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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, which 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:

mailto:merwolf@bellsouth.net

 


Promises Kept - Part 7

By Melissa Good

The previous day's rain seemed to have cleared the air, and Gabrielle had to raise a hand to shade her eyes from the bright sun as they exited the castle. It was, she mused, a mixed group, consisting of Silvi, her cousins, three guardsmen, two ladies in waiting, and one bard.

With a staff, and a wolf. The staff because she knew what Xena would say if she went wandering out without being, as the warrior put it, prepared for the worst, and the wolf because Ares simply refused to leave her side. Gabrielle briefly wondered if Xena spent a few hours.. ok, days.. out in the woods training the animal to stick to her like a burr on a hedgehog, and finally decided the warrior just hadn't had time.

Ares, it seemed, just decided to be his mommy's deputy. "You're even starting to get those looks of hers." The bard remarked as the wolf shot the nasally complaining Elanora one. "That's pretty bad, Ares."

He blinked at her and wagged his tail, then glued his nose to her knee, and followed as they made their way down the wide, cobbled path to the marketplace.

The air was cool, and Gabrielle sucked in a lungful of it with pleasure, stretching her body out and enjoying the warm sun on her bare arms. The long sloping road overlooked the market, where she could see the breeze snapping the colorful cloth banners of the stands around and it brought a kaleidoscope of smells to her, a mixture of roasting meat, spices, a hint of fragrant beeswax, and clashing perfumes. She curled experienced fingers around her staff, and caught up to Silvi, who was easing along, carefully making sure her skirt didn't touch the stones.

The bard spared a glance for her own garb, having decided to resume her Amazon style outfit, and was glad she didn't have the same worries. The warm air and sun felt nice against her mostly bare body, and she realized she'd really gotten used to the freedom of the sparse clothing, and it had been a long time since she'd felt self conscious about wearing it.

Her mouth curved up as she remembered leaving behind her village outfit for the first time, after the Amazons.. trading her long, pleated skirt and peasant blouse for the rough spun amber cutoff shirt, short skirt, and boots of her adopted Nation. It had felt... really strange, as though a lot more than her clothing had changed, and now, as she looked back along the curve of her own history, she knew it surely had.

"Do you like this color?" Gabrielle had questioned, plucking the rust brown skirt and her new cutoff shirt hesitantly.

The subject of her inquiry had blinked, and looked momentarily nonplussed, seated as she was against a log fixing a bit of Argo's tack. "Um." Xena's eyes had slowly traveled from her sturdy boots up to the cropped off top, and a faint, almost mischievous glint had appeared. "It's.. a lot different from that other thing." The warrior had answered, in a speculative tone. "Um... it.. looks.. nice."

"Do you really think so?" She'd begged reassurance. "I feel so.. um... " Her fingers brushed her bare stomach. "Um... "

One dark eyebrow cocked. "Ya look fine. Relax." Xena had sighed. "It's a lot more practical too... ya won't be tripping over this one."

Gabrielle had looked down, touching the edge of the skirt, which hit her mid thigh, exposing legs which had started lately to take on a ripple of muscular tone under the soft skin. "Um.. no." She'd exhaled, then sat down on the log next to Xena, tucking her booted feet under her, and wrapping her arms around her knees. Her fingers kept nervously plucking at the skirt, and finally the warrior looked back up at her.

"What's wrong with you?"

"N..nothing." Gabrielle had stood up and adjusted her new outfit again, pacing a little, and wrapping her arms around her body. "It's.. I just... It feels weird." She'd paused. "Different." Her eyes drifted to the long, roughly cut staff leaning quietly against her things. "I feel different."

Xena had put the saddle pad down, and studied her with a faint scowl. Finally she hoisted herself to her feet, and stalked over to where Gabrielle was standing, putting both hands on her shoulders, and rotating the smaller woman to face her. In silence, she'd adjusted the bard's new clothes, settling the half sleeves, and giving the belt a little tug. Then she'd leaned back, and given her a brief nod. "You look good." A pause. "I like it."

A faint blush had colored Gabrielle's face, but she'd smiled. "Really?" She'd glanced down, oddly finding herself much happier with her new outfit. She'd looked back up into those sparkling blue eyes gratefully. "Thanks." She told Xena, and she'd meant it.

Xena had merely nodded, and given the shirt one last twitch, letting her hand fall and brushing the bard's bare ribs with her fingertips accidentally.

Gabrielle burst into giggles and backed off, tucking her arms against her ribs. "Hey!" She'd looked up to see both of Xena's dark eyebrows lifted in a surprise, and a look of mild intrigue appear on her face. "That tickles." She explained a little sheepishly.

Very slowly, a sexy, diabolical grin edged its way onto Xena's face. "Oh yeah? I didn't know you were ticklish." She took a step forward.

"Um... well, I didn't either.. really.. I mean.. it's not as if I go around... Xena? What are you doing?" A pause. "Like I said, it's not like I'm used to going around practically half naked, I d... j... wh... YOW!"

Long fingers had tickled her ribs, and she'd ducked back, almost stumbling in her haste to get away from them. "Xena!" She'd squealed, grabbing one of Argo's blankets and wrapping herself in it. "Hey.. that's not fair!" She complained. "You've got all that leather covering you.. I can't get you back!"

A shrug. "I'm not ticklish.. so don't bother trying." Xena stated blandly, as she resumed her seat on the ground., and picked up her tack, a tiny grin continuing to play around her lips. "But that outfit definitely has possibilities."

Cautiously, Gabrielle had settled back down next to her, watching the play of light across her friend's face. The gentle tingles from her casual touch were still chasing themselves up and down her spine, and she'd decided right then...

She liked her new clothes. A lot. She'd folded the blanket, stretched out on her side, crossing her legs at her newly booted ankles, and enjoyed the pleasant breeze against her bare skin, every once in a while looking up to see blue eyes looking back at her.

Yeah.

Possibilities.

Gabrielle smiled to herself, as she moved her staff along, and the breeze once again brushed against her skin. That had certainly turned out to be some kinda possibilities, all right.

"Gabrielle, do you suppose a carved knife would be good?" Silvi chattered, turning to her from where she'd been talking to Elanora. "With hearts.. "

The bard winced internally. "Ah... you know, I've found it's better not to get stuff like that for warriors... they usually know what they want., and they're really, really picky about weapons and all that." She remembered the breast dagger incident fondly, as an exception, though she hadn't intended that for Xena. She certainly does make better use of it though..

"Oh." The princess mulled that over. "Well, perhaps... what then, do you recommend?" She looked at the bard brightly. "What are some of the things you have gotten for your love?"

Hmm. "Different things.. I guess... "She answered slowly. "Belt pouches are always good.. they never have too many of those, all that stuff.. those little armor bits, and wire thingies, and gunk they carry around.. comes in handy." She stifled a yawn. "You can have one engraved with your initials.. that kind of thing." The pouch Xena used to carry around her little personal stuff was a gift from the bard, a playful one after she'd been kidded one too many times about all the things she carried in her shoulder bag. She'd once found the warrior keeping a bunch of tiny teeth inside there, which she hadn't been able to coax an explanation about out of her to this day.

Silvi's eyes lit up. "Oh..what a tremendous idea!"

Gabrielle nodded, her eye caught by a nearby stand. "Here.. look." She ambled over, and picked up a nice bit of leather. "A belt... that's always handy.. " She explained, then held up another piece. "Have them cut out a pouch from the same color.. so it matches... make them.. um... do you have a color that's like.. yours?"

"Pink." Silvi beamed.

"Hmm.. maybe not.. warriors aren't really.. um.. pink.. kinda people. .what about.. well, here.. crimson?" The bard held up a sample of dyed leather. "They like leather."

The princess took it from her fingers, and examined it doubtfully. "They do?"

Gabrielle lifted the piece she was holding to her nose and took in a breath of it. "Oh yeah." She chuckled softly. "So do I , really." She confessed in a mildly embarrassed voice. "I didn't used to.. but I guess it just grew on me." It had taken her forever to get used to the earthy scent, when they'd started traveling together, since she was pretty much surrounded by it. Xena, of course, wore little else, and Argo's tack was layers on layers of the stuff.

Gradually, though... she'd started to like the scent, and even the feel of it, no doubt bolstered by many hours of hanging on to Xena as they rode double on Argo's strong back. Of course, Xena also took very good care of her gear, and the mare's - and never let them stay dirty, which probably added to the appeal as the bard had smelled badly maintained leather, and had no wish to repeat the experience.

Elanora peered over her shoulder. "Can't you just get him a scarf?" She sniffed.

Silvi glanced at Gabrielle in question, who solemnly shook her head no. "Gabrielle.. what's the most romantic thing you've ever given your sweetie?" She asked, nudging Elanora away, and picking up the piece of hide again, under the tanner's watchful eyes.

The bard leaned on her elbows. "Hmm... romantic?" My heart.. my soul... all that I am... oh, she means material things. Right. "Well.. it's kind of... I had learned how to make knots one night, when we were traveling, and I made this... kind of a knotted bracelet.. I guess." She vaguely realized they'd lost Vasi somewhere, and she peered around looking for him, then figured he'd probably gotten bored with the shopping and wandered off. Figures.

The princess sighed. "From your own hands? That is romantic... did your love keep it?"

A smile. "Oh yeah... still has it." She looked up. "Sometimes.. it's little things like that which mean the most.. not... gold and silver."

