Winter's Ending - Part 3

Melissa Good

For DISCLAIMERS see Part 1.

Silence lay on her like a blanket, and Gabrielle could clearly hear the Amazon's roughened breathing, over the snapping of the fire, and the odd thump from the kitchen on the other side of the wall. Footsteps caught her attention though, ones she recognized, and she glanced towards the door as it pushed inward, and her partner strolled in, juggling a platter and two large mugs. She closed the door behind her with one booted foot, and crossed to the bard, settling down cross-legged on the floor next to where she was sitting. She handed Gabrielle a large steaming bowl, and took one for herself. "Here." This with a grin. "It's one of my favorites."

"Oooo.." Gabrielle selected a choice tidbit from the bowl and popped it in her mouth. The bowl was filled with a mixture of steamed grains, and a variety of meats, some chicken, fish, chunks of sausage, mixed in a tangy sweet sauce that Gabrielle immediately adored. "Oh wow.. I like this." She dug in with enthusiasm, chasing down mouthfuls of the stuff with sips of hot mulled wine that Xena had also brought.

"Thought you would." Xena mumbled, concentrating on her own bowl. "Haven't had this in.. " She stopped absolutely still for an instant. "It was Lyceus' favorite too." She finished quietly, prodding the food about with her fork.

Gabrielle studied the bent head next to her, and reached out to stroke the soft dark hair sympathetically. "You miss him, don't you."

Xena nodded silently, then took a deep breath and continued eating. "Sometimes, something like this just reminds me."

The bard gave her back a gentle fingertip rub. "Wish I could go back and change that for you."

The warrior stopped eating again, and played with a piece of fish idly. "No you don't." She replied, looking up and catching Gabrielle's eyes. "And I wouldn't want that either." Her face was peaceful. "Some things are just meant to happen, Gabrielle." She speared a piece of meat, and held it up, raising an eyebrow.

Gabrielle leaned over and took it neatly in her teeth, then bit down, and found herself being kissed as Xena took the other half back. "Mmm..." She chuckled, as they broke apart and smiled at each other. "I guess they are."

"Kids are awake." Xena informed her, returning her attention to her lunch temporarily. "Cait's taking them on a tour."

"Hmm.. that could be dangerous." The bard mused, taking a long swallow from her mug. Then she studied the beverage. "I think I'm getting used to this stuff. I hardly feel it anymore."

Xena glanced at her. "I noticed." She replied quietly. "Be careful with that."

Gabrielle glanced at the mug, then glanced at her partner, and smiled. "One addiction at time, thanks. I prefer you." She paused, and cocked her head to one side. "Cute blush." She commented softly, running a fingertip up Xena's neck, and watching the small muscles just under her skin tense in reflex.

They finished lunch, and settled back to keep an eye on Ephiny. Xena waited until the bard had set their dishes aside, and settled on the floor next to her, snuggling up against her left side with a contented sigh before she spoke. "Gabrielle?"

"Huh?" The bard kept her eyes closed, and let her fingers play with a lock of Xena's dark hair.

Xena wrapped her arms around her partner and held her securely. "We need to send word to the Amazons." In her gentlest voice. "Tonight."

Gabrielle's eyes opened. "Why? I thought we were...." She stopped, and her gaze went to Ephiny's face, then up to Xena's. "But... you said.. "

"I know." The warrior replied. "But her lungs are filling up pretty bad, and I..." She paused as the bard buried her face in the fabric of Xena's shirt. "Look.. it's probably going to be ok.. I just.. they should know, Gabrielle." Silence. "Toris said he'd go.. he'll leave right away."

"I'll go." The bard whispered, clenching her fists in the fabric.

Xena stroked her face gently. "I think she'd want you to be here, love." No word about her not wanting Gabrielle out there on the road. No word about it being too dangerous. She'd learned the hard way what mattered to her partner. "Especially now."

Felt the slump in her shoulders, as the words registered and Gabrielle felt the truth of them. "Toris will get there fast.. you know him.. and by the time he gets back, everything will probably be fine." Xena hesitated. "It's just a precaution, Gabrielle... besides, you know we can't leave for a few days anyway - it's not fair to keep them worrying."

That made sense, to Gabrielle's tense mind. If it was Xena, I'd want to know. She thought about that for a minute. Of course, if it was Xena, I *would* know. "All right." She sighed, relaxing a little. "You're right...I just wasn't expecting you to say that." She let her head drop onto Xena's shoulder. "She says you give good hugs, by the way." A wicked glance up at Xena's surprised face.

"That wasn't a hug." The warrior objected, with a scowl. Oh.. let's not get started with this….

"I love it when people tell me how lucky I am." The bard teased her, poking her ribcage gently. "And you do give good hugs."

"Gabrielle..." A low warning growl. "I am not a huggy person."

The bard let her eyes travel down her partner's body, taking in the two of them locked in a close embrace. Her eyebrow raised with stunning impact.

"You're different." Xena grumbled.

"You're a mushball." Gabrielle pleasantly informed her, tapping her chest with one finger. "You are busted, big time, and I'm not going to let you get away with that 'I'm too tough for my leathers' attitude anymore."

"I am NOT a mushball." Xena protested indignantly.

Gabrielle gazed up at her, with a little smile, and watched her partner melt. "Yes you are." She said softly, with an impish grin. "But I won't tell anyone. I promise."

"You'd better not." The warrior grumbled, but her mouth quirked. "I have a reputation to maintain, you know."

They settled down for a long watch, listening to the sounds of late afternoon activity going on next door, and hearing the rattling of the wind against the window shutters. Gabrielle found herself drifting, and burrowed deeper into Xena's warm embrace, feeling the warrior's hands start a gentle rubbing on her back that was pulling her down into a pleasant drowsy haze, her eyes falling shut against her will.

At last the only sound was three sets of breathing, and as the shadows of the gathering darkness outside deepened in the room, the firelight reflecting off two pale heads, and the steady, alert glint of deep blue eyes that stood watch. Xena kept a small bowl of water by her, and kept rinsing out a folded linen cloth, laying it on the Amazon's hot forehead. Ephiny stirred restlessly, caught in her fever, and murmured under her breath; Xena caught Phantes name and felt her heart clench a little as her other arm tightened unconsciously around Gabrielle's soundly sleeping body.

Soft footsteps and clawclicks caught her attention, and she hesitated, glancing at Gabrielle's peaceful face before she shrugged mentally, and glanced up at the door. He's my brother. And hers too now. They need to get used to seeing this. Then she turned her view inward. I need to get used to them seeing this.

It pushed open, and Toris poked his head in.

He spotted them, and barely wiped a grin off his face before he opened the door wider, letting Ares squeeze through and trot over to them. with a snuffling growl.

"Hey boy." Xena called softly, going nose to nose with him and letting him lick her face. If I'm gonna be a mushball, might as well go all the way, right? Right. "Hi." She added to Toris, who padded over and settled himself next to her. "You ready to go?"

"Yeah." He answered softly, "Any change?" His jaw jerked towards Ephiny.

Xena waggled her hand. "Fever's worse. But she's pretty tough." She ducked her free hand inside her belt pouch, and came up with something, which she handed to Toris. "Here. That'll give you free passage through Amazon territory."

He nodded, and carefully put the signet ring on, admiring it in the firelight. "I have to find Eponin, or Solari, right?" He ran his fingers through his hair. "It's getting ready to storm again, or I'd offer to take the girls back with me. They're driving mom nuts. " He leaned his head next to hers, and she caught the spicy scent of the leathers and thick wool he was wearing. "She says they're worse than we were."

Xena made a face, and they both grinned. She reached over and tugged his tunic laces, drawing them shut. "Be careful, all right?"

Toris nodded. "I will." Then his gaze dropped to Gabrielle's peacefully sleeping form wrapped around his sister and he smiled. "You'd think she'd pick something softer to use as a pillow."

Green eyes drifted open and found his for a second. "Nope.. " The bard drawled sleepily. "I like my mattresses on the firm side" She thumped Xena's belly with a softly curled fist, and closed her eyes again, snuggling closer with a blissful sigh.

Toris looked like he was thinking about making a comment, but instead bit his lip and patted his sister's shoulder. "Good luck…"

"Same to you." Xena said, as she watched him get up and move towards the door.

"Thank the gods it's dark." The short, stocky man murmured to his gray horse, as he stood in the shadows of the forest, waiting for a galloping group of mounted horsemen to pass. They were dressed in scrungy leathers and furs, and he imagined he could detect the stench of them from where he was standing. "Hang In there, fella. Not much longer now." He reassured the horse, who nuzzled his chest insistently.

He fastened his cloak, and moved carefully out into the open, pale eyes searching the horizon for more outlaws. "Hope that's the last of them." Not that he minded a good fight, of course, and in fact, under normal circumstances he'd have been glad to go up against the scrubby fellows. But not now.. not when he had somewhere he had to get to, someone he had to find. Whom he hoped fervently would help him. With a sigh, he set foot to stirrup, and pulled his tired, cold body up into the saddle, pointing his steed's head towards the road. A road that soon, he prayed, would end up in Amphipolis.

Clicking his tongue, he kneed the horse, and settled into it's uncomfortable rhythm, the beast not having the most even of strides. I hope I know what I’m doing here. He went over his thoughts for the hundredth time. Ok ok.. I need help. Right? Right. I can't do this by myself, I tried, and it just didn't work. Gotta have help. So.. who do I know who can help break into a castle? He reached up and brushed curly blond hair off his forehead, then unstopped a waterskin and took a swallow. Limited choices, right? Right. I need someone who can break into a castle, and I know a couple of guys that can do that, but I also need someone stubborner than he is.

The blond man shook his head. That narrows my choices. And I need someone he'll listen to. And that eliminates all but one. I just hope she'll.. Oh, don’t' be dumb. Of course she'll help. He knew the verbal babbling was mostly to keep his mind off his own gnawing worry.

Long hours of riding didn't help his thoughts. The landscape went from scrubby brush to deep forest, and that at least made him feel a trifle better for being under some kind of cover, though the sound of his mount's hoofbeats seemed to reverberate against the looming trees, louder than he thought they should be.

The horse trotted on, into a stiffening and dampening wind that cut through his cloak like it was made of open weave, and chilled him to the core. Great. Just great, it's going to rain again, and I can't afford to stop. Damn, damn damn… why can't anything ever go right? He reached under the cloak and drew his patchwork leather vest closer, tying the front closed and huddling closer to the horse's neck.

The last of the deep forest cleared, and then he was out in the open, and travelling across a landscape only fitfully slivered with moonlight as the scudding clouds overhead shifted and boiled. A thick scent of rain filled his nostrils, and he pulled the hood of his cloak firmly over his head, and urged the gray faster.

A laugh behind him, and the sound of thudding hooves. Oh Hades in a bucket. His mind groaned, as he turned in the saddle, and saw the rough group gaining on him. He glanced around him, sensing rather than seeing the onset of tilled fields now fallow, and the barest outlines of a populated territory.

"Come on, you nag." He growled, leaning forward onto the horse's withers, and giving it his heel. "We need to get a move on." He wrapped the reins around his hands, and urged the animal forward, barely hearing a hollow owl's hoot that seemed to echo in his ears. He looked back, they were still gaining, and now he could see the drawn swords in their hands. So.. they weren't just looking to steal. He jerked his gaze forward, and gave the horse a solid wallop on the side, gaining an appreciable increase in speed.

Wasn’t going to be enough, he realized, when the hoofbeats grew suddenly louder. And dammit, I can't stop - I don’t have the time, and what if I get hurt? Too much is riding on me.. He heard lash of leather on flesh as the lead riders grew near, and felt the harsh coldness as the clouds gave up their burden and the rain lashed against his face.

Xena let Gabrielle sleep until after dusk, when she had to get up and light candles, or be left in darkness. The bard gave up her warm spot reluctantly, but also rose and helped Xena mix a new dose of medicine for the restlessly feverish Ephiny.

