These characters, and boy, are they ever characters, are mostly the property of Renaissance Pictures, Universal MCA, and whoever else owns stock and interest in Xena: Warrior Princess. This fiction was written for my amusement only, and not in any way, shape or form for profit - and it is not intended to infringe on the copyright holders of the characters.

Some of the characters are mine, and the story ideas.. well, who knows where they come from? Must be one weird place, that's for sure.

Specific Story Disclaimers:

Violence - this is a Xena: Warrior Princess story. This is not Teletubbies. Even though there are some rumors of similarities. Some of the violence is graphic, but we try not to dwell on it.

Subtext - Considering that the TV Series just aired an episode establishing Xena and Gabrielle as eternal soulmates, any disclaimer of subtext on my part is really kind of goofy in the extreme. The two characters are in love with each other, and have been for years. You can choose to see them as just friends, but then you might not want to read this fanfic, in case it changes your mind or anything like that.

Emotional Content - this is not one my more comedic efforts. There are moments of humor, however.


Dark Comes the Morning - Part 13

By Melissa Good

Granella strode back into the makeshift hospital, carrying a stack of dry linen as she moved among the men and women clustered around the pallets. Xena was their chief healer, that was true, but several of the other village residents had been trained in the art, a prudent precaution when your primary caretaker also happened to be your military leader.

She'd been shocked, no doubt about it, when the wagon had pulled in, and they'd started carefully moving the youngsters into the torchlit room. As an Amazon, and a lifelong warrior she'd seen wounds, and blood in large quantities before, but the casual and deliberate cruelty displayed was outside her experience.

With a sigh, she shook her head and knelt at Xena's side, handing the warrior a piece of the clean linen. "Dear gods."

"Yeah." Xena grunted, her hands covered in blood as she carefully stitched up the stump of the young boy's arm.

Granella was silent, watching the ex warlord's steady motions, and the calm, almost disinterested look on her face. She'd already taken care of two of the other children, the most severely injured, with the rest being attended to by two of the others and Gabrielle. "How could they do this to kids?"

Xena finished her task, covering the raw skin with salve and putting a bandage over it. Then she released the pressure point she'd put on the lad, and sighed as he moaned in pain. "Easy." She motioned a tall villager forward. "Get some of that into him… not a lot."

"Xena!" Toris called, from across the room where he was kneeling next to Gabrielle. "Can you take a look at this?"

Nodding, the warrior stood, wiping her hands off. "Keep an eye on this one, Gran… would you?" She edged around the pallet and strode across the room, stopping when the wagon driver moved into her way.

"Did I hear that right…. Are you really Xena?" The man had a fractured arm, and was holding it awkwardly in a makeshift sling they'd put on him. His voice was tired, but had a tinge of wonder in it.

The warrior gazed at him. "Yes." She admitted briefly. "Excuse me." She brushed by him and went to Toris' side, putting a hand on Gabrielle's back as she eased down next to them. "Damn."

It was the smallest child, the one with the bandages over his eyes. Gabrielle had removed them, and was clenching them in one fist as she gazed in stark horror at the boy's face. "Xe… "

Xena exhaled heavily. The child's eyes had apparently been gouged out, leaving a bloody mess, and his mouth was open, issuing tiny cries as he breathed. "Hey." She put a gentle hand on his arm and he jerked in reaction, his breathing speeding up in fear. "It's okay… I'm not gonna hurt you."

"M…m.. mama?" The child whispered hopefully. "M. mama it hurts."

Toris curled his hand into a fist in front of his face and bowed his head, and Gabrielle looked down, quiet tears staining her tan tunic.

Xena leaned closer, and carefully put her other hand on the boy's head, brushing back the light brown hair. "Just take it easy… your mama's not here, but we're gonna take good care of you, okay?" She peered closer and reached for a nearby candle, sucking in a breath as it's light revealed the boy's injuries.

Not gouged, no… but his eyelids had been cut clear off, creating a mess of blood, and scabbing that obscured his eyes. Xena let a held breath out. Probably blinded him anyway, she wearily concluded. "Okay, listen to me." She lowered her voice, and he shifted a little. "We're gonna have you drink something, and you're gonna go to sleep, okay?"

He squirmed away, and cried out, hiccuping in panic.

"Whoa.." Xena held him carefully, glancing up at the driver, who was watching anxiously. "What happened to him?"

The man licked his lips nervously. "They caught him sleeping in the field during work… poor thing… after the second time, they .. I guess they figgered it would stop im from it."

The warrior gently hit a pressure point, and the boy relaxed, slumping bonelessly on the pallet. "When I find the person who did this… " She remarked calmly, taking the basin of warm water nearby and a piece of linen to clean the boy's eyes with. "I'm going to skin him alive." She carefully washed the horrible wounds, cleaning off the crusted scabs with gentle fingers.

Gabrielle silently handed her a fresh bandage when she needed one, and she put it on, then released the pressure point, holding the boy down as he writhed and screamed in pain. It took several minutes, but eventually he quieted, his cries subsiding to tired hiccups. Xena released his shoulders and sat back, looking over at the quiet bard. "Okay."

Gabrielle pulled the clean blanket up over the child and smoothed his hair back. "I know it hurts… but it'll get better, honest." She told him softly. "Okay?"

He curled up and put his arm over his head protectively. Xena sighed, and stood up, wincing as she straightened up and shaking her head a little as she surveyed the hospital. Not the way she expected to end the night. "All right… I need two people to watch these guys through the night.. the rest of you get some sleep." She moved away a bit to allow Gabrielle room to stand, then turning her attention fully to the bard as she heard a sharp intake of breath. "Hey."

Gabrielle bit her lip and straightened up slowly, trying not to put any more pressure on her leg. "Ow… " She exhaled as a hand closed firmly on her upper arm. "Must have twisted something…" Hot jolts of pain were stabbing upward, reaching her groin as she eased her leg straighter. She'd forgotten that in her haste to take care of the children, but the long stint of kneeling had allowed the injury to stiffen up.

"You didn't tell me you were hurt." Xena snapped at her. "Damn it, Gabrielle."

"It wasn't that bad.. " The bard protested, attempting a step and letting out a yelp. "Ah.. Xena.. could you yell at me later? This is kinda.."

The warrior moved in and got an arm under her knees, lifting her partner up and cradling her. "Wasn't that bad, huh?" She gave Gabrielle a dire look as she moved away from the pallets, and headed towards the entrance of the hospital. "I should leave you here."

The bard prudently remained silent, sliding her arms up and clasping them around her soulmate's neck and laying her head down on Xena's shoulder as the warrior ducked through the opening and padded towards their chosen chamber. She gazed up at the sharp profile, tensing her lips into a tiny smile as Xena glanced down and their eyes met, the stormy blue gentling perceptibly.

"What am I going to do with you?" Xena finally sighed, as she stepped into their cavern.

Patient, gentle green eyes gazed at her. "Anything you like." Gabrielle drawled softly, with a little, shy smile that gathered her soulmate in, and shattered her icy reserve in the space of a breath. She was lowered to the bed and she released her hold on her partner's neck, settling back and absorbing the quiet concern on Xena's face. "It really wasn't that bad, Xena.. it must have kinda…gotten stiff while I was working in there. " She put a hand on her knee and grimaced, as she felt the swelling. "I kinda twisted it when I was running."

"Uh huh." The warrior pushed her back and untied her belt, pushing her tunic up to get at the laces holding on her leggings. "I thought you looked a little off balance."

"Mm." Gabrielle laid back and studied the ceiling, making a little face as her body dealt with the conflicting sensations of pain from her leg, and a warm arousal from her partner's touch as Xena unlaced her leggings and tugged them down. "Urf."

The warrior paused, as she was easing the fabric past the injured limb and leaned on the bed, gazing at her partner's face. "What was that?"

"Nothing." Gabrielle put her hands behind her head and wiggled the foot on her uninjured leg. "It's horrible what they did to those kids, Xena."

"I know." The warrior went back to her task, gently removing the bard's boots then studying her discolored knee. The bruise extended through the joint, and partially up her soulmate's thigh, and she traced the line with a finger. "I'm going to make that village my first priority when the Amazons get here."

"You think that little boy's mother is still there?" The bard asked wistfully. "That’s so awful."

"Yeah… poor kid." The warrior agreed, with a heavy sigh, as she probed the swollen skin, hearing a soft intake of breath as she pressed a little too hard. "Sorry… you really did a number on this, Gabrielle." She stroked the soft skin on the inside of the bard's leg comfortingly.

"Ungh." Gabrielle put an arm over her eyes. "Great." The leg throbbed, but she felt a soft, warm touch on it and glanced down, to see Xena's cheek pressed against her leg, a look of quiet sympathy on the warrior's angular face. "Ow."

"Yeah." Xena straightened the leg out with careful hands, flexing the joint a little, stopping when she heard the pained hiss and saw the bard's fingers clench on the blankets. "You've got a lot of swelling inside there."

The bard blew out a frustrated breath. "Can you do anything?"

Xena chewed her lip pensively. "Wrap it… put some cold water on it… keep you off it." She replied, ticking off three fingers. "If you try and bounce around, it's gonna swell up a lot worse."

Gabrielle rubbed her face with one hand. "Good grief, Xena.. I can't just lie here." She protested. "I can use my staff as a crutch, can't I?"

"We'll see." Her partner pronounced darkly. "Maybe this'll keep you quiet for a day or two."

The bard reached a hand out and clasped her soulmate's fingers. "Still mad at me?" She asked quietly, sensing the residual prickliness in her partner's manner, and suddenly wanting it to be over. "Please don't be."

Xena exhaled, sending a warm tingle up the bard's leg. "You scared me out there."

Gabrielle made a face. "I knew you were coming… it was just a matter of holding them off.. and I goofed, Xena.. I shouldn't have tried levering that guy off his horse.. .that was really stupid." She felt a little disgusted with herself. "You'd think I'd know better after all this time."

The blue eyes took on a warm, wistful tint. "Gabrielle.. you held off a dozen armed, mounted men with a quarterstaff." She put a hand on the injured knee. "Don’t apologize… you're one of the better fighters I've ever been around."

The bard was rendered speechless.

"Listen.. I'm gonna carry you over to the water.. get your knee in that to take some of the swelling down." The warrior went on quietly. "I'll go pick up Dori… and a couple of meatrolls or something." She straightened up and got an arm under her partner's knees again. "Put your arms around my neck."

