know you want this."

His nostrils whuffled out, and he took a cautious step forward, not trusting the human, having had experience all his short life of their brutality. He was a two year old, but big, well over 16 hands high, and built for the plow, with a heavy chestnut coat and flaxen mane and tail, and white feathering along his well formed legs. He trotted off, suspicious.

But the woman was patient, and kept circling him, moving him closer, and closer into the corner of the corral , moving slowly, evenly, and still, with that carrot that was starting to smell pretty good to him.

He sniffed it. She moved a step closer, then halted, holding it out.

She smelled to him like the stable, bits of hay, and cloth, and sweat, nothing threatening. He moved a step closer, dancing with nervous hooves. Closer, and he could almost, if he stretched his neck, nibble the carrot.

He did. He waited for something to happen.

It didn't. The woman just kept standing there, holding the carrot out, quiet, relaxed…

Another step, and now he was chewing it, tasting the rough sweetness against his tongue as the hand not holding the carrot cautiously edged up and scratched just that one place under his jaw… ah…. He butted her in the chest when she stopped, getting the smell of her into his lungs, as those clever fingers scratched and rubbed in just the right places.

"Atta boy." Xena uttered gently. "Not so bad, huh?"

The horse snorted softly and searched for more carrots, finding one stuck in a pocket and nuzzling the fabric.

Xena laughed easily, and retrieved it, cupping it in her palm and letting him lip it up, feeling the tickle of his stiff whiskers against her skin. "Oh.. a smart one, I see." She stroked the animal across the neck, and down his chest, getting him used to her touch. "Good boy." She crooked her fingers and rubbed in gentle circles against the rough coat, watching the skin twitch under her fingers, and taking in a deep breath of the dusky fall air, full of ripe wheat, and horse, and thick grass underfoot. "You like that, huh?"

The horse nickered softly and stood still, captivated by her. Xena kept up her scratching, and leaned her other arm over the stallion's back as she took in the surrounding area in peaceful contentment. She'd built the corral they were standing in, and the next one over, where Argo's two colts were playing, kicking up their tiny heels and mock bucking their way around the perimeter, and this stallion was one of two horses she was currently breaking on behalf of a merchant from downriver, who'd heard of her talent with the beasts and made a special trip to deliver them.

That had made Josclyn very happy, and she'd caught him peeking at her from around the stable, hoping the merchant would go on his way and spread stories of her almost magical effect on nasty tempered horses.

Xena chuckled softly. "You know you just don't want to tangle with me, doncha?" She muttered to the horse, who was now contentedly pulling up mouthfuls of grass. "You're not a bad boy.. you just don't suffer idiots gladly, right?" The merchant was clueless about horses, and had picked up these two bargains.. unbroken two years olds, at rock bottom prices because no one could tame them sufficiently to get any use out of them.

The warrior shook her head in bemusement. They were just willful, and having grown up in the wild with no human hands around them… well, who could blame them? She sighed, and combed her fingers through the pale mane, ordering it idly as the horse stepped a few paces to get at a better patch of grass. "You get a break now, boy.. " She told the animal, who snorted softly. "A couple weeks of just lazing around here… but I'll be back, don't you worry."

She found she was looking forward to the trip, a relatively short one out to see their friend Jessan's new family, and stop by her soulmate's hometown for a little visit. In fact…she privately chuckled, she was probably looking forward to it more than Gabrielle was, since the visit to Potadeia was to provide some maternal bonding that the bard wasn't at all sure she wanted to develop at the moment.

"Hey!" A male voice interrupted her musing, and she glanced over toward the stable, where she spotted the tall figure of her brother, Toris approaching. Obligingly, she gave the horse a last pat, and ambled over to the fence, watching Toris as he stepped over some fence posts left from the building and came closer.

"Hey." Xena leaned against the wood. Toris was wearing one of his older tunics, which was covered with bits of thatch from the roof building he was currently occupied with. She had helped him raise the walls for his cozy new quarters two days ago, and she'd listened, completely amused, at Granella's and Gabrielle's decorating plans just that morning. "What's up?" She put her hands on the top railing and vaulted up to it, settling on top of the wood and hooking her boots on the next railing down.

"My roof." Her brother answered with a grin, reaching out and tugging on a bit of the leather padding that covered his sister's upper thighs. "Thanks.. by the way.. for all your help with the place."

The warrior gave him a relaxed smile back. "No problem." She rested her elbows on her knees and yawned a little, stretching her shoulders to settle the quilted working tunic she wore, which was tan fabric with leather inserts, calculated to protect the more sensitive areas of her body from an errant kick or bite. It was sleeveless, and came to her mid thigh, and she'd found it very comfortable to work in.

Toris, on the other hand, was wearing heavy trousers tucked into his boots, and a long sleeve shirt, to keep the bits of thatch from, as he put it, becoming permanently a part of his skin. He'd started trying to grow a beard, which was a constant source of teasing from his sister, and had grown his hair long enough for Granella to have managed to give him a tiny braid in the back. Xena reached up now and tugged on it playfully. "So…we gonna see you with Amazon feathers next?"

"Hah, hah." Toris replied dryly, as he leaned against the post. "You're leaving tomorrow, right?"

Xena eyed him. "You know we are." Her brow creased, then cleared, as she realized the reason for her brother's apparent discomfort. "Ah… tonight's the night, huh?"

Toris drummed his fingers against his thigh, and bit his lip. "Yeah." He finally said, looking at her sheepishly. "I'm kinda nervous."

The warrior made a face. "Well.. it's an unusual situation, gotta give you that, Tor… listen, if you're not comfortable with the whole thing, I'll talk to Gabrielle.. it can wait until we get back.. or whenever."

"No.. no.. that's not it." Her brother hastily put a hand out. "It's.. um… " He looked around. "I hope I can.. um..ah.."

Xena nodded. "Perform, is the word we used in my army."

He scowled at her. "It’s not funny."

One dark eyebrow raised at him. "I'm not laughing." She rubbed her chin with one hand. "Look…there's no pressure, Tor… just take it slow and easy.. " Truth to tell, she wasn't… really comfortable with the whole thing either, now that they'd come right down to it. Not that she didn't trust Toris… she did. But… A long sigh. "More than anything, just… " She paused. "Be gentle." This was her Gabrielle they were talking about. It irked her that the bard had been forced to look elsewhere for this one critical service.. not that she could help it, but.. Another long sigh.

"Gentle." Toris took in a deep breath, and let it out. "Right." He chewed his lip again. "I.. don't think you've got much to worry about in that area.. I'll be lucky if I can manage to sit up and not bite my tongue babbling." He confessed wryly. "Is there.. um… " He stopped, then started again. "Any advice.. I.. I mean… "

Xena laughed gently, and slapped him on the shoulder. "Toris.. take it easy, all right? Gabrielle is a very kind, and very loving person.. just keep that in mind, and don't get all frantic." Yeah… and you try to keep that in mind, too, right? A tiny wave of possessive jealousy reared its head, and nipped at her. "You're doing this as a very big favor for both of us, and I want you to know I really appreciate it."

"Yeah." The dark haired man exhaled. "I'm glad Gran's out with that hunting party… and that you guys'll be leaving for a while tomorrow.. give me a chance to get my composure back." He looked up with a sheepish grin. "Honestly, sis.. it's a big honor.. and I'm glad she asked me. .I'm just.. a little… um… "

"Nervous. " His sister provided, with a sympathetic quirk of the lips.

"Scared poopless." Toris corrected, with a tiny shrug. "I feel like a kid going out with his first girl." His hands found rough spots in the wooden railing and worried at them. "Has she ever…um… " He looked up and found his sister's eyes. "I mean with.. ah…"

"Once." Xena answered quietly. "Perdicas."

"Ah." Toris grunted softly. "And he.. uh… "

"Died, the next day. Yes." The warrior confirmed.

Her brother drummed his fingers against the wood. "And.. since then it's just been.. " He pointed to her, then waved his hand around in obvious discomfort. "I mean.. "

Xena felt a blush color her skin, much to her own annoyance. Gods… this is embarrassing… and from my brother. Gods. "Uh.. yeah.. I've.. been… mm… " She cleared her throat. "It."

"Yikes." Toris sighed.

"Huh?" Xena's brows contracted, and she stared at him in perplexity.

Toris scratched his head, and shuffled his feet, glancing all over the stockyard, up at the clouds, anywhere but Xena's tanned face. "Uh…" Finally he took a breath. "I never thought I'd be competing with you in this particular arena, sis." He got the sentence out in one gulp. "It's.. intimidating as Hades."

Xena paused, in startlement, then burst out laughing. "Toris.. we're not competing." She caught her breath after a minute. "It's… uh…. Different."

"Different?" He repeated, doubtfully.

 "Well.. yeah.. I mean…when a man and a woman… " Xena felt the words skitter around, escaping her. "But.. I mean.. that's one thing, and then… " Her jaw worked a few times. "Hades, Toris.. it's just different, OK?"

He chewed on that. "How different?" Now his tone was curious, and more relaxed.

Xena hopped off the fence, and put her hands on her hips. "Didn't mother go over the birds and bees with you?" She growled.

He gazed at her. "No. Did she go over them with you?"

The warrior bit her lip. "No." She drummed her fingers on her upper thigh, collecting her thoughts. "She chickened out."

They looked at each other. "Look.. it's just different.. " Xena finally said, gruffly. "It's.. more of an equal sharing." She tried to ignore the flush of blood that heated her face. I can't believe I'm having this conversation. "Most of the time.. with a guy.. you gotta be limited by his…" Her lips twitched. "stamina."

Toris looked insulted. "Hey…that's not a limitation." He paused. "Is it?"

Xena raised a suggestive eyebrow at him.

"Oh, great." Toris grumbled. "Now I really feel intimidated." He shook his head sadly. "Well, I'll do the best I can." He shot a look at his sister. "She'd better not giggle at me."

Xena chuckled, and put a friendly arm around his shoulders, nudging him back towards the inn. "You know better… Gabrielle would never do that." She assured him. "Unless you do something to deserve it."

