DISCLAIMERS:

Most of these characters belong to Studios USA and any other owners of Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. This story was not written for profit and no copyright infringements are intended.

A few ideas came from Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, "When Irish Eyes Are Killing," episode written by Grant Rosenberg. No copyright infringements intended toward DC Comics, Warner Brothers, or December Third Productions. NO, this is NOT a Xena/Superman cross-over. This is classic alt Xena/Gabrielle

Kallerine is back. Once again, this is not a Buffy/Xena crossover. Kallerine is an Amazon bacchae slayer who just happens to look like Sarah Michelle Gellar.

Violence: Take one warrior princess, blend thoroughly with a bardic Amazon queen, toss in the king of thieves, add one feisty red-headed druid, sprinkle in a few greedy villains, mix liberally with a handful of Amazons, and yeah, some swords are likely to cross.

Maintext: Rated R. Two women in love who sleep together as often as possible.

Questions/Comments/Suggestions welcome: texbard@yahoo.com

Updates Only List: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/texbardupdates

Updates/Chat List: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/texbard

Setting: This story falls sequentially after "Divinity." For those new to the Xena/Gabrielle series, it is in order, "March the 16th," "A Solstice Treaty," "The Sixth Sense," Cleopatra 4 A.D.," and "Divinity." To read them, go to my website: http://home.earthlink.net/~texbard and click on the link for my stories.

Additional Background Info: My Xena/Gabrielle series parts ways with the show after the 4th season. The series begins after "The Ides of March" 4th season cliffhanger, and parts ways with the show at that point. No pregnant warrior, no Eve, no 25-year ice cave time warp, no dead Olympian gods, no new chakram, no angel Callisto, no Japan (ever). Their friends and family are still alive. Joxer is dead because he died in my first story. Callisto is in Hell. Xena's Norseland history is part of her history in the series, but only up to the part where she locked up Grindle with the ring.

Note on Tamara Gorski: For Herc fans, she was Morrigan, and appeared in half the 5th season episodes.

THE EYES OF EIRE

(a.k.a Amazons, Druids & Thieves, Oh My)

By Texbard

Chapter 9

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The main room of the inn was almost empty, save for a few road-weary travelers. It was a small well-built establishment, though off the beaten track, located high up in the hills near the entrance to the underworld. Of course, most people didn't know about that, Gabrielle reflected. She looked around, taking in the intimate crackling fireplace, the handful of tables, and the tightly thatched roof overhead. Gentle rain pattered against the straw, winter finally, grudgingly, giving way to spring. Bright copper kettles and crockery pots were tucked into cubbyholes along the eaves, giving a homey air to the dining area. Framed etchings of landscapes adorned the walls, and cheery red and blue-checkered curtains hung at the windows.

Only a half-dozen rooms were spaced along the hallway in back of the main room, and they had luckily procured the last two. The other four were occupied by a group of traveling merchants, who were on their way across Eire, carting wagons full of spring wares -- seed, planting tools, bolts of light-colored clothe, sheep-shearing implements, and other eye-catching odds and ends. The bard had quickly perused their wagons, which were sheltered safely in a large barn in back of the inn. The wagons were new, as the merchants explained they had traded sleds for wagons in the next village north, when the snow started melting.

They had lost three days in the underworld. Once they left Loki's lair, they quickly discovered a winding passage that led directly to the surface. It was steep, and hard on already-exhausted leg muscles, but nonetheless a welcome alternative to climbing back out the way they came. It wasn't an option anyway, as the collapsed passage would have taken days to clear out. Another half-day's travel over mud-slogged terrain, through a steady cold rain, had led them to the inn.

The scent of hearty lamb stew permeated the air, along with a newly tapped keg of honey mead. Kallerine and Morrigan were seated at a table next to the hearth, hungrily inhaling their dinner and consuming a large pitcher of mead. They were laughing, and trading stories with some of the merchants, who were more than enamored of the two charming women. Xena, on the other hand, was brooding upstairs in their room, waiting for Gabrielle to bring back a couple of bowls of the stew.

Hopefully, she's taking a bath while the water's still warm. The bard sighed. Xena had been silent for most of the journey to the inn. She knew part of it was pain from her injuries, which the warrior would be loath to admit to in front of the others. Gabrielle knew better. There was just the slightest stiffness in her walk, a favoring of her left arm, and a tight set to her jaw line that spoke volumes. She had even stumbled once, claiming a hidden root in the mud. Only Gabrielle had seen her quickly grab at her ribs, and just as quickly straighten up, determined not to show any weakness. They had yet to take proper care of the cuts, breaks, and bruises that liberally covered her body.

That would be next, after dinner. The warrior had insisted that if she didn't get food and a bath, she was going to go stark raving mad. Tcchhhh. Can't have that, can we, love? Gabrielle chuckled to herself. Xena could be such a baby sometimes. But there's something else going on there, the bard mused. True, Xena was in pain, but they had dealt with many kinds of pain, many times, from many sources. In addition to being in pain, the warrior seemed to have settled into a deep blue funk. Gabrielle had carefully picked at that, with no luck. Whatever was needling her somber companion was going to take extra finesses to dredge up. That was okay. She had mastered the art of getting tall dark silent types to talk. All she needed was time alone with her soulmate, and the chance to give her some undivided attention. Is that what you need, Xena? A little love? You know you've got it. You don't even have to ask. She smiled.

"Here ya go, lass." A round-faced barmaid interrupted her thoughts, setting a tray down in front of her on the counter. "Two crocks o' our hot stew, and two loafs o' fresh bread." The woman wiped her hands on a crisp apron, smoothing back strands of graying hair and tucking them behind her ears.

"And a pitcher of the mead?" The bard eyed the keg balanced on the back of the bar.

"Aye." The woman grinned cheekily, her brown skirt swirling as she turned. "Me largest pitcher, and two o' me best mugs." She tapped off the keg, watching the pale liquid fill the pitcher, drawing it expertly until it was filled almost to the brim. She placed it on the woven reed tray and set the mugs next to it. "Careful. 'T'would be a sin ta waste a drop o' that mead."

"I will be. Thank you." Gabrielle lifted the tray, balancing it with strong arms, ignoring the shooting pain in her shoulder. She'd managed to hide it from Xena, keeping it to the side away from the warrior during their hike to the inn. She was determined to wait until her partner was bandaged up first, Xena's injuries appearing much more serious than her own little bruise. She's gonna be so mad when I finally have her take a look at it. It was, she realized, yet another example of how they had reached a middle ground. There was a time when the bard would have whimpered at a stubbed toe, while Xena was the one who would wait until last to be taken care of. Now, sometimes, those roles were reversed.

"I'll see you two in the morning." She passed by Morrigan and Kallerine, eyeing the men they were talking to. They seemed harmless enough. "Get some sleep, okay? Unless there's a downpour, Xena's going to want to head out right after breakfast in the morning."

"What's up with her, anyway?" The slayer looked up, a mead moustache almost making Gabrielle laugh. "She's been awfully quiet today."

"I think she's just tired." Gabrielle started to move toward the doorway.

"She's injured." Morrigan stated pointedly. "But you'll take care o' that, now won't ya Gabrielle?"

"You know I will." She grinned.

"Tell the tall dark and deadly one ta get some sleep 'erself, will ya?" The druid smiled back at her. "One more day o' rest won't hurt any of us. We could use it, I'm thinking."

"I'll tell her." The bard backed through the door, bumping it open with her leather-clad hip, careful not to upset her tray. "Good night."

"Good night, Gabrielle." Slayer and druid warbled in unison.

Yeah. That's it. The bard mentally pumped a triumphant fist. She'd never in a million summers admit that she needs to rest for a day, but if I tell her the others need it, she'll 'give in,' and whine about losing time. Secretly, you'll be grateful for it, won't you, Xena? One shameless day of rest for the warrior princess, coming up.

