Too Many Cooks

by Doc

Copyright 10/99-9/01

Disclaimers: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, friends and enemies from the series do not belong to me. (Wish they did.) They belong to MCA/Universal Renaissance Pictures. I'm only borrowing them for a short time. I'll send them back home before dinner.

TIMELINE: For continuity's sake this story falls on the heels of my second story, "Peas In A Pod". It features a relationship between our two girls that would exist during Season 2 and 3. (I loved the innocence and 'spunk' of Gabrielle back then.)

VIOLENCE: No one was permanently harmed during the writing of this story although the goat did suffer a severe headache for a day or two.

DEDICATION: The wonderful character, Lanessa, appears through the graciousness of her creator, Maggie. I could never truly do her justice for she embodies the greatest traits of a human being: honor, compassion, loyalty and love. Thank you for entrusting her to my care. I encourage anyone who has not read Maggie's stories to seek them at Mary D's or Lunacy's sites.

I wish to express my thanks to Lucia ad Askance de Moraga for her permission to use a verbal description of her artwork, "Xena and Gabrielle in 1000 years". If you have not seen any of her delightful Xena and Gabrielle series, please visit Mary D's site; you won't be disappointed.

Comments and suggestions are welcomed and greatly appreciated.


"We're almost there. Some hot food and a warm bath will cure what ails you," the warrior said over her shoulder to her stirring companion. 'Be glad I talked you into riding otherwise it would have taken twice as long.' Xena grinned as she thought about her friend. Gabrielle didn't like riding Argo. It wasn't until several months had passed after they began their travels together that Xena discovered the reason.

Gabrielle was a bard by trade and she loved to talk and tell stories. She often gave performances in taverns to earn a few extra dinars or to pay for their room and board but it was her performances during sleep that both startled and awed Xena. It seemed that the more stressed or exhausted the bard was, the more animated she became in her sleep. Often she revealed facts and feelings that she would not have consciously discussed with anyoneÉincluding her best friend. Xena knew the bard was unaware of most of these sleep-induced confessions and she filtered the information much as she would a scout's report; gleaning the valuable from the chaff. During one eventful night Gabrielle confessed her fear of heights and her pledge to conquer it. Evidently the girl's idea of the first step in conquering that fear was to sleep until the feeling passed; for she had fallen asleep shortly after their break at noon and had remained so until the last few moments.

Gabrielle lifted her head from Xena's back and gave a big yawn as she stretched her arms toward the sky. "WhaÉoh!" Gabrielle yelled as she felt her body falling backwards.

Had it not been for the warrior's alertness the bard would have found herself tumbling off Argo's back. Xena's senses had registered the change in the bard's shifting weight and reflexively grabbed Gabrielle's legs as they began their untimely arc. Keeping a firm grip on the bard's legs she pressed her own thighs against the war-horse, signaling the mare to stop. "I gotcha, Gabrielle. I gotcha."

Gabrielle was once again thankful for her friend's many skills as she opened her eyes and found her world literally upside down. In one smooth move the bard contracted her muscles and pulled her torso back to a sitting position. It was a maneuver she quickly regretted as a wave of dizziness swept through her head. Resting her forehead against the warrior's back she exhaled and swallowed several times in an attempt to suppress the nausea seizing her stomach. "UghÉthat was stupid. That was REALLY stupid."

"Which part?" Xena asked raising her eyebrow. "Losing your balance or coming up too fast?"

"Both," the bard conceded.

"Can't argue with that," Xena added as she continued to keep Argo's movements to a minimum. She felt sorry for her friend but there really wasn't anything she could do to help the situation short of using a pressure point. That, of course, had a bad side effect that Gabrielle had experienced previouslyÉwith a vengeance.

"Xena, I think I'll walk the rest of the way if that's okay with you. It's just over the ridge, right?" Gabrielle asked as she opened her eyes to confirm her surroundings.

Xena reached her arm back to assist as Gabrielle eased herself down from the palomino and took a few moments to reestablish her equilibrium. Her feet were definitely on the solid ground again but somehow the message had not reached her stomach.

Having sympathy for her friend, Xena dismounted as well. Placing a supportive arm around the bard's waist, she waited for the natural rosy complexion to return to her friend's cheeks. "Tell you what. We'll both walk the rest of the way. My legs could use a good stretch too."


Xena opened the door to the inn and gestured for Gabrielle to proceed in front of her. "After you, my friend."

"No, no, you first. Age before beauty," Gabrielle quipped as she attempted a curtsey.

"That's three," Xena mumbled to the bard, stepping inside the inn.

"Two," Gabrielle held up two fingers as she passed through the doorway.

Turning abruptly, Xena caught the bard's hand. "Three! Just now, once before we reached that small stream this morning and once while you were talking in your sleep earlier," the warrior enumerated with the fingers of her free hand.

Gabrielle met the steely gaze of her companion. "Xena, you can't use a person's unconscious words against them. How do I know that I really talked in my sleep? You could just be making that up."

"Gabrielle, anyone who has ever slept with you knows that you talk in your sleep." Gabrielle's mouth dropped open at that remark. "You know what I mean. Anyway, my game, my rules," Xena quipped as she rubbed her fingertips together and flicked them at the bard. The warrior turned and ambled towards the kitchen in search of her mother, leaving her companion standing in the middle of the inn talking and gesturing to the air.

'And she accuses me of making rules up as I go!' Gabrielle was lost in her thoughts as the door to the inn opened again and a figure slipped behind her and abruptly placed his hands over her eyes. Startled, she let out a gasp of shock.

"Guess who," the voice requested.

Though he tried to disguise it, the bard knew instantly to whom the voice belonged. She was in a playful mood and decided to see how far she could go. "UmmÉHercules?"

"Guess again," the 'mysterious' voice said.

"Danielle says that Mother went with Lanessa to check on Marina andÉ" Xena began as she stepped out of the kitchen and back into the tavern. She was stopped in mid sentence as she saw her companion being accosted by a man. Fortunately for the perpetrator, recognition was instantaneous and Xena cocked her eyebrow as she let her eyes stray to the man's tall partner who was leaning against the counter. The man tapped his temple with his finger and shrugged his shoulders in an 'I don't know what he was thinking,' gesture.

"Autolycus? Salmoneus? I give up."

"HumphÉthat's all I mean to you? Just a one night stand. Love 'em and leave 'em," Iolaus whimpered in a mock rejected tone.

Gabrielle spun around and hugged Iolaus tightly. Hercules and Xena waited, somewhat awkwardly, for their two sidekicks to release each other but there seemed to be no signs of it occurring. "Okay you two. Save some for the rest of us," Hercules teased as he placed his hand on Iolaus's shoulder.

"We'll steal a little time together later," Iolaus whispered into Gabrielle's ear as she blushed and released her arms from around his neck. Their eyes met briefly and she nodded her head in agreement.

The four exchanged hugs with one another before taking seats around a table at the back of the tavern, the warrior's natural instincts taking control as usual. "What?" Xena asked in response to the 'look' she was receiving from her partner.

"You said we were on vacation," the bard replied, emphasizing the last word. Xena had promised to take a break and Gabrielle was going to hold her to it. She needed it; they both needed it.

"We are. This just happens to be my favorite table," the warrior replied, fully aware of the insinuation in her friend's statement.

"Favorite table. Right." Gabrielle arched her eyebrow and grinned at her friend. 'You expect me to believe that? I eat, sleep and live with you Xena; I know you better than you know yourself.'

Xena cleared her throat as a familiar sign for the bard to back off the subject before she got in over her head, a position in which the bard often found herself. From the gleam in the bard's eyes Xena knew it was only a temporary truce. Of course there was nothing like a convenient tub or stream to rid a certain bard of her cockiness.

"So...what have the two of you been up to?" Iolaus asked as he took a swig from the mug in his hand. "It's been a month, hasn't it?"

Gabrielle turned her attention toward Iolaus and Hercules and began relating some of the details of their latest skirmishes, taking care to downplay her own role and highlight those of her friend's. It was not in her nature to boast of her own abilities or accomplishments.

It frustrated the warrior that her partner would not take credit for her own heroic deeds. Gabrielle placed her life on the line each time they engaged in a fight. It could even be said that she showed more bravery because she did not have the many years of training and experience like her partner. Did the girl not realize she had everything inside of her needed to match or even exceed the influence and power of Xena? She was an Amazon queen with the knowledge, skills and grace to negotiate whenever possible, yet fight if and when the need arose. The only person who truly underestimated the bard's capabilities was the bard herself. Gabrielle made it seem that their life was a journey of atonement for the warrior, and it was to a degree. But the second journey was a coming of age and enlightenment for a young woman who could one day truly change the world for 'the Greater Good'. 'It's easier to believe in yourself when someone else believes in you first.' Now, thanks to each other and the devotion of friends, they were steadily changing both of their destinies.

"Xena, isn't that right?" Gabrielle asked as she gave the warrior a devilish grin. She had tried on numerous occasions to catch the warrior off-guard and not listening but had never succeeded. In fact, it was difficult to catch the warrior off-guard at anything; she simply had too many skills.

"Yes and no," the warrior answered flatly, casting a glance at Hercules and Iolaus before allowing her eyes to fall back on those of her partner. "Yes, we retrieved the necklace but it was YOU that translated the writings correctly after we got lost in the tunnels and it was YOU who convinced that ruffian to let the children go." 'Don't look at me that way. I'm simply telling the truth about your part in all of this.'

Gabrielle glared at her partner but soon found it difficult to keep a straight face as the warrior tilted her head and made an uncharacteristically funny face. "You're not playing fair Xena."

Xena arched her eyebrow. "And your point?" 'You call it fair when ninety-percent of the stories you write are about me? I'm not a hero. Even if I spent the rest of my life trying to atone for who I was, I'm not sure it would be enough.'

Gabrielle shook her head at the warrior. "Do you know how frustrating you can be?" 'Why do you fight me on this? I'm only telling others about the Xena I know.'

"I've learned from the best," Xena replied, a devilish grin playing over her face.

'Oh no, you're not going to turn the tables on me. I've seen how your devious mind works. Don't play the word game with me because you don't stand a chance.' "Flattery isn't going to get you anywhere Xena, so don't even go there."


