-- Chapter 4 --

Xena stood hesitantly outside her mother's tavern. Homecomings were always awkward, but without the bard at her side, it was even more difficult.

It was Gabrielle's theory that the warrior and her mother were too much alike--independent, no-nonsense, headstrong women. And maybe her friend was right. Regardless, Xena dreaded the reception she would receive without Gabrielle's calming influence. The bard had a way of making everyone feel more at ease. It was Gabrielle's nature to focus on the bright side, to start every day fresh, as if the past didn't matter. But Xena's past was not easily forgotten. It did matter. And her friend's absence made her keenly aware of that.

Taking a deep breath, she opened the door and stepped inside.

The familiar sight of her mother behind the bar brought back a flood of memories from her childhood. For a moment it seemed nothing had changed…that somehow the small tavern had been frozen in time. But as she looked more closely, the gray streaks in Cyrene's hair revealed the truth.

As she stood quietly, bracing herself for her mother's reaction, she was surprised to see Cyrene look up and smile warmly.

Quickly untying her apron, she hurried toward her daughter.

The warrior stiffened awkwardly in her embrace.

Cyrene pulled back. "Xena, it's good to see you."

"You too."

Glancing past her daughter, she looked toward the door, expecting the bard to step through it. "Here alone this time?" she asked.

Xena nodded. "Gabrielle's spending some time with her family in Poteidaia."

"That's nice." Cyrene looked down at her daughter's empty hands. "Where are your things?"

"I put them in the barn. I didn't think you'd have a spare room for me."

"Nonsense. I saved you one."

"Saved me one?" the warrior questioned.

"Yeah, a woman passing through town told me you were coming."

Xena's brow furrowed. "What woman?"

"A nice woman who stayed here a few nights. She has the gift of sight," her mother offered matter-of-factly. "She told me you'd be coming to visit."

The warrior rolled her eyes skeptically. "Mother, people can't see into the future."

"If that's true, how do you explain her knowing about your visit?"

"Probably just a coincidence," Xena shrugged.

"I don't think so. She knew other things too."

The warrior shook her head doubtfully.

"She did," Cyrene insisted. "You could tell by just looking at her that she had a special gift…something about her eyes."

"What about them?" Xena asked curiously.

"They're gray, so pale there's almost no color at all. I've never seen anything like it."

The warrior stiffened, her mother's description bringing to mind the silver-haired woman at the tavern. "What was her name?"

"Hmmm." Cyrene hesitated. "I don't recall."

"What did she look like?"

"Young woman…tall and thin…long silver hair. Quite attractive, actually."

"I've met her. Our paths crossed in Athens. She must have overheard our plans." Satisfied with the explanation, Xena took a seat at the bar. "See? Mystery solved."

Hecuba shook her head. "I don't know…she's told people things she never could have known, directed them to lost items, predicted events."

"It's a trick, that's all."

"I can't believe that. She was so genuine."

"That's what people like her want you to think. Let me guess, she received payment for her special insight, right?"

"Well, yes, that's how she makes her living."

"No doubt." Xena raised an eyebrow. "She didn't get any money from you, did she?"

"Of course not." Cyrene thought of the free breakfast that she had given the woman, then quickly shrugged it off. "Enough about her. What brings you home?"

Her mother's question spoke volumes about their relationship. Unlike most parents, Cyrene didn't automatically assume her daughter was there to visit. "I…uh…I thought I could help you with some repairs while Gabrielle visited her family."

"That's good of you. We can always use an extra pair of hands this time of year." She smiled and walked around the bar. "You must be hungry after your trip. Can I get you something to eat?"

"No, thanks."

Looking more closely at her daughter, Cyrene furrowed her brow. "You look tired dear. Are you feeling okay?"

"I'm fine. I traveled through the night to get here, that's all."

"Well, now that you’re here you can get caught up on your rest. How long will you be staying?"

"I'm meeting Gabrielle in about a moon."

"Then we'll have a lot of time to get caught up."

Already at a loss for conversation, Xena shifted uncomfortably. "Where's Toris?"

"He's over at Cousin Seth's place, helping him get the spring crops in." She leaned closer, lowering her voice. "The big news is he has a serious girlfriend."

The warrior smiled. "Another one, huh?"

Cyrene motioned toward the woman in the kitchen and whispered. "Our new barmaid. She's really quite nice."

Xena cast a discreet glance at the young woman.

Stepping through the entryway, Cyrene motioned to her. "Come, I'll introduce you."

The petite blonde looked up as they entered.

"Mara, this is my daughter, Xena."

Smiling warmly, the woman held out her hand. "I've heard so much about you. Toris goes on and on about you two as kids. It's good to finally meet you."

"Nice to meet you too." Xena shook her hand, subtly looking her over. Although the woman was at least a head shorter than Toris, she was extremely attractive. Clearly, he hadn't lost his taste in women. "Well, if you'll excuse me, I should bring in my things and get settled." She turned awkwardly to her mother. "Which room do you want me in?"

"Your old room, the one between Mara's and mine at the end of the hall."

*****

Gabrielle nervously paced about her sister's room. "I don't know about this, Lila."

"You can't back out now. It's all set. Graham and Liam will be here soon."

The bard looked down at her well-worn skirt. "But what am I going to wear? I don't even own a dress anymore."

"Don't worry. I've got several that will fit you." Walking to her closet, Lila pulled out two and laid them on the bed. "What do you think?"

The bard lightly ran her hand over the delicate material. "They're beautiful. But I--"

"--The white one looks perfect for you!" Lila exclaimed. "Why don't you try it on? I'll go out and wait for the guys."

Gabrielle nodded uneasily, a sense of dread washing over her as the door clicked shut. Glancing down at the dress, she shook her head. The garment seemed frivolous and impractical, completely alien to what she'd become accustomed to. Frustrated, she groaned and dropped onto the bed. How had she gotten herself into this? She desperately wanted a way out of going to the dance, but no reasonable excuse came to mind. She sat up, defeated. It was too late to back out now. Getting to her feet, she stripped out of her clothes and stepped into the white dress. Grabbing a pair of matching sandals, she slid them on.

Releasing a heavy sigh, she turned to the mirror. The image she saw there startled her. The transformation was dramatic. Dressed in the beautiful gown, she almost looked like another person. Seasons on the road had given her a sculpted, lean body. Tentatively, she ran her fingers over the gentle slope of her breasts and slowly turned to take in the full view. As she moved, the soft material gently caressed her skin, sending a shiver through her. She closed her eyes and smiled. Maybe this wouldn't be so bad, after all.

Hearing the sound of voices, she glanced toward the door. They were here. Squaring her shoulders, she swallowed and steeled her nerves.

As she entered the room, the men looked up and quickly rose to their feet.

"Liam, this is my sister, Gabrielle."

The young suitor stood open-mouthed, stunned by his good fortune. "Lila wasn't kidding. You are truly beautiful."

The bard blushed shyly. "It was nice of you to agree to escort me at the last minute."

"It's my pleasure. Why, I'll be the envy of everyone there."

Herodotus smiled and stepped forward, wrapping his arms around his daughters.

Gabrielle stiffened, oddly uneasy by the pride shining in her father's eyes.

"Well," Lila declared, "we should be going."

Graham nodded and turned to Herodotus. "We'll have them home shortly after the dance."

Herodotus gave his daughter's fiancÚ a friendly slap on the shoulder. "No hurry, no hurry at all. I know they're in good hands."

Hurrying forward, Hecuba gave each of her daughters a quick kiss on the cheek. "Have a good time, now."

Gabrielle nodded and took Liam's arm, trying not to appear as anxious as she felt.

Turning, they walked out the door and into the night.

*****

The large hall was filled with the sound of music and happy chatter.

Liam graciously steered his date through the crowd toward an empty table and pulled out a chair. "Can I get you something to drink?"

Mouth dry from tension, Gabrielle jumped at the offer. "That would be nice."

"How about you, Lila:" Graham asked.

"Please."

After the men had gone, Lila turned excitedly to her sister. "So what do you think of Liam?"

"He…uh…he seems very polite."

Lila laughed. "And great-looking too…blond…blue eyes. What more could you ask for?" Lila sighed happily. "Now, aren't you glad you decided to come?"

The bard nodded mildly as she watched her date approach.

"Here you are." He handed her the drink and took the seat to her right.

"Thank you."

He smiled. "Graham tells me you're visiting for the wedding."

"Yes."

"So where do you live?"

She shrugged. "No place in particular."

"Oh?"

"I'm a bard," she explained.

He paused to take a sip of his drink. "How quaint."

Gabrielle smiled playfully. "I'm not sure that's how I'd describe it, but it's never dull. That's for sure."

"You're a poet, then."

"No. Actually, I write tales of adventure."

"Adventure?" he queried. "How exactly does a woman write of adventure? Where would you get your ideas?"

"From my experiences roaming the countryside, mostly."

Liam frowned as he considered the impropriety of a young woman traveling without an escort. "Isn't that dangerous… a woman on the road alone."

"Oh, I'm not alone. I travel with a warrior."

"A woman warrior," Lila added quickly.

Liam cleared his throat anxiously. "I see."

"I travel with Xena, the Warrior Princess. Have you ever heard of her?"

"Of course." His brow furrowed as he shot a disapproving look at Graham. "I thought she was a warlord."

"No, not anymore," Gabrielle said quickly.

Graham turned to his friend. "She's reformed now. Kind of a hero."

"Both she and Gabby are," Lila added.

Noting his discomfort, the bard attempted to change the subject. "So, Liam, do you farm?"

He rolled his eyes and motioned to his expensive clothing. "Do I look like a farmer to you?"

Confused, she glanced at her sister.

"Liam's father is a very prosperous merchant," Lila clarified.

"Oh." Concerned that she'd offended him, she rushed on. "It must be interesting interacting with such a variety of people."

