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Part 2 of 3
by: Yellowjacket and Imbri


Copyright: Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, Argo and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, together with the names, titles and backstory are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. All other characters, the story idea and the story itself are the sole property of the authors. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices.

NOTE: This work remains the © copyright of the original authors. It may not be republished without the authors' consent.

Violence: There is some violence in this story, however it is not *too* graphic. Just a bit more than would be seen in a typical episode of Xena: Warrior Princess. If this will bother you, please use the "BACK" button!

"Mush": This story's kinda mushy in places! If this will bother you, please use the "BACK" button! ; )

OUR THANKS to Anon., Lunacy and Atalanta, who provided very helpful comments and wonderful support!

Enjoy! --



Xena and her brother took turns telling embarrassing stories about each other. Gabrielle laughed heartily at the antics of her two companions. This was the only person, other than herself, who could get away with teasing the warrior. She had known Xena had been close to her younger brother, but seeing them together she could see how much she had underestimated the depth of their bond. She finally saw with utter clarity how devastating Lyceus' loss must have been to Xena and she knew that in less than two days her friend would experience that loss again. The bard unconsciously tightened her hold on Lyceus' waist.

"Are you ok?" he asked, feeling the increased pressure.

"I'm fine." the bard said softly, a tear on the verge of giving away her lie.

"I think we'd better head off the road a little and make camp." Xena said with a concerned look at her friend. Lyceus may have missed the quiver in the bard's voice but it hadn't escaped the warrior.

They headed the horses into the woods, finding a small clearing with a brook trickling down one side. Xena signaled the others to be still, she listened intently to the sounds of the forest. Hearing nothing but the chirping of the birds, she slid from the saddle. "This looks like a good spot." she said, pulling several packs off of Argo's saddle.

Lyceus threw his leg over his horse's neck and jumped to the ground. Turning back, he put his hands on Gabrielle's waist and lifted her down from the horse, gently depositing her on the ground. His heart thumped wildly in his chest, his hands seemed to have a mind of their own as they resisted releasing their hold on the bard.

"Thank you." Gabrielle managed, trying to remember how to speak.

"You're welcome." Lyceus managed in return.

"Why don't you two get camp set up and I'll check the area and see if I can catch us something for dinner." Xena suggested.

"Sure, Xena." Lyceus replied, tearing his eyes and hands off the bard and reaching for the packs Xena was holding. Xena headed into the woods, leaving her brother and her friend to their chores.

Lyceus stripped the saddles from the horses, his eyes constantly stealing glances at the bard as she busied herself with collecting stones and wood for the fire pit. He exchanged his horses' bridle for a halter and tethered her to a tree allowing enough line for the animal to graze a small patch of grass and reach the brook. Argo's bridle he removed without replacing it with a halter, figuring the horse would not wander far from her mistress.

Gabrielle finished the fire pit and rigged a spit over it for cooking. She took the water flasks and walked a little upstream from where the horses had stirred up the sediment in the brook. She filled the skins and took them back to camp, setting one near the fire to be used for cooking and putting the other with their other gear near the saddles.

Having finished tending to the horses, Lyceus helped with a few more chores. They laid out the bed rolls and Lyceus pulled a couple of large logs nearer to the campfire for seating. Gabrielle pulled a small cook pot from a pack and filled it with some water. Delving into the stash of vegetables they had bought in Mysia she started to make a basic stew.

With the camp pretty well established, Lyceus sat on the ground, leaning his back against one of the logs and savoring watching the young woman expertly concoct the start of a hearty meal. He sighed lightly, causing her to look up at him.

"Been a pretty eventful day." she commented, a soft smile lighting her face while her hands continued the meal preparation. Lyceus grinned back.

"It's been so exhilarating... being with Xena...and you. I'd forgotten what it's like... to be alive, to feel the wind and smell the air." He stood and paced the camp euphorically. "The blue of the sky, riding a horse, all these things I loved so much... I can *feel* so much!" Lyceus swept his arm in a wide arc. "Look at this place - this beautiful meadow, the trees, the brook, it's just so wonderful!"

Gabrielle could feel the jubilation from the young man, could feel his appreciation for so much that she took for granted. She set the cook pot on the fire and went to join him as he surveyed his surroundings. She was enjoying seeing their surroundings through his eyes. They stood silently together each relishing the moment.

"I see what you mean." Gabrielle whispered so as not to spoil their reverie. "It really *is* beautiful." she finished, her eyes connecting with his.

Lyceus gazed at her for a moment. "And you're more beautiful than all of it put together." he whispered back, his heart starting to beat faster as he felt himself drowning in her sparkling green eyes. He gently touched her cheek, tilting her head back as he leaned down and gently kissed her once, then again more ardently as he felt her respond to his touch. 'But it's for only two days - what are you *doing*?' seared through his mind.

"I - I'm sorry! I shouldn't have done that." he stammered, embarrassed. Gabrielle held his arm, refusing to let him pull away, knowing instantly what the problem was. She drew him back and gently touched his cheek with her hand.

"Lyceus, don't pull away. It's all right. We both know we don't have a lifetime together." she assured him. Then a shy smile lit the bard's face. "I'm feeling the same attraction for you. I know it's happening fast, but..." she let it trail off, gazing into his eyes.

He returned the smile, his head swimming as he fought from within, wanting nothing more than to kiss the woman he held in his arms, but tormented by the limited future before them.

Gabrielle made the decision for him, raising herself up on tiptoe and touching her lips to his. The kiss was tentative at first, then deepened as she felt him pull her closer. After a moment, he abruptly pulled away again.

"No, we can't do this, Gabrielle. It will only make it harder when the time comes. I want to, but...I'm sorry." he stammered.

Gabrielle looked at him sadly, releasing him. She nodded, her heart nearly breaking. ‘He's right. What am I doing?!' she asked herself severely. What good would it do to make things harder for him...or for herself? The time they would have to say goodbye would come all too quickly. And the gods only knew what would happen between now and then. They still had to face that monster Callisto. Gabrielle walked back to the campfire, fighting back tears.

Lyceus' heart ached at the pain he saw on the bard's face, a face which a moment ago had been radiant with life. He followed her back to the campfire and sat opposite her, not knowing what to say to ease that pain. "Xena should be back soon." he said, trying to change the mood of regrets that hung over them both.

"It doesn't usually take her so long to get something. I hope she hasn't run into any trouble." Gabrielle said, pulling herself together and forcing her attention on something other than her feelings for the man across from her.

"Oh, I'm sure Xena can handle most any trouble she might run into." Lyceus replied.

"Yeah, she's pretty good at taking care of herself - and me, too." Gabrielle grinned. "I can't count how many times she's saved my life. Actually, that's how we met, she saved me and my village from a warlord."

"How did you meet Xena? Will you tell me about it?" he asked, relieved to have a change of subject - anything to keep him distracted from the rage of emotions he was feeling for the beautiful young bard.

Gabrielle brightened at the request.

"Well, the people of my village were being herded together by Draco's men. They wanted to take all the young women to sell into slavery. I tried to offer myself, saying I would go willingly if they would let everyone else go unharmed. But they just laughed, said they were going to take me and anyone else they wanted, too. One of the men reached for me and I slapped him. He pulled out a whip to beat me and suddenly there she was, with an iron grip on the hand that held the whip. Draco's men attacked her but though she was outnumbered ten to one she held them all off, then the villagers rallied and we ran them off."

