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 4

By Melissa Good

Gabrielle wondered how long she'd been focusing on the soft, tiny leafed ferns at the edge of the rock, watching the rain and the light wind make them dance, and brush against the stone surface. She felt peaceful, but very drained, and was content to lay where she was, comfortably pillowed against Xena's chest, and just watch the droplets fall.

She could hear the slow, steady beat of her partner's heart vibrating against the back of her head, and felt the quietly hypnotic pressure as Xena's hands found the aching stiffness in her neck and attacked it, then moved upwards and gently massaged her temples. "Mmm." She sighed. "Thanks.. that feels great."

The hands finished their work, and settled back around her in two warm bands around her bare midriff, and she covered Xena's hand with her own as she returned her attention to the rain. "I think it's gonna rain on the Amazon's parade, Xena." Her voice was still hoarse from crying and she spared a brief, wistful thought towards a mug of hot tea.

"Thought it was a party.. not a parade." The warrior mumbled softly

"Party, parade.. it's the Amazons.. same thing." The bard replied. "How are you doing?"

Xena sighed. "Better." She freed one hand from the bard's grasp, and picked up a piece of crumpled linen, dipping it in the creek and squeezing the excess out, then gently dabbing Gabrielle's swollen eyes with it before pressing its coolness against her own. "Feel like I just ran from here to Amphipolis and back."

"Mph." The bard cleared her throat a little. "I don't feel so bad, then." She yawned. "But it's a good kind of tired."

Xena nodded against the top of her head. "Uh huh." The grief was still there, but a layer of insulation had been added, built from the restored faith she now felt running between them, and she realized that this was what she had been needing. Ever since it happened… Gabrielle had needed her support, yes, but she'd been unwilling.. or.. be honest, Xena, unable to admit that she needed the bard's help to get through this just as much. Or more.

She'd had to come to terms with that when she'd heard Gabrielle's voice across the creek, and felt the sudden, desperate craving for her touch, her presence.. it was a dire pleading that she could not have resisted, and she was so, so grateful that the bard had sniffed her out and given her the chance to allow those ragged wounds to receive the only treatment she knew would heal them. She'd been lying to herself, in thinking she was handling it, that she was strong enough to cope and not burden the grieving Gabrielle with her problems.

Stupid, Xena. You are her biggest problem, haven't you figured that out yet? But it had felt so good to just let all her defenses drop, and feel the bard's gentle hands, and voice reach deep into places inside her where only Gabrielle had ever been allowed. Places that had known stark abandonment during their separation, and had shown her, in plain light, exactly how much of her was dependent on the love, and the trust she'd received from her partner. It had been a harrowing lesson.

Solon was gone. It hurt, but it was true, and she couldn't let his death become a haunting shadow between them. She'd forgiven Gabrielle… gods knew it had been a setup form the start, and they'd both fallen neatly into it. Now she had to get the bard to start forgiving herself. Xena took a breath, and pulled the linen wrapped bundle over to her, and fished inside it, showing Gabrielle its contents.

"Oh.." The bard fingered the scroll sadly. "Yeah.. I gave this to him after that whole slaver thing." She let out a soft breath. "I was doing one for him of our adventure together."` She glanced up at her silent partner. "He made me promise to put in all the details of the fight at the end." She paused. "I was going to leave one or two out."

That got a tiny smile from the warrior, who picked up the stuffed toy, and handed it to her. "Wonder if he got teased for this?"

Gabrielle handled the doll with careful hands. "Oh.. Xena… " She touched the leather scraps with a gentle finger. "I think.. I think it's supposed to be you."

The warrior let out a soft sigh. "I guess…yeah.." She gazed at the doll. "Tyldus said he… " She paused. "He was kinda excited when he came back after that whole mix up."

"He loved you very much." Gabrielle told her gently, running a fingertip over the doll’s battered surface. "You were very much a hero to him."

Xena pressed her cheek against the bard's pale hair. "I know. Funny how life turns out sometimes." She shook her head. "I don't really understand how that happened."

Gabrielle glanced up at her, with a quiet smile. "I do." She returned her attention to the doll. "I always liked stuffed toys."

"Yeah." The soft response burred in her ear. "I.. had a stuffed . a.. um.. a dragon.. kind of thing when I was small." Faded purple, and much dragged about.. she could remember, barely, toddling through the inn with it banging along behind her. Cyrene had hated the thing… and kept trying to steal and hide it from her, but she always found it again. The innkeeper could never quite bring herself to destroy it.

The bard's eyebrow crept up a trifle. "How small?" She loved these tiny glimpses of her partner's childhood. She had a mind's eye picture of Xena as a dark haired, feisty tyke, miniature scowl and all, and would occasionally indulge herself in imagining her infant adventures. She'd even, secretly, invented a couple, written in a simple, children's story like voice, and had let Cyrene read them. The innkeeper had howled, and complimented her on her accuracy, and begged to be allowed to show her offspring the tales. Gabrielle had clapped her hands around them, and hidden them as deeply as she could in her scroll box.

"Very small." Xena assured her. "Tiny." Her hand lifted and her fingers described a minute amount. "I used to sleep with it."

Gabrielle let her hand trace the length of the long, muscular thigh her arm was leaning against, and gave it a little pat. "Somehow.. love.. I can't picture you that small." She said the word this time without flinching.

Xena sighed. "It was a long time ago."

"Did it have a name?" Gabrielle asked idly, playing with the dark leather outfit the toy was wearing. "I.. had a.. it was just a rag.. kind of floppy doll…I called it.. " Her lips quirked gently. "Princess."

"I don't remember." The warrior muttered.

Gabrielle arched her neck, and regarded her partner with a gentle, knowing half smile.

Xena sighed. "Flameball." She watched the bard's jaw clench as she clamped down on laugh. "Yeah.. I know. I used to try and get Digger to slay him, but it never worked out." She felt the heavy clamp on her chest start to relax, as the rhythm of the rain soothed her, and Gabrielle's presence buffered her against the ache of her memories. It felt so good just to sit and talk, without pressure, or worry that something she said would start the tension all over again.

The bard smiled. "Lila was always stealing Princess.. I'd find her hanging from the window supports.. or in the barn.. she was always getting in trouble." Her eyes flicked to Xena's face. "Like a certain Warrior Princess I know."

"Me?" Xena protested gently "What about a certain Amazon Princess?"

A grin tugged at Gabrielle's lips. "Maybe it's that princess thing." She turned her gaze outside again. "Xena, it's raining a lot harder now.. is Argo going to disown us?"

The warrior grunted, then poked her head outside the rock into the rain, squinting against its force. "Nah.. she's under shelter." The mare had tucked herself neatly under a thick stand of trees, and was looking out at them with a cross expression. "Um… did you tell Ephiny where you were going?"

Gabrielle's eyes widened slightly. "Uh… no.. " She half turned and looked at her partner. "I couldn't.. I.. Xena, I didn't know where you… and I didn't want her to.. "

"Shh." The warrior cupped her cheek. "Ok..ok.. I get it." She peered back out at the weather. "Well, we can head back."

Gabrielle snuggled closer. "Yeah, we could." To Hades with Ephiny, her mind crankily decided. I like this too much.

They both looked out at the driving rain, then at each other. "We could wait until it slowed down a little." Xena amended thoughtfully. I am kinda drained.. she looks like it too.. wouldn’t hurt to just rest here for a bit. "Ephiny’s going to be chewing the chobos anyway."

"Erf." Gabrielle winced. "I just got her to get the splinters out from last time." She paused. "I.. um…I told her about what happened." She nibbled her thumb. "I think I kinda shocked her." Her voice was subdued. "And then I felt you.. and I just kinda took off. She probably thinks I’ve lost my mind."

Xena regarded her. "You didn’t have to…tell her all that stuff if you didn’t want to."

The bard turned around gave her a very direct look. "And have her think I'm totally blameless? No, Xena.. that’s not what I’m about. That’s not what we’re about." She put a hand on the warrior’s chest, and absorbed the look she was getting from her partner. "I want her to understand that."

The warrior curled her fingers around the bard’s smaller ones, and lifted her hand, gently kissing the palm. "All right." She replied in quiet acceptance. "Old habit, I guess."

Gabrielle curved her hand around the planed cheekbone and let her thumb brush against soft skin. She nodded in knowing confirmation. "She needs to accept that there’s a lot about me that changed… just like I need to."

Xena took a resigned breath, but nodded back. "Maybe you’ll find out.. after a while.. that the changes aren’t as much as you thought."

The bard smiled gently. "Wishful thinking?"

The warrior’s eyebrows quirked. "Life experience." She admitted in a small voice. "There are a lot of times when I wished I had changed more than I had."

Gabrielle let her fingers continue their exploration, wiping off the rain that Xena had collected when she poked her head outside. She watched the blue eyes flutter closed as she touched her partner’s dark eyebrows, and smoothed them even, before reaching up and pushing back the damp locks of hair. "I think you’ve changed more than you realize." She saw Xena’s throat move as she swallowed a few times. "The person you were describing yourself as in Chin… " She paused. "Would have scared me too much to be friends with them.. I think."

Xena leaned her head back against the rock, and let her eyes drift open. "I was an animal." She acknowledged softly. "Lao Ma made me see that.. but she couldn’t give me a substitute for the wonderful, primal satisfaction being an animal gave me." She blinked slowly. "Now.. I feel a little sorry for her."

Gabrielle tilted her head in question. "Sorry? Why?"

Xena gave her a wry smile. "She never knew what this felt like… " She captured the bard’s hand and brushed her lips against it. "She told me the discipline would set you free… but I think she really was too scared to make herself that vulnerable." She shook her head. "Not that I blame her.. not in the world she lived in."

The bard let out a short breath. "If she’d been alive, what would you have done?"

Oh oh.. Alarm bells sounded quietly. Fortunately, Xena reflected, the answer was an easy one. "Nothing." She let herself shrug. "She knew I owed her… she wasn’t sending for a friend, Gabrielle.. she was sending for a killer." She took a breath slowly. "I think she’d have been surprised if we’d gotten a chance to talk.. I.. know I'm not the person she remembered me as.." She paused, and swallowed hard, remembering. "But I don’t… even though at that point I’d thought.. I um… " She glanced down at her hands. "I’d thought I’d lost you.. even then. I don’t…. it wouldn’t have…" No.. Lao Ma would have been startled at the complex person that had grown from the wild child she'd rescued. She'd become something far different than the Chinese woman had envisioned were possible.. though she knew Lao Ma would have remade her in her own image if she could have.

She thought about that. About the empty peace she'd achieved to allow her to use the life essence as Lao Ma had taught her to do. Empty in that it focused on her detachment from everything, and everyone, and she'd had to empty herself of everything to find that. Even Gabrielle. And while that had let her achieve her goal, the price had been far, far too high. She'd seen the world through Lao Ma's eyes for a moment there, channeling the forces that the woman had known, in the solitude that she also had known, breaking it only to allow, for a short while, a stranger from far off in that she barely understood.

But it hadn't been discipline that had tamed her, in the end, she mused. It had been love. Yeah, you'd have been surprised, old friend. We would have met again as equals, but on a far different playing field. "It wouldn't.. have been the same."

