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 3

By Melissa Good

"A flower?" Xena repeated, hesitantly. "Oh boy." She handed the fish to Solari. "Hold these." She shook her head and started to stride past her, when she was stopped by the bard's voice.


"Yea…oof." Her gambeson hit her in the chest. "Thanks."

"You've got a woman up there that thinks she's a flower, you showing up naked isn't going to help matters any." Gabrielle commented dryly, then paused. "At least I don't think it will."

Xena got caught flatfooted, and just blinked at her for a long moment, then issued a hesitant grin. "Right." She mumbled, as she pulled the padded garment on over her body, and fastened the straps, then started up towards the overhang at a light jog.

Gabrielle sighed, as she fastened her skirt. "Tell me what's going on , Solari."

The Amazon gingerly held the two fish out from her body, as she followed the bard up towards their shelter. "Not sure, really…I woke up, saw you two were gone.." She gave Gabrielle a sideways glance. "But I saw the fire'd been built up, and water on.. so I figured you hadn't gone far. Anyway… Pony woke up, and started talking about being planted, and sun.. and… is she crazy or something?"

The bard shook her head. "Must be the head wound… Xena's really worried about it. She said something about pressure, and not being able to release it."

Solari grunted. "Ah."

They came up over the slope leading down to the waterfall to see Johan tending the fire, and Xena crouched over the animatedly arguing Eponin. The warrior had a good grip on the Amazon, but Eponin seemed to be trying to… Gabrielle's brow creased. "What's she doing?"

"Pollinating." Solari grumbled. "Something like that."

The bard set their gear down, and crossed to where her partner was working. "Hey."

Xena glanced back over her shoulder. "We got trouble."

"See? It's your fault…always hogging the sun…!" Eponin rambled,. "How're you expecting me to grow with tall things like you around?"

"So I see." Gabrielle rested a hand on her back. "Can you do anything?"

"Hey.. are you a sunflower?" Eponin spotted Gabrielle's fair head. "You're a pretty one." Her eyes drifted back to Xena's face. "I think this one' s a weed."

Gabrielle bit her lip to keep from smiling, despite the seriousness of the situation. "No.. she's not a weed.. she's my tree in the forest." She shared an affectionate look with her partner. "What can we do?"

Xena let out a little sigh, and shook her head. "I think we gotta get her home.. maybe the healers there… at least she'd be in familiar surroundings." She let her eyes roam around the area. "I can put her up with you on Argo.. you'd make it to Amazon country by moonrise if you kept moving."

The bard crossed her arms, and stared at the ground in thought. "Maybe.. but… Xena, I don't think I can… I'd rather you go. If anything happens on the way, you'll have a lot better chance of dealing with it than I will."

That made sense but… "Me showing up in Amazon territory alone, with a raving Eponin is probably not the smartest thing I could do." Xena managed to get a half cupful of herbs down the wounded Amazon's throat. "I'm not real popular there right now."

Gabrielle ruffled her hair a little. "I'll give you a note." She soothed her. "But you're really the best choice to go, and you know it."

"Yeah." Xena muttered to herself. "I know."

They quickly cooked and ate breakfast, then packed up and divided their supplies. "Don't take too long, huh?" Xena said, in a low voice as she tucked her healer's kit inside a saddlebag. "I might need some backup."

Gabrielle paused in her packing, and walked over, resting a hand on Xena's arm. "You're really worried about this." It wasn't a question. "Xena.. take it easy. I know it won't be pleasant, at first.. but once you get a chance to explain what's going on, it'll be fine." She reached up and brushed her fingers against the warrior's jaw, feeling the tension in the muscles under her touch. "They're not bad people.. they're my friends, and yours, remember?"

Were. Xena's mind silently objected. "Yeah.. I know… sorry.. I think I'm just being a little.."

"Pessimistic? As usual?" Gabrielle smiled.

"Something like that, yeah." The warrior admitted. "Listen.. I'll um… I'll drop Eponin off, and come back to get you, all right? You be careful." She played with a lock of the bard's hair and gave it a little tweak. "Promise?"

Gabrielle stepped forward, and reached up, circling her neck with both arms, and drawing her head down to kiss her with quiet confidence. Then she broke off, but didn't let go, just spending a long moment, looking. "I promise." Her tone was very serious. "We've got some unfinished business, you and I, so you be careful, ok?"

That got her a more relaxed grin. "I will.. now, I'd better get Eponin up on Argo before she decides… "

"Grow?" The bard hazarded. "Ugh.. I shouldn't laugh.. it's not funny." But they both smothered grins. "Weed." Gabrielle teased.

One dark eyebrow quirked up. "Sunflower… and you certainly are a pretty one."

The bard caught her breath, at the easy, casual banter. "Thanks." She replied, softly.

Xena's brows creased. "For the compliment?"

A gentle smile. "That too."

Xena glanced up at the westering sun, dropping Argo's reins and using her free hand to push the hair back off her forehead. "Almost there, girl." She encouraged the mare. "I know it's hot… just hang in here with me, ok?"

Argo snorted, and maintained her steady canter. They had been traveling all day, and now, with the sun setting, were approaching the hills that lead up into Amazon territory. If she kept on this road, and bore down towards the river, she'd be headed for Amphipolis, and she gave the fork a brief, wistful glance as she passed it by. Home sounded… damned good right now.

Eponin was slumped over the saddlehorn, kept mostly quiet by repeated doses of calming herbs. Her few moments of consciousness seemed to have left the plant stage behind, but she was still confused, and while she recognized Xena, had no idea where or why she was riding with her. "Hang in there, Pony… almost home." She muttered, taking a better grip on the Amazon's body.

She turned Argo off the road, and headed upland, taking a small, overgrown path that brought her between tall trees, and welcome relief from the sun. "That's better, huh?" She commented, smiling when the mare whickered in response.

It had been a hard ride, with her trying to keep Eponin balanced in the saddle, and the sun beating mercilessly down on top of them, giving her a throbbing headache, as well as the discomfort of the sweat dampening her leathers which was rubbing her skin raw in places.

She'd had time to think, though. Long hours of it, in fact. Time to think about the events of the last couple of days, and time to begin to realize that bits and pieces of her life she'd sworn were scattered to the winds, never to be reassembled, were coming together again.

I'm still her tree in the forest. Xena felt a tiny, wry chuckle force it's way up and out from between dry lips. She's still mine.. it's impossible. No relationship should have been able to withstand what ours just did. None. At best, maybe.. after a long time, we'd have been civil to each other. Maybe.

She glanced at the forest going by, and reached out, plucking a tree borne flower from a passing limb, and sniffing it. We survived. With a tiny shake of her head, she put the flower inside a saddlebag, and pulled out the note Gabrielle had written, tucking it inside her bracer for safekeeping. As she was fastening the flap closed, a faint lump stopped her, and she fumbled inside the pouch again, freezing when her fingers touched a small, parchment wrapped bundle.

She drew it out and looked at it, as a slow grin formed, then used her teeth to untie the string holding it closed, and deftly removed the round item within. A granite pebble, from the waterfall. They'd been standing on them while they were bathing, and she'd seen Gabrielle stoop to fish one out, but hadn't thought anything of it. The bard was always picking up things like that.. mementos, she called them.

That meant she'd written this today, probably while she was writing out the note to Ephiny. Xena dropped the pebble into the still open pouch, then spread the parchment open in her fingers and studied it.


Wonder when you'll find this? You've been finding stuff really fast lately.. makes me think you might be looking for them. Hmm.. I bet you find it on the way to Amazon territory.

So.. listen, ok?

I know you're scared, and I want you to know how much it means to me that you're going ahead and going there to make sure Pony gets help anyway. I know you don’t want to have to face Ephiny, and I wish this could have waited, or at least I wish I could have gotten to her first and softened her up a little.

But I know you'll be ok, and after we do our good deed, we can head off home, and you can be my moral support when I have to face your mother, and know there are some things that I'm having trouble forgiving myself for, just like you are.

This morning under the waterfall made me realize, again, that together there's nothing we can't do. We're going to make it, Xena… we really are…I can feel it now.

Well, anyway, you're probably busy, so.. be careful, and once and Ephiny stop yelling at each other, tell her I say hello, and I'll see you soon.



Xena smiled, and read it a few times over, then folded it up one handed and tucked it inside her bracer as well. "Hey Pony.. how you doing?" She asked, seeing that the Amazon was stirring.

"Ugh." Came back the answer. "What'd you take me on a boat for?"

" it.. Argo doesn't like to be called names, ok?" The warrior warned wryly. She leaned forward, and caught Eponin's eye, relieved to see a hint of recognition there. "You know where you are?"

Caramel colored eyes roved the area. "In some damn forest." Eponin grumbled. "On top of some damn horse.. sorry Argo.. being strangled by some damn sweaty warrior princess."

"Always nice to be appreciated." Xena remarked, rolling her eyes. "You got any idea what forest we're in?"

Eponin looked around for a minute. "Damn. Yeah, I do." She half turned and gazed up at Xena's face. "What in Hades are we doing here, and where's Solari and Gabrielle?"

"Long story." The warrior advised her.

"I got time." Eponin countered.

"You wanna hear about you being a flower first?" Xena couldn’t resist.

The Amazon gazed at her. "What?"

Xena grinned, then stiffened, all her senses extending out around her. "Well.. it's gonna have to wait."

Eponin looked around, then back at her. "For.. what? You spot a squirrel getting his jollies or something?"

The warrior brought Argo to a halt, and just sat quietly, her hands in plain sight. "We've got company."

The Amazon twisted around and listened, then listened again. "No way." She glanced back at Xena. "Have Gabrielle clean the gook outta those ears sometimes, ok?"

A small shake of he warrior's head. "Three over there, two behind us, four in front of us, and three more off to the side behind that rock escarpment." She paused. "Six of them have bows, and are nocked and extended." Xena muttered quietly.

Eponin stared at her. "No way."

Xena gave her a look, then raised her voice. "All right! C'mon out!!" She kneed Argo, moving the mare over a couple of paces.

Silence, save for the rising breeze from the coming twilight that riffled the leaves around them, and whistled past the bark of the trees.

Then shadowy forms melted into sight, in dappled leathers and ornate masks, weapons ready.

"Son of a Bacchae." Eponin sighed. "All right.. what's your problem?" This to the silent watchers.

Xena felt a heavy weight settle on her shoulders. "Get down, Pony." She gently lifted the surprised Amazon off Argo's back, and let her drop lightly to the ground. "Move away from me."

"But.." Eponin protested.

"Just do it." Came the low, controlled order.

Reluctantly, the Amazon complied, walking towards the largest group of watchers, and as she came even with them, their leader tugged her mask off to reveal the blond curls and pale eyes of Ephiny. "Pony."

They hugged hard, and Ephiny broke off to look her over. "You all right?"

