The Longest Night - Part 2

Melissa Good

For DISCLAIMERS see Part 1.

"This is nice." Iolaus remarked, approvingly, as he looked around the room Ephiny had led them to. The Amazon regent was leaning against the doorway, her arms crossed over her chest and a half smile on her face.

The room was a large one, a corner, and had two large glazed windows that let in the weakly filtered afternoon light, which seeped across the large bed, bringing out the rich harvest colors in the blankets, and turning the spotless wooden floors a creamy gold.

"Very nice." Hercules agreed, walking in and putting his pack down, running a finger along the top of the large wooden tub in the corner. "I like the looks of this." He turned and gave Ephiny a wry look. "Been two weeks of cold streams."

Ephiny gave him back a look of amused sympathy. "Been there, done that." She responded with a chuckle. "We have a nice big bathing room back at the village, that backs up right onto the smithy's hearth.. and boy, when you get back from a week's hunting… " She rolled her eyes and sighed. She saw the vision of a bunch of Amazons bathing go through their minds, and rolled her eyes for a different reason. Men. Then she stopped and reflected. Oh.. right, Ephiny.. and just HOW many people asked you to bribe Gabrielle into having her and Xena bathe at the village the last time? Hmm??? Don't be getting up on your high centaur, wench.

There were several large buckets nearby, the fireplace had a small shelf for heating the water, and the whole room had a pleasant scent of pine and linen.

Ephiny pushed off from the doorframe and gave them a little wave. "Why don’t you get settled.. then join us for lunch downstairs?" She offered, her eyes gently studying the both of them. Xena was right.. they could both use a break.. especially the big guy. Damn, I wanna know what happened out there that could drain a demigod like that. "Sound good?"

"Sounds great." Iolaus grinned. "Herc, you’ll love the food here." He dropped his pack to the floor, and strolled over to the wash basin, rinsing his hands and scrubbing his face in the cold water.

"Thanks." Hercules watched him in amusement for a moment, then nodded at Ephiny. "We’ll be right down.. "

The Amazon gave them another small wave, and headed down the stairs, keeping a firm hold on the rough wooden banister.

Hercules watched her go for a minute, then quietly shut the door, and let out a long breath, approaching the bed and putting a finger on it, pushing down experimentally. "Oh.. I think I’m gonna like this even better." He muttered, sitting down gingerly, then letting himself fall back against the pillow with a sigh. "I could sleep for a week." He commented to Iolaus, letting his eyes close.

Iolaus studied him covertly from the wash basin, using a piece of clean linen to dry his face off. "Why don’t you just relax then, huh?" He offered casually. "It’s safe here.. we’ve got all those Amazons downstairs.. damn if I don’t feel nice and secure… and how’d you like that alert system on the way in?"

"Yeah.." The tall demigod mumbled. "She seems nice enough."

"Who.. Ephiny?" Iolaus grunted. "Sure.. for an Amazon Queen.. and while we're on the subject, thanks a lot for telling me about Gabrielle. "

Hercules sighed. "You didn't ask." He rolled his head to one side and put one arm over his eyes.

"I didn't ask.." Iolaus looked at the ceiling in disbelief, throwing his hands up and letting them fall to his sides. "Just like I didn't ask about .. um.. them, right?"

"Uh huh." Hercules agreed. "But.. Iolaus.. EVERYONE knew about that.. even Callisto." He paused. "Though I'm pretty sure Ares hasn't gotten it yet."

"Oh.. and that's supposed to make me feel better?" The blond man asked caustically. "Nooo.. I had to have Xena herself tell me.. Hercules, do you have any idea just how embarrassing that was?"

The tall demigod peeked out from under his arm, and squelched a grin. "Yeah.. that must have been tough."

"Yep, it sure was" The blond man confirmed, walking over and tugging the blanket free, then settling it over his companion. "Go on.. sack out. I’ll bring you up a turkey leg or something."

"No.. no, it’s ok.." Hercules protested, opening his eyes. "C’mon, Iolaus.. that’s not polite."

The blond man raised one sandy eyebrow. "Oh.. so, you’re ready to face the Amazon Inquisition down there? I told you what happened to me with them.. you set for a thousand questions?"

Hercules hesitated, his blue eyes going a little round. "Uh… yeah… I see your point." Besides.. I really don't want to have any extended conversations with her mother.. not until I've had a chance to talk to Xena about what else I found out about that necklace… wonder if she realized it would have been safer to have Iolaus try to get it off? Probably not. No.. I'm sure that thought never crossed her mind.

"Yeah, so stay put, all right?" Iolaus finished, giving his arm a punch. "You’ve got time enough to face them all at dinner… I’ll go try and blunt their curiosity a little, OK? Besides, you look like Hades, and if that doesn’t change by the time Xena gets back, she’s gonna chase my tail all over this inn, and .."

"All right.. all right.. all right.. " Hercules waved a hand, hitting him the chest. "Enough.. I’ll stay here." He let his eyes close again.

"Good." Iolaus sighed. We took care of that labor mine.. but he hasn’t slept a whole night since.. Zeus only knows what those dreams are. Or that burn on his chest that hasn’t healed yet, that he won’t let me look at. "See ya."

"Uh huh." Came the sleepy response.

With a small shake of his unruly head, Iolaus backed towards the door, pausing in the entrance to cast one last look at the still form, before ducking out and closing the door behind him, then moving silently down the stairs.

"So.. that’s Hercules, huh?" Eponin mused, playing with her mug idly. "You been able to find out what happened?"

Ephiny shook her head, busy chewing a mouthful of beef. "Nuh huh." She confirmed, wiping her lips and leaning back slightly. "Gabrielle was absolutely tight lipped on that.. all she’d say was that the situation was resolved."

Eponin sniffed reflectively. "You think she knows the story?"

The Amazon regent let one eyebrow arch. "Oh yeah." She chuckled. "You think she’d let Xena keep that quiet from her? Not." She shrugged. "Must have been bad, then.. otherwise.. well, I guess we’ll hear about it when we hear about it." She picked up her mug and took a swallow of cider, letting out a sigh. "Rain again." She muttered, as a roll of thunder was heard.

"Mmm." Eponin chuckled. "Hope Xena finds some place to get under cover.. hate to think of those two out in a storm." She paused. "Oh.. well, on the other hand… they do pretty well in a storm don't they..?"

They exchanged knowing glances. "Oh.. " Ephiny grinned slyly. "That they do…… " She glanced up as Iolaus entered the room and gave him a nod, smiling as he walked over and pulled up a chair. "Hi."

The blond man sighed. "Afternoon, ladies." He ignored the raised eyebrows around the table blithely. "I see we’re in for rain again.. Zeus, I’m glad we made it here. I’m darn tired of being wet all the time." He looked up as a server put a big plate of meat and steamed barley in front of him. "Oh.. thanks.. that smells great." He took a forkful and sighed happily.

"Here." Ephiny passed a wooden platter with sliced bread on it over. On the other hand… maybe I can get the story out of old Iolaus, here… he looks like a nice guy.

"Mmm.. thanks." Iolaus grinned at her. "So.. how are you feeling?" A pause. "If it's ok for me to ask, I know we've never actually met, but I kind of feel like we know each other, I mean Xena told me what happened, and all that." Nine words. She fell in the water, I pulled her out. The bard thing was definitely Gabrielle's realm.

Ephiny chuckled, and extended a forearm. "Sure.. sure.. hello, Iolaus. I've heard a lot about you, too." She nodded. "Eponin, Raina, Ellis, and Marta." The Amazons grinned at Iolaus, he smiled a trifle nervously back. Ephiny leaned back and waggled her hand. "And in answer to your question…so so.. it’s been.. " She sighed. "Kind of rough.. what with all the excitement and all."

Iolaus stopped chewing, and glanced up at her. "What excitement?" He looked at all of them then focused back on Ephiny. "What'd we miss?"

Ephiny’s eyes glinted as an idea formed. . "Oh.. what with Gabrielle being kidnapped.." She trailed off. "You know."

Iolaus’ eyes popped. "What? What happened?" Kidnapped? Gods.. it's only been two weeks.. how could she have gotten kidnapped in what… the three.. four.. days Xena was gone?

The Amazon regent took a long sip of cider, and eyed him speculatively. "Tell you what, Iolaus.. I’ll trade you stories." Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Eponin’s hastily smothered grin. "With all the trouble.. we didn’t get to hear what happened to you all… "

"Oh." Iolaus chewed his lip, curiosity eating at him. "Well, ok.. sure… " He glanced around. "Just.. keep it quiet.. Hercules is not real happy about it, OK?" It's gonna come out sooner or later.. better they hear it from a good source.. right? Right. "I'll trade."

Ephiny patted his arm gently. "You can trust us, Iolaus." She cleared her throat, and the other Amazons pulled their chairs in to enjoy the tale. "Well, it started the day after you left… Gabrielle took the girls out for a walk, and didn't come back.

Iolaus blinked. "You're kidding, right? Not only Gabrielle, but all those.. um… Amazonettes?"

Raised eyebrows around the table. "Well.. yes." Eponin grunted. "You could call them that, but most folks wouldn't."

Silence. "Sorry." Iolaus muttered. "Where did they go?"

When she finished, the blond man was sitting, holding his fork with a stunned expression on his face. He held his silence for a minute, then sighed. "Well.. I'm glad things turned out all right.. relatively all right, I mean. It's too bad Gabrielle got hurt and all." Damn… she could have died.. poor kid.

"Mmm." Ephiny agreed, studying her hands thoughtfully. "Your turn." She looked up, her pale eyes catching his. Unnoticed by Iolaus, Cyrene had silently entered, seating herself at the next table, and listening quietly.

"Oh." Iolaus let out a breath. "Right.. uh.. ok. Well, we left here, and traveled to the mountain, to a village just outside the mines where.. Hercules was."

Ephiny put a gentle hand on his wrist. "Iolaus, what was he doing there? What was wrong?"

A long silence. Finally Iolaus swallowed and licked his lips. "He was.. um… there was something wrong with him.. he.. " He sucked in a breath. "He was providing a service to the prince working them mines.. he was.. a jailkeeper."

Deathly silence this time. "He was.. punishing.. people who didn't do what the prince wanted them to do." Iolaus finished quietly, his eyes pinned on the table top.

Ephiny felt her heart lurch hard. No wonder.. Her mind sighed. No wonder Gabrielle wanted this kept quiet.. gods… I should have respected that. "Iolaus.." She said softly, patting his hand. "I'm sorry.. that must have been horrible for you."

He sighed. "It.. was. I didn't.. I tried to get him to snap out of it.. tried. But he didn't even know who I was. He.. " The blond man looked away, then back. "It was like he was someone else." Iolaus pursed his lips. "So.. when that didn't work, I knew I had to get help.. I needed someone who could help me break back into the fortress, who knew.. Hercules.. well enough to know this wasn't really him, and would be willing to help.. and.. um..I needed someone who could.. if nothing worked.. stop him."

Now it was their turn for silence. Rapid-fire glances raced around the table. "So.. you came and got Xena." Ephiny said, calmly. "Well, that makes sense. Good choice." She gave Iolaus an encouraging grin, hiding her surprise and unease. What made him think she could stop a demigod? Damn.. Xena's good, we all know that, but… that's asking too much, even from her. She could have been killed, if he really didn't know what was going on.

