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Chapter 23

by M. Parnell
Copyright 1997

Disclaimers: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle and any others from Xena, Warrior Princess, along with the back story, are the property of their creators and producers. Their use in my story does not constitute any attempt on my part to infringe on their rights. The rest of the story is mine. The story is a strictly non-profit endeavor. Any reproduction or other use of this story without my consent is strictly prohibited.

The story contains violence. It also assumes that Xena and Gabrielle are in love with each other. If any of that offends you, please choose another story.

Tartarus takes place after ORIGINS. It is not necessary to read ORIGINS first, but some references will be puzzling to you.

I began this story before season three. Given all that has happened, I find it hard to continue without allowing season three to intrude in some places. If that doesn't fit with the first fifteen chapters, well, (picture me shrugging my shoulders here), it can't be helped. Maybe some day I'll go back and make it all consistent.

Chapter Twenty Three


The house was still cloaked in darkness, yet it was time to start the day. Gabrielle longed to stay put, under the blankets, warm, asleep. Yet there was too much to do. Throughout the long night when sleep was welcome, it wouldn't come. She did drift off for a few moments at a time, always to wake with a start, afraid the nightmare had been real. It had been real, she discovered each time, but it was over; Xena was here, at her side, safe. She'd watch the warrior for a few minutes, feel her pulse, listen to her breathing, tuck blankets around her, and change the warming stones when they grew cold. Then she'd settle down again, watching Xena until her eyes closed, and the frantic struggle replayed itself in her dreams and she shook herself awake. That had been the pattern through the long night. She wondered if Xena was reliving the day's events. Impossible; she was serene in sleep, hadn't stirred all night. Of course, she'd had the benefit of the narcotic. She'd sleep until the sun was high. With a half-stifled sigh, Gabrielle eased from under the blankets, shivered in the still dark room, and began her day.


"You shouldn't carry so much; you'll hurt yourself."

Gabrielle gasped and jumped at the unexpected, faint voice. Half the load of wood she carried thudded to the floor, grazing her shin. "Ow!"

"Be careful," Xena went on. "We can't afford to have both of us off at feet at once."

"Xena! When did you wake up?"

"Few minutes ago," she said sleepily. "I heard you chopping wood."

"I'm sorry, I wanted you to sleep - "

Xena's head shook in gentle negation. "It's okay. Very impressive whacks."

"Yeah?" The bard beamed, then nodded, pleased with herself. "I think I did okay. I'm small, but I'm pretty strong. And I've learned that it's not all strength, it depends on hitting just the right spot."

"Like so much else," Xena agreed with a sly smile. "You're pretty good at finding the right spot."

"Hey," Gabrielle laughed, relieved to find Xena awake, in good humor; maybe things would be all right. "You don't sound like someone who was smacked by a tree and half frozen to death just a few hours ago." She collected the wood, piled it hastily near the hearth, and knelt beside Xena, one hand on her forehead, eyes searching the warrior's face. "How are you feeling?"

"Better. I should after all that sleep. The morning's half gone. "

"It's barely past sun-up. Do you need the chamber pot?"

"No," she decided.

"Are you hungry?"

"No. Just thirsty."

"I'll get you something." She began to move away.

"Not yet." The request was undeniable. Gabrielle sank back on to the skins beside her. The warrior still lay on her stomach, face to the fire. She didn't speak, but responded with gentle pressure when Gabrielle took her hand.

"How is your hip?"

"Sore," she admitted, voice husky.

Sore could mean anything, Gabrielle knew, from 'mildly painful' to excruciating.'

"Are you warm enough?"

"Oh, yeah." Her face creased in a satisfied smile.

"It's good to be inside," Gabrielle said after a long silence. "Nothing's falling, but it's damp, and the wind. . . " Always the wind. Sometimes it seemed to carry voices. She'd have to ask Xena sometime if she heard them; but not now. The blankets rose and fell in the slow rhythm of a sleeper. "Sleep well, love," the bard breathed, before kissing the back of her hand and tucking it under the blanket.


There were candle wicks to be trimmed, soaked wheat berries to set to cook for porridge, and ashes to be swept from the hearth. That done, Gabrielle allowed herself a few minutes to rest. Hermia would likely be by soon. 'The nice thing about bread,' she liked to say, 'was that it would do half the work for you.' Once her bread was set to rise, she looked for company, most days. Gabrielle looked forward to seeing her; she was a little uneasy about Xena's likely reaction. She didn't go looking for company in the best of times. Still, she liked Hermia. . . No Arthea today, please, Gabrielle asked no one in particular. If the day played itself out as it had begun, in a contented quiet with Xena, she'd consider it a success. Gods, how many times I've wanted Xena to myself, not busy, not dashing all over. I never meant this way.


Archon came by not long after. Gabrielle came from the root cellar to find him standing in the doorway, eyes on Xena, who slept on the floor. "Archon?" she said, a bit angry with herself for being caught off guard. "Gabrielle. I called out; no one answered, so I came in." He nodded toward the door. "You should keep it barred."

"I know. I've been in and out all day." It was a poor excuse, she knew.

