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 – Violence - yes, there will be violence of a moderately graphic nature in this story.

Emotional distress - I have to put in a disclaimer here for this, because this story, unlike most of my other stories, is an extremely dark one. There is not a whole lot of humor here, and most everyone ends up not being happy through most of the story. IF you're looking for a warm and fuzzy tale, this ain't it. You might want to give this one a miss.

Subtext - As in all my stories, this one is based on the premise of two people who are very much in love with each other. They happen to both be women. There is no graphically depicted action here.. but if the thought of this gives you a problem, find a different story to read. There are lots of very good general fiction Xena stories that can be found on Xeno's page.

I'm not offering any goodies for the phobes this time round. But if you feel like I've beaten you over the head with angst in this one, then send me your snail mail address, and I'll forward over some Girl Scout Original Mint cookies, and some milk. That always makes me feel better.

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

Darkness Falls - Part 2

By Melissa Good

Gabrielle let the voices roll over her, not even really hearing what Johan said. Her eyes were busy drinking in the faint, glinting reflections of the warm light off the crystal nestled in the hollow of Xena’s throat.

It was too much, and she put a hand out and touched the warrior’s arm, then walked through the suddenly too loud, and too chaotic inn, escaping into the relative peace and quiet of their small room.

The door closed behind her, and she just stood, for a long silent moment, in the center of the room, breathing.

She’d spent so long preparing herself for the worst. Had patiently rehearsed the scene in her mind how many times? Had seen Xena’s regretful look, and heard hopefully thoughtful words on why what they had just wasn’t a possibility anymore.

It felt so very, very odd to have something go right for a change, after all the months of everything going wrong. Being wrong. But she had to try it.. especially after waking up the second time this morning, and encountering that split second of time halfway between waking and sleeping, when she’d just…


And it has felt so good, just to feel all right, that she’d waited until Xena had gone out to start her wall tasks and gotten the crystal out from the small bag she’d kept it in, and written her note. She hadn’t expected the warrior to find it so soon…but…she had.

She wondered what Xena had thought about it. Slowly, she crossed the room, and sat down at the table, clasping her hands together and resting her elbows on her knees, feeling a weight come off her shoulders that she hadn’t even realized was resting there.

It felt great. She felt almost dizzy from the sudden release of tension that had been coiled up inside her for such a long time, and she let her head fall into her hands, and just sat there, with the waves of giddy relief washing through her. It was so weird to feel happiness again she almost didn't know what to do with herself.

With a sigh, she finally straightened up, and rubbed her eyes, then raked her hand through her disheveled hair, and picked up her quill, chewing on the end of it absently as she found her place in her diary and flipped the bound parchment open.

And slowly put the quill down, spreading her fingers out to flatten a small piece of parchment that had been tucked in the binding out, and look at it.

One word only. In a strong hand that slipped past her doubts and the horror of her memories and wrote itself across her heart in a clear, and unmistakable sense of belief.

It was a promise, and an offer, and it coaxed her soul out from the place where she’d hidden it for safekeeping, away from the pain, and the grief, battered by anger and disappointment.


Such a simple word, with so very many complex meanings

She lifted the paper up in gentle fingers, and pressed it against her forehead, as though trying to imprint the word onto her skin, as soft whispers sounded from her lips. Gentle promises. Finally, she put the scrap back in her diary and closed it, then sat back, and fumbled a her belt, unclipping her own necklace from its resting place and holding it up to the sunlight streaming into the room.

It reflected a hint of green from her own eyes, and a flash of a smile, as she unclasped the catch and settled it around her neck, letting out a light breath as it fell into a familiar spot above her pulse point. Then she stood and went to the window, letting the sunlight hit her fully and reveling in its warmth. The breeze gently blew her hair back and felt sweet against her face, and she rested her hands on the window’s sills with a quiet sense of almost disbelieving joy.

She felt her, sensed her, rather than heard any noise, and turned her head to see Xena standing in the doorway, leaning against the jamb in all her dark glory. Just watching her.

Gabrielle turned to face her, feeling the sun warm on her back as just let her eyes drink in her partner's shadow splashed form, still in her leathers, but with hair damp from the washing that also took the blood stains from her body. She held up a hand towards her, and Xena pushed lightly away from the door, and walked over, stopping just short of the sunlight and smiling.

There were no words for this, the bard realized. All that needed to be said was being spoken by their eyes, and the expressions on their faces. She reached out with one hand, and closed her fingers on the warrior's leathers, and pulled, drawing Xena out of the shadows and into the pool of sunlight she was standing in.

It dappled across her body like water, and reflected off the droplets of water scattered about her shoulders, sending tiny sparkles of light dancing against the wall. Gabrielle looked up and found the pale blue eyes regarding her intently, and there was a tiny fleeting smile playing at the corners of Xena's mouth. She wanted to see more of that, so she let her own face relax into a happy grin, and was immediately rewarded by seeing its mirror.

She stepped forward, and wrapped her arms around the warrior's body, and felt Xena do the same, as she buried herself in the warmth of that embrace with a feeling of utter relief. She could smell the musky tang of her leathers, and the faint scent of copper from the water she'd bathed in, a drop of which was tickling the bard's nose where it was pressed against the warrior's chest.

Experimentally, she licked the droplet up, confirming the mineral tang with absent pleasure. Then she closed her eyes, and just let herself feel the moment, absorbing it with a silently giddy joy that was sending a gentle healing through parts of her that were so torn, and so ravaged they hardly seemed even to be there anymore.

But they were. She had no idea how long they stood like that, as she fell into a dreamy half daze from the solid, reassuring heartbeat under her ear, and the gentle, rhythmic pressure of Xena's hand against her hair, and the sunlight pouring over them. This, her body remembered, was love. It was the comfort she'd been seeking during the long, empty, angry months and that she'd been frightened she'd never feel again.

But here it was. Just like she remembered. At last.

"I love you." The bard said softly, with gentle conviction.

Xena's breath came brushing by her ear. "I love you, too." In her lowest voice, a rumble that Gabrielle could feel vibrating against her body.

And they both nodded a little, as though in confirmation.

Xena finally took in a breath. "I.. I'm glad you brought that back with you." She paused. "It means a lot to me."

The bard swallowed hard. "I… Xena, I couldn't let him have that. I just… even if you didn't want it anymore, I still…"

"I know." The warrior whispered. "I know.. I was… I was thinking about that after… when I went back down in… thinking about losing what that meant to me…I…" She sucked in a steadying breath. "I almost gave up, then." She finished in a low tone. "Then you did… a very brave thing, Gabrielle."

The bard nodded. "Faced you."

"Yeah." Xena sighed. "

"I couldn’t just…" Gabrielle fell silent for a bit, choosing her words. "I knew.. I’d made.. a pretty colossal mistake." Her expression turned bitterly wry. "I.. I really believed… or. I thought I did, that I was doing the right thing. I.. I told myself that.. it.. would be better for you t.. to hate me.. " Her voice stopped, and she swallowed a few times. "Then to watch you.. go back to.."

She felt Xena’s chest expand, then relax slowly. "You know… as I was.. making my way into the palace, I kept thinking about you." She paused. "I.. knew.. you were right, Gabrielle. And what I was doing was wrong.. I just… after you told me how evil.. I’d been… I figured I’d just do this, and.. I never expected to come back."

Gabrielle lifted her head, and gazed up at her in shock. "You were going to let them kill you?"

A light shake of Xena’s dark head. "I didn’t care." She answered simply. "I had this thing to do for Lao Ma, and after that…" She sighed softly. "Seeing you there.. it was.. it hurt, but.. in a way, Gabrielle.. in a way, it helped." Her eyes searched the still face beneath her. "You.. still cared.. enough to come all that way.. "

"I had to." Gabrielle put her head back down. "I had to.. I was… Xena, I was angry… so angry that you’d just… give up.. on us. I.. that.. that really, really hurt."

Xena stayed silent for a moment, then hugged her a little closer to take the sting out of her next words. "You saying how two people like Borias and I could have produced Solon hurt." She took a breath. "It didn’t take much for me to figure out which one of us you were comparing to Dahok."

Gabrielle remained silent, for a long moment. "We were pretty brutal with each other." She finally admitted quietly. "I was jealous of Lao Ma." She sniffled. "And.. remembering Hope was really bothering me."

Xena nodded. "I know." She sighed. "I.. realized that… after." She touched her head to the bard’s. "You.. knew exactly where to hit me… and so when you asked that, I said something I knew was going to hurt you."

The bard nodded against her chest. "Was it true?"

The warrior thought about the question, feeling Gabrielle’s heartbeat speed up. "No." She finally admitted. "Lao Ma… saved my soul, Gabrielle.. but she never owned it." The warrior stared darkly over the bard’s shoulder. "It would take ten more years of my taking out my rage and frustration on every living thing I met before I was ready for that." She felt the bard relax a little. Damn.. she really was jealous. "Not that she didn’t try." She went on. "She.. let me.. become a civilized animal." Her eyes unfocused a little. "But she didn’t change who I was. What I was."

"Mmm." Gabrielle murmured thoughtfully. "It was really.. hard.. to go down in that dungeon." She eased them both down onto the bed, and leaned against Xena’s shoulder. "Seeing you.. like that. Looking at me… I felt pretty small."

Xena chewed her lip. "Gabrielle, it wasn’t until I saw you that I started trying to figure out a way to get both of us out of there." She glanced up at the bard. "You realize that, right?"

Gabrielle smiled. "Ironic, huh?"

"Yeah." The warrior admitted.

They looked at each other, and Xena sighed, then hitched herself up and leaned against the wall the bed was pushed up against. She held out her arm, and the bard scooted back and snuggled up against her willingly. "I’m sorry." Gabrielle said quietly, as she settled her arms around her partner’s waist, reveling in the knowledge that she could do this again and it was welcome.

"Me too." Xena responded.

They were quiet for a long time, just resting in each other’s arms, thinking. Finally Xena glanced down. "Gabrielle?"

"Hmm?" The bard looked up at her.

"Mom wants us to come home." The warrior stated quietly. "Is that what you want to do?"

The bard nodded. "Yes." She considered for a moment. "But are we going to be able to deal with all that?" She studied the warrior’s face seriously. "There are a lot of memories there." She lifted a hand and brushed Xena’s cheek, closing her eyes briefly when the warrior leaned into the contact unconsciously. "Though I think most of them are good ones."

Xena smiled. "Some of my best ones." But she ducked her head in acknowledgment. "To be honest, Gabrielle.. I think I need to go home for a while." Her eyes met the bard’s squarely. "There’s.. a lot of.. um.. pieces… it’s going to take me some time to get that back together again."

Gabrielle gave her a quiet grin. "You and me both." She confessed. "Solari asked me if they could travel with us.. if we were going that way. She’s worried about Pony." She paused. "Would you mind?"

The warrior considered that. "Probably a good idea.. I.. um.. I think Ephiny would probably appreciate knowing you’re ok."

"We." Gabrielle replied. "Are ok."

Xena smiled. "We." She conceded, then glanced at the door guiltily. "Probably wondering where we disappeared to." She moved and stiffened, as she pulled her shoulder the wrong way. "Damn, that’s sore."