"Shh." Gabrielle touched her fingertips against the warrior’s hesitant speech. "It’s all right.. I didn’t mean to… I mean, it wasn’t really right for me to ask that." She sighed. "Considering everything that had happened.. I guess it just hurt a lot to be left behind."

"But you… " Xena started, her brows creasing. Wanted to stay.. you said that…

"I know. I was… I guess I was hoping you’d try to change my mind." The bard quietly replied. "I guess I didn't really want to accept that what you were doing… who you were doing it for.. was more important that I was." She quietly remembered the miserable feeling that had been. "Would you have kept me from going if I’d insisted?" She knew the answer, she just wanted to hear Xena say it.

The warrior dropped her gaze. "No.. I.. was hoping you would." She mumbled. "When you just.. said you couldn’t… I figured you’d just finally…given up on me." That last hug had hurt, more than just about anything else in the world had ever done. She'd known, walking away from that slight, lone figure on the pier that she was giving up something she couldn’t afford to lose, and that was the moment, she knew, that she decided she wasn't coming back.

Knowing that was the only thing that kept her sane, in those long weeks of travel, where images of her loss kept her meager company, and Gabrielle was never far from her thoughts. She held her memories close, and focused on the good ones, which let her survive until the boat touched shore in the east at last, and she could do what she needed to do, and then give up the stinking, miserable life that she no longer had any interest in living.

Seeing Gabrielle in Chin had forced her to change her mind, because even if they were no longer soulmates, she still had a responsibility for the bard. And once she'd seen those heartsick eyes down in that dungeon…she'd known that somewhere, somehow.. there was love still in both of them. And that was worth living for. Worth fighting for.

Gabrielle leaned forward and touched her forehead to the warrior’s. "We were both pretty blind."

Xena nodded, and pulled her in close for a hug. "Yeah.. we were." She smiled as Gabrielle relaxed completely against her. "I'm glad we got another chance." She added simply.

Gabrielle smiled against the skin of her neck, and nibbled it a little. "Me too."

They rested in silence for a while, watching the rain come down. Then Xena glanced to her left. "Um… we have a problem."

The bard’s head snapped up. "What?"

Xena gestured with her jaw. "Flood." The creek was filling rapidly, and already was lapping at the edge of their hiding spot. "Been raining for hours now."

"Mmm…. " Gabrielle studied the water. "Ephiny was saying how the river near them was pretty high too… I hope… "

They looked at each other. "Oh boy." Xena muttered.

"It’s not my fault." The bard protested. "Just because they’ve never, ever had a flood hit the village, it doesn’t mean they’re going to now just because I’m here." She bit her lip. "But I guess we’d better go see." A roll of thunder sounded overhead.

They looked at each other. "It’s NOT my fault." Gabrielle wailed.

Xena hid a grin. "Of course not." She agreed solemnly. "C’mon.. at least they’ll be too busy to glare at me." She packed up the things she’d brought in with her, and nudged the bard out, hearing the soft oath as the rain hit her body.

Gabrielle plunged into the creek, and realized her error as the swift flow threatened to drag her downstream. A moment’s precarious balancing, then safety as a large, warm body got between her and the rocks, and supported her as they crossed. "Thanks." She yelled, hanging on to Xena’s drenched leathers. "You ok?"

"Loving every minute of it." Xena answered, as she plowed out of the creek and hauled the bard up bodily onto the bank, and let Ares down from her arms where he’d made the crossing. They ran to Argo’s hiding place, and soothed the cranky mare, looking out at the trees mostly hidden by the rain. Small rivers of mud were beginning to run between the horse’s big hooves, and she stamped a little, splattering the dark stuff all over their boots and causing Ares to shake violently.

"Hey!" Gabrielle yelped, hopping out of the way. "Cut that out." She watched Xena fasten the bundle to the mare’s saddle straps, then gather her reins, and vault aboard. She grabbed the offered hand, and felt herself lifted up, swinging her leg over Argo’s back and settling into place behind the warrior’s comfortingly solid bulk which neatly blocked the rain.

She had it better than Xena did, she realized smugly, as she laid her head against the warrior’s back and wrapped her arms around her leather clad stomach. She could feel the rain driving against her wrists, and felt Xena shaking her head frequently to clear the hair from her eyes.

Argo was slowed to a walk, as the rain drove against them so hard, Gabrielle could barely see the outlines of the trees they were passing. "Wow." She yelled, and felt Xena's body shift as the warrior turned to listen. "This is amazing."

"Oh yeah." Xena yelled back, giving her clutching arms a pat. "Hang on.. don't want you washing away."

The bard tightened her grip. "No chance."

They heard the yells long before they hit the village, and as Gabrielle glanced down, she saw a muddy stream taking a set of leathers, draggled feathers included, rapidly away.

"Get that brace up." Ephiny yelled, ducking a pair of running scouts, who were carrying burlap sacks towards a makeshift dam. "Hera’s tits.." The regent cursed, and broke into a run herself, when she saw the hastily erected branch wall teetering. She got her hands on it, and shoved, feeling the weight of it begin to overbalance her. "Push!"

Three Amazons dashed in next to her, and grabbed the branches on either side, throwing their weight together with hers against the wall. They’d gotten the bottom part in place, and were now working on wedging it upright, and stacking burlap sacks of sand against it to block the racing shafts of water that were coursing through the village.

The rain had caught them by surprise, and she hadn’t realized the soil on both sides of the village was that saturated.. instead of absorbing, it turned to sludge, which washed through the huts like a slow moving river taking out small structures in its path. That had got her attention away from the fact that Gabrielle had just.. vanished, and she'd delayed sending out a search party, convincing herself that the bard was well capable of taking care of herself, and had probably simply met up with Xena somewhere.

Ephiny felt the strain start to weaken her, and she closed her eyes, pushing forward with muscles that started to shake even as she cursed at them. "Hurry up… damn it." She growled at the frantically shoveling scouts. "We’re losing it." The rain shoved at her, and at the wall. If they let the wall down, the coursing water would undermine the buildings.. and that would pull down the structures faster than they could brace them up.

But this wall was too heavy.. she could hear the groans from her companions and she felt her own strength flagging, as the force of the water pushed her back, and she felt her feet begin to slip in the soggy ground.

She barely heard the sound of rapidly moving bootsteps behind her, until the weight suddenly lifted off her shoulders, and she stumbled forward, going to her knees in the mud. What the… She half turned and pushed her drenched hair up out of her eyes, reaching a blind hand out and jerking when it touched warm flesh. The rain was blocked, and she looked up to see a dark, towering figure standing over her, arms braced against the wall, legs half bent, taking the weight of it.

A dozen oaths sprang to her mind, starting with ‘Where the Hades have you been?’ but she chucked them all in favor of a friendly pat on the powerfully muscled thigh that was barely inches from her shoulder. A large sack of sand hit the ground next to her, and she glanced up, to see Gabrielle’s face through the driving rain, as the bard put a hand on her shoulder. "You all right, Eph?"

Am I all right? Oh.. sure.. Gabrielle… you just freak out on me, and wander off into the woods for hours and hours.. we can’t find you, can’t find her, the Centaurs tell us she left hours before… "Great, thanks. What about you?" She yelled in the bard’s direction.

Gabrielle tugged another bag into place, and patted her arm. "I'm great, thanks.. sorry I ran out on you before.. we met up in the woods, and decided to try and wait the storm out."

"Right." Ephiny nodded amiably, then struggled to her feet, and started helping shovel sand. "Damn rain took us by surprise.. never saw the water come down like this before."

It took them several hours to get the wall in place, then several more to dump makeshift dams on most of the perimeter, until they were all holed up in the common eating area, which was on the highest ground, had the least mud, and the most space. The dams sluiced the draining water to either side of the village, and kept the interior from too much damage.

It didn’t keep it from leaking though, and they huddled in miserable clumps while the rain kept beating at the thatch roof, and sending splashes of unexpected wetness over them.

"Centaur poop." Solari grunted, as she tried to knock a hardened clump of mud off her leg. They were seated wearily on the benches, trying to keep the candles lit. "If this stuff hardens up, I won’t be able to move."

"Shut up. It’s good for your complexion." Menelda sniped. "Certainly can’t do you any harm."

"Hey!" Solari objected. "Keep your criticism to yourself.. I don’t see you being any spring flower right now." She sniffed rudely. "Stinks like dead pigs around here."

"Watch it, turkey knees." Menelda snapped back. "I shoulda just went back to my place.. it’s drier, and it sure smells better."

Ephiny let out a groan, and cradled her head in her hands. "Shut up, both of you." She started when a thump sounded, then looked up as a mug was set in front of her, steaming gently. "Gods…" She gave Gabrielle a pathetically grateful look. "Where did you get this? Those firepits were sunk."

The bard glanced briefly over her shoulder towards the cooking area. "One of the many skills." She replied, sliding into place next to the regent and cupping her hands around her own mug. "Xena can get ice blocks to burn. Don’t ask me how." She rested her elbows on the table and took a sip of the tea, closing her eyes against the rich, sweet taste. "Gods.. that tastes good."

Ephiny took a gingerly sip, then sighed. "She's got the touch all right… " She eyed the bard quietly. "So… you feeling better now? You looked a little… shaky.. when we parted this afternoon."

Gabrielle nodded quickly. "Oh yeah.. sorry about that… I just.. mm.. I needed some time to think, and I took a walk towards the Centaur village.. met up with Xena on her way back from there. We… um.. we talked for a while.. then it started raining.. so we kind of took shelter.. but then we realized it wasn't stopping, so…" Now , she asks.. with a concerned tone, Gabrielle.. are you all right? The bard predicted wryly.

The regent lowered her voice, and leaned closer. "Gabrielle, is she all right?"

The bard felt a pleasant shock of surprise skitter up her back. "She's… " Her eyes traveled across the dark, hot, damp room and found the dim shadow that was her partner, kneeling against the hearth with Esta in nervous attendance. "They gave her back Solon's stuff…it was kind of hard on her."

Ephiny kept her voice down. "You knew." It wasn't a question. "She was upset, and you knew." Just thinking about it, and remembering Jessan's low, growly voice speaking of the depth of a bond she hardly understood was bringing chills up and down her spine.

Cyrene's voice, in her memory. "It's possible. I've seen it happen. So have you." It was true. "When she bleeds, I hurt." The forest dweller had said, in his remarkably calm voice. It was true. So how had they let themselves drift so far apart.. if it was? It wasn't possible, unless… Ephiny's eyes darkened. Unless there was an outside interference.

A long moment of silence between them, as the bard tried to figure out what to answer. "In a way, yeah." She finally admitted. "I knew she was hurting.. and I went to go find her." There.. that was pretty neutral, she decided. "I was glad I did…we got more stuff worked out."

The regent folded a hand over hers. "Glad to hear it." She grinned wearily, then surveyed the room. "What a mess."

Gabrielle had to agree.. the dining hall was a sea of mud covered, overheated, tired, annoyed Amazons, who were snapping peevishly at each other, as they tried to stay out of the dripping water. Mud was everywhere, darkening the skin of the tired women, and laying its stinking coating in an inches deep layer on the floor. Walking was… the bard winced. Her boots sunk into the sludge, and had to be pulled free with a sucking sound that got rapidly on her nerves.

