Standard Disclaimer - These characters, most of them, belong to Universal, and Renaissance Pictures, and whoever else has a stake in Xena: Warrior Princess. This is written just in fun, and no copyright infringement was intended.

Specific Story Disclaimers:

Violence – Violence - yes, there will be violence of a moderately graphic nature in this story.

Emotional distress - I have to put in a disclaimer here for this, because this story, unlike most of my other stories, is an extremely dark one. There is not a whole lot of humor here, and most everyone ends up not being happy through most of the story. IF you're looking for a warm and fuzzy tale, this ain't it. You might want to give this one a miss.

Subtext - As in all my stories, this one is based on the premise of two people who are very much in love with each other. They happen to both be women. There is no graphically depicted action here.. but if the thought of this gives you a problem, find a different story to read. There are lots of very good general fiction Xena stories that can be found everywhere.

I'm not offering any goodies for the phobes this time round. But if you feel like I've beaten you over the head with angst in this one, then send me your snail mail address, and I'll forward over some Girl Scout Original Mint cookies, and some milk. That always makes me feel better.

 Any and all comments are always welcome. You can email them to:

Darkness Falls - Part 6

By Melissa Good

Gabrielle frowned at the obviously empty chair on the porch, then squinted as she thought she saw a blur of blue clad movement. Her lips twitched. Well, she did promise not to leave the porch, and she didn't. She trotted up the stairs and walked up behind her partner, who was seated on the floor near the back corner of the building with her long legs hanging down off the surface, and her arms resting on the wooden railing. Two colt foals were nibbling at her boots, and both looked up, and shook their small heads as she approached.

"Well.. hello there." The bard laughed, dropping down onto the wooden surface next to the warrior. "You gonna introduce me?"

"Sure." Xena held out a hand, and the closer one lipped her fingers agreeably. "Gabrielle, may I present Hercules and Iolaus." She gave the pair an amused glance. "Guys, this is Gabrielle."

The bard chuckled. "Which is which?"

One foal trotted towards her outstretched hand, and tripped, falling on its nose. "Ok… so that's Iolaus." Gabrielle announced immediately, which brought a smile to her soulmate's face. "Xena, they're adorable." She scratched little Iolaus' ears, and whickered gently to him under her breath. Both foals were sturdily built, and both were a rich buttery shade of yellow. Hercules mane and tail, however were dark brown, where Iolaus' were a pale blond like their mother's.

"Cute, huh?" Xena smiled. "Watch this." She clucked once, and both heads turned, then twice, and the approached her, bobbing their small heads.

Gabrielle's eyes popped. "Wow.. did you teach them that right now???" She turned and glanced behind her. "While I was gone?" Her eyes went back to her partner. "Xena.. I had no idea…"

The dark eyebrows rose. "How'd you figure Argo learned all that stuff?" The warrior asked, reasonably. "Doesn't come naturally."

"Well.. " The bard grinned tentatively. "I mean.. sure.. I realized you taught her, but…" She shook her head. "Yet another of the many skills." She held out the small basket she was holding. "From mom."

Mom, huh? Xena studied her partner's face intently. Not 'your mother', as it had been all during the trip up here. Gabrielle's face was much more relaxed and.. her nose twitched. Ah.. mom was using her ale to good purpose, I guess. "What's that?" She peeked inside the basket and smiled. "Oh.. I see." She lifted a cake out and took a bite. "Mmm."

"Yeah." Gabrielle agreed around a mouthful. She swallowed, then peered up at the taller woman. "How are you doing?"

Xena let the foals lick her fingers, and got an immediate and very attentive audience. Hercules managed to hop up on his hind legs, and put his forefeet up on the porch, shoving his nose through the railing and into Xena's chest. "Um… " Xena had to start laughing, as the colt pushed her and whickered. "Another fan, I guess." She broke off a tiny corner of the cake and offered it, watching in amusement as the foal lipped it off her palm and sneezed. Then she leaned her forehead against the railing and eyed her partner quietly. "I think the fever's gone.. " She took a reluctant breath. "I'm just really tired, for some reason."

And she was. Getting up and walking over to the railing had taken a frightening amount of effort. She felt like she was running on zero reserves, and, she realized, that's probably exactly what she was doing. "I feel like I could sleep for a week."

Gabrielle considered that. "Sounds like a good idea." She commented, slipping a supportive arm around the warrior's waist, and leaning close. She handed Xena another cake and took one herself, and they munched in companionable silence, tossing crumbs to the curious foals.

" and mom have a talk?" Xena finally asked, resting her head against the arm she had laid across the railing.

The bard gave her a quick look. "How'd you guess?"

"You look a lot more relaxed." Came the wry answer. "Was I right?"

Gabrielle sighed, and kicked the porch edging with her heels. "Of course." She gave her partner a serious look. "Your mother is really special."

Xena grinned briefly. "Yeah." She licked her fingers thoughtfully, and gazed at the basket. "Any more of those?"

The bard studied her intently. "If they're making you feel better, you can have all of them."

An eyebrow lifted at this supreme sacrifice. "If I eat all of them, Gabrielle, I guarantee you I won't be feeling better." She told the bard dryly. "But.. I think they are helping." She shared the remainder of the cakes with her partner, as they moved back to the large chair lashed to the porch, large enough for both of them to relax in. The warm summer breeze gently washed over them, as they watched the sunset, and returned the casual greetings from homecoming villagers who were headed towards their dwellings beyond the inn. Several came over and spent a few moments talking to them, including Josclyn, who had just arrived in from the northern fields.

The reeve mounted the steps, and leaned against the rail, giving them both a sturdy nod. "Welcome back." He eyed Xena. "Tiny birdies flitting about tell me you bloodied that damn Roman's nose. True?"

Xena went absolutely blank for a long moment, before she realized what Josclyn was talking about. Caesar. " I just helped." She drawled. "Boudaecca takes the credit for winning that one."

The reeve nodded. "All right, if that's how you want to paint it." His eyes studied her with a wry twinkle. "Hello, lass.. welcome home." This was directed to Gabrielle, who was tucked snugly in the circle of Xena's arm. "We've missed yer tales."

The bard smiled gently at him. "Thanks Josclyn…it's nice to be home." She stifled a yawn, mostly caused by the drowsy heat. "Maybe I'll see you at the inn in a few days."

He nodded at her. "Aye." Then his eyes drifted outward, towards the paddock nearby. "Lovely little bits of horseflesh yer Argo's thrown there, Xena."

That got a smile from the warrior. "Yeah.. she's good stock." A note of pride touched Xena's voice. "They're going to be nice looking studs."

Josclyn rubbed his nose with his forefinger. "Ahh.. yes… I was thinking that." He paused. "Been a long while since Amphipolis was known for horseflesh."

The reeve was, Xena reminded herself, responsible for the financial well being of the village, and he'd brought up an interesting point she hadn't so far considered. "Yeah.. it has, hasn't it?" She replied slowly.

They looked at each other, and a tiny nod passed. Then Josclyn gave them a wave, and went on towards his homestead, with his patient, long stride.

Gabrielle glanced up at her curiously. "What was that all about?"

"Josc has a really nice filly, about two years old." Xena replied, giving her a wry look. "She's gray, with a dark gray mane and tale.. nice action." Very nice. Not trained like Argo, and much smaller than the tall warhorse, but a beautiful animal. "Looking to the future, I guess."

The bard considered this thoughtfully. "Hmm."