"Could I get something else for anyone?" Danielle politely asked as she picked up the empty plates from the table. "Gabrielle, there's still plenty of stew. Would you like another helping?"

Gabrielle's brow furrowed as she glared at her partner before answering. "I see that my reputation has preceded me."

"Gabrielle, be honest. You're aÉ" Xena started but was abruptly interrupted.

"I know, I know. I'm a pigÉa cowÉa bottomless pit?" She had heard them all before. She couldn't explain why her body used food so quickly but only that it did and rumbled loudly when it wanted more. Sometimes she even felt compelled to introduce herself as, 'Hello, I'm Gabrielle and this is my hungry stomach.'

Xena gave a smirk as she thought about the appropriateness of her friend's self-characterization. The warrior could certainly attest to the 'bottomless pit' part. How could anyone eat so much and stay so small? Her mother teased Toris about having hollow legs but Gabrielle's were too short to even consider that option. 'Hmm...maybe her entire body is hollow; that could explain a lot of things.' "I was going to say 'hearty eater'."

"Oh." Gabrielle blushed in embarrassment and handed her empty bowl to the waitress. " thank you. I think I'll stop with two." She heard a muffled laugh coming from beside her and she slapped playfully at the warrior's ribs. "Does your mother tell everything she knows?" Gabrielle mumbled under her breath.

Iolaus glanced from one woman to the other, confused as to the hidden meanings behind their words. "You get the feeling we're in the middle of something?" he whispered as he leaned over to his partner.

"Where women are concernedÉand these two in particularÉwe're always in the middle of something. It's part of their feminine mystique," Hercules answered with a smile.

"Sounds more like danger to me," Iolaus commented, still unsure of what was happening.

Hercules shrugged his broad shoulders. "Yeah, but what's life without a little danger?"

"Old age?"



"I need to check on Argo, I'll be back shortly," Xena said as she placed a hand on the bard's shoulder.

Gabrielle nodded in acknowledgment then cut her eyes over her shoulder at the warrior leaving the tavern. "Give her a goodnight pat for me."

"Will do," came the reply before the door shut completely.

"I thought you and Argo didn't get along," Iolaus asked, smiling at the bard.

"We've come to an agreement. I sneak an apple to her before going to bed each night and she obeys me in public. The operative word being 'public'." It had taken time for the bard and war-horse to reach a compromise. The first year or two had been exceptionally difficult on the bard. Gabrielle had tried to make excuses for her reluctance to ride but the palomino could sense her fears and would defy the girl at every opportunity. Often Gabrielle made fun of the relationship between the war-horse and her mistress. She would find the warrior making conversation with the horse as if it were a person. It was a cause of concern during their early days of travel but after her own personal encounter in speaking with the horse she had a better understanding of why the warrior relied so heavily on the great steed. Argo was simply the best sounding board she had ever seen. During some of the most difficult times when Gabrielle felt she couldn't share her thoughts and feelings with the warrior she would find a quiet moment with the war-horse. It was amazing how the simple act of voicing your thoughts and fears in the presence of another living creature could bring a healing to the soul.

"So you're not above bribery. Is that what you're telling us?" Hercules ventured with a grin.

"Bribery is such an ugly word. I prefer the term 'mutual benefit'."

The two men chuckled at the girl's choice of words. "And just what does Xena say about this arrangement you have with her horse?" Iolaus asked, giving a playful wink.

"I don't know. I never told her. I figured if it was something that needed to be shared I would let Argo tell her." Gabrielle gave a quick wink back and the trio began laughing.

The laughter subsided and as Gabrielle's eyes met those of Iolaus a familiar sensation rushed through her body. She couldn't control it. It was a completely biological reaction. 'Whew! Did it get hot in here or what?' Gabrielle quickly broke eye contact and nervously scratched the soft skin at the base of her nose. Her only hope was that no one noticed the effect it had on her body. "Umm...I think I'll go take a stroll in the cool air and walk off some of this stew."

Danielle came back to the table and gathered the empty mugs to wash. "Are you okay?" she asked, addressing the bard. "You look a little flushed. I hope you're not coming down with anything."

'It's nothing that cool air or cold water won't cure.' "If you'll excuse me," Gabrielle requested as she rose from her chair.

The reaction was not lost on Iolaus. "Care if I join you?" Iolaus asked with all the innocence he could muster.

'No! I don't think that's a good idea right now.' "Sure, if you want." 'Are you crazy? You don't have control of this situation. What in Zeus' name are you doing?'

"Yeah, I could do with a good stroll myself," Hercules chimed in as he started to rise from the table, a sharp elbow to his ribcage halting the progress. The demi-god winced and caught a look from his partner. He didn't have to be struck twice to know Iolaus wanted some time alone with Gabrielle. "Or...maybe not. I think I'll justÉuhÉwait here for Xena to get back."

Xena was just returning from the barn when she heard her name mentioned and saw Gabrielle and Iolaus walking toward her. "Where are you going?" she asked, noticing the flush in her partner's complexion.

"Outside for a walk," Gabrielle replied in a tone that told the warrior there was more to the story.

"Don't worry Xena, I'm going with her," Iolaus offered, smiling at the warrior as they past through the doorway.

"And that's suppose to make me feel better?" Xena retorted in a playfully sarcastic voice.

Xena trusted Gabrielle and she trusted Iolaus, but she also knew the dangers of yielding to emotions. There were many experiences in her previous life that she would love to purge from her memory but they remained like ghosts to haunt and convict. She had no right to interfere with this area of Gabrielle's life but she had grown to love and protect her friend and habits, good or bad, were hard to break. It didn't take long to recall the image of Gabrielle and Iolaus locked in a passionate kiss or the look of extreme pain when Gabrielle spoke of betraying Perdicas. Love was often a two-edged sword. The memories that once gave peace and comfort to move on in life were now the very memories thwarting progress.

"She's really grown up now," Hercules spoke quietly as he studied the worry lines on the warrior's face. Though he had not been privileged to see the day-by-day growth of the young woman, he could see the results and knew she was coming into her own and no longer standing in Xena's shadow. In fact, in many respects the relationship seemed to have become more equal. Gabrielle had become stronger and more confident and Xena had become more trusting and approachable.

"In ways even I was slow to notice." Xena paused a moment before continuing. "There are times when she says something or she gets that gleam in her eyes and it takes me back to those first days together and I forget she's not that little girl anymore. I'm thankful everyday that I have her beside me but if I could protect her and give her up at the same time, I a heartbeat."

"I think when you're old and gray you'll still want to protect her." Hercules knew Xena would never stop worrying about her friend. They had shared too much for a bond to have not grown between them. You can't place your life in someone's hands and ask them to do the same for virtually every moment and not become a part of each other. For that life to die would surely mean the death of a part of your self.

"I'd love to see Gabrielle old and gray." Xena's eyes misted slightly as her mind focused on an image of her friend, old and gray, sitting in front of a fireplace, lulling the ex-warlord into a peaceful state of slumber with her bardic tales. 'If the Fates allow.' Xena could only pray that dream would come true.


They walked along the merchants' booths, occasionally stopping to get a closer look at the wares. Iolaus had kept the conversation light, not wanting to push too hard for answers. They crossed the street and headed for the barn where Gabrielle quickly found their saddlebags and the remainder of the apples.

"Remind me to pick-up more apples or my system will stop working." Gabrielle walked over to Argo's stall and offered the apple to the palomino. "Hey girl, I've got your bedtime snack, just like I promised. See, I do my part and you just have to do yours." Iolaus stepped forward and Argo whinnied at his presence. "You remember him don't you girl?" Gabrielle cooed as she stroked the horse's neck and shoulder. She leaned in close keeping her words between she and the mare. "Careful though, he has an effect on us girls."

Iolaus watched the interaction between horse and bard. Gabrielle couldn't tease Xena anymore without indicting herself. Contrary to the picture Gabrielle seemed to paint of the relationship, Argo seemed to respond quite well to the bard. "So, how did you know it was me back in the tavern?"

"I don't...know. I just...knew." Gabrielle began, stumbling over her words slightly as she felt her heart rate quicken. Iolaus moved in closer as Gabrielle fumbled with the ties on the saddlebags hanging over the railing.

"No one just...knows...well, except for maybe Xena or Herc. There has to be something that gave me away. Was it my voice...something you smelled...something you felt?"

'Okay, what can I say that he would believe?' "Goosebumps," she said flatly.

"Goosebumps? What does that mean?" Iolaus stepped up and leaned against the railing beside the bard. He was confident that he knew the cause but he wanted Gabrielle to admit her feelings before he would admit his.

Gabrielle felt the familiar rush surging through her system again. "Like a cold chill running up your spine." The words slipped out of her mouth before she could stop them.

"You're afraid of me?"

'Not of you...of myself.' "There are other reasons for chills." Gabrielle fumbled with the leather ties, not believing she was having trouble doing the most basic of tasks.

"Really? Like what?" Iolaus reached over and tried to assist Gabrielle in tying the saddlebag, his hands lightly brushing hers before she released the ties.

"Umm...cold air." She was searching for anything that seemed plausible. 'Control, Gabrielle, control.'

"You were in a warm tavern." Iolaus countered, acutely aware of the effect his probing questions were having.

"Stress." 'Yeah, that's a good one.' Gabrielle knew that Iolaus was backing her into a corner and she felt herself on shaky ground with emotions running rampant, his touch sending chills and his gazes sending rushes of heat through her veins.

"You said you were on vacation."

"Surprise." 'This is not good. I'm running out of reasons.'

"That doesn't explain how you knew it was me." Iolaus knew she was grasping at straws but he let her continue. Squirming looked cute on her.

'I got it! You can't beat me on this one.' "Female intuition."

Without warning, Argo whinnied and pushed the bard forward, right into Iolaus' arms. He caught Gabrielle but the momentum caused him to lose his balance and the two fell into the hay in the corner of the stall.

As awkward as the moment was Iolaus couldn't believe his luck. Their faces were only inches apart, blue eyes gazing deeply into green. He had taken the slow approach and Argo had shown him the more direct route. "Thanks Argo; I owe you one."

Gabrielle blushed again. She smiled impishly at the man lying beneath her. "I can't believe I'm being blackmailed by a horse."

