The Gift that Keeps on Giving
Part One of the Impractical Magic Series

by Lori Bush(

Disclaimer: Not only are the characters not mine, but certain parts of the underlying theory of this whole series are heavily borrowed. Xena, Gabrielle and Joxer belong to Renaissance Pictures (thank God for Spell Check - never get that word right on the first try) and Universal/USA Studios. The atmosphere of the series, along with a few specific concepts, lean heavily on the Discworld books; if you have read them, you will recognize a lot of Terry Pratchett's spirit in these stories. As always, I beg of you not to sue. Besides, I don't have anything you want, honest.

Rating: Probably PG-13. There are some adult concepts, particularly in later stories, but just to be on the safe side.

Violence: Some.

Sex: Nope.

Archive: GJRS, JFFG, TedTalk, TRIS, Raye. Anyone else with permission, probably.

I can't believe I started another series, with "Portraits" not even done yet. But I had so many ideas once I began this one that one story wasn't going to do it. Then Findle and Chris started making suggestions, and I realized there was no telling how many stories it would take to tell all this. This one sort of sets up the premise for the rest of the series.

As I said in the disclaimer, there's a lot of Terry Pratchett in this series. I fell in love with the Discworld books after meeting the author at AggieCon, and just saw some concepts in his stories that I couldn't resist borrowing. This doesn't go far enough to be considered a crossover, but perhaps it is a toeover. Just a little dip into Discworld.

As far as continuity goes, this takes place before "Gabrielle's Hope." Gabby 's never been to Britannia, never birthed a demon-spawned child, then killed her. No rift. Long hair. Still a bit on the sweet side, and totally clueless about Joxer's feelings. The series wanders off from cannon at that point with nary a backwards glance.

I've had a team of readers egging me on in this one. I want to thank them all - Findle, Chris, Kawy, Misty, Mel, Raye, Nacey and Azina. Special thanks to Rebecca Littlehales, who did an awesome beta that left me smiling. When someone can make corrections in your work and still make you smile, it is cause for celebration.

Gabrielle was concerned. Xena had been gone far too long. This wouldn't worry her normally - Xena came and went and did as she pleased often enough, usually with little more explanation than, "Stay here. I'll be back." But Gabrielle was worried this time because Xena had been gone a while, and she had taken Joxer.

Joxer was trouble, walking around looking for a place to happen. He was impulsive and foolish and clumsy. And for some stupid reason, Xena trusted him, and had decided he needed training. Not only that, but she'd decided the bard should stay and watch over their campsite, usually Joxer's assignment. Gabrielle could only imagine the kind of difficulties the big klutz could get the Warrior Princess into without half trying. She gripped her staff a bit tighter when she heard rustling in the underbrush.

Xena appeared first, and the bard relaxed. Trailing behind her, looking sullen and a bit disheveled, was the walking collection of kitchenware and bad luck that was Joxer. She barely took note of the new staff in his hand.

Something was wrong. Xena was upbeat and even almost smiling, but Joxer, who was always cheerful, rarely serious, and almost never morose, looked like his best friend had died. ".and I already told you, it's a gift I don't want," Joxer whined as they came into view.

The warrior woman all but laughed at him. "You've got it and you're stuck with it. Make the best of it."

Gabrielle approached the pair. "I guess I must have missed something by staying here, huh?"

Joxer looked at her with his puppy dog eyes. "Uh, yeah. I mean, no. I mean," he looked at Xena helplessly, "I suppose you're going to make me tell her, aren't you?"

Xena grinned, looking absolutely feral. "Why don't you show her?"

His brown eyes grew almost black and a variety of expressions danced across his features, none of them particularly cheerful. Tears sprang to his eyes, and he seemed to be fighting them. "Not again!" he snarled. Gabrielle stepped back unconsciously, having never seen a combination of such bottomless despair and uncontrolled rage on her friend's face. He almost looked like a stranger.

Xena seemed oblivious to Joxer's anger. "Do you think she'll believe you otherwise?"

His face cleared and his shoulders slumped as he gave a resigned sigh. "No."

Xena studied the area. "Why don't we expand this clearing a bit?" Pointing to a thick stand of trees to the west, she said, "That way. That tree over there."

Joxer sighed and asked, "The oak?" Xena nodded.

Gabrielle watched first in curiosity, then in shock. The young man lifted his hand and mumbled something in an unfamiliar language, but a distinctly pissed-off tone, and the staff seemed to glow for a moment. Then the entire stand of trees glowed with a strange orange-green-purple light, and vanished, leaving a wisp of smoke behind.

