The Longest Night - Part 3

Melissa Good

For DISCLAIMERS see Part 1.

The road unwound before them, as they came out of the forest path, and onto the familiar route leading towards Potadeia. Gabrielle kept letting her gaze slip up to her partner's face, the constant smile there sending warm shivers down her back. She'd been treated to most of a day's worth of very high spirits on Xena's part, after their somewhat late start this morning.

There had been a leisurely breakfast, of course, then she'd lived up to her promise, engaging Xena in a spirited bout of staff work, pushing herself until she really was exhausted and breathing hard. Which had hardly put a dent in her partner's almost manic energy, but Xena had put the lid on it, and picked her up, settling down on their sleeping furs and rocking her gently until her breathing calmed, and her heart stopped racing.

Then they'd worked off some of that energy another way, which was much more relaxing, and which had led to them leaving after lunch, not before. But she didn't mind, and she suspected Xena didn't much mind either.

Right now, the warrior was off investigating some collapsed huts just off the road, Ares' dark form visible next to her. Gabrielle trotted over, peering around her partner's long arm into one of the structures. "They got out, huh?"

Xena nodded. "Looks like it." She pulled away a piece of the roof, exposing the mostly empty interior. "With most of their stuff, I think." She gave the bard a satisfied look and let the roof fall back into place. "Smart folks."

"Wonder where they went?" The bard mused, letting her fingers trail over the crumbling thatch.

They resumed their walk, and Xena settled a long arm around Gabrielle's shoulders as they strolled along. "We'll be near Potadeia tonight, if we keep moving." The warrior commented, using her free hand to tighten the straps on the pack she was carrying.

Gabrielle nodded. "Yep… " She gazed up at Xena. "How are you feeling?" She tugged on a strap. "How's the back?" She'd been keeping a close eye on her partner, mostly with what she thought were subtly hidden glances. The warrior seemed fine, though, the fogginess of last night was nowhere to be found, and her body seemed to be moving along with it's customary graceful ease.

Xena looked at her, and her brow creased. "What back?" Then she looked sheepish. "Oh.. right.. uh.. " An impish grin. "I don't even feel the scratches."

The bard gave her a squeeze. "No.. you're not feeling much today, are you?"

A wry look from those blue eyes. "Um… no, not really." Xena sighed happily. "Sorry..I just.. wasn't expecting that." Never.. expected that. I still can't believe it. I probably won't believe it until it actually happens.. but… oh.. gods… "I'll try to be less.. um… " I feel like I'm floating… what an incredible sensation.

Gabrielle chuckled. "Don't apologize… I think it's great.. I've never seen you giddy like this, and it's kind of cute." She snuggled closer. "I like that."

Xena laughed softly, then surprised the bard by picking her up, and whirling around with her. "Hang on.." She warned, and took several running steps, then catapulted into the air and did a lazy flip, landing with a jaunty bounce. "Guess I'm feeling pretty good." She grinned.

"I guess you are." Gabrielle giggled, winding her arms around her partner's neck, and pulling herself up, kissing the warrior soundly. "I really like that." So much so, Xena.. that I'm not going to even ask you what I asked last night. That'll wait for some other time.

But Xena surprised her. A short time later, while they were sharing a handful of nuts the warrior had stripped from a nearby tree, she felt the deep, steady intake of a breath.

"You asked me something last night." Xena said quietly, handing the bard another nut.

Gabrielle accepted it, chewing the sweet nutmeat thoughtfully. "I did.. but you don't have to tell me, Xena. It's all right." She looked up, watching the sunlight cast rich highlights on her partner's skin. "It's not… that important."

"Well… but you have a right to know, Gabrielle." Xena replied, in a quiet voice. "It was something.. I should have told you about a long time ago. I just… kind of kept it in the back of my mind.. it .. gave me comfort when things got bad." She paused, and glanced down the road. "Especially when my past… overran me. "

Gabrielle remained silent for a moment, then leaned against her. "What happened?'

Xena considered for a bit, where to start. "You.. remember that temple of the Fates?"

The bard's brow furrowed. "The.. um.. the one where we were fighting outside, and you let that kid go?" The one where you hugged me for no reason? Oh yeah, I remember that one.. took me days to get over trying to figure out what that was all about. "I remember that."

"Mmm… that's not how it happened the first time." Xena carefully answered. "I killed that boy.' She felt Gabrielle's body stiffen, and released the bard, moving her arm away self-consciously. A familiar pang gripped her heart, for an instant, until Gabrielle grabbed her hand, and wrapped her arm back around her body. "And.. Gabrielle, it all seemed so senseless to me… I went inside the temple, and.. told them it would have been better if I hadn't ever become.. what I am."

Gabrielle's face went very still.

"So.. they said.. they could help me.. go back." Xena continued. "Make it so.. I had that choice to make all over again." A deep breath. "They put me back home.. as it would have been if I hadn't fought off Cortese and become.. a.. warlord."

The bard swallowed, but still said nothing, feeling the singing tension in Xena's body through their contact.

"Lyceus was alive." Xena said quietly. "He'd grown up.. into a wonderful man." She paused. "Mother was dead, though.. and things were… different." A breath. "The Fates told me.. I'd stay in this timeline forever.. just as long as I never took a life.. again." She blinked. "I thought I could do that… find peace.. even with things being the way they were."

"What happened?" Gabrielle asked quietly. Knowing in her heart, in her bones what the answer was.

"I wasn't.. there, obviously, to prevent you from being taken by slavers, Gabrielle..and you were.. taken." Xena's voice was gentle, and sad, remembering those haunted eyes.

"Did I meet you there?" The bard whispered.

"Yes." Came the inevitable answer. "You did… but you were.. a very angry, and very bitter person.. they'd done.. horrible things to you."

"Did I know you?" Another whisper. Gabrielle was trying to imagine what it would have been like..

Xena remained silent for a moment. "Know me? No.. but… there was a connection between us.. even then, I could feel it." Painful truth. "Maybe in time… I don't know… you were not.. a happy person." The harsh sound of Gabrielle saying she hated her.. the bitter, angry look in those familiar green eyes… Xena sighed as she felt the hurt, and the misery of the moment all over again. She'd realized, at that moment, when she no longer had it just how much she'd come to depend on Gabrielle's friendship.

"So.." Gabrielle looked up. "What did you do?"

"There was a fight… Lyceus was begging me to help them.. I wouldn't." Xena's eyes drifted in memory. "But then I saw something that made me understand that there were some things beyond price, and I picked up a sword, and gutted the next man I saw." And remembered the sweet feeling of relief, as the world righted itself around her, with a friendly flash of green eyes, and a glimpse of Gabrielle's open, honest smile.

"And everything went back… Lyceus died… all of that?" Gabrielle said quietly.

"Yes." She turned to her partner. "And I have never, ever regretted doing that. Not for one single second." And whenever she let the past roll over her, the thought of this one, small thing.. that she had been able to prevent from happening.. this one, tiny bit of history she'd had control of, that had changed the life of one, very young, innocent girl..

"What did you see, Xena?" The bard stopped walking, and turned to face the warrior.

Hands cupped her face gently. "I saw you lose your soul, Gabrielle." Xena told her in a very quiet voice. "To.. to hatred, and anger, and violence. " She gazed into the bard's syes. " And that… was something I just couldn't live with."

A shaking breath. "So you traded your own soul, and Lyceus' life, for that?" A bare whisper. "For me?"

"In a heartbeat." Was the answer. "And I would again, without a second thought." One young, innocent girl.. who now walks beside me, her life inescapably intertwined with mine… in possession of my heart, my soul… I look back at that moment and thank the gods I had the strength to take what was, then.. the darker path. I had no idea what it would lead to.

Gabrielle felt a wave of dizziness pass over her, and she wavered, feeling strong hands grasp her shoulders, and ease her gently down on a boulder nearby. I never knew.. I never even guessed… I knew she was.. a little distant for a while right after that.. but it was more preoccupied than anything else. "Xena… I.. don't know what to say.." What do you say when someone admits to giving up.. peace.. a brother.. a whole new life.. just… for you? "Other than.. thank you.. "

The warrior seated herself cross-legged on the musty brown grass next to they boulder, and rested her elbows on her knees. She plucked a bit of the grass up, and twirled it around in her fingers, studying it closely. A hand touched her head, and she looked up, as the bard ran her fingers through her hair. "It's.. something I just… kept tucked away, for those times when I thought… anyway, it was proof, to me, at least, that something.. good had come out of everything I'd done.. everything I'd been through." She took a breath. "Right place, right time."

Gabrielle's fingers brushed her cheek. "Right person." She sighed gently. "Xena.. I.. wish you would have told me about that then."

"Why?" Xena asked, her eyes searching the bard's curiously. "I didn't want you to think.. you were.. " She lifted a hand and let it drop. "Indebted to me, in any way."

"I just wish you had." Came the quiet answer. Thinking of one decision, at least, that it would have changed. "But I'm glad you told me now." Gabrielle took in a breath of the cold sunlit air, and smiled. "You know.. for the longest time, I thought you just.. gods.. put up with me for reasons.. I couldn’t begin to understand, Xena. I thought… did you know my worst fear.. for a really long time was that I'd wake up one morning, back home.. because you'd finally gotten tired of having me around."

Xena blinked hard at the grass. "Did you really think I'd do that?"

Gabrielle let out a short laugh. "I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why you.. hadn't.. sometimes…"

It was a day when everything.. and she meant, everything.. had just gone wrong. It had rained in the morning, drowning the camp. Then they'd taken a wrong path, and ended up practically in a warlords camp because she.. convinced Xena to try a shortcut.

Only Xena's fighting skills had saved their lives, and gotten them out in relatively one piece, though the warrior had taken a few bad hits, and was unusually quiet, which was saying something, because a noisy person she wasn't.

Then she'd fallen into a quicksand pit, and Xena had needed to haul her out of there, then they'd almost gotten stampeded by a herd of frightened wild horses near the river.

Nothing she said was right, nothing she did was right… and what made it worse was that Xena didn't.. say… anything to her. Not her usual disparaging remarks.. not.. her sarcastic comments. Just.. a quiet, resigned nothing that weighed on Gabrielle's soul, and forced her to imagine that the ex warlord had.. finally… just had enough .

Of her. And.. for once.. she didn't blame the warrior, because as they trudged wearily up one last hill, and found a relatively ok place to camp, she was pretty tired of herself too.

She'd tried to just.. stay out of Xena's way that night… she'd left her dinner near her bedroll for her when the warrior came back from washing off all the quicksand and the rest of the gunk.. and had found herself a corner between two rocks, and wrapped herself up in her cloak, and tucked her body into it.

Wanting to hide from the world.. wanting to hide from Xena's quiet, introspective gaze, which, she suspected, was working out the logistics of taking a clumsy, half useless village girl back.. home.

She'd heard Xena out in the camp, rattling around, moving things.. arranging things… separating their belongings.. she imagined, as her heart settled heavily into the pit of her stomach. And after today.. you'd think I'd want her to do just that.. She'd thought.. but..

