The warrior chuckled, and glanced up with a nod as the server replaced the plate Gabrielle had stolen from her with a friendly grin. "Thanks. " She turned to Ephiny. "They’re waiting for me to pull your arm off and start beating you to death with it."

Ephiny chewed this over for a minute, along with a piece of spicy sausage from her own plate. "Really?" She mumbled around the mouthful, not at all worried over the prospect.

Xena pulled her plate closer, and took a large forkful of its contents. She chewed and swallowed, with a contented smile before she answered. "Yep, really."

The Amazon ate for a few minutes in silence, then: "Have you ever done that?" She took a sip of her ale.

The dark haired woman raised an eyebrow at her. "No." Then she darted a glance at the still watching duo. "Why would I? Be easier just to use a table leg or something."

"Xena… cut that out." Gabrielle muttered, giving her a little slap in the leg under the table. "You’re making me lose my appetite."

"Never." Both Xena and Ephiny answered in concert, then glanced at each other and chuckled, earning them both a withering stare from the bard.

Ephiny took another careful sip, and returned her attention to her plate, still smiling. "You sure you don’t want.. "Her mind searched for a politically correct way of saying this. "Some company on the road? I know the girls would love some fresh air."

"Nope." Xena replied, and Gabrielle shook her head in agreement. "I’d like to know this place is safe while I’m gone.. I think I can.. " Her lips twitched. "Take care of any problems we might run into." She ate quietly for a minute, then looked up, her brow creasing. "What’s going on with you guys, anyway? First mom, then you… Gabrielle and I traveled around for two years and no one worried.. why worry now? "

Ephiny studied her plate, then glanced up with a sheepish grin. "Good point.. I don’t know.. maybe it’s because we were so used to just seeing you both on the road all the time.. it seemed normal. Now.. " She raised a hand and indicated the room. "This seems normal, and you guys going off into the weather, into an area we know has raiders in it.. I don’t know." She shook her head. "Just being silly, I think."

Xena chuckled, and shook her head, then continued eating. Well.. she mused quietly to herself. That’s not a bad thing.. really.. to have folks start looking at me as something other than.. what I was. She noticed Gabrielle watching her out of the corner of her eye, and turned her glance towards her partner. "Hey." Her lips twitched in amusement. "Enjoy dinner?"

That got an impish grin from the bard. "Sure did.. I think this is becoming my favorite, too." She leaned back and folded her arms across her stomach. "I’m stuffed." She sighed. "I got stuff packed up, and ready to go tomorrow." Her eyes glinted softly, and her voice dropped to a low murmur, which she knew Xena’s hearing would pick up. "I can’t wait."

That got a sly look from amused blue eyes. "Oh really?" Xena teased, then let her hand rest on Gabrielle’s knee and gave it a squeeze. "Sokay.. me either."

Ephiny bit off a grin watching them, as she leaned cautiously back and surveyed the room. No one but the newcomers were giving them a second glance, and she realized that Amphipolis, at least, had accepted the warrior and her bard and were comfortable with their presence. As she was, now, she mused, studying Xena’s relaxed form in the chair next to her. Gabrielle had been right.. she’d said: "She’s really nice, once you get to know her."

Once you did. The Amazon sighed. They’d viewed Xena as a slightly threatening, uneasily tolerated ally for so long.. no one had been willing to want to ‘get to know her.’ Except Gabrielle.. that stubborn, sometimes na´ve, mostly inexperienced village girl who had somehow decided she wanted to make this dark, sullen, usually angry woman into a friend.

And, against the odds, she had, and that friendship now allowed the rest of them to see the totally human side to someone a few of them had privately considered a heartless killing machine. Ephiny sighed. She was, as Gabrielle had told them, warm, and funny, and a good friend. The Amazon's eyes tracked to the bard, whose attention was focused on her partner. And a good teacher. They say love clouds your vision.. but.. in Gabrielle’s case, it seemed to have made hers crystal clear.

An elbow nudged her ribs. "Eph?"

"Huh?" The Amazon started. "Sorry.. guess I drifted off there for a minute." She returned her attention to Xena. "What were you saying?"

The warrior studied her. "What I’m saying now is I think it’s time for you to go to sleep." One eyebrow quirked. "What I said was would you keep an eye out for Herc and Iolaus? " She frowned. "I was expecting them before now.. hope they didn’t run into more trouble."

"Oh." Ephiny grinned. "Sure." Then her eyes shifted. "You know, those guys staring is starting to get on my nerves. How do you cope with it?"

Xena sighed. "Practice." She glanced up. "Hey.. want me to start choking you or something.. see if we can really give them something to stare at?"

Ephiny snorted. "Please, Xena.. haven’t you given Eponin enough of a fit already?" She looked over at the second table, where the Amazons were gathered, having a good time. "Look.. she’s eating.. you’ll make her swallow her tongue." She saw the devilish glint in Xena’s blue eyes and groaned inwardly. "Xena…. Don’t you dare." She pleaded, appealing to Gabrielle with a frantic look.

"Hey." The bard giggled, tugging her partner’s arm. "C’mon.. cut it out… you’ll start a riot."

With an aggrieved sigh, Xena settled back in her chair, and lifted her ale to her lips, taking a long swallow. She waited for Ephiny to relax in relief, then suddenly surged towards the Amazon, making her jump with a yelp.

"Just kidding." The warrior chuckled, as she settled back against the chair.

Ephiny tapped her fingers on the table, and regarded Gabrielle thoughtfully. "And you have to put up with this?" Gods.. she’s like a kid sometimes. "My respect for you just jumped up a cliff, Gabrielle."

The bard laughed gently. "Oh yeah." She spared the mock-insulted Xena an affectionate look. "But I like it."

Ephiny shook her head, and hid a smile. "Whatever."

Leese grabbed Mikae’s arm. "Did you see that? She almost attacked that other woman. I’m telling you, this is very dangerous, Mikae."

Her husband chewed his lip. "Well, this is the safest place until this weather’s over, Leese.. and no one else here seems scared of her."

"I’m worried about our sons." The woman hissed, then her eyes widened. "Look!"

The tall warrior had stood up, and was glaring down at the woman with curly blond hair, her posture one of quiet intimidation. The blond woman crossed her arms and lifted her chin, apparently defying the warrior.

The dark haired woman said something, then advanced towards her, arms spreading to either side.

With a yelp, the blond haired woman held a hand up, then stood, and backed off, moving towards the rear of the inn with a shake of her head.