Gabrielle peered up and her brow contracted. "If you’re admitting that, it must be killing you." She scolded gently. "Hang on." She scrambled off the bed, and went to the saddlebags, rooting around in Xena’s until she found a small jar, then bringing it back to the bed with her. "Lie down."

Xena looked at her, then raised an eyebrow, but did as she was asked, watching the bard as she unhooked the shoulder strap on the right side of her leathers, and opened the jar. The scent of liniment drifted to her, and she closed her eyes as Gabrielle dipped her fingers into it, then started spreading it across the front of her shoulder, rubbing the stuff in gently. The pressure eased its way up the side of her neck, then across to her upper arm, bringing a welcome warmth that had very little to do with the liniment. "Mmm… that feels great. Thanks."

Gabrielle smiled down at her, then set the jar aside, and curled up next to her partner’s sprawled body, settling her head down next to the warrior’s, and curling an arm protectively around the injured shoulder.

"We should go check on Eponin." Xena reminded her, unable to resist snuggling a little closer. "And there’s lots still to do out there."

"Mmmhmm." Gabrielle agreed. "You’re right." She watched as Xena’s eyes drifted shut. "You just rest for a few minutes." She rubbed the bare shoulder gently. "Give this stuff a chance to work its way in, ok?"

"S’allright.. I'm fine." Came the drowsy answer.

"I know.. but it would make me feel better if you did.. so humor me, ok?" Gabrielle coaxed. "Come on…"

"Just for a few minutes?" The warrior mumbled in protest.

"Mmhmm." The bard confirmed.


A contented silence filled the room.


"That was more than a few minutes." Xena commented quietly, keeping her eyes closed and soaking in the warmth she’d been missing for so long. "You tricked me."

"Uh huh." Gabrielle mumbled into her right ear. "Made up for last night." The bard snuggled a little closer. "I’m surprised they haven’t come looking for us, though."

Xena’s lips twitched. "I’m not."

One green eye opened and studied her. "No?"

The warrior shook her head. "Told them not to bother us."

A tiny giggle tickled her hearing. "Figures… "

Xena opened both eyes, and turned her head, regarding the bard quietly. "Nice hearing you laugh." The warrior said in a wistful tone. "Been a while."

Gabrielle let out a soft breath. "I know." She hesitated. "It feels so good just to do this." Her head shifted slightly. "I’ve really missed it." She paused. "Missed you.. it was… really lonely without having my best friend around." Her thumb rubbed the soft skin on the warrior’s shoulder gently. "I'm glad you’re back."

Xena sighed. "Hard to believe you’d still consider me that."

Gabrielle closed her eyes. "What do you consider me?" She glanced up and found wide-open blue eyes staring at her in pained consternation. "Am I still your best friend? And don’t give me any ‘if that’s what you want to be’ answers, Xena."

The warrior blinked. "Yes." She answered quietly.

"Then why wouldn't I feel the same?" The bard asked, lifting herself up onto an elbow and looking down at Xena’s tense face. "Xena, I can forgive you until I’m blue in the face, but until you start forgiving yourself, we’re not going to get very far."

The warrior remained silent for a long moment, then gave a little nod. "I know." Her voice was lightly strained. "I’m trying, Gabrielle.. it’s… it’s just hard." She paused. "I look at you, and I can’t help thinking about everything that happened and I just…" She sighed. "So many things I want to go back and change."

Gabrielle touched her head to the warrior’s darker one. "Me too." A quiet admission. "But we have to move past that, Xena.. and I… I can’t do that without you."

Xena lifted a hand and tangled her fingers in the red gold hair spilling across her chest. "I'll always be here for you, Gabrielle, you know that." She hesitated, then went on. "We’ll get through this together." It was a promise, and a commitment, and she knew it. And that knowing made a difference.

The bard nodded. "Together. I like that word."

Slowly, a relaxed smile appeared on the warrior’s face. "Me too." Let it go, Xena… you can’t change some things.. you can’t fix them.. just.. accept what you’ve got right now and move on. "You gonna let me get up now?"

One blond eyebrow quirked up. "Let you? You make me sound like such a tyrant here… forcing you to stay in this nice comfortable bed. " She eased back down, and sighed. "You really want me to move?"

"No." Xena replied sheepishly. "But we really should."

That got her a peeved sigh in her right ear. "Oh.. all right…I did promise to help out rewriting some of those records that got burned." The bard straightened up, and slid off the bed, stretching as she stood and yawning. "We really haven’t been in here that long."

The warrior tilted her head and regarded the window. "That’s true." She admitted with a surprised note in her voice. "I should check on Eponin.. she was still dizzy and having problems seeing straight when I left."

Gabrielle snorted softly. "Maybe she should stop drinking the tavern dry at night." She shook her head, watching her partner out of the corner of her eye as the warrior rose and stretched her own long frame. "I warned Solari about that."

Xena stopped in mid motion, and her brow creased. "Yeah? When?"

The bard walked over to the wash basin and dampened a linen cloth, running it over her arms lightly. "This morning… why?"

The warrior snorted softly. "They’re gonna think we planned it. I said the same thing to Eponin."

Gabrielle chuckled. "Let them…" She paused. "I'm.. kinda worried about her."

Xena fastened her shoulder strap, which had been hanging loose, and turned to face her partner. "Well, it’s a pretty nasty head wound…but she’s tough, Gabrielle.. I think she’ll be ok after a few days." She fiddled with a bit of the leather skirting. "Probably a good thing we’re going back with them, though." Not, she thought dryly, that she was looking forward to facing the Amazons, especially Ephiny, but… well, she was used to everyone hating her… she could.. take that. But she felt the pang inside and let out a soft sigh, then shook it off with an irritated wince. Enough. "You done?"

The bard ran damp fingers through her hair and tugged her skirt into place, then gave a quick nod. "Yep… let’s go."


Johan sipped at his ale, watching the activity in the inn with an amused eye. Now that his search was over.. And successful, he added silently, thankfully. It was good to sit back, and relax. He’d been traveling for a week, pushing the merchant’s train he was traveling with as fast as he could, reluctant to strike out on his own due to all the raiders in these parts.

He never expected to find them as fast as he did… coming around that corner and almost colliding with Gabrielle was the last thing he’d expected to do. But the bard looked.. He considered. Pretty good.. she seemed healthy, and in fairly good spirits considering all that had happened. She looked better, in fact, than Xena did.

His brow creased in concern. The warrior looked exhausted, and there was a haunted, pained expression about her eyes that even he could see, having spent the winter with her in close proximity.

They had watched Gabrielle leave, then he’d turned to her. "It’s good to see you both." He’d said. "Ye’ve got some folks fair worried, lass."

Xena had smiled wearily, then dropped her gaze. "You’ve heard it all, I guess."

He’d nodded. "As much as that Amazon knew, aye." He’d twisted his lip in two fingers. "Ye’re mother is a might disturbed at that one." His eyes had glinted. "She gave er a piece of her mind, she did."

Startled blue eyes had lifted to his. "She did, huh?"

Johan rolled his eyes a little. "Lass…her heart’s crying for you, and for Gabrielle." He ‘d stepped closer. "I’m glad you both made it."

Xena had taken in a deep breath, and touched his arm. "Thanks… it means a lot to me knowing I’ve still got a home to go back to."

He hadn’t expected that, hadn’t expected so plain and open a statement from her, and it had given him a twinge, deep in his chest. "No fear for that, lass." He’d finally said. "I’m glad I found you here." He’d cleared his throat. "Will you be coming then?"

Xena had given him a quiet smile. "I think so.. Johan. I’ll ask Gabrielle.. but I think we both would.. like that very much." Her eyes had drifted. "I’ve… got to go talk to her in fact.. um… sit down, have a glass of ale. It’s not bad here."

So he had, and had eaten a decent meal that was good, but not a match for the cooking he was used to. The merchants in the train had straggled in, swiping the dust and soot off them, and settled down in small groups, relieved to be off the road, and out of danger at last.

Two of them settled down at his table, and nodded as a server brought over a platter with a good loaf of bread on it, and set down a plate of oil and garlic for dipping. "Damn.. Johan. I lost half my stock to those bastards. " The taller of the two complained, as he tore off a piece of the loaf and stuffed it in his mouth. "Pity they didn’t hit this place first." He swallowed. "Let that demon bitch take care of them for us."

Johan half started out of his seat, reaching over and grabbing the man by the throat of his thick shirt and pulling him forward. "Watch yer mouth, ye bastard. She’s family." It came out before he realized he was going to say it, and he felt a little shock go through him as the words took shape.

Joining his life to Cyrene’s had brought this little side benefit. One expected one’s older years to be calm, and peaceful. Inheriting the former Destroyer of Nations as a stepdaughter somehow inhibited that.

He liked that. Calm and peaceful also tended to get a bit.. boring.

The merchant paused in mid chew, bits of bread comically hanging out of his mouth as he stared in stunned disbelief at the stocky trader. "F…f…family?" He squeaked. "Y.. you?"

Johan let him go, and straightened his shoulders. "Aye." He narrowed his eyes. "Ye got a problem wi that?"

The merchant waved his hands wildly. "No.. no no…. of course not.. I ah… no." He looked up and his eyes widened. "Ah.. right.. um.. I have to go see a man about a horse." He scrambled up out of his seat and headed for the door, not looking back.

"Food that bad?" A voice, tinged with a mild, weary amusement floated over his head and he smiled wryly.

"Nah.. he’s just an… " He glanced at Xena, who seated herself on one side of him, then at Gabrielle, who took the seat on the other side and cleared his throat. "anti social.. kind of lad."

"Uh huh." Xena absorbed this, as she rested her forearms on the table, and took a breath. "I see."

The other merchant took the opportunity to slink off, and they watched him go. "I think I'm ruining your social life, Johan." The warrior commented quietly. "Maybe I'd better go sit on the other side of the room."

Johan felt Gabrielle suck in a breath to answer that and held up a hand to forestall her. "Their loss, ladies.. I'm not one to be complaining when I've got the loveliest lasses in the room bracketing me like a pair of bookends."

That got a burst of delighted laughter from Gabrielle, and even managed to wring a good-natured smile from Xena, who glanced up as Solari ambled over and dragged a chair out. "C'mon.. join the party.." The warrior drawled. "We're boosting Johan's ego over here." She let her eyes flick over the Amazon as she seated herself. "How's Eponin doing? She was sleeping when I checked a bit ago."

Solari leaned an elbow on the table, and rested her chin against her hand. "I'm worried." She lifted her eyes to meet Xena's. "She's not complaining." She took in the warrior's raised eyebrow with a nod. "Yeah, my thoughts exactly… so I'm worried. I had the luck to be around her the last time she got hurt, and believe me, I was ready to…. Well, let's just say Eph earned my respect, OK?"

Gabrielle smothered a smile, and caught the attention of a passing server. "Can we get three orders of whatever it is you're serving, and three… " She chewed her lip. "cold ciders, please." She exchanged a look with her partner, who quirked an eyebrow at her and glanced down. "Um.. don't want to take any chances with that bump on the head you took yesterday."

"Right." Xena nodded, then rose. "I'll go check Eponin out, if that'll make you feel better, Solari."

The dark haired Amazon nodded glumly. "Thanks, Xena." She watched the tall warrior start towards the small room Eponin was resting in. "Oh.. Xena?"