It hadn't been true. Even after that day.. even after everything.. a very large part of her resisted the thought of parting with her friend.

Footsteps approached, and she burrowed deeper into her cloak, postponing the moment when she'd have to look up, and see that cool, forceful gaze. Hear the words her heart dreaded… but that she couldn’t blame the warrior for saying.

The steps had stopped, and she felt a gentle displacement of air as Xena crouched down next to her, then put a hand on her shoulder. "Gabrielle?"

No.. no.. please.. Her tired mind had sobbed. Not now.. at least.. make it tomorrow.. one more night, what difference would it make, Xena? The hand shook her gently. No, of course not. "Yeah?" She'd looked up, finally, just waiting to hear the words, her heart aching.

"Listen…" The hand squeezed her shoulder. "Here.. I picked these up for you when we went through that last town."

A box, in her hands. "You've had a rough day." Now the hand patting her cheek. "You all right?"

She sat there, just.. frozen, for a long minute. "'re not mad at me?" She'd finally stammered, her mind trying to make sense of the mysterious box, and the warrior's quiet smile.

Xena had glanced down, then pursed her lips. "Everyone has bad days now and then, Gabrielle…" A casual nod towards the box. "Gonna open it?"

Her fumbling fingers with the fastenings, then looking inside.

Tiny nut pastries.. her favorites. And, beneath them, the neatly carved wooden inkwell she'd been drooling over at that stand.. she hadn't even seen Xena watching her examine it. She'd looked up into those pale blue eyes. "Why?"

A casual shrug. "You're my best friend ." Such a simple, obvious answer.

Gabrielle had carefully closed the box, and untangled her limbs from her cloak, and without thought, or planning, threw her arms around Xena's neck, burying her face against the warrior's leather clad chest. "Thank you." She'd whispered into the nearby ear.

For once, Xena had returned the hug, letting her arms cradle the bard's tired body, and rubbing her back gently. And from the safety of those strong arms, Gabrielle had smiled, at the sun's last dying rays on what had turned out to be a pretty good day after all.

Funny how that was.

The warrior rested her head against Gabrielle's thigh, and gazed up at her. "I wouldn't have done that. " She gave a light shrug. "Even if I did think it was… probably the best thing for me to do sometimes." A lot of times.

"Why?" Gabrielle echoed her tone from moments before. "I kept.. " She shook her head a little. "trying to pull myself away from you because I thought… I could at least make it my decision.. and not yours."

Xena's lips tightened. "It.. was always your decision, Gabrielle." A quiet, simple truth.

The bard gazed at her, letting her fingers tangle absently in the dark hair. "It was?" She asked, in a wondering tone.

Xena nodded, gazing idly out into the surrounding forest. "It was a pretty big shock for me.."

A thump, and the bard was sitting on the turf next to her, their eyes almost on a level, Gabrielle's hands wrapping around hers. "What was?"

The warrior remained silent for a moment, then took a slow breath in. "When I woke up one morning.. and… realized just how shallow.. and how empty my life had been before." Blue eyes met green. "And just how much I… needed.. you." She glanced down. "I always… knew.. you'd leave someday, but…I never would have made you."

Silence from the bard, as a thousand little things suddenly settled into place. Xena always putting up with her babbling. With her arguments, and questions.. always rescuing her from whatever mess she'd gotten into . Always gently supporting her choices.. letting her go when she felt the need. Welcoming her back when she returned. Never asking anything of her.

Xena smiled a little and shrugged. "So.. you really never had anything to worry about,." A hint of wry amusement touched her face. "Um.. if we've had enough of me baring my soul for now.. I think we'd better get going." She glanced up. "If you want to make Potadeia by tomorrow morning." She gazed at the turf, a faintly embarrassed look on her face. "Sorry.. um..I've never been really good at this."

"Xena?" Gabrielle crooned softly.

"Mmm?" The warrior answered, resting her chin on one hand.

"You just made the last three years of my life make sense." The bard leaned over and kissed her soundly. 'Thank you."

Xena grinned. "You're welcome.' She stood, and offered a hand up to her partner. "C'mon." She grabbed Gabrielle's hand and tugged, pulling the bard up onto her feet and giving her a playful slap on the behind. "We can only extend this little jaunt so long."

"Hey.. " The bard backhanded her in the gut as they started walking. "Watch where you're hitting folks."

Xena snorted. "Look who's talking?" She bumped Gabrielle with an elbow, sending the bard reeling a step. "Tch tch… you're losing it, my friend."

Gabrielle regained her balance, and walked backwards a few steps, balling her fists and planting them firmly on her hips. "You'd better watch out.. don't you make me mad, now."

The warrior snorted. "Or… what?" Her blue eyes danced playfully.

A glower from the bard. "You'd better start running, Warrior Princess of snide comments."

Xena's eyebrows rose. "Like you could catch me." A devilish grin confronted Gabrielle, then Xena bolted forward, and dodged her defensively raised arms, giving her another good swat on the behind, and taking off, with Ares right behind her.

'You'd better run…" The bard growled, and gave chase, taking short digging steps until she was at full speed, and feeling the wind whip her hair back off her forehead. The dried grasses tickled her knees even through her leggings, and she threw herself forward, keeping a determined eye on the tall, dark haired form bounding along ahead of her. She's right. Her mind sighed ruefully. I don't have a snowball's chance in Tartarus of ever catching her… the brat.. she's barely giving it any effort. Still, she kept at it, feeling a welcome pull of effort against recently unused muscles, and soon realized her partner was deliberately slowing her pace, allowing her to catch up.

"Hey." She reached out and slapped Xena's arm as she drew even with her. "No fair.. you let me catch you."

"Roo!" Ares agreed, jumping over a log next to the path. "Arrrgggrroooo.. "

Xena gazed fondly at her. "Nah.. I'm just getting old… can't keep a pace like I used to." She paused and grinned at Gabrielle's rolling eyes. "Not buying that, huh?" A snort from her partner. "Ok.. ok.. how are you doing?" Her face sobered. "Ribs giving you any trouble?"

Gabrielle thought about that as she ran. "No.. they kind of ache a little bit.. if I breathe real deep, or I move the wrong way, but they're mostly all right." She paused and considered. "It feels good .. haven't done a lot of this lately."

Xena gave her an understanding smile. "Want to keep going for a little while? We'll make up some time… if it's not too much for you."

The bard tentatively checked her reserves, pleased at what she found. "Yeah, that sounds good." She agreed, matching strides with her taller partner.

It was less than a candlemark later when they saw the dark, oily smoke rising over the horizon, just to the left of where the road was taking them. They exchanged glances, and as though one mind moved, them, headed off the beaten surface and into the grass.

I think I just figured out why we get into so much trouble. Gabrielle reflected, as she dodged Ares's bounding form. It's simple.. really.. most people avoid situations like this. We go looking for them. With a sigh, and shake of her head, she kept on running.

"How's the head?" Ephiny asked, in a mock solicitous tone as she entered the inn's main room, buckling the belt closed on her new shirt, and dusting an errant fuzzball off the sleeve.

Eponin grinned, and held up a mug. "Fine.. Cyrene fixed me up."

The Amazon regent felt her brows contract, as she leaned over the table, and peered into the container. "Don't tell me she gave you more of that ale." She was vaguely surprised at the innkeeper.

Eponin snorted lightly. "G'wan, Eph." She took a sip from the mug. "This is some mixture she claims Xena swears by."

"Hmph." Ephiny removed the cup from the weapons master's hand, and sniffed. "Oh.. well, maybe…" She cocked an eyebrow at it. "Smells like.."

The burly Amazon gave her a dour look through her dark lashes. "Must you?"

Ephiny rubbed her nose, and let out a small grin. "All right.. all right.." She glanced up as bootsteps sounded on the stairs. "Good morning, Iolaus." She greeted the blond man cordially.

"Hi." Iolaus sighed, pulling out a chair next to Eponin and sitting down, letting his chin rest on his hands.

The two Amazons exchanged looks. "Are.. you all right?" Ephiny hazarded, seating herself next to him. "Iolaus?" She gently prodded when he didn't answer.

"What? Oh… " Iolaus jerked his attention back to the present. "I'm really sorry.. " He gave her a wan smile. "I think I had a little too much fun last night."

Another exchanged look between the two women. Eponin pushed her mug over in front of him. "Here." She gave him a nod. "It helps."

The blond man gingerly pulled the cup over, and sniffed its contents. "Ugh. That smells right." He sighed, and took a swig, then a second. He closed his eyes, and made a face. "My tongue feels furry."

Eponin's dark eyebrows shot up. "Well.. no offense.. but that's more information than I really needed." She leaned back, and stretched, wincing and reaching over to knead her right shoulder. "Ephiny, the next time I get the bright idea to challenge Xena to an arm wrestling contest, just shoot me with a crossbow, all right?"

The regent snorted softly. "I told you not to.. but no.. you can't resist a challenge and neither can she. Two peas in a pod." She rolled her eyes and turned her attention to Iolaus. "Better?" She glanced up as Eustase bustled into the room, and beamed at them. "Morning." Ephiny greeted her.

"Lovely one, isn't it?" Eustase agreed cheerfully. "Would you like some cereal?" She brought over a small pot and some bowls. "Word's all over the village about those folks who came in last night.. is it true our Xena saved them?"

Our Xena? Ephiny mused inwardly. My, how things have changed. "We don't know, but Toris seems to think so." She shrugged. "Wouldn't surprise me."

"Me either." Iolaus mumbled, spooning cereal into a bowl. "When do we want to leave, by the way?" He started eating, as his glance darted from one Amazon to the other.

A small silence fell, as they remembered why they were journeying out. "Well.." Ephiny took her own cereal, and ate a spoonful thoughtfully. "Soon."

Iolaus nodded grimly. "Ok.. " He put some breakfast into a bowl, and took a spoon, along with a mug of hot cider. "I'll go get Herc." He ambled off, and disappeared up the stairs, leaving the two Amazons to their own breakfast.

Eponin regarded him thoughtfully, then turned her dark head and met Ephiny's pale eyes. "Breakfast in bed? Must be nice to be a hero." Her eyes took on a glint of amusement. "Wonder if Xena gets that treatment." She amused herself for a minute imagining just such a scene.

Ephiny snorted. "I doubt it." She shot a glance after Iolaus. "She'd never let Gabrielle get away with that.. you know how she is." Although.. lately… I wonder.. she's pretty indulgent with our queen.. Gabrielle's got her wrapped around her little finger, that's for sure.

The Weapons Master smiled s bit. "Oh..I dunno… even the toughest sort might like some coddling once in a while."

The regent propped her chin up on her hand, and let a tiny half smile twitch her lips. "Really?"

Eponin opened her mouth to answer, then felt a blush coming on and scowled instead. "It's just a theory." She grabbed the cereal pot, and dumped a portion in a bowl, concentrating her attention on the food. "Good stuff, huh?"