Xena sat back, and enjoyed the peacefulness. She could feel the flutter of Gabrielle's pulse against the skin of her arm, and was relieved to note that the exhaustion seemed to be backing off a little, and despite the cakes, she was still hungry. Good sign… she mused, studying the bard's profile. So, while I'm at it…."Hey.. listen.. I'm feeling better.. I'd really like to go on up to the inn for dinner.. just to say hello to everyone.. what do you think?" Nope.. she didn't miss the sudden jump in the bard's heartbeat, and the sparkle that appeared in her green eyes. Target hit. She needs this.. and I'm not gonna say no to her.

"I'd…. if you're sure, Xena." The bard replied slowly. "I mean.. yeah, it would be nice, but not if it's gonna tire you out or anything."

"Nah." The warrior grinned. "I'll be fine." If I have to drag myself there by the fingernails. "C'mon."

The inn was filling up, now that the sun was setting, and the tradesmen and more affluent homesteaders came filing in to settle down for a drink and a plate of food, and the companionship of the village. Most of the tables were occupied, and several heads lifted as Xena pushed the door open and allowed Gabrielle to enter in front of her.

Greetings drifted across most of the room, lit now by candles on the tables, and the torches that rested in two wall sconces near the entryway to the kitchen. It was warm, relieved only by the breezes that traveled in through the windows, and which fluttered the candle flames into dancing columns, and the air was filled with the scent of roasting meat, and the tangy hint of newly tapped ale.

Xena returned her usual nods, and silent acknowledgements, but paid little attention to them as she watched the reception her soulmate was getting.

It was simple. They loved her. She'd captured their hearts over the winter, and now smiling faces and welcoming arms greeted her from all sides. Xena felt a deep warmth starting in her own gut as she watched the gentle sparkle return to her partner's eyes, as she paused frequently to grasp an outstretched hand, or answer a warm hello.

She needs this. Xena's mind acknowledged, as she observed the bard's shoulders straighten and lift, and her body language grow shyly animated as they got across the room. Look at her soaking it up… damn. It brought a smile to her face, which broadened as Gabrielle's voice lifted in gaining confidence across the crowd.

She settled into a chair at the table their family usually used, and leaned back, bracing one booted foot against the table support, and crossing her arms. Gabrielle was still standing, leaning over to answer a question from the millman's wife, and laughing gently as the woman scolded her about her thinness. "I know.. I know… but now that I'm here, I know that won't be a problem." The bard assured her, as she dropped into the chair next to her partner, and took a deep breath. Her eyes found Xena's, and she gave her a little shake of the head. "Wow."

The warrior just smiled. There was a flush of color in her partner's face, and a warm glow to her eyes that was absolutely priceless to her. "Looks like they missed ya." She gave Gabrielle a rakish grin.

Gabrielle took a breath, then a second. She reached a hand across the tabletop and twined her fingers with the warrior's longer ones. "You knew that was going to happen, didn't you?" She accused gently.

Xena rocked her head from side to side and gave a little shrug. "I suspected it would, yeah." She glanced around, then back at Gabrielle. "I'm glad Amphipolis lived up to my expectations."

The bard just stared at her for a long minute, then abruptly got up out of her chair, and flung herself at her partner, wrapping her arms around the warrior's neck, and hugging her hard. "I love you." She said in a heartfelt whisper.

Xena felt a blush rising, as the room looked on with a round of warm laughter. She spotted Cyrene as the innkeeper stepped out to see what the noise was, and let a crooked grin cross her face when her mother spotted them, and shook her head. "Gabrielle.. I didn't do anything.. c'mon now.. that's all just for you."

 The bard released her, and leaned back, so they could look at each other. "Sorry… " She lifted a hand and gently traced the line of color on her partner's cheekbone. "Didn't meant to embarrass you." She looked up as Cyrene arrived at their tableside, and scrambled off Xena's lap, thumping down into her own seat with a sheepish look. "I um.... I seem to be making a spectacle of myself this evening."

Cyrene sat down across from them, and wiped a relieved grin off her face. "Oh, that’s' all right, honey." She waved Johan over to join them. "Thanks for dragging the social butterfly here over with you." This with a nod towards her dark haired daughter, who elevated an eyebrow at her. "Don't give me that look."

"Actually." Gabrielle held up a hand. "It was her idea."

Xena just leaned back and watched them, enjoying the banter but keeping her usual non-committal look on. She felt a nudge under the table, and her brow creased. Another nudge, and she realized something soft, and warm was being pressed into her hand, which was resting against her knee. She folded her fingers around it, and felt her expression go completely blank for a long moment, before she looked up, and met her mother's eyes.

Gentle understanding, and a brief smile met her gaze, as she let her fingers explore the small package her mother had given her. A tiny cloth bag, with two round, metal objects in it. She knew what they were, and now, she was glad she'd given them to Cyrene for safekeeping.

Would Gabrielle want hers back? Xena felt the familiar weight of the pendant hanging from her neck and it reassured her. She glanced up and gave her mother a smile, and a slight nod, before she tucked the bag away in her belt pouch. Later. Not here, in front of the entire village.. just in case I'm wrong. But she didn't think she was, not now, not with the quietly familiar touch that curled itself around her knee, something that Gabrielle didn't even appear to be aware she was doing. The bard's fingers traced the curve of her skin, and she felt them slide up her thigh in an absent caress.

The room, Xena observed, glancing around and settling back to catch a breeze, was sure getting overcrowded…not to mention warm. Then the bard's hand moved again, and she admitted that the crowd was probably not causing the overheating. With a bemused grin, she leaned back and took a long swallow of ale.

Servers brought dinner, and they dug into steaming platefuls, as they traded information about the past few months. Gabrielle gave them a censored rundown of their adventures, which they'd collaborated on before they reached the inn. She left out really tough parts, but did let them know about some of the milder adventures they'd had, including the one with the virgins, which had Cyrene howling.

By common, unspoken consent, they kept the conversation light, and edged around painful topics, and managed to have a nice, almost relaxing evening, despite the fact that Gabrielle suddenly realized all the bright eyes being turned on her, and allowed herself to be dragged up front for a short story.

What to tell them… The bard chewed over that. Something light… something short.. She took a breath, and looked out at the room, seeing faces she'd come to know over the long winter months, and felt a nervous jolt, realizing suddenly that this was very different than getting up in front of relative strangers. These people knew her.. most of them had an idea of what had happened to her, and to her partner sitting quietly there in the back.. it was shaking her up.

She felt her mind go blank, and felt her stomach drop.. and then a pair of pale, clear blue eyes caught hers, and she saw the confident grin on Xena's face, which steadied her. I can do this. She quietly told herself. Her brow creased, then she held up a hand and told them the one about Hercules and the pig that had them rolling on the floor, the delighted laughter flowing through her and reestablishing her confidence with gentle ease.

She let her eyes drift back to her partner's, seeing the warm pride there, as she finished the story, and accepted the enthusiastic applause with a shy grin, then excused herself. "Hey.. " She protested when that was met with a chorus of groans. "It's been a long day.. more tomorrow."

She made her way back, and studied her partner, half buried in shadows against the wall. "I'm beat." She half fell, half dropped into her chair, picking up her glass and draining it, then setting it down. "You'd think I got enough sleep today, but I guess not." She stifled a yawn, and glanced covertly at Xena. The warrior was putting up a very good front, but Gabrielle knew every line of her body, and to the bard, her partner's tense weariness was painfully evident.