They worked in silence, with a teamwork built over their years of living together, of knowing motion and gesture and intent so well that one could begin a motion and the other end it with scarcely a jar between them.

"C'mon, Eph." Gabrielle called softly, wiping the feverish brow. "Hey.. come on now.. we got some more of this nasty stuff for you." No response from the Amazon, and Gabrielle cast a worried look over her shoulder at her partner. "Xena.."

A hand on her shoulder, pressing gently. "I expected this." Xena's voice quietly said. "Help me get her up. We've got to get this stuff in her anyway." This time Gabrielle slid in behind Ephiny, holding the Amazon upright while Xena expertly poured small amounts of the medicine into the blond woman's mouth, then touched a point in her jaw, getting a convulsive swallow from it.

The Amazon moaned softly as they settled her back down on the pillow, and Gabrielle's jaw clenched. "Isn't there anything else we can do?" Her eyes turned to Xena, imploring.


Biting back an impatient remark, Xena busied herself making some tea, battling the frustration she always felt when her healing skills could go so far, and no further. She was wrestling with her temper when a gentle hand slipped around hers. She looked sideways at Gabrielle.

"Sorry." The bard said, giving her hand a little squeeze. "If there was anything else you'd be doing it. That was a dumb thing to ask." The bard's green eyes shone with quiet regret. "I’m just really worried about her."

Xena felt her irritation dissolve as though by magic, and she found a smile creeping onto her face. "I know." She acknowledged. "I am too.. and it's really.. it bugs me when I can't do more." Was a time.. she mused, when we'd both have bottled that up until one or the other of us exploded. I guess we've both changed, a little. Good thing too.. she reflected. Gods, those arguments really used to hurt.. more than I ever let on. Wonder if she ever realized?

It had been a bad one, she remembered. What had it been about? Gods… could have been anything.. oh yeah. For once it wasn't plans, or leaving behind, or who got to pick where they stopped.

All she'd been trying to do was to get Gabrielle out of the way long enough to arrange for a little treat.. it having been a long pair of fortnights, and the weather had been atrocious. Just a night in a really nice inn, with a full fledged all out dinner - nothing much, but she couldn’t surprise Gabrielle if the bard was there listening to her arrange for it.

So she'd.. ok, the method was lousy. She'd told her to just run off and bother someone else for a few minutes. She'd realized the minute the words were out of her mouth it was a mistake, from the icy coldness that settled in the bard's normally open, green eyes. Gabrielle had turned on her heel and left, only turning to look at Xena and spit out "Maybe I'll do that on a more permanent basis. It's obvious I'm wasting my time with you."

The lancing pain that caused had surprised her, shocked her so badly she'd stood there for a few minutes just hurting. It hadn't been that long since Thessaly, and she had still been trying to come to terms with her deepening feelings for the bard, and had left herself wide open for something like this. And had reminded herself just why she'd made a decision a long time ago never to let anyone get that close, ever again.

This was why, because only people you let get inside could hurt you like this. And, oh, it hurt. Worse than her army turning on her. Worse than her mother spurning the sight of her. Half-heartedly, she went ahead with her plans, hardly knowing why she was bothering. Then she wandered into the stable, and sought solace, as she often had, with Argo, who leant the length of her golden neck and her warm presence.

She'd been grooming the mare when the bard had returned, finding her with angry footsteps that jarred Xena's composure. So she'd kept her eyes firmly on the golden coat, and her hand's rhythmic passes with the currycomb.

"I guess it's time to go find some bush to sleep under." Gabrielle's sarcastic comment made her close her eyes, but the bard couldn't see that with her back turned.

"We're staying here overnight." She'd answered in a monotone. Not even daring to turn around and look Gabrielle in the face. "There's a room upstairs."

"Fine." The bard had said, and left.

I wanted to do something nice. She'd cried in frustration. How did I manage to make it go so wrong? She'd leaned her arms on Argo's broad back, and let her forehead rest on the warm surface. Damn.. give it up, Xena. You're just not capable of having a normal friendship, much less.. Her thoughts had stopped there, as they always did.

Footsteps behind her, and a familiar presence, and she steeled herself for further anger. Perhaps the room wasn't to the bard's liking. The footfalls had slowed as she approached, then became hesitant. A pair of hands touched Argo's gleaming side, and stroked her, then the bard leaned forward, pressing against Argo's side so that she could see Xena's face.

Their eyes met. "You were planning this." Gabrielle stated quietly.

Xena had dropped her gaze to the mane she was untangling, and given a curt nod.

"As a surprise." The bard continued.

Another curt nod from Xena, who bit her lip to keep from tossing the bard's words back into her face. .because a deep instinct told her that would damage their friendship more than it already was. And something in her just didn't want that to happen. "Guess I should have found a different way to distract you." She'd said, in a cold, remote voice.

A hand lifted off Argo's coat, and then she felt the warm pressure on her wrist, as fingers curled around her arm, stilling it's motion, and forcing her attention to the quiet form by her side. She turned to meet mist green eyes, that, open and honest, captured hers with effortless ease.

"I'm sorry." Gabrielle had said, simple words spoken right from a gentle heart.

It shouldn’t have been that easy. Two words, one look, and a single touch, and her soul crept tremulously out into the light and she opened herself up to the pain all over again. She was helpless to prevent it; helpless to stop her own desperate need for this fragile friendship of theirs. "It's all right.." Was what she'd said.

Gabrielle had stepped closer, with a look of regret. "No it's not." She shook her head slowly. "I lied."

Xena had studied her quietly. "About what?"

And the bard had given her a tentative, shy smile. "If I spent a thousand years with you, I wouldn't have wasted one single second."

"So.. whats the smile for?" The bard's voice, now assured and knowing, nudged her out of her memories. "Hmm?"

"Just thinking." Xena replied. "Let's put more salve on her, and then take a break and get some dinner. "

Gabrielle nodded quietly. "All right." She knelt at the Amazon's side, and spread the mixture across her slowly moving chest. "Xena?"

"Yes?" The warrior knelt at her side, and put an arm around her, watching her motions.

"If…" The bard let the thought trail off, turning her eyes to her partner.

Xena gave her a smile. "I go where you go."

Gabrielle's hands stilled, and she turned a surprised and wondering look on Xena. A slow smile shaped her features. "You mean that?"

One eyebrow curved up. "Yeah. Wanna make something of it??" Xena challenged, taking the jar out of the bard's hands. "Finish up." She stood and walked back over to the table, putting the jar down, and counting out her remaining herbs. I think.. I may have just crossed a line. She mused quietly to herself. And I think I liked that. "Come on - let's grab something quick. " She turned and caught the bard's concerned look. "I want to keep an eye on her."

The small group clustered by the fire, making last minute preparations. Granella looked up as Solari moved into the firelight, throwing back her cloak hood and exposing her dark hair. "Ready?" She asked quietly.

Granella finished tying off her dagger, and nodded. "Just about."

They looked at each other. The five other Amazons in the search party were strapping on carry bags with travel necessities in them. Water, and travel rations. Bedrolls. And in Granella's kit, a full selection of healing herbs and bandages. Gods only hoped she wouldn't need them.

"I'm headed downriver." Granella told a weary looking Solari. "They were supposed to do traps, and a fishing lesson. Maybe.." She let her eyes meet the other Amazon's. "Maybe they just got held up by the weather."

"Yeah." Solari said softly. "Look.. Gran.." She paused, and looked at the ground. "Give it two days, heading downriver, all right."

Granella nodded slowly. "All right." She paused. "And then?"

"And then." Eponin sighed, joining them under the thatch. "Let the other five keep hunting, and you.. " She paused. "You head for Amphipolis."

Granella closed her eyes in acknowledgement, wishing for a single, brief moment that she was in Amphipolis right now. Turning this problem over to Gabrielle, who would, in turn, hand it to Xena, who would wave her magic wand and just make things right.

She knew it really wasn't like that. Really. But impossible things became more possible when you were around people who came back from the dead with studied nonchalance. Gabrielle.. That brought another thought. Damn.. she and Ephiny are close. She's not going to take this news well. "Let me get going." She sighed, tightening the clasp on her cloak.

Solari gave her a quick hug, and gripped her head in both hands, forcing eye contact. "Granella, you be careful, all right? All of you? This.. is just a precaution." She forced optimism into her voice, which the dour weather and the haunting anxiety had evaporated long before. "When you find them, you tell Ephiny she owes us for this, OK?"

Granella patted her side. "I will, I promise." Artemis, grant that I have the opportunity.

The scouting party set off down the rough-hewn path that led out of the village and towards the winding high pass road.

Xena listened to the wind rising outside, and walked over to the window to look out, stretching kinks out of her spine from hours kneeling at Ephiny's bedside trying to calm the Amazon's fevered hysteria.

The blond warrior's fever had risen to the point where she was unaware of her surroundings, and had started to relive some horrible times, judging from her hoarse screams. Fights, must have been, Xena had realized, and only her strength had been able to hold the Amazon down, and kept her from doing herself damage.

She's screamed Phantes' name over and over, and struggled hard, reliving the battle that had cost the centaur his life, back in Thessaly. That had brought tears to Gabrielle's eyes, and the bard had spent a long time with Ephiny's hands clasped in her own, gently reassuring her while Xena had cradled the woman against her to keep her safe from herself.

It was draining, especially since it brought back Thessaly, and that was a night Xena tried not to think about. She stared out into the darkness, listening to the sounds in the room behind her, the shift of the linens as Gabrielle tried to make Ephiny more comfortable, and the bard's low voice as she soothed the Amazon.

The fever had broken for now, and Ephiny had blinked to hazy awareness, enough to take another dose of the herbal mixture, and make a very feeble joke or two.

Gabrielle tucked the blankets in around Ephiny's shoulders, and gave her a pat. "You relax now, Eph. You're going to be fine."

The blond Amazon peered wearily up at her. "F'all I've been doin is lying her, how come I’m so damned tired?"

The bard let a grin quirk her mouth. "Your fever went up a bit.. you were very busy reliving some great Amazon battles. Xena had to hold you down."

"Eeep." Ephiny sighed. "Sorry."

"Not your fault." Gabrielle smiled, just glad to have her talking sense. "She needed the exercise." Looking up, she saw the jerk of the shoulder blades as that got a short laugh from her partner. "You just take it easy now." She wrapped her hand around Ephiny's. "We sent word to the village."

Hazy pale eyes studied her. "Thanks… gonna get my butt kicked for this."

"Why?" Gabrielle laughed gently.

"Tried to get me not to …" Ephiny stopped to cough. "Go out."

The bard cocked her head. "Well, actually, I was going to ask you about that. What on earth were you doing out there? Couldn't Eponin or Solari, or a half dozen others have done this?"

A dark shadow fell over them, and they both looked up to see Xena's tall form backlit by the fire. "Let me guess. You got cabin fever."

Ephiny actually blushed, almost invisibly against her fever's high color. "No.. no.." She started to protest, then glanced up and saw the amused and understanding sparkle in Xena's blue eyes. "Yeah. Somethin like that." She muttered, and pulled the covers up over her head.

Xena chuckled lightly. "Be right back." She ruffled Gabrielle's hair, and moved towards the door.

"Get me something to drink too?" The bard called absently, as she wrung out the rag they'd been using for Ephiny's fever in the water for what seemed the thousandth time.

"Sure." Xena replied, as the door closed behind her.

Ephiny pulled the covers down, and gazed at her curiously. "How'd you know?"

"Know what?" Gabrielle asked, wiping her brow down.

'She was goin for a drink?" The Amazon tilted her head a little, and studied Gabrielle's face.

Ares rose from his curled spot next to the fire and nudged Gabrielle's hand. She patted him gently as she tried to come up with an answer. How did I know? I must have.. thought about how long it was since dinner, and the fact that she cleared her throat twice, and … "I have no idea.' She said quietly. "Just a hunch, I guess." But it hadn't been, and she knew it. She'd known, in that unthinking way that she'd come to associate with their connection, which wasn't something she wanted to discuss with Ephiny. Not now.