"I told you." Leese whispered, looking around the expressions of benign amusement on the faces near them. "She’s got these people all snowed in. We’ve got to get out of here." She watched, shivering, as the warrior now turned her attention to the pretty young bard, and extended an imperious hand towards her. The bard reached up and took it, and was hauled to her feet, then released, and the warrior reached out and tousled her hair roughly. "How demeaning." She muttered, indignant. "And that poor young thing." The bard followed the warrior obediently out the door, and into the cold darkness outside.

"Gods.. did you have to threatened Ephiny." Gabrielle laughed, as she laced her fingers with Xena’s and walked alongside. "The look on her face."

Xena chuckled, and took a breath of the cold air, watching her exhalation mist before her eyes. "She needed rest, Gabrielle.. she’s as stubborn as.. "

"You." The bard supplied cheerfully, leaning into her and stifling a yawn.

"Well.. yeah. " Xena admitted with a grin. "Besides, she knows I’d actually do it.. I picked her up and carried her to bed right after we got back last time." Her brows quirked. "I figured a threat of repeat would get her moving.. .I don’t think she liked it too much when I did it the last time."

"Hmm….." Gabrielle mused, tucking her free hand into her tunic against the biting cold. "Not so sure about that. " She gave into a yawn this time, and blinked sleepily.

Xena stopped walking, and jerked them both to a halt. "Gabrielle, don’t start."

Green eyes surveyed her quietly. "I’m not.. but I think there’s something there." She resumed her walk, tucking her arm securely in Xena’s. "Which wouldn’t surprise me." She gave her partner a sly look. "You are pretty cute."

That got her a both eyebrows raised, blue eyes widened look, with a finger pointed at Xena’s own chest. "Me?" The warrior moved her hand and gently traced the outlines of Gabrielle’s face. "Oh no. my bard. YOU.. you, are cute." She touched the tip of her partner’s chilled nose. "I.. am not cute."

Gabrielle studied her closely, letting her eyes linger over the sharp planes of her face, and the disheveled dark hair whipping across her eyes. "Hmm. You’re right. " The bard murmured. "You’re not cute. You’re gorgeous." She sighed. "But you do some cute things." Now she tugged hard on Xena’s arm. "And you’re great for warming up poor freezing bards. C’mon."

They got back inside the cabin, and were greeted by a sleepy Ares, who yawned, and trotted over, lifting himself up and propping his big paws against Xena’s chest, struggling to reach her face with his tongue. "Ares.. cut that out." Xena laughed, grabbing his legs and pushing him back. He thought that was a great opportunity to play, and lunged forward, trying to jump up into her arms. Xena finally had to lift him up and cradle him, and let him clean her face before he was happy. "There." She sighed, letting him down. "Happy now?"

"Roo." The wolf answered, galloping over to where Gabrielle had collapsed on the bed, and attacking this much easier target.

"Augh." The bard yelped, trying to avoid a washing. Then she felt another, heavier body impact the bed, and she giggled. "That better not be Ares trying to nibble my ear." A deep chuckle answered her. "Gods.. I can’t move." She sighed. "I’m stuffed.. She watched Xena stretch out lazily next to her, and grinned. "Well.. maybe I can." A low mutter, as she grabbed onto Xena’s shirt, and pulled herself over on her side, snuggling up to her partner’s warm body with a contented sigh. "Mmm.. that feels really good."

"Yeah?" Xena asked, rubbing her back lightly in circles, watching the bard’s eyes close and feeling her body relax. "Hey.. " She started to protest, then fell silent as Gabrielle’s hands slipped softly under the fabric of her tunic, and began a gentle stroking. "Mmmm…… " She sighed, feeling a wave of sleepiness cascade over her. It was scary, sometimes, just how readily her body abandoned itself to Gabrielle’s touch, and she realized it was a sign of her total trust in the bard.. a trust she’d never allowed herself with any other person. It felt.. nice.

She slid a hand down her partner’s side, and unbuckled the snug belt on her tunic, feeling the bard snuggle closer and give a relieved sigh. Then she pulled the soft blankets up around them, and settled her other arm around Gabrielle, letting her fingers gently drift over the bard’s body under her now loosened clothing.

A glance down showed her a grin tugging at Gabrielle’s lips, and she replied in kind, letting the warmth of their connection invade her completely, and closing her eyes in sleep.

The next morning dawned clear, but cold, and they slipped out of town before most of the village was, as Gabrielle put it, awake and fussing. She hefted her staff happily, as she felt the hard packed dirt of the village road give way to the softer earth of the quiet, tree-lined path Xena had chosen. "Nice morning." She took a deep breath of the cold, frost tinged air, grinning when she felt not a twinge of pain from her ribs. "Good day for walking."

Xena strode along beside her, with a faint smile on her face, and looked around. "Yeah, it is." She agreed, as the sun’s first rays began to filter through the branches, sending rosy hued slivers across Gabrielle’s face. "You let me know if you get tired, right?"

The bard arched a brow at her. "Maybe." She sniffed, then broke down and grinned. "C’mon, Xena.. you always know before I can tell you."

The warrior snorted lightly. "That’s not the point." She glanced up and spotted something, then grinned and took two long steps, jumping off after the second and snagging a cluster of nuts over her head, removing them from their branch and landing lightly. She stripped the hard nuts off the branch, and settled a few of them in her palm, closing her hand and flexing the muscles of her forearm.

Gabrielle heard the muted crunch, then watched, amused, as her partner opened her hand and presented the contents.

"Want some?" Xena asked casually, with a faint, twitching grin.

The bard eyed the nuts, then delicately picked out a few of the nutmeats, and popped them in her mouth. "Showoff." She accused, chewing and swallowing. "Mmm. " She snagged another few. "On the other hand, we gotta make sure those fingers of yours stay strong, right?"

Breakfasts were usually like this, when they were out on the road. A cup of hot tea to start.. or maybe a piece of smoked meat, then they’d break camp and start moving, depending on Xena’s foraging ability to start the day with. Sometimes it was nuts, like now. Sometimes, and especially in summer, it was ripe berries, or occasionally mushrooms. Nothing like at the inn, where the hard working villagers started their morning with a substantial meal, and Gabrielle had sometimes found that too much. She’d discovered she really preferred their trail mix, as she called it, and was now enjoying the familiar tastes.

They traveled downslope, towards the river, keeping in the quiet forest belt that went alongside the water. They could smell the river long before they saw it, the wind was coming that way, and the moisture on the draft was distinctive. Eventually, the path rounded it’s way alongside, and by now the sun was full up, and sending shafts of bright sunlight down through the leaves, dappling them both in a cascade of warmth and coldness, as they walked in and out of the shadows. Ares trotted in and out of the trees, examining everything with a still puppyish eagerness, his almost full-grown size bowing to youth with a fumbling grace. He disappeared into the brush, then came rushing back, whining and whisking his tail rapidly.