Her footsteps creaked on the boards in the hallway, and she smiled, suspecting her partner already heard her coming. Torches in scrolling brass sconces flickered against the walls, casting interesting shadows where the light filtered through lacework in the brass. Gabrielle found herself liking the inn very much, and was glad they were in a nice place, instead of some of the seedier taverns they often stayed in.

She reached the door and paused, half-expecting Xena to open it without her having to knock or maneuver the tray to work the doorknob herself. She wasn't disappointed, as a tall dripping wet warrior suddenly filled the doorway, and Xena took the tray from her, whisking it across the room, turning her back on her in the process.

"Buhh " She momentarily lost her wits. Bruised, battered, and scarred, it mattered not. Seeing Xena naked still had the same effect on her it always did, and her knees turned to jelly. She quickly regained her senses, watching her partner's body language as she set the heavy tray down on a low table. "Xena!" She stepped inside, closing the door and fastening the latch. "I could have carried it over there myself."

"I know." The warrior grimaced as she stood up. "Just an automatic reaction, I guess. I heard you, and figured your hands were full."

"Get back in the tub." Gabrielle gestured toward the round wooden barrel in the corner beside the fire. "You'll catch the grippe again, Xena, and I'm not going to have you getting sick when we've still got a good two or three days' travel ahead of us. You're being injured is bad enough."

"I'm done with my bath." She grabbed a piece of linen and began toweling herself off, sighing in exasperation as she felt Gabrielle take it from her. "And I'm fine."

"Oh yeah?" The bard made a tentative pass over her ribcage, barely touching the reddened surface, and the mottled bruises, watching the warrior shy away at the first brush of linen against skin. "Then why are you flinching before I even touch you?"

"I " Blue eyes dropped. And just why are you being so stubborn, warrior? You don't have to prove anything to Gabrielle. You need some serious healer skills, and she's just about as good at them as you are, now. "I'm just not looking forward to some of the stuff I need you to do to take care of me."

"Like what?" The bard's voice gentled, and she knelt down, drying off impossibly long legs.

"Like that bone chip in my elbow." She closed her eyes, acknowledging just how much she craved her partner's touch. She didn't deserve this. She wanted it more than anything she'd ever wanted. It represented love, and love was a thing that had alluded her for her entire life. Until Gabrielle. Strong yet gentle hands circled her calves, squeezing them as Gabrielle finished up and stood, moving toward the bed. A brush of air, and she was back, wrapping a blanket around Xena's shoulders.

"Might as well not get dressed yet." The bard tucked the ends of the soft wool in. "Let's eat dinner and then I'll patch you up. Can't be too bad, can it?"

"Um " Xena sat down at the small table, stretching her legs out in front of her. "Yeah, it could get kind of messy. I need you to perform a minor surgical procedure."

"Surg surgical procedure?" Green eyes grew wide. "Xena. I don't think I can what, exactly, do you need done?"

"The bone chip keeps shifting. Every time it does, it sends some maddening pains shooting into my fingertips. It's not like a broken leg or arm that I can set. I don't think it'll settle in place long enough to heal back up. It needs to come out." She tore off a chunk of nutty brown bread, dipping it into the stew and chewing it with pleasure. "Mmmm. Good stuff."

"Out." Gabrielle had quite forgotten about food. "'Out,' as in you want me to CUT it out?"

"That about sums it up, yes." The warrior pushed the bard's ignored bowl toward her. "Come on. Eat up. Your stomach's been growling all day."

"I think I just lost my appetite." Gabrielle looked pensively down.

"It won't be that bad." Xena encouraged her. "Least, not for you it won't be. It'll take one good deep cut, you'll fish around for the bone fragment, then you'll sew me back up. Piece of cake."

"Uh-huh." She slowly took up her bowl and managed to down its contents, shoving images of knives and Xena's blood firmly out of her mind, at least for the time being.

The meal passed in silence, Xena's eyes once again taking on a faraway look. Gabrielle studied her, trying to decide the best angle of attack to get her to talk. She thought better of it, deciding to wait until she was done with her healer duties. Finally, when not a drop of stew nor a crumb of bread was left, Xena poured up two mugs of mead. "Here. I don't know about you, but I could use this right about now."

"You might need it. I better take it easy. Don't want to get so buzzed that my hands aren't steady." She smiled, taking tentative sips from her drink. "Wow. That's really good."

"Yeah. It's nice and sweet." The warrior rolled the libation around in her mouth. "And damned strong. You're right. Better not drink too much."

"Mmmm." The bard took one last swallow and set the mug aside. "You need it before surgery. I'll probably need it afterward. So " She got up, retrieving the healer's kit from Xena's backpack. "What should I do first?"

"How bad is the gash on my head?" She'd noticed a fair share of blood in the water when she washed her hair, and had felt fresh warmth as the cut opened up again.

"It'll need a few stitches." Gabrielle set to work, directing Xena to the bed to sit, standing over her as she used a thin bone needle and fine gut to close up the wound. The warrior didn't so much as move, or make the slightest sound, other than her deep steady breathing. The bard dusted the cut liberally with powdered cleansing herbs and stood back. "Now what? You did a pretty good job cleaning up the minor scratches while you bathed. Shall I wrap up your ribcage?"

"Yeah," Xena grunted, shifting and allowing the blanket to drop down around her waist. "I tore up some strips for it while you were downstairs. Gotta bind 'em up pretty good. There's three cracked ones on the right, just above my waist."

"Three!" Gabrielle fretted. "Xena, you walked all day with three cracked ribs? Gods, we could have done this before we started walking. Xena " She blew out a frustrated breath. "We walked all the way around back to our stuff, then all the way here. You could have hurt yourself worse. Punctured a lung or something."

"Nope." The warrior motioned her closer. "They're just cracked, not broken. No danger of puncturing anything. Come on. Wrap me up so we can get to the fun part."

"Oh. Yeah." She had almost managed to forget about the bone chip. She carefully wrapped the long strips of soft muslin around Xena's torso, tying them as tightly as she dared, using the warrior's facial expression as her guide.

"Mmph." Xena twisted slightly, testing her work. "That's good. I don't feel them moving quite so much. Was radiating into my armpit and chest before. Okay " She reached for the healer's kit and found it snatched from her reach.

Gabrielle took the kit and eyed her calmly. I can do this. "Lay down on your stomach, please. I don't think lying on your right side is an option, and lying on your left will defeat the purpose."

"Alright." She squeezed the bard's leg with her good hand, then complied, stretching out on the clean smelling blankets, her head resting on a smooth down-filled pillow. "Probably need to put the basin under my arm, so we don't get the bedclothes bloody."

The bard moved to a pedestal where a basin and pitcher of water set. She poured a small amount of water into the basin and returned to the bed, carefully lifting Xena's arm, elbow facing up, and draped it across the basin. She took a short, very sharp knife from the healer's kit, passing it back and forth through the candle flame on the table next to the bed. She watched the metal turn red-hot, then pulled back, waiting for it to cool. "Knife's ready. Now what?"

Xena braced herself, clutching a handful of blanket. "Make a small incision crosswise, just below the bony point of my elbow." She clamped her jaw firmly shut as she felt the blade begin digging into her skin. "Deeper," she gasped.

"So much blood." Gabrielle cupped water, keeping the wound as clear as she could so she could see what she was doing. "Okay." She pushed further in, forcing detachment, knowing her actions must be causing her partner agony.

"That's good." Xena felt the warm blood running down her arm. "I need you to dig in, with your little finger, until you touch bone. It's in there, right above where you cut."

"Xena I okay." Her brows furrowed in determined concentration and she bit her lower lip. She worked the tip of her pinky in, at first feeling only wetness and spongy tissue. Her stomach twisted and she swallowed, feeling it settle. "Oh." She felt something tiny and hard. Smaller than a pebble. "I think I found it."

