Gabrielle sat down with her back against the barn wall, and pulled Xena’s limp form into her lap, cradling her battered head against her chest. "In case I haven’t made it perfectly clear…" The bard said very slowly, and very deliberatly. "That this woman is the most important thing in my life, more important to me than my title, and the Amazons, and anything else, let me just say it so we don’t have any more misunderstandings." She gently felt the lump on the warrior's head and winced. "I'm here because I want to be here, damn it."

"But.." Eponin started forward, stopping when Gabrielle fixed her stare on her.

"Stay back. " The bard said softly. "I don’t want you to get hurt if she comes around and doesn’t know what’s going on."

Solari gazed at her. "In that case, you should get back, too, Gabrielle."

The bard gently straightened the disheveled hair on Xena’s forehead. "She won’t hurt me."

Eponin knelt down and braced an arm on her knee. "That’s not true, and we know it."

Gabrielle looked up and met her eyes. "Yes it is. Now, more than ever." She took a breath. "Did she defend herself against you, Pony?"

Eponin sighed, and looked at the dirt. "No." Then her gaze swept up. "She broke Ephiny’s arm, Gabrielle."

"And delivered her son." The bard answered right back." And saved her life. Doesn’t that equal out, or is Amazon pride so unbending that bad acts have to be answered by bad acts, regardless of the consequences, or the circumstances?" She took a breath. "Damn it, Eponin, she doesn’t need any more guilt, all right? Neither of us do.. we have enough between us to last several lifetimes."

Eponin’s gaze softened. "I know.. Gabrielle.. I"m sorry.. believe me I am. We just thought we were doing what was best for you." Her fingers drew a design in the dirt. "Are you … Look.. Eph wanted me to tell you this, all right? We’re your family too, Gabrielle.. you have a place with us. You… have a choice, if you want one. Or if you need one."

Gabrielle gave her a little smile. "I know that, Pony." She sighed. "I should have sent word to you.. that was pretty stupid. I.. it’s been hard.. it’s going to take us time, but… "

Eponin watched the bard’s hands at their gentle, soothing motions. "But it’s working out?"

The bard’s eyes warmed. "Yeah." She let out a long sigh. "We’re gonna be all right."

The Amazon sat down with a thump. "Well, I’ll start composing my apology then." She gave Xena’s still body an apprehensive look. "I have a feeling I"m gonna be snacking on one of my own chobos."

"S’allright." Came Xena’s slightly groggy voice. "I needed a nap."

Gabrielle glanced down, and saw half closed blue eyes gazing up at her. "Can’t leave you alone for a minute, can I?" The teasing comment came out before she could edit it, and she bit her lip, but the warrior’s face didn’t tense at the comment. She looked up at the two Amazons, who were watching intently. "Go on to the inn. We’ll join you shortly."

Eponin sighed. "All right." She stood and offered Solari a hand up. "Listen, Xena…"

One blue eye rolled in her direction. "You’ve been wanting to do that since Solstice. Congratulations."

That shut Eponin up, and she just grunted, then stomped off towards the inn, with Solari hurrying to keep up.

A little silence fell. "So.. how long have you been awake?" Gabrielle asked quietly, making no move to release the captive warrior.

"Long enough." Xena replied, making no move to free herself.

"Sorry about that." The bard made a rueful face.

A shrug. "They had cause to be concerned. " Xena sighed. "We should have sent word.. that was.. kinda… "

"Stupid." Gabrielle confirmed. "Yeah… so… what’s with letting her hit you?" The bard’s fingers gently probed the bump on the side of her companion’s head.

Xena didn’t answer for along moment. "Maybe I thought deserved it." She quietly admitted.

Gabrielle looked at the newly star scattered sky in appeal. ‘Did it make you feel better?"

The warrior eyed her warily. "No."

"Did it make her feel better?" Gabrielle asked gently.

"I don’t think so." Xena mumbled.

The bard nodded. "So.. it’s just more warrior ego poop, right?"

That got a faint grin in response. "Maybe."

Silence. "Did you hear everything I said?" Gabrielle finally asked.

Xena blinked at her and nodded.

"Good." And Gabrielle ducked her head, kissing her partner's forehead, and pulling her close in a heartfelt hug. "I meant all of it." She whispered in the nearby ear, then released the warrior. "Your head ok?"

Xena slowly eased herself up on her elbows and winced. "More or less, yeah." She blinked her vision a little clearer. "That was pretty stupid wasn't it." She swiveled around until she was leaning against the barn wall next to the bard, and let her head rest on the wood. "Gods.. I'm.. damn, I'm sorry about Ephiny."

Gabrielle gave her a sideways glance, and laced her fingers together. "I know you are." She replied quietly. "Look.. she'll be ok."

Xena stared off into the distance. "She was a friend." She said in a small voice, as she let her head roll to one side and closed her eyes.

"She still is." The bard answered. "She's just scared for me."

The warrior shook her head sadly. "She sent two of her best warriors to kill me, Gabrielle." Xena told her with soft bluntness. "I don't blame her."

"I do." The bard snapped back angrily. "And if I find out she did that, a broken arm is going to be the least of her worries." She let out a peeved breath between her teeth. "Look.. Xena… you were in a lot of pain when that happened.. pain that I helped cause." She put a tentative hand on Xena's knee. "I understand that. I accept it." Xena's hand covered hers, and she shifted around so that she was facing the warrior. "A.. and… Xena.. I want.. I want you to know that.. I.. I would have.. " She stopped, and collected herself for a moment. "I would have.. rather died myself.. than have something happen to Solon." She finished in a whisper, looking at the ground. "You… know.. that right?"

The warrior's fingers gently grasped her chin and turned her face up to force eye contact. "I know that, Gabrielle." Her voice was tired. "I'm sorry you had to do what you did to Hope."

There.. the names were between them. "I… I know that hurt you terribly… and… I know I should have.. I wanted to.. to be there for you but…I just…" Her shoulders slumped. "It was too much for me..I couldn't…" Xena sighed softly, then gathered herself again. "I would have taken responsibility for that, if you'd…" The warrior let that trail off into silence. "I didn't want you to have to live with that… I've done.. so much… and… I thought you hated me anyway.. what difference would…" She stopped, and lifted a hand, then let it drop.

"No." The bard drew a ragged breath. "I couldn't let you do that… Xena.. couldn't let you bear that weight along with everything else..I thought….I hated myself so much at that moment…I almost…" She looked up at Xena.

"I know." The warrior whispered. "I saw you."

Gabrielle stopped breathing. "Would you have stopped me?"

Xena looked right at her. "Yes." Remembering fingers slick with sweat clenched around her chakram.

The bard closed her eyes, then let them blink open. "Why?" Her throat moved as she swallowed. "Xena.. I saw your face when you found us… I could see in your eyes what you were thinking.. why would you have stopped me then?"

Xena remained silent for a while. "Same reason I didn't just let that cave take me along with Callisto." She said softly. "I'm a lot of things, Gabrielle, but I'm no coward. I wasn't going to give up like that without at least…" She paused and swallowed. "Facing you." Her eyes searched Gabrielle's face. "Dying would have been the easy way out… and I.. I made a promise to someone once.. that I wouldn't ever take that way out again." She fell silent. "And… and even through the hatred… there was still a part of me… that…needed you."

The bard nodded slowly. "You taught me to take responsibility for my actions, Xena." Her eyes grew misty "When I realized… you.. were right about Hope..I… I had to do what I did." She let out a tired breath, and lifted her hands, letting them drop against her legs with a soft sound. "I couldn’t let that fall on your shoulders, love."

It slipped out so quickly she had no time to think before it was passed her lips. "I… " She rubbed her face with one hand. "That was my heart talking, I guess." She mumbled, glancing up wistfully at the warrior.

"Come here." Xena held out her arms, and the bard crawled into them, burying herself into the warm comfort without restraint. "Sometimes… our hearts talk better than we do, my bard." She whispered, and felt Gabrielle's body jerk as she started sobbing. "I've missed you so."

Gabrielle clutched at her leathers, breathing in the scent of her like it was some vital thing she needed as she did air. Maybe it was, her frazzled mind concluded. She felt Xena's hands move in a quiet, familiar pattern of comfort against her back, and it was as though tiny threads were being rewoven inside her. Something had changed.. some barrier had broken, and as she let the warmth flow through her, a sudden knowledge settled on her like the soft misting rain that was now falling.

She was on the road home.

Long, silent minutes passed, as two souls, separated by anger and a cruel fate gently reacquainted themselves. "Guess we should probably get out of the rain." Xena finally mumbled, a trifle sheepishly.

Unseen, a smile creased Gabrielle's face. "What rain?"

That got her a smile from the warrior, who stood, carrying them both up to their feet, and wrapping an arm around her as she guided them back inside the warm barn. Argo poked her head over the stall and regarded them, then whickered encouragingly.

"Xena?" Gabrielle’s voice drifted up from where the bard was tucked against the warrior’s side.

"Mm?" Xena responded, exploring the bump hidden in her dark hair with tentative fingertips. She hit a particularly sore spot and winced. "What?"

"Promise me something?"

The warrior stopped dead still, and gave Gabrielle an uncertain look. "OK."

Green eyes studied her gravely. "Don’t let them do that to you again."

