46

From the window Cyrene watched the two women leave the bathhouse and amble arm in arm toward the stable block. ' It's good to see them looking so relaxed together, and not since.' She stopped herself. (not that she'd seen her much of Xena in all of those ten years. Not since Cortese, since Lyceus in fact, but it was good to see it in her now.) ' How good they look.'

Once Cyrene would not have presumed that such a transformation of her wild and dangerous daughter could happen but now that she had seen them together alone for herself she was a lot less certain of any previous asumtions that she may have had. Now there was no doubt in her mind that Gabrielle had been the reason for that very real a change in Xena and Cyrene wiped at a stray tear at the thought but for those very real changes all might have ended very differently. and she may never have had the unprecedented opportunity to meet and get to know the grandson that she had not even been remotely aware of up until now.

Born somewhere during the time when Xena was a warrior on the make and full of dreams of ambition and conquest and when love and family had no place in her heart. His father dead when he was an infant and living with the centaurs he had been hidden from his blood family over the years. Through her conversations with Solan Cyrene had also learned that she hadn't been the only one unaware of their family relationship. Because Solan too had not known nothing about his true family when he came upon them by chance to avenge the perceived wrong that the warrior Xena had done him. And then there had also been that unexpected change of heart by Xena to tell the truth to Solan of his parentage after all this time. Cyrene had prayed to the gods often enough for Xena to come home and make everything alright and now by some miracle she was and had done just that. ' Whichever god was responsible for that I thank you for giving us this.' Cyrene looked at the bard disapearing through the doors of the stable with her daughter. Maybe it hadn't been the gods. Maybe it was somebody else who she ought to be thanking after all.

Gabrielle stood looking about her in the stable while Xena was putting Argo in the stall and letting the horse start happily cropping at the bag of hay Xena had placed hanging from the wall. Nothing seemed to be any different to her but she just did not feel any comfort by that.

" Shall I set the beds down over where they were again ? " Gabrielle asked with a grimace as she pointed to the area they had used before.

In noticing her distaste Xena sensed there was something wrong and came over taking the blankets from her. " What's the matter Gabrielle ? " Xena asked.

" I can't help it, it's just, I wish that I didn't remember. "

Xena thought hard for a moment and then it came to her. Gabrielle was thinking of the poor girl they had rescued who had been abused by the raiders. 'Oh damn I'd forgotten about that.' " Of course it must be triggering your memories of what happened to you, sorry I didn't think. We don't have to stay here I'll go tell mum and find us somewhere else. " Xena turned and started for the door.

" Xena no wait ! I know... Look I know I can't go on spending the rest of my life running away from it. I have got to learn to face this somehow. It happens, everywhere and I can't, I won't run from it not now not anymore. Just give me a little time to adjust to this will you. "

She could see there was that unspoken question again in the bard's eyes. Xena had been waiting for, and dreading that question since this began.

" Sure. But still for tonight I can find us something better than that. " Xena said quickly and she began to look around her and then with a sudden thought and an enthusiastic yip she leapt into the loft area in the roof then spread the blankets out over the hay.

Looking up. " I can't jump up there. " Gabrielle grumbled.

Xena chuckled and jumped down and grabbed the ladder. " You don't have to, you can climb. Or. " then setting it aside she pulled Gabrielle into her arms and flexed her strong leg muscles, " Better still hold tight. " then she leapt with Gabrielle's startled cry shrill in her ear taking them both aloft and landed with a thump on the wooden boards.

" It's a bit more secluded up here. " Xena murmured as she laid Gabrielle down and lay on the blanket beside her.

" Nobody can walk in on us accidentally. And it's a bit warmer too don't you think. I used to love it up here with Lyceus when we'd hide out from doing our chores. Ma could never find us. "

" Didn't she know ? "

" In the end she found out but that was after she figured that all she had to do was wait til we were hungry. " She giggled softly at the memory and tickled the bard's ear.

" Not hard given your mother's cooking I can just imagine the two of you hiding up here. " Gabrielle smiled. " Thanks for the image. " she said glad of it taking the place of the other, unwanted one. " You must have been an awful handful to Cyrene. "

Xena gave a low chuckle and she pointed up at the beam over their heads. " Look, that's where we carved our names. "

" How did you ? no don't tell me I don't want to know. " Gabrielle stopped as she realised that they would have had to have jumped up to reach it and then hang from the overhanging beam in mid air while they carved their names over the long drop to the ground below.