Iolaus gave her a weak smile back. "Thanks. " He sighed a little, more relaxed now that the hard part was over. "Anyway.. we got back into the mines…and Xena made sure we were taken to the punishment cell. "

"I bet." Eponin snorted quietly. "How many people did she take with her?"

Iolaus smiled. "I stopped counting." He shook his head. "So.. she kind of got in his face.. and he took her out for punishment.. and they fought." His mouth quirked. "She won."

"Sheeeesh." Ellis wheezed.

"Yeah.. and I lost 50 dinars to Gabrielle." Iolaus muttered, then shook his head. "Well, that was money well spent, anyway.. so she discovered this necklace around his neck.."

"A necklace?" Eponin asked, studying him quietly.

"Yeah.." Iolaus sighed. "Big.. golden chain.. had a ruby in it.. kind of.. overdone." He shrugged. "That was it.. she got it off him, and when he finally came to.. he was back."

"Just like that?" Ephiny breathed, fascinated. "How did she get it off him?"

But Iolaus just shook his head. "I don't know.. she sent me out of the room for that.. made me lock the door… " He hesitated. "Um..I think she was worried about what it might do to her."

"But it didn't do anything." Ephiny clarified. "Right?"

The blond man shook his head. "No.. but I think it took a lot.. she looked pretty shook up when I got back in there." He paused. "So.. then Ares showed up."

"The wolf?" Ephiny asked, her brows creasing.

"The God." Iolaus corrected her. "And, to be completely honest, it's the first time I was almost, sort of, maybe just a little bit glad to see him."

Ephiny exchanged glances with Eponin. "Really?"

"Really." Iolaus sighed heavily. "Xena asked him, point blank, if he was behind the necklace.. and he said no.. that it had just shown up.. and they, meaning the other gods, were worried about it. He.. thanked Xena for taking care of it… and to show his appreciation, he moved our horses to the closest exit and got rid of the guards for us."

"Really." That was Eponin and Ephiny in perfect chorus.

Iolaus nodded. "Yes… and then Xena took us to a cave nearby she knew.. so we could rest a bit.. and to give Herc a chance to recover a little.. he was pretty shook up by the whole thing." He sighed. "Then she took off.. said she had stuff to take care of.. now I know what that stuff was."

Ephiny's brow creased. "But she couldn't have known.. she… "

Iolaus was shaking his head solemnly. "She knew." He studied his hands. "The night above the castle.. something changed..I noticed it, but I thought it was just.. I don't know. She got really on edge.. and anxious to get things finished." He lifted his hands and let them drop. "Don't ask me how, don't ask me why, but she knew."

The Amazon regent settled back, and lifted a hand of her own. "Iolaus, that's impossible."

"No." Cyrene's voice drifted over, and they all turned to gaze at the innkeeper, who was leaning on the table, and sipping from a tall mug. "It's not.. I've seen it happen." Her eyes flicked to Ephiny. "So have you."

Ephiny stared at her, then her mouth twitched. "Damn… you're right… but I've never heard of anything like that before." She turned to Eponin. "Have you?"

The older Amazon was staring off over Ephiny's shoulder, apparently studying the rain hitting the inn window, at last she turned and met Ephiny's pale eyes. "Maybe." She smiled a little. "I'll have to think about it."

Ephiny's eyebrows rose, and she leaned closer. "You all right?"

A chuckle. "Fine." Xena.. you and I gotta have a little talk when you get back… Eponin poked her nose into her mug, and kept it there until Ephiny turned her attention back to Iolaus.

Then the roar of rain hitting the inn startled all of them, even Cyrene.. and they jerked around in surprise, half rising as the door exploded inward, but relaxing when a dark clad form staggered in and slammed the portal closed behind him.

"Damn." Toris gasped, blinking his stinging eyes, and wiping the dark hair back off his forehead. "It's evil out there, folks." He turned to Cyrene. "River's rising. Looks like it'll be up over its banks by suppertime." He took off his cloak, and left it's dripping length by the door, crossing over to the fire's warmth gratefully.

"Oh.. sorry.. " He detoured when he realized there was a stranger at the table. "You must be Iolaus."

The blond man glanced up, and offered a forearm, his eyes studying the tall dark haired man curiously. "And you must be Toris."

A familiar smile answered him, and pale blue eyes searched his. "Let me guess… family resemblance?"

Iolaus laughed. "Something like that, yes." He released the taller man's arm. "We didn't get to meet last time.. but an old shirt of yours about saved my life."

Toris chuckled, as he lowered himself into a chair next to the fire, and leaned back. "Glad it got some use finally.. it's been too small for me for a while." He looked up as Cyrene handed him a steaming mug. "Thanks, mom." He toasted the window. "Hope you're under cover, sis."

Cyrene snorted. "She will be… not for her sake, but…"

Smiles around the room.

Xena rested her head lightly against her folded cloak, gazing peacefully out at the sheeting rain, idly contrasting the cold, wet air from the outside with the cheerful warmth of the fire, which popped at irregular intervals, and sent the occasional spark drifting towards the dimly seen roof of the cavern.

Gabrielle was drowsing lightly, her body curled around her partner's, the rhythmic drumming of the rain insistently lulling them both into a lazy, golden warmth it was just easier to sink into and not try to get out of. This.. Xena mused to herself Is becoming a habit.

She thought about that for a minute, turning the idea over, and examining it carefully from all sides. What a nice habit. She eventually decided. I think I'll keep it. A yawn cut off her thoughts, and she relaxed into it, sliding her arms around Gabrielle and snuggling closer, reveling in the tingle of their skin on skin contact, and chuckling when the bard half woke, and started nibbling her chest. "You still hungry?" She teased gently. They’d recently finished a leisurely lunch, and had settled down to relax as the weather rolled in.

"Mmm…" Gabrielle nibbled further. "Still raining?"

"Yep." Xena informed her. "Coming down in cartloads."

"Good." Was the answer, as the bard's gentle attentions wandered across her partner's ribcage. "Sorry..I know we have some place to get to.." She rested her cheek lightly on Xena's belly, gazing up at her. "But I'm not going to lie and say I'm not enjoying every minute of this." She idly traced a fingertip down Xena's ribs, feeling the dips and hollows between them., letting her touch linger over the thin scar that ran down one side.

Fingers covered hers, and she looked up into warm blue eyes. "Me too." Xena answered softly, releasing the bard's hand and stroking her cheek, feeling Gabrielle smile under her touch, and gently outlining the curve of her lips. And that simple smile peeled away yet another layer of the darkness embedded in her, and sent it scattering before the cool wind. She felt it go.. driven before the rush of love in those green eyes. "It can rain all day for all I care." She let a smile curve her own lips. "There is no place else I'd rather be."

Xena felt the gentle warmth as Gabrielle exhaled, and felt the motion as the bard smiled against the soft skin on her stomach. "Me either." Her partner admitted, with a lazy chuckle, as she quietly worked her way back up Xena's body until their lips met, and the warrior slipped her hands down around the bard's waist, and lifted her up, settling her comfortably sprawled.

"Hey.. " Gabrielle mumbled, pulling back a space. "Gonna squish you.."

Xena snorted lightly, circling her arms across the small of the bard's back and squeezing "Not a chance… you overestimate yourself, my bard."

Got a snort back. "You just love showing off, don’t you?" Gabrielle gazed fondly at her.

"Aww.. " Xena purred. "That's not showing off." A devilish grin etched her features as she slid her hands further down and settled them on Gabrielle's hips, then pressed straight up, lifting the bard and grinning at her squawk. She lowered her slowly, and held her up just inches from her own chest before letting her gently down. "Now.. that.. was showing off."

"It certainly was." Gabrielle giggled, shaking her head and sighing, as she turned her head and idly watched the rain. "Gods.. that is quite a storm.. you think the river’s flooded yet?"

Xena considered the question, her hand moving in gentle circles on the bard’s back. "Mmm.. maybe, but probably not till dark sometime.. " Her lips twitched. "And I’m certainly not risking you out there in this weather… so I guess we’re stuck here until it’s over."

"Shucks." Gabrielle drawled. "I don’t know…" She yawned and stretched, sliding a hand down Xena’s warm body. "I’m starting to think this was planned."

Xena reached up and gently tickled her ribs. "By who, me? Nah.." She tickled the bard again, making her squirm. "I think you’re getting more ticklish." She grinned, using both hands this time.

"Augh." Gabrielle grabbed her hands, and leaned hard, trying to keep them from her sensitive skin. "Stop that…" One hand escaped. "Xena!! Aaaagggggghhh…"

Several minutes later, the bard finally collapsed, and groaned. "I surrender… " She gasped, trying to catch her breath. "Gods.." She let her head fall against Xena’s shoulder and waited for her heart to stop pounding.

Xena sighed softly and rubbed her back. "Shhh.. take it easy.. I shouldn’t have been so rough on you." She studied Gabrielle with a tiny, worried frown. "Your ribs ok? I didn’t hurt you, did I?"

Like I would admit it if you had. Gabrielle mused to herself. Like you need more guilt to carry around, right? "Don’t be goofy." She gave her partner a little slap. "Of course you didn’t." She took a deep breath, and snuggled up tight against Xena’s side. "I’m just out of breath.. all that lying around since I got hurt really caught up with me." She felt Xena’s hands start a light massage on her back, and sighed. "And you’re such a bad influence."

"Uh huh." Xena agreed amiably, feeling the bard’s body relax. "We could get up and do some sparring, if you’d rather do that."

Gabrielle thought about that. But not for long. "I should… " She sighed, already letting the warmth start to ease through her. "Maybe after dinner, huh?"

"Sure." Xena smiled wryly. "Just take it easy.. your body needs the rest, Gabrielle." She brushed her lips over the bard’s fair hair. "Healing is hard work."

"Hypocrite." Gabrielle mumbled, opening one green eye accusingly. "That’s double standards, Xena."

The warrior hugged her. "Yep, it sure is." She agreed cheerfully. "Sorry.. I reserve the right to take better care of you than I do of myself."

The bard gazed thoughtfully at her, then finally smiled. "Xena, there’s no point in your taking care of me if you don’t take care of yourself." She looked up into startled blue eyes, which widened slightly as she lifted a hand and traced her partner’s features. "Please.. take care of yourself.. for my sake." She paused. "All right?"

She felt Xena take a breath, and let it out slowly, then watched as the warrior let a rueful smile creep across her face. "I think… you got me." Her eyes glinted. "Very clever, Gabrielle."

"Yesss…." The bard chortled, triumphant. "You will, right?"

A moment of hesitant silence. "Yeah."

"Promise?" Gabrielle asked instantly.

"I promise." Came the solemn reply. Xena riffled her fingers through the bard’s hair and let out a tiny, satisfied sigh. About time I started doing that anyway… before it all starts catching up with me..right? It’s been nice not hurting in the morning.. hasn’t it?

Gabrielle settled her head down comfortably and smiled, closing her eyes and letting herself sink back down into a pleasantly sleepy haze, listening to the slow, inevitable synchronizing of their heartbeats.. of their breathing.. until she drifted off.

"Damn." Xena tugged the belt closed on her tunic, and wandered over near the opening to the cave, staring out at the rain. "You can’t even hardly see the river."