Elanora snorted. "I'd rather skip the romance, and get the gold." She shook her head, and wandered over to a scent stall, with one of the ladies in waiting, and a guard in tow.

Silvi clucked in disgust, then peered up at the tanner. "I would like this made into a pouch." She handed it over with a haughty flourish. "With my initials in silver on the front."

The craftsman took the hide, and felt its thickness, then gave Gabrielle an approving look. "Twill make a nice, soft carrysack, yer highness."

"I will have it today, if you please." Silvi instructed. "It is to be a gift." She produced a large coin, and handed it to him. "I think that will do."

He blinked, and accepted the money, bowing to her. "Aye, m'lady, it will indeed." He hefted the skin. "I'll start on it right away.. bring it up to the castle when she's done." He then turned and peered down. "Begging yer pardon.. would you be Gabrielle the Bard?"

She straightened up and gave him a friendly nod. "Yes, I am." Wonder what gave that away?

He dropped the skin, and took her hands, smiling at her. "My father was aboard Cecrop's ship." His face shone. "I can't tell ye how we felt when he walked back in th'door."

Gabrielle grinned outright. "Wow... that's great... I'm really glad he got off... that was a close one."

"Belaris.. his name was, and mine is Eler.. " The man pumped her hands. "He told us he's never seen the like of Xena jumping on that ship.. and how she figured a way t'get em off it."

"I remember him." Gabrielle said quietly. "He held the wheel steady.. he was one of the men who kept us from being drawn into the whirlpool."

Eler's honey brown eyes gleamed with unexpected pride. "Aye." He sighed. 'Thank you, lass.. fer given em back to us." His hands squeezed hers. "He described ye right down to a nubbin, he did.. said ye had eyes like the sea on a sunny day, and the prettiest smile he'd ever seen."

Gabrielle produced an embarrassed little chuckle. "Thank you... I'm glad he remembers me. " The bard replied, a smile crinkling her face. "I didnít do a thing.. but I'm glad it all worked out."

He held up a hand. "Ah.. lass.. that's not the way me da tells it... twas not for you being pulled aboard, they'd still be out there." He protested.

That, Gabrielle acknowledged silently, was true. "Well, I'm glad it worked out." She repeated, giving him another smile. "Tell your father I say hello." She turned to see Silvi, Elanora, all the ladies in waiting, and both guards goggling at her. "Uh.. hi?"

"Cecrops!" Silvi squealed. "The Lost Mariner.. you know him??" She clasped her hands. "Oh my..."

Gabrielle gave the tanner a weak smile, and gently took the princess's elbow, nudging her away. "Yeeeaahh... you could say that." She exhaled. "I'll tell you the story as we walk."

She never got the chance, as they rounded the next corner, and all she could see were flying bodies, and grabbing hands. Instinct alone, and three years of living with one of the greatest warriors in Greece had her snap her staff up in time to deflect a large club which skittered off to her right, and then she was twisting, and dodging, slamming the end of the staff into a knee, and seeing daylight in the mass of attackers.

She let out a yell, which startled them, then clobbered a big guy just in front of her, who was trying to get a bag over the princesses' head. Silvi was screaming in terror, and so was Elanora, and the guards were buried beneath large, grim faced men. Ares dove in on her right, growling, and snarling, as his teeth ripped into woven cloth, and exposed most of the rear of one of the combatants.

"I don't think so!" Gabrielle barked, leaning against her staff, and slamming one guy in the side with a solid kick. He howled, and went down, clutching his ribs, and she took the opportunity to step into the opening he left and swing, feeling the resounding crack as her weapon hit the skull of the man trying to get the bag on top of Silvi. "Let her go, you jerk!"

She dropped to a knee, and executed her favorite reverse sweep, which took the legs out from under two of them, and dumped them heavily on the ground. Then she stood, and caught the one closest to Silvi with a vicious uppercut slash. Her staff hit his jaw, and she saw blood fly, as he collapsed, clutching his face. She got in front of the princess, who was kneeling, and stood her ground, whipping her staff around and warning them off. "Get out of here, you little creeps!"

In her mind, she heard Xena's chuckle. "You gotta work on those battlefield oaths, love."

It almost made her smile, but she didn't, she was too busy catching her breath, and watching in some disbelief as the men stumbled off, and they were left alone in the small, cluttered cul de sac. Slowly, she straightened up from her crouch, and put the end of her staff down, curling a hand around its familiar width, and leaning against it. "Whew."

"Oh.. Gabrielle..." Silvi sobbed, looking up at her with round, gray eyes. "You were magnificent... why... you're a regular hero!" She struggled to her feet, clutching the startled and embarrassed bard's arm. "You saved me!"

"Um.." The bard patted her hand. "Yeah... well.. anytime.. but.. who were those guys?" She asked. "And why did they want to kidnap you?"

Silvi stared at her, eyes bugging out. "K..k...kkk...id.... " The word trailed away as she fainted, caught fortunately by one of the shaken guards, who had struggled to his feet, and limped over. He fanned her feebly with one hand.

Gabrielle studied them, then raised her eyes to where Elanora was quietly standing, flicking her clothing into better order. The dark haired girl lifted her eyes, and looked boldly back at the bard for a long moment, then went to her cousin's side, and began patting her cheek.

Only then was she aware of the fact that her side hurt, and there was a long, raw scrape down her leg, and that she'd twisted her knee. And she sighed. Her soulmate was not going to be happy with her. "Come on.. we'd better get back up to the castle. " She stated quietly, using her staff to take some of the weight off her knee. The surrounding area had become strangely quiet, and other than themselves, deserted. She saw furtive eyes peering at them from behind flapping curtains, but they disappeared as she focused her attention on them.

Just what is going on here? Gabrielle wondered., as the guards gingerly picked up the swooning princess, and they prepared to start moving. Whose side were they really on?


Xena leaned against the table, studying the maps of the surrounding countryside with quietly intent eyes, checking angles and figuring what the best route of approach was. "Here.. ." She shifted her weight off one hand, and traced a route, as two of the senior soldiers peered over her shoulder. "He'll probably bring a small force through here, and leave the balance of his army.. " The fingertip moved. "Here, behind this rise, because we can't see them from the city."

The shorter of the two soldiers grunted. "You tink he's being straight?"

The warrior shrugged. "Never met him, so I don't know, but.. if I had a force that much larger than the one I was going up against... I wouldn't be." She paused. "I donít care who's leading them."

"Eh." The older soldier grunted. "Ye're not going up against yerself then, though, eh?"

Xena gave him a look, then allowed a chuckle to escape. "I think Iím being sucked up to." She commented wryly, as she turned her attention back to the map. She kept her face expressionless, but a small, half forgotten part of her curled up contentedly around the compliment, giving her a guilty sense of enjoyment. Then she swallowed suddenly as an unexpected wave of nausea hit her. Whoa. She concentrated on the tabletop, which seemed to be rocking gently, and took several deep breaths, then reached over and grabbed the pressure point in her wrist, feeling the tingle as she hit it.

A long, teetering moment when she wasn't sure if she was going to be able to control her body, then the feeling slowly subsided. Gods. She chewed her lip and took a cautious breath. Well, I haven't heaved my guts up in years.. I'm not gonna start now.

"Genr'l?"

She turned her head to see Bennu standing there, holding a piece of parchment. "Yeah?" She swallowed a few more times to be safe, and straightened up "Is that the troop deployment?"

He blinked at her, his brow creasing a bit. "Aye... " He handed it over. "Ah... would ye like a glass o water, or somethin... ?"

Xena let out a cautious breath. Great. I must be as green as pea soup.. "No... thanks." She studied the paper. "Okay... the new guard positions here, and here are in place?" She gave him a sharp glance, mildly chagrined at her momentary weakness. "What about the preparations I asked for? Did those groups come back in yet?"

Bennu nodded, reassured. "The new ones are there, aye.. and the supplies and whatnot are in place..." A smile creased his face. "They gots some nice cheddar cheese... seller had a barg.. genr'l?"

Xena bit down hard on the inside of her lip, as the mere suggestion of the sharp smelling cheese played havoc with her insides. "Yes?" She crossed both arms over her chest, and forced the feeling down. "Cheddar, huh?"

He nodded. "Would ye like some? I could go... "

The warrior swallowed. "No.. no...thanks... I just had lunch." She assured him. "In fact, Iím going to go get some.. um.. paperwork I left upstairs. .I'll be right back."

She paced across the armory, and slipped out the door, where the cool wind brought her much welcomed relief. "Gods." Xena cast a look up at the fluffy white clouds over head. "Be careful what you ask for Xena... sometimes you get it." She rubbed her stubbornly rebellious stomach and winced, then headed across the courtyard.

As she got to the main doorway to the castle, a slim, dark haired figure stepped out, and lifted a hand to stop her. "A moment." The boy stated.

Xena stopped, and focused on him. She took in his dress, and his attitude, and concluded this was probably the boy cousin of the princess. "Yes?" She asked tersely.

He took in a nervous breath. "May I speak with you in private? I think I may.. have some information that might be of interest to you.. perhaps we... can be of use to each other."

Oh brother. Xena sighed inwardly Iím really not in the mood for this. However, the kid might have something she needed to hear so... "All right.. c'mon up to my place. " She turned and gestured him to follow. "And make it fast."

She pushed the main door open, and strode in, trotting up the stairs with an even, powerful motion. Her body had surprised her, really...after the full day's worth of hard fighting yesterday, and the mixture of herbs she'd been subjected to last night, she'd been sure she'd feel it in a big way this morning but... She felt the tough springiness of her movements, and grinned a little. Other than her rebelling stomach, everything seemed to be in perfect working order.

