By Jenbob
Copyright © 1997 Feb (Revised 1997 Fall)
All rights reserved


Gabrielle woke to feel the warmth of the sun streaming down onto her face. Looking around groggily, she saw that Xena had already risen and left the room, and realized that the Warrior Princess was probably down getting Argo ready to leave. She couldn't really complain, though. It was actually pretty amazing that Xena had let her sleep in like this. Getting dressed, she wandered downstairs to see about getting something to eat. When she reached the main room, she was startled to see Xena sitting at a table eating breakfast. Walking over to join her, Gabrielle caught Tobin's eye and asked for a cup of tea. "Good morning," she said, as she pulled out a chair and sat down next to her friend.

"Morning. Sleep well?" Xena asked, as she took a sip of her tea.

"Just fine. And you?" Gabrielle asked, a bit confused by Xena's actions. She certainly didn't appear to be getting ready to leave the village.

"Yup. Mmmm. Thanks," Xena said, as Tobin brought some hot biscuits to them.

Still trying to figure out what was going on, Gabrielle asked, "So, were you planning on leaving today?"

"Actually no. The villagers are having a party tonight...figured we might as well stay for it."

Gabrielle looked at her in astonishment. She couldn't believe that Xena was voluntarily hanging around for a celebration. She was always anxious to get back on the road as soon as possible. "We're staying?" she asked, unable to keep the surprise out of her voice.

Xena grinned at her. "I assume that's all right. If I remember correctly, you wanted a chance to rest and tell a few stories. Besides, this way, I can help with the people who were wounded yesterday and Cor and I can catch up a little more."

"Uh, sure Xena, sounds good," she managed to say, hiding the momentary flash of unease she'd felt when the warrior had mentioned catching up with Cor. After all, there wasn't any reason that should bother her. It was only logical that Xena would want to reminisce with an old friend.

"Good. I'm going to head over to the temple to check on some folks. I should be back by the time you're done eating," Xena said, as she rose to her feet and walked out the door.

Gabrielle had nearly finished eating breakfast when Xena returned with Cor. Smiling broadly when he saw the bard, he sat down beside her as Xena nodded to her briefly and then headed upstairs. "Morning Gabrielle. I'm glad you two are sticking around. I'm looking forward to hearing more of your stories."

Cor's grin was infectious and Gabrielle couldn't help smiling back. "Well, I have to admit that I'm a bit surprised that Xena was willing to stay. Usually she's ready to move on almost as soon as we get somewhere."

Cor nodded knowingly. "She's always been like that, never wanting to stay anywhere long, always on the move. Guess that makes her a good companion for a bard though, huh? Oh, that reminds me, the folks over in the temple were hoping you could stop by and tell a few stories."

"Sure, how are they doing anyway?"

"Pretty good actually. They should all pull through, although several of them are going to be on the mend for quite awhile." Looking up, he saw Xena returning with a small bag. "Excuse me Gabrielle, I'll be back in a minute."

Gabrielle watched as Cor headed upstairs. Xena reached the table but didn't sit down. "What's up?" the young woman asked curiously.

"Cor and I are going hunting. Maybe we'll set some snares. I figured as long as there was going to be a celebration tonight we might as well try to catch some fresh game."

"Oh, well, have fun," Gabrielle said lamely, not certain what else to say.

Xena looked at her friend curiously. "Something wrong?"

"Hmmm? Oh, no, I was just thinking about what stories I should tell the people over in the temple." ‘This is ridiculous,' she told herself. ‘There's no reason for me to feel so left out. I don't even like hunting.'

"Ahh, well I'm sure whatever ones you choose will be perfect." She smiled at Cor when he returned carrying a bow and a quiver of arrows. "Ready?"

"You bet, let's go. See you later Gabrielle."

"Sure thing. And good luck," she said, as Xena and Cor grinned and left the tavern.

The hours passed quickly for Gabrielle while she visited with the villagers. She took the opportunity to learn as much as she could about Trezine and its people. The wounded villagers in the temple were grateful to see her, having heard from numerous others about the wonderful stories the little bard could tell. She had told a few stories and recited a few poems, when she looked up to see that Xena and Cor had returned. As she finished the poem that she was currently reciting, Cor began checking on the patients and Xena came over to where she was standing. "Looks like you've kept yourself busy," she said with a smile.

Gabrielle smiled in return. "Yeah, and although I could really use a drink, for the record I have not been talking the entire time you've been gone."

"Well then let's do something about that thirst of yours shall we?" Xena laid a friendly arm over Gabrielle's shoulders and began to guide her out of the temple.

Surprised at Xena's actions, the bard allowed herself to be led to the tavern. ‘Well,' Gabrielle thought, ‘She's certainly in a good mood. I don't remember the last time I saw her like this.' When they reached the inn, Xena ordered drinks for them both while Gabrielle found a table. As the two sat together talking, Gabrielle continued to wonder about the warrior's strange behavior. This simply wasn't like her. First she wanted to stick around the village for a while. Now she was sitting in a tavern chatting. She was actually answering the bard with more than single words; she was even using complete sentences.

Gabrielle and Xena continued to sit and talk for quite awhile, before several people approached the table, requesting that the young bard tell more of her stories. Grinning broadly at her friend, Xena rocked back in her chair and nodded at the young woman. "Go on Gabrielle. You know you want to."

Blushing slightly, Gabrielle stood and moved to the same spot she had occupied the night before, and launched into a tale about Hercules and his labors. Xena chuckled to herself while she listened to the story; those labors got more and more impressive every time she heard about them. Still, there was no denying it. Gabrielle was good at this. When she finished the story, the villagers began immediately begging for another. Taking a drink, Gabrielle closed her eyes for a moment to think, then smiled as she decided upon a story. "I sing of Xena, Warrior Princess," she began.

Xena groaned inwardly, more than a little irritated with the bard. ‘Damn it,' she thought to herself. ‘She knows I hate it when she starts talking about me.' Xena glared hard at Gabrielle, who was deliberately ignoring her gaze, before looking up to notice that Cor had just arrived. Rising to her feet, she moved as quietly as possible to the door to join him. "How ‘bout going for a walk?" she asked him. "I'm more than familiar with this story."

"Sure," he answered, a bit surprised but more than willing to talk with his friend.

Gabrielle watched them leave, trying not to show how hurt she was by Xena's abrupt departure. She tried to convince herself that Xena just didn't want to hear stories about herself, but part of her wondered if she just didn't prefer to spend time with Cor.

Cor and Xena wandered around the village for quite awhile, talking about old times, reliving the good memories. By tacit agreement, they avoided talking about the darker memories; of the things they had done that they regretted. Eventually though, the conversation began to turn to Cor's departure from Xena's army. "I have to admit Cor, I never really thought you would leave."

Cor was silent for several seconds before responding. "I never would have if it hadn't been for Sairen. But when you love someone like that, gives you the strength to do what you know is right."

Xena smiled at the memory. "I remember when the two of you came and confronted me. You both looked so much in love. I was furious, but no matter how mad I was, I couldn't deny you your chance to be with the one you loved; not after everything you had done for me."

Cor smiled. "You know, Gabrielle reminds me a lot of Sairen."

Laughing, Xena said, "Because she's short, blond, and talks endlessly?"

"That and the fact that she uses a staff. You know, despite the fact that she's obviously very skilled with it, she never struck a fatal blow yesterday. Does she have a thing about not killing too?"

"Gabrielle has never killed anyone," Xena said softly. "And I pray the gods grant she never does."

Gabrielle finished her story and, despite the requests of the villagers, she begged off telling another one, promising to tell more later. Leaving the inn, she began wandering through the village looking for Xena and Cor. After several minutes, she saw them standing off alone, deep in conversation. She approached quietly, hesitant to disturb them but at the same time not wanting to be left out. As she drew closer, however, she stopped in her tracks, surprised by the tone of their conversation.

"I just wish the two of you could have gotten along better."

"You know Cor, it's not as if Sairen and I hated one another, but it's a little hard to be friends with someone when you're both competing for the same man." Xena smiled gently and placed her hand on his arm. "I admit it took a long time for me to forgive Sairen for stealing you away from me Cor, but I was truly sorry when I heard the news. You deserved to live a long life together. To die so young...I know that was hard for you."