One dark eyebrow quirked up. "I just…"

Gabrielle put both hands flat against her chest and leaned in. "I know. But please don’t."

Xena’s back straightened, and her shoulders came up a little. "All right." She promised soberly. "But you have to promise me something."

The bard blinked a little. "All right."

The warrior lifted her hands hesitantly, and covered the bard’s, still resting on her chest. "Don’t be mad at them for doing it." She replied softly. "They care about you, Gabrielle… they were trying to protect you."

Gabrielle let out a tense breath, and chewed her lip a moment. Then she sighed. "All right." Her eyes darted up. "But they better not try it again." Her face was very serious. "You.. are my champion."

Xena gazed at her quietly. "Still?" The word came out in husky tone.

The bard bit back tears. "Always." She whispered, as she let herself fall gently against the damp leather, and laid her head where she could hear the strong heartbeat.

The warrior brushed her lips against the bard’s rain dusted hair, and stroked it gently, closing her eyes and listening to the faint roll of thunder overhead. The sound soothed her ragged nerves and she found herself wishing they could just stay like that and not have to go out and face the rain, and the villagers, and those Amazons. But… it was important to Gabrielle, and she owed her all the support she could muster, so.. "Guess we’d better go before they come looking for us." She finally sighed reluctantly. "You promised some folks a story."

The bard’s eyes fluttered open, and she blinked sleepily. "Um.." Her brow scrunched. "Did I just fall asleep standing up?"

Xena chuckled gently and ruffled her hair. "Must have been all that sun you got."

Gabrielle yawned, and leaned back against Argo’s stall. The mare lipped her hair, and snorted softly down the back of her neck. "Aughhh.. Argo.. cut that out." Obligingly, the horse stuck her nose into her water bucket, and sucked up a mouthful of water. "Thank you." The bard turned back around, and crossed her arms. "Thought I’d… just do something I really know…maybe I’ll.. I thought maybe the Trojan War.. Yahgghhh!!!!" The bard let out a wild yell, startling herself and Xena, and launched herself across the straw right into the warrior’s arms.

"Gabrielle!!" Xena blurted, catching the bard but losing her own balance, and cursing a little as they both tumbled into the straw behind her. "What…."

"Ughh…" Gabrielle reached behind her and wiped at the back of her neck. "Very funny, Argo." She shook her head rapidly and scattered a handful of cold droplets over herself and Xena. "She blew cold water down my back."

Xena bit her lip, and reached up to brush a few errant drops off the bard’s hair. "Sorry about that." She cast a glance over at the mare. "Bad girl." She paused, and stayed very still, as the bard took a breath, and gazed into her eyes. "Woke you up though, huh?"

Gabrielle concentrated on keeping her breathing even, and tried to ignore the creeping warmth that was spreading through her from the body trapped beneath her own. "Yeah." She heard the husky note in her voice, and felt the blush color her cheeks. She closed her eyes and took in a deep breath, then rolled off the warrior’s sprawled form and got to her feet. "Sorry."

Xena rose up with her, and captured her eyes. "Are you?" A sad, quiet regret colored her voice.

Caught in that regard, Gabrielle sucked in several ragged breaths, and stared at the scattered hay in confusion. She heard Xena let out a soft sigh, and move past her, putting a light hand on her shoulder and giving it a squeeze. She looked up to see the warrior kneel beside their gear, and pull two tunics from it, keeping her balance with one hand against the wooden stall divider. But her shoulders were slumped, and Gabrielle could see the heave of her chest as she took a deep, steadying breath. "I’m.. I’m scared." She finally said, in a small voice.

Xena stood and turned, her expression under control, and walked back over, handing her a tunic with a little nod. "It’s all right, Gabrielle. I kind of expected that." That kind of magic.. you don’t get two chances at, Xena. You blew it. "You .. you know I’ll a.. always be there for you, right?" She managed a half hearted smile. "That’ll never change." She glanced down. "Come on.. they’re waiting for you."

Gabrielle fumbled with her clothing, watching the tense back facing her as Xena slipped out of her damp leathers and into a dark blue linen tunic, trying not to feel the ache she could sense coming from the taller woman. Xena..I’m sorry.. her mind whispered silently. How could she explain a fear she hardly understood herself? Sighing, she followed the very quiet warrior across the courtyard, getting a lump in her throat when Xena carefully tucked her under the edge of her cloak against the rain and she could feel the upset fairly radiating from the warrior.

Just as they got to the door, she pulled Xena to a stop, and hugged her with all the strength in her arms. The dark head ducked close to hers. "You’ll do fine." The warrior assured her. "Don’t worry."

"Thanks." The bard took a very deep breath, and squared her shoulders as she reached for the door and pulled it open. Behind her, she heard Xena take her own steadying breath and as they crossed the threshold, Gabrielle was aware of eyes sweeping over them in bald curiosity.

She was used to that. Especially travelling with Xena, whose six feet of intimidating presence coupled with her striking good looks drew attention like a patch of clover drew bees. Tonight, she was glad most of the eyes stayed with the warrior, who gave her a friendly scratch on the back before she moved off towards a back table, returning the curious stares with one of her own. The workers waved at her, though, and called a welcome, which settled the buzz of the room and let the rest of the guests focus on the bard.

Gabrielle waited until Xena settled herself at the same table as Eponin and Solari, noting the uneasy looks the two Amazons gave her, and making herself a mental note to have chat with the two of them. Xena, of course, ignored them both, leaning back against the wall and propping a booted foot up against the table support as she crossed her arms to listen.

She was in full ex warlord mode tonight, the bard realized, hiding everything behind that stoic mask, giving away nothing, revealing nothing.

Except to her, who could see the rawness in her eyes and the tense anguish in the very lines of her body. It was an almost welcome distraction, as her mind was so occupied with her soulmate, she forgot to be nervous, and got through the two stories she’d ran over without much problem. She saw the quiet twinkle in Xena’s eyes as she finished, and returned it with a smile. Later, later Xena… if you give me a chance, I’ll try to explain it to you. Maybe you have the answer.

"Thanks." Gabrielle grinned, touching the outstretched arms of the appreciative crowd. "I'll do a few more later.. I need to take a break" She accepted the compliments as she made her way back to the table where her friends were sitting. It felt…really good. Almost like regaining a little bit of the life she'd lost again. She pulled a chair out from the table and seated herself. "Hi."

"Nice job." Xena drawled, glancing at her over the top of the mug she was working on. In front of her on the table was a large plate of food, pretty much untouched. Gabrielle took immediate possession of it, not without a warning look at her soulmate. "Something wrong with this?"

Xena gave her a one shouldered shrug. "Just wasn't hungry."

"Uh huh." The bard replied, capturing a bit of vegetable and chewing it. She glanced across the table, to where Eponin was playing with her own food, and Solari was just staring at the table. "I can see I'm going to have to be the one providing conversation here." She sighed. " are things?"

Solari looked up from the tiny bit of splinter she had been worrying out of the table. "Not.. bad, really. Ephiny.. just got back from a visit to Granella."

Gabrielle shot a look at the warrior, who let out a long breath. "I'll send word home." Xena commented quietly, as she stood up and went in search of the innkeeper.

The bard went back to her food. "How's Granella doing?"

Eponin looked up at her. "How are you doing?"

She got a direct look back from Gabrielle. "For a while, I was really doing lousy." The bard shook her head a little. "It's been very hard.. for both of us. I won't lie about that."

The older Amazon leaned forward intently. "Gabrielle, this… listen, I know you're very attached to Xena, all right? But… she's not very stable right now.. you're in a lot of danger, you know that, right?"

Gabrielle gave her a look. "I know more about what kind of danger I'm in that you ever will, Pony. I'm fine.. I'm not in any trouble."

"Has she…" Eponin persisted. "Hurt you? Again?"

The bard put down her fork, and paused to let her anger subside. "Eponin.. "

"I know..I know.. " The Amazon held up a hand. "It's none of my business, right? Damn it, Gabrielle, we all care about you.. we don't want to see you get hurt."

Gabrielle lifted her eyes. "Am I the only one who cares about Xena?" The pain in her voice stopped them cold. "Who has saved my life so many damn times I stopped counting? Who saved Ephiny's life? Who defended the Amazons against their enemies, and themselves? "

"Gabrielle…" Solari interrupted.

"Who is so full of self hatred for what she did to me that I just, two days ago, got her to stop shaking like a leaf when she touches me?" The bard went on softly. "Who is the other half of my soul.. and who you're treating like a mindless animal?" She sighed. "I'm the only one? That's a really lonely place to be in."

Eponin looked upset. "Listen, Gabrielle… I didn't mean…"

"No." The bard replied tiredly. "She hasn't hurt me." She propped her head up on one hand and stabbed viciously at a piece of meat. "Anything else you'd like to know?" Then she stopped, and took a breath, and played with her fork. "I'm sorry. I promised Xena I wouldn't do that."

Solari and Eponin exchanged glances. "Do what?" Solari asked, cautiously.

Gabrielle gazed over at them. "Get mad at you for being concerned about me."

"She made you promise that?" Eponin asked softly. "She knows why… "

Green eyes pinned her. "Yes. She does.. and she says she doesn’t blame you." The bard's nostrils flared. "I, on the other hand, have a big problem with it." She watched their startled expressions. "You know, that big dumb warrior routine is just an act. She's really smart."