Gabrielle obeyed readily, then she tightened her hold and pulled her soulmate's head down, kissing her with passionate sincerity. When they parted, she gazed into the shadowed eyes intently. "I'm sorry."

Xena touched her forehead to the bard's. "We've got a lot better chance of making it through this…if you're ready to deal with anything that comes at you." She murmured. "I realized that today, Gabrielle.. I almost didn't make it there in time."

Oh. The bard slowly let out a breath. "I didn't know that."

Xena glanced down. "And Toris pointed out something which should have been obvious to me…that I've put you at a disadvantage all this time by not showing you how to use a blade defensively." Her voice dropped lower. "I just…. ' She hesitated awkwardly. "Maybe I just hear you asking me that after.. Perdicus."

"Yeah… I thought of that after I asked you." Gabrielle admitted. "But I'm not the same person I was then."

"I know." The warrior kept her head down.

"You're not the same person either."

"I know." The answer was much softer. "But there's a part of me that so… wants to protect you from that, Gabrielle…even after all that's happened." Xena looked up. "Please don’t hold that against me."

"I don't." Came the answer. "And a part of me wants to give into that…just to curl up and let you protect me." The bard tangled her fingers in the dark hair. "But my conscience won't let me."

Xena sighed.

Gabrielle kissed her head gently. "And anyway.. it's a moot point until I can walk again." She reminded her partner wryly. "Isn't it?"

Xena nodded, finally raising her head. "I can teach you some tricks sitting down." She said straightforwardly. "I had to teach myself some of those, once upon a time."

The bard smiled wistfully at her, feeling the tension she'd had coiled inside her relax. She spent a moment simply reveling in their closeness, before she straightened and let out a tiny curse. "Poop."

Xena blinked. "What was that for?" She glanced down. "Your knee hurting that bad? Lemme go get something for you to swallow, then."

"No.. " Gabrielle sighed aggrievedly. "I left my diary up by the outpost." She gazed at her partner. "I'd really rather not have one of those kids reading it."

Xena ruffled her hair with deep affection. "I'll go get it for you." She turned as Ares trotted in, promptly diving under the bed with a whine. "Ares… what's up, boy?"

Toris appeared in the entryway, clearing his throat a bit at their intimate pose, and rocking Dori in his arms. "Sorry… um… she was driving the nanny's nuts screaming for you."

"Mama!" The very unhappy baby squirmed in his grasp.

Xena released her partner and stood, running a hand through her hair as she crossed the rock floor. "C'mere, honey." She took her daughter from Toris. "You're screaming huh?"

"Boooooo….aga." Dori pulled at her collar angrily, a scowl on her face. "No go!"

The warrior blinked. "Are you yelling at me?" She growled at the baby, who clouted her in the nose. "Hey!"

"Man, she's got a temper." Toris shook his head. "You okay, Gab?"

The bard rested her weight on her elbows. "Twisted my knee.. but yeah… bring her over here, Xena.. maybe she's hungry."

"Maybe." The warrior murmured, bringing the angry infant over to her mother and sitting down on the bed. "Here.. I'll be right back… see if you can settle her down." She released the baby to crawl over the bed and stood, joining her brother at the entrance.

"Boo!" Dori yelled in outrage, pointing at her.

"Shh.. honey… take it easy." Gabrielle gathered her daughter up in her arms and cuddled her. "Boo will be right back.. she's going to get us some goodies."

Dori scowled unhappily, and started chewing on one of Gabrielle's laces. "Bad."

The bard stroked her hair gently and kissed her head. "No.. it's okay, honey… she'll be right back, okay?" She glanced up at her partner's concerned face. "Better make it quick, I guess."

With a puzzled look, Xena disappeared, followed by an equally bewildered Toris. Gabrielle rubbed Dori's arm gently. "What's the matter, Dori?"

The baby's eyes were fixed on the entrance and she hiccuped, then started to cry fitfully, despite the bard's efforts to calm her. She kept it up, worrying her mother, until Xena returned, a concerned look on her face.

"She been like that the whole time?" The warrior brought her burdens over and put them down, breathing a little hard. "Maybe she's sick."

Dori picked her head up at the sound of Xena's voice and stopped crying, sucking on a finger instead and hiccuping. "Booo."

"Okay.. okay… " The warrior curled up next to Gabrielle and stroked the baby's face with gentle fingers. "What's the matter, huh? You not feeling good?" She held out a finger and the baby latched onto it, grasping her hand and pulling it closer. Then she settled down peacefully, curling her other hand around the bard's collarbone and resting her head on Gabrielle's shoulder.

Warrior and bard exchanged bewildered glances. "I don't get it." Gabrielle's brows knit.

"Me either." Xena confessed, honestly. She shifted a little and pulled the wooden tray she'd brought over, then reached down to unlace her boots. Dori picked her head up to watch her, then put it back down when it was obvious the warrior wasn't going anywhere. "Think maybe she's upset with all the changes?"

Gabrielle stroked her daughter's hair gently. "I don't know… " The baby was content to lay in her arms, and was not struggling to get over to Xena, she just seemed to want the warrior to be nearby.

Well. The bard smiled a little. She is my daughter, right? Maybe that's hereditary too. "I think she doesn’t like us to be gone from her all the time." She leaned closer to the baby. "Is that it, honey? Do you miss us?"

"Bck." Dori sucked on a finger contentedly.

"Hm." Xena regarded the infant. "That could be a problem." She remarked, hauling herself off the bed and grabbing a piece of folded linen, then going to the pool and soaking it in the cold water. "It's gonna get busy here real soon now." She stood and walked back over, kneeling and wrapping the bard's knee with the cloth.

"Yeow!" Gabrielle yelped. "That's cold!"

"Mama." Dori protested, turning her head to watch Xena. "Boo."

"I know it's cold.. that's the whole point." The warrior glanced crossly up at her. "How does it feel?"

"Cold." The bard replied promptly, getting a look in return. "Oh.. wait… yeah." She felt the tense throbbing start to ease. "Yeah.. that's a little better." She sighed in relief. "Gods, I feel so stupid for doing this."

Xena settled back beside her and accepted another meatroll. "Why? It happens, Gabrielle." She chewed the pastry covered meat thoughtfully. "It was dark.. you twisted your leg…Hades knows I've done it."

"Yeah..well.." The bard gave her a sheepish look. "That's not.. um… actually, I jumped over the outpost wall, and forgot the slope was there."

Xena covered her eyes with one hand. "Gabrielle." She peeked out at her partner, unable to hold back a smile at the chagrined expression on her face. "You're lucky you didn't break something."

Gabrielle sighed. "That's what I get for hanging around you all the time.. I start to think stuff like that's something anyone can do." She let Dori curl her hand around one finger. "Even me." She added softly.

Xena circled her with both arms and hugged her. "You did do it, my bard… didn't you hear that guy talking to the watch? You saved those people." She told her partner gently. "If you hadn't sent the alarm, then held off those men, they would have died… all of them."

"Mama." Dori warbled sleepily, yawning and curling her fists. "Boo."

Oh yeah. Gabrielle closed her eyes, reveling in the sensation of being surrounded by love. I guess I did do that..

"And despite you scaring me half to death, I was so proud of you." Xena went on, with a smile.

Gabrielle turned her head, and gave her a look of adoration that brought a memory of the young kid from Potadeia sharply to the warrior's mind. "Thanks." The bard replied simply, having outgrown the need for that approval, but never the craving for it.

They shared their dinner in peaceful silence as Dori snoozed contentedly, with Xena getting up a few times to replace the cold compress on Gabrielle's knee. "Hey, Xena?" The bard asked, when they were finished, and she was snuggled into the warrior's embrace.


"Are you really going to skin that guy?"

A sigh. "No."


"Honestly, Gabrielle… I'm … and even then, I always was, an instant gratification kinda gal." The warrior admitted. "Never had the patience for torture."

Duh. I knew that. "Ah." A green eye rolled in her direction. "Except for torture by tickling. You seem to have an unlimited amount of patience for that."

Xena's face relaxed into a rakish grin. "You've always been the exception to the rule, Gabrielle."

Mm. Gabrielle tucked that thought away as she leaned against her soulmate's warm body, letting the anxieties and strain of the day ease away from her, as her eyes blinked, and grew heavy.

The warrior watched as her partner's breathing deepened into sleep, tucked as she was securely in the circle of Xena's arms, with Dori curled up over her heart. For a while the blue eyes merely settled contentedly on them, before drifting outward to the dimly seen stars in quiet contemplation.


The rain woke her up. Dori lay quietly in her cradle, rocking it back and forth a little as she watched the water come in, and fall into the pool nearby. "Bck." She pointed at it, then lost interest and turned her attention in the other direction, to the large bed, dimly seen in the half light.

"Mama." She whispered, seeing the pale hair closest to her. There was no answer, so she tried again. "Mama!"

It got a response, but not the one she'd expected. A pair of blue eyes appeared and a smile that made her smile back in response. "Boo!"

The low, raspy voice she loved to hear answered. "Hey kiddo.. you're up early."

"Bck." Dori decided she wanted to be closer, so she wriggled around and got her covers off, then clambered out of her cradle, landing on the floor with a thump. "Goo."

"Hey.. careful."

Rock was hard. She decided she didn't like it. She stood up and toddled over to the bed, holding on to it's edge with both hands and looking up. "Mama."

"Shh." Boo made a noise. "Mama's sleeping.. don't wake her up."

Mama was, she could tell. Mama was holding on to Boo, which was all right, and Dori knew she liked to do that also. Boo was nice and warm, and it felt good to hold onto her. She decided to get closer, and walked around the edge of the bed to the other side. "Boo!" She held up her hands imperiously. "Dup."

Dori liked when Boo picked her up. It was like flying, much faster than when Mama did, or the other people. She giggled and reached for her Boo, liking the nice smell around her. Then she saw Mama's nearby ear and pulled it.

"Hey." Mama's eyes opened up wide. Dori giggled. She looked so funny when she did that.

"Whoops. Sorry about that." Boo's voice distracted her, and she looked up, but Boo was looking at Mama, who rubbed her eyes. "Dori, that wasn't nice."

Uh oh. Dori pouted. Boo was mad. She didn't like that. Boo made her itch, and she slapped at Boo's hand. "Bad!"

Boo and Mama laughed. Dori didn't like that, so she made a face. Then Mama put her arms around Boo and hugged her. Mama's face always looked so interesting when she did that, all nice and happy. It made Dori want to smile, so she did.