"Bedtime for bards?" Xena inquired, glad the darkness was hiding her own exhaustion. "Sounds like a good idea." She stood carefully, and put a hand on her mother's shoulder. "Night.. thanks for the company."

Those sharp eyes didn't miss a thing. "Get some rest, Xena." Cyrene replied quietly. "All right?"

A wry grin tugged at the warrior's lips. "Right." She felt Gabrielle's hand tuck itself securely around her elbow as the bard guided her through the inn, and out the door into the warm summer night. Guess I didn't fool her either.. she mused a touch ruefully, but decided that wasn't really a bad thing.

"Enjoy yourself?" Xena ventured, as they walked across the hard packed ground.

"You have to ask?" The bard laughed softly. "Xena.. I didn't expect it to be like that." The bard sighed and ran a hand through her hair. "But.. yeah…it made me feel really good." She admitted, with a wry grin.

Xena felt a quiet satisfaction. "Me too." She put her arm around Gabrielle's shoulders. "That pig story was funny too… I hadn't heard it before."

That got a wistful smile from her smaller companion. "I.. got that from Iolaus last time we met… but I never had a chance to…I mean…I guess I stopped wanting to tell them." Gabrielle closed her eyes as she felt the gentle pressure of lips against her hair. "Yeah." She breathed softly. "All those friendly faces... that.. I really, really enjoyed that."

"Good." The warrior murmured, as they reached the cabin, and she managed to muster the energy to walk up the steps and pull the door open. "Whoa…" She braced herself as Ares hurtled through the air, and pounded his paws up against her chest. "Ares… c'mon… " The wolf licked her face enthusiastically, then turned his attention to Gabrielle.

"Yeah.. yeah.. I see who you go to first." The bard tugged an ear. "We all know who your favorite is."

"Only because I give him goodies." Xena mumbled, as she landed on her back with atypical gracelessness on the bed. The wolf jumped up next to her, and curled against her body, resting his muzzle on her knee, and letting out a satisfied sigh.

"Oh. Sure." Gabrielle bit back a laugh. "Look at him…he's so mercenary." She watched the wolf shift his head to a more comfortable spot and close his eyes happily, then she tugged off her boots, and walked to the bed, studying the prone warrior seriously.

"Hey." She watched the blue eyes blink open with some effort. " Here, let me get these off for you." Her fingers tugged gently at the laces on Xena's boots, and she gave the powerful legs a pat as she pulled the footware off. "You know, Xena.. I could be mad at you for forcing yourself to go through dinner and all that tonight, if you felt lousy."

One blue eye opened, and regarded her wistfully. "Don't be." She pleaded gently. "It was worth it… seeing your face." The warrior struggled up onto her elbows, and forced the unnerving exhaustion down. "I don’t feel that bad, really.. just a little tired."

Gabrielle climbed into bed, and rolled over onto her side, tugging the light cover over them, and putting a hand on Xena's shoulder. "What am I going to do with you?" She asked with a faint sigh, as she pushed her back down, and put a hand on her forehead, relieved at the coolness.

"Anything you want." Came the sleepy answer.

"Anything?" Gabrielle leaned close, and breathed in her ear.

Xena nodded, a faint smile crossing her face.

The bard traced an idle pattern across her partner's collarbone. "All right…then I want.. to spend the rest of my life with you."

The warrior opened both eyes, and studied her seriously. "Really?"

Gabrielle stared back, just as seriously. "Yeah." She laid a hand on Xena's chest. "I mean… " She stopped and collected her thoughts for a moment. "It sounds so strange to say that.. like.. well, of course, right?" Her fingers played idly with the belt on the warrior's tunic. "But I never thought about actually making that decision before.. I always took it for granted. And.. and tonight, during that story, I kind of looked up, and saw you watching me… " Another breath. "And I realized I never, ever wanted to be able to look up and not find you there looking back at me."

A quiet nod. "Guess you'll be needing this back, then," Xena slipped a circle of metal into the bard's hand, and closed her fingers over it. And then she just waited, her heart pounding so hard she was surprised Gabrielle didn't hear it. She hadn't meant to do that tonight… but she figured it would be better… to know. She couldn’t help herself.. she needed to know.. to see.. if Gabrielle would accept back that facet of their lives.

Gabrielle's eyes closed, and she let her head slip forward to rest on her partner's chest, not looking at what her hand held.

Knowing it by touch alone.

Remembering the aching moment when she'd given it back, there on that ship coming back from China. When she'd told Xena she no longer thought she deserved to wear it, and had watched the warrior take it in her hand, and walk to the very bow of the ship, standing there, letting the wind whip her dark hair back for what seemed like forever.

Xena had never said anything to her about it. Had never worn hers after that night. Gabrielle had suspected she'd thrown them overboard, and let the sea claim them.

She should have known better. Xena would never have surrendered those, at least, to Poseidon.

"Thank you." Gabrielle muttered quietly, still hiding her face in dark blue linen. She felt the heave as Xena took a deep breath, and heard her pounding heart begin to slow. "You… don't know how much I regretted doing that." She let herself collapse on top of her soulmate's body, and felt the strong arms close over her. "How many times I.. oh gods, Xena…I'm so sorry."

"It's all right." Xena replied in an almost whisper. "I'm sorry too." She pulled the bard's head closer and kissed it. "We should have talked more… I can't believe I let things go so far… and I just couldn’t.. speak to you about any of it."

Gabrielle let her body slide down, and moved into her favorite spot with a sense of wonderful relief. She slipped the ring onto her finger, and closed her hand into a gentle fist, letting her thumb move against the metal band. "Do.. you.. " A doubt assailed her.. would Xena have kept hers? Then she remembered the tiny, folded pieces of parchment her soulmate had kept tucked away. "Still have yours?"

For an answer, Xena flexed her hand in front of the bard's eyes. Gabrielle reached up and captured it, then brought the warm skin to her lips and held on. "Everything means so much more, now." She observed softly. "Even little things."

"Mmm." Xena murmured. "You're right." Curiously, her fatigue faded a little. "I think the little things hurt the worst.. you don't realize they're there.. until they're gone."

The bard rested her face against the warm surface of Xena's chest. "I know.. like you letting me fuss over you."

"Like you smiling at me." Xena answered, in a small voice.

Gabrielle lifted her head up, and looked at her soulmate, at the shadows of remembered pain in her half closed eyes. "It hurt so much because of how strong what we have is, Xena.. am I right?"

The warrior nodded gently. "Yeah… and I'm glad it's that strong." She half lifted her body up and gently kissed her partner.

The bard tasted the lingering hint of the honey cakes, and the cider she'd been drinking, and without really thinking about it she responded, curling herself up and winding a hand around Xena's neck, feeling the soft silkiness of the warrior's dark hair against her skin. "Mm." She tried to control her body's reaction, reminding herself of her partner's illness, but it didn't seem to be working as her hands slid delicately over the fabric covered surface, and found their way underneath it to the warm flesh.

With a light groan, she broke off, and took a deep breath to settle her ragged breathing. "Um… "

Xena's fingers traced her cheek, and drew her face back down, and she felt the warrior's arms circle her, and draw her closer, so that their bodies were in contact all along their length. It was a warm, deep explosion of sensation, and she was only barely aware of her conscience making a gentle, futile protest, helpless against the sensual tingle that followed Xena's touch as it slowly moved up the surface of her skin. "Thought… you were sick…" She managed to gasp.

