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Standard Disclaimer - These characters, most of them, belong to Universal, and Renaissance Pictures, and whoever else has a stake in Xena: Warrior Princess. This is written just in fun, and no copyright infringement was intended.

Specific Story Disclaimers:

Violence ĖYep - there is violence here. If you don't want hear graphic descriptions of bones crunching, and steel cutting into various body parts, don't go no further. Nobody out there watches Xena just so they can collect Gabrielle's Handy Housekeeping Hints. Be warned.

Subtext - Subtext. Oh, heck yes, there is subtext, maintext, supertext, call it what you like. This story is about two women who are in love with each other and we're not pretending any of this best friend/sister/mother/daughter stuff. Nothing is graphic, we stick to PG13, but if it gets your shorts in a wad to think about two female persons sleeping together, please try some other stories. There are lots of really good ones - check Xeno's listings under general fanfic.

And while we're on the subject, if you do read past the above warning, and are offended by the love described in the story, email me your snail mail address, so I can send you some nice rum balls. (it's the season for it.) Cause I feel bad for you.

 

 Any and all comments are always welcome. You can email them to:

 

mailto:merwolf@worldnet.att.net 


The Longest Night - Part 1

By Melissa Good

The midmorning sun weakly patterned through the sparse leaves, speckling a rough hewn path that lead up into the hills above Amphipolis, and throwing shifting patterns of light and shadow across the moving bodies of a tall, dark haired woman and a large black wolf.

The woman carried a heavy pack across her shoulders, which was strapped down tightly to keep it from bouncing in time with her long, powerful strides. The wolf loped alongside, tongue lolling out, his ears pricked to the myriad of sounds coming from the surrounding brush.

"Not bad, Ares," Xena commented, glancing down at her companion. "Four big rabbits, a string of fish, and a pair of black foxes whose pelts are going to make someone very happy." She took a deep breath of the cold air, and sped up her pace, lengthening he strides and leaping over the rocks and small gullies in the path.

Gods, this feels good. She sighed to herself. They'd been stuck indoors for a week, with ice storms pelting down and locking the water supply into a solid frozen block, and this had been the first day with any decent weather. Xena had decided to check her traps, reasoning that she really didn't know when she'd be able to get back out, as Gabrielle really hated when she went out in the storms.

And she hated when Gabrielle was unhappy, so that was pretty much that. She grinned privately to herself. Besides, she was human, she hated being out in the weather just as much. Besides, she could always clear the floor in the inn, and amuse herself by sparring with the visiting Amazons.

It had been almost two weeks since a plunge under the ice had caused the Amazon regent Ephiny to get sick, and the blond woman was steadily recovering. As predicted, a delegation of Amazons had arrived a few days ago to provide her with a proper escort, with Eponin at their head, and Xena had immediately sent the dour Amazon into an indignant frenzy when she mentioned her surprise at the lack of stamina she'd been noticing in Eponin's compatriots.

The warrior chuckled quietly at the reaction. She hadn't lacked for sparring partners since, but had, she privately smirked, proven her point by running them ragged at every opportunity, and after spending a solid week lazing around in bed with Gabrielle as the bard's ribs slowly healed, she'd had a lot of energy, among other things, that needed to be burned off. The Amazons were a perfect solution.

"That's not nice," Gabrielle had chided her, as they snuggled quietly near the fireplace in their cabin. "You're driving Pony crazy." Not that she hadn't noticed the bard's smug grin while watching, of course.

Xena had nibbled her ear playfully. "I know," she'd whispered. "She'll live."

"Xena, she has those poor Amazons doing push ups in the stable," the bard had objected, with a grin.

"Good," the warrior had chuckled. "They'll keep Argo entertained."

A sound, so close to natural, it could have been an animal, could have been the wind brushing two branches. But Xena felt her instincts come live, sweeping across her body and making it sensitive to the faintest of signs.

"Well, Ares," Xena sighed, continuing her steady, purposeful jog. "Looks like we've got three of them." Amazons, they never learn.

"Roo?" The wolf looked up at her inquiringly.

"No, three," she corrected him, jumping over a boulder in her path. "Two on the left, and one on the right."

"Roo?" Ares bounded along happily.

'Yep, two. On the left," Xena playfully agreed. "One of those two is wearing a set of those bone necklaces the Amazons love, and other's wearing leathers that are way too tight."

"Argrhhoo." Ares muttered.

"Yeah, I hear em squeaking," Xena confirmed. "The one on the right... " She concentrated, then let out a low chuckle. "Looks like I lured out Eponin, Ares." Big surprised there, the older Amazon instructor had taken her challenge somewhat, er, personally. Last night she'd tried to sneak up behind Xena at the inn, and been stopped, to Xena's great amusement and pride, by an almost unthinking dump block from the startled, but pleased Gabrielle. "Always pays to have the best watching your back," Xena had drawled to the disgusted Eponin, which had gotten her a look of pure love from the bard, and a fierce hug in the bargain. It had been a good night.

They were travelling alongside, and slightly ahead of her, and she could see a small, heavily leafed junction ahead that would be perfect for an ambush. They were so.. unimaginative sometimes. Xena sighed. Now, if it had been her.. but then, she reflected, she very seldom had to ambush herself. How would she go about that? A moment's serious thought. Nets, darts... a pit maybe? Nothing that would put her within arms reach of herself, that's for sure. Or kicking range.

I could keep this going. Xena mused, considering. We could be trying to clobber each other until after Solstice. She consciously let her steps slow, and sensed her trackers slowing as well. Or I could just do this. She bounced to a halt, and ambled over to a convenient rock, seating herself on it, and shrugging off her pack. Ares circled around her twice, before curling himself around her feet and letting out a big sigh. And make Gabrielle happy.

Xena crossed her arms and waited, leaning back against the rock face and checking her pulse idly. Hmm, not too bad. She reflected, as she heard the bare whispers as the Amazons consulted. "C'mon Eponin," the warrior called out lazily, letting her head rest against the rock.

A rustle of underbrush, and Eponin was standing on the path, hands on hips, glaring at her. "Stopping for a rest?"

I have nothing to prove to anyone. Xena smiled at her. "Yep." She rummaged in her pack, and motioned the Amazon over. "C'mere." The Amazon was wearing a winter version of their leathers, which covered her upper body, and ended at mid thigh, with a tight fitting pair of leggings and her usual boots. The cold air had brought red patches to her cheekbones, and she had her hands tucked under her arms for warmth.

Eponin narrowed her eyes, then sighed, and threw up her hands, walking forward and shaking her head. "What?" She growled, stopping in front of the seated warrior.

"Siddown." Xena indicated the rock next to her. Xena herself was wearing a thick burgundy woolen shirt over her dark blue leathers, grey leggings, and a light pair of lined gauntlets against the frosty air. She felt, and looked, infinitely more comfortable than her Amazon counterpart who had sniiffed at her offer of warmer clothing. Had said it was an example of how home life was softening Xena up, something which the warrior had surprised Eponin by cheerfully admitting. Now she smirked as Eponin rubbed her arms in the chill, as she sat at her ease on her rock.

Eponin sat down, resting her elbows on her knees, and propping her chin on her hands.

"Look." Xena unwrapped the package she'd pulled out of her pack, and offered it to the Amazon. "Here... meat pies. Take one."

Eponin hesitated, then rolled her eyes and complied, taking a delicate bite and chewing. Antagonism or no, she wasn't going to turn down Cyrene's cooking. None of the Amazons had, not a surprising reaction considering what Xena remembered of their adequate, but hardly interesting meals.

"Look," Xena started again. "Can we cut out the ambushes?"

The Amazon's eyebrows rose. "S'matter, Xena, we getting too close?" Her dark eyes held a sparkle of competitive humor. "You slowing down a little?" Her eyes studied the warrior's relaxed form critically.

A shrug "Maybe.'" Xena answered quietly. "I've tried to take things a little easier lately." She gazed at the startled Eponin. "Listen, I let my guard down when I'm here... I just don't want any accidents happening."

Eponin gazed at her for a long moment. "So, you're afraid you won't react in time?" She asked cautiously, a surprised note in her voice.

Xena shook her head. "No." A brief smile. "I'm afraid I won't not react in time." She met the Amazon's dark eyes steadily. "You come from around a blind corner and surprise me, and my body will react all right, only I may not be able to stop that before someone gets hurt." C'mon, Pony, remember who I am, all right? Even if I am.. Her mind hesitated, not wanting the admission, but she forced it on. Slowing down a little, you're still playing a very, very dangerous game.

A flicker of motion, and she was reaching behind her, long fingers grabbing thick leathers, and pulling with an overhand motion. In a clatter of limbs, one of Eponin's companions was pulled completely over Xena's head, and dumped unceremoniously on her behind, and lay there gasping, blinking at Xena in startled disbelief.

Eponin sighed. "You take all the fun out of things, Xena." She gave the warrior a wry look. "I haven't had a challenge like you in I can't think how long." She peered off into the brush. "Ellis? Get out here before you get a broken arm."

Xena tapped her on the leg, and the Amazon glanced over. "She's over there," the warrior grinned impishly, pointing with one finger. They both watched the underbrush, and slowly it parted, and Ellis' freckled face peeked out.

Eponin rubbed her temples, then gave Xena a look. "Slowing down huh? "

The warrior shrugged modestly.

"Xena, they'd have to encase you in a sack of honey to slow you down enough for anyone to put a finger on you." The Amazon burst out laughing, and gave the warrior a little slap on the leg. "All right, all right, a truce."

Ellis rose to her feet and came closer, holding out a hand to help up her fellow Amazon. "C'mon Raina." The brown haired girl stood and dusted herself off with a wince. "Ouch"

"Sorry." Xena's lips twitched. "Here." She handed around the packet of meat pies.

"I shouldn't," Ellis sighed, patting her belly. "Between this weather and my appetite, I've about outgrown these leathers. " But she took one anyway. "Guess one more won't kill me." The redhead perched on a rock behind Eponin and thoughtfully took a bite, her eyes surreptitiously studying the tall, dark haired form relaxing in their midst. Even then, Ellis noted, there was a sense of fine alertness to Xena, as her senses kept watch on their surroundings at an edgy level just below her casually offhand demeanor. Like a wild animal, almost like the wolf curled in apparent sleep at her boots, whose ear tips flicked at every gust of the wind. Senses tuned to such a high degree, they needed no conscious thought.

She was feral. She was dangerous. Ellis could almost feel the thrumming waves of energy coming off her that made the Amazon's nape lift, and her skin tingle. She thought, not for the first time, that Eponin was crazy to keep pushing at her, trusting the warrior's instincts to be able to stop herself before one of them got really hurt. Glad, now, that Xena herself had recognized the danger and called a halt to the game. She herself had caught a light, pulled kick on her upper thigh from the warrior during their sparring, that still ached, and she'd felt in the blow the knowledge that, at full speed, and strength, the kick would have broken her leg like a piece of kindling.

They said she'd come back from the dead. Ellis believed it. They whispered that she was more to Ares than a protégé, and Ellis believed that too. She was afraid of Xena, and knew most of her companions were, also. But, there was Gabrielle, their gentle and sensitive queen, whose eyes bestowed nothing but adoration on this dark creature, who fearlessly tugged her around by the shirt, who drowsily cuddled against her. And whose presence caused Xena's ice blue eyes to gentle, and soften. Who received from the daunting warrior the same look of unstinting devotion that she, herself gave.

Love was, Ellis mused, a strange, and inexplicable thing. But she hoped that she would, someday, know it like those two did.

They all munched companionably for a short while, Then Eponin glanced up at the other two Amazons. "You lot go on back, we'll catch up with you."

Exchanging glances, the two younger Amazons bit off brief grins, then started off, giving them a wave goodbye.

Xena finished off her snack, and dusted her hands off lightly, waiting. Ok, ok. Eponin, you've got something to say, so, out with it. I've got a bard to hunt berries for. "What's up?" She queried, giving the Amazon a tolerant look.

Eponin studied the ground for a minute, then looked up. " Just wanted to say thank you."

Xena's brows creased. "For what?" She let her mind wander over the past few days, searching for some hidden favor she'd done the Amazon, and coming up empty. Then she caught Eponin's expression and mentally slapped herself. "Oh, Ephiny. Right." She lifted a hand and let it drop. "Right place, right time, I guess. Glad I was there." Feels like it's been forever, so much happened between then and now.

"Right place, right time, right person," the Amazon answered quietly. "I couldn't have broken up that ice, and sure as bees fly those kids couldn't either." She sighed. "Damn and I had a feeling something was wrong with her, too." She shot a glance at the warrior. "You ever get those?"