Damn, that felt good. The last few months it had felt like she'd been fighting herself tooth and nail.. everything had come hard to her, and she'd been subjected to aches and pains like she hadn't been in years. But now... She took a deep, pleased breath. Things seemed to be back on track, and she wasn't sure if it was the rest she'd gotten at home, or resolving the tension between her soulmate and herself, or a combination of both.

She strongly suspected the latter. They reached their door, and she worked the latch, shoving it open and surprising Mestre, who was just finishing up a fluffing of the pillows. The girl jumped, and gasped, then gave her a sullen look as she returned her attention to the bed.

"Away with you." The boy ordered, snapping his fingers, then turning and finding himself face to breastplate with an annoyed looking warrior princess. Startled, he cranked his head back, and looked up into ice blue eyes, which seemed to bore right through him.

"I" Xena stepped forward, forcing him back. "Don't." Another step. "Like." Now he was backed right up against the table. "Little boys who snap their fingers." She glared at him.

He opened his mouth, then shut it again. From the corner of her eye, Xena caught the expression on Mestre's face, which had eroded slowly from its blankness to a momentary glimmer of quiet appreciation. The warrior was visited by a brief memory of her soulmate's alter ego, in a different time, and found an echo of that look. She returned her grim stare to the boy. "Be nice!"

"L..l...look here... you can't.. " He stammered.

She let her eyes narrow. "Oh yes I can..." Her voice dropped low. "I can do anything I want." Sometimes, she reflected, it's good to be bad. She waited for Mestre to finish up what she was doing, then gave the girl a nod. "Thanks."

Dark eyes traveled over her appraisingly. "You're welcome." The servant replied in a soft voice. Then she picked up her cleaning supplies and left, slipping out the door and closing it behind her.

Xena sighed, then turned and walked over to their saddlebags, kneeling beside them and taking out her much used healer's kit. "Talk." She called over her shoulder, as she took out a combination of herbs, and poured a liberal quantity of them into a mug. She stood and strode over to the water basin, testing it's quality with a cautious finger to her lips before she used the dipper to fill the cup.

"Well?" She turned, and leaned back against the table the basin was on, swirling the cup gently as she let the herbs mix. The sharp, clean scent rose to her, and she took a sip gingerly, letting the medication slip down her throat. Definitely gonna need more of that if this stuff keeps up. She felt her grumbling insides settle down a little.

The boy folded his arms, and paced towards the window, peering out at the sky, very obviously collecting his nerve. Finally he turned and faced her. "You are in a trap."

Xena crossed one booted leg over the other, and took a longer sip of her infusion. "I am?" She asked casually. "How so?" She felt the herbs start to take stronger effect, and sighed a little in relief.

He studied her. "The warlord who is coming this evening is privy to a plan... to poison your army, and take control of the city."

She allowed one, only one, eyebrow to rise. "Really." She murmured, pushing away from the wall and crossing to the thickly stuffed chair. "Whose plan is it?" She dropped into the seat, and slung one long leg over an arm negligently.

Cautiously, he sat down as well, on the couch facing her. "His.. and the princesses'... some of the older nobles. "

Intelligent eyes observed him. "But not yours."

"No." He replied, frankly.

"Why?" Xena asked. "Don't tell me you like Garanimus."

The boy shook his head, and stood again, pacing nervously. "I hate him... in fact.. if you hadn't come, I'd have still been in with the plan, myself." He turned and looked at her. "Things are different now... I was down near the barracks, you'd scarcely think it was the same group of men."

"Still doesnít explain why." Xena commented. "Seems to me you got a good chance to get rid of all of em.. what's the problem?"

He exhaled. "This... Framna... the princess is besotted with him. She intends to make him her consort." He turned. "He is not fit for that and she... she is barely a child, and not suited for ruling."

"Uh huh." The warrior mused, taking a deep swallow. "And you don't think her and him should be left in charge of this place, huh?" She nodded a little. "All right... I can see that... "

He perked up. "You can? I mean.. of course you can." His hands rubbed nervously as he walked back over, and sat down. "I have to do what's best for the city.. you understand?"

A slow, languid smile crossed Xena's face. "Oh.. I understand." She assured him in a silky voice. "So.. what's your plan?" A pause. "And how do I fit into it?" Tch. A little mental eyeball rolling. Seducing little boys.. gods, Xena... how low can you get? "Hmm?" She let her eyes flick over him appraisingly, and allowed her smile to broaden a bit.

Now he smiled back, more at ease, and flattered by her interest. . "I'd make it worth your while... truly.. it would be simple. Merely bypass the poisoned food, and overthrow this Framna... he will be discredited, and so will the princess.. her judgement shown to be gravely in error." He paused. "I will make sure the people know he intended to take control of the city, and that.. we.. prevented it."

The other eyebrow got it's chance. "Six to one odds.. that's not good." She objected quietly.

He leaned forward, and gazed at her. "Not to put a fine point on it, but I've been hearing nothing but the most incredible stories about you these past few days... I believe these odds do not disconcert you in the least." He hesitated, then added delicately. "But... perhaps I am mistaken."

Ooo... Xena almost chuckled. Playing on my pride, huh kiddo? Clever boy. Ya get a point for that. "What's in it for me?" She leveled a predatory smile at him. "Assuming we put you in charge... which is what I believe your goal is." She paused, very deliberately. "But.. perhaps I'm mistaken."

He almost.. almost smiled. "We understand each other. " He confirmed smugly. "We will need an army.. and the one you have now is a good size.. not to large, not too small.." Eyes watched her face intently. "Of course.. the city needs a military leader in that case... a royal commander of the guard, so to speak." He lifted a hand and gestured. "Larger quarters than this, of course.. and whatever servants you .. " His lips twitched. "desire."

Hooded blue eyes glinted back at him. "What happens to Garanimus?"

"What do you want to happen to Garanimus?" Came the answer. "That will be entirely up to you.. I hear you two have... history."

Xena watched him in silence for a long stretch, considering. He was nervous, waiting for her decision. It showed in his breathing, short and shallow, and the sweat on his brow. "All right." She finally said, very quietly. "Tell me about this poison plan."

A slinking cruelty entered his young face, unexpectedly. "Ask your little friend about it." His mouth formed into a smirk. "Ask her about the port she's going to ply you with tonight.. filled with enough drugs to knock out a centaur." He watched her face avidly for a reaction, disappointed when there was none. "Don't believe me?"

"Oh." Xena exhaled softly. "No.. I do."

His eyebrows lifted. "You're not surprised." He commented softly. "She thinks you trust her." He slowly smiled. "But you're smarter than that, aren't you?"

The warrior gazed back at him stolidly, draining her cup. "Never trust anyone, kid." She put the mug down. "Ya live longer that way." She stood, and stretched. "I got plans to make."

He stood as well, bracing his shoulders back in obvious relief. "I know I'm doing the right thing for my people." The boy stated virtuously. "And you won't regret it either, Xena...I promise you that."

Xena faced him, and felt ten years older than she actually was, seeing his youthful face. She held out a hand. "Keep your head down tonight... it's gonna be wild."

He grasped her hand gingerly, curling his fingers around her forearm and feeling the powerful muscles just underneath her soft skin. "Donít worry.. I will." He released his grip, then walked swiftly out, leaving her alone in the room.

Xena sighed, and lifted a hand, scratching her head and running her fingers through her hair. "This has gotta take the cake for convoluted...even for something Gabrielle's involved in." She muttered to the empty space, gathering her papers up, then letting her gaze drop to the surface of the desk.

Gabrielle's diary was resting there, the corner of it holding down a piece of parchment, with a bold X on it.

"Hmm." Xena laid a fingertip on the scrap. "X marks the spot, or X means me.. what d'you think the odds are?" She tugged the parchment out, and unfolded it, startled when several small black items fell out. She peered closer, and grinned. Appleseeds.

The scrap, of course, had writing on it, and she took it with her outside, into the light, where she leaned against the balcony and studied it.

Hi.

I knew you'd open this. It could have been a treasure map, ya know.. with that big X marking where the treasure was, and maybe I wanted that to be a secret.

Yeah, right.

Thanks for the apple. It was delicious, and it was nice having something safe, and tasty to eat this morning before I had to go tromping off to visit Princess Poofey.

Be careful.. I know you're having a lot of fun with the boys, but those swords are sharp, and I worry about you sometimes. Which is kinda dumb, I know, but I can't help it. I hope you're not too mad about that.

I just wanted to warn you.. I'm going shopping with the princess. I promise not to come back with little frilly roses to attach to your scabbard, but beyond that.. you're fair game.

Thinking of you..

G.

Xena leaned back, and let the sweetness of the words wash over her, feeling a poignant pang when she remembered just how much she missed the little notes during their estrangement. Such a tiny thing... but she recalled finding an old one, in the bottom of one of her saddlebags, on the way to Chin.

It had hurt too much to open it. She'd just closed her hand around it, and stared out into the darkness of a cloud filled night on a choppy sea, and let herself feel the loss. She'd tried to throw it overboard, really tried, but somehow, that damn little packet refused to leave her hand. Instead, she tucked it, unopened, back where'd she found it.

Her brow furrowed, and she wandered inside, intending to collect her papers and return to the armory. But.. how did she end up digging in that bag? Before she knew it, her fingers were holding the dirt stained, tattered object in front of her eyes.