They both heard the commotion outside, and Gabrielle rose to her feet with a wince. "What the heck.." Excited voices rumbled through the wood, punctuated suddenly by Xena's strong tenor. "Be right back."

She ducked out the door, and spotted a small knot of villagers in capes around Xena's tall form. The warrior looked up as she moved into the room and their eyes met. A jerk of the head drew her closer, in time to hear the last of the lookout's report.

"There's a round dozen of them, Xena, chasing one bit of a lad in, he's making a run for it. Must know he's close in to us." This was Terrell, the village blacksmith who had a love for intrigue, and was one of her most faithful students at staff lessons. Gabrielle's brow creased as she considered the news.

"Looking for his horse, and his clothes, more than likely." Xena answered, in a grim tone. "I'll take care of this." And then she was moving towards the door, reaching for her cloak with one hand and her sword with the other, tucking the blade under her arm.

Gabrielle vaulted a bench, and got to her as she reached the door. "Cabin fever?" She halted the warrior with a hand on her forearm. Their eyes met, and she saw a faint twinkling acknowledgment there.

"Best person for the job." The warrior countered, spreading an arm out, and cocking an eyebrow at her in question.

That got a grudging smile from the bard, and a nod of agreement. "Be careful." She watched Xena head for the barn at a run, ducking inside the structure for what seemed like bare seconds, then the door swung wide again, and Argo's golden form appeared, snorting against the driving rain. Bareback.. oh gods, Xena… The warrior vaulted aboard and got her seat with an easy motion, then wrapped one hand in the mare's mane, and drew her sword with the other, tossing the scabbard neatly onto the porch of the inn.

Then in a scattering of watery hoofbeats, they were gone.

The gray horse was tiring, he could feel it under his legs, and hear it in the labored breathing, as the animal tossed its head against the stinging rain. He sighed, and crouched lower, thinking about what to do when they caught up to him. Hoofbeats grew in his ears, and he could now sense them to either side.

A quick turn of his head showed the leader not a body length behind him, and the fitful lightning outlined the long, curved blade in his hands. The man grinned in triumph, and raised the sword, maneuvering his horse closer to the laboring gray.

The sword lifted, and arced. The blond haired man prepared to duck, saw the brilliant flare of lightning off the blade.

Then a thunder of hoofbeats collided with his senses, and a wild, familiar yell sent fire up and down his spine. The leader's head jerked up, but it was too late. A slice took off his sword arm, then a second nearly cut him in half, as blood spattered over them, an ethereal sensation that mixed the hot with the cold rain.

Then the rain and mud churned frantically as the outlaw band saw what was in their midst and tried to stop. It was a nightmare of golden flanks, and dark hair, and wild blue eyes. And a sword that flickered through them, finding unerring targets.

A few of them escaped, kicking their horses for all they were worth, heading back down the road, hearing a laugh follow them.

Xena shook her head, flipping the sword around in her hand and letting it rest on her thigh as she turned to study the outlaw band's quarry. A short man, darkness shrouded, who was sitting his horse as though stunned. She kneed Argo closer, and he swept the hood of his cloak back, just a flash of lightening neatly outlined his features.

Xena blinked in surprise. "Iolaus." She leaned closer. "Damn.. what are you doing here?"

Iolaus released a long breath, and shoved the damp hair back from his eyes. "Looking for you." He sighed. "It's a really long story."

"Me?" The warrior gave him a strange look. "Why.. " Then her gaze glanced around them. "Where's Hercules?"

Silence from Iolaus.

"That's part of the long story." Xena concluded, seeing the look in his pale eyes. "All right, let's go." She motioned ahead with the sword. "Town's not far." She studied him. "You look like you could use a dry bed and a meal."

Iolaus felt an unnerving sense of relief flowing through him. "Yes, that would be nice." He glanced up at her. "By the way, thanks." His head jerked towards the huddled, dark bodies in the road.

Xena looked up from watching the rain wash the blood off her blade. "No problem." She glanced back at the road. "Usually they know better than to come in this close. Probably didn't see the town marker." She kneed Argo forward, shaking her head to clear the dark, wet hair from her eyes.

Iolaus followed, not without one last glance at the bodies. Was I crazy to come looking for her? I know.. I know.. she's changed.. but then I see her do something like that… and I realize some things just don’t' change. His eyes darted ahead, and he studied her as she rode a little before him.

Not in armor or her usual leathers, he realized, just a thick woolen tunic and leggings that made her seem.. less threatening, somehow. More.. ordinary, until that head turned, and those eyes touched his, and he remembered.. everything. I had no choice. He reminded himself. And she really is different now - she came to help us out that last time, without even being asked. Just.. there we were getting the crap kicked out of us and all of a sudden.. bam. Never thought I'd be glad to see her, but that day.. I was.

It was a fairly quiet, rain swept ride in, and he was very glad to see the fluttering, shielded torches that marked the boundary of the village. They pulled to a stop next to a snug looking inn, and he recognized Gabrielle's sturdy form in the small group waiting for them. Her eyes lit on him as he mounted the stairs, and brightened with surprise.

"Iolaus!" The bard half laughed, half spoke, moving through the crowd to give him a hug. "What are you doing here?" She pulled him inside the building, along with the small crowd of villagers. "Hold on a second."

He watched her cross, with graceful, confident steps over to where Xena was standing, talking to two of the village watchmen. The bard moved them aside gently, and went up face to face with the tall warrior, poking her sodden chest with an emphatic finger. He expected Xena to give her that familiar exasperated look. Expected the warrior to put her aside, with the rough but accepted touch he'd seen between them before.

He didn't expect the look of meek chagrin on Xena's well-defined features, or the gentle tweak she gave the bard's nose, as she turned and left the inn. He studied Gabrielle as she walked back over, and steered him to a seat near the fire. "We'll get you some dry clothes, Iolaus. You must be freezing."

"Thanks." Iolaus stripped off his cloak, and turned towards the fire, rubbing his numbed hands. "It was a long ride." He looked around. "Nice place." His pale eyes found hers. "So.. how have you been?"

Gabrielle scratched the side of her nose, and smiled. "Well, fine, thanks. And um.. things have been.. great." Her eyes glinted with hidden amusement. "How about you?"

"Oh." He said. "Can't complain." Well, I could, because here I am in the middle of the backwoods in a rainstorm begging for help. "A monster here, an ogre there, you know how it is with us."

She nodded slowly at him. "So.. how's Herc?" Getting right to the point, as she usually did. She looked around the room. "He saving damsels in distress somewhere?"

Iolaus took a deep breath, and chanced a look at her. Found her green eyes studying him intently, seeing past his bluffing. My gods, she's grown up. He suddenly realized. Her face had acquired leaner planes, and the gentle tracing of experience around her eyes and brow. When did that happen? "Well.. that's kind of why I’m here. But I'd rather wait to tell you when Xena gets back.. that way I only have to say it once."

Gabrielle bit her lip. "All right." She finally said. "She went to stable the horses, and get some dry clothes on. " Her eyes lifted past him. "Hi mom."

Iolaus turned and looked over his shoulder, startled. Mom? He saw a woman of middle height, with dark hair and light eyes who was holding a bundle of warm looking clothes.

"Here, lad." The woman said, handing him the clothes. "They'll be a bit long on you, but they're dry."

Gabrielle smiled. "Iolaus, meet Cyrene, Xena's mother. Cyrene, this is Iolaus, a very good friend of Hercules."

"Uhm.. thanks." Iolaus said, reaching out and taking the clothes. "I really appreciate that.. and uh.. it's nice to meet you."

Cyrene chuckled. "Nice to meet you too, Iolaus. Any friend of my daughter's is welcome here." Then she turned her attention to Gabrielle. "There's some soup stoking in the kitchen." She gave the bard's arm a pat, then bustled off.

Iolaus turned to Gabrielle, a thousand questions whirling in his head. First things first, though. "Mom??"

The bard's eyes took on a gentle gleam. "She kind of.. adopted me." Then she glanced down. "This is her inn.. she lives here, and so does Xena's brother Toris, whose clothes those probably are."

"Oh." Iolaus said, turning the fabric over in his hands. "I didn't know she had any family." He looked up and grinned, then stood and stripped off his leather vest, which Gabrielle took from him and hung near the fire. The he pulled a warm tunic over his head, and sighed gratefully. "Oh boy, that feels great." He glanced at the length. "Wow.."

Gabrielle laughed. "Yeah, he's pretty tall.. a little taller than she is, really." She twitched the fabric. "And I've worn her shirts, so I know how that feels."

It was an innocent statement, but the tone of her voice caught his attention, and he looked more closely at her. "Well… the quiet life seems to be agreeing with you. " He turned her towards the fire with a friendly grin. "You look really great."

That got a bashful smile from the bard. "Thanks.. it's been nice to be home for while." Then she tugged his arm. "Sit down and take those boots off. I can hear you squishing from here."

He did, wincing at the pain of his cold stiffened feet. "Ouch." He sighed.

"Now the trousers." Gabrielle persisted, with a tiny twinkle in her eyes. "Come on.. that's a long shirt, I can't see anything."

He glared at her, but acquiesced, with a mumble.

"There.. now doesn't that feel better?' She asked, giving him a tolerant look. " I swear, you fighters are all alike. Stubborn as the day is long."

"Hey!" Iolaus objected, settling himself down at the table, and really enjoying the heat of the fire at his back. "Don't be lumping me in with everyone else." He waited for her to settle down across from him, then watched as her attention was caught by something behind him. He saw the corners of her mouth twitch, and her eyes grow warm, and he turned to see what she was looking at. The door had opened, and Xena was making her way back towards them, carrying three large mugs with her usual display of negligent strength. He darted a glance back at Gabrielle's face, and his brow creased.

Gabrielle had always.. well, he'd put it down to hero worship, given that she'd picked a rather odd hero to worship, that is. Her steadfast devotion to the dour ex warlord had been the subject of many late evening discussions between himself and Hercules, when they'd run out of mythological tales to talk about. Purely for research, of course, since Zeus only knew what they'd get thrown at them next. Certainly, heroes of their caliber didn't indulge in idle gossip. No.

The girl had been undeniably shattered at Xena's death, even he'd seen that, right through her protestations that she'd be 'fine'. And Herc had looked.. thoughtful.. when he'd caught back up to him and passed on the bad news. Hadn't even looked particularly surprised when she turned back up again, which he'd been too busy to comment on then.

But this look now.. Iolaus was no expert, no, not by any stretch, but…if he didn't know any better, if he didn't know both of them, and their history, and how they traveled around together, he'd have sworn that… Nah. Iolaus, you're imagining things. It's been a long day, and you're overtired. This is Xena and Gabrielle here, remember? He looked up as the warrior took a seat next to the bard, and shoved a mug of steaming something or other at him.

"Here." She said, in her typically gruff style. Then her blue eyes traveled his length and a quirky smile crossed her face. "Well, it looks better on you than on Toris." She turned her face towards Gabrielle. "Mom's keeping an eye on Eph."

The smell coming from the mug distracted him, and he accepted the spoon Gabrielle handed over and spent some minutes just inhaling the contents. "Zeus, that's good stuff." He finally sighed, wiping his mouth. "Thanks, I didn't realize just how hungry I was…"

Gabrielle laughed. "Another new devotee to mom's cooking." This with a poke at Xena's shoulder. That got her a look back, and a return poke. "So.. " Gabrielle now turned her eyes to him, her face going serious. "What's up?"

Iolaus folded his strong hands on the table, and sighed. Now that it came right down to telling the story, he felt strangely reluctant, as though by telling it, that made it somehow more real. Finally, he looked up, focusing on Gabrielle's eyes, much easier to bear than Xena's ice blue ones. "We were… it was yet another monster, right? A three headed dragon that was attacking these villages about four, five days walk from here."

