The Sweetest Dreams

by L. Graham


Copyright: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Argo, etc. and their universe are the intellectual (and monetary!) property of Renaissance/MCA/Universal. No infringement or offense is intended in any way. Everything else belongs to me. "I’m sorry if that sounds selfish, darling, but it’s about me. Me, me, me!" --Edina Monsoon ("Absolutely Fabulous")

Subtext: Nothing deliberate. OK, so there’s the occasional entendre and in-joke, but that’s not to make a plot point or a character statement.

Violence: Nope, yawn.

Language: Yes. Oh, vulgarity? A light sprinkling, no less than what you’d expect from a peeved warrior princess.

Conspicuous Alcohol Consumption: Xena and Gabrielle can get a little tipsy without any serious damage, why? Because they’re fictional characters! This is not behavior to be imitated at home, kids. Responsible adults drink responsibly.

Author’s Note: A significantly abridged version of this story appeared in the NetForum Bard Contest, attributed (accidentally) to another handle. Whoops. Due to time constraints, etc. I wasn’t able to finish it as I’d intended and so now the brute’s about twice as large as it used to be, but hopefully the better for it.


Early Autumn

Somewhere near Thule?

Today was an exercise in futility. We’ve been wandering through the rocky wilderland for three full days now and Xena still won’t say where we’re going. Nothing new there. I’ve heard it said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results. If that’s true, then I’m going insane.

I keep expecting her to get better about this!

I don’t really mind the silence, the sarcastic looks, or the subtle testing--it’s the blatant disregard for my basic human need to know where the Hades I am.

I think she knows it bothers me. That’s why she enjoys doing it so much.

Gabrielle looked up from her parchment and squinted across the campfire at her tall, dark-haired companion.

"You’re going to put your eyes out," she said sourly.

The other woman slowly looked up, gave her a cool appraisal, then continued repairing the saddle girth with small, precise stitches. "You should talk," the woman said at last with an infuriating calm.

Did I mention all those damn skills? Gabrielle scratched furiously. Xena: Warrior Seamstress, Destroyer of Nations and Mender of Torn Garments.

"Attacking that parchment won’t make you feel any better," Xena commented after a moment. "If you’re mad at me, best say it."

The quill ground to a screeching halt. "What makes you think I’m mad at you?"

"You always," Xena finished the row and cut the stout thread, "write like that when you’re angry. And since we haven’t come to a town or met any travelers in over a week, it must be me. Unless you’re still upset about that rabbit trying to bite you. I told you before--they’re cute, but watch the teeth."

Gabrielle reluctantly felt some of her anger seeping away, charmed back to her usual cheerful disposition.

"Truth?" she exhaled heavily. Xena nodded, setting her work aside. "I’m going nuts. Don’t get me wrong--I love traveling with you--but we haven’t seen anything more civilized than a very well constructed bird’s nest in ages. You won’t tell me where we’re going or...or why!"

Xena’s pale blue eyes slid to one side, avoiding her friend’s indignant glare. "It was a surprise?" she offered tentatively.

"Oh, I love surprises!" Gabrielle exclaimed, then remembered she was supposed to be angry. "Ummm, well, that’s nice, I suppose...but you still should’ve told me."

"But then it wouldn’t be a surprise," Xena pointed out. Really, the bard was becoming increasingly illogical as the conversation progressed. Time of the month? No, and Zeus help her if she brought that up.

"Can you tell me now?" Gabrielle wheedled. "It would really make me feel better."

Xena shrugged uncomfortably. She didn’t mind doing nice things for other people--in fact, that was in the job description these days. She just hated being caught in the act. And since this was Gabrielle, the act would no doubt end up immortalized in a tale that would be all over Greece by the end of winter.

"I...well, I was just thinking that we could take a few days off and stop over in Thessaloniki. "

Gabrielle nodded, expecting something more that wasn’t coming. "Thessaloniki," she repeated. "Any special reason?"

Gods, did she have to draw a map? Xena sighed. "You know, Thessaloniki, autumn, the harvest..."

"The play festival!" Gabrielle exclaimed. "The winners in all categories from the Athens competition are presented in the amphitheater at Thessaloniki!"

Xena exhaled in relief. Her last resort would have been drawing it on the girl’s forehead with a charred stick from the campfire. Not very pretty, but effective. Out of the corner of her eye, Xena noticed that Gabrielle had leapt to her feet and was headed towards her with all the purpose of a charging minotaur. Too late, she tried to brace herself and was sent flying backwards off the stump, buried beneath one very happy bard.

"Do you really mean it?" Gabrielle asked breathlessly. "Are we going?" Her reddish blonde hair fell forward, unchecked, and she brushed it back with a careless hand, studying the other woman’s face.

Xena nodded, breathless for an entirely less pleasant reason. With one strong heave, she lifted her friend up and air rushed back into her bruised ribcage.

"When did you put on all that muscle?" she wheezed. "Did I ever teach you to just throw yourself at someone?"

"No," Gabrielle acknowledged sheepishly. She scrambled to her feet, offering one hand to Xena and pulling the big warrior up with surprisingly little effort. "I think that was Lila’s department."

Xena growled back something that Gabrielle wisely chose to ignore. Finally she said, "So, I guess that means you want to go, huh?"

That casual remark launched the bard into ecstatic reflections on which of the land’s finest playwrights might be in attendance and which new works would be there as well as the classics she had never seen performed.

Xena watched all this with quiet amusement, secretly glad that she had the chance to see the girl so happy. It wasn’t an easy life they shared, without any guarantee of where they would be from night to night, not to mention the availability of food or shelter. She had tried hard enough to dissuade Gabrielle at first, but had never been happier to fail at something in her entire life.

"Xena, are you listening to me?"

"Yes," Xena lied, wide-eyed and utterly insincere.

Gabrielle gave her a suspicious glance, but resumed her monologue. "Anyway, what I really hope is that they run that new tragedy by Sophocles."

Ha--at last a name she knew. And, ummmm, that was about all she knew. "I thought you liked comedies."

"Oh, I do, but this one’s been causing such a stir. It’s all about this king who kills his father, marries his mother, and then..."

Xena stood bolt upright, both hands raised. "Whoa, enough, thank you. I think I’ll go visit the blacksmith while that one’s showing if you don’t mind."

"You have no appreciation of art, do you?"


Gabrielle sank down onto the bedroll and stared up at her friend who sat back down as well. "You’re an incorrigible reprobate."

When her puzzled look subsided, Xena said with consummate dignity: "Sticks and stones may..."

"Aaargh," Gabrielle groaned, clasping both hands to her head. "I can’t win with you!"

Xena grinned, shaking her head. The moment grew quiet between them and she felt herself suddenly quite clumsy. She was no match for Gabrielle when it came to words, but somehow the bard never saw things that way. Oh, it was easy enough for Xena to demonstrate her prowess on a battlefield, but Gabrielle’s gifts were more delicate and elusive, though no less valuable to them. She worried sometimes that the girl only saw herself as a tagalong, a barely tolerated baggage handler. She also knew that her own lack of interest in "bardly pursuits" didn’t help matters much.

"You know," Xena hesitated, "I hear the festival’s really nice. Really, really nice."

Gabrielle nodded happily. "Second only to Athens. I can’t believe I’m getting to go. How long have you been thinking about this?"

How long? Xena considered blankly. The truth would never do. No, that could just stay buried, right where it belonged with all the other bloody ghosts that day had born. "Well, I suppose since we last went through Athens. I must’ve overheard something about it there."

Gabrielle propped up on her elbows. "That was over eight months ago."

OK, so the bard had math skills as well. "Yeah, so?"

Frustrated and amazed, Gabrielle shook her head. "It’s one’s ever done anything like this for me. You know how my family felt about me wanting to become a bard." Her face cast down and she was lost for a moment. Xena gently nudged her friend’s foot with her own. When Gabrielle looked up, her eyes were shiny though not to overflowing.

"Hey," Xena said softly, clearing her throat as the word caught in it. "You’re, well, you’re like family to me, you know that."

"Yeah, I do," the girl sighed. "It’s kinda sad though that you mean so much more to me than they do, and we’re not even blood. I mean, you’re not into poetry and flowers..."

Xena voiced hearty agreement with that assessment.

"...but at least you don’t try to stop me."

No, but I don’t do much to help either.

"...and that means a lot. A lot more than I can express."

"So does that mean I don’t have to apologize for marching all over the country in the wrong direction so we could sneak up on Thessaloniki without you figuring it out?"

"Oh no," Gabrielle said with a broad grin, "you still have to do that." Recklessly, she raised one foot and dropped it into Xena’s lap. "And my foot’s still cramping up. You owe me."

Xena’s eyebrow shot into the air, but the effect was lost as Gabrielle had collapsed back onto the blankets, face turned to the sky.

"All right," she said slowly. "I suppose I do." With one hand she enfolded the bard’s foot, coaxing out the cramp that had formed in the arch. Quickly, she limbered the stiff tendons and muscles still aching from the day’s hike through the broken hills.

"Grreat," Gabrielle murmured, eyes shut. "Little lower."

"Pushy, pushy."

"You’re the one who insisted on the route, and through some of the most godsawful terrain. Up one hill, around the next, boulders and gravel and..." Gabrielle trailed off, stifling a yawn that threatened to overwhelm her.

It never ceased to amaze Xena that the girl could be so tired and keep up such a stream of apparently coherent conversation. Pressing the heel of her palm into the sole, she worked up and down with a slight rotating motion, effectively releasing what little tension remained.

"I think you’re better at this than Lila," Gabrielle said distractedly.

"Lila. As in your sister who throws herself at people, Lila?"

"Hey, I don’t let just anyone rub my foot."

Xena sorted through a half dozen replies and settled on silence. Enough of the day had already been spent in borderline verbal warfare. "I just can’t see her being very, ummm, agreeable about it."

"She’s not so bad," Gabrielle murmured slowly. "We fought enough all right, but she’s still my sister. Did...did I ever tell you ‘bout the time she took on three of the village bullies at once ‘cause they were making fun of me?"

"No," Xena said quietly. Actually, she’d heard the story four times now, but the value lay in the telling and what it did for Gabrielle. Xena truly regretted that their travels took them so far from Poteidaia and the few occasions to return home had been mixed at best. As frustrating as they could be, the girl missed her family more than she let on, certainly more than she thought Xena knew. Through the stories though, Gabrielle could conjure her family for a time and it was enough.

Without interrupting the familiar narrative, Xena switched feet and repeated the procedure, checking for crippling blisters, and careful to avoid anything that might be ticklish. Gods, how she knew Gabrielle was ticklish. She had never had cause to use pressure points on the girl which was just as well--she would have keeled over laughing at the first touch. Same end effect, but very bad publicity for a warrior princess.

Gabrielle sighed contentedly, mumbling under her breath, and Xena smiled. Her young friend had done well that day and Xena had almost come to forgive her that insane phobia regarding horses. It had been incredibly inconvenient at first, but she had almost grown to enjoy their arrangement. It was a long way though from her days riding at the head of a legion of trained warriors. In fact, some might even see it as a little pathetic: former ferocious warlord now boasting an entourage of one bard, and a borderline pacifist at that.

But she wouldn’t have traded the girl’s company for ten legions. There was something gentle and humane about the way Gabrielle approached life, connecting with every second of it. Of course, this had led to more "stopping to sniff the flowers" than Xena cared to admit. She still kept a sharp eye out to see if Gabrielle was dawdling with an ulterior motive. She still hadn’t recovered from that day three years ago...


"What the Hades d’you think you’re doing to my horse?"

Gabrielle stepped back and raised her head slowly, a guilty, nervous grin on her face. "I...uh...thought..."

Xena wasn’t even paying attention to the stammered explanation as she deftly picked out the handful of daisies clinging to the horse’s white blonde hair. Argo turned her head to nudge the warrior gently, as if to say that it really wasn’t all that bad, though something in the horse’s eyes still spoke of overwhelming relief.

"Never," Xena said through gritted teeth, "do that to Argo again. Now, for the last time--don’t apologize for hitting the people who attack us, don’t let our dinner get away because you feel bad for the bunnies, and for Zeus’ sake, don’t ever ask if you can brush my hair."

Gabrielle nodded quickly, blinking and wide-eyed, hands clutched behind her back.

She should’ve known better than to bruise Gabrielle’s artistic sensibilities by yelling at her that way. Just a few weeks after her angry declaration, she’d woken up to find every spare inch of Argo braided so tightly it was a miracle the poor horse could move at all. Daisies were entwined in each and every braid.

Gabrielle was still fast asleep when the warrior’s anguished cry echoed through the forest. Somehow though she managed to sweetly maintain her innocence under the furious interrogation.