One dark brow edged up. "Yeah?"

"Don't make her… um.. too.. much better, you know what I mean? She starts wanting to spar and stuff.. and I'm really tired." Solari pleaded.

Xena just waved at her, and kept on moving towards the room.

Solari looked over, and found both Johan and Gabrielle staring at her. "Well.. she does." The Amazon wailed, lifting her hands.

Gabrielle just chuckled. "Two peas in a pod." She sighed, playing with her fork. "So.. Johan.. how.. I mean, is everything ok… "

The trader turned towards her, and tucked one of her hands in his larger one. "Lass, things are well there… though Cyrene's near out of her mind worrying about you two." He smiled gently at her. "That poor hound of yours is pining for you something fierce, too.. he spends all the day moping around the cabin, looking mighty grumpy." He studied the mist green eyes opposite him, aching at the shadows that colored the formerly sunny depths, and the lines that creased their edges laying claim to the experiences that had marked her. "We've missed you."

"Thanks." The bard responded quietly. "I miss you all too.. I'm looking forward to going home." Then a warm sparkle ignited in the green depths, and she grinned impishly at him. "So… " She bit her lip a little. "Can I call you dad?"

Johan felt himself turning brick red. "Lass.." He stammered. "I.. um…. "

"C'mon, Johan… " Gabrielle let her grin widen.

"I promised I wouldn't let on before Cyrene had the chance to, damn it!" He sighed piteously. "Lass, you're a hard one, you are."

Gabrielle leaned on the table. "Johan, I've lived the last three years with someone with a daily word allowance of about six. You learn to read between the lines."

Solari started laughing. "Gabrielle, you're really something else, you know that?"

The bard was not to be distracted. "Well, can I?"

He squeezed her hand. "Aye, lass. Would be my honor."

Gabrielle hugged him. "Thanks.. you don't know how happy I am for both of you."

Johan looked straight at her. "Aye, but I think I do." His eyes dropped to the necklace that was gently gathering the room's light, and then lifted back to hers. "I think I do."

The room was quiet when Xena slipped in, but her sense of hearing told her the occupant wasn't sleeping. "Hi." She commented, crossing the wooden floor and sinking down on the small stool next to the bed. She reached over and turned the Amazon's head a tiny bit, to see the large, discolored bump on the side of her head. "Well, that ain't pretty."

Eponin gazed up at her glassily. "I must be in trouble.. they sent you in here." She murmured, blinking slowly. "Not for your bedside manner, either."

The warrior studied her. "You still nauseous?"

The Amazon nodded. "Headache, stomachache… put me out of my misery, ok?" She sighed, and looked over Xena's shoulder, her thoughts elsewhere.

Xena raised her gaze to the ceiling, then dropped it down again. "Look. I'm about as good at this sensitive chat stuff as I am at cooking. Which isn't good.." She captured Eponin's uneasy gaze. "So .. save me some trouble, and just tell me what the problem is, OK?"

Long silence. Xena was almost convinced that Eponin was going to out stubborn her, when the Amazon let out a little sigh, and turned her head away.

"I don't like having to be rescued." Came the reluctant whisper.

"Been there." Xena looked down at her hands, and watched her fingers wrestle with each other. "It happens."

"Not to me." Eponin rasped out. "I'm not some green kid, Xena… I should have seen that bastard coming."

A unique experience.. Xena mused. Is that what I sounded like to Gabrielle, all those months ago? Gods.. I wish I could go back and have this be my only problem. "Eponin.. lemme tell you something I learned the last few months, ok?" She rested her elbows on her knees and let out a breath. "The only thing that matters is surviving.. doesn’t really matter how you do it, or what you have to do to get it done. If you need help.. that's ok, and you're lucky if you get it."

The Amazon stared at her. "I can't believe I'm hearing this from you."

Xena laughed humorlessly. "Believe it.. took me a long time to get that through my skull, but damn it, it's there now. Listen.. you got a good thing with Eph?"

A timid nod.

"You go home.. you get to see her again. That's what's important. Not that some bozo clocked you one, Eponin. Or I had to shove you out of the way… take some advice, just believe it. Took me dying and almost losing my soul to learn that. I'm giving it to you for free. Ok?"

The Amazon studied the dark, shadowed face and sighed. "You make me feel damn petty, Xena." She replied softly. "This whole thing really tore you up, didn't it?"

The warrior studied the floor intently. "Yeah, it did." She answered in a calm tone.

"So.. you're telling me to shut up and count my blessings, right?" Eponin countered.

Blue eyes focused on her. "Something like that, yeah."

The Amazon chewed her lip. "Y'know.. you're actually better at this than Eph is." She had to smile at the arched eyebrow the statement evoked. "Gabrielle must be rubbing off on you."

Xena laughed softly. "Thanks for the compliment." She drawled, then stood.

"Hey.. are you guys.. I mean… " Eponin hesitated.

"C'mon." The warrior replied with a knowing grin. "I'll give you a hand getting out there." She extended a hand and waited for Eponin to grab it, then pulled very gently up until the Amazon was standing. "You ok?"

Eponin swayed a little, still hanging on to the taller woman's arm. "Dizzy." She admitted grudgingly, giving Xena a disgusted look. "Damn."

The warrior glanced back with an unreadable expression, and pulled the Amazon's arm over her shoulders, stepping up next to her, and putting a supportive arm around Eponin's waist. "C'mon." She sighed. "I don't want you falling down and whacking your head again."

"Gee, thanks, Xena." Eponin muttered, but didn't protest the help. "You're just a world of encouragement."

"Anytime." The warrior responded, as they walked to the door, and she pushed it open. As they entered the main room of the inn, they got the immediate attention of their friends, among others. "You should tell Solari not to stare like that. She looks like a fish."

Eponin snorted softly, concentrating on walking. "Yeah? You should tell Gabrielle not to look at you like that. She's going to ruin your reputation."

Huh? Xena turned her head and met the bard's eyes across the room, seeing the slight smile, and the look of warm devotion that seemed to reach out across the crowd and bathe her in a welcome light. Oh. That. She grunted, but knew her face was responding when she felt Eponin's wry chuckle. "What reputation?" She finally grumbled, but tucked the warm feeling away in a deep place. It had been a while, she realized, since she'd seen that particular look, and she had to admit she'd missed it. With a sigh, she settled Eponin in the seat next to Solari, and moved around to the other side of the table to sit in the only other open seat, which was conveniently next to Gabrielle. "Hi."

"Hi yourself." The bard replied, then jerked her head towards Eponin, who was muttering to Solari. "Nice work." She added in a low voice, as the server arrived with their dinners. "I ordered another plate, just in case." She grinned.

Xena gave her a look. "Uh huh…" Then she shrugged. "She was upset about getting whacked in that fight. I just told her to stop moping and count her blessings."

Gabrielle almost spit a mouthful of cider out onto the table. She swallowed it, then slowly turned her head and gave her partner a look. "You told her that? You?"

The warrior lowered her gaze, and played with the food on her plate. "Yeah…maybe I've learned something." She said very quietly, picking up a bit of vegetable and putting it in her mouth, then chewing absently.

The bard gazed at her compassionately, and slid a hand under the table, letting it rest against the warrior's knee and giving the soft skin a gentle squeeze. "Hey guess what?"

Blue eyes lifted inquiringly. "What?" She watched Johan stick his nose into his mug and flush and felt a reluctant grin edging across her face. "I was right?"

Gabrielle chuckled. "Yep."

Xena's eyes twinkled gently. "Congratulations, Johan."

The trader peeked up at her. "Ye're mother's going to kill me for not letting her be the teller of her own tales." He complained. "She's not going to believe I didn't tell ye."

Xena let a brow curve up. "You can just remind her she didn't have to be told either." The warrior smirked a little.

"Yeah? With those goofy looks on your faces, nobody does." Eponin offered from across the table, safely out of Xena's reach. She ignored Solari's openmouthed stare, and chewed industriously. "What?" She muttered, glancing innocently between them.

Bard and warrior looked from her to each other. "Still, huh?" Gabrielle asked very softly.

"Yeah.. I guess so." Xena answered, with her eyes fixed firmly on her plate, but a tiny smile edging her mouth.

Gabrielle made sure it was an early night, since they intended to get started out early in the morning. The village was repaired as well as could be expected, and the village had tendered their thanks, and grateful best wishes, including presenting Xena with a set of armor repair tools by way of a gift, which she’d accepted reluctantly.

She stood now, with the leather case in one hand, gazing out of the window in their small room, a pensive look on her face. "You usually intercept this kind of thing." She finally commented, in a subdued voice.

Gabrielle looked up from where she was seated at the small table, and chewed thoughtfully at the quill she was holding. Honesty? Yeah.. at this point, it’s the best way. "Yeah, I know."

The warrior’s dark head nodded a little. "But you didn’t this time."

"No." The bard twirled the quill in her fingers. "I didn’t… I… um… thought you needed to hear it, just this once." She saw Xena’s eyes close, and watched as she rested her head against the windowsill. "Was I right?"

"Is it that obvious?" Came the muttered question.

Gabrielle smiled to herself. "I won’t answer that question if you keep quiet about how many people you strong armed into asking me for stories tonight."

Xena didn’t answer, but the bard could see the sudden movement as she fought to keep a grin off her face. "Busted." She commented, and went back to her writing, scribbling for a minute, then looking back up. "And.. thank you. I.. jumping back into it like that really helped."

The warrior turned around and perched on the windowsill, crossing her arms, and allowing a smile to appear on her face. "You were right, and yes, I really did need to hear it, just this once." She admitted. "Thanks."

They looked at each other.

Gabrielle ducked her head and went back to her writing, closing her eyes for an instant to enjoy the slight breeze entering through the window, which brought to her a hint of roses and the muskiness of summer rain, and the warm smell of the candles burning around her.

Today has been.. one of the best days in a long, long time. Well, parts of it were kind of scary, I mean, we had raiders attack, and Eponin got hurt, but…oh boy, there was a moment in that fight, when I saw her go down.. and I thought I was going to go crazy, trying to get to her.

I haven’t felt that strong with my staff.. in a while, but every move I made stuck, and I knocked some guy silly head over heels because he was the last thing between me and her, and then we went back to back, and I can’t tell you how good that felt. And I was the one who noticed the guy that was going to shoot Solari first!

Lucky I almost tripped over that rock.. I gave it to her, and boy, did she ever get her arm into that one. I felt really, really bad for the horse though.

She found the necklace. She’s wearing it. That’s all I think I need to say about that.

A merchant train got attacked by the same raiders we took care of here.. and Johan was part of it. He was out looking for us, because Cyrene’s all worried. That felt good too, especially when he made it pretty clear he really was out here looking for both of us, not just Xena.

I was kind of worried about that. Solon was her grandson. I don’t know what I’m going to say to her when I see her.. all of the stuff that went on, and what I did to her daughter. I hope it will be ok… she loves Xena very much, but I do too, and I think she knows that.

I think Xena’s nervous about going to the Amazons. She hasn’t said anything, but.. I know her, and how she thinks. I have to get to Ephiny and set things straight so we don’t have any more misunderstandings. I don’t want anyone getting hurt, least of all Xena. She’s been through so much, it’s really taken its toll on her, I can see that. I need to get her home, and maybe then we can just start putting our lives back together.