Xena couldnít keep the sudden grin off her face. "Uhm...No, no, of course not." The warrior lifted a hand. "That would take an imagination, and, well, you know me

Eponin cocked her head. "What's that fox swallowed the hen's egg look for?"

The warrior bit her lip, and got her face under control, and shook her head. "Nothing.. "

The Amazon stood, and put her hands on her hips. 'Bears don't piss silently in the forest, and you don't smile for no reason, Xena."

"Hmm, " Xena temporized, stuffing the rest of the package back into her backpack, and standing up, slinging the pack onto her broad shoulders and fastening the straps tightly. "Nothing.. really.. just thinking.. of those girls. They were.. really.. uh.. a handful."

"Uh huh," Eponin commented. "Well, I know they get a bit overexcited sometimes." She sniffed reflectively. "Except your Cait, that is." She paused. "You have loosened up a lot, you know."

"Have I?" Xena asked mildly.

"Yeah," Eponin gave her a brief grin. "You talk in full sentences now." Her eyes twinkled. "Took me a while to get used to. Gabrielle must be rubbing off on you."

Xena snorted. "Uh huh." She rested one booted foot on the boulder and leaned on it. "I hear she had fun sparring with you all when she was out there." Completely unable to keep from tweaking Eponin, aren't you? I think we're too much alike.

The Amazon warrior folded her arms and glanced away. "She surprised me," Eponin admitted. "I didn't think she really had the aptitude for that." Her lips pursed. "But she's... really, really good." A sigh. "Guess she found the right teacher." Now Eponin looked direct at Xena. "I couldnít believe how changed she was the last time I saw her. Like a different person."

Xena studied her face for a minute, then gave her a little nod. "Yeah, I know," she agreed quietly. "She's been through a lot."

"Haven't we all," Eponin sighed, rubbing her neck.

"Yeah," Xena ran out of small talk, and reached over, tapping Eponin on the shoulder. "Hey."

"What?" The Amazon asked, rubbing her arm. "Ouch."

"Race you," Xena winked at her, then took off jogging down the path, Ares bounding along next to her.

"Oh Hades codpiece," Eponin sighed, and took off after her.


It was almost noon before Xena hit the muddy road that led into Amphipolis. She'd lost Eponin some time before, when she'd detoured to a favorite spot locked between two sheltering bluffs, finding a small cache of elderberries there, and snagging them up with a satisfied grin.

The courtyard was packed, she noticed, filled with villagers and what looked like travelers, beaten by the weather and gathered in tight around the entrance to the inn. Xena was about to go around to the back entrance, when she heard voices begin to rise, and spotted the sturdy, fair haired form who was smack in the middle of the crowd.

A few steps brought her to the edges of the crowd, and she peered over the heads of the tired looking strangers, sensing no immediate danger. Gabrielle was standing by the inn door, her arms crossed over her chest, and her head tilted in a familiar gesture of listening. The woman who was facing her wore a battered woolen tunic, and was covered with mud, as well as a liberal scattering of bruises and scrapes. The bard was wearing one of Xena's heavier tan shirts, the oversized fabric gathered at her waist by a tooled leather belt that matched the russet dyed boots encasing her powerful legs to the knee, both recent gifts from her partner. Xena allowed her eyes to drink in the sight before letting the words of the woman facing her penetrate her mind, noting with pride the respect in the eyes of the crowd listening to the exchange.

"Murderers, they are!!" The woman stated, emphatically. "They don't let you live. Our village was pounded near flat by the storm. Could they spare it? No." She lifted her hands and let them drop. "Every last blessed thing they took, and beat us besides."

"So, they chased you all the way here?" Gabrielle asked, gently, feeling her partner's presence, but keeping her attention on the woman.

"No," the man next to her gruffly asserted. "They broke off a ways back, soon as they seen we were on our way here." His gray eyes studied Gabrielle. "They say raiders don't come to Amphipolis."

Gabrielle took a quiet breath. "That's mostly true," she admitted. "We have a strong village guard, and we watch our borders." Unconsciously, her eyes slid to the right. And, of course, there's another reason. A grin tugged at her lips.

Xena slowly moved her way through the crowd, politely nudging aside the first few rows of onlookers, and then finding her way cleared as she made her presence felt. She stepped into the center of the crowd, and joined her partner, studying the refugees with a serious expression. She put a casual hand on Gabrielle's back, and felt the bard lean into it, her fingers sensing the warmth of her partner's body through the thick fabric.

"Looks like the situation out there is getting worse," the bard commented, "Josclyn is trying to find shelter for them." She waited for Xena to move closer, then leaned on the warrior's shoulder with a gentle familiarity.

Xena nodded quietly, and turned to the woman, who was gazing at her uneasily. "How far back did they leave you?"

"A day back." It was the man who answered, his scruffy beard bristling. "Been a long road."

Josclyn moved his way through then, giving Xena a brief nod, and winking at Gabrielle. "All right then.. we've got a small homestead just outside the pale here... it's been deserted since the woman who worked it died this past moon. If you're wanting to put some work into it, it's yours." He cast a quick glance at the bard, who smiled warmly at him. "It's not a prince's palace, but it's whole, and it's got a roof."

The woman smiled gratefully at him. "It's a gift of the gods." She shared a relieved look with the man, evidently her husband. "Mikae, we'll stay?"

The man let out a long sigh. "Aye." He took Josclyn's proffered arm, and shook it. "We're more grateful than I can say. We've got the children here. " He jerked his head at the small, rough hewn wagon they'd been pulling by hand, where three small boys huddled. "And these few folk who managed to come with us." His look took in the two young women, who were clutching each other, and the older woman and younger man, evidently a mother and son who were watching with frightened eyes.

"There's room for the lot of you," Josclyn assured them. "I'll take you there." He glanced around. "Welcome to Amphipolis. This here is our inn. We've been working with the innkeeper on kind of a joint larder this winter.. got some extra for you if you can use it. " He smiled at them. "And it looks like ye can." He exchanged smiles with them. "Come on, I'll give you the tour on the way."

They moved off, not without several curious looks back at the grimly watching Gabrielle, and the tall, dark haired woman next to her. "Who were they?" Mikae asked Josclyn, as they rounded the corner of the inn. His wife leaned close, listening eagerly.

Josclyn smothered a grin. "The pale haired one, that's our storyteller. Name's Gabrielle.. she's a wondrous fair bard, and an even better bargainer." He cleared his throat. "The other, well, that's Xena."

They stopped short, right there in the mud covered walkway. "Artemis' bright blessings," the woman exclaimed, shocked. "But I thought... you're harboring that kind here?"

Jos turned to face them, his hands on his hips. "Now look," he said, giving them a severe stare. "Ye asked why raiders stay clear of us....well, she's why." He paused. "We're not harboring anyone. She lives here. It's her home."

Mikae held up a hand. "No offense intended, sir." He wiped the hand over his mud-spattered head. "I'll take any protection, at this fork in the road." He nudged his wife. "Right, honey?" He paused. "Leese?"

"Oh, yes," the woman fluttered. "I'm sorry, I just didn't, well, I'm sure it's fine."

They trudged on, as a little silence dropped over them.


Gabrielle glanced up, as she felt Xena's arm settle around her shoulders, and slid a returning arm around the warrior's waist. "Hey," she sighed, staring after the refugees. "Those poor people."

"Mmm," Xena responded, grabbing the door to the inn and pulling it open. "They got lucky. C'mon."

They entered the inn, and Xena released her partner as she turned towards the kitchen. "Hang on, gotta drop this off," she muttered, pushing open the kitchen door and entering. "Hey, Eustase.." The cook turned round and smiled at her. "Some more additions to your stores." She slid the heavy pack off her shoulders, and onto a work table, as Eustase bustled forward.

"Goodness..." She tugged at the pack. "What in Olympus do you have in here, ma'am?"

Xena gave her a dark, intent look.

"Sorry," Eustase dimpled a smile. "Habit." She freed the leather straps and opened the package, peering inside. "Lovely," she pronounced, with a grin. "Thank you, Xena."

That got a grudging smile back from the tall, dark haired woman. "Anytime." She gave the cook a pat on the arm, then turned and walked back into the inn, where she spotted Gabrielle perched on a corner of the table where the Amazons had gathered. She studied the bard closely as she moved forward, relieved to see Gabrielleís relaxed posture, and apparent freedom from the nagging pain of her recently fractured ribs. The bard had, only yesterday, resumed some very limited, and very light work with her staff, and seemed to have suffered no ill effects from the workout. However, the close quarters and incessant squabbling that everyone seemed to want the bard to solve had put Gabrielle on edge, and her injury hadn't helped.

"Youíd think the weather would have kept down that kind of thing," Gabrielle commented, as her partner joined the small group at the table. "I donít get it."

Xena chose a support post to lean against, and shrugged, exchanging knowing looks with Ephiny. "Probably more desperate than the villagers theyíre after." The Amazon regent nodded in agreement. "They canít have any settled hideout. Theyíre more than likely using some of the caves in the low hills just north of here."

"They sound like theyíre attacking the weakest victims they can find.," Ephiny commented. "Theyíre probably not much better off." The blond Amazon leaned back in her chair, and took a sip from the mug she held in one hand. "I donít think weíre in much danger."

A chuckle traveled around the table, and Ephiny grinned, glad to be finally able to sit quietly and talk without being racked by painful coughing. She still felt exhausted, but she could walk around the inn by herself, and had even managed a few steps outside with Eponin and Gabrielle as hovering attendants earlier that morning. It had felt really good to see the sun, especially after the rough weather theyíd been having.

Weather, she reflected, that had forced them all indoors, and half driven her fellow Amazons to distraction, until Xena had taken pity on all of them and took them on for some indoor sparring sessions that had relieved a lot of the tension. And provided her and the reluctantly sidelined Gabrielle with a memorable show, as the fitful lightning outside mixed with the ruddy torchlight in reflecting off the smoothly moving bodies, throwing sharp shadows against the walls as first individually, then as a group the Amazons pitted themselves against Xena.

Who had shunned her armor, and even her leathers, facing them in her padded gambeson that showed years of hard usage, and a pair of light, indoor boots that caused only minimal damage when the Amazons were incautious enough to be caught by one of her kicks.

She had been pulling her blows, Ephiny knew, and Gabrielle had pointed out in a soft whisper. And even so her deadly ability had been evident and caused long, late night conversations between the Amazon warriors that had even Ephiny rolling her eyes. But it had relaxed the tensions, and made the long evenings much more enjoyable, when theyíd gather around one of the larger tables at the inn, and trade stories until the late hours. Except for Xena, of course, who would sit and listen, but prod Gabrielle into any storytelling that was required.

"No, probably not," Xena answered her droll observation. "But we should be careful anyway. No sense in inviting trouble." Her eyes flicked to her partner, and a small grin crossed her face. "Not with you around, anyway." She gently bumped the bardís shoulder, and got a mock glare in return.

A round of chuckles followed, and Gabrielle just shook her head in wry disgust. "Thanks," she muttered over her shoulder, then felt the warmth of Xenaís hand on her back, and the warriorís closeness.

"Just kidding." The whisper gently gusted against her ear, and she allowed her annoyance to dissipate reluctantly, as she slid off the table and stood up, stretching a little and giving her partner a bump in the ribs in return.

"Iím going to get some lunch," the bard commented. "I have the villagers begging for a sparring session after that.. if the weather holds." She turned and headed towards the kitchen, aware of Xenaís silent presence next to her. She glanced up. "Donít you dare."

The warrior blinked. "Huh?"

"Youíre going to tell me not to do a session this afternoon," the bard said, flatly. "I can tell."

Xena gave her a look.

"See?" She commented, with a shake of the head. "I never realized why you hated people hovering before now. Iím fine, OK?" Gabrielle paused with her hand on the kitchen door, turning to glance back at her partner who hadnít answered.

Found serious blue eyes soberly looking at her, glinting in the reflected pale light from the windows. "Actually, I was going to try and convince you to take a nice quiet walk up into the hills this afternoon," the warrior commented briefly. "But if you want to do drills with the villagers, thatís fine."

The bard had been showing signs of pent up tension, caused mostly by her injury, but also from being cooped up continually by the weather, and the constant toll on her diplomatic skills as she tried to keep everyone from snapping at each other. The drills, the warrior knew, would relieve some of that.

Gabrielleís brow furrowed, and she let her hand drop to her side, as she studied her partner. "Are you saying you think I should do them?"