"Mostly." Eponin replied. "Eph, relax.. it's not what it looks like."

Gray eyes bored into hers. "Isn't it?" She turned to the silently waiting Xena. "Keep you hands away from your weapons, and get oft that damn horse, or I'll have them put so many arrows in you that you can't possibly catch them all."

"Eph!" Eponin grabbed her. "Wait a minute.. listen up here, ok?" Her eye was caught by Xena's movement, and she turned, watching the tall warrior kick free of the stirrups, and slide down Argo's tall side.

Xena unclipped the sword on her back, and stowed it under a saddle strap, then hooked her chakram over the saddlehorn and gave Argo a slap. "Gwan. Go find Gabrielle, all right?"

Argo snorted, and glanced dubiously at the Amazon, then shook her head and trotted off. Xena watched her go, and sighed, then turned and faced the Amazons, walking forward until she was in a clear spot, and stopping, then opening her hands up and holding her arms out away from her body. "All right."

"Eph.. " Eponin grabbed her arm. "It's all right… they're all right."

The Amazon regent studied her, then turned her gaze on Xena. She walked forward until she was a body length away from the warrior and stopped. "Where's our Queen?" She could see the twitching fingers on the bowyer's around her and knew one signal from her and not even Xena could stop them.

"About a day behind us." Xena answered quietly. "With Solari." The hostility surrounding her was almost palpable, and she felt a quiet, weary ache at the anger in Ephiny's eyes. "They're fine."

Ephiny looked behind her to Eponin for confirmation, and her shoulders relaxed a little when the older Amazon nodded. Then she turned her attention back to the warrior. "Why?"

A slight gasp from Eponin distracted her, and Ephiny turned, to see the weapons master's skin pale as she wavered. One long stride, and she grabbed her, and supported her with an arm around her shoulders. "What happened? Pony.. what's wrong?"

"She got hit on the head with a battle mace." Xena's voice carried on the wind. "She has a concussion, and I was trying to get her home."

Ephiny glared at her, then turned to the woman in her arms. "Is that true, Pony?"

A weak nod. "Yeah.. town we were in got attacked by raiders… I was in the wrong place, at the wrong time.. got my skull cracked. Woulda been worse except that Xena got me out of there."

Ephiny hesitated, then took a breath. "Is Gabrielle all right?" She breathed into her lover's ear.

"Oh yeah." Eponin patted her side. "She's fine.. " She slid down onto a rock, and rested her elbows on her knees.

The regent nodded, and stared off into the forest for a long, silent moment before she turned and strode back over to where Xena was patiently waiting. Now, Ephiny allowed herself to see the formidable presence as something other than an enemy, and she sighed. "You look like Hades, Xena."

A brief closing of the pale blue eyes was her answer, then the warrior tugged a piece of parchment out from under her bracer and held it out.

Ephiny stepped forward an took it, noting the familiar seal with relief as she broke it open and turned her eyes to the words.


We've been to Tartarus, but we're back now. Please don't hurt her. I know I should have let you know what was going on, but things just happened so fast, I didn’t' get a chance to.

I'll fill you in as soon as I get there.

Be well,


"Short but sweet." The regent muttered, as she folded the parchment up, and tucked it away. "All right.. stand down." She waved at the other Amazons, and called two of them over. "Queen Gabrielle's due through here probably by morning. Give her an escort.. she'll have Solari with her."

The two nodded, and gave Xena a wary look, then trotted off.

Ephiny put her hands on her hips and studied the taller woman. "Come on. No sense in us standing around in a hot forest all day." She turned and started walking, and felt a quiet shadow as Xena fell in behind her. The rest of the Amazons formed around them, two of them supporting Eponin, and they moved off towards the village.

It was a very quiet walk back. Xena kept pace with Ephiny, but didn't offer any conversation, and the regent was equally silent. It was, the warrior sadly reflected, a better greeting that it could have been, since Ephiny could have simply ordered her shot down on sight and given the fact that she had Eponin in her arms, that many arrows would have been past her ability to stop them.

She felt battered by the hostility from the surrounding Amazons, though that really wasn't a unique experience for her. It kind of felt like that first trip home… her mother spurning her, the village lined up getting ready to stone her to death.. it had the same kind of edgy feeling. Only at home, there was that persistent, annoying, blond kid who just got right in the middle of everything and stuck up for her.

Xena glanced down, and tugged the bit of parchment out of her bracer, and folded it into her hand. Darn if that same persistent, annoying, blond kid wasn't in there swinging for her again, huh? It was dark now, and the forest was lit in shifting shadows from the Amazon's torches, throwing Ephiny's profile into sharp, angry relief.

She took a steadying breath. "Ephiny?"

Gray eyes shot to hers in guarded coolness. "Yes?"

Xena felt the pain of all the things she'd ruptured in her life, not the least of which was the deep affection she'd shared with this woman. "I'm sorry about your arm."

Ephiny's gaze raked her. "So am I." She answered back in clipped tones, then stopped, her eyes lighting on something. "Thought you'd lost that."

Xena lifted a hand to touch the necklace, then let the hand drop. "I did.. in Chin. Gabrielle managed to get it back."

They walked on in silence for a few strides. "So.. how is Gabrielle doing? She was in about a thousand pieces the last time I saw her." Ephiny finally asked, a hard edge to her voice.

The warrior sighed. "We both were." She admitted quietly. "She's fine…we've… it's been tough, but… we found our way back, somehow."

Ephiny gave her a very long sideways look. 'I would have laid odds against that"

Xena nodded slowly. "Me too."

"How could you have just left her here?" Ephiny's voice sank to an angry whisper. "There was nothing we could for her, Xena! She was dying!" The Amazon faced her as they were walking. "How could you just leave? Even after all that happened, for Artemis' sake, Xena, she's…" She stopped speaking, and watched her boots kick the leaf litter ahead of her. "She was in so much pain, Xena.. she needed you so badly. How could you have abandoned her like that?"

Xena took her time before answering. Finally, she just shook her head. "I.. there is no answer for that, Ephiny. I don't know how I did it.. if I had been thinking straight, I would have known that." She paused, and an owl hooted. "All I could feel was the pain, and the loss, and the anger."

Ephiny looked at her. "I thought she took a big risk going with you." She glanced ahead of her and sighed. "But then I realized she really didn't have a choice." She shook her head. "She was in a very dark place… and by some joke of the gods, you were the key to her getting out of it."

The warrior thought about that. "That's true." She replied. "We never would have made it apart. Somehow, together we found a way."

"Just like that." Ephiny breathed. "What hold do you have on her, Xena? Answer me that? I told Pony and Solari to get her the Hades away from you.. maybe I could talk some sense into her.. keep her here, let her live in peace for a while."

Even the thought hurt. It got through all her defenses, and past the carefully built wall she'd put up here, in what was for her, enemy territory. It touched on all her insecurities, and the guilt she carried that was never far from the surface, when Gabrielle was involved. She had no answer, so she gave none, and the rest of the walk was completed in silence until they entered the village proper.

"Take her over to the healer's." Ephiny gripped Eponin's hand. "I'll be right over there." She turned and regarded Xena. "I'm going to put you in Gabrielle's quarters. Do me a favor, Xena, ok? Stay put. Don’t wander around in the village.. there's a lot of hard feelings, and I don’t want anyone getting hurt."

"All right." Came the very quiet answer. Xena followed the regent to the Queen's quarters, and passed inside at her gesture. The grass weave door swung shut behind her, and she was in darkness, broken only by the slivers of moonlight coming in through the window. She didn't even bother with a candle, she just went to the back of the hut, and found an empty corner, putting her back to the wall and sliding down it.

Gabrielle.. I'm sorry.. She felt the grief rise and this time didn't stop it. She had no idea how long she just sat there, letting the overflow of emotion pour out of her, until a scuffling sound alerted her senses, and she glanced up.

Yells, a sudden alarm. She hoisted herself to her feet, and lunged for the door, opening it just as a large, dark shape hurdled through it and into her arms.

"Rooo!!!!" Ares yodeled triumphantly. "Roo! Argrrhoorrrrooo!!!" His whole body was squirming with the effort to reach every part of the surprised warrior, who sat down with a thump and hugged the wolf to her.

"Ares.. hey boy.. what are you doing here?" She crooned in his ear.

"Roo!" He licked her face with enthusiasm., his tail thrashing wildly behind him.

"Yeah.. yeah.. ok… ok.. shh… " Xena stroked his fur. "Shh.. you're gonna wake everyone up.. yeah.. I'm glad to see you too." A pink tongue caressed her face. "Yeah.. you still love me, huh?"

"Arghrroo." The wolf whined softly, and buried his big head in her chest. "Arrggggrrrrr."

Light flared, and she looked up, to see Ephiny standing in the doorway, torch in hand. "Sorry.. I.. wasn't expecting him." The warrior said quietly. "He must have gotten away from my mother."

Ephiny blinked at the frisking wolf. "Hello, Ares." She sighed. "It's all right.. the outer sentries needed a little shaking up."

"Grrrrr." The yellow eyes slitted, as he turned around and faced her, crouching protectively in front of the tall warrior.

The regent knelt down, and patted a big paw, then took a good look at Xena's drawn face, and sighed. "I… had a long talk with Pony." She winced internally at the unexpected chastising from her gruff lover, who had given her a rough and quick rundown on what they'd gone through the past few days.

Xena nodded a little. "How's she doing?" She kept her eyes on Ares, who chewed on her fingers with delight.

"Better… the healers think with some bed rest she'll be ok." Ephiny replied. "Thanks… for bringing her in.. I know that had to be hard for you." She paused, then reached out and patted a booted leg sprawled in front of her. "I was pretty harsh before… I.. I'm … sorry."

Xena concentrated on smoothing the dark fur under her fingertips. "You were just being honest." She answered in a careful tone.

Ephiny sat down cross-legged, and played with Ares' tail. "I know." She took a breath. "But one of the things Gabrielle asked me in that note was not to hurt you, and I did. And I'm sorry." She paused. "I.. um.. I could have handled that whole thing a little differently."

The warrior glanced up at her. "It's all right.. you had no idea of what was going on.. me riding in with Eponin half out of it in my saddle must have worried you."

Ephiny's eyes met hers. "A little, yeah." She glanced down. "Although if I stopped to think about it, instead of just get my leathers in a wad, I'd have realized you'd hardly have been just trotting in here if it really was what I was afraid of."

Xena shrugged listlessly. "It's more or less what I expected."

Damn. Ephiny took in the quietly discouraged set of her body, and the hands that never stopped stroking the wolf's dark fur. "Bet you're glad to see him, huh?"

The warrior nodded. "Yeah." She took a breath. "Johan… found us the day after Eponin and Solari.. mom.. was concerned. We were headed home, but… " She shrugged a little. "After Eponin got hurt.. it made sense to make sure they got back here all right."

