Standard Disclaimer - These characters, most of them, belong to Universal, and Renaissance Pictures, and whoever else has a stake in Xena: Warrior Princess. This is written just in fun, and no copyright infringement was intended.

Specific Story Disclaimers:

Violence –Oh yes.. there is violence. This is a combination story, and includes both Uber Xena sections, and Regular Xena sections. Regardless of time period, or current incarnation, our lovable Xena does tend to be a violent person. So, we have slicing and dicing, and crunching of bones… but no emasculation in this one.

I think.

Subtext - Subtext.. there's a debate going on at this point as to whether subtext is subtext or just plain maintext nowadays on the series. At any rate, this story does involve women who are in love with each other.. so if that puts your undies in a wad, please go choose something nice out of the general fiction area. There's lot's of good stories there.

And while we're on the subject, if you do read past the above warning, and are offended by the love described in the story, email me your snail mail address, so I can send you some German chocolate cake, OK? I feel horrible for you.

UberXena - Ok - this story contains characters of the Uber Xena genre. Some folks don't like to read that. There are sections of two characters that showed up in a previous story of mine (Bound) and they'll be mixed with sections involving our old friends, Xena and Gabrielle. Just want to warn you, OK? OK.

 Any and all comments are always welcome. You can email them to:

Reflections from the Past - Part 2

By Melissa Good

Pace, pace pace. "Y'know, Ares… sometimes, I just want to kill her." Pace pace pace. "It's not like we needed lunch, it's not like we just didn't have six apples, two mugs of tea, and some cider, right?"

"Roo." The wolf looked up at her and poked his tongue out.

"Right." Pace pace pace. "Neither of us is in any danger of starving to death, today. Right?"

"Roo." Ares agreed.

"Right." Pace pace pace. "Of course, it's all my fault, I know. I should know better by now not to mention something like.. 'Gee…I'd really like some of mom's fish stew.' In front of her, right?"


"Arghhrroo." That a sigh of agreement, as the black wolf put his head down on his extended front paws.

"You said it." Gabrielle stopped pacing, and mindlessly rearranged things on the table. "Dammit, Ares..where is she?" Xena had been gone far too long, on what was supposed to be a short trip up to the inn, after she dutifully, and against Gabrielle's protests tugged on a pair of leggings and her heavy tunic and cheerfully challenged the horrible weather outside. "Stubborn.. that's what she is, Ares, stubborn… she does that just to be perverse, you know that?"

The wolf's ears drooped, and he settled down on his haunches with a sigh, keeping his nose pointed towards the door.

"All right.. all right… let's just keep things in perspective here, Gabrielle. She's a big girl. It's not that far to the inn.. maybe she just got involved in talking with mom.. or Toris.. or maybe something needed doing up there.. she can take care of herself, remember?" She resumed her restless movement. "C'mon.. just relax, all right?" She flinched as the wind blew a limb against the cabin, making the building shudder in response. "Great." She muttered, feeling her gut tense up.

"I should have been able to argue her out of this, Ares." She sat down next to the wolf and put an arm across his dark shoulders. Her eyes found the floor, and she traced a bit of the woodgrain with one fingertip. "I shouldn't have yelled at her." She rested her head against Ares'. "I always do that.. you'd think I'd know by now the one way to get her to do something is to yell at her about it."

"This was really a stupid time to keep something from me." She'd cursed, as her fumbling fingers worked at catches in the warrior's armor, trying to pull it way from a body suddenly grown weak and stumbling.

"I didn't know how much poison was on that dart.." The warrior's halfhearted protest, as she tried to help, but finally just let her arms drop to her sides.

"Xena, it doesn't matter! If there was even a chance of your being sick, you should have told me! You could have gotten killed!!!" Gabrielle's anger had made her voice nervous and sharp.

"Gabrielle." The strain in Xena's voice had stopped her cold. "Yell at me later."

That tone had frightened her, and so had the shivers she could see making their insidious way over the stricken warrior's body. She was so used to Xena being capable.. in command.. of herself, of the situation… seeing her this helpless triggered a skittish panic in Gabrielle's gut that brought nervous words to her lips. "How bad is it?"

"I..I still don't know." Xena replied quietly. "My legs are pretty much useless.. I can't feel my feet. My arms'll probably go next."

She'd stared at her own hands, willing them not to shake. "You're going to pull through, though.." She took a sudden breath. "Right?" No answer. "It's not.."

Silence, in which she could hear the murmurs of the villagers preparing for battle, and the quick, nervous strike of the blacksmith's hammer outside. She looked up into those blue eyes, willing her to speak, to reassure.

"It's going to get worse before it gets better." Xena finally said, with a quiet sigh.

Her, impersonate Xena? It was an insane idea.. but those blue eyes had captured hers, and pleaded in silence and she'd reluctantly agreed, anxious to do something.. anything to ease the quiet, growing desperation she saw in Xena's face.

"I want you to ride in, and out of there." Xena had said, adjusting a buckle, a faint glint of appreciative amusement in her eyes at the awkwardness in Gabrielle's.

" riding.. that means Argo. She hates me." Gabrielle had protested, jumping a little as an armor bit pinched her.

"She doesn't hate you." Xena replied, lifting her sword over the girl's head, and shoving it home into its scabbard. "Didn't you tell me you had a pony once?"

Gabrielle felt the weight of it almost pulling her backwards, and she lifted an uncertain hand over her shoulder to feel its presence. Oh gods.. she'd thought.. what in Hades am I doing? I probably can't even lift that thing. "Yeah.. I did." She answered, with a faint smile. "Tympani."

Xena let her hands drop to her sides, obviously exhausted. "Did you.. leave Tympani with your..sister?"

Her eyes had clouded in memory. "No.. no.. actually.. he.. got really sick one day." Her gaze flicked anxiously to Xena's pale face. "I thought he was going to get better but… that’s.. what happens to things you love." She remembered the morning she'd walked into the barn, and seen his still, unmoving body. "They just leave you."

A hand fell on her shoulder, warming even through the layers of leather and brass between them, and she looked up, to meet those deep, blue eyes, gazing back at her with poignant understanding.

There was such a gulf between them, but every day it seemed, another faint, thin strand was being thrown across the chasm, giving her yet another fascinating peek behind the warlord's dark mask. What had started out to be a harebrained adventure had become, in many ways, a journey down a road she had never imagined, and she had found herself lately becoming more comfortable with the road, and the companion who chose to travel it with her.

She hadn't wanted the journey to end, so soon after it had begun, and that, maybe, was why it had hit her so hard, coming back… after she'd done the impossible, and escaped from the warlord's clutches, running back into the factory almost into Salmoneous' waiting arms.

And he'd stopped her, his always genial face tense and upset.

"What?" She'd stammered, very softly, looking into his face. Seeing the grief, and knowing in her heart it could only have one source.

The villagers had silently cleared a path for her, to a silent pallet, where a body was covered by a coarse, brown blanket.

She never remembered walking over to it. Just.. there she was, dropping to her knees in a soft clash of armor, her hands gripping the sides of the pallet to keep herself upright.

A hand.. was is hers? Twitched the blanket aside and revealed that utterly still, pale face. Silent. Lifeless. Motionless as Xena's face never was, there always being some movement, of an eye, a brow, an ear. Aching, she lifted a trembling hand and touched a soft eyelid, feeling not even the faintest motion underneath.

No. Her fingers brushed the soft, dark hair out of the warrior's closed eyes. No.. no.. not yet. You promised you'd be here when I got back.. remember? Please? Xena?

Salmoneous had settled at her side, but she ignored him, gently arranging the long, thick locks of hair over Xena's bare shoulder. How wonderful it felt, silken.. in a motion she would never have dared use had the warrior been alive to see it.

So.. her mind numbly realized. I guess the journey ends.. here…for her. She leaned over, recognizing the scent of leather, and herbs, and spice that she always associated with Xena, and letting it fill her lungs. Remembering her. It hurts, Xena. Oh gods.. it hurts to lose you.

Closer, and her lips brushed the warrior's cooling cheek, pressing there for a long, heartfelt moment before she rocked forward, and let her head rest against Xena's, in grief.

How can I say goodbye to you? We barely knew each other.. and it feels like I'm losing a part of myself. You became so important to me in so short a time.. Xena.. I'll miss you so.

The tree hadn't deserved what she'd done to it, but it seemed the only outlet she could find.. for the raw rage..and pain.. she never even felt the sting of the staff's impact against the wood… or the raw scraping of the bark against her back as she slid down it, to curl up in an aching ball at it's base.

"Sorry, Ares." The bard wiped her eyes with an irritated hand, and brushed the sparkling tears off his coat. "I'm just being silly, I guess." She rubbed his ear, then blew in it.

"Arggrrooo." He protested, shaking his head rapidly, then chewing on her fingers. She wrestled with him for a few minutes, then wrapped her arms around his warm body and laid her head down against his side, letting her eyes rest reluctantly on the candle she was using the mark the time. "Guess I'd better get busy doing.. something."

Standing up, she brushed herself off and moved the two chairs aside, clearing herself some floor space. "Might was well get some sparring in, right, Ares?"

"Roo." The wolf cleared out of her way, as soon as he spotted her retrieving her staff from the corner. He'd learned the hard way that his mommy's toy was not a good chew thing. The white fur had been tasty, though. "Arrgrrrrr…"

"Yeah, yeah." Gabrielle muttered, as she went through her warm-up routine. "Ouch." She winced. "Look who's talking about rusty." She muttered as she moved the wrong way and caught her shin with the staff. But it smoothed out after a while, and she was able to complete several rounds in fairly good form.

"Ugh." She grimaced, dropping to a knee and sweeping the staff in a reverse move. "That used to be easier." She completed the move and straightened, then whipped around and slammed the staff against a support beam in a neat backhand move. "But that wasn't so bad."

"All right." She finally said, giving Ares a dour look. "You can come out now, chicken." This to the wolf as she came to a standstill in the center of the cabin, curling a hand around her staff and leaning on it.

Two furry ears poked out from under the bed. "Roo?"

"Yeah, you." She put the staff away in it's corner, and gave the door a worried look. "Come on.. get out from under there."

A black nose wriggled at her, but stayed put. "Arrrrghrooo."

"Stubborn. Just like your mother." Gabrielle swore, as she dove under the bed and grappled with him, grabbing his paws and tugging. "Come on.. Ares!!"

He scrambled backwards, and she tugged harder, rolling over onto her back and scooting further under the bed, then freezing in place as a cold draft blew across her legs. Uh oh.

It stopped, and a low, rolling chuckle came to her ears. Oh.. Bacchae breasts. Gabrielle cursed to herself. "Xena?" She realized what a picture she must be making half stuck out under the bed and groaned. "Now.. this isn't what it looks like. "

A warm weight suddenly settled across her hips, pinning her in place. "Oh… really?" She felt the fabric of her shirt move, and a cool draft sent goosebumps up her belly as it was exposed. "That's.. too bad." Xena's voice was rich with playful mischief, and the bard could feel the coldness of her clothing warm as their body's heat combined.