Xena nodded, and lifted a hand to gently straighten the bardís collar. "Sure, I think youíd feel better for it."

"Whatís that supp..." The bard stopped, and crossed her arms, and looked down. Then she glanced back up and sighed. "So, Iím in a really crabby mood and it shows, right?"

Xena smiled, and crossed her own arms, leaning back against the wall. "A little," she admitted.

Gabrielle let out a long breath. "Sorry... all these people.. and all the problems... and then with my side hurting.. I guess I just..." She gave Xena an apologetic look "And you were going to subject yourself to that this afternoon? "

The warrior shrugged lightly. "Well, I found something I think youíd like.. and I thought it would be a nice change for you to get out.. itís pretty nice weather."

"Something Iíd like, huh?" Gabrielle felt an smile forming, unable to resist those twinkling blue eyes.

Xena nodded. "Yep."

"You wonít tell me what it is, I guess," the bard commented.

"Nope," the warrior agreed.

A long paused, as their eyes met. "I guess the villagers are going to have to wait until tomorrow," Gabrielle finally said, letting herself fall forward and lean against her partnerís warm body. "Can we go now? Iíll grab a picnic lunch."

Xena smiled, and slid her hand up, gently rubbing the back of the bardís neck. "Sure... that sounds great." She felt Gabrielleís body slump against her, and took a quick look around, and finding no one else near the entranceway, slid both arms around her partner and hugged her close. Not that anyone seeing her doing this bothered her, but they both took a lot kidding from the Amazons, who never lost an opportunity to tease when they could. No point in giving them yet more ammunition, she mused with a wry grin.

"Mmm," Gabrielle sighed. "Ok, Ok, let me go get stuff, and pick up my staff, or weíll never get out of here." Reluctantly, she separated from Xena, trailing her hands across the warriorís body. Her eyes glanced briefly up at her partnerís. "Sorry I snapped at you."

Xena chuckled. "Gabrielle, after all the times you put up with my bad temper, youíre entitled." She nudged the bard towards the kitchen. "Címon, Iíll go with you." She reached inside her pouch, still slung over her shoulder, and removed something, then circled the bardís neck with one arm and offered her a berry. "Look, Iíll even bring dessert."

Gabrielleís eyes brightened, and she snapped up the berry with a flash of white teeth. "Mmm." She munched. "Where in Hades did you get that? With the weather weíve been having?" She paused and looked back. "No, let me guess. You have many skills?"

Xena raised an eyebrow and gave her a poke.

"Ouch," the bard poked her back. "Cut that out."

Not long after, they were quietly slipping out of the village, headed up a small, partially hidden path that led up into a gently sloping hillside covered with winter battered trees and foliage. The air was cold, but dry, and the fitful wind thrust the dried branches together, making a crisp background noise and scattering handfuls of dead leaves on the casually strolling pair.

"Think this weather will last?" Gabrielle commented, carefully using her staff to keep her footing on the steepening path. "Iíd love to have a few days of sun for a change." She sighed wistfully, and tugged on her heavy tunic. "Iím getting tired of these."

Xena peered up at the sky, and sighed. "Maybe, for a little while." She glanced down at Gabrielle with a half grin. "Yeah, I kinda miss sunning with you." She paused and studied the bard. "You doing OK?"

Gabrielle paused, and leaned on her staff. "Hurts a little," she admitted quietly, taking a deep breath and starting to walk again. "I canít believe Iím this short of breath, though."

Xena moved closer and ruffled her hair. "Take it easy, OK?"

The bard gave her an evil look. "You are such a hypocrite, you know that?" But her expression was mild, and she didnít object when Xena put a casual arm around her and gave her support on the upward climb. "Let me tell you, love, the next time I find out that you have this happen to you, I'm gonna stuff YOU in bed for two weeks."

Xena raised an eyebrow at her. "Who says I'd mind?" Her eyes glinted mischievously.

"Xena," the bard clucked at her, and poked her with an elbow. "I'm being serious."

The warrior shrugged. "So am I.' A quick sideways glance. "So long as you stuffed yourself there too." She grinned at the look on Gabrielle's face. "Besides, I kept you company, didn't I?"

"Mmm..." The bard smirked. "That's true." She snuggled closer. "And it was worth it, to get you to actually sit in one place and translate two whole scrolls from Ardwyn's collection for me." She'd even managed to forget the throbbing ache for a while, listening to Xena's low, vibrant voice reading the stories from long past, with only a slight hesitation as she translated the Celtic language into Greek. They'd taken frequent breaks, for Xena to sip hot tea to relax a throat unaccustomed to such long use, and to listen to the harsh rattle of hail and ice against the walls of the cabin. "Hmm... was I complaining? Silly me."

Xena grinned down at her. "Uh huh, how quickly you forget." She glanced up as they reached the top of the path, and motioned with her jaw. "There."

Gabrielle looked. "Xena, that's a cave."

"Yep," the warrior agreed.

"You .. dragged me up here to see a cave?" The bard gave her a look, then lifted a hand and felt Xena's forehead carefully. "No, you feel cool."

"Come on," the warrior sighed, leading her towards the opening.

"Xena, what's this all about?" Gabrielle asked, ducking her head and following her partner into the cave, and glancing around as the warrior lit a torch.

"Come on," Xena repeated, and tugged her arm, moving down a long passageway that sloped lightly downward.

The bard strode along next to her in silence for a moment, then glanced up curiously. "You all right in here?"

Xena glanced at her. "Yeah. " She answered briefly. "I... I've been kind of.. practicing." Her eyes traveled around the passageway, then lit back on Gabrielle. "Little at a time."

Gabrielle linked her arm with Xena's and rubbed her cheek against the warrior's tall shoulder. "That's.. good to hear," she said quietly. "Now, what's this all about?"

"Patience, Gabrielle," Xena admonished her.

"I'm crabby, remember?" The bard shot back, banging her head lightly against her partner's arm. "You're making me nuts... hey, it's getting warmer."

"MmmHmm," Xena agreed.

"Why on earth would it be getting warmer inside this cave?" The bard wondered aloud. "I don't see the... oh."

They'd stepped around a final bend, and now Xena held out the torch, the flickering orange light outlining a roughly circular cavern, whose walls were patchworks of colors and stains. On one side of the cavern was a pool, which had steam lightly rising from it, and a sharp mineral scent floated over to them on the steam.

"Oooo," Gabrielle released Xena's arm, and walked over to the pool, kneeling, and testing it with a finger. "Xena, this is very warm."

Xena leaned back against the wall, and let a satisfied grin cross her face. "Uh huh, thought you might appreciate a nice.. " She walked over and settled her arms around the bard's neck. "Hot.." She nibbled the bard's ear and got a soft giggle. "Mineral bath.'"

"Mmmm..." Gabrielle sighed happily. "You'd be right." She turned her head slightly and captured the warrior's lips for a long moment. "I don't suppose you have towels and stuff in that pack of yours."

Xena grinned, and unbuckled the belt on her tunic, and pulled it off, then folded the tunic neatly, and dropped it on top of the pack she'd eased off her shoulder and onto the floor. Then she stepped forward, and let her hands drop to the bard's' belt, and snugged her fingers in it. "Join me?" She unfastened the buckle, and let the ends drop, then unlaced the neck fastening and helped the bard ease the tunic off over her head, kneeling down to unlace Gabrielle's boots and sliding them off along with her leggings.

Gabrielle let her eyes close in pleasure, and reached for the laces holding Xena's dark blue leathers closed, untying the top knot and freeing the ties, tugging them loose. The warrior slid out of the leathers and the rest of her clothing, then stepped up next to the bard, sliding her hands across Gabrielle's body and pulling her close, lifting her gently up and walking into the steaming pool, not stopping until they were both submerged up to their necks in the warm, swirling water.

The pool had an underwater inlet, and the stained rock on the far end showed where the outflow trickled, disappearing into the rock and leaving behind a multicolored pattern on the stone.

"Ohhhh.," Gabrielle sighed softly. "Gods, this feels good." The warm, swirling water cascaded around her, and the rich steam invaded her lungs, relaxing every inch of her body.

Xena smiled, as she cradled the bard's body in her arms, running her eyes over the fading, yellowish bruise that still colored her partner's chest and sighing soundlessly. She moved to the far end of the shallow pool, and leaned against the rock, letting the warm water relax her muscles. "Yeah, it does," she murmured, watching Gabrielle's mist green eyes open and lazily track to hers. "Was this an OK surprise?"

The bard lifted one hand out of the water and ran her fingers over Xena's face, tracing the strong lines, and smiling as the warrior gently captured her fingers in her teeth. "More than OK," she answered, then slid her other hand behind her partner's neck, and pulled herself up to meet Xena's lips again. She felt the hands cradling her begin to move, and smiled at the knowing, gentle touch that traced over her sensitive skin. She let the warmth, and the familiar scent and their vibrant connection sweep over her and take her into a sensual oblivion.


"When did you find this place," Gabrielle asked, comfortably leaning against Xena's relaxed body, one of the warrior's powerful arms holding her securely in place. She nibbled a berry off the bunch Xena' had handed her, and chewed with evident enjoyment.

"This morning," Xena replied, keeping her eyes half closed, just enjoying the warmth and the bard's closeness. "I was looking for some of those herbs I used for Ephiny. I'm out, and you never can tell when we might need them." She forced herself to straighten up a little. "There's a nice spot just outside.. overlooks a lake.. where we can have lunch if you like."

Gabrielle rolled her head to one side, and gently tasted a droplet of water that was coursing down her partner's chest. "I like," she responded, then gave Xena an impish look, as she let her head rest against the warrior's shoulder. "Thanks." She sighed. "I really needed this."

Xena laughed, and kissed her nose. "Well, after a week of Amazons jumping out at me from every corner, so did I," she admitted wryly. "I had to tell Eponin to cut it out this morning, I was afraid one of her little cubs would try an ambush in the dark some night and I'd belt them into next week."

"Eek," Gabrielle laughed. "That must have gone over like a sand filled waterskin." Then she poked Xena lightly in the chest. "It's your fault, you started it. You had to go tease her, right?"

Xena lifted a hand, and let it fall back into the water, making the warm liquid splash outward. "I know, I know, but it's been fun sparring with them."

The bard chuckled. "Fun for you, that is. You didn't see them all comparing bruises." She peered at her partner, examining her water shadowed form. "I don't see any on you, by the way."

That got a low chuckled from the warrior. "There aren't any," she answered smugly. "Couldnít let those Amazons think your champion's out of shape now, could I?"

Gabrielle grinned, and let her fingers trace Xena's smoothly powerful body. "Well, they could have just asked me." She planted a kiss along Xena's collarbone, where her strong neck muscles attached to her shoulders. "I'd be more than glad to tell them what wonderful shape you're in." She moved her way up the warrior's neck and ended up nibbling on her earlobe. "Would have saved them some aches and pains."

"Nah." Xena let her hands lightly trace the bard's ribs and move down her belly, feeling the muscles contract under her fingertips. "I think they enjoy it."

"Oh yeah," Gabrielle replied, sliding a finger along Xena's shoulder and down the curve of her upper arms. "It's like a badge of honor. 'I was kicked around by the Warrior Princess.'" She watched Xena roll her eyes and giggled softly in reaction. "You should have heard them talking about you... they're worse than those girls were."

"Gods," Xena sighed, as she stroked the bard's body lightly again, feeling her breathing quicken in response. "Amazons." She shook her head.

"Mmm, Xena?" Gabrielle shifted her body, and let her hands wander again.

"Yeah." The reply was soft and husky, and Gabrielle felt the her heartbeat increasing.

"To Hades with the Amazons," she whispered, as her fingertips ran lightly down Xena's thigh, and felt the powerful muscles just under the skin tense.


Lunch, when it was finally arranged, was a leisurely affair. Gabrielle leaned back in total contentment, as she surveyed the winter bitten, but still beautiful vista below the grassy shelf they were snuggled on. The small lake below was choppy from the cold wind, and the colors were drabber, the trees barer than she was used to, but it had a wild beauty to it that appealed to her bardic imagination.

Or maybe it was just the fact that she was leaning back against Xena's chest, with the warrior's arms wrapped around her, munching on some of her favorite things, having had a long, luxurious, sensual bath that was putting her into a great mood. With a sigh, she crossed her legs at the ankles, and offered Xena a bite of smoked meat wrapped around a bit of cheese.

Xena neatly captured the tidbit with her teeth, and chewed it, then leaned her head against Gabrielle's and sighed quietly. "So, I guess Eph won't bother going home.. Solstice is so close, it doesn't make sense to."