He entered at Gabrielle's gesture, and stood just inside the door. Gabrielle moved no further. His eyes darted around the room. They settled briefly on Xena, then moved to Gabrielle. He seemed unwilling to look at Xena, as she was.

"I thought something was wrong," he said gravely, "that's why I'm here." He told her of his encounter with Argo the day before. "I guess I should have forgotten the damn goat and told you, but at the time. . . "

"I understand," Gabrielle said truthfully; goats were a big part of his survival.

"It somehow never occurred Xena might need help. I did see Hekatore round these parts yesterday. Did he drop in?"

"No," Gabrielle answered. "There was no bleeding."

"Good; he's a strange one. I don't know if he can do what folk say, but me and Sepra don't encourage him coming round. He always seems to know when there's bad trouble. Death."

Gabrielle smiled uneasily, remembering Xena's history with Hekatore. For now, she wished Archon would leave them alone.

"Thank you for coming by, Archon. Truly," she said, taking a step toward the door.

"She'll be all right?" he asked anxiously.

"Fine. Just needs a little rest."

He nodded, shuffled his feet. "If you need a hand, give a shout."

"Thanks," Gabrielle said. She paused, wondering how Xena would feel about that. Then: "Archon. Could I ask you not to mention this to anyone?"

"Just Sepra," he assured her. "Is there anything that needs doing now?"

"No. Things are under control." For the moment.

"Then I'll be going. Bar the door," he warned sternly. "It's not safe when you're alone. . . "

"Archon, who's with Sepra right now?" she asked pointedly.

"That's different. She's not likely to be a target. We pay our tribute." He shrugged. "And there's not much anyone can do about the Tribes. There'd be no living if we worried about them every minute."

She nodded her agreement. He'd put his finger on it: Xena was a target. A sitting duck, now. "I'll bar the door." For all the good it would do, she thought as she fitted the bar in place.


When Xena woke again, the sun was halfway to its zenith, and a cold light filtered in through the oiled parchment over the windows. She rubbed the back of a hand against dry lips and watched Gabrielle's back for a few moments, guessing from the movement of her shoulders that she was polishing her breastplate. She coughed, at last, so as not to startle the bard again, and the blonde head looked up from the long table.

"Welcome back. I missed your company," she said sincerely. She was beside her again, kneeling this time.

"I feel as if I've been drugged," Xena said as she worked to wet her mouth with saliva. A sudden thought occurred. "You didn't - " she began.

"I did," Gabrielle admitted. "Just one, and you didn't finish it all."

"Gabrielle, don't ever, unless you ask," she said. Her voice was still weak, but her message was firm.

"Xena, you needed it. I know you would have refused. I know how you feel about drugs, but - "

"Gabrielle, this isn't about how I feel, just a practical note." She paused, suddenly tired. "Cold has the effect of slowing things down, breathing, pulse; you know that. So does verosa."

Gabrielle was still for a moment, absorbing the message. Then she nodded, a sheepish smile on her face. "So after all that effort, I brought you home and damn near killed you?"

Xena's head moved slightly, in agreement. "It wasn't the safest thing to do. I only mention it because - "

"Because you don't want me to screw up again?"

"You didn't screw up. I just want you to know it's not the. . . recommended treatment," she said gently, then smiled. "The next time I spend the day in a frozen stream, and you risk life and limb to save me, haul me through a freezing rain, brave wolves and gods know what else, then patch me up, leave off the narcotic." She reached to seize one of Gabrielle's hands, clutched it a little too tightly, as she often did when intent, and asked: "Do you understand?"

Gabrielle did understand. This was no criticism; the recitation of deeds was a measure of Xena's gratitude, a recognition of all her lover had accomplished. She nodded. "Got it. The next time you'll have to beg for the drugs," she promised with a grin. "Which reminds me: how did you end up down there?"

Xena sighed, embarrassed to speak of it. "Rescuing a goat. It was trapped there, at the edge of the stream. I turned around and a tree was falling on me."

"What is it about you and trees? If you aren't hanging from one, they're slamming into you," Gabrielle cut short her chuckle; Xena seemed not to share her amusement. "I'm sorry," she said.

"Don't apologize; you're right. Maybe you can put in a good word with Artemis on my behalf?" she asked with a wry grin.

"If Artemis needs telling again, she hasn't been paying attention. Now, just tell me this: what you did to frighten that poor wolf?"

That was a hard question. "I'm not sure. I just know I wanted the wolf to be gone more than he wanted to stay around." She tried to recapture the moment; she had been so tired. . . "I don't know. It just happened." She looked at Gabrielle as if ready to accept disbelief.

Gabrielle was ready to believe anything Xena told her; what she had witnessed in Chin made anything seem possible. "Whatever you did, I'm glad. Word will spread through the pack, and they'll stay away from us."

"I know how you feel about them. You showed a lot of guts coming through them."

"Please." She cast her eyes upward, dismissively. "That was all Argo; I was just along for the ride. She must have had quite a day. I wish horses could speak."

Xena nodded, wishing she could visit the mare, right then.

