by jtd

For disclaimers, see Part I.

Chapter IV

Their retreat was a hasty one.

Xena got wet after all, when she jumped down from her rock to Gabrielle's side, and dragged her to the shore by her shoulders. Fortunately, she had rinsed the soap from Gabrielle's hair already. She helped her to her feet and then, without further ado, started to dry the shivering woman with the sun-warmed linen.

Gabrielle didn't really comprehend what was happening to her - one minute, they were still in the water, teasing, and the next, she was standing on shore, with the warrior toweling her dry. Whatever modesty she might have had had apparently just flowed down the river. And as alarmed as Gabrielle was, the warming movements of Xena's hands over her body didn't leave the young woman unaffected.

"Spread your legs,” Xena asked her, without any indication that she meant it any other way than to dry them off and needed access. When she was done, she made Gabrielle sit down on the rock and handed her her underwear, for the first time noticing the bard's flushed face and wide-eyed look. "Everything ok?” She waited for her friend's slow nod. "We've been through worse, right? Don't worry.” The warrior moved behind Gabrielle, toweling off her wet hair before handing her the spare top. Gabrielle managed to pull it over her arms, but yelped with pain when she pulled the parts together over her breasts to lace them.

She was ready to die of embarrassment when Xena moved around to her front and, with a quick look into the reddening face, proceeded to lace Gabrielle's top off properly. The bard's nipples had contracted, something that Xena was sure to notice. Even worse were the sensations the lacing caused. Gabrielle had closed her eyes, unable to watch Xena's face while she finished her task, but when she had, and put a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder, she dared to look at the warrior.

Xena looked concerned, and understanding. "Gabrielle...” That little crease between her brows showed that always appeared when Xena was concerned. "It'll be ok.” She pulled Gabrielle into a quick hug, and Gabrielle slung her good arm around the taller woman and gasped for air. She wasn't sure if Xena was talking about the blood, or if she had noticed Gabrielle's distress concerning other things, but having her near helped. Her racing pulse had slowed down when Xena untangled herself from her embrace and held out Gabrielle's skirt to step into, providing an anchor to hold on to with her shoulder. She didn't wait but whipped Gabrielle into her arms again, and climbed back to their camp in a hurry.


* * *

"Where do you think the blood came from?” the bard asked, from atop Argo, munching on pieces of bread and cheese Xena had handed her for a rushed breakfast.

"Up the river?” Xena ventured, quirking an eyebrow, and starting to wrap Gabrielle's ankle. She had applied the poultice to Gabrielle's shoulder wound earlier, but the young woman's current position atop the tall horse gave the warrior a better angle to take care of the strained ligament.

"Ha ha.” Gabrielle quipped, around a mouthful of cheese. "Are we going to find out what happened?” Her tone grew serious.

Xena glanced up, sparing an investigating gaze into her friend's face. "You're not exactly in shape for a fight, Gabrielle.”

"Ah.” Gabrielle averted her eyes in thought and started chewing her lower lip. "But what if it's someone in trouble, someone who needs help?” she tried again.

"Whoever that was is probably out of trouble now.” Xena couldn't help being sarcastic. "And we have to get you somewhere where you are safe, and can rest and heal up. I'd rather we got back on our way.” The warrior had added the last layer of wrapping to Gabrielle's ankle, giving it much needed support. "Put your leg around the horn again?” she advised the bard, and watched her move while steadying her by holding her lower back.

Satisfied that Gabrielle was as safe as she could be atop the mare, Xena moved to Argo's head and took the reins, falling into her familiar walking rhythm. Argo would've probably followed her without the help of the leads, but Xena always felt better having something to keep her hands busy.

There was conspicuous silence in the saddle, and when Xena turned to look at its passenger, the young woman wore an expression of concentration reserved to the occasions when she tried to convince the warrior of something that she was pretty sure Xena wouldn't be ecstatic about. Xena stopped, putting her hands on her hips. "Now, what?” she demanded.

"Let's go see what's the problem, Xena?!” Gabrielle made her case. "We could make a difference. You said yourself you were happy I reminded you of what's important the other day. This isn't any different.”

"Urgh!” Xena turned on her heel, stomping forward for some minutes, her whole demeanor telling the bard that she was not happy about the request. Gabrielle let her stomp, patiently waiting until the warrior had finished her thoughts. Well, almost patiently waiting. "Xena... You know I'm right,” she pleaded with the gruff warrior.

Xena halted, having Argo almost running into her back. Then slowly, she turned, eyeing Gabrielle sternly. "You have to promise me to do as I say,” she said, slowly. "You will not put yourself into danger, try any stunts, or catch any more arrows.” A long pause, as the women held each other's gaze. Then Xena's expression softened, and she moved closer and put her hand on Gabrielle's knee. "Promise?”

There wasn't really anything else Gabrielle could've said besides "Yes.” It was a very rare occasion that Xena would actually ask anything of Gabrielle. It seemed that they actually felt closer now than a few days ago. Whatever the cause, whether it was a side effect of what Xena had said in the armory or whether the warrior just wasn't as afraid of letting her shields down anymore, the bard saw the concern for her well-being in Xena's eyes and knew she couldn't refuse this. "I promise...” she said softly, "but please let me help if I can.”

Another long look. "Ok.” Xena held her friend's gaze a little longer, then turned again to pick up their path.

Gabrielle was confused. "Uh - Xena?”


"Shouldn't we go upstream? Change where we're headed?”

Xena glanced backwards without changing her stride, and a half smile showed on her face. "We're already heading there, Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle was dumbfounded, and it took her a minute to realize what Xena had just said. So the warrior had managed to pull this little concession out of her without a reason, because they were headed where the bard wanted to go anyway. Gabrielle tried to decide if she should be upset or not. But then her newfound good humor won. It was funny in a way.

"Xena, you're really bad, you know that?”

And when Xena nodded at this, Gabrielle was sure she saw a fully-fledged grin.


* * *


  They didn't have to go very far.

Xena knew that if you went out looking for trouble, trouble mostly came looking for you, and so she wasn't too surprised when their way was blocked by three menacing warriors in full battle-armor mounted on horseback. Two of them, Xena recognized as being part of some kind of organized militia, and the third... She did a double take to make sure she wasn't hallucinating, when the young and handsome hallucination, sporting a delighted grin as he recognized her, jumped off his horse, and confidently crossed the small distance between them.

"It's Palaemon!” Gabrielle exclaimed, and made her way out of the close formation of trees where Xena had hidden her and Argo when she noticed the approaching party.

That got her a reproachful look from Xena, which she totally ignored.

The hallucination, who was indeed Palaemon, came forward with an outstretched hand and clasped Xena's arm in a warrior greeting. "Xena! Just the kind of woman we were looking for!”

Xena returned the handshake. "Oh?” she raised a brow. "How so?”