No. Her hand started to drop, to put it back away. Leave those memories, you fool.

She never understood how the parchment got unwrapped, and how she ended up holding it up to the sunlight streaming into the room, her eyes irresistibly drawn to the faded letters.

Xena.

We're both in a really dark place. And.. I know you're alone when you're going to read this, because you'll be on the ship.

And I won't. I just wanted you to know how hard this was for me. I thought.. it would be easy to turn my back. After all, we're not really.. even friends anymore, are we?

But it's not easy. It's tearing me apart in side so badly I can't sleep. I can't think straight.

I can't turn my back on you, no matter how hard I try to convince myself it's the right thing for both of us. So.. what I wanted you to know, even if you don't want to hear it, is that when that damn boat pulls back into the dock here, I'll be waiting for you.

It's stupid, because we hardly even talk to each other anymore.

But I can't give up. You mean too much to me, Xena. Don't you dare not come back.

Maybe, after you've been gone for a while, when we see each other again, you'll smile. And I'll smile, and it'll be okay, and you know, I realized yesterday, when I was looking across the fire , that the reason this is hurting me so badly is because I still love you.

Please.. be careful. Take care of yourself.

Come home.

Gabrielle.

Xena slowly sank down onto the chair, and let her head rest in hands braced on her knees. A flood of mixed emotions flowed over her, and she let them run their course before she raised her head, and shook it gently, staring at the parchment. I should have opened it. Gods. She probably thought I did, and I ignored it.

Would it have made a difference? The warrior stared blankly across the room. What would she have done if she'd read that, halfway to Chin?

Swam back. Her mind wryly supplied.

With a sigh, she stood, and very carefully tucked the parchment under her breastplate, glancing at the small stone it had been wrapped around. She recognized the pebble as one common around Amphipolis, and juggled it, then tucked it, too away. She'd have to tell Gabrielle about it later... the bard had to know her gentle plea hadn't battered against a wall of indifference.

In fact...she sat back down in front of the bard's diary, and hesitantly flipped it open to a clean page, the one past where she'd made her last entry. Picking up the quill, she bit on the tip to moisten it, then dipped it in the small ceramic jar of ink Gabrielle had left stoppered there.

Concentrating, she started to write, keeping at it for almost a quarter candlemark before she stopped, and reread her words. Well, no doubt about who was the poet in this relationship, she winced, but ... Gabrielle was always saying, it was the thought that counted.

Rereading the page again, Xena certainly hoped so. Words certainly weren't her thing. With a sigh, she dated the entry, and then, at the bottom, signed it with a flourish, before she gently sanded the ink, and blew it dry.

Satisfied, she gathered her parchments up, and headed for the door, pausing in the entry to glance back at the silent diary, and chuckle. "Never live that down." She shook her head wryly, but smiled, as she slipped out the door and down the stairs.

 


The princess had come to, not long after, as they sprinkled her with water. She gasped, and blinked her eyes, staring up at the worried guard, then letting her eyes flick to Gabrielle's face. "What happened?"

The bard leaned against her staff, taking the weight off her knee. "You passed out." She advised her. "When I asked you who would want to kidnap you."

Her eyes rolled up again, but the bard tapped her smartly on the arm. "Hey.. c'mon now... it's not that bad. Do you know how many times I've been kidnapped? "

Distracted, Silvi peered up at her. "Really?"

Gabrielle nodded wryly. "Oh yeah... it happens all the time." She assured her. "Question is, who would want to do that to you?"

The princess blinked at her. "Whoever would want to do it to you?"

They all looked at Gabrielle, curiously. "Yes... " Elanora murmured. "I'm wondering too." Her eyes studied the bard.

Ah. Gabrielle chewed her lip. Dumb. "Well.. I... travel with Xena... remember?" She told them, slowly. "People think.. that they can get to her by.. um.. I guess threatening me." She saw the look of uncertainty she was getting. "You know.. to get her to do things, that sort of stuff."

"Really." Elanora replied. "Does it work?" Her face showed only mild interest.

"Uh... no.. no.. not really." Gabrielle lied. "I mean.. who am I, right? They just .. like.. assume things." She shrugged. "Anyway.. it usually works out okay... I mean, like you saw.. I can pretty much take care of myself. " She glanced down the lane. "We should get going.. someone should know what's going on .. that something happened."

"Oh yes." Silvi agreed, allowing the guard to assist her to her feet. "You were wonderful." She bubbled enthusiastically. "I could hardly believe it.. those men didn't stand a chance."

Gabrielle sighed. "Yeah.. that does come in handy sometimes." She was, however, aware of the cool look she was getting from the princesses' cousin, and made a mental note to talk to Xena as soon as she got back.

Before the girl could get any bright ideas.

They walked slowly back through the market, and Silvi insisted on continuing her shopping along the way, stating that she mustn't be seen to be afraid. She stopped at a water stand, and they all purchased mugs of lemon scented water, and stood in a circle, enjoying the breeze and the cool drink. "Gabrielle.. " Silvi turned suddenly. 'Tell us about Cecrops!"

The bard had been examining some small ear cuffs, debating on whether or not she could convince her soulmate to wear them. They were cute, just the small cuff, and a tiny pale blue stone set in them... and she decided she could probably get away with them. She held up a hand to delay Silvi, and turned to the jeweler. "How much?"

The man glanced at her shrewdly. "Ten dinars."

Gabrielle put them down. "I don't think so." She snorted softly.

"Awfully pretty, lass." The man chuckled. "Tell ye what, five dinars."

Green eyes fastened on him. "Three." Gabrielle crossed her arms over her chest and waited, deliberately not looking at the baubles.

He shook his head. "Crafting's cost me more than that."

She waited.

"Four." He finally said, giving her a look.

She smiled. "All right." She dug in her pouch and handed him the dinars, and he wrapped the cuffs up, tucking them into a tiny linen bag before handing them to her. "Thanks." Ares sniffed at the bag, and licked her hand as she put it away. "Stop that." She scolded the wolf.

He nodded at her, then turned towards the princess. "Anything for you today, your highness?"

"Not today." Silvi said, smiling at him. She pulled Gabrielle along the path, and waited until they were out of earshot. "What did you just do?" She asked, peering over her shoulder.

Gabrielle glanced at her, confused. "Um.. .bought something?" She hazarded.

"He told you how much, and you refused!" The princess objected. "How did you do that?"

"Well.. " The bard was glad they'd been sidetracked again from the Cecrops story. "He wants to sell it.. the price he asks is just what he wants to get for it.. not what he'll take for it." She explained as they walked, heading up the long, sloping path back into the castle. "Don't you do that?"

"Of course not." The princess looked shocked. "I just give them money, and they give me back what I want...I would never think of arguing about it."

Elanora caught up to them. "Iím sure it's quite different for her, your highness. " She commented, giving the bard a condescending look. "You don't have to scrimp on dinars." She fanned herself lightly. "It must be very depressing."

The bard felt her hackles rise, an interesting sensation that let a gentle, cool breeze touch the back of her neck. "I never thought of it that way, actually. " She responded in a clipped tone. "I just think you should get the most for what you have...and I know what things are worth." She eyed the dark haired girl coolly. "People donít take advantage of me, that way."

"Oh." Silvi patted her arm. "I don't have to worry about that... no one would take advantage of me."

Gabrielle made a point of letting her mist green eyes fasten for a long moment on Elanora, before she shifted her gaze to the princess. "Of course not." She agreed wryly, as they reached the edge of the inner court. "Well, it's been great, but I have to go get some stuff.... "

Silvi held onto her arm. "Oh no.. no no... Gabrielle, you simply must come with me up to my rooms.. the healer must look at your wounds." She started walking, tugging the bard behind her. "You must... I won't hear of your not... and I want everyone to know what a hero you are."

"Um..." Gabrielle tried to stop walking, but her knee buckled, and she had to stumble forward. "No.. really. .I'm fine.. " She protested. "I just need to sit down for a while, really.. I have a bandage in my things in the stable, I can just.."

"Absolutely not." Silvi shook her head, continuing to drag the hapless bard forward. "Look.. you can hardly walk." She turned to Elanora. "Get Jiles... he must come to see Gabrielle at once."

The older girl turned on her heel and stalked off, followed by one of the ladies fluttering behind her.

"Silvi... " Gabrielle winced, as she came down hard on her knee. "Listen... really, I've got to.."

"No no no.. " The girl scolded. "You will come with me." They turned the corner, and stopped abruptly, faced with a tall, dark, and dangerous six feet of leather clad, armored warrior. "Zeus!"

"Not even close." Xena let her eyes flick over them, settling on Gabrielle's face momentarily, before turning her attention to the princess. "Is there a problem?" She inquired, blocking their passage neatly.

Silvi straightened, thrusting Gabrielle behind her. "Get out of my way." She commanded. "This is none of your affair."

The warrior's eyebrows rose. "That's debatable." She replied coolly. "I need to speak to Gabrielle."

"She's going to see the healer. You can wait." Silvi stated, but her voice shook.

The warrior's nostrils flared. "I'll take care of it." Her voice was flat, and cool.

"Certainly not." The princess replied, bravely.

"Silvi." Gabrielle put a gentle hand on her shoulder. "It's all right, really. Xena is a healer, also." She edged around the girl, trying not to limp too badly. The perceptible tremor that ran through her soulmate's body gave testament to the fact that she was holding herself back from grabbing the bard by pure will, and Gabrielle knew they were perilously close to blowing their cover. "I'll.. come up to see you after I get this looked at.. it's all right... really."

