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CHAPTER NINETY-THREE

They froze at the sound of solitary applause coming from out of the darkness. The curtain of shadows parted slowly to bring Ares into their midst. "Not bad. Not bad at all." He nodded his head as he spoke. "And as much as I just hate to break up this touching reunion, it's time for us to go, Xena."

A feeling of stark apprehension grew in the pit of her stomach as Gabrielle eased out of the warrior's embrace. "What are you talking about?" She looked back and forth between them, marking the smug smile on Ares' face and the expressionless mask on Xena's. "She's not going anywhere." The question was in her voice, even to her own ears, and with her eyes Gabrielle begged an answer from her friend, a confirmation that things were not about to end as she suddenly feared they might.

Ares drew closer, a possessive gleam in his eye as he surveyed them both. "Oh, yes she is. We made a deal," he informed the bard. "Neapolis survives and she rejoins me. Now move."

Before Xena could even open her mouth to say a word, the bard was already grasping hold of the Spear that lay by her side. "I don't know what's going on here," she began, "but Xena's hurt and you're not taking her anywhere." The weapon took on an iridescent glow in her hands and out of the corner of her eye she saw the warrior's eyes widen in startlement.

"Gab..."

A hand came weakly forward to stop her, but Gabrielle ignored it and surged to her feet to take a defensive position over the fallen warrior. The reversal of their roles gave her an odd feeling, but given the extent of the injury, the bard didn't think Xena was going to be up for this fight.

"And who's going to stop me? You?" The incredulous smile on his face underscored his confident arrogance, and he guffawed loudly. "Oh, I'm terrified!"

He pricked her with his mocking scorn, and she could feel the heated stain of humiliation warm her face. Gabrielle was coming to the dreadful realisation that here she was, facing off against the God of War with not much more than a blessed stick in her hands. It was suicidal. Ridiculously insane. And exactly the right thing to do. With a steadying breath, Gabrielle prepared to stand her ground and do whatever it would take to keep Xena safe.

The god's amused expression faded to deadly seriousness. "Get out of the way, short stuff," Ares warned. He shook his fist as if preparing to roll a set of dice, and a dark blue glow began to emanate from his hand "You're way out of your league."

"Stop." It was spoken quietly and went unnoticed.

Gabrielle swallowed hard, her eyes watchful as she raised the Spear and waited for his first move.

"Stop." The order came again, more forcefully this time, and the two combatants broke from their tense stand-off, paused to look down, and discovered Xena struggling to sit up. The warrior's frame trembled with the effort and she blinked often as if unable to focus her vision. One hand held her upright while the other pressed hard against the makeshift bandage at her side. "Stop it. Both of you," Xena rasped, her breathing ragged.

Gabrielle, still eyeing Ares warily, dropped to one knee to help Xena up; one hand supportively behind the warrior's back while the other held the Spear protectively in front of them.

"What? What?!" Ares shouted and jabbed a finger at the wounded woman. "You made a deal, Xena!"

"So did you," Xena retorted. "And the deal's off."

"Ooooh no. No way. No one breaks a contract with me." He shook his head angrily. "You're mine. You try to betray me and I'll let you bleed out all over the floor like a stuck pig!"

"The deal's off, Ares! You didn't fulfil your end of the bargain."

What bargain? When did this happen? Why did you go to him and not tell me about it? With the details sorely lacking, question upon question built in her mind. Now was not the time for her rampant curiosity though. Instead, she worked with the bandage and tried to hold it tighter against Xena's side, wincing in sympathy when the warrior's lips suddenly compressed in a narrow line, the only indication of pain Xena was likely to show. Which means she's really suffering, Gabrielle observed. She was frankly terrified by the way the blood continued to leak down Xena's side in spite of all her efforts to stop it.

"What the Hades are you talking about?" His voice was low and cold as he took a sudden step forward

Gabrielle sensed his approach and tensed to intercept him, but Ares ignored her entirely.

He hooked a thumb at himself. "I did my part. Now it's time for you to do yours!"

"We defeat Stephicles to end this siege." Xena's face suddenly paled and the warrior paused to swallow once or twice before refocusing her attention on the livid deity looming over them. "We defeat him and I rejoin you as your Chosen to lead your armies again. We agreed on that."

"Exactly!" he shouted as though this should resolve everything.

"Gabrielle beat Stephicles. I was on the floor and you were somewhere over there holding up a pillar," Xena reminded him with a tight, pained sneer.

Me? The full import of her actions had yet to sink in, but at Xena's words she shot a quick glance over to assure herself that Stephicles was still unconscious.

"She's the hero this time." Xena gave her a warm smile in spite of the obvious pain she was in. "Not me."

What? No way. It floored her to hear it; she had only been trying to help. The bard shook her head rapidly in protest. "Xena-"

"Tough luck," Xena struggled on, ignoring Gabrielle's attempt to interrupt. "You hedged your bets by setting us up to fight, didn't you? Regardless of who dies, you would still win. But he wasn't what you really wanted, was he? It was me. And you held back on interfering in the hopes I'd still find a way to kill him, except you waited too long. And now you've lost it all." She coughed suddenly and Gabrielle could see tiny flecks of blood on her lips, which frightened her more. Steadying her with one hand, the bard was alarmed by the chilly feel of the warrior's skin, its paleness, as if Xena had been out in a winter storm with no protection from the elements.

Ares' mouth opened and closed several times as he realised just how neatly she had eluded him. "I... yo... bu..." he trailed off, his jaw working furiously. "Damn it!" Ares exploded suddenly and threw his hands in the air. "Alright, alright," he grudgingly admitted. "But I'm not leaving without the Spear. Hand it over, blondie."

She evaded his grab for the weapon and smacked his hand away in a sharp pop of ozone. Ares jerked his hand back and sucked on the barked set of knuckles, the both of them wearing identical expressions of amazement.

His brows lowered like an incoming storm. "Why, you little-" he snarled and lunged for her, his hand filled with edgy blue light.

It was a confused tangle of sudden motion as Xena reached up in the hopes of intercepting Ares' attack, but Gabrielle slipped past her and into the path of the explosion of power that erupted from the god's hands. The spray of energy impacted the weapon squarely as Gabrielle brought it to bear and slammed the Spear against her chest, forcing a deep grunt from her when the attack was deflected and shattered into a million fractals of light. Screams and yells filled the room as the force of it knocked everyone backwards and off their feet. Gabrielle stumbled and fell, but strong arms gathered her in and protected her as she toppled to the floor. Having braced their fall with her own body, the warrior grunted with the impact. Gabrielle felt Xena's hold on her loosen and fall away as they rolled to a stop.

Frantic with worry, she turned and found her friend unconscious and frighteningly pallid. "No," she breathed. The sound of growled muttering made her look up and she saw Ares several feet away on his hands and knees shaking his head to gather his wits. Their eyes met when he glanced over, and Gabrielle knew by the smile on his face that she was in a lot of trouble. She clambered to her feet and took a tighter hold on the Spear even as he regained his. Both of his clenched fists took on a dangerous glow and Gabrielle took a reluctant step back. Oh boy.

"Give me the Spear!" Ares roared and raised his hands.

"Ares!" A voice, full of resonating power suddenly filled the air and stopped them all in their tracks. The fear and confusion receded slightly as the people regained their feet and turned to watch as a woman stepped forth from the crowd of citizens, her clothes proclaiming her as a priestess of the temple.

Gabrielle, looking on as well, stiffened and gasped, an expression of confused surprise on her face. "Agraulos?" the bard whispered. How did she get here?

Ares, annoyed by the interruption, threw his arms in the air. "What is it with you mortals that you can never do what I tell you to? Give me the damn weapon or I'll level this city myself!"

The woman continued toward him, unflinching in the face of his threat. "The Spear is mine, brother, as you well know." At her next step she was enveloped in a golden shower of light, and the outward appearance of a priestess fell away to reveal a woman of uncommon beauty and grace, garbed in a shimmering radiance that seemed to spring from within. Her armour and helm shone with its own light, and curly blonde hair framed a mature face with dark, sea blue eyes.

"Athena?" Ares' mouth hung open in utter surprise for a bare moment before snapping shut with an audible click. His menacing demeanour altered abruptly to something more restrained in light of this newest wrinkle. "Dear ol' dad let you out on a week night, did he?"

"You overstep yourself, Ares," she replied levelly as she approached, all the while shaking her head at him. "Your weak and manipulative machinations failed, and now you dare to steal what you know belongs to me?"

"I didn't see your name on it," Ares retorted and crossed his arms. "What are you doing here anyway? Shouldn't you be off weaving a basket or something?"

Athena dismissed the snarky comments with a wave of her hand. "Your direct influence and interference necessitated this, brother. When you preyed on my people, attacked my temple, and desecrated what is sacred to me, did you think I would sit idly by? I would have been content to keep my involvement minimal had you but followed the rules. Your impatience and unsound tactics were your undoing. You've lost here. Pray, do not embarrass us both further with your tantrums."

Gabrielle would have laughed if the situation hadn't been so dire. With the two siblings engaged in their argument, the bard took the opportunity to return to Xena's side and was taken aback by how quickly the warrior's condition had deteriorated. The warrior's normally vibrant, tanned skin was a ghastly, chalky white and Gabrielle scrambled to reapply the bandage that had fallen loose. The sight of her hands drenched with her friend's blood made her swallow hard against the nausea, but she continued on, pressing the cloth harder against Xena's side while keeping half an ear on the proceedings behind her.

"This isn't over," Ares was saying.

"It never is," Athena responded dryly. "The pieces are still in play." The goddess looked back over her shoulder. "Or at least some of them are."

He tilted his head to one side and peered around Athena to where Gabrielle worked frantically to help the unresponsive woman. The Spear was no longer a possibility, but it appeared to Ares that the day might not be a total loss after all. With his signature smile back in place, Ares sauntered over and raised his hands in a conciliatory motion when the bard brandished the Spear threateningly in his direction. He had to give her credit; the girl had pluck. "Whoa. Time out. I just wanna talk." He watched her for a moment before gesturing towards Xena with his chin. "Looks like she's about done."

Gabrielle glanced at him from the corner of her eye, her expression momentarily unreadable. "What do you care?"

"I care a lot," Ares replied easily, knowing he had her where he wanted her. "Just like I know you do. And it'd be such a shameful waste to let her die, now wouldn't it?"

Die. Until the word was uttered, Gabrielle hadn't let herself even consider the possibility. But, faced with the truth of it, she gazed at Xena and allowed herself to see, really see, the full extent of the warrior's injuries. She felt suddenly weak and breathless. Gods, Xena, stay with me.

"A tragic shame," he went on, shaking his head in mock mournfulness. "It doesn't have to end like this though."

The hazel green eyes shot him a narrow and suspicious look. "What do you mean?" But she had a sinking feeling she knew exactly what he meant.

"I could heal her." A long pause fell between them, and Ares' smile grew wider as he watched the bard's thoughts arrive at the desired conclusion.

"In exchange for what?" The question popped out before she could stop herself. Her traitorous heart could only think of getting Xena back and damn the consequences.

The God of War's smile disappeared and his intense dark eyes settled on her with rapt seriousness. "She comes back to me."