"You always promise to tell me about Argo, how you got her." She waited; Xena only smiled in reply. Today would not be the day. No matter. The bard stretched out beside the warrior. Xena moved the hand she held to her lips, and pressed it there for a long time. "These next few weeks are going to be hard, Gabrielle," she said at last. "I'm sorry."

"Now you stop apologizing. We'll be fine. Are you in pain?"

"Some. Not much. It's really a minor break, more a crack, than anything, I think." I hope.

"And there's nothing more to be done for it?"


"Boneset? We have comfrey, I can prepare it if it will help."

"Location's wrong for a splint; boneset won't help."

"Will it be safe to lift you on the chamber pot?"

"Yeah, that'll be fine," Xena nodded. "Not much alternative," she conceded.

"Well, we could - "

"Don't go there, Gabrielle," she warned with a glare.

"I'll be happy not to," the bard agreed. "Now. Would you like to turn over on to your back?"

"In a while. It feels good this way." 'Good' was too strong a word, but she guessed that moving would be worse. "Gabrielle. The less people who know about this, the better.

Gabrielle nodded. "I didn't plan on an announcement." The prospect of Nerad, Placar, or anyone else trying to take advantage of Xena's injury was very real. "Hermia will know; she's always dropping by. Archon's already been here." She related the brief conversation. "Drax should know; he can be useful."

Xena nodded. Drax could be very useful. "It doesn't have to go beyond that," she said.

"There is Arthea." She sympathized with Xena's weary sigh. Arthea had become something of a fixture in the vicinity. She had a place to sleep at Hermia's, who saw to it that she earned her way. She'd spent a few days with Cramma. The large woman had sympathy for any woman whose man beat her. That hadn't lasted. Cramma's farm required too much heavy labor. For now, probably for the winter, she'd be with Hermia, which meant she'd be a frequent visitor.

"That can't be helped. Arthea needs to be told how things are," Xena decided. "She's not stupid, and she doesn't bear me any grudge. She'll keep quiet about it."

"If you say so," Gabrielle muttered as she rose. "I'll get you something to drink, then I'll check the snares."

"I'm sorry you have to do that," Xena said after a moment.

Gabrielle looked up from the hearth. "I don't like killing animals, but as you've pointed out: I eat them." She shrugged. "It'll be okay. When they die, it helps us survive. Them or us. I hate that."

"The Amazons believe - "

"I know," she cut her off. "We're all in this world together, we each have a role. So I thank the brown twitchy rabbit that's struggling against the ropes, and end his life as easily as possible." She looked at Xena directly. "I still hate it, but I'll do it. I have my priority too, you know: you." She approached with a steaming mug. "Drink this before it's cold."

"Colt's foot?" She turned up her nose at the scent.

"No complaints," she admonished. "I've added plenty of honey."

"I'm not complaining, but I don't need colt's foot. My chest is clear, no cough. . . "

"I'm happy to hear it, but we're taking no chances on you developing anything. Besides, it's been steeping for a good long time. Can't waste it."

She positioned herself beside Xena, providing support while Xena maneuvered herself from stomach to back, and lay against skins Gabrielle piled behind her, so that she was in a half-sitting position.

"I wish we had that mattress," the bard confessed. "It would be softer for you."

I wish we had the mattress too, Xena wanted to say, but Gabrielle didn't need that right now. "Better to have a firm surface," she said instead, turning her face to hide a grimace. "Good hard floor, for support." It was probably true, but it didn't make her hip feel any better. It was easier to sit on the ground outside, than to sit on the floor of a house, she decided. Things were more in proportion. She would almost have preferred the barn. A bed seemed very desirable just then. As soon as she was well enough, they would have a bed.

She pulled the blankets up high around her; it was chilly, and she had nothing on.

Gabrielle held the mug to her lips. "I can hold it Gabrielle," she said. "My arms work fine."

"Okay," she said doubtfully, as her eyes darted over the left arm, where faint blood stains smeared the cloth wrapping, but she transferred the mug to Xena's hands. "Just don't spill it. We don't - "

"I know: we don't need me getting scalded." She watched as Gabrielle retrieved the chakram from the wooden peg which held her weapons.

"Here. I pity anyone dumb enough to intrude on you." She placed the chakram at Xena's side. "I won't be long. Can I get you anything before I go? I have porridge just about ready?"

"No. I'm fine."

"Can you stay awake?"

"Yes. Gabrielle, I'm fine," she insisted. I just can't walk. Gabrielle had her gray cloak around her. "Just worry about yourself for a while," Xena admonished. "You're riding Argo?" she asked.

"Of course; you have nothing to worry about." She turned from the door to kneel beside the warrior again. She kissed her, then pressed her cheek to the warrior's for a long moment. "I'll be back," she said, and was gone.