"What’s up, boy?" Xena asked, moving towards him. The wolf turned and ran back, and she followed him, with Gabrielle right behind, until they came to a small clearing, and a trap.

With a rabbit in it, a heavy pelted brown animal, whose leg was trapped firmly, and who, by the leaf disarray around the device, had been there for some little time.

"Hmm." Xena drew her blade and advanced. "Not one of ours.. but it hasn’t been checked in a while. " She was about to dispatch the rabbit when she felt a quiet hand on her shoulder and looked up. "Yeah?"

Gabrielle’s mist green eyes were fastened on the underbrush, and now, as Xena focused on what the bard was looking at, she saw three tiny faces peering out at her.

Baby bunnies, with tiny twitching noses, and floppy ears.

"Oooo." Gabrielle cooed, her eyes gazing at Xena in pathetic appeal. "They’re so cute…"

Xena sighed, and laughed gently, gazing down at the mother rabbit with a wry look. "I think you just got lucky, my friend." She cut the rabbit loose from the snare, and examined its leg, wincing at the harsh damage. Pulling her kit from her pack, she set the bag down, as Gabrielle crept quietly across the clearing, making small, soothing noises at the baby bunnies. "Be careful." She warned the bard. "Rabbits are pretty strong."

Gabrielle gave her a look, then settled down next to the three kits, gently pushing aside the wiry foliage and exposing their small bodies. "Oh.. Xena.. they’re shivering.. they must be freezing." She put out a hesitant finger, and touched the first one, starting when it started, then touching it again, this time with all her fingertips and more confidence.

"More likely they’re being scared to death by a huge, funny smelling giant. " Xena answered wryly, carefully cleaning the rabbit’s leg, and wrapping a linen bandage around it. "Who’s poking them."

The bard looked up, indignant. "I’m not poking.. I’m petting. " Her eyes glinted. "I do know the difference." She carefully picked up one of the baby rabbits, and cuddled it against her chest, stroking its soft fur and making tiny clucking noises at it. The bunny twitched its nose at her, and sneezed, then began to sniff her tunic curiously.

Xena rolled her eyes, and sighed. "You stay here, Ares.. no sense in scaring the poor little thing worse." She finished her ministrations on the mother rabbit, and carefully let the animal free, watching her gather herself up, and test her mobility before hopping slowly, and somewhat unevenly towards Gabrielle.

The warrior sat back on her heels, and gazed across the clearing, as the sun slanted through the branches and caught the bard in a golden haze, burnishing the fiery highlights in her hair, and bringing out the vividness of her eyes when she glanced up. She murmured a few more things to the bunny, then set him down carefully next to his mother, who was sniffing her fabric covered thigh suspiciously. The bunny took exception to being returned to the cold ground, however, and immediately hopped back over, and fumbled its way back into her lap.

Gabrielle laughed softly, and stroked his ears, while the mother rabbit nuzzled the other two babies anxiously.

It was a beautiful picture. Xena thought, as she sat there in the shadows watching. And had never felt the gulf between who she was, and who Gabrielle was so vividly. It was a cold pain, that grabbed her chest, and brought her heart into her throat, making the shade she was sitting in seem glacial in it’s chill.

"Hey.. c’mere." The bard chuckled. "Come meet my new friend." The bunny nibbled at her tunic hem.

Xena looked down, at the leaf littered floor. "You.. don’t want me over there, Gabrielle. I’ll just scare him."

"Don’t be goofy. Animals love you." The bard responded, looking up, and studying her partner’s tense form. "Xena?" Her voice dropped a note. "Xena? Come over here.. please?" She watched as the warrior slowly stood, and walked over, crossing from shadow to sunlight in a single, dappled motion and crouching down next to her. "Hey.." she asked softly, raising a hand to brush Xena’s cheek. "What’s wrong?" She was fine a minute ago.. what in Hades…. "Hey.. talk to me, OK?"

Xena took a breath, and sat down next to the bard, leaning back against the tree and lacing her fingers together. "Sorry.. I just.. you made quite a picture sitting there with your rabbit."

"And.. this made you upset?" Gabrielle asked, her brow creasing in confusion.

"No.. " Xena sighed. "It just reminded me, again, of just how gentle, and sweet, and kind you really are." Of just how opposite we are. "I would have killed that rabbit."

"Oh." Gabrielle could see the pain in her eyes, could feel it.. through their connection. "But.. you wouldn’t have.. if you’d seen the babies."

"Gabrielle." Xena’s voice was tired. "I would never have thought to look."

"Well.. " The bard took a breath. "I mean, I wouldn’t have either. .Xena.. I just happened to be facing in the right direction and got lucky." She lifted her hands, with the bunny in them, and leaned over, putting the small creature between Xena’s interlaced fingers.

The baby rabbit sniffed it’s new nest cautiously, tickling Xena’s fingers with it’s whiskers, and pricking her hands with it’s tiny claws, before it decided it liked where it was, and settled down, twitching it’s nose, and closing it’s tiny brown eyes contentedly.

"Funny." Gabrielle breathed, her face smiling. "That’s exactly how I feel."

The sunlight bathed both of them, and sparkled off the single tear that made it’s slow, silent way down Xena’s face. Gabrielle leaned over and intercepted it with a kiss, then slid both arms around the warrior and felt the aching tension slowly begin to dissolve. She breathed in the warm scent of wool and leather, and armor, mixed with the subtle herbal smell from the dark hair which flowed over and around her. "I love you." She murmured, right into Xena’s ear.

Felt the her breathing catch and restart. "I love you too." Came the low answer, then Gabrielle felt the gentle pressure as her partner leaned her head against the bard’s. They sat quietly for a little while, watching the kit sleep, as the mother gathered her strength and started marshalling her other two babies. Xena finally lifted her hand, and returned the baby to its mother, who snuffled it anxiously, then herded the small family away.

Gabrielle wrapped her hands around her partner’s arm and leaned against her shoulder. "You all right?" She asked quietly, searching the still face above her.

Xena thought about that for a minute, then she turned her head and kissed the bard’s forehead. "Yeah.. I’m fine. Sorry.. I didn’t mean to.. "

"Shh." Gabrielle freed a hand and pressed her fingers to Xena’s lips. "It’s all right." She snuggled closer. "We all have our moments of doubt."

That got a smile back. " Keep reminding me, all right?"

"Deal." The bard confirmed. Then she poked Xena very gently in the ribs. "Hey.. got any more of those nuts?"

