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Copyright Information: Xena, Gabrielle, Argo and the Amazons (sounds like a singing group, doesn't it?) all belong to MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. I don't own a thing except my own twisted imagination.

General Disclaimers: This is the fourth part of a (gods willing) five part story arc called "Chiaroscuro." The first three were "Tales of Dark and Light," "The Queen and the Soldier," and "Innamorata." Reading those are imperative if you don't want to be totally lost in this one.

Sex/Violence Disclaimers: This story deals with the aftermath of extreme violence and the growing sensual awareness between two women. Some of their actions (or, Hades, all of them if you're from my part of the country) may be construed as sexual. If this is illegal or distasteful in your world, please excuse yourself now. Consider yourself warned.

Thanks: Special thanks to everyone who took the time to drop me a note with encouraging words. As anyone who does this knows, feedback is always invaluable and essential.

All questions, comments and other things are welcome at:  

There is a darkness inside us, and also a light. And sometimes both are wicked; and sometimes, both are love... Pain is not the same as suffering. We can have our sorrows and use them well, not just gyrate desperately to get rid of them. We can reach in and give and take. Reach in, or out, and be taken.
--Jenifer Levin
Part IV: This Fire







Oh gods...

She didn't know how it was possible to endure this and still live.

She would have screamed, but she had no voice.

She tried to gasp for breath.

And the pain became a crushing weight on her lungs, squeezing out what life remained in her.

The pain crawled from deep within, racking her body, curling its tendrils around her head, hammering unmercifully at her eyes. She wanted to claw them out to stop the torture, but she couldn't move.

Now the pain had a voice, You wanted to fight this fire, Princess. So... fight. It cackled in her ear.


"Please..." her own voice was pitiful, cracked, damaged. Pathetic.

Gabrielle jerked her head up at the weak noise coming from the patient on the pallet. She had been dozing lightly in a chair, having finally acquiesced to her body's demands for rest. It had been four days since a group of soldiers had brought Xena's broken body to the castle. Four days of watching the healers do what they could, seeing them shake their heads gravely over the warrior's unconscious form. Four days of despair.

Even now, Xena's face was a bloody pulp, the nose broken, her eyes swollen almost shut. Her neck was laced with black and blue marks where someone's fingers had dug into the flesh. Most of Xena's ribs had been broken on both sides, her whole torso was littered with bruises, her right shoulder dislocated, and her back covered in cuts and gashes. Her wounds had been aggravated by the salt water washing over them, and now the flesh was distended and tender.

All those injuries were treatable. All those horrible cuts and bruises would heal. What had them all worried-- and Gabrielle terrified-- was the blow Xena had taken to the head. The skin had peeled away from the skull, and there was an indentation in the bone. The healers didn't know if the brain was swelling inside or not. And the longer she remained unconscious, the more they were convinced that the warrior would never waken.

When Gabrielle had realized the extent of Xena's injuries, she immediately sent for Erva, the Amazon healer. Not that she didn't trust the healers in Pellos, but Xena had always spoken respectfully of Erva, and Xena didn't praise someone's talents lightly. Besides, she wanted her Amazon sisters close to her in case... No, not in case. Xena will be fine. She has to be.

Now she closed the few inches that had been separating her from her friend. "Xena? Xena? Can you hear me?"

The fingers in the warrior's left hand flexed slightly, as if reaching towards Gabrielle's voice. That sound again. Unmistakable. "Please..."

The bard's smaller hand covered the long fingers that were straining upwards.

A plea. "No more..."

And Gabrielle's heart ached in a way she didn't think possible. Blinking back tears, she tightened her grip on the hand, willing her strength into the body she had never before considered fragile. "Shh... Xena. It's okay. You're safe. You're here with me."

"Gab--" She rasped out. "Safe?"

"Yes, Xena, you're safe."

The eyes fluttered, wanting desperately to open, barely able to because of her wounds. "No--" she managed. "You?" Trying to convey her question.

"Me? Oh, Xena. Of course I'm safe. Why wouldn't I be?"

"Good," she breathed, the pain sucking her back into unconsciousness; but she was cradled this time by the knowledge that her Gabrielle was back. And safe.

The tears fell unchecked from the bard now, and Ephiny, walking into the room and seeing her queen collapsed over Xena's bed, feared the worst. "Gabrielle, what happened? Is she-- Did she--?"

Gabrielle glanced up at her regent, wiping her eyes. "No, Ephiny. She regained consciousness. Only for a bit, but still..."

"That's wonderful."

"She asked me if I was safe, Ephiny." More tears than her eyes could hold poured forth. "All that damage and she asked me if I was safe."

The pain became her world once more. It swam in her blood, thrummed with her heartbeat, gripped her muscles.


It danced on her fractured bones, rendering each breath an exquisite agony for the warrior.


It slid off her ribs and coiled in her back, stroking the flayed nerve-endings in her skin, rendering the soft cotton of the pallet coarser than the roughest rock.


It crept up her spine, wrapping around her neck, pressing on her raw windpipe. The very act of living, of breathing, became its instrument of torture.


 It teased. It cajoled. It promised respite. It promised peace. Surrender, it crooned.

"NO!" She cried in a voice a fraction of its normal strength, startling upright from the pallet.

Gabrielle was at her side in an instant, her fingertips gentling the burning skin. "It's okay. You're okay. You're here." She repeated the nonsense phrases over and over again, terrified by the blank expression in the warrior's eyes.

She could hear Gabrielle's soft voice, felt the tender hands on her inflamed body, smelled the clean scent of her friend's hair. Slowly, so slowly, her pulse resumed its normal beat. And pain ceased being the defining element of her consciousness. "Gab-- Gab-- Gabrielle?" she husked.

The bard's breath caught at hearing the strangled sounds from Xena. "Hey you," she whispered. "Glad you're back with us. You had a couple of people worried around here."

Xena swallowed convulsively, flinching at the pain. "Water?"

"Of course. I should have thought of that--" Gabrielle scrambled for the flask beside her. "Here. Can you lean back a little? It might go easier on your throat."

The patient complied, and together they managed to get enough liquid down her throat to ease some of the burning. "How long?" she asked.

"You were out of it for about five days. Do you remember waking up briefly yesterday? You said about three things and then went under again. But you seemed to rest easier." After you asked me if I was safe. What was happening to you? "I should go get Erva to check you out now that you're awake." But she made no move to leave the warrior's side.

Weak fingers tightened imperceptibly on the bard's hands. "Stay." A crooked grin from swollen facial muscles. "Little longer won't matter." She closed her eyes briefly and assessed her body with a healer's understanding. A slight nod, and her eyes reopened. "Through the worst of it."

"I'll tell Erva you said that." The longer Xena stayed awake, the more Gabrielle began to relax.

"Erva?" The Amazon's name finally registered. "Where? I thought we were at Pellos?" Confusion and panic descended on the warrior.

Gabrielle noticed the frantic look on Xena's face but didn't understand its cause. "We are. We are." She soothed. "I took one look at you and sent word to the Amazons. Erva, Ephiny, and a small traveling party just arrived." She didn't add that the nation was on full alert pending details of the attack on Xena. Nobody was sure what had happened to the Warrior Princess, but if anyone in Pellos was responsible, Merron would regret it.

"Must look pretty bad then." Another crooked grin. It hurt like Hades, but it felt good too.

"You do look a sight, Xena." The bard managed a smile. "Why don't we lay you back down?"

She gestured behind her. "Back hurts."

"Oh-- What can I do?"

"Saddlebags have some salve. Help with the pain. If you don't mind--" she mimed rubbing it on her back.

"That I can do. Hang on, the bags are right here."

Xena realized they were in the Queen's chambers, and the memory of the last time she was here came flooding back. The bed, the roses, Gabrielle. Her flight from what was happening between them. In some ways the pain was easier to bear.

"Xena? Is it this one that smells so strong?"

A nod.

"Okay, scootch forward a little." Settling herself behind the warrior, her legs outstretched on either side, Gabrielle began peeling the bandages off. Grimacing as each new injury was revealed, she tried to be gentle with the wounded body before her. Only a few sharp intakes of breath gave away the warrior's pain. "I'm sorry, Xena. I'm being as careful as I can."

"S'Okay." She was winning her battle with the pain, but it was sapping what little energy she had left. Finally all the bandages were removed, and the bard began cleansing the wounds with a tenderness beyond any Xena had ever known. The cool water sluiced over her burning skin, and the soothing balm was caressed onto her back with infinite care. The salve had a narcotic effect, numbing the pain in the wounds and allowing Xena to relax the stressed muscles in her back.