Iolaus tightened his embrace and gave a wink. "And I can't believe we're wasting time talking."

Their lips brushed lightly at first, each teasing and testing the other, their minds trying to deny what their hearts and bodies screamed. Gabrielle could feel every inch of her body pressed against his. It felt so

"Aaaachoooo." Gabrielle's hand flew to cover her mouth in total shock and humiliation. She couldn't believe it. One of the most intense and intimate moments in her life, a hairs breath away from a rapturous kiss and she sneezes on the man. "I'm so sorry. I can't believe I just did that."

"Not what I was expecting either," he added, playfully wiping his face. "This isn't another allergy thing is it?" Iolaus asked with a grin. He didn't have any trouble remembering the last allergy attack for the bard. The grin took on a more devilish gleam as he recalled the bard floating down the river that day and stitching up the sides of the vest. He had never admitted exactly how long he had watched her floating before calling her name or how torturous it had been to be that close to her soft skin and not touch her. It had literally been a test in self-control.

"No, just dust and hay." Gabrielle noticed the extra sparkle in his eyes and knew something was going through his mind. "And what is that look in your eyes for?"

Feeling guilty for his thoughts he gave a hasty response. "Nothing. Nothing at all."

Gabrielle arched her eyebrow and gave him a smirk. "Why don't I believe you?"

He didn't want to answer either question, at least not yet, so he cupped her cheeks and put everything that he felt, but couldn't say, into a warm, passionate kiss. He allowed the kiss to end and Gabrielle pulled back slightly, eyes closed, still lost in the euphoria of the kiss. "Do you believe that?"

There was no doubt in Gabrielle's mind as to the sincerity and feelings of the kiss. Gabrielle exhaled and with a soft moan her eyes fluttered open. She silently fought the battle between desire, conviction and...guilt. "YeÉYes, I do. I'mÉjust not sureÉabout me."

Iolaus gently brushed a few strands of hair away from piercing green eyes. "Only you can answer that."

'Kiss him. RETREAT! Go for it, carpe diem. No! Think about this. ' Slowly sense won over desire and Gabrielle pushed herself off of Iolaus and rose to her feet. "Uh...I think it's time I turned-in...and got some rest. Can"

Iolaus knew Gabrielle was struggling and as much as he wanted to continue he also knew he needed to give her space to think about what she wanted their relationship to be. He leaned in and lightly kissed her rosy lips. "Count on it."


The dinner crowd had slowly thinned-out leaving Hercules and Xena as the only patrons. Danielle kept herself busy in the kitchen making preparations for the next day's meal while Politus cleaned from the evening meal. Cyrene had chosen Danielle wisely as her second in charge. Danielle was always courteous to the customers but she was extremely disciplined in her approach to the kitchen, the food and what was expected from her helpers. If Xena didn't know better she would swear that the woman had been trained in an army. With a confident person in charge, Cyrene now felt comfortable in taking some time occasionally to leave the tavern and help in other areas of the community.

Xena leaned back casually in her chair, occasionally taking a sip of her ale, as Hercules brought her up to date on the negotiations in Tybineon. "I'm glad everything went well." Her eyes took on a flirtatious gleam as she peered across the top of her mug. "You do have a gift for turning people around."

Hercules knew she was referring as much to herself as to the people of Tybineon. "I can't take all the credit. There has to be a desire in them to change. Some people only focus on their own needs and goals' while others look to the needs of the communities as a whole. I simply had to reveal their true motives and let them make the compromises that best suited them."

Only one question formed in Xena's mind as she listened to the man whose death, not so long ago, she had personally plotted. She hesitated slightly before the words fell from her lips. "Are you sorry for the compromises we made?"

"Never. I didn't change you Xena. I simply helped you find yourself." Hercules reached across and clasped Xena's right hand. "As much as you think I have changed you, that's how much you have changed me. I thought I would never be able to feel anything for another woman after I lost Deianeira. I remember when Iolaus told me that you had died and Gabrielle was taking your body back to Amphipolis. I couldn't believe it. How could this happen twice in my life. The only two women I had ever truly loved; both taken from me. My world was shattered again." The demi-god turned away quickly as his eyes misted. He didn't know what had triggered this purging of his soul and he suddenly felt inadequate and awkward in dealing with the rush of emotions.

'The onlyÉwomenÉtruly loved.' Xena swallowed and took a moment to digest the meaning in the words. She suddenly felt joyous and uncomfortable at the same time and didn't know quite what to say. They were true and devoted friends who would give their life to save the other and had on more than one occasion spent intimate moments together but the 'to death do we part' type of love had never been broached. Maybe it was because they both knew their lives did not allow for that type of peace and joy. They had found it with other people only to have it ripped from their hands.


Danielle was walking back into the dining area as the front door opened and Gabrielle and Iolaus entered. "Everything secure in the village I hope," she said with a good-humored wink. As Gabrielle passed she stopped the bard and plucked a few pieces of straw from the golden tresses. "Problem in the barn?"

Gabrielle blushed slightly. "No, nothing I...weÉcouldn't handle. Right Iolaus?"

"Yeah. We thought someone was messing around in there butÉ" Iolaus nodded at Gabrielle, "we were the only ones." Gabrielle's smile quickly changed into a scowl as she demonstrated the painful art of an elbow to Iolaus' ribcage.

"I'm sure there's a lot more behind that statement but I won't ask." Danielle grinned at them both and then glanced at the two at the far table. "You two in the barn and those two in here, the gods must be working overtime."

Gabrielle and Iolaus stared at each other in confusion then glanced to their respective partners at the table. Hercules and Xena's relationship was no surprise to either of them but they had never really thought about the gods being a part of it. Aphrodite yes, but not any others.

"I had Poli draw a bath for you and Xena." Danielle nodded to Gabrielle, then looked around the room once more at the other three guests. "If there is nothing else you need I will see all of you in the morning for breakfast."

"Thank you Danielle. I think we will be fine. Goodnight." Gabrielle said as she turned and strolled over to the far table and her friends.


Hercules heard his friends enter the tavern. 'Thank goodness for small miracles. Your timing couldn't be more perfect.' "UhmÉcould we continue this at a later time?"

"Sure." Xena looked up about the time Gabrielle elbowed Iolaus. She couldn't stop the grin that came to her lips.

Hercules saw the change in Xena's expression. "What's so funny?"

"Yep, she's a big girl now. Lanessa keeps trying to make me see that."

"Who is this Lanessa? You said Cyrene was helping her with a friend."

"We grew up together. She's one of my dearest friends." Xena's face brightened as she spoke of her friend. "She's a woman who's wise beyond her years. I've never met anyone else who can read people like she does. She had faith in me, even during those dark days, and knew that I would some day, somehow, find myself again." Xena closed her eyes and pictured her friend in her mind's eye. Petite frame, auburn hair, dark brown eyes and a smile that could make your heart sing. "She has an uncanny ability to see through all the walls that I put up and cut to the heart of any problem. Never lets me get away with anything."

"Sounds like a true friend."

"Yep, that she is," Xena agreed. Xena smiled again as Gabrielle stepped up to the table. "I hope you only gave Argo one apple."

Gabrielle looked everywhere but at her friend. "If you'll excuse me, I think I'll go wash some of the road off and get to bed."

Xena swirled the contents of her mug as her left eyebrow rose slightly. "Fine, Stinky. But just rememberÉArgo doesn't keep any secrets from me."

Gabrielle had turned and was in mid stride when she heard the nickname and cringed. 'I knew it. She's never going to let me live that down.'

"Stinky?" Hercules and Iolaus looked at each other in confusion.

Gabrielle was about to respond but decided it would be better to simply let it drop. If she pressed she would have to relate the entire story and she didn't want to do that unless necessary. After all, there was her dignity to consider. Then she started wondering. "She's just teasing me, right? I don't really smell, do I?" Gabrielle walked toward the hallway and subtly sniffed at her clothing and body.

Xena grinned as she watched her friend take the 'bait'. 'Gotcha.'



Cyrene's Inn was by no means luxurious, but it did afford the common traveler good food and a comfortable, safe stay for the night. Xena and Gabrielle now shared the room that Xena had shared with her brothers while they were younger. Gabrielle had inadvertently discovered this information while paying her penitence, during a previous visit, for her part in what had been infamously dubbed 'The Feather Fiasco'. Their room was down the hallway and to the left at the far end. Upon entering, her eyes fixed on the two twin beds setting at an angle in front of the north wall on either side of a large stone fireplace. A light giggle formed in Gabrielle's throat as she remembered the first time they stayed with Cyrene.

"Xena, did you have another growth spurt?" Gabrielle gasped as she stared at her friend's feet hanging off the end of the bed.

Xena propped herself on her elbows and grinned as she wiggled her toes. "Looks that way, doesn't it? I guess we'll have to stay in another room next time."

"Why not just swap rooms now? Surely you're not the only six foot guest that stays here." Gabrielle grinned as she watched the expression on Xena's face change and she knew the wheels were turning to formulate a plan.

"I've got a better idea," Xena replied as she walked over to a door adjoining their room with that of her mother's. She glanced inside then waved her hand for the bard to follow. "You grab that end and I'll grab the other. We'll have to turn it on its side once we get to the doorway. It will probably be a tight fit even then." She picked her end up and waited for Gabrielle to do the same. "Okay, your end first."

"Alright, but go easy. Remember my steps aren't as big as yours."

Within about ten steps they were at the doorway and had the bed resting on its side. "Now we'll angle it so the top of the footboard goes through first and then the bottom."


"Watch your fingers."

"Now you tell me."

"Better late thaÉ" Xena started with a snicker.

Gabrielle cocked her eyebrow in a perfect impersonation of the warrior's stern look, daring her to complete the phrase. "Just wait. As soon as we get this bed in place, you're dead meat."

"You and what army?"

It all started with a playful hit with the pillow from the bed as Gabrielle tried to make good on her threat. She expected to get one hit in and that would be the end of it. Xena had thought otherwise. Their laughter and the thuds of the pillows soon brought an audience of one as Cyrene stood in the middle of the doorway watching feathers fly through the air like a winter snowstorm.