The little house was fragrant with herbs, and strong bear's garlic. The store of the wild plant was low; when it was gone they'd do without until the spring. Today it added a welcome note to the long simmering stewed rabbit, making Xena realize how hungry she was. Gabrielle had returned with two large hares, killed by her hand, and gutted streamside before she brought them to the house. With only occasional comments from Xena she'd managed to skin them. The pelts did not survive intact, but the rabbit fur would still have its uses. She'd set the pot over the fire, hauled more water from the stream, and swept the hearth with the bundles of broom. She gave Xena a bowl of porridge; the warrior would have been happy to wait for the rabbit, but it seemed important to Gabrielle that she accept. She knew why right away. "Walnuts. Honey and walnuts." She lowered the spoon and moved her gaze from the bowl to the bard. "This isn't breakfast, Gabrielle. It's dessert."

"And you'll love every mouthful," she nodded with assurance.

Xena stirred the mixture slowly for a moment, then began: "Gabrielle. . . "

"I don't want to hear it Xena, not today," she said firmly. "I didn't waste the walnuts, I didn't waste the honey, and I don't want to hear a word about how many mushrooms are in the stew. We have a cellar full of walnuts, and we dried enough mushrooms to feed The Sweetwater. I was a little extravagant, maybe," she admitted, "but life is short. If I haven't learned that lesson enough, I learned it all again yesterday. What I don't want to waste is time, worrying about tomorrow, and ending up with a heart full of regrets. If this makes you happy today, that's what today is for. Do I make myself clear?" She ended with a little frown at the doubtful structure of the sentence.

Xena nodded her understanding. "I wasn't going to say anything like that," she replied quietly. "I just wanted to say that this was a nice surprise. I didn't think I was hungry," she smiled, "but this. . . I love you for a lot of reasons, Gabrielle. You keep adding to the list."

"Xena, come on; it's only a bowl of wheat cereal," she said dismissively, and turned back to her tasks, humming softly.

"Yeah," Xena muttered. "Only a bowl of cereal."


That was all, a bowl of porridge, and a few words, but the room had brightened as if lit by a thousand candles. That's how it seemed to Xena, who shifted uncomfortably now and again, trying not to distract Gabrielle from her seemingly unending round of chores. Something had occurred to her, about wasting time, and the events of the day before. And regrets.


"Yes, Xena? Do you need something?"

"No. I just thought maybe you'd come and sit with me?"

"In a bit, honey. I just have to feed Argo and our gift from Petra - "

"The horse wasn't a gift, Gabrielle - "

"I know. Sorry. The horse still needs to be fed. We should name her. I'm tired of calling her 'the horse,' you know?"

"Call her whatever you like."

"Okay. I'll give it some thought. Be right back." She turned back. "Pull the blankets up around your chest. Every time I open the door a blast of cold comes in. We've got to do something about getting you dressed."


"Have you noticed how some days go one for ever? Like yesterday. And some seem to fly."

"You don't mean today?" Xena asked incredulous. It was not yet sunset; she could swear she'd sat in that corner by the hearth half her adult life.

"Xena, it's almost sundown and I still have a ton of things to do."

"I guess it depends on how you're passing the time. Sitting idly has never been my idea of fun." She'd whittled an ornate spoon while she sat, in between small naps which had punctuated the afternoon. The spoon was almost finished, and she scraped at it in a desultory fashion with a small dagger.

"I bet Zeno could explain it," the bard said.

"Zeno? He couldn't explain how to cross a town square," Xena scoffed.

"I suppose you've read Zeno's works?" Gabrielle smirked.

"No," Xena replied; she paused for effect: "Zeno read them to me."

Gabrielle's mouth dropped open. "You know Zeno? Of Elia?"

"We've met."

"Wow." Her eyes narrowed with curiosity. "You never mentioned that."

Xena eyed her, amused. I should have known you'd be interested, she thought.

"What's he like?"

Xena looked up from her work and snickered. "I know he can't drink worth a damn."

"Xena," came the reproach, "he's one of the finest minds of our time. His ability to hold spirits is beside the point."

"Spirits come in handy when you try to understand his logic." She shook her head. " 'Half the time is equal to twice the time.' Try to explain that one."

Gabrielle pondered for a moment. "I'd have to know the context," she confessed. "The point is that he's immersed in the questions that go to the very heart of reality."

"Immersed? I think he's drowning. His answers don't mesh with my reality." She picked up the small dagger by her side. "Imagine this is an arrow, okay? Now, when I release the bow, this pretty soon turns up in whatever object I've chosen. Right?"

Gabrielle nodded. That was the pattern.

"So it has moved, right? That, to me indicates motion. But no," she wagged a finger in negation. "Zeno, says 'Uh-uh.' The arrow hasn't moved, because there is no motion. At every split second," she moved the dagger along a slow arc, pausing along the way, " the arrow is still. Like now." She held it still. "Then it's here." She moved it further along and held it still again. "He said," she screwed up her eyes recalling his words, "that it's always occupying a particular space, even if the time is so brief it can't be registered, before it's occupying a different space, a little further on. In each space, it's still. What he doesn't explain is how it gets to the next space, if there is no motion." She dropped the dagger

with a grimace.

Gabrielle regarded her doubtfully. "Xena, are you certain you have that right?"

"Gabrielle, I swear, that's what he said. The funny thing is, sometimes I can almost believe him, when I catch a dagger, it's as if it's just hanging there, waiting for me to grab it." She shook her head again. He still has to explain how it gets from one place to another if there is no motion."

