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by M. Pappas and J. Covington

WARNING: While not sexually explicit, this story does contain mature themes including a romantic involvement between two adult women. If this offends you please do not read any further. If it doesn't and you want to read a really funny story, this is the right place.

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

NOTE by the author:

With permission from M. Pappas, the author of Ares' Game, I have written this intermediate story in a trilogy. I am not a writer, nor do I want to be. However, I adore these characters so much that I couldn't resist getting my two dinar's worth in somewhere. I admit that I threw in a little bit of everything I wanted to see. Thanks to M. for the editing and I am pleased to share that we will join efforts in writing the last story of the trilogy to be entitled "Secrets Past". We've already begun that journey and I am having an awesome time with it.

Hope to keep surprising myself,

J. Covington

"She's about this tall," Xena levels her hand mid-chin, "and has reddish blonde hair to below her shoulders." The old man standing in the deserted shop looks at Xena blankly. "She carries a staff." Still no response. "She doesn't pause for a breath between sentences much."

"Ahh, yes!" The old man says finally showing recognition at Xena's descriptions of the young bard. "She was in here earlier I think. Or yesterday. I get the two mixed up." Xena could see this was not going to garner her the whereabouts of her friend any time soon. "No... lets see, I'm sure it was today. The girl was talking about her friend that didn't like to shop. Uh, that must be you." The man looks Xena up and down with a slight wrinkling of his nose.

"Yeah, that's me," Xena answered dryly. "Can you tell me which way she went when she left?" Xena sighed while the man paused, searching his memory. She and Gabrielle had arrived that morning in the mid-sized village. Gabrielle had declared her intention to shop to her heart's content, promising to meet Xena later at the tavern for a meal. When she didn't show up at the agreed time, the warrior went looking for her.

Just as she was about to give up on the old man and move to the next shop, the man swung around to the counter behind him, picked up an object, and then turned to offer it to her. "She really liked this. Said she couldn't afford it but I could tell she would have bought it for herself if she could. You want to get your friend a gift?" The old man looked at Xena with a sly grin as he hoped to make a sale before she left.

Xena stared at the unusual piece of jewelry held before her. She knew the man was just trying to make a living and could care less about helping her find her friend, but the bracelet he held out to her was exquisite. Xena knew that Gabrielle would have picked just this very thing for herself. "How much?" she heard herself ask despite her impatience at locating Gabrielle and getting out of this town and back on the road.

The shopkeeper smiled and quoted a price that brought Xena's eyebrow up to maximum attention. "Of course if you think she's not deserving of such a gift..." he turned back to return the bracelet to it's place.

"I'll pay half. Take it or not," Xena offered. The old man turned slowly, looking her up and down again as if trying to decide if she was good enough to buy anything in his shop. "Fine, I'll just be going then," Xena began as she turned to leave.

"Wait! All right, I'll take it," the man muttered as he wrapped the bracelet in a soft cloth and handed it to Xena. Xena smiled as she paid the man the agreed amount of dinars. She certainly had not planned to buy anything but something about the beauty of the bracelet and his clever ploy about Gabrielle wishing she could buy it for herself changed her mind. Besides, the man had to make a living didn't he?

"By the way, miss," the man offered Xena on her way out. "The young lady you asked about went up the street that way about a half hour ago," he pointed to a long row of shops. He smiled broadly showing gapped teeth and with a twinkle in his eye went back to his chair in the corner.

"Thanks," Xena smiled as she shook her head. Crossing the street, the gift disappeared into a drawstring pouch at Xena's waist. Finding the bard was turning into quite an afternoon. Xena hoped they would still have enough money left to buy dinner at the tavern before leaving town. Just ahead in the crowd, a strawberry blonde head appeared between bodies for a moment. Xena was glad for her height as it gave her a vantage point to recognize the hair which belonged to her best friend. Long strides brought her around the corner and she stopped suddenly. 'Where was she?' Gabrielle had disappeared just as suddenly as she had appeared. Xena looked up and down the side street beginning to get exasperated with her quest. Gabrielle had managed to waste half the day shopping and hadn't shown up at the tavern when Xena had told her to meet her there. Not that this was too unusual. But for some unexplainable reason, Xena wanted to get out of town and set up camp before dark. It was just a feeling, still....

"Thanks, no I don't want any. I've got to hurry to meet my friend. I'm late you see and she gets kinda upset when I do this - OOPS!" Gabrielle backs into Xena and freezes. She knows it's her from the feel of that distinctive armor against her back and the smell of Xena's leathers. "Uh oh," the young woman turned and slowly looked up into flashing blue eyes that normally steal her breath away for other unexplainable reasons. "Xena! Hi! I was just coming to meet you. I guess I lost track of the time, you know."

Xena looked down at her young friend a moment longer realizing it will make her start squirming. Serves her right! "Uh huh. Lets go."

The two women turned up the street heading for the tavern at the end. "I'm absolutely starving!" Gabrielle offered as they reached their destination.

Xena turned to look at Gabrielle with a feigned look of surprise. "No kidding?"

Gabrielle starts, "No...really, I'm not kidding I could eat a," suddenly stopping at Xena's transparent smile, "Hey!" Xena strides across the room to sit at a defensive location against the wall allowing a clear view of the door. Gabrielle followed after a moment but found her path a gauntlet of leering bar patrons each with something special to say to her on her way by. Dodging hands, a few well directed lips and something she couldn't even identify she sat opposite Xena at the table with a sigh of relief. "Thanks for clearing a path, Xena," Gabrielle starts with slight irritation. "You could have waited for me. For a minute there, I thought I wasn't gonna clear that last set of hands."

Just as Xena was about to tell Gabrielle to learn some new moves, the barmaid appeared to take their order. "There's fresh mutton and some day old loaves of bread if you're interested," the woman offered in a listless voice.

Gabrielle, smiling up at the tired looking barmaid, starts out enthusiastically "That sounds great! Do you have any fruit? How 'bout nutbread? My friend loves nutbread." Xena rolled her eyes towards the ceiling. "Dessert. Yeah, that would be even better. What do you have?"

The woman looked back down at Gabrielle, "There's fresh mutton and some day old loaves of bread."

"Oh...okay then. That sounds great, right Xena?" Gabrielle looked back at Xena for confirmation before continuing.

"Yeah, fine. Bring me some wine and water for her," looking back at Gabrielle.

"Hey, what if I want some wine too?" Gabrielle took exception to Xena's drink order. Xena rolled her eyes upwards. Gabrielle added, "Or not." The barmaid looked at the dark haired warrior woman, assumed she was in charge and then left to fill their order.

Xena sat back when the meal arrived and quietly ate as she absently listened to Gabrielle talk about all the wonderful things she saw that afternoon in the village. The sound of Gabrielle's voice always made her feel warm inside although few could tell that from her outside demeanor. The depth of her feelings for this young woman often frightened the warrior and she was not used to being afraid. However, she admitted to herself that she wouldn't trade a single moment of their time together. Especially after expressing those feelings to Gabrielle a few weeks ago when Ares' plan had failed to separate them permanently and a new awareness had entered their relationship. Each had agreed it was best to keep their relationship as normal as possible while they adjusted to the possibilities that each other's spoken and unspoken admission of love for each other held. Now feeling relaxed from decent food and the wine she almost smiled as Gabrielle spoke of the bracelet she had seen in the old man's shop earlier.

The tavern was full of patrons and getting louder by the time they finished their meal. Seeing the barmaid was busy with a group of drunken men shouting on the opposite side of the room, Xena stood saying, "I'm going to get some more wine. I'll be back." Gabrielle smiled. The warrior was certainly not much for frivolous words but she knew that Xena's heart held all the words she could ever need. She had heard those words herself from the warrior a few short weeks ago. Still not sure of where it would lead but feeling that they would find the path meant for them regardless, Gabrielle could hardly believe that a farm girl from Poteidaia held this warrior's heart. Her warrior. Somehow that sounded right. It carried with it a responsibility that she wasn't always sure how to handle. But she would defend that heart with every ounce of her soul.

Xena turned from the bar with her mug and had started back towards their table when she spotted a man approaching Gabrielle from behind. Stopping abruptly, with muscles tensed, adrenaline beginning to surge while she prepared to show the fellow an aerial view of the far side of the room. Gabrielle turned to look up at the man who has spoken to her from behind and jumped up so suddenly that she knocked her chair over backwards. Then she threw her arms around the man in fierce hug. Xena blinked, frozen in place for a moment. 'What the...?'

"Tomaius! What are you doing here? I thought you were still in Athens," Gabrielle's words rush out at the joy of seeing someone from her short time spent in Athens at the Academy of Performing Bards. Tomaius returned her hug smiling warmly.

"Gabrielle, I can't believe my luck running into you here!" The young man was taller than Gabrielle but a little shorter than Xena. His eyes were a beautiful shade of violet, their brightness giving the effect of being very striking on an otherwise average face. Xena took a breath and tried to relax her coiled muscles as she approached the table.

Seeing her friend approaching, Gabrielle smiled and reached for Xena's arm. "Xena, this is Tomaius. We were at the Academy at the same time. Tomaius, this is my friend, Xena."

Tomaius looked up at Xena, seeing a cautionary look from the blue eyes staring back at him. "Nice to meet you Xena. I see Gabrielle is well taken care of. I was afraid she might be alone." The young man sized up the warrior in front of him with a little trepidation.

"Tomaius. What brings you to Dorian," Xena shook the proffered hand with a grip that startled Tomaius. Xena, motioning for him to sit down on the opposite side of the table, pulled up a chair to sit beside Gabrielle. A strategic move that Tomaius noticed but wasn't sure meant anything other than caution for someone unknown to the warrior. 'And a warrior she definitely is', Tomaius thought to himself. 'Maybe this wasn't such a good idea.'

"Yeah, Tom," adds Gabrielle. "Why aren't you in Athens? Did you already finish your studies?"

"You could say that Gabrielle. I've been traveling around now for the past couple of months trying to earn a living with my stories." The man decided to lean back and tried to look relaxed ignoring the two blue spears of light aimed in his direction. "Not an easy thing to do," Tomaius laughed, watching Gabrielle and wondering if Xena planned to sit there all night.