"It was hard Xena, but the passing of time helps. I think I'm almost ready to try again. A part of me will always love Sairen, but I think it's time for me to move on. It's what Sairen would have wanted for me."

With a guilty start, Gabrielle realized that she was eavesdropping on what had turned out to be an extremely personal conversation. Deliberately making noise as she moved forward, she called out to the two friends in a cheery voice, and was gratified to see that they looked happy to see her.

"Gabrielle," Cor said, "I'm sorry I missed your story, but some people just can't stand to let me have any fun." He glared at Xena momentarily, before breaking into a grin. "However, I was thinking that maybe you'd like to learn a few moves with the staff that might come in handy. I uh...used to know someone who used a staff and we practiced together quite a bit. If you'd like, I could show you some of the moves we worked out."

"Sure Cor, that would be great. That's really nice of you." The bard had overcome her initial distrust of Cor and the two were fast becoming friends, despite the fact that his relationship with Xena made her feel rather uncomfortable at times. Still, he was fun to be around, and she was finding it increasingly difficult to believe he had ever been a member of Xena's army. He simply seemed too open and friendly to have been part of Xena's life as a warlord. "By the way, I didn't get a chance to ask before. Did you get anything when you were out hunting?"

Xena nodded. "Yeah we got...."

"I got."

Xena rolled her eyes. "Yes, Cor got a deer. Now if you two are going to spend your time practicing, I think I'll go check on the snares."

"Hah, I'll bet you a dinar that my snares caught more than yours Xena."

Grinning at Cor, Xena replied, "You're on Cor." Turning to Gabrielle, she winked. "Make sure you knock him around good a couple times. It's the only way to deal with that massive ego of his."

The feast that night was loud and joyous. Even those who had been recuperating in the temple earlier were moved to where a huge bonfire was burning, determined they wouldn't miss the chance to celebrate their good fortune and to honor and thank the three heroes who had come to their aid. As the evening wore on, Gabrielle and her stories became the center of attention once again. Xena smiled while she listened to Gabrielle weave her tales, however, as the bard inevitably began to talk of Xena and her exploits, the warrior became distinctly uncomfortable. When the bard started her second story featuring Xena and her grand adventures, the warrior rose to leave, unable to listen any longer, as the constant attention of the villagers became focused on her. Moving to the back of the crowd, she took several deep breaths. Once she was no longer drawing the villagers' stares, she felt the tension, which always accompanied that kind of attention, slowly flow away.

"You never have been good at that, have you?" Cor teased, as he approached her. "You never could stand to talk about yourself or hear others talk about you."

"It wouldn't be so bad if she'd just tell them the facts about what happened. But after she gets hold of a story, sometimes I barely recognize the events as something that I was involved in." She shook her head and frowned. "Besides, there are enough stories about me as it is."

Cor saw the pain that flashed across Xena's face and knew she was remembering something from her past that she regretted. Reaching out to place his hand on her shoulder, he gave it a comforting squeeze. "Maybe that's why she tells these stories. So that people will know the person you are today."

"Maybe," she replied, but it was clear to Cor that she wasn't completely convinced. Before he could say anything else, however, Xena shook her head as if clearing her thoughts, and smiled at him. "Maybe I should just tell her some stories about you that she could tell. As I recall, you always loved hearing the bards talk about your adventures."

"Ahh Xena, I really have missed you," Cor chuckled as they sat down, far enough away not to disturb those listening to Gabrielle, but still close enough to watch her. They sat together quietly, enjoying the chance to simply sit and relax without having to worry about the past or the future. After several minutes had passed, Cor spoke once again. "You know Xena, at first your friendship with Gabrielle struck me as pretty strange."

"Oh?" she asked, arching an eyebrow.

"Yeah, but after spending more time with her, I understand. There's something about her that's just...I don't know, it's just good to be around. The way she looks at the world. It's hard to describe, but...."

"But you're right. It's hard to define, but there's something about her that just makes you want to keep her around. And I can't explain it any better than you can," she said, grinning crookedly.

Cor glanced again at the bard, before turning back to Xena. "So? How exactly did you hook up with her? I assume she was never in your army."

Xena's thoughts wandered back to when she had first met Gabrielle. "Her village had been attacked and she and several others had been captured by slavers. I rescued them and returned them to the village. Gabrielle decided to join me, even though I told her I didn't want her along. She followed me after I left her village. Eventually she caught up with me and convinced me to let her stay. We've been together ever since." She shrugged her shoulders. "Not much more to it than that."

Cor scoffed when he heard Xena's last comment and he wondered whom she was trying to fool, him, or herself. "That's it huh? That simple?"

Xena heard the mocking tone of his questions. Glancing at him briefly, she realized that it would do no good to use the "hardened warrior" routine with Cor. He had always seen through it as easily as Gabrielle had. "No, you're right. It wasn't that simple. I did my best to drive her away but she...she saw something in me...had faith in me...even when no one else did." She looked to where Gabrielle was standing, her affection for the young woman showing clearly on her face.

"Not even you?" At Xena's quizzical look he repeated the question, even though he already knew the answer. "When even you didn't have faith in yourself?"

Xena nodded, not trusting herself to speak, as her feelings overwhelmed her. Several seconds passed before she spoke, and even then it was so quietly that Cor had to strain to hear her. "Sometimes I wonder what she can possibly see in me...why she would ever want to stay with me. She'd be so much better off if she'd just walk away."

Amazed once again by the difference in his friend, Cor could think of nothing to say. Instead, he simply wrapped an arm around her shoulder and pulled her close, smiling when Xena briefly rested her head against his shoulder. This was one more change he was going to have to get used to, he realized. Xena never used to be able to stand affectionate physical contact of any sort. Gabrielle had definitely made a difference in her life. "Xena, I think you're being a little hard on yourself....," he began gently.

Xena laughed grimly and pulled away from him, turning slightly so that he wouldn't be able to see the tears in her eyes that were threatening to fall. "Hardly. Gabrielle has already lost too much because of me. Her family...her innocence...her husband...."

"Husband?" Cor blurted out in amazement. "Gabrielle was married?"

"Yeah. Why does that surprise you?" Xena replied, unable to understand her friend's reaction.

"Uh...I don't know. I guess she just...seems a little young to have been married," Cor managed to stammer out, knowing that his explanation sounded more than a bit foolish. This news, however, was completely unexpected. He realized that he could be mistaken about Xena and Gabrielle's relationship, but he had been certain that they were much more than friends.

Xena shrugged. "She's not that young. Lots of women are married when they are even younger than she was."

"Yeah, I...I guess so," Cor admitted, struggling to digest this new information. "When did this happen? She wasn't married when the two of you first met was she?"

"No, although she was betrothed to him." Seeing the expectant expression on Cor's face, she sighed, realizing that he wasn't going to let the matter drop until he knew the whole story. In as few words as possible, she told him about Gabrielle leaving Perdicus to follow her, only to end up meeting him later in Troy. She told him how, months later, Perdicus had asked Gabrielle to marry him and how, after getting married, he had been killed the next day by Callisto. Unfortunately, her "few words" weren't enough for Cor and he began to ask her endless questions about Perdicus and Gabrielle. He wanted to know all about what had happened at Troy, and about when Perdicus had shown up again later. He even asked about their lives before Xena and Gabrielle had met. Noticing that Cor was looking at her with the oddest of expressions, and completely fed up with answering questions about such a painful topic, Xena finally cut off him off. "Why are you asking me all these questions Cor? Why does this matter so much?" she asked harshly.

Realizing that his friend had been pushed to her limits, Cor wisely backed off. Shrugging, he answered noncommittally, "I guess I'm just curious about Gabrielle. I like her and I'd just like to know more about her."

Xena stared at him for several moments before grudgingly accepting his answer. "Well anyway, as you can see, I was right. Gabrielle has already lost way too much because of me. If she had any sense she would get as far away from me as possible." Xena looked off into the darkness, struggling with her thoughts.