Some little things already are. We were walking back here from dinner, and she just put her arm around me, just like she used to, without really thinking about it. It felt really good. But we’re still very, very careful with each other. There’s not much teasing.. well, just a tiny, tiny bit. We’re both afraid to hurt each other, even that way, even though we both know we’re kidding.

This is going to take time. I said that today. You know what she said? She said, that’s all right, Gabrielle.. we have two lifetimes.

I’d forgotten I’d said that to her. Figures she’d remember it.

But you know what? I believe that again. I really do.

The bard closed her diary, and set the quill down, leaning back and regarding the tall, dark haired warrior, who was still perched on the windowsill, eyes focused out into the darkness. With a half smile, she stood, and walked over, resting her shoulder against the opposite part of the windowframe. "Dinar for your thoughts?"

Xena turned her head, and smiled briefly. "Nothing special.. just watching the rain, mostly." She admitted quietly. "You done writing?"

Gabrielle nodded. "Yes.. Xena!" She tugged the warrior inside the window. "You’re getting all wet." She brushed the excess moisture off the dark leathers, and the pale fine hair on her arms. "C’mon.. get out of those, and lie down, and I’ll put some more stuff on your shoulder, ok?"

No argument from the warrior, which worried Gabrielle, but she followed suit as Xena changed and obediently relaxed on the bed, as she picked up the jar of liniment, and slipped onto her side next to the warrior’s lean form. "How’s it feeling?"

A waggled of Xena’s hand. "It’s all right."

"Uh huh." Gabrielle mumbled thoughtfully, as she eased her hand under the fabric covering the shoulder in question, and probed gently, seeing the half-hidden flinch. "Right." She sighed, then started working the liniment in carefully.

Xena’s skin was warm to the touch, as always, and had that distinctive half spicy, half musky scent that was part brass, and part leather, and part just Xena. She breathed it in and felt her body responding to the closeness of her soulmate with gentle pleasure, and she eased closer in an almost unconscious movement. "How’s that?"

Eyes gone violet in the candlelight regarded her quietly. "Much better.. thanks." Xena responded in a softly husky voice

It went right through her, and wrapped its warmth around her guts the way only hers had ever been able to. Silently, she cursed the fear that kept her still, cursed Dahok and what he’d done to her.

Xena saw it in her eyes, and reached over, taking the jar from her and putting it on the bedside table, then rubbing her arm lightly. "Lay down."

Gabrielle settled unhappily against her, breathing out her frustration in a long warm gust against the warrior’s chest. A hand lifted and stroked her hair gently. "Xena… "

"Shh… I know." The warrior’s voice tickled her ears. "It’s ok."

"No it’s not." The bard sagged against her. "It’s not all right. It’s dirty, and ugly, and I hate feeling this way, Xena." Her voice cracked in frustration. "I hate it…I say that and I can hear him laughing at me."

"Gabrielle.. give it time… " Xena rubbed her back slowly and thought for a minute. "What is it that scares you the most?"

The bard considered the question. "That I’ll have to live through that feeling again." She finally answered, faintly. "That I’ll feel him inside of me. " Her eyes closed. "I don’t want that between us." She buried her face into the soft fabric of Xena’s shirt.

Xena let her vision unfocus, as she wrestled with the problem. "Hey." She looked down, and got the bard’s attention. Tired green eyes gazed up at her trustingly. She lazily lifted a hand and brushed the bard’s hair back, then trailed a fingertip across her cheekbone, and down the line of her jaw. "Does that bother you?"

Gabrielle thought about it. "No." She shook her head. "It just feels… well, like it always does when you touch me."

A slow nod. "And how is that?"

The bard’s brow knitted. "Well… um…kind of… warm, and nice… tingly… there’s no way to…I mean.. I always know when it’s you, right?"

Xena chewed her lip, feeling her way cautiously. "Why do you think that is?"

Gabrielle looked at her. "Because it’s you, of course." She gave a little shrug. "Its always been like that."

"Yeah.. but why?" Xena persisted, seeing a glimmer of light and digging gently. "Why is it different when I do it… instead of.. say… Solari."

Gabrielle relaxed, and giggled a little. "Well, because if Solari did that, you’d kick her into next month."

Xena chuckled. "Yeah, that’s true, but besides that."

The bard thought a moment. "I guess it’s because.. um.. well, because we love each other.. right?" She paused. "I mean.. I always thought.."

The warrior nodded. "Right." She continued stroking Gabrielle’s face, and saw the green eyes darken slightly, as a flush crept up her neck. "That’s an important part of it, Gabrielle… it’s the only really important thing, in fact." She let her voice drop a little. "He didn’t make you feel like this, did he?"

A slow shake of Gabrielle’s head. "No." She breathed. "You’re the only one who ever has." She closed her eyes and let the feeling roll over her, centered in the rhythmic movement of Xena’s fingers over her skin. "My body knows the difference."

Xena smiled. "Yeah.. that’s a start." She pulled the bard closer and hugged her. "Keep thinking about that… all right?"

Gabrielle snuggled close, letting herself float in the warm feelings that were still echoing through her. Maybe there is a way out of this.


It was warm inside, Gabrielle realized, and she scooted into the cabin with a sense of relief. She crossed to the fire, and sat down cross-legged in front of it, absorbing the heat eagerly. Staff practice had been brisk, and she felt the pleasant tiredness of an afternoon's good usage of her body, but it was good to get inside, away from the cold, stiff wind that reddened her cheeks and rendered her breathing into visible puffs of air.

She scowled as a cold draft chilled her back, then the cross expression eased into a smile as the door closed behind her soulmate, just in from a two day hunting expedition. "Wow.. wasn’t expecting you back so soon!" She swiveled and drank in the sight of her, as she threw back her heavy cloak to reveal dark blue leathers that outlined her form in sensual detail and thick knitted leggings tucked into her high boots. "But aren't you a sight for sore eyes."

Xena grinned, and held up her hands. "Went, got what I went for, came back. End of story." She hung her heavy cloak up and fairly bounded across the room, her good spirits evident even before she settled next to Gabrielle and pulled her into a big hug. "What's wrong with your eyes? " She studied the body parts in question. "They look pretty damn good to me."

"Hey!" The bard laughed, surprised at the exuberance of the greeting, but not minding a bit. "What’s got into you?" She interlaced her fingers into the ties closing Xena's leathers and tugged. 'C'mere…"

Xena shook her head, and just sighed happily. "Nothing." She replied. "I just feel great." Her grin had widened. "Glad to be back.. I missed you." She leaned forward and captured the bard's lips for a long, dizzying moment. Then she chuckled softly as they separated for an instant.

Gabrielle gave her a dazzling smile in return. "I missed you too.." She pulled her closer again, and basked in the warmth from the fire, and from the glow that ignited between them.

Slowly the warmth of the dream gave way to the blanket of sunlight laying over the bard’s shoulders, in a place far removed from her dream, and in circumstances she would have rather not remembered.

Grudgingly, she let the filter of reality force the wonder of her dream back, into the vaults of memory that day by day seemed to get further and further from her. Damn. She sighed silently, I hate waking up sometimes.

But.. she reflected.. it was better now than it had been.. waking up from dreams like that alone.. on the cold ground…to see the still, huddled form rolled away from her tight in its own misery…

A pensive breath. It still hurt. Thinking of those months when silence had settled between them, and almost all traces of what she'd sworn was an unbreakable trust, and love…


At least now, her fingers flexed on familiar warmth under fabric, and the sound that gently coaxed her from sleep was a strong, vibrant heartbeat whose pattern she knew as well as her own. She felt the motion of fingers against her back, and let her eyes drift open and look up towards a familiar profile.


She raised her head, and met Xena’s serious blue eyes. "Morning." She blinked, and felt the tear roll down her cheek, closing her eyes as the warrior's thumb captured it. "Sorry."

"What’s wrong?" Xena asked in a subdued voice. "Bad dream?"

Gabrielle shook her head a little. "No.. a good one." Then she realized how that must have sounded and glanced up to where Xena was trying to hide a hurt look. "No.. no. I mean.. " She hesitated. "That’s not what I meant."

A light shrug. "It’s all right, Gabrielle.. I.. I understand."

"Do you?" The bard sighed. Did Xena miss what she missed? Hard to tell sometimes.

"If I could give up anything, to change the last few months, I would." The warrior answered quietly. "I hope you know that."

"You do understand." Gabrielle murmured. She was silent for a long moment. "It’s never going to be like that again, is it, Xena?" She could feel the sharp jolt of pain at the words, and suddenly the loss overwhelmed her, and forced soft, racking sobs from her chest. She wanted that back so badly.. her body craved it, the warmth, and the love…

It wasn't fair.. her mind whispered. Wouldn't it have been better to have never… Her mind flashed on the remnants of her dream, and she felt the memories warm her. No… it would have.. no.. whatever happens, they can't take that away from me.

Xena hugged her close, and rubbed her back as she cried, easing the pain until she finally quieted. "Thanks… I.. I’m sorry I did that." She sniffled, feeling guilty. "Not a really good way to say good morning."

"It’s all right." The warrior mumbled into her ear. "Just having you here makes the morning a good one for me."

The pain eased. "Really?" Gabrielle asked softly, shamefacedly begging reassurance.

"Really." Came the answer. "Gabrielle.. I.. I know it’s hard.. it’s.. it’s hard for me too. But.." She took a breath. "What we have means a lot to me.. means… everything.. really. And I'm not going to let that get taken away again. I'm not." The last two words were almost savage in their intensity. "I.. never thought I’d ever get to.. " Xena stopped then went on. "We’re going to get back to that, Gabrielle. I swear it."

The bard lay quietly, looking up at her. "You really want that." There was a touch of wonder in her voice.

"More than anything else in the world." The warrior answered fiercely. Then her eyes dropped and she swallowed. ‘If.. I .. if that’s what you want, too." Accepting the possibility that Gabrielle might not want to fight what she knew was going to be a long, tough struggle for that "I mean."

The bard slowly smiled. It comes down to belief, doesn’t it? Do I believe in her? Do I believe in us? In myself? "It’s what I want." She breathed. "I don’t care how long it takes."

The blue eyes sparkled gently at that. Xena wrapped her arms around the bard a little tighter, and shifted her to a more comfortable position. "Good." Her voice cracked a little on the word.

What has this done to her? The bard sighed wistfully, as she ran her fingers up and down the powerful arms holding her, and let her eyes drift shut. It hurts me, but… I think it's worse… I know it's worse for her.. I wish I could do more to help her put things together.. but I guess that's just going to take time. "We’re going to get grief." She mumbled. "It’s really late."

"Mmm.." Xena agreed absently. "I’ve already told Solari to get lost twice." She looked down at the now wide-open and aghast green eyes. "Told her I wasn’t going to wake you up." The warrior explained reasonably. "Besides… Eponin needs the rest." She gave a little shrug. "And.. it's.. it was so peaceful…you.. were smiling.. didn't want to disturb that."

"Xena…" The bard laughed softly. "So you’ve just been lying around here waiting for me to wake up?" She realized her hands had started a gentle, restless movement and hesitated, then let them be.

