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

Specific Story Disclaimers:

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

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

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

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

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

Darkness Falls - Part 1

By Melissa Good

It was a quiet campsite. The ring of trees around it shielded it's inhabitants from the worst of the evening wind, but little whirls kept the fire snapping fitfully, and stirred the leaves which shifted against each other as though whispering secrets.

Outside the fire's ring of light, a horse cropped grass idly, her golden coat catching barest hints of silver as she moved in and out of the moonlight, searching for tastier clumps of grass. Every once in a while, her head would lift, and she would turn her round, liquid eyes towards the two women seated within the camp, then go back to chewing.

A reddish blond woman sat cross-legged nearer the fire, with a bound parchment balanced on her bare legs. She wore a dun colored wraparound skirt, with an intricately tooled belt, and a brief leaf green halter-top, which matched the color of her eyes.

Across from her was a much taller, dark haired woman dressed in dark brown leather, whose attention was focused intently on a bit of brass armor being reshaped in her hands. A low rattle sounded from near the fire, and she glanced up, then put her task down and stood, walking to the fire and dropping down to a crouch, taking up a small pot of boiling water and pouring it's contents into two mugs balanced on a flat rock.

She paused, waiting patiently for the herbs to steep, and using the fragrance lifting from the brew to judge it's readiness. After a few minutes, she stirred a bit of honey into both, and stood, crossing to where the fair haired woman sat, and handing down the cup.

Gabrielle looked up and took the offered tea, with a tentative smile. "Thanks."

Xena smiled back, and nodded, then went back to her spot, and picked up the armor bit again, settling down on the ground with a soft sigh.

Very aware of the green eyes that watched her. And of the silence.

Gabrielle gazed sadly at her firelit companion, then put her cup down, and resumed her quill, staring down at her diary unhappily, rereading her recently finished entry.

I don't worry about Tartarus much, anymore. They can't come up with anything worse than what I.. what we've been through this time.

I'm not going to sit here and assign blame.. it would be useless, and I think we both know that. I made some really bad decisions, she made some really bad decisions.

We paid for it. Dearly.

We gave up peace, and happiness, a good part of both of our souls, and very probably.. a unique friendship. The only thing left is the love between us. But we paid a big price for that, too.

Because every time I look at her, it hurts. To know what we did to each other, how it felt. What I felt. What we lost.

She will never trust me again. Oh.. sure, for most things. Day to day stuff, normal stuff, sure. But when I look into her eyes, I don't see into her soul like I used to. Now there are barriers there against me, and the worst thing is, I can't blame her for them.

As for me.. well, there's no safe place anymore, is there? The one thing I knew… I KNEW.. that I believed in more than anything else.. was that she would never knowingly hurt me.

She has. With a brutality that I always knew she was capable of, but swore, in the depths of my soul I would never seen turned against me…and I was wrong. I've never been afraid of her, but now I am, and she knows it.

I see it in her eyes when she looks at me. It hurts when I remember when there used to be laughter lurking back there. When I remember calling her my playmate. When she used to smile, and tickle me just because.

Not any more. We're very.. careful.. with each other. Like there's something really fragile, that might break.

We love each other. That's about the only thing I have left. I'm glad that survived, but sometimes that makes it even worse because I can remember what it used to be like between us, and now..

I miss my best friend.

I wonder if we'll ever find that again.

She closed the diary, and set her quill down on it, then took a swallow of the cooling tea, smiling sadly as the taste of mint filled her mouth. She looked up across the too quiet campfire, and caught Xena staring into the flames, her armor bit forgotten in one hand, and a dull, lost expression on her face. "Hey." She called softly.

Blue eyes gone almost violet in the firelight turned hesitatingly her way. 'Mm?"

"Dinar for your thoughts." The bard replied quietly.

Xena's gaze fell to her hands, which were twisting the armor bit around. "Not worth a dinar, Gabrielle." The warrior stood, and dusted her hands off, flipping the bit up and catching it again before walking over to her saddlebag and tucking it away. She hesitated, one hand on the hilt of her sword, and stared off into the surrounding darkness for a long moment.

'Xena?" Gabrielle felt herself choosing her words carefully, and spared a wistful thought back to a time when she hadn't needed to.

The warrior turned her head, and glanced over. "Yes?"

The bard felt like she was walking on eggshells, and hated it. "Listen.. you.. look a little tired.. why don't you give that a miss tonight, and just kinda take it easy?" Resolutely, she battled down her discomfort, and concentrated on the fact that she had a right to be saying this.

Xena's eyes studied her face for a long silent moment, then a faint grin edged her lips. "You're right." She admitted quietly. "That's a good idea." Almost with an air of relief, she stood up, and walked around to the other side of their joint bedroll, dropping down onto it, and starting to remove her leg armor with a sigh.

Gabrielle rolled onto her back, and carefully reached for the rear strapping, conscious of how Xena's leg stilled as she touched her. She unbuckled the worn clasp, then reached under Xena's knees to get the other one, finally giving the warrior's calf a little pat. "Ok."

"Thanks." Xena's voice floated down, as she waited for Gabrielle to roll clear before she removed the armor, and set it aside. Then she lay back, with her head resting on her folded cloak, and gazed up, at the explosion of stars overhead.

The bard watched her silent profile for a moment, then let her gaze drop the sleeping fur, where her fingers were idly playing with the surface. "Wonder how Ares is?" She asked softly, thinking of their tame wolf, left behind in Amphipolis before they'd gone overseas.

Xena cleared her throat a little before answering. "I'm sure mom's taking care of him." She turned her head a little so that Gabrielle's face was in her field of vision, but didn't look directly at her. "He'll be fine."

"I miss him." Gabrielle felt tears coming, along with the knowledge that it wasn't just her pet she was missing. Ares meant home, and family, and happier times.

Xena's jaw clenched tightly, the muscles in bold relief against the firelight. "So do I.' She finally said, in a very low voice, then closed her eyes. "Good night, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle let the tears fall silently for a while, wetting the soft fur under her cheek, her eyes studying the familiar face next to her. She wearily allowed her gaze to gently absorb the sight of her companion, though she jerked past the fading scar on the warrior's neck as she always did.

The gentle tinkle of beads, and the scent of opium had permeated the bedroom, and she had lain, heart pounding wildly as she'd sensed Xena's nearing presence.

So many things were going through her mind. Her desperate choice, the bargain she'd struck with Ming Tien, her fragile, haunting hope that Xena would just realize she'd done this for the right reasons.

If she'd closed her eyes, she could have almost felt the gentle pressure of the warrior's lips on her head as they'd parted at the docks, Xena's gaze sad, but understanding when she'd told her she couldn't go with her. Couldn’t face the thought of watching Xena slide back into the darkness. Couldn’t cope with the growing distance between them, since… Britannia.

Since she'd lied. Since she'd had to make the soul tearing decision between her daughter and her soulmate. And she'd done it, casting Hope from her in the desperate attempt to save her life, knowing Xena would.. could.. kill her.

She'd given Hope a chance, but that knowledge had driven a wedge between them, and she'd felt it. Knew Xena had felt it, knew it in the haunting sadness in the eyes across from her during the long sea voyage back home.

Now the message, and her single minded purpose, and that story of hatred and betrayal that sickened Gabrielle despite her best efforts.

Part of her had wanted to just wander off the docks, and find a deep hole somewhere just to lie down in. But the other part of her, the part that claimed part of Xena, doggedly kept her going, driving her ahead, never stopping, never taking no for an answer, until it brought her to this place, and this time. "I'll take your place." She'd told Ming Tien.

"You will die." The Chin ruler calmly advised her, his palms neatly, and precisely aligning.

"No." The bard had spoken from sure, gentle knowledge. "She won't hurt me."

Now, with the gentle breeze stirring the unfamiliar drapery, and the scent of odd spices in her nose, Gabrielle sent up a prayer to her very distant gods and hoped she was right.

A motion. She looked up, a flash of a blade…

Then recognition flared, and in less than a breath, Xena had frozen her motion, and let out a single, almost soundless cry.

Gabrielle had cringed, and felt something shrivel deep inside her as she'd heard it, and saw the shock melt into horror, then into shattering grief in Xena's eyes. She never moved a muscle, but the bard could read every wrenching bit of what she was feeling.

She really, truly thought she'd been saving her. But one look at those eyes, and the bard felt an icy doubt fill her. And she knew, whatever else, that Xena, who had trusted her with a completeness, and an honesty she'd never allowed herself with any other person ever, knew herself betrayed.

It hurt.

Now it was over, all the lies laid bare, the betrayals played out, and their relationship was left in such fragile tatters that she often thought it was only the fact that they were, in all truth, soulmates that kept them clinging tenaciously together.

They had forgiven each other. That, surprisingly, had been the easy part, driven by exhaustion, and grief, and need for each other. But it hadn't given back to her their closeness, and the friendship the horror had stolen from them. Times like this, Gabrielle reflected sadly, she wondered if they would ever get even the smallest part of that back.

Tiredly, she sniffled, then tugged her cloak over her against the night breeze, and gave Xena one last, long look. She wasn't sleeping, that Gabrielle knew. Her breathing was too irregular, and she could feel the tension surrounding the warrior. Xena hadn't rejected any efforts of Gabrielle to touch her, but she kept her own advances to polite minimum, and quietly kept her hands from any of their familiar rough horseplay.

That hurt too. Gabrielle's body craved the contact, and she missed it terribly. Sighing, she put her head down, and at last, unable to stop herself, curled a hesitant hand around Xena's arm, and felt tears falling again at the warm familiarity of the touch.

She closed her eyes, and let them fall, and waited for the nightmares to come.

Xena waited until the bard's breathing deepened, then turned her head, to regard her smaller companion wistfully. The hand curled around her biceps brought a comfort with it all out of proportion to the act, and for a long moment, she just let herself feel that, as a balm to the ache she felt inside her.

She'd been through a lot in her lifetime, most of it bad. But this… Tentatively she reached over and covered Gabrielle's fingers with her own, and the bard made a tiny mewling noise, and moved closer, resting her face against the outside of the warrior's shoulder.

She knew what she wanted to do. She wanted to just open her arms up, and scoop Gabrielle into them, feeling the bard's body warm against her own, and let the connection they still, against all logic, had between them try to get a start on patching the wounds they'd taken.

I need to do that. She admitted quietly to herself. We both need it. But.. somehow, whenever she thought of that, another thought made her body go still.

An ugly scene, after she'd collected Gabrielle from the Amazon village, and they'd ridden in silence to a small cave nearby, and then..

Oh gods. They'd both been so angry. At themselves, at each other.. Gabrielle had said things that still hurt when she thought about them, and she… didn't even remember doing it, just the solid feel of her fist hitting…

Her eyes closed, and she fought off the memory of Gabrielle's body crumpling away from hers and dropping to the ground, with a gasp of pain that had just.. stopped her. Then she'd started towards the bard in confusion, only to have Gabrielle scramble away from her, in fear.

It shattered something, somewhere deep inside her. She'd stopped moving forward, and started backing up, until her shoulders hit granite, and just stood there, hurting. From everything. From losing Solon, for which she took responsibility, to losing Gabrielle, which she had just sealed with her own violence.

She didn't remember collapsing, just a single thought that.. good.. Gabrielle can escape, and get out of here. Get away.. from here. From her.

And had woken to the feel of Gabrielle's arms around her, as the bard cradled her against her blood stained chest, where her split lip and bloodied nose had marked her. So finally, exhausted, they'd simply talked, for a very long time.

About everything. All the lies, and all the hurt. And the knowledge they needed each other, and how hard forgiving was going to be. How they knew they'd both be carrying the guilt of this for a long time, probably forever. How things would never be the same.

And at that point, they'd both started crying, and she realized, in a far off kind of way, that at a very base level, some things hadn't changed. And they would always be the same. Love was, after all, stronger than hate.

So here she was, afraid to hug her soulmate, because seeing that fear in her eyes would send her over the edge again, and maybe this time she wouldn't come back. She'd tried once, to reach out to her, in the cave, and the bard had flinched. She hadn't tried again.

Gabrielle let out a soft groan, and stirred, her limbs twitching in a dream.

Or nightmare, Xena sighed, as the bard uttered a distressed cry. "Hey.." She called softly, squeezing the fingers under her own. The bard cried out again, and Xena half rolled onto her side, and moved her hand to Gabrielle's shoulder, giving it a very gentle shake. "Gabrielle?"

"No…" The bard moaned, her fingers clamping down on Xena's arm like a vise.

Xena studied her unhappily. The bard had been suffering through this every night since.. Xena closed her eyes in defeat, and let her shoulders slump. She was right. This is all my fault. All of it. There wasn't one thing she did that wasn't based on love, and there wasn't anything I did that wasn't based on hatred. I am exactly what she said I was in the cave.

"Xena?" The voice drifted softly up, and she felt gentle fingertips against her face. "Are you all right?"

The warrior let her eyes slide open, and take in Gabrielle's worried look with pained irony. "Yeah.. you were… having a bad dream.. I couldn’t….." She let the failure drift there. "Used to be your nightmares were me dying. Those are probably your good ones now."

It came out without her permission, and she let herself fall back down, and stare up at the stars, until she felt Gabrielle move and then the view was blocked by reddish blond hair and intent green eyes.

"Is that what you really think?" The bard asked gently, sniffling and pushing her hair back behind one ear. "You're wrong." She added softly, in wistful tone. "Please believe me."

The warrior gazed up at her, then closed her eyes and swallowed.

Gabrielle sighed. A theory that had been mulling around in her mind nudged itself to the front, driven by her recent nightmare. "Xena.. something's been bothering me."

Pale blue eyes studied her, but the warrior kept silent.

"Ever since we met… since the Furies… it was almost like.. you were obsessed with something." Gabrielle said carefully. "And it just kept getting worse… it was almost like I was with a stranger." She reached down and gently touched Xena's cheek. "And now…it's like I have my Xena back."

In pieces. The warrior mused. "It was always me, Gabrielle. Don't make excuses for what I did."

The bard shook her head. "No.. no excuses.. but I know you." She leaned closer. "Something was behind this, Xena…something that wants very much to drive us apart from each other." Her voice dropped. "I'm not going to let that happen again."

Xena gazed up at her, considering that, then steeled herself and brought her right hand up to the bard's face, waiting for the flinch.

It never happened. Her fingers touched the soft skin, and felt the tiny muscles of Gabrielle's face move under them, as the bard gave her a faint smile, and a quiet relief spread through her. "I never wanted to see you get hurt." She murmured faintly. "And that's all I've done lately."

Gabrielle shook her head, letting the long strands brush the warrior's chest. "Even in the worst of it, I believed that, Xena… in Britannia, you left the battlefield to come find me. In Chin, you tried to keep me from what you were doing. "

"I lied to you." Xena said softly.

"Because you knew if you killed Ming Tien, that meant everything I'd done meant nothing." Gabrielle answered quietly. "So you let me think that I'd made a difference."

No answer, but the faintest twitch of Xena's mouth.

They looked at each other, and Xena could read the gentle pleading behind those mist green eyes. She took a breath, and slid her left arm out to one side in a timid invitation, unable to keep a tiny grin from her face when the bard immediately accepted the offer and curled up against her with a quiet little sigh.

The gentle weight of the bard's head pressed against her shoulder was so welcome it almost hurt, and she settled an arm around the warm shoulders, as Gabrielle returned the pressure across her waist. She let herself float in that, as she turned over what the bard had said, and examined it.

Was it possible? Her mind resisted finding excuses for what she'd done. Resisted the thought that she might have been a pawn in some game. But Krafstar's words kept coming back to her, and she wondered.

But first things first. She had a life to rebuild, if she could, and trust to bit by bit restore, if that was possible, and then, maybe, they'd find out who or what was behind it.

And whoever that was, would pay.

Gabrielle felt the world slowly fade in, as she felt the warmth of sun on her back, and heard the low cheerful call of birds singing their morning song around her. She spent a moment in bleak remembrance, then realized it was leather she felt under her fingers and cheek, and realized where she was.

Oh how I've missed this. The thought brought tears to her eyes before she could stop herself and she felt a slight catch in Xena's breathing as the warrior saw them. A hesitant hand came up into her line of sight, and wiped the moisture away, and Gabrielle's heart clenched when she saw how badly the warrior was shaking in the movement. She lifted a hand and gently captured Xena's, curling her fingers around the warrior's own, and feeling the quiet pressure returned.

I wanted to kill you. The words coming from Xena's lips had, in a way, killed part of her. She had felt.. so lost… she had needed Xena so badly after.. what happened with Hope.. and Xena had turned her back on her and left. It had shredded what was left of very tattered defenses that crumbled and left her feeling emptier than anything in her life ever had.

Losing Solon had shocked and sickened her, and made her understand, in a slow, overwhelmingly dark manner, what Xena had known from the start. What she had refused to believe, and what had now cost Xena.. had cost both of them.. a son. Coming around the corner of Kaleipus' hut and seeing Xena cradling the boy's lifeless body… it had been like taking a spear through the gut.

"Go away." The half whispered, half groaned words that slammed into her harder than any physical blow could ever have. It had been one of the worse moments of her life, seeing the still, pale face, and seeing the agony in every line of Xena's body. If she could have given up anything, her life, her soul… for the chance to change that… but no.

She couldn’t have Xena carrying the weight of Hope's death as well… she'd learned from the warrior that you had to be responsible for your actions, right? Clean up her messes, is how Xena put it.

She had. And it had ripped her apart so badly.. and she had needed Xena's forgiveness so badly..

I wanted to kill you. Xena's words.

"I wish you had." Her whispered response. She'd spent three long days in Tartarus in that Amazon hut, trying to find some small space inside her that didn't hurt too much for her to crawl into it, and just stay there. Her world had ended, and she'd lost.. everything that had ever meant anything to her, and when she'd heard the thunder of familiar hoofbeats outside, she'd almost welcomed Xena's anger.