Ephiny ate a spoonful thoughtfully, sucking on the bowl of the spoon and biting off a grin. "Very." She agreed. "Listen.. I'm going to get my gear together… can I get you an extra shirt? It's pretty chilly outside."

"Nah" The dark haired Amazon waved her off. "I'm fine."

The Amazon regent glanced at the ceiling and counted to ten. "Well, you don't want to get what I had.. it's no fun, trust me." She leaned over the table, and captured Eponin's hand, forcing her to look up. "I'm pulling rank on you, Pony. You'll wear a extra shirt, and like it."

Carmel colored eyes gazed into hers for a minute. "All right, your Majesty." Eponin answered quietly. "If you put it that way."

Ephiny straightened up. "Meet you outside in half a candlemark." She turned and walked back to her room, very aware of the eyes on her back.

The room was quiet when Iolaus gently eased back into it, and set the cereal down by the fire to keep warm. Hercules was still asleep, his breathing deep and even, and Iolaus was loath to wake him up until it was absolutely necessary.

He paused, thinking. Was it necessary to wake him at all? It wasn't as if this was an especially dangerous, or even interesting little jaunt.. they'd just go down the river a bit, and make sure… what, that Xena and Gabrielle hadn't been washed ashore somewhere?

Nah. He scoffed. He knew both of them better than that.. Xena was a very strong swimmer.. and the bard wasn't that far behind. They'd just end up getting out into the fresh air for a little while.. and he'd had enough of that on the way in here.

He gazed at his friend's face. Better to leave him here, let him get some rest.. Zeus, he needs it. With a nod, he made his decision, scrawling a note on a scrap of parchment, which he tucked gently into the dozing demigod's hand.

Whose fingers caught and held his. "What are you doing?" One blue eye under an arched fair eyebrow regarded him. "Trying to sneak out on me, buddy?"

Iolaus sighed, and sat down on the edge of the bed, giving him a scowl. "I just figured you could use a little extra shuteye.. not go wandering around the countryside all morning, that's all.. "

Hercules opened his other eye and rolled both of them. "Iolaus, I'm not an invalid, so quit treating me like one, all right?" He tossed the piece of parchment his friend, hitting him the chest. "I swear, you're turning into a nanny goat."

Iolaus stood up, and walked to the window, putting his hands on the wooden frame and gazing out. "Yeah, you're right.. sorry about that. I don't know what I was thinking." He turned around with a bright smile. "Besides, it's a great day outside. " He nodded towards the fire. "Brought up some food for ya.. we're probably gonna be leaving pretty soon."

The demigod sat up, and swung his legs off the bed, then stood and stretched his large frame. "Thanks.. " He gave Iolaus a wryly apologetic look. "Sorry I snapped at you."

The blond man waved him off. "Don't worry about it." He went to their packs, and knelt down beside his own, rummaging in it. "Looks like Ephiny's coming along with us… " He glanced up.and grinned. "Though.. I'm not sure that's not just a case of cabin fever."

Hercules looked up from his breakfast, his blue eyes twinkling. "Oh, I'd say that’s a pretty good guess.. being she's an Amazon and all."

Iolaus rested his arm on his knee and took a breath. "You don't really think anything happened.. to them.. do you?"

The taller man ate several spoonfuls of cereal in silence before he answered. "Nah." He waved his spoon at Iolaus. "It would take more than a little flooding to get the best of Xena."

"Yeah.. you're right." Iolaus smiled. "Y'know, I'm really glad for her and Gabrielle." He pulled a belt with a carved horn hilted knife on it out, and strapped it around his waist. "It's a kick to see them both so wrapped up in each other."

Hercules laughed. "I'm looking forward to seeing that… I think I can get away with teasing her about it, too."

Iolaus snorted. "An advantage to being half god.. I wouldn't try it."

The taller man's brow creased, and he lifted a hand to touch his jaw. "Didn't help me much last time." He mused quietly. "I wonder how much of that was that necklace, and how much… was just her?"

"What?" The blond man walked over, and sat down in the chair facing Hercules. "I don't get it… I thought it was.. I mean, didn't she…"

Hercules gazed thoughtfully at him. "I don't know, Iolaus.. it kind of makes sense.. but if that's what it was, then that necklace didn't affect my strength until she got there."

Iolaus felt his chest tighten. "I thought you didn't remember what happened?" His voice was tense.

A bleak look. "Parts.. are starting to come back to me." The demigod admitted quietly. "I remember fighting with her.. and what it felt like when she hit me." He fiddled with the spoon idly. "Probably was the necklace." He concluded. The alternative was.. unnerving. "This is pretty good." He indicated the bowl. "Did you get some?"

"Yeah." Iolaus replied absentmindedly. Zeus.. what am I going to do if he remembers.. everything? "Um… you ready to go?" Briefly, he wished Xena was back, and made a note to tell the ex warlord exactly what had happened.. see if she had any good ideas as to what he could do as soon as he saw her.

Hercules finished the last of the cereal, and stood up, walking over and pulling out a fresh set of clothing. "Be just a minute."

Iolaus walked to the window, and leaned against it… feeling the sunlight gild his features, until a hand fell on his shoulder, and he turned. "Ready?"

Hercules gazed at him, a serious expression on his face. "Iolaus, I really do appreciate the fact that you c.. that you're concerned about me."

That got a hesitant smile from the blond man. "Hey.. that's what friends are for, right?"

The taller man took a breath. "Right." He looked like he wanted to say more, but just nodded instead. "Let's go."

They heard the flames before they saw them, and Gabrielle grimly increased her pace, watching her partner do likewise as they headed down through a stand of dry grasses, towards the inkily rising smoke.

Xena cleared the grass first, and bounced to a halt, throwing an arm out to halt the bard's progress as she assessed the scene. It had been.. a small village. Now, it was a collection of charred lumps, as the heavy smoke drifted through the town, and obscured the features of the remaining villagers who were scurrying around trying to salvage bits of their shattered lives.

Bodies were flung about, some charred, some brutally butchered. Xena spotted at least one that was missing a head, and she winced, then took a deep breath. "Let's see what we can do to help.''

Gabrielle nodded, and followed her into the center of the town, then grabbed Xena's arm and pointed. "There…" She called, over the ripping sound of the flames.

A cot had collapsed under the weight of it's own charred timbers, and a group of villagers were trying to lift the roof up, to get to it's trapped occupants. Xena nodded and broke into a run towards them, with Gabrielle closely following. They reached the hut, and the warrior put a hand on the shoulder of one older man. "Let me."

The struggling villager turned his head abruptly, then jerked in surprise, and backed off, leaving her space to get her hands on the rough hewn timbers. Xena crouched down, and took a solid grip on the wood, getting her legs well under her and taking a deep breath. "Get em out fast, I won't be able to hold this long." She muttered to Gabrielle, who nodded in understanding, and got herself ready.

One solid, powerful shove, and the roof lifted, as Xena got her body under it, and braced her legs against the strain. She closed her eyes, and willed her body to stillness, hoping the bard had taken her at her word.

"Come on." Gabrielle scrambled under the roof, followed by two of the villagers, and found three people trapped, a family, she guessed. She gently pulled the small boy out from under the remains of the table, and passed his feebly moving form to the villager behind her. "Here.. get him out of here.." She crawled further, glancing back at the powerful form backlit by hazy daylight. Hang on, love. She silently encouraged her partner, as she tugged the frightened woman near her free. "Can you move?"

The woman nodded shakily. "My husband.. " Her shivering arm pointed to a soot covered body in the corner. "He tried to put it out…"

Gabrielle put a gentle hand on her arm. "Go on.. I'll get him."

Xena swallowed, feeling the strain in her back and legs increasing, and she tapped her reserves, relieved when a wash of energy responded. C'mon, Gabrielle… I'm not Hercules, remember? She heard the villager's scramble backward, and shifted her grip, hearing her partner's voice faintly from within.

Gabrielle helped the woman to her knees, and pushed her towards the waiting helper, then turned her attention to the still form in the corner.

Her eyes closed in reaction, as she saw what was left of his face, and was almost relieved when a gentle touch confirmed that he was dead. Feeling sick, she scrambled away from the body, and gave the villager remaining a shake of her head. Reluctantly, he nodded, and backed out.

Gabrielle moved quickly after him, swinging around Xena's sturdy form and putting a hand against the warrior's back. "Go." She said, and felt her partner's body surge, as she pushed off against the charred wood, and backed up, letting it fall against the crumbling remains of the wall again.

It smelled of burned wood and grass, and the distinctly sickening smell of flesh, and Gabrielle swallowed hard to keep from throwing up. The thick smoke clung greasily to her lungs, and she blinked hard against it's cloying effects, ducking her head briefly against Xena's cloak as the warrior straightened up with a wince.

"You all right?" Xena rubbed the bard's neck gently, and watched the woman and child being quietly taken to a spot upwind. "Let's go see if we can help them, OK?" She walked over to where a small knot of discouraged looking men and women were gathered, most sitting on the ground with their heads in their hands.

"What happened?" The warrior asked quietly, crouching down next to one of the older men. "Who did this?"

"Bastards." The man croaked, wearily. "We didn't have what they wanted.. so they burned us out." He glanced up and met Xena's pale blue gaze. "Who was it? Who the Hades knows. Some damn bastard warlord or another.. there's no difference between em." He gazed at his arm, which was bleeding from a long gash. "To Tartarus with all of them."

Xena sat down cross legged next to him, sighing softly. "Did they have any identifying marks.. badges, anything like that?" She unclipped her pack from her back, and felt it lifted from her, as Gabrielle settled quietly at her side. "Thanks." She gave her partner a smile, as she pulled her healer's kit from the pack.

"Na.. " The man groaned, as he watched her take hold of his arm, and start cleaning the gash. "Just a rabble of them.. no order, no… just one thing. They wanted coin.. we had none. We offered food, supplies, cloth.. no. All the damn bastards wanted was coin." He spat on the grass. "I hope they all rot.. they're just animals."

Xena felt a quiet hand slip under her cloak, and rub in gentle circles on her back. She always knows… when I need that. The warrior mused gratefully. But I never would have done.. this.

"You folks.. merchants?" The man asked, curiously, now that Xena had finished tending his arm, and was motioning for another wounded woman to move closer. He studied her face in quiet inquiry.

Gabrielle felt her brow raising, then she gave Xena a sideways glance, and realized that, with her cloak draped over her longsword, and her armor covered in woolen cloth, her partner really did come across as anything other than the fierce ex warlord she was. The villager obviously had no idea who it was he was sitting across from, and the rest of the victims were gazing at them with a mixture of gratitude and pathetic hope.

"Um.. no.. not exactly. " The bard finally replied. "We live in Amphipolis." She chewed her lip. "We're headed towards Potadeia.. I've got family there, that I'm kind of worried about."

The name of their home town circled amongst the villagers with a sense of excitement. The man leaned forward. "I hear that's a safe place.. that these bastards don’t' go there. Is that true?"

Gabrielle considered the question. "Well.. yes.. I guess that's true. We… keep a good watch.. and.. they do generally stay clear of us." She smiled at the boy they'd pulled out of the hut, who had regained his senses, and was blinking at her in quiet awe.