She spared a glance towards her partner, who had straightened up, and was moving slowly across the room towards them, avoiding the small knots of Amazons, who watched her passing with intent, but not overtly hostile eyes. Xena had twisted her hair back out of the way, and her dark leathers were shaded almost gray with dried mud, which was also caked on her long legs, almost obscuring the heavy armor pieces that covered her knees. After she’d helped get the wall in place, the warrior had gone tirelessly from place to place, moving sacks, loading vital supplies up high out of the water’s reach, and lending her strength and size wherever it was needed.

Gabrielle, slowing down to watch her for a few, rain soaked moments, had felt the old, familiar twinge of pride as she saw the warrior gently nudge several Amazons out of the way, and hoist a wagon yoke up on her shoulders, walking with it through the driving rain as though she were out for a stroll on a fine spring evening. It had sent a nice chill down her spine, and she’d smiled to herself, before she’d gone on to herd the younger Amazons into the healer’s quarters, much to Eponin’s disgust and dismay.

"Gosh, she's strong." One of the girls had whispered, poking her companion in the ribs. "Check that out!"

Gabrielle had just laughed softly, under her breath. Time. That's what they needed.. time to heal, and time for people to forget the fear, and the anger, and the horror of what had been a really terrible thing. The girls had continued their low voiced chatter, as she got them settled in the infirmary.

Sorry Pony.. The bard grinned quietly to herself, as the warrior slipped into place next to her with an almost soundless sigh. "Hey." She waited for the taller woman to brace her elbows on the table, and lean against them wearily, then she tucked a hand around Xena’s upper arm, and leaned against it, feeling the warmth as her cheek touched the warrior’s skin, not caring about the mud that liberally coated both of them.

She knew the room was watching her. Knew Xena knew it too, from the faint chuckle she felt stir the warrior’s breathing, and the sudden pressure as her partner leaned her head against Gabrielle’s own. "Nice tea.. thanks." She mumbled against the warmth.

Xena yawned, feeling the bard flinch at the popping sound from her jaw. "Anytime." She felt physically exhausted, but strangely peaceful, despite the uncomfortable surroundings, and the still edgy tension of the Amazons around her.

It just didn’t matter. Not with Gabrielle here, leaning against her so comfortably. She soaked in the bard’s nearness, and ignored the damp heat that was bringing a sheen of moisture to everyone’s skin including her own. Ignored the desultory drip of water that was landing the odd drop on her shoulders. Ignored the grumbling of the Amazons.

Esta and one helper trudged from table to table, passing out some dried travel rations she managed to rescue from the flood, and slowly, a straggle of women trailed over to the tiny fire, and started preparing bits of food, and drinks.

Ephiny tossed her blond curls back, and gazed at the ceiling. Thunder rumbled overhead, and the pounding intensified, causing the regent to curse silently. "We’re stuck here." She rested her forehead on her hand.

A wash of water glorped under the door, and spread its mucky liquid in yet another layer on the floor, bringing the stink of the nearby river with it. A chorus of groans greeted the rising stench. Several fish came sliding in, one stopping right at Xena’s boot. The warrior idly looked down, as the fish just as idly looked up.

"Grogh" The fish grunted.

Xena booted the noisy creature across the room, watching it slither to a halt next to Esta.

"Grogh!" The cook jumped, and lost her balance, falling with a splat into the mud, as a round of tired chuckles met the sight.

"Whoops." Xena muttered, ducking her head, and staring intently at her interlaced fingers.

Gabrielle buried her face against the warrior’s arm, and pretended not to see. "I can't believe you did that."

The warrior blinked innocently. "Did what?"

They cooked the fish, and managed to swallow that and some dried meat, washed down with tea, and a little cider they’d had stored in the back of the dining hall. After that, it was a matter of finding some spot to lean their heads against, as weariness gradually overcame the discomfort.

Xena leaned back against the wall, and unclipped her armor, lifting it over her head, and setting it down in the mud next to her. Gabrielle needed no other invitation, and she snuggled up against her partner gratefully, not even minding the muggy heat as she wrapped her arms around Xena’s body, and pillowed her head against the taller woman’s chest. She was asleep in a few breaths, much to the warrior's bemusement, as she wrapped a secure arm around the relaxed form .

Ephiny managed to salvage a bit of linen sacking and she folded it into a pillow, laying it onto the tabletop and putting her head down on it. She gazed at the bard enviously, and let her eyes raise to meet Xena’s faintly amused blue ones. "It's good to be the Queen." She drawled, with a twinkle in her eyes.

Xena glanced down at the quietly sleeping form nestled against her, and let an indulgent smile cross her face. "Privileges of rank." She replied dryly. "You get your own personal, stuffed leather, animated warrior pillow."

The regent gave a surprised little laugh. "And here I thought it was all about the politics of power. Now I know the real secret to the romance of the job." She remarked teasingly, then let her eyes drift across the room, and back to Xena's. "What a mess, huh?"

The warrior’s eyes flicked around to the candlelit room, filled with tired and muddy Amazons. "Could be worse." She settled her shoulders a little more comfortably against the wall support.

"Yeah? How?" The regent asked idly. "Let me guess.. we could all be cycling."

Xena’s eyebrow edged upward, along with the corner of her mouth. "We could be in the healer’s place with the kids."

Ephiny thought about that for a minute, then waved a finger. "If I can’t get this mud out of my leathers, I’m gonna end up there anyway." She winced, and shifted. "Gods.. but you do have a point." She admitted. "Pony's gonna kill me for sticking her with them."

The warrior ran a mud stained hand through her hair, and wiped the sweat off her face, sighing a little, and crossing her ankles. "She'll live."

"Xena?" The regent took a breath, and gazed at the grime covered woman.

Candlelight glinted against the pale blue eyes. "Yeah?"

"Thanks for the help." Ephiny let her mouth twitch into a faint smile. "I appreciated it a lot."

That got her a brief, but genuine smile in return. "Glad I was around." Her gaze flicked around the slowly settling room. "Probably good for them to see I’m not always a homicidal maniac."

The regent’s brow creased. "That’s not what they think."

One dark brow rose. "You forget my hearing."

Ephiny felt her face heat. She spent a long moment trying to think of something to say, and realized there just wasn’t anything. "Sorry." She finally muttered.

Xena shrugged one shoulder, careful not to disturb the sleeping bard. "I'm used to it."

The regent studied the shadowed face, an accustomed, unreadable mask, and felt an irrational sense of loss. She had spent months in Amphipolis, getting to know this woman, and had considered her a friend. And she believed Xena had considered her the same. Now, all that was showing was the Warrior Princess, her steely exterior intact.

Except that she’d let Gabrielle back in. That much was obvious. The fingers she had resting against the bard’s bare back never ceased their gentle, soothing motion. Maybe in time, again, they’d have a chance to start seeing her differently, and let what happened fall into perspective as one small corner in the tapestry of her life.

"Xena, I really am sorry. More than I can tell you." Ephiny said softly, watching the still face for a reaction. "I’m glad things worked out." Now her eyes drifted to Gabrielle’s contented face, then flicked back to the warrior’s.

And saw a gentle warmth there. "Thanks."

With a small nod, the regent let her eyes slide closed, preparing herself for an uncomfortable night. She suspected the only one of them that was going to get any decent sleep was the bard.

Xena heard the footsteps first, of course, and reached out a hand to touch the fitfully dozing Ephiny as the soft running neared. "Eph.." The warrior called softly.

"Huh?" Ephiny jerked alert. "What.. I’m awake… it’s purple, I swear." She blinked a few times, then rubbed her temples. "Uh… never mind.. what?" 

Xena moved her chin towards the door. "Trouble." She paused, and quirked an eyebrow. "Purple?"

The Amazon waved her off, and stood, wincing at the stiffness caused by her sleeping position. "Later." She was halfway to the door when it burst open, and a young, dark haired woman stumbled in.

"Menelda.." The girl gasped, almost crashing headlong into the blond regent. "Oh.. Ephiny… it’s Aaileen."

The regent’s eyebrows knitted. "Don’t tell me."

The girl shook her head wildly. "Yes.. she’s in trouble.. it’s now.. I know it wasn’t due for a moon, but still.."

Ephiny whirled, and dodged through the mess of tables, finding the healer at a back table and shaking her shoulder. "Menelda… hey!"

"Uh?" The older woman stirred. "Wha…Ephiny.. what.." She shook her head a little to clear it, then focused on the slim girl at the regent’s side. "Selda.. you’re supposed to be watching things in the infirmary.. what in Hades are you doing here?"

"Looking for you.. " The girl explained breathlessly. "Aaileen’s having her child."

"Can’t be." The healer snorted. "Too early… silly child." No one was really sure if she was referring to Aaileen or the hapless Selda. "She’s just panicking."

Selda glanced at Ephiny. "If you say so.. but she’s broken.. there’s blood.. I don’t know…"

Menelda cursed, and gathered herself up. "Damn… outta my way."

Xena exchanged looks with Gabrielle, who had woken during the conversation, and untangled herself from her taller partner. The warrior stood, and took a breath. "Menelda… you need a hand?"

The healer looked over, and an expression of dark repulsion crossed her face. "Not from you." She spat. "I’ve fixed enough of your damage in there, thanks."

An uneasy shock passed over the sleepy Amazons, as they glanced back at the shadowy form. But Xena merely shrugged, and seated herself again. "Suit yourself." She leaned back against the wall and closed her eyes as the healer swept out of the room, dragging Selda with her.

Very aware, though, of the cold anger radiating from the slim, pale haired bard standing at her side. She reached out and laid a hand on Gabrielle’s thigh, and squeezed it gently. "It’s all right."

Gabrielle let the wave of hurt pass over her, and sat down slowly, collecting the hand that gripped her leg and closing it inside both of her own. "Xena… "

One blue eye opened and regarded her. "I said.. it’s all right."

The bard lowered her voice. "It’s not all right.. I'm not going to put up with them treating you like that." She let her gaze sweep around the room, watching curious eyes avert themselves. "It’s not fair."

Xena sighed, and glanced down at her hands, clasped around Gabrielle’s smaller ones. "Drop it, Gabrielle." She replied quietly. "They’ve got a right to feel the way they do. " She looked up and met the bard’s eyes. "I’ll live."

Gabrielle studied her for a long, tense moment. "No." She replied quietly. "I’m not going to drop it." She took a breath and let it out. "They don’t have the right to judge you, or me, for that matter, and I'm getting sick and tired of it." Her eyes sparkled angrily. "Menelda’s gonna get a piece of my mind tomorrow."

I shouldn’t let her do that. Xena mused, but she couldn’t deny the warm feeling the bard’s fierce protectiveness caused in her. The healer’s rejection had stung, no denying it.. but… aw Hades. "You are, huh?" She let a quiet grin cross her face.

"It’s not funny." Gabrielle snapped, obviously annoyed.

Xena blinked. "I'm not laughing at you." She replied softly. "I.. um.. I just.. you.." She gave up. "Never mind." She let her head rest against the wall, her momentary good mood gone. Then she took a breath, and stood, releasing the bard’s hand. "Sounds like it stopped raining.. I'm gonna get some fresh air." She moved past the silent bard, and went out the back door to the dining hut, to stand in the scant breeze in the quiet of the pre dawn.