The child-like look of guilt on Xena's face had been worth all the chores they'd had to perform to make up for the mess; not the least of which was picking up EVERY feather.

Gabrielle scanned the rest of the room and spotted the satchel with their bathing supplies and shifts on the small table to the left of the door. She sat on the edge of a chair and removed her boots. Gathering the necessary articles she left the room and padded down the hall to the bathing room. She pushed the door open and could still see the steam rising from the water. 'Ooo, that's going to feel so good. Eat your heart out Xena; I get it first.' She quickly removed her skirt, top and britches and eased her trim form into the inviting water. It had been well over a month since they had the opportunity to bathe somewhere other than a river. Of course Xena saw it as an opportunity to combine two necessities at once. She could bathe and catch dinner almost simultaneously. Gabrielle always tried to push that thought to the back of her mind. There seemed to be something not right about eating fish that just shared your bath. But now they were indoors and there were no fish in this tub. She lowered her aching body into the inviting water and stretched her legs out to the full length of the tub. Leaning against the edge, Gabrielle closed her eyes, allowing the warmth to slowly penetrate and relax her body and mind.

'You're afraid of me?

'I'm not afraid of you.'

'So what's stopping you?'

'It's too soon.'

'It's been almost two years.'

'I can't.'

Xena tapped on the door to the bathing room but there was no response. She softly called out to the bard as she pushed the door open and entered.

'He would want you to go on.'

'I can't.'

Xena stopped abruptly as she heard a soft whimper and saw the pained expression on her friend's face. She dropped her eyes to the floor and debated whether to intrude on Gabrielle in such a vulnerable moment. Comforting and consoling, or 'sensitive chat's', as Gabrielle preferred to call them, was not one of her 'many skills'Éor at least that's what Xena thought.

'Why can't you?'


'Because why?'

'I don't know.'

'Yes, you do.'


A single tear traced a path down Gabrielle's cheek as she fought the demons in her thoughts.

'Say it.'


'Because why? Say it.'

Gabrielle raised her hand to muffle the cries that began to rack her body.

"I'm afraid," she blurted out from her inner thoughts.

Xena jumped slightly at the outburst and Gabrielle became aware of the presence of her friend. Gabrielle quickly splashed water onto her face in an attempt to hide the tears that were slowly flowing down her cheeks. "HoÉhow long have you been standing there?" Gabrielle asked, clearing her voice.

"Long enough." Xena stepped forward and tentatively placed her hand on the bard's shoulder. "Talk to me."

Gabrielle realized she had been suppressing a portion of the truth even from herself. Her love for Perdicas was only a part of the pain and fear that held her back. The words spilled through tears and soft cries. "TheyÉdie. Everyone I love dies. PerdicasÉTalusÉ"

"No, not everyone." Xena reaffirmed as she lightly stroked Gabrielle's hair. She knelt beside the tub and gently lifted Gabrielle's chin so their eyes were level. "It's not your fault. You're not a jinx. It was just their time." She could see the uncertainty reflected in the emerald pools.

"even youÉ" Gabrielle whispered, the words catching in her throat.

Xena fought back her own emotions. That one word had said it all. Xena had witnessed first-hand the anger and grief that Gabrielle had felt after the loss of her husband. She had watched as the compassion and love that so defined her best friend was threatened by rage and guilt. She had also seen her friend dig deep within herself and find the courage and strength to conquer that rage. But what she had not realized, until this moment, was the depth of pain that HER death had caused her friend. "I'm sorry. I never dreamedÉ"

Gabrielle closed her eyes and let the tears flow freely. "Callisto took PerdicasÉCelesta took TalusÉbut youÉyou didn't fight. You gave up on us, on ME."

"No, never on you. On myself." Xena swallowed hard past the lump in her own throat. "You're the strong one. Don't you know that?"

"No, you're the one we all run to for help."

Xena tenderly brushed back golden bangs. "But where does my strength come from?"

Gabrielle opened her eyes and looked into the crystalline blues of her best friend. "Me?"

Xena's eyes grew soft as she studied the doubt evident in the young woman's face. Words were important to Gabrielle and Xena searched for ones that would express her feelings. Xena couldn't believe that after all this time Gabrielle could question her place in Xena's life. "Gabrielle, you're the compass that guides my soul. You're my anchor in stormy seas." There was a moment of perfect silence as they caught a glimpse of their true selves in each others eyes, then Gabrielle's eyebrows wiggled with an unspoken 'and'. "Do you want me to go on?"

A grin played across Gabrielle's lips. 'Very lyrical, Xena. I might make a bard out of you yet.' "More would be nice."

A devilish gleam flickered in Xena's eyes and Gabrielle began to rethink her request. "You're the balm that heals my wounds. You're the light that chases away my darkness." Xena slowly stood and made her way to the foot of the tub, letting her fingers trail through the water. When she reached the end she playfully flicked water back at the bard.

Gabrielle tilted her head and telegraphed a message that said 'don't do that' with emerald eyes. "Xena, remember where we are."

Xena rested her hands on the edge of the tub and her eyebrows wiggled mischievously. "You're the laughter when my days grow weary. You'reÉ"

'She's up to something but I'mÉ' Before Gabrielle could finish her thought her feet were snatched and she was pulled under the water. Water sloshed over the rim of the tub, onto the floor and under the door. Xena held on tightly to one leg while she splashed water back at Gabrielle's head as it broke the surface. Gabrielle retaliated the only way she knew how. Kicking her feet up and down, she splashed more water onto the floor AND onto a certain warrior princess.

"Oops!" Gabrielle giggled, putting her hands up in defense. "Xena, don't look at me that way. You started this."

It was hard not to laugh at the warrior standing at the foot of the tub drenched in water. "You're absolutely right." Xena said, slowly and dramatically, wiping the dripping water from her face and bangs. "And you knowÉ I always finish what I start."

Before Gabrielle could climb out of the tub Xena grabbed her legs and started tickling. Gabrielle squirmed and splashed in a feeble attempt to break loose or at least get into a better position but it was all for naught.


"No, no. You said you wanted more. Your exact words were, 'More would be nice,'" Xena playfully teased as she squeezed the tender area above the bard's knees and received more laughter and another soaking.

"That's notÉwhat I meant," Gabrielle managed between gasps.


The two women were exhausted. All they wanted was a soft bed and a warm blanket. Due to the late hour, Cyrene had suggested Lanessa stay the night and return home in the morning and Lanessa had graciously accepted the offer. As they entered the barn, their attention was drawn to the golden palomino in an adjacent stall and Cyrene whispered a short prayer of thanks for the safe journey of her two daughters. "They're probably already in bed and asleep."

Lanessa nodded her head in agreement though she knew that was not to be the case; her senses were telling her something else entirely. "You never know about those two." Lanessa recalled childhood adventures of long ago with her two best friends, Xena and Lyceus. No one would ever be able to take Lyceus's place in her heart or Xena's but Gabrielle filled that void in a way all her own, reviving a joy and peace that had long been lost to both she and the warrior.

She reached her hand out in greeting to her old friend, allowing Argo to sniff and identify her. "Hello girl. It's been awhile hasn't it?" Argo whinnied and stepped closer to the petite woman. "You're still as beautiful as ever. Yes, you are," she cooed as she patted the mare. "I'll come back and see you later."

They entered the inn and Cyrene checked the kitchen to ensure all was well before grabbing a candle and leading the way to the room. They'd not made it far before hearing the commotion and seeing the water spreading from beneath the bathing room door.

"So much for being asleep," Lanessa quipped.

Cyrene smiled at the idea that was forming in her mind and she put her arm on her friend's shoulder as she pulled her closer. "What about playing a joke on these two overgrown 'kids'?

"I'd love it!"

"Just follow my lead." Cyrene reached out and grabbed the handle of the door. "On three," she whispered. "OneÉtwoÉthree."

"XENA!" came an all too familiar voice as the door to the room suddenly flew open. Cyrene and Lanessa stared in amazement at the water covering the wooden floor. Their eyes then fell upon the drenched warrior and small blond poking her head around her friend's side.

"Uh-oh!" the guilty parties replied in unison.

"MotherÉLanessa. You're back." Xena yelped in astonishment and embarrassment.

"Yes, and not soon enough, I see." Cyrene stood with her feet firmly planted, hands on her hips and a scowl that only a mother could give. "What is the meaning of this? There is a river flowing out this door into my inn."

"UmÉwellÉ" Xena was at a complete loss for words. 'What is it about mothers that they hold this power over you no matter what your age?'

Gabrielle continued to giggle as she watched her friend squirm under the scrutiny of her mother. 'Thank goodness it's Cyrene and not my mom.'

Cyrene focused the same scowl at her adoptive daughter. "And don't think you're getting out of this either young lady. I know it takes more than one unruly child to cause this kind of mess."

Gabrielle's eyes grew wide like an owl's and she tightened her grip on Xena's leathers.

Lanessa did her best to maintain a straight face. Seeing Xena, the tall, fierce warrior, being faced down by a middle aged, chest-high woman was almost too comical to believe. And the look in Gabrielle's eyes when Cyrene called her down just like her own daughter was priceless. Glancing toward the older woman, a silent message passed between them. "Don't just stand there gawking at us like two ten year-olds." She looked down at Gabrielle who was shivering due to her wet body and the draft that was coming through the doorway. "Gabrielle, get out of that water before you catch your death of cold."

"Yes, ma'am," came the obedient reply.

Gabrielle reached for the linen Lanessa offered and wrapped it around her body before attempting to step out of the tub. 'I don't think this day could get any worse.' She had one foot down and was bringing the other leg over the side when her foot slipped on the wet floor. Xena and Lanessa sensed it at the same moment and both reached to catch their friend before she found herself landing painfully on her rump. "Seems like we've been here before."

Xena grinned at the bard. "Getting into trouble or you falling on yourÉ"

"Hey, now look! You started this," Gabrielle said, slapping the back of her hand against Xena's stomach.

Xena let a spark of mischief flash in her eyes. "And when you least expect it, I'll finish it."

"Promises, promises." Gabrielle waved her hand as she rolled her eyes.