Gabrielle joined her, winding an arm around Xena’s waist and blinking out at the weather. "Wow…" She breathed, watching the trees bend under the force of the wind, glad they were in a protected niche. The air was icy cold, and she could hear the pattering of the rain as it turned to ice and broke itself against the rock walls around them.

"Feel sorry for anyone out in this." The warrior mused, shaking her head a little.

"Remember that storm.." Gabrielle began, then saw Xena's smile. "You do."

She did. It had been a bad couple of days.. no.. a bad couple of weeks, fighting every day, and the heat had been.. well, it was even getting to Xena, who usually could ignore that kind of thing. It had been dry, and dusty, and Gabrielle realized that all of the above were putting her companion in a more than usually foul mood.

Knowing that hadn't helped how she felt when Xena snapped at her for what seemed like the hundredth time that day, since she was just as hot, if not just as tired as the warrior was. But.. after all, Xena had done most of the fighting in their last encounter, she tried to rationalize, since she had been dazed when one of the raider's horses had slammed into her and hadn't shaken it off until the battle was almost over. And Xena had hesitated an unusually long time before shoving off from the tree she was leaning against and sheathing her sword.

Gabrielle suspected her companion was close to exhausted, but refusing to either give into it, or admit to it, and that's what was making her so grouchy. But knowing that didn't help either, because Gabrielle was pretty tired too, and she'd had just about enough of the sniping.

"Look." She'd finally said. "I'm going to go get a room at that inn we just passed. I don't really care what you do." And she'd turned and walked away, just like that.

And had immediately felt bad about it, so she turned back around, but Xena was already gone.

"Probably jumped at the chance." Gabrielle thought to herself, with a sigh. "This is probably a good idea.. we need some time.. away from each other right now." So she'd gone into the inn, and gotten a room, with a meal and a bath. That had felt better for a while, but after she'd been sitting very quietly in the tavern, sipping on a cold ale for a while, she found herself wishing Xena was there. Even if she was sniping.

Thunder rolled overhead, and her thoughts had turned to wondering where the warrior was.. and as the first drops hit the window, she found herself hoping Xena had found shelter.

Then she'd overheard two men talking about the golden warhorse stabled next door, and realized that could only be one animal they were talking about. Argo. She'd slipped from the tavern, and scooted across the small, dusty courtyard that was rapidly settling under an increasing patter of large drops, getting to the barn just before the heavy curtain of rain crashed against the wood.

It had been dark inside, with the musty smell of old hay mixing with the tangy scent of the rain outside, and she'd stood quietly, and let her eyes adjust before she tried to go any further.

Saw Argo standing quietly in a decent size stall, the mare's liquid brown eye turned curiously towards her. She'd moved towards the horse, seeing by her glistening coat, and neatly arranged mane and tail that Xena had taken her usual care with her grooming, and her tack was settled on the divider, the rich leather cleaned of it's coating of dust and grime. She'd run a fingertip over the warm surface, then glanced down into the stall and felt her breathing catch.

It had been obvious to her that Xena had taken time with Argo, but not with herself. The warrior was huddled in the darkest corner of the stall, still dressed in her leathers, and part of her armor, one of Argo's blankets pulled around her. On the straw next to her was resting her healer's kit, and if she strained her eyes, Gabrielle could just pick out the thin, bloodstained line on her forearm where she'd sewn up what looked to be a nasty slice. One that had put a thick cut in her leather bracer, which was tossed to one side.

Carefully, she'd opened the stall, and crept inside, giving Argo a silent pat as she moved around the big mare's side. Knowing just how tired Xena must have been because the warrior didn't wake at her approach, but the rustling of the straw as she settled quietly at Xena's side brought a pair of blue eyes studying her.

Gabrielle hadn't said anything, just sat there, her eyes mostly on Argo's hooves.

"What the Hades are you doing here." The warrior had asked, finally. "Don't you have better things to do.. places to be?"

The bard had bit her lip. "I guess I don't." She'd answered softly.

"Get out of here, Gabrielle." Xena had answered her, in a weary tone. "You don't want to be around me.. I know I'm making you miserable.. and I'm sorry.. I just.. " The warrior let her head drop back against the wooden wall, and tugged the blanket closer. "Just leave me alone."

It would have been the smart thing to do, Gabrielle had understood that. She'd seen Xena in these moods often enough, and when the warrior asked to be left alone, it was best to do what she asked.


This was different.. Gabrielle couldn't say just how.. or why.. she only knew it was. So she'd sighed, and folded her arms on her knees. "No." She'd answered. Bracing herself for the response.

"NO?" Xena had repeated icily. "What do you mean, no?"

Gabrielle had taken a deep breath, fighting down the nervous roiling in her guts. "No, I'm not going to leave you alone when you're like this."

"Like what?" The sarcastic response.

"Look.." The bard had argued. "You're tired, and you're hurt.. you didn't even hear me come in here."

Xena's eyes had glittered. "That's what Argo's for. You got past. No one else would have."

That had stung. "Maybe." She shot back. "But I'm not willing to take that chance."

The faintest curve of that eyebrow. "YOU are not willing?" Xena's voice dropped a dangerous octave.

And the bard had grabbed her courage in both hands, and looked Xena right in the eye. "No. I am not willing to risk your safety." She'd hesitated. "No true friend would."

A long silence. "I thought you didn't care what I did." Xena remarked quietly.

The answer was stark, and almost whispered. "I care."

Xena had closed her eyes for a long moment then, and rested her head against the hand propped against her updrawn knees. "I'm sorry.. I've been such a bastard, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle had found she had to swallow a few times before she could get her throat to work. "It's.. all right. I.. haven't been much better."

The warrior had taken a breath, then a second. "Look.. there's.. no reason for you to put yourself through this." Another breath. "We're near Potadeia.. why don't you.. "

It ripped something inside her. Gabrielle had felt it go. It prompted a question she'd been afraid to ask.. for almost two years. "Do you want me to go home?" And.. she'd thought to herself. No matter how hard it'll be.. I'll accept her answer. I've learned enough about myself.. and about her, to do that.

Xena had stared straight ahead, between Argo's forelegs for a long moment, before turning her head, and resting her cheek along her arm. Her gaze had been sad, and gently compassionate, and the bard had clenched her guts and waited to hear what she knew Xena was going to tell her.

"No." A pause. "I don't." Another pause. "But that's not my decision, Gabrielle. It's yours.. and after what you've been through.. and how I've been acting lately. I wouldn't blame you.. if you did." Taking the responsibility for the failure on her own shoulders. As always.

Gabrielle had been so busy wrapping her mind around the "No." and the "I don't." that she scarcely heard the rest of the sentence. NO? NO???? Her heart jumped around in circles, disbelieving. Finally, she looked up, and found Xena's pained eyes on her, and realized how her silence was being viewed. Then the warrior's eyes had dropped to study the straw, and Gabrielle saw, in a sudden burst of lightning, the quiet, resigned expression on her face.

"Never." Her voice had cracked, and she swallowed hard. Seen the startled jerk of Xena's jaw muscle. "Friends stick with each other, Xena.. not just in the good times.. but in the worse times. That's what friendship is." She reached up and clasped Xena's arm. "You're stuck with me."

A loud crash of thunder, and the increasing roar of the rain made them both look up. "And.." Gabrielle smiled gently. "I think I'm stuck here."

They'd looked at each other, then the bard had slid her hand down Xena's arm, and clasped her fingers, and felt the warrior return the clasp with a half smile. "I guess you are." Had come the answer.

"You hurt anywhere else?" Gabrielle had asked, more to break the sudden, almost awkward silence.

No answer. "Xena?"

Reluctantly. "Yeah.. it's.. I.. " Xena had fallen silent, and touched a hand to her chest. "Bad spot.. I just.. "

Gabrielle had sighed softly. "Lie down." She'd pushed the warrior gently back down onto the clean straw, and carefully pulled open the now obvious gash in her leathers, removing the blood covered bandage pressed against her companion's chest. . "Oh Xena… " A sudden intake of breath, as a fresh flow of blood followed. The rich crimson fluid dropped to the straw, contrasting vividly with the dusty golden surface.

"Bad spot.. "The warrior muttered. "Couldn’t reach it. Think it needs some stitches." She had glanced up at the bard's worried face. "Take it easy.. it's just scary looking because of the blood.. it's not that bad."

She'd finished stitching, covering the gash with a linen bandage from Xena's kit, then pulled the blanket up and tucked it around the warrior's shoulders. Quiet blue eyes followed her in the storm lit darkness, as she tidied up the healer's kit, then made a nest for herself next to Xena, snuggling down on her side, with her head propped up on one hand. "Hmm…."

One eyebrow raised in question.

"I think it's cleaner in here than in that inn." She admitted, with an impish grin.

A half grin from Xena, and a feather light touch on her hair, as the warrior gently ruffled it. "Thanks."

A draft gently blew through the barn. "Looks like it's finally cooling off." The bard remarked, nestling deeper in the straw as the damp wind struck her bare sides. Then she'd glanced up as the warm wool of Argo's blanket settled over her. "Oh.. um…" A gentle wave of warmth spread over her, as much from the act as from the fabric.

"I don't bite." Xena commented casually. "Especially not with this many stitches in me. Relax."

It took a single moment to make up her mind, then she nestled closer, and laid her cheek against Xena's shoulder, wrapping her fingers around the warrior's upper arm. "I'm not worried." She looked up, to see a brow arch, but the corner of her mouth lift as well.

Gabrielle had smiled, and closed her eyes, feeling the anger, and the frustration of the last few weeks fading away, leaving her in a gentle, wistful peace, which shifted to a speechless wonder as she felt Xena's biceps tense momentarily under her fingertips as the warrior moved her arm, then felt the sudden warmth as her companion's hand settled in a light grip around her bent knee.

Xena sighed, and stroked Gabrielle's hair. "Damn..I was lucky you decided to come hunt me down.. probably would have half bled to death." She shook her head, then peered out. "Hey.. look upriver…"

They both saw it at the same time.. a brown speck traveling down the river, swirling in the dangerous current. "What.." Xena’s brow furrowed, as she focused her vision on it, feeling Gabrielle grab her arm in a sudden contrast of warm hands on her chilled flesh. "It’s a wagon."

The bard was silent for a moment, then a breath exploded out of her. "There’s someone in it."

Xena cursed, and hurled herself out of the cave, warding off the stinging sleet with one arm as she headed down the twisting path to the river. The cold blast hit her as she cleared the cliff, and only then did she realized Gabrielle was right behind her.

And.. somehow.. though she knew she should feel different.. that felt, right. "Careful… " She warned "Stay close." She felt a hand fasten on her tunic, and slid down the path, trying to shield the bard’s body as much as possible from the wind driven ice.

They were almost to the river, and now Xena could see the wagon more clearly, see the three frightened faces peering over the edge, as the wooden structure bobbed against the current. "Hang on!!" She yelled, seeing a pile of hastily discarded junk near the river, obviously abandoned or thrown up by the water. "Rope." A terse instruction, and Gabrielle was helping her loose the tangle of hemp snarled around the pile.