Palaemon spared a dazzling smile and a wink for Gabrielle before returning his attention to Xena. His face changed to a serious expression. "We're in trouble, Xena. We need help, and your fighting skills would come in very handy right about now.”

Xena nodded. "We noticed blood in the stream. Was that from your party?”

Palaemon nodded solemnly. "Unfortunately, yes. We were attacked by slavers. Fortunately, we were able to fight them off, but two of our men died, and weren't that many of us to begin with. When we left Tripolis...” They had turned and started walking to meet with the waiting men, but now Xena pulled Palaemon's arm in surprise. "That's the Tripolis militia you're riding with?”

Palaemon shook his head. "Not really. But let's get back to camp first, everyone's is still in an uproar after that attack.” The young man reached his horse and mounted again. Xena followed suit and took a seat behind Gabrielle. She directed Argo to walk beside Palaemon's bay.

"This is what's left of the Tripolis militia,” Palaemon explained while riding, nodding to the warriors who surrounded them. "Them, and eight more who are riding patrol like we do. All the young and able went to see that Athens is safe. We're here to accompany the refugees to Thessaly.”

Gabrielle glanced around her while he spoke, and indeed, the warriors who accompanied them weren't exactly youthful anymore. They sported gray or white hair, although they made up for age in fierceness of look. Their expressions were serious, and spoke of loss, and Gabrielle's heart immediately went out to them. They must have seen a lot of despair in the last few days, and they had lost their homes.

"We came from Tripolis, too,” she heard Xena say.

One of the soldier's heads perked up. "Really? What does it look like after the Persians finished with it?”

Xena sadly shook her head. "It's devastated. I guess you destroyed all valuables yourself before you left, right?” And when he nodded, she sighed. "The Persian army went through it again, and there is nothing left to salvage. I know they salt the fields wherever they go.”

"Then there is no reason for us to go back,” he said, his face a mask of resignation.

"I'm afraid not. At least not for a long time,” Xena said, and compassion colored her voice.

There was silence until Gabrielle 's voice piped up. "Palaemon, what brought you to Tripolis?”

He turned around in the saddle to look at her. "Vidalis and I were north of Tripolis when we heard the bad news,” he said, answering what would have been Gabrielle's next question. She had wondered if the courtier had made his intention true to be 'sidekicking' for Palaemon. "We split up and I went to warn as many towns as I could. I was in Tripolis when the first Persian scouts caught up with me, and I helped evacuate everyone - unfortunately, not all of them made it.” He shook his head as if wanting to wipe away the mental images of the dark day. "Some were already wounded by then, and we made our way up here as fast as we could. But just a few hours ago, a band of slavers caught up with us and tried to take our children. We beat them, but at a heavy cost.” He straightened his shoulders as squaring them would help him to not be weighed down by the unbelievability of it all. "I'm sure they'll come back again. I'm working on a plan how to defeat them next time - but our first concern is our wounded right now. If we don't treat them, and soon, we'll be too slow to make it to Thessaly in time. Some of them are heavily wounded, and I'm afraid we'll lose them.”

Both Gabrielle and Xena nodded in understanding. But what Palaemon had told them didn't prepare them for the total devastation that met their eyes when they actually reached the quickly arranged "camp”.

Palaemon led them into a half circle, roughly erected out of small wagons and whatever else they had, the circle completed by the woods they had just traversed. There were wounded everywhere - women, children, and the elderly.

"This is it,” he explained, his blue eyes saddened. "We did what we could to get them into safety, but we don't have a healer with us; she was caught by the Persian scouts before she could escape. I have the other soldiers patrolling the area around us, and we have really tried our best, but - I'm no healer.”

Xena looked at the leather clad form of the young man called Palaemon. He had changed, that was for certain. When they had first met, all he wanted to do was to kill Xena so he could make his reputation. The Palaemon who was sitting on his horse beside her had learned compassion, and may even have put himself on the line for these people.

"I am,” Xena drawled, and caught Pal's surprised glance. "If you can spare my fighting skills, I can start treating the wounded.”

There was surprised gratitude on Palaemon's face. "You could? That would be... Sure. What do you need?”

"A few volunteers,” Xena stated matter-of-factly. "I'll take it from there.”

Palaemon nodded, then turned around to address the one hundred or so people that were gathered in the circle. "I've got an announcement to make,” he said, in a voice that carried over the whole camp. "This is Xena, whom some of you might know as the Warrior Princess, and she has agreed to help us with her healing skills. We will need a few volunteers to help her, but all of you will be treated tonight.”

A murmur began. Some of those gathered here remembered her from the last time she had crossed through, and the memories weren't exactly the best.

"Now what does she want?” an older authoritarian male called out. "All we've seen from Xena, Destroyer of Nations, has been carnage. We've had enough of that. I'd rather stay ill than be treated by the likes of her!”

There were agreeing voices around him, and Gabrielle felt Xena tense up behind her. She was sure, if she turned around, she'd see Xena sitting atop Argo as proudly as ever, with a scowl on her face and The Mask firmly set in place, as if she couldn't care less what people thought about her. But Gabrielle knew better, knew that after all this time of trying to atone for her past mistakes, being reminded of them just drove that spear of guilt in deeper, as if Xena couldn't take enough guilt on herself. She was just about to say something, when a young woman, around Gabrielle's age, but dressed in a long peasant's skirt, and with long, black hair, stepped forward. She had an infant strapped to her front by means of a shawl, and she stood defiantly and gave the older man a stern look that reminded Gabrielle of Xena. In fact, this could've been Xena, in her younger years, minus the warrior muscle, and walking a different path.

"I don't care what you think, Rufus!” she called out. "My mother is sick, and in pain, and if Xena can help her, I will let her.” She turned her eyes to the tall warrior and took a few steps forward. "My name is Liandra,” she said, emanating trust. "And I heard that you changed your ways. I trust that. If I can help you, let me help you.”

Gabrielle felt Xena exhale. She suspected that the warrior had changed her expression to a businesslike one, but the smile that appeared on Liandra's face pointed more to the fact that Xena wore one, too. The bard couldn't resist touching Xena's knee where it pressed behind her own in a calming gesture, and was rewarded by a large hand catching hers, and squeezing it, when she heard the warrior speak. "Thank you, Liandra. Now are there any others? I need volunteers to build fires, and collect every last scrap of linen you can spare. Also, some should go to fetch water. We need to arrange the wounded and sick in one area on some kind of pallets to make sure we don't waste time going to look for them.”

Reluctantly, another young woman stepped forward, then three more. When their numbers were rounded out by a few teenage boys, Xena nodded. "That'll do.” She jumped off Argo, but before her volunteers could gather around her, a familiar voice piped up from Argo's back.

"Xena? Will you help me down? I'm volunteering, too.”