She was hungry. Boo usually had a treat somewhere, so she crawled up and pulled at the strings around Boo's neck. "Umm.." That got her a berry, which she stuffed into her mouth and chewed. "Mm."

"You like that, huh?" Boo asked her, but then gave another berry to Mama instead of to her. She didn't like that, so she slapped Boo, to get her attention back. "Boo!"

"Hey.. watch it." Boo's voice went all growly and low, which she loved, so she laughed in delight.

"Oh.. you're so intimidating." Mama laughed, and poked Boo, which made Boo jump, which made Dori laugh.

This was fun. She liked being with Mama and Boo, and decided she wasn't going to let them go away anymore. A noise got her attention, and she saw pointed, fuzzy ears poking up over the bed. "Guff!" She grabbed for the ears, almost tumbling off Boo, but getting a good hold on them.

The fuzzy made a noise and she tugged harder, until Boo got her hands loose and let the fuzzy go. It ran away and hid under the bed and she scowled, wanting it to come back. "Bck!"

"Hey.. cut that out." Boo was mad again. "Be nice, Dori."

Boo always said that. Dori had no idea what she meant, though. She was just having fun. She pulled on Boo's strings again, and giggled, bouncing up and down on her, and getting her to smile. Maybe they could go flying today. Dori missed that.

She laid down on Boo, though, and decided to take a nap, until then.

"She's a character." Xena sighed, putting a protective hand over Dori's body, now sprawled over her chest in peaceful abandon.

"Mm." Gabrielle snuggled closer, and yawned. "Poor Ares…he's going to end up without ears at this rate."

The warrior snorted softly. "How's your knee feel?" She reached down under the covers and touched the joint. "Still swollen."

"Ungh." Gabrielle winced, as she flexed her leg a little. "Ow." It ached, and when she tried to bend it, pain lanced up her leg into her stomach. Muffling a groan she eased the limb out straight and exhaled. "Centaur farts."

"Hm." Xena rubbed the back of her neck comfortingly. "You're staying in bed today, my bard. That's an order."

"Xena… c'mon.. there's way too much to do." Her soulmate protested. "I can't just lay here all day.. I'll go nuts!" She frowned. "Hey.. I can go into the main cave… peel vegetables or something."

The sound of boots trudging across the rock alerted them, and Xena glanced to the opening as her brother poked his head in, his dark hair very tousled and his eyes half closed. He blinked at them. "Don't you ever sleep?"

Xena ignored the question. "What's up?"

Toris stifled a yawn. "Just got word from the main gate… looks like we're getting company…. An advanced scout showed up saying the Amazons are due here about lunchtime."

"Yippee." Gabrielle groaned, burying her face into Xena's shirt. "I haven't fixed their cave, Xena."

"Well." The warrior chewed her lip a bit. "No.. but that's useful." She commented. "We can get four of em… and they can carry you around on their shoulders."

The pale head lifted, and Gabrielle crawled up Xena's body to stare at her. "Don't even joke about that."

The warrior grinned. "I wasn't joking." She turned her head. "Whaddaya think, Toris.. four of em good?"

Toris leaned against the wall, crossing his legs at the ankles. "Oh… yeah, that'll be enough… I got some mats, they can fan her while they're walking, too." He agreed amiably. "Everyone's talking about her anyway."

Gabrielle felt a blush coming on. "I'm gonna hurt both of you." She warned fiercely. "Cut it out."

"But Gabrielle.. you wanted to get outta bed… " Xena protested, then paused, seeing the storm clouds gathering in the mist green eyes so close to hers. She reached up and patted the bard's cheek instead. "Okay.. no Amazon bearers."

"Mmph." Gabrielle let her chin rest on her partner's shoulder.

"Thanks, Toris… I was gonna get up anyway." Xena sighed. "With this weather, it's gonna be a mess in here after they wander in."

"Ungh." Toris yawned, and waved at her. "I'm going back to bed. Have fun in the mud, sis." He trudged off.

Warrior and bard regarded each other in the low light. Xena gently tweaked her partner's nose, which twitched in reaction. "Gonna be busy from now on."

Gabrielle nodded quietly. "Yeah…" She turned on her side and laid a hand on Xena's stomach, rubbing the skin absently with her thumb. "You weren't serious about the Amazons, were you?"

Xena chuckled softly. "I think you deserve it… I think you'd look damn cute if they did.. but no." She pushed the hair off Gabrielle's forehead lazily. "We' d never hear the end of it."

"Mm." Gabrielle's fingers found their way beneath the soft fabric of her shirt and touched warm skin. "Hey, Xe?"

"Yeeess?" The warrior responded, in a low, sexy tone.

"Do… have… to get up right now?" Gabrielle asked, affecting an innocent tone.

Without a word, Xena got up and tucked Dori away in her cradle, then returned to the bed and stood for a moment, backlit by the dull gray light and the odd flash of lighting. "Did you have something else in mind?" She drawled softly.

Gabrielle rolled over onto her back and let her lips move into a smile, as she reached up and grasped the edge of Xena's shirt, giving it a tug. "Yeah, I did." She answered in a whisper.

Xena lowered herself slowly, bracing an arm on either side of her soulmate and suspending herself over her, meeting her eyes, and seeing the lashes half lower, then lift, exposing shaded green orbs gazing at her with unconcealed desire.

The warrior took a breath against the sensual jolt that hit her, reinforced by the hands that slipped under her shirt and shaped themselves over her skin. She bent her arms and met the waiting lips, then ducked her head and teasingly removed a lace from the front of the bard's shift, tugging it free and nudging the fabric aside to give her a tiny nibble.

"Something along these lines?" She murmured, working on the other lace, getting in a few little licks as the shirt parted.

It took Gabrielle a moment, before she could get enough breath in her lungs to answer. "You read my mind." She slid her partner's shirt up and lifted herself off the pillow, tasting the warm, musky skin with a sense of decadent pleasure.

"Oh yeah?' Xena's low rumble sounded almost inside her ear, as the warrior's teeth teased their way around the edge of it, biting gently on the lobe as a soft sound escaped her. "Sorry.. didn't catch that."

Gabrielle lost track of the answer as she felt the cool air in the room drift across her skin, immediately replaced by a tingling warmth as Xena's body rubbed lightly over hers. The sound of the rain falling took on a rhythm and she let herself fall into that, surrendering to the moment and the passion of their souls.


Xena ambled through the area they'd set aside for cooking, with Dori tucked into the crook of one arm. She waved an amiable hello to the villagers there and headed for the pot of hot cereal they'd left on. "Whatcha think, Dori… oatmeal?"

The baby's face wrinkled up. "Bck."

Xena laughed. "Just like your mama." She collected a bowl for herself and some biscuits and fruit for Dori, then sat down at one of the makeshift tables where a few militia were scooping down breakfast.

"Morning, Xena." Jeris gave her a shy look, and held up a pitcher. "Would you like some cider?"

The warrior pushed her cup over. "Sure." She swallowed a mouthful of cereal, and handed Dori a piece of biscuit, then mashed a bit of apple for her.

"Um.. how's Gabrielle?" The man next to her asked. "Her leg doing any better?"

"Not really.' Xena replied, taking a sip of the cider. "I'm trying to make her stay in bed today." She scooped up another mouthful of cereal and chewed it. "Anyone check those kids yet?"

"I did." The young woman across from her answered quietly. Elena was one of their assistant healers, a short, muscular woman with gentle hands and a purposeful manner. "They're all right… mostly they just need time, and some kindness." She sighed, turning an apple over in her fingers. "Xena, what kind of people do things like that?"

The warrior shook her head. "People who've lost all respect for themselves, or anyone else." She mashed up some pear and watched her daughter shove it into her mouth with both hands. "Dori.. take it easy, okay.. it's not going anywhere."

The baby's green eyes blinked at her, and Dori thrust a pear covered fist at her. "Urg?"

"No thanks." Xena offered the baby her spoon. "Want some of this?"

Dori stuck her tongue out.

"Suit yourself." The warrior swallowed some cider. "All right.. we've got around three hundred people coming in today, if nothing went wrong."

"S'bout right.. " Jeris stated. "That's what the advance scout said… them Amazons, plus the elders and kids from Amphipolis."

Xena sucked off her spoon, and nodded. "They'll take a while to settle in… I'll talk to them when they get here.. make sure they know the ground rules."

Quickly hidden smiles flicked around the cavern. "We'll break em in, Xena." Elena reassured her. "We know how you like things." A chuckle met that, and nods of agreement followed.

Involuntarily, the warrior shivered. "Well, you know Amazons.. they've got their own traditions." She drawled softly, curious as to what they'd say.

"We had to adapt… they have to also." Elena stated quietly, yet firmly. "No offense to Gabrielle, but we've gotten to know them over the last year…and we're not going to let them come in here and start messing around with how you've got stuff."

Eyes were on her, Xena could feel them, though she kept her reflective gaze on her bowl. Hers, Jocelyn had said. She'd forgotten exactly how the felt.

"Boo!" Dori scowled and thumped her arm with a baby fist, out of pears.

Xena smiled to herself, then lifted her eyes. "It'll be a different discipline, that's for sure… you're right to be concerned." She mashed a little more fruit for her demanding daughter. "We're all going to have to work together, but Gabrielle'll make sure they know what they can push on, and what they can't."

"Right." Eleana agreed. "So.. Gabrielle's in charge of all of them, right?"

The warrior nodded. "Yes." She stood and picked up her dishes, taking them to the washing basin. "She constructed the treaty that's bringing them all here.. and got them to agree to it."

"Wow." Jeris grinned. "And they're always going on about true Amazons, and all that…musta burned em to have her knock em all into shape."

Privately, Xena found the whole thing delightfully ironic, but she merely inclined her head. "It's not about that. We're all here to do a job.. let's remember that, all right?"

Everyone nodded seriously, as she scooped up Dori, and tucked her into the crook of her arm. "They'll be bringing in a lot of supplies..let's make sure the caverns are clear for it.. I don't want them tripping over stuff trying to get those wagons unloaded." A roll of thunder echoed overhead. "Specially in this weather."

A murmur of agreement met her words, and she wandered out, pausing in the entrance for a moment to watch the rain fall. The valley, already a verdant green, bent under it's force, and she could smell the thick scent of bruised vegetation as the wet wind blew in her face.

"Bck." Dori tugged her hair in annoyance, wiping at her face with her other hand as the mist covered her.