His head whipped around. "What?"

"Just kidding." Xena smiled. "She'll probably do her best to make you feel comfortable, Toris.. I know it's not really going to be easy.. not for you, and not for her.. she's been through a lot. "

Toris paced along in silence. "Is she really sure about this?"

Xena exhaled. "Yes." She paused. "But look…odds are… nothing's gonna happen this time, Toris.. we're gonna go out traveling again, and who knows.. right now she's pretty raw about what she thinks she wants in regard to children . Time could temper that."

Her brother put an arm around her waist. "How about you? How you feel about it?"

The warrior kicked a rock out of her path. "I…want her to be happy, more than anything else. " She replied, thoughtfully. "But I gotta admit… I get kinda exciting thinking about the whole thing."

Toris smiled. "I think you'll make a heck of a mother." He bumped her in rough teasing. "Or a heck of a father, for that matter." He informed her. "A kid couldn't ask for a better teacher for a whole range of useful skills."

Xena grinned at him. "Thanks." She gave him a gently mischievous look. "You do know Granella came to me to get anti nausea herbs before she left, right?"

"Yeah?" His brow furrowed, as they made their way into the kitchen, bumping each other through the narrow doorway. "Is she sick?"

Cyrene had turned as they entered, and now she and Xena exchanged mildly exasperated looks. "You're sure we're related?" The warrior asked, plaintively, pointing at her brother.

Their mother shook her head. "I think I dropped him on his head once to often as a child. It's a pity really.. he's quite good looking, otherwise."

Toris squawked. "Hey!" He wrested free of his sister's clutches. "I was only asking!" He gave Xena a grumpy look. "Well, is she?"

"Toris." Xena put her hands on his shoulders, and looked into eyes as blue as her own. "You're gonna be a daddy."

"Well." He shrugged. "Sure.. I guess.. eventually, I mean, that's what we've been talking about this who……" Silence. "A….d ddaddy?" He swallowed. "Nnow?"

Xena nodded. "Eeeyep.. unless I'm very much mistaken." She smiled at her brother.

"Wow.." A big grin split his face, and he wandered off towards the larger room of the inn, bumping into the doorframe on the way out. "Wow…." They heard his voice trail along behind him.

The warrior chuckled. "He's clueless."

Cyrene moved up next to her and gave her a hug. "You done for the day? You've been out there in that stockyard since before dawn."

Xena nodded a little. "Yeah.. I wanted to get some progress on that stallion.. before I take off and leave him to go wild for a month or so." She plucked at her tunic. "I'm gonna go wash off."

The innkeeper reached behind her, and lifted a thick rolled pastry from a tray, and handed it to her. "Here… you didn't get lunch." She watched her daughter take the offering and sniff it curiously. "Won't bite you… it's got lamb and greens in it."

Xena took a bite, and munched for a minute. "Hey.. " She swallowed. "That's good." She licked her lips. "Sage… a little anise… and pepper, right?"

Cyrene chuckled, and patted her side. "You're getting better at that…I'm going to pack a few for you two to take with you tomorrow. "

The warrior chuckled around a mouthful of the pastry. "That'll be welcome.. Gabrielle loves to snack while we're moving."

Her mother smirked. "I know."

The door opened, and Gabrielle peeked in. "Ah hah.. I thought I saw you head in here." The bard entered, carrying her staff. She was dressed in a short, white sleeveless top that was tied off below her ribcage, and a deep blue wraparound skirt that matched the short blue boots snugged around her muscular legs. She set the staff against the wall, and trotted over to where her partner was standing, lifting herself up with a hand resting on Xena's arm, and taking a bite of her pastry. "Mmmm." She waggled her eyebrows at Cyrene. "Gorfp!"

Xena bestowed an indulgent look on her. "How's your class doing?"

"Great." The bard swallowed and smiled happily. "They've almost got those spinning things down.. they're having trouble with that one kind of backwards one you taught me though.. " She picked up her staff, and started moving in a smooth fashion.

"Ah AH!!" Cyrene shook a finger at her. "Not in the kitchen!"

"Whoops." Gabrielle stilled her motion, and smiled sheepishly. "Sorry."

Xena stuffed the rest of her pastry in the bard's mouth and grabbed her shoulders, steering her towards the door. "C'mon…I hear a bath calling." She winked over her shoulder at her mother. "See ya later."

"Pofrrfm?" Gabrielle protested, but allowed herself to be prodded along. "Xrfhm!"

A soft wisp of steam rose over the tub, rich with the tangy, herbal scent of the soap that sent islands of lather over the surface of the water. Xena leaned back against the sloping side of the bath, and watched her soulmate creating more bubbles, which she sent drifting across to bump gently against the warrior's chest. "You know.. you've got my brother completely spooked." She commented, watching the beading water slide down the slope of Gabrielle's shoulders.

The bard looked up, surprised. "Me?" She blinked mist green eyes in puzzlement. "What did I do?" She slipped across the tub, and nestled her body against Xena's, sighing a little as their skins made contact. "I've been good today… I just worked on two trading agreements, and taught my staff class.. he wasn't even there.. I didn't hit him.. what'd I do?"

"About tonight." Xena mumbled, resting her cheek against the bard's damp hair, feeling Gabrielle's soapy hands starting a slow, gentle cleansing of her skin. "Had to talk to him about birds and bees."

Gabrielle let out a soft giggle. "Oh." She looked up. "Does that bother you.. I mean, us.. being together?"

Xena considered lying, then let out a breath. "Yeah." She answered honestly. "It's driving me nuts.. if it was anyone but my brother, he'd be a pile of pulverized chicken droppings by now."

The bard smiled against the tanned skin she was resting against. "Always nice to be appreciated." She finished scrubbing Xena's shoulders, and started to work her way down. "I've… really been thinking about the whole thing.. for a few days now." She concentrated on a spot of mud. "Xena, how do you get mud there?"

"Practice." The warrior answered. "So.. you thought about it, and??"

"Nothing." Gabrielle replied. "I just had to kind of get my brain to agree that I could do this.. and I think I have." She paused. "So.. did I hear you saying that you thought Granella was pregnant?"

Xena pulled her closer. "Yeah.. I think so.. I'm pretty sure."

"You… think she knows?" Gabrielle asked. "I mean.. she has to know, right?"

"Not necessarily." Xena considered. "Took me forever… I was never regular in my cycles.. so missing a couple wasn't unusual…but after I started getting sick a lot, and outgrowing my armor.. I kinda put it all together." She gave the bard a wry look. "I look back now and know just how damn clueless I was."

Gabrielle chuckled, and ran her hands over the warrior's body. "I have a hard time imagining you pregnant."

Xena shrugged a little. "Well… I carried really low.. and I never got that big… didn't really stop me from fighting until almost the end."

The bard stared at her, goggle eyed.

"Gabrielle, I was a warlord." Her partner reminded her mildly. "It wasn't comfortable.. but I did what I had to do.. you know?"

"Eek." Her soulmate squeaked. "Well, you're gonna have to coach me."

The warrior smiled, and cradled her gently. "Oh no… you're not gonna have to go through what I did…you.. " She touched a fingertip to the bard's nose. "Are gonna be the most pampered expectant mother in the history of Greece."

Gabrielle snorted. "Oh.. I don't think so… if you think I'm gonna spend my time lolling around in bed, you're.. ..oh." She tasted sage on Xena's lips, and felt the deep warmth of their connection surge through her. "Well…. " She laughed softly. "Maybe.. if you're lolling there with me."

Xena stroked her face softly. "I'll be right there with you… I promise."

"Mmm." Gabrielle sighed contentedly, swirling the water with one finger. "Except tonight, of course." She peeked a look up at her partner's face.

A wry look peeked back at her. "Well… if you.. um… " Xena winced. "If you want me to.. uh…I mean, I guess I could…"

Two fingers touched her lips, stilling her speech. "Please… Xena… if Toris is a nervous wreck now, imagine what that would do to him? He'd pass out."

Xena let out a relieved breath. "Yeah, you're right." She agreed quickly. "Of course.. he may anyway… " She continued thoughtfully, then sighed. "Well.. c'mon.. before we turn into a pair of dried grapes."

"Raisins." Gabrielle corrected immediately, kissing her. "I asked your mother to go with you to the merchant bazaar tonight… please don't tell her no."

Xena took a breath to protest.

"Xena.. please… I don't want to think about you being alone tonight.. it would really bother me." The bard pleaded gently. "Besides… you need to get something for us to give Jessan's babies." A large merchant train had arrived in Amphipolis the previous day, anxious to relieve the village of some of their summer profits. It was a nicely varied group, too…Gabrielle had virtuously avoided poking amongst their wares, preferring to allow her soulmate to make her own, usually well thought out, if occasionally eclectic choices. "Please?"

Xena nibbled her ear. "You know I can't resist you." She complained, but let a reluctant smile edge her lips. "All right…I'll do it." She growled. "But I won't enjoy it."

"Of course not." The bard murmured soothingly. "I know you'll hate every minute of it." She let Xena stand and lift her up, and she reached behind her to grab a soft towel to dry them both off with. She never let them part, as Xena took hold of the linen, and used her longer arms to good advantage while Gabrielle's hands explored her scented and warmed body. "Keep your eyes open for a nice piece of fabric in burgundy, ok?"

Xena was busy making very sure Gabrielle was completely dry all over. "Huh? Why?"

The bard paused a long moment, letting the racing tingles traveling up and down her rob her of speech. "B…because I…Gods, Xena… because I'm asking you to."

The warrior's lips traveled slowly down her partner's bare neck. "Asking me to do what?"

"To keep doing what you're doing." The bard whispered, hardly realizing it when she was gently lifted up and settled into the soft, fragrant linen that covered their bed.

"That's what I thought." Xena growled softly, right into her ear.  

It was full dark as Xena stepped out onto the inn porch, leaning her weight against the wooden railing, and peering off towards the large field just north of the village, which had been cleared already, and now hosted a torchlit, noisy crowd who was gathering for some well earned fun. The merchants had set themselves up in a huge square, with a cluster of food and drink wagons in the middle, and already groups of villagers and visitors were strolling around, laughing and drinking.