She had no idea how long she stood out there, surveying the mess the storm had left behind. The air was thick with moisture, still, and carried the dank scent of the receding water. The moon was escaping the clouds fitfully, drenching the village in wan, silver light, which showed the draggled thatch, and discarded wagons in dispiriting detail.

Xena leaned her back against the bark of a tree just outside the dining hall, and surveyed the damage wryly. We’re probably stuck here helping… She let her eyes close. Gods..

A wistful thought of home passed over her, and she was unable to resist wishing herself there, and away from this Amazon village, where the prickly hostility was, she admitted reluctantly to herself, getting to her. 

A whine distracted her, and she glanced down to see a sleepy Ares crouching against her mud encrusted boots. "Hey boy." Wearily, she dropped to a knee with a squish, and stroked the wolf’s fur. "You wanna go home?"

"Roo." The wolf sighed, and nuzzled her, shaking his head vigorously to rid it of excess clinging mud. "Grrrrr."

Xena sat down in the mud, not caring, and gathered Ares in her arms, hugging him. "Yeah.. I wanna go home too."

"Grrrrrr." The wolf blinked around him with evident displeasure. "Agrrrooo."

"I know…. I don’t like it here much either. " She murmured. "But we gotta stick around and give them a hand, Ares.. it’s just one of those things, OK?" She carefully cleaned a bit of clumped mud out of the wolf’s eyebrows. "They’re your other mommy’s friends, and it’s really important to her that they’re ok, so we have to help out.. even if they’re not nice."

"Agrorrrooo." Ares licked her face, cleaning it thoroughly.

I bet I needed that. Xena reflected quietly, feeling the light breeze cool against her skin. She knew she should have just stayed inside and explained herself to Gabrielle.. but the bard had been so angry.. and she found, uneasily, that she was unwilling to face that.

It scared her. It made her think of the past few months, when anger had been the bard’s most common reaction to just… about everything. She found herself shying away from anything that would cause Gabrielle to react that way to her.. it just… it hurt, it sent stabs into places still so sensitive that she wanted to just curl up and block it all out.

She felt ashamed of that, and was uneasily aware of just how fragile her equilibrium was at the moment, half of her hating the vulnerability, the other half pathetically grateful she still had reason to feel it. "No win situation, Ares." She whispered softly to the wolf.

"Stay still you damned idiot." Eponin sighed, as she tried to hang on to the moaning Aaileen. She looked up thankfully as the door opened, and Menelda came in. "Bout time.. she’s bleeding like a gutted pig here."

Menelda gave the weapon’s master a dour look. "Nice talk, Eponin. Let the woman be, and let me in there."" She gave the dark haired Amazon a shove towards her pallet, and knelt at the side of the suffering Aaileen, examining her carefully. "Damn." Her face grew grim, and she looked up at Selda. "Get that damn fire going, girl.. I need water heated."

Eponin caught the tone in her voice, and moved the girl out of the way, kneeling somewhat unsteadily by the fire and picking up the pieces of half dried wood stacked near the hearth. The healer started to protest, then shook her head, and returned her attention to the girl on the pallet. And she was not much more than a girl, curse it. Her mind sighed. A festival that got a little too festive, and there she was, recipient of a gift that the father, a farm boy too drunk to realize the pretty young girl in the leather bustier was no villager.

Not that they didn’t need the children, no.. but Aaileen was so young.. it hadn’t been an easy time on her still growing body, and now… She sighed, seeing the amount of fluid already staining the pallet. She was dry already, and the child not near to coming. "Get me those herbs, girl.."

Selda carried her pouch over, and she poured through it, taking a pinch between her fingers, and forcing it into the girl’s mouth. "No whining now, Ai… just swallow.. that’s a girl." Aaileen was too far gone to protest, and she resumed moaning, clutching her swollen stomach and writhing as the pain of a contraction hit her.

Menelda chewed her lip. The girl wasn’t opening at all… "How long’s she been like this?"

"Started just before midnight." Eponin replied softly, bending slowly over to blow gingerly on the bit of kindling she’d gotten to light. "Wasn’t sure it was her time.. she’s early…we waited for the weather to shut down a little, then I sent Selda over there… " She turned her head. "Too bad you didn’t bring Xena back here with you."

The healer straightened, giving her a glare. "What for?" She ripped a bandage in two viciously. "I don’t need that animal in here."

Eponin’s eyebrows shot up. "Nelda, you cracking?" She added tinder to the fire. "She’s an experienced healer, whatever you think about her otherwise."

Menelda glanced up. "And what do you think about her, Eponin? She take you in, too? After she broke your Ephiny’s arm?"

The weapon’s master gazed at her through caramel colored eyes. "What I think about her doesn’t matter a pail of manure, Menelda." She paused. "But she saved Eph’s life last winter, or did you forget that?"

"Sure." The healer dunked linen strips in a bucket of cold water Selda had carried laboriously over to her, then laid them across the sweating woman’s head. "She’s a stinking hero, when it serves her purpose to be."

Eponin regarded her. "Y’know, you oughta get over being jealous of her. I did.. wasn’t worth the effort. She can’t help being what she is."

"Jealous?" Menelda hissed. "That bump must have done more damage than I thought." She checked the girl, as her body arched in agony. "She’s got all of you so snowed under, you can’t see the forest for the trees." Her face grimaced. "Damn.. " She felt the girl’s belly, as the muscles contracted painfully under her fingertips.

Eponin set a bucket of water on to heat, and walked carefully over to her. "S’matter?"

The healer shook her head. "She won’t open up.. I gave her something… more than I should have.. but it’s not having any effect."

"She’s too narrow." The dark haired Amazon said quietly. "Kid doesn’t have room to come out.. can’t get past her hips." She winced herself as the girl moaned. "Listen, I'm gonna…"

Menelda whirled around, and grabbed her, shaking her hard. "I’ll not have that woman in here, Eponin.. you try and I’ll knock you silly." She said fiercely. "Her sister was killed in that group that tried to stop that bitch the last time.. you think she wants her touching her?"

Eponin took a breath. "I think she wants to live." And she slugged the healer hard, knocking her back against the wall and watching her slide limply to the floor. "Damn." She turned to Selda, who was staring at her with wide, disbelieving eyes. "Go get Xena."

"But…" She gestured at the healer, silent on the floor.

"S’allright.. she can probably fix that too." The weapon’s master assured her wearily. "G'wan.. this kid doesn’t have much time."

It was a lizard, Xena reflected, watching the tiny creature creep cautiously up her boot and onto her knee. Its tiny, clawed feet tickled her skin, but she remained still, just observing it idly. The moonlight behind it outlined its triangular head, and it opened its mouth, cautiously tasting the air, its independent eyes looking both forward and back, and then both at her.

She reached a finger out, and touched its head, feeling the rough texture of its skin against hers, and it rocked a little under the pressure, poking an almost translucent tongue out at her. She drew her hand back, and it extended its throat patch several times, bobbing up and down.

"Sorry." She gazed wryly at it. "I'm taken."

The lizard goggled its eyes at her, and bobbed, then jumped to her other knee and ran down her boot, scampering across the startled Ares, who yelped.

Soft footfalls made her look up, knowing already without the benefit of the silver light reflecting off pale hair who it was. "Hi."

Gabrielle sat down on a rock and wrapped her arms around her knees. "You’re sitting in the mud." She remarked quietly.

Xena gave a little nod. "Yeah.. well.. I figured I got so much mud on me anyway, hardly matters." She glanced up at the cloudy sky, as the moon disappeared. "Cooler out here."

The bard pushed her hair back. "Yeah.. it sure is." She reached down and ran her fingers through Ares' mud stiffened fur. "I could sure use a bath." She paused. "Are you ok?"

A shrug. "Sure.. I'm fine.. I.."

Gabrielle touched her cheek. "Xena.. stop it. No more of that between us."

Dead silence. "I don’t want to fight with you." The warrior finally muttered.

"I'm wasn't fighting with you, Xena, I was just.. " Gabrielle protested, then stopped, as she absorbed the warrior’s body language. "I…" She let out a breath, and put a hand on her partner’s bare shoulder, feeling the muscles shift under her fingertips.

"I don’t want to go back to the way it was.. when we were angry." Xena said quietly, gazing at her. "I can’t take it, Gabrielle." She dropped her eyes, and took several breaths. "Not now.. it… that did something to me.. I… "

The bard slipped down into the mud with her. "Ok.. yeah.. I know.. I think I know what you mean." She put her arm around the warrior’s shoulders. "It’s.. that’s gonna take a while before we get over it." She laid her head against Xena’s arm. "It’s all right." She remained silent for a few minutes, listening to the breeze stir the leaves around them. "Listen.. I'm really wanting to find some clean water.. this stuff’s starting to itch."

Xena felt a tiny smile etch her face. "Starting?" She gave the bard a tentative look. "You have any idea what it feels like on the inside of all this leather?"

Gabrielle’s face relaxed into a relieved grin. "No… but I’d love to find out." She stopped, then just grinned and shrugged. "C’mon.." Standing, she put out a hand to her partner. "I can’t sleep anymore inside that place anyway."

The warrior sighed, and took her hand, allowing herself to be hauled to her feet. She was about to suggest a pool she’d remembered nearby when they both heard a young voice calling Xena’s name in a frantic tone.

Eponin glanced up as the door swung open, letting out a tiny sigh of relief as she recognized the first person through the door. "Hey."

Xena stepped around the prone Menelda, and gave the weapon’s master a glance as she knelt at the suffering Aaileen’s bedside. "What happened to her?"

Ephiny had crouched down next to the healer, and was examining her. "Looks like she hit her head." The regent advised, dryly, giving her lover a stern look. "I’ll never hear the end of this, you realize that, right?"

Eponin shrugged. "She was being stubborn." The dark haired Amazon muttered, sitting down gingerly on her pallet.

Gabrielle looked up from where she was kneeling near the fire, and let out a soft laugh. "Oh.. that’s a rare thing in this crowd." She stood, hauling the bucket of heated water with her, and dropped it down at Xena’s side, slipping a few pieces of clean linen inside the steaming liquid. She glanced up at her partner, who was examining the pregnant woman with a serious expression. "How is she?"

A single shake of Xena’s dark head. "Not good." She turned to wash her hands in the water, stopping when Gabrielle gently removed the soaked linen and did the job for her, dunking her fingers into the water, and rubbing them with a careful touch.

It was a quiet, and very intimate moment as the bard carefully cleaned the mud and grime from her skin and Xena let herself indulge in brief moment of sensual pleasure. The guttering candles in the room sent flashes of gold through Gabrielle’s hair, and the bard kept her head down, seemingly unaware of the intent blue eyes that studied her. "Thanks." She gave the bard a smile as she finished her task.

"Anytime." Gabrielle replied, with a quick grin. Then her attention turned to the Amazon on the pallet. "Is she going to be ok?" Her eyes lifted to Xena’s shadowed face, as Ephiny crossed behind them, and knelt on the other side of the pallet.