Nightfall found them in a protected dell, surrounded by tall, silent trees, and cut through by the gentle whistle of the wind as it would it's cold way down river. Xena had collected firewood, and made a good size fire, then bravely stripped off her boots and leggings, and, despite Gabrielle's heated protests, captured the bard two very fair size salmon, which she came wading out of the river with, one in each hand.

A raised, dark eyebrow, and the slightest tilt of her head, that had, forever, meant truce.. and Gabrielle felt her anger melt away, and an irrepressible grin forming on her lips. "You're lucky it was salmon." She informed her partner. "I wouldn't be so forgiving for perch, or trout." But it had felt good to be preparing the lovely pink fish the way she liked it.. and to smell it roasting over the fragrant oak Xena had collected.

It had felt even better to be settling down shoulder to shoulder with the warrior, there alone in the forest, with only the chuckling water, and the sighing wind for company, to eat the fresh caught fish.

To feel the heat of the fire on her legs, mixed with the cold breeze from the water, and hear no clatter of people, no footsteps.. only the soft rustlings of the night creatures, and the solitary hoots of a hunting owl.

To be able to slide her arms around Xena, and lay her head on the warrior's shoulder, and soak in the sweetness of their love for each other, with no witnesses except for the crickets, and what looked to Xena's excellent night vision to be a bat.

They lay on their bedrolls that night, staring up at a perfect, starry sky, in which Gabrielle could find any shape her mind could imagine. "No.. look.. really, Xena.. it's a rabbit." She pointed.

"A rabbit?" The warrior repeated, her voice rising. "Gabrielle, I think you're being influenced by your bunny pal."

"No. it's a rabbit." The bard insisted. "Look.. there are the ears. . see? And that's the little fluffy tail."

"Gabrielle, that does not look like a rabbit." Xena argued.

"What does it look like then?" Her partner challenged her. "C'mon, you've got an imagination, I know you do.. so ..??"

Xena sighed, and gazed upward. "It looks like…. " She tilted her head a little. "A goat."

"A WHAT???" The bard burst out. "Xena… " She rolled over and peered into the warrior's pale blue eyes. "Ok.. just checking…they still seem to be working." Then found herself not wanting to stop looking into them and had to force herself to roll back over, and put her head back down on Xena's shoulder. "A goat???"

"Sure." The warrior replied, imperturbably "Look.. there's the head.. see the beard? Then the body.. and there's the tail."

Gabrielle studied the pattern, then tilted her head much as Xena had, and studied it some more. "Sorry." She finally laughed. "Now I think it looks like a pig."

"A pig." Xena chuckled, looking up reflectively. "Ok.. I can settle on a pig."

The bard yawned, and snuggled closer, turning and sliding an arm across Xena's stomach, and giving her a squeeze. "A pig it is." She sighed. "Gods.. this is nice."

Xena's dark eyebrow quirked up. "Frosty cold, sleeping on the hard ground, in a ring of trees.. and you think this is nice?"

Gabrielle nodded. "Yes, I do." She took a deep breath of the oak-tinged air and smiled.

The warrior grinned. "Good. So do I."

One green eye opened and peered at her. "Thanks for catching the salmon.. they were great."

"I'm forgiven then?" Xena teased.

"Uh huh." The bard mumbled as she dropped into sleep.

Xena smiled quietly to herself, her eyes searching the stars as she gently stroked the bard's soft hair. "A rabbit?" She whispered to Ares, who was curled up against her right side.

"Arggrorooo." The wolf mumbled sleepily, gnawing on her fingers a little. She scratched him behind the ears absently. "Maybe." She decided, then swept her gaze around the campsite, and checked her sword and chakram, close by her hand before she allowed herself to join the sleeping bard.

Remembering the first time they'd played that game… in an open field far south here. It had been a light day, mostly just travelling, with no encounters, and no fights, and they'd already finished their chores by sunset.

It had been hot, though, and Gabrielle had suggested a dip in the nearby lake, which they'd done, going on a lot longer than they'd at first thought, with Xena being coaxed into an impromptu fishing lesson. And then Xena had casually commented that the bard's hard work seemed to be paying off.

And Gabrielle had asked her what she meant.

So she'd walked to a shallower part of the lake, tugging the bard along, until they were both half out of the water, and she'd turned Gabrielle towards the fading sunset and quietly pointed out the newly defined muscles shifting under the bard's tanned skin, biting off a grin at the puzzled, then comprehending look on the girl's face.

"I didn't even notice." Gabrielle had murmured, examining her arm thoughtfully. Then she'd looked up at Xena shyly. "Nothing like your league, though." Her green eyes bashfully skittering over Xena's powerful form.

Xena had chuckled a little. "I've had a ten year head start," She'd clapped a friendly hand on the bard's shoulder. "Besides, you don't really wanna look like a broken down ex warlord, right?"

Given the invitation, Gabrielle had indulged herself in a long look, then her eyes had jumped up to meet Xena's, with her thoughts fairly evident to the surprised warrior. "Oh.. I don't know, Xena… I kinda like.. the.. the way.. um.. I mean.. " The bard had paused, and blushed. "You look just fine to me."

That had, against all logic or reason, put Xena in a good mood, which had lasted through the night.. she'd even loosened up to the point of telling a few jokes to the bard, whose jaw had dropped in amazement, and who had gone scrambling for her scrolls to write the ditties down.

Finally they were lying down on their respective sides of the campfire, both looking up at the clear, well-defined stars overhead.

"Hey.. Xena?" Gabrielle had decided to push her luck.

"Yeah?" The warrior had replied, in a relaxed tone.

"Do you see that pattern of stars.. just to the right of the North Star?" The bard had asked.

"Yeah." Xena had looked at it idly, then glanced over, seeing the bard's profile through the licking flames. "What about it?"

"What do you think it looks like?" Gabrielle inquired.

Xena had rolled half onto her side, and peered at the bard. "What do you mean, what do I think it looks like? It looks like a bunch of stars, Gabrielle." But her smile had taken the sting out of the words, and she knew it.

"No.. no.. I mean.. " Gabrielle had pointed. "It makes a pattern.. right? So.. what does it look like to you?"

The warrior had rolled back over, and obediently gazed up at the cluster of lights, staring thoughtfully at it. "I don't know.. Gabrielle.. what do YOU think it looks like?"

"A sheep." The bard had immediately answered.

"Huh?" Xena had rolled onto her side, then stood up, and walked over to where the bard was lying, crouching down and resting her arms on her knees. "A sheep?"