Eponin sat back, and assumed a wry expression. "Gabrielle, I apologize. We should have just come to you first, and talked."

"Mmph." The bard swallowed. "That's a start." She looked up as she felt Xena's presence drawing near, and exchanged a small grin with her. "All set?"

The warrior pulled back her chair and dropped into it. "Message sent." She braced her elbows on the table and picked up her mug, staring into it quietly.

Gabrielle finished what was on her plate, then took a sip of Xena's cold cider. "Xena?" She called softly, catching the warrior's eye. "I um… I think that sun got to me today… we've got a bunk in want to…."

A half grin came back at her. "Sure." The warrior replied. "It's been a long day." She stood, and nodded quietly at the two Amazons, then motioned Gabrielle to move on ahead of her. "See you two tomorrow?"

Eponin nodded. "Yeah… um.. hey, Xena?" Blue eyes lanced into hers. "I'm sorry."

Xena gave a light shrug, and rapped her knuckles on the table surface. "It's all right. I'll live." She ran her glance over both of them, then followed Gabrielle out of the main room, and down a small hallway to where the few tiny guest rooms at the inn were.

Solari sat back and watched them leave, taking a sip of her own ale and sighing. "What do you think?"

Eponin stabbed her fork into the table and shook her head. "I don't know what to think, damn it." She let out a soft groan. "I can't… what choice do we have but to believe what Gabrielle says? She's obviously in her right mind.. she looks pretty good, considering all that's happened…no bumps, no bruises.. mentally she seems pretty sharp."

Solari nodded. "Yeah…I don't get the feeling she's nervous, or scared… there's definteily some strain going on there between them, but… y'know… damn that Xena, she's got that dour mask of hers.. except that twice I caught her giving Gabrielle that little puppy dog look.. you know the one I mean."

The older Amazon's mouth twitched. "Yeah, I know the one." She admitted. "And did you see her jump to Xena's defense? I tell you.. I'm not half as worried about what the old war horse'll do to me as I am what Gabrielle will do to me if we try anything like we did earlier." She sighed. "I think they're all right." She scowled. "Not that I'm not plenty mad still about Eph's arm."

Solari nursed her ale. "Damn.. I could think of a lot of people I'd rather have had this happen to." She sighed. "Pony.. I.. I'm glad they're ok.. sort of."

"Are you? " Eponin asked quietly.

"Yeah." Solari replied. "I never thought… I mean, there's Xena, right? All fighter, no gentle side, tough, mean… and then I think of her that night, after she came back from being dead.. I saw her just sitting there, holding on to that kid and letting her sleep peaceful for the first time since we met up with her." She slowly shook her head. "I couldn’t believe it, Pony…it was like a totally different person."

One silver and sable eyebrow lifted. "Well.. being dead can change ya, or so I hear."

Solari rolled her eyes. "That wasn't it." She stabbed at the wood with her dagger. "My mother was an oracle. She used to show me…she'd say, this person, and that person.. they're two halves of a walnut."

Eponin blinked at her. "And your point is???"

The younger Amazon stared pensively at the table. "Those two.. for better or worse, they're part of each other, Pony. It's just like she used to say.. I'm glad we didn't have to..separate them. I… I don’t' think that would have been very good for.. for Gabrielle."

Eponin snorted. "You're getting all weird on me, Solari. Cut it out."

Solari poked the table. "Too much ale, I guess."

"Come on.. let's get some sleep.. we've got to get started back home tomorrow." Eponin sighed, and stretched, wincing at the pops in her joints "At least we've got good news to bring back."

"Cozy." Gabrielle cast a glance back at the warrior, who nodded slightly. She suppressed a grin, and crossed the room, throwing open the window without being asked. The cool night breeze wafted in, carrying a hint of jasmine and roses that brought a quiet smile to the bard's tired face. "Nice."

Xena sniffed, and nodded. "White roses."

The bard turned and put her hands on her hips. "Xena, you're not going to stand there and tell me you can tell the difference between red and white roses by the smell."

A very light shrug. "Ok."

Gabrielle's brow creased. "Can you?"

Xena stopped by the low table next to the bed, and picked up something resting on it. "Well.. actually, yeah." She admitted. "The red ones have a spicier smell." She turned and held something out. "But um.. that's not how I knew."

The bard took the rose from her, and brought it to her nose, sniffing lightly. Then she studied it, admiring the pale creamy petals, tinged at the edges with just a hint of pink. "It's beautiful." She whispered, her eyes lifting to the candlelit pale blue ones opposite her.

The warrior smiled, and sat down in the chair next to the window, resting her elbows on her knees, and clasping her hands together. "Yeah.. it's all right."

Gabrielle wandered over, and gently stroked Xena's dark hair. "Y'know.. you're secret is safe with me."

Xena closed her eyes, and let her head rest against Gabrielle's hip. "Secret?"

"Mm." The bard agreed softly, continuing her gentle stroking, enjoying the feeling of the soft strands trickling over her fingers. "I won't tell anyone about your romantic side."

Blue eye popped open, and Xena straightened up, giving her a look. "Because I don't have one, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle twirled the rose in front of her lips, and took a deep breath of it's delicate fragrance. "No, huh?"

Xena rested her chin on her fists, and gazed at the wooden floor. "No."

The bard went to the window and gazed out. 'Xena?" A flicker of motion, and a warm presence at her back. "Look."

The yard in back of the inn, where their window faced, was full of fireflies, clouds of them like bands of stars come down from the night sky. "I've always had a soft spot for those." She perched on the edge of the windowsill, and sniffed her rose, staring out into the rain misted darkness at the dancing lights.

A long pause from behind her, then Xena shifted a little. "Want me to go catch you one?"

Gabrielle smiled, and knew if she closed her eyes, she could almost feel the memory of the firefly’s tiny feet tickling her fingers. It seemed like a long time ago, until she looked up and remembered all over again what it felt like to be tumbling giddily into a love so deep, and so overwhelming it seemed impossible to ever get out of.

Where had that gone? How had they both known that, and let themselves drift so far apart? The scent from the rose lifted up to her and she glanced at it, then up at the silent warrior who was staring out into the darkness, lost in her own memories. She let her eyes absorb the strong profile, and pushed her fear down, and listened very closely to her heart.

And a tiny smile touched her lips, as she felt that firefly’s touch against her skin in her thoughts, as her fingers twined with Xena’s, and the insect crossed from her hand to the warrior’s, carrying the possession of her soul with it.

It never had come back.

Maybe that knowledge could give her back what Dahok had taken from her. Had made ugly. She looked back up. "Xena?"

It took a moment for the warrior to shake off whatever her thoughts were and turn. "Mmm?"

The bard lifted the rose a little. "Thank you for the rose." She took a deep breath. "That made me feel really good."

That got a tiny, surprised smile from the warrior. "I.. I just thought you’d… like it."

Gabrielle twirled the flower and focused her vision on it. "It…I haven’t.. felt really good about myself since.. Britannia." There, starting was the hardest part, and this.. what had happened to her was so ugly she preferred to not think about it. But she had

Xena gently touched her chin, and lifted her face up. "You don’t owe me any explanations, Gabrielle."

"I know." The bard took a steadying breath. "But maybe if I talk about this.. you can give me one."

The warrior eased down on the windowsill next to her and waited in silence.

"They… it… took something away from me in there, Xena." Gabrielle twisted her hands together, and swallowed. "It.. it made something that was always a beautiful thing for me very ugly.. and.. every time I think about that, I remember him. It." Now she finally looked up with a tired, unhappy expression. "I’m scared to death, Xena… I’m scared it will always be like that.. and …I won’t be able to… I don’t want to feel that."

"Oh… Gabrielle." The warrior breathed, in an agonized whisper. "I never.. I didn’t realize."

The bard put her flower down, and went willingly into the open arms across from her, snuggling down into Xena’s embrace with a tiny cry. "I hate feeling like this."

"Shhh… I got you." The warrior rocked her gently. "It’s all right… you’re gonna be all right, Gabrielle." Slowly she stood, and carried the bard over to the bed, sitting down and leaning back against the wall. "It’s all right." No wonder..damn… how could I be that stupid. She was raped, and you didn’t even have the sense to… gods.. what an idiot I am. "I’m sorry."

"So.. so much has happened, Xena… " The bard sobbed softly. "It was so ugly.."

"I.. I know." The warrior whispered. "I know… Gabrielle, I’m so sorry.. I should have realized.. I should have… "

"I.. I felt so… horrible about myself for such a long time." Gabrielle sighed and dropped her head. "I didn’t think…especially after… it was just so.. it just hurt so much." She plucked the warrior’s shirt ties idly. "I wanted… to talk to you about it, but things got.."

"Yeah." Xena replied. No wonder she’s not.. she doesn’t feel the same about me. The warrior clasped her hands gently. "Gabrielle.. it’s all right… it’s…look, the fact that you’re alive, and safe, and.. we’re here, and we’re friends… that’s.. that’s more than I had any reason to hope for." She swallowed hard. "The rest.. well… " Another half smile. "I understand."

The bard gazed up at her in quiet comprehension. "No.. you don’t." She felt Xena’s heart skip under her ear and sighed.