Liam laughed. "I leave the actual bartering to my father's workers. I never deal directly with the customers."

"I see. Do you travel quite a bit to select the merchandise you sell then?"

He frowned and shook his head. "No, I don't dirty my hands with that end of it. I deal strictly with financial matters."

Not wanting to stick her foot in her mouth again, Gabrielle kept silent.

Lila spoke up quickly. "I thought you guys brought us here to dance. So how about it?"

"Sounds like a good idea to me," Graham replied.

"What about you, Gabrielle?" her date asked politely. "Would you care to dance?"

Relieved for the distraction, the bard nodded eagerly. "Yes, thank you." As she jumped to her feet, she knocked over her cup, spilling the contents on her date. "Damn! I--"

Liam's shocked expression at her use of profanity stopped her mid-sentence. "I---I--I'm so sorry," she stuttered apologetically. "I'll pick up your pants tomorrow and get the stain out for you."

Dabbing at the damp spot with his napkin, he exhaled in frustration. "Are you kidding? They're ruined!" He took a deep breath and forced a tense smile. "Don't concern yourself. I'll simply replace them."

Mortified, Gabrielle apologized again. "I'm so clumsy. I'm really sorry."

"Forget it." He tossed his napkin onto the table. "Let's leave this mess and dance."

Happy to put the incident behind her, the bard nodded eagerly. She was anxious to lose herself in the music the way she had when she'd danced with Xena that night in her parent's barn.

But as Liam guided her across the floor, she quickly realized that dancing with him was completely different. There was no exhilaration, no light-hearted feeling of freedom like she'd experienced with the warrior. As her male suitor twirled her around the floor, she found herself lost in thoughts of Xena. She wondered where her friend was and what she was doing. Had she arrived in Amphipolis as planned, or had she been diverted, as was so often the case?

Liam noisily cleared his throat.

Pulled from her musings, she looked up.

"Excuse me, but you're leading."

She blushed hotly. "I must have lost my concentration. I'm sorry."

He shrugged and once again took hold of her hand, guiding her gracefully about the room.

Embarrassed by her lapse, she focused intently, but anticipating his movements proved difficult. He was a good dancer, but somehow it just didn't feel right; something was missing. He wasn't holding her with the confident boldness that the warrior had exuded. His moves felt predictable, not nearly as dynamic as Xena's had been.

She groaned internally. Who was she kidding? He wasn't the problem--she was. She was simply more relaxed with the warrior. Xena had a way of making her believe that she could do almost anything. In the arms of this man, with whom she had nothing in common, she felt awkward and uncomfortable. The thrill of the dance was lost.

Suddenly realizing that they'd come to a complete stop, she looked up, puzzled.

"You were leading again," he explained impatiently.

"Sorry, I don't know where my head's at tonight. Mind if we take a break?"

"Nah," he sighed heavily. "The dance floor is getting a bit crowded for me anyway."

Taking her hand, he led her back to the table where they waited in silence for Lila and Graham to return.

*****

-- Chapter 5 --

Peeking her head out the kitchen door, Cyrene caught sight of her daughter stacking materials she needed to repair the roof. "Xena, come in and join Mara and me for breakfast."

Dreading the inevitable female chatter, the warrior considered declining. Quickly deciding it wasn't worth arguing about, she reluctantly headed toward the door.

Cyrene frowned as she watched her daughter walk past her to take a seat. "You look a little pale."

"Nah, I'm okay."

"You were up so early. Did you sleep all right?"

Truthfully, Xena hadn't slept well in moons, but she nodded, not wanting to worry her mother.

Mara spoke up happily. 'Well, if I ever had a better night's rest I can't remember." She looked off wistfully. "I had the most beautiful dream. "I--"

Before she could finish her thought, Toris entered the kitchen and dropped into the chair beside her. Yawning he ran his fingers through his disheveled hair, then turned to his girlfriend and smiled affectionately. "How about some breakfast? I'm starving."

"It's in the pot over the fire," she replied stiffly. "Help yourself."

Shrugging off her rebuff, he grabbed a biscuit.

"There's porridge too," his mother offered.

"I haven't got time. I'm off to meet the guys."

Mara slumped in her seat. "I was hoping we could have a picnic out by the lake."

"Sorry," he apologized. "I've already made plans with my friends."

"But you've been working with them for days," Mara complained. "I was hoping that for once we could spend some time together."

"That was work," he replied. "Today's our day off. We're going on an overnight fishing trip."

The blonde released a heavy sigh, not bothering to hide her aggravation.

"I'll be home tomorrow afternoon," he soothed, lightly squeezing her shoulder. "When I get back, you can make some of your terrific stew for me for dinner."

Feeling the tension in the air, Xena grabbed a biscuit and stood. "Well, back to it." She smiled at her mother. "Thanks for breakfast."

"Hey, you ought to come along," her brother suggested. "The guys would love to see you."

"Thanks, but I'd like to get the roof finished before we get more rain."

He popped the biscuit in his mouth and headed for the door. "Suit yourself, but you'll be missing a great time."

As soon as he had gone, Mara groaned in frustration.

Patting her arm sympathetically, Cyrene shook her head. "Give him time. He'll come around, you'll see."

The young woman pushed her plate aside, and stood. "Maybe, but I refuse to spend another day cooped up indoors, waiting for him to include me in his plans."

Uncomfortable, Xena started to leave.

Quickly turning to the warrior, the blonde smiled sweetly. "How would you like a little help on the roof?"

"Well, I--"

Not giving her a chance to finish, Mara took Xena's arm and led her out the door. "This will be such fun. It'll give us a chance to talk and get to know each other."

Looking back helplessly at her mother, the warrior watched the door swing shut behind them.

*****

Gabrielle sat alone at the kitchen table, staring into the fire. She'd sat up the entire night, thinking. It wasn't that she hadn't been able to sleep but rather, that she'd been afraid to try, afraid to let herself dream. Coming home had been a mistake. She felt worse about herself now, than she had when she'd first arrived. Last night's date had been a complete disaster. Instead of helping her clarify her thoughts, the experience had left her feeling awkward and inadequate. Suddenly it seemed as if all of her childhood insecurities were returning, insecurities she never felt when she was with Xena. She sighed sadly.

She missed her friend. How was it possible to feel so lonely and out of place in the home she'd grown up in? If only Xena were here…. Gabrielle clenched her fist in frustration. Xena wasn't here. She had stupidly let her leave, because she hadn't had the courage to confide in her about her bizarre dreams.

And why hadn't she? In the past she'd always been able to talk to Xena about her problems, even the personal ones. Why was this any different?

She glanced out the window at bright sunshine and wearily rubbed her eyes. Looking at the road leading out of town, she couldn't help wishing that she had accompanied the warrior to Amphipolis. She'd always gotten along well with Xena's family--with all the people she'd met in Amphipolis, for that matter. There, unlike Poteidaia, they accepted her for the person she'd become.

Yawning, Lila entered the room and sat next to her sister. "You're up early."

Gabrielle nodded.

"Is everything okay? You look so sad."

"I'm fine," she replied, forcing a smile.

Lila gently laid her hand on her sister's arm. "Hey, I'm sorry that things didn't work out with Liam."

The bard shrugged. "It's not your fault. It's me."

"Nonsense, you're terrific. We just picked the wrong guy," she assured her. "Don't you worry, Graham has a lot of other friends we can fix you up with."

Gabrielle cringed inwardly. "Thanks, but it's kind of a bad time for me. I--I'm not myself."

Lila's eyes filled with concern. "Anything I can help with?"

"No, not really. I haven't been sleeping well lately, that's all."

"That's easy enough to fix. You should try Mom's herbal tea. It really works. One cup, and I crash as soon as my head hits the pillow."

The bard inhaled deeply. "Actually, my problem isn't getting to sleep. It's just…well…I keep having these strange dreams."

"What do you mean, 'strange'?"

"It's kind of hard to explain." She paused anxiously. "Lila, I appreciate your trying to show me a good time, but until I've figured out what's going on with me, I don't think I should make my life any more complicated. Okay?"

"Sure, I understand." Her sister's eyes widened suddenly, as a thought occurred to her. "I know someone who just might be able to help you."

"Who?"

"There's a woman staying at Aunt Rina's, a prophet. She's been advising people about all kinds of things."

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Yeah, right. Just what I need--some soothsayer."

"Seriously, Rina has a lot of faith in her."

Gabrielle shook her head. "Thanks, but I don't think so."

"What could it hurt?" Lila encouraged.

The bard shrugged.

"Well, at least think about it." She paused. "Look at it this way; even if she can't help, she's interesting to talk to."

Gabrielle cast her a doubtful glance.

"You know, you do owe Aunt Rina a visit," Lila urged.

"I--"

"--It's not like you'd be going just to get advice from her. While you're talking with Aunt Rina you can check her out and see what you think."

*****

As Xena stowed the heavy keg of ale under the bar, Mara flashed her a grateful smile. "Thanks. I asked Toris to get that for me three times yesterday." She placed her hands angrily on her hips. "Of course, he forgot."

"It's late. Isn't he back yet?"

The blonde frowned and shook her head.

"Maybe he just lost track of the time," Xena suggested.

"He's probably getting drunk with the guys again."

They both looked up as the door opened.

"Hi," Toris greeted. Walking up to the bar, he deposited a bucket of fish on the counter, carelessly slopping dirty water across the clean surface. "Tomorrow's dinner," he proclaimed proudly.

Grabbing a dishcloth, Mara quickly wiped up after him, her anger clearly visible. "Look at the mess you made!"

"Sorry, babe." Smiling sheepishly, he stepped around the side of the bar to give her an affectionate hug. "I missed you. Did you miss me?"

She pulled from his embrace. "Yuck! You smell like fish."

"What'd you expect?" He shrugged. "I've been fishing."

The blonde cast him an agitated glance. "All this time?"

