On Uncertain Ground

By Enginerd


Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Index

Chapter 12 - The Library

Gabrielle woke yawning as she lifted her still groggy head up. Stretching to relieve the slight ache in her back, she looked around the castle's library with a smile. Many scrolls desiring to be read, she mused. She shifted again and a jolt of pain shot up her neck. Serves you right for falling asleep in the library, she scolded herself, retrieving her hand from under a pile of scrolls to wipe the sleep out of her eyes.

All in all, she was recovering pretty quickly from her adventure with Lila, she thought, though she still felt exhausted. Luckily, now was a time to rest and enjoy herself. Surrounding her, if she had to count, were over two hundred scrolls, give or take a few hundred. Boy, I hope Sarah doesn't see the mess I've made of her library, Gabrielle thought to herself, as she looked around at all the wonderful scrolls piled up around her.

Perhaps Xena won't mind if we stay here a few more days so I can read and clean up this mess, Gabrielle mused. "Right", the bard laughs, knowing how stir crazy Xena gets when they are not moving. Well, might as well get as much reading in as possible before we leave, Gabrielle concludes.

She picked up a scroll and started to read it but frowns. It is way too dark to do any serious reading, she yawns, feeling her exhaustion. If someone cared to ask, Gabrielle couldn't tell how long she had been reading. But she didn't really care, this library was a great retreat from it all. Someday, perhaps she would have a great library like this one, Gabrielle considered. One with more windows, of course.

Hunched over in a very uncomfortable position, she looked for a candle to move closer and for more light to read by. Seeing some light peaking through from behind a pile of scrolls, she shook her head. "This is ridiculous," she blurted. She wouldn't be surprised if Sarah didn't want her back for a visit, considering the mess, and of course, the nutbread incident.

Attempting to improve her reading conditions, she pulled some scrolls out of the way of the light. The rearrangement of the scrolls caused a few at the top of the pile to fall on her head. "Ouch!" She blurted as pain shot through her neck and down her back. She sighed at her clumsiness and her slow recovery from her adventures. However, seeing so many unread scrolls, the ever diligent bard went back to reading. She had to read when she could, she concluded.

Stretching and taking a deep breath she found the library air very stale. Another reason, in addition to the darkness, to have more windows, Gabrielle noted. She would really have to discuss this with Sarah. As Queen, she could certainly get more windows put in HER library. Of course, Sarah did have trouble keeping her pantry stocked with nutbread and nuts, Gabrielle laughed to herself.

Gabrielle heard faint voices from behind the scrolls. Discovered, Gabrielle thought sadly. Well, if they really want me they can come get me, she thought. She ignored the voice and continued to read the scrolls. When she heard Xena call her name, she finally responded.

"I'm just reading" Gabrielle called back, hoping her friend would leave her to her reading a little longer. "Gabrielle? Do you realize you'll miss dinner?" Xena spoke with sarcasm. "Hmm?" Gabrielle responded, not taking her eyes off the scrolls.

"Gabrielle....FOOD?... Hello Gabrielle?? Talk to me Gabrielle." Xena poked her head from behind the scrolls. 

Gabrielle looked up with a laugh. "I'm sorry. I've just been wrapped up reading these scrolls..." She yawned, feeling dull aches. 

"Reading? Gabrielle you shouldn't fall a sleep in here." Xena responded with much more concern in her voice.

Gabrielle sighed at her over reaction. "I am just reading Xena." Gabrielle responded with some annoyance. Then she realized she shouldn't be too harsh on her friend. She was just being her usual overprotective self. "I won't fall asleep, I just want to finish one more scroll, I'll be done in a minute, you don't have to hang round here...." 

Xena reluctantly left.

"Gabrielle!" Lila stood in the doorway. 

Gabrielle sighed then looked up. "Lila!" Gabrielle greeted her intruding sister with feigned delight. 

"I can't believe you are going to miss dinner. Don't think I am going to bring it to you." Lila snapped. 

"I'm not asking you to!" Gabrielle responded to her sister.

"You shouldn't fall asleep in here, Gabrielle." Lila repeated Xena's concern. The bard did still feel the aches and pains and knew it wasn't helping her recovery to sleep crunched over but GODS! How annoying it was to be reminded of something you already know.

"I wasn't planning on it Lila...I just want to read ok? Is that too much to ask?" Gabrielle snapped back at her sister who left, bit frustrated. Gabrielle's annoyance was replaced quickly with guilt. "Lila, I'm sorry..." She yelled towards the direction of her sister who was already gone.

Feeling a sharp pain in her back, she reconsidered perhaps she was ready to take a break. After all, she had been through a lot the past couple of days and wasn't fully recovered yet. At least that was what the pain in her body was telling her, even if her mind was fine.

Once again, Xena came for the bard. "Gabrielle?" Xena asked with a soft tone as she placed her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. 

"Xena? Did you open a window or something?" Gabrielle was startled awake and noticed more light and air in the library.

"Or something...Come on." Xena took her bard's arm.

"You don't have to...." Gabrielle responded. 

"Yes I do, now come on." Xena said with a firm tone. Gabrielle smiled. Deep down, Xena's overprotective nature was something the bard appreciated. "Ok, I guess your right."

"Finally." Xena said with relief. Gabrielle laughed. "I'm not that bad am I?" She asked her warrior friend. "Whoa..." Gabrielle felt her leg give way. "Gabrielle, I've got you. Just hold on to me." Xena easily supported the bard's weight as they exited.

"I guess my leg is asleep from resting on it funny....I know, I know you told me not to ...hey, where are we going?" Gabrielle asked, rubbing her sore back with a free arm.

"Just stay with me Gabrielle." Xena was being mysterious. Gabrielle rather liked that. "OK." Gabrielle said brightly with a smile.

"Sarah's castle really is huge" Gabrielle noted with amazement as they walked together, losing track of where they were. "Just stay with me." Xena smiled to her. "I don't think I could escape right now if I wanted to." Gabrielle joked about her sleepy leg. "Good." Xena answered.

Gabrielle didn't want to worry her friend but she actually felt light-headed.

Xena opened a large decorative door. Gabrielle's mouth dropped at what she found. The room was better lit than the library, having more candles and at the center a feast to put the Amazons to shame. She didn't know this room existed in Sarah's castle but wasn't surprised Xena found it. She felt so tired and hoped she could keep her eyes open to enjoy all of this.

Gabrielle smiled and turned to Xena. "For me?" She asked, touched with the effort by her friend.

Xena nodded, looking deeply in her eyes. "Oh...I don't know what to say." Gabrielle felt the intense gaze. "That's a first. Just say whatever is on your mind Gabrielle. Keep talking." Xena responded.

"Talk about firsts..." Gabrielle smiled at Xena's comment. Xena helped Gabrielle into the room.

She eyed all the delicious foods. However, oddly, she was not hungry. Xena leaned over her placing a hand on her shoulder and started pouring her a drink. Gabrielle swallowed hard, feeling Xena's closeness. It had been a very long time since Xena got so close to her that she could feel her body heat. That feeling was not unwelcome.

"Drink this, it will make you feel better." Xena responded to the bard's questioning look. Something was odd, Gabrielle thought.

"Thank you" Gabrielle responded and sipped the drink. When the bard started coughing, a look of concern crept over Xena's face. "You can't swallow it?" Xena asked. "No, No...I. Ah...Not really...my stomach is a little upset too." Gabrielle smiled sheepishly. Xena nodded and got up and got her water.

"I should have know...." Xena admonished herself. "Here, drink this." Xena smiled handing her a goblet of water. Gabrielle sipped the water which hit the spot. She hadn't realized how thirsty she was until she finished the entire goblet. "Thanks." She found Xena staring at her.

"Xena? Are you feeling alright?" Gabrielle asked reaching for her forehead. Xena didn't seem to be acting herself. With a little frustration, Xena gently grabbed Gabrielle's hand. "I'm fine Gabrielle. The question is...how do you feel?" She responded, sitting closer to Gabrielle and gently squeezed the bard's shoulder, looking deeply into the bard's eyes.

"Would you believe... a bit confused?" Gabrielle admitted, nonchalantly moving back a bit from her friend. "I'm not surprised." Xena responded.

"This" Gabrielle gestured to the room. "All this attention....It's not my birthday." Gabrielle stated, trying to ignore the intense gaze. "No...its not your birthday." Xena responded with a slight grin.

"OK..." Gabrielle exhaled, thinking this guessing game could last a while the way things were going. If Xena wanted to be mysterious that was fine with her, Gabrielle mused, actually enjoying the warrior's attention.

The hours in the library reading were catching up to her. Her head ached, her neck ached, her back ached, even her legs ached now. Gabrielle tilted her head and rubbed her neck. Before she knew it, Xena was behind her giving her a neck message.

Her first thought, to tell her she didn't have to do that, was quickly replaced by her second thought, to let Xena continue that wonderful massaging. "Let me know if this hurts..." Xena informed her. Gabrielle almost had to laugh for Xena's touch was anything but painful.

Between the exhaustion, her light-headedness, the drink, and the soothing massage, Gabrielle couldn't keep her eyes open.

"I knew all that reading was going to do this to you..." Xena commented with a mellow voice. "Well, I'm glad you know how to cure my aches." Gabrielle responded with a sigh. With that cue, Xena proceeded to expand the area of massaging from the neck to include the shoulders. Gabrielle tensed up. "Have I lost my touch? You seem to be getting more tense the more I massage." Xena whispered softly in her ear. Her lips gently brushed over the bard's ear.

Xena's voice and touch had a disturbingly powerful effect on the bard. Not wanting to succumb to her instincts and do something she, they, would regret, Gabrielle turned and quickly got up from her chair. "Xena... would you please tell me what this is all about."

There was a lost look in Xena's face that made Gabrielle feel incredibly bad. Xena seemed embarrassed and hurt.

"I've made a mistake Gabrielle." She stood up and started to leave.