"I… I don’t?" The warrior stammered, losing her composure. "I thought… "

"Oh no.. Warrior Princess… " Gabrielle sighed softly. "You don’t get rid of me that easily. I am very much still in love with you." She looked down at the floor, and idly moved her booted foot. "But…what we had… was very special." She looked up, at blue eyes that were giving her a stunned blink. "I’m.. I don’t know if that will still be there.. and.. I’m afraid to find out." She closed her eyes. "Because.. if.. it’s not.. and.. all I can feel is that ugliness… Xena.. I can’t live with that."

"Oh." Xena said, very faintly. She sat thinking in silence for a while, one hand idly rubbing the bard’s back. Finally, she nodded to herself a little and took a breath. "Gabrielle?"

The bard had been half dozing, drifting in a quiet twilight comprised of both physical and mental exhaustion. "Mmm?"

"Do you trust me?"

The bard felt a tremor run through her, and she thought carefully about the question before answering. "Yes." She did, she realized.

"Look at me." Xena replied quietly.

So she did, letting her eyes rest on the warrior’s candle lit face, then lift up to meet the shadowed blue eyes gazing back at her. No barriers faced her, only an open, honest look that was equal mixtures of regret and love. "Gabrielle… what happened to you was horrible… I know that." The warrior spoke softly. "But you’ll overcome that, because the beauty and the kindness I see in you won’t allow for anything else."

Gabrielle smiled at her. "Thanks.. I needed to hear that."

Xena raised a hand, and pushed a lock of her hair back behind one ear, then let her fingertips trail down the bard’s cheek. "And..when I look at you.. all I see is courage, and honor, and the most beautiful person I know.. the person I love with all my heart."

That got her. She buried her face against Xena’s chest, and cried quietly, in simple relief.

"So.. you take whatever time you need, Gabrielle.. for however long you want. I"ll be here waiting for you." Xena finished softly, hugging her. "You’ll always be a part of me. Nothing is ever going to change that."

The bard cried for a long time, finally drifting off into an uneasy sleep clutching Xena around the ribcage tightly. The warrior carefully pulled the soft covers up over both of them ,and settled down for some serious thought.

Gabrielle was chiefly aware of being stiff, and that brought her halfway out of a deep sleep, into the pre dawn grayness that half lit the room through the still open window. She blinked a little, clearing her vision, and loosened her stranglehold on Xena’s body with a wince. The warrior was sprawled in what looked like a really uncomfortable position, but as usual had managed to fall asleep anyway, and was still sleeping, her head resting against the bedpost and her arms wrapped around the bard’s body protectively.

That felt really good, the bard admitted to herself. And it felt better now that she’d gotten some of that off her chest… she hadn’t realized how much she needed Xena’s reassurance until she’d gotten it, and it settled something inside her that helped ease the pain of the memories.

Her body, however, was not sharing her mind’s misgivings. It settled against the warmth of her soulmate’s with comfortable familiarity, and she had to keep consciously willing her hands not to wander out of long habit. She hadn’t had to worry about that before.. their emotional distance had also equated to physical estrangement, but now..

She sighed softly, and put her head back down on Xena’s chest, reveling in the comforting sound of the strong heartbeat that.. She smiled softly That was beating in time with her own. Two hearts. Her gazed unfocused for a moment, as a snatch of something whispered through her mind. One destiny. It was tickling, tantalizing.. just out of her reach.. an image, no.. One long moment of utter stillness, then she took a deep breath, and let the laughter that had bubbled up inside her out softly. "Yesss…."

The body under hers stirred, and Xena opened her eyes in sleepy alarm. "Hey?" She blinked. "What’s wrong?" The blue eyes flicked over the room in confusion. "What’s funny?"

The bard took a breath and recited.

Two hearts.

Two different lives.

Though separate by nature,

Bound by fate

to one destiny.

Xena cocked her head thoughtfully. "Well.. it’s appropriate… where’d you dig that one up from?"

Gabrielle gazed off into the first rays of dawn, and smiled. "I didn’t dig it up anywhere. I just made it up." Her face lit up with a quiet joyfulness. "I did it…it was in there…" She turned bright eyes on Xena. "You were right." She hugged the warrior tightly and bounced a little on top of her. "Thank you."

Xena grinned for the first time in what felt like forever, a real, heartfelt grin that stretched muscles in her face that hadn’t been used in a while. "Nice way to wake up." She chuckled as the bard bounced again. "Oof.. Gabrielle!"

The bard quieted down, and gave her a tiny pat. "Sorry." She glanced over at the window. "Is our.. " Her eyes roamed the room. "Oh.. yeah.. I see it." She scrambled off the bed, and trotted over to their saddlebags, rummaging around in one and coming up with two slightly dusty apples. She tossed one to Xena, who caught it with a lazy swipe of her hand. "Breakfast." She bit into the fruit and chewed it as she reseated herself on the bed, settling cross legged next to Xena and watching the warrior nibble her apple. "You sleep OK?"

Xena made an effort to look wide awake, considering she’d fallen into a light doze not long before the bard had stirred. "Yep."

She’d spent the dark hours thinking about a lot of things. About Britannia, about Chin.. about all the things she’d done in the last few months, trying to understand what had driven her to do them. About how Gabrielle had suffered because of it. She’d thought a lot about Solon. About how short a time he’d had, and how she wished she’d known him better. She cherished all the more the little time they’d had, and had cried a little, remembering his excitement at the possibility of coming to live with them. She’d thought about how she’d miss seeing him grow up, and how Gabrielle had taken him into her heart, which made the tragedy doubly worse for the bard.

And she realized what it must have been like for Gabrielle, who had taken Hope into her heart in much the same manner, to face the thought that her soulmate wanted to kill this child. This child of hers, who, despite it’s origins, despite whatever Xena felt from it, was nevertheless part of Gabrielle. And she’d never even tried to sympathize, never had tried to explain to Gabrielle what she knew. .how she knew it.. she’d just… forced her to make a choice.


And it had been the only choice Gabrielle could have made, given the circumstances. She had forced that. It had all been her fault. Every single bit of it.

So forgiving Gabrielle had never been an issue. Forgiving herself was, and there were parts of what happened she knew, with a bleak self knowledge, that she’d never forgive. Never.

"Funny.. why do I think that’s not quite true?" The bard commented quietly,

"Huh?" Xena started as fingertips brushed her knee. "Sorry.. I was um…"

"The term is napping, Xena." Gabrielle quirked a grin at her. "Come on.." She took the half eaten apple from the warrior’s hand, and set it on the table, then tugged the blankets up around her.

"No… it’s… I"m fine, Gabrielle." Xena protested.

"Uh huh." The bard set down her own breakfast, and slid onto her side, facing the recalcitrant warrior. "Let’s see if this still works. " Before Xena could say anything, she slid a hand under the blanket, and beneath the taller woman’s shirt, tracing a slow pattern on the bare skin of her stomach. "Remember that?" She said softly. "I discovered that the first night we were together."

Xena’s eyes misted, and she blinked "I remember." She replied in a small voice, as she felt her body respond to the familiar signal, and a slow wave of lethargy rolled over her. "I.. I did a lot of thinking last night."

Gabrielle studied her face intently. "Beating up on yourself, huh?"

Xena dropped her gaze. "Yeah.. something like that." She admitted.

Gabrielle leaned closer, still keeping up her gentle patterns. "Xena? I think we need to stop doing that, OK? Life beats up on us enough, without us doing it to ourselves."

If it were only that easy. Xena reflected, as she let herself get lost in the bard's gentle gaze, and the hypnotic rhythm of her touch. She didn't want to breathe, for fear the bard would stop, or pull back.. it had been what seemed to her like forever since she'd felt that friendly tracing, and seen that slightly indulgent expression on the bard's face. She hadn't realized just how much she'd come to depend on the simplest of exchanges between them, until they were no longer there.

That coldness had half killed her, ironic considering how long it had taken her to get over the bard's tendency to touch. Now she felt starved for it, and was just glad to be lying here soaking in the warmth she could sense from Gabrielle, absorbing it like a sponge would water. If she took a breath, she knew she'd smell the bard's gentle scent, she was so close. She took a breath, and it brought a quiet smile to her face.

"Hey.. it still works, huh?" Gabrielle's voice drifted close, and brought a hint of apple with it. The bard curled up inside the circle of her arm, and settled down. "I really missed this." She hesitated. "I missed.. just being with you…being close."

"Me too." Xena admitted. "It hurt."

"Yeah." Gabrielle's soft voice warmed the skin on her shoulder. "Xena?"


"I'm tired of hurting." The very quiet response. "I want to go home."

Xena opened her eyes and studied the pale head tucked against her shoulder, and tightened her arm, pulling the bard closer. "I know… " She gently kissed the top of Gabrielle's head. "We'll find our way there." She drifted off listening to the very early morning sounds of herdsmen readying their animals for pasture and enjoying the drifting scent of newly baked bread.

"Long night? "

Xena glanced up from where she was retrieving a bucket of daub for the barn and gave Eponin a nod. "Thought you two would be out of here already." The warrior had eschewed her armor for the day, and was working in just her leathers, with her dark hair tied back in knot. She ignored the question, not seeing any reason to give Eponin an excuse for why they'd managed to sleep in well past dawn.