Oh… no… "Xena… now.. don’t' you get any cute ideas.. ok?"

"Cute?" Xena repeated, running one light fingertip across her belly, making her muscles tense. "Oh.. I don't get many.. cute… ideas." She ran her hand down the thin line of crossed, almost colorless hairs that marked the middle of the bard's stomach, then circled her navel playfully, watching the muscles twitch just under the skin as the bard fought off an attack of the giggles. "Mmmm…" The warrior traced a meandering line across the soft surface. "Although you do inspire them."

"Xena?" The bard's voice drifted faintly out, muffled as she tried to stifle a wild giggle.

"Hmmm??" The warrior answered, continuing her gentle exploration, grinning as she watched her partner's chest heave as her fingers hit a particularily ticklish spot just under her ribcage. "Oh.. I like that noise." The bard had let a tiny, piteous groan esacape.

"Uh.. there's.. this.. well..I know how protective of me you are.. right???" Gabrielle's voice broke twice, as her partner took a gentle nibble against her skin and the sensations crossed teasingly between ticklish and sensual.

"Oh.. yeah.. you bet." Xena replied, running a finger along the bard's ribcage, then down her side. "Nobody's gonna get within spitting distance of you out here, I promise." She felt Gabrielle's thigh muscles tense, and reached behind the bard's leg, running a light touch up the back of her thigh.

"Augh!" Came the muffled groan. "Xena! There's.. uh.. there's this dust bunny..OK? And.. uh.. he's gonna eat me… uh… he's got big teeth..and these weird.. glowing.. kinda … oh.. gods.. stop that!!!!" She paused, struggling. "Please???"

Xena grinned, and relented, rolling off Gabrielle's hips, and catching her under the knees, tugging her out from under the bed gently.

Gabrielle ducked out from under the bed and glared at her. "I.. am.. going.. to .. get.. you.. for .. that." She growled through clenched teeth, then launched herself at her laughing partner and took them both to the floor in a heap. She had the advantage, because Xena still had on her heavy outer cloak, and got tangled in it, giving her the opportunity to get a solid hold on the larger woman and clasp her hands together, rendering Xena motionless. "Gotcha." She panted in triumph. "Now.. where in Hades were you?"

"You wanted fish stew." Xena replied patiently, not moving. "Mom was short of a few things."

"Like?" Gabrielle questioned, not letting up on her hold.

"Fish." Her partner answered. "Well.. that kind."

"Xena. You are not going to tell me you went fishing." The bard leaned close, and whispered in her captive's ear.

"Ok, I'm not." The warrior replied amiably. "You wanna let me up now? It's getting kinda hard to breathe."

"Heh." Gabrielle smirked. "I really gotcha this time, don’t I.. .you can't get loose." And that was a first…though she'd been getting much better at wrestling lately.. since they'd been using it as a convienient substitute for their more usual outdoor activities.

Xena gazed at her, letting the faintest of smiles touch her lips. "Not without hurting you, no."

The bard thought about that for a minute. "Oh." She let the warrior go, rubbing the places she'd held her gently. "Sorry." Her eyes flicked to the table. "That's a pot of fish stew, Xena."

The warrior nodded slowly. "Yep." She paused, remaining where she was, flat on her back on the rug. "You still mad at me?" That in a joking tone, but there was a wistful color behind it that touched Gabrielle, and she responded by laying her head down on her partner's chest, and winding her arms around her, this time with a quiet gentleness.

"I love you." She said, softly, smiling as he heard the heartbeat under her ear catch and go on.

"I love you too, my bard." Xena answered quietly, smiling a little. "So.. what have you two been up to while I was gone?"

Gabrielle tightened her grip and let out a contented sigh. "Me and Ares.. we were, kinda talking, you know? And we were just kinda wondering where you'd got off to."

"You were, huh?" Xena nibbled her hair and returned the hug. "Mmm… you ready for more scrolls?" She suddenly raised her head. "Where is Ares?"

Gabrielle rolled up to a sitting position, and pushed her hair back out of her face. "Under the bed."

The warrior bounced to her feet, and offered Gabrielle a hand up. "Oh.. so.. how'd the sparring go?" She gave the bard a teasing grin as she dumped a pair of bowls and two spoons on the table next to the stew.

"Haven't been doing enough of it." Gabrielle sighed, as she scooped out two portions of the fragrant stuff. "Hit myself a dozen times.. I can't remember the last time I felt so clumsy."

Xena carried the two bowls over to the fire, and set them down on the low table, seating herself, and waiting for the bard to settle back against her before she handed her one and took the other. "You'll get caught back up." She commented, unconcerned. "Besides, this isn't the best place to do that.. the ceiling and all the obstacles probably caused you some problems."

Gabrielle chewed on a bit of carrot and swallowed. "You trying to make me feel better?" She accused, pointing at her partner with the spoon.

"Yep." Xena mumbled around a mouthful, as she pulled the next scroll over, and started to examine it. "Got a problem with that, bard?"

"Nope." Gabrielle sighed happily. "It worked." She settled down, as Xena cleared her throat, and started to read.

My first thought was of thirst, strange, since submerged half in water I was, my fingers half dug into the rough, grainy sand of the beach I lay on.

I was loathe to move.. my body felt as though horses had run over it, but I force mine eyes open, and blink away the salt to see pale daylight, and hazy clouds overhead.

I was alone.

The gulls circle over endlessly, as I gathered my strength to pull myself up out of the water, and higher up onto the beach. The warm sand felt good against my body, and I rested there for long moments, until the maddening tinkle of water flowing drew me like a moth to a candle.

I dragged myself towards it, finally almost plunging myself into it's coldness unseen, as the small stream emerged from the thick undergrowth, and slid serpentlike for the sea.

Lady.. the sweetness of tha t water matched the finest ales ever served at my father's table. I drank until I was filled to busting, then burrowed into the fragrant greens and washed my body over, cleansing it from the sea's stiff embrace.

Long moments I rested, letting the blessed sounds of the land soak into my ears, long used to the ceaseless whispers of the sea. I exulted in the birdsong, and the crickets edgy warbling, and in the smell of rich green leaves and deep brown earth that rose about me in a wonderful pool of memories.

I keened for Rhun, and my fellow slaves, and thought not for the Northerners, for deserved of this I kenned them. Was that evil, my Lady? Seabourne they are, so that the sea took them.. I am content.

My eyes turned seaward, and a motion distracted me. I turned my head to see a lone, spare figure following my ragged tracks and knew it was my Northern captor. Searching for her slave, was she? Her eyes spotted me now, half hidden as I was in leafy green and I looked back at her, outlined against the sun like the Ban Sidhe themselves.

Did I hate her? My Lady, I was too tired to care between my choices. She came close, and I saw she had her axe in hand, but she held it outwards, and did not threaten me with it. Closer still, and I could see the bruises on her skin, and then she knelt before me, gazing at me with eyes as colorless as the hazy sky above us.

She was strange to me, but this land was stranger, and at least.. at least here were one more pair of eyes that had seen my homeland, though that might be the only thing we shared between us. I waited, for her to make her feelings known to me, knowing her kind, knowing she would feel the need to control.

But, like the land, we Kelti know how to bend a knee, while taking a soul.

"Ardwyn." Her voice was strained, as though she had been yelling, and I had a hazy memory of her doing so during the storm.

"Ja?" I answered softly.

"Frels." An ironic tilt to her fair head. Free. Aye, Lady, I suppose I was.

"Ja." I acknowledged her sentence, lifting my hand and pointing about. "Frels."

She nodded slowly, and gazed at her axe, her face a solemn mask. I waited. After a peaceful silence, she looked up at me, her voice betraying nothing of what she felt. "Koma?" Ashrug of one shoulder, indicating she cared not whether I chose to come… or stay.

But.. looking at her, my eyes saw one thing, and my hear saw yet another. Or.. was I just fooling myself, and seeing what I, in my loneliness, wanted to see? No matter, in a land as strange at this one, better two, even two who are enemies, than one alone.

"Ja." I replied, into that green silence. "Var er gang, e gang.." A simple thought, I knew not why she smiled at it. Slowly, I put my hand on a tree's rough skin, and pulled myself up, and she stood to join me.

Lady, she was long.. I had never stood by her side thus, my head barely at her shoulder, but I followed, as she silently led the way further in, as the green ferns closed about us and painted the air with their rich fragrance. At each step, I left my past further behind, felt it fade into the darkling past, and forced my eyes to forward go, determined to meet the challenges of this new land since my heart knew I would no more see my own.

Xena stopped reading, and laughed a soft, surprised laugh, her finger tracing some of the words on the page. "Damn." She cursed quietly.

"What?" Gabrielle said, from her very comfortable position, curled up against Xena's chest. "What's so funny?"

"This.. the translation of what she said.. " The warrior shook her head. "You won't believe it."

The bard bent her fair head forward, and glanced. "What.. the e gang stuff? What is it?"

Xena smiled, and watched her face. "She said.. 'where you go, I go."

Gabrielle's eyebrows shot up. "No way!" A quick glance at Xena's face told her the warrior wasn't kidding. "That's really weird." She paused. "Don't you think?"

"Mmm… yeah. I think." Xena confessed, studying the text thoughtfully, then taking a long look at Gabrielle's face. "Quite a coincidence."

The bard rubbed her nose, and studied the parchment. "Mmm." She chewed her lip. "I don't think she meant it the same way I do."

Xena thought about that. "Probably not." She replied, slowly. Not yet, anyway. She added in wry silence.

"So.." The bard tilted her head and gazed lovingly up at her partner. "You think Ardwyn was right? Did Elevown really want her to come along?"

Xena's eyes misted with memory for a long instant. "Yeah." Her lips quirked into a sudden, rueful grin. "I'd say she's right on there."

Gabrielle chuckled softly, and offered her up a bit of muffin, which Xena took neatly in her teeth and chewed. "Good for her."

This was a strange land I found myself in, with plants and creatures unknown to me, though skilled I was in kenning their kind, and uses. I watched Elevown stride before me, her axe held ready at her side, picking a path for us to follow, though I knew not where she led me.

And had no words to ask her, for my few bits of her language had come from the Northmen's crude jokes and orders, not many from her lips which seemed stiff with ill use.

Not a soul did we see, just rabbits, who scattered from out path in startled flight, and other small creatures whose forms were becoming familiar to mine eyes, though some were larger, and the colors were strange.

Awhistle, and I jerked, to see blood spattering, as her axe took life from an incautious rabbit, the white fur going crimson as it' twitched it's last on the green mossy surface.

