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 everywhere.

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 5

By Melissa Good

Twilight settled its lavender blanket over the forest's richly green shoulders, turning bright colors to pale grays, and silencing the daytime chatter of the birds into the beginnings of the night sounds that crept stealthily up from the shadowed branches.

The small glade was mostly silent as well, save the steady munching of a horse's patient teeth on grass, and the faint snap and hiss of a small, but well made fire that heated a simmering pot which gave off wisps of fragrant steam. That, and the hesitant rasp and crackle of a quill on parchment.

Gabrielle looked up from her diary at the orderly campsite with a contented smile. Even the placement of their bedrolls was familiar, upwind from the fire, nestled against a shielding tree which shed the odd leaf that drifted down onto them. The wind was warm, but not overly damp, and brought the intoxicating smell of lavender to her, and jasmine, and bitter orange blossoms which perfumed the air and drifted against her skin.

Peace. She closed her eyes. No chattering, no Amazons, no observing eyes… just this quiet glade, the small lake it fronted, the fire and her. Somewhere out there, of course, was Xena, who was hunting for something to add to her vegetable stew. The warrior was taking her time about it, though, and Gabrielle briefly regretted just happening to mention that she really had a taste for rabbit. She'll get one, if she has to go to Amphipolis and buy it, I bet. She mused to herself, and the thought caused a fond smile to crease her face. Then she sighed, and went back to her writing, enjoying the task as she hadn't for a long time.

It's a beautiful night, and we found a really nice spot to stop in. Well, Xena found it, but I think she had it in mind from before we left, because it wasn't like it usually is, with her kind of poking around and mumbling until she finds something she likes and there we are. No.. this time she went right here, no stops, no hesitation… and I'm glad, because it's really, really nice here.

Wow.. that's twice in one sentence I said that. I must really like this place, or else I'm just giddy from being so tired. A little of both, I think.

I haven't felt this good in a while. In fact, I feel great, even though we just finished a couple of really nasty, really annoying days. I think we made a lot of progress with the Amazons, and I know I felt a lot better about the whole thing by the time we were leaving. It was a stroke of genius about the Amazon leathers… and I'd love to give her credit for that, but she says no.. that it was my idea, that's what they all think, so leave it.

I feel better about us tonight than I have since we left home.. since before the Furies. It feels so good to think about that I can hardly sit still, and I almost decided to go out hunting with Xena, except that I had stuff to do here.

Maybe.. maybe.. I can talk her into sparring a little. Just a little. We haven't done that in a long time.

It was a great ride from the Amazons.. I really like her wearing those leathers, and halfway after I'd said that about a hundred times she just laughed, and told me that's why she never complained about my outfit.

Duh! I had to laugh too. I feel as though some of the weight has been lifted off my shoulders, and I even joked with her a little bit today, as we were riding. It felt… nice. I'm starting to not be able to keep my hands off her again, and I can't decide if that's embarrassing, or just .. inevitable. I had to keep myself from running my fingers up and down her skin the whole time we were riding.. gods.. even when she sweats, she smells good.

That's starting to become a problem.. well, not a problem, but a concern for me.. my body remembers…her.. and its like it has a mind of it's own when it comes to that. If I'm not thinking about it, I just start..touching her.. I can't help it. It's as though this wave of.. something.. comes over me and I just want to get close to her and never stop. It feels.. so good, its not that I can't stop it, I don't want to.

But I don't think she minds. She came up behind me before she left hunting tonight, and just put her arms around me, as we were watching the sun kind of paint the rocks here this really nice shade of bronze.

I got to say goodbye to Aaileen and her little baby this morning… she's really cute, and I have a feeling she's going to be very bossy.. because she's already waving her fists around. I told Ephiny she was a natural Amazon. I'm not sure how funny she thought that was, but I did, and so did Menelda.

She kind of warmed up to me, I think… she talked to me for a long time after I played with the baby a little bit. She really doesn’t like Xena, but she explained to me that what she's really afraid of is that I'm in trouble, and I just won't admit it. I had to explain to her that yes, I was in trouble, and yes, I do admit it, but that the only answer for my questions lie inside Xena, and inside our relationship.

I don't think she expected that answer. She seemed really concerned about Xena harming me.. and I told her that was always a possibility. She really didn't expect that answer either, I could tell. Then I told her a little bit about how I grew up.. and how Xena rescued me from that, and she just kind of got really thoughtful. I told her the potential for me hurting Xena was just as much as the opposite, and we both realize that, but the rewards are just too great for us to give each other up.

I think that was more grown up than she expected me to be, and more realistic. But she forgets I've had an awful lot of time to think about all this. Then she apologized for being so nasty to Xena yesterday.. and she told me she learned something from the experience. That was really interesting.

So .. here we are, in this really pretty glade, with a nice stew going, and a great view of the stars, and the possibility of rabbit for dinner. What more could I ask for? There is this feeling just under my skin that's bubbling to get out.. I can feel it. It's like it used to be, and that…I can't describe it. It makes me want to jump and run like a kid, and I'm not sure I can control that forever.

I'm just so tired of hurting, and so tired of having this cloud over my head all the time.. I'm starting to see some clear sky, and I think it's causing me to go a little bit goofy.

A gentle rustle of footsteps caught her ear, and she looked up to see Xena's shadow dappled figure enter the camp, carrying her bow, and still dressed in her Amazon leathers. In one hand dangled a furry bundle, and in the other, besides the bow, was a soft fabric pouch that was bulging with something unseen. "Hey." The warrior gave her a grin, as she settled down on one knee beside the pot and unwrapped the parts the skin held, slipping the cut up rabbit into the already bubbling stew. "As requested."

Gabrielle scrambled to her feet, and trotted over, dropping to a crouch next to her. "What's in that?" She pointed to the pouch.

"What?" Xena asked, feigning innocence, a long absent twinkle in her very blue eyes.

"That." She gave the sack a poke, not missing the twinkle, and soaking it in with a smile.

"This?" The warrior asked, raising it. "Oh.. nothing." She stood quickly, and moved out of the bard's clutches. "… well, nothing." She put the bag behind her back and smiled. "Nothing.. really."

Gabrielle just laughed. "Oh.. Xena.. you're so really bad at lying, you know that?" She hopped up and sauntered after her backing partner. "C'mon.. c'mon… "

The warrior raised both brows and snorted a little, then lifted the bag up over her head, and smirked. "Well, you'll just have to wait."

The bard narrowed her eyes, a wild shiver passing through her, and eyed the swaying pouch. "I can get that."

Xena laughed. "You most certainly can't."

A challenge tonight, was a bad idea. Gabrielle realized, as she began to bounce in place a little. "Oh yeah??" She calculated distances, and flexed her hands. "Watch me." Before Xena could protest, she launched off her mark, and headed towards her partner, picking up speed and leaping as she got within reaching distance of the taller woman.

"Whoaa!!!" Xena had to choose between losing her prize and letting the bard crash full into her. She dropped the bag and caught Gabrielle, and they both went tumbling over into the grass, landing with a thump.

Staring into each other's eyes, with surprise and startled delight, at a return to a physicality they’d carefully avoided.

"Guess you win." Xena smiled, and stretched out a long arm, pulling the sack towards them, then opening it and spilling it's contents over her chest, where they bounded and skittered all over like tiny red bunnies.

"Ooooo…" Gabrielle breathed. "Cherries." She was lying on top of Xena, and immediately snapped one up in a flash of white teeth, stopping with a comical expression. "Oh.. gods.. " She eased herself off her partner's chest and rolled onto the ground. "Sorry.. I didn't hurt you, did I?"

Xena stretched lazily, and let her boots thump against the grassy turf. "Nope." She put her hands behind her head and gazed up. "Not at all." Hurt? The warrior laughed gently to herself. When she'd just seen a flash of playfulness from Gabrielle for the first time in… gods it seemed like forever. She felt sudden warmth against her skin, and looked up to find the bard crawling back into her favorite place, nibbling cherries off her with cheerful abandon. Wonder what got into her? "Like em?"

Gabrielle paused to rid herself of a pit, then grinned. "Love them." She plucked one up and offered it to the warrior. "You know I do."

The warrior smiled back. "Yep.. I do." She munched on the tasty fruit, then paused and glanced around. Ah. A quick aim, then a lizard was running for cover, stinging from a direct hit on the head.

"Xena!!" Gabrielle cried, giving her a tiny slap. "That poor little thing!!!" She gathered up the remaining cherries. "No more for you."

Her partner gave her a hurt look. "But I like them too."

Gabrielle studied her, then, slowly, a grin appeared. "All right.. " She offered her one. "But on one condition.. you gotta give me back the pits."

An eyebrow spiked up. "Um… ok."

"Without your hands." The bard added, settling down comfortably with her body tucked alongside the warrior's.

Xena studied her in some surprise. "That… could take a while." She finally commented, rolling the now decherried pit around in her mouth.

Green eyes captured her, absorbed her soul so completely she knew there was no return from this, not anymore. "We've got two lifetimes." Came the answer, as predictable as the summer rain.

"No. " She answered, as she lifted her head up and obeyed the condition. "We've got forever." She watched the bard gently discard the pit, and place another cherry in her mouth, which she bit in half. Xena smiled in wistful memory, and took the other half, chewing it slowly and transferring the pit back to her patiently waiting partner. Their lips lingered around it longer this time, tasting and reacquainting themselves to familiar sensations.

They continued sharing in a slow, sensual rhythm, until the bard had a tiny pile of pits next to her shoulder, and she'd forgotten to pick up a cherry on her last exploration. She was just after her partner's lips this time, and spent a long, unhurried few moments just savoring the taste.

Gabrielle's hands moved in a gentle movement across the bare skin above Xena's skirt, and she felt her breathing start to quicken, as her own fingers found familiar places on the body that was now arching against her own. But she let Gabrielle do all the advances, not pushing the bard, not wanting to scare her in any way. She merely responded, and moved at the bard's pace as her hands wandered freely, outlining contours that were subtly different from those she remembered.

The months had been hard on her, Xena realized, as she let her fingers trace a path up the bard's muscular waist and over ribs far more prominent than they had been. She could feel the faint bump where those ribs had been broken, and she smoothed the skin over it, then lost track of what she was thinking when Gabrielle's touch circled her breasts, and eased under the leather of the snug fitting outfit.

It was hard to keep in mind they were in the middle of the forest. Hard to remember that Gabrielle was unsure, and hurting from a horrible experience, and that she had to be still and not do what her body was demanding, was needing. Hard to just cradle her and concentrate on making her feel safe, and loved, and secure. Hard, but she did it.

Finally, Gabrielle paused, her chin resting against Xena's breastbone, and sighed, idly watching the goosebumps travel up the warrior's skin as her breath hit it. "Maybe we should have stayed overnight."

It was a quiet, sure admission, and Xena felt a happy chill tickle her spine. "We'll be home soon." She murmured, on an irregular breath, then she gazed at the bard's gently flushed face. "You ok with this?"

A smile was her answer. "Yeah, I'm fine." Gabrielle closed her eyes, and nuzzled the soft skin she was lying against. 'There is no memory ever that could stand up against what I feel when I'm with you." She paused, and continued in a soft, positive voice. "You are my life."

She felt the pause in Xena's breathing, and the soft catch, and felt the warmth as the strong arms closed over her in a hug. She let it become her world, and opened herself up fully to it, holding back nothing.