Xena gently examined the girl, putting a quick pressure point to work as the girl’s eyes started due to a strong contraction. She relaxed immediately, as the pain receded, and the warrior was able to more accurately assess her condition.

Xena’s face tightened, and she took a breath. "Gabrielle.. get me that pouch over there."

The bard gave her an uneasy look, but complied, handing the bag of herbs over.

The warrior examined the contents, and nibbled her lip a little, then took a portion of a powdered herb, and another, smaller portion of dried leaves and mixed them together. She started to get up to get a cup, but found one nudging her hand, and she gave the bard a grateful look as she took it, and put the herbs in. Gabrielle ladled boiling water from another, smaller pot she’d taken from the fire, and they all watched as a pungent steam rose from the infusion.

"She’s damn early." Eponin commented, resting her chin on her hands. "Don’t understand it.. she was in here helping out. I didn’t figure her until well into next moon."

Xena glanced up at her. "Weather does that sometimes." The warrior commented briefly, as she swirled the cups contents around to cool them. "Eph.. can you get her up a little?"

Ephiny got behind Aaileen and half lifted the girl up, as her dark eyes blinked open, and she gazed, uncomprehendingly, at the woman holding the cup for a moment, then her eyes widened as she recognized the warrior.

"Relax." Xena let out a little sigh. "I'm here to help."

The girl stared at her for a long moment, then tipped her head back. "C..can’t be.. s’bad.. as yours.. huh?"

Ephiny gave her an affectionate smile. "That would take some doing, Ai.. but don’t you’re in good hands here."

"All right…" Xena leaned closer. "Look.. we’re gonna need to get this in you. It’ll make you relax, and I think things’ll go better."

"R…relax.. that.. sounds really great." The girl half sobbed. "It… it hurts…"

The warrior put a hand on her shoulder. "Yeah.. I know." She brought the cup to the girl’s lips and watched her gulp the contents down.

"Guh.." Her face scrunched.

Gabrielle laid a strip of water drenched linen over her sweating forehead. "Yeah.. she always makes them taste bad.. I think it’s so you won’t want them too often."

The girl looked up at the bard’s gentle face, and gave a grimacing smile. "My queen."

The bard laid a hand on her arm, and studied her. "You’re gonna be ok." Her voice held a quiet confidence.

Aaileen nodded a little, and fell back, panting against the pillow as the herbs began to take effect.

Xena checked her pulse, then nodded a little, and pinched a second pressure point. The girl’s body relaxed further, and this time, as a contraction hit her, it seemed like her body was no longer fighting itself. Her back arched, and she groaned, but Xena’s sharp eyes caught the start of an expansion that would eventually allow her baby to enter the world.

"Good girl." The warrior told her, "Easy now." A groan caught her attention, and she glanced behind her, to where Menelda was stirring groggily and reaching for her jaw. The healer rubbed her eyes, then looked up, her expression darkening with anger.

"Stop." Xena let the wolf surface in her, as she met Menelda’s eyes. "Later." Her voice held unmistakable warning, and the healer let her fury boil up, but stayed silent. She half turned, and found Eponin’s still form on the next pallet, and glared at her.

Aaileen interrupted the tableau, as she let out a gasp, and her body writhed. Xena grabbed her arm, and let the girl push against her, as Ephiny supported her on the other side. "Easy.." The warrior gently moved her. "All right.. push now.. " Her body arched, and she moaned, her hands pushing against her belly. Xena nodded a little. "Good.. good.." She spared a glance at her partner, whose face had gone pale. "Hey… "

Gabrielle jerked her attention to Xena’s face, trying to shove down the memories. Blue eyes searched her face in tense anxiety. "I'm ok." She replied quietly. A flash of a stable ripped through her mind’s eye, and the wild, disturbed eyes of all those animals, but she concentrated on the warrior’s face, and let the nightmare slowly dissolve back into the dark corner where she kept it.

Menelda had struggled to her feet, and went to the edge of the pallet Aaileen was lying on, dropping heavily to her knees. Her eyes watched the baby’s progress, and she gave the warrior a dark, unreadable look. "You going to let your bed partner get away with that, too, Ephiny?" Her voice was bitter.

The regent opened her mouth to speak, but was forestalled by a hand on her arm. "Menelda, save your anger for later. This isn’t the time." That was Gabrielle’s voice, floating crisply across the pallet.

"Is that an order.. your… majesty?" The healer’s tone was sarcastic.

"Yes." Gabrielle replied quietly. "It is."

Silence fell after that, broken by Aaileen’s soft cries, and Xena’s terse instructions. Finally, one last heave, and the warrior’s hands cradled the tiny, moving body, which squirmed agitatedly in her grip and let out an outraged squall.

"Whoa." Xena muttered. "Gotta good set of lungs." She peered at the beet red, gore covered infant and blinked. "Congratulations.. it’s a girl."

Aaileen let out an exhausted breath, and looked utterly relieved. "Thank the gods that’s over." She mumbled, her chest heaving.

Menelda reached over the tiny body and clipped the cord, and Xena settled back, glancing over at her partner hesitatingly. "Could you…" She stopped, realizing what she was asking, and gave the bard an apologetic look. "Um.."

Gabrielle picked up a piece of wetted linen, and walked over, crouching down next to her partner and leaning against her a little as she carefully wiped the blood and fluids off the tiny body. She kept her mind blank. Not thinking about Hope. Not thinking about herself going through this, and seeing her daughter resting in just this way in just those hands. "There." She finished, and handed Xena a larger piece of cloth to wrap the baby in. "I think her mommy wants to see her. "

Xena nodded, and extended her hands, settling the child into the exhausted Amazon’s arms. Aaileen stared at her, as though she couldn’t imagine where she came from, then reached up one hand to touch a tiny nose. "She’s so wrinkled." The girl looked up at them, puzzled, but obviously delighted. "Is that ok?"

The warrior let a flash of painful memory surface. "Yeah.. they fill out." She assured the girl in a quiet voice. "She’s a cute kid." Then she let out a breath, and plunged her hands into the bucket of cooled water, scrubbing to get the blood off her hands before standing, and backing off from the pallet, which seemed crowded to her suddenly, Ephiny was letting the still red faced child clutch at one fingertip, and Menelda was grimly cleaning the new mother up, not looking at anyone.

She stepped back further, leaning against a ceiling support wearily, her eyes watching her partner’s pale face as the bard leaned forward and gave quiet advice. She saw how Gabrielle’s eyes refused to settle on the baby’s face, could feel the ache from the bard’s heart through their newly reborn connection, and briefly, helplessly wished, again, that things had been different.

As she watched, the bard stood, and took a deep breath, causing the candlelight to dance over her slim body. The shadows dappled over her as she walked over to join her partner in the center of the infirmary, and she stopped next to Xena, clasping her arms around her chest and watching the peaceful scene with haunted eyes.

How alone she must feel. Xena remembered the night after she’d given up Solon, a bare day of knowing him, knowing his touch, and his infant smile. I knew how that felt. I never should have left her to suffer that alone, no matter what had happened. Ephiny was right. "Hey." She called softly.

The bard looked up, forcing a smile. "Hey.. nice work."

Xena glanced down, studying her boots. "You.. um.. " She raised her eyes and met the bards. "You look like you could use a hug." There was a time, she sadly thought, I didn’t have to ask.

She watched Gabrielle’s eyes close, and waited, struck with a sudden fear that the bard was going to lock her out, shutter herself behind her tightly held composure that remembered how her erstwhile best friend had abandoned her in her time of greatest need.

A fear never realized when a warm body nestled against hers, and fingers clenched on her leathers with convulsive strength. Breathing out in relief, she pulled the bard closer and wrapped her arms around her, finding herself whispering quiet apologies as she let the sudden, startling warmth of their connection resurge and sweep through both of them. Gabrielle’s body relaxed against hers with relieved abandon, ignoring the mud liberally spattering her leathers.

She was aware that eyes were on them, not caring, as she tucked Gabrielle’s fair head under her chin and returned the curious gazes, keeping up her quietly reassuring touch against the bard’s bare back. Four sets of eyes, all different. Eponin just rolled hers. Ephiny looked concerned. Aaileen had a look of dazed interest. And Menelda…

Xena just returned that dark gaze, lifting her chin a little. Finally, the healer’s eyes dropped, and she just shook her head, returning to her task. The warrior felt Gabrielle take a steadying breath, and lifted her head to allow the bard to look up at her. "You ok?"

A small nod. "Yeah.. now." Gabrielle looked up at her with a mixture of emotions. "Thank you." She rubbed the warrior’s side gently, and slipped an arm around her waist, turning to watch the Amazons quietly as Xena’s grasp settled around her with comforting warmth.

Her eyes studied the four.. now five Amazons thoughtfully, watching Aaileen’s fatigue vanish as she explored the miniature fists her new daughter was waving in the air. You forget how much it hurt so fast… she remembered wryly That all just faded away in the marvel of those tiny, wide eyes, and the perfect ears… She let the thought drop with a sigh. I feel cheated.. she’s had all these months to prepare for this… to wonder, and… I had so short a time.. no time.. it happened so fast.. Briefly, she imagined what it would be like to experience the full term.

A tiny, thoughtful smile touched the corner of her mouth. But she tucked that image away for another time, and another place. Right now, she was exhausted, caked with mud, and out of patience among other things. "Xena?"

"Mm?" Her partner looked down at her.

"Were you saying something about a bath?" The bard’s green eyes gazed up at her wistfully. I sure could use one. And some quiet, private time.. c’mon, Xena.. so could you.

Xena hid a pathetically relieved grin. "You all right here?" This was to the group of Amazons. "I gotta get this mud off. It’d driving me nuts."

Ephiny waved her off. "I’ll join you in a bit… " She paused. "Thanks, again, Xena… " She glanced up from where the infant was tugging on her finger with a determined little grip. "Last time I didn’t get to watch."

"Anytime." The warrior gave her a nod, and a faint grin. "Oh.. and Eponin?" Her pale eyes rested on the dark haired Amazon.

The weapons master looked up grumpily from her pallet, where she’d curled up to watch. "Yeah?" She had one arm cradled in the other, surreptitiously.

"Soak the hand in cold water." Came the quiet reply, as Xena led her partner out of the infirmary.

They walked towards the disheveled exterior of the bathing hall, carefully skirting it and continuing on out of the village as they heard the querulous voices inside. Others had the same idea, apparently, and were arguing over the tubs, and one look at Gabrielle’s face made the decision to go elsewhere a prudent one.

It was a small pool, overrun by the rain but clean, and very cold, that she’d remembered from her last sojourn at the village. The graying sky blurred the shadows, and draped the setting moonlight across Gabrielle’s shoulders as she gratefully stripped out of her halter and skirt, and walked into the water. "Gods." The bard sighed. "You have no idea how good this feels."

Xena shrugged out of her leathers, and shook herself, then stepped into the cold pool with a feeling of definitely sensual pleasure. "Oh yes I do." She disagreed gently, letting the water cover her body. She ducked underneath the surface at once, wetting her hair, then came back up, wiping her eyes and letting out a relieved sigh.

Gabrielle laid back in the pool, dunking her head under and surfacing with a light splutter. "Buh.. that’s cold." She waded over to where her partner was standing, scrubbing the mud off her upper arms. "How did you get mud there?" She splashed a little water, then rubbed the mark with her fingers.