Xena nodded. "I'd heard something like that, and that you guys were involved."

"You did?" Iolaus stopped, and gave her a look. "Wow. I guess news travels fast around here."

The warrior glanced down at the table, and studied her hands. "I try to keep an ear out for you two.. my sources know that."

"Oh." The blond man said, nonplussed. "Well, anyway. We got rid of the dragon, but Herc got bitten.. and then we got chased by this crowd of .. oh, I don't know what they were… but we ended up in a ravine.. and by that time whatever it was that the dragon poisoned Herc with took effect, and.. well, I couldn’t hold all of them off. They knocked me out, and took him. "

"Only him?" Xena questioned carefully, her eyes sharp.

Iolaus nodded. "Yeah, they left me there.. took my gear. I was out.. I don't know, a couple of candlemarks, not that long." He cleared his throat. "Sorry."

Xena stood, and walked away, and he waited, giving Gabrielle a puzzled look. "Did I say something wrong?"

"No." The bard said, resting her chin on one hand. "She's probably gone to get you a drink." Sure enough, Xena ambled back over with three mugs of ale, and put them down, then resettled herself in her chair, and cocked her head, waiting.

"Thanks." Iolaus took a hesitant sip, then his eyes widened. "Hey, this is good stuff." He gave them both a look. "I can see why you like staying here." He took another deep swallow, and then put the mug down. This was the hard part. "All right. So I followed them." He traced a line in the woodgrain with a fingernail. "To this castle, right? Where I figured they were holding him hostage."

"So.. you went in to find out." Gabrielle said, absorbing the tale.

"Sure." Iolaus shrugged. "It's that sidekick thing, right?" This got a grin, and a little chuckle from Gabrielle, and a snort from Xena. "Yeah, so I got in there, and I found him all right." He stopped, and looked at his hands. "He… " His eyes rose, and met theirs, or more specifically, Gabrielle's. "It must be the poison." His head shook slowly back and forth. "He wasn't being held.. he .. he told me he'd finally found where he'd belonged."

He felt Gabrielle's hand reach out and encircle his own. "He didn't even know who I was." His eyes bored into the bard's heartsick. "And he was doing things.. horrible things.. Gabrielle, he was torturing people, using his strength."

"What??" Xena asked, leaning forward and capturing his attention fully. "Are you telling me he was hurting innocent people?" Her head shook violently. "Iolaus, that's impossible."

His light eyes clouded with sad concern. "I thought so to. But I saw it, Xena. I saw him break this woman's arm."

Xena leaned back her chair, visibly upset. "Damn." The ex warlord cursed.. "Wonder who's behind this little disaster."

Iolaus sighed in minor relief. "You think the gods are behind it?" Please.. Xena.. tell me you do.. tell me you don't think its just..

The warrior snorted. "Damn straight I do. That's not Hercules. Not the one I know, and not the one you know, Iolaus. You two have been friends for years."

The blond man nodded. "That's what I thought too. That's why I came here…" He looked right at her now, still aware of Gabrielle's warm hand in his. "I needed.. someone who understood that.. and who would.. help me get him out of there."

Xena leaned back and studied him. She'd known that request was coming for some minutes now, and knew there was only one answer to it. By the pressure of Gabrielle's hand on her knee, the bard knew it too. No way for her to say no to Iolaus, to Hercules, who had triggered something in her that was only coming to it's full potential.

"Of course I'll help." Xena said, watching his shoulders relax imperceptibly. "But what makes you think he'll listen to me, if he won't to you, Iolaus? You and he are like brothers."

Iolaus looked away for a long minute. Here was the dangerous part, because if she took offense…but she deserved an answer. "He's.. in a very dark place right now." The blond man answered very carefully. "And.. "

"And I understand that better than anyone else does." Xena finished, leveling a stare at him.

Iolaus couldn’t look at her. "Something like that." He finally dared to look up, and met first Xena's eyes, which had a look of resigned acceptance. Then he shifted over to Gabrielle's, and was shocked to see dark anger there. The green eyes had gone icy cool, and she withdrew her hand from his. He was startled, and watched as she coiled herself up and took breath to speak.

A hand descended on her arm, and she paused, and looked over at Xena. "He's right." The warrior said gently. "It's OK."

"He is NOT right." Gabrielle fired back. "And it's NOT Ok." The two matched stares for an endless moment, then the bard's shoulders sagged, and her voice turned sad. "It's not." She said quietly.

Iolaus just sat there watching, hiding his confusion and waiting for this bewildering argument to end. He had no idea what was going on here, but he knew a disagreement when he saw one, and was just glad Gabrielle had turned her anger on Xena, and not on him. Finally, the bard turned and looked at him, chewing on her lip in some agitation.

"I.. didn't meant to.." Iolaus started, reaching out a hesitant hand to pat hers. "I meant no offense.. to either of you.. I just.. I know you've seen a lot of the darker sides of things, Xena, and you know better than anyone else how the gods work."

Xena nodded. "You're right, I do." She acknowledged, taking a long swallow of her ale. "I have a patient here.. I can't leave until our healer gets back sometime tomorrow. After that, we can head out."

Iolaus gazed at her. "A patient?"

"She occasionally does things other than butcher people." Gabrielle snapped, her temper obviously still high. "People always conveniently forget that." She stood and pushed her chair back. "I’m going to go check on Ephiny. I'll see you all later."

They watched her go, and Iolaus spread his hands wide in innocent bewilderment. "What did I do?"

Xena sighed deeply, and slung one leg over the arm of her chair, lifting her mug and taking a swallow. She gazed at him over the rim. "Gabrielle.. sometimes forgets what I am, Iolaus." The warrior leaned her head back against the wood. "And she'd like everyone else to forget it too. I'm sorry she snapped at you like that.. it's not your fault."

The blond man leaned forward. "I know you're not the way you were before, believe me."

"Aren't I?" Xena asked softly. "You just saw me cut down five people in less than a couple of breaths, Iolaus." Her eyes took on a feral look. "It's that side of me that you're looking to tap into, isn't' it? To understand what's going on with Herc?" She saw his increased breathing, and the sudden flutter at his pulse point. "You afraid of me, Iolaus?"

He looked at her for a long moment. "Yes."

Now the blue eyes held only sadness, and she nodded. "I'll do what I can for him." She sighed. "Don't worry about Gabrielle.. she'll calm down after a bit. She's also upset because she can't go with us.. because my patient is Ephiny, the Amazon Queen." She saw his blank look. "Gods.. don't tell me we never told you."

"Told me.. what?" Iolaus felt at sea. "What does Gabrielle have to do with the Amazons?"

Xena laughed wearily. "She's.. well, Ephiny's actually the Amazon regent. Gabrielle is the rightful Queen."

Iolaus' jaw dropped. "No centaur poop."

The warrior nodded. "Yep. She sure is."

"Damn." The blond man breathed. "So.. why isn't she… what's she doing…" Abruptly his mind put together Gabrielle's strange reactions, the fact that she was here, her gentle looks, and the steadfast devotion and came up with an answer. A wrong one, as it happened, but an answer. He felt quite sorry for the kid.. it must be very hard. "She's got a crush on you, right?" The words were out before he could stop them, before he thought about who it was he was asking this of.

Xena almost spit her mouthful of ale at him. She closed her eyes, and concentrated on swallowing, then put the cup down carefully, and leaned forward, resting her muscular forearms on the table, and gazing at him. "Umm.. no." She played with the mug for a minute. "That's.. no, Iolaus. She doesn't."

"Aw, c'mon Xena." The man propped his head on his hand. "It's pretty obvious."

"Iolaus, drop it." Xena's voice became serious. "You don't know what you're talking about." Abruptly she stood, and drained her mug. "Mom has a room for you. Get some sleep - we'll leave as soon as the healer gets back tomorrow."

"Ok.. ok..' Iolaus raised his hands in defense. "I can tell when a subject's off limits." He gave her a knowing grin. "Thanks for everything, Xena. I mean that."

She nodded at him. "Anytime, Iolaus." Then walked through the inn, towards a small door set in the rear that he hadn't even noticed when he came in. He drained his cup, and looked around, seeing an older man, who was looking expectantly at him. Setting the cup down, he walked over to him and the man gestured upstairs.

"Iolaus, is it? " The older man said, in a deep voice. "My name's Johan. Follow me to yer room,."

Xena hesitated, her fingers resting lightly on the door before she pushed it open, spotting Gabrielle leaning against the windowsill, just gazing out at the dark courtyard. The bard turned as she heard the door open.

Gabrielle saw the hesitant look on her partner's face, and that eased the still roiling anger in her guts. Come on, Gabrielle, let it go. This is going to be hard enough. "Hey." She said, crossing towards Xena, and reaching for her hands. "Look.. I'm.."

Xena avoided her hands, and captured her face instead. "Don't apologize… you're the only defender of my honor I have." A pause. "Such as it is." Then her hands dropped, and she turned her attention to the quietly sleeping Amazon, kneeling at the bedside, and resting a hand on the blond woman's head. "Good." She said quietly, cocking her head and listening to the Amazon's breathing. "She's fighting this off."

Gabrielle studied the kneeling form with a heartsick feeling. "Xena.."

"Yeah?" The warrior turned, and looked up at her.

"Come on over here.. let's talk for a minute, OK?" The bard said, holding out a hand to her.

Xena allowed herself to be pulled to her feet, and led towards the chair. Just short of it, she smiled quietly to herself, and stopped moving, causing the bard to be pulled off balance.

"Hey!" Gabrielle cried, softly, then sighed, as Xena slid in front of her, and dropped into the chair, pulling the bard down onto her lap. "Oh." She slid her arms around Xena's neck, and they just spent a minute gazing at each other. Then Xena very deliberately pulled her closer, and kissed her, making the contact last a while, until she felt the bard's body melt into hers, and one hand absently detach itself from around her neck as her fingertips stroked the side of Xena's face.

They let their mouths drift apart enough to meet each other's eyes, and Xena let a slow smile etch her face. "Now.. what were you saying?"

The bard's eyes were warm and dreamy. "Did you do that to distract me?"

"Uh huh." Xena confirmed.

"It worked." Gabrielle confessed, nuzzling her neck, and giving her a tiny nip.

Xena closed her eyes at the contact, and felt her breathing catch. "Thought it might."

The bard sighed. "Sorry I blew up." She played with the laces on Xena's crimson tunic "I must be getting ready to cycle or something.. that's twice today."

Xena let her hands roam down the bard's body, feeling the knots of tension, and working them with strong fingers, finally ending up at the base of her spine. "Good diagnosis." She said knowingly, as she kneaded the spot.

"Ungh." The bard mumbled. "What the Hades am I going to do without you for a few days?" She let her eyes run lazily up Xena's neckline. "I'll never survive." She laughed a little at herself. "I couldn’t even wait for you to get back the other night. I had to come tromping out in the middle of nowhere to find you."

Xena gazed lovingly at her. "That meant a lot to me, you know." She hesitated. "I'm not.. this thing.. Gabrielle, I have to do this."

The bard's brow creased. "Of course you do, love. I wish I was going with you." She touched Xena's lips with one fingertip, and smiled as the warrior caught it lightly between her teeth. "I thought.. " She stopped for a minute, then went on. "Maybe you'd look forward to something like this." A pause. "Cabin fever, and all that."

Xena's eyes were filled with a quiet sadness. "No." She answered, with a sigh. "This past month's been.. " Wonderful.. fantastic.. joyful.. "Better than I had any reasonable expectation of it being.. and.." Abruptly she fell silent, as the aching fear stole over her again. Gabrielle lifted her head, and stared at her, laying a hand flat on her chest above the heart she felt suddenly pounding.

"What's wrong?" The bard looked intently into her face, finding eyes that refused to meet her own. "Xena?"

