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Ares' Game

by M. Pappas

WARNING: While not sexually explicit, this story does contain mature themes and suggests a possible romantic involvement between two adult women. If this offends you, please interpret my "subtext" in another way or read no further.

The characters of Xena, Gabrielle and Argo are owned by MCA/Universal and no copyright infringement is intended.

DISCLAIMER: While neither Xena nor Gabrielle were permanently harmed, Ares' ego was severely bruised and Hades continues to have the last laugh.

Xena sat contentedly in the corner of Gabrielle's sister's house, listening to Gabrielle weave the magic that was the bard's stories as her friends and family gathered around to listen. They were all seated in the main room of Lila's home. Gabrielle had enjoyed the past few days that they had been in Poteidaia and Xena had to admit that she had enjoyed the peace and quiet as well. They had arrived two days ago in order for the two sisters to spend some time together. Lila made sure that they would stay long enough to celebrate Gabrielle's birthday tomorrow.

Gabrielle had been traveling with her for almost two years now and Xena realized as she watched her that the young girl who had felt trapped by her family's expectations and had almost begged her to tag along on her "adventure" was long since gone. An inner strength had emerged during the time Gabrielle had spent in the Amazon Nation. Perhaps it came from the knowledge that she was no longer one of the masses but had been accepted by the Amazons as one of the leaders of that nation. A leader not by birth but one born of character and determination and her willingness to have given her life for one of their own. Xena glanced around the room at all of the people gathered there - these had all been Gabrielle's peers and now they were all held captivated by the voice of her bard.

'My bard...'Xena blinked at the thought. 'Where did that come from?' Gabrielle looked in her direction and their eyes met and held briefly. Xena smiled as she focused again on what Gabrielle was saying. It was another story about their adventures together and Xena always thought that Gabrielle made her sound braver and more courageous in her stories than she actually was. Xena glanced down at a sudden, small tug on her arm.


Xena was looking into the eyes of a little girl that she recognized as being one of Gabrielle's cousin's children.

"Gabby said that you would tuck me in if I asked nice?? Did I ask nice?"

'Gabby!' Xena made a mental note to tease Gabrielle about that particular nick-name. She couldn't help but smile at the girl's hesitant expression and worried frown.

"You asked just fine. Come on." The child reached up and took the warrior's larger hand into her own and smiled broadly at anyone that they passed.

"Xena's going to tuck me in." She'd proudly announce to anyone within earshot. It amazed Xena that in this small child's eyes, she was a hero. Xena led the girl into the other room and silently tucked the blanket around her.



"Do you tell stories like Gabby?"

Xena looked at her for a moment and then smiled, remembering Gabrielle's story. "No...I live them. Now, go to sleep." She stood up and watched as the child waved and then closed her eyes.

Xena stood there for a moment longer before making her way through the crowded main room and out the door. She paused by one the larger trees outside and leaned back against it. Gabrielle's story had been close to it's end and it wasn't long before Xena heard familiar footfalls behind her. Gabrielle moved to stand beside her and lightly placed her hand on Xena's arm.

"Everything all right?"

"Hmmm." Xena nodded and Gabrielle noticed how relaxed Xena looked. Perhaps this visit had been good for both of them. "I just needed to get outside for a moment. It's so peaceful here." Xena looked away from the bard and glanced at the village around her.

"Yeah. It'll be hard to leave here in a few days." Gabrielle answered and immediately regretted it as she saw Xena's muscles tense and the softness that her eyes had held disappeared. Gabrielle had unknowingly touched on a subject that had been bothering Xena since they arrived. Xena had been battling worry and feelings of guilt that she was depriving Gabrielle of a normal family life. She was concerned that Gabrielle stayed with her because she felt like she owed Xena something instead of because she wanted to. Watching her interact with her family and friends had triggered these feelings of guilt in Xena.

"Do you miss the safety and security of a home, Gabrielle?" There was an almost desperate quality to her voice. Ever since Gabrielle had married Perdicus, Xena had been worried that secretly Gabrielle had wanted to settle down and start a family instead of this continual wandering from place to place.

"No, Xena, I don't think that I'd ever really fit in here anymore. I enjoy experiencing life too much to stay in one place." 'Why do I feel safe and secure as long as you are beside me and that my home is where ever you are?' Gabrielle laughed to lighten the mood, "Besides, could you see me as a farmer?"

'I almost did.' Xena thought sadly to herself and forced a small smile for Gabrielle's benefit. Gabrielle's answer had done little to calm Xena's fears, but when she turned to look into the bard's eyes, she saw that what she said was the truth. "That would be a sight to see, Gabrielle."

They stood there for a moment, a comfortable silence settling between them. Gabrielle's hand still rested lightly on Xena's arm and both were completely at ease with the closeness of the other. A closeness born of sharing both life and death and the enduring bond that comes from complete faith and trust in each other.

"Gabrielle, I..." Xena had turned back to look at the woman beside her and started to speak just as two of Gabrielle's younger cousins burst from the house.

"Gabrielle! Gabrielle! Come tell us about when you and Xena met the Titans! Please! We're all waiting." They each grabbed an arm and started pulling her into the house.

Gabrielle looked back at Xena questioningly. "Xena?"

"It's all right, Gabrielle, go on. I was just going to tell you that..." Xena hesitated for just an instant, "That I needed to check on Argo."

"Oh..." Gabrielle replied softly and with a little disappointment as she allowed herself to be pulled back inside. Special moments like that with Xena both relaxed and happy were few and far between and this moment had come to an abrupt end.

Xena shook her head as she watched her go back into the house before she set out for the stables. It looks like it's going to be a long night...

Xena watched as Gabrielle held up a beautiful blue skirt and matching shift that her sister had given to her. Xena inwardly smiled as she fingered the unusually shaped object that she held loosely wrapped in parchment. She smiled outwardly as she remembered the smaller package that was hidden in her saddlebag in the barn.

"Xena! Look at what Lila gave me!" Gabrielle's excitement was rewarded with another smile as Xena handed her the package that she held.

"It's heavy! In fact it looks kinda like a..." It was at that moment that the parchment fell away and revealed Xena's 'gift', "Frying pan." Gabrielle finished with her mouth agape.

Xena had to force herself not to chuckle at the shocked look on everyone's faces and at Gabrielle's forced smile.

"Uh, huh...Happy birthday, Gabrielle." Xena moved by her then and headed out the door. She couldn't help but grin when she got outside - her "gift" had gotten the reaction that she had wanted. The last thing that Gabrielle had expected was for her to play such a joke on her.

Back in the house, it took Gabrielle a moment to react and it had allowed Xena time to get out of the door. "Here." Gabrielle shoved the frying pan into Lila's hands, "Hold this. I'll be right back."

Xena already had Argo halfway saddled by the time Gabrielle came into the barn.


"Yes, Gabrielle?" Xena answered with mock exasperation as she cinched up the saddle.

"A frying pan? Xena...A frying pan?" Gabrielle tried to sound angry but a smile played at her lips as she remember how angry she had been when Xena had used one of her pans as a weapon.