"Well, I can't explain it, but I wish I had met him."

"So you can discuss your theory of how the first people came from fish? I don't think the world is ready for your minds to meet, Gabrielle."

The bard shook her head with disdain. "Who can explain why the gods set the paths of people like Zeno to cross the paths of people like you?"

"People like me? Gabrielle, there is no one like me," she said without vanity, "and the gods had nothing to do with it. Zeno was my guest, sort of a command visit. One of my earliest lessons: philosophers rate lousy ransom. I was happy to see his back."

"Serves you right, holding him for ransom. What were you thinking?"

"I was thinking that I had a hungry army. Do you think it was easy keeping them happy?"

"I can't say I ever gave that much thought. I thought they just responded to your magnetic charm."

"Don't knock it, Gabrielle. Charm had its place."

"That wasn't a knock, honey. I've seen your charm at work. Right before you cleave someone in two."

"You know me too well."

"And not well enough. I can't believe you never mentioned Zeno. Who else haven't you mentioned?"

"Come over and sit and I'll think of someone."

"Oh? Are you making them up now? Did you make up Zeno?"

"If I was making someone up it wouldn't be Zeno," she pointed out with a pained expression. A mischievous smile lit her face. "It would be someone young, exciting, beautiful. . . "

"Like Petra Tartras," Gabrielle supplied.

"Like Petra?" Xena's smile faded. "Why her?"

Gabrielle paused. "I don't know. She just came to mind. Weren't you dreaming up someone to make me jealous?"

"She'd do that? Make you jealous? Why"

"Because she's beautiful, and exciting. Why wouldn't I be jealous if I learned you two had a past?" She looked away, and asked: "You haven't, have you?"

"No. I'd never met her before."

"Oh. Well, Zeno I can live with. The stew should be ready. I hope you're hungry: I made quite a lot, I thought maybe Hermia and Lilla would be by. I wonder where they've got to?"


"Are you sure you don't need help?"

"No, Gabrielle, thanks." She smiled before lifting a spoonful of stew into her mouth.

Gabrielle sat on the floor beside her, cradling her own steaming bowl.

"Is it warm enough?"

"It's great, Gabrielle. Just right." It was good, she was hungry; the meat disappeared quickly, the gravy was sopped up with bread. She felt Gabrielle's eyes on her, and looked up from the bowl. "What? I was hungry."

"I know," the bard answered, a touch of laughter in her eyes. "I can't get used to seeing you eat naked. Well, not a bowl of stew or porridge."

Xena cast a glance down the length of her body, then met her eyes evenly. "I know I'm naked. The blankets cover most of me. What can I do? I don't have an extensive wardrobe."

"You don't have to sound so proud about it; and you can't lie here naked on the floor, just wrapped in blankets when people are around."

Xena eyed her leathers, hung to dry a safe distance from the hearth. "No," Gabrielle said firmly. "They aren't dry, and they'll need a good conditioning before you can wear them again."

"I could just crawl down to the root cellar and hide," she sighed

"Pathetic doesn't really work for you, Xena."

The warrior's smile suggested that wasn't always the case.

"I won't fall for it this time," Gabrielle amended.

"Then you suggest something," she said, exasperated. "Or get me a needle and thread; I'll stitch something from a blanket."

"Xena, be serious," she scolded. "Arthea's bound to drop in. More often than usual."

"I am serious. These old blankets will put her off me."

"Yeah," Gabrielle agreed. "They've never lost Argo's scent."

"Best thing about them." The warrior showed her teeth in a brief smile.

"Yeah," came the grudging reply, "a little bit of the old life in the here-and-now, but it doesn't answer the question of what you're going to wear. Are you a little bit sorry now that you tore your only shift in two?"

"No," she said, noting with silent wonder how much Gabrielle could sound like Cyrene on occasion. "It was messy thing, and I'm glad it's gone. I can live without one just fine." She was puzzled at Gabrielle's crestfallen face. "Maybe if Ileander ever gets his loom in order I'll barter a length of fabric from him."

"I hope you're on your feet before then," Gabrielle said fervently.

"Don't worry; I won't lie here one second longer than necessary."

Gabrielle nodded, knowing what the warrior said was true. "Until then, let's see what we can do about getting you cleaned up. Your feet are almost brown, grass is stuck to your legs, your hair must be loaded with dirt from the river. You'll feel better when you're clean."


"Gabrielle, I can do this myself, really," Xena said mildly.

"You couldn't reach your feet," she pointed out, as she wrung excess water from the sponge into an iron pot full of hot water.

"Well, you've taken care of my feet, and my back, and my hair," she said too sweetly, "and I thank you, but I can reach the rest."

""Xena, I know this isn't the most romantic bath I've ever given you, but as a matter of practicality I think we'll do this my way." She moved with tender strokes over Xena's bruised left side. "I can do it faster, for one thing, and get back to everything else I still have to do. Besides, if you ever tipped the pot over, the bedding would be wet, and we'd have no place to sleep tonight. I'm almost done now. Lift up your chin."