I.. am not a sentimental sort.. but killing I like not, even beasts of the forest whose bodies go to feed mine own. Nonsense, I realize, knowing it is the Lady's wish that some creatures go to insure life for others, but I cannot help it. So I averted mine eyes, and suffered her scorn, as she stripped the beast of it's skin, and I turned aside to gather some small wood for a fire.

Ah, but here I found mine own contribution to a meal, round and bright, their form unfamiliar, but the smell of them.. oh, Lady.. that they smell so sweet, surely they are wholesome for a poor traveler to eat. I stripped a leaf from a nearby tree, and cupped a basket of it, filling it with the dark, shining fruits before returning to where I'd left her kneeling over her prey.

For that is how I thought of her, a predator, whose teeth and claws had rendered my family lifeless, and brought me far from home to this strange land. Dangerous, I kenned her, and yet…

And yet.

Eyes the color of fog looked up at me as I returned, and laid my sticks down, adding dried moss beneath them, and stopping there, in consternation.

I had no striker, and by the look in her eyes, nor did she. Another time might have found it comical, but now….

We looked at each other, and she spoke several words I knew to be curses, so I said a few of mine own, then, cautious, held out my leaf basket to her.

Suspicious, aye, she was, her eyes never leaving mine, as she carefully selected a fruit, bringing it close to her slim, straight nose, that twitched as it caught the sweet fragrance.

Curious now, she bit into it, jumping as, so filled with juice it was, it rushed out and covered her with rich crimson spots. I did not dare to laugh, her dignity forbade it, though my mouth ached with the holding of my mirth at her look. Instead, I captured a fruit of mine own, and chewed it, letting the juices burst inside my salt ravaged mouth.

Oh, Lady.. it was good. Sweet, and rich, with no sharpness to sting my lips, and I looked up, to see a grudging smile on her face that surely, surely matched mine. We finished the fruits, then I willingly took her to where I'd found them, and we ate them like children, until at last, sated, we sat quiet under the shade of a broad leafed tree and felt exhaustion overtake us.

She is stubborn, is this Northerner. We gathered what branches we could, and made a rude shelter, but she would not rest until she had ravaged half a league and found flint and striker, enough to scatter a few placed sparks into the moss, and breathe life into a fire to warm us.

Truly, I was grateful, as the slanting sunlight ran from us and the cool winds chilled me through. With eyes half-closing, we shared our small shelter, as the night sounds began to close in around us. Enemy though, I was glad of her company, as rustlings and hoots startled my senses, tucked as we were into our separate silences.

"Ardwyn." Her voice startled me.

"Ja?" I turned to her in caution, seeing the weariness written in her face, and knowing surely mine was it's mirror, here in this first time spent alone, in the middle of a strange forest, on foreign soil, with each other.

But she said nothing more, just nodded, a little, and rested her head against the fallen tree we sheltered under, letting her eyes close as though she were helpless to keep them open.

As was I, on this night.

Gabrielle laughed softly. "That's cute." She let out a satisfied sigh, and sat up, allowing her partner to stretch and move around. "Gods.. would you listen to that?" She cocked her head and winced, as the roof shuddered under the impact of hail. "Listen.. you are not going out in that again, all right?"

Xena gave her a lazy grin. "Sure.. whatever you say, bard." She reached out one hand and captured a bundle off the table, bringing it closer. "Guess it's a good thing I brought this back now then, huh?" My mother, trapped in a kitchen. Dangerous. Very dangerous. She pulled back a corner of the cloth and exposed the contents to the bard. Dangerous, but tasty. "Interested?"

"Oooo." Gabrielle grinned outright, as she crawled up her partner's chest and sniffed at the package. "That wouldn't be..oh.. nutbread, would it?"

"Maybe." The warrior teased, moving the package higher.

"Xena." The bard growled. "You're being mean."

That got her a half smile back. "Just how long do you think I can keep this away from you?" Xena challenged, with a wicked sparkle in her eyes.

Gabrielle kept silent, but settled back, her eyes softening and finding her partner's in gentle entreaty.

"Not fair." The warrior warned threateningly.

A sideways tilt of the head, and a wistful jutting of Gabrielle's lower lip followed.

"Aw Hades." Xena sighed, and handed over the bread. "I should know better by now." She watched in amusement as the bard tore into the package, breaking off a healthy sized chunk and biting into it happily. "You do love that stuff, don't you?" Then her lips twitched into a grin, as a certain memory struck her.

"You know I…" Gabrielle caught the expression. "What's that grin for?"

"Huh? Nothing." Xena tried to keep her face serious, but the memories wouldn't let her. "Just… thinking of.. that.. time. You remember. The sacrifice?"

Gabrielle rolled her mist green eyes. "Oh yeah… " She stuffed a bit of nutbread into the warrior's mouth. "The great… 'You were soooo funny Gabrielle.. but I won't tell you what you did' caper." She paused, and gave her partner a thoughtful stare. "I bet you made it all up."

Xena's eyebrows rose up to her hairline. "Me? Make things up?" She snorted softly. "Oh no.. YOU're the bard, kid." She prodded her in the belly. "I don't make things up."

"Ooof." Gabrielle protested softly. "C'mon.. Xena… are you ever going to tell me what it is I did? I really don't remember it." She trotted out her best wishing look, and let it loose on her defenseless partner.

Her heart pounding, as that damn woman's words penetrated her mind and she realized she'd sent out food, of all things, somewhere in Gabrielle's vicinity, that was very probably poisoned. Cursing, she'd flung herself out of the homestead, and bolted towards the cave, amazed, as always at how trouble seemed to go out of it's way to find her young friend.

Rounding the corner, she'd ducked inside the cave, scraping her shoulder against the wall and barely feeling it, hearing mostly her own heart beating, as her calls went unanswered. "Gabrielle???"

Aw Hades.. not again. She remembered groaning to herself. Damn that girl gets into more trouble than a…

And then she'd spotted the quiet, still form lying so carelessly on the hard rock floor. A few long strides, and she was thumping down in the dust next to her, cradling the girl's limp form in anxious arms. "Gabrielle?" Still breathing, thank the gods. "Hey.." She'd shaken Gabrielle gently, and felt resistance slowly inching its way back into the girl's body.

Hands had weakly grasped her wrists, and green eyes fluttered open, blinking at her several times before any real recognition showed. "Uh."

Xena had let out a relieved sigh, as she'd grabbed the girl by her shoulders still half supporting her, surprised when the bard showed no signs of wanting to have her let go. "You all right?"

"Oh.. yeah…I'm great…." The bard had warbled. "I can't see.. but.. other than that.. I'm good."

Xena felt the girl nestle closer, and her brow creased. "Try using both eyes." She had suggested dryly.

Slowly, two mist green orbs had disclosed themselves, gazing up at her dreamily. "Oh.. yeah.. that works." A warm smile appeared on the bard's face.

The lack of Iacus worried Xena. "Can you stand up?"

Gabrielle's eyes blinked solemnly. "You mean I'm not?"

Oh boy. She'd thought. We're in trouble here. "C'mon." She'd sighed, and lifted Gabrielle up bodily, holding the girl by the shoulders. "OK?"

Gabrielle had steadied herself, then glanced up. Her eyes had widened, and she'd stared at Xena as though… "By the gods." She'd breathed, alarming the warrior thoroughly.

"What is it?" Xena had snapped, glancing around worriedly, expecting Mallus and his soldiers any minute.

Gabrielle lost her balance and fell back down with a thump, resting her weight on her hands, and eyeing her companion with total absorption. "You are beautiful." The words came tumbling out of Gabrielle's mouth, by way of her henbane loosened sensibilities.

It had caught Xena flat footed, as very few things could. She hadn't expected.. that… kind of reaction from Gabrielle, especially since it was something coming from her gut level.. something she'd never have said otherwise. It brought a curious half grin to her face, as she studied the girl's sprawled body.

Which, she quietly noted, had somehow stopped being quite so girlish for some time now. Maybe it was that Amazon style outfit… yeah.. that must be it. Glad she got rid of that skirt thing. "You.. are drugged." She'd helped the bard up again, quietly dismissing the words.

Yeah, right. "With henbane, if I'm not mistaken.. so it's probably temporary.. " She took a moment to be outraged at herself for the faint, but perceptible tang of disappointment that statement evoked. "but we've got to.."

And Gabrielle had been gone.. strutting away and moving her arms around as though directing an Athens street band. "get you walking." Xena finished to herself, with a sigh. "Get back here." She strode after the bard, catching up with her and spinning her around. "I need you to focus."

Gabrielle had given her a saucy grin. "Sure… but it's a waste of time.." She meandered away, balancing on an invisible beam. "I've been walking since I was one."

Xena had been caught between frustration and amusement, half of her wanting to shake the young girl, the other half getting a guilty enjoyment out of her uninhibited play. "This isn't about walking, Gabrielle.. it's about Iacus.. remember him?"

The bard gave her a sunny grin. "Sure."

Xena had sighed, and gripped her companion's face and forced her to look into her eyes. "Gabrielle.. where is Iacus?"

The bard's hands had come up and firmly gripped her shoulders. "I don't know.. where?"

Frustration got the better hand. "I'm asking YOU!!!" She'd shaken Gabrielle a bit.

The bard had broken free.. and wandered further in the cave. "Iacus… Iacus!!" Then she'd turned, and gazed at Xena with frightened, anguished eyes. "I can't.. I lost him! " Bewildered, she collapsed on a nearby rock, distraught. "I lost Iacus."

Xena had crossed to her, and knelt. "Gabrielle.. it's all right." A hand on her shoulder, and the bard turned her attention on her fully.

"I lost Iacus!" The girl wailed, and wrapped arms around a surprised Xena's neck, seeking comfort.

Xena had allowed herself a long moment of wistful reciprocation, gaining a curious warmth in the knowledge that she was seeing a side of Gabrielle that was completely open, completely uninfluenced by her own dour attitude. The girl really felt that way about her.. it was.. kind of nice. "It's all right.. Gabrielle. He probably saw you pass out, and went for his mother." She'd soothed the agitated bard.

Then she'd stood, and prepared to go. Startled, when the bard popped up, and charged ahead, calling for the rocks in the cave to follow her. Oh boy. "Gabrielle.. I've got a better idea."

Hands firmly on the bard's shoulders, staring intently into her eyes. "I'll go get Iacus… and you.. " her eyes roved the cavern. "And the others.. can…" She ran out of inspiration.

"Practice our song." Gabrielle helpfully supplied, clasping her arm. "Right… good idea." The bard slung a friendly arm around Xena's shoulders, and let her further away from the rocks. "Just between you and me.. the altos are a little flat."

Xena had smothered a grin. "Right." She'd nodded seriously, then focused intently on the bard again. "Gabrielle.."

Eyes flew to hers, and the bard's face lit up, with willing good nature.