Ephiny accepted that, then looked around. "You know, you can light a candle in here." She studied Xena soberly. "Were you just sitting here in the dark?"

No answer. The regent sighed. "All right.. get some rest, ok? If your Argo finds them, I can pretty much figure them to be here before dawn." She stood, and gazed quietly at the dark, silent warrior and the contented wolf. "Goodnight."

"Goodnight." Xena looked up and gave her a little nod. "Tell Pony I said goodnight too."

Ephiny smiled. "I will." She directed her attention to Ares, who looked up and lolled his tongue at her. "You take care of her, all right?"

"Roo." His ears pricked.

The regent walked over to the low table, and lit the candle there from her torch, then left, letting the door brush slowly shut after her.

Xena sat for a moment, exhausted by the long day and an overload of emotions. Then she sighed, and stood up. "C'mon, Ares.. up you go." She patted the edge of the bed, and waited until the wolf jumped up and settled himself, then curled up next to him. "You're other mommy is coming tomorrow, Ares.. she's gonna be glad to see you." She stroked the wolf's thick coat.

"Roo?" He sniffed her chest.

"No.. you." Xena whispered. "Though.. I think she'll probably be glad to see me, too."

"Agrurrooo." He got up, and settled against Xena's body with a little sigh

The warrior threw an arm over him, and let an uneasy sleep take her out, dozing fitfully and waking to formless nightmares until, just before dawn, soft footfalls brought her alert, ones that she recognized from their weight and rolling pattern.

The door opened, and a familiar outline showed briefly against the moonlight. Xena felt a shameful sense of relief fill her as she struggled to sit up, blinking foggily as a hand touched her shoulder. "Hey…" She cleared her throat and tried again. "Gab?"

"Shh.. it's ok.. I'm here." Gabrielle's voice floated out of the darkness. "Hey Ares… " She scratched the sleepy wolf's head. "Lie down." She reached over and felt the dark form next to the wolf, her fingers touching brass. "You're wearing your armor."

"Long night." Xena sighed dully, then fell silent.

"Is it ok to take this stuff off now?" The bard's fingers played with the armor buckles. "I think you're safe.. I yelled at everyone I could get my hands on.. they probably thought I was out of my mind." She paused. "Xena?"

"Yeah." The warrior breathed, soaking in her nearness. "Did Argo find you?"

"Yep." Gabrielle informed her, working on a buckle "C'mon, move your arm.. that’s it." She lifted the heavy chest armor over her partner's head, and set it behind her on the floor. Then she worked off one bracer, and started on the other.

"Y. you don't have to do that." Xena told her quietly.

"Yes, I do.. you know how much I hate sleeping on your armor." The bard commented softly. "I haven't been lazing around here in bed all humor me, ok?" She got the other bracer off, and kicked her boots off, then nudged the warrior over onto her back and curled up against her, finding her favorite spot. "Ahh.. that's better." She gently stroked Xena's arm. "You ok?"

No answer, but she felt the warrior's arms curl around her, and the warm breath as Xena buried her face in Gabrielle's pale hair. "I've had better days." Her partner finally muttered.

"Yeah, I know." The bard hugged her. "I know." She sighed, thinking of the conversation she'd just had.

Argo had found them, oh yeah.. she sure had, scaring the daylights out of both of them until they realized the large moving form was a horse, and not raiders. Gabrielle had taken one look at the weapons wedged into the mare's gear, and cursed, then surprised both Solari and herself by jumping onto the horses back and actually managing to find her seat. They'd left Johan at the crossroads just after sunset, and had been planning to pitch camp for the night.

Argo's arrival changed, that, and Gabrielle had reached down to offer Solari a hand up. "C'mon.. I gotta go." As her gut suddenly clenched with whirling misery that she realized could only have one source. With Solari aboard, she headed the mare up into the hills.

They'd ridden for several hours before meeting up with the Amazon patrols, who'd been looking for them, and Gabrielle had gotten an earful of just how they'd 'taken' the Warrior Princess. By the time she'd hit the Amazon village, her temper had built to an explosion point, and at that point… Ephiny trotted up, sweeping sleep disheveled hair from her eyes.

"Gabrielle.." The regent had come forward and extended an arm. "I'm glad to see you."

She'd met an icy green response, as Gabrielle had kept her hands at her sides, and just looked at her. "Where is she?" Had been the bard's only question.

Ephiny had taken a breath. "In your quarters.. Ares.. your wolf.. he's in there too."

The bard had nodded slowly. "I'm glad she's got one friend there, anyway."

The Amazon had winced. "Gabrielle.. look.. we had no way of knowing what was going on. Cut me a little slack here." She'd lifted her hands. "Last time I saw you, it was being taken out of here forcibly on the back of a horse.. what was I supposed to think?" Now it was her turn to get angry. "You could have sent word… I didn't have to send two of my best warriors out on what could have been a one way mission to find you."

"We were on our way back home, Ephiny… you could have trusted us." Had come the quiet answer. "And not assumed the worst."

Ephiny had sighed. "No win situation, Gabrielle. I was worried about you." She'd looked up. "I apologized to Xena already. Now.. are we done yelling at each other?"

The bard had nodded wearily. "We can yell some more tomorrow.. I'm wiped." And then, finally, she'd stepped forward and circled Ephiny with her arms, giving her a heartfelt hug. "It's good to see you."

Ephiny had returned the hug, then held the bard at arms distance and studied her. "You look like you're in better shape than she is."

Which, Gabrielle considered, was probably true. She could feel the tension in the body under hers, and started a gentle stroking. "Hey… I've got a lot of fond memories about this bed." She murmured, attempting a distraction.

"Yeah?" Xena whispered, snuggling a little closer and feeling her body begin to relax.

"Uh huh… I think.. I remember expressing doubt about being comfortable about being touched.. and I got reassured in a very nice way by a very nice friend of mine. "

Xena smiled gently. "I remember that… I did something like.. " She traced a lazy finger down the bard's cheek to her breastbone, and paused above her pulse point, feeling it jump under her touch.. "Hmm.. that hasn't changed."

"Uhhhh… no." Gabrielle laughed softly. "It sure hasn't."

"Mmm.. then I did something like… " Xena ducked her head, and accurately found her place even in the dark. The silence stretched for a long time, then finally Gabrielle sighed softly, and nuzzled her partner's chest

"That hasn't changed either." She breathed softly..

Ephiny felt the unfamiliar pattern of sunlight across her face and slid one eyelid open, peering around in confusion. Ah. Her mind resolved her surroundings. Healer's hut. Right. She raised the other eyelid, and turned her head, to observe Eponin's quietly sleeping form. So far, so good.

She cocked her head to listen. No riots brewing, that's a plus. Then her eyes studied the light coming in the window. Though the chances of Amazons rioting before breakfast were pretty slim…Her wry thoughts continued. Not that she couldn’t imagine what the buzz at the breakfast table would be this morning. With a sigh, she rolled over, and sat up, scrubbing at her eyes with her hands. Time for damage control, I guess.

"Morning." Came the sleepy mumbled from the other pallet.

"Well well… are you with us today?" Ephiny teased, leaning forward and studying Eponin carefully. Both eyes seemed to be responding to the light normally, and she felt a little better. "Some friends of yours came in a few hours ago."

Eponin raised an eyebrow. "They OK? Did Gabrielle kick your butt?"

Ephiny cleared her throat delicately. "C'mon, Pony.. we're both reasonable, mature adult women. We don't go around kicking each other's butts."

The weapon's master waited.

"Yeah, she did." Ephiny finally sighed. "And I kicked hers, a little, and we're ok for now." She stretched. "I'll bring you back some breakfast.. I have to go over there and start an attitude adjustment..I really don't want people looking daggers at Xena, only to find themselves being clocked in the head by our feisty little queen."

Eponin grinned. "She's a little terror, isn't she?" The weapon's master stretched carefully, and put her hands behind her head. "Did she ever light into us when we got there."

"Yeah… I bet." Ephiny sighed. "She’s like that.. it’s what made the whole thing so rotten.. she believes in Xena so much.. and to have her… " The regent shook her head. "Lousy situation."

They both looked at each other in silence, then Ephiny blew out a breath. "Well, let me go and see what I can do to liven up the atmosphere around here." She stood, and crossed to the wash basin, plunging her hands in and splashing a liberal amount on her face. "Be back soon."

The regent left the healer’s hut, and made her way to her quarters, where she changed into a fresh set of leathers, and headed across the compound to the communal food area. The sun was already warming the air as she stepped through the door, and gathered in all the quick glances that came her way. "Morning." She ran a hand through her hair and made her way up to the table reserved for her in the front, settling down on the bench just as Esta set a cold mug of cider in front of her, the chill beading on the outside. "Thanks."

"You're welcome." The cook grunted. "Now.. tell me.. what in Hades is going on?"

The impossible happened. Silence, in the Amazon dining hall over breakfast, as every eye fastened on a plate, and every ear cocked in her direction. Ephiny felt a wry sense of the ridiculous as she propped her chin up on one hand. "With what, Esta?" She asked innocently. "The harvest? Hunting? The weather?"

"Veerrry funny." Esta grimaced. "Spill it."

The regent gave her a brief grin, then shrugged, and stood up. "Might as well just make one announcement, so people can start breathing again in here before I have to call the healers."

Sheepish glances darted her way.

"All right, look." Ephiny paused, searching for the right words. "If you all don't know by now, Queen Gabrielle is here. She arrived early this morning." She traced a crack in the table. "She's fine…apparently our concerns were not well founded, and things got worked out."

Silence, as that was absorbed. "What happened to Eponin?" Came a quiet voice from a back table. Solari stood up and faced the questioner. "We located them in a small village in the flatlands.. and we made sure things were all right, then stayed overnight meaning to head back here next morning." She sighed. "Next morning, raiders attacked the village, and Pony was taken out by one of the riders… she um.. he was going to come back for a second try but Xena got there first.. got her out of the way."

Thoughtful looks began to mingle with the angry and distrustful ones. Ephiny put her fingers on the table and leaned against them. "I know.. there's a lot of.. anger… in our community over what happened not long ago.. but I think we have to recognize that the damage that was done was not done to us.. and our Queen is well capable of making the decision on how, and where she makes her life… for better or for worse, she's chosen to remain on the path she started on." She paused. "I don't want anyone here questioning that choice."

Menelda, the chief healer stood and came nose to nose with her. "What about what's best for Gabrielle, never mind us?"

Ephiny gazed at her, unhappily. "Menelda, you'll have your crack at Gabrielle later today… I won't deny you that. But… " She sighed, and lowered her voice until only the healer could hear her. "There's something between them that I don't really understand… I'm not sure the situation is what you think it is."

The healer studied her. "We'll see."