It was so sweet. It felt so good to be right, after so many months of being wrong, and feeling something that was so precious to her slip away through her fingers, feeling helpless to stop it. It had made her understand how fragile happiness was, and how rare, and now that it looked like she'd have a chance at it again, a fierce, powerful determination was growing in her to never let it go.

She was content to lay there for as long as Xena had a mind to, enjoying the cooling night breeze that brought tantalizing hints of their stew along with the sweet scents of the blooming flowers around them. It was now full dark, and she could only see faint, firelit hints of the warrior's profile if she looked up. Her hands were wrapped snugly around Xena's ribcage, and she felt warm, and happy, and at peace for the first time in a very long while.

The soft grass was tickling her back, and she twitched a little, reaching back to grab the offending stalk, but couldn’t find it. She settled again, only to feel the faint tickle and her brows contracted, until she realized it wasn't the grass.

A tiny, pained smile etched her face, and she let her fingertips skitter down the long expanse of exposed skin she was sprawled on. "I can't believe I let you get away with this kind of advantage for soooo long." She growled happily, as she felt the chuckle start under her ear. Then she yelped softly as the return tickle traveled up her side and across her belly. "Oh gods… "

But she had lots of open space this time, and she put it to good advantage, pressing her tactics between bouts of laughter until she felt Xena's body shiver helplessly in response, and the warrior dissolved into chuckles herself.

At last she stopped to catch her breath, and collapsed in utter contentment over her partner's still prone form. "Gods.. that felt good." She sighed. Laughing felt good. The breeze felt good. The air itself seemed full of life. "Hey.. you hungry?" She patted the surface she was lying on, and put an ear down. "Sounds like it." She teased gently. "Pretty hollow in there."

Xena yawned and nodded. "Yeah… I can smell that stew from here.. should be about ready."

It was. They curled up on the bedroll, and enjoyed it, Gabrielle alternating bites with trying out a new section to one of the stories she'd been working on, and Xena listening in idle contentment, not even realizing she'd managed to finish three bowls of the stuff until she found herself licking the spoon on the last drop. Damn. It felt so strange to be full, after so many months of getting used to being hungry all the time.. a hunger that food and water never touched. An empty feeling that had so desperately needed a something that had slipped so far from her she'd lost hope of ever finding it again.

And here it was.

She tucked her bowl away, and Gabrielle's, after a quick wash, and settled back down on the bedroll, watching the bard stow her scrolls. "Hey Ares.. " She called to the wolf, who trotted over and licked her. "Thanks… " She ruffled his fur. "You keep good watch tonight, ok?" Xena felt a wave of exhaustion finally catch up with her. "Been a long few days."

"Roo." The wolf yodeled softly, pricking his ears.

Gabrielle straightened the furs, then propped herself up on one elbow, gently untangling the dark hair that was strewn over her partner's shoulders. "You look like you've about had it."

"Mm." Xena blinked a little. "Yeah.. between all that stew, and not much sleep the past few days.." She rubbed her eyes. "I'm pretty wiped."

The bard pushed her back gently, and settled into her favorite spot, tracing a gentle, familiar pattern across the skin her hand was resting on. She watched the blue eyes flutter closed, and smiled as the body under her started to relax immediately. "Hey, Xena?"

"Mmm?" One eye edged open, and regarded her sleepily.

"How long are we going to stay at home?" The bard asked, in a quiet tone.

A long beat, then Xena drew breath. "Long as we have to." She answered softly. "Why?"

But the bard only nodded, and put her head down, sighing contentedly, and let peaceful sleep gently lift her away.

Xena let the morning birds warbling go on for a long time before she reluctantly edged an eye open, regarding the warm, early sunlight with some surprise. Later than I thought. She mused, a little sheepishly, then decided she didn't care, as she settled her shoulders back into the soft furs and blinked sleepily up at the gently waving leaves.

Ares was curled up against her lower legs, his jaw resting on her shin, but his ears pricked and swiveled as the forest sounds floated over them, and she felt a warm sense of drowsy peace that seemed to be overriding her normally edgy perceptions. It might have been the weather, or the good night's sleep, but she suspected it was more due to her own exhaustion, coupled with a release from the tension of being in the Amazon spotlight.

She let her thoughts drift back pleasantly to the preceding evening, and smiled at the memory of their fun with cherries, and that tickle fight, a first since.. She sighed softly. Since the night before she'd been stricken with the Furies curse. That last, sweet evening, when everything had been going great, and they'd been headed back home, after meeting up with Hercules and finding out they really still didn't know much about the necklaces, and the force that had targeted him, and them.

And then it all had changed. At first she'd put it down to aftereffects from the curse.. she'd felt odd, and very edgy, impatient… had found herself snapping at Gabrielle for no reason, and the bard, who at first was patient, after a while began to withdraw, and keep to herself a lot. Giving Xena pained, bewildered looks as they drifted apart that she could still see now, if she closed her eyes.

She hadn't had any idea what was going on with her.. it was just… she was angry all the time, and it just got to her.. and to the bard, who got angry in return.. and that had led to the silences between them.

Funny how cold a spring's night could be. She remembered one long night of exhausting drills, when she was headed back into the camp, and stopped just short, her hand on the bark of a tree, looking into the firelit circle and seeing Gabrielle just sitting there, her back against a stump, her arms wrapped around her knees, tears running down her cheeks, and an expression of such grief on her face that it almost brought the warrior to her knees.

And all she could do was stand there. The distance had grown so large between them, she no longer felt her comfort would be welcome, much less tolerated. She'd slid down the tree, and sat there in the dirt hating.. everything. Herself, her life, what was happening to them.. the fact that there seemed to be nothing she could do about it.

She'd never known where she found the strength, or the courage to somehow get herself back into that camp, startling Gabrielle, who looked up too late to disguise her tear streaked face.

They'd just stared at each other for what seemed like forever, in terrible pain. And then, because they were in the middle of wild wilderness with no one to turn to but each other, Xena had managed to end up on her knees in front of the bard and not knowing what else to do, reached a hand out, and hesitantly.. gently grasped Gabrielle's shoulder.

Somehow they'd ended up holding onto each other for dear life, unable to speak, unable to fix what was wrong, just both of them desperate for some kind of contact in all that cold.

And now… Xena gazed at the fair head tucked peacefully under her chin, and at the faint, wondering smile that shaped the bard's lips. Now.. her life seemed to be edging back towards a pattern she'd found herself in dire need of, and she pondered quietly ways to make sure it stayed that way.

It all, she realized, centered around her. Dahok had used her to achieve his goals through Gabrielle.. but was he through with them? She doubted it. She made too enticing a target, with a potential for evil that he would, and could use, else why try to separate her from Gabrielle? Only one reason for that.. he'd figured without the bard's influence, she'd be easy to corrupt.

Maybe he was right.

As long as she remained, she was either a prize, or a threat, on one hand, she could wreak havoc in his behalf, on the other, and she was a very dangerous enemy.


Unless she laid down her sword, and stopped being.. what she was. Remove both the threat, and the prize. No point in bothering with a simple innkeeper in Amphipolis, was there? No more fighting, no more bloodletting. No more being a warrior.

Before, the thought had scared her silly. Now.. now… She looked inside her heart and realized a good part of her ached for it. Before, she would have never thought of giving that up. Now… Her eyes fell to the sleeping bard. Now, she could not only imagine it, she found herself seriously considering it as an option.

She didn't want to be a hero anymore. It hurt too much. She'd done what she could, and now… now it looked like the greater good would be served by her retiring from the field, and removing the temptation once and for all.

The more she considered it, the more the idea appealed to her. However, she tucked it back inside her mind, until they got home, and she had a chance to discuss it with Gabrielle. No sense in bringing it up out here.. let them heal a little, then…

She knew she should get up, and get them moving, but it was just so much easier to simply lie here and enjoy the sunny morning, and let Gabrielle remain snuggled up, deeply asleep. The bard's hands were twitching lightly, and her breathing was even, and very steady, and Xena found herself very reluctant to wake her. It felt so good to hold Gabrielle’s body against her own, without guilt, and know that they were becoming more comfortable with each other again. And besides, she quietly admitted to herself, I'm still tired.

So she let her eyes drift closed again. Just for a few minutes. She promised, as her body relaxed contentedly against her soulmate’s. Then we'll get up

Gabrielle took a long breath, savoring the pleasant, green scent on the soft breeze that was gently pushing the hair back off her face. She was aware of the warm sun that was lying over her, and her brows contracted a little as she realized just how late it must be. Her eyes opened in startled confirmation, and she blinked the sleep out of them as she glanced up at her still dozing partner. Wow. She bit back a soft giggle. It's nearly noon.. she's gonna die.

She took the opportunity to study the warrior, wincing a little at the prominent shadows under her eyes, and strain that was etched into the sharp lines of her profile. Even in sleep, there was a small furrow in her brow, and Gabrielle could feel the tension coiled in the body she was sprawled on top of. We need to get home… so I can make sure she takes care of herself for a while. The bard decided. Not that I'm in any better shape…We both need that

Xena shifted slightly, and her arm tightened around the bard's back, unconsciously bringing them closer together. Gabrielle felt the warm pressure as her bare skin slid against her soulmate's and indulged herself in the seductive wash of feeling that caused. Gods… She sighed softly, breathing in the nice mixture of leather and warm skin. I don’t know who I owe for this.. but thank you.

She let the quiet rhythm of the warrior's heartbeat lull her for a moment, then reluctantly ran a light finger up the bare side.

Blue eyes blinked open, then stared up at the sun in some shock. "What the..." Xena sighed, as she looked down at Gabrielle's amused face. "Hmph... musta been more tired than I thought."

The bard smiled. "I think we both were." She admitted. "I just woke up."

"Mm." Xena yawned, and stretched. "Oh well... " She shrugged lightly. "It won't kill us.. I woke up earlier this morning, and... " She paused. "Um... I just..."

"Fell back asleep." Gabrielle finished. "Yeah, I figured." She drew lazy figure eights on Xena's belly, then her brow creased, and she paused, trying to figure out what was wrong.

It took her a long moment before she realized the answer was nothing. That brought a tiny smile to her face, and she gave the warrior a happy look, as she cuddled her head back down onto the taller woman’s shoulder and tightened her grip, squeezing her in an excess of subtle joy.

Xena watched her with a bemused grin, then hugged her back. "What was that for?" She murmured, as the green eyes opened, and peered up at her intently.

"You have to ask?" Gabrielle replied softly.

The warrior’s lips quirked. "No.. I guess not." She admitted sheepishly, then lifted a hand to lace her fingers through the bard’s hair. "I can’t tell you how much I missed this." She added wistfully. "I feel like I'm dreaming."

Gabrielle gently kissed her breastbone. "No dream." She stroked the soft skin and rubbed a fingertip over a faint scar. "I missed it too." She paused, as a guilty thought crossed her mind. "Um..that.. was kind of a crazy thing I did last night.. jumping at you and all.. I'm..…"

A finger touched her lips. "Don’t… apologize. Please." Xena pleaded softly. "I'm.. glad you felt comfortable enough to do that."

The bard chewed over that for a while, looking at it from a new perspective. "Yeah.. I did." She commented, in a faintly surprised tone. "Actually.. I didn’t even think about it." She confessed frankly, as she rolled over, and let Xena sit up, watching the warrior stretch the kinks out of her muscles. "I guess I was in kind of a goofy mood last night." She laughed softly, and stood, arching her back and grimacing as her vertebra popped. "Oof." She'd had a problem with that ever since… Hope. That and strange new aches her body had quietly suffered, protesting the abuse it had taken. It made her look at Xena in a whole new light sometimes, realizing if that was what she was going through after her experiences.. what must her partner be dealing with?