"Now.. don't you let.. " Xena had let her eyes rove the cave again. "ANYONE leave the cave, all right?"

A breathless nod.

"Did I make myself clear?" The warrior had insisted, wanting to get this part down pat.

Gabrielle had studied her critically. "No.. you're a little fuzzy around the edges." She slurred, patting Xena's hands lightly. "But you keep practicing.. you'll get it." Then she'd turned her back on the warrior, and strutted over to the rocks, arranging them into a choral pattern, waving her hands and directing them with an amazing amount of energy.

Xena spared a long moment just to watch her, and felt a soft chuckle bubble up, despite the situation. She's never gonna believe she did this.

"I don't believe I did that." Gabrielle stated, flatly. Then she peeked at her partner, who was lying flat on her back, head on hands, gazing at the ceiling. "No way."

Xena rolled her head towards the bard, and gave her a look. "Told you." She sniffed reflectively. "Gods.. were you ever cute though."

Gabrielle groaned. "Xena, that is not cute.. it's embarrassing." She got up, and fussed with the things on the table. "I didn't… um.. "

The warrior glanced at her. "Didn't mean that stuff?" She finished quietly. "Gabrielle.. you were pretty out of it.. I didn't.. take any of that stuff seriously."

A long silence settled between them, as the bard studied the piece of parchment on the table. Then she looked up, and smiled ruefully. "You probably should have." She finally said, softly. "I wish I'd had the courage to say those things.. do those things without the henbane." Another pause, then she went on much quieter. "I wanted to."

"Did you?" Came the answer, on a faintly hoarse note.

"Oh.. gods.. yeah." Gabrielle admitted, resting her elbows on her knees, and watching her hands clasp and unclasp themselves. "There were times… " Her eyes closed. "I'd see you hurting.. or.. just when things were going lousy.. " A sigh escaped her. "You don't know how many times I had to talk myself out of walking over to you and wrapping my arms around you."

Silence again. "I.. felt the same way." Xena finally admitted quietly. "I just didn't think…I mean.." She just stopped, and lifted a hand, then let it drop to the floor. "I look back and kick myself a lot."

Gabrielle dropped down and joined her, laying her head on Xena's stomach, and rolling onto her side so she could see her partner's face. "Don't." She stated, simply. "It doesn’t matter." She pulled over the next scroll, to capture Xena's attention. "Look at this one.. if I'm reading the first line right, it's when they found that cave."

Xena allowed herself to be distracted, and studied the page, then gave her partner a warm smile. "Right on." She laid a hand on the bard's cheek, feeling the muscles curve under it as Gabrielle returned the smile. "Good work.. see? You're getting it.. you won't need me soon."

The reaction startled her, as Gabrielle whipped the scroll out of her fingers, and arched her body up, until she was perched over Xena's chest, eyes boring into hers with stern intent. "Hey?!" Xena blinked. "What'd I do?"

The bard's face stayed serious. "You said a very stupid thing."

The warrior's face was a study in consternation. "Um.. I didn't.. "

Gabrielle's brow furrowed. "No.. you always do that… say stuff like that. I hate it." She took an angry breath. "Not need you? Not even as a joke, Xena."

Blue eyes gazed back in wide-eyed startlement. "Gabrielle… " A deep breath. "Sorry.. I.. didn't mean anything like that, all right?"

"Not even as a joke, Xena." The bard repeated quietly. "I very much want to need you."

"Not even as a joke." The warrior repeated seriously. "I understand." Hesitantly, she lifted a hand, and combed the red gold hair out from the bard's green eyes. "I promise."

And at that, Gabrielle finally relaxed, and let herself collapse, sprawling over her partner's body. "Ok." Now she handed the scroll back, and nuzzled Xena's skin, feeling the warmth through her shirt. "Didn't meant to yell."

Xena let out a held breath, and tucked the whirl of emotions away for later study. That.. she'd have to think about. "Right.." She let her eyes scan the page. "Here we go."

Morning's light found us wakeful, though I at least regretted the dawn's pinkening. Lady, I was sore.. my body felt as though I had been ridden roughshod over by a herd of wild cattle, there was no nook nor cranny of it that didn't ache.

My Northern companion had stirred up before me, and was crouching over the smoldering fire, working at the rabbit she'd killed the night before, and she turned to eye me well, handing back a portion of the scorched flesh.

Aye.. my stomach turned at the smell of it, but her eyes on me were hard and I feared to turn her down, for surely she thought to do me a good deed in the giving.

So I took it, and under her watchfulness, took a bite of the stuff, willing myself not to disgrace the gift, and curiously, my body accepted it, though whether it was due to sheer hunger or just the strangeness of the situation I couldn't tell.

A moon's length on that boat.. I am sadly depleted, and feel as though most of my strength has leaked from me, drawn by the sickness of the seas and the rough labor. So I ate this half burned, half-raw stuff, trying to swallow it without the tasting, watching Elevown gaze at me with those colorless eyes. She ate her portion with rude elegance, feeding the fire it's bones, and gazing off into the forest for a long, peaceful moment.

I considered my plight, which the daylight showed harsh, and plain. I sat her, in this strange land with no tools, no.. anything. Just my hands, and the unknown skills of this Northerner, who might, at any moment, decide to go her own way and leave me on my own.

Lady.. I was afraid.. of the thought of being left alone, I thought then. It was only later I realized I had stopped looking on her as an enemy, though it would be a gentle swath of time before I would think her a friend.

Late morning caught us pushing through a thick patch of forest, and I found my energy waning, watching her stride ahead as though the wind carried her, a wind that seemed bound and determined to push me back away. I slowed my steps, and felt my breath catch, as a friendly tree lent its bark to my questing hand.

She must have heard my footsteps falter, for she turned, and gazed at me, putting her head on one side. I made a motion for her to go on.. knowing no sense for both of us to lack progress, though feeling an ache inside I kenned had little to do with the walking.

But no. . she overwhelmed my expectations, and walked back along the rough path she'd gutted, her even paces a little rolling, as though a ship still pitched beneath her. She stopped before me, and took a hold of my chin unasked, tuning my face to the light as I blinked in the brightness of it.

"Erfidr." Her voice held cool appraisal. Troublesome.. aye, I suppose I was.

"Er ganga." I answered, pulling my face from her grasp, for if I was weakened, whose fault was that? It was not I who wished to sail the endless seas a captive of her brutal kind. "You have enough done, slaughtering my family, and bringing me so far from my home." I finished in my own tongue, tired of trying to think I that odd, cold language.

Did I imagine it? I knew she kenned my tongue not, but the coldness grew colder in those eyes. Fool, I cursed myself, knowing only one soul in all this gods forgotten land and that one insulting.

"Saudajarmer." She spat out, disgust coloring the word, though it's meaning was known to me. A sheep's bleat. Then she turned on her heel, and was gone, and the silence of the forest closed down upon me.

I watched her fur clad form until the branches closed over it, helpless to fend off the feeling of discomfort her leaving started in me.

It was a long, and lonely stretch of time. I rested for a while, and collected some berries, which filled me slightly, then struggled on, not knowing barely where I was going, only knowing there was no shelter there in the forest. Darkness found me huddling beneath a rude canopy of leaves, too tired even to make a fire to warm me. I had found some nuts, and water.. but my body shivered from the cold until I wrapped my arms about myself and gazed achingly up at the stars.

How lonely the stars were.. as my mind cast back to times spent with my brothers and sisters matching the patterns, or long warm nights playing under their canopy.

No more, the wind sighed about me. You are alone in the world. Aye, Lady.. that hurt. The emptiness of the night woke an emptiness in my soul that echoed out in memories of those I had loved.. and lost.. as I sat there with the weight of the night bearing over me as it had not before, when others had been there to share its mysteries.

Mother. I miss your gentle hands. Your voice. My father's smile.

So empty it is, to cry here in this forsaken place, so far from home.

But what does home mean, now? A burned out patch of ground, and empty shadows. Faint echoes of laughter, of children.

No more.

The leaves rustled, and mine eyes searched the moon-slivered leaves, stilling on meeting another pair looking back at me.

Fangs clashed, and a grunt, a cough, of an inky shadow black against the trees, a nightmare shaped as a giant cat. A paw reached, and it moved towards me, and I felt my ending approach.

Was I grateful? Ay.. Lady.. you teach us to savor life.. to cling to it with tenacious strength.. but I cannot say in all good faith that I did not welcome the beast's oncoming darkness. It would be quick, more so than a slow wasting in this misty forest.. and I would, perhaps, become part of the Lady's plan, and serve to give another day's life to one of her creatures.

Closer it came, padding in silent ecstasy, devouring me with its golden eyes, and it's nostrils spread wide.

A pause, it's tail twitching as it crouched, and I closed mine eyes, and offered my soul up to my Lady in quiet peace.

A skittering of leaves, and still I waited. A body's leap.. and a sudden cough that brought my eyes, all unwilling, open wide, as the beast brushed by me, and crashed into the branches.

A ghostly weight curling over its shoulders, a ringing laugh spearing the shadows, and my mind whirled in the knowledge that the Lady had intervened.

Or more truthfully, Elevown had, as she bore the cat to the ground, and set her ax to it's growling throat, drenching the both of us in rich, warm blood.

The harsh tang of that smell would be with me until my dying day, mixed fair with the mossy scent of the ferns I sheltered in, and the sight of the Northerner rising up off her conquest, laughing up into the uncaring sky.

She faced me, the moonlight painting her in stripes of silver and shadow, and reflecting off the parts of her blade not covered in blood.

A step, and she was by my side, a motion, and her face was even with mine, and her eyes were searching with serious intent. She lifted a hand and touched a fingertip to my face, absorbing a tear onto her skin in the breathless silence that joined us.

Lady, I could not make myself hate her, no, not even were you to stand by my side and entreat me. She had saved my life, for reasons known best to her and kneeling there, our breaths mingling, she took something from me that I did not miss until long after. "Er coma?" Her voice sounded lazy, and amused.

Why? No words passed my lips, but my face must have said it, for she gave her shoulders a lift and stood, watching me.

Surely the cat was not alone.. to stay would mean peace, in a little while. To go with her.. meant choosing pain, and struggle. Meant choosing life, for though there were but two of us, two will sometimes survive when one will not.

I looked up into her eyes, seeing suddenly past the coldness, and realized she was as alone in the world as I was, in this place.

I chose life.

And with my weary rising to join her, my imagination thought it for an instant found a gladness behind that mask. Aye or nay, we went.

A long trail, and uphill it was, after Elevown skinned her prey, slipping long finger through the silky fur with sensual pleasure. We climbed, she eagerly, I determined, until a high shelf fell under my worn, tattered boots, and the cold wind curled itself around me as we stood before a rock face, it's sheer, silvery white broken by a dully darkened opening.