"Yep." Xena looked slightly pleased with herself. "But we probably should get going.. Johan’s coming with us until Amazon territory, then he’s going on home."

Gabrielle felt the little flutter of her heartbeat when the Amazons were mentioned, and she raised herself up a bit and looked her partner in the eye. "Is going back with Eponin and Solari bothering you?"

Damn. Xena’s eyebrow quirked. "Um… a little." She admitted reluctantly. "It’s… nothing really, Gabrielle.. I’m just a little… " She let the words trail off and shrugged. "I’ll be fine."

The bard took a breath, considering her words carefully. "I’d rather not go if it’s going to bother you." She paused. "And.. um.. I.. don’t want to go there alone."

Xena lifted a hand and gently stroked her face. "No.. we should have let Ephiny know what’s going on…it’s not fair to her, Gabrielle… I’m.. used to not being liked. I'll live." The second part of the bard’s statement had cheered her considerably. "I owe Eph an apology anyway. If she’ll accept it."

"I’ll break her other arm if she doesn’t." Gabrielle muttered to herself. "Thanks… " Her hand settled to rest against the warrior's neck, and traced her breastbone idly. "I'll .. try to make it quick there.. I.. I kind of want to um…I'd like to see mom, and all."

She became aware of the slow, even motion of Xena's hand against her back, sending warm tickles through her. She decided she liked that, and felt her muscles shift under the probing fingers as she blinked a little. "Mmm."

"I'd like.. to see mom too." Xena murmured, absorbing the quiet, knowing pressure against her skin without comment. "And Ares." She smiled quietly at the bard. "You'll love the colts." She felt her breathing stop when Gabrielle's wandering hands slipped under the fabric of her shirt. "Uh… um.. mom.. um.. named them Hercules and Iolaus."

A quiet snorting laugh from Gabrielle. "We'll never live that down." She sighed. "I'm.. um… a little nervous about.. Xena.. your mom.. your family…" She dropped her gaze. "I don't…"

A strong hand slipped up her side, and patted her gently. "Mom loves you. And so does Toris. Even when I went home to.. to pick up Argo, she was really worried about you."

"I know.. but.." Gabrielle traced a familiar scar just below the warrior's breastbone. "You told her what was going on?"

A deep sigh. "She could tell something was wrong. I…I n.. needed to tell someone." Xena admitted softly. "She.. made me promise not to give up on us."

"Us." Gabrielle let out a little, satisfied breath. "I like that word." Her fingers drifted further, following the curve of her ribs, and tracing the hollows between them. She felt the bones under her hands move as the warrior took a breath. "I don't.." She glanced up and was caught in Xena’s gaze not far from her own. That blue she loved to drown in, letting her concerns drift off for the moment and concentrating on the pressure of Xena's hands, and the faint hint of a familiar smile playing around the corners of her lips.

Realizing just how much of their bodies were touching each other, tangled along both of their lengths in a comfortable sprawl, as a friendly glow crept quietly, stealthily out and began making timid inroads on her senses.

Amazing how close their lips were. She could see the faint twitch in Xena's, if she looked closely, and suddenly, she wanted to.

It happened so fast she hardly had time to think about it, as she let her body drop forward a little and they kissed before she had a chance to prepare, or remember, or worry.

And she found another thing that hadn’t changed, at all, as a sensual wave crashed over her.

She broke off after a long moment, and they looked at each other in surprise. "I.. um… uh.. " The bard stammered. "I wasn’t.. I didn’t… uh.."

"Um.. yeah… me neither.. I… " Xena stopped, and took a deep breath. "Wow that felt good." She finished meekly, with a sheepish little grin, watching the bard's face anxiously.

Gabrielle licked her lips. "Yeah, it did." She whispered, letting herself relax into a real smile. "It did." No darkness, no Dahok.. it had just been them. A part of her soul wriggled free and went soaring.

They looked at each other, then at the window, where Solari's voice was floating in on the breeze. "Uh oh." Gabrielle muttered. "Guess they're waiting." She took a deep breath. "And.. I.. I don't know if I'm ready… " She met Xena's eyes squarely, seeing gentle understanding there.

"We've got time." The warrior replied immediately, sliding her fingers through the bard's fair hair, and bringing them to rest on the back of her neck, where she started a gentle scratching.

"Ungh." Gabrielle's eyes closed, and her head dropped forward. "Keep doing that and we'll never get out of here." She muffled a curse as she heard impatient footsteps approaching. "I think we just ran out of time."

"Pesky Amazons." Xena muttered. "They're like horseflies sometimes." Without thinking, she slid out of bed, and carried the bard with her, cradling her as she stood and walked towards the door.

"Xena.. where are you.. "

The door opened, and Gabrielle was eye to eye with Solari, whose expression rapidly mutated from annoyed to stunned, to embarrassed in a very short span. "Morning." The bard managed, biting her lip. "We'll.. um.. be right there." She glanced up. "Right?"

"Right." Xena replied in a serious tone.

"Uh huh. " Solari nodded, and turned about, scooting rapidly out of sight as Xena quietly closed the door behind her.

"You.. um.. going to let me down?" The bard asked softly. She was set on her feet immediately.

'Sorry." Xena stepped back in confusion. "I.. I wasn't thinking."

Gabrielle thought about that for a long minute, then gave her a little pat on the side. "Good.. don't think more often."

She left Xena to ponder that as she dug out a change of clothing, and started gathering their stuff.

The late morning sun baked the small village square, evoking a gentle steaming from the mud churned up from the previous night's rainfall. The air was still moist, and the humid, fitful breeze promised more rain to come, despite the fluffy white clouds which dotted the summer sky.

The village went about its business, some of the inhabitants stopping to say hello, or goodbye to the small group clustered in front of the inn, around a large, patient golden mare.

"Look.. I don't need to ride that horse." Eponin said through gritted teeth. "Damn it, Xena." The Amazon had woken with a still pounding head, and a troublesome tendency to vertigo that was secretly worrying Xena more than she let on.

Gabrielle stepped forward, exchanging a glance with Solari. "Pony.. c'mon.. it's no big deal. Argo's really nice." She coaxed. "It's just for a while.. we don't mind.. I like walking, remember?"

"Yeah.. " Solari chimed in. "C'mon, Eponin… sooner you get up there, sooner we can get gong and create a breeze." She wiped her face off. "Damn, it's hot."

Eponin scowled. "I'm not riding on no horse." She hefted a staff she'd picked up. "I can use this.. let's get going."

Xena had enough. She dropped Argo's reins and walked around to the other side of the mare, where they were all standing. "Eponin." She stated flatly. "Get up on Argo or I'll put you there." She put her hands on her hips and waited.

They all looked at her. "Well.. guess the Warrior Princess stopped off for a cup of tea." Eponin muttered, and handed Solari the staff. "All right.. all right.. I know a threat when I hear one." She put one hand on the saddlehorn, and grabbed suddenly at Argo as a wave of dizziness hit her. "Damn." She cursed softly, as Xena caught her around the waist, and she was boosted up into the mare's high saddle. "What in Hades did you put in your breakfast, Xena?" She sniped. "I feel like a sack of flour being tossed around.."

Xena ignored her, and just shook her head, taking up Argo's reins and starting off. Gabrielle paced alongside her, moving her staff with practiced grace, and darting the occasional glance back at Solari and Johan, who were chatting amiably. Johan had left his wares behind, making a deal with the other two merchants who had started out with him in Amphipolis to trade his stuff on commission. He hadn't brought much, it was more an excuse to travel as part of the caravan than anything else.

The air around them seemed thick with hot, steamy moisture, and Xena sighed, realizing it was going to be an uncommonly uncomfortable day to walk, ride, or anything else other than sit quietly in the shade. Not for the first time, she silently envied Gabrielle her choice of clothing.. the bard's sparse, cloth garb was definitely looking a lot cooler than the Amazon's feather bedecked leathers, or her own dark covering.

"Something wrong?" Gabrielle asked, her brow creasing, as she strode along.

Xena realized she'd been staring, and mentally, quietly, slapped herself. "Nope.. just thinking you picked the best thing to wear. for today." With a silent sigh, she reached back and twisted her long, dark hair into a knot, to get it off her shoulders.

The bard glanced down at herself critically. "I'm probably going to get sunburned like crazy." She mentioned, looking up at the sky, then over at Xena. "Hope you have some aloe with you."

Xena amiably took this excuse to study the exposed skin in question. "You should be all right.. you're pretty tan." She pronounced, then took a breath. "But yeah, I've got some."

Gabrielle's turn to do the studying. "Those leathers look really hot." She repeated that in her head, and felt a light blush coming on. "Uhm… warm, I mean." She looked around them with determined interest, avoiding the faint amusement in the warrior's blue eyes.

The road stretched on in front of them, leading through a long, flat plain towards the faint purple haze of mountains on the far horizon. Around them she could hear the flat, harsh sound of crickets in the tall grass, and the fitful rustle of small creatures that moved as they passed by. The air carried the heavy scent of growing things, and the baking earth to her nostrils.

She took a quick look at Xena, who was letting her eyes scan the surroundings in an automatic gesture, and seemed to be lost in her own thoughts. "Hey." She reached out and touched a warm arm.

A tiny shake of the warrior's head. "Huh?" Xena glanced over. "What's up?"

Gabrielle moved closer and studied her. "I got the feeling you weren't." She lowered her voice. "You ok?"

Xena scuffed her boots a little and her face took on a faintly sheepish
look. "Fine.. I'm fine.. just.. thinking." She turned her head to eye Eponin’s half-slumped form, then eyed the clouds. "Gonna be a long day."

Gabrielle considered that. "Yeah… " She moved a bit closer. "Mind if I use your shadow?" Xena grinned down at her. "Always glad to help." She drawled.

The sun had crossed midpoint and more before Xena sensed the far off welcome scent of running water on the hot wind brushing her skin. "Let’s move off this way." She nudged Argo’s shoulder, and the mare lifted her head, spreading her nostrils and snorting a little. "Yeah.. I smell it.. we’re going." Gabrielle glanced that direction. "Water?" She caught the relieved look on Solari and Johan’s face. Both were sweating liberally, and looked frazzled by the heat. "Good idea."

The warrior nodded. "Yeah.. it’s the first I’ve spotted.. sorry." She gave everyone an apologetic look. "We’ll rest a while here. " She led them across an overgrown patch of tall grasses, scattering a flock of small birds in her path, and brushing away clouds of lazily swarming midges that caused Argo to shake her head, and lash out with her tail. The mare smelled the nearing water though, and picked up her pace, as they ducked under a fringe of thick trees which lined a shallow, but fairly fast flowing stream that slithered between rocks and fallen logs, about four horse lengths wide.

Xena knelt at the side of the stream, and dipped a hand in, lifting it up and sniffing, then poking her tongue into the water. She dropped her hand and nodded. "Ok.. come on." She moved to Argo’s side and helped Solari ease Eponin down out of the saddle, and onto the thick grass that grew along the stream. The mare shook her head, and walked eagerly to the edge of the water, extending her neck and slurping with enthusiasm.