"Whoops.. sorry." Xena used her sleeve to dry off her daughters face, then ducked back inside and padded into the main storage cavern, prowling around and checking the boxes, making a mental list of supplies they'd have to get to provision as large a force as she was hoping to have here.

It was quiet, as most of the militia were setting up pallets in further caverns, and she paused, listening, as she thought she caught a sound, faint, and far off.

Dori moved restlessly, and she laid a calming hand on the baby's head, then stiffened, as her senses came alert and presence long absent made itself felt, jangling against her nerves with a sickening force.

"Haven't felt you in a while." Xena felt her voice dropping into a snarl. "So show up, or get out."

There was a moment's pause, then a thick pop, and the scent of cold, dry air washed through the cavern, a thin mist surrounding the tall, dark haired figure that sauntered out of it and faced her, brilliant eyes watchful. "Incredible how you do that."

Xena stared at him, her expression icy. "What do you want?"

"Ah.. c'mon, Xena… " Ares took a step, pausing when the powerful body facing him stiffened menacingly. "Still have those hard feelings rolling around in that beautiful head, huh?"

"Remember that conclusion you came to, Ares?" Xena responded bitterly. "About how I'd feel if you ever…ever… touched Gabrielle?' A faint, not humorous smile. "You were right."

He held up his hands. "Ah ah ah.. I didn't touch her…not a single finger, Xena…I didn't throw her down that pit.. she jumped, remember?"

The warrior felt the cold anger she'd been holding erupt. " You didn't have to touch her… you said all you had to… or didn't you think she'd tell me?"

Ares scratched his beard, and lifted a hand. "Frankly, Xena.. I didn't think she'd be doing anything but be a cinder." He looked back into the barely restrained rage. "But if you think I'm going to apologize for keeping you alive… ah… sorry." He smiled at her. "No can do, beautiful."

Xena stared at him stonily, wishing she hated him as much as she really wanted to. "What do you want?" She asked instead.

He took a chance and moved a little closer. "Look, sweetheart… I know I'm not your favorite person… and, I'd feel bad about that, but.. you know how it is, Xena.. you gotta do what you gotta do.. and toasting your lovely buns was not in my best interests."

No answer. Cold blue eyes just watched him.

"Not even a thank you?" Area coaxed. "C'mon, Xena… it turned out all right, didn't it?"

"No thanks to you." The warrior ground her teeth. "And no, no thank you, Ares… you and I both know staying alive wasn't something I wanted that day." Xena roughly pushed aside a brief, vivid memory of those agonizing moments of realization as her lunge missed her soulmate's falling body.

"But it did turn out all right.." Ares reminded her. "Just think, Xena.. if I hadn't stopped you… " He raised his eyebrows questioningly. "That woulda been a rude shock, huh?"

"What." Xena shifted Dori, who had been thankfully quiet. "Do… you…. Want." She glared at him. "I sure don't need one of Dahok's servants around here."

Ares face twitched. "Not nice, Xena."

"Truth hurt?" The warrior inquired, making her pale blue eyes widen in mock concern. "How was the taste of his boots, hmm? Did you enjoy being his little stud?"

"Watch it, Xena." The god warned softly.

"You sell out your own kind, and you come here and threaten me?" Xena spat at him. "Get out of here, Ares.. go back to whatever little backwater Olympic outcropping you landed on."

Ares studied her coolly. "So it's not just hard feelings, hm?"


The god sighed, and walked over to a crate, perching on it's edge and putting his large hands on his leather clad thigh. "All right."

"Bck." Dori blinked at him, then looked up at Xena questioningly.

The warrior watched her unwelcome guest with wary suspicion. Ares wanted something, that much was absurdly clear, and she was damned if she was going to cooperate with him in any respect, not after she'd watched him sell out like that.

The bearded face turned her way, and blue eyes regarded Dori speculatively. "Cute kid."

Xena stared at him icily.

"You think it's all my fault, don't you?" Ares asked softly.

"No." Xena replied with equal quietness. "No… no, you tried to warn me, Ares… and I didn't listen to you. I have to live with that."

He made a face, chewing at lower lip. "Didn't think you'd admit that… you know, Xena.. you're almost the only person I know with the capacity to still surprise me."

Xena snorted in quiet self disgust. "It's why your argument worked." She walked across the cavern, realizing he wasn't leaving until he had his say, and settled down on a box. "I know exactly whose fault it was, Ares."

The warrior's eyes were on the ground, and she missed the unexpected look Ares gave her, before he stood and strolled around the space. "Yeah, well.. I know you're really into that guilt trip thing, Xena.. and far be it from me to interrupt a really good one, but you're missing the point here."

Xena let Dori play with a finger. "There's a point? Oh.. you mean, you're here for some reason other than to piss me off?" She laughed without humor. "Let me guess… you're here to tell me Andreas is under Dahok's influence?"

"I always said you were bright." Ares came closer, and took a seat on the box next to hers. "He's too well organized, and he's got too many troops, Xena… you don't have a chance."

Cold, blue eyes lifted and met his. "What are ya gonna get for this, Ares? Dahok throwing you a bone? Or do you get to polish Andreas' boots?"

"Bck!" Dori added, pointing at him in childish displeasure.

Ares face darkened in anger. "You're gonna push me too far, Xena."

The warrior rolled her eyes. "Give me a break." She stood up, rocking the infant. "Get out of here, Ares.. I don't need you telling me what I can't do."


"Don't you Xena me." She turned angrily. "Go back to your master, Ares…and give him my regards."

A bolt of light crashed by her head, smashing into the rock and dusting her with particles.

Xena didn't even flinch. "You're lucky not a crumb of that touched her.. or I'd pick you up and throw you out of here myself." She growled at him. "Get out!"

Dori chewed her fingers, getting upset at Xena's evident upset. "Boo!"

"Shh." Xena put a protective hand over her. "He can't hurt you, Dori.. don't worry." She glared at the angry god. "What's your percentage in this, Ares? What do you win this time.. another.. mate…" The words tasted bad in her mouth. "Andreas doesn’t' believe in gods.. is this your final revenge on your kind? Let him take over everything, and then all the gods just fade away?"

Blue eyes studied her. "I did what I had to do, Xena." Ares stated quietly. "To survive.. and you know better than anyone exactly what that's like." He walked forward, all mocking gone from his attitude. "I just don't see the point in you wasting your time fighting him.. you can't win."

Xena kept her eyes on Dori. "It's the fight that counts, Ares… haven't you learned that yet?" She looked up, suddenly finding herself feeling sorry for him. "I have to fight him, because that's what I do."

"To die for no reason?" Ares snorted. "You've gone soft in the head, Xena."

The warrior eyed him quietly. "Maybe Andreas is right." She mused. "Maybe you're not worth believing in."

Silence fell, as they studied each other. Ares attitude subtly shifted, and he stepped closer. "How can you not believe in me, Xena?" He lifted a hand and brushed it's fingers across her cheek. "You'd have to not believe in y….in a lot of things."

Xena stared at him, their eyes on a level, his fingers touching her face. "Why do you care if I live or die?" She finally asked, in a whisper. "I'll never go back to you.. we both know that, Ares."

He almost answered. She saw the bearded lips tense, and shift, then press together as Ares let his hand drop. "Hate to see so much talent for destruction go to waste, that's all." He replied with forced cheerfulness. "But, as usual, you seem to have your mind made up."

Slowly, the warrior nodded. "Do you?"

He had turned, and now he stopped, facing away from her. "Do I what?"

"Have your mind made up?" Xena asked, quietly, letting a little of her icy reserve fade. Two can play this game, can't they?

Ares turned, regarding her seriously. "Despite what you obviously think, Xena… I'm not in his camp." He lifted a hand towards her. "I was just trying to give you a friendly warning."

The warrior stood and eyed him with quiet intentness. "Ares, you're not telling me anything I don't know." She replied. "But what other choice do I have?"

He held out his fingers invitingly, one eyebrow lifting. "I can help you beat him.. but on my terms, Xena." He answered softly. "You come back… and everyone you care for gets to live.. in freedom."

Xena expelled the breath she'd been holding. "So." She nodded quietly. "There it is…victory handed to me in a basket… all I gotta do is hand over the tattered excuse I have for soul, is that it, Ares?"

"C'mon, Xena… how many mortals would get the offer?" The God of War laughed softly. "You're so hot to sacrifice yourself… hey, I'll take you up on it… the state of your soul never bothered me much."

Xena gazed down at her daughter, and tensed her lips into a sad smile, then looked up at Ares. "Moot point, Ares. Tattered or not, it's not mine to give."

"Gaboo." Dori tugged on a lace, then put it in her mouth and chewed industriously. She pointed at Ares. "Go!"

The god's face darkened in anger, and he walked over, to stare menacingly down at the baby, who glared back at him fearlessly. "Say goodbye to your friend here, pipsqueak. She's gonna be a puddle of bones shortly." He leaned over to peer at Dori.

The infant scowled, then reached up and grabbed his beard, tugging hard on it. "Bad!"

He jerked back out of her grasp and lifted a hand. "Why you little.."

"Don't." Xena's voice was very soft, yet colder than ice. "Touch her, and I'll break you."

Their eyes met and locked. "Getting bold in your old age, aren'cha?" Ares forced a smile. "I don't know why I bother with you Xena… you're past your prime, and you've got a lousy attitude." He stepped back and snapped his fingers, disappearing into a twirl of light.

The warrior slowly sat down, relieving shaky legs that threatened to collapse under her. "Oh boy."

"Boo?" Dori gazed anxiously up at her, patting her jaw with a tiny hand. "Mama…"

"Yeah… let me take you back to mama." Xena breathed, then realized the baby was looking over her shoulder. She turned, to find green eyes looking back at her with quiet intensity.

Gabrielle slowly limped in, using her staff to support her until she reached the box, and her soulmate, letting a hand rest on Xena's shoulder. "Hey."

The warrior inhaled. "How much did you hear?"

"Most of it.. I guess." The bard replied, giving the shoulder under her fingers a squeeze. "Enough to be incredibly proud of you." She tilted her head and smiled at her daughter, who made a face back. "And of you, sweetie." She gently nudged Xena with her hip. "Talk about a chip off the old block."

That got a tiny chuckle out of the taller woman, who then sobered. "He came to warn me." Xena stated, simply.

"Xena.. you know him well enough to know he loves to play games." Gabrielle argued. "He's got his own agenda." The bard sat down and exhaled. "He may not lie outright, Xena.. but he tells his own kind of truth."