The man slowly nodded. "That's what we heard.. though.. " He smiled wearily. "We also heard they've got better protection than that.. that the local trash is scared spitless of someone who lives there." He gazed at the bard. "That true, too?"

Gabrielle bit off a grin, and gave the silent Xena a sidelong glance. "You know how these stories get started… they get chased off by a few villagers with sticks, the next thing you know, it was really a giant, or some great warrior or… " She gave a light shrug. "My name's Gabrielle, by the way." She extended a forearm to him.

"Melachan." The man replied, taking it, and giving it a good squeeze. "You'd be the bard we'd heard of, then."

Now it was Xena's turn to give her partner an impish grin. "Yep.. she's the famous bard, all right." The warrior drawled, pausing in her wrapping of a nasty burn. "Careful with that.." She cautioned the woman. "Don't keep the bandage on.. you have to let air at it, OK?"

The woman nodded, and gave her a grateful smile. "Thank you.. for everything." Her eyes darted towards the collapsed hut. "Are you the healer, there, in Amphipolis?"

Xena shrugged. "Sometimes." She gave Gabrielle a warning look. "I do a little of everything."

Melachan gave her a look, then turned his attention back to Gabrielle. "Can we..offer you both anything? It's not often we get to meet decent folks like yourselves.. I know we don't have much, but.. and are you heading on alone? It's very dangerous… are you sure you want to do that?"

Gabrielle patted his arm. "Glad we could help.. " She let her eyes travel to Xena's quiet form and then looked back at Melachan. "I'm sure… it's.. " Her lips quirked. "Safer than it seems… my partner, here, makes sure of that."

The man gazed at the dark haired woman in surprise. "Are you a warrior?" He had no idea why both women found that funny. Certainly the tall, quiet healer was strong, gods yes, to have lifted that roof that way, but… he studied her out of the corner of his eye. She looked like.. he shrugged to himself. One of us.. except she's got some nice features on her.. beautiful eyes.. Then his gaze dropped to her hands, and he stopped there. They rested quietly together, fingers interlaced, but the powerful strength of them was undeniable.

And the wrists they were attached to were thick, and corded with tendon and sinew, and now with her sleeves pushed back a bit, he could see the thick leather bracers that covered her forearms. I guess she is… His mind jerked to a halt, as he slowly processed the fact that here was the Bard Gabrielle, who was very well known to travel with a certain Warrior Princess. Who was, most definitely,. both a woman and warrior.

He took an uneven breath. "You're Xena, aren't you?" He felt the shock run through the battered, and weary bodies around him.

Eyes of the palest, ice blue met his own. "Yes."

Xena waited for the inevitable response, feeling Gabrielle's hand curl comfortingly around her arm. Well, I used to be one of the damn bastards who did this to them.. and even if I walk the world for the rest of my life, trying to help people, that fact will always be true.

Melachan leaned forward, and gave her a shy smile. "You saved my brother's life, down south of here, a few months back." He held out a hand. "I owe you twice, now."

It was.. Xena mused, as she took the man's grasp and returned it. A very sweet moment. The faces around her reflected not fear and disgust, but weary excitement, and wonder. She felt Gabrielle squeeze her arm, and just let herself enjoy the sensation. "Glad I was able to help." She replied quietly to Melachan. "You folks better get under cover… I don’t trust this weather. " She lifted a hand and pointed. "There's a bunch of caves about a half day's walk from here, you can shelter there until you decide what to do."

They helped the villagers gather up their belongings, and watched them start the first steps down a long and exhausting road. Gabrielle leaned against her partner, and gave her a gentle nibble on the arm. "Bet that felt really good, didn't it?"

Xena arched an eyebrow at her. "What.. you munching on me?" She teased, then relented when Gabrielle gave her a look. "Yeah, it really did." She smiled, the sobered. "But.. it doesn't make sense, Gabrielle."

The bard's brow puckered. "What doesn’t'?" She moved away from the still smoldering ruins, patting her leg to call Ares to her. "C'mere, boy.. stay out of that place."

The wolf trotted over, and sniffed her kneecap, rubbing against her leg, and growling a little.

"If you're looking to raid.. "Xena explained. "You take what you can.. and leave them alone to build up more.. so it's there when you came back." She gestured back towards the village. "You don't just burn a place for no reason…it's a waste."

Gabrielle cocked her head. "Maybe they were just frustrated."

Xena shook her head. "Doesn't make sense.. it's like they did it just to do it - for the sake of just killing, and destroying." She pondered. "Evil.. like… " That necklace. Her mind finished. Something was going on, her mind decided. And I think we'd better find these raiders, and figure out what it is.

"Where are you going?" Cyrene asked quietly, coming up behind Toris where the tall dark haired man was slipping a few things into a pack. "The lot of you?"

Toris turned, and leaned back against the worktable, regarding his mother thoughtfully. Tell her? Or not. "The folks who came in last night… were pulled out of the river by someone who sounds suspiciously like Xena."

Cyrene studied him. "And?" Her pale eyes analyzed the information.

A breath. "And.. they didn't see them again." Toris rubbed his jaw. "I know.. she's more than capable to taking care of herself, of me, of you, of Amphipolis, and half of Greece."

His mother bit off a smile. "But.. she's your sister." She put a hand on his arm. "And you're worried about her."

He sighed. "Something like that. yeah." He glanced up. "Am I being silly?" He lifted a hand and let it drop. "I don't know.. since she's been home.. I mean, my brain knows how much stronger and more capable she is than I am, for the gods sake.. " He sighed again. "But.. " He let that trail off.

Cyrene nodded slowly. "But.. you've gotten to see a very vulnerable side to her, and that makes a difference." She paused. "Right?"

A lift of his hands. "Something like that.. yeah." He admitted again.

She patted his chest gently. "Me too." A small silence fell between them. "I'm sure they're fine.. but you all go on - it'll get me some peace and quiet around here for a day anyway."

He grinned, and slung the pack onto his back, giving her a quick hug on his way to the door. "We'll be back before nightfall.. we're just going to check upriver a little… maybe we'll check out how bad the flooding was." He called back over his shoulder, giving her a wave.

Cyrene crossed her arms, and leaned back against the table as the door closed, letting out a held breath. She exchanged glances with Eustase, who was quietly kneading a knob of dough in the corner. "For a while there, Eustase, I thought I was over being a doting mother." The dark haired woman sighed in wry amusement.

The cook smiled at her. "You've got a pair of lovely children, ma'am." She skillfully wrapped the dough into a knot, and set it on a clean cloth to rise. "You must be very proud of them."

Cyrene smiled quietly to herself. Life's a funny thing, isn't it? "Yes, I am." She admitted cheerfully, as she turned to her task of counting supplies.

"Ready?" Toris asked, as he let the door to the inn close behind him. "Oh.. hi." This to Granella, who was standing just outside the door. Ephiny and Eponin were a few bodylengths away, their heads bent together over a parchment, and Hercules and Iolaus were leaning against the hitching post. The day had remained very fair, and the sun was now pouring down into the courtyard, bleaching the still drying village and bringing out the musky smell of mud, and damp thatch.

Ephiny looked up, and nodded. "Let's go.. Toris, you're our native guide." The regent folded up the parchment she'd been studying, and bent to retrieve her pack.

Only to have her hands slapped aside by Granella, who slung the bag onto her own back, with a raised eyebrow. "I don't think so." The slim dark haired Amazon gave her a look, and exchanged glances with Eponin.

The regent rolled her eyes. "Gods." She sighed. "All right.. shall we?"

They started off down the road, ambling along in relative silence for a while, until Iolaus sighed, and moved his body into the center of the group, intent on playing social director. "So.. " He gave Granella a smile. "Have you heard the story about the talking Horse?"

"The what?" Granella almost tripped over a rock.

"The what?" Eponin asked, poking her head from around Ephiny's shoulder.

"Talking who?" Hercules chimed in.

"Oh yeah.. " Iolaus rubbed his hands together. "It's true.. I saw it. It was a couple of years ago, and I was…"

Ephiny let the story buzz past her ears, as she concentrated on getting her body accustomed to moving around after almost three weeks of very little activity. She felt a little lightheaded, and a touch shaky, but concentrated on keeping that fact from showing, as it would mean an immediate return to the inn by her solicitous companions.

And.. she was enjoying the fresh air.. even if it was tainted with the drying dampness, and the cloying earthy smell of mud. She took a cautiously deep breath, pleased at the lack of the dry, heavy pressure she'd been suffering from since her accident, and glanced ahead, to where the road angled downward towards the river.

A hand on her back, and she turned her head to gaze into Eponin's guarded eyes. "Yeah?"

The weapon's master shifted her gaze from Ephiny's face. "You look kind of pale. You doing all right?"

Damn.. damn.. to Hades with her.. "Of course I am." She answered briskly. "It feels really good to get out and move around… after all that time just sitting on my backside not doing anything." She put a little more energy into her strides, and forced a mild wave of dizziness down.

"Uh huh." Eponin grunted, then turned her attention back to Iolaus' amusing story.

The road edged it's way closer to the river, and they began to be able to hear the rolling crash of it's overfull passage.

"Damn.. look at that." Ephiny breathed, slowing her steps as they journeyed closer to the water. The road went to the edge of a new slope here, where the water had undercut the soil, and had almost taken out a section of the packed dirt road. They moved to the edge, and peered over.

"Wow." Iolaus snorted, gazing down at the dark mud left by the slightly receding river. "Look at that.. whooaa!!!!" His foot slipped, and he waved his arms wildly, trying to catch his balance, but the ground was far too wet and he dropped down the bank in a slithering slide with a startled yelp.

Landing with a resounding splat, as he fell into the dark, clinging, odorous mud left by the cresting river.

Gabrielle sighed happily at the cheerful campfire, surrounded as they were by solidly protective trees. She was curled up on their warm sleeping fur, with Ares' body pressed against her and her cloak tucked about her shoulders against the sharply cold air. She reached out a hand and scratched the wolf behind his thickly furred ears, grinning when he proceeded to carefully clean every inch of her hand that his tongue would reach.

"Thanks, Ares." She affectionately ruffled his fur, then turned back to her scrolls, which were spread out neatly in front of her, claiming her attention. She bit the tip of her quill absently, then refreshed the ink on it, and set down several more lines of neat, exact script. The rest of their day had been almost uneventful.. you really couldn't count the five raiders they'd encountered, who had provided a welcome light challenge to Xena's fighting skills which the warrior insisted were very rusty.

Gabrielle considered the charge, and shook her head. Not that she could tell.. she'd barely had a chance to engage one of them before the rest were handily dispatched by her partner, who took care of the last of them by leaping completely over his scrubby, thick coated gelding, and sweeping the outlaw right off his mount with a powerful forearm. Rusty. Umm hmm… The bard considered with a grin, as she watched her partner amble back into camp, carrying a pot of water, which she put on the fire. "Hey."

Xena looked up, and broke into a smile. "Hey yourself." She stood up and stretched. "How's the story coming?"