Blue eyes met green. There was no argument, no fight. Xena stepped forward slowly, helped Gabrielle disentangle her leg, and caught her as she slid down Argo's side. She unstrapped the staff from its clasps on the saddle, and gave it to Gabrielle to lean on. They didn't speak a word, but their manner was one of trust, and familiarity, and both of them felt it soothe them and settle an unspoken question between them.

Closer than any tie could bind them, their souls had already joined.

Chapter V

Xena was exhausted. Of course, she couldn't admit that to anyone else, but she felt that she was weary in a way that reached down into her very bones. Was it from the battle with the Persians that had taken on a very personal note of a battle for Gabrielle's life? Or was it an emotional exhaustion as well; so many new feelings to deal with, and old wounds to heal?

Whatever it was, she was sure she hadn't felt like this in a very long time. Or did I just not allow myself to? she added in her mind, wryly, while she checked yet another one of the wounded for the seriousness of her injuries. In her mind, stretchers with wounded filled the world.

She had set up a small cart as a platform to work at, and her volunteers soon understood what to do. While Gabrielle helped them organize the supplies, Xena set to work on torn ligaments, broken bones and bloody wounds.

It was grueling work, but Xena's mind immediately snapped into business mode. There weren't enough healing herbs, so she had sent out a party of two to find a particular herb that could be used to numb pain even though it had not reached its full potency by the drying process. Immediate pain, she stopped with a few stabs to the appropriate nerves until the most painful procedures were over.

"Xena - is there anything I can do to help?” Palaemon asked, while Xena went to work setting a broken thighbone.

She spared him a glance. "Hold his shoulders while I work,” she said, curtly. The boy she was treating could be no more that 15 years old, and his face was contorted with pain. She addressed him in a soothing voice. "Now, I will numb what you feel while I set the bone, alright?” He nodded. "But then I have to take the numbing off, because otherwise you won't get enough blood into your leg. It will hurt again, but not as much as before. Do you understand that?” The boy managed to nod, and Xena set to work.

"Palaemon, where did those raiders come from?” she quizzed the younger warrior, while she set to work with efficient, precise motions.

He spared her a surprised glance, but reported. "We had followed the stream for a while, and had just crossed into open lands, when they came at us from the over the hill there.” He indicated the direction with his chin. Xena took the direction in with a glance, and she nodded. "Where was your patrol?”

"Guarding the convoy. As I said before, there are only twelve that guard the trek. When the raiders came at us from that point, only two were close enough to do anything about it, which wasn't enough. They came at us with a party of ten, and cut through our defenses like they were nothing.”

"So how did you get them to retreat?” Xena lifted one eyebrow, and proceeded to splint the boy's leg.

"Well, when we first evacuated Tripolis, I asked everyone to arm themselves with whatever they were comfortable with - you know, like scythes or knives. The younger boys usually work as shepherds, so they know how to use a sling. And they made a real difference.” He nodded at the boy, whom Xena ordered to be taken away, and the next patient, an older woman with a stomach wound, was put on her "operating table”.

Xena checked the wound, spoke briefly to the woman, and started to work at it, which included stitching. "You -" she addressed a fair-haired girl of about 16 to her right, who had helped carry the woman, "are going to be my nurse here. What's your name?”

"Lana,” the girl replied, her chin up.

"Lana, there's my healing pack right at your feet. Find the suture needle and gut and thread it. Then give it to me.”

The girl nodded and went to work, while Xena pressed two fingers into the open wound to stop the bleeding. "So you're telling me that a couple of boys frightened those raiders off?” Xena addressed Palaemon again, her voice ironic.

He shook his head. "No. But Tobin - one of the boys - took their leader out with a stone right to his temple. That sure unsettled them, and made them realize they couldn't cut right through us the way they wanted to. Gave us enough time to get our forces together and drive them out. Not without losses, as you can see.” His brow contracted in distress. "And it was easy to see that they only wanted the kids. They didn't care for anyone else, they slashed right through everybody, and only spared the young ones.” He took a breath. "We drove them across the stream, and took four of them out, in addition to their leader. That was pretty good, considering.”

"So it was their blood in the stream, not that of your people?” Xena had set to work with the needle, and advised Lana to hold ready some bandages.

"Yes.” Palaemon's voice held a bit of satisfaction.

"Good.” Xena's one-worded approval widened Palaemon's eyes with surprise. "Now what did they look like? I know most of the warlords, may give me a clue who it was.”

"Well, dark clothing. The usual band of rugged ruffians.”

"Anything more specific? A banner of sorts? Unusual badges or anything?”

"The horses' brow bands were red.” Lana piped up beside them, and two pairs of eyes turned to her in surprise. "And I think they held some kind of medal. I didn't see them close enough but they shone in the sun.”

Xena gave the girl a nod, then turned her eyes back to the wound she was stitching. "That sounds like Taelos.”

She didn't say anything for a while, concentrating on the stitching, and only became aware of Palaemon's and Lana's eyes when she looked up to take the bandage out of the fair girl's hands. "What?”

"Well, it sounds like Taelos - and? I'm not familiar with him and any information you could give me would help me to better guard the camp.” Palaemon said, a hint of frustration in his voice.

Surprisingly, Xena felt that Palaemon's taking charge unsettled her. She was so used to just going ahead and leading that even the thought of anyone taking that from her - especially someone as green as Palaemon - took her by surprise. "Taelos is a coward. He avoids head-on confrontation. His allies are usually powerful, and he works into their hands for a profit. He doesn't care for honor at all. Which makes it clear why it wasn't beneath him to attack a convoy of women and children.” Xena spat, trying to lose some of the bitter taste the image caused in her mouth.

"Ever had a fight with him?” Palaemon asked.

"No. He took care to avoid it.” A sardonic smile edged its way onto Xena's face. "And lucky for him he never tried.”

"What do you think he'll do next?”

"Depends. I haven't heard of him in a while, so I don't know how strong his forces are or who his allies are at the moment. He never works alone.” Xena stood there for a second, contemplating the woman's wound and the bandage in her hand, then signaled for two volunteers to take her to a pallet to rest. "Take her to Gabrielle to have that wound wrapped,” she ordered, knowing that she would be in good hands, then selected the next victim, a young mother with a nasty gash wound on her arm.

Xena looked at Lana, who had already threaded the next needle. The dark woman nodded her approval. "Always change the needles. Give them to Gabrielle to clean, then get them back here.”

"I know that.” Lana said, indignation heard in her voice. "I've been working with Helanna.” Then the realization struck that Helanna wasn't there anymore. "Our healer,” she added in a subdued voice. She started when she felt Xena's hand on her shoulder.

"When you go get the needles cleaned, bring fresh water so I can wash my hands,” Xena said, sympathy in her voice.

Lana nodded, and used the opportunity to excuse herself and get her emotions in check again, leaving all of Xena's unused needles, already threaded, with the warrior.