After all, didn’t the Mighty Warrior Princess always wake up first? And wasn’t it Xena: Defender of the Overtly Oppressed who had such keen hearing that nothing at all, let alone a clumsy little bard from Poteidaia, could possibly sneak something like this by her?

It must have been the gods, still angry about...well, about something. Weren’t they always?

It had taken the better part of the morning to set matters right with Argo and the procedure had only been complicated by Xena’s furious cursing every time she nicked herself as she cut the ties on the braids. Gabrielle spent the time clearing up camp and keeping a wary eye over her shoulder.

Only when Gabrielle’s back was turned could Xena permit herself to smile and admit that the joke was a good one, even if it had been on her. It took some backbone to risk her wrath and she had to admire the girl’s courage.

That of course didn’t mean that Xena wouldn’t dunk her in the lake later.

Xena’s lips quirked into a wry grin. Yes, Gabrielle was good for her, there was no denying that. She was still uncomfortable in confined places, had the occasional nightmare, and would no doubt always run into people who remembered her with hatred, things were different. She didn’t mind people sitting a little closer and had even begun developing a sense of humor, though Gabrielle maintained it still had a very long ways to go.

Everything was different, almost relaxed. A fight could be intense, but it didn’t have the lingering edge to it, the bitter need to release the anger in wine, more violence, or the occasional man who was drunk enough not to be scared, but still sober enough to stay awake. Gabrielle was changing that, easing the rage with nothing more than her words.

But without that girl, the tension would... No, she wouldn’t think about that, not now. Damn the Fates, she had no choice but to take Gabrielle to Thessaloniki, even though it might cost her everything. Sadly, Xena looked down at the little bard, fast asleep, head tilted to one side with the embryonic stages of a good snore forming.

With a patient smile, Xena tucked the blankets around her exhausted friend, careful not to disturb her. Gabrielle murmured something that was lost in the snapping of the fire as Xena added a few more logs to last the night.

Quickly surveying the campsite and checking that Argo was still tethered nearby, Xena arranged her own blankets not far from Gabrielle, still within range of the fire. The fall frost was coming early to these elevated parts and she was grateful they would be under shelter for the next few days, tucked away in a quiet little inn she knew on the outskirts of the city.

Then it started.

"Oh, gods, not tonight!" Xena groaned in despair.

Gabrielle talked in her sleep. Constantly. Even more than when she was awake, if it were possible.

The first time it had happened, Xena had simply stared in dumb amazement. It had been bad enough that the girl hadn’t shut up all day, but to have to endure this racket through the night? Xena had discovered that her only choices were to wait it out (which could take until dawn), remove herself from camp, or wrap her head in as much spare cloth as she could find.

The latter, while the most successful, had the distinct disadvantage of rendering Xena nearly deaf, and thus vulnerable to attack. On the other hand, being cranky all next day because she hadn’t gotten any sleep could be just as dangerous, particularly for Gabrielle as the object of her fury.

Xena judged her options and decided that given their proximity to Thessaloniki and the rumors of bandits, she had no choice but to pray that Gabrielle shut up in short order. Settling back on the ground, she did her best to block out what seemed to be a categorical recitation of secret family recipes. Counting mountain goats as they leapt from one peak to another sometimes worked.

But not tonight.

After a moment, Xena’s acute ears picked up something unusual about the girl’s narrative and she sat upright, straining to hear. Without thinking that it might be as invasive as ripping open Gabrielle’s journals in the marketplace, she leant close to listen. Nothing made sense at first until she realized that there weren’t actually any words at all.

Xena felt an unfamiliar blush rise to her face and she sat back quickly. Well, that was completely unexpected. Apparently her innocent, pure-hearted friend had a few things going on between her ears besides how to scan dactylic hexameter.

She quickly chided herself, recalling that Gabrielle was a widow, even if the marriage had been bitterly brief. Even now Xena could see Perdicus’ young face, haunted by war, but restored in love, not so unlike her own--they had both been saved by the same hand. He and Gabrielle had only shared a night, but his love had been enough sustain the bard through her violent grief over his brutal, senseless murder.

Xena hugged her knees to her chest, trying to recall how many nights she had spent like this during that time, watching over Gabrielle as she struggled to sleep, but there had been quiet sobs instead of silly chatter. And certainly nothing like what she was hearing tonight.

Indulgently, Xena smiled at the girl. Their life didn’t lend itself to attachments and the few that either of them had entertained seemed ill-fated from the start. Perhaps dreams were the safest escape afforded them. In any event, Gabrielle certainly seemed to be enjoying this one

Resigning herself to a long night, Xena settled back under the blankets.


The sound and scent of sizzling fish slowly penetrated Gabrielle’s groggy haze.

"Br’fast," she mumbled happily. She loved breakfast. Lunch, too. And dinner for that matter. "Fish. Fish, fish, fish."

"Are you going to come have some of the fish or just lie there and sing its praises?" Xena’s low, amused question brought Gabrielle the rest of the way up to consciousness.

Sitting up, she stretched both arms overhead, twisting about to crack out her joints. Xena shuddered involuntarily which brought a broad grin to Gabrielle’s face.

That done, Gabrielle scrambled to the cooking fire and claimed her half of breakfast. Settling down, back against a log, she observed her companion’s routine of packing up the camp.

"Sleep all right?" Xena asked without looking up.

"Wonderfully. I don’t think I’ve felt this good in a long time. It must be something about the mountain air--very relaxing."

Xena said nothing, but seemed to be trying not to smile. Gabrielle wondered if she had inadvertently said something funny.

"Did I tell you how excited I am about going to Thessaloniki?" she blurted. Xena paused, biting her lip in concentration.

"Not more than seventeen times, no."

"Well, I am. Next to graduating from the Academy or maybe getting to study with Pindar, this is one of my biggest dreams!"

"Pindar?" Xena asked blankly. "Who’s that?"

"Ppht." Gabrielle quickly chewed and swallowed. "A poet--one of the greats."

"Oh. What about that one they were talking about when we were with the Amazons, that Sapphire person?"

"Sappho? Ummm, she’s all right," Gabrielle said after a long pause. "Kind of an acquired taste. were talking with people about poetry?"

"No," Xena said quickly. "Just can’t help having sharp ears. Why, would it bother you?"

Gabrielle took another bite, considering. "I don’t know what I’d do if you went literary on me. Cryptic, I can handle, but literary?" The girl gave an exaggerated shiver. Argo snorted loudly and Xena turned to glare at the horse as if to say, "Well, don’t you gang up on me, too." Gabrielle chuckled at the sight, wondering how she ever could have thought she was happy with anything less than this life she was blessed with now.

Xena reined Argo in as they approached the sparse gathering of wooden structures that marked the outer edge of Thessaloniki. Set back in the trees with its back to a granite outcropping, an inn stood fast on its foundations. She smiled at the sight, recalling more than one night she’d found refuge there and the safe haven it had provided.

Xena swung down from Argo and looped the reins over the mare’s head, leading her forward. Gabrielle had made up ground by this point and shot ahead in her eagerness, only to be snatched back by her friend’s strong hand, entwined in the back of her top.

"No skipping!" Xena growled, a lively twinkle in her eye. "Are you trying to wreck my image?"

Gabrielle hung her head and dutifully followed at a sedate pace worthy of a funeral procession. "So, do you know the owner?"

"We, ah...have a history."

Gabrielle groaned loudly. "You ‘have a history’ with half of Greece," she complained. "I’ve had to edit over a dozen stories just so you won’t sound like such a..."

Xena’s cool blue gaze stopped her short.

"...a...a warm, caring, romantic person," the girl stammered. "I know how you hate it when people think you’re sentimental."

"You got that right. And it’s not that kind of a history." Xena resumed walking, careful to keep from breaking into an all-out grin. No, she didn’t like it when people saw her soft side, but Gabrielle inevitably brought it out, kicking and screaming.

Glancing at the bard striding beside her, now fully recovered and as exuberant as ever, Xena permitted herself to smile. She almost had a good feeling about this day and remarkably enough, the fears she had wrestled with for weeks were gone. She should have brought the girl here years ago, shouldn’t have put it off like a coward.

"Jaran!" Xena called. A tall thin man with a cowlick like a rooster’s comb glanced up from his work sweeping out the yard, recognized her, and began waving back excitedly.

"Lyta," he shouted toward the stable. "They’re here!" Then loping across the ground between them, Jaran embraced Xena so completely that she had to drop Argo’s reins. They were joined by a middle-aged woman with wispy brown hair who also threw her arms around the mildly embarrassed warrior.

"Ah, Gabrielle, I’d like you to meet Jaran and Lyta, the owners." Xena stood back awkwardly to allow for the introduction while pretending to hunt for Argo’s reins. The horse stared calmly back at her, not having moved a single inch.

"Oh yes, Gabrielle," Jaran said with a broad grin, as if he knew something-- perhaps many things--that she did not. "We’ve been looking forward to meeting you."

"Xena, did everyone know we were coming to Thessaloniki but me?"

Xena chose that moment to declare that Argo needed instant stabling and took off in that direction with one arm slung around Jaran’s shoulders. Gabrielle stared after her, leaning on her staff in disgust.

"This is one of Xena’s little surprises, I take it?"

Gabrielle turned to face Lyta, taking stock of the woman. Standing a few inches taller than the bard, she had an open face, sharpened by hard work and basic intelligence. Gabrielle decided that she liked her even beyond the fact that she liked most everybody.

"I suppose you could call it that when your best friend never tells you anything. Every day’s an adventure with Xena."

"Don’t be so hard on her," Lyta counseled softly, turning back to the inn. "You want a pint of something?" Gabrielle agreed, simply because she thought Xena might not like it if she drank so early in the day. "I’d say she’s spent most of her life staying on guard just to survive. It’s hard to train that out of a warrior."

Gabrielle inhaled deeply as they stepped into the warm, open common room. There was a generous fire already stoked in the hearth to ward off the autumn chill. It was too early for many customers, but she could see from the clean, well-used patina that the inn did a fair business most nights.

Lyta drew two mugs of dark brown liquid and gently pushed one toward Gabrielle. The girl took a cautious sip and was glad that she had. It was heady, strong stuff, but wonderfully pungent.

"So, I guess you and Jaran have known Xena for a while, huh?"

Lyta nodded solemnly. "That’s one way of putting it. Here." She quickly reached across the bar and swiped the end of Gabrielle’s nose with a clean rag. "Bit of foam."

Gabrielle stifled a giggle and promised to be more careful.

"Yes, let’s see." The innkeeper propped both elbows on the bartop and thought hard, her brown eyes losing focus. "I suppose it wasn’t too long after Caesar nearly killed her."

"Oh," Gabrielle said quietly. "That was a bad time."

"Jaran was still soldiering some in those days and managed to get a spot in Xena’s army, but he didn’t last too long. He’s got a quite a soft heart," Lyta chuckled. "Time came to put some prisoners to the sword and he wouldn’t do it. Just looked her right in the eye, as polite as you please, and said he couldn’t murder in cold blood."

"I understand," Gabrielle offered when the pause grew long. She took a few more sips from her mug, letting the strong liquid run down and through her veins. "But wait...he’s, well, he’s still alive."

"That’s the miracle of it," Lyta smiled. "You’d think she’d have offed his head as quick as not given what she was like in those days. In fact, that’s just what Jaran thought would happen. Fortunately, it was only the two of them there to hear the order or it might not have turned out so well. Xena took him by the collar and dragged him into a supply tent, ready to scald his hide. But the minute they were alone, she let go and just stood there, staring at him."

Lyta glanced up at the opening door, recognized the customer and made a vague motion of greeting. Her eyes followed him to a bench by the fire before returning to Gabrielle.

"She told Jaran he didn’t have any business being in her army and he was going to get himself killed by his own mates before long if he didn’t get out. Then she made up some story about sending him on a secret mission, gave him a bag of supplies, and told him never to show his face again if he knew what was good for him."

Gabrielle kept her green eyes fixed on her new friend over the rim of her mug. She sighed wistfully and carefully wiped her mouth with the back of one hand.

"Oh, I wish she could see herself the way you do. I mean, Xena really despises herself for what happened in those years, but when you tell me what she did for Jaran..."

"Hatred’s easy to learn," Lyta said quietly. "And even easier to practice on yourself than others. There’s so much more bad than good from that’s going to be hard for her."

Gabrielle nodded sincerely, knowing it all too well. "Oh, I’m sorry, I interrupted. How did...well, were you with Jaran in the camp then?"

"Oh no," Lyta laughed. "I’m not one for traveling. "Jaran set out in a straight line and made it here by first snowfall. My father ran the inn back then and he could always use an extra hand, so Jaran slept in the loft and worked for his board." The woman smiled to herself, wiping down the counter needlessly. "We got married that spring and kept the business ever since."