Her breath caught in her throat as the full meaning of his statement became clear. He would heal her, certainly, but Xena would be his again. The spectre of the Warrior Princess would rise again, heralding a new reign of terror and depravity. What value the warrior's life when weighed against the countless innocents who might perish beneath the sword of the most dangerous and feared warlord Greece had ever known? The greater good alone demanded that she refuse. But I can't let you die, she whispered to the still and silent woman. I can't give you up.

"What'll it be?" Ares pressed, his eyes glittering with a predatory light. He had her now. He could see it in her expression.

Uncertain and desperate, Gabrielle's eyes searched the room, finally alighting upon Athena. "Help me," the bard begged her. "Please."

Athena shook her head as she spoke. "I have done what I may, Gabrielle. I will not interfere further."

After all they had done. "But..." The bard stared despairingly at her, confusion and betrayal naked on her face. "That's not fair! How could you not-"

"You'd better hurry up and decide; she's not gonna last much longer," Ares pointed out, a confident grin on his face.

Gabrielle lowered her face into her hands and tried to breathe slower. Everything was falling apart and there was no one left she could turn to. She wiped at the tears that gathered in her eyes and then took hold of Xena's cold, limp hand in her own. Alone. Her breath hitched as she tried to figure out what to do. I'm all alone in this. What do I do? Unconsciously, she linked her fingers with Xena's, her thumb stroking the cold flesh.

She couldn't bear to lose her. Not after everything they had been through and all they had given to save these people. What would you have me do? Through eyes blurred with tears, she looked around the room at its still and frightened occupants and it came to her then that this was what Xena would have wanted. No matter what it takes, you said. No matter what the cost. This is what you meant, wasn't it? Xena would never thank her for letting Ares save her life only to be cast back into the darkness from which the warrior had fought so hard to escape, would she?

"No," she whispered hoarsely. The weight of her choice was overwhelming. Her world had never felt so dark and empty.

"Excuse me?" Ares demanded, unable to believe his ears.

"I won't let you do it." Gabrielle raised her head as she spoke in a rough and broken voice. Lines of moisture marked her ashen complexion and made the heartbreak in her eyes painful to behold. "I won't let you have her." She drew Xena's hand tight against her chest and held it there. The rawness of the decision left the bard's heart riven in her chest and she bowed her head, unable to believe what she was doing. Fresh tears fell, scalding her skin with their heat.

The muscles in Ares' jaws worked. Everything he had worked for was on the verge of slipping through his fingers. Again. "You can't let her die! What are you thinking!"

"Go away, Ares," said Gabrielle as she turned away, her voice soft and resigned. "Xena would never agree to it..." Softer still, "...so neither can I."

The god flung his head back in stunned disbelief. It crossed his mind to simply take what he wanted, but with Athena standing witness Ares knew he would never get away with it. He had lost after all. "You're gonna regret this," he spat at her and, with a noise of disgust, vanished suddenly in a curtain of falling blue light.

I know, Gabrielle agreed in grim silence. During all this time there had been no movement from the silent figure lying on the floor. "Xena? Can you hear me?" she called to the warrior. Barely a tickle of breath touched her fingers when she held them over the warrior's nose and mouth. So light, she wondered if she were only imagining it. "Stay with me? Please..."

A hand settled gently on the bard's shoulder, startling her. "Gabrielle."

She stiffened at Athena's touch.

"Gabrielle..."

"No!" Xena still breathed, she was certain of it. She had felt it for herself. "She's not dead!" The bard glanced up into the serene face of the goddess to find a look of gentle understanding awaiting her. "She's not!"

"Not yet," Athena said. "But her time is coming."

With an angry shrug of her shoulder the bard freed herself from Athena's hand, uninterested in the sympathetic comfort she offered. "No..." she whispered brokenly as she leaned over and gathered Xena into her arms. "Damn you!" the bard suddenly shouted at the goddess. "We did everything we could just to save your people and your precious Spear!" Gabrielle snatched the weapon from where it had lain on the flagstones and shook it at her. "You can't let her die like this!"

"It is not for me to save her," was the quiet response.

Her last hope gone, Gabrielle lowered her fair head against the darker one tucked against her shoulder and wept in earnest. This close to Xena, she couldn't help but notice the stronger, metallic smell of blood that overshadowed the familiar scent of leather and spice to which she had grown so attached. She pressed her cheek against the dark, matted hair and squeezed her eyes shut, her breath coming in hitching gasps as she waited, helplessly, for the end. I'm so sorry, Xena... so sorry, she whispered to herself. Oh, gods, I've killed my best friend. A keening moan came from her then, escaping through tightly clenched teeth to lift the hair of the silent, shadowed onlookers.

Everything they had been through. All the times spent together. She sobbed as, with sunlight on water, the memories floated upwards from the depths of her being to glimmer brightly on the surface of her awareness. A wooden lamb and the unexpected gift of words... a fervent prayer in a moonlit glade for a wavering, innocent soul... an expression of barely hidden loss and regret at an ill-fated joining... awakening to the warrior's look of frantic relief in a temple in Thessaley... a tearful confession before a campfire and a whispered promise of steadfast restraint... family and friendship forged in adversity and bound by a tie deeper than blood... the soul-altering moment in a sunny clearing outside her village when their eyes had met and held in a brief forever.

Caught in the tumult of remembrance, Gabrielle gripped Xena closer to her, never seeing the soft glow emanating from the Spear that she still clenched tightly in one fist. She remembered every touch, every glance, every hard-won smile and gruff word of praise. Moments of strength and courage and vulnerability played out before her mind's eye, and Gabrielle gave vent to her shattered heart as she recalled all the reasons she had been drawn to Xena, and all the reasons that had kept her by the warrior's side since. All of which would now be lost.

The force of her emotions grew to an intense and raging flood that rocked her back and forth even as the light from the Spear grew brighter in tandem. Don't leave me... oh, please, Xena...

The strength of it doubled and she threw her head back, overwhelmed, the tears streaming back along her temples. ...love you... come back... Her cry was lost when the Spear, pulsing like a heartbeat, suddenly flashed, hiding them from view and blinding all within the room. A sound of rumbling thunder filled the temple and within the vortex of light, Gabrielle felt herself falling and falling and falling into a dark and quiet nothingness.

 

* * *

She regained awareness with sudden force as though coming to surface in rough waters. The first gasping breath brought life to her starving lungs and Xena flung herself upright as she gulped down more air, dislodging the weight from her side as she did so. Instinct put her on her guard and her eyes scanned the chamber, drawing a quick assessment of her surroundings. With Stephicles out, Ares gone, and Athena staring back at her like some watchful bird of prey it was readily apparent that she had missed a few things. Need a weapon, Xena decided, uncertain yet what threat the goddess might pose. Her sword was out of reach, but her boot dagger and Gabrielle's staff were close to hand. The hilt of the bloodied dagger fit comfortably against her palm and she held it loosely as she took a closer look at the body lying next to her. Her breath caught as she realised it was Gabrielle.

The sight of the bard lying motionless on the flagstones forced out all thought except for Gabrielle's well being, and Xena dropped the weapon and used both hands to gently rolled the bard onto her back. With careful, practised fingers she felt for injuries and was confused at finding nothing more than a small collection of bruises and faded scabs here and there where she could have sworn she had seen cuts. Even Gabrielle's collarbone, where she knew the bastard had hit her, was absent of anything more than drying flecks of blood.

"Gabrielle?" She felt at her friend's throat and was reassured by the steady thrum of a heartbeat pulsing beneath the surface. The evidence of tear-stains under Gabrielle's eyes worried her though, and Xena cupped the younger woman's face in one palm to brush the moisture away with her thumb while the other pushed back the loose strands of hair that threatened to fall across her friend's face.

The bard's eyes opened quickly at her touch and fastened on her, at first dazed with barely a sign of recognition, and then a flooding of awareness. Gabrielle pulled herself into a sitting position. "Xena?" she whispered thickly, uncertain if she could believe her own eyes.

Hearing Gabrielle's voice brought back the shock again of seeing her here so unexpectedly and Xena felt a breathlessness, a surge of feeling so great that she wondered how her heart could hold it all. "Hey," she kept her voice soft to control the rush of emotion flooding through her. "Shouldn't you be in Kozani?" She had every right to be utterly furious at the woman for disobeying her, but all efforts to sustain her expression of annoyance failed in the face of the hesitant, yet hopeful smile that danced behind the bard's eyes, begging to be let loose.

"Yeah, but lucky for you I never listen." Gabrielle smiled and gave a breathy laugh through her sudden tears when Xena's anger faded into a tender smile. "Oh, gods... Xena?" She lifted a tentative hand, wanting to touch her so badly, but almost too afraid to do so until Xena reached out for her. Gabrielle met her halfway in a crushing hug that stole breath and thought, leaving only raw emotions too difficult to express except in husky, fragmented words. "You left... why did you... I was so worried," Gabrielle husked. "Why did you leave?" She shook Xena lightly, a spurt of anger mixing with her joy. "Damn it, I oughta-"

Xena hugged her tighter. "Shh. I had to-"

"But he almost... you almost-"

"It's okay," Xena whispered and grasped one of Gabrielle's hands in her own to guide it to her side. She breathed in deeply, pressing the bard's hand harder against her expanding ribs, to reassure them both that she was whole and in one piece. The freedom from pain created such a marked contrast that Xena felt almost dizzy with relief. But gods, am I tired.

Wide green eyes tilted upwards in surprise at the unmarred flesh. "It's gone! How-"

Xena was a blur of motion before the shadow fell over them, reaching for her dagger and whirling smoothly with the weapon poised in alert readiness, her body a protective barrier in front of Gabrielle. "Athena," the warrior said coldly by way of greeting.

The goddess stood only a few feet away, calm and unconcerned in the face of Xena's threatening stillness.

The warrior's gaze went to the enchanted weapon resting in the goddess' hand a moment before lifting to meet Athena's eyes again, surreptitiously changing her grip on the hilt as she did so. The dagger against the Spear was no contest, she knew, but if she threw it as a distraction...

Something about the subtle flow of muscle beneath the skin warned the bard in time. "Xena, don't." Gabrielle laid her hand on the warrior's arm, exerting gentle pressure until Xena lowered the blade ever so slightly. After the day she had had, the bard wasn't interested in antagonising any more gods. The knowledge that she had managed to successfully stand up to Ares was already enough to make her feel a little weak in the knees. "It's okay. She stopped Ares from flattening us when he tried to take the Spear."

Gabrielle slid her hand down to rest over Xena's wrist as she came forward, relaxing when she felt the tension leach away at her touch. The warrior was no less watchful, but Gabrielle could tell from the minute shift in stance that her friend would at least listen now. She turned to Athena. "It was you, wasn't it? In Kozani?"

"Indeed," Athena answered simply.

Gabrielle nodded in excited vindication. "I knew it! But why-"

"The ćwhy' is gonna have to wait," Xena interrupted and then brushed past the bard to retrieve her sword. She swallowed a groan as she stood up, wishing fervently that this could be over with already. Come on, come on. Suck it up. You still have a job to do. A deep breath reasserted her focus and effectively shut out the nagging sense of fatigue that wanted nothing more of her than to curl up into a ball and sleep for days. The healing, it appeared, had only dealt with the worst of her wounds. Just a little farther to go. "We're not done here yet." The reminder was meant as much for herself as the others. The toe of her boot nudged the unconscious warlord as she passed and Xena gave an impressed grunt when he failed to respond. "He's out, but his army has overrun the town. If the Kozani troops have followed my orders we may yet have a chance."