The rage, and the violence that she'd seen in those newly strange blue eyes had matched, perfectly, the desolation inside of her. She'd thrown off Ephiny's warning hands, and just… gone.. to the one person who still meant anything to her. Even if the meaning was ugly, and painful, and she still shook when she remembered the roughly violent way Xena had grabbed her, and thrown her down. She'd always known how strong Xena was.. gods.. how could she not? But she'd always felt safe with her.. like a lion cub in it's mother's mouth, wasn't that how she pictured it?

Well, the lion cub had been bitten. And there was no safe place anymore. And it hurt. Feeling the impact of Xena's fist, and knowing it was on purpose… gods.. it still hurt.

Could she ever trust herself to that again?

She felt the tremor in Xena's fingertips, resting lightly against her face, and sensed a single, warm tendril curling up out of her, from a very cold, and very lonely place. She turned her face slightly, and brushed the warrior's thumb with her lips, hearing the skip of Xena's heart as she felt the pressure. I'll find a way. Somehow.

She raised her head, and peered up at the warrior, whose face was half lit with golden morning sun. "It's late."

Xena fidgeted a little, and focused her vision somewhere over the bard's left shoulder. "Yeah.. well.. was um… " A little head shake. "Just trying to figure out…" Just taking a few minutes to remember what having her love me felt like.

A warm twinkle crept it's way into Gabrielle's eyes. "Thanks for letting me sleep in." She dropped her gaze to Xena's leathers, and gave them a little pat. "That.. um… magic still works. No dreams." She looked up steadily into Xena's eyes. "None that I didn't want to remember, anyway."

Xena studied her seriously. "Why the tears, then?" She asked.

Gabrielle sniffled, then half smiled. "They were good ones." She replied softly. "I was just thinking about how much I missed waking up like this." She glanced up and caught Xena's stricken look, and sighed. ."Sorry..I… just.."

A slow nod from the warrior. "I missed having you here." She admitted. "You can.. I mean.. you're.."

"Thanks, I will." The bard finished her thought. "Makes me feel better." A tiny victory in a long, long series of defeats.

Xena sighed. "Me too." She laid back a long moment, regarding the canopy of leaves above them, and watching a pair of robins preen each other with a sad smile, as a scrap of poetry ran angry and taunting through her head.

When I look at you,

I see all that I am, and all that I could hope to be.

My past, and my future,

My one safe harbor in a terrible world.

When I look at you,

I see my best friend and playmate,

My protector and defender,

The love of my life and the holder of my soul.

How could I have betrayed that? The dark wash of anguish rushed over her. How could I have let anything come between us? She let out a breath against the ache, and felt Gabrielle's hands tighten on her leathers. And that made the thoughts cut off abruptly, as she opened her eyes and met the bard's inches from her.

They stared at each other, and Xena felt her heart start to pound out of control, as the barest hint of a smile wrinkled the corner's of her soulmate's eyes. "I felt that." The bard whispered. "It was the most awful wonderful thing I've ever felt."

Their link, that half felt, half sensed thing that had been missing for so long, blocked by anger, and all that had happened, was slowly, timidly, making itself felt again. "S.."

"Don’t you dare apologize." Gabrielle interrupted, then dropped her gaze. "Guess we'd better get up, huh?" Don't make a big thing out of it.. just… let it go… just be glad you felt it, and move on.

"Yeah." Xena replied softly, uncertainly "Um… I'll.. you felt that?"

Gabrielle nodded slowly. "Yeah." She watched the shuttered blue eyes blink, then soften in timid hope. "I sure did."

Xena went out collecting breakfast while she got the hot water on, and got the bedrolls put away, taking several moments out just to breathe the fresh air, and look around her. It wasn't much, she reflected, but things were looking.. just a little brighter this morning. She could still smell the gentle scent of leather clinging to her skin, and it just.. She sighed. So many raw places.

She looked up as Xena reappeared, carrying a half folded leaf in front of her. The warrior stopped when she felt the bard's eyes on her, and glanced up, giving her a tentative half smile. "Hi." She continued on and stopped in front of the smaller woman, holding out her hands quietly. "I know you said you weren't hungry, but I though you might… um.. "

Gabrielle peered into the bundle, and felt a smile tug irresistibly at her lips. She took the bundle from Xena, and selected a berry from it, biting down on it and feeling the juice explode everywhere. "Whoa." She swallowed the fruit, and suddenly realized she was hungry after all. "Thanks."

She finished them as they walked, with Xena leading the gently ambling Argo as they headed through knee high grass along a good sized river. The crickets punctuated the silence, along with the hiss and crackle of the grass as it brushed past their legs, and Gabrielle was conscious of the quiet, knowing she was the cornerstone of it.

Her stories… seemed to have tiptoed out of her life a while back, and she saw no signs of them returning. Her scrolls were tucked away in a saddlebag, and she hadn't even had the heart to pull them out since.. well, for a while. She knew that bothered Xena, but the taller woman had kept her mouth shut about it, and hadn't even said word one when she'd politely declined a request in the last village they'd been through.

It was a strange feeling. Her stories had been a part of her for so long.. pictures that entertained her while the long miles went past, and that she'd cheerfully pulled out into tales to amuse her and Xena while they traveled. Now.. She sighed softly. Now, her mind was filled with scenes she had no intention of relating. Nothing new, nothing original.. and she missed that. It hurt to read her diary, and see bits of poetry there…and fear she no longer had that in her. That it had died, along with Meridian. Along with Hope.

Along with her faith in goodness, and her belief in herself, and in Xena, and in love to conquer hatred.

"Small town about half a day from here." Xena commented. "I'm low on some supplies.. we could stop in there." With a faint question in her voice, reflecting the anger Gabrielle had tossed her way regarding her making all the decisions.

The bard glanced at her. "Um.. yeah.. that… I could use some herbs.. good idea." The broke out of the field, and onto the riverside road, their steps kicking up faint puffs of dust as they hit the dried ground. The strong scent of the slow moving river washed over them, rich with plant life, and the slanting sun warmed their shoulders as they headed westward along it's banks.

They started out as specks in the distance, and got steadily larger, coming towards them. "Horses." Xena commented, giving them a dour glance. "Looks like raiders. " Her eyes flicked to her smaller companion. "You want to… duck out somewhere? I can handle this."

Gabrielle took a firm grip on her staff. "No." She let out a breath softly. "This is part of my life."

It didn't take long. They kept moving forward until they could distinguish the motley crowd, a typical mix of leather half armor and badly kept weapons. The leader pulled his mount up and stared at them. "Hello, ladies."

Xena dispensed with any of her usual snappy patter and just stepped forward, one hand reaching for her sword. "Get outta my way."

The man laughed. "Whooo..a spirited one.. " He kicked his horse into a rough gallop, and bore down on her, swinging down with a battle mace as he draw even with the still walking warrior.

Xena left her sword sheathed, and caught the mace, jerking hard and pulling the raider off his horse with a brutal yank. She let him hit the ground, then pulled him halfway up, and kneed him in the head, hearing the sickening crack as his neck broke, then letting him drop in a lifeless heap at her feet.

She glanced up. "Next?" Her eyes were ice cold. They shifted weight, the horses feeling their sudden fear and prancing against it. Then the one closest to her backed his mount, and started around them, keeping his fair distance from her. "Good choice." She waited for them all to head off into the distance, then resumed her silent pacing, with Argo nodding along at her side.

Gabrielle matched both steps and silence, moving her staff ahead of her rhythmically and very deliberately not looking back to see the dark heap tumbled in the roadway.

Around the next bend, and they could see smoke rising off the horizon. Xena stopped, and glanced at her. "Town."

The bard sighed. "Probably where those guys were coming from."

The warrior nodded, and turned, vaulting up on Argo's back and taking the reins in one hand. She sidestepped the mare over to where the bard was standing, and hesitantly extended an arm down. "Do you… I.. I mean, you can wait here if you want, Gabrielle, or …"

The bard gave her a tiny smile, and stepped forward, clasping the offered forearm, preparing herself for the lift as Xena shifted her body weight and pulled up, waiting for her to get settled behind her on Argo's saddle before she kneed the mare forward into a canter.

The sun warmed armor plates felt good against her, and she swung her staff down out of Xena's way while winding her other arm around the warrior's waist in a secure hold. Keep riding, Xena.. maybe if you do, I can sit back here, and pretend everything's ok again, all right? Do you know how bad I want that? She laid her head down against the broad shoulders and let the ache fill her, as the familiar warmth of Xena's body against her own trigged wistful memories of better times.

"Hey." Xena's voice called softly back. "You OK?"

Gabrielle took a snugger hold. "Yeah."

A long pause. "You sure?"

That dug a tiny little warm spot inside her. "What makes you think otherwise?" She responded, turning her head so that her voice would carry up to the warrior's ears.

For an answer, Xena's hand covered hers, and patted the surface she was holding onto.

Oh… "Just wishing." The bard sighed. At least we're here, we're talking to one another, and…maybe, just… maybe one day I'll see her smile at me again. And.. I'll smile back. And it'll be ok. The grief rushed over her again. Oh gods.. I don't want to lose what we had… please..please…. A hand suddenly warmed hers, and she felt Xena's fingers curl around her own and squeeze them.

"Maybe if we both wish for the same thing hard enough, it'll happen." The wind carried Xena's voice back to her. She hadn't expected that response, and it calmed her, as she rubbed her cheek absently against the leather armor.

Maybe. The ache subsided for the time being, and she concentrated on their destination, now growing larger just ahead and to their right. Half the town was in flames, and Argo snorted, her eyes rolling as the waves of heat hit them.

Xena pulled the mare to a halt and slid off her back, turning and catching Gabrielle as she followed suit, and lifting her gently to the ground in an automatic gesture. "Um.. I…let's see what we can do to help." The warrior said quietly, dropping her hands in confusion.

It made for a long day. The raiders had set fire to the granary storage, and the communal barn, as well as dragged the village well over. Xena watched Gabrielle start gathering up help and nodded quietly to herself, as she started pitching in with pulling water buckets from the half collapsed well, and sending them towards the fire. It was hard work, but she was glad for that, it kept her mind busy at least, and the quietly grateful looks of the villagers were an unexpected balm to a soul that felt very beaten up on.

They finally doused the fire, and Xena ducked inside the half burned stable, dodging the dangerously sagging roof supports as she unlocked the first stall, and made soothing noises at it's frantic occupant. "Easy.. easy… "

The stallion reared, and snorted, his eyes rolling wildly at her, his lungs full of the thick smoky air.

Xena carefully edged around him, and got a grip on his halter rope. "Easy now.. " She crooned gently, and was rewarded with an aggravated snort. "That's it.. take it easy.." With one flick of her wrist, she tossed a piece of linen she'd laid over her arm for just this purpose over the horse's head, effectively blinding him.

He calmed, and she was able to guide him out of the building, to the cheers and obvious relief off the gathered villagers. "He your stud?"

The blacksmith took hold of the halter. "Aye." His brown eyes found Xena's. "Gods be praised for ye.. after this winter, he was our only hope." He held out a soot-covered hand. "Antenius."

Xena sighed inwardly Well, it was nice while it lasted. She took the arm and shook it. "Xena."

His eyebrows shot up. "Really?" He turned around and faced the crowd. "Hey! This is Xena!!" He turned back to her. "My brother lives in Potadeia… he's the smith there…he can't stop talking about you."

The warrior blinked. "I remember him." She replied slowly. "His apprentice is married to my.." she hesitated, then went on. "My partner's sister." Her eyes glanced around, searching for the bard, then she froze. "Oh Hades."

Gabrielle was up near the top of the tree that dominated the village central courtyard, her wiry frame extended out along a swaying limb, working her way towards a very frightened, very bewildered kitten.

Xena clamped her jaw shut against the warning that threatened to explode from her throat. Isn't that one of the thing she said she hated? Treating her like a kid? Like someone who doesn’t know what they're doing? I know I did that. She let out a tired breath. I just wish I'd known how much she hated it. Hated me when I did it. She watched in silence as the bard inched along the limb, holding one hand out to the mewling creature.

"She's a brave one." Antenius whispered. "That's Gabrielle the Bard, isn't it?"

The warrior's eyes were glued to the bard. "Yes."

The smith gusted out a great sigh, his free hand stroking the stallion's neck affectionately. "What a story this will make, huh boy? You were rescued by Xena! You got one up on all the other stallions, that's for sure."

The bard had reached her goal, and the kitten sniffed at her fingers, finding something to like there, because it crawled towards her, and Gabrielle was able to get her hand around the animal's body.

She rose up to turn around on the branch, though, and a gust of wind sent the limb moving wildly, and dislodged her, sending her off the surface and barely giving her time to grab hold with one hand as she dangled high above the ground.

Xena never remembered moving, just.. she was there, under the tree all of a sudden, and focusing her eyes on the swinging body above her. "Gabrielle!' She felt her heart pounding. "Listen to me…"

"Ok." Came very faintly back. "I'm listening."

"Just… let go." Xena realized exactly what she was asking, and felt her heart sink. Would she do it? Will she trust me? "I'll catch you."

Gabrielle swallowed hard, hearing the words. She hated heights, and the thought of just releasing her grasp and falling.. gods.. She looked at the faintly mewling kitten. "I guess it all comes down to trust, huh? You trusted me to get you out of this. "

"Mew?" The kitten stared at her with frightened eyes.

"You just hang on, ok? Because I have a friend down there, who's gonna make this ok." She promised softly, then.. just… let go.

Xena saw the fingers of Gabrielle's hand relax, and she crouched, watching the bard fall, then exploding up as Gabrielle plummeted, wrapping her arms around the startled bard in mid air, then landing both of them as she took the impact on her legs, and let her body recoil from the ground with a tiny hop.

Immediately, she released the smaller woman, who was clutching her, eyes closed. "Gabrielle?"

The green eyes opened, and looked right up at her. "Nice catch." She blurted softly, which earned her a genuine smile. Not that little smirky one Xena used with other people, but one of her open, real smiles that got inside Gabrielle and made her smile back.

"Nice drop." The warrior answered quietly, aware of the gathering crowd.

Gabrielle held up the kitten. "I'm.. a sucker for a cute face."

Their eyes met quietly, and Gabrielle felt something stir, very deep down inside her that she thought had been gone forever. She gently took hold of it, and brought it close to her heart as a small hand tugged at her skirt. "Here you go." She knelt, giving the little girl back her kitten. The smudged, soot covered face broke into a big smile at her.

"Dank you." The girl hugged the animal, who mewled a protest, and toddled off.

Gabrielle watched her go, unable to fight down the lump in her throat. She remembered what Hope had felt like, nestled in her arms for that short, wretched time. So open, her blue eyes so trusting. She sighed, and felt a hand lightly touch her shoulder. A touch she knew. She stood, and half-turned, giving Xena a grateful look. "So.. how are things down here?"

Xena gazed at her a moment longer, then nodded towards the smith, who was feeling the stallion's legs carefully. "His brother's Tectdus."

The smith stood up and extended an arm to her. "I've heard lots about you, Gabrielle."

The bard took his arm and clasped it. "Um.. thanks." She used her other hand to push her hair back off her forehead. "What happened here?"

Xena left them telling the bard their unhappy tale, and walked over to the well, where the village mason was kneeling, cursing. "A mess, huh?"

He looked up wearily. "Bastards." He spat. "Not bad enough they have to take what we've got.. do they have to make in impossible to live, too?" He dragged a stone into place, and grunted a thanks as Xena dropped to one knee, and helped him. "Glad you two happened along." He glanced over his shoulder. "Lot riding on that horse.. got a dozen mares come into season he's covering."

Xena pulled another stone into place, and smoothed mud over the top of it, then stacked a third stone on top. "Glad we were around." They worked together in silence for a little while, as they built the well housing back up.

"You've got the touch for this, then. " The mason said, with surprised note in his voice. "You've done this before?"

Xena gave him a brief, sardonic smile, but before she could answer, a gentle voice drifted over her shoulder.

"She has many skills." Gabrielle had wandered up behind them, and put a hand on the warrior's shoulder, leaning against it casually. "Any chance of getting some water out of that well?" She watched as the mason obligingly drew up a bucket, and dipped into it, handing her the dipper with a gruff smile. "Thanks."

Xena remained quietly still, shaking her head a little as water droplets from the dipper fell on her.

A gentle, very soft laugh. "Sorry."

The warrior sucked in a pained breath, trying to remember when the last time was that she'd heard Gabrielle laugh. She gave up trying as the dipper came even with her eyes, and she took it carefully. "Thanks." A gentle brush of fingertips against her hair was her reward, as the bard left to continue her work trying to put the village stores back together.

"Lovely lass, that." The mason grunted, giving her a look.

Xena leveled a stare at him. "Yes, she is." One eyebrow quirked in a warning.

The mason raised a hand. "Ah now…no harm in me saying it, warrior. I can see she's taken." His eyes twinkled at her startled expression. "I may be older then these hills round here, but I know love when I see it, yes ma'am." He gave her a broad wink, and went back to his work.

Xena stood and walked towards the barn, turning her face into the wind and letting it blow her hair back out of her eyes. So. Even now, even after everything… Her eyes strayed to the old mason. I hope to the gods you're seeing something that's still there, my friend. She glanced up and swallowed. Because I don’t' think I can live without it. She looked down at her boots, covered with dust and soot from the fire. Not anymore.

They turned down an offer to stay in the village that night, saying they'd be nearby and come back in the morning to help finish putting the town back together again. It was just… Xena sighed. Easier for both of them.. as uncomfortable as they were with each other, it was still better than having to deal with strangers around. Especially strangers would knew who they were, and would surely be pestering Gabrielle for stories if they stayed in town.

So they came to another quiet campfire, in the last purple haze of twilight, sheltered against a tall rock formation which formed a backdrop that reflected the fire's light and made their shadows jump and dance along it's surface.