She tied a loop into one end, and slipped it over her shoulder, tightening it around her chest. Turning, she handed the other end to Gabrielle. "Tie this around that tree." She paused. "Tight."

A timeless meeting of glances, a soundless exchange, then the warrior was turning and launching herself into the dark coldness of the water, taking powerful strokes against the crosscurrent on an intercept path with the wagon.

The water was icy, and drove through her like iron spikes, tearing the breath from her lungs, and sending her heart racing. Gasping, she ducked her head, and forced her arms to move, dodging the floating debris as she pulled closer to the center of the river, wincing as a large branch sloughed across her back.

The wagon came closer, and now she could see the faces clearly.. one adult woman and two children, all frightened. She turned directly into the current, and pulled hard against it, feeling her teeth begin to chatter, as the cold cramped her muscles. Damn.

The wagon careened closer, and she gathered herself, letting the current take her sideways, then lunged as the wood came within a body length of her, and grabbed onto a wheel spoke, holding on for dear life as the cart bucked and surged under her weight.

The woman screamed, and grabbed the children, ducking down into the cart as Xena held on with one arm grimly, using the other to strip the rope off her shoulders, and slide the loop over the wheel hub, tightening it with a jerk. "Hold on.." She yelled, grabbing the edge of the wheel as the current sent the wagon heeling over on its side.

Then the rope came taut, and the wagon spun, wrenching Xena's hold loose and sending the warrior flying upstream. The racing water slammed into her body with shocking force, pushing her vision to the edge of blackness. The current took her, and she was helpless against it as she frantically tried to keep her head above the water, flinching as the surge threw her against a half submerged rock, and rolling over in the water, putting her arm up to guard her head.

She got a half lungful of air before she was sucked down again, this time feeling a weight roll over her shoulders as a downed limb pressed her deeper, the wiry branches tangling with her body, and raking sharp edges across her neck and the back of her head. Damn.. she cursed inwardly, struggling against the racing water, whose icy edge was rapidly leeching her strength and numbing her skin.

Then a hand grabbed her shoulder, and pulled the branch free, tugging her collar up and above the waterline, and she managed another gasp of air, coughing as it came with a mouthful of the freezing liquid.

"Xena!" Gabrielle's voice was colored with tense fear. The warrior felt warm hands grab her shoulders, and she slid onto her back, letting the current carry them, and taking hold of Gabrielle's shivering body.

A thousand things raced through her mind as she shook the wet hair from her eyes and met the bard's anxious gaze. Later, she decided. Let's just get out of here. "Thanks." She choked out, seeing the answering relief in her partner's eyes. "Gotta get out." She coughed again, expelling the river water she'd half breathed, half swallowed, and looked in front of them, seeing a current veering shoreward, towards Ares' anxiously racing form, and shoved them both into it.

Saw her mistake almost immediately, but had no time to correct it, as the racing water drove them directly towards a half sunken tree trunk, it's near edge being undercut by the rising river. Gabrielle's eye's widened, and she started to duck, but Xena wrenched them both around at the last minute, wrapping her arms around the bard and turning to take the impact of the tree on her own body.

It never came, as the torrent of water washed both of them down, under the emerging roots and slammed them both against a rapidly eroding earthen wall, with the river rising under them.

And the tree's bulk above them, trapping them helpless against the force of the incoming river.

The level rose, as they stared in stunned disbelief, the force of the water pinning them against bank, too strong for even Xena to make headway against it.

Xena cursed violently, eyes darting around their prison until she saw the faintest opening near the far edge, and lunged towards it, dragging Gabrielle with her. She shoved the bard against the root filled wall, and stood behind her, bracing her arms up against the bulk of the tree above them.

"Go on.. I'll.. push.. " She managed to get out, knowing by the sudden tension in the bard's shoulders that she'd been heard. "You should have just enough room to get clear.. but.. only for a second." A faint chance, but a possible one, if Gabrielle was lucky, and her strength up to it.

Gabrielle turned, and grabbed her shoulders, the water swirling around their waists. "What about you?" She yelled.

Silence was it's own answer.

"If.. " Xena finally said. "Only one of us can make it.. better for the world it be you, love." A jerk of her head. "Get ready." She shut her mind to anything.. everything.. else, gathering her strength.

Hands on her face, and she was forced to look, forced to meet those mist green eyes for what she knew was the last time. Now the water touched her elbows, and she released one hand from the roots to gently caress her partner's face. "No regrets, Gabrielle."

Unable to understand the complex look of sadness and joy, horror and relief that was in Gabrielle's eyes. "No." The bard whispered, clasping her arms around Xena's neck and hanging on. "Where you go.. I go."

The icy cold water, the roar, the aching numbness in her limbs faded back, until all she could feel was the pressure of Gabrielle's arms around her, and the warmth of the bard's body against her own. And the quiet, peacefulness of their souls settling together, hand in hand. She knew she should be arguing.. should be forcing the bard to get out. To escape. To live.

But she released her other hand, and turned to put her back against the earthen bank, as the water rose halfway up her arms and she clasped Gabrielle to her with all her remaining strength. Felt the bard return the pressure.

"No regrets, Xena." Came the quiet whisper in her ear. "Not one moment of it."

The water touched her shoulders, and she felt the numbness spread. She took a deep breath, and stared Death in the face, feeling no fear, only a quiet acceptance. She felt Gabrielle's arms tighten, and she rubbed the bard's back, resting her head against her partner's and feeling Gabrielle's breathing increase.

"I love you." Gabrielle uttered, her breath sending a tiny tingle of warmth through Xena's chilled flesh. "I always have.. from the minute I saw you.. and that's made it all worth it, you understand?"

A nod, as the water swirled to her chin. "Gabrielle.. I love you with everything that I am…and I always will.. no matter what happens now.. you remember that, all right?" Her voice broke. 'No matter what happens… promise me?"

"I promise." The bard gasped, as the water touched her neck. "But this isn't going to separate us, Xena. I won't let it." She clutched tighter. "Nothing ever will." She paused. "Promise me you believe that."

"I promise." Xena slid a hand up her partner's neck, feeling for the sensitive pressure points. The roaring increased, and the river poured into their prison faster, undercutting the bank, and sending a mud filled swirl around them. Her hands touched familiar places, and she waited a second more, before she put Gabrielle out, refusing to subject the bard to the icy terror of drowning.

One last moment, as she memorized the feel of her, and let her heart open wide, soaking in the gut deep warmth of their connection that defied the coldness of the water, and of the darkness. That would have to last her… forever.

Then the water exploded inward, driven by the relentless flood, roaring through the roots, and over the banks, as it claimed back the land with a mud filled surge., sucking the earth from under the tree.

The sound of sea birds. And the gentle roar of the ocean, were the two things she noticed first, along with the faintly spicy, faintly salty scent of the tide.

It was peaceful, and the surface under her feet seemed to be a soft, very pale sand, and she wandered down it towards the dawn. The light around her was the soft dove gray of the endless time before the sun rose, and she could see the faint, pearly coral tinged of the sky ahead of her that told of the coming light.

As she walked closer, the light moved from coral to a pale rose, and seemed to be coming from a single point on the near horizon, where her steps were taking her.

Then she was near the point, and saw it was a roughly edged opening, through which the rosy light poured, beckoning her. She knew she had to go through it.. that peace, and rest were on the other side. All she needed to do was walk there, and step inside.

A sea bird called, from behind her, and she turned to listen, hearing something familiar in its cry. Could that be her name?'

No.. not from the bird.. it came from the darkness behind her, a solid inky blackness that absorbed the light, and seemed to suck in even the paleness of the sand beneath her feet. It was a call.. one she was soul bound to listen to. It was pulling her back into the darkness, and away from the light, and she paused for a timeless instant, absorbing it. Wanting it. Needing it.

She started to run back, coursing over the sand faster and faster, heading back into the dark, and the cold, feeling the absence of light suddenly close over her, sending numbing tingles down her body, and exploding with a sharp lance of pain against her skull.

But the call never ceased. And she never stopped responding to it.

An arm around her chest, squeezing hard, and she drew breath at last, coughing the muddy water from her lungs and letting it trickle out of her mouth and onto hard, brown sand.

"Xena!" Now the voice was real, and near, and she forced her eyes open, feeling her body racked with shudders as it tried to rid itself of the water inside her. She half rolled over, letting gravity take her onto her back, and looked up into Gabrielle's exhausted eyes.

Which closed, on meeting hers, and the bard collapsed against her chest, her own form convulsing with sobs. Somehow, she got her arms to obey her will, and got them around Gabrielle's shaking body. "Hey.. ' Her voice was so hoarse she didn't recognize it. "Wha happened?"

Gabrielle took a deep, shuddering breath, and straightened a little, resting her weight against one arm, and gently stroking Xena's face with the other. "I.. I don't know.. " She sniffled. "I was… the water came in, and the bank collapsed.. then it went dark for a minute.. water over my head.. then.. I don't remember after that.. I think I blacked out. .. next thing I remember, I was up on the shore here, and you were…." She stopped, and rubbed her face, shaking her head. "I couldn’t.. you weren't.. oh gods."

"Shh…" Xena mumbled groggily, feeling her own labored breathing, and the aching cramps from the cold. "It's over… it's past."

A slow nod. "We gotta get out of here. I'm freezing."

Xena felt a numbing lethargy stealing over her, and struggled to focus her thoughts. No.. this was bad. Her mind sluggishly responded, but she was fighting a losing battle and she knew it.

Hands cupped her face, and she forced her eyes open again. "Xena.. I can't… you gotta get up.. please? I know you can do it." The bard's face tensed. "Please.. for me?"

For her. Yeah. Will alone forced her body to roll over, and she put her hands against the packed mud, pushing against it with a dogged determination. For her. Anything. Will alone, but somehow she was standing, and felt Gabrielle's arms slide around her in shivering support. For her..

A scrambling sound, then the familiar feel of fur against her fingertips. Whining. Paws against her thigh, almost taking her to the ground. Ares.. "Down." She managed, feeling the wolf drop, and peering blurrily at him, seeing his mud covered, but otherwise seemingly unharmed form through the still falling rain.

They made it, somehow, to a rock outcropping, which blocked the wind, and had enough overhang to shelter them from the rain, and collapsed under it, shivering uncontrollably. Xena managed to tug a large uprooted bush in with them, providing them with a tiny amount of cover, and Ares huddled next to them, bringing a very welcome warmth despite his damp fur. "Good boy." Xena whispered, as she leaned her aching body against the back of the overhang, and wrapped her shaking arms around Gabrielle.

The bard nestled silently closer, and Xena felt the silent sobs racking her body. "S'allright.. " She murmured to the bard. "Easy… easy.. "

"I'm all right." Gabrielle managed, in a shaky tone. "Just… reaction, I guess."

Very slowly, the warmth crept through both of them, and Xena felt relief from the sharp cramping of the cold, but not the painful rawness that made breathing agony. Part of that, she knew, was from the.. near.. drowning. Damn.. that was close. Her mind wandered over what she remembered, and her brow creased. Well.. later for that. "Hey.. " She whispered hoarsely. "Thanks."

Tired green eyes gazed up at her. "For what?"

A half grin. "Saving my life." She sighed. "Twice." Her eyes closed and she let her head rest back against the rock. "Good thing I got you here… not doing a good job on that promise to take care of myself, am I?"