The regent nodded, then raised her voice again. "Here me… so far as I am concerned, we have only friends here in this village… and I want you all to understand that. I don't want any ugliness.. is that understood?" She scanned the room, taking in the mixture of reluctance, resignation, and acceptance that colored the response. "All right… that's all." She sat down, and accepted a plate of fruit and bread from Esta. "Thanks." Then a hand touched her arm, and she looked up. "Hello, Cait…"

The slim, blond girl smiled at her. "Is it all right if I go visit?"

Ephiny smiled back. "You know it is… they'd love to see a friendly face."

"Super." Cait replied. "I knew they'd be all right.. I told everyone so."

The regent gazed at her. "You did, huh? How'd you know that, Cait.. I don’t think they did.. not for a long time."

The girl considered the question. "I just knew, that was all." She nodded a little. "There was just too much love there.. it takes an awful lot of hatred to try and take that away, and I don't think there's enough hatred in the world to take away all of theirs."

Ephiny smiled gently. "You may be right, Cait… I think that's the only thing that pulled them through, but… you know, I'm really glad it did."

"Me too." The girl laughed, and tapped the table. "I'm off."

Menelda snorted softly. "You’re fools."

Ephiny closed her eyes, and sighed. "Menelda, I’m not debating this with you again, all right? We’re not going to agree on this." She stabbed a bit of fruit and popped it in her mouth. "It’s not that I don’t care about Gabrielle, I do, and you know it. But things aren’t as black and white as you make them out."

The healer took a long sip of cider, and rested her jaw on her hand. "What I see, Ephiny, is an Amazon, with right of Caste, who is in a lot of danger, and no one seems to want to do anything about it."

"She doesn’t.." Ephiny started, but was cut off.

"She’s blinded, Ephiny… we both know that.. she doesn’t see what that woman is, or what she is capable of doing to her.. damn, I should think you’d at least acknowledge that.. after what happened to you."

The regent stared at her plate for a long moment, then turned her head and regarded the healer soberly. "No.. you’re wrong.. both about what I acknowledge, and the assumption that Gabrielle has no idea what she’s gotten herself into." She paused. "I know she’s dangerous, Menelda. Possibly.. probably.. the most dangerous person I have ever, ever known, who is unpredictable, and possibly unstable, who makes unclear choices, and who has done some very profound damage to someone I’m very fond of." She sighed. "But Gabrielle knows that too.. and she’s made the choice to take the risk, a choice I’m not going to hold against her."

"Keeping them together is stupid, foolhardy, and dangerous." Menelda stated.

Ephiny gazed at her. "Tearing them apart is a death sentence for both of them. You choose." She let a silence fall between them. "You saw her when she was here, those three days. You saw her that last time when the damn woman died. You tell me."

The healer reflected quietly. "It’s insanity."

"Probably. But you’ll see… I talked with Solari, and with Eponin.. it’s not faked, Menelda… if anything, Solari said it’s more obvious now that ever." Ephiny put a hand on her arm. "Look.. I promised to get Gabrielle to talk, alone, with you and the others.. I’ll do that.. but you have to promise me something.. promise me, hear?"

The healer tapped her fingers. "What?"

"You have to accept her answer." Ephiny said quietly. "Even if you think it’s the wrong one."

Menelda studied her pensively. "You know what it’s going to be."

The regent nodded. "Yeah." She stood. "Come with me a minute."

The healer reluctantly followed her across the compound, still misty with early morning haze, until they were next to the quarters assigned to Gabrielle. The window was open, gathering in the light breeze, and Ephiny went quite still, as they got close enough to peer inside without being seen themselves. "Look."

After a minute, Menelda sighed, and turned away, walking towards the healer’s hut without looking back once.

Ephiny watched a moment longer, and waggled her fingers at Ares, who was watching her with his ears pricked up. Then she sighed, and headed back towards the dining hall.

Xena heard them, but kept her eyes closed, and didn’t budge an inch until her senses brought her Ephiny’s fading footsteps, and only then let her eyes drift open a little, taking in the morning sun with studied indifference. She had no intention of moving, and was perfectly content to remain right where she was, providing a soft resting place for the still soundly sleeping bard whose grip was firmly anchoring her in bed.

Whose grip seemed to be firmly anchoring her… period. The experience with Ephiny last night had shaken her… more than she’d anticipated. Gabrielle’s presence, and Ares made her feel a lot better, to the point where she was able to bring up her normal mental defenses, and felt a lot more able to cope with the Amazon’s hostility. Didn’t used to be like that. She mused pensively. But the last little while had just been.. too much.

Outside, she could hear the sounds of early morning activity, and smell the cookfires pungent scent as it was drifting in the open window, along with the green smell from the forest that surrounded the village.

She let her eyes close again, and settled her arms more securely around Gabrielle’s warm body, smiling a little as the bard let out a tiny sigh, and nuzzled her gently. Then her eyes popped open as she felt a nip pinch her skin. "Hey.."

Gabrielle rolled her head to one side, and gave her a look. "You’re awake." The bard accused, then she blushed, and dropped her gaze. "I.. sorry."

"For what?" Xena asked, genuinely puzzled. She stroked the bard's hair gently

"Acting like I own you." Gabrielle let out an embarrassed little laugh. "I must sound like an idiot… I just… "

"Gabrielle?" The warrior interrupted her rambling.

"Yeah?" The bard replied.

"You… I… I don't mind when you do that." Xena finished hesitantly. "It's.. all right."

Gabrielle opened her mouth a few times to answer that, then finally closed it and just put her head back down. She thought quietly for a few minutes, then let her hand idly play with a bit of torn leather over the warrior's ribcage. "We're doing better, huh?" Her voice held a wistful tone.

Xena slid a hand around and gently scratched her partner's neck, feeling the slim body press more tightly against hers. "Yeah.. I think we're doing a lot better." She dredged up a smile as Ares crawled up on her other side, and settled his head in the crook of her shoulder, and commenced licking. "Hey… hey… yeah.. I'm glad to see you too, boy… " She closed her eyes and let herself bask guiltily in the affection she could feel surrounding her. "I… was um.. I was really glad to see him." She paused. "Not.. I mean, not as glad as I was to see you, but…"

Gabrielle lifted her head and studied her seriously. "You were really down last night."

Long pause. "Yeah.. I was…um… long day, and.. Ephiny really kinda nailed me at the end of it." She admitted with a sigh, rubbing her temples. "She was right, but…"

"Mm." Gabrielle began tracing a gentle pattern. "I think I'd disagree with you.. but…I don't suppose I could talk you into..oh.. say a few more hours of sleep?" She gave her partner a wishing look. "I didn't get much.. and.. I'd.. um.. I'd really feel better… safer.. if you were here."

Xena gazed at her. "OK." She replied simply, and let out a breath. "It's gonna annoy Ephiny, though… I know she wants to talk to you."

The bard snuggled into a more comfortable position and yawned. "I know." She let her eyes close. "She'll live."

Xena felt her lips twitch into an unwilling smile. "You're starting to sound like me."

"Oh good." The bard mumbled. "Will you teach me that low growly thing you do that gives everyone the chills? I got a story that would work on."

The warrior gave her a quiet, affectionate look. "Sure." She stroked the fair hair with one hand. "Sleep now.. I'll keep watch."

Gabrielle smiled a little, into the warm leather. Absurd, that in the middle of the Amazon village, surrounded by warriors, she would find safety only here, in these arms. Where her soul was at peace despite everything that had happened, and everything that had gone wrong between them. It didn't make much sense.

Maybe, she thought, it wasn't supposed to.

Ephiny checked the position of the sun, then sighed, and hitched her leathers up. "Well, I’m gonna to bite the arrowhead and see what's going on." She muttered to Eponin, who gave her an amused look.

"Hey... she got in just dawn, Eph... give her a break." The weapon's master objected reasonably. "She's probably exhausted."

The regent gave her a scowl. "I know.. I know.. but centaur hooves, Pony.. I spend half of forever worrying about the woman, at least she can wake up and talk to me for a few minutes." Ephiny stood and stretched, glancing around the small healer's hut. "You all right here until I get back?"

An eyebrow quirked over a caramel colored eye. "Eph, you'd better cut that out or I’m gonna have to hurt you." She sat up carefully, and put her feet firmly on the floor. "It's a bump on the head, not a gut wound."

"Mm." The regent studied her seriously. "A bump on the head serious enough for Xena to leave Gabrielle behind, and bring you in here. There area lot of things the old warhorse is, but a mother hen has never been one of them." She put a hand on the older woman's shoulder, and pushed down gently. "Stay put, ok?" She sighed. "I've got enough troubles with Menelda, without getting into arguments with her over you."

Eponin rolled here eyes melodramatically, and laid back down, rolling onto her side and propping her head up on her hand. "Oh.. all right." She paused. "She on you about the Queen?"

Ephiny nodded. "Yeah.. and you know, I thought she had a good case."

The weapon's master grunted. "I did too, Eph... and I don't need to remind you of exactly how mad I was when I left here. I wanted her blood, remember?"

Her companion nodded absently. "I remember." She gave a little nod. "All right.. let me go wake her up.. I don't imagine I'll have that much of a chance to chat with them.. my guess is Gabrielle's gonna fill me in on what happened, then take off home." She grimaced. "And now I owe Cyrene an apology." She shook her head and left the hut, passing from the cool interior into the warmth of the sun. Around her, she could hear the soft sounds of crickets and the sporadic voices as the village went about its normal activities. A glance up told her a hunting party was returning, and she noted that the new huts they were building on the west side of the village were moving along.

They were growing, Ephiny reflected, which was a good feeling after the trials of the past year or so. Ten young women would be initiated into their ranks at the Harvest Festival, and the new quarters would be filled. Six other women were with child, and lately the incidence of girl children had been pretty good. Moral was up, despite the current situation, and Ephiny had been feeling satisfied with the direction of the Nation under her stewardship.

The treaties Gabrielle had negotiated during her last visit had turned out to be more lucrative than they had anticipated also, and she was in the enviable position of having a significant surplus this season, some of which she was intending on sending north to be traded for tools and supplies they hadn't seen in years. Ephiny was looking forward to picking the trading party shortly.. it was also time to shake up some of the complacency, and give a few of the newer women a chance to show what they could do, now that she could afford to take a chance or two, and absorb any negotiating mistakes as a learning experience.

She approached the queen's quarters again, this time not pausing outside, but continuing on to the door and pushing it lightly open, poking her head inside with an inquiring look.

Faintly amused blue eyes gazed back at her, from a very wide awake Xena, who was nevertheless still sprawled on the bed providing a large, leather clad pillow for her younger partner. "Hi." The Amazon gave her a tiny grin. "Her Majesty's still sleeping, I see."

A shrug of one tanned shoulder. "Traveled all night to get here." Xena paused. "Um..c'mon in."