The door swung open again, this time to admit Xena and Jaran, talking loudly but without much coherency. Gabrielle listened hard and finally determined that they were recalling an extremely ribald escapade from their days serving together. When Xena abruptly realized the bard was paying attention, bright-eyed and alert, she trailed to a confused halt.

"And, uh, then...well, Jaran, you remember."

Gabrielle kept staring intently, but finally realized that she was never--ever-- going to hear the punchline if Xena had her way about it.

Jaran bowed out gracefully, but not without winking at Gabrielle from behind Xena’s back. He could, if properly bribed, provide that punchline sometime later. Moving to the bar, he pulled his wife aside.

"Lyta, love, what room did we save?"

"You know the one Xena likes--on the west side facing town, in the corner."

Gabrielle glanced up at Xena with a reproachful expression. "To watch the setting sun? Careful, princess. Someone’s going to figure out you really are a romantic."

"It has the shortest drop to the ground," Xena replied dryly. "Sorry to disappoint you."

"Never," her friend declared. "You know, it’s not even midday yet. I bet we could look around town and come back to clean up before the plays start."

Xena hummed thoughtfully. "Look around? That wouldn’t mean shopping, would it?"

Gabrielle, somewhat shamefaced, admitted that it did. She opened her mouth to say that she could always go by herself when she caught the corner of Xena’s mouth twitching.

"Oh, you!" she exploded, shoving the warrior’s shoulder. "You know the only reason you can get way with that is because no one actually expects you to make a joke."

Xena acknowledged it with a smug quirk of her eyebrows. "Always keep a few skills up your sleeve."

Xena’s good spirits had worn down a fair amount over the course of the expedition to the market and she was exerting a great deal of effort to keep Gabrielle completely unaware of it. The last thing she wanted was to start slipping into the lurking despair. She would not think about it. Xena glanced up and realized that Gabrielle had moved on to the next trader’s stall, so she dutifully shuffled forward a few paces.

Shopping--an activity obviously created by Ares himself. Some good old fashioned plunder and conquer, that’s what this place needed. Xena seized the thought and firmly pushed it out of her head, wondering just how long it was going to take to reform this old warlord.

Sighing, she turned her attention back to the girl. Suddenly, Xena felt very uncomfortable thinking of Gabrielle that way. It was a long way from Poteidaia to Thessaloniki and some significant growing up had occurred in between. Just how was she going to deal with this--what to call her now?

Bard, yes. Best friend, of course. Blonde, maybe. But girl? Hmmm...

"Hey, Xena--whaddya think?"

Xena swiveled to see Gabrielle holding up an attractive dark green tunic with, she swallowed hard, an extremely low neckline.

"Girl" was on its way out.

"Hmmm, uh, well..." Abruptly, Xena noticed a young trader, two stalls over, staring openly at the bard. With a bared, feral grin, she sent him The Look, set just two notches below "annhiliate." When he returned to his wares with a violent trembling, Xena smiled sweetly at Gabrielle and suggested picking out something else instead. With long sleeves and a very high collar.

As Gabrielle shrugged and turned back to haggling with the vendor, Xena slowly began knocking her head against the tent pole. They had enough trouble with misguided men as it was, the bard certainly didn’t need to wave the red flag, what little of it there was.


Gabrielle tottered through the streets of Thessaloniki, clutching various parcels in haphazard fashion. Periodically, she turned to make sure Xena was still with her and usually ended up running smack into her friend.

"C’mon," Xena said indulgently, guiding her through the crowd with a firm clasp on both shoulders. "Watch, there’s the steps." She reached forward with one long arm to get the door and ushered them safely back into the inn.

The common room was crowded now, filled with a good-natured banter that did not characterize most of the houses they had frequented on their travels. Still, a few shadier types kept to the corners and Xena marked them for future reference. Finally, impatient with Gabrielle’s gawking, Xena relieved her of a few packages and nudged her toward the stairs.

They managed to get through the door of their room and Gabrielle made it to the bed where she let her arms fall, depositing her purchases safely. It was only when they spread out so completely that she began to feel the first smidgen of guilt.

Xena hated shopping. Loathed it, in fact. But her friend had stood by the whole time, never making a dash for the weapons stall, not trying to rush her along with sarcastic little comments.

Gabrielle whirled and caught the warrior off guard, throwing her arms around the startled woman. After a moment, she felt Xena embrace her in return, fumbling to ask just what had brought the outburst on.

The bard tilted her face back, staring up at the one person who had ever stood up for her, protected and cared when the rest of the world had dismissed her like the irrelevant little girl she feared she was.

"I know I grumble sometimes and give you a hard time and I can’t keep up always, but you’re awfully nice to me."

Xena put on a face of mock forebearance until Gabrielle began to laugh, then disentangled their arms. "Go on and get ready now," Xena said, ruffling the girl’s fair hair. "I didn’t take us over half of Greece to have you be late for the first play."

Gabrielle began sorting through the clean clothes she had unpacked and gathering up what she had just purchased for that night. "Did you want a bath, too?" she asked over her shoulder.

"Jaran wants to see me about something. Leave some of the water for me, all right? and don’t forget to scrub behind your ears! You always..."

The room was startlingly silent, the girl’s footsteps hopping down the hallway. Aimlessly, Xena unhooked her sword and tossed it onto the bed. Well, she’d gotten them here safely, and now the question was--why? Why in Hades had she gone and done something she so desperately didn’t want to do when so much was at stake.

A short time later, Gabrielle returned, trailing water and a bright smile. "You’ve really got to try that tub," she said. "When I sat down, the water almost reached my shoulders."

"Yeah, it’s nice. I helped Jaran put it in about five winters ago."

"What did he want?"

"Just help moving some things," and she did not elaborate which was Gabrielle’s sign that while there might be more to be told, there was no way in Hades she was getting that information.

"Tell me something, Xena," the bard asked as she began dressing for the evening.

"Yeah, what?" Xena hoped she sounded bored and distinterested. Yes, bored and disinterested were exactly what she was going for. Encouraging this one to talk was just asking for trouble.

"How did you run into Jaran again? Lyta told me how you knew each other before. I...I hope that was all right." Gabrielle finished fastening her skirt, looking up to find that Xena had taken an inordinate interest in some cobwebs in the far corner of the room. Even now she was standing on a stool and jumping up to swat at them with her sword scabbard.


"Huh?, that’s fine. No secrets between us, right?"

"Right," Gabrielle said firmly. "So tell me how you found him after all that time."

"Well, it’s sort of long and boring."

"That’s all right. I know, you can tell me while you take your bath."

And without further ceremony, Xena found herself propelled out the without a single chance to say no.


Yes, Xena thought sourly. The water would come up to Gabrielle’s shoulders. She, on the other hand, was a good bit taller than the bard, which meant the math worked out somewhat differently for her.

It was one thing to be in take the occasional dip into a refreshing stream and quite another to sit dripping, trapped, and exposed in front of her best friend while being plied with friendly chatter.

"I’m sorry, I interrupted again," Gabrielle said for the fifth time. "About finding Jaran--you were in between armies."

"Yes, and not for the first time." Xena slouched a little further down in the tub, industriously scrubbing her elbows. "I came north looking for recruits when I got myself into a nasty brawl in the wrong part of town."

"And which scars are from that?"

Xena grudgingly stretched out her left arm, indicating two or three at random. Really, how on earth the young woman thought she could keep track of exactly which ones came from where.

"Anyway, after I escaped the brawl, I was going to crawl off and find a cave for a few days, but by the time I got to the outskirts of town I wasn’t in much shape to be traveling with a storm bearing down."

"So you came to the inn and found Jaran?"

"Nooo," Xena admitted slowly. "I sorta passed out in the middle of the street and woke up in that lovely corner room. I didn’t even recognize him for the first day. Probably just as well," she murmured.

Gabrielle clasped and unclasped her hands as she sat on the stool, waiting for Xena to continue. Finally, she reached out and took the washrag from her. "Turn around and I’ll wash your back."

That was safe enough, Xena decided as she obliged. They wouldn’t be at too much risk for a splash fight, though she had to admit that she usually won and Gabrielle ended up looking like a drowned chipmunk.

"But eventually you recognized him, right?" Gabrielle prompted.

"That cowlick? Unmistakable. I was still pretty groggy and more than a little scared he was angry with me and going to take advantage of my state."

"Jaran?" the bard exclaimed. "He’s so sweet, he wouldn’t even..."

"Not that kind of taking advantage," Xena sighed. "Trying to collect on a bounty and there were some fairly good sized ones on my head in those days. But he didn’t, obviously--saw it as paying me back for helping him get away. He was married to Lyta by then and two of them let me stay until I could ride again. I had to barge in on them a few more times during some low points in my infamous career, but they always had a room for me. Anyway, when I heard about the festival being held here, I thought of them immediately."

Lie number twenty-three for the day. She just couldn’t think of anyone else who would tolerate her under their roof for more than five minutes.

Gabrielle handed back the washrag and pronounced her as clean as could be expected on such short notice. Xena clambered out of the tub, found a towel, and headed back to their room.

"Xena, do you ever think about why Jaran and Lyta helped you all those times even before you decided to change?"

Xena paused, the towel still wrapped firmly around her. "Ummm, no, I can’t say as I have."

Gabrielle finally picked up the cue and turned away, beginning to take her own very special interest in the non-existent cobwebs. "What I mean is, I think you’re very quick to shut the door on what you were like before meeting Hercules. I’m not saying that a lot of bad things didn’t happen, but there were some moments when your heart wasn’t completely hardened. I think you should be proud of that."

"I am," Xena said, voice muffled by the changing of clothes. "It’s just hard to think about sometimes. Those little moments only seem so bright because there was so much darkness surrounding them."

Gabrielle nodded, still running her gaze up and down the walls. "Like Perdicus."

"Yes," Xena agreed, her voice growing unsteady. "Like Perdicus."

Gabrielle turned suddenly to her, mouth half-open to say something and stopped. Her jaw then dropped a little further. "That’s...well, Xena, how...?"

Xena gave her a mock curtsy, gathering the long folds of the dark blue dress as she did. "Didn’t think I owned any girl clothes?"

"Hey, you travel with someone for years, you think you know their wardrobe."

"Lyta keeps a few things stashed away for me," Xena confessed. "It was better if I didn’t look like a warlord on the run. Jaran prefers if I don’t wear armor around the inn, but he’d never press the point. Besides, I’d probably disturb the audience with all my clanking, right?"

Gabrielle laughed, a delighted, sweet sound. "They might mistake you for one of the actors except you don’t have a mask."

"A mask?"

"Xena, this is formal drama--masks, heavy costume, shouting to be heard--not some amateur night at the fair."

"Uh-huh. Just remember, you promised we weren’t going to the one where the guy sleeps with his mother."

It was, Gabrielle thought, an exceptionally beautiful night. She’d never appreciated how many stars there were before taking to the road with Xena. They’d simply seemed a spangly quilt that Apollo threw down when the sun chariot had finished its course for the day. Now she knew all the constellations, even which ones could be used for navigation (not that she was getting back in a boat anytime soon), and not just the stories behind them.

"Hey. Hey, Xena," she whispered loudly, pointing. "Look."

Xena stopped walking and stared straight up. "All right. What?"

"Is it me, or can you see up Andromeda’s skirt?" Gabrielle began giggling uncontrollably and had to lean against her friend for support.

"I never should have let you have a second glass," Xena muttered.

"Actually, it was my third." Gabrielle felt enormously remorseful and in need of confession. "Lyta let me have a mug of something this morning. I thought it had worn off, but..."

"I’m going to kill her," Xena said with a matter of fact geniality that was frankly terrifying.

"No, no, no, I’m fine. I feel great. So do you." Gabrielle was making no effort whatsoever to stand back upright.

"Thanks." Xena managed to unhook herself and kept one strong arm around the young woman’s waist. "The inn is straight ahead. One foot in front of the other, all right?"

"What, hey, what did you think of Orac?"

"Which one was he?"

"You know," Gabrielle waved a hand vaguely. "The cute one. He kept asking me what I thought about the evolving role of the chorus."

"Not bad," Xena said judiciously. "But you might be disappointed."

"No." Gabrielle shook her head repeatedly. "I could never be disappointed, not me, not after tonight."

"I mean," Xena said, leaning closer, "I think he was more interested in the actor who played Achilles."

"Oh. Well." Gabrielle took three steps in silence before breaking down. "Are you sure, Xena? He was really, really cute, y’know."

"Yeah, I’m sure. C’mon, keep walking," she coaxed.