Xena's eyes swept the room, noting the groups of women and children murmuring amongst themselves, many of whom stared in rapt wonder at the presence of their goddess. To the other side, a knot of people knelt over an injured woman, their faces filled with worry. "Kiran," she called out.

The captain rose to her feet and crossed the room as quickly as she could manage. "My... my lady," Kiran stammered as she offered a bow to the goddess. "Xena." Here the youngster was on firmer ground and gave a fist on heart salute. It was such a huge relief to have the Warrior Princess back if only because it meant that there would be another pair of shoulders to carrying the responsibility of seeing to the town's safety. The last week had been the longest and most harrowing of her life and she wondered if it showed on her own face as much as it did on Xena's.

Xena gave a quick nod in response to Kiran's gesture. "Have your troops take custody of Stephicles and stick him somewhere safe and quiet with a few guards. Is there a back way out of here?"

Kiran jerked her head towards the altar. "Back there. Leads to a two-way alley."

"Be ready to get these people out if things turn bad." Xena was already looking toward the doors at the front of the temple.

"We have wounded," Kiran informed her. "Mira-"

The name triggered Gabrielle's memory and she came forward to draw Xena's attention. "Mira's the spy. That's why I left Kozani to find you." Amongst a few other reasons, she privately added.

The captain gaped at her in surprise. "How did you know?"

It was a question Xena wanted answered as well, but her concern was growing and she couldn't help looking impatiently towards the door again. "There's no time for this." She pointed a finger at Kiran. "Get your people together, and you." Gabrielle's fair brows knit together and Xena just knew what that portended. "You're coming with me. It's not like you'd listen if I told you to stay anyway." The stormy green eyes cleared, treating the warrior to a radiant smile. At least this way she could keep an eye on her impetuous companion, and if there were other reasons for wanting to keep Gabrielle close, they couldn't hurt, right?

"Nope," the bard happily agreed. She grinned as Xena rolled her eyes and set off for the doorway.

With an eager bounce Gabrielle lifted her half of the Spear of Mercy from the floor and looked questioningly towards Athena. "Can I borrow...?" The goddess' graceful nod was all the permission Gabrielle needed before she turned and hastened after Xena, leaving Kiran in awkward silence with her deity.

* * *

The hard intensity Gabrielle had feared for prior to their parting was returning. Her unexpected reappearance had not allowed the warrior any opportunity to prepare for their brief, but emotional reunion and, as much as Xena had tried, the warrior's efforts to hide her feelings had not entirely succeeded. Seeing those familiar little signs, Gabrielle had been gratified and relieved to know that Xena was not completely lost to her. But that driving need to help, to perhaps redeem herself in some small regard, made the warrior push herself beyond all good sense. Even now, Gabrielle could see the lines of exhaustion that had been left untouched by the Spear's healing. The raiders were still within the walls and that meant lives were at risk, which also meant that Xena wouldn't stop until it had been dealt with. Does this ever end? the bard wondered with a sigh.

They had made their way through the temple to the darkened hall leading to the front entrance, but the lack of conversation was starting to get to her. It seemed like forever since she had seen Xena, and with the warrior right by her side, she couldn't stop looking at her, wanting to hear her voice. "Sooo," Gabrielle began tentatively. "What's the plan?"

"Find Kozani's General and take out the trash," Xena answered briskly as she stepped outside and into the rain. The warrior paused and looked at the bodies of Stephicles' soldiers lying in various positions of pain at the temple's front entrance. Most sported bruises and contusions in the form of blackened eyes and bloodied noses, but there were no sign of sword wounds. "What happened here?"

"Um," Gabrielle murmured as she worried at a hangnail. "I think I did."

Her dark brows lifted and she surveyed the damage again. As concerned as she was for Gabrielle's safety, she couldn't help being silently impressed with the bard's growing prowess. "You think?"

The bard shrugged. "I was in a hurry at the time. After going through the fire and the fight at the gate, it's all kind of a blur."

Blue eyes widened. "Through the fire?" This bit of news brought Xena up short and explained the presence of singes and soot marks on her friend. The need to find Taelere was momentarily put on hold.

"Yeah, that was worse than those raiders in the forest." Gabrielle watched, fascinated, as the dark brows lowered again.

"Raiders?" What the Hades have you been doing?

"But by then I'd almost caught up with Kozani's army and you, thanks to Chiaro."

"Chiaro?"

"My horse." Was it wrong for her to enjoy this so much? Oops, there go her eyebrows again.

She rode a horse? Waitasecond. "A horse?" She hates horses.

Gabrielle tilted her head to one side and regarded the taller woman from beneath her crinkled brows, noting the look of curious and confused disbelief. "Do you hear an echo?" she gently teased.

"Ha, ha." Xena shook her head and gave Gabrielle a dark look. "You're going to tell me about all this later."

Gabrielle watched her stalk away and gave a contrite sigh, aware that she may have pushed the humour a little too far. Well, that got her talking at least.

The warrior took the temple steps two at a time and paused in the middle of the street to look up and down the thoroughfares leading away from the building. Sounds of fighting echoed off the storefronts and darkened homes, and Xena narrowed her gaze to squint through the rain and misty air towards the figures moving in the distance.

The sudden, piercing whistle made Gabrielle wince and she shot Xena a look as the warrior lowered her fingers from her mouth and took a firmer grip on her sword. "What was that for?"

Xena nodded towards the far end of the street. "Watch."

She barely had to wait before the clip-clop rhythm of horses' hooves on the cobbles became audible. Shadowy figures on horseback and on foot emerged from the mist, their look and bearing a very familiar and very welcome sight to the young bard's eyes. "The Kozani army!"

The soldiers filled the small square in front of the temple and drew to a halt. Some were wounded, but none grievously so. "Xena," one of them said, inclining his helm in her direction.

"Report," the warrior ordered in a clipped tone.

"The front gate was completely on fire when we arrived so we didn't even have to worry about the possible barricade you mentioned. It took us a few minutes to knock the rest of the gate down, but once when we got past that we encountered some of the raiders fighting in the courtyard. Militia was damn glad to see us, ma'am."

"I'll bet." She turned and glanced at Gabrielle. She had seen the front gate and could readily imagine how it looked engulfed in flames. You and I are definitely going to talk about this later, her expression said. Gabrielle's hangdog smile in response let her know her unspoken comment had been understood. "Continue."

"A lot of them broke and ran. We've organised search parties to hunt them down." The man paused to look at the abandoned homes. "With the damage it's going to take some time to get ćem all. Did you find Stephicles?"

"He's been taken and the Spear's in good hands." Xena's announcement was greeted with excited cheers from the troops, and she had to raise a hand to get their attention again. "Where's General Taelere?"

"When we heard the signal we passed a message back for someone to find him before we came here. He should be along in a moment."

On the heels of his words another group of horsemen approached from a different side street, their even columns mingling with the others as they crowded into the courtyard. One man, more ornately armoured than the others, came forward through the parting ranks of Kozani troops and Gabrielle recognised him from their brief encounter in the forest on her headlong flight to Neapolis.

"Xena!" He pulled off his helmet and then leaned down to grasp her forearm. "Nice of you to leave us something to do."

The wry comment made Gabrielle laugh. "She's just too industrious for her own good."

"I'm glad to see you're safe as well, Ambassador." Taelere bowed to her from his saddle and then turned his attention back to the raven-haired woman. "I heard cheering. What news?"

"Stephicles is in custody and being held by Captain Kiran's militia inside the temple," Xena told him. She waited for the ruckus to die down again before continuing. "Loan me a horse. I want to take your men and-"

"Crossbows!" Taelere suddenly shouted.

A loud clatter followed hard on his orders and suddenly Xena found herself facing a bristling wall of crossbow bolts. Those without the missile weapons drew their swords and moved to flank the warrior and bard.

Oh, Hades, she cursed, realising her tired slip of the tongue too late. "Wait-" Xena began.

The General's formerly open and friendly expression was now remote and wary. "Drop your weapons."

"What are you doing?!" Gabrielle demanded and stepped forward.

Xena threw out an arm to stop her and the watchful group tensed, raising their weapons. The creaking of saddle leather was heard as someone shifted in his seat, breaking the heavy silence. Too many to catch. "Gabrielle," the warrior breathed softly. "Don't. Move."

"Good call." Taelere waved a hand to a couple of his troops. "Get the Ambassador away from her."

"She's not going anywhere," Xena told him. "You're making a mistake, Taelere; I'm not trying to take your army from you."

Kozani's General stayed silent and watched her closely.

"Stephicles was defeated, but not by me. I'm in no one's thrall." Except for one particular green-eyed bard, that is.

"How do I know I can believe you?" Taelere asked slowly.

"Because she's the one who beat him." Xena cocked her head towards Gabrielle. "And your goddess happens to be in the temple right now holding half of the Spear of Mercy."

Reverential murmurings rose from the group and Taelere gazed searchingly at the warrior. "I want to believe you."

"You can," Gabrielle told him, "because I have the other half." She held it out for all to see, the rain doing nothing to diminish the soft golden glow emanating from its surface. On impulse, Gabrielle held it out to him. "Here though. Keep it. A gesture of faith so you won't think she's trying to trick you."

"Blessed Athena," Taelere whispered in awe as he took it from her hand and held the weapon gingerly. He took a moment to think, looking between the two women as he did so, before coming to a decision. "Put up your weapons!" The General tossed his helmet to one of his soldiers and then carefully dismounted. The older man came to stand before her and looked her over. The distinctive armour was bent and dented, the leathers beneath ripped and torn, and the rest of her was liberally covered in filth and gore. With a shake of his greying head, he asked in exasperation, "Woman, do you ever not look like you've been pulled behind a chariot Hades-bent for Tartarus?"

Xena's lips curled with amusement. "If you're not dirty, you're not doing it right."

"I'll have to remember that one." Taelere chuckled and shook his head. "Damn you though for worrying me. You're not someone I would willingly choose to cross swords with."

The inferred compliment felt good and she glanced down for a second before meeting his eyes. "I didn't give you an easy task. I'm grateful that you would have been willing to go through with it."

"You're thanking him because he was willing to kill you?" Gabrielle asked Xena incredulously. The matching expressions they turned on her made her throw her hands in the air. "Oh, of course you are. What was I thinking?" She shook her head. "Crazy warriors," Gabrielle muttered under her breath. She caught the look that Xena shot her, knowing full well the warrior would hear the barely audible comment, but from the set of her shoulders, she knew her friend was far more at ease now that the situation was under control.

"I think I understand your intentions," Taelere said, getting the conversation back on a more practical tack. "I have a squad at the gates, we're instituting a patrol along the walls, and I have several more groups who are searching systematically through the town for stragglers. We've already killed or captured quite a number who wanted to surrender."

"Good," Xena nodded.

"What about relief?" Gabrielle inquired. "They've been hit pretty hard and from what I remember negotiating, some supplies were supposed to be sent for the Neapolitans."

"Food, medicines, and additional supplies are already on their way, Ambassador," Taelere replied with a smile. "It'll take them another day or so to arrive, especially given the recent wet weather."