Xena stayed still, and raised her eyebrows. "Just lucky, I guess." She hesitated, scooping up a handful of water up and letting it run down the bard’s shoulders, then stretched out a long arm and captured the soap she’d left on the rocky bank, rubbing it between her hands and working up a lather, starting on her partner’s neck and working down.

"Mm." Gabrielle closed her eyes and tipped her head back, enjoying the contrast of the warrior’s warm hands against her water cooled body. "You really did a great job with that girl." She murmured conversationally. "You knew exactly what to do."

Xena felt herself relaxing, and she yawned a little, as she worked on the bard’s upper arms, then dropped her soapy hands to the slim torso. "Not bad." She agreed quietly. "She was just so tense.. she wasn’t going anywhere." She finished with the soap, and started a gentle rinsing, as Gabrielle plucked the bar from her fingers, and started her own cleaning task. "Once I’d gotten her over that, she did the rest."

The bard nodded, as she scrubbed the tanned skin across from her, letting her fingers slip across the faint scars and moving closer as a light, dawn wind blew across her exposed, damp back. The pale pink light was starting to inch its way through the trees, and what was black, and white, and silver took on a hint of color. "It was kinda hard watching that." She finally admitted.

Xena moved closer, and pulled her into a hug again. "I know it was." She whispered into the bard’s ear. "Took a lot of guts to stay.. you’re a very brave person, my bard."

Gabrielle took a breath, and let it out slowly. "You once told me the only way to defeat your fears is to confront them… it’s true, Xena." She gazed up at her partner’s face, dimly outlined in pink and gray. "I thought about leaving.. just letting you handle it.. but I knew if I keep running from this, I’ll never get over feeling that way.. and I really want to." She gave a brief nod. "And I’m glad I did… for a lot of reasons."

Xena kissed her on the forehead. "I’m glad you did too… it was good having you there." She leaned back against the bank and cradled the bard against her, as they turned to watch the sunrise. Tiny shy hints of sun began to creep through the leaves, turning gray leaves brilliant green, and dancing glints off the water of the pool. The warrior glanced around her, and found her eyes arrested by a splash of deep purple behind her. With a grin, she freed one long arm, and reached back, twisting and tugging until a section of the bush came free.

"What are you doing?" Gabrielle craned her head around, and jerked as a thick patch of leaves almost brushed her face. "Hey!"

Xena moved the foliage into the light, and displayed her trophy. "Guess you don’t want any, then, huh?"

"Oo." The bard delicately nibbled a blueberry off the patch, and chewed it. "You guessed wrong.. Mmm." She snapped up a few more, as the thick, juicy berries dangled in front of her. "Gods.. I feel like Argo in an apple orchard."

She glanced up and caught the real, indulgent grin on the warrior's face. "What's that smile for?"

Xena chuckled a little. "Don't tell Argo, but you're lots prettier than she is." She assured her. "Even with your face all stained with blueberries."

Gabrielle blinked at her. "Really?"

The warrior's eyebrows rose. "Which are you questioning… that you're prettier than my horse, or that you've got blueberry juice all over you?" Xena felt a tired giddiness take her over, and suspected they were probably way too tired for good sense. The bard had only gotten a few hours of sleep, and she'd gotten none, not with the restlessness of the Amazons, the heat, and the dripping water.

"Um." Gabrielle's brows contracted. "Can I retract the question?"

Xena plucked several berries off the branches, and offered them up, gently placing them on the bard's lips as their eyes met, and held, and she lost track of the fact that they were standing in water up to their chests, in the middle of the forest. The sun strengthened, and lit them, bringing out the gilded highlights in Gabrielle's eyes, and touching her skin with a rosy glow that almost erased the strain and shadows that had been etched onto her by the past few months. "Don't question." The warrior replied in a softly husky tone, as she bent her head and tasted the blueberries and felt warm hands curl around her ribcage in response.

Uninhibited response, she suddenly realized, as those hands touched familiar, sensitive places with a quiet, sure pressure. She almost stopped, almost pulled back, but Gabrielle sensed it, and moved closer, warming the thin layer of water between them as their bodies brushed.

Hesitantly, wistfully, she raised a hand, and stroked Gabrielle's face, trailing her fingers down her neck and across one shoulder, as the layer of water disappeared, and she felt the sudden, seductive jolt as skin slid against skin. She could feel the warmth of the rising sun as it painted them, counteracting the water's chill, and reveled in the sensations of that, and the soft summer breeze, and Gabrielle's lips exploring her face and neck in a blur of intensity

A loud bird call brought them reluctantly back to the reality of where they were, and to the waking forest, its rustles and squeaks overwhelming the rough sounds caused by two sets of labored breathing. Gabrielle ducked her head and nuzzled the soft skin she was pressed against gently, then looked up with eyes darkened to the green of the ferns around them. "Sometimes… " She sighed gently. "Sometimes.. facing your fears is a really good idea."

Xena felt her spirits lift higher as understanding dawned. "Yeah?"

The bard gazed up at her through half closed eyes. One long moment of fear.. yeah..and the beginnings of awful memories, that had been swept before a tide of fierce passion that had filled her with a mixture of joy, and relief. "Oh yeah." Gabrielle whispered as her face tightened into a smile. She soaked in the tingling warmth still skittering up and down her body, then sighed gently. "Guess we'd better get out of the water huh?"

The warrior lifted her head from its resting place against her partners and blinked a little. "What water?"

They smiled at each other. "Ok..ok.." Xena sheepishly looked around. "Lets get this place cleaned up.. and um… if you don't mind…"

"Get the Hades out of here and head home?" The bard interpreted wryly. "No, I don't mind… to be honest, it's getting on my nerves a little." She pressed her hands against Xena's warm belly, and let her eyes close again. "Maybe I can come back in a while.. but… " She looked up, and took a decisive breath. "Right now, all I want is to spend time with you, and let some stuff heal."

Xena nodded a little. "Works for me." She gently grasped the bard around the waist and lifted up, setting her on the bank and into a shaft of pure, golden sunlight.

Gabrielle smiled into it, shading her eyes from the brightness as she dunked her skirt and halter into the water, and watched the cool eddies take the mud from the fabric. "You'd better get your leathers cleaned off. " She commented, as her partner waded over and did just that. "Gray isn't your color."

Xena looked back over one bare shoulder, raising an eyebrow at her. "I have a color?"

Gabrielle studied her critically, one corner of her mouth edging up as the rich light burnished her partner's skin. "Well.. that one isn't bad." Her green eyes sparkled gently. "But I love it when you wear red."

The other eyebrow rose. "Red?"

The bard nodded, wringing out her clothing. "Yep." She slipped the damp fabric over her head, and fastened it, wincing a little at the clammy feeling. "Ugh… speaking of clothing, I need to go change mine."

Xena pulled herself up out of the water and shook herself off, then slipped into her leathers with a twin of Gabrielle's pained expression. But she wandered over to where the bard was standing, and straightened the shoulder on her halter. " that other Amazon outfit of yours is nice."

Gabrielle muffled a surprised smile. "Nice?" She'd always felt kind of strange wearing it. Maybe it was the sinuous feel of all that leather. Or the unfamiliar constriction around her biceps and the soft, rhythmic clinking of the jewelry.

"Mm." The warrior agreed. "Nice."

The bard glanced down, feeling a touch of pleasant confusion. "All right.. I'll put it on, if you help me.. that thing has more clips and ties and little jingly things than Argo's tack."

"Deal." Xena settled an arm over her shoulders as they wandered back towards the village.

"And only if you put on something more colorful than these." The bard decided, giving the dark brown leathers a gentle tug. "Hey.. I'd love to see you in an Amazon get up."

"Oh…no….. " Xena held up a hand. "Don't go there, my bard.. your Amazons would have a fit."

"Might be good for them. " Gabrielle muttered, then sighed. "But I guess you're right." She fell silent, and kept her thoughtful gaze on the forest path they were walking on.

Xena watched her out of the corner of her eye, and silently debated with herself. Or rather, with her sense of self dignity.

Dignity lost. She'd go find Ephiny after they got back.. gods knew they probably wouldn't have anything to fit her tall frame, but you never knew. At least she'd have tried.. and Gabrielle never asked her for much. What price was worth a couple of smiles from her partner? Maybe she could get ahold of some red leathers.. and knock off two rabbits with one arrow. What a spectacle that'd be… she wryly acknowledged, as they reached the edge of the village, and entered the mud covered central square.

Ephiny watched the new mother nurse her tiny infant with a tired smile, postponing the moment that she'd have to face Menelda, and straighten out the mess both her lover, and the Queen had gotten her into. Not that she blamed Pony.. no… the healer could try the patience of Artemis herself, but still.

She took a breath, and looked over at Menelda, who was sorting her herbs in silence. She walked over and stood looking down at the leaves, trying to come up with an opening parry.

"Which ones?" Menelda quietly asked, her voice very subdued.

"Hmm?" The regent cocked her curly blond head, distracted from her strategic planning.

The healer raised her eyes, and found Ephiny's pale ones. "Which ones did she use?"

Ephiny stared at the herbs, racking her brain. "Um… this.. " She pointed at a powder. "And… " Her fingers tumbled through the herbs. "This." She touched a small pile of leaves." She paused. "You change your mind about her?"

Menelda let out a long, tired breath. "No." She gazed at the regent. "I haven't.. " Her eyes shifted. "But there are things about her that can be useful to us.. and.. " She let one hand lift and fall. "for the moment, she seems very attached to our queen." Another sigh. "Ephiny.."

"I know." The regent put a tentative hand on her shoulder. "I get scared for her.. I get scared for both of them, and for us sometimes.. it's a double edged sword having her be so close.. I know that." She gazed at the contentedly suckling baby. "But I think it's worth the risk."

The healer shook her head tiredly. "I don't know, Ephiny." She stirred the herbs with a finger. "But I think you're right about the two of them.. for better or worse, they need each other." She paused. "I'm not sure how healthy that is, especially for Gabrielle… she was pretty torn up.. and now it seems to me like she's clinging to that woman just to keep herself together."

Ephiny thought about that. "You may be right." She finally admitted. "But I think they genuinely care for each other."

Menelda's lips twitched. "Yeah." She cleared her throat. "So.. you want to talk about Slugger McLeathers over there?" She jerked her head in Eponin's direction, towards the pallet where the dark haired Amazon was dozing quietly. "Ephiny, that wasn't right."

The regent leaned against the table, and nibbled her lip. "I know." She sighed. "I'll.. discipline her." Her eyes lifted to the far corner of the room. "It'll have to wait until she's out of here, though." She paused. "I don't agree with the method but she acted in that girl's best interests." Now her eyes found Menelda's directly. "You do realize, that, right?"

The healer glanced away. "How is that supposed to make me feel?" She threw a bit of linen against the floor. "Like some green kid, who needed rescuing? I know my business, Ephiny.. or don't you think I'm a competent healer?"

Ephiny put up a placating hand. "That's not the point… but even I have the sense to ask or help when I need it… and believe me, if she gives me advice in matters of war, I'm listening, Nelda… because she's seen so much, and done so much… you know she's a good healer, you've seen her work."