Gabrielle reluctantly shook herself free from watching the interesting shadows caused by the firelight gliding over her partner's body as she moved and glanced down at her parchments. "Not bad.." She twirled the quill between her fingers, and looked over her shoulder as Xena joined her on the bedroll, and settled down on her side behind the bard.

Who rolled over like a puppy, laying on her back and cocking her head to gaze up at the warrior. "We had a pretty busy day."

Xena reached out a hand and rubbed her belly gently, watching the bard's eyes close in quiet pleasure. "Yeah.. not bad." She drawled, grinning at Gabrielle's contented hum. "You feeling ok?"

"Unngghh… " Gabrielle mumbled. "I feel wonderful." She opened one eye lazily and gazed at the warrrior. "How about you?" She lifted one hand and stroked the warrior's nearby leg, lightly massaging the smoothly curving muscles above her knee. "No leftover fuzziness?"

"Nope." Xena took and released a deep breath experimentally. "Throat's not even sore anymore. Got lucky this time, I think." She regarded Gabrielle's happy expression thoughtfully, then rolled onto her back, and joined the bard in gazing up at the moonless sky, which was almost exploding with stars. The cold air brought a hint of frost to her sensitive nose, along with a tickle of smoke from their campfire, and the familiar gentle muskiness of the fur they were lying on. "Beautiful night." She commented, as she felt Gabrielle's fingers tangle with her own.

The bard turned her head and regarded her, watching the twinkling lights overhead reflect in the translucent pools of her eyes. "Yes it is." Her voice was quietly serious. She slid over onto her side, and snuggled up to Xena's shoulder, wrapping one hand over the top of it, and letting her cheek rest against the thick wool of her shirt.

"You cold?" The warrior asked, glancing at her.

"A little." Gabrielle answered absently, then sighed in contentment as Xena's arms wrapped around her, pulling her closer as the warrior settled a part of her cloak around her body. "Thanks."

She fell silent for a minute, letting her hands drift slowly over her partner’s relaxed form, slipping under her wool shirt and touching bare flesh. Smiling as she felt the steady respiration pause, then continue, as she gently explored the smooth curves and dips. Reluctantly, she remembered their Rule, and let her hand flatten to rest just below Xena’s ribcage, and felt the muscles shift under her touch as the warrior took a breath to speak.

"We’ll be in Potadeia after breakfast… you ready for that?" Xena’s voice tickled into her hearing.

Gabrielle thought about that for a minute. "Yeah… " She finally sighed. "It’s not like last time.. they’re not expecting us.. and it’s not like.. I just.. I feel different this time, that’s all." A lot more sure of myself, for one thing. She glanced up. More sure of us, too. "I’m looking forward to seeing Lila, and mother."

Xena nodded, tangling her fingers idly in Gabrielle’s soft hair and gently scratching the back of the bard’s neck. "I think they’ll even talk to me this time." She grinned as her partner arched her body into the contact and gave a little contented murmur. "Look at you.." She chuckled softly at the blissful look on Gabrielle’s face. Gods… it feels.. so good to see her happy. How long did it take me until that mattered?

The first few months were.. hard, Xena remembered. She was.. busy feeling sorry for herself, and trying to make sense of the mess her life was in. Gabrielle had been mainly a distraction.. though she hadn’t actually resented the girl’s presence, her constant questioning, and her knack for getting into trouble frequently set Xena’s nerves on edge, and made the warrior snappish and impatient.

It had been late one night, and she’d finished a long set of drills, and taken a swim in the nearby lake to get the sweat, and the dirt off of her. She had come back to the campfire, and stowed her gear, setting the sword down in it’s scabbard on her bedroll for later sharpening, and as she’d seated herself down next to it, she’d looked across the fire and noticed, for probably the first time, the quiet, almost sad look on the face of her traveling companion.

Gabrielle had been sitting on her own bedroll, her knees tucked up to her chin, and her arms wrapped around them, gazing at the fire. It had been a hard day for her.. Xena had reflected. They’d been on the move almost constantly, and most of it uphill, and she’d seen the girl stumble several times, and catch herself, and Xena had wondered, not for the first time, what kept Gabrielle at her side, what internal reason drove her to spend her days on dusty roads, and her nights sleeping on the hard ground, with a grouchy, testy ex warlord who barely spared her the time of day. She hardly ever smiles. Xena had reflected. Not lately, anyway.. wonder if she’s regretting.. her decision… I should ask her. She’d studied the tired young face across from her. I should.

It would have been so easy. But every time she opened her mouth to ask Gabrielle if she wanted to go home.. somehow.. something stopped her. And then she faced the quiet, shattering realization that there was some part of her that wanted the girl’s presence. That needed to know another human being was willing to stay by her side, even though there really wasn’t any good reason to do so. That was so dangerous.. but..

She looked up, and at the same moment, Gabrielle looked over at her, so their eyes met through the flickering light of the campfire. The girl’s lonely gaze touched something inside Xena, and she only knew at that moment that she wanted to do something.. anything.. to make the kid smile.

So she stuck her tongue out at her, and saw the green eyes blink in startled reaction, and a grin jerk itself onto her face. That felt pretty good, so she did it again, and that got a muffled giggle, and a distinct lightening of the girl’s expression. "That’s better."

Gabrielle gazed at her, with a lingering smile on her face. "What was that for?" She asked curiously.

Xena had shrugged. "No reason." Then she looked back up and saw the smile fade away, and felt a dim pang of regret. "Hey.. you wanted to know how to tie that knot I used the other day, right?"

The smile tentatively came back. "Yeah…"

"Well, c’mere." Xena motioned her over with a jerk of her head.

Gabrielle had scrambled to her feet, and walked around the fire, settling gingerly down at Xena’s side as the warrior pulled out a length of rope from her pack and held up both ends. She’d shown the girl how to work the knot, taking her smaller hands in her own and working them through the motions. After several tries, Gabrielle was successful in completing the knot on her own, and grinned at her hands in triumph. "Hey.. that works!" She laughed in quiet delight.

Xena had gazed at her wistfully. Yeah.. it does, doesn’t it. She’d thought to herself. "You’ve got good hands, and you learn fast." She informed the girl briskly, casually.

And had gotten back the most dazzling smile she’d ever seen from Gabrielle. It had lit up her face, and warmed her mist green eyes, and Xena had felt a small spot inside her warm right along with it.

So she’d invented three more knots to teach, including an old one, a weaving in and out of thin leather strips that was as much decorative as useful. Gabrielle had finally fallen asleep, still smiling, with the leather scraps clutched in one hand.

And three days later, Xena had found a small, neatly woven leather bracelet lying on her folded cloak when she got back from a very late workout. It had seemed a reward all out of proportion to the effort she’d made, but at the time, it had helped her move a step up out of the dark pit she’d built for herself.

"Hey… " Gabrielle’s voice broke into her thoughts. "Why so serious?"

Xena reached over, and pulled her pack towards her, flipping open the top flap and digging inside. She pulled out her hand, and dangled something in front of the bard’s eyes. "Remember this?"

Gabrielle’s brows creased, and she lifted a hand to touch the battered leather. "You kept this?"

The warrior nodded. "Yeah… " She dredged up a rueful smile. "I used to wear it hooked through the shoulder strap on my leathers.. under the armor." It was, she reflected, quite an admission.

The bard laughed softly, and rolled up onto her elbow, leaning over and kissing her partner. "That is so… you know, Xena.. no one would ever suspect you of being such a romantic."

Xena scowled and raised an eyebrow at her. "Gabrielle, I am no such thing."

The bard gently took the leather piece from her fingers, and waved it in front of her eyes, a mischievous smile shaping her mouth.

"That’s not… I didn’t… it wasn’t…" Xena let her protests run down, then felt a warming rush of blood color her skin. Every time she’d looked down, and seen that tucked against her skin, it had just.. Her eyes lifted and met the amused green ones still perched above her. "I’m busted, aren’t I?"

"Uh huh." Gabrielle agreed, with an impish grin. "Big time." She let her fingers brush against Xena’s warm cheek. "You do look very pretty when you blush, though." Then she bit her lip and smiled as the color under her touch darkened. "Yeah, like that." She ducked her head and kissed her partner, feeling a sensual jolt on the contact that started in her gut and moved up from there.

We shouldn’t do this. Xena felt the faint protest fade quickly before the tumbling wash of tingling warmth that flooded through her. Damn it.. we’re out in the middle of the forest, in an area full of outlaws. Reluctantly, she broke off their contact, with a little nibble at Gabrielle’s nose.

The bard sighed, and settled down with her body curled tightly up against her partner's. "Sometimes.. there are advantages to being home." They exchanged rueful glances. "Or in some nice, dark cave." She poked Xena in the side when she felt the warrior start laughing. "Or tucked away in a snug old barn."

Xena laughed and wrapped her arms around the bard, and hugged her. "I’ll make it up to you." She promised, feeling Gabrielle’s aggrieved sigh warm her chest.

"You’d better." Gabrielle mock growled, then sighed. "I’d better go put my stuff away.. before this wind blows it back to Amphipolis.

"Mm.." Xena agreed. "And I should really check the area around here."

A moment’s silence, as neither of them moved, then they looked at each other and burst out laughing. "We’re hopeless, aren’t we?" Gabrielle chuckled, burying her head against Xena’s chest.

"Pretty much." The warrior admitted, with a smile. "But it’s a nice kind of hopeless." She yawned and stretched, arching her back and settling her arms more firmly around the bard. "Here.. I can reach that stuff." She extended an arm over the bard, and collected her scrolls, putting them and the case on top of her chest where Gabrielle could reach it. "There."

"Thanks." The bard tucked her supplies away, and set the case down next to her staff. Then she resumed her comfortable position nestled into Xena’s shoulder. "I've decided something." She mentioned quietly.

Xena opened a pale blue eye and regarded her. "And that is…?"

Gabrielle let her fingers play with the laces on Xena’s shirt. "I'm not changing the way I act when I go to Potadeia." Not home, not anymore. Her eyes flicked up to the warrior’s. "With us..I mean. " She paused. "If that’s ok with you."

Xena thought about that for a minute, then shrugged lightly. "Fine with me." She decided. What the heck… my reputation’s been blown all to Hades anyway. Might as well. "Isn’t that going to be a little weird for your family, though?"

"Yep." Gabrielle replied, with a satisfied grin, as she wrapped a snug arm around her partner’s body. "It sure is." She settled her head down, and let her eyes drift closed, basking in the hazy warmth of their connection.

Well. Xena mused to herself. This should be interesting. She tucked her arms around Gabrielle, and pulled the blanket up over both of them, tossing one end of it over Ares’ slumbering form. The wolf woke up with a start, and peered over his shoulder at her, yawning and poking his tongue out.

"Roo." He commented, then settled his chin on her lower leg, blinking up at her with adoring eyes.

"Goodnight to you, too, Ares." She whispered, as she abandoned herself to sleep.