Palaemon took Lana's place, cleaning the shoulder wound so Xena could work better. "You ended at 'He never works alone,'” he took up the thread of their conversation.

"Right. He already knows this won't be easy, he has the proof of four of his scum flowing down the river. My guess is that he'll try again, but he'll reinforce his men first. We don't know how big his band is right now. The only way to find out is to go there and count.”

"Count.” Palaemon said slowly. "Sounds exciting,” he added dryly.

"What did you expect?”

"I don't know. That the Warrior Princess would whip some magical solution out from under her breastplate, perhaps? Looks like you've gone soft -" He just managed to bite off with old age.

Xena regarded him through narrowed eyes. "Looks like it,” she said, in a light tone, and took him totally off guard with that. Then she turned her attention back to the last stitches, and asked for the next patient.

This one had nasty looking burn marks, so Xena dug into her herbs to mix a powerful poultice while she ordered Palaemon to clean the marks.

"Let's all catch our breaths, first,” she advised, out of the blue. "Taelos is going to reconsider his strategy, and that buys us some time. Also, he will expect us to go for Thessaly as fast as we can. We won't do that.”

"We won't?” Palaemon wondered when exactly he had given over leadership to Xena.

"No. There is a path through the hills I know that will keep everyone on the safer side than the direct route to Thessaly, and it will only cost us a couple of candlemarks more to get there.” Xena checked the consistency of the poultice with one finger, then decided it was good enough to be applied. "At the same time, a couple of us will go and teach this coward a lesson.”

"We will?” Palaemon arched a brow.

Xena looked at him and couldn't help smiling. "Yeah. You asked for me to whip a miracle out from under my breastplate, right? Well, it's not gonna come exactly from there, but that's as good as you'll get it.” She handed the poultice to one of the helpers, with exact instructions how to apply it, and the amount of pain herbs the man would need, and washed her hands in the fresh water Lana had just brought up, relieving Palaemon again.

Another broken arm was brought up, but this one was splintered, which made Xena's work all the harder, and at the same time, more gruesome. Even Palaemon, who had seen his share of battle wounds by now, cringed when she took out her young patient with swift stabs to his temples and proceeded to open the wound around the protruding bone.

"So - you already have your riders on patrol, and the able men and women on guard, right?”


"There isn't much more we can do right now. Let's deal with problems when they come our way. I want this mess cleaned up and everyone in a condition to be transported before nightfall. We'll catch a night's sleep, or at least a couple of hours, and start out tomorrow before dawn. I'll work on something to...” Everyone cringed when she slipped the bone into alignment with a wet thwack. "...throw Taelos off his path a bit.”

Palaemon actually had to hold back to not throw up. "All right,” he agreed, not able to take his eyes off Xena's busy hands. "I'll be on guard duty in a bit. Anything else you need here?”

Xena looked up from her work with the tweezers long enough to check her provisions. There were twigs ready for splinting. Rags were cleaned as they spoke. Water was carried and already boiling.

"Looks like everything's under control here,” she said. "Advise your men to look out for game and have it brought here and prepared. We can all use a hearty meal tonight, and the broth will be good for the wounded.”

The younger man nodded. "Anything else?”

Xena wiped her brow with the back of her hand. "A pitcher of cold water would be great right now.”

"I'll get you some.” Palaemon turned to find a waterskin.

Xena followed him with her eyes for a moment, and then went to work again, her mind full of images of people. Wounded people on pallets. She sighed inwardly and banished every thought of her own soreness when she proceeded to pick out tiny bone splinters with the tweezers.

* * *

"Gabrielle? Is everything alright?”

Gabrielle nodded to the black-haired figure that had sat down beside her. "Uh... yeah, I think so. Just give me a minute.”

A water pitcher appeared within Gabrielle's sight, although her forehead was cradled in her hands and her long, reddish-blond hair cascaded down on either side of her face, successfully hiding it. Gabrielle sighed, and sat up, taking the pitcher with a grateful smile. "Thank you, Liandra. Just what I needed right now.”

And indeed, the cold water, running down her dry throat, did wonders for her. The world stopped spinning the way it had, settling into a light tilt, and Gabrielle took a deep breath. "Is there more?” she asked, not even trying to pretend that she was in any shape to get it herself.

Liandra smiled. "Sure.” She got up and came back, soon, with another pitcher, a wet cloth for Gabrielle to put wipe her face with, and a ration of bread and cheese as well as some broth to go with it. "I noticed you hadn't eaten anything yet today - maybe that's the reason you're not feeling so good.”

Gabrielle shot her a thankful look. "Liandra, you're something. Thank you.” Yes, her stomach had growled on occasion, as it always did, but Gabrielle had been so busy treating the wounded that she had decided to ignore it. And the glances Xena had shot her from time to time had made her will herself into a semblance of health she knew she didn't posses yet.

Now that worst was over, the worst cases treated properly, she had sat down just for a short while, or so she had told herself, when the world started spinning and its gravity seemed to be several times its usual strength.

Gabrielle gingerly sipped at the broth, then eyed the bread and decided to break it into small chunks and dip it into the fragrant, steaming liquid.

"There is more.” Liandra said, still staying at Gabrielle's side. "The patrols brought back game. Xena said we needed to get our strength back up after this.”

Gabrielle nodded. "That sounds like something Xena would say.” She turned her head to eye the dark-haired woman, who was unwrapping her baby from its shawl to cradled it. "She's beautiful.” Gabrielle commented, having heard earlier that Liandra referred to the baby as a girl. "How old is she? About three, four months?”

"Yes, exactly. Would you mind if I fed her? She must be starved - she's been such a good girl today.”

Feeding her? Why should I mind? Then Gabrielle's mind the supplied the answer. "No. Not at all. If you don't mind me sitting here?”

"I wouldn't have asked otherwise, would I?” Liandra smiled, then turned so that Gabrielle provided shielding against curious looks from the rest of the camp. Gabrielle had sat down at the edge of the camp anyway, the woods at her back, so there wasn't anything to fear from that side of them.

The young woman opened the front of her blouse, baring a heavy breast, and turned the baby so it would find the nipple, which she did. Content sucking began, and Liandra smiled, caressing the baby's almost hairless head, then turning her attention back to Gabrielle, who watched the procedure with an expression on her face that could best be described as sadness. "If it bothers you...” Liandra started again, but Gabrielle shook her head.

"No... no, it's ok. Just... memories.” A baby's head, just like this, covered in blond down. A baby that had not been wanted, not desired, one that had driven a wedge between herself and the woman she never wanted to leave. A baby that, as soon as she saw it, had entered her heart. And when she had nursed it, the few times she had, had formed a link with her soul that was not to be denied.

"You have children?” the expected question came.

"I had a little daughter. She died.” Not able to say more, Gabrielle minded her food again, tentatively trying the cheese. By your own hand, her mind supplied, dutifully. You shielded your daughter from Xena just to kill her yourself.