Gabrielle gently combed the dark hair out of her partner's eyes, and gave her a faint, wistful smile. I guess I did… she mused wonderingly. "No.. not very, love." She murmured. "Guess I'll just have to take care of you, then, huh?" She looked up into Xena's dazed eyes, then studied her battered form, wincing at the scrapes from the river debris. 'Thank you.. for coming back to me, Xena."

A twitch. "Had to." A pause. "Different this time." She swallowed and closed her eyes. "Must have.. not been.. too close…"

Gabrielle gazed at her. "Why?? " She asked gently.

"Not like.. " Xena took a breath. "Must have been a dream. Ocean.. birds flying around.. sunrise.. " She felt Gabrielle's hand against her chest. "Hard to describe."

You don't need to. Gabrielle felt a lightness flood her. I've been there. She opened her mouth to speak, then slowly closed it again. This was not the time. "We have to get back up to the cave.. you have all those scratches… and we're gonna need the healer's kit."

A nod. "I know." Xena took a pained breath. "Little while." She hesitated, and forced her eyes open apologetically. "You OK?"

Gabrielle rested her head against the warrior's shoulder. "You made sure I was." She said quietly, remembering waking to find herself still wrapped in the warrior's protective arms, and turning to find Xena's still, unbreathing form behind her. She'd reacted instinctively, shaking the warrior hard, and getting an arm around her chest, pulling up with all her strength, then squeezing the water out of her lungs, six.. seven?… times before she felt a faint, answering gasp under her aching arms. It had been the most wonderful sound she'd ever heard.

The silence stretched on, as the rain slowly pattered to a halt outside, and the wind died down, and the storm was over.

Gabrielle waited until her tunic had at least dried to mere dampness before she reluctantly put a hand on Xena's shoulder. "Hey.." She called softly, watching the blue eyes flutter open and blink at her dazedly. "We gotta go, love."

A weary nod. "Yeah.. all right." Xena answered softly, lifting a hand and rubbing her temples. "Damn…" She gave Gabrielle an apologetic look. "Sorry… I'm still.. kind of fuzzy." Kind of fuzzy… um.. no.. I'm not really trotting on all hooves here. "I think my brain froze." A faint attempt at a joke, which earned her a smile from Gabrielle.

The bard stroked her cheek. "I can tell." She sighed softly, watching her partner struggle to keep her eyes open. "I'd let you rest longer, but.. Xena, it's still cold here, and I'm.." She felt silent as the warrior took a deep breath, and made an obvious effort to gather herself together. Afraid to let you go to sleep like this… at least until we're someplace safe.

"No.. you're right." Xena told her, motioning her to move out of their shelter. "Let's go." She tapped the wolf's back. "Go on, Ares."

Gabrielle scrambled out after the wolf, putting her hand on the rock overhang, and straightening her back with a groan, then turning to see her partner standing quietly behind her, leaning against the rain slick surface. The warrior's face was pale, even in the muddy fading sunlight that was very reluctantly peeking through the slowly lifting clouds, and Gabrielle could now see the angry cuts and scrapes that had ripped through her light linen tunic. "You look miserable, Xena." She blurted, then winced. "Sorry."

That got a tiny, wry smile from the tall dark haired woman. "I bet." She turned her face towards the subdued setting sun and ran a hand hesitantly through her damp locks. "Still.."

"You’ve had worse." Gabrielle finished for her, walking over and taking her arm with a smile. "Come on, you."

It was dark before they made it back to the cave, and Xena paused outside, holding Gabrielle back before they entered, her dark head cocked to one side. "Ares.. go on." She nudged the wolf with one foot, and waited for him to enter the cave, pausing for several long seconds before relaxing and giving the bard a squeeze on her shoulder. "Should be.. okay."

The fire was nothing but embers, but Xena had stocked the place with firewood, and Gabrielle gently led her partner over to where their things were. "Hold still.. " Xena stood without resistance, swaying a little as she let the bard strip off the tattered, muddy tunic. "Ouch." She flinched, seeing the raw scrapes across the warrior's back. "Oh, Xena…"

"Yeah." Xena muttered softly. "Stings." She took the dry garment Gabrielle had slung over her shoulder and shrugged slowly into it, as the bard sighed. "Just scratches, though."

Gabrielle put her hands on the long shirt's lapels, drawing them closed across her partner's chest and tying the belt around her waist. "Come on.. sit down here"

Xena complied, sitting down on the bedroll, and resting her elbows on her knees. Gabrielle crouched down next to her, and cradled her face in her hands. "Xena?"

The warrior's gaze was glassy. "Yeah." A deep breath. This.. is bad. I can't… oh gods.

"Love, I know it's hard.. but you need to stay with me, all right?" Gabrielle whispered. "I need you to tell me what to do for you…OK?"

A long silence, then finally Xena glanced down, and studied her hands. "Give me the healer's kit." She said quietly. No.. choice. Sleeping.. wouldn't be a good idea. She took the leather pouch Gabrielle handed her, and fished inside, pulling out a selection of five herbs, pinching amounts and adding them to a small pile in the center of her hand. At last, she nodded, and closed her fist.

Gabrielle put a hand over hers, and gently pried at the fingers. "Give me those.. I'll make you some tea, OK?" She stood and rebuilt the fire, putting the water pot over it as soon as the flames were warming the cave. The heat felt wonderful against her body, and she stood absorbing it for a minute, before turning to gaze at Xena, who was staring into the orange light, one hand idly stroking Ares' thick fur. The gnawing worry erupted in her chest again, seeing the far off look in her partner's eyes, and she shook out one of their blankets, and settled it around Xena's shoulders.

That got her a spark of amusement in those pale blue eyes, and a half grin. "Thanks mom."

Gabrielle crouched down again. "Very funny.'" But she smiled. "Xena.. " A breath. "Are you hurt anywhere.. I mean, other than the scratches? You're… I … "

You're scaring her to death, Xena.. you need to snap out of it. "No.. no.. " She sighed. "The water.. the cold.. I don't know.. I just sort of feel numb." She nodded towards the now boiling water. "That should help."

Gabrielle sat down, and worked on steeping the tea, pulling the jar of honey out, and raising an eyebrow at her partner. "Want some?"

A nod. "Yeah." Xena put a hand to her throat. "Hurts to swallow… feels like I was screaming or something." She paused. "Was I?"

Gabrielle stirred the tea thoughtfully. "No… " She said slowly. "Not that I remember…." But then.. how did we get out from under that tree? "Here…" She folded Xena's hands around the cup, and sat down next to her, guiding the mug up to the warrior's lips, and watching her drink several long swallows. "How's that?" She put a hand up against Xena's forehead and let out a tiny sigh of relief. "You feel cool.. no fever."

The herbs kicked in fast, and Xena felt her heart pound faster, and a flush color her skin, as her body responded to the stimulants. It was dangerous.. but not as dangerous as that creeping lethargy seemed to be. "Better." She nodded slightly, taking another few sips, and feeling her blood course wildly just under her skin.

The fog dissipated a little, and she drew the blanket around her shoulders, feeling her breathing increase, and faint tingle travel down her skin. It began to melt the core of ice she'd felt inside her since she'd woken.. or.. whatever.. near the river. That, and the fire nearby, and Gabrielle's close presence, her hand curled gently on Xena's knee, the bard's thumb idly stroking the soft skin, and tracing the smoothly curved muscles just under it.

It must have been the cold..she mused. And the shock of.. coming very close to the edge, yet again. At least she hadn't had to go all the way.. and feel the licking flames of Tartarus, the ache against her arms of the crucifixion, and the blinding agony of her shattered legs. No.. because Gabrielle had saved her.. She glanced up at the bard. "Hey.. you make a mean cup of tea, my bard."

"You look better." Gabrielle noted quietly, lifting a hand to brush her knuckles against her partner's cheek. "What is that stuff?" She felt an utter rush of relief at the returning intentness in that gaze, as the quiet, almost ghostly presence solidified into her soulmate's sharp intelligence.

Xena shrugged a little, lifting one arm and settling it, with part of the blanket around the bard's body. "Just something to kind of give my body a kick." The fog cleared further, and she felt her senses settling into an almost normal state. She put down the mug, and turned to Gabrielle, studying her intently.

Seeing the slow, silent tears running down the bard's face, and lifting wondering fingers to brush them away. "Gabrielle..what.. are you hurt? " She pulled the blanket aside, and started checking her companion for injuries anxiously. How could I have just let her….

Hands covered hers, and the bard snuggled closer, hiding her face against Xena's linen clad chest. "What… " Confused, she stroked the pale, tangled hair softly. "Gabrielle..what's wrong?"

'I thought I was losing you again." Came the tortured whisper. "You were drifting away from me."

"Oh… gods.. Gabrielle.." Xena closed her eyes in pain. "I wouldn't…" She stopped. But she had, hadn't she? If not for Gabrielle, she'd be back in Tartarus right now. Again. How could she have let go her life so easily.. knowing what it meant to her soulmate? What kind of a useless piece of… "I'm.. sorry.."

Gabrielle sighed. "No.. here you are hurt, and I'm going off all over you like a baby… gods.. I don't know what got into me, Xena… " She drew breath. "I'm just glad to have you.. back."

Silence for a moment. "Damned if I know why." Xena's voice was bitter with self-knowledge. "All I ever seem to do is cause you pain… you'd be better off.."

The impact of the bard's hand against her cheek shocked her speechless.

"Don't you EVER say that" The green eyes blazed fiercely. "Don't you ever even THINK it, do you hear me??? " Gabrielle shook her head violently. "Gods..Xena, how could you even… do you… " Her gaze fastened on Xena's still shocked eyes. "Can you honestly tell me you think I'd be better off having..never…" Her heart was breaking.. she could feel it. Knew by the sudden intake of breath Xena could too, through the link that bound them. "Oh.. no.. please…don't think… can't… "

Hands on her face, and now she could feel Xena's heart pounding hard against the hand she had laid flat on the warrior's chest. "No… listen to me.. " That voice, which had a path straight to her heart. "I don't believe that.. I can't.. I know you wouldn't have been… I was… " An expelled breath. "Gabrielle.. I'm just so mad at myself.. for all that I keep putting you through.. I didn't mean.. that I wished we'd never… " She felt tears start in her own eyes, and ignored them. "How could I? Her face stung, where the bard had hit her. She ignored that too, intent only on the still face gazing at her. "You… have been.. the one miracle of my life." Just that simple.

Shaking fingertips brushed her cheek, collecting the tears and tracing the red mark there. "You've been the reason for mine." The bard whispered. "I figured that out a while ago.. we all have a purpose in life.. and I didn't have one until I met you. " She sighed and let her hand drop to Xena's arm, rubbing the warm skin there. "Sorry I hit you."

"It's ok.. " Xena gave her a hesitant smile. "I think I probably deserved it." She glanced down. "That was… an incredibly stupid thing to say. My brains.. must have been frozen. "

Gabrielle let her head rest against her partner's shoulder. "Xena?"

"Mmmm?" The warrior murmured, leaning back against the rock wall and pulling the bard with her.

"Can I ask you something?" And you won't get mad.. or…

"Sure." Xena replied. Uh oh.. She quietly sipped on her tea. "Anything.. you know that."