Gabrielle was oblivious to the undertone going on around her and started asking questions about the Academy and other people they had both known there. Xena eventually decided that he must have gotten the message to tread lightly and decided to extricate herself from this conversation.

"I'm going to check on Argo," Xena said. Looking at Tomaius added, "I'll be back."

Walking out into the early evening air, Xena didn't even pause to enjoy the sunset. 'Damn. I wanted to be out of here and making camp by now' she thought to herself. 'Now Gabrielle will insist on staying at the inn. I wasn't ready for that. It's different in the countryside. Lots to concentrate on. The fire, Argo, weapon maintenance. Now it will be just four walls, a bed and Gabrielle.' Normally not one to complain about that, they hadn't stayed at an inn since before the last Ares incident. It's not that Xena didn't think she could deal with the situation but she didn't like pushing her own limits of control. At least not where Gabrielle was concerned. There would be no escaping Gabrielle's endless questions and observations about everything happening around them and Xena didn't feel like trying to act like she was interested in anything going on around them.

"Oh well, it's too late now."

"So Gabrielle, how have things been going for you? And Xena, of course," Tomaius asked.

Gabrielle became thoughtful for a moment, trying to verbalize in her mind what traveling with Xena was like. She finally settled on, "Oh, you know, save a town here, save a town there. What about you? Have you been enjoying your time on the road? How about stories, I'll bet you have some great ones! At the Academy you always had some of the most creative tales anyone had ever heard."

"Sometimes I really miss the big city, and the Academy. Those were pretty fun times compared to the hardships of life traveling around trying to earn your dinner and keep," Tomaius said, sitting back again to study the fine looking young woman before him. "You've really changed Gabrielle." At Gabrielle's raised eyebrows he held up a hand. "No, I mean that in a good way. You seemed kinda young and innocent at the Academy. Oh, you were enthusiastic enough for all of us, but nothing quite like you seem now." Tomaius smiled as he tilted his head a little and pretended to study Gabrielle. "You look...I don't know. More in control or something."

Gabrielle smiled back, secretly thrilled that her new found confidence showed so clearly to someone who knew her from her time at the school for bards. If only he knew how out of control emotionally she sometimes felt lately. "Thanks, Tom. I've been working on that," she said with honesty. 'Now to change the subject fast, before he starts telling me how my eyes shine like the stars... I've seen that look on a man's face before, but right now I don't think I would enjoy it as much. Especially with Xena due to appear any time. Oh Gods, Xena!' Gabrielle twisted around in her chair to check the tavern's entrance for signs of the warrior woman. 'The fates are with me so far', she thought, turning back to a smiling Tomaius.

The room was now filled to capacity and it was becoming difficult to hear over the din of the crowd. Tomaius leaned forward so Gabrielle could hear him better as he asked, "Are you up for a performance tonight?"

It took Gabrielle a moment to realize he was talking about the crowd and performing as a bard. 'Where is my mind lately,' she thought to herself, then to Tom, "As I recall you were the most competitive bard in Athens!"

"True...I can't resist a competition. So how about it? Shall we let the crowd decide who is the best bard?" Tom smiled dangerously, feeling confident he could defeat Gabrielle easily. "Of course, we could make it interesting...," he added with a slight leer.

"Hmm. Now that does sound like you, Tom. But really I shouldn't. Xena will be back any minute and will probably want to get going," Gabrielle sighed.

"You're not afraid of a little competition, are you? I seem to remember a young woman at school who would never back down from a challenge," Tomaius offered, knowing he had her with that one.

A twinkle appeared in light blue eyes as Gabrielle considered the proposition. Xena would kill her but then Xena never backed down from a challenge either. She forgot all about stretching Xena's patience earlier in the day. "Okay, what are the stakes?"

Xena finished checking on Argo, satisfied she had been fed and watered properly. She purposely had stayed away from the two at the tavern to give them time to catch up. Now she was resigned to having to return and face chit chat for who knows how long. Thinking about the young man, Xena wondered how good of friends he and Gabrielle had been at school. Apparently good enough but not in a serious fashion. Xena was certain Gabrielle would have mentioned Tomaius before if there had been a romance. Of course, what Gabrielle did on her own was her business. Like Hades, Xena thought.

Walking back to the tavern, Xena thought about all that had happened since she met Gabrielle. Things had certainly never been boring. The one thing she could always depend on from her friend was a never ending supply of surprises.

Tomaius looked up just as Xena entered the room. She seemed to be in no hurry to get back to their table, first heading towards the bar. "Hey, I've got it. You and Xena are best friends, right? And she's what you might call, uh, stoic. You follow? This is the wager. I will stand up before everyone here and declare you the greatest bard who ever lived, IF you can achieve one tiny little thing during your story."

Gabrielle's attention peaked as she waited for the other shoe to drop. "And that is?"

"You have to get the warrior princess of few words to say she loves you. After all, you are best friends, right?" Tomaius said, feeling his victory before the competition even started.

"Oh great, I have to get Xena to say something she would never say in front of a crowd," Gabrielle shot back with a feeling of impending doom. "That's really clever, Tom. What about you? What do you think you can get Xena to do?"

Gabrielle was stalling as she considered running as fast as she could out the front door. Feeling suddenly dry mouthed, she took a long drink hoping not to choke from the challenge.

Tomaius, stroking his chin thoughtfully, offers, "How about I get her to wink at me." Water suddenly spews across the table at him as Gabrielle chokes on her drink. "Oh right, like that's going to happen! Uh, sorry about that, Tom."

Tom begins to dry himself as best as he can. "So is it a deal?"

"Wait a minute. How come mine is so much harder? That doesn't seem fair."

Tom spies Xena heading towards the table with drink in hand. "Hey, you know her, I don't. Do you really think she's going to wink at me?"

"Are you about ready to leave, Gabrielle?" Xena asks as she arrives at their table. Then speaking to Tomaius, "Hope you two had a chance to catch up. It was nice to meet you, Tomaius." Xena looked back at Gabrielle expecting her to say her good-byes so they could be on their way.

"Actually, Xena, we were just thinking how nice it would be to hear one of each other's stories. It's been so long since I've gotten to listen to another bard perform. Not that you aren't interesting to listen to, of course," Gabrielle supplied quickly. 'Yeah, right. If you call about five sentences at one time a story.'

"Mm Hmm. It's getting late. How long will this take?" Xena knew how much interaction with other bards meant to Gabrielle and it wasn't like they ran into many during their travels. 'Perhaps one story wouldn't hurt.'

Gabrielle impulsively stood up and hugged the warrior. "Thanks, Xena! It won't be that long."

Xena, a bit surprised and a little embarrassed at the gesture in a room full of people, stepped back quickly and said, "Go ahead then. Give them a good one, Gabrielle." Smiling, she quickly sat back down at the table, her back against the wall. Tomaius sat at the table next to her, careful not to get too close. He still wasn't sure if she felt him to be a threat. He wasn't taking any chances either.

After briefly speaking with the proprietor of the tavern, Gabrielle walked to the center of the room, stepped up onto a sturdy bench and began her story. It began like most of Gabrielle's stories about her and Xena's adventures. Xena smiled. 'How sweet to have chosen one of our escapades to treat her audience with instead of one of the many standards she does so well.' Xena's thoughts turned to the pouch at her side and the special surprise she knew the bard would appreciate if for no other reason than the person who purchased it for her.

Maybe later tonight would be a good time to present it to her...

Tom sat spellbound by the bard before him. He never expected her to be this good! 'What a story,' he thought, turning to look at the warrior beside him. Xena seemed lost in thought, not really even hearing the story. 'How can she keep Gabrielle on the road with her and not let her pursue her incredible talent as a bard?' Gabrielle was getting to the crux of her story, acting out the parts of everyone but Xena. Tom noticed she only described Xena's words and actions, being careful not to imitate her.

Not realizing how much time had passed, Xena's thought's abruptly focused on the present as she caught a thread of the story. Gabrielle was speaking as the voice of Ares. '"She? What do you mean 'she'?!?"'

The room began to shrink in Xena's mind. Like a long tunnel suddenly carrying Gabrielle towards her narrowing her vision to just the bard and her captivating story. Their story. Ares' Game, Gabrielle had called it. Writing it down in the short weeks past as she recovered from the minor wounds she endured in the battle. 'By the Gods! Why is she doing this?' She felt Tomaius' eyes on her and she glanced at him, narrowing her eyes. Something was going on here, she suspected. 'What could he have done to prompt this story from Gabrielle?'

Gabrielle continued her story as she stepped off her platform. Hardly a sound was made by anyone in the room so enraptured were they by the tale being woven before them. "'Then Xena dropped her sword at Ares' feet, the anger drained from her blue eyes and when she spoke, her voice was filled with resignation, 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 realized 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 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 then dropped to one knee and continued.

'So end this game and kill me now but let her live.'"

Xena sat at the table and realized she could not move. Not one muscle. 'Was this shock? Where is the air in the room?' Gabrielle had been slowly approaching as she almost reached the end of her story. Now standing before Xena across the table, Gabrielle looked into painfully blue eyes that shone with tears that would never fall. Not here. Not now. 'Gods,' Gabrielle thought, 'have I hurt her so?' The people waited for the bard to finish the story. In her best Ares' voice she finished, "'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?'"

Gabrielle's audience held their breath. Everyone's attention was on the warrior. Xena, watched the young woman standing before her expectantly waiting for an answer. Gabrielle's eyes were filled with an emotion she hadn't seen since her own experience in Autolycus' body. Those suddenly bright blue eyes were pleading with her. The silence stretched until Xena thought that time had ceased to exist. Then, Xena did the only thing she could. She answered. "Because I love her."

The room erupted in applause and shouts as Gabrielle was carried away with the crowd congratulating her on her story of the defeat of Ares. Xena's eyes never broke contact with those of the bard's until a wall of people enveloped Gabrielle on the other side of the room.

Suddenly her attention was taken back to the man sitting next to her. Tomaius was shaking his head, muttering "I knew there was more to it than "best friends". How could I have been so arrogant. Stupid! Stupid! When will I learn not to judge people so quickly. She is twice the bard that I am."