Lyceus listened raptly to the bard's story, envisioning this young woman's courage at facing the marauding band and his sister's intervention.

"So you two joined together because you were both warriors?"

Gabrielle laughed. "Oh no, I was a lot different then. I had never been in a fight except for a few scuffles with my sister, Lilla. I've learned a lot traveling with Xena, I can now take care of myself and help Xena out in a fight. Back then I was a weak, naive little girl who wanted to get out in the world and live an adventurous life."

Lyceus looked at the bard in disbelief. "How did you manage to talk Xena into letting you travel with her?"

"Because she was a pest I just couldn't seem to get rid of." Xena responded dryly as she walked into view.

"Xena!" the bard scowled affectionately. Lyceus laughed, seeing the obvious affection between the two women. The warrior handed three pheasants to Gabrielle.

"I thought some fowl would be a great feast for dinner tonight."

"This is going to be great! Those spices I picked up in Mysia are going to make this a meal fit for a king!" the bard said enthusiastically, beginning to clean the birds for cooking. Xena sat on the log next to her brother and gladly accepted a hug and kiss from him.

"Well, is anybody going to finish this story?" Lyceus asked impatiently.

"She's the bard." Xena said, neatly sidestepping having to continue the tale.

Gabrielle glanced warmly at her friend and continued the story where she left off. "I followed Xena to Amphipolis, and lucky for her I did because the people there weren't too happy to see her. Draco had ordered his men to attack Amphipolis while carrying the banner of Xena's old army. The villagers thought they were Xena's soldiers and were going to stone her until I jumped in and talked our way out of there."

Lyceus frowned, unhappy to hear of the villagers turning against Xena, but realizing that they certainly had cause to suspect her at the time. Uncomfortable, Xena focused on either Gabrielle or the ground, afraid to see what might lie in her brother's gaze.

"Though Xena was ready to leave the village it seemed Draco had other plans. He gave Xena a choice, he would spare the village if she would either join him or fight him to the death. Xena chose to fight. It was a spectacular fight, before the entire village. Xena finally won and could have killed him as the villagers wanted, but she made him swear that he would not harm them and that he and his men would leave the valley, never to return. The villagers, of course, had now seen that it was Draco's army, not Xena's, that had threatened them and in the end they were really very grateful that she had saved them." Gabrielle got up to put the pheasants on the cooking spit, giving the stew a stir as well. She then sat down on her bedroll, leaning against a log.

Throughout the story, Lyceus had watched the exchange of looks between his sister and her friend, the looks that told a story of their own. It was easy to see that from the day the fates had joined their paths they had come a long way together. A smile crossed his face, silently thanking the gods for enabling his sister to meet such a friend. He had a strong feeling that Gabrielle was a very important guide along his sister's road to redemption.

"So, Xena took you along because you helped her with the villagers of Amphipolis?" Lyceus ventured.

"Not exactly. She had no intention of letting me come with her. But I felt so out of place at home...I needed so much more than quiet village life. I was going to follow Xena until she got in trouble and then I was going to try to help know - make her see that I would be an invaluable traveling partner." Gabrielle grinned, remembering how she stumbled into Xena's camp that first night. She responded to Xena's chuckling by sticking her tongue out at her, then continued. "But I couldn't get a fire started and I was freezing, so I walked into her camp. She said I could stay the night but she was going to send me home in the morning. Lot of good that did, huh?" She shot a smug grin at her friend. "I guess she understood what it feels like to not fit in in your own village, so we started traveling together, it's been almost two years."

"Two years? How have you put up with her this long?" Lyceus laughed.

Xena gave him a playful shove, then smiled at the bard. "It didn't take me too long to see she *was* pretty invaluable." she said warmly.

Lyceus looked at Gabrielle. "Well, I'm glad it worked out. Do you still like life on the road? Do you ever feel like settling down?" he asked.

Gabrielle's face darkened suddenly and she looked down.

Confused, Lyceus looked to Xena for help. She cleared her throat and spoke softly. "Several months ago Gabrielle married. The day after her wedding her husband was killed... by Callisto." Xena explained.

"Oh, I'm so sorry." Lyceus stammered clumsily.

Gabrielle shook her head quickly. "No, don't apologize. It's okay, you didn't know." she said forgivingly. "We'll have to talk about it anyway. We have to discuss Callisto." She started, but Xena held up her hand.

"Tell you what...why don't we leave the discussion about Callisto until tomorrow? Tonight I just want to enjoy the company of my brother and my best friend." Xena suggested.

Lyceus nodded. "I certainly agree with that. Tonight is just for us to be together. Let's make the best of the time we have. Gabrielle, how about another story? Why don't you tell me where you got that staff, it looks rather unusual?"

The bard brightened and laughed lightly. "Well, there *is* a pretty good story about my staff. I guess I should start by telling you that I'm the Queen of the Amazons..."

"Queen of the Amazons?" Lyceus roared with laughter. "Now I know you're pulling my leg! The Queen of the Amazons would be a fierce warrior." His amusement abruptly ended when he saw the scowl on Gabrielle's face, then the matching scowl on Xena's. He gulped, immediately growing serious. "It -- it's the truth? She's Queen of the Amazons?" He stammered. Xena nodded her head in confirmation. Lyceus' jaw dropped as he tried to figure a way to dig himself out of the hole he had just thrown himself into. "I'm sorry." he said weakly. Gabrielle's face softened.

"That's okay." the bard replied patiently. "Let me explain." She related the story of the death of Teraes and her inheritance of the right of caste. She continued on with Xena's death, the death of Melosa, the problems with Velaska, Xena's resurrection and their unlikely alliance with Callisto.

Throughout the story Lyceus stared raptly at the bard, throwing occasional startled looks towards his sister, who merely nodded in affirmation and grinned broadly at his incredulous expression.

"So, there you have it, that's how I got my staff and became Queen of the Amazons." Gabrielle concluded. Lyceus' head spun at the extraordinary tale he'd just heard, but above all he was certain that to this courageous, generous, loyal and determined woman belonged his heart.

Gabrielle rose to check on dinner. "Looks like it's done," she announced. Pulling three wooden bowls from a saddlebag, she handed one to Xena and one to Lyceus. They all helped themselves to the pheasant and stew.

"Well, now you know the *real* reason why I let her travel with me, Gabrielle is a great cook." Xena said with a twinkle in her eye.

They all ate heartily, when all were done it was Lyceus who collected the bowls, overruling Xena's and Gabrielle's protests arguing that since the bard had cooked and Xena had hunted it only seemed fair that he should do the clean up. He headed to the stream to clean the bowls and other utensils, feeling happy and contented in his domestic role. 'But it's for only two days...' a voice from within intruded. He looked back to the camp, observing the bard and his sister as they cheerfully jested with each other beside the campfire, his heart capturing the moment, to be savored for eternity.

Lyceus returned to camp, storing the bowls and utensils back in the saddle packs. He sat next to the bard on her bedroll, put his arm around her shoulders and gave her a kiss on the cheek. "Dinner was delicious. Thank you."

Gabrielle blushed, partly from the compliment, partly from the kiss, but mostly from the closeness of his body. "Your welcome." she managed, her heart racing at his touch. 'Gods... I feel like a giddy teenager! Someone hasn't made me feel this way in a *long* time - and it's happening so quickly!' she thought, amazed. Suddenly, she realized Xena was speaking to her. She looked at Xena, flushing slightly at the sly grin on her friend's face.