Elevown took up the torch she'd left burning by it, and ducked her head inside, as I followed. The shifting, fluttering torchlight showed me a small cavern, with the darker stain of a further passage against the back wall, and a floor covered with thin rock shards that skittered under our steps like trickling water.

Home. For now. Shelter at least, it was, getting us out of the wind and cold, and providing some small shelter from beasts. Elevown's eyes found mine own as we settled wearily against one wall, watching each other with curious intent.

Until sleep overcame us, and the gray mists came down to give peace until the burning dawn called us once again into life's arena.

Life's arena, huh? Xena mused, as she took in an appreciative breath of the cold, bright morning air. Not bad. She decided, as she dodged a low hanging leafless branch, lengthening her stride slightly as the ground began to slant upward.

The sun was just barely over the horizon, and lanced the occasional warm spear through the trees that caught her running form as she settled into a comfortable rhythm, on a well known path. It was a favorite run of hers, down through the barren fields and alongside the river, then up into the rugged hills at a pace calculated to extend her body's resources, and give her muscles a good workout. After much experimentation, she'd found that these early morning runs best served to keep her at a level of conditioning she was comfortable with.. in combination with some light drilling, and the sparring sessions she shared with Gabrielle.

She wasn't razor sharp.. and she knew it. But the lazy winter months had provided benefits that more than made up for a few lost steps in her opinion. She'd paid that price willingly, getting in return a measure of peace that had allowed her to, at least for a little while, put her past behind her and

She knew it wouldn't last forever.. hence she'd made sure not to let her skills slip past a certain point. But just the ability to sprawl peacefully in front of the fireplace with her soulmate all these long nights, without her senses geared to a fever pitch, alert for the faintest sound, the barest hint of danger… had been a very welcome reprieve.

The storm had finally petered out late the night before, and they'd woken up to a welcome dose of warmer weather, warm enough, in fact, for Xena to successfully argue her way out of the cabin in just her leathers, which had been… a little chilly when she'd first started out, but now the cool wind was welcome against skin warmed by her exercise.

"Hey Ares.. c'mon, keep up." She called the busily sniffing wolf, leaning forward a little as the path began to steepen and she cheerfully threw more energy into her run, letting the wind blow her hair back off her face as the dead leaves scattered from under her boots. Gods.. does this ever feel good. She sighed happily. An entire winter of rest and relaxation, and could she ever feel it now, in the resilient springiness in her step, and the almost uncontrollable flow of energy that seemed to be bubbling up out of her like water in a spring.

I needed this. She admitted to herself, reluctantly, having finally understood just how much damage she'd inflicted on her body over the last ten years or so when she'd woken up one morning, and realized it was the first time she could remember not having anything hurt. Nothing.. not even the residual stiffness in her shoulders that she'd been suffering for what seemed like forever. I'd been coping with it so damn long.. I didn’t' know what to do with myself.

Two long strides, and an easy leap over a narrow gash in the hillside, where rain had carved a knife's wound in the muddy turf, and Xena grinned fiercely as a few more steps took her up and over a rock escarpment, and she tucked her body into a neat flip before landing with a little bounce and heading up the slope again. Yeah. She mused thoughtfully. I feel… her lips quirked wryly. Younger. It was as though she was taking tiny steps backward from who she was, towards the person she had been.. before.

Before Caesar. Her mind delicately mouthed the name. Before she'd learned the hardest lessons, about trust, and honor. And love. I swore.. I'd never trust anyone with my heart again that way. She remembered with a wince. And I never did.. not really.. always kept that little wall up.. no, I wasn't gonna let anyone all the way into my heart, not me. Nope. And then that kid from Potadeia had come along.

She's just an annoying kid. Xena had firmly insisted to herself, pulling her cloak of irritable bad nature around her as she'd sat by the fire, glaring into it. She's here for the excitement, and the romance. How many times as she fallen in 'love' since she insisted on tagging along? Every damn boy we bump into, I can usually pick em in the first three minutes.

"Isn't he cute?" Gabrielle's breathlessly confiding voice echoed in her ears and she sighed, shaking her head over the shallowness of the bard's attractions. Yeah, sure, kid. Real cute. Her eyes flicked over to the young girl, curled up asleep on her bedroll on the other side of the fire. Her head rested on the curve of one arm, and her other hand was tucked up under her chin, fingers clenched. The fire's light caressed the girl's pale cheek, and Xena was annoyed to find her lips edging into a reluctant smile as she regarded Gabrielle's air of youthful innocence.

On the other hand, now.. the kid was… pretty cute herself. She admitted privately. More so than any of those little boys she fell in love with. She had a nice smile, and her eyes were really kind of.. they had little golden flecks in them, all kind of floating in all that green. Xena had surprised herself lately by noticing little things like that.. and she'd been telling herself that it was just a matter of idle curiosity on her part.

Yeah. Gabrielle’s not your type, Xena, not one bit, so keep your thoughts elsewhere. She's a good, decent, nice.. sweet.. girl, who's gonna take off with one of these cute boys we keep bumping into and that'll be that. She'd told herself firmly. And I'll be better off.. glad when it happens.

She’d already taken off twice.. it was only a matter of time, right? If not home, or the Academy.. then a guy, and a family was in the girl’s future, no doubt about it. She was.. getting to be a pretty decent cook after all, and she had a relentlessly upbeat attitude that sometimes even managed to nudge Xena into a good mood, especially lately. She'd made someone a good wife, right?

The warrior chewed her lip, thinking about that. Damn.. had it almost been a year? No.. couldn’t be.. But it had been. A year of adventures, and trouble, and… She sighed. And a slow, grudging erosion of her carefully erected wall of indifference. Damn that kid.

"Hey." Movement from across the fire, and she'd looked up to see the girl sitting up, and regarding her with sleepy eyes. "Um.. " Scrambling unsteadily to her feet, the girl had come around the fire, and crouched down at Xena's side. "Everything ok?"

"Fine." Had come the curt reply "Go back to sleep." And she'd seen the sucked intake of breath as Gabrielle absorbed her cold tone, as the girl wrapped her arms around herself and dropped her gaze to the dirt. Damn.. Xena cursed to herself. I’ve been doing that for days. What in Hades is wrong with me?

"Um.. ok. Sure.. well.. it's just you had this strange look on your face.. I wasn't.. " Her shoulders dropped, and she sighed softly. "Never mind." She stood, and went back to her bed, curling back up on her side, and shielding her face from the fire with one arm.

She's trying to reach me. Xena had realized, gazing unhappily through the flames. Why? Her ears, far sharper than the girls, heard the not quite stifled sniffle. She's crying. The warrior had sighed silently. Now what? I swear.. it's easier to deal with an entire army than one little kid. But she'd picked herself up, and walked over to where Gabrielle was lying, kneeling down on the ground and giving her shoulder a rough shake. "Hey!"

The arm had slowly moved, exposing the girl's tear streaked face, and those remarkable, quiet eyes had looked right up into hers, and taken down every wall, every barrier she'd so painstakingly erected with breathtaking ease. "What's wrong?" She'd asked, consciously softening her voice.

"You really don't like me, do you?" Came the quiet question. "I know.. I just kind of pushed myself on you… you resent that. I'm sorry."

Xena had stared at her for a long, silent moment, suddenly ashamed. Of herself, of the way she'd been treating the kid. No one deserved that, especially not Gabrielle. "No.." She sat down cross-legged next to the girl. "I mean.. yes.. I mean… oh Hades, Gabrielle."

Silence. "I do like you." She'd scowled at the girl. "And.. and I don't resent it."

Those eyes. "Really?"

Gabrielle needed to believe that.. and Xena was startled to realize.. it was true. "Yeah.. really." She answered, gruffly, and found her fingers, without her permission, wiping the tears off Gabrielle's face. "You're a good.. friend, Gabrielle." She couldn’t believe how soft the girl's skin was, and before she knew it, she was stroking her cheek, as their eyes searched each others in silence. "And.. I.. I'm glad you.. decided to.. um.. hang around this grumpy old fighter."

The muscles under her fingertips moved as she got a shy smile out of the girl. "Hey.. that's better." She gave back one of her own. "I can see why all those guys fall for you. You got a nice smile."

Gabrielle blushed a little, and took a breath. "Well, you know.. I don't plan on that kind of thing.. it just sort of happens." She gave a tiny shrug.

Yeah. Xena had slowly examined her feelings. It does, doesn’t it? "You get back to bed, ok? We've got a long way to go tomorrow.. I want to get through Thessaly fast.. avoid that war." Belatedly, she let her hand drop, feeling the air cool against her palm in startling contrast to the warmth of Gabrielle’s face.

The girl’s eyes followed her hand, then traveled back up, as she settled again on her side. "Ok.. yeah…that sounds like a good idea." She replied softly, stifling a yawn. "Are you.. um.. going to take you own advice?"

Xena had stared into the flames, and nodded absently. "Yeah.. in a bit." It was, she later told herself, a comfortable patch of grass, with a convenient tree to lean against. Perfectly understandable that she’d just kind of drifted off there. It’d been a long day, and she’d been trying to work out a good path for them to take

But she never quite figured out how Gabrielle managed to throw her cloak over her without waking her up.

You're one tough customer, Xena. She laughed silently at herself. One look into those pretty green eyes, and you were just a pile of goose down. "How'd that happen, huh?" She asked Ares, who was panting and giving her little looks. "S’matter, Ares? Am I tiring you out?"

"Roooo.." The wolf protested.

"Oh, all right." The warrior relented, having reached the ridge top anyway. "We’ll rest a minute." She dropped her pace to a light jog, then to a walk, putting her hands on her hips and letting her breathing settle. "Satisfied?" Her gaze followed the animal, who circled around her, then collapsed in the leaves when she finally halted. "Lazy thing."

The wind curled around her, and she stiffened, catching the faintest of sounds on the edge of her hearing. A cry, but… "C’mon Ares." Xena bolted towards the sound, heading down the ridge on the opposite side from Amphipolis, suddenly aware of the eerie silence that surrounded her. Her footsteps sounded achingly loud in her ears, the impact against the ground reverberating slightly.

The slight sound grew louder, and she slowed as she located it’s source, near the edge of a rocky escarpment. "Whoa.. Ares.. stay here." She put a hand on the wolf’s head, as she edged closer, spotting a small form huddled on the rocky surface. "Easy.."

"Mew." The frightened kitten gazed at her with wide, wild eyes.

"C’mon." Xena sighed, seeing it’s mother, presumably, crouching under a nearby bush, hissing. Great.. she mentally rolled her eyes. At least I won’t have to adopt it. "Easy now." She got down on her belly and eased forward, watching the kitten for unexpected moves. "C’mere." Closer, as the animal pressed itself to the rock, it’s tiny tail twitching in terror.