"Just hold still." Hercules sighed, as he peered down the embankment, shaking his head in bemusement. "Anybody got some.. oh, thanks." He gave Eponin a smile, as she handed him a coil of rope. "Iolaus, stop moving around.. you're getting stuck in that stuff."

"I can't help it." The blond man called up. "I'm sinking into this gunk… augh.." There was a sodden blooping noise as the mud sucked him down further. "It's like glue."

The demigod sighed, and uncoiled the rope, tossing one end of it down the embankment. "Grab that." The rope was short, though, and Hercules had to kneel down at the very edge of the bank and extend an arm out before his friend could reach the end of the rope. "That's it.. now just hang on."

"Here.. wait.." Eponin sighed, and moved up in back of him, grasping his shoulders firmly. "You'll overbalance.. I'll hold on."

Hercules half turned and gave her a smile. "Thanks.." Then he turned his attention to pulling the rope, flexing his brawny arms in a smooth motion, as he hauled Iolaus up foot by foot out of the sticky mud.

The goo reluctantly let go of it's prey, making little disappointed sucking noises as Iolaus shook the last of it off his boots, and hung on grimly until he was dangling above the mud pit, and approaching a thick overhang. "Hang on.. I'm going to have to kick off this a little." He called up, swinging his body out to clear the overhang.

"Whoa…" Hercules cautioned, then groaned as he felt the bank giving way under his knees. "Oh Zeus…" He fought frantically to keep his balance, but the rain sodden bank crumbled under his weight. "Let go, Eponin…" He yelled.

"No..wait, I think I can.." Eponin replied, then yelped as she was suddenly plummeting through the air, still gripping the demigod's thick shirt. "YaaaaahhhhH!!!!!"

The mud pit gave up three very satisfied glurps as it recaptured not only its original quarry, but to additional surprises as well.

Ephiny turned to Granella, and stood with her arms crossed for a long moment. "You know, I couldn’t invent something more bizarre than this."

Granella shook her head solemnly. "It's not funny."

"Nope." Ephiny agreed gravely.

They both burst into giggles. Then Ephiny slapped her hand over her mouth, and took a deep breath. "Ok..ok.. now we gotta get them the Hades out of there." She glanced around. "We'll need more rope."

"I'll find some." Granella offered, and trotted off, still giggling. Ephiny took a moment to compose herself into the proper attitude of concern, and crept to the edge of the bank, peering over. "Hey.. you all ok?"

Three mud covered faces looked up at her.

"Granella's going for more rope." She offered, biting down on her lip hard to keep from laughing.

"Ephiny?" Hercules called up, moving an arm cautiously to shade his eyes. "Can we agree on one thing right now?"

"Um.. sure." The Amazon regent replied.

"This doesn’t get mentioned when we get back." The demigod sighed. "Especially to Xena and Gabrielle."

"Yeah." Eponin sighed, wiping a glob of sticky black mud off her nose, and getting more on it in the process. "I don't wanna hear it."

"Sure." Ephiny promise, crossing her fingers behind her back. "Not a word."

"Hey." Iolaus said suddenly, jerking his body almost out of the mud.

"What?" Eponin and Hercules spoke together.

"There's.. something.. crawling.. around.. in here." The blond man squeaked. "Yahh!" He flopped around. "It bit me!"

"What?" Eponin thrashed her arms, clearing a swath of glooping black mud which filled itself in again immediately. "Bacchae!!" She yelled, sticking her hand down into the mud and grabbing something. "Yahg!" She pulled something up with a sucking sound, and tossed it from her. "Mud suckers."

"Hey!" Hercules' eyes widened, and he plunged a hand of his own down into the mud. "Ow.. they tickle!!!" He glanced up. "Help?"

Ephiny slowly rolled onto her back, and covered her face, her shoulders shaking uncontrollably.

"Hey, sleepyhead." The voice held a lilt of incredulous humor, and Xena eased one eye open to see her partner studying her in some bemusement. Bluff? No Bluff? What the heck.

"Hey." The warrior replied, taking in the early morning light with a touch of embarrassment.

Gabrielle gave her an easy out. "Guess you're still getting caught up from our little adventure." Now her gaze turned a trifle worried, and she put a gentle hand against Xena's forehead. "You're a bit warm."

Xena was tempted, but ruefully shook her head. "Nope.. I'm fine, love.." She opened both eyes and took a deep breath. "Just being lazy, that's all."

"Mmm…" The bard considered that. "Well, you're entitled." She decided, relaxing. "Hey.. I'll tell you what.. " She neatly tucked the blankets around her partner. "Why don't you stay right here, and let me bring you breakfast in bed. "

That got both eyebrows hiking up. "Gabrielle.. I don't think so." Xena laughed. "Not that I don’t appreciate the thought… " She captured the bard's hand in her own. "But we've got someplace to be, and I'm.."

Gabrielle silenced her with a kiss, and her body betrayed her by relaxing completely under the bard's gentle attack, as her partner began a familiar stroking pattern "We can spare a candlemark." The bard murmured, as they paused to breathe. "Not like Potadeia's going anywhere." She nibbled the warrior's jawline. "Please?.. You just spent the last two weeks coddling me shamefully.. it's my turn for one little morning." She raised her head and gave Xena her best pleading look.

Got that little quirk of Xena's mouth that always meant she was going to cave in, as she usually did when the request was mostly frivolous.. and didn't put either of them in danger.

So she did, heating up the water, and making them both tea, then warming up what was left over from dinner last night. "It's the right weather for something a little more substantial. " Gabrielle commented, as she joined her partner, settling down cross-legged next to the warrior. The morning had dawned colder than the day before, and the sky was thready with sheared off, muddy clouds that meant the weather was, yet again, changing.

Xena studied the sky and shook her head. "Glad we're headed into Potadeia." She commented, serving Ares his portion of breakfast, and watching him attack the bowl's contents eagerly. "That's good stuff, huh boy?"

"Grrrr." He answered, not looking up. She ruffled his fur and leaned back on an elbow, giving Gabrielle a quirky grin. "Thanks for breakfast."

"Anytime." The bard cheerfully assured her.

They packed up, and got underway, heading down the road ahead of the gathering clouds.

The sun had risen to near noon by the time they were closing in on the outer farm holdings in Potadeia, and a shifting, ominous quiet had settled over the landscape, as the air restlessly changed directions

"I don't know, Xena, what do you think about.." Gabrielle stopped, as a hand came flat against her chest, and Xena stiffened into a sharp attention. She remained silent, waiting for the warrior to let her in on whatever she'd heard or sensed, not asking the obvious questions.

Xena turned to her partner, and put a hand on her shoulder. "Sounds like fighting." She said gently. "You up for a little running?"

The bard took a grasp on her staff, and tightened the buckles holding on her backpack, and nodded grimly. "Let's go."

Xena's path took them off the road, and down through the trees that ringed the main part of Potadeia, and now the sounds of yelling, and the dull thuds of weapons striking could be plainly heard. Ares bounded along next to the warrior, his tongue lolling out and his tail waving, as he darted the occasional glance up at his leader.

They pulled to a halt just outside the village, and Xena heard Gabrielle gasp.

A ring of scruffy horses, mounted by leather armored outlaws circled a group of frightened looking residents, and there were several limp bodies lying about. One of the nearby huts was on fire, and a roil of oily smoke rose about the place, the wickedly snapping flames making the horses shift uncomfortably.

The leader was a tall, muscular woman, whose vivid red hair made her stand out amongst the rest of the rabble, though she was dressed in dully colored leather armor as they all were. Right now, she was pointing a crossbow negligently at an older man of middling height, who was standing with arms outspread in the center of the circle.

"That's the village elder." Gabrielle whispered fiercely into her partner's ear.

Xena nodded, her sharp eyes figuring angles. She stopped abruptly, and her nostrils flared, as she spotted two familiar faces in the small group. "Lila and Lennat" she said quietly to the bard, and felt a hand grip her upper arm. "All right.. let's break up this little party."

The tall redhead laughed at whatever the elder had said, and raised the crossbow, thumbing the release and aiming.

She never got to fire, as a high whistling sound suddenly screamed overhead, and the front of the crossbow vanished as something sliced through it. With a startled oath, the woman dropped the weapon, then jerked her head around, looking for its source.

There, in the space between two cottages, which had been empty mere seconds ago. Two villagers stood, one holding a ring shaped piece of metal that caught and reflected the dull storm shrouded daylight, the other grasping a quarterstaff with a solid familiarity. At their side bristled a large black dog.

Then they started forward, and as they moved, the outlaw knew they were no villagers. Both moved with the powerful, rolling gait of fighters, and the taller one, whose dark hair was whipping about her face in the wind, casually lifted the cloak off her right shoulder, exposing a dully gleaming sword hilt.

"This is no concern of yours." The outlaw yelled. "Be off with you."

The taller fighter stopped half the length of the courtyard from them, and put her hands on her hips. "Wrong." She called, her voice a low, rolling growl. "It is my concern, and you're the ones who'd better be leaving." The dog counterpointed her growl, and lifted his heavy ruff. The other fighter watched what was going on, and shifted her grip on the quarterstaff.

The woman must be demented, the outlaw realized. There were ten of them against two, and they were mounted. Well, if she wanted to be slaughtered… I'll be glad to comply. "Kill them!" She yelled, drawing her sword, and kicking her horse into a canter, heading straight for the taller fighter, who slowly shook her head.

Xena judged the speed of the galloping horses heading straight for her, and took two running steps, leaping into the air and crashing full into the outlaw leader, taking her off her horse and sending both of them tumbling to the ground.

The warrior rolled back up onto her feet, and kicked the sword out of the woman's hand, then ducked the spear of a second raider, and pulled him off his mount by grabbing the weapon, which he was stupid enough to hang on to. Idiot. Her mind sighed, as she kept moving, grabbing the reins of a third horse, and sliding under his neck, then blocking the rider's downward sword blow and taking a long step forward, then jumping up, and smashing him in the face with an elbow.

Now they were off their horses, and rushing her on foot, and she drew her sword and danced forward, feeling the delightful rush of blood and energy as her sword clashed against two of theirs, and her battle yell rang out over the cloud covered ground.

Three men were after Gabrielle, and the bard calmly let them come, catching the first with a smash against the bridge of his nose that sent blood flying across the courtyard, and taking the second one out with a quick sweep that pulled his feet out from under him and laid him flat on his back.

The third was more canny, and grabbed a pole to engage her with, sending a vicious swipe towards her head, which she ducked easily, then smashed her staff against his guard, and had the satisfaction of hearing him grunt in pain. With a grim smile, she dropped to one knee, and took him out with a powerful back sweep.

She looked up and around for Xena, and found her partner facing off against the outlaw leader, idly twirling her sword in one hand as she approached the tall woman. Gabrielle circled around in back of them, her staff held ready, watching Xena' s back. For a moment, she let her gaze lift over the two women towards the crowd, and found her eyes meeting her sisters. Hello, Lila. Her mind commented quietly. Lila grinned at her, and shook her head in Xena's direction. The bard returned the grin, and gave her a little shrug in response, then returned her attention to her partner.