"You were very, very polite to everyone," Gabrielle declared as they made their way unsteadily. "And you didn’t even bring up swords or killing or pressure points or fire-spitting or...oh, did I mention that already?"


Abruptly, Gabrielle stopped walking and peered up, squinting at her friend. "You’re not Xena," she declared firmly. "No, I don’t think you are. Diana, where did you put Xena? I need her back."

"C’mon," Xena sighed, managing to get the bard pointed back toward the inn once more. "You know, I’m not a complete barbarian. Mother did manage to teach me a few manners before I got myself disowned."

"Beautiful manners," Gabrielle agreed. "You didn’t even get upset when Synd...Syned...that guy in the funny hat was mean to me and said that girls couldn’t be bards."

"Yeah, well, you handled yourself all right."

"Sure did. Told him I was a woman and we knew a thing or two about making up stories, so get out of the way or prepare to be run over."

Xena idly wondered how long it would take for his unconscious body to be discovered, stuffed behind the stage. Gabrielle had been completely engrossed by Orac and hopefully hadn’t noticed her little slip in diplomacy. But hey, what was a self-respecting warrior princess supposed to do?

"You didn’t even fall asleep during the slow stuff," Gabrielle complimented her, wide-eyed. "I was worried about that, ya big dumb warrior. Big dumb warrior." She began repeating it over and over again, giggling occasionally. "I like that, think I’m gonna write a poem ‘bout it. ‘Ode to a Big Dumb Warrior’."

"Zeus, preserve us," Xena groaned, picking up the pace.

"Great, just great," the bard sighed, swept along. "Wasn’t it great, Xena? I laughed, I cried, it was better than Electra."


Gabrielle shook her head, "Silly, it’s an expression. Wasn’t it great?"

"Yeah," Xena admitted fondly. "I had a good time. The last one was...clever."

"Lysistrata? Clever?" Gabrielle roused herself and began lecturing her friend on the finer points of comedic presentation. "That, princess, was not clever, it was genius. Sheer genius. The war machine was brought to its knees by women who fought back with the only weapon they had."


Gabrielle tried to slap Xena’s shoulder and missed. "Not just sex, it was love. Can’t have sex without love. Can you?"

Xena carefully restored the young woman’s balance as she gently said, "Unfortunately, sometimes you can. It was just about sex--a sex comedy."

"No such creature, and I should know." Xena’s eyebrow slowly arched which inspired a deep flush across Gabrielle’s face. "I mean, there are these set forms for composition and those forms..."

"Relax," Xena chuckled. "I’m not trying to start an artistic revolt. I’m just saying that a little creativity can be good. Maybe you should try writing some things that don’t follow all the rules."

They had finally reached the side door to the inn and Gabrielle stopped, daunted by the prospect of the few short steps.

"Like what?"

Xena shrugged. "Does poetry always have to rhyme?"

Groaning in disgust, Gabrielle hauled herself toward the door. "Yes, Xena. That’s what makes it poetry. Promise me you won’t try to become a bard?"

"I’m telling you, someday people are going to get tired of rhyming. You mark my words."

"Xeeeenaaaa?" Gabrielle wailed plaintively. "What’s wrong with the door?" She stared in amazement as the warrior calmly pulled the handle and ushered her through. " did you know to do that? Is that one of your secret skills?"

"Enough." Xena’s calm, amused voice put an end to the bard’s rambling questions. "You’re going to bed." And with that, she picked up the squawking, bewildered young woman as lightly as a child and carried her up the stairs.

A moment later she reappeared and signaled Jaran to her end of the bar.

"How was it?" he asked loudly over the dull roar of the house.

"Not bad," Xena replied, honestly but pleasantly surprised. "You should’ve seen Gabrielle talking to people twice her age and them listening like she was the teacher."

"She’s charming, all right." Jaran finished wiping his hands and slung the towel over his shoulder. Self-consciously, he smoothed one palm back across his hair. "Need anything for the night?"

"Actually, yes. Could you loan me a bucket?"

Obliging, Jaran caught Lyta’s arm and relayed the request. "Everything all right?" he asked, handing it over.

Xena rolled her eyes. "Never, repeat never, let her have more than one glass. And tell Lyta I’ll have her head if she slips Gabrielle any more of your home brew. She’ll sleep it off, but just in case..."

Jaran ducked his head, before squaring her shoulders and saying, "I don’t know what your plans were exactly, but I was thinking about rigging a stage in here. Most of the crowds aren’t ready to go home when the plays are over and if I could get a few performers and bards to keep telling stories, I could keep the inn packed."

"Any particular bard in mind?" Xena asked quietly. Jaran shuffled his feet and nodded without looking at her. "This wouldn’t explain why you dragged me down here earlier while that certain bard was taking a bath to haul lumber out of the barn like a madwoman." Jaran reshuffled his feet a few more times. "And you wouldn’t have already mentioned this around town, would you?" Jaran’s discomfort grew past the point of containment.

"Well, what if I did? I thought you’d like the idea."

"This is supposed to be relaxing," Xena said stubbornly. "She’s got it bad enough in taverns when we’re desperate for money. These crowds came expecting Senticles."


"Who cares?" Xena snapped. "Gabrielle has this nice dream about becoming a great bard and I’m not going to ruin it for her by throwing her up there to get eaten alive."

"Maybe she’s good," Jaran insisted, then swallowed hard, amazed at his own audacity. He licked his lips nervously and continued. "Have you thought about that? Maybe if she wasn’t traveling with you, she really would be..."

"Careful," the warrior said with deadly softness.

"Just think about it," Jaran relented. "At least ask Gabrielle if she wants to. I know you, Xena," he said with an affectionate grin. "You can try to be as cold and aloof as you want, but we both know you’ve got a soft spot as big as the Mediterranean when it comes to that girl."

"Young woman," Xena mumbled unhappily. "All right--I’ll ask. But no promises. Gods, you don’t think I’m actually reforming, do you?"

"I don’t think you were ever as lost as you think you were."

Oh, but I was, Xena thought sadly as he turned away. And without her, I still am.

Gabrielle lay in the soft bed, comfortably wrapped in clean sheets and blankets for the first time in almost a month. Xena seemed somewhat uneasy in such "civilized" surroundings, but Gabrielle couldn’t help luxuriating in them when they got the chance. She turned to gaze out the window and found the constellations still shining brightly.

The door opened and closed briefly and Gabrielle heard the familiar sounds of Xena’s preparations for sleep. A resounding metallic clang followed by muffled cursing almost made her laugh, but she bit hard on her knuckle, knowing how it annoyed Xena to be caught in her clumsiness.

Xena finally slipped into bed beside her, reclaiming one of the pillows. "How’s your stomach?" she asked quietly.

"Not bad," Gabrielle assured her. "Lying down helps. I think I’ll take your advice next time though."

"So, had a good time?"

Speechless, Gabrielle rolled toward her friend, caught by the uncertain look in her bright blue eyes. "Haven’t I been telling you that nonstop all day? I thought you’d get angry if I said it one more time."

Xena broke into a nervous, relieved smile, shrugging as best she could while lying down. "No, it’s just that I’m sorta new at this. This surprising people on purpose thing."

"It was perfect." Gabrielle knew she was grinning again, helpless against her happiness and the influence of the wine and the night. Impulsively, she kissed Xena’s cheek. "Xena: Warrior Princess by day, Really Nice Person by night."

Xena said nothing, but continued to smile at her friend.

"Can I ask you something?" Gabrielle said, overarticulating each word. Xena nodded solemnly. "Am I really an irritating blonde?"

"No. I have a very low threshhold for irritating," Xena explained quite logically.

"Oh. Xena?"


"So, am I just blonde then?"

Xena took her time. "If you want to be, Gabrielle," she said at last. "Are you sure you’re going to be all right in the morning?"

"Yes," the bard sighed, patting her face with both hands to make sure it was where she had left it. "I think it was all the walking that sent it to my head. I’m feeling better now."

Hoping it was true, but fearing the worst, Xena slid one hand over the edge of the bed and pulled the bucket closer.

"I was asking because the festival runs for two more days, you know," she said after a moment. "Jaran wants to set up a stage downstairs and was thinking about getting some performers for the evenings since the crowds are here for that sort of thing anyway. He asked if...well, if you were interested. I told him you were pretty tired, so... "

Gabrielle’s eyes flared with overwhelming interest and she turned onto her back, counting off on her fingers. "I’ve got at least a dozen old standbys that these crowds won’t have heard. Oh, it’d be great to get to show some of my work instead of just listening to everyone else’s. And maybe one of the actual playwrights would happen to...oh, I mean...never mind." Somehow the blushing was audible. "Stupid, never mind."

"Well, all right," Xena agreed numbly as her heart sank. One ovation from these crowds and Gabrielle was as good as gone. "Look, I know it’s hard for you sometimes and I wish...well, I wish I was able to change things somehow, or maybe only rescue very, very artistic people in distress so you could be around..."

Gabrielle was shaking her head, murmuring her disagreement. "No, Xena, getting to write about things first-hand, performing for some of the toughest critics..."

"Nearly getting your head bashed as payment."

"...and learning how to dodge flying objects without dropping the meter. They can’t teach you that at the Academy. No, I wouldn’t trade this for anything."


"Well...maybe that personal apprenticeship with Pindar." The bard poked Xena lightly in the ribs, chuckling. "Just kidding, I hear he’s a recluse."

Xena exhaled softly, turning her head to catch a glimpse of Gabrielle staring out at the stars again. "Did you see that?" she whispered.

"A shooting star." Gabrielle propped up on an elbow, straining to catch the fading trail. "I forget--is that good or bad?"

"Good. Make a wish."

Gabrielle lay back down, eyes closed tightly, then opened them with a snap. "OK, I asked for..."

Xena’s hand clamped across the girl’s mouth. "If you tell, it won’t come true."

"Awmmphle hwwy bwawth."

"I’ll assume that was an apology," Xena said as she carefully released her grip. "Just don’t waste it--wishes are hard to come by."

"Xena?" Gabrielle asked softly when a minute had passed.


"This isn’t cheating, but do you know what I’d wish for if I had another star?"

"No." The sheets rustled again as Xena gave up trying to sleep and turned on her side, watching Gabrielle.

"That every day could be as nice as this one. I...I don’t mean that we always have to stay at an inn or that you have to take me shopping..."

Xena’s soft snort of agreement only made the bard giggle again.

"I just mean how happy I’ve been. I’m leading this incredible life the gods must have picked out just for me. I get to travel, see new people, new countries. I’m already practicing my craft years before most bards get a chance. And I’ve got the best friend that I could ever..." Her impassioned words softened and trailed off.

"Do you mean that?" Xena’s voice was strangely unsteady and that unnerved Gabrielle.

"Of course I mean it," she exclaimed.

"I’m very serious, Gabrielle." Xena slowly sat up, propping her back against the headboard. The bard lay still, content to let her head rest in Xena’s lap. "Have you ever thought about what else you might want in your life? You’re still so young, too young to be making decisions that..."

"I’m old enough to be queen of the Amazons. I’m old enough to risk my life every day with you, old enough to have been married and..."

"That’s what I mean," Xena cut in. "Marriage. Children." Gabrielle said nothing and after a moment she felt Xena begin hesitantly to stroke her hair, soothing away the momentary tension. "What happened to Perdicus was horrible and I’d give anything if I could change it."

"I know," Gabrielle whispered. "And it’s not that what I feel now changes what I felt for him or what I wanted to have together with him. I just don’t think that’s what I want anymore. Just not now."

"You might meet someone else. If you went back to the Academy someday--not tomorrow" oh gods, not tomorrow, please, or the next day or the... "but eventually--you might..."

"Maybe." Gabrielle’s voice was quiet and not terribly convincing. " you think he went to Elysia?"

"Yes," the warrior said more steadily. "Gabrielle if you have ever believed anything I’ve ever told you, believe this--Perdicus is in the Fields now, as happy as any mortal can be."

Gabrielle nodded silently, closing her eyes as Xena continued to stroke her hair, tucking loose strands behind her ear.

"Xena, have you ever noticed that all the men we meet either turn out to be married, real jerks, or marked for death?"

Xena smothered a laugh. "Seems to happen that way a lot, doesn’t it?"

"Do you get the feeling that someone’s doing that to us on purpose?"

"I wouldn’t put it past the gods," Xena drawled. "But we manage to limp by."

Gabrielle raised her head, staring up to find the woman’s shadowed face. "Yes, we do," she said with an irrepressible smile. "It’s funny though, how wonderful things can come out of such tragedy. Without Draco..."

Xena laughed again. "He’s still kicking himself from here to the Hellespont. There’s an old Amphipolitan saying: The sweetest dreams start as nightmares. Good night, Gabrielle," she said tenderly, nudging the bard toward her pillow.