"Do you think you can lay down now?" Gabrielle asked after replacing the bandages.

Another nod.

"Okay, let me move and then we'll get you settled." She slid from her position behind her friend and eased her back onto the pallet.

Xena reluctantly allowed herself to be helped, half-wishing she could have asked Gabrielle to hold her. She knew unequivocally that the bard would have, but there was something deep inside the warrior that prevented her from asking for the kindness.

The Warrior Princess woke to a cluster of Amazons surrounding her bed. She blinked her eyes open and closed a couple of times, pleased that the swelling was going down. Her nose felt like it had been smashed in by a centaur, but at least she could breathe. "Who canceled the party?" she mumbled, taking in the long faces of Ephiny, Erva and Eponin staring back at her. Gabrielle remained by her side.

"Hey, Warrior," the Amazon Regent smiled. "If I had known you were going to get into this much trouble, I wouldn't have let you talk me out of the Escort. I can't leave you alone for a second, can I?"

Xena appreciated Ephiny's attempt at levity, especially considering Eponin looked like she wanted to run her sword through someone. "Yeah, well you know me. Never a dull moment."

"Xena," Gabrielle began carefully. "Ephiny and Eponin are here for a reason." Besides to keep me from totally losing it. "There are certain... political... ramifications of this attack on you."

Political ramifications? Xena thought in disbelief. She sounds like a queen. Then an internal laugh. Well, you numbskull, she IS a queen. "Wait--" It was becoming clearer to her fogged brain. "You think someone at Pellos did this to me?"

The Amazons glanced at their queen. Gabrielle was clearly in charge here. "We are here at Merron's invitation. And if he violated not just the treaty he signed, but the whole spirit of the invitation, the Amazons have to deal with him. After all, you are acting as my personal aide--"

That got a snort of laughter from everyone in the room, including Gabrielle.

"And--" she continued, her smile fading, "If they deliberately hurt you--"

"I think it's pretty obvious someone deliberately hurt Xena," Eponin interjected. "I just want to know where they are." An angry gleam shone in her eyes.

"Stop right there, Eponin." Xena's voice was still raw and thready, but it was getting stronger. "There's nothing you can do. Talk like that is just going to get you into trouble you don't need." She paused. "And can't handle."

"The Amazons can handle anything--" the weapons master began.

"Can they handle Ares?" The warrior's voice was deadly quiet.

"He did this." Gabrielle's hand gripped Xena's. It wasn't a question.

"Who else?" She asked wryly, conscious of the shocked expressions on the faces before her. Most people just assumed she was one of his Chosen, but only Gabrielle knew exactly how well Xena was acquainted with the God of War. They'd absolutely freak if I told them about that whole body switching thing. And what Callisto did with him when she was in here.


"Does he need a reason?" Even if Xena had wanted to discuss her conversation with Ares-- which she didn't, given that it was about the bard-- she wasn't about to go into it with three Amazons hanging on her every word.

"But he usually--"

"Gabrielle--" her eyes pleaded. Just leave it, please. For now.

Ephiny caught the look that passed between them and correctly interpreted it. "Maybe we should let Erva take a look at the patient here and then let her get some sleep," she said, hoping to let Xena off the hook with her friend.

"You're right, " Gabrielle agreed. "We also need to decide what to tell Merron. Eponin, will you dispatch someone to tell the warriors to stand down?"

"Of course, My Queen." Eponin bowed and exited.

"I'll help you fetch your kit, Erva." Ephiny volunteered, to give the two some privacy.

The trio quickly dispersed, leaving the Amazon Queen and one supine warrior with a perplexed look on her face. Xena arched a brow. "Stand down? You had the Nation on alert?"

Gabrielle shrugged. "I didn't think Merron was behind this-- unfortunately I know no mortal warrior is good enough to do this kind of damage to you." She shook her head mournfully as she looked at Xena's battered form. "But I couldn't let him think that the Amazons would stand by when one of their own was attacked."

"You're becoming quite the politician," Xena commented with a wry grin.

"I learned it from you."

Xena tried to laugh, but the action sent a shooting pain through her ribs. "Oww... don't make me laugh, Gabrielle."

"Yeah, you're right." She cocked her head thoughtfully. "I am the brains of this operation, aren't I? You're just the brawn." She teased.

"A big dumb warrior. Isn't that what you call me?"

"Xena--"  Gabrielle replied softly, touching the woman's cheek. "You are so much more than that." Uh oh... too serious too fast, the bard thought, seeing Xena go silent at her words. "You're a big dumb tall warrior." She finished with a smile. "And don't you forget it."

Any reply from Xena was stopped by a bustling Erva who shooed her Queen politely, but firmly, out of the way. "Now, Warrior, let's see about you."

Her examination was thorough and brisk, the healer running knowledgeable hands over Xena's injuries. Gabrielle watched her friend grow increasingly irritable as the exam seemed to grow intolerably longer. Xena respected the Amazon's abilities, but she had already determined the extent of her injuries and what her body needed. Waking from the head injury was the most critical issue, and she seemed to have done that just fine. She knew the healer would make things out to be more dire than they were. Most healers were like that, wanting to coddle their patients as long as possible. Xena wasn't one to be coddled and definitely didn't need this woman standing over her clucking like a hen. She watched Erva wag a finger at her. "Bed rest. That's what you need."

"What I need is a certain Amazon healer out of my face," Xena muttered under her breath dangerously. Louder, she said, "Look, I'll be fine." Trying and failing to conceal a wince at the shooting pain when she struggled to sit up.

Gabrielle leaned over to help her, but Xena jerked her arm away. "I don't need your help, Gabrielle. I can do it," she snarled. The bard recoiled and retreated to the foot of the pallet.

The watchful eyes of the healer took in the exchange silently. "I'll leave you two. Maybe you can talk some sense into her, My Queen." She excused herself.

Gods, I haven't heard that tone from her in a long time. Especially directed at me. Gabrielle thought, looking at her friend. And it still terrifies me.

Xena sighed and closed her eyes to avoid the expression on Gabrielle's face. "I'm sorry. I just--" How can I explain it? I hate being weak. I hate you seeing me like this. Hate them all gaping at me like some circus animal while I'm trapped on this damned pallet.

Xena, you're hurt badly." The Queen's voice was calm and collected, the brief stab of fear passing. "Your body needs time to heal. I understand if you don't want to do it at Pellos. After all, we don't know this city, allies or not. But I won't have you up and around before you're ready. What if you did more damage to yourself? And I can't protect us if we travel alone."

The warrior looked up with surprise at the woman before her. So different now from when we started traveling together, when the slightest harsh word from me would send her into tears. When did she grow strong enough to tell me what she thought was best for me? Especially when I didn't want to hear it? The warrior pursed her lips at the thought. And when did I get smart enough to start listening to her? "Okay, Gabrielle, obviously you've something in mind. Care to share it with me?"

The bard grinned at her friend. "The Amazon village. It's only three days' easy travel. You can recuperate in peace and we'll both be safe." Well, unless a couple of those women I caught eyeing you the last time we were there get ahold of you, she thought impishly.

There was no response from the woman on the pallet. She wasn't crazy about the Amazon village, but Gabrielle was right. She couldn't even sit a horse in her condition. "All right, you win. Can we leave in the morning? Now that I'm awake, it's just a matter of time as far as the rest of the healing is concerned."

A delighted expression danced across the Queen's face. "Absolutely. I'll tell them to get everything ready. You rest up. Tomorrow is going to be a long day for you."

"Great." Xena replied flatly and dropped her head to the pillow. "Just great."

The three days' travel passed uneventfully, with the patient asleep most of the time, courtesy of Erva's special willow bark tea. Gabrielle spent the time walking behind the small cart carrying her friend, leading Argo by the bridle. Ephiny suggested that the Queen ride the mare instead, but Gabrielle demurred, unable to imagine herself on the huge war horse without her arms wrapped safely around Xena.

Gabrielle's command to have the still-sleeping warrior placed in the Queen's hut, rather than the infirmary or guest cottage that was usually Xena's was received with raised eyebrows and silence from Ephiny. Oh, that's going to be all over the village before sundown, the bard thought, not missing the volley of glances exchanged by the members of the traveling party.