The bard gave a nod of approval. The supplies would be well received, especially in light of how sick and malnutritioned most of them had looked when she saw them last in the makeshift hospital.

"I'd suggest giving orders to your men to round up the townsfolk and send them here or to the town hall," said Xena. "There's more room and we can protect them better until this is sorted out. Assign some men for guard duty until the militia has a chance to rest and then they can do it until the situation's resolved."

Taelere nodded. "I'll order the men to make use of the tents and supplies out in the field beyond the walls. Given the conditions here I wouldn't want to stir up any hard feelings by billeting the men with anyone. Oh, and another thought. How do you want the raiders dealt with?"

Kill ćem all, she wanted to say. The bastards had caused untold damage and misery in the past couple of months, exacting a terrible cost from the Neapolitans. She felt eyes resting on her, but none so heavily as the bard's did. Xena glanced down to find Gabrielle regarding her searchingly, an almost fearful expression on her face.

Xena remembered another time she had put a deeper look of fear there and felt ill at the thought of doing so again. How far have I fallen that you're already dreading what I might do? The loss of faith hurt and left Xena questioning whether there was even any point any longer to trying to find a way back onto that pedestal. At last she broke eye contact with Gabrielle and looked at Taelere, her face expressionless. "Give them a chance to surrender. If they resist, take them down; I don't want any of our forces needlessly injured. Some kind of tribunal will need to be convened to determine an appropriate sentence." A warm hand laid itself on her arm, then, and squeezed gently. Whether in approval or relief, Xena didn't know; she kept her eyes on Taelere. "I'll advise the counsel of our actions. Can you take it from here?"

"With pleasure. And Xena? Wash and get some sleep." His eyes shifted to Gabrielle. "The both of you. From what I remember, heroes aren't supposed to look like the first four levels of Tartarus." With that comment he took hold of the reins and smoothly remounted his horse.

Xena pursed her lips for a moment, looked at the bard and managed to conjure up the ghost of a smile. "I think he's talking to you." The other emotions could wait until she was less tired.

"Excuse me?" Fair eyebrows lifted and Gabrielle gave the warrior a dubious look. "You must be mistaken. I'm just the storytelling ambassador here. You're the hero."

"Nuh uh. That's not the way I'm gonna tell it."

"Xeeeeenaaaaa."

"Now we'll see how you like it," the warrior replied, feeling deliciously smug as she crossed her arms.

"If you two are finished?" Neither the General nor his troops bothered to conceal the smiles on their faces. "Here," Taelere said and leaned out of the saddle towards Gabrielle. "I'm going to have my hands full with this lot and I'd appreciate it if you would see this safe." He handed the Spear haft back to the bard and then gave Xena a fist on chest salute. "I'll send a report to you later."

Xena lifted a hand in farewell and slid an arm around Gabrielle's shoulders as he shouted new orders and turned his mount to head out of the courtyard. Together they watched the troops fall into organised groups and ride away in different directions, the clatter of hooves and a quiet marching song drifting back to them as they departed.

"Xena?" The bard's voice drifted up to her after a long moment of quiet.

"Hmm?"

"I'm not really the hero, am I?"

There was a kind of forlorn wistfulness to the question and Xena paused to ruffle the dark, damp hair back away from her face before responding. "ćFraid so."

Silence followed by a sigh. "I don't feel like one."

"I never do either," Xena confided as she looked down at her companion. It was true, really. The larger than life manner in which Gabrielle portrayed her was completely at odds with her own self perception, and listening to the bard's tales invariably left her feeling uncomfortable and wondering. She simply did what she had to do, nothing more. "So what do you feel?"

"Tired. Sore. Just... really weary. And I imagine that if I'm feeling that way you must be ready to fall over."

"No, I'm good yet." Yeah, keep telling yourself that. "I need to go find Argo after we talk to the council, actually."

"Uh huh." Gabrielle gave her an indulgent, yet sceptical smile. "Xena, when's the last time you slept?"

Xena stared at the cobblestones as if seeking the answer in their rain-slicked patterns. Had it been two nights ago? Three? The days had all started running together at some point. "Well..."

"That's what I thought. Mud, blood and your ćI'm-so-tough' attitude are all that's keeping you upright, isn't it?"

"Gab-ri-elle..."

"C'mon. Hot wash water? A little food? A warm, soft bed?" The bard taunted her with the luxuries they had left behind on the second floor of the council hall's guest area. "Tell me that doesn't sound good."

Damn right it sounded good. Better than good. "Oh, all right," Xena finally conceded in a grumpy tone. "But, after we talk to Laera."

"If it gets us out of the rain you've got a deal, Warrior Princess." From outside the doorway the bard's voice seemed to echo eerily as they disappeared into the dark corridor within.

"Tsk, some people's warriors."

"Watch it, slave."

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
CHAPTER NINETY-FOUR

It was a queer feeling; one she didn't quite know how to handle. It was one thing to be taught to pray and obey and believe, and perhaps in a rare moment, actually witness some divine manifestation of the gods and goddesses that oversaw the workings of the world. But, Kiran decided, it's an entirely different matter when one of them is standing right next to you. A stolen glance sideways revealed that Athena's attention was still directed towards the doorway where the other two women had disappeared.

And watching those two with Athena had also been... unsettling. Some part of her had been almost aghast, even offended, by their casual and almost irreverent interaction with the goddess. Though, right now, she could wish for the same kind of comfortable aplomb they had shown. As it was, Kiran struggled with a nervous fear that left her palms feeling clammy. How does one just walk away from their goddess? "I'd better... um..." She gestured vaguely over to where Laera and several others stood and began edging away.

"I'm grateful to you."

"What?" The voice, low and melodic, startled Kiran and the question popped out before she had a chance to frame something more appropriate. Dark blue eyes looked straight at her, almost into her it seemed, and Kiran quickly looked towards the ground, unnerved by the attention. A hand came into view and she felt warm fingers lift her chin up until their gazes met once more.

"You have no reason to lower your eyes. Even to me," Athena said, a smile in her voice. "You've given more of yourself than anyone could have asked. Neapolis is sacred to me, and your protection of our people and this artefact from Ares and his followers is... appreciated." She hefted the head of the Spear, its tri-bladed head now immaculately clean of blood. "Stephicles would have wrought far more death and suffering than you can imagine had you not shown the strength you did."

What? For a long moment, she could only stare at the goddess. "Sacred? Then where were you? Why didn't you do anything? Don't talk to me about ćsacred' this and ćprotection' that!" Kiran ground out, her anger rising by the moment. "Why didn't you help us if we're so damn special to you?" She breathed heavily, stunned at the sudden intensity of her own anger. What am I doing?

"I was always with you," Athena replied, unruffled by her ire. "As much as the gods bicker and fight and manipulate humanity in their eternal machinations, we still need you as much as you need us. I offered as much help as I could without directly interfering in your lives, allowing each of you free choice in your actions, free will in your decisions. Devotion, acts of heroism, and moments of personal sacrifice are offerings made greater still if given freely. Deeds shine brighter and are far more pleasing in my eye than those that result from compulsion. If I had forced you into that tunnel, the end may have been the same, but the nobility of the act would have been lost. By choosing to take that path you discovered the best of who you are, your courage, your willingness to make hard choices, to possibly sacrifice your life that others might live... this is the stuff of which heroes are made."

Kiran shook her head, the implications tying her tongue in knots. "Bu... it wasn't me... Xena..."

"There are all sorts of heroes," was the mild reply.

After everything she had seen and done in the last two months, a hero was the last thing she felt like. Heroes knew what they were doing and didn't get their friends killed. And they probably didn't vomit on their own boots either for that matter. She was sure of that last one if nothing else. "Um, yeah." Kiran didn't want to disagree outright, but the conversation was making her increasingly uncomfortable. "I'd better-"

The feel of Athena's hand cupping the side of her face silenced her abruptly and she gulped as the fingers slipped through her hair and pulled her closer until they were nearly eye-to-eye. The grip was gentle, but firm, and Kiran knew that those bottomless eyes would have held her even without the goddess' touch. A soundless O shaped her lips as she felt her inner being cradled and laid bare beneath Athena's exacting scrutiny. It was reminiscent of the connection she had shared with Ares; gentler though no less intense as she relived the last two months in the space of a handful of heartbeats. Madness lurked in the overflow of memory and emotion, but the moment she gasped and tried to draw away, the barrage of images slowed and faded, leaving her panting in the goddess' grasp. Except now, the memories, once blunted by fear, hunger and pain, bore a startling clarity that shone brightly for a moment before receding from her conscious awareness. "Remember what you already know," Athena said cryptically as she patted Kiran's cheek and then released her. "You have my favour, Kiran, and my thanks. Go now. I know you have work to do."

"I... thanks," Kiran mumbled and inclined her head in a brief uncertain bow before backing shakily away and heading towards Laera with a deep sense of relief. This had been, by far, the most stress-filled, eventful week of her life. By the gods, I can't wait for it to be over with. Each step further away restored some measure of her equilibrium and by the time she returned to Laera's side she felt almost herself again. Well, a hurt, tired version, but what could she do?

"We have to prepare to go," Kiran announced without preamble when Laera acknowledged her presence. "How is she?" She nodded to where Mira was receiving care from some of the townswomen.

"She'll be marked for the rest of her life," the councillor answered only loud enough for her to hear.

Looking at the extent of the wound, she could see how the bolt of energy had burned Mira's skin leaving the flesh raw, bloody and blistered across much of the right side of her back. It looked horrifically painful, and from what little she knew of such injuries, she could tell the girl would be a long time healing and likely never raise a weapon again. "Will she live?"

"She'll survive," Laera answered as she stroked the scarring at her throat almost absently. "But she'll only live if she wants to badly enough."

Kiran nodded grimly and found herself hoping that would be the case. "I need your help to gather everyone up. We may have to leave in a hurry through the back. Xena is reconnoitring out front in case any of Stephicles' men are looking to storm the temple and if we get the signal, we have to hightail it out of here."

"Understood, Captain," the old woman replied. She clapped her hands to draw peoples' attention and began giving instructions.

As Laera began directing the townsfolk, Kiran dropped to her knees beside Mira and took the suffering woman's clenched fist in her hand, linking her fingers in a white-knuckled knot of sympathy. Two other women crouched over the former acolyte attempting to clean and bandage the wound, and Kiran mentally winced at the site of the ruined flesh before dropping her gaze. "Hi."

Watery brown eyes glanced up at her and offered a smile through gritted teeth. "You were right."

Kiran shook her head, a little perplexed. "About what?"

"Sometimes having the choice of... how we die."

This close, the pungent scent of burnt flesh brought back the horrifying taste and smell of the dank, enclosed tunnel. Bad time to be sick, Kiran thought as she swallowed and cleared her throat. "Well, I know I'm right about that, but I don't think it applies to you." The captain infused a note of confident assurance in a quiet tone as she answered, somehow finding it in herself to truly believe that in spite of the damage the other woman had sustained.

The brown curls shook in negation. "It's better if I'm dead," Mira whispered.

"Better for who?" Kiran argued. The other woman's eyes were heavy with regret. How can I get you passed this? "You think Laera wants you dead?"

Mira's expression was wan and perspiration dotted her upper lip, but she was calm. "She should."