Ephiny availed herself of the offer, and slipped into the room, closing the door behind her. She padded quietly over to the bedside, and dropped onto the low stool near the bed. "I know.. I don't grudge it to her.."

Xena smiled quietly. "But you're dying to talk to her."

The blond Amazon ducked her head, and hid a grin. "Something like that, yeah."

The warrior nodded. "Told her you would be."

Ephiny raised her head, and studied the sleeping bard, whose deep, slow breathing and faintly twitching hands were testimony to her relaxed state. One arm was curled tightly around Xena's stomach. "She always hang on to you like that?" Then she blushed as she realized just how personal a question that was, to someone she was not sure of her relationship with. "Sorry."

The warrior let out a soft sigh. "Um.. it's all right... and yeah, she tends to.. just something we kind of fell into a while back."

One green eye peeked open. "Whose falling?" Gabrielle regarded Ephiny with a mild look. "Good morning."

The Amazon cocked an eyebrow at her. "Afternoon."

The bard's own eyebrows rose, and she glanced up at her companion, who shrugged. "Uh.. sorry." She yawned, and rolled onto her side, releasing her partner. "Didn't meant to do that.. at least not so late." She ran her hands through her hair and blinked. "What's up?"

Ephiny glanced down and studied her hands. "Well... I know people would like to see you.. have a chance to talk to you... " She looked up briefly at Xena. "Tyldus sent word down.. he'd like you to come over there if you get a chance."

The warrior nodded quietly. "I figured."

Gabrielle looked up. "Wha.." Then she stopped and closed her mouth. Probably wants to talk about Kaleipus. Her mind forced her on. And Solon. "Well, that works out.." She went on. "You can go talk to him.. I'll do a round of explaining here.. then we can head off home." She gave Ephiny an apologetic look. "I... um.. I know it's kinda short."

The regent smiled. "It's all right, Gabrielle.. I figured as much.. I know you want to get going.. I was hoping you'd stay over another night.. just give us a chance to see you."

The bard looked up at Xena, and they exchanged glances. "It's going to be pretty late by the time we finish.. so yeah, that works out ok.. we can take off in the morning. " Gabrielle agreed readily, having read reluctant acknowledgement in Xena's eyes. "How's Pony?"

Ephiny managed a smile, relieved at the agreement, and the change of subject. "Itching to get out of bed." She chuckled, then sighed. "You.. want to join me for lunch? I.. " She hesitated. "I briefly filled everyone in..I know it's kind of uncomfortable for both of you."

A small silence fell. "Lunch sounds good." Gabrielle finally said quietly. "Thanks..give us a minute.. we'll be there."

The regent pursed her lips and nodded. "Ok... see you in a bit then." She stood, and walked out, leaving them to look at each other.

"Damn." Gabrielle put her head back down on her partner's chest. "Sorry.. I know you wanted out of here."

A hand lifted and rubbed her back. "It's OK.. you're right, it's gonna be late, and one more night won't kill me here." Xena replied softly. "Maybe.. we can visit again.. or they can come see us..I don't.. " She took a deep breath. "Gabrielle, I don't want you to feel bad about wanting to spend time with them because of me."

The bard let out a frustrated breath. "Xena.. I don’t feel bad about spending time with them because of you.. I feel bad because you feel bad about spending time here." She closed her eyes. "Gods.. so many pieces." She looked up at her partner. "Sometimes I just want to take all of them, and just stick them together and…" Her face tensed. "Oh gods.. if I could just.. go back."

The warrior gazed at her sadly. "Yeah.. I know." She fiddled with a bit of the blanket they were resting on. "I know." She paused. "Look.. Gabrielle.. I know.."

A hand covered her mouth. "Don’t say it." The bard gave her a very serious look. "Don’t even think it, just drop it, Xena, I mean that."

Xena paused, and regarded her. "Do you really know what I was going to say?"

Gabrielle nodded grimly. "You were about to tell me that it might be better for me if I stayed here, and I should think about it."

Damn. Xena’s eyes widened. Am I that transparent to her? "Um."

The bard couldn’t help it. She felt a tiny, wry grin tugging at her lips. "Please… Xena.. this is hard enough on both of us.. don’t make it harder by making me scared I’m going to be left behind all over again." Her eyes found Xena’s, and pleaded gently. "Don’t do that to me."

No… Xena put a tentative hand on her arm. "That’s not… " Then she just stopped. What’s the point? You know the only thing being apart is going to do for us is drive us both insane. "You’re right. I’m sorry."

Something.. has changed. Gabrielle realized. But it’s not a bad thing.. we don’t take each other for granted anymore. I think I like that. "Apology accepted." She gave the warrior a warm smile. "Forget what I said before about going back… we’re going to get through this." She leaned forward and gently kissed Xena on the lips, a casual gesture that snared her in, and sent her hands sliding against the warm body under hers. She spent a moment in hesitant fear, then decided to just relax and enjoy the moment.

And that she did, as the afternoon sun slanted into the window and painted a wheaten stripe that burnished them both in shades of summer gold. She separated from her partner slowly and reluctantly, keeping her gaze locked on the sparkling blue eyes inches from her face. They regarded each other in silence for a moment, then Gabrielle dropped her head, and rolled to her feet, walking over to the low table near the window that held the wash basin and leaning against it, her back to the warrior. "Guess we’d better go get this over with." The bard sighed, then looked around as Xena came up behind her.

"Listen.. " The warrior put her hands on the bard’s bare shoulders. "It’s like you said.. we’ll get through this." She smiled a little as the bard leaned back against her, and she moved closer, wrapping her arms around Gabrielle’s neck and holding her. "C’mon.. " She put on a determinedly optimistic air. "Let’s go suffer an Amazon lunch, and then I'll take a run down to the Centaur village."

Gabrielle just let herself absorb the warmth, both physical and.. Her brow creased in concentration, and she held her breath. Oh.

Yes. There it was. The half sensed, half felt, tickling flow that she’d come to associate with their connection. She wondered if Xena felt it. "Are you all right with that?" She tilted her head and looked up.

The warrior had her eyes closed, and an expression of intense concentration on her face. After a moment of awkward silence, her eyelids fluttered open, and she met the bard’s concerned gaze with a painfully open look. "I… um. I’m sorry.. Gabrielle.. did you say something?"

The bard turned around in her grasp and faced her. "You felt it."

A faint nod. "Yeah."

Gabrielle smiled broadly, and hugged her. ‘I’ve missed that." She gave her partner a pat on the side, and released her. "We’d better get going.. " She turned and splashed water over her face, and used a piece of wetted linen to rinse her arms off. "Promise me you won’t make faces at whatever they serve?"

"I promise." Xena answered faintly, hugging the warm feeling to herself and letting it seep into the dark crevices that had opened up in her. "Even if it’s that brown stuff."

Gabrielle wrinkled her nose. "Ew.. no.. you’ve got my permission to make a face for that." She dried herself off, and turned, rinsing the linen and starting to work on the warrior. "Here.. hold still." She neatly wiped off the worst of the travel stains from Xena’s tall body. "What is that stuff anyway?"

"Dirt." Xena muttered.

The bard snorted softly. "That explains the taste."

This got a grin from the warrior. " mean the brown stuff they I’m not sure. Some kind of .. plant.. extract or.. something like that." She let the bard finish her task, and settled her armor over her shoulders. "Tastes like dried bird poop."

Gabrielle let out a silent sigh of relief over the lightening in the atmosphere. "And.. just.. how would you know what that tastes like?"

Xena stopped what she was doing, and regarded the smaller woman thoughtfully. "Let’s just say we used to play dares when I was a kid and I lost." She paused. "Once."

The bard wrinkled her nose again. "Ew."

Xena made a face right back. "Yeah."

The dining hall hushed to silence as Gabrielle put her hand out and put aside the bead curtain that kept out the insects, not letting it go until she'd passed inside, and held it for her partner to follow. She let her eyes wander over the assembled Amazons.

"Hi." She commented briskly, and focused her attention on the front table, where Solari and Ephiny were half seated, half standing, watching her with uncertain looks. Watching them, actually, as Gabrielle realized the attention was now glued on her taller companion, who was quietly following her with an unreadable expression on her face. Ares trotted after Xena, keeping his nose more or less even with her armored knees.

The waves of tension were palpable.

A chair scraped back, and soft footfalls approached them. "Hello." A young voice broke the silence impudently. "It's ever so super to see you."

Gabrielle smiled. "Hello, Cait." She hugged the girl, who squeezed her back with enthusiasm. "Good to see you too." She released the girl, who moved a pace back and launched a similar assault at the leather clad warrior ambling behind her.

"Hey." Xena let a warm grin shape her lips, as she enveloped the young Amazon in a friendly hug.

"I'm ever so sorry." The girl whispered almost soundlessly, knowing it would be heard. "I can't tell you how much."

The warrior held her a little closer. "Thanks, Cait." She gave her a little pat, and felt her heart clench, remembering a friendship born in danger between the girl and her son. "He thought you were really cool, for a girl." She whispered softly back, letting herself feel the sadness.

Cait closed her eyes, and sighed, then collected herself, and broke off. He had died unfairly, and she remembered clearly her rage, and desire to take revenge on his killer.

And then she had found out who that killer was, and what had happened to her.

There was so very much grief that she hadn't really known where to start feeling awful, she just knew she did, and had been one of the few who had seen Xena's violent return for her soulmate to be what it truly was, not a threat, not a danger, but in many ways a rescue.

She was ever so glad it had turned out right. She gave Ares a friendly pat, and waved at them, trotting back to her seat in the back where the rest of her age mates were with total unconcern as to the looks she was getting.

"You're crazy." Megan hissed, pulling on her leathers. "How could you do that?"

Cait turned her head, and let her feelings show, causing the other girls to back off. "Because they're my friends, you squirrel headed clueless ninny." She fiercely shot back. "I'm not like the rest of you lot, to abandon that just because something bad happened." She went back to her plate, grabbing a piece of bread and chewing it savagely.

Xena watched her go with a hint of a smile on her face, then let her icy gaze sweep the room, causing looks to be averted rapidly. Cait had broken the ice, though, and a low, uneasy murmur was rising, as conversation resumed. With a sigh, the warrior followed her partner's tense back up to the front table, and gave both Solari and Ephiny a short nod.

"I hope Cait won't get too much grief for that." Gabrielle muttered wryly, as she seated herself next to the regent. "Not that I didn't appreciate it."

Ephiny resettled herself, and propped her elbows on the table. "They don’t mess with her much." Her eyes flicked to Xena's impassive face. "She'll be fine." She passed over a platter of bread and cheese. "Sorry about that.. it's too hot for cooking today.. we're just grazing. "

"Could be worse." Both Xena and Gabrielle uttered the sentence simultaneously, then glanced at each other in wry amusement.