The princess looked very doubtful, but she finally moved reluctantly up the stairs, trailed by her entourage, looking back over her shoulder at them until she disappeared around the bend in the stairs.

The bard sighed, and turned to face her partner as warm hands gripped her shoulders. "What happened? Are you okay? " Xena asked anxiously. The sudden metamorphosis from threatening warlord to concerned lover was almost funny, and the bard had to bite her lip a little to keep from giggling.

"How'd you get hurt? What happened?" The warrior repeated, checking her over. "Is that a cut? What did you do to your knee?"

"Xena." Gabrielle tried to interrupt this flow of babbling.

"Did someone attack you? " The warrior went on. "Gabrielle, for the sake of the gods, what..."

"Xena, hush.." The bard put a gentle hand over her mouth. "Can we go upstairs? My leg's killing me.. I'll tell you what happened as we go."

Silently, the warrior wrapped her arm around the bard's waist, and supported her as she limped up the stairs. The warmth soaked through her, and she found herself leaning more and more against her partner, who obligingly took on the balance of her weight. "Thanks." She looked up at the quiet face. "Didn't meant to tell you to shut up like that... it's just been a really hectic morning."

"That's okay." Xena replied, glancing around. "Hades.. this is taking too long." She scooped the bard up, and bounded up the rest of the stairs, elbowing the door to their quarters open and dodging inside. After the door closed, she stood for a long moment, just looking down at the peacefully resting Gabrielle. "Comfortable?"

The bard wiggled her feet. "Very." She sighed, as she was gently deposited on the bed. "They tried to kidnap the princess... Xena, I really don't know what's going on here." She smiled as Ares jumped up, and curled up next to her, resting his muzzle on her thigh.

The warrior knelt at the bedside, and pressed her flat, examining the scrape across her ribs. "I do." She answered absently, moving down to probe the bard's knee, now slightly swollen and bruised. "You got the princess, who wants one thing, you got her nobles, who want another, and you got Garanimus, who's clueless and doesnít know what he wants." She sighed, and stood. "Mild sprain...it's gonna hurt for a while."

Gabrielle folded her hands across her stomach and sighed. "I was hoping it wasn't." She turned her head and regarded her partner, who was gathering up things from her kit. "Six guys jumped us in the market.. I got a little over enthusiastic with a kick.. and I forgot to plant like you taught me, before I extended." She moved her leg, and winced. "I feel really dumb."

"Mmph." Xena ambled back over and dropped down to one knee again, unwrapping a soft bandage. "It happens... I've done that plenty of times." She reassured the younger woman, giving her a little pat on the leg. "But you need to watch out.. you don't want to overstress your body, love."

"Ah." Gabrielle gazed at her wryly. "So.. I should kick grubby thugs in a kinder, and gentler way." She remarked. "Is that what you're telling me?"

The warrior gave her a look. "Very funny." She growled. "No, that's not what I meant." She busied herself with her supplies. "I just... you need to be.. more careful, that's all."

"Mmhmm." The bard regarded her. "This is coming from the woman who told me she kept on fighting practically until she gave birth."

Pale blue eyes shot her a dark look. "That was different." Xena mumbled. "I didn't have a choice."

Gabrielle reached out and stroked her hair. "I know... but... Xena, I'm not going to let that stop me from doing what I have to do.. her guards were useless." She replied. "What was I supposed to do.. stand back and let those guys take her?"

"Hmph." The warrior grumbled.

The bard chuckled. "Grumpy thing." She tweaked her partner's ear affectionately. "I do love you, you know... and I know you're just worried about me."

Xena stopped what she was doing, and glanced up, her eyes softening. "I'm being a mother hen, huh?"

That got her an impish smile. "Yeah.. but I think it's cute."

The warrior scowled. "Cute, huh?" She wrestled her best intimidating look on. "I'm supposed to be this heartless killing machine, Gabrielle. You're ruining my reputation."

"Oo.." The bard cooed. "I love that face." She giggled, cupping Xena's cheek. "You're soooo mean."

They looked at each other for a long moment, then they both started laughing. "All right.. all right... " Xena shook her head and sighed. "I'll try to keep my overprotective instincts under control." She finally replied. "Oh yeah.. by the way, one of your princesses' family members made me an offer.. apparently they don't like the idea of a commoner becoming their ruler."

A blond eyebrow hiked. "Really?" She mused. "Well... that kinda makes sense... they're probably behind the guys who tried to kidnap us today."

"Maybe." Xena gently rubbed liniment on the bruised area, then skillfully wrapped it. "Offered me a job... cushy apartment.. my choice of body slaves... " She finished and slid up, using a small bit of damp linen to clean the scrape on the bard's chest. "All I gotta do is defeat Framna.." She glanced up. "So... what d'you think of him?"

Gabrielle reached up with one hand, and tangled her fingers in the warrior's armor, tugging hard. "C'mere."

Xena hesitated, then tumbled into bed next to her, stretching out on her side, and propping her head up on her hand.

"He's... " Gabrielle rolled over and snuggled up to her, ignoring the cool bite of the armor against her skin. "He's all right, I guess... he seems like he's attached to her.. .he's a lot older." She peeked up at the warrior. "Not that it matters, but.. she's really young."

Xena considered that. "You think she's capable of running this place?"

A negative shake. "No." Gabrielle answered promptly. "She's really not...he seems okay, I mean, he's nice and all that.. not like what I expected." She paused. "He has a very healthy respect for you."

That brought a faint tugging grin to Xena's face. "The princess certainly doesnít." She combed her fingers gently through the bard's fair hair as she felt her nestle closer. "But I donít much like the cousins, and Garanimus is gonna trash this place so... " She let her head rest briefly on the pillow, and breathed in her soulmate's warm scent. "I guess I go make a deal with the princesses boyfriend."

"This is complicated." Gabrielle complained wryly, giving her a look. "And don't you dare say it's because I'm involved." She warned jokingly.

"Me?" Xena widened her eyes innocently, pointing at her own chest. "Would I do that?"

"Yes." The bard tapped her on the belly. "You certainly would."

The warrior chuckled, and rolled over onto her back, folding her hands across her stomach and crossing her ankles. "You know me too well, my bard." She commented to the canopy, regarding its frilly whiteness with distaste. "The princess seems to have certainly taken a liking to you."

Gabrielle, busy with the buckle that held Xena's armor on, paused in her efforts and looked up. "She thinks I'm some kind of...I donít know.. maybe it's because I'm so different than she is..." She considered briefly. "She's not a bad person, just really.. um.. sheltered, you know?"

One blue eye rolled around to regard her fondly. "And you're an experienced woman of the world.. sure.. I can see the fascination."

The bard burst into a giggle at this description. "I don't think that's it." She objected.

"Ah... I think that's exactly it." Xena disagreed, wagging a finger at her. "Look... she's probably never left the city.. and here you are, you've traveled all over, you're a famous bard.."

"Xena!" Gabrielle slapped her gently. "I am not." Ares' ears pricked up at the sharp sound, but he remained still, only darting a glance towards his taller mistress.

"You are too!" The warrior responded. "An Amazon queen... you're probably the most exciting thing that's happened to her since she was allowed to wear that little coronet." She folded her arms, obviously enjoying herself. "So.. what's it like being a celebrity?"

"Xena." Gabrielle mock glared at her. "I'm going to start tickling you if you don't cut that out. I am not a celebrity."

A flash of white teeth. "Sure you are...and then you go and whack the guys trying to kidnap her? I sense... a large chunk of hero worshipping floating around here." She reached over and tickled the bard's chin. "Not that you don't deserve that."

Gabrielle chewed on her lip, reluctantly acknowledging that her soulmate was probably right. Ew. She scrunched up her face. Worse than those Amazonettes. "She's just very impressionable." She finally muttered. "She'll get over it." Then she paused, and thought about that for a minute. "But you know...on second thought... " Now her eyes drifted to the relaxed profile resting on the pillow next to her. "I never did."

Xena scowled at her.

Gabrielle smiled sweetly. "Gotcha." She finished unbuckling the warrior's armor, and slipped it over her head, letting it rest on the bed's soft surface. "Let's talk about hero worshipping." She slid closer, and her eyes twinkled at her partner's glower. "I think I can discuss that with a lot of authority, don't you?"

"Gabrielle..." The warrior felt a blush start up her neck.

"See, the difference is, I have a real, honest, living and breathing hero that I get to spend most of every day with ." The bard replied softly. "Everyone else seems so ordinary in comparison." Her finger traced a line on her soulmate's skin. "I love it when you blush.. you look so cute."

Xena drummed her fingertips on her leather clad stomach. "You win." She conceded the tease war gracefully.

The bard grinned. "I know." She leaned over and kissed her on the nose. "I'll stop embarrassing you now." She snuggled closer, and put her head down on Xena's shoulder. "So.. how was your day?"

The warrior stifled a yawn, and shrugged lightly. "Not bad.. we got the watches and everything all set.." She replied. "Had the troops straighten stuff up.. did some drills..." Her eyes flicked to her partner. "Ended up being sick to my stomach half the day... you know, the usual."

Gabrielle glanced up, biting her lip. "Ooops... " She blinked. "Sorry." She patted the warrior's belly. "Hope that doesn't last long."

Xena laughed wryly. "Nah.. it's all right.. it kinda makes me... " She paused, then went on. "Like I'm part of it." She tightened her hold on the smaller woman. "Doesn't bother me.. you still have to do all the hard stuff."