Xena simply looked at Tomaius and replied, "Yes, she is." Then she stood and made her way towards the bard who had captured her heart. She wanted an explanation but that would have to wait.

It took almost a half of an hour to tear Gabrielle away from her admirers and even then the owner of the tavern tried to convince them to stay, even going so far as to supply a comfortable room for the night in exchange for the bard's story.

Xena only wanted to escape this town and it's attentions. Tomaius had disappeared so Gabrielle went willingly, not being able to collect her wager. Nor really needing to now.

They retrieved Argo and Xena practically dragged Gabrielle onto the horse's back. Galloping out of the village, Xena turned Argo towards an area Xena knew was a safe campsite. Gabrielle kept quiet, hanging on to Xena's waist as if her life depended on it. 'Maybe it did,' she thought briefly. About two hours later Xena reached her destination. Argo was tired and Gabrielle thought she might never ride again.

Xena jumped down first but did not turn to help the bard. Gabrielle's heart sank. Dismounting as carefully as she could from Argo's back she stepped back, waiting. No words or eye contact forthcoming, Xena lead Argo to an area with plentiful tall grass, and began to remove her saddle and tack. Deciding it best to start gathering firewood, Gabrielle began searching the area for dry timber. This proved difficult for her in the dark. The moon was hidden behind gathering clouds which seemed prophetic to the young woman. 'If only she would talk to me, yell at me, anything!'

Gabrielle's thoughts turned back to the day past. It was as pleasant a day as she had enjoyed recently. The shopping was a nice break from their daily drudgery. So she was late meeting Xena. 'So what? Is that a crime?' The meal was average, Xena not offering much in the way of conversation, but Gabrielle knew that was not her way. That really didn't bother her. Seeing Tomaius was quite a surprise, but it was very nice. He was talkative, of course, being a bard himself. Sometimes she really missed that in her life. Until she thought of Xena and how much she felt Xena needed her in her life. And how much she wanted to be in Xena's life. They each had something to give to each other. Xena's strength, determination, honesty and commitment to values that she had so lost during her warlord days. Gabrielle's humor, compassion, tenderness and inner strength that had the ability to cut through so many defenses. Together they seemed to each make up a half of a whole being. Apart, they searched for each other.

Approaching the camp again, Gabrielle place her armload of wood on the ground and began preparing a fire. Xena had finished with Argo and their supplies were laid out upon the ground. Sitting on a large rock, Xena started inspecting her weapons.

'How like her,' Gabrielle thought. 'Making me suffer her silence and coldness without explanation as she concentrates on a mundane task. Well, I've had just about enough' she decided.

Turning to face her friend Gabrielle began, "Listen, Xena, I don't know why you're so upset but I want you to know-" Xena cut off her explanation with an upheld hand. Gabrielle stopped her speech, waiting in silence. Bright blue eyes swung upwards until locking with pale blue ones.

"Why?" Xena whispered.

'Oh Gods! I have hurt her. Surely she didn't think I told the story to embarrass her. How do I get myself into these situations? I'm not letting her get away with this attitude thing this time.'

"How dare you!"

Xena sat back as if she had just been slapped. 'What in Hades...?'

Walking back and forth in front of the stunned warrior Gabrielle continued. "Don't you dare act this way with me. Not this time. I did not do anything wrong. I'm not some little girl you can expect to jump through hoops to please you. I'm a woman who has a mind and heart of her own."

Blinking slowly to adjust to the sight of this incredible woman, eyes flashing, her red-gold hair shining with a halo of firelight behind her, Xena was frozen. Was this her Gabrielle? Xena had never seen Gabrielle look so beautiful.

Suddenly, the bard stopped pacing and faced Xena. "That was MY heart on display tonight, not just yours! And it was because I didn't care if everyone knew it. I WANTED everyone to know it. What is so awful about that?"

"Gabrielle...," Xena began but was cut off by the young woman. She was just getting started.

At the sound of her own name on Xena's lips she almost caved in. There was nothing more powerful to the young bard than the particular way the warrior said her name. "Don't you say a word until I'm finished. That should be easy enough for you."

Continuing her pacing she picked up her original thought. "I don't know if you've noticed or not but on at least three occasions I have expressed my feelings for you while never hearing those words from you. I know, I know, you show how you feel instead, but you know how important words are for me. And maybe on those occasions I didn't know just how deeply I meant those words. Except when I had lost you. So when you FINALLY tell me you love me, the way you really meant to, it was just the slightest big deal to me, okay? I'm a little new at this."

Xena nodded, understanding what her friend was saying. She also knew that Gabrielle wasn't always comfortable with the intensity of what was felt between them. But she knew her friend well enough to know that Gabrielle would never run away from those feelings.

"You know I loved Perdicus or I wouldn't have married him. But on some level that was different. I can't even compare it to this and I wouldn't want to try. Please don't expect me to." Gabrielle stopped again. Walking up to the woman sitting so patiently as she listened, Gabrielle was glad Xena had to look up at her for a change. Reaching out a hand to brush the warrior's hair back from her face, she looked down into molten blue eyes that she loved so dearly. "Xena, I love you so much and I just wanted to show it for once."

Xena caught the young woman's hand in hers and brought it to her lips. "Thank you, Gabrielle." The unusual gesture from her friend made Gabrielle pause.

Gabrielle's lopsided smile was warm as she looked down at her warrior's face. Then surprising both herself and Xena she framed the beautiful woman's face in her hands, and slowly, as if to accentuate the deliberation of her actions, brought her face a breath away from Xena's. Pausing a moment to look into those incredible blue eyes that never faltered, Gabrielle tilted her head just a bit and brought her lips to Xena's.

Xena thought she would die from the taste of those lips on hers. Feather soft, but firm. Just as she was about to bring her arms up to embrace her love, a sound approaching filtered through her haze catching her attention. 'No. It can't be!' Someone was coming. On horseback.

Gabrielle, hearing the sound as well, broke the exquisite contact and stepped back as Xena reached for her weapons instead of her original goal. The fire in those eyes caught her own and Gabrielle silently prayed for the rider that would arrive in a few moments.

Never before had Xena felt so strongly this overwhelming urge to throttle someone. And Xena had throttled the best of them in her time. Gabrielle wanted to laugh but felt it more prudent to grab her staff and stand beside Xena, waiting for the mystery guest to arrive. Gods, her knees felt weak thinking about that kiss and what may have followed if not for the interruption. She wasn't sure whether to thank the intruder or curse him. 'Was that really me?' The feeling she was experiencing was still so intense that she decided a closer examination of what it might portend would take some time.

A few moments later the horseman appeared through the trees, bringing his mount to a halt just short of the fire's light. It appeared to be a man, wearing a traveling cloak, hood covering his face. Dismounting, the man began walking towards the fire and the two women. Just as Xena was preparing to launch herself through the air, the man lowered his hood.

"Tomaius!" exclaimed Gabrielle. Xena did not lower her sword. Not trusting the approaching young man she stepped in front of the bard at her side.

"Stop right there," Xena commanded. Gabrielle took Xena's free arm and tried to pull her back.

"It's okay, Xena. Tom wouldn't try to hurt us," Gabrielle began, looking towards the man waiting. "Would you, Tom?"

"Of course not, Gabrielle," Tomaius said with a smile. Then to Xena, "I wouldn't be that stupid. Or I might end up just a little bit, uh, dead."

"You've got that right," Xena replied. "What do you want?" her eyes narrowed as she waited for an explanation of his ill-timed arrival.

Tomaius held up a hand and shook his head. "I just wanted to find Gabrielle to repay my debt," he said.

Xena looked at Gabrielle and saw the bard wince. "What debt?" the warrior said to Tom, glancing at a suddenly skittish Gabrielle.

"Tom, that's okay. You don't owe me anything." 'Oh Gods, why did he have to do this now,' thought Gabrielle. Xena brought her attention back to their visitor. Still standing a little behind Xena, Gabrielle began waving her hands frantically, trying to indicate to Tom to not say anymore about it in front of the warrior. Tomaius ignored her.

"We made a bet at the tavern that during our stories we could each get you to do something out of character. You know, for fun."

"And what were you supposed to get me to do, Tom?" Xena asked as she assimilated this information. She had suspected that something he had done had prompted the bard's story tonight, but this confirmation disappointed her. Was she just a pawn in a game? Is that what this was all about? She didn't like being used, by anyone, especially the woman she loved. There had to be more to it than that. Xena didn't think Gabrielle had the guile necessary to purposely hurt her. 'Give her a chance. All may not be as it appears.'

"If Gabrielle hadn't astounded the crowd with her story, I was going to get you to wink at me," Tomaius supplied, shaking his head. "A little weak compared, I know. But given a chance, I think I could have done it."

The warrior narrowed her eyes at the young man, something she found herself doing often. "You're not my type," Xena replied with a raised eyebrow.

"Apparently. Gabrielle's story proved that," he replied with a sneer. At that statement from Tom, Xena took a menacing step forward. Tom stepped back.

"Watch what you say, little man. You can say anything you like about me, but if I hear one word intended to hurt Gabrielle you'll be wearing a new sword in a very uncomfortable place." Xena, seeing her point made, continued. "So I assume it was Gabrielle's job to get me to say how I feel about her."

"Xena," Gabrielle touched her arm again. "It's really not what you think," she tried to get Xena to listen to her. Xena ignored her, still looking at Tomaius. "So what was the wager?"

"Whoever got you to do or say what we agreed on, the loser would stand up in front of everyone and declare them the greatest bard who ever lived," Tom stated.

"I see," was all that Xena had to say. Turning to Gabrielle, she spoke quietly. "Congratulations, Gabrielle. You're the greatest bard who ever lived."

Then as she turned and walked away, "I'm going to check on Argo."

"Xena!" Gabrielle called out as she tried to follow.

"Not now, Gabrielle," was Xena's reply. "Stay with Tomaius and enjoy your victory." Xena continued on into the shadows.

Tomaius joined the distressed bard. "Hey, what's with her?" he asked.

Gabrielle turned an slapped him on the arm. "You are such an idiot! Gods, men are so dumb sometimes. What are you doing way out here anyway? Don't you even try to tell me it's because of that stupid bet!"