"It's.. nothing." Came the whispered response. "Just.. me being a little dumb."

"Hey." Gabrielle's voice dropped, and went very serious. "That thing pounding in there belongs to me. " Now startled blue eyes met hers. "I've got a right to know what's going on with it."

That got her a twitching half smile, and she felt the rapid fluttering under her hand begin to slow. "That's a little better." She said softly. "Now, what's going on with you?"

Xena let her head rest against the wood of the chair, and regarded her partner. She's right. She has a right to know. "I.. never thought I'd.. ever let myself feel this way again."

Gabrielle kept silent.

"And now that I have.." Xena paused. "I get.. scared."

"Of what, love." The bard asked softly, stroking her arm with infinite gentleness.

Xena's eyes grew remote, and her face stilled. "That I'll wake up one morning, and it'll be gone."

"Oh, Xena." Gabrielle reached up and cupped her cheek. "Look at me." Blue eyes met hers. "That won't ever happen. I won't let it." The bard took a breath. "I promise you, Xena, I promise you that I will always, always be here for you." She felt tears well up and ignored them. "Always, you hear me?"

If I believe that.. I'm lost. Xena's practical mind told her. I go over the edge, and I can't ever come back.

She gazed into the green depths before her, noting, in the flickering candlelight, the barest golden sparkles scattered in the sea of mist. And knowingly, willingly, went over the edge. And believed.

Gabrielle felt it happen, saw the faint change in the crystal depths of the intelligent eyes locked on hers. Saw the leap of faith it had taken, when she herself had never had any doubts.. had always known in a deep, strong level that if she had reached out in any darkness, she'd have found Xena's steadying hand there to guide her. In the dreamscape Xena had told her that. And it had always been true, she could look back now and see it.

Now, it was her turn to give that back. To tie her soul so firmly to Xena's that there would never be an ending to this commitment she was making. To know she held not only the keys to her partner's heart and soul, but to her very sanity.

It was the easiest decision she'd ever made.

They sat quietly in a peaceful silence for a long time after that, Gabrielle with her eyes half closed just feeling this new level to their bond.

Xena let herself float, occasionally focusing her gaze on Ephiny's now peaceful face, satisfied that the Amazon was doing as well as could be expected, knowing she would have to get up shortly and get another dose of herbal medication down the woman, but content to simply sit in a dreamy fog until then.

The bard finally stirred, and laid a finger on her partner's lips. "Hey…" She heard the intimate note in her voice, and smiled. "Time to make the nasty stuff?"

Xena nodded. "I guess that means we gotta move, huh?"

"Probably a good thing. " Gabrielle gave her a rueful look. "I’m probably squishing you."

"Nuh huh." Xena disagreed, hugging her closer. "Don't feel a thing. You're light as a feather."

This got a healthy snort from the bard. "I don't think so. Not after a month here." She felt Xena's arms flex under her, and had a moment of vertigo as the warrior stood up with her firmly cradled. She sighed and put her arms around Xena's neck. "I'll learn, someday, not to egg you on into these little stunts." She drew Xena's head down and kissed her soundly, enjoying the strength she found herself wrapped in. "Ok.. now let me down." She breathed, when they parted.

"You sure?" Xena asked, with an arched eyebrow. "I can do this for a while, you know." Her voice held a jokingly cocky note.

"Xena!" The bard slapped her. "Show off."

Xena let her gently down, and straightened up . "Only for you." She said in a quiet tone, busying herself at the table.

Gabrielle rolled her eyes, and went to Ephiny's side. "Eph? " She touched the Amazon's shoulder, and was rewarded by a groggy, if tolerably coherent grunt. "Yeah, it's me again." She joked. "Time for your medicine."

The Amazon groaned, and half lifted her head, then let it back down with a thump. "Damn." She mumbled, starting to cough, which brought her over onto her side again, hanging onto the bedframe with shaking hands. "Can you just kill me, and put me out of my misery?" The Amazon asked, with a wan smile as she slumped back onto the pillow.

"No way." Gabrielle said, taking the blond woman's hand between both of hers. "We sent word out to the Village tonight."

Ephiny nodded a little. "Who.. was the commotion before?" Not too sick to be curious.

Xena stepped over, carrying a mug. "An old friend." She said before Gabrielle could comment. "Iolaus."

Ephiny's eyebrow crawled up her forehead. "Hercules' Iolaus?"

Gabrielle snickered. "I’m not sure he'd want to be referred to in just that way, but yes." That nudged her good humor back into place. "In fact, he came looking for help." Her eyes slid to Xena's face. "Xena has to go help him haul Herc out of some castle."

The warrior gave them both a look, then narrowed her eyes at her partner. "You're enjoying that, aren't you? It's a serious problem, Gabrielle… you know Iolaus wouldn't be here if it weren't."

The bard sighed. "I know." Then she turned to Ephiny. "It's this competitive thing we have." As if in explanation.

Xena almost dropped the mug. "What???" She helped Ephiny sit up and take a few swallows. "Look.. I told you.. Hercules and I don't compete with each other. What got that started??"

Gabrielle bit her lip, and took the mug, making little cooing noises at Ephiny, who stared at her. "So.. we sent Toris up to the Village.. Xena figured he'd have the best chance of explaining what was going on, and have them believe him."

"Gabrielle." Xena's voice was flat.

"Hmm?" The bard answered brightly.

"We don't compete."

Gabrielle sighed. "No.. I know that.. but.. uhm… well, Iolaus and I do." She paused, taking in Xena's bewildered stare. "On your behalf." Another pause. "Sort of." Very long pause, while Ephiny sipped her medicine, watching in fascination. "OK..ok.. we bet on you guys."

"I don't want to hear this." Xena muttered, shaking her head. "Listen, I need to go pack some stuff. " She rested a hand on Gabrielle's back. "You'll be ok here for a while?"

All traces of good humor fled from the bard's face. "Yeah, we'll be fine." She turned and started gathering up cups and dishes, preparing to tuck them away.

Xena moved towards the door, and as her hand touched the latch, it opened to reveal Cyrene's silvered head. "Come here." She said to Xena, hooking one hand in her belt and tugging.

The warrior followed her outside, and closed the door. "What?" She asked, putting her hands on her hips. "Listen, I have to go pack some things."

Cyrene gazed at her. "You're leaving tomorrow."

Xena blinked. "Yeah?"

Her mother tucked one arm in hers and walked her a little ways away from the room. "And you'll be gone.. how long?"

A shrug. "Couple weeks."

Cyrene bit her lip, then cast her eyes to the ceiling for a moment. "Honey, I'll watch over your friend in there. Why don't you go get some rest." A definite pause. "Both of you."

Xena looked at her, and saw the glint in her eyes. And blushed. "Mother!"

"What???" Cyrene gave her a look, then her gaze gentled. "Xena, please. Spend some time together. I know she'll miss you."

That hit hard, and Xena closed her eyes in acknowledgement. "All right." She glanced up. "Thanks."

They walked back to the room, and opened the door. Gabrielle had her back turned to them, and was straightening up the items on the table. Ephiny had slipped back into a light doze. The bard turned as they entered.

"Thought you were going to go pack.." She said, seeing Xena, her brow creasing.

The warrior smiled, and held a hand out to her. "Mom's taking a shift here. Come on."

Cyrene chuckled softly as the door closed behind them, and settled in to keep an eye on the sick Amazon.

"Nothing." Granella cursed softly to herself. She let her fingers sift through the fallen leaves, searching for tracks. "Damn." She stood, dusting her hands off, and peered off into the misty rain. "Come on."

They went, single file, threading through the dripping trees, heading downrange. Past their usual trapping grounds, and down through the hunting trails they all knew like the back of their hands. Granella paused, as she came to a half-hidden trail. "Wait.. let me check down there."

Her feet made no sound on the damp earth, as she carefully stepped down the rock embedded path and rounded a bend. "Hey! Down here." She called, dropping to her knees.

The rest of the search party slithered down next to her, and clustered around, watching over her shoulder as she carefully exposed the neatly packed cache, taken from their traps not long before. "They were here."

A tingle of relief ran through the party. It was about where they'd expected them to be on the first day, so that, at least had happened as planned. And they were in good shape, because Ephiny had left the dressed and skinned catch, meaning to pick it up on the way back from the lessons. So they'd gotten that far, and hadn't come back this way.

Granella took a breath. "We can stop, or we can keep looking." Her eyes scanned theirs. "Right…let's go. " She looked up. "Almost dawn.. let's stop for a minute and have a bite."

They crouched down, ignoring the rain, and unwrapped travel rations, chewing with an inward turned self absorption, each with their own thoughts.

Tomorrow dawn.. if I don't find them.. Granella mused. Gods, I don't want to have to go get Gabrielle.. I’m not even sure she'd want to come. A smile etched her face briefly, as she remembered her short visit to Amphipolis not long before. Talk about someone being obviously happy.. what a change from the last time I saw her. "All right.." She sighed, and stood. "Let's keep looking."

They moved off towards the dawn, hoping the rain would end.

Morning brought more rain. Xena stood quietly, hand on the windowsill, watching it fall for a long moment before finally turning back to the bag she was packing. Her trail kit, the medical pouch, armoring tools. She settled these in the bottom, then packed her spare shirts and extra boots on top of them.

Cyrene had.. conspired to keep the both of them idle all morning, and she couldn’t help feeling a little grateful to her mother; the time alone with each other had been sorely needed, and had helped settle some of the tension she'd felt building between them since Iolaus had gotten there the previous day.

Of course, not much packing had gotten done. She reflected, but then, she didn't have that much to pack anyway. Gabrielle had just gone to pick up a last item or two from the inn's storage supplies a few minutes ago.

Found her hands slowing again, and finally coming to rest on the leather of the bag, as she stared down into it, trying to reconcile her feelings. Her head raised, and she let her eyes range around the cabin, taking in its now familiar outline. There was a reason I didn't want this. She reminded herself ruefully. Come on, Xena.. it's just for a few weeks.

A few weeks. Her mind rolled that over. Five days each way travel time, and gods only knew how long to get this situation figured out. Straightened out. Not long at all, in the grand scheme of things… so why was her heart aching at the thought of it? Surely.. she wasn't that attached to this place already, was she? Of course not.

Of course not. Her mind mocked her. I'm in trouble. Big trouble. She admitted quietly to herself, as she slowly shucked off her sleep shirt, and slid into her old leathers, buckling the shoulder straps with hesitant fingers. She glanced down and ran a hand over the dark covering, feeling the cold surface warm as it took on her body heat. Been a while. Her eyes caught the shadowy reflection in the mirror against the wall as she quietly slid her upper arm protectors on, and fastened them, then the bracers. Routine.. right?

Except that she hadn't worn a single piece of this for over a month, and the touch of the battle hardened hide was no longer as familiar as a second skin. She held the armor in her hands for a long space before she settled it over her shoulders, and shivered a little at its cold sting against her flesh.

A slow adjusting of the buckles and straps, then her eyes fell on the reflection again. Funny.. her mind mused. I look the same. Why the Hades do I feel so damn different? She sat down on the edge of the bed, and leaned her elbows on her knees, resting her head in her hands. Come on.. snap out of it. She ordered herself quietly. Got a job to do here.

She heard footsteps, and straightened up as the door opened, and Gabrielle slipped in, carrying a package, which she put down on the table on her way across the floor. "Hey.." She said, sitting down next to Xena and putting a hand on her back. "Are you all right?" Green eyes studied her carefully. "You look really out of it."

The warrior took a breath, and nodded. "Yeah.. yeah.. I'm fine." She ran her fingers through her hair and looked around. "Just.. getting some stuff packed up." Standing up, she started putting things in the bag again, mechanically. She had just put a sleep shirt in when she found Gabrielle's hand on her wrist. "Hmm?"

"Not that one." The bard said quietly. "Please?"