The bard ate another tidbit, then assembled and offered Xena one. " That's the plan.. and Eponin's gloating - because she gets to stay for the ceremony and Solari doesn't." She exchanged a knowing smirk with Xena over her shoulder. "We're going to start getting our other visitors soon, remember."

Xena nuzzled the back of her neck. "Uh huh, all those people.. all in one place... are you sure this is a good idea?"

Gabrielle's mist green eyes glinted. "You getting nervous already?" She teased gently. "Come on, they'll all entertain each other. We can just sneak out.. no one will notice." She closed her eyes and simply enjoyed the tickling sensation of Xena's lips against her skin.

"Oh, " Xena laughed gently against the bard's hair, nicely scented with the herbal soap they used. "But your parents, my family, Amazons, Jessan's people, Herc and Iolaus, Gabrielle, you do realize something's gotta happen."

Gabrielle thought about that, and realized, with a rueful grin, that her partner was probably right. "Yeah, you're right. Maybe we should just skip out, and let them party by themselves. Whadda you think?"

"Hmm," Xena considered. "I think we'd never hear the end of it."

"That's true." The bard laughed, then sobered. "Listen, how far do you think those raiders are operating?"

Xena studied her profile, then brushed her fingers through Gabrielle's windswept hair. "I don't know," she admitted. Hades, what .. oh. "You worried about your family?"

The bard sighed. "A little. Yeah." She stared pensively off towards the lake. "I mean, I'm sure they're ok, right? They're so close, we would have heard. If anything had happened, they'd have tried to get here, right?"

Xena paused, thinking. Probably the bard was right, if anything had happened, either her family would have made its way here or Xena's ears would have heard something. But.. An idea started to form. "Hey, you know, they are pretty close."

Gabrielle turned her head and regarded her partner. "Yeah?"

The warrior nodded slowly. 'Yeah, what do you say we take a quick ride down there and check things out?" She thought a minute. "We can give them an escort back here."

The bard let a grin spread across her face. "Whoa, a few days alone with you on the road? " Never thought I'd miss that, but Gods, I really do. "I like that idea."

"Yeah?" Xena asked, a pleased look on her face. "Thought you liked it in Amphipolis."

Gabrielle fiddled with the collar on Xena's burgundy tunic. "I do," she answered quietly. "But.. I also miss being out there, just the two of us.. doing stuff." I might as well admit it.

A slow smile crossed the warrior's lips. "So do I." She cupped Gabrielle's face and kissed her. "I was kinda hoping you felt that way."

"So, after the weather settles down.. we can sort of..." Gabrielle mused.

"Uh huh," Xena agreed. "Then we can come back when we have enough of that for a little while. Sound OK?"

The bard grinned happily. "Sounds great." She took another tidbit and bit it in half, inviting the warrior to take the other half, which she did. "I like that plan," she considered thoughtfully. "You know, we could even just walk over there.. let Argo relax here, being she's pregnant and all." And that will extend this little jaunt a few days... "I know I could use the chance to get some stamina back." She glanced over her shoulder, and saw the little quirk of Xena's lips that meant she was being seen through, but the warrior's eyes were sparkling with amusement.

"Well... that's true," Xena drawled. "If you promise to take it easy, and let me know when you get tired." Couple days walking couldnít hurt either of us... she chuckled ruefully to herself. I think I'm liking this idea a lot.

"I promise," Gabrielle assured her, with a satisfied grin. "My parents will be surprised.. I bet.. but I'll feel better knowing they'll have a safe escort here." She nibbled another berry, and snuggled her shoulders back against Xena's warm chest. "And I can't think of a safer escort." She turned her head, and bestowed her best adoring look on her partner, who burst into laughter.

"Gabrielle... cut that out," Xena tweaked her nose.

"No way," the bard refused cheerfully. "I have a right to look at you like that, so cope."

The warrior rolled her eyes, but tightened her hold on her partner and let out a contented sigh. "We'll leave tomorrow morning, then," she confirmed, letting her gaze drift outwards towards the lake.


"A trip to Potadeia, huh?" Cyrene asked, looking over one shoulder at her daughter, who was busily collecting supplies. "If I didn't know better, I'd say a certain child of mine was just getting a little antsy about being cooped up."

Xena shot her an attempt at an innocent look. It failed miserably. "Gabrielle is worried about her family, mother. Really." She tucked some herbs into a small pouch and packed it in her bag. "Seemed like a good idea to me."

The innkeeper wandered over, and leaned against her. "Just kidding you, honey." She paused. "Is Gabrielle up to the trip? She still looks a little achy to me."

The warrior paused, and took a breath. "Yeah, I think she'll be all right. We'll take it really easy." She gave her mother a fond look. "Just a quiet couple of days walk, that's all."

"Mmhmm," Cyrene murmured, studying her. "What if the weather goes bad again? I'd hate to think of the two of you stuck out there in a storm like we just had."

Xena finished packing away her supplies, and fastened the top flap of her saddlebag before answering. "We both know the area around here pretty well.. there are plenty of places to shelter in. We'll be fine, mother, really." She watched in wry amusement as her mother selected several additional packets and tucked them into the bag. "Mother!"

"Shut up," Cyrene advised her. "That's so you're prepared if you get stuck in the rain, and don't have time to hunt down some poor rabbit." She sighed. "You will be careful, right?"

Xena turned, and grasped her mother's shoulders, and met her eyes solemnly. "Mother... relax, all right? " She gave Cyrene a wry look. "We're just going on a very short trip, and we'll be back before the end of the week."

The innkeeper snorted. "You'd better be.. that's when all your guests are going to start arriving, remember?" She smiled at Xena's wince. "Come on, chin up. You'll survive. " She fell silent for a moment, then put a hand on Xena's arm. "Listen, I don't think I've told you just how glad I am you're doing this, have I?"

Xena just looked at her.

"Making Gabrielle family... legally, I mean," Cyrene continued quietly. "Because I think she's been that to you for a long time, hasn't she?"

Blue eyes studied her. "Once, she was the only family I had," the warrior answered softly. 'But yeah, she's been that for.. quite a while."

Her mother smiled, and gave her arm a little pat. "It's been good for my heart to see you so happy, Xena."

The warrior's eyes dropped, and studied the powerful hands resting on the leather saddlebags. "Thanks... " She replied softly. "After all I've done, sometimes I wonder how I could deserve this." She paused. "Or what price there'll be that I just haven't paid yet."

Cyrene moved closer, and took a hold on her arm, a very concerned look on her face. "Xena, you can't think that way.. sometimes things just happen because they happen." She searched the shadowed profile intently. "Happiness isn't something that's earned.. or expected.. when it happens, you just have to hold onto it for as long as you can."

Her daughter took a deep breath, and let it out slowly, finally meeting her eyes. "I know... sorry. I'm not sure where that came from." She gave Cyrene a tentative smile. "Hey, do you have any of those stuffed nut things? I know she really likes those.. "

Cyrene nodded, and smiled back, obviously relieved. "Sure, honey. Hang on a minute, and let me pack some up for you." She padded over to a covered wooden case, and opened it, setting down a piece of cloth to wrap the goodies up in. "You know, it's really funny, Xena... " She gave the warrior a half amused half embarrassed look. "I know you. I know your capabilities, and yet I can't help worrying about the two of you out there alone.. isn't that silly?"

The warrior crossed over, and put her hands on her mother's shoulders, giving her a squeeze. "No, it's not silly. And thanks." She chuckled lightly. "Weíll be fine.. Iím going to go by the river path, and Iím not going to let Gabrielle over do it."

Cyrene turned and pushed the bundle into her hands with a grin. "All right.. and I put a few extra in there for you, too." She gave Xena a gentle poke in the ribs. "So you two donít fight over them."

Xena attempted another innocent look. "Fight? Us? Over these? Never." Her blue eyes sparkled. "Thanks, mother." She tucked the package into the saddlebag, and slung the strap over her shoulder. "Let me go finish packing, then weíll be back.. Gabrielleís promised to tell a couple of stories during dinner tonight."

Cyrene waved her off. "Go ahead... Iíll see you later. I have, totally by coincidence, mind you, made one of your favorites tonight." She grinned at her daughterís indulgent expression. "And if you donít mind, Iíve got a little list to give you.. some herbs I saw in Potadeia that we just donít have around here."

"Shopping?" Xena teased. "Oh, Iíll give that to Gabrielle.. Iím sure sheíd love to." She headed out the door, still with a grin on her face, and almost collided with the refugees from the morning. "Sorry," she apologized, stepping back and letting them pass, noting the half frightened, half fascinated look she got from them. Gods, they always expect me to have blood dripping off my shirt.. or be gnawing someoneís ear, donítí they? "Hi," she commented, studying the man and woman quietly. "Sorry you had such a rough time."

The man nodded nervously at her. "Thanks." He took a firm grip on his wifeís arm, and gave Xena a nod as he tugged her further into the inn. Xena sighed, and shook her head as she pushed the outer door open and slipped out into the cold, sunlit courtyard.


"Díyou suppose sheís a slave?" Leese whispered to her husband, as they huddled around one of the rearmost tables in the inn that night. Her eyes were fastened on the bard, who sat comfortably on a tall chair, reciting a light, but interesting tale.

Mikae gave her a look. "Donít be silly.. Leese!" He whispered back. "She doesnít look like a slave.. what makes you say something like that?"

His wifeís eyes flicked over his shoulder, coming nervously to rest for a bare instant on the silently watching face of the dark haired warrior sprawled in an armchair against the back wall. "I thought all warlords had slaves," she muttered.

Mikae let his stubbled chin rest in his hands and grunted. "You heard what the reeve said, lovey. Sheís not a warlord anymore." He found his eyes glancing back at Xena as well, though, and forcibly turned his attention back to the pretty young bard. "They all seem pretty friendly with her here.. and it makes sense as to why the other lot leaves them alone."

"Hmph," Leese grumbled. "She makes me nervous.. and what about the boys?" She leaned forward. "Do you know what kind of stories Iíve heard about what her type does to innocent young things like that?"

They both watched as the bard finished her story, took in the resultant applause and hollers with a gentle smile, then held up her hand, and apologized, saying she had to rest for a while. She made her way through the crowd, stopping here and there to talk to people who held out a staying hand to her, and her soft laughter tinkled above the roomís buzz of talk like a bell.

Then she eased her way past the crowded tables, and pulled a chair out from the table where Xena was seated, and dropped into it, reaching a hand out and pulling the just set down plate from in front of the tall dark haired woman, and attacking itís contents.

"Look at that!" Leese fumed. "Donít tell me sheís not a slave.. sheís tasting all that food for her. Iíve heard stories about that... so that one can keep from being poisoned."

Mikae studied the two covertly, and noted that the warriorís benign expression hadnít changed, except that a smile was edging itís way across her mouth. "Youíve got too much imagination, lovey," he disagreed, but there was doubt in his tone.

Across the room, the two newcomers were likewise being studied, by pale, Amazon eyes. "Hey Xena," Ephiny leaned over, and nudged the warrior. "You see those guys staring at you?"

Xena flicked a glance over, then pursed her lips and nodded. "Yeah."

"Whatís up with that?" The Amazon muttered.

The warrior chuckled, and glanced up with a nod as the server replaced the plate Gabrielle had stolen from her with a friendly grin. "Thanks. " She turned to Ephiny. "Theyíre waiting for me to pull your arm off and start beating you to death with it."

Ephiny chewed this over for a minute, along with a piece of spicy sausage from her own plate. "Really?" She mumbled around the mouthful, not at all worried over the prospect.

Xena pulled her plate closer, and took a large forkful of its contents. She chewed and swallowed, with a contented smile before she answered. "Yep, really."

The Amazon ate for a few minutes in silence, then: "Have you ever done that?" She took a sip of her ale.

The dark haired woman raised an eyebrow at her. "No." Then she darted a glance at the still watching duo. "Why would I? Be easier just to use a table leg or something."

"Xena... cut that out," Gabrielle muttered, giving her a little slap in the leg under the table. "Youíre making me lose my appetite."

"Never." Both Xena and Ephiny answered in concert, then glanced at each other and chuckled, earning them both a withering stare from the bard.

Ephiny took another careful sip, and returned her attention to her plate, still smiling. "You sure you donít want.." Her mind searched for a politically correct way of saying this. "Some company on the road? I know the girls would love some fresh air."