The warrior didn't answer for a bit, as she allowed Dori to play with one of her much larger hands. Then she took a careful breath. "Ever since she was born….I've felt like I was living on borrowed time, Gabrielle." She finally replied. "Waiting for the other shoe to fall." Now she looked up, and into her soulmate's stricken eyes. "Here it is."

"No." Gabrielle's answer was as natural as breathing. "I don't buy that, Xena…he's trying to scare you." She stared into the pale blue eyes, willing them both to believe that. "Don't let him manipulate you like that." Like he did me, that last time. She added silently. Never again.

Was he? Xena thoughtfully regarded the dim rock wall. Maybe, maybe not, but either way it wouldn't change what she intended to do, and going further with her thoughts would only upset Gabrielle for no real cause. "Yeah." She sighed. "He never gives up though, huh?"

Gabrielle closed her eyes in profound relief. "I'd worry if he did." She leaned against her partner with a sigh that matched Xena's, as their heads touched.

"What are you doing out of bed?" The warrior asked.

"Coming to see why I had a stomach ache." Her soulmate answered.


"Now that one reason's gone… I'll go grab some breakfast." Gabrielle rose with a groan, leaning on her staff. "Good grief, Xena…how come it didn't hurt this bad yesterday?"

The warrior tucked an arm around her in support, as they walked towards the kitchen area, blue eyes distant with somber thought.


It was chaos. Gabrielle leaned against the wall, her staff replaced by a makeshift crutch Xena had come up with, from some springy wood she’d found in the back of one of the caverns. Over two hundred Amazons made more noise, she decided, than an entire flock of geese being plucked feather by feather. "Hey!" She called out to a passing Eponin. "Pony!"

The Amazon halted, and glanced around puzzled, until she spotted the bard, then reversed her course and ambled over. "Hey… shouldn’t you be sitting down?"

Gabrielle exhaled. "It’s easier to yell standing up." She muttered. "What is all that mess over there?" She pointed.

Pony looked, then crossed her arms and furrowed her brow. "Um…." She squinted. "Spare masks." Her nose wrinkled. "They’ve been in storage for a while."

"Ew." Gabrielle winced, as a waft of musky, nose twitching leather and old feather smell hit her. "Can we store them outside?"

Eponin gave her a look. "It’s raining." She objected.

"They’ll get clean." The bard replied instantly.

"They’ll fall apart." The Amazon countered.

"You could tell the difference?"

Pony scratched her head, and grinned sheepishly. "Okay.. I’ll see what I can do with them." She moved off towards the pile, grabbing two other Amazons as she did so.

Gabrielle sighed, and looked around for some other problem to resolve that didn’t require her moving. She’d spent so much time protesting she was fine this morning, after her soulmate had carefully bandaged her leg, that she knew she’d be busted big time if she complained now, even though the ache had worked it’s way up past her knee to her hip, and her entire body was protesting the strain of adjusting to the injury.

Cait entered, her blond hair plastered to her head and every inch of her covered in either mud, rain, or wet leathers. "Hello." She greeted Gabrielle courteously. "We’ve gotten the centaurs quite settled across the way.. they’re awfully happy with the place Xena found them."

"Great." The bard let out a relieved breath. "At least someone is." She heard a stifled yell, and glanced over to where two Amazons were trying to wrestle a huge box through a small opening. "Good grief.. you’d think we asked them to set up camp at the bottom of the River Styx."

The floor didn’t look far from it, actually. It was covered in mud and muddy footprints, as the large group had made their way inside, bringing the weather with them. The cavern stank of wet leather, wet fabric, wet tempers, and Gabrielle was getting a headache from it, and the noise of that many people moving around and yelling.

They’d hated the sleeping area, as she’d expected. They hated the barracks feel of it, and the queens had thrown a collective hissy fit the size of the Aegean sea over having to share a smaller, darker chamber in the back.

Not that Gabrielle could really blame them, or even say much, because after all, she wasn’t sharing it with them, was she? So she’d calmed them down, and offered to let them wander through the complex, and pick their own places if they liked. So far, they hadn’t taken her up on it, being too busy trying to settle the combined forces down a bit into the original cavern, along with a second, larger one Toris had discovered behind a small rockfall.

That, at least, they liked a little better, and with the main groups split half and half, there was room to move around a bit. It didn’t help the noise, though, which echoed off the rock walls and ceilings, and pounded into Gabrielle’s sensitive ears. She noticed Xena had disappeared again, and suspected her partner had found a nice, quiet place to hide in.

"Well.. it’s really quite different that what we’re used to." Cait replied diplomatically.

Gabrielle reached over and pushed a clump of mud out of the girl’s eyes. "I know… it’s going to take a few days for everyone to settle down… we realized that." She shifted her weight a little as her good leg cramped. "I know Xena wanted to… hm." The bard looked around. "I wonder where she is…"

"Oh.. up by the gate." Cait answered promptly. "It’s ever so muddy up there.. she’s digging out a trench, or something like that. I was helping."

Mud. Gabrielle sighed. Figures. "Ah… I see."

"Quite.. it was lovely, and Pally’s still up there digging away.. but she asked me to see if I could wrestle up some sandwiches or whatnot."

"Yeah… she missed lunch." Gabrielle mused. "I think we’ve got some fish rolls… c’mon." She led the way slowly out of the barracks cavern and into the food prep area, where it was almost as busy, but much quieter, and a good deal more organized.

Cyrene’s presence, she suspected, had a lot to do with that. "Hi mom." She smiled at the innkeeper, who was supervising the unloading of her precious herbs.

"Hey cutie." Cyrene glanced over. "Goodness, Gabrielle… would you please sit down? You’re making me ache just looking at you."

"Better not." The bard admitted wryly. "If I do, I might not get back up, and we’ve still got lots of stuff to do." She leaned on a box. "Do we have anything we can send up to the gate? They’re digging ditches up there."

Cyrene nodded. "Sure…" She motioned to one of the women helping her. "Give me a few of those rolls we had for lunch.. that’s it." She tucked them into a small basket. "Here.. and some bread.. right."

Gabrielle glanced around, then heaved herself off the box and limped over to a side table, capturing two pieces of soft, crumbly cake and adding them. She licked her fingers and ignored the chuckle from her mother in law. "There."

"You didn’t tell me it was for Xena." Cyrene wagged a finger at her in mock irritation. "What’s she doing digging in the mud, anyway? Can’t she get someone else to do that?"

The bard sighed. "I think she likes it." She admitted ruefully.

"Oh.. quite." Cait agreed. "She’s all over filthy…and having ever so much fun." She took the basket from Cyrene. "Thanks." She gave them both a smile then slipped out of the door, heading back outside.

Cyrene and Gabrielle exchanged looks, then they both laughed. "Some things never change." The innkeeper shook her head.

A commotion drew their attention, and they looked up towards the inner door. Footsteps approached rapidly, following a tiny, distinct patter. "Uh oh." Gabrielle muttered. "I think I recognize that sound."

Sure enough, Dori pelted around the corner, and skidded to a halt, swaying before falling down on her behind with a thump. "Gramma!" The infant squealed, scrambling to her feet and toddling forward, ramming her grandmother in the shins and grabbing on.

"Aww." Gabrielle wrinkled her nose into a frank smile. "That’s so cute."

"Hey sweetpea…" Cyrene laughed, reaching down and lifting her granddaughter up. "My gods, you’re getting big, huh?" She gave the infant a squeeze, making Dori grunt in surprise. "I missed you!"

The nanny had dashed in after her, and was now standing with her hand on her heart, catching her breath. "Goodness…. Dori.. you’re such a bad girl."

"Bck." Dori threw her arms around Cyrene’s neck and gave her a sloppy kiss on the neck. She then peeked over the innkeeper’s shoulder and spied Gabrielle. "Mama!" She held out a hand imperiously. "Come!"

"Ooo…" Gabrielle laughed, despite herself. "Listen to you!" She got her crutch under her arm and limped over, taking Dori's fingers in her hand. "Aren’t you a demanding little thing."

The baby smiled, showing her dimples, and batted long, dark lashes at her mother, giggling softly.

Cyrene patted her back and chuckled. "Tell you what, sweetpea… we’re about done here, how about you and me and your mama getting some warm stew, hmm??" She nudged Gabrielle in the direction of a couple of makeshift chairs in the corner.

"No.. I’ve…" Gabrielle straightened her shoulders, and glanced behind her. "I’ve gotta get this stuff settled, mom… and I wanted to visit my mother and Lila, just to make sure they’re okay." She shifted her weight and winced.

"Gabrielle." Cyrene gave her a serious look. "Just because you’re married to my daughter, doesn’t mean you have to take after her worst habits, okay? Come over here, and sit the Hades down before I pick you up and spank you."


"Right now." The innkeeper overrode her sternly, lifting an eyebrow at her. "You don’t want to make me mad, do you?"

Gabrielle opened her mouth to answer, then turned as footsteps approached. Oh good. She sighed mentally. That’ll take her mind off me. "Hey."

Xena was covered from head to foot in a deep, brown coating of mud, only the whites of her eyes providing any indication of her features. Her entire body was slathered with the stuff, which smelled of earth and wood, tiny bits of it dropping off her clothing as she inhaled. "Hi."

Gabrielle tried to think of something nice to say, and failed. "You are a mess." She remarked, wondering which parts of the brown muck were skin, and which were her leathers.

"Yeah, I know." The warrior was unobtrusively cradling one arm. "I um.. "

The bard realized the dark substance dripping on the floor wasn’t all water. "Good grief, Xena..what did you do?"

"Just a tiny cut." Xena waved her off. "Needs a stitch or two.. but it’s getting so bad out there we had to stop."

"Yeah… or risk drowning." A glum voice agreed, as Paladia trudged in, even more covered in mud, followed by a drenched Cait "I got mud in places I don’t wanna mention."

"Quite. Please don't." Cait pulled her wet, blond hair back and wiped the droplets out of her eyes.

"You coulda helped." The taller Amazon grunted, pulling a clump of rotted wood from behind her ear. "Insteada just standing there watching."

"I was guarding." Cait replied, unruffled. "Besides, you're ever so much better at mud."

"Huh." Paladia rolled her gray eyes

"There's water in the back of the new quarters." Gabrielle told her, kindly. "It's a little cold."

"Figures." Paladia stomped off, shedding bits of crud as she did so.

Cait chewed her lip, then exhaled. "I'd better trot along with you… you'll never manage that mud otherwise." She followed the taller woman out, who didn't deign to answer, but whose steps slowed until the younger Amazon caught up.