A hand brushed her arm, and Gabrielle jumped a little. But it was just Liandra, eyeing her with concern. "I'm sorry.” Her face shone with sympathy, and she looked as if she was battling with herself for a minute before she said: "I lost the baby before Nyara. It was a miscarriage, but I was already six months into the pregnancy... There will be another time for you, I'm sure.”

Liandra was really trying to be helpful, Gabrielle knew, but right now, the feelings concerning her one-time motherhood were still so raw that she could not, in all honesty, believe that she would ever want another baby again. And when she said so, Liandra nodded. "I understand,” was all she said, and she cradled Nyara again, rocking her, and humming softly.

Gabrielle slowly chewed her ration, until she had eaten everything, and the hole in her stomach didn't feel as bottomless as it had only moments ago. There was space for more, but she knew if she ate too much right now, it would make her sleepy, and she didn't want that. Yet. Her green eyes swept over the camp.

There was some semblance of order now. The heavily wounded had all been treated and Xena had taken care to raise an awning to protect them from the sun. Now, candlemarks later, the sun prepared to end its voyage for today, and a light breeze swept through the camp.

Everything had settled down a bit, the families clustered together around their small fires, and three larger community fires still took care of either boiling rags that were to be transformed into bandages later on, or the cooked meat that the patrols had brought back.

It's been like a well rehearsed ballet, Gabrielle mused, remembering. Everyone who was still able to walk had been made to wait until the serious cases had been tended. Instructions had been given to the volunteers: Build pallets. Collect linen. Tear it to sizeable strips. Boil water. Cook strips in it. Hang up to dry.

The moaning of wounded under the pain. The screams, when they were moved. Short instructions given by Xena. The reaction of people first scared, then becoming calmer as they saw that someone was taking the lead who seemed capable of doing so. Palaemon's face as he talked to Xena for a short while and they agreed on Palaemon's plan for protecting the camp.

And then Xena - she had been amazing. Somehow, during the time that they had traveled together, Xena's 'many skills' and seemingly boundless knowledge had become a familiar convenience for the bard. Something to rely on. But curiously, Gabrielle had never realized how used she was to Xena's formidability until today, when she followed her movements around the camp. Every time she checked for her partner, Xena was close by. Arranging things, talking to someone. Soothing someone's pain. And it was with different eyes that Gabrielle saw her. She'd seen Xena do all these things so many times already, they were as familiar to her as her own shadow.

And now, she caught things again, little things, like Xena's impatient pout and stance, one leg relaxed, one hand on a hip. Her fast strides, the muscles working in her thighs. The way her expression changed when she talked to a child.

It would sometimes happen that she caught Xena looking at her, and when caught, she would tilt her head and quirk an eyebrow in a helpless expression of affection. Little things struck her now, like the way she touched Gabrielle whenever they stood close, making her feel important.

With a stab, Gabrielle realized that she had taken all that for granted for a while now, and only the unexpected... change in their relationship made it now possible for her to see Xena in a different light. She furrowed her brow and tried to make out her partner between all those people.

"Have you traveled with Xena for a long time now?” Liandra asked her just when Gabrielle had spied the warrior, treating a child of about eight years, and talking to his mother. A gentle, but sad smile appeared on Gabrielle's face when she realized how much this child must remind her of Solon, and how much it must hurt her to be confronted with all this. We're in this together. For better of worse, she realized, once again. Why fight and inflict even more pain if we can help each other get through this? It's not going to be easy anyway.


Now Liandra had her attention. "Huh? Oh, how long? Let me think - must be about three years now.”

"You must have seen a lot of things.”

"Yes.” It sure wasn't Gabrielle's way to be monosyllabic about things, but right now, she couldn't help it. Instead, she chose to change the subject. "Are you married?” she asked back.

"I was.” Seeing Liandra's face close down in pain made Gabrielle realize that what she had asked was very likely a sore topic. "He died, trying to rescue a child out of a burning house.”

Gabrielle reached over and took Liandra's hand. "I am so sorry. I'm sorry I asked, I...”

"No, it's ok.” Liandra answered, her voice firm, although tears shone in her eyes. "He was very brave. Things happen.” She looked up. "I'm living with my mother and sister again. You've seen them.”

Gabrielle remembered fair haired Lana, who looked just like a younger version of Liandra, and Liandra's mother, who had been injured and needed help. "Yes, I think I did.”

"Oh - would you mind holding her for a moment?” The baby had finished its meal and started to doze off, still clutching to her mother's breast contentedly, but Liandra made efforts to unlatch her and close her blouse again at the same time. "That would allow me to get something to eat, myself...”

"Sure...” It was easier said than done, Gabrielle realized soon, when the sweet weight of the little girl landed in her arms and Nyara squirmed a little, but then found her spot and stayed asleep.

"I'll be back in a short while...”

Gabrielle nodded, and followed Liandra with her eyes. A tiny, kicking foot brought her back to her living charge. The weight in her arms felt sweetly familiar, and without thinking about it, Gabrielle lifted the baby in her arms and pressed her cheek against the soft, black hair. The baby smelled the way only babies did, and that brought back another wave of memories.

Gabrielle's breathing stopped for just a moment, until she was able to get her emotions in check, and she cradled the baby, humming softly to her. Involuntarily, her eyes searched for Xena again, until they found her athletic form, talking to two of the refugees, one of whom Gabrielle made out to be Rufus, the man who had initially objected to them helping. Xena listened to the men attentively, nodded a few times, gestured, and then lifted her gaze to Gabrielle, pointing in her direction.

The bard met the searching eyes, which widened at the sight of her with the baby. Then a small smile appeared, and she said something again to the men, who went on their way towards Gabrielle. The bard couldn't hear what had been said, but she had definitely detected that Xena was... uncomfortable, seeing her with Nyara.

Small wonder, Gabrielle thought to herself. I am, too, when I see her with children. What a terrible burden... No one should have to bear it. Not me, not her, not even my worst enemy.

But her thoughts were interrupted as the two men finally reached her.

Gabrielle peeked up at them. "Can I help you?”

Rufus was a man of strong build. His partially balding head had turned red from constant exposure to the sun, and his full mustache drooped a little at the ends. However, he still emanated authority, and Gabrielle suspected he was an important man in Tripolis. Someone who got things done quickly.

His companion was smaller than he was, and of a slighter build. He was about Rufus' age, though, and his face was friendly, and not quite as intimidating as Rufus'. Well, intimidating to a lot of people, at least. Gabrielle had seen enough people like Rufus, huffing and puffing, to know that it was just a facade, and ever so easy to tear down. She wasn't surprised at all at Rufus' tone when he had finally taken a wide-legged stance in front of her, hooking his thumbs into his belt. "We heard you're a bard!” he said, and it wasn't really a question.

