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 6

By Melissa Good

Gabrielle frowned at the obviously empty chair on the porch, then squinted as she thought she saw a blur of blue clad movement. Her lips twitched. Well, she did promise not to leave the porch, and she didn't. She trotted up the stairs and walked up behind her partner, who was seated on the floor near the back corner of the building with her long legs hanging down off the surface, and her arms resting on the wooden railing. Two colt foals were nibbling at her boots, and both looked up, and shook their small heads as she approached.

"Well.. hello there." The bard laughed, dropping down onto the wooden surface next to the warrior. "You gonna introduce me?"

"Sure." Xena held out a hand, and the closer one lipped her fingers agreeably. "Gabrielle, may I present Hercules and Iolaus." She gave the pair an amused glance. "Guys, this is Gabrielle."

The bard chuckled. "Which is which?"

One foal trotted towards her outstretched hand, and tripped, falling on its nose. "Ok… so that's Iolaus." Gabrielle announced immediately, which brought a smile to her soulmate's face. "Xena, they're adorable." She scratched little Iolaus' ears, and whickered gently to him under her breath. Both foals were sturdily built, and both were a rich buttery shade of yellow. Hercules mane and tail, however were dark brown, where Iolaus' were a pale blond like their mother's.

"Cute, huh?" Xena smiled. "Watch this." She clucked once, and both heads turned, then twice, and the approached her, bobbing their small heads.

Gabrielle's eyes popped. "Wow.. did you teach them that right now???" She turned and glanced behind her. "While I was gone?" Her eyes went back to her partner. "Xena.. I had no idea…"

The dark eyebrows rose. "How'd you figure Argo learned all that stuff?" The warrior asked, reasonably. "Doesn't come naturally."

"Well.. " The bard grinned tentatively. "I mean.. sure.. I realized you taught her, but…" She shook her head. "Yet another of the many skills." She held out the small basket she was holding. "From mom."

Mom, huh? Xena studied her partner's face intently. Not 'your mother', as it had been all during the trip up here. Gabrielle's face was much more relaxed and.. her nose twitched. Ah.. mom was using her ale to good purpose, I guess. "What's that?" She peeked inside the basket and smiled. "Oh.. I see." She lifted a cake out and took a bite. "Mmm."

"Yeah." Gabrielle agreed around a mouthful. She swallowed, then peered up at the taller woman. "How are you doing?"

Xena let the foals lick her fingers, and got an immediate and very attentive audience. Hercules managed to hop up on his hind legs, and put his forefeet up on the porch, shoving his nose through the railing and into Xena's chest. "Um… " Xena had to start laughing, as the colt pushed her and whickered. "Another fan, I guess." She broke off a tiny corner of the cake and offered it, watching in amusement as the foal lipped it off her palm and sneezed. Then she leaned her forehead against the railing and eyed her partner quietly. "I think the fever's gone.. " She took a reluctant breath. "I'm just really tired, for some reason."

And she was. Getting up and walking over to the railing had taken a frightening amount of effort. She felt like she was running on zero reserves, and, she realized, that's probably exactly what she was doing. "I feel like I could sleep for a week."

Gabrielle considered that. "Sounds like a good idea." She commented, slipping a supportive arm around the warrior's waist, and leaning close. She handed Xena another cake and took one herself, and they munched in companionable silence, tossing crumbs to the curious foals.

" and mom have a talk?" Xena finally asked, resting her head against the arm she had laid across the railing.

The bard gave her a quick look. "How'd you guess?"

"You look a lot more relaxed." Came the wry answer. "Was I right?"

Gabrielle sighed, and kicked the porch edging with her heels. "Of course." She gave her partner a serious look. "Your mother is really special."

Xena grinned briefly. "Yeah." She licked her fingers thoughtfully, and gazed at the basket. "Any more of those?"

The bard studied her intently. "If they're making you feel better, you can have all of them."

An eyebrow lifted at this supreme sacrifice. "If I eat all of them, Gabrielle, I guarantee you I won't be feeling better." She told the bard dryly. "But.. I think they are helping." She shared the remainder of the cakes with her partner, as they moved back to the large chair lashed to the porch, large enough for both of them to relax in. The warm summer breeze gently washed over them, as they watched the sunset, and returned the casual greetings from homecoming villagers who were headed towards their dwellings beyond the inn. Several came over and spent a few moments talking to them, including Josclyn, who had just arrived in from the northern fields.

The reeve mounted the steps, and leaned against the rail, giving them both a sturdy nod. "Welcome back." He eyed Xena. "Tiny birdies flitting about tell me you bloodied that damn Roman's nose. True?"

Xena went absolutely blank for a long moment, before she realized what Josclyn was talking about. Caesar. " I just helped." She drawled. "Boudaecca takes the credit for winning that one."

The reeve nodded. "All right, if that's how you want to paint it." His eyes studied her with a wry twinkle. "Hello, lass.. welcome home." This was directed to Gabrielle, who was tucked snugly in the circle of Xena's arm. "We've missed yer tales."

The bard smiled gently at him. "Thanks Josclyn…it's nice to be home." She stifled a yawn, mostly caused by the drowsy heat. "Maybe I'll see you at the inn in a few days."

He nodded at her. "Aye." Then his eyes drifted outward, towards the paddock nearby. "Lovely little bits of horseflesh yer Argo's thrown there, Xena."

That got a smile from the warrior. "Yeah.. she's good stock." A note of pride touched Xena's voice. "They're going to be nice looking studs."

Josclyn rubbed his nose with his forefinger. "Ahh.. yes… I was thinking that." He paused. "Been a long while since Amphipolis was known for horseflesh."

The reeve was, Xena reminded herself, responsible for the financial well being of the village, and he'd brought up an interesting point she hadn't so far considered. "Yeah.. it has, hasn't it?" She replied slowly.

They looked at each other, and a tiny nod passed. Then Josclyn gave them a wave, and went on towards his homestead, with his patient, long stride.

Gabrielle glanced up at her curiously. "What was that all about?"

"Josc has a really nice filly, about two years old." Xena replied, giving her a wry look. "She's gray, with a dark gray mane and tale.. nice action." Very nice. Not trained like Argo, and much smaller than the tall warhorse, but a beautiful animal. "Looking to the future, I guess."

The bard considered this thoughtfully. "Hmm."

Xena sat back, and enjoyed the peacefulness. She could feel the flutter of Gabrielle's pulse against the skin of her arm, and was relieved to note that the exhaustion seemed to be backing off a little, and despite the cakes, she was still hungry. Good sign… she mused, studying the bard's profile. So, while I'm at it…."Hey.. listen.. I'm feeling better.. I'd really like to go on up to the inn for dinner.. just to say hello to everyone.. what do you think?" Nope.. she didn't miss the sudden jump in the bard's heartbeat, and the sparkle that appeared in her green eyes. Target hit. She needs this.. and I'm not gonna say no to her.

"I'd…. if you're sure, Xena." The bard replied slowly. "I mean.. yeah, it would be nice, but not if it's gonna tire you out or anything."

"Nah." The warrior grinned. "I'll be fine." If I have to drag myself there by the fingernails. "C'mon."

The inn was filling up, now that the sun was setting, and the tradesmen and more affluent homesteaders came filing in to settle down for a drink and a plate of food, and the companionship of the village. Most of the tables were occupied, and several heads lifted as Xena pushed the door open and allowed Gabrielle to enter in front of her.

Greetings drifted across most of the room, lit now by candles on the tables, and the torches that rested in two wall sconces near the entryway to the kitchen. It was warm, relieved only by the breezes that traveled in through the windows, and which fluttered the candle flames into dancing columns, and the air was filled with the scent of roasting meat, and the tangy hint of newly tapped ale.

Xena returned her usual nods, and silent acknowledgements, but paid little attention to them as she watched the reception her soulmate was getting.

It was simple. They loved her. She'd captured their hearts over the winter, and now smiling faces and welcoming arms greeted her from all sides. Xena felt a deep warmth starting in her own gut as she watched the gentle sparkle return to her partner's eyes, as she paused frequently to grasp an outstretched hand, or answer a warm hello.

She needs this. Xena's mind acknowledged, as she observed the bard's shoulders straighten and lift, and her body language grow shyly animated as they got across the room. Look at her soaking it up… damn. It brought a smile to her face, which broadened as Gabrielle's voice lifted in gaining confidence across the crowd.

She settled into a chair at the table their family usually used, and leaned back, bracing one booted foot against the table support, and crossing her arms. Gabrielle was still standing, leaning over to answer a question from the millman's wife, and laughing gently as the woman scolded her about her thinness. "I know.. I know… but now that I'm here, I know that won't be a problem." The bard assured her, as she dropped into the chair next to her partner, and took a deep breath. Her eyes found Xena's, and she gave her a little shake of the head. "Wow."

The warrior just smiled. There was a flush of color in her partner's face, and a warm glow to her eyes that was absolutely priceless to her. "Looks like they missed ya." She gave Gabrielle a rakish grin.

Gabrielle took a breath, then a second. She reached a hand across the tabletop and twined her fingers with the warrior's longer ones. "You knew that was going to happen, didn't you?" She accused gently.

Xena rocked her head from side to side and gave a little shrug. "I suspected it would, yeah." She glanced around, then back at Gabrielle. "I'm glad Amphipolis lived up to my expectations."

The bard just stared at her for a long minute, then abruptly got up out of her chair, and flung herself at her partner, wrapping her arms around the warrior's neck, and hugging her hard. "I love you." She said in a heartfelt whisper.

Xena felt a blush rising, as the room looked on with a round of warm laughter. She spotted Cyrene as the innkeeper stepped out to see what the noise was, and let a crooked grin cross her face when her mother spotted them, and shook her head. "Gabrielle.. I didn't do anything.. c'mon now.. that's all just for you."

 The bard released her, and leaned back, so they could look at each other. "Sorry… " She lifted a hand and gently traced the line of color on her partner's cheekbone. "Didn't meant to embarrass you." She looked up as Cyrene arrived at their tableside, and scrambled off Xena's lap, thumping down into her own seat with a sheepish look. "I um.... I seem to be making a spectacle of myself this evening."

Cyrene sat down across from them, and wiped a relieved grin off her face. "Oh, that’s' all right, honey." She waved Johan over to join them. "Thanks for dragging the social butterfly here over with you." This with a nod towards her dark haired daughter, who elevated an eyebrow at her. "Don't give me that look."

"Actually." Gabrielle held up a hand. "It was her idea."

Xena just leaned back and watched them, enjoying the banter but keeping her usual non-committal look on. She felt a nudge under the table, and her brow creased. Another nudge, and she realized something soft, and warm was being pressed into her hand, which was resting against her knee. She folded her fingers around it, and felt her expression go completely blank for a long moment, before she looked up, and met her mother's eyes.

Gentle understanding, and a brief smile met her gaze, as she let her fingers explore the small package her mother had given her. A tiny cloth bag, with two round, metal objects in it. She knew what they were, and now, she was glad she'd given them to Cyrene for safekeeping.

Would Gabrielle want hers back? Xena felt the familiar weight of the pendant hanging from her neck and it reassured her. She glanced up and gave her mother a smile, and a slight nod, before she tucked the bag away in her belt pouch. Later. Not here, in front of the entire village.. just in case I'm wrong. But she didn't think she was, not now, not with the quietly familiar touch that curled itself around her knee, something that Gabrielle didn't even appear to be aware she was doing. The bard's fingers traced the curve of her skin, and she felt them slide up her thigh in an absent caress.

The room, Xena observed, glancing around and settling back to catch a breeze, was sure getting overcrowded…not to mention warm. Then the bard's hand moved again, and she admitted that the crowd was probably not causing the overheating. With a bemused grin, she leaned back and took a long swallow of ale.

Servers brought dinner, and they dug into steaming platefuls, as they traded information about the past few months. Gabrielle gave them a censored rundown of their adventures, which they'd collaborated on before they reached the inn. She left out really tough parts, but did let them know about some of the milder adventures they'd had, including the one with the virgins, which had Cyrene howling.

By common, unspoken consent, they kept the conversation light, and edged around painful topics, and managed to have a nice, almost relaxing evening, despite the fact that Gabrielle suddenly realized all the bright eyes being turned on her, and allowed herself to be dragged up front for a short story.

What to tell them… The bard chewed over that. Something light… something short.. She took a breath, and looked out at the room, seeing faces she'd come to know over the long winter months, and felt a nervous jolt, realizing suddenly that this was very different than getting up in front of relative strangers. These people knew her.. most of them had an idea of what had happened to her, and to her partner sitting quietly there in the back.. it was shaking her up.

She felt her mind go blank, and felt her stomach drop.. and then a pair of pale, clear blue eyes caught hers, and she saw the confident grin on Xena's face, which steadied her. I can do this. She quietly told herself. Her brow creased, then she held up a hand and told them the one about Hercules and the pig that had them rolling on the floor, the delighted laughter flowing through her and reestablishing her confidence with gentle ease.

She let her eyes drift back to her partner's, seeing the warm pride there, as she finished the story, and accepted the enthusiastic applause with a shy grin, then excused herself. "Hey.. " She protested when that was met with a chorus of groans. "It's been a long day.. more tomorrow."

She made her way back, and studied her partner, half buried in shadows against the wall. "I'm beat." She half fell, half dropped into her chair, picking up her glass and draining it, then setting it down. "You'd think I got enough sleep today, but I guess not." She stifled a yawn, and glanced covertly at Xena. The warrior was putting up a very good front, but Gabrielle knew every line of her body, and to the bard, her partner's tense weariness was painfully evident.

"Bedtime for bards?" Xena inquired, glad the darkness was hiding her own exhaustion. "Sounds like a good idea." She stood carefully, and put a hand on her mother's shoulder. "Night.. thanks for the company."

Those sharp eyes didn't miss a thing. "Get some rest, Xena." Cyrene replied quietly. "All right?"

A wry grin tugged at the warrior's lips. "Right." She felt Gabrielle's hand tuck itself securely around her elbow as the bard guided her through the inn, and out the door into the warm summer night. Guess I didn't fool her either.. she mused a touch ruefully, but decided that wasn't really a bad thing.

"Enjoy yourself?" Xena ventured, as they walked across the hard packed ground.

"You have to ask?" The bard laughed softly. "Xena.. I didn't expect it to be like that." The bard sighed and ran a hand through her hair. "But.. yeah…it made me feel really good." She admitted, with a wry grin.

Xena felt a quiet satisfaction. "Me too." She put her arm around Gabrielle's shoulders. "That pig story was funny too… I hadn't heard it before."

That got a wistful smile from her smaller companion. "I.. got that from Iolaus last time we met… but I never had a chance to…I mean…I guess I stopped wanting to tell them." Gabrielle closed her eyes as she felt the gentle pressure of lips against her hair. "Yeah." She breathed softly. "All those friendly faces... that.. I really, really enjoyed that."

"Good." The warrior murmured, as they reached the cabin, and she managed to muster the energy to walk up the steps and pull the door open. "Whoa…" She braced herself as Ares hurtled through the air, and pounded his paws up against her chest. "Ares… c'mon… " The wolf licked her face enthusiastically, then turned his attention to Gabrielle.