"Yeah.. look." The bard had sat up, and pointed. "There's the head.. and the feet.. and that's the tail.. and look.. those little stars could be a lamb following it."

"A sheep." Xena had laughed softly. "Gabrielle.. you do have some kind of imagination." Then the warrior had looked up. "What about that one, there?"

Gabrielle had leaned over, to follow the line of Xena's arm, and ended up with her head resting against the warrior's shoulder. "Oh.. that's the horse." She said, hastily drawing back after she realized what she was doing.

Xena had affected not to notice at all. "A horse? No way.. " She sat down, and wrapped her arms around her knees. "Looks more like a chariot to me."

A swift glance to her left had caught the delighted smile on Gabrielle's face before the bard glanced down and took a breath.

It's just a kid's game. She'd told herself. Why am I bothering with this? I should just go back and go to sleep. But the vision of that smile kept flashing in her mind's eye, and she suddenly realized how lonely it must be for the young girl.. leaving all her friends, her family behind.. to travel around with a mostly uncommunicative, mostly rude, always grumpy ex warlord. So.. it couldn’t hurt me to play along for a few minutes right? Give the kid a break? "What about that one?"

It had gone on longer than she'd intended.. and incredibly, she'd been able to lose herself in the game for a while, realizing that there was probably not one pattern they'd both agree on. That was all right.. it made for interesting conversation, and it gave her a few insights into her young companion.

Finally Gabrielle had been barely able to keep her eyes open, and had to laughingly give up the star chase, looking up at Xena with warm, happy eyes. "Thanks." She'd said, giving the warrior a quiet smile. "That was fun."

Xena had patted her cheek gently, before getting up to go back to her bedroll. "Anytime, Gabrielle."

"Really?" The bard had asked, hesitantly.

The warrior had nodded. "Sure." And had shrugged lightly. "I like.. word games and stuff like that.. makes you use your mind."

Another warm smile "Wow.. I know a bunch of those." She'd paused, then glanced up at Xena. "Hey.. today was a pretty good day, huh?"

Xena had considered this statement. "Yeah.. you know, it was." She'd smiled at the girl. "Did you have a good time?" Gods.. she'd thought.. am I turning into a tour guide at the Parthenon now?

Gabrielle had slowly nodded. "Yeah.. I did." Her eyes had focused on something outside the campsite, and her face had gone pensive.

Oh Tartarus... I should take her home.. what in Hades am I doing keeping this kid out here? "Gabrielle.. is.. are you all right?" And I'm just so good at this too, right?

"Yeah.. yeah.. I'm fine. Sorry." The bard had shook her head a little. "I was just.. I mean.. a poem..umm.." She gave Xena a sheepish look. "Sorry." A hand on her arm, warming the skin. "Thanks."

Xena studied her for a minute, then just went with her instincts, which were usually pretty damn good. She reached out and gathered the bard in, pulling her close in an unexpected hug. It was the first time she'd ever done that.. though she'd tolerated the bard's hugs on occasion. And she really had no idea why she did it.. except that a little voice inside her was telling her the girl needed her to.

"W.. wh.. what was that for?" Gabrielle asked, after the brief contact.

"No reason." Xena had answered casually. "Night." Then she'd gotten up, and gone to her side of the fire, and laid down, folding her hands across her stomach, and looking up at the suddenly friendly stars.

Knowing if she turned her head, she'd meet mist green eyes watching her through the flames.

Xena smiled now, remembering, feeling the warmth of Gabrielle's breathing against her neck. Then her brow creased, as she calculated time. Yes.. it had been near harvest… fall, but still warm.. how many days from… oh gods.

"Oh Gabrielle.." She whispered, closing her eyes.

Felt a stirring against her, then looked down to see sleepy green eyes peering up at her. "Hey.." The bard said softly. "Did you call me?" She blinked to focus. "Something wrong?"

Xena stroked her hair gently. "No.. no.. it's ok." She paused. "I was just thinking about the first time we played the star game."

The bard smiled. "I remember that." A warm glow suffused her face. She looked up as a hand touched her chin.

"That was your birthday, wasn't it?" The warrior asked softly.

A bigger smile. "Yeah.." She squeezed Xena. "And.. it.. it was the best one I'd ever had till then."

"I wish I'd known." The warrior sighed.

Gabrielle shook her head. "No.. you… Xena, you gave me more that day.. I can't tell you how much. And it was all the more special because you didn't know. There wasn't any reason for you to.. do.. the stuff you did." She paused, and sighed happily. "You just did it."

The warrior sighed, and hugged her. "I still wish I'd known."

Gabrielle reached and tousled her hair. "Go to sleep." She yawned. "I didn't need any presents." She resettled her arm, and snuggled back into Xena's shoulder

No. Xena mused, as she let her eyes close again. You didn’t. But you got one, didn't you, my bard? Funny.. I'd never had a.. best.. friend before.

The next day dawned very clear, but Xena's weather sense told her it wouldn't stay that way. "Let's get as far as we can, then find shelter." She advised the bard, who was kneeling by her bag, pulling a woolen overtunic out of it.

Gabrielle turned and nodded. "Sounds good." She stood and stretched, then turned and smiled. "Hey.. I'm not sore at all."

The warrior crossed over to her, and picked up her own pack, with a grin. "Were you expecting to be?"

"Weeell…. " Gabrielle let out a rueful chuckle. "I haven't exactly been very active lately."

Xena slid her arms around the bard from behind, and kissed the top of her head. "Takes more than two weeks to ruin that much hard work, love."

"Yeah..I know.." The bard laughed. "But I was still kind of expecting to be stiff.. glad I'm not." She turned around and leaned against Xena's warm body. "But then.. unlike the Amazons, my teacher knows how to properly condition her student." An impish pause. "Right?"

One dark eyebrow curved up in amusement. "Right." She confirmed cheerfully. "How's the ribs?"

Gabrielle thought about that, and took several deep breaths. "Seems fine.. they didn't bother me at all yesterday."

"Good." Xena smiled. "Let's get moving then." She fastened the straps on her pack, and shifted the weight until it was comfortable, then started up the small slope and out of the dell they'd been sheltered in, and back onto the path.

As soon as they were within sight of the river, Xena paused, and examined the rapidly running water with a faint sense of unease. The wind brought the scent of water to her, lots of it, but it also brought down a bare whisper of drowned things, animals, and vegetation. The level of the river was very high, and even now, the edges of the banks were gently crumbling, and the rich, dark soil was sending dark streaks down stream.

She knelt by the surface, and trailed her fingers in it, pensively staring. Gabrielle crouched by her side, leaning on her staff and watching in silence.