Happily, Gabrielle burrowed beneath the covers, feeling the refreshing cool air drift through the chinks around the window. She felt Xena settle close beside, sliding one arm around her. Gabrielle nestled a bit closer until she fit completely within the protective curve of Xena’s body, and began drifting toward sleep, murmuring all the while.

"What’s that?" Xena asked sleepily.

"Said that was love," Gabrielle mumbled. "With Per’cus. Just wanted you to know."

"Instead of?"


Xena sharply recalled her words from earlier that evening. "I’m glad," she whispered in the girl’s ear. "But we can talk about it in the morning."

"Who did y’love...most?" Gabrielle murmured. "If...hadta pick."

"I don’t know," Xena confessed. "I cared about some, yes. Loved Marcus, but I don’t really think I was in love with him.."

The bard smiled enchantingly, her eyelids drooping closed again. "Never would’ve thought...I’d be more...’sperienced at something than you." Then, exhausted by the day’s excitement, she fell into a deep, blissful sleep.

As tired as she was, long moments passed before Xena could bring herself to stop gazing at her friend. The girl slept so contentedly, with such utter trust, that it frightened her as much as it overwhelmed her heart.

The day had been wonderful, just as she’d hoped, but beneath it lay the thin edge of nervous fear. Everything was going just as she’d planned, and that was exactly what terrified her. Xena twisted uncomfortably, recalling how she had first heard of Thessaloniki. Not in Athens, no, but long before.


"Xena, could I see you for a minute?"

She turned away from Joxer and Gabrielle to see Perdicus striding toward them having finished negotiations with the village priest. He quickly kissed Gabrielle, assuring her that everything was set, and motioned Xena aside.

"Look, I just wanted to thank you for everything. I know that you and Gabrielle have been travelling together for a..."

"Perdicus, relax." Xena tried to seem understanding and put the young man at ease. He seemed so happy, quite a change from the bitter, remorseful soldier of yesterday’s battle. She had to admit that he was a very handsome, capable young man and that any girl in the village would be more than happy to trade places with Gabrielle at that moment. Why, she’d be very happy to help arrange the swap.

"This is what Gabrielle wants," she reassured Perdicus mechanically, "and I want nothing more than for my best friend to be happy."

Not true, Xena mumbled rebelliously to herself. Nobody was that unselfish. She just wanted everything to keep on the way it had been. She’d never stopped to think that might not be what Gabrielle wanted.

She glanced over at the girl and found her held at bay by Joxer who was auditioning three new verses from his latest anthem to himself.

"What I really wanted was to ask your advice," Perdicus said more forthrightly. "You’re a woman..."

"Thanks for noticing. "

"...and you know Gabrielle better than..."

Xena blanched. " You know, Perdicus, these things tend to work themselves out on their own, especially if two people really love each other, and I mean, really, really love each..."

He looked puzzled, then continued. "I was thinking about just travelling around for a while after we get married and heading toward Thessaloniki."

Xena nodded slowly, not quite following. "All right, but I was under the impression from Gabrielle that you were going back to Poteidaia."

"Yeah, I kinda let her think that," he grinned. "See, there’s this festival they’re starting up there--I heard about it when we were coming back from Troy. All kinds of writers and performers are going to be there and I was thinking she might like to go." His smile was suddenly questioning and almost insecure at the edges.

"I’m sure Gabrielle would love that," Xena said firmly. "And then...back to Poteidaia? Find some land somewhere?"

"Maybe. Maybe not," he shrugged. "I was thinking that if this worked out, we might keep travelling. Gabrielle can always get work as a bard and I picked up a good bit of blacksmithing from the camp armorer. Look at her, Xena," he murmured, glancing toward his bride. "I’m not sure about taking her back to Poteidaia. Have you met her family?"

Xena nodded grimly, then grinned along with Perdicus having found at least one thing they shared beyond Gabrielle.

Perdicus hesitantly took her by one shoulder, pulling her closer to turn away from Gabrielle’s glances which were becoming increasingly frequent and desperate.

"That’s why I want to take her to the festival. She told me about auditioning for the Academy, and we both know she’s good--too good to be stuck in taverns for the rest of her life. Maybe she could meet some people there, people who would really listen to her."

Xena realized with a painful wrench just how much Perdicus loved Gabrielle, and even more painfully, how much better he could support the bard than she could. She couldn’t just drop out of a campaign to let her right hand bard take two weeks off for a performance tour. The girl deserved better...and here he was.

"That’s exactly what Gabrielle needs," Xena said with a sincerity that hid her heavy heart. "Not many men would..."

"She sorta brings out the best in people," Perdicus chuckled. "I guess that’s why I want the best for her. I don’t know...well, do you think dreams ever come true?"

"For innocents like Gabrielle?" Xena considered it. "Absolutely." She stepped back, turning to rejoin her friend for their last few moments, trying desperately not to think of it as such.

"Xena--if anything ever happens to me, I want you to..."

"Perdicus!" she exclaimed, whirling back on him with a clenched smile. "Don’t say things like that, not today."

"Listen," he insisted earnestly, careful not to look at Gabrielle. "Please. I need you to promise that if anything happens to me, you’ll come back for her."

"Don’t," she repeated, desperation growing.

Gentle brown eyes, never meant to look on bloodshed, held hers. "Promise me. Promise you’ll take care of her and make sure that she doesn’t stop performing. If she does, I swear I think something inside of her will die and, well, if her family..."

"All right," Xena agreed quickly. "I swear. Forever if it comes to that."

Perdicus clasped her arm once more, stepping back. "And, ummm, let’s not say anything about Thessaloniki, all right? Just in case it doesn’t work out, I don’t want to disappoint her." With that, he walked back to Gabrielle, hand outstretched.

"How could you?" Xena thought. "How could you ever disappoint her with a love like that?"

Xena gazed down at the bard, still fast asleep. The moon was low now, bleaching Gabrielle’s skin to a pale, shimmering white. She stirred slightly, pulling her arms in close, then sighed peacefully.

"I know it’s a few years too late," Xena murmured. "But I’m keeping the promise. He thought you would find your future here, I just...I just didn’t think it would work out quite like this. I’m sorry it took so long. I was scared, Gabrielle, scared you would leave me if we came here and you...saw how other bards could..."

Xena took a deep breath, pressing her lips to a fine line. "But we’re here now," she continued, more steadily. "I...I wished for you," she confessed. "I wished that you would be as successful as you deserve, that you wouldn’t let me hold you back. Even if it means you leaving. I wished that I could have the strength to let you go. And I’m...I’m still so scared you will because I don’t think I could..."

Xena turned her eyes out the window, blinking rapidly to hold back what she simply refused to admit might be tears. "But if you stay," she whispered fiercely, "I swear you won’t regret it. We’ll find a way, I swear it."

It was some time before she could sleep and then it was deeply and without dreams.


Sunlight, Gabrielle decided, was entirely too bright. She didn’t have anything against the substance in principle. In fact, Xena had on more than one occasion accused her of ingesting the stuff wholesale in order to fuel her irritating good cheer.

But not now, no sir.


"Uhhhhh..." The girl refused to lift her head from the bartop and waved frantically with one hand to get the voice to go away.

"Gabrielle, c’mon." Lyta gingerly tried to get her young friend to sit up and at least have a glass of water, but she steadfastly refused. "How did you make it down the stairs feeling this bad?"

"Znh sd shhhklll m’f dnnn mmm."

Lyta shook her head and tried again. Provoked to the point of recklessness, Gabrielle sat up straight and bellowed, "Xena said she’d kill me if I didn’t move!" Then she collapsed back onto the bar, holding her hands to her head.

"And if that doesn’t motivate you, what will?" Lyta murmured. "Here, just drink this." She set a small glass filled with a suspicious looking burgundy liquid down by the girl’s elbow.

"Why should I trust you?" Gabrielle groused. "Taking a drink from you is what got me here to begin with."

Lyta decided that pointing out it was really all the other drinks Gabrielle had taken after that first one probably had more to do with it would be counterproductive.

"It’ll make the room stop spinning, your eyes will clear up, and then...," she began. The bard’s glass was empty before Lyta could finish her list.

"Can I have another?"

Lyta pursed her lips, considering it, when a large tanned hand descended over the glass. The inn keeper turned her sad brown eyes up to meet Xena’s and tried to maintain her composure, but wilted quickly. Even standing barefoot in the dark peasant dress she’d adopted in light of Jaran’s feelings about weaponry, Xena managed to look unbelievably lethal.

"It’s a remedy," Gabrielle squeaked, then realized the last thing she wanted to do was attract Xena’s attention at the moment.

The warrior sniffed the glass suspiciously and a look of mild consternation flitted across her features. " any more of that?" Without a word, Lyta refilled the glass and watched as Xena tossed it back, smacking her lips with satisfaction.

"I’ve got breakfast in the back," Lyta offered not so casually. Xena kept a careful eye on Gabrielle’s reaction to the news and was pleased to note her interest in light of the hangover. Of course, it would take a full-on attack by a herd of charging centaurs to dissuade the bard from any free meal. "Xena?"

"Yeah, a plate of whatever you’ve got." And putting one hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder, she steered them toward a corner table. Gabrielle pretended not to notice that it was the one furthest away from the bright light coming in through the windows or the noisy swinging door. Really, Xena could be almost tender-hearted when she didn’t think anyone was looking.

"Are you feeling all right now?"

Gabrielle nodded brightly, keeping her eyes on lookout for the approaching food. Never let the quarry out of your sight. "Yes, much better. Whew." Her eyes drifted then, unfocused as a hazy grin crossed her face. "But wasn’t it wonderful?"

Xena raised one eyebrow--she’d never heard anyone describe violent retching as ‘wonderful.’ "Ummm, really?"

"A whole day of plays and songs and writers. What could be better than that?"

Well, Xena had her own list that began with swords, crossbows, and ritual decapitation, but she decided not to contribute. "So, what’s for the day?"

As soon as she asked, Xena knew she’d made a mistake. The bard whipped out a piece of parchment stuck in the waistband of her skirt and slapped it flat on the table. On it was diagrammed a rough map of the festival area with different stages marked. A list of titles and performers ran around the edges.

"OK, here’s the plan," Gabrielle announced.

Mercifully, Lyta arrived with the food after only two minutes of the girl’s monologue which sounded more like a military briefing for an impending attack to Xena. Even more frighteningly, Gabrielle only gave a scarce glance to the food, seizing a small bite, then continuing on with her outline. Xena began to feel more than a little trapped.

"...and oh, I’ve simply got to go and see some of the short pieces they’re putting on this afternoon in the side pavilion. I overheard someone say that..."

Xena kept nodding as her spirits sank deeper and deeper into the floorboards. She noticed that "spend time with best friend" wasn’t on the list. She couldn’t have been much of a priority to begin with since she’d been re-arranged right off the page so quickly. Gods, it was bad enough that she’d had to come here dreading the possibility that Gabrielle would fall in with the other bards, but to listen to it unfolding, to watch every ugly moment as they stole...

No, damnit, Xena told herself firmly. She didn’t own Gabrielle, so no one was doing any "stealing." If the bard felt more comfortable with others of her kind... Xena shook her head again. As if Gabrielle were some strange species of antelope. This little argument with herself really wasn’t going the way she’d expected.

"Xena, you aren’t listening to me, are you?"

Tired, confused, and basically cranky, Xena snapped: "No, I’m not."

Unperturbed by what she had come to call "WPAFH" (Warrior Princess Attitude from Hades), Gabrielle continued without a hitch. "Didn’t think so. I was saying that I met a friend of Orion’s yesterday, here on break from the Academy. He and Orion are working on a new epic together, all about the Trojan War. His name is Deklos and I thought maybe he could talk to you, since you knew Helen."

"Deklos, huh? What’d he look like?" Xena asked with grudging interest. She had run out of things to occupy herself with which included stealing small portions of Gabrielle’s bread when she wasn’t looking.

"About this tall," the girl said promptly, gesturing in the air. "Curly dark hair, and..."

"Nope, don’t remember him."

"Well, he’s coming by later this morning with some of the other students and I was thinking..."

Xena stared down at the tabletop and restlessly shifted her feet. Gods, her back ached--must’ve been the bed. Worse yet, her chest felt tight and her heart kept lurching at the slightest sound. She hadn’t been in a mood like this since she’d decked a man who’d accidentally sneezed on her horse. And worst of all, she really didn’t feel like fighting it.

"Not today," Xena said gruffly. "I’ve got to check Argo’s gear and help Jaran mend the back paddock fence."

Gabrielle blinked rapidly then quietly folded the parchment, sliding her plate over to cover it. "Are, ummm, are the eggs any good?"