Cor sighed inwardly while he considered what Xena had just told him. As much as she'd tried to hide it, he had heard the pain in her voice when she talked about Gabrielle getting married and leaving her. He was certain that it must have nearly killed her when it had happened. He had seen the way she had been watching Gabrielle, and the way Gabrielle had been watching her for that matter, and he knew that the two of them cared deeply for one another. Unfortunately, he suspected that neither of them had any idea how much the other cared. Unable to think of anything that would ease the pain that Xena was obviously feeling, and knowing better than to try to push his luck much further, he placed his hand on the warrior's shoulder, drawing her attention back to him. "Come on. I think Gabrielle is finishing her story. You should be safe from your adoring fans once more," he said with a smile.

Shoving him away with a grin, Xena watched as he stood and dusted himself off before offering his hand to help her rise. Winding through the crowd, they made their way to where Gabrielle was standing after having finished her tale. As they approached, Xena noticed that Gabrielle was looking at her rather oddly. "Something wrong?" she asked.

"No, nothing's wrong. Why do you ask?" Gabrielle replied a bit stiffly.

"Uh, no reason. You just looked like something was bothering you." ‘She's probably mad that I walked away during her story again,' Xena thought. ‘It's her own fault though. She knows I hate hearing about myself and, after all, I did sit through all the other stories.' The warrior frowned slightly as loud music began to play and the villagers began to dance. Trying to ease the tension that seemed to be forming around them, she smiled and tried to lighten the mood. "Why don't we head over to the inn where it's a little quieter and we can actually hear each other? I'll buy you both a drink."

"Sounds good. I need to talk to someone briefly, so I'll meet you two there in a few minutes," Cor replied, as he hurried to catch up with one of the villagers.

"Gabrielle?" Xena asked, confused by her continued silence. The bard shrugged carelessly and nodded for Xena to lead the way. Knowing that the young woman would eventually get around to admitting what was bothering her, the warrior decided to just give her some space. After all, the past couple of days had been hard on them both.

They easily found a place to sit in the tavern, since most people were still outside crowded around the bonfire. Xena ordered for them all and, by the time their drinks had reached their table, Cor had arrived. Taking a long drink, he sat back in his chair with a happy grin. "This is more like it. It was just too noisy out there to really enjoy yourself...too many distractions."

As Cor stretched out his long arms, Xena noticed a large bruise on his right forearm that she hadn't seen before. "What happened to your arm, Cor? That bruise is recent isn't it?"

Cor grinned at her sheepishly. "Actually, I got that this afternoon from a young bard. I was trying to trick her into dropping her guard to prove a point and she ended up clobbering me instead."

Xena laughed out loud and saw Gabrielle smile as well. "I told you she was good, Cor. It's your own fault for not listening to me."

"Next time I'll be ready," he said, grinning ferociously at Gabrielle.

Gabrielle felt her earlier anger fading away, despite her best intentions to stay mad. She had been hurt when Xena had walked out on her earlier to spend time with Cor again and, as much as she hated to admit it, she was jealous of Cor's easy friendship with Xena. She'd been working for over a year and a half to get to the point where Xena would accept her touches without jerking away, and now, every time she turned around, Cor had his hands all over her friend. It wasn't that she didn't want Xena to have other friends, it was just that...that...heck she didn't even know what her problem was. Cor was a nice guy and if Xena wanted to spend time with someone she hadn't seen in years, then Gabrielle knew that she should be a little more understanding.

The three of them spent the next couple of hours talking. Gabrielle was relieved that she was included in the conversation, although on several occasions either Cor or Xena would make a reference to something that was obviously from their past and they would chuckle over it, but only rarely explain it. Still, she knew it wasn't intentional, and on more than one occasion, Cor encouraged her to tell one of the stories that he had missed earlier, but had heard the villagers talking about. Finally, though, Gabrielle decided to retire for the night. She was feeling tired and it seemed to her that the two warriors wanted to speak with each other in private.

Xena and Cor watched Gabrielle leave, both of them sorely missing the young woman's presence as soon as she was gone. They were silent for several moments before Cor finally took a drink and rocked back in his chair to study Xena. "You've changed so much since we saw each other last Xena. You were always focused and determined but seem to have finally found some measure of peace as well."

"Yeah, I guess I have," Xena said thoughtfully, as her eyes went involuntarily towards the stairs Gabrielle had recently climbed.

The two friends sat in companionable silence for several minutes, both lost in their own thoughts. Finally, Cor broke the silence. "Where are you headed next?"

"We were headed north before we got sidetracked here in Trezine. We heard rumors that slavers were getting more active up that way so we figured we'd check it out. What about you Cor?"

Cor shrugged carelessly. "Hadn't really thought about it to tell you the truth. I guess it actually doesn't really matter much to me." He paused briefly, before continuing. "Ever since I lost Sairen, I've just been wandering around from place to place, not really fitting in anywhere. I suppose I'm just looking for someone or something to give my life purpose again." He stared at the stairs where he had last seen Gabrielle. "I envy you, Xena. You have someone to care about, someone to care about you. Maybe that's what I'm needing." His voice trailed off as he became lost in his thoughts once again.

"Sorry Cor, but Gabrielle's taken. I need her a little too much to loan her to you." Xena smiled as she gently teased her friend, hoping to draw him out of the state of melancholy he was beginning to fall into.

Hearing Xena's words, Cor grinned as he focused on the present once again. "Well, if I can't have Gabrielle, how about I take both of you?"

"What are you saying?" Xena asked, frowning as she tried to understand what Cor was suggesting.

"I'm saying that you and I made a good team once, and I think the three of us made a pretty good team here the past couple of days. Why don't I just tag along with you tomorrow? We're basically doing the same thing anyway. We'd be more effective if we joined together."

Xena carefully considered Cor's words. He was a good warrior and a trusted friend and having him around would certainly make things easier when they ran up against forces like the one they had had to deal with the day before. His skills complemented her own nicely and he was certainly one of the best choices around to further train Gabrielle with her staff. He and Gabrielle were certainly getting along better, so there shouldn't be a problem there. She knew this wasn't what he really wanted. He would never be happy traveling around for months, or possibly years, at a time. Still, maybe this would help him find out who or what it was that he was searching for. "Cor, are you sure this is what you really want? Gabrielle and I don't usually spend much time in any one place. Heck, we don't usually even stay at inns for that matter."

"It's what I want Xena. And before you try to figure out how to ask the next question, yes, I'm willing to follow your lead. If you'll remember, I never did care much for command, and I know better than to try to start telling you what to do now." He grinned as he said the last part.

"All right. I'll think about it and then talk to Gabrielle about it in the morning. I'll decide then okay?" Xena couldn't think of any reason why Gabrielle would object, but she still figured that it would be better to mention it to her first before agreeing.

"Sounds good Xena. I'll see you in the morning."

Gabrielle woke to the sounds of Xena packing their gear. "Morning," she said, as she wiped the last bit of sleep from her eyes.

Xena smiled at her friend. "Morning. Did you sleep well?" As Gabrielle nodded, she grinned, "Good, ‘cause that may be the last time you get to sleep in a bed for quite awhile."

Gabrielle smiled back. "I'll survive. Do you need help packing?"

"No, but now that you're awake, I do need to talk to you about something."

"Sure Xena, what's up?"

Xena turned to face her friend. "Well it's about Cor actually. After you went to bed we got to talking and he asked if he could join us. He wants to go along with us when we leave here." Xena gave her a crooked grin. "I didn't think you'd have any objections, but I figured I should mention it to you before I tell him yes."

"Why does he want to join us?" Gabrielle asked in as normal a voice as she could manage, trying to hide the uneasiness she had felt ever since Xena had mentioned Cor's name.

Xena shrugged. "Probably because he's lonely. He's searching for something and he needs help finding it."

Gabrielle was certain that Cor had already found what he was looking for: Xena. She just couldn't believe that the Warrior Princess couldn't see that for herself. "So how long are we talking about?"

Xena looked at her with a confused expression. "What's wrong Gabrielle? I thought you liked Cor."

"I do."

"Then what's the problem? It's not like it's the first time someone has worked with us for awhile. Marcus did, Iolaus and Hercules did. Joxer's joined up with us more times than I care to recall. Heck, if you remember, I even thought for a little while that Perdicus might join us after Troy." Seeing Gabrielle nodding, she continued. " I tell Cor that it's okay for him to come with us or not?"