"Hey…" Xena grabbed her shoulders quickly, and eased her back into an upright position. "Take it easy there." She ran a concerned hand down the bard’s spine and found several knots. "Here..put your arms around my neck."

A blond eyebrow jumped. "Sure." Gabrielle laughed, and complied, then grabbed tighter as Xena wrapped her arms around the bard’s back and straightened to her full height, lifting her partner’s feet off the ground and letting her dangle.

"Now.. just relax." The warrior instructed, and felt the bard try to comply. "C’mon.."

Gabrielle sighed. "It’s hard… I can’t..oh.. "

Xena tilted her head and gently found her partner’s lips, kissing her with a quiet, sure intensity. She grinned inwardly as she felt Gabrielle’s body go limp in her arms, and she heard the soft clicks as her spine realigned itself properly. "Better?" She asked, pulling back, and letting the bard down carefully.

"Oh yeah." Gabrielle breathed, not letting her go. "I don’t think I mind backaches anymore.. if that’s how you get rid of them."

They went through their routine of getting the camp packed up, but Gabrielle noticed that neither of them were moving with any kind of speed, which she attributed to the late start and the enticingly warm sun, which made her really want to find a shady spot just like the one right over there near the water, and curl up to watch the day go by.

She mentioned that in passing to Xena, who was tightening up Argo’s girth, and the warrior half turned and gave her a wry look. "You too?" She asked with a hint of chagrin. "Must be something in the air."

"Roo." Ares agreed, from his comfortable spot curled up under a tree.

They both looked at the wolf, then at each other, and sighed. "It’s nice here." Gabrielle grinned weakly. "I… um… I don’t suppose… "

For an answer, Xena’s hands dropped off the mare’s tack, and she unhaltered the horse, then held out a hand in silence to her partner who took it. They walked over to the large tree overlooking the lake and settled down in its shade, watching a pair of ducks swim in lazy circles around each other.

Gabrielle leaned comfortably back against Xena’s warm presence, and felt the warrior’s arms settle around her as they gazed dreamily out at the gently lapping water. "This is awful." She commented, with a contented sigh.

"Yep." Xena agreed. "Terrible." She let the irresistible wave of tiredness that had been nudging at her flow again, and eased her head back against the tree. "Mph.. I think it all just caught up to me." She admitted quietly. "I could use a day off."

The bard turned her head to regard her partner thoughtfully. "Yeah.." She put a gentle hand up and felt Xena’s forehead. "Hey.. you’re a little warm." She turned her partner’s face towards the light a little, and studied her eyes, which had a faint hint of glassiness about them. "I think you spent a bit too much time in the rain." She informed her ruefully.

Xena felt a sinking sensation, as she realized the bard was probably right. "Damn. That explains why I feel so lousy." She let out a disgusted breath. "I should…"

"Ah ah." Gabrielle shook a finger at her, and rose to one knee. "I know what to do… and you’re going to sit right here and let me do it."

The warrior smiled up at her. "Yes, mom." She replied wryly. "It’s probably nothing… I can fight this off." I hope. She inventoried her reserves, and didn’t like what she found. "I think." She looked down as Ares wandered over, snuggling up next to the dark haired woman’s hip, and putting his head down on her thigh.

The bard sighed. "I’ll be right back." She crossed to their gear, still neatly stacked, and pulled out Xena’s healer’s kit, putting the water pot, not yet packed, back on the flames. The herbs tickled her nose as she opened the kit, and found the right ones from long memory, having taken them herself on more than one occasion. She was a little worried, but not much, since Xena had a pretty strong constitution, it probably wasn’t serious, and she actually found herself glad of a chance to coddle her partner.

Glad that Xena was allowing it, as she hadn’t after Chin. She’d picked up a lousy infection in those dungeons, and Gabrielle had watched in sad disappointment as the warrior quietly, but firmly rejected her hesitant offers of help, merely saying it was nothing, and she’d deal with it, keeping the bard at arm’s length.

That had hurt. She’d spent such a long time breaking down that particular wall of Xena’s, to where the warrior would actually tell her when something was bothering her, and here they were, back at square one. She’d felt very small after that, knowing that the forgiveness Xena had shown her in that dank dungeon had only gone so far. Not that she’d blamed her… but it still hurt.

Now she poured the boiling water over the herbs, which she’d carefully measured into one of their wooden cups, and let them steep, as the sharp, familiar scent rose to her on the steam. She stirred it a few times, then bit back a smile as she added honey to it, changing the scent subtly as the sweet drizzle dissolved.

It was the little things, she decided, that really proved they were moving in the right direction. Little things like this, and Xena’s cherries last night, and the unconscious physical contact that had started to grow between them again. They could talk about it all they wanted, but words weren’t important. The little signs between them told the true story, just like they did in the bad times. She decided she liked this story one Hades of a lot better than the other one, as she stood up and swirled the herb tea, then knelt briefly at their packs and picked up a small piece of soft woven cloth and brought it with her back to the tree.

"Here." She dropped down and handed the cup to the warrior, folding her hands around it. She waited for Xena to take a sip, then gently threaded the cloth around her neck, and tucked it in place, smoothing the dark hair back with a sense of wistful pleasure. "Maybe we’d better get moving.. get you home, huh?"

Xena took a deep swallow, and thought about that. "I…um.. I think I'll be ok." She allowed. "Maybe a day of rest’ll help." She let her fingers brush the fabric. "Thanks."

Gabrielle settled down at her side, and rested her head against the warrior’s shoulder, gazing out over the water. "Anytime." And that brought a tiny, relieved smile to her face. Trust wore many masks, she realized, one mask was taken off last night when she’d flung herself with total confidence at the taller woman. Another, more subtle mask had been taken off today, as Xena had once again lowered her defenses and allowed herself to be vulnerable, to accept Gabrielle’s care without reserve.

Xena was, she suddenly realized, taking the bigger risk of the two of them, because physically Gabrielle knew in her heart she really had very little to fear from the far more powerful warrior. On the other hand, she knew that Xena had decided to reopen her heart to their bond, to trust her with her most sensitive weak points, knowing that she had the potential to drive an emotional dagger right into them.

That she had before, and had lied and betrayed that trust for whatever reason when Xena.. though her actions had resulted in pain and anguish, had never knowingly done anything to hurt her. Not even in Britannia, when it had been her choices as much as Xena’s that had lead her to such disaster. Xena had never forced her to stay with Krafstar. Had never forced her to attend the ceremony. Hadn’t forced her to kill Meridian.

All Xena had done was to sense her pain, even through their estrangement and try with everything she had to stop what was happening. And had cradled her for hours and hours afterward, whispering heartbroken apologies.

"Dinar for your thoughts?" The low voice sounded from over her head, and she looked up to see her partner watching her.

"Um… " Honesty, Gabrielle. That’s what got us in trouble with each other, we weren’t honest, remember? "I was just thinking about us." She paused, and tucked her fingers around Xena’s hand, which was resting on her thigh. "About how you’re taking such a big risk."

"Me?" Xena replied quietly "What about you?"

Gabrielle shook her head. "Not the same thing, and you know it." She gazed down at the thick grass. " Don’t put on your warrior princess routine and pretend I didn’t hurt you, Xena. That’s not fair to either of us."

Long silence. "Yes, you did." The warrior finally answered, in a low voice. "More than I ever thought possible.. it was like having my insides cut up with knives." She hesitated. "But we share the blame for that, Gabrielle. There are a lot of things I would have done differently, given a second chance."

The bard swallowed. "Do you worry that it might happen again?"

The wind sighed over them. "Yes." Xena gave a stark answer. "I.. don’t think I’d survive it " She let a moment of dead calm fall. "And I'm not sure you would either." It was quiet, and true, and dangerous. "I.. came very close to the edge this time." The pain, and rage had overwhelmed her, and she'd let it, until she'd come up against the rock wall of knowing she was, in this state, capable of killing Gabrielle. And for a long, nightmare moment, she'd wanted to.

Her soul had shattered with the knowledge.

Now she ducked her head, and made eye contact with her partner. "I think I've put my heart in a pretty safe place."

Gabrielle met her eyes, and was lost in that blue regard. "Someday." She whispered softly. "I might believe I deserve that again." She lifted Xena’s hand up and brushed the back of it with her lips. "Until then, I’m just going to accept it." She hesitated. "And I hope you accept that I feel the same way about my risk."

Xena studied her for a long moment, then let her eyes close in silent acknowledgment. She leaned her head against Gabrielle’s, and felt the bard snuggle closer, tucking a hand around her arm and letting out a soft sigh. The warrior let the warm feeling that started build in her, then took a breath. "I need you." She made the admission quietly, and sensed the stillness next to her as Gabrielle stopped even breathing. "I didn’t realize how much, until you.. were gone." It came out simply, and she wondered just why it had taken this long for her to say it. Maybe it was the fever.. she dropped her eyes to the bard’s bent head, and wondered if she’d gone too far.. put more pressure on her soulmate than she really needed to.

But Gabrielle just curled up into her and held on, stroking her gently. "I need you too.." She finally sighed. "The difference is I’ve always known it." She paused. "From the very beginning, when I looked up across that fire one night and realized I’d let you become my whole world."

Xena accepted that. "I'm sorry I hurt you." Another simple truth. "I'll do my best never to do that again." No promises, no declarations. Just.. that.

Gabrielle smiled into her leathers. "I'm sorry I hurt you, too." Now she finally looked up. "And I'll do my best never to do that again either."

And she felt something ethereal click into place, as their eyes met, and it relaxed a tension she hadn’t even been aware of, somewhere down very deep. She put her head down on Xena’s chest again, listening carefully. "Breathe." She commanded gently, and felt the movement under her, then lifted her head and gave the surface a little pat. "Sounds good."

Xena tangled her fingers in the red gold hair spilling across her chest and let out a little sigh. "Good thing.. I really.."

"Hate being sick. Yes, I know." The bard laughed, then shook her head a little. "I know." She studied the water. "Do you want to try moving on, or stay here? I don’t mind.. it’s pretty… " She reached up and gently felt the warrior’s forehead, not missing the almost involuntary closing of her eyes when she did so. "But I really want to get you home, and in bed."

Xena opened one eye, and curved its attendant eyebrow up suggestively, which caused the bard to blush.

"Gods." Gabrielle chuckled. "You know what I meant."

The warrior took on a hurt expression.

"Oh… well… " Now a real smile. "That too."

Xena relented, and leaned back, considering. Home.. sounded damned good, but she really didn’t have the energy to… " She took a long look at Gabrielle’s face, and read the weary need there without effort. "We’ll go." She decided. "Better now.. then if it gets worse."

A look of relief flickered across Gabrielle’s face, and she nodded. "OK.. I'll make you another cup of this.. then get you up on Argo, and we’ll head out.. how’s that?"

A half grin. "Sounds like a plan."

Gabrielle knelt down and dipped the waterskin under the surface of the cool water, watching the bubbles rise fitfully as it filled. She cast a worried glance back towards the campfire, keeping an eye on the quiet form leaning against Argo’s saddle near it.