She couldn't begin to explain it to anyone-- she barely understood it herself-- but Xena wasn't any good at needing anyone. It was like her brain couldn't comprehend kindness directed towards her. She guessed that ten summers as a warlord had taught her friend that everyone had an ulterior motive. And in this condition, Xena reminded the bard of a wounded animal, lashing out in her pain. They had been through this time and again, until Gabrielle's patience had eventually broken through those protective instincts. And now the warrior seemed able to accept tenderness from the little bard in times of sickness or injury. It was as if, when wounded, Xena could finally rationalize her need for closeness and let Gabrielle in, if only a little bit. So I'll be damned if I'm going to let a bunch of gossiping Amazons keep me from taking care of her right now.

Lost in the haze of the willow bark-induced sleep, Ares' voice taunted the warrior. "This was bound to happen."

Flung to the ground with bone-jarring force.

"You want this so badly you can taste it."

Tossed through the air like a rag doll. The Amazon leathers offering no protection from the sharp rocks.

"You're afraid to show her what you are."

An open palm slamming into the side of her head again. Twice. A third time. Her vision running red.

"What happens when you lose control?"

"That won't happen." Once again the sound of her own voice jarred Xena from her sleep. She glanced warily at her surroundings. Amazon village, Xena. Calm down. Wherever Ares sent you... you're back. Controlling her breathing, noting that it was coming a little easier. Maybe... let me try this. She was gingerly sliding her legs off the bed when Gabrielle entered the hut.

"Oh no you don't, Lt. WP." She hustled over and pressed Xena back down. "No running around for you."

"Is that my new title?" the warrior chuckled, letting Gabrielle guide her without protest. "What happened to Warrior Princess?"

"Nope. It's official. An Amazon Queen beats a Warrior Princess."

Smiling at their old joke. "Yeah, but it sounds like I just got demoted."

"When in Amazonia..."

"Oh good, does this mean I get to order you around when we're not?" A wicked grin.

"Uh... I'll get back to you with the judges' decision on that one." The bard worked to keep the smile from her eyes. Xena's wounds seemed to be healing nicely. Most of the swelling had gone down, although the bruising was still severe. But hearing Xena's easy banter eased the greatest burden from the bard's shoulders. Maybe we can work through this, after all. Gabrielle straightened and put her hands on her hips. "Now where did you think you were going?"

"Gabrielle, if you count the time I was unconscious, I've spent the last quarter moon on my back." She felt a warm flush at the unbidden image that rose to her mind. "Um... recuperating." She tried not to notice the answering blush on the bard's cheek. "So I'd like to see if I can still stand."

"Sounds reasonable, but why didn't you ask someone for help?" Because you never do. She answered her own question silently.

Because I never do. "Because there was no one here," she fibbed. "And because I can usually manage standing up by myself."

"Yeah well the God of War generally hasn't just knocked you senseless," the bard shot back. "You usually manage that state on your own," she added, mimicking Xena.

An arched brow was her reply.

The bard walked to the bed and held out her arms. "Well, what are you waiting for?" She asked the wide-eyed warrior. "There's help here now. Do you want to try and get up or not?"

Deciding the best strategy was silence, Xena merely grasped the proffered arms and balanced on aching and unsteady legs. A wave of dizziness washed over her, and she closed her eyes until the nausea passed.

Seeing the warrior's face go white with the effort, Gabrielle tightened her grip and began lowering her friend back to the pallet. "I think that's enough fun for today. Can't have you getting giddy with excitement, now can we?" She resettled Xena, a small smile playing at the corners of her mouth as she tucked the blankets in snugly. "There. Try to rest some more, okay? I know you hate being cooped up, but you're really not strong enough to be running around. Give it another day. Please?"

Xena nodded, her body agreeing with the bard. "What are you going to do?"

"Oh, you know, Queen stuff. Ephiny says she's got some requests for settlement, some council things. The usual."

"You really like this Queen business."

Gabrielle flashed a smile at the warrior. "I do seem to have a knack for some of it."

"You do," Xena agreed sincerely.

"You really think so?" The Queen glowed at her friend's rare compliment.

"You certainly handled Merron well enough. He was convinced his city was going to be overrun by the Amazons. I don't think you'll have ever have any worries about them violating the trade agreements." Xena chuckled. "And how did you ever come up with that story about what happened to me?"
"I couldn't exactly tell him that you have an up-close-and-personal relationship with the God of War, now could I?" She shrugged. "That tends to make people a little nervous."

"I know," Xena answered softly, letting out a quiet breath.

Sensing her friend's turn to seriousness, Gabrielle stepped closer. "You wanna tell me what happened?"

The warrior closed her eyes at the questions. Not now, Gabrielle. Because it opens up all those places we haven't wanted to go yet.

"It's all right." A soft touch of the bard's hand brought Xena's eyes open again. "You'll tell me when you need to."

"Thank you," Xena whispered.

"I'll come back and check on  you later, okay? Bring you some dinner?"

A grateful smile. "That would be great, Gabrielle."

The Amazon Queen found that her mind kept slipping away from the tedious council meeting. Hades! And Xena thinks I like to talk a lot, she marveled, listening to a vociferous debate between two councilors over-- as near as she could tell-- three horses crossing a stream. Her thoughts returned to the injured warrior and, inevitably, to that night in her chambers. One more thing for us not to talk about. Although, quite honestly, she didn't know what she'd say to Xena if either one of them managed to bring it up. Do we acknowledge it without acting on it? Gabrielle snorted to herself. Not. She never thought of Xena as a particularly chaste person.

In fact, one of her most vivid memories of the warrior occurred shortly after the two had begun traveling together. On their way to an inn, the pair had encountered a group of thieves waylaying a caravan, and Xena had taken care of them in her usual inimitable fashion. Gabrielle remembered the high flush of color on the warrior's skin and the bright flash in her blue eyes. That night, walking into the local tavern, Xena had seemed even taller than her six feet, and power had radiated from the woman like heat from a glowing coal. She had caught the eye of every person in the room-- not that she didn't always-- but this time, Xena returned the stares not with intimidation but with cool appraisal. It wasn't long before a striking woman a little older than Xena herself joined their table.

Gabrielle recalled how she listened with astonishment as Xena's voice dropped to a silky purr and watched her body ripple like it was all liquid muscle. Even though nothing overt was said between the warrior and the stranger, Gabrielle could see the seduction taking place. It intrigued and frightened her at the same time. Soon she excused herself from the table. When Xena had looked up at her young friend with a question in her eyes, the bard had just mumbled something about seeing her in the morning.

Gabrielle had seen this particular scenario play itself out a number of times during her travels with the warrior, although that had been her first glimpse of Xena with a woman. It had been before she met the Amazons, before their campfire gossip had told her how much pleasure two women could give each other. Now she had a pretty good idea of what Xena and the stranger had done together, and the attendant image it conjured sent a bolt of heat pulsing through the Amazon Queen. Funny, she hasn't done that in a long time... She did disappear for a while when we met Corin. I suppose they could have... but I heard her come back to the room that night pretty early. And I can usually tell when she's going to... she gets kind of... twitchy. She tuned into the voices in the meeting to determine they were still arguing before returning to her private musings.

So bard, the familiar voice of her mental antagonist returned, you've decided that the idea of Xena touching you is appealing.

It's always been appealing, it's just a little scary too.

A little scary?

Okay a LOT scary.

Because of what she is.

I'm honestly not sure what that is.


She's one of Ares' Chosen. She's defied gods. She's murdered innocents. She's saved lives-- mine more than once. She's this walking mass of contradictions that for some reason seems to have put whatever trust she has left in me. Off all people. A little bard from Poteidaia.

You are Queen of the Amazons. The voice reminded her.

Because she championed me.

Come on, bard, get a grip. Quit hiding behind these philosophical arguments and get down to the bare bones. You love Xena but, you're afraid of her. Of that fire that burns deep down in her. Of her body which is an expression of that fire. Aren't you, little bard? The voice taunted.

"Gabrielle?" Ephiny shook her queen softly and took in the strange expression on her face. "Meeting's over. Are you all right?"

Gabrielle's eyes narrowed, then focused on the Regent. "Yeah, sorry. I've just got... a lot on my mind."

"A six foot injured warrior is a lot to think about," Ephiny gently teased.

The bard blushed and smiled at her friend.

"Things have changed between you two, huh?"

Gabrielle took a deep breath and blew it out, the force of her exhalation riffling her bangs. "Things are changing, Ephiny, but I'm not sure what I should do about it." She patted her friend on the shoulder. "I think I just need to think about it a little more. If that makes any sense."