"I’ll second that." Gabrielle sighed, setting her staff down and joining the horse, dipping her hand into the water and raising it to her lips to drink. The water was cold from the shade and the nearness of its source, and sweet and she swallowed handfuls of it gratefully, looking up as Xena knelt next to her and filled a waterskin. "You look pretty toasty." She noted the flush on her partner’s normally dark face, and the waves of heat that were radiating from her body. "Make sure you get some water, OK?"

Blue eyes lifted to hers, and a faint twinkle appeared. "Yes, mom."

Gabrielle dropped her gaze and blushed. "Sorry." She apologized quietly.

"Don’t be." Xena’s voice floated over, and a hand pressed hers for an instant before the warrior was gone. She lifted her head, and watched as her partner crossed to where Eponin was leaning against a tree with a deep scowl on her face. She was arguing faintly with Solari, who looked up at Xena in frustrated appeal as the warrior neared. "What’s wrong?"

Solari pushed the hair off her sweating forehead. "I'm gonna get Ephiny for this." She muttered, as she took the waterskin from the taller woman and offered it to Eponin. "You’re going to drink this, or else."

Eponin gave her a weary look. "So I can send it right back up? Get out of my face, Solari. I’m not putting anything in there the way I feel." She jumped a little as Xena dropped to an armored knee at her side, and rested her bracered forearms against her thigh. "Look, Xena, I…" She stopped speaking as her eyes met the warrior’s and she saw the quiet intense look.

"Eponin, you need to try and sip a little." Xena said patiently. "I know you’re feeling pretty sick, but you need water… so do us both a favor, and give it a try, huh?" "

Or?" The Amazon stuck her lip out stubbornly.

"Or I’m going to have to make it an order. " Gabrielle’s voice gently floated over the warrior’s shoulder. "Don’t make me pull rank, ok?"

Eponin gave her an evil glare. "Ephiny does the same thing to me." She turned a grudging look to Xena’s face, and took the waterskin from Solari’s outstretched hand, nodding her head in Gabrielle’s direction. "Does she do that to you, too?"

Xena ducked her head, and smiled. "Nope.. she doesn’t have to. I know she knows what’s good for me, and I just do it." She heard the soft snort behind her and raised an eyebrow. "Most of the time, anyway." She felt a warm hand settle on her shoulder and the brush of Gabrielle’s knee against her side. "Don’t I?"

The bard kept her holding her breath for a moment, then laughed. "Mostly, yeah." She acknowledged. "So why don’t you go get a drink, come to think of it?" She nudged the warrior in the ribs gently. That got her a sideways look that was half chagrin and half amusement, but Xena rose without comment and trudged over to the stream, dropping down next to it and dipping cupped hands into the cold water.

Gabrielle watched her go with a contented smile, then turned her attention back to Eponin, realizing suddenly that everyone was looking at her. "What?"

Johan chuckled, and crossed his arms, directing his attention out over the field, as Solari cleared her throat and Eponin just rolled her eyes.

"What?" The bard repeated, putting her hands on her hips and gazing at them.

Xena let the bard’s voice drift past her, as she first drank, then rubbed her arms with the stream’s contents. The heat was getting more oppressive, and her weather sense told her that the building pressure was going to result sooner or later in a storm. She’d rather it was later.. memory told her there wasn’t much shelter this side of the mountains, and she really didn’t want to try and build a temporary one out here. With a sigh, she dipped her hand in the water, and lifted it out, pressing it to the back of her neck as she tried to ignore the pounding headache she’d gotten from the heat.

"How far do you think we can make it today?" Gabrielle asked, as she appeared next to her and crouched down, dabbling her fingertips in the water. "Everyone’s really not doing too well in this heat."

"I know." Xena sighed. "We’ll run up against weather later.. I’d like to get at least a little further out of these flatlands before we try and find shelter.. and we don’t have a whole lot of supplies." She scooped more water over her neck. "Damn, it is hot… hey!" Water droplets hit her, and she blinked.

"Yep.. you do look overheated." The bard teased very gently, sprinkling her again.

"Gabrielle… hey!" Xena closed her eyes as a handful of water headed her way. "Whoa.. " She spluttered, shaking her head to remove the moisture from her eyes. "Hey.. I wasn’t that hot."

More water. "Gabrielle!" The warrior growled. "What are you doing?"

"Playing with you." Came the very quiet, and very wistful response. The bard ceased her antics, and sighed. "Sorry."

Xena blinked at the dejected set of her partner’s shoulders and took a breath, then a second. "No.. it’s.. um. It’s all right, Gabrielle… I just didn’t…"

"Yeah." The bard stood and walked off, wiping her face hurriedly. "I.. just forgot for a minute."

"Gabrielle." The warrior called softly. The footsteps stopped, then slowly returned a long instant later until she could feel the bard’s warmth at her back again. She patted the ground next to her, and felt a tiny thread of encouragement when Gabrielle settled down cross-legged on the grass. "I.. can we start this over again?"

"Start what?" The bard asked quietly, playing with a bit of green stalk,

"This." Xena flicked a bit of water at her.

Gabrielle jerked in surprise, then blinked as a blob hit her nose. "Uh…" A hesitant smile creased her lips. "You don’t have to do that." She glanced behind them, to where their three companions were relaxing in the shade, eyes closed. "Yahhh!" A splash drenched her shoulder, and she whipped her head back, and dove for the water. "You.. you… "

Splash. "Xena!" She swept her arm through the liquid, launching a wave at her smiling companion. "Whoops." It was more than she expected, and drenched the surprised warrior. "Eeek. Sorry."

Xena glanced down at herself. "That felt pretty good, actually." She muttered.

"Yeah?" Gabrielle inquired innocently.

The warrior nodded. "Yeah." "Good."

The bard lunged forward suddenly, and gave her a powerful shove, knocking Xena off balance and tumbling her into the cheerfully burbling stream. "Oh… damn." Gabrielle could have slapped herself. "I can’t believe I did that."

Long silence, then a splash as Xena surfaced, and shook her head to clear the wet hair out of her eyes. She kept her eyes glued on the bard as she got her feet under her and stood, walking forward until she was up to her knees in the water.

Gabrielle leaned back on her hands, staring up at six feet of dripping wet, leather covered warrior. "Well." She bit her lip. "You look cooler, now?"

Xena put her hands on her hips. "Oh yeah." She looked the bard up and down. "Do you know how long it’s going to take me to dry all this stuff?"

Gabrielle considered the question. "You’d feel better if you weren’t wearing that anyway." She offered, spreading her arms out and indicating herself. "Really."

The warrior sighed, and trudged the rest of the way out of the water, starting to strip off her leather armor with a mock martyred air. "Argo’s gonna kill me. She hates carrying this stuff." She muttered, as the bard stood, and helped with the buckles on the metal. "Ow.. thanks." She ducked her head as Gabrielle pulled her armor over her head, then grinned a little and wrapped her arms around the smaller woman and hugged her close.

"Augh." The bard groaned. "Xena.. you’re…"

"Wet, yes. I noticed." The warrior agreed. "Now you are too." She released the bard and stepped back, observing the now damp fabric and the glistening sheen of moisture across her partner’s bare midriff. "You look much cooler now."

They looked at each other, and paused, then started chuckling. "Ok…ok.. " Gabrielle waved a hand. "I deserved that." She hoisted the armor over her shoulder, and went to Argo’s bags, pulling out a piece of linen and turning. "You.. want a shirt or…"

Xena considered. "No.. " She glanced down at herself. "No clips for the sword.. I’d better.. . " She joined the bard at the mare’s side and dug inside a pouch. "This’ll do." She pulled out her padded gambeson and shook it out. "Cooler, anyway."

Gabrielle nodded, and pulled out some of their travel rations, then wandered over to where the rest of their party was relaxing and joined them under the tree.

Solari opened an eye and peered at her. "You two finished?"

"Finished what?" Gabrielle asked, innocently. "We were just getting a drink."

The eyeball rolled and disappeared.

They pushed on, regaining the road, and heading towards the distant range of mountains, trying their best to ignore the sultry waves of heat that rolled over them as the wind dropped and it became very still.

"Xena." Gabrielle's voice broke the oppressive silence, hours later.

"Mmm?" The warrior turned her head slightly and raised an eyebrow.

The bard pushed a damp strand of hair back from her face. "I think we need to stop." She said in a low tone, casting a glance back at the trudging Solari and Johan. "I know I feel like Hades, I can just imagine how they feel."

Xena studied her, noting the flushed skin. "Yeah… I know.. I've been looking for a place for the last hour." She replied softly, flicking her eyes to the building clouds. "I think I hear water off to the left there.. maybe there'll be some place we can find shelter in."

She led Argo off the path again, though a meadow of sparse scrub growth, as a distant roll of thunder rumbled overhead. As they passed deeper into the thin fringe of trees, a sparse breeze picked up, and gusted around them, bringing the distinctive tang of rain to Xena's sensitive nose. "Oh boy." She muttered. "We're trying to find shelter here… otherwise it's gonna be a wet night." This in a louder voice for everyone's benefit.

"Great." Solari stretched aching shoulders, and came up on the other side of Argo. "Hot and wet. Just how I love to spend my time."

"Funny.. " Eponin managed a weak chuckle from her perch on Argo's high back. "That's what I heard."

Johan cleared his throat, while Gabrielle laughed softly. "Pony… " The bard scolded her, seeing the smirky grin on her partner's face. "You're mean."

Solari blushed a brick red. "Just you wait." She muttered through her teeth at her sister Amazon. "I'll get you for that."

Xena ducked her head under Argo's neck. "I think she meant it as a compliment." The warrior commented dryly, then a tiny mischievous spark lit her blue eyes. "On the other hand..I seem to remember…"

"Ah ah ah.." Eponin slapped Xena's cloth covered shoulder with the end of Argo's reins. "You promised not to say anything about that."

Solari's ears perked up. "About what?"

Xena shrugged. "Sorry..she's right." She pulled her head back under the mare's neck, and continued to walk forward, aware of the tiny snicker coming from Gabrielle, but he momentary good mood vanished as the memories stirred by Eponin's reminder played out and she remembered Solon's part in them.

Gabrielle felt the change immediately, and moved closer, settling a hand on the small of the warrior's back, and rubbing gently. She opened her mouth to speak, then changed her mind and remained silent. What can I say to her? I know what she's remembering. She certainly doesn't want to hear words of comfort on that subject from me.

But the warrior responded to the gentle touch, and moved closer, sliding an arm around Gabrielle's shoulders and letting it rest there as they walked, and the silence seemed suddenly more friendly.

They got lucky, Gabrielle realized, when they forced their way through a thick clump of ground hugging trees and spotted the sound they'd been heading towards. A small waterfall, over a granite outcropping that thrust its way out of the ground, complete with overhangs large enough to shelter them in. "Good pick. " She whispered, giving her partner a quiet look.

Xena returned a brief smile, and ruffled her hair. "Thanks." She replied, then motioned towards the rocks. "Let's find the deepest place under there… I think that one spot.." Her hand gestured. "Might be big enough."

Gabrielle helped Solari get Eponin down off Argo, and they walked under the heavy granite shelf. "She's right." The bard murmured to herself, as they settled the Amazon against the back wall. "Here.." She handed Eponin the waterskin she'd had slung over her shoulder. "Try to get some of this in you before we all end up with it on the outside."