Cyrene was now having difficulty sticking with her own plan. The fact that her two daughters could continue with their playful banter in the middle of being reprimanded was almost more than she could stand. She cleared her throat to bring their attention back to the matter at hand. "Enough you two." Cyrene shook her head. "I don't care whose fault it is as long as it's cleaned up before morning." She nodded to Lanessa and the two turned and left the room.


Down the hall, in the room adjoining Xena and Gabrielle's, two men snickered as they heard the commotion being generated from the bathing room.

"See Herc, I told you we miss all the fun."



Xena's internal clock sounded and she rolled onto her back debating whether to get up or sleep in. Practicality and training won out and she sat on the edge of the bed for a moment before standing and quietly dressing. 'We may be on vacation but I still have to keep my skills up.' She stoked the fire to cut the chill out of the room and glanced at the sleeping form of her friend. Gabrielle was not tall to begin with but she appeared even smaller when lying on her side in a curled position on a bed designed for someone who was six foot tall or better. It made Xena stop and wonder at how old her partner really was.

Gabrielle had always avoided the subject and to be honest, Xena had never admitted her own age to her young friend. Curiosity got the better of her and she had sent word to Lila for the information. When Xena discovered that Gabrielle's birthday was six days after Cyrene's, she wrote to her mother and a plan was put into action. She hated giving half-truths but Gabrielle could be relentless with her questions and it was much easier to say they were coming to celebrate Cyrene's birthday, which was true, and leave it at that.

She smiled as she pulled the blanket up and tucked it around Gabrielle's shoulders. 'You look even more innocent in your sleep. Why do you hang around this old warrior? Just like LyceusÉ couldn't get rid of him either.' Xena's eyes lost their focus, her thoughts turning to moments that would only exist in her dreams. 'You and Lanessa would be married now. Mother would have the grandchild she always wanted and I would be an aunt. Can you see me as an aunt?' A smirk tugged at the corner of her mouth but was short lived as her thoughts deepened. 'So much would be different if you had never gone into battle, never picked up the swordÉnever followed me.'

Time seemed to stand still until Xena realized she was staring into clear emerald eyes. Swallowing the lump in her throat, she quickly glanced away to gain her composure.

Gabrielle slowly awakened to see a look of regret on the face of her friend. 'What thoughts have stolen you away to torment you now? How much guilt can those broad shoulders carry?' She patiently waited, watching the facial muscles flex and relax, and the focus sharpen. She knew that feelings and emotions were a difficult issue with Xena and the warrior tended to keep her own counsel. Gabrielle wasn't surprised when she saw her friend turn away. 'Why do you have such a difficult time letting me in?' "Good morning," Gabrielle said softly.

"Good morning. Sleep well?"

Gabrielle yawned and pushed herself up on her elbows. "You mean after the two across the hall stopped laughing?"

"And the two next door," Xena pointed out.

The bard's eyebrows disappeared under her bangs. "Hercules and Iolaus were in on it too?"

"I don't think so, but they couldn't help hearing what was happening."

A giggle escaped Gabrielle's throat. "We had more privacy on the road. Ironic isn't it?"

Xena reached down and pushed on the soft padding of the bed. "Well, we could go back to sleeping on the hard ground, checking our bedrolls for unwanted guests, taking baths in fishy riversÉ"

Gabrielle raised her hand as she rose from the bed. "Enough. I get the picture."

"Thought you would." Xena turned and strolled to the door.

"You just love being right, " Gabrielle teased.

"And you hate being wrong."

"Do not."

"Do too." Xena stepped through the doorway and shut the door behind her.

"Do not," Gabrielle mumbled to the back of the door.

"Do too," came the reply from the hallway.


"She feels so much guilt. She doesn't think she has the right to find happiness, especially if that happiness puts them in danger." Blue eyes caught brown in a silent plea.

'Perhaps it's because you have the same guilt.' "She may not want to talk about it."

"I think she does. She's scaredÉand stubborn."

"Like someone else I know?"

"Me?" Xena asked, pointing to herself in mock innocence.

'Yeah, you.' "Let me see what I can do."


Everyone was stuffed from the morning meal. Danielle had outdone herself with griddlecakes, bacon, eggs and lest we forget, nut bread, fresh from the oven for the little bard.

"I have never understood where you put all that food," Lanessa said as she took a seat beside Gabrielle.

"That's what everyone says." She mopped some of the remaining syrup on her plate with the last piece of griddlecake. "If we ever stop all this traveling I'll be in big trouble."

Lanessa stole a glance at Xena and then turned her attention back to the bard. "I don't see that happening any time soon. Xena has never been the home body type of person."

"Tell me about it. I had to pick my chin off the ground when she suggested we come here for a rest." Gabrielle leaned closer so their conversation would be more private. "Then she said we were surprising Cyrene for her birthday and I understood."

'If you only knew the truth my friend.' Lanessa grinned. "They've come far in healing their relationship. It wasn't easy when Cortese and his men came. Cyrene knew they needed to fight but she also knew the price it would probably exact. She just didn't figure on losing both of them."

Gabrielle's eyes misted as she reached and clasped Lanessa's hand. 'Should I bring this subject up? We've never really talked about Lyceus. She seems so at peace though. How did she do it? "Xena told me that you and Lyceus were to be married."

"Yes. He and Xena were my best friends. We were quite a trio. Believe it or not, Lyceus was the mastermind behind most of our antics. He was very clever and would have made a good strategist. If there were praise to be reaped from it, he got it. If there was troubleÉwe got it." Lanessa motioned to Xena and then to herself.

Gabrielle smiled and let a giggle rise from her throat. "XenaÉtroubleÉyou must be talking about someone else."

"Yeah, right," Lanessa answered in playful sarcasm.

Gabrielle swirled her fork idly through the remnants of syrup on her plate as she debated whether to ask her next question. Lanessa sensed the girl's hesitancy and squeezed the hand that was still clasped with hers.

"HowÉhow did you get overÉhim?" Gabrielle asked in a quiet voice.

"I haven't."

The answer took her by surprise and she raised her head to meet tender brown eyes.

"You never stop loving them. They're a part of you foreverÉthat's the wonderful thing about love." Lanessa saw the look of understanding but she also sensed the confusion that was in the bard's heart.

"Yes, but what if you meet someone else?" Gabrielle's eyes slowly, unconsciously tracked to where Iolaus stood conversing with Hercules, Xena and Toris.

She knew the questions were a guise for the answers Gabrielle was searching for in her own life. "Have you?" Lanessa asked as she followed the path of Gabrielle's eyes to the group standing in the doorway.

Realizing the confinement of the kitchen was not a suitable place for continuing their conversation, Lanessa motioned toward the porch. "Let's step outside for a little fresh air, shall we?" They quietly exited through the back door and onto the porch unobserved, except for a pair of azure eyes.

"I'm not sure." Gabrielle continued, smiling as she recalled the kisses they'd shared. "We're really good friends and I wouldn't want to mess that up." She fiddled with some kindling on top of the woodpile. "It would change thingsÉ for all four of usÉand I'm not certain I'm ready for that.

"How does Iolaus feel?"

Gabrielle blushed as she remembered the heated moments in the barn. "I think about the same."

The blush was not lost on Lanessa. She remembered those days of young, spirited passions; those precious and timeless moments with LyceusÉbefore their dreams were shattered. "Pretty intenseÉhuh?"

The emerald eyes closed and her response was a bit more open than intended. "Oh, yeeaahh." The sound of soft giggles brought her back to reality. "OhÉumÉsorry."

Lanessa placed her hand on Gabrielle's arm. "Don't apologize for enjoying the feelings of loving someone. Without love, what reason would there be to live?"

"Even when loving them puts them in danger?" Gabrielle asked, a slight bitterness and hurt evident in her voice. She stepped over to the railing, resting her hands on it, staring into the morning mist as it slowly revealed its hidden secrets.

Xena was right; their young companion was facing a strong demon. She paused a moment, thinking about her approach and making mental notations of Gabrielle's voice and posture. The girl's body language quickly moving from open and approachable to closed and defensive in the span of only a matter of moments. 'She's smart, logical. Take her one step at time to the conclusion. ' "What do you and Xena do for a living?"

Gabrielle looked over her shoulder in disbelief. "You know exactly what we do." Turning back to the railing she shook her head and sighed. "We help people."

"By helping, you mean that you make clothing, plow fields, cookÉthings like that, right?" Lanessa posed calmly as she watched the tension build in the muscles on Gabrielle's shoulders and back.

"No." Gabrielle had an idea where this was heading and didn't like it. "We fight for people who can't fight for themselves."

"So you risk your lives to save people?"

"Yes," Gabrielle answered in a strained tone.

"Are you able to save everyone?"

'Stop asking me.' Gabrielle winced at the question, her knuckles turning white as her grip tightened on the railing, the answer catching in her throat. 'Xena and I talked about this last night. We settled it.' "NoÉnot everyone."

Lanessa stepped slowly toward her trembling friend. "Good people die." It was not a question this time but a statement of fact.

She fought the tears. "Yes." 'No more. Please!'

'She's strong but how far can I push her?' She prayed her instincts were right. "People you loveÉpeople who love you." Lanessa gently placed her arm around a shoulder and Gabrielle turned into the embrace, burying her tearstained cheek on the comforting shoulder. "FriendsÉyour husbandÉXena."

Lanessa felt the answer as a nod against her shoulder. "What more could you have done?" 'Let the demon go.'

'Oh God.' Images replayed painfully through her mind. Her words were choked.

Gabrielle grabbed Talus' arm trying to hold him back. 'No. You don't have to take him.' She pleaded with Celeste. 'We saved you. You owe us. Please!'


Gabrielle watched as her husband stood again, blood running down his arm, only to have Callisto turn and thrust her sword into him. 'NO! PERDICAS!'


Gabrielle shook Xena's shoulders trying to bring her back to consciousness. 'No! Please wake-up. Wake-up.' She turned to Niklio. 'No. Do something; DO SOMETHING!'


Lanessa stroked Gabrielle's back, rocking gently, her eyes floating up toward a familiar presence standing in silence in the doorway. The words were spoken softly, tenderly and meant as much for her tall friend as the young woman in her arms. "Rule number oneÉ you can't save everyone; rule number twoÉyou can't change rule number one."

Xena stepped onto the porch and joined her friends. "Those are hard rules to live by."