Gabrielle glanced down at herself and looked up with a rueful smile. "I.. need a bath." The bard was covered with soot and mud, and daubed liberally with flour from the ruined storeroom.

Xena looked over from where she was tucking kindling into the fire. "Me too." She rubbed a hand across her face, drawing soot over it, then stared at the hand. "You can go first." It had become their pattern, strained and odd seeing that they had never been shy with each other, even when they'd just started traveling with each other. Just one more hurtful reality, I guess. Xena stared tiredly at the ground.

A long silence fell between them, until Gabrielle took a breath, and cleared her throat. "Um.. you know, I was just thinking…kill two birds… and all that.. maybe you'll find a fish." She paused awkwardly. "No sense in you suffering in that itchy stuff longer than you have to.. I mean.. "

The warrior looked up. "All right, I'll go with you." It was a tiny thing, but she held it close and cherished it.

They walked in silence to the river, and got their clothes off, dragging them in the water with them for a scrub. Gabrielle quietly worked on hers, stealing glances over at the warrior, who was bathed in gentle moonlight, her dark head bent over her task. I'd forgotten just how much I love watching her. The thought whispered itself to her. It felt strange to be able to just do that, and not feel the haunting guilt that had kept them apart for so long, of secrets, and anger, and resentment that had built between them and blocked out the important things.

Like the fact that watching the muscles move across Xena's shoulders had always fascinated her. And the fact that she looked really good in moonlight. It reflected off her tanned skin, and brought out faintly blue highlights in her hair, and made the bard clamp her jaw down tight against the tears of relief that threatened to overwhelm her at the simple, quiet feelings she was experiencing.

A sudden, gentle wave bumped her, and she glanced up, to see blue eyes peering gently at her from an arms length away. "Hey.. if you're.. done.. I.." Xena gestured to the branches of a nearby tree. "Good spot to dry."

Gabrielle smiled, and handed her top and skirt over. "Thanks." She watched as the warrior waded over to where the tree overhung the bank, and lifted herself half up out of the water to carefully arrange the items to dry. The bard's eyes ran over the familiar form, and a tiny crease of worry appeared in her brow. Damn… she's all skin and bones.. when did that happen? Then her gaze dropped, and she let out a soft sigh. It has been happening for a while. You just didn't want to see it. She channels everything inside, and it's tearing her up. Wake up, Gabrielle.

"Dinar for your thoughts." Xena asked, not looking back at her.

Gabrielle glanced down at the water, and patted its surface gently. "You.. don't want them. You'll just accuse me of being a mother hen." She replied quietly, feeling the water ripple against her again, and sensing Xena's very close presence. She looked up, and met the warrior's eyes.

"I want them." Xena settled down next to her, wrapping one arm around her upraised knee, and gazing steadily at the bard.

Strangely, Gabrielle mused, that felt better than all the tiptoeing. "You're not eating." She returned the direct look. "You're not taking care of yourself, are you?"

Something in the back of Xena's eyes melted, before she dropped her gaze. . "Not very well, no." She answered in a husky tone. "I don't think I'm really good at that anymore."

Like in a dream, Gabrielle saw her hand reach out and tangle itself in the dark hair floating in the water. "Looking for a candidate for that job?"

Xena's breath stirred the water. "You applying?"

Gabrielle felt tears coming, and this time she let them, as the shadowy barriers faded back in her soulmate's eyes, and she got a glimpse of a person she used to know.. 'Yeah." She managed to respond. "I have experience." Her hand slid through the soft dark hair, and touched Xena's cheek, feeling the water-cooled flesh warm under her fingertips. Please.. Xena.. don't lock me out. I'm so tired of being out here in the cold.

Xena felt her heart jerking in her chest in an uneven rhythm as she fought down a surge of panic, caught between desperate need, and icy cold fear of opening herself up again. Then her mind focused on a hand releasing a branch in all confidence earlier that day, and she felt a sense of calm invade her jittery senses.

She looked over, and let out a tiny, scared breath. "I guess you're hired."

Gabrielle felt herself start breathing again, with a gentle inrush of air that brought the rich scent of the water and their soap to her. "All right.. tell you what, if you find us a fish, I bet I can put together some dinner up there." She gave the warrior a tentative smile. "I guess that's a good place to start."

A quirk twitched at the corner of Xena's mouth, and her eyes went unfocused for a moment, then a swift movement under the water startled the bard.

"Yow!" She yelped, as she watched Xena slip her hand out of the water clutching an enormous silvery fish.

"Grogh." The fish grunted at her. Even Xena looked startled. She thwacked the fish on the side of the head, and it quieted down. "Sorry."

Gabrielle bit her lip hard to keep from spluttering. "Um…" She peered at the fish. "What.. is that?"

Xena examined the specimen and sniffed reflectively. "I don’t know. I'm gonna call it a grunt."

The bard cocked her head a little. "Is it good to eat?"

The warrior shrugged. "You'll make it that way."

It was a tiny, offhand remark, unplanned, and somehow that made it all the more special. Gabrielle felt something loosen up inside her a little, and drank in the comment with simple pleasure. "Thanks."

They climbed out of the water, accompanied by the fish, who fought off it's stunning and grunted again, startling the bard who was walking a pace or two ahead of her companion. She turned around and glared at the fish, which was promptly smacked back into senselessness by Xena.

The bard headed towards their gear as soon as they entered the campsite, kneeling down and tugging out two sleep shirts, then standing up and walking over to her companion who was making sure the fish wouldn’t startle her any more. The warrior looked up as she approached and essayed a hesitant smile, then focused her vision on what the bard was carrying.

"Since your leathers are drying, I thought.. " Gabrielle explained softly, holding out one of the shirts, then pausing, as she saw the smile shape the warrior's lips.

"Mind if I take the other one?" Xena's voice held a rare, shy note.

The bard smiled back. "No.. I um… that's fine." She delivered the requested shirt, and hugged the other one to her, pulling it over her head and settling the folds over her body with a sense of quiet happiness, an emotion so foreign to her lately it felt exotic.

Xena finished scaling the fish before she neatly wiped her hands off, and stood, then shrugged into the shirt the bard had draped across her shoulder. "All yours." She told Gabrielle quietly, backing off from the fire and watching as the bard knelt and started preparing the fish., seeing the fire bring out all the highlights in her hair with a wistful smile. She sat down on a nearby rock and rested her elbows on her knees, content to just sit and observe in silence.

It had been the hardest thing of all, She reflected sadly, to realize Gabrielle no longer trusted her. No longer believed in her. She'd known it the moment she'd looked into the bard's eyes when Gabrielle had told her she'd killed Hope, on that mountaintop, and she knew it wasn't true.

It had destroyed something in her, the something that kept her doggedly headed on a path to reclaim herself, because somewhere along that path she'd realized Gabrielle meant more to her than the completion of the path itself. It was Gabrielle's belief that she tried to hold her journey to, and without that…

It hurt. And it hurt more to see them growing further and further apart, separated by their own natures. I should have tried to talk to her about what I was feeling. Xena sighed inwardly for the thousandth time. Why I felt what I did about Hope. No wonder she gave up on me.

When Gabrielle had decided not to go to Chin.. it hadn't surprised her. She'd spent the entire voyage over there wrapped in misery, staring out into the storm tossed seas and clinging forlornly to warm little memories that she knew were all she'd ever have left of what had been the center of her life so short a time ago. Even then, even knowing it was over, she missed Gabrielle more than she'd believed possible, and had cursed herself as a fool for believing in something as stupid and as dangerous as… forever.

I don't give up that easily. Gabrielle had said, on the voyage home. Not on something that means this much to me.

Betrayal? Xena let a tiny smile etch her face. That was no betrayal, my friend. It was supposed to be a one way trip. Then she stilled, as a thought occurred to her.

Ming Tien.. the bastard.. he'd goaded her into killing him. Why? Another thought. So had Krafstar. What if Gabrielle was right.. what if this whole thing… all if it… was planned? What they got from Gabrielle was obvious.. but from me?

"Hey?" A soft voice, from right in front of her caused her to look up with a start.

"Sorry." She blinked at Gabrielle. "Just thinking."

The bard sat down on the rock next to her, and mirrored her posture, bringing their shoulders into contact. "You looked like it." She commented softly, then glanced at the fire. "Be a little while.. that was a huge fish." She looked down and watched her fingers twine with each other.

"I think you were right." Xena pronounced the words carefully.

"Hmm? About what?" Gabrielle's brow creased. "The fish?"

"Something being behind what happened." The warrior replied briefly, staring at her own hands as though she'd never seen them before. "That something.. needed us apart. It couldn’t.. do what it needed to do if we weren't."

Gabrielle let out a tightly held breath. "Was Hope that something?" She stumbled over the name, when she realized it was the first time she'd said it out loud to Xena since…

Blue eyes narrowed. "I think that was the start of that something."

They looked at each other. "Xena.. it's not over, is it?"

"I don't think so, no." The warrior replied honestly.

Gabrielle nodded a little, then took a deep breath and faced her squarely. "I want you to know something. " She paused. "That trick isn't going to work a second time." Another pause. "You know what I realized tonight? After all that's happened, and everything they've done to me.. all the lies, and all the hatred, and… " She looked up into Xena's pain filled eyes. "They couldn’t kill the part of me that's you." She took a shaky breath. "Through everything.. and even if it got buried down deep somewhere, it was always part of me. And it always will be, I am not going to let them take that away, Xena, I want that part. I need it." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "I need you."

"I don’t deserve that." The warrior replied with bleak honesty. "Whatever else, Gabrielle, in that cave… that was me." She dropped her head into her hands. "I hurt you."

Gabrielle squeezed her eyes shut. "I know." She took a breath. "You took away my faith in you." She leaned forward a little. "I think that hurt more than anything.. it was like something magical and special got taken out of my life." She opened her eyes and cast a worried glance at the still, silent form sitting frozen in place next to her. "But you know.. I’ve been thinking about that a lot.. and I think I’ve realized just how unfair that was of me."

Gabrielle leaned against her soulmate, and caught her ragged breathing. "I know what you are, Xena. I’ve always known." She lifted a hand and stroked the soft skin of her forearm. "The risk was always there… and you knew that, didn’t you?" She paused, but Xena didn’t answer. "I.. I’m willing to take that risk again, if you’ll let me."

Xena stared at the ground through a film of tears, letting the successive waves of grief, then shame, then aching disbelief pass through her. Gabrielle was right. She had always expected the worst.

The worst had happened.

And Gabrielle was still here. She was still here. They had gone to Tartarus and came back, with that bone deep love still hanging in there, against all the odds.

What was there to be afraid of anymore? Slowly, she raised her head, and met Gabrielle’s eyes. "You’re right. That trick won’t work a second time." And committed herself, with full knowledge, back into the light.

They sat quietly watching the fire crisp their dinner, only this time the silence was more comfortable, and Gabrielle felt her whole body relaxing, as she let her head rest casually against Xena’s shoulder. It felt.. like things were getting better. It still hurt, and they still had a long way to go, but… sitting here, she was starting to feel the first glimmerings of a familiar burning glow she’d thought she’d lost forever.

The fish turned out.. better than she’d expected, given it’s recalcitrant nature, and she found herself wanting more, but settled for retrieving an apple from her bag and nibbling on it while she watched Xena slowly finish hers, with a thoughtful look on her face. "Don’t like it?" The bard asked softly.

Blue eyes tracked up to hers and focused. "I do." Xena replied with a hint of smile. "Just tired I guess." Try exhausted. Her mind corrected her. But the good kind, for the first time in a long, long while. She stood up and walked over to their gear, and dropped to a crouch next to one saddlebag, digging around in it and pulling out her leather repair kit. "Gotta fix that shoulder strap." She commented quietly, as she stood again and turned, stopping short when she almost bumped into Gabrielle. "Whoa."

"Here." The bard passed her the almost dry leathers. "Why don’t you go over there and sit down with them.. you do look a little wiped."

Xena nodded a little. "Good idea." She went over to their bedroll, and collapsed onto it, tucking her legs up under her, and leaning on one elbow as she pulled her stitching needle out and examined the unraveling strap.

Gabrielle spent a moment just looking at her, then smiled, and shook her head a little, and knelt beside her own gear, removing her diary and the small case she kept her quills and ink in. A rustle caught her ear, and she glanced down, seeing that the folded leather pouch Xena kept some personal trinkets in had fallen out of her bag. She reached down, and picked it up, scowling a little as she realized the top had fallen open, and some small pieces of folded parchment had fallen out. She had retrieved and replaced most of them before one unfolded in her fingers, and she realized what they were.

Faded characters in a familiar hand faced her, and grabbed her heart. Her poems, written to Xena at different times, in different places, all stored here, and from the worn creases in the parchment read more than the once. She read the one in her hand, and it brought tears to her eyes, along with the memory of what had caused her to write it. Oh Xena….

With a sigh, she tucked the parchment back in the bag, and stored it in Xena’s gear, picking up her diary and moving over to the fire, where she put on the water pot and knelt, carefully mixing herbs into two cups for tea.

She never heard Xena move, just felt the warm, unmistakable presence at her back just before a hand landed on her shoulder, and she turned her head to gaze up at the warrior. Finding herself caught by.. and drowning in Xena’s concerned regard. "What’s wrong?" The warrior asked quietly, dropping down to a crouch so they were on a level.

It settled like a pall on her, but she knew she couldn’t avoid the issue any longer. "N.. no, I just.. there were some… just.. poems… little.. they fell out… I.."

The hand shifted from her shoulder, and gently brushed her cheek. "Those.. kept me.. going.. in some very dark times." The warrior admitted quietly. "They um.. reminded me that at… one time… " She paused, and swallowed. "I.. had someone who.. " Another pause. "a actually believed in me." She looked into the fire, and poked it with a stick. "They.. were all I had left."

Gabrielle felt the anguish. "Xena.. I think I’ve lost that." She whispered. "I .. I can't .. it's like they're lost, and I don't even know where to look for them." She clutched at her head. "It used to be all colors up here.. and now it's all.. gray… nothing… and..and.. I don't know what to do."

A scattering of dust as the warrior swiveled her knees in the dirt next to the fireplace. "Look at me." Xena waited for the sad green eyes to lift. "You're wrong… that gift is a part of you. " She searched the bard's grief stricken face. "Gabrielle, they’re in there. Just… give yourself a little time." She reached out and brushed a lock of red gold hair back and let her fingers warm against the bard’s skin. "I can see them in your eyes."

The bard blinked. "You can?"

Xena nodded slightly. "Yeah.. it’s this little.. kind of look you get." She chewed her lip. "Kinda like your mind is focusing on something you can’t actually see."

"Really?" Gabrielle willingly allowed herself to be distracted. Make me believe that, Xena. Against her will, a little ball of hope ignited inside her, fueled by the warrior’s solemn, steady affirmation. Without thinking, she let her body fall forward, wrapping her arms around Xena’s neck in a grateful hug. "Thanks."

Xena was absolutely still for a long instant, then she returned the hug, burying her face in the rich herbal scent of the bard’s fair hair. It felt so good that it almost hurt, bringing back vivid memories of the time before the darkness fell over them both, and she felt a pang of grief as she released the smaller woman, and let her arms fall back down awkwardly. "You… just wait, Gabrielle. One of these days.. they’ll just come pouring out." She told her softly.

It felt like a weight being lifted off her shoulders, as she leaned back and gazed up at the warrior. "All right.. " She grinned a little "But no complaints from you when it happens and I get swamped in them."

"No.. no complaints." Xena assured her, with a tentative smile.

The warrior stood and went back to their bedroll, curling up on it again and getting back to work on her damaged leathers. Gabrielle finished fixing the tea, then chewed her lip a little, and took a breath. OK… couldn’t hurt to just go sit by her, right? She carried the cups over to the bedroll, and lowered herself carefully, handing Xena hers, and settling cross legged on the soft furs next to the warrior. "Mind if I join you?"

Xena looked up at her over the rim of her mug, the gentle steam rising up and misting her eyes. "No."

Gabrielle smiled to herself, and opened her diary, balancing it on her knees and selecting a quill from the case and sharpening the tip against the small whetstone Xena had fixed to the flap for that purpose.

If there ever were two days completely different, it would be yesterday and today. Last night, I thought we were so far apart we might as well really be strangers.

Today.. well, today.. it’s like something snapped inside her, and, maybe inside me too, because for the first time since Hope and Solon died, I got a glimpse of an old friend in there.

I’m not sure whether that’s good or bad, because seeing that glimpse…makes me remember all the times before, and I find that I want to go back so badly I can taste it.

And.. it hurts when I realize I may never be able to go back there.

I miss it. I miss just being able to tease and play with her. She can’t take that now.. I did with words in that cave what she did with her fists.. and she’s as afraid of me as I am of her.

But you know what? When she told me to let go today I just did.. you know I never thought about whether or not she was going to catch me.. I just trusted that she would. Never even thought about it at all. Wonder if she realized?

Our link is back. I was pretty shocked. Maybe our sleeping together last night kind of triggered that. Not real strong, but… it was great to feel it. Well, not great, because neither of us is really happy, but. .that was blocked off for a long time, and I kind of missed it.

She thinks my stories are still in there. I think I’ll decide to believe what she believes on that.. she’s pretty good at knowing what’s going on with people, and especially with me. Besides, I really want to believe it, so I guess I will. It felt really good to hear her say the words though.

It felt really good to hear her say a lot of things today. I know some of the things I said hurt her.. but it’s important that we only have honesty between us now. No.. sparing feelings. Not now. Not… now.

I feel good. It feels so strange to write that. It’s been a long time.

Xena finished her stitching task, and set both leathers and kit aside, then spent a moment watching Gabrielle write, smiling a little at the familiar look of concentration on her face, with just the tip of her tongue sticking out, and the finely defined muscles in her forearm tensing and relaxing as she wrote.