The regent relaxed a little, trying to watch them out of the corner of her eye without being obvious. What she saw reassured her. While both were uncomfortable which in Gabrielle came out as nervous chatter, and in Xena an idle playing with her food instead of eating it, they were obviously unsettled by the surroundings, and not by each other. There was no strain evident, as there had been before all Hades had broken loose the last time.

In fact.. Ephiny watched the bard unconcernedly remove portions from her partner's plate and nibble them, and caught the masked, but unmistakable affectionate look that spurred from the taller woman. I would have thought it impossible. She mentally shook her head. Things were different, changed… they both had been wounded desperately, but… Damn. Eponin was right.. that.. something.. is still there.

She took a breath, and made her decision. "So.. " She turned to Xena and reached out, slapping the warrior lightly on the arm. "Tell me about this flower thing Solari keeps hinting about." She felt the silent, subliminal shock wave as the room watched her, and held it's breath. Hmm.. Blue Amazons… Ephiny let that thought stop right there. Oh.. no.. they don't need to hear that story. C'mon, Xena.. react, or they're going to start keeling over and the healers are going to kill me.

The warrior let out a quiet chuckle, and crossed her arms, giving Ephiny a wry look. "Can't.. Pony's not gonna like it."

Ephiny grinned. "All the more reason to tell me." She sensed the room begin to breathe again, and shot a glance around surreptitiously, gathering in the increasingly thoughtful looks directed their way.

Things had gone better after that, and as they related their recent adventures, a slow trickle of Amazons found reason to pass by the head table, and make comments, reports, notifications and reminders to Ephiny, and also, in passing, say shy hellos to both the bard, and a trifle more uneasily, but still.. to her dour partner.

"Y'know, Ephiny… " Xena finally leaned forward, a faintly sardonic look on her face. "It woulda been less stressful for you to just tell everyone they could come up and say hello, rather than make them rack their brains for all these excuses." It was the longest sentence she'd said yet.

The regent laughed a little, in relief. "Yeah.. well… I learned an awful lot, most of which I really didn't wanna know, but it was good for them.. make them think for a change." She fiddled with her mug. "I've… " She let out a long breath. "I hope you both don't mind, but I've asked the cooks to come up with a little outdoor revel tonight.. some pit cooking, a little music.. nothing major, just.."

"A party." Gabrielle responded, biting back a grin.

" no.. not a party.. as such.. just.. well, a little get together…" Ephiny hesitated. "Oh Artemis' breastplate. Yeah, ok.. it's a party, but just so we can spend some time with you before you leave."

The bard put a hand out and closed it over Ephiny's, gazing quietly at her. "That sounds great." She turned and glanced at the warrior. "You'll be back pretty early.. right?"

Xena stood. "Yeah.. if I get going now." She let a hand rest on Gabrielle's shoulder. "I'm gonna stop and check Argo, and pick up my weapons." Now her eyes found Ephiny's. "If that's all right."

The regent grimaced. "Xena.. no offense.. but you sending Argo off with that stuff was a show, and we both know that.. it didn't make you any less dangerous."

The warrior gazed at her impassively. "With all those arrows pointed at me, I wasn't taking any chances." She gave the bard's shoulder a squeeze, and turned, making her way out of the dining hall with even, rolling strides, with Ares dark form trotting after her.

Ephiny and Gabrielle exchanged glances. "She mad about that?" The regent asked quietly.

The bard shrugged wearily. "Resigned to it." She replied, fiddling with a bit of bread.

The regent looked around, and took a breath. Ok.. let's get this over with. "Want to take a walk?"

They ended up down near the river, seated against a tall oak tree, and watching the dark, turbulent water flow past as the warm, sultry air passed over them. "Where do I start?" Gabrielle asked, looking out over the water. "We left here, and went to a cave.. it's not far.. " She closed her eyes and sighed. "We fought. A lot." She paused. "I yelled.. I said a lot of things.. a lot of hurtful things.. she did too.. we were both in a lot of pain."

Ephiny took a breath. "Did you actually fight.. did she.. hit you.. or .."

"Yes." Came the stark reply. "It was… the one thing I thought she'd…" The bard pressed her lips together, and paused for a long moment. "Then she passed out."

The regent glanced at her, startled. "What?"

"It was just too much, Ephiny… she wasn't fighting me, she was fighting herself.. I could see it.. she wanted to hurt me.. we wanted to hurt each other.. it just kept pushing and pushing and pushing at us until she snapped." The bard went on in a rush of words. "And I remember standing there over her, wanting so badly to be angry and hate her.. and just… kick her hard or something.. and.. and I just couldn’t."

Ephiny stared at her, wide eyed. "Couldn’t?"

A slow shake of the bard's head. "After all that.. after everything.. all that pain, and all the grief, and the hatred…and all I wanted to do was just hug her, and make it all go away." She stared off into the distance. "I love her."

"Despite everything?" The regent whispered. "Gabrielle.. I…"

"It's what made it so much worse…" Gabrielle explained softly. "I realized that after.. if we'd truly hated each other, it would have been… well, she would have gone off.. and I would have stayed here.. and that would have been that." Another slow shake of her head. "But I can't do that.. and she can't do that.. we just have to forgive each other, and trust in our love." She looked up. "Ephiny, she is so important to me.. I know.. I know what you're going to say.. it's a risk..she could go crazy.. she's violent.. she could hurt me all over again.. but I swear to you.. I don't care.. I can't help it.. I have to be a part of her life, and she has to be a part of mine."

"Shh." Ephiny put a hand on Gabrielle's arm. "Take it easy.. I'm not suggesting for a minute otherwise." Abandoning the thought of just such a proposition. "I realize that things got out of control.. but look what it took to get them that way, Gabrielle.. .and still.. you managed to overcome that.. you came through it.. somehow." She stroked the soft skin. "I have never seen a more powerful bond between two people than the one you two have, my friend.. don't be ashamed of that."

The bard quieted down, and let her head rest against the rough tree bark. "I'm not." She sighed wearily. "It just gets so hard to explain to everyone why I don't just leave her." She glanced at Ephiny. "Why I still love her, even after what happened.. people look at me like I'm either insane or so blinded by her that I don’t know what I'm doing." She paused. "I'm not a child anymore, Ephiny. I killed someone in Britannia."

Total shock on the regent's face.

"Yeah." The bard sighed. "It was part of that whole.. Xena thinks I was tricked into it to allow Dahok's evil into the world."

Ephiny licked her lips nervously. "Through… " Her voice failed her.

"Yes." Green eyes regarded her sadly. "But I was so sure I was right… " A pained smile. "And then I was so jealous of her past that I deliberately betrayed her, and got her captured by one of her worst enemies, Ephiny.. and she almost died in Chin because of it."

Another shocked look.

Gabrielle gazed at her. "Yeah… so now you hear the other side of the story… I betrayed her, and you know what? I'm the only person in her life, ever, who she forgave for that."

The regent closed her eyes. "I had no idea, Gabrielle." She tried to arrange her whirling thoughts in a coherent whole, as her perceptions took on wholly different colors. "I never thought…"

The bard sighed. "I never thought I would either.. I never thought I'd have it in me to do that.. not to anyone, much less her… that was a really hard thing to find out about myself.. for a long time, I didn't believe in myself anymore, Ephiny." She plucked a stalk of grass, and chewed on it, as a feeling of peace came over her again. "And as I was standing in that cave, looking down at her.. I just realized that the only way I'd ever change that.. that I'd ever find peace again is through her…through us."

"And you did." Ephiny breathed.

The cold granite had pressed against her back, providing some relief to her aching head which throbbed as jolts of sharp pain seared her from her battered jaw and mouth. She'd wrapped her arms around Xena's still body, and pulled her into her lap, taking wistful comfort from the warrior's warmth, for the short time she had until Xena woke up, and pulled away.

In that short few minutes, holding her, she'd come to the sobering realization that this was something she needed, something she wanted so badly that it was worth risking everything to get it back. And when Xena's eyes had drifted open, and they'd stared, exhausted, at each other, she'd just said simply. "I need you."

Xena hadn't moved, hadn't pulled back, had just studied her face for what seemed like forever. "Then we need to talk." She'd finally answered, deliberately putting herself in the most vulnerable position she could have, cradled in Gabrielle's arms.

And they had, with slow, halting words, that started with heartfelt "I'm sorry's"

"I'm sorry I let you down in Britannia.. and didn't get there in time." Xena's voice had rasped. "I'm sorry I didn't help you.. understand you… left you alone to make a horrible decision about Hope."

"I'm sorry I didn't try harder to stop you with Caesar.." The bard had whispered in reply. "I'm sorry about Chin.. I was so stupid and angry."

They'd both realized rather quickly that the forgave each other more readily than themselves

"I wish I'd talked to you about what happened.. how I felt.. how I knew.. about the evil.." The warrior had sighed. "Instead of just expecting you to take me at face value."

"I wish you hadn't been right." Gabrielle had responded. "I wanted you to be wrong so blinded me." She'd cried softly. "I believed in her.. just like I believed in you."

Past tense. And they both knew that. It hurt.

But it wasn't until Xena had said. "I destroyed our friendship" that the loss hit home, because she realized at that moment it was probably true. She'd started crying helplessly, grief wringing sobs from her chest.

And then she'd looked down, and through the haze saw the tears in Xena's eyes, and that…had let the smallest sliver of light back into her, because she understood that as long at the love was still there, the possibilities were also.

"Yeah, we did." She answered Ephiny quietly. "It was hard, and it hurt a lot, and it still does, but.. we both decided it was the only way."

Ephiny gave her a sideways glance, taking in the new lines of maturity etching her face, and the shadows now permanently a feature of her once guiless eyes. Gabrielle was right.. the child from Potadeia no longer existed. In her place was this complex woman whose motivations and feelings, once so obvious, were now a mystery. "It's changed you." She commented softly.

A very slow nod. "I know." The bard's eyes met hers. "It changed everything.. just like Xena said it would." A rolling wave of misery crashed over her, and she gasped a little. "Oh… "

Ephiny sat up, and grabbed her shoulder. "Gabrielle.. what is it? You're white as a sheet."

Gabrielle caught her breath with difficulty, and pressed an arm to her bare midriff. "Um.. yeah.. I .." Another wave caught her, and she realized it's source. "Ephiny.. what do you think Tyldus wanted with Xena?"

The Amazon glanced down, and played with a bit of shed bark. "I.. probably to say something about Kaleipus.. and.. I think he wanted to give her Solon's things."

The bard closed her eyes and leaned back against the tree. Yeah. The heavy guilt rolled over her and added to the misery. She doesn't want me around, that's for sure. Her mind tried to convince her, but her heart was demanding otherwise. But I guess I'm going anyway.