"That's right.” Gabrielle squinted against the sun, and kept rocking Nyara so she wouldn't wake up from the men's rough voices.

"Well, Raymon and I, we thought you could tell the children a story.” Again, not really a question. Rufus didn't look as if he was a good listener. He gave the impression that stories were something for children, something you stopped listening to at a certain age, when you had better things to do with your time.

Gabrielle was at the verge of saying, Now why would I want to do that?, but she didn't, because she knew better.

Then Raymon chimed in. "The children are still very disturbed by everything that's happened, and since we have to guard the camp, we don't really have the time to look after them. Besides, there are several children who don't have their parents with them anymore... I'd feel better if they had something to occupy their mind rather than with what they've seen the last few days.”

Gabrielle liked him immediately, and flashed him a gentle smile. "Sure. I'd be happy to. I just need to wait for Liandra to take the baby again, and I'll be there shortly. Tell the children to go to one of the communal fires and bring their bedding with them, that will give them a chance to take a nap when they're tired.”

Raymon nodded. "Will do.” He had almost turned when another thought struck him. "Do you need anything, by any chance?”

Now if you could send Xena my way for a second, that would be nice. A shoulder to lean on would be worth a lot right about now. "No, thank you, I'm doing fine.” She watched them turn, and while Rufus headed for the treeline to relieve another guard, Raymon found his way back to the camp.

Gabrielle followed his progress and caught a tall, dark-clad figure heading for her. A smile spread on the bard's face. Well, sometimes wishes do seem to come true.

Xena carried a full meal in her hands, and approached Gabrielle with determined strides. Once more, Gabrielle's eyes were glued to those muscular thighs, and a voice in her mind commented wryly: Oh, this is so great. Here we are, in the middle of a disaster, and all I can think about are her thighs! She rolled mental eyes at herself.

"Hey,” Xena greeted her, towering over her, her blue eyes flashing. "Care for something to eat?”

Gabrielle watched Xena sit down where Liandra had just sat, and shook her head. "Liandra just fed me. If I eat more, I'll get sleepy, and I heard the kids are eager to hear a story.”

"Uh-huh.” Xena nodded. "I thought it would be a good chance to take their minds off what happened a bit.”

"Did you eat yet?” Gabrielle asked back.

Xena actually looked astounded. "No. Now that you mention it...”

"Then go ahead! If you need me as an excuse, feed me a morsel here and there.” Gabrielle shifted Nyara to the arm opposite Xena and watched her friend dig her teeth into a piece of meat. "How is it going?”

"Ok.” Xena nodded, sparing a glance for the little girl in Gabrielle's arm while she was chewing. "Liandra's?”

"Yeah...” Why, oh why was everything so complicated right now?

"Her sister helped me at the operating table. Bright girl.”

"Yeah.” Small talk. I can't believe we're making small talk! "Xena...”


But Gabrielle had already slung her now free arm around the taller woman's waist and put her head on her shoulder, snuggling close. A huge, content sigh followed.

Xena gave her a look before she reacted and did the same to Gabrielle, tugging her close and holding her. And here I thought she put the baby on the other side so I couldn't come near her. Xena mentally slapped herself. It had hurt, seeing Gabrielle do that, and concluding the younger woman was afraid she'd hurt the baby. Xena exhaled, and gathered her wits enough to start drawing small circles on Gabrielle's arm with her left hand. The blonde snuggled even closer, if that was possible. "And how are you doing, Gabrielle?” Xena asked.

"Tired. Exhausted.” Gabrielle admitted. "I wish we were safe in Thessaly already.” She peeked up into blue eyes with a tiny smile on her lips. "But this helps.”

Xena smiled back, and put the food down to have a hand free and caress Gabrielle's cheek with the back of her fingers. She drank in the sight of the younger woman's face, her expression trusting, and reveling in the feeling of being protected and cared for.

Though I don't deserve her to think that of me, the old guilt came up again. The baby caught Xena's attention by yawning in her sleep and waving a tiny fist before settling down again. And if she'd tried to protect the baby from me, I would've understood. Still, her heart clenched at the thought. Xena furrowed her brow, then made a decision. This wouldn't be easy, but it was time it was said.

"Gabrielle,” she started slowly, and felt an affirming squeeze. "I am really, really sorry you lost your daughter.”

There was a pause, and a breath caught before Gabrielle's head snapped up and her arm uncurled from Xena's back in a swift motion. Xena felt the loss.

"What?” A look of total incredulity met Xena's.

Oh Gods, this was hard. "I am sorry you lost your daughter.” Xena exhaled. "I am sorry. I knew she was Dahak's child and I did everything to prevent his coming into the world through her, but for what part of her was you, I am sorry.” She swallowed. Her throat felt dry.

"I don't know that if I'd do anything differently if I had the chance to do it all over again, besides the fact that I would prevent you getting into Khrafstar's hands in the first place. But you did not deserve this. Not from Dahak, and not from me.” She looked at Gabrielle's shell-shocked face. "And if I could go back and go through all of this for you, I would. But I can't.” Her face took on a pleading look. "I can't ask you to forgive me because there is no forgiveness for something like that. But I do want you to know that I am sorry, for what it's worth, and I wish it hadn't happened to you.”

"Oh gods.”

Gabrielle exhaled and turned her head to let her eyes rest on the camp. She saw Raymon taking care of the children, but the image never reached her consciousness. What to say? She was aware of Xena, waiting for a reaction, but her words had brought up such a pandemonium of relief, hurt and painful memories that it was hard to isolate one coherent thought.

Finally, she turned back to look into Xena's troubled face. The young woman managed a smile, and her hand touched Xena's for a moment.

"Thank you,” she managed, and felt a single tear make its way down her face. "Thank you.” She sniffed. "I know you wanted to protect me. And I'm sorry I didn't listen to you.” She shook her head. "But I made my decision back then to stay with you, whatever the cost, and I would do it all over again. And I will, if I have to.” She took Xena's hand this time. "I am sorry, too. For Solon. For Hope. And for us.”

She searched Xena's face and found that the stony expression had left and made space for a trace of quiet relief. "We did not deserve this. Not you, and not me.” She took another deep breath and closed her eyes for a brief moment. "And I am glad that after all this, I still have you to turn to.”

Her glance, full of quiet trust, met Xena's and made its way into the dark woman's soul, leaving a healing layer behind.

Xena finally dared to exhale and gently caught Gabrielle's shoulders, pulling her close and resting her chin on Gabrielle's blond hair. There were no words to express what she wanted to say, but she doubted that she needed to say anything. She had reached down into her soul and bared it, and had been met with the assurance that their lives were bonded, for better or worse. How stupid of her to have treated Gabrielle like a child for so long. The young woman had grown up right under her nose and it was time Xena acknowledged that. And it was time to open her heart, bit by bit, and allow the love she met in Gabrielle's eyes every time she looked at her to touch her and help her heal.