Gabrielle knew that she was overreacting. She and Xena were friends and Xena wasn't trying to replace her. "Yeah it's fine. I guess the idea just threw me a bit. I'm fine with having Cor join us," she said, lying through her teeth.

"Good. I'll go find him and tell him the news," Xena said, as she smiled and walked out of the room.


The three of them quickly fell into a comfortable routine. Early in the morning, Xena would leave on Argo to scout for a couple of hours, before returning to walk with Gabrielle and Cor. While they walked, Gabrielle found Cor was an extremely receptive audience for her tales and, once they had stopped for the day, he proved to be an able instructor for her staff lessons. His skills didn't stop there. While Xena hunted, he would do all the evening scouting, always bringing back plenty of wood for the fire. He even began to take over the cooking as well. In fact, he quickly started taking care of the majority of Gabrielle's "duties," leaving her with little to do and feeling a bit useless. She knew that it was silly to feel that way, and logically she realized that he was just trying to fit in. At the same time, however, it left her more than a little unsettled when she saw how easy it would be for someone to take her place.

For several days, things were uneventful, but it wasn't long before the peace was rudely shattered. Late one morning, they rounded a bend and stumbled across a bloody scene: seven men ransacking a wagon, while two bodies could be seen lying on the ground. Without a moment's hesitation, Xena drew her sword and charged into battle, with Cor and Gabrielle close on her heels. The bandits turned in surprise when they heard Xena's war cry, and paused momentarily in confusion. The delay cost two of them dearly, as Xena was on them instantly and had knocked them both unconscious before they knew what was happening. Grinning widely, she turned to face her next opponent, who had finally managed to draw his weapon. Calmly twirling her sword in circles, she stalked him. Concerned about the possibility that one or both of the victims might still be alive, Xena was determined not to drag the fight out any longer than she had to. Easily dodging her attacker's clumsy thrust, she kicked the sword out of his hand before punching him hard across the face with the hilt of her own sword. As she half turned, she saw one of the bandits rushing her from behind. Waiting until the last second, she dropped down low to the ground, avoiding his attack. As he started to trip over her, she punched him hard in the midsection with her right hand, while she reached out to grab his sword arm with her left. Twisting his wrist as hard as she could, she heard him scream out in pain, before he dropped his sword and clutched his arm to his chest. The last thing he saw before losing consciousness, was Xena's fist coming directly towards his face.

Gabrielle had followed Xena in, determined to at least try to carry her weight and do her part. She saw Xena engage the main group of men, while Cor headed towards two others who were standing off to one side. Seeing one other man unaccounted for, she headed towards the opposite side of the wagon where he was standing. He came forward to meet her, waving his sword towards her as he laughed at the young woman who would dare to threaten him with a stick. Gabrielle could see that he wasn't particularly skilled, but she watched him carefully while she looked for an opening. Striking forward, she hit him with several rapid blows, nearly disarming him in the process. Enraged, he swung his sword at her viciously, but she easily ducked forward under his attack to come up behind him. Unfortunately, as she began to spin around to hit him again, she tripped over a large rock that was lying on the ground. She fell down heavily, still holding up her staff. As she started to scramble to her feet, the bandit suddenly froze, gasping in pain. As he dropped to the ground, she saw Xena standing behind him grinning. "You okay?" the warrior asked, a slight note of concern in her voice.

Gabrielle felt her cheeks burn with embarrassment. She had had to fight only one man and she still had ended up needing Xena's help. "I'm fine," she mumbled, as she looked around to see what had happened to Cor. She finally saw him leaning over the body of one of the men that the raiders had attacked.

Xena nodded before going to check the other body. It belonged to a young man and it was quickly apparent that he had already passed over to the other side. Knowing that there was nothing she could do for him, Xena went to see if she could help Cor with the other man.

"He has a good chance of making it," Cor told her as she drew near. "Get my pack for me, I want to sew up this wound in his side before I do anything else." Xena quickly retrieved Cor's backpack and walked back over to join him. She pulled out the needle and thread that he needed and handed it to him. Since Cor had the situation under control, she looked around to make certain that there weren't any other survivors. At that moment, she realized that Gabrielle had yet to move from where she had last seen her.

"Gabrielle?" she called loudly, as she moved towards where her friend was still sitting. As she approached, she noticed that the bard was very, very still and was staring at something out of Xena's field of vision. "Gabrielle?" she called again, this time more softly. When she still got no reaction out of her friend, she moved forward to see what Gabrielle was looking at. When she saw what had caught the bard's attention, Xena gasped involuntarily. Lying behind the wagon was the body of a child and, even from this distance, Xena could instantly tell that there was no point in checking to see if he or she was still alive. Unlike the other two bodies, which had been attacked but otherwise left alone, this one had been viciously hacked at with a sword until it was barely recognizable as human. There was blood and gore everywhere and, even as accustomed to the sights of death and destruction as Xena was, she found the vision extremely unnerving. For someone like Gabrielle, she could only imagine what a horrific sight it must be.

Xena shook herself from her momentary shock and moved to place herself between Gabrielle and the corpse, blocking the bard's view with her own body. Reaching out to grab her arms, Xena could feel the young woman shaking. To her growing dismay, Gabrielle didn't even seem aware of her touch, and continued to stare straight ahead as if the warrior wasn't even there.

"Gabrielle...Gabrielle look at me," Xena ordered gently. Getting no response, she tried again. "Come on Gabrielle, look at me." Growing more worried, she placed a hand under her friend's chin and lifted the bard's head to meet her gaze. Blank, unseeing eyes stared back at her, and she felt a chill run down her spine. "Gabrielle, it's me, Xena. Gabrielle focus on me, on my voice. It's going to be okay, but I need you to focus on me right now, okay?"

The warrior pleaded softly with her friend for several more minutes, before she finally began to get a response. Slowly, Gabrielle began to return to normal and her shaking subsided. "Xena?" she finally whispered as she began to cry.

Sighing with relief, Xena took her in her arms and held her, rocking her gently and stroking her hair. After several long moments, she eased away to look down at her friend once again. "Come on. Let's get you out of here," she said softly, as she wiped the tears from the bard's face.

Gabrielle nodded silently, before allowing Xena to help her rise. Pain shot through her left ankle as she stood up, and she fell heavily against Xena. "My ankle," she managed to gasp through clenched teeth.

Without another word, Xena swept her up into her arms and carried her over to where Argo was standing. Carefully setting Gabrielle down with her back to a tree, Xena leaned over her friend to remove her boot so that she could examine her ankle. "Gabrielle, I need to know what hurts and what doesn't." The bard gritted her teeth and nodded. Carefully, Xena began to rotate her friend's ankle, watching the young woman's face intently as she did so. Seeing her friend struggling to hold in the pain, Xena smiled at her comfortingly. "Gabrielle, if you want to yell, then yell. There's no one around to hear you. Make all the noise you want."

Xena considered their options briefly, before coming to a decision. Standing up, she moved to get several long strips of cloth from one of Argo's saddlebags and then knelt in front of the bard again. "I'll bind your ankle for now to help keep it immobile. There's a river a couple of miles from here. We'll head that way so that you can soak it in cold water."

"Is it bad?" Gabrielle asked worriedly, as she watched Xena expertly wrap her ankle.

"Not too bad, although there'll be no dancing for you for awhile," Xena reassured her with a grin. "Just stay off of it as much as possible and, in a day or two, you'll be as good as new." She sat back to look up at Gabrielle as she finished binding the bard's ankle.

"Promise?" Gabrielle asked, giving Xena a weak smile.

Xena reached out and took Gabrielle's hand in her own. "I promise," she said softly, before giving the young woman's hand a comforting squeeze.

"Thanks," Gabrielle said quietly. Suddenly, she found herself caught by Xena's eyes. She felt herself being drawn in, drowning in that sea of blue, unable to pull her gaze away. Time seemed to stand still, and all she was aware of was this gentle woman kneeling in front of her.