"Yeah.. yeah.. I see who you go to first." The bard tugged an ear. "We all know who your favorite is."

"Only because I give him goodies." Xena mumbled, as she landed on her back with atypical gracelessness on the bed. The wolf jumped up next to her, and curled against her body, resting his muzzle on her knee, and letting out a satisfied sigh.

"Oh. Sure." Gabrielle bit back a laugh. "Look at him…he's so mercenary." She watched the wolf shift his head to a more comfortable spot and close his eyes happily, then she tugged off her boots, and walked to the bed, studying the prone warrior seriously.

"Hey." She watched the blue eyes blink open with some effort. " Here, let me get these off for you." Her fingers tugged gently at the laces on Xena's boots, and she gave the powerful legs a pat as she pulled the footware off. "You know, Xena.. I could be mad at you for forcing yourself to go through dinner and all that tonight, if you felt lousy."

One blue eye opened, and regarded her wistfully. "Don't be." She pleaded gently. "It was worth it… seeing your face." The warrior struggled up onto her elbows, and forced the unnerving exhaustion down. "I don’t feel that bad, really.. just a little tired."

Gabrielle climbed into bed, and rolled over onto her side, tugging the light cover over them, and putting a hand on Xena's shoulder. "What am I going to do with you?" She asked with a faint sigh, as she pushed her back down, and put a hand on her forehead, relieved at the coolness.

"Anything you want." Came the sleepy answer.

"Anything?" Gabrielle leaned close, and breathed in her ear.

Xena nodded, a faint smile crossing her face.

The bard traced an idle pattern across her partner's collarbone. "All right…then I want.. to spend the rest of my life with you."

The warrior opened both eyes, and studied her seriously. "Really?"

Gabrielle stared back, just as seriously. "Yeah." She laid a hand on Xena's chest. "I mean… " She stopped and collected her thoughts for a moment. "It sounds so strange to say that.. like.. well, of course, right?" Her fingers played idly with the belt on the warrior's tunic. "But I never thought about actually making that decision before.. I always took it for granted. And.. and tonight, during that story, I kind of looked up, and saw you watching me… " Another breath. "And I realized I never, ever wanted to be able to look up and not find you there looking back at me."

A quiet nod. "Guess you'll be needing this back, then," Xena slipped a circle of metal into the bard's hand, and closed her fingers over it. And then she just waited, her heart pounding so hard she was surprised Gabrielle didn't hear it. She hadn't meant to do that tonight… but she figured it would be better… to know. She couldn’t help herself.. she needed to know.. to see.. if Gabrielle would accept back that facet of their lives.

Gabrielle's eyes closed, and she let her head slip forward to rest on her partner's chest, not looking at what her hand held.

Knowing it by touch alone.

Remembering the aching moment when she'd given it back, there on that ship coming back from China. When she'd told Xena she no longer thought she deserved to wear it, and had watched the warrior take it in her hand, and walk to the very bow of the ship, standing there, letting the wind whip her dark hair back for what seemed like forever.

Xena had never said anything to her about it. Had never worn hers after that night. Gabrielle had suspected she'd thrown them overboard, and let the sea claim them.

She should have known better. Xena would never have surrendered those, at least, to Poseidon.

"Thank you." Gabrielle muttered quietly, still hiding her face in dark blue linen. She felt the heave as Xena took a deep breath, and heard her pounding heart begin to slow. "You… don't know how much I regretted doing that." She let herself collapse on top of her soulmate's body, and felt the strong arms close over her. "How many times I.. oh gods, Xena…I'm so sorry."

"It's all right." Xena replied in an almost whisper. "I'm sorry too." She pulled the bard's head closer and kissed it. "We should have talked more… I can't believe I let things go so far… and I just couldn’t.. speak to you about any of it."

Gabrielle let her body slide down, and moved into her favorite spot with a sense of wonderful relief. She slipped the ring onto her finger, and closed her hand into a gentle fist, letting her thumb move against the metal band. "Do.. you.. " A doubt assailed her.. would Xena have kept hers? Then she remembered the tiny, folded pieces of parchment her soulmate had kept tucked away. "Still have yours?"

For an answer, Xena flexed her hand in front of the bard's eyes. Gabrielle reached up and captured it, then brought the warm skin to her lips and held on. "Everything means so much more, now." She observed softly. "Even little things."

"Mmm." Xena murmured. "You're right." Curiously, her fatigue faded a little. "I think the little things hurt the worst.. you don't realize they're there.. until they're gone."

The bard rested her face against the warm surface of Xena's chest. "I know.. like you letting me fuss over you."

"Like you smiling at me." Xena answered, in a small voice.

Gabrielle lifted her head up, and looked at her soulmate, at the shadows of remembered pain in her half closed eyes. "It hurt so much because of how strong what we have is, Xena.. am I right?"

The warrior nodded gently. "Yeah… and I'm glad it's that strong." She half lifted her body up and gently kissed her partner.

The bard tasted the lingering hint of the honey cakes, and the cider she'd been drinking, and without really thinking about it she responded, curling herself up and winding a hand around Xena's neck, feeling the soft silkiness of the warrior's dark hair against her skin. "Mm." She tried to control her body's reaction, reminding herself of her partner's illness, but it didn't seem to be working as her hands slid delicately over the fabric covered surface, and found their way underneath it to the warm flesh.

With a light groan, she broke off, and took a deep breath to settle her ragged breathing. "Um… "

Xena's fingers traced her cheek, and drew her face back down, and she felt the warrior's arms circle her, and draw her closer, so that their bodies were in contact all along their length. It was a warm, deep explosion of sensation, and she was only barely aware of her conscience making a gentle, futile protest, helpless against the sensual tingle that followed Xena's touch as it slowly moved up the surface of her skin. "Thought… you were sick…" She managed to gasp.

The warrior tempered her response, and gazed at the bard with a wistfully regretful look. "I feel a lot better all of sudden?" It was almost true too.. the nagging exhaustion was warring a fierce battle with a surge of desire. She was giving it even odds as to which one would come out on top, and looking at the smoky dark green eyes so close to hers was tipping the odds rapidly.

Gabrielle knew she should put a hold on this, but that touch was still stroking her skin gently, and she realized that she wanted this, wanted the fierce passion that she could feel between them to take over, and wash the dirty, horrible memories out of her mind, and out of her heart. She leaned into Xena's touch, letting her hands work the buckle on the warrior's belt, and saw the sensual smile take over her partner's face at the touch. "You…promise me…" She gave in and let her lips nibble the warrior's collarbone. "You tell me if it gets too much, Xena."

Xena reveled in the firestorm of sensation the bard's touch was bringing on. She bit down lightly on the nearby ear lobe, and breathed an answer. "Sorry.. can't promise that." She let her voice drop to its lowest, growliest register, and heard Gabrielle's sharp intake of air. "But you tell me if it gets too much for you, my bard… all right?"

Gabrielle felt her control slipping, and she let it, trusting in their bond to make things right. "Can't promise that either." Were her last words, before her body's cravings took her over completely.

It was as though it was the very first time, all over again… with Xena being so gentle, and so patient with her, not pushing, not asking… just letting her knowledge of Gabrielle's body take her rapidly past any thoughts, or fears. She opened her heart to it, feeling the power building between them that grabbed all her memories of Dahok, and shredded them, driving them out of her life, and her mind, and her reality.

She wasn't sure how her shirt somehow disappeared, but then she realized Xena's had also, and they were sliding against each other, skin on skin as her body remembered just how much it loved her soulmate's gentle touch. She was a little nervous, still aware of the haunting flames which had destroyed her sleep for months, and still would be except that Xena's secure hold kept them at bay at night. But those memories were receding, pushed back by the feel of Xena's fingertips moving up her belly, and tracing light patterns across her breasts.

Xena moved carefully, cautiously, letting her senses extend to capture the bard's heartbeat, and her breathing, almost holding her breath as she allowed her hands and lips to reclaim her partner's most sensitive places. She ran a hand lightly across the bard's bare hip, and let her fingers follow the curve of her strong thigh muscles, feeling the sensual shift as Gabrielle's body pressed against hers. She felt the bard's chest heave, as she let out a tiny sound, and she immediately raised a hand and cupped the flushed cheek. "Hey… you ok?"

"Y… yeah.." Gabrielle blinked her eyes open, and tried to catch her breath. "Just.. feels so good."

The warrior smiled gently and kissed her, and watched the tremulous smile spread across her partner's face. She worked her attentions down Gabrielle's jawline, feeling the motion as the bard swallowed and nipped the sensitive skin over her pulse point, which fluttered wildly against her lips. It felt so good to do this… something she'd missed more than she could have ever believed during the long months of their estrangement. Something far more than the physical release..that could be found with anyone, as she'd once told Gabrielle. Without the feeling behind it, the act meant… nothing. With it, even the simplest touch gathered in your soul, and having known that… having felt the honest, heartfelt passion that had characterized their every touch..

To lose that.. gods. And now, as she gently, cautiously began to work her way down the bard's body, stopping in familiar spots to nibble lightly, and feeling Gabrielle's knowing touch in return…it was so sweet. She reached the bard's navel, and nipped teasingly around the sensitive area, feeling the muscles contract sharply under the skin, and felt Gabrielle's warm touch slide through her hair and across her shoulders.

Gabrielle let her body curl around her soulmate's, burying her face in the long dark hair and breathing in it's scent, letting her doubts go as she concentrated on the tingling fire that Xena was teasing out of her, and feeling that dark pit in her mind scrambling to keep it's terror, desperate in its hold on her, but helpless against the love, and the trust she found herself willing to offer up again to the warrior.

And so she did, and as the sensations built, she deliberately called up the memories of the temple, and the fire, and let them go, watching them shred, and dissolve under the renewal of this most intimate of connections. She let her own instincts loose, and felt a gentle, profound joy soak into her as she traced sensual patterns over tanned skin that tensed in knowing reaction, then she shivered, as a warm stream of breathing raised goosebumps down the centerline of her belly.

Her heart started pounding, and a wave of shivering sensations coursed over her, as she gave up all control into her partner's skillful hands and let Xena claim her in a fierce explosion of passion.

Finally, she was aware of the faint breeze tickling her across her bare shoulders, as she lay there unable to move, her body shaking in time with her breathing, only conscious of Xena's scent, and the soft feathery touches against the skin of her back, and the racing heartbeat under her ear.

She was free. She could feel the anguish, and the pain slowly shifting, and modifying.. becoming something she would always remember, but which no longer crouched over her in malevolent, haunting shadows. Dahok had hurt her.. had used her in an evil intent that had shredded large parts of her.. but there was a core he couldn’t touch.. a part of her that was locked away so tightly that even his murderous force couldn’t penetrate it.

Only Xena had the key to that. And if the warrior had chosen not to remove the walls she'd built up again around her own heart, then that part of her would have been lost, and she knew it.

"You all right?" Xena's voice rumbled down her hearing, both verbally and through the vibrations that sent odd tickles up and down Gabrielle's senses.

Somehow, she dredged up the strength to lift her head, and rolled it to one side, studying the dark profile through half closed eyes. "Um… I'm perfect, thanks." She rubbed her cheek lightly against Xena's skin, and nodded approvingly as the heartbeat under her ear slowed and steadied. "How bout you?" Xena's breathing was still rough, and she freed one hand from it's grip on the warrior's body and started a gentle tracing across the erratically heaving surface, and smiled as the rhythm eased almost at once.

"Mm.' Xena's eyes closed. "Great." Then she forced her eyes open again. "You… um.. " The warrior peered at her uncertainly. "Everything ok up here?" Her fingers very gently pushed the sweat dampened hair off the bard's forehead, and stopped, as tears trickled down the smaller woman's cheeks. "Gab?"

"Do you know…" Gabrielle's voice shook. "I had to stop and think about what you meant just then?" She placed soft kisses on the skin within her reach, and let out a long, relieved sigh in all that friendly warmth. "Everything is very much ok."

That got her a real smile from Xena, tired, but genuine, and the warrior tugged the light linen cover up over her bare shoulders, and tucked it around their intertwined bodies. "I'm glad." She replied simply, letting the exhaustion overtake her at last. "Love you."

Gabrielle gazed up, blinking through the tears. "I love you too." She put her head back down, and closed her eyes, tumbling into sleep with a relieved smile.

A light rain was falling, dampening the edged of the wooden porch and obscuring the fitful sunlight that occasionally sent a timid beam groundward, glancing off the leaves and throwing the odd splash of gray light on the parchment laid over Gabrielle's lap. The bard was sitting, or rather, sprawling on one of the large chairs, one leg thrown over the arm of it, and her head resting against the back. A quill was being twirled in her fingers as she reread her diary entry, and contemplated adding to it.

We've been here two days. I thought it would take longer, but I'm already feeling a lot better. A lot better.. gods.. I feel like a totally different person. Or maybe I just feel more like I used to… yeah.. I've fallen back into the regular routine around here pretty easily, and I think it's made a real difference in how I feel, and how I see myself.

Last night didn't hurt. Wow. I don't know what it is about Xena.. ok, well, maybe I do, but… anyway, she can make me feel like I've turned myself inside out.. just with a look. Hey.. here I'm just thinking about it, and my throat went dry. It's weird… but it's like my body is so tuned into her that I … Whoa. I gotta stop that. But I can't help it - it feels so damn good when she touches me.. or hugs me.. and that's happening all the time now again.

Whew. Calm down, Gabrielle.

She's had me a little worried.. but she seemed better this morning, more like herself. I think it all kind of just caught up to her, because the healer here says she seems ok. He checked her out this morning at mom's insistence, I think that pissed her off, though. Xena, I mean. I kinda had to remind mom to back off a little.. cause if you make too big a fuss, she'll start covering up when she's not feeling well, just to avoid all the poking and prodding. She kind of chewed her lip at me, then admitted she'd forgotten about that, and just kind of left Xena alone after that.

But, of course, being my Xena, she had to prove she was fine by volunteering for the blueberry picking detail that went out this morning. I was going to go too, but Josclyn had two deeds he needed transcribing, and he asked me to help. I hope she doesn't over do it.. she seemed ok this morning, but then… we were both ok this morning.

Boy were we ever. I actually got away with bringing her breakfast in bed, and we spent forever just being with each other, and talking... she even made a joke.

She gave me the ring back last night. I spent a long time just sitting out here on the porch looking at it after breakfast. It's really pretty.. the hawk's crest and all, and the engraving. And the inside, where she had our names carved in, and the date of our joining here. It's so beautiful, and it means so much to me, I can't believe I'm holding it here in my hand. And it was so.. Xena… no fuss, no speeches, just 'there you go.', and that was it. I know it hurt her when I gave it back, as much, or more than it hurt me, but she keeps that all inside.

I worry about that sometimes… because when she finally does let that out, like in that little cave where Solon was born, it gets really, really intense. I don't think I'm going to change her, though, I'll just try to be there for her.

Like she was there for me last night… I know she was way overtired, but she just stuffed that down, like she always does, and came through for me. Like she always does. She made me feel so special…I was still smiling when I woke up.