"'re always telling me that you need more pans to cook with...Besides, the look on your face was worth a thousand dinars." Xena turned back to Gabrielle and tried to look serious. She failed miserably and broke out in another sheepish grin. Soon both women were laughing.

"Go on...They're waiting for you. I'm going for a ride." Xena easily swung herself up onto Argo and turned towards the door of the barn. Xena reached behind her and pulled the small package out of her saddlebag and then looked back down at Gabrielle.

"Here...this is really for you." Xena leaned down and handed her the package and then spurred Argo on. "Don't worry...I'll try and be back before dinner."

"Xe..." Gabrielle began but the warrior was already gone. She looked down at the small package that she held and smiled. 'She sure pulled one on you, didn't she? You walked right into that one and never saw it coming.' Gabrielle shook her head and went back into the house.

"Gabrielle...Is everything all right?" Lila asked. She had seen the way Xena had left hurriedly.

"Yeah...I guess so." 'I think she's just getting restless.' Gabrielle held up the package. "She gave me this before she left."

"What is it - a knife or a cooking spoon?" Lila and Gabrielle both laughed as the bard unwrapped the gift. Underneath the parchment was a small wooden box. Gabrielle opened the lid and gasped when she saw what it contained. Carefully she lifted out an intricately carved ivory writing instrument made to hold her charcoal securely in it's end. Gabrielle couldn't help but feel like she was holding something important.

"Gabrielle! It's beautiful!" Lila exclaimed and she immediately made Gabrielle show it around to everyone else. It was a far cry from the frying pan!

Xena arrived true to her word, just before the evening meal. Gabrielle noticed that she was quiet and withdrawn throughout the meal and got up to go back outside as soon as they were through.

"Xena?" Gabrielle questioned as she followed her to where Argo was loosely tethered just outside the house. "That was a beautiful gift that you gave me today. I can never thank you enough." Gabrielle waited, hoping that Xena would tell her the story behind the 'pen' that she knew there must be. A sad smile tugged at Xena's mouth as she looked down into Gabrielle's expectant face.

"I'm glad that you like it, Gabrielle. It means a lot to me that you do. It once belonged to my brother, Lyceus. He had a fondness for writing much like you do and I spent most of one summer carving it for him. I gave it to him shortly before Cortese's attack...I don't think he ever got to use it." Xena looked away from her for a moment - lost in her memories. Then she looked back at Gabrielle and genuinely smiled. "I wanted you to have it so when we passed through Amphipolis on the way here, I picked it up from mother. She thought it was a good gift for you too."

Gabrielle looked away from Xena with tears in her eyes. No one would ever understand what this gift really meant to her and she knew that she would guard and cherish it forever. She knew what Lyceus was to Xena and what it meant that she had chosen to give it to her.

"Hey..." Xena said, trying to lighten the mood, "I need to put Argo back into the barn and give her a good brushing. Do you want to come along? Argo and I had a good ride today..." Xena's voice trailed off as she seemed to be at a loss for something else to say.

"Good..." Gabrielle nodded as she walked alongside her on the way to the stables. "I told Lila that we'd probably be leaving tomorrow and she said that she'd get some supplies ready to take with us."

"Gabrielle, are you sure?" It was unlike Gabrielle to tell her when they were leaving. When they stayed somewhere nice, either in a town or on the road, Gabrielle and her appetite usually wanted to stay longer.

"I guess so. Lila was the one that offered. She said that she has more than enough food..." Gabrielle paused seeing Xena's confused expression, "Oh! You meant about leaving? Well...we'll have been here almost four days and besides, many more nights like last night and I'll run out of stories to tell!"

Xena playfully pushed the bard as they both laughed. "Gabrielle, you'll never run out of stories!"

They were two days out of Poteidaia and they had stopped as dusk approached. The trip had been uneventful and almost as restful as their stay with Lila had been. Gabrielle had enjoyed her visit but she had to admit that it was good to be alone with Xena again. The warrior seemed a little more talkative than usual and Gabrielle was taking full advantage of it. As they worked to set up camp, the bard was rewarded with smiles and even laughter as she told Xena some of her funnier stories that she had worked on in Poteidaia. They prepared a meal made from some of the food Lila had given them. Xena had complained that she hadn't carried this much food even when she had to feed her army. Then Lila had reminded her that it was Gabrielle that she had to feed. All three women had shared a good laugh before Gabrielle had said goodbye.

The bard continued to engage Xena in conversation throughout their dinner and for some time afterwards. For once Xena didn't mind as it gave her an excuse to once again focus her attention entirely on her friend.

It was late when Gabrielle had finally fallen asleep and now Xena sat beside her watching the fire and the darkness that surrounded them. It was as she sat there contentedly drinking a cup of spiced mead that she turned her gaze and her thoughts back to the young woman who lay sleeping within a arm's reach.

Xena remembered their animated conversation of that evening and how pleased Gabrielle had been to find the warrior in, what was for her, a talkative mood. 'How can I explain to you that I became restless in Poteidaia because we had no time to spend together? I had so wanted to spend some time with you but your every waking moment was monopolized by your family.' Xena laughed at herself and shook her head. 'Of course they did, Xena, they hadn't seen her in over a year! You almost sound jealous!' Xena's head snapped up at the sudden realization that she had been jealous! 'When did I become so possessive of you, Gabrielle, and start thinking of you in terms like 'my bard'?' Looking at Gabrielle laying there in the peacefulness of sleep with firelight flickering off of her face and hair, Xena thought that she had never seen her look more beautiful. 'When did my feelings towards you change and become deeper than friendship? When did you invade my heart?'

Xena shook her head and glanced into her empty mug. It must be the wine. She set the mug aside and thought briefly that she couldn't remember when she had last felt this relaxed and at peace with herself. Little did she know that peace would soon be shattered to the point that she couldn't even find solace in sleep as she never noticed the shadowy figure that stood in the darkness just outside the fire's light - watching...waiting...

It was the next night that the dreams started and Xena woke up in terror with Gabrielle's name frozen on her lips. Her face was damp with perspiration and her breaths came in ragged gasps. The dream had been so vivid that it had seemed real. Xena sat there trying to shake off the effects of the dream and ended up watching over Gabrielle until dawn.

After the third night with the same dream, Xena knew that it was no longer "just" a dream. It was always the same - Ares came and took Gabrielle and Xena would spend the rest of her life hunting for her but never finding the bard. Ares was at work here and Xena knew that she had to keep watch over Gabrielle. She built up the fire and made sure that her sword was even closer than usual as she settled in for a long night of waiting.

Xena wasn't sure if it was the sound of the birds singing or the sunlight that warmed her exposed legs that woke her. It took her a moment to realize what had happened but once she did, she looked around in alarm. She had fallen asleep while standing watch over Gabrielle! She had never gone to sleep while on watch before! She quickly looked over to where the bard should have been still sleeping soundly. Her blanket was there as well as her pack but Gabrielle was no where to be seen. It was then that Xena's gaze fell upon the staff that still lay on the ground - Gabrielle never went anywhere without it.