"Welllll, no," he confessed. "I had a couple of drinks with the guys." Taking a seat at the bar, he winked at Xena before turning back to his girlfriend. "Anyway, I'm starved. How about serving me some of that great stew of yours?"

"I've already eaten," Mara replied abruptly. Taking off her apron, she tossed it at him. "If you want some, get it yourself."

As she stormed out of the room Toris turned to his sister. "What's with her?"

"You're late."

"You know how it is," he explained. "We were having too much fun to quit. You should have come with us."

Once again, the tavern door swung open. Toris' friend Owen entered.

"Hey, I thought you were headed home for dinner."

"Me too, but the wife had other ideas. She's fit to be tied." He took a seat at the long table near the bar and smiled up at the warrior. "Good to see you, Xena. Toris said you were in town. How've you been?"

"Better than you guys," she teased.

"What do you mean?" Owen asked.

"I'm in trouble too," Toris explained. "Mara was mad about me being late."

"Yeah, like we had nothing better to do than keep track of the time," Owen huffed.

"Must be that time of the month," Toris offered.

"Tell me about it. As soon as I got in the door, the wife starts nagging me, comparing me to some dream." He released a frustrated sigh. "I swear, I couldn't do anything right. At the end of it all, she threw the frying pan at me. Would have hit me too if I hadn't ducked."

"That's terrible," Toris sympathized. "Hey, you must be hungry. I'll go get us some stew."

Owen turned in his seat as Xena took a seat beside him. "So…how long are you in town?"

"Not long. I'm just passing through."

"Hey, where's your sidekick…the cute little blonde?"

Before she could answer, Toris returned with their stew. As he set the bowls down, two more of his friends entered. "Hey, guys, what brings you out?"

"My wife told me to leave," the tall blonde replied. "Thought I'd come here and drown my sorrows."

The burly farmer nodded his head. "Me, too. My girlfriend cancelled our date."

"Women!" Owen complained. Suddenly remembering the woman warrior beside him, he amended his statement. "Not you, of course. You're different, not moody like the rest of them."

"Yeah," she jabbed. "Maybe that's because I don't have to live with any of you."

Owen slapped her shoulder playfully. "See, that's just what I mean," he declared. "You've got a sense of humor. You're not all emotional about things."

"Yeah," the tall blonde agreed. "You don't get all caught up in the romantic crap."

Xena rolled her eyes. "Terrell, you haven't changed a bit…still as charming as ever."

The men hooted.

She smiled. "All right, guys, what's everybody having? I'm buying."

*****

-- Chapter 6 --

Gabrielle hesitated at the steps to her aunt's house, the fine hairs on her arms rising. Shrugging off the curious sensation, she thought back to her sister's words. Lila was right. What harm could it do to meet this woman? If nothing else, this would-be prophet might offer a pleasant diversion. She raised her hand and knocked tentatively.

"Come in."

Rina hurried to her niece, embracing her warmly. "It's so good to see you," she exclaimed. Before Gabrielle could respond, Rina pulled back to get a better look at her. "I must say, your new lifestyle certainly agrees with you. You look absolutely wonderful."

The bard smiled. "Thanks, Aunt Rina, so do you."

The older woman shrugged. "Few more years, a few more wrinkles. What can I say?" Smiling, she glanced toward the silver-haired woman sitting at the table. "Gabby, this is my friend Asia."

"Nice to meet you," the bard responded politely.

The woman nodded. "The pleasure is mine."

"Asia is renting the cottage," Rina offered.

"Mother mentioned that." Gabrielle turned to silver-haired woman. "Does that mean that you're planning to stay in Poteidaia?"

Asia smiled. "I'm afraid that I enjoy traveling far too much to settle in one place for very long."

Rina pulled out a chair. "Have a seat, Gab. Can I get you a cup of tea?"

"No, thanks. I just finished dinner." Taking the offered seat, she addressed her aunt's visitor. "You seem so familiar. Are you from Amphipolis?"

"Definitely not," the prophet replied brusquely. "Why do you ask?"

"I don't know. I guess I thought that I might have seen you there while I was visiting. A good friend of mine has family there."

"Too bad, poor girl."

Sure that she hadn't mentioned her friend's gender, Gabrielle glanced at the woman curiously. "Why do you say that?"

"They're a crude bunch in that town, that's all," the prophet explained.

"That's the truth," Rina added. "They asked her to leave. Can you imagine?!"

"But why would they do that?" the bard asked.

"One of the men refused to pay me the agreed-upon amount for my services."

"And they threw you out of town?" Gabrielle's brow furrowed. "I can't believe they'd do such a thing,"

"Such a dreadful experience!" Rina interjected. "But in the end, she got back at them."

"How?" the bard questioned.

"I threatened to put a curse on the man."

"A curse?"

Asia smiled and shrugged. "I find it's an effective way to deal with cheats."

"Maybe, if you'd just talked to them…."

"People easily threatened by things they don't understand are impossible to reason with."

"That hasn't been my experience, " Gabrielle asserted.

"Hasn't it?" the prophet said with raised eyebrows.

"No, it hasn't," the bard answered quickly.

"Well, personally, I found them rather narrow-minded and cynical."

Gabrielle stiffened. "I happen to have friends there."

Asia shrugged. "Perhaps we're seeing things from different perspectives."

"Obviously."

Sensing the growing tension, Rina quickly changed the subject. "Did I tell you that Asia is a prophet?"

"So I've heard," the bard replied skeptically.

"Yes," Rina continued. "You can't believe how many of the townspeople she's helped since she arrived."

Gabrielle eyed the silver-haired woman suspiciously. "So I take it that unlike Amphipolis, you're enjoying your stay here."

"Yes, I find the people of your town very kind and welcoming."

"Why, they've just been flocking to see her," Rina commented.

The bard bristled. "I'm not surprised. Unlike the more worldly people of Amphipolis, the residents here are simple farmers. Much easier to dupe."

"Gabrielle!" her aunt exclaimed. "What a thing to say!"

"It's just that I find it difficult to believe that someone can discover things about a person by simply touching them."

The prophet laid a calming hand on her friend's arm. "It's all right, Rina. I'm used to doubters. It comes with the territory." She released a heavy sigh and focused on the bard. "You see, if I can't get a reading people think I'm a fake, and if I do they think I'm a witch with evil powers." She shrugged. "The truth is we all have an innate ability, or at least the potential, to connect to others. In some, like me, it's very strong. But even so, my powers of perception don't always work with everyone."

"And why's that?" the bard asked, her disbelief clear.

"It's simple, actually. Some people are open and easy to read; others put up walls."

"What about me?" Gabrielle asked, eager to prove her a charlatan.

The prophet met her eyes. "Your aura is very strong."

"Then it would be easy for you to read my thoughts?"

Asia nodded.

Reaching across the table, she laid her hand lightly over the prophet's. "So, tell me. What do you see?"

Pausing for a moment, Asia closed her eyes. "Words… words are your gift."

"Anyone in Poteidaia can tell you that," Gabrielle scoffed. "It's common knowledge that I'm a bard."

The prophet smiled. "Yes, but it's more than that. There's power in your word's more than even you understand."

"Not anymore, there isn't," the bard replied cynically. "If you really had the gift of sight you'd know I'm no longer writing."

"If you open your heart, you'll write again."

Gabrielle shook her head doubtfully. "Convenient how vague your statements are."

"Gabrielle, please!" Rina objected. "Asia is a guest in my home."

"I'm sorry, but spouting a few catchall phrases doesn't prove that she knows a thing about me."

"So this is a test." The prophet smiled playfully. "Tell me, then, what is it specifically that you want to know?"

The bard stared across the table into the woman's pale gray eyes. "Why can't I write?"

"When you're ready to face it, you'll find the answer in your dreams."

Gabrielle's pulse quickened, but she remained skeptical. "That's what they all say, isn't it?"

Asia smiled. "Is it? How many others have you encountered that truly had the gift?"

"None," the bard replied. "Including you."

Shrugging off the insult, the prophet winked. "Then maybe you'd be better off seeking answers from the teacher in your dream."

The casual comment momentarily stunned her. Other than Xena, she'd told no one of her dream. Shaken, she quickly searched the prophet's eyes for a hint of deception. What she saw made her jerk her hand back. Instead of their usual gray, the prophet's eyes had a pale greenish tint.

Rina turned to her niece. "Gabby, are you feeling okay? You look pale."

She stood and took a step backward.

"I--I should be going. It's getting late."

Her aunt kissed her lightly on the cheek. "Stop by again, dear. We didn't even have a chance to talk."

Lost in her thoughts, Gabrielle merely nodded.

As she headed for home, she couldn't shake the unsettling feeling that she'd actually felt the silver-haired woman probing her mind.

*****

After another restless night Xena got up early and went hunting. By the time she returned, it was dark. Entering the tavern, she saw Toris and a large group of townsmen drowning their sorrows at their usual table.

She poured herself a mug of ale and joined them. "What's up, guys?"

Toris raised his hands in frustration. "Our women won't have anything to do with us. It's like they've gone crazy or something."

"Maybe they've just wised up," Xena teased.

"I'm glad you find our misery amusing."

The warrior took a seat beside him. "Oh, come on. It can't be the first time you've argued with your wives and girlfriends."

"First time for me," the blacksmith piped up, taking a swig of his drink. "Never had any problems until this morning."

"Yeah, mine too. She was fine until yesterday. From the moment she woke up, I couldn't do anything to suit her."

"So talk to your women," Xena suggested. "Find out what's bothering them."

"We have," Terrell answered.

"And?"

"Are you ready for this?" he said, his disbelief clear. "Seems they had some dream, and now we aren't good enough for them."

Xena cast him a curious glance. "All of them?"

The men nodded solemnly.

"Did they say what the dream was about?"

"Some nonsense about a lonely spirit."

Toris peered sadly into his drink. "It's like someone cast a spell on them."