They’d gotten further than she’d thought, and were now most of the way down the mountain, but Xena’s fever had risen, and she knew the warrior must be feeling really lousy by her lapse into tense silence, and the increasingly glazed look to her eyes. By nightfall, the bard realized she was staying on Argo’s back by willpower alone, and they’d stumbled on this place mostly by chance, and she’d gotten Xena down off the mare, and onto their bedroll, tucking her cloak around the warrior’s lightly shivering body.

Now she had a small pot of soup going, and she’d left Ares to keep Xena company, while she filled the waterskins, and arranged the camp. She’d made Xena pick out the herbs she’d need for fever earlier, and now she had them tucked in her belt, and intended to get them into a hot tea as soon as she got back.

She slung both waterskins over her shoulder, and made her way through the dense underbrush, stepping out and into the small campsite, watching weary blue eyes track her as she crossed in front of the fire, and stopped to put the waterpot on, then continued forward until she was at her soulmate’s side. "Hey.." She dropped to a knee and felt her head, grimacing. "Wow."

"Hot, huh?" Xena asked in a slightly hoarse voice.

"Very." The bard replied. "How are you feeling?"

Xena briefly contemplated deferring the answer, then decided against it. "Lousy." She blinked. "Every bone in my body aches."

Gabrielle remembered what that felt like, on that long trip back from Britannia, when at first she’d tried to hide it, pretend it wasn’t there, until Xena finally, guiltily, called her on it and she admitted to the pain, sleeping in peace that night for the first time in weeks after drinking down some disgusting potion the warrior had offered her.

And had half woken up, midway through the very dark night in that small, cluttered ship’s hold, finding herself cradled gently in Xena’s arms, and looked up to see the feeble moonlight reflecting off the water sidle in the window, and reveal her soulmate’s exhausted, tear streaked face. She’d thought about getting herself free from the warrior’s grasp, because Hope was still very fresh in her mind, but it had felt so good to just.. she couldn’t do it, that was all. Whatever happened in the morning would happen, but for right then, she was where she needed to be. It had been a moment of much needed peace, for both of them.

"Do you think that stuff you gave me on the ship would help?" She asked, offering Xena some water. "It did.. "

The warrior was shaking her head. "Different problem." She winced. "Same symptoms, but… " She gave Gabrielle a rueful look. "Sorry to be such a nuisance." She popped the cover off the spout of the waterskin, and took a drink, then wiped her mouth and stared pensively at the fire. "Thought I could just shake this off, but…" A tiny shake of her head. "I don’t know." She felt.. damn… drained, was the word she was looking for, and that made her very uneasy.

Gabrielle pushed her back against the saddle, and fluffed up the folded cloak she was using as a pillow. "You’re not a nuisance, and you know it." She scolded gently, as she tucked the soft cloth around Xena’s shoulders. "Stay right here."

Xena nodded docilely, and watched her as she made up a fresh infusion, returning the smile on Gabrielle’s face when she sweetened it, and added some crushed mint leaves. The bard brought it over, and sat down next to her, offering her the cup and letting her hands drop lightly onto the warrior’s body when she took it.

Xena took a sniff of the steam rising from the cup. "Put enough mint and honey into anything, and I’ll drink it, huh?" She remarked teasingly. An old joke between them. "Thanks."

Gabrielle laughed softly. "It works for me." Then she paused a little. "You know.. I think… it wasn’t ever anything you put in there, Xena…I felt better even before I drank it.. just something about having you.."

"Care?" The warrior asked quietly. She gazed into the cup cradled in her hands. "Yeah, it makes a difference."

The bard nodded, and patted her leg gently. "Yeah, it really does." She got up and went to the fire, stirring the pot of soup and adding a few herbs to it, then tasting it gingerly. Hmm… almost.. the steam from the vegetable broth had a faintly spicy, faintly lemony hint to it that was making her mouth water, and she stirred in a touch more basil, swirling the tiny pieces of vegetables around in the process.

She glanced over her shoulder, finding her soulmate’s eyes fastened on her, and smiled, then picked up a deep bowl, and ladled some of the soup into it. Well.. She mused. Here goes nothing… hope I did this right. She walked over and knelt down, handing the bowl over and setting a spoon inside it.

Xena blinked, and her brow furrowed, as she picked up the spoon and hesitantly tasted a mouthful. She paused, then gazed up at her soulmate in surprise. "Where’d you learn to make this?"

Gabrielle felt a warm spot start inside her. "Your mother showed me." She interlaced her fingers, and took a breath. "Did I get it right?"

The warrior took another spoonful, and swallowed slowly. "It’s perfect." She replied, simply. "Thank you… it’s… one of my favorite things."

The bard grinned. "I know." Then she chuckled a little. "Mind if I have some too? The smell is killing me."

That got a soft laugh. "Go ahead… " Xena nudged her towards the pot, and waited for her to return before she continued eating. "Haven’t had this in forever.. mother used to make it when we were little. Lyceus tended to come down with coughs all the time.. " She gave the bard a look. "Like you."

"Mm." Gabrielle was busy chewing. "This is worth being sick for… where’d she come up with it?"

A shrug. "Not.. my area of expertise." The warrior admitted wryly. "You’ll have to ask her." She took another mouthful, and savored the taste, letting the heat and the steam reach up and clear the pounding congestion she could feel settling in her head. She finished the bowl, and looked at the empty bottom. "I feel a lot better now."

The bard chuckled, and poked her. "C’mon, Xena.. it’s just soup."

Blue eyes glanced up suddenly and captured her own. "No." Her soulmate said softly. "It’s more than that." She reached out and touched the bard’s nose with a gentle finger. "You cared."

Gabrielle beamed. It felt really strange, but she did, a big, delighted grin appeared on her face, and she felt a bubble of happiness come out as a relieved laugh. "Of course." She let out a gentle sigh. "Of course." She captured Xena’s hand and pressed it to her face. "I never stopped caring, Xena… never.. please believe that."

The painfully open look surprised her, as she watched her partner slowly put the bowl down, and blink at her. "Me neither." Xena answered, with a wistful smile, as she interlaced her fingers with her soulmate’s. "Thanks… for telling me that."

The bard rubbed her hand gently. "You didn’t know?"

A half hearted shrug. "I.. wouldn’t have blamed you if you’d stopped."

Gabrielle gave her a direct look. "I wouldn’t have blamed you either." She answered bravely, then bit off a grin. "I guess we’re lucky we’re both sentimental mushballs, huh?"

An eyebrow quirked. "Yeah." Xena agreed, glancing down at her bowl, which mysteriously disappeared. She looked up, startled, as Gabrielle crossed back over to the fire, and refilled it, then brought it back and sat herself down, taking her own bowl onto her lap.

She hadn’t thought she was really hungry, but the soup was so good she managed to get down both bowls, then she settled back against the saddle and snugged the cloak around her, idly watching the bard as she pulled out her diary and sharpened a quill. Must be the fever, she mused, as a giddy chill passed over her. Damn.. how can I feel this good and be this sick all at once?

The flames of the fire made interesting shadows on Gabrielle’s face, and she found herself just watching them change, as her partner concentrated on her writing, her eyes moving in gentle glints.

The bard bent her head a little towards the parchment, and bit the tip of her tongue as she pondered over a word, pausing, then nodding a little and writing on. Three years. Xena mused, hardly believing it. She’s changed so much. The warrior sighed, studying her soulmate's profile. Gabrielle's face had lost its babyish softness, and acquired the lean planes of adulthood, with lines of experience that told of the long journey those three years had become.

Her youthful innocence had been tempered, and darkened, but burnished with a courage whose depths Xena was only now coming to understand. She had always loved Gabrielle.. in the best of times, in the worst.. but now she also respected her, in a way that she had so very few people in her life.

Damn if that soup hadn't made her feel better. She felt a light sweat break out on her skin, and her body relaxed as her fever broke at last. She let her head drop against the cloak, and closed her eyes, staying that way until a hand touched her head, and she opened one eye, to see Gabrielle kneeling at her side, a damp cloth in her hands. "Done writing?"

The bard gently ran the cloth over her face, and smiled. "For now." She studied the dazed eyes across from her. "You’ve cooled down a little."

"Told you the soup works." Xena managed to mumble, with a rakish grin. "Took a lot out of me, though.. I feel weak as a kitten." Truth. She could hardly keep her head up now, and she was struggling just to make her eyes focus on the bard's face. 'Need nother dose." She forced out. "Fever'll come back."

"Shh." Gabrielle soothed her, gently pushing the damp hair off her forehead, and laying her palm on it. "I know.. I'll have some ready.. you rest now, OK?" She tucked the warm cloak up around her partner's neck, and watched her eyes flutter closed. "That's it…good girl."

A blue eyeball reappeared, with an almost humorous glint. "Gabrielle?"

"Mm?" The bard leaned close. "What.. I'm here."

"I am many things… but I have never been, and never will be, a good girl." Xena rumbled softly.

Gabrielle smothered a grin, and kissed her lightly on the forehead. "Ok.. you've got a point there." She watched as her partner slipped off into sleep. No.. she mused wryly. She's not a good girl. The bard idly straightened the disheveled, dark hair. But she is my best friend.

She glanced around, and reached behind her, dragging her parchment over so she could remain tucked against Xena's side, leaning against the edge of the saddle and keeping an eye on her sleeping soulmate. The quill suffered more chewing on its bedraggled edge, before she scribed another few words down on the stiff surface.

Life is hard, I find.

Hope dwindles, and leaves us empty,

But full of the hatred that seems

To be the lot of us all.

How often we fail.

We turn to the darkness,

Giving up the light as too hard,

Too impossible to bear.

But sometimes, we are lucky.

Once in a lifetime, once only

And not in all lifetimes, but few,

We find something special.

Light finds a way.

To capture even the darkest heart,

And bind it without question,

To it's other half.

You are part of me.

I no longer fear the darkness,

I embrace it,

As I embrace the joining of our souls.

There is no night too dark,

No evil too thick,

To stand against the truth.

Love conquers all.


Gabrielle studied the words for a moment, then gave a satisfied sigh, and closed the diary, after carefully blowing on the entry to dry it. She stifled a yawn of her own, and blinked a little, rubbing her eyes. "Ares.. you keeping guard?"

The wolf looked up from his protective position curled up against Xena's lower legs, and sniffed at her, then cocked his head, and sneezed. "Good boy." The bard informed him, then grinned. "And you can't mutter at me about that, either."

"Roo." The wolf sighed, as he settled his dark head back down onto the warrior's shin. Then his head came back up, and his ears twitched. "Grrrrrr." A low, warning growl issued from his throat.

"What?" Gabrielle felt her skin prickle, and she reached out unconsciously for her staff. The smooth wood had just touched her fingers when she saw motion at the edge of the camp, and bolted to her feet, with Ares abruptly pressing against her legs. "Who's there?" She called, trying to project the kind of ringing authority she always heard in Xena's.

A crackle of footsteps, then four shadowy forms melted into view. "Oh boy." She breathed. "What do you want?"

The nearest laughed. "Our bounty."

Gabrielle shifted her weight forward, and felt her grip tighten on her staff. "Bounty for what?" She asked, more to keep them talking than anything else. She had a good idea for what already.

"Her." The leader jerked his chin in Xena's direction. "Enough money to keep us a good season… and it doesn't look like she's gonna put up much of a fight." He grinned, and unsheathed an axe.

"No." Gabrielle stepped forward, and brought the staff up into a defensive posture. "But I will. " She braced her legs, letting her knees bend slightly as Xena had taught her.