"Gabrielle!!" Xena grabbed her weapons and began a frantic search of the area around the camp as she sank farther and farther into despair with each passing moment. 'Gabrielle never gets up this early...Where could she be?'

"Gabrielle!!!" She called her name again for what seemed like the hundredth time when she saw the familiar figure of her friend approaching.

"Hey! Xena! I found a stream and look-I caught a fish!!" Gabrielle had been oblivious to Xena's frantic search.

"Gabrielle! Don't you ever do that again!" Xena had closed the distance between them in moments and firmly gripped Gabrielle by the arm.

"Don't do what? Catch fish for breakfast? You've never complained..." Her voice trailed off as she saw the fear in Xena's eyes. "Xena, are you all right?"

Xena took a deep breath and willed herself to relax and release her hold on Gabrielle's arm.

"I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I...just had this dream and then I woke up and you were gone."

"You were sleeping so soundly when I woke up I didn't want to wake you until I had breakfast cooking. You were worried about me, weren't you? Must have been some dream."

"Yeah." Xena answered in a tone that ended any further questions about the dream. She forced herself not to pull Gabrielle into her arms and cry with relief. Instead she tried to present some semblance of her normal self even though she knew that her hands were still shaking. 'How much longer can this go on? How much more of this can I take?'

Xena watched as Gabrielle slept peacefully next to the fire. What the bard didn't know was that Xena had stayed awake every night since the dreams started. Xena now watched her day and night, so afraid that if she looked away for even an instant that she would be gone. She knew that she couldn't go through another night like this.

Xena stoked the fire and then looked up at the moon.

"Artemis.." She whispered in order not to wake the sleep bard, "Patron Goddess of the Amazons. Please...if you can hear me...please watch over Gabrielle while I do what I have to. I can't go on like this...I can't go through each day and night in terror that he'll take her from me. Help her to understand that I have to do this. I can't tell her how I feel and add to the burden that she already must carry without me here. I just care about her so much and I have to protect her. It's the only way that I know how..." A single tear wound it's way down Xena's cheek and she made no effort to brush it away. Xena waited until she once again had her emotions under strict control and then went over to wake her still sleeping friend.

"Gabrielle...wake up."

"Wha...? Hey...Listen Mister, I haven't seen your chicken...?"

" up and listen to me."

"Xena? What...?"

"We have to talk..."

"Okay, okay... I'm awake. Sort of. Sure...Okay...Couldn't we talk in the morning? I guess I shouldn't complain-it's just not everyday that you want to talk in the middle of the night." Gabrielle laughed until she saw Xena's eyes. "This is serious, isn't it?"

"I have to leave, Gabrielle."

"Uh, okay. I'll be ready in a few minutes. Where will we..."

"You can't go with me, Gabrielle." Xena cut her off, "I have to go to Ares."

"Ares? Xena...What's going on? This has something to do with your dreams doesn't it?" Gabrielle was overtaken by a sudden feeling of terror as Xena nodded. "Why do you have to leave?"

"I just have to, Gabrielle. It's the only way that I can stop him from destroying me." 'Please, Gabrielle, don't ask me too many questions. Don't make me hurt you even more than I already will by leaving.'

"Destroy you...? I don't understand. Xena, is there no other way?" Gabrielle was almost begging for an answer.

Xena shook her head no. "I have a plan, Gabrielle. But there are no guarantees."

Sudden realization hit Gabrielle like a stone. "You're not coming back are you?" She whispered softly.

"I hope so, Gabrielle, but I won't lie to you and say that my plan is foolproof. It may not work at all in which case I want you to take Argo and go back home. Don't wait for me for over a week. If I'm not back by then..." Xena's voice trailed off, knowing that Gabrielle knew what she was saying.

"Home...?" Gabrielle felt almost numb. She couldn't believe that this was happening. 'Xena, why is this happening to us? Why is our world being destroyed and I'm powerless to stop it?' "To Poteidaia?" She managed to force out.

" don't belong there anymore. Go home. Home to the Amazons. You'll be safe there." 'Safe maybe even from me.'

Gabrielle nodded, stunned beyond words.

"I have to go..." Xena turned and started to walk away.

"Xena..." Gabrielle reached out and touched her arm. "I...don't understand...I thought we were beyond this. I know that you want to protect me but there are some things I should decide for myself. Especially when it concerns you. You were there for me when Velaska was trying to turn me into roadkill - why can't I be there for you?" Her eyes were filled with tears. The anger and hurt mixed with the pain that she saw in Gabrielle's eyes tore at Xena's heart. She reached out and pulled the bard into her arms and held her tightly. If Xena could have seen Gabrielle's face, she would have seen the look of surprise that flashed briefly across her features. Deliberate displays of affection were so uncharacteristic of Xena that it worried Gabrielle especially when Xena held on and didn't immediately release her as she usually did when she gave her a hug. Gabrielle laid her head on Xena's shoulder and briefly let her mind think of nothing but the security of being held in those arms.

Xena rested her cheek against the top of Gabrielle's head and just held her. 'Perhaps it is selfish of me but this may be the first and last time that I will ever get to hold you like I am now, Gabrielle.' Tears were in her eyes and she could feel her heart pounding in her chest. 'It's for you that I have to do this.'

"Gabrielle...please trust me on this. Besides, I'd never let anyone turn you into roadkill. I...promise...that somehow I'll always be there. You just have to trust me." Xena reluctantly released Gabrielle and took a small step back. Their eyes met and held and Gabrielle hoped that Xena couldn't see all that she had left unsaid reflecting in her eyes. 'Trust her. I owe you that much, Xena. I've always trusted you even with my own life. Even when I didn't understand...'

Xena nodded, her gaze never leaving Gabrielle's, and then she turned and quickly walked away into the darkness before the bard could see the tears that began to run freely down the warrior's face. Xena glanced back but once and she felt her heart shatter into a thousand shards when she saw Gabrielle standing there with her hand raised in farewell. She didn't have to see her face to know that she was crying.

Gabrielle watched Xena go until she disappeared out of sight and then she collapsed onto her blanket by the fire. 'Gods....WHY!?!' She silently raged. 'Don't you know that I can't go on without her? You already took her from this world once, why must you do this to her again? WHY? What has she ever done except try and atone for her past? Why do you let Ares torment her to the point of self destruction?'

Gabrielle cried softly long into the night until she finally fell into an emotionally exhausted sleep.

Xena walked for almost a mile down the road until she was sure that Gabrielle had not followed her.

"Ares! I know that you're listening! It's over! You've won!" She shouted into the night.

"So," Ares' voice sounded from behind her, causing Xena to spin around, sword in hand. Seeing that it was him, she wordlessly slipped it back into it's scabbard. "You're finally conceding victory to me. Tired of living with the worry? Are you finally ready to admit that you should have never left my side?"