Tomaius looked at her blankly. "Listen, I just wanted to talk to you again. You know, you really are the best bard I've ever heard. Why do you stay with that warrior woman when you have such tremendous talent? I've heard the stories about the Warrior Princess, and they aren't very flattering. She's a ruthless killer for Zeus' sake." Tom waved a hand in the direction Xena left them. "I can't imagine what you would find attractive about that. I think you're just confused. You have a gentle soul, Gabrielle. You should be telling stories for a living!"

"Are you really that stupid?" Gabrielle asked. 'I thought I was the naïve one.' "You don't even know Xena. Didn't you listen to my story. That was the truth. Xena would give her life for mine. Probably even for you, if necessary. How dare you tell me what is best for me. Look, it's really none of your business. I do what I want to do. Not what anyone else wants me to. Thank you for your vote of confidence but I really don't need it. Now just get out of here, okay?" Gabrielle had decided she had enough. "I really mean it, Tom."

"Okay... I'll go. I still don't understand, though. Why do you stay with her, when you could be with anyone you want?"

"Is it so hard for you to accept that I AM with the one I want? Oh, forget it. Who I spend my life with is no concern of yours anyway. Now just leave, please."

"I still think you're wasting your life on that-"

"Watch it, Tom."

"uh, warrior," he finished. Gathering his mount he pulled himself into the saddle. "I hope I see you again, Gabrielle." Tomaius rode off the way he had come.

'Not if I can help it,' she thought. Briefly thinking of going after Xena, Gabrielle decided she would probably just stumble around in the dark, getting nowhere. Better to stay at camp and wait for her to come back. She kept busy, placing their bedrolls and checking supplies. The fire needed her attention so she tended to it, wishing Xena would return so she could explain.

An hour passed and she became worried. Trying to calm herself, she knew Xena wouldn't have just left her here indefinitely. She would be back. Gabrielle was tired from the evenings events. She lay on her bedroll, looking up at the stars and recalling the night they both lay describing their possible shapes and laughing. Gabrielle had been trying all day to take Xena by surprise and get through her defenses with her staff. Without much success, she smiled to herself. Okay, without ANY success. Until that night as they looked up at the stars, totally relaxed. Gabrielle knew it was now or never and struck Xena quickly in the face with her staff. She never expected Xena not to block the staff. The whack of the wood was so loud she couldn't believe she'd done it. Did Xena really let her hit her, or was it just that she trusted her so much that she didn't expect it then? Gabrielle knew she would never find out. Gods, tonight she had hit Xena in the face again, figuratively.

Thinking about her reasons for the story she told tonight, she knew it wasn't just goading from Tomaius. She wanted to hear those words again from Xena. When she had spoken them the first time, Gabrielle had lain mortally wounded on the battlefield, protecting Xena. Gabrielle hadn't heard the words until later when Xena was describing the events to her. It was also the ONLY time she had heard them. It really was selfish of her, she knew, to want to hear them in front of everyone. It was a big step, not only for Xena but for herself. What she had told Xena earlier had been the truth about wanting to show Xena what she meant to her in front of other people, in her own way. Gabrielle slowly drifted off to sleep.

What a nice dream, Gabrielle thought as she smiled. A feather soft touch on her cheek. Warm hands gently touching her shoulders. A small shake. Was someone saying something? "Mmrff?" she replied. A firmer shake. "Hey, not so hard!"

"Get up, Gabrielle. It's time to go."

Xena's voice! She's back! Gabrielle's eyes pop open. "Xena!"

"Who did you expect," came Xena's sardonic reply.

"Oh, Xena. I was so worried!" Gabrielle sat up quickly, then wish she hadn't. She needed to stretch first.

"Umm Hmm. I can tell," the warrior said. Then pointing out, "That's probably why you were sleeping so fitfully."

"Hey, I really was worried. I just fell asleep waiting for you to come back."

"Whatever. Now get your stuff together. I want to get going." Xena turned and busied herself with Argo's saddle.

Gabrielle decided right then that this was not going to be a smooth day. She still wanted to explain about the wager with Tomaius but knew that now was obviously not a good time. Gathering her bedroll, she handed it to Xena to add to Argo's load. The rest of the supplies had already been dealt with by Xena.

"Um, Xena?"

"Yeah?" Xena was about to step into the stirrup to mount Argo.

Gabrielle asked quietly, "Aren't we going to eat first?"

"You can have some jerky if you want. Anything else will have to wait. It's late. If we make good time to Legosa, we can eat there about mid-day."

"Umm, okay... I guess." Traveling on an empty stomach didn't suit the young bard. Food was normally top priority on her list. She wished she had something besides jerky to fill the void her stomach was announcing even at that thought.

They set out on the road to Legosa, north of Dorian. Gabrielle walked with her staff as usual while Xena rode quietly, but alert to everything happening around them. A little rough at times, the road slowed Gabrielle down once or twice while Xena rode ahead then waited impatiently for her to catch up.

Several times the young bard tried to engage Xena in conversation about their surroundings or the city that they were heading towards, but the warrior remained distant, not saying much. Gabrielle finally gave up. 'Fine, if she wants to act that way, it's her loss.'

Eventually, the silence got to be too much for the young woman. "You know, Xena, eventually you'll have to say something to me besides 'hurry up, you're too slow, let's go, or I'm waiting.'" Gabrielle paraphrased. Xena almost smiled but a sound caught her attention.

"Be quiet," she said to Gabrielle, sitting very still in the saddle as she listened for the sound again.

"Oh great. A new one to add to the list." Gabrielle said but then noticed that Xena was in 'defense mode' and she quieted. She looked up at Xena with a question in her eyes.

"Someone's coming," was Xena's answer to that look. "On foot."

Sure enough, a woman came into view just then, walking from the direction they had been heading. Seeing Xena and her companion, the woman shouted something and began to run towards them.

Stopping when she reached them, the woman looked at Gabrielle curiously. Breathlessly she asked, "Are you the famous bard known as Gabrielle?"

Gabrielle looked up at Xena with raised eyebrows, then turned back to the woman. "I wouldn't exactly say famous but, yes, I guess that's me. Do I know you?"

"Oh no, miss. My name is Cordelia. I'm from Thymic, just down the road a bit." Looking up at Xena, she asked Gabrielle, "Is this your traveling partner, the...warrior woman?" Then pulling Gabrielle aside, "I'll bet she's great protection on the road." The woman winked.

Gabrielle shrugged then started to answer, "Actually....the truth be known, sometimes she's a real pain in the-"

"Huh, hmm. Excuse me ladies," Xena interrupted sarcastically, "I hate to break up this nice little chat but could you tell us what it is that you want?"

Sighing, Gabrielle spoke conspiratorially to Cordelia, "Don't mind her. She's just grumpy today. Must have eaten too much nutbread last night. So, what can we do for you, Cordelia?"

"My village received news this morning of your presence in Dorian this evening past. We heard of your adventures. The great bard, Gabrielle and her traveling companion...uh," Cordelia cocked her head towards the woman on horseback while addressing Gabrielle, "I'm sorry. What's her name?"

'Oh, this is too good to pass up.' Gabrielle could barely contain her laughter as she tried to answer Cordelia. "Xena is her name. But is that really important, Cordelia?"

The woman looked up at Xena, wrinkling her nose. "I don't think so. Anyway, the thing is that my village needs your help. We had news of the story that you told last night at Hassius' tavern. Anyone who could make a fool of Ares like that is bound to be able to take care of Korbakus for us."

"Korbakus?" Xena asked, tired of listening to this woman and being treated like a servant. 'Oh, Gabrielle was really enjoying this,' Xena thought.

"Yes, uh, Xena wasn't it?"

Xena nodded. "So what is the problem?" Xena was tired and hungry and wished she had allowed them breakfast this morning. She would never admit that to Gabrielle of course.

Turning back to Gabrielle as if she was in charge, the woman told them of

the Oracle of Thymic, Ademenia. A few weeks earlier a man named Korbakus sought the wisdom of the Oracle. Unfortunately, Ademenia had only bad news for the man. More than a little disturbed, Korbakus vowed that if the Oracles' visions for himself came true, he would seek out Ademenia and kill her. Talk about killing the messenger who brings bad news! Two days ago, Korbakus came into town looking for the Oracle. Almost every prophecy the Oracle had given him had come true, except for the final one, his death. Feeling it was only a matter of time before it did, Korbakus began to tear the village apart. The village had done their best to protect the Oracle, hiding her at different places but soon there would be no stopping the angry recipient of bad news.

"Please help us, Gabrielle. Our village would be so grateful," Cordelia promised. "Oh, and you will bring 'her', right?" Cordelia asked glancing sideways at Xena. "Korbakus is a big fellow and fights better than anyone in our poor village. I'm sure your warrior could be useful."

Gabrielle took Cordelia by the arm, steering her away from a seething Xena. "Cordelia," Gabrielle spoke conspiratorially, "could you excuse us a moment? I need to speak to my warrior. You know, to discuss plans, strategies, that kinda thing." Cordelia nodded and walked ahead just out of earshot.

"So what is YOUR plan, 'O Great One?' Am I actually to be allowed to accompany you on this escapade?" Xena raised that expressive eyebrow.

That gesture was one of Gabrielle's favorites but she didn't have time to enjoy watching Xena right now. Cordelia was waiting. "Oh c'mon, Xena. You've should have seen your face when she called you 'my warrior'. Now you know how I usually feel," she laughed, then walked up to Argo and put her hand on Xena's leg. Xena looked down at Gabrielle and thought about how beautiful the young woman had become. Considering Gabrielle's comment, Xena wished she could express to her how important she really was to her. Not just because of their friendship but in so many other ways. Xena knew she could depend on Gabrielle with her life. And she had countless times...

Gabrielle was talking to her. "Hmm?" Xena asked, bringing herself back to the present.

"I asked you what you were thinking?" the young woman said tilting her head back and to the side.

"I'll tell you later. I promise. Right now it looks like we've got follow this woman and see if we can help. This had better not take long. Oracles have a way of making one uncomfortable." Xena urged Argo into a walk.