"Wait a minute." Gabrielle grabbed her friend's arm. "Sit!" She commanded, surprising Xena, and pointed to the chair. Xena took a deep breath and followed orders. "If I had known how well you take orders, I would have tried this ages ago." Gabrielle remarked with a grin.

"Now, what is this all about?" Gabrielle sat in a chair next to her and spoke softly. Xena sighed and looked down at her hands, which Gabrielle saw were trembling.

"I'm more comfortable with action not words. You should know that by now." She looked up at Gabrielle who was listening intensely to the woman of few words. "I made a mistake..." Xena added, starting to get up.

"No...Xena...Please..." Gabrielle reached out and placed her hand on her shoulder to keep her sitting.

"I was... surprised...that's all..." Gabrielle responded looked at her with sincere eyes. Her subsequent laugh and comment surprised Xena. "I have been dropping hints so long and never got a response....then all of a sudden..." Gabrielle added. Xena grinned at her admission then looked confused.

"But when you didn't respond to my signals...I thought you didn't... " Xena countered.

Gabrielle smiled broadly amazed, "You were dropping hints?" Xena's eyes rolled. "Big ones..." The warrior added.

"Like what?" Gabrielle asked curiously. "Gabrielle..." Xena uttered with some annoyance. "Tell me Xena, I want to know what I missed...just in case I need to know for future reference..." Gabrielle grinned.

"Alright." Xena responded as she eyed her. "You know when I ask you to ride Argo with me?" Xena raised an eyebrow. "No way....you rarely ask me to ride Argo with you any more..." Gabrielle responded.

Xena sighed with some dejection. "That's because you started refusing my offers to ride. I thought you didn't want to ride with me...You made that very clear when you wanted to ride that horse with the dumb name."

Gabrielle's face went blank. "I started to refuse because it was...well... very distracting...." Gabrielle responded with amazement. Xena looked up at the ceiling. "That was the point..." She looked back at Gabrielle.

"Oh..." Gabrielle responded with her thoughts on the past rides with Xena. Xena's arm around her waist, pulling her close....her soft voice and warm breath in her ear.

"Oh..." Xena repeated knowingly with a grin, bringing her attention back to their conversation.

"What else?" Gabrielle asked, finding this very educational.

"Oh no...your turn." Xena responded and leaned back with her arms crossed, waiting.

Gabrielle was up to the challenge. "Ok...you know when I would tell you stories of heroic love and romantic adventures?" Gabrielle raised her eyebrow. "Gabrielle, you don't tell them anymore..." Xena responded with a sigh.

Gabrielle got a bit annoyed. "That's because you would always interrupt them and ask me to tell them later because you were tired or something. I never have gotten through the story about Delatus.." Gabrielle recalled. "That's because your words....affected me...." Xena explained, clearing her throat.

"That was the point." Gabrielle noted with a grin. Xena shook her head in amazement. "Oh..."

"Your turn..." Gabrielle added, sitting back with her hands folded on her crossed legs, waiting.

Xena sighed. "You know when you would find there was only one room at an Inn?" Xena asked innocently. "For a while, that always seemed to be the case. I can't believe how lucky we were to always manage to get the last room." Gabrielle added.

"We weren't lucky." Xena admitted. "What?" Gabrielle blurted. "My mismanagement of our money was not really mismanagement...I kept buying out the rooms in the Inn so you would only find one." Xena admitted, adding "Until you took over that chore." Gabrielle was shocked.

"It's a good thing I did! Do you know how expensive that was!" She scolded Xena who shrunk in her chair.

"Well, I was happy that at least our sleeping arrangements at the Inns didn't change when you took over. Being broke wasn't as bad as you made it out to be." Xena smiled sheepishly. Gabrielle eyed her and grinned. "We weren't THAT broke..."

"Well, Gabrielle I guess we were both slow..." Xena chuckled, her smile dissolved into an intense and loving gaze. A gaze that was returned gladly.

"Perhaps we just weren't ready." Gabrielle spoke philosophically. "I was...am..." Xena added quickly with a sly smile.

"Yet we both missed obvious clues." Gabrielle pointed out to Xena, while reaching up and stroked her warrior's cheek. "Perhaps we weren't." Xena responded, reaching up and stopping the bard's gentle touch by grasping her hand. Xena broke her gaze from the bard and stared at the floor.

"The question is...are we ready... now?" Gabrielle asked with a hard swallow.

Xena looked up with hope, breathing deeply. Gabrielle thought Xena seemed afraid to answer.

"I thought you said you were more comfortable with action than you were with words....." Gabrielle eyed her. A grin crossed Xena's face making Gabrielle softly laugh. A laugh that was quickly interrupted when Xena reached up and traced the side of Gabrielle's face from her brow down her cheek. The gentle fingers found their way to the back of Gabrielle's neck. Gabrielle searched Xena's eyes for any doubts. There were none.

Xena slowly pulled Gabrielle towards her, until their lips were within an inch. Gabrielle felt Xena's warm and quickening breath against her face. Gabrielle wanted to remember every sensation surrounding this moment....the gentle touch of Xena's fingers on the back of her neck, the sound of Xena's voice calling her name.....

"Gabrielle?! Gabrielle!! Wake UP!" Xena called to her. Gabrielle woke in excruciating pain. She moaned as she tried to move. Her mind was swirling. Gabrielle moaned again. "Just stay awake Gabrielle." Xena pleaded. "Please... just stay awake!"

Chapter 13 - The Waiting

Following Xena's orders, Sarah sat with Gabrielle, talking to her and nudging her to keep her sister awake as the bard drifted in and out of consciousness.

Ustas, Meleager and Kenis paced around Ustas' wood shop almost running into each other. "Lila said she seemed fine after that fall." Meleager blurted. "And Xena...s..said..s.she was ...t..talking ....un..t.til ..she p..passed out on t..tthe way..h.. here..." Kenis added. "Head injuries are unpredictable, it would be easier for Xena to fix a broken bone." Ustas worried.

"She's lucky. I am surprised she only got a few gashes and cracked ribs with that fall...sorry Ustas." Meleager apologized, seeing the Uncle cringe as he discussed the injuries of his niece.

Xena didn't want to leave the bard's side but knew Gabrielle would want her family to be cared for. Lila's disappearance worried her and Gabrielle would never forgive the Warrior Princess if she didn't look after the bard's family.

Dark storm clouds started to roll in the area and with them, strong, gusting winds. The warrior finally found Lila staring out over a pond at the ominous weather. As Xena approached, a flock of ducks took flight, making a startled Lila turn. "How is she?" Lila asked, concerned Xena came to talk to her.

"I don't know. I am not sure how bad her head injury is." Xena answered honestly. However, Xena did not consider it necessary to volunteer that the only two significant head injuries that she had experience with did not recover. One man died a short time after the injury, when he fell asleep and never woke. The other, who was kept awake for a few days survived, yet he was never quite right in the head afterwards.

"How are you?" Xena asked, standing next to her, staring out over the pond. "Xena, is it normal for someone to carry on a conversation like that?" Lila asked, ignoring the warrior's inconsequential question. "I mean, if I didn't see for myself she was buried under those rocks, I would have thought from what she said she was actually in a library." Lila relayed.

Xena sighed and nodded. Gabrielle's hallucinations troubled Xena as well. Xena looked over to the bard's sister seeing she needed hope as much as the warrior. "Well, the fact she fell that distance and still managed to argue with us every step of the way makes me think she'll be ok." Xena quipped, making Lila smile. She was strong, Xena thought, convinced Lila would be fine.

Entering Gabrielle's room, Xena looked down at her semi-conscious friend and sister, who was dutifully talking to and nudging the bard. With all her medical experiences, Xena was on uncertain ground with head injuries. Even the healer gave her conflicting advice on the treatment.

Gods, what if I am choosing a life of misery for her? Xena thought as she contemplated the two treatment choices and what she feared was their outcome.

I will always take care of you Gabrielle, she vowed. Permanent injury to her mind is not certain, Xena considered, trying to justify her selfish desire to keep the bard awake. But what if my decision means the woman of many words couldn't tell her stories? Xena's heart dropped at the thought.

Xena made a hard decision. "Sarah, let Gabrielle sleep." Xena said softly, understanding the confusion in Sarah's eyes. "You said she had to stay awake or she might never wake." Sarah argued with growing panic. "I know. But she also needs to rest Sarah." Xena responded, feeling uneasy with that decision.

"You have no idea how to help her do you!" Sarah snapped. The truthful words cut at the warrior's heart. "No." Xena responded weakly, looking down at the incoherent bard. She wished she had the power to simply waive her hand and make Gabrielle better. But all she had was time, and only time would tell if Gabrielle was going to recover. Sarah ignored the warrior and continued to talk to the bard. "I won't let you down Gabrielle. I won't give up." Sarah spoke bitterly.

"Sarah, come with me." Lila spoke softly, surprising the two women when she entered the room. "Lila, I can't. I must keep her awake!" Sarah resisted as tears cascaded down her cheeks. "No Sarah. Gabrielle must rest now. Come with me." Lila encouraged her sister and extended a hand. "No..." Sarah insisted weakly, ignoring Lila's offered hand. "Sarah, we have to let Gabrielle sleep." Lila gently repeated and finally withdrew Sarah from Gabrielle's side. Xena knew how helpless Sarah felt. As Lila guided Sarah to the door, Xena looked at the youngest sister thankfully.

Xena sat on the edge of the bed, observing Gabrielle fade in and out of consciousness. Once Gabrielle closed her eyes for deep and uninterrupted sleep, she prayed the bard would wake from her dreams. There was nothing the mighty Warrior Princess could do now but wait. All her wounds were carefully cleaned and skillfully stitched. There was nothing more she could do except wait.

Xena's eyes moistened as she found her fear continuing to grow, harder to control. She angrily wiped her first tear off her cheek which dared to escape from her eye. She had to be strong for Gabrielle's family...for herself.

Taking a deep breath, she remembered all the effort she took to push the bard away because of fear. A fear she would loose the bard if she told her how she felt. Now, she faced a different fear. A fear she would lose the bard before telling her how she felt.