The sound of running footsteps caught her ear, and she glanced up, to see one of the village boys pelting down the road and into the central area. He saw her, and veered. "W.. we need help… a stretcher. "

Gabrielle forced herself to breathe. "What happened?"

"Raiders." He yelled, as he kept on going.

The morning air, thick with moisture, seemed to settle around her, but Xena blithely ignored it, reaching up to snag yet another tangle of blackberries and strip the plump fruits from the branches, deftly avoiding the thorns as she deposited them in the basket slung over one shoulder.

Glancing around surreptitiously, she popped one in her mouth, and chewed it, enjoying the burst of sweet juice with guilty pleasure. It wasn't her first sneak, and, she cheerfully admitted to herself, wouldn't be her last, since the berries were very plentiful and too good to pass up.

The sun warmed her shoulders, and she glanced up, seeing it's peeking face flitting through the clouds. A bird landed nearby, and she let her eyes linger on it, unable to dispel the warm, gentle sense of almost giddy pleasure that had been snuggling into her consciousness all day.


Waking up that morning had been fantastic She let a grin tug her lips, and stole another berry, chewing it as she closed her eyes, and remembered the wonderful moment of drifting into awareness, with Gabrielle's solid, bare weight spreading all over her in utter abandon. The bard had woken up a few minutes later, and blinked at her, then sighed in contentment and snuggled closer, sending pleasant jolts up and down her body.

A barrier had definitely come down between them. She'd never felt so open.. so vulnerable.. So absolutely fantastic.

And even though she assured her partner of that very fact, Gabrielle had insisted on her staying put and had trotted over to the inn bringing back a loaded basket of various little baked things and fruits, which she'd curled back up into her arms and split between them, alternating bites with kisses until they were both very full, and pleasantly involved in each other.

It had brought back so many memories.. Xena sighed, and forced her attention back to the berries, trying to ignore the twinkling sideways looks she kept getting from her berry hunting companions. Probably think I lost it. The warrior ruefully concluded, as she hopped up onto a rock and captured a large clump.

She was, however, glad to see her body seemed to be grudgingly cooperating more today While the nagging fatigue was still there, it was more in the background, and she wasn't nearly as tired as she had been the previous day. Wonder what the Hades is up with that? She mused with a sigh. Must have been leftover from that damn fever.. But sleep, and being home seemed to be doing her some good, and as for her partner….

Xena smiled quietly. She'd watched Gabrielle roam around the cabin after their leisurely breakfast, and gently touch the various and scattered things around the room, enjoying the smile that was etching the bard's face. She already looked much better, the warrior reflected. The dark shadows under her eyes had faded, and the sparkle was returning to them, and even the way she moved seemed… different. More confident, definitely more comfortable.

A tug on her tunic broke her out of her daydreaming, and she glanced down, a little startled.

"Hey." A small, tow headed boy tugged again. He was the son of one of the women who was collecting berries, whose husband ran the weaver's shop in town.

"Yeah?" Xena replied, consciously gentling her voice.

The boy pointed up. "Too tall." He scowled at the thick clump of berries over his head.

The warrior regarded the berries, then regarded the boy, aware of his mother's furtively watching eyes. "Turn around."

A lip poked out. "Howcum?"

Xena raised an eyebrow at him. "Cause I said so."

The brown eyes judged her, then the boy scowled again. "OK." He turned around, with a little stomping motion.

Xena felt a wistful pang as she gently lifted him up and put him on her shoulders, hearing the delighted laugh as the boy reached up and gave the branch a good shake. Images of Solon stung her, but she just swallowed, and kept a careful grip on the squirming legs as berries tumbled down around them. "Hey… " She managed to choke out. "Get some of those in the bag, ok?"

"Mama..look!" The high, child's voice ripped a hole inside her, but she quietly put that away. The boy vigorously attacked the bush, managing to capture most of the fruits in his bag. "Mmm.." He stuffed a few inside his mouth, and munched, letting juices run down his chin with a giggle. "Want some?" He boldly offered a large specimen to Xena, who accepted it solemnly. "Ok… all done… give me a ride?"

Xena, Warrior Pony. It was a half sad, half self deprecating thought. "Sure." She obligingly loped over to where the boys' mother was wiping her brow, and lifted him off, letting him bounce down next to the sweating woman. "There you go."

The woman tousled her son's hair, and glanced shyly up at the tall warrior. "Thanks, Xena.. he'll be talking about that for a month." She paused, and put a hesitant hand out, touching Xena's arm. "We heard… I'm so sorry."

It took a long moment for the lump to go down enough for her to speak. "Thanks…" The warrior took a breath. "I appreciate that."

A second, older woman sidled near, giving Xena a quietly sympathetic look. "If.. there's anything we can do, Xena.. if you need to talk to someone, we're here for you."

It was so unexpected, she had to stop for a long moment, just to come up with some kind of response. It touched her, knocking something open that went very deep, bridging the huge gap she'd always felt between herself, and the people of her home town. "I… um.. thank you. I really.. " She hesitated, feeling their eyes on her. "I appreciate that… a lot."

The elder woman moved closer, and opened her mouth to speak, then paused, as she saw Xena's body stiffen.

Hoofbeats. Xena's ears picked them up moments after she felt the vibration through her booted feet. She turned and scanned the area, cursing the chest high grasses that obscured her view. "Someone's coming." She advised them tersely. "Riders."

Nervous glances were exchanged, and two women grabbed the arms of the four or five children that were with them, pulling them deeper into the brush as the sounds of horses became audible to them as well.

The grasses whipped out of the way, and six horsemen pulled up abruptly on spotting them, their eyes greedily sucking in the sight. "Oh ho… what have we here?" The man in the lead showed a gap toothed grin. "Ooo.. I see some sweet fruits, boys." He licked his lips, and shifted in his saddle, urging his horse ahead. Then pulling up a little as one of the villagers stepped out of the group, and put herself squarely in his path.

Tall. His eyes flicked over her. Midnight dark hair, and ice blue eyes… definitely a looker. He grinned in admiration. But her garb was the same as the rest of them, and she carried a basket on her shoulder full of berries.. just another target.. "Hello, pretty lady." He let his eyes travel up and down her lithe form.

One brow lifted, and the woman put her hands on her hips. "You want something?"

"Oh yeah.. " He nudged his horse forward, until he was within reach of her. "Trade you a goooood time for some of them berries.. how about it?"

The woman smiled, showing very white teeth against her tanned skin. "How about you get out of here, and I won't break your legs?" She replied, almost conversationally. "Sound like a good deal?"

He laughed, and turned to his fellows. "C'mon.. let's party." He then whipped his body around, and kicked his mount forward, lifting a short club from his saddlebow and aiming a blow for her head.

I'm really not up to this. Xena sighed inwardly, as she dropped her bag and felt her body crouch, waiting for him to come close enough for her to grab him. She dodged his awkward swing, and latched onto his arm, letting the horse run by her and pulling hard, jerking him off the animal's back and letting go as he hit the ground. Then she turned and ducked under the sword thrust by one of his companions, and slugged the rider, catching him in the kidneys and keeling him over in his saddle, then giving the horse a smack that sent it running off.

A third came at her, and she moved out of the way, kicking back and nailing her first opponent in the chin and snapping his head to one side sharply. She dodged the third rider again, then froze, as she saw the small, determined figure running towards them, with a wild eyed woman chasing after him. Damn. She glanced over, and took two long steps, launching her body skyward and slamming right into the third rider, taking them both off the horse's back and down to the ground where she hit with a bone rattling crunch.

Then she was up, and had the boy in her arms, and was pulling him out of the way of the fourth and fifth riders, who thundered over her tucked body, their horse's hooves missing her by some miracle. She straightened up, and tossed the boy gently into a nearby stand of grass. "Stay there." She ordered, turning and bolting back, in time to grab the fifth rider's leather vest, and jerk him down off his horse, slamming an elbow into his jaw and feeling him go slack in her arms. She dropped him to the ground, and yelled a warning, but the running woman couldn’t stop in time, and the fourth rider crashed right into her, tossing her body against a nearby tree.

Xena cursed, and stooped to lift a rock up, whipping her arm sideways and nailing them man's head, causing him to slump in the saddle. His horse spooked, and took off, thrashing through the grasses and disappearing into the distance. She watched him go, then turned slowly in a circle, sensing the danger gone. The riders either had run off, or were huddled motionlessly in the grass, and she let a long, shaky breath out before she strode over to where the woman was lying, her head supported by the shaking elder.

The woman looked up as Xena approached, and swallowed. "Her leg."

The warrior looked down and winced. The woman's leg was badly broken, the lower part at almost right angle. "All right." She glanced up, and found a circle of horrified eyes watching her. "You." She singled out an older boy. "Get back to the village.. we'll need a stretcher to bring her back. Run."

He did, bolting off through the grasses towards the road. Xena let out a long breath, and looked at the injured woman, who was biting her fist to keep from screaming with the pain. "Hang on." The warrior said, in a low, calm voice, and hit two pressure points, watching the rigid body relax as the leg lost it's feeling. "All right… you, hang on to her arm." She directed the older woman. "And you, hold on to that arm, and brace yourselves."

They did as she asked, wrapping arms around the woman and staring at her in tense silence.

Xena nodded, then very gently closed her hands around the woman's leg, and braced a booted foot against a tree root, as she slowly, and steadily pulled the limb straight, and felt the faint grinding click as the bones aligned. A sigh of relief went around the circle of watchers, and two women sidled forward with already trimmed branches and knelt, offering them to her.

"Good choice." She inspected the limbs, and laid them alongside the injured leg, then glanced down, and unbuckled her tunic belt, using it to secure one end of the makeshift splint. A hand dropped to her arm, and she looked up, to see the boy's mother, handing her a piece of rope she'd used to support her basket. "Thanks." The warrior smiled at her, then tightly fixed the upper portion of the splint.

"OK." She got the injured woman's attention. "Listen…I gotta release that block.. and it's gonna hurt.. but not as bad as before, ok?"

The woman's eyes blanched, and she raised a fist to her mouth again, biting down on a knuckle before she gave Xena one, short nod. The warrior gave her uninjured leg a soft pat before she released the pressure point, watching the woman's body tense, then very slowly, relax as the pain leveled off. "OK?" Xena asked gently.

The pale head slowly nodded, and she reached a shaking hand out, to grasp Xena's and squeeze it. "Thanks." She whispered hoarsely. "The baby.. he ran… where is he?"

"Here, Hanna." The boy's mother came close, holding her dirt covered offspring. "He was a bad boy, and I'm so sorry." She gave her son a stern look. "Rivas, you apologize… look what happened."

A tiny lip poked out. "Sorry."

Xena braced her arm against her knee, and studied the boy. "When they tell you to stay put, you should." She told him, giving him one of her more serious looks.

The lip poked out further. "Wanted ta help you." He reached out and tugged a lock of her dark hair. "Bang them guys." He waved a small fist. "Boom boom!"

The warrior struggled to keep a wry grin off her face. "Not until you're lots older, buster." She growled. "I can handle them just fine by myself." She exchanged a look with his mother, and shook her head, firmly closing the door on the might have beens that hammered at her. Running footsteps brought her head up, and she turned as a familiar presence made itself known.

A hand touched her shoulder. "Hey… " Gabrielle dropped to a knee beside her partner. "What happened?" The bard's breathing was strained, and she was sweating.

Xena put a hand on her back, and rubbed it. "Take it easy.." She said in a low voice. "Some scum out looking for trouble." She added, in a louder tone, jerking her chin towards the still slumped forms.

The bard took a deep breath, and raked a hand through her hair, pushing it back. "I see they found it." She gazed at her partner. "You all right?"

"Just fine." Xena replied evenly. "They got help coming?"

"Yeah… " Gabrielle craned her neck, resting a hand lightly on her partner's shoulder for balance. "Should be right behind me… " She paused. "Though.. I did kinda rush up here." She took a deep breath, and let it out. "Whew."

Xena smiled, and patted her side. "So I see." She turned to the injured woman. "You're gonna be ok." She looked up as the grasses parted again, and four villagers broke through, carrying a litter. "Over here." She stood up, and backed off as the four men rushed over, asking blurted questions, which the elder woman fielded impatiently. Gabrielle stepped back with her, and stood at her side, watching quietly as they carefully moved the woman onto the litter, and lifted her up.

The small group headed back, the litter going first, surrounded by chattering women, leaving Xena and Gabrielle to bring up the rear.

Xena picked up her berry basket and slung it over her shoulder, before joining the bard, letting her arm rest casually across the smaller woman's shoulders. "How'd the transcribing go?"

Gabrielle wound an arm firmly around the warrior's waist, as she felt the faint unsteadiness in her walk. She gave Xena a look, and was not surprised when the taller woman dropped her gaze, and leaned a little bit against her. "Just fine, huh?" She accused gently, shaking her head. "What am I going to do with you?"

Xena sighed, and kicked at a rock in her path. "Thought I answered that last night." She grumbled, sneaking a look and catching the swiftly dampened grin on the bard's face. "I'm fine… really… a lot better than yesterday.. and I did just beat up a half dozen guys.. cut me a little slack, huh?"

"Weeeelll…." The bard pretended to consider that. "I guess." She went along in silence for a time, listening to the lazy bird calls and the swish of the grass, and watching Xena out of the corner of her eye. Finally, she took a breath. "You want to talk about it?"

Long silence, as they matched paces along the path. "You always know, don't you?" Xena finally said, in a quiet, serious tone.

"Always." The bard answered, just as seriously. "Was it the fight?"

A shake of her dark head. "No… that went fine.. or, well.. as fine as it ever does." She lifted her free hand and let it fall. "I just…that little kid.. he…" She let out a long breath. "No sense in thinking about it."


Solon. Gabrielle realized, looking ahead and spotting the child, who was letting his head rest on his mother's shoulder, and keeping his eyes pinned on her partner. Oh. Her lips tightened. "Xena… "

"It's… you know, I never let myself think of what he must have been like.. at that age… I don't know why… " Xena just sighed. "It's not like I ever really knew him at all." She looked down unhappily at her partner's still face. "I.. I'm sorry, Gabrielle.. it's not fair of me to even say that to you." She hesitated. "Is it?"

The bard felt a knot unravel inside her chest at the words. "Xena… thank you for realizing that." She drew in a careful breath. "But it's really not fair to either of us… you can drive yourself crazy with what ifs that way." She sighed, and leaned her head against the warrior's shoulder. Her eyes drifted up, and she studied the tense profile, half obscured by dark, windblown hair. She debated with herself for a long moment, then took a breath. "Xena… you" She felt her partner's body shift she turned slightly to look at her.

This was hard. It was something she'd been thinking about for a while now..since things had started to get better between them. She just had no idea how Xena would react to the suggestion. "You can… yell at me for being stupid for saying this.. " She started, feeling the arm around her tense. "But Xena.. you're still really young. You could… "

The warrior stopped walking, and just stood, eyes closed, for a very long moment.