She’s so cute. The thought startled her. Not that it wasn’t true, but… something was changing. She rolled over, and regarded the stars with searching eyes. No. Not changing. She let out a long breath. I’m still in love with her. The truth of it shocked her, but brought a tiny smile to her face as well.

A voice drifted over, and she realized Gabrielle had put her diary away. "Hey.. that offer still open?" The bard’s tone was half gentle banter, and half wistful pleading.

Xena turned her head. "Sure." She waited for Gabrielle to settle against her, and smiled at the contented sigh that briefly warmed her skin through the fabric. Then she looked steadily up at the stars, and narrowed her eyes. Aphrodite, if we make it through this, I owe you.


Then she firmly closed her eyes, and settled down to sleep.

The first gentle robin's calls were just breaking the predawn stillness when her eyes drifted open again, and she breathed in the early morning air that still held hints of their fire, and the damp green smell of the dewy vegetation around them. Off to the right, the warrior could hear the rustle of Argo's hooves, then the steady sound of chewing. The warrior felt a faint smile touch her lips, thinking of the twin colt foals Argo had cheerfully left behind when they'd picked her up on their way past Amphipolis.

The foals were being raised by Cyrene's phelgnatic cart mare, who was much better suited to it than the spirited war horse. "Typical." Cyrene had snorted, giving her a look. "You can tell whose horse she is." Then she'd gently grasped Xena's arm. "Honey, what's wrong?"

She'd been alone there, and she'd just… "Mother.. I think I've lost her." And she'd told her all of it. About Britannia, and Chin…accepting Cyrene's shocked stare and ending with her head cradled in her hands.

"Oh.. Xena." The innkeeper had breathed, and circled her daughter's shoulders with her arms. "Ok.. ok.. honey, listen to me, all right?"

"Yeah." Xena had let out a breath. "But I think I screwed it up way past redemption this time, mother."

"Xena." Cyrene had firmly grasped her chin and forced her eyes up. "Do you still love her?"

The warrior had felt tears building. "Yes." Still?. Always.

"Does she still love you?" A very gentle question.

It was like a vise, gripping her heart. "I .. I don't know. I.. I don't think so." Just saying it had brought home the horror, and a sense of staggering loss.

Cyrene let out a careful breath. "But you're not sure."

She had been silent for a long moment. "No."

"Then don't give up on this." The innkeeper had said softly. "I believe in you both, and I think you've got the strength together to pull through." She combed the disheveled hair out of her daughter's eyes. "Promise me, Xena. Don’t' give up. "

Xena had sighed. "I promise."

I kept my promise, mother. The thought meandered through her still foggy consciousness, as she glanced down at the bard snuggled up against her. Don’t ask me how. She craned her head to see the bard's face, and felt a little something melt inside her at the tiny incredulous smile on Gabrielle's lips.

Like this, and in the quiet of pre dawn, she could take a few wistful moments out, and pretend it was all ok again. Pretend that Gabrielle was going to wake up, and they'd snuggle a little, and trade some light banter, and she'd watch the sunlight slowly pick up the golden highlights in the bard's misty green eyes. And she'd smile and laugh, even if it was early morning.

But it wasn't like that now. Xena had no idea if Gabrielle even had feelings like that for her anymore. That Gabrielle loved her.. no doubt. But was the bard in love with her anymore? That was too much to hope for. It would be enough to just restore a semblance of their friendship.. though now she was beginning to be more confident that was possible.

She could still pretend, though. For a little while. Gabrielle stirred sleepily, and nestled closer, blinking once or twice and yawning a bit before closing her eyes again and giving the warrior a tiny pat on the belly as she relaxed back into a deeper sleep.

Xena swallowed hard, and carefully wrapped her arms a little tighter around the bard’s warm body, closing her own eyes, and letting a few errant tears spill silently into the red gold hair tucked under her chin. You were right, mother… I don't know how our love survived this, but it did…thanks for the advice.. it saved me.

Breakfast was a pretty quiet affair, and they got underway towards the village shortly after, arriving as a group of tired looking villagers were returning, pulling a load of newly downed and rough cut trees behind them.

"Don’t get too many splinters." Gabrielle whispered, as she gave the warrior a gentle pat on the side before sliding down from Argo’s high quarters and heading towards the group of workers around the inn.

Xena smiled a little to herself, then kneed Argo over to where a large spot had been cleared to receive the new lumber, and dismounted, removing her wood ax from the mare’s saddlebags. As she walked closer, the workers looked up, and gave her warm smiles.

"Morning." She gave them back a brief nod, and started in to work, glad to be able to lose herself, at least for a while, in hard labor. She kept at it until they’d trimmed and split all the logs, and cut them to size, then helped carry them over to where two hard working carpenters were rebuilding the side of the storage hut.

Standing up, she dusted her hands off, and glanced at the sun, then let her eyes travel over the courtyard in casual search. She spotted Gabrielle within moments, standing in the shade next to the inn’s wall, talking with a tall villager who was leaning against the wood and gesturing to make a point.

Gabrielle’s voice drifted across on the wind, and Xena watched as she reached out and clasped the young man’s arm, making her own point, then they both laughed. The warrior felt a heavy sensation fill her, and she leaned back against the tree she was standing under and tried to deal with the mixture of regret and envy that she was feeling. Why shouldn’t Gabrielle have a good time? The guy was cute, and the type Xena had always thought the bard was partial to, until..

She turned away, and gazed out at the road leading away from the village instead. You don’t own her. She told herself quietly. Let it go. Let… if she can find some happiness, you’ve got no right to interfere with that. None. She took a deep breath, and squared her shoulders, then turned back towards the inn to see Gabrielle trotting towards her.

"Hey." The bard greeted her as she came up. "Listen.. um…" She glanced behind her. "If we keep at this, it’ll be done by tonight.. it’ll be late, but.. they’ve offered to put us up here." She stepped closer. "Look. .I know it’s…hard." She took a breath. "They’re asking me.. and.. maybe… I think.. I."


"Sure." Xena said quietly. "Looks like it’s gonna rain tonight anyway. "

Gabrielle looked at her. "You sure you’re ok with this?"

The warrior nodded. "It’s fine. Why don’t.. why don’t you go ahead. I..need to take care of Argo." Her peripheral vision told her the young villager was waiting near the inn door and she tried to ignore the pain in her chest at the thought. "And um.. I"m going to help raise that new wall."

Green eyes studied her cautiously. "Be careful."

A brief smile. "I will… you too." She paused. "It’s… pretty hot out.. make sure you get some water, ok?"

The bard smiled back. "I will." She put a hand out and rubbed Xena’s arm lightly. "Thanks." Then she turned and trotted back to her group, turning her head slightly as the young villager joined her, and stayed close by her side.

Xena watched for a moment more, then sighed, and went back to where the carpenters were struggling to align two spars and join them. She took a corner of the heavy main spar and lifted it, bringing the entire thing even. "Try that."

The older carpenter glanced around, and gave her a grateful smile. "That’ll do the thing.. thank the gods for blessing us with you, Xena."

The warrior gave him a half hearted grin, and bent her head, feeling the afternoon sun warm her shoulders, and letting the fitful breeze move the hair out of her eyes.

"We’re about done." Gabrielle sighed, leaning back against the newly placed shelving in the storage hut. "Not bad." She cast a glance over at her attentive companion. "Good as new, huh Teren?"

The young man finished rolling a barrel into place, and straightened, walking over to her and smiling down. "Almost." He raked a hand through his straight blond hair and sighed. "I"ll be ready for dinner.. what about you, Gabrielle?"

The bard’s lips quirked. "I need to find a wash bucket first. I’m a mess." She glanced down at the dust and wood chips covering her.

Tessan grinned down at her. "Not at all." He brushed a chip or two off her shoulder. "You look just fine."

Gabrielle felt a giggle coming on and clamped down on it. He’s flirting with me. She realized with an amused start. Any other time, she might have found it almost funny, and moderately entertaining, but now… now she was too raw, and things were too strained. Her life didn’t need any more complications.

"Lying doesn’t do anything for you. " She informed Teren briskly. "Excuse me." She ducked out of the storage hut, and headed in the direction of the well, enjoying the spectacle of the sunset sending orange red spears through the gathering blue twilight. One covered the well, and she stepped into it, feeling the warmth cover her shoulders as she pulled up a bucket of water and rinsed herself off.

She was tired, but it was a good kind of tired, filled with the knowledge that she’d done a good job for these people, and their lives would be better for it. She leaned against the well support, and sipped a few mouthfuls of water from the dipper, just enjoying the fading light, and the breeze rich with the scent of soil and wood.

Finally she turned, and put the bucket back down the well, brushing her damp hands off against her skirt and glancing towards the barn. The new wall had been built and tacked into place, though she could see that more fastening needed to be done, along with caulking to keep the winds out. She headed towards there, knowing instinctively it was where she’d
find Xena.

Sure enough, there was Argo’s dully gleaming hide in a corner stall, and she could see a dark, slumped form in the straw near the mare’s head. She approached quietly, not wanting to wake the warrior if she was sleeping, but the dim light reflected off of blue eyes as Xena watched her approach. "Hey.." She circled Argo’s haunches, and dropped lightly into the straw next to the warrior. "Wall looks great."

Xena’s lips curled in a brief smile. "Not bad." She returned her attention to her hand, then gave the bard a sheepish look. "Splinters."

"Tch tch." Gabrielle settled down and held her hand out. "Let me see."

The warrior opened her mouth to protest, then closed it again, and simply did as she was requested, flinching a little as the bard probed a particularly deep sliver.

"Sorry." Gabrielle gave her hand a little pat. "Give me a second." She bent her head over the muscular palm, and gently pried the wood loose with a pair of tweezers, then worked out the remaining stubborn pieces. "There." She smoothed the angry looking skin with a fingertip, and looked up. "You ready to get some dinner?"

Xena took her hand back, and studied the reddened palm. "You.. go on..I’m.. not much up for company right now." She swallowed. "Besides.. if you.. get a chance to do some storytelling.. better that I'm not there." She gave a light shrug. "Distraction."

Gabrielle sighed, and played with a bit of hay. "Actually, I was kinda hoping for some moral support." She looked back up and met Xena’s eyes. "I could use it." She bit her lip, keeping back the fear that had flooded through her at the thought of trying to perform. "I'm… really kind of jittery."

Warm hands folded over hers, and Xena’s thumbs rubbed gently against her knuckles. ""Then l’ll be there." The warrior reassured her simply. "Let me just wash up." Her eyes searched Gabrielle’s face. "Looks like you got some sun today."

The bard focused her gaze on their linked hands. "Yeah.. tingles a little." She wrinkled her nose, and glanced up. "Does it look too bad?"

The warrior took in the flush of pink across Gabrielle’s face and gave her a smile. "No." The last sunlight was edging in the open doorway, and backlighting the bard in molten crimson. "Not at all." She suspected her admiration was showing on her face, because the bard’s sunburned features went a shade darker so she sighed, and released Gabrielle’s hands. "Go on."

Gabrielle straightened up out of the straw, and twitched her skirt into place, moving out of the sunlight and letting it fall over Xena’s sprawled body, bringing out the rusty highlights in her brown leathers. "Thanks." She said quietly.

The warrior blinked up at her, through the sparkling haze of dust particles trapped in the sunlight and shrugged. "That’s what friends are for, right?" In a quiet, wistful voice.

Gabrielle swallowed the lump in her throat. "Only when you’re very lucky." She turned, and walked out, hugging herself a little and trying to steady her breathing as she ran through a small list of comfortable, familiar short stories she could do. Gods.. I hope I don’t just freeze up… She sighed inwardly as she reached the inn door, and it opened, to reveal Teren's friendly face. Oh boy….. Another reason to have Xena around.

Xena laid there in the straw for a long moment, absorbing the fading sunlight, and letting the ache in her chest subside as she ran over the bard’s words. Finally she heaved herself up out of the hay pile, and shook the stalks out of her leathers and armor, and flicked negligent fingers through her hair to settle it.

Thoughtfully, she unclipped her armor, and lifted it over her head, setting it down next to Argo and rotating her shoulders to get the stiffness out of them, as she looked around for water. "Guess it’s the trough outside, Argo." She muttered to the mare, who whickered back. "Be right back."

She ambled over to the rear door to the stable, which had been half blocked by fallen timbers, and stepped carefully over the half burnt wood, before pushing the door open and stepping out.

She sensed them before she saw them, and her body was already reacting before her eyes registered their identity and a wave of guilt crashed over her. She froze her reaction, and let her arms drop, closing her eyes as a surface of hardened wood connected with her head, slamming her against the barn wall and dropping her to the ground in a limp heap.

Solari lowered her crossbow and swallowed. "I can’t believe it was that easy." She said between nervously ragged breaths.

Eponin stared at the still form, fingering her chobos absently. "She let me."

The taller Amazon stared at her. "What?"

Eponin shook her head. "She looked me right in the eye, Soli. And dropped her hands. I saw it. She let me."

The two Amazons looked at each other. "We’d better find Gabrielle." Eponin sighed finally. " You go look around. I’ll stay here."

Solari gave her a very unhappy look. "You be careful, all right?"

Eponin nodded and waved her off, dropping to one knee beside the unconscious warrior. "She’s out cold… go on."

Solari stepped over Xena’s long legs, and entered the barn, moving around the burnt wood and stopping next to Argo’s familiar bulk. "Hello, Argo." The Amazon murmured as she passed the mare, who snorted angrily at her. Solari ran her eyes over the horse’s gear, spotting items she knew were the bard’s, including the bag the Amazon recognized as the one Gabrielle kept her scrolls in. A light touch at it’s surface told her that was still the case, and she felt her brows knit. It all looked.. normal.

But she’d been at the village when Xena had ridden in, and seen the look on the warrior’s face when she hauled Gabrielle’s lighter body aboard the mare, and took off, scattering a squad of Amazon warriors trying to stop them. Ephiny had ended up with a broken arm, and a seething anger of her own that had sent them out in search of the pair.

And so they’d found them. Solari sighed and went out the front of the barn, looking around, and deciding the best choice of places to find Gabrielle was right in front of her. She took a breath, and headed towards the inn, reaching the door and pulling it open, to peek inside.

Gabrielle’s voice caught her attention, and she turned her head, to be met with startled, and then alarmed green eyes as the bard recognized her. She let her vision scan the slim form as Gabrielle rose and walked her way, relieved that she seemed unharmed. An uneasy feeling began to run through her guts Unharmed, and in fact, looking a lot better than the last time the Amazon had seen her.

"Solari?" Gabrielle got within reach of her and held out an arm. "What are you doing here?" Her eyes flicked to the door, and back to the Amazon.

"Are you all right?" Solari asked quietly.

Gabrielle’s brows creased. "Yeah, I’m fine.. what…" Then she realized. "Oh. Yes, I’m.. I"m fine, Solari.. gods.. that was stupid. I should have… " She stopped when she saw Solari bite her lip. "What?"

Solari groaned inwardly. "Ephiny sent us.. Eponin’s out there..she… Gabrielle, we thought you… she didn’t mean to… oh gods, what a mess."

Green eyes drilled into hers. "What happened?"

The Amazon took her arm and guided her outside. "We’d better get back… we thought you were… being held against your will, Gabrielle. We decided to… Eponin thought if she could get in one quick hit maybe we could… well, she did, but she said she thought Xena just let her…I don’t.."

She stopped talking as Gabrielle wrenched free and took of towards the barn at a dead run. "Guess we were wrong." She sighed to the wind, and took of after her.

Eponin looked up at the approaching footsteps and sucked in a breath at the expression on Gabrielle’s face. Oh oh. She stood and backed up as the bard dropped to both knees next to her unconscious companion, and gently felt her pulsepoint. "Um… Gabrielle.. I.."

Gabrielle just turned her head and looked at her. "Why?" Her voice held a note of quiet anger.

Eponin spread her hands. "We thought… damn it, Gabrielle, what were we supposed to think?"

The bard threw up a hand in an angry gesture. "So you just came riding in here, and thought you’d do..what, bash her over the head? Couldn’t you have even asked me first? Don’t I have a choice here?"

Solari knelt down, out of the bard’s easy reach. "Look.. you’re an Amazon Queen, Gabrielle. People just don’t treat our queens like that and get away with it, I don’t care if they are Xena."

Gabrielle sat down with her back against the barn wall, and pulled Xena’s limp form into her lap, cradling her battered head against her chest. "In case I haven’t made it perfectly clear…" The bard said very slowly, and very deliberatly. "That this woman is the most important thing in my life, more important to me than my title, and the Amazons, and anything else, let me just say it so we don’t have any more misunderstandings." She gently felt the lump on the warrior's head and winced. "I'm here because I want to be here, damn it."


"But.." Eponin started forward, stopping when Gabrielle fixed her stare on her.

"Stay back. " The bard said softly. "I don’t want you to get hurt if she comes around and doesn’t know what’s going on."

Solari gazed at her. "In that case, you should get back, too, Gabrielle."

The bard gently straightened the disheveled hair on Xena’s forehead. "She won’t hurt me."

Eponin knelt down and braced an arm on her knee. "That’s not true, and we know it."

Gabrielle looked up and met her eyes. "Yes it is. Now, more than ever." She took a breath. "Did she defend herself against you, Pony?"

Eponin sighed, and looked at the dirt. "No." Then her gaze swept up. "She broke Ephiny’s arm, Gabrielle."

"And delivered her son." The bard answered right back." And saved her life. Doesn’t that equal out, or is Amazon pride so unbending that bad acts have to be answered by bad acts, regardless of the consequences, or the circumstances?" She took a breath. "Damn it, Eponin, she doesn’t need any more guilt, all right? Neither of us do.. we have enough between us to last several lifetimes."

Eponin’s gaze softened. "I know.. Gabrielle.. I"m sorry.. believe me I am. We just thought we were doing what was best for you." Her fingers drew a design in the dirt. "Are you … Look.. Eph wanted me to tell you this, all right? We’re your family too, Gabrielle.. you have a place with us. You… have a choice, if you want one. Or if you need one."