"Yes, Ares, you've won." Xena's smile was filled with bitterness and irony. "But only if you agree to my terms."

"TERMS! You expect me to agree to YOUR terms!?!" Anger flared in Ares' eyes.

"If you want me back it'll come with a price, Ares. It's a simple enough thing to agree to. I want you to swear by Zeus that you will not harm Gabrielle as long as I am your captive."

"Captive...Xena, when have you ever been my captive." Ares smiled seductively and lazily trailed a finger down her arm. "That's easy enough...I swear."

"Swear by Zeus, Ares. Then you can't go back on your word."

Ares grinned, "You know me well... I swear by Zeus not to harm her as long as you are mine. Now, come on."

"Not yet. I have one more condition..."

The sun was high overhead when Gabrielle finally awoke.

"Xena...I had the worst dream..." She glanced over to where Xena should have been sitting, waiting for her to wake up and there was only Argo standing by the tree.

"Oh, Argo. It wasn't a dream...She's really gone..." Gabrielle fought back another wave of tears.

Gabrielle got up and attempted to struggle through what had become her usual morning routine. She rolled up the bedrolls - only to unroll them moments later. She cooked a breakfast that she didn't eat. But mostly she just sat and reflected on what had transpired the night before.

Gabrielle kept wondering - 'what's happening, Xena? What could Ares be up to that would take you to him willingly?' Gabrielle managed somehow to struggle through the day and as darkness approached, she took out some food and then put it back away - for the first time that she could remember, she wasn't hungry. 'Well...I guess that I could stand to lose a little weight.' She thought to herself forcing an ironic grin. she built a fire and waited for what she knew would be one of the longest nights of her life.

The next morning a man ran down the road and stopped when he reached Gabrielle.

"You're the bard aren't you? The one that travels with the warrior woman?"

"Yes...." Gabrielle answered hesitantly, gripping her staff a little tighter. Xena had always taught her to be cautious about strangers. Especially strangers that knew who they were...

"Thank the Gods...... Please come quick. My village is going to be attacked and we need your help. Trakus demanded tribute from us and we didn't have enough so now he and his men are gathering on the other side of the forest and we are but a poor farming village. Please...will you help us?"

Gabrielle glanced back at the clearing where she was going to wait for Xena for a week and realized that she was the only one that could help these people.

"Well...I was supposed to wait here for a friend..." Gabrielle was torn. Part of her knew that she had to help these people and another part of her was reluctant to leave this place where she had last seen Xena.

"Please...there's no one else..." The man was literally begging.

"How far away is your village?" Perhaps it was close enough that she could help them and wait for Xena there.

"About a half a day's journey from here."

"Take me there."

Xena watched with Ares as Gabrielle and the man ran off towards the direction in which he had come.

"Ares! What are you doing? Trakus leads your army..."

"I'm just playing the game, Xena. Just playing the game..." Ares' smile chilled Xena to her very core as sudden realization dawned on her. He was setting a trap for Gabrielle so there would be no one left in her life that could possibly turn her against him again.

Gabrielle stood at the edge of town and looked across to where she could just barely glimpse the campfires of Trakus' men. They were camped in the forest and she knew that they were just waiting for first light to attack.

Gabrielle sighed and leaned heavily on her staff. She had slept so little during the past two nights. During the day her thoughts were full of plans and tactics; but the nights......the nights were the hardest. It was then that Gabrielle's thoughts always came back to Xena.

"Xena," Gabrielle spoke softly to herself, "I wish that you could hear me... I need you. I'm so afraid, Xena. Tomorrow I'm virtually leading this town into battle and I have no idea what I'm doing here trying to do this by myself. Joxer showed up yesterday to help but you and I both know what kind of help he it. These people are just farmers, Xena, trying to defend their homes. Gods, I wish you were here. Trakus would probably turn tail and run if he saw you battling with us tomorrow." Gabrielle sighed and sat down heavily in the dirt. She leaned forward and rested her head in her hands before she continued.

"Xena, I need you. I need to see your angry face looking down on me when I've slept too long; to see your hesitant smile; to wake up in the night and see you laying there watching me; to hear you laugh..." Gabrielle choked on a sob, "Please come back to me..." She knew that she didn't dare say what she kept locked away in her heart. Even the thought of it was almost too painful to bear.

Xena watched as Gabrielle sat there for a few moments longer and then got up to walk through the town and check on their preparations.

"Ares," Xena began - her mind at work formulating a plan. "I thought that I was to lead your army."

"Do you really believe that I am such a fool, Xena? Don't worry, I'll make sure that Trakus does not survive the skirmish today and then it will be easy for you to step in and takeover. I just have a few loose ends that I need to take care of."

Xena's heart sank - her last hope of protecting Gabrielle had been to lead Ares' army herself. Only then could she have ordered her capture instead of her death.

Ares watched as dawn approached the scene below before turning his attention back to Xena.

"It's time. If you will excuse me, my dear, I have preparations to make and a battle to oversee. And Xena," Ares turned to her with an amused expression on his face, "Enjoy the view."

Xena watched the battle that raged below in silent torment from Ares' realm. She knew that the townspeople were hopelessly outnumbered by Ares' men as for each one they dispatched, Trakus sent in two more to take their place. Xena watched as Gabrielle valiantly fought against the overwhelming numbers. She was taking needless chances and she knew better! 'I taught you better than that, Gabrielle!' It was at that moment that Xena realized the reason for the bard's carelessness- she was fighting as Xena always had - as if she had something that she had to prove. 'You don't have to prove anything to me, Gabrielle. Just be safe...' Xena buried her head in her hands and felt her tears soak through her fingers. She had gambled her own life against a wishful fantasy and she had lost and now all that she cared about was surely gone. No, Ares would not kill Gabrielle out-right but he knew that she would fight to defend the village and that there was no chance that they could win against his army.


Her head jerked up at the sound of her name and she hurriedly brushed away the tears.

"Hades!" She watched as he appeared in his familiar red and black armor with his helmet securely tucked underneath his arm. "What has Ares done now? Sent you here to torment me too?" Her voice was cynical and full of all the bitterness that she felt.

"No." Hades replied softly, "It's time to go back now, Xena."


"Yes, back to the reality of your world. You took an awfully big risk gambling on feelings that you weren't sure she even possessed. It could have turned out very badly for you." Hades smiled and shook his head.

"It didn't matter - either way I had to save her and it was the only way that I could."

"You love her that much?"

"Yes." Xena looked up to squarely meet his eyes, "And she loves me?" It was more of a question than a statement and Hades took pity on her and decided to answer.

"Like no other." He saw her eyes light up and spoke quickly. "But be cautious, Xena, for she has buried her feelings for you deep in her heart and it was only the ambiguousness of Ares' command that allowed me to look deep within her and find you there. Perhaps she hides her feelings away because she fears that you could never love her the way she loves you. Ares had every intention of having me return Perdicus to the world. He forced me to wait until now because he intends for them both to die in this war he is waging against you. Now come - you must hurry if you are to make a difference in this battle and in her fate."