"River's really high." Xena finally said, glancing at the bard, who nodded. "If we get much more rain, it's likely to go over it's banks." Her eyes lifted up. "And if I'm not mistaken, we're gonna get more rain."

Gabrielle chewed her lip. "Is Amphipolis in danger?"

Xena shook her head. "No." She glanced upstream. "We're high enough up off the floodplain to be safe.. she took a quick glance at Gabrielle and let her arm rest on the bard's knee. "So.'s Potadeia, by the way."

Got a warm smile in return. "Thanks." Gabrielle dropped a hand off her staff and wound her fingers around Xena's. "I'm glad you know this stuff." She paused. "So.. we have to be careful, right? Maybe move up to a different path?"

The warrior nodded, giving her hand a squeeze. "Yep." She stood, and pulled Gabrielle up with her. "C'mon.. there's a branch up further.. we can take this to that fork, then head upland a little. She gestured up towards the path. "Some caves.. not big ones, but enough for us to shelter in when the rain comes."

"Ooo.." Gabrielle chuckled. "Being rained in with you.. what a hardship."

Xena gave her a look. "Pity we don’t' have one of Ardwyn's scrolls with us." She teased gently.

The bard smirked. "Who says I don't?" She patted her bag, and chuckled.

Cyrene looked up as the door to the kitchen opened and raised an eyebrow. "Hello." She said, seeing Ephiny's blond head poke in.

"Hi." The Amazon gave her a brief grin. "Um… can I come in?"

"Sure." Cyrene stopped what she was doing, and wiped her hands. "What can I do for you?" She gestured towards the fire. "I have some soup here.."

Ephiny waved her hands, and entered the room, shutting the door behind her. "No no no.." She walked over, folding her arms over her chest. "Um… actually, is there anything I can do in here to help?"

The innkeepers eyebrows quirked. "Um.. well, shouldn't you be resting?" She studied the Amazon, who still looked pale and drawn.

The blond woman sighed. "Probably. But not doing anything is driving me crazy, and they won't let me go outside." She sauntered forward. "Believe me, I know how to peel and chop things.. I can even boil water in a pinch."

Cyrene smothered a grin. "Oh, I see." She glanced towards the door. "Well, sure.. " She motioned to the worktable, which had three chairs around it. "Siddown.. I was just about to chop up the vegetables for the stew."

Ephiny walked over and washed her hands, then took a seat at the table, selecting a thin knife from the small pile in the center of it and attacking a potato with some competence. "I do want to thank you for hosting us all here." She commented, glancing up at Cyrene over the pile of vegetables. "The Amazon Nation will make good on all the hospitality when we leave."

The innkeeper gave her a look. "It's been a pleasure." She paused, and the two women exchanged knowing looks. "Mostly." She sliced a carrot skillfully and dropped it into the pot of water. "I'm not sure the goat has recovered."

Ephiny laughed in embarrassment. "Sorry about that.. they're not usually that obnoxious."

Cyrene chuckled. "Don't worry about it.. they're amateurs compared to my kids."

The Amazon's eyebrows creased for a long minute before she realized just who Cyrene was talking about. Her kids. That required a brain adjustment.. thinking of Xena as a kid of any kind. Then she remembered the warrior's antics at the table, and winced. "Were they terrors?"

The dark haired woman pursed her lips. "You.. could say that." Her eyes found Ephiny's "Don't believe it, do you?"

"Oh.. well… " Ephiny laughed. "Before this whole thing happened, I'd have to say no… but since I've been around Xena for a couple of weeks now… " She grinned. "I've gotten to see another side of her."

Cyrene smirked. "She's a brat." She diced a potato in a few quick strokes and dumped it in the pot. "But I think Gabrielle is responsible for bringing that side of her out again."

The Amazon nodded. "I think so too." She paused, and looked at her hands. "I've.. known them for quite some time now.. it's been good to see things turn out right."

A small silence fell, until Cyrene finally glanced up. "You were there… during that whole thing when she died, weren't you?" There are questions.. I can't ask them.. maybe this woman knows.

Ephiny sighed. "Yes." She neatly removed an eye from the potato she was peeling with a flick of her knife. "We.. heard.. about what happened, and decided to try and intercept Gabrielle on her way.. well, we knew she was headed here." She paused. "For two reasons, at least on my part. For one.. because I thought Gabrielle could use some support.. I knew they were very close.. and Gabrielle is very young."

"Mm." Cyrene murmured in an encouraging tone.

"Second, because.. I was hoping that I.. that we could convince her to stay with us.. both to give her a.. well, a family, and to change a situation that I could see was going to do us all harm." The Amazon went on slowly. "I didn't… I was glad when she agreed.. to stay with us. I thought it would be the best thing for her.. and for us. At least she'd be with people who knew her.. and who knew Xena, and who could give her.. I don't know.. comfort, I guess."

"Was she very upset?" Cyrene asked gently, still working on the vegetables.

Ephiny's eyes misted over, and she sighed softly. "She was devastated." Her pale eyes glanced up at Cyrene's. "She had this.. lost.. aching look in her eyes that just made me hurt for her.. " The Amazon fiddled with the carrot in her hand. "She was ok during the day, you know Gabrielle, she hid it pretty well, and carried on.. we were a good distraction for her, I guess." She paused. "But at night… " Every night. " She cried herself to sleep.. I could hear her.. and she would hug that little wooden sheep she has."

Ephiny slowly shook her head. "And she had these nightmares… gods.. she'd wake up from them shaking.. not screaming, just whispering 'No..' over and over again." She sighed. "She wouldn't say what they were about.. but I knew. " She took a breath. "When Autolycus first showed up.. she just refused to let herself believe what he was saying.. because it just hurt too much, I think.. and then, when he took the coffin.."

"Did you believe he was.. speaking.. for my daughter?' Cyrene asked curiously.

Ephiny glanced off into the distance. "I didn't know what to believe. But when he rescued that coffin, whatever he did made Gabrielle believe - I saw it in her face.. it was like this .. light came back into her eyes.. and I remember hoping to Artemis that what he'd said was true, because I think if she'd found out it was some kind of hoax.. it would have.." She stopped and blinked. "It wouldn't have been good for her."

"Didn't you think that was very unusual.. what he said Xena was doing?" The innkeeper inquired, in a quiet tone.

Ephiny looked up, and gave her a wryly amused look. "When it comes to Xena.. nothing surprises me anymore. I expect the unusual." She shrugged. "That she had the strength of will to try it.. no.. that really didn't seem unusual.. I was kind of shocked that she could take over other bodies.. with the precision that she did.. but again, this is Xena we're talking about." She shrugged. "And the plan worked.. Gabrielle was able to get enough ambrosia and give it to her, and.. she came back."