"No." She replied softly. "I won't go through that again." She let her arms drop to her sides. "I can't." She grimaced. "I don't even think my body's capable of it anymore." Her shoulders dropped. "I can't… Gabrielle, I just…"

Well. Gabrielle nibbled her lip. Not entirely unexpected… but I had to try. On to plan B. "Ok.. ok.. I'm… listen, I'm sorry I… didn't meant to.. " Her nervous babbling brought Xena out of her silent stillness, as the warrior circled her shoulders again and started walking slowly down the path. "I mean.. I feel.. I see kids, like that, and I think…" Xena's arm tightened, and she snuggled into the offered warmth gratefully. "I think.. I want to know what that's like." She finished very softly. "Again."

Xena stopped walking again, this time for a completely different reason. She turned, and put both hands on the bard's shoulders, facing her around and gazing into her eyes with quiet, intensity. "What did you say?"

The red gold head lifted, and mist green eyes met hers unflinchingly. "Before we left home, we talked about a decision." She said quietly. "I've been thinking about that a lot."

The warrior let her hands drop, and took several breaths, unsure of what to answer.

Gabrielle's gaze dropped. Guess it was too much to hope for that she'd feel the same way… after what happened. "I'm sorry…I won't.. bring that up again." She broke free, and started down the path, leaving her silent partner behind. Gods, that was stupid. Just when things were going right, you had to go and drop that on her. And what am I really doing this for? For me? Or for her? Do I want a child, or do I really just want to try and give her back Solon?

She walked on a few more steps. Does it matter? The silence behind her was deafening. Not anymore, I guess.

She walked alone what seemed like forever, almost back to the thin path that lead up to the road into Amphipolis. Alone with her thoughts, which weren't really pleasant, until she heard soft footfalls behind her, moving at a light jog. They caught up to her, and then there was Xena, slowing to a walk, pacing at her side in awkward quiet.

"You caught me by surprise." Came the very gentle statement. "I.. didn't think you…would ever.."

Gabrielle shook her head slowly. "It's all right… I'm.. not really even sure if I meant it."

Xena caught her arm, and stopped, making her swing around and face her partner again. The warrior gently cupped her cheek and took her other hand in her own. "Gabrielle… I think you did."

They looked at each other. "I know it doesn’t make much sense." The bard admitted. "After everything."

The warrior let a wistful smile shape her lips. "No..after everything, it makes perfect sense." She smoothed the fair skin lightly "Knowing you… knowing who you are… nothing else would make any sense at all." She leaned forward and kissed her.

Well… Gabrielle felt a tiny, racing spark flash through her. That's a start.

A loud yell attracted their attention, and they both turned, to see Toris running towards them.

The inn was busy for lunch, filled with tired, sweaty men and women escaping from the summer's heat for a little while, indulging a few dinars in Cyrene's cold ale and waybread stuffed with summer vegetables and chilled fish. The innkeeper had just returned to the kitchen, and was leaning back, a mug of cold cider in her hand, when the door pushed open, and Gabrielle poked her fair head in. "Hey cutie." Cyrene smiled gently. "C'mon over here."

The bard slipped into the room, and let the door close behind her. "Hi… " She walked over and ran a hand through disheveled hair. "Just came in to get some bread…" She smiled. "It's nice to have Toris and Granella home, huh?"

Cyrene tucked some fresh, warm rolls into a basket, and added a small dish of honey butter with it. "Here you go… how are things going out there, ok?" She straightened Gabrielle's collar. "I heard we had some trouble?"

Gabrielle took a roll from the top of the pile and nibbled it. "Yeah… Xena handled it… Hanna broke her leg though." She took a bigger bite and chewed thoughtfully. "Nothing big.. just some guys out looking for trouble, I think… "

The innkeeper poured her a glass of cider, then settled back against the table. "She all right?"

The bard took a long swallow before answering. "Well.. yeah… but I think she's gonna lose it if everyone doesn't stop asking her that.. Toris is driving her crazy."

"Hmm." Cyrene mused. "And he just got here, too…." She gave Gabrielle a wry look, then rubbed her arm gently. "He was very worried about you two."

Gabrielle glanced down, and regarded the floor. "I know… he's really sweet." She smiled a little, remembering the very tentative hug she'd received from her partner's brother, and the more normal one she'd gotten from Granella, who had held her at arms distance for a long, intense moment, before shaking her head. "I better get back out there.."

The innkeeper handed her a pitcher of cider. "There… and… Gabrielle, you know we're all just worried about her." A deep breath. "She seemed so washed out last night."

The bard nibbled her thumb. "Um… " Against her will, a tiny smile tugged at her lips. "Well, yeah.. but..she um… perked up a little after we left." She cleared her throat lightly. Perked up.. oh… Gabrielle.. that was bad. Bad bard.

"Ah." Cyrene nodded gravely. "That explains how your shirt ended up outside the cabin window." She patted the bard's reddening cheek. "I folded it and left it hanging over the railing."

"I…I…." Gabrielle stammered. "Um…" Gods…how did… I…it… She felt her skin heat wildly. Outside???

"Gabrielle… Gabrielle…. " Cyrene laughed, and took the basket and pitcher from her nerveless hands, setting them down on the table and pulling the bard into a gentle hug. "Honey, you've got nothing to be embarrassed about…I didn't mean to fluster you." Forgot she's a little shy about that. The innkeeper mused as she patted her back.

The bard let the familiar scent of herbs and cooking surround her, and sighed. "No…'s ok.. I just… " She hesitated. "Last night was kind of different…we.. it was… I mean, we hadn't…" Damn.. I'm all over the place here. "She gave me back the ring.. and then.. I .. we shouldn't have.. she was really tired.. but ..she…"

"Gabrielle.." Cyrene put together the pieces suddenly. "It's all right…I'm sure it didn't do her any harm." She let out a breath. "I know this must be so hard for both of you." She felt the bard relax a little, and pulled back, putting her hands on her shoulders. "Come on.. let's go out there and take it easy.. it's too hot to get all bothered today."

That got a reluctant smile from Gabrielle, who picked up the basket and pitcher and allowed Cyrene to escort her out the door, and into the main part of the inn.

"Xena…" Toris watched the bard head towards the kitchen, and bent his dark head towards his sister. The warrior was seated with her arms braced on the table, her hands cupped around a pewter goblet full of ale. "Listen.. "

Xena cocked her head towards him, taking a sip of her ale, and blinking. "Hmm?" She pulled her thoughts back from where they'd been wandering, and tried to pay attention to her brother's words. But it was hard, with her mind really interested in considering what Gabrielle had said, and what it might mean for both of them…not that she didn't appreciate Toris' concern, she did, but….

Gabrielle was actually thinking about having another child.

After everything that had happened to her.. to them…how could she? Why would she? To make up for Hope? To prove something to herself.. or to Xena? Damn, she had nothing to prove… she had no part in what happened…

But… she was thinking about it…wasn't she?

The sudden surge of wistful hope hit her before she could slam the lid down on it, and she closed her eyes until she could wrestle it back. No. You asked her to kill her last child. You lost the right to have anything to do with any other one she might have, or want to have, or be thinking of having. Just stop it right now.

Toris exchanged a worried look with Granella, who was seated across from him. "Xena?"

She looked up. "Sorry." She muttered. "I was just thinking." She focused her gaze on him. "What's up?"

"Nothing." Toris reached over and laid a hand on her wrist, closing his fingers over it and meeting her eyes as she looked up. "Just glad you're home." His lips twitched. "Glad you both are."

Xena nodded a little. "Thanks… " She glanced up at both of them. "Sorry you had a trip out for nothing…we were kind of headed back this way."

Granella shrugged a little, and gave her a deprecating grin. "S'allright… we had to stop out by the Amazons anyway… that's how we found out you were back." She plucked a splinter from the table, and shot Xena a look. "Had to pick up my stuff." Her lips curled into a wry smile. "And put up with a ton of centaur poop from the gang."

That, finally, got a smile from the dark haired woman. "So I hear." She cuffed Toris lightly on the shoulder. "Congratulations." An eyebrow quirked. "Or maybe not." She amended, giving Granella a quirky grin. "Hey.. listen… that reminds me…"

They leaned closer, as Xena dropped her voice. "Yeah?" Toris inquired, glancing up to see their mother and Gabrielle crossing the crowded room.

"I wanna make it a double." The warrior rumbled. "She thinks she's too old for that… but.. " Hers and Toris' eyes met in sibling understanding. "I thought we could… kinda.. if we got Jocelyn into it… "

"Jos into what?" Cyrene asked, as she nudged Gabrielle towards Xena's side of the table, and pulled a chair out and seated herself.

"Uh." Xena stalled.

"Um." Toris added, snapping his fingers. "Um.. we were… discussing…"

"Horses." The warrior finally added. "He.. wants to breed his gray to the colts."

Cyrene stared at her. "Two years from now? That's counting your chickens before they lay eggs much less hatch." Her brows creased. "What are you two up to?"

Gabrielle watched her partner's face with interest, seldom seeing her at a loss like that. "Xena always plans ahead, mom." The bard assured her. "Hey.. did I tell you about the weird thing that happened with the bull, and the red paint?" Attention immediately diverted itself to her, and she launched into the tale, feeling the solid, sure pressure of her soulmate's grip on her knee under the table. Her face broke into smile that had nothing to do with the story, and she reached down and covered the strong hand with her own, curling her fingers around Xena's longer ones and giving them a little squeeze. It was returned, but she felt the faint tremor in them, and sensed an odd pang coming through their connection.

A look over, and she saw Xena watching her, with a quiet, sad look in her eyes that the bard didn't understand. She finished the story, and started another, keeping the laughter going around the table while they ate lunch, and edging closer and closer to her subdued soulmate. "Hey." She finally whispered, as Toris was relating an encounter they'd had to the south. "What's up?"

Blue eyes found hers. "Not much… " Then they dropped, and studied the tabletop. "Just thinking, that's all." Xena replied softly. "I liked that bull story… but I don’t remember getting hit in the face with that red painted tail."

"No." Gabrielle licked her lips. "It was somewhere else, but… " Her lips twitched into a teasing grin. "We won't mention that." She watched Xena return the grin, then waited a beat. "So.. I was thinking of taking a walk up to our spring… you interested?" She's not gonna talk here… "Always nice and cool up there."

Xena hesitated, then let out a gentle sigh. "All right."

Gabrielle squeezed her hand, then returned her attention to the laughing crowd. "They're gonna make me sweat tonight…" She cast her gaze around the crowded tavern, where some of the crowd were occasionally glancing their way, and giving her little smiles and waves. "I'm going to get out into the fresh air for a little while."

Cyrene smiled. "Good idea… take her with you." She pointed at her daughter. "Make her take it easy for the rest of the day." She blithely ignored the dour look she got from the taller woman, and merely looked back at her with a determined air, crunching on a bit of carrot. "Bye."

They left the noisy inn behind, and walked up the shaded path that led to the spring. Gabrielle reached over and took her soulmate's hand in her own, and let her thumb rub against the tanned skin, watching the thoughtful look on Xena's face closely. "So.. "

Xena turned her head, and gazed fondly at her. "Gabrielle, if you ask me if I'm ok, I'm going to have to do something drastic to prove it." She warned wryly. "I mean it."

"I wasn't going to ask that." The bard protested, as they climbed up to the grassy plateau that held the spring, and chose a nice shady spot to sit down in. "Hold it.." She settled herself with her back against a tall tree, and patted her lap. "Put your head down."

For a long moment, she thought Xena would refuse, since it put the warrior in a very vulnerable position, and she was already upset. But the blue eyes dropped, and then she meekly let her body recline on the ground and nestled her head against the bard's thigh. Gabrielle gently ran her fingers through the dark hair, loving the feeling of the silken strands against her skin, and knowing that tended to relax her partner.

It worked. Xena's breathing slowed, and she blinked up at the bard with a more peaceful expression. "So.. what were you going to ask?"

Gabrielle continued her stroking motion, gently parting her soulmate's hair, and moving it off her face. "I was going to ask what's upsetting you.. but I think I know the answer." She replied quietly. "I… it wasn't fair for me to bring that whole thing up Xena… we're not ready for it… I'm sorry."

Xena shifted, as though she was going to get up, then sighed, and stayed where she was. "Gabrielle.. if that's what you want.. then you should do it." Her voice held a husky tone.

"If that's what I want?" The bard questioned. "What do you want?"

There was a long silence, as they listened to the rippling chuckle of the water. "I don't… " Xena finally sighed. "Think what I want should matter." She looked up at the bard's very still face. "Look.. what I.. I asked you to do.. what.. I was going to Hope.."

"Xena, you were right." Gabrielle whispered miserably.

"I was wrong." The warrior shot back. "I was so wrong in not.. understanding what you were going through.. or how you felt… or just what in Hades I was asking you, YOU, Gabrielle… to do… it was wrong. I'm wrong." She rolled over, and started to get up, but found herself pulled backwards by a strong arm, and she let herself be dragged back. "How.. could you even want me to… be any part of that?"

"Xena…you listen to me." The bard gripped her chin, and forced her to make eye contact. "I forgive you for that." She let her fingers relax, and gently explore the warrior's cheek. Xena was staying very quiet, and just watching her. "This.. is something I really want…I want to do it." Her eyes searched the warrior's intently. "But I can't do it alone.. and I don't want to… you're a part of me, Xena…and any child I have will be a part of you, too."

They looked at each other. Finally Xena's shoulders slumped, and Gabrielle felt the tension relax in her neck. "How can you trust me?" The warrior asked, in a quiet, sad voice. "I can't."

The bard let her eyes slide closed, as she leaned over, and hugged her soulmate. "How can I trust you?" She whispered in agony. "How can I? I lied, I betrayed you, I took your son from you, and you still love me, and you ask me how I can trust you?"

Xena let herself sink into that embrace, as the words imprinted themselves in her mind. Trust, she acknowledged, was a two way crossing. They'd both been hurt.. both been betrayed.. but.. She curled an arm up over the bard's shoulders and held on. They'd chosen each other all over again anyway.

And that was… just the way it was, that was all. No sense in questioning it, no sense in making either of them more miserable… "Gabrielle?" She uttered softly.

The bard lifted her head, and gazed at her with reddened eyes. "Please…" Fingers touched her lips, silencing her.

"If… " Xena paused and a tiny quirk moved her lips. "When.. you bring a child into this world…" She stopped for a breath. "It will be a part of me." Gabrielle's breathing caught. "And… I promise you… Gabrielle.. I will love it.. and I will protect it.. for as long as I live." She found it very hard to swallow all of a sudden. "Just like I will you." She finished in a whisper.

Gabrielle's head dropped to rest on hers, and the bard wrapped her arms around the warrior's shoulders. They stayed like that for a while, then the bard straightened, and sniffled back her tears. "Glad we have that settled." She murmured, lifting Xena's hand to her face, and brushing her lips against the knuckles. "There are no safer hands in the world to be in."

The birds danced around them for a while, moving in flittering motion from plant to plant, searching for grubs. The water sounds soothed both sets of frazzled nerves, until Gabrielle found her mind drifting off, as her hands gently stroked her partner's tanned skin.

"Keep doing that.. and I'm gonna fall asleep." The warrior commented softly, her eyes closed.