Xena shrugged, but nudged a small dish of salt toward her in unobtrusive suggestion. Gabrielle began to reach for it, then diverted toward her drinking cup as Lyta approached.

"How’s everything?"

"Wonderful, thank you," Gabrielle said with renewed cheer. She wasn’t lying--she hadn’t even tried the eggs yet. She patted the bench and slid over to make room for the woman. "Are you going to get to come to see any of the events?"

"Probably not," Lyta conceded, "Jaran told me all about the plan for tonight, so we’re expecting a big crowd and I need to get the place ready. I’m really looking forward to it. That is, if you’re still interested."

Nodding eagerly, Gabrielle suddenly blushed and began mumbling that any crowd wouldn’t be on her account. "I just wish my stories were half as good as the ones from the competition. Oh, last night--Xena, you remember--we saw the most beautiful, tragic drama and I started crying..."

"You cried during all of them," Xena muttered, still stuffing herself with food as fast as she could.

"Well, yes, but this was the beautiful, tragic drama I cried during, not the wonderfully romantic..."

"Yeah, we get the point."

"Did you sleep all right?" Gabrielle asked directly.

Xena hunched her shoulders and kept eating. "Not really, since someone saw fit to recite every single damn Poteidaian nursery rhyme twice, backwards and forwards."

"I do not talk in my sleep," the girl hissed. "Stop saying that!"

"And you snore, too."

Lyta whirled back to Gabrielle and valiantly changed the subject. "What stories do you think you’ll tell tonight?"

"Well, Xena doesn’t like any of the ones about her," the bard said with a glare, "so that cuts out most of my repertoire, but I’ll manage. It’s been so inspiring to hear works that make me think, ‘Now that’s why I want to be a bard. If I could make people feel like that, just once’."

"Gabrielle!" Jaran stuck his shoulders through the entrance way and motioned. "There’s a pack of young men out here, asking for you." He slid a sly grin at Xena. "Some things about traveling with you never change, do they?"

If he hadn’t saved my life, Xena grated to herself.

With characteristic enthusiasm, the girl pushed away from the table and scurried outside. Xena felt a remorseful little twinge begin creeping up her throat and nearly didn’t catch it in time. It was simply childish to resent how easily Gabrielle made friends when it took her...well, it had taken an incredibly stubborn bard stalking her through the wilderness before she’d let anyone get close to her. Hmmmm, think there’s a connection, Xena?

A few minutes later, Gabrielle returned alone, but with a broad smile.

"That wouldn’t have been Deklos, would it?" Lyta asked with interest.

"Yes, he’s going to the plays with the group from the Academy and asked I would come along, too. Would you mind that, Xena? I told him you didn’t want to talk about the war, so he won’t bother you. He told me where we could meet him later and..."

"Go on with him if you want to," Xena said carelessly. "I wasn’t going to go today anyway."

Gabrielle made quick work of her cooling food, oblivious to Xena’s foul temper. "He’s just the nicest person I’ve met in ages. Yesterday, without even knowing that we both knew Orion, he asked me if I was a bard." Gabrielle looked to Xena as if this would somehow prove the man’s trustworthiness. "And I said I was," she supplied when Xena did not ask the appropriate leading question nor showed any sign of doing so.

"Really?" Lyta said as it became apparent she was going to have to support the missing end of the conversation.

The girl nodded with excitement. "So he asked me if I was participating in the festival, can you believe it? As if I could ever write anything that good."

"You know you’re good," Xena said abruptly. She was playing with the silverware now and Lyta very slowly edged back from the table a few more inches. "You don’t need anyone to tell you that."

"But it’s still nice to hear," the girl said softly. Her green eyes had filled with an uncertain confusion that tore at Xena as much as it provoked her with a perverse desire to drive Gabrielle away from her even further. After all, if she could make herself want the bard to leave then it wouldn’t hurt quite as much as being deliberately abandoned, would it?

Wrong, Xena sighed. It all hurt like Hades.

"I was thinking he could introduce me to some of his teachers--there are a lot of people from the Academy here right now."

That’s a great idea, Xena’s mind said. He’s a friend of friends and he actually wants to hear your stories, unlike this old warlord. He sounds like a great guy who actually thinks of you as a person and not just a girl in a very short skirt.

"I don’t know," her lips said. "Maybe he just likes you."

Gabrielle’s face went pale, then flushed. Not anger really, but frustrated confusion. "W...why would you say that?"

"C’mon, Gabrielle, don’t be blind." Xena slapped the spoon down on the table and adopted a patronizing air. "Look around this place--nearly all men. Men are the bards, men are the playwrights. You might be the first girl he’s ever met who knows one end of the quill from another. You’re pretty enough and I’m sure that..." She made a vague motioning gesture in the air as it to indicate, ‘well, you take it from there.’

"I don’t understand," Gabrielle whispered. "Why are you saying these things?"

Lyta looked very much as if she wished she weren’t in the room at all, but couldn’t risk withdrawing at this point. Gabrielle might burst into tears at any moment and she didn’t particularly trust Xena with her good dishware.

"You have to be smart, Gabrielle." Xena’s voice turned to the remote, instructive tone she assumed with incompetent warriors and stubborn horses. "People try to take advantage of you because you’re so soft-hearted and you’ll believe the best about them. You don’t need anyone to pat you on the head for telling a story."

Gabrielle’s lips were pressed very tightly together and everything about her was quite still.

"You know," the warrior continued, leaning back in her chair, "what bards really need is a lesson in hard reality. They all live in this perfect, happy little world."

"Really?" The bard’s voice was strained, but she managed to keep it steady. "And just what would you suggest?"

"The truth," Xena shrugged. "A nice big dose of it."

"Thank you ever so much for your advice." Gabrielle stood, pushing back her chair with jerky, imprecise movements. "I’ll be sure to...well, when I..."

For once words failed the bard and she retreated unceremoniously, tripping over the first step up to their room.

Xena really hadn’t thought her heart could sink any lower, but it managed somehow. And just as she had lashed at the bard, she savagely turned on herself.

Stupid idiot! Just because you’re miserable doesn’t give you the right to make her that way, too. She’s just a child, she doesn’t understand what’s happening. She doesn’t even know she’s going to leave.

And what could she say to apologize?

I’m sorry I was a perfect wretch to you this morning, but I’m scared witless that by the end of the festival I won’t have a best friend anymore and the only thing worse than a cranky ex-warlord is a cranky ex-warlord without a best friend.

You keep me sane, you stopped the nightmares, and I laughed twice yesterday. Twice! I can’t live without that. It. You.

Oh, did I mention that your dead husband--the one you still cry over and talk to in your sleep two nights a week--wanted to bring you here? I guess I’m first runner-up in that category, too.

Nope, probably wouldn’t go over too well.

Xena snuck a look up through her bangs and saw that Lyta was still watching her, a stricken expression on her open, friendly face.

"Why?" she asked softly.

With a growing embarrassment, Xena realized there was absolutely nothing she could say and stalked off to the stable without another word.


"Great," Gabrielle muttered furiously to herself as she paced around her room. "You’re a bard, you’re supposed to be good with words and you can’t even come up with a decent parting shot?"

A soft knock at the door brought Gabrielle snarling across the room, only to find Lyta standing nervously in the doorway.

"Just checking to see if you need anything," the inn keeper said, shutting the door behind them.

"An instruction book for that warrior!" Gabrielle said angrily. "And...and...oh!" She broke down cursing again and flopped back onto the bed. "And a vocabulary," she managed at last, weakly chuckling at herself. "Honestly, Lyta, has she always been this moody?"

"Worse, usually," the older woman said sympathetically. "I’d say you’ve had a calming effect on her."

"Calming? Well, good for her, but it’s giving me an ulcer. The minute I know what she wants, it changes. And as soon as I figure that out, it changes back again."

Lyta sat next to the bard and patted her hand comfortingly. "I think there’s something else bothering her, but you just have to let it pass. Now, would you like me to go with you to meet these new friends?"

Gabrielle shot upright off the bed, eyes bright once more. "Really, would you? I’m terrible with directions and I was counting on Xena to help me find the place. I lied to Xena when we first met and told her I was good with maps, but I’m so bad I got lost in a closet once. Would you?"

"Absolutely. Now how will we recognize him?"

At that Gabrielle began to laugh. "It’s funny you should ask."

And when she had finished, Lyta was chuckling as well, shaking her head. "Oh my, won’t Xena find that interesting."

"Perhaps," Gabrielle sighed, sobering. "Where is she?"

"Off in the stable, I think."

"Figures. Don’t talk to the best friend, go talk to your horse." The girl threw up her hands and stood. "Never mind, I’m used to it."

"We can leave right after lunch. Will you be all right until then?" Lyta asked, one hand on the latch.

Gabrielle was looking down at her bag, eyeing it speculatively. "Yes," she said faintly with a distracted glance. "I was going to work on a few things here."


Jaran paused at the entrance to the barn, squaring his shoulders and trying to remember why in Hades he had agreed to this proposition. Oh, it was fine enough for Lyta to go and talk to Gabrielle, but talking sense into Xena was an entirely different sort of suicide.

Stepping into the warm darkness, he heard the idle stamp of hooves along the stalls as he ambled forward, whistling as he went. The quiet sounds of grooming came from Argo’s stall and he angled to approach in full view--no sense in risking his neck any more than was necessary.

"Don’t just stand there, Jaran," Xena sighed when she heard him, "gimme a hand." And just like that he was holding Argo’s halter as Xena inspected each hoof, cleaning out twigs and dirt, and checking the shoe. "So," she straightened, dusting her hands. "What did Lyta say to put you up to this?"

Jaran considered lying and knew with one glance at those cold blue eyes that he’d be better off throwing himself in front of an enraged dragon. And that, he glumly realized, wasn’t looking like such a bad option.

"She was just wondering what your plans were for the day, if she should save lunch for you." That was, at least in part, the truth which could buy him time.

Xena snorted and began hauling her tack down the corridor and toward a small work room set back alongside the stalls. "She’s wondering why I nearly took off Gabrielle’s head and put it on the spit."

"All right, that too."

"Yeah, well, I don’t have an answer." Xena dug out her leather cleaning supplies from the bag and began industriously polishing Argo’s bridle. "Y’know, sometimes I really am that mean, horrible, unreformed person."

"And sometimes you’re just scared." Oh gods, had he really said that? Jaran’s throat closed up tighter than a cashbox at a convention of thieves.

"Of what?" Xena muttered. "Of a little bard who won’t even lift a sword?"

Well, in for a dinar... "Why’d you come back here after all these years?"

Xena’s hands came to a slow halt, but her gaze remained fixed down on the bridle resting on her lap. Jaran quickly sank down onto a feed sack that allowed him to look up into her face.

"I made a promise," she said at last. "And despite all my other nasty flaws, I usually keep those. Especially...especially when it’s a last wish."

"You promised someone to bring Gabrielle, here?"

Xena took another deep breath, fingers twisting in the bridle straps. "I promised I would take care of her and that means...oh Hades, Jaran! I can’t just keep using her like a slave, dragging her all over the country without a roof over her head. Just last month we got caught in a downpour and she lost two whole scrolls. She tried not to let me know how upset she was, but..."

Xena broke away and stood abruptly, rummaging through her tack but never emerging with anything. "And now I’m trying to ruin it all. With one hand I’m doing what I know I should and with the other I’m just sabatoging it. Last night, I was fine, and this morning I can’t even look at her." Abruptly, she flung the bridle away from herself and slouched back against the wall, arms crossed. "How come doing the right thing hurts so damn much?"

"I don’t know," he said quietly, "but maybe that’s how you can tell it is right. The wrong thing’s always easier."

"What’s happened to you, Jaran?" Xena asked at last. "You were never this smart when we served together or I’d’ve made you an advisor."

The very thought of being advisor to the Butcher of Cirra made his blood run cold. "Uh, actually, Lyta told me to say all that."

At that, Xena began to laugh--not with great enjoyment, but rueful appreciation. "Did she? Well, you tell her the next time she wants to play mind games with me to come and do it herself."

Jaran took that as an opportunity to leave with his skin intact and scuttled out the nearest door.

Alone at last, Xena stopped fussing with her gear and let the iron control slip off her senses. The smells of clean hay and distant smoke mixed in the air and she closed her eyes, pulling the warmth over her. Exhaling deeply, she stood up and braced herself for the rest of the day.

She tried to tell herself that her eyes were just watering because of the dust and hay, but something else kept pointing out that she was lying.

Xena really hated that little something else sometimes.


The common room was deserted when Xena returned a few hours later and she quickly ascended the stairs, but found their room empty as well. Returning downstairs, Lyta was waiting for her by the kitchen entrance.

"Looking for something?"

Xena set her teeth. "Gabrielle and you damn well know it."