Abruptly, she opened her eyes, and stood, dusting her skirt off with brisk strokes. "Listen.. I .. I need some air.. I'm just going to go for a little walk, ok?"

Ephiny remained seated, studying her. "All right." She replied slowly. "You.. um.. take whatever time you need." She watched as the bard walked off, her body tense and her movements uncertain, and shook her head.

The barn was thankfully empty when Xena entered it, and she heard the soft crunch of straw under her boots as only her movements broke the silence. Argo was in a corner stall, munching unconcernedly on a stack of neatly cut hay, but she looked up at the familiar footsteps and whickered.

"Hey girl.." Xena moved closer to the warm comfort of the mare, and stroked her shining coat. "Thanks for helping me out last night." She half turned. "And look who found us."

"Roo." Ares sat down in the straw, and panted.

Argo snorted softly, nuzzling Xena in the chest. She let her head rest against the mare's side for a long moment, and breathed in the familiar scent of horse and stable, letting it calm her. Then she straightened, and gave the horse a pat. "Ok.. let's get going." She saddled Argo, and resumed her weapons, feeling the familiar weight of her sword with something approaching relief against the still hostile atmosphere around her.

She walked the mare outside, and hauled herself up into the saddle, settling her feet in the stirrups and letting her knees find their accustomed placed against the mare's shoulders. The sun was merciless, and she felt her skin warm under it, and settled her armor with a sigh.

The path to the Centaur Village was, thankfully, shaded, and Argo made good time despite the thick, warm air. Ares trotted alongside, his tongue lolling out, and Xena remembered to stop for water for both them, and herself when she felt a sweat break out.

She pulled up next to the totems, and waited, and minutes later a sentry appeared, stepping soundlessly out of the forest and sidling up to her, their heads on a level. "Tyldus sent word." Xena said, shortly.

The sentry nodded. "Come."

Curious, Xena mused, as she guided Argo through the neatly made village, around groups of centaurs going about their lives. I feel more welcome here than with the Amazons. Glances were being cast her way, as always, but they lacked the suspicious tinge evident in the ones she'd been getting this morning and some drifted over into quiet sympathy.

She slowed Argo to a halt next to the leader's large compound, and slid off the mare's back. "Ares, you stay here, ok?"

"Roo." The wolf panted unhappily, but settled down next to Argo's big hooves.

Xena let a tiny smile appear briefly, then sobered, and walked towards the hut, aware of the quiet around her, and the faint hollow impact of her boots against the wood that lined the path. She raised her hand, and let it fall gently against the wooden doorway, it's height well over her head, and it's breadth twice that of her shoulders.

"Come." The deep voice rumbled from within, and she pushed the door open, and let her vision adjust to the relative darkness inside before she continued walking and let the door fall shut behind her.

Tyldus was standing near the window, his back to the sun pouring into it, and his arms crossed over his bare chest. He was a large centaur, with thick auburn red hair, and a beard to match, and old, wise eyes. "Hello, Xena." He moved to the table near his work area and picked up a wineskin. "May I share this with you?"

The warrior inclined her head, and walked forward, until she was standing by his side near the table. "Hello, Tyldus. You look well."

The Centaur poured a healthy mug full of wine and handed it to her, then took one of his own. "As I can be, yes.. though I wish you and I could meet on matters less tragic." He took a sip and regarded her solemnly. "Thank you for coming out here… I wasn’t sure when I would see you.. I know you don’t stay in any one place very long." He took another sip. "In fact, I admit to being shocked when Kaleipus told me you were at home."

Xena stared at the table surface, and took several swallows of the sweet, rich wine. "Things change." She finally allowed, raising her head and giving him a guarded look. "I’m sorry about Kaleipus.. he was a good person. And a good friend."

Tyldus sighed. "That he was." A quick glance took in Xena’s face. "The coming of the darkness has been known to us for some time, Xena.. I do not fault you for what happened."

The warrior turned and paced to the window, staring out at the Centaur village without really seeing it. "I fault me, Tyldus." She answered quietly. "There are a thousand things I could have done to change what happened." Automatically, her eyes found a certain spot, in a certain part of the center of the collection of dwellings, as a wistful memory tickled her.

The Centaur moved over in back of her, and placed a large, muscular hand on her shoulder. "It would have happened anyway, I fear. Perhaps not at that very time, or very place, but still." He waited for her to turn and meet his eyes, and she did. "It came, and you were its target."

A slow nod of her dark head. "I know that."

They regarded each other for a long moment. "All of our Nation loved your son, Xena." Tyldus said gently. "He was a fine lad."

Xena’s eyes and shoulders dropped, and she let her hands rest limply on her thighs, as she leaned against the wall behind her. "He didn’t deserve to have me as a mother, that’s for sure." She muttered bitterly. "I owe you a great deal of thanks for taking care of him."

There was dark compassion in the Centaur’s gray eyes as he regarded her. "You owe us nothing, Xena.. it was a labor well spent, and know this, he was never happier, never, than when he came back from Amphipolis after you acknowledged him." He paused, and pursed his bearded lips. "He was very proud of being your son, you know that."

Weary blue eyes searched his face. "My being his mother got him killed, Tyldus" Xena replied quietly. "I would have been better off keeping to my promise, and staying the Hades out of his life, and we both know it."

The Centaur sighed. "Perhaps." He conceded. "But knowing you gave him great joy, Xena…I do not think, having been a teacher of his for many years, that he would have wished otherwise." He paused. "Despite the danger."

No. Xena admitted privately, having known him. Probably not. "Thank you."

An awkward silence fell, then Tyldus cleared his throat. "I.. wanted to give you this.. " He moved his big body over to a cabinet, and opened it. "It’s not much.. you know we’re not the kind that saves things. " He pulled out a bundle wrapped in dark brown linen. "This was his."

Xena looked at him for a long moment, then took a deep breath and walked over, taking the packet from his hands, and feeling the roughness of the linen brush against her skin. She looked at it, and ran a gentle fingertip across its surface. "Thanks." She felt her voice close to breaking, and cleared her throat. "I'm in your debt.. for a lot of things."

The Centaur shuffled his hooves a bit. "Things do change." His eyes met hers. "How’s your friend?"

The warrior was glad of the change of subject. "All right." She tucked the bundle under her arm. "She’s been through a lot.. but she’s tough."

Tyldus smiled wryly. "You know, every time it rains I think of you both."

Xena gazed past his shoulder, out the window, to a certain spot. "Yeah." She flicked her eyes over him. "Any messages you need taking back to the Amazons?"

The Centaur grunted. "Not from me, but.. " He cocked his head. "Ah.. the pitter patter of little centaur feet. " His eyes went to the door. "Come in, my lad."

Xena turned, to see Xenon standing there, a shyly uncertain look on his adorable face. "Hullo." He took a few hesitant steps toward her.

The warrior knelt, and motioned him forward. "Hello, Xenon."

The Centaur boy trotted forward, and threw his arms around her neck. "You feel better now?" His high voice warbled in her ear. "No more mad?"

She hugged him, and patted his back. "No more mad, Xenon." She answered quietly. "You got a message for your mom?"

He pulled back his curly blond head, and blinked at her. "My birthday’s comin up."

Xena couldn’t help a smile. "I know."

"She promised me a real bow." Xenon thrust out his chin, and looked remarkably like his mother.

"I’ll remind her." The warrior assured him solemnly. "Anything else you want?"

His pale lashes quivered. "Want my friend back."

Xena felt the pain grab her chest like a vise. "I.. I know.. Xenon.. I do too." She whispered tightly, as she hugged him again. "I really do."

She sighed, as she released him, and stood, at the very limit of her control. Her eyes went to the silently watching Centaur. "Thanks again, Tyldus."

He nodded. "Be well, Xena."

She walked out, leaving the two Centaurs behind, and went to Argo, who shoved her nose into Xena’s chest and whuffled hard. She moved around to the mare’s side, and hugged her neck, burying her face into the warm skin for a long, aching moment. Gods.. it hurts all over again.

She straightened up by will alone, and tucked the bundle under a saddle strap. "C’mon, Ares.. let’s go." She called to the wolf, who stood and shook himself, as she pulled herself up into the saddle, and collected the mare’s reins.

They moved out across the central area, and she stopped the mare in that one particular spot for a quiet moment, dusting off a set of happier memories before she headed Argo back out onto the path.

But the thought of going back into the Amazon’s company now.. Xena winced. I feel.. raw. Not a good sign. She let Argo meander at will among the tall trees, picking no particular path, until she looked up, and found the mare had wandered close to a small, chuckling brook that ran alongside a thickly overgrown rock ledge. Her breath caught. Fate? Or her own unconscious prompting of the mare?

As if in a dream, she slid down off Argo’s back, almost falling as her knees refused to bear her weight for an instant. She held onto the mare’s tack until her body cooperated, then unstrapped the bundle from the saddle and stumbled towards the rocks, splashing through the water as though it wasn’t even there.

Impatiently, she pulled aside the bushes, then drew her sword and hacked at them, clearing herself a rough path. Moments later, and she was under the ledge, tucking her legs up and letting her head rest against the cold rock surface as she looked around the tiny hiding place. A whine distracted her, and she glanced up as Ares crawled under the rock next to her, shaking his thick fur to rid it of the water from the creek.

It didn’t look all that different, she mused. A small place, sure.. the rock tight over her head, but she hadn’t cared about that then. Moss covered walls, and the sound of water flowing, within the reach of her hand. It smelled like green, and water, and the black earth the underbrush was growing in, and she let herself breathe that in before she laid the brown linen package on her lap, and slowly untied it.

First, she pulled out his few pieces of clothing, bright among them the blue tunic that had been her gift over the winter. She fingered it, and brought it up to her face, breathing in his scent, clinging to the remembrance of how his body felt when she’d held him. How his voice sounded. Gods.. Solon.. I barely had a chance to…

With a sigh, she cut the thought off, and settled the tunic over her shoulder, peering down into the bundle. Small things, a cup, shaped for a boy’s hand. A carefully tended flint and tinder, mark of responsibility, and his growing maturity. A neatly rolled parchment, which, unrolled revealed a very familiar hand. A few lines were enough to stir memories of their meeting, and she let the scroll close gently. He must have coaxed Gabrielle into giving him that… she let a fingertip gently touch a well formed letter.

Another look down. Toys, a few of them, two wooden chariots and a stuffed doll that.. She looked closer, and closed her eyes as tears started running down her face in silence. A stuffed thing that evoked her image, tiny bits of leather and all, that was pounded out of shape from long cuddling.

She let the grief overcome her, too tired to resist it any more, and curled up into a ball, feeling the harsh scrape of the stone against her skin and not caring. What was the point? She’d lost, and she knew it.. the two biggest nightmares of her life were true, and it was her fault.. just like she’d always known it would be.