Xena stared at the folded fabric, then smiled and pulled it back out, handing it to the bard. "My favorite one." She said softly, with a grave twinkle in her eyes.

"Mine too." Gabrielle responded, hugging it to her. "And it's going to be hard enough sleeping without you here, so… "

A quiet nod from the warrior. "Yeah.. tell me about it." She absently put another shirt in the bag. "Ground's going to be quite a shock after a month of lazing around in that nice sot bed with you." She tucked her leather repair kit in the side of the bag. "Ares will keep you company, though, right boy?"

This to the wolf, who was curled up on the bearskin.

"Roo." Ares stated, in a gruff tone.

"Oh yeah." Gabrielle pondered, nodding. "His conversation sometimes even equals yours." She expected a raised eyebrow stare, and studied her partner closer when she didn't get one. Xena's hands just paused, then went on. "Xena?" She moved closer to the warrior, and put the shirt she was holding down, then very gently grasped Xena's arms and turned her around. "Is something wrong?"

"No." Xena sighed. "Yes." A pause. "I don't know." She finally said, sitting down on the bed. "I'm just… " She raised both hands and let them fall, giving Gabrielle a sheepish look. "I just feel weird."

"Weird." Gabrielle repeated. "Weird?? Like in .. "

"Strange." Xena muttered. "Just.. "

"You mean strange… in this? " Gabrielle's hands touched the leathers and armor.

Xena thought about that for a minute. "Yeah." She gave the bard a half smile. "I think. I'll get used to it again but… " She broke off and just shook her head. "How can I feel like that after only a month?" She reached up and tugged on an armor bit. "At first I thought I just had the fit wrong " Now her smile turned wry. "After all, it's not like I've been doing drills regularly, and I've put on quite a few pounds.. so…" A shrug. "But.. no.. the armor fits fine. It just feels.. strange."

Gabrielle studied her seriously for a long moment. "Good." She finally said, with a satisfied grin, and leaned over, to capture her lips.

"Was this part of your plan? "Xena teased gently, feeling the upset in her dissolving slowly. "To keep us in Amphipolis?"

"Uh huh." The bard answered, feeling Xena's arm slip around her and draw them both down onto the soft blankets. "Umm.." Then her senses fell into a warm, sensual pool as she felt the warrior's hands slip under her clothes and move unerringly to the most sensitive spots. "Guess you're going to get more practice putting this armor on." She breathed, as her fingers found familiar buckles.

Xena chuckled. "Guess I am."

Iolaus felt the morning light on his face, and squinted one eye open, disoriented. Then the events of yesterday came back to him with a rush, and he rolled over, stretching luxuriously in the comfortable bed. His gaze went to the window. "Ugh." He sighed, seeing the lightly falling rain. "Not more rain. Zeus, I'm tired of being wet all the time."

He spent a few minutes just lying there, studying the room he was in with mildly surprised pleasure. So.. this is Xena's mom's place. Herc won't believe it. His mood sobered. If he can ever remember any of this at all, that is. He laced his hands behind his head and stared up at the ceiling. Will Xena be able to do anything? Would anyone?

He wished Gabrielle was going along with them.. the thought of spending the next few days solely in the Warrior Princesses' company was getting him a little nervous. Ok, a lot nervous, and he would have welcomed the bard as a cheerful buffer. Poor kid. He shook his head in silence. Stuck on her like that. Talk about a hopeless situation. It almost made him mad at Xena, for letting the kid develop an attachment like that, and not letting her out to find a life of her own. Maybe… Iolaus's chivalric mind slowly shaped a plan. Maybe he could talk some sense into Xena on the trip there.

With that thought rattling around, he rolled off the bed and stood, walking to the basin of water and washing himself, then slipping on the far too large tunic he'd been given last night and belting it, making it more of a long surcoat than anything else. Well.. it's warm he concluded, as he padded downstairs barefoot to reclaim his clothes and boots.

"Hello." A piping voice met him as he crossed the floor, and he stopped, startled, and looked over to see a table full of.. girls.

Young girls, in fact, who were all looking at him with an air of proprietary interest. "Hello." He answered, giving them his best smile. "Who do we have here?" He walked over and put his fingertips on the table, leaning forward a bit.

The tallest, a very pale blond pointed her spoon around the table. "That's Megan, and Lista, and Elianas, and Sharra." She went back to her plate, then looked up, as Megan poked her. "Oh.. sorry. I'm Cait."

"Well, hello, girls." Iolaus smiled at them. "My name's Iolaus, and.."

He got no further. "What.. the one who goes about with Hercules?" Megan piped up, cheerfully.

"Super!" Sharra said, patting the bench next to her. "Have breakfast with us?"

"Uhm.. yes." Iolaus said, slowly sitting down. What have I gotten myself into… "Nice to meet you all."

Lista passed him a bowl of cereal, and several large slices of warm bread. "Here."

"Thanks." Iolaus said, picking up a spoon, and taking a mouthful, raising his eyebrows at the sweet, nutty taste.

"So." Elianas said, propping her chin on one hand and studying him. "Are the stories about how good he is in bed true?"

Iolaus spit his mouthful back into the bowl. "ArguhthWHAT?" He coughed.

A chorus of giggles surrounded him. "Yes, and what about those leather pants?" Sharra asked, leaning closer. "Is it true he did it with a Gorgon?"

"NO!" Iolaus shouted, then looked around, mortified. "Where do you hear this stuff?"

"Oh." Megan laughed. "Everybody knows." She studied him. "You're kind of cute."

Another round of giggles, which broke off abruptly as the pack of Amazons looked over his shoulder and got real quiet, with bashful little smiles.

A hand on his shoulder, warm and strong, and then he was turning to look up into sharp blue eyes that had an amused edge to them. "Morning, Iolaus." She was dressed in her familiar dark leathers, but had a heavy wool tunic thrown on over them.

"Hi Xena." He sighed. Boy.. am I glad to see you. "Didja get any rest?"

A wild round of giggles from the girls. "What?" Iolaus asked, bewildered, glancing up at Xena, who was giving the girls a sharply raised eyebrow. "Did I miss something here?"

"Come on." Xena sighed, pulling him by the back of his tunic. "We need to talk before we leave." She walked across the inn to a rear table, and settled into a chair, watching him drop into the one facing her with a look of relief.

"Who are those girls?" He hissed, jabbing a thumb over his shoulder.

Xena chuckled. "Amazons." She looked up as Cyrene appeared as if by magic, carrying a large plate of food. "Mom.. I had.."

"Oh, and I'm sure you'll be by a nice inn for dinner. Right?" Cyrene said, putting the plate down and giving her a stern look. She put a plate down in front of Iolaus as well. "Good morning, Iolaus."

"Hi!" Iolaus grinned. "Thanks.. that looks wonderful." He traded his spoon for a fork and dug in, giving Xena encouraging little smiles.

She sighed, and picked up her own fork, stabbing a bit of meat and putting it in her mouth, then glaring at Cyrene. "OK?" Her mother pursed her lips, then winked at her and left them to their meal. Xena rolled her eyes. "Damn."

The blond man bit down a slightly hysterical laugh. "Hey… it's really good food, Xena."

The warrior plowed steadily ahead with her own plate. "You don't need to tell me that." She mumbled, darting glances around the room. "The outer watch just reported our healer coming back.. so we'll be out of here before lunch.."

Iolaus nodded. "All right by me.. I hate to travel in this weather.." His eyes lifted and found hers. "But.. " He hesitated, then leaned forward a little. "I’m really worried, Xena."

Her gaze softened. "I know. So am I." Then she glanced around and back to him. "Look.. we'll find way to fix this. I know we will.. you can't just change who people are, like that." She snapped long fingers. "He's in there. We've just got to find him."

Iolaus stopped eating, and stared at his plate, idly moving a few pieces of food around it. "Xena?"

"Hmm?" The warrior responded, glancing up at him.

"There's another reason why I came to find you." The blond man's voice was very quiet. He took a breath, and looked up, meeting her eyes. "And you have a right to know what it is."

Xena folded her hands on the table, and sighed. "Because if he's not, someone has to stop him." She paused. "And you think I can."

Iolaus dropped his gaze. "Yes." He almost whispered.

"He's half god, Iolaus." The warrior replied, in a flat voice. "Let's hope it doesn't come to that."

Gabrielle lifted her quill, and used her writing hand to brush an errant lock of pale hair from her eyes. She was sprawled on the bearskin in front of the fireplace, working on several small pieces of parchment, which she was scribing on with a small, neat hand. Ares lay curled up behind her knees, his gentle breathing pressing against her calves, resting his chin on her ankle.

She reached back and let her fingers run through his fur, feeling him sigh at the touch. "Glad you're staying here to keep me company, Ares."

"Argoroo?" The wolf inquired, lifting his head, and giving her hand a lick. "Grrrr." He added, as he closed his jaws gently on her tunic sleeve, and tugged a little.

"Yeah, I love you." The bard answered, giving his belly a good rub. He rolled over, and grinned as she scratched his chest, wagging his tail a little with gentle thumps against her back. "Uh huh…if your mom had a tail, she'd do that too when I did this to her."

The sudden mental picture made her laugh silently to herself, and she shook her head, and went back to her pieces of parchment. Each small square got several lines, on both sides, then she set the to dry, blowing gently on them Folding them carefully around small stones when she finished, she tied them with scraps of fabric, then stood up, and walked over to where Xena's leather saddlebags were still resting.

Judiciously, she studied the bag, and carefully stowed the small bundles in different spots, finally tucking the last one in with the medical supplies with a satisfied look. Frivolous little nothings.. she chastised herself. Like she needs to see these things… But having them there.. thinking of Xena just happening on them during her trip brought a smile to her face. Not, she reflected, like the first time.

She'd been just.. fooling around with words, mostly. Nothing serious, nothing even coherent. It was very early on in their travels, and she hadn't even had the courage to practice her storytelling in front of the warrior, much less let her see.. oh gods.. her feeble attempt at poetry.

So she'd kept them to herself, silly little things, mostly… about the stuff they saw, or trees, or the stars…

And then one night, a clear, cold night when the stars almost exploded over head there were so many, she'd sat down after dinner while Xena was doing a few sword drills, and settled her quill on her parchment, waiting for inspiration.

Could have been the waterfall nearby, with it's interesting, breathless sound. Could have been the beautiful moon. Could have been the night sounds, which increased and faded in turns. But what her quill started writing about, haltingly, surprisingly.. was her travelling companion.

The words shaped themselves, formed from the silver darts of moonlight flaring as it touched her moving blade, sliding over her body with quicksilver efficiency, and catching, with breathtaking suddenness those crystal blue eyes gone ghostly gray. She was motion, and power and a kind of irresistible force that caught Gabrielle's imagination and held it captive.

She saw magic there, where Xena would have insisted on plain economy of motion, and basic skills. Saw the boundless grace of someone who had honed themselves into the most primitive kind of weapon, one which depended not on the force of arms, or the sweep of a blade, but on simple primal human strength. Perfected in solid, sure knowledge of hands that could catch an arrow, or crush bone, and a surreal coordination of mind and body that made motion, poetry.

So she had written a poem, one whose words didn't need to be labored over, struggled with.. whose phrases flowed from her hand with an ease that sent a little chill down her spine. She'd been finishing it up, putting the final characters in with her steady, firm hand when raiders attacked their small camp.

She'd had enough of this by now to know she needed to stay down, and out of Xena's way, but somehow.. there was this raider, and he had this sword.. and he was moving towards an otherwise occupied Xena, who had six of them in front of her.

Flash of moonlight on Xena's long sword, as it whirled in her hand, and she let out her short, chilling laugh, as she always did when she fought. But there was this raider… and Gabrielle suddenly took the notion into her head to stop him. She jumped up from her well-tucked position near a fallen log and got into his way, delaying his unseen charge toward her companion.