"I asked if you were still with us?" Xena asked, a twinkle in her eyes.

" Just a little tired, I guess. I'm gonna lie down, I think." she murmured, slowly sliding down till she was laying on her bedroll. Lyceus patted his thigh, inches from her face.

"Lay your head here - ground's hard." he offered. Smiling shyly at him, Gabrielle did just that. After a few moments, she felt his hand gently caressing her forehead. Though she thought it would be impossible to sleep, she felt herself relaxing while listening to the conversation that ensued between Lyceus and Xena.

Xena told her brother about her encounter with Hercules and how he had changed her life. She then related her plan to spend the rest of her life trying to atone for the innocents she had harmed, driven to wander by the guilt she felt, not sure if her efforts would ever save her from the eternity in Tartarus she felt she had earned.

Lyceus could see the pain in his sister's eyes and knew no matter what she did, she would never forgive herself and release her guilt. "Just keep trying, Xena. In the end it's what's in our hearts by which we are judged."

"I hope you're right." Xena replied softly, standing. "It's getting late. I'm going to check on the horses and check the area again before I turn in." She picked up her sword and headed off to the horses.

"She feels guilty... about your death," Gabrielle whispered.

Lyceus nodded sadly. "I know. That's all I hear, just about every time she thinks of me." he replied.

Gabrielle turned to look up at him, her eyes pleading. "Can you talk to her about it? She'll listen to you."

"Well, I'm not sure about that, but yes I will, when she comes back." he assured her, giving her a gentle kiss on the forehead. "You should get some rest."

She reached for his hand and held it in her own, sighing softly. She was soon sound asleep. Lyceus watched the sleeping bard, regretting that he had never been in love. But now, gazing into Gabrielle's face, the realization hit him hard that *this* was the woman he could so easily fall in love with. So easily...he closed his eyes as a wave of sadness washed over him. 'Why couldn't I have met her before? Why did this have to happen *now*?' Now, when the woman he cradled gently in his lap and his sister were to face a mad woman with the powers of a god. Now, when he had a reason to want to live forever but knew he had but a day and a half left. He sighed and tenderly touched the bard's cheek, pledging to himself that he would do anything he had to do to keep her safe.

Lyceus heard a slight rustle in the brush and tensed until Xena emerged from the darkness into the light of the campfire.

"She's asleep." he whispered, signaling her over to sit by him. Xena sat on the log near her brother. He held out his hand which she clasped tightly. "Quite a friend you have here."

Xena smiled softly. "Yes, I know. When the fates took you from me I thought I'd never be able to let anyone get close again. But then came Gabrielle...eager, bright, brave beyond her years... I don't know what she saw in me. I was so dark and brooding when we met... but she kept pushing me. She has faith in me, just like the faith you had when you followed me to your death." Xena swallowed painfully. "I worry that perhaps someday she will follow me to hers." she finished, her voice barely a whisper.

Lyceus locked eyes with his sister, seeing the obvious struggle she fought, wanting her friend with her but also aware of the danger it entailed. He squeezed her hand.

"Xena, stop. Death is not the worst outcome - giving up fighting for your beliefs because of fear is. We fought to defend our home and I died. But I'd do it again, knowing that outcome, before I would give up and run. I *didn't* follow you to my death. It wasn't your fault. I made my choice to defend our home and took the consequences. And Gabrielle would do the same. You can't hold yourself responsible for the choices others make."

"It's not the same, Lyceus. Defending Amphipolis, that *was* your fight, your home to defend. Gabrielle is put in great danger fighting *my* fights, righting *my* wrongs. Sometimes I want to send her away so she would be safe. But then... I don't know what I would do without her. Every time I've felt lonely or afraid, every time I've felt tempted by Ares, every time I've needed someone, she's been there for me. No matter how hard it's been, no matter how dangerous, she's been there."

"Xena, something that has bothered me since I passed over was that I felt I had left you alone. When I was hearing the stories of what you were doing, it broke my heart to not be able to stop you from making those mistakes. But now I know there is someone good beside you. If I can't be here with you, at least I know that you have Gabrielle. I watched the two of you together today. There's something special between you two and I know that if you tried to send her away for her own safety she wouldn't go. She obviously is committed to helping you fight for good - and for the good inside you. And I don't think the powers of all the gods put together could stop her." They both shared a smile at the bard's tenacious personality.

"Separately you can do a lot of good, but together you can do so much more..." Lyceus smiled at his sister proudly. "You can change the world - make it a better place. Don't fight destiny, Xena... not yours, or hers." he finished quietly.

"You always were the wise one." Xena hugged her brother, giving him a kiss and a warm smile. "We'd better get some sleep. I'd like to get to Callisto's fortress in daylight so I can see without having to get too close. We'd better get an early start."

They had been riding for almost an hour, Gabrielle again riding behind Lyceus. The weather was cooler than the day before making for a pleasant day, almost deluding the trio into thinking they were on their way to a picnic, not a showdown with a madwoman.

Lyceus and Gabrielle kept the talk lively each taking turns telling stories of their most harrowing experiences. Naturally enough, Xena seemed to be a part of all the stories.

The warrior scowled at her companions from time to time - not that she wasn't amused by their stories, she just didn't want to let on that she was.

Surprisingly, it was Gabrielle who broached the subject they'd been avoiding. "Well...I guess we need to talk about Callisto and how we're going to deal with her."

Xena tensed, the name immediately reminding her of the most gruesome result of her own days as a warlord - the murderous, twisted woman born of the unintentional destruction of a village by Xena's army. A woman who delighted in slaying the innocent, claiming that Xena was responsible for making her what she was and therefore Xena was responsible for what she did.

Lyceus sighed. "Yes, you'd better tell me about her. Why is she so obsessed with you two?"

Gabrielle started to speak but Xena held up her hand to silence her. "This is my tale to tell." she said sadly. Taking a deep breath, a resolute expression on her face, she began. "About ten years ago my army raided a town called Cirra. My men had their orders, which were not to harm women or children and to kill the men only if they resisted. Somehow, in the confusion, a fire started. The houses were close together and it was a windy day. The fire raced through the entire village, the straw and wooden huts bursting into flames. The people were huddled in their houses, too afraid of my army to come out. Nearly everyone in the village died... all except a handful... which included a little girl crying as she heard the death screams of her mother and sister from their burning home."

"I take it that little girl was Callisto?" Lyceus asked quietly. Xena nodded with a sigh.

"Callisto. She grew up with hatred raging in her heart, hatred of me. She trained herself in weapons and fighting techniques, driven with a singleness of purpose that one day she would make me suffer as she had suffered. Somewhere in her twisted mind she decided that she would kill just for the sake of killing. Men, women, children ... her goal was to kill as many as possible. In her mind it was not she who was to blame for this, it was me. She reasoned that I am to blame because I made her that way. And, to a certain degree, I agree with her." The warrior admitted sadly.

"Xena, it is *not* your fault. Callisto is responsible for her own actions." Gabrielle protested.

Xena ignored the bard's comments and pressed on. "Finally, she was ready. She had put together an army and had been raiding villages, always leaving one survivor with the message that the village had been destroyed by Xena, the Warrior Princess. Gabrielle and I heard the stories that "Xena" was destroying villages and we went to investigate. We found her in the middle of raiding a village. She was obviously insane, reveling in the bloodbath around her and taking particular delight in telling me that I was responsible for the surrounding carnage. She said she was going to make my name feared and hated and she would destroy everything I loved as I had destroyed everything that she had loved."