The warrior tempered her response, and gazed at the bard with a wistfully regretful look. "I feel a lot better all of sudden?" It was almost true too.. the nagging exhaustion was warring a fierce battle with a surge of desire. She was giving it even odds as to which one would come out on top, and looking at the smoky dark green eyes so close to hers was tipping the odds rapidly.

Gabrielle knew she should put a hold on this, but that touch was still stroking her skin gently, and she realized that she wanted this, wanted the fierce passion that she could feel between them to take over, and wash the dirty, horrible memories out of her mind, and out of her heart. She leaned into Xena's touch, letting her hands work the buckle on the warrior's belt, and saw the sensual smile take over her partner's face at the touch. "You…promise me…" She gave in and let her lips nibble the warrior's collarbone. "You tell me if it gets too much, Xena."

Xena reveled in the firestorm of sensation the bard's touch was bringing on. She bit down lightly on the nearby ear lobe, and breathed an answer. "Sorry.. can't promise that." She let her voice drop to its lowest, growliest register, and heard Gabrielle's sharp intake of air. "But you tell me if it gets too much for you, my bard… all right?"

Gabrielle felt her control slipping, and she let it, trusting in their bond to make things right. "Can't promise that either." Were her last words, before her body's cravings took her over completely.

It was as though it was the very first time, all over again… with Xena being so gentle, and so patient with her, not pushing, not asking… just letting her knowledge of Gabrielle's body take her rapidly past any thoughts, or fears. She opened her heart to it, feeling the power building between them that grabbed all her memories of Dahok, and shredded them, driving them out of her life, and her mind, and her reality.

She wasn't sure how her shirt somehow disappeared, but then she realized Xena's had also, and they were sliding against each other, skin on skin as her body remembered just how much it loved her soulmate's gentle touch. She was a little nervous, still aware of the haunting flames which had destroyed her sleep for months, and still would be except that Xena's secure hold kept them at bay at night. But those memories were receding, pushed back by the feel of Xena's fingertips moving up her belly, and tracing light patterns across her breasts.

Xena moved carefully, cautiously, letting her senses extend to capture the bard's heartbeat, and her breathing, almost holding her breath as she allowed her hands and lips to reclaim her partner's most sensitive places. She ran a hand lightly across the bard's bare hip, and let her fingers follow the curve of her strong thigh muscles, feeling the sensual shift as Gabrielle's body pressed against hers. She felt the bard's chest heave, as she let out a tiny sound, and she immediately raised a hand and cupped the flushed cheek. "Hey… you ok?"

"Y… yeah.." Gabrielle blinked her eyes open, and tried to catch her breath. "Just.. feels so good."

The warrior smiled gently and kissed her, and watched the tremulous smile spread across her partner's face. She worked her attentions down Gabrielle's jawline, feeling the motion as the bard swallowed and nipped the sensitive skin over her pulse point, which fluttered wildly against her lips. It felt so good to do this… something she'd missed more than she could have ever believed during the long months of their estrangement. Something far more than the physical release..that could be found with anyone, as she'd once told Gabrielle. Without the feeling behind it, the act meant… nothing. With it, even the simplest touch gathered in your soul, and having known that… having felt the honest, heartfelt passion that had characterized their every touch..

To lose that.. gods. And now, as she gently, cautiously began to work her way down the bard's body, stopping in familiar spots to nibble lightly, and feeling Gabrielle's knowing touch in return…it was so sweet. She reached the bard's navel, and nipped teasingly around the sensitive area, feeling the muscles contract sharply under the skin, and felt Gabrielle's warm touch slide through her hair and across her shoulders.

Gabrielle let her body curl around her soulmate's, burying her face in the long dark hair and breathing in it's scent, letting her doubts go as she concentrated on the tingling fire that Xena was teasing out of her, and feeling that dark pit in her mind scrambling to keep it's terror, desperate in its hold on her, but helpless against the love, and the trust she found herself willing to offer up again to the warrior.

And so she did, and as the sensations built, she deliberately called up the memories of the temple, and the fire, and let them go, watching them shred, and dissolve under the renewal of this most intimate of connections. She let her own instincts loose, and felt a gentle, profound joy soak into her as she traced sensual patterns over tanned skin that tensed in knowing reaction, then she shivered, as a warm stream of breathing raised goosebumps down the centerline of her belly.

Her heart started pounding, and a wave of shivering sensations coursed over her, as she gave up all control into her partner's skillful hands and let Xena claim her in a fierce explosion of passion.

Finally, she was aware of the faint breeze tickling her across her bare shoulders, as she lay there unable to move, her body shaking in time with her breathing, only conscious of Xena's scent, and the soft feathery touches against the skin of her back, and the racing heartbeat under her ear.

She was free. She could feel the anguish, and the pain slowly shifting, and modifying.. becoming something she would always remember, but which no longer crouched over her in malevolent, haunting shadows. Dahok had hurt her.. had used her in an evil intent that had shredded large parts of her.. but there was a core he couldn’t touch.. a part of her that was locked away so tightly that even his murderous force couldn’t penetrate it.

Only Xena had the key to that. And if the warrior had chosen not to remove the walls she'd built up again around her own heart, then that part of her would have been lost, and she knew it.

"You all right?" Xena's voice rumbled down her hearing, both verbally and through the vibrations that sent odd tickles up and down Gabrielle's senses.

Somehow, she dredged up the strength to lift her head, and rolled it to one side, studying the dark profile through half closed eyes. "Um… I'm perfect, thanks." She rubbed her cheek lightly against Xena's skin, and nodded approvingly as the heartbeat under her ear slowed and steadied. "How bout you?" Xena's breathing was still rough, and she freed one hand from it's grip on the warrior's body and started a gentle tracing across the erratically heaving surface, and smiled as the rhythm eased almost at once.

"Mm.' Xena's eyes closed. "Great." Then she forced her eyes open again. "You… um.. " The warrior peered at her uncertainly. "Everything ok up here?" Her fingers very gently pushed the sweat dampened hair off the bard's forehead, and stopped, as tears trickled down the smaller woman's cheeks. "Gab?"

"Do you know…" Gabrielle's voice shook. "I had to stop and think about what you meant just then?" She placed soft kisses on the skin within her reach, and let out a long, relieved sigh in all that friendly warmth. "Everything is very much ok."

That got her a real smile from Xena, tired, but genuine, and the warrior tugged the light linen cover up over her bare shoulders, and tucked it around their intertwined bodies. "I'm glad." She replied simply, letting the exhaustion overtake her at last. "Love you."

Gabrielle gazed up, blinking through the tears. "I love you too." She put her head back down, and closed her eyes, tumbling into sleep with a relieved smile.

A light rain was falling, dampening the edged of the wooden porch and obscuring the fitful sunlight that occasionally sent a timid beam groundward, glancing off the leaves and throwing the odd splash of gray light on the parchment laid over Gabrielle's lap. The bard was sitting, or rather, sprawling on one of the large chairs, one leg thrown over the arm of it, and her head resting against the back. A quill was being twirled in her fingers as she reread her diary entry, and contemplated adding to it.

We've been here two days. I thought it would take longer, but I'm already feeling a lot better. A lot better.. gods.. I feel like a totally different person. Or maybe I just feel more like I used to… yeah.. I've fallen back into the regular routine around here pretty easily, and I think it's made a real difference in how I feel, and how I see myself.