Hades reached out his hand to her and the moment that she touched it they appeared in a densely wooded area. Xena could hear the sounds of the fight raging just on the other side of the trees. She turned immediately and began running towards the clearing to join Gabrielle and the others.

"Xena!" Hades called, causing her to pause and look back at him. "Take care of Gabrielle, Xena. The tribunal is still awaiting the final outcome of your life before deciding where you will spend eternity. Unlike so many others, you still have a chance to reach the Elusion Fields but it is only through the good that she brings out in you. Gabrielle is your salvation."

"Hades, why are you telling me this?"

"Because Ares has once again overstepped his bounds by wanting to destroy an innocent life whose only crime has been to be your friend. And now my own debt to you has been repaid as well. Farewell, Xena." And with that he was gone. Xena turned and wasted no time in trying to reach the battle but her thoughts were full of nothing but Gabrielle.

Ares was standing in the shadow of a large oak tree watching the battle that was raging before him when Hades appeared at his side.

"It is done, Ares." Hades voice was flat but there was laughter in his eyes.

"Well, where is he - the great love of that annoying little bard's life? I want to watch Gabrielle and that sniveling little farmer die together."

"She is here." Hades turned slightly to watch Ares' reaction. Oh how he loved to torment his nephew.

"She?" Ares' eyes narrowed, "What do you mean 'she'?!?"

Hades' reply was cut off by the familiar "Ayiyiyiyiyiyiyiyi" of Xena's battle cry as she performed an easy tuck and roll through the air to land in the middle of the fray. She was quickly enveloped by Ares' men but it was quite obvious that she was holding her own.

Gabrielle felt her heart soar when she heard Xena's familiar voice and saw her fly into the battle out of the corner of her eye. Gabrielle fought with renewed strength and for the first time in three days, she found hope where there was little before. Somehow Xena had managed to escape from Ares and be damned if she was going to let anything else happen to her.

Hades turned and smiled at his nephew.

"You gave the order yourself, my dear nephew." Hades' eyes sparkled with mischief and he laughed heartily at Ares' expense, "You couldn't even remember the mortal's name! If you had only mentioned it once, I would have been bound to release Perdicus back to the world of the living. But your instructions to me were very specific - 'release Gabrielle's one true love. The one she loves like no other' and that, Ares, is Xena. I only followed your orders."

Hades laughed at Ares' face which had contorted into a mask of rage. Hades remained for a moment longer before disappearing with a final laugh. He had stayed long enough, however, to catch Xena's eye and nod in silent tribute.

"HADES!!!" Ares roared as he watched him vanish. It took him only an instant to re-direct his rage at the person whom he believed was really at fault. He scanned the battle field until he finally located Xena's familiar form battling in the midst of five of his best soldiers. It had not taken long for her to seemingly turn the tide of the battle against his soldiers. It seemed that just the sight of her fighting along side them was enough to propel the villagers towards victory.

"You tricked me!!!" Ares roared - his face livid. "Your life is forfeit!" Ares turned and grabbed the crossbow from the nearest warrior and leveled it at Xena's back.

Gabrielle was close enough to Ares to hear his threat and she reacted without hesitation and began running towards Xena.

"Xena!" Gabrielle screamed over the noise of clashing swords.

Xena turned at the sound of her voice and Gabrielle thrilled at the sight of how Xena's eyes lit up when she saw her.

"Gabrielle! Go back!" Xena parried a falling sword and thrust with her own, finishing off her latest attacker.

It was at that moment that the path cleared for Ares' shot and he pulled the trigger on the bow. Gabrielle was running as hard as she could to reach her. 'Gods...Please let me get there in time.' Gabrielle threw herself at Xena with all her strength, grabbing her shoulders and spinning her part of the way around. It was enough.

The arrow hit Gabrielle in the back with a sickening thud and an anguished cry escaped her lips as she fell into Xena's arms.

"GABRIELLE!" The scream tore from Xena's lips before she could stop it. Xena looked at her horrified as Gabrielle slowly sank to the ground and her hands came away covered in blood from where she had been holding her.

"Gabrielle, NO. By the Gods-NO!" Xena was on her knees fighting to control the tears that came unbidden to her eyes and her breath came in rasping sobs. Gabrielle was still breathing but barely. She was holding onto life by a very thin strand. The arrow had hit it's mark just to the side of Gabrielle's heart and Xena realized that if Gabrielle had not turned her away from it's path, that arrow surely would have killed her instantly. Gabrielle may have very well have given up her own life to save that of her friend.

"Joxer!!!" Xena's voice echoed over the din. Joxer had not been far away and was at her side within moments. "Help me. I've got to get the arrow out."

Fighting was continuing all around them and they were astounded that they were never attacked. But Ares had made sure that wouldn't happen - he wanted Xena all to himself.

Xena broke off the point of the arrow where it had passed through and then pulled the rest of the arrow out as gently as she could. Then she used part of Gabrielle's torn skirt to form a compress to try and stop the bleeding. It was at that point that she heard Ares' laughter.

"Joxer, hold this down and don't let go. Hold it as tight as you can, Okay?" Joxer nodded as Xena lightly touched Gabrielle's cheek before she stood up.

"Let the little girl go, Xena. She's useless anyway. I just used her to get to you." Ares' voice traveled across from where he stood several yards away. His anger had diminished somewhat as he realized that this was the opportunity that he had been waiting for.

Xena turned to him with all the hatred and anger in her eyes of days long past and advanced towards him.

"May Hades sentence you to an eternity in Tartarus, Ares!" Xena's voice was cold and harsh as she drew her sword.

"Oh, I'm sooo frightened, Xena. Do you forget who you are dealing with here? I am ARES the GOD OF WAR!! That's it, Xena. Draw your sword...yes! Yes! Let you anger free. Look what I did to your friend! Look at her laying there in the dirt. Turn your anger upon me.. Go ahead! And you will be mine again!" Ares laughter filled the field of battle once again.

Xena, sword in hand, was steadily advancing on Ares until she was but a few feet away when she paused to look back at Gabrielle. Even near death, the bard still had the power to take Xena's breath away. Oh, how she loved her and to turn her hatred towards even Ares would be nothing but a betrayal of that love that Xena felt for her. Xena could almost hear Hades' words ring in her ears - Gabrielle is your salvation.

Even as Ares saw her turn her attention back upon him, he watched as that cold, dark hatred drained slowly from her eyes and was replaced by sadness haunted by suffering.

"Once you owned me, Ares - mind, body & soul. Now my heart and soul are my own to give and there is nothing that you can do to change that. You tried this before by becoming the image of my father. It didn't work then for the same reason it won't work now."

"I can end this mis-guided sense of loyalty of yours right now." Ares raised the crossbow again and prepared to launch another arrow into Gabrielle.

"ARES!" Xena roared as he watched the anger return to her eyes and he lowered the bow. "Here is the answer that I have for you."

Xena dropped her sword at his feet and he watched as once again the anger drained from her eyes and when she spoke, her voice was filled with resignation and tinged with regret.