"Yeah." Xena's own stomach was heaving. "Dig it out."

Carefully, the bard got her fingernail under the chip and worked it out. "I did it. Gods. Such a tiny little sliver to be causing you so much pain. Xena?" She looked down. The warrior's eyes were closed and her face was deathly pale. "Did you pass out?"

"No." She groaned, shoving back waves of nausea, and agonizing jolts of pain that ran the entire length of her arm. "Sew me up, will ya?"

With small even stitches, Gabrielle closed the wound, rinsing away the remaining blood and giving it a dusting of the same herbs she had sprinkled on Xena's head. "There." She rinsed off the knife, swiping it dry and returning it and the needle to the healer' skit. "All done."

Xena part-rolled and part-raised, flipping onto her back with difficulty. She watched her partner move across the room, retrieving an old warm sleep shirt from her pack. "Thanks." She sat up, feeling the comfortable material slip over her head.

"Anytime." The bard opened a window, dumping the bloodied water out on the ground outside. She fastened the shutters closed, and re-filled the basin, splashing her face. As she removed her tunic, she heard a gruff throat clear from behind her back. Uh-oh.

"Gabrielle." Xena drew out her name. "What happened to your shoulder?"

"Just a little bruise, Xena. I think a rock hit it when that tunnel collapsed. No big deal." She pulled out her own sleep shirt.

"A bruise the size of your entire shoulder blade is not 'no big deal.' Come here. Don't bother getting dressed." She motioned with her finger.

"Now there's an offer I can't refuse." The bard joked. "At least under almost any other circumstances."

Xena smiled, in spite of herself. "Believe me, my bard, if I didn't feel like I've just taken on the gladiators, I'd make good on that offer. But right now, I feel like I've been dragged behind a chariot, and you look like it ran over your back. Not much I can do for a bruise, but I need to check it out anyway."

"Fine." The bard huffed playfully, sitting down with her back to her partner. "Ow." Long fingers gently probed around her shoulder blade.

"Nothing's cracked, but I think you have a bone bruise." She brushed her fingertips lightly across the black and blue skin. "Gonna take a while for that to heal."

"Then we'll just have to heal together, huh?" She drew her shirt over her head. "Take it easy tomorrow, maybe. Sleep in. You know, rest for a day or so?"

"Gabrielle." Xena frowned. "We need to get moving tomorrow. I still need to talk to Odin. We need to make sure Pony and Autolycus and Bridgid got out of Eire okay. Gotta make sure Kernunnos is dealt with properly."

"And one more day is going to hurt how, exactly?" The bard crawled up next to her. "Besides, you're still running a low fever, I think. I should get you a dose of herbs for that."

"No need." The warrior tugged at her sleep shirt, stopping her from rolling to her feet. "I took them while you were getting our dinner. I probably have some slight internal injuries and my body's fighting that with the fever. A low one won't hurt me. Might help hold back infection. Come on. Let's get some sleep."

"So, we sleeping in tomorrow?" She gently pushed the warrior to her left side, watching to make sure her stitched left elbow wasn't caught under the weight of her body. "I think Morrigan and Kallerine were about to collapse tonight. They both said they could sleep for two days."

"They're really that tired?" The warrior re-considered. "Well I guess if THEY need it that badly, one more day won't make that much difference." She felt her partner curl up behind her, as Gabrielle carefully draped one arm around her waist, well below her wrapped ribs. "Hey. What're you doing?"

"Well." The bard gently stroked her belly, her hand slipping under the soft shirt. "You can't sleep with your head on my back like you like to do, 'cause it would hurt my shoulder. And I can't sleep across your back or stomach, 'cause it would hurt your ribs. So I'm holding you as best I can, 'cause I really want to hold you. You got a problem with that?" She continued with the light comforting touches, feeling Xena's breathing slow and even out.

"No," her voice burred. The warrior reached across, dousing the candle. She felt Gabrielle pull the covers up and settled back against her warm body, feeling the bard's knees tucked against the back of her own, her stomach pressed against Xena's backside. Feather-light kisses mapped her shoulders and she closed her eyes, soaking up the bard's touch on a level that needed it as much as she needed air and water.

"You okay?" Gabrielle snuggled up as tight as she dared, feeling a slight tremor run through the warrior's body. "You were awfully quiet today. Even for you."

"I was in pain."

Silence.

Xena sighed.

More silence. Gabrielle's hand patted her belly, and she felt a lingering kiss against the back of her neck.

"I'm tired?" The warrior threw up one last defense.

A long pause, and another kiss.

Xena rolled to her back, looking up into the darkness. The bard propped up on her elbow, continuing to caress her stomach. Another tremor shook the long body.

"Hey." Gabrielle got almost nose-to-nose, trying to look into her partner's eyes. "Honey, what's wrong?"

"I'm still working on it." Pale eyes blinked up at her. "I'm not trying to shut you out, Gabrielle. I just don't have words for it yet."

"Promise me, when you find them, you'll share?" She ducked her head, brushing her lips across Xena's.

"Promise." The warrior returned the kiss, reaching up with her good right arm, threading her fingers through short blonde hair, urging further contact. She felt her body responding in a way that couldn't be satisfied, at least not in her current state. Regretfully, she pulled back, watching the bard's chest heaving in the darkness, her own breathing matching it, straining at her injured ribs. She touched Gabrielle's nose, then traced her lips, trailing her fingers down across the bard's sleep shirt, circling the curve of a breast. "Hold that thought, for a day so, okay?"

"Mmm." The bard kissed her again. "Being injured really bites, huh?"

"Yep." The warrior touched her cheek, then rolled back to her left side again, feeling the bard tuck up behind her. "We'll make up for lost time real soon, I promise."

"I love you, Xena." Her hand came to rest once again against a warm stomach.

"Love you too, sweetheart." The warrior listened for a long while, smiling sadly as she heard Gabrielle's soft snores, the bard falling asleep first. Wish it were that easy for me, love. A good meal, a little snuggling, and you're out for the count. She carefully slid out of the bard's embrace, slipping out of bed, taking an extra blanket from the foot of the bed.

She eased down onto a padded bench under the window, carefully pushing the shutters open, grateful they didn't creak. Soft rain continued to fall, dripping from the roof and splattering against evergreen needles on a tall pine just outside the window. A flash of lightening lit up the sky off in the distance, over the top of a hill. She held her breath, counting, until the far off rumble of accompanying thunder reached her ears. Overhead, a few clouds parted, and a brave moonbeam broke through, glinting off a single tear as it rolled down her cheek.

Happy Ides of March, Gabrielle. She tilted her head, watching the gentle rise and fall of the bard's breathing. Maybe someday I'll manage to get you through this day without any pain.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Gabrielle stirred, half-awake, not opening her eyes, trying to shut out whatever was disturbing her sleep. "Mmmpphhhh." She rolled over, reaching out, finding nothing but a pillow and a rumpled blanket. "Xena?" She slowly opened her eyes, blinking against the darkness. The air in the room was cold against the exposed skin of her face and neck. "Xena?" Her eyes fought to adjust to her surroundings. Thunder rolled across the sky, rattling the eaves of the inn. A series of lightening flashes revealed the warrior's familiar profile, silhouetted against the open window.

"Xena, what are you doing?" The bard rolled out of bed, padding across the smooth worn floor, which felt like ice under her bare feet. A strong wind blew, driving rain through the window, leaving droplets on the floor and further dampening the already-soaked blanket the warrior was wrapped in. "Xena, you're soaking wet. What's going on?"

Pale silver eyes looked up, dusky lashes blinking slowly over them, as if they were just recognizing her. "Sorry." The dark head lowered. "Guess I was kind of out of it for a while there."