Gabrielle slowly lifted her head and wiped her eyes.

"But love is worth the risk. The statement is true. It is better to have loved and lost, than to have never loved at all." A silent pause passed between the trio. Lanessa grasped her young friend's face gently between her hands, brown eyes meeting emerald. "What jeopardy could your love possibly put Iolaus or Xena into that they haven't already experienced?"

Gabrielle considered the question. "Nothing."

"That's right." Lanessa placed a soft kiss on Gabrielle's forehead. "You know it in your head," she brought their clasped hands up and pressed them against her own chest, "now believe it in your heart."

A smile tugged at the corners of Gabrielle's lips and slowly spread over her face until it twinkled through her eyes. She gave Lanessa's hand a tight squeeze then turned toward Xena. "You set me up."

"Yep. You mad at me?"


Try as she might, Xena couldn't keep the seriousness of the moment going. She needed to ease the tension. "Good because I hate to have people upset during birthday parties."

Lanessa squeezed Gabrielle's shoulder and grinned. "Now, in terms of that handsome man in there, nothing says you can't simply enjoy each other's company. You're both young. When the time is right, you'll know it."



Cyrene continued to knead the dough for the fresh bread and Danielle removed the tubers from the oven. Cyrene loved to cook, especially when Xena and Gabrielle were home. There were very few things that she could best her daughter in but cooking was one of them. For Xena, cooking had always been a means to an end. She needed food; therefore she cooked. Cyrene, on the other hand, cooked for the need and the joy of it.

"Danielle, you should have seen them; Xena, standing there soaking wet and speechless and Gabrielle, naked as a jaybird, cowering behind her." Cyrene slapped the table as she recalled the moment of surprise.

"Sounds like I really missed something,"

"It was worth every minute just to see the look on their faces. It's not very often that we pull something over on my daughter."

Xena entered the kitchen in time to hear her mother's last comment. "And don't get any ideas of it happening again."

Cyrene smiled as she looked at the beautiful tall figure standing in the doorway. "You're just in time. Danielle put your tubers on the table. I've never heard of cooking them that way but I'm game to try them."

"That's the first step; wait until you taste the result." Xena rubbed her hands briskly and clasped them together.

"Xena, are you sure about this?" Gabrielle asked hesitantly.

A look of annoyance passed over her features. "Gabrielle, I CAN COOK."

"I'll second that," came the deep baritone voice from the hallway door. His eyes sparkled as he saw a faint blush in the warrior's cheeks. 'Gotcha.' "Here we are ladies. Where do you want us?" Hercules and Iolaus held up their strings of fish.

'Is Xena blushing? Yes, that is a blush.' Gabrielle stepped over to the washtub. "Bring them over here and I'll start cleaning them.

Iolaus grabbed the string of fish from his companion and headed toward the washtub, depositing them with a splat that caused a spray of fishy water droplets to fall on Gabrielle. Quickly grabbing a cloth he proceeded to clean her neck and chest where the splatters had hit. "I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to do that." They both started laughing.

Gabrielle sucked in a breath as Iolaus' fingers inadvertently grazed over the sensitive skin of her chest. It was enticing and yet embarrassing at the same moment. She forced the feelings back, struggling to gain control of herself and the hands causing the problem. "IÉI can do that myself. Thanks."

Iolaus wasn't immune to the sensations either. 'So soft, so beautiful, so... Stop Iolaus. Get hold of yourself.' "OhÉyeahÉsure." He relinquished the cloth with a wink. "Anytime I may be of serviceÉ"

She playfully struck back with the cloth. "You're incorrigible."

"That's what you love about me." Iolaus turned back to the fish and began cleaning and filleting them.

"Among other things," Gabrielle muttered under her breath.

Soon the two had a small assembly line flowing. Gabrielle stuffed the fillets with a mixture of breadcrumbs and special herbs and passed them to Iolaus where he laid thin slices of lemon on the top, then wrapped each in a large green leaf.

"These are like the ones we cooked at the campsite, aren't they?" Iolaus asked as he carefully placed each package in the oven. "I can't wait to see what the trout tastes like fixed that way."

"Believe it or not, Xena was the one who showed me how to make these. Of course I adjusted the herbs a little and added the lemon but it's still basically her recipe." She glanced across the kitchen to see her friend busy dicing the baked tubers. "Most people don't get an opportunity to see this side of her."

"No, they don't." Iolaus admired Gabrielle's support and devotion to Xena. She was a good and welcomed influence on the ex-warlord. No one, not even Iolaus, could have predicted the effects this innocent soul produced in the life once controlled by evil. "What do you say to a stroll while they prepare the rest of lunch?"

Gabrielle's eyes twinkled as a smile spread across her face. "I'd like that very much."


The bacon spat and sizzled in the skillet as Hercules kept a close eye. "How done to you want this?"

"Not burnt but very crispy. It needs to crumble easily. I figure we need about eight slices," Xena answered as she continued to dice the tubers.

"Here's the onion. You know some celery and carrots would taste good in this too." Lanessa scrapped the chopped onions into the pot where Xena had already melted some butter over a low heat. She looked over her shoulder to see Xena scrunching her nose at the suggestion. "I'll slice them very thin. You won't even know that they're in it."

"Did Gabrielle put you up to this?" She shook her head. "You know I lived a long time before you people started making me eat all this veggie crÉ"

Cyrene swatted her daughter's backside as she passed by. "And now you'll live a lot longer because of them."

"Yeah, I can just see it nowÉ" Xena raised her hand above her, panning it across an imaginary banner. "Xena Warrior Vegetarian: she slices, she dices, sheÉ"

Lanessa unceremoniously shoved a carrot into her friend's mouth. "Eat your vegetables and shut up."

Xena looked around in astonishment. "Mother, are you going to let her get away with that?"

'Oh, this is too good. Twice in one visit.' "Yes dear," Cyrene answered with a straight face.

Xena tilted her head toward the ceiling, closing her eyes and raised her hands in a pleading gesture. 'When did I lose control?' She gave a sigh and returned to her work. "Mother, where's that special tool I made for mashing the tubers?"

"It's in the drawer to the right of Lanessa."

Lanessa watched as Xena efficiently mashed the tubers with the unique tool. "How did you come up with that?"

"It just kind of came to me one night when I was fidgeting and crushing some coals with a piece of iron we used to mark our horses. I asked a smithy friend of mine to create a smaller version of the iron and this is what I got." Xena had been quite pleased with the results. "Works well, don't you think?" Xena added milk and chicken broth along with salt, pepper and a pinch of some special herbs and swung the pot over the fire to simmer. "Now we just wait for it to cook down and thicken."

Hercules brought in some more wood and stoked the fire. "Your bacon is crumbled and ready." He picked up the wooden bowl and gave it to Xena and watched as she took a generous portion of it and sprinkled it into the simmering pot. "Looks like our partners have disappeared again."

"Yeah, they seem to be doing that a lot." 'They need a little time together to sort things out.'

"Probably helping her to write a new story."

"Yeah, the 'hands on approach'. Maybe even acting-out a scene," Xena added with a conspiratorial wink.

Lanessa and Cyrene traded looks as they watch the two friends dance around their feelings. "I've seen snails move faster," Cyrene commented.


They strolled along the creek, side by side, each in their own thoughts. Gabrielle sensed her heart rate steadily increasing, but couldn't decide if it was from a general fear of making a fool of herself in revealing her true feelings and fears or the intense attraction she felt for this man. Maybe it was a little of both. She casually reached down and picked an oak leaf from the path and twirled it between her fingers. The once green and pliant leaf was now brown and brittle. She hated winter. Everything just seemed so lifeless, soÉdead. The trees were bare, the sky was a dull gray and she could feel the wind chilling her to the bone. It reminded her of an all too familiar dark, cold and empty feeling that gripped her heart and smothered her soul. 'DeathÉit's part of the cycle of life; nature's directive. But in the spring life will flourish again.' A smile crossed Gabrielle's lips. 'Yes, life and hope will come again...even to me.' Gabrielle closed her eyes and drew a deep breath. "I've been thinking about youÉmeÉus."

"I'm not wanting to push you, Gabrielle. This is kind of new to me too."

"Well, at least we're in the same boat." Gabrielle laughed nervously.

"I've tried relationships before and they just didn't work." Iolaus stopped and knelt by the creek bed, tossing an occasional pebble into the water and watching the ripple effect it caused. 'Nothing stays the same. Everything you do has an effect on someone else.' "And I know you've lost a husband that you loved."

Gabrielle closed her eyes in silence as she thought about Perdicas. "For the longest time I thought it was my fault. It seemed that everyone I loved died."

Iolaus stood and placed his arms around her.

"Then when Xena died, I thought I had my proof."

"I remember when I found you on the trail."

"But it wasn't my fault. I did all I could." Gabrielle rested her head on the broad shoulder, enjoying the feelings it was evoking. "I know that now."

Iolaus gently stroked the golden hair. "Guilt is a strong force. No one is immune."

"No one comes away clean do they?"

"No, but I know that love is a far stronger force if we allow it to be." Iolaus lifted her chin and gazed into the most beautiful face he could ever recall. "Whatever you decide, Gabrielle, is okay with me."

"No pressure, huh?" Gabrielle teased a bit to break the tension. She broke eye contact and studied the stitching on Iolaus's vest. "I can't deny what I feel when I'm around you."

"Good things I hope."

"Yeah, definitely good," Gabrielle giggled then bit her bottom lip as she considered how to express her next thoughts.

Iolaus saw the hesitation and felt a pang of nervousness grab at his stomach. "Why do I get the feeling there's a 'but' in there somewhere?"

Within a few seconds Gabrielle's mind replayed the last few encounters with Iolaus. They were loving, vivid and sensual. "ButÉit's been awhile since I'veÉI meanÉPerdicas was my onlyÉ"

Realizing what Gabrielle was trying so delicately to say, Iolaus gently placed his fingers to her lips. "I'm not asking for that." He saw Gabrielle's eyebrows rise with a look of surprise and knew he needed to correct any misunderstandings. "I mean yes, that is something I want to share with youÉone dayÉbut not until we're both ready. When the time is right, we'll know it."