Xena sniffed, then scratched a mud covered ear, exchanging amused looks with her soulmate. "I think I'll.. um.. " She pointed towards the exit, and their chamber.

"Good idea." Gabrielle grimaced. "I won't tell you what you smell like."

The warrior's nose wrinkled. "Like I can't smell it?"

Dori blinked, then scowled, as she peered at Xena. "Boo?"

Xena was busy studying her soulmate. "How’s the leg?"

"Fine." Gabrielle answered briskly.

One eloquent eyebrow lifted at her almost invisibly.

"Really.. I've been staying off it." The bard told her, blithely. "Weren't you going to go wash?"

"Yeah." Xena scowled at her, then moved towards the door.

"Want some help?" Gabrielle called gently after her, keeping back a smile as the blue eyes shifted, and met hers, then one closed in a solemn wink.

"Xena…" A voice at the door, and the warrior turned, finding her brother in the cavern entrance. "You gotta come see this."

"What is it?"

"Horses… hundreds of em." Toris replied. "And some woman who says she knows you."

Xena sighed, and grabbed a cloth, wiping the worst of the muck off her face. "Now what?" But her nerves jumped, hearing of the horses.

She hadn't considered raising a cavalry, mostly because acquiring the animals would have been expensive, and tough, and getting them wild would have taken too long for even her to train them.

She followed Toris outside the cavern, and ran for the gate, the driving rain sloughing most of the mud off her body, leaving her relatively clean as she arrived at the fortification and leaped up onto the watch gate.

The smell of wet animals met her as she looked over, seeing a sea of wild eyed beasts, coats drenched and steaming, driven by six mounted figures in water darkened cloaks. The leader of them shoved forward through the animals, and threw a soaked hood back, meeting Xena's eyes.

Damn. The warrior was startled at the surge of recognition.

"Think you lost these, there, Tiger..." The woman drawled, with a rakish grin. "Want 'em back?"

The militia eyed her in startlement, then watched Xena for a reaction.

The tall, dark haired warrior stood tall, letting the wind and water drive against her body, and laughed in delight. "Open the gates!"

It was almost dark outside before Gabrielle made her way slowly into their chamber, pausing inside the entrance and leaning against the wall. Alone now, she dropped her determinedly energetic act, and closed her eyes, letting a little moan escape as she tried to find a position that didn’t ache.

"Wow." She rested a moment, then glanced around, blinking a little as her eyes fell on the new items she found there. "Oh…. " A chair had been added, with cushions made of burlap sacks stuffed with something soft looking, and there was a fire burning in a neatly made stone circle. Gingerly, she limped over to the chair and settled into it, slowly letting go of her crutch and letting it clatter to the floor. "Ungh."

She let her head fall back and rest on the cushion and extended her legs carefully, glad just to be sitting down in peace and quiet. The Amazons were settled. The centaurs were settled. The Amphipolitans were settled. Her family was settled.

Four hundred horses, and six deserters from Andreas were settled, sort of.

Xena was in her glory, surrounded by fighters and animals, and her dash into the rain had even removed most of the mud, as she’d come dancing back, wet but mutely exuberant. They were the horses she’d released from his city, and though she hadn’t realized it at the time, three of the stable hands and Dani and two of her friends had followed them out, chasing the animals down through the river valley until they’d gotten clear of the city, and taken off.

So now they had horses. Of course, they were disorganized, and most of them unbroken or badly broken in, and the Amazons weren’t mounted fighters, but… as Xena had said, they’d learn.

Gabrielle sighed, glad of the fire’s warmth against her body, which ached from head to toe from a combination of the previous day’s fight, and her struggling all day with the need to stay off one leg. She was hungry, but not enough to want to move, and she decided to close her eyes for a few minutes, then go and get Dori.

The chair rocked soothingly under her weight, then slowly went still.

Xena leaned over her worktable, studying the lists strewn over them, and the newly changed map which lay over top of most of the surface. In one hand, she held a quill, the other spread long fingers over the parchment, as she skimmed the writing, looking for mistakes.

Ah. She scribbled a note in one corner, then straightened, easing a crick in her back with a satisfied sigh. Her eyes lifted and regarded the large opening, giving her a view of the twilit valley, still misty with rain, but now holding a large, shifting herd towards it’s far end, clustered around the small lake.

Horses. Xena smiled to herself, crossing her arms over her chest. They changed everything. Her prior strategy, based on shadowy hit and run tactics, now also held a cavalry potential. Four hundred horses… rawly broken, true, but if she could just get them even rudimentarily war trained…

It would give her an incalculable advantage, and the fact that Andreas had been deprived of them was even more important. She reached a hand up and rubbed her neck, nodding quietly as she reviewed her plans for the next few days.

If the weather cleared, that is. She’d have the Amazons start the process of helping her to train the horses.. and at the same time, school themselves to be better riders. They were natural born warriors, and that, at least, she didn’t have to teach them. But if she could get a decent number to learn the art of fighting on horseback, then added that to what other troops she picked up….

Yeah. Xena gazed out at the rain, watching the dark form of her friend, the black stallion gallop across the grass, shaking his head to rid his mane of the excess water. That had certainly been a surprise… along with seeing her friend Dani again, too.

And speaking of… boots scuffed along the floor outside and the former innkeeper ducked inside the cavern, her clothing drenched and droplets of water dusting off her light brown hair. Hazel eyes met Xena’s and a crooked smile covered the tall fighter’s face. "Interesting bunch you got here, Tiger."

Xena let a brow lift and propped one booted foot up on her chair. "Gonna get a lot more interesting for you if you keep calling me that." She drawled warningly.

The woman chuckled and shook herself, scattering water everywhere. "Your little buddy does."

"Gabrielle.." Xena extended the bard’s name, rolling it over her tongue slowly to give it emphasis. "Has earned the privilege of calling me whatever the Hades she wants to." The warrior rolled up her documents and looped a piece of leather over them. "But that’s an exclusive arrangement."

The tall woman considered that, then shrugged. "If you say so." She folded her arms. "Them ponies are all settled in.. I think Blackie likes it here." She arched her back. "Not a bad spot…Hades of a place to find though… lucky I ran into that bunch of raiders who got their butts whipped round about here last night."

Xena nodded. "Yeah… they were chasing some folks who’d gotten out of a village they’re holding not far away." She tapped the edge of the parchment against her chin, and considered the situation. A small group… at least, she’d planned on sending out to check the place over….but maybe she’d just go herself.

Mmm. Yeah. "Anyway… did they set you up with bunk space?"

The woman nodded. "Yeah.. me and the boys…over by the folks from your home village, I guess." She cleared her throat. "What’s with all the birds? They really Amazons?"

"Oh yeah." Xena scratched her ear. "That’s what they are…. I can get you in there with them if you’re interested." She gave the innkeeper a speculative look. "You’re just their type."

"Hey.. what do you mean by that?" The woman growled, giving her a dark look. "No thanks… they’re weird." She shook her head and exhaled. "I’m gonna go get dry…I hear there’s good ale around."

Xena tucked her parchment under her arm. A cold mug of ale sounded like a great idea. "In the big cave." She started for the entrance, after blowing out the candle on her worktable. "See ya there later." She ducked through the crack in the rock and went through the narrow hallway between the caverns, oblivious of the interested and speculative eyes that followed her through the semi darkness.

"Yeah.. .all right." Dani murmured. "Exclusive arrangement, huh? Mmm." She sauntered out after Xena, watching the powerful, rhythmic stride as the warrior moved across the rock floor. "We'll see."

The kitchen area was warm and bustling when Xena crossed through it, the smell of roasting meat and the soft buzz of voices washing over her in a welcome wave. She was halfway through when a familiar form intercepted her, and she came to a neat halt, giving her mother an expectant look. "Looks a lot better in here." She admitted, with a slight smile.

"I should think so." Cyrene snorted softly. "I see you scraped most of the mud off you."

"The rain did me a favor." Xena nodded. "Took a while to get things settled…but that's gonna be a huge advantage for us… and a big whack at Andreas." She gave her mother a satisfied look.

"Glad to hear that, honey." Cyrene gave her a pat on the arm. "You headed anywhere in particular?"

"Yeah.. I’m going to go check on some supplies… I need to see if we’ve.." She paused, at her mother’s upheld hand. "What?"

"Where’s Gabrielle?"

Blue eyes flicked over the cavern in confusion, then came back to rest on her. "Gabrielle? I don’t know.. around here somewhere.. I saw her a while ago before I went over to the workroom.. why?"

"I think you should go find her." Her mother suggested gently. "I don’t think she was feeling too good, honey."

Damn. Xena felt a surge of guilt, knowing the innkeeper was right. "Yeah.. she got banged up a little last night.. I.. um… " She hesitated. "You’re right."

Cyrene gave her a pat on the belly, but kept silent.

Xena moved past her mother, and entered the winding passage that eventually led back to their quiet cavern. She paused in the entry, spotting the still form curled up in the chair and cursed at herself under her breath.

The fire lit the cavern with golden light, and she set her parchments down as she crossed the rock floor and knelt at the bard’s side, hesitating before she lifted a hand and gently stroked the soft cheek. "Hey… "

The bard’s breathing caught, then her eyes blinked open, revealing darkened green eyes that stared for a confused moment at the warrior before they cleared. "Oh… damn." She struggled to sit up, jarring her knee and letting out a tiny yelp. "Yeow.."

"Hey.. hey.. relax.." Xena told her softly. "Take it easy…." She supported her partner carefully, sliding an arm around her shoulders. "Damn it, Gabrielle.. why didn’t you tell me it was this bad?" She felt the bard's tense grip on the chair arm relax a little.

"It wasn’t.. " Gabrielle protested faintly. "I was just a little tired.. so I came in here… and sat.. " She yawned, wincing as her jaw cracked. "In this nice chair.. did you make it?" She patted the arm, smoothing her fingers over the neat craftsmanship. "I bet you did… it looks like your work."

"Yeah." Xena muttered, still upset at herself for ignoring her partner. "Let me take a look at this." She straightened the bard’s injured leg out, and started working on the wrapping.

Gabrielle stifled another yawn, then relaxed a little, reaching out and running her fingers through her partner’s dark hair. Her nap had made her feel a bit better, and she checked a tan warrior ear idly. "You’ve still got mud back here, you know."

"Oh yeah?" Xena murmured absently, as she unwound her bandaging and made a face at the swollen and bruised joint revealed underneath. "Hmph… no wonder this is killing you." She moved the leg carefully, and felt Gabrielle’s fingers tighten on her arm, though the bard remained silent. "Sorry."