Xena obeyed, with grim resignation. "When have I ever tipped over a pot?"

"You're doing everything with one hand," the bard observed. Think I didn't notice? I've caught every grimace, felt it each time you winced. You insist you feel fine, but you're in pain. Why you have to things from me, I don't know. I'm not the enemy."

"I'm not hiding anything," Xena said after a moment.

"No?" Gabrielle moved a hand against Xena's back; the warrior inhaled sharply. "If I'm not mistaken, that rib is broken. Is there anything else?"

"Gabrielle, I don't know if it's broken," she replied tersely. "It does hurt," she conceded, "especially when someone jabs a stiff finger against it."

"Xena, I barely touched it," she protested.

"Oh, really? Well, you made your point," she spat. "And if I didn't mention every last sore spot, that's because it's only pain, and it all requires the same remedy: time and rest. Ya got all that?"

"Why are you shouting?" the bard asked quietly.

"Why are you so bloody bossy all of a sudden?"

"Bossy?" she echoed, incredulous.

"Yeah, bossy," Xena insisted, nodding her head for emphasis. "All day long it's been: Xena drink this, Xena turn over, Xena go to sleep, Xena - "

Gabrielle stood up, threw the sponge into the pot and looked down at Xena, hands on hips. "You must be feeling pretty good. When you're really hurt, you don't mind a little fuss. My mistake." She hefted the pot, and moved to the door, where she paused. "Let me know if I can get you anything."


"Gabrielle?" Xena's voice was startling after the long quiet.

"Hmmm?" The bard didn't look up from her work.

"I need to use the chamber pot."

Gabrielle set aside the heavy pot and piece of the horsetail plant she used to scrub it clean. "You look as if you combed your hair with a rake," she said as she approached, holding the big clay pot in both hands.

Xena waggled the fingers of one hand. "I didn't have a comb nearby."

"Would it have killed you to ask?"

"Didn't seem worth the trouble."

"No," the bard snorted. She placed the pot next to Xena. "Stick you in a wasteland and the civilities go out the window: clothes, grooming." Appreciation.

"Don't push it, Gabrielle," she growled.

"That's pretty big talk for someone who's waiting to be lifted onto a pot." She bent to Xena's side; the warrior waved her away.

"Never mind; I can do it myself."

"Xena, you can't do it by yourself."

"Oh, no?" She glared at Gabrielle and pulled the pot closer. "Can I have a little privacy?"

"We live in one room. Good luck," was the acerbic reply. Still, she turned her face to the window, gazed sightlessly at the bleak landscape outside. She resisted looking at the sounds behind her, but only for a moment. "Xena, you win, okay?" she said fiercely. "I know you can do this by yourself; I know you can empty the thing by yourself, even if it means balancing it on your head while you crawl outside. You don't really need me at all. But damn it," she said, crossing to her in two long strides, "you aren't going to do that." Xena waited for Gabrielle to reach her as if frozen. The task was accomplished in silence.

Gabrielle returned with the clean pot, barred the door and leaned against it. Xena's eyes seemed to dart across the dimly-lit room like blue lightning.

"Was there anything else?" the bard asked in a neutral tone.

"No. No thank you." Xena's voice was barely audible. She watched as Gabrielle returned the pot to it's place, then rummaged in the wooden chest where she kept her things, and fished out a tightly rolled cloth. She untied the ribbon which encircled it as she crossed the room, and unfurled it at Xena's feet with a flourish. "Here, you're still naked. Even if you don't care, I do. Go on, take it," she said impatiently, as Xena merely stared at the garment she held. It was a cotton shift, dyed blue, unadorned, except for a ribbon which threaded through the low neckline. "This isn't how I planned on giving it to you, but you could have the courtesy to take it." She dropped the shift in Xena's lap and returned to the table.

It was very soft, probably woven from the fine cotton grown in Egypt. Xena guessed Gabrielle had bought it in Mustrakis, in those few short days before the exile.

"Gabrielle, it's lovely."

"I know."

"Thank you. It must have cost ... "

"Yeah, it did cost a lot, and it's worth every last dinar," she replied defensively. "At least I thought so when I bought it. Maybe you'd have preferred a hammer, or saw, or something else I can only guess at, but I chose to spend the dinars on this. Any objections?" She fell silent.

Xena considered what else to say. There was nothing. She lifted her arms and slipped the shift over her head, and as far down her body as she could manage.

"It's a good fit," she volunteered.

"I do know your size, Xena," she replied without looking.

Damn, Xena thought, taking her lower lip between her teeth. She replayed the words and moments which had led her to this point, looking for a way to get beyond them to where the day had started. "Gabrielle," she ventured at last. "Would you have time to do my hair?"

It was beginning. The bard nodded, lips tight as she retrieved the tortoise shell comb, and stopped to select a long piece of braided, buttery leather from a long wooden chest which had survived the peddlers' market. She wondered if the request would be as close as Xena came to an apology. She had gotten much better at that, but still picked her spots. It didn't matter at that moment. Gabrielle avoided contact with her eyes as she came closer, but couldn't avoid the rest of the warrior. The shift was a fine fit, ending just where the swell of Xena's full breasts began. She knew the blue would compliment Xena's eyes. She'd had that in mind when she chose it, so long ago, it seemed, in Mustrakis.