Xena grinned. "I thought so. When you're mad, it's stronger."

The bard forced her weak knees not to give way. "Joxer," she said in a strangled tone, "Are you a god?"

Joxer's face went pale. "Oh, Zeus, Xena. What if this pisses them off? I could be in trouble, here."

"The old man managed fine. You will too."

"The old man didn't run around with you. We tend to run into the gods more than the average Greek, you know."

"EXCUSE ME!" Both the warriors turned to face the now recovered and irritated blonde. "Would one of you mind telling me just what in the name of Tartarus is going on here?" She glared at the man, who paled again. "Joxer, you didn't answer me. Are you a god? And if you aren't, how did you do THAT?" She waved her hand toward the newly expanded area of the clearing. She was aware her voice was rising, but some things in life should be explained, and she was sure this was one of them.

Xena stepped between them. "He's not a god, Gabrielle. He's a wizard."

"A wiz. What? Since when?"

"You'd better sit down, this may take a while. Joxer, pull up a rock or something. See, it all started about four hours ago."

Joxer was humming tunelessly as he followed Xena. They hadn't yet found the band of thieves she'd been scouting for, and they were going to head back to camp for the day. Even though their trip had been unsuccessful, Joxer was happy. Xena had taught him a few things about tracking while they went about, and he hadn't done anything particularly stupid all day. He seemed to manage much better when it was only he and Xena than he did when Gabrielle was around.

Pausing briefly, he felt rather than heard something in the woods. He headed towards the feeling, gingerly at first, then faster as it grew urgent. Pulling his sword as he ran, he wondered idly if Xena was behind him anywhere. As he burst into the clearing, seeing for the first time the five thieves setting upon their victim, he prayed she was.

One man was working over an elderly gentleman while a second held him. Three others were holding a staff, apparently struggling to keep it still. This struck him as fairly odd, although he didn't feel this was the time to contemplate that. These were really big guys, and the would-be warrior gulped. But that man was not going to live through this beating if someone didn't stop it, and Joxer realized he was the only one available.

Swinging his sword wildly, he hit the man doing the beating soundly in the shoulder with the flat of the blade. "Stop that," Joxer growled in his best dangerous voice, "Or face the wrath of Joxer the Mighty."

The blow was enough to knock the robber on his rump, and when he saw that only one man faced him, and what that man looked like, he rose menacingly, pulling his sword and announcing in a much more convincing dangerous voice, "Let me swat this fly, and I'll finish what we came here for."

"Uh, uh." Joxer backed away, trying to stall for time until Xena caught up with him. Surely she was following him, right? The man now stalking Joxer was easily as tall and twice as wide and the young warrior. Suddenly, Joxer decided he should go make sure Xena had heard him leave. He turned to run, plowing right into the three men holding the struggling staff. All four men tumbled to the ground, the staff breaking free in the process.

The solid stick hovered briefly above the tangle of men, seemingly assessing the situation. Seeing the most immediate threat approaching with sword drawn, it swooped above the man, coming down hard on his head. The big guy stopped for a moment, shook his head as if to clear it, and began to advance again. The staff whacked his sword hand, causing him to drop his weapon and yell in pain. The staff then slapped across the thief's face with a resounding "Thwack!"

Joxer, who had rolled over and was, along with the three men he had downed, watching this with morbid fascination, saw the man's eyes cross. The stick paused a moment, and appeared, for an inanimate object, quite satisfied. Then it set to work hitting the thief repeatedly on the head. Wackity, wackity, wackity, wackity, with inhuman speed it pummeled the now nearly unconscious man. When at last he slumped bonelessly to the ground, it turned and began a repeat performance on the thief who had been holding the old man, who was obviously too stupid to release his prisoner until he too passed out.

The staff, still hanging in the air in defiance of all the laws of nature, turned and, Joxer swore later, glared at the three men who had held it captive. This trio, being slightly smarter than the last victim, turned to run away, but instead came face to face with one Warrior Princess. She had them roped and tied before they knew what hit them.

Meantime, Joxer crawled over to the old man, to whom the staff had promptly returned once the three ruffians appeared to be in capable hands. Smoothing the sparse hair back from the man's forehead, he could see the serious bruises and a couple of deep gashes there. The awkward warrior looked into the gentleman's eyes, and was taken aback by the intensity there. "You're very brave," the injured man said, in a surprisingly strong voice. Looking deeper into Joxer's eyes, he continued, "Not too terribly bright, but very brave. And I think you may be wiser than even I give you credit for. Besides, you felt me calling, so you do have some potential. You'll do just fine."