"Grrrrr.." Ares added, his ruff lifting. He stalked a few steps forward, stiff legged, and showed his teeth.

"Aww.." The man laughed, moving straight for her, followed by his men. "A girl and her dog.. how cute." He stepped around the fire, and raised his axe, bringing it towards her.

She caught the hilt against her staff and twisted to one side, deflecting the blow, then swiveled in place, bringing the other end of the staff around and slamming him in the shoulder with it. "Still think it's cute?" She breathed, backing a little, and trying to keep them all in her line of sight. Two were edging around to her left hand side, but were keeping a wary eye on the bristling Ares, who growled.

"Bitch." He lunged at her, and got past her guard, but his hand slipped on the axe handle and she just caught the flat against her ribs. She ignored the jolt of pain, and swung back, knocking him off balance, then dropping to a knee and sweeping her staff in reverse, taking his legs out from under him.

He dropped with an oath, but then two more were charging, and Ares was leaping at one, teeth bared as he grabbed the first one's sword arm in his teeth, and shook his heavy head vigorously. The man screamed, and stumbled back, with the wolf on top of him. Ares shifted his grip to his neck and bit down, cutting off the man' s scream in mid sound.

Gabrielle didn't spare him a glance, as the third man rushed her, and she caught his chest on her staff and shoved back, glad for all the hours of drilling that built strength in her legs. He recovered his balance, and came forward again, swinging a thick club at her, which she ducked, and jabbed him in the midsection with the end of her staff. He groaned, and dropped the club, and she took the opportunity to swing around almost fully, and catch him in the head, which dropped him like a rock. Breathing hard, she glanced around, then froze, as she spotted the fourth man standing across from her, with a crossbow pointed at her gut.

She felt a wash of nervous heat tremble down her body, as she lifted her staff slightly, and focused on the bolt. A low growl caught her attention, and his, and she risked a glance towards Ares, who had finished with his first opponent, and was stalking towards her current antagonist, blood dripping from his dark jaws in a hot, red trail.

The crossbow shifted, and she realized the man's intention, her eyes widening. "Hey!" She yelled, and jogged his aim, and the bolt flitted through the wolf's thick coat, causing him to jump. The second bolt came her way, and somehow she avoided it by lunging to one side, swinging her staff clenched in both hands and sending him staggering.

But she lost her own balance, and stumbled to her knees, and saw out of the corner of her eye the flickering motion as he drew his sword and leaped towards her, slicing down hard.

By instinct alone, she dropped onto her back, and caught him in the chest, as his sword plummeted past her and dug it's way into the dirt. She pushed off, and sent him flying right into the fire.

His dirty leathers burst into flames, and he rolled off, screaming in agony, as she scrambled to her feet in shock. She ran towards him, but he managed to flop over onto his back and put the fire out, then hauled himself to his feet and took off running, followed by two others, dragging the third, Ares' victim, between them.

Silence descended, except for a healthy sneeze from Ares, who shook himself, and wandered over to her, sniffing her knee and giving it a little lick. Gabrielle leaned on her staff, then slowly pivoted and stumbled over to where her partner lay helpless, and dropped down next to her, letting the staff fall, and hugging her knees to her body.

"We did it, Ares." She whispered faintly, as the wolf snuggled up to her, and she tried not to notice the dried blood around his muzzle. "We protected her."

"Arrrgrrrooo." Ares sighed, and settled down to lick his paws.

Gabrielle stared unseeing at the fire, thinking about the man she'd kicked into it. A little slower.. a little less agile.. and he could have died. The man I hit in the head could have. She felt a sweeping wave of horror, and leaned against the saddle, crying softly, knowing she felt a difference in herself now, in the knowledge that she was capable of taking a life.

It was a dirty feeling. She knew if she opened her eyes, she'd see the blood on her hands again, even though she'd scrubbed, and scrubbed after killing Meridian. It never went away.. and she'd understood, painfully, what Xena had meant when she'd spoken about the blood staining her own hands.

She never wanted me to feel this. The thought brought fresh tears, and she slid lower against the leather of the saddle, and pressed her cheek against Xena's warm arm, wrapping tentative fingers around her biceps. She never did… I never understood why it was such a big deal for her. Now I do.

A hand touched her cheek, and she blinked her eyes open, scattering a thin sprinkle of tears as she looked up at her soulmate's dazedly confused face. "Wh.. what's wrong…what.. " Xena struggled to sit up, her brow tensing as she fought to focus her vision.

"Shhh… " Gabrielle rubbed her eyes, and put hand against her partner's shoulder, pushing her gently down. "It's all right.. it's over.. just some guys, that's all."

"Just….. " Xena fell back against the saddle, gazing at her in shock and horror. "Are you all right?"

The bard took a very deep breath, and let it out. "Yes." She swallowed. "They.. um… Ares and I..we…everything is ok." She paused, and felt warm fingers curl around hers. "They were.. out to collect a bounty on you.. I um… took exception to that." She sniffled softly, and pushed her hair back. "I didn't mean to get all… but I kicked the last one, and he caught on fire and…."

Somehow, Xena managed to push aside the unnerving weakness and get her arms around her soulmate, and pull her into a comforting hug. She felt the bard's soft sobs, and gently stroked her hair. "Thanks for protecting me…." She whispered softly. "Are you all right? Did you get hurt?"

"N…no." Gabrielle answered shakily. "I just… it's just different." She paused, and let out a breath. "Just like you said it would be, Xena…. it changes everything once you cross that line.. I wish I'd understood what you meant."

"Oh." The warrior closed her eyes in comprehension. "I never wanted you to understand that."

The bard sighed, a warm tickle against Xena's skin. "I know you didn't." She cuddled closer. "Now I know why." She stayed silent a long moment. "So much happened after that, I didn't think about it for a long time." She looked up, to see her soulmate making a very determined effort to stay alert, and listen to her, and that… meant something. "Look at me here… " She reached up and gently caressed the warrior's cheek. "You're so sick, and I'm babbling."

Xena bit her lip. "I missed your babbling." She answered. "You got so quiet.. and I.. didn't know what to say to you."

Gabrielle nodded wearily. "I was so angry with you… because you acted like it was nothing."

Xena closed her eyes and drew back, stung, not expecting the words. Had she? Memories of a shadow haunted forest in Britannia cycled through her mind. She hadn't meant to.. she had just been trying… damn. A sick wave rolled over her. She had. Damned insensitive, clueless, useless…

"No.." The bard realized her error, and curled a hand around her partner's shoulder. "No… you were right, Xena…you were trying to get me past that.. so I could look at it objectively, because it happened.. it was over.. and we were in a dangerous place." She took a breath.

"I wasn't right." The warrior answered in a soft, bitter voice. "I was…I hated myself so much for letting that happen to you I couldn't even think straight."

"Shh… we don't need to talk about this now." Gabrielle could have slapped herself, seeing the glassy look returning to Xena's eyes. "Let me get you more of that stuff… " She started to get up, and stopped, sucking in a breath at her stiffened side. "Ow."

Xena's eyes suddenly cleared, and she gathered herself up, as she grabbed Gabrielle and eased her back down onto the sleeping furs. "To Hades with me.. what happened to you?" She savagely pushed the waves of dizziness down, and forced her body to respond, running careful fingers over the bard's side and stopping as she felt the lump. "Gabrielle…"

"It's nothing." Gabrielle told her quietly. "I just didn't duck fast enough." She winced as Xena's touch hit a particularly sore spot. "Story of my life, lately." She took a deeper breath. "It's not broken..I know what that feels like."

"No." Xena responded with a sigh. "Just bruised." She relaxed a little, and gazed at her soulmate. "Kinda like us."

That got a wry smile from the bard. "Yeah.. come to think of it." She felt the ugly feeling ease. "Xena… does it ever get so that you don't think about it?" She watched the warrior slowly lay her head back down. "Or you stop caring?"

The blue eyes turned inward for a long moment. "I did." The admission seemed to be wrung from her. "For a long time."

Gabrielle let out a slow breath. "But you do now, right?"

A long silence, then Xena swallowed. "Most of the time." She stopped, and blinked. "But sometimes, when I'm out there, against a whole lot of them… no." Her shoulders slumped. "Then I don't care… I just get caught up in it, and.. and I…" A light seemed to die in her eyes. "I guess I just… it's…" She stopped and shook her head. "I’m a killer. I can't change that." Then she looked up. "But you're not… and you won't ever be, Gabrielle."

'How do you know that?" The bard asked softly, moving closer, and putting an arm around her partner's shoulders.

"You feel too much." The warrior whispered. "You hurt for everyone."

That, Gabrielle realized, was the truth. "Especially for you." She let her head rest against Xena's. Damn. She mulled it all over. I even felt bad for that guy I kicked into the fire. He was trying to kill me, and I felt bad about him getting burned. That's so strange. "I feel so disappointed in myself." She gazed up at the warrior. "I feel like I disappointed you too."

Xena laid her head gently against the bard's. "Don't." She whispered softly. "You're my guiding light, and you always will be, Gabrielle." The words came tumbling out haphazardly. "I could never be disappointed in you."

Gabrielle's face buried itself in her shoulder for a long time, and she felt the sensation of warm tears against her skin.

Finally, the bard took a long breath and straightened, rubbing her eyes and sniffling. "Sorry." She looked up as Xena took a corner of the cloak and gently wiped the tears from her face. "All I've been doing lately, seems like."

"Does it make you feel better?" The warrior inquired.

Gabrielle thought about that in silence, her face pensive. "Now it does, yeah." She rubbed her cheek against Xena's arm. "For a long time it just hurt." She felt a faint, tired smile appear. "It's… kind of healing things now." She blew out a breath, and eyed her partner with a raised eyebrow. "So.. how many bounties do you have out on you, anyway?"

Xena came back from whatever far off place her thoughts had taken her, and let out a disgusted sigh. "I dunno., I never kept track." Her brow creased. "Most of them are pretty old though…"

"Three years at least." Gabrielle agreed, studying her partner's still downcast look. "Hey.. Amphipolis fund raiser.. we go around and pretend to turn you in for the bounties, then escape with the loot." She paused. "How about it?"

Xena chuckled against her will. "Oh..yeah.. I can just see that." She gave the bard a sideways look. "Gabrielle.. listen… I.. maybe I was just fooling myself.. but I never wanted you to have to know what it felt like to take a life." She sighed. "Even though I knew.. given the life we lead, that wasn't a realistic expectation."

The bard thought about that. "So.. you knew.. it would happen someday."

A nod. "I… was always hoping… I mean I knew I could prevent it." Long pause. "I could have left you home, or taken you back there, or left you in any of a dozen places." A pained smile etched her lips. "Or I like to think I could have." She pulled the cloak a little closer, and considered. "Probably not though, huh?"

Gabrielle had been giving her a look. "No." She stated flatly. "You know me better than that." She fussed with the cloak, tucking it neatly around the warrior's shoulders, and felt Xena's head. "You're warm again." She got up and poked the fire back into some reasonable kind of shape, packing tinder around it, and blowing it back into life.

She'd always felt.. kind of special, she realized. Kind of… superior, she admitted to herself. Because she'd never killed anyone.. yet traveled in the company of someone who did little else but. Even with the Amazons, she'd always… it was like being anointed with something sacred, this blood innocence.

Now it was gone.