Lyceus shook his head is disbelief. "How could she so easily kill people who had done nothing to her?"

"Because she has nothing in her heart but hate." Gabrielle responded, disgust in her voice.

Xena continued telling about the assassination attempt on the Oracle at Delphi and how she had foiled Callisto's plan and put her in jail. She then related the tale of the jail break and Callisto's abduction of Gabrielle. "Callisto had threatened to destroy my soul and she had figured out how she could do just that...she could kill Gabrielle." the warrior said, a protective glance to her friend. "While Gabrielle dangled by a rope high over a spiked pit, a torch slowly burning it's way through the rope, Callisto fought to keep me from getting to her. I managed to rescue Gabrielle and put Callisto and her army in jail but eventually they managed to break out." Xena then looked to her friend hesitantly, knowing that the hardest part of the story was coming next.

Gabrielle looked pained, steadying herself for the story of the death of Perdicus. She nodded to Xena. "Go ahead...finish it." she said quietly.

Drawing a deep breath, Xena continued. "About six months ago, Perdicus, the man that Gabrielle was once betrothed to, found us. He said he still loved her and wanted to marry her. Gabrielle was stunned, needed time to think. In the meantime, we received word that Callisto had escaped and was back on her path of destruction. We found her army attacking a village and fought to drive them off. Perdicus wanted to stop fighting, regretting that he ever took another's life, so he threw down his sword. Gabrielle decided that he was the man she wanted to marry after all. They were married the next day. After the wedding I left to find Callisto." Xena paused, memories of what happened next flooding back to her.

"When I found her camp she wasn't there. One of her men told me she had left when she heard I was traveling alone. I knew immediately where she went... she went after Gabrielle." Xena stopped, glancing once again to her friend. Gabrielle nodded again, urging her to finish, her eyes bright with tears.

"I rushed back. Perdicus was on the ground, stunned, and Callisto was about to kill Gabrielle. I stood between them, knowing that she didn't want me dead, she wanted to see me suffer. She knew she'd never get to Gabrielle with me there. It was a stand off. Then Perdicus recovered enough to stand and drew her attention. I saw an evil smile cross her face and realized too late what her intentions were. She killed him in cold blood. 'That will do.' she said with that insane laugh of hers. Then she rode off." Xena looked downward, wishing for the hundredth time that she could've done *something* - prevented Perdicus' death somehow.

Lyceus, his heart in this throat, squeezed Gabrielle's hand tightly. He turned in the saddle to look at the bard compassionately. "Gabrielle... I'm so sorry." He whispered.

"I wanted to kill her." Gabrielle spoke softly, a hard edge to her voice. "My heart raged for revenge for Perdicus. I pressured Xena into showing me how to use a sword. I wanted Callisto to die by my hand. Xena kept trying to talk me out of it, saying that Callisto was too good, she would kill me. In my grief I wouldn't listen. I convinced Xena that I was giving up on the idea of going after Callisto and was going to go home to grieve, but I snuck into Callisto's camp when they were all asleep." Gabrielle expelled a shaky breath, remembering the moment.

"I had a sword at her throat and found at that moment that I couldn't do it. I can't kill... not even her. She woke up and I was caught. When Xena came in Callisto's men pretended to be asleep, but they ambushed her and since they had me with a knife to my throat she surrendered. They tied Xena up and tied me to a stake, intending to burn me to death with Xena watching. She broke free, freed me and we dealt with most of Callisto's men. But Callisto escaped."

Xena took up the story. "I took off after Callisto. She had taken off down the beach in a chariot. I grabbed another and raced after her, eventually catching up. I jumped to her chariot and we fought. Then finally we ended up falling out, rolling down a sand dune and landing in a bed of quicksand. Using my whip, I was able to pull myself out. Callisto pleaded with me to rescue her...but I knew she would never end her vendetta against me. She would kill more innocents...she would try again and again to kill Gabrielle. I decided to let her die." she concluded softly.

Lyceus looked at his sister, seeing the turmoil and guilt the decision held for her. "But she's alive... so she didn't die?" he asked, confused.

Xena shook her head. "She *did* die. She was sentenced to Tartarus, but with the help of Ares she returned, invading my body through the dreamscape and sending me to the Underworld in her place."

Xena told of the struggle to reclaim her body and vanquish Callisto once again to the Underworld.

Lyceus looked even more confused. "Wait a minute... so how is she alive now?" he asked, perplexed.

"Hera freed her from the Underworld on condition that she kill Hercules. Hercules escaped, leaving Callisto trapped in a cave. But Callisto had eaten a fruit from the tree of life and became immortal. When the Amazons had the problem with Velaska we told you about yesterday I made a deal with Callisto for her help against Velaska. Callisto got the ambrosia which made her a god, but then we trapped her in the lava pit. Now she's back and she's even less thrilled with us than ever." Xena explained.

Lyceus let out a slow breath, reeling from the incredible story he'd just heard, concern for his sister and the bard heightened to a fevered pitch. Then the full impact of what he had just heard sunk in. "Hold on! So Hades expects you two to just walk in and surrender to an insane woman with the powers of a god?" he asked, his anger towards the deity rising.

"That's the plan." Xena confirmed stoically.

Lyceus reined his horse to a halt, shaking his head. "You can't do it, she'll kill you both instantly!" He protested, his voice cracking with alarm. Hades has got to be crazy! I thought this was bad, but after what you just told me...gods! That maniac will stop at nothing to destroy you!"

"Lyceus...c'mon, we're going to figure something out." Gabrielle said encouragingly, trying to sound braver than she felt.

Xena pulled Argo around and rode back to them. She put a comforting hand on her brother's arm. "Actually, no, she won't kill us instantly. She'll want to have some perverse fun toying with us. She wants more than anything to see me suffer and that means the person in the most immediate danger is Gabrielle. Callisto knows that the most effective torture for me would be to hurt Gabrielle and make me watch. The only good thing is that she likes big spectacles. She'll have something elaborate planned and that will buy us some time to react."

Lyceus put a protective hand over Gabrielle's which were wrapped around his waist. He looked at his sister, bewildered. "How can you take her in there, Xena? How can you put her in such danger?"

"Lyceus..." Gabrielle spoke softly, but firmly from behind him. "Persephone must be saved, too much depends on her. There's no choice, we *have* to do this. We'll get through this, somehow. Xena will figure something out."

Xena flashed a smile at her friend, admiring the woman's bravery and appreciating the unwavering faith the woman placed in her. Her smile faded for a moment as she fervently hoped she would repay that faith by saving her friend's life. Then she forced a confident smile to her lips, looking at her brother.

"We'll get through this, all right. I have my secret weapon - you. I also have a plan, of sorts. Let's get going, I'll tell you what I have in mind." Pulling Argo around, she set their course towards their destiny.

Lyceus reluctantly followed his sister as she explained her plan, his concern for her and Gabrielle's safety deepened as he realized the extent to which it depended on him. They discussed Xena's plan thoroughly, Lyceus and Gabrielle adding their suggestions, as they rode towards the inevitable confrontation.

Approaching a fork in the road they looked at one another, realizing from Gabrielle's directions that they were nearing the fortress and their peaceful time together was running out. They looked longingly down the fork to the right, the road that would take them away from the danger. They took the road to the left, the road that led to Callisto.