"That's the whole point." Gabrielle answered. "You're going to want to stay up talking and drinking all night with your brother.. I thought you'd want to get some rest in now. " She paused, and cocked an eyebrow at the faintly smirking Xena. "So you don't keel over and get embarrassed. "

"Gabrielle!" The warrior protested. "I'm fine, for Ares' sake." She contemplated bouncing up from the ground to prove it, but it was just so comfortable right where she was, with Gabrielle's gentle touch relaxing her, and the cool breeze counteracting the day's heat. The release from the tension of their brief conflict left her unwilling to move, unwilling to break the spell that her partner's presence was casting over her. "Really."

"Mmhmm." The bard agreed amiably, moving her patterns lower, across the warrior's belly. "I know.. I know… but a nap won't kill you.. and it's such a nice spot, isn't it?"

"Don't need a nap." Came the sleepy argument.

"Of course not." Gabrielle assured her, watching her soulmate's breathing slow, and deepen. "But it's so peaceful here.. I'd really like to just stay here with you for a while… please?" She let her voice soften on the entreaty.

"No fair." But a smile edged its way onto Xena's face. "I'm being shamelessly manipulated."

Gabrielle smiled quietly to herself as she felt he muscles under her fingertips loosen and go slack, and the soft warmth of her partner's exhaled breath warmed her skin as Xena surrendered to her coaxing. She watched the familiar features ease into sleep, and let herself indulge in a long, sweet moment of reveling in their renewed closeness. Then she let her head rest back against the rough bark of the tree, and allowed a long held breath to trickle out.

It was a beautifully sunny day. Xena vaguely realized she was dreaming, but that was ok, because it was a nice dream… one of the good ones. They'd spent the day relaxing on the beach, chasing each other up and down the sand.. she'd felt like a kid again She couldn’t remember the last time she'd laughed so much.. her stomach hurt from it.

She'd taken a net, and dove down into the water, emptying her lungs of air, and hitting the bottom, scooping up load after load of shellfish, which she'd dragged to the surface, and sloshed out of the water with, emptying them on the bed of seaweed next to the cooking pit where Gabrielle was busily sorting them. Three of the green and black spiny lobsters even, which she'd grabbed onto, completely startled by their strength as they pulled her through the clear seawater.

They'd steamed the bounty, and then spent half the night just watching the stars, and talking, and eating.. it had felt very decadent, but she knew they deserved it, after getting loose from Cecrops cursed ship, and her barely avoiding being blinded.. and Gabrielle killed.

Now she lay on her back, feeling the sand still holding the sun's warmth shape itself to her body, and gazed up at the explosion of bright lights above her, taking in a deep breath of the air richly laden with salt from the nearby sea. A bit of something warm touched her lips, and she glanced up, to see Gabrielle dangling a piece of lobster in front of her, a sweet, relaxed smile on her face.

The bard was leaning on one elbow, her damp hair draped over her mostly bare shoulders, and the fire had kissed her skin with golden highlights. Xena had allowed herself to feel the surge of animal attraction between them, and had only barely kept from acting on it, as she'd taken the tidbit from the smaller woman with a faint, rakish grin.

Their eyes had met, and almost… almost… her mind had imagined what it would have felt like if Gabrielle had just come a few inches closer, if they'd let their fear go… the gentle touch of the bard's lips against her own..

Became reality, as she let her eyes drift open, to see soft green ones gazing back at her with that same loving look.

That had always… always been there for her, even from the very beginning, but she'd been too scared, and too angry to let herself see it. "Hi." Now she took in a deep breath of the moisture kissed air of the spring, and glanced around at the deep golden light of late afternoon. "Just a little nap, huh?" But she really couldn't be mad with Gabrielle.. because the fight had tired her out, and sapped her very slowly.. too slowly.. rebuilding reserves.

A light shrug. "I fell asleep too." Gabreille admitted, with a tiny yawn. "Tell me it didn't make you feel better?" She gave her partner a knowing look, putting a gentle fingertip in her nose. "C'mon, Xena…it's not a crime to take more than a candlemark to recover from being sick."

Xena gazed up at her and smiled her full, real smile. "All right…you are absolutely correct. I feel great." She rolled her head to one side and rubbed her cheek against the bard's belly, then stretched her body out with a sigh. "Mmm… I was just having a dream about that day we spent on the beach."

Gabrielle grinned wistfully at her. "Oh… I remember that…. " She laughed softly. "You don't know how close I was to just leaning over and kissing you that night.. I wanted to sooooo bad." She combed Xena's hair with her fingers. "You in that barely nothing linen number you were parading around in all day."

The warrior let out a long chuckle. "Me?" She poked a thumb at her own chest. "What about you? One little tiny piece of fabric here.. " Her finger lightly traced the bard's lower abdomen. "And another up here." She laid a finger on the curve of her partner's breast. "Was that fair?"

They both laughed, then quieted, and looked at each other. "We had a lot of rough times." Gabrielle laid a hand on the warrior's shoulder, and rubbed it. "But we had a lot of good ones, too." She paused. "That's kind of how life is, isn't it?"

Xena thought about that for a bit, then regarded her quietly. "Yeah… I guess it is." She folded her hands across her stomach. "We'd better head back down."

Gabrielle stretched, extending her legs and tightening her thigh muscles, then relaxing them. "Oh…all right." She sighed. "Hey… what were you and Toris up to today?" She tangled her fingers in the warrior's hair and tugged it gently. "Hmm?"

"Oh. Well… thanks, by the way." Xena commented, stifling a yawn. "Um… Toris and Granella are planning on getting joined in about a month."

A fair eyebrow curved up. "And… this is supposed to be kept secret from mom?"

"No." Xena shook her head. "Mom knows all about it." She replied. "But, see… she and Johan were discussing recording things… and she thinks she's too old for us to make a party.. or anything like that for her." The warrior crossed her ankles. "She's really stubborn about stuff like that."

The bard muffled a giggle.

Xena cast an eye back at her. "Go ahead.. say it." She gave her a wry grin. "Runs in the family, right?"

"Well, it does." Gabrielle leaned down and kissed her forehead.

"Yeah, yeah…" The warrior rolled her eyes. "Anyway, having a party for her and keeping it secret is not really… practical. So I thought we could just double up on the one we're throwing for Toris and Granella, and… there you go."

"Hmm." Gabrielle mused. "Not a bad idea." She ducked her head again and this time aimed for her partner's lips, pinning her willing captive down, and letting her hands roam lightly over the relaxed body sprawled in the grass.

It felt so damn good to just be able to do that let her fingers travel over the lean form, as the muscles moved and shifted under her touch. "Mmm…" She moved her head back a little, and let her eyes drink in the sight of her soulmate, enjoying the flicker of sunlight that was dappling her skin. "So..what are we going to get them?"

Xena captured her hand, and nibbled its fingers lightly. "Who? Mom and Johan.. or Toris and Granella?"

"Yes." The bard replied, closing her eyes and concentrating on the tingling jolts Xena's attentions were shooting up and down her spine. "Ooo…. I.. figured maybe some… um.. Xena, that’s…"

"Yeah, I know." The warrior felt her partner's body squirm a little as she found a particularly sensitive spot. Then she hesitated, remembering. "Hey….are you all right with this?" She reached up and brushed the bard's cheek, as the green eyes fluttered open. "I… I don't want to.. to rush things, if you're… whoa." Xena received her answer via a sweetly passionate kiss. A happy chill skittered up her spine, as she responded, and let herself relax into a wave of seductive warmth, familiar and poignant after their long estrangement. We shouldn't do this…. The practical part of her mind interrupted her. But it felt way too good to stop, and she couldn’t find enough willpower to even so much as slow down.

The bard's skin warmed under her touch, as she slipped a hand under the soft tunic fabric and let her hands return the insistent exploration her partner was pursuing. They rolled gently onto the grassy surface, and she pulled Gabrielle's body up, settling her into a comfortable spot as she nibbled her way across the bard's collarbone, feeling the pulse pounding wildly just under the surface.

No fear this time… Gabrielle's thoughts exulted. Nothing but pure sensual enjoyment as the leaves danced patterns over both of them, and the setting sun washed their bodies with crimson warmth. No fear, no Dahok… no memories of the horror… just a sweet peace that sent a healing wave over her, and caused a rich, soft laugh to come bubbling up out of her chest.

Did she hear an echo? No…her hands, pressed momentarily flat against the muscular abdomen under her felt the ripple as Xena laughed with her, before they fell against each other, and let the fierce passion take them over.

"Xena?" Gabrielle let out a contented sigh, drifting in a cloud of sensual lassitude. She was draped comfortably over her partner's long body, with her head tucked neatly under the warrior's chin. The rich scent of the grass they were laying in rose around her, and she plucked a stalk of it, chewing it absently.

"Hmm?" The warrior was letting her hands move in lazy circles against her partner's bare back, as the breeze lifted their hair and intertwined it, tangling black and gold strands in wild disarray. "What are you chewing on there?"

"We really gotta go back." The bard observed. "I'm hungry." She held up the stalk. "See?"

Xena let out a burst of surprised laughter. "Gods… some things just don't change, do they?" She gave the bard's stomach a gentle tickle. "Ok..ok… let me up.. can't have you starving now, can I? "

Gabrielle obligingly rolled off her, ending up on her back, with her limbs sprawled, gazing up at the gently whispering leaves over her head. She gave Xena an impish look as the warrior lifted herself up on one elbow, and fastened the bard's tunic, buckling the belt and giving her a little pat.

"Up you go.." Xena pushed herself up and got to her feet, fastening her own clothing and running a hand through her disordered hair, then extending a hand down to the still reclining bard. "C'mon."

Gabrielle grabbed the hand, and jerked hard, surprising her normally agile partner and causing her to lose her balance, and stumble forward, missing landing on the bard by way of a mid air flip that ended her up in the grass. "Hey!!" She rolled over, giving her soulmate an outraged look. "What was that for?"

The bard let a short breath out. "Um..sorry." A touch of confusion blurred her voice. "I… I was…" She stopped. "Sorry." No more playtime, Gabrielle. Try to remember that. "I… let's go." She stood up, brushing her tunic off, and started down the overgrown path.

She never heard the footsteps, never heard the whisper of leaves shifting their way around a moving body, never felt the air displacing until something very big, and very warm hit her from behind, and took her crashing through the leaves and into a thick bed of sweet smelling wild flowers. She rolled over twice, wrapped in strong arms, as pollen exploded around her and drifted down to cover them both in a golden haze.

"Oh no.. you started this." Came the soft response, as half frightened, half aching blue eyes searched her face, in the dying light of the day. "I… I miss playing with you, Gabrielle… I didn't mean… you just surprised me." She let out a breath. "I'm sorry."

Gabrielle leaned close, and blew a dusting of pollen off her forehead. "It's ok." She managed a smile. "I keep forgetting… it's going to take… time." She gently reached up and stroked Xena's cheek. "I'm the one who should be apologizing." She shook her head. "I just… forgot… or maybe my mind wants so badly to go back to where we were before, it just…blanks that stuff out, and I… " Helplessly, she started crying, not really sure of why.

"Oh.. Gabrielle." Xena responded gently, pulling her body against her own, almost smothering her in a hug. "Hey.. hey… we're getting there…." She rocked the bard lightly. "Aren't we?" The uncertain note in her voice was very evident.

The bard felt her sobs ease, as the words filtered through her understanding. It was true, she knew it, had felt it as surely as she could now feel the rapid pounding of Xena's heart under her cheek. Suddenly her lack of control touched her with embarrassment, as she sensed her partner's distress. "We are… we are… of course we are..I'm being such a damn baby…" She looked up and gave the warrior a contrite look. "I must be getting close to cycling…"

That brought a gentle smile to Xena's face. "Mmm… yeah… you do get a little touchy around then."

One eyebrow elevated. "What's that suppose to mean?" Gabrielle scowled.

Xena could have let it sting, but she took a breath, and bore down, knowing they had to get past this fear of each other before healing could really happen. Instead, she raised her own eyebrow, and smirked.

Gabrielle opened her mouth to make a heated retort, then stopped, and let a smile appear on her face as she wagged a finger at her partner. "Cute, Xena… very cute." It got her a genuine, full smile in return, which eased the lingering bands hugging her heart. She plucked two of the wild flowers, and brushed their feathery tips against Xena's tanned skin, speckling the soft surface with yellow dust. A grin quirked her lips, and she brushed a twin streak across the warrior's other cheekbone. "Stripes." She observed. "I like it."

A very faint, devilish gleam sparked in those very blue eyes. Xena reached out a long arm and plucked a handful of the blooms, fluttering them rapidly under the bard's chin, and covering her throat with the glittering pollen. "Spots." The warrior drawled. "I like it."

They eyed each other, then the flower bed exploded in a flurry of pollen, as they grabbed every bloom in reach and set to work dousing each other in the sweet scented stuff.

"Yah!" Gabrielle squirmed around, and got a handful of the flowers under her partner's loosely fastened shirt, feeling her convulse as the stems tickled her. "Heh.. gotcha…..whoops…AUGH!!!"

Xena had used the fact that the bard's back was turned to her to get a good aim on the back of her thigh, which was her most ticklish spot. The warrior grabbed onto the bard's writhing body and alternated between one leg and the other, until Gabrielle howled in surrender. She released her partner immediately.

Bad idea. Gabrielle rolled away, then got her feet under her and launched herself back at the half lying, half seated warrior, whose eyes widened as the compact body hurtled towards her. "Whoa!" The bard yelled as they collided, and her momentum sent them tumbling backwards.

Down a small slope, which contained long grasses that whipped them lightly as they rolled by, laughing too hard to stop. "Whoa…oh… hey… " Xena blinked, and grabbed the bard as her tumbled rapidly increased, and she glanced around, trying to get her bearings "Uh… Gab… oh… " The ground dropped out from under her, and she cursed, wrapping her arms and legs around her startled partner as they fell through the air.

"Hey!" Gabrielle yelped, as the foliage flashed past her eyes, and the scent of water suddenly hit her. "Gods.. the spring.."

Xena sighed inwardly, and half turned her body, so that the impact, when it came, would hit her, and not Gabrielle. She felt the nearness of the approaching surface, and winced in reaction. "Hang on…"

She expected a splash, but the impact, when it came, was more of a… splat.

It knocked the breath out of her, enough for the sensation of sinking, and the warm, oozing, sucking sensation to confuse her before she realized what had happened. "Oh Hades codpiece." She groaned, releasing her partner and spreading her arms wide.

"Ew." Gabrielle muffled a giggle, as they sunk into thick, black mud, which glorped, and bubbled, eager to suck down its new inhabitants. "Gross."

The mud burped, splattering her with its gooey stickiness, but that didn't rid her face of it's grin as she perched on her partner's chest, staring down at the mud covered warrior. Playfully, she dipped a finger into the ooze and touched it to Xena's nose. "Spots." She grinned. "I like it."

Xena's hands moved swiftly, capturing the bard's face and sliding her fingers across it. "Stripes." She grinned right back. "I like it."

Another spot. Another stripe. Then they were wrestling in the soft black mud, grabbing frantically for holds on skin that was rapidly becoming slick with wetness. "Gotcha.." Gabrielle panted, getting an arm around her partner's body, and holding on.