"I understand," she smiled into her queen's green eyes and then watched her walk away.

Willow bark tea had put Xena out for most of the afternoon and night, but long-ingrained habit woke her near dawn. She focused groggily as the last effects of the tea drained from her consciousness, taking  in the sleeping form of the bard on a separate pallet across the room. She vaguely remembered Gabrielle sitting by her last night, telling stories and talking about her day. Then, of course, there were her dreams, that seemed to exhaust her as much as staying awake did. As more and more of Ares' abuse on the beach came back to her, she was truly surprised that she had lived through the encounter.

Now she noted with a pleased expression that her breathing had almost returned to normal and the burning in her throat had disappeared. Every part of her body still ached, and she certainly wasn't going to be taking on any more gods any time soon, but at least she was mobile again. A gleefully evil smile curved on her mouth. Let's see how I can wake the bard... heh heh.

She slid out of the pallet, the muscles in her legs creaking in protest but holding her up just the same. Slowly she made her way over to her friend's side and sat on the edge of the pallet. Xena briefly considered waking Gabrielle up with a modulated version of her warcry. That was always good for a laugh. Nah, she'll just be irritable with me all day. Another idea occurred to her. Nope. No fish nearby. A third possibility presented itself. Hmmm... could be interesting. Making her decision with a smirk, she brushed the hair softly off Gabrielle's forehead and placed a gentle kiss there. Then she settled back to watch the results.

No response from the slumbering woman.

Xena's eyes narrowed in consternation. Resolutely, she leaned down and placed two more small kisses on each of the bard's fair cheeks. She looked at Gabrielle expectantly.

Nothing. Not a flutter. Not a twitch.

The warrior hiked an exasperated brow. Maybe more drastic measures are called for... She parted her lips slightly and brought her mouth to the bard's. Their lips met and tangled sensually for a brief moment, and then Xena eased away.

The woman merely smiled in her sleep, turned and rolled over, snuggling deeper into the covers.

Ah Hades, she doesn't need to get up anyway. Xena threw up her arms in surrender and left the hut to see what the rest of the world was up to.

Not much apparently... A few sentries were patrolling, and she caught the startled looks before they were quickly replaced by studied indifference. I guess I don't need a mirror to tell me I look like I've been used as a god's punching bag. Undoubtedly word of her altercation with Ares was winding its way through the Amazon village faster than even Hermes could fly. Xena was used to the God of War dropping by on an annoyingly frequent basis, and even Gabrielle had stopped being astonished. But most people probably wouldn't see it that way.

She wandered through the sleepy camp, slowly working the kinks out of her body, stiff from the bruising and forced confinement. She enjoyed the dew-soaked grass brushing softly against her bare legs and the crisp dawn air filling her lungs. Most of all, she relished the silence. There were no Amazons asking her about battle techniques, no healers prattling on about bed rest, no angry gods confronting her. But now silence brought with it an absence: Gabrielle wasn't by her side. And she realized that she had come to prize the early mornings with the bard. Their unspoken routine had become a ritual for the warrior-- hunting for breakfast, starting the fire, warming the tea, waking Gabrielle. Seeing her friend slowly grow aware of the world surrounding her. Listening to her first irritable comments become flowing conversation. Without knowing it, the young woman had become an indispensable part of the warrior's life. Only now that role was changing, and neither one of them were sure of their next steps.

So, what do I tell her? She's not going to let the whole Ares thing lie. Do I let her know what set him off? She made her way to the outskirts of the village, the walk relaxing her muscles but tiring her as well. There was a small lake on this western edge of the village, smaller than the one on the southern end, which had both hot and cool springs. Xena was reasonably confident that no one would stumble across her early morning musings. Once there, she contemplated taking a swim, but a quick physical inventory told her that wasn't a good idea. She decided instead on a soak in the hot springs later and lowered her long frame down to the damp ground.

She had only been there a few moments were her senses told her someone was approaching. A moment more and she identified Gabrielle as her company, as if her thoughts of the bard had conjured the reality. "Hey you--" she called quietly. "Trying to sneak up on me?"

"As if," the bard grumbled behind her, stepping into the clearing.

"You're getting better," she complimented.

"Thanks." A brilliant smile from the young woman.

"So what brings you out so early?"

"Well, you know," Gabrielle grinned. "It's really kinda rude to just kiss a girl and leave."

A lazy smile snaked around the edges of Xena's mouth. "I thought you were asleep."

"I was," she admitted. "I was having... a dream..." The warrior's expressive brow shot up at the blush spreading across her friend's smooth cheeks. "Yes, about you," she confessed softly. "And I felt your lips touch mine, and then you were gone. I guess I sensed you leave or something, because I woke up and saw your pallet was empty." She shrugged. "It felt too real to just be a dream."

"I am always looking for new ways to wake you up." Xena tried to tease.

"Don't." The bard leaned closer and placed a small hand on Xena's arm. "We need to talk about this."

Xena closed her eyes, took a calming breath, and released it with a quiet sigh. Here we go... she thought, opening her eyes to meet the steady gaze of her dearest friend. "I guess we do."

"I'm not crazy, am I?" Come on, Xena. Gabrielle pleaded silently, I can't do this by myself. "You feel this too."

The warrior turned her gaze to the small lake before them and was inevitably reminded of another time, another lake, another Gabrielle. The silence stretched before them. "No," she finally said. "You're not crazy."

"You don't sound too happy about it." Gabrielle's words were swathed in resignation.

Instantly, Xena jerked her head up to look at her friend, a thousand different emotions flashing across her face. The pale crystal that was the color of her eyes shattered, and Gabrielle was engulfed in the waves of blue washing over her. "Oh, no-- Gabrielle-- no-- I... I..." She ran angry hands through her hair in frustration. "Gods, I'm horrible at this."

"Try." Gabrielle urged. "Please," she added.

"You know..." the warrior began hesitantly, unsure of this new weapon-- her words-- but certain that they could do more damage than any sword she'd ever swung. "You know I'd die before I let anyone hurt you."

"Yes, I do," the younger woman answered without hesitation. "I count on it every day."

"But, Gabrielle, what if the person you were most in danger from was me?" She asked, unconsciously echoing Ares' own words to her. Her face was deadly serious, and her eyes burned at the thought of anyone-- especially herself-- hurting her companion.

"What are you talking about, Xena?" the bard responded apprehensively.

"You told me you were dreaming about me." A wry smile graced her features. "I'm assuming it was a... well... a romantic sort of dream." Yet another furious blush crossed her friend's features, confirming Xena's words. "What sort of lover do you think I'd be, Gabrielle?" Her voice, already husky from the abuse her throat had suffered, seemed to drop to an even lower pitch. The bard shuddered pleasantly at the contralto tones and released a breath she didn't know she'd been holding. Xena waited in the silence a moment before turning to face Gabrielle and holding her palms out before the young woman. "You've seen what these hands can do. And you know only a fraction of the atrocities they've committed. Hundreds have died-- and worse-- at these hands." Keeping her eyes on Gabrielle, even as her friend's gaze was fixed on those hands. "Are these the hands you want touching your body? Running over your skin? Searching out your secret places?"

The quiet words rocked through the bard, sinking deep into her bones. She took a ragged breath, not sure if she wanted to throw up, run, or grind her suddenly aching body into the woman in front of her. "Are you trying to scare me?" she asked unsteadily.

"I don't think I have to try. I think I do."

A protest sprang to the front of Gabrielle's lips, but died there as she looked into the warrior's eyes. Over the last two summers she had thought of a thousand ways to describe Xena's eyes. Hot. Cold. Fire. Ice. Fierce. Gentle. But nothing prepared her for the sight of those eyes now. The blue had deepened, if possible, pulsing with life... with desire, Gabrielle realized with a shock. Running through the blue irises were light colored streaks that reminded the bard of jagged bolts of lightning during a summer rainstorm. She knew it was probably a trick of the dawning sky, but the bard felt as if she had glimpsed into the warrior's soul and seen everything-- the darkness that lurked there still and the hope buried deep inside. In that instant Gabrielle could see all the dangers that lay in trying to love Xena, and a part of her own soul trembled. "Yes," she finally confessed, breaking their gaze.

"You're right to be afraid." Came the quiet words.