Gabrielle turned and trotted to catch up. "Why is that?"

"They always want to tell you things you don't really want to know, "Xena prophesied. "Just ask Korbakus."

About an hour later, the trio walked into the village of Thymic. There was no sign of Korbakus. 'Good,' the warrior thought. 'Maybe we can get something to eat first. I could eat a...Gods, I'm beginning to sound like Gabrielle!'

Confirming that all was calm for the moment, Cordelia led the bard and her warrior to the tavern. The town was smaller than Xena expected considering they had a resident Oracle. Still, as long as it had some place decent to eat and drink, Xena was mollified.

Strolling to her 'usual' table at the back of the Boar's Inn as the tavern was named, Xena was struck by the similarity to their surroundings just the night before. Remembering the bard's tale of their conquering love for each other, and the temporary defeat of Ares, she wondered if Gabrielle was thinking the same thing.

Cordelia spoke to the proprietor of the tavern and inn, proclaiming that the great traveling bard, Gabrielle and her companion had arrived to rid them of the revenge seeking Korbakus. Then asking the owner to bring the two women anything they needed she returned to tell them that she was leaving to get word to the people hiding Ademenia that help had arrived. Cordelia promised to return.

Food and wine appeared shortly at their table and both ate ravenously. "I didn't think I was gonna make it," Gabrielle said between bites of mutton.

"Me either," Xena admitted.

The young woman smiled. She noticed there weren't many people around, probably from fear of Korbakus, and suddenly decided to broach the subject of her public display the night before while the opportunity presented itself. Stretching her hand across the table placing it on top of Xena's, Gabrielle whispered, "I'm sorry."

The warrior looked into Gabrielle's light blue eyes. "You shouldn't be. It wasn't fair of me not to give you another chance to explain. I do believe what you said last night. It just happened that way." Xena sat back. "I wish you would have told me about the wager, though. I would have listened, Gabrielle."

"The way Tom made it sound later, I guess I wasn't sure how to explain what happened. I'd like to now," Gabrielle's voice raised in a question. At Xena's sigh and nod she continued. "I really didn't tell the story just because of his silly bet. In fact, when I first started, I hadn't even planned to tell that story at all. But standing up there, looking at you across the room, something just told me it was time to express to whomever would listen just how I feel about you. I have to admit, I was pretty scared. "

Leaning forward in her chair Xena prodded, "It probably didn't hurt to know that you could get me to say those words on command. Am I right?"

"Let's just say that I hope the next time, and there will be a next time, we won't have an audience." Squeezing Xena's hand, Gabrielle released her and happily finished her meal.

Xena had no time to consider that comment because Cordelia rushed inside the tavern door and motioned to them. "Great, your humble servant has arrived," Xena noted with a wry smile.

They rose and met the woman at the door. "Korbakus is back! He'll be here any minute," Cordelia spoke to Xena. "Ademenia told me to tell you to be watchful of the 'golden treasure'. She said you would know what it meant. Also, Korbakus will be ready for you. Do not use your weapons. You will die if you do. If you die the one who calls death 'friend' will seek revenge on many. Ademenia's prophecy to Korbakus said that you would be the instrument of his death. He will know what is to happen and only you can change it."

"I can hardly wait," Xena rolled her eyes.

"Do you know what she meant, Xena?" Gabrielle asked, concern on her face.

"No, but I'm sure we'll find out soon. I hear him coming now." Xena looked out the door and saw a large man carrying a broadsword about three buildings down the street. "Gabrielle," she began but the bard cut her off.

"No way, Xena. I'm not staying behind. She said you couldn't use your weapons. That you would die if you did. Not that even that slows you down too much, but what if you need me? I'm not staying here. Where you go, I go."

"There's no time to argue. Stay out of the way. Do you understand?" her concern for her friend gave her voice an edge.

Gabrielle took a deep breath then nodded her compliance. Xena stepped out onto the street. 'That was way too easy,' she thought. 'Something else to worry about.' Casually walking to the center of the street, she waited for Korbakus to notice her. A few moments later, the huge man looked up from the peasant he was terrorizing to see the warrior standing, sword sheathed, waiting.

"So, the mighty Warrior Princess has arrived! Let me welcome you, Xena," Korbakus spat. "I thought you'd be bigger by the stories they tell. You don't frighten me."

"Men...that's what they all say," Xena replied calmly, waiting for an opening. The large man closed the distance between them, bringing his sword around to strike at her midsection. Xena jumped back at the last moment and spun into a kick, striking him in face. He staggered a step, then turned and laughed. "Nice try, precious," Korbakus sneered.

"Oh please, we hardly know each other." Xena kicked a foot into the man's knee, causing him to stumble for a moment. Recovering quickly, Korbakus brought his sword around faster than she anticipated and she received a small gash on her upper arm from the tip of the blade. He was quick for so large a man. Before he could strike again, she launched into a flip over his head, landing on the rim of the village well. He turned and taunted, "Why don't you use your sword, Xena. Are you afraid I'll knock it out of your hand and have to kill you with it?"

"What sweet words. Are you sure you're not a poet, Korbakus?" She began her war cry as she flew through the air again, landing behind the large man and throwing her weight into a two fisted swing at his head, "Aiyiyiyiyiyiyi!" It was a glancing blow as he leaned back, then brought the hilt of his sword up, catching Xena's chin and snapping her head back. She tasted blood, but gave no indication of any pain. Her arm shot out, connecting with Korbakus' forearm, the other arm following suit only to be blocked again by Korbakus. 'He knows my every move.' She back tracked to rethink her attack.

"You aren't running already, are you?" The big man gave her a feral grin.

Xena walked around him, ignoring the pain in her head, as she planned her next move. Catching a glimpse of blonde hair, she stopped. 'Gods, no. I knew you wouldn't stay put.' Xena's vision was just a bit blurry from the head injury but she could see her. Gabrielle was crouching just behind the water well, staff in hand. Korbakus seemed oblivious to the young woman's presence. Xena hoped it would stay that way.

Hoping to keep Korbakus focused on just her, she taunted him, "What's the matter? Tired of the chase already?"

"Just to make it fair, Xena, since it looks like you've been warned, I'll even the odds for you." He threw his sword down and waited. Gabrielle saw this as her opportunity to catch him off guard and she stood ready for the attack. A few steps later she reached him and swung her staff at the back of his knees. If she could just get him off balance she knew it would give Xena her chance. He knew it was coming. He turned, blocking the staff and grabbing the small woman by the arm and twisting it behind her back. "Gabrielle!" Xena yelled too late. With his other arm around her neck, he held off the warrior with a menacing promise. "Try it and I'll break her neck!" The hot sun beat down upon them in the street. Gabrielle's blonde hair shown with golden light, a halo around her in relief to the dark thug behind her. 'Be watchful of the 'golden treasure'.' It was Gabrielle! Xena watched Gabrielle's eyes as the bard looked down at her staff which lay just within reach at her own feet. 'Be watchful...'

"Now you're mine, warrior. You'll do anything to protect the little one, everyone is talking about it." Korbakus taunted Xena. Xena casually glanced at Gabrielle's foot, inching underneath the staff. "She's not bad to look at of course. I might even enjoy her myself later." He picked up a handful of the red-gold hair and inhaled it's scent.

A cold mask came over Xena's face. "Although, I don't know what you see in such a skinny piece of -" Korbakus never finished his statement as Gabrielle flipped the staff with her foot in an upwards arc towards Xena with all the strength she had. As it sailed through the air, Korbakus' grip slackened on the bard, his attention on Xena, and she twisted out of his hold, watching as Xena caught her staff. Then falling to the ground, Gabrielle waited as the staff was launched like a spear towards the chest of the large, very surprised man. Striking him, the force drove him the step back necessary to cause him to crash into the wall of the water well and as he lost his balance completely, he fell inside the well to his death.

Xena rushed to Gabrielle, helping her up. "Are you alright?" she asked, checking her for injuries.

"I'm fine, Xena. Really. Thank the Gods that worked! And you didn't have to use your weapons like the oracle said. You used mine!"

Xena shook her head. Cordelia ran out to them as well as some of the other villagers that had been watching the confrontation. "You did it Gabrielle! You saved Ademenia and our village! The stories we've heard are true, you are strong of heart, with the courage of a hundred men."

Gabrielle looked at Xena helplessly. What a bunch of idiots! "Um, I think a hundred is a bit overstated and well, I did have some help you know. Xena kept him busy."

"Oh, yes... of course. Hurray to you too, uh...Xena."

Xena took Gabrielle's arm and pulled her aside. "Can we go now? I have a splitting headache and she's not making it any better."

"Sure. Hey, let me look after that cut he gave you," Gabrielle pulled Xena after her inside the The Wild Boar.

Half the town began to fill the tavern, thanking the bard and trying to get her to tell a story. The unexpected adulation was even getting on the young woman's nerves now. "I hate to say this, Xena," Gabrielle whispered, "but this place is weird!" Not feeling much like delivering a performance after the day's events, Gabrielle breathed a sigh of relief when a woman of obvious influence persuaded the crowd to leave them alone for the time being. Turning to the relieved pair she introduced herself.

"I am Ademenia. I apologize for our behavior. We don't get many famous travelers through here. Please accept our gratitude for your help. I especially need to thank you for it was my life that you saved." The woman smiled warmly, reminding Xena of her own mother many years ago. "You must stay in Thymic tonight. It is late now and we would like to make you comfortable. A room is being readied for you here at the Inn. Just ask and a meal will be brought to you when you desire."

"You don't have to convince me!" Gabrielle offered. Looking up at the tall woman standing next to her she asked, "what do you think, Xena?"

"I guess it wouldn't hurt. Actually, a bath might be a good idea as well."

Ademenia waved a hand to a woman who had been quietly standing behind her as if awaiting orders. The woman bowed her head, then left to prepare a bath for them. "As you wish. If there is anything that you need, just ask the girl. Her name is Kiala and she will stay to ensure you of privacy. Tell her of anything you need and she will bring it to you. I am especially pleased you are here, Xena. I need to speak to you before you leave us." Xena looked at Gabrielle and arched her eyebrow, communicating the thought 'I told you so.' "Now, I shall leave you two until tomorrow. Relax and enjoy your stay." The woman left the tavern and Gabrielle couldn't help feeling like Ademenia had put off telling Xena something important.

