[This story takes place very shortly after the events in the Xena episode, "Hooves and Harlots".]
"She'll be all right. Just let her sleep now." Iolaus pulled a blanket over Xena's still form. "The bleeding's stopped. By morning she'll wake up with just a headache." He tossed a few more branches on the fire. "She'll probably be a real grouch, though." He came and sat down next to Gabrielle, who had watched him the whole time in numb, frozen silence.
Iolaus picked up the staff from where Gabrielle had dropped it and examined it carefully. "This is an Amazon fighting staff," he commented. "How did you come by it?"
Gabrielle answered softly, "I was given it." Hesitantly, in fits and starts, she told how she had received the right of caste from the dying Amazon, Teresia; how she had been acclaimed as a princess; and how the grim and patient Ephiny had instructed her in the use of the fighting staff.
Iolaus had listened silently, nodding now and then, his blue eyes never leaving her face. When her story was finished, he asked, "So ... what happened here?"
Gabrielle dropped her gaze to the dancing fire. "The usual story - bandits! Xena told me to keep back, like she always tells me, but ... I had my staff ... and I figured that *this* time she wouldn't have to do all the fighting for both of us!" Her head drooped.
"So you jumped in?"
"Yeah..." her voice trailed off.
"And - ?"
"There were four of them. I was trying to keep out of Xena's way. So I circled around and swung at the one who was a little further back ... and it was awful - "
"No. I hit him. Hard, in the side. I .. I *heard* his ribs break and he started to scream and there was blood running out of his mouth and nose and all I could think of was that *I* had done this to him! And that's when I heard Xena yell my name, and she pushed me backward - and someone's club came down and caught her on the side of the head - and that's when you showed up and drove them off and - " she took a quavering breath. "It's my fault she was hurt. She took a blow meant for me. If you hadn't shown up, we'd both be dead ... It's my fault!"
There was a tone in Iolaus' voice that she had never heard before. "Gabrielle. What did you think was going to happen, when you swung your staff?"
"I - ... It's just that ... it's different somehow, when it's *me* doing the - "
"When it's *you* doing the hitting?"
There was a long silence.
"Yes," she said finally.
Another long silence. When she looked up at him, she drew back in astonishment. Instead of the warm, comforting reaction she had expected from him, his face was grim, his blue eyes stern and strangely sad. He stared at her a moment and then looked away.
"What?" she asked, not quite keeping the tremble out of her voice.
He sighed and poked at the fire. "When you said that this was your fault - you were right."
She stared at him in shock and hurt.
"Listen to me. For Xena's sake, and even more, for your own!" He bent and picked up the staff. "Gabrielle, this is a *weapon*! You chose to learn how to use it. You chose to join in that fight, after Xena told you to stay out of it. If you are going to fight, you are going to hurt someone. You may kill them. It's a *weapon*! Don't pick it up unless you intend to use it, and don't use it, unless you're willing to live with the consequences!"
If he had shouted at her, she would have known how to react. But his voice never rose beyond its normal level. His tone was gentle, but it went through her like an icy wind.
"You are going to hurt someone with this," he repeated. "If you can't accept that, then burn it right now!"
He held it out to her, and after a moment's hesitation, she took it.
For a long time Gabrielle stood as if carved in stone, staring into the fire, her mind awhirl, remembering, analyzing, regretting. Finally she whispered, barely louder than the crackle of the flames, "You're right."
The sight of her stricken face had given him pangs of conscience. "Gabrielle, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to- "
"No, " she interrupted. "It had to be said. It's the truth."
Two pairs of blue eyes locked on each other for an uncounted number of heartbeats, as each tried to find their own equilibrium. "Did anyone ever tell you that honesty hurts?"
"Oh yeah - even more than a club upside the head!" He gave a rueful smile. "Gabrielle, I really *am* sorry - ."
She shook her head. "Don't be!" The staff hit the ground and suddenly she was in his arms, her head pressed against his chest.
"I like you," came the muffled declaration. "You see things so clearly. I don't think even Xena sees them as clearly as you do."
Iolaus gave a little embarrassed laugh. "I like you too," he whispered. Almost involuntarily, his hand went to stroke the red-gold hair.
"So, what's it to be?" he said. "Do I have to go hunting for firewood, or are you going to toss that staff on the fire?"
Gabrielle laughed as she twirled the staff deftly around her. "Go look for firewood!" she ordered him.
With a grin, Iolaus headed out into the darkening woods.
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