"Gabrielle..." She uttered softly, her voice cracking. The bard seemed to respond to her voice but Gabrielle's eyes seemed to drift to a distant place.

"I love you." Xena whispered as she leaned over, softly kissing the bard on the lips.

In the morning, Lila came in finding Xena sleeping in a chair next to Gabrielle. "Xena, wake up, eat some food and stretch your legs." Lila instructed firmly. Without thinking, Xena got up to comply. Before getting to the door, Xena stopped in her tracks and slowly turned towards the bold young woman. "Just do it." Lila ordered her as she took Xena's seat to watch over Gabrielle. Xena looked over to Gabrielle and nodded.

Xena didn't really know Ustas, but felt she needed to look in on Gabrielle's uncle. She entered his shop gazing at the many wood carvings which adorned the walls, displaying pride in his work. He had every right to be proud of his talent, Xena noted, especially admiring the carvings.

Engrossed in his work, Ustas appeared startled at the presence of someone in his shop. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt you." Xena apologized and started to leave considering that he wouldn't like the distraction from his craft.

"Nonsense...stay...I enjoy the company." His invitation was sincere. "I rather miss having someone in my workshop while I work." His voice was soft and gentle, which did not match his huge frame. He continued to work the wood.

The piece he carved was a rich dark wood, a kind Xena had never seen before. She thought of asking what it was but as she watched his hypnotic carving, the question was forgotten. One misguided and overpowering stroke could ruin the piece, yet Ustas's large hands were deftly guiding the blade where he wanted. She wondered what the final design would look like.

Uncle Ustas looked up from his work piece and chuckled at the sight of the Warrior Princess. "What?" She asked, snapping out of her trance, not particularly receptive any laughter at her expense. He grinned and continued, now sanding the piece of wood.

"You reminded me of Gabrielle just then...." He explained as he blew some dust of the piece to uncover the work surface. The comment surprised her. She had been compared to many things in her time, most of which were not good, yet this was one comparison she had never expected to hear. "How so?" she asked nonchalantly, hiding her incredible curiosity.

He looked up, now seeing nothing in her that reminded him of Gabrielle. "The look in your eyes when you were watching me work. Gabrielle had that same look of fascination when she would come visit my shop when I lived in Poteidaia. She was oh, about five or six when she first found my shop." He laughed to himself at the memory.

Xena listened quietly, certain he would continue without prompting. That was one of the things she could count on with Gabrielle, and Ustas was the bard's uncle. "She would sit there for hours just listening to me ramble on and telling stories while watching me do my woodwork." He looked down at the piece he was sanding and felt its surface. Finding the piece not smooth enough, he continued to sand.

Xena found his description of her friend difficult to accept. "Hours?" She repeated, watching him sand. "Hours" Ustas confirmed. "Listening and watching?" Xena stated. Ustas smiled. "Oh yes." He answered, finishing a piece and removing it from the vice. "Are you sure it wasn't Sarah who you were remembering?" Xena challenged his memory.

"Oh, it was Gabrielle alright...Sarah didn't like to waste time, she had to be productive almost every waking hour. Like now, she is helping our neighbors plant their fields with Meleager...poor guy...oh... I almost forgot...Kenis left for that orphanage and asked that you stop by on the way back to Walsas." He added, interrupting his story. The news of Kenis didn't help improve Xena's opinion of him, especially when it interrupted learning about her friend.

"We'll see." Xena said coolly. "You were talking about Gabrielle sitting still ....for hours?" Xena tried to get him back on track. Ustas laughed, finally understanding the source of the warrior's curiosity.

"Gabrielle wasn't always such an avid talker, although, she has more than made up for those quiet years hasn't she?" He grinned as he retrieved another piece of wood which needed working.

As he positioned the piece in the vice he stopped talking, which made Xena a bit impatient. Her desire to show only mild interest at best was becoming more difficult as this man delayed explaining something apparently significant about her friend. Quiet years? Gabrielle? She silently wondered, hoping he would explain soon. Luckily he started talking before she had to reveal her impatience and interrogate him.

"In fact, we were pretty worried about her as a child. We could tell she was an intelligent girl by the things she did and the look in her eye...but if people don't take the time, they never get to know that. Gabrielle promised herself she would always take the time to get to know someone." He scratched his head deciding which carving blade would best work on this piece. Xena was very familiar with how Gabrielle went out of her way to get to know people and find good in them. Yet the Warrior Princess still didn't know what Ustas was talking about.

"She tried to play with the other kids but you know how they can be....very cruel to those who are different. " He relayed as he picked up a new blade to carve with. Xena had used the word 'different' as an amusing way to describe the bard in the past but this 'different' did not sound amusing. "Except Perdicus of course...he knew what it was like to be somewhat of an outcast...he wasn't very athletic as a child....kinda surprising he became a soldier."

Uncle Ustas looked up at Xena who was hanging on every word. "A good soldier. He helped us at Troy." Xena added. Ustas knew that was a great compliment from the Warrior Princess and nodded.

"More importantly for Gabrielle, he was always a good friend." Ustas remarked knowing that was more valuable to the bard than any warrior skill Perdicus could have developed. The two words, good friend, stuck in Xena's mind. She noted that during the short time she had known Ustas, he had not yet addressed Perdicus as Gabrielle's husband, only 'good friend'.

"He was the one who came up with the idea that Gabrielle should practice telling stories so she wouldn't have so much trouble getting her words out." Ustas revealed as he worked his wood. "At first, I thought it was a ploy by the boy to keep Gabrielle's company. But it wasn't....well, not completely" Ustas laughed.

Xena wasn't sure she heard right. "She stuttered?" She asked in disbelief, unable to imagine the woman of many words with trouble speaking. Ustas nodded and continued his story.

"She would only practice in front of Perdicus. I tried to listen once, but I was caught. Boy was she mad. I could hear great improvements in her every day when she spoke, and well, I was really curious about her story telling. But she was determined the family would hear only a perfect story..." Ustas recalled the bard's pride.

"And it was! Her first story she told the family was called 'The Stars in the Sky" He shook his head remembering the day with amazement. "That little girl tackled one of the longest story I have ever heard told. But my gods, when she was ready to tell it ...it was as if she never had a speech problem. She was born to touch us with her stories, Xena." He looked at her to convince the warrior of something she already knew.

"She found her voice that day." He added. "Since then, we haven't been able to get her to stop talking. Perdicus created a monster didn't he?" Ustas joked, laughing loudly as he retrieved another wood piece to sand. He didn't see Xena smile and stopped his work.

"What's wrong Xena." Ustas asked softly. "She never told me any of this." Xena revealed, not sure how to feel. Ustas smiled warmly at the warrior.

"Xena, to Gabrielle, that problem and its pain is in the past and she moved on." He informed her. Xena looked to him. "She understands it is really hard to enjoy today, and the promise of tomorrow, if you're looking back at the problems of yesterday."

Xena had learned more than she ever expected to from Ustas. It was impossible to imagine Gabrielle without her stories, without her words. 'Perdicus.....' Her thoughts drifted to the bard's dead husband. She never could have imagined how much he had done for Gabrielle, how much his love helped her. She never could have imagined she would be so thankful to him for being a part of Gabrielle's life.

The warrior's attention was drawn to the new piece Ustas was working on. "Damn..." Ustas' touch with the wood was apparently not always perfect. "What's that?" Xena interested in the piece he was working on, already knowing the answer.

"Useless. And it was the really good wood," he answered shaking his head as he held the cracked object next to his face. "Damn it. Damn it. Damn it" He repeated, finally getting his point across, Xena smiled.

Chapter 14 - The Awakening

Amazing Sarah, Meleager and Ustas, Lila had successfully pulled Xena away from the bard's side for the third time in as many days, this time by telling her Argo needed to stretch her legs. Lila had exercised Four Feet but was not about to go near Argo. "Go. We need a break from you anyway." Lila commented with sarcasm that Meleager would never dare use with the Warrior Princess.

Lila looked in on her sister who had not stirred, then went to the kitchen. She stopped from entering when she saw Meleager sitting at the table and chatting with Sarah while she was preparing for dinner. "Finally" Lila thought to herself, smiling at the two. She decided to go back to her sister's room and leave the two alone. When she entered the room, someone was missing.

"Uh...Sarah?" Lila poked her head in the kitchen. "Have you seen Gabrielle?" She asked, not wanting to panic. "Very funny." Sarah shook her head, continuing to prepare diner. "I'm not trying to be." Lila responded with a grave look that made Sarah drop a knife on the table and rush outside. The sisters frantically looked about, not sure what to do.

"I'll get our horses ready, she couldn't have gotten far without Four Feet." Meleager informed the sisters, seeing Four Feet in the barn.

Sarah paced. "I can't believe you lost her." She blurted. "I didn't loose her. She got up and walked out of the house! This is a good sign Sarah." Lila responded nervously. "Then why are you trembling?" Sarah asked. "I'm cold." Lila responded with annoyance.

Trotting in from a soothing ride, Xena saw Meleager and the sisters outside, upset about something. Lila looked up to see Xena coming directly towards them. "What happened?" Xena asked. "We lost Gabrielle." Sarah blurted, making Xena's heart drop until Lila explained. "I didn't see her leave her room." Lila was now getting upset.

"Did you check the workshop?" Xena calmly asked Lila, who shook her head no. "The workshop! Of course!" Sarah responded brightly.

Arriving at the workshop, they found Gabrielle sitting on a stool watching her Uncle carve a piece as he told her about the Ouzas and what happened. They nervously stood in the doorway, listening in to find out whether or not Gabrielle was all right.

Hearing the part about the climb and fall, Gabrielle shifted her stiff and bruised body which supported that story, though she her memory didn't. "I really don't remember falling." She said simply. "That's probably a good thing. It was quite a cliff you tried to climb." He laughed. "I'm sure Lila won't let me forget the fact that she reached the top and I didn't." Gabrielle yawned and brought relieved smiles to everyone except Xena, who fought to keep her eyes dry.