Gabrielle gazed unhappily at her leg. "It’s worse today, isn’t it?"

Blue eyes lifted to her face in silent accusation.

"I know.. I know. .it’s my fault." The bard sighed, letting her head fall back. "If I’d stayed in bed, it’d be better, right?" She rolled her eyes towards her soulmate. "I thought I got a lot done today, though."

With a cross look, Xena lifted her, and walked the several paces to the bed, putting her down carefully. "You did…. But it’s gonna cost you tomorrow, Gabrielle.. because damn it, you’re staying right here!"

The bard folded her hands on her stomach, and regarded her tall friend. "Okay." She agreed simply.

Xena eyed her suspiciously. "Okay, but what?"

Innocent green eyes peered back at her. "But nothing." Gabrielle replied. "You’re right… it was killing me today, and I’d have felt a lot better staying right here flat on my back." She almost smiled at her soulmate’s nonplussed look.

"Riiiggghtt." Xena drawled slowly. "So.. you’re not gonna argue with me tomorrow?"

"Nope." Gabrielle nodded. "That’s right… besides, do you know how bad a mood being in pain puts me in?" She sighed. "I almost slapped a few people today.. and that’s not good, Xena." It was a hard admission, especially since some of the people had been friends of hers. "I thought I had a better grip on myself than that."

Xena sat down on the rock floor and circled her knees with both arms. "Gabrielle, to be completely honest…I react like that even when I’m feeling just fine." She gave her partner a wry smile. "I don’t have a lot of patience." She exhaled. "I should have checked up on you today.. I’m sorry."

A shrug. "For what? Xena.. I’m a big girl… if I’m dumb enough to hop around all day and refuse to lie down, it’s not your fault." The bard reached out and captured a hand, bringing it close to her body and rubbing the skin gently. "Hey.. I’m feeling a lot better.. why don’t you go grab Dori, and we’ll get something for dinner, huh?"

"How about I go grab Dori, and dinner, and we relax in here?" The warrior countered. "I’ve got a surprise for you."

"We’re going to get teased all over the place if we…. " Gabrielle stopped, and pondered. "Surprise?"

Xena nodded, a tiny sparkle evident in her pale blue eyes. "Yep."

"Hmm… what kind of surprise?" The bard inquired. "The good kind?" She was fully willing to be convinced, at this point.

"Oh yeah.. you’ll like it." The warrior assured her. "I promise."

"Hmm. Okay." Gabrielle allowed her body to relax, wiggling her toes a little. "A bed, a surprise, and you.. can’t ask for more than that."

Xena smiled quietly, and regarded the floor for a moment. "I’ll be right back." She slipped through the opening and left the bard to her quiet reflection.

It lasted all of ten or so seconds, before Gabrielle reached down and picked up her diary, setting it on her lap and twirling her quill before her lips. A box next to the bed provided a stand for her ink, and she uncorked the jar, dipping the tip of the quill in and staring at the page for a minute.

Well, the Amazons are here. It actually went better than I thought it would, what with those caves and all, but I think since they’d been marching in the rain for the better part of a day, anything dry looked okay to them.

The queens were in a big time snit, but I managed to get them all calmed down… they’re mostly in separate rooms now, but Eph decided to stay with our people, and she and Pony are bunked down in the big dormitory, which kind of settled everyone's feathers down a little.

Everyone keeps asking me what happened to my leg. I don’t really want to get into it.. I’ve sort of been telling them that I just tripped and fell, but Eph gave me a funny look when I did that, so I’m not sure what’s going on there. I guess I’ll have to come clean about it.. maybe tomorrow.

Gabrielle glanced up as she heard toenails clattering, then smiled as Ares trotted in and jumped up onto the bed, curling up in a ball and putting his muzzle on her good ankle. "Hey boy… where have you been? Hiding from Dori, huh?"

The ears drooped, and Ares gave her a pathetic look.

"I know.. I know..she’s a terror." The bard laughed quietly, shaking her head, as she bent over her book again.

Speaking of Ares, he dropped in today. It’s the first time we’ve seen him since..

She stopped writing, and leaned on her arms, allotting herself a moment of memory. Then she exhaled, and continued.

Since Dahok’s pit. I can’t say I’ve missed him, and he’s up to his usual bag of tricks, but Xena really told him off today.. I was almost scared for her, he got so mad, and started throwing bolts around, but you know.. she didn’t even turn a hair. And then, when he made like he was going to hit Dori, she told him… gods, she told him she’d break him if he did.

I don’t understand what’s between them sometimes. I know Xena doesn’t like him, but sometimes… it’s almost like they understand each other just like she and I do. She’s not afraid of him, and sometimes I wonder if it came right down to it, if she could break him. They fought each other right to a standstill that time… so I do wonder.

I bet he does too. I bet he pushes her only just so far, because he knows if he goes too far, anything could happen.

And he’s a god.

That’s so weird.

Or maybe it’s not, if you really think about things.

He warned her she could be in real trouble if she keeps going with this army thing.

Look at that. I can’t even write the truth, I have to go all around in circles with it, because what he really said makes me hurt so much I just can’t do it. What he said was, she’d die.

And I think she believes it. I know she does… there’s a place in her, down really deep, so deep I can’t get a touch on it, that’s hurt very badly. As much as I love her, and as much as she loves me, she still has this horrible… hurt…and the worst part about it is.. I’m at the center of it.

Me. The problem is, the more she loves me, the more she remembers all the stuff that happened, and all the stuff we did to each other, and knowing all that is killing her. It’s like.. every good thing that happens, she waits for the bad side.. for some punishment to just dump all over her because she can’t believe she deserves any happiness.

I want to just hold her sometimes.. just hold her, and tell her it’s okay.. and to just live her life, and be as happy as she can, because that’s the best anyone can do.

And she does, a lot, I know that. We have fun.. more than most people, I think… and she gets such a kick out of Dori, and all the friends we have here, even the Amazons. I guess I should take my own advice, and really think about those times, and not think about the few dark spots we go through.

I think Ares was playing her. I think there’s a chance something bad could happen, but it’s a war, you know? There’s always that chance.. for all of us. People die during wars. Sometimes, they’re not even the ones fighting it, like my da. And poor Alain.

But you can bet anything that I’m going to stick right by her during this whole thing, no matter what happens. If anyone wants to get to her, they’re going to have to go through me first.

Gods. Listen to me. You’d think I was Hercules, the way I talk.

Gabrielle sighed, and chewed on the edge of her quill, then closed the book up and set it aside as she heard familiar footsteps, combined with childish warbling. She let a smile take over her face as Xena entered, Dori in one arm and a pot of something slung over the other. "Well, well well.."

Dori had been squirming around, and now she stopped, hanging over Xena’s arm with a wide eyed look. "Mama!" She lunged, trying to get to her mother, making the warrior squawk in alarm.

"Hey! Dori.. cut that out.. you can’t fly." Xena scolded the infant, as she moved closer and allowed Gabrielle to grab onto the active infant.

"Not yet, anyway." Gabrielle cuddled her daughter, tickling her and making a face at the giggling baby. "Don’t worry, though, honey… Boo will teach you that soon."

"Very funny." Xena had tugged off her boots and changed into a clean shirt, then she retrieved two wooden bowls from their gear and filled them from the pot. "I’d forgotten something about caves." She lifted her head and winced as a discordant tone echoed through the rocks. "Gods."

"What’s that?’ Gabrielle looked up from her play, then frowned, as the odd noise got louder. "What on earth?"

"Singing." Xena returned to the bed and handed her partner a bowl and spoon. "Amazons singing… mom cracked a keg open." She curled up next to the bard on her side and took a bite of the stew, chewing it slowly and swallowing it. "I got stopped."

"Yeah??" The bard munched on a carrot. "They want you to join in?"

"No." Xena kept her eyes on the bowl, moving the pieces of meat around. "They wanted to know what happened to you."

"Gods." Gabrielle sighed aggrievedly. "And you told them, huh? With proper embellishments, right?"

Xena’s eyes peeked up, a faintly devilish twinkle in them. "Yep."

"You’re toast." Her soulmate swore. "Xena… what did you tell them?"

Wide, innocent blue eyes. "The truth." The warrior offered up a bit of carrot to her soulmate, but it was snatched out of her hand by a hungry infant. "Hey.. you had dinner."

"Mm." Dori crawled up and started investigating her favorite plaything's bowl. "Nmm…" A piece of venison found it's way into her mouth, and she sucked at it with interest. "More."

"Oo." Gabrielle grinned in delight. "That’s a new one."

Dori turned and grabbed her mother's nose, smearing stew all over her face. "Mama.. good."

Xena scooped up her stew and managed to swallow several mouthfuls in succession, watching her partner as she tried to remove the mess from her skin. "Nice…" She leaned over, past Dori's body and gently took the sauce off with her lips and tongue.

Gabrielle stayed quite still until she was finished, then she slowly released a breath, letting the tingles run all down her spine. "Ohhh…. Thanks Dori." She gave her daughter, who was watching with a puzzled look, a smile. "You can smear stuff on me any time, okay?"

"Mama?" The infant burbled. "More." She pawed at the bard's dish, retrieving a piece of soft root and stuffing it into her mouth. "Mm."

"C'mon now Dori… I saw grandma giving you two cakes tonight.. don't tell me you're still hungry." Xena scolded her. "I think that's where that 'more' comes from.. my mother." She managed to get another spoonful into her mouth before the little thief came visiting, snatching a carrot from her. "Hm… that's okay. You can take those."

"Xena." Gabrielle gave her an exasperated look. "You know she copies you… if you don't eat your vegetables, she won't either."

"And who talked her out of liking cereal?" The warrior shot back, lifting both eyebrows. "Madam 'give me fruits and nuts or give me death' Gabrielle?"

The bard poked her tongue out, then they both laughed. "Ah.." Gabrielle slid over a little, until their shoulders were touching. "I don't know about you, Xena.. but I think I really like being a mom."

The dark head nestled against hers. "Me too." Xena replied quietly. "It's been the second best thing in my life." She met Gabrielle's eyes as the bard looked up at her, and they exchanged smiles of understanding based in emotion so complex it staggered the imagination.

Gabrielle captured a carrot, and held it up, grinning when white teeth closed gently over her fingers, removing the tidbit and lips sucked her skin clean. "Mine too." She leaned over and kissed her soulmate, tasting the spices on her lips before they parted. "But I hope you'll say that when she starts going out on dates." The bard gave her partner a wry look.