"Don’t think so." Xena growled back, flipping her whole body over and freeing herself, then catching the bard around the waist and rubbing a handful of mud in her hair.

 "Ugh." The bard howled, tossing a glob over her shoulder and ducking, then realizing that her partner's tormenting had stopped. She peeked over her shoulder, and her eyes widened at the sight of her soulmate's face completely covered in black ooze. "Oops." She bit her lip to keep from laughing. "Sorry… bleh!" A mudball pegged her in the mouth. "Pah.. " She spat out a mouthful of the stuff. "Pah..pah pah.. " She poked her tongue out, and shook her head rapidly. "Gross… Xena!"

They paused, both breathing hard, and looked at each other, at two mud covered, widely grinning faces.

It felt, Gabrielle closed her eyes and absorbed it. It felt, very, very much like home. She didn't even twitch as arms closed around her, and she was slowly lifted clear of the mud. She kept her eyes closed, and wound her arms around Xena's neck, ignoring the stench and the stickiness of the mud as Xena's body moved, and she heard the unpleasant, distinctive sound of sucking as the warrior pulled her boots free of the muck, one labored step at a time. "I can walk, you know." She reminded her partner, opening one eye and regarding the mud encrusted features close to her own.

"Trying to ruin my fun?" Xena replied, managing to retain a quietly noble air despite the stiffened, dried mud that poked her hair out in all directions.

"Me? Never." Gabrielle sighed, and put her head back down. "Where are we going?"

The warrior's steps lengthened, then Gabrielle heard a splash as the boots hit water instead of mud. "Oh." She sniffed reflectively. "Yeah.. I guess showing up at home looking like bog beasties is probably not a good idea." The water hit her butt, and she flinched. "Whoo… that's cold." She looked up. "Couldn't you find a warm spring?"

Xena glanced down, then grinned wickedly, and simply unlocked her knees, plunging them both into the chilly spring water. She released Gabrielle, who shook herself vigorously, and surfaced, blowing out a mouthful of water, and running her fingers through her now once again red golden hair. She watched as Xena did the same, emerging from the spring's depths and letting out a breath that stirred the water's surface with its force. The last rays of sunlight gilded her, and backlit the dripping wet linen that outlined her body.

They faced each other for a long moment, letting themselves adjust to what had just happened.

"So." Gabrielle sloshed forward, and plucked at the wet shirt. "Now I guess we've just got to go back… and get you changed before you come down with a fever." She paused. "Again." She sneaked a peek at Xena's face, which held only an indulgent grin. The teasing felt… right, as it hadn't for so long.

"Yes, mom." Xena replied softly, reaching out and cupping her cheek. "We'd better.. I can hear your stomach growling from here."

Gabrielle snorted, then grinned ruefully, as her body betrayed her, and dropped a hand to her belly. "Busted."

"C'mon." Xena held out a hand, and waited for her to take it, then they walked out of the spring, and down the path leading home.

"So." Johan stepped up behind her, and let his chin rest on her shoulder. "They'll stay around, you think?"

Cyrene continued her counting task, sorting beans into three piles. "I don't know." She answered absently, then stopped, and juggled a handful of beans as she looked back at him. "Maybe." She sighed. "Gods know they both desperately need some time to recover." Her head moved silently from side to side. "Xena said.. the other morning.. that her priorities in life had changed.. we never had a chance to talk about that. I'm hoping that means she's staying."

Johan nudged her shoulder, and pointed outside the window, and they watched as the dusky blue twilight grudgingly revealed two shadowed forms edging out of the tall grasses and into the fitful fluttering glow of the torches on the outside of the inn.

Her daughter's unmistakably tall, lithe body, one arm wrapped comfortably around the smaller Gabrielle, both of them walking with unhurried, easy strides towards their cabin. As they watched, the bard looked up at her companion, and smiled, then leaned her head against the nearby shoulder, and wound an arm around the warrior's waist. Cyrene shook her head, then squinted. "Stay here." She bustled out the back door to the inn, and intercepted the strolling pair.

"Hi." Gabrielle greeted her, as they slowed. "Sorry.. that was a little longer than I expected, and…"

Cyrene got right up next to them, and grabbed Xena's sleeve. "You're wet." She accused.

A swift exchange of glances followed. "Um… well, yeah." The bard answered carefully. "It…"

The innkeeper held up a hand. "Where is your sense, the two of you? Xena, you've just spent days in bed with a fever, and you walk around dripping wet like this?" Her voice was tight with anger. "What are you trying to do?"

Xena was suddenly revisited with stark memories of her childhood, of being caught doing things she wasn't supposed to be doing. "Mother, it was an accident…and we headed right back…"

Her mother's voice overpowered her. "Don't give me that, Xena…when are you going to learn to take care of yourself? Do you still think no one gives a damn ab.." She stopped, faced suddenly with intense green eyes that were on a level with hers, and focused intently.

"Stop it." Gabrielle had shifted her body, and put herself between her soulmate and the angry innkeeper. "It was my fault." She turned, and put both hands flat against Xena's stomach. "Go change."

"But…" The warrior protested.

"Please?" Gabrielle uttered, in a low voice.

Xena let out a short, impatient breath, but nodded, and backed off, turning and walking away without another word. Gabrielle waited a long beat before she swiveled and faced Cyrene, who was standing quietly, observing her with an unreadable expression. "It was my fault." The bard repeated. "I pushed her into a mud puddle, and we had to clean off."

Cyrene regarded her thoughtfully. "A mud puddle?" She hesitated. "You were fighting?" She asked carefully, remembering with anguish the stories Ephiny had told, of Xena's brutal treatment of the young bard. "Gabrielle.. " She moved a step closer, concerned.

A small shake of the bard's head. "No." She let out a short laugh. "We were just playing." She plucked at her own wet clothing. "It's.. .been a long time since we did that… I guess I got a little too enthusiastic…we ended up in some really disgusting black mud near the spring and we had to duck into the water to get it off us." She glanced up, sheepishly. "So.. don't yell at her, ok?"

Cyrene put her hands on her hips, and gave the bard an affectionate look. "You always were her champion, weren't you?" She sighed, then put a hand on Gabrielle's damp shoulder. "I wish she'd had a friend like you when she was young, Gabrielle. " A wistful smile. "Come on.. I'll walk you home. You need to change too."

They walked in silence for a few paces. "I wish I had too." Gabrielle reflected soberly. "I remember… one time, when I was… oh, nine or ten, I guess…it.. hadn't been a really nice day…and I was out hiding in the barn loft, watching the kids play in the yard." She paused a bit, thinking. "I…was thinking that with all those kids.. and even with my sister, that no one ever… really…understood me… never listened to my dreams.. or even cared about who I was." Their footsteps crunched lightly on the graveled path, as the first owl's hoots sounded. "I never thought anyone would." She shook her head. "But Xena did… she… somehow…understood me.. and she didn't only listen to my dreams, she made them real." Now her eyes pinned Cyrene's. "Of course I defend her."

They both looked up as the door opened, and Xena ambled out, dressed in a richly silky dress, followed by a prancing Ares. She stood at the top of the stairs, and put her hands on her hips. "Listen, mother. Gabrielle catches cold easy.. I don’t' appreciate you keeping her out here in the breeze like that."

Cyrene's jaw dropped, and she stared at her daughter, who sauntered down the steps and took the bard's elbow, gently escorting her up the stairs. She finally clamped her jaw shut, and shook her head. "Women your age playing in mud puddles… you both aught to be ashamed." She turned on her heel, and walked off, muttering.

Gabrielle waited until the door closed behind her before she let out a soft giggle, turning around as Xena gently peeled the damp cloth from her body, and draped a dry, clean garment around her. "Mmm." She let her fingers run down the soft fabric, admiring it's rich, green color. "I always liked this one." She fastened the laces on the low cut neckline which displayed a fair amount of her shoulders, and smiled a little, as the candlelight in the cabin caught and reflected from the crystal pendant around her neck.

"Me too." Xena agreed, stepping up behind her, and running a brush through her fair hair, which was well on it's way to drying. "You look really pretty in it."

Gabrielle let out a soft breath, and absorbed the compliment happily. "Thanks." She threw a selfconcious glance at the mirror, which captured both their reflections in candelight. An eyebrow arched gently, as she took in the light fabric which draped against her body, moving gently as she breathed. I hardly recognize myself. She thought. The face that solemnly looked back at her seemed far older than she remembered, and when had her eyes gained that intense look? "I don’t look anything like my mother or Lila, do I?" She mused softly.

"No." Xena's voice burred over her shoulder. "Not really." She fluffed Gabrielle's hair out and played with her bangs, parting them in different ways until the bard gave her a look. "Guess you must be a throwback or something… if you look far enough back in your family, you'll find some other fair haired, green eyed ancestor."

"Hm." Gabrielle considered that. "Maybe." She turned around, dismissing her reflection, and straightened the lace trimmed collar on the burgundy silk dress that hugged her partner's body. "Mm… I always like this one too..only on you." She ran a finger down Xena's side. "What's the occasion?"

Xena didn't answer for a moment. Then she lifted her hand and gently brushed the remaining pollen from her partner's fair eyebrows. "Do you know what we were doing one year ago today?"

Gabrielle gazed at her, surprised. "Not off the top of my head… but you do, right?"

The warrior nodded once. "We were standing in Hectator's stronghold, getting ready for a party." The night she had freely, and willingly loosed the strings that bound her heart, and given it to the bard, making a decision that she'd hesitated over for what seemed like a lifetime, afraid that going forward would change a friendship she'd desperately needed, or worse.. end it.

The bard stroked her arm gently. "I have some very fond memories of that night. " She paused, and blushed. "Now, anwyay." She added in a low mutter, then glanced up, smiling. "So… are we celebrating?"

Xena returned the smile. "Yeah, I guess we are." She flicked the bard's bangs. "I think we're due a little celebration.. don't you?"

Gabrielle's smile broadened. "Oh yeah." She held out a hand. "C'mon.. I won't even tell any of the embarrassing stories tonight.. I promise."

The inn was almost full when they got there, and Xena held the door open to allow her partner to enter. She stepped inside after, ducking her head to enter though the doorway was more than sufficient to accommodate her inches. Habit.. she mused, as she straightened up, and glanced across the room.

The rumble of conversation had dampened, as eyes turned their way, and stuck, and she heard the faint wolf whistle that had to have come from Toris just to her right at their table. She cast her brother a sardonic look as she started to pull a chair back, then stopped, and instead tugged one out for Gabrielle, who goggled at her before she seated herself with a muffled chuckle.

She felt a faint flush as she dropped into the chair next to her, and was glad of the inn's relative darkness to cover it. "Hey." She gave her brother a slap in the ribs.

Toris mock coughed. "Ow." He glanced down as Ares cuddled himself down in a ball next to Xena's feet. "Thank the gods you're back, sis.. that wolf did nothing but howl.. and whine.. and howl… every single moment you were gone… you'd think we'd parked a chair on his tail."

Xena looked down. "Did you do that?"

"Roo?" Ares poked his muzzle up, and licked her leg. "Arrgrrrooooo.." He laid his head down on her boot, and sighed.

The warrior grinned, and dropped a hand down and scratched his ears. "I missed you too." She whispered surreptitiously

"What was that?" Toris cupped his ear teasingly. "I didn’t quite catch it."

His sister shot him an evil look, and ignored the question, picking up a chunk of bread from the platter on the table and taking a bite. Gabrielle was leaning over, and speaking in low tones to Granella, who was dressed in a comfortable looking belted tunic in a pretty deep rust color, which brought out the warm chestnut highlights in her sun streaked hair. The Amazon's face was more animated than Xena remembered, and she couldn't fail to notice that Granella spared frequent glances and smiles at her brother. Guess that's what love does to you. She considered wryly. They both look damned happy… and I'm glad.

Toris put a finger on her wrist, and she turned towards him. "Yeah?"

He grinned. "Dinar for your thoughts." He looked up as a server set down a huge platter containing several joints, and a scattering of vegetables. "Whoops.. it'll hold." Manfully, he stood, and removed his dagger, starting to work on the roast.

Xena watched him for several moments, then shook her head. "Toris, siddown." She grabbed his wrist, and squeezed, catching the dagger as it fell from his suddenly nerveless fingers, and putting it aside as she drew her own, much longer blade and expertly sectioned the meat with sure, powerful strokes.

"Well, sure." Toris huffed. "You have a longer knife."

One dark eyebrow curved up, almost into Xena's hairline. "It's not the length, Toris.. it's the skill behind it." She purred, holding back a chuckle as she heard Gabrielle muffle a snort. "Right, Gabrielle?"

The bard was biting her lip. "Oh.. right." She nodded vigorously. "I always say that."

"Really? Why?" Granella joined the banter, her eyes twinkling. "And what's this I hear about mud wrestling?"

Gabrielle sucked up all her bardic training, and her skills, and kept a straight face. "Well… Xena's made sure that I've gotten training in all forms of hand to hand fighting." She explained earnestly. "You have to be prepared in all kinds of conditions.. mud.. snow… rain… " She paused. "Darkness… sleet.. did I say rain already?"

 Granella almost snorted her ale. "Be prepared, huh?"

The bard nodded solemnly. "Oh yes… we practice a lot. Xena wants to make sure I'm very safe.. Safety is very important, don’t you think?"

It took all of Xena's considerable self control to keep from howling, as she delicately finished slicing the roast up, and delivered portions to everyone's plates. "Oh yeah.. I'm big on safety." The warrior commented dryly, as she plopped a knife load of gently steaming beef in front of her partner, then looked up as Cyrene and Johan joined them. "Evening, mother." She held up her knife. "Would you like some meat?"

Both Granella and Gabrielle both found that funny, and burst out laughing.

Xena kept a mild look on her face.

"What's so funny?" The innkeeper asked, as she seated herself next to Granella, and gave them all a look. "Toris, why are you letting your sister do all the work? She's been sick." She scowled at her son. "Lazy thing."

His jaw sagged. "Mother!… but… she…"

Xena reversed her dagger, and drove it point first into the table, then seated herself and took a delicate bite. "That's all right.. I didn't mind." She glanced mildly over at her brother. "Anyway, I've got a longer, and sharper dagger."

Granella sprayed the table with a mouthful of ale, while Gabrielle blushed. "Xena." The bard muttered, giving her silk dress a tug. "Be nice."

The warrior widened innocent blue eyes at her. "I am being nice… I served everyone, didn’t' I?" She blinked. "It's not my fault Toris has a dull knife."

The slim Amazon burst out laughing, unable to hold it in any longer.

"Very funny." Toris growled, throwing a pea at his sister, who neatly caught it in her mouth, and swallowed it.

Cyrene sighed, and took a swallow of ale. "You'd think we could have normal conversations around this table." She muttered. "Like about sex or something."

"Mother!." Toris squeaked, in a horrified tone.

"About what?" Xena commented, halfway through chewing a bit of beef. "Hey..c'mon.. we're trying to eat, here."

Gabrielle stared at her plate, and didn't loosen the death grip she had on Xena's thigh, her whole body shaking from the effort not to laugh.