The inn keeper shrugged her shoulders and finished drying the plate before answering. She took a long time with it, making sure there weren’t any spots left at all. Xena devoted the pause to inventing new ways to dispose of inconvenient bodies.

"She’s already left for the performances with Deklos and some of his friends."

Xena had turned halfway to the door, then froze. "I suppose I should’ve expected that," she said with a tight, but admiring grin. "What’s he like?"

"You’ll see. They’ll all be back here tonight when Gabrielle performs."

Xena stomped back up the stairs to their room, slamming the door and kicking at anything in her way.

"Gone already," she muttered angrily. "Well, what did you expect after what you said to her?" The warrior began snorting again, furious with herself.

Get a grip, Xena. She’s a grown woman, not some kid sister that you can order around. She’ll be fine with all her new friend. Bunch of long hair flapping, tattered tunic wearing, bad poetry spouting, snot nosed bardlings. Gabrielle’s twice the performer that...

Whoa, little bitter there?

There was something else though, something gnawing at Xena that left her restless and uneasy. The barn had been peaceful enough, but she found she couldn’t stand the quiet spaces and came back here, hoping to...

Silence. She would be alone again and the silence would grow and creep within her soul, as deadly as the rage and pain had been before. Not bandits, warlords, demons, or her own past, but the silence would kill her in the end. Oh, she talked a fine line about how much she hated Gabrielle’s chatter, but it was that sparkling joy and hope that gave her the strength to resaddle Argo every morning and pull her tired bones into the saddle.

The silence...

Glancing at the sky, Xena calculated that she had about five hours before the crowds would begin returning from the amphitheatre. That left her just enough time to help Jaran finish bringing in the ale barrels, chop a new cord of wood, run out the latest batch of undesirables, and get cleaned up for Gabrielle’s big night.

Like it or not, teeth gritted, stomach knotted, she would be there for her best friend’s finest hour. Even if it were the last hour and even if it killed her.


Lyta observed the proceedings with no small amusement. They were nearly through the dinner rush when Xena had returned from helping Jaran with the chores and proceeded to "thin out" the clientele. Her criteria seemed to be loosely based upon what Xena thought might make an appreciative audience for Gabrielle. Ungroomed, ill-mannered patrons drinking large amounts of cheap ale were the first to go and their seats were taken by a more refined group that stuck to wine. Xena also seemed to show an unusual prejudice against young men wearing red-colored tunics, but Lyta couldn’t quite figure that.

Slowly the composition of the crowd took a general upswing and Lyta began to appreciate the wisdom of the plan. More money was being spent, the people seemed happier, and the servers weren’t being harrassed nearly as much as on an average night.

"Could we hire you for the rest of the week?" Lyta grinned.

Xena rolled her eyes and leaned back against the bar. As miserable as she felt, she simply couldn’t bear to see Gabrielle rejected and if it took cracking a few heads, then so be it. For anyone else though... "There isn’t enough money in this town. But, hey!" She snagged a mug off the tray of a passing server and downed a good half of it. "Ale, on the other hand..."

Jaran re-emerged looking worlds better for a quick rinsing. He accepted a folded slice of bread and cheese from his wife and quickly moved to help out with the orders.

"There’s a fresh bath up there," he called to Xena. "I think we can handle everything here if you want to clean up."

Sighing, Xena drained the last of the mug and went to wash off the layer of stable grime that had accumulated.

"How much has she had already?" Jaran asked softly. His wife held up seven fingers and he whistled.

"She’ll hold a few more than that," Lyta added, "but I’m not sure I want to see what that would be like."

He shook his head solemnly. "No, you definitely don’t, but I’m afraid that’s what it might come to before the end of the night. See if you can switch to some of the lighter brew, love."


Gabrielle flowed into the room surrounded by a half dozen young men, all talking at the top of their lungs with great animation. Eyes sparkling, hands waving, she was quite obviously at the center of their attention. Together they headed for an open space, intent on saving seats. Quickly though, she disengaged herself from the conversation, casting about the room for Xena’s tall, dark-haired form. The area was packed from wall to wall with relatively clean-cut, intelligent looking customers, which--while pleasantly surprising--made it nearly impossible to complete a search.

"Jaran!" she called. "Where’s Xena?"

The inn keeper cupped a hand to one ear.

Gabrielle responded by mimicking a large, lumbering person with a scowl and swinging an imaginary sword about. Comprehension broke across Jaran’s face and he grinned crookedly, pointing to a back corner.

"Hello," Gabrielle said quietly as she dropped onto the bench next to Xena.

Xena rolled one pale blue eye toward the bard. "You’re back," she noted with the same careful intonation Gabrielle had heard in herself the previous night as she had staggered back from the amphitheatre. " were the plays?" Xena asked. "Anyone sleep with his mother?"


"Someone else’s mother?"

Gabrielle shook her head. "Mostly killed their kids to tick off the gods. Or appease them. It tends to vary from work to work."

"Are your little friends here?"

"Yes," the bard replied patiently and pointed. Xena squinted after her and picked out the cluster at the front.

"What’s with that one there?"


"The one who just tripped over a chair."

"Oh, Deklos? He’s blind. You remember Deklos--the one who only said I should be in the festival because I’m pretty?"

Xena slowly swiveled her head back to Gabrielle, not able to even begin approximating the apology she so clearly owed. Quickly, as if embarrassed by her uncharacteristic harshness, the bard changed the subject. "Look, I really just wanted to..." She trailed off. "What?"

"You have," Xena said with utter gravity, "the most amazing ears."

"Thank you. I think. Okaaaay," Gabrielle began again. "It’s going to start in a minute, so...I just wanted to say that I appreciate this."

Xena blinked innocently at her. "The inn? Thank you, I built it myself."

Gabrielle’s grin tightened, but she just couldn’t help it. The warrior princess drunk--where was a town crier when she really needed one? Keeping both eyes wide open and fixed on Xena, she said: "Nice mug--can I see?" And before Xena could stop her, Gabrielle had a death-grip on the handle. No more refills if she had her way about it, no sir. "No, I meant, thanks for helping Jaran to do this for me and for, well, ‘enforcing’. It means a lot."

"Oh sure, it was noth...hey." Xena sat up straight. Unfortunately, her entire world view was a little skewed at the moment, so straight was more of a relative concept. "How’d you know that?"

"I didn’t. Not until now." Quickly, Gabrielle leaned across the table and kissed the warrior’s forehead. "I love you," but it was more a question. Xena nodded through the haze, clinging at least to that one fact. Then she was gone, Xena’s mug still clutched firmly in one hand.

"Hey," Xena called weakly. "That’s...that’s cheating. Lyta, did you see that?" she said plaintively, tapping the inn keeper’s arm. "She cheated. And then she took my mug. Can I...?"

"I’m sorry," Lyta said with a sympathetic look. "We just ran out. You’ll have to wait until someone else is done with theirs."

"Oh," Xena said meekly, then sat back with her hands folded neatly on the table. Out of the corner of one eye she spotted a weedy looking young man who wasn’t keeping a very good eye on his mug and marked him as a potential victim.

Xena homed in again on the group following Gabrielle who had managed to squash themselves into prime viewing position, waving at her all the while. Xena peered suspiciously at them for a long moment, then felt a bit silly and sat back and prepared to sink into an even worse mood.

Jaran fought his way through the crowd and hopped onto the planks forming the stage, clearing his throat repeatedly. Despite his best efforts, the cowlick was proudly in place and Xena considered using her chakram to take care of it. Considering the close quarters and bad angles, she finally decided against it.

When it became apparent that the mild-mannered ex-soldier had little hope of quieting the room, Gabrielle’s groupies (as Xena was now calling them) turned around and began making loud shushing noises. That was effective for the most part except for one exceptionally disrespectful individual who simply would not give up his recounting of a very long and socially inappropriate anecdote.

A fist-sized object flew through the air and squarely smacked the back of his head, pitching him over onto the table, out cold. The weedy young man in the corner suddenly realized his mug was missing. Xena: Resourceful Individual, quietly twiddled her thumbs and hummed a happy little tune.

"Th...thank you," Jaran managed at last, working the pale look off his face. "Well, we certainly hope that everyone is enjoying this year’s festival." A rousing cheer answered him. "Thessaloniki is certainly proud to be hosting the finest plays in all of Greece. And since it’s still early," he said with a slight shrug which brought a laugh, "we figured we’d give some of the other bards a chance to be heard." More clapping erupted, particularly from the cluster down front. Xena decided to let them keep their lives since they were supporting Gabrielle, at least for the moment.

Jaran was motioning for Gabrielle, pulling her to the center of the platform as the crowd began calling for a story. It didn’t seem to matter to them just who was on the stage as long as there was more entertainment for their dinars. A little girl with some pretty stories would provide a pleasant backdrop for their conversation and wine sipping, so get on with it so they could get back to it.

That was the last instant that evening that anyone took their eyes off Gabrielle.

Xena completely forgot that she was supposed to be scouting for another mug and simply sank back against the wall, mesmerized. It wasn’t as if she’d never heard the girl before, but somehow it had always seemed so childish then. She realized uncomfortably that she usually caught just scraps of a story, rough bits in the process of being polished away. Come to think of it Xena realized with a sinking stomach, she wasn’t sure she’d ever really listened to the bard perform at all.

The first selection was a sweet comedy without much form, but it showed the range of her voice nicely. Gabrielle’s flashing smile and bright eyes brought the tale to life in charming fashion that kept the crowd’s attention as it might have been tempted to wander. Then, as if sensing the overwhelming presence of Academy associates in the room, she began the story of her attempt to enter the Academy, the doubts and struggles each candidate faced, and ultimately her own decision to leave.

But, Xena noticed, Gabrielle didn’t say exactly why she had left, just that there were other obligations more important to her. She suddenly felt a sniffle coming on. Probably leftovers from that darned dust and hay attack she’d had earlier. Get a grip. It’s not like you’ll never see her again. It’s not like you didn’t give her up once before. It’s not...

Xena felt her muscles go limp and she nearly sagged forward, catching herself on the table edge. She thought she’d heard Gabrielle say:


"This is the story of a young girl who lost her family. They were killed in battle, torn from her before she was old enough know the difference between good and evil, and the evil consumed her. This is the story of another young woman who also lost her family to the sword. She knew the light, but chose darkness because it was easier; it offered her power and she was seduced.

"One was created by hate and chose not to change. The other chose to hate and was recreated by love."

Gabrielle’s eyes had found Xena and with quiet sadness, she said:

"This tale is true. None of it was changed because no one was innocent."


Xena never knew how long she sat there, huddled in her corner. Gabrielle might have spoken for hours, but the telling was sped by her remembrance of the events. Her feelings numbed as the horror grew--every tragic desperate act recounted with perfect truth and clarity. Gabrielle made no apologies and spared no one, not even herself when it came to the death of her young husband. Any assumptions that might have been held when the tale began were completely inverted and none could now say who the villains were.

But somewhere in the midst of the patchwork, a thread of hope emerged that spun quickly around the grief and, impossibly, forgiveness emerged against the backdrop of such cruel fate. A love that could not be swallowed by fire or death, of one friend for another, shone stronger than vengeful hate, and blood consecrated its purity--a terrible price for a matchless gift.

And when the girl had finished, she dropped her hands and seemed now quite small where she had filled the stage before. In a faltering voice, she murmured her thanks and began to edge back.

The room was silent and it was the loudest silence that had ever come to torment Xena--the awful deafness of all the years that would stretch out before her without Gabrielle and her mind nearly buckled under the pain.

Then the most merciful, beautiful sound in the entire universe filled her ears. One man, graying in years, pushed back his chair, scraping loudly across the floor. As all heads turned to him, he slowly brought his two weathered hands together. With solemn, gathering strength he clapped as one and then another joined him until the house was filled with a raucous din that reached up into Xena’s bones, through her boots, and jarred her heart back to beating. She found that she could not move despite the erupting commotion around her, but simply sat, transfixed, unable to tear her eyes away from the frozen bard.

Jaran sensed Gabrielle’s distressed confusion and quickly worked his way onto the stage, putting one arm around her and gently herding her forward again to accept the crowd’s approval. Something in the movement seemed to revive her and she quickly began to scan the crowd, searching for Xena’s face once more.

"Gabrielle! Gabrielle--c’mere!" One of the students was motioning for her to step down into the crowd. Before she could decide, the tallest of them had taken her gently by the waist, lifting her to the floor. Deklos was congratulating her, holding on to her arm for balance and she simply couldn’t break away. Jaran had no choice but to let her go, whirling back to find Xena still immobile in her seat. Their eyes met briefly and she saw a flicker of new respect and fear moving within her old friend.