Xena was quiet for a moment, as she gazed thoughtfully at the busily exploring Dori. "I think she'll be able to take care of herself." She stated softly, letting the words fall into a charged stillness. "She has your spirit."

"No way." Gabrielle's voice took on a deeper tone. "She's going to need her Boo…for a long time." A pause. "Just like I do." The bard finished, in a much softer tone.

The warrior could feel the tension, and see the faint flaring of her partner's nostrils as Gabrielle fought to stay calm, and focused. She looked into the intense green eyes for several heartbeats, her instinct for trouble warring furiously with her heart, which shied away from hurting Gabrielle with vague premonitions.

Strangely, her heart won, and after all, now she had cavalry, right? Maybe it would make the difference…or maybe Gabrielle was right, and Ares was just trying to scare her. She nudged the bard a little. "Ah… by that time, I'll be so worn out, I'll have to throw rotten apples at em from the porch." Xena let a relaxed smile cross her face. "And let my reputation do the talking for me."

Gabrielle let her head rest against the muscular shoulder next to her and felt almost lightheaded with relief. "Somehow I doubt that." She responded in a playful tone. "I think she's going to have her work cut out for her, getting around you." She sighed. "Gods only know I always do."

Dori took the opportunity to snatch Xena's spoon, and sucked it's end, then dove in looking for more booty. "Mm."

Xena lifted a sardonic eyebrow. "Oh yeah.. I can see that now." She retrieved her eating utensil. "Gimme that."

The infant scowled at her, an endearingly familiar look on a face that wasn't quite suited for it. "Mine." She grabbed for the spoon, which Xena held up out of her reach. "Boo!" The baby crawled up her playmate's body, scrabbling at the warrior's face with her hands. "Mine!"

Gabrielle captured the baby fists, and held them, then pointed at Xena. "Uh uh." She wagged her finger at her daughter. "Mine."

Dori sat down with a perplexed look, peering first at her mother, then at Xena.

"It's all right Dori." The warrior captured a tiny foot, and squeezed it. "You're ours."

The green eyes blinked at her solemnly.

Xena stifled a yawn, then glanced over her partner's shoulder towards the entrance. "Your sister's coming."

Gabrielle didn't move a muscle, content to leave her head resting on her soulmate's shoulder. "Nifty… " She murmured, then she shifted, and eyed Xena. "Didn't you mention a surprise?"

A slow, almost sexy grin eased across Xena's face. "Oooohhhh yeah……" She reached up and eased Gabrielle back onto her pillows, as the doorway darkened with Lila's presence. "Be right back."

The bard indulged herself in a yawn, as she turned her head. "Hey, sis."

Lila entered, tugging a pretty blue shawl around her shoulders. "Hey… I came to see how you were feeling… " Gabrielle's taller, dark haired sibling crossed over to the bed and sat down on the edge of the chair. "Hey there, Dori.. past your bedtime huh?" She glanced over towards the water. "Hi, Xena."

"Bck." The baby was playing contentedly on top of the covers, having discovered one of Gabrielle's quills there. She shredded the feathers off, tossing bits of them all over her mother.

"Evening." The warrior waved absently, from where she was kneeling.

Gabrielle stretched her body out, easing the aches as she settled more comfortably into the stuffed mattress. "I'm doing all right." She put her hands behind her head. "You guys settle in okay? I wanted to go check you out, but I kinda got sidetracked tonight."

"No problem… we got everything sorted out." Lila said quietly. "Mom's busy with Cyrene, and I've been chasing after Gabriel all night. He seems to think this is one big playpen." She studied her older sister. "You sure you're okay? You looked so wiped today.. I was kinda scared about you." Lila leaned forward. "Is it true you held off fifty soldiers? I heard that tonight."

Gabrielle hitched herself up on her elbows and glared in the direction of her soulmate. "Xena."

Devastatingly innocent blue eyes peeked from over one cloth covered shoulder. "Yeeesss?"


"I'm sure I said fifteen." The warrior replied reasonably. "They must have heard wrong." She was working over a wooden cask, busily putting something in three bowls.

"Oh.. what about the runaway horses, then.. and the hundred spears?" Lila asked with interest.

"Xeeennaaa…" The bard growled.

Xena stood and walked over, handing a bowl to each woman, and then seating herself on the edge of the bed. "Um…. " She dug a spoon into her dish and took a taste. "You should try this.. it's great."

"Hah." Gabrielle gave her soulmate a very annoyed look. "Do you really think you can make me forget about you telling some wild story about me just by…. " A pause. "Mmmm…. What is this?" The bard rolled the cold, and sweet substance across her tongue, tasting the honey and fruit most.

"Wow." Lila had already tasted the treat. "Xena.. this is amazing.. "

Xena stretched out on her side, crossing her bare legs at the ankles, and assuming a smug look. Dori immediate crawled over and stuck her hand in the warrior's bowl, stuffing her fingers into her mouth and sucking them. "Hey….cut that out."

"I don't blame her." Gabrielle disagreed, absorbed in her treat. "Good gods, Xena…this is fantastic."

"Mm." Dori scrambled up and stood unsteadily next to Xena, holding onto her shirt and reaching after the bowl, which the warrior held out of reach. "Boo!"

Lila laughed at the sight, as Xena rolled onto her back and the baby climbed up onto her, sitting on her chest with an injured look. "She's so cute." She told her sister. "Oh look.. when she makes that face, she reminds me of you when we were little, and ma wouldn't give you those little nutball treats you loved."

"Thanks, Li." The bard muttered, seeing the look of mischevious glee on her partner's face. "Don't get any ideas, Boo." She pointed at the warrior warningly.

Lila merely grinned, and finished off her dessert, while watching her sister's household from the corner of her eye. Xena was indulgently sharing her bowl with Dori, who was seated on the warrior, bouncing a little, and Lila spared a moment to reflect on how unlikely the scene would have seemed to her not that long ago.

But she knew Xena now. The tall, imposing, sometimes impatient fighter had this whole other side to her that peeked out now and again, a lot more now than when she'd first met Xena, on that day by the river.

She'd feared for her sister's life those long years of isolation and nomadic roaming, with good reason, having heard some of the stories of the things they'd done. But every time she'd seen Gabrielle, the changes in her sister had made her understand those things, though tempering the bard's optimism, were shaping her into a powerful, dynamic, fearless person.

And strangely, an apt partner for the dour, sometimes violent, secretive woman she chose to make her life with. They were, in their very diversity, a good fit for each other, and Lila had been amused to see how skillfully her sister drew out the kinder and gentler side of her intimidating partner, just like Xena's fierce abilities drew out the feisty aggressiveness that had always been a muted part of Gabrielle's personality.

Even after everything, they'd managed to hang onto each other, something that Lila kept in the back of her mind, to remind people when they complained of the little things that annoyed them about their partners.

"All right.. that's all there is." Xena gave the last spoonful to Dori, who smacked her lips appreciatively. "C'mon.. let me get you cleaned up." She sat up, then stood in one smooth motion, picking the baby up and taking her over to the small wash basin near the fire.

Lila laughed softly, then turned her attention to her sister's injured leg, propped up on a stuffed sack. "Wow… bet that smarts."

"Yeah." The bard set her bowl down and regarded her knee with a scowl. "Looks like I'm stuck here tomorrow…got any chores I can do lying down?" She looked up at the snarky snicker coming from her soulmate. "Hey… no comments from the cheap seats, okay?"

Lila sucked on her spoon and thought. "Sure…we've got a whole basket of herbs they just tossed together, that needs sorting.. I could bring it by, and we could do that.. might be nice just to spend a little quiet time with you."

Gabrielle nodded. "Great.. I'd like that too.. though I'm not sure how quiet it'll be with the miniature tornado over there around."

"Hey." Xena looked back over her shoulder.

"I meant Dori." The bard drawled.

"Oh." The warrior displayed a grin. "I could take her with me."

"In to the mud, to mess around with Amazons and horses? I don’t think so, Xena.. it took me a candlemark to get all that muck off her the last time." She watched as her partner tucked the baby into her cradle. "As long as you block off the entrance there before you leave with that box, we should be okay."

Lila stood and stretched. "It's a deal then.. I'll grab that basket and head over here after breakfast… see you then, sis." She glanced over. "Night, Xena."

"Night." The warrior resumed her place on the bed as the dark haired woman left the chamber.

Gabrielle squirmed over. "So." She traced a bit of Xena's collarbone. "That really all there was of that stuff?"

Blue eyes regarded her from under lowered lids. "Whhhyyy?"

"Because I really liked it." The bard rested her chin on Xena's shoulder and blew into her ear, causing a shiver to convulse down the long body. "And I want more."

"Oh really?" Xena drawled softly, a wicked smile shaping her lips. "What's it worth to ya?"

"Question is.." Gabrielle went to work on the sensitive ear with tiny bites and licks. "What's it worth to you.?"

Xena found herself very uncharacteristically speechless, stunned by her body's reaction to the gentle touch. Not that she hadn't always been responsive to the bard, but… "Ares." She managed to rasp out. "Door."

A scrabbled of toenails registered as she closed her eyes and listened to the low laugh in her ear. She let the chills chase up and down her, before she lazily turned her head and found honey scented lips waiting for her. "You." She explored their softness with a sense of decadent indulgence. "Are worth everything to me."

"Mm." Gabrielle eased closer, running a light touch over the soft cotton, before slipping her hand underneath it to get to warm skin. She stroked downward, feeling the muscles tense under her fingers, and the ribs expand outward as Xena's breathing deepened.

It was such an interesting sensation of power. The bard slowly moved her attentions downward, feeling the strong body under her shift as she followed a familiar line down the warrior's belly, pausing a moment to playfully tickle her navel, surprising a soft laugh from her, that whispered out past their joined lips.

Gabrielle let her eyes drift open, and saw blue eyes darkened almost to purple gazing half lidded back at her, alive with a sensual desire that sent a jolt straight to the bard's groin. She leaned forward, letting her body brush against the warrior's and feeling a hand curl over her hip. "Mine." She rasped out, catching Xena's lip in her teeth in playful seduction, feeling Xena's body shift again as her fingers slid slowly across the suddenly tensed muscles of an inner thigh.

"Oh yeah." Xena felt a faintly giddy smile twitch across her lips at her soulmate's adorable possessiveness. "All yours." She purred, surrendering willingly.


Continued in Part 14