Last night didn't hurt. Wow. I don't know what it is about Xena.. ok, well, maybe I do, but… anyway, she can make me feel like I've turned myself inside out.. just with a look. Hey.. here I'm just thinking about it, and my throat went dry. It's weird… but it's like my body is so tuned into her that I … Whoa. I gotta stop that. But I can't help it - it feels so damn good when she touches me.. or hugs me.. and that's happening all the time now again.

Whew. Calm down, Gabrielle.

She's had me a little worried.. but she seemed better this morning, more like herself. I think it all kind of just caught up to her, because the healer here says she seems ok. He checked her out this morning at mom's insistence, I think that pissed her off, though. Xena, I mean. I kinda had to remind mom to back off a little.. cause if you make too big a fuss, she'll start covering up when she's not feeling well, just to avoid all the poking and prodding. She kind of chewed her lip at me, then admitted she'd forgotten about that, and just kind of left Xena alone after that.

But, of course, being my Xena, she had to prove she was fine by volunteering for the blueberry picking detail that went out this morning. I was going to go too, but Josclyn had two deeds he needed transcribing, and he asked me to help. I hope she doesn't over do it.. she seemed ok this morning, but then… we were both ok this morning.

Boy were we ever. I actually got away with bringing her breakfast in bed, and we spent forever just being with each other, and talking... she even made a joke.

She gave me the ring back last night. I spent a long time just sitting out here on the porch looking at it after breakfast. It's really pretty.. the hawk's crest and all, and the engraving. And the inside, where she had our names carved in, and the date of our joining here. It's so beautiful, and it means so much to me, I can't believe I'm holding it here in my hand. And it was so.. Xena… no fuss, no speeches, just 'there you go.', and that was it. I know it hurt her when I gave it back, as much, or more than it hurt me, but she keeps that all inside.

I worry about that sometimes… because when she finally does let that out, like in that little cave where Solon was born, it gets really, really intense. I don't think I'm going to change her, though, I'll just try to be there for her.

Like she was there for me last night… I know she was way overtired, but she just stuffed that down, like she always does, and came through for me. Like she always does. She made me feel so special…I was still smiling when I woke up.

The sound of running footsteps caught her ear, and she glanced up, to see one of the village boys pelting down the road and into the central area. He saw her, and veered. "W.. we need help… a stretcher. "

Gabrielle forced herself to breathe. "What happened?"

"Raiders." He yelled, as he kept on going.

The morning air, thick with moisture, seemed to settle around her, but Xena blithely ignored it, reaching up to snag yet another tangle of blackberries and strip the plump fruits from the branches, deftly avoiding the thorns as she deposited them in the basket slung over one shoulder.

Glancing around surreptitiously, she popped one in her mouth, and chewed it, enjoying the burst of sweet juice with guilty pleasure. It wasn't her first sneak, and, she cheerfully admitted to herself, wouldn't be her last, since the berries were very plentiful and too good to pass up.

The sun warmed her shoulders, and she glanced up, seeing it's peeking face flitting through the clouds. A bird landed nearby, and she let her eyes linger on it, unable to dispel the warm, gentle sense of almost giddy pleasure that had been snuggling into her consciousness all day.


Waking up that morning had been fantastic She let a grin tug her lips, and stole another berry, chewing it as she closed her eyes, and remembered the wonderful moment of drifting into awareness, with Gabrielle's solid, bare weight spreading all over her in utter abandon. The bard had woken up a few minutes later, and blinked at her, then sighed in contentment and snuggled closer, sending pleasant jolts up and down her body.

A barrier had definitely come down between them. She'd never felt so open.. so vulnerable.. So absolutely fantastic.

And even though she assured her partner of that very fact, Gabrielle had insisted on her staying put and had trotted over to the inn bringing back a loaded basket of various little baked things and fruits, which she'd curled back up into her arms and split between them, alternating bites with kisses until they were both very full, and pleasantly involved in each other.

It had brought back so many memories.. Xena sighed, and forced her attention back to the berries, trying to ignore the twinkling sideways looks she kept getting from her berry hunting companions. Probably think I lost it. The warrior ruefully concluded, as she hopped up onto a rock and captured a large clump.

She was, however, glad to see her body seemed to be grudgingly cooperating more today While the nagging fatigue was still there, it was more in the background, and she wasn't nearly as tired as she had been the previous day. Wonder what the Hades is up with that? She mused with a sigh. Must have been leftover from that damn fever.. But sleep, and being home seemed to be doing her some good, and as for her partner….

Xena smiled quietly. She'd watched Gabrielle roam around the cabin after their leisurely breakfast, and gently touch the various and scattered things around the room, enjoying the smile that was etching the bard's face. She already looked much better, the warrior reflected. The dark shadows under her eyes had faded, and the sparkle was returning to them, and even the way she moved seemed… different. More confident, definitely more comfortable.

A tug on her tunic broke her out of her daydreaming, and she glanced down, a little startled.

"Hey." A small, tow headed boy tugged again. He was the son of one of the women who was collecting berries, whose husband ran the weaver's shop in town.

"Yeah?" Xena replied, consciously gentling her voice.

The boy pointed up. "Too tall." He scowled at the thick clump of berries over his head.

The warrior regarded the berries, then regarded the boy, aware of his mother's furtively watching eyes. "Turn around."

A lip poked out. "Howcum?"

Xena raised an eyebrow at him. "Cause I said so."

The brown eyes judged her, then the boy scowled again. "OK." He turned around, with a little stomping motion.

Xena felt a wistful pang as she gently lifted him up and put him on her shoulders, hearing the delighted laugh as the boy reached up and gave the branch a good shake. Images of Solon stung her, but she just swallowed, and kept a careful grip on the squirming legs as berries tumbled down around them. "Hey… " She managed to choke out. "Get some of those in the bag, ok?"

"Mama..look!" The high, child's voice ripped a hole inside her, but she quietly put that away. The boy vigorously attacked the bush, managing to capture most of the fruits in his bag. "Mmm.." He stuffed a few inside his mouth, and munched, letting juices run down his chin with a giggle. "Want some?" He boldly offered a large specimen to Xena, who accepted it solemnly. "Ok… all done… give me a ride?"

Xena, Warrior Pony. It was a half sad, half self deprecating thought. "Sure." She obligingly loped over to where the boys' mother was wiping her brow, and lifted him off, letting him bounce down next to the sweating woman. "There you go."

The woman tousled her son's hair, and glanced shyly up at the tall warrior. "Thanks, Xena.. he'll be talking about that for a month." She paused, and put a hesitant hand out, touching Xena's arm. "We heard… I'm so sorry."

It took a long moment for the lump to go down enough for her to speak. "Thanks…" The warrior took a breath. "I appreciate that."

A second, older woman sidled near, giving Xena a quietly sympathetic look. "If.. there's anything we can do, Xena.. if you need to talk to someone, we're here for you."

It was so unexpected, she had to stop for a long moment, just to come up with some kind of response. It touched her, knocking something open that went very deep, bridging the huge gap she'd always felt between herself, and the people of her home town. "I… um.. thank you. I really.. " She hesitated, feeling their eyes on her. "I appreciate that… a lot."

The elder woman moved closer, and opened her mouth to speak, then paused, as she saw Xena's body stiffen.

Hoofbeats. Xena's ears picked them up moments after she felt the vibration through her booted feet. She turned and scanned the area, cursing the chest high grasses that obscured her view. "Someone's coming." She advised them tersely. "Riders."

Nervous glances were exchanged, and two women grabbed the arms of the four or five children that were with them, pulling them deeper into the brush as the sounds of horses became audible to them as well.