Gabrielle sighed in contentment. "But not for a while." She yawned. "Are you gonna be mad at me if I use you for a pillow for a little while?" She asked, apologetically.

The warrior blinked her eyes open guiltily. "Um.. no.. of course not." She glanced to the window. "We've got a while before I have to check things out...um.. you go ahead." She watched the bard's eyes close, and felt the warmth of her breath as she exhaled even through her leathers.

Silently, she regarded the pale head resting against her, noting the soft glow of sunlight that outlined her partner's features. One of the bard's hands was curled over her ribcage, its fingers gently flexing against her, and she covered it with her own hand, smiling as their grips intertwined.

Lying here, with Gabrielle, her dilemma seemed so much less.. important. So what if she tricked Garanimus' army into surrendering? So what if she let everyone think they'd outsmarted her? What was important was that no one got hurt, right?

Xena sighed. All that would get hurt was her pride, really. Working with the army today.. she'd started to calculate exactly how she was going to defend the city against the much larger force.. what techniques, how she could set little traps.. at one point, she'd found herself really enjoying the planning, as she exercised mental muscles that had lain dormant for a long time.

They could do it, with her leading them.. she knew that and turning her back on that knowledge was.. tough. But she knew that going forward with it put her at risk, even more so than the rest of the army, because she was just such a natural target. She had a lot of confidence in her own skills, but...

But. You never knew what was going to happen, not in war. You could prepare, and be skilled, and have a plan.. .and some damn bastard could get lucky, and put an arrow through you when you weren't looking.

She wasn't going to put Gabrielle through that. Not now. There were more important things in life than winning wars, and the pride of one dumb, stubborn, half crazy fighter.

Right?

Damn, it stung. Xena stared up at the canopy. Her competitive nature was having an absolute fit.

She wanted to defeat Framna's forces. She wanted to be clever, and tactically brilliant, and to succeed despite the odds, so badly she could almost smell it. The past few days' immersion into her old life had cast hooks into her.. tugging out old reflexes and giving her a taste, again, of the excitement of commanding an army.

Not good. She took a deep breath, and felt Gabrielle stir, then wrap herself more tightly around her body, leaning her bandaged knee up against her partner's thigh. She could feel the gentle movement of the bard's breathing, and let it soothe her, let it remind her of who she was now. Of what was important.

She would, she knew, do what was right, and prudent.. and safe. Her jaw muscles clenched, then relaxed. For Gabrielle's sake.

She owed her that.


Mmmm. Gabrielle allowed herself the luxury of taking a long, slow glide up from sleep to waking, reveling in the warm comfort she felt surrounding her. The sun was slanting over her body, and providing a nice counterpoint to the soft, fragrant leather surface she was resting on. She drew in a deep breath of air full of Xena's distinctive scent and smiled, then let her eyes drift open.

"Hi." Xena remarked, glancing down at her. "Feel better now?"

Gabrielle stretched, then relaxed again. "Yeah.. except I'm really hungry." She gave Xena a mildly sheepish look. "We didn't have lunch."

The warrior chuckled tolerantly. "I've got some bread, cheese, and dried meat if you're interested." She paused, as Gabrielle nodded enthusiastically. "And some fruit.. "

"Where?" The bard rolled over, and swung her legs over the edge of the bed, dislodging Ares, who jumped off and gave her an outraged look.

"I'll get it." Xena offered, sliding off her end of the bed and standing. "Rest your leg." She ambled over to her carrysack, and dug out the supplies she'd gotten that morning.

Gabrielle ignored her suggestion and stood up cautiously, testing her knee. "It feels a lot better." She commented, taking a few hesitant steps. "Really." She continued on towards the small desk, seating herself behind it, and resting her hands on either side of her diary, missing the furtive look cast at her from her partner, who was portioning out food for the hungry Ares.

"Um... " Xena stood up, and headed in her direction, offering her a slice of bread liberally covered with meat and cheese, and two large plums. "How's that?"

The bard gently pushed the diary aside, and accepted the items, putting the sandwich down and biting into a plum with relish. "Oooo... " She chewed happily. "How do you manage to find the best tasting fruit in Greece?" She watched the slow grin appear on Xena's face. "Let me guess.. one of the many skills?"

"Practice." Xena replied, with a smirk. Then her expression sobered. "You..um... gonna do bard stuff?"

Gabrielle paused in mid bite. "I was going to update my diary, if that's what you mean." She replied, giving her soulmate a curious look. "Is that okay?"

"Oh.. yeah.. sure.. I was.. um.. I'm gonna go check on... the guard, and weapons, and things like that." Xena replied, padding over to the bed and retrieving her armor. "I'll... be a while.. you.. take your time." She gave Gabrielle a bright smile, then eased out the door, giving her a little wave. "Bye."

The door closed.

Gabrielle closed her hanging jaw, and stared at Ares, who stared back at her. "What... was... that all about????"

"Roo." The wolf glanced at the door, then trotted over to her and laid down at her feet.

"I think this whole pregnant thing is getting to her, Ares." The bard shook her head, finishing her plum and starting in on the sandwich, as she flipped open her diary. "She's losing it."

The handwriting caught her eye. So different than her own, careful script.. Xena's was bold and distinctive, slanted just slightly, with characteristic downstrokes. She'd have known its author even if her eyes hadn't been drawn to the signature, and she let her eyes absorb the name before she raised them and started reading.

Gabrielle,

You have this entire book recording your thoughts, and your feelings - I thought on just one page, you should have, in writing, what mine are.

Iím not very good at coming up with words - we both know that. It's hard for me to describe what I feel, especially when my feelings are so strong that sometimes it's hard to even just think about them.

We've been through a lot. I guess you know that us surviving it individually is pretty unbelievable, and the fact that we survived it and stayed together is something beyond unbelievable. I know that I did not deserve either one of those things, and so I guess I just lucked out because you did deserve them.

I look back at all the terrible things I've done in my life, and there was a time, in the last few months, that I almost added being in a clearing outside Potadeia that one fall day to my list of regrets, because watching us destroy something I held so close to my heart was killing me. I didn't understand what was happening, but I could feel the darkness inside me pulling harder and harder, and there were times when I walked the line, and almost let that take me over again, because I couldnít see any point in resisting it, not anymore.

I really don't know what stopped me. Maybe it was that promise I made to you, way back when.

I never wanted to hurt you, or see you be hurt, but I've come to understand that, for better or worse, we're in this together, you and me. We might get hurt again, but that's just a chance we have to take, because I'm not about to give this up. I'm pretty good at getting what I want, and you're it.

I love you. That's just for you to have in print, in case anyone questions you or anything, okay? So there's not any doubt about it. Try not to spill water on the page when you read it.

You've brought a lot of stuff into my life that I never expected - I used to see things as pretty black and white, and now I've got all these colors that you've woken me up to. Like how nice a bird sounds in the morning, or how great it is to watch a sunset. Listening to your poetry and seeing the world through your eyes makes me realize just how much I missed, after Cortese.

It's like my life started over. I know I go backwards sometimes, and that scares you, but you'd better know that you're one of the only reasons I keep trying to go forward again. If you ever doubted how important you are to me, don't., okay? I would really be lost in the dark without you. Sometimes, when my head is full of all the nasty stuff I've done, I can look over at you, and remember just some dumb thing I did that made you smile, and that's enough to push that stuff back for a while.

I'm glad you've decided to share my life. You're my partner, and my best friend, and one of the most wonderful people I've ever known. You are the best thing that ever happened to me.

We share something pretty special, even I realize that. I know that it's the reason we made it through those dark times, and it's what brought us back together. But in the back of my mind, a little part of me kinda wants to believe that even if we didn't share that, if we were just like any other two people, that maybe we'd have chosen each other anyhow.

Someday, my bard - you'll be the one they remember. Your stories, and your way of living... that's what people are going to tell, and retell.. and all I'll be is just some fighter who kept you safe while you traveled the world.

That's okay by me.

Someday, when I'm too old to move around a lot, I'd like to sit on our porch, and let the grandkids run all over me, while they listen to you tell stories of the good old days.

Funny thing is, until I met you, I never thought growing old would ever be an issue for me. See how you change things?

I guess that's enough of that, huh? Last time I wrote this much, it was a demand for surrender from some major city near Thebes. I think I liked doing this better.

Xena

She read it through three times, before she finally lifted her eyes, and regarded the closed door. "You big chicken." She accused the absent warrior. "Afraid I might catch you being all mushy, huh?" Gabrielle let her fingers trace the bold letters with gentle pleasure, hearing her partner's tone in them effortlessly. Parts of it made her smile. Parts of it.. just reading them hurt. But it was real, and it was honest, and it was all Xena, straightforward in ways that very few people were.

"I would have picked you anyway." She whispered., feeling a tear slip down her face. "And you did deserve this, Xena.. I don't care what you say, or how many times you tell me you didn't." Ares nudged her hand, licking it and whining. "Ares.. you're mommy's a mushball."

"Agrrrr." The wolf chewed on her fingers lightly.

"Yes, she is.. and now.. I'm gonna go find her, and dig her out of whatever moldy armor bin she's hidden herself in, and tell her just how much I love her. Is that okay with you?"

Ares wagged his tail, and stood, trotting to the door, then turning and glancing at her in question.

Gabrielle grinned, and stood, closing the diary and moving around the table. "Ow." She winced, as her weight came down on her injured leg. "C'mon now, Gabrielle.. suck it up... it's just a minor sprain." Grimly, she flexed the limb, and walked around in a few little circles until the pain was tolerable, then grabbed her staff, and headed for the door.