"This game is finished, Ares, but you haven't won. You'll never beat me again. I thought that I loved you once - but I realize that it was only because of the power that you gave me. I understand now what it really means - because for a brief moment I saw it in her eyes as she ran across that field to save me. If I never see her look at me in that way again, I know that it was enough and that I am willing to spend the rest of eternity in Tartarus just to give her a chance to live." Xena dropped to one knee and continued to stare determinedly into Ares eyes. "So end this game and kill me now but let her live."

Xena waited for the blow to come that would end her life. She wanted to steal a final glance at Gabrielle but she wouldn't give Ares even this small victory.

"I do not understand you, Xena. How can you be such a fool to be willing to give up your life for that of a bard?"

Xena's gaze never wavered and there was no hesitation in her answer.

"Because I love her."

"Because you love her?" Ares spoke the words with a sneer. "How could you prefer a woman over me?"

"You'll never be able to understand, Ares. You make people love you by enticing them and offering them promises of greatness. They don't really love you - just the power that you give them. You'll never understand what it's like to be loved not for what you've done for someone or what you can give to them but just because you are the person that you are. No demands, no boundaries, no stipulations - just love." Xena watched as he drew his sword and twirled it in a fluid arc over his head.

"Aaaaaaaarrrrrrrgggggggg." Ares yelled as Xena watched the sword descend towards her head and waited to feel the sharpness of it's blade. She never flinched nor did she look away from his eyes. The hard steel never reached her, however, as Ares pulled the blade back a scant inch above her head.

"You're not afraid to die, are you Xena?" Ares laughed. "Your courage once again impresses me. Well...I'll let you win this round, Xena, but the game's not over yet. Far from it in fact. I enjoy playing it too much."Ares began to fade before her eyes.

"ARES!" She yelled jumping to her feet.

"What could you possibly want now?" The God of War glared at Xena.


"Oh, yes, your little bard...I suppose I should give her back to you if for no other reason than to get Hades off my back. You may have spoiled my carefully laid plans this time, Xena." Ares waved a hand in Gabrielle's direction, "But always remember that I now know your true weakness and one day I will be there to exploit it and there will be no escape. I think that you'll discover that she has a nice scar compliments of the God of War. Goodbye, Xena, for now. I'll be watching......"

Even as Ares faded from sight, Xena had already recovered her sword and she was running to where Gabrielle lay. The villagers had routed most of Ares' men and with the God's disappearance, the battle ended almost as quickly as it had begun.

"Joxer?" Xena was on her knees beside Gabrielle and she quickly checked for a pulse and reached for the compress that Joxer was holding over her wound. Gabrielle was still so pale that she was almost gray but at least she was still alive.

"I did all I could, Xena. I......" Xena glanced up and saw the slightest hint of tears in the man's eyes.

"You did fine, Joxer. There wasn't much that you could do." She lifted the bandage and was startled to find that the wound was gone and nothing was left but a scar.

"By the Gods..." Xena heard his sharp intake of breath and saw Joxer take a step back. "You beat him, Xena, didn't you?!? YOU BEAT THE GOD OF WAR!!!"

"I just got lucky. And you can stop shouting." She turned her attention back to Gabrielle as she carefully lifted her unconscious form up into her arms. "It all means nothing if she dies..." Her voice caught and she quickly looked away. Xena stood up with Gabrielle firmly held against her chest and started walking back towards town.

"Joxer, bring Argo."

"Are you going to carry her all the way back to the inn? I could help you on the horse."

"I'm afraid that the movement might harm her further, Joxer," Xena called back as she continued walking, "Just bring Argo."

By the time Xena reached the inn, she was exhausted and Gabrielle still had not regained consciousness.

"Joxer?" For once the bumbling warrior had been so quiet that she had wondered if she had left him behind somewhere.

"Don't worry, Xena, I've been guarding your rear."

Xena turned to give him a puzzled look. "Guarding my rear...?" She shook her head - not even wanting to venture there. "There's some dinars in my saddlebag. Pay the inn-keeper twice what he wants for a room and see if you can locate a stable for Argo."

She watched him rush by as she leaned against the outside of the inn, still holding Gabrielle. She looked down into the bard's face and noticed that at least some of the color had returned to her skin.

Joxer came out of the inn moments later and led Xena up a back stairway to a room at the end of the second floor. The room was large and handsomely furnished with several comfortable looking chairs and a large bed that was positioned in front of a massive stone fireplace. Joxer pulled back the covers on the bed as Xena carefully laid Gabrielle down.

"Joxer, do you think that you could get me some warm water and some more blankets? We need to keep her warm."

"I'm sure I can. The inn-keeper thought that you could have some privacy up here; he doesn't have any other guests on the second floor. He said that you could stay as long as you needed to. It seems that the news of your battle with Ares has already spread. I'll go get what you need and then I'll go take care of Argo, Xena."

Xena reached out and clasped the young warrior on the shoulder. "You're a good man, Joxer. And a good friend."

Joxer lost himself in the blueness of her eyes for just a moment before he shook his head as if to clear it and tried to turn away before she could see the embarrassment in his cheeks. "Yes, I am and it's about time you realized it!" He replied as he turned and left the room. Xena couldn't help but laugh as she watched him go. Then she hurriedly returned her attention to Gabrielle. Joxer returned moments later with a pail of hot water and several more blankets and then left to take care of Argo.

Xena carefully removed Gabrielle's clothing which were both ragged and dirty and bathed the unconscious bard with the warm water. After pulling her nightshirt over Gabrielle's head, Xena carefully tucked the younger woman into the large bed and covered her with as many blankets as she could. She knelt beside the bed and took Gabrielle's hand in her own.

"Gabrielle...I don't know what Ares has done to you...I don't know how to help you this time. I've never felt this helpless before...I can't lose you now that I've finally admitted what you mean to me..." Xena knew that she would stay at Gabrielle's side for as long as it took for Ares to release her from whatever control that he still held over her.

After two days of watching and worrying over Gabrielle, Xena finally succumbed to exhaustion. She was sleeping in a chair in front of a roaring fire with her sword across her lap.

"Xena......I'll be watching......" She heard Ares' voice whispered in her ear and bolted wide awake and out of the chair - her sword at ready. At that same instant, Gabrielle screamed.

"Xena! Ares......the arrow......Gods please......I've got to get there......" She babbled in disjointed sentences as Xena threw her sword down and ran to her side.

Gabrielle's eyes were glassy and Xena knew that she was reliving those final moments before being struck by the arrow.

Xena gathered her up into her arms and gently rocked her back and forth in an effort to soothe her.

"Shhhh...shhh...It's all right now Gabrielle...It's all right." Just then Joxer burst through the door, sword in hand.

"Xena! I heard a scream! Are you...?" His voice trailed off as he finally focused on Xena and Gabrielle.

"It's all right, Joxer. She's going to be all right."