"Well, I don't know about you but I'm tired and could use a bath too. Especially after being handled by that goon out there," Gabrielle wrinkled her nose in distaste as she flipped her red-gold hair over her shoulder, remembering his hands lifting it earlier.

Xena replied, "You could have been handled a lot worse. I told you not to interfere. Why did you sneak out there?," her voice rose in agitation remembering the sight of Gabrielle with Korbakus' arm around her neck. "You could have been killed and I may not have been able to stop him from breaking your neck!"

Looking up at the beautiful, fierce blue-eyed woman that she called friend, Gabrielle couldn't help but think back to an answer she herself sought only the night before. Gabrielle's voice was strong and carried a bit when she proclaimed, "Because I love you."

A hush fell around them as the remaining people turned in their direction. Gabrielle could swear she saw a blush rising on Xena's face. "I don't think you said that loud enough for Argo to hear, Gabrielle," the warrior's voice was quiet.

Gabrielle took a deep breath and opened her mouth to repeat her statement but Xena quickly put her hand over the young woman's mouth. "That's okay. You can tell her tomorrow. I'm ready for that bath now. Let's go." She headed for the stairs, Gabrielle followed, trying not to laugh.

At the top of the stairs, Kiala met them and escorted them to their room. "When you are hungry," the quiet woman stated, "call my name and I will bring your meal."

"Thank you, Kiala."

"It is nothing, Xena. I would do anything for you. You saved my mother's life today. I hope you will listen to her," the shy woman bowed her head and turned to leave, closing the door behind her.

Xena stood there a moment, thinking. "Hmm. I wonder what that's about...," she began as she turned away from the door. Xena's breath caught in her throat as she saw Gabrielle standing with one foot in the bath, her clothes in a pile at her feet. Quickly pulling her eyes away, she walked over to the small table beside the bed, removed her weapons and laid them on the table.

The warrior had seen her friend many times in the nude, but lately the prospect of dealing with those images was daunting. Xena was in love with the young woman and as painful as it was, she would ignore those feeling unless they were fully shared. Pain was no stranger to the statuesque warrior. Her blue eyes shone with it many times. At times her friend would notice and ask her what was wrong and she could only say that it was nothing and change the subject. Lately she had noticed that when this would happen, Gabrielle would make it a point to hug her or touch her arm to let her know she was there for her if she needed her. If she only knew how much she really did need her. 'Why don't you tell her that,' a voice whispered inside her mind. 'She's not ready to hear it,' she replied. 'I think you just can't accept the fact that someone could return and even match those feelings. You don't trust anyone, even the one you love more than your life.'

"Ohh, Xena. This bath is perfect," Gabrielle said innocently as she immersed herself in the water. "I hope you don't mind, but I couldn't wait!"

"Not at all. In fact, now that I think about it, maybe I'd better go check on Argo."

"Whoa. Wait a minute. You're not going anywhere. Argo is fine and you know it. Would you just settle down. You're always running off to check on her. No wonder Argo and I don't always get along," Gabrielle blew the hair off her forehead as she leaned back in the water.

"What is that supposed to mean?" Xena asked, walking over to the window and pretending to be absorbed in the view outside.

"Nothing. Gee, don't bite my head off. I just mean that you always seem to disappear when something is bothering you. Am I bothering you, Xena?"

'By the Gods,' Xena thought, 'if you make me stay here while you take a leisurely bath I will definitely be bothered.' "What? Oh no, of course not. I just worry about Argo. That's all. Are you going to be in there long?" she asked.

Gabrielle considered the question. "I don't know. The water is perfect. And I feel so good."

'I know.'

"I wouldn't mind sharing, I think the tubs big enough." Gabrielle offered.

Xena sat on the end of the bed and fell backwards. "That's okay. I think I'll pass," she replied in a strangled voice. 'Yeah, pass out is more likely.'

"Suit yourself." Water splashed as the young woman washed. "Uh, Xena?"


"Could you hand me the soap on the table?"

'Oh Gods, no! Who could be doing this to me? Aphrodite, maybe?'

"Xena?" Gabrielle repeated.

"Hmm? Oh, sorry." Xena stood carefully, walked over to the table and picked up the soap. Taking a deep breath, she turned and walked over to the tub handing the soap to Gabrielle but not looking at her. "Here."

"Thanks. Are you okay? You look kinda strange." Gabrielle asked with concern.

"Actually, I still have a headache. I think I'll lie down awhile." 'Quick thinking, Xena,' she told herself.

She began removing her arm bracers, then sat back down on the edge of the bed as she unfastened her armor. "I could help you with that," she heard Gabrielle tell her.

"No, that's okay. I've got it." 'Yeah, right. I've got to get my mind on something else.' "Are you hungry yet?" she asked her bathing friend.

"Um, don't laugh but not yet. How 'bout you?"

'Oh, I'm starving.' "No, me either," was all Xena could come up with.

Xena finished removing her boots. Laying back on the bed she heard Gabrielle ask, "You aren't going to sleep in you leathers, are you?"

"What difference does it make?"

The sound of water caught her attention and she knew Gabrielle had just stepped out of the tub. "Well, it makes a difference to me. Why don't you take the bath now. I'll get fresh water for you if you want." The young woman picked up their pack and pulled out a shift to slip over her head. At Xena's lack of response she added, "No offense, but you really could use it."

Xena sighed. 'In for a dinar...' "You're right. This water will be fine though."

"Great! I think I'll as Kiala if she could find something comfortable for you to sleep in, I know that would make you feel better." 'Not to mention how much nicer to smell.'

"Fine," the now exhausted woman replied.

Gabrielle opened the door and spotted Kiala sitting in a chair at the end of the hall. "I'll be right back, Xena," she called over her shoulder.

Removing her leathers and stepping into the still warm bath, Xena decided that the fates must either really love her or hate her. Sitting down, she began to wash as she thought about the past two days. She leaned back and closed her eyes. What a luxury to have a bath in the room. Not many Inns even in Athens had that amenity. The water was warm and soothing as the tension began to ease from her shoulders. In the back of her mind, she heard the door open and assumed it was Gabrielle. Keeping her eyes closed, she wanted to enjoy a few more minutes in the bath. Lightly, fingers began to massage her shoulders. She opened her eyes expecting to see blue ones above her and was surprised to see the brown ones of Kiala. Xena had never been self conscious about her own body and she wasn't now. She was however, curious.

"Kiala? What are you doing here?" Xena sat up and waited for her to answer.

"I brought you something to wear, as Gabrielle asked."

"Where is Gabrielle?"

"I found a robe for her and she went to the kitchen to see if there was anything for your headache."

"I see. Thank you for bringing the night clothes, Kiala," Xena began to wash the slight wound she had received from her fight earlier, expecting Kiala to leave now. Instead the young woman kneeled beside the tub. Xena supposed that the girl was a couple of years younger than Gabrielle. Wondering why she hadn't left and becoming a little uncomfortable with her sitting there she bluntly asked, "What?"

"I am sorry, Xena. It is only that I wish to talk with you," the young woman hung her head.

"Couldn't we talk tomorrow? It's late, don't you want to go home. We'll be all right tonight. I'm sure your mother would understand if you didn't stay." Xena finished her ministrations to the cut on her arm.

"I have offended you." The girl looked terrified. Xena thought, 'I don't have time for this.'

"No, Kiala. You haven't done anything to upset me." 'Yet.' "What is it you wanted to talk to me about?" Xena stood in the bath and reached for a drying cloth.

"I will not leave tonight. It is my mother's wish that I stay to watch over you and Gabrielle. I will not intrude, I promise. I need to ask you something before I leave you."

"Yes?" Xena began drying herself off, stepping out of the tub.

"Promise that you will not speak of this to anyone, except your friend, of course," Kiala asked.

"Sure, Kiala. What is it?"

"I am like my mother in many ways. We have not spoken of it, but I have the dreams as my mother does. She had hoped they would not plague me as they do her. I have seen you many times in those dreams."

"I see," Xena replied. 'What I don't need right now is my future read.'

"Do not worry, I have not seen your future. Only mother knows what will happen for you there. I have seen you throughout my life. Even as a small child, I dreamt of you. For a long time, I did not know who you were. Just that some awful thing had driven you to cause much pain to many. Especially yourself."

Xena winced. How unfair for such a young child to witness her past as a ruthless warlord.

"I believe what I see is happening to you at the same time that I see it. It is hard to explain. Last night I saw you sitting in a tavern in a village not far from here. Your friend was telling a story about you to the people. It was a special moment. Your friend loves you very much, doesn't she?" Kiala looked up at Xena with wonder in her eyes.

"Yes. I believe she does."

"And you love her also?" Kiala asked, almost shyly.

"With all my heart. I would have no heart without her."

Kiala stepped closer to Xena and wrapped her arms around her. "Never let her go, Xena. But after you hear my mother's words tomorrow remember, there ARE others who love you too!"

The door opened and Gabrielle walked happily into the room, carrying a tray of snacks and wine. "Hey, Xena , look what I brou-" Gabrielle looked up and stopped suddenly. "Yikes!" she exclaimed, almost knocking over the wine. Kiala jumped back and ran from the room. "Xena? What in Tartarus is going on?"

A very naked Xena merely shrugged as she walked over to the bed and picked up the clothes Kiala had brought for her to wear. Pulling the beautiful night dress over her head, she sat down on the bed and waited for the pending explosion. She didn't have to wait long.

Gabrielle sat the tray down on the bed and turned to close the door. "I did not see what I just saw," she began. "What was Kiala doing here? And why were you two, uh.... well, you know."

"No, Gabrielle. I don't know." Xena calmly began to pick at the food on the tray.

"Don't you give me that. You were naked! And that... that girl was all over you."

Gabrielle stood in front of Xena, feet apart and her hands on her hips.

"I wouldn't say that. It was just a hug, Gabrielle. Why are you so upset?"

Gabrielle's eyes flashed a warning. "Why am I...? Look, Xena. That girl is too young to be throwing herself at someone like...uh, well what I mean is... oh, you know what I mean."