Owen's mouth dropped open. "Exactly!" He turned to his friend. "Remember that strange woman, the one Terrell had the fight with?"

"The prophet?"

"Yeah. What if she's not a prophet at all, but a witch?"

The men stirred noisily. "She was an odd one," Terrell commented. "I wouldn't put this past her."

Xena rolled her eyes. "Come on, that's ridiculous."

"I don't know."

"Yeah," Owen agreed. "It explains everything."

The warrior shook her head doubtfully.

"You never saw her," Toris replied. "She has these pale-colored eyes, the kind that look right through you."

The hairs rose on the back of her neck as Xena recalled her encounter with the silver-haired woman. "This is crazy, Toris. When did you become so superstitious?"

"It's not crazy," he objected. "Ask the others. They'll tell you. She knows things by just touching people."

"That's impossible."

"No, it's true," Owen defended. "Jacob's little girl lost her doll and she told him right where to find it."

Jacob nodded. "I swear. It was right where she said."

Terrell stiffened in his seat. "Owen, what were those words she chanted at me as she was leaving?"

"You don't suppose that she really put a curse on us like she threatened to?"

"I'm telling you, this is no curse," Xena stated firmly.

"But what if it is?" one of the men questioned nervously.

"This is all your fault, Terrell," Owen accused. "You should have just paid her."

"I--I thought she was a fake. How was I supposed to know?"

"Maybe if we took up a collection, she'd remove the curse."

"That's no good. We don't even know where she was headed."

"Perfect," Owen said angrily. "Now what are we going to do?"

Toris turned hopefully to his sister. "Maybe you could find her for us. You're the best tracker there is."

Xena shrugged. "I don't have to track her. I know where she is. I saw her in Poteidaia."

Owen slapped the table excitedly. "This is great!" He held out his hand. Okay guys, dig into your pockets for those dinars."

"This is a waste of your money," Xena warned. "I'm telling you, there is no curse."

"Are you refusing to help us?" Terrell asked meekly.

"If I thought it would help, I'd take her your dinars, but you aren't cursed. You just need to open up to your women, that's all."

"What do you mean?" Toris asked.

"Be a little more attentive. Show a little more appreciation for what they do for you. You guys have it made, you know."

"Yeah, like you don't," Owen remarked. "All you'd have to do is say the word and you'd have men lining up to be with you."

Xena smiled wryly. "Now that would truly be a curse."

*****

Lila looked up from her mending as Gabrielle paced restlessly. "You're making me dizzy. Sit down and relax." The bard dropped into the chair by the hearth and began fidgeting with the hem of her skirt. Laying her sewing down, Lila turned to her. "What's up with you? Is everything okay?"

Gabrielle slumped in her seat. "I'm bored stiff."

Lila smiled. "I hear you," she agreed. "It gets pretty dull here in the evenings, especially after Mom and Dad go to bed."

"I'm going stir-crazy. I can't spend another evening just sitting around. I've got to get out of here." She turned to her sister. "Let's go to the tavern."

"Alone?"

The bard nodded. "Yeah, just you and me."

"But it's not proper for a woman to go into a tavern unaccompanied."

"You'll be accompanied. I'll be with you."

Lila rolled her eyes. "You know what I mean. We need male escorts. I'm engaged to be married. It wouldn't look right for me to go to a place like that without Graham."

Gabrielle stood abruptly. "Suit yourself, but I'm going."

Torn between her image and looking out for her sister, Lila hesitated only a moment before rising from her seat.

The bard gave her a grateful hug and smiled. "Thanks, we'll have a great time. You'll see."

"Right," Lila said, her tone leery. "Don't think that I've forgotten how you were always getting me in trouble when we were kids."

"Me?" the bard declared innocently.

"Yes, you."

Gabrielle smiled. "Well, maybe a few times. But you'll have to admit, we had fun."

"I don't have to admit anything," Lila insisted stubbornly.

The bard rolled her eyes.

"Okay, okay, sometimes it was fun, but just promise me that tonight you'll try not to get into trouble."

Winking, the bard laughed. "You may not believe it, Lila, but I always do try."

*****

Gabrielle pushed open the tavern door and looked around excitedly. The place was packed, practically humming with energy. Grabbing her sister's arm, she quickly led her to an empty table in the back.

Lila eased uncomfortably into the seat beside her.

"What can I get you ladies?" the barmaid asked.

Gabrielle turned to the attractive redhead and paused. "Rose? Is that you?"

The woman looked at her quizzically

Smiling the bard got to her feet. "Gabrielle, remember? I used to spend a lot of time with your little sister, Anya."

"Of course," Rose declared, bending to give her a friendly hug. "It's been years. How are you?"

"Fine."

"In town for your sister's wedding?"

"Yeah." She smiled at Lila.

"I'm really looking forward to it," the barmaid commented. "Just about everyone in town will be there."

"I thought I heard that you'd moved away years ago," Gabrielle questioned.

"I did, but…" Rose cast an anxious eye at the crowd. "Look, I'd love to talk, but right now, I have a lot of customer's to tend to. Stop by some morning and we'll get caught up."

"Okay, I'll do that."

"Terrific. Now what would you like to drink?"

"Tea for me," Lila replied.

"I think I'd like something a little stronger." Gabrielle winked. "What do you recommend?"

The redhead smiled. "I have just the thing. I'll bring a pitcher right over."

Gabrielle watched a tall, dark-haired man stop to speak with Rose on her way to the bar. He was, without a doubt, the most handsome man in the room. She turned to Lila. "Who's that?"

"Watch out for that one," Lila warned. "I wouldn't trust him as far as I could throw him."

"Why?"

"His behavior is scandalous."

"Really?" Gabrielle replied her interest piqued. "How so?"

Her sister lowered her voice and bent closer. "He's seduced more women than Zeus."

The bard smiled. "Mmm, tell me more."

Lila blushed. "After this drink I think we should go home. It's getting late."

Before Gabrielle could object, someone tapped her shoulder. She spun to see the handsome man at her side.

He flashed her a charming smile. "You must be new in town."

The bard shrugged. "Actually, no."

"Now how can that be? I never forget a beautiful woman."

Lila glared at him disapprovingly. "Ryder, this is my sister, Gabrielle. She's visiting."

"It's a pleasure to meet you." He extended his hand warmly. "Some of my musician friends are here tonight. I'd be happy to ask them to play for us, if you'd care to dance."

"I don't know," Gabrielle smiled. "I've been warned about you."

"Me?" he said, feigning surprise.

"Uh-huh, I hear you're a womanizer and not to be trusted."

He winked playfully. "Can't believe everything you hear, can you?"

Gabrielle hesitated. "Well…."

"Come on," he urged. "Take a chance. Judge for yourself."

A mischievous smile spread across the bard's face.

"Can I take that as a 'yes'?"

She nodded.

"Excellent!" he exclaimed. "Something in your eyes told me you had an adventurous nature."

Returning with a tray of drinks, the barmaid rolled her eyes at Ryder's comment.

"This round is on me, ladies," he declared as he handed the redhead a couple of dinars. "And, Rose, when you get a chance, I'll have the usual." He smiled warmly. "Now, if you'll both excuse me, I'll speak with the musicians."

As soon as he was gone, Lila stared at her sister, mouth agape. "What are you doing? Didn't you hear what I said about him?"

The bard simply shrugged and poured a little of her drink into Lila's tea. "I'm a big girl and so are you. Loosen up and have a little fun."

"I'm not supposed to have fun--I'm engaged." Realizing how ridiculous she sounded, she burst into laughter. "Okay, okay." Picking up her mug, she took a cautious sip. "This isn't bad." She quickly drank it down, making Gabrielle smile.

Across the room, four musicians gathered and began to play a rousing song.

"They're good," Lila commented as she tapped her foot to the beat. Reaching for the pitcher, she refilled her mug.

"Be careful," Gabrielle warned her. It's pretty strong."

"What harm can one drink do?"

Before Gabrielle could reply, Ryder returned. "Ready for that dance?"

"Sure." She took his hand and followed him to the area in front of the musicians.

Immediately he took control, spinning her away, then pulling her back. Her pulse raced. It felt wonderful to dance around the room in his arms. Relief flooded through her. Maybe the problem wasn't with her, after all.

When at last the music stopped, he pulled her close. "You're a great dancer. How about another one?"

Gabrielle flushed. "Thanks, but I really should get back to Lila."

As she approached their table, Lila grinned up at her, eyes squinted in narrow slits.

The bard lifted the empty pitcher in disbelief. "Did you drink this whole thing?"

The brunette managed one nod before her head dropped to the table.

Grabbing her sister's shoulders, Gabrielle shook her. "You okay?" Lila raised her head and smiled.

The bard rolled her eyes and pulled out her sister's chair. "I'd better get you home. Can you stand?"

Before Lila could answer, her head rolled forward.

"I'll help you with her," Ryder offered, gathering the small woman into his arms. "Just lead the way."

"I'm sorry about this," the bard apologized.

"No problem."

"She's not used to drinking or being out this late. I'm afraid I talked her into both."

"So you’re the black sheep in the family, huh?"

Although she had never thought of it that way, it struck her that his comment was probably true. "Yeah, I guess I am."

"Me too."

"So you have brothers and sisters?"

"A sister, but we're not very close. She doesn't have much time for my antics, I'm afraid."

Gabrielle smiled and looked at her sleeping sister. "Is she getting heavy?"

"Nah, she's one of the lighter ones I've carried."

Deciding it was best not to comment, she watched him easily shift her sister in his arms. Even through his clothing, she could see the definition of his muscles.

"Are you a soldier?"

"Soldier?"

She pointed to his leather armor.

He smiled and shook his head. "Actually, I consider myself more a lover than a fighter." He winked playfully. "But it's a nice look, don't you think?"

She smiled. "Mmm…I'd have to admit it is." Motioning ahead, she pointed. "That's our house."

"Nice place. Did you grow up there?"