"I've seen her damage." Menelda sniped back, then shook her head. "Here we go again… all right, all right.. so she knows some tricks I don't. Happy?"

The regent wavered, and leaned hard against the table. "Tired." She muttered softly.

Menelda shook her head, and grabbed the regent's elbow, nudging her towards the row of pallets. "Come on, you." She pushed her down onto the pallet next to Eponin, and brushed away her protests. "Shut up, Ephiny, al right? I've argued with you enough this week." The auburn haired healer gave her a glare. "Go to sleep. I'll wake you up later."

"No.. there's too much to do." Ephiny struggled to lift herself up on one elbow. "I just need to get something to eat. I'll be fine." She glanced down as Eponin sensed her presence, and half woke, reaching out and snaring her securely with one hand and tugging hard. "Hey…"

It was too much. Her body rebelled and obeyed the tug, and the next thing she knew, she was tucked neatly against her sleepy lover, helpless to resist the waves of lethargy that were rolling over her.

"Hey.. you mad at me for slugging Nelda?" Eponin breathed in her ear.

Ephiny closed her eyes and yawned, knowing by the sound of footsteps that the healer had moved away. "Nah.. " She whispered back. "But now I gotta think of some punishment for you."

"Mmm.. " Eponin mused. "How about this?"

Ephiny broke off after a moment, and chuckled softly. "That's not a punishment." She gave in. "But we'll think of something."

"You want… what?" Solari put a hand to her head, and rubbed her temples. "Xena.. wh… um…not that I think there's anything wrong with it, ok.. but.. " She paused, and started again. "You ..want a set.. of our leathers?"

The warrior pushed off the support pole she was leaning against and lifted a hand. "Look.. forget I asked, OK? It's nothing.. just something Gabrielle asked me to do, but don't worry about it."

"…um…" Solari protested. "Wait.. let me think a minute… you just caught me by surprise, that's all." She briefly cursed Ephiny for having the gall to be asleep and not here to deal with this odd request, but nibbled her lip in thought. "Ok… yeah, in fact, I think I…" She led the wary Xena to a small hut just outside the central area, and ducked her head to enter, surveying the disarray with a jaundiced eye.

"Guess the storm really messed things up." Xena commented diplomatically.

Solari gave her a look. "Um… right." She muttered, as she pawed through piles of supplies, and clothing. "I think.. ." She dodged and yelped as a basket fell of a shelf and nearly hit her. "Maybe over…"

Xena had lunged forward and caught the basket, and set it down. "That woulda hurt." She mused, seeing the pile of necklaces jumbled up in the bottom. The room smelled of cloth, and leather, and brass, and she found an indulgent grin tugging at her lips at its rampant disorganization.

"Thanks… " Solari mumbled, as she dug in a corner. "Ah… right.. yeah, I thought I remembered…" She tugged back and pulled out a thick linen covered bundle, tied with a light rope. "Yeah…yeah… we used to have a leathermaker here… Eusana.. she was fantastic.. she used to just make up sets and leave them in here in bundles.. you'd go in for something, and find two or three of them… if you found one, you grabbed it, cause she really knew her stuff." The Amazon untied the bundle, and lifted up the front flap, disclosing the contents.

Xena's eyebrows rose at the rich, russet color. "So.. Amazons don't like red?"

Solari let out a soft chuckle. "No.. we do…but… " She gave Xena an appraising look. "Well, I'm average size for one of us.. and this.. " She held up the skirt, indicating its length. "Would come to my knees."

"Ah." The warrior commented, taking the garment and examining it. "Not on me."

"No." Solari agreed. "That was my point." She cleared her throat a little, and handed over the rest of the package. "So… um… Gabrielle wanted you to…uh.. exactly what did she want you to do?" Curiosity was scribbled all over her face.

Xena delivered an inscrutable look. "Just a request of hers." She answered coolly. "I.. think she's got an idea that if we put this stuff on.. maybe it would help the tension.. you know."

Solari's eyebrows shot up. "Oh!'" She blinked, impressed. "Wow.. I never thought of that… yeah… that's not a bad idea at all.. " She hesitated. "Listen.. I know it's been a little rough.. sorry about that."

The warrior's eyes glinted quietly with inner amusement. "Well, thanks, Solari.. I think this'll do the trick.. we've got.. " Her head jerked back towards the village. "A lotta stuff to do."

"No.. no problem, Xena.. glad I could help." Solari puffed gently. "Um… thanks for sticking around to give us a hand.. we could use it."

Xena's eyes flicked around the room, then blinked innocently. "Yeah….well, glad we could help."

Gabrielle studied herself critically in the mirror, working on adjusting her shoulder strap for what seemed like the hundredth time. She cast a glance back as the door drifted open, and felt a smile come onto her face as she spotted her partner, hair still damp from their bath entering. "Thank the gods you're here.. I can't figure this out."

Xena dropped a bundle on the table and padded over, examining the strap in question and nodding a little. "Oh.. right.. " She fixed the twist in the leather, and refastened it. "There…better?" She allowed her eyes to wander over the rich, rust brown leather with gentle approval. In style, it wasn't so very different than outfit she normally wore, but the earthy tones heightened the golden tint to her skin, and brought out the intense color of her eyes. It was… Xena realized, an almost primal difference. Maybe it was the leather, she jibed herself.

"Thanks." Gabrielle sighed in relief. "Yeah… " She straightened her skirt, and smoothed the supple layers down over her thighs. "Think I'll leave off the arm gauntlets and the feathers… they'll just get muddy anyway." She wandered over to the bed and flopped onto her back, closing her eyes. "Think I'll take a few minutes while you get dressed…" One green eye opened and studied the taller woman. "You are going to change, right? Not go around in those wet leathers all day?"

Xena's lips twitched. "Oh yeah… just be a minute.. you.. um.. just relax there."

The bard nodded a little. "Ok..ok.." She let her eyes close again and drifted into a pleasant haze, listening idly to the beginnings of movement outside as the Amazons assembled to begin the long cleanup tasks, and to the subtler, quieter sounds of her partner quietly moving around the room. She could feel a very faint draft as the warrior walked past her, and smelled the wet leather as she set her stuff to dry.

A faint rustle of fabric, and then she detected the sound of buckles being fastened by her partner's long fingers, and caught a whiff of leather again, this time dry. Her other set? Her mind mused distractedly. Didn't think we had that with us.. maybe she picked it up with Argo. Oh well.. she idly considered. Blue was nice, too.

"Hey." Now Xena's voice was directly over her, and she felt the light dim as the warrior stepped between her and the window, blocking the sunlight. Lazily, she let her eyes drift open and looked up.

And just kept looking, as her mind tried to reconcile the vision and couldn’t "Buh… " She spluttered, and raised herself up on her elbows to get a better look. Leathers cut in the same fashion as her own graced her partner's long, muscular body, but in a warm, rich shade of almost wine red. "Oh.. gods." She managed to stammer, as she watched a hand lift up and touch the soft folds and realized it was her own.

Xena absorbed this reaction with a mixture of pleasure and perplexity. "You did say red." She protested mildly.

The bard felt a grin coming on and let it appear, as she sat up, and regarded Xena appraisingly. The color contrasted with her tanned skin, and the low cut skirt outlined her with elegant precision, exposing most of her long torso to a soft, sun dappled rippling of muscles under skin that was intriguing the bard no end. The top outlined her chest and broad shoulders, and showed slivers of dark against red where her hair was laying over it. "Wow." She finally spluttered, and raised a hand to run her fingers over the expanse of bare skin, watching Xena's breathing catch at the touch. She looked up, into the startling blue eyes gazing down at her. "You did this for me?"

The warrior nodded, a little uncertainly. "Well.. yeah.. you.. did ask." She answered softly. "I just thought…"

Gabrielle stood, and put her arms around the taller woman, hugging her tightly. Here, in a still uneasily hostile place, among people she had no reason to think of as friends, when she needed to keep her dark, implacable mask on, Xena had deliberately chosen to don the markings of the Amazons, who had shown her little but distrust and contempt.

Because she, Gabrielle, had asked.

It was an affirmation of love that was more profound than any words could have been, and she absorbed it fully, letting it sink down in to the still quietly healing wounds in her soul. She felt a tear slip out, and she let it fall in simple reaction, then a feather's brush and it was gone, captured by Xena's hand, which went on to tangle itself in her hair, stroking the damp tendrils with a hesitant pressure.

They stood in silence for a long, golden moment, outlined in the sunlight, then Gabrielle sighed, and gave the bare side a pat. "Thanks.. you look great.. better than even I'd imagined."

That got her a half embarrassed, half appreciative grin. "No problem… it's a little drafty, but not bad." Xena felt a giddy little shiver. "We'd.. better get helping."

Gabrielle untangled herself from her partner, and took a step back, unable to help the grin that shaped her face again. "Xena.. don't take this wrong, but… I'm not sure how much work is going to get done with you out there." She bit her lip and giggled.

The warrior sighed, and rolled her eyes. "C'mon, Gabrielle.. everyone out there is dressed like this… give me a break." She sat down and tugged on a boot. "Besides, by the time we get out there, Solari will have spread the word that you roped me into this to improve the atmosphere around here."

Gabrielle wandered over to the table, and nibbled some of the blueberries they'd brought back. "Hey.. that's not a bad idea." She glanced up. "I never thought of that."

Xena glanced up. "Yes you did." She informed the bard dryly. "It's all your plan." She finished tying her other boot and stood, putting her hands on her hips and giving the bard an inquiring look. "Shall we?"

The bard grinned, and a mischievous sparkle entered her mist green eyes. "Yeah.. let's go.. we can hit the dining hall and pick up a little breakfast, then see what we can do to help… " Mentally, she was looking forward to seeing the expressions of her Amazon sisters. Oh.. I'm gonna hurt from smirking by the end of today. "Heh." She tucked her hand around Xena's elbow and steered her towards the door.

Ephiny laid her head back against the cool surface of the tub, and regarded the ceiling thoughtfully. "I don't know why I'm taking a bath." She commented. "I'm just gonna get dirty again. This place is a mess."

Eponin scooped up a handful of water and let it dribble down the regent's head. "Cause it feels good." She yawned, and pulled her linen wrap closer, drying her hair gingerly, trying to avoid the still tender bump on one side. She glanced up as Solari sauntered in, a peculiarly smug look on her face. "What'r you smirking at?" She asked curiously.

"Me?" Solari pointed at herself. "Nothing." She walked over and dabbled a finger in Ephiny's water. "So… what's up? You get some sleep? I heard Aaileen's doing ok."

Ephiny sighed, reluctant to leave her watery resting place. "Oh.. yeah, she's fine.. nice little daughter and the thanks go to our old friend for that." She dunked her head and then surfaced. "At least Menelda's backed off.. now all I gotta do is get the rest of this place to just relax about them a little and I'm home free."

"Hm." Solari dabbled again. "Well.. funny you should say that."

A blond eyebrow quirked. "Funny? I don't see anything funny about the situation, Solari."

The dark haired woman nibbled her lip a little. "No.. not funny ha ha, funny as in, Gee, isn't it funny you should say that right at this very moment , kind of funny." She offered. "Because.. mmm.. I think Gabrielle had more.. or less… " She smirked a little "Less.. yeah.. anyway, she more or less had the same idea."