"Honey." Gabrielle closed the shutters, fastening them with a peg that dangled from a piece of rawhide nailed into the wood. She located a flint and striker on the table and lit a candle. "We need to get you out of that wet blanket." She made her way back to her partner's side, tugging at the sodden wool and unwrapping it to find more damp fabric underneath. "And the wet nightshirt. Xena, how long have you been sitting there?" She reached down, tilting a strong chin. Sad blue eyes met her gaze, then broke it. "Xena " She traced a trail of moisture down the warrior's cheek. "Is this rain or tears?"

A long arm reached out, wrapping around her waist and drawing her closer, as the warrior pressed her face against her stomach, rubbing her cheek against cotton-covered muscles, comforting herself. A worried bard instinctively returned the hug, kissing her head as Xena shivered. "Come on." She urged her partner up. "Let's get you out of this wet shirt and back into bed before you catch cold."

"Don't have another shirt," the warrior mumbled, her voice very small.

"That's okay, honey. You've slept naked with me plenty of times, right?" Gabrielle frowned at the almost child-like vulnerability. "I'll take mine off too. You'll get warmer faster that way anyway. Come on." She managed to get her partner's wet shirt over her head, then pushed her gently back onto the plump down mattress, gratefully noting that the material that bound Xena's ribs was dry. She quickly removed her own shirt and followed, scooting behind the warrior and pulling her back against her, until Xena was nestled against her sideways, her head on Gabrielle's shoulder.

"Xena, honey, are you sick?" Soft fingers checked a high forehead for fever, then sifted through long dark tresses. "Hard to tell. Your skin's all clammy from sitting in the window. You wanna talk about it?"

"I wanted to kill you." Xena trembled, soaking up her partner's attentions.

"Huh?" The fingers stilled momentarily, then resumed their motion. "Xena, what are you talking about?"

"In the underworld, when I put on the mask." She looked up into unwavering green eyes, then looked back down.

"Oh," the bard's matter-of-fact voice washed over her. "That."

The warrior sat up higher, until their eyes were on a level. "You knew?"

"Not exactly, until just now, when you told me." Gabrielle's hand cupped the back of her head, pushing her back against the bard's shoulder once more.

Xena closed her eyes as her partner stroked her head. "How can you be so calm about it?"

"It's what the mask does to mortals, right?" the bard reasoned. "Makes them want to sacrifice their love to the druids." She shrugged slightly. "You're part mortal. It was a possibility."

"I'm not just any mortal," a stubborn voice responded. "I'm supposed to be stronger than that."

"Xena." Gabrielle resisted the urge to shake some sense her injured partner. Instead, she sat back a bit, looking intently at the troubled face. "You ARE stronger than that. If you weren't, we wouldn't be sitting here having this conversation. You're part god too. I don't know if that part of you is what stopped the mortal part or not, but "

"The god part wanted the power," Xena interjected. "Gabrielle, the mortal part of me wanted to kill you, and the god part wanted to take that mask and use it to take over the world. It the mask it made me want to do things that would have destroyed me, just like Alti thought it would. Gabrielle, she could easily have won."

"But she didn't." The bard rolled the new information around in her head. "I want you to think about what you just said, honey. The mortal part wanted to sacrifice me to the druids, correct?"

"Yeah." Her cheeks reddened in shame.

"And the god part wanted the destroyer of nations to come out and play?"

"That too." She lowered her head, only to have a firm hand gently nudge it back up.

"So which part kept both of those things from happening, hmmm?" The slightest hint of a knowing smile played at the bard's lips.

Xena blinked. "I " Damn. "The part of me that's you?"

"Close. The part of you that's US, Xena. What we have. It's stronger than anything Alti or some other god could cook up." She took the warrior's right hand, placing it against her own heart. In turn, she placed her own hand over Xena's chest, feeling the strong steady beat against her palm. "Do you trust me?"

"With all my heart." She swallowed, and the bard felt that as well.

"I trust you, too." The warrior's heart skipped a beat under her hand. Still don't think you deserve that, do you, love? "When you put on that mask, I was never afraid of you, Xena. I was afraid for you, of what Alti might do to you, but I was never afraid you would hurt me."

"Maybe you should've been." Xena's voice was thick with emotion. The chill in the room pressed in, and she plucked at the blankets, pulling them up higher until they were nestled under them with only their heads poking out.

"Maybe." Gabrielle smiled internally, feeling the slight tremors that had been shaking her partner's body finally subside. "Trusting anyone involves risk, Xena. No one knows that better than we do. I love all of you. I love the part that is god, that can do humanly impossible things, and your super-sensitive senses, that have saved my bardic butt more than a few times. And I love the part of you that is mortal, because I don't think I could be with a full-out god, Xena. I think you're more mortal than god, at least in your own heart and mind you are. You understand human frailty. You understand me. I'm not sure you could understand either if you weren't, on some very basic level, very much mortal."

"Since I found out about Ares, about him being my father that is, I've wondered which part of me took off on a rampage across Greece." Full lips pursed in thought. "I've come to think that both parts did."

"And that's my point." Gabrielle pecked her lips. "You're a complete package. And I have chosen to love and to trust all of what you are. So when we talked about Alti, and when I knew you were going to put on that mask, I made that choice all over again. I knew, no matter how much the evil part of that mask called to you, I knew that the part of you that loves me would win, in the end."

"I expected the mask to effect me." Xena drew in a long breath. "I just didn't expect it to be as intense as it was. There were a few moments, looking back, when I came very close to crossing a line. The part that wanted to kill you, that didn't really last too long, although that's the part that scares me most when I think about it. But the part that wanted the power, that never let up, the entire time I had the mask on. I had to fight it. It was like I don't know if I can describe it it's the same feeling I get when Ares is near a sensation that boils in my blood. It's so strong. It's intoxicating. And addictive."

"I don't think you've ever really described that for me before now. Ares comes around pretty often." A blonde head tilted in question. "How do you get past it? Wanting more of that?"

Strong fingers closed over Gabrielle's hand, squeezing it. "I said it was strong. But I have something much stronger now." Xena drew her hand up and kissed it reverently. "Why do you think Ares finally gave up on luring me back, huh?"

Intense blue eyes warmed, looking into her eyes and deeper, into the bard's soul. "Because he can't win?"

"That's right," the smooth voice burred. "I should've realized that when I started beating myself up over that damned mask. Ares can't win. Alti can't win. No one, my bard, who tries to come between you and me, can ever win."

"Promise me something, Xena?" Gentle hands were lowering her further down onto the mattress.

"Anything." The warrior snuggled up against her on her left side and she reached out with her right hand, dousing the candle.

"Try to remember that next time you start beating yourself up." She tucked the dark head against her shoulder and kissed it.

"I'll try." A warm hand made comforting circles against her back. "Gabrielle?"

"Hmmm?" She kissed her head again.

"Didn't it bother you, that I had to tie you to an altar just like the one in Dahak's temple? I hated having to do that."

"You know, I didn't even think about that. Well, I thought about it when I first saw the altar," she amended. "But when you carried me over there, it just didn't get to me at all."

"Really?" The warrior was intrigued. "Why not?"

"You were there with me this time, Xena." Her voice was strong and certain. "I didn't have to face it alone. It couldn't hurt me with you there."

Just like that. The warrior tossed a mental hand into the air. "Hope I'm always there for you, Gabrielle. From now on." She allowed waves of sleepiness to finally claim her. This was peace. It wasn't often that Gabrielle was the one who held her while she slept, but she secretly craved it from time to time. A quiet sigh escaped her lips, her partner's soft warm skin and her distinct sweet scent a healing balm to fresh emotional wounds. She fell asleep to Gabrielle's low melodic humming, floating away on a sea of utter contentment.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The cloaked figure slipped inside the inn door, looking around surreptitiously at the dining room occupants. Hidden eyes flicked from face to face, dismissing each one until they landed on the two women by the fireplace, and the traders who were shamelessly flirting with them. Mortals. Silently, he made his way to the table and stood at the end, waiting patiently until one of the women looked up. Rain dripped from the well-oiled material of the cloak, forming a puddle at his feet.