Silently, Gabrielle picked up the warrior's right hand-- which had dropped to the ground-- and took it in her own. Her sword hand... She ran hesitant fingertips over the skin, smiling wryly at the small crooked scar on Xena's index finger that marked the bard's first awkward attempt at stitches. Xena's fingers were long and tapering ...delicate, almost... her storyteller's instinct noted as she examined each finely wrought joint. Gabrielle marveled over the contrast between the smooth tanned skin of the back of the warrior's hand and the worn calluses on the pads of that same palm. She cradled the hand gently in her own smaller ones and slowly brought it up to her mouth. Nestling the palm in the curve of her cheek, she inhaled the scent of leather and metal that clung there still, even though the warrior hadn't picked up a sword in days. Conscious of Xena's unblinking gaze, she parted her lips and tentatively brushed her tongue across the sensitive skin beneath her mouth. Gabrielle tangled her fingers in the warrior's own and, unsure of where her courage was coming from, slid her mouth down to the pulse point in Xena's wrist, hoping it would give away what her friend's expression would not.

The warrior's frantically racing pulse beneath her lips answered the unasked question. "Yes, Xena," she murmured.
"Gabrielle--" Xena's voice held a warning that went unheeded by the bard. Gabrielle sank her teeth into the exposed flesh, seeking entrance into the pounding of her friend's heart, feeling the answering beat in her own. "Gabrielle--" With a flick of her arm, Xena twisted her wrist out of Gabrielle's reach and captured the bard's hands in her own. She didn't miss the brief look of panic that flashed across the younger woman's face, and it settled the flames that were licking at the core of her being. "Does this mean you want to pursue... this..." Her voice trailed off.

"Oh yeah," the bard managed on uneven breath. A sudden uncertainty gripped Gabrielle. "But Xena, can we... uh... take it slow?" She smiled shyly. "I'm sure that... lovemaking... is one of your... many skills..." Remembering the stories that she had heard around the Amazons' campfires. "...But I need to know..."

The warrior's arched brow questioned the ensuing silence.

"That I can touch you too," she finished in a rush, not meeting Xena's eyes. "That... well... you can open yourself to me... the way.." The way I'm going to be opening myself to you, Xena. I have no doubt, my warrior, that the minute you lay your hands on me, you're going to own me like no one else ever could. But I can't let you do that. Not if you won't allow me the same thing.

Now it was Xena's turn to flee from her friend's gaze. She knew exactly what the bard was asking; it was plainly written on her face. "I'm not sure I can do that," she admitted, dropping Gabrielle's hands and shifting away.

"Why not?" A simple question. An impossibly complicated answer.

Oh gods, how did I get myself into this? "I-- Gabrielle-- I--" Xena found her mouth was working, but nothing was coming out. "It's too hard," she finished helplessly, not sure anymore what she was explaining.

"You're scared too," Gabrielle marveled.

"Terrified," the warrior confirmed in a whisper.

Comforted that Xena was moving into equally unfamiliar territory-- though for vastly different reasons, the bard suspected-- she gave her friend a small smile. "We could keep it pretty basic," the bard offered.

"How's that?"

"Let me kiss you," she said simply.

And somehow the two women found themselves on their knees in the soft grass, coming close enough to breathe each other's air. The warrior's mind ceased registering facts and concentrated on the sensations surrounding and flowing through her. The blades of grass were a soft tickle against her skin, and a slight breeze waffled her hair. The green depths of Gabrielle's eyes loomed closer as she closed her eyes, letting the small hands guide her.

Gabrielle felt Xena sigh and instinctively part her lips, granting the bard admission. Their tongues slowly met, touching, entwining... more... She was falling. The cautious descent into Xena's mouth. An unexpected welcoming openness. Gabrielle wanted to memorize the shape of this mouth. The touch the taste the feel... The kiss became stronger, more urgent. Feel me, Xena... feel us...

For the warrior, each sweet stroke of the bard's tongue tightened the spiral of desire that coiled in her belly. She fought the rising tide of panic and the growing urge to fan Gabrielle's desire until the young woman lay helpless beneath her. Gabrielle's fingers were buried in her hair, and Xena found her own hands clenched in the skirt covering the bard's hips, pulling her closer and ignoring the protests of her bruised body. Their kiss deepened until Gabrielle's tongue was thrusting into Xena's mouth in time to the growing pulse between the warrior's legs. Realizing that they were rapidly heading out of control, Xena forced her long fingers to release their hold on the younger woman and leaned back slightly, regretfully breaking their kiss.

The bard's hands slid from Xena's hair, coming to rest on the warrior's broad shoulders. Slowly she opened her eyes. "Wow," she breathed.

"Wow indeed," Xena agreed, unable to hide her smile at the red-head's slightly dazed expression.

"I could get used to this," the younger woman grinned, her hands roving over Xena's shoulders and arms. Wrapping her arms around the warrior, impulsively she hugged her friend tightly and immediately sprang back when Xena was unable to suppress a groan at the pressure on her fractured ribs. "Oh, Xena. I totally forgot. Your ribs... Are you okay?"

Xena fought a swift wave of dizziness accompanying the pain. Gabrielle could feel the muscles tensing, sparking new explosions of pain in the tall woman's body. "Relax," she calmed. "Clenching your muscles just makes it worse. Try to relax them. Come on, Xena, breathe. Slowly. Slowly." Her voice held a soothing cadence; her hands gentled the wounded body before her. The warrior concentrated on the quiet tones reaching her ears, refusing to surrender again to the pain. Bit by bit, the relentless pressure eased, and she was again able to focus on the worried eyes of her friend. "Xena, I'm so sorry--"

"S'Okay," she said tiredly. "I think we just... overdid it a bit." A grin at this last.

"I shouldn't have been squeezing," the bard chastised herself.

"I'd rather you do it than Ares," Xena replied ruefully.

They shared a chuckle as Xena allowed Gabrielle to help her up and drape the tall woman's arm across her slim shoulders. Okay, bard, it's not going to be the smoothest intro, but I've got to ask. "Speaking of which--"

"I know, Gabrielle." Xena met her friend's eyes, knowing that they needed to have this conversation. "And I'll tell you. Just not right now, okay? As much as I hate to admit it, all I think I want to do right now is lay myself down and drink some of Erva's willow bark tea."

"That we can do," Gabrielle agreed, surprised at the warrior's admission of pain. "Now hang on and let's get you to camp."

Comforting arms encircled her and a  familiar spicy scent wafted to her nostrils. "Mi'lila?" her dream-voice spoke, even though she hadn't know the girl's name until much later. She opened her eyes to the soft brown ones she had come to know so well over the last few moons. She murmured nonsense to Xena in that strange language of hers, the one Xena had never bothered to learn. They hadn't needed a language, really-- Xena was never much for words-- and Mi'lila's expressive features always communicated everything she wanted the warrior to know.

Now Xena relaxed as she felt delicate hands running over her body, the soft rocking of the ship adding a seductive rhythm to the girl's touch. The young warrior was reclining on the pallet, Mi'lila's slim form above her. Their eyes were laughing, and Xena found some of the rage at Lyceus' death receding, a foreign peace beginning its descent into her heart. The laughter faded in her throat with the first brush of Mi'lila's lips against her own.

With Mi'lila's every caress, every taste, every kiss Xena found herself opening, peeling away the hard veneer of hate and fury she had cloaked herself in since the attack on Amphipolis until it lay unneeded and discarded along with her pirate finery.

Disoriented, Xena woke from her dream in the pre-dawn dimness. Mi'lila? Gods I haven't dreamed of her, of us... suddenly aware of an unaccustomed warmth draped over her right side ...but I guess it makes sense... with what's happening.... A grin appeared on her face at the sight of the sleeping bard curled tightly around her own long frame. She remembered Gabrielle coming in a little silly from too much wine at dinner. She had watched the bard change into her sleeping shift and fuss over the wash basin. Turning to the warrior, she asked a silent question with her eyes, and Xena had lifted the blankets for Gabrielle to tuck herself into the pallet. On the surface, it wasn't such an unusual action. Certainly they had shared a pallet before-- dinars were sometimes hard to come by and usually weren't wasted on two rooms when one would do-- and they had cuddled when the wind proved too biting or a nightmare too strong. But this was something different. Something intimate. Maybe it's the intent behind the act... she mused, noticing how easily she had slipped her arms around the smaller woman in her sleep. We're both here because each of us wants to feel the other. She quirked an internal brow. One way or the other this thing is going to happen. Thinking of Mi'lila and of the dream she just had. I just hope I'm strong enough to give her what she needs.