"That's right Princess Gabrielle...Amazon Bard" Lila rushed over to her sister and gave her a careful hug. "I am glad to help you add to your list of accomplishments Lila, great pots, outstanding nutbread AND can climb a mountain better than me. Of course, you did need a boost." Gabrielle added softly. Lila rolled her eyes.

Sarah came over as Gabrielle looked at Xena, who was still standing next to Meleager in the doorway. A simple shrug from the bard and a grin at the Warrior Princess was exactly what Xena needed. Sarah gave her sister a hug. "You need to eat something." Sarah held her arm to help her up. "Dinner time already?" Gabrielle asked with a smile.

At the dinner table, Gabrielle picked at her food. Everyone noticed but no one said anything about the bard's unusually light appetite. Perhaps her stomach was still upset, Xena guessed.

Lila took great pleasure in recounting how Gabrielle got everyone off the ship, including Kenis. Gabrielle lifted her head at the mention of his name, realizing for the first time he wasn't with them. "He went to the orphanage." Xena noted, making the bard smile.

"Good." Gabrielle responded softly.

Lila continued her story when they got to the part about the fall. "Xena threw her Chakrum and knocked the arrow away....then the cliff ...gave way... you fell." Lila's enthusiasm for the story waned, remembering the horrible sight.

"So...I wasn't in a library after all." Gabrielle commented, not really sure of what happened after the fall. Xena shook her head no and Lila laughed softly. "When we found you under that pile of rocks we didn't know what to think" Lila's smile faded slightly. "We called for you, but you didn't answer. That was, until you heard Xena mention food." Lila relayed with amusement. Gabrielle eyed her friend who smiled slightly.

"Then you kept arguing with us that you just wanted to read, you held up the rocks as if they were scrolls." Lila looked at her sister. "I really thought they were. It all seemed so real." Gabrielle said softly shrugging. "We kept yelling at you to not fall asleep." Lila relayed. "I know! That was SO annoying." Gabrielle remembered those words spoken.

"We could tell." Xena responded, bringing another smile to the bard's face. "After Xena dug you out of the pile of rocks, you finally agreed to come but your leg gave way." Lila recounted.

Gabrielle shook her head with amazement that she remembered all those events, yet so differently. Her warm smile faded when it dawned on her. She had discussed very intimate things with Xena. Her eyes widened. 'Gods,' Gabrielle started to panic and question her faulty memory. Had she discussed intimate things with Xena? Oh Gods. Gabrielle's mind raced to pick out any morsels of reality from her amazing dream ... What if that memory was like the library...Gods, I tried to kiss her...or did kiss her...what must she think of me? Did she even know? It all seemed so real, surely...Oh Gods, they are going to hear....

"Are you ok?" Xena asked, seeing Gabrielle turn pale as her breathing became rapid and shallow. Gabrielle gulped and quickly nodded yes. Unable to look in the warrior's blue eyes, she returned her gaze to her sister who continued the story.

"Then Xena took you to a healer hoping he would know something more about head injuries. I don't know what happened after that. Xena?" Lila shrugged and looked to Xena who got up to get Gabrielle some water.

"Ah, that's ok...I got the picture. I was out of my mind..." Gabrielle interjected to avoid complete mortification.

"Actually you seemed very coherent when you were talking to me." Xena commented from behind the bard as she placed a hand on the bard's shoulder and attempted to refilled Gabrielle's cup with water.

The warrior's comment that she was apparently coherent was, in itself, enough to unnerve the bard. However, the familiar touch and closeness of the warrior which Gabrielle's faulty memory recalled as the first of many intimate touches, made Gabrielle jump and knock her empty gobbet over. "Ah...oh...sorry." Gabrielle laughed sheepishly as she turned her goblet upright and smiled weakly at her friend and quickly looked away from those incredible eyes.

Xena took a deep breath and removed her hand from Gabrielle's shoulder as she poured the drink.

"Tell us what happened at the healer Xena." Sarah asked, now able to be amused by the odd adventure now that the bard had recovered. "Yeah." Lila agreed with the request. Xena sat down with a soft smile. "I don't have much to add." Xena responded. Gabrielle let out a sigh of relief. "Except." Xena grinned.

"Although we rode miles to the healer, Gabrielle kept thinking we were walking around Sarah's castle." Xena responded. "Gods, what a castle that would be." Sarah mentioned with a laugh. "We rode?" Gabrielle questioned, only remembering a long walk. Xena nodded and continued.

"Then we arrived at the healer's door. It was actually a very ornate door." Xena mentioned, looking at Ustas.

"I remember the door." Gabrielle responded in a defeated sigh, feeling the impending humiliation closer.

"When I opened the door, the room was cluttered with the healer's herbs and candles. By the look on your face, you were very pleased with what you saw." Xena smiled warmly at the bard. Gabrielle smiled weakly.

Sarah probed further. "What did she say?" Xena remembered every word the bard spoke during that scary time. "She asked if it was for her and she then was at a loss for words. But I wanted her to keep talking to help her stay awake. I knew a little about head injuries and thought it was important at the time to keep Gabrielle awake." Xena looked at her friend glad that situation was in the past.

"What did you see Gabrielle?" Lila asked curiously.

"Food, lots of food." Gabrielle sighed with resignation. Everyone chuckled.

"Then what?" Lila asked finding all this head injury stuff fascinating. "We really don't need any more of this to get the picture...I was out of my mind..." Gabrielle tried once again, unsuccessfully to stop this questioning. This only made her sisters laugh. Having wondered what Gabrielle thought during that time, and also finding this amusing, the warrior continued.

"I gave Gabrielle something to drink that the healer gave me. She couldn't swallow it and her stomach was upset. Then she asked me if I was alright." Xena shook her head with amazement. The bard always worried about the warrior.

"Why?" Meleager asked. Gods, did he have to join in the interrogation as well? Gabrielle thought to herself.

"I thought she was acting oddly." Gabrielle responded with a shrug, considering it unnecessary to explain to them she thought the Warrior Princess was making unexpected and subtle romantic advances. "Oddly, how?" Lila asked, not allowing the bard an easy out. Xena was very interested in the answer.

"I don't know...I was hit in the head with rocks, remember?" Gabrielle snapped back at her sister who grinned.

"Well you did tell me you were confused. I kept checking to see if Gabrielle's pupils were the still the same size, they were. She then looked around the room and stated it wasn't her birthday." Xena relayed.

Gabrielle sighed and stared at her food. She was going to try and ignore the fact she was going to be humiliated soon. However, when Gabrielle's family chuckled at her less humiliating delusions, the bard became annoyed.

"Was it?" Gabrielle asked staring at her food.

"No." Xena responded with concern until Gabrielle blurted "THANK you." Xena didn't understand why Gabrielle so defensive.

"Well, what happened next?" Lila asked with a grin.

"Sorry to disappoint you Lila, but Gabrielle blacked out." Xena responded with a shrug.

"Blacked out?" Gabrielle responded with great relief. "I blacked out...." Gabrielle repeated with a little regret. Xena nodded. "You didn't say... anything... else to me?" The bard immediately regretted saying that.

Xena hesitated not knowing how to answer that question. While she did tell the bard she loved her and ...well...kissed her on the lips... that was well after the bard blacked out at the healer's. Technically, Xena concluded, Gabrielle was referring to what was said at the healers, so the answer was no. It had to be no. Xena was not about to discuss her feelings with the bard's family before discussing them with the bard. A discussion which seemed unlikely now, Xena sighed, hurt by Gabrielle's reaction to her touch.

"What do you remember Xena saying?" Sarah asked the Gabrielle who looked over to Xena who stared blankly at Sarah. Gabrielle stared at her food again and sighed.

If only the words she thought she heard were actually uttered by the warrior's lips instead of fabricated by the romantic bard's mind, Gabrielle wished.

"Well, it all seemed so vivid." Gabrielle started into a story, knowing she had to say something. Yet, her heart was not in story telling this evening. Her heart was busy aching, discovering that more than anything, she wanted her dreams to be true but finding they were merely dreams.

"I was very thirsty and Xena kept pouring me a LOT of water. But it was salt water...." Gabrielle noticed everyone's eyes fixed on her. Xena saw Gabrielle force a smile. As she continued her story, the bard's eyes began to water.

"I thought, 'my....what is Xena doing giving me salt water that tastes bad'. Well, I asked her and she said ..." Gabrielle took a deep breath to control her emotions. "She told me it was good for me... " Gabrielle paused and a tear fell from her cheek.

Witnessing the bard becoming emotionally unsettled while telling a story made everyone fear she had not fully recovered.

"Well...I'm sorry, I don't seem to remember anything else...." Gabrielle lost all of what little story telling steam she had. Her heart wasn't in it. Seeing the lost look in the bard's eyes made everyone more nervous. "I guess I have been too stubborn until now to admit how tired I am...excuse me." Gabrielle abruptly got up and in the process, tripped on the chair.

Xena grabbed her arm and steadied her. "Gab.." the warrior blurted, but was quickly interrupted by a nervous "good night" from the bard, causing Xena to released her hold on the bard's arm.

When Gabrielle retreated to her room, the lost look was now in Xena's eyes.

Staring at her bedroom ceiling, far from sleep, Gabrielle could not take her mind off of Xena. Why did it take so long to understand these feelings, she wondered. Oh Gods, Gabrielle thought in horror, the distance that was growing between them was Xena only trying to distance herself from a lovesick friend.

Gabrielle's hands covered her face as she thought of her impassioned speech about Xena's powerful smile. "Stupid, Stupid, Stupid!" Gabrielle blurted. Tears welled up in the bard's sad eyes. How many times have I done that to her? Gabrielle wondered, having no idea until now how frightening her frequent and heartfelt words were to the warrior...how those words only served to drive Xena further away. Gods, now what was she going to do? How could she face Xena? How could she protect her friend from her heart?

Chapter 15 - On the Road Back

Meleager and Xena were already mounted and watching the sisters say their final good-byes to their uncle.