"Can I help ya?" Morrigan's eyes danced with amusement, twinkling at a halfway-humorous story one of the traders had just related, involving a beehive, a bear, and two curious centaurs.

Slowly, the figure pushed back his hood, revealing his bearded features and icy gray eyes.

Odin. All traces of good humor vanished from the druid's fair face. "Excuse me, gentlemen, my friend and I here have some business with this man. Go on back to your tables."

"Awwww." A drunken trader leaned in, his mead-saturated breath washing over her unpleasantly, causing her to scoot reflexively backward. Bleary eyes begged to be allowed to stay, and grudgingly, she pushed him off the bench.

"Go on with ye, now. We'll talk to ya after were done." She gave him another gentle shove, and he stumbled to a far bench near the bar, joining his companions who had already vacated the table.

"Surely you ladies can do better than that mangy lot." The Norse god took a seat across from them, ceremoniously sweeping the ends of his cloak out of the way.

"Surely, that's none o' your business." Morrigan's expression hardened and she took a long sip of her mead.

"I'm not here to speak with you two." Odin accepted an unordered mug of mead from the barmaid. "I came to talk to Xena."

"Xena and Gabrielle have retired for the evening." Kallerine's chin jutted out defiantly.

"I don't care." Odin's voice was a low even growl. "Get her."

The slayer drew a dagger in a non-threatening manner, casually picking at her fingernails as she spoke. "My job is to protect the queen and her consort. I'll not bother them after the ordeal we've just been through."

"You'll do as I ask," he bellowed, slamming the flat of his hand down on the rough wooden table, causing her to physically jump out of her seat, her dagger clattering to the smooth worn floor.

"Fine," Kallerine huffed, retrieving the weapon and rising from the bench, then disappeared into the hallway. "He can yell at me like that, but I'd like to see him yell at Xena," she muttered under her breath.

"That wasna very nice of ya." Morrigan eyed him with feigned disinterest.

"I'm a god." Odin's moustache twitched in agitation. "I don't have to be nice."

"Ya don't have to be." The druid propped one foot up against the table trestle, leaning back against the wall, her blue and gray plaid sash draping casually across her lap. "But it won't get ya very far wit' Xena if ya don't be."

"I especially don't have to be nice to the destroyer of nations." He smiled sarcastically. "I owe her nothing. She, however, owes me a debt I doubt she can ever repay."

"Ya might try a little forgiveness, Odin." Morrigan drained her mug and signaled for another. "Xena may not be able to make right whatever it is ya have a bug wit' her over, but she has changed. Trust me, she's a much better ally than I suspect she is an enemy. Leastwise, I surely wouldna want to be on 'er bad side."

"I forgive no one." He glared at her menacingly. "I could crush her right now if I wanted to."

"I doubt that," a low steady voice sounded from behind him.

He spun around, to find a seething bard staring him down, her arms crossed angrily over her chest. To say Gabrielle was miffed was putting it mildly. She'd left Kallerine to guard her sleeping partner, while she rose from her warm bed to deal with the Norse god on Xena's behalf.

"I don't have to answer to you." He stood, towering over her.

"Yes " she poked him in the chest. "You " another poke. "Do." Yet another poke, Gabrielle rising on her toes, her jaw clenched as she did her best to get at eye level with him. "I don't take orders, and neither does Xena."

"And who are you, again?" Odin did his best to hide an amused smirk. This little wisp of a girl thinks she can push around the king of the Norse gods? He was at once agitated and intrigued.

"I'm Gabrielle, Queen of the Greek Amazons, champion bard of Athens Academy, and betrothed to Xena of Amphipolis." She watched with satisfaction, as he sat down. "And you will show me and my partner respect."

"As you wish, your highness." The smirk finally won. "I'd be glad to show Xena some respect. Where is she?"

"Asleep." Gabrielle sat down across the table from him, leaning forward on her forearms. "And injured. And maybe coming down with the grippe. I thought I'd come see what the emergency is before I disturb her. If there is one, that is."

"She and I have unfinished business." He studied green eyes at close range, tiny golden flecks dancing in the fiery depths. "You heard her say so herself. I wanted to make sure we talk before she leaves."

"You can wait until tomorrow, after she's rested. We won't be leaving for another day." The bard relaxed, just a little, absently smoothing the front of a hastily donned tunic.

"I have some questions for her," Odin pushed, allowing the fire to rise in his own eyes.

"And I for you." Gabrielle smiled disarmingly. You can't intimidate me, Odin. I've met a lot scarier gods than you, under a lot worse circumstances. Her eyes darted sideways toward the other patrons, realizing that most of them were either openly observing them, or pretending to do other things, while watching them.

Two white eyebrows rose in surprise at her brazenness. "I'm a god, he spluttered. No one questions a god."

"Boy, have you been sheltered." The bard shook her head in mock admonishment. "You should get out of Valhalla more often, Odin. Xena, and I, and a whole lot of other people we no longer blindly follow anyone, least of all gods who have nothing better to do than sit up in their lofty heights away from the people they're supposed to be worshipped by."

"Do you talk to Zeus like this?" He sat back, deciding he liked the feisty blonde, despite her lack of reverence.

"Zeus?" Gabrielle's eyes rolled upward in thought. "I've only seen him once, when he stepped in to intervene on behalf of Hercules, when Ares was attacking him. Zeus was almost too late. I wasn't much impressed with him. He almost let his son die while his other son beat the stuffing out of him. I don't have much use for gods who can help people, but choose not to." She gazed at him pointedly.

"We don't have to help anyone," he countered.

"And what about when you promise to help, and then break that promise?" The bard felt her ire rising again. "Like say, when you agreed to hold Xena's chakram for safe-keeping, and somehow it ended up in Alti's hands?"

"I don't know how that happened." Odin found himself in the rare position of truly having to defend himself. "I meant to hold onto it. I took it to Valhalla and placed it in a safe place in my own halls. I was sitting in the same chamber with it, when I watched it rise up and disappear before my very eyes. I thought it was some spell Xena herself might have cast on it. She is skilled in the ways of the shamaness, isn't she?"

Alti. One puzzle piece fell into place. "Yes. She is." The bard backed down. "But no, she didn't cast any spell on it. Xena doesn't break her promises. When she left it with you as a sign of her own good faith, she meant to honor it."

"Xena?" Odin laughed heartily. "Honor? Since when?"

"Since she met Hercules," Morrigan jumped in. "And Gabrielle," she hastily amended. "She and I are livin' proof that people can change, Odin. Ya must have heard o' me. I sent more than ma share o' souls to the underworld before I became a druid."

"Ah, Morrigan. Yes, I've heard more than my share of stories about you. How you ripped the hearts from men's chests. How you slaughtered men, women, and children indiscriminately. Pity you've got a daughter in your charge. What will she think, when she's older, and hears of her mother's exploits?" He knew he'd touched a nerve at her very core, by the flush that crept up her neck, rising to her hairline, her fists clenching and unclenching unconsciously at her sides.

"I only hope she'll be able to forgive me." The druid blinked sadly. "Tell me, Odin. Do ya know for certain that Bridgid made it safely out of Eire? I thought I'd be havin' ta wait until I return to ma village, but it would ease my mind ever so much if ya could tell me now."

"Oh. Now you want favors from me." He drummed his fingers on the table, glad to finally have some inroad toward control of the situation. Between Morrigan's stubbornness and Gabrielle's outright anger, he'd felt slightly less than immortal. "Very well. I'm feeling more generous than usual this evening. Bridgid and your two friends are at this very moment on a boat to Greece. They're fine. Your other two Amazon friends are still at your hut. I believe they're anxious for your group to return."