"Yeah, my father built it." She winced as she thought of her father and how much he would disapprove of her behavior. "Maybe I'd better take her from here."

"You sure? I'd be glad to carry her inside. She's a lot for you to handle."

"I can manage." She grabbed her sister's arm and hefted her over her shoulder with a groan. "Whew! She's heavier than she looks." He reached to take Lila back, but she waved him off. "I'll be fine. Thanks for everything."

"Come back out after you have her settled so I know you managed okay."

"All right."

Reaching in front of her, he opened the door so that she could walk inside.

Gabrielle crept quietly to Lila's room and deposited her on the bed as gently as she could. Quickly taking off her sister's shoes, she covered her and hurried outside to say goodnight to Ryder.

"Everything go all right?" he asked.

She nodded, taking a seat on the bench beside him. "Yeah, but she'd going to be mad as a hornet at me in the morning."

"Hey, she'll be lucky to remember she was even at the tavern tonight. Don't sweat it."

She smiled. "It was nice of you to bring her home. Thank you."

"No problem. It's been fun."

"Yeah, I really had a good time." She smiled as she realized, to her surprise, that she truly meant it. For the first time since Xena had left she hadn't felt out of place.

"It doesn't have to end, you know," he whispered, sliding a little closer. "I have a place not far from here."

"A--are you asking me to go home with you?"

He flashed his most charming smile. "Absolutely, and I can promise that you won't regret it."

*****

"Hey, Toris, bring us a couple more pitchers."

"Yeah, hurry up," the thin blonde man urged. "We're almost out." He turned to his friend. "So, Owen, what were you complaining about?"

"My wife--what else? She's been impossible."

"I hear you," the merchant sympathized. "My wife too."

"Who can figure it? Several moons ago she was all for having another child. She knows I'd like another son. But when I brought it up tonight, she just turned away. Said she'd had enough. Can you believe it?"

The men grumbled in agreement.

Xena cast Owen a puzzled look as she took a sip of her ale. "Don't you already have five boys?"

"So? A father can never have too many sons."

"I don't know, I think I have to agree with your wife. I haven't come across a man yet that was worth repeating six times."

The others laughed heartily.

Toris approached and put two full pitchers on the table.

"This round's on me, guys." Xena paid her brother and downed the last of her drink.

Owen wrapped his arm around her shoulder. "You know, Xena, I used to think that you were kind of a loner…not very friendly. But you know something? When you're drinking, you're not half bad."

"Yeah," she replied, lifting his arm from her shoulder. "I like you better when I'm drinking too."

He smiled and pushed a full mug toward her. "Then by all means, have another."

She rolled her eyes. "There's not enough ale in all of Greece."

As their deflated friend sagged in his seat, the men roared with laughter.

Smiling, Xena slapped him playfully on the back. "Considering your troubles, I think it's best if you keep your mind on one woman at a time. Don't you?"

*****

"So, what do you say?" Ryder asked. "How about coming home with me?"

Despite Lila's warning, she found herself tempted by his offer.

He watched her expectantly.

"I--I--" She stuttered nervously.

"Hey, look, it's okay if you don't want to. I guess I read you wrong. It's just the way you acted in the tavern, I thought…."

She took a shaky breath. "You didn't read me wrong. I mean--" she paused, swallowing hard. "I wanted you to think--"

"--Are you saying you're interested?" he asked hopefully.

"I'm not sure. I think I am…." Struggling with her words, she tried to express the conflicting emotions she was experiencing. "Tonight is the most relaxed I've felt in a long time."

He smiled. "First time I've ever had that effect on a woman."

Gabrielle laughed. "Sorry, that didn't come out right. What I meant to say, is…I really had a good time. I like you." She paused uneasily. "You make me feel desirable."

"You say that like it's a bad thing."

"No," she smiled. "It's just…well, it scares me a little."

"Look, I don't want to talk you into something you're not sure about."

"You aren't. To be truthful, I've been wondering all night what you would be like."

He flashed her a disarming smile. "No need to wonder."

"Yeah, but I think that maybe things are going a little too fast for me."

He reached out and brushed her forearm with his fingertip. "Sometimes being spontaneous is good."

"And sometimes not." She smiled. "Maybe another night."

"You sure?"

"No, I'm not at all sure." She laughed and shook her head. "You must think I'm nuts."

He cupped her face gently in his hand. "Actually, I find your honesty extremely alluring." Slowly tilting her face up, he looked into her eyes.

The strong aroma of his leathers made her suddenly light-headed. She flushed hotly, his lips surprisingly soft as they pressed to hers. Her pulse raced as his hands slid down her sides, tightly gripping her waist. His gentle, yet aggressive manner excited her. Instinctively she responded by weaving her fingers through his thick dark hair.

Encouraged by her response, he gently caressed the sensitive skin over her hips.

Heart pounding wildly she reached out to guide him closer. As she slid her hand to the back of his neck, her fingers brushed the coarse stubble on his cheek. She stiffened. Suddenly, she was keenly aware of his strongly masculine scent: musky and harsh. She pulled away. The moment felt wrong…all wrong. She stepped back, tears of confusion welling in her eyes. "I-I'm sorry. I can't. I--"

Ryder looked at her with concern. "What is it? What's the matter?"

"I… " She struggled to keep the tremor from her voice. Failing, she turned away, unable to face him.

"Hey, it's okay. Take it easy." Placing a comforting hand on her shoulder, he pulled out his handkerchief and offered it to her.

She wiped her eyes and flushed with embarrassment. "I'm sorry. I've ruined your evening."

He smiled. "My evening's not ruined. I had a great time."

"Really?"

He nodded. "I shouldn't have rushed you. It's just…well, you seemed a little more worldly when we were in the tavern."

She glanced down shyly. "I thought if I acted more experienced, someone more experienced would be interested in me."

"Are you saying you've never--"

She shook her head.

"With all the traveling you've done, I thought for sure…."

"It just never felt right."

The sadness in her eyes touched him. "Go with your instincts. It's not something you should rush. You'll know when the time is right."

"I hope so."

"Trust me, you'll know. Now, come on. You've had a long day. I should let you get some rest."

"Thanks for being so understanding."

"My pleasure." He started to walk away, then looked back and flashed her a mischievous smile. "If you should change your mind, you know where to find me. I think you'd find I'm a very good 'teacher'."

Gabrielle's heart hammered in her chest as she watched him disappear into the darkness.

*****

-- Chapter 7 --

"That's when she told me I could get my own dinner."

"Women!" Owen exclaimed drunkenly.

Listening to her brother's friends' talk about their problems made Xena miss Gabrielle more than ever. These men hadn't a clue how fortunate they were. She took a long sip of her ale. "So let me see if I've got the male philosophy right. It's fine to express your love in bed but not out of it?"

"Well, we can't let them run us, can we?"

"Very smart," Xena replied sarcastically. "Just look where that attitude's gotten you. Can any of you honestly say that you're happy with the way things have turned out?" They all looked down into their drinks. "I didn't think so. "

"Sure, it's easy for you to sit there and judge us. You're not even in a relationship."

"For once you're right, Owen. But I am a woman."

Toris turned to her. "So tell us. What are we doing wrong? What is it you women want from us?"

"A lot of the same things you men want. Everyone needs to be appreciated. It's nice to feel special, at least occasionally."

Owen spoke up. "My wife knows she's special." He winked. "We have five sons."

Xena rolled her eyes. "But what about outside of your bedrooms? Do you even notice the other ways your women show their love for you?" When no one responded she continued. "From the minute you wake up, they're there for you. It's more than the cooking and cleaning and caring for you and your children. It's the small things, little things you take for granted." She thought of Gabrielle and the countless things she did to make the warrior's life brighter.

"You aren't married," Terrell exclaimed. "I can tell you it's not easy. After awhile it's just not as exciting as it used to be. You know, the thrill kind of goes out of it once you get to know each other."

"It doesn't have to. Not if you hold tight to the things that made you fall in love in the first place."

"What do you mean?"

"The everyday things that are a testament to the life you've shared."

"Like what?" Owen asked.

"I don't know." She paused, her thoughts turning to Gabrielle. "The little imperfections, like the way her hair looks when she first wakes up…the curve of her lip when she pouts…the way she eats food from your plate...the set of her jaw when she's determined to get her way. Those are the things that make your relationship your own. These women you've been complaining about have pledged their lives to you. I can't believe that you can't see what you have in them."

As she continued, it was the bard, Xena envisioned…the bard she longed to open her heart to. "To wake up everyday beside someone you trust completely…someone who makes you feel truly happy is--" The warrior released a heavy sigh and looked once again to the men. "Can't you see what a gift your wives have given you?"

The men stared back blankly.

The warrior shook her head in frustration. "Try looking back on an average day." She turned to her brother. "Toris, you know that stew you asked Mara to make for you?"

"Yeah, what about it?"

"Did you know she doesn't like carrots?"

He looked up from his drink. "She doesn't?"

"No."

"Are you sure about that?"

"Yes, I watched her eat. She picks them all out and pushes them into a neat pile on the side of her plate. The only reason she puts them in at all is because she knows you like them."

"I didn't know." Toris offered sheepishly.

Xena poured another ale, took a long swig and set her mug down hard. "And after all that work making the stew the way you like it, you didn't even bother to get home in time for dinner. It's no wonder she's upset with you," she declared, not bothering to hide her irritation.

It felt good to release her tension, good to give voice to sentiments she should have expressed to the bard long ago. "What about the rest of you? I'm sure all your wives and girlfriends do special things just for you."

The blacksmith nodded. "It's true. All the lifting I do is hard on my back, and every day when I come home she has a compress warming for me so that I can relax while she cooks dinner."

Owen piped in. "Yeah, my wife has a great sense of humor. She always laughs at my jokes."

"Tough job," Terrell joked. "But I guess someone has to do it."