Her hand extended cautiously. "Hey.. kitty kitty.." She breathed. "C’mon…" The kitten inched it’s neck out to sniff her fingers suspiciously, then mewed again. "That’s it… easy.." She got her hand around the small body, and sighed in relief.

And felt, rather than heard, the subliminal harsh cracking as the thin edge fell away beneath her, sending her body hurtling down the side of the ravine. Cursing, she tumbled in the air, holding onto the screaming kitten with one hand, and reaching out for the rapidly passing branches and crevices she was passing.

A jarring bounce, and she lost her sense of equilibrium as she slammed into an outcropping, sending a fiery jolt of pain through her, stunning her senses as the bottom of the cliff came up too fast, too hard.. and she hit with a sickening crunch.

It hurt so much she was afraid to breathe, aware only of the faint, mocking laughter that floated down after her, as a thick gray blanket settled over her senses.

"Well?" Cyrene peered over the healer’s shoulder at the still form on the bed.

The man gave her a brief, distracted look. "I’d do better without you hanging over me, Cy."

The innkeeper let out a breath, and stepped back, sparing a glance for the slim, tense form staring out the window just to her right. Gabrielle had shed her cloak but nothing else of the heavy clothing she’d worn to lead them, half frantic, to the spot her partner had fallen from. It had taken them a long time to carefully bring the warrior back up the slope, worried that her fall had done some hidden damage that they might be making worse. She hadn’t regained consciousness since they'd found her.

Now, Cyrene stepped over to the bard, and rubbed her shoulders with both hands. "How are you doing?"

Gabrielle turned around, and visibly collected herself. "I’m.. fine. " She said softly. "I’ll… " Her eyes strayed to the bed, and held there. "She’ll be all right." It was more an entreaty than a statement, and the bard’s voice trailed off at the finish.

Cyrene patted her cheek gently. "She has every reason to be." She waited for Gabrielle to glance her way. "She’s very strong, you know that, right?"

A vague nod. "I know." Came the answer, as the bard rubbed her temples and sighed. "I wish I knew what happened.. its… mom, she never has accidents like that."

The innkeeper put an arm around her in quiet sympathy. "I’m sure there’s an explanation.. and she’ll tell us as soon as she wakes up."

That dropped into an oppressive silence, as they turned their eyes towards Renas, who was standing and slowly dusting off his hands. He squared his shoulders, and walked over to them, staring at the floor for a moment before meeting their eyes. "I’ve.. done everything I can." He said carefully. "She’s.. " He paused. "It’s the head wound.. the rest.. that’s just scratches and some bruising, its nothing.. though I can’t imagine how she managed to fall all that way without…" His voice trailed off. "Anyway… all we can do now is wait."

"How long?" Cyrene asked, quietly.

The healer shook his russet head. "I don’t.. it could be anytime."

Gabrielle gazed over his shoulder. "Or never." Her green eyes met his in bleak knowledge, and closed at his faint nod. She felt Cyrene’s arm tighten around her shoulder, and took a shaky breath as she let the sick feeling inside her guts slowly dissipate. "But that won’t happen." She went on, her voice firming. "She’s tougher than that."

He smiled a little. "That.. I would believe." He put a hand on her arm. "I don’t know what level of awareness she has.. try to talk to her.. maybe it will help."

"I will." Gabrielle answered, as she moved past him, and knelt at the side of the bed, carefully smoothing the soft blanket and tucking it around Xena’s shoulders, sighing silently at the stark paleness of her partner’s skin, and the ugly contrast of the bruise that extended beyond the neat bandage that covered most of one side of her head. She curled her fingers around the hand lying still on the covers, and lifted it, warming its cold surface against her cheek. I know you’re in there… you know I’m out here waiting for you.. and you know I’ll never stop waiting. She closed her eyes, and felt the warmth of tears roll down her cheeks. So you come on now.

Cyrene’s heart ached as she watched the bard’s slim form waver, then slowly, gently ease down until her head was resting against Xena’s shoulder, with their fingers interlaced. She moved over and put a hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder. "Honey.. take it easy, all right? I’m going to go bring some soup. " She paused, hesitating, then went on. "For both of you." Injecting as much confidence as she could into the statement.

Gabrielle glanced up at her gratefully. "Thanks mom." She acknowledged, watching them as Cyrene and the healer left, closing the door carefully after themselves. Then her attention turned back to her partner.

"He said to talk to you, Xena." She spoke quietly. "Ok.. I can do that." She searched the battered face so close to her for the faintest flicker of a response, and found none. "Listen.. I know you’re in there… somewhere. And.. I know it’s probably dark.. and kind of scary." She rubbed a thumb against the back of the warrior’s hand. "But you’ll find you way back, I know you will."

The silence settled down again, and she could hear the faint sounds of the village floating through the window’s glazed surface. "Xena… " She started again. "I.. I could read to you.. would you like that? It’s kind of my turn anyway.. and I’ve been practicing.. I’m not as good at it as you are.. but.. I can make out most of the words."

Silence. And Gabrielle knew if she let herself sink in to that, the terror would overcome her, and she’d be no use to either of them. "Ok.. then, I’ll read." She reluctantly let go of Xena’s unresponsive hand, and retrieved a scroll, then returned to the bed, and gazed quietly at it’s occupant. "I.. " She put a hand against her partner’s cheek. "You feel so cold… maybe I can help with that, OK?" Moving around to the other side of the bed, she carefully climbed in, and settled against the warrior’s side, pausing for a long moment and watching the faint, shallow breathing.

"C’mon, Xena… " She gently moved the disheveled hair away from the warrior’s closed eyes. "I want to see those baby blues, ok?" The bard swallowed hard. "Have I told you recently just how much I love your eyes?" Her voice dropped to a whisper. "I do… they’re so pretty.." She touched an eyelid with a feather light fingertip. "I love the way they light up when you smile."

So faint, that at first she was convinced it was her own body’s trembling, or worse, her desperate imagination, she felt a tiny quiver under her touch. She held her breath, and felt it again, the involuntary twitch as Xena’s body felt pressure against a sensitive eye surface. "That’s it.. I know you’re in there, love." She removed her hand, and brushed the spot with her lips. "So.. I'm gonna read now, all right?"

Bringing the scroll up, she let her eyes focus on it until the foreign squiggles started to make sense to her, a long process that had her chewing her lip in concentration. Gods.. Xena made this look so easy.. "Ok.. ok.. here we go."

Our lives had settled a bit, though things were very hard, and due to get harder from the worsening weather that day by day whistled colder about our little cave. The country about had mostly thin needled tress, good for stuffing into mattresses, but not so good for eating.

I had marked, and courted tenderly some berry patches I'd found, and collected bits of green to use as we balanced that against what Elevown could catch, which wasn't overabundant since she was held to her heavy ax, and had not the tools to build traps or snares.

It angered her, I kenned.. she was one who desired mastery in all things, and this scraping and scrounging ate at her like water over a rock. She ranged about all the daylight hours, and returned at dusk, more often empty handed than not, to sit in darkling silence against the far wall of the cave, spitting anger about her like water shaking off the back of one of the little birds I watched in my own woodland ramblings.

I was not too successful either, being unused to these woods, and unsure of what was wholesome, and what was not. I tried my hand at fishing.. oh, my Lady, the waters are not friendly to me, that I will say. I did, however, find a turtle, a big one, and that night we had a soup made it it's shell that warmed me, and pleased my reluctant companion much.

I spent the dark nights in contemplation, mostly, in reliving memories of days past. I did not think of the future, for with each passing day in this empty land, I began to wonder if there will be one, or if we are just postponing the end of our travels in this world. She speaks not to me, save little words, of instruction, or sometimes anger. I think she is angry at the world, and not at me, but I keep out of her way in any case. I do not wish to bear the brunt of her displeasure.

For she is strong, more so than I am, and her body is well used to the arts of war. I watched her unnoticed as she stripped her furs to bathe, and saw the marks of her nature on her body, the most striking a long, curving scar that followed the line of her shoulderblade, and which, I think, pained her in the cold nights.

Was a day after too many long ones, with little food, and less hope, and I was out amongst the trees, digging my way to some feeble roots, having a half a pouch full of various things, more or less good to eat. I found a berry bush, and went to it gladly, though it leaned it's slender length out over my hated enemy, the water. But Lady.. I wanted those berries, I was so tired of being always in hunger, seeing my own decline in the darkening hollows of my companion's eyes.

Out I reached, and the fates took hold of me, missing my steps and plunging me into the stream, where icy fingers stripped me of my senses, pushing me further from shore and tumbling in it's violence.

Was it luck that let me find a sudden branch? I know not, only that I felt the wood against my hand, and caught at it, bringing me up against the bank in a rush of water, and mud. I flung myself up out of the water, cursing to the Lady for losing my pouch, meager though it was.

But then a wild fit took me, and I ripped at my clothes, feeling a movement against my skin, only to find, of all things possible, trapped in my shirt a fish.

Lady, I ask you! An enormous fish , that had found it's way next to my skin with impudent abandon. I flung it from me, by fortune alone sending it away from the water instead of towards it, and fair smacked it's wits out against a nearby tree.

Wet, but saucy, I took my quarry, and headed back towards the cave, dripping though I was, and even managed to captures some of my costly and bothersome berries. I was glad to go home that day, for I knew a hot meal, perhaps, would bring a grudging smile to my Northern fellow traveler's face, something very rare of late.

I rounded the path, and entered our shelter, blinking mine eyes to settle them to the darkness within. A noise alerted me, and I cast my eyes back, seeing Elevown in her spot against the wall, her knees drawn up, and her arms wrapped about them. I stepped closer, and she drew her face aside, but not before I saw great, angry lumps on it.

I dropped my burden, and moved forward, mine eyes catching at hers in some worry, and she waved me off, aye, with that scowl of hers that warned me keep my distance.

But foolish I am, and tending to stubbornness, and I came to her despite, taking to my knees and looking close at the swollen marks, which, now I was closer, also marched up her arms. I made mine eyes my question, and with a disgusted look, she pulled a bit of something from her shirt and held it out to me.

I took it in my hand, and looked, peering close at it's tiny form and ugly features. It seemed to me kin of the stinging flies of my land, and I sniffed it, wrinkling my nose at it's acrid smell. Mine eyes peered again at her, knowing if she were stung by this kind, she must be in agony. And truly, though her face was still, I believed her such, and felt in my guts for her.

Now here eyes were on mine, and her fingers reached out, touching the wetness of my clothing, and looking question at me. Lady, I had almost forgotten! I went to my pack, and pulled my fish from it, displaying it in pride to her, and contented with the partial smile that earned from it, for then she picked up a basin held close to her, and offered it up to me, and I came close enough to see what it held.

Ah, Elevown! So that was the price of your agony! As in my land, the stinging beasts bore honey, and so it was here, the comb included thick with the sweet stuff.