"We'd better be more careful from now on." Lyceus advised. "Callisto might have lookouts posted watching for you."

"One thing about Callisto, she was always overconfident and I'm sure with her powers she's not too concerned about setting up much of a defense. I'm guessing she won't have anyone posted this far out. At least I hope she doesn't because if she finds out about you our plans will be ruined." Xena replied.

They rode almost solemnly, the tension clearly building as the trio scanned the forest for movement. Coming to the crossroads at the shrine to Aphrodite, Xena pulled Argo to a halt and dismounted, Lyceus and Gabrielle dismounted as well.

"This is as far as we can go together." Xena said sadly. "I think you two should wait here. I'll scout ahead on foot and see how close I can get to the fortress to try to see what we're walking into. I'll probably wait until it's dark before I can get close enough to see anything."

"Can't we all stay together?" Gabrielle asked worriedly.

"No, we'd be too easily spotted." Xena responded.

"Let me go with you." Lyceus offered quickly. His sister shook her head.

"No, we can't afford the chance that you might be seen before we're ready. The one chance that we'll have is the element of surprise. If Callisto finds out who you are then this turns into a suicide mission. Besides, I want you to stay here to protect Gabrielle."

Gabrielle stepped forward and hugged the warrior, fear suddenly rising in her. "Be careful." she said, quietly. Xena gave her a firm hug in return.

"It'll be okay." She told her friend confidently.

Gabrielle nodded, reluctantly letting her go.

Xena hugged and kissed her brother. "Protect her." she whispered into his ear.

"With my life." he whispered back, returning the embrace and kiss. "I love you." he added.

The words hit Xena with simultaneous sadness, guilt, relief, and joy. 'After all I've done, you can still say that...' she thought wonderingly. "I love you, too." she said aloud, an emotional crack in her voice. Then she pulled herself from her brother's embrace and walked to her horse, pushing down the emotions and calling on the stoic warrior within.

Xena took a waterskin from Argo's pack, slipping it's carrying strap over her shoulder. "Set up camp down in those woods." she pointed off towards a thick stand of trees. "I'll find you. Don't light a fire, we don't want to draw anyone's attention." Though her words were now in the emotionless tone of the commanding warlord, her stomach was in knots in fear for her gentle friend and the knowledge that the time she had with her brother was growing short. She strode into the forest towards the fortress, grim determination pushing her on.

Gabrielle and Lyceus stood watching the forest until Xena had disappeared from sight. Gabrielle walked to the shrine to Aphrodite, she looked at the stone image of the goddess, a look of disdain on her face. Lyceus joined Gabrielle before the statue, sliding his arm around the bard's shoulders.

"The goddess of love." the bard commented sardonically. "Every time she blesses me, she curses me. First Talus, then Perdicus, and now...." Realizing what she was about to say, she flushed and fell silent. Clearing her throat, she continued. "I met Aphrodite once. She was absolutely oblivious to the pain that she could cause, making people fall in love, toying with the emotions of mortals. I'm starting to hope that she leaves me alone." She finished softly.

Lyceus shook his head gently. "No, Gabrielle, don't say that. Being in love... the passion, the joy, even the heartache is what makes the mortal world so wonderful - that's what I miss the most. In the Elysian Fields it's peaceful and serene, but I'd give anything to be alive again ... to have years to relish those emotions, years to spend loving one woman... " Lyceus felt his chest tighten, thinking he probably had his arm around the woman he could love for a lifetime.

Gabrielle glanced at him and their eyes locked, each feeling a powerful longing for the other. Gabrielle reached a hand up to gently trace the line of his jaw. 'He is so wonderful. I, *stop*, Gabrielle!' the bard told herself silently. With an effort, she pulled away from him, knowing that if they continued to touch she would throw herself at him. That wasn't something that should happen, she decided. 'I can't believe I'm thinking what I'm thinking after only a *day*!' she chided herself, then looked at the man before her again. 'Yet I feel like I've known him forever, somehow.' She looked away again with a sigh. Their time was growing short - why make things harder? She forced a short laugh, moving reluctantly away from him.

"Think about it - 'falling' in love...the phrase even *suggests* it's going to hurt like Hades." The bard tried to keep her voice light, but Lyceus heard the slight crack in it.

He gazed at her sadly, his thoughts of what could so easily happen between them mirroring hers. ‘So tempting... yet it would only make parting more painful.' he reasoned. After all, it was for only two days that he was granted time in the mortal coil and now he had less than a day left.

"It does, doesn't it?" he agreed.

"We'd better find a place to camp." Gabrielle suggested, finding a lump growing in her throat. Taking hold of Argo's reins, she headed for the tree line. Lyceus picked up his horse's reins and followed, struggling once again against his desire for the bard.

Xena moved quickly from cover to cover. She had stayed well within the tree line that paralleled the road. When she came to a bridge over a shallow river she took special care to watch for lookouts but she could find none. She chose to ford the river a little ways downstream rather than risk being spotted crossing the bridge. Once across, she doubled back up to the bridge but still could not find lookouts on that side of the river either.

"Your overconfidence will be your undoing, Callisto." she muttered to herself. Looking to the north, Xena could see the fortress. A large open field lay between her position and the fortress. She cursed at having to take a long way around to the east to stay under cover.

Having hiked through the forest for almost an hour, Xena found herself within an arrow's flight of Callisto's lair. Although she had seen only one guard lounging lazily at the entry gate she couldn't take the risk of approaching any closer in daylight. As it was, she was close enough to see plenty.

The fortress had obviously been abandoned for quite a long time. What was left of the gates hung wide open - obviously a battering ram had been used successfully in a massive attack on the structure. The battlements appeared to have been severely damaged, the boulders and blocks of stone strewn around what was left of the walls attesting to the use of catapults in breaching the fortress. Nature had already started reclaiming the site as thick vines threaded their way along the stonework.

From her vantage point Xena could see inside the main gate. Most of the smaller structures had been burned to the ground. What remained was a large masonry structure at the center of the compound. "Ah, home sweet home, eh Callisto?" she whispered.

The forest afforded her cover as she continued her survey. Finally, she settled herself in to watch for movements within the walls and to wait for nightfall when she might venture closer under the cover of dark.

Lyceus sat drawing a sharpening stone along his sword, occasionally stealing a longing glance at Gabrielle who occupied herself fastidiously brushing Argo. The silence hung heavy between them. Argo snorted in irritation, having tired of the excessive attention to her grooming. Taking the hint from the horse, Gabrielle packed the brush away. After a long, uncomfortable look, she went and sat next to Lyceus, resting her hand lightly on his thigh.

"I don't want it to be like this. I don't want things to be strained between us. Not in the short time we have left together." she said haltingly.

His heart thumped in his chest as the touch of her hand sent an electric wave coursing through his body. He set the sword and stone aside and stared at the ground. "Gabrielle..." he started sadly. "I'm thinking things I probably shouldn't be. You're wonderful - I'm finding myself incredibly attracted to you." He looked up at her with a lopsided grin which nearly melted her, then sobered. "But I know anything between us is going to end before it gets started. I have to go back..." he finished sadly.

Gabrielle nodded quickly, grasping his hand. "I know you have to go back." she responded, then smiled shyly. "And as I told you before, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't feeling the same things you were. But I know if anything were to... happen... it would make our goodbyes that much worse. I - I just wish things were different. This just isn't fair." she said, her heart aching.