Xena joined Joxer, kneeling beside the frail man. "He'll do for what?" She studied the man, from his unusual clothing to the almost trembling staff in his hands, and added, "Wizard?"

The man gave a blinding grin. "Now, you are a wise woman. Not many can recognize my kind in these parts. We've kept to ourselves here in Greece. Most of the family's moved to Britannia, actually, but I could never stand the humidity. You'll watch over the boy, won't you?"

Joxer sputtered. "Boy? I'll have you know I've passed almost thirty summers."

The man smiled gently this time. "And I over two hundred. You are but a boy. Here." Without further explanation, the man placed his staff in Joxer's hands, where it seemed to stay only reluctantly. "I have no heir. I am dying, and someone must take my place. I choose you. Do be careful." Without further ceremony, the man closed his eyes and his head dropped back to the ground. Joxer swore he felt a sob rip though the staff in his hands, and then the body before him grew thinner and thinner, until he could see the ground beneath it. And then it was gone.

"So the old man gave you the staff and then died?" the bard asked for clarification. Joxer nodded. "So, you're not a wizard, are you? You just have a magic staff."

Xena sighed. "If it were just that simple, Gabrielle. They seem to be inexorably bound."

The staff, which Joxer had leaned against the log he sat on, seemed to scoot closer to him. "Yeah, it apparently thinks of itself as my bodyguard. I do the spells, it protects me from anyone who doesn't like that, or me."


Joxer looked at the staff in his hands, at the bare patch of ground that should have held the old wizard's body and then at the Warrior Princess. "What do I do now?" he questioned her, uncertainly.

"You learn to use the power you have."

"You believe that stuff?" he asked her incredulously. "All I got from him was a well-used staff. The other was just the raving of an old man who'd been hit on the head one too many times. It's happened to me before."

"You've been left powers by a old man who thought he was a wizard?"

"No, I've been hit on the head one too many times. And I've said some pretty stupid things when I have."

Xena mumbled something about the frequency of his head injuries under her breath, but Joxer let it pass. He was still trying to figure out what happened to the old man's body.

"Look, Joxer, the only way you'll ever know for sure is if you try to use the powers you were given," Xena told him reasonably.

"You know, maybe Gabby would like this staff, as a backup or something," Joxer said, half to himself. Suddenly, what the Warrior Princess said registered. "Use what powers? Xena, why are you so sure this is anything at all?"

"Joxer, I spent a lot of time in Britannia when I was younger. I've seen wizards; I know what they can do. That man was definitely a wizard, and he could easily have given you his powers with that staff. Most wizards have a familiar of some sort, and his appears to have been wooden. Cats are popular; so are birds. Never saw a stick before, but there's a first time for everything."

"Xena, it's just a stick."

She eyed him doubtfully. "Prove it. Get rid of it." He looked shocked. "Go on. Throw it away."

"But, Xena, it was a gift."

"It's just a stick. Toss it."

Joxer shrugged, deciding to humor the Warrior Princess. He took the staff in hand like a javelin, pitching it into the woods. At the zenith of the arc it stopped, turned and headed back to Joxer, pausing in midair just before hitting him smack in the nose and hovering there. He reached up and it came to him, now docile.

"Just a stick, huh?" Xena grinned at him in triumph.

Joxer glared at her. "I'm still no wizard, I just have a magic stick."

"I think only wizards have magic sticks, Joxer. Try out what you can do."

He sighed. "You aren't going to let this go until I prove it to you, are you? Fine. You seem to know so much about wizards, what do I do?"

She thought. "The one I knew best in Britannia told me destroying things is the easiest. Gabrielle always beats up trees because there are so many of them and they don't fight back. Why don't you take out a tree?"

Joxer shrugged. He wasn't a wizard. He didn't want to be a wizard. But to make Xena happy.

He pointed his finger at a nearby beech and said, "Tree, go away!" But when the words came out of his mouth, they came out "Garouph magala kah!" Then he felt something pulse from his fingertips, and the beech tree was gone. The beech tree and two dozen or so of its closest neighbors.

He went deathly pale and had to lean on the staff to remain upright. Xena looked pensive. "Need to learn to control that. Do it again."

"Again!" Joxer squeaked, "I didn't want to do it the first time!"

"Come on," she prodded. He pointed a shaking hand at another tree, and repeated the words. This time only around five other trees disappeared as well. He lowered his hand and sat down on the ground hard. The staff remained at attention beside him when he let it go to rest his head on both of his hands.