Cyrene joined her, having removed her work apron, and smiled into the firelit darkness. "You ready?"

"Yep." Xena touched the pouch tied to her belt, and grinned. "You?" She straightened the embroidered fabric that covered her to mid thigh, in a deep, buttery gold and ran her hand through her long, dark hair to straighten it.

"Hmm…" Her mother stared a trifle doubtfully at the milling crowd. "Haven't indulged in this craziness in years… you better watch it, pickpockets aren't unusual there."

Xena lifted an eyebrow at her. "I think my reflexes are still good enough to keep my pockets intact, mother." She looked vaguely insulted.

The innkeeper gave her a little slap. "That's not what I meant, and you know it." She stepped off the porch. "Come on.. I know that little man with the sweet nuts is here."

That cheered the warrior up, and she followed, snapping her fingers for Ares, who was trotting around the perimeter of the crowd, sniffing suspiciously. The quarter moon didn't lend much light, but the merchant's area was well posted with torches, and the scent of burning pitch mingled with the enticing aromas of roasting meat, and baking.

The milling crowd swallowed them, and Xena heard genial greetings sent her way, to which she lifted a friendly hand in response. A whiff of grilled lamb and onions caught her attention, and she nudged her way towards the small stand, offering a coin and receiving a pair of skewers heavy with meat and grilled vegetables. She handed one to her mother, and started to nibble on her own contentedly.

A man was juggling, and she stopped to watch, as he deftly handled two torches and a round object, flipping them up and around with nonchalant skill. She felt a tug on her elbow, and let her mother steer her towards some brightly colored booths dripping with cloth. "Hey… I was watching him… " She protested.

"Uh huh… some things never change." Cyrene bumped her with an elbow. "How long would it be before you'd take those things out of his hands?"

Xena let a rakish grin twitch her lips. "Ok..ok.. " She dutifully examined the wares, running her fingers over it with a knowing touch. "Red.. red.. red… " She mumbled, ignoring her mother's chuckle "Ah." Her hands touched a bolt of deep, wine colored nubbly textured fabric. "That's it." She glanced at the weaver, who was standing with his hands tucked in his belt, watching her benignly. "How much?"

He ambled forward. "Well now, little lady.. "

Xena straightened up to her full height, and gave him her most severe Look.

He squeaked. "Sorry.. I'm uh… blind.. yes… um… it's dark.. and.. I'm blind.. and deaf.. and I have only one leg.."

The warrior couldn't help it. She started laughing, and leaned against the post. "You know someone named Salmoneus?" She asked, putting her hands on her hips.

"Ah.. yes!" The merchant rubbed his hands. "Yes.. yes… my good friend.. no. .my good cousin.. yes… good old Sal…is he a friend of yours?"

"No." Xena replied, straightfaced.

"The blackguard" The weaver immediately tisked. "He should be locked up."

The warrior started laughing again. "He's a friend.. yeah." She waved the fabric. "How much, and what's your name?"

"Elegenius." The man rubbed his hands together. "Five dinars, that is.. and it's lovely stuff."

Gabrielle would stand here for a candlemark and get him down to three. Xena considered, then fished a five dinar piece out of her pouch and flipped it to him. "There you go." She tuned out her mother's scandalized clucking.

"Ah… " He glanced at the coin, then folded his pudgy fingers around it. "And what's your name, o friend of my cousins?"

The torchlight glinted off even white teeth "Xena." The warrior answered casually.

His comically round jaw dropped, and his eyes widened. "Oh…duck farts." His hand flew up to cover his mouth. "He's described you so many ways… but he never warned me how lovely you are."

Xena wasn't expecting that, and she blushed, which was luckily hidden by the shifting torchlight. Her mother chortled softly. "Thanks." She managed to drawl. "I can just imagine his description otherwise." She tucked the fabric under one arm, and edged back out into the cool night air, resuming her studied attack on her lamb skewer as she waited for Cyrene to finish her dickering. The fabric felt warm under her arm, and she smiled quietly, thinking of how nice the stuff would look draped over her soulmate.

That edged her thoughts to what Gabrielle was doing, and she sighed, and forced her attention to the two painted ladies that were sashaying across the stubble covered ground, eyeing her lanky form with interest. She worried a bit of lamb off her skewer and chewed it, giving them both a direct stare back, aware of a tickling nudge of enjoyment at the frank admiration.

Not that she didn't get that from Gabrielle. She did… one look at the bard's eyes when they were turned her way delivered a jolt of flattering admiration every time. She suspected hers did the same in return, but this was… something different. She expected Gabrielle to find her attractive… even when she was covered in muck, and sweat, and in a grumpy mood. That was the magic of love, after all.. and she felt that way about her partner, regardless of how she looked, even in the fuzzy dishevelment of early morning.

Especially then, Xena sheepishly admitted to herself. But it was nice, once in a while to get that look from someone she didn't even know.

Like now, as the two women stopped, ostensibly to pick through a string of hanging leather purses, but letting their eyes flick to her in sly invitation. Ah well. The warrior cheered up a little. Nothing like a little ego stroking to improve a bad mood.

"Hey." Cyrene nudged her in the back. "I can't believe you just let him charge you that, Xena.. what were you thinking of?"

"Bargaining's not my department, mother." She drawled. "C'mon… I can smell those nuts from here. " She dropped her now empty skewer and licked her lips, sparing the two watching women a rakish grin as she moved off towards a noisy area just to the right.

Gabrielle felt as though a layer of absurdity had just drifted over her, as she sat quietly, leaning back in the comfortable chair in the small room at the back of the inn, watching Toris pace back and forth. "Y'know.. you look just like your sister when you do that." She commented wryly, as he turned, and gave her a familiar look over one shoulder. 

He sat down quietly on the double pallet that Ephiny had used and propped his chin up on one hand. "I'm a little nervous."  

The bard pulled her legs up onto the chair seat and crossed them. "That's ok.. I am too." She pushed her hair back behind her ear with one idle hand. "I'm not really sure where to start."

Toris exhaled noisily. "Wow… I feel better now.. I didn't know either." He glanced shyly up at her. "It’s not like there's a set of instructions for this kind of thing."

"Um…no." Gabrielle agreed. "Not exactly." Slowly she stood up, and walked over to the pallet, and sat down next to him, noting his jittery start. "Listen.. Toris, if this is going to weird you out.. we can wait… I don't want to push it."

He took a deep breath. "It's… I'm just kind of scared.. a little.. I guess.. .I don't want to hurt you or anything." He studied her face. "You want to do this, right?"

Gabrielle nodded. "I do.. but I also value your friendship.. and I don’t' want to mess that up, Toris…" She scooted back and a leaned against the wall, studying her booted feet. "That's what kept your sister and I apart for so long, I think."

"Really?" He turned and faced her, leaning onto one elbow and relaxing a little.

"Mm." Gabrielle nodded a little. "Her friendship was really important to me… and I think mine was to her. So.. we were scared to push things any further.. because we were both worried we'd lose some of what makes our friendship so special."

"Did you?" Toris asked, curiously.

"No." The bard shook her head. "She's still my best friend." She paused, thinking. "I think she always will be."

He plucked a bit of wool from the blanket. "When I first met you.. I couldn't understand what on earth you were doing hanging around with her… it didn't make any sense to me at all." A hand reached up and scratched the unfamiliar beard. "You were so different… but you reminded me a little of Lyceus.. so I though maybe Xena was just trying to…" He paused. "I don't know.. bring a little of him back."

Gabrielle slid down a bit, and leaned on her own elbow, putting their heads on a level. "I know she misses him."

Toris sighed. "I do too… he was a bright kid.. very full of love, and full of life." He paused, and swallowed. "And I've always been a little jealous of him… I know he and Xe were so much closer than either of them ever were to me." He looked up. "He always looked up to her.. when he died, gods… it hurt her so much."

The bard felt gentle tears slip from her eyes, as her mind flashed to a memory of the Fates' Temple. "I know."

"If he'd lived.. I think.. things would have been a lot different for Xe…it was like, without him looking up to her, she kind of lost touch with who she wanted to be." The dark haired man continued quietly. "I couldn't take his place." He almost stopped breathing as Gabrielle's fingers touched his hair, and slid through it in a comforting motion. "But I think you did."

Gabrielle accepted that. "For me… I.. never had anyone, ever… who cared about what I thought.. about who I wanted to be… who even took me seriously, until I met her.. and … I guess.. that gave me the strength to reach out, and take risks.. and challenge myself." She touched his cheek, feeling the prickly stubble under her fingers, and the nervous twitch of muscles just under the skin. "It's all right.. I won't hurt you." She smiled at him.

"Isn't that supposed to be my line?" Toris answered, faintly, daring to look up into the candlelit green eyes warmed to amber. The weeks of peace and rest had erased much of the strain from the bard's face, and returned to it a sense of the youthfulness he remembered from their first meeting. That had seemed several lifetimes ago, though, and the time hadn't removed the quiet shadows that still lurked behind that gentle gaze.

Those eyes held peace, though, and a quiet friendliness, and he found himself drawn to them in a way quite different from his attraction to Granella. His heart, pounding at her touch, slowly calmed.

"I was so mad at her…" Gabrielle smiled wistfully. "After we met you.. because she'd never told me she had a brother…I was hurt." She continued her gentle stroking, feeling him lean into her touch slightly. "And we didn't get off to the best start."

Now he smiled. "No… I guess not." His face moved into a familiar smile, and the bard traced the creases it caused in his skin. "We've all grown up a little in the last few years."

The bard sighed softly. "We have." She paused, thinking. "But.. even after everything… I still wouldn't have missed it for anything."

"Really?" Toris asked, gently.

"Really." Gabrielle answered with sureness. "It's been hard.. but I'd never have known her.. never have met you, and Cyrene.. and the Amazons.. never seen the places I've seen, done the things that I have… it's been such a gift, Toris.. so, no. I accept the bad parts… the good parts make it all worth it."