"OKAY, Xena..." She watched as Joxer turned around and in his haste to leave, ran right into the doorjam "I'll be, ummm, just down the hall if you need me." He finally made it out of the room holding his nose and softly closed the door behind him. Xena was absentmindedly stroking Gabrielle's hair as she held her.

"Xena?" Gabrielle finally asked in a coherent voice. "Did I miss something here? Where are we?"

"We're in Tillic at an inn. Once we turned the battle against didn't last long. Then I bought you here."

Gabrielle relaxed in the security of Xena's embrace while she struggled to think of all of the questions she needed to ask.

"Gabrielle," Xena asked hesitantly, "What do you remember?"

Gabrielle slowly pulled herself out of Xena's arms and struggled slightly to sit up. She gave a small gasp at the sudden pain in her chest. Xena caught her gently by the shoulders and eased her back against the pillows that she had propped up behind her.

"Easy." Xena cautioned, concern evident on her face.

"Xena?" Gabrielle's voice questioned the unexplained pain in her chest.

"I promise that before tonight is over, Gabrielle, I will explain everything. But I need to know what you remember."

Gabrielle nodded and looked away from Xena's gaze. Her eyes finally settled on staring into the roaring fire as she struggled to remember.

"I remember all of the fighting and that there were so many of them. I tried to rally all of the villagers but we were so outnumbered. Then I heard your battle cry and saw you join in the fighting. I couldn't believe that you were there... that you had gotten away from Ares."

Xena watched as shadows darkened Gabrielle's eyes as she continued.

"Ares was there. It was his army, wasn't it?" Xena nodded slowly. "He was there and... I heard him say something like 'your life is forfeit' or something and then he pointed that crossbow at you. I remember running towards you. I had to get to you before he shot you......" Gabrielle's voice trailed off as sudden awareness dawned in her eyes. One of her hands stole up to softly rub the sore spot above her left breast.

"All that I can remember thinking as I ran was that I had to get to you in time and I guess I did......"

Their eyes met as Gabrielle turned towards Xena who was still sitting on the edge of the bed beside her. "It would have killed me, Gabrielle." Xena's voice was so soft it was almost a whisper, "It almost killed you." Xena hurriedly looked away and glanced towards the fire so Gabrielle would not see the tears in her eyes.

"After the battle was over, I carried you back here and we've been here ever since." Just then a knock sounded at the door and Gabrielle saw Xena tense as she glanced to where her sword lay discarded on the floor. Xena was already in motion to retrieve it when they heard Joxer's voice in the hallway.

"Xena, it's me, Joxer."

"Come in, Joxer." Xena answered, sheathing her sword and placing it in the corner nearest the bed. Joxer came in with a tray laden with food.

"I thought Gabrielle might be hungry and I know that you haven't eaten anything in two days either, Xena." Joxer continued as he sat the tray down on the small table. "Ya know, as annoying as you can be, it's still good to see you awake and talking, Gabrielle."

"Thanks, Joxer." Gabrielle smiled at him, knowing that he meant well. "Xena was just finishing telling me about the rest of the battle that I missed."

"Wasn't she incredible, Gabrielle? The townspeople still can't believe that she stood up to Ares like that and won!"

"Stood up to Ares?" Confusion showed in her eyes as she looked from Joxer to Xena.

"What? She didn't tell you about when she threw her sword down and..."

"Joxer!" Xena's voice boomed a little louder and more forceful than she had intended but she had cut Joxer off in mid sentence. "Have you fed Argo yet this evening?"

"Well..." Sudden understanding dawned in his eyes. "Oh, yeah...No, Xena, not yet. I'll go do that right now." One look at Xena's eyes told him that he had already said more than she had wanted him to. "If you need anything else, I'll probably be downstairs in the tavern."

Xena walked over to the fireplace and added more wood as Joxer left. She could feel Gabrielle's eyes burning into her as she avoided looking at her.

"Xena," Xena finally turned around to face Gabrielle and when she saw the look of pain and hurt that she had caused to be in the bard's eyes - it made her want to cry out. Gabrielle's voice was level but filled with barely restrained anger, "Why didn't you tell me about Ares? How much more went on that you haven't told me about?!? I thought that you were going to tell me everything!"

"I am....." Xena started and then sighed, "I was...when I thought you were ready to hear all of it. You've been through so much over the past few weeks because of me. Everything that has happened to you has been because of me." Xena wearily sat down in the chair next to the bed and turned to meet Gabrielle's hostile gaze.

Gabrielle knew that she would remember the look on Xena's face for the rest of her life as she had never seen the warrior's face look so sad or her eyes so filled with pain and grief.

"Ares wanted me back at any cost so he decided to use you against me. I learned of his plan through my dreams...nightmares really...until I knew that I had to do something." Xena sighed and her eyes took on a far away look, "That's why I had to go - I made a bargain with Ares to keep you safe."

"Keep me safe..." Gabrielle looked at Xena, concern evident on her face, "Xena, why?"

"Ares now knows that you are my one great weakness." Xena's voice lowered to almost a whisper, "But you always have been."

There was something in Xena's voice that set Gabrielle on edge - something slightly seductive and strangely "knowing". She felt Xena's eyes on her and looked up. The intensity of Xena's gaze set Gabrielle's heart on fire and stole her breath away.

"What...what was your bargain?" Gabrielle watched as Xena turned away and damned herself for breaking the moment. She knew that she was about to refuse to answer. "Xena, I need to know..."

"My deal with Ares......" Gabrielle watched as the oddest expression crossed over Xena's features. If Gabrielle wouldn't have known better, she would have sworn that it was fear. She watched as Xena fidgeted slightly in her chair and wouldn't hold Gabrielle's gaze.

'She is afraid! What did he do to her that could make her this afraid to tell me?'

"Xena, why are you afraid to tell me? Whatever it is we'll get through it. We'll get through it together. We've faced Gods and Titans; Warlords and giants; and life and death together. If we can get through those things, we can get through anything. It'll be all right." Xena was once again touched by the bard's almost overwhelming concern for her.

Xena got up from the chair and came to sit on the edge of the bed facing Gabrielle. She reached out and took Gabrielle's hands into her own.

"Xena? Are you Okay?" Gabrielle was puzzled by her friend's strange behavior.

Xena nodded and briefly closed her eyes before she began.

"Gabrielle, there are things that happened over the past few days that are very difficult for me to speak of. There are some parts of my life that I do not have speak of, especially to you." Xena paused and looked into Gabrielle's eyes in order to gain strength from what she saw there. "All I ask is that you let me tell you the way that I have too."

Gabrielle nodded, afraid that if she spoke, Xena's courage would falter and then she would be left never knowing what it was that frightened her friend so.

"Ares intended from the very beginning to use you to get to me. He would not have hesitated to kill you if he thought that it would make me turn back to him. So when I realized that this was his plan, I knew that I had to do something because I couldn't live with the fear that he would take you from me. I called to him and we came to an understanding. I agreed to return with him and to once again become his...... warlord......for as long as he held me captive." Xena paused as she heard Gabrielle's sharp intake of breath and her hands tightened their grip around Xena's fingers.