The grasses whipped out of the way, and six horsemen pulled up abruptly on spotting them, their eyes greedily sucking in the sight. "Oh ho… what have we here?" The man in the lead showed a gap toothed grin. "Ooo.. I see some sweet fruits, boys." He licked his lips, and shifted in his saddle, urging his horse ahead. Then pulling up a little as one of the villagers stepped out of the group, and put herself squarely in his path.

Tall. His eyes flicked over her. Midnight dark hair, and ice blue eyes… definitely a looker. He grinned in admiration. But her garb was the same as the rest of them, and she carried a basket on her shoulder full of berries.. just another target.. "Hello, pretty lady." He let his eyes travel up and down her lithe form.

One brow lifted, and the woman put her hands on her hips. "You want something?"

"Oh yeah.. " He nudged his horse forward, until he was within reach of her. "Trade you a goooood time for some of them berries.. how about it?"

The woman smiled, showing very white teeth against her tanned skin. "How about you get out of here, and I won't break your legs?" She replied, almost conversationally. "Sound like a good deal?"

He laughed, and turned to his fellows. "C'mon.. let's party." He then whipped his body around, and kicked his mount forward, lifting a short club from his saddlebow and aiming a blow for her head.

I'm really not up to this. Xena sighed inwardly, as she dropped her bag and felt her body crouch, waiting for him to come close enough for her to grab him. She dodged his awkward swing, and latched onto his arm, letting the horse run by her and pulling hard, jerking him off the animal's back and letting go as he hit the ground. Then she turned and ducked under the sword thrust by one of his companions, and slugged the rider, catching him in the kidneys and keeling him over in his saddle, then giving the horse a smack that sent it running off.

A third came at her, and she moved out of the way, kicking back and nailing her first opponent in the chin and snapping his head to one side sharply. She dodged the third rider again, then froze, as she saw the small, determined figure running towards them, with a wild eyed woman chasing after him. Damn. She glanced over, and took two long steps, launching her body skyward and slamming right into the third rider, taking them both off the horse's back and down to the ground where she hit with a bone rattling crunch.

Then she was up, and had the boy in her arms, and was pulling him out of the way of the fourth and fifth riders, who thundered over her tucked body, their horse's hooves missing her by some miracle. She straightened up, and tossed the boy gently into a nearby stand of grass. "Stay there." She ordered, turning and bolting back, in time to grab the fifth rider's leather vest, and jerk him down off his horse, slamming an elbow into his jaw and feeling him go slack in her arms. She dropped him to the ground, and yelled a warning, but the running woman couldn’t stop in time, and the fourth rider crashed right into her, tossing her body against a nearby tree.

Xena cursed, and stooped to lift a rock up, whipping her arm sideways and nailing them man's head, causing him to slump in the saddle. His horse spooked, and took off, thrashing through the grasses and disappearing into the distance. She watched him go, then turned slowly in a circle, sensing the danger gone. The riders either had run off, or were huddled motionlessly in the grass, and she let a long, shaky breath out before she strode over to where the woman was lying, her head supported by the shaking elder.

The woman looked up as Xena approached, and swallowed. "Her leg."

The warrior looked down and winced. The woman's leg was badly broken, the lower part at almost right angle. "All right." She glanced up, and found a circle of horrified eyes watching her. "You." She singled out an older boy. "Get back to the village.. we'll need a stretcher to bring her back. Run."

He did, bolting off through the grasses towards the road. Xena let out a long breath, and looked at the injured woman, who was biting her fist to keep from screaming with the pain. "Hang on." The warrior said, in a low, calm voice, and hit two pressure points, watching the rigid body relax as the leg lost it's feeling. "All right… you, hang on to her arm." She directed the older woman. "And you, hold on to that arm, and brace yourselves."

They did as she asked, wrapping arms around the woman and staring at her in tense silence.

Xena nodded, then very gently closed her hands around the woman's leg, and braced a booted foot against a tree root, as she slowly, and steadily pulled the limb straight, and felt the faint grinding click as the bones aligned. A sigh of relief went around the circle of watchers, and two women sidled forward with already trimmed branches and knelt, offering them to her.

"Good choice." She inspected the limbs, and laid them alongside the injured leg, then glanced down, and unbuckled her tunic belt, using it to secure one end of the makeshift splint. A hand dropped to her arm, and she looked up, to see the boy's mother, handing her a piece of rope she'd used to support her basket. "Thanks." The warrior smiled at her, then tightly fixed the upper portion of the splint.

"OK." She got the injured woman's attention. "Listen…I gotta release that block.. and it's gonna hurt.. but not as bad as before, ok?"

The woman's eyes blanched, and she raised a fist to her mouth again, biting down on a knuckle before she gave Xena one, short nod. The warrior gave her uninjured leg a soft pat before she released the pressure point, watching the woman's body tense, then very slowly, relax as the pain leveled off. "OK?" Xena asked gently.

The pale head slowly nodded, and she reached a shaking hand out, to grasp Xena's and squeeze it. "Thanks." She whispered hoarsely. "The baby.. he ran… where is he?"

"Here, Hanna." The boy's mother came close, holding her dirt covered offspring. "He was a bad boy, and I'm so sorry." She gave her son a stern look. "Rivas, you apologize… look what happened."

A tiny lip poked out. "Sorry."

Xena braced her arm against her knee, and studied the boy. "When they tell you to stay put, you should." She told him, giving him one of her more serious looks.

The lip poked out further. "Wanted ta help you." He reached out and tugged a lock of her dark hair. "Bang them guys." He waved a small fist. "Boom boom!"

The warrior struggled to keep a wry grin off her face. "Not until you're lots older, buster." She growled. "I can handle them just fine by myself." She exchanged a look with his mother, and shook her head, firmly closing the door on the might have beens that hammered at her. Running footsteps brought her head up, and she turned as a familiar presence made itself known.

A hand touched her shoulder. "Hey… " Gabrielle dropped to a knee beside her partner. "What happened?" The bard's breathing was strained, and she was sweating.

Xena put a hand on her back, and rubbed it. "Take it easy.." She said in a low voice. "Some scum out looking for trouble." She added, in a louder tone, jerking her chin towards the still slumped forms.

The bard took a deep breath, and raked a hand through her hair, pushing it back. "I see they found it." She gazed at her partner. "You all right?"

"Just fine." Xena replied evenly. "They got help coming?"

"Yeah… " Gabrielle craned her neck, resting a hand lightly on her partner's shoulder for balance. "Should be right behind me… " She paused. "Though.. I did kinda rush up here." She took a deep breath, and let it out. "Whew."

Xena smiled, and patted her side. "So I see." She turned to the injured woman. "You're gonna be ok." She looked up as the grasses parted again, and four villagers broke through, carrying a litter. "Over here." She stood up, and backed off as the four men rushed over, asking blurted questions, which the elder woman fielded impatiently. Gabrielle stepped back with her, and stood at her side, watching quietly as they carefully moved the woman onto the litter, and lifted her up.

The small group headed back, the litter going first, surrounded by chattering women, leaving Xena and Gabrielle to bring up the rear.

Xena picked up her berry basket and slung it over her shoulder, before joining the bard, letting her arm rest casually across the smaller woman's shoulders. "How'd the transcribing go?"