The innkeeper sighed. "Kids." She rolled her eyes.

The crowded inn sent a round of laughter ringing against the wooden floors and walls, and Gabrielle grinned in response, before she let the noise settle, and continued her story. She'd been at it for quite a while, running through three stories, and now close to the end of her fourth. It felt.. great, she admitted privately. The crowd was enjoying it, she was enjoying it.. she felt loose, and relaxed.. and she kept treating herself to quick glances over to where her soulmate was sitting, watching her with a warm smile on her face.

Yeah. Her eyes roamed around the familiar space. This is home. She watched as Josclyn edged his way through the crowd, and sat down next to Xena, speaking to her in low tones that made the warrior incline her dark head in that direction.

It didn't take long, and then he left, and she observed the thoughtful, pensive look on her soulmate's face with interest. Xena studied the table, then took a deep breath, and looked right up at her. Their eyes met, and held, and she almost lost the thread of the story she was telling at the intensity of Xena's gaze. But she managed to hold onto it, and finished the story, to wild applause that warmed her through.

She made her way back through the crowd, stopping a bunch of times for eager hands that held her, and friendly voices that questioned her.

"Gabrielle!" The woman's voice distracted her, and she turned that way, to see the weaver's wife beckoning her over. "Please.. a moment with you."

She crossed to the woman's table, where she was seated with her heavy set husband, enjoying wine and cakes. "Hello, Hystera." She crouched down, and rested her elbows on the table's surface. "What's going on?"

"It's the classes.." The woman warbled at her. "Now that you're back, we can start them again, right?" She leaned over, her ample chest spilling onto the table. "Little Lenos misses them so… he's been practicing his letters since the winter ended."

Gabrielle remained silent for a moment, the looked up. "Yes.. I think we can." She replied honestly. "For now.. anyway.. we haven't really decided what we're going to do just yet."

The woman patted her arm, and clucked. "Honey…you should stay here… what do you want to go roaming out in the wild for? " She leaned closer. "We need you both here." Her eyes shifted. "Horrible things… raiders… I feel so much safer with Xena around.. and look what she did for Hanna?"

The bard smiled a little. "I know… we like it here . and mostly it's not us we go traveling around for, it's other people, who need our help too."

"Sometimes, you just got to look out for yourself, and let the world handle it's own problems for a while, ma'am." The weaver intoned softly, his straight silver shot brown hair falling into his eyes. He pushed it back impatiently. "They'll come knocking soon enough without you looking for them. "

Gabrielle thought about that, and finally laughed gently. "You're right." She stood, and gave them both a nod. "Thanks." It solidified a determination in her mind, and she took a deep breath, before she turned, and headed back to her family.

The stars were vibrant overhead as they finally left the inn. Gabrielle let out a sigh, as they headed across the silent courtyard and threw her head back, shaking her sweat dampened hair off the back of her neck. "Gods.. it was hot in there." She took a deep breath of the sweetly scented breeze. "Did you have a good time?"

"Yeah." Xena replied, regarding the moonlit path thoughtfully. "I did." She glanced at her soulmate. "You certainly were popular…I thought some of those people were going to split in half laughing over that last one." She hesitated a bit. "Felt good, didn't it?"

"Hmmmmmm…. Yeah." Gabrielle grinned happily. "It really did….I didn't realize how much I missed that until tonight."

They walked along quietly, until they reached the cabin, then Xena steered her towards the porch chair, and sat down, patting the surface next to her. "Want to sit out here for a little while? It's nice."

Gabrielle settled amiably next to her, and leaned back, putting a boot up against the porch railing and clasping her hands around her knee. She turned her head slightly to regard her partner, who was gazing out over the silver hued landscape, and chewing her lip a little. The bard felt a gentle, fond smile edging her lips. "So…" She took a breath. "What's up?"

Blue eyes gone ghostly gray in the moonlight eyed her. "What makes you think something's up?" She inquired softly.

Gabrielle smiled a little. "Because I know you." She replied matter of factly. "How about I start.. ok?" She cleared her throat. "Half the people in town are trying to get me involved in very ongoing projects…I got questioned about classes,.. upcoming treaties, trading agreements, sparring matches, and an offer of permanent employment as the town teacher from Joscyln."

Xena hid a grin. "Well… now.. come to think of it… " She let out a breath. "Me too.. including a very lucrative offer from our friend the reeve to build a horse breeding program, and.. and a request to replace Renas.. who has to go off and take care of his mother, who's ailing."

They looked at each other. "Mom's been busy, huh?" The bard remarked.

"Mm." Xena agreed, then glanced down at her hands. "It's… a strange feeling."

Gabrielle snorted. "What… that people think you're useful?" Her eyebrows shot up. "Getouttahere, Xena…you're kidding me, right?"

The warrior looked up. "No, that they want me to stay." She leaned forward, and rested her elbows on her knees, clasping her hands lightly between them. "And… that I want to." She finished softly, letting the truth trickle through her lips and escape.

The bard let her head drop against her partner's shoulder. "Oh good." She lifted herself up and kissed the faintly spicy smelling skin under her cheek. "Makes my little speech a lot easier." She glanced over and caught Xena's shy look. "What I was going to say to you… is that…I.. I don't know what's going to happen… Xena.. I… know we can't hide from the world." She paused, and considered her words. "And I know trouble is probably always going to come looking for us."

"Is it?" Xena replied quietly.

Gabrielle gave her a look. "It always does." She answered. "But I'd like a chance to build a life here with you.. I don't want to give this opportunity up."

The warrior stood up, and crossed to the railing, gripping the wood in her hands, and leaning on it. "I've been thinking." She finally said, turning and facing Gabrielle, and crossing her arms over her chest. "About taking Josc up on his offer.. both of them, really." She took a breath. "I.. Gabrielle.. I think… " It was harder than she'd ever imagined. "I think it's time I lay down my sword."

The bard sat, stunned for a long moment, then sucked in a deep breath. "Wow." She stood up, and crossed to her soulmate, studying her. "You really mean that, don't you?"

A faint nod. "Yes." Xena enunciated the word carefully. "Trouble comes looking for me.. a lot.. because I am trouble, Gabrielle. Everyone knows it…Dahok knew it… Ares does… the temptation.. of what I am is just too strong." She studied the wooden porch support, and rubbed a finger down it. "So… I.. need to stop being that.. if I want any kind of.. peace." Her eyes found the bard's. "And especially if you're part of my life."

The bard turned and rested her hands on the railing, peering out for a long moment, then gazing back at the warrior. "Xena.. I.. think there'll always be danger out there, and people who.."

"Oh.. well.." The taller woman shrugged lightly. "Yeah… it's not like I'll forget how to fight anytime soon.. I kinda have to keep that up anyway.. " Her lips twitched in a wry smile, and she patted her belly with a rueful look. "I get kinda out of control otherwise." She straightened her shoulders. "But I don’t need to advertise the fact… or be out there looking for trouble… being a target all the time." She let out a breath. "I've really been thinking about this, Gabrielle.. I know it seems kind of crazy, but.."

The bard reached up and put a hand across her mouth. "Shh."

Xena blinked at her. "Whaff?" She mumbled, then fell silent.

Gabrielle waited a moment, then removed her hand, and wrapped her arms around the warrior's neck, pulling her head down and kissing her soundly.

The warrior finally drew her head back, and licked her lips, tasting the last tinge of sweet cider Gabrielle had been drinking. "Guess you think it's a good idea then, huh?" Her eyes held a silent hopefulness.

The bard regarded her seriously. "I do." She hesitated, then went on. "But I'll be honest with you… Xena.. I don't think this whole thing is over… and… I think you.. are the key to eventually ending it."

"Me?" Xena asked softly. "Why?"

But Gabrielle shook her head. "I don't know.. it's just what I think." She moved closer and put a soothing hand on the warrior's arm. "And I also think that settling here is a great idea.. for both of us." She paused. "It's what I really want… but I think you know that already."

Xena smiled gently at her. "I kinda had guessed, yeah." She let out a relieved breath. "Besides..… " Her hands curled on either side of the bard's head. "You need a nice, stable place to raise kids, huh?"

Yeah. Gabrielle marveled to herself, as she fell into a long, heartfelt hug. It would be different…kinda scary.. because she knew, better than anyone else, just how much of her complicated partner was wrapped up in the violence that had ruled her life for so long. She wasn't even sure it was possible… but if Xena was willing to try it… hey.. who was she to argue? It meant a permanent change in their lives..but one, she mused.. that she thought they were more than ready for. "I think I'm gonna like this a lot." She gazed up at Xena, who smiled back. "Besides.. Granella was pleading with me to stick around.. she hasn't got anyone to spar with otherwise.. she says your brother is hopeless."

The warrior chuckled. "Well.. that's true." She settled an arm around her soulmate's shoulders, and guided her towards the cabin. "You're better than she is, though."

Gabrielle chewed her lip, debating with herself. "Eeehhh… I don’t know if that's true anymore. " She replied quietly. "I've missed my favorite sparring partner a lot." She held her breath, feeling the muscles go tight in the body pressed against hers. She looked up at the still, serious face, and sighed. "But.. I guess I can.. work with Gran…I.."

"Get your staff." Xena said, very quietly, on the tail end of a very long breath.

It was an ethereal sight. The small cleared space in front of their cabin was bathed in silver light and sharp black shadows, as the night bleached all color from the surroundings. Gabrielle gently gripped her familiar staff, her fingers curling and uncurling around it's carved surface. Xena had gotten her own staff from the barn, buried deep under who knew how many layers of hay, and dust, and was now standing across from her, taking short, nervous breaths.

We must be crazy. Gabrielle figured, trying to settle herself down. C'mon, Gabrielle.. it's just Xena, for the sake of the gods…you've been doing this for years. "Ok…" She stepped forward and lifted her staff, then took another breath as she realized Xena wasn't going to be the aggressor in this match. It's late… she's probably tired, what in Hades are we doing out here?

But the opportunity… Grimly, she made her move, and felt the tiny shiver of contact as her swing was countered. Another move, another even rebuff, the solid sound of wood hitting wood. The shadows flickered between them, starlight picking out the burnished highlights in Xena's dark hair as the warrior glided forward and countered her parry, but so gently she barely felt it.

So many things in her eyes… Gabrielle felt a quiet anguish. She was doing this because the bard wanted it, but her heart wasn't in it… she seemed almost afraid to use any kind of force in her blows. The bard considered, then squared her shoulders, and swung harder, feeling the solid sting as her staff hit her partner's, and she stepped forward, pushing the warrior back. "Come on, Xena." She said softly. "Either do this, or don’t'."

She felt the sting of the next parry shiver up her arms, and a little chill ran down her spine as her body remembered the strength that was behind those hands now gripping the staff with a little more intensity. "Better." She slammed her staff against Xena's again, trying to force her back, and felt her momentum almost succeed, before she shoved up against a coiled force, that held her still, then gently pushed her away. "That felt a little more familiar." She smiled into Xena's cool, shadowed eyes. "C'mon…. " She swung the staff full force this time, and the solid crack as it hit Xena's traveled up her arms and shoulders.

I can't do this. Xena felt her heart start to pound, as the familiar exercise brought vivid memories of anger, and rage and grief back to her. She saw Gabrielle step forward, and the silvery moonlight blurred on the bard's staff as she aimed a powerful strike at the warrior.

And for the first tine in her adult life, she froze, unable to move, unable to defend herself. The sharp crack that followed was wood against flesh and bone, as a painful blast exploded against her skull, and she dropped to her knees, hearing the faint sound as the staff she had been holding clattered to the ground.

Blinking in confusion, she fought to clear her vision, clouded with dancing sparks, and reached her hand up, barely hearing the soft, choked cry from Gabrielle, who dropped her own staff and grabbed her. What had happened? Her mind tried to cope with it. Her instincts had completely failed… and she felt a sense of panic rising.

"Xena… Xena.." The bard's horrified voice was only a touch above a whisper. "Oh gods… gods.. are you… " Her hands shook as she gently, gently pulled the warrior's hands away from her head, and checked the spot, feeling the warmth under the growing lump. "Oh gods… no… no…."

"It's…" Xena struggled to regain control of herself. "S'allright… I don't know what…I'm ok…" Slowly the pain was receding, and she rubbed her eyes a little. "Sorry… I…" Her vision blurred, and she closed her eyes, waiting a long moment, then opening them again. This time the bard slid into focus, and she let out a relieved breath. "I.. don't think I was ready for that." She told the bard quietly.

Gabrielle released a ragged breath. "I shouldn't have pushed you." She admitted, miserably. "I didn't mean to hurt you, Xena." She added softly. "I was just trying…oh damn."

The warrior studied the silver fair head bowed before her, and reached out a hesitant hand, to touch the shining surface and feel it's silken texture against her fingertips. "Of course you didn't." She burred in a low tone. But Gabrielle's head remained down, and she could feel the anguish traveling through their connection. "Gabrielle…it's all right."

"No it's not." The bard replied, in a tired voice. "One of these days I'll stop fooling myself into thinking that it'll ever be… " She sat down heavily on the ground. "I keep pretending.. and pretending… thinking maybe if I wish hard enough, it'll all just… go back the way it was." She looked up sadly. "I'm sorry."

Xena stared at her for what seemed like a lifetime, then a grim little smile tugged at her lips. "C'mon." The warrior stood, ignoring the ache in her head, and picked up her staff. "Let's try this one more time." I need to get over this. She doesn't need to carry this around with her like everything else, damn it. "Gabrielle?"

Gabrielle shook her head. "No.. Xena.. come on. I'm tired."

An eyebrow cocked determinedly. "Please?"

"Xena." The bard sighed. "I know what you're trying to do… just… let's forget it, ok?" Silence. "Xena?" More silence. She looked up, to see her partner waiting quietly, her hands wrapped around her staff, leaning on it. "Centaur farts." Gabrielle cursed softly, and got to her feet, lifting her staff up.

To have it taken neatly from her hands in a motion so swift she didn't even see it. The sting rattled her nerves and she yelped in surprise. "Hey!" She scooped the staff up from the ground, and squared her shoulders, then took a tentative swipe at the silent warrior, who parried it neatly, and sent her staff flying again.

Gabrielle sighed, but her heart lightened. "All right.. I get the picture." She retrieved her staff again, and this time put her whole effort into the attack, at last feeling the sudden familiarity in her bones as the blows struck against a powerful strength she knew, and they fell into a comfortable rhythm.

Stroke and counterstroke, lunge and parry, the bard felt her breath growing short, and she bore down with determination, as their pace picked up, and they worked through a long series of moves that ended up with both of them leaning into each other, staves straining .

Their eyes met, chests heaving with effort. "Gabrielle… " Xena told her quietly. "You just keep wishing, and I'll do my best to make em come true." She hesitated, and gave the bard a tiny, wistful smile. "All right?"

Gabrielle felt tears sting her eyes, and she leaned forward, kissing the warrior gently. "How could I turn down an offer like that?" She let her staff drop its end to the ground, and moved closer to Xena, hugging her tightly. "My hero."