She was just like everyone else she chose to make a life with.. and that , in her own eyes, diminished her. It had been important… even Xena had thought so.. Hades, she'd risked her life in the Dreamworld just to tell Gabrielle it was. She'd watched her brother die again, to preserve it. She'd prayed to the gods to prevent her from killing Callisto.

Everything was different, now. She wondered how it made her look in Xena's eyes, now that she was no longer an innocent, in any sense of the word. She looked back over her shoulder, and found those eyes fastened on her.

With a look of absolute love in them.

It was different. Something very basic had changed between them.

They had become equals. Gabrielle realized, and it felt very strange. She stirred the cup she was holding, then stood and went back to the bedroll, and sat down. She looked at the cup, then at her partner, who cocked her head a little. "It really bites being a grown up, Xena." She handed her the cup. "I used to pray for the day you'd stop treating me like a kid." She let out a soft, dry laugh, and rested her elbows on her knees. "I wish… " She stopped, and let the thought trail off. I wish I could be that kid from Potadeia again, and see the world all in bright colors like I used to.

Xena swallowed down the infusion, and set the cup aside. "C'mere."

Gabrielle looked up at her in question. "What?"

The warrior moved the cloak aside, and opened her arms. "C'mere."

"But… you… " The bard found herself complying anyway, as she crawled across the furs, and settled herself into her soulmate's embrace. Even with the fever, she could still feel the strength in those arms, which closed around her as solidly, and securely as ever. "Mm." The comfort felt so wonderful, she let herself get lost in it, until she felt Xena take a breath, sucking air down deep, and heard her low, clear voice singing.

It was an old, old lullaby, one as familiar to her as her own name. She listened to it, and let it sink into her, the warrior's beautiful voice lending a depth to it that her mother's never had. She felt her soul reaching out to Xena's, and knew she was no longer lost, no longer on the outside.. this was real, and it was love, and it was hers.

"That was wonderful." She murmured, when silence at last fell over them. "My mother used to sing that all the time when we were little."

"I know." Came the soft response. "I heard her humming it when we visited. I asked her to give me the whole thing."

"For me?" Gabrielle asked, in a small voice.

"Of course." The warrior gave a tiny laugh. "Who else?"

The bard smiled, into the soft linen of the clean sleep shirt she'd made Xena put on, and hugged the warrior, feeling faint shivers pass through her body. "You doing ok?" She gave the surface she was snuggled against a pat. "Am I bothering you being here?"

"Nuh huh." Xena objected, in a drowsy mumble. "Warm."

That was all right by her, Gabrielle decided. She pulled the cloak over both of them, and closed her eyes. Another day and a half and they'd be home.. where they'd have the time to work more things out, and rebuild their lives on what was turning out to be not so bad a foundation. As long as it takes, did Xena say? Gabrielle thought about that, as the snap of the fire, and the heartbeat under her ear began to lull her to sleep. Maybe that would turn out to be longer than either of them imagined.

The sunset lit the summer fields in deep gold, as Gabrielle leaned against Argo's shoulder and put a hand on her partner's thigh. "You doing ok?" She gazed up at the shadowed blue eyes speculatively. It had been a long day, but they'd kept on going, and now were coming down into the flatlands nearing the river valley that held Amphipolis. She'd been riding behind Xena most of the time, more to keep a good hold on her sick soulmate than anything else, and she'd wrapped her arms around Xena's overly warm body and gripped the saddlehorn, as the warrior alternately shivered and sweated.

Now, she'd gotten down off the mare to stretch her legs, and looked around. "Not much cover here."

Xena leaned against the saddlebow, and ran fingers through her dark hair, pushing the sweat dampened locks back. "No.. not much." She agreed. "Listen.. fever's broke again.. I feel a little better. You want to keep going? We can be home by midnight." Better.. that was relative. Her mind mused. But.. at least she was conscious, and in her right mind, and the vague fuzziness that had characterized her thoughts all day seemed to have faded, leaving her tired, but no longer locked in a shivering misery.

Gabrielle.. had been fantastic, she admitted. The bard had gently encouraged her, and put up with her fevered protests all day, forcing her to stop and rest periodically, and making sure she had plenty of water, mixed with the fever reducing herbs she'd secured from the warrior's healing kit. Never complaining, even though she'd spent the entire day on horseback. Now she let her thumb rest against the soft, golden tinged cheek. "How about it?"

"Home." Gabrielle agreed with one word, as she stroked the warm skin under her hand. She tapped Xena's armored calf. "Out." Meaning her to free up the stirrup so the bard could remount the mare.

Xena shifted in the saddle, and held an arm down to her. "I think I've got enough left to haul you up here."

Muscular shoulders shifted, as the bard put her hands on her hips. "You'd try it even if you didn't." She accused gently. "I am perfectly capable of getting myself up on a horse, Xena."

The blue eyes dropped, and Xena quietly removed her boot from the stirrup, leaning forward and to one side so Gabrielle could get a grip on the saddle to pull herself up.

Gabrielle studied her silently, then put a hand on her knee. "On second thought.. " She said softly. "It is kinda high." Her fingers stroked the soft skin above the armor, and felt the muscles tense under it. A hand curled under her elbow, and she grabbed a solid hold on the back of the saddle as she was lifted up, and swung a leg over Argo's back, settling into place against Xena. "Thanks."

"No problem." Her partner replied quietly, as she gathered up the mare's reins and tensed her calves, starting Argo forward. She kept her eyes on the pricked ears that flicked back and front, and tried to ignore the steady upset in her guts that even the slightest hint of conflict with her partner stirred up. Maybe it was the fever. She tentatively considered that, and discarded it. No.. She took in a breath and let it out. Still some deep holes left in here I guess.

Her eyes closed when she felt the gentle fingers touch her shoulders, and start a slow probing of muscles so tight they ached. The tension gradually dissolved, as they rode down into the waving fields of summer browned grasses, watching the dying light shift the colors from burnished gold to twilight blue, and the evening breeze picked up, brining the scent of summer to her senses. Gabrielle's arms slipped around her, and tightened securely, and she lifted her free hand, and covered the bard's. "Thanks." She glanced back over her shoulder and spotted a flash of green eyes. "Um… there's some dried meat.. and a few apples in the bag there by your knee."

The bard obligingly dug them out, and tucked a piece of meat between her teeth, then handed one up to her partner. "Here." She watched as Xena took it, then gave her a look until the warrior started chewing halfheartedly. "Come on.. " She gave her an encouraging pat. "I know you probably don't feel like munching on that dry stuff, but I think you need it.. you look kinda pale."

A nod of the dark head. "Yeah… I know… " She put a little more enthusiasm into her swallowing, and took a long sip of water. "I'm trying."

Gabrielle smiled, and rubbed her belly, then continued on, giving her partner a light massage everywhere she could reach around her armor. "Be nice to sleep in a real bed tonight, huh?" she reminded herself. Our bed, It felt so strange to think about that again. In our own cabin… and she had to admit to herself that she was finding a core of fear twisting her own guts, when she thought about facing Xena's family.

"Oh yeah." Xena mumbled, around a mouthful of meat. "At least it'll be quiet when we get there tonight… give us time to settle in." She cast a glance at her soulmate. "You still nervous?"

The bard rested her cheek against the leather covered back. "A little." She admitted with a sigh. "I..I know you said…I don't know, Xena.. it's just weird." She watched a passing tree, shedding its tiny red flowers, several of which lodged themselves in her partner's dark hair. "Kind of like how it was for you with the Amazons, I guess."

The warrior patted her hand. "It's going to be fine, Gabrielle.. you know how my mother feels about you." She paused. "You are… really.. a second daughter to her."

"Yeah.. well.. " Gabrielle studied her partner's back grimly. "She went off all over Ephiny… and all she did was say she was mad at you."

Xena tucked her discomfort away in the place she usually kept that sort of thing, and turned her attention fully to her partner. "Gabrielle, you are not Ephiny." She paused. "Good thing, too." A hesitant attempt at humor. "It's gonna be ok."

"What's wrong with Ephiny?" Gabrielle asked perversely, knowing it was her nervousness talking.

"Nothing." Xena replied, nudging Argo into a canter. "Except that she isn't you."

OK.. well, that's clear enough. Gabrielle acknowledged, then, unable to help herself. "Do you think she's pretty?"

The warrior's brows knitted. "Who.. Ephiny?"

The bard scowled. "Yeah, Ephiny.. who else were we talking about?" She gently combed her fingers through Xena's hair, plucking the few, russet blossoms from it and holding them to her nose. They smelled like cinnamon, she decided, a rich tickly scent that blended pleasantly with the warm smell of the well conditioned leather Xena as wearing.

Silence, as Xena considered the question. Finally she shrugged. "She's all right."

"All right? What does that mean?" Gabrielle pursued. "Do you like her? What about Solari?"

Ten years of being a warlord, leading armies, defeating damn near every single significant general of my time, and I almost fall into this… damn… I must be either slipping, or this fever is getting to me. "Gabrielle… they're all nice people, and very ok looking."

"That's pretty noncommittal." The bard grumbled, aware that she was probably overtired, and therefore a little cranky.

A faint smile crossed the warrior's tired face. "Well..ok.. " She sighed. "See… I'm… really kinda particular." She guided Argo's steps down a narrow path through the grasses, feeling the light sting as they hit her legs. "She's.. a little too tall.. and her hair's a little too curly, and her eyes are too.. um.. gray."

"Really?" Gabrielle felt a grudging smile tugging at her lips, aware that she was being gently teased. She heard the faint sounds of crickets starting, and a solemn hoot from a nearby owl. "They all seem too short to me." She felt the faint chuckle under her hands.

"I.. don't see them most of the time.. " Xena drawled. "My attention is elsewhere."

"Oh really." Came the soft answer, and Gabrielle found her hands drifting without permission, feeling the soft, warm leather under her fingertips, that shifted over the muscular body under it as Xena moved. She'd seen that, actually.. she mused, remembering watching Xena cross the center of the Amazon village, as all eyes turned towards her, and fastened on her lithe, powerfully moving body. The warrior had seemed oblivious, merely letting her dour gaze scan the village, flicking over and dismissing the Amazons until it turned her way, and that quirky half smile lit her face and her eyes warmed. For Gabrielle alone. She wondered why sometimes.. since she considered several of the Amazons, at the very least, prettier than she was.

"Sure… " Xena confirmed quietly. "No contest."

Gabrielle nuzzled her back, breathing in the scent of sun warmed leather, and heated brass. "I love you." It came out as naturally as taking a breath.

Xena's hand closed over hers. "I love you too."

An owl hooted, at the mare's rustling footfalls, passing two travelers onto the faint, barely seen beginnings of the road leading to Amphipolis.

Xena glanced up, then shook her head a little to clear it, realizing she'd nodded off, lulled by the mare's rhythmic stride. She peered into the darkness surrounding them, and let out a soft sigh. Almost home. Another few minutes and.. A soft trill sounded, breaking the almost breathless silence. The clouds had built in overhead, obscuring the moon and the wind had died, leaving the only cooling breeze that made by Argo's movement.

She hooted gently back, and received a second trill. "Hey.." She called softly, feeling Gabrielle stir against her back.

"Hmm..?" Came the sleepy response. "Oh.." The bard lifted her head, and recognized their surroundings. Too late to be worrying about her reception now.

The long grasses rustled on the side of the road, and dark figure trotted towards them. "Xena?" A man's low, excited voice. "Thank the gods… " He came closer, squinting.