He gave the hand grasping his a gentle squeeze. "I know." he replied quietly. "Gabrielle, I don't won't to hurt you...I don't want to hurt myself. Gods..." he rasped, running a hand through his hair. He looked at her with a small, sad smile.

"You talked about 'falling' before...I think it *is* going to hurt like Hades when we both land."

Gabrielle returned the sad smile. "Well, we'd better at least try to hold each other up, then."

Lyceus kissed her gently on the forehead and wrapped his arms around her, holding her close.

Xena waited patiently for a cloud to cross the face of the full moon to conceal her approach to the fortress. She had spent nearly two hours observing the fortress for signs of it's inhabitants. Other than the guard at the front gate and his replacement when his watch ended, she hadn't seen any other sign of life.

Finally, the cloud cover obscured the moon, providing her the extra darkness she was waiting for. She sprinted towards the wall of the fortress. She crouched at the base of the wall, listening for any alarm that would be raised had she been spotted. Satisfied that their vigilance was as lackadaisical as it appeared, she tested the vines which twined their way to the top of the wall. The pock-marked wall along with the vines afforded an easy climb to the top of the battlement.

The moon had emerged from behind the clouds and from her vantage point atop the wall Xena could see a makeshift corral holding about a dozen horses. She felt a little relieved knowing that Callisto hadn't recruited a large army to surround herself with. Of course, being a goddess, she'd probably be thinking she didn't need an army at all except maybe to worship her and provide for her perverse amusement.

The lack of sentinels greatly troubled the warrior. Callisto was indeed supremely confident in her powers and such confidence was probably not unfounded. Her stomach twisted at the sinking thought that her plan was doomed, that nothing could stop the insane goddess. Xena's thoughts then turned to Gabrielle, her dearest friend who trusted her with her life. The bard was prepared to follow her here without hesitation to face the monster that Xena herself had created.

The warrior felt a claw of fear crawl up from her belly and clutch her heart in an iron grip. Her chest tightening, she sat down hard, realizing that she was trying to peer at the fortress through eyes that had unexpectedly filled with tears.

She covered her face with her hands, a feeling of fear nearly overwhelming her that she would fail, the fear that Gabrielle would pay with her life for a mistake that was utterly her own. 'Gods, she doesn't deserve this - any of this!' Xena whispered to herself. 'She shouldn't be in the name of Zeus am I going to protect her this time?' After a moment, she shook herself forcefully. 'Xena, get a grip on yourself! What's the matter with you? An ex-warlord, sitting here like a scared rabbit, ready to cry like a baby!' she hissed inwardly. Pushing away her morbid thoughts she remembered the bard's words: 'There's no choice, we have to do this. We'll get through this, somehow. Xena will figure something out.' Xena prayed she could live up to her friend's faith in her.

Again galvanized into action, Xena made her way along the battlements, finding a staircase she descended to the inner courtyard. Careful to keep within the shadow of the wall, she worked her way to a side entrance to the main building. Not surprisingly, the door was missing and no guard was present. Xena ignored the knot of apprehension starting to twist within her again. 'It's going to be all right, Gabrielle. By the gods, you're *not* going to pay the price for my mistakes...' she thought grimly to herself. She moved inside, determined to find out as much as she could about what they would be facing.

The two were still huddled together, talking quietly. Gabrielle lightly stroked the arm Lyceus had encircling her waist, then turned her gaze to him.

"Having to say goodbye to each other is going to hurt, no matter what. I guess we should just be thankful for the time we've had together, right? At least we got the chance to meet." The bard prompted softly.

Lyceus sighed, looked into her eyes for a long moment, then nodded. "You're right. Doesn't help much though, does it?" He muttered ruefully.

She smiled sadly at him. " doesn't." She agreed, then looked up at the sky, noting the position of the moon. She patted Lyceus' arm. "I'd better get a meal started. Xena should be back soon." she said, forcing a light note to her voice. He smiled at her and stood, pulling her with him.

"Can I help?" he offered.

"No, thanks... not much to do anyway, without a fire." she replied, returning the smile.

"Okay...I'm going to take a look around."

Gabrielle retrieved Argo's saddlepack and pulled out bread, raw vegetables and the smoked meat they had purchased in Mysia what seemed like an eternity ago. She delved through another pack, ferreting out a stash of a sweet, nutty confection she had bought when Xena wasn't looking. She smiled guiltily at her subterfuge, knowing that Xena would look askance at such a frivolous expenditure. She glanced over the meager meal, there was not much more she could do without a fire to cook on, it would have to do.

Lyceus paced, scanning the woods for any sign of movement, anxious about his sister's prolonged absence. "Maybe I should go look for her." he suggested.

Gabrielle could understand his anxiety as she could feel it herself, but they had been told to wait and she certainly didn't want to incur Xena's ire for not following instructions. "Xena said to wait. I think it's best we do just that and not get separated at this point."

"But it's getting pretty late, the sun's been down almost three hours..." he continued anxiously.

Gabrielle walked to where the man peered into the forest. "Lyceus, she'll be here. There's no need to worry." the bard reassured him, fighting her own sense of dread.

Argo nickered softly, her ears at attention, her eyes searching the surrounding woods. Lyceus drew his sword, as alert to the sounds of the woods as their equine companion. A bird called twice, paused and then twice again.

Gabrielle smiled. "It's Xena." she said, mimicking the call several times until a similar call in reply told her the warrior knew which direction she should follow to the camp.

Xena emerged from the trees, the scowl of concern etched across her brow defeated by the smile that crossed her face at the sight of her brother and her friend. She could easily read the look of relief on both of their faces at her return. "You two weren't worried about me, were you?" she asked, comically pretending offense at the implied lack of confidence.

Gabrielle grinned. "Worried? Nah, we were just enjoying a little.... nocturnal bird watching. Right, Lyceus?" She eyed the young man shyly.

Lyceus took up the playful banter, a blush creeping over his cheeks. "Yeah, and you just scared away some beautiful specimens with your thrashing about in the woods like that." He said in mock annoyance.

Xena laughed lightly, reached out and ruffled her brother's hair. "So, what have you two been doing while I was gone?" she asked inquisitively.

Gabrielle and Lyceus squirmed at the warrior's question, exchanging embarrassed glances. It was almost as if the warrior knew what feelings the two had been warring with.

", we were, ya know, just bird watching, like we said." the bard stammered, a flush now creeping up her cheeks.

Xena looked from her friend to her brother, now noticing his slightly reddened face. 'For an extremely creative bard that was quite a bad lie.' she thought, wondering if the guilty looks across their faces meant something had actually happened - or they were just *thinking* about it. Another stab of pain shot through her at the thought that these two would soon be parted.

"Are you hungry? We've been waiting for you to get back to eat." The bard spoke quickly, breaking into her thoughts.

"I'm famished." the warrior admitted with a grateful smile, gladly following the rather blunt change of subject. "Let's eat. We can talk about what I've seen at the fortress later."

Though they weren't able to light a fire the full moon provided a cool radiance that gave them sufficient illumination to see. The threesome dawdled over the unremarkable dinner fare, but the bard's eyes twinkled when she presented the clandestine dessert.

"Ah, I was wondering when we were going to get to the goodies." Xena grinned.

"You knew I had this?" the bard asked, disappointed that she hadn't been as sly as she had thought.

"Of course." the warrior affirmed, a smug smile playing on her face. "You'll have to be sneakier than that if you want to get something past me... especially something like this."