"Solari and I had a bet going. I won. She's still figuring out which way's up." Eponin commented, as she watched Xena launch herself up onto a roughly made platform, and continue putting the insulating stuff in place with negligent skill. "Hey.. you're pretty good at that." She spared an appreciative glance for the muscles rippling across the warrior's tanned shoulders as she worked.

"So.. you drunk her under the table." Xena guessed, pressing a thick clump of daub into place and smoothing it with a flat piece of wood. "Nice." She paused and glanced over her shoulder at the watching Amazon. "You do that a lot. Be careful."

Eponin blinked. "Are you giving me advice?"

Pale blue eyes flicked over her. "Just a suggestion." She paused. "Look.. if you're gonna just stand there, why not get up here and help?" She put down the bucket, and leaned over, offering a hand up.

The Amazon hesitated, then reached up and grabbed the offered hand, and was hauled bodily up as Xena shifted her weight and stepped backwards. "Damn." She snorted, as the warrior let loose of her hand. They looked at each other for a long minute. "Are we ok?" Eponin asked quietly.

A light shrug from Xena. "Yeah." A tiny quirk pulled at one corner of her lips. "So.. you get me, Solari gets Gabrielle, huh?"

Eponin got caught flat footed, and just blinked. Damn.

Xena shook her head, and gave her a pat on the shoulder. "C'mon, get it over with." She turned back and dipped a handful of daub from the bucket, and smoothed it into place. "Look..I'm not really in the mood for twenty questions, all right?"

The Amazon took a handful of the gray stuff, and pounded it into a crack between the wooden planks. "Yeah.. um…look, Xena.. I'm .. I'm sorry how things worked out, you know?"

Xena sighed. "Yeah. I know." She glanced over. "So am I."

Eponin smoothed a finger over the daub. "I'm really sorry about your son." She added very quietly. "He was a good kid."

The warrior stared at the surface she was working on for a long moment, then turned, and leaned against the surface with a tired shoulder. "Thanks." Her eyes studied Eponin's face. "I'm sorry about what happened with Ephiny, Eponin. " She looked down. "I had considered her a friend." She finished quietly, looking back up at the smaller woman with sincere regret.

Eponin glanced down, playing with the daub in her fingers. "As your.. " Her lips twitched. "partner rightly reminded me last night, she wouldn't be alive to get that broken arm if it hadn't been for you. I guess I lost sight of that." She pushed a piece of daub into place. "Just like I lost sight of how Xenon got his name." She gave the warrior a shrug. "She'll be all right."

Xena nodded a little, and turned back to her task.

"Xena?" Eponin added softly.

Blue eyes swept over her again. "Yeah?"

The Amazon took a breath. "She cried the whole night before we left." Her eyes met Xena's squarely. "She's still a friend of yours." She looked off into the distance. "We just… Gabrielle is our queen, Xena. We had to protect her." She paused. "And we all love her, you know that."

Xena’s shoulders slumped, and she rested her head against the wooden wall. "I.. I know that, Eponin." She finally sighed. "I’d give anything to make it so didn't feel the need to protect her.. from me.."

The Amazon stepped closer and shuffled her feet nervously. "Look.. um.. I know things are.. um.. kinda rough right now, but I think it’ll all work out ok."

Xena felt a smile tugging gently at her lips. Eponin, trying her best to be comforting. It touched her. "Think so?" She turned her head, and studied the uncomfortable Amazon.

Eponin ducked her head and crossed her arms, then nodded, and looked anywhere but at Xena. "Yeah..I um…yeah, I think so." She kicked the platform studiously. "You guys still have that little eye thing going."

Xena’s brow creased. "What?"

Eponin cleared her throat. "Um… it’s this… you… uh.. nevermind."

The warrior put down her bucket, and turned to face Eponin, putting her hands on her hips and raising an eyebrow. "Eye thing?"

"Um.. I gotta go." Eponin stepped back. "You.. um.. take care of yourself, all right?"

"Eponin." Xena’s voice dropped into it’s lowest register, a rumble that tickled the Amazon’s eardrums ominously.

The Amazon sighed, and lifted a hand. "It’s.. hey, don’t worry about it, ok? It’s just that you two look at each other, and it’s pretty obvious, even to an old war dog like me, that um…."

"That there’s hope for us?" Xena completed the thought quietly.

Eponin took a startled breath. "Yeah."

But Xena just nodded again, and turned back to the wall, scooping out a handful of daub and pressing it into place between two boards.

"Drink this." Gabrielle emerged from the small room she and Xena were sharing, carrying a small wooden cup. "It tastes disgusting, and smells worse, but I swear it works."

Solari gave her an evil look, and downed the cup’s contents without so much as sniffing them. "It couldn’t make me feel worse." She set the mug down, and carefully cradled her head in her hands. "How did I let her talk me into that?"

The bard wiped the sweat off her brow, and sat down next to the ailing Amazon with a sigh. "You guys do that a lot." She commented. "You should be careful." She shifted her shoulders and winced, as skin tightened by her sunburn protested. She was wearing a loose fitting shirt over her usual skirt today, and had submitted willingly to the soothing aloe mixture Xena had gently rubbed on her sensitive skin before they’d left the room.

"Is that an order, your Majesty?" Solari mumbled, rubbing her temples.

"Just a suggestion." The bard replied with a small grin. "Thought you guys wanted to get moving today."

Solari groaned. "We are.. we are… what are you doing?"

Gabrielle flexed her hands. "Getting everything settled back in the storeroom, and helping out gathering all the animals those raiders let loose." She laughed gently. "And the kids are pestering me for a story or two so…"

The Amazon studied her carefully. "You’re in a better mood today."

A long breath. "Well.. I am, yeah… it was.. we talked a lot last night. Working some stuff out."

Solari’s eyebrow rose at an odd angle. "She talks to you?"

The bard smiled gently. "I do most of the talking, but yeah.. she does… it’s been really hard for both of us." She paused, and traced a line on the table they were sitting at. "Hard for me, because of all the stuff that happened. Hard for her, because she can’t stop.. hating.. herself for it." She sighed. "It hurts a lot."

Solari let out a soft sound. "Ephiny wanted us to bring you back." She put a hand on the bard’s wrist. "She’s really worried about you." Her lips twitched in a pained smile. "That offer’s still open.. she wanted me to make sure you knew that."

Green eyes studied her intently. "I can’t leave her, Solari." The bard answered honestly. "And.. I .. I really don’t want to. Things.. they’re getting better, faster than I thought, really." She let a smile creep onto her face. "What we have… it’s really, really strong."

Solari shook her head a little. "I can believe that, Gabrielle… and believe me, I’m glad to be taking back good news to Ephiny.. she’s pretty.. well, this whole thing upset her a lot." She looked down at the table. "She um… there was talk about banning Xena from the territory."

Gabrielle took a breath, and let it out slowly. "Guess I won’t be seeing much of you all, then." A choice made, as easily, and as simply as saying it.

Solari gave her a brief smile. "Ephiny squashed that. She.. just.. um… stood up in council and yelled a whole lot.. she kinda lost it, and um..scared the heck out of everyone so…" She gave the bard’s wrist a squeeze. "She said.. it was.. um.. her damn arm, and if everything was ok with you guys, then she’d just wait till it was healed and slug Xena with it next time she saw her."

Gabrielle winced. "I made her promise not to let you guys do that again." Her eyes darkened. "She’s already beating herself up over this, I’m not going to have everyone else start in.. you make sure you tell Ephiny that, ok?"

Solari sighed. "Still protecting her, Gabrielle?"

A direct look back. "Yes." The bard at her most uncompromising.

The Amazon looked at her for a long moment, then finally nodded. "All right.. I’ll tell her. " Then she slapped herself in the head. "Great Artemis.. I forgot."

Gabrielle jumped. "What?"

"You’re an aunt." Solari gave her a grin. "Your sister had a baby boy."

The bard blinked, then smiled. "Really?" Her gaze went inward. "Is it… oh.. she was early.." Her eyes went back to the Amazon. "Did you see them?"

Solari nodded. "Went through Potadeia… your folks.. send regards.. we didn’t.. um… tell them anything." She took in Gabrielle’s serious look with a half smile. "He’s a cute one."

Gabrielle took breath to comment, then stopped, her head cocking lightly. "Horses." She looked at Solari. "Sounds like a lot of them."

They overturned the bench scrambling to get outside.

The raiders came back in force, on horseback, and thundered through the village, spreading out and racing down the central road, knocking over people and sheep and everything else in their path. Three split off and headed for the stockyards, yelling so loud the screams of frightened children were overwhelmed, and using their thick wooden clubs to knock running villagers out of the way.

The main group headed for the storage area, and galloped towards it full speed, weapons held up, yelling.

A yell met their own, higher, wilder, and then the leader of the group had barely time to get his arm up before he was being knocked off his mount by a flying, leather clad body. They stopped, pulling up their horses in a wild confusion of dancing hooves and dust, and watched in disbelief as the tall, blond haired man was dumped on his head, then spitted with his own sword.

Then they charged.

Xena had heard the horses, and vaulted over the platform railing, hitting the dirt running with Eponin close behind. She took one look at the onrushing horses, and gauged distance.. and realized she wasn’t going to make it to her weapons. Damn. She cursed inwardly, and changed course, heading straight for the lead horseman.