Xena came to a halt, and stood easily, letting her sword rest on her shoulder and studying her opponent with icy calm, letting a quirk of a grin form when she saw the sudden, nervous shift of the woman's hand on her weapon, and the outlaw darted a glance around to her fallen companions. "You could be smart and just get outta here." The warrior remarked, casually. "And keep your scrungy buddies out of Potadeia in the future."

The woman's nostrils flared, and she took a better hold on her sword. "No body tells me what to do."

Xena laughed shortly, and shook her head, moving a few steps closer. "Take some advice from someone who is what you're pretending very hard to be, all right? Take off. Get lost." Now her voice dropped to its lowest register. "Before I let the fact that you were going to kill people here just because they didn't have what you wanted make me want to make sure that never happens again, got me?"

"Just who in Hades do you think you are?" The outlaw responded, flexing her long arms. "Why don't you shut up and start fighting?" Then she paused, and a look of comprehension formed on her face. "Wait a minute.. you're Xena, aren't you?"

The warrior nodded shortly. "Yep."

The outlaw snorted. "You don't look so tough. Half the districts scared to piss in the woods around Amphipolis because of you."

Xena didn't answer, but a small grin started forming on her lips. She waited.

The red haired woman threw back her head and laughed. "I've been looking forward to this." She lunged, and aimed a slice at Xena's head.

I tried. Xena mentally threw up her hands in disgust. She met the downward cut and deflected it, slipping to one side and allowing the woman to move past her, then turned and met her furious charge with calm skill. The woman was good, but Xena was Xena, and even as rusty as she considered herself to be, it wasn't really a contest. "You should have taken my advice." She advised the outlaw, as their blades ground across each other, and she shoved the woman back, making her stumble and catch her balance.

She drew it out anyway, wanting the work against muscles that had grown a touch lazy lately, until the woman was gasping and a look of panic had invaded her emerald green eyes. One step, and a negligent flick of her wrist, and the outlaw's sword was flying across the open space, to come clattering down at the feet of the nearly skewered elder.

Xena backed the outlaw up until her body was pressed against the side of the barn they were fighting in front of and remained silent for a moment, just letting the woman feel the force of her pale, icy stare. Finally, she spoke. "Did you nasty children torch a village just up the road here?" Her voice was calm, almost disinterested.

No answer. Xena sheathed her sword in one smooth motion, and grabbed the outlaw's leather armor, lifting her up and slamming her back against the barn with a rattle of wooden planks. "I asked you a question." Still no answer, and now Xena read in the minute muscles of the woman's face her intent. She released one hand from her armor and smashed the outlaw in the jaw with an elbow before she could spit. "Stupid move." Then she jabbed two fingers into the side her neck and saw her face pale.

"OK.. let's just go over this. You have thirty seconds to give me an answer, or you're gonna die because I just cut off the flow of blood to your brain." She paused. "Such as it is."

The woman hesitated for a bare instant, then rasped out a 'Yes."

Now Xena leaned closer. "Why?"

"They didn't have.." The outlaw began.

"You don't torch your source. So why?" Xena interrupted her, shoving harder against the woman's body. She knew by the growing paleness that she didn't have much time left, and now she felt the feather's touch of Gabrielle's hand against her back.

"Just.. got me mad. That's all." The woman ground out. "I didn't think about what I was doing.. just.. did it."

Two flickering motions, and the outlaw was slumped against the tree, her body released from the pressure point, and rendered unconscious by Xena's balled fist against her head. She let the battered form slide to the ground, and sighed as she turned to face Gabrielle. "Sounds almost like something's behind this stuff… something.. making these outlaws more angry.. egging them on." She said to Gabrielle, her gaze going thoughtful. Wonder if it has anything to do with that mess of Hercules?

Her eyes flicked around the courtyard, now filling with relieved villagers, some of whom were taking the downed raiders into rough custody. She grinned as a pair of familiar forms moved towards them.

Gabrielle turned as Lila and Lennat arrived, and threw her arms around her sister. "Hey..!"

"Oh..boy.. were we glad to see you two." Lennat sighed, as he exchanged arm clasps with Xena. "Talk about timing… this is the third visit we've had from this scum.. and I think they meant bad business this time."

Lila backed off from her hug, but kept her arms around her sister. "Bree, I couldn’t believe it when I looked up and saw you both standing there… " She studied the bard. "You look great.. come on.. let's get you back to our place." She slung an arm over Gabrielle's shoulders, and motioned them away from the barn. "What are you doing here? We were about to leave to come down to Amphipolis."

"I'll catch up." Xena said quietly, moving towards the elder who was headed shakily in their direction, followed closely by Ares

Gabrielle let her eyes follow her partner, then turned her attention back to Lila. "Well, we were kind of worried about all the attacks and things going on.. so we decided to come on down and give you guys an escort." She grinned at Lila's startled expression. "And it looks like it was a pretty good idea.. those outlaws burned a village just outside of here to the ground."

"Wow.' Lila sighed. "It's been a really rough winter." She gave Gabrielle a sidelong glance. "But not for you, I guess… gods, Bree, you look fantastic.. did you get taller or something? It looks like it."

The bard laughed. "Oh.. probably not. It's probably that I'm actually wearing a full set of clothes this time." She gave Lila a poke in the ribs gently, then reached over and patted her belly. "How are you doing?"

The girl blushed a little. "Just fine.. starting to show a little bit.. I thought I was going to be sick and all, but I wasn't.. it's been just kind of.. tiring, I guess." She looked over at Gabrielle's face. "So.. how's it been? Being over in Amphipolis, I mean."

Her sister broke into a happy grin. "It's been.. just great, Lila." She paused. "I'm looking forward to showing you the place.. and have you meet all our friends.." She glanced behind them to where Xena had now caught up and was strolling along next to Lennat, chatting civilly with him. "We've… " She hesitated. "It's been incredible."

Lila smiled, and gave her a squeeze. "You look really happy."

The bard gave a contented sigh. "I am.. " Her green eyes flicked to Lila's brown ones. "How've you been?"

The dark haired girl gave her a satisfied nod. "It's.. been good, Bree. I never much thought about what it would be like to be married.. but I'm really enjoying it.. and life's gotten.. a lot better."

"I'm really glad to hear that." Gabrielle replied. "How's mom and dad?"

Another slow nod. "Better." She gave Gabrielle a sideways glance. "She did convince him to go, by the way." Her eyes twinkled. "Boy, are they ever going to be surprised to see you."

Gabrielle smiled briefly, then glanced up, and felt a sudden knot form in the pit of her stomach. Coming towards them were the unmistakable forms of her parents. He still.. affects me that way. Her mind sighed. I wonder if he always will? She took a deep breath to settle herself, then felt a gentle wave of warmth crest over her, as two hands settled on her shoulders, and she felt the close presence of her soul mate bolstering her courage. She let herself fall back against Xena's sturdy form and smiled at the oncoming pair.

"Bree!" Hecuba hurried forward, and held out her arms, into which Gabrielle moved quietly, after getting an encouraging squeeze from her partner. "What are you doing here?" The older woman glanced over her daughter's shoulder. "Hello, Xena."

"Hello Hecuba." The warrior replied quietly. Then her eyes lifted and met the muddy green ones facing her. "Herodotus."

A quick nod in return. "Hello, Xena." Gabrielle's father answered in a quite civil tone. "We heard what happened.. we were out in the fields." He cleared his throat, and looked at his older daughter. "Hello, Gabrielle."

The bard stepped forward, and gave him a quick hug. "Hello, father." She stepped back into the shelter of Xena's closeness and felt the warrior resettled a comforting hand on one shoulder. "Yeah, it looks like we had pretty good timing."

"They came to give us an escort." Lila chimed in, giving them a sideways glance.

"Gabrielle was worried about raiders.. " Xena explained. "With good reason, looks like."

Hecuba smiled at her older daughter. "That puts my mind more at ease… and I we get to see both of you a little more." She shot her husband a look of mixed warning and entreaty.

The man hesitated, then nodded. "Much appreciated." He clipped out, letting his eyes briefly rest on Xena's face, which was quietly noncommittal. "We were going to leave in the morning.. that suit you?"

Oh.. goody. Only one night in lovely Potadeia. Xena's mind supplied. "Sounds fine." She answered the man. "Took us three days or so to get up here, but we weren't rushing, and we holed up during that big storm."

Herodotus nodded, and relaxed visibly a little. "Good.. good… you're welcome to stay with us overnight.. we've got space, where these two don't." His head jerk indicated Lila and Lennat.

Xena felt the muscles under her fingertips stiffen. "No need to put yourselves out for us, Herodotus.. and that's not fair to your innkeeper. " She gave the man an easy smile. "We've got the dinars.. let us put them to use here.. and besides, I know the innkeeper will be after Gabrielle for some storytelling soon as he sees her."

Thank you.. thank you.. thank you . .Xena… Gabrielle chanted silently It was incredibly civil of him to ask, but … The thought of spending a tense, awkward evening alone with her parents was making the bard's nerves jiggle.

Herodotus let his mouth quirk into a smile. "Good point." He relaxed further. "You'll have dinner with us then? And maybe we can all go listen to my daughter?"

"That would be really nice." Gabrielle answered, feeling the gentle squeeze of Xena's hand. "Save us from the inn's cooking." She grinned, and they grinned back, knowingly. "Thanks."

Hecuba gave them a quietly satisfied smile, and sighed. "Well, I've got things to do then." She gave her husband a quick look, and he nodded minutely at her. "I'll be off." She turned and headed back towards their home, leaving the five of them standing and looking at each other.

Xena found Herodotus's gaze fixed on her, and mentally sighed. He wants to talk. Yippee. "Gabrielle, why don't you and Lila catch up for while? I'm gonna get the room settled."

The bard gave her a look. "All right." She drew the answer out, quirking an eyebrow at her partner. "See you in a few minutes then."

"I'll walk with you over to the inn, Xena." Herodotus commented casually. "On my way there myself, to hear the news."

Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances. "Sure." The warrior gave her partner a resigned look. "Meet you in a bit." She turned and started walking back towards the inn, a silent Herodotus at her side. She could almost feel the waves of uneasiness coming off the man, and sighed quietly to herself. This was.. not going to be an easy relationship to adjust to. For either of them.

"Been a bad winter." She offered, rolling the conversational ball around in her mind and realizing that was the most innocuous thing she could come up with.

Herodotus grunted in agreement. "Hear you took care of this crowd.. nasty lot." He glanced at her. "Nice timing."

Xena stopped walking and crossed her arms, pinning him with an intent stare. "Herodotus, you got something you want to say to me?"

Oddly, that got a smile from the man. "Not one for small talk, are you, Xena?" He stopped as well, and leaned against a nearby tree, folding his arms across his chest and glancing at the ground. "Look.. I know.. you don't like me." He glanced up. "And I don't much like you either."

Xena pursed her lips and sighed. "That's true." She admitted quietly. "I'm not as forgiving as Gabrielle is."