'That's exactly what Lanessa said.' "So no expectations, no commitments?"

"Let's take each moment as it comes and be thankful."

Gabrielle studied the lines fanning out from the corner of Iolaus' eyes as he smiled. "What if, in the future, one of us wantsÉmore?"

Iolaus's gaze softened as he brushed an errant strand of hair away from her eyes. "Then you just let me know because I'll be there waiting."

"Hmm, a man in waiting. I like that." Gabrielle grinned mischievously.

Iolaus saw the grin and played along. "I told you beforeÉanytime I may be of serviceÉ"

Their lips met in a series of deepening kisses leaving both weak and breathless. Gabrielle placed her hands on his chest as she steadied herself from the effects of the kisses.

"MmmÉyou're good at this."

'Not so bad yourself."

"I've been a bit out of practice though."

"Well, you know what they sayÉ" They both grinned cheekily.

"Practice makes perfect," came the unison reply as they lost themselves in each other once again.


Cyrene had volunteered to see what was holding up the two wayward adults and had followed the trail along the creek until she spotted the two in a passionate embrace. It warmed her heart to see her 'daughter' find love again. Gabrielle was special. She knew that from their first meeting. Who else but someone with a pure heart could come to the defense of Xena? Who else could chisel away at the walls of Xena's pain and anger and not get buried in the debris? Certainly not the mother who gave up and turned her back on her own daughter. Ironically it was a total stranger, a petite dreamer from a rural village call Poteidia, who during a fight for her life, saw the hero of her dreams. Yes, it had been a sort of hero worship at first, but as time passed they alternated the roles of teacher and student. Gabrielle brought Xena backÉthe real XenaÉand if for nothing else but that act aloneÉCyrene would be eternally grateful.

Cyrene took several steps toward the couple and cleared her throat as a warning of her approach. "It's going to be a short winter if you two keep this kind of heat up." Gabrielle quickly buried her face in her hands and against Iolaus' chest as her skin flushed a vivid pink.

"Hi, Cyrene. We wereÉuhÉjustÉ" Iolaus stammered through his own embarrassment.

"No need for explanation. I'm familiar with the birds and the bees."


Gabrielle's stomach chose that moment to rumble its protest and Iolaus and Cyrene both laughed. "Perfect timing."

Stepping between the couple, Cyrene turned around and encircled an arm of each with her own. "The food is ready and I'm anxious to test this new skill of my daughter's. After all, that which doesn't kill us, makes us stronger."



Lanessa peeked through the window. "Alright everybody, here they come."

Iolaus stepped forward and opened the door allowing the two women to enter first. "SURPRISE!!!" came the chorus from all over the room. It was followed by a hearty, yet slightly off-key, rendition of the 'Birthday Song.'

"Happy Birthday, Cyrene," Gabrielle said as she hugged the older woman warmly.

"Well thank you Gabrielle but this is all for you," Cyrene gestured with a wave of her hand.

Gabrielle shook her head in puzzlement. "No. This is for you. Xena and I have been planning this for months." The two guests of honor stared at each other for a moment before looking up and making eye contact with a set of beaming blue eyes. "You are TOAST, Warrior Princess," Gabrielle warned.

"Gotcha." Xena took both women into her arms and squeezed them tightly. "Happy Birthday. You're the most important people in my life. I just wanted you to know that."

Cyrene's voice dropped in register as she spoke into her daughter's ear. "Just wait until YOUR birthday, dear."

Xena's body tensed slightly. "Uh-oh"


Everyone gave their congratulations before taking their seats around the feast that decorated the table. Cyrene raised her hands for silence and addressed the group. "Thank you so much for this wonderful surprise. For so many years I had given up any hope of having a relationship with my daughter and now look at how I'm blessed. I can't think of any better way to celebrate this special day than with the people I love." She started on her right, making eye contact as she called each by name. "Xena, Hercules, Lanessa, Danielle, Poli, Iolaus, Gabrielle, TorisÉthank you all."

Cyrene lifted her mug in a toast. "To family."

"To family," the voices echoed in response as everyone lifted their mugs.

Gabrielle stood up from her place and looked around the table. "A very wise person once told me that we all have families that we were born into. Sometimes families change and you have to build your own. And sometimes friendship binds you closer than blood ever could." Gabrielle's gaze stopped on Xena and they exchanged heartfelt smiles and winks. "Thank you for being my friends." Gabrielle raised her mug as everyone followed suit. "To friendship."

"To friendship."

A stomach rumbled and all eyes turned toward Gabrielle. "Hey, it wasn't me." Gabrielle raised her hands in defense while she giggled and subtly pointed her thumb toward her right.

Toris raised his mug. "To hunger; let's eat."

Laughter erupted all around and everyone began filling their plates and bowls from the feast on the table. It had been a long time since Cyrene had shared her table with this much 'family'. There was the typical playful fighting over last pieces or spoonfuls and the slapping of hands as they tried to pinch tidbits off their neighbor's plates. Gabrielle and Cyrene were the prime targets. It wasn't clear whether that was due to them being the guests of honor for the party or the fact that they were completely surrounded by the instigators. To everyone's amazement, Xena's soup was a hit. Of course she swore it would have tasted better had Lanessa not insisted on putting vegetables in it.

Danielle and Poli walked back into the dining area carrying a large candlelit cake and an armload of wrapped packages. Danielle set the cake on the table in front of Cyrene and Gabrielle. "You can't open any presents until you make a wish and blow out your candles."

"Yes, mother," Cyrene agree with a cheeky grin.

Gabrielle and Cyrene closed their eyes and paused a moment, making their wishes, before taking a breath and blowing out their candles. They alternated turns in opening presents so everyone could enjoy the surprise and excitement that each gift brought. Cyrene had received some lovely material for a new dress from Xena and Gabrielle. Toris, who had already presented his gift on Cyrene's actual birthday, had built her a dresser with an upper, vertical section for hanging clothes and a lower section with drawers for smaller, folded items. Lanessa had knitted a soft, warm shawl to keep Cyrene warm during cool mornings and evenings. Danielle and Poli gave her a necklace with a pearl suspended from it. The real surprise had come from Hercules and Iolaus. They gave her a set of kitchen knives that included a meat cleaver, a butcher knife and a fruit and vegetable knife. The workmanship was like none Cyrene had ever seen before. No matter how hard they pressed no one could get either man to reveal where they had purchased the items.

Gabrielle's gifts were equally beautiful. The tanned leather bag for carrying her scrolls was given to her by Toris. It even had her name on the flap. Cyrene and Lanessa had made her a skirt and top in a deep, emerald color cloth. It had a beaded leather fringe that hung from the bodice. Poli and Danielle gave her ink, two new quills and more parchment for writing her stories. Hercules and Iolaus again surprised everyone with their gift. Gabrielle pulled back the wrapping to find two wrist bracelets with beautiful intricate quill designs. Though thinner, they seemed to be made out of a material similar to Cyrene's knives. Again, neither Hercules nor Iolaus would reveal their source. They simply referred to the person as 'a friend'.

Gabrielle wasn't surprised or hurt that there wasn't a gift from Xena. Xena would wait until later when they were alone. She was still a very private person when it came to expressing emotions and sharing in things like gifts and such. It was a side of Xena that Gabrielle didn't fully understand but learned to appreciate. To most, Xena appeared cold and calculated, the stoic warrior, but Gabrielle knew that was the business side of her friend. Xena could be quite playful and had a wicked sense of humor that Gabrielle could only attribute to growing up with two brothers. Gabrielle remembered one morning when she awoke to find herself and a handful of beetles 'sewn-up' in her bedroll.

What most people didn't know was the depth of Xena emotions, so much so that sometimes they even caught the warrior, herself, by surprise. Xena had isolated herself emotionally for so long that the joking and sarcasm she used as a buffer were almost instinctual. When Gabrielle had died during the Mitoan/Thessalian war it had been Hypocrites who told Gabrielle what lengths Xena had taken to fight for her life. Gabrielle knew that Xena felt responsible for her safety and didn't want any harm to befall her but things seemed to have changed after that incident. Gabrielle no longer took for granted the small, seemingly insignificant things that Xena did daily for their care and safety. She saw them for what they truly wereÉthe silent affirmations of Xena's devotion to her. Gabrielle spoke through words; Xena spoke through actions.

Iolaus stood and brushed his hands off. "Well, it looks like everything's complete except the spankings."

That drew Gabrielle's attention and she stopped packing her gifts in the leather bag. "Hold it! Nobody said anything about spankings."

Xena exchanged a look with Cyrene to let her know the teasing on spankings was only directed at Gabrielle.

Hercules rose from his chair and stood beside Xena. "But it's tradition, Gabrielle."

"Tradition, smition. Nobody's laying a hand on my buÉbackside. Right Xena?"

Xena appeared to be contemplating the pros and cons of the idea. "I don't know Gabrielle. There's something to be said about tradition. A kind of bonding thing, right guys?" She nodded her head toward Iolaus, Hercules and Toris.

"WhatÉwaitÉXenaÉIolausÉHerculesÉToris?" Gabrielle cautiously stepped backward to the door. "Okay guys. Ha ha. You can stop now. I get it. The joke's over." She watched as all four advanced, undeterred by her pleas. "GuysÉ" Gabrielle looked over the shoulders of her 'stalkers', pleading for help from anyone but only getting muffled laughter and ducking heads. She reached back and grabbed the handle of the door. "Gotta goÉ"



"AaahÉthereÉyeah," Gabrielle moaned as she adjusted the pillow underneath her head and chest a little more, trying to relax under Xena's skilled hands. "I can't believe you did that."

Xena lightened the pressure as she massaged the liniment into the bruised area. "You were the one who ran into the barn. 'Besides, how were we to know there was a goat in the barn?'

Gabrielle glanced back over her shoulder. "Because SOMEBODY was chasing me."

"Well, we wouldn't have had to chase you if you had STAYED STILL."

"How many people do you know would stay still for Hercules to spank them?"

Xena's eyebrow rose and a smirk tugged at the corner of her mouth as the answer to the question came quickly to her mind. 'Me, for one.' "A lot of women."

"Xena?!" Gabrielle, shocked by the revelation, shifted to look over her shoulder again.