We made merry that night, with our fish, and our berries with honey, and I would not rest save that I had gotten some herbs, or close as I was able, and made a paste to cover her stings with, and I slept that night with a good heart

"Oh, I liked that one." Gabrielle's eyes searched her silent partner's face. "Didn't you?" She waited through the aching moment of realizing she wasn't going to get an answer, and felt something crumble a little inside her. The parchment rustled as she set it down, and let her head rest a moment on Xena's shoulder. "Xena… I don't know where you are right now… " She felt the ache and let it come. "But I miss you." A hand lifted to stroke the warrior's upper arm gently.

A whine caught her attention, and she peered down at Ares, who was lying on the floor close to the bed. "You miss her too, Ares?"

The wolf got to his feet, and laid his head on the edge of the cloth covering Xena, licking her hand wistfully. "Roo?" He had met her halfway to the gully, scrambling over the rocks in his haste, and almost knocking her over as she lead the group of confused, and doubting villagers. Seeing Ares though.. that made them understand that her 'feeling' was something more, and they followed willingly as she ran on shaking legs to the edge of the escarpment.

Gabrielle stroked his head gently, then sighed, and returned her attention to Xena's expressionless face. "What happened, love?" She tugged the neck of the warrior's shift closer about her throat, and, hesitantly, felt her pulse point. "What could make you fall down that cliff? That's not like you at all." And it wasn't, that Gabrielle was sure of. Even after a long winter of relative inactivity, and though she'd undeniably, deliberately let some things slide, Xena was never careless, and she was aware more than anyone else would have been exactly what her capabilities were. It didn't make sense.

Seeing Xena like this.. She shuddered. Brought back all the nightmares. Of that long, desperate trip up that mountain, only to face failure at the top. Watching Xena grow more and more distant, as she stopped fighting the injuries that had taken her down, and gave in to the pain, and, now Gabrielle knew, to the horrible memories her fevered mind was displaying for her.

That same heavy feeling in her chest, only this time it was worse, because this time she knew what she was losing. "No." She ground out. "I am not going to think that." Her eyes fastened on Xena's face. "You promised me, Xena." She leaned forward and put her mouth close to the warrior's ear. "So you fight this, you hear me?" She took a breath. "You fight this, and you get back here, Xena… damn it.. Xena.. please…" Her voice choked. "Please… please come back."

"It is not enough.. all the medicines sometimes." Nicklios had told her, with a sad note in his voice. "The will has to be there… the will to hold to life with all your strength." He'd bound her leg, watching the exhaustion in her face turn to anguish as his words penetrated.

"No." She'd whispered. "Don't let her die." She'd dropped to her knees, not even feeling the pain as her leg hit the floor of the hut. "Please… do something."

"Child." His hand had caressed her face. "Her will is far stronger than any medicines I have." Nicklio's eyes went to the silent, shadowed face on the pallet, and he touched her gently. "Her breath is fading."

"Nooooo.." It had felt like the howl of an animal coming from her throat, and she'd thrown herself over her friend's body, as though that could stop death from taking her. "Xena.. don't leave me, please…"

But the faintly moving chest had stilled under her touch, and the last, gentle fluttering of her heart had gone under the bard's fingers, and she'd known, as though she'd felt Xena's spirit passing through her on the way.

Oh.. gods.. it had hurt. Like someone was ripping her apart inside, leaving nothing but an empty place, and the sense of being utterly alone that rushed over her in a silent, agonizing wave. "It's not your time… I can feel it.." She'd pleaded silently. "Xena.. I feel so empty.. it's scaring me.. please.. come back.. the world needs you." The pain hit her. "I need you."

But only silence, and death answered her. She'd spent the night curled up in a tight ball, refusing to let go of Xena's cooling hand, until Nicklio's gentle fingers set the warrior's arm back aside her body, and lifted the bard up, carrying her to a small pallet nearby, and soothing her hysterical crying until she could understand what he was saying.

Fire? No… Her mind wearily remembered. "I have to take her home." A promise she'd made in what seemed like another lifetime ago, now coming home to her at last. "To her family."

"Child." Nicklios sighed. "Are you not her family?" He chafed her hands. "I think you are."

Am I? Gabrielle remembered thinking. Not enough for her to not leave me, I guess. And somehow, that thought had hurt almost more than losing Xena itself. She tried to feel resentful of that, but the emptiness prevented that, it filled her with a aching need that allowed no intrusion of any emotion save sorrow. Xena.. her mind cried in anguish. I'm lost… and I'm so far from home. far from you… you are my home, you knew that. A thousand things left unsaid came to her, unbidden.

Oh.. gods.. I loved you. It was a shattering truth that left her spent, and gasping, slumped helpless on the pallet under Nicklios concerned eyes. And in that single moment, not recognized until long after, she'd seen the healer start, and felt, oh so briefly, a gentle touch on her hair that might have been a passing breeze.

Gabrielle let the horror of the memory run it's course, and as her head rested gently against her soulmate's, the fingers she had clasped so firmly in her own pressed oh.. so softly back.

The bard stared at their linked hands, resting on Xena's shoulder, and stopped breathing, until she felt it again, unmistakably. Her eyes darted to her partner's face, and now.. looking closely, she saw the faint beginnings of tension under her pale skin. "I knew you were in there." She breathed, brushing her lips across Xena's cheek. "Keep fighting, love."

Cyrene slipped through the cabin door, closing it behind her as she swung the small pot of soup clear of the opening. Half afraid, she glanced across the room, letting out her breath as she saw her daughter's slowly moving chest, and sighing a little at the sight of Gabrielle wrapped around her, arms curled protectively over Xena's head and shoulders.

She set the pot down, and walked over to the bed, circling around Ares' watching eyes, and studying her daughter carefully, keeping silent to avoid waking the exhausted bard. The head wound seemed to be staying closed, and Xena's breathing was stronger, Cyrene was glad to see, and the hand she laid briefly on Xena's shoulder felt the warrior's body to be much warmer than it had been when they brought her home. Hades of a time for Toris to be out hunting.. She muttered silently. He and Granella were due back tomorrow, and she hoped they'd followed their plan.. she needed the moral support, and knew Gabrielle did also, especially…. But no. Her mind firmly put that thought aside.

Just then the green eyes fluttered open, and tracked to her dazedly, then dropped to her partner's face, and stayed there. "Mom." She said softly. "She squeezed my hand."

Cyrene knelt down, and patted the bard's fingers. "She knows you're here, honey." She smiled at the very tentative, ragged half smile on Gabrielle's face. "You need to believe that."

Gabrielle let her head drop back to rest against her soulmate's. "I do." She gazed fondly at Xena. "She's really stubborn, ya know." Was that a hint of a twitch near her mouth? Her eyes lifted to Cyrene's "I hear that runs in the family."

That got a soft snort from the innkeeper. "Glad to see you with your spirits up, honey." She sighed. "Wish I knew what made this damn fool kid take a plunge off that cliff."

Was that another twitch? Gabrielle slid an experimental hand over her partner's upper chest, and felt the muscles under the skin tighten as they took on tone under her fingertips. "I don’t think she likes being called a kid, mom." She laid her hand down flat above Xena's heart and tucked her lips down close to her ear. Wonder if she can hear us? A faint smile etched the bard's lips. "I love you." She whispered, and felt the heartbeat under her touch skip. Oh yeah. "She can hear us."

Cyrene gazed at her. "How can you tell?"

Gabrielle smiled up at her. "I've got many skills."

That got a wan smile from the innkeeper, who edged closer, and gently probed the ugly wound on her daughter's head. "Well, if you can hear me, Xena, you hang in there, all right? You banged yourself up good this time."

A flutter under her fingertips. "Come on, love." Gabrielle whispered. "I know you're in there." She paused. "Open your eyes for me, ok?"

"Honey, give her time." Cyrene protested. "That's a bad bump she took.. this is going to take a little while."

Then watched, in some amazement as the injured warrior's eyelids blinked partway open, dazedly finding Gabrielle's intently watching face, which broke in a big smile. "Hey…."

A quirk of an eyebrow answered her, but it was enough. "Xena, don't move around, ok?" Which, now that she thought about it, was a pretty dumb thing to say, but with Xena, you never knew. "You have a big bump on your head."

A wince, and the faintest of nods.

Cyrene let out a long held breath, and touched her daughter's shoulder, watching the pale eyes track slowly over to her. "Honey?" She smiled at the glint of recognition in her daughter's glance. "You're gonna be fine.. just take it easy, all right?"

Xena took a breath, then a second. "N..not much… choice." The warrior's voice was very faint, and it seemed difficult for her to speak. "E'vrythg hurts." She admitted, moving her gaze back to her partner "It's all.. fuzzy."

The bard felt waves of utter relief rolling over her, despite the warrior's words. "Yeah.. I know." She gently rubbed Xena's shoulder. "Take your time, love… I'm just…" Her fingers moved the dark hair back out of her partner's eyes. "It's good to hear your voice."

Xena's eyes closed, but she managed to lift a hand, and curl it around the bard's knee, sighing a little at the contact. "Stay." She murmured.

Gabrielle snuggled closer, and slipped an arm across her partner's stomach. "Don't worry. I'm not going anywhere." She promised, nuzzling the soft skin on Xena's neck. "You're stuck with me." She watched as the warrior's breathing settled back into the more normal rhythm of sleep, and felt herself relaxing along with it. "It's gonna be all right." She murmured, half to herself, and half to Cyrene, who was watching quietly.

The innkeeper shook her head a little, and patted the bard's hand. "I'm sure it will be, Gabrielle." Privately, she had some serious reservations, but saw no purpose in worrying the bard more than she was already. "You get some of this soup, you hear me?"

The bard blinked sleepily at her. "OK.. I'm just going to.. " She felt a friendly warmth stealing over her, and let her body relax into it. "Um.. stay with her here, for a bit..then I'll get some." The fingers curled around her knee tightened slightly, and she gave the warrior a little rub across her belly in response.

Cyrene sighed, and stood up. "All right, I'll be back in a little while when Renas comes to check her." She reached down and pulled the blanket up to cover the half asleep bard, who gave her a little smile in response, and watched as the innkeeper left the cabin and closed the door after her.

The pounding headache nudged her from a restless sleep into a renewed awareness of her surroundings, and Xena had all she could do to bite back a groan. The gray fog that clung to her thoughts had dissipated a little, but she still had the feeling she was caught in a thick swamp. Every thought was a process of hard labor, and as for moving.. gods. She had to concentrate to an exhausting extent to do the simplest of things, such as moving a finger.

I really did it this time. Her mind cursed sluggishly. A wave of nausea swept over her, and she clamped her jaw down tight, which sent stabs of pain back up into her head. Gods. Breathing hurt. She concentrated on trying to sense her surroundings, and felt a sinking sensation as the results were not good. It was as though her normally sharp senses were swaddled in thick wool, rendering them almost useless.