She bent down and kissed Gabrielle softly, delighted when the younger woman stirred at her touch and opened sleepy eyes. "Hey you," she said quietly, not wanting to disturb the peaceful stillness surrounding them.

"Hey yourself. Not that I'm complaining about your methods--" she grumbled good-naturedly. "But it is so early. Why are we awake?"

"Because it's my favorite time of the day," Xena answered without thinking. "And I wanted to share it with you." And felt the scarlet heat suffusing her features as Gabrielle stared at her open-mouthed.  Where did that come from?

"Oh--" the bard said a little breathlessly as she leaned up slightly and drew Xena's lips back to her own. "For that, you get a kiss," she murmured.

The kiss was a tender exchange, sweetly chasing away the last dregs of their slumber, and Xena drew back with a grin. "So, that's what I get every time I do something you like?"

"Think of it as a new merit system, Lieutenant." Green eyes danced.

"Ah... we're back to that, are we?"

"Well, I am still the Queen." She glanced around the hut as if looking for a potential usurper. "Don't see it changing anytime soon. Nope, sure don't."

Xena smirked at her companion. "So, are you going to institute this new meritocracy throughout your Nation, My Queen?"

"Hmmm... you think Ephiny and the others would like that?"

"You kissing me every time they did something you liked?" The warrior inquired playfully, deliberately misunderstanding the Queen's question. "I don't know, but I think I would."

"You would?" Gabrielle asked, serious in spite of her teasing tone.

"Yeah, Gabrielle," she answered quietly. Something in the warrior's heart settled as she met the clear gaze of the woman beside her. "I think I would."

Is this happening? Gabrielle marveled, feeling herself caught up in a giddy wave of exultation. Laughter bubbled up in her throat and shone through her eyes. "You know, I think I'm liking the dawn thing."

"Really? Why?" Xena looked dubious.

Because I'm hearing things I never thought you'd say. Because I'm beginning to believe that you might actually let me love you. But she knew that saying any of these things would destroy the easy banter of the morning, and she wanted to relish this new side to her companion. Xena the lover. She couldn't hide the joyous smile that the idea brought to her face. My lover.

"Gabrielle?" The warrior poked her softly in the ribs. "Come back," she sing-songed.

"Oh.. oops. Heh heh. What were we talking about?"

"You were telling me why you suddenly liked waking up early."

"Yeah I was," she beamed mischievously. "No lines at the breakfast hut. Come on, let's go!"

Sure enough, the line for breakfast was non-existent, and the pair snagged some bread and cheese, settling themselves at one of the long tables. "So what are your plans for the day?" Gabrielle asked between large bites of cheese.

"I thought I'd take a long soak in the hot springs-- work out some of the stiffness. Seeing as how I never made it yesterday. And then check on Argo, spend some time with her. Basically just get used to being up and around. Maybe later, I'll--"

"No sparring," Gabrielle warned, not missing the guilty look in the warrior's eyes that told her she was right about what Xena had been thinking. "Tomorrow. You know I'm right."
Xena took a deep breath and the caustic reply that had been on the edge of her tongue skidded to a halt. Her instinct rebelled at being told what to do, but her body agreed with Gabrielle. She merely nodded, not trusting her tone if she spoke, chewing instead on the bread. The bard noticed too the flash in the warrior's eyes, braced herself for the sharp comment about to fly her way, and was surprised when none was forthcoming. Swallowing her mouthful, Xena changed the subject. "So what about you? More Queen stuff? Eph's kept you pretty busy these last few days."

"Sure has. But I think today I'm actually going to be done pretty early. I'm the one who needs the sparring practice. Eponin was teasing me yesterday about checking on my progress. She seems to forget that my practice partner is one of the best around." A quick flash of the warrior's brilliant smile told Gabrielle her irritation was gone. "You think maybe you could put off your soak so I could join you? And then we could spend the afternoon together?" She asked this last shyly, suddenly feeling like a clumsy suitor and more aware than ever of just who it was she was trying to court.

"I think that can be arranged," Xena replied in an easy tone. "I will have to rework my terribly overcrowded schedule. But you are, after all, the Queen."

"And don't you forget it, soldier," Gabrielle replied in her best Royal voice, eliciting a snort of laughter from her companion. Their breakfast had been leisurely, and now the hut was beginning to fill with people. It seemed to their Queen that the Amazon Nation was a tribe of early risers.

"Nice to see you up and about." Ephiny joined them, sliding onto the bench directly across from Xena.

"Thanks, Eph. It feels good to be up." The warrior returned the greeting. She glanced at Gabrielle and then to the rapidly crowding hut, realizing their quiet time was over. "I think I'll leave you to your Queen stuff, Gabrielle. See you in a few candlemarks?"

"Definitely. You'll come watch me spar?"

"Wouldn't miss it." With a last nod to Ephiny and a very private smile for Gabrielle, Xena excused herself. Both women watched the dark warrior's tall figure cut smoothly through the women surrounding her, causing more than one head to turn. Neither Ephiny nor her Queen could suppress a sigh when Xena finally disappeared from view. Then they looked at each other and simultaneously burst into laughter.

"So, Ephiny. I gotta ask you something," Gabrielle leaned forward conspiratorially. "Whose  idea was it to make Xena wear Amazon leathers at Pellos?"

Yup, this is something I absolutely could get used to, Gabrielle thought a short while later. She deliberately put away all of her doubts for the time being and focused instead on the incredibly delicious memory of waking up in Xena's arms. It was a sensation different from any she had ever known-- different even from the morning after her wedding. Waking up with Perdicus that first-- and only-- morning had seemed... familiar somehow. Even though he had, according to common wisdom, made her a woman with their lovemaking; the happiness she felt seeing his face the next morning had been that of seeing an old beloved friend. Nothing more. Definitely not what I felt this morning. Gabrielle tore through her opponents during the practice, her body responding fluidly to the demands of the match, her mind conscious only of her own thoughts and of Xena sprawled comfortably nearby.

For her part, Xena was having a grand time watching the bard dismantle the Amazons during the staff demonstration. Although Gabrielle professed herself to be no warrior, she was more than capable of defending herself when necessary. And life on the road presented new challenges almost daily. I wonder if she has any idea exactly how good she's gotten, Xena wondered idly. She's been against all their best staff masters and none of them has even come close. Eponin's the only one left and it looks like she's having second thoughts about taking on her Queen. The warrior couldn't suppress a gleeful smile that quickly turned into a sensual appreciation as she watched Gabrielle's sleek muscles flexing with effort. She recognized that there was  now something proprietary in her attitude and actions towards the bard. A private look meant for Gabrielle alone. The smile that came unbidden when she thought about the younger woman. And the unmistakable pleasure she took in having her companion nearby. Although she had first noticed it this morning when she had left the Queen with Ephiny, she realized with a start that those things had been going on for a long time now. And we're only just admitting it? No wonder half the people we meet think we're... her mind stumbled over exactly the right expression for what she and Gabrielle were to each other ... together. An internal grin became reflective. I guess we've been loving for a long time. We just haven't been lovers.

"Dinar for your thoughts?" Gabrielle was standing before her now, slightly breathless from the exertion, but her opponents looked a lot worse.

"I was going to ask you the same thing," Xena replied lazily. "Your mind wasn't exactly focused on the sparring now was it?"

The bard scowled at the teasing reproach. "I know, I know. But it was like my body was taking care of everything for me, and my brain just--"

"Thought of other, more interesting things?" Xena's voice was a seductive drawl that Gabrielle had never heard directed towards her. The purr froze her for a moment, then sent a flood of heat cascading through her veins. Suddenly the perspiration on her brow wasn't from the sparring.

Breathe, Gabrielle, breathe.

"Sphinx got your tongue?" The warrior innocently inquired, a mischievous glimmer in her blue eyes. Xena knew she was walking a fine line, but she really couldn't help herself. She was in such a good mood. And besides, teasing is half the fun.

The bard narrowed her eyes at the warrior, Okay, let's see if two can play this game. "Now that you mention it, I was hoping you could--"

"Gabrielle!" Ephiny's voice called them as the Regent strode over to the small cluster of trees where Xena had watched the session.

The tall warrior was still stretched out comfortably on the grass, arms propping her up, and Gabrielle's legs were right about eye level. All in all, the Warrior Princess was very content with her lot in life at this particular moment in time, and she couldn't resist a smug grin at the Amazon. "What's up, Eph?" Xena asked, ignoring the bard's annoyed glare at the intrusion.