Gabrielle wound an arm firmly around the warrior's waist, as she felt the faint unsteadiness in her walk. She gave Xena a look, and was not surprised when the taller woman dropped her gaze, and leaned a little bit against her. "Just fine, huh?" She accused gently, shaking her head. "What am I going to do with you?"

Xena sighed, and kicked at a rock in her path. "Thought I answered that last night." She grumbled, sneaking a look and catching the swiftly dampened grin on the bard's face. "I'm fine… really… a lot better than yesterday.. and I did just beat up a half dozen guys.. cut me a little slack, huh?"

"Weeeelll…." The bard pretended to consider that. "I guess." She went along in silence for a time, listening to the lazy bird calls and the swish of the grass, and watching Xena out of the corner of her eye. Finally, she took a breath. "You want to talk about it?"

Long silence, as they matched paces along the path. "You always know, don't you?" Xena finally said, in a quiet, serious tone.

"Always." The bard answered, just as seriously. "Was it the fight?"

A shake of her dark head. "No… that went fine.. or, well.. as fine as it ever does." She lifted her free hand and let it fall. "I just…that little kid.. he…" She let out a long breath. "No sense in thinking about it."


Solon. Gabrielle realized, looking ahead and spotting the child, who was letting his head rest on his mother's shoulder, and keeping his eyes pinned on her partner. Oh. Her lips tightened. "Xena… "

"It's… you know, I never let myself think of what he must have been like.. at that age… I don't know why… " Xena just sighed. "It's not like I ever really knew him at all." She looked down unhappily at her partner's still face. "I.. I'm sorry, Gabrielle.. it's not fair of me to even say that to you." She hesitated. "Is it?"

The bard felt a knot unravel inside her chest at the words. "Xena… thank you for realizing that." She drew in a careful breath. "But it's really not fair to either of us… you can drive yourself crazy with what ifs that way." She sighed, and leaned her head against the warrior's shoulder. Her eyes drifted up, and she studied the tense profile, half obscured by dark, windblown hair. She debated with herself for a long moment, then took a breath. "Xena… you" She felt her partner's body shift she turned slightly to look at her.

This was hard. It was something she'd been thinking about for a while now..since things had started to get better between them. She just had no idea how Xena would react to the suggestion. "You can… yell at me for being stupid for saying this.. " She started, feeling the arm around her tense. "But Xena.. you're still really young. You could… "

The warrior stopped walking, and just stood, eyes closed, for a very long moment.

"No." She replied softly. "I won't go through that again." She let her arms drop to her sides. "I can't." She grimaced. "I don't even think my body's capable of it anymore." Her shoulders dropped. "I can't… Gabrielle, I just…"

Well. Gabrielle nibbled her lip. Not entirely unexpected… but I had to try. On to plan B. "Ok.. ok.. I'm… listen, I'm sorry I… didn't meant to.. " Her nervous babbling brought Xena out of her silent stillness, as the warrior circled her shoulders again and started walking slowly down the path. "I mean.. I feel.. I see kids, like that, and I think…" Xena's arm tightened, and she snuggled into the offered warmth gratefully. "I think.. I want to know what that's like." She finished very softly. "Again."

Xena stopped walking again, this time for a completely different reason. She turned, and put both hands on the bard's shoulders, facing her around and gazing into her eyes with quiet, intensity. "What did you say?"

The red gold head lifted, and mist green eyes met hers unflinchingly. "Before we left home, we talked about a decision." She said quietly. "I've been thinking about that a lot."

The warrior let her hands drop, and took several breaths, unsure of what to answer.

Gabrielle's gaze dropped. Guess it was too much to hope for that she'd feel the same way… after what happened. "I'm sorry…I won't.. bring that up again." She broke free, and started down the path, leaving her silent partner behind. Gods, that was stupid. Just when things were going right, you had to go and drop that on her. And what am I really doing this for? For me? Or for her? Do I want a child, or do I really just want to try and give her back Solon?

She walked on a few more steps. Does it matter? The silence behind her was deafening. Not anymore, I guess.

She walked alone what seemed like forever, almost back to the thin path that lead up to the road into Amphipolis. Alone with her thoughts, which weren't really pleasant, until she heard soft footfalls behind her, moving at a light jog. They caught up to her, and then there was Xena, slowing to a walk, pacing at her side in awkward quiet.

"You caught me by surprise." Came the very gentle statement. "I.. didn't think you…would ever.."

Gabrielle shook her head slowly. "It's all right… I'm.. not really even sure if I meant it."

Xena caught her arm, and stopped, making her swing around and face her partner again. The warrior gently cupped her cheek and took her other hand in her own. "Gabrielle… I think you did."

They looked at each other. "I know it doesn’t make much sense." The bard admitted. "After everything."

The warrior let a wistful smile shape her lips. "No..after everything, it makes perfect sense." She smoothed the fair skin lightly "Knowing you… knowing who you are… nothing else would make any sense at all." She leaned forward and kissed her.

Well… Gabrielle felt a tiny, racing spark flash through her. That's a start.

A loud yell attracted their attention, and they both turned, to see Toris running towards them.

The inn was busy for lunch, filled with tired, sweaty men and women escaping from the summer's heat for a little while, indulging a few dinars in Cyrene's cold ale and waybread stuffed with summer vegetables and chilled fish. The innkeeper had just returned to the kitchen, and was leaning back, a mug of cold cider in her hand, when the door pushed open, and Gabrielle poked her fair head in. "Hey cutie." Cyrene smiled gently. "C'mon over here."

The bard slipped into the room, and let the door close behind her. "Hi… " She walked over and ran a hand through disheveled hair. "Just came in to get some bread…" She smiled. "It's nice to have Toris and Granella home, huh?"

Cyrene tucked some fresh, warm rolls into a basket, and added a small dish of honey butter with it. "Here you go… how are things going out there, ok?" She straightened Gabrielle's collar. "I heard we had some trouble?"

Gabrielle took a roll from the top of the pile and nibbled it. "Yeah… Xena handled it… Hanna broke her leg though." She took a bigger bite and chewed thoughtfully. "Nothing big.. just some guys out looking for trouble, I think… "

The innkeeper poured her a glass of cider, then settled back against the table. "She all right?"

The bard took a long swallow before answering. "Well.. yeah… but I think she's gonna lose it if everyone doesn't stop asking her that.. Toris is driving her crazy."

"Hmm." Cyrene mused. "And he just got here, too…." She gave Gabrielle a wry look, then rubbed her arm gently. "He was very worried about you two."

Gabrielle glanced down, and regarded the floor. "I know… he's really sweet." She smiled a little, remembering the very tentative hug she'd received from her partner's brother, and the more normal one she'd gotten from Granella, who had held her at arms distance for a long, intense moment, before shaking her head. "I better get back out there.."

The innkeeper handed her a pitcher of cider. "There… and… Gabrielle, you know we're all just worried about her." A deep breath. "She seemed so washed out last night."

The bard nibbled her thumb. "Um… " Against her will, a tiny smile tugged at her lips. "Well, yeah.. but..she um… perked up a little after we left." She cleared her throat lightly. Perked up.. oh… Gabrielle.. that was bad. Bad bard.

"Ah." Cyrene nodded gravely. "That explains how your shirt ended up outside the cabin window." She patted the bard's reddening cheek. "I folded it and left it hanging over the railing."

"I…I…." Gabrielle stammered. "Um…" Gods…how did… I…it… She felt her skin heat wildly. Outside???