The woman sounded so certain, so resigned, that Kiran unconsciously gripped her hand tighter, as if to hold on to her and not let her slip away. "She doesn't." A beat. "And neither do I." Again, like in the alleyway, she saw the vague hint of astonishment on Mira's face, but beyond that there was very little response. Kiran sighed and then considered another approach. "Look, Ares has probably washed his hands of you after all this. You have a chance to start over."

"After what I've done?" She jerked and hissed as a bandage was laid across her back and ground the bones of Kiran's hand in reaction. "Have you forgotten what I did to Agnes? To you?"

"No. And don't expect me to forgive you for it for a long while either," Kiran replied evenly. "But I can see how you came to it." She softened her voice a little. "It doesn't excuse you, but I can see it. If I had been trapped for that long, maybe I would have done the same thing. You've already made a change though. Wouldn't it give you any satisfaction at all to defy Ares just by living?" The pain-gilded quirk that surfaced was faint, but it heartened Kiran to see it. "C'mon. Will you try?"

"It'd be worth it," Mira agreed quietly, "but for the Ares-cursed visions."

"They didn't come from Ares."

The women started in surprise at the newcomer's voice, and all the more so to find it belonging to Athena. The townswomen stared in awe and fear, barely moving, until the goddess waved at them to continue. She then lowered herself down to one knee, making it easier for Mira to see her. "You've been praying for release for some time now, I know. When you were here, in Neapolis, you were isolated from his dwindling influence and under my protection."

"Then the vision I had, that ćdeath and hope-"

"-would ride in the storm. Yes," Athena confirmed. "It came from me though I gave you to feel that Ares was at its source. Thus the nightmares and the fear. You were my agent even as you acted in what you felt were Stephicles' interests."

"And the last one... about Kiran..."

"Again, I could only give you a sign and let you interpret it as you may." The goddess nodded her head. "I haven't been disappointed."

The words took her by surprise and she paused for a long moment, a look of cynical disbelief conflicting with the expression of vulnerable yearning that was just beginning to surface. "How can I..." Mira paused as she was jostled slightly by her caregivers. She visibly gathered herself and tried again. "How can I ever make up for this?" The question rose in an anguished whisper.

A wild thought occurred to Kiran and she twitched the material of Mira's tattered sleeve between her fingers. "You seemed happiest when you were just a lowly acolyte with grand aspirations and a pocketful of pranks in Athena's temple. Maybe you could be again." She glanced between them, trying to gauge their reaction. Such a move would offer Mira a sense of place and belonging, and more importantly a chance to start over in a positive environment. It had merit. Volumes seemed to be spoken in the silent exchange Mira and Athena shared.

"I have no objections," Athena said at last. "The council may have concerns, but given your circumstances, they may address them at some later time."

Meaning they know where to find you if they want you. Mira wouldn't be moving anywhere quickly and she posed little threat to anyone any more. And that was all assuming that the young woman lived. But Kiran could see that some of the fearful tension had lifted and a small, hopeful light rekindled itself in the dark, brown eyes. "Hang in there, okay? This is almost over and we'll get you settled some place more comfortable." Kiran patted her hand.

Mira nodded as she lay her head back down on the floor. Suddenly, she grabbed Kiran's hand tightly. "Thank you," she said simply. "And... it's not enough, but... I'm so sorry."

The ache was palpable and Kiran tried to smile for her. "I know, but it's a beginning."

"To what?"

"Guess you'll decide that," Kiran answered gently with a shrug. "Rest while you can. We may have to leave in a hurry." She squeezed the woman's hand and then stood up. Blankets and improvised stretchers were in short supply, but the two women who had tended Mira had found both for her. Satisfied that she was cared for, Kiran glanced around the room, mindful of Athena's presence at her side, and watched as mothers herded their children together closer to the back of the temple. The noise level was growing and she wondered if she should say something when a pair of shadows separated themselves from the dark temple entrance and caught her eye. The warrior moved with a smooth, even gait with no sign of the injury that had nearly taken her life not half an hour past. Kiran's eyes shifted downwards to watch the bard keep pace by Xena's side, gesticulating with her free hand and turning often towards the taller woman, a smile on her animated face.

They're such odd companions. What's the draw? She pondered the question as they approached, all the while watching Xena with shy though avid admiration. The close observation allowed her to see how the bard often reached out to touch the warrior, how close she stayed inside Xena's space, and not only did it appear that Xena didn't mind... The bard smiled and said something that made the warrior laugh, and when Gabrielle looked down the aisle toward her, Kiran caught the softening of Xena's expression and the warm smile the warrior bestowed her friend. Huh, Kiran said to herself. After witnessing the depths of Xena's dark ferocity, this sudden and unexpected display of tenderness took her quite off-guard. Haven't seen a look like that since Tomas went sweet on the baker's daughter. She had no time to consider it further; the bard was raising a hand to hail them as they drew closer.

Whatever news they had to share, Kiran knew that Laera would want to hear it too. She craned her neck and spotted the older woman. It took a moment, but she caught the councillor's eye and they convened in the middle of the temple floor to talk.

"Great news," Gabrielle said immediately, her smile fully engaged. "You won't have to leave the temple."

"What's happened?" Laera asked as she folded her hands in front of her.

"The Kozani troops managed to take back most of the town," Xena replied, her expression intent and serious. "Stephicles' men broke and ran during the counter-attack, so we have search groups out looking for them. I don't want to take chances though, which means I've instituted a guard around the temple and the council hall so your people will have some place safe to stay until this is taken care of." The warrior looked around the chamber noting the spartan conditions. "If you're missing any essentials let one of the Kozani troops know about it as soon as they arrive."

"Food and supplies will be coming in a day or so," Gabrielle added. "Your wounded will be cared for and the dead laid to rest. Everything else will take a bit of time to rebuild, but you'll have help."

Could she believe her ears? Laera glanced at Kiran and then at the others, a look of wariness on her face. "I've been praying for it for so long that I'm almost afraid to ask now, but... is it really over?" She looked up into the hard angular face of her former enemy. The question had been picked up by those standing close by, and everyone fell silent and waited...

"It's over," Xena confirmed for her softly, the dark brows drawing together as tears formed in Laera's eyes and ran silently down the withered cheeks as cheering filled the room. "You're safe." Xena resisted the urge to take a step back as the old woman approached, allowing Laera to lay a hand on her armoured shoulder.

"We found saviours in the most unlikely of places," she said, her voice cracking with emotion. "I can't ever thank you both enough." With that, Laera stepped closer and embraced Xena.

The warrior stiffened in the old woman's arms and just as quickly began shaking her head. "I don't deserve your thanks," she said huskily. "I owed Neapolis no less."

Laera drew back ever so slightly. "Like everyone else, I watched your every move, and it is no secret what you were willing to sacrifice to help us. If you will not accept my thanks, then at least accept my forgiveness? We would never have survived if not for you."

Kiran had been barely more than a child when Xena had first appeared at their gates, but she remembered the fires, the destruction and the stories of people ground into the snow beneath the hooves of her army's horses. Tales of the Warrior Princess scared children into obedience and influenced much of how Neapolis had chosen to survive and rebuild after the warlord had abandoned them to their fate. And now, Kiran felt a curious shiver up her spine being present to witness this incredible moment. The few hours she had spent with Xena preparing for Stephicles attack had rendered the children's tales of the Warrior Princess flat and without substance. Legend held no sway on the powerful presence of Xena's reality. The passionate drive, infectious intensity and inexhaustible energy Xena displayed had given Kiran the inspiration she needed to continue fighting, to hold out until help could arrive. It had been as important to the warrior as it had been to her, and now Kiran could see how deeply Laera's words affected Xena in spite of her every effort to mask it. The blue eyes tightened, and for a brief moment she thought she saw a wistful longing there, a desire to believe warring against some deeper, darker emotion.

"Glad we could help," Xena finally answered and dropped her arms to allow Laera to offer Gabrielle a hug which the bard enthusiastically returned. Others closed in around them, offering words of thanks, talking excitedly to one another or simply weeping in happy relief. The children, feeling the dark sombre fear lift from their elders for the first time in a long while, smiled and laughed, and sidled up to the crowd with a constant stream of curious chatter.

Watching from the edge of the throng, Kiran could see the warrior's growing stillness and hooded watchful eyes as the people closed in, their talk and laughter filling the air and rebounding off the high walls. Perhaps it was curiosity, or maybe the bard just caught her eye, but the bard's shifting green-tinged gaze told her that Gabrielle had noticed Xena's discomfort too, except too many people were trying to engage her attention for the bard to do anything about it. On a hunch, Kiran waded through the crowd until she was at the warrior's side.

"Excuse me. Pardon me." She raised her voice to be heard. "Xena? I need to go over a couple things with you." Kiran waited for the warrior's nod of acquiescence and motioned towards a spot away from the people. She turned and crossed her arms as Xena pulled away from the people and came over to join her.

"What's on your mind?"

The rich velvety voice gave no sign of discomfort or fatigue in the slightest, and Kiran could feel her admiration slide up another notch at the level of control the woman sustained even in the face of the most extreme circumstances. "I thought maybe you could use a rescue."

A dark brow lifted in response. "Oh, really?"

"Uh..." Oh, boy... got that one wrong, didn't I? "Well, your friend seemed a bit concerned about you, so..."

"She did, hmm?"

"Yeah, so I thought you might want some space..." She was could feel the blood creeping into her face.

"Space." Xena tasted the word, crossing her own arms.

"...well..." Kiran continued weakly and hunched her shoulders, wondering if she were about to be swatted.

"Tch, stop intimidating her and be nice, Xena." Kiran saw the bard walk up and nudge the warrior as she spoke. "I would have pulled you out of there myself if I could have gotten away."

That interesting dynamic was back, and Kiran watched in fascination the way Xena's whole demeanour changed in the bard's presence. It wasn't all that obvious exactly, more felt than seen, but she sensed this softening that seemed to draw one in. As if to prove the thought, Xena only smiled and appeared to relax further when Gabrielle stepped closer and laid a hand on the warrior's side. Interesting.

"If we're done here, I think we made a deal?" Gabrielle asked and leaned on the Spear.

"What deal?" Kiran asked, despite the fact she felt almost like an intruder in their presence from the way they were looking at each other.

"Ms. Invincible here hasn't slept in a few days," the bard answered. "And come to mention it..." She let out a huge yawn. "I'm pretty sure I'm due some more sleep myself."

The urge to follow suit was contagious and Kiran found herself emulating Gabrielle with a jaw-cracking yawn of her own. "Don't start that or I'll never stop," she complained good-naturedly. "I'd better let you guys leave now before you get drawn into something else. Will you be around for a little while though?"

Xena nodded. "A few days at least, probably longer. I want to see things settled here and the rebuilding started before we go."

Kiran exhaled softly with relief. It was an incredibly reassuring thing to know that at least for a short time the burden of responsibility would still be shared. "That's great," she said, trying to tone down her exuberance. "Then, when you have some time I'll catch up with you tomorrow?" The feeling of anxiousness at their impending departure was postponed for at little while. And if she were honest with herself, Kiran was not looking forward to how life might be after everything settled down.

"Sure."

And with that, Xena lifted a hand in farewell before the two women turned and left the celebrating townsfolk behind. Just before the darkness near the far side of the temple swallowed them up she saw the bard bump Xena and the warrior's arm close around Gabrielle's shoulders. Kiran shook her head and smiled before turning back to the welcoming arms of her own people.