"You're sure?" Morrigan's voice wavered uncertainly.

"Yes. I'm sure!" he responded, a little louder than necessary.

"Thank you." The druid's demeanor visibly changed, worry lines immediately softening on her forehead, and the tenseness draining from her shoulders.

"Yes. Thank you." Gabrielle stood. "Now if you'll excuse me, I need to get back to Xena. I promise, she'll still be around tomorrow. She said she wants to talk to you as well. Good night." She nodded, then sauntered into the hallway and out of sight.

"Now she tells me." Odin slapped his forehead. "I'll be back tomorrow." He rose, twitching his cloak into place and drawing the hood over his head. He briefly considered simply disappearing on the spot, then thought better of it, leaving the inn as a normal person would, so as not to draw attention to himself.

"Good night to you too," Morrigan called out sarcastically, after he was gone. Her earlier admirers were strung out along the bar, a couple of them downing yet more mead, and one passed out on his barstool, his head resting on his arm. The trip to the underworld suddenly caught up with her, and she realized she was as weary as she'd ever been. Time fer bed, I'm thinkin'. She laid some coins down on the table and went in search of Kallerine and their room.

Back in her own room, Gabrielle dismissed Kallerine and slipped back under the warm covers. Xena immediately snuggled up to her, nuzzling her neck in absent pleasure. She mumbled incoherently in her sleep, and the bard wrapped her arms loosely around the long body. A noise resembling a mewl escaped the warrior's lips, and Gabrielle stifled a laugh. Oh, Xena. If the Amazons ever heard that, I'm afraid you'd never regain your 'I'm the baddest warrior around' reputation. Outside, the thunder rolled, and the rain continued to batter the thick thatch. Perfect sleeping weather. The bard smiled and kissed the dark head, then joined her partner in much-needed slumber.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Gabrielle stretched, as much as she could with Xena sprawled across her. The warrior's head was resting contentedly on her chest, one arm slung protectively across her middle. The bard turned her head, searching for any sign of light coming in through the cracks around the window shutters. Her body told her it was morning, but her ears told her the rain was still falling steady and hard. She could hear it, pattering in puddles and trickling through the mud in streams against the inn wall . Her nose twitched and she smiled, inhaling the rich scent of eggs and ham. Her stomach growled in response. So it was morning.

Her hand was splayed across the soft skin of Xena's bare back and she felt a long intake of breath, then felt eyelashes tickling her collar bone as the warrior blinked awake. Her fingers began an idle kneading at the base of Xena's neck, and she received a groan of approval, along with a gentle nip to her cleavage in response.

Xena looked up and grinned sleepily, her voice an octave lower than normal from disuse. "Mornin'." She scooted higher, lifting partway up and resting her head on an upraised hand, the other one tugging playfully at the bard's sleep shirt collar.

"Morning." Gabrielle smiled back, watching its reflection broaden on her partner's face, silver-blue orbs twinkling back at her. Xena looked happy rested and the obvious love on her face warmed the bard all over.

"Thought you were naked when we went to sleep." Xena pulled the sleep shirt neckline aside and kissed the upper swell of an inviting breast. "What happened? Did you get cold?"

"Nope. I " Gabrielle was cut short by a pair of inquisitive lips, which thoroughly explored her own for several long moments. She felt both their breathing pick up, along with the pounding of her heart, as she enthusiastically returned her partner's affections. "Thought you were hurt." She patted a bare stomach.

"I am." The warrior was careful to keep her weight on her good right arm, using the fingertips of her left hand to good effect, slipping them under the soft shirt and teasing sensitive skin, feeling taut stomach muscles flutter at her touch. She smiled and moved higher.

"Erffpph." The bard gurgled, her eyes closing in pure reaction to the tingles running up and down her body. She felt the shirt coming up and rose off the pillow, high enough to allow her partner to remove it. With a flick of a wrist it hit the far wall and fluttered to the floor. "About the shirt "

"Yesssssss?" Warm lips nibbled up her midline, then nipped along the underside of each breast, Xena's hips grinding suggestively against her own.

"I kind of had to go downstairs for a little while. Mmmppph " Her body arched up as the warrior closed in on an aching nipple.

"Why?" The warrior moved from one breast to the other, raising a coy eyebrow in the process.

"Had to have a chat with oh gods Odin." Long fingers danced up her inner thigh, and she fought to remain coherent, the tingles morphing into a decided throbbing sensation that craved more of the fiery touches. "You're supposed to meet with him this morning."

"Odin?" Xena paused and looked up, cocking her head to one side. "The same Odin who managed to lose my chakram to Alti?"

"That would be the one." Gabrielle reached up, tangling her fingers in the long dark hair, urging her partner down for a kiss. She took her time at it, then finally came up for air. "Wasn't exactly his fault oohhh " The fingers resumed their stroking, moving to her other leg.

"Don't care." The warrior reached wet silky warmth, and ducked her head again, kissing the bard ravenously as she continued teasing her, feeling the compact body sliding against her own bare skin as they established a primal rhythm. "I have a spontaneous date for some horizontal dancing first. He's just gonna have to wait."

"Mmmm " Gabrielle felt herself entered, and slipped one thigh between the warrior's legs feeling them close around it, along with ample evidence of Xena's own passion. She had just enough presence of mind to be overwhelmed, not for the first time, at the knowledge that the warrior's very physical reaction was to her. It was heady. "Yeah wait."

"Wait?" The warrior chuckled.

"Not you " the bard whimpered. "Odin."

"Just checking." She continued with her attentions, reveling in her partner's reactions. Gabrielle had proven to be a very passionate lover, her quiet sighs and not so quiet cries during their love-making becoming some of the warrior's favorite sounds. "Feels so nice " She slid up the bard's rock-hard leg, ignoring a tugging sensation from her cracked ribs, as she curled over, finding the bard's lips again. "You feel so nice." Her fingers moved deeper, finding the spot that always took her partner over the top, gently stroking as she nibbled a tasty neck. "I love you, Gabrielle." She breathed softly into the bard's ear. "Love being with you " Another nibble. "Like this."

"Oh gods." Gabrielle was trembling, every muscle tensed in pleasure. "So close," she whispered. "Don't stop."

The warrior lowered herself, brushing her body against her partner's, her mouth seeking and finding full breasts again. She felt the change, as the bard arched against her one more time, then released, Gabrielle's body shaking in the warrior's arms, as the bard cried out softly. Xena rolled over, bringing the smaller body with her, careful that Gabrielle landed against her uninjured side. The bard's heart was hammering against her side, her breath hot and uneven, sending pleasant chills skittering across Xena's neck. "Shhhhh." She rubbed the heaving back, her fingers sliding against warm damp skin. "Breathe."

"That's " the bard gasped. "All I'm doing."

"Slowly." The warrior laughed lightly, then kissed her head. Gradually, she felt her partner's breathing return to normal, the bard's flat palm making characteristic circles against her belly, her tongue taking experimental licks of Xena's salty skin. "Mmmmm," Xena groaned softly, her fingers combing through short blonde hair. "That feels good."

"Yeah?" Gabrielle nibbled her way along a strong jaw line. "Good enough to keep going?"

"Oh, yeah," Xena's voice rumbled into a very pink ear, as she shifted, making room as her partner settled between her legs. Their lips met, as the bard's hand moved lower.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"Hey." The warrior gently patted a bare behind. "We should probably get up and go talk to Odin." A sated bard rolled over, stretching languidly, her body arching all the way down to her toes as her spine popped pleasantly into alignment.

"Don't wanna." She curled back into the long body, sliding one leg across Xena's upper thighs, pretending to pen her in place. She ran her toes up and down a smooth calf, grateful her partner kept them clean-shaven. She'd seen a few women warriors who didn't. "So nice and soft," she smiled, looking up hopefully into hooded blue eyes.