Sighing, she concentrated on one thing at a time, focusing first on hearing. Slowly, far too slowly, the jumble of sounds sorted themselves out, and she was able to distinguish first the sounds of the room, which included the quiet snap of the fire, the settling creak of the floorboards, and Ares' breathing at the foot of the bed. OK..ok… got that. She focused outward, and caught the wind's brushing against the roof, and the clatter of hooves outside the inn. Better. She then let herself pay attention to the gentle whisper of Gabrielle's breathing, soft against her neck, and the quiet rustle as the bard shifted, and moved closer to her.

Indulged in that for a long moment, then went reluctantly back to sorting out the mess her world was in. Smells..ah. The fire provided a pungent scent of oak burning, and she could detect the rich, meaty aroma from the soup her mother had left. She sighed, as another nauseous wave came over her. Maybe not. Reluctantly, she pried one eye open, closing it again as the light stabbed cruelly into her vision. Ouch. She waited a moment, then tried again, easing her eyelids up a fraction at a time until she was peering hazily out at the room she was in.

Home. A sense of relief flooded her, and she turned her head slightly to gaze at the pale head nestled against her shoulder, managing a tiny smile as her eyes slowly focused on the sleeping bard's face. Gabrielle. Her mind caressed the name. You called me home, love. Just like last time.

Her mind drifted back, slipping out of the present, and ambling dreamily to a dark time. When she had let life slip from her grasp, and was trapped in a place not unlike the gray fog she'd just escaped from.

It had been chaos there, all shifting light and shadow, and the thoughts… gods… they said the dead can hear the thoughts of the living… was that ever true. She'd heard enough to last her… well.. never mind. But as much as she tried not to listen, one voice came ringing through so clear, so sharp.. and the agony in it lanced through her as though the thoughts were knives.

Gabrielle, in a whirl of torment that made Xena almost frantic.. as she tried to batter her way against the thick blanket of grief that surrounded her friend, wanting to find a way.. any way, to bring comfort to her.

But the young bard was in too much pain to listen, and Xena had to endure the nightmares, and the resounding ache that was wearing Gabrielle down even as she struggled to take her fallen companion's body home.. for that one last promise she'd sworn to keep.

It wasn't until Autolycus, with her fierce, desperate intervention, managed to get her body back from the Amazons that there was a break.. a tiny rift in the dark clouds surrounding the bard.. one which Xena was determined to use to get through to her friend at last.

Autolycus wasn't having any of it, but… she'd given him no choice. Not in this, not…in something she wanted so desperately. Needed. Looking into Gabrielle's eyes from the King of Thieves viewpoint, and seeing that look of fragile, haunting, desperate hope trembling there. No. I can't let her lose that.

She'd taken control of Autolycus, forcing his panic down yet again, and locked eyes with the bard, watching her still, as she somehow realized she wasn't just looking at Autolycus. "Close your eyes.. Gabrielle.. and think of me."

And she had. A shift of fog, of place, of time.. and there the bard was, her whole body tense with the need to believe. "Gabrielle.." It had been her voice, in the mists. "Gabrielle…"

Those green eyes had fluttered open, and when her mind recognized what she was seeing, a choking sob escaped her, and a look that was everything Xena had hoped leaped into her eyes. "It's all right.. I'm not dead."

It had taken every single ounce of willpower she had not to just wrap her arms around the bard and simply hug her, and hug her until… oh how she'd wanted to. But they had so little time… so she'd held Gabrielle's headlong rush off with a warning gesture. But it was so hard to watch the joy in the bard's eyes mute softly into haunting pain. "Why did you leave me?"

Oh, Gabrielle.. if only I could have answered that. How stupid it was of me not to realize.. how selfish of me to think I could take the easy way out. That no one would care.

"I have so many things to say to you." Gabrielle voice had softened again.

No time. Her hand raised to still the bard's speech. "You don’t' need to say anything." She'd moved closer, and seen the ache in the bard's eyes again. "We haven't much time.. we've got to get to the ambrosia, or I really will be gone."

Stark, anguish fear took over Gabrielle's face. "Xena.. I can't lose you again." The raw agony had touched her, and she stepped so close she could sense Gabrielle's body heat, even in the dreamscape.

It was a time for truth, and she surrendered to the moment, bringing her hand up to caress Gabrielle's face, and feeling the ethereal warmth as the bard leaned into her touch, as the green eyes gazed up into hers with a soul wrenching, tremulous hope. "Gabrielle.." She'd felt the truth of it roll through her. "I'll always be here." And with that, she'd pulled the bard into her arms, and bent her head, kissing Gabrielle lightly on the lips

She'd meant it as a comforting gesture… she'd meant it as a gentle promise.. that they'd have time to work things out.. to.. but what it had been was a shock to her senses, a warm, tingling contact that let loose a flood of sensual understanding between them that had been beyond anything she'd expected.

It had stunned her, so much so that she'd floated there, long moments after she'd let loose of Autolycus' body, and watched them break apart in embarrassed confusion. It had taken her forever to react, and slap the King of Thieves on the head for his manhandling of her.. her? Bard.. and then she'd felt bad about that, because she'd realized poor Autolycus really hadn't had anything to do with that at all.

It'd been her.. it'd been.. them. She'd felt nervous, and giddy, and confused all at once…never expecting… oh, well sure.. there was love between them, any idiot could see that.. but…that certainly hadn't felt like a kiss between best friends. Maybe it was the dreamscape.

Yeah. Sure.. that was it.. she was just projecting something into this that really couldn’t be there. Not Gabrielle.. who fell for every cute guy they ran into. Right? Slowly she'd let herself quietly put away that feeling, with a pang of wistful regret. For a minute there.. it had felt so good.. so.. right.

But no. Gabrielle didn't really feel like that. Not about her.

And then.. not long after, she'd had to take over Gabrielle's body in order to stop Velasca. And had gotten the biggest surprise of her life.

The sunset wound it's stealthy way into the room, slipping through the glazed window with a gentle radiance and drenching the floor with golden light. It wasn't until the reddening rays touched her face that Gabrielle woke, confused momentarily at being in bed, at this hour, still dressed in her outdoor clothing. Then memory flooded back, and she groaned softly, moving her body stiffly from the awkward position she'd fallen asleep in.

That brought her eyes up, and she blinked, finding a pair of blue eyes peering back at her. "Oh…" A gentle smile crossed her face. "Hi." She lifted herself up onto an elbow to get a better look at her injured partner. "You feeling any better?"

Xena took an experimentally deep breath. "A little." She responded quietly, wincing as she moved her head a bit. "Not much." She admitted with a faint sigh. "Things are.. still pretty hazy."

"Mm.' Gabrielle responded thoughtfully. "How long have you been up?"

"Not long." The warrior replied. "Renas was here.. changed the bandage."

That brought a gentle blush to the bard's face. "I slept through that?" She winced. "Sorry."

Xena gave her an affectionate look. "S'allright." Then her face tensed. "I'm… I think I lost a lot of bits, Gabrielle."

The bard studied her in some concern. "Ok..let's play the game." Old habit, when her partner got her bell rung. "You know who you are?"

Xena nodded slowly. "Yeah."

"That's a plus.. I'd hate to have to explain all that." Gabrielle joked wanly. "You know who I am?"

The warrior smiled gently. "The love of my life." Her lips quirked at the strong blush at her words. "What.. I'm wrong?"

Gabrielle slapped her very softly. "That's an even bigger plus.. I don’t know what I'd do if you didn’t'…" Unexpectedly, her eyes filled with tears. "Remember that." She managed to finish in a slightly hoarse tone.

"Shh." Xena pulled her head down and kissed it. "That's written so deep in me, nothing could take it out, my bard."

"Hey.. a whole sentence." The bard muttered, swallowing her momentary upset. She sniffled, and pulled herself back up. "Sorry." She thought for a moment. "Do you know where you are?"

The warrior was silent for a long moment. "Home."

A nod from the bard. "So far, so good. Do you know what day it is?"


"OK… do you know what year it is?" Gabrielle probed gently.

Longer silence. "OK." The bard sighed. "What's the last thing you remember?"

Xena thought about that for a while. "Um…reading to you…a shipwreck."

"Ah." Gabrielle sighed in relief. "Well.. that's not so bad… it was yesterday." She smoothed the covers over Xena's chest. "You.. don't remember what happened today.. how you fell?"

Eyebrows jerked up, then Xena flinched. "Gods.. that hurts… I fell?" Her brow creased. "Damn.. I.. I don't even remember going out." She tried to concentrate, but couldn’t, and lifted a hand towards her head again.

Gabrielle caught it, and cradled it in her own. "Stop it.. don't worry about it, Xena. It's not important.. you're home.. we found you.. that's all that matters." She watched her partner's eyes close. "You need to rest.. like you told me, right? I did warn you I was going to stuff you in bed for two weeks the next time you got hurt, remember that?"

One blue eye peeked at her. "No."

Gabrielle poked her very gently in the ribs. "Liar."

Only the impish twinkle in her eye gave her away. "Who, me?" Then she sighed. "Head hurts too much to sleep."

The bard studied her intently. "Do you want me to get some stuff from Renas?"

Xena shook her head a little. "Not a good idea with a head wound." She winced regretfully. "Unfortunately." Her gaze gently settled on her partner's concerned face. Gotta get her distracted.. no sense in both of us being miserable. "Would you.. um.. mind reading a little to me?"

"Hmm?? Oh.. sure." Gabrielle smiled. "I did ok with the last one then, huh?"

The warrior lifted a hand, and traced her partner's jawline. "I was in this dark place… just kind of a nothing… and I heard this voice coming from somewhere… I thought I'd better follow it to see where it was coming from. " She smiled a little. "It was you.. talking about fish, and honey.. and berries.. and I remembered thinking.. that's typical."

Gabrielle snorted in laughter. "Oh.. gee.. thanks." She rolled out of the bed on the other side, and went to her stack of scrolls, exchanging the one she had for a new one. "Let me get you some soup.. ok?"

"No." Xena objected, folding an arm across her stomach. "I can't." The very thought made her guts contract.

The bard brought the new scroll back, and set it on the table, then put a very gentle hand against her partner's forehead. "You should, Xena."

The warrior swallowed queasily. "I'll just get sick.." She pleaded with the bard. "With the way my head feels.. I don't wanna throw up, Gab…" Her eyes begged. "Please?"

"Shh.." Gabrielle soothed her, uneasily aware of the almost never used diminutive of her name. "Ok..ok..I understand." Xena was an awful patient, and even admitted that herself, but she'd gotten to where she'd show this very vulnerable side on occasion to her partner, and Gabrielle had long since realized this was the ultimate example of Xena's trust in her. So she didn't comment on it, she just got back into bed, and snuggled down next to the warrior, and got ready to read.

Continued in Part 3