The dark haired man raised a hesitant hand, and laid his fingertips against the skin of her face, feeling its softness with a sense of almost wonder. "You're pretty special."

"No." Gabrielle curled her fingers around his. "I'm just an ordinary person… but I've been lucky enough to be put into extraordinary circumstances, and I have a very special guardian who sees me through them."

Toris smiled faintly, and concentrated on the warmth of her hands. "I'd say this qualifies as an extraordinary circumstance." He had to clear his throat when she turned her head and kissed his palm, sending a wild jolt of sensation through him. "And I don't care what you say, Gabrielle.. you are an extraordinary person." He edged forward, his body responding to her nearness, and forgot to worry about how he measured up when she leaned closer, and very gently, almost chastely, brushed her lips against his own.

"Thank you for this gift, Toris."

Gabrielle's breath warmed his cheek, and he closed his eyes, hardly realizing it when his fingers dropped to her shoulder, feeling the strong muscles that moved just under the soft skin. Be gentle, Xena had said.. but he knew, as the bard's hand smoothed the planes of his face, that there was no chance of him being anything but. Her sweet, trusting nature demanded it, and as he loosened the hold he'd been keeping on his reactions, knowing that dispersed his fear and scattered it, leaving behind only affection, and peace, and warmth.

A ring of laughing men drew Xena's attention, and she turned from where she was leaning against a trader's wagon and glanced over, taking a long swallow of cold ale from the mug in her hand. With the other hand, she juggled a few roasted nuts, coated in honey and cinnamon, and threw one up in the air, catching it neatly in her teeth and munching it. Cyrene was busy dickering with the pot merchant, and she'd already finished her shopping, selecting small, but beautifully carved horn handled daggers for Jessan's children.

Heh. She fingered the knives, which were exceptionally well made. Teach Gabrielle to send my butt shopping… I know she was thinking more along the lines of stuffed animals. The bard would, she knew, roll her eyes, and get that little look.. the tiny crinkle in her forehead and that little twitch to her lips… Xena smiled in pure reflex thinking about it.

Another round of laughter drew her attention, and she wandered over to the small group, peering over the nearest man's shoulder at a rough hewn table, where two men were arm wrestling. One was obviously a regular of the caravan.. he had the rough, weathered look of a trader, and with his shirt off showed huge, bulging muscles that marked him as a stockman. He was braced and straining against a village local, a young farm boy whose straight, pale hair hung into his eyes. Both men were pretty well matched in size, and Xena edged around to a more comfortable spot to watch as they shifted back and forth, trying to get the advantage over one another.

No no… Xena silently coached them. Gotta get the angle better.. cock your wrist you… With a low growl, the trader slid his weight to the right, and got the momentum, then slammed the farm boy's hand down onto the wood with a scrape of flesh.

Amateur. Xena sipped her ale and nibbled a nut.

"Argh… ye've got naught but little boys here." The trader scoffed, brushing the top of the table with his hand as though he could brush the farmboy away. "Pay up." Dinars changed hands, reluctantly passing from the villagers to the merchants, and Xena realized it was a setup.. to milk a few more profits from the places they visited. The man would challenge all comers, with his practice and size, pretty much guaranteed to win most of his bouts. "Anyone else? C'mon now.. double or nothing." The man looked around, chuckling good naturedly.

A smile of pure, feral joy crossed Xena's face for a bare instant, and she poked the nearest villager in the shoulder, and handed him her mug. "Hold this."

"Hu….oh!" The man recognized her, and stifled a greeting. "Sure." He took the mug, and cleared out of her way.

The trader looked up as she pushed her way through the crowd, and his brows rose.

"Mind if I give it a try?" Xena asked, in a deceptively innocent tone. She was peripherally aware of the glances passing behind her back, and the quickly hidden grins of the Amphipolitians.

He chuckled, giving her a long look. "Sure, pretty lady." He stood, and bowed her to a seat, admiring her lithe, graceful form. "I'll go easy on ye."

"Hey… Genus…" Josclyn leaned against the wagon. "Ten dinars if you beat er."

The man laughed. "Y've got too much ale in ye, Josc… but I'll take yer money." He flexed his hand, and set his elbow down, looking at her. "Now then, pretty lady.. we'll have this done.. and I'll buy ye a drink with me winnings, all right then?"

He should have known from the grip of the long, powerful hand that closed gently, so gently around his, or by the dangerous glint in those pale, piercing eyes. But he only saw a young, beautiful woman, taller than the average, but otherwise ordinary, and so he settled his grip, and gave her a nod.

He flexed his arm, and found his pressure matched, which surprised him, so he threw a bit more effort into it, startled when his hand couldn't move hers. Then he realized those shifting shadows across her arms were the torchlight outlining powerful muscles, and his brow creased. He took a stronger grip, and shoved, and his eyes bulged as not only didn't she move, she started pressing back, and his arm was forced tableward. "Hades cock's balls." He muttered, pushing against her thrust to no avail.

Xena grinned, and her eyes twinkled, as she shifted her weight and angled her wrist, slamming his hand against the wood. "Gotcha." Her voice purred across the table. "But I'll buy you a drink, all right?"

He stared at her, his jaw working. "Damn it all."

Josclyn chuckled, and pounded his shoulder. "Pay up, Genus.. it was fair and square, or would you like another shot?"

The man scowled at him, then looked at Xena, who flexed her hand, and let her brows rise in question. "Nah.. " He finally had to laugh sheepishly. "I know when I'm beat." The other merchants, grudgingly giving back their winnings to the smiling villagers, looked like they wanted to disagree, but remained silent.

Xena stood and accepted her mug back, noting it was now refilled. She took a sip, cheerfully basking in the admiration she felt as the conversation started buzzing again. "Nice timing." She muttered to Josclyn, who smirked quietly.

"Ah.. lass… I couldn't pass that up." The reeve laughed. "Not when I saw ye heading towards that great ox…was a good thing. They won a fair bit from us… Briarias was our last hope to get any of it back."

"You could have just come asked." Xena replied mildly, looking up as Josclyn's daughter, a young, ginger haired girl with striking gray eyes emerged from the crowd, shyly offering her a twist of fried dough sprinkled with cinnamon. That brought a surprised but happy look to the warrior's face. "Thanks Hetrine."

"Anytime, Xena." The girl replied softly. "You just won back my chance at a pony." She gave her father a stern look.

The warrior laughed at the look of consternation on the reeve's face. "What kinda pony you looking for Hetrine?" She bit into her dough with a grin. "Didn't know you liked riding."

The girl smiled at her. "I've been practicing.. but on our plow horse.. ugh." She twitched her robins' egg blue chemise. "Eleus has a filly he's wanting to part with.. she's not pretty, but she runs real nice."

Xena studied her with a practiced eye. "I know the one.. she's about the right size for you." They moved off a little ways, and the warrior put one booted foot up onto the yoke of the nearest wagon. "She's kinda spooky, though."

Hetrine folded her arms across her chest. "Yeah.. that's what papa said too.. " She sighed." I think she's just nervous.. Eleus has that dog.. and his favorite trick is to sneak up on the poor filly and bark at her when she doesn’t expect it."

"Mmm… " Xena considered that. "Probably true… listen, if you get her, and you need a hand with her training, let me know, ok?"

The girl gave her a dazzling smile. "Wow.. thanks… I didn't want to ask.. I know how busy you guys are. " She looked around. "Where is Gabrielle? I thought she'd be out here for sure."

Xena took a long sip of her drink. "She's.. taking care of some business." She answered vaguely.

Hetrine gave her a very curious look. "I see."

Xena sighed inwardly, making a mental bet with herself as to the direction of the rumor mill after that comment. "Some treaties came in from the Amazons, she had to study up on them." She provided drolly. "She takes that stuff pretty seriously."

"Oh… " The girl nodded. "Yeah.. I can see that.. " She glanced around. "So.. have you seen the fire eater? "

The warrior debated. Well, it was harmless enough.. Gabrielle did say to have some fun, right? "Nope.. have you?"

"A bunch of us were about to head over… come on." Hetrine motioned towards where a crowd was gathering. "I was trying to figure out how he does it.. it looks so dangerous."

Xena strolled along side her, finishing up her dough and taking another swallow of ale. "Not really." She commented. "It's all in the speed and technique."

The girl gave her a goggle eyed look. "Can you do that?"

The warrior waggled a hand. "Something like it." She looked around, feeling a bit reckless, then pulled a torch from its bracket. "Something like this, actually." She took a mouthful of ale, and with a quick motion, blew it towards the torch, lighting it on fire in a long, savage stream that impacted an unlit torch nearby, and set it aflame. Then she licked her lips, and put the torch back with a smirk. "Like it?"

"O… my gods." Hetrine giggled. "I can't believe you did that."

Xena chuckled, and nodded towards the fireeater, who had now combined his antics with the juggler in what looked like a particularly dangerous pairing.

The cool air circled round, and voices rose in greeting as she joined the crowd. She found herself tucked neatly between Hetrine and the miller's tall son, who gave her a bashful smile and ducked his dark curly head as they rubbed level shoulders. For a long moment, she indulged herself in imagining that Cortese had never happened, and that she was just another village girl, joining in a group of her friends, to watch two crazy guys play with fire and sharp implements.

That worked, she mused, feeling unexpectedly mellow. She'd managed to neatly segment the part of her that was desperately interested in what was happening with her soulmate into a small area that gnawed at itself, freeing the rest of her to simply absorb the night breeze, and indulge in the festival foods with cheerful abandon.

Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted a dart competition, and then she saw the roped off ring where some guy half the size of Goliath was wrestling a hapless opponent.

Xena grinned. Maybe it wasn't going to be such a bad night after all.

The night air gently blew Gabrielle's hair back, as she slowly moved across the darkened courtyard, yawning a little, and keeping her head down, deep in thought. Toris had been…kind of cute, and embarrassed, and sweet all at once, and she thought they'd end up much better friends because of this. She'd found out some things about him that she hadn't expected, and she thought maybe he'd found out some things about her.

