Gabrielle gave a rubdown to her horse, a brown stallion she had named "Quill", then came and sat down by the fire and waited for Xena to return.
Xena slowly lowered her body to the ground, propping her back against a tree. She noticed Gabrielle looking at her, grinning. She was a little irritated, thinking that Gabrielle was mocking her.
"What are you looking at?"
"You," said Gabrielle. "You have such a glow about you."
"I do not."
"Oh, come on, Xena." Gabrielle moved closer to the pregnant warrior. "This is me. You don't have to pretend. I know I never got around to telling you this, but I'm really happy for you."
"Don't say it if you don't mean it, Gabrielle."
"Of course I mean it! What makes you think I?"
Gabrielle's annoyed look quickly turned into a look of apprehension. Xena felt it, too.
"He's here. He wants me," said Gabrielle.
"So go to him."
Gabrielle stood up.
"You sure you don't want to come with me?"
"What do you need me for?" asked Xena.
"Don't you have any little tips for me? You've dealt with him longer than I have."
"You know what kind of a god he is. He's a liar. Don't believe him. Don't trust him."
"Suppose he should try to kidnap me?"
"If that's what he wants to do, I can't stop him."
"Maybe I should just ignore him and stay here with you."
"Go. He won't leave until you face him."
Gabrielle headed off into the forest. Xena watched her go, sadly. She knew that Gabrielle was more than a little flattered by the idea that Ares wanted her as his chosen. She also knew that there was a pretty good chance that Ares had no interest whatsoever in Gabrielle, and only hoped to get to Xena through Gabby. But she knew better than to mention this to Gabrielle.
Xena instinctively murmured a little prayer that she said at times like this. A prayer of thanks.
This time her prayer was answered with a very quiet, "You're welcome."
Xena scrambled to her feet as quickly as she could. She looked around, trying to find the source of the voice.
"Calm down, Xena. I'm no threat to you."
"Then show yourself!"
A goddess appeared before Xena. Xena had never met this deity, but she knew of her and had nothing but respect for her.
"Athena," she said. "What do you want? Why are you here?"
"Just answering your prayer," said Athena.
Meanwhile, Gabrielle made her way into the woods for her tiresome little encounter with Ares. She had grown nearly as adept as Xena at sensing the presence of Ares, now that Ares decided he wanted her as his chosen.
She stood and waited patiently for him to manifest himself. She knew how much it annoyed him when she simply waited and didn't say a word. Ares liked to be called upon.
She looked patiently at the spot where she knew he was standing. And she smirked.
Finally he appeared.
"Gabrielle, I really thought better of you than this. I thought you knew how to approach a situation with an open mind. Have you even considered my offer?"
"I gave it as much consideration as it deserves. You haven't built up much credibility with Xena or me."
"I told you. I've changed."
"So have I. I don't give away my trust so easily any more."
"What can I do to show you I've changed, Gabrielle?"
"You can start by telling me why I should be your chosen. What's in it for me?"
"Power. Conquest. Glory."
"Yeah, that's great, Ares. When you have something to offer that I actually care about, let me know."
Gabrielle turned to go.
"What do you want, Gabrielle?"
"Why should I be your chosen when you don't even know me well enough to know what I want?"
"You don't have a clue what you want, do you?"
"I know exactly what I want."
"I want peace. I want freedom. I want justice, and I won't settle for two out of three. I want Xena to find some measure of tranquility and happiness in this world, because she deserves it so much. But I still want her to be Xena. The Xena that I love."
"Be reasonable, Gabrielle, I can't remake the known world just to suit you."
"Then stop wasting my time, and stop wasting Xena's time. You don't understand us, and you never will. You've never been able to understand why anyone would turn down a position of power. Haven't you ever known anything more important than power and conquest, Ares? Haven't you ever known love?"
Ares laughed his malicious little laugh, and stepped closer to Gabrielle.
"You've got the wrong god, Gabrielle."
"And you've got the wrong?"
Gabrielle paused. She didn't quite know how to describe herself, any more. Bard? Warrior? Amazon?
"Gabrielle, when we had that little misadventure with Aphrodite's scroll, I know there was something between us, even if it was only for a moment. Just before I left, I know I could've kissed you. And I know you would've liked it."
"Sure. But you decided you'd rather make fun of me. So what?"
"So, what you felt before you can feel again. I can't believe there's nothing I can offer you."
"Well, you can start by solving a mystery for me. Who's the father of Xena's baby?"
"I don't know. He's not me, if that's what you mean."
"Then go find out."
"How do you expect me to do that?"
"Ask around. Use your influence to get some answers. Is brute force the only thing you know? Use your intellect, for once in your life."
"People don't talk to me that way, Gabrielle."