" You could have both broken your necks ! "

Xena chortled. " Gods know what she would have done if she'd known what we were up to. "

" Pardon the pun Xena but I bet she'd have hit the roof. "

Xena tickled Gabrielle under her rib cage.

" Stop that. I may well just have to tell her if you go on. So what's it worth to ya eh Xe? " Gabrielle teased and giggled mischievously.

" Oh really ? blackmail is it, well my little bard we shall just have to see about that. "

Xena 's fingers had begun to reach for the bard's ticklish spot cutting her off.

" You better watch your step warrior. " Gabrielle's laughter rose from the hay as they found their target and the teasing then turned to kisses.

Later Xena let out a contented sigh as she looked at her sated lover. " Did I ever say thanks for not pushing me about talking to Solan ? "

" No, I don't think you did but it's no matter 'cos you told him so anyway. "

" Yeah well thanks. "

" Your welcome. You know there has been something bugging me and I have been meaning to ask. "

There it was again and the look on Gabrielle's face this time she was going to go through with it and broach the subject.

" You sure you really want an answer Gabrielle ? What ? "

" If your asking do I mean it then the answer is yes. I want to know. Did your army ever do that ? "

Xena hung her head. How long had she been expecting this. " You mean the truth about my soldiers not taking women against their will ?... No it's not true. Well not all of it. " Gabrielle nodded. " I had a feeling it was going to be something like that. I guess it could have become risky for you to even try to stand on one's principles. " Xena winced and a harsh laugh exploded from the warrior. " Principles ! Gabrielle I was never known for being principled in those days, for a while yes I did try to stop them from rape and murder but it didn't last and it's not for the reason you might think. " She began.

" It's never easy to maintain discipline in an army it's always in flux with forces inside and out trying to take control and take your eyes off for a second and you lose what control you have in a moment. I had strict rules to make the men behave honorably and if I found proof of rape I executed the perpetrator as I did those who murdered women and children for the same reason, it was to keep discipline. But Cirra changed that, the hold I had over them slipped and I lost the control I had after what happened there. " Then Xena took a long breath and her voice became a little shaky as she continued.

" It was after that my ambition to keep my army loyal to me when I lost my way. I told you before that I was capable of doing anything and truth is by the time I came to meet with Hercules what little hold I had over them was long gone out of my hands. That was my mistake and it's why Darphus found it so easy to take control and take over as leader. "

" I see. So that's why he was able to put you through the Gauntlet. "

" Oh you heard about that did you ? "

" Salmonious told me about it at that time when we were fighting Talmadius and you'd been poisoned and I had to pretend to be you. He said you'd tried to stop them. Yes I can see now they were no better or worse than any other warlord's army. " Gabrielle cut in and the silence between them was almost palpable. Xena rose to leave and the bard's voice that came at her was ragged.

" Xena, I didn't mean it like that, at least for a while you did try to change it. " the long silence deepened as they studied each other. " I'm sorry Gabrielle. " Xena said.

" I know you are. It's okay I'm not angry with you, could you give me a moment or two and give me a chance to get my head around this please. " Gabrielle said. Xena gently caressed her cheek.

" I'll give you as long as you want. How about I go and get us something to eat and we can talk this through, what do you say ? "

Gabrielle nodded and smiled weakly. " Go on mention food why don't you. You know how to turn a girl's head don't you. "

The kitchen was full as the servants and cooks went about their business during the bustle and heat of the lunchtime rush. They were running like a well organised machine Cyrene was busily taking orders and pouring drinks and in general keeping her customers happy while the cooks filled plates and bowls and the serving girls ran about taking hot and cold food to the customers and returning with empties for two youngsters to clean in kitchen's huge tub so there would be a ready supply.

Keeping out of the way as best she could Xena watched the new serving girls as she happily filled a tray with a variety of foods for her and Gabrielle with breads and cut meats and to follow with a little fruit with two bottles of wine and sweet mead to drink. ' Mum should be pleased their working well. ' she mused as she tucked the bottles under her arm and then saw the maid bringing in some dirty linen for the wash bin. It was the girl she and Gabrielle had been talking about earlier. ' Wow I didn't know mum had hired her. Brave girl, not many would stay around in the place that must hold nightmares for her. ' she thought as she picked up the tray of food and left the kitchen and crossed the open space to the stable and barn.