She ran the comb though the tumbled mass, frowning at the occasional knots, finding frequent excuses to touch the soft shoulders beneath. "That's better," she said at last, adding one finishing touch. Xena reached behind to seize her wrist gently. "I'm sorry," she said without turning.

"I know." But it was nice to hear it said. "Did I hurt you? Really?"

"No. Not much. Would you come around where I can see you? Please." Gabrielle complied, sat hip to hip facing Xena.

The warrior's hand cupped her cheek, face turned a little to catch the soft red glow from the fire. "Yesterday, that whole long time, this was all I could see; I could hear you if I really tried. I would have waited all winter for you to come for me, Gabrielle. I just want to be with you." The blonde head nestled against her chest. "All day, I wanted you here beside me." She stroked the blonde hair. "Just like this."

"I wanted the same thing, Xena," she said, voice suddenly softer.

"So why did I spoil things?" Gabrielle was touched by the plaintive tone in the warrior's voice.

"Because it scares you to be dependent. Helpless - "

"No," Xena laughed, "I'm not afraid ... "

Gabrielle went on as if Xena hadn't spoken: " ... immobile, waiting to be fed and bathed. Watching me do things you think you should be doing. Gods, I can feel your muscles tighten when I talk about it. Don't tell me you aren't afraid."

"It's not like this was the first time you've ever had to nurse me."

"No, and I'm betting it won't be the last time. You've always hated it and you always will." And there's something about this place which makes it worse. She paused, lifted her head to watch Xena's face, to let Xena see the resolution in her face, and when she spoke again her voice held an air of command: "Don't turn your fear into anger; if you can't help doing that, at least don't direct it at me. I didn't push that tree over on you. I helped get it off you. I've done my best by you Xena; I always will. I don't deserve your hostility, and I won't stand for it." That said, she lowered her head to the warrior's chest again, gave her a fierce hug, and waited for a response. It wasn't long in coming.

"Do you remember the first time you had to take care of me?"

"Of course I do. How could I forget that?" Callisto's first strike. So much had happened since then.

"That's when I first realized how strong you are. Physically strong, I mean. Despite your size."


"Nothing. Just thinking out loud."

"That's all you have to say? I make a major statement of personal intentions, and you have no response?"

She shook her head slowly, eyes searching the room as if seeking the answer in it's deepening shadows. "What can I say, Gabrielle? Tell you again that I'm sorry I snapped at you? Promise to be different? I don't know if I can keep that promise. So what do I say?"

Gabrielle had no answer; Xena had expected none. "Even 'I love you' must sound empty after a while."

"Try me," Gabrielle challenged. After a minute: "That's a very long pause."

"I do love you, Gabrielle. So much. . . I love you, I want to take care of you, and I don't like feeling useless." She felt Gabrielle's face muscles move in a sudden smile against her breast, as the bard shook with soft laughter.

"Xena, I've described you many times in my scrolls. 'Useless' is a word that has never been employed."

"You can laugh, Gabrielle, but the food stores won't last forever. We can't count on something in the snares every day. Then we'll be taking from the reserves."

"Xena, it will only be for a few weeks."

"It won't be easy to replenish them if the game is gone." She turned Gabrielle gently by the shoulders. "Have you ever seen real hunger, Gabrielle? Did Potadeia ever have a serious problem that way?"

"No, some years were lean, but on the coast, there was always something to eat."

"You've been lucky. I've seen hunger. I've caused it. When I had an army to feed, I didn't care who was left hungry in our wake. Villages would face the sword rather than face a slow death from starvation."

"Xena, we won't starve."

"Starvation doesn't have to be to death. See a hungry village, and the people look older than they are. Sort of gray, and slow. The children have thin, pinched faces, and crooked bones. . . Gabrielle, we saw them at the peddlers' market."

The younger woman nodded, seeing the faces again. "There's plenty of food in The Sweetwater, Xena. Archon has offered a hand - " She felt Xena's muscles grow tight. "I know," she said quickly, forestalling an explosion, "everything has a price. We'll pay it, one way or another. You know that Archon expects you to be midwife when it's Sepra's time. Do you think he'll let his midwife perish?" She didn't wait for a reply. "Hermia will help."

"Gabrielle, these people haven't a lot to spare."

"I know," she went on smoothly, as if reciting well considered plans. "Natrakia and Ikar always have something to barter. And there's Drax."

"What do we give them in return? They can't live on promises."

"We'll think of something."

"Gabrielle." She hesitated. "I still have a pouch full of earrings."

"We won't need them," she responded decisively. "We'll be fine. Tell me, Xena: did you worry this much when you had an army to feed?"

"I didn't have to put every bite on the table then. And I didn't mind stealing what others had worked to produce," she admitted. "This is different." She considered how to explain the difference, then said:

"There was a couple at the peddler's market. They asked me to witness their vows to each other."