"Too damn bad."
"Gabrielle, if I can solve this little mystery of yours, will you become my chosen?"
"I'll think about it."
"You think you can just use me to get information?"
"Oh, why not, Ares? You're using me, or trying to. You don't want me for your chosen. You don't give a damn about me. You're after Xena. You figure, you get me, you get Xena. Well, I've had it with you and all your mindless little games. I don't want to play any more. Xena needs me now more than ever, and if you think I'm abandoning her to follow you and your stupid, brutal little games of conflict, then you are completely deluded. Now, why don't you just leave us both alone, Ares? Why don't you get out of our lives?"
Gabrielle turned to go again, and she meant to continue back to the campsite, regardless of what Ares had to say.
"You're wrong, Gabrielle," he said. "It's you I want."
Gabrielle didn't even look behind her as he vanished.
"Whatever," she muttered.
Xena heard Gabrielle coming back, and she did her best to wind up her conversation with Athena as quickly as possible.
"Thank you," said Xena. "I owe her so much. She's saved my soul a dozen times over. She was exactly who I needed, exactly when I needed her."
"I know," said Athena.
"But tell me something, Athena. Did she have to be so damn annoying?"
"I suppose you'd rather have a little toady who never challenges you about anything and worships the ground you walk on?"
"Of course not."
"Xena, when you're finding yourself annoyed at her irritating chatter and her stubborn refusal to take your advice on anything, do you have any time to brood about the bad things you've done in your life? Do you feel the weight of your sins crushing you, then? Do you feel like you did when you buried your weapons, when you were ready to give up?"
"No. You're right."
"Of course I'm right. I'm the goddess of wisdom."
"OK, fine. Now clear off, Athena, she's coming back."
Athena complied, and a few minutes later Gabrielle came tramping into the clearing.
"Who was that?" asked Gabrielle.
"Xena, I know you've never lied to me, but you do keep some important information to yourself, sometimes. We really need to be more open and honest with each other, now. We're going to be depending on each other more and more. Can't you just tell me who that was?"
"All right, Gabrielle. It was Athena."
"Athena! Goddess of wisdom? What was she doing here?"
"Gabrielle, please, I'd really like to keep this private."
But Gabrielle was hurt, and Xena knew it despite Gabrielle's attempts to hide it. She tried to ignore the pain and disappointment in Gabby's lovely eyes, but she couldn't.
"Gabrielle, every so often I say a little prayer. I thank the god or goddess who gave me the gift of Gabrielle, my soulmate."
Gabrielle smiled. Her face bloomed into such a beautiful, lovely smile that Xena had to smile in return.
"Yes. I didn't really think that any deity was involved. It was just something I said now and again. Well, today that goddess decided to answer my prayer. And congratulate me on the upcoming blessed event."
"Athena? Athena is responsible for bringing us together? What does that mean, I'm not a real person, I'm created from the dust like a clay statue?"
"No. Of course not. Everyone has a soulmate, you know that. And Athena was the one who led me to you when I needed you most. Just a few subtle hints inside my head. Go this way instead of that way. I was pretty suggestible back then. I was dead inside."
"Wow. Was she the one who told me to follow you?"
"No. You didn't need any help with that. You saw the connection between us at a time when I was too blind to see anything but my own pain."
"Xena, why didn't you want to tell me this?"
"Because I'm sick of the gods meddling in our lives. And now it turns out I owe a goddess more than I can ever repay. I hate the idea that I had to be led to you like a three-year-old child. Think how you'd feel if it turned out Athena made you follow me. The most important decision in your life, and it wasn't your own."
"Why'd she do it?"
"Because she doesn't like Ares. And she knew that without you I didn't have a chance against him."
"Then I'm going to have to start offering a prayer of thanks to Athena, myself. Does she know who's the father of your child?"
"She knows, but she's not telling. All she said was, the father is closer than I think."
Gabrielle moved closer to Xena and asked, "Where were we before a couple of nosy deities started interfering?"
"I have no idea."
"I think I was telling you I was happy for you. And you didn't believe me."
"I didn't say I didn't believe you."
"Come on, Xena, you know me well enough by now. Am I really happy for you, or not?"
Gabrielle moved her face closer to Xena's, and looked at Xena with open, honest eyes.
Xena stroked Gabrielle's lovely face. Gabrielle took her hand and kissed the palm tenderly.
"Yes," said Xena.
"I know I was stunned for awhile, but if you feel good about the baby, that's all that matters."
Gabrielle put her hand to Xena's midsection.
"What difference does it make who's the father, anyway?" asked Gabrielle. "Let's just call it your baby."
Xena put her hand over Gabrielle's.
"Let's just call it ours."