"Next time, Xena, next time." the bard replied cockily. Xena raised an eyebrow, comically accepting the challenge.

Lyceus sat between the bard and his sister, watching as they took up what was apparently an ongoing debate about Gabrielle's performing in taverns. They both seemed determined to drag him into the fracas as an arbiter. He felt himself on precarious ground between his formidable sister and the indomitable bard.

"Lyceus, wouldn't you agree that it's ridiculous for her to take chances in a rough tavern when she can avoid it by performing in the market square?" Xena pressured her brother to agree with her.

"Yeah, that seems like a reasonable alternative." Lyceus agreed uncertainly.

"I can earn five times more money in a tavern as I can in the market square, meaning I don't have to perform very often to meet our needs." the bard countered.

"Well, that sounds practical." Lyceus supported.

"But there always seems to be a fight in the taverns. It's just not safe." Xena argued persuasively.

"Well, maybe it isn't worth the extra money if there's always trouble." Lyceus waffled uneasily.

"The *trouble* usually starts because she's so darn overprotective! Somebody starts some drunken heckling and right away she's got them by the throat, thrown them across the room or cut off the flow of blood to their brain!" the bard accused, a triumphant gleam in her eye.

Lyceus looked to his sister, expectantly waiting for her rebuttal.

"So it's *my* fault?" Xena asked with amused indignation.

"Yep, it's *your* fault." the bard retorted, smugly feeling that victory was near.

Xena looked thoughtful for a moment. She knew her friend was right, but just didn't want to admit it and give Gabrielle the satisfaction of winning the argument. Besides, it *was* still more dangerous in taverns - more potential for trouble. Still...

Lyceus grinned at his sister's obvious dilemma. "You're in an indefensible position, Xena. I suggest surrender - maybe she'll take prisoners." he chuckled. "I, of course, would volunteer myself. It's the least I could do." He finished expansively, winking at Gabrielle.

Xena rolled her eyes. "How very brave of you. Traitor!" she hissed comically at her brother.

Gabrielle giggled, then looked at Xena thoughtfully for a moment. "Look, Xena, why don't we try an experiment? The next time I perform in a tavern and someone starts heckling, you stay out of it and let me handle any trouble. I'll let you know if I need help." Gabrielle suggested, offering her friend a graceful way out.

Xena sighed, clearly not liking the deal but having no other choice at the moment if she wanted a peaceful resolution for the evening. She nodded her acquiescence.

"Glad that's settled!" the bard cheerily effused, reveling in her victory.

"For now." Xena muttered softly under her breath.

A heavy silence fell over the trio. They had been avoiding discussion of the events to come, but seemed to realize they could avoid it no longer. With a deep sigh, Lyceus took the plunge.

"What does the fortress look like, Xena? What are we walking into?"

The cheerful playfulness that Xena had displayed evaporated in an instant, replaced by the stern tactical countenance of the Warrior Princess. The warmth of her eyes gave way to a cold hardness as she impassively reported what she had seen.

"As I thought, she has no defenses set up. There's only one guard at the gate. She's pretty sure of herself - doesn't expect an attack. I counted twelve horses in the corral. A few of her men might have walked in, so I'd imagine she has maybe fifteen, twenty men at the most. I'd expect she might have a few men posted tomorrow as lookouts, just to relay news of our arrival. I'd doubt anyone would try to stop us, though. After all, we're invited guests."

"You and I could take on fifteen or twenty men, Xena. Any chance that we could try a surprise attack and free Persephone?" Lyceus asked, hoping to find a way to at least keep Gabrielle out of harm's way.

Xena shook her head. "I'm afraid not. I managed to get a look into the great hall. Persephone is chained in a chair with several of Callisto's men stationed within a sword's length of her. I saw her... Callisto." A look of revulsion crossed her face as she spoke the demented goddess' name. "She was euphoric, giving orders to her men about arranging everything for her 'guests' as though she were hosting a solstice festival. The preparations seemed to be focused in the lower level. Unfortunately, I couldn't find any way down there besides the door from the great hall."

The frown on Gabrielle's brow deepened. "So that's it... we're going to have to just walk in there."

"Yes...right through the front door." Xena said distastefully.

"There must be something we can do." Lyceus agonized. "Let's go over it again, Xena. What exactly does this place look like?"

Xena described every inch she had seen of the fortress. She and Lyceus proposed plan after plan, contingency after contingency. The moon seemed to sail across the sky as they continued strategizing on the imminent confrontation. Finally, Xena and Lyceus had to admit there wasn't anything else they could do but to go with their previous plan and hope that things went their way.

Gabrielle had fallen asleep, her head resting in Lyceus' lap. He lightly stroked her hair, a sad smile playing on his lips. "She's something special." he said almost reverently. "If only things were different... she could have been the one."

Xena's heart ached at her brother's admission and at the fact that she knew it would have been the same for the bard. "Lyceus..." she started, trying to control the quiver of emotion in her voice. "Tomorrow, things will get chaotic. I want you to protect her."

"Xena, you know I will..."

"Yes, but what I mean is... if you have to make a choice, helping me or helping her, don't hesitate... protect *Gabrielle*. I couldn't bear it if anything were to happen to her."

Lyceus took his sister's hand and squeezed it. "I'll do my best."

Sleep was being elusive. Gabrielle grunted softly, awakening for probably the fourth time since she had settled down for the night. She rolled over and could dimly see that Xena's bedroll was empty. Momentarily alarmed, she rose up on one elbow, looking around. Finally she spotted a figure sitting on a log about fifteen paces away. Xena turned her head as the bard tiptoed over to her, trying not to wake Lyceus.

"What are you doing awake?" Xena whispered softly as Gabrielle sat down beside her.

"I could ask you the same thing." The bard whispered back. Xena smiled slightly, then looked away from her friend. Gabrielle nudged her shoulder softly. "Thinking about anything in particular - or just tomorrow in general?"

Xena shrugged, started to say something, then stopped. She sighed slightly, shaking her head. Gabrielle reached out and touched her forearm.

"Xena, I know how bad this is. You don't have to try to spare my feelings. The odds probably haven't ever been stacked against us as much as they are now." she started gently, then forced a smile. "But we've been against some rough odds before and have made it through. We make a great team, y'know."

"We do, don't we?" Xena returned the smile, then the smile faded. "Gabrielle, that night shortly after we met - after the fight in Amphipolis - when you walked into my campsite?" The warrior prompted. Gabrielle nodded, then her friend fixed her with the saddest look the bard thought she had ever seen. "I told you I was going to send you home in the morning. Don't take this the wrong way, but you don't know how much I wish right now that I had done just that. If I had, then you wouldn't be in the terrible danger you're in now." Xena said morosely.

"That's true..." Gabrielle replied honestly. "But first of all, I'm not the only one in danger, here...but you know what else? If I had let you send me home back then, I also wouldn't have been part of the amazing adventures we've had. I wouldn't have been able to help make a difference in so many people's lives. But most importantly - I wouldn't now be sitting next to the best friend anyone could *ever* have." She finished emphatically.

Xena looked as though she were about to protest when the bard stilled her.

"No...don't say anything until I'm finished, please. I'm glad we have this opportunity to talk, because I want to make absolutely sure you understand something, Xena. I do not regret *one moment* of the time that we've spent together. I don't regret making the choice to travel with you, and if this all is to end tomorrow, it's *still* been worth it. It's been an incredible two years, and if I had to go back in time and choose again whether to travel with you or stay home - I'd do just the same." Gabrielle finished, her voice wavering slightly at the end.