She’d hoped.. and hoped, that maybe.. just maybe she’d gotten lucky this time. Maybe she’d paid enough for the things she’d done.

Stupid, Xena, very stupid. You’ll never pay enough, and everyone you care for is going to pay right along with you. Everyone. And every time she looked at Gabrielle, she saw all over again the price the bard had paid, and would now continue to pay for the rest of her life.

And Solon.. he was just a boy.

A bleak self hatred grabbed her. I should have let those damned rocks take me with Callisto.. I have no right to keep doing this.. keep hurting people. Solon.. I'm sorry.. She felt Ares press up against her, as the wolf sensed her distress, and tried to clean her face with a warm tongue. "You should get away from me too, Ares." She got out in a hoarse whisper. "I don’t want you to get hurt."

The wolf only cuddled closer, shoving his nose under her chin with an anxious whine. Helplessly, she curled her arms around him, and cried into his fur.

It was, Gabrielle mused, a very strange feeling. She'd never tried to use their connection like this.. though she knew Xena had, and on more than one occasion. It was kind if like closing your eyes really tight, and trying to find a candle with your hands.. you moved very cautiously, feeling for the warmth, and then trying to figure out where it was.

Only this wasn't warmth, it was misery, and the closer she got, the more she felt it, until she briefly considered abandoning the search, lest she make it worse by her presence. That lasted all of three heartbeats, though, and she pushed on, helpless to prevent her intense drive to find the warrior.

She pushed through a final, thick wall of underbrush, and stopped short on seeing Argo's familiar bulk, as the mare grazed quietly next to a small stream. The air was so thick it seemed breathless, and she stopped to wipe the damp hair out of her eyes before she took several, uncertain steps towards the horse, her eyes roving the surroundings for any sign of her partner.

Argo raised her head as she came near, and whickered, shifting big hooves on the turf and butting her in the chest with an impatient nose.

"Hi, Argo." Gabrielle murmured softly. "Where's Xena, huh?" She stood still, and looked carefully around her, freezing when she spotted the freshly cut branches on the thick bushes across the stream. She studied the overhang, and as she did so, somehow, she just knew that was where the warrior was hiding.

Now what? She asked herself silently. She finds a private place to go grieve, Gabrielle.. she sure doesn’t want you hanging around.. best idea is to just go back to the village, now that you know where she is, and that she's safe, right?

Right. But she didn’t turn to go, half of her wanting out of the clearing, the other half driving her forward, towards a soulmate whose pain was pulling her in despite the fact that she herself was the main cause of it. At least… she rationalized desperately. At least she should know that I.. that I care.. about what she's going through.

She took a breath. "Xena…" She spoke aloud, knowing her voice would carry across the mostly silent forest glade with only the crickets and some lethargically calling birds to compete with. "I… I know you're hurting.. I… know you don't want me around here.. " The pain of that stopped her speech for a long moment. "B.. but I was worried about you… so I… um.. I'm going to take off, ok.. I'll.. be um.. back at the village." The silence soaked into her, as now even the birds seemed to be holding their breaths, and she straightened Argo's mane with idle, heartsick hands as she realized she wasn't going to get a response.

All I could do, right? She whispered faintly to herself. Some things you just can't change, you can't fix.. Gabrielle.. this is one of them. This is always going to lie between us. "All right.. well, take care of yourself, ok?" Her voice choked up, and she held onto the mare's neck for a long moment before she straightened, and glanced around, looking for a easy path out.

"Gabrielle." Her name stopped her cold, in a voice so hoarse and weary she almost didn't recognize it. She turned and faced the rock outcropping, her steps taking her to the very edge of the water.

"I'm here." She answered quietly, nervously. And waited.

A long pause. "I could use a friend right now." Came the quiet, exhausted plea.

"Why do you always expect the worst?" She had once asked Xena, in a fit of exasperation.

"Because then, when it doesn't happen, I'm pleasantly surprised. " Had come the warrior's wry answer.

Now, standing there in this hot, muggy forest, Gabrielle understood exactly what she meant. "I'll be right there." She knew her voice was shaking, but it didn't matter, as she stepped heedless into the creek, splashing through water that came halfway up her thighs as though it didn't exist. She reached the edge of the outcropping and put a hand on it, ducking her head down, and crawling into the dark space without hesitation.

A warm hand met hers, and she felt the familiar jolt of contact as their bodies recognized each other. She blinked, and let her eyes adjust as her partner slowly came into focus in front of her. One look at the tear stained face, and she forgot everything.

Forgot about their fighting, forgot about Britannia, about Chin, about anything other than the fact that her soulmate was here, and was in terrible pain, and needed her desperately. She scrambled forward and pulled Xena into her arms, tucking the dark head against her chest and stroking it gently.

There was no resistance. None. Hands wrapped around her body and held on, as she wound their bodies together, never stopping her gentle stroking, or the soft murmurs of love and encouragement that came from her without asking. That came straight from her soul, talking to it's other half in words, in a bare truth between them that stripped away the fear that had kept them apart.

"I'm so tired of hurting." Came Xena's bare whisper. "Me..other people.. you…I can't stand it."

"I know.. " The bard uttered back. "I feel it too.. it hurts so much." She let her own tears spill into the dark hair beneath her chin. "Sometimes.. I don't think it's possible to keep going."

"I don't think I can." An aching admission. "I just want to lay down and not get up."

Gabrielle stared at the moss covered rock through watery eyes, as she stroked the soft, dark hair, afraid to think about just how much that idea appealed to her. She wouldn't leave without Xena.. the warrior wouldn't go without her.

But together? The thought of sinking down into a formless peace in Xena's arms almost overwhelmed her with a wistful craving. "Where you go, I go." Her voice was cracking, but she knew Xena had heard her.

It was as though saying it brought a kind of peace all it's own, and a rejoining of part of themselves at a level so deep she'd never even sensed it before. She closed her eyes, and let herself drift in silence.

Knowing in her heart that she'd just come home.

A rumbled of thunder rolled over head, and she felt a puff of fitful air trickle into their haven, bringing a hint of rain to her, and a welcome cooling. She saw the sun darken, and the colors change as the light was filtered through lowering clouds, making the greens deeper, and enriching the deep tints of the wildflowers scattered in the underbrush.

It was a curious feeling, this finding again of a core inside herself that she'd thought long gone. It was a grounding, and returning to her of a sense of certainty, in a life that had very little. Only this time she was conscious of having made a choice, to join her life, and her heart, and her soul to the woman she held closely in her arms.

Knowing the risks, no longer blinded to the dangers, or to their own shortcomings.

She felt the stark pain thrumming from her soulmate lessen, and change, as their wills mingled. "It's what they want, you realize that." She heard herself whisper.

Long silence. Then finally Xena took a breath. "Yes."

And then she felt it, a pulse of energy that was her partner's strong will regaining control, and their combined stubbornness rejected the notion of quitting. Xena straightened up, and shifted, moving to put her back against the wall next to the bard, and sliding an arm across her shoulders.

"Thanks." She leaned her dark head against Gabrielle's fair one. "I really needed that."

Gabrielle captured her hand, and lifted it unselfconsciously, pressing her lips against the backs of her fingers. "I think I did too." She closed her hand around the warrior's, and gazed out as the pattering of rain drops invaded their lair.

"He was born here." Xena's voice startled her, and she glanced quickly at the somber profile, then around at the crevice.

The warrior let her head rest against the moss covered stone. "I.. think that was the most alone I've ever felt."

Gabrielle took a quick breath, and let it out. "Xena, I…don't think I belong here." She let her voice drop into a whisper.

A hand gently caressed her cheek. "You're wrong." The warrior's bloodshot blue eyes regarded her. "You're a part of me… this is a part of me.. I don't want you to be afraid of it."

"I'm not…" The bard stopped, then buried her face into Xena's shoulder. "It's so hard to live with this, Xena." She groaned. "You're in here, hurting so.. and it's all my fault."

Xena regarded her quietly. "Gabrielle.." She hesitated, then let her hand stroke the soft red gold hair spilling over her chest. "I know you didn't want this to happen." And she closed her eyes and let that seep into her soul. "You followed your heart… it's not your fault."

"It is." The bard sobbed. "I was so sure I was right…I was so sure you were wrong… damn it, Xena.. how can you even look at me?" She clenched her fists.

Fingers forced her chin up, and she reluctantly opened her eyes, to see the warrior's inches from her. "Because I love you." She answered huskily. "Because you forgave me." She shook her head a little. "Gabrielle.. what happened wasn't your fault, it was mine."

She would do that. The bard foggily realized. She would take the responsibility away from me and put it on herself. "No." She responded softly. "I'm not going to let you do that." She took a breath. "This is what you live with, every day, isn't it? The knowledge that there are things you did that you can never apologize enough for?" She read the truth in Xena's eyes. "If you can.. I can."

Tears filled the blue eyes again. "I don't want that.. I don't want you to have to live with that." Xena told her with quiet grief. "I'd rather take it all."

Gabrielle felt something settle within her. "I know that." She pressed Xena's fingers to her lips again. "I can't let you… I love you too much." She took a deep breath, and glanced around. "Why here?"

The warrior studied her for a long moment, then let her shoulders drop in defeat. "Needed a place that would.. be more or less safe… couldn't do it around my army.. and we were in enemy territory. " A breath. "Came out here.. and I found this spot.. " She looked out. "It was raining..just like now. He… " She stopped. "I didn't have an easy time."

Gabrielle felt cold memory sweep over her. At least she'd had Xena there. "Gods." She breathed, sliding an arm around the taller woman. "I don't know what I would have done without you there for me." And that was true, despite what happened after.

Xena smiled weakly. "It was cold, and I was miserable… it hurt… I was bleeding… " Her face tightened. "I'd been sick most of the time before.. and it took a long time, but I just kept… " She stopped. "Finally it was over." She sighed and looked down at her hands, which held smudges of the rich black earth around them. "And there he was.. this little scrap that was part me, and part Borias." She paused. "I remember thinking Borias would have been so glad to have had a son."

"Oh, Xena." Gabrielle found herself crying again, understanding more about her partner in one afternoon than she had in a long time. "That must have hurt so much."

A slow nod. "It did." The warrior closed her eyes. "Gods, how it did." She tucked Gabrielle's head down under her chin and hugged her close. "But you know what… even with all that pain, and even though that child reminded me of all the things wrong I'd done in my life… I still loved him." She felt the bard take a sudden breath. "I should have remembered that with you and Hope, Gabrielle. She was your child.. and I was too blinded by fear to see that." She rocked her gently as she felt Gabrielle's body heave with sobs. "You loved her.. and I'm so… so.. sorry."

They both felt a last, final barrier dissolve between them, as silence settled a gentle blanket over the grotto, save the gentle rhythmic drumming of the rain, and the soft, unpressing burble of the creek's clean water.

Continued in Part 4