"Gabrielle… Gabrielle…. " Cyrene laughed, and took the basket and pitcher from her nerveless hands, setting them down on the table and pulling the bard into a gentle hug. "Honey, you've got nothing to be embarrassed about…I didn't mean to fluster you." Forgot she's a little shy about that. The innkeeper mused as she patted her back.

The bard let the familiar scent of herbs and cooking surround her, and sighed. "No…'s ok.. I just… " She hesitated. "Last night was kind of different…we.. it was… I mean, we hadn't…" Damn.. I'm all over the place here. "She gave me back the ring.. and then.. I .. we shouldn't have.. she was really tired.. but ..she…"

"Gabrielle.." Cyrene put together the pieces suddenly. "It's all right…I'm sure it didn't do her any harm." She let out a breath. "I know this must be so hard for both of you." She felt the bard relax a little, and pulled back, putting her hands on her shoulders. "Come on.. let's go out there and take it easy.. it's too hot to get all bothered today."

That got a reluctant smile from Gabrielle, who picked up the basket and pitcher and allowed Cyrene to escort her out the door, and into the main part of the inn.

"Xena…" Toris watched the bard head towards the kitchen, and bent his dark head towards his sister. The warrior was seated with her arms braced on the table, her hands cupped around a pewter goblet full of ale. "Listen.. "

Xena cocked her head towards him, taking a sip of her ale, and blinking. "Hmm?" She pulled her thoughts back from where they'd been wandering, and tried to pay attention to her brother's words. But it was hard, with her mind really interested in considering what Gabrielle had said, and what it might mean for both of them…not that she didn't appreciate Toris' concern, she did, but….

Gabrielle was actually thinking about having another child.

After everything that had happened to her.. to them…how could she? Why would she? To make up for Hope? To prove something to herself.. or to Xena? Damn, she had nothing to prove… she had no part in what happened…

But… she was thinking about it…wasn't she?

The sudden surge of wistful hope hit her before she could slam the lid down on it, and she closed her eyes until she could wrestle it back. No. You asked her to kill her last child. You lost the right to have anything to do with any other one she might have, or want to have, or be thinking of having. Just stop it right now.

Toris exchanged a worried look with Granella, who was seated across from him. "Xena?"

She looked up. "Sorry." She muttered. "I was just thinking." She focused her gaze on him. "What's up?"

"Nothing." Toris reached over and laid a hand on her wrist, closing his fingers over it and meeting her eyes as she looked up. "Just glad you're home." His lips twitched. "Glad you both are."

Xena nodded a little. "Thanks… " She glanced up at both of them. "Sorry you had a trip out for nothing…we were kind of headed back this way."

Granella shrugged a little, and gave her a deprecating grin. "S'allright… we had to stop out by the Amazons anyway… that's how we found out you were back." She plucked a splinter from the table, and shot Xena a look. "Had to pick up my stuff." Her lips curled into a wry smile. "And put up with a ton of centaur poop from the gang."

That, finally, got a smile from the dark haired woman. "So I hear." She cuffed Toris lightly on the shoulder. "Congratulations." An eyebrow quirked. "Or maybe not." She amended, giving Granella a quirky grin. "Hey.. listen… that reminds me…"

They leaned closer, as Xena dropped her voice. "Yeah?" Toris inquired, glancing up to see their mother and Gabrielle crossing the crowded room.

"I wanna make it a double." The warrior rumbled. "She thinks she's too old for that… but.. " Hers and Toris' eyes met in sibling understanding. "I thought we could… kinda.. if we got Jocelyn into it… "

"Jos into what?" Cyrene asked, as she nudged Gabrielle towards Xena's side of the table, and pulled a chair out and seated herself.

"Uh." Xena stalled.

"Um." Toris added, snapping his fingers. "Um.. we were… discussing…"

"Horses." The warrior finally added. "He.. wants to breed his gray to the colts."

Cyrene stared at her. "Two years from now? That's counting your chickens before they lay eggs much less hatch." Her brows creased. "What are you two up to?"

Gabrielle watched her partner's face with interest, seldom seeing her at a loss like that. "Xena always plans ahead, mom." The bard assured her. "Hey.. did I tell you about the weird thing that happened with the bull, and the red paint?" Attention immediately diverted itself to her, and she launched into the tale, feeling the solid, sure pressure of her soulmate's grip on her knee under the table. Her face broke into smile that had nothing to do with the story, and she reached down and covered the strong hand with her own, curling her fingers around Xena's longer ones and giving them a little squeeze. It was returned, but she felt the faint tremor in them, and sensed an odd pang coming through their connection.

A look over, and she saw Xena watching her, with a quiet, sad look in her eyes that the bard didn't understand. She finished the story, and started another, keeping the laughter going around the table while they ate lunch, and edging closer and closer to her subdued soulmate. "Hey." She finally whispered, as Toris was relating an encounter they'd had to the south. "What's up?"

Blue eyes found hers. "Not much… " Then they dropped, and studied the tabletop. "Just thinking, that's all." Xena replied softly. "I liked that bull story… but I don’t remember getting hit in the face with that red painted tail."

"No." Gabrielle licked her lips. "It was somewhere else, but… " Her lips twitched into a teasing grin. "We won't mention that." She watched Xena return the grin, then waited a beat. "So.. I was thinking of taking a walk up to our spring… you interested?" She's not gonna talk here… "Always nice and cool up there."

Xena hesitated, then let out a gentle sigh. "All right."

Gabrielle squeezed her hand, then returned her attention to the laughing crowd. "They're gonna make me sweat tonight…" She cast her gaze around the crowded tavern, where some of the crowd were occasionally glancing their way, and giving her little smiles and waves. "I'm going to get out into the fresh air for a little while."

Cyrene smiled. "Good idea… take her with you." She pointed at her daughter. "Make her take it easy for the rest of the day." She blithely ignored the dour look she got from the taller woman, and merely looked back at her with a determined air, crunching on a bit of carrot. "Bye."

They left the noisy inn behind, and walked up the shaded path that led to the spring. Gabrielle reached over and took her soulmate's hand in her own, and let her thumb rub against the tanned skin, watching the thoughtful look on Xena's face closely. "So.. "

Xena turned her head, and gazed fondly at her. "Gabrielle, if you ask me if I'm ok, I'm going to have to do something drastic to prove it." She warned wryly. "I mean it."

"I wasn't going to ask that." The bard protested, as they climbed up to the grassy plateau that held the spring, and chose a nice shady spot to sit down in. "Hold it.." She settled herself with her back against a tall tree, and patted her lap. "Put your head down."

For a long moment, she thought Xena would refuse, since it put the warrior in a very vulnerable position, and she was already upset. But the blue eyes dropped, and then she meekly let her body recline on the ground and nestled her head against the bard's thigh. Gabrielle gently ran her fingers through the dark hair, loving the feeling of the silken strands against her skin, and knowing that tended to relax her partner.

It worked. Xena's breathing slowed, and she blinked up at the bard with a more peaceful expression. "So.. what were you going to ask?"

Gabrielle continued her stroking motion, gently parting her soulmate's hair, and moving it off her face. "I was going to ask what's upsetting you.. but I think I know the answer." She replied quietly. "I… it wasn't fair for me to bring that whole thing up Xena… we're not ready for it… I'm sorry."

Xena shifted, as though she was going to get up, then sighed, and stayed where she was. "Gabrielle.. if that's what you want.. then you should do it." Her voice held a husky tone.

"If that's what I want?" The bard questioned. "What do you want?"

The conclusion to Darkness Falls - Part 6b