"Nope," Xena replied, and Gabrielle shook her head in agreement. "Iíd like to know this place is safe while Iím gone.. I think I can.. " Her lips twitched. "Take care of any problems we might run into." She ate quietly for a minute, then looked up, her brow creasing. "Whatís going on with you guys, anyway? First mom, then you... Gabrielle and I traveled around for two years and no one worried, why worry now? "

Ephiny studied her plate, then glanced up with a sheepish grin. "Good point, I donít know.. maybe itís because we were so used to just seeing you both on the road all the time.. it seemed normal. Now.. " She raised a hand and indicated the room. "This seems normal, and you guys going off into the weather, into an area we know has raiders in it.. I donít know." She shook her head. "Just being silly, I think."

Xena chuckled, and shook her head, then continued eating. Well, she mused quietly to herself. Thatís not a bad thing.. really.. to have folks start looking at me as something other than.. what I was. She noticed Gabrielle watching her out of the corner of her eye, and turned her glance towards her partner. "Hey." Her lips twitched in amusement. "Enjoy dinner?"

That got an impish grin from the bard. "Sure did.. I think this is becoming my favorite, too." She leaned back and folded her arms across her stomach. "Iím stuffed," she sighed. "I got stuff packed up, and ready to go tomorrow." Her eyes glinted softly, and her voice dropped to a low murmur, which she knew Xenaís hearing would pick up. "I canít wait."

That got a sly look from amused blue eyes. "Oh really?" Xena teased, then let her hand rest on Gabrielleís knee and gave it a squeeze. "Sokay, me either."

Ephiny bit off a grin watching them, as she leaned cautiously back and surveyed the room. No one but the newcomers were giving them a second glance, and she realized that Amphipolis, at least, had accepted the warrior and her bard and were comfortable with their presence. As she was, now, she mused, studying Xenaís relaxed form in the chair next to her. Gabrielle had been right.. sheíd said: "Sheís really nice, once you get to know her."

Once you did. The Amazon sighed. Theyíd viewed Xena as a slightly threatening, uneasily tolerated ally for so long.. no one had been willing to want to Ďget to know her.í Except Gabrielle.. that stubborn, sometimes naïve, mostly inexperienced village girl who had somehow decided she wanted to make this dark, sullen, usually angry woman into a friend.

And, against the odds, she had, and that friendship now allowed the rest of them to see the totally human side to someone a few of them had privately considered a heartless killing machine. Ephiny sighed. She was, as Gabrielle had told them, warm, and funny, and a good friend. The Amazon's eyes tracked to the bard, whose attention was focused on her partner. And a good teacher. They say love clouds your vision, but in Gabrielleís case, it seemed to have made hers crystal clear.

An elbow nudged her ribs. "Eph?"

"Huh?" The Amazon started. "Sorry, guess I drifted off there for a minute." She returned her attention to Xena. "What were you saying?"

The warrior studied her. "What Iím saying now is I think itís time for you to go to sleep." One eyebrow quirked. "What I said was would you keep an eye out for Herc and Iolaus? " She frowned. "I was expecting them before now, hope they didnít run into more trouble."

"Oh," Ephiny grinned. "Sure." Then her eyes shifted. "You know, those guys staring is starting to get on my nerves. How do you cope with it?"

Xena sighed. "Practice." She glanced up. "Hey, want me to start choking you or something.. see if we can really give them something to stare at?"

Ephiny snorted. "Please, Xena havenít you given Eponin enough of a fit already?" She looked over at the second table, where the Amazons were gathered, having a good time. "Look, sheís eating. Youíll make her swallow her tongue." She saw the devilish glint in Xenaís blue eyes and groaned inwardly. "Xena.... Donít you dare," she pleaded, appealing to Gabrielle with a frantic look.

"Hey." The bard giggled, tugging her partnerís arm. "Címon, cut it out... youíll start a riot."

With an aggrieved sigh, Xena settled back in her chair, and lifted her ale to her lips, taking a long swallow. She waited for Ephiny to relax in relief, then suddenly surged towards the Amazon, making her jump with a yelp.

"Just kidding." The warrior chuckled, as she settled back against the chair.

Ephiny tapped her fingers on the table, and regarded Gabrielle thoughtfully. "And you have to put up with this?" Gods, sheís like a kid sometimes. "My respect for you just jumped up a cliff, Gabrielle."

The bard laughed gently. "Oh yeah." She spared the mock-insulted Xena an affectionate look. "But I like it."

Ephiny shook her head, and hid a smile. "Whatever."

Leese grabbed Mikaeís arm. "Did you see that? She almost attacked that other woman. Iím telling you, this is very dangerous, Mikae."

Her husband chewed his lip. "Well, this is the safest place until this weatherís over, Leese.. and no one else here seems scared of her."

"Iím worried about our sons," the woman hissed, then her eyes widened. "Look!"

The tall warrior had stood up, and was glaring down at the woman with curly blond hair, her posture one of quiet intimidation. The blond woman crossed her arms and lifted her chin, apparently defying the warrior.

The dark haired woman said something, then advanced towards her, arms spreading to either side.

With a yelp, the blond haired woman held a hand up, then stood, and backed off, moving towards the rear of the inn with a shake of her head.

"I told you," Leese whispered, looking around the expressions of benign amusement on the faces near them. "Sheís got these people all snowed in. Weíve got to get out of here." She watched, shivering, as the warrior now turned her attention to the pretty young bard, and extended an imperious hand towards her. The bard reached up and took it, and was hauled to her feet, then released, and the warrior reached out and tousled her hair roughly. "How demeaning," she muttered, indignant. "And that poor young thing." The bard followed the warrior obediently out the door, and into the cold darkness outside.

"Gods, did you have to threatened Ephiny?" Gabrielle laughed, as she laced her fingers with Xenaís and walked alongside. "The look on her face."

Xena chuckled, and took a breath of the cold air, watching her exhalation mist before her eyes. "She needed rest, Gabrielle.. sheís as stubborn as.. "

"You," the bard supplied cheerfully, leaning into her and stifling a yawn.

"Well, yeah. " Xena admitted with a grin. "Besides, she knows Iíd actually do it.. I picked her up and carried her to bed right after we got back last time." Her brows quirked. "I figured a threat of repeat would get her moving.. .I donít think she liked it too much when I did it the last time."

"Hmm..., " Gabrielle mused, tucking her free hand into her tunic against the biting cold. "Not so sure about that. " She gave into a yawn this time, and blinked sleepily.

Xena stopped walking, and jerked them both to a halt. "Gabrielle, donít start."

Green eyes surveyed her quietly. "Iím not, but I think thereís something there." She resumed her walk, tucking her arm securely in Xenaís. "Which wouldnít surprise me." She gave her partner a sly look. "You are pretty cute."

That got her a both eyebrows raised, blue eyes widened look, with a finger pointed at Xenaís own chest. "Me?" The warrior moved her hand and gently traced the outlines of Gabrielleís face. "Oh no. my bard. YOU, you, are cute." She touched the tip of her partnerís chilled nose. "I.. am not cute."

Gabrielle studied her closely, letting her eyes linger over the sharp planes of her face, and the disheveled dark hair whipping across her eyes. "Hmm. Youíre right. " The bard murmured. "Youíre not cute. Youíre gorgeous," she sighed. "But you do some cute things." Now she tugged hard on Xenaís arm. "And youíre great for warming up poor freezing bards. Címon."

They got back inside the cabin, and were greeted by a sleepy Ares, who yawned, and trotted over, lifting himself up and propping his big paws against Xenaís chest, struggling to reach her face with his tongue. "Ares, cut that out," Xena laughed, grabbing his legs and pushing him back. He thought that was a great opportunity to play, and lunged forward, trying to jump up into her arms. Xena finally had to lift him up and cradle him, and let him clean her face before he was happy. "There," she sighed, letting him down. "Happy now?"

"Roo," the wolf answered, galloping over to where Gabrielle had collapsed on the bed, and attacking this much easier target.

"Augh." The bard yelped, trying to avoid a washing. Then she felt another, heavier body impact the bed, and she giggled. "That better not be Ares trying to nibble my ear." A deep chuckle answered her. "Gods, I canít move," she sighed. "Iím stuffed.. She watched Xena stretch out lazily next to her, and grinned. "Well, maybe I can," a low mutter, as she grabbed onto Xenaís shirt, and pulled herself over on her side, snuggling up to her partnerís warm body with a contented sigh. "Mmm, that feels really good."

"Yeah?" Xena asked, rubbing her back lightly in circles, watching the bardís eyes close and feeling her body relax. "Hey.. " She started to protest, then fell silent as Gabrielleís hands slipped softly under the fabric of her tunic, and began a gentle stroking. "Mmmm...... " She sighed, feeling a wave of sleepiness cascade over her. It was scary, sometimes, just how readily her body abandoned itself to Gabrielleís touch, and she realized it was a sign of her total trust in the bard, a trust sheíd never allowed herself with any other person. It felt.. nice.

She slid a hand down her partnerís side, and unbuckled the snug belt on her tunic, feeling the bard snuggle closer and give a relieved sigh. Then she pulled the soft blankets up around them, and settled her other arm around Gabrielle, letting her fingers gently drift over the bardís body under her now loosened clothing.

A glance down showed her a grin tugging at Gabrielleís lips, and she replied in kind, letting the warmth of their connection invade her completely, and closing her eyes in sleep.


The next morning dawned clear, but cold, and they slipped out of town before most of the village was, as Gabrielle put it, awake and fussing. She hefted her staff happily, as she felt the hard packed dirt of the village road give way to the softer earth of the quiet, tree-lined path Xena had chosen. "Nice morning." She took a deep breath of the cold, frost tinged air, grinning when she felt not a twinge of pain from her ribs. "Good day for walking."

Xena strode along beside her, with a faint smile on her face, and looked around. "Yeah, it is," she agreed, as the sunís first rays began to filter through the branches, sending rosy hued slivers across Gabrielleís face. "You let me know if you get tired, right?"

The bard arched a brow at her. "Maybe," she sniffed, then broke down and grinned. "Címon, Xena, you always know before I can tell you."

The warrior snorted lightly. "Thatís not the point." She glanced up and spotted something, then grinned and took two long steps, jumping off after the second and snagging a cluster of nuts over her head, removing them from their branch and landing lightly. She stripped the hard nuts off the branch, and settled a few of them in her palm, closing her hand and flexing the muscles of her forearm.

Gabrielle heard the muted crunch, then watched, amused, as her partner opened her hand and presented the contents.

"Want some?" Xena asked casually, with a faint, twitching grin.

The bard eyed the nuts, then delicately picked out a few of the nutmeats, and popped them in her mouth. "Showoff," she accused, chewing and swallowing. "Mmm. " She snagged another few. "On the other hand, we gotta make sure those fingers of yours stay strong, right?"

Breakfasts were usually like this, when they were out on the road. A cup of hot tea to start.. or maybe a piece of smoked meat, then theyíd break camp and start moving, depending on Xenaís foraging ability to start the day with. Sometimes it was nuts, like now. Sometimes, and especially in summer, it was ripe berries, or occasionally mushrooms. Nothing like at the inn, where the hard working villagers started their morning with a substantial meal, and Gabrielle had sometimes found that too much. Sheíd discovered she really preferred their trail mix, as she called it, and was now enjoying the familiar tastes.

They traveled downslope, towards the river, keeping in the quiet forest belt that went alongside the water. They could smell the river long before they saw it, the wind was coming that way, and the moisture on the draft was distinctive. Eventually, the path rounded itís way alongside, and by now the sun was full up, and sending shafts of bright sunlight down through the leaves, dappling them both in a cascade of warmth and coldness, as they walked in and out of the shadows. Ares trotted in and out of the trees, examining everything with a still puppyish eagerness, his almost full-grown size bowing to youth with a fumbling grace. He disappeared into the brush, then came rushing back, whining and whisking his tail rapidly.

"Whatís up, boy?" Xena asked, moving towards him. The wolf turned and ran back, and she followed him, with Gabrielle right behind, until they came to a small clearing, and a trap.

With a rabbit in it, a heavy pelted brown animal, whose leg was trapped firmly, and who, by the leaf disarray around the device, had been there for some little time.

"Hmm," Xena drew her blade and advanced. "Not one of ours, but it hasnít been checked in a while. " She was about to dispatch the rabbit when she felt a quiet hand on her shoulder and looked up. "Yeah?"

Gabrielleís mist green eyes were fastened on the underbrush, and now, as Xena focused on what the bard was looking at, she saw three tiny faces peering out at her.

Baby bunnies, with tiny twitching noses, and floppy ears.

"Oooo," Gabrielle cooed, her eyes gazing at Xena in pathetic appeal. "Theyíre so cute..."