"Are you saying I'm too old to be interested in someone as young as she?" Xena smiled now, thinking this was not what she had imagined the night to hold.

"It's not that you're too old, Xena. But she is certainly too young for you!"

Xena lay back on the bed and replied, "I think you were right the first time. I'm just too old."

Gabrielle got the feeling she had really misunderstood something but couldn't stop herself from continuing. "I thought you were much more interested in a slightly more mature, nurturing person who happens to care about you very much." Feeling a little calmer now that she had a chance to blow off some steam, she plucked a grape from the tray and held it to Xena's lips. Yes, she must have just misunderstood. 'My Xena would never do something like I thought she was doing. Huh?'

Taking the grape from her love's fingers, Xena chewed thoughtfully a moment. "Hmm. I don't know. There's a lot to be said for the energy of the young."

Punching Xena's shoulder, Gabrielle said, "Oh stop. You are no more interested in that girl than I am. Although, I would love to have hands like hers," she observed.

"Yes, the backrub was nice."

"What?!? Oh, you. Stop joking around."

Xena smiled her brightest as she popped another grape in her mouth. "Who's joking!"

"Oh, great. Now I am going to have to watch you like a hawk. So what was all that about, anyway," Gabrielle asked as she began to eat the snacks she had brought Xena.

Xena retold most of what Kiala had told her. Gabrielle sat back when she was finished and said, "How sad for her. She has felt this connection to you all her life, never knowing you. No wonder she's in love with you."

"What? That's ridiculous," Xena shook her head.

"Oh really. Well it's pretty obvious to me. I know that look, Xena. If I'm not careful I could be old news. At the very least she has a crush. You can be pretty dazzling, you know."

"Yeah, right. Actually, I'm kinda fond of my 'old news'. As you pointed out I'm too old to train someone so young." Gabrielle coughed on her fig. "I am rather curious about what her mother has to tell me." Sitting up, Xena began to stretch contentedly. "I've had enough of this. Thanks for bringing it up, it was just right."

Gabrielle stood up also, picking up the tray and setting it on the table across the room. "Sure, no problem. So are you ready for bed?"


Pulling the bedcovers back and then climbing into bed, Gabrielle waited for Xena to extinguish the lamp. Darkness enveloped the room and she felt Xena's weight on the other side of the bed as she got in under the covers. They lay quietly for a while, each alone with their thoughts. Just as Xena was beginning to believe that her chattering friend had been replaced by a look alike, Gabrielle whispered, "Xena?"


"Can I ask you something?"

"I don't know. Can you?"

"Hey, be serious, okay." Gabrielle snuggled closer to Xena's back and laid her hand on Xena's arm. Xena's nerves were standing at attention now and she carefully replied, "Okay. What do you want to know?"

"You didn't really find Kiala attractive, did you?" Gabrielle's voice was husky now.

Xena was silent a moment, thinking how to answer without laughing. Gabrielle began to worry. "No, Gabrielle. I really didn't. I did feel sad for her. I'm sorry she had to see as a child what terrible things I did back then."

The young woman beside her was quiet for a few minutes. "Xena?"

Sigh. "Yeah?"

The unexpected happened. A small voice asked, "Will you kiss me, please."

Xena tensed. 'Oh Gods!' "What did you say?"

Gabrielle's hand gently stroked her arm absently. "I know you heard me, Xena. You have the most amazing hearing of anyone I've ever heard of."

Xena turned slowly until she faced those blue eyes just visible in the moonlight shining through the window. "Why? I thought we agreed we would..." Xena paused as Gabrielle placed a finger on her lips. "Shut up and just do it, Xena," Gabrielle requested.

Xena raised herself up on her forearm and looked down at the lovely young woman she cared for more than life. How could she refuse her anything? Xena lifted her hand and brushed back a pale wisp of hair from Gabrielle's face. Gabrielle caught her hand and pulled it around her slender waist. "Please," she whispered. That did it. Lowering her head, Xena brushed her lips over Gabrielle's very lightly. Not satisfied, the young woman raised her head to meet Xena's wanting firmer contact. Xena pulled back just out of reach. "Xena!" Gabrielle growled. Xena's white teeth flashed in the most gorgeous smile the young woman had ever seen. "Not so fast, little one. There's method to this madness," Xena promised. "Not if I die first," was Gabrielle's reply. "We wouldn't want that," Xena purred.

This time there was no hesitation as Xena's lips met hers. Gabrielle thought that all the air in the room had just disappeared. Even without it, all she could focus on was the woman above her and what she was doing to her mouth. Gabrielle tried to raise her arms to hold on to Xena but she realized she had lost control of every muscle. 'I feel like a rag doll! Okay, a rag doll with an exploding heart.' Xena caressed the lips beneath hers with a tenderness that held more than a hint of the passion she was feeling. Gabrielle had never felt anything as powerful as the sensation flowing through her now. 'Why do I suddenly feel like a virgin,' Gabrielle thought. Slowly, the contact diminished as Xena raised her head again. Looking down into glassy blue eyes she asked, "Is that what you wanted?"

"Uh, huh," was all Gabrielle could get out.

"Good. Now go to sleep, tomorrow we travel." Xena rolled over and tried to act for all the world as if nothing just happened.

"Oh Gods! Am I still alive?" Gabrielle asked, finally coming back around from her dizzying experience. "What are all those funny colored lights dancing around the room?"

"You'll live, Gabrielle. Close your eyes and go to sleep."

"Sleep? Are you crazy? I don't think I'll ever sleep again..."

* * * *

Xena awoke the next morning before Apollo began his journey across the sky. Carefully she lifted the arm holding her and eased out of bed. Gabrielle stirred and grabbed Xena's pillow, pulling it close to her then drifting back off. Xena smiled enjoying watching the young bard while she slept. Then she dressed in her leathers, armor and weapons. Pulling her boots on she quietly left to check on Argo.

Gabrielle gradually awoke about an hour later when the sun's light flooded the room. "Xena?" she mumbled drowsily. Sitting up to see the warrior was gone, she smiled and lay back down, remembering the kiss from the night before. 'Holy Zeus!' Stretching, she decided to get dressed and look for the woman of many skills. 'Ha! She thought, that was one skill that could be pretty darn handy.'

After dressing, she opened the door and stepped out into the hallway. Kiala still sat in the chair at the end of the hall. The girl looked up when she heard Gabrielle. Avoiding her eyes she said, "Good morning, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle practically skipped down the hall. "Hello, Kiala! Have I told you what beautiful hands you have?"

Kiala looked at her, puzzled. "No, miss. Thank you, I mean. Can I get you anything."

"How about a six foot warrior dressed in leather?" Gabrielle laughed at the shocked look Kiala gave her. "I mean, have you seen Xena?"

"She is at the stables, I believe."

"Of course. I'll just go and find her. Do you think we could eat breakfast when we get back?"

"I will see to it, Gabrielle," the slender young woman bowed her head.

"You know, you really should stop doing that. It seems so subservient. Take pride in yourself girl! You're really quite nice looking when you aren't trying to blend into the background. Go with it!" Gabrielle waved as she ran down the stairs to look for the one who had stolen her heart.

Xena was brushing down Argo after their brief ride in the countryside. Gabrielle stuck her head around the door of the stable. "There you are!" she laughed. Xena looked up and smiled. "Here I am," she returned. Walking up to the much taller woman she took hold of Xena's arm.

"Gabrielle. I can't brush Argo if you hold on to me."

"I love the way you say my name," she revealed. "Did you know that?"

"Gab.... Okaaay. Feeling a little unwound today are we?" Xena arched her eyebrow.

"And it drives me crazy when you do that."


"The eyebrow thingy," Gabrielle said as if it was obvious.

"Have you been drinking?" Xena tilted her head.

"Naw. I just feel.... I don't know. Really good today." Gabrielle laughed out loud.

"Do you think you could feel really good over there, " Xena nodded at the other side of the room, " while I finish this?"

"Oh, sure." Walking over to a pile of hay, Gabrielle sat down and waited for Xena to finish Argo's brushing. "So, you two took a ride this morning?"

"Mmm Hmm."

"I would have liked to have come along," the bard offered.

"Gabrielle, you don't like to ride," Xena pointed out.

"Maybe I could get used to it. As long as I had you to hold on to, of course."

Xena smiled. 'Ah, I see.' "I'm sorry I didn't wake you to ask if you wanted to go. I just assumed you would rather sleep. We didn't stay out long anyway." Xena finished with Argo, then fed her an apple.

"That's okay. I just missed you when I woke up." Gabrielle stood up and walked over to Xena with a spring in her step. She felt the need to touch her again, not believing how delighted she felt just being alive, here with someone she loved.

"Maybe you should wake up earlier," Xena suggested.

"Hmm. Maybe I would if I had good reason," Gabrielle wiggled her eyebrows suggestively.

Xena laughed. "Oh, please! This is going to take some getting used to my love."

Gabrielle's face lit up like a bonfire.

"What?" Xena asked.

The young woman stepped back, amazement in her eyes. "You called me your 'love'," she repeated.

'Oops.' "Did I?" Xena commented as she patted Argo's neck.

"Yes. I don't think I could miss that. It's true, isn't it," she said with surprise.

"What's true?"

Gabrielle hugged herself. "This is what it feels like to be in love," she stated.

"I suppose so, especially if you're even willing to get up early for me," Xena laughed.

"Have you been feeling this...this, I don't know, sense of euphoria? Gods! How do you stay so calm all the time?" Gabrielle held her hands out in supplication.

Xena tried not to smile as she approached her friend and put her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders. "You've been in love before. Didn't it feel like this?"

Gabrielle looked up at her with amazement. "I thought I had been in love before. But it never felt like this. Nothing has ever felt like this. Have you felt like this before? I know you loved Marcus. And Hercules. There must have been others you felt this way about. You were engaged twice that I know of. And of course, Solan's father..."