The sound of horses and people's voices broke them both out of the spell. Looking up, Xena saw a couple dozen people making their way quickly down the road towards them. About a third of them were on horseback and appeared to be wearing some armor as well. Xena moved to stand protectively in front of Gabrielle, but she kept her sword in her sheath while she carefully watched the crowd approach. The group slowed as they drew closer and caught sight of Xena, who held up her hands to show that she was unarmed. Anxious to avoid any confusion, she called out to the townspeople, "My friends and I fought the bandits that attacked this wagon. One of the victims still lives and needs medical attention." She pointed towards where Cor was now standing.

One of the men on horseback, who was apparently the leader, ordered several of the others to bind the unconscious bandits, who were scattered around the area. He then directed most of the rest of his people to go back home. Swinging off his horse, he approached Xena, who moved forward to speak with him. "I'm sorry, but we were too late to save the other two...."

"Two?" he asked, looking around for the other body.

Xena nodded. "There is one other, a child, over behind the wagon. I need to warn you, though, it's a pretty gruesome sight. I don't know which one of these men did it, but I suspect it was him," she said, indicating the man Gabrielle had been fighting. "He was the one nearest the body when we arrived."

The man nodded. "We thank you for your help. I am Gamacles, leader of the local militia."

"Xena," she said simply, taking the hand he offered.

He looked at her appraisingly. "Xena. We have heard of you, both the bad and the good. You and your friends are welcome in our village. It's just over the next few hills."

"Thank you, but no. I think it would be best if we moved on." Xena had no intention of remaining around here any longer than they needed to. The sooner they got away from here, the sooner Gabrielle could put all this behind her. "Cor?" she called out, as she turned to find him.

Cor looked up from his patient, who appeared to have regained consciousness. "Yeah?"

"Do you need to stay with that man longer or can you tell these people what needs to be done?"

Cor spoke briefly to the three people standing near him. "He'll be fine. They have a skilled healer in their village and he'll be okay to travel the short distance to the town."

"Good, then let's get going." Before coming over to her, she watched as Cor said something to the injured man and then smiled at him and clasped his shoulder. "Good-bye Gamacles, and good luck," she said, before leading Argo over to Gabrielle. She waited until Cor reached them, before swinging onto the mare's back. Seeing the confused expression on Cor's face as he looked at the bard, Xena answered his unspoken question. "Gabrielle twisted her ankle and needs to stay off it for awhile. Help her up here so that she can ride."

Understanding and compassion crossed Cor's features when he heard Xena's words. "Sorry Gabrielle. Are you okay?" he asked, while he knelt down and lifted her onto Argo to place her in front of Xena.

Gabrielle smiled at him. "Well, I was until you put me up here but I guess that can't be helped."

Cor smiled back. "Orders are orders. Let me grab your staff and my pack and we'll be off."

Xena shifted behind Gabrielle as she got comfortable, then wrapped an arm around her friend's waist, pulling the bard slightly closer to her in the process. "We'll take it slow. I don't want to jostle that ankle any more than we have to. Let me know if it gets to be too much, though, okay?" she murmured into Gabrielle's ear.

Gabrielle felt a jolt of electricity course through her body when Xena's arm slipped around her waist. It was followed by a surge of heat when she felt the warrior's warm breath against her cheek. Clearing her throat, she managed to respond, "I'll be fine Xena. Let's just get out of here."

Cor returned, dismantling Gabrielle's staff as he did so. He stuck the weapon in one of the saddlebags and then looked up at the bard. "How ‘bout something for the pain?" Seeing her nod, he reached into his pack and brought out a small pouch. Reaching inside, he drew out several small leaves. "Chew on these. It will help," he said as he handed them to her.

Gabrielle gratefully took the leaves and began to chew on them. Relieved that they were mild in taste, she settled back against Xena, feeling safe and secure in her tight embrace. As they slowly moved away from the battle scene, she heard Xena begin to hum softly and she smiled and closed her eyes, content to rely on Xena to take care of her.

They traveled for several miles before they reached the river. It had been further than Xena had thought but, considering that it put extra distance between them and the scene of their earlier battle, the warrior figured it was just as well. Cor helped Gabrielle down from Argo and then carried her to the river, where he carefully unwrapped and examined her ankle, before gently placing it in the cold water. "It doesn't look too bad at all," he assured her. "All we need to do is keep the swelling down and you'll be fine before you know it. How's the pain?"

"Not too bad," she replied. "Whatever it was that you gave me helped."

"Good. I have plenty, so let me know if the pain starts to bother you." Briefly glancing up at Xena as she approached, he grinned and turned back towards Gabrielle. "Don't be a fool and put on a big brave front like some kind of ‘warrior princess'. Hiding your pain is vastly overrated!"

Rolling her eyes at his pathetic attempt at humor, Xena knelt down next to Gabrielle. "I think we'll call it a day and camp here. There's no reason to push it, unless you want to keep riding Argo?" she said, grinning at Gabrielle.

The bard pretended to consider the question. "No, as much as I enjoy riding Argo, you're probably right," she agreed with mock reluctance. "Staying here is fine."

"Good, I'll get Argo settled then," Xena said, as she rose to her feet. Glancing meaningfully at Cor, she turned to walk back to her horse.

Cor chuckled to himself. "Keep your ankle in the water Gabrielle. I'm going to figure out with Xena what she wants to do about scouting the area and getting supper."

Cor crossed the clearing to stand behind Xena. Several seconds passed before she turned to look directly into his eyes. "So, how is she?" the warrior asked in clipped tones.

Startled a bit by the question, as well as the intensity of her gaze, Cor hesitated for a few seconds before answering, noticing that his pause caused her to grow even more agitated. "She's fine Xena," he finally replied, his confusion showing in his voice. "Surely you could tell that for yourself couldn't you? I thought I was a better teacher than that," he teased, trying to lighten the mood.

Xena nodded while she looked over at Gabrielle. "You are. I was just worried I was fooling myself. It's hard to be objective where Gabrielle is concerned," she admitted.

"It's going to be sore for a day or two but then she'll be fine. Xena relax. Gabrielle twisted her ankle. It's not a big deal."

Looking at Cor in astonishment, Xena started to reply angrily, before realizing he didn't know what had happened back at the battle site. Taking a deep breath, she told him about what Gabrielle had seen and how she had reacted to it, while she continued to keep a close watch on the young woman.

Cor's expression turned dark and angry before he regained control of his emotions. "Now I understand why you were so anxious to get out of there. I couldn't figure that one out at all." He looked over to where Gabrielle was sitting and felt his heart go out to her. "That can't have been easy for someone like her to see."

"No," Xena said tightly, "It wasn't, but still, I'm a little surprised that she reacted as strongly as she did. Unfortunately, she's seen worse than that since hooking up with me, and it's never seemed to affect her like this before."

Cor shrugged his broad shoulders. "Gabrielle's had a lot to deal with over the past couple of months: your death, becoming the Amazon Queen, bringing you back to life, being hunted by a deranged god." Cor shook his head slowly. "She's a strong young woman, but everyone has their breaking point. When someone is as inherently good and decent as Gabrielle is, they can only take so much before they become horrified at the pain that people inflict on others. I think seeing that body today was just the last straw."

Xena looked at her friend with a touch of surprise. "I didn't know you knew about my death and all the rest of that stuff."

Cor shrugged once again. "I'd heard rumors that you'd died, so I asked Gabrielle about it one morning when you were off scouting. Eventually, the whole story came out. It was pretty obvious that your death upset her deeply," he said quietly. "To be honest, I'm not certain that she's accepted the fact that you're really back in her life."

"So if that was really a breaking point, what do I do for her now?" Xena asked worriedly.

"Just help her through this," Cor replied. "Let her lean on you for awhile. She's going to be fine, she just needs a little time to work things out for herself first. Now," he said, changing the subject. "Why don't you tell me what you want to do about scouting and hunting? Or should I just take a guess?" he asked with a smile.

Xena chuckled softly. "You can do it. I'll stay here with Gabrielle."

"I thought that might be your plan." He cast another glance at Gabrielle, before turning to face Xena again. "All right, I assume you have something to give her for the pain?" Seeing Xena nod, he continued, "Fine. I'll scout around and bring some wood back before I go hunting. I'll see you in a bit," he said, before picking up his pack and heading into the surrounding trees.