Xena sighed, and laughed gently, gazing down at the mother rabbit with a wry look. "I think you just got lucky, my friend." She cut the rabbit loose from the snare, and examined its leg, wincing at the harsh damage. Pulling her kit from her pack, she set the bag down, as Gabrielle crept quietly across the clearing, making small, soothing noises at the baby bunnies. "Be careful," she warned the bard. "Rabbits are pretty strong."

Gabrielle gave her a look, then settled down next to the three kits, gently pushing aside the wiry foliage and exposing their small bodies. "Oh, Xena.. theyíre shivering.. they must be freezing." She put out a hesitant finger, and touched the first one, starting when it started, then touching it again, this time with all her fingertips and more confidence.

"More likely theyíre being scared to death by a huge, funny smelling giant. " Xena answered wryly, carefully cleaning the rabbitís leg, and wrapping a linen bandage around it. "Whoís poking them."

The bard looked up, indignant. "Iím not poking, Iím petting. " Her eyes glinted. "I do know the difference." She carefully picked up one of the baby rabbits, and cuddled it against her chest, stroking its soft fur and making tiny clucking noises at it. The bunny twitched its nose at her, and sneezed, then began to sniff her tunic curiously.

Xena rolled her eyes, and sighed. "You stay here, Ares, no sense in scaring the poor little thing worse." She finished her ministrations on the mother rabbit, and carefully let the animal free, watching her gather herself up, and test her mobility before hopping slowly, and somewhat unevenly towards Gabrielle.

The warrior sat back on her heels, and gazed across the clearing, as the sun slanted through the branches and caught the bard in a golden haze, burnishing the fiery highlights in her hair, and bringing out the vividness of her eyes when she glanced up. She murmured a few more things to the bunny, then set him down carefully next to his mother, who was sniffing her fabric covered thigh suspiciously. The bunny took exception to being returned to the cold ground, however, and immediately hopped back over, and fumbled its way back into her lap.

Gabrielle laughed softly, and stroked his ears, while the mother rabbit nuzzled the other two babies anxiously.

It was a beautiful picture. Xena thought, as she sat there in the shadows watching. And had never felt the gulf between who she was, and who Gabrielle was so vividly. It was a cold pain, that grabbed her chest, and brought her heart into her throat, making the shade she was sitting in seem glacial in itís chill.

"Hey, címere," the bard chuckled. "Come meet my new friend." The bunny nibbled at her tunic hem.

Xena looked down, at the leaf littered floor. "You.. donít want me over there, Gabrielle. Iíll just scare him."

"Donít be goofy. Animals love you," the bard responded, looking up, and studying her partnerís tense form. "Xena?" Her voice dropped a note. "Xena? Come over here, please?" She watched as the warrior slowly stood, and walked over, crossing from shadow to sunlight in a single, dappled motion and crouching down next to her. "Hey, " she asked softly, raising a hand to brush Xenaís cheek. "Whatís wrong?" She was fine a minute ago.. what in Hades.... "Hey, talk to me, OK?"

Xena took a breath, and sat down next to the bard, leaning back against the tree and lacing her fingers together. "Sorry, I just.. you made quite a picture sitting there with your rabbit."

"And.. this made you upset?" Gabrielle asked, her brow creasing in confusion.

"No, " Xena sighed. "It just reminded me, again, of just how gentle, and sweet, and kind you really are." Of just how opposite we are. "I would have killed that rabbit."

"Oh," Gabrielle could see the pain in her eyes, could feel it through their connection. "But.. you wouldnít have.. if youíd seen the babies."

"Gabrielle," Xenaís voice was tired. "I would never have thought to look."

"Well, "The bard took a breath. "I mean, I wouldnít have either. .Xena.. I just happened to be facing in the right direction and got lucky." She lifted her hands, with the bunny in them, and leaned over, putting the small creature between Xenaís interlaced fingers.

The baby rabbit sniffed itís new nest cautiously, tickling Xenaís fingers with itís whiskers, and pricking her hands with itís tiny claws, before it decided it liked where it was, and settled down, twitching itís nose, and closing itís tiny brown eyes contentedly.

"Funny," Gabrielle breathed, her face smiling. "Thatís exactly how I feel."

The sunlight bathed both of them, and sparkled off the single tear that made itís slow, silent way down Xenaís face. Gabrielle leaned over and intercepted it with a kiss, then slid both arms around the warrior and felt the aching tension slowly begin to dissolve. She breathed in the warm scent of wool and leather, and armor, mixed with the subtle herbal smell from the dark hair which flowed over and around her. "I love you," she murmured, right into Xenaís ear.

Felt the her breathing catch and restart. "I love you too," came the low answer, then Gabrielle felt the gentle pressure as her partner leaned her head against the bardís. They sat quietly for a little while, watching the kit sleep, as the mother gathered her strength and started marshalling her other two babies. Xena finally lifted her hand, and returned the baby to its mother, who snuffled it anxiously, then herded the small family away.

Gabrielle wrapped her hands around her partnerís arm and leaned against her shoulder. "You all right?" She asked quietly, searching the still face above her.

Xena thought about that for a minute, then she turned her head and kissed the bardís forehead. "Yeah, Iím fine. Sorry, I didnít mean to.. "

"Shh," Gabrielle freed a hand and pressed her fingers to Xenaís lips. "Itís all right." She snuggled closer. "We all have our moments of doubt."

That got a smile back. " Keep reminding me, all right?"

"Deal," the bard confirmed. Then she poked Xena very gently in the ribs. "Hey, got any more of those nuts?"


Nightfall found them in a protected dell, surrounded by tall, silent trees, and cut through by the gentle whistle of the wind as it would it's cold way down river. Xena had collected firewood, and made a good size fire, then bravely stripped off her boots and leggings, and, despite Gabrielle's heated protests, captured the bard two very fair size salmon, which she came wading out of the river with, one in each hand.

A raised, dark eyebrow, and the slightest tilt of her head, that had, forever, meant truce and Gabrielle felt her anger melt away, and an irrepressible grin forming on her lips. "You're lucky it was salmon," she informed her partner. "I wouldn't be so forgiving for perch, or trout." But it had felt good to be preparing the lovely pink fish the way she liked it and to smell it roasting over the fragrant oak Xena had collected.

It had felt even better to be settling down shoulder to shoulder with the warrior, there alone in the forest, with only the chuckling water, and the sighing wind for company, to eat the fresh caught fish.

To feel the heat of the fire on her legs, mixed with the cold breeze from the water, and hear no clatter of people, no footsteps, only the soft rustlings of the night creatures, and the solitary hoots of a hunting owl.

To be able to slide her arms around Xena, and lay her head on the warrior's shoulder, and soak in the sweetness of their love for each other, with no witnesses except for the crickets, and what looked to Xena's excellent night vision to be a bat.

They lay on their bedrolls that night, staring up at a perfect, starry sky, in which Gabrielle could find any shape her mind could imagine. "No, look, really, Xena.. it's a rabbit." She pointed.

"A rabbit?" The warrior repeated, her voice rising. "Gabrielle, I think you're being influenced by your bunny pal."

"No. it's a rabbit," the bard insisted. "Look, there are the ears. . see? And that's the little fluffy tail."

"Gabrielle, that does not look like a rabbit," Xena argued.

"What does it look like then?" Her partner challenged her. "C'mon, you've got an imagination, I know you do.. so ..??"

Xena sighed, and gazed upward. "It looks like.... " She tilted her head a little. "A goat."

"A WHAT???" The bard burst out. "Xena... " She rolled over and peered into the warrior's pale blue eyes. "Ok, just checking...they still seem to be working." Then found herself not wanting to stop looking into them and had to force herself to roll back over, and put her head back down on Xena's shoulder. "A goat???"

"Sure," the warrior replied, imperturbably "Look, there's the head.. see the beard? Then the body.. and there's the tail."

Gabrielle studied the pattern, then tilted her head much as Xena had, and studied it some more. "Sorry," she finally laughed. "Now I think it looks like a pig."

"A pig," Xena chuckled, looking up reflectively. "Ok, I can settle on a pig."

The bard yawned, and snuggled closer, turning and sliding an arm across Xena's stomach, and giving her a squeeze. "A pig it is," she sighed. "Gods, this is nice."

Xena's dark eyebrow quirked up. "Frosty cold, sleeping on the hard ground, in a ring of trees.. and you think this is nice?"

Gabrielle nodded. "Yes, I do." She took a deep breath of the oak-tinged air and smiled.

The warrior grinned. "Good. So do I."

One green eye opened and peered at her. "Thanks for catching the salmon.. they were great."

"I'm forgiven then?" Xena teased.

"Uh huh," the bard mumbled as she dropped into sleep.

Xena smiled quietly to herself, her eyes searching the stars as she gently stroked the bard's soft hair. "A rabbit?" She whispered to Ares, who was curled up against her right side.

"Arggrorooo," the wolf mumbled sleepily, gnawing on her fingers a little. She scratched him behind the ears absently. "Maybe," she decided, then swept her gaze around the campsite, and checked her sword and chakram, close by her hand before she allowed herself to join the sleeping bard.

Remembering the first time they'd played that game... in an open field far south here. It had been a light day, mostly just travelling, with no encounters, and no fights, and they'd already finished their chores by sunset.

It had been hot, though, and Gabrielle had suggested a dip in the nearby lake, which they'd done, going on a lot longer than they'd at first thought, with Xena being coaxed into an impromptu fishing lesson. And then Xena had casually commented that the bard's hard work seemed to be paying off.

And Gabrielle had asked her what she meant.

So she'd walked to a shallower part of the lake, tugging the bard along, until they were both half out of the water, and she'd turned Gabrielle towards the fading sunset and quietly pointed out the newly defined muscles shifting under the bard's tanned skin, biting off a grin at the puzzled, then comprehending look on the girl's face.

"I didn't even notice," Gabrielle had murmured, examining her arm thoughtfully. Then she'd looked up at Xena shyly. "Nothing like your league, though," her green eyes bashfully skittering over Xena's powerful form.

Xena had chuckled a little. "I've had a ten year head start," She'd clapped a friendly hand on the bard's shoulder. "Besides, you don't really wanna look like a broken down ex warlord, right?"

Given the invitation, Gabrielle had indulged herself in a long look, then her eyes had jumped up to meet Xena's, with her thoughts fairly evident to the surprised warrior. "Oh, I don't know, Xena... I kinda like.. the.. the way.. um.. I mean.. " The bard had paused, and blushed. "You look just fine to me."

That had, against all logic or reason, put Xena in a good mood, which had lasted through the night. She'd even loosened up to the point of telling a few jokes to the bard, whose jaw had dropped in amazement, and who had gone scrambling for her scrolls to write the ditties down.

Finally they were lying down on their respective sides of the campfire, both looking up at the clear, well-defined stars overhead.

"Hey, Xena?" Gabrielle had decided to push her luck.

"Yeah?" The warrior had replied, in a relaxed tone.

"Do you see that pattern of stars, just to the right of the North Star?" The bard had asked.

"Yeah," Xena had looked at it idly, then glanced over, seeing the bard's profile through the licking flames. "What about it?"

"What do you think it looks like?" Gabrielle inquired.

Xena had rolled half onto her side, and peered at the bard. "What do you mean, what do I think it looks like? It looks like a bunch of stars, Gabrielle." But her smile had taken the sting out of the words, and she knew it.

"No, no, I mean.. " Gabrielle had pointed. "It makes a pattern, right? So, what does it look like to you?"

The warrior had rolled back over, and obediently gazed up at the cluster of lights, staring thoughtfully at it. "I don't know, Gabrielle. What do YOU think it looks like?"

"A sheep," the bard had immediately answered.

"Huh?" Xena had rolled onto her side, then stood up, and walked over to where the bard was lying, crouching down and resting her arms on her knees. "A sheep?"

"Yeah, look." The bard had sat up, and pointed. "There's the head, and the feet, and that's the tail, and look.. those little stars could be a lamb following it."

"A sheep," Xena had laughed softly. "Gabrielle, you do have some kind of imagination." Then the warrior had looked up. "What about that one, there?"

Gabrielle had leaned over, to follow the line of Xena's arm, and ended up with her head resting against the warrior's shoulder. "Oh, that's the horse," she said, hastily drawing back after she realized what she was doing.

Xena had affected not to notice at all. "A horse? No way.. " She sat down, and wrapped her arms around her knees. "Looks more like a chariot to me."

A swift glance to her left had caught the delighted smile on Gabrielle's face before the bard glanced down and took a breath.