A wagon was in the way, but provided a good jumping point, so she raced up it, and hurdled off the end, slamming into the raider at chest level, and taking them both to the ground with a bone rattling crunch.

Ouch. The warrior sighed, and lifted the raider up, avoiding his wild swing and grabbing his sword arm, then twisting it around and slamming it down, driving the sword through his gut and out the back of his armor. Hot blood scattered, drenching her, and she took a breath in the silence as the rest of the raiding party trampled the ground for a shocked instant, aware of Eponin charging up behind her.

A raider yelled, and then they were charging at her, weapons swinging, and she was surrounded by a sea of sweating horses, whose rolling, wild eyes plunged past her head as she ducked under the first swinging club, and retrieved the sword from the dead raider’s chest.

Blows glanced off her shoulders, as she dodged two rearing beasts, and stabbed up, hearing a scream as the sword found it’s target, then pulling it free, and using a fist to deflect a reaching hand, feeling her knuckles scrape past armor and hit solid flesh that grunted and slid from the saddle.

A dozen surrounded her, and she fought for clear space, sensing Eponin’s grim presence to her right, as the Amazon battled her way towards the center of the melee, but not close enough, as several of them leaped bodily on top of Xena, driving her to the ground with their weight.

Xena grimly bore the slamming of fists and wood into her body, and got her hands under her, then both feet, and shoved away from the ground, sending a few attackers flying, but not losing all of them. She took one out with an elbow to the chin, then heard the distinctive crack of wood on flesh and grinned fiercely as she kicked up and out, and got space enough to spot a flash of familiar red gold hair.

In a whirling moment, they were back to back, and she felt a warmth go through her as Gabrielle’s shoulderblades pressed up against hers, and the bard lashed out at the raider who was trying to gut her, knocking him back. "Hi." The bard worked a combination move that left an opponent gasping on the floor.

"Hi yourself." Xena replied, catching a weapon by its blade, and twisting, then kicking it’s owner back through the crowd and into a water trough. Then her eyes lifted, and she cursed loudly, seeing a single shot of a mounted crossbowman aiming at the winded and kneeling form of Solari, who had just finished a vicious hand to hand fight with a raider twice her size.

A hand touched hers. "Here." And a rock was under her fingertips. She grabbed it, and paused, then whipped her arm forward, and nailed the archer on his helmet, knocking him forward and causing his weapon to fire right into his horse’s neck. The beast screamed, and reared, and dumped his rider, shaking the man loose of the trailing stirrups and galloping off.

Then it was just opponent after opponent, and she kept Gabrielle in her peripheral vision as always, but the bard seemed to be holding her own, wielding her staff with grim precision and watching her partner’s back with bold persistence. It felt… wonderful, and she found herself grinning despite the heat, and the mud, and the pesky raiders.

One last charge and she ducked, but the rider swung backwards, and caught her in the back of the neck, sending her tumbling. She tucked her body into tight roll, clearing the animal’s hooves, and looked up as the forward swing of his club slipped past a tiring Eponin’s defenses and smashed her across the temple. The Amazon stumbled, and raised her hand to protect her head, but the rider lifted his club with a triumphant yell, and brought it down hard.


So hard he threw himself off his horse when he missed his target, and slid halfway down the animal’s barrel, then something hit the side of his head, and it all went dark.

Eponin raised a hand to her head, and waited for her breathing to settle down, glad of the powerful arm that was holding her up several feet from where the raider had hit her. One minute, she was trying to fight off the brilliant flashes in her eyesight, knowing the second blow was headed her way, then next something big and warm had hit her and she’d been carried through the air and out of the way, landing with Xena’s hold firmly on her.

"Gods." She whispered weakly, as she felt the warrior’s hold shift slightly. " Who in Hades taught me to duck?"

"Easy." Xena’s voice rumbled in her ear. The gentle hands were touching her head.

"Pony… take it easy, ok? We’ve got you." That was Gabrielle’s voice, and she blinked, trying to clear her vision. The bard slowly coalesced from a vague shadow into her familiar features, concern shadowing her mist green eyes, and smudges of dirt and blood covering her face and body. "It’s over, all right? We’re going to get you back to the inn and take care of that." The bard’s eyes flicked over her right shoulder, and she seemed to hold some kind of silent conversation, because Eponin suddenly felt Xena grunt an assent, then the world went dizzily crazy, as she was picked up and everything went whirling around her head. Then it went dark.

"She’s out." Xena commented, as she stepped carefully over the silent bodies of the raiders. She gave the anxious Solari a look. "It’s a nasty bump.. that club had spikes on it. That’s where the blood is coming from.. broke the skin there." The unconscious Amazon’s face was covered in crimson. "Looks worse than it is."

Running footsteps made them look up, as the village reeve skidded to a halt in front of them. "Xena… thank you." He glanced at them. "Thank all of you." His eyes fastened on their fallen companion. "Our healer’s coming.. no one else got hurt.. they didn’t get anything this time." His eyes fairly glowed when he looked at the silently pacing warrior. "I’ve never seen anything like that… you all are wonderful."

Gabrielle put a hand on Xena’s arm, correctly anticipating an angry snarl from the warrior. "Thank you.. we’re glad we could help.. but you know, it’s not really a wonderful thing.. it’s very dangerous, and it hurts." She displayed a badly bruised forearm to the man. "It’s not a lot of fun most of the time."

"Oh.. well.. yeah, of course." The man winced at her bruise. "Um.. I didn’t mean to sound.. I"m sorry." He steered them into the inn, where several villagers were gathered, including the mason, who had cleared off a low padded bench near the fireplace.

"Here, lass.. put er down here." He glanced up as Xena knelt carefully at his side, and deposited the injured Amazon onto the couch. "Ye do your stories justice, ye do, Xena."

Xena gave him a look. "Tell that to the bard, here." She jerked her head in Gabrielle’s direction, then gave the bard a ghost of a wink, as she stood, and let the village healer bustle in with his packets of herbs and cleanser. She went over to a chair nearby, and dropped into it, wincing as her own bruises made their presence known, now that the battle fever was out of her. She tuned out the excited buzz of voices around her, as the villagers relived their experiences, not wanting to hear the wild spin they were already putting on her actions. She laid her head back, and watched the healer work, letting her eyes idly drift between Solari’s anxious face, and Gabrielle’s reassuring movements.

Her mind drifted back to the battle, to the moment when the bard had joined her, back to back, against the raiders. It had felt… right.. for the first time, in a long time. Just like waking up this morning the second time, with Gabrielle wrapped so tightly around her she couldn’t move felt right.. it was all starting to edge it's way back to how she remembered it, and the wistful desire for that was getting stronger and stronger, the closer they got. She closed her eyes and smiled a little, opening them at a touch on her wrist. She found Gabrielle crouched next to her, a very worried look on her face. "Hey." She drawled peacefully at the bard.

"Are you all right?" The bard asked in a low voice. "I thought you’d gone out on me here."

"Why?" The warrior asked, reasonably. "Yeah.. I’m fine… took a few hits, but nothing major."

"Xena, I called you twice, and walked all the way over here and you didn’t hear me." Gabrielle said softly. "You didn’t even react until I touched you."

A tiny grin shaped Xena’s mouth. "Sorry.. I was thinking."

"Uh huh." The bard studied her closely. "Thinking so hard you let someone sneak up on you?"

The warrior cocked her head to one side. "Thinking about the person doing the sneaking." Their eyes met. "Thanks for watching my back out there."

Gabrielle smoothed the fine hairs on her partner’s forearm, then looked up. "It felt good." She smiled a little. "I felt like we were a team." Her fingers traced a faint scar. "I like that."

That got her a quirky half grin from Xena. "Me too." She agreed. "I've really missed that."

The bard propped her chin up on one hand. "You're a mess." She looked over her shoulder. "Pony's gonna be fine.. took a few stitches, but she's already kinda mumbling." Eyes flicked over to her. "You saved her life, you know that, right?"

"Shh." Xena winced. "It wasn't anything like that, Gabrielle, I just… "

"Xena." Gabrielle's eyes glinted. "That guy was about to smash her head in like an egg, and you jumped over two other guys, kicked a third one out of the way, grabbed her, jumped out of the way, then kicked that guy into next week. Don't give me that I just nothing, ok? " Her voice dropped. "You did that… don't act like it's something to be ashamed of."

The warrior stared at her for a long moment, then closed her eyes, and lifted a hand to rub her temples. "Sorry." She let out a breath. "I don't know what my problem is."

Gabrielle rested her cheek against the warm arm she was clutching. "I do." She waited for Xena's eyes to open and focus on her, and they did. "You're so angry with yourself, you can't understand people seeing you as anything other than what you see yourself as." She saw the blue eyes widen and shy away from hers. "Xena… don't do it.. please? You're a hero to them. "

Long silence.

"You're my hero." Gabrielle added very softly.

The warrior locked eyes with her. "How can you say that?" Her voice was bitter.

The bard gazed up at her quietly, knowingly. "Because it's true."

Xena regarded her pensively. "I.. I don't know if I can believe I'm capable of that anymore, Gabrielle."

"You are.." Gabrielle insisted. "You have to be..." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "I need you to be."