A long silence. "When you said.. just now… that you didn't believe it.. you said you can't, and that you knew I wouldn't have been.. "

"Yeah." Xena felt her heartbeat speed up, as she realized where this avenue was headed.

"How did you know?" Gabrielle took a deep breath. "I don't mean..I know you're right.. OK?"

There are much better times that we could discuss this. Xena's mind ached. "Gabrielle… we can.. talk about this tomorrow.. all right? I'm just… it's been a long day."

Green eyes stared intently into hers. "All right.. but… " Always a but. " You do know, don't you.. its not just something you think?"

The warrior closed her eyes, and let her head drop back against the cool stone, remembering. "I do know." She confirmed, opening her eyes again, and gazing quietly down at Gabrielle. "Tomorrow… I promise."

Gabrielle hesitated, then nodded, giving Xena a push on one shoulder. "Lie down."

The warrior obeyed, laying her head onto her folded cloak with a sense of relief. She watched the bard change into a familiar soft shirt, and then she snuggled down next to her partner, reaching and smoothing the hair out of her eyes.

"You must hurt all over, love.. I don't think.." A hand grabbed the front of her shirt and tugged hard, and she laughed softly, as she was pulled closer, and she slid an arm around Xena's waist, and laid her head down on the warrior's shoulder, where the heartbeat was loud and clear.

"So don't think." Xena said softly, settling her arms around the bard. "Hey… we forgot to have dinner." A tiny joke, and she felt the quiet snort as Gabrielle shifted slightly, and let her hand start a slow, languid drift down the warrior's midsection. "I definitely can afford to miss it." Xena chuckled ruefully.

Gabrielle smiled against the sweetly rich herbal scent of the linen shirt Xena was wearing, and gave her belly a gentle poke. "Liar." She let her finger trace familiar patterns. "Just for that, you get a big breakfast."

"Oh yeah?" Xena teased, kissing the top of her head.

"Mmm…" The bard replied. "Yeah." A pause. "Xena?"

"Yeah?" The warrior responded, taking a deep breath and letting it out.

"You gonna be OK?" A plaintive, hopeful question.

Xena closed her eyes, and bowed her neck, capturing the bard's lips in a long kiss, not breaking contact until she felt Gabrielle's body arch to meet hers. "I feel great." She mumbled, nibbling the underside of Gabrielle's jawline.

"Point made.' The bard smiled, and snuggled in close, letting her eyes drift shut.

But the fire's companion was a pair of blue eyes gone gray in the flickering crimson light, which didn't close until very, very late.

Hercules felt himself starting to drift up from the heavy covering of sleep he'd fallen into, becoming vaguely aware of the sounds and scents of the inn. The fire gave off a hint of oak, the blankets he was swaddled in smelled of sun and dried herbs, and he could hear the faint sounds of activity outside through the snugly closed windows.

And… splashing. His eyebrow quirked, but he kept his eyes closed. Splashing..and a soft.. humming. The kind of preoccupied, tenor, off key humming that could only be coming from Iolaus, who, though loyal, and funny, and courageous to a fault, was unfortunately tone deaf.

One eye opened, and he peered cautiously over the blankets, spotting his friend cheerfully puttering around the large wooden tub, moving buckets of steaming water over to it and gently sloshing the contents inside. He'd taken his vest and overtunic off, having apparently washed them, and was currently enjoying the warmth of the fire against his compactly muscular form.

"What are you doing?" Hercules asked, curiously, making no move to stir an inch other than his lips and tongue.

Iolaus glanced at him, then glanced down at the bucket in his hand, then back at his friend. "Y'know, I told you that you should have had your eyesight checked out by that healer in the last village, buddy." The small blond man shook his head, and finished his trip to the tub, tipping his bucket in, and sniffing the steam appreciatively.

Hercules became aware of a pleasant, spicy, musky scent that tickled his senses, and intrigued him enough to make him half sit up, bracing his elbows behind him, and watching Iolaus with interest. "What's that smell?" He asked, then glanced at the window. "Aw.. how long have I been sleeping?" The darkness outside intensified the cozy warmth of the room, and he resisted the urge to lie back down and let himself get sucked back into a pleasant sleepy haze.

Iolaus grinned. "You like it?" He tugged another bucket over, and rid it of it's warm contents. "Toris gave me some of these herbs.. he said the baths usually get scented by the girls around here.. " Iolaus' pale eyes twinkled. "But he keeps this stuff around so he doesn't end up smelling like flowers."

Hercules laughed. "I see his point." Then his expression sobered. "You haven't answered my question."

The smaller man glanced up. "Well.. I don't know… several candlemarks.. I guess.. they're serving dinner downstairs.. I thought you'd appreciate a bath before that." He looked up with a bright smile. "Hey..I found out some neat stuff."

The demigod yawned, and slid out from under the covers, standing and stretching his tall, muscular frame slowly. "You telling me I stink, Iolaus?" This with a wry look in his friend's direction. "What'd you find out?"

Iolaus put his fists on his hips and struck a pose. "Well.. first off, no you don't stink.. YOU were the one who said you wanted a bath, pal." He shook his head. "Second..I found out that not only are they getting joined.. " He stopped. "And, by the way, thanks for telling me about that, too." He muttered as an aside. "Not only that, but Solstice is…. " He paused for effect. "Xena's birthday."

Hercules stopped in the middle of removing his fawn colored shirt, and stared at his friend. "No kidding?" He snorted in surprise. "How'd you find that out? I asked her once.. and boy did I ever get one of those deadly looks back." He stripped his shirt all the way off, and draped it over the end of the bed, ignoring Iolaus trying to pretend he wasn't looking at the raw, angry red mark still circling his broad neck. "Thanks for the water.. by the way.. you're right. I do need a bath." He wrinkled his nose, and smiled.

"No kidding." Iolaus answered, then spotted the hurt look. "Oh.. no.. sorry.. I meant no kidding about the birthday." He laughed a little. "Her mother told me.. nice lady." He glanced up, as Hercules removed his trousers and boots and lowered himself into the water with a heartfelt groan. "They're all pretty nice here.. not what I expected at all." He pulled a small package out from their gear and unwrapped a bar of soap, which he flipped to Hercules casually. "Here.."

A big hand captured it in mid air. "Thanks.."

Iolaus leaned back against the hearth, and regarded him quietly. "I could ask Cyrene for some salve for your neck."

Pale eyes glanced at him. "Leave it." Hercules answered shortly. "It'll be fine."

The blond man pursed his lips and nodded. "Just offering." He commented, glancing at his boots, already having an alternate plan. "Those Amazons are pretty interesting, too.. remember how I said Xena looked really preoccupied before she left?"

Hercules studied him suspiciously. "It’s not like you to give up that easy, Iolaus.. what cockeyed plan are you hatching up?"

Iolaus walked over and rested his bare arms against the wood polished smooth from years of use. "Plan? No plan.. I'm just gonna tell Xena when she gets here." He gave Hercules a broad smile. "You can just argue about it with her." He poked his companion in one broad shoulder. "And frankly, I hope she ties you down and slaps poultices that smell like goats on your neck for a week." He gave Hercules a cocky grin.

Hercules glowered at him. "Thanks, buddy." It was, however, a potent threat, and he knew it. Iolaus he could put off.. though the smaller man had been getting more persistent the longer the injury remained unhealed. Xena, on the other hand… wouldn't take no, or even maybe for an answer. "You're a real pal."

Iolaus looked him right in the eye. "I like to think I am."

The demigod dropped his eyes, and played with the surface of the water for a minute, then looked back up. "You are… " He sighed. "It's just spooking me, that's all…" He raised a wet hand and touched the burn. "I never had something that just wouldn't…heal.. before.. most things don't even affect me." He shook his tawny head. "Maybe Xena'll know what to do." Then his brows creased. "What were you saying about her before?" He started scrubbing himself with soap, wincing as the burn pulled when he tried to get his shoulders.

"Here.. let me get that." Iolaus sighed, taking the soap from his friend and getting the hard to reach spots, careful to avoid the vivid burn. "I'm sure she'll come up with something.. she usually does." He kept his voice cheerful. "Hey… Gabrielle got kidnapped while we were gone."

Hercules turned his head, both eyebrows crawling up to his hair line. "What???"

Iolaus told him the story while he finished washing, then handed him a linen towel as he got out of the tub and dried himself, wrapping the fabric around his muscular waist. "Zeus, it's nice to be clean, and dry, and warm for a change." He commented wryly, crossing to their gear and pulling a clean shirt from his pack. He paused in the act of settling the fabric over his head. "Do they…"


"I told them the story. " Iolaus answered, not looking up from where he was digging out fresh clothing from his own store. "Not much point in not.. they knew where Xena was going. " He looked up. "And why." He gave his friend a smile. "It's all right.. they just wanted to know if you were OK.."

Hercules settled the shirt over his body, and stared unseeing at the fire for what seemed to Iolaus forever. "Yeah." The demigod finally said, blowing out a breath. "Well, better it comes from you." He glanced over at the still kneeling Iolaus, and froze, then walked over and crouched down behind the smaller man, grasping his shoulder and peering at his tanned back closely.

Iolaus cursed silently to himself. Damn it.. how could I forget that… "What's up?" He asked brightly, not moving.

"Where did you get these?" Hercules asked quietly, running a thumb over the vertical scars that ran across the blond man's skin.

"Um." Iolaus hesitated, racking his brains for a good excuse.

"Did I do that?" Came the tense, anguished question.

Sometimes, Iolaus.. He quietly reflected. Sometimes, there is such as thing as a merciful lie. "You??? No." He forced a laugh. "No.. no way.. no.. it was the guards that caught me down there…brought me to the dungeon." He half turned and gave Hercules a smile. "Didn't duck fast enough.. you know me."

The utter relief on his friend's face told him he'd made the right choice. And. It's not a lie.. that wasn't him. He told himself. "I told you… you didn't touch me." Not.. totally the truth. He took a calming breath. His body still remembered, though he'd managed to purge the memories from his dreams. Mostly.

"Thank the gods." Hercules sighed, clapping him on the shoulder. "Come on.. let's get moving." He pulled on a pair of clean, dark blue trousers, then sat down to pull on his knee length boots, while Iolaus changed into a long sleeved purple shirt, and gray trousers of his own.

"Cute shirt." Hercules commented, then sighed and shook his head. "Iolaus, comb your hair.. it looks like a squirrels nest."

"Ha, hah." The blond man replied sarcastically. "We can't all have perfect hair like someone I could name but won't." He ran his fingers through his unruly blond locks, and spread his hands. "Come on, I'm starving."

"So.. is Solari checking up on us?" Ephiny laughed, as Granella shook the moisture off her cloak, and settled herself at the regent's side, motioning Cait to do the same. "Not that it’s not good to see you two, but…"

Granella gave both her and Eponin a dour look, then unstrapped the leather case from her belt, and slapped it down on the table. "Here." She pushed it across the table at them. "Notes, missives, idle thoughts, a couple of shopping lists, a centaur in a nut tree, you name it." She eased herself back in her chair and sighed. "And that had to be the worst weather on record we just went through." She glanced to her left. "Right, Cait?"

"Gosh." The blond girl sighed. "It was awful. And the river is flooded.. we saw ever so many drowned animals." She looked up and smiled. "Hello, Toris."