Gabrielle gave her a little smile. "I know that, Pony." She sighed. "I should have sent word to you.. that was pretty stupid. I.. it’s been hard.. it’s going to take us time, but… "

Eponin watched the bard’s hands at their gentle, soothing motions. "But it’s working out?"

The bard’s eyes warmed. "Yeah." She let out a long sigh. "We’re gonna be all right."

The Amazon sat down with a thump. "Well, I’ll start composing my apology then." She gave Xena’s still body an apprehensive look. "I have a feeling I"m gonna be snacking on one of my own chobos."

"S’allright." Came Xena’s slightly groggy voice. "I needed a nap."

Gabrielle glanced down, and saw half closed blue eyes gazing up at her. "Can’t leave you alone for a minute, can I?" The teasing comment came out before she could edit it, and she bit her lip, but the warrior’s face didn’t tense at the comment. She looked up at the two Amazons, who were watching intently. "Go on to the inn. We’ll join you shortly."

Eponin sighed. "All right." She stood and offered Solari a hand up. "Listen, Xena…"

One blue eye rolled in her direction. "You’ve been wanting to do that since Solstice. Congratulations."

That shut Eponin up, and she just grunted, then stomped off towards the inn, with Solari hurrying to keep up.

A little silence fell. "So.. how long have you been awake?" Gabrielle asked quietly, making no move to release the captive warrior.

"Long enough." Xena replied, making no move to free herself.

"Sorry about that." The bard made a rueful face.

A shrug. "They had cause to be concerned. " Xena sighed. "We should have sent word.. that was.. kinda… "

"Stupid." Gabrielle confirmed. "Yeah… so… what’s with letting her hit you?" The bard’s fingers gently probed the bump on the side of her companion’s head.

Xena didn’t answer for along moment. "Maybe I thought deserved it." She quietly admitted.

Gabrielle looked at the newly star scattered sky in appeal. ‘Did it make you feel better?"

The warrior eyed her warily. "No."

"Did it make her feel better?" Gabrielle asked gently.

"I don’t think so." Xena mumbled.

The bard nodded. "So.. it’s just more warrior ego poop, right?"

That got a faint grin in response. "Maybe."

Silence. "Did you hear everything I said?" Gabrielle finally asked.

Xena blinked at her and nodded.

"Good." And Gabrielle ducked her head, kissing her partner's forehead, and pulling her close in a heartfelt hug. "I meant all of it." She whispered in the nearby ear, then released the warrior. "Your head ok?"

Xena slowly eased herself up on her elbows and winced. "More or less, yeah." She blinked her vision a little clearer. "That was pretty stupid wasn't it." She swiveled around until she was leaning against the barn wall next to the bard, and let her head rest on the wood. "Gods.. I'm.. damn, I'm sorry about Ephiny."

Gabrielle gave her a sideways glance, and laced her fingers together. "I know you are." She replied quietly. "Look.. she'll be ok."

Xena stared off into the distance. "She was a friend." She said in a small voice, as she let her head roll to one side and closed her eyes.

"She still is." The bard answered. "She's just scared for me."

The warrior shook her head sadly. "She sent two of her best warriors to kill me, Gabrielle." Xena told her with soft bluntness. "I don't blame her."

"I do." The bard snapped back angrily. "And if I find out she did that, a broken arm is going to be the least of her worries." She let out a peeved breath between her teeth. "Look.. Xena… you were in a lot of pain when that happened.. pain that I helped cause." She put a tentative hand on Xena's knee. "I understand that. I accept it." Xena's hand covered hers, and she shifted around so that she was facing the warrior. "A.. and… Xena.. I want.. I want you to know that.. I.. I would have.. " She stopped, and collected herself for a moment. "I would have.. rather died myself.. than have something happen to Solon." She finished in a whisper, looking at the ground. "You… know.. that right?"

The warrior's fingers gently grasped her chin and turned her face up to force eye contact. "I know that, Gabrielle." Her voice was tired. "I'm sorry you had to do what you did to Hope."

There.. the names were between them. "I… I know that hurt you terribly… and… I know I should have.. I wanted to.. to be there for you but…I just…" Her shoulders slumped. "It was too much for me..I couldn't…" Xena sighed softly, then gathered herself again. "I would have taken responsibility for that, if you'd…" The warrior let that trail off into silence. "I didn't want you to have to live with that… I've done.. so much… and… I thought you hated me anyway.. what difference would…" She stopped, and lifted a hand, then let it drop.

"No." The bard drew a ragged breath. "I couldn't let you do that… Xena.. couldn't let you bear that weight along with everything else..I thought….I hated myself so much at that moment…I almost…" She looked up at Xena.

"I know." The warrior whispered. "I saw you."

Gabrielle stopped breathing. "Would you have stopped me?"

Xena looked right at her. "Yes." Remembering fingers slick with sweat clenched around her chakram.

The bard closed her eyes, then let them blink open. "Why?" Her throat moved as she swallowed. "Xena.. I saw your face when you found us… I could see in your eyes what you were thinking.. why would you have stopped me then?"

Xena remained silent for a while. "Same reason I didn't just let that cave take me along with Callisto." She said softly. "I'm a lot of things, Gabrielle, but I'm no coward. I wasn't going to give up like that without at least…" She paused and swallowed. "Facing you." Her eyes searched Gabrielle's face. "Dying would have been the easy way out… and I.. I made a promise to someone once.. that I wouldn't ever take that way out again." She fell silent. "And… and even through the hatred… there was still a part of me… that…needed you."

The bard nodded slowly. "You taught me to take responsibility for my actions, Xena." Her eyes grew misty "When I realized… you.. were right about Hope..I… I had to do what I did." She let out a tired breath, and lifted her hands, letting them drop against her legs with a soft sound. "I couldn’t let that fall on your shoulders, love."

It slipped out so quickly she had no time to think before it was passed her lips. "I… " She rubbed her face with one hand. "That was my heart talking, I guess." She mumbled, glancing up wistfully at the warrior.

"Come here." Xena held out her arms, and the bard crawled into them, burying herself into the warm comfort without restraint. "Sometimes… our hearts talk better than we do, my bard." She whispered, and felt Gabrielle's body jerk as she started sobbing. "I've missed you so."

Gabrielle clutched at her leathers, breathing in the scent of her like it was some vital thing she needed as she did air. Maybe it was, her frazzled mind concluded. She felt Xena's hands move in a quiet, familiar pattern of comfort against her back, and it was as though tiny threads were being rewoven inside her. Something had changed.. some barrier had broken, and as she let the warmth flow through her, a sudden knowledge settled on her like the soft misting rain that was now falling.

She was on the road home.

Long, silent minutes passed, as two souls, separated by anger and a cruel fate gently reacquainted themselves. "Guess we should probably get out of the rain." Xena finally mumbled, a trifle sheepishly.

Unseen, a smile creased Gabrielle's face. "What rain?"

That got her a smile from the warrior, who stood, carrying them both up to their feet, and wrapping an arm around her as she guided them back inside the warm barn. Argo poked her head over the stall and regarded them, then whickered encouragingly.

"Xena?" Gabrielle’s voice drifted up from where the bard was tucked against the warrior’s side.

"Mm?" Xena responded, exploring the bump hidden in her dark hair with tentative fingertips. She hit a particularly sore spot and winced. "What?"

"Promise me something?"

The warrior stopped dead still, and gave Gabrielle an uncertain look. "OK."

Green eyes studied her gravely. "Don’t let them do that to you again."

One dark eyebrow quirked up. "I just…"

Gabrielle put both hands flat against her chest and leaned in. "I know. But please don’t."

Xena’s back straightened, and her shoulders came up a little. "All right." She promised soberly. "But you have to promise me something."

The bard blinked a little. "All right."

The warrior lifted her hands hesitantly, and covered the bard’s, still resting on her chest. "Don’t be mad at them for doing it." She replied softly. "They care about you, Gabrielle… they were trying to protect you."

Gabrielle let out a tense breath, and chewed her lip a moment. Then she sighed. "All right." Her eyes darted up. "But they better not try it again." Her face was very serious. "You.. are my champion."

Xena gazed at her quietly. "Still?" The word came out in husky tone.

The bard bit back tears. "Always." She whispered, as she let herself fall gently against the damp leather, and laid her head where she could hear the strong heartbeat.

The warrior brushed her lips against the bard’s rain dusted hair, and stroked it gently, closing her eyes and listening to the faint roll of thunder overhead. The sound soothed her ragged nerves and she found herself wishing they could just stay like that and not have to go out and face the rain, and the villagers, and those Amazons. But… it was important to Gabrielle, and she owed her all the support she could muster, so.. "Guess we’d better go before they come looking for us." She finally sighed reluctantly. "You promised some folks a story."

The bard’s eyes fluttered open, and she blinked sleepily. "Um.." Her brow scrunched. "Did I just fall asleep standing up?"

Xena chuckled gently and ruffled her hair. "Must have been all that sun you got."

Gabrielle yawned, and leaned back against Argo’s stall. The mare lipped her hair, and snorted softly down the back of her neck. "Aughhh.. Argo.. cut that out." Obligingly, the horse stuck her nose into her water bucket, and sucked up a mouthful of water. "Thank you." The bard turned back around, and crossed her arms. "Thought I’d… just do something I really know…maybe I’ll.. I thought maybe the Trojan War.. Yahgghhh!!!!" The bard let out a wild yell, startling herself and Xena, and launched herself across the straw right into the warrior’s arms.

"Gabrielle!!" Xena blurted, catching the bard but losing her own balance, and cursing a little as they both tumbled into the straw behind her. "What…."

"Ughh…" Gabrielle reached behind her and wiped at the back of her neck. "Very funny, Argo." She shook her head rapidly and scattered a handful of cold droplets over herself and Xena. "She blew cold water down my back."

Xena bit her lip, and reached up to brush a few errant drops off the bard’s hair. "Sorry about that." She cast a glance over at the mare. "Bad girl." She paused, and stayed very still, as the bard took a breath, and gazed into her eyes. "Woke you up though, huh?"

Gabrielle concentrated on keeping her breathing even, and tried to ignore the creeping warmth that was spreading through her from the body trapped beneath her own. "Yeah." She heard the husky note in her voice, and felt the blush color her cheeks. She closed her eyes and took in a deep breath, then rolled off the warrior’s sprawled form and got to her feet. "Sorry."

Xena rose up with her, and captured her eyes. "Are you?" A sad, quiet regret colored her voice.

Caught in that regard, Gabrielle sucked in several ragged breaths, and stared at the scattered hay in confusion. She heard Xena let out a soft sigh, and move past her, putting a light hand on her shoulder and giving it a squeeze. She looked up to see the warrior kneel beside their gear, and pull two tunics from it, keeping her balance with one hand against the wooden stall divider. But her shoulders were slumped, and Gabrielle could see the heave of her chest as she took a deep, steadying breath. "I’m.. I’m scared." She finally said, in a small voice.

Xena stood and turned, her expression under control, and walked back over, handing her a tunic with a little nod. "It’s all right, Gabrielle. I kind of expected that." That kind of magic.. you don’t get two chances at, Xena. You blew it. "You .. you know I’ll a.. always be there for you, right?" She managed a half hearted smile. "That’ll never change." She glanced down. "Come on.. they’re waiting for you."

Gabrielle fumbled with her clothing, watching the tense back facing her as Xena slipped out of her damp leathers and into a dark blue linen tunic, trying not to feel the ache she could sense coming from the taller woman. Xena..I’m sorry.. her mind whispered silently. How could she explain a fear she hardly understood herself? Sighing, she followed the very quiet warrior across the courtyard, getting a lump in her throat when Xena carefully tucked her under the edge of her cloak against the rain and she could feel the upset fairly radiating from the warrior.

Just as they got to the door, she pulled Xena to a stop, and hugged her with all the strength in her arms. The dark head ducked close to hers. "You’ll do fine." The warrior assured her. "Don’t worry."

"Thanks." The bard took a very deep breath, and squared her shoulders as she reached for the door and pulled it open. Behind her, she heard Xena take her own steadying breath and as they crossed the threshold, Gabrielle was aware of eyes sweeping over them in bald curiosity.

She was used to that. Especially travelling with Xena, whose six feet of intimidating presence coupled with her striking good looks drew attention like a patch of clover drew bees. Tonight, she was glad most of the eyes stayed with the warrior, who gave her a friendly scratch on the back before she moved off towards a back table, returning the curious stares with one of her own. The workers waved at her, though, and called a welcome, which settled the buzz of the room and let the rest of the guests focus on the bard.

Gabrielle waited until Xena settled herself at the same table as Eponin and Solari, noting the uneasy looks the two Amazons gave her, and making herself a mental note to have chat with the two of them. Xena, of course, ignored them both, leaning back against the wall and propping a booted foot up against the table support as she crossed her arms to listen.

She was in full ex warlord mode tonight, the bard realized, hiding everything behind that stoic mask, giving away nothing, revealing nothing.

Except to her, who could see the rawness in her eyes and the tense anguish in the very lines of her body. It was an almost welcome distraction, as her mind was so occupied with her soulmate, she forgot to be nervous, and got through the two stories she’d ran over without much problem. She saw the quiet twinkle in Xena’s eyes as she finished, and returned it with a smile. Later, later Xena… if you give me a chance, I’ll try to explain it to you. Maybe you have the answer.

"Thanks." Gabrielle grinned, touching the outstretched arms of the appreciative crowd. "I'll do a few more later.. I need to take a break" She accepted the compliments as she made her way back to the table where her friends were sitting. It felt…really good. Almost like regaining a little bit of the life she'd lost again. She pulled a chair out from the table and seated herself. "Hi."

"Nice job." Xena drawled, glancing at her over the top of the mug she was working on. In front of her on the table was a large plate of food, pretty much untouched. Gabrielle took immediate possession of it, not without a warning look at her soulmate. "Something wrong with this?"

Xena gave her a one shouldered shrug. "Just wasn't hungry."

"Uh huh." The bard replied, capturing a bit of vegetable and chewing it. She glanced across the table, to where Eponin was playing with her own food, and Solari was just staring at the table. "I can see I'm going to have to be the one providing conversation here." She sighed. " are things?"

Solari looked up from the tiny bit of splinter she had been worrying out of the table. "Not.. bad, really. Ephiny.. just got back from a visit to Granella."

Gabrielle shot a look at the warrior, who let out a long breath. "I'll send word home." Xena commented quietly, as she stood up and went in search of the innkeeper.

The bard went back to her food. "How's Granella doing?"

Eponin looked up at her. "How are you doing?"

She got a direct look back from Gabrielle. "For a while, I was really doing lousy." The bard shook her head a little. "It's been very hard.. for both of us. I won't lie about that."

The older Amazon leaned forward intently. "Gabrielle, this… listen, I know you're very attached to Xena, all right? But… she's not very stable right now.. you're in a lot of danger, you know that, right?"

Gabrielle gave her a look. "I know more about what kind of danger I'm in that you ever will, Pony. I'm fine.. I'm not in any trouble."

"Has she…" Eponin persisted. "Hurt you? Again?"

The bard put down her fork, and paused to let her anger subside. "Eponin.. "

"I know..I know.. " The Amazon held up a hand. "It's none of my business, right? Damn it, Gabrielle, we all care about you.. we don't want to see you get hurt."

Gabrielle lifted her eyes. "Am I the only one who cares about Xena?" The pain in her voice stopped them cold. "Who has saved my life so many damn times I stopped counting? Who saved Ephiny's life? Who defended the Amazons against their enemies, and themselves? "

"Gabrielle…" Solari interrupted.

"Who is so full of self hatred for what she did to me that I just, two days ago, got her to stop shaking like a leaf when she touches me?" The bard went on softly. "Who is the other half of my soul.. and who you're treating like a mindless animal?" She sighed. "I'm the only one? That's a really lonely place to be in."

Eponin looked upset. "Listen, Gabrielle… I didn't mean…"

"No." The bard replied tiredly. "She hasn't hurt me." She propped her head up on one hand and stabbed viciously at a piece of meat. "Anything else you'd like to know?" Then she stopped, and took a breath, and played with her fork. "I'm sorry. I promised Xena I wouldn't do that."

Solari and Eponin exchanged glances. "Do what?" Solari asked, cautiously.

Gabrielle gazed over at them. "Get mad at you for being concerned about me."

"She made you promise that?" Eponin asked softly. "She knows why… "

Green eyes pinned her. "Yes. She does.. and she says she doesn’t blame you." The bard's nostrils flared. "I, on the other hand, have a big problem with it." She watched their startled expressions. "You know, that big dumb warrior routine is just an act. She's really smart."

Eponin sat back, and assumed a wry expression. "Gabrielle, I apologize. We should have just come to you first, and talked."

"Mmph." The bard swallowed. "That's a start." She looked up as she felt Xena's presence drawing near, and exchanged a small grin with her. "All set?"

The warrior pulled back her chair and dropped into it. "Message sent." She braced her elbows on the table and picked up her mug, staring into it quietly.

Gabrielle finished what was on her plate, then took a sip of Xena's cold cider. "Xena?" She called softly, catching the warrior's eye. "I um… I think that sun got to me today… we've got a bunk in want to…."

A half grin came back at her. "Sure." The warrior replied. "It's been a long day." She stood, and nodded quietly at the two Amazons, then motioned Gabrielle to move on ahead of her. "See you two tomorrow?"

Eponin nodded. "Yeah… um.. hey, Xena?" Blue eyes lanced into hers. "I'm sorry."

Xena gave a light shrug, and rapped her knuckles on the table surface. "It's all right. I'll live." She ran her glance over both of them, then followed Gabrielle out of the main room, and down a small hallway to where the few tiny guest rooms at the inn were.

Solari sat back and watched them leave, taking a sip of her own ale and sighing. "What do you think?"