It's just a kid's game. She'd told herself. Why am I bothering with this? I should just go back and go to sleep. But the vision of that smile kept flashing in her mind's eye, and she suddenly realized how lonely it must be for the young girl, leaving all her friends, her family behind.. to travel around with a mostly uncommunicative, mostly rude, always grumpy ex warlord. So, it couldnít hurt me to play along for a few minutes right? Give the kid a break? "What about that one?"

It had gone on longer than she'd intended.. and incredibly, she'd been able to lose herself in the game for a while, realizing that there was probably not one pattern they'd both agree on. That was all right, it made for interesting conversation, and it gave her a few insights into her young companion.

Finally Gabrielle had been barely able to keep her eyes open, and had to laughingly give up the star chase, looking up at Xena with warm, happy eyes. "Thanks." She'd said, giving the warrior a quiet smile. "That was fun."

Xena had patted her cheek gently, before getting up to go back to her bedroll. "Anytime, Gabrielle."

"Really?" The bard had asked, hesitantly.

The warrior had nodded. "Sure." And had shrugged lightly. "I like.. word games and stuff like that.. makes you use your mind."

Another warm smile "Wow, I know a bunch of those." She'd paused, then glanced up at Xena. "Hey, today was a pretty good day, huh?"

Xena had considered this statement. "Yeah, you know, it was." She'd smiled at the girl. "Did you have a good time?" Gods, she'd thought, am I turning into a tour guide at the Parthenon now?

Gabrielle had slowly nodded. "Yeah, I did." Her eyes had focused on something outside the campsite, and her face had gone pensive.

Oh Tartarus, . I should take her home.. what in Hades am I doing keeping this kid out here? "Gabrielle.. is.. are you all right?" And I'm just so good at this too, right?

"Yeah, yeah, I'm fine. Sorry." The bard had shook her head a little. "I was just, I mean.. a poem..umm.." She gave Xena a sheepish look. "Sorry." A hand on her arm, warming the skin. "Thanks."

Xena studied her for a minute, then just went with her instincts, which were usually pretty damn good. She reached out and gathered the bard in, pulling her close in an unexpected hug. It was the first time she'd ever done that.. though she'd tolerated the bard's hugs on occasion. And she really had no idea why she did it, except that a little voice inside her was telling her the girl needed her to.

"W.. wh.. what was that for?" Gabrielle asked, after the brief contact.

"No reason," Xena had answered casually. "Night." Then she'd gotten up, and gone to her side of the fire, and laid down, folding her hands across her stomach, and looking up at the suddenly friendly stars.

Knowing if she turned her head, she'd meet mist green eyes watching her through the flames.

Xena smiled now, remembering, feeling the warmth of Gabrielle's breathing against her neck. Then her brow creased, as she calculated time. Yes, it had been near harvest... fall, but still warm.. how many days from... oh gods.

"Oh Gabrielle," she whispered, closing her eyes.

Felt a stirring against her, then looked down to see sleepy green eyes peering up at her. "Hey," the bard said softly. "Did you call me?" She blinked to focus. "Something wrong?"

Xena stroked her hair gently. "No, no, it's ok." She paused. "I was just thinking about the first time we played the star game."

The bard smiled. "I remember that." A warm glow suffused her face. She looked up as a hand touched her chin.

"That was your birthday, wasn't it?" The warrior asked softly.

A bigger smile. "Yeah.." She squeezed Xena. "And.. it.. it was the best one I'd ever had till then."

"I wish I'd known," the warrior sighed.

Gabrielle shook her head. "No.. you... Xena, you gave me more that day.. I can't tell you how much. And it was all the more special because you didn't know. There wasn't any reason for you to.. do.. the stuff you did." She paused, and sighed happily. "You just did it."

The warrior sighed, and hugged her. "I still wish I'd known."

Gabrielle reached and tousled her hair. "Go to sleep." She yawned. "I didn't need any presents." She resettled her arm, and snuggled back into Xena's shoulder

No. Xena mused, as she let her eyes close again. You didnít. But you got one, didn't you, my bard? Funny, I'd never had a.. best.. friend before.


The next day dawned very clear, but Xena's weather sense told her it wouldn't stay that way. "Let's get as far as we can, then find shelter," she advised the bard, who was kneeling by her bag, pulling a woolen overtunic out of it.

Gabrielle turned and nodded. "Sounds good." She stood and stretched, then turned and smiled. "Hey, I'm not sore at all."

The warrior crossed over to her, and picked up her own pack, with a grin. "Were you expecting to be?"

"Weeell.... " Gabrielle let out a rueful chuckle. "I haven't exactly been very active lately."

Xena slid her arms around the bard from behind, and kissed the top of her head. "Takes more than two weeks to ruin that much hard work, love."

"Yeah, I know," the bard laughed. "But I was still kind of expecting to be stiff.. glad I'm not." She turned around and leaned against Xena's warm body. "But then.. unlike the Amazons, my teacher knows how to properly condition her student." An impish pause. "Right?"

One dark eyebrow curved up in amusement. "Right," she confirmed cheerfully. "How's the ribs?"

Gabrielle thought about that, and took several deep breaths. "Seems fine.. they didn't bother me at all yesterday."

"Good," Xena smiled. "Let's get moving then." She fastened the straps on her pack, and shifted the weight until it was comfortable, then started up the small slope and out of the dell they'd been sheltered in, and back onto the path.

As soon as they were within sight of the river, Xena paused, and examined the rapidly running water with a faint sense of unease. The wind brought the scent of water to her, lots of it, but it also brought down a bare whisper of drowned things, animals, and vegetation. The level of the river was very high, and even now, the edges of the banks were gently crumbling, and the rich, dark soil was sending dark streaks down stream.

She knelt by the surface, and trailed her fingers in it, pensively staring. Gabrielle crouched by her side, leaning on her staff and watching in silence.

"River's really high," Xena finally said, glancing at the bard, who nodded. "If we get much more rain, it's likely to go over it's banks." Her eyes lifted up. "And if I'm not mistaken, we're gonna get more rain."

Gabrielle chewed her lip. "Is Amphipolis in danger?"

Xena shook her head. "No." She glanced upstream. "We're high enough up off the floodplain to be safe.. she took a quick glance at Gabrielle and let her arm rest on the bard's knee. "So.'s Potadeia, by the way."

Got a warm smile in return. "Thanks." Gabrielle dropped a hand off her staff and wound her fingers around Xena's. "I'm glad you know this stuff," she paused. "So, we have to be careful, right? Maybe move up to a different path?"

The warrior nodded, giving her hand a squeeze. "Yep." She stood, and pulled Gabrielle up with her. "C'mon, there's a branch up further.. we can take this to that fork, then head upland a little. She gestured up towards the path. "Some caves.. not big ones, but enough for us to shelter in when the rain comes."

"Ooo.," Gabrielle chuckled. "Being rained in with you.. what a hardship."

Xena gave her a look. "Pity we donít' have one of Ardwyn's scrolls with us," she teased gently.

The bard smirked. "Who says I don't?" She patted her bag, and chuckled.


Cyrene looked up as the door to the kitchen opened and raised an eyebrow. "Hello," she said, seeing Ephiny's blond head poke in.

"Hi." The Amazon gave her a brief grin. "Um... can I come in?"

"Sure." Cyrene stopped what she was doing, and wiped her hands. "What can I do for you?" She gestured towards the fire. "I have some soup here."

Ephiny waved her hands, and entered the room, shutting the door behind her. "No no no.." She walked over, folding her arms over her chest. "Um... actually, is there anything I can do in here to help?"

The innkeepers eyebrows quirked. "Um, well, shouldn't you be resting?" She studied the Amazon, who still looked pale and drawn.

The blond woman sighed. "Probably. But not doing anything is driving me crazy, and they won't let me go outside." She sauntered forward. "Believe me, I know how to peel and chop things.. I can even boil water in a pinch."

Cyrene smothered a grin. "Oh, I see." She glanced towards the door. "Well, sure.. " She motioned to the worktable, which had three chairs around it. "Siddown, I was just about to chop up the vegetables for the stew."

Ephiny walked over and washed her hands, then took a seat at the table, selecting a thin knife from the small pile in the center of it and attacking a potato with some competence. "I do want to thank you for hosting us all here," she commented, glancing up at Cyrene over the pile of vegetables. "The Amazon Nation will make good on all the hospitality when we leave."

The innkeeper gave her a look. "It's been a pleasure." She paused, and the two women exchanged knowing looks. "Mostly." She sliced a carrot skillfully and dropped it into the pot of water. "I'm not sure the goat has recovered."

Ephiny laughed in embarrassment. "Sorry about that, they're not usually that obnoxious."

Cyrene chuckled. "Don't worry about it, they're amateurs compared to my kids."

The Amazon's eyebrows creased for a long minute before she realized just who Cyrene was talking about. Her kids. That required a brain adjustment, thinking of Xena as a kid of any kind. Then she remembered the warrior's antics at the table, and winced. "Were they terrors?"

The dark haired woman pursed her lips. "You.. could say that." Her eyes found Ephiny's "Don't believe it, do you?"

"Oh, well... " Ephiny laughed. "Before this whole thing happened, I'd have to say no... but since I've been around Xena for a couple of weeks now... " She grinned. "I've gotten to see another side of her."

Cyrene smirked. "She's a brat." She diced a potato in a few quick strokes and dumped it in the pot. "But I think Gabrielle is responsible for bringing that side of her out again."

The Amazon nodded. "I think so too." She paused, and looked at her hands. "I've.. known them for quite some time now, it's been good to see things turn out right."

A small silence fell, until Cyrene finally glanced up. "You were there... during that whole thing when she died, weren't you?" There are questions.. I can't ask them.. maybe this woman knows.

Ephiny sighed. "Yes." She neatly removed an eye from the potato she was peeling with a flick of her knife. "We.. heard.. about what happened, and decided to try and intercept Gabrielle on her way.. well, we knew she was headed here." She paused. "For two reasons, at least on my part. For one.. because I thought Gabrielle could use some support.. I knew they were very close.. and Gabrielle is very young."

"Mm," Cyrene murmured in an encouraging tone.

"Second, because.. I was hoping that I, that we could convince her to stay with us, both to give her a.. well, a family, and to change a situation that I could see was going to do us all harm," the Amazon went on slowly. "I didn't... I was glad when she agreed.. to stay with us. I thought it would be the best thing for her.. and for us. At least she'd be with people who knew her.. and who knew Xena, and who could give her.. I don't know.. comfort, I guess."

"Was she very upset?" Cyrene asked gently, still working on the vegetables.

Ephiny's eyes misted over, and she sighed softly. "She was devastated." Her pale eyes glanced up at Cyrene's. "She had this.. lost.. aching look in her eyes that just made me hurt for her.. " The Amazon fiddled with the carrot in her hand. "She was ok during the day, you know Gabrielle, she hid it pretty well, and carried on.. we were a good distraction for her, I guess." She paused. "But at night... Every night," she cried herself to sleep, I could hear her, and she would hug that little wooden sheep she has."

Ephiny slowly shook her head. "And she had these nightmares... gods, she'd wake up from them shaking, not screaming, just whispering 'No..' over and over again." She sighed. "She wouldn't say what they were about.. but I knew. " She took a breath. "When Autolycus first showed up, she just refused to let herself believe what he was saying.. because it just hurt too much, I think.. and then, when he took the coffin.."

"Did you believe he was.. speaking.. for my daughter?' Cyrene asked curiously.

Ephiny glanced off into the distance. "I didn't know what to believe. But when he rescued that coffin, whatever he did made Gabrielle believe - I saw it in her face, it was like this .. light came back into her eyes, and I remember hoping to Artemis that what he'd said was true, because I think if she'd found out it was some kind of hoax.. it would have.." She stopped and blinked. "It wouldn't have been good for her."

"Didn't you think that was very unusual, what he said Xena was doing?" The innkeeper inquired, in a quiet tone.

Ephiny looked up, and gave her a wryly amused look. "When it comes to Xena, nothing surprises me anymore. I expect the unusual." She shrugged. "That she had the strength of will to try it.. no, that really didn't seem unusual. I was kind of shocked that she could take over other bodies.. with the precision that she did, but again, this is Xena we're talking about." She shrugged. "And the plan worked, Gabrielle was able to get enough ambrosia and give it to her, and.. she came back."

"Amazing," Cyrene murmured. "I donít really understand it. Gabrielle told me when she died, it was almost like she was giving up. What made her change her mind?"