"Hi." The tall dark haired man greeted them, dropping into a seat across from Ephiny and resting his forearms on the table. His eyes casually found Granella's, then glanced just as casually away. A faint blush colored the slim Amazon's skin, almost invisible in the dim golden light "Rain's stopped… looks like it's clearing." He shook his head. "We've been getting a bunch of flooded out folks coming down the road.. looks pretty bad further upriver."

A server arrived, bringing them an armload of wooden platters and bowls, and a steaming pot that she left on the table, along with a serving spoon. "There you are.. " She grinned cheerfully, setting down several loaves of warm bread, and poking a knife into one of them.

Toris stood, and dusted his hands off. "Can I serve you ladies?" He inquired, picking up the serving spoon and a bowl.


"Oh, get over it." Toris rolled his eyes. "Amazons." He sighed in exasperation.

Ephiny handed him her bowl with a grin. "She taught you to say that, didn't she?" She caught Eponin's smothered chuckle and poked the older Amazon in the leg. "You've got the intonation and the eyebrow perfectly."

Toris raised his brow, and blinked at her. "I have no idea what you're talking about." He paused, and ladled some stew into her bowl, then glanced up as Hercules and Iolaus slipped through the dinner crowd and headed their way. "This'll be a nice change." He muttered, as he passed Ephiny's bowl back and started on Eponin's. "Evening.. " He greeted the two newcomers. "Have a seat.. join the party."

Ephiny introduced everyone who hadn't met each other yet, and settled back into her chair, slowly sipping on a tall glass of fragrant ale, and watching the interaction around the table, hiding a smile when she spotted Iolaus using a very slick redirection ploy and adding more stew to Hercules' bowl when the demigod was distracted. Not.. Ephiny mused to herself. That the tall, tawny haired man didn't look like he could use it… He seemed a bit shy at first, and she wasn't sure if that was his natural response, since he was in a group of strangers, or whether it was due to his recent trials.

Iolaus, teamed with an enthusiastic Cait, soon drew him out, though, as the slim young Amazon dredged up questions about his adventures that Ephiny was willing to believe he had totally forgotten. He seemed very sweet, and not at all like she'd expected, given his reputation.

Which, strangely enough, was exactly what Hercules was thinking about the Amazons.

They all looked up as the door opened and a small group of villagers piled in, half leading, half supporting a draggled looking woman, who was weeping in exhaustion, and putting a hand out to touch the forms of two small children, being gently carried in the arms of two of the villagers.

Toris stood, and excused himself, walking over to the group and giving the leader a nod. "Ectris?.. what's up?"

The woman looked up at him, and a curious expression crossed her face.

"Poor lass." Ectris sighed. "Flooded out, upriver some 30 leagues.. their wagon got swept up at a ford and carried down."

"We woulda been kilt." The woman gasped. "The wagon was headed down to the rough spots.. I knew we weren't gonna make it… but.. " Her eyes fastened on Toris again, then wrenched away and blinked around the room. "But then a goddess of the river came up.. and saved us."

By now a large group of the villagers were clustered around, and Toris felt, rather than saw Hercules' massive presence at his shoulder. "A river goddess?" The demigod queried, his brows creasing. "I didn't think.."

Toris smiled, and crossed his arms, looking at the floor then glancing up. "River goddess."

"Aye." The woman nodded, still staring at him from the corner of her eye. "Jumped right up onto that wagon, and got us tied good and tight to the shore.. we got off, and came up here."

"That's incredible." Hercules murmured.

The tall dark haired man chuckled a little. "No.. not really… " He gazed at the woman, pinning her with his pale blue stare. "Tell me.. this.. river goddess… she didn't, by any chance, happen to look..oh… like me?"

Thus invited, the woman now frankly indulged in a long stare. "Aye." She finally breathed. "I could never forget those eyes." Her face tensed in anxiety, and she looked around. "What kind of.. place.. is this?" Her eyes widened as she took in Hercules' massive form, then the Amazon's leather and weaponry.

Toris patted her arm comfortingly. "Relax. This is Amphipolis, that's Hercules, those are Amazons, and that wasn't a river goddess, it was my sister, Xena."

"Y..yo… your… sis…" The woman's eyes rolled up into her head, and she slumped, saved from a crash to the floor by Toris' quick grab, and Ectris' even quicker lunge.

"Whoops." Toris sighed. "That was a bit much, I think." He watched as Ectris and another villager got the woman's body up, and started to carry her out, followed by the two men carrying the children. The older of the two blinked at Toris, and gave him a tentative smile.

"We thought they were river goddesses.. cause they just disappeared down the water after they saved us.. and we didn't see them no more." The boy explained softly.

The men left, and they all looked at each other. "It's.. strange.. that they didn't come back to see if these folks were ok." Toris said, hesitantly.

Another silence. "I'm sure they're ok." Hercules ventured. "You know.. Xena's really pretty good at taking care of herself."

A longer silence. "If we go out after them, and they're ok, we're gonna get our butts kicked." Ephiny stated.

They all looked at Hercules. "Oh no.. don't look at me to protect everyone." The demigod raised a hand and shook it. "She's got one mean right hook."

Another silence. "We could say… " Iolaus drummed his fingers against the table. "We were… shopping."

Heads turned. "Shopping??" Ephiny and Hercules managed a duet.

"Yeah.." Iolaus grinned. "We were all shopping for.. birthday presents. And.. we heard Potadeia has a good market."

"She won't buy that for a second." Toris stated, positively. "But.. I'd feel better if we'd just check the river a little.. just to be sure they didn't.. lose their supplies.. or whatever."

Ephiny sighed. "I would to."

Hercules nodded. "Me three." He turned to Toris. "How'd you know it was her, anyway?"

Toris paused, distracted, then glanced up. "Oh.. well, people get this.. 'I know I know you from somewhere' kind of look when they meet me for the first time if they've met her first." He flicked his eyes towards the now closed door. "She had it big time."

Hercules studied him thoughtfully. "You do look alike." His face settled into a curious frown.

They moved back to the table, and sat down. "So.. " Iolaus took a swallow of ale. "Toris.. tell us some stories about your sister as a kid."

Carefully muffled delighted grins flashed around the table. "Yeah.. Tor, come on." Granella laughed, putting a light hand on his arm, where it rested on the table next to her. "I bet you have some really funny ones."

Toris felt a tingle go up his arm at her touch, and almost succumbed, but took a deep breath instead. "Um.. I do.. have a lot of shared memories of my childhood." He looked up and met their eyes. "But.. my sister doesn’t like to be talked about.. and I respect that."

Ephiny leaned forward. "C'mon Toris, Gabrielle does it all the time."

Pale, ice blue eyes pinned her in a familiar stare. "Those are different kinds of stories, and I'm not Gabrielle."

Hercules cleared his throat. "I think.. " He hesitated. "It's more that everyone's curious, Toris - no one knows much about Xena, she never talks about herself, or her family. We didn't even know you existed until a short time ago. "

Grateful looks surrounded him.

Toris sat back, mollified. "Well… I won't tell funny stories, but I'll tell you what it was like.. growing up." He smiled a little "With a younger sister who could take on anyone, and anything, and usually did."

Everyone leaned forward.

Gabrielle let her senses slowly become aware of her surroundings before she opened her eyes. She could smell the damp rock of the cave, and the dry cold air, which meant the weather had cleared. The fire was still a warmth at her back, and she could hear the steady, solid beat of Xena's heart under her ear, and feel the regular breathing that moved the arm she had thrown over her partner's stomach.

There are, she reflected fuzzily. Worse ways to wake up, even if we are in a cave somewhere out in the wilderness. She let one eye ease open, and found herself regarding Xena's profile, a sight which brought an immediate involuntary grin to her face. The warrior had her head turned slightly to one side, with errant wisps of dark hair drifting over her ear, and tangling with Gabrielle's own red gold. The bard took a deep breath, and released it, dismissing the memories of the previous day back amongst the shadowy would be terrors that only surfaced in her dreams.

She should, she knew, remove herself from this delightfully warm nest and get the fire stirred up, and get some water put on in case more of whatever that was Xena used last night was needed. That thought made her shudder, and as she did, she felt the arm that was curved around her back tighten its hold, and she glanced up.

A sharp blue gaze was looking back at her, with a dark brow lifted gently in question. "You all right?" Xena's voice was a little husky, but not strained as it was the previous night, and there was no vagueness in her glance.

Gabrielle smiled. "Just fine, thanks." She studied her partner. "How are you?"

The eyebrow twitched, along with Xena's lip on that side. "I feel like I was dragged down a rock filled, flooding river in nothing but a shirt, but other than that… " Her eyes lifted and glanced towards the opening. "Looks like a nicer day."

The bard didn't take her eyes off Xena's face. "Yes, it does." Then she laughed a little, and ducked her head against the warrior's shoulder. "Gods, Xena.. we can't even take a nice peaceful walk to Potadeia, can we?"

She felt Xena's muscles contract lightly as she chuckled. "I was just thinking that.. listen, we'd better just keep quiet about this little adventure.." She gave Gabrielle a wry look. "Or we'll never hear the end of it."

"And it's not my fault this time!" Gabrielle exclaimed. "You can't lay this one on me, O Warrior Princess, who jumps into raging rivers to rescue wretched refugees." She tickled Xena's belly, and got a real laugh out of her, a surprised, light, happy sound that touched the bard unexpectedly in a very deep place.

"Gabrielle! What else could I have done.. just let them go? " The warrior protested, still chuckling. "Wonder what happened to them.. we just saw the wagon when we came back up here." She paused when the bard didn't answer, and glanced down, riffing her fingers through the fair hair that half hid Gabrielle's face. "Gabrielle?"

"Um.. sorry." The bard apologized, gazing up with a gentle smile. "I was just… I .. don't get to hear you laugh like that very often, and I was.. oh, never mind." She laughed a little. "Have I ever told you, Xena.. that just being with you makes me really happy?" She dropped her gaze to Xena's linen shirt, and let her fingers drift idly over the warrior's ribs. "You really are an indispensable part of my life."

A hand gently descended and cupped her cheek, lifting her face up so she could see the quiet look in Xena's eyes. "I think you know that goes double for me, right?" Her gaze turned wistful. "What you chose to do yesterday… "

Gabrielle smiled a little. "Were you really surprised?"

An understanding gleam in those blue eyes. "No.. but.. "

The bard raised a hand and put her fingertips over Xena's lips. "No buts." Her eyes sparkled. "Besides.. I was looking forward to showing you around the Fields." A quiet joy began building in her, seeing the knotted look of confusion form on her partner's forehead. She doesn't know…she didn't realize… oh gods… this is going to be just the best.

"Gabrielle.." Xena sighed, feeling a lump form in her throat. "I don't think.. you'll ever get to do that, love." I can't let her think that's a possibility… it's not fair to her.

The bard hitched herself up on one elbow, and savored the moment. "Remember that dream you had yesterday?"

The warrior's brows contracted. What is she.. where… oh.. "Yes.. but Gabrielle, what does that have to.."