"I guess you'll be glad to get back to your men." Xena stated happily as things were getting back to normal. Gabrielle had gotten stronger the past week and was anxious to travel. Xena was more than willing to comply with that wish.

Meleager looked at her.

"I'm not going to stay in Walsas." Meleager mentioned briskly.

"Why?" Xena asked with surprise.

"Sarah...the Queen needs somebody she can count on. I am not that man." Meleager noted.

"Meleager..." Xena started to argue.

"I've made up my mind." Meleager snapped, not caring that Xena was the only warrior who could best him.

The sisters hugged their Uncle who was just getting use to all the company.

"You should visit more." He blurted and hugged them again.

"We will." Sarah spoke for the family.

"You child, gave us quite a scare." He sounded like he was scolding her but his large hand caressed the side of her face.

"Sorry." Gabrielle responded with a shrug. "I just seem to attract trouble." Gabrielle joked. Ustas looked over to Xena.

"Not always." He kissed her on the forehead. "You and Xena are welcome in my home any time." Ustas smiled at the bard.

As they rode behind Meleager and Gabrielle's sisters, Gabrielle closed her eyes for a moment and took a deep breath, happy they were moving again. Perhaps she could keep herself distracted with travel and perhaps a few good ambushes, Gabrielle hoped.

"Are you ok?" Xena asked, concerned it was too soon for the bard to ride by herself on that horse. Gabrielle smiled politely and looked at her friend.

"Yes, fine thank you. I know it's kinda late to ask but do you mind if we stop in on Kenis?" She asked a question she didn't need to ask.

Xena eyed Gabrielle, not sure if she was truly being polite or setting up the Warrior Princess for another argument ambush. She actually hoped for the latter, because that would mean the old Gabrielle was back. Ever since Gabrielle's recovery, Xena noticed with some concern how oddly the bard was acting - she was being incredibly polite.

Her smiles toward the Warrior Princess were very polite. Her conversations with the Warrior Princess were very polite. With all that politeness, Xena didn't have to worry about wearing out her Warrior's Mask.

"What do you think is wrong with him?" Lila asked Sarah as they watched Meleager ride alone in front. Sarah eyed him.

"I think he is still upset that his man turned out to be an Ouzas." She relayed.

"That's...." Lila was going to relay how foolish that was but stopped, seeing Sarah nod in agreement. "Ugh...Ride with him." Lila blurted to her sister.

"What? I can't just ride up there now...What would I say?" Sarah asked her youngest sister. Lila sighed.

"It doesn't matter...try the weather, any fool can talk about the weather for awhile." Lila blurted and rode back to talk to the Warrior Princess and her other sister.

"You don't look happy." Gabrielle noted to her sister.

"They're fools." Lila said bluntly with great annoyance.

"Did you just want to make that general statement or did you have some specifics to share?" Gabrielle questioned her. Lila sighed.

"Meleager is still upset about Merrid, and Sarah doesn't know what to say to him." Lila shook her head.

"Meleager told me he was not going to stay in Walsas." Xena relayed. Gabrielle looked at the Warrior Princess with annoyance she didn't volunteer this information sooner.

"When did you learn this?" Gabrielle asked coldly.

"Just before we left." Xena answered, not about to apologize for not immediately gossiping about something that wasn't her business. Gabrielle took a deep breath and turned her head forward.

"Just wonderful." Lila thought to herself as she rode off to ride alone.

After making camp, Lila and Gabrielle went for a walk with Sarah, leaving the two warriors alone. After sitting and watching Xena sharpen her sword he ventured a question.

"Is Gabrielle mad at you?" He asked, drawing a cold stare from an unamused Warrior Princess.

"Yep." Xena informed him and returned to sharpening her sword.



"He's leaving?" Sarah asked, looking back towards the camp with surprise and concern. Gabrielle stared out over the lake as Lila informed her oldest sister of the news.

"He told Xena that he was not staying in Walsas." Lila added.

"I can't believe she didn't tell me until YOU brought it up." Gabrielle muttered.

"Would you give her a break? You have been annoyed with her for a week for no apparent reason," Lila responded.

"I have been VERY po..." Gabrielle started to correct Lila.

"Don't even TRY to convince me you're not mad at something Gabrielle..." Lila interrupted. "But you can't possibly be mad at Xena for not running to you to tell you of Meleager's decision." Lila added.

"Sure she can. Those warrior types always stick together..." Sarah muttered in defense of Gabrielle.

"Yeah." Gabrielle added.

"Now wait a minute!" Lila's voice raised as did her frustration with her sisters. "This has absolutely nothing to do with them being warriors." Lila argued.

"It's their pride that makes them act that way you know. Too proud to admit they are human and can make normal human mistakes." Sarah stated, ignoring Lila's defense of the warriors. "Meleager the MIGHTY...where is Meleager the Man?" She added.

"Gods Sarah, he's a warrior! What kind of fear would Meleager 'the Man' strike in anyone." Lila responded.

"Pride." Gabrielle repeats as she shakes her head and also ignores Lila's comments. "You hit the nail on the head, Sarah." Gabrielle agreed with Sarah. "Too proud to talk to you, too proud to show you their emotions, too proud...." Gabrielle blurted as Sarah nodded in agreement.

"Hold it, hold it, HOLD IT!" Lila yelled out angrily, interrupting Gabrielle's speech on pride. "Before you go off and order their execution, have either of you bothered to tell them how YOU feel?" Lila barked at them with great annoyance. Sarah and Gabrielle looked at each other. Apparently not, Lila concluded and rolled her eyes.

"Either you two are the biggest hypocrites I know or you are so DAMN blind you can't even see what is going on right in front of your own DAMN noses. I don't know which is worse! But it is PA..THE...TIC! You two are acting like such IDIOTS!!"


Hearing a noise in the forest, Xena stopped sharpening her sword. With a shift in the evening breeze, she heard familiar voices indicating the sisters were returning from their walk. Xena returned to sharpening, but stopped again when she observed only Gabrielle and Sarah entered the clearing.

"Where's Lila?" Meleager asked, standing up with some concern.

"She's coming." Gabrielle answered quickly. "She was hot...and needed cooling off." Gabrielle explained while she retrieved a blanket and some clothing from Lila's saddlebag.

"…in the lake," Sarah added as she sat down and pulled out some bread from her saddlebags.

A moment later, Lila stomped into the clearing, fully clothed and soaking wet. Without a word, the angry Lila tore the blanket and clothing from Gabrielle's hands, whirled around, intentionally causing her wet hair to snap at her sister, and stomped away from camp.

"So what's for dinner?" Gabrielle asked brightly, wiping water drops from her face.


The tension between the sisters made the warriors so uncomfortable, they were actually happy to finally arrive at the orphanage early the next day. As they rode into the clearing, Meleager and Xena immediately noticed the poor condition of the barn, which was absent a roof and a few animals. However, the orphanage looked ok. When Trollius and Willa came out with huge smiles to greet them, Meleager relaxed as much he could around a bunch of children and angry Poteidaians.

"May I take care of your horses?" Trollius offered, shocking the adults.

"He's up to something." Meleager the Suspicious relayed to Xena. Gabrielle smiled and handed him the reigns to Four Feet.

"Thank you Trollius, that is very kind of you," The bard said with a warmly.

"Your welcome." The boy smiled and blushed as he took Four Feet to the troth.

"G..Gabrielle!" Kenis rushed out and hugged her.

"You're ok?" He asked, looking over her bruised body.

"I think so. It's just hard to convince everyone else of that." Gabrielle eyed Lila and Xena, who both sighed.

"I knew you w…would be ok." Kenis smiled and hugged her again. While Xena looked at Kenis with new, less harsh eyes, she still would have preferred it if he limited his touching to a handshake. She waited for Gabrielle to mention his notable improvements in speaking but the bard didn't say anything.

Sadness filled Kenis' eyes as he looked to Lila. Seeing Kenis about to apologize, Lila smiled. "No hard feelings Kenis." Lila offered, making him nod and thankful to avoid the subject.

"How about s..some food? We've got p..plenty of food." Kenis offered leading the group inside. Grena pulled on Gabrielle's hand to keep her back from the group.

"Uh, Gabrielle? Did you see Trollius?" Grena asked, smiling at Gabrielle.

"I was going to ask you about him." Gabrielle looked over to the boy who was busy doing chores. "What happened?"

"I kept being nice to him." Grena smiled.

"It was sooo hard but I didn't give up." She said proudly. Gabrielle took her hand and squeezed it.

"I am very glad you didn't. Trollius' manners have been impeccable." The bard smiled the young girl, taking great pride in the transformation. They looked over to Trollius who was still busy doing chores with Vicus. "Now didn't Kenis mention food?" Gabrielle asked.

At the table, Willa kept singing Kenis' praises. "He is here full time now, thank the Gods." She smiled, looking at Kenis.

"Not the G..Gods, Gabrielle." He corrected her. Gabrielle shook her head no.

"Thanks to Dyessa." She looked into his sad eyes. He nodded in agreement but still thought the bard saved him.

"Kenis" Xena spoke up, surprising Gabrielle who had noted how cold Xena had been to the man in the past. "You sound like you are stuttering less." Xena relayed her observation. Gabrielle realized this truth only after Xena mentioned it.

"She's right!" Gabrielle responded with delight as a broad smile crossed her face. Kenis blushed.

"I've b..been practicing." He revealed, looking at a very pleased Gabrielle.

"Your practicing is paying off Kenis." Xena added sincerely.

"I've got...a...long w..way...t..to ...go yet." He sighed, his speech was still slow and broken but his desire to improve was strong.

Xena nodded and smiled warmly. Another person helped by the bard, she mused.

With Willa and Meleager talking about the storm and Kenis and Sarah in an enlivened discussion about the children, Xena's glanced over to the bard to find Gabrielle looking at her with an intense gaze.

A gaze that was not one of Gabrielle's polite glances with one of those annoying polite smiles, Xena considered thankfully. As the bard maintained eye contact, Xena noticed the gaze take on a different look. A look which made Warrior Princess think the bard wouldn't jump if she touched her. Careful Xena, she warned herself, looking away. Don't read too much into a simple look, she sighed. When she dared to look back, her emotions were mixed finding the bard's eyes no longer on her.