Eponin took the leather bag, and gave her a weary smile as she sipped on it. "Sorry I'm being such a pain in the butt." The Amazon sighed. "Like you needed more problems."

The bard managed a slight smile. "Story of our lives, Pony.. don't worry about it." She put a hand against the Amazon's forehead. "How are you feeling?" She watched Eponin take a breath to answer and held up a finger. "No centaur poop with me, Pony… remember who I live with. If she can't fool me, you can't."

The caramel colored eyes blinked, then dropped their gaze to the waterskin she was holding. "Yeah… " The Amazon put her head back against the granite. "This damn dizziness is getting worse, and my vision keeps blurring." She answered very quietly. "And I'm still sick to my stomach." She searched Gabrielle's face. "Honest enough?"

The bard nodded a little. "OK." She tucked her folded cloak behind the Amazon's head, and shook out a blanket to lie over her, casting a glance back over her shoulder to where Xena was getting Argo settled, and pulling down supplies for the night. "Just take it easy… Xena will know what to do." She finished tucking the blanket around Eponin's shoulders, and met the older woman's eyes. "You're going to be fine."

Eponin gave her a hesitant smile. "Or else?"

Gabrielle smiled back. "Or else." She confirmed, then gave her a pat on the leg, and stood, dodging around Solari's busy form as the Amazon brought wood in to keep dry before the storm hit, and broke out their own small cache of supplies. "I think we're scrounging for dinner.. hunting in this weather's not a good idea."

Solari nodded. "Right.. I figured.. " She rooted around in her pack. "I've got some dried stuff…we'll make do."

Johan looked up from his own supplies. "Aye.. I've got a bit of this and that wi me as well… we'll manage."

The bard gave them both a grateful smile. "I'll get what we have… it'll be fun. " She crossed to where Argo's saddle bags had been offloaded, and paused, seeing her partner standing at the edge of the overhang, one hand resting lightly on the rock. She changed course and stepped up behind her, looking out at the waterfall and its pool, whose colors had deepened with the onset of the weather, as the clouds filtered the rich sunlight. "It's pretty." She commented, glancing up at Xena's silent face. "We're going to scrounge for dinner… Solari's got firewood, and we've got Eponin settled."

The warrior turned and gave her a slightly embarrassed look. "Thanks.. I'm… I'm sorry..I didn't mean to just drift off on you like that…" She looked at the dark earth floor. "I.. um…"

Gabrielle reached out and took her hand, interlacing their fingers. "It's ok." She replied. "Listen..I'm a little worried about Pony.. she said she still feels sick, and she keeps getting dizzy."

Xena blew out a breath. "Yeah.. I kind of figured." She chewed her lip. "It's… when you get hurt inside, like that… it's not… Gabrielle, you remember when I got hurt, that last time, before we left home?"

Home. That triggered a rush of warm memories that the bard closed her eyes against. "Yes." She finally said, looking back up at her partner. "Your head, you mean."

Xena nodded. "Yeah… remember you had to open the stitches… it got closed up, and the pressure was really hurting me?"

Gabrielle winced. "I'd rather not remember that part."

A hand lifted and stroked her cheek. "Sorry." Xena sighed. "But… when you get hurt inside, like Eponin is, there's no way to release that pressure.. and it causes problems."

The bard thought about that. "Oh." She gave a little nod of comprehension. "So.. what do you do?"

The warrior raised both eyebrows and shook her head. "Rest… keep her quiet.. let her sleep when she pretty much have to let your body deal with it." Her eyes met Gabrielle's squarely. "If it can."

Gabrielle felt a chill travel down her spine. "You mean sometimes it can't?"

"Sometimes." Xena replied honestly. "Head wounds are like that."

A long breath. "I see." Gabrielle considered that, then looked back up. "You get hit in the head all the time. How come you never told me that before?"

Silence. "Right." The bard shook her head. "Well, anyway… I've got stuff to.."

"Gabrielle." Xena's voice sounded tired. "I just didn't want to worry you." Her eyes begged apology. "I've tried to be better about that."

"Yeah, I know." The bard relented, reluctantly. "I don't feel that bad.. you do it with everyone.. I just wish you could understand it worries me more when I don’t know, but I think something's wrong." She looked up. "I'm not 'everyone' Xena… you're a part of me." A wistful smile. "I.. I need to know."

A pained smile crossed her partner's face. "You have no idea how good it makes me feel.. that you still want to know, Gabrielle." She admitted with a soft sigh. "I'll try to do a better job on that." They gazed at each other for a long moment, then Gabrielle's face relaxed in a relieved grin, and triggered a like response from her partner.

The first drops of rain spattered down, driven by the wind against the leaves.

The tiny fire danced fitfully in the gusts of moist, cool air as they gathered what supplies they had to share for dinner. It was, Gabrielle reflected, an eclectic mix, comprised of several types of dried meat, a veritable picnic of dried fruits, some hard cheese, and hot mint tea supplied from Xena's kit. She would have preferred some hot soup, but.. Her eyes flicked to the downpour just outside that was driving a soft, damp mist over all of them. I'll cope.

They were all leaning back against the granite wall, as far from the edge of the overhang as they could get. The mist brought a heavy scent of black earth with it, along with the raw smell of bruised vegetation, mingled with the musky odor from the moss that lined the rock they were huddled under. Eponin was on the far inside, furthest away from the opening, with Solari seated next to her, then Johan.

Gabrielle was snuggled between the trader and her partner, who had taken the outermost spot, and was suffering the dampness with her typically stoic expression. They were sharing a mug of hot tea, and she lifted the cup to Xena's lips and watched as she sipped some. "You're getting wet."

The warrior cast a resigned glance over her damp shoulder and sighed. "Yeah." She had half turned, to protect Gabrielle from the rain, and rested her head against the rock wall with a grunt. "I'll live."

Gabriele gave her another sip, and reached up to feed her a nibble of cheese. "Martyr." She teased gently, as the warrior accepted the tidbit, and chewed it.

A dark eyebrow cocked. "You want to sit on the outside and get wet?"

The bard gave her an impish grin. "Nope." She let her eyes drift to her right. "How's Pony doing?" She lowered her voice, though the two Amazons appeared to have dozed off.

"Not great." The warrior replied in the same low tone. "I gave her some stuff in her tea to relax her, and get her real calm. That helps sometimes." Her brow acquired a worried crease. "Wish there was more… I don't know, Gabrielle..I"d say stop for a healer, but there's not much in this part of the world.. I think the closest we'd find something is either home or the Amazon village itself."

The bard considered this. "What are the chances of running into a healer better than you anyway?" She asked reasonably. "They might have a few more supplies, but you said yourself there isn't much you can do, right?"

Xena gazed out into the rain. "Yeah." She replied. "But that doesn't stop me from wanting to try."

Gabrielle smiled, and offered her a piece of dried lamb. "Here." She watched the warrior chew, idly enjoying the play of the firelight against the movement of her face. A sparkle caught her eye, and she let her gaze drift downward to where the crystal lay twinkling against the warrior's dark skin, half hidden under the fabric of her gambeson.

She had to lean closer to see it, and somehow she ended up snuggled into Xena's arms, unsure of exactly how she got there, but not really caring, once her body had found its familiar warm place tucked against the warrior's. She played with the pendant, and with her own, fitting them together in idle contentment as a drowsy peace settled over her. "Hey…."

"Hmm?" Xena's voice burred against her forehead, which was pressed up near the warrior's throat.

"Did you put some of that stuff in our tea, too?" She asked, feeling a more than normal sense of relaxation invade her body.

"Hmmph.." The warrior let a tiny chuckle sound against her skin. "Nope… why?"

"Mmm… must just be you, then." Gabrielle theorized, watching the last light fade out, leaving them only in firelit shadows, with the drumming pattern of the rain thundering around them. Thunder made its irregular presence known, and flashes of fitful lightning lit up the glade outside into gray shadows, hidden by the sheets of falling water.

Gabrielle felt her breathing settle, and slow, and gradually match Xena's until they were in rhythm with each other as they sat there in a peaceful silence. The steady sounds to her right indicated their other three companions were sound asleep, and she knew she was headed that way herself, as the soothing patter of the rain lulled her into a dreamy contentment.

But she resisted, because it felt so nice to be right where she was, safe in Xena's arms, watching the storm outside.

Safe. There was that word again. Hadn't she decided there wasn't any safe places anymore? She examined how she felt carefully, and came to the conclusion that right now, at this moment, in this place… she felt pretty darn safe.

That felt really good. She smiled, a movement of muscles against the fabric-covered shoulder she was leaning on. "Know something?" She tilted her head up, seeing most of Xena's profile in shadow, save the soft glints as the firelight reflected from her pale eyes.

"What?" The warrior rumbled softly.

A soft sigh. "I still like rainy days."

The fire reflected suddenly off white teeth as that brought a grin to Xena's face. "Me too."

This time the kiss was longer, and held no surprises., but was undemanding on either of them, more an affirmation than an invitation to go further. Which, Gabrielle mused sleepily as she let the rain lull her. Was.. all right. For now.

They had time.

You know. Xena quietly reflected. After a night of sleeping on hard granite, in the rain, after a day spent baking in the sun, I shouldn't feel this good. But she did, illogically enough, which she discovered as she let her eyes blink open just before dawn.

The dampness, the granite, and the sunburn were still there, but somehow the fact that she had Gabrielle curled up in her arms made that all kind of irrelevant.

It made a lot of things irrelevant. It gave her a reason to wake up at all, which she hadn't had for.. quite a while. She had gotten up to face the day only because she really didn't have a choice, and because getting up to face reality was actually a lot better than spending time in her dreams.

Her nightmares, more accurately.

Now mornings were.. She smiled wistfully as Gabrielle shifted, and nestled closer. Well, at least it didn't hurt to open her eyes anymore. To see cold, shuttered suspicion in a face that had once been so open to her. No longer trust, but wariness had marked the bard's gaze in her direction, where she'd always found a gentle warmth before. Remembering that look hurt, and she doggedly locked the memory away with the rest of her bad ones.

Slowly, tentatively, she could feel the threads which bound them together being tightened, as they worked their way along a very long, and very narrow road back towards each other. She knew she didn't deserve a second chance at this, but… she figured.. maybe Gabrielle did, and she was just lucky enough to be along for the ride.

And that was ok. She'd take what she could get, and just not think about the future. Look where that had gotten her this time, right? Just.. one day at a time, Xena…remember how that goes? Don't look back, don't look forward, just.. live.

Maybe someday there would be a tomorrow again. But she wasn't counting on it. Right now, all she was counting on was the fact that it was morning, and it was done raining, and her soulmate was once again back in the place reserved for her alone.

Gabrielle stirred again, and her eyes opened, blinking sleepily as she yawned and looked up. "Morning." She winced as she flexed her back. "Ouch." An annoyed look at the rock. "Granite, bed, not a good combination." Then she patted the fabric-covered surface she was resting against and smiled. "Guess I should stop complaining though…"

Xena gave her a tiny grin, then shifted and slid her hands around to the bard's back, beginning a slow massage against the stiffened muscles she found there. "And you're used to walking.. imagine the kind of complaining we're gonna get when everyone else wakes up." This in a bare whisper meant for the bard's ears only.