Gabrielle was nearly overwhelmed in the crowd, smiling politely, but desperately trying to reorient herself and find Xena. A small space carved itself out for her and she breathed more easily, beginning to enjoy the encouraging smiles and claps on the shoulder. But where was Xena? A sudden hush surrounded her, forcing her attention away from the task. Following the direction of all eyes, she stopped, her heart still racing from the performance.

"May I speak with you?" the gray-haired man said quietly. Gabrielle nodded, her hands knotted behind her back.

"Y...yes, but I’m sorry, I have to..."

"Why are you apologizing?" His voice was not so much gentle as it was clear. His eyes regarded her appraisingly yet without judgment.

"Habit," Gabrielle confessed nervously. "I...well, people tell me I apologize too much. I’m sorry." Her glance had begun to wander again, searching the surrounding faces and beyond. She simply had to find Xena.

"It simply seems strange that you would apologize for something so good."

"Good?" the bard echoed, whirling back on him. "That?"

The man nodded with a slight smile. "Yes, that. And I’m pleased to meet you." He extended his hand which she shook rather belatedly. "Sophocles."

Gabrielle idly thought she should probably stop shaking his hand sometime soon, but it was so much simpler to just stand there than it would be to stop and then have to think of something coherent to say.

"You’re Gabrielle, yes?" he prompted. She nodded and kept shaking his hand. Very gently, one of her friends prised her fingers away, releasing the playwright. "Deklos said I’d be pleasantly surprised if I came. Scamp," he said fondly to the boy, who began protesting.

"Uncle, you promised not to..."

"Deklos," Gabrielle stammered, "you never told me..."

"Would you have let me invite him? Orion warned me about you," Deklos grinned. "And wait til he hears that something actually left you speechless."

"I liked your delivery and particularly that last story," Sophocles said more directly now that Gabrielle seemed to have emerged from her stupor. "Is that a regional piece?"

"No," she said very softly. "I...I wrote it." He gave a slight nod as if checking something off a list.

"It’s really quite good, especially for someone so young. You didn’t spare the characters and I like that. It takes a lot of courage to put them under so much scrutiny. Characters become alive sometimes and it can be hard for a bard to hurt someone they’ve grown to love."

"Yes," she whispered. "It can." Oh Xena...

"It’s fairly well polished, though you might find you want to work on it a little further, smooth the section around the wedding."

But I can’t think about that, not now, it hurts too much! Gabrielle’s mind screamed. I’m not an artist and I’m no playwright--just a girl from Poteidaia who got in the way and managed to hurt everyone I love.

"Where’d you study the craft?" Sophocles was asking politely.

"Wh..." Gabrielle looked up and realized that in the sizeable part of the crowd still around her, there was no sign of Xena. She turned and tried to edge toward the bar, but no one budged for her. Sophocles was still patiently waiting, a half-expectant look on his face.

"I travel a lot and just write about what I see. I...I don’t know much about proper forms, but I try to look at other bards and sort what feels natural." Gabrielle smiled weakly and realized that she had as good as admitted that she didn’t have a clue.

"And what better school than life?" the playwright smiled in return. "Still, I don’t suppose you’d be interested in coming to Athens to study at the Academy? Assuming that we can get that little enrollment mixup straightened out. Or was that made-up as well?"

"No," Gabrielle said, clearing her throat. "That was true." It’s all true, didn’t you hear me?

As Xena stood at the back of the crowd, she felt her knees begin to give way. Catching hold of the shoulder of a man to the left of her, she managed to retain her balance, but it wouldn’t last long.

"At the Academy?" Gabrielle said. "Well, yes, of course it’s an honor, but I’ve seen how the training goes and I’m just not sure that’s what... Oh, you meant specifically to study with you?"

A gilt-edged invitation from Sophocles himself. Even a stupid, half-illiterate warlord knew that name, knew what power it wielded. She was no competition for someone like that. The quill, it seemed, truly was mightier.

Blindly, Xena began to fight her way toward the door, only half-listening to the bard’s light voice, still talking. An unfortunate couple was planted directly in her path and she barreled through them without thinking. She couldn’t, simply wouldn’t stand still and watch the end. It was coming and as inevitable as Hades, but she didn’t have to take it like this.

Damnit, Xena thought bitterly, that stupid wish hadn’t worked one bit. She wasn’t strong enough. She had tried to do the mature thing, the adult thing--the right thing--and let Gabrielle go, but she was all too human. She simply couldn’t stand there like a dumbstruck idiot while...

"But I’m sorry," Gabrielle said clearly. "I just couldn’t leave right now."

No, by Zeus, she wasn’t anyone’s dog to... Slowly, Xena turned back toward the clustered knot of listeners.

"Really," Gabrielle repeated, "I know it’s the honor of a lifetime...well, I just couldn’t leave h...them, my commitments. Not, not right now."

With a resounding crash, all five feet eleven inches of the warrior keeled over and took out an entire row of chairs.

The noise brought complete silence to the room and it was the sweetest sound Xena had ever heard. Those confounded customers stopped chattering, the drunks stopped drinking, and even Sophocles shut up.

"Xena?" Gabrielle clasped one hand to her mouth and dashed forward, tossing aside chairs until she found the dazed woman, sprawled underneath. "Oh, Xena, are you all right? What happened?"

" were supposed to leave," Xena mumbled, glancing everywhere around the room except at Gabrielle. "You met all those people, and, and they were nice and listened to you and I know that I don’t, not nearly enough, and they were clapping and clapping and..."

Gabrielle helped her friend sit up and braced her with a hand on one shoulder. "Xena?" she said firmly. "How many fingers am I holding up?"

"Purple," the warrior replied. "And then that guy, Sophocles, he’s going to take you to Athens, but I wouldn’t trust him because I hear he slept with his mother."

Gabrielle was trying extremely hard not to burst out laughing at Xena’s expense. "No," she said calmly, placing a hand to Xena’s forehead. "That’s just a story he wrote."

"Yeah, well, all of yours are true."

Gabrielle nervously considered that Xena did have a point. "Can you stand up?"

With a tremendous effort, Xena hauled herself to her feet and stared back at the thinning crowd. Very quietly, she turned to Gabrielle, drawing the bard close to her.

"You’re not leaving?"

The girl shook her head with a solemn little smile. "Nope. You?"

"No," Xena whispered. And something that she had always associated more closely with with battle joy exploded in her chest. The melancholy of the last day dropped from her shoulders and all she wanted to do was listen to the beautiful sound of the bard’s voice, telling stories, reciting poems--anything, Hades, even talking in her damn sleep.

"I’m sorry, Gabrielle. I know I’ve been..."

The bard nodded, eyes turned down, but accepting. "I understand."

"No, you don’t," Xena said quickly. "I was..." She stumbled hard over "scared." "I was wrong and I never should’ve taken it out on you. That’s what a sparring partner’s for."

"I am your sparring partner," Gabrielle mumbled, knuckling back a tear.

"Not with words. You’d beat me every time." Xena drew her into a close hug, kissing the top of her head fiercely. "I’m so sorry. I tried to take care of you and I thought that meant letting you go. I thought I was strong enough, but..."

"I know."

"No, you don’t."

Gabrielle’s green eyes, filled with such mercy, silenced her. "I’m not the only one who talks in her sleep, princess. I’ve known for a long time."

Xena’s mind somehow froze and raced all at once and her arms fell away slowly. "Th...that we were coming here?" A nod. "And why? I mean, what Perd..." Another nod.

"And why you were scared," the girl said calmly. "You should’ve just asked me. It would’ve saved us a lot of grief."

" were testing me," Xena said, her voice low and uneven.

"And you weren’t?" The bard’s features hardened uncharacteristically. "I swear, Xena, if you’d kept us away from here or tried to manipulate my choice--if you had broken your promise..." She let the sentence hang.

But, the silence said. But you didn’t.

Silence, Xena noted, could say an awful lot and it wasn’t so bad once you figured out the dialect.

Tentatively, Gabrielle resumed the embrace, then squeezed even tighter as she let go of her bottled emotions. "That star, last night," she confessed, "I just...I just wished for a story that was as good as the others here, one that would make you really listen to me--make you see me differently. I wished you could see me do something better than you, and see other people respect it. B...but, Xena, I never meant it like this, I swear I didn’t, and..."

"And I wished that someone would hear you," Xena whispered back. "Someone like Sophocles, and that you would have the chance to..."

"I don’t want that," Gabrielle protested, coming dangerously close to a wail. "I just wanted you to understand what this means to me. I don’t want to leave, I just..."

"I do, understand, I do," the warrior assured her, still embracing the girl so tightly there was no hope of separating them. No, not girl--young woman. Damnit, this was harder than it looked. "And I’ll listen, I swear it. I don’t know what it will take, but we’ll find a way."

"You’re not mad at me, are you?" Gabrielle whispered. "For talking about Callisto?"

"No." Xena’s eyes were threatening to cry again and she knew she couldn’t possibly blame it on the dust this time. "The truth never hurts unless it should."

Gabrielle finally squeaked and Xena instantly let her go, air rushing back into the bard’s lungs. As they stared at each other, each daring the other to laugh first, they realized that much of the crowd was gone or dispersed back to private drinking. Sophocles still stood there, surrounded by Deklos and his friends, and not really seeming to mind the turn of events.

"I...I need to...I’ll be right back," Xena stammered suddenly. She was to the door in three quick moves and down the steps.

The cold fall air washed over Xena like a wave and she pulled it in deeply, letting it clear the fog in her mind. She couldn’t have stayed in that cramped, stuffy room another instant, not for all of Croesus’ gold. She had to lie down in the grass, feel the breeze run across her face, and see the gods’ tears sparkling in the liquid sky. Somewhere up there were the parents of that tiny star that had died last night, giving these two motals their sweetest dreams as it gave up its life.

She was going to find them and breathe her thanks if it took all night.

Gabrielle followed, right behind.


Epilogue: Twelve Months Later


"Jaran? Love, did you save the right room?"

"On the west side, closest to the ground. How could I forget that?" Jaran grinned at her, wetting his head under the tap at the water casket.

"Were you thinking of going with them? Opening night’s quite a display."

"Planning on it."

Lyta flashed him a quick smile as she continued to dry mugs. "It’s all anyone’s talking about. First place in Athens, they said. Wouldn’t have thought it possible."

Jaran shook his head, swiping at his collar with a clean rag. "Wouldn’t have thought Xena could stay in one place long enough to let Gabrielle finish the play," he corrected.

Lyta’s grin broadened. "It’s lucky you cooked up all those extra chores or she might have gone crazy with the waiting. Besides...Jaran!" she exclaimed, taking a hard look at her husband. "Look at you. Run upstairs and change if you’re going to be ready. Go on now, I’ll take care of things. When do you expect them?"

"By supper," Jaran called from the stairwell. "The message said they’d been up near the Black Sea, fighting raiders, so I suppose they’ll be glad for a little peace and quiet. And don’t you go sneaking Gabrielle any of the brew before tonight, remember?"

Lyta promised with a repentant look, then returned to the bar. "First place in Athens," she murmured, putting away the mugs. "That little bard. Well, who says you can’t have it all?"


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6; gold. She had to lie down in the grass, feel the breeze run across her face, and see the gods’ tears sparkling in the liquid sky. Somewhere up there were the parents of that tiny star that had died last night, giving these two motals their sweetest dreams as it gave up its life.

She was going to find them and breathe her thanks if it took all night.

Gabrielle followed, right behind.


Epilogue: Twelve Months Later


"Jaran? Love, did you save the right room?"

"On the west side, closest to the ground. How could I forget that?" Jaran grinned at her, wetting his head under the tap at the water casket.

"Were you thinking of going with them? Opening night’s quite a display."

"Planning on it."

Lyta flashed him a quick smile as she continued to dry mugs. "It’s all anyone’s talking about. First place in Athens, they said. Wouldn’t have thought it possible."

Jaran shook his head, swiping at his collar with a clean rag. "Wouldn’t have thought Xena could stay in one place long enough to let Gabrielle finish the play," he corrected.

Lyta’s grin broadened. "It’s lucky you cooked up all those extra chores or she might have gone crazy with the waiting. Besides...Jaran!" she exclaimed, taking a hard look at her husband. "Look at you. Run upstairs and change if you’re going to be ready. Go on now, I’ll take care of things. When do you expect them?"

"By supper," Jaran called from the stairwell. "The message said they’d been up near the Black Sea, fighting raiders, so I suppose they’ll be glad for a little peace and quiet. And don’t you go sneaking Gabrielle any of the brew before tonight, remember?"

Lyta promised with a repentant look, then returned to the bar. "First place in Athens," she murmured, putting away the mugs. "That little bard. Well, who says you can’t have it all?"


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