"So what happened to the barn?" Meleager asked.

"That horrible storm that blew through here, took the barn's roof with it." Willa relayed as she swept her arm through the air.

"We lost s...some an..nimals too." Kenis relayed sadly.

"No use crying over what happened. No one was hurt and we will rebuild. We've done that plenty of times before." Willa rolled up her sleeves and got the children to help her clear the table.

"Any chance of a STORY for the children before you go?" Willa said loudly to attract the attention of the children. She was very successful.

"Story!" The children blurted out in excitement.

"You don't play very fair, Willa." Gabrielle observed with a grin.

"Life's too short to beat around the bush my dear." Willa responded with a wink, making Gabrielle pause and consider those words of wisdom. Lila deliberately coughed, successfully drawing an annoyed look from the bard.

"Do you want some water?" Meleager asked Lila.

"No thanks, I've had plenty of water...." Lila responded wearily.

Before spinning another tale for the children, Gabrielle leaned over and spoke quietly in Kenis' ear.

"So Kenis, when do you think you'll be ready to tell a story?" He looked up at her.

"I'm not s..sure I'll ever b..be ready for th..these kids..." he said honestly, making her laugh.

"You've got a point," she responded with a smile but was convinced the children would soon enjoy a story from this man.


Somehow, Meleager found himself rebuilding the barn roof. He would have rather listened to Gabrielle tell Aesop's story about the Rabbit and the Tortoise, wondering what the story could be spun about those two animals.

Hitting the hammer on his thumb again, he muttered at how the Queen kept volunteering his help to people. First it was Ustas' neighbors who had an obscenely large plot of land that had to be plowed and planted. He wasn't a farmer, damn it. Yet, he plowed and planted. Then it was Ustas' neighbors who amazingly, had to re-shoe all their six horses at the same time. He wasn't a black smith, damn it. Yet, he re-shoed. Now it was this barn he had to fix. He wasn't a carpenter, damn it. Yet here he was on this ladder fixing this roof. As he hammered his last nail into the roof shingle, he felt his ladder shake. He looked down to find the Queen climbing up the ladder with nails.

"How does she do that?" He questioned silently. She smiled warmly as she handed him another bag of nails.

"You are doing such a good job on this roof, are you sure you haven't done this before?" Sarah asked sincerely, making the warrior feel proud.

"Never...never HAD to. Are you finished with the barn door?" He smiled, asking as he inspected the nails.

"Yes, but the door was easy compared to this." She responded while admiring his handy work. When he looked down at the Queen...Sarah, he looked at this woman with respect and admiration. Every time she had volunteered his help, she was there, working right along side of him.

"Well, just wait until you get back to the castle. There are a few challenging projects I have planned that I really need your help with." She smiled and climbed down the ladder.

He was about to inform her that he wouldn't be around to help her but something stopped him. Perhaps he would just help her finish those projects first, then move on. It was the least he could do, especially since he felt he needed to make it up to the Queen for his failings as the Captain of the Guard.

As Sarah returned to the ground, Lila pulled her aside. "Did he say anything?" Lila asked, wondering if her advice worked.

"No." Sarah grinned broadly.

"Lila you were right. About this..." Sarah pointed up the ladder. "...and the part about being a hypocrite." Sarah admitted, feeling bad about the lake incident. Lila smiled with satisfaction, then frowned.

"What?" Sarah asked with concern.

"My work is not yet done...What about her?" Lila asked as they looked over to the front door of the orphanage where their sister was emerging with Xena, Willa and Kenis.

The two women looked over at Argo then back at each other with devious grins and spoke in unison. "Four Feet."

"Gabrielle? Could you come here a moment?" Sarah called out to her sister in a melodic voice.

"Please?" Lila added, causing a concerned look on the Gabrielle's face. She looked at Xena wondering if she also noticed them acting oddly.

"Let me know if you need any help." Xena responded, making bard smile.

"Thanks. I'll keep you in mind." Gabrielle responded and went to join her sisters.

"Good, I wanted to talk to you." Gabrielle relayed, as she arrived at her sisters' side.

"Oh?" Sarah responded, with surprise and some suspicion.

"You know that Willa and Kenis lost their horses in the storm and I was thinking...." Gabrielle started to explain. Sarah and Lila looked at each other in amazement. "Well...they need a horse and I thought you could let them take care of Four Feet for you." Gabrielle suggested.

"Good idea." Sarah responded with an affirmative nod, making the bard smile.


Although tired from fixing the barn, Meleager was happy they moving on and not staying any longer. Meleager and Xena were the first to mount, and the most ready to leave.

"Ow...what in HADES..." Meleager yelped as he mounted. He quickly found the source of his pain when he pulled out a strategically placed spur from his saddle and heard giggling from the shadows. "Trollius..." Meleager uttered and squeezed his sword handle.

"You should have checked your mount." Xena eyed him with no sympathy.

The warriors watched the sisters say good-bye to Willa and Kenis, and go to their horses. Turning towards the direction of Walsas, Xena eyed Meleager.

"Are you still going to leave Walsas?" Xena asked.

"Well...not right away. Sarah mentioned she really needed my help with a few projects and well, it wouldn't be right to not help her before I go." He explained.

"You're right." Xena responded with a nod, supporting his decision. Definitely in over his head, Xena mused.

Lila and Sarah rode past the two warriors, grinning silently.

"Well, it's about time." Meleager remarked as he started to follow them. Xena waited for Gabrielle. Not seeing her after a few moments, she turned to see what was keeping the bard. To her surprise, there was the familiar sight of the bard walking towards her.

Before Xena could ask where the horse with the stupid name was, Gabrielle explained. "Four Feet is needed here." Gabrielle looked back at the orphanage and returned a wave to group.

"Oh." Xena responded numbly, not sure how to feel about that news. A moment passed when she realized the bard was waiting for something.

"Oh!" Xena smiled, and as she had done so many times in the past, offered her arm to help the bard up behind her. However, her heart dropped when Gabrielle didn't take the offered arm.

"Do you mind if..." Gabrielle started to ask something when the warrior awkwardly retracted her arm and interrupted.

"I understand, you want to walk..." Xena responded, not doing a very good job of covering up her disappointment. Gabrielle shook her head.

"No," Gabrielle responded with some annoyance. "I was going to ask you if you mind if I rode in front...I can see better." Gabrielle informed the warrior.

"Oh..." Xena responded, not doing a very good job of covering up she was happy. Xena quickly dismounted, allowing Gabrielle to take her place forward in the saddle. When Xena sat behind the bard, she was very careful taking the reigns, trying to minimize their contact, which was rather difficult riding together in the same saddle.

Gabrielle sighed.

"Xena." The bard spoke with annoyance. Xena tensed up. This was a bad idea, she thought, Gabrielle was uncomfortable with her touch.

"If I fall off, you will be in big trouble." She blurted as she took the warrior's arm and wrapped it around her waist. Gabrielle heard the warrior take a sharp breath and hoped that was a good sign. The sign was confirmed as good when the warrior pulled the bard as close as she could and kept her arm snugly around the bard's bare-skinned waist.

Her choice of clothing not so foolish now, Gabrielle smiled, recalling her sister's words.

"How's that?" Xena breathed in the bard's ear.

"Better, much...better." Gabrielle's voice cracked.

Chapter 16 - Fair is Fair


Not an hour since their return, Xena disappeared. Gabrielle wondered if that ride with the warrior was pushing things a little too fast, making Xena feel the need to escape. The ride was very... intense, the bard had to admit. The feel of Xena's warmth at her back, the warrior's soft voice and breath in her ear, sensations that made Gabrielle glad for the snug arm around her waist. Without it, she surely would have fallen off Argo. The Warrior Princess had to know how much her touch affected her and perhaps it scared her, the bard considered.

The last thing she wanted to do was scare the Warrior Princess.

Entering the kitchen, one place she hadn't looked yet for Xena, Gabrielle felt an unexpected hand on her shoulder and jumped.

"Ack!" Gabrielle blurted, then heard laughter from the Warrior Princess. "That's not funny!" Gabrielle responded with some annoyance.

"Another nutbread raid, Gabrielle?" Xena asked with a raised eyebrow, her hand lingering on the bard's shoulder.

"Actually, I was looking for YOU." Gabrielle countered.

"Unhun." Xena responded skeptically.

"Fine...You really didn't need to hear that message from Cumae anyway." Gabrielle threatened.

"She's back in Walsas too?" Xena asked with great interest. She had hoped to visit her friend before they left.

Gabrielle stood silently with her arms crossed and a thin smile on her face. Xena rolled her eyes.

"All right, all right...I'm sorry." Xena apologized and smiled seeing the bard's victory grin.

Sarah and Lila came in the kitchen as Xena left.

"Where's she going?" Lila asked.

"To visit Cumae." Gabrielle relayed, her eyes fixed on the departing Warrior Princess.

"Things are going well I can assume?" Sarah asked as Lila headed for the shelf where the nutbread used to be.

"So far." Gabrielle grinned and did not volunteer any more information.

"Hey, where's the nutbread?" Lila asked searching the containers.

"We don't have any." Sarah eyed Gabrielle, who sighed.

"Then we'll make some!" Lila stated with enthusiasm, reaching for a container of nuts.

"We don't have any nuts either...." Sarah eyed Gabrielle again.

"Now wait a minute, I did not eat all your nuts!" Gabrielle protested the silent accusations.

"We've got nuts...lots of nuts. See..." Lila showed her sisters.

"Now how did they get there?" Sarah rushed over to Lila's side to figure out the mystery.

"Your cook obviously." Gabrielle responded with certainty.

"I fired him and his staff before we left for Marapolis. I doubt he would have replaced the nuts on his way out the door." Sarah relayed.

"You know, I think I saw Meleager come through here with a bag. Maybe he got you the nuts." Lila offered a possible explanation. Sarah's face lit up.