Xena dealt with Argo as quickly as she could, deciding that she would leave the saddle on until Cor returned to say the area was secure. Grabbing the saddlebag that contained most of their food, she walked back over to Gabrielle and sat down next to her. "How are you doing?" she asked, troubled by the strained expression on her friend's face.

"Fine. My ankle's getting pretty numb though," she replied tonelessly.

"We'll leave it in for a little longer and then I'll wrap it again." Seeing Gabrielle's absent nod, she tried a different tactic. "Hungry?"

Gabrielle shrugged indifferently, before taking the bread Xena offered her. She ate slowly, not paying any real attention to what she was eating and barely focusing on what Xena was saying and doing. The warrior began to grow more and more concerned about her friend, but was unsure what to do for her. Deciding to focus on her ankle first, since she knew how to handle that problem, she carefully removed Gabrielle's ankle from the water and dried it, before beginning to wrap it once again. She worked as quickly as she could, knowing that the feeling would soon return now that the ankle was out of the cold water. As she finished, she could feel Gabrielle staring at her. Looking up, she saw her friend watching her with pain-filled eyes. "Why?" the bard whispered, the anguish in her voice tearing at Xena's heart. "Why would anyone do that to a child?" she asked, as tears filled her eyes.

Xena was at her side instantly, taking Gabrielle into her arms. "I don't know Gabrielle. I don't know." Desperately wishing she could erase the image from her friend's mind, she tightened her embrace and began to slowly rock the bard in her arms, humming gently to her. "It's going to be okay Gabrielle. I promise you," she whispered.

"I'm just so tired," the bard mumbled against her friend's chest, as silent tears trailed down her cheeks. "So tired of meaningless, senseless deaths...Everyday we see it over and over again, always present, always reminding me...I'm so afraid...." Her voice trailed off as she tightened her grip on the warrior and began to cry in earnest.

"I won't let anything happen to you Gabrielle," Xena swore, as she did her best to pull her friend closer still.

"No," Gabrielle choked out. "No, I'm not worried about me," she whimpered. Lifting her tear stained face to look up at her friend, she drew in a ragged breath. "I'm worried about you. I'm afraid that I'll have to watch them place your body on a funeral pyre again someday...I'm scared of losing you again," she whispered.

"You'll never lose me, Gabrielle," Xena said fiercely, as she cradled the bard in her arms and rested her cheek against the top of the young woman's head.


"But nothing," the warrior said, silencing her friend. "I already came back from Hades' realm once just to be with you. Do you think I'd let anything keep me from your side after all the trouble we went through to get me back here again?" she said with a tender smile.

Gabrielle shook her head weakly and then allowed herself to relax against her friend's body, letting the fear and worry slowly drain from her as she cried unashamedly. She sat in Xena's arms for what seemed like hours, before her sobs finally began to subside, realizing as they did that she actually felt better than she had before. Wiping a hand across her eyes, she took in a shuddering breath and then burrowed further into the warrior's embrace. "Thanks," she murmured with a shaky laugh. "I guess I needed that."

"No problem," Xena said in a soft, low voice. "Feeling better?"

"Almost human," Gabrielle replied. "Give me a few moments and I think I'll even be able to move."

Xena shook her head and tightened her grip on the young woman. "There's no hurry," she said. "Take all the time you need." Slowly, the warrior began to once again rock her friend gently in her arms, humming softly as she soothed the young woman's tattered nerves. As she continued to hold her, she felt Gabrielle's body begin to relax and eventually the bard began to drift off to sleep. Xena held her for several more precious minutes, before carefully gathering the young woman into her arms and moving to where she had tossed their bedrolls earlier. Laying Gabrielle down on top of the blankets, she knelt beside her for several long minutes, wanting to make certain that she had truly fallen asleep. Finally convinced, she stood and began to set up the rest of the camp, keeping one eye on her friend at all times.

Gabrielle was still sleeping when Cor returned to the camp. After confirming that the area was safe and dropping off the wood he had collected, he left again to find something to eat and to look for medicines to restock his supplies. Xena finished removing the rest of Argo's tack and then gave the mare a good brushing, something she hadn't had a chance to do in quite awhile. She let Gabrielle sleep as long as possible but eventually decided to wake her up so that they could soak her ankle again.

"Gabrielle...Gabrielle wake up," she said, as she shook her friend gently. Slowly, the young woman opened her eyes and, much to Xena's relief, the bard smiled when she looked up at her. "How are you feeling?" she asked hesitantly, as she used her knuckles to lightly caress the young woman's cheek.

"Better," Gabrielle replied honestly, her eyes briefly drifting shut as she savored the feeling of Xena's gentle touch. "How long have I been asleep?"

"A few hours. I want to get some cold water on that ankle and I figured you'd rather wake up this way instead of from the shock of the cold water," Xena replied, as she smiled at her friend. "Let me carry you. It will be easier," she said, and then scooped Gabrielle into her arms and walked to the river. Standing at the edge, she slowly lowered the bard to the ground, before taking her ankle and removing the wrap. She placed Gabrielle's ankle into the water gently, chuckling when she heard the young woman gasp from the cold. "Don't think about how cold it is," she instructed her friend. "Tell me a story instead."

Gabrielle looked at her in surprise. "You want to hear one of my stories?" she asked in disbelief.

Xena laughed. "Don't act so surprised. I'm not that bad am I?"

Gabrielle smiled wryly. "Well maybe not, but I certainly get a lot more ‘not now Gabrielle' than ‘tell me a story'."

Xena looked away for a moment, unable to meet Gabrielle's eyes. "I'm sorry. I guess I'm not always the best audience, am I?" she asked quietly.

Gabrielle looked at Xena in astonishment, surprised by the apology and the warrior's sudden change of mood. "You're a great audience Xena. How many other people would be willing to spend 24 hours a day with a bard?" she teased.

Xena turned back around to gaze directly into the young woman's eyes. "Anyone who knew you would be willing, Gabrielle. It's not exactly a hardship to spend time with you," she said softly.

Touched by the sincerity in Xena's voice, Gabrielle swallowed hard, collecting her thoughts. Trying to smile casually, she attempted to lighten the mood. "A story it is then," she said, before launching into a folk tale she had picked up in Trezine.

Xena leaned back against a rock, as she listened to Gabrielle's story, enjoying the chance to relax and spend time with her friend. When Gabrielle finished, she encouraged her to tell another, and soon she was hearing about Theseus and his battle against the Minotaur. When Gabrielle finished her tale, Xena helped her to remove her ankle from the cold water and then wrapped it again, before lifting the bard into her arms. As Xena carried Gabrielle back to her bedroll, the young woman sighed and put her arms around her neck, leaning her head against Xena's shoulder. Xena's arms tightened reflexively around the bard and she suddenly found herself on unsteady legs, as a strange warmth began to spread through her body. Forcing herself to concentrate on walking, she somehow managed to deposit Gabrielle safely on her bedroll without dropping her on the hard ground. Rummaging through the saddlebags, she found the medicine she wanted and made some tea. "This will help ease the pain," Xena said, as she handed the mug to her friend and then sat down across from her.

Nodding, Gabrielle took the drink from her and took a small sip. Surprised that, for once, Xena hadn't given her some vile tasting concoction, she smiled and downed the rest of the tea. "Thanks," she said, as she handed the mug back to the warrior.

"No problem. Can I get you anything else?"

Gabrielle thought for a second before grinning at her impishly. "Sure, how about a story?"

Amazed, Xena just looked at her for a moment. "A story?"

"Yeah, a story. Tell me a story."

"Gabrielle, I'm not a bard, and I've told you before I don't know any stories," Xena protested.

"Then tell me a story about you." Seeing the look on Xena's face, she hurried on. "I know, I know, you don't like talking about yourself. Okay, tell me a story about Cor."

Xena thought for a moment before shrugging her shoulders. "Did you want to know something in particular about him?"