Gabrielle held her breath.

"Ah… " A smile creased his face. "My luck to be passing this news on to Cyrene.. both her girls are home." There was no mistaking the tone of pleased relief in his voice. "Hello, lass."

Xena felt the soft sobs against her back, and she released the mare's reins, grabbing Gabrielle's hands in her own. "Easy…" She whispered over her shoulder, chafing the suddenly cold hands in her own. She gave the man a tired grin. "Hello, Entis."

The man took a step back, and sent a call off towards the town, waiting for a response, then sent another, this time tagging on the hawk's cry that identified the tall warrior. "Mostly sleeping there, cepting us few watchers."

"Yeah… leave it that way.. time enough to stir things up in the morning." The warrior acknowledged quietly, as she nudged Argo forward. "C'mon, Ares.."

They continued down the road, passing now between familiar fields. "You ok?" Xena half turned.

"Yeah." The bard's voice was muffled against her back. "Sorry." She straightened up and wiped her eyes, watching over Xena's shoulder as the village grew larger in front of them.

Argo's hooves sounded unnaturally loud as they moved quietly through the moonlight, through the wooden gateway that lead into the village, and then into the central area that held the inn, and the stables, and, off to one side, barely seen in the dim light, their home.

The mare slowed to a halt before the inn, and Xena hesitated, gathering her strength to dismount. She glanced up as the door opened, letting out a gentle stream of candlelight that outlined the unmistakable shape of her mother's form, and heard the soft gasp as Cyrene headed down the stairs.

She freed her boots from Argo's stirrups, and slid off the mare's back, feeling the painful shock as her legs hit the ground and she absorbed the drop on aching joints. "Hello, mother." She said softly, turning and catching Gabrielle, who was following her after a moment's hesitation. The bard's body was shaking, and she gave her a brief hug before she turned to meet the oncoming woman.

Cyrene paused and studied her for a long moment, then pulled her into a gentle hug. "Oh honey…you made it." She whispered softly. "I'm so glad to see you.. to see both of you." She patted her back, then released her, and turned to the smaller woman whose eyes refused to meet her own. She put her hands on the bard's shoulders, and waited a beat, until Gabrielle's head lifted, and she could look into her face. "Daughter.. thank the gods you're safe."

She saw the tears start, and she gathered the bard to her, feeling the almost soundless sobs that shook her body "Shhh…" Her eyes lifted over the bard's head, and found a pair of aching blue ones fastened on her. She slowly shook her head, and patted Gabrielle's fair hair. "It's all right, honey.. you're going to be fine."

The moonlight shifted out from behind the clouds, and outlined Xena's tall form, and she noticed the pallor in her daughter's face. Her gaze sharpened. "Are you all right?"

Gabrielle took a deep breath, and straightened, backing out of her grasp and half turning towards her partner. "No." She said softly, hoarsely. "She's sick." She sniffled a little, and rubbed her temples. "We got caught in the rain.. the Amazon village flooded… "

Cyrene wrapped an arm around her shoulders. "You're not much better." She gave Xena a stern look. "You both take yourselves off to bed, right now. I'll take care of this lady, here." She poked Argo, who snorted. "We'll talk in the morning."

Xena felt her shoulders slump in relief, and she unstrapped two saddlebags from the mare's tack, before putting a hand on Gabrielle's wrist. "Sounds like a great idea." She gave her mother a desperately grateful look. "C'mon."

They walked slowly across the earthen courtyard in silence, with Ares frisking at their heels, and mounted the steps to the cabin, hearing the familiar hollow echo and creak as their weight hit the boards. Xena put her hand on the latch, and pulled the door open, blinking into the friendly candlelight that streamed out.

They were home.

They stepped over the threshold, and moved into the familiar confines of the cabin, as Xena slowly pushed the door closed behind her. She scanned the interior, letting the sights sink into her mind. I never thought I'd see this place again. She admitted to herself, as the warm, known colors and scents gently overwhelmed her. She leaned tiredly against the wall, and closed her eyes. A hand on her cheek made her lift her lids, to see Gabrielle's tear streaked face facing her.

"Come on." The bard urged quietly. "We're both exhausted… it's just too much right now. Let's get some rest."

The warrior took a deep breath and nodded, then pushed off from the wall, and walked over to the small table, dropping their saddlebags onto the chair. She heard Gabrielle moved across the cabin behind her, and the sound of the linen press opening reached her ears. "Mom's dusted in here." She mumbled idly.

A stillness as the bard paused. "Didn't you come in here…" When she picked up Argo.. I thought

"No." Came the stark answer. And more quietly. "I couldn’t." Couldn’t come in this room, and see so many memories Not and see the things they'd both picked out for the place, and the trinkets that were Gabrielle's scattered about… the fireplace they'd spent so many contented evenings in front of….


Gabrielle pulled out two clean sleep shirts from the press, sucking a lungful of the herb scented air that wafted up with them, then crossed over and gave her partner a little rub on the arm, before she started unbuckling the straps that held the heavy armor to her. "Yeah.. I would have.. felt that way too." She admitted, looking around as her fingers worked unsupervised. "Lot of memories here."

Xena lifted her armor off, and dropped it to the wooden floor in a muted clash, then knelt to unbuckle the leg straps. "Yeah." She acknowledged briefly. "And.. at that point.. I didn't think there were going to be any more."

The bard's face tightened in pain, but she remained silent, as she worked Xena's bracer off. Finally, they both stood, and changed, then faced each other.

No one said this was going to be easy. Gabrielle sighed inwardly. In fact, she supposed, if you went out and asked anyone, they'd probably say it wasn't possible at all. She stepped closer, and held her hands out, encouraged when the warrior took them. She felt Xena's thumbs gently brush against her knuckles, and smiled a tiny, wistful smile. "C'mon.. I could really use a soft bed for a change." She tugged gently, and Xena followed her to the large bed, and watched as she pulled the colorful cover down.

It was a dream, the warrior's tired mind kept insisting. They weren't here, Gabrielle wasn't snuggling down into bed, and tugging her shirt. She wasn't sitting down on the edge of all that softness and letting the scent of linen washed with her mother's herb soap rise around her. But somehow it kept going, and she felt her body relax against the coolness of the sheets. She kept her eyes closed, afraid if she opened them, it would all just.. disappear.

The fabric warmed to her body, and she felt Gabrielle's hesitant motion at her side. She let one eye slide open, and saw the tense, almost fearful look on her partner's face. "Hey.." C'mon, you're scaring her to death. Snap out of it. "C'mere."

Gabrielle let out a long, slow breath as she found her familiar spot, and felt Xena's arm curl protectively around her back. She was here, in a place she'd never thought to see again, and as she let her exhaustion take over, the only thought she had left was that she wasn't going to ever leave.

Cyrene leaned against the windowsill, watching the sun come up and send shafts of warm light into the back herb garden, where her comfortable room faced. She always did this, in good times and bad, and reflected that by and large, the world kept turning in it's predictable way regardless of how her life was being impacted at the moment.

This, however, was a good morning. The crops had been very productive this summer, despite the heavy rains, and the inn was doing well. She was.. Her eyes drifted to the bed, where Johan was sprawled asleep, and she shook her head in bemusement. She was very satisfied as to how that all turned out, though getting involved again after all this time had surprised her, to say the least.

And now, against the odds, against her expectations, her daughters had made it home.

Both of them. Battered, torn.. bruised.. one look at Xena's eyes had told her volumes, but they'd made it, and most importantly, they'd made it together. Despite everything.

She'd grieved to hear of her grandson's death. But she'd grieved more to hear how, and realize what that must have done to the two people who both loved him. At what that must have done to the gentle bard, faced with a situation so horrible Cyrene could scarcely believe it had happened at all.

That she had lived through it was amazing enough. That Xena had, and not lost her mind entirely, was another thing. That they had somehow been bound by a love so strong that it allowed them to overcome the overwhelming loss, and the anger, and the guilt.. that, to Cyrene, was the most impossible thing of all.

But they had. She'd seen in last night, in just those few moments she'd had with them, before she'd ushered them off to bed. The gentle touches, the looks…the attitude her violent daughter had towards this young girl and no other, ever…


Now, all she had to do was make sure they had time, and peace, in which to put the pieces back together again, if that's what they both wanted. And she thought they did. With a sigh, she straightened up, and tugged her tunic straight, then quietly exited the room, and headed purposefully for the kitchen.

One thing for sure, she decided, they both needed some decent meals. "Morning, Eustace." She commented, as she pushed the door open.

"OH!" The cook whirled around from her position near the stove. "Ma'am.. was that Argo I saw back, then?"

The innkeeper smiled a little. "It certainly was."

The heavyset, younger woman hesitated, her face a question that her mouth was reluctant to ask.

"They're both back." Cyrene confirmed quietly. "They've had a time in Tartarus, Eustace, but they made it home."

The cook put a hand on her chest. "Oh, ma'am.. you have no idea how glad I am to hear that… I was missing them.. especially the little one."

An image of those haunted green eyes drifted in her mind. "Me too, 'stace." She sighed. "It's going to be a while before things settle down for them, though." She picked up a basket, and tucked a square of clean linen into it. "I'm going to fix them a little something for breakfast, and I'll leave it there… they need the sleep."

The morning was already heating up as she crossed the courtyard, and mounted the steps to the cabin. She pushed the door open very quietly, and peered in, spotting Ares dark head immediately curled in his favorite position at the foot of the bed. She shook a finger at him, mentally chastising the wolf for running off and worrying them. Then she slipped in, and set her basket down carefully on the table, as she quietly regarded the two sleeping women in the bed.

Xena was on her back, as usual, her disheveled hair covering the pale linen case. Cyrene could see the lines of strain clearly engraved in the familiar profile, along with the dark circles under her eyes, and she shook her head a little in dismay. Gabrielle was curled up in her favorite spot, her arm thrown over Xena's waist and her head pillowed snugly on the warrior's shoulder. There was, to her eyes, a strange peace about them, a peace that was broken slightly when her daughter's eyes fluttered open, aware of her presence.

"Mother?" The blue eyes blinked a few times, then focused.

"Shh." Cyrene crossed to the bed and sat on its edge, putting a hand on the warrior's forehead. "Just dropping you off some breakfast when you're ready.. go back to sleep, honey." She smoothed the dark hair back. "How are you feeling?"

Xena thought about that for a moment. "Better." She sighed. "Got caught in all that damned rain… had a lousy fever for a few days." She cleared her throat a little of its hoarseness. "Luck, I guess."

Cyrene shook her head. "No, I think it's your body's way of telling you it's time for a rest, Xena." Her voice was very low, but serious. "I hope you're going to listen to it."

The warrior let her eyes close for a moment, then opened them, and looked down at the red gold head resting on her. "I am." She whispered. "My priorities in life have changed, mother."

The innkeeper studied her for a long moment, then folded a hand around Xena's. "Go back to sleep. We'll talk later, ok?" She straightened the covers, giving her daughter a rueful glance when Gabrielle stirred, and tightened her grip, then settled back down. "She's not going to let you go, hmm?"

Xena slowly shook her head no. "Johan make it back ok?" A faint, ghostly glint of amusement sparkled.

Cyrene's eyebrows knit, and she put her hands on her hips. "He told you." She accused, with a mock scowl.

The warrior's eyebrow quirked. "I guessed."

"Hmph." Her mother snorted. "No comments from you, my dear." She leaned down and kissed Xena's forehead. "To sleep with you, girl."