The warrior ran a single blunt nail down her back and across a butt cheek, tickling her on the back of her leg at the very top, one of her most sensitive spots.

"Yow!" Her hips automatically rose off the bed. "You're evil."

"Yes I am." Xena's eyes softened in unmasked affection. "And I'd love to be wicked with you all day long, but I'd like to get my chat with Odin out of the way, and make plans for tomorrow with Kallerine and Morrigan."

"Rats." Gabrielle pouted, the effect ruined by a low grumbling noise from her empty stomach.

"We missed breakfast, my bard." Her hand came to rest on the concave belly. "If we hurry, we might finish a bath before they quit serving lunch."

"Oh, all right." Gabrielle grudgingly sat up, her feet rebelling as they touched the cold floor. She padded gingerly across the rush-covered wood and retrieved a couple of towels from a shelf on the far wall.

Xena followed her, detouring to the fireplace and removing an iron cauldron of water from the coals. "Ouch." Pain shot through her stitched elbow and she quickly set the pot down.

"Xena." The bard made her way to her side. "Here. Let me help."

Together, they transferred the water into the small tub, then poured a second one. It wasn't big enough to share, so they took turns, whichever one was outside the tub taking up back-scrubbing and hair-washing duty. Drying off almost led to a trip back to the bed. Xena groaned in frustration, pressing her forehead against her partner's, her hands wandering freely over smooth clean-smelling skin. "Arrrgghhh."

"Argh?" Gabrielle questioned, her own hands running up and down a well-toned back.

"Yeah." She pecked a pair of tempting lips. "Argh. I wanna be home, with no problems to solve, and a whole week of rain."

"Careful what you wish for," the bard teased. "Remember the last time it rained for a week?"

"Ewww." Xena's nose wrinkled in memory. "Don't remind me."

The ground became completely saturated, and then it had flooded, the entire village sitting in ankle-deep water. Rugs and rushes in huts had mildewed, and the run-off from the hog pens had washed through the middle of the village, making its way into nearly every hut. It had taken a week for the water to drain off, another for the mud to dry, and yet another to thoroughly clean and air out everything, until finally, the stench of hog manure was gone.

After that, they had dug a system of drainage trenches throughout the village. Along with the trenches, they had built up sod walls at the base of all the livestock pens, in hopes of preventing a similar disaster. Their effectiveness had yet to be tested.

"Okay." She grinned rakishly. "I'll settle for a couple of days' rain and no interruptions from your Amazons."

"I like that idea." The bard moved to a rack where they had hung their leathers the night before. Her stomach gurgled again. "Let's get moving, stud. I smell fresh bread baking."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Xena's thoughts were scattered, as they made their way down the hallway. She forced herself to focus in on each injury, pleased beyond measure that in spite of the morning's activities, she still felt better than she had the night before. She preened imaginary feathers. I've still got it.

She wasn't in the mood to meet with Odin, or eat a meal, or The bard was walking in front of her, and blue eyes fastened on her partner's backside, taking in the ever-present rolling hitch of Gabrielle's hips as she moved. Yeah. That's what I'm in the mood for.

She mentally slapped herself. Come on, warrior. There are gods to deal with, and plans to make, and boats to catch. And Gabrielle looked back over her shoulder and smiled, a sexy little grin that wrinkled her nose and lit up her whole face. One green eye winked at her before the bard turned back around. And all she wanted to do was grab her partner, drag her back into their room, and have a repeat performance of the morning. Xena found herself hoping it rained for the rest of the day. And night. Gods. I'm pathetic.

She slipped up behind the bard, right before they reached the doorway to the main room, and snagged her, nibbling at the back of her neck for a long moment, while one hand reached down and ran under Gabrielle's long leather top, rubbing her belly suggestively.

"Xena." The bard turned in her embrace and found herself kissed soundly. "Mmmppphh." Her eyes fluttered open slowly. "What's gotten into you?" She felt a firm hand against her bottom, as Xena pulled her closer.

"You," the warrior purred into her ear. "Only a half candle mark ago, if I recall." She watched the ear turn bright red, and kissed it. "I rather enjoyed it, by the way."

"Oh you did, huh?" Gabrielle regained her composure, running her fingertips lightly across her partner's collarbone. "Maybe, if you're really good, we can do some more enjoyable things this afternoon."

"'Good'?" The warrior drew out the word, raising an eyebrow in the process. "I don't think so." She gave the bard one last kiss, then reluctantly released her, smoothing her hair and top before they entered the main room.

"Xena." Odin's voice sounded from across the room. He was seated at a corner table alone, a pint of ale in his hand, and two empty tankards shoved off to the side. "Glad to see some things haven't changed. You're apparently no more afraid of the gods than you were in Valhalla."

"I've never been afraid of the gods, Odin. You know that." She waited for Gabrielle to take a seat, then plopped down next to her, propping her leg across the corner of the tabletop and leaning back against the wall to relieve her ribs. Now that I know I'm half of one myself, maybe I should be afraid, she silently added. "Where are Morrigan and Kallerine?"

"Ah. I believe they both ate breakfast and then went back to sleep. I must say, your particular group of mortals is proving to be a slothful bunch." His lip curled in apparent distaste.

"We've just come from Greece in the dead of winter, hiked several days in waist-deep snow, fought your soldiers, and endured the mind-games and physical abuse of a psychotic freak, so you'll excuse us if we're a little exhausted. So." She leaned sideways, careful to keep her weight off her stitched elbow. "I kept my end of our bargain, but apparently Alti got my chakram from you."

"Err yes." Odin took a long gulp of ale. "Apparently so. It doesn't matter, Xena. You still owe me."

"I know that." Her voice was frustrated. "Not a day has gone by that I haven't thought about what I did in your lands. Fact is, I've thought and thought about how to make it right, and I've come up blank."

"After all this time?" Odin was almost amused. "Surely the crafty woman who tricked me into thinking she loved me and convinced one of my Rhine maidens to show her where the Rhinegold was kept, can come up with a plan. Especially after ten winters, Xena."

"I guess I can apologize for those things until I'm blue in the face, and it won't make any difference." She was suddenly weary, all traces of her earlier good mood gone. "That monster, the one you call Grindl, it's dangerous, even without the ring. With the ring combine the ring's power with Grindl's strength trying to fight it would be suicidal. And despite rumors to the contrary, I'm not ready to die, just yet. I finally found a reason to live." She squeezed Gabrielle's leg under the table. "No " Her eyes narrowed.

"I've been thinking, and I don't believe I owe you, at least not for the ring." She stood resolutely, crossing her arms and staring down at him. "You want your gold back. Before I took it, it was sitting in a cave under the Rhine River. It wasn't a threat to anyone then. I took it and I made it into a threat. I regret that. Right now, though, it's effectively locked up. Unless someone is foolhardy enough to enter Grindl's cage, the world is safe from the power of the Rhinegold. You're already a god, Odin. Why do you need the power of the ring, hmmm?"

Odin shifted uncomfortably under her scrutiny. "I don't owe you any explanation. It's mine. You took it. It belongs to me. I want it back."

"For what purpose?" She shook her head sadly. "No one should have that kind of power, Odin. Especially a god. You don't need it. It would only bring harm. Let it be. At least for now."

"I want my gold!" His voice rose and he pounded the table with one fist, causing several patrons to turn and stare.

"Acting like a petulant child isn't going to get you anywhere," the bard chastised him. "Especially with Xena."

"Go back to Valhalla, Odin." The warrior nodded toward the door. "Let me think about this some more. We have plenty of time. No need to endanger anyone by unlocking that cage and risking Grindl's escape. I promise you this. I will try to figure out a way. If I do, I'll be on the next boat to Valhalla. Until then, I plan to stay in my nice, relatively safe hut in the Amazon village, and continue building a life with the one person I plan to be with for eternity."