"I can't do this," he moaned.

Xena settled comfortably on the ground beside him. "You can. You just did. What's the problem?"

Joxer stared at her hollowly. How could he explain that, to him, being a warrior and being a hero was about respect and honor, not about power? His father had had power, and wore it poorly. He didn't want to have power, and he was pretty sure people didn't respect wizards. This was a direction he didn't want to travel.

However, Xena, although not always the most perceptive woman in Greece, could figure out a few things from her friend's face. "Joxer, what do you know about wizards?" His blank look was response enough. "Wizards are like warriors, Joxer. Some are for good, and some are for bad. Most of them are born into it, but some come on it like you did - a wizard without an heir passes it on. For some reason, they're nearly always men, although I never got a good explanation for that, and women in the families usually become witches. And they aren't all broomsticks and black hats, by the way, but that's another story. Anyway, being a wizard is a skill - just like cooking or sword fighting. You'll undergo a few changes as your body adapts to it, but nothing most people would even notice upon seeing you. I'm pretty sure even the dress code thing is optional."

Joxer remembered the strange robes the old man had worn and looked down at his familiar armor. "Good." He sighed. "I guess I've always been a bit of a freak, Xena, but this is way beyond the kind of 'different' I was before. I' ve always tried so hard to fit in, and now I never will."

She smiled gently. "You stopped trying to fit in with the crowd when you became my friend, Joxer. In case you haven't noticed, I tend to be a bit high profile. With the skills you now have, you and me and Gabrielle can help even more people and do even more good things than ever before. Just use it for the Greater Good." She looked at him closely. "By the way, what was that you said when you pulverized those trees?"

Joxer shrugged. "I just told the tree to go away, but when it came out, it sounded entirely different." He gazed up at the staff, still on alert beside him. "Maybe it's the language it understands."

Xena stood and pulled the warrior Wizard to his feet. "Maybe."

"Okay, then," Gabrielle reasoned, "the staff is magic, but Joxer has to say the spells. How did you find out it would watch out for you?"

"Well, first off, the magic is mine, but the staff is like a focus point. Did you see it glow before, when I knocked out those trees?" The bard nodded. "It does that every time. And when I'm not thinking about it too much, but really feeling something strongly, it's even more focused. Like."

They had been walking for at least an hour. The staff followed Joxer at first, but he finally took it in his hand, and it relaxed and acted like a normal walking stick. He found it a rather nice addition to walking, and it reminded him of Gabby, too. Every once in a while, Xena would make him stop and zap a tree, just because. The last time he did, he sighed and rolled his eyes at her. He wasn't sure what else he would be able to do with his power, but he hoped it would be more than just enabling him to clear a campsite with little effort. He was starting to get used to the idea of being a wizard, sort of.

"Xena," he asked a few minutes later, "Can we stop and eat? I'm getting hungry."

She pressed on. "No, we lost a lot of time back there, and we need to keep going. I don't have anything in my pack, and it would take too long to hunt or forage. You'll just have to hang on until we reach camp."

"Camp?" he complained, a whine slipping into his tone, "That'll be a long time!"

He trudged along behind her in silence a few minutes more, thwapping the staff down harder than was necessary in his frustration. "I wanna eat. I need food," he mumbled under his breath, although when his ears heard the words, they didn't sound like Greek to him.

The staff in his hand began to glow and vibrate slightly. Before them on the path appeared a huge meal, with both lamb and roast pig, several types of vegetables and assorted fruits. Xena even gasped.

"Joxer, did you do that?" she asked him, containing her initial panic.

He looked from the food to the staff and back again. "I guess so," he said uncertainly. His expression brightened, and he sat down. "Well, now we don't have to hunt. Ummm, taste these grapes, Xena."

She eased herself gingerly to the ground, sitting on the cloth that held the food. "Joxer, would you pass me a bowl for the wine? There, right beside you."

They ate in silence, both amazed at the quality of the food. Xena had dined with Kings and not eaten as well.

Joxer licked his fingers while Xena wrapped up some of the leftovers to take in her pack for later. She glanced at him, her irritation at having been again delayed slaked along with the hunger she had denied she felt. "You do clean up, too?"

He shrugged, and said something again in that weird language. The cloth and its contents disappeared without a trace. He grinned. "Gabby is so going to love this!"