Xena sat in silence, thinking about that. For her, anything. Was the final decision. "Then I'll see what I can do, I guess." She replied, simply, taking a deep breath and squaring her shoulders slightly. Her eyes lifted, and glanced over the bard's shoulder. "Solari.. you all right?"

The dark haired Amazon wandered over, and sat down next to Xena with a thump. "More or less, yeah." She flicked a glance over them, then focused on Xena. "You?"

The warrior shrugged. "Fine." She watched as Gabrielle stood, and walked over to the innkeeper, who rubbed his hands and nodded at her. "Thanks for helping out."

Solari leaned back in the chair and let out a soft groan as she stretched her legs out. "I'll be feeling that tomorrow.. " She grimaced. "Thanks for the on target rock toss." She regarded the ceiling thoughtfully. "Felt bad for the horse, though."

"Not my fault. "Xena muttered. "Idiot had his crossbow on hair trigger." She stretched out her own long legs and crossed them at the ankles, as she idly watched Gabrielle collect a set of gently steaming mugs and head back their way.

Solari leaned over. "Y'know, Xena… not to get real personal with you or anything, but.. damn, she's cute."

Xena gave her a look, causing her to settle back hurriedly in her chair. Then she glanced around, and raised an eyebrow, lowering her voice conspiratorially. "I know."

Gabrielle reached them ,and handed Xena one of the three mugs, keeping one, and offering the third to Solari. "So.. what are you two chatting about?"

They both stuck their noses in their respective mugs. "The fight." Xena mumbled around a mouthful of soup. "Techniques."

"Perspectives." Solari added solemnly.

"Uh huh." The bard perched herself on the arm of Xena's chair, and let her arm rest gently on one tanned shoulder for balance. "Guess you guys aren't getting out of here today." She looked over at the now bandaged Eponin. "She's gonna be pissed when she wakes up."

Solari rolled her eyes. "Oh yeah.. is she ever. She hates being hurt." The Amazon leaned back. "You shoulda seen her after she fell outta that tree a few months back and sprained her back.."

"She fell out of a tree?" Xena and Gabrielle managed to ask simultaneously. They glanced at each other, then Xena chuckled and shook her head, poking her nose back in her mug of soup.

"Yeah.. " Solari reminisced. "She'd bet someone she could get this egg out of this bird's nest way up at the top of the big tree near the kitchen." Solari waved her mug. "Evrybody told her not to do it… those damn branches were real thin this year cause of the bad weather we had during the winter, but no.. it was a bet, and a challenge, and you know Eponin."

"Sounds like someone else I know." Gabrielle muttered, with a sideways glance at Xena. The warrior merely raised an eyebrow. "So what happened?"

Solari shrugged. "Well, she got the egg, not that it did her much good, cause she squashed it flat when she fell on it."

"Ouch." The bard winced. "That must have really hurt."

"Yeah.. it did." Solari agreed. "She was out flat for days.. spitting mad. Eph finally had to threaten to.." Her lips quirked. "Anyway, she threatened her, and got her to just shut up and lie down for a few days"

Xena chewed thoughtfully and swallowed. "Should have kept her there longer. It's still giving her problems." She went back to her soup, ignoring the looks between Gabrielle and Solari.

"She told you that?" Solari asked, quizzically.

"No." Xena replied. "Didn't have to. I can tell by the way she moves." She drained her mug, and glanced at it wistfully, then jerked a little as it was taken out of her hands, and replaced with Gabrielle's nearly full one. "Gabrielle… what.."

"Go on." The bard ordered. "I've had some already." She leaned back against the wood of the chair and watched the villagers gathered in small groups discussing the mornings excitement. A smile creased her features when small bits of ideas began to nudge her as to how she'd turn this into a story and she let herself indulge in that for a bit.

Xena decided not to argue the soup point, and started drinking the second mug down. It was good soup and she was, she admitted, really hungry for the first time… in a while. That brought back memories of the long months of her guts being tied up in knots so tight that even thinking of food had been.. She sighed. Gabrielle had thought she was just snubbing her cooking, and so.. she'd.. just stopped offering.

And she'd found herself not caring, just grabbing handfuls of whatever she found on the trail, finding excuses to spend more and more time in her drills, or out scouting, or.. a lot of nights were spent just curled up somewhere, hurting, and not knowing any way to stop it.

Knowing from the bard's silent, haunted eyes that she was going through her own Hades, and unable to reach across the barriers they'd put up between them.

A touch on her shoulder brought her out of the memories, and she glanced to one side, but Gabrielle's mind was elsewhere, oblivious to her idly moving fingers. A gentle, familiar touch, that stroked her skin with tickling pressure and followed the lines of bone and muscle with hypnotic rhythm. Xena smiled. She doesn't even realize she's doing it. And I don't mind her doing it. It meant they were getting more comfortable with each other, and that could only be a good thing.

The door opened, and two grim looking villagers came in, looking around and spotting the reeve with some relief. "Tomache, those raiders got to a merchant's train just south of here.. there're lots of folks hurt."

The reeve sighed. "Damn.. bastards." He looked around, and people started coming towards him. "Let's see what we can do for them.. since we were so fortunate as to have been spared." He cast a shyly devoted look towards Xena.

"Don't curse." Gabrielle whispered. "Be nice."

The warrior let out a breath. "C'mon.. let's give them a hand." She started to get up, but was held in place by Gabrielle's hand. "What?"

The bard's head ducked down. "You're hurting."

Well… "No.. I'm fine." It wasn't really anything. Much.

Gabrielle leaned closer. "*I* can tell by the way you move." She whispered right in the warrior's ear. "Stay here.. keep Pony company.. Solari and I will go out and see if we can lend a hand, ok?"

OK? Xena sighed softly. It was more than ok. It was Gabrielle caring about her, about how she felt so good she didn't give a damn that the bard had nailed her precisely. "All right." She relented, giving the bard a wry look. "Can't have Eponin waking up and not knowing what's going on, right?"

Gabrielle smiled at her, and lifted a hand, hesitatingly, to brush the hair back out of her eyes. It was as though the room of people disappeared, and all that was left was them, and a silence, in which she could clearly hear two heartbeats. Two breaths. She could see the tiny muscles in Gabrielle's face twitch as she inhaled, the flickering movement of the torchlight that lit her eyes from within showing the hidden golden sparkles in their depths. She could smell the faint hint of the aloe she'd used on her sunburned skin, and the tickle of sun dried linen from her shirt and the warm smell that was Gabrielle herself. She kept completely still as the bard's fingers explored her face in gentle wonder, tracing her cheekbones, and finally coming to rest on her chin. Their eyes met, as the room very slowly faded back in.

Gabrielle blinked. "Um." She let her hand drop falteringly back to her side. "I guess I'd better.. um.. " She glanced at Solari, who was watching them with a fascinated look. "Let's.. um.. go see if we can help."

"Sure." The Amazon nodded, as she stood and put her mug down. "Good idea." She started towards the door with a firm step, not looking back.

The bard slowly rose, giving the warrior a soft pat on the shoulder "Don't go anywhere, ok?"

"I won't." Xena promised quietly. "Be careful."

Gabrielle nodded, and followed Solari, her expression very thoughtful.

The inn emptied out quickly, most of the villagers going to see if they could help salvage anything from the merchant's train. Or get half price bargains; Xena mused wryly, human nature being what it was.

The warrior edged her chair a little closer to the fire, and settled back with her mug, wrapping her hands around it and letting out a deep sigh. She let her thoughts drift a little, taking slow sips of the soup and allowing her tense body to unwind as the sounds outside receded, and she could hear the subtle creaks of the building around her.

A groan brought her alert, and she rolled her head to one side, and studied the feebly moving Eponin. "Eponin… don't move around, all right?"

Another groan. "Hera's left tit." The Amazon mumbled. "What fell on me?"

Xena leaned over. "It was Hera's left tit. Squashed you flat."

Silence, then one caramel colored eye peeked out, and it's brow quirked. "I must be dead. You made a joke."

Gods, it felt good to smile. Felt good to have someone saying something.. normal.. not holding back, not choosing words carefully…"Write it down. It doesn't happen often." She replied dryly. "You got whacked on the head with a studded wooden club."

"That explains the headache." Eponin mused, raising a tentative hand up and touching the bandages. "Doesn't explain why 'I'm sick to my stomach, and there are two of you." She paused. "Just what we needed."

That surprised another grin out of Xena. "You remember getting pounded on in the fight?"

Eponin shook her head then winced. "Ah.. bad idea. No… I remember.. oh yeah, you chucking a rock at some guy and making him shoot his horse… then it gets kinda fuzzy." She started to sit up, then dropped back down with a hiss even before Xena could get an arm out to stop her. "Worse idea."

Xena let out a sigh. "Will you stay put?" A thought occurred to her. Am I like this? She winced. Umm.. I bet I am… She sent a mental apology to her soulmate. "You try that again and I'll… " The warrior scowled, then her expression cleared. "I'll tell Eph on you."

The restlessly moving Eponin stilled. "Uh… now, Xena… "

Heh. Xena smirked. "Just stay there, ok? You got worked over, and your brains are rattled. Relax, got me?"

Eponin did as ordered, blinking a little at the lounging warrior. "So.. where is everyone?"

"Helping.. those raiders hit a merchant caravan outside town." Xena explained, draining her mug and setting it down on the table next to her. "Gabrielle went with Solari to see what they could do."