Felt an explosion on the side of her head, that was his sword hilt knocking her out of the way, and a dull roaring that just kept growing louder until it was all she could hear.

Then there was silence, finally broken again by the sedate lick of the flames in the fire, and the ringing in her ears as she slowly became aware of her surroundings again. "Ugh." She'd said, and felt a warm hand on her shoulder.

"Keep quiet." The low, vibrant command from Xena. "You got hit in the head." Now an annoyed note into the warrior's voice. "What did you think you were doing?"

"Saw.." She winced at the darting pain. "Guy.. coming at you."

"Gabrielle, I can take care of myself. Next time, just stay down, OK?" Xena's voice had held that note of annoyance, but there was something else there too, Gabrielle was just too fuzzy to figure out what it was.

"OK." Gabrielle had whispered. "I was just… "

Hand on her shoulder, this time with a gentle squeeze. "I know. " A long pause. "And.. thanks." Gruffly, but there. Then Xena had stood, and tidied the campsite, straightening up what the raiders had scattered about in their attack.

Too late, Gabrielle realized she'd left her scrolls lying open, with the poem right on top. Her eyes had snapped open, and she'd rolled onto her side, then frozen there, seeing a motionless form, standing in the bright moonlight. Eyes regarding a dully glowing piece of parchment in serious silence.

Gabrielle's heart had about stopped, then restarted with an almost painful pounding as Xena finished reading, and walked towards her, stopping within touching distance, then crouching down so that their eyes were almost on a level.

There was suddenly a lump in her throat so large she could barely breath, as those cool, cryptic eyes studied her face, one eyebrow raising a notch as she caught the blush that darkened Gabrielle's skin to crimson. "What's this about?" She asked, a gentle, quiet question.

Gabrielle had to take several breaths before any sound would come out. "You."

Blue eyes froze in startlement, then slowly scanned the parchment again. A gentle laugh. "That's some imagination you've got there, Gabrielle."

And the parchment was placed back in her hands, by strong fingers that folded hers about the rustling sheet. That gave her hand a little pat before withdrawing.

"Nuh uh." The bard had protested groggily. "Just wrote what I saw."

Now the hand touched her chin, raising her face up to be studied gravely, "Then maybe you need your eyes checked." But a tiny smile was breaking through that cool mask, and warming her glance. "It's nice, though."

Gabrielle had felt sleep calling her insistently, and she fought it, keeping Xena's tall form in her view. Blinking, half dazed, she held the parchment out, inviting the warrior to take it back.

And, against all her expectations, Xena had, settling down cross-legged next to her, and holding the sheet on her lap. Watching over her. She had let her eyes close again, and drifted off, waking hours later, and blinking to focus her sleep laden eyes.

Xena was still there, sitting next to her, gazing off into the shadowy distance, one hand resting lightly on the parchment inscribed with her words. And she'd known, in that far off, hazy moment and for the first time, what it was to be a bard, and have her work reach out and touch another's heart.

How appropriate.. to have had it been Xena's.

Gabrielle smiled quietly to herself, remembering. No, it certainly was different now.. she composed poems about her reticent partner all the time… and Xena had even gotten used to hearing her recite them. But that first one… The bard shook her head a little. "Let's go find mommy, ok boy? " She directed her question to the alertly watching Ares. "Almost time for her to go.. you wanna say goodbye, right?" And felt an unexpected hand grip her heart. "Right." She sighed to herself, slipping her cloak over her shoulders, and moving out the door, Ares a dark shadow at her heels.

Cyrene looked up, as Johan entered the kitchen, and put a small leather bag down on the counter. "Here's what you asked for." He commented, perching on a small stool near where she was working. "That's a nice little package there."

The innkeeper smiled, and tucked in the last bit of wrapping. "I know my daughter. She'll keep going all day long just to prove she's tougher than that little man, and end up not eating, then staying up all night to watch for brigands or something."

Johan bit off a grin. "She seems a bit..." He considered for a minute "old for that kind of motherhenning.. no?"

Cyrene opened her mouth to make a stinging retort, then paused, and glanced quietly down at her hands. "I missed a lot of time with her. Maybe I'm just trying to get a little of that back."

Johan stood, and walked over to her, putting his hands on her shoulders. "Aye, my friend. That's all right then. She's none the worse for it."

The innkeeper smirked a little. "Are you kidding? Under all that eye rolling she sucks it up like a sea sponge." She smoothed the wrapping down. "She was always like that. So much wanted to be independent of anyone's help." A light shake of the head. "And there were times when I should have pushed through that.. I know that now. Maybe it would have made a difference."

"Lass, no point in what ifs." Johan reminded her gently. "That's way downriver."

"I know.' Cyrene sighed. "But I'm not going to make that mistake now."

They both looked up as the door swung open, and Gabrielle poked her fair head inside. "Hi." She said, slipping in the door followed by a curious Ares. "I was just.. " Her eyes fell on the package, and she smothered a grin. "Want me to slip that in her bag too?"

Cyrene laughed, and hefted the parcel and tossed it to the bard. "If you would, Gabrielle." She glanced at Johan. "That way I can avoid the exasperated looks." Then she studied the bard's face. "What about you? Want some breakfast?"

Gabrielle took a breath, and let it out slowly, trying to force the queasy feeling in her gut down. "No.. um.. thanks. I'm fine." She swallowed. "I just stopped by"

Cyrene bit her lip. "To find my daughter, and spend as much time as possible with her before she leaves." She paused. "Right?"

The bard blushed. "Am I that transparent?" She complained, giving Cyrene a jokingly piteous look.

"Oh, honey." Cyrene laughed, putting an arm around her. "Your eyes give it away every time." She steered her out the door, ignoring her mild groan. "I think it's adorable."

She moved out into the inn, looking across the long open room, lit by warm candlelight against the chilly gloom outside. Ares spotted Xena, and trotted over standing up on his hind legs and putting his front paws on her lap.

The warrior looked up as they walked over, and settled an arm around the furry shoulders. "Hey." Then realized Iolaus's eyes were bugging out. "What?"

The blond man pointed at the animal. "Xena, that's a wolf."

"And your point is?" Gabrielle asked, as she came even with them, and dropped into the chair next to Xena's, pulling her plate over and starting to consume the remainder of the warrior's breakfast. She was still a little miffed at Iolaus, and wasn't ready to let him forget it yet.

Iolaus gave her a strange look, glancing at the plate, then at her face, his brow contracting. " point. Is he yours?"

Xena scratched the dark ears. "Hey boy.." She spared a look at Iolaus. "I found him not far from here.. panther got his mother." She felt the warm gust as the wolf sniffed her ear, and gave it a tiny lick. "Hey.. stop that."

Iolaus smiled, and reached across the table, offering his fingers for inspection. Ares sniffed them then licked his chops. "He's pretty cute. What's his name?" He stretched his arm, and tickled the wolf's ears.

"Ares." Xena said, her eyes glinting with mischief.

Iolaus's hand froze, and he turned a pathetic gaze on her. "You're kidding, right?" Seeing the solemnly shaking heads. "Oh, for.. Xena, how could you do that to a poor animal?"

Xena shrugged. "Seemed like a good idea at the time." She gently gripped the wolf's jaw, and turned it from side to side. "Looks like him, don't you think? See the sideburns?" She fluffed out Ares's fluffy whiskers.

The blond man sat back with a scowl. "How can you even joke about that? What's he going to do with you if he finds out?"

"Oh.." Gabrielle mumbled, chewing on a biscuit. "He already knows." She gave Xena a sidelong glance. "He was ok with it, right?"

Xena leaned back, and let Ares tug on her sleeve. "Yeah, he's fine. It was something to see them nose to nose." She looked up and caught Iolaus' stunned expression. "Sorry, Iolaus.. I know you guys have a bad time with him, and we do too, but..." She shrugged "We still talk sometimes." No sense in hiding that... he'd better realize he's not dealing with Hercules here.

The blond man nodded slowly. "I'd.. I didn't think... " He's the enemy. And she talks to him. What the Hades did I think I was doing in coming here? "Well, you have to do what you have to do, I guess." He put on a forced smile. "I guess I'm going to go get dressed.. and get my stuff ready. " He stood up and walked away without a further word.

They sat in companionable silence for a while, as Gabrielle cleaned her plate and Xena propped her chin on her fists and gazed out across the room. Finally, the bard scooted her chair closer, and rested her head against Xena's wool covered shoulder. "He didn't like that much." She commented, sliding her hand through Xena's arm and closing her eyes.

"Mm.. no." Xena agreed, letting her head rest against the bard's. "Can't help it.. I'm not going to lie about that. I know.. I.. don't have the same relationship with Ares anymore, but.. there's still.. " She paused, considering. "a connection there." It was an uneasy admission.

The bard hugged her arm closer. "I know that." She opened her eyes and looked directly up at her partner. "But he's got some pretty stiff competition here." Her green eyes sparkled with an edgy fire.

Xena smiled. "He's already lost that fight." She brushed her lips across the bard's forehead. "And he knows it." She glanced down at the table. "Thanks for finishing that up for me.." This with a sly grin and a tickle at the bard's ribs.

"Stop that.'" Gabrielle growled, giggling when Ares echoed her with a cocked head, then poking the warrior in the side.

"Gabrielle?" Xena said suddenly, in a very low voice.

"Yeah?' The bard answered, gazing up at her with a fond smile.

"We have an audience." This said with a full compliment of embarrassed chagrin.

Green eyes darted towards the other end of the room, where the table full of Amazons were watching with undisguised fascination. "Oh.. Hades codpiece." She groaned, and felt Xena's body shifting slightly under her arm.

"Let's give them something to look at then." The warrior softly chuckled, and turned her head, capturing the bard's lips for a long, intense moment. So much for not believing in public displays, right? Her mind sighed in resignation. Oh, to Hades with it. I don't care. She put her mind into the kissing, and when they finally broke off, both of them were breathing hard, and the bard was giving her a tiny shake of her head.

"I'm gonna kill you for that" She muttered. "And you're just going to go off an leave now, right? She darted a glance at the other table, and almost fell off the chair at the wide-eyed, raptly goggling eyeballs looking back at her. Whoops. Her mind blushed, along with the rest of her. I can just imagine what that looked like. What were we thinking? Ah.. she sighed inwardly. We weren't thinking.

"Sorry." Xena murmured, with a gentle twinkle in her eyes.

Gabrielle let her head drop to rest again against Xena's shoulder. "I'm really going to miss you." She answered, in a small voice, and felt a hand capture hers under the table, and fold around it in a strong grip. "I feel really dumb saying that, because you're only going for a little while.. but I can't help it."

"It's all right." Xena let out a long breath. "I can't either. I'll miss you too." She paused, then gave the bard's hand a squeeze. "Come on..let's check in on Ephiny, then I've got to get Argo ready." She stood, pulling Gabrielle up with her.

"Will Argo be ok? " The bard asked, as they made their way across the room, ignoring the whispers from the juvenile table "I mean.. if she's.. well, you know."

Xena laughed. "Oh.. sure." She eyed the bard. "A horse's birthing period is longer than yours would be, my bard."

"Really?" Gabrielle asked curiously. "I had no idea... how long?"

The warrior shrugged. "340.. to 360 days."

"Wow." The bard breathed, impressed, as she pushed the door to Ephiny's room open. "I don't think I'd like to be pregnant that long."

Xena snorted, as she knelt by the quiet form lying on the bed. "It's not a lot of fun."

Ephiny stirred, hearing a familiar voice, and forced her eyes open. "Wha issnt?" She mumbled, blinking blearily at them.

"Being pregnant." Xena answered, sharing a wry look with her.

Ephiny looked at her, then looked right at Gabrielle. "Don't go there." She advised hoarsely.

The bard knelt at Xena's side, and leaned against her. "I'm not in any danger." She advised the Amazon, with a quiet smile. "How are you feeling?"

"Lousy." Ephiny responded, coughing weakly. "Got some water down before." She winced, and rubbed her stomach. "Coughing hurts."