Eponin stabbed her fork into the table and shook her head. "I don't know what to think, damn it." She let out a soft groan. "I can't… what choice do we have but to believe what Gabrielle says? She's obviously in her right mind.. she looks pretty good, considering all that's happened…no bumps, no bruises.. mentally she seems pretty sharp."

Solari nodded. "Yeah…I don't get the feeling she's nervous, or scared… there's definteily some strain going on there between them, but… y'know… damn that Xena, she's got that dour mask of hers.. except that twice I caught her giving Gabrielle that little puppy dog look.. you know the one I mean."

The older Amazon's mouth twitched. "Yeah, I know the one." She admitted. "And did you see her jump to Xena's defense? I tell you.. I'm not half as worried about what the old war horse'll do to me as I am what Gabrielle will do to me if we try anything like we did earlier." She sighed. "I think they're all right." She scowled. "Not that I'm not plenty mad still about Eph's arm."

Solari nursed her ale. "Damn.. I could think of a lot of people I'd rather have had this happen to." She sighed. "Pony.. I.. I'm glad they're ok.. sort of."

"Are you? " Eponin asked quietly.

"Yeah." Solari replied. "I never thought… I mean, there's Xena, right? All fighter, no gentle side, tough, mean… and then I think of her that night, after she came back from being dead.. I saw her just sitting there, holding on to that kid and letting her sleep peaceful for the first time since we met up with her." She slowly shook her head. "I couldn’t believe it, Pony…it was like a totally different person."

One silver and sable eyebrow lifted. "Well.. being dead can change ya, or so I hear."

Solari rolled her eyes. "That wasn't it." She stabbed at the wood with her dagger. "My mother was an oracle. She used to show me…she'd say, this person, and that person.. they're two halves of a walnut."

Eponin blinked at her. "And your point is???"

The younger Amazon stared pensively at the table. "Those two.. for better or worse, they're part of each other, Pony. It's just like she used to say.. I'm glad we didn't have to..separate them. I… I don’t' think that would have been very good for.. for Gabrielle."

Eponin snorted. "You're getting all weird on me, Solari. Cut it out."

Solari poked the table. "Too much ale, I guess."

"Come on.. let's get some sleep.. we've got to get started back home tomorrow." Eponin sighed, and stretched, wincing at the pops in her joints "At least we've got good news to bring back."

"Cozy." Gabrielle cast a glance back at the warrior, who nodded slightly. She suppressed a grin, and crossed the room, throwing open the window without being asked. The cool night breeze wafted in, carrying a hint of jasmine and roses that brought a quiet smile to the bard's tired face. "Nice."

Xena sniffed, and nodded. "White roses."

The bard turned and put her hands on her hips. "Xena, you're not going to stand there and tell me you can tell the difference between red and white roses by the smell."

A very light shrug. "Ok."

Gabrielle's brow creased. "Can you?"

Xena stopped by the low table next to the bed, and picked up something resting on it. "Well.. actually, yeah." She admitted. "The red ones have a spicier smell." She turned and held something out. "But um.. that's not how I knew."

The bard took the rose from her, and brought it to her nose, sniffing lightly. Then she studied it, admiring the pale creamy petals, tinged at the edges with just a hint of pink. "It's beautiful." She whispered, her eyes lifting to the candlelit pale blue ones opposite her.

The warrior smiled, and sat down in the chair next to the window, resting her elbows on her knees, and clasping her hands together. "Yeah.. it's all right."

Gabrielle wandered over, and gently stroked Xena's dark hair. "Y'know.. you're secret is safe with me."

Xena closed her eyes, and let her head rest against Gabrielle's hip. "Secret?"

"Mm." The bard agreed softly, continuing her gentle stroking, enjoying the feeling of the soft strands trickling over her fingers. "I won't tell anyone about your romantic side."

Blue eye popped open, and Xena straightened up, giving her a look. "Because I don't have one, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle twirled the rose in front of her lips, and took a deep breath of it's delicate fragrance. "No, huh?"

Xena rested her chin on her fists, and gazed at the wooden floor. "No."

The bard went to the window and gazed out. 'Xena?" A flicker of motion, and a warm presence at her back. "Look."

The yard in back of the inn, where their window faced, was full of fireflies, clouds of them like bands of stars come down from the night sky. "I've always had a soft spot for those." She perched on the edge of the windowsill, and sniffed her rose, staring out into the rain misted darkness at the dancing lights.

A long pause from behind her, then Xena shifted a little. "Want me to go catch you one?"

Gabrielle smiled, and knew if she closed her eyes, she could almost feel the memory of the firefly’s tiny feet tickling her fingers. It seemed like a long time ago, until she looked up and remembered all over again what it felt like to be tumbling giddily into a love so deep, and so overwhelming it seemed impossible to ever get out of.

Where had that gone? How had they both known that, and let themselves drift so far apart? The scent from the rose lifted up to her and she glanced at it, then up at the silent warrior who was staring out into the darkness, lost in her own memories. She let her eyes absorb the strong profile, and pushed her fear down, and listened very closely to her heart.

And a tiny smile touched her lips, as she felt that firefly’s touch against her skin in her thoughts, as her fingers twined with Xena’s, and the insect crossed from her hand to the warrior’s, carrying the possession of her soul with it.

It never had come back.

Maybe that knowledge could give her back what Dahok had taken from her. Had made ugly. She looked back up. "Xena?"

It took a moment for the warrior to shake off whatever her thoughts were and turn. "Mmm?"

The bard lifted the rose a little. "Thank you for the rose." She took a deep breath. "That made me feel really good."

That got a tiny, surprised smile from the warrior. "I.. I just thought you’d… like it."

Gabrielle twirled the flower and focused her vision on it. "It…I haven’t.. felt really good about myself since.. Britannia." There, starting was the hardest part, and this.. what had happened to her was so ugly she preferred to not think about it. But she had

Xena gently touched her chin, and lifted her face up. "You don’t owe me any explanations, Gabrielle."

"I know." The bard took a steadying breath. "But maybe if I talk about this.. you can give me one."

The warrior eased down on the windowsill next to her and waited in silence.

"They… it… took something away from me in there, Xena." Gabrielle twisted her hands together, and swallowed. "It.. it made something that was always a beautiful thing for me very ugly.. and.. every time I think about that, I remember him. It." Now she finally looked up with a tired, unhappy expression. "I’m scared to death, Xena… I’m scared it will always be like that.. and …I won’t be able to… I don’t want to feel that."

"Oh… Gabrielle." The warrior breathed, in an agonized whisper. "I never.. I didn’t realize."

The bard put her flower down, and went willingly into the open arms across from her, snuggling down into Xena’s embrace with a tiny cry. "I hate feeling like this."

"Shhh… I got you." The warrior rocked her gently. "It’s all right… you’re gonna be all right, Gabrielle." Slowly she stood, and carried the bard over to the bed, sitting down and leaning back against the wall. "It’s all right." No wonder..damn… how could I be that stupid. She was raped, and you didn’t even have the sense to… gods.. what an idiot I am. "I’m sorry."

"So.. so much has happened, Xena… " The bard sobbed softly. "It was so ugly.."

"I.. I know." The warrior whispered. "I know… Gabrielle, I’m so sorry.. I should have realized.. I should have… "

"I.. I felt so… horrible about myself for such a long time." Gabrielle sighed and dropped her head. "I didn’t think…especially after… it was just so.. it just hurt so much." She plucked the warrior’s shirt ties idly. "I wanted… to talk to you about it, but things got.."

"Yeah." Xena replied. No wonder she’s not.. she doesn’t feel the same about me. The warrior clasped her hands gently. "Gabrielle.. it’s all right… it’s…look, the fact that you’re alive, and safe, and.. we’re here, and we’re friends… that’s.. that’s more than I had any reason to hope for." She swallowed hard. "The rest.. well… " Another half smile. "I understand."

The bard gazed up at her in quiet comprehension. "No.. you don’t." She felt Xena’s heart skip under her ear and sighed.

"I… I don’t?" The warrior stammered, losing her composure. "I thought… "

"Oh no.. Warrior Princess… " Gabrielle sighed softly. "You don’t get rid of me that easily. I am very much still in love with you." She looked down at the floor, and idly moved her booted foot. "But…what we had… was very special." She looked up, at blue eyes that were giving her a stunned blink. "I’m.. I don’t know if that will still be there.. and.. I’m afraid to find out." She closed her eyes. "Because.. if.. it’s not.. and.. all I can feel is that ugliness… Xena.. I can’t live with that."

"Oh." Xena said, very faintly. She sat thinking in silence for a while, one hand idly rubbing the bard’s back. Finally, she nodded to herself a little and took a breath. "Gabrielle?"

The bard had been half dozing, drifting in a quiet twilight comprised of both physical and mental exhaustion. "Mmm?"

"Do you trust me?"

The bard felt a tremor run through her, and she thought carefully about the question before answering. "Yes." She did, she realized.

"Look at me." Xena replied quietly.

So she did, letting her eyes rest on the warrior’s candle lit face, then lift up to meet the shadowed blue eyes gazing back at her. No barriers faced her, only an open, honest look that was equal mixtures of regret and love. "Gabrielle… what happened to you was horrible… I know that." The warrior spoke softly. "But you’ll overcome that, because the beauty and the kindness I see in you won’t allow for anything else."

Gabrielle smiled at her. "Thanks.. I needed to hear that."

Xena raised a hand, and pushed a lock of her hair back behind one ear, then let her fingertips trail down the bard’s cheek. "And..when I look at you.. all I see is courage, and honor, and the most beautiful person I know.. the person I love with all my heart."

That got her. She buried her face against Xena’s chest, and cried quietly, in simple relief.

"So.. you take whatever time you need, Gabrielle.. for however long you want. I"ll be here waiting for you." Xena finished softly, hugging her. "You’ll always be a part of me. Nothing is ever going to change that."

The bard cried for a long time, finally drifting off into an uneasy sleep clutching Xena around the ribcage tightly. The warrior carefully pulled the soft covers up over both of them ,and settled down for some serious thought.

Gabrielle was chiefly aware of being stiff, and that brought her halfway out of a deep sleep, into the pre dawn grayness that half lit the room through the still open window. She blinked a little, clearing her vision, and loosened her stranglehold on Xena’s body with a wince. The warrior was sprawled in what looked like a really uncomfortable position, but as usual had managed to fall asleep anyway, and was still sleeping, her head resting against the bedpost and her arms wrapped around the bard’s body protectively.

That felt really good, the bard admitted to herself. And it felt better now that she’d gotten some of that off her chest… she hadn’t realized how much she needed Xena’s reassurance until she’d gotten it, and it settled something inside her that helped ease the pain of the memories.

Her body, however, was not sharing her mind’s misgivings. It settled against the warmth of her soulmate’s with comfortable familiarity, and she had to keep consciously willing her hands not to wander out of long habit. She hadn’t had to worry about that before.. their emotional distance had also equated to physical estrangement, but now..

She sighed softly, and put her head back down on Xena’s chest, reveling in the comforting sound of the strong heartbeat that.. She smiled softly That was beating in time with her own. Two hearts. Her gazed unfocused for a moment, as a snatch of something whispered through her mind. One destiny. It was tickling, tantalizing.. just out of her reach.. an image, no.. One long moment of utter stillness, then she took a deep breath, and let the laughter that had bubbled up inside her out softly. "Yesss…."

The body under hers stirred, and Xena opened her eyes in sleepy alarm. "Hey?" She blinked. "What’s wrong?" The blue eyes flicked over the room in confusion. "What’s funny?"

The bard took a breath and recited.

Two hearts.

Two different lives.

Though separate by nature,

Bound by fate

to one destiny.

Xena cocked her head thoughtfully. "Well.. it’s appropriate… where’d you dig that one up from?"

Gabrielle gazed off into the first rays of dawn, and smiled. "I didn’t dig it up anywhere. I just made it up." Her face lit up with a quiet joyfulness. "I did it…it was in there…" She turned bright eyes on Xena. "You were right." She hugged the warrior tightly and bounced a little on top of her. "Thank you."

Xena grinned for the first time in what felt like forever, a real, heartfelt grin that stretched muscles in her face that hadn’t been used in a while. "Nice way to wake up." She chuckled as the bard bounced again. "Oof.. Gabrielle!"

The bard quieted down, and gave her a tiny pat. "Sorry." She glanced over at the window. "Is our.. " Her eyes roamed the room. "Oh.. yeah.. I see it." She scrambled off the bed, and trotted over to their saddlebags, rummaging around in one and coming up with two slightly dusty apples. She tossed one to Xena, who caught it with a lazy swipe of her hand. "Breakfast." She bit into the fruit and chewed it as she reseated herself on the bed, settling cross legged next to Xena and watching the warrior nibble her apple. "You sleep OK?"

Xena made an effort to look wide awake, considering she’d fallen into a light doze not long before the bard had stirred. "Yep."

She’d spent the dark hours thinking about a lot of things. About Britannia, about Chin.. about all the things she’d done in the last few months, trying to understand what had driven her to do them. About how Gabrielle had suffered because of it. She’d thought a lot about Solon. About how short a time he’d had, and how she wished she’d known him better. She cherished all the more the little time they’d had, and had cried a little, remembering his excitement at the possibility of coming to live with them. She’d thought about how she’d miss seeing him grow up, and how Gabrielle had taken him into her heart, which made the tragedy doubly worse for the bard.

And she realized what it must have been like for Gabrielle, who had taken Hope into her heart in much the same manner, to face the thought that her soulmate wanted to kill this child. This child of hers, who, despite it’s origins, despite whatever Xena felt from it, was nevertheless part of Gabrielle. And she’d never even tried to sympathize, never had tried to explain to Gabrielle what she knew. .how she knew it.. she’d just… forced her to make a choice.


And it had been the only choice Gabrielle could have made, given the circumstances. She had forced that. It had all been her fault. Every single bit of it.

So forgiving Gabrielle had never been an issue. Forgiving herself was, and there were parts of what happened she knew, with a bleak self knowledge, that she’d never forgive. Never.

"Funny.. why do I think that’s not quite true?" The bard commented quietly,

"Huh?" Xena started as fingertips brushed her knee. "Sorry.. I was um…"

"The term is napping, Xena." Gabrielle quirked a grin at her. "Come on.." She took the half eaten apple from the warrior’s hand, and set it on the table, then tugged the blankets up around her.

"No… it’s… I"m fine, Gabrielle." Xena protested.

"Uh huh." The bard set down her own breakfast, and slid onto her side, facing the recalcitrant warrior. "Let’s see if this still works. " Before Xena could say anything, she slid a hand under the blanket, and beneath the taller woman’s shirt, tracing a slow pattern on the bare skin of her stomach. "Remember that?" She said softly. "I discovered that the first night we were together."

Xena’s eyes misted, and she blinked "I remember." She replied in a small voice, as she felt her body respond to the familiar signal, and a slow wave of lethargy rolled over her. "I.. I did a lot of thinking last night."

Gabrielle studied her face intently. "Beating up on yourself, huh?"

Xena dropped her gaze. "Yeah.. something like that." She admitted.

Gabrielle leaned closer, still keeping up her gentle patterns. "Xena? I think we need to stop doing that, OK? Life beats up on us enough, without us doing it to ourselves."

If it were only that easy. Xena reflected, as she let herself get lost in the bard's gentle gaze, and the hypnotic rhythm of her touch. She didn't want to breathe, for fear the bard would stop, or pull back.. it had been what seemed to her like forever since she'd felt that friendly tracing, and seen that slightly indulgent expression on the bard's face. She hadn't realized just how much she'd come to depend on the simplest of exchanges between them, until they were no longer there.

That coldness had half killed her, ironic considering how long it had taken her to get over the bard's tendency to touch. Now she felt starved for it, and was just glad to be lying here soaking in the warmth she could sense from Gabrielle, absorbing it like a sponge would water. If she took a breath, she knew she'd smell the bard's gentle scent, she was so close. She took a breath, and it brought a quiet smile to her face.

"Hey.. it still works, huh?" Gabrielle's voice drifted close, and brought a hint of apple with it. The bard curled up inside the circle of her arm, and settled down. "I really missed this." She hesitated. "I missed.. just being with you…being close."

"Me too." Xena admitted. "It hurt."

"Yeah." Gabrielle's soft voice warmed the skin on her shoulder. "Xena?"


"I'm tired of hurting." The very quiet response. "I want to go home."

Xena opened her eyes and studied the pale head tucked against her shoulder, and tightened her arm, pulling the bard closer. "I know… " She gently kissed the top of Gabrielle's head. "We'll find our way there." She drifted off listening to the very early morning sounds of herdsmen readying their animals for pasture and enjoying the drifting scent of newly baked bread.

"Long night? "

Xena glanced up from where she was retrieving a bucket of daub for the barn and gave Eponin a nod. "Thought you two would be out of here already." The warrior had eschewed her armor for the day, and was working in just her leathers, with her dark hair tied back in knot. She ignored the question, not seeing any reason to give Eponin an excuse for why they'd managed to sleep in well past dawn.

"Solari and I had a bet going. I won. She's still figuring out which way's up." Eponin commented, as she watched Xena launch herself up onto a roughly made platform, and continue putting the insulating stuff in place with negligent skill. "Hey.. you're pretty good at that." She spared an appreciative glance for the muscles rippling across the warrior's tanned shoulders as she worked.

"So.. you drunk her under the table." Xena guessed, pressing a thick clump of daub into place and smoothing it with a flat piece of wood. "Nice." She paused and glanced over her shoulder at the watching Amazon. "You do that a lot. Be careful."

Eponin blinked. "Are you giving me advice?"

Pale blue eyes flicked over her. "Just a suggestion." She paused. "Look.. if you're gonna just stand there, why not get up here and help?" She put down the bucket, and leaned over, offering a hand up.