On an emotional level, it never touched anything close to what it was like with Xena.. but then, she hadn't expected it to. But it hadn't been unpleasant, and she'd even gotten Toris to laugh afterward, and relax, and not feel so damn selfconcious.

Like she did, but she suspected she'd get over it. Her boots scuffed the ground a little, and she glanced up as she approached the cabin, startled to see the dark silhouette against the railing. Her footsteps quickened as she made it to her partner's side, and knelt, to see gently amused blue eyes studying her. "Hey.. whatcha doing out here?"

Xena gave her a relaxed look. "Waiting for you." She crossed her long legs at the ankles. "Pretty out tonight."

The bard settled on the porch cross-legged. "Well… add another thing to the long list of items your brother can't compete with you in."

Xena chuckled softly. 'You just trying to be nice?"

"No." Gabrielle answered, frankly. "He was sweet.. and we managed.. but.. " She leaned against Xena's muscular shoulder. "He doesn’t have 'it'. Only you have 'it.' " She explained obscurely. "At least for me"

The warrior smiled, then lifted something which had been resting at her side, and handed it over. Gabrielle took it gingerly, and examined it. "Xena.. what is this?"

"Stuffed bear." The warrior answered easily. "I won it for you."

"Uh.. huh… " Gabrielle arranged its drooping ears neatly. "Doing what?"

Xena glanced off into the forest, then looked up at the ceiling, then out at a tree. Ares snorted gently from her side, and covered his head with his tail. "Oh.. just… stuff."

The bard leaned an elbow on Xena's thigh, and peered up at her. "I'm gonna hear about this at breakfast, aren't I?"

A dazzling grin. "Not if we leave early." The merchants hadn't really been upset…well, not until the very end, after the villagers had cleaned up nicely dinar wise and they were all gathered around her, buying her drinks and indulging in a round of warm, almost possessive congratulations. Then they'd told the travelers who she was, and the cries of foul began to rise, which she'd had to settle in the most expeditious manner.

Gods, that had felt good.. their biggest, toughest drover and her, in a torchlit circle, no hold barred in a dirty wrestling match, Amphipolis solidly behind her, cheering. She'd tapped into her peacefully snoozing skills, and gone all out, showing them some truly nice moves and ended up with her kneeling on the drover's chest, arms crossed, and the biggest smirk she could muster plastered across her face. The crowd had loved it. She'd loved it. It brought her briefly back to long fall nights when she'd first gathered her army, when she'd had to prove her right to lead them, in the most basic of ways.

But the best part had been after she'd stood up, and dusted herself off, and the village had gathered around her, hands reaching out to pull a bit of grass of her, pat her, grip a shoulder… no fear. No hesitation. They'd actually lifted her up onto their shoulders, and carried her back to the inn, laughing.

And she hadn't minded at all. "Relax… " She chuckled, seeing the bard bite her lip. "I just had a great time… missed you being there, though."

Gabrielle mustered a smile, and edged closer, sighing a little as Xena settled an arm over her shoulders, and she leaned her head against her partner's chest. "I think I'll play it by ear this winter.. when we get back, Xena.. I don't know if I was ready for this." She admitted very quietly.

The warrior stroked her hair gently. "That's all right with me, love." She reassured her. "He didn't hurt you, did he?"

The bard smiled, and raised her eyes to her soulmate in utter affection. "Of course not… I felt like I was wrapped in cotton wool, Xena…he was so nervous, it's a wonder he didn't just fall over." She sighed, and wriggled closer. "I think he was afraid if I got so much as a scratch, you'd come over and make him into fertilizer."

"Smart boy." The warrior growled, then she eyed her soulmate. "Or am I being overprotective again?"

Gabrielle grinned impishly, and her eyes sparkled. "Can I confess a deep, dark secret to you?"

Xena blinked. "Sure."

The bard kissed her shoulder. "I love it when you do that."

The warrior gave her a surprised look. "You do?" She chuckled a little in startlement. "But you always… "

"I know." Gabrielle admitted softly. "But, truthfully…having that surrounding me is a wonderful, very much welcome feeling." And it took my losing it to force me to realize that, right? "So… if I protest, it's just for show, ok?"

Xena wrapped her arms around her, and grinned. "OK."

They rested quietly for a few minutes, then Gabrielle rolled a green eye upward. "So… how many people did you beat up?" She drawled knowingly. "And did someone at least place a bet for me?"

Xena drew a small bag from her belt, and handed it over, hearing the heavy clink of coins as the bard hefted it. "Ooo…. " Gabrielle giggled. "They didn't know what hit em, huh?" She let the bag drop against the warrior's belly. "Sorry I missed that…did you get dinner?"

Xena stretched and laid a hand over her stomach. "More than I should have…I think I tried one of everything." She admitted amiably. "I'm gonna regret it tomorrow…I had a half dozen of those dough twist things." She yawned slightly. "You?"

Gabrielle poked in the bag of things Xena had brought back. "Oh yeah.. I'm fine.." She touched the fabric. "Oh.. wow… this is perfect… " She gave her soulmate a kiss on the shoulder, then picked up the set of tiny knives and burst into giggles. "Xena.. you are sooooo predictable.. I had a bet on with Mom that you'd get something like this." She turned back to the bag, and squawked suddenly, as she was lifted up, and the air whirled around her. "Whoa!"

Xena peered down at her, a mischievous sparkle in her eyes. "Can't be too predictable, now, can I?"

Their laughter echoed out softly into the crisp air.

The sun peeking out over the mountain range found them striding down the road, already candlemarks out from Amphipolis, and heading into the cool, sweet air of a beautiful fall day. Gabrielle took a better grip on her staff, and looked around in cheerful appreciation, sucking in the breeze with a happy smile. "What a great day for walking." She commented, giving her partner a sideways glance.

Xena looked around and nodded, shifting her shoulders to resettle her armor, and letting out a peaceful sigh. "Sure is."

The bard studied her. "I like those new leathers." She announced, reaching out a hand and touching the dark surface. "It's a different cut, isn't it?"

The warrior looked down, and pulled at a bit of the skirting. "Yeah…" She smoothed the surface. "I wanted it a little longer here.. " She patted her upper thigh. "Get a little more protection."

Gabrielle grinned. So practical, her soulmate. The leathers were a bit longer, yeah.. but they were also sleeker, and fit her really well, the layered lower part outlining her muscular thighs, and the back cut to emphasize her tanned, strong shoulders. Her armor gleamed dully in the warming sun, a nice contrast to the almost black surface. Xena always moved with an unconscious grace and strength, but it always seemed even more so when she was armored. Maybe.. Gabrielle mused.. because it took more effort to move with the weight of it.

"Dinar for your thoughts." The warrior eyed her.

"All right.. but you'll blush." Gabrielle answered immediately. "I was just thinking about how good you look in that."

A raised eyebrow. "Must be the leather." She joked wryly.

The bard chuckled softly. "I think it's what's in the leather, but…no, the leather doesn’t hurt." She took another long look. "Mom's right, though.. you do look much bigger when you're in that getup."

Xena spread her arms, and shrugged. "It's armor, Gabrielle." She stamped her booted feet, raising a small cloud of dust. "It's functional." She shrugged to settled her sword, strapped neatly across her back, and adjusted a bracer. "At least it's cool enough now to wear it comfortably.. " She returned her partner's appraising glance. "You'll be getting goosebumps soon enough." She ran a finger across Gabrielle's ribs, watching a trail of them follow her touch. The bard was wearing her usual traveling outfit, save that she'd switched to the dark blue skirt, with it's intricately tooled belt instead of her former tan, and traded her pea green halter for a rust one that contrasted nicely with her eyes.

The bard giggled, and slapped her hand. "Cut that out." She took another deep breath of the cool air. "I packed my cloak… but it feels great just to be out here." She threw her head back, and hopped a few paces forward, spreading her arms out and letting out a little laugh.

Xena watched her with an indulgent grin, feeling pretty good herself. She was aware of Argo's patient hoofbeats to her right, and the gentle patter of Ares' paws against the pebble filled road. They'd decided to take the wolf with them, to prevent his pining for their return, which drove her mother, crazy.

The day went by pleasantly, as they traced a familiar path towards Potadeia, pausing by a stream for lunch, then hitting the sloping road that would lead to Gabrielle's hometown when the sun was arching down towards the western horizon.

"Animal or plant?" The bard asked, munching on a handful of honeyed figs.

"Animal." Xena answered, from a few paces away where she was running through a set of sword drills as she walked, flipping the weapon up and over her arm and catching it. She reached up and casually sheared off a wild peach, catching the fruit in one hand and examining it. "A fuzzy animal."

Gabrielle licked her fingers, and peered at the peach with interest. "Hey.. where's mine?"

Xena's brows hiked. "You just had lunch!"

"And your point is what?" The bard inquired innocently. "You know walking makes me hungry."

The warrior chuckled, and stopped, handing Gabrielle Argo's reins. "Hang on to these." She backtracked and found another fruit, slicing it off neatly and retrieving it, then walking back and handing it to her partner. "There.. happy now?"

The bard bit into the peach, and sent juices everywhere. "Oh.. poop." She laughed, fishing for a scrap of cloth in her bag. "That was definitely ripe."

Xena removed her breast dagger, and cut neat slices from her own, managing to eat the fruit without getting so much as a drop of the sticky juice on her. "Guess I gotta find a stream, huh?" She tsked at her partner. "Can't take you anywhere, Gabrielle."

The bard poked a tongue out at her, as she finished her peach, and sucked happily on the pit. "We made good time…right?" She glanced ahead. "Isn't that the crossroads?"

Xena nodded. "Yep…" She straightened a little, as she spotted a rider approaching, and wiped her mouth absently as she eyed him. "Trader." She announced, and relaxed, cleaning the blade of her dagger of peach juice with efficient swipes of her tongue.

"Watch it.." The bard tucked her staff under her arm and took a breath. "Don't cut yourself."

Xena snorted. "On my own dagger? Yeah, right." She flipped the blade in her hand and replaced it, then gave the approaching rider a nod, and moved to one side of the road to let him pass.