* * *

Xena felt the bard nudge her and she draped one long arm around Gabrielle and pulled her closer, smiling as she did so. They lived their lives in such a whirlwind at times that she figured she should be used to it by now, but this adventure seemed even more hectic than usual. She still had yet to wrap her mind around the fact that a very short time ago she had been on the verge of death. If not for the woman at her side ignoring her orders and riding Hades-bent across the countryside to catch up with her, Xena realised that Stephicles likely would have won after all. And her pride didn't exactly know how to feel about that.

Somewhat abashed by the emotion, the warrior brushed it off and concentrated instead on the much more pleasurable feeling of Gabrielle pressed against her side. The moment their eyes had met in the temple had given her a jolt she had not been prepared to feel, the very memory of it sending a tingling warmth through her inside and out despite what had followed after.

"How can you be so warm even in the rain? I'm freezing," Gabrielle complained and shivered for good measure.

"Good circulation," Xena muttered, hoping that the bard wouldn't notice the heat in her face from this angle. "C'mere." She pulled Gabrielle a little closer, allowing the bard to mould against her right side as they came to the bottom of the steps in front of the temple.

"Chiaro!" Gabrielle suddenly cried and abandoned her warm nook to jog over to the horse wandering freely beyond a small wall of rubble. "I can't believe she's still here! C'mon, we can ride her back to the council hall."

Xena followed more slowly behind her, eyeing the horse with a vague dread. By its shorter stature the fine-boned mare was perfectly matched for Gabrielle. But for her... My feet are gonna drag on the cobbles, she sighed morosely. But the bard was waving her onward with an endearing enthusiasm that Xena found impossible to resist. Besides, she reasoned, there didn't look to be anyone else around to see. She climbed up into the saddle, ignoring the shortened stirrups that would have had tucked her knees under her chest, and reached down to pull Gabrielle up behind her in the saddle. The bard settled familiarly against her, her body pressing close against her back and an arm snaking around her middle. One hand patted her leather covered midriff briefly before clinging in a body hug that she hadn't realised she missed until Gabrielle sighed against her shoulder.

"You ready?" Xena asked softly.

"More than ready," the bard confirmed.

The warrior covered the hand at her waist with one of her own, and clicked her tongue to get the horse moving into a steady gait towards where she remembered the council hall to be. She heard a quiet hum from Gabrielle just as the bard snuggled closer into her, no doubt enjoying the heat trapped between their bodies where they touched. The warmth felt delightful and though she was far from complaining, it only exacerbated her fatigue and she blinked a few times before finally turning her face up to the rain to clear her head a little. Sleep was going to feel so very good, but Stephicles' thugs could be anywhere yet, and she thanked the gods that the distance to the council hall was relatively short.

Another sigh rippled across her hearing and she felt Gabrielle relax against her. She briefly considered checking to see if Gabrielle was still awake, but decided against it. It was a moment of relative calm and quiet, the first they had enjoyed in more than a week, Xena realised. Let her take it easy for a few minutes. Over the measured clip-clop sounds of the horse's hooves, she could distantly hear the sounds of Kozani troops passing by a street or two over and what might have been a distant skirmish. She lifted her rain-soaked head to listen closer and caught a shouted order that set her instincts on edge. Should I check that out?

Gabrielle chose that moment to rouse herself. "We almost there?"

"Nearly," she replied and neatly collared the wolf that prowled within her before firmly turning her attention back to the street ahead them. Taelere will deal with it. He's smart enough to find me if he really needs me. It wasn't an easy decision to make, but if she were honest, neither she nor Gabrielle could push herself much further without taking some huge risks with their safety. She clicked her tongue again and coaxed Chiaro into a slightly faster pace, eager to get them out of the rain and into some place warm and dry.

* * *

Gabrielle was scarcely aware of it when Xena lifted her down from the saddle and laid her on a hard, wooden surface. She breathed deeply and let out a sigh. Hay. She sniffed. Horse manure. Stables? She blinked her eyes open and hugged herself closer now that delicious body warmth they had shared was dissipating. Through half open eyes, she watched Xena care for Chiaro with an economic efficiency that she envied and, though gloomy, there was enough light to see that her friend moved with nearly the same ease as ever. Xena looked tired though, a very unusual sight given that her usual stoic manner generally saw fit to hide such mundane, human frailties. Dark circles marred the skin under her eyes, and the hollow shadows about her made Gabrielle think that the warrior hadn't eaten much in far too long. Need to take better of care of you. I came too close to losing you this time.

It was barely any time at all when she again felt familiar hands lifting her up and her cheek laid against a comfortable shoulder. "Xena?" she murmured to the nearby ear. "Put me down. I can walk." It was a token protest really; she didn't really want to move anywhere. It felt too good right where she was.

"Why do I feel like we've had this conversation before?" Xena responded in amusement.

"I'm beginning to think you enjoy doing it. Or is it just an image thing?" Gabrielle teased in turn as she manoeuvred the Spear out of the way, a smile on her face. The answering quirk was all the answer she was given as the warrior took them through an adjoining doorway directly into the building. Xena paused in the more brightly-lit passage before taking the hall to their right, her steps smooth and sure as Gabrielle shifted to lay her arm around the other woman's neck. Slow, even breaths caressed her rain-pebbled skin and raised a light welter of goosebumps that skittered over her from head to toe. She shivered briefly and felt Xena gather her in a little more closely against her body.

"Nearly there," Xena murmured softly as she navigated the corridors from memory and, true to her word, they found the stairs leading to the second floor. With each step, Gabrielle felt a little more of the tension and intensity of the day slough away, leaving her in quiet awareness of her emotions as she watched the reassuring beat in the hollow of the warrior's throat. They arrived at the door with matching sighs of relief and Xena waited until Gabrielle dealt with the latch before prodding the door open with her foot.

Xena paused to kick the portal shut again before crossing over to the large unmade bed that dominated one side of the room. Gabrielle took in the chamber's general disarray with its collection of used bandages on the floor next to the bed and the pair of robes left in wrinkled heaps on its messy surface. It looked exactly as they had left it, she noted with surprise. Surely with all the injured they would have taken this room too? Evidence suggested otherwise and the bard could only take it as an indication of faith that the Neapolitans had truly believed they would return.

Further thought on the matter was postponed as she was gently deposited on the bed's surface and promptly joined by Xena as the other woman lowered herself face first into the covers. Gabrielle turned her head and watched with muted appreciation the flow of muscles beneath the skin as the warrior slowly stretched her body out onto the bed. Something popped and clicked audibly from Xena's back resulting in a deep, but muffled groan of happy release. The bard winced sympathetically and let out a soft chuckle. "Can you breathe like that?"

Xena turned her head and regarded her from beneath the disordered fall of dark hair. "Not especially, but I'm too tired to care."

"If you're willing to admit that without the impetus of torture, you must be tired," she commented while laying the Spear down on the floor and out of the way.

"Mmm." A sigh. The blue eyes blinked a couple of times and fell shut, a few strands of hair falling across one eye as Xena rubbed her cheek on the coverlet and sighed again. The strain of recent events eased a little and smoothed the harsher angles of Xena's face, giving back the youthful appearance.

Gabrielle levered herself up on one elbow the better to take in the charming picture before her, and felt an intense swell of emotion tightened her chest. A shaky breath left her and she laid a hand next to Xena's without touching her, but just close enough to feel the barest hint of warmth from the warrior's skin. I can't believe how good it feels just to see you again. It had only been a few days, but the separation bore the feel of an achingly long absence. And now that they were finally back together and the danger seemed passed, she found her eyes tearing up, rising on a wave of a relief and happiness so strong that it threatened to steal her breath away. Gabrielle wiped her eyes before the tears could fall, unsettled by the depth of her feelings.

"Hey," Xena's voice burred quietly. "What's wrong?" All evidence of sleepiness was gone as the other woman's eyes searched her face in concern.

What was wrong, indeed? "I think I'm just tired." How else could she explain away the rapid beat of her heart in the face of Xena's gentle worry?

The warrior reached out and stroked her cheek. "We both are. If you'll get a fire started, I'll see about finding us some water to clean up with before we get some sleep," Xena suggested as she rolled over and sat up. She fingered the rent in her leathers and then turned her hands back and forth, inspecting the encrustation of mud that seemed a permanent part of her skin. "I've been living in filth so long I'm almost used to it."

"Ew." Gabrielle scrunched up her nose in playful reaction. "You're dirtier than I thought you were. Hurry up and get the water."

Xena snorted and stood up. "Have you looked in a mirror lately?"

"Nope, and the closest I'm likely to come to such an extravagance is looking at my reflection in your eyes, so..." She reached up to direct the warrior's gaze to her and drew the woman closer in the process. Gabrielle glanced back and forth into the amused light-coloured eyes and made a show of smoothing down the edge of one sandy-brown eyebrow as if one hair out of place would mar her perfection. "What do you think?" she asked with a grin.

Gabrielle waited expectantly for the sharp, sarcastic retort and her smile began to fade when it appeared that none would be forthcoming. Instead, she found her attention captured in the depths of Xena's gaze. The warrior's expression of amusement had altered into something softer, more vulnerable, and she looked back, taken by the manner in which Xena's lips seemed shaped by some quietly held secret. The sky blue eyes roamed her face like an almost tangible caress and gave rise to an unexpected warmth in the pit of her stomach.

"I think..." Xena's voice was a husky murmur and Gabrielle unconsciously edged closer in response. The warrior abruptly paused to clear her throat and shift her eyes away, breaking the spell Gabrielle had felt herself bound in. "I think I'll know better when I can see what you look like under that layer of muck." The usual stoic expression was back in place, banishing that moment of intimacy as if it had never been. "I'll check out the kitchen and be back in a few minutes."

And with that, Xena slipped away and out the door leaving Gabrielle feeling, once again, as if she had been dashed with cold water and reminding her of that moment in Stephicles camp when Xena had suddenly and inexplicably walked off into the rain. With a sigh and a shake of her head, Gabrielle left the bed and padded over to the fireplace. She placed a couple of the smaller logs in the crumbled and ashy remains of their last fire and set about lighting the pile of kindling. Within minutes, she had a small, cheery fire blazing on the hearth and was hugging the grate as closely as she dared, enjoying the fingers of heat that stroked her body in tantalising waves. With a satisfied smile, Gabrielle wrapped her hands around her knees and prepared to wait for Xena's return.

* * *

The run to the kitchen yielded far more goodies than Xena had hoped for, and she clutched the supplies to her as she hurried back to the room, eagerly anticipating a chance to get clean and finally get some sleep. The incident with Gabrielle had only served to show her just how tattered and brittle her defences had become, and all the restraint she had previously managed to erect had long since disappeared somewhere in her travels between Kozani and Neapolis.

Tired. I'm just tired, she told herself. A few hours rest and I'll be fine again. Gabrielle's joking comment about her enjoying the opportunities that allowed her to carry the smaller woman in her arms had hit far too close to the mark for comfort. Her emotions felt as though they were spinning out of conscious control. Between Gabrielle's shocking reappearance and narrowly avoiding death, Xena was feeling distinctly off balance. Her side still tingled and prickled as if retaining the memory of the remembered agony of the weapon twisting and slicing her insides to ribbons. If she could have freed up a hand, she would have pressed it against her side to try to rub it away. Xena recalled the split second she had in which to make a decision when the bard attacked, and sacrificing her body had been a small price to pay to keep Gabrielle safe.