"We'll just see, Xena!" Odin's face was red with anger. "Don't think I'm so easily dismissed. You will make restitution with me, one way or the other." He flipped his cloak into place and stormed out of the inn, then vanished in a swirling cloud of sparkles.

The bard watched thoughtfully out the window until there was no trace of the Norse god left. "Nasty guy." She turned back and sat down, patting the bench next to her until Xena followed. "You're not going to tell him about Grinhilda?"

"It's cowardly, I know." The warrior looked down, steepling her fingers and studying them closely. "But that's the part I plan to ponder, moreso than simply how to get into the cage and get the ring back. I want to figure out how to restore Grinhilda to her normal self. Truthfully, Gabrielle, I don't want Odin's wrath over that. I figure until there's a way to fix it, there's no point in telling him. Grinhilda, she was already disenchanted with him, thanks to me. I think she intended to leave him anyway, just not in the manner that she did."

"Did he love her?" the bard gently prodded.

"I don't know. I think so." Sad blue eyes looked up at her. "If I had my druthers, I'd find a way to turn Grinhilda back into herself, and neutralize the power of the ring at the same time."

"If anyone can find a way, Xena, you can." Gabrielle leaned over, resting her head on a broad shoulder.

"Gabrielle, when that day comes, I might have to ask you to " Two fingers pressed against her lips, silencing her.

"I don't want to hear it." She felt the warrior kiss her fingers. "We'll talk about it, if and when the time comes. No sense in getting angry at each other over something that might never happen."

"True." Xena smiled at her, trying to shake an ill sense of foreboding.

"You want some lunch?" Gabrielle sniffed the air delicately, drawing in the scent of fresh bread and he spiciness of some sort of stew.

"Yeah." The warrior tickled her ribs. "And then some dessert."

"Dessert." Green eyes raked over the long body next to her. "I think a healthy portion of dessert just might be in order."

"And I have always loved the way you think." Xena pecked her quickly on the lips, then got up and went to the bar to place their order.

Outside, the rain continued to fall.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Two helpings of stew each, and a half loaf of bread later, warrior and bard were back in their room, their own brand of 'dessert' put on a back burner in deference to food-induced lethargy. Gabrielle sat at a table, carefully recording their adventures in the underworld in her scrolls, while Xena stared out the window, watching the rain fall.

It was a slow, steady, soaking rain, with no thunder or lightening, and no billowing clouds, but rather a solid flat gray covering overhead as far as the eye could see. There was no sign it would let up any time soon. The ground was completely saturated, and water was collecting in rivulets in the mud, which pooled and streamed together, and ran along the ground downhill with no particular outlet.

All the world seemed to be weeping, heavy drops weighing down newly budding spring leaves, and threatening to soak through the thatched roofs of the small village. A few sad-looking cows wandered by, their hooves covered in thick muck, and they mooed, as if seeking relief. She chuckled briefly as a scruffy cat scrambled from the barn to the back door of the inn, driven into the storm by apparent hunger. The small feline snatched up a morsel from a bowl on the uncovered back step, then scurried back into the barn, splashing through puddles in the process.

The weather matched her mood, Xena's entire posture slumped. She drew one leg up against herself and rested her chin on her upraised knee, pondering past events, many of which she had no way of changing, no matter how much she wished to. Her eyes wandered over to the bard, quietly studying the intent profile as Gabrielle's hand moved across fresh parchment.

Occasionally the bard would stop and look up, staring off into space, possibly ordering her thoughts. Her brows would scrunch up during these pauses, and at times the end of her metal quill made it into the corner of her mouth and she nibbled on it. A tiny smile played at the warrior's lips as she watched some revelation appear on Gabrielle's face, and the blonde head bent down once again as her hand flew diligently to record whatever ideas were floating through her mind. It was a brilliant mind, Xena reflected.

So often in public, her partner's thoughts and opinions got lost behind Xena's more forceful personality. It stung, the warrior knew, even though Gabrielle almost never complained when other people didn't pay attention to her. More than once the warrior had set people straight, gently asking them to listen to her partner. The bard wasn't one to beat her opinions into people, but was more prone to quietly and carefully prodding people, often succeeding in making them think her ideas were their own in the first place.

And sometimes blue eyes closed like today Gabrielle didn't need to say much of anything at all. 'You're not going to tell him about Grinhilda?' Soft-spoken words that stabbed nonetheless. I never had a conscience before. Damned if I didn't go and fall in love with all I would ever need to keep me honest.

As if reading her thoughts, Gabrielle looked over at her and frowned, then set her writing aside and rose up, walking over and standing next to her, idly playing with her hair. "What's going on in there?" The bard tapped her on the back of her head.

"You think I'm wrong, don't you?" Xena rested her head against the bard's hip.

"Wrong?" Gabrielle pursed her lips. "I don't often think you're wrong, honey. Do you and I go about things in completely different ways? Oh, yeah. Most definitely. But I've come to learn that usually, if I give you a chance to explain yourself, the reasons you do or say things, they make sense, at least for you. Can you help me out here? 'Wrong' about what?"

"Not telling Odin about Grinhilda being Grindl."

"Oh." Gabrielle searched for her answer. "Yes. I guess I do. I understand about not wanting to make Odin angry, and I understand that you don't know how to fix it. But it just doesn't seem right for no one to know what happened to her. For Odin to think she ran away or vanished. It seems like her memory should be honored. I mean, that is, if she was an honorable person. Was she?"

"Yes." Xena drew her partner down into her lap. "She was the best part of Valhalla. Her intentions were pure and without selfish motive. She kept Odin in line, that's for sure. Gods know I did everything in my power to try to corrupt him. I think she was just about ready to give up on both of us as lost causes, which might give you an idea of how far I had sunk. I don't think Grinhilda gave up on anyone, or anything, easily."

"Gabrielle, when I look back on who I was then, I'm ashamed. Possibly more ashamed than I am of almost anything else I've done." She felt the bard stroking her head, and continued. "I became what I loathed most. I did to Odin exactly what Caesar did to me. I led Odin to believe I loved him and then I betrayed him. There must be a lot of good in Odin, despite his gruff exterior. He's a god. I can tell you that if I had had the power of the gods when Caesar first betrayed me, he would have died right there on the spot."

"You make it sound like you were the only evil person in Valhalla." Gabrielle smiled sadly.

"I was." Xena sighed heavily. "Least as far as I could tell. Valhalla was a relatively peaceful place until I did my best to bring it down. Thank the gods I didn't succeed."

"I can't tell you what to do, honey." She hated seeing Xena torture herself. It seemed to be happening more and more frequently, and it occurred to Gabrielle that as Xena moved closer to the center, to her, that the warrior seemed to be thinking things through in a lot more detail than she had in the past. Not that Xena wasn't intelligent. She was. But the Xena she first met seemed intent solely on doing good, as if to balance the scales against her past. This Xena, the one who had come a very long way in the five years they had been together, this Xena seemed to frequently reflect not just on what she had done in the past, or how to fix it, but why she had done certain things, as if trying to understand who she was.

"I know you can't" Long finger rifled through short blonde locks. "I'm not asking you too. I guess I'm just asking you to give me the benefit of the doubt here. Give me a chance to figure it out some more, even if it means I don't tell Odin about Grinhilda just yet."

"Xena." The bard wrapped her arms loosely around her partner's waist, mindful of the cracked ribs. "You don't even have to ask. If you decided to never tell Odin, I wouldn't love you, or respect you, any less. You're my friend. Part of being friends means not judging each other."

"Thank you." The warrior finally smiled, pressing her forehead against Gabrielle's. "Gods I love you."

"Likewise." The bard snuggled up closer, joining her partner in her silent vigil at the window.

To be continued in Chapter 10


Return to Main Page