Xena looked at him sharply. "If we don't want to get into trouble with this, we are going to have to keep your powers, well...not exactly a secret, but we can't be flashing them around all the time, either. We still need to hunt, and wash dishes and do all the normal things in the normal ways most of the time. We need to save what you can do for emergencies. Right now, while your learning how to use them, you might need to be a little more frequent in their display, but believe me, if people find out what you can do, you'll never get any rest."

His giddy pleasure waned. He was going to have to remember what a big responsibility he now carried. He needed to learn the limitations he had, too. He didn't want to learn in a life or death situation that there were some things he couldn't do. It would be best to know that beforehand so he could work around it. With a more serious mood now, but his filled stomach keeping him mellow, he trudged on again.

The bard never could figure out how Xena stayed so calm around Joxer. He managed to find a way to irritate without half trying. She was building a head of steam, and wasn't going to ask the same question again without getting a straight answer.

She knew one thing that always got his attention when all else failed. She almost had his nose in a real serious twist and he was already cringing and whimpering when the staff thwacked her on the hand.

"Ouch!" the bard squealed.

"That answer your question, Gabrielle?" Xena asked, her tone rich with laughter. The blonde and the stick appeared to be scowling at one another, until Joxer came between them.

"Don't hurt her," he admonished the staff, which appeared sheepish and retreated to lean back against the log. "And you," he went on to the object of his adoration, who was still blissfully unaware of his feelings for her, "might want to find a new way to make me listen to you."

She rubbed the sore spot on her hand and glared at the new wizard. "Just keep that thing away from me," she warned.

Xena sighed. She had hoped, against better reason, that Joxer's new powers might increase Gabrielle's respect for their lanky companion. But the bard could be denser than rock about some things, and Joxer was one of them. She couldn't see the torch he carried for her, although it shone so brightly the rest of the world couldn't miss it. And she obviously didn't realize the magnitude of the gift he had been given. Neither did he, yet.

Xena, in her surprise at Joxer's new abilities, had been a bit careless about the thieves they had taken to the authorities. She hadn't questioned them to make sure there weren't any more of them, and the rest of the band was watching her and Joxer from the woods.

"Did you see the meal they had?" hissed Cerelus, the de facto leader since their companions had vanished. "They must have lots of money."

"I dunno, Cerelus," one of his underlings rumbled, "That lady looks kinda tough. Maybe we should wait for Creta and the others 'fore we take anyone on."

"Creta doesn't appear to be coming back," another pointed out.

There were only three thieves, but there were only two travelers, and the tall guy with the funny armor and the stick looked like the weak point. Easy pickings. The ruffians decided to separate the pair and go after the man three-on-one, first. Then they could handle the woman afterwards. Certainly, even an apparent idiot wouldn't let a woman carry the money, either, they reasoned.

When the thieves surrounded Joxer, he reached for his sword, dropping the staff in the process. He found someone else's large sword at his throat before he could speak, and froze with his arm over his head in fear. The man with the sword grinned in a vile way. "Just hand over the money, and your lady friend won't get hurt, and neither will you. Ooooff!" The last word was added when the miscreant was jabbed deep in his midsection by the abandoned staff. When his companions moved to his aid, they were swiftly clobbered before even Xena could react.

The Warrior Princess held onto the breathless leader, the other two members of the band lying unconscious on the path. "I don't suppose you were part of Creta's group?" she asked snidely. The man nodded nervously. "Okay, this time I'll finish what we started. Are there any more of you in this forest anywhere?"

She looked over at her friend, who was stroking the staff and making grateful noises to it. "Joxer," she called. "Maybe you should get Gabrielle to teach you how to fight with that, since it insists on fighting for you."

Joxer barely tasted dinner. His eyes drooped, and he moved his food mechanically to his mouth. He listened as Xena told of the last part of their adventure, but only half heard. It was his night to do dishes, and he made a real effort, but gathering them and taking them to the river was about all he could handle. He really wanted to get back and get in his bedroll more than anything else on earth. He focused on his task, staring at the pile of dishes as if by looking at them long enough, he could make them wash themselves. Wait a minute, could he?

"Wash yourselves," he ordered the greasy dinnerware. Sitting down with his back against a tree, he listened to the cheerful clank, clank of the fry pan and utensils as they cleaned themselves, and his eyelids slid closed.

It was an hour later before Xena finally came looking for him, finding him snoring peacefully beside a pile of clean dishes. "Oh, yeah," she mumbled to herself, "I forgot to mention that too much magic can wear you out, too, especially when you're new at it." After carrying the dinnerware back to the camp, the Warrior Princess returned with the bard in tow to help her get the exhausted wizard back to his pelts.