It was a fairly short man, with curly red hair, half hidden among the packs he had stacked on his sturdy looking horse. "Hello there.. " He called out, as they drew even with him. "Is this the road up to Amphipolis?"

The warrior nodded. "Yep.. go up, fork past the river."

The man nodded. "Thanks.." Then he paused, and studied her. "You wouldn't be Xena, would you?"

A sardonic half grin met his words. "What clued you in?"

He laughed. "You were described to me as tall, dark and deadly." He kneed his horse closer, and extended an arm. "Helanus."

Xena took his arm, and gripped it. "Well, I'm Xena, and this is Gabrielle."

"Ah!" He gave the bard a big grin. "The bard!"

Gabrielle smiled, and offered her hand. "That would be me, yes."

"An honor.. an honor.." He leaned back in the saddle. "As it happens.. I was going to pass a message to you from Rivas.. I've just come from there." He took a breath. "Seems a fellow is looking for you.. has a message from someone and a commission to deliver it.. but he'd gotten into some trouble in Amphipolis, so… "

"Hm." Xena grunted, considering the news. "That's not far from here." She calculated the distance. "Day… maybe less."

"About that… it's taken me two, because my Roger here turned up lame yesterday afternoon." He indicated the horse, who was exchanging nickers with Argo, and looking suspiciously at the panting Ares, who was seated comfortably under the mare's belly. "Well, I've delivered my message.. got to get on going." He waved. "Nice meeting you both."

Xena gave him an absent wave back. "Thanks Helanus… there's a cave system just off the road up ahead of you.. you can shelter there."

He kneed his mount forward. "Good news.. and thank you, Xena."

The warrior urged Argo forward, deep in thought. "Wonder what that's about?" She commented to Gabrielle, who was rewrapping a bit of the leather thong that circled her staff. "Listen.. I've got an idea."

The bard glanced up. "Ok?"

"We're just outside Potadeia… why don’t' you go on.. spend a day with your folks.. I'll head over to Rivas and pick up this message, so we don’t' have to lose time. It's out of our way otherwise." Xena proposed. "Sound all right?"

Gabrielle didn't answer. She leaned on her staff, and looked off into the distance for a long moment, then turned back towards her soulmate. "Yeah, I guess." Her voice was subdubded.

Xena studied her, a crease appearing in her brow. "That didn't sound very enthusiastic." She commented, putting a hand on her partner's shoulder. "You all right?"

The bard chewed her lip, looking down at the road. "I um… it's silly, I guess… going home… I just.. it's spooking me." She admitted. "Just the thought of them knowing.. what happened, what I did… I…"

The warrior stepped closer, and threaded her fingers through her partner's silken hair. "Ok.. never mind.. I'll just go on with you, ok?"

Gabrielle put one hand on her hip, then raked her fingers through her bangs. "No, you're right… it'll save time." She pushed very gently on Xena's chest. "You go on.. I'll be ok." She exhaled. "It's just my family." Yeah, right. I feel like I'm going in there naked. "Go on."

Instead, arms gently enfolded her, bringing her into a safe place that she never wanted to leave. Never wanted to have to deal with unpleasant things like facing her family, and seeing the pity in their eyes.

"No way am I leaving you like this." Xena said quietly. "We'll go to Potadeia first, then detour over to Rivas to pick up that damn message."

And that, for some reason, calmed her down like magic, and made the thought of entering her hometown all right. "No." Gabrielle put her hands up onto the warrior's shoulders. "I have… to face this, just like you had to face your family, Xena." But she smiled. "Besides.. even when you're not here, you still are." She put a hand over her own heart. "I just… lost sight of that for a minute."

Blue eyes evaluated her as though she was a siege engine. "I don't think I'm buying that, love." Xena warned. "I'm not sending you into the lion's den and having you be miserable until I get back."

The concern in her voice was tangible and real, and it felt like a warm caress to the bard's jangled nerves. "My tiger." She smiled impishly. "You don't know how good that makes me feel." But she sighed, and patted Xena's chest. "It'll be all right.. it's just a day, Xena…I think they'd kind of like some time alone with me anyway… and if it gets too bad, I can go hide at Lila's."

Xena cupped her face, and bent her head to peer intently into her soulmate's eyes. "Are you sure?" Her voice dropped to its lowest, most solemn register.

A soft exhale. "The only thing I'm sure of in this world is you." Gabrielle felt the words coming out without thought, and it caused a little silence to fall between them. "But.. it's all right.. you go get this mysterious message."

Xena kissed her, and tucked a pad of silky warmth around her soul to keep it safe. "This won't take long." She promised. "You keep Ares with you.. he's… " She glanced down with a wry smile. "He's good to hug." She paused. "When you're not feeling so hot."

Gabrielle gave her a fierce hug. "I will.. and you be careful, all right? Don't stop to talk to any strange weirdoes on the road."

Xena chuckled, and turned, to pull a small sack from Argo's back. "Here.. that's enough of your stuff to hold you overnight… and.. " She brushed an errant hair back from the bard's face. "If anyone gives you a hard time, my bard… "

"I know." Gabrielle's face creased into a smile. "Tell them you'll turn them into mattress stuffing." She patted her partner on the side. "Go on… my curiosity's killing me." She watched Xena reluctantly release her, then turn and vault to Argo's high back, settling her legs against the mare's warm sides. The bard walked forward and laid a hand on the soft skin of her partner's leg, absently tracing the hard muscles just underneath the surface. "Hey.. take care, all right?"

A gentle touch on the top of her head, as Xena ruffled her hair. "You too, love… see you very shortly." She ducked in the saddle to capture the bard's lips, then straightened back up, and let her fingertips brush across the smaller woman's soft cheek. "Be good."

Gabrielle nodded mutely, and watched her ride off, then squared her shoulders, and faced herself down the road to Potadeia. "Come on, Gabrielle… no sense in delaying the inevitable." She glanced at Ares, who glanced back at her, and panted. "Let's go, Ares…" They started down the road, and with every step, Gabrielle felt herself wishing she was headed in the opposite direction.

The moon was arcing high among the stars before Xena decided on halting, grudgingly pleased with the time she'd made, and knowing her destination to be close enough to reach before noon the next day.

She found a small glade, bounded on three sides by moss covered rocks, and graced by a small springhead that burbled peacefully down them to trickle off into a slowly emerging stream bed. The forest sounds were muted, as she gently stripped Argo's tack off in silence, and ran her currycomb over the mare's sleek sides.

A cricket's chirping. The rustle of some small animal in it's nightly hunt. Or perhaps being hunted, Xena mused. The quiet around her magnified the small sounds that seemed to beat against her ears with uncommon thickness. "You're gonna laugh at me if I say it's too quiet, aren't you?" She muttered to the mare, who snorted softly. "Yeah, I thought so."

With a sigh, she finished up with Argo, and efficiently set up a small camp, getting a fire going and heating up some water while she chewed absently on some trail bars and one of the meat pockets her mother had packed for them. She pulled off her armor, and set it down next to her, alternating bites of dinner with swipes of her cleaning rag, until she was full, and the armor was clean.

She poured out some tea, and put it on a flat rock to cool a little, while she sharpened her sword, not strictly necessary since she hadn't used it that day, but it was almost a reflex motion, and tended to settle her nerves, which were, she admitted, a little jumpy. Get a grip, Xena… Gabrielle is not some walking, talking, security blanket. She's got stuff she has to do, and so to you, so just calm down.

She finished the sharpening, and unrolled her bedfurs, then settled down with the cup of gently steaming tea and tipped her head back, regarding the stars with stolid interest.

It took about six heartbeats, and she knew, because she counted them, before her thoughts steered unerringly towards her partner, and she wondered how things were going in Potadeia. She sympathized with Gabrielle.. the expectations of your family always… well, they never really coincided with your own, did they? She knew the bard was still very sensitive about how she viewed herself and the world after the past year, but she suspected Gabrielle would find a way to deflect the intense scrutiny of her family onto to something else.

Which, she also knew, was why Gabrielle had wanted her along.. when it came to distractions, she always felt she stepped up to the mark and provided as much of a distraction as any one bard could possibly ask for. When everyone focused on her, Gabrielle could step back, and review things, without feeling the pressure of everyone's eyes on her.

Well, Xena sighed. She'd be there soon enough.. and Hecuba might possibly welcome this chance to get her older daughter alone, without Xena's intimidating presence . Of course… Gabrielle would probably not welcome it, but she had confidence in her partner… the bard would cope until she arrived back with whatever message it was that was waiting.

That mystery pricked at her, and Xena found herself indulging in almost a guilty sense of pleasure at the prospect of a possible adventure. She stopped and examined the feeling, drumming her fingers on her thigh a little.

Getting restless, Xena? She sardonically accused herself. She liked Amphipolis… and she'd been enjoying the past few weeks of routine chores, and working with the horses.. getting ready for harvest, and the long winter ahead. But…

But. With a sigh, she pulled he sword from it's sheath, and twirled it in her hand, feeling the weight of it and the familiar rasp of the leather wrapped hilt against her skin. The blade glinted in the moonlight, and she let it fall down gently, until it was resting on her shoulder, the metal just grazing the edge of her ear. Admit it. You miss this.

She took in a long breath, tasting the tang of metal on it, and nibbled the inside of her lip. Putting on the armor and leathers had felt… good. Too good, she'd thought at the time, as she'd accepted the weight of the metal armor with a sense of almost.. relief. She'd been embarrassed about that, until she'd seen the little, anticipatory grin on Gabrielle's face, as she carefully rewrapped the grip on her staff, and realized the bard had been looking forward to this as much as she had.

So.. was it the romance of the road? Xena had to laugh at her self. "Oh yeah.. romantic, Argo.. " She gazed around at the leaf littered ground. Or was it just relief from boredom? No.. life in Amphipolis wasn't boring.

Could it be that she'd gotten used to .. gods.. I can't believe I'm even going to think this phrase… used to crusading for justice? Xena covered her eyes, and peeked out between her fingers, at Argo's very amused face. "Argo.. I think I've become addicted to being a do gooder." She groaned. "Kill me now."