The Amazon hesitated, then reached up and grabbed the offered hand, and was hauled bodily up as Xena shifted her weight and stepped backwards. "Damn." She snorted, as the warrior let loose of her hand. They looked at each other for a long minute. "Are we ok?" Eponin asked quietly.

A light shrug from Xena. "Yeah." A tiny quirk pulled at one corner of her lips. "So.. you get me, Solari gets Gabrielle, huh?"

Eponin got caught flat footed, and just blinked. Damn.

Xena shook her head, and gave her a pat on the shoulder. "C'mon, get it over with." She turned back and dipped a handful of daub from the bucket, and smoothed it into place. "Look..I'm not really in the mood for twenty questions, all right?"

The Amazon took a handful of the gray stuff, and pounded it into a crack between the wooden planks. "Yeah.. um…look, Xena.. I'm .. I'm sorry how things worked out, you know?"

Xena sighed. "Yeah. I know." She glanced over. "So am I."

Eponin smoothed a finger over the daub. "I'm really sorry about your son." She added very quietly. "He was a good kid."

The warrior stared at the surface she was working on for a long moment, then turned, and leaned against the surface with a tired shoulder. "Thanks." Her eyes studied Eponin's face. "I'm sorry about what happened with Ephiny, Eponin. " She looked down. "I had considered her a friend." She finished quietly, looking back up at the smaller woman with sincere regret.

Eponin glanced down, playing with the daub in her fingers. "As your.. " Her lips twitched. "partner rightly reminded me last night, she wouldn't be alive to get that broken arm if it hadn't been for you. I guess I lost sight of that." She pushed a piece of daub into place. "Just like I lost sight of how Xenon got his name." She gave the warrior a shrug. "She'll be all right."

Xena nodded a little, and turned back to her task.

"Xena?" Eponin added softly.

Blue eyes swept over her again. "Yeah?"

The Amazon took a breath. "She cried the whole night before we left." Her eyes met Xena's squarely. "She's still a friend of yours." She looked off into the distance. "We just… Gabrielle is our queen, Xena. We had to protect her." She paused. "And we all love her, you know that."

Xena’s shoulders slumped, and she rested her head against the wooden wall. "I.. I know that, Eponin." She finally sighed. "I’d give anything to make it so didn't feel the need to protect her.. from me.."

The Amazon stepped closer and shuffled her feet nervously. "Look.. um.. I know things are.. um.. kinda rough right now, but I think it’ll all work out ok."

Xena felt a smile tugging gently at her lips. Eponin, trying her best to be comforting. It touched her. "Think so?" She turned her head, and studied the uncomfortable Amazon.

Eponin ducked her head and crossed her arms, then nodded, and looked anywhere but at Xena. "Yeah..I um…yeah, I think so." She kicked the platform studiously. "You guys still have that little eye thing going."

Xena’s brow creased. "What?"

Eponin cleared her throat. "Um… it’s this… you… uh.. nevermind."

The warrior put down her bucket, and turned to face Eponin, putting her hands on her hips and raising an eyebrow. "Eye thing?"

"Um.. I gotta go." Eponin stepped back. "You.. um.. take care of yourself, all right?"

"Eponin." Xena’s voice dropped into it’s lowest register, a rumble that tickled the Amazon’s eardrums ominously.

The Amazon sighed, and lifted a hand. "It’s.. hey, don’t worry about it, ok? It’s just that you two look at each other, and it’s pretty obvious, even to an old war dog like me, that um…."

"That there’s hope for us?" Xena completed the thought quietly.

Eponin took a startled breath. "Yeah."

But Xena just nodded again, and turned back to the wall, scooping out a handful of daub and pressing it into place between two boards.

"Drink this." Gabrielle emerged from the small room she and Xena were sharing, carrying a small wooden cup. "It tastes disgusting, and smells worse, but I swear it works."

Solari gave her an evil look, and downed the cup’s contents without so much as sniffing them. "It couldn’t make me feel worse." She set the mug down, and carefully cradled her head in her hands. "How did I let her talk me into that?"

The bard wiped the sweat off her brow, and sat down next to the ailing Amazon with a sigh. "You guys do that a lot." She commented. "You should be careful." She shifted her shoulders and winced, as skin tightened by her sunburn protested. She was wearing a loose fitting shirt over her usual skirt today, and had submitted willingly to the soothing aloe mixture Xena had gently rubbed on her sensitive skin before they’d left the room.

"Is that an order, your Majesty?" Solari mumbled, rubbing her temples.

"Just a suggestion." The bard replied with a small grin. "Thought you guys wanted to get moving today."

Solari groaned. "We are.. we are… what are you doing?"

Gabrielle flexed her hands. "Getting everything settled back in the storeroom, and helping out gathering all the animals those raiders let loose." She laughed gently. "And the kids are pestering me for a story or two so…"

The Amazon studied her carefully. "You’re in a better mood today."

A long breath. "Well.. I am, yeah… it was.. we talked a lot last night. Working some stuff out."

Solari’s eyebrow rose at an odd angle. "She talks to you?"

The bard smiled gently. "I do most of the talking, but yeah.. she does… it’s been really hard for both of us." She paused, and traced a line on the table they were sitting at. "Hard for me, because of all the stuff that happened. Hard for her, because she can’t stop.. hating.. herself for it." She sighed. "It hurts a lot."

Solari let out a soft sound. "Ephiny wanted us to bring you back." She put a hand on the bard’s wrist. "She’s really worried about you." Her lips twitched in a pained smile. "That offer’s still open.. she wanted me to make sure you knew that."

Green eyes studied her intently. "I can’t leave her, Solari." The bard answered honestly. "And.. I .. I really don’t want to. Things.. they’re getting better, faster than I thought, really." She let a smile creep onto her face. "What we have… it’s really, really strong."

Solari shook her head a little. "I can believe that, Gabrielle… and believe me, I’m glad to be taking back good news to Ephiny.. she’s pretty.. well, this whole thing upset her a lot." She looked down at the table. "She um… there was talk about banning Xena from the territory."

Gabrielle took a breath, and let it out slowly. "Guess I won’t be seeing much of you all, then." A choice made, as easily, and as simply as saying it.

Solari gave her a brief smile. "Ephiny squashed that. She.. just.. um… stood up in council and yelled a whole lot.. she kinda lost it, and um..scared the heck out of everyone so…" She gave the bard’s wrist a squeeze. "She said.. it was.. um.. her damn arm, and if everything was ok with you guys, then she’d just wait till it was healed and slug Xena with it next time she saw her."

Gabrielle winced. "I made her promise not to let you guys do that again." Her eyes darkened. "She’s already beating herself up over this, I’m not going to have everyone else start in.. you make sure you tell Ephiny that, ok?"

Solari sighed. "Still protecting her, Gabrielle?"

A direct look back. "Yes." The bard at her most uncompromising.

The Amazon looked at her for a long moment, then finally nodded. "All right.. I’ll tell her. " Then she slapped herself in the head. "Great Artemis.. I forgot."

Gabrielle jumped. "What?"

"You’re an aunt." Solari gave her a grin. "Your sister had a baby boy."

The bard blinked, then smiled. "Really?" Her gaze went inward. "Is it… oh.. she was early.." Her eyes went back to the Amazon. "Did you see them?"

Solari nodded. "Went through Potadeia… your folks.. send regards.. we didn’t.. um… tell them anything." She took in Gabrielle’s serious look with a half smile. "He’s a cute one."

Gabrielle took breath to comment, then stopped, her head cocking lightly. "Horses." She looked at Solari. "Sounds like a lot of them."

They overturned the bench scrambling to get outside.

The raiders came back in force, on horseback, and thundered through the village, spreading out and racing down the central road, knocking over people and sheep and everything else in their path. Three split off and headed for the stockyards, yelling so loud the screams of frightened children were overwhelmed, and using their thick wooden clubs to knock running villagers out of the way.

The main group headed for the storage area, and galloped towards it full speed, weapons held up, yelling.

A yell met their own, higher, wilder, and then the leader of the group had barely time to get his arm up before he was being knocked off his mount by a flying, leather clad body. They stopped, pulling up their horses in a wild confusion of dancing hooves and dust, and watched in disbelief as the tall, blond haired man was dumped on his head, then spitted with his own sword.

Then they charged.

Xena had heard the horses, and vaulted over the platform railing, hitting the dirt running with Eponin close behind. She took one look at the onrushing horses, and gauged distance.. and realized she wasn’t going to make it to her weapons. Damn. She cursed inwardly, and changed course, heading straight for the lead horseman.

A wagon was in the way, but provided a good jumping point, so she raced up it, and hurdled off the end, slamming into the raider at chest level, and taking them both to the ground with a bone rattling crunch.

Ouch. The warrior sighed, and lifted the raider up, avoiding his wild swing and grabbing his sword arm, then twisting it around and slamming it down, driving the sword through his gut and out the back of his armor. Hot blood scattered, drenching her, and she took a breath in the silence as the rest of the raiding party trampled the ground for a shocked instant, aware of Eponin charging up behind her.

A raider yelled, and then they were charging at her, weapons swinging, and she was surrounded by a sea of sweating horses, whose rolling, wild eyes plunged past her head as she ducked under the first swinging club, and retrieved the sword from the dead raider’s chest.

Blows glanced off her shoulders, as she dodged two rearing beasts, and stabbed up, hearing a scream as the sword found it’s target, then pulling it free, and using a fist to deflect a reaching hand, feeling her knuckles scrape past armor and hit solid flesh that grunted and slid from the saddle.

A dozen surrounded her, and she fought for clear space, sensing Eponin’s grim presence to her right, as the Amazon battled her way towards the center of the melee, but not close enough, as several of them leaped bodily on top of Xena, driving her to the ground with their weight.

Xena grimly bore the slamming of fists and wood into her body, and got her hands under her, then both feet, and shoved away from the ground, sending a few attackers flying, but not losing all of them. She took one out with an elbow to the chin, then heard the distinctive crack of wood on flesh and grinned fiercely as she kicked up and out, and got space enough to spot a flash of familiar red gold hair.

In a whirling moment, they were back to back, and she felt a warmth go through her as Gabrielle’s shoulderblades pressed up against hers, and the bard lashed out at the raider who was trying to gut her, knocking him back. "Hi." The bard worked a combination move that left an opponent gasping on the floor.

"Hi yourself." Xena replied, catching a weapon by its blade, and twisting, then kicking it’s owner back through the crowd and into a water trough. Then her eyes lifted, and she cursed loudly, seeing a single shot of a mounted crossbowman aiming at the winded and kneeling form of Solari, who had just finished a vicious hand to hand fight with a raider twice her size.

A hand touched hers. "Here." And a rock was under her fingertips. She grabbed it, and paused, then whipped her arm forward, and nailed the archer on his helmet, knocking him forward and causing his weapon to fire right into his horse’s neck. The beast screamed, and reared, and dumped his rider, shaking the man loose of the trailing stirrups and galloping off.

Then it was just opponent after opponent, and she kept Gabrielle in her peripheral vision as always, but the bard seemed to be holding her own, wielding her staff with grim precision and watching her partner’s back with bold persistence. It felt… wonderful, and she found herself grinning despite the heat, and the mud, and the pesky raiders.

One last charge and she ducked, but the rider swung backwards, and caught her in the back of the neck, sending her tumbling. She tucked her body into tight roll, clearing the animal’s hooves, and looked up as the forward swing of his club slipped past a tiring Eponin’s defenses and smashed her across the temple. The Amazon stumbled, and raised her hand to protect her head, but the rider lifted his club with a triumphant yell, and brought it down hard.


So hard he threw himself off his horse when he missed his target, and slid halfway down the animal’s barrel, then something hit the side of his head, and it all went dark.

Eponin raised a hand to her head, and waited for her breathing to settle down, glad of the powerful arm that was holding her up several feet from where the raider had hit her. One minute, she was trying to fight off the brilliant flashes in her eyesight, knowing the second blow was headed her way, then next something big and warm had hit her and she’d been carried through the air and out of the way, landing with Xena’s hold firmly on her.

"Gods." She whispered weakly, as she felt the warrior’s hold shift slightly. " Who in Hades taught me to duck?"

"Easy." Xena’s voice rumbled in her ear. The gentle hands were touching her head.

"Pony… take it easy, ok? We’ve got you." That was Gabrielle’s voice, and she blinked, trying to clear her vision. The bard slowly coalesced from a vague shadow into her familiar features, concern shadowing her mist green eyes, and smudges of dirt and blood covering her face and body. "It’s over, all right? We’re going to get you back to the inn and take care of that." The bard’s eyes flicked over her right shoulder, and she seemed to hold some kind of silent conversation, because Eponin suddenly felt Xena grunt an assent, then the world went dizzily crazy, as she was picked up and everything went whirling around her head. Then it went dark.

"She’s out." Xena commented, as she stepped carefully over the silent bodies of the raiders. She gave the anxious Solari a look. "It’s a nasty bump.. that club had spikes on it. That’s where the blood is coming from.. broke the skin there." The unconscious Amazon’s face was covered in crimson. "Looks worse than it is."

Running footsteps made them look up, as the village reeve skidded to a halt in front of them. "Xena… thank you." He glanced at them. "Thank all of you." His eyes fastened on their fallen companion. "Our healer’s coming.. no one else got hurt.. they didn’t get anything this time." His eyes fairly glowed when he looked at the silently pacing warrior. "I’ve never seen anything like that… you all are wonderful."

Gabrielle put a hand on Xena’s arm, correctly anticipating an angry snarl from the warrior. "Thank you.. we’re glad we could help.. but you know, it’s not really a wonderful thing.. it’s very dangerous, and it hurts." She displayed a badly bruised forearm to the man. "It’s not a lot of fun most of the time."

"Oh.. well.. yeah, of course." The man winced at her bruise. "Um.. I didn’t mean to sound.. I"m sorry." He steered them into the inn, where several villagers were gathered, including the mason, who had cleared off a low padded bench near the fireplace.

"Here, lass.. put er down here." He glanced up as Xena knelt carefully at his side, and deposited the injured Amazon onto the couch. "Ye do your stories justice, ye do, Xena."

Xena gave him a look. "Tell that to the bard, here." She jerked her head in Gabrielle’s direction, then gave the bard a ghost of a wink, as she stood, and let the village healer bustle in with his packets of herbs and cleanser. She went over to a chair nearby, and dropped into it, wincing as her own bruises made their presence known, now that the battle fever was out of her. She tuned out the excited buzz of voices around her, as the villagers relived their experiences, not wanting to hear the wild spin they were already putting on her actions. She laid her head back, and watched the healer work, letting her eyes idly drift between Solari’s anxious face, and Gabrielle’s reassuring movements.

Her mind drifted back to the battle, to the moment when the bard had joined her, back to back, against the raiders. It had felt… right.. for the first time, in a long time. Just like waking up this morning the second time, with Gabrielle wrapped so tightly around her she couldn’t move felt right.. it was all starting to edge it's way back to how she remembered it, and the wistful desire for that was getting stronger and stronger, the closer they got. She closed her eyes and smiled a little, opening them at a touch on her wrist. She found Gabrielle crouched next to her, a very worried look on her face. "Hey." She drawled peacefully at the bard.

"Are you all right?" The bard asked in a low voice. "I thought you’d gone out on me here."

"Why?" The warrior asked, reasonably. "Yeah.. I’m fine… took a few hits, but nothing major."

"Xena, I called you twice, and walked all the way over here and you didn’t hear me." Gabrielle said softly. "You didn’t even react until I touched you."

A tiny grin shaped Xena’s mouth. "Sorry.. I was thinking."

"Uh huh." The bard studied her closely. "Thinking so hard you let someone sneak up on you?"

The warrior cocked her head to one side. "Thinking about the person doing the sneaking." Their eyes met. "Thanks for watching my back out there."

Gabrielle smoothed the fine hairs on her partner’s forearm, then looked up. "It felt good." She smiled a little. "I felt like we were a team." Her fingers traced a faint scar. "I like that."

That got her a quirky half grin from Xena. "Me too." She agreed. "I've really missed that."

The bard propped her chin up on one hand. "You're a mess." She looked over her shoulder. "Pony's gonna be fine.. took a few stitches, but she's already kinda mumbling." Eyes flicked over to her. "You saved her life, you know that, right?"

"Shh." Xena winced. "It wasn't anything like that, Gabrielle, I just… "

"Xena." Gabrielle's eyes glinted. "That guy was about to smash her head in like an egg, and you jumped over two other guys, kicked a third one out of the way, grabbed her, jumped out of the way, then kicked that guy into next week. Don't give me that I just nothing, ok? " Her voice dropped. "You did that… don't act like it's something to be ashamed of."

The warrior stared at her for a long moment, then closed her eyes, and lifted a hand to rub her temples. "Sorry." She let out a breath. "I don't know what my problem is."

Gabrielle rested her cheek against the warm arm she was clutching. "I do." She waited for Xena's eyes to open and focus on her, and they did. "You're so angry with yourself, you can't understand people seeing you as anything other than what you see yourself as." She saw the blue eyes widen and shy away from hers. "Xena… don't do it.. please? You're a hero to them. "

Long silence.

"You're my hero." Gabrielle added very softly.

The warrior locked eyes with her. "How can you say that?" Her voice was bitter.

The bard gazed up at her quietly, knowingly. "Because it's true."

Xena regarded her pensively. "I.. I don't know if I can believe I'm capable of that anymore, Gabrielle."

"You are.." Gabrielle insisted. "You have to be..." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "I need you to be."

Xena sat in silence, thinking about that. For her, anything. Was the final decision. "Then I'll see what I can do, I guess." She replied, simply, taking a deep breath and squaring her shoulders slightly. Her eyes lifted, and glanced over the bard's shoulder. "Solari.. you all right?"

The dark haired Amazon wandered over, and sat down next to Xena with a thump. "More or less, yeah." She flicked a glance over them, then focused on Xena. "You?"

The warrior shrugged. "Fine." She watched as Gabrielle stood, and walked over to the innkeeper, who rubbed his hands and nodded at her. "Thanks for helping out."