Xena nodded. "See. You just need to talk to your women. Let them know how much they mean to you. Do something unexpected once in a while, something thoughtful."

"Like what?"

"I don't know…pick flowers for them. When you walk through town together, hold their hands."

"What else?"

She paused to think. "Your wives cook for you everyday. Pick a night and bring them here for a meal."

"Seems like a lot of work to me."

She turned to Owen. "Isn't your wife worth a little extra effort? Do you have any idea how painful it was for her to bear five children for you? Maybe instead of telling her you'd like another, you should tell her how much you appreciate the one's she's given you."

"What if it's too late?" Toris asked anxiously.

"I wouldn't waste any more time. Go home to your wives." She chugged the rest of her drink. "Stop and pick some flowers on the way."

"But it's dark."

"Nothing worthwhile comes easy." She smiled, her head pleasantly fuzzy.

"What the heck," the blacksmith said, "I'm going to give it a try." The other men nodded in agreement and headed toward the door.

Long after the townsmen had left, Xena remained. Unable to get Gabrielle off her mind, she drank to cloud her thoughts, hoping to erase the vision that haunted her… the vision of the bard in someone else's arms.

Toris watched her down one ale after another with a mix of awe and nausea. Finally, anxious to get to bed, he collected the last two empty glasses from the table and reached for his sister's. She held tight to it.

"Whoa, I'm not finished." She patted the chair beside her. "Sit down and have another with me."

"Come on, Sis, it's late. Time for us to get some sleep."

The warrior leaned back in her chair. Blinking her eyes, she attempted to bring her brother's image into focus. "Who needs sleep?"

Eyeing her closely, Toris marveled at her controlled state of inebriation.

Suddenly she stood and headed toward the bar. "So…tell me, where's Mom hiding the good stuff these days?" Dropping to her knees, she began searching under the bar.

"Do you really think you should?"

Ignoring him, she continued to look. "Found it!" she exclaimed triumphantly. Quickly filling a pitcher, she poured mugs for herself and Toris. "Have a seat. We'll drink to Mara."

Reluctantly, he relented.

She lifted her mug in toast. "Congratulations. She's quite a find." She downed the contents of her mug and slapped it down on the counter. Looking up at her brother, she winked. "I never knew that you had such good taste."

He smiled and took a small sip. "Thanks. I'm glad you got the chance to meet her."

"She seems like a good woman."

"Yeah, she is." He sighed wistfully. "You know, what you said tonight about taking our women for granted…it made a lot of sense."

"Take my word for it. If you're not careful, you're going to blow it with her."

"If I haven't already." Toris looked down into his mug. "Xena, you ever think about settling down with some guy?"

"You men are nothing but trouble. Why would I want that?"

"What about…uh…you know, companionship?"

"Sex?"

"No, companionship…finding someone to share your life with."

"Like there's anyone out there who wants to have that kind of relationship with me."

"Come on. If you put your mind to it, you could have any man you wanted."

"Right," she drawled sarcastically.

"I'd be glad to help. Do you still go for the tall, dark, handsome type?"

She poured another drink and took a long sip. "Actually, I've come to prefer blondes."

He smiled. "Yeah, me too. Mara's a real looker, isn't she?"

Xena downed the rest of her ale and nodded drunkenly.

Outside, thunder sounded loudly, startling them both.

Xena stood abruptly, weaving a bit before getting her footing. "Hear that?" Staggering to the door, she threw it open and peered out.

"What?"

She turned to him and smiled. "Rain." Grabbing his arm she pulled, encouraging him to come outside with her.

"What are you doing? It's pouring," he complained.

"Aw, come on. Gabrielle says it's fun."

He yanked his arm back.

"Wimp." She laughed and ran out into the rain. Tipping her face to the sky, she cupped her hands to her mouth and hollered. "GABRIELLE, YOU'RE MISSING IT!"

"What are you doing? You're going to wake everyone up," Toris warned.

She looked at him sheepishly. "Right." Pressing her finger to her lips to signal quiet, she whispered the bard's name. "Gaaaabriiiiieeeeelllle." Turning to him, she frowned in frustration "She'll never hear that." Once again she threw her hands in the air and called out to the bard.

"For Zeus' sake, come in! This is crazy!"

Taking a deep breath, she yelled at the top of her lungs, "GAAABRIIIIIEEEEELLLLLE!"

Cyrene sat bolt upright in bed. "What in the world…?" Quickly putting on her robe, she hurried downstairs as her daughter let out another loud cry.

Toris stood in the doorway, watching his drunken sister twirl in the downpour as Cyrene rushed to his side.

"What in Tartarus is going on?"

He shrugged. "Near as I can figure, she's playing in the rain."

Cyrene's brow furrowed. "Just how much has she had to drink tonight?"

He laughed. "Enough to put five stout men on their--" He nervously cleared his throat. "A lot."

Cyrene called to her daughter. "Xena, your clothes are getting drenched. Come inside."

Xena glanced down at her wet leathers and awkwardly reached for the catches of her armor. "No problem…." Fumbling at first, she kept at it until her breastplate fell to the ground with a splash. That accomplished, she pulled the straps of her leathers over her shoulders in an effort to strip out of them.

"Oh, my!" Cyrene gasped. "Toris, help me get her inside."

"See?" The warrior grinned. "I can let loose too."

Cyrene looked at her in disbelief. She'd never seen Xena so out of control. Gently laying a hand on her daughter's arm, she tried to guide her inside.

Xena shrugged her off and continued the struggle with her clothes. Unable to budge the wet leather in her drunken condition, she abandoned it. Throwing her hands in the air, she hollered into the night. "I LIKE THE RAIN TOO!!! "I--"

Cyrene grabbed her arm more forcefully this time, her tone stern. "Xena, you're going to wake the entire town!"

The warrior turned to her mother and lowered her voice. "So? I want her. I--I want her to come out."

Shaking the rain form his dripping wet hair, Toris cast her an exasperated look. "You're plastered."

Xena placed a hand on his shoulder to steady herself and smiled. "And here I always thought you were slow on the uptake." She hiccuped in his face and continued to call for the bard. "Gaaaaabriiiiieeeeellllle!"

"Okay, that's enough!" Cyrene wrapped her arm around her daughter's waist and attempted to draw her toward the door.

Xena stubbornly held her ground. "I'm not going anywhere. I'm waiting for Gabrielle." With a quick twist, she playfully spun out of her mother's grasp.

Toris rolled his eyes. "For crying out loud! I'm getting soaked."

Glaring at him, Cyrene turned to her daughter. "Gabrielle's not here, honey," she offered gently.

Xena stopped twirling, her smile fading. "She's not?"

"No. Now come inside."

"Where is she? I need to see her. There's so much I--" She took a staggering step toward her mother as her knees gave out.

Quickly catching her under the arms, Toris dragged her toward the door. Between he and Cyrene they managed to carry her upstairs to her room.

After dumping his sister on the bed, Toris turned to his mother. "What's going on with her anyway? She hasn't been right since she got here."

Cyrene shrugged and motioned him out of the room. "You go to bed. I'll take care of her."

With great difficulty, she managed to remove the wet leathers from her daughter's limp body and began to pat her dry with a soft linen.

Xena stirred, clumsily pushing her mother's hand away.

"If I don't get you dry, you're going to catch cold."

Xena looked past her, seeming not to hear. "Her eyes are green as the summer grass."

Cyrene stopped trying to dry her off and gently brushed the damp hair from her daughter's face.

"Mom?"

The older woman's heart quickened. Xena hadn't called her that since childhood. "Yes?"

"She's beautiful, isn't she? Inside and out." Hiccuping loudly, the warrior's head drooped to the side.

Cyrene guided her back onto the pillow and smiled gently. "Yes, Gabrielle's a very beautiful woman."

"In my dreams I can feel her, but I can't--" She moaned softly as if in physical pain.

Cyrene looked at her with concern. "Xena, is Gabrielle okay?"

Xena attempted to nod, but her head fell limply forward. When she finally regained control and looked up, her eyes were brimming with tears. "She's the only one who's ever wanted to know me."

Cyrene sighed deeply.

Drunkenly, Xena continued. "But…she doesn't…she doesn't know me…." As the warrior struggled to explain, her bottom lip trembled, her voice faltering.

Not even as a child had Cyrene seen her daughter this vulnerable. Tenderly, she pulled Xena into her arms in an effort to comfort her.

The exhausted warrior struggled to keep her eyes open. "I can't…I can't find her."

Cyrene drew the blanket up and rocked her gently. "Shhh, things will look better in the morning. Rest now…let it go."

At last giving in to her fatigue, the warrior drifted off, her lips silently mouthing the bard's name.

*****

-- Chapter 8--

Haunted by Ryder's parting words, Gabrielle got up early and went for a long walk. Her mind was racing. Was his comment about being a 'good teacher' simply a coincidence or something more? As she mulled it over, she contemplated the notion of taking him up on his offer. There was no denying that he was extremely attractive. What's more, she genuinely liked him.

So why was she holding back? Any number of women would jump at the chance to be with him. Was it silly to base her decision on some obscure feeling? Wasn't it natural for it to feel awkward, given her inexperience? After all, sex was new to her, something she'd only romanticized about. Maybe it was finally time to take the leap. And maybe Ryder was just the man to do it with.

Remembering her sister's warning about him, she quickly shrugged it off. As much as she loved Lila, when it came to sex, she was not at all confident that her rather prudish sister was the best person to counsel her. What she really needed was the advice of someone more worldly, someone like Xena.

Sighing, she leaned heavily against a tree. Once again, a pang of loneliness washed over her. If the warrior were here, what would she say? As hard as she tried to imagine what advice Xena would give her, she just couldn't. They had simply never discussed this kind of thing.

Like it or not, this was something she had to figure out on her own.