A tiny squeal made them start, and they both realized they had Nyara between them, and the baby had awakened to the contact on both sides. They gave her more space, without losing contact, and smiled at the baby yawning.

"She's cute,” Xena said, holding out a finger for Nyara to clutch.

Gabrielle nodded. "Here, you want to hold her for a minute? I think I need to stretch.” She handed the tiny bundle over, and Xena accepted her and wrinkled her nose in a grimace to make the baby laugh. "Hi there! Don't get poked by that armor now.” She settled the girl on her legs and cradled her head and shoulders in her powerful hands. It felt good to touch this new life after all the pain and wounds.

"You're not gonna get your dinner now,” Gabrielle realized, while she stretched her arms and back into an arch and twisted her torso in both directions.

Xena made a "doesn't matter” sound and kept making faces at Nyara. The baby followed her antics with huge eyes and chewed her tiny fist.

The younger woman laughed gently. "You two make quite a pair, really,” she observed, and then got up and limped around Xena to retrieve her plate. "But still, you gotta eat, Xena.” She limped back to her spot, sat down and placed the plate on her lap. "You want me to feed you or are you going to give her back to me?”

Xena gave her a look, and freed one hand from under Nyara to retrieve a piece of bread. Obviously, she was quite capable of holding the baby and eating at the same time. "Did you notice that birthmark on her arm?” she asked Gabrielle, around a mouthful. "I think I saw a birthmark like that before, but I can't remember where.”

Gabrielle leaned over to examine the tiny light brown birthmark on Nyara's left arm. "It looks like a plump chicken,” she observed. "I think Gabriel had a similar one.”

Xena nodded. "That could be.” She flashed Gabrielle a smile. "Maybe we should plan a detour to visit them after we catch our breath in Thessaly. We haven't seen them in ages.”

"I'd like that...” Gabrielle resumed her place at Xena's shoulder, leaning back against her. "I wish for some quiet time... Somewhere to breathe...” She sighed. "But knowing us, that isn't likely.”

"You mean, knowing you,” the warrior teased "You're the one who gets into trouble all the time...”

Gabrielle threw her a look. "Well, don't you?”

"Get into trouble?”

"No, wish for some quiet time?” Gabrielle turned her head so she could look into Xena's pensive eyes.

Xena nodded, thoughtfully. "I think I'd like that...” she agreed. "Though as you said - not very likely... What did I just say.” She had spotted Liandra, who was approaching them with purposeful strides. "Time to entertain the masses, bard...” she teased, and then sobered. "Are you up to it?”

"Yeah... I think so.” Gabrielle finally turned around to face her partner, sliding up into the security Xena's arm provided, and letting the contact of skin on skin warm her all the way through.

Their eyes met, and held, and time stretched to eternity in a few moments. Neither one wanted to break the bond the contact between blue and green created, but eventually they had to, when Liandra arrived at her spot close to warrior, bard, and baby, and gently cleared her throat.

"Umm... we arranged everything, and the children are really looking forward to the story... Are you ready?” she asked the bard, with a gentle, understanding smile, her eyes twinkling.

"I am... ready, that is.” For a bard, Gabrielle's speech pattern had become remarkably incoherent, but that actually was the last thing on her mind. The eye and skin contact with Xena had resulted in a tingling that encompassed her whole body, and she didn't want the feeling to go away yet. She registered Xena giving Nyara back to Liandra, and getting up, pulling her up with her.

"You want to walk, or do you want me to carry you again?” Xena asked in a low voice, mouth strategically placed close to Gabrielle's ear. Her long, dark hair caressed the younger woman's face.

Gabrielle had the grace to blush. "Xena... it's bad enough I'm thinking about everything but storytelling...” she whispered back.

"You are, huh?” Xena's mouth curved into a satisfied smirk, and one eyebrow rose.

"Don't tell me you just ran battle tactics through your head...” Gabrielle reveled in Xena's strong left arm, supporting her.

"Uh, well...” The smirk grew even bigger.

Gabrielle gave her an evil look, but couldn't hold it for long. She chuckled. "I'll be a very undignified bard if you don't cut it out!”

Xena did her best Who, me??? impression. "As if that was up to me.”

Gabrielle flashed her a smile. "Actually, it is.” What a strange world, she mused, silently. We find beauty in the strangest of places. Like in a camp full of homeless, wounded people. Just the thought of being able to bring them a little relief makes me feel better. Not to mention a certain... ahem... Warrior Princess.

The children were waiting for them already, and Gabrielle had to take a barrage of requests for favorites. Xena made sure she was settled comfortably before returning to her duties, and Gabrielle began to spin the wondrous thread of stories that transported everyone who listened, not just the children, to other realms, where heroes and heroines made the world a better place.

* * *

Gabrielle was ready to drop to sleep right then and there once the last child had given in to the temptation of sinking into Morpheus' arms. Night had fallen already, but Xena and several other volunteers were still milling about, getting wagons and carts ready for an early start in the morning.

Gabrielle must've fallen asleep anyway, because the next thing she remembered was the secure feeling of being carried by her tall, leather clad friend. She snuggled closer, making a contented mewling sound. "Where're we going, Xena?” she mumbled.

Twinkling blue eyes settled on her face. "I set up our bedrolls close to the horses - I hope you don't mind.”

"Mmm...” wasn't a real comment on that, but enough to tell the warrior that whatever she had set up was fine with Gabrielle. "You tricked me...” another mumbled comment came out from below the leather shoulder strap.

"And how did I do that?” Xena inquired, her voice gentle.

"You talked me into telling stories so I wouldn't walk around anymore. You cheated.”

Xena let out a low chuckle. "So I did. But if I had tried to make you sit down, that wouldn't have worked, would it?”

A green eye appeared under the mass of reddish hair. "Probably not...” the bard admitted, a tad sheepishly.

"There you go.”

Xena had reached the quickly set up camp. She had chosen this location so it would be easier to keep an eye on Gabrielle while being on night watch - and she didn't want her to be too far away from Argo, either. The mare had welcomed the company of other horses, but had also made a point out of grazing close to their gear, as if protecting it. And maybe she was.

Xena set the bard down gently, and covered her with her sleeping furs. She had mixed another cup of healing herb tea for Gabrielle, and now proceeded to check her shoulder wound and rewrap her ankle.

"Don't you get tired of wrapping people up?” Gabrielle asked, her voice a little more awake now.

"Not if 'people' means you, Gabrielle. Your shoulder looks ok, considering the kind of strain you put on it today. Are you still in pain?”

"I tried to ignore it...” Gabrielle admitted, and was instantly treated with the cup of herbal tea. "You just want to knock me out again,” she complained.

Xena was serious. "You need to sleep, Gabrielle. It's going to be an early morning.”

"Yeah...” Gabrielle settled back against the saddle that Xena had placed there as a headrest and started sipping the warm liquid. "Are you going to sleep, too?” she asked.