Halfway Xena's senses began to prickle and she slowed her pace waiting for the attack. Suddenly six men appeared from all angles and surrounded her. She watched eyes darting about for the first move. No words were said as she saw the man to her left draw a knife from his robe and come toward her. There was no time to question who they were or what they come for although to Xena that hardly needed an answer. Food tray and foods shot up in the air food falling all about them and the bottles were caught in Xena's hands and became weapons as her left arm swung smashing the bottle into his face turning it into a bloody mess and he fell. The next man was hit by the second bottle the moment he came into range and he too spun away with a scream holding his face. She heard the man behind her and back kicked him as she caught the tray coming down and in one move she turned and slammed it edge on into the fourth man's solar plexus doubling him over and then smacking him over his head with it sending him to the ground. Fifth and sixth hesitated looking at each other wondering what to do. " Do you feel brave enough ? " Xena said in a low growl and drew her sword and speared a fallen apple and flicked the blade sending the missile toward them. Both ducked and it hit one. That was enough, they ran.

Xena sighed and spun the tray in her hand and contemplated on which of the fallen men she was going to interrogate and it was then that Gaia suddenly appeared her hand rising above to throw a power ball. ' No need to ask now. ' Xena mused.

" Now it's time to pay the price Xena. You betrayed me. " she yelled.

Gabrielle heard the ruckus outside and instinctively slid down the ladder and opened the door to take a look in time to see the goddess make her threat. She threw herself in front of her lover in an act to protect her. " NO. Just you leave her alone." she yelled. " Don't you touch her. "

" Gabrielle ! " Xena exclaimed but Gabrielle took no notice. " It was me I asked her not to give herself on your altar. " The bard shouted. " So pick me if you want to punish someone. "

" No Gabrielle. " Xena shouted.

" Why would you want to take her place ? she would have betrayed you. "

" I love her. " Gabrielle answered flatly.

" What after she left you for that woman from the future and you still claim to love her ! What would a mere mortal like you know about love ? " The goddess stared smirking at the girl.

" A good deal more than you apparently. Xena didn't choose to go there. " As Gaia moved to sight her target Gabrielle put herself in the way to stop her.

" And by that same love I will do anything for Gabrielle. I once thought of you with some respect but now I see you interfere in our lives more than you pretend. " Xena added jumping in flexing her muscles readying for the fight.

Suddenly everyone was showered in pink petals spraying over them announcing the arrival of Aphrodite who appeared beside the warrior and Xena groaned.

'As if there were any more we needed.' Xena growled inwardly.

" Earth mama chill out will yer. Don't tell me you got into a little jealous spit and got miffed out because they would chose each other rather than getting it on for you. These chicks are in love and you obviously don't get that very well, it puts them into my realm don't you know. "

Gaia seethed. " Don't tell me you are placing them under your protection ? "

" Daaa. It's what it's all about silly. So why don't you just beat it and go back to your smelly damp little cave or wherever it is you hang out these days. " Aphrodite looked at her disinterestedly and then turned her gaze to examining an annoying hang nail.

" Or what ? You're gonna hit me with a bomb of petals ? " Gaia sniffed. What she got back was Aphrodite hissing at her like a scalded cat and rolling up her gauzy sleeves to throw her own version closest to stinging barbs.

Even though she was a goddess of some prominence herself Gaia knew she could not sustain a public row with the daughter of the king of Zeus without having the other gods of the Pantheon certainly rally to Aphrodite's side even to oppose an older deity like herself despite it being over a human. " It's not over yet by a long way Xena. " Gaia pointed to her and spun out in a fizzle of hot high dudgeon. The injured men ignored by their mistress and Xena slipped away unnoticed.

" Aphrodite you saved us. " Gabrielle squealed. " Isn't that what good friends are for sweet pea. Just give me your payback in the time honoured way. " the goddess of love gave a conspiratorial wink to Gabrielle and then a brief nod to Xena then disapeared in a cloud of pink fuzz.

Gabrielle turned to the warrior. " What did she mean ? "

" She is the goddess of lurrvve. What else would she mean. " Xena rolled her eyes heavenward. " Oh. " the bard reddened. " You think she would be watching ? "

Xena laughed. " That worry you Gabrielle ? It's a god thing, she'd know about it anyway. "

" Ah. " the bard blushed.

Xena gave a sigh. " Your choice, either we both go in and eat mum's lunch or shall I just get us another tray ? "

" Actually I'd like us to be alone together, if it's alright with you. " Gabrielle smiled. Xena smiled in return. " Okay you get back then and I'll clean up and get another tray. "

" Hopefully without any interruptions this time. " Gabrielle laughed.

AN. Thank you for sticking with me.