What did she want to know about Cor? For starters, she wanted to know if he and Xena had been in love when they had known each other before. Even more important though, was the question as to whether or not Xena was in love with him now. Startled by the direction of her thoughts and the chill that ran through her at the idea that Xena might be in love with Cor, Gabrielle paused for several seconds before replying. Realizing that Xena had begun to look at her rather strangely, she blurted out the first thing that came into her mind. "You said Cor could beat you in combat, that you'd be hesitant to face him in battle. Is he really better than you?"

Surprised by Gabrielle's question, Xena thought about her answer before replying. "Yes and no," she said, smiling at the expression on her friend's face. "Cor is stronger than me. As a matter of fact, with the exception of Hercules, he's stronger than any man I've ever known. On the other hand, I'm faster; a lot faster. I'm better with a sword than he is, but he's better with a staff than I am. As far as unarmed combat....," she paused, weighing various factors. "It would depend on whether a particular situation favored strength or speed I guess, although the one big advantage I have over him there is mobility. It's a little hard to do the kind of leaps and flips that I can do when you're as big as Cor."

"Have the two of you ever actually fought one another?"

Xena nodded. "I assume you mean besides simple sparring? Yes, twice."

"Why did you fight...and who won?"

Xena was quiet for a moment, while her mind traveled back to the first time she had ever faced off against Cor. "The first time we fought was before he joined my army. I was impressed with his intelligence and his skill, so I disabled him using pressure points and asked him to join me." She chuckled before continuing. "Pressure points depend on speed, not strength, and Cor had never seen anyone use them before. He wasn't prepared for that kind of attack."

"And was that when he joined you?" Gabrielle asked.

Xena nodded. "Yes it was, although I'd have probably let him go even if he had refused. As for the second time we fought...that was after we had been together for awhile. We had a...a ‘disagreement' about the best way to handle a situation. Cor considered the issue a matter of honor, and eventually he challenged me over it. His challenge was a personal thing, just between the two of us, and we settled it in private. I defeated him again, mainly because of Cor's other weakness. He tends to be a pretty conservative fighter, fairly predictable once you know him. We had been sparring together for months by that time and I could anticipate nearly all his moves before he could act on them. Afterwards, I made him swear that, as long as he was in my army, he would never raise a hand against me again." She grinned wryly. "Then I agreed he was right in the first place and we handled the situation his way. Now...will that count as a story?"

Gabrielle smiled. "I suppose I'll have to accept it. I doubt there's much chance of getting another one out of you, is there?"

"Nope," Xena replied with a grin, before rising to rinse out Gabrielle's mug and put it away, feeling her heart soar when she heard the bard's soft laugh.

"How about we just talk then?" Gabrielle asked with a smile

Knowing that talking would help keep her friend's mind off what she had seen earlier, Xena agreed. She did her best to keep up her side of the conversation, although Gabrielle often had to carry much of the momentum. While they talked, Xena collected kindling for the night's fire and laid out the other bedrolls, placing hers as close to Gabrielle's as she dared. Finally, as the sun began to dip low towards the horizon, Xena started the fire, knowing that Cor would soon return.

It was almost dark when Cor walked into the camp with his arms full, looking tired but happy. "Hope everyone's hungry for quail," he said, as he began dropping all the items he was carrying.

"‘Bout time you got back, I was getting ready to go fishing," Xena drawled.

"Fishing hmmm? Well you've always been good at that, haven't you?" he replied innocently, but Gabrielle couldn't miss the wicked gleam in his eyes. To her amazement, she thought she saw Xena blush. "I don't suppose there's any chance you'll be cooking supper tonight, is there? No...I guess not," he sighed mournfully, when he saw her expression. "Poor Cor; work work work. All he ever does is work."

Trying not to smile at his feeble play for sympathy, Xena relented somewhat. "I'll tell you what Cor. If you cook supper, I'll start drying those plants you collected...provided that you give me some of them when I'm done."

"Deal! Hah, I knew I could sucker you in," he said with a grin, as he began to prepare their dinner.

Xena just shook her head and began gathering everything he had dropped earlier. To Gabrielle's surprise, the warrior then carried everything over to sit beside her. Smiling at the bard while she sat down, Xena began arranging the bundles in front of her. "I thought you might like to learn what these plants do and how to prepare them for use."

Gabrielle nodded. She was always happy to learn about things like this, but she was even happier to have Xena there beside her. As she listened to her friend describe the uses for all of the items Cor had collected, Gabrielle found herself constantly staring at Xena, captivated by her beauty. She had to keep reminding herself to focus on her friend's words. Several times, Xena leaned across her to pick up one of the bundles that was just out of her reach and Gabrielle found herself mesmerized by the intoxicating scent that was distinctly Xena. As she handed one of the bundles to her, their fingers briefly touched and the young woman felt her heart begin to race from the momentary contact.

Noticing her friend's startled expression, Xena grew worried. "Gabrielle, is something wrong?"

"No, nothing's wrong Xena," Gabrielle said brightly, forcing a smile onto her face.

Still watching her friend with more than a little concern, Xena hesitated, not convinced that everything was truly all right. Placing a gentle hand on Gabrielle's shoulder, she tried again. "Are you sure? Is your ankle bothering you?" she asked, fervently hoping that, in her mind, Gabrielle wasn't reliving the scene from earlier in the day.

Gabrielle swallowed hard, as she fought to control the sensations that Xena's simple touch were causing to build within her. "I'm fine, just a little tired I guess," she managed to say, amazed that her voice hadn't cracked.

Xena nodded. "We can finish this later if you want. Why don't you lay down until supper is ready and get some rest?"

"Okay, I think I will," Gabrielle agreed, although sending the other woman away was exactly the opposite of what she wanted to do. She watched while Xena gathered everything up and then smiled at the warrior, before stretching out on her side and closing her eyes, determined to force everything that had just happened out of her mind.

Xena quickly finished preparing the plants she had already started on. She decided to leave the ones she hadn't had a chance to discuss with Gabrielle until later, in case the bard wanted to learn about them as well. Since supper still wasn't finished, she went to check on Argo and then began to collect more firewood. By the time she returned to their camp, dinner was ready. Knowing that the young woman would not want to miss a meal, Xena went to wake her up.

Gabrielle heard Xena approaching, but feigned sleep while she tried to relax. Her mind was still racing from her earlier reaction to Xena's closeness. As she felt Xena's hand on her shoulder, gently shaking her, and heard the warrior's soft voice calling her name, she rolled over and pretended to yawn. Inhaling deeply, she smiled up at her friend. "Smells like dinner must be ready."

Xena nodded. "Do you want to eat here or closer to the fire?" she asked

"The fire would be better," she replied and stretched out her hand, waiting for Xena to help her rise.

To her surprise, the warrior reached down and gathered her up into her arms. Seeing the flustered expression on her friend's face, Xena chuckled. "I told you, it's easier this way," she said, as she carried Gabrielle over to the fire, before setting her down again.

Cor grinned at Gabrielle and then handed her dinner to her. "Looks like you have her well trained," he quipped. "I could never get her to carry me like that when my ankle was hurt."

Xena rolled her eyes while Gabrielle laughed. "I notice you don't get my dinner for me, and that weighs a lot less than either you or Gabrielle," she said dryly, as she got something for herself to eat and then sat down next to the bard.

Cor held his hands up in mock surrender, before settling down with his own food. Dinner passed quickly and quietly, with a minimum of conversation. Afterwards, Cor examined Gabrielle's ankle and, much to her relief, he assured her that she would likely be able to walk on it by the next day, although he wanted to put cold water on it one last time. As he carefully picked her up and began carrying her to the river, he saw Xena watching him intently and he grinned to himself at the fleeting expression of jealousy he saw cross her face.

The water was unbelievably cold against her skin. Gabrielle was relieved when Cor was finally helping her to remove her ankle from the icy river and was carrying her back to the fire. There she found Xena waiting for her with a warm blanket. The Warrior Princess smiled at her as she wrapped the blanket around her shoulders, before leaning in close to ask if Gabrielle needed anything else. Wanting more than anything to just have Xena sit beside her, Gabrielle shook her head, unable to find the words to ask for what she most desired.