If only she knew a little more about Ryder. Glancing up, she looked across the road at the tavern and immediately thought of Rose. Who better to ask? The redhead's business left her privy to all kinds of information about people…information others didn't know. And Rose had asked her to stop by. Maybe if she were careful, she could do it without being too obvious. Gabrielle released a heavy sigh. Now was as good a time as any. The tavern was closed in the mornings, and if Rose was home she might have time to talk. Hurrying across the road, she stepped up to the door and knocked.

A small voice called out from the inside. "Who's there?"

"My name is Gabrielle. I'm here to see Rose. Is she there?" The bard smiled as she listened to the little girl holler to her mother.

"Mom, it's Gabby…eller! Can I open the door?"

Suddenly the latch clicked and Rose opened the door. "Gabrielle, come in."

"I hope it's not a bad time to visit."

"Not at all. I'm glad to see you." She motioned toward the table. "Have a seat, and I'll get us a cup of tea."

As Rose left, a little redhead of about five summers ran up to the bard. Holding up a well-worn doll stained with the paint from the picture she'd been painting, she introduced herself. "Hi, I'm Tana and this is Molly."

Smiling, the bard reached out and shook the doll's hand. "Hi, Molly."

Tana giggled, covering her mouth with paint-covered fingers.

"What pretty colors!" Gabrielle exclaimed.

The little girl smiled and pointed to the splotch of green on her palm. "I like this one the very best." Turning her hands over, she displayed an array of colors. "Which one do you like?"

Gabrielle reached out and ran her finger over a streak of blue. "Blue is my favorite."

"Why?"

"I guess it's because a lot of the things I like best are blue--the sky--the ocean."

The child looked at her quizzically. "What's an oshun?"

"It's a really, really big body of water. So big that you can't even see the end of it."

Tana frowned. "But water isn't blue. It's--"

"--All right, Tana, "Rose interrupted. "I think it's time for you to go play with your paints."

"Can Gabby-eller play with me?" she pleaded.

"It's Gab-ree-elle, honey, and no, not right now. We're going to have some tea. Why don't you go sit at the far table with Emma."

Shoulders slumped in disappointment; the child shuffled across the room.

"She's absolutely adorable," Gabrielle commented.

Rose shook her head. "Occasionally she has her moments."

Gabrielle glanced over at the far table where a dark-haired girl of about ten summers sat, quietly writing. "Are they both yours?"

Nodding, she called to the older girl. "Emma, stop writing for a moment and come here."

Reluctantly the girl put down her quill and made her way to their table. "Gabrielle, this is Emma. Emma, this is an old friend of mine, Gabrielle."

The timid girl looked down, avoiding eye contact.

Reaching out politely, Gabrielle shook her hand. "Nice to meet you, Emma."

"Emma is the quiet one in our family. She's a wonderful student and a very good writer," Rose said proudly.

The bard smiled. "You know, I like to write too."

Emma glanced away shyly. As her eyes settled on the bard's staff, her jaw dropped open in wonder. "Is that a real Amazon staff?"

Gabrielle nodded.

"You're an Amazon!"

"Um-hmm."

Emma gazed at her in awe. "Do you know any other Amazons?"

"Yeah, quite a few, as a matter of fact."

"Have you ever met Xena, the Warrior Princess?" she asked excitedly. "She's like the queen of all Amazons!"

Not having the heart to correct her, Gabrielle smiled. "In a way, I guess she is."

"Then you know her?"

"Actually, I travel with her."

The girl gasped in amazement. "You're the bard!" She turned, wide-eyed, to her mother. "Mom, she's Gabrielle, the bard!"

Rose rolled her eyes. "As you can see, she's a big fan of yours."

"I love to write," Emma declared. "Someday I want to be a famous bard just like you. When I'm old enough, I'm going to leave home and go adventuring." She looked with admiration, first at the bard, then her staff. "C--can I touch it?"

"Sure," Picking up the staff, Gabrielle handed it to her.

The dark-haired girl lovingly ran her hand over the wood before carefully handing it back. "I--uh--" She swallowed nervously. "I mean…I was wondering if you could show me some moves."

"Emma, now don't be a pest."

The girl blushed hotly and looked away.

"It's okay," Gabrielle replied quickly. "I don't mind." Walking to a wide-open space, she did a simple spin.

"Wow!" Emma exclaimed. "How did you learn that?"

"My Amazon sisters taught me a lot, but Xena has helped me the most."

"You're so lucky to be traveling with her. What's she like? Is she as strong as people say?"

Gabrielle nodded. Uh-huh, she's pretty strong."

"Is she mean?"

"Only to bad guys."

"Is she with you…here in Poteidaia? Could I meet her?"

"Right now she's in Amphipolis, but she's coming to get me after my sister's wedding. I could introduce you then, if you like."

"Really? That would be great!"

Gabrielle smiled and handed her the staff. "Want to give it a try?"

"Could I?"

"Sure." She adjusted Emma's hands and guided her through a simple movement.

"That was very good," she encouraged.

Emma beamed. "Mom, did you see me?!"

"Yes." Rose smiled. "Very impressive."

Not wanting to be left out of the fun, Tana ran over to join them. Impatient, she reached to take the staff from her sister. "I wanna try too."

"No, honey," Rose explained. "You're too young."

"But I want to." She took hold of the staff and pulled.

Aghast, Emma pushed her sister's hand away and quickly rubbed the faint traces of paint from the wood with her skirt. "I'm sorry," she apologized, handing the staff back. "She's too young to know better."

"I am not!" Tana cried out loudly.

"That's enough, girls," Rose warned in a firm but gentle tone. "Emma, take your sister to the table and keep her busy."

Deflated, the dark-haired girl turned sadly to the bard. "Thanks for showing me your staff."

Gabrielle cast her a sympathetic glance. "If it's okay with your Mom, I could stop by sometime and teach you a few more moves."

The young girl's eyes lit up. "Wow! You mean it?"

"You bet."

Amazed at her good fortune, the girl chattered nervously. "I--I can't believe this. I can't believe you’re here and you actually know my mom."

"Your mom and I went to school together."

"But you look so much younger," Emma stated bluntly.

Rose laughed good-naturedly. "Kids…they have a way of keeping you modest." She turned to her daughter. "Actually, Gabby is your aunt Anya's age."

"She looks younger than her too. Aunt Anya has two kids. Do you have kids?"

"Emma, stop being so nosy."

"No, I don't have any children."

Tana looked up at the bard curiously. "Don't you like kids?"

"Maybe she just doesn't want to get stuck with someone like you," Emma teased.

Upset by her sister's remark, Tana punched her in the arm.

"Ouch! Stop it!"

Rose jumped to her feet. "All right, girls, outside right now!"

"But Mom!" Emma argued.

"You heard me."

"You always ruin everything," Emma whispered under her breath.

"I do not!" the little girl insisted.

Without speaking another word, Rose pointed sternly toward the door.

Emma turned one last time to Gabrielle. "Will you stop by again? Like you said?"

"You can count on it."

Smiling, Emma headed for the door.

Rose called after her. "Keep an eye on Tana. Don't let her get into any trouble."

As the door closed, Rose sighed and sat down. "Kids."

"Your children are wonderful. You must be very proud."

Rose smiled softly. "Yeah, I guess they're pretty good." She rolled her eyes. "Most of the time, anyway."

Gabrielle smiled.

"You really made an impression on Emma, rose commented. "I've never seen her this excited. She's usually so reserved. In fact, sometimes she's so distant that I worry about her. It's nice of you to take time with her."

"It's my pleasure. I love kids."

"You might feel differently about that if you had some of your own," Rose joked. "Anyway, enough about them…how are you?"

"I'm fine."

"Must be kind of boring for you in this small village after all of your traveling."

"It's not bad." She cast Rose a serious glance. "Although, sometimes I get the feeling that nothing has changed here but me."

"Say no more--I hear you. It's both the curse and blessing of small towns."

Gabrielle nodded.

"So, I saw you at the dance with Liam the other night."

The bard shifted uncomfortably in her seat. "Yeah."

Rose smiled. "He's a pompous ass, isn't he?"

Stunned, the bard raised her eyes and then smiled. "And here I thought it was just me."

"Take my word for it, if you're looking for a man, Poteidaia's not the place to start."

"Well, actually, I'm not looking." She paused. "At least, I don't think I am."

Rose nodded. "Men can be such problems, can't they? I'll tell you, I see some of the worst of them in here." She met the bard's eyes. "Speaking of which, I saw you leave with Ryder last night."

Gabrielle blushed. "He helped me home with Lila."

The redhead rolled her eyes. "Mmm, I'm sure he did."

"Actually, he was very nice, kind of sweet."

"Honey, that's the worst kind. Watch yourself with that one." She stood uneasily. "Well, I guess I should open the door for business. Can I get you another cup of tea?"

"Thanks, but I promised to help Dad in the fields this afternoon."

"It's been nice talking to you. Stop by again soon, huh."

"I'd like that."

*****

Strolling into the kitchen, Toris grabbed the kettle from the fire, and poured himself a cup of tea. "So, has Mary Sunshine come down yet?"

Cyrene glared at him. "As a matter of fact, she was up at dawn. She's out cutting wood." Wiping her hands on a towel, she pointed a warning finger at him. "I don't want you teasing her about last night. Is that understood?"

"Why not? She acted like an idiot."

"I don't care. I won't have any of it." She cast him a stern glance. "Understand?"

He raised his hand in capitulation. "All right, all right."

Xena walked in with an armload of wood and piled it by the fireplace.

Cyrene smiled up at her. "Have a seat. I made up a plate for you."

"Thanks, but I'm really not hungry."

"Nonsense, you've been working all morning. You need something to eat." She led her daughter by the arm to the table and slid a plate in front of her.

Finishing the strange concoction he'd been mixing, Toris poured it into a mug and brought it over to his sister. "You look awful. Maybe this will help."

"Help what?"

"Your hangover. You had quite a bit to drink last night."

Xena tensed. "What about it?"