Xena just stared at her, stunned. The bard's heartfelt admission simultaneously warmed her heart and sent a painful stab through it. She was quiet for a moment, not trusting herself to be able to speak if she tried. Finally she reached over, took her friend's hand and squeezed it gently.

"You know how much I care about you, right? You're my family. Our friendship - well, it means *everything* to me. It's been my salvation, my lifeline. I don't know what I would do without you." Xena's voice was tight with emotion.

The bard hugged the warrior fiercely, blinking back tears. "I love you, too." Gabrielle said quietly, smiling.

Xena wrapped her arms tightly around her friend. 'Damn you, Callisto...I won't let you harm her. If it's the last thing I do, with my dying breath - I'll stop you somehow.' she thought venomously.

Xena was the first to awaken, her stomach instantly knotting as her mind reminded her of the day's main event. She sat up on her bedroll, shaking the remnants of sleep from her head. She looked to where Lyceus lay with his arm wrapped around Gabrielle. It almost surprised her to see how similar their expressions were in slumber - peaceful, almost angelic. Reluctantly she roused them, each resisting her insistent calling and shaking.

Finally, Gabrielle stirred. Rolling over onto her back, she stretched her arm out and inadvertently punched Lyceus in the nose. At last, he was awake as well.

"Lyceus, I'm so sorry." the bard apologized, trying to see if she'd caused any damage.

Lyceus lay with his hand over his nose. "It's okay, don't worry about it."

"Let me see." the bard commanded, trying to pull Lyceus' hand away from his face.

"Stop it! I'm fine." Lyceus protested, rolling out of the bard's reach.

Xena rolled her eyes. "Is this going to take all day?" she teased.

Gabrielle and Lyceus glowered at the warrior but they each finally rose and with no further fanfare started packing away the blankets and other provisions of the camp and saddling up the horses.

"So did either one of you come up with a new plan after a night's sleep?" Gabrielle asked.

"No, we're just going to wing it." Lyceus responded dejectedly.

Gabrielle put a comforting hand on his arm, her eyes seeking his. "Don't worry, Lyceus, We'll get through this, somehow. But if the worst happens, at least we'll be joining you on the other side. Now *there's* a positive perspective!" She said with forced levity.

"Um, Gabrielle... if I die, I'm not so sure I'd be joining Lyceus." Xena interjected. Gabrielle looked at her quickly, about to protest, then it dawned on her what Xena was saying.

"Oh....oh, gods...I - I didn't think about that." Gabrielle stammered, and fell silent.

Xena looked at the ground for a second then moved away, mumbling something about tending to the horses.

Gabrielle waited until Xena was out of earshot, then grasped Lyceus by the arm. "Lyceus, promise me something." she hissed urgently.


"Whatever happens today... protect Xena."

"Gabrielle... you know I will..." The young man's eyes were filled with warmth at the bard's display of devotion towards his sister.

Gabrielle nodded quickly. "Well, yes, but what I mean is... if you have to make a choice, helping me or helping her, don't hesitate. Protect *her*. We don't know if she's earned the Elysian Fields yet. I think she needs more time."

Lyceus took the bard's hand, holding it to his chest. "I promise." he pledged, gazing into the green eyes that made his heart skip a few beats.

Gabrielle felt her own pulse quicken at his touch. "Thank you."

Xena observed her companions, again shaken by the obvious emotional bond the two shared. She was well-practiced at building a wall around her heart, deadening the pain, but she knew her young friend was not. The anguish she would feel was as inescapable as their appointment with the deranged goddess. She turned her attention back to Argo's saddle. "We have to get going." she called leadenly.

A look of pain shot across the bard's face. "It's time." she confirmed resignedly, her heart sinking like a stone in a lake. Lyceus kissed her.

"It's time." he agreed sadly, resolved to his fate. He held Gabrielle's hand as they walked to their mount. He easily swung into the saddle then turned and offered his hand to help the bard up. She settled in the saddle behind him, her arms encircling his waist, clutching tightly.

Their pace was almost funereal, their mood not much better. Xena and Lyceus continued to try to work out a better plan for facing Callisto, each knowing it was an impossible task but using the discussion to avoid thinking about how quickly their time together was running out.

Gabrielle was uncharacteristically quiet as her mind and her heart whirled between painful acquiescence to the inevitability of Lyceus' fate and the apprehension of what Callisto had planned for herself and Xena.

They emerged from the shelter of the forest to find themselves at the shrine to Aphrodite. They brought the horses to a stop at the crossroads, all eyes fixed up the road that led to their unavoidable confrontation with the insane goddess.

Xena swallowed hard, trying to quell the anguish rising steadily within. She slid down off Argo. "This is it. We have to part here." she managed through the tightness in her throat, fighting desperately to hold back the tears threatening to burst forth from her brimming eyes. She had faced so many battles, yet this seemed the hardest by far.

Lyceus dismounted as well, his body numbly executing the movements his mind commanded. He reached up, putting his hands on Gabrielle's waist and lifted her down beside him. Tears streamed unrestrained down her face. Lyceus hugged her to him. "I'm so sorry." he whispered.

Gabrielle felt a lump form in her throat. "We prepared ourselves for this, right?" She shook her head, realizing she could have never prepared herself fully for what she was feeling. She was still amazed at the intensity of what she felt for Lyceus, built up after such a short time. "It's not fair... we should have more time..." a soft sob strangled what was left of her protest. Lyceus held her tightly in his arms, stroking her hair.

When she regained her composure, he cupped her face in his hands and leaned down for a long, tender kiss, each surrendering to the tragedy which was their fate. He felt the bard loosen her hold, submitting to the path that lay before them.

Xena watched the emotional torment of her brother and her friend. They had all known that this moment would come, but had deluded themselves as long as they could that it wouldn't happen. But now, even her preternatural self-control was shattered. Her brother was imminently to be returned to the Underworld and her friend would again be subjected to the cruelty of the demon she alone had created. She sighed deeply, struggling to regain control over her emotions.

Lyceus released his hold on the bard and walked to his sister. They embraced tightly and held onto each other for several minutes, each branding the moment into their hearts. Xena pulled back slightly, wanting one more long look at her brother's face.

He gazed into her eyes, shaken at the uncertainty he saw there. "Xena, I know this won't be easy, but I also know we'll all get through this." he told her firmly, grasping her shoulders. "Let's save the goodbyes till then. It's gonna take more than an insane goddess to stop us - we're quite a team." he finished with a smile at the warrior and the bard.

Xena smiled at her brother's confident bravado, laying her hand affectionately against his cheek. "You're right. We *will* get through this and then, well... we'll just see what happens."

Lyceus gave Xena a kiss on the forehead and another quick hug. He strode to his horse and leapt into the saddle. "Time to kick some butt!" he yelled enthusiastically. With a wink and a wave he headed his horse towards the fortress at a gallop.

Gabrielle was heartened by Lyceus' buoyant display, a ray of hope darting through her. A gasp to her right quickly diverted her attention to her friend. She glanced at Xena and was startled at the stricken look on the warrior's face. She quickly reached out and touched Xena's arm.

"Xena! Are you okay?" she asked in alarm.

Xena tore her gaze from her brother's retreating form to look at the bard, sadness filling her eyes.

"That's exactly what he said and did when he rode off to face Cortese." she moaned quietly.

Continued - Part 3

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