The horse honked.

Xena's eyes flew open, and she lifted the sword, rising to her feet in one smooth, powerful motion. That was not a normal sound from an equine, and Xena knew that. "Argo?"

The mare snorted, and turned towards her, stomping with one hoof in the grass.

"Honk." The sound came again, from just to her left, and she crouched, senses extended into the surrounding forest to detect its source.

An odd, shuffling, pattering sound came towards her, and she shifted her grip on the sword, waiting patiently. The animal, whatever it was, wasn't moving too fast, and a predator wouldn't make such a ridiculous noise.

"Unless it's a killer duck." Xena mumbled to herself. She pinned her sharp gaze on a small bush just at the edge of the clearing, and watched, as the leaves began to tremble, then they abruptly parted, and her attacker entered the cleared space.

Blue eyes blinked. Twice. Slowly the sword lowered, then she absently sheathed it, as she edged closer to the intruder. "What in the muddy waters of the River Styx are you?"

Solemn, forward facing eyes blinked back at her, from an animal that, perhaps, came to the warrior's kneecap. It was standing upright, and had a birdlike head, with a bright colored beak. It's front was silver, or white, Xena couldn’t tell in the moonlight, and the rest of it was a dark color. It had stubby little arms or wings, and small flat feet.

It waddled forward, and honked at her.

Xena put her hands on her hips and looked back at it in puzzlement. She'd never seen anything like it, and she prided herself in knowing a wide range of animals. "Are you a bird.. or what?"

"Honk." The animal rustled its feet, and sat, flipping it's useless wings to fan itself. It's beak opened and closed as it breathed.

The warrior slowly sat down on her sleeping furs, putting her head at roughly the same level as the animal's, and studied it. It didn’t appear dangerous, though that beak looked like it could do some damage if it wanted to. She peered at its coat, and saw it appeared to be comprised of feathers, but so tightly packed together as to almost be a single surface. The beak curved downward, and she could see tiny ridges in it.

The feet were webbed, and the same color as the beak. Its eyes were tiny and black, and blinked incessantly as it watched the large, odd-looking creature facing it.

Xena hesitantly held a hand out, her natural curiosity overwhelming her. Wasn't often when something brand new brought itself to her attention, and she felt a tickle of intellectual interest in cataloging her little friend. Bird? Maybe… but it reminded her vaguely of something she'd seen on a ship voyage once, looking down into the formless dark green depths of the cold waters just outside of Britannia. A water bird, who could swim, but not fly.

The animal waddled forward, a comical motion that brought a frank grin to the warrior's face. Her brow creased, and she pawed around in her bag for a minute, while the animal watched cautiously. Then she drummed her fingers on her thigh again. Ah… She leaned back, and gazed over the small bank into the trickle of the stream, focusing her eyes on the shadows flitting in it. A long, breathless pause, and her hand moved in a flickering motion almost too fast for the eye to catch. "Ah hah." She pulled her closed fist out, and felt a ticklish wiggling against her skin.

"Honk." The bird shifted it's feet, waggling it's wing stubs at her as she sat back up, and extended her hand again, this time opening it enough to allow the heads of two struggling minnows to appear. The bird's head cocked, and it peered at her with those tiny black eyes, then slowly, the beak extended, and snapped around the head of one of the minnows, jerking it from Xena's grasp, and swallowing it with a convulsive motion of the bird's head.

"Like that, huh?" Xena grinned, and offered the other minnow up. "Well, g'wan, there's a whole pool of em.. I'm not finding them for ya." She watched the bird waddle over to the stream, and after gazing into it for a long moment, plunge in, splashing a handful of water back and dousing the warrior with it. "Hey!" She scrambled over, and watched it swim around, gobbling up minnows enthusiastically, using its wings as steering rudders, and it's feet as efficient paddles. "Huh… would ya look at that, Argo."

The mare was lipping up some water herself, and blew into it, ruffling the surface as she eyed the black and silver shadow with suspicion.

Xena watched it for a moment more, then shook her head, and resumed her relaxed position on the furs. Gabrielle was going to love hearing about her adventure, and she found herself looking forward to telling her partner about it. She also was a little surprised to find herself quietly hoping the message waiting for her would turn out to be half as interesting, and a quarter as intriguing as her strange night visitor.

The sun was gently coloring the ground in rich ochre as Gabrielle rounded the last bend in the road and saw her hometown extended out in front of her, it's small dwellings, and dusty streets sparking a kaleidoscope of memories, most of them not the best she had.

She entered through the outer merchant buildings, and crossed the small square which held the village well, and spotted a familiar form bent over it. With a smile, she snuck up in back of her sister, and tapped her on the shoulder with the end of her staff. "Hey!"

Lila whirled, startled, then squealed with delight. "Bree!" She dropped the bucket she'd been preparing to send down the well and threw her arms around her older sister. "Gods.. I had no idea you were headed here." She broke off, and leaned back, studying Gabrielle with intent eyes. "You look great."

The bard grinned. "Thanks.. so do you." She glanced around. "We're headed out west.. I told mother we'd stop by for a few days or so."

Lila looked around, then back at her in question. "Where's Xena?"

Gabrielle briefly revisited memories of a time when that question would have had a distinct hostile tinge, and compared it to the obvious friendly interest now in her sister's voice. "She'll be here.. oh, probably tomorrow at dinnertime or so.. she had to make a detour to Rivas to pick something up."

"Oh… ok.." Lila retrieved her bucket. "Let me get some water.. then we'll go visit the folks.. I know they'll be glad to see you."

"Mm. " Gabrielle made a noncommittal noise, as she took the bucket from her sister's hands. "I'll get that."

Lila obligingly gave it up, and settled on the edge of the well, letting her eyes take in her sibling's muscular body as she drew up the water. "I see you're in your harlotware." She joked, tugging on the skirt a little. "I like this color better on you."

The bard pulled the bucket up, and flicked a handful of water at her. "Thanks.. it's pretty new." She lifted her staff, and motioned for Lila to precede her. "Let's go." She observed her sister's tan, long skirt and brown shirt with a touch of bemusement. We certainly are different. She felt somewhat exotic with her rich colors and exposed midriff, and she knew she was attracting curious eyes as they crossed the village headed towards their parent's home.

Another thing Xena was good at. Attracting attention. Lots of attention. So much attention that you'd have to be a headless three legged juggling dog in order to compete. Sometimes that used to annoy Gabrielle, but lately…lately she'd begun to appreciate the ability to blend into the woodwork. She was a lousy juggler anyway. "How's Gabriel?"

"Growing like a weed." Lila answered, with a faint laugh. "He's got your appetite." She half turned. "Not that you could tell that on you.. gods, Bree… " She tsked at her sister's slim form. "I think you have a worm in there or something."

Gabrielle relaxed a little under the gentle teasing. "We've been working hard.. getting the village ready for winter and all that.. and I've been doing double staff lessons, because we've got a bunch of new students and I wanted to get them started before…" She chewed her lip. "Before we went on this trip. " Discussing her family plans with Lila.. probably not a good idea. She'd freaked out the last time the bard had mentioned her plans with Toris. "It'll catch up to me during the winter… usually does."

They rounded the last bend in the path before her parent's homestead, and spotted Hecuba kneeling in the small herb garden just to one side of the structure. The older woman glanced up, and pushed her gray hair out of her eyes. "Good gods… Gabrielle!" She hoisted herself to her feet and came to meet them, wiping the rich dark earth off her hands. "What a surprise." She gingerly hugged her older daughter, and patted her back. "Where's Xena?"

Gabrielle couldn’t help it, she started laughing. "You know.. I could get a complex here." She put her hands on her hips, cradling her staff against one shoulder. "She'll be here tomorrow.. she had to take a short detour."

"Well… " Her mother fussed with her apron. "I just assumed she wouldn't let you out and about all alone in these dangerous times, that's all."

The bard's eyebrows rose. "I can take care of myself, mother." She chided, gently.

"Hmph." Hecuba studied her critically. "Not nearly so well as she can, I think." She flicked a bit of road dust from the bard's shoulder. "I feel better when she's with you."

A soft blurt of laughter escaped Gabrielle. "Never thought I'd hear that from you." She said, quietly marveling. "Not that I'm complaining.. but there was someone with a message looking for her at Rivas.. she had to go pick it up, then she's heading back here."

"Come on inside, both of you." Hecuba wiped her hands again. "Your father is over in the next village… how long are you two going to be staying, Gabrielle?"

The bard shook her head. "It depends on what that message is." She opened the door and let her mother and sister precede her. She was surprised at the sense of quiet anticipation she felt about that… was it possible she hoped it would be something requiring their attention? She let out a long breath. Yes, it was. Wow.

But that wasn't fair to Xena. The warrior had been settling down so well at home. She'd been at peace.. her nature mellowing out to an almost startling degree. Asking her to change that… to throw her energy back into anger, and fighting…

No. The message was probably nothing, and they'd have a peaceful trip out to Jessan's. Maybe they'd stop in at Cirron, and do a little shopping. Yeah.

"Here, I've got some cold cider here. " Hecuba brought a pitcher to the table and three cups. "Let's sit for a while."

Lila lifted a hand. "Let me go get Gabriel… no telling what mischief he's gotten himself into." She gave her sister a wry look. "Besides, he loves his aunt." She slipped out, and Gabrielle grinned after her, then turned as her mother pushed a full cup across the table at her.

"Thanks." She took a sip. "So.. " Her voice sounded strange in the silence. "How are things here??"

Hecuba fiddled with her cup. "Things are well… your father had a bit of a turn last week.. had me a little worried." She commented. "He passed out in the field.. they brought him back here. But after a night's rest, he seemed all right."

Gabrielle's brows contracted. "Wow.. what did the healer say?"

Her mother shrugged a little. "Nothing… told him he was getting on.. to take it easy.. I'm sure you can guess how well that went over with your father."

"Ouch." The bard winced. "Yeah.. I can just imagine… well, we can ask Xena about it when she gets here."