They stayed that way in the silvery shadows, listening to the gentle hoots of curious owls for a long time, then Gabrielle sniffled a little, and released her soulmate. "Come on.. let me get some cold water on your head." She tucked her hand around the warrior's elbow, and headed for the cabin.

"Damn it." Cyrene cursed, as she padded around the kitchen. "Where is that cinnamon?" One problem with sharing a kitchen, she mused, your stuff got moved. She hated that. But Eustase was worth it.. the woman was undeniably an excellent cook.. it's just that she tended to… ah. Cyrene stopped, with her hands on her hips, her eyes fastened on a point well over her head. "Bacchus' blue balls… what in Hades is it doing up there?"

Shaking her head, she looked around for something to stand on, turning as she heard the door open. "Ah. .. perfect."

Xena's eyebrows rose. "Not hardly." She muttered, moving into the room and letting the door shut after her. "Morning."

The innkeeper padded over, and took her arm. "Perfect for my needs right at the moment… c'mere.." She tugged the warrior over and pointed up. "Can you get that, please?"

Her daughter let a smile edge onto her face, and reached up, snagging the requested jar and bringing it down off the shelf near the fireplace. "Here." She started to hand it to Cyrene, when the innkeeper pushed her arm aside and moved closer, lifting a hand up to the warrior's temple. She sighed inwardly at her mother's indrawn breath.

"Xena, what happened?" Cyrene asked, very gently touching the bruised lump. "You didn't have this last night."

Truth? "I fell." The warrior ventured. "No big deal."

Her mother steered her over to the worktable and pushed her down onto the bench, concern very evident in her face. "You fell? Xena… that's not like you." She probed the injury. "I think we need to send upriver and get a good healer to take a look at you… after that fever, and you've been so tired…I'm very worried… I'll ask Johan to go after breakfast."

Xena's lips twitched. "All right.. all right.. I didn't fall." She let out a sigh. "Gabrielle and I were sparring, and I forgot to duck."

Silence. "Why didn't you just say that to begin with?" Cyrene studied her curiously.

An eyebrow quirked. "'I fell..' sounded better than, 'Gabrielle hit me with a big stick'?" She replied wryly. " knocked some sense into me, so…" And it had., she realized… that and Gabrielle's desperate need to return to a kind of normality that she had simply forced herself to respond to. The blow had shocked her into getting herself together, and taking charge of her wounded conscience, realizing that her fear of hurting her partner was hurting her anyway.

After that, the sparring had felt… good, and she'd even playfully carved a tiny notch in the bard's staff after they changed and were relaxing in the cabin, to mark the occasion. That had finally dragged a grin onto her partner's face. She handed her mother the spice jar. "Here you go."

 "Thanks." The innkeeper took the jar, and juggled it a little, then set it down near the fireplace and returned to the table, slipping into a seat and studying her daughter somberly. Aside from the bump the taller woman looked much better than she had three days previously, and there was a normal sharpness to her eyes and movement that reassured the innkeeper. "Why were you two sparring in the middle of the night?" She pulled over a basket of fresh honey covered buns and handed one to the warrior.

 Xena took a bite and chewed it, swallowing thoughtfully before she answered. "It…" She studied the roll, and nibbled a walnut off the top. "We've had to work a lot of things out… some things took longer than others." She explained, slowly. "It's kind of complicated."

What an understatement. Cyrene sighed. "I know, honey…I know… you both got hurt very badly." She gave her daughter an encouraging smile. "I'm glad things are getting resolved, though." She paused. "They are, aren't they?"

The warrior smiled, and popped the rest of the muffin in her mouth. "Mmhmm." She nodded, letting a little of her relief show on her face. "Been a long road… but somehow…" A long breath released. "Somehow."

Cyrene patted her hand. "So… " Her lips quirked. "What are your plans now?" She carefully put an innocent tone in the question.

Xena gave her a fond look. "Funny you should ask that." She reached over and swiped another roll. "Amazing, the number of helpful offers we've both been getting here the past few days."

Cyrene took a determined breath. "Well, they're all legitimate, Xena… and you both could use the stability, you know that. Besides, I’m getting on here.. I have to start thinking about turning over the running of this place to someone, and you three are the only children I have, and you know.."

"We're staying." Xena stated quietly.

"Xena, you really have to start thinking about settling down… all this traveling.. I know you're trying to be out there helping people, but…. " Long pause. "What?"

The blue eyes dropped to the table, then rose back up to meet hers. "We're staying.. here."

Cyrene let her hand fall onto the table, and let out a surprised, and somewhat rueful chuckle. "Damn it, Xena.. I've been practicing this speech for three days." She shook her head, and let herself absorb the news. "So of course you don't let me use it." She paused, watching the still face. "You said your priorities had changed."

Xena nibbled on her muffin. "They have." She replied quietly. "I figured out that all the times I don't want to do something because something might happen… well… it happens anyway." She swallowed. "Staying out of Solon's life… keeping Gabrielle at a distance…staying away from here.. " Her eyes went distant. "I might as well take a chance at being happy, and just deal with the problems when they come up."

The innkeeper let out a soft sigh, and stood, walking around to her daughter's side and putting her arms around the broad shoulders. "Oh honey." She felt Xena give in as she pulled the dark head against her chest, and stroked her hair gently. How long had it been since she'd been allowed to do this? Since Xena had let her defenses down this far.. gods… had it been almost fifteen years? Cyrene could hardly believe it. "That's a hard lesson to learn."

Xena straightened up, and gave her a quietly resigned smile. "Yeah… I know…" She blew out a long breath. "We don't know how it's going to work out.. or… but we're gonna try it."

She'd had a lot of time to think about that between last night and this morning… laying there quietly in the dark, with Gabrielle's gentle breath warming her skin, soaking in the wonderful closeness and feeling it heal the raw spots that were still inside her. She'd finally dozed off sometime before dawn, waking up to the fantastically ticklish sensation of her partner nuzzling her bare skin, and as she'd glanced down in mock outrage as the green eyes glinted up into hers, they both realized at the same time that things…

Had somehow, without them being really aware of it, eased back into a more familiar pattern that while recognizing the horrors they'd been through, did not allow that knowledge to settle between them. It felt wonderful, and she'd left the bard updating her diary with the promise of returning with breakfast for both of them.

"Well, if anyone can do it, you two can." Cyrene ruffled her hair. "Speaking of which, where is Gabrielle this morning?"

Xena leaned back and sighed contentedly. "Doing bard stuff." She gave her mother a look. "Actually.. I was um.. " She reached over and snatched the basket of sweet rolls, and winked. "That'll work."

Her mother shook her head. "Oh no… " She snatched the basket back. "You'll both get sick if you eat all of these, and I know you… that's exactly what you'll do." She went over to the supply shelves and started putting together an assortment of things. "Silly child."

Xena sat patiently, her fingers idly playing with the cinnamon bottle as she waited, and felt a weight lift off her shoulders making her feel almost giddy. Silly child… was a time I'd have broken anyone's arm that called me that. She mused with an inward grin. "Gabrielle really likes it here."

Cyrene glanced over her shoulder. "Yes.. I know.. and everyone here really likes her." She tucked a square of linen around the basket's contents, and brought it back over, setting it down in front of Xena. "She's not thinking of.." Then she stopped herself, considering how hurtful the question might be. "Um… so, what plans do you have for today? I know the kids are dying for some staff lessons this afternoon."

The warrior stood, and hooked the basket handle over one wrist. "We're just playing it by ear today.. " She lifted the basket and walked to the door, then stopped, one hand on the frame. "And mother?"

Cyrene looked up. "Hmm?"

A smile answered her. "Yes, she is."

"Ares, move your tail." Gabrielle gave the wolf a little nudge, as she seated herself on the porch, taking in a deep breath of the warm morning air. "Mmm… " She closed her eyes, and let a sense of peace roll over her, as she drew her legs up under her on the padded seat and set her diary down on her lap. "You think mommy will bring back something nice?"

"Roo." Ares hopped up onto the bench next to her, and curled up, his tail and paws hanging off the surface, and his muzzle resting on her thigh. "Grrrrr…"

"Yeah…" The bard scrubbed his head with her fingers, then opened her diary and chewed on her quill.

We've pretty much come full circle, I guess.. we're home, and it looks like we're going to stay here. It's been a really, really long fortnight.. I can hardly believe it's only that since I was sitting around a campfire hurting so bad it felt like my guts were being ripped out.

Are things the same? No. Will they ever be? Probably not. But we're at a point where we can start moving forward again, and not be constantly worried about the past. You know, I woke up this morning, and just started playing around with her and didn't even remember, for a few minutes, why that was a strange thing.

It felt great. I have a feeling that a few months of this is going to do wonders for both of us.

We've still got a lot of things to work out.. what happened last night really, really scared me. I hit her.. what would I have done if I'd really hurt her badly? I know it was worse than she's making out, though as usual, she tried to make me feel better by joking about it, and cutting a notch in my staff. That's my Xena.

Yeah. I feel differently about her now, I figured out. I’m less in awe.. I don't expect her to find answers for me.. and I'm not going to blindly follow where she leads ever again. On the other hand, I have a deeper understanding of her.. I'm not going to take her for granted anymore, and in a lot of ways what I feel for her has deepened to a new level, one that's based on respect, and understanding, and not just this kind of unthinking devotion.

Ok.. so there's some of that still, too. There's this big part of me that just wants to believe in her, and not.. um.. temper that with any kind of logic or anything. It kind of makes me sad that I can't give in to that now, that I have to be an adult, and make my own decisions, and not depend on her to make them for me. I’m not a kid anymore, and while I know that's part of growing up, and in many ways I welcome it, there is still that part of me that really liked knowing I could depend on her for anything.

Now I can't. She has flaws and weak spots, just like I do, and sometimes I realize that in a lot of ways I protect her, and she depends on me, because I’m the only one she'll let that close. It's scary, but I think in the long run, it's going to be ok. But sometimes I catch her looking at me, with that really sad, kind of lost look.. and I know she's hurting.

Footsteps drew her attention, and she glanced up to see Granella loping past. The Amazon halted on spotting her, and changed her course to end up on the wooden porch, where she collapsed on the ground in loose limbed abandon. "Hey."

"Hey." Gabrielle answered, chewing her quill industriously. "Where'r you coming from?"

"Just shaking the cobwebs out." Granella sighed, leaning back and wrapping her arms around her knees. "Gotta run before the sun comes up this time of the year or it gets too damn hot." She studied the bard's relaxed form. "How's it going?"

Gabrielle felt a momentary irritation at the question, but she sighed, and put a smile on her face. "Great." She assured the Amazon quietly. "How about with you?" She regarded the slim dark haired woman. "Different from what you're used to, huh?"

Granella waved a hand. "Gods yes." She shook her head. "I never… thought I'd end up…" Her eyes flicked around the sun drenched courtyard. "I mean, I was born in the Amazon village, Gabrielle." She sighed. "It's different… but I like it."

The bard smiled. " Me too." She nibbled on her quill. "It's going to be nice to settle down here."

The dark head came up, and watched her alertly. "Are you?"

Gabrielle nodded soberly. "Yep." She closed her diary, and stretched. "We are."

Granella grinned. "Best news I've had in a week… that's awesome, Gabrielle." Then she sobered, and glanced around. "Um… reminds me… I.. Toris spoke to me about a conversation you two had before you left."

The bard studied her carefully. "Ah." Complications… I hadn't thought about…ugh. "I um…" She felt a blush coming on.

The Amazon leaned forward and put a hand on her knee. "Relax…I'm cool." She muffled a grin. "It's… unique.. I gotta give you that, Gabrielle.. but I understand.. um… I.. well, I understand, that's all." She paused. "He's really cute about it too… he takes that obligation very, very seriously."

Gabrielle grinned. "Um… good.. that's good. Because that's.. been on my mind a lot lately."

The Amazon twisted her fingers together. "Yeah.. me too." She looked up at Gabrielle honestly. "I just don't know how good a mother I'd be… I haven't known anything except for fighting all my life." She sighed. "The thought of it.. scares me."

The bard reached out and ruffled her hair gently. "You'll do fine." She reassured her. "Who knows.. maybe we'll go through it together." That would be kind of nice.. she luxuriated in imagining it, and having the freedom to do so. "We could help each other."

Granella gave her a shy look. "All right." She smiled at the gently radiant gleam in the bard's eyes, then cocked her head as Gabrielle straightened a little, and let a grin slide onto her face, long moments before Ares' head popped up, and his tail wagged furiously.

"Roo!" He scrambled off the bench, and hurdled down the stairs, loping across the courtyard towards a tall form striding towards them out of the sun. As they watched, Xena stopped at a passing villager's hail, and waited for the man to catch up with her. He handed the warrior a packet, then trotted off, waving a hand as he left.

The warrior continued on towards them, mounting the steps with Ares at her heels. "Morning." She gave Granella a friendly nod, as she handed her partner the basket she was carrying, and dropped into the nearby chair. "Trader just came in.. had some messages for us." She held up the packet, then propped it against her leg as she untied the string holding it shut.

"Mm." Gabrielle spared her a glance, busy with breakfast. "Here." She handed Granella a muffin and took another one, breaking it in half and putting one part between her teeth, then reaching over and offering the other half to Xena. "Open up."

The warrior absently dropped her jaw, and accepted the muffin, chewing as she read. "Mph." She swallowed hastily. "Gods.. we're aunts again." Then her chewing stopped, and she blinked. "Triplets?"

Gabrielle scrambled over, and hung onto her shoulder, reading furiously. "TRIPLETS??" Her voice cracked. "Wow…" She looked down at an interested Granella. "Remember our friend Jessan?"

The Amazon's eyes widened. "HE had triplets??? Whoa…"

Xena booted her lightly. "His lifebond.. Elaini did." She read on. "Damn… I bet they're cute looking babies."

"Oooooo… " Gabrielle warbled. "All fuzzy and tiny… Xena, I want to see them." She tugged on her soulmate's shirt. "Can we?" She scanned the letter. "Oh.. Xena… they named two of them after us."

"Mmhmm." The warrior agreed. "So I guess we have to go see them, huh?" She slid an arm around her partner. "You wanted to see Lila and her addition too.. we could get them both in one trip."

"Yeah." Gabrielle settled against her, pulling some stuffed waybread out of the basket and munching on it. "Works for me." She paused. "But.. triplets… " She exchanged glances with Xena and Granella. "Ow."

"Yeah… Ow is right." Granella yawned, then stood. "Well, I'm off to go drag your brother out of bed… that would, of course be the only habit you two didn't share." She gave them both a wave, and headed across the courtyard, whistling lightly.

Gabrielle laughed, and leaned against her partner's warm side, soaking in the day's rich warmth, and the promise of long stretches of time to be spent with the tall, dark haired woman seated beside her. "You tell mom we were staying?" She glanced up at Xena's profile.

The warrior nodded, and rested her head against the bard's. "Yep."

"Xena?" Gabrielle gazed out at the courtyard, which was beginning to bustle with daytime activity.

"Hmm?" Her soulmate answered, stretching her legs out and crossing them at the ankles.

"We're home." Came the very quiet, content statement.

Xena wrapped both arms around her partner, and let out a relieved sigh. "At last."

The End