"After all we've been through, he remembered my nuts!" Sarah gushed, making Lila wonder why Sarah was acting like she was the sister with a head injury.

"Wasn't that thoughtful of him!" Sarah pulled a container of nuts to her breast, hugging the jar.

"Yeah, very thoughtful." Gabrielle responded, looking at Lila with the same concern about Sarah.

"I had no idea he could be so romantic..." Sarah blurted.

"Meleager? Romantic?" Lila asked with a belly laugh, causing Sarah to give Lila a warning glare. A glare similar to the one she received just before taking that unexpected swim in the lake. Lila promised herself she would never again be caught off-guard like that, eyeing her sisters for any signs of trouble.

"You'd be surprised Lila. Meleager tried to stage a romantic encounter with Sarah on the balcony the night before we left for Marapolis. Unfortunately, he showed up at the wrong balcony - MINE." Gabrielle laughed and shook her head. Sarah and Lila were dumbfounded, then very amused.

"He got the wrong balcony?" Lila laughed hard.

"So THAT'S why he was there in the garden!" Sarah started to laugh too, but stopped.

"Wait a minute...that doesn't explain why Xena was in the bushes" Sarah asked.

"Xena was involved?" Lila was shocked.

"I am sure Meleager needed some moral support and Xena has a hard time saying no to people in need." Gabrielle relayed with a warm smile.

"Well, I think he needed a better navigator." Lila responded, causing them to giggle.

"Gabrielle? Remember you agreed that you owed me one?" Sarah asked with a familiar Poteidaian family twinkle in her eye.

"Yeah?" Gabrielle responded with some concern.

"Well I am calling that favor in." Sarah informed her. "It's not going to be painful is it?" Gabrielle cringed.

"Not for us." Sarah smiled, intriguing Lila.

"I do hope you'll let me help." Lila interjected.

"You don't know what you're getting yourself into, there could be some risk." Sarah put her hand on her youngest sister's shoulder.

"I am willing to accept that responsibility." Lila said with a straight face.

"OK then!"


The dinner was modest for a castle that size, but having fired her cooking staff and not having all day to prepare dinner, Sarah made due with what she could. No one complained. It was a delicious and comfortable meal. Although, it was not entirely comfortable for Xena or Meleager, who had trouble paying attention to the conversation at the table because of the incredibly distracting Poteidaian sisters sitting across from them. In addition to working hard to deliver the feast, the two sisters somehow found the time to dress up in gorgeous gowns, the warriors noted.

Lila sat back quietly and watched with great amusement at how the sisters pretended not to notice the warriors' gazes and how the warriors tried to pretend they were not gazing. Gods, they are in over their heads, Lila mused with a smile to herself. It was almost worth all that work in the kitchen while those two dressed up, just to see this amusing spectacle.

"I have gotten use to my family being here. I wish you didn't have to leave tomorrow." Sarah, who had Meleager's eyes glued to her, looked over to Gabrielle hopefully. Xena also looked over to the bard, willing to stay a few more days if that's what Gabrielle wanted.

Mesmerized by that dark blue gown Gabrielle was wearing, and of course, by the beautiful bard wearing it, Xena considered she would probably agree to anything the bard asked. 'Who am I fooling', Xena thought to herself, 'there are no probably's about it.' However, Xena was very relieved when the bard insisted they had to be on their way. She missed their time alone, when the warrior had Gabrielle all to herself. She would have to ask Gabrielle to tell her that ... distracting ... story about the young lovers, which the warrior never let her finish, Xena grinned to herself. She was ready to let the bard finish her story.

Sarah nodded to her sister and got up from the table, smiling at the bard. "Well before you go Gabrielle, I wanted to show you something. Do you mind?" She held her hand out to encourage her sister from the table. "Hmmm...She's being very mysterious." Gabrielle relayed to Xena with a shrug and grin as she took Sarah's hand. "We'll be back in a moment." Sarah informed Lila and the disappointed warriors.

The warriors' silent appreciation of the women as they left was interrupted by the youngest sister.

"So ... tell me Meleager...what is the actual number of men have you single handedly killed in that famous battle...what was the name of that battle.... Killamenlotta?" Lila asked him, placing her chin in her palm and resting her elbow on the table. Meleager rolled his eyes, missing her previous silence. The Mighty looked at Xena who smiled and sipped her wine, grateful the young woman was asking him and not her about her battles.

"37 men...." He admitted, surprising Xena who had heard it was in the hundreds. "and a really mean mule...I guess I had great advertisement." Meleager shrugged and explained.

Lila smiled, sat back with crossed arms, eyeing Xena who's old feelings of discomfort around Gabrielle's youngest sister resurfaced. After a moment, Lila spoke again. "So... Xena...how are you able to throw your Chakrum and KILL..."

The direction of Lila's question immediately concerned Xena, who though the bard's little sister was going to probe further into her bloody past or worse, try to argue that a person like her shouldn't be with a person as wonderful as Gabrielle.

"...and then, turn around throw the same weapon and just knock people out? It just seems like it should be either one... or the other...." Lila asked, with an innocent look. Xena looked at her and sighed with relief, wondering just when Gabrielle would get back.

"Excuse me" A royal messenger came in the dinning room. The warriors welcomed his interruption. "Sarah and Gabrielle would like you all to join them on the south balcony for some dessert." Xena and Meleager smiled, pleased with the surprise and relieved they had a path of retreat from Lila's questioning.

"Why can't we just have dessert in here?" Lila asked. Meleager and Xena looked at each other as they started to get up.

"They wanted to do something nice for us on our last night together." Xena responded to Lila.

"What about the bugs? They could have just as easily been nice in here...I really don't like eating outside, especially after all our time traveling." Lila countered with a complaint, starting to annoy the two warriors who just shook their heads and left for the South balcony.

The South balcony had an impressive table set up on it with various desserts, Xena noted and smiled seeing nutbread prominently displayed in the center of the table.

"Wow!" Meleager looked at the goodies with amazement.

"I could get use to this!" He smiled as he poured two mugs of port wine and handed Xena one.

"I wonder what's keeping Gabrielle and Sarah?" Xena asked, starting to notice they were taking a long time.

"They'll be here." Lila responded melodically and smiled innocently as she leaned in the doorframe. Xena immediately suspected her of something, wondering what put that grin on Lila's face.

"Just the same, I'll go get them." Meleager put his drink down and started inside.

"Tell him not to leave!" A not so discreet voice came from the ground below. A voice that belonged to Gabrielle.

"HEY! STOP!" Sarah yelled up to him in an annoyingly familiar manner. The two warriors looked at each other. When they walked to the edge of the balcony and peered over, they found Sarah standing in the garden and Gabrielle crouched and not well hidden in the bushes.

"You warned me something like this would happen." Meleager rubbed his chin thoughtfully, still eyeing his opponent on the ground.

"Yep." Xena responded.

"I thought after all that we went through..." He added, looking innocently over at her. Xena shook her head and sighed at her naive fellow warrior. "But they seem so innocent, I had no idea ..." He responded.

"That's what makes them so dangerous." She stated with authority.

They looked back at the doorway where a smiling Lila was still leaning.

"We're trapped." Meleager responded as if Lila would actually be able stop the two warriors from leaving the balcony. However, he was slowly learning it is not wise to underestimate ANY Poteidaian.

"And out numbered." Xena noted the obvious.

Xena resigned herself to the fact they were going to be the object of the sisters' amusement for the evening, and likely, many evenings to come. Deciding to at least make herself comfortable while she waited for the inevitable humiliation, she sat on the balcony banister and sipped her wine.

Meleager preferred to stand and face whatever torture awaited them.

"Didn't you say that being down there was a disadvantage?" He looked over to Xena hopefully.

"That was when we were down there," Xena explained, sipping her drink.

Meleager scratched his head.

"and now that we are up here... the place of disadvantage is?" Meleager asked.

"Up here." Xena responded.

He nodded with resignation, accepting their inherent disadvantage. "This is going to be slow and painful...isn't it?" He asked.

"I'm afraid so," Xena sighed.

"What!? What!? I can't hear you!" Sarah yelled at her sister. After a rustling in the bushes, Gabrielle comes out conspicuously, in mock annoyance, holding a single leafy branch in front of her. Xena had to smile at the ridiculous sight.

"Tell him ... 'it would be CRUEL ... to not SHARE .... his BEAUTY .... a few more MINUTES ....with ME'..." Gabrielle spoke as deliberately and slowly as Xena had the other night.

Meleager snickered, seeing Xena's smile fade as she realized Gabrielle knew much more about that evening than she thought.

"It would be CRUEL to SHARE your BEAUTY with ME." Sarah repeated most of the important words.

"no..No...NO!" Gabrielle blurted with annoyance.

"Oh." Sarah responded.

"HEY YOU! Thanks for STAYING...its GOOD of you!" Sarah added, wiping the grin off of Meleager's face when he realized his words, which until now, seemed fine to him, were being used against him.

"Fair is fair." Xena responded to her comrade in abuse. Lila giggled in the background.

There was a moment of quiet from the ground below as Gabrielle and Sarah spoke quietly to each other. This unusual quiet piqued the warriors' curiosity. The looked at each other then back down to the garden. With a clear voice from the ground, the mood of frivolity was turned into great seriousness.

"Tell him...'I have had a great gift in my life... to have loved someone who loved me very deeply'..." Gabrielle told her sister.

Sarah looked up to Meleager whose eyes were fixed on her. "A great love." Sarah stated, returning his gaze. Xena uncomfortably stared at her goblet of wine.

"Tell him...'There is no way to compete with that past love'..." Gabrielle added.

"You can't compete with the past and you SHOULDN'T try." Sarah repeated in her own words. Meleager breathed deeply, listening nervously.

"Tell him..." Gabrielle told her sister, then paused a moment. "I know there are people in your past that I can't compete with." Gabrielle lowered her branch to see Meleager focused on Sarah and Xena still on her goblet. Gabrielle sighed.

"We've ALL had pasts...." Sarah added for emphasis.