"Nothing. Having had more than my share of rough mornings, I've nearly perfected a remedy."

Her shoulders eased and she smiled weakly. "Thanks." Cautiously sipping the tonic, she looked up and smiled. "You know, this isn't bad."

"Told you, I've had practice."

"Toris, about last night…I'm sorry. It wasn't my place to be lecturing your friends."

Cyrene looked up from her cooking. "Seems to me it's long past time someone did. What'd you tell them?"

The warrior shrugged uncomfortably.

"She gave us advice on how to treat our women," Toris answered.

Cyrene's brow shot up in surprise.

Xena waved her hand dismissively. "I was drunk and got a little carried away, that's all."

"At least you didn't break into song like Owen," her brother teased. "I think he really has a thing for you."

"Great, just what I need."

Toris laughed. "Seriously, you said some good things. I'm going to take your advice and talk to Mara."

"I can't believe someone finally got through to you," Cyrene commented. She pulled up a chair beside her daughter. "Sooo tell me what you said. I've got to hear more about this."

*****

Gabrielle knocked softly on the prophet's door.

"Why hello," Asia greeted.

"Bet you're a little surprised to see me again," the bard said sheepishly.

"Well, actually, I hoped we might have another chance to talk. Your last visit was rather…brief."

"Yeah, I'm sorry about that."

"Have you changed your mind about me, then?"

"To be honest, I'm not sure." She wiped her sweaty palms on her skirt. "It's just hard for me to believe that you can really see into people's minds."

"But you want to believe it, don't you? Isn't that why you came?"

"I'm not sure why I'm here," the bard answered truthfully. "You said something…something that I can't seem to get out of my mind. I--" Gabrielle wrung her hands nervously. "I--I have to admit, I felt something when you touched me…an energy." She stopped, not knowing how to continue.

Asia's eyes sparkled warmly. "I felt an energy in you too. Although you haven't worked to harness it, you have an innate ability. You see things in people…things others miss. Your instincts are good. You should trust them more often."

The bard laughed. "My instincts tell me that I shouldn't trust you."

Asia smiled. "Are you sure it's your voice you're listening to and not the warrior's?"

Gabrielle perked up at the mention of her friend. "Do you know Xena?"

"Not really." Turning, Asia took a seat by the fire. "Come, join me."

Pulling out the chair beside her, the bard sat down wearily.

"You look tired," the prophet commented. "Are you still having trouble sleeping?"

Gabrielle nodded. Even though she hadn't had any more dreams, her nights continued to be restless.

"So tell me, what can I do for you?"

"I'm not sure how you usually do this. I can pay you up front or…"

The prophet shook her head. "Let's worry about that later. Now, what did you want to ask me?"

"I…uh…I was wondering…when I was here before, you mentioned my dreams. Do you know if they mean anything?"

"I'm sure they do," Asia replied. "It's not at all unusual for dreams to carry messages."

Gabrielle swallowed nervously. "Do you know what mine are trying to tell me?"

"When you're ready, I think they'll become clear to you."

The bard shook her head in frustration. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"Just what I said," the prophet replied patiently.

Gabrielle released a heavy sigh. "Forgive me, but it seems like you're hedging, avoiding a real answer. It makes me doubt your abilities."

Asia simply smiled.

"I don't understand. Why can't you just give me a straight answer?"

"I thought I was." Folding her hands in her lap, she looked into the bard's eyes. "If you were ready to see the meaning in your dreams, you would."

"Can you at least tell me why you think I'm having them?"

"What I think is irrelevant."

"So that's it…you're refusing to help me?"

Asia shrugged. "If that's the way you choose to see it."

The bard pushed her chair back and stood. "I shouldn't have come. I don't know what I expected." She ran her fingers through her hair anxiously. "It was silly. I haven't been thinking straight lately."

"I can see you're troubled. Would it help to tell me about your dreams?"

Suddenly embarrassed, the bard looked away. "No, I--look, I--I shouldn't have bothered you about this. I just wanted to apologize. I was out of line the last time we spoke. I'm sorry."

The prophet watched the young woman walk hesitantly to the door. "Gabrielle, I know it can be hard being home after having been away so long. If you ever need someone to listen, I'll be here."

*****

After her brother left, Xena stared out the window at the droplets of rain rolling down the pane.

Cyrene watched with concern. Her daughter looked pale…lost. Filling two mugs, she carried them to the table. "Have a seat and join me for a hot cup of cider."

Reluctantly, Xena dropped into the chair next to her mother and took a small sip from her mug.

"I couldn't help noticing that you seemed a million miles away a moment ago. Is something troubling you?" Cyrene asked.

"No, just thinking."

"You know, I've been meaning to tell you how good it's been having you home."

Xena met her eyes, searching for a hint of falseness. There was none.

"I just wish you didn't feel like you had to spend so much time working," her mother said sincerely.

"I want to help out." Pausing, the warrior looked guiltily toward the window. "I'm sorry I haven't done more for you over the years."

"That's water under the bridge."

"I wish it were that simple. I've made so many bad choices. I--"

"--I've always believed that we learn more from our mistakes," Cyrene offered solemnly. "You know Xena, you aren't the only one with regrets. I was so busy trying to keep food on the table when you were younger that I--"

"--You don't owe me any apologies," the warrior replied shifting uncomfortably in her seat.

"I think I do. I know it hasn't been easy for you…the changes you've made. I should have told you a long time ago how proud I am of the way you've turned your life around."

"Mother, please. You don't have to--" She pushed her chair back and stood.

Cyrene reached out and caught her wrist. "Stay, there are things we need to talk about."

"There's nothing to say. It's all water under the bridge, like you said."

"I'm worried about you, Xena. You look so tired."

"I'm fine," the warrior insisted.

She met her daughter's eyes. "At night I hear you cry out in your sleep."

"I told you, it's nothing!" Xena snapped.

Cyrene looked away sadly.

Immediately regretting her outburst, the warrior softened her tone. "I'm a little tired. I…" Not knowing how to explain, she let her voice trail off.

"Talk to me. Maybe I can help."

"I don't think so."

"What could it hurt to try?" Cyrene smiled softly. "If nothing else, running this tavern all these years has made me a good listener."

"Really, there's nothing to say."

Tears filled the older woman's eyes. "I'm sorry we haven't had the kind of relationship where you felt you could turn to me. I blame myself for that. If I'd been a better mother--" she paused, quickly wiping her eyes.

Xena gently brushed her arm, then pulled back awkwardly. "It's not your fault, not any of it. I knew what I was doing from the beginning. It's my burden to carry. I let myself be ruled by my emotions. I don't do that anymore. I can't afford to."

"It's human to feel. Not all emotions are bad."

Terribly uncomfortable with the discussion, the warrior turned away.

Cyrene continued to press her. "Xena, why can't you sleep? Has something happened between you and Gabrielle? Is that why you’re here?"

The warrior stiffened at her mother's words.

"Have you and Gabrielle had an argument?"

"No." Xena inhaled deeply, trying to steady her voice. "Gabrielle went home to visit her family, that's all." Avoiding her mother's eyes, she struggled to control the surge of emotion that bubbled so painfully close to the surface. In her heart, she knew that wasn't all. It wasn't nearly that simple. Her feelings for Gabrielle had changed dramatically, and although she'd been successful at hiding them from the bard, it was becoming more and more difficult to deny to herself just how much she needed the young woman in her life.

Sensing the sadness hidden beneath her words, Cyrene laid her hand lightly on her daughter's arm. "But there's more, isn't there? What is it you're not telling me?"

Xena glanced up, the anguish in her eyes startling. "I…uh…I think she'll stay this time." She swallowed hard before continuing. "The past few moons she's been distant, withdrawn. I think she's wondering if it's time for her to settle down."

Feeling the pain her daughter tried so hard to mask, Cyrene spoke from her heart. "I'm sorry. She mean's a great deal to you, doesn't she?"

"Too much. I--" The warrior stopped abruptly.

It was infinitely clear to Cyrene what Xena wasn't saying. She reached out and gently took her hand. "Honey, I can see how much you're hurting. You can trust me. Tell me what's wrong."

Seeing the love and concern in her mother's eyes touched the warrior more deeply than she could have imagined. She felt the tightness in her chest ease as the walls she'd erected to protect herself, gave way. "I don't know what to do. I--I never should have let this happen. I--"

"What is it? What's happened?"

"I--I've fallen in love with her." As the reluctant confession tumbled from her lips, she stood motionless barely able to breathe and waited for her mother to pass judgement…waited for the harsh words she feared would follow.

Instead Cyrene smiled softly. "Does she know how you feel?"

Lowering her eyes, Xena shook her head. "No, and it's better that way."

"Better for whom?"

The warrior glanced up sadly. "What do I have to offer her?"

"Your love."

"It's not enough."

Cyrene squeezed her daughter's hand. "To Gabrielle, it may be everything. Anyone can tell just by watching her how much she cares for you."

"This is different."

"Maybe not as different as you believe. Have you thought about telling her how you feel?"

"I--I can't. I--"

"--I understand how difficult this must be, but letting her go without sharing the truth isn't fair to either of you."

"I've made so many mistakes. I--"

Cyrene cut her off. "You can't let your past rule your future. All any of us has is the here and now." Taking a deep breath, she paused thoughtfully. "Xena, I know I've hardly earned the right to give you advice. But you're my daughter. I want you to be happy. Don't throw away this chance. A love like you feel for Gabrielle is too precious to ignore."

"But Gabrielle deserves more."

"As much as you might like to, it's wrong for you to try to protect her from this. In the end, it's her decision to make. Don't kid yourself. Gabrielle hasn't walked into this friendship blindly. From the beginning, she looked beyond your past and saw the goodness you'd buried deep inside. She believes in you." Cyrene looked into her daughter's eyes. "Trust in her vision. Trust in your heart and let it guide you. Reach out to her before it's too late."

*****

Continued

 


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