Xena saw the look and shrugged her shoulders in innocence. "What? I'm just being honest."

Although Xena had never been one for girl talk, Gabrielle felt very strongly that there were a lot of details about the relationship between Xena and Hercules that the warrior had not revealed. Gabrielle had tried on numerous occasions to pull information out of the tight-lipped warrior but Xena always had a way of turning the conversations back around to Gabrielle

"Would you?" Gabrielle asked.

Xena feigned innocence as she paused to add more liniment to her hands for the massage. "Would I what?"

"Xena!" Gabrielle squealed, frustration evident in her voice. She knew Xena was toying with her but she wasn't exactly in a position to press the issue like she wanted.

"Gabrielle, I don't kiss and tell. What happens between Hercules and myself is our business, nobody else's."

"LowerÉlowerÉoooÉleftÉaaah," Gabrielle directed as Xena continued with her task. "So you're saying it's okay for you to meddle in my business but I can't ask about yours."

"No; you can ask."

"But you won't tell."

"Exactly." Xena pressed a particularly tender area and felt the muscles underneath her fingers tighten in reflex.

"That's not fair."

"My game, my rules."

'I'm beginning to hate that phrase.' "So when will it be my turn?"


Gabrielle took a deep breath and tried to relax as Xena worked through a few more sensitive spots. "That stinks."


"No, I mean the liniment."

Xena grinned mischievously. "Argo never complains."

Every muscle in Gabrielle's back tightened as she twisted to look back at the warrior. "Oooowww!" Gabrielle wailed in response to the pain the move elicited. "ARGO?! Xena, are you giving me horse medicine again?"

"It's working isn't it?"


"Exactly. Without this liniment on your lower back and," Xena cleared her throat, "backsideÉyou wouldn't be able to sit or ride for a week."

'Another week, that wouldn't be so bad.' "We could stay here and recuperate a little. I'm sure Cyrene wouldn't mind having her daughter for a few more days and she can tell me more stories of you growing up."

Xena shook her head at the thought of Cyrene, Toris or Lanessa revealing more embarrassing tidbits with Gabrielle. "The last thing I want to do is stay here and let people plant seeds of stories about my childhood in your fertile imagination."

"You mean you don't want me to tell a story about the time you and your brothers were climbing in the trees and you ripped a large gash in the seat of your pantsÉabout the same time that Maphias and his friends were walking by?" Gabrielle giggled. "Or when you were twelve and Cyrene MADE you wear that frilly, blue dress to the festival?" Gabrielle lifted her hand to stop Xena from interrupting. "Oh, oh, I know, what about the time with the bear and the outhouse?"

Xena grabbed the bath cloth and playfully tossed it at Gabrielle, smacking her in the head. "You know, you're not exactly in a position to be teasing. As I recall, we never got to those birthday spankings." 'And I don't think you'll be running out of the room in THIS 'birthday suit'.'

"You wouldn't." Gabrielle warned, aware of the implications of her words.

Xena paused in her ministrations. "Did I hear a dare?"

Gabrielle bit her lip as her eyes darted back and forth. "No."

Xena moved her hands up to Gabrielle's neck and shoulder muscles, applying slightly more pressure than necessary before leaning down and whispering into the girl's ear. "Sounded like it."

The deep register of Xena's voice sent shivers down Gabrielle's spine. "But I'm injured."

"I'll rub it again."

"XenaÉ" Gabrielle warned.

"How many is itÉeighteenÉnineteenÉ?"


Xena stood from her chair in front of the fireplace and walked to the rack beside the door and sheathed her sword. On a peg next to it hung a leather bag. Depositing the sharpening stone into the bag, she glanced in Gabrielle's direction to make sure the girl wasn't looking at her. She quickly removed the gift from the bag and hid it behind her back. She had been waiting for a quiet moment, when it was just the two of them, to give Gabrielle her gift. Xena felt a lot of things but she didn't express them the way Gabrielle did. Years ago, before Cortese, Xena had been young and adventurous like Gabrielle. But life is often cruel. Sometimes the choice is between the lesser of two evils. The citizens of Amphipolis made their decision and from that one stroke of history Xena lost her family, her home and her soul.

But now, thanks to Hercules and this beautiful young woman, things were different. How and why Gabrielle stayed with her was a mystery that Xena would never fully understand but she accepted it like a starving peasant treasures the crumbs from the king's table.

Gabrielle was relaxing on her bed, studying the scroll she had been writing on for the last few days. Xena walked over and took a seat on the bed, leaning against Gabrielle's bent knees and placing the gift on Gabrielle's lap.

"Happy Birthday. Think I had forgotten?"

Gabrielle looked up with a broad grin on her face as she fiddled nervously with the gift. "Never."

"Go ahead; open it." Xena urged, unable to keep her eyes on the gift or Gabrielle. She felt so vulnerable in moments such as this. She needed Gabrielle's approval. In some deep area of her soul, she craved it.

Gabrielle slowly untied the string and released the scroll. Xena glanced back and forth between her nervous hands and Gabrielle's face to gauge the reaction.

Gabrielle brushed her fingers over the parchment as she envisioned the warmth in the colors of the paint. It was a sunset, much like the ones she 'ooo'd and aaah'd' over and insisted that Xena bask in the beauty of as well. She loved to watch the sunsets but they were double-edged swords. They reminded her of the majesty of nature and the warm glow of life. They also reminded her of how fleeting happiness and love can be; here and gone in a matter of moments. Her chin quivered slightly as she read the words under the painting.

The beauty of a sunset

lingers for a brief moment.

The beauty of a friendship

lasts forever.

Gabrielle looked up at Xena. "You did this?"

Xena shyly nodded her head. "I've learned to see many things through your eyes."

Gabrielle wiped the tears that were just starting to fall and swallowed past the lump in her throat. "Xena, it'sÉbeautiful."

Xena gathered her courage and looked into the face of her dearest friend. "I wanted you to know how much you mean to me. I know I don't say it very often and I know words are important to you."

Knowing Xena and how difficult this was, Gabrielle covered Xena's hands with her own and gave a squeeze. "Sometimes actions speak louder than words." She watched as the tension on Xena's face faded into a glowing smile. "Thank youÉfor everything you bring to my life." Gabrielle shifted onto her knees and embraced her friend. She placed a kiss warmly on Xena's cheek. "I love you."

Xena's eyes misted and she fought to keep her own tears in check. She hated to see Gabrielle cry, even if it was out of happiness. "I love you, too."

It had been a full and exciting day and both women were exhausted. They began their normal preparations for sleep. Gabrielle grabbed her long-sleeved shift that she liked to wear in the winter months and tossed Xena a regular shift. After slipping under the covers she watched as Xena stoked the fire one last time before climbing into her own bed. 'It's the little things we forget.'



"Are you really thankful?"


"What about all those warlords and despots?"

"Defensive training."

"Destroying cooking utensils?"

"Creative weaponry."

"Living off whatever's available."

"Character building."



"I love looking through your eyes."


Gabrielle rolled onto her side and stifled a yawn. "Goodnight Xena."

"Goodnight Gabrielle. Don't let the bedbugs bite."

'BEDBUGS?!! Nah, she wouldn'tÉwould she?' Gabrielle jumped out of bed, yanking the covers onto the floor. She picked up the down-filled mattress and shook it vigorously, then did the same with the covers. Confident no 'unwanted' guests were present she replaced the mattress and covers and snuggled underneath. 'Thought you could pull one over on me, didn't you Xena. ThereÉnow I can sleep."

Xena snickered. 'Gabrielle, you're so easy.'



Xena was normally a light sleeper. It was a habit learned from many years of having to rely on her own senses for protection. When they were at home she felt comfortable in letting her defenses down and giving her body the necessary freedom to relax and rest. But this night, in this room, rest was slow in coming.

Gabrielle shifted loudly and slapped at the covers again on her bed. It was the sixth time in what Xena imagined to be a candlemark. "Gabrieeelle, what is the problem?"

"Like you don't know," Gabrielle groused.

"NO, I don't," Xena retorted, her voice on edge.

"Bedbugs, Xena. BEDBUGS."

Xena let out an exasperated breath. "Gabrielle, I promise I did not put anything in your bed."

Gabrielle swatted the covers one more time. "Well SOMETHING is in here."

"Your imagination's working overtime."

'I am not imagining this.' "Okay, so why don't we swap beds?"

Xena sighed and shifted her head on her pillow. "I'm comfortable where I'm at."

There was silence for a few brief moments. Xena mentally counted off the seconds. 'FourÉthreeÉtwoÉoneÉ'



"Can I come over there?"

Xena let out another breath. She could hear the genuine plea in Gabrielle's voice. "If it will let me sleep."

Gabrielle threw back her covers and quickly padded over to the bed. Xena pulled the covers back and took a hit to her hip and ribs as Gabrielle climbed over her to get into the empty spot. "Hey, watch the knees. There's a body here."


Gabrielle shifted back and forth trying to get comfortable and in the process kneed Xena once again, this time in the rump.




"I said I was sorry."

"I know. I'm not mad, just tired. I'll sleep on the inside and you can have the outside. That way you can bend your knees and not hit me." They each took their new positions and snuggled back under the covers.

"Oh, okay. Sorry."

"No problem, just go to sleep."

"Goodnight Xena."

"Goodnight Gabrielle."

Peace finally settled into the room as the breathing of both women slowed and deepened.

Sometime, shortly before the sun rose, Xena felt the sudden impact of another knee hitting her ribs. She breathed through the pain and turned to wake the girl. A smile tugged at her lips when she saw the peaceful expression on Gabrielle's face. It broke her resolve as it always did. 'How does she do that, even in her sleep?' Xena closed her eyes and slowly drifted back to sleep. Some battles just weren't worth fighting.


Note from the author: Thank you so much for reading this story. It has been in the works for a LONG time. As with some stories, how you begin is not necessarily how you end. I hope you have enjoyed reading this adventure as much as I enjoyed writing it. The series may be over but the STORIES LIVE ON.

A Plea for assistance: If anyone can help me locate Maggie, I would be forever grateful. She gave me permission to use Lanessa and I promised I would contact her when finished. I have tried all listings for her but, alas, none have worked. Thank you.

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