Ephiny cocked her head. "Really?"

"Eeeeyah." Solari agreed. "Really." She whistled a little. "Well, I gotta go get started.. see you guys later." She turned and headed for the door, only to be hauled down by a hand on the back of her leathers. "Whoa…"

"Exactly." Eponin stated, pulling her around, to face the now unbathed and towel wrapped Ephiny. "You wanna explain?"

Solari drummed her fingers on her thigh. "Not really." She admitted. "It's… you kinda have to see it."

"Solari." Ephiny growled, roughly toweling her curly hair dry. "Cut the centaur poop and deliver the goods to market, please."

Solari sighed dramatically. "You're no fun. Ok.. Gabrielle's idea was to use Amazon garb to kind of make everyone chill out a little."

The two other Amazons exchanged puzzled looks. "Well… " Ephiny mused. "That's.. that makes sense… she's the queen, after all.. that would kind of smooth things over but.. "

"For both of them." Solari finished, crossing her arms and waiting.

Dead silence. Then.. "Oo." Eponin snorted. "This I gotta go see."

"You don't mean.. " Ephiny squeaked. "No…"

Solari nodded. "Yeah… and boy.. let me tell you… it's certainly getting everyone's attention."

"You enjoying yourself? " Xena asked, from her position on the bench next to her partner. She had her legs stretched out and her booted feet crossed under the table, and was leaning back against the center support with as much of a bored expression as she could muster under the circumstances.

"Oh yeah." Gabrielle cheerfully informed her, as she picked up a slice of fruit and offered it to the taller warrior. "That tall redhead over there just poked her own nose with a fork." She muttered, with a slight giggle. Then she looked up and studied the sharply profiled face and laid a hand on Xena's arm. "This isn't bothering you too much, is it?"

The warrior's eyebrows twitched. "Um… no.. not… " She cast a quick glance around the room and watched appreciative stares go skittering off into the distance. "Well, it's a pleasant change." She decided, feeling a chuckle working its way up. She crossed her arms over her chest, feeling the unfamiliar sensation of the soft breeze against her bare midriff, then smiled a little, as Gabrielle settled back against her, offering her up another slice of melon.

A movement at the door caught her eye, and she looked over to see Ephiny, Eponin and Solari entering, and she waited as their eyes drifted and finally settled on her. It was almost funny… no.. Xena had to admit. It was funny, to see their expressions. She nudged Gabrielle gently in the ribs and jerked her head towards the door.

The bard looked up, and grinned, then waved at them, as they made their way across the room to the front table. "Hi." Gabrielle greeted them. "We figured breakfast, then we'd help do a little clean up before we left."

Ephiny settled onto the bench and leaned her elbows on the table, as she considered her words. A quick look around as she entered told her that the atmosphere was, indeed, a lot more relaxed. Whether it was because word had spread about Aaileen's baby, or because everyone was totally absorbed in a lustful glance at six feet of sinuous muscle stacked in Amazon leathers, she wasn't sure. Knowing her Amazons, it was a fifty fifty proposition, but it didn't really matter, because whatever it was, it was working. "Ok.. sure." She managed to keep a smile off her face. "It's nice of you two to stay and help… I know you want to get home."

Xena gave her a wry grin, and turned her head, to meet Eponin's amused glance. "How's the head?"

"I thought it was getting better." The weapon's master commented. "Then I started hallucinating again.. thought I saw you dressed as an Amazon." She tapped her skull. "Whooo…"

The warrior rolled her eyes. "Funny. Very funny." She shrugged. "Mine were drenched… and um.. " She cast a glance at her partner, who was engaged in a low voiced conversation with Ephiny. "Her majesty thought it would be a good idea to kinda blend in."

Eponin chortled. "Blend in?" She thumped the table. "Xena, you looked in a mirror lately??" She looked up as a server dropped by, handing her a platter of bread, cheese, and fruit. "Thanks." She picked up a slab of bread, and topped it with a slice of cheese, and started chewing. "So.. " She leaned a little closer. "Does Gabrielle like your new outfit?"

The bard leaned across her partner. "Yes." She gave Eponin a grin, as she leaned against Xena's tall body, and felt the warrior drape an arm over her in absent affection. "Do you like it?"

Eponin took a breath, obviously flustered. "It's.. uh… really nice." She looked daggers at Xena, who had assumed an innocent expression. "Needs some feathers, though." She hazarded, grinning when she saw the pained expression enter the warrior's eyes. "Heh."

Gabrielle turned her head, and regarded the dark haired warrior, who raised both eyebrows at her. "Feathers?" She speculated thoughtfully.

"Roo?" Ares poked his head up from under the table, where he was curled up around Xena's boots. The wolf had an unfortunate habit of chasing birds, and often brought back feathers.. stuck in his mouth. "Argrroo."

"Not for you." Gabrielle scolded him, then looked back up. "Feathers.. hmm… " An eyebrow inched a bit higher. "Maybe not." The eyebrow dropped. "Shall we go clean muck?"

The warrior smiled indulgently at her. "Sure.. why not?" She stood, and lifted the bard up with her. "Where do we start, Ephiny?"

The regent shook her head to clear it. "Um.. start.. right…the well needs clearing desperately.. we're about out of fresh water."

Gabrielle stifled a yawn, as she finished up her task, then looked up to see Ephiny leaning against the wall watching her. "Hi there." She glanced up at the sun, which was slanting westward towards the end of a long day. "We're just about done, I think."

The regent pushed off the wall, and moved towards her. "Just about… things look pretty good."

The bard studied her. "Do they?" She asked quietly.

Ephiny's lips edged into a smile. "Yeah… they do." She dropped to a crouch next to where the bard was sitting and picked up a bit of rock, playing with it idly. "That was a good idea you had." She commented softly. "I can't say all's forgiven, but.. I heard a lot of stuff today that was good." She smiled a little. "Did you see her helping out that old curmudgeon Reina the weaver move her stuff out?"

Gabrielle smiled back. "Yeah, I did."

An awkward silence fell. "Look.. " Ephiny sighed. "I know you want out of here.. but it's late.. why don't you stay over and leave in the morning. It's not so uncomfortable now, is it?"

The bard studied her hands. "I can't." She finally said, letting out a quiet sigh. "Ephiny… I appreciate the offer.. really, I do." She looked up. "But I need some time alone with her.. before we get home."

The regent gave her a quiet, understanding look. "All right." She paused. "How are things.. it's not.. I mean, you're ok, right?"

Gabrielle let a smile shape her lips. "Things are ok.. getting better, actually.. kinda faster than I…I'd hoped." She laced her fingers together. "She.. " A long hesitation. "Still loves me."

Ephiny gripped her arm. "Did you ever doubt that?"

A tiny nod.

"Well, I never did." The blond Amazon said gently. "Even as horrible as it was, I never thought you two didn't love each other… in fact… I thought that's what made it so damn horrific."

Green eyes lifted and studied hers. "You're right." She answered honestly. "It just took us a while to remember that."

Ephiny took a breath. "Well, I'm glad you did… really, Gabrielle, I am." She bit her lip. "I'm not sorry I sent Pony and Solari out after you though.. I want you to know that we do care about you, my friend.. above and beyond the fact that you're a Queen of the Amazons… you know that, right?"

The bard covered her hands with her own. "I do.. and… thank you.. for being concerned. I know.. I should have sent word back.. I'm not sure where my head was." They exchanged rueful smiles. "Thanks for understanding… and I know that if I need a home.. or even a place to come when I need it… I have one."

Ephiny chuckled softly. "You stole my lines."

They stood, and dusted themselves off, and turned towards the sun, walking out into the central area, and heading towards the well. Xena looked up as they approached, and broke away from the small group surrounding her, with a word of apology. Grins followed her, as her audience realized her target.

Gabrielle allowed herself the simple pleasure of watching her partner approach, her easy, relaxed stride accentuating the subtle movement of the muscles evident under her tanned skin, which held a hint of burnished copper from the intense sun they'd been in all day. Xena had tied her hair back to keep it out of her eyes, and as she walked towards them, she reached back and released it from the leather thong, shaking her head to send a cascade of dark strands dancing around her shoulders, catching in the sun. As she neared the bard, blue eyes found hers, and a raised brow asked a question.

She'd stay here, if I wanted to. Gabrielle suddenly realized, as she gazed up at her partner. "You ready to take off?" It was all the answer she needed to give, to the unasked question.

A brief nod was her response. "All ready." Xena's eyes found Ephiny. "Take care."

The regent gave a nod back, her arms crossed over her chest. "I.. um… " A tiny laugh. "I'll have to stop by soon.. I … owe your mother an apology." She looked a touch sheepish. "She's.. got quite the temper."

The warrior glanced at the ground. "Yeah… well, it's kinda a family trait." She looked up. "You're welcome anytime, Ephiny."

They exchanged hugs, then more of them as Eponin, and Solari, and a few others wandered over, and then they were alone in the stable, with Argo and Ares impatiently waiting. Xena loaded up the mare's saddle bags, then hesitated. "Guess I'd better… " She fingered the leather she was wearing.

Gabrielle ran her hands over the warrior's ribcage. "Don't." She replied softly. "I really kinda like it."

The warrior nuzzled her hair. "It's not exactly the safest thing going for my kinda fighting." She objected quietly, as she led Argo outside the stable, and paused, blinking in the bright, late afternoon sunlight.

"I know." The bard smiled. "Just until we stop… is that ok?"

"Sure." Xena gave in easily. "Besides.. it's nice and cool… damned if it wasn't hot today."

The bard pressed a fingertip against her skin experimentally. "Eyep.. I think you got sunburned, a little." She gave her partner an impish look. "And I think you were overheating all those nice young Amazons who were following you around."

"Following me… " Xena started to object, then let a rueful chuckle out. "Yeah.. I guess they were." She admitted, as she tightened Argo's straps. "I… know a nice place, just outside of Amazon territory.. little lake.. if you're interested.. we could stop there tonight." The warrior swallowed, staring at Argo's soft coat, and arranging her mane nervously.

A gentle touch whispered against her skin. "Can you see the stars from there?"

Xena gave a brief smile. "Yeah."

"Works for me." Gabrielle agreed, as the warrior vaulted aboard Argo, and offered her a lift up. She took the assistance, and settled in place behind Xena, grinning as she wrapped her arms around the taller woman and met bare skin. "Ooo.. I think I like this." Irresistibly, her fingertips moved in a tiny tickle, and she felt Xena shift in surprise.

"Hey." The warrior said, on an irregular breath.

"Something wrong?" Gabrielle asked, in all innocence, as she smoothed the suddenly goosebumped flesh under her hands.

"Nope." Xena mumbled, as she kneed Argo forward, and watched Ares frisk out ahead of them. "Not a thing… "

Another subtle tickle. "Good."

They left through the village main entrance, returning the several waves of Amazons still working around the central area, and entered the long, leaf shaded path that lead outward and towards the path down to the river.

But pairs of hooded eyes followed them, belonging to shadows that passed through the trees and trailed their fading hoofbeats.

Continued in Part 5