"Amazing." Cyrene murmured. "I don’t really understand it.. Gabrielle told me.. when she died, it was almost like she was giving up. What made her change her mind?"

The Amazon gazed at the table, then looked up with a reluctant smile. "If I told you what I thought.. you'd think I was a hopeless softhearted fool. " She peeled the potato and chopped it neatly, then played with the knife a bit. "But I think she did it for Gabrielle."

"Really?" The innkeeper asked.

Ephiny nodded. "Yeah.. that night, after we all settled down, and were getting some rest finally, I did one last check of the campsite.. I wandered by where they were and saw Xena was still awake, so I just stopped by to see if things were ok." She smiled. "Seemed like it.. Gabrielle was sound sleep all kind of wrapped up in Xena's arms.. and her face was so peaceful.. Anyway, I knelt down and told her what had been going on at night with the kid.. " Ephiny sighed. "She said she'd known.. and that she couldn't let that keep going on." A shrug. "She never did give any other reason for doing it…not that it's something anyone questioned her too much on." She'd never mentioned that to anyone else… Amazons were a practical lot, for the most part, and the thought of someone who would defy death itself in the name of love.. it was so fairy tale like. So.. frivolous. She smiled quietly to herself. But isn't it what we all want to believe could happen to us?

"No..I suppose not." Cyrene sighed. "We heard.. the rumors. And then Gabrielle told me the whole story when they came by here after that whole thing with you all." She paused. "Thanks for filling in some of the details.. I don't like asking either of them much about it." She studied Ephiny's pensive face. So.. this was an Amazon. She mused. Didn't seem too different than anyone else. "How are you feeling?"

Ephiny shrugged, glad of the change of subject. "I'm all right… I still feel really washed out.. but it's getting better. "

They both looked up at a faint knock on the door. "Come in." Cyrene called, her brow creasing. "Who knocks in this place?" She muttered in an aside to Ephiny, who smothered a grin.

The door swung open, and revealed a tall, impossibly broad shouldered man with tawny hair and pale eyes. His gaze lit on Ephiny, and a spark of recognition flared.

"Hercules." Ephiny greeted him with a smile. "Xena said to keep an eye out for you." She motioned him in. "Cyrene, this is Hercules. " Her eyes went to the tall man's face. "Hercules, this is Cyrene, Xena's mother."

The pale eyes widened, and he stepped forward. "Um.. this is a pleasure." He smiled at Cyrene, who stood and took his offered forearm. "Hello, Ephiny.. I see you're feeling better."

The Amazon clasped his arm. "Thanks.. and I'm glad things worked out ok for you." Not that she had any details.. Xena had given a very brief synopsis, basically, been there, did that, it worked, end of story. And Gabrielle had refused to fill in any details - politely saying that it wasn't a story she wanted to relate.

"Uh.. thanks." Hercules nodded at her. An awkward silence fell. Cyrene decided to take charge.

"Xena told me you and your friend would be stopping by." The innkeeper assured him, walking around the table and laying a hand on his muscular arm. "She said to give you guys a room, feed you, and don’t ask any questions." Her eyes twinkled. "She and Gabrielle had to take a quick run to Potadeia.. they'll be back in a few days."

"Ah." Hercules looked relieved. "That's great… " Not ask any questions.. that sounds like her all right. "Was there trouble in Potadeia?"

Ephiny sliced the last vegetable and stood, sliding the pieces into the water. "No.. not really.. there's been a lot of brigand activity around here.. the weather and all.. Gabrielle was a little concerned about her family." She paused. "They live there.. so they decided to check things out.. and give them an escort back here for the ceremony."

Now Hercules looked a lot more comfortable. "Oh yeah.. Iolaus was telling me about some of the gangs he had to ride through on his way here." He crossed his arms on his chest. " We noticed the river was rising, too."

Cyrene nodded. "Yes - the scouts reported that this morning.. lucky we're on high ground here." She glanced out the glazed window. "Looks like we're going to get more rain.. I'd bet on the river coming out of it's banks." She gestured towards the door. "Let's go sit down and have some lunch, hmm? " She glanced back at Johan, who had just entered the kitchen via the back door, and was shaking the moisture off his cloak. "Johan.. did Xena talk to you about.."

The grizzled ex trader's eyes took in Hercules, and one corner of his mouth twitched up. "A room? Aye, she did." He ambled over and nodded at the demigod. "All ready.. last one, top of the stairs, right hand side."

Ephiny nodded. "I know where that is.. c'mon.. I'll show you.. "

Hercules followed her out, giving Cyrene a friendly nod. "Thanks."

Cyrene turned and looked at Johan in vague surprise. She opened her mouth to speak, but he forestalled her.

"Her request." He held up a hand, removing responsibility from himself.

"Really?'" Cyrene mumbled. "Hmm… what's she up to?"

Johan shrugged his burly shoulders. "Don't want to know, with that one." He shook his head. "It's a nice enough room."

"Oh.. " Cyrene chuckled. "I know that… " Then her thoughts turned speculatively to the Amazon who had just been helping her, and a thought occurred. She chuckled. "That scamp." Shaking her head, she picked up a tray of fresh bread and headed out into the main part of the inn.

Gabrielle settled back on her bedroll with a smile, letting her eyes roam around their snug little cave with something close to pleasure. Outside the opening, she could scarcely see the treeline due to the heavy curtain of rain, and the cold, damp wind brought in the smell of water, and bruised vegetation clearly.

But they had a cheerful fire going, and plenty of firewood stacked against the far wall, and she was snuggled inside her heavy cloak, so that was ok. A rumble of thunder rolled overhead, and she turned to find pale blue eyes gazing at her, in concerted memory. "C'mere." Gabrielle called softly, watching her partner as the warrior crossed the rocky floor, cloak swirling around her, and settled next to the bard on their double bedroll. I still like rainy days. She decided, as she snuggled into Xena's welcoming arms. "This is cozy." She commented, with a grin.

"Mmm.." Xena agreed, leaning back against the sloped wall, watching the rain come down. "Better than being out there, that's for sure." She rummaged in her pack and pulled out a small bundle, unwrapping it and offering it's contents to the bard. "Hungry?"

Gabrielle peeked at the items, and chuckled. "Mom strikes again." She picked up a nutball and munched on it. "I'm glad you took off the armor." She commented, leaning back with a sigh. "You're a lot more comfortable to use as a pillow without it." This with an impish look over her shoulder.