Gabrielle sat and studied Joxer as he practiced making stones appear. They had been at this campsite for a few days now, ever since the wizard had passed on his powers to the young man. The clearing had grown significantly, and Xena now had Joxer working on producing rather than destroying things.

He sat beside the river, intent on his assignment. She watched several things appear before him, none of which seemed to satisfy Joxer completely. He was wearing a dark green long sleeved shirt he had pulled out when they went to market yesterday, and his usual trousers. The armor had disappeared the day before, and she hadn't worked up the nerve to ask him why yet.

The trip to the market was an unusual experience for the bard. Not that she didn't do most of the shopping for the group as a rule. It wasn't unusual for Joxer to go along, either. But yesterday's trip had been - different. It certainly changed her outlook on the former warrior-wanna-be.

First there was the change in clothing. She didn't know where the shirt had come from, but it looked nice on him. That in itself surprised her. Outside of the time he was under Aphrodite's charm as Bell-Joxer, she never remembered thinking he looked nice. Well, except when she was in love with him, but that wasn't entirely natural either. So finding Joxer in any way attractive was the first thing that didn't set right with Gabrielle.

Then there was the shopkeeper that was so rude. All she wanted were a few new scrolls. Well, a few new scrolls at a bargain price. But she was used to haggling, and it was usually met with a spirited but pleasant response. Maybe this man had had a bad day, but she could easily hear the names he was calling her under his breath when she made a lower offer for his goods. So could Joxer, who wasn't far away.

The young wizard glowered at the merchant. "Excuse me?" he said, not entirely nicely. Gabrielle put a hand on his arm. She certainly didn't have charitable feelings towards this man, but she didn't want trouble, either. She had noticed that not only was Joxer's magic affected by his emotions, but also his emotions seemed to be more volatile lately.

The shopkeeper snarled in return. "Oh, how sweet. You want to help your little honey steal my goods, huh? Well, if you want prices that low, go somewhere else. I'm not as stupid as she is, or as you look."

Now, Gabrielle had already figured out that the staff, while it distilled the magic, didn't need to be physically present for it to happen. She was still surprised when Joxer cursed at the man. "You jacka." The word hadn't left his mouth when the shopkeeper brayed in terror. Instinctively, the bard reached out and began stroking the frightened donkey's head, which calmed it slightly. She looked up at her friend, whose jaw dropped in disbelief. She honestly thought someone as pale as Joxer couldn't get that much paler. She scratched the donkey's ears and looked at her frightened companion.

"It seems the staff has learned Greek."

Gabrielle never thought the day would come that she would be frightened of the hapless young man that was nearly family to her, but she had to admit, she was at least more cautious around him now. Anytime she made a move towards his nose or ear, the staff would rap her knuckles, although Joxer chastised it repeatedly. It really wasn't Joxer himself that she was nervous about, but the newfound power that he had so little control over. And it comforted her somewhat that he seemed as confused by it as she was.

She watched as he made an angry face and said something to the latest of his rock creations, which then grew legs and skittered nervously away from him, much to the wizard's apparent chagrin. He slumped over and rested his head in his hands. He didn't mean any harm, she knew. He had changed the shopkeeper back to human form as soon as he'd regained his senses, and been enormously apologetic. The shopkeeper, for his part, had insisted Gabrielle take a dozen brand new scrolls, free of charge, seeming enormously relieved when she finally accepted them.

Her impulse to go and comfort the young man was quashed when Xena dropped to the ground to sit beside her. She nodded towards the oblivious Joxer. "How's he doing?"

"He's getting frustrated. Are you sure he can handle this, Xena? He's - changing. I'm not sure he likes it. I'm not sure I like it." A small creature that looked like a cross between a rock and a rat scuttled past the two women.

"He has to handle it, Gabrielle. It's a part of him, like that nose of his or his brown eyes. And frustration is a part of learning a new skill. Soon he'll be able to really be a help to us in a meaningful way. Or if it still bothers you to have him with us all the time, he'll be capable of taking care of himself when he goes off on his own." Xena stood up and dusted off the back of her skirt. "Either way we all win." The Warrior Princess strode over to advise the struggling wizard in his quest for control.

The bard looked at the blank scroll she had brought here with her. She looked at her best friend and Joxer as they talked together. Maybe I don't want him to be able to take care of himself. Maybe I enjoy someone needing me. She unrolled the parchment and sighed. At least she had lots of new scrolls. Now that she was traveling with two people who had amazing abilities, she was going to have plenty of use for them.