The wind blew softly between them, bringing a scent of damply charred wood from the central area of the village. "Do you have a right to hold a grudge in her behalf?" Herodotus asked.

Xena gazed into his eyes. "Yes." Then she sighed, and dropped her glance. "But.. that's not what Gabrielle wants… so… " Now she shrugged. "I'm willing to make an effort."

The man studied her in silence. "I still love her, you know."

Ice blue eyes flicked to his. "I know. And she loves you. " A small silence. "Or we wouldn't be having this conversation." She saw Herodotus swallow, as he took in her meaning.

"I don't understand this choice she's made." Herodotus stated, flatly. "What hold do you have over her?" Now his voice took on a tinge of anger. "You're a killer. What business do you have getting involved with someone like her?"

It touched every insecurity she had, Xena realized, with an unerring accuracy. And she had no reasonable answer for him. So she shrugged. "That's life, sometimes, Herodotus." Not denying his statements. "I don't pretend to understand it either." She took a deep breath. "I've stopped trying to." Now her eyes met his frankly. "She's the most important thing in my life, Herodotus.. there's no limit to what I'd do for her." She paused, and quirked a grin. "Even get along with you."

He studied her for a long time, then snorted out a quick laugh. "No accounting for the mysteries of love, I guess." He shook his grizzled head, then lifted his hands and let them fall. "All right, Xena.. a truce." His eyes studied her face. "Maybe someday we can find a common ground." He sighed. "For Bree's sake."

"Maybe." Xena allowed, starting to walk towards the inn again. "Gabrielle has a way of bringing people together."

Herodotus walked along in silence for a few steps. "You don't use her nickname. Why?" Blunt as usual.

Xena eyed him in wry amusement. "She hates it."

The man snorted. "Nonsense." A pause. "How do you know?"

"I asked her." The warrior stated, reasonably. "When we were here the last time."

Another long pause. "Really?"

"Really." Xena confirmed. "Besides, I like her name."

Herodotus mulled over that. "How come she never said anything?" Now there was real curiosity in his gruff tone.

Xena shrugged. "You know Gabrielle.. she hates hurting people's feelings." She was relieved to see the bulk of the inn approaching. The conversation was making her twitch badly.

"I see." The man mused. "She's named for a character in a story, you know."

That got Xena's full attention with startling rapidity. She turned and focused her sharp gaze on him, holding his eyes until he fidgeted. "Maybe you'll tell me the story sometime."

His eyes dropped, and he shrugged in a familiar manner. "Maybe."

Xena smiled, and pulled the inn door open, motioning him to precede her.

He waved a hand. "No no.. ladies first."

That got both eyebrows up in return, and a short laugh. "Herodotus, I'm the one holding the door. Just go."

Gabrielle watched her father and her partner walk off, and grimaced. "Hope that's ok." She muttered to Lila, who waggled a hand.

"He's been all right for a while, Bree.. and he's even stopped ranting about Xena most of the time. I think.. it's ok. I mean.. it's not like he can do anything about it, right? " She put an arm around her sister's shoulders and started steering her towards their small cottage again. "I think he's figured out he might as well make the best of the situation."

The bard sighed. "I guess."

"So.. what's been going on with you guys?" Lila asked, tugging at her tunic a little. "I like this color on you… it's really nice."

Let's see… Xena's almost died twice, I've been kidnapped, sick Amazons, Hercules in trouble.. "It's been pretty quiet." Gabrielle replied. "Just the usual stuff with us, you know… but the outlaws pretty much stay clear of Amphipolis now.. we've just been kind of relaxing, and getting ready for the ceremony.. we've got some Amazons staying by us for a while.. it's been really.. nice."

Lila laughed. "You and your Amazons… that one you sent here was really nice, though." She opened the door to the cottage and followed Gabrielle inside. "Here we are.. it's tiny, but I'll give you a tour."

Gabrielle allowed herself to be led around the small cottage, making suitably complimentary remarks about the neat and tidy room, while Lennat excused himself, saying he was due back at the smithy now that all the excitement was over. After the tour, she and Lila settled down in chairs next to the fire, Lila bringing over a platter of brown bread and cheese and setting it down with a sigh as she dropped into her chair.

"One side effect of being pregnant.. I can't stop eating." She gave Gabrielle a wry look as she took a portion of the bread and stuffed a bite into her cheek and patted her belly. "Not sure how much of this is baby, and how much is just me pigging out."

The bard laughed and took a piece of cheese, nibbling on it cheerfully. "I've never had that excuse." She tucked her legs up under her and leaned on the arm of the chair. "You must be really excited."

Lila took a deep breath. "I am.. it's.. kind of really scary, though." She swallowed, and played with the bread in her hands. "Mom and Dad are thrilled, of course." She hesitated, then fell silent.

"So.. at least one of us is going to give them grandkids?" Gabrielle asked quietly.

Lila gave her an apologetic look. "Something like that, yeah." She put a hand out and rubbed Gabrielle's arm. "At least they've accepted what you're doing… don't feel.. I mean.. did you want children, Bree?"

Gabrielle surprised her by laughing. "I'm not.. sorry.. they feel that way, Lila. But.. " Her eyes glinted. "We've talked about it.. right now, it's not in my plans. But if that changes.. I've got this little agreement with Toris."

Lila blew chunks of bread across the room and started coughing violently.

The bard got up and patted her on the back. "Sorry. Take it easy, all right?" Whoops.. that was little too much for her, I think… I forget just how conservative they are here. "Hey, he's not that bad. He's a little quick tempered sometimes, but… "

"Bree!" Lila wailed. "How can you just say that?" She stared at her older sister in some dismay, studying the serious, strong lines of her face, and the intent focus of her pale green eyes. "Sometimes.. I don't even know who you are anymore, I swear."

Gabrielle settled back into her chair, and sighed. "Look..I know it's hard for you… it's hard for me sometimes. I look in the mirror, and I… sometimes wonder who that person is looking back at me. But.. " She took a breath. "I can't pretend to be the girl who left here, Lila, because I'm not. I've.. seen too much… changed too much to do that." She dropped her gaze to the fire thoughtfully. "When I left.. I never expected to.. " Become a bard, grow into being an Amazon queen. Fall in love. "End up where I did. But I'm not sorry."

Lila nibbled her lip. "You scared me today.. I know. I've seen you practice that fighting stuff.. but this is really the first time I've got to see you use it for real." Her eyes found Gabrielle's. "I'm finding it a little hard to reconcile my sweet, loving sister with that intimidating person who clobbered a handful of raiders." She gazed honestly at Gabrielle. "I don’t understand."

The bard stared at her for a long moment. "I guess I can see that, Lila." She answered quietly. "I stopped looking at outside appearances when I met Xena." She hesitated. "I guess we're all a mixture of things… when I realized there was a big part of her that was.. warm, and loving and gentle.. I understood that there must be a part of me that was.. capable of fighting and hurting people who were trying to hurt me, or people I care about." She blinked. "And there is… I don't.. like hurting people. But I'm glad I can defend myself, and my friends."

Lila sighed. "I never looked at it that way." She gave Gabrielle a gentler look. "I guess we're all capable of that, at some level.. if you're defending your home.. or your family. " She stroked her belly thoughtfully. "Have you ever.. " Her voice trailed off.

"No." Her sister answered quietly, then paused. "Not that I know of, anyway." She amended honestly. "I mean.. I don't think about that when I fight.. and I use a staff, not a sword, but… you never know." Another pause. "I don’t think so."

"Xena said.. you were physically capable of it, but not… mentally." Lila finally said, reluctantly, then reached over and squeezed Gabrielle's biceps. "I guess that's true."

Gabrielle smiled. "Probably." When did she say that, I won.. oh. Right. The last time we were here. A memory flash of her staff connecting with her father's head. "Though I've been doing more talking that fighting recently." She leaned back in the chair and took a breath. "I know I've changed a lot, though."

Lila studied the strong, confident woman who had grown from the unsure, desperate girl who had left their shared bedroom that night and smiled. "Yeah, you have.. but.. it's a good thing, Bree." She patted her sister's arm. "I'm really proud of my big sister" She nodded a little. "You took a gamble, and it paid off, Gabrielle."

"You think so?" The bard asked softly, but she was smiling, as her senses picked up a familiar presence approaching. "I'm glad." She winked quietly as the door opened. "I think so too."

Xena joined them near the fire, and crouched down next to Gabrielle's chair, resting a steadying hand on the arm of her chair. "Well, looks like a truce." She commented, giving the bard a wry look.

"Roo." Ares snorted, as he settled down at Gabrielle's feet, panting.

Gabrielle hesitated, then remembered her resolve, and curled a hand around Xena's upper arm, rubbing her thumb against the soft wool. "Good to hear." She commented, glancing up as a patter of hail hit the roof. "Ugh."

Lila sighed. "Again? Great Hera." She stood up and put a small pot of water near the fire. "Glad you two made it here.. hate to think of anyone out in this disgusting stuff."

" that sword." Granella gave Eponin a mild shove. "It's close enough in here."

They all glared at each other, in the close quarters under the small shelter they'd been able to rig as the weather turned foul again. "Watch your own self, you sprout." Eponin growled, shifting uncomfortably in her mud stiffened clothing.

The smell was.. indescribable. But no one mentioned it.

"Whose idea was this, anyway?" Granella groused.

"Don't start." Eponin warned, with a glower.

"Hey. Cut that out." Ephiny finally said wearily, rolling her eyes. "It was all of ours." She was seated against the fallen tree trunk they'd used as a shelter, and had all of their gear piled around her, with various articles solicitously stacked against her body by Eponin to keep the wind off her. She felt.. idiotic. "How are those bites?"

Three pairs of eyes glowered at her. "Thanks for the reminder." Iolaus muttered, scratching his leg furiously.

Hercules merely closed his eyes, and leaned back against the tree.

"How did we get into this?" The blond man spoke up again. "I know.. it must be.. the Gabrielle effect."

Eyes turned to him. "What?" Toris moved surreptitiously closer to Granella, and was gratified when she casually leaned back against him. "The what?"

"The Gabrielle effect." Iolaus growled, scratching his back.

"Stop it." Hercules advised him, still with his eyes closed. "You'll scratch yourself raw."

"We all can't be half god, buddy." The blond man snapped. "I figure.. she always gets into stuff.. it must be kind of a.. cloud.. that hangs around her. we are, right near Amphipolis.. so we're affected by it.' He paused and scratched. "Right?"

Hercules reached over and grabbed his hands, holding them firmly. "I said, stop it."

Eponin and Ephiny exchanged glances. The regent's lip quirked. "Somehow..I don’t think this.. is kind of situation our Queen gets into."

"Hey.. let go." Iolaus tugged his hands to no avail. "C'mon, itches."

"Don't think about it." The demigod advised him, not letting go. "Anyway, it could be worse."

Five voices answered him. "How?"

Hercules opened a pale blue eye and gazed at them. "It could be snowing."

A single, delicate snowflake chose that moment to drift in, and land lazily on the demigod's mud encrusted arm.

Continued in Part 4

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