Gabrielle squeezed her shoulder. "Hang in there... I'm just going to help Xena get ready to leave, then I"ll be back to try and distract you a little."

"Ooohhhh..." Ephiny gave a ghostly laugh. "I get stories...I pick?"

The bard smiled widely. "Sure."

Xena laid a hand on her arm. "Our healer's on the way in. He knows all about this, Eph.. and I left herb mixtures and instructions for him."

The Amazon nodded a little, and found Xena's eyes. "Hey.. be careful, OK?" She said softly, darting a glance at Gabrielle, who had stood and moved over to the table.

Saw sober understanding there. "I will be." The warrior answered in low voice. "Take it easy, Eph.. you're going to be fine. It's just going to take a while."

A resigned nod. "Needed a vacation." She joked weakly. "Not what I had in mind though."

Xena gave her shoulder a pat, and stood. "See you in a few weeks." She glanced around the room, and took a breath. "Gabrielle?"

The bard turned from the table, and put a smile on her face. "Ready." She said, crossing the room and joining the warrior at the door.

They walked across the courtyard, snugging their cloaks tight to keep the misty rain out. "I really.. wish you weren't.." Gabrielle started, then stopped. "Scratch that.. sorry."

Xena slipped a long arm around her, and pulled her closer. "I wish I wasn't either." She admitted. "I'd rather spend the day inside with you.. if you'd like to know the truth."

Gabrielle mulled over that for a while, as they reached the barn, and Xena opened the door for her to enter. "Really?" She finally asked, shaking her cloak to scatter the water droplets on the straw. Ares stood behind them, shaking himself vigorously to do the same.

"Really." Xena confirmed, putting her cloak aside, and crossing over to where Argo was contentedly chewing. "And I bet she's going to be none to happy either." Indeed, the horse gave her a reproachful look as she lifted the saddle blanket and settled it over the mare's back.

"Yeah, yeah..I know.." Xena muttered to her, fastening the chest strap on the soft blanket, and snugging the belly strap tight. "But we gotta, Argo."

"I"ll run next door and get your kit." Gabrielle said, ducking out the door before Xena could protest. She looked at the closed door for a long minute, then sighed and went back to saddling Argo. "Come here." She muttered, slipping the bridle over the mare's head, and settling the bit between her teeth. "Stop that.." As the mare nibbled her fingers, then lipped her tunic.

She walked to the stall divider, and captured the stirrups in her left hand, then lifted the saddle up and swung it over onto Argo's tall back, settling the fit with knowing hands, and drawing the girth strap under the mare's body and cinching it tight.

Stepping back, she studied the mare critically, then chuckled, and gave her a slap on the shoulder. "I think we'll both be a little sore the first few days, girl.. you've been living pretty soft too, haven't you?" She looked up as the door opened, and Gabrielle slipped back inside, carrying her saddlebags. "Gabrielle.. you didn't have to do that."

"Excuse me.." The bard snorted. "*I'm* not the one whose going to spend days in the rain.. thought I'd give you a last few dry minutes." She walked closer, and dropped the bags at her partner's feet, then moved into her embrace unapologetically. "Besides, I wanted to do it."

Xena wrapped her arms around the bard's body, and just held her, allowing the seductive warmth of their connection seep through her and hold her soul captive, trying to memorize what it felt like as a guard against their coming separation. She buried her face in Gabrielle's hair and sighed, feeling the bard nestle closer and tighten her grip.

She felt, very briefly, as though she were drowning, and she loosened all her resistance to it, and just let it happen, breathing in the warm familiar scent of her partner, mixed with the ghost of late summer rising from the clean, dried hay. The light drumming of the rain overhead lulled her into a haze, and she felt Gabrielle swallow hard against her chest as she felt it too. Finally, reluctantly, she loosened her hold and felt Gabrielle do the same, until they were gazing at each other, still loosely linked in each other's arms.

"Wow." The bard smiled at her. "I think that was the best hug ever.." She considered thoughtfully. "Except one."

Xena quirked a grin. "Was that one in the rain?"

Gabrielle nodded slowly. "You got that right." She reached up and moved the dark hair out of Xena's eyes. "Guess you got to get ready, huh?" She sighed. "I saw the healer heading into the inn when I was coming back here."

"Yeah.. I guess." Xena replied, letting out a deep breath. "Stay out of trouble, OK?" At least I won't have to worry about her this trip... "Don't start any wars or anything while I'm gone, huh?"

Gabrielle smiled, and butted her in the chest with her head. "Look who's talking? You stay out of trouble too." Her eyes went serious. "And be careful." A pause. "Please??"

Xena nodded, lacing her fingers behind the bard's neck and letting her thumb trace Gabrielle's firm jawline. "I promise you I will be." She hesitated, then gave her a wry smile. "I wish you were coming along."

That got a dazzling smile from her partner. "Hey.. Warrior Princess.. that's one of the nicest things you ever said to me." Gabrielle moved closer, and slid her arms up around Xena's neck. "I think I'm in love with you."

Very raised eyebrow. "You think?"

The bard flexed her arms, and pulled herself up, laughing as she felt Xena's grip tighten on her and lift her easily, until their lips met, and she let herself spend a long time in a mutual exploration, only stopping when Xena released one arm and started a long trail of gentle touches down her body that sent sparks all over her. "OK." She spoke, on a very irregular breath. "That convinced me."

"Good." The warrior breathed in her ear, sending a new set of sparks down her spine. "Don't want you to forget me."

Gabrielle gave her a low laugh. "As if I ever could."

They looked at each other for a long time. Then Xena idly ran her fingers through the bard's hair and sighed. "You know.. I don't have anything of yours to hang on to."

The bard colored gently. "You.. want something?" With a little laugh. How's that for unexpected?

Xena shrugged, giving her an embarrassed grin. "Well.. I don't... I mean... " She hesitated. "Never mind." What was I thinking? Come on,'re not a kid for Zeus's sake. What a dumb thing to ask.

Gabrielle studied her face intently, seriously, her brow furrowing in thought. Then her expression cleared, and she gently reached up, slipping her hands around Xena's neck again, and worked for a minute, unfastening the catch that held on her crystal lifebond necklace, feeling Xena's breath catch as she realized what the bard was doing.

Brought her hands down, and put the ends of the chains between her teeth to hold it, while she took off her own necklace, then looked up into Xena's eyes.

In silence, because she was holding her partner's pendant in her mouth, she lifted her hands, and fastened her chain around Xena's neck, watching the muscles of her throat work as she swallowed hard. Then she took Xena's pendant, and fastened it around her own neck.

"There." She said. "Now you have something."

Xena reached up and touched the crystal, still warm from Gabrielle's body, and then let her hand fall, as a slow smile shaped her lips. "Thanks." Almost a whisper.

Gabrielle let herself fall forward, and wrapped her arms around her partner's neck again, drawing her head down, and losing herself into a long, peaceful building of sensation, until she could feel her knees starting to give way, and then she stopped, and let her head drop against Xena's chest, trying to control her labored breathing. "We'd better stop.. or you aren't going anywhere soon."

"Mmm." Came the humming response in her ear, which sent more pleasant skitterings down her spine. "I guess you're right." Xena rubbed her back gently. "Besides, Iolaus is heading this way." She gave the bard's ear a nibble. "He thinks you have a crush on me."

Gabrielle burst into giggles. "Oh, you're kidding me." Felt Xena shake her head no. "Oh gods." She thought for a minute. "We could have fun with this."

"Gabrielle." Xena's voice was jokingly severe. "Not nice."

The bard subsided, letting her fingers run idly over her partner's neck. "All right." She sighed. "But let me tell you, Xena.. I do NOT want him wandering all over the countryside thinking I'm this pitiful lovesick kid hanging on your stirrup leathers, because I'm not" she paused, and grinned impishly. "At least anymore."

Xena kissed her on the nose. "I'll take care of him."

"OK." She relented, as she heard the door start to open. "And I promise I won't tell Ephiny any of the really neat stories your mom's been telling me about you."

Blue eyes widened. "What???"

"Oh, hi Iolaus." The bard chirped, strolling forward and giving Argo a pat. "Rotten weather."

'Yeah." Iolaus agreed, giving her a tentative smile. He was once more dressed in his patchwork vest and trousers, but he'd kept the long tunic, and now plucked at it with a nervous grin. "Your.. uh.. mother made me keep this."

"Figures." Xena let out a short chuckle. "Good thing though - it's damn cold out there." She hoisted her saddlebags aboard Argo, and strapped them down, running the leathers through the mare's saddle rings and securing them firmly, while Gabrielle helped Iolaus get his gray saddled and ready.

Finally, it was done, and they were walking the horses to the barn door. "Wait." Xena said, and dropped Argo's reins. She walked aside a few steps and knelt in the straw, taking Ares' head in her hands and looking into his golden eyes. "You stay here, boy. OK?" Ears drooped pathetically. "Ares… I need you to take care of your other mom for me, all right?" Intelligent eyes flicked towards Gabrielle then back to hers. "That's right. You watch over her for me, OK?" A wolfish sigh, but he nuzzled her face and licked her nose with delicate precision. "Good boy." Xena smiled, and ruffled his fur. Then she stood and resumed her walk to the door, feeling Gabrielle slip in next to her and put a hand on her back. "Hey." She said, studying the shadowed profile.

But the bard just pursed her lips in a determined smile and kept walking in silence. They exited the barn into the cold dampness of the day, each instinctively reaching for cloak fastenings to shut out the sharp drafts and icy rain. "Here." Gabrielle said, very gently striking aside Xena's hands, and reaching up to fasten her cloak securely herself, then pulling her hood up to cover her dark hair.

"Thanks." Xena said softly, smiling at her.

Gabrielle put a hand on her arm, then walked over to where Iolaus was fiddling with his horse's gear. "Listen… " She said, waiting for him to turn, and he did. "I'm really sorry about going off on you yesterday."

He gave her a fond smile. "It's all right, Gabrielle.' His eyes flickered to Xena's tall, shrouded form then back to her. "I understand." This with a sympathetic pat on the shoulder.

Oh.. sweet Iolaus. Her mind sighed. You don't understand a thing, do you? Shaking her head, she pulled him into a hug, Remembering the last time she'd done so, and closing her eyes against the memory. "You take care of yourself, all right?" She said softly, staring earnestly into his pale eyes. "And don’t' worry.. Xena will find a way to get Herc out of whatever thing he's fallen into."

Iolaus mustered up a faint smile. "You think so?"

She nodded. "I know so." She stepped back and watched him mount, then walked around to Argo's other side and faced Xena, taking a long moment to study her from head to foot, as though committing her to memory. Then she moved forward and into a pair of strong arms, that cradled her briefly then let go. "Don't take too long." Was her comment, in a very low voice. "I don't think I can stand it." That a whisper, which Xena's sharp ears caught easily.

"Quick as I can." The warrior responded, brushing her head with a pair of already chilled lips. She hesitated, then suddenly her arms tightened around the bard. "Oh gods… I'll miss you." Her voice caught and broke, and Gabrielle could feel the shudder that went through her breathing.

One last squeeze, and they parted, with Xena giving the bard's hair a playful ruffle. "Keep an eye on Ephiny.. " She advised her partner. "I know they'll send a bunch down when Toris gets there… if you want, have them escort you back, and I'll join you."

Gabrielle nodded, as she watched Xena vault up onto Argo's back and settle herself. "All right." She answered quietly, stepping forward and giving the warrior's calf a little pat.

One last look, one last touch on her head, a hand laid in benediction, then Argo's golden form was moving off down the mud covered road into the driving rain, followed by Iolaus' gray. Gabrielle stood huddled in her cloak, watching until the horses and their riders disappeared into the cold mist, then took a deep breath, and released it. Then she turned and walked towards the inn, with a sturdy purposeful stride.

Continued in Part 4

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