Seeing Gabrielle whole and sound was a reward in itself. Even begrimed with dirt, dead leaves and pine needles her impetuous young friend had been a welcome sight. Could I have been any more distracted? Amid the self-conscious embarrassment of feeling like an adolescent with her first crush, Xena wanted to slap herself in the head.

Discovering herself back at the top of the stairs, Xena paused outside the door, took a breath to settle herself and then bumped the barrier open with her hip. Flickering light bathed the room with an orangey glow and filled it with the warm and homey scent of oak and pine. The bard sat with her chin resting on her knees, staring with rapt fascination into the dancing flames. Xena stopped where she was to admire the way the light picked out the honey-coloured highlights in Gabrielle's hair and cast her eyes full of sparkling shades of green flecked with gold when the younger woman glanced up at her arrival.

"Whoa, did you bring the whole kitchen?" Gabrielle asked as she rose from hearth and hurried over to help. "What is this? Oh!"

Xena heard the crunch as the bard took a healthy bite from one of the apples she had brought with her.

"Omigowf," the bard moaned around a mouthful as she set the miscellaneous items down on the bed. "Thashshogoon!" Another wet crunch, this time accompanied by a wet slurp. Another moan.

"Don't choke," Xena remarked with a wry grin as she dropped the rest of her burden on the hearthstones. Gabrielle was suddenly at her side again, her face a picture of bliss as she chewed. "Wha-" Suddenly the apple was pressed against her lips and it was either oblige the bard by taking a bite or risk losing a tooth to her overly philanthropic intentions. It was definitely one of the easier decisions she had made that day as she took a bite of the wrinkled red and yellow streaked fruit. For all that it had likely been in storage for several months, the explosion of sweet, moist flavour across her tongue was almost enough to make her moan as well. The mouthful was a powerful reminder that she had barely eaten a thing in days and her stomach gurgled its impatience. She unpacked the small repast she had managed to scavenge from the kitchen on the hearth and eagerly surveyed her choices.

Weak wine, a small brick of old cheese, a round of coarse, heavy bread, a handful of olives and the wrinkled apples looked like a feast and Xena didn't have to call twice to get Gabrielle to join her. But for the crackle of the fire, the room was otherwise quiet for a few minutes as they ate. In their haste to fill their bellies they passed the wineskin back and forth, foregoing the use of the goblets resting on the table from their last visit. At last, the two women slowed down and took the time to taste their food, giving contented little sighs as they did so. Xena dusted her hands off and stood, still in the midst of chewing a bite.

"Where are you going?"

The warrior grabbed a long handled pot and several more skins from the bed and returned to her seat by the fire. "Figured we could heat some water while we finish this off. It's not a bath..." Her tone was apologetic as she filled the pot with as much water as it would hold, latched it to the hook and swung it over the fire to heat.

"Oh, Xena, I don't care," Gabrielle hurried to reassure her. "It's warm water and it's going to feel like Elysia. Just getting my boots off felt incredible!"

She smiled and shook her head as she watched the bard wiggle her toes with obvious enjoyment. "So that's what I smelled." Her quick reflexes protected her from Gabrielle's smack on the arm and she raised a sarcastic eyebrow in response.

"Ha ha," her companion replied archly. "As if you're flower fresh yourself, Ms. ćIf you're not dirty, you're not doing it right'."

"I'm not the one with boot imprints all over my feet."

"Uh huh," Gabrielle narrowed her eyes and poked the breastplate with one finger. "I can't wait to see what kind of patterns you've got going under all that stuff."

Xena suddenly leaned forward and captured Gabrielle's left ear between thumb and forefinger. She ignored her friend's yelp of protest and tugged her closer, pretending to inspect the hapless bit of anatomy with great interest. "How the Hades did you get so much dirt in your ears?! You could grow crops in there!"

Retaliation was quick to follow when Gabrielle's hand shot out and gave Xena's long, tangled hair a solid yank. "Is that a crow's nest or a rat's den on your head? You've got enough build-up to even give Medusa a run for her dinars!"

Xena growled, Gabrielle lunged and the olives went flying as they grappled. A failed offensive toppled the bard abruptly off the hearth, but Gabrielle wasn't giving in that easily. She hauled Xena down with her onto the floor with a resounding thump and they rolled twice before ending up tangled together nearly nose to nose.

"Spud-rielle!"

"Warrior Gorgon!"

They glared at each other and panted for breath. Maybe it was the twitch of Xena's brow that did it. Or maybe the way Gabrielle crinkled her nose as she tried not to smile, but the silliness of the moment suddenly caught up to them and they burst out in a long fit of giggles. Gales of laughter merrily filled the room, trailing into snorts and hitches of sound until, at last, Gabrielle's shaking arms slowly collapsed under the weight of her bubbling laughter and she sank into a pair of welcoming arms.

Quiet finally descended and Gabrielle's voice rose softly to reach Xena's ear. "I've missed this." A pause. "Missed you."

It was spoken with such wistful and aching happiness that the warrior felt her eyes pricked with tears. She tightened her hold on the bard and dropped a kiss on the fire-touched hair, acknowledging the deep emotions that rose in answer to Gabrielle's heartfelt words. She remembered vividly the last time they had shared such easy, playful banter and the revealing conversation that they had shared afterwards. Maybe it's time for another one, she thought. "C'mon. That water should be ready by now," Xena murmured and helped Gabrielle up.

With a spare rag, Xena swung the kettle of water away from the fire and removed it to the floor where its simmering contents could cool to a more comfortable temperature. "Grab the robes?" she asked as she worked at the mud packed buckles of her leg armour. Gabrielle dropped the clothes on the hearth and then reached over to unhook the misshapen breastplate. "Gods, Xena, it looks like you ran face first into a wall."

Xena nodded, her eyes still on the stubborn buckle as she worked with it. "Close enough." She paused to lean back as Gabrielle helped draw it off of her and she gave a sigh of relief once the uncomfortable constriction was removed. Damn thing's been poking me for hours now. Looking down at herself she grimaced at the deep imprints the edges of the armour had made into the leather. In one spot part of the armour had twisted and cut a rough groove in the material over her left breast Any less lucky and it might have gouged right through me. That woulda hurt. As it was, her armour was a smashed and battered mess, having borne the brunt of her collision with the town wall.

"What did you do?" The bard asked as her fingers ran over the metal whorls.

Xena shrugged. "I had to get into the town and the gate was blocked. I tried going over the wall instead."

"Over the wall," Gabrielle repeated and then looked at the armour again. It looks almost flat. It made her want to pat her own chest in sympathy. "Um... did you miss?"

"No!" The warrior replied indignantly. "I hit it, all right." This last came in an embarrassed undertone. The buckled chose that moment to pop open and she removed the armour, quickly unlaced her boot, pulled it off and then started on the other knee.

"So I see. Then what?" Gabrielle asked, her natural curiosity as a storyteller pushing to the fore as she paused, the laces of her half-top only partially undone.

Scummy little-c'mon, already! She gritted her answer out between her teeth. "Ran across the rooftops until I got to the temple. Ripped up the slates and jumped down. You were there for the rest." The other buckle gave over reluctantly and Xena pulled it off with a great deal of satisfaction. "Ahh." Gods, that's better. That's going to take forever to fix and clean, she thought grimly as she looked over her growing pile of filthy, battered equipment. It would wait though. We'll probably be here for a little while until they get back on their feet.

If she got any more concise, she'd be grunting at me again. The bard shook her head in frustration. "Xena, there has to be more than that."

"You already know how the story ends." In fact, you know more about that than I do... "Are you going to tell me what you've been up to? What happened with Ares?" Xena asked as she stood up. Something, some tingling sense made her look at Gabrielle. Pained green eyes followed her movements and stopped somewhere at her midriff. Her brows knitting in confusion until she looked down at herself and saw where the gaping hole in the leather was much more obvious now that the spectacular condition of her armour was no longer present to provide any kind of distraction. The edges were crusted with hardening gore and a dark stain discoloured the tough leather all around the tear. Gabrielle's stricken look drew her forward and the bard tentatively lifted a hand to touch her side.

It's hitting her again, she realised. In the rush of events and the stress of the situation neither of them had had any time to deal with the personal side of everything that had happened. And being exhausted probably isn't helping things either. "Hey..." Xena gentled her voice as she knelt down. "I'm fine." In a deliberate repetition of earlier, she grasped Gabrielle's hand in hers and slowly pressed them through the hole until they met warm, solid flesh. "See?"

"You were dying," Gabrielle whispered as the tears began to fall, as she relived the moment again. "Ares offered to heal you if I gave you back to him as your Chosen. You were bleeding all over the floor and you were so pale, but I couldn't stop it. I wanted to give in so badly, but I couldn't give you to him. Not like that. After everything you've done, I'd never have forgiven myself if I had." Gabrielle trembled and raised her eyes to meet the blue eyes so close to her own. "Xena, I was going to let you die," she said hoarsely, the shame and remorse making her look away. "I'm so sorry."

"No," Xena said and pulled Gabrielle against her in a hard embrace. "You have nothing to feel guilty for, understand me? You know me." Saying the words aloud, she could feel the truth of it. The repercussions of her desperate deals were coming back to haunt her, and Xena cursed, knowing that she hadn't expected to survive long enough to have to explain her choices. How much do I tell her? She looked away to the far shadows of the room a moment before turning to claim the bard's eyes in an intensely serious gaze. "Listen. The situation was bad. I had to make a deal with Ares in order to give Neapolis a chance and buy me more time, but I wasn't going to go through with it. I've done enough harm already. So I told Taelere that if Stephicles was beaten that he should kill me if I showed the slightest interest in taking control of his army. So... one way or another I was going to die. You did everything right, for me and for the greater good. And whatever you did with the Spear... Gabrielle... you saved my life."

ćOne way or another...' Gabrielle heard and stiffened in Xena's arms. She leaned back and blinked, overcome by the shock, surprise and anger that passed through her in quick succession, growing until Gabrielle pushed away in an explosion of emotion. "That's what that was all about in front of the temple! Xena, why would you do that?!" Gabrielle demanded and pulled her hand loose from Xena's grasp. "How could dying be the only way?" In her growing fury, Gabrielle surged to her feet and glared at the warrior, her hands clenched into fists as she awaited an answer.

Gabrielle's outburst took Xena by surprise, but she quickly recovered. "I owe them everything I have to give."

"There had to be another way! You're a brilliant strategist, Xena. Wasn't there any other solution?" She was shocked that Xena would deliberately set out to get herself killed. "Or did you want to die?" The question came out without her conscious permission and she wondered where that thought had come from.

"I was out of time!" Xena snapped at her. "I needed help that I couldn't find anywhere else except from Ares. And if it meant my life... Gabrielle, you have no idea of everything I've done, the guilt I feel because of it!" Her jaw worked as she fought her own rising anger and shame.

"That's why you left me. That's what you didn't want me to see."

The statement was spoken in a flat tone, bringing to mind the tense confrontation outside the cave during their headlong flight to Kozani. "You were injured and I refused to risk you further."