"Mm… " Her mother glanced up with weary amusement. "He might even listen to her."

Gabrielle studied her hands, and swallowed a little. "I'm really glad you've accepted her." She finally said, looking up. "It means a lot to me."

Hecuba sighed. "It was hard." She admitted. "But… I have to tell you.. she kind of grows on you after a while."

That got a charming smile from Gabrielle. "Yeah." She let her chin rest on one hand, propping her elbow on the table. "She does."

Hecuba looked like she was going to say something, but stopped. "So.. how is Cyrene doing? Has she forgiven everyone for her joining yet? She was very annoyed… I was shocked at her language after the ceremony."

They made small talk until Lila came back, and then the conversation turned to the growing Gabriel, who settled happily down in his aunt's strong arms, tugging industriously at her red gold hair. Ares sniffed curiously at him, jumping back with a yelp when the baby reached out a feisty fist and clouted him on his sensitive nose. "Hey.. take it easy." The bard chided her namesake.

"Oh.. he's going to be a handful." Lila sighed. "I fear the day when he starts crawling… I'll never keep up with him." She stuck her tongue out at her son, who scowled back at her. "Are you a little terror? Yes you are…"

"Bck!" The baby smacked his lips.

"We'll be having our share of this towards the end of winter." Gabrielle commented, missing the startled look that passed between her mother and sister. She looked up, sensing the silence, and saw the uncertainty in their eyes. "Oh.. no.. um.. Granella… Toris' wife is pregnant." She paused. "We think… or at least, Xena thinks."

"Oh." Hecuba laughed nervously. "Goodness… I thought… anyway, that's marvelous…Cyrene must be so pleased." She sighed . "I know she…" And she stopped, awkwardly.

"Wants grandchildren, yes." Gabrielle finished for her, very quietly. "I know." She looked up, at their uneasy, embarrassed faces. "It's all right… you can talk about it."

A very awkward silence fell. 'We… " Lila started, then stopped, then took a breath. "It's hard to know what to say, Bree." She finally offered. "Other than.. I'm sorry… about what happened.. it must have been so awful for you."

Gabrielle gazed at her, two months of rebuilding enabling her to set herself at a distance from what had happened. "It was.. yeah…but it's over.. and we've just decided to go forward from here." She replied. "I can't change it… she can't change it…" A light shrug. "We worked through everything." She hoped that would end the conversation.

Hecuba slowly shook her head. "It's beyond my understanding." And she changed the subject, moving on instead to discussions of the coming harvest.

They ate a quiet dinner, with Lennat joining them, that night, keeping the conversation light and superficial. They didn't ask Gabrielle for any stories, which she found a little strange, and faintly disappointing, and she felt a subtle depression settling on her as she sat in her old room dressed in her nightshirt, and listening to the cold sounds of silence around her.

A rustle at the door, and she looked up to see her mother standing there, with two steaming mugs. "Hi." She offered, a little hesitantly.

Hecuba walked in, and handed her one of the mugs, which sent off gentle wisps of ginger scent. "I was just having some ginger tea.. thought you might like some." She stood there awkwardly, clutching her cup.

Gabrielle sighed inwardly. "Sit down… thanks.. I'd love some." She took a sip of the pungent tea, letting it bring back melancholy memories. Xena had once offered her some, and by her reaction… well, the warrior had never offered it to her again.. figuring out a multitude of other combinations of herbs in its place. Ginger always brought her father to mind, and the spicy candies he'd always carried in his pockets.

They'd been her favorites.. she'd toddled after him, tugging at his tunic until he produced one, always given to her with a pat on the head.

Until that one night.

She closed her eyes briefly, and her jaw clenched. She always thought.. maybe.. she'd just pestered him once too often. But even now, she could feel the harsh sting of the backhanded slap against her face, and the roughness of the wall against her skin as she slid down it.

It had hurt so much, all the more so because she hadn't understood why.

She still didn't.

"Gabrielle?" Her mother's voice penetrated her thoughts, and she looked up, seeing the concern in Hecuba's eyes. "Are you all right?"

"Yeah.. yeah.. just thinking." The bard answered.

Her mother settled down on the pallet next to her. "Goodness, Gabrielle.. this is so big." She laughed a little, tugging at her sleeve.

"It's Xena's." The bard answered, straightforwardly. "I stole it from her when I went to lead the Amazons last time… we fight over it sometimes."

"Oh." Hecuba murmured. "She seemed… well.. when we saw you last."

A gentle smile. "She's fine, yeah…she's looking forward to seeing our friends… and we've got a busy winter planned."

A moment of silence. "That's good to hear.. I'm .. so glad you worked things out… I know… Gabrielle, I know we really gave you a terrible time about her at first… but I want you to know we've… come to understand that you two truly do belong together."

Gabrielle nodded slowly. "Thank you." She replied simply, not adding that now.. it didn't really matter whether they approved or not. They were beyond that. Far beyond. "I know that makes her feel better.." She paused. "And that makes me feel better."

Hecuba smiled at her, folding her hands together. "I know a lot has happened." She said, in a careful voice. "And I don't understand a lot of it." She lifted her head, and gazed at her daughter. "I've spent my whole life here.. and you've seen so much more.. done so much more than I have…it's hard to get my mind around that sometimes."

Gabrielle took in a breath, then leaned down, past Ares watching head, and pulled her bag up next to them. She stared at it for a minute, then dumped the contents onto her lap. "See.. " She held up a trinket. "This is a rock from the shores of Britannia."

Hecuba took it in her hand, and examined it. "What an unusual color." She murmured.

The bard smiled quietly, and held up something else. "Mother… I… it would take a long time for me to explain all the stuff that's happened… all the things I've done.. but… " She felt very nervous, and the leather under her fingertips felt very warm. "I'd like you to take this… and.. if you want.. you can read it."

Hecuba gently took the bound volume. "What is it?"

"It's… " A breath. "It's who I am.. I guess.. it's my diary.. of the last three years." She reflected on that statement. "All my thoughts.. my dreams… maybe it'll help you understand .. a little.. who I've become."

Her mother laid her hands on the cover, almost reverently. "This.. is a very personal thing, Gabrielle."

"I know." Her daughter replied softly. "And there are things in there you might not want to read… there are things that hurt me to reread…but I don't know any other way to… explain."

The older woman blinked back tears. "I… treasure your trust in me, daughter."

"I.. hope you won't be too disappointed." Gabrielle answered, in a small voice. "There are some things in there that I'm not very proud of."

A hand touched her knee, and squeezed it. "I'm sure those are a very small part of this book." Hecuba stated, then stood, and tucked the volume under her arm. "Is there anything I can get you? Are you hungry?"

Gabrielle kept her attention on her hands. "Mother.. we just ate." She did smile, though. "I'm fine, thanks." She watched as Ares sat up, and nudged her fingers with his nose, and she stroked his fur as his yellow eyes blinked solemnly at her. "Ares liked the stew, too." The wolf's pink tongue lolled out happily as she rubbed his ears.

"Well.. I'm glad." Hecuba sighed. "Get some rest…you look a little tired, dear."

"All right." Gabrielle finally looked up, and pushed her hair behind her ears. "It's been a long day.. we left Amphipolis before dawn, and…I had kind of a late night last night."

Her mother sniffed. "I see." She was about to leave, when she stopped, and sat down on the edge of the bed again. "What's this?" Her fingers touched a small package, wrapped with bright paper.

Gabrielle stared at it, and reached out a hesitant hand to pick it up. "I.. don't… I have no idea…" She unwrapped the package, which was heavier than she expected.

The candlelight reflected warmly off a blown glass fish, with fanciful fins that curled around each other in blue and green shades. She clamped her lips down tight, as she ran a finger across the gleaming surface.

"Why.. that's lovely… " Her mother admired it. "Where did you get that?" Her brow crinkled. "Didn't you used to have one of those?"

The bard nodded a little. "When we were here last.. I told Xena about that… how I used to have my fish on the table near my bed…she must have remembered that." She unfolded the paper, and studied the neat script, then handed it to her mother. "For someone who's as hard headed and practical as she is, she manages to surprise me a lot."

Hecuba squinted a little in the low light.


Don't try to eat this. You'll get indigestion.

Hope it's the right color.


"Goodness." The older woman gave a startled chuckle. "She's quite funny."

Gabrielle smiled. "She can be, yeah." She set the fish on the small table, and took the note back, folding it up and tucking it into her hand. "She has a good heart under all that toughness."

"Gabrielle?" Hecuba said, softly.

"Hmm?" Her daughter looked up, to see a sad expression on her mother's face. "What?"

"I've been married to your father for thirty years.. and he's never given me one thing." Came the quiet, bleak answer, before Hecuba gave her a pat on the shoulder, and left with firm, but weary steps.

Gabrielle looked after her, stunned, for a long moment, before she let out a held breath, and turned her gaze to her fish. "Sometimes…." She murmured, to an attentive Ares. "Sometimes you lose track of what you have, Ares."

"Aggrrroo?" The wolf crooned softly, as he laid his head against her thigh.

The bard lifted her legs up, and laid down on the bed, her head pillowed on one curled arm and her knees tucked up. "C'mere, boy." She patted the bed's surface, and watched as the wolf hopped up, turning awkwardly around twice before settling against her with a contented sigh. "There you go.. " She put an arm around him, and rubbed his belly gently, feeling his tail thump against her knees. "You see my fish?"

The yellow eyes flicked up to where she was pointing, where the glass piece was catching the flickering candelight. "You know.. Ares, if you watch that fish long enough.. and you wish real hard, a magic wave will come, and take you away."

He glanced at her, and gave her a lick.

"Did you know your mom was my magic wave?" She whispered. "I guess she was for you, too, huh?" She leaned closer to his ear. "Where's Xena?"

He whined, and his tail thumped again.

"Yeah… you know who I'm talking about, doncha?" Gabrielle hugged him. "She was right.. you're good company, Ares." She put her head down, and fixed her eyes on the fish, and let sleep ease her down into a temporary oblivion.

Continued in Part 2



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