"Oh really?" Xena drawled. "I'll have to keep that in mind." She wound an arm around the bard's waist, and felt Gabrielle's fingers intertwine with her own. "Got that scroll?"

Gabrielle grinned. "Yep." She pulled her case over, and opened it one handed, digging around until her fingers closed on what she was looking for, and she drew it out. "Here we go.. " She fingered the roughly textured surface. "Wonder what this one will be about? " She mused idly, as Xena reached her other hand over and undid the fragile leather strip that held it closed. "That last one, about the two villages at war was really kind of interesting." She unrolled the top part of the scroll, and held it so Xena could see the dimly scribed words.

Xena started chuckling. "I think you'll like this one." She remarked wryly.

Hardly do I know how to set my hand to record this, as if Elevown knew I did so, her rage would sunder the earth from the sky. But I cannot help myself, as never before did I see my friend bested, and this by a simple cow, a beast no more thinking than this rock I balance myself against to write.

A fair had beckoned us, bringing my companion and I into one of the larger of the rough villages that surrounded the area we wandered. I was intrigued, and looked forward to spending a few of the coins I had on one or two luxuries, such as this primitive a place would have. The market was small, but a few booths had things to catch my interest, and Elevown left me at peace and went her way, armed with her fledging speech of these parts, and a few coins of her own.

Ah.. my eyes delighted on it - thick, colorful, well woven cloth, that sang of my homeland in it's patterns and weave. From far off, the trader said, not knowing half how true his words were. It was heavier by far than that these villagers were used to, so he was willing to let it go for a small price to me, and I laughed to myself as I stowed it away, thinking of the lovely, warm shirt it would make. Of how the rich blue, and bold red would stand out when matched with Elevown's fair hair, and light skin. And clothes.. those were a sober need - not frivolous, so I could give that with the knowledge that she would accept it, and perhaps even return a smile to me.

I wandered through the market, adding to my burden some soap, which smelled of summer herbs, and a packet of spices which, though native to this odd island, almost smelled like home to me. Well pleased was I with my day, until an angry shout raised my hairs, it's familiar ring calling my feet onward to a crowded square.

Taking gentle pushes, I make my way through, and stopped as my eyes drank in the sight before me. Oh Lady… twas a mud pit, churned to rough soup by the fitful steps of beast and man, and in the center was my companion, clutching a wee calf, whose eyes were agoggling, and whose tongue stuck out like a peacocks' tail as he brayed.

Elevown.. Lady, she was covered in the ill smelling muck from her boots to the top of her fair head, only her pale eyes making me recognize her. Facing her off was, I supposed, the calf's mother, a horned, great beast with wild eyes, whose back was higher than I am tall.

My ears took in the story.. the farmer who succored the cow challenged all who saw to get the baby away from it's wild mother.. and Elevown, a challenge there never was that she could turn from. Gotten the calf she had.. but now the beast had her penned in the corner, and with wagging tongue, and stamping hoof, was making to keep her there.

The cow made to charge, and I saw the desperate look in my friend's eyes, as her will battle with her pride, and as the huge beast lunged, she gathered herself, and tossed the calf, it's leg's splayed, it's tail straight up, into the arms of the farmer, knocking him over.

But the cow made for her anyway, and was upon her before she could stop it, knocking her down, and thrusting it's drooling snout into her chest.

I ran forward with my walking stick, and before the crowd could stop me, beat the animal about the rump, making it cry out and turn on me. But cows.. aye, cows are practically brothers of mine, so I yelled back into it's face, and got my fingers tight to it's nostrils, and it knew it's master well.

I had never seen Elevown so angry as I did when I looked to her, those eyes were colder than ice chips off my native coast, and her skin was pale as snow where it wasn't covered with muck. I knew I'd done a horrible thing.. to one of her kind, but.. what was I do have done? To let her be trampled by a beast.. that I couldn’t have borne. Better her anger at me.

She stormed off, and I saw her not the rest of that day, though the farmer gave me the price he'd offered, saying she had done the deed, and delivered him the calf, though by air wasn't what he'd expected.

Twas a lonely fire that night, as I huddled against a small log, listening to the world breathing around me. I was looking up at one spot in the tree's shadows, when, as a faiery might, she stepped from the darkness and into the firelight, her clothes and hair damp with water, her eyes dim, and quiet, and thoughtful. Mad, or no, I was glad to see her, and hoped she would loose her anger, and come sit by the fire in silence, as was her way.

Come and sit she did, but down on my very log, where I could feel the cool chill of her skin against mine, and scent the soft river water she'd bathed in. She touched my hand, and turned it over, making my breath still, as her fingers closed on mine, and her eyes stole into my soul.

"Teach me that nose grab?" Her voice was lightly hoarse, but calm, and now I could see the faint twinkle in her eye that warmed me through. I was forgiven, more, I was being thanked, in the cold, and offhand way that was hers. I gave her the farmer's price, but her fingers folded mine back over it, and patted my hand, and later that night, when the owls were courting, I found tucked in my blankets a tiger's eye, cunningly threaded on a silver chain. I smiled my way to the dreamlands that night.

I am Ardwyn, she is Elevown, of the Northlands.

Gabrielle giggled softly as Xena finished reading, her mind turning over the story in delight. She cast a quick, mischievous glance back at her partner. "She was worse than you are."

Xena snorted softly. "I would have punched the cow."

The bard broke into laughter. "Oh gods.." She gasped. "You would have." She conjured up the vivid mental picture of an ornery Xena facing off against the hapless cow. "Damn.. that was funny. " She paused. "And sweet, at the end." She closed her eyes as she felt Xena's breath softly tickling her ear. "I wonder if they… " She paused. "Nah.. she probably didn't write that down."

Xena smiled, and tightened her hold. "Did you ?" She growled low in the bard's hearing. The blush answered her, as she felt the head rise up Gabrielle's neck and across her fair skin. "Then she probably did too." She nibbled the bard's jawline. "Mmm.. nice and warm."

Which only made it worse, of course. "Xena…" Gabrielle sighed, then giggled. "Oh.. you're probably right." Written it down.. oh boy, you bet I did. The bard reflected inwardly, as she carefully packed the scroll away, and half turned, snuggling into Xena's shoulder and letting her hands slide around her body. The firelight snapped steadily, and she let the incessant drumming of the rain lull her mind peacefully. Xena's hands were moving slowly over her body, and she let the sensations start to build, dismissing the outside world for a long, hazy stretch.

A dim roar was lost in the downpour, as rushing torrents of water from the hills joined the already swollen river, and began to move downstream.


Continued in Part 2

The Bard's Corner