The Amazon gazed at the table, then looked up with a reluctant smile. "If I told you what I thought, you'd think I was a hopeless softhearted fool. " She peeled the potato and chopped it neatly, then played with the knife a bit. "But I think she did it for Gabrielle."

"Really?" The innkeeper asked.

Ephiny nodded. "Yeah, that night, after we all settled down, and were getting some rest finally, I did one last check of the campsite.. I wandered by where they were and saw Xena was still awake, so I just stopped by to see if things were ok." She smiled. "Seemed like it. Gabrielle was sound sleep all kind of wrapped up in Xena's arms and her face was so peaceful. Anyway, I knelt down and told her what had been going on at night with the kid." Ephiny sighed. "She said she'd known and that she couldn't let that keep going on." A shrug. "She never did give any other reason for doing it, not that it's something anyone questioned her too much on." She'd never mentioned that to anyone else. Amazons were a practical lot, for the most part, and the thought of someone who would defy death itself in the name of love.. it was so fairy tale like. So.. frivolous. She smiled quietly to herself. But isn't it what we all want to believe could happen to us?

"No, I suppose not," Cyrene sighed. "We heard.. the rumors. And then Gabrielle told me the whole story when they came by here after that whole thing with you all." She paused. "Thanks for filling in some of the details, I don't like asking either of them much about it." She studied Ephiny's pensive face. So, this was an Amazon. She mused. Didn't seem too different than anyone else. "How are you feeling?"

Ephiny shrugged, glad of the change of subject. "I'm all right... I still feel really washed out, but it's getting better. "

They both looked up at a faint knock on the door. "Come in," Cyrene called, her brow creasing. "Who knocks in this place?" She muttered in an aside to Ephiny, who smothered a grin.

The door swung open, and revealed a tall, impossibly broad shouldered man with tawny hair and pale eyes. His gaze lit on Ephiny, and a spark of recognition flared.

"Hercules," Ephiny greeted him with a smile. "Xena said to keep an eye out for you." She motioned him in. "Cyrene, this is Hercules. " Her eyes went to the tall man's face. "Hercules, this is Cyrene, Xena's mother."

The pale eyes widened, and he stepped forward. "Um, this is a pleasure." He smiled at Cyrene, who stood and took his offered forearm. "Hello, Ephiny, I see you're feeling better."

The Amazon clasped his arm. "Thanks, and I'm glad things worked out ok for you." Not that she had any details.. Xena had given a very brief synopsis, basically, been there, did that, it worked, end of story. And Gabrielle had refused to fill in any details - politely saying that it wasn't a story she wanted to relate.

"Uh, thanks," Hercules nodded at her. An awkward silence fell. Cyrene decided to take charge.

"Xena told me you and your friend would be stopping by," the innkeeper assured him, walking around the table and laying a hand on his muscular arm. "She said to give you guys a room, feed you, and donít ask any questions." Her eyes twinkled. "She and Gabrielle had to take a quick run to Potadeia, they'll be back in a few days."

"Ah," Hercules looked relieved. "That's great... " Not ask any questions, that sounds like her all right. "Was there trouble in Potadeia?"

Ephiny sliced the last vegetable and stood, sliding the pieces into the water. "No, not really, there's been a lot of brigand activity around here, the weather and all.. Gabrielle was a little concerned about her family." She paused. "They live there, so they decided to check things out.. and give them an escort back here for the ceremony."

Now Hercules looked a lot more comfortable. "Oh yeah, Iolaus was telling me about some of the gangs he had to ride through on his way here." He crossed his arms on his chest. " We noticed the river was rising, too."

Cyrene nodded. "Yes - the scouts reported that this morning, lucky we're on high ground here." She glanced out the glazed window. "Looks like we're going to get more rain.. I'd bet on the river coming out of it's banks." She gestured towards the door. "Let's go sit down and have some lunch, hmm? " She glanced back at Johan, who had just entered the kitchen via the back door, and was shaking the moisture off his cloak. "Johan.. did Xena talk to you about.."

The grizzled ex trader's eyes took in Hercules, and one corner of his mouth twitched up. "A room? Aye, she did." He ambled over and nodded at the demigod. "All ready.. last one, top of the stairs, right hand side."

Ephiny nodded. "I know where that is, c'mon, I'll show you.. "

Hercules followed her out, giving Cyrene a friendly nod. "Thanks."

Cyrene turned and looked at Johan in vague surprise. She opened her mouth to speak, but he forestalled her.

"Her request." He held up a hand, removing responsibility from himself.

"Really?'" Cyrene mumbled. "Hmm... what's she up to?"

Johan shrugged his burly shoulders. "Don't want to know, with that one." He shook his head. "It's a nice enough room."

"Oh, " Cyrene chuckled. "I know that... " Then her thoughts turned speculatively to the Amazon who had just been helping her, and a thought occurred. She chuckled. "That scamp." Shaking her head, she picked up a tray of fresh bread and headed out into the main part of the inn.


Gabrielle settled back on her bedroll with a smile, letting her eyes roam around their snug little cave with something close to pleasure. Outside the opening, she could scarcely see the treeline due to the heavy curtain of rain, and the cold, damp wind brought in the smell of water, and bruised vegetation clearly.

But they had a cheerful fire going, and plenty of firewood stacked against the far wall, and she was snuggled inside her heavy cloak, so that was ok. A rumble of thunder rolled overhead, and she turned to find pale blue eyes gazing at her, in concerted memory. "C'mere," Gabrielle called softly, watching her partner as the warrior crossed the rocky floor, cloak swirling around her, and settled next to the bard on their double bedroll. I still like rainy days. She decided, as she snuggled into Xena's welcoming arms. "This is cozy," she commented, with a grin.

"Mmm.," Xena agreed, leaning back against the sloped wall, watching the rain come down. "Better than being out there, that's for sure." She rummaged in her pack and pulled out a small bundle, unwrapping it and offering it's contents to the bard. "Hungry?"

Gabrielle peeked at the items, and chuckled. "Mom strikes again." She picked up a nutball and munched on it. "I'm glad you took off the armor," she commented, leaning back with a sigh. "You're a lot more comfortable to use as a pillow without it." This with an impish look over her shoulder.

"Oh really?" Xena drawled. "I'll have to keep that in mind." She wound an arm around the bard's waist, and felt Gabrielle's fingers intertwine with her own. "Got that scroll?"

Gabrielle grinned. "Yep." She pulled her case over, and opened it one handed, digging around until her fingers closed on what she was looking for, and she drew it out. "Here we go.. " She fingered the roughly textured surface. "Wonder what this one will be about? " She mused idly, as Xena reached her other hand over and undid the fragile leather strip that held it closed. "That last one, about the two villages at war was really kind of interesting." She unrolled the top part of the scroll, and held it so Xena could see the dimly scribed words.

Xena started chuckling. "I think you'll like this one," she remarked wryly.

Hardly do I know how to set my hand to record this, as if Elevown knew I did so, her rage would sunder the earth from the sky. But I cannot help myself, as never before did I see my friend bested, and this by a simple cow, a beast no more thinking than this rock I balance myself against to write.

A fair had beckoned us, bringing my companion and I into one of the larger of the rough villages that surrounded the area we wandered. I was intrigued, and looked forward to spending a few of the coins I had on one or two luxuries, such as this primitive a place would have. The market was small, but a few booths had things to catch my interest, and Elevown left me at peace and went her way, armed with her fledging speech of these parts, and a few coins of her own.

Ah, my eyes delighted on it - thick, colorful, well woven cloth, that sang of my homeland in it's patterns and weave. From far off, the trader said, not knowing half how true his words were. It was heavier by far than that these villagers were used to, so he was willing to let it go for a small price to me, and I laughed to myself as I stowed it away, thinking of the lovely, warm shirt it would make. Of how the rich blue, and bold red would stand out when matched with Elevown's fair hair, and light skin. And clothes, those were a sober need - not frivolous, so I could give that with the knowledge that she would accept it, and perhaps even return a smile to me.

I wandered through the market, adding to my burden some soap, which smelled of summer herbs, and a packet of spices which, though native to this odd island, almost smelled like home to me. Well pleased was I with my day, until an angry shout raised my hairs, it's familiar ring calling my feet onward to a crowded square.

Taking gentle pushes, I make my way through, and stopped as my eyes drank in the sight before me. Oh Lady... twas a mud pit, churned to rough soup by the fitful steps of beast and man, and in the center was my companion, clutching a wee calf, whose eyes were agoggling, and whose tongue stuck out like a peacocks' tail as he brayed.

Elevown.. Lady, she was covered in the ill smelling muck from her boots to the top of her fair head, only her pale eyes making me recognize her. Facing her off was, I supposed, the calf's mother, a horned, great beast with wild eyes, whose back was higher than I am tall.

My ears took in the story, the farmer who succored the cow challenged all who saw to get the baby away from it's wild mother.. and Elevown, a challenge there never was that she could turn from. Gotten the calf she had, but now the beast had her penned in the corner, and with wagging tongue, and stamping hoof, was making to keep her there.

The cow made to charge, and I saw the desperate look in my friend's eyes, as her will battle with her pride, and as the huge beast lunged, she gathered herself, and tossed the calf, it's leg's splayed, it's tail straight up, into the arms of the farmer, knocking him over.

But the cow made for her anyway, and was upon her before she could stop it, knocking her down, and thrusting it's drooling snout into her chest.

I ran forward with my walking stick, and before the crowd could stop me, beat the animal about the rump, making it cry out and turn on me. But cows, aye, cows are practically brothers of mine, so I yelled back into it's face, and got my fingers tight to it's nostrils, and it knew it's master well.

I had never seen Elevown so angry as I did when I looked to her, those eyes were colder than ice chips off my native coast, and her skin was pale as snow where it wasn't covered with muck. I knew I'd done a horrible thing.. to one of her kind, but.. what was I do have done? To let her be trampled by a beast.. that I couldnít have borne. Better her anger at me.

She stormed off, and I saw her not the rest of that day, though the farmer gave me the price he'd offered, saying she had done the deed, and delivered him the calf, though by air wasn't what he'd expected.

Twas a lonely fire that night, as I huddled against a small log, listening to the world breathing around me. I was looking up at one spot in the tree's shadows, when, as a faiery might, she stepped from the darkness and into the firelight, her clothes and hair damp with water, her eyes dim, and quiet, and thoughtful. Mad, or no, I was glad to see her, and hoped she would loose her anger, and come sit by the fire in silence, as was her way.

Come and sit she did, but down on my very log, where I could feel the cool chill of her skin against mine, and scent the soft river water she'd bathed in. She touched my hand, and turned it over, making my breath still, as her fingers closed on mine, and her eyes stole into my soul.

"Teach me that nose grab?" Her voice was lightly hoarse, but calm, and now I could see the faint twinkle in her eye that warmed me through. I was forgiven, more, I was being thanked, in the cold, and offhand way that was hers. I gave her the farmer's price, but her fingers folded mine back over it, and patted my hand, and later that night, when the owls were courting, I found tucked in my blankets a tiger's eye, cunningly threaded on a silver chain. I smiled my way to the dreamlands that night.

I am Ardwyn, she is Elevown, of the Northlands.

Gabrielle giggled softly as Xena finished reading, her mind turning over the story in delight. She cast a quick, mischievous glance back at her partner. "She was worse than you are."

Xena snorted softly. "I would have punched the cow."

The bard broke into laughter. "Oh gods," she gasped. "You would have." She conjured up the vivid mental picture of an ornery Xena facing off against the hapless cow. "Damn, that was funny. " She paused. "And sweet, at the end." She closed her eyes as she felt Xena's breath softly tickling her ear. "I wonder if they... " She paused. "Nah, she probably didn't write that down."

Xena smiled, and tightened her hold. "Did you ?" She growled low in the bard's hearing. The blush answered her, as she felt the head rise up Gabrielle's neck and across her fair skin. "Then she probably did too." She nibbled the bard's jawline. "Mmm, nice and warm."

Which only made it worse, of course. "Xena..." Gabrielle sighed, then giggled. "Oh, you're probably right." Written it down, oh boy, you bet I did. The bard reflected inwardly, as she carefully packed the scroll away, and half turned, snuggling into Xena's shoulder and letting her hands slide around her body. The firelight snapped steadily, and she let the incessant drumming of the rain lull her mind peacefully. Xena's hands were moving slowly over her body, and she let the sensations start to build, dismissing the outside world for a long, hazy stretch.

A dim roar was lost in the downpour, as rushing torrents of water from the hills joined the already swollen river, and began to move downstream.


Continued in Part 2


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