As Xena slowly rose to her feet, she noticed that Cor was watching her with a strange smile. Arching an eyebrow, she waited to see if he would enlighten her as to what he found so entertaining, but he merely grinned at her innocently. Shrugging her shoulders, Xena walked over to retrieve her sword, before coming back to the fire to sit near Gabrielle. As she sharpened the blade, she relaxed and talked about inconsequential matters with Cor. After several minutes had passed, she realized that Gabrielle was being much too quiet and, looking at her, Xena saw that she was still shivering. Putting her sword down, she moved to her friend's side. "Cold?" she asked gently, as she lightly caressed the bard's cheek with the back of her hand.

Looking into Xena's eyes, Gabrielle swallowed hard at the concern that she saw there. Nodding her head, she attempted to smile. "Yeah a little," she said, trying to keep her teeth from chattering.

Xena hesitated for a moment, before removing her breastplate and setting it carefully to the side. Lifting the blanket from around the bard's shoulders, she moved in to sit behind her. Extending her long legs out along both sides of her friend, she carefully pulled Gabrielle back against her chest as she wrapped the blanket around the both of them. Holding the young woman securely in her embrace, she leaned forward to talk softly into her ear. "This should help. If it doesn't, we'll make Cor build the biggest fire in all of Greece."

Gabrielle sighed with contentment when she felt Xena's strong arms around her, and settled back against her friend to get more comfortable. Already she could feel Xena's warmth penetrating her skin and she couldn't remember the last time she had felt so happy and so safe.

Cor rose to get his own sword, trying unsuccessfully to hide a smile. He returned to the fire and began to sharpen the blade, ignoring the suspicious looks that Xena was giving him. Noticing that Gabrielle seemed to be feeling much better, he asked her to tell a story. Soon they were listening to a tale about Persephone and Hades, and the sadness of Demeter at the loss of her daughter. Gabrielle told the tale well, but it was obvious that she was growing tired. When she finished, Cor decided to opt for a different kind of entertainment. Reaching into his pack, he brought out a small wooden flute and, to Gabrielle's delight, he began to expertly play a tune upon it.

As he finished, Gabrielle applauded. "I didn't know you could play like that Cor. You're really very good."

Grinning roguishly, he winked at her. "I have many skills."

Laughing, she looked up at Xena, who was glaring at Cor with mock ferocity. Seeing Gabrielle's smiling face, the Warrior Princess felt happier than she had in weeks and had to fight the urge to hold the bard even tighter. Smiling back down at her friend, she mentally thanked Cor for what he had done for Gabrielle. Shifting the bard within her embrace, she brought the young woman even closer to her in the process.

Gabrielle turned back to Cor. "Do you sing too?" she asked. She felt, rather than heard, Xena begin to laugh.

An abashed expression stole over Cor's features. "Ahh, no. Singing is not one of my talents.

Xena snickered. "A shame too. Someone who loves the sound of his own voice as much as Cor does, should really have a better singing voice."

Cor turned slightly red with embarrassment as both Gabrielle and Xena laughed. "Fine, keep it up and I won't play another song for you," he finally threatened with a grin. Seeing that they were going to behave, he thought for a moment before beginning to play once more, this time choosing a peaceful little tune that soothed the nerves and calmed the soul.

As they listened to Cor play, Xena could feel Gabrielle begin to relax against her and knew that the little bard was drifting off to sleep. She held her friend securely, not wanting to lose this moment and the overwhelming feelings of peace and joy that this simple pleasure held for her. Eventually Cor finished playing and Xena could tell that Gabrielle was sound asleep, but she resisted the impulse to release her friend. Finally, she sighed and carefully pulled away from Gabrielle, before reaching down to lift her into her arms and carry her to her bedroll. Placing her on the blankets, Xena found herself unable to walk away. Smoothing Gabrielle's hair back away from her face, Xena sat for several long moments just gazing upon her, before pulling the blankets up around her and moving to sit at the fire with Cor.

Without a word, Xena picked up her sword again and resumed sharpening it. Despite her best efforts, her thoughts centered on Gabrielle. The warrior's heart twisted in her chest as she looked over at her friend. Lying there on her bedroll, the bard seemed incredibly fragile and vulnerable.

This should never have happened,' Xena thought angrily. ‘She should never have had to see something like that!' Unfortunately, she wasn't entirely certain if she was angry with the man who had committed the atrocity that Gabrielle had witnessed, or with herself for exposing Gabrielle to it. Taking a deep breath, she laid her sword aside but her eyes never left the sleeping bard. ‘Gods above, there was a moment earlier today when I thought I had lost her. The expression on her face....How long until there's nothing left of the idealistic girl from Poteidaia? How long until she loses the rest of her innocence?' "Another piece gone....," Xena whispered.

"What?" Cor asked, surprised by her sudden words.

Xena looked at him with confusion, not aware at first that she had spoken aloud. Realizing what she had said, she shrugged as she said lifelessly, "I said ‘another piece gone.' Gabrielle lost another piece of her innocence today, because I'm too selfish to do what's best for her and send her away." Xena closed her eyes as pain flooded through her. "How can I let her stay with me Cor? It's going to destroy her eventually if she doesn't leave. Why can't she see that and get away from me before it's too late?"

Cor regarded Xena silently. Sighing deeply, he looked at her with sympathetic eyes. "I can't help you with all your questions my friend, but I can answer one of them for you. Gabrielle stays with you because it's where she wants to be. She cares for you very much you know."

Xena nodded, not really wanting to contradict him. A voice deep inside, though, screamed out that Cor was wrong, completely and utterly wrong. ‘Gabrielle stays because she has no place better to go,' the voice said. ‘When she had the chance to leave you for Perdicus, she certainly took it quickly enough!'

Cor realized that Xena was still not completely satisfied but he had no clue as to what he could say that would convince her. Helplessly, he said what should have been obvious to her. "Gabrielle isn't a child Xena. She's a grown woman capable of making her own decisions and accepting the consequences of those decisions. The sooner you accept that, the better off you'll both be."

"So you're saying that I should just let her get hurt and do nothing to stop it?" Xena shot back angrily.

"No, I'm saying that you can't protect her all the time and that if you try, you're just going to alienate her." Exasperated with her self-pity, he tried another tack. "Look, you seem to forget that people get hurt all the time, even when you're not around. Accidents happen. Villagers trip and injure themselves. People fall into rivers and drown. Riders...riders get thrown from their horses. Things happen," Cor said, his voice cracking as he said the last part. Taking a slow, deep breath, he composed himself and continued. "You can't prevent her from getting hurt, but you can help her to deal with it and to accept it, and you can learn to enjoy the time you have together, because the gods only know how much time that will be!"

Xena just glared at him, knowing that he was right and momentarily hating him for it. Cor, however, refused to back down and simply glared back at her. Finally, Xena cracked a wry smile and shook her head, her anger gone as quickly as it had arisen. "Maybe you're right Cor," she grudgingly conceded, "But that doesn't make it any easier."

"Uh huh, and since when have you ever chosen the easy route?" he asked, grinning at her. Rising to his feet, he moved to his bedroll, carefully placing his sword where it would be close at hand.

Feeling utterly exhausted and emotionally drained, Xena tossed another log onto the fire and moved to her own bedroll. She remove the rest of her armor and then placed her sword and chakram beside her sleeping mat. As she settled down next to Gabrielle, she heard the young bard start to cry out in her sleep and saw her begin to shake. Xena quickly rolled over to wake her from her nightmare but, as she leaned across her friend, Gabrielle immediately curled into her arms, instinctively seeking out the strength and security of the warrior's embrace. Xena was stunned at the sensations that shot through her when she felt Gabrielle press up against her body, and she had to struggle to contain her emotions as they threatened to race out of control. Looking at Gabrielle, Xena felt her heart start to pound and had to forcibly resist the urge to lean down and kiss her friend. Knowing that she would be infinitely better off if she put some distance between them, she started to ease out of the bard's arms while she still had the strength to do so. As she moved away, though, Gabrielle began to whimper and the sound nearly tore Xena's heart in two. Gritting her teeth, she moved back to hold Gabrielle, knowing that this was the only way her friend would be able to sleep. As she placed a protective arm around the bard and drew her closer, Xena knew that there would be very little sleep for her that night.

Part 3

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