It opened as she reached it, and Silvi wafted in. "Oh.. Gabrielle... thank the gods you're all right. I was terribly worried."

"Um." The bard sighed, and collected herself. "Yeah.. I'm fine.. really."

"That woman didn't.. harm you.. did she?" The princesses' face was concerned. "You seem.. upset."

"No.. no.. " Gabrielle held up a hand. "She.. all she did was wrap my knee up.. it's.. fine.. really.. I um... was just on my way out."

Silvi captured her upraised hand and held it, tugging her towards the low couch. "Gabrielle, I must speak with you."

Sighing inwardly, the bard followed her, and sat down, leaning her staff against the edge of the table close by. "Yes?" She patted Ares, who had wandered over, and seated himself persistently at her side. He gave the princess a decidedly grumpy look.

"Elanora thinks... I hardly know how to ask this. But...that woman.. "

"Xena." Gabrielle prompted mildly.

"Yes... she hasn't.. made advances on you, has she?" The princess asked.

"Advances?"

"Unwelcome attentions?" Silvi tried again.

"Unwelcome attentions?" Gabrielle repeated, hoping she wasn't being asked what she thought she was.

"Um..." The princess blushed, delicately. "Forced herself on you?"

"Oh!" The bard plastered a weak grin on her face. "Let's see... advances.. no.. unwelcome attentions... definitely not.. forced herself? No... no forcing that I was aware of." That's it Gabrielle... tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Her thoughts paused. Well, two outta three ain't bad, as Xena would say. "She's actually not so bad once you get to know her."

Disbelief ran rampant over Silvi's face. "I think she's horrid."

Gabrielle regarded her. "Why?"

"She's killed thousands of people, Gabrielle... and... and.. the stories.. the murders.. the plunders.. the rapes.. the pillages... " The girl spluttered.

The bard cocked her head to one side. "What do you think Framna does?" She asked, with devastating logic. "He's a warlord, just like she used to be."

Dead silence, as the girl just stared at her.

"It's all how you look at things, huh?" Gabrielle commented gently. "I used to think the same things you do.. until I met Xena, and got to know her.. and I found out that she was a lot more, and a lot less than all the stories I'd been hearing half my life."

Silvi stood, and walked to the window, clearly agitated. "You.. you sound as if you.. you like her."

"I do." Came the quiet answer. "I agreed to help you not to hurt her, but to keep people from getting killed in a senseless fight."

The princess turned abruptly, and faced her. "You're not being held against your will, are you?"

Gabrielle slowly shook her head. "No." She paused. "I never said I was."

A faint click caught her attention, and she turned her head to see a panel open, and Framna's tall form slip inside. Uh oh. Warning bells went off in her mind, and she reached unconsciously for her staff. Beside her, Ares let out a deep, low growl.

"I've heard what I need to, your highness." The big man said, seriously. "It seems Elanora was right.. she is a danger to us."

Gabrielle slipped off the couch, and stepped back, bringing her staff up. "I think you're making a mistake."

The man edged forward, watching her closely. "I'm sure she's told Xena our plans... " He murmured. "But.. I believe holding her will force that she demon to bend to our will in any case."

The bard straightened. "You're really, really making a mistake." She warned. "Xena's not here for a fight... she's willing to go along with your plan." She paused. "But if you pull something like this, I can't guarantee anything."

Framna held up a hand. "Just put the stick down, and you won't get hurt. That' s not my intention."

Gabrielle's temper rose. "You just stay where you are, and you won't get hurt." She snapped back. "You try anything, and I'll make you wish you hadn't." Oo. There.. that's better, huh Xena? Ares bristled in front of her, his ruff lifting as he lowered his head. "You are in way more trouble than I am, buddy."

The warlord stared at her, then lunged forward, reaching for her staff.

"Jerk." Gabrielle whisked the weapon out of his grasp and swung it down, smacking him in the knees with it, and taking his feet from under him. He fell with a heavy thud, and scrambled back to up with a wince. "Here I thought you weren't so bad." She pulled the staff back, then shot it forward, catching him in the chest with its end, and forcing him back.

Ares launched himself forward, growling hideously, and attached his jaws to Framna's hastily thrown up arm, twisting his head violently as he knocked the man off balance. The wolf shifted his grip, and went for the warlord's throat, narrowly missing it and sinking his fangs into his shoulder.

"Ares!" The voice cut through the growls, and Framna's yells, and the wolf obeyed its summons, releasing his victim and trotting over to the tall, dark haired form standing in the doorway. "Good boy." Xena stroked his head, then glanced over at her soulmate. "Can't leave you alone for a minute, can I?"

"Hey." Gabrielle leaned on her staff. "I was winning." She turned her gaze to the princess, who was huddled near the couch, clearly frightened half to death. "Silvi, you better sit down."

Xena closed the door behind her, and stalked across the room, barely giving the younger girl a glance as she reached the writhing warlord's side, and gazed down at him. "You're lucky I'm in a good mood." She commented coldly. "Or I woulda just let him chew on you for a while longer." Her icy glanced flicked to the bard. "Would you sit down and get off that knee?"

The bard rolled her eyes, and limped around to the front of the desk, settling in the chair with an audible sigh, then picking up her half forgotten sandwich and munching on it. "Yes, grandma." She replied around a mouthful, getting a twinkle in return.

Xena grabbed the warlord's tunic, and pulled him up, dumping him onto the couch roughly. "Lemme see that." She growled in disgust, taking hold of his wrist, and examining the fang marks. "You got damn lucky, buster." She informed him. "Now.. I think we need to talk. "

He regarded her in silence, holding his arm with his other hand, as blood dripped down it. Xena smiled, not one of her nicer ones, and leaned back against desk. "Or I can turn you over to Pounding Pauline, the Amazon Queen, here." She caught Gabrielle biting down hard on her lip at that one, and dropped a menacing look onto her face. "She can mash you into binding paste in under a quarter candlemark, lemme warn ya."

His eyes slowly went from her, to the bard, then back. "What do you want?" He asked, in a husky tone.

Xena smiled. "That's better. " She eased down into the chair. "And if you're really a good boy, I'll even dress those." She informed him silkily. "Now let's get down to business."


Gabrielle chewed on her sandwich, content to let her partner handle these negotiations. She seldom got to watch the warrior use persuasion.. Xena was much more likely to apply a more direct method of bargaining, and it was interesting to see a glimpse of her shrewder side even in the modification of her body language as she composed herself to strike a deal with the injured warlord.

Instead of standing upright, which emphasized her intimidating size, she chose to perch on the edge of the desk, leaning back and crossing her legs at the ankles.   She also folded her hands together resting on one thigh, and cocked her head to one side, minimizing the impact of her sharp gaze.

Interesting. Gabrielle reflected, watching the shift of Xena's body under her leathers and armor, and managing to keep her hands from reaching out and touching only by an effort of will. She could almost feel the warm, rough texture of the hide under her fingertips, and how it felt when Xena moved around inside of it. The warrior took a breath to start speaking, and the surface tightened, sending out a tiny squeaking whisper of complaint at the strain. With an effort, Gabrielle tore her attention away from these fascinating details, and paid attention to the conversation.

"So." Xena lowered the pitch of her voice. "You're looking to make a bloodless conquest, eh?"

Framna regarded her very warily. "Conquest?" He murmured, giving Silvi a glance. "No... I have no interest in taking over a city. It's Silvi I want to help.. I want to get this place free of that bastard."

The warrior studied him. "And then what?" She asked quietly. "Let's say... your plan works. Garanimus' army goes to sleep, you take over... what then? What do you do with all of them?" She folded her arms across her chest, and shifted al little.

He shrugged one broad shoulder. "Those who wanted... if they were any good, which I doubt, could have stayed on with my army.. those that weren't... would have been free to leave. " His eyes fastened on her face warily, watching for a reaction.

"It would have worked just fine." Silvi spoke up, nervously. "It was a great plan, until you ruined it." This was spoken towards Gabrielle, who gazed back at her solemnly. "I cannot believe I was so grossly deceived by you." She gave the bard a hurt look.

Pale blue eyes pinned her. "Gabrielle didn't deceive you." Xena told her crisply, then she stood and strolled over to the window, forcing them to turn and watch her. "You staying here after that?" She inquired, reaching an idle hand out into the sunlight, and watching it dance across her palm. A gentle breeze blew in, stirring her dark hair and carrying a hint of brass and leather over to where Gabrielle was sitting. The bard breathed it in happily, but remained silent, chewing on her lunch.

He hesitated, then looked over at the princess. "If Silvi'll have me here, yes."

Xena turned, and leaned against the frame of the double doors leading out to the balcony, letting the warm light throw her face into shadow, and emphasize the sparkling glints that were her eyes. "All right.. here's the deal." She crossed her arms. "I've got no beef with you, and all I promised Garanimus was that I'd take charge of his army.. not that I'd do anything with it. "

They looked at her distrustfully.

"So... I'll let your little plan go ahead, on two conditions." Xena continued, holding up one hand and raising a single finger. "One, that no one, and I mean no one gets hurt." She lifted a second finger. "And two, I get to decide how and where to disperse all of Garanimus' army, including him."

Framna slowly stood up, and faced her, towering over them. "We outnumber you six to one... why should I agree to any conditions?" He eyed her appraisingly. Silvi turned so that she was facing Xena also, but stayed seated, almost crouching behind the couch back as thought that might protect her from the intimidating figure.