Solari leaned back in the chair and let out a soft groan as she stretched her legs out. "I'll be feeling that tomorrow.. " She grimaced. "Thanks for the on target rock toss." She regarded the ceiling thoughtfully. "Felt bad for the horse, though."

"Not my fault. "Xena muttered. "Idiot had his crossbow on hair trigger." She stretched out her own long legs and crossed them at the ankles, as she idly watched Gabrielle collect a set of gently steaming mugs and head back their way.

Solari leaned over. "Y'know, Xena… not to get real personal with you or anything, but.. damn, she's cute."

Xena gave her a look, causing her to settle back hurriedly in her chair. Then she glanced around, and raised an eyebrow, lowering her voice conspiratorially. "I know."

Gabrielle reached them ,and handed Xena one of the three mugs, keeping one, and offering the third to Solari. "So.. what are you two chatting about?"

They both stuck their noses in their respective mugs. "The fight." Xena mumbled around a mouthful of soup. "Techniques."

"Perspectives." Solari added solemnly.

"Uh huh." The bard perched herself on the arm of Xena's chair, and let her arm rest gently on one tanned shoulder for balance. "Guess you guys aren't getting out of here today." She looked over at the now bandaged Eponin. "She's gonna be pissed when she wakes up."

Solari rolled her eyes. "Oh yeah.. is she ever. She hates being hurt." The Amazon leaned back. "You shoulda seen her after she fell outta that tree a few months back and sprained her back.."

"She fell out of a tree?" Xena and Gabrielle managed to ask simultaneously. They glanced at each other, then Xena chuckled and shook her head, poking her nose back in her mug of soup.

"Yeah.. " Solari reminisced. "She'd bet someone she could get this egg out of this bird's nest way up at the top of the big tree near the kitchen." Solari waved her mug. "Evrybody told her not to do it… those damn branches were real thin this year cause of the bad weather we had during the winter, but no.. it was a bet, and a challenge, and you know Eponin."

"Sounds like someone else I know." Gabrielle muttered, with a sideways glance at Xena. The warrior merely raised an eyebrow. "So what happened?"

Solari shrugged. "Well, she got the egg, not that it did her much good, cause she squashed it flat when she fell on it."

"Ouch." The bard winced. "That must have really hurt."

"Yeah.. it did." Solari agreed. "She was out flat for days.. spitting mad. Eph finally had to threaten to.." Her lips quirked. "Anyway, she threatened her, and got her to just shut up and lie down for a few days"

Xena chewed thoughtfully and swallowed. "Should have kept her there longer. It's still giving her problems." She went back to her soup, ignoring the looks between Gabrielle and Solari.

"She told you that?" Solari asked, quizzically.

"No." Xena replied. "Didn't have to. I can tell by the way she moves." She drained her mug, and glanced at it wistfully, then jerked a little as it was taken out of her hands, and replaced with Gabrielle's nearly full one. "Gabrielle… what.."

"Go on." The bard ordered. "I've had some already." She leaned back against the wood of the chair and watched the villagers gathered in small groups discussing the mornings excitement. A smile creased her features when small bits of ideas began to nudge her as to how she'd turn this into a story and she let herself indulge in that for a bit.

Xena decided not to argue the soup point, and started drinking the second mug down. It was good soup and she was, she admitted, really hungry for the first time… in a while. That brought back memories of the long months of her guts being tied up in knots so tight that even thinking of food had been.. She sighed. Gabrielle had thought she was just snubbing her cooking, and so.. she'd.. just stopped offering.

And she'd found herself not caring, just grabbing handfuls of whatever she found on the trail, finding excuses to spend more and more time in her drills, or out scouting, or.. a lot of nights were spent just curled up somewhere, hurting, and not knowing any way to stop it.

Knowing from the bard's silent, haunted eyes that she was going through her own Hades, and unable to reach across the barriers they'd put up between them.

A touch on her shoulder brought her out of the memories, and she glanced to one side, but Gabrielle's mind was elsewhere, oblivious to her idly moving fingers. A gentle, familiar touch, that stroked her skin with tickling pressure and followed the lines of bone and muscle with hypnotic rhythm. Xena smiled. She doesn't even realize she's doing it. And I don't mind her doing it. It meant they were getting more comfortable with each other, and that could only be a good thing.

The door opened, and two grim looking villagers came in, looking around and spotting the reeve with some relief. "Tomache, those raiders got to a merchant's train just south of here.. there're lots of folks hurt."

The reeve sighed. "Damn.. bastards." He looked around, and people started coming towards him. "Let's see what we can do for them.. since we were so fortunate as to have been spared." He cast a shyly devoted look towards Xena.

"Don't curse." Gabrielle whispered. "Be nice."

The warrior let out a breath. "C'mon.. let's give them a hand." She started to get up, but was held in place by Gabrielle's hand. "What?"

The bard's head ducked down. "You're hurting."

Well… "No.. I'm fine." It wasn't really anything. Much.

Gabrielle leaned closer. "*I* can tell by the way you move." She whispered right in the warrior's ear. "Stay here.. keep Pony company.. Solari and I will go out and see if we can lend a hand, ok?"

OK? Xena sighed softly. It was more than ok. It was Gabrielle caring about her, about how she felt so good she didn't give a damn that the bard had nailed her precisely. "All right." She relented, giving the bard a wry look. "Can't have Eponin waking up and not knowing what's going on, right?"

Gabrielle smiled at her, and lifted a hand, hesitatingly, to brush the hair back out of her eyes. It was as though the room of people disappeared, and all that was left was them, and a silence, in which she could clearly hear two heartbeats. Two breaths. She could see the tiny muscles in Gabrielle's face twitch as she inhaled, the flickering movement of the torchlight that lit her eyes from within showing the hidden golden sparkles in their depths. She could smell the faint hint of the aloe she'd used on her sunburned skin, and the tickle of sun dried linen from her shirt and the warm smell that was Gabrielle herself. She kept completely still as the bard's fingers explored her face in gentle wonder, tracing her cheekbones, and finally coming to rest on her chin. Their eyes met, as the room very slowly faded back in.

Gabrielle blinked. "Um." She let her hand drop falteringly back to her side. "I guess I'd better.. um.. " She glanced at Solari, who was watching them with a fascinated look. "Let's.. um.. go see if we can help."

"Sure." The Amazon nodded, as she stood and put her mug down. "Good idea." She started towards the door with a firm step, not looking back.

The bard slowly rose, giving the warrior a soft pat on the shoulder "Don't go anywhere, ok?"

"I won't." Xena promised quietly. "Be careful."

Gabrielle nodded, and followed Solari, her expression very thoughtful.

The inn emptied out quickly, most of the villagers going to see if they could help salvage anything from the merchant's train. Or get half price bargains; Xena mused wryly, human nature being what it was.

The warrior edged her chair a little closer to the fire, and settled back with her mug, wrapping her hands around it and letting out a deep sigh. She let her thoughts drift a little, taking slow sips of the soup and allowing her tense body to unwind as the sounds outside receded, and she could hear the subtle creaks of the building around her.

A groan brought her alert, and she rolled her head to one side, and studied the feebly moving Eponin. "Eponin… don't move around, all right?"

Another groan. "Hera's left tit." The Amazon mumbled. "What fell on me?"

Xena leaned over. "It was Hera's left tit. Squashed you flat."

Silence, then one caramel colored eye peeked out, and it's brow quirked. "I must be dead. You made a joke."

Gods, it felt good to smile. Felt good to have someone saying something.. normal.. not holding back, not choosing words carefully…"Write it down. It doesn't happen often." She replied dryly. "You got whacked on the head with a studded wooden club."

"That explains the headache." Eponin mused, raising a tentative hand up and touching the bandages. "Doesn't explain why 'I'm sick to my stomach, and there are two of you." She paused. "Just what we needed."

That surprised another grin out of Xena. "You remember getting pounded on in the fight?"

Eponin shook her head then winced. "Ah.. bad idea. No… I remember.. oh yeah, you chucking a rock at some guy and making him shoot his horse… then it gets kinda fuzzy." She started to sit up, then dropped back down with a hiss even before Xena could get an arm out to stop her. "Worse idea."

Xena let out a sigh. "Will you stay put?" A thought occurred to her. Am I like this? She winced. Umm.. I bet I am… She sent a mental apology to her soulmate. "You try that again and I'll… " The warrior scowled, then her expression cleared. "I'll tell Eph on you."

The restlessly moving Eponin stilled. "Uh… now, Xena… "

Heh. Xena smirked. "Just stay there, ok? You got worked over, and your brains are rattled. Relax, got me?"

Eponin did as ordered, blinking a little at the lounging warrior. "So.. where is everyone?"

"Helping.. those raiders hit a merchant caravan outside town." Xena explained, draining her mug and setting it down on the table next to her. "Gabrielle went with Solari to see what they could do."

A lift of both copper colored eyebrows. "And… left you… to.. watch me?" The Amazon cocked her head. "Um… not that you're not a good healer or nothing, Xena.. I mean, heard stories from Eph, but.. "

Xena let a half grin shape her lips. "Guess they wanted to make sure you wouldn't wake up half crazy and start beating up the pigs." She shrugged. "Figured I could handle that."

"Hmph." Eponin cleared her throat a little, and laid a hand across her stomach. "Not much challenge from me." She mumbled. "Damn.. I feel lousy."

Xena put a hand on her shoulder. "Hold on.. I've got some stuff in the room that might help. Be right back." She stood, wincing a little at her own stiffened bruises, and took a moment to stretch out the badly pulled shoulder that Gabrielle had spotted so efficiently.

"We're getting too old for this junk, Xena." Eponin commented wryly from her pallet as she watched.

"You know it." The warrior let out a sigh, then shook herself a little, and walked off towards the room she and the bard were sharing. It took a moment of rummaging for her to dig up the herbs she wanted, and as she pulled out the last packet, her fingers touched something.

She drew back her hand in confusion, then tentatively reached out again, and let her fingers close on a small object buried deep in her folded clothing and pull it out.

It rested in her hand, lit by the warm sunlight pouring in the window. A tiny piece of parchment, tied around something moderately heavy, a stone or…

No… it can't be. Xena's hands shook as she untied the bit of string holding it, and let the parchment fall open.

The sun caught the facets of the crystal, scattering slivers of dancing light around the room and across her body. She stared at it, as though a ghost had appeared in front of her, which in a way it had, in the form of her lifebond necklace, taken from her in Chin.

Had been ripped from her neck, actually, leaving a bloody ring from the chain and tossed negligently up by Ming Tien, who had laughed. And said she no longer needed it. And, at that moment, with Gabrielle's betrayal staring her in the face, she'd just said. "You're right."

Now, here it was, bearing inside it a past, and promises it hurt to even think about. The chain had been carefully cleaned of the dirt, and her blood, and the crystal shone warmly in her palm, almost clear enough to read the words on the parchment underneath through it.

She picked up the stone, and tucked it in one hand, then brought it up to her cheek as she turned her eyes to the writing.

I guess you never thought you'd see this again.

I wasn't sure I could ever give it back.

Or that you'd want it.

I guess this is the coward's way out.. I know I should just hand it to you, but I'm so scared you won't want it, that I just had to put it in here, knowing you'd find it sometime, and you could think about it, and decide what it meant to you.

If it means anything, anymore.

I won't keep you guessing, Mine does. I wear it on a little clasp, on the inside of my belt, so I can feel it, but it isn't out there driving you crazy.

Sometimes, when things got really bad, I'd just find a place, and take out both of them, and fit them together, just to remind myself that there once was a place that I belonged, where I fit just like these two things do, and I'd just keep telling myself not to give up.

So.. here it is. I don't know when you'll find this, I put it in the morning we stayed over in the village where Eponin and Solari caught up with us. Think about it for a long as you need to. If you decide not to keep it, I'll understand. I know so much has happened, so many things that make the thought of an unbreakable bond between two people sound like so much wishful thinking.

But I'm wishfully thinking it.

I love you.


Xena read it over several times, her thumb gently caressing the crystal. Then she brought it up to her lips, before loosening the clasp then fastening it again around her neck. The cool stone warmed with her body heat, and lay sparkling gently in the sun. Well, Gabrielle, I thought about it.I guess you'll take this as my answer.

She turned the parchment over a few times, thinking, then nodded a little, and glanced towards the tiny table in the room, where the bard's quill case was sitting, along with a few pieces of blank parchment, and her diary.

Another change, Xena realized. It had been a long time since the bard had left her diary out in plain sight, though even in the worst of times Xena would have never touched it. She walked over and picked up one of the quills, the one the bard had been using, and turned the small piece of parchment over.

She wrote one word, and an X, and blew on it gently, watching the ink dry from darkest blue black to an almost purple. Then she found the bard's place in her diary, marked by a strip of leather, and slipped the parchment inside, careful not to read any of the words scribed in that familiar hand.

Her brow creased, and she looked closer, then snorted softly as she realized the leather marking strip was a piece of her armor, discarded during some repair session or other. She touched it with an idle fingertip, then shook her head, and grabbed the herb pouch she'd come for, and ducked back out of the room.

Solari remained silent as they joined a trail of villagers heading down the road, pacing alongside the bard with her lithe, fluid stride. She kept darting little looks at Gabrielle, though, and finally the bard cleared her throat and glanced back.

"Something bothering you, Solari?" Gabrielle asked quietly.

"Me? No." Solari waved a hand. "Um.. listen, Gabrielle.. I was just thinking.. where.. are you guys headed now?"

The bard remained silent for a bit, then kicked a rock out of her path and stared ahead of her. "I'm not sure."

Solari nodded. "Well, if you're headed in our general direction, I'd really appreciate it if we could travel with you.. that head wound of Eponin's looks pretty bad, and I don't know if I can handle her all the way home."

Gabrielle considered the request. General direction was a wide open statement, but the general direction of the Amazon's territory was also the route home, and suddenly the bard knew that was exactly where she wanted to go. But would Xena? Home meant a lot of memories.. and she wasn't sure either of them could handle that right now. "If we head that way, sure." She answered slowly. "I'd love to take a few days off in Amphipolis.. I just don't know if .. " She shook her head a little. "I'll talk to Xena, see what she wants to do."

The Amazon sighed. "Thanks.. I appreciate it." She glanced down the road. "What a mess."

Gabrielle winced. The caravan had held an enormous range of wares, and most were scattered about the road, including a live cargo of chickens, who were fluttering all over the place, littering the ground with feathers and other bird debris. Most of the wagons had been overturned, and there were a few still, silent bodies crumpled around them, the ground around them darkened with blood.

It weighed on her, suddenly. She realized just how tired she was of death, and blood, and pain. It seemed like it was all she'd known for months, and she found herself wishing wistfully that they could just take a short time out, and get away from that for a little while.

Quit daydreaming, Gabrielle. She scolded herself. People need help there, so move it. "C'mon.. let's see what we can do." She led the way, and ducked under an overturned wagon yoke, then pulled up short as a stocky merchant almost ran her down.

They both froze, and looked at each other. "Johan." The bard stammered.

"Lass." The trader breathed. "Thank the gods." He opened his arms and pulled her into them. "Thank the gods ye're safe."

Gabrielle was suddenly surrounded by the scent the pervaded his clothing, a mixture of dust, and sweat, and a soap mixture that bore the familiar stamp of home. Cyrene's special mixture, which they carried in their bags. She gladly returned his hug. "Johan, what are you doing here?" She whispered.

He released her, and grasped her shoulders, studying her closely. "Lookin fer you, lass.. " His eyes drifted over her shoulder to the distance, and then back to her face, and a stark question was in them,

"She's fine." Gabrielle correctly interpreted the look. "She's back in the village.. they got hit by the same raiders you did this morning."

His shoulders relaxed and he ducked his head, letting out a breath. "Y've no idea how glad I am to hear it.. Cyrene's near out of her mind worrying about you both." He patted her cheek. "She sent me north, and Toris south, and I'm surprised we managed to talk her out of coming herself."

Gabrielle smiled widely, and half turned. "Gods.. sorry.. Solari, this is Johan.. he's from Amphipolis."

Solari stepped forward and offered a forearm. "Glad to see you're all right - what a mess it is here."

The trader returned the grasp and rolled his eyes. "Aye, that it is.. will ye both give me hand getting this wagon righted?"

Gabrielle threw herself into the work willingly, glad of something to keep her hands busy while she quietly enjoyed the feeling that Johan's presence woke in her. She felt herself being rewoven into that part of her life she'd feared she'd lost, and an adopted family as dear to her as her own.

It took several hours, but they finally got most of the mess cleaned up, and the wagons righted and reloaded, as much as they could. Several wagons were burned and broken beyond repair, so the merchants doubled up, squabbling and complaining until Solari put her hands on her hips and gave them an Amazon glare, after which they tugged their overloaded horses on in meek silence.

The village was bustling when they got back, clearing a space for the merchants, and gathering around to help them unload, as well as to dicker for bargains from the exhausted travelers. Gabrielle politely asked Solari to take Johan's horse's head, and tugged his arm. "C'mon.. I know someone who's going to be glad to see you."

Johan smiled, and allowed himself to be led to the inn door, grabbing the handle and opening, ushering her inside. "G'wan then, lass.. a cup of cold ale would hit the spot too."

Gabrielle smiled at him, aware in the periphery of her vision of Xena's approach. "Hey.. look who I found?" She turned fully and looked at the warrior. "He's…." Her voice stopped, and she stood, staring.

"Hello, Johan." Xena finished for her. "It is good to see you.. what brings you to these parts?" She held out a forearm, very aware of Gabrielle's shining eyes and slowly etching smile.

"Hello, Xena." The trader glanced at Gabrielle and chuckled softly. "I've a message from yer mother."

The warrior raised an eyebrow. "And that is?"

He looked right at her, and covered her hand with his own. "Come home."

Continued in Part 2