"So you left without a word. Even knowing that you wouldn't come back, you still left without a word." Why didn't you say good-bye?

"Yes," Xena replied, her tone hard and unapologetic. "And I'd do the same again if I thought it was necessary to keep you safe." The expression of hurt was hard to look upon, but she forced herself to do so. There had been very few easy choices to make during this mission and none that would have made the bard happy while still allowing Xena to achieve her goals. "You were hurt and I left you behind, but I didn't abandon you, Gabrielle. There's a difference."

"I dreamt of you," Gabrielle said unexpectedly and Xena could only stare at her, bewildered by the sudden change of subject. "Over and over again I dreamt of fire and pain. You were in trouble and needed me. All I could think of... all I could feel... was you. A sense of urgency. An overwhelming need to help and a sense of terror if I failed. It was like a heavy weight upon my heart that ached so deeply I thought my bones would cry out with the agony of it."

Which, Xena decided, was as close as words could ever have come to describing the constant sensation that plagued her conscience.

"That's what it's like for you, isn't it?" Gabrielle asked as if sensing her thoughts.

Silence, and then... "Yeah." It's something I hope you never have cause to know.

They stared at one another for a moment and then Gabrielle slowly walked over until she stood in front of the warrior. "Finding you gone made me angry. And it hurt. Especially after you said you wouldn't leave me again. Part of me doesn't want to understand. Part of me wants to stay angry with you, Xena, but only because... you mean so much to me," she finished quickly in a low voice.

Xena rose to her feet and came closer until she stood before Gabrielle, feeling awkward and unsure. "I knew this would hurt you and I'm sorry, Gabrielle. So much was out of my control... the only thing I could be sure of was keeping you out of it." She stroked the bard's cheek and thought wryly of how even that hadn't turned out as she planned. "I don't ever want you to pay for the mistakes I've made."

Gabrielle pulled Xena into a hug and sighed against her chest, a familiar sadness rising in her. "I wish..." she trailed off, at a loss for once of how to frame her feelings.

"You wish... what?"

"I wish I could take your past for you. Share it. Make it easier. Or better. Or... just... something... that would finally let you find some peace." That was pathetic, she sighed to herself in frustration.

"Gabrielle..."

The gentle way in which her name rolled off Xena's tongue sent warm shivers through the bard's midsection and she unknowingly gripped her more tightly.

Xena found Gabrielle's flustered sincerity incredibly sweet. "Don't you know that you do that for me every single day?" Unseen though it was she could still feel Gabrielle's smile as her lips brushed against her skin. "The only real happiness I've known is because of you. I don't think I could do without it now."

It touched her deeply, and Gabrielle pulled back a little to look up at the dark haired woman. "You won't ever have to." There was more she wanted to say, and her lips moved as if to speak, but nothing would emerge. Liquid blue eyes held her, the firelight changing their hue from moment to moment, and all she could do was stare.

It wasn't at first apparent whether Gabrielle intended to add more or not, but the mood had shifted again and Xena was grateful for the lessening of tension. Though, the way the bard was looking at her giving her tension of an entirely different sort. Okay, you're really tired if you're imagining that, she admonished herself "What do you think about using some of that water now?" she suggested, breaking the silence. "If we're lucky it might even be warm still."

The tired relief in Gabrielle's eyes was obvious as she nodded. "Yeah... I'm tired of being grungey."

"You and me both," Xena snorted.

The remainder of their clothing and gear was shed and lain aside on the hearth or over the chairs to dry. There would be time tomorrow to see to necessary repairs and much needed laundry, but for now they were content to see to themselves, an involved enough task as it was. The robes were more for warmth than for modesty, their fatigue making such concerns more an inconvenience than anything. Gabrielle let the material pool around her waist as she used a wet cloth to remove the sweat and mud accumulated in the rigours of the past few days. She quietly shared her story as she did so, watching Xena as the other woman washed as well, her damp body glistening in the firelight. They helped each other as necessary to reach the tough spots and it was with contented satisfaction when they finally finished their ablutions, their hair damp and their bodies clean and dry at last.

The soft, cool haven of the bed produced twin sighs of pleasure as Xena and Gabrielle crawled beneath the covers. Xena set her sword against the bed as she listened to the little Ooos and Aahs of giggled happiness as the bard shifted around beside her, wiggling her shoulders into the mattress before coming to rest on her side, facing her.

Xena reached over to touch her shoulder. "So, does it still hurt at all?"

"What?" Gabrielle asked, having momentarily forgotten about the wound. "Oh... no, not at all. Other than a bit of an ache, I feel fine." The bard levered herself up a little on one elbow and laid a hand on Xena's side. "What about you?"

"It just feels like a bruise now." The only tingling left was from the welcome warmth of Gabrielle's touch through the robe. "I won't even feel anything in a day or two."

Gabrielle sighed and rubbed her thumb over the spot where she had seen the weapon strike her friend. "What a relief. I was so scared for you."

"I know, but it's over now," Xena responded gently. Quiet fell and just as she was about to let herself relax she felt Gabrielle slip her fingers beneath the edge of her robe and directly against her skin. The warrior took a startled breath and froze for a moment as callused fingers skimmed across the surface of her skin to finally settle against her side.

"It's incredible; it's like you were never injured," Gabrielle murmured in amazement. The feel of Xena's skin was addictive and she traced the slope of the warrior's belly, sensing the subtle shift of muscle and the intriguing proliferation of goosebumps that raced ahead of her touch. The warrior's ribs expanded on a hitched breath, and Gabrielle laid her hand solidly against her side to feel the press of bone and muscle against her palm. "I'm so glad you're okay," she breathed as Xena's eyes, a darker blue in the wavering light, turned to meet hers in a look of such open vulnerability that it made Gabrielle's heart beat faster in her chest. So beautiful...

"You too," Xena replied, just as softly. She wondered if the bard could feel the accelerated rate of her heart beneath her hand, caught as she was between reluctant caution and uncertain desire. It all came far too close to the line she wouldn't let herself cross. There were so many reasons to pull away. But, gods, it feels so good.

Her eyes flowed over the warrior's face, intuitively absorbing every detail, but the dying light hid much that Gabrielle wanted to see. Barely breathing, she leaned closer, searching for... something. Needing... something...

Xena saw her move and felt the warmth of her as the bard's hand slid across her belly, spreading warmth far out of proportion to the size of her hand. She opened her mouth to speak and suddenly the fire popped loudly, startling her. Xena jerked her head aside and watched as the logs splintered and crumbled to embers, the golden light fading to a deep, muted red glow.

In Gabrielle's eyes, the warrior's profile with its angular strength was softened by the gentle curve of Xena's lips, her brow, and the unguarded depths in her eyes. After everything they had been through and all they nearly lost, Gabrielle felt a need coalesce itself then and take shape in an impulse no less powerful than the one that had led her here from Kozani. Gabrielle drew closer, her lips on the verge of brushing against the warrior's cheek...

Xena felt a wash of warm air caress her face and she turned only to freeze abruptly. Gabrielle hovered not even the distance of a finger's width from her, the bard's lips nearly touching her own. What...? "Gabri-"

After all this time, she needed some way to tell her, some way to express her relief and happiness, her love and concern. The warrior's eyes on her made Gabrielle pause in nervous uncertainty for only a heartbeat before she gathered her courage and ducked her head to close the final distance.

The kiss silenced Xena and left her staring for a moment, stunned, as the bard's mouth covered her own in molten softness. The shriek of warning was silenced as her eyes dropped shut and she responded to the gentle assault, giving in to the soul-deep emotions she had held at bay for so long. A breathy moan escaped between their lips, and the wholly erotic sound gave Xena chills, bringing her back to herself in a hurry. She broke away, panting and shaking her head. "No, Gabrielle, you shouldn-"

Gabrielle didn't give the warrior a chance to protest further. The words were a reluctant and poorly constructed shield, but they were only words, and her heart knew they were the wrong ones at that. There had been no mistaking Xena's response, and she needed this. Some inner sense told that they both did, and she reclaimed the other woman's lips in a slow, sweet kiss of gentle certitude. The tips of the warrior's fingers brushed hesitantly along the side of her face, tentatively inviting her closer and Gabrielle complied, groaning deep in her throat as she felt Xena respond. The bard gently explored the confines of her mouth in a moist, blurry exchange of unspoken emotion and felt her insides clench and tumble, over and over again, at each new touch and taste they shared. But starved for breath, Gabrielle finally drew back, dazed and flushed with her heart hammering at the wall of her chest.

They stared at one another, their breath rasping and shaky, almost too frightened to move lest the moment be shattered and them damaged in the process. Xena swallowed and fought the urge to run her tongue against her lips where the feel of Gabrielle's kiss still lingered. She could feel Gabrielle breathe from where the bard pressed against her and looking up, Xena was drawn to the slightly parted lips and the dark green eyes that held her in as much wonder and surprise as she herself felt.

So beautiful, she thought to herself, yearning again for a taste of those waiting lips. It was all so much though, and after everything that had happened Xena wasn't quite certain what to do next. The driving need for sleep was clouding her judgement and she knew she didn't dare read too much into this. Not now. Not yet. We're exhausted. But she couldn't, and wouldn't, deny to herself just how good it had felt. Far beyond the physical pleasure she had felt a bone-deep sense of connection, of rightness, that was as scary as it was irresistible. She swallowed again and tried to smile, concerned that her continued silence might be misconstrued. "You okay?"

"Uh huh," Gabrielle managed to say. Xena's smile was vastly reassuring and she returned it with a ghost of her own, still caught as she was in the emotional thrall of the moment. "You?" It distantly seemed an inane question to ask, but she wanted to hear Xena speak again, to know that this... whatever it meant... was okay. I can't believe that I did that.

"Yeah," the warrior replied softly. A pause and then Xena held out an arm in invitation. "C'mere?"

Being as attuned as she was to Xena's unspoken language, it was the best possible indicator she could have asked for that they were all right. Gabrielle sank immediately into the warm spot and rested her head against Xena's shoulder with a contented sigh. The weight of the day caught up with her the second after her body settled into the comfortable space against the other woman's side and she fought against the downward pull of her eyelids and the call of Morpheus' realm.

Xena watched the battle and knew it for the lost cause that it was. Her own body cried for a rest in spite of the residual tingling heat of their kiss and she curled her hand over Gabrielle's shoulder and ruffled the loose strands of her bangs with her other hand. "Sleep now. You've earned it."

"You, too," came the barely distinct response from the woman tucked up beneath her chin.

The warrior dropped a kiss against the damp, blonde hair and felt Gabrielle give her an answering hug before the bard drifted asleep. Through half-lidded eyes, Xena took in the room with their belongings and thought briefly on the work that lay ahead as her eyes went to the shuttered windows. But that was tomorrow. For now, the people of Neapolis were safe and Gabrielle was whole and sound here in her arms. She couldn't ask for a better ending than that.

Tiredly, she leaned her cheek against the bard's brow and let her eyes slide shut. A long sigh carried her tension with it, leaving Xena's body relaxed for the first time in ages in this cocoon of warmth she was wrapped in.

Her conscience, perhaps in agreement with Gabrielle's sleep-tinged words, was kind, and for this one night the warrior's sleep was long and peacefully dreamless.

Conclusion

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