Xena yawned, and let her body relax into the softness of the bed. "Yes, ma'am." She closed her eyes, and felt her mother's playful tug on her hair, that brought a faint, wistful smile to her face. She submitted to her body's insistent urging, and let sleep take her again.

Gabrielle woke, finally, to what she realized was afternoon sun streaming in the window. Oh… gods. She blinked her eyes open, and winced, as she tried to move. Oh… that was a baaaad idea. "Ugh." She felt a faint chuckle under her head, and lifted her eyes up. "Ow."

"Stiff?" The warrior asked sympathetically, rubbing her back.

"Mmm." The bard flexed her body. "You been awake long?" She glanced around her, letting the sights of her home sink into her awareness. Last night she'd been… it had all seemed so strange. Now, in the light of a new day, here in her own bed, in a place where every thing in her eyesight was known, and familiar… she felt her natural optimism resurging. She propped her chin up a hand. "How're you feeling?"

"No, and not too bad." Xena replied, stretching slowly. "Mom was here this morning." She nodded towards the table. "Brought some goodies." She'd had a lot of time to think, waiting for her partner to wake up. A lot of time to get used to seeing the friendly sight of home surrounding her. Her spirits had risen accordingly. "Hungry?"

"Yeah." Gabrielle answered softly. "You… were right about your mother.. Xena.. I…"

The warrior surprised both of them by just ducking her head and silencing her partner with a kiss. She broke off, a little confused, and cleared her throat. "Um.. sorry.. I.. "

"Don’t be." Gabrielle sighed happily, as she sat up, and climbed over her partner, stopping to stretch her body out, then grabbing the basket and jumping back into bed with it. "Mm." She lifted the linen covering it, and an enticing smell drifted up. Then she took a breath, and touched something.

"What?" Xena lifted herself up , and peered inside, then looked up at her partner, and made a mental note to thank her mother. "Nutbread, huh? Even odds that's not for me." She told the bard gently, and was charmed to see a shy, pleased smile crease the bard's face. "Gabrielle?"

"Hmm?" The green eyes glanced up from the basket and met hers.

"We're home." Came the quiet response.

The shy smile grew broader "We are."

"Gabrielle!" The male voice called over, as she made her way across the sunset lit courtyard. She looked up to see one of her old students hurrying over from the direction of the stables. Xena had settled herself on the porch, dressed in an old tunic and soft boots, and promised to remain there until she returned, so the bard had taken the opportunity to visit the inn, and thank Cyrene for the nutbread.

"Hello, Fantres." She gave him a tentative smile. He had been one of her more adept staff students, a shorter than average villager with tow brown hair and a freckled face.

"Wow.. I'm glad to see you." The young man said, a touch breathlessly. "I'd heard.. well.. I'm really glad you're ok." He gave her a shy look. "Are you.. staying a while?" A stammer. "I mean… not.. I… we thought maybe… you'd.."

The bard relaxed a bit. "I think so… yes.. we'll be here a while. You .. looking for more lessons?"

He nodded happily. "Yeah.. we try doing it ourselves, but we're kinda clueless." He gave her a lopsided grin. "We missed ya."

Gabrielle felt unused facial muscles stretch in a warm smile, one that crinkled her nose up and extended to her eyes. She watched him respond in kind. "I missed you guys too." She admitted softly. "I'm glad to be home."

He let out a happy sigh. "Great… I'll tell the others… we kinda hoped… um.. " His expression went serious. "We're real sorry, Gabrielle.. all that stuff happened." He chewed his lip, including the straggly moustache. "Shouldn't happen to someone nice like you."

The bard rubbed his arm with a gentle hand. "Thanks.. I really appreciate that." She glanced around. "It's late today.. we can start tomorrow.. or whenever you all want." Not a bad idea, really.. and it would give her a taste of normality. She hadn't sparred in… gods… months. Xena just.. wouldn't, not since…they'd come back from Chin. She'd found she missed it.. missed the simple companionship that had left her pleasantly tired at the end of the day, when she'd flop down onto their bedroll, and let her body recover as she updated her diary.

"All right.. tomorrow then.. same place?" Fantres agreed cheerfully. "We'll be there." Then he shuffled his feet. "You aren't.. by any chance… uh.. " His eyes went to the inn door, then back to her. "No.. silly question.. you just got back. Nevermind."

Gabrielle felt a warmth start in her gut. "Not tonight.. no.. " She gave him a quiet smile. "I'm still kinda beat… but maybe tomorrow."

He grinned bashfully, and waved, then trotted off, disappearing behind the barn where she could see several hands grab him, and heard a brief, muted cheer.

She looked down at the packed earth, and crossed her arms over her chest, letting the gentle waves of relief course through her. Xena had been right, and for once, she was too grateful to be annoyed at the warrior's accuracy. It felt too good. She raised her head as the door opened, and spotted Cyrene's face peeking out at her.

Oh boy. She realized she was still nervous about her partner's mother, and took a deep breath before she straightened her shoulders, and walked over to the door. "Hi.." Her throat closed on mom, and she fell silent instead, feeling very awkward. "Um… I.. " A hand gently grabbed her arm, and she was pulled inside the inn.

"Sit down." Cyrene told her quietly, going behind the service area and coming back with a pitcher of cold ale, and two glasses. She poured them each a glass, and sat down, waiting until Gabrielle had taken a nervous sip before she took a healthy swallow herself.

Where do I start? Gabrielle wondered, as she studied the glass, and felt the beverage shift from a coldness to a gentle warmth in her belly. I can't even look at her. She took a breath. "Thanks.. for the nutbread." She whispered. "Thank you.. for making me feel welcome here."

She missed the look of pained sympathy on the innkeeper's face, but suddenly felt the pressure as Cyrene's hand covered hers. "Oh, honey." Cyrene said softly. "You'll always be welcome here, no matter what, don't you know that?" She stroked the bard's arm. "I know you've had such a terrible time.. my heart aches for you."

Gabrielle forced her gaze up, to meet the heartsick eyes across the table. "I hurt her so much and you can still say that?"

Cyrene sighed. "Gabrielle… you're the most important thing in her life, you know that, don't you?"

The bard studied the wooden table, picking up a splinter of wood in her free hand. "I guess I do." She took a long swallow of ale. "I just never thought I was capable of doing what I did."

The innkeeper licked her lips. "Listen.. I..thought that too, once." Now it was Cyrene's turn to study the table's surface. "Gabrielle.. there was a time.. after Cortese, when an oracle came to me, and told me.. what my daughter was going to become."

The bard fastened her eyes the dark, silver shot head bowed before her.

"I had to choose… between letting her live, and risking the consequences, or.. stopping her." Cyrene gazed sadly up at the bard. "You don't know how very many times I regretted that decision." She winced at Gabrielle's shocked expression. "So many people.. so much destruction. On my shoulders." A shake of her head. "I brought her into the world, you see. I could have stopped her. And I didn't." She looked at her hands. "I had friends who died at her hands."

Gabrielle felt like a band was compressing her chest. "But…"

"So I know where you've been, Gabrielle. I've walked that path." The innkeeper said quietly. "And when she came back, and begged me to forgive her.. well… I decided it was time I rectified that decision. No more.. no more deaths, no more killing.. I told the village she was here." A tear rolled down her cheek. "I didn't even feel bad about it." She looked up into Gabrielle's eyes. "And she knew that.. I wanted her to feel the betrayal that I felt, when she became the monster I could have prevented."

A silence fell. Then Cyrene sniffled, and continued. "And then…after they started on her, and I saw she had no intention of fighting back, I was glad. " She bit her knuckle. "I was glad, Gabrielle.. that they were going to kill her, and she was going to let them." She covered her eyes. "When you came in that door, I thought you were crazy."

"Everyone does." Gabrielle whispered, still in shock. "It never seemed crazy to me at all."

"But you saved me from losing my soul, Gabrielle.. because that's what would have happened, if they'd killed her." Cyrene said brokenly. "You hardly knew her, and there you were, ready to risk your life to save hers.. and that's how I'll always remember seeing you first, honey." She leaned forwards. "We all make mistakes in our lives, daughter… if you're very lucky, as Xena and I have been, you're allowed to be forgiven for them. "

The bard sat frozen for a long moment, then got up and came around to her side of the table, and then they were in each others' arms. "Oh mom." The bard cried softly. "I'm so sorry.. I would have rather died myself than have something happen to her.. or to him."

"I know." The innkeeper closed her eyes in sorrow. "Honey, I know that." She stroked the soft golden hair gently. "It's going to be all right, here me?"

Gabrielle took a shaky breath, and straightened, pushing her hair back behind her ears. "I.. yes, I know it is… we've um… it's.. we're pulling back together… I didn't think we.. but we are."

The dark haired woman patted her cheek gently. "I can see that." She took a deep breath. "Speaking of which, how's she doing? She seemed a little better this morning."

The bard took a sip of ale, and swallowed, then a second. "She's.. her fever's down, but she's not bouncing back from this like she usually does." She replied honestly. "I'm a little worried about her."

"Me too." Cyrene agreed quietly. "I think you both need some time to just relax, and take it easy." She smiled. "Sound good?"

Gabrielle smiled back. "Oh yeah." She squared her shoulders, and glanced around the familiar confines of the inn. The room was empty, it being well before dinner, and there was a quiet peace about it, as the late afternoon sunlight poured into the windows, and laid bars of gold across the tables and wooden floor. "I've really missed this place."

Cyrene studied her speculatively. "We've missed you." She responded quietly. "I thought the road was calling you, though. Maybe it was getting a little boring here."

The bad drained her glass, and watched as Cyrene refilled it, without objecting. The rich scent of the fermented barley beverage was very attractive, and it had been a long time since she'd indulged. "I.. thought it would be the same… traveling around.. but I forgot the stakes would be so much higher.. the risk… if we're going to rebuild our lives, I'm not sure I want to take that chance again."

"Mm." Cyrene took a swallow of her own ale. "How does Xena feel about that?" So much easier to ask the bard, then to poke around in her daughter's conscience.

Gabrielle felt her body relaxing under the influence of the alcohol, and she let it, taking another few swallows with studied deliberation. "I don't… know. I.. don't think she'd be happy staying in one place all the time." Or was that true anymore? "But..if she thought she… if there was something she was.. responsible for… maybe."

"Hmm." The innkeeper mused, thoughtfully. "Interesting." She looked up, and gave Gabrielle's hand a pat. "Let me get you something to take back for dinner.. unless you're up to joining us tonight." Her voice lifted in question.

The bard chewed over that. "Probably not… but…" She felt a need to regain a sense of normal life she'd known here. "Let me see how it goes." She finished off her second glass, and stood, squeezing Cyrene's hand. "Thanks."

The innkeeper smiled. "I'm just glad you're both safe." She stood and bustled behind the service bar a moment. "Here… take these back with you. "

Gabrielle couldn’t prevent the little grin that twitched her lips. "Ooo." She broke of a tiny corner of one cake and nibbled it. "I missed these, too."

That got a big grin from the dark haired woman. "Go on with you…make sure you share."

One blond eyebrow quirked up. "If she asks nice." A sweet smile, then the bard was gone, slipping out the door leaving behind a gentle scent of linen and herbs. Cyrene sat for a while longer, a thoughtful expression on her face, considering. She thought she saw a way… but the trick would be… to make her stubborn daughter believe it was all her own idea.

Continued in Part 6