"A beach… right at dawn, the smell of the sea, pale coral light… birds calling… " Gabrielle prompted, a smile crinkling her face right up to her eyes. "Pale, very fine sand…"

I don't remember being that specific. Xena mused. "Um.. yeah, but how…"

"Xena, that was no dream." The bard whispered. "I know that place.. I've been there… once." She paused. "At Thessaly."

Xena lay frozen, staring up at her, forgetting to breathe. She can't be saying what I think I just heard. No way. That's not possible.. I know damn well it's not possible. But those green eyes were sparkling at her in gentle, sure knowledge.

"There was a bright spot.. a doorway… " Gabrielle breathed. "And beyond that, Xena… are the Fields.. I know.. I walked through it." She almost laughed at the absolutely stunned look on her partner's shocked face. "Happy birthday." This with a joyful, impish grin, as she ducked her head, and kissed her.

Could it…no.. how could it be? Xena's mind raced in circles. After all the horrible, disgusting, evil things I did.. that I was.. there's no way…no way… But old words of a wise soul drifted into her mind

Everyone thinks that hatred is the most potent of all emotions, Xena.. because it gives you strength, and fire, and the will to carry out almost anything. And they think love makes you weak.. because it saps your energy, and turns your mind to soft, gentle things.

But.. I will tell you this, that love makes things possible that hatred never will.. because it inspires you to greatness, and gives you a reason to live that is stronger that anything else can ever be in your life.

How could that be? Her mind still protested. I'm not that different.. I'm still a killer.. still.. full of that darkness… still.. Ares Chosen.

"It's what you use it for that counts." Gabrielle's words echoed. "If you use that to defeat evil, that's all that matters, Xena."


"You were evil.. you know evil.. now you can use that to fight evil. " M'lila's judgement swirled around her like fireflies in the dusk.


She looked up into Gabrielle's patiently waiting eyes, and, very slowly, felt a smile form on her lips. Mirrored by her partner immediately. "It's true?" She asked, wonderingly.

The bard delicately traced her face with a trembling fingertip. "Yes, it's true." She affirmed gently. "See? I told you that you were stuck with me."

Forever. The word suddenly took on new meaning. Her life did too, sliding across a ethereal scale from negative to positive. "I.. I… gods."

Gabrielle chuckled. "Yeah, it's true… whoa!!!!!!" She grabbed on tight as she was suddenly lifted skyward, and then felt her body tossed into the air with startling ease. "Hey!!!! " Her speech cut off as strong arms caught her, and felt the pulse of joy that came down their link, that sent her reeling to the edge of dizziness. She looked up, and found herself captured in a blaze of dark blue, and returned Xena's brilliant smile. "Not that, mind you, I want to do that tour any time soon."

Xena laughed, and closed her eyes, and breathed in the joy that surround them like a blanket. Energy sang through her, making her skin bristle with it, and she opened her eyes again, and bounded over to the cave entrance, where rich sunlight was pouring down, turning the slate gray rock to verdant silver. They both looked out onto the river valley, where the flooded river was reflecting the sunlight in mirror like darts, and broken vegetation was strewn about haphazardly.

Below them, a deer was timidly nibbling some shoots, and over head, a hawk soared, it's dark feathers stark against the cloudless blue sky.

"Beautiful day." Xena commented, grinning madly, glancing down at the happily prancing Ares.

Gabrielle didn't answer, she just slid her arms up around Xena's neck, and hugged her with all her strength. They stood like that for a few minutes, then Xena let out a happy sigh, and tucked the bard's head under her chin. "Hungry?"

Green eyes peered up at her with a sunny smile. "Of course… what about you?" Gabrielle ducked and put her head down. "I hear you grumbling there."

"Yep." Xena cheerfully agreed. "What are you in the mood for?" Her eyes sparkled with mischievous fun. She dropped the bard gently to earth, but kept a secure arm around her shoulders. "Hmm?"

"You." Gabrielle grinned impishly at her. "But I'll take whatever we have in our stock." She gave Xena a light tug. "C'mon.. "

The warrior smiled. "You go stoke the fire… I'll be right back." The urge to bolt off into the dazzling sunlight was almost overwhelming, and she was being hard pressed not to just let out a wild yell, that was perched in the back of her throat, waiting.

Gabrielle laughed. "Xena, you don’t' even have boots on, and its cold.. you goofy thing. Come on.. we've got stuff in here." She wrapped an arm around her partner's waist. "I'll spar with you to get rid of some of that energy, all right?" She giggled at the sheepish look on Xena's face. "Like I can't feel it.." She caught her breath at the way the sun lit up that dark profile.

"All right." The warrior gave in, still smiling, and let herself be led back inside.

"Ugh." Iolaus shielded his eyes from the painfully bright sun. How late did we stay up last night.. and how much ale did I drink? His brows contracted in agony. Too much. He remembered brief flashes of storytelling, himself, the Amazons, Toris… Gods, those Amazons knew some wild tales.

Cautiously, he turned his head to the right, to where Hercules was sleeping peacefully, curled up on his left side and hugging the pillow, as he usually did.

Won't even have a hangover. Iolaus sighed in disgust. He never does. At least we got him to relax a little, though.. that was an accomplishment. He grinned at the bashful response of his friend when the villagers had shown a solid familiarity of his exploits, positive evidence that Gabrielle had been regularly telling his tales there. Good girl, his mind thanked her with warm gratitude. I think that helped him more than anything else could have.. poor guy.

Wincing, he sighed and eased out of bed, padding silently across the wooden floor and freshening the fire. The renewed warmth felt good on his bare chest, and he sat for a moment, staring into the tiny, burgeoning flames. He reached up and kneaded his stiff neck, rotating his head to ease the tightness, as he finally stood, and took a deep breath, then crossed to his pack and took out a bag of mixed herbs, rooting around inside them and dumping a few out in his hand. Well.. it's not what I need, but.. it'll do something. He sighed, splashing some cold water into a mug, then adding the mixture. He stirred it with a finger, then tossed the contents down, making a face at the taste. Ugh. He shivered, then rinsed the stuff off his tongue with some cold water.

After a few minutes, the stuff took effect, and he sighed, then scooped up more of the cold water and washed his face vigorously, wincing at the sting of the icy temperature. It woke him fully up, though, and after running damp fingers through his unruly curls, he pulled on his clothes and boots.

A sound from the bed turned his gaze, and he walked quietly over, wincing in sympathy as he saw the grimace of pain on Hercules' still sleeping face. The demigod's hands were clenched on the bedclothes, and he was whispering an agonized "No.. no.. "

"Hey.. Herc.." Iolaus took hold of one broad shoulder and shook it gently. Damn those dreams… "Hey… it's ok.. " He shook harder. "Come on, it's just a dream."

Pale eyes slowly opened, and he turned his head to gaze wearily at Iolaus. Then he buried his face back into the pillow and groaned. "Sorry." He muttered, then rolled over onto his back, and stared at the ceiling. "Morning already?"

"Only just." Iolaus injected a cheerful tone to his voice that he really didn't feel. "I gotta go get something for this head… " He rubbed his temples. "Hey.. I'll bring ya back some breakfast or something, how's that?" He gave his friend a soft punch in the arm. "G'wan, sleep in a little.. we're supposed to be on vacation, right?"

He didn't get the expected argument, and he wasn't sure if he was glad for that or not.

"Yeah.. I guess." Hercules rubbed his eyes. "Quite a time we had last night, huh?" He managed a grin. "We should party with Amazons more often."

Iolaus grimaced. "Not too often." He rubbed his arm. "That was one deadly arm wrestling match." He watched his friend's eyes close, and his face lost its good humor. "Listen, you.. just go back to sleep, all right?"

A tired nod answered him.

Iolaus walked to the door, and slipped through it, casting one final worried look back at the bed before closing the door quietly behind him, and heading down the stairs.

Ephiny stood quietly gazing out of the window in her room, her arms resting on the windowsill next to a gently steaming mug of hot cider. She smiled at the sunny weather, mentally wiping her brow at the prospect of getting her Amazons out from underfoot for a few days. "Nice day." She commented, casting a glance back at Eponin, who was slumped in the chair next to the fire, grimacing.

"Lovely." The older Amazon remarked, letting her head drop back against the chair. "You coulda warned me about that ale, Eph."

The regent smothered a grin, before she walked back over and patted Eponin on the shoulder. "Hey.. we all need to get centaurfaced every once in a while, Pony… if it's any consolation, even Xena watches herself when she drinks the stuff."

"Really?" Eponin squinted up at the blond Amazon. "You ever seen her drunk?"

Ephiny shook her head. "Nope.. don't think I ever will, either.. Gabrielle told me she never lets herself get out of control like that.. it's too dangerous."

Eponin grunted. "Mph. She's gotta point. Hate to think of her playing ring toss with that chakram on a dare."

The regent winced. "Ooo… never thought of that… "

Eponin sighed. "Glad the weather's better though.. a nice trip in that fresh air will do wonders for my head" She gave Ephiny a rueful glance. "And the kids are getting a little antsy.. "

Ephiny crossed her arms over her chest. "So am I.. I think I'm going to come along." She braced herself. Now.. I get.. No way, Ephiny.. I'm not risking you getting sick again.

"No way, Ephiny." Eponin sat up straight. "I'm not risking you getting sick again."

The regent rolled her eyes. "For the love of Artemis, Pony, it's a beautiful day. It's sunny, there's very little wind, and we're just taking a walk."

Eponin cocked an eyebrow at her. "GABRIELLE was just taking a walk the other week."

"Look.. I'll have you, and the warriors, and Hercules, and Iolaus, and probably Toris along with me. What could POSSIBLY happen?" Ephiny lifted both hands, and let them drop to her sides. "We're taking a stroll down the road, Pony… come on. .I'm going stir crazy here.. at least you guys got to spar with Xena.. you wouldn't even let me do that!" She let a hand drop to Eponin's shoulder, and gave her a wryly pleading look. "Come on.. huh?"

Eponin frowned, hesitating. She understood her queen's frustration, but… She glanced outside. It was really nice out. The fresh air would probably do Ephiny some good anyway… "Well.. but you'd better find something warmer to wear than that." She scowled at the light linen shirt Ephiny had belted about her slim form.

Ephiny smirked quietly. "Oh.. I've got something… I had the weaver here make it while we were just hanging around.. " She pulled out a richly embroidered, thick, woolen shirt, in deep blue, with golden trim at the sleeves and hem. "You like it?"

"Wow.." Eponin rose and crossed to her, fingering the fabric and smiling. "That's really nice, Eph…" She glanced at the regent curiously. "Didn't think you were much for fancy stuff."

Ephiny smiled, and glanced down, shrugging a little. "I'm not, usually.. just leathers, and whatnot. But it's nice to have one or two things.. don't you think?" She laughed a bit. "Xena pointed that out to me, believe it or not.. when I asked her about that dark green outfit she had on the other day."

"Well, she could bring off just about anything including a potato sack, but.. " Eponin chuckled. "Yeah, I think she's right.. and that should look really nice on you." She hesitated. "Hm.. well, I'd better get moving.. someone's got to organize this little expedition." She gave Ephiny a brisk nod, then stepped gingerly out of the room.

Ephiny smoothed the fabric of her new garment thoughtfully, then let a tiny grin form on her face. "It should look nice, huh?" Her eyebrow quirked. "We'll see."

Continued in Part 3

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