Xena gave her a look. "I need to talk to Palaemon again about tomorrow. And I volunteered for night watch.” She was stopped by the pleading look in Gabrielle's eyes, and touched her forehead with a gentle caress. "What is it?”

Gabrielle visibly fought with herself, but then seemed to decide to speak anyway. "Would you stay... until I'm asleep?”

"If that is some kind of attempt to get me to sleep...” Xena tried to tease the bard, but the look in Gabrielle's eyes told her differently. So differently, in fact, that Xena's stomach tightened at the look on the bard's face. "Sure.”

She finished working on the shoulder wound, and then went to drag her own furs closer to Gabrielle's, settling down on them on her side and looking at the sleepy face of the young woman she loved. Gabrielle was snuggled down so deeply that only her face and a few hairs were peeking out. They stared at each other just long enough for Xena to think how silly this was, and she lifted a corner of her sleeping roll. "Wanna come in for warmth?” she asked, smiling.

Almost instantly, the bard was under Xena's blanket, snuggling down on her shoulder and wrapping one arm around Xena's leather clad midsection. "Yeah...” she sighed happily. "For that, too.”

Funny, Xena thought, how good that feels. I never suspected I had a life calling as a security blanket. A warm feeling spread through her whole body, the secure feeling that she was doing something right this time. Touching and talking had not been her strengths for a very, very long time but maybe, right now they could go a long way in restoring some of the trust that had been lost between them. Gabrielle's body in her left arm felt so good, so right. She unconsciously hugged her closer, which got her a return squeeze by the bard. "Feels good, hmm?” she heard a sleepy voice.

"Yeah.” Xena admitted, stroking the bard's soft locks. "Now try to get some sleep. It's going to be another long day tomorrow.”

"Yes, Mom...” Gabrielle yawned. She peeked up, then placed a wet kiss on Xena's shoulder right beside the leather shoulder strap. A cheeky smile blinked in her eyes when she snuggled down on said piece of leather and closed her eyes.

Xena thought she'd be asleep already, but Gabrielle proved her wrong by taking a deep breath. "Xena..."

"Hmm?" The warrior caressed Gabrielle's hair with one hand.

"Xena, this morning, at the stream, I..." Gabrielle hesitated.


"I wanted to ask you something." She exhaled, and turned her face up to make contact with Xena's eyes. Her furrowed brow told Xena that there was some heavy thinking going on.

"You want to ask me now?"

"Umm... yes." Gabrielle said, biting her lip, and searching for the right words.

Xena waited patiently for the bard to muster up enough courage to unload what was on her heart. She couldn't help but run her hand along the young woman's arm around her midsection. Gabrielle had such smooth, soft skin. She was tanned, yes, but her skin was still so much softer than her own. Xena couldn't get tired of the silky feel under her callused hands, and she couldn't help imagining how it would feel to rub against that soft stomach and breasts... run her hands over the soft swell of hip...

"Xena, I was just wondering...” Xena's attention hadn't wandered. She was really good at running two things through her mind at the same time, especially if they both revolved around her favorite bard. "I know I was teasing you this morning, but... I was wondering if... you...” she swallowed, "... umm... liked kissing me?” Attentive green eyes caught every twitching muscle in Xena's face.

But there wasn't anything to twitch the wrong way, as a pure hot flame of arousal started in Xena's belly, and she had to swallow before she managed to husk "Yes, I did.” Green eyes were still reading her, and seemed satisfied. "Did you finish your contemplation, though?” she said in a light tone, feeling at the same time how important Gabrielle's answer was for her in return.

But she shouldn't have worried, as Gabrielle's answer came with conviction. "Yes,” she whispered, her look making Xena's heart jump. "It definitely wasn't the tea - but I'm glad it got me an excuse.”

"Oh.” The warrior's head swam, and Xena squeezed the bard closer to her. "Glad to hear that.” She just wanted to wrap this woman in a cocoon. So precious... She noticed herself trembling, and tried to get it under control. Her whole body felt like it was on fire, her skin a net of connected, highly sensitive nerve endings. All she wanted to do was bury her head in the crook of Gabrielle's neck, inhaling her scent, and feel Gabrielle move against her, of her own, free will. Instead, the warrior's hands kept caressing the young woman's hair and face, holding her lovingly and reassuring her.

"If I weren't so sleepy...” Gabrielle mumbled, sliding one leg along Xena's, and hooking it behind her knee. "You did that on purpose, didn't you?”

Xena smiled. "As I said, you need all the sleep you can get. And besides... I would like to make this... special,” she paused, "for both of us.”

There was a whole multitude of meaning behind what Xena said, and Gabrielle's mind awoke to an alertness it shouldn't possess anymore. The young woman propped herself up on one elbow and searched her partner's blue eyes.

"I'm sure you'll make it just that.” Somehow, she felt that Xena needed that kind of reassurance, and when she saw the haunted look fade from Xena's eyes, she knew she had been right. "I am happy it is you, Xena. No one else has ever made me feel so... special. I need you. And I want to be with you.”

All Xena could do was nod, but she did so with tear-filled eyes that spoke volumes. Gabrielle searched her face one more time, then settled down on her place at Xena's shoulder. "You smell so good...” she mumbled, meshing her fingers with Xena's. "Don't leave me again.” She really was on the verge of sleeping, and she closed her eyes. Everything would be ok.

"I won't. I promise.” Xena whispered back, and held her friend close, until she heard her breathing even out, and knew she had fallen asleep.

The warrior gave herself some precious time to inhale Gabrielle's scent, and revel in the warmth of their embrace, and the newly found trust they shared. There were a lot of things to take care of tonight, but this was more important. Would they share the same familiarity tomorrow? No one could tell, so Xena decided to soak it up like a sponge. Her hand traveled down Gabrielle's spine and tugged her closer, if that was still possible. The feel of her light, young body against Xena's was delicious, and Xena closed her eyes in pleasure. Keeping her hormones under control grew increasingly difficult, she had to admit, but it was definitely worth it. There was no way she would hurt Gabrielle, or do anything against her will. She wanted Gabrielle to set the pace, step by step.

It was with reluctance that Xena extracted her body from under Gabrielle's. She sighed at the loss of contact and took care to fluff her furs to give the young woman something else to clutch to.

Reaching for her discarded armor, scabbard and sword, the warrior took care to step away from their camp a bit, closer to the horses, before she donned the bronze protections. She stretched, giving her sore muscles a chance to get used to the fact that they had to get back to work. Then she warmed them up again by going through a couple of forms, until she felt the soreness fade away a little to be replaced by the feeling of her body responding the way she expected it to. Finishing up with a double flip, she reveled in the fresh breeze that created, landing in a sure stance.

She was as ready to go face Palaemon and his men as she ever would be.

...continued in Part 3

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