Xena took Gabrielle's hand and led her over to a bench on the far side of the stable. Sitting down with her, Xena began, "I have been lucky to have known many people who have brought me their love. And I have loved them as well. Each person was special in their own way and for different reasons. So, yes, I have loved before and been loved in return. Was it better? Stronger? No. It was different. What I feel for you is just as strong as I have ever felt for anyone in my life. It wouldn't be fair to compare that to the feelings I had then. You told me a short while ago that you couldn't compare how you felt about Perdicus to how you feel about me. I understand that, Gabrielle. I know you loved him. There is nothing wrong with that. You should be happy you experienced that with someone you care about who returned those feelings. Not everyone is so lucky."

Gabrielle looked into Xena's eyes and understood. "I am so lucky to have found you, Xena." Gabrielle reached up and kissed Xena's cheek.

"I'll bet you're hungry. Let's go eat."

"Now that's the Warrior Princess, talking. I'm used to that." Smiling, they both stood up and began the walk back to the Inn.

Kiala was waiting for them. She led them to a table and brought their food. "If you need anything else, just ask," the woman said. She looked at Gabrielle and was careful not to bow her head. Gabrielle winked her approval.

They ate slowly, savoring each bite, knowing they would be traveling all day. Conversation was sparse but that didn't bother either woman. Suddenly, Xena felt something against her leg. A foot! Gabrielle looked across the table at her innocently. Xena ignored her and took a long drink from her mug. "So have you ever been with a woman before," Gabrielle asked. Xena spewed her drink all over herself. The few people eating their breakfast looked over briefly and assumed she had swallowed wrong then turned back to their food. "Gabrielle," Xena growled.

"Did I say something wrong," Gabrielle looked perplexed. "I was just curious," she shrugged. "I would like to know if this is new to both of us." She continued eating as if nothing had happened.

"What brought that on?"

"You have to admit not just men are attracted to you. There is bound to have been a woman somewhere in that list of loves that was able to catch your attention. After all, a tall, dark, beautiful warrior dressed in leather with eyes the color of the sky on a summer day and hair as dark as night don't come along every day," the bard spoke as if this was something any idiot knew.

Looking around, self conscious, the warrior replied "I don't think this is a very good time to talk about this."

Finishing her meal, Gabrielle sat back and found herself agreeing. "Okay, but I still want to know. Will you tell me later?"

Before Xena could answer Ademenia approached their table. "Good morning, ladies! I hope you had a good evening. Kiala says you both rested well."

"Yes, thank you. You're daughter took very good care of us," Xena stood. Looking at Gabrielle as if to say, 'aren't you through yet?' Sighing, Gabrielle took a last bite and stood as well.

"Please, don't let me rush you," Ademenia cautioned.

"No, we're finished. Really," the bard looked at Xena pointedly.

Ademenia motioned for them to follow her. Gabrielle met Kiala at the door of the Inn and took possession of their pack and her staff. Walking outside, Ademenia noted, "I know you're probably in a hurry to leave. We kept you longer than you had intended. What I have to say will not take long, Xena."

"I need to get Argo, you can tell us on the way, if you like."

Ademenia looked at Gabrielle, then back to Xena.

"What affects me, "Xena promised, "affects Gabrielle. You can tell us both."

"Very well. As you probably know, I have dreams that foretell what is to happen. As an Oracle this is not always pleasant, but I have no way to stop it. When I am able, I speak with those whose lives will be changed in these dreams. I do not judge them, I merely inform them as was the case with Korbakus. I do not always see all that is to happen. Sometimes only pieces of the past and future are what I see. Even then, I do not always fully understand the meaning of these images." They reached the stables and Xena began to prepare Argo.

"So what have you seen that will change Xena's life?" Gabrielle asked.

Turning to face the younger woman, Ademenia took Gabrielle's chin in her hand, lifting her face. "You have already changed Xena's life, my dear. And you will do more than just change are her redemption," she whispered so only Gabrielle could hear her.

Eyes wide, the small woman looked into eyes that had seen more than she had ever thought possible. As if feeling she had said too much, Ademenia dropped her hand and turned back to Xena. "All that you are now is mainly what has happened in your life, as it is for each of us."

Xena finished with Argo, and faced the older woman. "And...?" Xena asked.

"All that you are is not what you have always believed."

Gabrielle spoke up, "What is that supposed to mean?"

Xena considered the statement. "Is what you are saying that my past is not what it seems to be?"

"Yes. Something is going to happen that will change your life. It will change everything you have known and believed. You will be forced to trust another, Xena, and that trust will need to be complete. Something you have never given anyone, not even your friend."

Ademenia turned to glance at Gabrielle with compassionate eyes. "I don't say that to cause you hurt, Gabrielle."

"I know." Gabrielle answered quietly.

"The key," The Oracle continued, turning back to Xena, "is held by only one."

Xena looked past Ademenia at Gabrielle.

The Oracle did not miss this and corrected, "No. It is not your love. It is the one whom death calls friend. That is all I can say."

Ademenia turned quickly and left them.

Gabrielle walked over to Xena and took her arm. "What was that about?"

Xena was still thinking over the words. "I don't know. I'm not sure I want to know. Lets go, Gabrielle."

Leading Argo out of the stable, they began their interrupted journey to Legosa. A few hours later, with Xena riding and Gabrielle following on foot, the bard was just finishing a story to amuse her warrior. Xena threw her head back and laughed. Bringing Argo to a stop, she jumped down and faced the smiling girl. "Where did you hear that? I didn't even know you knew what that was!"

Gabrielle was pleased she had surprised Xena. "Hey, I get around."

"Yeah, I'll bet," Xena cuffed her on the side of the head.

"Oh, you. I'm not as innocent as I seem. I fell in love with you, didn't I?" Gabrielle stopped when Xena's face became solemn. "Did I say something wrong?"

"No. You don't have any regrets do you, Gabrielle." Xena focused on the rocks below their feet as if they held all the answers in the world.

"Of course, not. How come I'm the only one that knows how sensitive you are?" she teased, pulling Xena's hand into her own.

Xena looked at their joined hands and replied, "Sensitivity doesn't extend a warrior's life."

"Maybe it's about time it did," the young woman offered quietly.

Suddenly remembering what was in the pouch at her side, Xena pulled her hand out of Gabrielle's grasp and reached for the gift. "Close your eyes," she requested. "And hold out your hands."

"How unusual. Is this going to get kinky?"

"No, silly." Xena smiled as she unwrapped the bracelet. She lay the gift in Gabrielle's outstretched hands, then suddenly nervous said, "Okay. Open them."

Gabrielle looked down at the beautiful bracelet she had seen in the shop in Dorian. "Oh, Xena! How did you know?" The young woman jumped into Xena's arms, her own arm's around the warrior's neck, her feet dangling. Hugging her back, Xena said, "I take it you like it."

Letting the joyous woman slide back down to the ground, slowly to enjoy the sensation, Xena watched Gabrielle's face as she looked at the bracelet. "I can't believe this! It's perfect."

"I'm glad you like it, Gabrielle." Xena helped her fasten it around her wrist.

"Come here, you." Sliding her arm up, Gabrielle grabbed the back of Xena's neck, forcing her head down. The kiss was unexpected but lasted long enough to drive Xena's pulse up a notch.

"Uh, maybe we'd better get moving. I don't like standing out here in the open like this," Xena scanned the area to see if anyone was around.

"Oh, right. Sorry, I didn't think about that," Gabrielle apologized. They both began walking again, lost in their own thoughts.

"So, when do you think we'll visit Ephiny and the tribe again?" Gabrielle asked.

"Hmm? I don't know... why?" Xena replied absently.

The excited young woman looked up at the vision walking beside her. "Oh, come on. You know how I am. I'll hardly be able to wait for the ceremony!"

Xena stopped. "What are you talking about?"

Gabrielle kept walking, not noticing that she was leaving the tall woman behind. "Do you think they'll be surprised...?" she stopped talking when she realized no one was there. Turning around she saw Xena standing in the road with a strange look on her face. "What is it? Do you hear someone?" her eyes scanned the trees around them.

"No. Gabrielle, what are you thinking?" Xena asked slowly.

The bard walked back to her, "What do you mean?"

"You're talking about an Amazon ceremony, aren't you," Xena stated.

"Of course I am. Isn't that what happens? I mean, the Amazons aren't known for their relationships with men and they are very traditional in their ceremonies. As far as I know, the joining ceremony is only for Amazons. I am Amazon with my right of caste, and you are treated and accepted as Amazon. Wouldn't that be where we would have the....oops." Gabrielle suddenly realized she was the only one with that thought. "I guess I jumped ahead a little bit, huh."

"You could say that."

Gabrielle hung her head. "I'm sorry, Xena. I guess I misunderstood. I thought your gift was something other than friend to friend." Shaking her head she continued, "this isn't as simple as I thought it would be."

Xena was at a loss. She never expected Gabrielle to think they were ready for something as ritual as the Amazon joining ceremony. Apparently, the young woman had a different opinion.

An uncomfortable silence stretched between them. The day was just beginning to warm up and time was slipping past. Finally, Xena put her free arm around the shorter woman's shoulders and began leading Argo after them. Taking a few steps up the road, Xena carefully explained. "It's not that I don't want that for us, Gabrielle. I just didn't think we were ready for it. The ritual is a very serious thing. This is new for you. Don't you want some time to get used to what is happening?"

"Are you afraid, Xena?" Gabrielle suddenly realized the warrior was just as vulnerable as any woman.

Xena looked into her young love's eyes. "I could never be afraid of spending my life with you."

"Then I don't see the problem," Gabrielle pointed out. "I will tell you this, sweet woman. I was a virgin until I married and I don't see why this would be any different."

That did it. "You mean...?" Xena questioned.

With a smug look on her face Gabrielle replied, "That is exactly what I mean."

Stopping again and considering the situation, the frustrated warrior cried, "By the Gods, you are a stubborn woman."

"Mmmm Hmmm." On that note, Gabrielle the Magnificent defeated Xena, Warrior Princess.

Preview of "Secrets Past"

Third story of the Trilogy

Xena and Gabrielle travel to the Amazons to receive the rite of joining. Ares' has other plans. Hades' must once again foil the God of War's plans to eliminate Gabrielle and reclaim Xena as his Queen. Xena must also deal with a secret from her past that will change what she has believed her life to be.

Coming soon from M. Pappas and J. Covington

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