"Do you realize that you just beat every staff master in the village?" Ephiny greeted Gabrielle with a broad smile.

The red-head was torn between being really upset at the interruption and enormously pleased with the compliment. She knew a lot of the Amazons were dubious at having a bard as their Queen, even if it was in absentia. Apparently this little staff demonstration was having a greater impact than she had imagined. Gabrielle decided to let  her irritation slide. "Thanks, Ephiny. Having to depend on this thing every day is real incentive to practice," she pronounced virtuously.

The warrior at her feet couldn't control the disbelieving snort of laughter that erupted from her throat. Getting Gabrielle to spar took every trick in her Warlord Book of Intimidation and, even then, sometimes she still wasn't successful.

The Amazon Queen chose to ignore the unsolicited commentary from the Warrior Princess and continued her conversation with Ephiny, vowing silently that Xena would pay. "Do the settlement issues have to be decided today?" she asked, unconsciously casting a glance downward at the still-mirthful warrior.

Only a fool would have missed the body language of the two women in front of her, and Ephiny certainly wasn't a fool. "No," she said quickly. "We can take care of those tomorrow. As a matter of fact, there's really not a lot that has to be taken care of at all today. And the next council meeting is day after tomorrow."

"Great!" Gabrielle beamed and prodded Xena none-too-gently with the toe of her boot as a warning of what was to come. "I think I'm going to look after our wounded friend." If Xena was going to embarrass her in front of Ephiny, then it was the least she could do to return the favor. In spades. How do you feel about having the entire Amazon Nation set loose on you, warrior? "Do you think we can get together a small feast for tonight? You know, something to celebrate the recovery of my aide-de-damp here?"

Xena's eyes flew open at the mention of the word "celebration." Oh gods, I'm in for it now... That's all I need-- a village full of half-naked Amazons, strong wine, and those damned drums. Is she trying to get me killed? Obviously Gabrielle had not being paying attention the last time they were here. Sober, most Amazons might only stare at her, but get a little wine in them, and they forgot all about the murderous warlord part of her reputation and concentrated instead on... other things about the Warrior Princess that caught their fancy.

Let's try a pre-emptive strike... "Gabrielle," she demurred. "That's really not necessary. It takes time to plan these things, and you've got a lot on your plate--" Yeah, my head from the sound of it.

"Nonsense," the Queen interrupted. "What's the fun of being in charge if  you can't do what you want? Besides, the Amazons rarely need an excuse for a party. Right, Ephiny?"

The Regent watched the exchange with barely concealed humor. "Absolutely. Why don't we begin at sundown? That will give me plenty of time to arrange everything. We can make an offering to Artemis as a signal to start the celebration. Leave everything to me." She grinned at her Queen and then excused herself to gleefully begin the preparations.

Rats. Outflanked. Time for a different tactic... "You won't mind if I turn in early tonight, will you?" Xena pulled herself up with exaggerated slowness. "I'm still getting tired pretty quickly. These ribs, you know." In reality she was feeling much better. She had even ridden Argo briefly, but didn't think it wise to tell the bard that. Who knew what wrath it would bring down on her? She was having a hard enough time getting out of this mess as it was.

"Xena--" Gabrielle studied her friend thoughtfully, watching the tall woman limp around. "Can I offer you some advice?"

The warrior merely arched an inquisitive brow.

"If that's the best acting job you can do... don't give up your day job."

Busted... Intending to fire off a sardonic retort about a recent performance she had seen in Pellos involving one Queen and an outlandish story about a pack of Bacchae, she instead found herself giving an unexpectedly serious answer. "Since-- as your devoted lieutenant-- my day job is to keep you safe, My Queen, no I don't think I will be giving that up any time soon."

Gabrielle just stared at her, a helplessly tender expression on her face. She took a tentative step towards the warrior and then, realizing they weren't alone, stopped and reached instead for Xena's hand, squeezing it briefly before following her in the direction of the hot springs.

I gotta stop that, Xena chastised herself as she and the now-silent bard made their way down the path. It was as if her mouth just overrode her common sense and sent all those things hidden deep inside spilling out into Gabrielle's lap. Like I expect her to know what to do with them. The gods know I certainly don't. Casting a hooded glance at the smaller woman. I wonder what she's thinking? I hate it when she gets all quiet. That's what I'm supposed to do, she mused with an ironic curl of her lip. Come on, Gabrielle, have I scared you out of your wits again?

Barely feeling the soft brush of the warrior's shoulder against her own, Gabrielle vainly attempted to chase down the millions of things that were flying haphazardly around her brain. Why does she do that? With just one sentence she shows me a piece of her heart and then she stands there looking like a minotaur has just trampled her. Like she wants nothing more than to take it all back. And then something dawned on the bard so wonderfully simple she wondered why she hadn't thought of it before. Maybe that's exactly how she feels. Wanting something so badly and then terrified of what's going to happen when she reaches for it. What's happened to you, Xena that makes you so afraid of your feelings? Then she laughed to herself. Ten summers of bloodshed might be a place to start, but somehow this feels more... personal... than that.

Still eyeing her companion, Xena guided them to the farthest pool in the hot springs, scooping up towels as they went. The springs on the southern end of the village were different from the western ones because they were hidden within a series of cavern which served to hold in the heat. Naturally the springs were a frequent trysting place, and stone markers on each of the cavern entrances indicated whether that particular spring was in use or not. The warrior thanked the Amazons silently for their innate discretion. She didn't plan on a seduction taking place here, but for some reason she felt a big talk was on the way. Gabrielle was, after all, a bard for good reason.

The bard in question was vaguely conscious of their surroundings, but her mind had homed in on the idea that Xena's fears and her own were mirror images. And that unlocking one would release the other as well. It also sent a dazzling bolt of happiness through her body, knowing that Xena was becoming entangled in her as much as she was in the warrior.

"Hey you," her companion called. "Still interested in that soak?"
"Hmm?" Gabrielle answered absent-mindedly, running her fingers over the rough stone of the cavern walls. Realizing belatedly that Xena was no longer beside her, she turned around, looking for her missing friend.

And felt her heart stop at the sight before her.

While the bard was lost in her mental haze, Xena-- never much for modesty and certainly not in front of the woman she had been traveling with for almost three summers-- had matter-of-factly stripped out of the light tunic she wore and now stood at the edge of the hot spring, calling to Gabrielle. She was unprepared for the quiet astonishment that greeted her. "What?" she asked hesitantly. "What is it? Is something wrong?"

Gabrielle swallowed convulsively, running her tongue over suddenly dry lips. "You are so beautiful," she breathed.

Half a smile flickered over the tall woman face. "Experimenting with the henbane again, are we?" The teasing tone in the warrior's voice swiftly faded when she saw the sultry glow that shone in Gabrielle's eyes. "I--" Starting to make some pointless remark then stopping. "Thank you," she finished.

"Can I?" The bard who had stood on dozens of stages wondered fleetingly where her voice had gone. Drawing an unsteady breath. "Can I look at you?" As a lover would?

Xena instantly understood, and her heart pounded even faster. If that's possible. Wordlessly, she nodded. She knew intuitively that there was no going back from here. She was offering her body up to the bard's gaze-- her touch was not far behind. The warrior's muscles trembled with a craving to go to Gabrielle and take her-- slowly, achingly, powerfully-- and, by this, bind the younger woman to her with the bands of her own desire. Resolutely, she stood still. Gabrielle wanted ...needed... to be in control now, to render them equals in this marvelously delicate experiment that was taking place.

Reveling in her new exploration, Gabrielle let her eyes roam freely and noticed the tremor that raced through Xena's body. To the bard, the dark woman was even more stunning when stripped of her warrior's accouterments. Certainly the leather and armor added to the Warrior Princess' mystique, but the form before her spoke more eloquently than any scroll or legend about Xena's raw power. Even in repose, the warrior's body looked lethal, and summers of experience had taught the bard that Xena's relaxed stance could change in an instant. Each muscle was sleekly defined by the constant activity their travels entailed, and the bronze skin over those muscles glimmered in the dim torchlight with a faint sheen of perspiration. Green eyes hungrily absorbed the breadth of the warrior's shoulders, followed the tapering lines to a slim waist, finally coming to rest on the faint rise and fall of Xena's chest.