"Tell him...'This is NOT a competition'..." Gabrielle spoke with some annoyance and continued.

"Tell him... 'Don't let the past interfere with our ability to love each other now and tomorrow." Gabrielle spoke with great feeling, then a grin crossed quickly crossed her face. "So stop WALLOWING in the past and let's MOVE on!" Gabrielle barked. Sarah looked at her and realized she couldn't paraphrase it any better.

"YEAH! What she said!" Queen Sarah called up. Meleager beamed. Gabrielle saw Xena finally look up from her goblet and gaze at her with those incredible eyes.

"Tell him...'you have beautiful eyes'...." Gabrielle grinned at Xena, who couldn't help but smile with the memories of the past. But more importantly, Xena smiled with the promise of memories they would make in the future.

Sarah laughed, considering Meleager's eyes were not what she considered "beautiful" but she shrugged and almost complied with her sister's request.

"You've got eyes...If you would use them, you would see that I love you and you would SEE that it only makes sense to marry me!" Sarah blurted with a grin.

Gabrielle's mouth dropped. Marriage was a big leap from the romantic encounter and humiliation they planned.

Lila rushed over to the balcony with a big smile then patted a stunned Meleager on the back.

"Welcome to the family." Meleager was still in shock. Xena stood up from the balcony railing and faced the still speechless Meleager.

"Good luck...you'll need it." Xena looked at him with utter seriousness.


The next night, their first time in a long time they were alone under the stars together, Gabrielle returned to camp. She sat down on the edge of her bedroll and stared at the fire. She was more than a little annoyed.

"Enjoy your walk?" Xena asked, nibbling on some nuts.

"It was delightful." Gabrielle responded sarcastically. Xena smiled to herself.

"Aren't you going to tell a story?" Xena asked as Gabrielle continued to stare silently, now into the woods. Xena was ready to request that Romantic Epic she had yet to let the bard finish.

What went wrong? The bard asked herself. After all that happened, she had expected Xena to visit her in her room last night. But she didn't, the bard sighed. She didn't even say a single word to her about last night during their walk today, Gabrielle sighed. A walk! Gabrielle noted with annoyance. What went wrong?

"Not now...maybe later..." Gabrielle responded with a sigh and continued to stare blankly, now up at the stars.

First, the ride with Xena back to Walsas made her think, without a doubt, that Xena felt the same way. Of course, she was so busy being distracted by the warrior's proximity perhaps she wasn't paying enough attention to see if Xena really did feel the same way...ugh. Maybe that was it. NO! There was no doubt Xena enjoyed that ride together as much as she did, Gabrielle thought to herself, becoming more confused. What went wrong? The bard sighed.

"Are you sure?" Xena asked.

Then she wore that beautiful gown their last evening in Walsas to please the Warrior Princess, Gabrielle thought to herself. The intense gaze of desire in Xena's blue eyes made her think she was more than successful. The bard was certain she was not going to spend that evening alone. But she did. What went wrong? The bard sighed.

"I'm not in the mood right now," Gabrielle responded.

Then the bard told her she loved her, well...not directly. Perhaps it was too subtle, Gabrielle guessed. Gods, Xena is not stupid! She knew I was talking about her, Gabrielle thought with conviction. Ugh, Gabrielle silently moaned, realizing Xena also knew she was making fun of her attempts to help Meleager. That had to be it. Xena wanted to help him and I ended up hurting her feelings by making fun of her for it, Gabrielle sighed. Gods...Gabrielle quietly moaned and placed her hands over her face. Stupid, Stupid, Stupid. Perhaps there was a way to still salvage everything, the bard considered, and began to hope. 'Come on bard, think of something!' She told herself. Like what? She asked herself, drawing a blank.

Well, there was always the direct approach, Gabrielle considered.

"Are you sure?" Xena asked again, nibbling on more nuts. This was not working out like she had planned, Xena thought to herself.

Gabrielle was supposed to tell a story. The Warrior Princess was going to ask to hear that Romantic Epic. The bard would begin to spin her tale. The Warrior Princess would sit back and enjoy the manipulation by the talented bard, encouraging the bard to romance her with her words. The Warrior Princess was going to allow herself to feel all those emotions she had carefully avoided... masked...denied. She was going to get rid of her mask once and for all. It was going to be so wonderfully easy.

This was not turning out like she planned, Xena started to worry then noticed the bard staring at her.

"Can I ask you a question?" Gabrielle asked the surprised warrior.

"Sure...." Xena responded a little nervously, wondering what the question would be. Then the warrior noticed Gabrielle stare at the bag of nuts in her hands.

When the bard's eyes narrowed, Xena cleared her throat. "Oh...did you want some?" Xena responded holding out the nuts, knowing she was in trouble.

"You ate the nuts didn't you?" Gabrielle said coolly. "You ate ALL the nuts...didn't you?" Gabrielle repeated quickly. "I can't believe you let me go through every jar in that castle." She blurted.

"I helped you," Xena offered, not helping her case.

"I can't believe you let me take the blame for the nuts!" Gabrielle didn't let Xena respond, not that the Warrior Princess had a defense for that...excuse, yes, defense, no.

"You are in SOOO much trouble my warrior princess, you have NO idea." Gabrielle responded shaking her head.

"At least I replaced what I took." Xena countered. Gabrielle was going to use the argument that she wouldn't have been able to make any nutbread, even if she had thought of it, because the Warrior Princess ate all the nuts, but she was distracted by Xena's admission.

"You did what!?" Gabrielle looked at her with astonishment.

"I said... I replaced the nuts. Which is more than I can say for some..." Xena's annoyed response was interrupted by giggling.

"What?!?" Xena questioned the bard.

"Boy if word of this gets around, no one will EVER ask for your help in the romance department again...when you help, there is no middle ground is there?" Gabrielle responded, obviously very amused.

"What are you talking about?" Xena asked with annoyance, considering she had already endured enough ribbing for her failed attempts at helping Meleager and was not in the mood for more.

"Sarah's proposal to Meleager." Gabrielle took a couple breaths to control her laughter and wiped the tears from her eyes. "She was so touched by 'HIS' thoughtfulness in replacing the nuts, she ended up proposing to the guy... you got him ENGAGED Xena!" Gabrielle burst out laughing again.

An amused grin crossed the warrior's face. "Well Meleager DID ask for my help." Xena responded and shrugged, making Gabrielle laugh harder.

"Oh Gods." Gabrielle sighed as she fell back onto her bedroll, weak from laughing so hard. "Ow." Gabrielle responded to something very uncomfortable under her blanket, which jabbed her.

"Gabrielle?" Xena questioned the bard with some concern. When the bard pulled out the cause of her yelp, Xena took a nervous breath. This was not turning out as planned, Xena thought.

"It's...a mask..." Gabrielle's voice faded as she stared at the wood mask in her nervous hand. "What... happened to it?" Gabrielle asked the warrior in a barely audible voice, noting the split in the wood.

A warrior must adapt and overcome, Xena considered. 'And I will', she promised herself. Looking in the bard's eyes and remembering the lesson in Ustas' shop, Xena drew strength to fight for today, and the promise of tomorrow with the bard.

"You tried to warn me not to wear it too much..." Xena responded as she moved closer to the target of her affection. She knelt down and stared at the mask a moment then into the bard's confused eyes.

Unhindered by the distraction of past doubts or hesitation from uncertainty, the Warrior Princess confidently entered the emotional battlefield, finally with a clear objective - to take complete and unquestionable possession of the bard's heart. Her own, so long ago and easily captured by the bard.

"One too many smiles I guess," Xena added, not hesitating to use the bard's own words as weapons against her. While she was painfully aware her ability in wielding those weapons paled in comparison to the bard, the warrior also understood the strategic value of surprise, which would cover her lack of skill with those still powerful weapons.

It was clear the warrior's strategy was working, for even her clumsy blows with the bard's weapons successfully weakened her target of affection's defenses. Tears welled up in the bard's eyes as she looked up into the warrior's unwavering gaze.

Unwise to solely rely on one type of weapon in a battle of this import, Xena reached out and gently caressed Gabrielle's cheek, causing the bard to tremble and take a sharp breath.

"It is actually your fault the mask is broken," Xena informed her as she moved closer, sitting next to her target. No longer encumbered with the distance between them, the Warrior Princess was better able to wield her weapon of touch with the meticulous precision needed.

As the warrior's fingers slowly traced a line from her brow to her chin, the woman of many words became a woman of no words, unable to wield even the smallest of her weapons, for the warrior had completely disarmed her. Overwhelmed by her emotions, Gabrielle closed her eyes, treasuring each word spoken and savoring each touch given as gifts she thought she might never receive.

"The way you make me feel, Gabrielle...I can't help but smile," Xena continued to wield her weapon of touch with deft skill and confidence as she glided her fingers over the bard's sensitive skin to the nape of her neck.

In a brief moment of fear that this was once again only a dream, the bard opened her eyes. As she focused on the Warrior Princess' face before her, feeling her touch, and hearing her words, the bard knew this was not a dream.

Still bound by honor, the warrior paused to find any indication that the bard needed a path for retreat from this final advance. She found none.

Xena slowly pulled Gabrielle towards her, until their lips were within an inch.

Gabrielle's pulse raced as she felt Xena's warm breath against her cheek.

Only a single phrase away from complete victory in this war on uncertain ground, Xena parted her lips to finally finish this long emotional battle and claim her prize. However, the Warrior Princess stumbled in her advance, hesitating to wield the final three, most powerful weapons against the bard.

As if sensing the warrior's trouble on this emotional battlefield, the bard silently called in reinforcements, which arrived in the form of loving strokes of the warrior's cheek. With the strength provided by those reinforcements, the warrior was able to continue her advance.

Without the vibrato usually accompanying the final blows of a monumental victory, but containing much more power than a catapult and delivered with more accuracy than an expert archer's arrow, the final three weapons were wielded with amazing tenderness.

"I love you."

As their lips met, Gabrielle no longer wondered what it would be like to touch the stars.



Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Index


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