Gabrielle glanced at her briefly, puzzled at the odd quality in her voice. "The wedding ceremony? I met them. They were here for the party, and told me about it I wondered when you were going to mention them."

"I've been thinking about them. A lot. In the middle of that awful place, after so much had happened, they were so eager, seemed optimistic. . . It was as if they were giving each other a gift."

"Of love," Gabrielle supplied. "Of each other." She was very still, wondering where Xena was going with this.

The dark head nodded. "It gives some point to being here; being on Earth at all." Maybe we're more than food for the worms after all. "Gabrielle, we're here; I don't know if we'll ever leave. It doesn't really matter, somehow. Wherever I spend my life, I want it to be with you. I think you know that. And, I'm not sure why, but you seem content to be with me."

Gabrielle opened her mouth to protest that understatement, but Xena was not finished:

"I've pledged myself to you a thousand times, in my mind. I'd like to say the words to you, in front of witnesses, or alone; you decide; that is, if you agree."

Gabrielle blinked tears away before they could fall. "You have an interesting sense of timing," was all she said.

"Is that a 'no'?" Xena asked quietly.

"Of course not," Gabrielle exclaimed. "I'm not going to refuse," she explained, "but you took me by surprise." She pulled away and looked at Xena's face. "Why now? After all the time we've been together? If this is your way of making up. . . Xena, we'll still have our battles, that's just the way it is - "

"It's not about making up, Gabrielle. You said something today about not wanting regrets. I feel the same. If I hadn't come back yesterday - "

"But you did."

" - if you hadn't saved me," she went on, I would have regretted not saying things to you. . . "

"What things? I know you love me."

"You don't know, can't know how much. You are so full of love; you'd have to be to find a way to love me."

"Xena, you're not being fair to yourself."

"Yes I am. I know what I can be like. How does anyone love someone like me? I couldn't," she confessed. "My capacity to love isn't that great. But then, I have the easy part: loving someone who's immensely loveable."

"Xena, why are you talking like this?"

"It's not a good idea to give me idle time, Gabrielle. Haven't you noticed that? I think too much."

"About all the wrong things."

"No; this time I think I got some things right." She nodded, as if satisfied that was the case. "What do you say?" She squeezed Gabrielle's shoulders, spoke low into her ear.

"I want to say everything that's in my heart, right now, but the words haven't been coined yet."

"That's never stopped you before," Xena told her. Gabrielle turned, ready to object with mock indignation, but Xena was smiling as never before; she stopped, caught off guard a second time. "I don't think I need to say anything else, do I?"

"Nope. Just tell me when and where."

"Today, right here and now."

"If you like," Xena agreed, "but we won't have witnesses."

"No, I don't really mean that. I want our friends to be there, to know how we feel."

"That's the general point, but I think they know, Gabrielle."

The bard laughed with sudden memory. "I don't think it's ever been hard to see. Solari used to tease me. . . What would she say?"

"That you're crazy?" Xena guessed.

"Crazy in love sounds rather trite, huh? I wouldn't use it in a scroll, but just between us,

I don't mind saying it." She traced the line of Xena's jaw with a finger. "I think my Amazon sisters would be stunned."

"Why stunned?"

"Because we've finally gotten it together. I think they'd all but given up on that ever happening. That's what this means, right? That we've gotten past everything? We've made it?"

"I hope so, Gabrielle. I don't think there's a bump in the road we've missed. Yet we're still together."

"I think they'll figure that out, somehow."

"They'd throw quite a party for you."


She shrugged. "Anyway, Jalani will know," she said as an afterthought. "One day she'll wake from a dream and tell them."

"You sound pretty certain."

"She's a remarkable woman. She knows things. She knew things about me I didn't know myself. She helped me find my way back to you. Somehow, we have a connection. You know how wherever a spider is in the web, it's alert to the least disturbance or presence on any strand?"

"Are you saying Jalani is like the spider? Or is that you?"

"I don't know, just that we're all dancing on the same strings."

"That's an interesting idea. Worthy of Zeno," she teased.

"I'm nothing like Zeno," Xena objected.

"I'm sure of it," Gabrielle agreed. "No one else could have eyes like these." She kissed each eye. "Or lips so soft." She tasted them with her own. "And now that I've made you dress, I want you undressed as fast as possible."

The warrior's breath was coming quickly. "Sure, just give me a hand. . . " She began a series of small nibbles down the bard's neck.

Suddenly, Gabrielle pulled away. "Xena, this isn't a good idea, not now. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have started anything. I wasn't thinking."

Damn. "Right Gabrielle, It's a rotten idea." Wish you'd realized that a few minutes sooner. "But we can be very careful," Xena suggested hopefully.

"Xena, when have we ever been careful? When you come you'll do more damage to your hip."

"Then you come. I'll wait." A few weeks. She made a face.

Gabrielle moved back into the embrace. "No; we'll both wait until you're well," she said firmly.

"Gabrielle, there's no point in both of us being miserable."

"Are you miserable, Xena? I'm not. I don't think I've ever been happier."

Continued - Chapter 24

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