"" Tears were in her voice and in her eyes.

Xena smiled reassuringly. "Shhh......just listen. And Gabrielle..." Xena gave a small chuckle as she stared into the bard's expectant eyes, "You're crushing my fingers." Gabrielle released her grip and fought against the urge to reach out and take Xena into her arms.

"In return," Xena continued, "Ares had to swear by Zeus that he would not harm you as long as I remained his and that he would also agree to a final condition that I set forth. A condition that I had hoped would turn against him and would set me free." Xena paused again and took a deep breath.

"It was as I was forced to sit in Ares' realm and watch as his army attacked the village that I realized it was only through the strength that I saw in you that kept me from sinking into total despair. For you see, Gabrielle, he made me believe that I had lost everything. Not only had I lost my only chance to escape him, but I had lost my only hope of protecting you as well. He knew that he couldn't kill you himself, but he couldn't stop you from dying in a battle. I knew then that he had won...he had won the game that he so often liked to play. But then Hades came to tell me that I hadn't lost after all."

"Hades?" 'This is going from bad to worse' Gabrielle thought as she was wondering what else could have happened to Xena.

"Yes...Hades. He had finally come to bring me back...back here."

"So Hades saved you!"

"No, Gabrielle. You did." Xena paused as she let the words that she had just spoken sink in.

"I did......?" Gabrielle's eyes narrowed in confusion, "Xena, I don't understand..."

"The final condition that Ares had to agree to was that he had to command Hades to release your one true love...the person that you loved like no other. Ares believed that he was commanding the release of Perdicus but, in fact, he was releasing me. I took a chance, Gabrielle, that Hades could look into your heart and find me there." Xena paused as Gabrielle suddenly looked away.


"How long have you known?" She struggled to keep her voice from shaking as she tried to control her raging emotions.

Xena sighed and nodded slightly. "I suspected it for awhile but remember when I was in Autolycus' body and I kissed you? You never said anything after that and I thought perhaps that I had been wrong...that you just didn't feel the same way..." Xena's voice trailed off, waiting, hoping for an answer from Gabrielle.

"When did I have time to say anything? A few hours after it happened we were battling that hyperactive Amazon/God Valaska and I was forced to deal with Callisto. Then there was the giant; and then I had to save Joxer; and then not to mention the slavers! Then while we were traveling to Poteidaia I wanted to bring it up but so much time had passed and YOU hadn't mentioned it-I thought perhaps that you regretted it or that I mis-understood..."

Both women laughed as they realized that they had been a little busy since then.

"I didn't know for sure until Hades came to get me. Then I knew." Xena gave her a small smile and reached out to softly caress Gabrielle's cheek with the back of her hand.

"But what if you had been wrong?" Gabrielle demanded, realizing fully for the first time what a risk that Xena had taken.

"There was no wrong answer, Gabrielle. If Hades had found Perdicus in your heart instead of me then that would have been my parting gift to you - the person that you loved most in life and I knew that Perdicus would protect you. When you took that arrow that was meant for me out on that battlefield and Ares stood there laughing...I could feel it all coming back. The anger, the rage, the hatred - It would have been so easy but then I looked back at you. Suddenly all the anger was gone and I knew that I didn't want to go on living if my life didn't have you in it." Tears were falling freely down both their faces as Xena struggled to continue.

"So I threw my sword down at Ares' feet and knelt as I told him to end the game and kill me but to let you live. He asked me how I could be such a fool to be willing to die for a bard." Xena closed her eyes to try and hold back the tears. "I told him something that I had never said aloud before and that I thought I would never have the chance to say to you - Because I love her." Xena's voice failed then and it was Gabrielle that reached out and took the crying warrior into her arms and let her cry against her chest.

"Hey...don't get all mushy on me." Gabrielle kidded softly, "What's a girl to think? You suddenly tell me that you love me and then burst into tears!" She looked down just in time to catch the small grin that fleetingly formed on Xena's lips.

Xena pulled away from Gabrielle and stared into her sea green eyes determinedly. "Does it bother you, Gabrielle, that...that I love you?" Her voice was hesitant. She had waited for this moment of revelation for what seemed like forever but she was suddenly afraid of what lay ahead for them. Her love for Gabrielle had always been "safe" because she had kept it well hidden from the bard and now she had suddenly bared her soul for the entire world to see.

"Bother me...?" Gabrielle's eyes clouded over and were almost unreadable but Xena had seen the confusion and fear that lurked there. They were both treading in unknown waters. "Yes...No...I don't know...I..." Gabrielle closed her eyes and shook her head. Worry and fear over took her emotions as she struggled to find understanding within herself. Like Xena, her love had always been easy because up to this point it had been one sided. She had never had to face what a relationship of this magnitude would really mean to them and their lifestyle. But now, just knowing that Xena returned that love was almost overwhelming and was also frightening to Gabrielle.

The events of the past two weeks flashed through Gabrielle's mind and it frightened her even more as another realization set in. 'I was a target for Ares before but now I'm an even bigger one because he knows of the love that Xena has for me. Will my love for her or even my mere presence be a hindrance for her now? How many warlords will want to use our love against her?' Gabrielle could suddenly see so many ways that she could be used against her - so many ways that this could change their lives.

Xena watched as worry crept into the shadows on Gabrielle's face and in her eyes. 'Gods! I've caused her so much pain - how can I expect anything else from her? I wanted this moment to be so different for you, Gabrielle, so special... I never wanted to have to tell you in this way.'


"Shhh...Gabrielle," Xena whispered softly as she moved her hand to lightly brush through strands of reddish-blond hair. "I can make you no promises, Gabrielle, nor do I make any demands. I cannot even promise you that this is right for us...I just know that I love you with all my heart and I always will no matter what. Only the Gods know what our future holds."

"Xena...It's just so overwhelming...I just need to think..."

"I know, Gabrielle. It's all right. I understand." Xena looked at Gabrielle questioningly and made a slight motion with her hands. "May I...?"

Gabrielle was momentarily confused until she realized that Xena was asking permission to hold her. 'You've never asked...? Stupid, Gabrielle! Of course she's never asked before because it's never mattered before!' Gabrielle nodded and Xena held her as she often had before this night of revelations.

"No demands, Gabrielle. I think in a way I'm as...frightened...of this as you are. It's taken me almost two years to come to terms with my feelings for you and this isn't something that I think that you should consider lightly." Xena closed her eyes and rested her cheek against the top of Gabrielle's head, "I'll be here, Gabrielle, when or if you should ever need And if not...well, I'll still be here."

They just sat there for what seemed like forever but was actually just a few minutes before Xena released her and stood up. She walked over to the table and absentmindedly plucked a few grapes off of the food laden tray that Joxer had brought up.

"Why don't you come eat some of this? Or I'll bring some of it over to you...I know you must be hungry."

They both lapsed into a comfortable silence as Xena brought over the food and yes, Gabrielle was starving.

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