But what really took Gabrielle's breath away was the unexpected softness she found residing within that same body. In the smooth curve of Xena's hips. In the round fullness of her breasts. And in the cascade of ebony hair tumbling around her face. Dragging her gaze away from the tall woman's body, she finally dared to meet the piercing blue of the warrior's eyes and saw ...fear?

She took a few tentative steps towards the warrior, trying to corral her rampaging emotions. "You know, I've seen you like this before-- swimming and fishing, bathing and stuff. But suddenly I feel like I've never seen you until now."

"Tell me what you see, Gabrielle," Xena asked quietly, almost pleading.

Somehow seeing Xena's apprehension helped ease the bard's own. Growing more sure of herself, Gabrielle smiled brilliantly at her friend, aware that the depth of her feelings were visible in her eyes. "I see the most beautiful woman I've ever seen in my life. I see someone's who's honest and kind." She paused. "And strong enough to let me see her fear." Hearing Xena's breath catch. "What are you so afraid of?"

"This," the warrior whispered. Gabrielle came closer, so close that the slightest movement by either woman would send them into each other's arms. So close that she swore she could hear the bard's heartbeat. "This isn't just about sex, Gabrielle. Or lovemaking or whatever you want to call it."

"I know," the smaller woman replied evenly.

"And I'm not sure I know how to do that. I tried once... a long time ago."

"What happened?" Gabrielle asked, thinking she was speaking of Marcus.

"She was murdered. Because of me."

The bard's brows shot up in surprise, but Xena wasn't looking. Her eyes were focused somewhere distant. Somewhere in the past. She? Who?

"And I became a monster." The burning flame of Xena's eyes returned to Gabrielle's face. They both remembered the promise the younger woman had demanded of the warrior. "Ten summers, Gabrielle, I raged. I murdered and I raped and I destroyed. I did Ares' bidding with sickening joy. I was a thousand times more horrible than Callisto at her worst  moment."

Gabrielle wanted nothing more than to stop the litany of terror the warrior was reciting. "Xena, that's the past--"

"No, Gabrielle. It's who I am. I guess that's what I was trying to tell you yesterday. This... what's happening between us. We can do it a hundred different ways. I can court you. I can seduce you. I can make you think anything I want--"

The bard's green eyes flashed in anger. "Xena--" she began but was warded off by the warrior's voice.

"But I don't think that's what you want. And I know it's not what I want," she finished softly.

"I'm glad you said that."

Xena took a deep breath to steady her racing heart. "Look, why don't we make ourselves comfortable?" She gestured to the hot spring beside them. "There's a lot we need to talk about." That's something I never thought I say. "And I still need to soak these muscles. Besides," she added with a quirky grin. "Standing so close to you-- like this-- is distracting as Tartarus."

"So you're telling me those four days you were unconscious you were in... what do you call it... an alternate reality?" The bard's eyes glittered with skepticism. "How many times do I have to tell you, I'm the bard in this partnership."

"Believe me, no one was more surprised than me." Telling Gabrielle about what she had experienced following Ares' assault had been difficult to say the least. Watching the play of emotions over her friend's face-- her sadness at hearing of Lila's and Herodotus' deaths, her fear at Valesca's return, and her joy at learning that Xena had searched for her to reunite the pair-- had brought the whole experience back to the warrior with wrenching clarity. She had only omitted two small details: the fact that in this other life, Gabrielle had been Valesca's lover and the extent of Xena's own relationship with Corin. Telling her about those things will only hurt her. And they're not really important, she rationalized, even though she recognized the excuse for exactly what it was.

"So Ares was basically trying to con you into coming back to him?"

"Right. By giving me everything he thought I could ever want." He even offered me you, Gabrielle. She had also neglected to mention the widow's bold advances towards the warrior. "The best army I've ever seen. A true equal to lead it with me. And the chance for revenge."

"Against Caesar?"

"I told you about him."

"I remember." The cross, Xena. Do you think I'd soon forget something like that? I still remember how your body shook as you told me. I don't even think you noticed. You were talking and every so often this tremor would ripple through your muscles and your voice would quaver. Just a bit. And you'd go right on talking as if nothing had happened. Oh yes, Xena. I remember Caesar.

"Why'd you go to Poteidaia? Just to find me?"

"I had to know you were safe, Gabrielle. And--" her voice faltered. She looked up from the water's reflection and lost herself for a tiny moment in the warmth of those verdant eyes. "I also knew any hope I had of stopping Ares' plan from succeeding lay with you."

"With me? How?"

Because you saved this miserable excuse for a soul once. With your incessant questions and clear-eyed honesty. With your ability to see good in even the worst of situations. Because you just wouldn't let go. And now it's me who's hanging on for dear life. Oh gods, Gabrielle, how do I tell you what you mean to me without frightening you even more than I already have?

"Xena, talk to me."

The warrior blinked once to sharpen her gaze again on the woman in front of her. Knowing that to talk was to lay her soul open. Knowing that was the price if they were to have any chance of succeeding. "The only reason I didn't die on Caesar's cross was because of Mi'lila." Gabrielle's brows furrowed at the apparent non sequitur, but her storyteller's sense told her to follow the whole tale before deciding its relevance.

"Mi'lila was--" Your lover?

"Yes. She'd just been a stowaway, but things... changed. When Caesar came back he betrayed me and... left me there. I had told him that I had killed Mi'lila-- I thought at least she'd get away. Maybe go back to her homeland. But she came back for me." Shaking her head still in disbelief, even after all these summers, at the girl's brash action. The muted torchlight reflected a glassy brightness in the indigo eyes, tears that Gabrielle knew would not fall.

"That's how you ended up at Nicklio's."

"And that's where Caesar's legions found us. They shot her in the back, Gabrielle. An arrow that was meant for me. She died in my arms." She ran slim fingers through her damp hair, pushing the clinging tendrils off her face. "I felt something snap inside. I killed all the men Caesar sent after us with my bare hands. Shortly after that Ares called me. Seems he heard the promise I made to Hades standing in the cabin."

"Which was?" Gabrielle fought to keep her breathing even and a calm expression on her face.

"That a new Xena was born that night. Whose mission was death." The warrior stated tonelessly.

Oh gods... "Xena--"

"I know you can feel that in me, Gabrielle. Ares calls it 'his fire.'"

"But you're not like that anymore--"

"No, I am like that. I try--" Xena gestured helplessly, and Gabrielle was overwhelmed by the sudden understanding of exactly how difficult this warrior's road of atonement was.

"You're fighting everything you think you are."

"I told you, it is--"

"It's not all you are, Xena. Or you wouldn't have been able to walk away. You're right, for ten summers you were a monster--" The tall woman's eyes closed at hearing those words from the bard's mouth. "-- But do you realize what you were doing?"

"I was giving in to the fire."

"No." Needing to look directly at her friend, Gabrielle shifted in the water until the two women were facing each other. "You were trying to kill all the pain you felt inside over losing someone you loved. Xena, more than anyone I've ever met, you have this enormous capacity for rage. And that frightens me," she admitted softly. "What you don't realize is that you have the same capacity for love." And I never put it together until now. Gods, was I blind?

"How can you say that about someone who's done the things I have?" She asked in disbelief.

"Xena, love and hate aren't opposites. They're two sides of the same dinar. Think about Mi'lila. Or Lyceus. Is what you felt-- feel-- for them any less intense than how you felt when you were leading an army-- or when you fight now?"

A long moment's pause. Then the strangled reply. "No."

"Those feelings come from the same place." She reached out and ran a tentative hand over the warrior's heart, feeling the painful thudding underneath her fingers. "Here."

Xena closed her eyes at the touch. She covered her friend's hand with her own larger one and entwined the fingers, forming one fist. Bringing their linked hands up to her mouth, she kissed each of Gabrielle's knuckles and then let her lips rest on the back of the bard's slender hand.

The gentle kisses sending searing pulses through her skin, Gabrielle unwrapped their hands and brushed the smooth angle of Xena's jaw with her fingertips. Instinctively she knew that this was the warrior's way of speaking, although she had no words. Eyes still closed, Xena arched her head back as the exploring hand trailed down the length of her neck, exposing her throat to the bard's touch.

Gabrielle's heart stopped. This is it... she thought dazedly. A shock from the flaming blue now focused on her scorched  its way through her body.

And Xena spoke the two words that had been repeating themselves like a mantra since Gabrielle had touched her.

"Love me."

The best laid plans... eh? Thanks for hanging in there with me. To be continued-- and concluded, hopefully a little faster than previously, in Part V.

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