Xena smiled. "Two reasons." One finger again. "One, because you don't lose anything by it." A second finger, now pointing right at him, and suddenly the menace rolled off her like a dark wave. "And two, because I'll take that little army of a hundred and beat you if you don't." Her voice dropped low on the last few words, and took on a deep, growly texture, as her eyes narrowed at him.

Gabrielle felt a familiar chill skitter down her back as she watched her partner's dark side emerge, painting her with a feral quality that was so perceptible, even the tall warlord stepped back a pace. Gods.. The bard found her eyes glued to Xena's menacing form, watching the steady, even breathing as the warrior waited for Framna's response.

"You... are pretty cocky, considering you've only been in charge of them a few days" He temporized, his voice faintly hesitant.

Xena gave him one of her full grins, completely relaxed, and totally self confident, and Gabrielle could see Framna's own doubts multiplying right before her eyes. She grinned back at her soulmate, behind their backs, and gave her a thumbs up, and a wink, to which she got a shift of the eyebrow, and an extra quirk to her grin in response.

Framna took a breath, and glanced at Silvi. "I'll agree.. but I have a condition." He finally replied. "You, and that army, leave this city, and don't ever come back."

The warrior chuckled. "I don't think that'll be a problem." She pushed away from the door and walked towards him, extending an arm. "Deal?"

He hesitated. "How do I know I can trust you?"

The blue eyes facing him glinted softly. "You don't. You just gotta make a choice. Yes, or no." She turned her hand upmost. "Deal, or not?" She stood there, balanced, and alert, the toned muscles in her shoulders gently tensing as she waited.

Framna exhaled, then reluctantly extended his hand and gripped her forearm, tightening his hold tentatively, then releasing her as though she were something dangerous. "Deal." He stepped back, and Silvi rose hurriedly, moving to his side, and putting a trembling hand on his arm, a mixed look of fear and dislike on her face as she watched Xena.

The warrior crossed her arms. "Good." A crooked smile crossed her face. "See you at dinner, then." She added coolly. "Just keep quiet, and follow my lead, all right?"

A look of frustration and anger crossed his face. "No tricks."

Xena just laughed. "No tricks." She assured him.

Silvi straightened. "And you may leave your... " Her eyes went to Gabrielle for an instant, then went back to the warrior. "Your slave here. I do not wish her to be present at my table."

Gabrielle was on her feet before Xena could so much as open her mouth. "Just hold on one chicken plucking minute." The bard put her hands on her hips. "Xena, I want to know why everybody just assumes that I am some kind of personal slave of yours." Her voice was crisp with anger.

"I um.. " Xena pursed her lips, and rubbed the side of her jaw, as she peeked apologetically at her soulmate. "Because they don't know you?"

"Is it the leather? The sword, the boots? What?" The bard asked rhetorically. "Or.. let me guess... it's your height, isn't it?" Gabrielle faced Silvi, her mist green eyes snapping. "Listen, I am not any kind of slave, servant, or any thing else, you got that?" She stated firmly.

Silvi gazed at her in awed horror, then averted her eyes and moving closer to Framna.

"Yeah." Xena growled, slitting her eyes dangerously. "Just think.. if she were my size, with her attitude, you'd be in a world of trouble, now wouldn't you? Probably be swinging off the balcony by now."

Gabrielle turned amusedly exasperated eyes on her partner, but said nothing.

"She'll be there tonight." Xena continued coldly, staring right at Silvi. Then her eyes shifted to Framna. "You'd better get back out there to your army.. so you can make your little entrance." A pause. "Watch that outer ravine.. I saw snakes out there."

His eyes widened as she pinpointed the location of his forces neatly. "I will." He muttered, taking Silvi's arm, and edging towards the hidden door to the room. Xena followed along behind them, with Ares, growling, at her heels, shutting the panel firmly behind them and leaning against it.

"So.. Your Royal Shortness.. how are things in the dungeons?" The warrior inquired, her eyes twinkling. "What a couple of kids."

Gabrielle had seated herself, and now rested her chin on her hand, and with the other hand, crooked a finger at her soulmate.

Xena peeked around looking for another possible target, then pointed at her own chest.

The bard smiled, and nodded, and crooked her finger again.

The warrior strolled across the floor slowly, putting hands behind her back, until she ended up right next to the desk. "Yeeess?" She rumbled, in a low tone, cocking her head to one side, and gazing down at Gabrielle.

The bard stood, then hopped up onto her chair, and rested both forearms on Xena's shoulders. "You.. are the biggest, but cutest, leather covered chicken in all of Greece."

"Me?" Xena squeaked. "What.. I wasn't just intimidating enough? What'd you want me to do.. scare him into a quivering mass of gelatin?" She chuckled. "I threatened him with you twice, what more do you want?"

"That. " Gabrielle touched her forehead to the warrior's. "Is not what I'm talking about." She kissed her nose. "And you know it."

 Xena's eyes dropped to the desktop, and her face took on an almost shy expression. Her fingers played idly with a fallen quill, ordering the feathers nervously. "Oh." She exhaled.

The bard breathed in the clean scent of her hair. "Do you know what a gift that was to me?"
She asked gently. "Do you understand how much it means to me to have those words, written in your hand, in something that is as much a part of me as that diary is?"

A flustered, and relieved grin edged Xena's lips. "I guess I do now." She lifted her eyes, and peered at the bard. "I did okay, huh?" She lifted a hand, and let it drop. "I'm.. not sure why I did that.. I know it was kinda rambling...it just.. sorta came out."

 Gabrielle gently cupped her face, and gazed soulfully into her eyes. "Honey, you can ramble in my diary any time you want, okay?" She replied. "It was the most amazing surprise... and my birthday's not due for another.. " She paused, counting.

"Eight days, twelve candlemarks." Xena muttered, focusing her gaze on the bard's chest, which was even with her head. She glanced up as the silence lengthened to see tears rolling down Gabrielle's cheeks. "Hey... " She raised a bewildered hand to gently brush the moisture away. "You knew I'd remember.." Her voice trailed off. "Didn't you??" The last two words came out very hesitantly.

The bard circled her neck with both arms, and pulled her closer. "Yes." She took in a shaky breath, as she hid her face against Xena's shoulder. "I was just remembering what I got for my last birthday."

Puzzled, the warrior took hold of her. "What was that, love?"

"Us."

The soft whisper came right into her ear, and Xena clamped her jaw down hard on a surge of emotion. Had it really been just a year ago they'd stood in the rain, in a Centaur village, and crossed the line they'd been balancing on for so long before that? Of course it had. She knew that very well.

"It's today, isn't it?" Gabrielle breathed.

Xena nodded.

"They say.. that the first year is always the hardest." Gabrielle pressed her cheek against the warrior's neck. "Should be a breeze from now on, huh?"

The warrior smiled gently, and rubbed her back. "I'm gonna do my best to make sure of that." She lifted Gabrielle off her chair and set her down on the floor, brushing the top of her head with a kiss. "Glad you liked the note."

"Very much so." The bard agreed, giving her a final hug, and then releasing her, as they both turned on hearing a knock at the door. "Uh oh.. now what?"

"Damned if I know." Xena sighed. "Come in."

The door creaked open, and Mestre came in, carrying a tray with glasses, and a large pitcher on it. "Was told to bring this." The girl said, keeping her eyes glued on Xena, and managing to communicate intense disapproval in her rigid posture. "Have a care, ma'am.. tis a bit spoilt, I'm thinking." Now her eyes moved deliberately to Gabrielle, and held there, then went back to Xena defiantly.

The warrior sighed inwardly. I do have the knack of picking up the damnedest allies. "Thank you, Mestre." She replied. "I'll be careful."

Reluctantly, the girl nodded, then walked out, not without a few backwards glances. Xena waited until the door closed before padding over and sniffing the contents. "Port?" She gave Gabrielle a look. "I hate port."

"I know." The younger woman nodded. "I wanted to make sure that in the unlikely case I wasn't here when that got here, you wouldn't just guzzle it all down."

Both dark eyebrow shot up. "Me, guzzle?" Xena snorted. "Not likely, Gabrielle."

The bard limped over and patted her on the side. "Just kidding." She sniffed the jug and wrinkled her nose. "I know you only order it in taverns because you're convinced it's so bad, it's safe to drink."

Xena grinned, and nudged the pitcher. "No sickness could live in that, right?" She made a face. "So.. what's in there?"

The bard shrugged. "Four packets of whatever it is they're trying to give everyone tonight."

"Four??!!" Xena yelped. "Damn, Gabrielle.... Did ya think you were gonna have to take down Argo too?"

Gabrielle chuckled softly, and slid an arm around her. "Hey.. you're a big girl." She gave her a squeeze. "Besides, with you, ya can't be too careful, or so I led them to believe."

"Mmph." The warrior grumbled. "Me and my reputation.. it's a dangerous thing."

"Two dangerous things." The bard corrected absently, leaning against the warm leather surface, smiling a little as Xena's arm dropped over her shoulders. "Sorry I kinda blew my cover."

Xena shrugged. "Nah.. don't worry about it... wasn't gonna last much longer anyhow."

A nod. "So.. you gonna let everyone just take that stuff and go to sleep, right? "

"Nope." Xena shook her head.

Gabrielle tipped her red gold head up and stared at her taller companion. "Huh?"

A half grin appeared. "Never trust any plan that isn't yours, Gabrielle."


Continued in Part 8