A lift of both copper colored eyebrows. "And… left you… to.. watch me?" The Amazon cocked her head. "Um… not that you're not a good healer or nothing, Xena.. I mean, heard stories from Eph, but.. "

Xena let a half grin shape her lips. "Guess they wanted to make sure you wouldn't wake up half crazy and start beating up the pigs." She shrugged. "Figured I could handle that."

"Hmph." Eponin cleared her throat a little, and laid a hand across her stomach. "Not much challenge from me." She mumbled. "Damn.. I feel lousy."

Xena put a hand on her shoulder. "Hold on.. I've got some stuff in the room that might help. Be right back." She stood, wincing a little at her own stiffened bruises, and took a moment to stretch out the badly pulled shoulder that Gabrielle had spotted so efficiently.

"We're getting too old for this junk, Xena." Eponin commented wryly from her pallet as she watched.

"You know it." The warrior let out a sigh, then shook herself a little, and walked off towards the room she and the bard were sharing. It took a moment of rummaging for her to dig up the herbs she wanted, and as she pulled out the last packet, her fingers touched something.

She drew back her hand in confusion, then tentatively reached out again, and let her fingers close on a small object buried deep in her folded clothing and pull it out.

It rested in her hand, lit by the warm sunlight pouring in the window. A tiny piece of parchment, tied around something moderately heavy, a stone or…

No… it can't be. Xena's hands shook as she untied the bit of string holding it, and let the parchment fall open.

The sun caught the facets of the crystal, scattering slivers of dancing light around the room and across her body. She stared at it, as though a ghost had appeared in front of her, which in a way it had, in the form of her lifebond necklace, taken from her in Chin.

Had been ripped from her neck, actually, leaving a bloody ring from the chain and tossed negligently up by Ming Tien, who had laughed. And said she no longer needed it. And, at that moment, with Gabrielle's betrayal staring her in the face, she'd just said. "You're right."

Now, here it was, bearing inside it a past, and promises it hurt to even think about. The chain had been carefully cleaned of the dirt, and her blood, and the crystal shone warmly in her palm, almost clear enough to read the words on the parchment underneath through it.

She picked up the stone, and tucked it in one hand, then brought it up to her cheek as she turned her eyes to the writing.

I guess you never thought you'd see this again.

I wasn't sure I could ever give it back.

Or that you'd want it.

I guess this is the coward's way out.. I know I should just hand it to you, but I'm so scared you won't want it, that I just had to put it in here, knowing you'd find it sometime, and you could think about it, and decide what it meant to you.

If it means anything, anymore.

I won't keep you guessing, Mine does. I wear it on a little clasp, on the inside of my belt, so I can feel it, but it isn't out there driving you crazy.

Sometimes, when things got really bad, I'd just find a place, and take out both of them, and fit them together, just to remind myself that there once was a place that I belonged, where I fit just like these two things do, and I'd just keep telling myself not to give up.

So.. here it is. I don't know when you'll find this, I put it in the morning we stayed over in the village where Eponin and Solari caught up with us. Think about it for a long as you need to. If you decide not to keep it, I'll understand. I know so much has happened, so many things that make the thought of an unbreakable bond between two people sound like so much wishful thinking.

But I'm wishfully thinking it.

I love you.


Xena read it over several times, her thumb gently caressing the crystal. Then she brought it up to her lips, before loosening the clasp then fastening it again around her neck. The cool stone warmed with her body heat, and lay sparkling gently in the sun. Well, Gabrielle, I thought about it.I guess you'll take this as my answer.

She turned the parchment over a few times, thinking, then nodded a little, and glanced towards the tiny table in the room, where the bard's quill case was sitting, along with a few pieces of blank parchment, and her diary.

Another change, Xena realized. It had been a long time since the bard had left her diary out in plain sight, though even in the worst of times Xena would have never touched it. She walked over and picked up one of the quills, the one the bard had been using, and turned the small piece of parchment over.

She wrote one word, and an X, and blew on it gently, watching the ink dry from darkest blue black to an almost purple. Then she found the bard's place in her diary, marked by a strip of leather, and slipped the parchment inside, careful not to read any of the words scribed in that familiar hand.

Her brow creased, and she looked closer, then snorted softly as she realized the leather marking strip was a piece of her armor, discarded during some repair session or other. She touched it with an idle fingertip, then shook her head, and grabbed the herb pouch she'd come for, and ducked back out of the room.

Solari remained silent as they joined a trail of villagers heading down the road, pacing alongside the bard with her lithe, fluid stride. She kept darting little looks at Gabrielle, though, and finally the bard cleared her throat and glanced back.

"Something bothering you, Solari?" Gabrielle asked quietly.

"Me? No." Solari waved a hand. "Um.. listen, Gabrielle.. I was just thinking.. where.. are you guys headed now?"

The bard remained silent for a bit, then kicked a rock out of her path and stared ahead of her. "I'm not sure."

Solari nodded. "Well, if you're headed in our general direction, I'd really appreciate it if we could travel with you.. that head wound of Eponin's looks pretty bad, and I don't know if I can handle her all the way home."

Gabrielle considered the request. General direction was a wide open statement, but the general direction of the Amazon's territory was also the route home, and suddenly the bard knew that was exactly where she wanted to go. But would Xena? Home meant a lot of memories.. and she wasn't sure either of them could handle that right now. "If we head that way, sure." She answered slowly. "I'd love to take a few days off in Amphipolis.. I just don't know if .. " She shook her head a little. "I'll talk to Xena, see what she wants to do."

The Amazon sighed. "Thanks.. I appreciate it." She glanced down the road. "What a mess."

Gabrielle winced. The caravan had held an enormous range of wares, and most were scattered about the road, including a live cargo of chickens, who were fluttering all over the place, littering the ground with feathers and other bird debris. Most of the wagons had been overturned, and there were a few still, silent bodies crumpled around them, the ground around them darkened with blood.

It weighed on her, suddenly. She realized just how tired she was of death, and blood, and pain. It seemed like it was all she'd known for months, and she found herself wishing wistfully that they could just take a short time out, and get away from that for a little while.

Quit daydreaming, Gabrielle. She scolded herself. People need help there, so move it. "C'mon.. let's see what we can do." She led the way, and ducked under an overturned wagon yoke, then pulled up short as a stocky merchant almost ran her down.

They both froze, and looked at each other. "Johan." The bard stammered.

"Lass." The trader breathed. "Thank the gods." He opened his arms and pulled her into them. "Thank the gods ye're safe."

Gabrielle was suddenly surrounded by the scent the pervaded his clothing, a mixture of dust, and sweat, and a soap mixture that bore the familiar stamp of home. Cyrene's special mixture, which they carried in their bags. She gladly returned his hug. "Johan, what are you doing here?" She whispered.

He released her, and grasped her shoulders, studying her closely. "Lookin fer you, lass.. " His eyes drifted over her shoulder to the distance, and then back to her face, and a stark question was in them,

"She's fine." Gabrielle correctly interpreted the look. "She's back in the village.. they got hit by the same raiders you did this morning."

His shoulders relaxed and he ducked his head, letting out a breath. "Y've no idea how glad I am to hear it.. Cyrene's near out of her mind worrying about you both." He patted her cheek. "She sent me north, and Toris south, and I'm surprised we managed to talk her out of coming herself."

Gabrielle smiled widely, and half turned. "Gods.. sorry.. Solari, this is Johan.. he's from Amphipolis."

Solari stepped forward and offered a forearm. "Glad to see you're all right - what a mess it is here."

The trader returned the grasp and rolled his eyes. "Aye, that it is.. will ye both give me hand getting this wagon righted?"

Gabrielle threw herself into the work willingly, glad of something to keep her hands busy while she quietly enjoyed the feeling that Johan's presence woke in her. She felt herself being rewoven into that part of her life she'd feared she'd lost, and an adopted family as dear to her as her own.

It took several hours, but they finally got most of the mess cleaned up, and the wagons righted and reloaded, as much as they could. Several wagons were burned and broken beyond repair, so the merchants doubled up, squabbling and complaining until Solari put her hands on her hips and gave them an Amazon glare, after which they tugged their overloaded horses on in meek silence.

The village was bustling when they got back, clearing a space for the merchants, and gathering around to help them unload, as well as to dicker for bargains from the exhausted travelers. Gabrielle politely asked Solari to take Johan's horse's head, and tugged his arm. "C'mon.. I know someone who's going to be glad to see you."

Johan smiled, and allowed himself to be led to the inn door, grabbing the handle and opening, ushering her inside. "G'wan then, lass.. a cup of cold ale would hit the spot too."

Gabrielle smiled at him, aware in the periphery of her vision of Xena's approach. "Hey.. look who I found?" She turned fully and looked at the warrior. "He's…." Her voice stopped, and she stood, staring.

"Hello, Johan." Xena finished for her. "It is good to see you.. what brings you to these parts?" She held out a forearm, very aware of Gabrielle's shining eyes and slowly etching smile.

"Hello, Xena." The trader glanced at Gabrielle and chuckled softly. "I've a message from yer mother."

The warrior raised an eyebrow. "And that is?"

He looked right at her, and covered her hand with his own. "Come home."

Continued in Part 2

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