Gabrielle winced comically. "Ooo.. you're right." She relaxed blissfully against Xena's warm body as the warrior's hands did their work. Then her head tilted. "Xena… please.. no comments about Amazons and conditioning.. I don't wanna be arbitrating that all the way to the village."

She felt rather than heard the soft chuckle. "Ok..ok… I.. don't want to antagonize anyone else." Xena replied wryly. "It's going to be bad enough as it is."

The bard chewed over that. "You're preparing yourself for the worst, aren't you?" The strong hands paused, then continued, and she felt Xena sigh. "We'll make it a short stay." Gabrielle promised. "I really want to make sure they get home ok."

"I know." Her partner reassured her. "I do too… it's' gonna be all right, Gabrielle.. nothing I haven't faced before."

"Mph." The bard's warm breath gusted against her chest. "I guess.. it's just that it's been hard enough. I don't want to make it any harder." She looked up. "Especially not now.. I.. I like the direction we're going in.. I feel really comfortable with it."

That earned her a real grin. "I am too." Xena gave her a kiss on the forehead and a hug. "We'd better get moving…" She studied the dawn outside. "It's gonna be hot again, and the earlier we start, the faster we'll go until the worst of it hits."

"Well." The bard snorted softly, releasing her. She let Xena rise, wincing as she heard the pops as the warrior flexed her shoulders. "Ugh." She stood herself and stretched. "We could have gotten a quick start yesterday, but someone.. and I won't mention any names here, someone just let me laze around in bed all morning." She walked out from under the overhang, and into the dawn, with Xena ambling behind her. The bard stopped, and leaned against the rock, gazing thoughtfully at the tumbling waterfall that was burbling in the clearing, picking up glints of the sun's first rays.

Xena studied her face, noting that the dark circles under her eyes were almost faded to nothing, and there was a hint of a lost, familiar sparkling starting to come back into the mist green eyes gazing at her. "Time well spent, Gabrielle." She said quietly, stroking the soft skin of her cheek with an idle thumb.

The bard leaned into the contact. "I think I've slept more in the last three days than in the last three months." She admitted, shaking her head. "Xena, it must have been Dahok. How could we have been so blind to each other?" She let out a sigh. "How could I have been so blind to this… need…that I have for you, that runs so deep…" She closed her eyes and soaked in the warmth she could feel between them.

"He… knew exactly which buttons to push.. " Xena replied softly. "Exactly which insecurities to take advantage of… he played us very accurately, Gabrielle." She paused grimly. "Very accurately." She sighed. "Hate is a very, very strong force."

"So.. what went wrong?" The bard asked, soberly. "If he was so smart, and so accurate, why didn't it work all the way?"

The warrior hugged her quietly. "He forgot that there is only one thing stronger than hate, Gabrielle." He mouth quirked. "And that's love." She felt the bard's breathing catch. "He tried to make me hate you, thinking that would set free my dark side… and he needs that." She leaned back against the rock and watched the first pink hint of dawn color the rich foliage outside. "And it fits my pattern, doesn't it? I've always destroyed anyone who .."

"Betrayed you." Gabrielle finished for her. "I know." She played with a buckle on the gambeson. "So what stopped you?"

Xena gazed at her. "In this case, it would have been destroying myself, and I knew that." She let her fingers tangle in Gabrielle's hair. "He never counted on the fact that I never stopped loving you."

"Never?" Gabrielle looked her right in the eye, with total honestly.

The warrior gave her the look right back. "Never." She paused. "There were times when I wished I had.. it would have hurt less. It almost killed me."

Gabrielle felt something loosen deep inside her, and float free, a binding she hadn't even been aware of having been there. "That's how it was for me, too. Just an incredible amount of pain." She looked up and gave her partner a gentle pat on the side. 'But we made it through."

Xena nodded a little. "Yeah.. we did, didn't we?" She paused awkwardly, then cleared her throat. "I'm.. ' She gestured towards the waterfall. "Gonna go take advantage of clean water and some soap."

The bard ducked her head and crossed her arms, gaining a great interest in a small bush at her feet momentarily. "Um." She looked up a trifle shyly. "Mind some company?"

A brief, relaxed grin rewarded her. "Not at all."

They ducked back under the ledge, and Gabrielle padded silently over to their gear, pulling out towels and soap while Xena built up the small fire, and set a pot of water on to heat. She knelt briefly beside Eponin, and checked her, then nodded to herself a little and rose, joining the bard at the entrance to their shelter.

It was a short walk down to the base of the waterfall, where the water was picking up the early morning light in quiet sparkles, as the falling liquid filled the small glade with happy chuckling. Xena shucked her gambeson, and headed into the water, standing under the pounding pressure and letting it ease the aches from her. After a long moment of that, she continued through the spray, until she was on the inside of the fall, and pressed her back against the moss covered rock while she looked out.

A silvery splash, and the water curtain was parted by Gabrielle's body, as the bard joined her, pushing her now wet hair back off her forehead, and leaned back next to her in silence. The sun's rays caught the water in front of them, scattering miniature rainbows everywhere, with colors dancing across them and over the mossy rock. "Wow." The bard laughed. "I think there's a poem in this somewhere."

Xena smiled, and started to work with her soap, standing as she was in the waist high water, scrubbing off the mud from the previous day. She'd gotten halfway up one arm when the soap was very gently taken from her fingers.

"Mind if I do that?" Came the soft question.

A thousand reasons to say yes clustered in her mind. "No." Was what came out. Then she portioned the soap in two and faced Gabrielle. "Not unless you do."

Gabrielle shook her head and stepped closer, starting on the arm where Xena had left off, while the warrior used her other arm to start washing the bard's shoulders. "You're all over mud." Gabrielle commented, trying for nonchalance when she realized both of them were really nervous.

"Um.. yeah.. " Xena ducked her head to one side a little. "Always dirty behind your ears, Gabrielle.. what is it with you?"

"I figured that out." The bard responded, scrubbing the stains where her armor had marked her. "It's from putting my hair back behind my ears with my hands."

"Oh." Xena chuckled a bit. "Yeah.. that makes sense." She washed further. "Back of your neck got sunburned." She threaded her fingers through the damp pale hair and moved it out of her way, hearing the bard's sudden intake of breath. "Sorry.. did I hurt you?"

"No." Came the quiet, breathed, response. "Just a little ticklish there I guess." She let her soapy hands slide down Xena's sides, and across her ribs, feeling the muscles move under her fingertips as the warrior's arms slipped around to get her back. "Hey.. you're too tall."

Xena obligingly stepped a pace deeper into the pool, bringing their heads to almost level. "Better?" The warrior inquired.

Those blue eyes within inches of hers. "No." Gabrielle smiled sheepishly. "But I'll.. um.. .I'll cope." She moved her hands up around Xena's neck, and hesitated when he fingers touched the marks left from the stocks in Chin.

"It's all right." Her partner gently reassured her. "They don't hurt, and they're fading."

The bard smiled a little, and tightened her jaw, then washed the area with a look of quiet introspection. She continued down the sloping, powerful neck muscles, then out and across her broad shoulders. "How's your arm feel?" The skin under her hands rippled and moved as Xena flexed the limb in question.

"Not bad.. just a little stiff." The warrior replied, gently soaping the bard's breasts, and watching her chest stop moving entirely. She let that go on for a minute, then smiled quietly to herself. 'Breathe." She murmured gently to the bard.

"Sorry." Gabrielle's mouth twitched. "I was… really worried.. um.. after all that's happened, and… that I wasn't going to be able to.. " She stopped, and felt a blush coming on. "Wasn't going to be able to be physically attracted to.. or anyone.. and um.. I.. I'm finding out.. uh.. that's not the case."

Xena kept her voice even. "I kinda figured."

"What clued you in?" Gabrielle focused her eyes on the warrior's collarbone.

Her partner glanced down, to where the bard's hands were. "Oh.. little things."

Gabrielle realized what she was doing and bit off a flustered giggle. "Gods.. sorry." She continued her soaping further, looking at her partner seriously. "You've lost a lot of weight."

Xena glanced down. "So have you." She gently passed her fingers over the faint scars from the bard's violent childbirth. "Your hips still bothering you?" Put through the ordeal long before her body was ready to cope with it, the bard had been in agony as her body reacted on the trip home from Britannia.

"A little." Gabrielle quietly admitted. "My back, a little." She reached up and started washing the warrior's dark hair. "Stuff didn't taste like anything.. I just lost interest, I guess."

"Yeah." Xena sighed. "About the same." She ran soapy fingers through the red gold locks, and massaged her scalp gently. "I think you need a little pampering."

Gabrielle was suddenly aware of their closeness. "I think you do, too." She deliberately stepped forward, bringing them into contact, and wrapped her arms around her partner's neck, drawing her head down. She let the rush of the water take her out of the present for a few minutes, then suddenly felt Xena's body shift, and lunge, whirling them both around. "Whoa!" She yelped, as they separated, and Xena brought her arm around and displayed the arrow clenched in her fist.

The bard's eyes popped. "Someone's shooting at us?"

Xena examined the tip, which had been shorn of its arrowhead, and had a bit of linen wrapped around it to soften the edge. "Um… I think someone's trying to get our attention."

They both looked at each other. "I see." Gabrielle laughed, as she backed off, and ducked her head under to remove the soap. "We could make them come in here after us."

"I could carry you out of here with that thing sticking out of your chest." Xena countered. "Guarantee that'll shake em up."

Gabrielle plucked the arrow from her hand, and tapped her on the chest with the feathered end. "Not nice, Xena.. you'd be treating them for heart failure."

The warrior ducked her head, and sighed. "All right.. listen, you go placate Solari, and I'll.. " Here she glanced off into the other direction. "I'll go find some berries or something to add to our breakfast."

Gabrielle twirled the arrow in her fingertips. "OK… I'd kinda like that."

"Yeah?" Xena leaned over backwards, and ducked her head under the water, then straightened up and ran her hands through her dark hair, wringing it partially dry.

The bard's eyes had taken on a sultry look as she watched, and she sighed, and rubbed them. "Yeah… too bad there aren't any.. '" She glanced around into the water. "I'm a little… " The water rippled and then she was captivated by the slivers of bright sunlight dappling Xena's skin. "Um.. hungry."

"No problem." Xena dove through the waterfall, and into the pool, and disappeared. Gabrielle watched the wavelets from her exit, then shook her head a little, and trudged through the thundering water, immediately spotting Solari's arms crossed posture on the edge of the land.

"Morning." She waded purposefully towards where she'd left her clothes, sloshing out of the water just to the left of where the Amazon was standing, and wrapped a towel around herself. She handed Solari back her arrow. "I think this is yours?"

The Amazon took the arrow. "Where's Xena?"

The wild eruption of water didn't faze the bard as she calmly laced up her halter-top. "Getting breakfast." She looked up to see Solari's expression and bit her lip to keep from laughing. She turned and spotted her partner, lifting herself out of the water with those powerful strides, backlit by the morning sun, looking every inch the feral, primitive hunter with a fish clenched in each hand. "See?"

Solari closed her eyes, then shook her head. "Xena, we've got a problem."

The warrior waded ashore and whacked the two fish together to quiet them. "What's up?"

"It's Eponin." The Amazon's face scrunched. "She thinks she's a flower."

Continued in Part 3